Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Privatize profit, socialize debt…

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

“Privatize profit, socialize debt… and risk… and pretty much everything else.  This is the current global system and the pattern is apparent everywhere.  If many sectors of the economy actually had to pay their way they would not be profitable at all.  The state of ecosystems around the world stands as testimony.”

Kierin Mackenzie – seen on Facebook, 24 October 2013

– Kierin’s a friend of mine and a tireless worker for all sort of issues.  This quote of his captures, in such a succinct way, the state of the world today as the corporate takeover of government proceeds apace and the world’s public sleeps through the event.

– dennis

 

Final wrap-up on the major travel we’ve been doing these last four months

Monday, October 21st, 2013
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Vancouver’s West End

Wrap up

This will be a final wrap-up for the major trip Colette and I have been on these last four months.

We’ve been back in New Zealand from our trip now for about ten days.  We left on June 3rd for the U.S. where we spent a month touring up and down the west coast seeing friends and family.  We traveled from Orange County, on the south, to Vancouver, B.C., on the north.  I’ve done this trip four times now and this was Colette’s 2nd go-round.  All the cross country driving is fun.

U.S. West Coast

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Benicia lunch with Dave

We  saw a ton of stuff and the especially good bits, other than the friends and family we saw (smile), were Las Vegas, Yosemite and Vancouver, B.C.   We’re especially pumped about the city of Vancouver and it is on our list for next year’s live-in immersion adventure; along with Montreal.

My head is spinning as I’m reflecting on and remembering all the places we’ve been in these last four months.

From the U.S., we flew July 1st to Frankfurt, Germany and then onto Paris; arriving on the 2nd.

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Family in Irvine

It wasn’t going to be a smooth trip, as we discovered, when we left my friend Dave’s house, bound for the BART station where we were going to catch a train to San Francisco Airport.  It turned out that we had chanced to try our travel on the very day of the first BART strike in 16 years and BART train stations all across the Bay Area were shuttered.

After the initial shock of learning this for all of us, Dave stepped up to the plate and said he’d drive us all the way into the airport and off we went with our only guide; his GPS.  That little guide was, itself, a gamble as he hadn’t brought its charger so it was running on batteries and none of us had any idea how much juice it had left.  If it died on the way, we’d be lost and we’d be toast.

But it lasted, thanks to the God of small batteries, and we arrived in time.  And, with profuse thanks to our host and transporter, Dave, for his hospitality and for being willing to drive us all the way into the airport with zero notice, we took leave of him to catch our flight.

Away to Paris

A flight which, as it turned out, was an hour late taking off from San Francisco.   Which meant that later, when we arrived in Frankfurt, we then failed to make the connection with our Paris flight to Charles de Gaulle airport.   Ah my, it was, indeed, a day of travel problems.

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Gerry and Colette at the Louvre

Our Parisian friend, Gerry, was waiting for us in Paris at Charles de Gaulle and he managed to work out what probably had happened to us when we didn’t get off the expected plane.   So, bless him, he stayed around for the next plane, which we were on, and all was well; though we were a bit frazzled after all of that fun.

And then began three months in Paris as Gerry’s guest in his extra apartment.

That was, indeed, a beautiful and very special time for us.   But, since I’ve already written extensively on our adventures in Paris, I’m not going to wax on further here about that.  Instead, I’m going to press on to describe the last part of our trip; which was Singapore.

We departed Paris for Singapore on September 30th and, after an overnight flight, we arrived in Singapore on October 1st.

 

And on to Singapore

Singapore Skyline

Singapore Skyline

It’s hard for me to recall what I expected from visiting Singapore.  When we booked, it was just a place I’d heard of that we were going to pass through on the way home to Christchurch.   But, since I’d never been there, we decided to lay over for the better part of a week and have a look around.  Really, at the time we booked it, it was nothing more than idle curiosity on my part.   Colette had been there once before years earlier and said it was nice; though hot.

Well, it is not an exaggeration to say that the place really knocked my socks off.

Singapore is one of the wonders of the modern world in many ways.  If you don’t get anything else out of reading this, treat yourself and go read the Wikipedia article about Singapore here.  You will learn a lot that will surprise you, I expect.

High-rise Apartments

High-rise Apartments

The first thing we noticed was the intense urban feel of the place and the high rise apartment and business buildings in all directions.

Singapore Island and Metro System

Singapore Island and Metro System

There are four to five million people living here on a small island that is at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.  The main island is approximately 42km east to west and 23 km north to south.  Or, in miles, it is 31  by 19.   There are, as well, a number of smaller islands but only one big one.

Weather?  It is very hot and humid as you are just slightly north of the equator.

I’d heard about the cleanliness of the place but, still, it is something to see.   No trash, no gum blobs on the sidewalks, Metro trains that run smooth as silk and a mixed racial population that seems to get on very well.   There’s feeling of prosperity in the air in the dense central city areas of the eastern end of the island where we began our explorations.

Shopping Mall

Another Shopping Mall

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Shopping Mall

Colette finds 'her' store

Colette finds ‘her’ store

Walking down the main shopping road; Orchard Road, you could easily imagine yourself back in Paris.  All the big fashion names are there.  And you will find shopping mall after shopping mall; each one more amazing than the last in its architecture.

Beating the hea

Beating the hea

On the first day, we went out and walked a lot but I found that really tiring.  The heat was like a hammer and the difference between being in the sun or the shade was huge.  And shade was hard to come by at mid-day because the sun was straight overhead.

After I was throughly hot and miserable (Colette had an umbrella so she handled all of this better than I did), we finally found a nice cafe with shade and settled in for an afternoon beer and some relaxed people watching and I began to recover a bit.

Double-decker bus touring

Double-decker bus touring

The next day, we were smarter.  We found out that for $18 Singaporean each, you could ride a city double-decker tour bus and get on and off as you liked for the entire day.  It went around the most interesting and dense areas of the city on the eastern end of the island and it came by every 30 minutes.

