Democracy Gone Astray

Democracy, being a human construct, needs to be thought of as directionality rather than an object. As such, to understand it requires not so much a description of existing structures and/or other related phenomena but a declaration of intentionality.
This blog aims at creating labeled lists of published infringements of such intentionality, of points in time where democracy strays from its intended directionality. In addition to outright infringements, this blog also collects important contemporary information and/or discussions that impact our socio-political landscape.

All the posts here were published in the electronic media – main-stream as well as fringe, and maintain links to the original texts.

[NOTE: Due to changes I haven't caught on time in the blogging software, all of the 'Original Article' links were nullified between September 11, 2012 and December 11, 2012. My apologies.]

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Can Citizens United be Rolled Back?

On Thursday evening, residents of 83 towns and cities throughout the country—places like Marietta, Georgia, and East Troy, Wisconsin, and Anchorage, Alaska—will make their way to the home of a friend or neighbor or outright stranger for a night of partying. But these aren't holiday parties. They're the ground-level rumblings of a growing campaign to roll back one of the most game-changing Supreme Court decisions in recent memory, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

In a year packed with populist uprisings, in which Time named "the protester" its person of the year, the fight against Citizens United is gaining momentum with battle fronts in Congress, statehouses, city halls, and the homes of hundreds of Americans. The decision, handed down in January 2010 by the court's five conservative justices, effectively gave corporations the same free speech rights as people, gutted key provisions of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and green-lighted unlimited spending by corporations and labor unions in American elections. Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a pro-reform campaign finance organization, called it "the most radical and destructive campaign finance decision in Supreme Court history."

There's No Hiding From Tar Sands Oil

Recent debate over the Keystone XL oil pipeline has turned a spotlight on Canada's controversial and oil-rich tar sands, which would be the source of crude oil flowing through the pipe to the Gulf of Mexico. Tar sands oil has faced stiff criticism from environmental groups, which say that it's far dirtier than its Middle Eastern counterpart despite claims from the Canadian government and industry groups that they keep a close eye on environmental impact.

But long before the Keystone XL became a cause célèbre, tar sands oil was already ubiquitous in America: It goes to fuel our cars and corporations' trucking fleets, and it's used in the production of products from aluminum cans to asphalt. Starting last year, San Francisco-based environmental advocacy group Forest Ethics launched a campaign to encourage American companies to boycott tar sands oil and, specifically, the refineries that process it (below).

The 1 Percent, Revealed

"Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs."—E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class

The "other men" (and of course women) in the current American class alignment are those in the top 1 percent of the wealth distribution—the bankers, hedge fund managers, and CEOs targeted by the Occupy Wall Street movement. They have been around for a long time in one form or another, but they only began to emerge as a distinct and visible group, informally called the "superrich," in recent years.

Extravagant levels of consumption helped draw attention to them: private jets, multiple 50,000 square-foot mansions, $25,000 chocolate desserts embellished with gold dust. But as long as the middle class could still muster the credit for college tuition and occasional home improvements, it seemed churlish to complain. Then came the financial crash of 2007-08, followed by the Great Recession, and the 1 percent to whom we had entrusted our pensions, our economy, and our political system stood revealed as a band of feckless, greedy narcissists, and possibly sociopaths.

Peter MacKay Hotel Expenses: Minister Stayed At Pricey Accommodations In Munich And Istanbul While Staff Slept More Cheaply

Defence Minister Peter MacKay stayed in posh hotels during trips to Munich and Istanbul while his staff stayed in much less expensive accommodations.

MacKay billed taxpayers $2,904 for the two nights he spent at the Bayerischer Hof while in Munich for a security conference in February 2010, according to information obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) under Access to Information. His staff stayed at the Munich Park Hilton for $239 during the same trip, an eight minute drive away from the Bayerischer Hof.

