Archive

Archive for March, 2009

How to fix the CBC

March 30, 2009 Leave a comment

It looks as if Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC, is facing just as bleak a future as the auto industry.

It recently announced 800 layoffs following the disclosure by President Hubert Lacroix that the CBC faces a $171 million ad shortfall in its current budget.

Still, the CBC gets $1.1 billion a year in public money. Why then does it persist in chasing advertising dollars by airing such mindless U.S. shows as Jeopardy?

The CBC has always been caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s tried to serve two masters — to produce meaningful programs that contribute to our understanding of our country and our world, and to grab off a mass audience that will draw in more ad dollars.

The current economic crisis offers the CBC a great opportunity to reassert its purpose while casting off the suffocating blanket of commercialism.

cbc-cartoon   Globe and Mail, March 30, 2009

The CBC’s mission is still fixed in law: to “inform, enlighten and entertain.” It can best do this, I argue, by providing programming that focuses on public affairs, culture, and education.

Take those initials — they add up to PACE — and you’ve got a strategy that offers a perfect solution to the network’s current dilemma.

The problem of the CBC is not difficult to define. It tries to be all things to all people. It dumbs down its programmng with mindless creations such as The Hour and The Point, in the hope of attracting a bigger audience. The idea is to draw in more ad dollars that will support the kind of mature, imaginative programming offered by The Fifth Estate and The National.

This kind of “cat chasing its tail” strategy just doesn’t work. Here’s what the CBC needs to do:

  • Throw out all advertising from the TV network, as it’s already done from Radio.
  • Drop all American entertainment shows.
  • Combine CBC and CBC Newsworld into a single channel.
  • Focus on creating (or buying) high quality, excellent programming that informs, educates and elucidates the world around us — public affairs, culture, education (PACE).
  • Forget about ratings – concentrate on quality.
  • Come up with a new  budget that will allow the CBC to live within its means and meet its public service goals.

None of this is highly original. Two other networks — PBS in the States and TV Ontario in this country — provide models for what the CBC should be.

The history of the CBC is too important to Canada to be thrown on the ash heap of commercialism. Pick any aspect of Canadian life — original drama, literature, arts and culture, political analysis — and the CBC has done a superlative job in fulfilling its mandate.

Now, by continuing to mix its purpose, the CBC risks becoming just another anaemic commercial network.

With the commercial networks facing peril in the face of a declining ad economy, there is a great opportunity for the CBC to transform itself. Our public broadcaster should not have to go whoring after the disappearing ad dollar.

A billion dollars in public money — plus millions more that could be raised via viewer support, just as PBS does — are sufficient to ensure a solid financial basis for the CBC.

All of this is bound to happen. The problem is, with enlightened leadership it could happen right now. Otherwise, wait ten or 20 years. What a shame to keep dumping all that garbage on Canadians!

Advertisements

Closing down the border

March 26, 2009 Leave a comment

I see that the Obama Administration, apparently as paranoid as the Bushites about “security” is warning Canada it is going to get the same treatment as Mexico when it comes to crossing the border.

It’s maddening to see our big neighbor behaving in a such an irrational way, which can only hurt trade and commerce between the two countries. But it’s also evidence, I think, of the further decline of the American empire. Empires always retreat into themselves and adopt a fortress mentality when confronted with the inevitable end.

Janet Napolitano, Mr. Obama’s secretary for Homeland Security (and former governor of Arizona) , put Canada in the same bracket as drug-infested Mexico when she warned:

One of the things that we need to be sensitive to is the very real feeling among southern border states and in Mexico that if things are being done on the Mexican border, they should also be done on the Canadian border,

On the Mexican border, of course, there’s massive smuggling of aliens and an immense amount of drug trafficking. True, we ship some B.C. Bud down to the States, but the two situations are hardly comparable.

The idea that Canada needs to be treated like Mexico sounds like some kind of political correctness carried to an especially irrational level.

Hilary Clinton sounded a small note of common sense in all this when she said the U.S., because it’s the woprld’s  biggest consumer of illegal drugs, shares a lot of the blame for the Mexican drug situation.

