Cry for Venezuela

The dream of a socialist Venezuela has turned into a nightmare.

It’s depressing to see the disintegration of President Hugo Chávez’s attempt at political reform. Chávez, elected in 1999, was part of the “pink tide” that swept Latin America in the 2000s. He was one of the three musketeers of leftist governments in South America which included Lula da Silva of Brazil and Evo Morales of Bolivia.

The three denounced the Washington consensus of the 1990s which saw neo-liberal policies implemented: privatization of public companies, cuts to public spending on education and health care, foreign investment, and free market strategies.

The Neo-liberal experiment in the Latin Americas collapsed by the end of the 1990’s, leaving unemployment, corruption, inflation and increased inequality. Strained relations with the U.S. left an opportunity for China to partner with leftist governments.

The seeds of Venezuela’s collapse were sown from the start of Chávez’s presidency. Part of it had to do with the ego of the populist president. He believed that he was the people’s true champion and to ensure that he remained in power, he abolished the legislature’s upper house. Despite his public rhetoric of democracy, Chávez was consolidating power in himself.

Chávez’s policies were popular as many were lifted out of poverty with food subsidies, education, and welfare; all funded by the state-run oil company. But things went downhill after the workers of the oil company went on strike in 2002. Chávez fired 18,000 of them and replaced them with 100,000 of his supporters. Since the new workers had few of the technical and managerial skills necessary to run the plant, production fell even as global oil prices boomed.

To make up for falling oil revenues, Chávez borrowed money to fund popular programs leaving Venezuela the most indebted country in the world.

Chávez’s successor, President Nicolas Maduro, worsened the crisis. Unable to pay for subsidies and welfare programs, he printed money. This drove up inflation making basic goods unaffordable. He instituted price controls and fixed the currency exchange rate, so that imports became prohibitively expensive. Businesses shut down. Maduro printed more money, and inflation grew again. Food became scarce. Unrest deepened, and Maduro’s survival grew more contingent on handouts he could not afford.

In a country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, food has grown so scarce that three of four citizens reported a weight loss averaging 19 pounds in a year.

The collapse of Venezuela’s economy surpasses the Great Depression of the dirty thirties says Ricardo Hausmann, former minister of planning of Venezuela:

“Put another way, Venezuela’s economic catastrophe dwarfs any in the history of the U.S., Western Europe or the rest of Latin America.”

Where words fail to describe the calamity, numbers help. Instead of thinking of lost of wages in currency, think of them as measured in the cheapest source of calories. Minimum wage, so measured, declined to just 7,005 calories per day. This is insufficient to feed a family of five, assuming that all the income is spent to buy the cheapest calories. One-half of Venezuela works at minimum wages.

City streets are marked by black markets and violence. The last reported murder rate, in 2014, was equivalent to the civilian casualty rate in 2004 Iraq.

Venezuela’s heartbreaking fall leaves dreamers of a better world in mourning.

Good riddance to B.C. LNG

There were lots of things wrong with former Premier Christy Clark’s plan to produce liquefied natural gas but let me start with the good.

image: the Tyee

At least it was a plan that labour and business could agree to. It was a provincial strategy that had workers and industry pulling together in the same direction.

It was an ambitious plan but unrealistic from the start. Markets for were weak and no one wanted to develop the plants. Now one of the last players, Petronas, has pulled the plug.

I can only speculate why they bailed out only one week after the BC Liberals were defeated. Was there some deal with the Clark government to provide concessions such that the LNG plant would be built regardless of whether it was viable? It’s not inconceivable considering how much political capital Clark had invested in the project.

Or was it because of Canada’s so-called anti-business climate, including high taxes, environmental reviews, and Indigenous land claims? Instead of recriminations, let’s celebrate the passage of Petronas says economist Jim Stanford.

Stanford has a unique perspective of LNG projects in B.C. and Australia. He’s a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and lives in Sydney, Australia.

“In fact,” says Stanford, “far from blaming government red tape for the collapse of this misguided project, we should be collectively grateful. Those rules likely saved us from wasting tens of billions of dollars on the biggest white elephant in Canadian history.”

Stanford’s analysis shoots down an impression I had. I wrote that Australia was a LNG success story and that Australia’s early entry into the market was why B.C.’s plants were doomed. I now realize that Australia’s experience was not as rosy as I thought.

When Asian gas prices started to surge in 2009, Australia decided to chase after those markets. Unlike Canada, Australian developers faced few environmental hurdles and Australia’s Indigenous people had little negotiating power.

What followed was a spectacular construction boom in which $200 billion Australian was spent on LNG plants.