Previous to Mackay's luxurious Munich stay, he had been in Istanbul for a meeting of NATO defence ministers, where he billed taxpayers $2,310 for three nights at the Ceylon Intercontinental Hotel. His bill included roughly $45 for meals. His staff stayed at the same hotel during the trip, but for $276 per night as opposed to $770 per night.

The Bayerischer Hof bills itself as a hotel for those who demand the best, "From queens to Hollywood legends to pop stars." It boasts five star accommodations.

The Ceylon Intercontinental is less exclusive, but also bills itself as a five star hotel.

Asked to comment, MacKay's spokesman Jay Paxton told Huffington Post Canada booked in the same hotel in which the conference was taking place.

Harper laws for Harper government?

Is Canada governed by the rule of law -- or only by the laws acceptable to the party in power? The difference, obviously, is not mere semantics. It is the difference between democracy and authoritarianism, between constitutional government and the exercise of arbitrary power by a temporary partisan majority.

These fundamental issues arise from the Harper Conservatives' decision to abolish the Canadian Wheat Board's single desk without holding a vote among western wheat and barley growers as required by the CWB's statute.

The government believes the laws passed by one Parliament can be repealed by another -- period. But in the opinion of some constitutional scholars -- and Justice Douglas Campbell of the Federal Court -- statutes that bestow specific rights, such as the CWB's provision for a producer vote on any change to the board's mandate, are of a different order and the government is required to respect them.

Justice Campbell quotes Peter Hogg, former Osgoode Hall law dean and author of the definitive work on Canadian constitutional law. He advised governor general Michaëlle Jean during the 2008 prorogation crisis. Hogg's constitutional text, Constitutional Law of Canada, states "while the federal Parliament or provincial legislature cannot bind itself as to the substance of future legislation, it can bind itself as to the manner and form of future legislation... Moreover, the case law, while not conclusive, tends to support the validity of self-imposed manner and form requirements."

Putin rejects rerun of Russian elections

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rejected calls for a rerun of parliamentary elections, but said recent protests over the results are acceptable as long as protesters remain lawful.

"The results of this election undoubtedly reflect the real balance of power in the country," Putin said in an annual televised chat with the nation on Thursday. "It's very good that United Russia has preserved its leading position."

The prime minister — whose party suffered embarrassing setbacks in recent balloting and who himself will be running for president in March — said that the opposition may take its claims of fraud to the courts.

"The fact that people express their opinion … is an absolutely normal thing as long, of course, as everybody acts within the framework of the law," he said.

But he also accused protest organizers of working to destabilize the country on orders from the West.

"That's a well-organized pattern of destabilizing society," Putin said.

Ford denies claims that Toronto has walked away from union talks

Mayor Rob Ford took the to the airwaves Thursday morning to reject claims that the city has walked away from the bargaining table with its outside workers.

Speaking on CP24, the mayor said any accusation that City Hall has cut off negotiations with CUPE Local 416 are “factually incorrect.”

“We didn’t walk away from the table,” he told interviewer Stephen LeDrew. “We’re bargaining in good faith. That’s what we want. That’s what the taxpayers want. If the other side wants to spread stories, I can’t help that.”

The mayor was responding to a press release issued by Local 416 late Wednesday contending that city negotiators had dropped talks with the union and filed for conciliation after the union rejected a proposal to replace some full-time workers with part-time workers across multiple city divisions. Such a move would push the city one step closer to a strike or lockout in January, an outcome both union and city sources say is inevitable.

If a province-appointed conciliator cannot hammer out a deal between the parties, the Minister of Labour will issue a “No Board” report, giving both sides 17 days before they’re in a legal strike or lockout position.

“We have been and remain ready to bargain, but the city’s approach has been to use the process in an effort to provoke Local 416 and our members into a reaction,” said Mark Ferguson, president of Local 416, in the release. “Let me be perfectly clear. Our members understand what is at stake for our community and we will not be provoked.” A request for conciliation is tantamount to declaring a stalemate in collective bargaining.

MacKay spent $1,450 a night while staff settled for $275 hotel rooms

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is accusing Defence Minister Peter MacKay of living like a king while attending conferences in Europe.

