Our oceans need help

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki

david suzuki• It’s been 20 years since Canada’s East Coast cod fishery collapsed and we still have no recovery target or timeline for rebuilding populations. That’s just one finding in a damning report from a panel of eminent Royal Society of Canada marine scientists. “Sustaining Canada’s Marine Biodiversity” notes Canada has “failed to meet most of our national and international commitments to protect marine biodiversity” and “lags behind other modernized nations in almost every aspect of fisheries management.”

For a country surrounded on three sides by oceans, with the longest coastline in the world, that’s shameful. Successive federal governments have failed to recognize our oceans as much more than reservoirs of resources to exploit for short-term gain. You’d think the decline of the Northern cod fishery, largely caused by mismanagement, would have taught us something.

The Royal Society panel focused on climate change, fisheries and aquaculture… The problem, it found, was not an absence of knowledge, science or policy, but rather “a consistent, disheartening lack of action on well-established knowledge and best-practice and policies, some of which have been around for years.”

Although Canada has made an international commitment to establish a protected network covering 10 percent of our ocean territory, it has protected less than one percent.

In fact, the federal government recently rejected millions of dollars in funding for a collaborative effort to establish a marine spatial plan and network of protected areas in Canada’s Pacific North Coast waters. First Nations, industry, government and environmental organizations, including the David Suzuki Foundation, had been making progress on the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area (PNCIMA) for years, but the federal government stymied the process by failing to invest adequate funding and by rejecting support from a philanthropic organization.

Its reason? The government was worried marine protected areas and marine use plans based on ecosystem science might restrict oil tanker traffic. The loss of more than $8 million dollars from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was a blow to the process and the government has not stepped in to make up for the shortfall.

Rather than protect the Pacific’s valuable resources, opportunities, and habitat… it appears the government would rather risk it all by pushing the Northern Gateway pipeline project to ship crude bitumen from the tar sands through precarious Pacific Coast waterways to China and California.

Besides an apparent lack of interest on the part of government regarding the health of Canada’s oceans, the report identifies a major problem that puts us behind most developed nations: a “major conflict of interest at Fisheries and Oceans Canada between its mandate to promote industrial and economic activity and its responsibility for conserving marine life and ocean health.” The panel offered a number of sensible recommendations, which include addressing the conflict of interest and living up to our commitments to marine biodiversity.

Our government is gaining a reputation for ignoring or discounting the advice of scientists. Let’s tell our leaders our future depends on the future of the oceans and this advice must be heeded. The science is clear; it’s time to do more.

Putting the love in revolution

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

 

• On March 17, it will be six months since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street and the subsequent cascade of grassroots occupations that followed across the Western world. Two local filmmakers who have been documenting the Occupy movement – from the Arab Spring, through Zuccotti Park to the Vancouver Art Gallery – are philosopher-filmmaker Velcrow Ripper and Port Moody-based Ian MacKenzie. Their online series of inspirational thought pieces and vignettes captures the diversity and idealism of the Occupy movement in its most intoxicating form. The pieces are just the appetizers for the main course, Occupy Love, which is the third documentary feature in a trilogy. It started with the award-winning Scared Sacred, in which Velcrow Ripper tried to find hope in the ground zeros of the world; subsequently, in Fierce Light he recognized the awesome potency of non-violent protest and Occupy Love, he says, will answer the question “How are the economic and ecological crises we are facing today a great love story?”

The film is due for theatrical release later this year, but the film’s gestation has been a shared social media activity. Occupy Love just raised $53,000 through the crowd-funding website indiegogo.com to help complete the film and its ideas have been seeded in pithy, short videos. Check out Occupy Wall Street – The Revolution Is Love (it’s only five minutes) where MacKenzie melds an articulate monologue by Sacred Economics author Charles Eisenstein with intriguing visuals of Occupy participants. It’s a wake-up call. Our monetarist system is failing us. “What we want to create is the more beautiful world that our hearts tell us is possible. A sacred world,” says Eisenstein.

Eisenstein’s latest, the 13-minute Sacred Economics (online from March 1), elaborates more on his thesis that we are evolving a new, holistic “story of self” in our relationship with others and the planet, having realized that aggressive individualism and the commodification of nature and community are a source of loneliness and unhappiness. Our monetarist system weakens, reduces and impoverishes us. “We’re nearing the end of growth,” he adds. “That’s why the crisis that we have today won’t go away.”

I’m not sure how much it resonates with Jennifer Baichwal’s Payback (out on March 23), which is based on Margaret Atwood’s 2008 Massey Lectures book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/massey-lectures/) I haven’t seen the film yet, but with local ecological footprint inventor Bill Rees featured among the five separate stories, the debt in question is clearly not just a financial affair.

With hearings on the Northern Gateway pipeline joint review panel underway, it’s also a good time to revisit the 45-minute Spoil (www.ilcp.com, http://vimeo.com/19582018). The film follows a team from the International League of Conservation Photographers and members of the Gitga’at Nation in Hartley Bay, as they gather imagery and stories about the ecologically rich Great Bear Rainforest to share with the world, in particular, the elusive white-coated, spirit bear. It’s abundantly clear why oil tankers must have no place here.

Finally, the director of Einsatzgruppen, Michael Prazan, is guest speaker for his lauded, three-hour investigation into Nazi death squads (March 11, 1PM, www.vjff.org).

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

Act now to save the Canadian Wheat Board

Closeup of a field of wheat

Or face the end of food sovereignty in Canada

by Ken Larsen

• While the popular media is full of stories of globalization and its corrosive effects on local communities, most are unaware of the back-story when it comes to the Canadian Wheat Board. In the grain trade, globalization is not a new story. In fact, it pre-dates the settling of Canada’s west by over half a century. The Wheat Board was a uniquely constructive and successful response to globalization created in Canada’s west.

