Archive for the Blog Category

2017: THE SUMMER OF SAM (Serious Adaptation Motivation)

September 2017


1977 is remembered as the “Summer of Sam”.  North America was fixated on eight shootings in the Bronx that were eventually linked to serial killer David Berkowitz.  In a number of taunting notes to the police and media, Berkowitz called himself “Son of Sam”, Sam being a reference to the owner of a neighbour’s dog whose incessant barking, Berkowitz alleged, ordered him to kill.  Forty years later, we find ourselves at the still-raging tail of another Summer of SAM, with the barking dog of climate crisis taunting us to action.

Notwithstanding the occasional editorial blather to the contrary (and with some notable orange-haired exceptions), the world seems to have achieved a consensus with respect to two important conclusions relating to environmental policy:

  1. The climate is changing; and
  2. Given that it is changing in ways that are largely consistent with what would be expected from rising atmospheric CO2 levels, human activity is a significant contributing factor to that change.

What has proven more challenging in the environmental policy arena is the question of what to do in the face of this consensus.  Well-reasoned arguments can be and have been made that the transformation away from carbon-based energy sources need not be overall damaging to the global economy, but it is also readily apparent that such a transformation will inevitably effect a reallocation of relative wealth between geographies and industries.  This presents a daunting political challenge.  Even individuals as progressive-minded as Rachel Notley and Justin Trudeau know that a policy approach mandating that Alberta’s bitumen must stay in the ground is a non-starter.  All top-down approaches to environmental transformation face the same challenge.

It is not unlike the conundrum the world finds itself in with respect to free trade policies.  The fact that a solution may be demonstrably the right one globally is cold comfort to those jurisdictions and individuals whose local industry relocates in the resulting economic transformation.  The result has been a policy paralysis.  The weather has become like…the weather; everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it.  But there is hope that the summer of 2017 has finally moved us onto a more urgent discussion than simply one about weather.

Record heat waves and unprecedented and recurrent floods, hurricanes and wildfires have cost too many lives, disrupted hundreds of thousands more and cost a lot of money.  No single contributing weather event can be linked to climate change; it is, after all, an insidious malevolence, not a sudden insurgent.  But that debate need not be had.  Whether you want to cite global warming, or simply a combination of increased density, more intensive human habitation, inadequate infrastructure or poorly managed industrial and/or development policies, there is no question that these environmental phenomena are occurring in a manner and frequency that are causing more human and economic loss than ever before.  At the very least, every level of government everywhere in the world must concede that adaptation to reduce this carnage is urgent.

Equatorial countries need to invest in cooling centres; flood plains need to be reinforced or evacuated, building resilience, storm drainage and tidal surge barriers in coastal cities need to be improved, forest management policies throughout the world need to be rethought to create barriers to control the spread of wildfires.  This will require massive capital investments.  In Western nations, the role that infrastructure spending can have in re-energizing economic growth and addressing the job losses that have occurred from the globalization of traditional manufacturing have been acknowledged by all.  For those countries of lesser means and greater need of adaptation, nothing less than an adaptation Marshall Plan is called for, except that this one need not, cannot and should not be borne by the US alone.  Regional economic players in Asia, Europe and even the Middle East should shoulder their share of this opportunity.  Yes, you read that right; opportunity.  If you recall the Marshall Plan did not turn out to be losing economic policy for post-WWII America.

Conceding that adaptation is the only public policy approach to the challenge of climate change is not to forego hope of ever remediating the underlying cause of a warming world.  The transformation away from carbon fuels was never going to the product of government policy.  The most dire global impacts of climate change are too long term and the unsettling impacts of forced transformation too sudden to ever find political support.  The technology that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be driven by its immediate and long term commercial value, and will be imposed upon the world by the superiority of its economics.  There will of course be winners and losers in that transformation as well, but no one will have had to vote for their economic displacement or that of their neighbours.