The border issue came up in connection with the law requiring anyone entering the U.S. from Canada to carry a passport as of June 1.

By itself, that’s not unreasonable. I never go anywhere without my passport. It’s all the havoc that’s already developing at the broder, where trucks line up for hours in both directions before being allowed to cross over with their goods.

So get ready, Canadians (attention Mr. Harper) to realize that Canada and the U.S. are actually separate countries.

A QUESTIONABLE CONCLUSION ON CIRCUMCISION

There’s a study in the New England Journal of Medicine claiming that circumcision helps protect heterosexual men against genital herpes and a virus that causes genital warts and cancer.

Where was the study carried out? In Uganda, a country where the hygiene standards are not excactly those of North America.

The Canadian Pediactric Society says it will take the study into consideration in its current review of the advisability of circumcision. The practice has been in decline in Canada since the 1970s, when the Society cautioned against routinely performing the procedure.

Some would say, “If God gave man a foreskin …” I prefer to say let’s follow nature’s course, and not resort to surgical practices that may have had a benefit in times past, but are not needed where water and soap is available and in daily use.

Religion and the Science Minister

March 20, 2009 Leave a comment

Canada’s minister of science, Gary Goodyear, has opened up a healthy debate over religious belief and one’s ability to carry out the responsibilities of Minister of Science.

He didn’t do it intentionally, of course. He blundered into it when he refused to answer a question about evolution during an interview with The Globe and Mail.

His response:

I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.

He added that “just because you can’t see it under a microscope doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

That apparent pro-evolution comment got Mr. Goodyear into a good deal of hot water, notably from scientists who are upset over the Harper government’s cuts in funding for scientific research. And probably from the Prime Minister, who’s been fanatic about keeping his MPs out of controversies.

In a later interview with CTV, Mr. Goodyear said he believes in evolution. But he displayed a rather unique understanding of it. “We’re evolving every year, every decade,” he said. “That’s a fact, whether it is to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else.”

Mr. Goodyear, the MP for Cambridge, Ontario, is a chiropractor. Chiropractic is, of course, the least scientific of the health disciplines.

There’s an old principle in parliamentary governance that “civilians” should head up the departments of government. In other words, you shouldn’t have to be a General to be the Minister of Defense, an industrialist to be the Minister of Industry, or a physician to be the Minister of Health.

If only the “experts” were in charge, we’d live in a technocracy, not a democracy. An exception to this rule is usually made for the Justice portfolio, which almost invariably goes to a lawyer.

The Canadian astronaut who is now a Liberal MP, Marc Garneau, says you shouldn’t have to be a supporter of evolution to hold down the job of Science Minister.

war-on-science

Yet Mr. Goodyear’s comments are troubling. We can see examples every day of the damage done when religious faith checkmates scientific fact: the Bush ban on governmnent funding for stem cell research, or the Pope’s latest dictum that use of condoms is part of the AIDS problem, and not a solution.

Usually, it’s the Republicans who are being accused of bring anti-science.

In the Republican War on Science, according to Publisher’s Weekly, Mooney tracks Bush White House efforts to spread misinformation about stem cells; the work of religious right regulators in restricting access to birth control; and the attempts of the Discovery Institute (and other think tanks linked to the Bush base) to fight the teaching of evolution.

We haven’t seen these extremes in Canada, fortunately. In fairness, I have to report that the Prime Minister says his government set aside $5-billion in the budget for science and technology spending. But the criticism is that this is going for applied technology, rather than pure research — the stuff of future progress.

I think the best way of handling these issues is to apply the principle of separation of church and state. Religious faith can  no more be allowed to influence scientific policy than, for example, Islamist belief in Sharia law can be permitted to affect the Canadian justice system.

That means being on constant guard against incursions of religious faith of any kind into the democratic state.

Failure of the management class

March 16, 2009 1 comment

For years, I’ve bored my friends with rants about what I call “the failure of the management class.”

