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From Kiev to Cairo, The New Protest: Not For Democracy, But Against its Rotten Fruits

Kiev

It seems as if the world has broken out in mass, government-threatening protests: Caracas, Ankara, Bangkok and Kiev are among the capitals that have erupted in flames and clouds of tear gas in recent weeks.

But these aren’t the democracy protests we’ve known during the past two and a half decades. Two things distinguish them:

First, they are mass uprisings not against dictatorships but against governments that came to power through reasonably fair elections in existing (if young) democracies, but then turned against the principles of democracy – by suppressing media and opposition forces, by rewriting laws and by altering constitutions to partisan advantage. These people are protesting against the rotten fruits of democracy.

Second, these protesters are generally not interested in using democratic politics as their instrument of change. New political parties and candidates aren’t emerging from these movements, whose members often see representative democracy as a sideshow. They’re not anti-democratic, but they’ve come to believe that the protests themselves are more democratic than elections.

Read full column in The Globe and Mail

03:52 am, BY dougsaunders[1 note]

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How Europe is Using Immigration to Bring Back Entrepreneurship

Berlin

Germany is probably the only country that could produce a hip-hop hit about the buzz-killing nature of full employment. Yet Rostock-born rapper Marteria’s song Kids, which bitterly laments the boring, thrill-free world where everyone has a good job, says something important about the sub-zero unemployment rate:

All my people are playing golf, driving new Passats
Nobody’s getting Wu Tang tattooed on their ass …
Riot and uproar, those days are long gone –
What happened to my homies who were once everywhere?

As Europe shifts from crisis to recovery, its governments are beginning to express, albeit in rather different language, Marteria’s lament: Everybody’s looking for a job (and, in Germany, getting one), which means that nobody’s doing anything creative or interesting. Specifically, they’re not starting companies: Jobs are returning to established corporations in droves, but there’s little effort to create anything new. This has become a continent full of people who want to work for somebody else.

03:47 am, BY dougsaunders

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Inside the Far-Right Movement That’s Become the Sharp Edge of Ukraine’s Protest

Kiev

For the thousands of protesters camped out in Kiev’s Independence Square, there is a commonly understood rule: stay away from the fifth floor.

Inside the Soviet-era office building that has been seized as a barracks for protest organizers and guards, the fifth floor is blocked, from the moment you attempt to step off the elevator, by a phalanx of grim-faced men in camouflage fatigues, brush cuts and Mohawks, many of them holding iron bars or other improvised weapons. They don’t want visitors.

Photo: Doug Saunders Photo: Doug Saunders

This is the headquarters of Pravy Sektor, or Right Sector, the ultra-right-wing movement, described by some as fascist, whose hundreds of soldiers (they call themselves an army) have become the sharp edge of the two-month-old protest movement that has upturned the politics of Ukraine, cost several lives and forced President Viktor Yanukovych to dismiss the government and promise to reform the constitution.

The great majority of the hundreds of thousands of “EuroMaidan” protesters – who have rallied against Mr. Yanukovych’s rejection of a European Union treaty and his moves toward a deal with Russia – appear to be either supporters of conventional, centrist or liberal opposition political parties, or pro-European citizens without much interest in party politics at all.

But the physical organization of these protests, the building of barricades around squares, much of the camp construction and policing, and the pitched and sometimes deadly battles with police are almost entirely the work of the extreme right. In some of Ukraine’s smaller cities, the local protests and seizures of government buildings appear to have been entirely the work of Pravy Sektor.

Read full article in The Globe and Mail

03:40 am, BY dougsaunders

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How Western Leaders Dropped the Ball on Ukraine

Ukraine should be one of the most hopeful countries in Europe. It has the location, the transportation links, the farmland and factories and the eager population to become a post-Communist success story on the scale of its booming neighbour Poland.

Yet Ukraine is, as everyone can now see, a disaster. And, in good part, it is a disaster because Western governments allowed it to become one. The violence that has consumed the country emerges not from dissatisfaction with a leader – Ukrainians have endured a great many terrible leaders, and this is not a democracy protest – but from the country’s failure to end its crippling isolation from the world’s largest economy, the 28-nation bloc located across its high-security western border.

Ukraine’s prospects for improvement have been frozen for a decade – its companies unable to trade easily across that border, its people unable to seek work freely outside, its small businesses locked out of easy finance, its big businesses dependent on Russian petroleum exports, its institutions stuck in the past with little incentive for reform.

Read full column in The Globe and Mail

03:26 am, BY dougsaunders

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The Arctic Circle: Almost Everything You Thought About the Far North is Wrong

I have just finished convening a series of online panels on the politics, economics, ecology, culture and development of the Far North, and the results make for astonishing reading. Seven of the best Canadian thinkers on Arctic and northern issues gave up a week of their time to this detailed and iconoclastic conversation; I hope their dialogue will have lasting influence.

1. How We Misunderstand the Canadian North

2. The North’s resource boom: Is it prosperity or exploitation?

3. The myth of Arctic sovereignty: Do we really need to defend the North?

4. Is spending public money on the Far North worth it?

5. Is climate change a northern catastrophe or an Arctic opening?

These are the panelists:

Mary Simon has served as Canada’s first ambassador for circumpolar affairs, as president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and as lead negotiator for the creation of the Arctic Council.

