Thursday, June 19, 2008

Green Shift part II

I don't want anyone to imagine by my last posting that, because I criticized the Liberal Green Shift plan, I in any way agree with the Conservatives on this issue. The conservative attitude is to simply ignore the problem, give tax breaks to the rich and keep saying in the media that their plan is working even when they have no plan. I think besides providing positive incentives for people to go green, and taking an active part in developing new technologies outside of the so-called free market, the government needs to make radical new regulations on corporations like car makers. Tell Ford and GM for example that they need to have all new vehicles get 80 or 100 miles to the gallon in 5 years and that half the vehicles they produce or import have to be electric or hydrogen. They will complain and finally admit to us that they have no ability to innovate but they will get on with it if they have to. We also need absolute caps on emissions from industry. I think regulation and caps are the flip side of positive incentives. Nathan Cullen is correct when he says without absolute caps any green plan is just a shell game.

The irony of the whole think is that Harper attacks Dion's plans suggesting that they can never be revenue neutral, yet his shift in taxes just favours the corporations and the rich. Maybe the Liberal plan cannot be revenue neutral but the Conservatives have given so many tax breaks to the wealthy and they have undermined government revenue so badly that now that a recession is coming they are helpless to stop it. Herbert Hoover would be proud!

Liberal 'Green Shift'

Ok, now that Dion has outlined his so-called ‘Green Shift’ I can admit there is something very fundamental that I just don’t understand. First of all I don’t really believe that it could be revenue neutral because the rich always seem to fair better in any tax change, and tax credits for rural and low-income Canadians won’t really make the difference. But let’s just say, for the moment, that it could. Here is the problem I just don’t get; if the objective is to reduce carbon usage by taxing carbon usage what happens if it works and people and corporations reduce en masse the amount of carbon they consume. Won’t this mean a sudden and radical reduction in Government revenue? And if this is true, won’t the government have to go right back and increase the very tax breaks they bring in with the ‘Green Shift’? I think there are other problems with such a plan and I think negative incentives are never as effective as positive ones. Take, for example, the recent rise in gas prices; are they really causing significant reductions in overall gas usage? And even if they are, they reduce recreational usage such as vacation trips which in turn hurts other parts of the economy. I believe the only real way forward is a massive ‘positive’ shift in incentives including radical and direct government investment in new technologies and huge tax breaks and credits on purchasing green appliances, cars, furnaces etc. But even if the Liberal ‘Green Shift,’ which relies on negative incentives were to works over a long period of time, there will have to be a constant shift in the bureaucracy to compensate for the reduction in revenue that obtains from the reduction in usage. It just seems a little bit backward to me. And, by the way, this is the main reason I have no faith in the Green Party of Canada; almost of its proposals involve radically negative incentives, and despite prevailing wisdom, I don’t think they are nearly as effective as positive ones.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


It always makes me laugh when someone, usually a Tory, appeal to the so-called ‘free-market.’ There is no challenge or problem faced by society for which someone won’t offer the market as a solution. From health-care to endangered animals, some people think the market will solve all the problems; or at least that is what they say. The problem is that for all the talk, virtually no one really believes in a free market. Modern society is more heavily regulated than any in history and in the case of most of these regulations even the most ardent Tory or free-marketer are not willing to dispense with them. For example, when people talk about the market as a way of solving health-care issues, what they really mean is that we should create a situation in which large multi-national corporations can make more money out of the people’s illnesses and suffering. When was the last time you heard some free-marketer suggest that anyone should be able to offer their services as a doctor or sell home-made drugs to treat illness? Never, I am willing to wager. This is because no one really believes in a free-market; period. Every part of capitalist exchange in our society is heavily regulated and very few people would have it otherwise. Anyone who has tried to start a small business knows first-hand just how regulated things really are. Regulations determine what you can sell, where you can sell, how you can advertise what you can sell, etc. In fact, our so-called markets are so thoroughly regulated and controlled that I wager that Adam Smith would not even recognize our mode of production and distribution as free-market at all. It has been a while since I read the Wealth of Nations but I do recall that Smith was careful to distinguish between the ‘market’ and ‘capitalism.’ The market is a place where we exchange goods and services, but capitalism is a mode of production that is nationally based and one that the state helps to maintain in the national interest. (I think most people, including free-marketers would be surprised to realize the degree to which Smith embraced 19th century nationalism)