So, we did this.  In the morning we got on and sat on the right side of the bus and went all the way around the loop just looking and talking and taking pictures.  It took about two and a half hours.

Hindu Temple

Hindu Temple

In the heat of the day

In the heat of the day

Building everywhere

Building everywhere

High-rise Apartments

High-rise Apartments

 

Then, we got off on Orchard Road and wandered until we found a nice lunch place and then, after a short rest, we got back on the bus again.  And this time, we sat on the left side and went all the way around again.  It was well worth the money and we saw a ton of things without having to suffer and sweat in the tropical sun.

The street to our Hotel

The street to our Hotel

The five evenings we were there, we mostly followed the same pattern and ate at the restaurant on the ground floor of our hotel.  By that time of day (6 or 7pm), the temperature was nice and sitting outside was a great pleasure.  We sat outside and ate slowly and watched the traffic and the people passing by and discussed all that we’d seen during the day.

Singapore evening meal

Singapore evening meal

 

Genesis of Singapore

For me, there was a lot more to Singapore than the glossy surfaces we were seeing.  In odd moments, I delved into reading about it and learning how the place came to be; and it was a fascinating story.

In a nutshell, Singapore, Malaysia and other former colonies of Britain in the area came together to form a new Malaysian Federation in 1963.

At that time, Singapore had been a long time British colony and had a thriving harbor and was a regional trade center.   But it was also an uncomfortably hot tropical place where most folks lived in poverty, corruption was the rule, squalor was everywhere and there was a lot of racial disharmony.

The new union of Singapore and Malaysia was an uneasy one from the beginning and the issues were mostly racial.

Malaysia wanted to pass laws making the Malaysian people the first among equals to keep them ascendant over the Chinese.

The folks on Singapore strongly favored the alternative idea that all races should have equal rights.   Singapore today is 75% or better Chinese and it was probably a similar mixture back then.

Singapore's birth

Singapore’s birth

There was a lot a strife over all this and the situation looked like it might evolve into a civil war.  But Malaysia acted preemptively and ejected Singapore by a unanimous vote from the Federation in 1965.

And at that point, Singapore found itself, by surprise, as an island city-state and as a newly minted nation.

The first years were quite scary, I think, as SIngapore could have easily been subsumed into Indonesia or reabsorbed back into Malaysia under less than optimal conditions in either case.

But, they were lucky in that they had a leader named Lee Kuan Yew.  He was a take-charge fellow and a visionary and he took Singapore in hand and began to mold it.

Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew

And this molding wasn’t of the standard dictatorial militaristic take-all-the-money, bank it and suppress any dissent type.   No, it was a beneficent moulding.  Yew’s motives, so far as I can see from reading history and by looking around me, were to shape the place for the good of the people.

This doesn’t mean he was a Communist or a Socialist.  He was a Capitalist; but one of a different sort than seems to predominate in the world today.

He believed in using the power of business to raise the living standards of his people.  I believe he saw Capitalism as a tool but he also saw, that as a tool, it must always remain subordinate to the greater goal; which was “the good of the people”.

In my opinion, what’s where most of us in Capitalist countries have deeply lost the plot.  We’ve never established that the highest goal of our countries should be to maximize the quality of life for all of the country’s citizens.  And, not having made that decision, we’ve left a vacuum into which others have rushed to promote the supremacy of their visions of personal wealth, of political power, of corporate domination and on and on.  In the absence of clear priorities, the pushiest and the greediest find their ways to the front of the bus.

Within 10 years Yew had rehoused most of Singapore’s population in high rise apartment buildings.

Early on. he passed laws with real teeth against graft and corruption; laws that were actually enforced at all levels.

He declared that English would the first language of the land (though everyone could and did have a second language of choice which they were free to us).

He mandated racial equality and built support for it into the school curriculums to teach it at every level.

He poured a large amount of the nation’s wealth into housing, into their military (modeled after the West German and Israeli models), into education and into transport (busses and Metro) and into communications needs.

Ship Building

Ship Building

He realized the value of having a diversified economy and he moved Singapore into many types of business that were new to it and he did this very successfully.

He made the price of owning cars so prohibitive that today only one person in 10 in Singapore owns one.

He promoted Singapore’s involvement in finance and Singapore today is one of the world’s largest financial centers.

But it has to be said that the Singaporean government is essentially a benevolent dictatorship in spite of having a multiparty parliamentary system.

Yew ruled from independence in 1965 until 1990,  Then a protégé of his, Goh Chok Tong, ruled from 1990 to 2004.  And then Yew’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, took over and he still rules today.   So, it’s been very much a dynasty with a controlled succession.

They allow multiple parties in Singapore but the party Yew was part of, the People’s Action Party (PAP), has won every election since the country was founded.  And of all the seats in the legislature, the vast majority have always gone to PAP candidates.

That sounds like it could be a dismal situation, politically, but in fact the results say otherwise.

People in Singapore live well.  80 to 90% own their own homes.  They are an enormously well educated bunch and the per capita wealth level is very high (third highest in the world).

Death for drugs

Death for drugs

There is a hard side to the place, however, but maybe its not so bad.   If you spit on the sidewalk or throw trash, you can get a major fine.   And if you bring drugs into the country, they will simply execute you.

There’s a lot of superlatives about the place.

Singapore is the world’s fourth largest financial centre.

Its harbor is one of the busiest in the world (it is the fifth largest).

Singapore is one of the four ‘Asian Tiger” nations.

Democracy – are we smart enough?

All of this information made me quite reflective as we wandered around.  In thinking about Singapore being a beneficent dictatorship, I remembered what Churchill had to say about Democracy:

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

I reflect on this saying a lot because I’m not convinced people in general are smart enough for the responsibility of participating in a democracy.   But, on the other hand there’s very little to be said for Communism or dictatorships either.