Tony Penikett was NDP premier of Yukon from 1985 to 1992, and the Nunavut’s chief devolution negotiator until 2012.

Wade Davis is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, explorer, photographer, filmmaker and author of 20 books focusing on remote and endangered cultures. He is a member of the University of British Columbia’s anthropology department.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC. He is the author of International Law and the Arctic.

Shelagh Grant is the author of Polar Imperative: A History ofArctic Sovereignty in North America and adjunct professor of Canadian studies at Trent University.

John English is the author of Ice and Water: Politics, Peoples and the Arctic Council. He holds academic positions at the University of Waterloo, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

Rob Huebert is associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He has written and researched extensively on Arctic policy and defence issues.

02:56 am, BY dougsaunders[1 note]

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Why the Decline of the West is the Best Thing to Happen to Westerners

We have been hearing warnings about “the decline of the West” for almost a century now, since Oswald Spengler made that phrase the title of his hyperbolic 1918 bestseller. But for the first time, it appears likely that these warnings will become true: By the end of my life, it’s almost certain that Europe and North America will no longer be the world’s largest economic, cultural and military forces.

By 2050, according to a plausible projection by the Asian Development Bank, Asia will have a 51-per-cent share of the global economy, next to 18 per cent for Europe and 15 per cent for North America. This is often discussed as a defeat: If the others become stronger and more successful, doesn’t that mean we’ll become weaker and less prosperous?

But that ignores what’s really happening. In recent years, the West has declined relative to Asia. But it has not declined in absolute terms: Western economies have grown by an average of 1 per cent per year in recent decades; quality of life and income measures have stayed relatively stable or increased slightly. What’s occurring is not a decline, but a global rebalancing: “They” are becoming more like “us,” but we’re no less like ourselves than before.

Is it possible that this could be the best thing that ever happened to our quality of life? That’s a question posed with great rigour by economist Charles Kenny of Washington’s Center for Global Development. Being born in North America or Europe today is “like winning the birth lottery for the human species,” he writes in his book The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West – never has there been a better time or place to be born. Not only that, but, according to projections, “the only thing better than being born today in America or Europe will be the chance to be born tomorrow in those very same places.” He concludes that “the rise of ‘the Rest’ is one big reason why that is true.”

Read full column in The Globe and Mail

04:02 am, BY dougsaunders

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Beyond ousting al Qaeda, did the Afghan war accomplish nothing?

This is the year when we learn whether our long Afghanistan experiment has accomplished anything at all.

In March, Canada will end its rump training mission, withdrawing all but 100 soldiers shortly before international forces hand the country’s security over to the Afghan National Army. For the 47 countries and many thousands of soldiers who were stationed in there, it has been an enormous endeavour, costing about 3,500 lives.

So it is worth asking: What have we done in Afghanistan?

Read full column in The Globe and Mail

We did kick al-Qaeda out. This, the basic legal rationale for the United Nations-mandated war, was accomplished well before 2006. Al-Qaeda moved to Pakistan, then to the Middle East and North Africa.

At that point, another Afghan war began: One theoretically based on counterinsurgency – the notion that building infrastructure, institutions and better lives for ordinary Afghans would switch their loyalty away from the Taliban. This campaign, bolstered by U.S. President Barack Obama’s addition of 30,000 “surge” troops in 2009, was meant to improve the lives of women and children and the governance of villages and provinces, leaving a lasting legacy of stability. Yet it also coincided with a dramatic rise in air strikes.

In recent days, we’ve seen signs that this second war has not succeeded.

The United Nations released figures last week showing that cases of severe malnutrition have increased by 50 per cent or more since 2012. “In 2001, it was even worse, but this is the worst I’ve seen since then,” the head of the malnutrition ward at a major Kabul hospitaltold reporters.

Also last week, Afghanistan’s human-rights commission reported a 25-per-cent increase in cases of violence against women between March and September, amid conditions that approach those of the Taliban years.

The trend accompanies a culture of impunity as international troops and aid workers depart, commission chairwoman Sima Samar told Reuters. “The presence of the international community and provincial reconstruction teams in most of the provinces was giving people confidence … and that is not there any more, unfortunately,” she said. In other words, the soldiers and aid workers were unable to effect lasting improvement beyond their own presence there.

On the surface, there have been measurable improvements in some areas: infant mortality, participation in local government. But there are signs that these gains will not outlast the troops who delivered them.

This month saw the release, to those with security clearance, of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, the comprehensive annual analysis of known political and military conditions built on expert input from all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.

According to The Washington Post, it concludes that any gains observed in Afghanistan since 2006 “will be significantly eroded by 2017,” even if some U.S. troops remain, because “the Taliban and other power brokers will become increasingly influential as the United States winds down its longest war in history.” It says Afghanistan may “descend into chaos quickly if Washington and Kabul don’t sign a security pact that would keep an international military contingent there beyond 2014” – a prospect that looks increasingly uncertain.

