Playing the Indian Card

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Truth Will Out

It's just that it seems to take 40 to 70 year on average for it to happen. Far from fast enough to avoid terrible injustices.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Government Unions

"Through their strong unions, workers and peasants destroy their oppresors." Azerbaijan, 1920s.

“People of the same trade seldom meet together,” Adam Smith famously wrote, “even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” He goes on to say that this cannot, as a practical matter, be prevented. But it is why we have laws against collusion and cartels in business.

But we not see that people of the same trade includes employees. We do not see it, simply because our stereotyped idea of a unionized worker is of somebody poor, although that has not been true for several generations. In other words, any union is ultimately, by its nature, a business cartel, a conspiracy against the public. While we cannot perhaps prevent this from ever happening, we ought certainly not to be passing laws assisting the process.

In the private sector, fortunately, the problem is self-limiting. If the employees of one firm unionize, it forces the prices up, the firm simply becomes non-competitive, and goes out of business. Along with the union.

Unions quickly discovered, therefore, that in order to survive they had to organize and operate across an entire industry sector. At this point, there can be no pretense that their adversary is some imaginary too-rich capitalist making “excess profits”; it is the consuming public. It is everybody not in the union.

And that worked well enough for the unions for a time. It has come a cropper, though, through growing international trade. Unless the union is global as well as industry-wide, consumers can simply seek the products they need at lower prices offshore. So far, unions have not managed to organize world-wide; although of course they are trying to fight “free trade” for this reason.

Hence the disappearance of entire industry sectors from across the developed world. This is not an entirely bad thing; it gives a chance for the poor world to develop. And with the progress of globalization, we can trace the decline of unions everywhere in the manufacturing sector, where they began. Most unionized workers today are in government. There is a reason for that.

There have been two places where it is harder to go offshore. One is personal services. So the developed world has retained its edge in the “service sector.” And the professional associations—unions for service workers--are still having a field day. But they too are beginning to feel the bite. Improved technology has made offshoring more feasible here too. We have seen the rise of call centres, offshore accounting, “medical tourism.” Information technology is cutting into their cartels as well: “citizen journalism” and homeschooling, for example. I wouldn't give them that much longer on the gravy train.

The one place where the cartel works best is government. Here there is no free market, no consumer choice, apart, in democracies, from elections every four years or so. Here, then, is the one place unions can most flourish, and can continue to flourish against all comers. Whenever the union enters into “negotiations” with their bosses, it is really people of the same trade on either side of the table. As Adam Smith pointed out, there is only one way this will go.

For exactly the same reason, here is one place unions should be aggressively prevented. There is almost nothing but conscience to stop them from soaking the rest of society for everything they want, down to the socks and underwear. And this, growing and avaricious government, as Ibn Khaldun pointed out six hundred years ago, is what invariably causes the fall of civilizations.

I have recently read two pieces convincingly arguing that, quite apart from any White House direction, the current American IRS scandal is a more or less inevitable consequence of the unionization of the public service. Unionize the guys with their hands on the levers of power, and they will begin operating in class self-interest. It is obviously against their class self-interest for tax-slashing groups to come into government. Therefore, they will work together to prevent this.

You unionize government workers, and you are creating a ruling class.

Granted, it is not a hereditary ruling class, although there are obvious growing tendencies in that direction. There is sometimes, though not that often, open competition for government jobs, as opposed to hiring relatives and friends. But it would actually be better if government positions were hereditary: then there would be some incentive to leave the living carcass for the next generation. Now, the incentive is for this generation to milk the system for all it can before they pass on, for their inheritors will be strangers.

It was only in the 1960s that government workers were permitted to unionize in North America. I think it is time to chalk that one up as one of the historic bad ideas. Government workers should not be allowed to unionize, and should not be allowed to strike. Their pay should be pegged as a percentage of private sector pay.

If it is not too late. The sad truth is that, by now, as Tim Hudak can attest, anyone running on a platform of cutting government or cutting government salaries is facing into a stiff headwind. The entire machinery of government, in addition to the campaign contributions of all the highly-paid government workers, will be working against them.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The IRS Targeting Scandal

Isn't that a vulture on the right?

Never mind the details and the smoking guns. Regardless of anything else we learn from here on in, it is clear that the American IRS has become a partisan political organization. This is a clear and present danger to American democracy. Something must be done.

I propose that Congress legislate rolling terminations. Starting at the highest management level, each level of management gets terminated every six months until we reach the level of ordinary employees. Starting tomorrow, with the agency head. Their replacements would have to come from outside the IRS. Over a relatively short time, the personnel of the agency would be replaced, and presumably the poison would be rooted out. If nothing else, the process would serve as a warning to new hires and to those working at other agencies that becoming partisan carries risks.