So Singapore, for me, was a bit of a revelation because it represents another possibility; a third way.

A way in which power is gathered at the top and wielded sincerely for the good of the people being governed rather than for the good of those who govern (as in dictatorships) or for the good of the wealthy (as in the case of many western democracies today).

You may say that Singapore is a very rare and special case and could not exist except for the small size of the place and the remarkable circumstances of its birth.  And I would have to agree; it is remarkable and it is probably not a pattern we will see often; no matter how admirable it might be.

The way they were and how they changed

Racial tension was a part of the early Singapore.   Today, Singapore is 75% Chinese and most of the rest is made of up Malays and Indians with an odd smattering of Europeans.  But the melding is working.

The government helps to make it work in an intelligent manner.  For example, each apartment building, as the units are sold, is supervised to make sure that the racial mixes of the apartments agrees with the racial mix of the country.  School programs actively structure things so that everyone get a good look inside the cultures of the other groups in Singapore as they grow up.  The government works actively to diffuse enclaves of different racial groups from forming in the different neighborhoods; with the exception of Chinatown and Little India which are grandfathered in.

Anyway, all of this was background for me as we wandered around and looked at the place.  Reading the newspapers and absorbing the evening news fascinated me daily as I looked to see if the place seemed like it was really working as well as it claimed to.  And for me, it looked like it really was.

Chinatown and Little India

Chinatown Delux

Chinatown Delux

The day after the big bus tour, we went to Chinatown and then onto Little India; both of which are special enclaves within the city which survive from pre-independence days.  We walked and looked and shopped. Colette bought a pair of pants she loved for $6 Singaporean; which was a serious steal.

In Chinatown, we saw a very beautiful Buddhist Temple.

In the Buddhist Temple

In the Buddhist Temple

A man and his beer

A man and his beer

At one point in Chinatown, we sat in a side street cafe outside (but shaded) for a long time while I imbibed a 660 ml Tiger beer and we people watched.  Yum.

Then, in Little India, we found a lot of fun and amazing things; including an upstairs clothing sales area that was absolutely chock-a-block with tens of thousands of Indian dresses of every description.  If you couldn’t find it here, you were not going to find it.

Colette does the shop

Colette does the shop

Then we sat down in a large courtyard surrounded by little food stalls selling all sorts of ethnic dishes and I had a coke and we just watched it all flow by; contentedly.

Life for the average man and women

On the last full day, we did a favorite things of ours.; we got on the Metro and bought a ticket to the end-of-the-line and went all  30 miles or so to the western end of the island – just to see what was there.

And along the way, it was something to see.  Mile after mile of high rise apartment buildings of all sorts of vintages all the way back the the first one built in the late 60’s. These were intermixed with industrial areas and off in the far distances, I could see huge cranes and I recalled reading that Singapore is a major ship building and repairing port as well.

Metro Train Station

Metro Train Station

Periodically, at the train stations, there would be huge shopping centers.  Really, these were small cites in their own right.

And, beside the larger train stations would be huge parking lots exclusively for busses by the dozens which would carry people to the north and south of the Metro line to and from their apartment homes or their work.

Along the tracks, in addition to the high rises and industrial areas, were nice parklands as well.  Singapore has dedicated 5% of itself to parklands.  But of native bush there wasn’t much to be seen.  Truly, the Singaporeans have nearly filled their island and the only way for them is up.

We rode to the far end of the East/West line to a place called, “Joo Koon”.  And it really was the end of the line.

There was a fair amount of industrial stuff scattered around but not much in the way of high rise housing there.  We came on a Sunday so it was pretty quiet.  A few locals stared at us and we couldn’t find a any place to get a cup of coffee or to wander and shop a bit so we got back on the train and headed east again after 15 minutes.

I expect that the high rise apartments will build their way out to Joo Koon soon.  If we come back in a few years, I’ll have another look and see what’s happened.

Heading east, we got off at Jurong East.  This is a junction where we could transfer to a train that went north and then east again and looped across the top of the island before finally finding its way back into the denser eastern areas.

Switching trains would show us entire areas of the island that we hadn’t seen before.  But before we did the transfer, we got off at Jurong East and walked over to one of the ubiquitous, massive shopping centers.

This area was definitely off the beaten tourist track; which would mostly run up and down the shops on Orchard Road and through Chinatown and Little India in the dense easter sections.   Here, we were seeing where the real Singaporeans lived and shopped; away from the tourists.

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Starbucks in Jurong East

The truth was, it wasn’t much different. We found a Starbucks in the shopping center and had a coffee and a snack.

Around us were kids talking and studying their laptops and their assignments; much as you might find anywhere in the world.  A European couple sat a few tables down from us absorbed in their conversation and not looking out of place at all.   A boy and a girl were sitting and talking quietly near us and I thought they were in a new relationship by the way they looked at each other.   No one was rowdy, no one was rude, and no one paid us the slightest attention.   And the coffee was excellent.

We got back on the train and began the ride north.  Along the way, we passed stations with catchy names like “Bukit Batok”, “Bukit Gombak”, “Choa Chu Kang” and “Yew Tee”.

It was a long and slow trip and the train was quite crowded at times.  Outside, the scenery was always changing but, yet, always the same.   High rises, parklands, industrial areas, and shopping centers.   Only at one point on the northern journey did I see a bit of what might remain of the original rain forests that once filled the island.   I read on-line that of the entire island, only 100 hectares of land remains in use for farming.

After awhile, the train’s rocking and the crowded spaces got to Colette and she felt a bit queasy so we got off and sat on a bench in a station, “Khatib”, I think.  She felt better in 10 minutes or so and we got back onto the next train after that and completed the circuit back to our home station at Novena which is about a 15 minute walk from our hotel.