Now, I am not saying this to suggest that I object to regulations of markets, far from it. I mention it because once you start paying attention and realize that these free-marketers don’t really believe in free-markets at all, you are suddenly struck by the question; “what are these people really going on about then?” Well, if you take a close look at the economy in which we live, it doesn’t take much analysis to understand what is going on. Tories and ‘free-marketers’ drag out their inane, tired arguments about the market whenever they see an opportunity for big capital to make more money, or see a threat against big capital continuing to ensure their profits. And when you see the sorts of people who are involved in many Western governments, and you see the ties they have to oil companies, mineral companies, pharmaceuticals, developers, etc., the issue becomes frighteningly clear. In recent years these relations have, in many cases become embarrassingly obvious. Bush’s ties to big oil and the Saudi Royal family, and Dick Cheney’s connection to Haliburton are only the most public examples. And it is this connection between so-called free-market governments and big business that makes the whole thing seem to be a tragic-comedy. Because parties like the Conservatives in Canada, the Tories in Britain, and the Republicans in the US, almost never make significant changes in the market that benefit small business people, yet these are consistently the core of their support. There is a mass-hallucination in Western society that causes people to suffer from the delusion that Right-wing governments are ‘fiscally responsible’ and in favour of free-markets. And our hallucinations are constantly fed by media sources that help to perpetrate them. These illusions are closely tied to another prevailing unquestionably accepted notion in modern Capitalism, to wit: that private corporations can do anything that governments do, only more efficiently. The prevailing acceptance of this idea is confirmation of the adage; ‘tell a lie often enough and people will believe it.

I remember seeing Noam Chomsky asked in an interview if he thought there were any real alternatives to a ‘free-market’ system, and he replied , “Yes, the system we have now.” The fact is that we already live in a system that has little to do with the ‘free-market.’ Thus socialist alternatives are not really radical ideas to pursue within the confines of our current mode of production and distribution.

So next time some Tory of free-marketer appeal to some principle of the free-market, just laugh in their face because they are only interested in market driven solutions when the price of access to that market is substantial enough that average people have no chance of actually benefiting from it.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

On Scholarly Honesty

Essay iv of Coleridge’s The Friend concludes with a – word sentence that is remarkable in its form as well as content. Wordsworth was known to have admired this particular sentence for its ‘architecture’ and was said to have been cited by a statesman, perhaps George Canning. It is a sentence from which we can learn both grammatically and ethically. And although Coleridge did not always live up to it himself, it is a welcome recommendation. The sentence addresses the question of intellectual integrity in the process of scholarship. Coleridge writes;

“As long therefore as I obtrude no unsupported assertions on my Readers; and as long as I state my opinions and the evidence which induced or compelled me to adopt them, with calmness and that diffidence in myself, which is by no means incompatible with a firm belief in the justness of the opinions themselves; wile I attack no man’s private life from any cause, and detract from no man’s honors in his public character, from the truth of his doctrines, or the merits of his compositions, without detailing all my reasons and resting the result solely on the arguments adduced; while I moreover explain fully the motives of duty, which influenced me in resolving to institute such investigations; while I confine all asperity of censure, and all expressions of contempt, to gross violations of truth, honor, and decency, to the base corrupter and the detected slanderer; while I write on no subject which I have not studied with my best attention, on no subject which my education and acquirements have incapacitated me from properly understanding; and above all while I approve myself, alike in praise and blame, in close reasoning and in impassioned declamation, a steady FRIEND to the two best and surest friends of all men, TRUTH and HONESTY; I will not fear an accusation of either Presumption of Arrogance from the good and the wise, I shall pity it from the weak, and despise it from the wicked.”

Friday, June 13, 2008

Supreme Court just pulls it out.

We should all be happy that the US Supreme Court finally made it clear yesterday that the Constitution must be upheld and that the Bush regime cannot simply place some people outside of the reach of the courts and basic human rights. But even though we should be relieved, we should not be complacent. The Supreme Court decision was by no means unanimous and Justice Scalia wrote a shocking dissenting opinion which further tried to fire the flames of fear, a strategy which Bush and his cronies have relied on to dismantle the Constitution. What we should find frightening is the fact that the Supreme Court only defended the Constitution by the skin of its teeth.

