Centre of the Continent

Thoughts from the middle of North America

Practical Socialism — Part Two

I wanted to continue with my thoughts on what is a new breed of socialism in Canada. The federal NDP will be voting on a resolution to remove the word socialism from the party’s constitution this weekend but in no means does that signal the end of the left. Contrarily, it will help to ensure it’s continued prosperity.

In North America, socialism is a frightening word. It’s mere mention brings up irrational connections with communism, Marxism and the totalistic Red Scare of the cold war. I have to admit that I was inspired by Monte Solberg’s commentary for the Ottawa Sun. (Who’s afraid of the NDP? Me! – June 13, 2011 — {LINK} ) The most enlightening aspect of his piece is that for all of the attempts to horrify the reader, I actually found it supportive of the causes the NDP is fighting for. This is utterly amusing.

The New Democrats want to severely limit the interest on credit card debt. This is to help reverse the trend of working people piling up more debt then they can ever pay off. In an interview on Sun TV, Mr. Solberg went so far as to say that this would prevent people getting credit in the first place. This is part of the point. Talk to any debt councillor and they will tell you that the worst issue they have to contend with is companies offering credit to those who in their current financial state, shouldn’t be approved. This is a good thing. Large interest rates on store credit cards and quick convenience store loans are there to compensate for the percentage of bad debt the lenders know they are in store for. It makes much more sense in the long term to not extend bad credit at all. These extended-period, mega-interest monies are usually for unneeded items that to the debtor offer a little short-term gratification. There are cases were this credit is being used for necessities and that is a even bigger issue altogether.

The same goes for cell phones and the fairness measures that the NDP wants to institute. Tempting customers with the latest smart phone and giving to them free for signing a 3-year contract is virtually usury and extortion. In a sensible world consumers should pay for their hardware upfront and then they can come and go as they please. For basic communication, less expensive phones can always be available. This is yet another debt trap that consumers can do without.

Bill Maher likens conservative philosophy to a religion; no matter how much damning evidence may be put in front of them, a conservative continues to have faith in their standard policies. The belief that cutting the taxes of the rich creates jobs and prosperity is just such case. The eight years G. W. Bush was in power were the least productive in the U.S.’s history. With all of the corporate tax-cutting and Wall Street pandering the economy there only netted three million jobs. At the same time, the US federal government nearly doubled it’s debt. It likely won’t happen but the American Government is but weeks away from defaulting on it’s treasury bonds. How can this policy and it’s forced continuation be seen as successful? Yet, it is the model that our own Conservative government wants to follow. Will higher tax rates lead to some corporations leaving Canada? Yes. If a corporation does not wish to be a part of our social structure then it is a taker and is welcome to leave.

Monte Solberg is taking up the cause of the big banks, big telecom and big oil. These are the most profitable sectors in our economy. Show me a major player in any of these fields that even came close to any kind of economic calamity. Can you say the same of your family and neighbours? These companies don’t need government help to make a profit.

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Practical Socialism

I have always been what I like to call a “practical socialist”. To me this is an important distinction and is one I saw the party edging towards in the past election. Those who want to vilify the NDP from both the left and the right are accusing the party of becoming more “Liberal”. Now that’s with a capital “L”. In truth the NDP has always been “liberal” and that’s with a small “l”. What is really happening is a move towards a practical centre.

As a youth I might have originally embraced the Liberal Party but long before any public sponsorship scandal I was privy to some of the nasty inner workings of that party. As I grew older I joined the NDP because I was convinced that there was a higher moral standard within the party and while not perfect, happily I was right. I am anti-Liberal not because all of their ideas are wrong but because the party is corrupt. I am anti-Conservative for the same reason AND their ideas are wrong. I don’t and never have supported every policy the NDP puts forward but I do support the core ideals, principles and priorities.