View from our room

View from our room

Out hotel was nice and clean; though the room was a bit small.   I liked it though because I could look directly out our window on the 9th floor and see a huge number of apartments in the 25 story apartment building just across from us.  It was one of the more recently built buildings and I thought it compared favorably with the nice high rises we’d seen in Vancouver back in June.

View from our hotel's 9th floor

View from our hotel’s 9th floor

The next day, we played a bit and then, in the afternoon, we caught an overnight flight direct from Singapore to Christchurch which took 9 hours.

Singapore Airlines

Singapore had one last lesson to teach me; even as we were leaving.   We flew out on Singapore Airlines and the service was very impressive and we were just flying in coach.

Most of the world’s airlines are caught in the “maximize profits and minimize costs” cycle which is an essential thing to do if, as a corporation, your bottom line is focused on maximizing the returns on investment for your shareholders.

Buying coach fare these days on most airlines is like riding in a third-world cattle car.  If you get a nod and a small bag of peanuts, you should count yourself lucky.

It wasn’t like that on Singapore Airlines.

Singapore Airlines Menu

Singapore Airlines Menu

I realized it was going to be different when they came around with the menus. I was so impressed with getting a menu, I kept mine.  First, they came around before we ate with hot cloths to clean your hands or to wipe your face.  Then, we had a glass of wine before the meal was served.   Then they served a nice meal which we chose from the menu.   Later, during the night, as most of us slept or watched movies, they came around three times with apple juice to keep us hydrated and with snacks.   In the morning, it was excellence again as they came around with another hot cloth before we ate breakfast.

I spent sometime on the flight wondering why, in a world in which all sorts of businesses seem to deliver less and less service for more and more money, why should Singapore Airlines be different.  I think it may be a lack of greed.

Virtually all large corporate businesses are focused on maximizing the return on investment for their shareholders.  The CEO’s of these companies keep their jobs if they can maximize profits and minimize costs and they are tossed out if they fail.  And with huge pay packages and bonuses CEO get, they have a huge motivations to succeed.   In truth, most corporations make so much money that the impact of these large pay packages is minuscule in the bigger picture.

But why is Singapore Airlines different?   Singapore, the state, owns the majority of the stock of Singapore airlines.  The state, through all the wise things it has done, is doing very well financially and it is also doing well with its goals to optimize the quality of life for its citizens.

Singapore, the country,  doesn’t need to grind every last penny out of Singapore Airlines.   In fact, it can afford the extra it costs to make the brand a quality brand by providing superior services for the money paid.  And they know that’s going to be good in the long run for Singapore and all its citizens.

What I like about Singapore

There are no controlling shareholders who have to be appeased.  If the airline makes money and runs in the black, then it is a success, it is good enough and it speaks well of the overall enterprise; Singapore.  There is no need to squeeze it for more profit out of greed.

That’s a good deal of what I liked about Singapore.   They clearly have the notion of Capitalism in hand.  But they also get the idea of ‘enough’.   More is not better; balance is better.

The people and the government of the place are doing well.  It has the world’s 11th larger foreign reserves which is huge.  Remember, this is a tiny city-state of only four to five million people.

Every 6th household in Singapore has more than a million dollars U.S. of disposable wealth.  This doesn’t include property, businesses or luxury goods.

They are rated at the very top, along with New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries, as the least corrupt in the world.

The World Bank rated Singapore the easiest country in the world to do business in.

So, why, with the people and the government doing so very well, would they need to grind out more profit?   They don’t; they understand ‘enough’ and ‘balance’.   They are using Capitalism for their purposes and not letting it use them; as seems to be the case in so many other places.

Singapore has a game plan that puts the good of the population first and then harnesses Capitalism to serve that goal.

Well, after that little philosophical burst of enthusiasm on my part that probably gave a few conservative ‘me-me-me’ profit maximizing Capitalists a bit of heart burn, I think I’m going to wrap this long travel saga up.

End of the line

I’m back in Christchurch, New Zealand, now and settling in for awhile.   Next year, in August, I will be able to get my New Zealand citizenship and I am looking forward to that.

Truly, folks, I see myself as an Internationalist.  I don’t feel aligned with any particular country.  I am aligned with what works; with what might make for a better world.  I hope some of you will join me in thinking this way.

Cheers, from the end of the current road.

Home again for awhile

Home again for awhile

– 10Nov2013 – More on Singapore here:
 

The corrosive power of big money

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

– Tonight, at the suggestion of a friend, I watched a documentary called, “Park Avenue: Money, Power & the American Dream“.  Here’s a link to it on youtube :

– It was a very powerful piece about how American is being taken over by the richest of the rich and everyone else is being left to eat dirt.  

– I can’t begin to do the film justice.  You should find 30 or 40 minutes and watch it.

– Afterwards, when I wrote my friend back to thank him for the suggestion, I was telling him in my E-Mail that I was surprised that the American Public Broadcasting System (PBS) still had enough independence to broadcast such a thing.

– Well, not long after I penned those words, I came across this story which proves that they were not independent enough and they’ve had their feathers clipped.  

– Money talks.

– dennis

– research thanks to John P.

 

 

Rise Up or Die

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

– It seems to me that perceptions of the ongoing take-over of government by multinational corporations and the very wealthy is gaining traction in the Blog-o-sphere and in the internet’s left side musings.

– dennis

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By Chris Hedges

 

Joe Sacco and I spent two years reporting from the poorest pockets of the United States for our book “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.” We went into our nation’s impoverished “sacrifice zones”—the first areas forced to kneel before the dictates of the marketplace—to show what happens when unfettered corporate capitalism and ceaseless economic expansion no longer have external impediments. We wanted to illustrate what unrestrained corporate exploitation does to families, communities and the natural world. We wanted to challenge the reigning ideology of globalization and laissez-faire capitalism to illustrate what life becomes when human beings and the ecosystem are ruthlessly turned into commodities to exploit until exhaustion or collapse. And we wanted to expose as impotent the formal liberal and governmental institutions that once made reform possible, institutions no longer equipped with enough authority to check the assault of corporate power.