This pattern extends to the expensive aid and development programs delivered to Afghanistan  – often at great cost, because in the dangerous southern provinces several soldiers, plus de-mining teams to protect the soldiers, were required for every aid worker who visited a village.

The largest aid program in Afghanistan, the National Solidarity Programme, was recently the subject of a large-scale randomized impact evaluation by its main sponsor, the World Bank. After examining the 32,000 villages receiving aid and its 65,000 development projects, the assessment concludes with sobering words: “an absence of positive effects of infrastructure programmes… The impacts of NSP on economic welfare appear to be driven more by the infusion of block grant resources than by broader impacts of completed projects on economic activity” (in other words, any gains only exist as long as the aid workers are there). And, worse, “NSP increases the incidence of disputes and feuds… endline data indicates that NSP has a negative impact on local governance quality.”

For too many years, supporters of the extended war have misled the public with inflated claims. In 2011, military leaders boasted that average Afghan life expectancy had improved by 20 years over the decade. In fact, CIA figures show that it fell from 46.2 years in 2001 to45 years in 2011. Life expectancy rose somewhat during the next three years – but, as some observers have noted, not much more than it rose during the worst Taliban years.

In terms of human development, Afghanistan rose above the awful figures of the Taliban years during the initial 2001-02 campaign – then barely budged. Politically, the country’s near future appears certain to involve the Taliban, with all that entails. A new large-scale study has found that Afghans, after experiencing acts of war, overwhelmingly choose to shift their allegiances to the Taliban over NATO forces, and not vice versa.

Such post-transition Afghan leaders, a former CIA Afghanistan chief and a Defence Department analyst have written in a new analysis, are “likely to subject the Afghan people to brutality and oppression at pre-2001 levels … Should this take place, the United States and its allies can consider the last 12 years … a costly failure.”

That should be the starting point for our self-examination: Did this huge exercise fail to make things better in Afghanistan, or did it actually make things worse?

03:53 am, BY dougsaunders

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Turks Wonder How We Missed Erdogan’s Slide Into Demagoguery

A few years ago, it seemed as if Turkey’s Prime Minister was an unstoppable force, an almost unblemished leader who won successive majorities, oversaw an unprecedented economic expansion and somehow seemed to please, or at least avoid deeply offending, most of his country’s embattled constituencies.

And then, almost overnight, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s once-secure government seemed to topple into a cesspit of corruption accusations, demagoguery and pitched infighting. To outside observers, it has seemed like a shockingly rapid fall – though some Turks say we should have been watching more closely.

Read full column in The Globe and Mail

02:47 pm, BY dougsaunders

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Right About the Machines, Wrong About the People

In 1961, a group of scientists at Bell Laboratories tried to predict what an ordinary working day would be like in “the far-out future” – that is, more or less now.

“They see a turn-of-the-century business executive busy at his job,” Life Magazine wrote of their predictions. “He is sitting in his garden at home, and on his wireless pocket phone is hashing over a problem with his sales manager. Then he rings off, pushes a few buttons to dial his secretary who, from her own home, takes the boss’s dictation. The dictating session over, the boss … reads the mail that has come in at his deskside … ‘I’d better get the boys together,’ he decides. He pushes buttons on his picture phone. Soon half a dozen other executives are on the screens looking at each other and talking.”

Read full column in The Globe and Mail.

Here’s the 1961 Life Magazine article that provoked this column:

 

Life1

…and the scientists who devised this futuristic vision:

Life6

04:23 am, BY dougsaunders

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Holiday Inflation: Why the Whole World is Overspending on Bling

Let’s try to add it all up: There’s $110 for the tree, $70 for the wreath, $50 for lights. Plus $150 (on sale) for party-grade shoes, because the old ones were ruined by salt.

Then $80 for the turkey, $130 for the ham, $190 for the prime rib, $200 for wine and beer, $120 for champagne, that much again for the overpriced cheese plate, and don’t forget that $40 bottle of brandy because Aunt Mavis will be here.

Add all the trimmings, and we’re deep into the four figures before we’ve even thought of gifts. Six days later, we go and do it again for the New Year’s Eve party.

It doesn’t make sense, does it? This was a tough year and we’re in considerable debt, so maybe we could cut back. But we don’t. Spending more than you can afford isn’t just a side effect of the holidays – it’s the whole point. This, all else aside, is a time for largesse and self-sacrificing excess.

Economists have long been baffled by it: Spending weeks of pay on a holiday-feast blowout is not something that fits into the traditional rational-actor models of economic thought. Moralists denounce it as the wealthy West’s commercialization of a formerly austere and religious moment; back when the Christians occupied the ancient Dec. 25 holiday (and got the naming rights), we didn’t do this sort of thing, did we? Our merchandise-focused society has obviously vulgarized the sacred.

Actually, holiday inflation is not unique to the wealthy, the postreligious, the capitalistic or the Western world. Ruinous overspending on feasts and festivals is one of the great global phenomena, one that unites almost everyone these days.

Read full column in The Globe and Mail

04:31 pm, BY dougsaunders