The root of most of our problems, I’ve argued, lies at the feet of a largely incompetent, ignorant and uncaring management class — the people who fill the executive offices with fradulent characters interested only in what and how much they can get away with at the expense of their organizations, its customers, and society at large.

The economic crisis has brought this home as never before. And today. I’m intrigued to read a long piece in The Globe and Mail  by Professor Henry Mitzberg on this very issue.  I’ve never read such a brutal analysis from the pen of a recognized business academic.

By exquisite irony, the Mintzberg article comes the very day that the big insurance outfit, American International Group (AIG) is being lambasted for giving its executives $165 million in bonuses while shareholder wealth was going down the drain.

It was AIG, you might remember, that lost $61.7 billion in its fourth quarter, laying the  biggest egg in American corporate history. Even Ben Bernake, the chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, says it’s scandalous that $170-billion of bail-out money is going to keep the company afloat.

In his Globe article, Mitz asserts that the present situation is being called “a financial crisis or an economic one, but, at the core, it is a crisis of management.”

He uses the subprime mortgage mess (which Canada has not entirely escaped) to ask:

How could these mortgages have come to exist in the first place and worse, how could they have spread to so many of the bluest of blue-chip financial insitutions?

His answer:

“What we have here is a monumental failure of management. American management is still revered across much of the globe for what it used to be. Now, a great deal of it is just plain rotten … From where I sit, management education appears to be a significant part of the problem.”

At the risk of oversimplification, I put the failure of the management class down to three main causes:

  1. Ignorance. The typical denizen of the executive suite, if he’s American, knows nothing about the rest of the world and is ignorant of culture, art and literature
  2. Selfishness. Too many people in  upper mnanagement care only for their own salaries, bonuses and perks — as witness the immense and growing disparity between management salaries and worker pay.
  3. Hubris – lack of accountability, lack of responsibility. How often have you heard – “It’s not my problem,” “It’s not up to me to fix that,” “that’s not in my department?”

Meanwhile, we have to suffer witness to the continued depradations of these people on not just workers’ earnings or shareholders’ investments, but the money that Washington (and now Ottawa) is pouring into failed companies.

As Prof. Mintz says, outfits like General Motors, rather than being “too big to fail” are actually “too big to succeed.” Our preoccupation with saving the auto companies is nothing short of bizarre. Their products are the machines that are our  biggest cause of climate change, they inflict massive congestion on our roads, and they take thousands of lives every year. Yet we’re so caught up in the rewards of building them that we can’t separate ourselves from their toxic grip!

Sure, most of us need cars to get around. A statistic I heard recently illustrates the dilemma we’re in. Canada has about 70 cars for every 100 people. In the U.S., it’s 100 cars for every 100 people. You see where the problem is.

Meanwhile, the next time you get poor service in a store or restaurant,  have to put up with work that’s not up to par, or discover the rest of your savings have been swallowed up by a manipulative stock market, don’t blame the workers. Blame management.

The RCMP in the dock

March 7, 2009 4 comments

For a long time, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has stood on guard as Canada’s proudest national symbol. The Mounties always get their man, as the old saying goes.

How much of this legend is reality, and how much mere myth, has become a little clearer in the past few years. Despite the dedication of thousands of good people who serve within its ranks, the glorious image of the RCMP now appears to have been built on distortion, cover ups, and historic fraud.

Several recent events have caused indignation throughout the country. The most grievous, of course, has been the killing of the Polish immigrant, Robert Dziekanski, when he was tasered five times in quick succession in the Vancouver Airport.

The testimony of Mounties heard so far at the inquiry into his death reveals a depth of incompetence and possible lying that is hard to fathom.

Certainly, the written statements given by the officers have proven wildly at odds with the reality of the video taken by a bystander to this sad event. They have been forced to concede, after seeing the  video,  that the reports they provided their superiors were wrong.

This cases raises serious questions about the training received by Mounties. So, too, do such incidents as the deaths of four young Mounties at the hands of a crazed individual in Mayerhorpe, Alberta, and of the killing of two Mounties involved in a recent incident near Saskatoon.