What has taken place in these sacrifice zones—in postindustrial cities such as Camden, N.J., and Detroit, in coalfields of southern West Virginia where mining companies blast off mountaintops, in Indian reservations where the demented project of limitless economic expansion and exploitation worked some of its earliest evil, and in produce fields where laborers often endure conditions that replicate slavery—is now happening to much of the rest of the country. These sacrifice zones succumbed first. You and I are next.

Corporations write our legislation. They control our systems of information. They manage the political theater of electoral politics and impose our educational curriculum. They have turned the judiciary into one of their wholly owned subsidiaries. They have decimated labor unions and other independent mass organizations, as well as having bought off the Democratic Party, which once defended the rights of workers. With the evisceration of piecemeal and incremental reform—the primary role of liberal, democratic institutions—we are left defenseless against corporate power.

– More…

TransPacific Partnership Will Undermine Democracy, Empower Transnational Corporations

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

– I’ve written and displayed articles on this issue before.

– dennis

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Our country’s democratic values could be under threat if President Obama fast tracks the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

On critical issues, the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) being negotiated in secret by the Obama administration willundermine democracy in the United States and around the world and further empower transnational corporations. It will circumvent protections for health care, wages, labor rights, consumers’ rights and the environment, and decrease regulation of big finance and risky investment practices.

The only way this treaty, which will be very unpopular with the American people once they are aware of it, can be approved is if the Obama administration avoids the democratic process by using an authority known as “Fast Track,” which limits the constitutional checks and balances of Congress.

If the TPP is approved, the sovereignty of the United States and other member nations will be dissipated by trade tribunals that favor corporate power and force national laws to be subservient to corporate interests.

Circumventing the Checks and Balances of US Democracy

President Nixon first developed the idea of “Fast Track” in 1973 as a way to secure Congressional approval of trade agreements, and it has been a key to passing many unpopular agreements such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and NAFTA. As people have caught on to the offshoring of jobs and other detrimental consequences of these agreements, civil society now understands how important it is to not allow a president to circumvent the democratic role of Congress. Fast Track expired in 2007, so President Obama must have it re-instated in order to pass the TPP. His administration is moving to have Fast Track approved and hopes it will happen by this summer.

Under Fast Track, the president was allowed to negotiate and sign trade agreements with whatever countries the executive branch selected – all before Congress voted on the agreement. Fast Track meant that the Congressional committee processes were circumvented and the executive branch was empowered to write lengthy implementing legislation for each trade pact without Congress. These executive-only authored bills required US law to conform to the trade agreement. For example,Glass-Steagall had to be repealed under President Clinton to conform to the WTO. And, Fast Track empowered the president to submit the executive-branch written bill for a mandatory vote within a set number of days, with all amendments forbidden, normal Senate rules waived, and debate limited in both chambers of Congress. Fast Track clearly undermined democracy.

Indeed, Fast Track turned the US Constitution on its head. Under Article I Section 8, Congress has exclusive authority “to regulate commerce with foreign nations” and to “lay and collect taxes [and] duties.” Under the Constitution, the president is empowered to negotiate treaties, but Congress must vote to approve them. Thus, Fast Track took constitutional power from Congress and prevented the checks and balances needed to prevent an imperial presidency.

For most of the history of the United States, treaties and trade agreements went through the normal congressional process described in the Constitution. Fast Track is a relatively new concept that coincides with an era of increasing presidential power, which includes the power to declare war and to murder US citizens without warning or judicial oversight. If Congress had reviewed agreements such as the WTO and NAFTA beforehand and civil society had been able to participate in a democratic process, would the United States have made the mistake of passing these laws that have so injured our economy and others?

Fast Track is very unpopular, so now President Obama and others who advocate for it do not use the term. Instead they call it by the euphemism “Trade Promotion Authority.” But changing the name does not change what it is – a method of ceding the constitutional power of Congress and undermining the checks and balances built into the constitutional framework.

Congress needs to consider what agreements such as the TPP will do to jobs, trade balances and the environment. Since Nixon, Fast Track has been used by presidents to go way beyond trade and tariffs. These agreements have been used to change US law by establishing “rules related to domestic environmental, health, safety and essential-service regulations, including deregulation of financial services; establishment of immigration policies; creation of limits on local development and land-use policy; extension of domestic patent terms; establishment of new rights and greater protections for foreign investors operating within the United States that extend beyond US law; and even limitation of how domestic procurement dollars may be spent.” Thus, not only has the constitutional power of Congress to regulate commerce with foreign nations been undermined, but a whole host of domestic laws have been rewritten to satisfy international trade.

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‘Monsanto Protection Act’ slips silently through US Congress

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

The future approaching

– This was perhaps for me the last straw with President Obama.   That he signed this bill is unforgivable and deeply inconsistent with the values I’d hoped he represented.

Monsanto represents what is so deeply disquieting about the gathering ascendancy of corporate power and money over governmental processes which are suppose to act in and for the good of a nation’s people.

– dennis

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The US House of Representatives quietly passed a last-minute addition to the Agricultural Appropriations Bill for 2013 last week – including a provision protecting genetically modified seeds from litigation in the face of health risks.

The rider, which is officially known as the Farmer Assurance Provision, has been derided by opponents of biotech lobbying as the “Monsanto Protection Act,” as it would strip federal courts of the authority to immediately halt the planting and sale of genetically modified (GMO) seed crop regardless of any consumer health concerns.