By the time our grandfathers and grandmothers were settling homesteads to grow wheat on the prairies in the early 1900s, the global grain market was already a mature, fully globalized market dominated by just five giant corporations. These privately owned companies, mutations of which still operate today and still control 80% of the tradable grain on the planet, were connected to international commodity markets and the world’s grain growing areas by the telegraph. Through the telegraph, stocks were traded and grain prices set instantaneously around the globe. Faced with these giant grain companies, western farmers found they were powerless to negotiate a fair price for their crops. Farmers saw the idea of collective bargaining through a single-desk Wheat Board as a way to have market power through cooperation and thereby get a fair price.

It was not until 1920s that the first Wheat Board was created. An agricultural depression began at the end of WWI and by 1920 speculation had essentially frozen the futures market pushing the international price of wheat to near zero. The west’s farmers faced financial ruin. Under strong pressure, Ottawa created the first Canadian Wheat Board to bypass the dysfunctional private market. This Board acted as the collective sales agent for the west’s farmers. It sold the crop in an orderly manner directly to customers bypassing speculators and the private trade. The Board was very successful at getting fair prices and was immensely popular among the west’s grain farmers.

Under pressure from private trade, then Prime Minister Arthur Meighen’s Conservative government removed the first single-desk CWB in August 1920. Prices in the west promptly collapsed and Canadian grain flooded into the US. To protect their own farmers, the US closed its border to Canadian grain and cattle in May of 1921. In response, Canadian farmers used their Wheat Pool cooperatives to set up a Central Selling Agency (CSA) in an attempt to create another wheat board. However, without government support they did not have the single-desk mandate needed to create the conditions for true orderly marketing to keep prices stable. Western farmers also defeated every Conservative MP in the west in 1921 and continued to lobby for the return of the single-desk Wheat Board.

By 1935, times were so desperate Conservative Prime Minister R. B. Bennett (a former railway company lawyer from Calgary) finally listened to farmers and passed the Canadian Wheat Board Act. Farmers continued pushing for the federal government to take the last step and proclaim the single-desk provision in the Canadian Wheat Board Act. Mackenzie King’s government finally did so in 1943, a little over 22 years after farmers lost their first Wheat Board and more than 43 years since farmers first began lobbying for a single-desk. The initial price for wheat set by the single-desk CWB was $1.25 per bushel, five cents above the private market. The single-desk was supported by all the Wheat Pools and every major farm group in the west. The single-desk finally gave farmers full control over their grain from the farm gate to the customer; the barriers of the private trade had finally been broken.

In 1998, amendments to the Canadian Wheat Board Act enabled farmers to elect 10 out of the 15 members of the Board of Directors. The CWB, which had always been farmer-owned, was now fully farmer-controlled. In every CWB election, 8 of the 10 directors have supported the CWB’s single-desk. The new directors took an aggressive role when it came to protecting farmers’ interests.

In an attempt to undermine the farmer-controlled organization, the two foreign owned railways slowed grain shipments to the coast during 1996 and 1997 costing farmers money for tardy delivery and lost sales. The CWB responded by successfully suing the two railways, winning $15 million in compensation from CP Rail and an undisclosed amount from CN Rail in 1999.

More significantly, Monsanto and other biotech companies started a process to introduce genetically modified (GM) wheat into Canada, the US and Australia. After consulting its foreign and domestic customers, the CWB opposed the introduction on the basis GM wheat was non-salable – nobody wanted to eat it. Ultimately, the proposal was withdrawn in Canada, but it is still in process in the US and is being re-introduced into Australia now that the Australian Wheat Board, which functioned similarly to the CWB, has been removed.

Trouble had been brewing since 1989 when Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney arbitrarily removed oats from the Wheat Board. Private interests persuaded Mulroney to remove oats in the middle of the crop year, creating a $32 million deficit when the Board’s inventory plunged in value – a deficit that amounted to a windfall for private trade. Brian Mulroney went on to sit on the Board of Directors of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), one of the five giant grain companies.

It was not long before other private groups were demanding the Wheat Board stop selling durum wheat, used for pasta, so they could process it on the prairies. Not unreasonably, farmers asked why they should effectively subsidize a private business by providing cheap grain. Coincidentally, in 1997, the National Citizens Coalition (NCC) found itself with generous funding to allow its then vice-president and later president, Stephen Harper, to attack the legitimacy of the Board with print and radio advertisements across western Canada. Farmers asked where the NCC was getting the funding for these efforts but Mr. Harper remained tight lipped.

Later, farmers again raised questions when the Commons Ethics Committee hearings held in 2007 heard testimony that former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Karlheinz Schreiber had a business arrangement in 1993, which Schreiber at least contended included pasta. Mulroney contended the arrangement was legitimate and private, created later based on a special position he took on the Board of Archer Daniels Midland.

Ten years before the hearings, in October of 1996 ADM was fined $100 million in the US for price fixing and two subsequent books based on those court cases documented how ADM financed farmers and other groups to advance its business interests in grain processing. Naturally, Canadian farmers wanted to know if the Mulroney-Schreiber pasta business included financing the NCC’s attacks on their Wheat Board.

By this time, Stephen Harper was Prime Minister. In November 2007, he appointed David Johnston, now our Governor General, then president of the University of Waterloo, to recommend a course of action. Johnston’s January 2008 report recommended conducting a commission of inquiry restricted to dealings between Mulroney and Schreiber pertaining to matters of legitimate “public interest” and not covered in other inquiries. Harper appointed Justice Oliphant to conduct the inquiry.

Justice Oliphant followed the Schreiber-Mulroney money trail on pasta and wrote: “I have concluded that, whatever Mr. Mulroney did respecting Mr. Schreiber’s pasta business, it was not done as part of the mandate he received from Mr. Schreiber on August 27, 1993. Any work done by Mr. Mulroney in respect of the pasta business was done on behalf of his friend and former colleague Mr. [Elmer] MacKay, as well as a friend of Mr. MacKay’s who was involved with Mr. Schreiber in the pasta business.” (Page 233, Chapter 6: The Agreement, Oliphant Commission Report, May 2010.) (Editor’s note: Elmer MacKay is the father of Peter MacKay, our current Minister of National Defence.)

