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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Double-dipping and wait times

Doctors are to blame for double-dipping but not for the long wait times in B.C.

image: Global news

Rosalia Guthrie of Salmon Arm found out the hard way about double-dipping. After waiting for 16 months, her surgeon’s secretary gave her the number of another clinic. To her surprise, she discovered that the other clinic was run by the same surgeon –and that she would have to pay.

Guthrie paid $500 to get in the door of the private clinic and another $3,850 for a written report. She didn’t have to pay for the actual surgery. That was covered by health care and only one-tenth of what she paid. The surgeon was paid $410.67 for the surgery done in a public hospital at UBC.

The surgeon did a number of things wrong. Double-dipping is illegal. That’s where doctors bill both the patient and the province for different aspects of the same treatment. And doctors are forbidden from charging patients for reports while advising patients on publicly-insured treatment. Also, the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons dictates that before referring patients to clinics, doctors must disclose if they have a financial interest. The surgeon did have a share in the clinic where Guthrie was treated and that wasn’t disclosed.

Doctors are not to blame for long wait times. That blame for that lies squarely at the feet of the government of British Columbia. The BC Liberals have failed to provide access to operating rooms for surgeons says Judy Darcy, the NDP spokesperson for health:

There are operating rooms that sit idle, MRIs that sit idle for many hours of the day. We need to invest in innovation to use our capacity to the maximum.”

If hospitals can’t provide operating room times for doctors, the province should build public clinics I argued earlier. There is no shortage of doctors; there is a shortage of operating rooms for them to work. In a survey done by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, 208 fully trained specialists -16 per cent of those surveyed- were under-employed because “. . .there aren’t enough ORs.”

Some doctors contend that, while they may be doing something illegal, they are relieving patient suffering. Patients may lose their jobs while waiting or they may become addicted to pain-killing opioids.

Private clinics are expensive. Doctors can’t run them without charging patients. Dr. Ross Outerbridge, The founder of the Kamloops Surgical Centre, explains: “We factored in all the cost and a reasonable profit margin and that is what we charge the private patients.” But the whole realm of private clinics is unregulated. “I know that at other clinics, they overcharge,” says Dr. Outerbridge. ” I don’t personally agree with that – but it is very difficult, because nothing is being done about it.”

The BC Liberals have balanced the provincial budget by underfunding health care. British Columbia has the largest number of private clinics in Canada. While we are paying fewer taxes, we are likely paying more for health care when the cost of private clinics is factored in.

Yes, taxes would be higher but public clinics would be better than the illegal, unregulated, Wild West of bootleg medicine sold on the side of public medical practice.

 

 

The problem is doctor distribution, not shortage

The number of doctors in Canada is increasing faster than population growth says Dr. Michael Rachlis on CBC Radio’s The Current:

  photo: Nancy Bepple

“We’ve been increasing the number of physicians at about three per cent per year for the last 10 years and the population is only going up at one per cent per year.”

Another of the panellists on the program, Dr. Danielle Martin, author and VP at Women’s College Hospital, warns of a surplus of doctors:

“In fact you know in some parts of the healthcare system, people are worried about a glut and you hear stories of people coming out [of medical schools] and being unable to find a job.”

That’s certainly not the view from the streets of Kamloops. NDP candidate Nancy Bepple regularly visited lines of people lined up at a clinic to see a doctor. An estimated 30,000 Kamloopsians don’t have a family doctor (one-third of the population). In B.C. overall, it’s 15 per cent.

Why can’t people find doctors if there’s so many of them? Are they hiding?

Well, some of them have chosen to work for a salary rather than billing for each patient. They work exclusively in hospitals says Dr. Chris Pengilly of Victoria, another of the panellists. He calls them “hospitalists.”

They prefer to work only 40 hours a week. Who can blame them? And they are paid better. At $150 an hour, a hospitalist makes $300,000 a year with no overhead. After paying staff and rent, a family doctor would have to earn $400,000 a year, to take home that much; and work longer hours with less support.

