How to view today’s refugee crisis

September 20, 2015


  1. There are seven billion people in the world compared with less than two billion in 1900. Some are much better off economically and in other ways than others. The less well off try to improve their circumstances, either where they now live or by moving to better (wealthier) countries.
  2. The world is divided into countries which are artificial entities administered by governments which have established rules for who may reside in a country. They try to get other countries to agree to these rules. Most of them do, but there arise problems of enforcing the rules which deal with things like approved migrants, temporary foreign workers, tourists and refugees.
  3. Enforcement is weakened by a combination of greater information about conditions in different parts of the world (reduced communication costs), reduced travel costs, and the willingness of people to take personal risks which may result in death.
  4. The concept of a sovereign country that can enforce rules about the crossborder movement of persons is being seriously undermined, and may lead to governments attempting to control their borders by force.
  5. The conditions surrounding the present (2015) flow of refugees is sufficiently different from similar past flows that it requires new thinking. Previous empires, Roman, Ottoman and Communist for example, contained the seeds of their own destruction, so capitalism and democracy, as practiced in different parts of the world, may have similar seeds germinating.
  6. One more specific comment on today’s situation in the Middle East. Many point to the causes of unrest as arising from the Sykes-Picot agreement about the establishment of boundaries at the end of WW1 re Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Transjordan. Underlying this agreement was the demise of the Ottoman Empire which had lasted for around 600 years. An excellent BBC documentary (available on the Internet) examines the Ottoman Empire and is worth viewing). Past history and modern conditions appear to me to be causes of the present flows of refugees.


Some thoughts on refugees

September 10, 2015


Conflict taking place in the Middle East has led to a humanitarian crisis involving refugees attempting to reach safer and more peaceful countries, which are often unwilling or at least reluctant to take in the numbers involved. In Canada it has morphed into a 2015 federal election issue as each party tries to appeal to voters by offering more favourable treatment for the refugees. While it is an issue voters understand, I am not sure they are aware of the implications. Note, recent immigrants are often opposed to those who enter illegally or who seek entry due to political conditions taking place abroad.

The immediate conditions which created the crisis is a combination of civil war in Syria and the interaction of various religious groups, Muslim and other in the Middle east extending east into Iran, north into Turkey and south into Egypt and other parts of northern Africa. Refugees who have gone to places like Lebanon and Syria have now chosen to seek refuge in Europe and if possible North America. The latter whose borders are protected by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans do not face the conditions of western European countries to which refugees can travel on foot, by bus and train.

Issues arising from the refugee flow and receiving less attention are:

  1. Where will these persons be located and how will they be integrated into Canadian society? This is not a new concern as Canada is a country of immigrants but excessive numbers could cause political backlash. Most Canadians advocating inflows would probably be less than eager to have these persons camp in their backgarden or neighbouring park. On a smaller scale during WW2 in the UK, city families and sometimes only the children were evacuated to the countryside during the blitz. They were not always eagerly received.
  2. If the numbers are limited, how do you decide who should come and what do you tell those who are left outside in the Middle East refugee camps. Once some are allowed entry, this merely encourages others to try the same.
  3. In Europe, whole residential neighbourhoods, such as suburbs in northern Paris, consist of  foreigners who have arrived illegally as well as legally causing social and political tensions in the country. Most European countries now have and active anti-immigrant party. This may also occur in Germany.
  4. Those seeking refugee status in the west are mainly economic migrants with the funds to pay smugglers, but who would likely go back to their homelands if political stability returned. In such a case the country of refuge is merely a temporary stopover to deal with turmoil elsewhere.

This is not a case for accepting no refugees but recognition that, depending on the numbers, social and economic issues can arise. These get little attention in the debate, perhaps because political parties like to play Santa Claus at election time.







No progress in civilizing behaviour

September 3, 2015

The use of rape as a weapon of war was conscious and emphatic. On every side, proud tales were told of the degradation of enemy women. Thousands of women were abducted, forcibly married to their assailants, and bundled away to the other side of the border. Many never saw their families again. Thousands more were simply used and then thrown back into their villages. There were accounts of women who had been held down while their breasts and arms were cut, tattoed or branded with their rapists’ names and the dates of their attacks. (Indian Summer, 260).