The boom had a dramatic effect on Australia’s economy. Their dollar, now at par with Canada, spiked up to $1.30, resulting in what economists call the “Dutch disease.” When Australia’s currency rose dramatically, the price other countries paid for Australia’s products rose. As well, imports were cheaper. Exports fell, imports rose and Australian factories could no longer compete. Australia became deindustrialized including the shutdown of their auto industry.

With the drop in gas prices, Australia’s LNG online plants are marginal. Boom towns that sprung up during the construction years are becoming ghost towns. Housing prices have collapsed.

Gas plants are selling into markets at discounted prices. Unlike Canada, Australian plants don’t have to supply the country first and so, ironically, there is a shortage of gas in Australia and a glut of gas on world markets. Domestic prices have doubled because of diversion to export markets.

B.C. has no economic strategy. Only one per cent of our GDP comes from mining, oil and gas and most from finance and real estate.

Our new NDP government faces a challenge. In our polarized political climate, unifying strategies are rare. Just ask former Premier Clark.

How I learned to like the monarchy

As a ten-year-old, I was eager to see Princess Elizabeth when she visited Edmonton in 1951; a year before she became Queen. My parents and I lined the street along with hundreds of other Edmontonians to catch a glimpse of her, only a few blocks from where I lived.

  photo: Yousuf Karsh (1951)

I didn’t know anything about the monarchy. I probably would have been as enthused if she was a Disney princess. My parents probably understood the celebratory mood better. The pretty young princess and heir-apparent to the throne embodied both celebrity and power.

Older, I admired countries that had shed monarchies like the Republic of France with their evocative motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” I wanted Canada to be more like The Republic of the United States, our exuberant neighbour to the south.

Despite reservations about the monarchy, I liked the fact that Canada is part of a club: the Commonwealth of Nations of which Elizabeth is head. The motto of “free and equal” suited my sensibilities. In my twenties, I fancied myself as a citizen of the world. Since the Commonwealth spans the globe with 52 member states and one-third of the world’s population, it was a club worth exploring.

So in 1964, I quit work and spent a year traveling around the globe by ship visiting some countries in my Commonwealth: New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, India, and the United Kingdom. Looking back, I marvel at how easy it was to visit and find work in those countries.

I’m less thrilled with the Commonwealth now but more comfortable with the monarchy. The queen represents stability at a time when countries are rocked by politics.

When a crisis arises, such as in B.C. when former Premier Clark clung to power, the Queen’s representative in B.C. plays a critical role. After the BC Liberals were defeated in a confidence vote, Clark wanted to call another election -something no one else wanted. Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon sensibly refused the request and invited John Horgan to form an NDP minority government. Guichon’s decision was not arbitrary: it was the result of deliberation and consultation with others of the Queen’s representatives in Canada and in the Commonwealth club.

Now I’m less envious of the United States where government is mired in politics, a maniacal president runs amuck, and constitutional crisis looms. I’d be happy to lend them our Governor General to settle things.

The Queen is remotely located but locally represented by Lieutenant and Governors Generals. They represent a kind of glue that holds the Canada and the Commonwealth together in turbulent times. When their duties are not required, they sit on a stately ceremonial shelf; descending only to lend gravitas to public events, awards, and ceremonies.

The selection of the Queen’s representatives generates pride in Canadians. Julie Payette is just such a person. As an astronaut, she saw the entire Commonwealth in 90 minutes –something that took me a year to do and I only saw a faction of it. As a scientist she is an ideal role model for kids who look for inspiration from a remarkable Canadian.

Now I think that a constitutional monarchy makes eminent sense.

Populism has lost its meaning

Use of the word populism has become more popular says Sylvia Stead, public editor of the Globe and Mail:

      Rodrigo Duterte. Image: Youtube

“There has certainly been a surge in references to ‘populist’ and ‘populism’ in The Globe. Ten years ago, each word had 317 mentions in the paper. Then there was a surge around Toronto mayor Rob Ford. In the past 12 months, the combined number of mentions rose to 1,310. And clearly the increase over the past year reflects a growth in both true populism and the appearance of populism.”

However, its meaning has become less clear. Public historian David Finch says: “the definition of populism is at odds with the racist, narrow minded, reactionary point of view of the minority now claiming to represent the majority.”

It used to mean something, such as grass-roots democracy or working class activism. Those movements are fundamental, not of the left or the right. The Reform Party was a grass-roots movement that was swallowed by the Conservative Party. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation had agrarian roots before it evolved into the New Democratic Party.

So-called populist leaders have little in common except for raw ambition,.

There are the populist wannabes like Conservative leader hopeful Kellie Leitch.  She tried to exploit the fear of immigrants in her pitch for Canadian Values. Some Canadians feared that immigrants would take their jobs, or end up being terrorists who would kill them in the streets. Instead of addressing those concerns by pointing out that immigrants actually create jobs and that most home-grown terrorists aren’t immigrants, she reinforced those fears. It was a thinly disguised attempt to emulate the power-grab in the U.S.