Within days of the conclusion of the Commission, the Harper government ordered the extradition of Mr. Schreiber, over his objections, to Germany where he disappeared into the penal system.

Mr. Harper and the NCC’s obsession with pasta and where the NCC got the funding to spend so freely on its attacks on the CWB never became an issue before the Oliphant commission and remains a mystery to this day.

During the bi-annual CWB Directors’ Elections, private trade-friendly farmers were encouraged to seek Directorships on the Wheat Board, but farmers consistently rejected such candidates, at least in part thanks to the preferential balloting system. Using that system, farmer-voters are able to rank candidates from first to last. On a preferential ballot, if a voter’s first preference of candidate loses, the voter’s second choice comes into effect. This system ensures that, in elections with multiple candidates, no vote preferences are lost and the winner must have secured 50% plus one to win. Over the years, some contests have been simple two-person elections, but even in those cases, CWB single-desk supporters usually won.

Today, Steven Harper is the Prime Minister and on December 15, 2011, the Conservative- dominated Senate passed Bill C-18, legislation ending the Canadian Wheat Board single-desk and dismissing its farmer-elected directors. The Harper-appointed Governor General gave it Royal Assent the same day.

These actions were done in spite of a ruling by Federal court judge, the Honourable Douglas Campbell, that Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz had broken the law by introducing legislation to gut the Canadian Wheat Board without consulting the farmer-elected Board of Directors and holding a fair vote among farmers to determine their wishes on the fate of the organization that they owned, controlled and paid for as the law stipulated.

With the passage of Bill C-18, Canadians have a Prime Minister who contends that following the law is optional for his government. Judge Campbell called this “an affront to the rule of law.” There have only been three times since the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982 when a government has implemented legislation the courts have determined is illegal; all three occurred under the Harper Conservatives.

On December 14, in an act of courage and integrity, the farmer-elected directors of the Canadian Wheat Board held a news conference in Winnipeg, announcing they would be challenging Harper’s arbitrary and unlawful use of executive power and would ask the courts to make the Harper regime follow the law. Since C-18 removed them from their elected positions, the elected-directors brought the challenge forward as individuals.

This news conference was reminiscent of another historic news conference held decades ago in Alberta. In 1929, a group of women, prominent among them Irene Parlby, a farmwoman from Didsbury, Alberta, announced they had successfully used the courts to establish that women were persons under the law. This established the basis for our modern system of individual rights. These women were heavily supported by the western farm community and Mrs. Parlby, as a Cabinet Minister in the United Farmers of Alberta government, had its full support.

Like the above-mentioned case, the results of the farmers’ challenge to C-18 will set the course for the future of Canadian democracy. By ignoring Judge Campbell’s ruling and implementing Bill C-18, Prime Minister Harper and his government have shown disdain for the rule of law. This is not how Canadian democracy should function. In his ruling, Judge Campbell quoted Chief Justice Fraser who wrote: “The detrimental consequences of the executive branch of government defining for itself – and by itself – the scope of its lawful power have been revealed, often bloodily, in the tumult of history.”

Farmers from western Canada are now fighting a battle by standing up for Canada’s traditions of community action, democracy and the rule of law. Court cases on this matter will be ongoing in 2012 and farmers could use your financial and moral support.

Donations for this critical court case may be made:

– To Friends of the CWB online at http://friendsofcwb.ca/j/donate

– Cheques may be mailed to The Friends of the CWB, P.O. Box 41, Brookdale, MB, R0K 0G0. – Donations may also be sent to the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance, Box 125, Hussar, AB, T0J 1S0. Please make cheques payable to Canadian Wheat Board Alliance, noting it is for court challenges. There is also a paypal donation button at www.cwbafacts.ca/donate/

For more information, see cwbafacts.ca. Ken Larsen runs a commercial-scale farm west of Red Deer, Alberta, using organic principles to grow barley, non-GM canola and forage crops. A long- time farm activist, he has participated in most of the major farm policy debates in western Canada over the past 25 years. He has numerous publications and articles to his credit and is an occasional commentator on CBC radio. He helped to found the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance.

The Alliance is a politically non-partisan organization of several hundred farmers focused specifically on the Canadian Wheat Board. Members of the Alliance recognize the advantages the Board brings to producers through the single-desk and price pooling, quality assurance through the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC), as well as the important role the CWB plays as an advocate for farmers in transportation, producer cars and on the world stage in trade disputes and negotiations. The Alliance draws memberships throughout the west.

Footnotes:

1. Lieber, James B. Rats in the Grain – The Dirty Tricks and Trials of Archer Daniels Midland. Four Walls Eight Windows Publishing: New York, 2000.

Eichenwald, Kurt. The Informant. Broadway Books: New York, 2000.

2. Johnston wrote: “These are concerns about the integrity of high-level government officials. The key issue is the relationship between Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Schreiber that led to cash payments. An inquiry should not be a wide-ranging review of Airbus, Eurocopter, the Bear Head Project or any of Mr. Schreiber’s other dealings.” (Page 22, Report of the Independent Advisor into the Allegations Respecting Financial Dealings Between Mr. Karlheinz Schreiber and the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney, David Johnston, January 2008)

 

Educating doctors

a big red heart-shaped pillow wrapped in a stethoscope

DRUG BUST

by Alan Cassels

The people’s briefing note on perscription drugs

• A few years ago, I was invited to be the guest on an Ottawa radio talk show, the topic being something I was well familiar with, a book I co-wrote called Selling Sickness. The book explores how the pharmaceutical industry influences regulators, physicians and patients in order to sell its treatments.

On this occasion, Steve, the show’s host, invited the station’s “house doctor” to join us. Barry, a local doctor, had his own program at that station and it soon became startlingly clear I was about to be tag-teamed. After warming me up, Barry came to the point: “How could you possibly insinuate that physicians were under the influence of pharmaceutical sales reps?” These are the salespeople working for drug companies that make personal visits to doctors, dropping off samples and otherwise ‘educating’ our physicians about new drugs. “I’m offended that you think we physicians can be so easily bamboozled by sales reps,” he spat out.