The quotation describes what happened nearly 70 years ago when India and Pakistan became independent states. Nothing much has changed. Similar actions are repeated today by ISIS/ISIL fighters in the Middle East. While Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs attacked each other in 1947, today it is mainly different branches of Muslims fighting each other. When people of other religions get in the way, such as western journalists, they too suffer atrocities.

The rules of war, developed over the past 200 years, mainly apply to states and not to terrorist groups which may operate in or outside a state. Current technology which encourages the use of things like drones, cyber attacks and the use of poison gases facilitate the use of violence by fighters who may deliberately operate within civilian communities. Guerilla warfare is becoming the norm where states are largely impotent to affect what action takes place.

Countries like Canada have in the past offered peace-keepers, but these can do little in non-traditional fighting venues. How countries structure their military/defense budgets will have to be revised.


Stop books becoming furniture

August 15, 2015

Why do our patterns of reading books, watching films and videos and listening to music differ? Homes are furnished with book shelves where often each book is often read only once, if that. Music is listened to frequently and films and videos perhaps more than once.

Each format contains information appreciated by the senses, although different ones. The question arose when I took from the bookcase Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. I had read it before, but when I reopened it I realized how little I recalled or even understood the content of a book, which offers an explanation of the evolution of human history over the past 13,000 years.

So many basic questions are discussed in the book, that like religious texts it could be studied for a lifetime, especially as new scientific information becomes available, which may alter some of the conclusions reached and raise new questions.

Instead of acquiring new books, there is often much to be gained by rereading older ones. New understanding can be acquired from the text which may have been missed in an original reading, and especially in the light of one’s own (hopefully) intellectual development. Jared Diamond offers that to me. A general conclusion is to apply to books the same treatment given to music and films….use them more than once.


Uber shows the pervasiveness of sharing

July 7, 2015

There is nothing very remarkable about sharing. Even with rides it goes on in many ways. I use my car as a taxi-like service when I give friends a ride to the airport. No money changes hands but I hope the favour may be returned. The alternative is to call a licensed taxi service or now to use Uber. On vacation I may rent a car, boat or bike. These belong to someone who shares their use with others. Truck rentals are another form of sharing. Any time the word rental is used, it relates to some form of sharing.


In other venues we share space in places like restaurants, hotels, theatres, car washes, garages, and in rental clothing outlets. In a capital intensive society the ownership of capital provides both the opportunities and incentives for sharing and creating ways to be financially rewarded. Making intensive use of capital or finding ways for it to be used and paid for is a natural inclination for its owners.


The complaint by taxi owners and drivers is that they provide a service under conditions which are less favourable than those of Uber. Rules can be changed but from society’s viewpoint Uber is making more efficient use of capital resources. Cars parked or used to carry one person, say to work and back, means that it is under utilised for a large part of the day. Much of city street space is often used as a parking lot for idle capital.


So far the sharing examples relate to physical capital. Many items that carry a patent or copyright, such as the text of a book, a piece of music, picture or formula are bits of intangible capital which can be used over and over again without wearing out like a car or piece of machinery. Society shares aspects of this type of capital and has set up complicated means for owners to be rewarded from the sharing which takes place. Thus owners of this intangible capital can claim rewards from those who use it. The users will often try to avoid making payment, and avoidance is now aided by the ease of distribution over the Internet.


An outstanding feature of modern societies is that they contain large amounts of tangible and intangible capital, much of which is used less intensively than it could be. Homeowners, often for reasons of convenience, own their own set of indoor and outdoor appliances which are used less intensively than if they were shared. A wealthy society is often characterized by people owning assets and a lack of sharing. When hard times occur, as with gasoline rationing during wartime, then people resort to sharing and planning rides to make greater use of a planned trip.