The key word is priorities. One of the most logical statements I heard Jack Layton make during the last election was when he was asked about better funding for post-secondary education. The NDP would make it a priority to help students get their education “as funds and the economy allows”. That is a practical commitment. Not a promise that may or may not be able to be kept given economic conditions. That is what I think voters started to tune in to and will continue to identify with.

Socialism is an ambiguous word — as is liberalism and conservatism. It will always be true that a party considered in the extremes of any ism is unlikely to ever gain power in a rational society. Exceptions of course made in the case in crisis or revolution and then you typically find one extreme replacing another. The Reform Party and the Alliance had to come towards the centre and become the less threatening and more familiar Conservative party. Realistically, the same will happen with the NDP. This will anger the groups like the socialist caucus within the party but (I hope) they will still be welcome and will stay.

What I have always appreciated is that I am allowed to have a different opinion within the NDP and that opinion has been respected and valued. That doesn’t mean there aren’t rules at election time and that I would undermine a democratically chosen candidate. During a campaign it’s time to put small differences aside and fight for the common good. When that’s done I continue with the debate and discussion.

A good example of this is the fact that I believe in a reformed senate and not it’s abolishment. I agree, however, that in it’s current form it is deeply flawed and should have no say in my governance. There should be a second body of elected legislators with a different mandate from the Commons to assure certain balances. I’m allowed to feel that and if given the chance I would champion my ideas for consideration but I support decisions made by the party as a whole.

Honestly this legitimate move towards the centre while maintaining the core beliefs is a good thing. Within a global market economy it is impossible to govern any other way. A left-leaning party with a deep social conscience is an achievable and worthy goal.

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New Jack City? … or “How To Sell A Tabloid 101”

An Analysis of the June 8, 2011 Winnipeg Sun Lead Story


I must live in the most dangerous city in the world. How do I do it? I mean, and survive?

The Winnipeg Sun loves a good crime story and today is just that – a story. Pumped up by “Angry” Tom Broadbeck’s opinion that the responsibility for crime lies entirely with the provincial NDP in Manitoba. The Sun is a great believer in the “shock and awe” school of journalism. What that means is that they pick a single statistic and / or an example of a horrible crime to fit their agenda. Today’s rag is no exception.


Headline: “NEW JACK CITY” and a photo “illustration” of a man being dragged from his car. Basically a catch-phrase and a dramatization intended to shock readers in believing that this is such a common crime that they caught it on film. Problem is, they didn’t. The “illustration” is just that. It could have been drawn by a fantasy artist. It’s not even based on an actual incident. It “illustrates” something close to a worse case scenario. As long as you’re into fictionalizing the news boys, hire some effects artists and get some fake blood. Just saying — you’re not even doing a good job at doing a bad job.


Don’t open with any sort of thought. Oh no … that might allow a reader to think. Open with the heart-wrenching story of a woman who was carjacked in 2009. The story is tragic as are all the stories of victims. My heart goes out to each and every one. But as for value in a news item it has little. This is what anyone teaching high school level statistics calls anecdotal. It’s good for raising a reader’s blood pressure but serves no other purpose. But there are some real numbers so let’s not leave them out.

In the middle of the page there is a chart that shows the stats for car-jacking incidents from 2004 through 2010. There are many problems with said chart. First, what does it actually refer to? Reported carjackings? Attempted? Failed? There’s more to simple numbers then meets the eye. Also, what was happening before 2004? Was the trend rising or falling? Is this just a statistical blip? We have no way of knowing. Any real analysis needs a much bigger picture then  six years. The chart starts in 2004 at 13, 2005 – 25 (+12), 2006 – 37 (+12) 2007 – 50 (+13). Then in 2008 it drops to 38, spikes at 59 in 2009 and back to 49 in 2010.1

Now, the Sun wants you to believe that we can blame the MPI car immobilizer program for the rise in carjackings. There’s one problem with that and their own chart shows it – the immobilizer program began in 2007. If the rise in incidents had even continued at even the same pace after the program as it had been before then the number for 2010 should have been much higher. From 2004 to 2007 the number increased by 37. If I add 37 to the 2007 number, it adds up to 87, not 49. The chart clearly shows that the numbers were increasing more rapidly BEFORE the immobilizer program. If you were to actually plot a curve for the average rate of increase, it has been dropping since 2007. I will state again, that is since the MPI started the program. All that aside, blaming MPI for this crime is like blaming me for my neighbour getting robbed because I installed a better lock on my door. It just doesn’t make any sense.