There are self-aggrandizing fools. There is no doubt that Donald Trump’s supporters represent working-class discontent. These formerly middle-class industrial workers have seen their incomes slip into the rank of the working poor. They awoke from their slumber to find that, while globalism has brought them cheap goods, it has sent their jobs elsewhere. Trump’s vitriol against Mexico and Canada resonates with them. Trump has no appreciation of the working class. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has clawed his way to fortune by climbing over the backs of his constituents. Calling Trump a populist leader is an insult to the genuine concerns of his base.

There are regressive, reactionary leaders like Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines. Duterte has exploited the concerns of ordinary people over deadly drugs. Duterte encourages vigilante squads to kill drug dealers. Those squads end up killing the very people who worry about drug abuse -innocent Filipinos accused, found guilty, and executed on the spot.

If not populists, what are we to call these autocratic leaders? We can certainly call them xenophobes. The vote on Brexit and the second-place showing of Marine Le Pen in France demonstrates that. Perhaps no one word will do. Instead we will have to use full sentences, even paragraphs to say what we mean.

While the meaning of populism is less clear, the fundamental concerns of the poor and working class are not. Canadians yearn for leaders who are pure of heart, not opportunists who use them as stepping stones to promote their warped ambitions.

Continental divide with U.S. widens

We used to think we were becoming more like our American cousins. In 2002 58 per cent of Canadians thought we were; now it’s only 27 per cent.

    “Weirdo” image: CBC

There’s more to the shift than the election of President Trump. We are maturing and are more confident. And it has to do with the realization that we are fundamentally different.

Those differences are revealed in response to a relatively simple statement: “The father of the family must be master in his own house.”

Because values are clustered together, response to that statement reveals other values says pollster Michael Adams: “Patriarchy is only one of more than 50 values we track, but it is clearly among the most meaningful. It is also a value that is highly correlated with other values such as religiosity, parochialism and xenophobia, and views on issues such as abortion, guns and the death penalty.”

American response to the statement cycles up and down. When asked in 1992, 42 per cent agreed. Support for patriarchy went up during the Bush presidencies and back down to 1992 levels during the Obama years. The election of President Trump has restored patriarchy to record highs.

Canadian response has been relatively constant for decades -in the low twenties.

It’s a versatile analysis. It also reveals the degree that immigrants adopt Canadian values. Thirty-five per cent of Canadian immigrants agreed with statement; not surprising when most immigrants come from male-dominated countries. In the U.S., substantially more immigrants agree with patriarchy at 56 per cent, even though they are from the same countries as in Canada.

I’m impressed with the way that Adams has of cutting through the clutter of public opinion. I wrote about his research in 2004 in my column for the Kamloops Daily News . Back then he was examining the connection between patriarchy and religiosity. “Canadians have more confidence in their ability to make moral decisions without deferring to religious authority,” said Adams.  As a percentage, twice as many Americans go to church weekly as Canadians, twice as many believe the Bible is literally true, and twice as many say religion is important to them.

In the same column, I argued that the continental divide is marked by something other than just the U.S./Canada border. Progressives on both sides of the border share the same “country.” I find that when I talk to people in the U.S. states of the Pacific Rim, they sound remarkably Canadian. Adams recent research confirms that progressive/populist divide in the U.S. Support for patriarchy is less strong in the coastal states than the Deep South.

Swings in U.S. support for patriarchy reveal a national insecurity. Psychoanalyst Robert Young has studied the psychology of populist movements. “When people feel under threat,” says Young, “they simplify; in a reduced state people cannot bear uncertainty.”

This siege mentality that currently grips the U.S. under Trump indicates just how insecure some Americans feel. Before 9/11, fundamentalist saw modernity and pop culture as a threat to core values. After September 11, the threat became global with the loss of jobs overseas.

The reasons why Canadians don’t want to become more like Americans is becoming ever clearer, as are the reasons why some Americans appreciate Canadian values.

Guys, don’t despair when she earns more that you.

The male ego is attached to being the chief breadwinner. It’s a fictitious remnant of the cave man’s role as hunter and provider. The stereotype was perpetuated when men returned from World War II and replaced women in industrial jobs.

  image: Mother Nature Network

With the decline of industrial jobs in North America, and with more women getting a post-secondary education, women are positioned to move into professional jobs. Over the past four decades, full time jobs have increased for women while decreasing for men.