While Uber for ride sharing and rentals in homes for room sharing are obvious examples of this practice, every economic activity can be examined for its sharing potential and to explore why it does or does not occur. Sharing is as useful a concept as scarcity in explaining the basis for how economic activity is organized and managed. Developments in information technology have expanded the sharing potential for certain types of activity, often for the greater benefit of consumers, but at times for producers who can organize activities to create additional streams of income or exposure to potential buyers.

Affirmative Action can be harmful

June 24, 2015

Canadian federal governments already exercise affirmative action (AA) when cabinets are formed to ensure regional representation, Anglophone and Francophone members, as well as those from racial minority groups. The proposal to require certain levels of gender representation in cabinets creates another dimension of AA. Once gender is added, other groups emerge to argue for similar representation.


This happened in university hiring for faculty members. First AA was instituted for the hiring of women, then other groups such as aboriginals and the physically disabled argued that they should be accorded preference. Earlier groups were not enthusiastic about those who came later, and questions were raised about how to establish priorities between the groups, and what this might do to the quality of the educational experience.


Consider another venue. What happens in so-called national soccer leagues?  The only thing English about some of the clubs in the English Premier Soccer League is the name of the team, with owners, coaches and players coming from abroad. In order to form the best teams, which provide the best entertainment for spectators, players are recruited from anywhere in the world. AA is not applied. In world cup competition AA does occur in that players have to be associated with their national team.


My point is that AA is present in all kinds of activity, but its presence means that it will affect the performance of the activity in ways which may not be beneficial to others. Once one group is given preference others will seek the similar treatment which will ultimately adversely affect the performance of the activity.


It may make sense to have AA re gender equality in the Canadian federal cabinet, but how do you achieve this when less than half the elected members of any party are of one gender, and when it merely entices other groups to argue for some form of preference. At some point the quality of decision making will suffer even further,


Finding Reliable News

June 16, 2015

The combination of social media and the 24 hour news cycle has lead to the manufacture and distribution of poor quality news and commentary, making it harder to separate the chaff from the wheat.  The consumer is faced with the challenge of finding the good stuff.


Blogs abound, some written by informed commentators, many with a particular bias or point of view.  News organizations in countries like Canada, the US and UK are caught up in this rat race. CBC/Radio Canada, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC compete for audiences, resulting in the distribution of a mass of worthless or often low quality content. Motivated by advertising revenue where audiences are sold to advertisers, these organizations compete to keep audiences tied to their output.


As for many other activities, communications technology has had an impact on the news media. Today, print and especially broadcast news media are fashioned as entertainment. Many consumers no longer put aside time to read a daily newspaper and listen to or view a daily broadcast, they access news 24/7 in a variety of ways which news organizations try to supply.


How can the consumer access quality (factual and unbiased) news reporting and commentary? The offerings are as varied as that of restaurant menus in a large city. My choice for quality news includes amongst others the following:


  1. Newspapers – Globe and Mail, New York Times, Financial Times, Economist
  2. TV – PBS The News Hour and Charlie Rose, TVO The Agenda with Steve Paquin. What appeals to me about these programs is that the anchors are informed and ask tough questions, but do not insert their own views into the content. That is not the case for the 24 hour news channels.
  3. Blogs – The Conversable Economist, Arts and Letters Daily, Thought du Jour


This may seem a short list, but since there are only 24 hours in a day and each of these items, especially the blogs, lead to further reading, they can consume a lot of time. The bad news is that there is a mass of low quality news distributed daily, often by organizations which once had a reputation for good journalism. The good news is that today’s communications technology allows for the distribution of high quality content, but this requires the user to spend time in searching for it.



Do unitary and federal states differ?

May 22, 2015

Recent elections in the UK with a population of 64 million and Alberta with 4 million have some similarities worth noting. The UK is considered a unitary state with one main level of government, and Alberta a provincial government in a federal state, Canada, with one federal and a series of provincial governments. Each level has designated powers and responsibilities. But in many ways they seem similar.