Pinned against the turnbuckles, I turned to the radio host and asked, “Steve do you own any shares in pharmaceutical companies, maybe have pharma stocks in your mutual fund portfolio?”

“Sure I do,” he said. “Well, Steve, you’re wasting your money,” I said. “You know, those companies spend upwards of $2 billion per year marketing their drugs to Canadian doctors; most of that goes to drug reps. So, Steve, if those drug rep visits ain’t having any influence on doctors, then you’ve made a poor investment. If Dr. Barry is right, pharma’s marketing model ain’t working.”

They both sputtered a bit. C’mon guys. Reality check. Does an industry this successful and this powerful invest in things that don’t work? Of course not; pharma has lots of high octane brains to invest its money where it produces the greatest return. Period. If it’s in pizza or pens, delivered by smiling drug reps, then that’s where the money’s going.

Barbara Mintzes, an epidemiologist at UBC’s Department of Anaesthesiology, Pharmacology and Therapeutics knows a thing or two about drug marketing, having studied the advertising and marketing activities of the drug industry for nearly two decades: “We know from the research that sales representatives, also known as ‘drug detailers’, have a big influence on doctors’ prescribing,” she says. “They often have much more influence than doctors realize. If doctors aren’t getting the full story [about a drug], if most of the time they hear nothing about side effects or about rare, more serious harmful effects, how can they make sure they’re prescribing safely?”

When I asked a friend, a former sales rep in Nova Scotia, he said: “Hmm, ‘good safety profile’, is about all we’d say about safety. Basically, unless they [the doctors] ask, we don’t bring up the topic.”

It’s easy to see why drug sales people are effective. Generally, they are polite, engaging and extremely good at reading people, trained to focus on the positive of their products and driven to do whatever is needed to get doctors to write their prescriptions.

Some physicians won’t see drug reps, but a 2006 survey found about two-thirds of doctors in BC see reps at least once a month and 42 percent of BC’s GPs get visited several times a week. Many doctors like the free drug samples. More than one doctor has told me that’s the only reason he sees reps. The samples are always the newest and usually the most expensive drugs on the market.

Worries about how drug reps might be biasing prescribers led researchers to think about providing doctors unbiased or academic sources of information. Thus, the concept of counter-detailing or “academic detailing” was born. The Granddaddy of this movement is Dr. Jerry Avorn, a physician and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. His 2004 book Powerful Medicines reflected on the thinking behind it: “If the pharmaceutical industry could change doctors’ prescribing patterns this way to increase sales, why couldn’t the same method be used to improve the appropriateness of drug use?”

That’s a very good question and he and his colleague Steve Soumerai set out to prove academic detailing could do what it purported to do: provide a lifeline to physicians swimming in a sea of pharmaceutical marketing spin. More than 25 years later, academic detailing programs are in place in many parts of North America, but they have hardly any effect on medical practice.

Why? Well, for one, it’s hard to change prescribing. As Dr. Avorn notes, it’s not easy to get “evidence-based, unbiased clinical knowledge” to supplant other types of information based on “tradition, superstition or mainly commercial agendas.”

The second reason is size: there are probably 100 drug sales reps for every one academic detailer in Canada. The academic side of things is simply outgunned. Despite good research that academic detailing can improve prescribing, there is little public investment in it. The first program started in Canada was here in BC, a single detailer based out of Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver. That program has grown to about 10 academic detailers covering the whole province and there are also well-established programs in Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. However, the big provinces of Ontario and Quebec aren’t even in the game, with the exception of a program in Hamilton. Alberta had a program but it was cut. Manitoba’s program is on life support.

The third reason, and this is my own conclusion, is that no one has made a powerful enough business case for academic detailing.

A duo of ex-pharma detailers in Atlantic Canada, who call their company Prescribed Solutions have an answer. They know the selling game well and their pragmatic approach is to visit doctors armed with drug cost-effectiveness information and teach doctors how to improve generic prescribing so that both patients and drug plans can get good drug therapy and save money.

These Atlantic Canada entrepreneurs understand that one of the most important bits of information doctors need (other than drug safety information) is comparative cost information of the drugs they prescribe. Basically, if there are 10 drugs in a class that all do the same thing, why would a doctor prescribe the most expensive brand, which could be three times the price of the proven generic? A major gap in our physicians’ knowledge is the price of drugs and prescribing an affordable drug can have huge implications on whether a person gets a script filled.

A study out last month by UBC researchers shows patients will avoid a trip to the pharmacy if they don’t think they can afford them. And for many essential drugs, that can be decidedly bad for your health.

If drug reps schmoozing in doctors’ offices are trying to get new customers through free samples and evidence exists that academic detailing is effective, leading to safer, more cost-effective use of drugs, why haven’t governments or employers – who pay for your private drug benefits – embraced it?

Because they haven’t done the math. For every one percent increase in the generic use of drugs in Canada, the private payers – those with drug coverage through the employer – save over $100 million. If Canadians used generics at the same rate as Americans, it is estimated we’d shave about $2 billion per year off our drug bill. This is not small potatoes.

Is any kind of counter-detailing even on the radar of most politicians or union executives? As far as I can tell, the only politician I’ve heard asking for more investments in academic detailing is BC’s NDP leader Adrian Dix. I think he might be on to something.

If provincial governments are all about creating jobs, let’s provide jobs to the many pharma reps out of work due to the recent economic slowdown. Let’s put them on the public payroll and get them to spread the word about drug safety and cost effectiveness to our physicians.

It is time to undo the love affair between drug companies and doctors and start building some new relationships where patients can all benefit.

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria and author of the forthcoming book Seeking Sickness: Medical Screening and the Misguided Hunt for Disease, due out April 2012. Read more of what he’s writing about at www.alancassels.com

 

Money, meaning & mayhem

A circular spread of 100-dollar bills superimposed over an image of a barrio hillside of colourful but dilapated shacks.