I would build in a proviso that the process can be halted for individuals or for the agency as a whole if and when any employees are able to provide investigators with valuable information regarding the real culprits in the targeting scandal.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Irish Mass Grave

You may have read an AP story a couple of weeks ago about a mass grave of unbaptised infants in a septic tank outside a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Ireland.

Don't miss the correction. It seems the death rate for infants at the home was par for the course for Ireland at the time, the children were baptised, and no mass grave has actually been found, in a septic tank or elsewhere.

The Catholic Church ought to be able to sue for libel.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What to Do about Iraq

Current map of the military situation in Iraq. Good guys shown in blue.

It seems to many that the US has no good choices now in Iraq. That the sacrifices of the last ten years by the US military are in vain. Many say it was a mistake to go in in the first place; things are now worse than if the US had stayed out back in '03. When Dick Cheney went on Fox News to say Obama had gotten it all wrong, Megan Kelly countered that he too, seemed to have gotten it all wrong. Even the right, in other words, sees no good options now.

A pro-Iranian Iraqi government is fighting an Al Qaeda affiliate, who is in turn fighting the military dictatorship of Hafez Assad, accused of crimes against humanity. So whom does the US want to win? Why? Go flip a coin. If, on the other hand, the US stays out, won't Iran move in? Or Turkey? How will the Kurds feel about that?

I disagree. There are good guys in this fight, and they ought to be defended. And not just the Kurds.

I believed at the time that it was right for the US to go in to Iraq, and I still think it so. They had to go in; Saddam was flouting the ceasefire terms. (The Weapons of Mass Destruction were not the crucial issue,) They screwed up in trying at the same time to turn Iraq into a liberal democracy. In my defense, I thought this second bit was a bad, naïve, idea at the time. You cannot impose a democracy on a people, any more than you can square a circle.

I also believe it is not too late to save the situation. The US really does have allies on the ground in Iraq and the Levant. They are less aware of this than they should be, because of the same blind spot about democracy that led to their mistken attempt at nation-building in Iraq. Their allies are Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council. All have all been staunch allies, moderate voices, responsible influences in the region, and models of stability in the midst of chaos. They are involved: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait all have borders with Iraq. Jordan is practically surrounded by the conflict, swamped with refugees.

The US has a responsibility to them, ought to listen to them in this crisis, and, moreover, ought to look to them as models for what might work in Iraq. The US should still be funnelling their military and financial help to them, and seeking their counsel, to ensure that their allies in the region remain strong, and to ensure that said US assets are used wisely.

Which brings me to what I thought the US should have done in Iraq in the first place: restore the Iraqi monarchy, then get out. When you have a nation of many factions, like Iraq, you almost need a monarch as a unifying symbol, as there is no national self-consciousness to do this. Consider Jordan: like Iraq, a very mixed country, but stable. Monarchies are demonstrably more responsible and less corrupt than republics, short of a fully functioning liberal democracy. It is in the vested interest of the ruling family to foster growth and development, for the sake of their own children and grandchildren, instead of pillaging the treasury, as a dictator will, while he can. And Iraq had a legitimate, still-existing ruling house that could have been tapped.

Is it too late? I don't see why.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Stufffed Shirts and Red Skins

Guess I don't have to worry about violating copyright...

A federal court has, subject to appeal, voided the Washington Redskins' trade marks on the premise that the team name is a pejorative towards American Indians.

This is a big problem, and a bad law. First, there is no plausible reason for such a law. No business owner is intentionally going to name his product with a pejorative. It is quite obviously bad for business to say your product is sh*t.

It goes without saying, then, that “Redskins” was not considered a pejorative when the Washington team was originally named, in 1933; otherwise the name would not have been chosen, because it would be suicidal. A quick check of the 1913 edition of Webster's confirms this: no hint that the term is pejorative. Now the team has invested hugely in making it an identifiable brand, the third-most valuable brand in the NFL. Bad enough if changing popular usage has twisted the term over time so that it has become an insult: then the management faces the difficult choice whether to jettison the name and lose all that investment, all that fan history and fan loyalty, or tough it out with a name that has become a liability through no fault of their own. But it is unconscionable if they are not even allowed that choice, but have the name taken from them by the government without compensation.

And has “redskin” even been used pejoratively by any significant section of the population? If so, I for one have not noticed it. Isn't the problem rather that American Indians have been portrayed in many books and movies in a relatively unflattering light, as the villains of the piece, prone to massacre and pillage, as, in a word, savages, and these movies and books happen to use the term “redskins”?

If so, this is remarkably bad news as well for the Minnesota Vikings; and simply equity requires that both team trade marks be voided at the same time.

But hold off a moment. There are other sports teams whose names genuinely are used by large portions of the population, right now, here, today, as insults. Their situation, therefore, ought to be even more clear-cut, and their rights should be cancelled and their property seized before anyone thinks of going after the poor Redskins.