Oh Tom. What ever happened to you to make you so angry? I’ll say your angry because it seems to cloud your judgement so often. Today, you followed your paper’s pattern to the letter. You opened your column with the story of a car-jacking. Again, while I’ll assume it’s a true story, it’s anecdotal. To that was added another art-project “Illustration”. Your theory is that to stop crime, put all criminals behind bars longer. That doesn’t work and there’s evidence to back it up. You just delay the inevitable. They will get out eventually and they will commit crimes. Whether it be five years or ten years of twenty years down the road. You (and your aging readers) just hope to keep them in long enough that you won’t have to deal with it. Crime itself is an economic system. Just like any other economic system, as long as there is a demand, someone will attempt to supply. Throw away a criminal and another will take his place. The threat of punishment has been shown unequivocally not to deter. Shut down an avenue of supply and criminals will find another. Why? Because it makes economic and social sense to do so. The only real solution is to make crime unattractive and unprofitable and to replace it with something that is more so.

In 1989 Italy released all offenders with less then three years remaining on their sentences. These criminals were effectively given “suspended” sentences for the remainder of their time. The longer the time remaining, the longer the threatened punishment and the more effective the threat was. With an important exception – dangerous criminals. The threat had no effect whatsoever on the most dangerous offenders.2 Would carjackers be considered dangerous? I would think so.

Let’s look at the most extreme deterrence – death. In the United States, numbers consistently show that murder rates in states without the death penalty are invariably lower then in states with the death penalty. Violence begets violence.3 

A huge 1997 report from the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland to the United States Congress4  (which was largely ignored) looked at every possible crime prevention technique. In the end, there was no correlation between the threat of longer sentences and lowering the crime rate. In fact, the states with the highest incarceration rates and the stiffest sentences remained the states with the highest crime rates. This report looked at decades of data from hundreds of sources. I’m afraid Tom, that six years of stats from one crime doesn’t quite cut it. All columnists should be required to do a little research before they decide that they know what’s best for the criminal justice system. It’s easy to yell and scream and demand vengeance. It takes thought and deliberate planning to actually try and solve a problem.

Overall, crime rates have been falling steadily since the early 90’s and even violent crimes that were lagging behind in their secession have levelled off.5 Unfortunately, that doesn’t sell ad space. One bold headline spouting a half-truth apparently does.

I’m not a “bleeding-heart liberal” mind you. I actually support harsh penalties for harsh crimes. I believe that violent repeat offenders that don’t show remorse or change in behaviour should rarely see the light of day. What I don’t believe is that this will actually lower crime rates. Crime is power, power will fill a void. To tackle crime you have to deal with the reasons the crime is happening. The social causes. The economic need. Youth turn to gangs and crime because they see no other direction to go. As distorted as this view may be, in their minds it is reality. No threat of incarceration or even capital punishment will change that. The same university report mentioned above specifically looked at “scared straight” programs were at risk youth were given a chance to see what life incarcerated was really like and there was shown little effect on the rates of offending for these youth. Right or wrong, the criminals believe that the risk is worth the possible pay-off and that anything that happens can’t be worse then how they perceive their life is now.6

Ask any medical professional and they will tell you that the best way to prevent an infection is to not have conditions that foster it’s growth in the first place. In risky situations be sure to wash your hands and be careful not to cross-contaminate. Crime as a disease is no different. Clean the environment and build up resistance through the development of the community as a whole. Don’t ignore an issue as they are like wounds in this analogy – prone to deadly outbreaks if left alone. Separation from the infected area (amputation) is only a last resort.

