Failure of NAFTA could be good for our creativity

It’s a toss-up on whether the North America Free Trade Agreement will survive. The fifth round of discussions has concluded in Mexico and Foreign Affairs Minister Christie Freeland is not optimistic. “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst and Canada is prepared for every eventuality,” she said.

     image: AgWeb.com

Failure of NAFTA will have only a slight negative economic impact. If the U.S. terminates NAFTA, as the unpredictable President Trump has threatened to do, trade would revert back to rules of the World Trade Organization. Under those rules, the added tariffs would only add 1.5 per cent of the cost of goods exported to the U.S. according to a study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

With “trade” in the title, you could think that’s what NAFTA about. And since Canada is a trading nation, you could conclude that NAFTA is vital to our economy. While NAFTA offers some advantages, it has a number of disadvantages such as the investor-state dispute settlement provisions that allows foreign firms to sue governments. And exports of Canadian softwood aren’t even covered.

However, trade deals like NAFTA are not primarily about trade. Trade takes place without them. These trade deals are actually about protection of corporate interests such as “intellectual property” which is not property in the usual sense. It’s a means of commodifying artistic and technological creations such as brands, music, movies, patents, and software.

America normally supports trade deals because they benefit most. The deals enforce corporate interests, and in the U.S. corporate interests = government interests. The reason that the U.S. is so interested in intellectual property is because it’s one of their biggest exports. Culture, what the U.S. calls entertainment, makes up one-third of American exports. American movies are seen in theatres around the world. U.S. pop songs are heard in the streets. Kids play American-made video games. American inventions such as the iPhone are ubiquitous.

An indication of how poorly President Trump understands the American economy is his rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It was a license for U.S. corporate giants to impose protection of intellectual property. I celebrated its demise after Trump cancelled the TPP but I had to wonder what (if) the president was thinking.

The demise of NAFTA would lift a weight off of Canadian creativity and allow it to flourish.

Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, was asked to advise a Senate Open Caucus meeting on modernizing NAFTA.

“To my surprise, the shift in focus to a post-NAFTA world was liberating, opening the door to considering Canadian policies that have previously been viewed as unattainable given intense U.S. pressure on intellectual property policy that favours ‘Americanization’ of global rules,” he said (Globe and Mail, October 20, 2017).

By loosening the grip of the U.S. on creativity, Canadians can market their innovations globally; innovations such as software developed by Blackberry for self-driving cars and recently sold to the Chinese firm Baidu.

Of course, our intellectual property needs protection. With the U.S. out of the way, international agreements can be struck that encourage innovation while protecting creators without one player holding a big stick.

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Germany pays customers to use electricity

German power companies paid customers to use electricity on one hundred occasions in 2017. Companies paid customers a lot relative to what they normally receive -1,720 times more per kilowatt hour.

   photo: CleanTechnica

The reason why power companies were so eager to pay customers had to do with the wind. Wind turbines were generating too much power on the grid and they had to dump it quickly. Surplus electricity is a dangerous problem that has to be corrected quickly.

While wind turbines can be switched off quickly, fossil fuel and nuclear sources can’t. Power grid managers have to agile to compensate for gusty winds.

The problem with surplus electricity is that voltage quickly rises and that can damage equipment. Power grid engineering is complex but one thing is simple: power in equals power out. Managing the grid requires a balance in the production and consumption of electricity. The sum of all the power used by your TVs and toasters, and all that of your neighbour’s, equals the power produced by generators. If the power produced is more than what’s used, something has to give.  What gives is a precipitous rise in voltage.

Christmas Day, 2017, was pleasantly warm in Germany and the wind was strong. As well, demand was abnormally low being a holiday when factories and offices are shut down. Suddenly, the wind blew and power companies had to shed a lot of power from the grid. So the plea went out from power companies to start wasting electricity. Turn on your electric heaters and all the lights in your house. Open the doors. We’ll pay a lot is you do.

Too much wind power is not unforeseen. Germany spent $250 billion to develop wind turbines and they now produce 20 per cent of the country’s power. The remainder of Germany’s power comes from fossil fuels and nuclear.

Germany has obviously solved one part of the greenhouse gas problem by investing heavily in renewable sources but the other side remains unresolved –how to store surplus energy. Battery technology doesn’t have the capacity to store huge amounts of power. If it did, surplus wind power could have been stored.

Batteries will work on a smaller, household scale. Elon Musk sells his Tesla Powerwall battery for $7,000 and it holds enough power to run your house for about 3 days. Imagine being paid to store electricity and then to use it to supply your energy needs for days? In Germany, you’d be doing yourself and the power company a favour.