I think, in the first place, of the Dallas Cowboys.

Most times, if you call someone a “cowboy,” you do not mean this as a compliment. When America joined World War Two, Hitler scoffed at their army as “cowboy soldiers.” In British English, a “cowboy” is a workman who has done a shoddy job. Cambridge simply defines “cowboy” as “dishonest person.”

And surely cowboys, though a small, vulnerable minority, are an identifiable group?

And then there are the New York Yankees. They certainly ought to have no right to their own name. In most of the world today, “Yankee” is an insult—think “Yankee, Go Home.” The Urban Dictionary defines it thus: “The word is a derogatory term used to describe Americans.” It is even an insult throughout most of the US South. Heck, arguably even in the US North. One need only cite the title of the famous musical: “Damn Yankees.” Does that sound pejorative, or doesn't it?

So why all this fuss directed only at the poor old Washington Redskins? Isn't this, plainly, discrimination against redskins?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Canadian Heroes

The Canadian government, in preparation for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, has commissioned a study to discover Canadians' greatest heroes from the years since Confederation.

The results have been pretty lame, mostly politicians: Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, Tommy Douglas, Jack Layton, Sir John A. Macdonald, Terry Fox, David Suzuki, Wayne Gretzky, Chris Hadfield, Romeo Dallaire.

Predictably, there has been a public outcry about there being no women on the list. As if it is the responsibility of the rest of us (that is, men) to ensure that women have made an outstanding contribution. If everything is the responsibility of men, though, you can see why there are no heroines on the list. You don't get to be a hero without taking responsibility for your own acts.

But apart from this, it is an uninspiring list. Recent politicians are an intrinsically lousy choice for national heroes: they are partisan, not national, figures. And can always be suspected of pure self-interest. Canada is peculiar in its fondness for politicians. Almost nobody else puts heads of government (as opposed to heads of state) on their bank notes. Most nations feature great artists, composers, or writers.

Suzuki, too, is a divisive figure, who has done nothing remotely heroic; nothing that did not further his own career.

We can certainly do better. Canada has a lot of real heroes—I'd venture to say that we have produced more true heroes, per generation and per capita, than most other countries. Why do we not celebrate them?

Part of the problem, no doubt, is that we are awfully ignorant of our own history. For everyone on the list except Sir John A., the CBC's respondents seem to be relying on living memory.

But isn't there a tautology here? The government should be, and is here trying to, promote a Canadian sense of history. Perhaps they are going about it the wrong way. Perhaps, instead of asking the man in the street, they should be asking historians.

May I offer a few more Canadian heroes, whom I think more worthy of remembrance in 2017 than most of those on the list? Note the rules of engagement: these must be only post-Confederation. And my own rule: they must not be divisive figures.

You want women? Catherine Doherty, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Ma Murray, Rose Prince, Alice Munro. Montgomery virtually founded our national literature; Munro has the Nobel Prize. I deliberately omit the usual reference to the Famous Five: divisive, purely self-interested, and proponents of notably bad ideas like eugenics and temperance.

War heroes? Georges Vanier, Billy Bishop, Bill Barker, Raymond Collishaw, Roy Brown, Charles Fox, Thomas Prince.

Sports heroes? Too many! Gretzky, sure, but also Ned Hanlan, Maurice Richard, Bobby Orr, Joe Malone, Frank McGee, Patrick Roy, Howie Morenz, and on and on. Better to stick with those already dead, jut in case someone turns out to be OJ Simpson or Oscar Pistorius.

Literary heroes: Thomas D'Arcy McGee (also political, but I think a unifying figure), Stephen Leacock, Robert W. Service, Emile Nelligan, Thomas Chandler Haliburton, Northrop Frye.

Not to mention, among those hard to classify: “Wild Goose” Jack Miner. Francis Scofield (ask the Koreans). Oliver Avison. St. Andre Bessette. Timothy Eaton. Marshall McLuhan. William Kurelek.

Not to mention scientists and inventors! Alexander Graham Bell, Hans Selye, Sir Sandford Fleming, and so on.

Perhaps you have your own.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Post for Fathers' Day

Romney Redux

You may have heard it here first, or maybe not: Romney is running. There is a tweet going around claiming inside knowledge to that effect. And it tallies with his recent prominence in the media. I believe he will.

He should. For reasons noted here before. A lot of people feel remorse now for voting the other way last time, and would welcome the chance at redemption. After Obama, there will be a thirst for raw competence, for a steady hand at the wheel. Romney gives that sense more than anyone else who comes to mind. And having lost once helps: Romney's greatest liability has been that he seemed too perfect, as if he had never had to break a sweat over anything. Now he looks more human.