In the meantime, it is time for policymakers to turn to the adaptive solutions to the immediate climate challenges as their first priority.  SAM’s dog is barking, and this time we would be wise to listen and act.


August 2017

It goes without saying that, like any reasonable observer of politics and public spectacle, I find Donald Trump the most exasperating figure of our time.  There have been more vile and destructive political actors – Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, just to name a few – but there has never been anyone so banal and ineffective in his misguided bombast and policy actions that you find yourself more exasperated than horrified.  And there is nothing more exasperating than his ability to periodically mindlessly stumble upon nuggets of relevance that give him a thin veneer of credibility.

In my blog post of October 2016, I talked about the fact that Trump’s inarticulate campaign pandering to working class Americans touched upon a reality of globalisation that has never been clearly acknowledged by any politician or party, which is that, although globalisation has truly raised all boats, the boats raised most dramatically have been those of Western capitalists and the working class in emerging markets and the boats raised only modestly have been those of the working class in the West.  While the policy prescriptions offered by Trump to address that reality – border walls, Muslim bans, protectionist trade policies – were both facile and dangerous, the absence of at least an acknowledgement of that reality and a vague commitment to address it by the Democrats left enough thoughtful Americans with a justification to hold their nose and join with the Trump base of xenophobes and malcontents to hand the White House to Mr. Trump.

And now eight months into a sideshow of a presidential administration, The Donald has predictably found himself trapped between the minimum requirements of decency and his commitment to his base.  His equivocation in condemning the clearly racist motives, words and actions of the most visible and audible of the Charlottesville protestors should leave little room for Trump to retain that small but critical contingent of thoughtful Americans who have been to this point remained willing to assume that perhaps some good could still be gleaned from this populist experiment.  I say should only because Mr. Trump’s rambling justification for his inappropriately weak response to unalloyed racism included a reference to an issue upon which there is not yet a clear policy answer and upon which those inclined to impute wisdom to his stream of consciousness pronouncements will undoubtedly yet again find reassurance.

You will recall that Charlottesville was not chosen as the venue for the gathering of the cream of the far right because of the citizens’ affinity for such ideology.  In fact, as the home of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville is by the standards of the still conservative south a haven for progressive thought.  In fact, it was that progressive thought that had moved its citizenry to propose the removal of a large statue honouring Robert E. Lee, the Civil War General who is arguably the most revered hero of the Confederacy.  It is of course difficult to square the clarion call of this issue to the placards and chants of the assembled celebrants, given that General Lee is not particularly remembered for his anti-Semitism.  Nonetheless, it is entirely plausible that some of those gathered in Charlottesville did so primarily to express opposition to this proposal.  And those that did can point to a question on which reasonable men can differ, and by raising the point even inarticulately in his response to the calls for unequivocal denunciation, it is exasperatingly possible that Donald Trump may yet again in some people’s eyes prove himself a reasonable man.

As Canadians, we are more than amused spectators to this display of political and social polarization.  We have our own version of this very question as it relates to the commemoration of our own political heroes who can be held to various degrees to have been complicit in the creation and implementation of policies that contributed to the cultural and economic impoverishment of our First Nations people.  What are the rules?  How do we honour the edifying aspects of our history while reconciling those aspects of that history that are in the context of the more enlightened thought of today morally repugnant?  It is indeed a thorny and important issue.

First off, it is important to recognize that this is not a problem that is relevant only to the reconciliation of those in the US that were brutalized by the institution of slavery or those in Canada who were stripped of their self-worth and family supports by residential schools and discriminatory social and economic policies.  The arc of history is happily haltingly but inexorably progressive, and there should be little doubt that future generations will find in our society and our leaders doctrines and actions that are inexcusably immoral in the context of the more enlightened world of tomorrow.

All of us can only be judged in the context of the times in which we lived.  As The Donald himself reminded his critics, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveowners.  Should their portraits be removed from the White House, their Memorials on the National Mall bulldozed?  Should the US capital itself be renamed?  Even Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, harboured reservations with respect to the capacity and potential of the Black population that would be viewed as entirely unacceptable given what we know to be true today.

