Saturday, June 24, 2006

Screwed for Crude

-On Softwood Lumber, Nafta, and Oil-

An editorial by Dante Lee at National Public Radio's site put me on the issue of Softwood lumber. It's a good article, and can be found here:

Comforting the Comfortable

Note: this site requires registration to post articles, but you can visit as a guest.

Canadians (or some of them, anyway) are quite familiar with "the theory that American timber companies are at a disadvantage in the global marketplace." There is a dispute between our countries over softwood lumber that has been going on for many years now. Under the NAFTA agreement, the US cannot tariff lumber imported from Canada, but has been applying such a tariff anyway. Canada has thrice appealed to the WTO, and three times the US has been ordered to rescind the tariff and pay back the more than $5 Billion already collected. Which order they have ignored.

So, ho-frickin'-hum, who cares? Well, here's the kicker. The US congress has actually tried to pass a bill that would transfer this $5 Billion out of general revenues, and DIVY IT UP AMONG THE LUMBER COMPANIES! I hope you are as outraged as I was when I heard this. Wait, there's more. The bill made it to the Senate, where the vote to ratify was tied. This of course brought in Dick Cheney who as Vice President gets the tie-breaking vote, which he used to kill the bill, known as the Byrd amendment. This is to my knowledge the only act Cheney has made as Vice President that I agree with.

Now you might well ask at this point why Cheney would do such a thing, since he has otherwise unrelentingly kissed the bloated doublewide ass of the corporate establishment. Well, there is a little-known provision in NAFTA that requires Canada to export 60% of its oil production to the US. The only way we can reduce our exports is if we reduce our own domestic consumption of oil. A related provision prohibits Canada from selling oil domestically at a lower rate than it charges the US.

Contrary to common belief, the US now imports more oil from Canada than it does from its second-biggest supplier, Mexico. Saudi Arabia, who everyone thinks is the largest supplier, has slipped to third. I guess if you see George Bush holding hands with a Saudi prince, you just make assumptions. No, not those kind of assumptions.

Canadian oil is, needless to say, much more secure politically, geographically and militarily. Cheney is well aware that if Canada were to use the softwood lumber dispute to withdraw from NAFTA, China and India would quickly move to bid on the oil that would be freed up. US security would be threatened.

For deep background on the Senate vote, (which took place Dec 22, 2005, before our last election gave us a Conservative government more friendly to US corporate interests), look here:

US Loses Softwood Ruling

For an update on how the new Conservative Government of Canada is now co-operating to resolve this dispute, look here:

U.S. raises duties on Canadian softwood lumber

For info on the NAFTA provisions that earmark Canadian oil for US consumption, look here:

What Your Mama Never Told You About NAFTA

While this issue may seem boring and irrelevant to a vast majority, it is worth bringing up a few key points. First, the protectionist policy exhibited here may be good for the US lumber industry, but it is bad for the much larger construction industry, as well as those US consumers who are building a new home or adding on to an existing one. The group I have the most sympathy for are those who are trying to rebuild homes and businesses after the devastation of hurricane Katrina. Second, the dubious method used to resolve the dispute does nothing to provide those consumers with any relief, merely transferring the benefits of an unfair tariff from American to Canadian coffers. The $900 Million tax cut mentioned in Dante's article may be compensation to the lumber companies for the much larger amount they expected to unfairly receive under the older scheme. Finally, I daresay that if more Canadians were aware that so much of Canada's oil production was earmarked as already belonging to the US while still in the ground there would be considerably more opposition to our continued participation in NAFTA.

Further to this discussion are the disastrous ecological and legal consequences of this aspect of the NAFTA deal, which are the subject of an article by the Canadian group Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), which is here:

The High Cost of the Oil Sands

Canada has passed its peak of conventional oil supplies, and though TRILLIONS of barrels are trapped in the Alberta oil sands, those reserves cannot be extracted without using a lot of energy. This greatly contributes to the amount of CO2 emmisions Canada produces, and will eventually make it impossible for us to comply with our Kyoto accord obligations. Nonetheless, "A barrel of syncrude oil is profitable to produce as long as it’s priced above $30 or so. Transportation is what most of the oil is being used for, and enough drivers are willing to pay far more than $30 for the 490 km that that barrel of oil will take a Chevy Avalanche."

"Under a 1997 federal-provincial agreement.. oil sands projects are eligible for a plethora of tax deductions and a reduced royalty rate of just 1% of revenues until all capital costs are recovered." It should scarcely be any surprise then that CPJ calls for, "a renegotiation or an exit from NAFTA and an end to subsidization of the petroleum sector." What worries me is that the US has had a recent history of parking large numbers of M1A-Abrams tanks on and around oil reserves that it covets. I don't think the Abrams goes quite as far on a barrel of oil as does a Chevy Avalanche, but Alberta is a lot closer to the US than is say, hmmm, I don't know, Iraq.