He needs more foreign policy chops. But that is true of any of his likely competitors as well. (I'm sticking with my prediction that Hillary Clinton will not be the Democratic nominee, but even if she is, her involvement with the Obama foreign policy will be a liability, not an asset.) He needs to get out in public talking about foreign policy right now--and that is exactly what he is doing.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Depression and Psychiatry

Probasbly the worst thing you can do, if you happen to  be depressed, is to go and see a psychiatrist. Depression is most fundamentally a feeling that the world as you experience it makes no sense. It is a loss of meaning. And the strongest point the psychiatrist is going to put to you, his fiercely held article of faith, is that, yes, your suffering is meaningless. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Does anyone else find this incredible? Just over the wire from the Daily Telegraph in the UK:

"12.10 Iraq's parliament has failed to reach a quorum, officials told AFP, preventing it from voting on a request to announce a state of emergency to deal with the major jihadist offensive.

A senior government official told AFP only 128 of 325 MPs attended, and another official confirmed a quorum was not reached."

I begin to believe ISIS is simply filling a vacuum, that Iraq has no effective government. The insurgents took both Mosul and Tikrit within 24 hours, didn't they? 

At this rate, soldiers are just throwing their weapons away and blending in to the crowd as soon as the ISIS units appear. And they are moving almost as fast as the highways can carry them. And it looks as if the politicians in Baghdad, too, do not want to be easy to find when this is over.

What will the result look like? I assume the Kurds can hold their territory. I expect the Shia in southern Iraq may choose to rely on Iranian intervention to defend them from the Sunni ISIS.

This will not, for the US, be a happy conclusion to their adventure in Iraq.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Beothuk Genocide

No doubt you have heard of the sad fate of the Beothuks, the pre-European inhabitants of Newfoundland. (Well, maybe not pre-Viking). They apparently became extinct as an ethnic group early in the 19th century. This is often trotted out as a guilt trip for European-Canadians.

It should not be. As I read the history, Europeans did their level best for the Beothuks. From 1769, anyone killing a Beothuk was legally guilty of murder, just as if they had killed another European. (And before that, there was precious little law in Newfoundland of any sort). The Newfoundland authorities tried their best on several occasions to befriend the Beothuks, which approaches the Beothuks always rebuffed, sometimes bloodily. But befriending the Beothuks made sense for pure self-interest: the English had no interest in the land, only the fisheries, and would have been delighted to set up a fur trade. It would also, had they understood, have been in the interests of the Beothuks. Such a trade had made Indians further south, such as the Iroquois or Cree, enormously wealthy and powerful.

The Beothuk may have been the same people as the Skraelings, whose implacable hostility forced the Vikings to abandon their Newfoundland settlements in the eleventh century.

The problem seems to have been the Beothuks’ own extreme xenophobia. An island people, they could not deal with the idea that outsiders, meaning any people they had not previously known, were human. This meant a permanent state of war with all comers, the Mikmaqs and Innu as well as the Europeans, despite anyone else’s best efforts to make friends. When the Beothuk woman Demasduit was brought to St. John’s, the governor, hoping to achieve good relations, sent her home laden with gifts. But she warned that, having spoken with the Europeans, she would never be accepted back into her tribe.

The number of Beothuks was probably always small—estimates range from 500 to 3,000 in total at their height. It does not take that great a catastrophe to wipe out that many people over a matter of generations. When the Europeans appeared, the Beothuks chose to retreat inland rather than have to deal with the outsiders, even though at this point the latter only used the shore in summers to dry their catch. This cut the Beothuks off from the fishery, probably their prime food source up to that time. They switched to caribou, but soon hunted them out. Weakened by hunger, they became prey to tuberculosis. The lack of food also caused them to become more aggressive towards the Mikmaqs and Europeans, in hopes of conquering hunting territory or at least seizing food stocks. In this, they were put at something of a disadvantage by their steadfast refusal to adopt firearms. Presumably guns were too foreign a thing to be acceptable.

In these circumstances, some may have been killed by Mikmaqs or by rogue Europeans. But this was not the real story. This was a footnote.

Shanawdithit, last known living Beothuk.

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Bergdahl Affair

The Obama administration's handling of the Bergdahl affair is, to my mind, historic. It will be in the history books. It is the defining moment of Obama's presidency. It is so obviously wrong in so many ways. How could it have happened? Doesn't Obama have advisors?

Two thoughts. First, this illustrates a point David Frum made about George Bush. It is not enough to have good advisors. You will always have conflicting advice, and advice does not come in little packages saying “good” and “bad.” You need to know it when you see it. There is no substitute for a wise and knowledgeable leader.

Second thought: reputedly, Obama has long claimed to be smarter than any of his advisors. He may well think so. If so, as he finds himself increasingly in political difficulties, over Obamacare, the VA, and so on, his instincts may have been to blame his advisors, and rely less and less over time on anyone else's advice. 

The apparent deepening incompetence of the Obama administration may be the result. It would not be the first time hubris has led to a tragic outcome.