So how do we honour such imperfect historical figures?  Should we honour them at all?  The answer must lie in our judgment of them in the context of their own time.  Individuals that were on the trailing edge of a progressive notion by the standards of their own time should not be honoured, even where their service in the resistance to that progressive notion or in the advancement of any other progressive notion was significant, honourable and meritorious.  Hitler does not get a pass on genocide for making the trains run on time.

On this standard, no leader of the Confederacy can be honoured, as the very nature of the endeavour in which they attained their notoriety was in resistance to a progressive cause.  Washington and Jefferson served critical roles in the advancement of democratic government in North America.  Their failure to address the evils of slavery should not be ignored, but should be included as context in understanding the limitations of their vision not as a reason to disregard their contributions.

In the Canadian context, the standard should be the same.  Edward Cornwallis, Hector-Louis Langevin and Sir John A. Macdonald himself should each be judged in the context of his time.  If all or any of them can be fairly said to have been behind their time in terms of their views of Canada’s First Nations people, then their efforts and contributions as nation builders should not rescue their legacy.  But if they can be fairly judged to have made their contributions with the same colonial view of Canada’s First Nations people that prevailed generally at the time, their failure to be progressive leaders in this area should not overwhelm their contributions to the construction of the Canadian democracy.  That blind spot should, however, be acknowledged as part of the presentation of their legacy.

So what do we do with the statues of men (and perhaps women) who fail to meet that standard?  They should be removed, and perhaps relocated to a museum of reconciliation that examines and explains their inglorious role in the hopefully affirming resolution of an historical injustice.  And standing in their place should be new memorials to men and women who have served in the advancement of the cause against which the earlier honourees fought in vain.


July 2017

As appears to be the case for many Canadians (and perhaps most, if reported polling is to be believed), the settlement of the Charter case brought by Omar Khadr has left me deeply disappointed.  However, in my case that disappointment lies not in the substance of that settlement but in the inability and/or unwillingness of the government to acknowledge the complexities that make it so divisive.

To liberals (but apparently not all Liberals), the calculus is simple: the Supreme Court has ruled that Mr. Khadr’s Charter rights were breached in Canada’s explicit endorsement of his continuing incarceration in and mistreatment at Guantanamo Bay.  With this finding, a ruling favourable to the plaintiff in the civil action brought by Mr. Khadr was a certainty.  The appropriate range for the award of damages had been established by the earlier settlement with Maher Arar.  Any further litigation in the matter would have only resulted in the incurrence of additional cost to Canadian taxpayers.

Of course, this represents only the legal and rational argument for settlement.  The moral argument, many would argue, is perhaps even more compelling.  By any measure, Omar Khadr was a child soldier, recruited by his own father to serve the jihadist cause of al-Quaeda.  If this same situation had arisen with respect to an African child soldier, we would not hesitate to identify such a child as a victim, irrespective of whatever atrocities (or in this case, basic acts of warfare) that had been committed by the child.  The fact that this child was offered up to such service by his own parent and from the safety and relative comfort of residency in Canada should only intensify our support for a settlement with respect to our government’s complicity in his imprisonment and mistreatment by the Americans.

So if this settlement can be so easily reconciled on legal, rational and moral grounds, surely there can be no room for dissent.  But there is in fact widespread dissent, and it too can be justified on a reasonable moral argument.  Democracies, including liberal democracies, cannot survive solely on the presumption of a unanimous commitment to right wrongs.  There will inevitably be disagreements over which wrongs merit righting, and what and how much need be done to right any such wrongs.

In recognition of the impossibility of unanimity in the full detail our individual moral judgments, we bind ourselves as a nation in a general commitment to moral behaviour and a corresponding general expectation of loyalty to our common welfare.  This type of loyalty is mostly ardently demonstrated in military service, in which citizens commit themselves to act in accordance with the will of the government of the day and not on the basis of their own personal morality.