If you live in B.C., not so much. British Columbia has the enviable position of generating power by hydroelectricity; 95 per cent of it with the remainder by natural gas plants.

B.C. can’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially by switching to wind and solar. Small scale installations in houses can reduce the cost of electricity for homeowners. Because dams hold stored power, storage of surplus electricity is not a problem.

Germany has reduced the burning of fossil fuels with wind and solar. Now, if they could only find some way to store the surplus electricity.

Blockchain could improve food security

The future of cryptocurrencies such as the bitcoin might be unclear but the technology behind it is solid. Blockchain is the digital ledger where bitcoin transactions are kept. It’s transparent, secure and open for all to see.

    image: Realty Biz News

The origin of blockchain is mysterious. Some person, or group, with the anonymous name Satoshi Nakamoto is credited with inventing blockchain. Who this person is remains obscure.

Blockchain’s usefulness goes beyond cryptocurrencies. Its property of transparency could improve food security. Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food policy and distribution at Dalhousie University explains:

“Blockchain technology allows for users to look at all transactions simultaneously and in real time. In food, for example, a retailer would know with whom his supplier has dealt. Additionally, since transactions are not stored in any single location, the information is almost impossible to hack (Globe and Mail, December 13, 2017).”

If you are buying pork chops in a grocery store, for example, and wanted to know the complete history the animal before you buy, you could scan the QR code on the label and within seconds know the date of the animal’s birth, use of antibiotics, vaccinations, and where the animal lived. (QR codes are a type of bar code in the shape of a square.)

The Public Health Agency of Canada reported earlier this month that 21 people became sick after eating romaine lettuce. While PAHC knew what caused the illness (E. Coli 0157) they didn’t know where the lettuce came from. Tracing contaminants can be a matter of life and death.

“Every year, more than four million Canadians get food poisoning. In recent years 474 cases of [the deadly disease caused by E. Coli 0157] have been reported annually,” says foodqualitynews.com.

Big Food is considering blockchain as way of tracing contaminates. Wal-Mart sells 20 per cent of all food in the U.S. and tested blockchain compared to standard methods of tracing food. They traced the source of mangoes in one of their stores using the standard method and it took six days, 18 hours, and 26 minutes to trace the fruit back to its original farm. Using blockchain technology, it would take 2.2 seconds for anyone –consumers and suppliers alike- to find out anything they want. And it would prevent good food from being thrown out.

“During an outbreak of a food-related health scare, six days is an eternity,” says Prof Charlebois, “A company can save lives by acting quickly. Blockchain also allows specific products to be traced at any given time, which would help in the reduction of food waste. For instance, contaminated products can be traced easily and quickly, while safe foods would remain on the shelves and not in landfills.”

Blockchain won’t be implemented without the involvement with everyone along the food chain. The record will only be as good as the data entered. Giants like Wal-Mart can force supplier participation.

Governments could also force compliance. With the health of consumers at stake, regulated participation would make the records complete and useful.

Cryptocurrencies may be a fleeting gimmick to have investors part with their money but let’s not throw the blockchain out with the bitcoin.

The multi-tent government of B.C.

Big-tent parties are standard in politics but in government, they rule from a small room.

Image: TentPictures.com

Getting as many voters into your tent ensures a win in the first-past-the-post system. Once elected, a relatively small group will determine the direction of government. A smart leader will pick cabinet members with diverse opinions. An arrogant leader will dictate the agenda.

Site C dam was one of those ideas that should have been halted early once it became obvious it wasn’t needed. Former Premier Christy Clark blindly proceeded with it.

For all who could see, it was doomed.  Even to me, it was obvious. Three years ago, I wrote:

“An independent review of the project found that BC Hydro could supply the province with electricity, without the new dam, with modest growth in LNG production, until 2028.”

Clark forged ahead with Site C dam in the face of calamity, even as markets for LNG collapsed.

Premier Horgan was left with a no-win situation. If he cancelled Site C, he would make the thousands of unionized workers unhappy. If he approved it, it would make environmentalists unhappy. Horgan chose the pragmatic solution. David Eby, B.C.’s Attorney General, explains.

“The strategies of the previous government to avoid oversight and push the project ‘past the point of no return’ with the hope, achieved, of visiting financial ruin on the books of any government that would seek to cancel it, are unforgivable.”

The cost of competing dam, Eby says, was the same as cancelling it; except in the first case you end up with an asset, essentially a mortgage paid over 70 years. Cancelling it would result in a debt, leaving the government with less money to spend on health, schools.