The provision, also decried as a “biotech rider,” should have gone through the Agricultural or Judiciary Committees for review. Instead, no hearings were held, and the piece was evidently unknown to most Democrats (who hold the majority in the Senate) prior to its approval as part of HR 993, the short-term funding bill that was approved to avoid a federal government shutdown.

Senator John Tester (D-MT) proved to be the lone dissenter to the so-called Monsanto Protection Act, though his proposed amendment to strip the rider from the bill was never put to a vote.

As the US legal system functions today, and largely as a result of prior lawsuits, the USDA is required to complete environmental impact statements (EIS) prior to both the planting and sale of GMO crops. The extent and effectiveness to which the USDA exercises this rule is in itself a source of serious dispute.

The reviews have been the focus of heated debate between food safety advocacy groups and the biotech industry in the past. In December of 2009, for example, Food Democracy Now collected signatures during the EIS commenting period in a bid to prevent the approval of Monsanto’s GMO alfalfa, which many feared would contaminate organic feed used by dairy farmers; it was approved regardless.

Previously discovered pathogens in Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn and soy are suspected of causing infertility in livestock and to impact the health of plants.

So, just how much of a victory is this for biotech companies like Monsanto? Critics are thus far alarmed by the very way in which the provision made it through Congress — the rider was introduced anonymously as the larger bill progressed through the Senate Appropriations Committee. Now, groups like the Center for Food Safety are holding Senator Mikulski (D-MD), chairman of that committee, to task and lobbing accusations of a “backroom deal” with the biotech industry.

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Secret “Free Trade” Negotiations Will Gut Regulations, Further Enrich Multinationals and Big Financial Firms

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

– I’ve written before on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which is being negotiated between the United States, New Zealand, Brunei, Australia, Chile, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam, Canada, Mexico and Malaysia.  Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines have also expressed interest in joining.  

– I’ve also written on another agreement that Canada is negotiating, the FIPPA, that is just as toxic to human rights and the ability of the signatory government to legislate freely to protect the health and the rights of their peoples.

– These agreements, largely being drawn up and agreed to in secret, are a reflection of how very deeply the large multinational corporate interests have gotten into the knickers of our governments.

– These agreements do not favor the individual sovereign governments of any of their possible signatories.  The U.S., which is perhaps the largest player in the group, is not much better off that the other countries save for the fact that it is the home ground for many of the large corporate players backing these agreements.  

– But, as you will read, even U.S. Congressmen are complaining about being locked out of the agreements while the representatives of major corporations freely sit in and help shape what’s to be signed.

– Let’s get that straight.  HalliburtonChevronPHRMAComcast, and the Motion Picture Association of America can all see the current texts of the negotiations – and United States Senator Ron Wyden cannot?

– dennis

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It’s a sign of the times that a reputable economist, Dean Baker, can use the word “corruption” in the headline of an article describing two major trade deals under negotiation and no one bats an eye.

By way of background, the Administration is taking the unusual step of trying to negotiate two major trade deals in the same timeframe. Apparently Obama wants to make sure his corporate masters get as many goodies as possible before he leaves office. The Trans-Pacific Partnership and the US-European Union “Free Trade” Agreement are both inaccurately depicted as being helpful to ordinary Americans by virtue of liberalizing trade. Instead, the have perilous little to do with trade. They are both intended to make the world more lucrative for major corporations by weakening regulations and by strengthening intellectual property laws. The TPP has an additional wrinkle of being an “everybody but China” deal, intended to strengthen ties among nations who will then be presumed allies of America in its efforts to contain China. As we indicated via a link to an Asia Times article over the weekend, that’s proving to be a bit fraught as Japan is flexing its muscles militarily and thus less inclined to follow US directives tamely.

One of the most disturbing aspects of both negotiations is that they are being held in secret….secret, that is, if you are anybody other that a big US multinational who has a stake in the outcome.

Baker describes in scathing terms why these types of deals are bad policy:

…these deals are about securing regulatory gains for major corporate interests. In some cases, such as increased patent and copyright protection, these deals are 180 degrees at odds with free trade. They are about increasing protectionist barriers.

All the arguments that trade economists make against tariffs and quotas apply to patent and copyright protection. The main difference is the order of magnitude. Tariffs and quotas might raise the price of various items by 20 or 30 percent. By contrast, patent and copyright protection is likely to raise the price of protected items 2,000 percent or even 20,000 percent above the free market price. Drugs that would sell for a few dollars per prescription in a free market would sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars when the government gives a drug company a patent monopoly…

The idea is that once a deal is completed there will be enormous political pressure for Congress to approve it no matter what it contains….news outlets like the Washington Post will use both their news and opinion sections to bash members of Congress who oppose a deal. They will be endlessly portrayed as ignorant Neanderthals who do not understand economics.

The reality of course is that it is the “free traders” who either do not understand economics or deliberately choose to ignore it. Many of the provisions that we are likely to see in these deals, like stronger patent protections, will slow growth and cost jobs.

These deals will also lead to more upward redistribution of income. The more money that people in the developing world pay to Pfizer for drugs and Microsoft for software, the less money they will pay for the products that we export, as opposed to “intellectual property rights”….

This is yet another case where the government is working for a tiny elite against the interests of the bulk of the population.

If that isn’t bad enough, there’s another side of these planned pacts that is often simply ignored. These “trade” deals are Trojan horses to erode or eliminate national regulations. Baker anticipates that these deals will include sections that would limit government regulation (including at the state and local level) on fracking and could revive much of the internet surveillance that reared its ugly head in the failed SOPA.

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‘This Is Working’: Portugal, 12 Years after Decriminalizing Drugs

Friday, April 12th, 2013

Twelve years ago, Portugal eliminated criminal penalties for drug users. Since then, those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin go unindicted and possession is a misdemeanor on par with illegal parking. Experts are pleased with the results.