The choice is obvious says Dr. Pengilly:

“So anybody coming out of medical school with a big student loan, which do you think they’re going to go for? A family physician [with] no time in hours a week or a hospitalist 40 hours a week and $300,000 with minimal expenses?”

Furthermore, hospitalists don’t want to work alone says Dr. Rachlis “Well, I say good for them that they’re looking to work in teams with other groups, with other physicians.”

One-half of Canada’s physicians focus on sports medicine or palliative care, says Dr. Martin:

“. . .they’re not practicing what we would think of as full scope full service cradle-to-grave primary care family medicine, and that is what those people who are lining up at Dr. Pengilly’s clinic and asking [for a primary caregiver].”

The current model is not working because doctors no longer want to work in the silos of a fee-for-service practice.

It’s ironic that the provincial government has created a hospital environment which doctors prefer to work but one that removes them from the general public.

The solution is obvious but the BC Liberals have been slow to implement it: Build walk-in clinics and hire doctors on a salary basis. Everyone, doctors and patients alike, will be happier.

It’s going to cost more because the government will own the clinics. But the alternative, privately-built clinics, is a failure. The reason that two walk-in clinics in North Kamloops closed their doors is because doctors don’t want to work for less in an environment where they don’t have the same support that hospitalists enjoy.

It’s too late to decriminalize pot

Decriminalization of marijuana should have happened decades ago. Now it would only add to the confusion.

Marijuana users are caught in a legal limbo. The government intends to legalize marijuana before Canada Day, 2018, but until then it’s illegal. Then, like a light being switched on, what was once a criminal offence will not be.

Alberta Legalization of Cannabis Committee

Government intentions aside, police are going about their business. They arrested activists Mark Emery (the “Prince of Pot”) and his wife Jodie as reported by CFJC Today.

The Liberals have been dithering over decriminalization for decades and this Trudeau is no different. Pierre Trudeau could have decriminalized marijuana in 1979. Then Justice Minister Marc Lalonde was playing politics when he said that he would decriminalize it before the upcoming election if opposition parties would just fast track the legislation. He was doubtful that they would. “I’m not optimistic,” Lalonde said (Calgary Herald, Feb. 22, 1979).

The opposition parties took Lalonde up on his challenge, agreeing to fast tracking.  Both opposition leaders Joe Clark and Ed Broadbent sent me letters of approval for decriminalization. They were responding to letters I sent on behalf of the Alberta Legalization of Cannabis Committee. I helped organize the group in 1977.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wrote me to explain how his government was trying to decriminalize marijuana. His government had initiated a bill in the Senate, Bill S-19, in 1974.”The Commons, however, was unable to find the time to give the bill further attention; so it died on the order paper when the last session of Parliament ended (January 17, 1978),” Trudeau explained.

In my letter to the Calgary Herald, I complained about Lalonde’s tardy pace: “Why does the government seem so reluctant to do what all agree must be done? If Lalonde wants us to believe that this is a demonstration of his government in haste, then it’s time to see what a new government in action; a government that will not fiddle while Canadians get burned (April 14, 1979).”

Lalonde had teased Canadians long enough with his promises of decriminalization. His government was defeated by Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative Party in June 11, 1979.

Executive Assistant to Clark’s Minister of Justice wrote me: “Mr. Clark’s government is currently reviewing this and other issues with a view to formulating policies and setting priorities.” “Be assured, Mr. Charbonneau, that your comments will be given serious consideration by the Government as it continues its study of this important matter (Aug. 3, 1979).” However, Clark’s government didn’t last long enough to decriminalize marijuana.

A Globe and Mail editorial argues that the government should decriminalize marijuana before legalizing it because users are in legal purgatory: “Besides, there is no viable interim regulatory regime that could accommodate a quasi-legal retail market. But there is when it comes to personal possession. It’s called decriminalization.”

It’s too late for decriminalization. More legislation would only add to confusion. There is a simple solution –what the Dutch call “gedogen.” Police simply don’t enforce marijuana laws. Unlike the Netherlands, where the law has been ignored for 30 years, police only have to turn a blind eye for another year.