Horgan’s decision was sure to disappoint. You would think his fragile government would be doomed. However, Green leader Andrew Weaver is not keen to take down the government any time soon for two reasons. No one wants another election.

And both the NDP and Greens are eager to see proportional representation (PR) come to B.C. Since minority governments are typical in PR, it’s in the best interests of both the NDP and Green Party to see this government last as a demonstration that minority governments work.

Multi-tent governments can hold opposing views. While the overarching progressive banner would fly over government, different flags can fly over each tent. Pragmatists can huddle in one tent and environmentalists in another, grumbling at the other but placated in the comfort that they share the same basic values of fair wages, poverty reduction, human rights, and equality.

Multi-tent governments are a novelty in Canada. If a faction in one tent feels betrayed, they can vote to be part of the other tent in the next election –essentially an opposition built into government. With a divergence of ideas, the best plan is more likely to prevail.

Had a multi-tent government been in place when the BC Liberals were in power, Site C would probably not have proceeded. Instead, a premier with a big ego and tunnel-vision pushed the plan beyond the point of no return.

Climate-change denial is not about science

The minds of climate-change deniers won’t be changed with scientific facts. For them, the real issue isn’t science.

image: @politicaltribe

There’s a temptation to think that if all the facts were presented to deniers, that suddenly they would see the light. Professor Katharine Hayhoe says that doesn’t work:

“The number-one question I get from people is, ‘Could you just talk to my father-in-law, my congressman, my colleague? If you could just explain the facts to them, I’m sure it will change their mind.’ This is a trap. . . It almost never works. The only constructive dialogue with a dismissive person in on the level at which he or she really has the issue,” she told Scientific American (October 2017.) The Canadian political scientist teaches at Texas Tech University.

The real issue isn’t science. Sure, deniers like to couch arguments in science-y terms like –it’s just a natural cycle, scientists aren’t sure, actually its global cooling, volcanoes are the cause.  They use the language of science because they understand, or they have heard, that the scientific method tests theories in an irrefutable way.

The implications of reducing carbon emissions are scary for deniers. There are two. Entire economies have been built around the burning of fossil fuels. Therefore, the reasoning goes, if we stop burning fossils fuels our modern lifestyle will cease to exist. Economies will collapse. People will lose their jobs. Big Oil fuels these fears –it’s an existential issue for them.

Another implication has to with betrayal of your tribe. Although it wasn’t always the case, climate change has become politicized. I believe in climate change, not just because it can be scientifically proven but because it’s part of a set of values held by my tribe; along with pro-choice, fair wages, unionization, and environmental protection.

Climate change wasn’t always tribal. A few decades ago, the relationship between carbon dioxide and global warming was uncontroversial –it’s been known since the 1890’s. The trapping of heat with some sort of “blanket” is not only scientifically true, it’s observable: When clouds cover Kamloops at night, it stays warmer than when it’s clear.

However, once climate change moved from being a fact on the shelf to an actionable truth, Big Oil began to lobby politicians to fight against cutbacks in carbon emission. The prospect of reversing the fossil-fuel industry strikes fear in the corporate boardroom.

Climate change is the biggest issue facing humanity. We know the cause and we know the solution. Prof. Hayhoe has some tips. Shouting down the other tribe will not mobilize humanity to action. Avoid scientific arguments –they are not the real problem. Don’t use the words “climate” and “change” sequentially.

“With libertarians, we talk about free-market strategies,” says Prof. Hayhoe, “With mom’s groups, we talk about pollution affecting our kids’ health. With farmers, I say, ‘Hey, you’re the backbone of our food system, how have drought patterns changed?’ I don’t validate that there is a left and right side to climate change. And neither should the media.”

What’s the point in being right, in erecting tribal walls, when the future of our planet is at stake?

Doctors beware: this opioid is not listed

Doctors rely on Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act as a guide in prescribing drugs. Tramadol is not listed there but that could change soon.

image: Tramadol dropshipper

Tramadol is a sneaky drug, as Dr. David Juurlink discovered when a patient with a shoulder injury was prescribed tramadol. On the positive side, tramadol relieved the shoulder pain. Then problems starting showing up says Dr. Juurlink:

“The first sign of trouble arose three months later. His shoulder pain gone, the patient assumed he no longer needed tramadol. He was wrong. Shortly after stopping it, he developed debilitating insomnia, shakes and back pain – something he’d never experienced before. Irritable, exhausted and functioning poorly at work, he soon found the solution: All he needed to do was keep taking tramadol, and these problems went away (Globe and Mail, November 27, 2017).”