Before he got involved in the global war on drugs, João Goulão was a family physician with his own practice in Faro, on Portugal’s Algarve coast. Arriving in his small office in Lisbon, the 58-year-old tosses his jacket aside, leaving his shirt collar crooked. He looks a little tired from the many trips he’s taken lately — the world wants to know exactly how the experiment in Portugal is going. Goulão is no longer able to accept all the invitations he receives. He adds his latest piece of mail to the mountain of papers on his desk.

From this office, where the air conditioning stopped working this morning, Goulão keeps watch over one of the world’s largest experiments in drug policy.

One gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, 25 grams of marijuana leaves or five grams of hashish: These are the drug quantities one can legally purchase and possess in Portugal, carrying them through the streets of Lisbon in a pants pocket, say, without fear of repercussion. MDMA — the active ingredient in ecstasy — and amphetamines — including speed and meth — can also be possessed in amounts up to one gram. That’s roughly enough of each of these drugs to last 10 days.

These are the amounts listed in a table appended to Portugal’s Law 30/2000. Goulão participated in creating this law, which has put his country at the forefront of experimental approaches to drug control. Portugal paved a new path when it decided to decriminalize drugs of all kinds.

“We figured perhaps this way we would be better able get things under control,” Goulão explains. “Criminalization certainly wasn’t working all that well.”

Much the Same as a Parking Violation

As part of its war on drugs, Portugal has stopped prosecuting users. The substances listed in the Law 30/2000 table are still illegal in Portugal — “Otherwise we would have gotten into trouble with the UN,” Goulão explains — but using these drugs is nothing more than a misdemeanor, much the same as a parking violation.

Why set the limits on these drugs at 10 days’ worth of use, though?

“Well, it’s a limit, which by its nature is arbitrary,” Goulão says. Now the head of Portugal’s national anti-drug program and an important figure in Portuguese health policy, he still talks like an easygoing family doctor. Arrayed on Goulão’s windowsill are photographs, including one of him with Richard Branson, the British billionaire and hot air balloon operator. Another shows Goulão with the king of Spain. Both these men have received personal briefings on Portugal’s new drug program from Goulão.

“At the point when we designed the law, we had hardly any data to draw on,” Goulão relates. “We weren’t the least bit certain this would work.”

The question at stake: How can a government keep its citizens from taking dangerous drugs? One way is to crack down on those who provide the drugs — the cartels, the middle men and the street dealers. Another approach is to focus on the customers — arresting them, trying them and imprisoning them. Legal prosecution — as both a control mechanism and a deterrent — is the chosen approach for most governments.

Giving Up on the Idea of a Drug-Free World

“It’s important that we prevent people from buying drugs, and taking drugs, using every method at our disposal,” says Manuel Pinto Coelho, 64, the last great opponent of Goulão’s experiment. Pinto Coelho wants his country to return to normalcy, in the form of the tough war on drugsthat much of the rest of the world conducts.

Pinto Coelho is a doctor too. He has run rehab centers and written books about addiction. Now he’s at odds with former colleagues and with “the system,” as he says.

His greatest concern is that his country has given up on the idea of a drug-free world. How, Pinto Coelho asks, is it possible to keep young people away from drugs, when everyone knows exactly how many pills can legally be carried around? He still believes deterrents are the best form of prevention and that cold turkey withdrawal is the best treatment method. He is also fighting the extensive methadone program Portugal began as part of its drug policy reform, which now provides tens of thousands of heroin addicts with this substitute drug.

These days, Pinto Coelho earns his living running diet clinics, but he spends his evenings writing letters and drafting presentations on his country’s “absurd drug experiment.” He travels to symposiums to warn the rest of the world of its dangers. At home in Portugal, his critical perspective has made him an outsider, but he says he’s been well received abroad. As if offering proof, he shows a fact sheet issued by the United States Office of National Drug Control Policy, a brief and skeptically worded report on the Portuguese experiment.

The Freedom that Overwhelmed the Country

When João Goulão wants to explain why it is Portugal in particular that came up with the idea to stop prosecuting drug users, he starts with the country’s Carnation Revolution.

In 1974, Portugal broke free from nearly 50 years of military dictatorship, a political shift symbolized by the carnations soldiers stuck in the muzzles of their rifles.”Suddenly, the drugs were there,” Goulão says, as Portuguese returning from the country’s overseas colonies brought marijuana with them. Goulão, too, says he smoked pot back then. He was in his early twenties and “drugs promised us freedom.”

But it was a freedom that soon overwhelmed the country. When Goulão established his doctor’s practice in Faro, he soon found himself approached by parents whose children were no longer just smoking joints, but had moved on to heroin. Sometimes the children came to him as well, and Goulão had no idea how to treat them. When the first state-run rehab clinic opened in Lisbon, Goulão attended a training course there.

At that point, he says, the heroin epidemic was just beginning.

In the 1980s, cheap heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan began flooding Europe. Portugal was not the only country affected, but Goulão says his nation was hit particularly hard, because people here had little idea how to handle drugs. “We were naïve,” he says.

The number of people taking illegal drugs in Portugal was low compared with other countries, but of those who did consume drugs, an unusually high number of them fell into the category that specialists in this field refer to as “problem drug users.”

From the pile of papers on his desk, Goulão unearths a copy of a speech he recently gave in Paris. Flipping through it, he finds the figure he’s looking for: 100,000. This is the number of severely drug-addicted people in Portugal at the height of the epidemic, in the mid-1990s. Portugal’s total population at the time was just under 10 million. The number of drug addicts who became infected with HIV was also considerably higher than in most other countries.

A drug slum formed in Lisbon, at the edge of a neighborhood known as Casal Ventoso. Here junkies slept in shacks or in the garbage, in extremely poor conditions. “They shot up on the street, and they died on the street,” Goulão says. Anyone in Portugal could observe this phenomenon — on TV, in newspaper pictures or even from the nearby highway.