The behavior of high-ranking officers of the RCMP also has been called into question. One of the most lamentable cases involved the Commissioner of the force, Giuliano Zaccardelli, who had to resign following his testimony to a Parliamentary committee about Maher Arar, falsely fingered as a terrorist.

That wasn’t the first time Zaccardelli had gotten into hot water. His unprecedented disclosure, at the height of a federal election, that the Mounties were investigating the Minister of Finance — who was later cleared of all suspicion — raised doubts about the Force’s political neutrality.

Zaccardelli’s resignation led the then Minister of Public Safety, Stockwell Day, to concede that an oversight capacity of some kind “that we don’t have now” is needed to keep the RCMP honest. The appointment of a civlian commissioner as Zaccardelli’s successor doesn’t seem to have had much effect, at least as yet.

Lest you think the problems surrounding the RCMP are new and that the Force is behaving with less credibility that in the past, let me introduce you to an interesting book:

rcmp

 Published in 1978 (James Lorimer & Company), An Unauthorized History traces the Force back to its creation as the Northwest Mounted Police in 1873, at a time when Ottawa saw a need to preserve order among discontented Metis settlers in the prairies of the Northwest.

By the time the book has gone through the early history of the Force and its use as an instrument of government compulsion in such incidents as the Regina Riot of Great Depression fame, it is clear that a primary role of the Mounties has always been to control civilian dissidents as much as to prosecute real criminals.

The abuse of power by the RCMP Security Service in the 1970s — including spying on provincial premiers and cabinet ministers, burning down barns to collect evidence against separatists and wiretapping trade unions and defence lawyers — led to the unit’s disbanding and its replacement by a new organization of almost equally questionable merit, the Canadian SecurityIntelligence Service (C SIS).

The main difference in what we know about the RCMP today, and what we knew about it in the past, lies in what we are allowed to see and understand.

Today, thanks to cell phones and portable video recorders, we can stumble onto the truth. That didn’t happen in the past. Without the Dziekanski video, the distorted reports of the officers at the scene would have been accepted at face value.

The long, vain-glorious history of the RCMP raises the question of whether it is not time to severely restrict the Force in its powers and duties.

Why do so many Canadian provinces rely on the RCMP to serve as provincial police forces? Why do so many cities in RCMP provinces not have their own city police forces?

Perhaps it is time for British Columbia, especially, to look at the merits of establishing a provincial police force like that of Ontario and Quebec.

Then the RCMP could be left to do what it does best – stand on guard in glorious scarlet uniforms at the opening of Parliament.

Love letter to Economy

March 6, 2009 Leave a comment

I’m indebted to The Walrus and its Love Letters contest (a promotion for the book Four Letter Word, a collection of fictional love letters by famous authors) for the following winning entry:

Dear Economy,

2008 was a bad year for us. A staggering understatement, I think you’ll agree. But honey, I’m through with the bull – I understand you are, too. If we want to make this thing work, it’s time for us to talk. 
loveletterssm2

Our relationship has always been casual. A couple of years ago, I barely noticed you. You were rich and powerful, but too blandly reliable to really be sexy. Thinking about you affected me like a mild sedative, but still, I ran into you everywhere. You often appeared when I was feeling bored or self-indulgent, tempting me into yet another pricey import beer at the pub, or assuring me that yes, I would look amazing in the buttery leather of those knee-high boots in the shop window. Slowly, over time, I started giving in to your advances. What was there to lose?
 
I’m no fool. I know I was just one among many. But there were those nice dinners out, those impulsive trips to San Francisco and New York, and you paid the tab. My friends always took a fanatical pleasure in analyzing you, but until this year, I kept my feelings quiet. I was content knowing you were always there in the background. Comforting. Constant. I even considered buying a condo, with your discreet help.
 
Then I started hearing rumours – through the newspapers, no less! – about your risky behaviour down in the States. My heart sank faster than the Dow. You had made promises to everyone, not just me. But you covered your tracks. You concealed your duplicity with piles of dirty second-hand money. You appeared composed, always on the up-and-up, and nobody asked questions. How could you not know that eventually, people would come knocking? All those homes you destroyed, it was front page news. I knew I didn’t have much time until you waltzed back into my life to sink me with your sub-prime drama.
 