This should remind us in Canada that we have a government that models itself on the Bush Regime and would emulate it in any way that it is able to. Stephen Harper never tires of condemning so-called ‘legislation from the bench’ and would love to curtail the powers of the courts to defend us from the arbitrary power of his tyrannical government. The US Supreme Court has barely been able to prevent the United States from falling into what is essentially a kind of neo-fascism in which people can no longer rely on the fact that they are free of arbitrary search, seizure, incarceration, and even torture. And even though Harper, like Bush, is happy to use to the courts to his advantage wherever possible, he instantly condemns courts whenever they make decisions that contradict his Machiavellian plans. The Harper government has shown time and again that it has nothing but contempt for democratic processes and for the sovereignty of the courts and Parliament. It should be clear to anyone that is paying attention that if he could possibly suspend the power of Parliament and the courts he certainly would. Harper would relish in absolute power, and the people who would suffer under his yoke would be the poor, the physically and mentally challenged, visible minorities, gay and lesbian people; essentially anyone who does not fit into his crypto-fascist, big-business capitalist agenda.

I am glad that the US Supreme Court has been able to uphold, for the time being, the rule of law and the Constitution. But we must not be complacent because Neo-Conservatives everywhere are chipping away at our rights and, given time, they could take control of the courts and ensure that we have no defence against the arbitrary exercise of government power.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Coleridge, Plagiarism, and Authorship

"A mixture of lies doth ever add pleasure." -Coleridge, "The Friend" essay 1

I have been reading a great deal lately about Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English Romantic poet a philosopher. Coleridge was a remarkably interesting man and not only changed the course of English poetry but had an important influence on literary theory and indirectly on philosophy. There is a great deal of controversy concerning Coleridge’s alleged plagiarism, particularly of various passages of German idealist philosophy. In the 1970s Norman Furman wrote an exhaustive text on this subject entitled Coleridge: Damaged Archangel, a phrase that he took from the great essayist Charles Lamb who was a friend of Coleridge. Personally, despite all the work that Furman put into his book which runs to some 500 pages, I believe that the majority of Coleridge’s plagiarism can be put down to a combination of his opium use, a rather disorganized and muddled mind, and simple scholarly carelessness. I say this because Coleridge’s brilliance is something agreed upon by supporters and detractors alike, and his direct plagiarism is often surrounded by sophisticated and ground-breaking analysis and summery that, if it were just properly foot-noted would, on its own, constitute important and original work. He had, therefore, little to gain by lucid and conscious plagiarism of the work of German philosophers that he had a more thorough knowledge of than any other thinker in England at the time.

Another interesting issue in the literary biography of Coleridge is his habit of changing the dates of certain poems or even fabricating stories surrounding the writing of certain work. The most famous example of this is the story he told about the creation of his renowned poem Kubla Khan, which he claimed was revealed to him all at once in a opium induced sleep. Upon being interrupted by a mysterious person from Porlock, Coleridge claims that he lost his connection to this nether world and was unable to complete the poem which ever remained a fragment.
What I find most interesting about both these issues is not the hard facts about the degree to which Coleridge’s plagiarism was conscious or not, nor whether or not some of Coleridge’s greatest poems were really written under the influence or drugs or not. In the end these are issues that probably cannot be settled anyway and what matters more than the facts is the way you choose to look at the life and work of this remarkable man. What all of these issues really point to is the degree to which the facts of ‘authorship’ are really slippery and shadowy issues that seem, at first glance, clear and orderable, but on closer examination are not clear at all.

This idea got me thinking about the concept in literary theory referred to as the ‘intentional fallacy.’ This concept, first used in the forties by Wimsatt and Beardsley, can basically be summed up in the idea that the intention of the author doesn’t really matter when it comes to analysing and understanding a work of art or literature. Over the years this idea gained ever-increasing currency and today, in the atmosphere of post-modernism and deconstruction it is taken as read that an author’s intent is largely irrelevant to a work of literature. Putting together the idea slippery status of authorship as raised by the issues surrounding Coleridge’s work with the notion off the intentional fallacy, I began to think about the creation of a new, more radical concept which we could refer to as the ‘Authorial Fallacy.’ This idea would help to remind us that originality and authorship is never really a clear cut issue and that, despite the current obsession of academic authorities with plagiarism, the lines of authorship constantly blur.

This blurry world of authorship is in large part what makes Samuel Coleridge such an interesting and challenging writer; he created not only stories and ideas but stories about stories and ideas about ideas. Where reality fiction begins and reality ends is never clear and the lines of ‘truth’ are constantly shifting. This is also what might make Coleridge one of the great precursors to post-modern thought.