A closer look at the UK shows it too has federal-like features which became prominent in the recent election. The UK consists of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (Great Britain is England, Wales and Scotland). Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have parliaments with some but not identical powers and responsibilities, making each area somewhat similar to Canadian provinces. Of the three, Scotland has the most powers including some forms of taxation. The others tend to rely on funds collected and distributed by Westminster with spending decisions made locally.


In addition, the UK is divided into counties, each of which has a county council which makes spending decisions regarding public services such as education, transport, strategic planning, emergency services, social services, public safety and waste disposal. In sum, although often considered a unitary state, the UK has levels of government with various revenue and expenditure powers. While international relations, defense, and justice in the UK are responsibilities of the parliament at Westminster, much of the delivery of services like health and education is undertaken by other levels of government. A unitary state perhaps, but with federal-like features.


This contrasts with the Canadian federation where elections take place at both the federal and provincial levels as well in the municipalities. Each has various taxation and borrowing powers as well as funds transferred between levels; each has assigned levels of responsibilities, such as health and education being administered by the provinces. An attempt is made to allow citizens of one province to receive a similar level of service and treatment in other provinces, but the process is messy. And, for example, there is not free trade in some sectors between provinces, although much is made of agreements like the WTO and NAFTA which promote free trade between Canada and other countries.


The differences may not be as clear cut as the terms imply. Both countries have parts which want to separate, Scotland in the case of the UK, and Quebec for Canada. If either does, it will have to establish treaty-type rights with what remains of their former countries. All governments do much the same things regardless of whether they are labeled unitary or federal.

Governance and the Internet

April 18, 2015

Orwell, Assange and  Snowden

Skill testing question…..what do these three have in common? All have been concerned with the state using technology to spy on and control its citizens. When George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948, he recognised the issues, but had no idea of how the technology would develop to allow the state and others to spy on and influence citizens. When Julian Assange and Edward Snowden showed what and how the US government in 2014 actually collected, stored and used information in to spy on people at home and abroad, they confirmed Orwell’s warnings. Today, Assange shelters in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid arrest and deportation to Sweden; to avoid US authorities, Snowden resides in Moscow, where he was recently interviewed by John Oliver for a US television broadcast. Snowden had been the subject of a documentary film, CitizenFour.

In January 2013, Laura Poitras received an encrypted e-mail from a stranger who called himself Citizen Four. In it, he offered her inside information about illegal wiretapping practices of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies. Poitras had already been working for several years on a film about monitoring programs in the US that were the result of the September 11 attacks. In June 2013, accompanied by investigative journalist Glen Greenwald and The Guardian intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill, she went to Hong Kong with her camera for the first meeting with the stranger, who identified himself as Edward Snowden. Several other meetings followed. The recordings gained from the meetings form the basis of the film. (Wikipedia).


Fast forward to today and the topic of the internet, what it is, what it does and what governments should do about it is the subject of numerous studies which bring together specialists from different disciplines to provide their analysis and recommendations. This material is extensive and often repetitive. One example of a paper providing an informed succinct survey of many of the issues is Melissa Hathaway, Connected Choices: How the Internet is Challenging Sovereign Decisions (Paper No. 11, April 2015 for the Global Commission on Internet Governance, CIGI and Chatham House. The Economist provides informed content of developing issues in the field.

The question posed here is whether we have been here before in dealing with a similar range of issues concerning the introduction of new communications technology. If so, then the caveat that “everything old is new again” may be a useful point of departure in discussing internet governance.

The Internet provides a means to create, store and transmit information which can be used for multiple purposes – messaging, banking, education, health services, news, book and magazine publishing, blogs, entertainment, delivery of government services, control of power grids, national defense, making and breaking criminal activities. Anything that can have an e- placed in front of it has internet implications.

Each of the listed activities has a formal and/or informal governance structure, sometimes one or more government departments or agencies, or governance organized by those involved in the activity. Thus, in Canada, the CRTC does it for telecommunications, and private producers for deciding whether food is “organic” or “gluten free.”

Given the pervasiveness of the internet, it may be ambitious to expect that it would be either easy or possible to arrange for its governance as a whole, as opposed to a particular activity which is internet related. Exhibit 1 summarises the difference between governance and government.