The watchdog group has uncovered hotel bills through access-to-information laws that show the minister spent $1,452 a night for a two-night stay at a luxury hotel in Munich and $770 a night for three nights in Istanbul, Turkey.

Gregory Thomas, national director of the taxpayers federation, says the bills go beyond what most people would consider reasonable and pointed out that, in the case of the 2010 Munich visit, the Defence Minister’s staff had rooms in the same hotel for $276 a night.

He says his group decided to file an access request for Mr. MacKay's expenses after it was revealed in September that the Defence Minister had a search-and-rescue helicopter pick him up from a Newfoundland fishing lodge.

Mr. Thomas denies that the group is singling anyone out and says that the federation has requests in on other ministers as well.

He says cabinet ministers shouldn't be expected to stay in “dumps” when they travel, but the federation believes Mr. MacKay could have gotten a room for the same cost as his staff.

Source: Globe 

TransCanada to boost Keystone XL pipeline

Buoyed by renewed pledges of customer support, TransCanada Corp. (TRP-T43.100.491.15%) said on Thursday it not only wants to proceed with its stalled Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline but to undertake a $600-million (U.S.) expansion and extension.

The company is betting its proposed expansion of the original $7-billion plan to carry Alberta oil sands crude to the Gulf Coast will hammer home Keystone’s economic benefits to politicians and trump the environmental worries that have prompted a lengthy delay in its U.S. approval process.

TransCanada said shippers for Keystone XL, target of vocal protests by green groups and Hollywood celebrities for much of 2011, have backed a 19-per-cent increase in capacity as well as plans to build an extension to Houston-area refineries.

The move, which is subject to the delayed regulatory approval, would boost capacity for the oil sands crude to 830,000 barrels a day from 700,000.

It would also double the refining capacity on the Gulf Coast accessable by Keystone XL, the Calgary-based company said. It expanded the proposal after an “open season” in which customers made conditional shipping commitments.

The beefed-up proposal has no bearing on the U.S. State Department’s deliberations on approving the project, TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said.

Rob Ford: Land transfer tax will be reduced next year

Mayor Rob Ford says the land transfer tax will be reduced next year, perhaps by 25 per cent.

During his election campaign, Ford promised to abolish the tax immediately upon taking office. Late in the campaign, he said he might have to wait until 2012. He has hedged further as mayor, promising to abolish the tax by the end of his four-year term.

In an interview with CP24’s Stephen LeDrew on Thursday morning, he said, “We’re going to start working on that this year.”

“I can’t say we’re gonna wipe it out this year, but it might be a quarter this year, a half next year, or — you know, but we’re gonna do it piece by piece. You’re gonna see a portion of the land transfer tax, I don’t know how much right now, be gone by the end of next year,” Ford said.

Ford has repeatedly argued that Toronto does not have the money to pay for its programs and services even with the lucrative tax, which is expected to generate about $300 million in 2011. He will face stiff council resistance if he attempts to reduce it.

"Worker-Owners of America, Unite": Will Cooperative Workplaces Democratize U.S. Economy?

As the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to protest record levels of wealth and income inequality, we turn to an author who says the U.S. economy might be becoming more democratic. Gar Alperovitz argues in an op-ed in today’s New York Times that we may be in the midst of a profound transition towards an economy characterized by more democratic structures of ownership. Alperovitz finds that 130 million Americans are members of some kind of cooperative, and 13 million Americans work in an employee-owned company. He says the United States may be heading towards something very different from both corporate-dominated capitalism and from traditional socialism. “I think we’re seeing a change in attitude — both increasing doubts about what’s now going on in the economy — deep doubts, very deep doubts: thanks to occupation it’s crystallized. But this other trend of saying ‘What do you want? Where are we going?’ In some ways to democratize the economy in a very American way,” Alperovitz says.

Source: Democracy Now! 