Finally, the tabloid media has to take some of the blame for making crime cool. It’s how to get noticed. Want to be on the front page of the Sun? Commit a crime. Do some good for the community and Laurie Mustard gives you a paragraph on page six.

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Works Cited:

1 The Winnipeg Sun, Wednesday, June 8, 2011 – Pg. 2 (Source: Winnipeg Police Service?)

2 C. Montaldo, Do Stiffer Sentences Act as a Crime Deterrent?, About.com Crime / Punishment (Original Italian study published in the Journal of Political Economy)

3 Deterrence: States Without the Death Penalty Have Had Consistently Lower Murder Rates, Death Penalty Information Centre (With data from the US Census and the FBI)

4,6 Sherman, L. W., Gottfredson, D., MacKenzie, D., Eck, H., Reuter, P., & Bushway, S.
(1997). Preventing Crime: What works, what doesn’t work, what’s promising. National
Institute of Justice. Retrieved June 8, 2011 from http://www.ncjrs.org/works/

5 Statistics Canada, Exploring Crime Patterns in Canada, (2005) Catalogue no. 85-561-MWE2005005

Drivers & Cyclists & Pedestrians! Oh My!

This is a post that has been brewing for a long time. I live in the downtown area of Winnipeg and have since I moved here from Kenora in 2005. Living that vacation hotspot, I had to deal with the influx of tourists from Manitoba every summer. Their driving was atrocious but we had the tendency to give them the benefit of the doubt. “They’re from out of town and lost or just not sure of things …”, we’d say. Then I moved here.

To my surprise, these same ‘Toban drivers aren’t any better on home turf. In fact they are as bad or worse. Why is this so, Winnipeg? Nothing got me more upset then seeing Tom Broadbeck’s stories of the “unfair” ticketing of drivers that he would call a “tax grab”. Seriously, Tom? I don’t care what you call it – if any driver is breaking the law then fine them. I don’t care if they were caught in person by an officer, by a traffic camera or by psychic link to a palm-reader in Osbourne Villiage – if they broke the law then they should pay.

Do as many blitzes as you want. Stop every speeder, every diamond-lane sneaker and every amber-means-go-faster driver on the road. Grab all the dollars you can. Ezra Levant calls this the “Nanny State”. He believes specifically that drivers should be able to do whatever they want while driving whether it be texting, doing their make-up, or watching porn and that they should only be penalized when this quantifiably endangers a life. The problem with this thinking is that it means waiting for the accident to happen. At that point the lives may be already ruined or lost. For him this is an issue of freedom. Somehow in North America, we have created in our car-centric society the belief that it is an innate right to drive a car. If you travel in Europe you actually find that in some countries some laws are not as strict as in North America — Germany and it’s Autobahn for example. It’s the attitude that is different. Driving is considered a privilege and treated as such. When such an attitude is prevalent, laws can actually be more lax. People respect their own place and more to the point, the place of others around them.

Respect. That’s what it really comes down to. Creating the right to drive mentality has made the drivers a unique upper-class in their own minds. Those that do not drive by choice or otherwise are looked down upon and so this feeds into the question of ultimate road ownership. Persons that ride the bus or walk to work are of a lesser social standing. This begins as early as age 16 when the young and well to do own or have access to vehicles. You can’t blame the individual drivers for this because they know that the streets and highways were designed around them and in most cases any other forms of traffic are afterthoughts or outright an nuisance. Go to Kenaston without a car — there are few sidewalks and it is clearly designed to get around by car – even within itself. So why wouldn’t a driver think that a system designed for him is owned by him? The cries ring out loud when any attempt to remedy this imbalance is suggested or, God forbid, gets approval.