A memorable book about money sparks memories of an in-flight conversation

by Geoff Olson

A circular spread of 100-dollar bills superimposed over an image of a barrio hillside of colourful but dilapated shacks.• Back in 1998, I was sitting on a plane at Heathrow airport, thumbing through a volume on finance I had picked up in a London bookshop. It wasn’t my usual area of interest, but the title caught my eye: Frozen Desire: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Money.

This nonfiction work by former Financial Times writer James Buchan turned out to be an appropriate choice for in-flight reading. As the jet began to taxi onto the runway, a white-haired man in the seat next to me struck up a conversation. Let’s call him Ted. “I always fly coach even though I can afford first class,” Ted said. A resident of the Lower Mainland, he described his boat, his travels and his post-retirement consulting work, which involved buying up companies around the globe and “making them more profitable” by taking them apart.

Ted’s job was to identify functioning companies that were worth more to investors in pieces. This meant outsourcing, downsizing and smashing pension funds like kids’ piggy banks. Although the tern “vulture capitalism” was not in currency at the time, Ted sounded like one of the carrion feeders. Essentially, he was in the same kind of business, at the same time, as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who’s been taking heat for his “disaster capitalism” tenure at Bain Capital.

With a wry smile, Ted told me he hadn’t paid taxes in Canada in 18 years. He said he directed most of his money into offshore investments, but Revenue Canada eventually took note of the gap between his living standards and his tax statements and audited him. The case went to court where Ted protested his innocence. “But you pay no taxes!” replied the judge, who released him after finding no technical violations of any laws.

From one angle, this amiable guy was simply a rational actor in the booming, Clinton-era market. Adam Smith’s invisible hand was guiding his money to a safer berth while he played Where’s Waldo with Revenue Canada. From another angle (mine), Ted was a corporate welfare cheat. By the late nineties, the de-industrialization and financialization of the western economy was in progress and this character was playing his bit part by wrecking functioning companies for profit. I was alternately fascinated and repelled by my airline companion’s remarks and eventually the conversation petered out, replaced with the muffled howl of wind rushing against the fuselage. I returned to my salted peanuts and Buchan’s book.

The Stephen Hawkings and Niall Fergusons of the publishing world are rare and Buchan is not among them. Nonfiction studies of deep topics don’t usually fly off the shelves and in spite of some stellar reviews in 1997 for Frozen Desire, it had about as much impact as a Post-It note dropped into the Grand Canyon. Yet the lucid and luminous volume deserves a wider audience, especially now that money has come to dominate every sphere of human experience from the boardroom to the bedroom.

Most writers and thinkers on the left limit their criticism of money to its allocation, rather than its nature. Buchan isn’t concerned about who gets how big a slice of pie; he questions the pie itself and the oven it was baked in. In his mix of memoir and historical survey, he identifies money as “frozen desire,” an abstract representation of human wishes that sheds old forms to take on new ones, from cowrie shells to precious metals to various kinds of surrogate money such as bill of exchange, local cheques, marketable securities and certificates of deposit, municipal bonds, annuities and derivatives.

Buchan is the Eton-educated son of William Buchan, 3rd Baron Tweedsmuir. According to a Wikipedia entry for the author, in 1986 he married Lady Evelyn Rose Phipps, daughter of Oswald Phipps, 4th Marquess of Normanby. A novelist and former contributor to the Financial Times, Buchan is that rare bird, a blueblood conservative that has lost faith in money even though he doesn’t lack for it. He sees the market as a false idol and this golden calf – or bronze bull if you prefer – is cut with fool’s gold. (Buchan’s musings are supported by the investigations of anthropologist David Graeber. In his 2011 book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber determines that money did not have its beginnings as a replacement for barter, but mostly as a means of transacting the business of slavery and war.)

In the 1970s, at the height of the Arab oil embargo, Buchan’s career as a business reporter took him to a sweltering outpost in Jordan. His status as a writer grew along with his savings and in an illuminating moment he recognized how interest-bearing investments can overtake an hourly wage. “The money… began to breed, first slowly, then convulsively. While I slept, or was drunk, or made love, or smoked a Dunhill on the porch, my money worked; and far as I could tell, with smaller effort and for greater reward than I did.”

Like most of us, the author’s feelings about money are mixed, although you can probably guess what side of the delight/disgust side of the spectrum he’s on. From the photograph on the dust jacket of Frozen Desire, it seems as if the photographer had just held something foul under Buchan’s nose. The stench has a long pedigree. Most of the world religions nurse a deep ambivalence about money and credit. For centuries, the Catholic Church made usury a crime and, to this day, Islamic banks strictly limit interest. In the New Testament, Jesus recognizes money as a competitive authority, with the understanding that “in embodying happiness and reward in tangible, earthly form, money is more impressively heaven than heaven.”

In the New Testament, Christ’s birth in Bethlehem was presided over by the gift economy, with the Three Wise Men bearing gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. His death was sealed by the money economy, in the form of 30 pieces of silver the Romans paid to the turncoat apostle Judas.

Jesus is also remembered in the Gospels for kicking over the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. While the author is not explicitly endorsing religion over secularism, he insists the Biblical tale of market-mediated crucifixion anticipates the effect of capital on cultures of the west. Money can stand in for human relations as a substitute for trust in people. “It will displace trust in all human relations except those of the inner family,” Buchan writes, summing up the problem in one memorable sentence: “Money enters into the system of values, and then displaces all other values like the cuckoo’s egg in a nest.

“For some time, in many places, money was thought to be bad, but it is now thought, on the whole, to be good. That inversion is the greatest to have occurred in the moral sentiments of the West. Desires that resisted incorporation into money turned pale and lost their power to convince: disinterested friendship, love and philanthropy became as suspect as the goals of once passionate wishes, honour and salvation. Miserliness, which places potential above actual gratification, had once seemed the disease of money… gradually, it lost its pathology and became the condition of moral health.”