UN issues first report on human rights of gay and lesbian people

15 December 2011 – The first ever United Nations report on the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people details how around the world people are killed or endure hate-motivated violence, torture, detention, criminalization and discrimination in jobs, health care and education because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

The report, released today by the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, outlines “a pattern of human rights violations emerges that demands a response,” and says governments have too often overlooked violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Homophobic and transphobic violence has been recorded in every region of the world, the report finds, and ranges from murder, kidnappings, assaults and rapes to psychological threats and arbitrary deprivations of liberty.

LGBT people are often targets of organized abuse from religious extremists, paramilitary groups, neo-Nazis, extreme nationalists and others, as well as family and community violence, with lesbians and transgender women at particular risk.

“Violence against LGBT persons tends to be especially vicious compared to other bias-motivated crimes,” the report notes, citing data indicating that homophobic hate crimes often include “a high degree of cruelty and brutality.”

Lying politicians undermine the currency of democracy

Dirty tricks have always been part of politics. So it’s hard to know when to call any development a new low.

But when the Conservatives admitted in November that they were spreading a false rumour about Liberal MP Irwin Cotler in his Montreal riding, it had that feel.

It wasn’t even the act itself, odious though it was, but the defence of it by Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan, who characterized it as a matter of freedom of speech.

The rumour, which has dogged Cotler ever since he first won in the riding a dozen years ago, was used by a firm hired by the Conservatives as a reason for calling constituents in his riding of Mount Royal to identify Conservative supporters.

If they asked why they were being called, they were told that there was a rumour Cotler was leaving and there might be a byelection.

Compare and contrast: Those Attawapiskat numbers vs. Toronto numbers

Should Toronto be put under third-party management? That community has been running a deficit for years, and the combined total of all government spending (federal, provincial and municipal) is $24,000 a year for each Torontonian.

Attawapiskat, on the other hand, which is only funded by one level of government -- federal -- received $17.6 million in this fiscal year, for all of the programs and infrastructure for its 1,550 residents. That works out to about $11,355 per capita in Attawapiskat.

People often forget, when talking about costs of delivering programs and services to First Nations, that almost all those costs are paid from one pot: Aboriginal Affairs. By contrast, non-Aboriginal Canadians receive services from at least three levels of government.

Occupy Christmas

Car accidents, divorce, oil spills, and war all boost the economy. Does mad consumerism fall into the same category?

On Nov. 25, referred to as “Black Friday” in the U.S., a woman pepper-sprayed fellow customers at a California Wal-Mart during a mad rush to get a bargain-priced Xbox. In North Carolina, it was police who used pepper spray to subdue shoppers hell-bent on getting deals on electronic gadgets during the biggest shopping day in the country.

Despite these, and other, incidents, including shootings, U.S. business leaders are buoyed by an expected rise in consumer spending – to nearly $500 billion this year – in the shopping season, which begins the day after U.S. Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, Adbusters, the Vancouver magazine that sparked the worldwide Occupy protests, is encouraging supporters to “Occupy Christmas” by boycotting holiday gift shopping, among other actions. (Adbusters also popularized Buy Nothing Day, which fell on Black Friday this year.) The prospect of a seasonal shopping boycott isn’t making people in the retail industry jolly. Retail Council of Canada spokesperson Sally Ritchie said such protests would hurt businesses and working people when the global economy is in turmoil.

Rob Ford's approach: Create a crisis — then slash and burn

The city’s proposed budget for 2012 finally shows that the election slogan of “No service cuts, guaranteed!” was never meant to be honoured. For there are cuts all round — in nearly every city department, in community and arts grants, in services for the poor, in transit service, in library hours . . . the list goes on and on.

The mayor and his supporters have made it clear that their objective is to dramatically shrink city government, cut its workforce and outsource as many jobs as possible. To justify that, they “invented a crisis” with a deficit number that has been fictional since the day after its inception, along with deliberate cuts to city revenue.