I have my issues with cyclists and clueless pedestrians too. They need to follow the rules and behave safely as well. I’m sure Tom and Ezra cheered as news of the Winnipeg crack down on cyclists hit the wire a bit ago. As did I. Strange however, I did not see either of them speak about an over-bearing nanny-state or socialist tax grab when it came to those ticketed on bicycles. Guess it didn’t fit their agenda.

Everyone needs to just get along. The rules of the road are important as much as stand-alone protection of the public as they are a guideline for others’ expectations. For example, the law on amber lights is that the driver is expected to stop if it is safe to do so, not if he or she feels like it. Likewise, when you cannot safely get through an intersection because of congestion you are to stop before entering it. If you were to enter the downtown core any given morning, you would believe the opposite on both of these. And then there’s the speeding. Have we not learned by now that especially in an urban setting, it rarely pays to drive faster and weave in and out of traffic like some crazed Indy driver? I particularly remember one day because the car in question was exactly the same as ours. It weaved in and out and passed us a number of times and very nearly caused an accident at one point. Nevertheless, without fail, we would catch up to it every few intersections. Get it picture people? None of these things really get you to your destination faster. Again I say; as far as I’m concerned put a camera at every corner. Blitz drivers every morning and evening rush. Make it truly unprofitable to break the law and fill the coffers at the same time.

Pedestrian, cycle and transit corridors are met with the “but more people drive” argument time and time again. Well yes, more people do drive but that’s the issue. More people need not to drive. There is no solution that favours more cars – no matter what a city does it cannot ultimately keep up with the demand for parking and traffic volume. There is a finite amount of space and dollars. Pedestrian paths and bikeways cost infinitely less to build and maintain and a well designed transit system is infinitely more efficient.

Don’t hate me, Winnipeg drivers. More importantly – please don’t hit me with your car.

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Evolution, Choice & Our Biggest Threat

evolution IHThe single biggest evolutionary event for humans was the development of our intelligence. The ability to face a challenge and use our intellects to overcome it. When the climate got cold, we built better shelters and learned to make fire. When a food source disappeared we found new ones and more efficient ways to get it. When we were stricken with disease, we learned to limit its transition and ultimately attack the sources.

We’re good. Good at what we do. Effectively, we have taken control of our own evolution as a biological species. As good as we are there are entities that are better at it then we are and our choices have in fact, aided our worst enemies. We are complex organisms with multiple cell types and systems.  In this it is difficult to change at the levels of our DNA. Small changes tend to upset our balance to the point that our bodies become no longer viable. Bacteria and viruses are so simple and straight forward that they literally re-write their DNA a little every generation and reproduce in huge numbers. Humans have tamed every environment on earth and have defeated all that have challenged for evolutionary supremacy – except the the single-celled bringers of illness.

Our own advertising admits as much. The best disinfectants on the market proudly boast 99.9% effectiveness. What the ads don’t tell you is that the percentage that doesn’t get killed – that tenth of a percent – is the strongest of the bunch and it is left to reproduce. So you disinfect again and again you kill 99.9% of the germs. Each time the successive generations get stronger. In the same action we are limiting our own immune system to exposure which was thought of as a good thing but doctors are now seeing children coming out of home environments that are so sterile that they have no defences against the bacteria in the outside world at all. So we add bottles of gel that kill the germs at every public place and the cycle continues.

The development of anti-viral medications has barely begun but early evidence is showing that the same pattern is emerging. As we come up with new ways to combat the viruses they mutate and become stronger. With both bacteria and viruses this is a battle that we are unlikely to win. Our species can take hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions, to evolve. Science may be able to develop within a few years or decades given resources to do so – or it may not. Science for all of it’s ability still boils down to a game of chance. New strains of infectious organisms can develop in only months of reproduction.