From the Enlightenment on, as the lure of filthy lucre mated with technical advances in communication and printing, money became the yardstick for all that is good and true. “Only money would measure success or failure, happiness or misery. Only money could reward or punish. States and governments must just stand back and money – which reconciles all clashes of human will – would see us right,” Buchan notes.

The identification of the almighty dollar with the imperial ego came to fruition in the eighties, during the reign of Reagan, Mulroney and Thatcher and the latter’s TINA doctrine (“There is No Alternative”). The Iron Lady’s parallel dictum, “There is no such thing as society,” served as both as a ‘Dear John’ letter to the public sector and a greeting card to Moloch. By the time I was 30,000 feet above the Atlantic reading Frozen Desire for the first time, the game was well underway in the AngloAmerican world: socialism for the rich and capitalism for everyone else. One year after my return from London, President Bill Clinton would sign away the firewall between commercial and investment banks, the Glass-Steagall Act, freeing Wall Street robber barons for even greater plunder.

In a world governed by money, private vices are reinterpreted as public virtues “and the old private virtues – prudence, thrift, kindness – become public vices in the market economy.” For Buchan, this is the great sadness at the heart of our civilization: that “by using money, we convert our world into it.”

That conversion is ongoing. In the 2003 film The Corporation, former Fraser Institute chairman Michael Walker enthused about a future where there is a sticker price on everything, down to every stream and rock on the planet. A mere nine years later, the fever dream of privatizers and profiteers is turning into a waking nightmare for the planet. With the growing global market in carbon credits, financial institutions have partnered with governments and captured environmental groups to put a price on the very air we breathe.

When Buchan’s book was first released, the financial elite still concealed their deepest desires and darkest doings in coded language. No longer. “Plutocracy” is a word that means rule by the rich and in 2005 Citigroup coined a variation of it with the term “plutonomy.” This shiny, new term, minted in the bowels of a megabank, refers to a system in which the rich side with government to ensure the continued domination of their class. The following year Citigroup decided to bang the drum for the elite by releasing an “equity strategy” for investors entitled “Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer.” Among the quotes from this document is this giveaway: “…the top 10%, particularly the top 1% of the US – the plutonomists in our parlance – have benefited disproportionately from the recent productivity surge in the US… from globalization and the productivity boom, at the relative expense of labour.” Karl Marx couldn’t have put it any better.

This brings me back to Ted. It seemed he regarded Canada as little more than a country club with acceptable green fees and moorage, but lacking a place to properly stash his cash. “The IMF almost shut down Canada last year,” he told me with a look of shared confidence, suggesting the country was close to being taken apart like a bankrupt sawmill. The irony was thicker than the mystery-meat of my in-flight meal. Whatever the merit of his IMF anecdote, he had no interest in making the connection between his own sociopathic behaviour and the nation’s solvency.

Since my first and last acquaintance with this high-flying plutonomist, the world of finance has become more invasive into our daily lives even as its practices have become more nakedly criminal and the philanthropy of business titans more desperately public. My airline companion’s sentiments are, arguably, now even closer in line with the values of Wall Street and Bay Street.

Of course, the reader might object that Ted’s tax evasion could have been reigned in by tighter regulation. Straighten out the loopholes and plug any gaps that sociopaths can wriggle through and we will have the revenue necessary to fund our dwindling social programs. Even if North American leaders were willing and able to back-engineer accountability, I imagine Buchan would applaud the idea in one sentence and condemn it as a halfway measure in the next. He sees the problem in capital itself, or at least its current form, that favours the plutocrats over the rest of the populace. At the very least, money talks and those with the most of it have the biggest megaphone. Strangely, Frozen Desire does not address the most problematic form of money – fiat currency, which can be printed on demand and leveraged to insane levels.

Five years after Citigroup’s scented letter to its investors, the one percent/ninety-nine percent has gone from a political slogan to a placard-scrawled cliché. By November of last year, the streets of New York, Athens, Santiago, Vancouver and hundreds of other cities across the world filled with millions of protestors against the criminality of unregulated finance. Plutonomy is on the move across the globe and rising awareness of its social costs is on the move with it.

Today, money utterly dominates politics, social policy and the media. We may rail against the commodification of our lives, yet money remains the measure of all things, whether it’s in the mirrored canyons of the world’s financial districts or in the poorest shantytowns of the developing world. “And that is precisely why the untrammelled pursuit of money is imprudent: one does not issue handguns to the inmates of overly crowded prisons. We need to break the compulsory nature of money and make possible a future in which we are not at permanent war with nature and one another,” Buchan observes.

In all my wanderings across the great cities of the world and all my myopic scans across acres of newsprint and vellum, I’ve come to appreciate the need for forms of social organization that aren’t governed by the whims of fiat currency. The Occupy movement was and is, I believe, a rough draft of more humane social arrangements. We are not talking about just a protest movement, but also an eruption of a communal desire to honour human values that extend beyond the “frozen desire” of precious metals and their surrogates. This is hardly a pipe dream. Canada alone is home to thousands of cooperatives, including credit unions, which serve purposes other than the sole pursuit of profit.

Buchan himself believes money will eventually fail us, as it failed others so many times in the past, from the tulip bulbs of 17th century Holland to the German Marks of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and beyond. The dreams of high finance will eventually dissolve, he insists, and “The Age of Money, which came after the Age of Faith, will itself draw, as all things under the sun, to an end.” What the author imagines will replace it, he does not say.

Northern Gateway money vs environment

SCIENCE MATTERS

by David Suzuki

• The battle lines are drawn and Northern BC’s pristine wilderness is the latest front. With hearings underway into the proposed $5.5-billion, dual 1,172-kilometre Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project to transport bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat and imported condensate to dilute it from the coast back to Alberta, the fossil fuel industry and its supporters have stepped up the rhetoric. Environmentalists and people in towns, rural areas and First Nations communities in BC have lined up in opposition.

It’s not just about potential damage from an oil spill… The larger issues are about our continued reliance on polluting fossil fuels and the economic impact of rapidly exploiting and selling our resources and resource industries.