Now there is a stunning list of cuts outlined to the different city services, along with more user fees. It is clear that none of these cuts need to be made — but the mayor’s office has made choices and expects councillors to fall in line with these choices. Closing a shelter for seniors in Scarborough, swimming pools in east Toronto, and less ice time in Weston represent minimal cost savings, but each are important for our communities.

University of Vermont Frat Asks Members: Who Would You Like To Rape?

MONTPELIER, Vt. — A University of Vermont fraternity has been suspended while school officials, national organization leaders and police investigate allegations that a survey was circulated among members asking them who they would like to rape.

Members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter would not discuss the allegations Wednesday.

A student reported the questionnaire to school officials over the weekend, school officials said, leading both the university and the national Sigma Phi Epsilon organization to suspend the chapter temporarily. The school is investigating how widely the survey was circulated, and the campus police department is trying to determine if any crimes have been committed.

The survey question was "incredibly offensive and inappropriate," said Annie Stevens, the university's associate vice president for student and campus life.

University officials contacted the national fraternity, which said Wednesday that it has instructed the chapter to cease all operation, pending further investigation.

1 In 4 American Women Attacked By Intimate Partner

ATLANTA -- It's a startling number: 1 in 4 women surveyed by the government say they were violently attacked by their husbands or boyfriends.

Experts in domestic violence don't find it too surprising, although some aspects of the survey may have led to higher numbers than are sometimes reported.

Even so, a government official who oversaw the research called the results "astounding."

"It's the first time we've had this kind of estimate" on the prevalence of intimate partner violence, said Linda Degutis of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The survey, released by the CDC Wednesday, marks the beginning of a new annual project to look at how many women say they've been abused.

One expert called the new report's estimate on rape and attempted rape "extremely high" – with 1 in 5 women saying they were victims. About half of those cases involved intimate partners. No documentation was sought to verify the women's claims, which were made anonymously.

But advocates say the new rape numbers are plausible.

Wave of Restrictive Voting Laws Prompts Federal Probes, Grassroots Activism Ahead of 2012 Elections

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is vowing to ensure the protection of voting rights in more than a dozen states that have recently enacted controversial laws. Supporters of the laws, backed largely by Republicans, say they are meant to stamp out voter fraud. "When people move on their fears, they make bad law,” says NAACP CEO Ben Jealous, co-author of a new report that argues the new laws amount to a coordinated and comprehensive assault on minorities’ voting rights at a time when their numbers in the population and at the ballot box have increased. Students, former felons and elderly voters may also be impacted. On Saturday, the NAACP helped organize a voting rights march in New York, starting at the offices of Koch Industries in order to highlight how billionaire conservative financiers David and Charles Koch have financed the push for voter ID laws. We also speak with Bob Edgar, a former Pennsylvania congressman and the President and CEO of Common Cause. He supports pending legislation, the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, as a way to reaffirm the nation’s commitment to voting rights and free and open elections. "We’re the only nation in the world that has federal elections without federal rules for election,” Edgar says.

Source: Democracy Now! 

U.S. CEO Pay Jumps Minimum Of 27 Percent Last Year, Survey Finds

While the incomes of so many Americans remain the same size or get smaller, corporate chiefs can't say they're suffering in quite the same way.

American CEOs saw pay increases of between 27 and 40 percent last year, according to a GovernanceMetrics International survey cited by the Guardian. In addition, the median value of CEOs profits on stock options jumped to $1.3 million from $950,400.

This, even after Congress passed financial reform regulations that included provisions aimed at making CEO pay more transparent by allowing shareholders to weigh in.

The survey's findings may resonate with Occupy movement activists, who have been railing against income inequality since the protests first started. Indeed, CEO pay by itself exceeded the amount that his or her corporation paid in income taxes in at least 25 cases last year. And in the year before America's highest-highest-paid corporate chief netted more than $145 million, U.S. median income fell to below $27,000, meaning half of all earners made less than that.