The great French writer, Lautremont (himself a precursor to the Surrealists) once said; “Plagiarism is necessary; the world demands it!” I wonder when we will catch up to this strange and enigmatic 19th century thinker?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Human Rights and Macleans Magazine

Recently Macleans Magazine, I believe the largest circulating Canadian news magazine, has been taken before the Human Rights Tribunal in British Columbia for a series of articles that they published regarding Islam. These articles, some of which I have read, are, even for a non-Muslim with no particular sympathies for any part of the religion, deeply offensive. But what is even more offensive is Macleans response to the process of the tribunal itself. One of the loudest voices in Macleans' response to the tribunual can be heard in the blogs by Mr. Andrew Coyne on the Macleans web site. Now, putting aside the generally offensive smug and glib manner expressed in Mr. Coyne’s blog, I find his general defence of Maclean’s startlingly simplistic and deeply naïve. As voiced on Sounds Like Canada (on CBC 1 this morning) Mr. Coyne’s defence (and by association I assume Macleans defence) to this Human Rights issue is this: (And I am paraphrasing) “This is a freedom of speech issue that has no place in front of the Human Rights Tribunal. The Proper thing to do for those offended by these articles is to reply in the public arena, in print and on television etc.”

At first glance this defence sounds great and I am sure that right wing radio talk shows across the country will eat this up. But it fails to take into consideration the central core of the issue at stake; the power to control public discourse and, by association, public impressions and opinions. Imagine, if you will, that the New York Times chose a man at random who lived in an apartment on Flatbush Avenue in the Village, and they began to publish a series of articles berating this man as a bad father, an unfaithful husband, and grossly inefficient in his job. Now imagine when this man complained to the paper its response was, “Well take it to the court of public opinion. Let’s have a public debate in the media.” Obviously given the inequality of power to absorb public attention and control public discourse, this would be an unreasonable response from the Times.

A similar situation obtains here. If Macleans magazine has the largest circulation of any news magazine in Canada and is the organ of a large media conglomerate, it has an excessive degree of power in the field of public discourse. (And of course anyone who is paying attention knows that this uneven distribution of discursive authority is one of the fundamental problems with modern democracy and capitalism.) If Macleans utilizes this power to unfairly characterize a minority group, a community that is already marginalized and has relatively little access to the power of public discourse, and if some of these characterizations are provocative, even inflammatory, then this is clearly an issue that must be addressed. And in the absence of any private or public media that might match Macleans for popularity or profile, it is perfectly reasonable for the state to play a role in the issue. The response of Mr. Coyne and Macleans is typical of a person or organization that is accustom to exercising its power indiscriminately. They are incredulous that they can be forced into a public arena where there exists a necessary, systemic, and protected equality of discourse. They are, after all, used to saying what they want against people and groups that have little ability to respond with commensurate power in the public arena.

People who think such issues are just about freedom of speech simply don’t comprehend, or are not willing to address, the systemic imbalances of power that exist in media controlled public discourse.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Obama and Change

It is no coincidence that the first policy speech that Obama choose to made after clinching the Democratic Party nomination was to the Israeli lobby to assure them that he would be a good friend of Israel. It makes you wonder how much “Change” we can hope to get from any American politician. And this is no small matter, because of the major problems facing the United States, the blind support for Israel is surely one of the largest. The inability of U.S. politicians to see Israel as the militaristic expansionist state that it is makes it impossible for the U.S. to genuinely pursue peace and create a healthy relationship with people not only in the Middle East but all over the globe. Until the U.S. faces up to the fact that Israel is not some poor, isolated, weak victim of foreign aggression, but is an expansionist state with one of the most powerful militaries in the world that blatantly flouts UN directives and has slowly but intentionally chipped away at Palestinian lands with the clear intention of eventually taking most, if not all, of the Occupied territory for itself, then the US will continue to face aggression from all corners of the world. Everyone knows the way to peace. Israel must pull back to the original UN boarders and properly deal with the right of return. The West must also take an active role in establishing a viable state for Palestinians in those boarders in much the same way that it did when it established the economic viability of Israel. It is no more complicated than that. But the US (and, by the way, the Harper Government) will not face up to this simple truth that the vast majority of the world’s population takes for granted. And for all his talk of change, Mr. Obama is part of this collective blindness.