– More…

– See also this story:  

 

Secret Files Expose Offshore’s Global Impact

Friday, April 12th, 2013

– This story is going to have legs for a long time, folks.  High net worth individuals and politicos all over the globe must be crapping themselves wondering what’s going to come out of this story.

– All us small folk are paying higher and higher taxes while the disparity between the rich and poor grows wider and wider and the folks on the top are clearly not paying their share.  They are, in fact, working very hard to pay little or nothing.

– Corporations and the rich are gaming the situation to push the tax burdens down on the middle classes and that’s one of the reasons why the middle classes are beginning to look like an endangered species.

– This can only go so far and there will be a backlash.   This, if carried far enough, is the stuff revolutions are made of.

– dennis

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Dozens of journalists sifted through millions of leaked records and thousands of names to produce ICIJ’s investigation into offshore secrecy ­

A cache of 2.5 million files has cracked open the secrets of more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts, exposing hidden dealings of politicians, con men and the mega-rich the world over.

The secret records obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists lay bare the names behind covert companies and private trusts in the British Virgin Islands, the Cook Islands and other offshore hideaways.

They include American doctors and dentists and middle-class Greek villagers as well as families and associates of long-time despots, Wall Street swindlers, Eastern European and Indonesian billionaires, Russian corporate executives, international arms dealers and a sham-director-fronted company that the European Union has labeled as a cog in Iran’s nuclear-development program.

The leaked files provide facts and figures — cash transfers, incorporation dates, links between companies and individuals — that illustrate how offshore financial secrecy has spread aggressively around the globe, allowing the wealthy and the well-connected to dodge taxes and fueling corruption and economic woes in rich and poor nations alike.

The records detail the offshore holdings of people and companies in more than 170 countries and territories.

The hoard of documents represents the biggest stockpile of inside information about the offshore system ever obtained by a media organization. The total size of the files, measured in gigabytes, is more than 160 times larger than the leak of U.S. State Department documents by Wikileaks in 2010.

– More…

 – Later breaking stories on this subject…

Ottawa weighing plans for bank failures

Friday, April 12th, 2013

– Cyprus and the government’s actions there to seize depositor funds to rescue a failing economy and its banks wasn’t a one-off.  

– This same plan is wending it way through the parliament here in New Zealand under the guidance of the conservative National Government.  And, just as in the article, below, about Canada’s movements in the direction, the New Zealand government is doing their very best to deflect any and all questions about whether or not money would or would not be taken from depositor accounts of a bank to cover the shortfalls if that bank failed.  

– No one in New Zealand has explained why the bank’s officers should not first be stripped of all their assets before anyone should think of going after the bank’s depositors.  

– And no one has explained why, if it is the government’s rightful roll to regulate banks to prevent such things, why the government should not be culpable and why, if they were, they should not spread the burden of their malfeasance across the entire tax-payer base of the country to more fairly spread the load.

– And finally no one has explained why of these three; the bank’s officers, the government and the bank’s depositors, why the depositors (who would would obviously know the least about the bank’s stability) should be the ones tasked with paying the penalty for a bank’s failure.

– Yes, God damn it, the people DO want to know the answers to these questions.

– dennis

Canadian Federal government looking at ‘Cyprus solution’

Buried deep in last month’s federal budget is an ambiguously worded section that has roiled parts of the financial world but has so far been largely ignored by the mainstream media.

It boils down to this: Ottawa is contemplating the possibility of a Canadian bank failure — and the same sort of pitiless prescription that was just imposed in Cyprus.

Meaning no bailout by taxpayers, but rather a “bail-in” that would force the bank’s creditors to absorb the staggering losses that such an event would inevitably entail.

If that sounds sobering, it should. While officials in Ottawa are playing down the possibility of a raid on the bank accounts of ordinary Canadians, they chose not to include that guarantee in the budget language.

Canadians tend to believe their banks are safer and more backstopped than elsewhere in the world. The federal government enthusiastically promotes the notion, and loves to take credit for it.

It may well be true, even if Canada’s six-bank oligopoly isn’t terribly competitive, at least in comparison to the far more diverse American banking universe.

But in the ever-more insecure world that has unfolded since the financial meltdown of 2008, it is also increasingly clear that nothing is safe anymore, not even blue-chip bank stocks and bonds or even, in the case of the Cyprus bail-in, private bank accounts.

And now, Canada is making a bail-in official government policy, too.

“The government proposes to implement a bail-in regime … designed to ensure that, in the unlikely event that a systemically important bank depletes its capital, the bank can be recapitalized and returned to viability,” says Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s March 21 budget, on page 144.

That would be done, the document says, through the rapid conversion of “certain bank liabilities.”

Ottawa’s budget document leaves the definition of “certain liabilities” to the reader’s imagination.

Bank deposits?

There has been very little public debate about the plan to date, but Finance Department officials and the banks protest it should never be taken to mean small personal deposits would be seized.

Deposits are insured by the Canadian Deposit Insurance Corporation, up to $100,000, and the inviolability of that insurance is key to maintaining the crucial public trust.

“The risk of the Canadian government not honouring its insurance on deposits is as close to zero as you can get,” says Craig Alexander, chief economist at TD Canada Trust.

Perhaps.

As the Cyprus meltdown proceeded, it became clear that Europe’s finance ministers and central banks, encouraged by the International Monetary Fund, were not only willing to freeze and seize uninsured deposits over 100,000 euros, they were also initially willing to cancel deposit insurance and go after small depositors, too.

In the end, the plan was rewritten, and insured deposits were protected. But the signal had been sent: The Europeans and the IMF had been prepared to do the unthinkable.

Holland’s finance minister then declared that bail-ins would be the template for all future bank rescues in Europe, and that he could not rule out seizure of deposits elsewhere.

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