And here you are. But now, Economy, you’re far from boring. You’re dangerous, unpredictable, and reckless with everything. My money. My feelings. I watch in heartsick amazement as you unapologetically drain my bank account. And to make matters worse: now you’re fucking everyone. This time, you’re not even trying to hide it.
 
Economy, please: tell me what to do. I just don’t believe in your fraudulent schemes anymore. I always thought you couldn’t buy my love. But you did, and now I see it was a bad investment right from the start. I’m tired of trying to bail you out. I’m tired of listening to people gossip about you on the bus. Consider my interest reduced. I’m taking my cash and putting it somewhere you can’t find it. But we’re just too intertwined for me to abandon you completely. My throat tightens whenever you hint that you may be depressed. So I’ll stand by you and wait for things to turn around, but for the love of God, Economy, please get your shit together.
 
Regretfully forever in your debt,
Jennifer

Shock of the “Shock Doctrine”

March 3, 2009 1 comment

The news that Naomi Klein, the Canadian activist author of The Shock Doctrine and No Logo, has won the inaugural $90,000 Warwick Prize for Writing, is causing a lot of us to look more closely at her work.

This is a new literary prize put up by the University of Warwick, England. Nominees are named by university staff. It will be awarded every two years for work on a theme that will change with every award.

This year’s award was for “excellent and substantial writing” on the theme of complexity. Ms. Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, is indeed complex. It is an exhaustively thorough examination of the use of social,  political and economic shock to entrench free market economies around the world, especially in developing countries and in those migrating from state control.

Every good story needs a villain, and in the case of Shock Doctrine Ms. Klein has found an evil one in Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economics professor whose “Chicago Boys” had a hand in virtually every economic makeover of the last half of the 20th century.

kleinFrom the South American dictatorships of Brazil, Argentina and Chile to the “cold bath” of capitalism in places like Poland, China, and Iraq, Friedman’s thinking provided the economic underpinning to impose the unbridled free market capitalism that has turned into such a disaster.

The gospel of a free market unleashed from regulation became a virtual state religion under George W. Bush and by association, among the neocons of Canada who morphed the right-wing Reform movement into today’s governing Conservative party under Stephen Harper.

The fact Naomi Klein’s work is now being reconsidered after having been initially dismissed as that of a left wing ideologue can be laid, of course, to the dreadful consequences of the abuse of the free market by banks, insurance companies and other financial manipulators, primarily in the United States.

As the world economy staggers toward depression and chaos, it’s clear to anyone with eyes to see it that the Friedman version of the free market — selling off public property, starving public education, cutting taxes on the rich, building up the military, relieving the financial industry of regulation — has been a catastrophic  failure.

The first third of Ms. Klein’s book covers the imposition of free market dictatorships in South America and the struggle there to regain democracy. Throughout, the juntas are fed on  Friedman economics, although Friedman himself maintains he provided only “technical advice” to such monsters as Chile’s dictator General Pinchet.

Curiously, Friedman (who died in 2006 and thus never lived to see the full consequences of his theories) claimed to have given China “precisely the same advice” on how to impose a free market economy.

Klein originally intended her book as an expose of the American free market takeover of Iraq. Early into her research, the scope of the book expanded to cover other examples around the world where the use of shock to create crisis facilitated the imposition of  free market solutions.

She begins in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the shock of Katrina was used to justify abolition of the state’s entire public education system and its replacement with private charter schools.

Over 500 pages later, she has exploded the ethos of disaster capitalism. She has also exposed how the free maket has been manipulated to create a new type of corporate state that has ravished the public interest, beggared private wealth, and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people through repression, war and poverty.

Such has become the legacy of the free market exponents who told us when Communism collapsed that we had seen “the end of history.” Now, as Western politicians rush to embrace government rescue of the economy, we are witnessing the end of the unregulated free market. Ironically, this also comes as the result of  shock — the shock of the free market fiasco of Friedman and his “Chicago School” of economic wizards.