Not just men who have lost industrial jobs worry. Alan, 40, is a successful accountant and his wife, a doctor, earns more than him. At first, Alan was embarrassed by his wife’s breadwinner status. “It was a male ego thing,” he told Levo.com. “There was just something about it that made me feel inadequate. I knew it was illogical.” After simmering for years, the issue came to a head and the couple sat down and talked about the toll that wage imbalance was taking on Alan’s self-esteem. “She helped me gain perspective. There are so many more important things to worry about in life than who makes more money.”

Wage inequity weighs heavily on wives, too. Alyson Byrne and Julian Barling investigated the toll it takes on relationships in their study published in Organization Science. “You have to imagine that a lot of these women, particularly in senior executive or high-status roles, are very smart and very ambitious. We know from management studies that they’ve had to work that much harder and face that many more barriers,” says Dr. Byrne.

Byrne and Barling studied 200 high-achieving businesswomen in Canada in relationships where 44 per cent of husbands made less than they did. Many wives reported a personal loss of status when responding to statements such as “My spouse’s job impedes my future career success;” “I am embarrassed when my spouse accompanies me to work events;” “My spouse’s work makes me look bad.”

This “status leakage” manifested itself in marital dissatisfaction and instability. However, stress was reduced in relationships where the husband was willing to provide an increased roll in child care and household chores.

Frank discussions between partners are critical in reducing martial stress. Men need to lay their own insecurities bare. “The whole time,” said Alan, “I thought I was doing a pretty good job of hiding my feelings, but it turns out she knew and was internalizing my resentment into guilt. That about broke my heart.”

Left to fester, wage disparity can be toxic unless dealt with openly. Unemployed men become confused about their role. They become more violent and controlling. Drug and alcohol abuse increase; so do suicide rates.

Wives need to be frank, as well. Dr. Byrne found that wives are not angry or disgusted, but that they feel a sense of loss. “They are just feeling loss or wishing that they [husbands] were at a similar level to their own, but it creates these long-term impacts on their marriages.”

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I was going to write a column about Omar Khadr’s award of $10.5 million by the Canadian government but I don’t have much more to say than I did in my column, nine years ago, in the Kamloops Daily News.

 

The definition of nation needs updating

I didn’t give much thought about whether Canada was a nation or not until I read Andrew Coyne’s article in Canada’s History magazine (June/July 2017). He argues that we are not.

George-Étienne Cartier. Image: Encyclopedia Britannica

The fathers of confederation believed they were creating a nation. George-Étienne Cartier, a key player in bringing Quebec into confederation, referred to Canada as “political nationality. . . with which neither the national origin nor the religion of any individual would interfere . . . In our federation we should have Catholic and Protestant, English, French, Irish and Scotch and each by his efforts and his success would increase the prosperity and glory of the Confederacy.”

That goal of a bilingual nation began to unravel early. Quebec gave equal powers to French and English in parliament but Ontario didn’t. Then Ontario premier Oliver Mowat said that each province was sovereign in its own sphere and Canada was a “compact.” When the first of the Western province, Manitoba, join confederation in 1870, Cartier’s dream of a bilingual nation was alive. Just 20 years later, Manitoba declared English to be the only official language.

The addition of more Western provinces only fuelled Western alienation, not nation-building.

Quebec had no trouble identifying itself as a nation and viewed the rest of Canada as “les autres.” Prime Minister Harper passed a resolution that “the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.”

If Canada is “duex nations,” as former Prime Minister Lester Pearson imagined, then who are the members of the other nation? Am I a member of the Rest of Canada nation -a kind of leftover?  The concept of an “English Nation” seems a bit silly.

And what about Canada’s 600 hundred First Nations? Where do they fit in this scheme? When First Nations seek nation-to-nation negotiations, with whom do they imagine they will be negotiating – some hybrid state of French and English Nations?

If Canada isn’t a nation, then surely it became a country 150 years ago. Nope, says, historian Ed Whitcomb. If a country is a land where its sovereignty and independence is recognized by other countries, then Canada didn’t become a country until it obtained independence from Britain until 1931.

Well then, Canada was founded 150 years ago, right? No, before it was a, ah, not-nation-county, Canada was a province. Quebec and Ontario combined in 1791 to form the United Province of Canada.

Prime Minister Trudeau doesn’t think we are a nation either. “Canada is the world’s first post-national state.” Canadians are global citizens.

Coyne, Whitcomb, and Trudeau make some good points but I still think Canada is a nation. It’s the definition of “nation” that is too restricting. Canada is a mosaic: a nation of nations. We are defined as a caring nation; exemplified by our universal health care system. We have elevated compromise to a virtue through our diversity of cultures, religions, and languages. We are a nation defined by our expansive North and by winter. “Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.” Canada is a thought-experiment; a bold idea which captures the world’s imagination.