Exhibit 1.

“Governance refers to “all processes of governing, whether undertaken by a government, market or network, whether over a family, tribe, formal or informal organization or territory and whether through laws, norms, power or language.” It relates to “the processes of interaction and decision-making among the actors involved in a collective problem that lead to the creation, reinforcement, or reproduction of social norms and institutions.” 

To distinguish the term governance from government: a government is a formal body invested with the authority to make decisions in a given political system. ” (Wikipedia)


The case of publishing

Consider publishing as one activity impacted by the internet, and the governing regimes which have grown up over time. Publishing has a long history from development of speaking, creation of letters, alphabets and words, preparation of documents first by hand, then the printing press and now electronic word processing and distribution.

Scribes in monasteries fought the introduction of the printing press which went through changes from the setting of lead type to the use of typewriters and computers. In the UK, it took a Rupert Murdoch to break the grip of unions representing lead typesetters, some of whom were retrained to type on keyboards. This was a labour issue related to changing technology and largely unconnected with regime change except for any relevant labour laws.


In this industry, governance comes to the fore when considering copyright:

 “The history of copyright law starts with early privileges and monopolies granted to printers of books. The British Statute of Anne1710, full title “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned”, was the first copyrights statute. Initially copyright law only applied to the copying of books. Over time other uses such as translations and derivative works were made subject to copyright and copyright now covers a wide range of works, including maps, performances, pantings, photographs, sound recordings, motion pictures and computer programs.”


Other rights, such as the moral rights of authors, evolved to increase the returns to authorship. Copyright was also used as censorship to assist the sovereign in managing news and opinions.

The terms of compensation and length of copyright ownership rights are constantly debated today, with authors lobbying to extend the protection granted to them by law. Note, a similar argument relates to patent rights, and is used by pharmaceutical and other firms to protect their intellectual property.

The accumulated protection has been weakened or undermined by the internet. It has reduced the ability of copyright owners to protect their rights. There are continual attempts to revise the laws and copyright regimes which exist to deal with electronic publishing and the use of material. This is red meat for the legal profession, which is paid to protect both owners and those seeking to introduce more competition into the intellectual property market. Economists have not done badly either as consultants in this debate.

A history of the regime for authorship, publishing and distribution, shows the way the regime has changed and is now affected by the new technology. In order to establish governance for the internet as a whole, it will be necessary to address each aspect of its impact, that is each industrial, social and political activity which is affected by it. Constructing one overall regime would seem to be a challenge to say the least. And considering there are around 200 countries in the world, each of which claims sovereignty in some sense, the challenge may be overwhelming.


The case of broadcasting

Fast forward to Canada in 2015, where debate swirls around the domestic regime for television. The broadcasting regulator has ruled that Canadians should, at last, be allowed to pick and pay for the channels they want to watch – as they do for food when they buy groceries in the supermarket. Previously, the regime has required that consumers be offered TV channels in bundles regardless of whether they wanted them, and some of these channels would be required to carry a certain amount of content that was branded as Canadian.

Branding meant application of a formula regarding such things as the nationality of the inputs used in the program. Requiring Canadians to view these programs proved impossible to enforce, and is even more so now with services like Netflix, YouTube and material available on the web.

The point is that the regime for broadcasting has evolved with a complex set of rules which benefited certain groups but ignored the interest of others, viewers in this case. The same thing is likely to happen when developing a regime for the wide range of activities which make use of the internet. Governance of individual activities is often complex, governance of the whole will be a Herculean task. Today about 40% of the world’s population of seven billion have internet access. In the next few years the figure is likely to rise to 80%.

An Older Adult?

April 14, 2015

In a neighbourhood park, the City of Ottawa has kindly placed a new bench. It is inscribed for the “Older Adult.” Not the old person, senior, pensioner, retiree or even old man (sorry person), shrively, wrinkly, old fart (or even something a little earthier).  I know I belong to the ranks of older adults. But is it not possible to use a phrase which describes clearly who I am? And how am I to know how old an older adult has to be to use this convenience?


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