It’s about Canada’s national interest. With lax royalty structures and massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, not to mention foreign ownership of tar sands operations and lobbying by foreign companies, Canadians are not enjoying the real benefits of our oil industry. In fact, increasing reliance on the tar sands is hurting other sectors of the economy, manufacturing in particular.

Thanks to the government’s support of the fossil fuel industry, ours is a petro dollar that rises and falls with the price of oil. The high price of oil has increased our dollar’s value and that has hurt the more labour-intensive manufacturing sector, which relies on exports. Not only have hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs been lost over the past few years, but Canada has also been missing out on opportunities to join the boom in production of renewable-energy technology.

Industry adherents have come up with many arguments supporting the Northern Gateway project. Some have more holes than an oilfield. Take the jobs argument. Even Enbridge admits that most would be in short-term construction work. Only about 35 to 40 long-term jobs would be created at the Kitimat marine terminal.

Most economic benefits from increased tar sands production would go to the companies and their shareholders, including firms from the US, Korea and China. In fact, state-owned PetroChina, which already operates in the tar sands, has just bought 100 percent of the MacKay River project.

The “ethical oil” argument is so absurd as to be hardly worth mentioning, but it’s one the government has latched on to. Oil can’t be ethical or unethical. People, and by extension the companies they own and operate or the governments they represent, can behave in ethical or unethical ways, but a product can’t.

The Northern Gateway project and much of the recent and pending tar sands expansion will help companies owned by the government of China dig up the bitumen and send it there for refining and use. The ethical oil folks admit China is a police state, so why do they support selling them our industry and resources? The anti-American conspiracy theories are even more absurd. Saying that opposition to the Northern Gateway is a plot by US funding agencies to protect America’s access to Canadian oil is just idiotic.

The only real argument for Northern Gateway is that it will increase profits for the oil industry and hand over more of our resources and the associated profits and jobs to China. The arguments against it are so numerous we’ve barely touched them here.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation editorial and communications specialist Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

This time it’s different

by Paul Summerville

 

Two bankers walk past a giant crowd of protestors, protected by a line of police standing shoulder to shoulder. One banker is saying: I'm just hoping we can keep this whole thing under control after the police find out we're stealing their pensions. "Back in May, when our host Martin LeClair got in touch with me about tonight, he asked if I could be a little bit funny and very educational in an economist sort of way.

So an economics presentation that’s supposed to be a little bit funny – how about Alan Greenspan apologizing for destroying the American economy? Or how about the guys that ran the credit default swap team at AIG that lost $61 billion in the first quarter of 2009? How much money is that, $61 billion dollars in 12 weeks? Well, that’s $27 million dollars an hour. Losses on a scale that threatened the global banking system were only possible because of the belief that markets are sustainably self-regulating. Funny, like that?

Over the summer, I did put together a short comedy routine to soften my pretty gloomy forecast of the global economy. Gloomy because the economy is compromised by the structural damage from the financial market collapse of 2008, the erosion of trust in countries that make up the Euro zone and disturbing signs that the boom in China is slipping into a slowdown that inevitably will hurt a commodity-based economy like ours.

But the more I thought about what was happening right now with 10-year bond yields breaking to new lows, equities plunging in and out of bear market territory, the political stalemates in the United States and Europe deepening and Cairo-inspired protests gathering pace in the financial capitals of the developed world, I concluded tonight is not a time for comedy.

The time has come to tell ourselves the truth; of where we’ve been the last 30 years, of where we are right now and of the risks that we face if we don’t make the right choices. In my professional life, the nostrums, which economists peddle as insightful description and prescription for our economies and societies, have never failed to amaze me: First, markets are rational. Isn’t that funny, if it wasn’t so dangerous? Here are some more favourites. Peak oil, commodity prices will stay permanently high, central banks can control prices, economies tend to equilibrium and lower taxes guarantees economic success. The economy is better off unregulated, sovereign debt is always honoured, liberalization of financial markets reduces the risk of a banking crisis, financial firms are great self-regulators and command and control economies are sustainable.

What is becoming clear, as the fabric of our societies are frayed by constant economic crises, is that it is the state on the one hand and civil society on the other standing between individual citizens and the unpredictable forces of global economic change. And nowhere in the developed world is this becoming more obvious than in the United States… anyone travelling in the US today can see the impact of a lack of investment in roads and bridges, airports and railways. The United States may have begun the process of losing a large part of a generation of economic growth.

The Canadian challenge is different. The simple fact is that Canada is geographically vast, sparsely populated, next door to history’s most powerful country and has spent two centuries consistently finding peaceful solutions to including a distinct language and cultural population situated in the geographic heart of the country that could leave to make their own and end Canada as we know it.

Canada is a sophisticated, bilingual, peaceful, open, wealthy and increasing urban country whose growth is significantly driven by the success of new Canadians competing in the global economy. Achieving these outcomes has, in part, been made possible by social spending by the state that is larger compared to a country like the United States.

The pivotal elements of competitiveness are mostly determined by sustainable social investment, the quality of the work force, infrastructure, social peace, the rule of law and the health of cities. None of this can be built on the assumption that the individual is self-sufficient. The relationship between the state, the society and the individual must be a well-ordered balance. And Canada, better than most, has managed this balance.

Sadly, there is mounting evidence that the Canadian generation that benefitted so much from forward-looking public policy has forgotten this truth. The boomer generation has ignored a four-fold rise in the cost of post-secondary tuition since 1990. The participation rate of children from lower income families in colleges and universities has been dropping over the past decade and these children are 40% less likely to get a post-secondary education than are kids from high-income households, in part because of the cost.

This should not be surprising when the cost of completing an undergraduate university degree in any discipline has been estimated by TD Economics at $84,000 for students living away from home. Although about 50% of students graduate with no debt, the other half graduate with an average of $27,000 in debt.

What’s it like for the kid from Smithers, British Columbia, to walk into UBC the first day looking at 150 bucks a pop, geography and sociology textbooks, a $1,000 laptop, in addition to fees, tuition, living and travelling costs that, in one year of university, on average adds up to the annual medium after tax income of a Canadian family? Well, it’s not funny, that’s for sure.