Update: Dante Lee, who as I mentioned inspired this post, could not believe that Canada was the #1 supplier of petroleum to the US. While this is a recent development, it is nonetheless true. I am relying on data from the US government's Department of Energy, the tables can be found here:

US Department of Energy oil import figures

Thursday, June 22, 2006

My Philosophical Empiricism

In my first self-descriptive statement in the blogger profile I identify myself as a philosophical empiricist. For those of you who do not know the term, it refers to the idea that knowledge is based on experience. The category of experience may include all contents of consciousness or it may be restricted to the data of the senses only (Keeton, 1962). - Wikipedia
For more on empiricism as a philosophical position, follow this link.
The reason I'm bringing this up now is that I was involved last night in a spirited discussion over at Len Hart's blog, The Existentialist Cowboy. Len's on my blogroll now, so you can link through that, or go directly to the comment thread here. Many of the posts on this blog started out as a comment I felt required expansion, but felt it impolite to leave an overly long comment on someone else's blog. In this case, my comments on Len's blog greatly expanded on the blogger profile you see on your right. In defending one's position, that position becomes better defined.
Stephen Neitzke's criticism of what he thought my position to be illustrates that last point. Although I have studied gnosticism, I do not consider myself to be a gnostic. Further to that, I do not define the word gnostic in the same way as most people who do identify themselves as gnostic. Similarly, though I have studied the Bible, I do not feel I would be accepted by most Christians as being one of them, as I reject the writings of St. Paul. A lot of people think that the pollution of a pure primeval Christianity began with Constantine the Great (great big fat bastard in my opinion.) My studies indicate it began with St. Paul who infiltrated the early Christian community and took it over using the laughable cachet given him by his unsubstantiated claim of conversion on the road to Damascus. But I digress.
When I began this blog, I intended to have another one devoted exclusively to the opinions I formed in a study I conducted on early Christian history. I abandoned that idea when I realized that my output was too low to justify more than one blog, let alone two. If I thought that interest was high, I might at least begin to post regularly on the subject. What do you think about that idea?
By the way, I have never completed a college level course in philosophy, though I did audit some classes back in 1972 for a couple of months. My only post-secondary education was a couple of years of trade school studying electronics and computer technology. I think I held my own pretty well regardless. Thanks to all the participants over at Existentialist Cowboy, especially Stephen, who made me sharpen my thinking skills in a way that I haven't in much too long.

"Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress." -- Mohandas Gandhi

Monday, June 19, 2006

Been Right So Long

-It Looks Like Left to Me -

The United States of America is suffering from a condition that I will describe as POLITICAL PARALLAX. I highlight this in the hopes that it will become the accepted term used to describe a phenomenon that though undiscussed is becoming increasingly hard to ignore. My definition of the term is this; everyone, I believe, accepts the fact that America has moved to the right politically for some time now, but Political Parallax is the idea that the gauge or measuring stick used to define that move has also moved to the right. This has had the effect that no-one in the US fully appreciates how far the rightward shift has gone. The reason that no-one grasps the facts is that the shift is the result of a delilberate effort on the part of the right, with a certain amount of collusion from the left.
It's easy to see how this perspective shift has occurred once it is recognized as the result of decades of subtle psyops (from the military term for psychological operations) primarily based on the manipulation of language. A watershed moment in this development came in the 1984 re-election campaign of Ronald Reagan, when the Reagan campaign began talking about liberalism as 'the l-word.' The message being sent was that liberalism was some smutty, dirty thing like S-E-X, that one couldn't openly talk about in public, and certainly not in front of the kids. Whether or not this meme helped Reagan in the short term, it certainly helped the conservative movement in the long term. Incrementally over the last couple of decades, America has heard Republicans talk about liberalism as though it were leprosy. And increasingly America without conscious thought, let alone debate, has come to accept this absurdity as though it were fact. Which, I should emphatically state, it is not.
The Democratic party, it must be said, was apparently unaware of this Republican tactic or its implications, and seemed to be playing the same game under different rules than their opponents. It was like a game of football with one side playing touch rules and the other playing tackle, or even rugby. Democrats would sometimes protest mildly about the unfairness of the game, but they failed to recognize one key thing. The Republicans had made a deliberate decision to NOT play fair. And I must say, they have stuck by that decision assiduously. Their only rule was, has been, and is to win.
This is not to say the Democrats did not respond at all. They did respond, but in the worst way possible. They accepted, whether consciously or not, the absurd idea that liberalism was wrong, and they themselves began moving towards the right. They called this approach 'centrism', and rationalised it as a way to stay relevant, a way to respond to what they saw as the shifting tide of public opinion, and a way for many of them to stay in office. Which brings me back to my original point; as the Democrats moved towards the center, and as the Republicans moved towards the right, the center itself moved towards the right. The Republicans had successfully moved the goalposts of American political discourse.
It is of course nigh unto impossible to quantify the 'right' or 'left' -ness of any given policy or position in politics, so I've kind of put myself on the spot to demonstrate this assertion. Further complicating the analysis is the redefinition of the idea of conservatism over the period in question, and the existence of the libertarian movement which is in some ways very right-wing and in others very left-wing. It might be advisable to start with some simple definition of terms.
In my view the defining characteristic of a society lies in the distribution of wealth and power among its citizens. On the left end of this spectrum is communism, with all members of a society having a small but equal share of both. On the far right would be feudalism and/or totalitarianism, with a tiny minority of the population owning all or nearly all property within a country, and treating the rest as slaves, serfs, indentured servants, or whatever term you want to apply to the destitute and powerless. As a secondary defining characteristic I would point to the degree of economic mobility enjoyed by those citizens. Can someone in a lower echelon advance by merit to a higher one, due to their inate talents and hard work? Will someone from a privileged background retain their advantages, despite being retarded and lazy? Review the career of the current US president before answering that last question.
If we measure the position of US society in practical terms rather than theoretical, it looks very much as though there has been a steady and increasing movement to the right. The wealthiest people in America are much wealthier than they were in Reagan's time, measured both in income and in capital holdings, yet they pay a smaller proportion of taxes than they ever have. The number of people below the poverty line has increased dramatically, as have the number without health care, the number without any pension, the number who do not own their own home, etc. Every few months you might see a small item in the paper, no more than 2 column inches, buried on page 37 or so, saying that the gap between rich and poor has grown larger according to (put name of some social policy institute here.) I'm 53 years old, and I've been seeing this same item in the paper for as long as I can remember. I can NEVER remember seeing an article saying that gap has gotten smaller. Here's an article with data supporting this assertion:

Distribution of Wealth:

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Best Damn Thing

-I've Seen In a Long Time-

The best damn thing I've seen in a long time is a 45-minute streaming video by Robert Newman entitled 'The History of Oil.' It is, in a word BRILLIANT, combining the best elements of entertainment and education that makes students love and remember their favourite professors for the rest of their lives. Newman is at times hilariously comedic, at times deadly serious, and not rarely both simultaneously.

Kudos to sans-culotte for bringing it to my attention, and to Nate at Get In Their Face! for bringing it to his attention. More kudos to sans for his excellent research, which resulted in a great set of links that confirm the accuracy of the information in the video.

Here are the links;
for the video: The History of Oil
and to sans-culotte's post, including his excellent collection of links: History of Oil

Try to find the time to give the video your undivided attention for the first viewing, and take a look at the links while viewing it the inevitable second time.

About the only thing I can think of to add to this is the fact that Robert Newman was one of the writers of the great British (but not, as GWB would misconstrue it 'Great British') comedy series Spitting Image. Which BTW was one of the funniest damn things I have ever seen. Should anyone have links to downloadable episodes of this, I would greatly appreciate them.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Brave New World

-A Tale of Two Systems -

In 1776 the American Revolution was propelled by the idea that it was self-evident that all men are created equal.
(We could get into the contradiction of slaveowners making this declaration, or the exclusion of women, etc., but let's not. Whether Thomas Jefferson was a wealthy plantation owner or not is irrelevant.)
The minutemen, the ad hoc citizen's army who courageously defied the most professional army and navy in Europe, were clearly motivated by one shining hope. That hope was the idea that they could throw off the shackles of a political and economic system that was patently unfair. Feudalism gave some people 'birthright' privileges far above those enjoyed by the lower classes. They contributed little or nothing to society, while parasitically owning, controlling and consuming most of the resources. Most outrageously, they claimed that this situation was natural, and they had somehow been chosen by God to enjoy this disparity.

The system that the American Revolution put in place was touted as, "government of the people, for the people, by the people". Most significantly, a person's station in life under the new system would be determined by talent and hard work, rather than by one's parentage. The new country prospered, largely because the system provided motivation for hard work and development of talent. The writings of Benjamin Franklin best exemplify the optimism and faith in self-sufficiency that were characteristic of this era in history. America went from being a collection of unimportant colonies to a powerful nationhood in short order.

Good old American know-how was the lynchpin of the new country's success, and a system of meritocracy necessarily replaced the bad old system of know-who. Unfortunately, under the regime of Bush and his cronies, the worst elements of the old system have come back.

Conditions in the US are becoming far worse than those that precipitated the American Revolution. An arrogant privileged overclass are allowed to rewrite the rules that govern society to their benefit, with no regard to the harm caused to others. The concentration of wealth and power equals or exceeds that of feudal Europe, while opportunities for social advancement have declined to an all-time low. And yet the peasantry remains blithely complacent, apparently waiting to give their attention to this crisis only when it comes out in a movie starring Tom Hanks.

One distinction differentiates the modern corporate baron from the Peers of Olde England in the 18th century. The peers' capital was tied up in land, and could not conveniently be transferred to another country, whether that be a bank in the Caymans or a factory on the low-wage island of Saipan. This forced a noblesse oblige on the ruling class that is not in effect in this brave new world.

Project for the OLD American century posted this link today;

Cheneys Betting on Bad News

The 'nobility' of old could not act as Cheney and his cohorts have, against the interests of their own country, for to do so would have been to act against their own interests. It has taken over two centuries, but the American system has finally achieved the worst of all possible worlds.