U.S. Poverty: Census Finds Nearly Half Of Americans Are Poor Or Low-Income

WASHINGTON -- Squeezed by rising living costs, a record number of Americans – nearly 1 in 2 – have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income.

The latest census data depict a middle class that's shrinking as unemployment stays high and the government's safety net frays. The new numbers follow years of stagnating wages for the middle class that have hurt millions of workers and families.

"Safety net programs such as food stamps and tax credits kept poverty from rising even higher in 2010, but for many low-income families with work-related and medical expenses, they are considered too `rich' to qualify," said Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan public policy professor who specializes in poverty.

"The reality is that prospects for the poor and the near poor are dismal," he said. "If Congress and the states make further cuts, we can expect the number of poor and low-income families to rise for the next several years."

Congressional Republicans and Democrats are sparring over legislation that would renew a Social Security payroll tax cut, part of a year-end political showdown over economic priorities that could also trim unemployment benefits, freeze federal pay and reduce entitlement spending.

Jacques Chirac, France Former President, Found Guilty Of Corruption

PARIS -- A French court found former President Jacques Chirac guilty of embezzling public funds to illegally finance the conservative party he long led, in a historic verdict Thursday with repercussions for his legacy and France's political elite.

Chirac, a savvy world diplomat and icon of France's ruling establishment for decades, will not go behind bars but was handed a two-year suspended sentence that goes on his criminal record. Anti-corruption crusaders, long frustrated by dirty dealings in the French political machine, rejoiced at the conviction.

He's the first former French head of state to face prosecution since the World War II era. But the 79-year-old former leader did not take part in the trial, after doctors determined that he suffers severe memory lapses.

The court said Thursday it had found Chirac guilty in two related cases involving fake jobs created at the RPR party, which he led during his 1977-1995 tenure as Paris mayor. He was convicted of embezzling public funds, abuse of trust, and illegal conflict of interest.

Chirac repeatedly denied wrongdoing. It took years to get him to trial because he enjoyed immunity from prosecution during his 1995-2007 presidential tenure, during which he led France into the shared euro currency and became the global champion of opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Immigration Minister Kenney moving ethnic-outreach strategy to Montreal ridings

PARLIAMENT HILL—Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has shifted his Conservative Party ethnic-vote outreach to Montreal, following the party's electoral gains in the Toronto region last May.

But opposition MPs said Mr. Kenney’s (Calgary Southeast, Alta.) own public announcements and voting results from the May election show there is likely only one target Mr. Kenney has in his sights for now—the Mount Royal Liberal bastion now held by former justice minister Irwin Cotler.

Mr. Cotler and Montreal NDP MP Tyrone Benskin (Jeanne-Le Ber, Que.) said the dynamics and political views of recent and past immigrant communities are entirely different in Montreal, likely most of Quebec, compared to the greater Toronto area and, despite the recent attacks against Mr. Cotler, are likely to flop.

“The various communities of new arrivals in Montreal are very aware of what’s happening here in Ottawa as far as the Conservatives are concerned. They’ve expressed to me a lot of concern about that, about how things are being done and how they seem to be targeted as election props as opposed to actually caring about their issues, and these are things that are coming to me from my constituents,” Mr. Benskin told The Hill Times.

Quitting Kyoto could cost Canada down the road

Few issues have attracted international attention to Canadian policy like the withdrawal from the Kyoto accord. There was a wave of international criticism. Will Canada face a real cost?

Probably not, for now. Some climate hits have already been taken. But there is a bigger potential cost down the road.

There’s politics in climate change and money at stake in talks. Moral arguments aside, the politics will matter.

Canada’s Kyoto withdrawal was an unusually big news story for a country that gets little mention, playing as a big deal in international media. It was a top Web-hit story for the BBC. Reporters kept asking U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern about Canada. Canada’s emissions story jumped to the masses. It could be the new seal hunt. Japan and Russia won’t meet Kyoto targets either, but Canada withdrew and got headlines.

There was also pointed criticism from countries such as China and France, and many more.