Equally worrying is the decline in the commitment of universities to provide a quality post-secondary education for the undergraduate students that actually make it there. In a scathing editorial in the Globe and Mail… it was argued that high class sizes, ‘indentured’ doctoral students and poorly paid sessionals acting in the place of absent professors and the low emphasis put on teaching when ‘publish or perish’ remains the mantra at top ranked universities, has resulted in a steep decline in quality. In the words of economists, the real cost of a post-secondary education has skyrocketed, short-changing Canada’s future by short changing its students.

At the same time, students are graduating into a globalized job market with a decade of debt to pay off, whether they studied philosophy, literature, history, dance, Greek or engineering. In Canada for example, despite the evidence that, on the whole, an ‘investment’ in a post-secondary education does pay off over a person’s lifetime, the reality is that 20% of graduates earn less than half of Canada’s median income. Hmm, I guess those are the under-achieving philosophy majors.

Of note, ladies, when the payoff does come, it is skewed to favour men over women; a man with a post-secondary degree, on average, will earn about 35% more during their work lifetime than you only because you are not male and the last time I checked, tuition was not adjusted for gender; at least not But all of this is beside the point. The very fact that a post-secondary degree is a life or death requirement for a sustainable middle income Canadian lifestyle is all the more reason to ensure that a world class post-secondary education is accessible in Canada, without the financial headwinds that have built up and gathered force over the past two decades.

We’ve made an enormous error approaching post-secondary education mostly as an economic investment. This only helps justify the argument that students should ‘pay up for it’ rather than viewing education as a vital process that shapes thoughtful and engaged citizens armed with a broad range of skills. Sadly, over the last 20 years we’ve only made the chance for a post-secondary education less equal than it otherwise would be. Well, shame on us.

In conclusion, never has it been more important that we remember the lesson of the Canadian model of compromise, of fairness, of inclusion, of consumer protection and of the effort to give every citizen the equality of chance, creating, in the words of my wife of 26 years, who also happens to be of Japanese origin, “the happy country.” It is in our power to manage the opportunities of globalization, powerful technologies and the new economic success of other countries.

Of all the voices that must seize this chance in this critical moment in our history, none are more important than those right here in this room, you financial market professionals. We owe it to ourselves and our fellow citizens to advocate that social justice and the economy are two sides of the same coin.

The most healthy and sustainable societies manage to achieve the vital but delicate balance between the twin virtues of equality of opportunity and inequality of outcome from which emerges a civil society ultimately freer from both the state and the market.

In that place, the only currency that matters is the moral obligation between empathic citizens all sharing the same community.

Thank you.

Excerpted from a speech entitled This Time is Different by Paul Summerville, delivered to the Canadian Pension Benefits Institute in Ottawa, October 20, 2011. Paul Summerville is an adjunct professor at the Peter Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria. Email pasummer@uvic.ca

How Canada can avoid an American corporate takeover

by Drew Noftle

What do you call a country where the gap between the rich and the poor is growing beyond bounds, the principal exports are wood pulp and scrap metal, the principal imports are manufactured goods and the fastest growing industry is the construction and operation of private prisons?

According to Dr. Robert Bowman Lt. Col. (ret), the answer is a Third World country. Unfortunately for us, this Third World country is the US with its corporations unilaterally running the world, and its military spending far exceeding that of the rest of the world combined. Disturbingly, Canada is currently going down a path that will see its inevitable integration into the Bush Administration’s corporate and militaristic desires. The question is can Canada regain its own self-determined direction?

Dr. Robert Bowman has seen both sides of the argument of corporatism and militarism. He flew more than 100 combat missions over Vietnam and directed the Department of Defense’s Star Wars programs under presidents Ford and Carter. Since then, however, Dr. Bowman, who received a Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Nuclear Engineering from Caltech and ran as the Reform Party presidential candidate in 2000, has spent well over two decades in the peace movement.

Last summer, during a speech he gave in Portland, Oregon, Bowman delivered a State of the Union address at his imaginary inauguration as successor of George W. Bush for President of the United States. During this address, he cited how America is unquestionably number one. “Number one in the use of our world’s resources, number one in the production of pollution, number one in the gap between the rich and the poor, …deaths by gunfire…teen pregnancies …poverty among the elderly …citizens without health coverage…child poverty …homeless veterans …and number one in citizens behind bars. Our Canada is following suit with these prerequisites for corporate takeover.”

Bowman also talked about how his predecessor should have taken the advice of his father. In George H. W. Bush’s memoir, he writes, “Trying to eliminate Saddam would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad, and, in effect, rule Iraq. There was no viable exit strategy we could see. Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land.” In a rare show of emotion, Bowman then proclaimed, “It is too damn bad his son doesn’t read!”

Mr. Harper is also seemingly missing this fatherly advice.

On August 22, 7:30 PM, Dr. Bowman will give a lecture at the Maritime Labour Centre in Vancouver. His talk will focus on how Canada can escape American corporate takeover. Although he will be back in Vancouver in late October, be sure to catch him this time around.

In October, he will present evidence to the newly formed Canadian Citizens Jury on 9/11, where a non-partial jury will hear presentations from both the 9/11 Truth community and from official defenders of the official story to determine if the 9/11 Commission Report is a reliable and honest account of what happened that day.

If the jury decides that it is not, it may advise Canada to begin its own investigation to either justify or end our participation in Afghanistan and our material support for the Iraq war. Although the Canadian Citizens Jury will be open to the public, seating will be very limited. The location has yet to be announced.

Come out for Dr. Bowman’s talk on August 22 to see why the Los Angeles Times calls Dr. Bowman, “The best speaker in the country.” We all, Stephen Harper included, could use a little advice. For more information, seewww.vancouver911truth.com

Drew Noftle helped organize the Vancouver 9/11 Truth Conference in June 2007. He is currently working as a teacher in Yaletown. onehistory@gmail.com