Those that undertake such exceptional commitments of loyalty do so only in return for a fair wage.  We offer no exceptional reward, and only break with our covenant when we, through negligence or malice, punish those who have offered their loyalty.  Conversely, the freedoms promised to us by the Charter do not allow us to punish those who do not offer their loyalty.  Indeed, every citizen is free to express views that many might view as disloyal.  The only reasonable expectation is that such citizens not be rewarded for such behaviour lest we denigrate the expectation of loyalty that is critical to cohesive nationhood.

Which brings us back to the Khadr settlement.  Mr. Khadr’s loyalty to Canada is irrelevant to his right to the compensation that is the subject of the settlement.  So too is his loyalty to his family.  For the record he has said nothing publicly to suggest he has anything but an appropriate loyalty to both his country and his family, notwithstanding the peril that the latter placed him in and from which the former was reluctant to do much to extricate him.  Just as there were government officials who condoned and participated in the breach of his Charter rights, there were responsible adults within the Khadr family beyond his deceased father who expressly condoned his deployment as a child soldier in a foreign cause.  Furthermore, it is possible and perhaps likely that there remain members of his family who continue to be involved in jihadist activity in places in which Canada and its allies maintain a military presence.

The Canadian government should be obliged to pay Mr. Khadr the amount required to negate the disadvantages to his future earning potential that have resulted from his characterization as a terrorist rather than a cruelly exploited child soldier since it is in that characterization that it has been complicit.

However, to the extent that the settlement received by Omar Khadr exceeds that base amount, there exists a material risk that others in his family will be indirectly rewarded for declining to act in a manner that reflects loyalty to this country or to Mr. Khadr himself.

The settlement extended by the Canadian government is rumoured to be $10.5 million.  If correct, it certainly exceeds the amount required to offset any economic disadvantage that Mr. Khadr is likely to suffer as a consequence of his notoriety.  There are two justifications for this excess that have been suggested.

The most fundamental reason for the $20 million action brought by Mr. Khadr against the Canadian government and the purported $10.5 million settlement amount is the argument that the award must include exemplary and punitive damages that condemn and deter the impugned  behaviour rather than merely compensate the victim.  While this concept make sense in the context of private actors, the immediacy of the deterrence is lost when the defendant is a government.  Punishing current taxpayers for the acts of prior administrations is not likely to directly alter either the behaviour of the  current government nor the future voting behaviour of taxpayers.  Accordingly, the consideration of deterrence in the context of actions such as this seems misplaced

However, even if one nonetheless accepts the notion that exemplary and punitive damages are appropriate in this case, there remains the question of how substantial these damages should be.  In this case it has been suggested that the earlier Arar settlement had established $10.5 million as the benchmark for Charter breaches of this sort.  On this point, there would appear to be a fundamental basis for distinguishing these cases in a fashion that is favourable to the government.  That argument is rooted in the observation that it was the act of the Canadian authorities in identifying Mr. Arar to the Americans that set in motion the events that led to his “extraordinary rendition”  to Syria for detention and torture.  In the Khadr case, Canadian authorities played no role in placing him in Afghanistan nor Guantanamo.  The breach of his Charter rights only arose on the government’s acquiescence in his continued detention and its participation in his interrogation.  This would seem to be reasonable basis for distinguishing the level of exemplary and punitive damages to which Mr. Khadr should be entitled.

Mr. Khadr is owed a settlement, but Canadians are within their right to expect that the settlement be sized or otherwise structured to avoid the likelihood of indirectly benefiting those whose betrayal of both Omar Khadr and any reasonable standard of loyalty to Canada was at least as substantial as the government’s breach of Mr. Khadr’s Charter rights.  By failing to acknowledge the need to reconcile these conflicting obligations, the government has failed to appropriately justify this settlement.