There are two outcomes of being hooked on drugs. One is a physically dependence, such as exhibited by the above patient. The other is addiction in which a patient’s health deteriorates and their behaviour is transformed –what we usually think of as addiction. This patient needed the drug for no other reason than to avoid the debilitating effects of not taking the drug.

The reasons why tramadol is not listed are complex. First, the way that it affects patients depends on their genetics. Tramadol acts as if it were two drugs. It relieves pain using the same mechanism as aspirin does but for some with a particular enzyme, it converts to an opioid. Only 6 per cent of Caucasians have the enzyme, whereas 30 per cent of those of East African or Middle Eastern decent will experience opioid conversion.

Tailor-made drugs, specific to a patient’s genetics, hold future promise. That would allow doctors would know in advance whether a patient has the enzyme or not. For now doctors roll the dice in prescribing tramadol.

Second, when Health Canada last reviewed tramadol in 2007, during the era of the Harper government, a libertarian regime affected policy. Manufacturers of tramadol lobbied Health Canada directly and indirectly to keep the drug off the list. Manufacturers peddled the “dual mechanism of action” of tramadol without disclosing just what that meant. Indirect lobbying came in form of financial support to at least one patient advocacy group who wanted to keep the drug freely available.

The Holy Grail of pain-killers would be one as effective as opioids without the side effect of addiction. Researchers have been looking or more than a century. The German drug company, Bayer, marketed a cough suppressant derived from morphine under the trademark Heroin in 1895. It was marketed as being non-addictive.

More recently, OxyContin was marketed as a pain-relief drug “without unacceptable side effects.” Doctors believed that they were prescribing a safe drug but OxyContin proved otherwise. Patients who took it for pain relief got hooked and when prescriptions ran out, they went to the streets in search of substitutes.

Under the Trudeau government, Health Canada is considering placement of tramadol under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act –where it belongs. Whether it is listed or not will be a test of a government’s resolve to put the health of Canadians above commercial interests.

No going back on abuse of women

What was once a trickle has become a torrent of reports from women of how they were groped, fondled, molested, assaulted, raped, and verbally abused; how they fought off the unwanted sexual advances of men.

   Sergeant Vicky-Lynn Cox. Photo: CBC

High-profile reports have come out of the entertainment industry. Actress Daryl Hannah told the New Yorker about the consequences of rejecting film director Harvey Weinstein’s advances: “We are more than not believed – we are berated and criticized and blamed.”

Harassment and assault on women takes a toll. Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti talked to dozens of women:

“Some of the women I heard from are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. The pain they carried through the years is palpable. In many cases, they knew what was happening to them was wrong, even if the culture at the time was more accepting of predatory behaviour. Often they told no one. They felt shame for not speaking up or acting. Sometimes that shame has been corrosive though the years and, in other cases, women have pushed it aside (November 18, 2017).”

It’s not just the world of entertainment. Women from many walks of life are speaking up. Sergeant Vicky-Lynn Cox of the Canadian Armed Forces told CBC Radio’s The Current:

“My first incident, without going into detail about my first incident, happened three weeks into the military. From that point on I didn’t really sleep soundly for the next 20 years. I’m approaching on 21 years of service. So I’m recovering from that. For years and years, I didn’t say a thing and for years and years I tolerated the environment around me because of the love of my country and the love of my work.”

Three Canadian comediennes spoke to The Current about the problems they faced. Michelle Shaughnessy said that male comedians think bad behaviour can be excused by saying that it’s just a joke:

“I know there was one incident where a colleague who was a friend, like I think it was kind of like the equivalent of like a drunk dial type thing. Actually sent me like a picture of their penis like the middle of the night, when obviously they had been drinking too much . . . you can mention it to these guys and their first defence is ‘were all comics. It’s a joke.’”

Women who were once afraid that they wouldn’t be believed, who were told “that’s the way it is,” are now speaking up.

It’s no joke. A shift in culture is happening. The more women who come forward, the more that others will be encouraged to do so. And as more women move into positions of power in corporations, government, police, clergy, and the military, the more they will be believed. “The tide is turning,” said Leeann Tweeden, the former model who has accused Al Franken: the high-profile writer, comedian and senator. It’s not enough that Franken “feels terribly” about the accusations.

I have a selfish reason to see the end of bad behaviour by men. I want to live in a society where women don’t have to suspect and fear men. The predatory and toxic actions of men are a burden on us all.