As a society and as a species, there are couple of directions that we need to go that at first may seem a little counter-intuitive. We need to allow ourselves to get dirty every once and a while. Get a little sick so as individuals our own bodies can get stronger. As with any other system we have, without use – exercise – our immune system can dwindle to ineffectiveness. The best medications need to be developed and used but only when life is threatened or serious complications are likely. New research should look at medications that work more with our own defences and help to build them up in the long term rather then work outside them and allow them to grow weaker. Our best hope in winning lies with ultimately being able to fight without intervention from outside.

With our minds’ abilities, the evolved trait has is less the intelligence itself but evolution as species is rapidly driven by it. We choose our path now and our control over that path grows with every technological advance. Evolution in its natural form has no mind or intelligence. It makes no decisions other then death and survival. By taking control humans now take responsibility our species. We add our own moral implications and short-comings to the mix. Sadly, strip away our science and we are likely less equipped to survive then ever before, therefore technology is irrevocably linked to any future longevity. Our evolution is forever within our control. Increasingly as is the whole of the earth. It is well known the effects we have had on other species’ habitats and survival. One only needs to study the “urban raccoon” to see the result.  It is argued that the raccoons in cities need to be classified as a new sub-species as their instinctual behaviour increasingly differs from that of those in the wild. How long will it be before their DNA shows a change?

Evolution makes no mistakes in a true sense. Each failure is a success in what is learned from it. Intelligent beings can make errors in judgement and choose not to learn from those errors. As we are selecting our evolution we can be the instruments of our own demise. As an individual I can make a decision that can end my life sooner then would be natural. Humans can do the same as a group. The problem is that in a lot of things we a making choices in the dark. Industry is wonderful until we realize the effects of global warming. Making fuel from corn seemed like a wonderful solution until food prices stared to rise. Every action has reactions and consequences both good and bad.

In our mostly democratic and market-driven society, it is the many that hold true power. We elect our leaders and we only products we buy will succeed.

Let’s not screw this up – at least any more then it already is.

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It’s All Bad For You

Cell phones cause cancer.

The carbs in fruit make you fat.

The media can give you a new phobia every day if you let it.

Look, simply put it’s about moderation in all things. Of course there are unfortunate people in the world that need to take extra precautions with their diet or lifestyle. When I really think about it, however, it’s our own culture of excess that has led to these negative habits and behaviors.

Here’s how to combat some of today’s trendy issues.

Don’t fill your plate. It seems simple but my Mother and Grandfather have both told me of dinners in the 7-child home and how food was portioned out of necessity. Sadly now the poor can easily access cheap and fattening processed food. Combine that with the lethargy of poverty, add rampant mental illness and addiction and there is little chance of having any kind of healthy diet. Generally, most of us have an excess of food in our kitchens and we consider a good meal based more on quantity rather then quality. The simple fix is to buy more fresh foods and buy them on a more frequent basis. Only cook what you need. One of my bad habits is to make a large batch of something with the ideas of having leftovers in mind only to go back for a second helping and maybe a third. Reevaluate your caloric need and weigh that with against the next step — activity.

Get up and do something. That’s pretty much it. You don’t need to start an intense exercise regimen … just go for a walk. Then do it again. It’s all a cliche now but that’s because it’s true. Take the stairs. Throw a frisbee. Get a new bike. I think you get the idea.

Turn off your cell phone. (… and your tv … and your computer … and …) This is a tough one for me and probably my biggest challenge. Just turn it off. Disconnect from the world and reconnect with the people around you. Especially at night and get your sleep. There are few things that can’t wait until tomorrow. And on that topic, leave your work at work and set a clear boundary between it and the rest of your life. If you work from home, that division becomes one of time. Make a schedule and stick to it.


When it comes to a healthy and fulfilling life, no word holds more weight. Have a burger and a salad. Work hard and then don’t. Have some wine. Explore your neighborhood and be a neighbor. Sometimes we all need to power down.

I don’t always do as I have said but I try. I have found though, that if these basic principles are applied to any health or social issue that might arise, the solutions hold true.

I’m going to power down … now.

(This is my first try at actually writing a post entirely with my iPod.)