Two leaders of two petrostates. Both have been won multiple times in democratic elections. Both have been described as tyrants and great leaders. Both traffic in heavy crude. Beyond that, they don’t have much in common.

The first is president Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The second is Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada. You can’t get the first one to shut up (his television addresses go on for hours) and you can’t get the second one to answer a question (his disdain for the press is legendary).

Harper is planning to sign a trade deal on Nov. 1 that allows Chinese companies to sue Canada outside of Canadian courts. Incredibly, the lawsuits can proceed behind closed doors, in effect giving Asian firms more clout than Canadian voters, according to Gus Van Harten, a professor of international investment law.

“The Canada-China deal undermines basic Canadian principles of public accountability and open courts. It raises dramatically the stakes of Chinese takeovers in the resource sector. If ratified, it will tie the hands of future elected governments for at least 31 years,” insists Harten in a Toronto Star editorial.

ImageIn contrast, Chavez has nationalized much of the oil industry in Venezuela. In 2007, his government took a majority stake in four oil projects in the vast Orinoco river basin, worth an estimated $30 billion. As a result, the oil giants Exxon Mobil Corp and ConocoPhillips pulled up stakes and filed claims against Venezuela. In 2011, an arbitration panel ordered the country to pay Exxon $908 million. But it’s not like Chavez isn’t shelling out any cash. “France’s Total SA and Norway’s StatoilHydro ASA received about $1 billion in compensation after reducing their holdings,” notes the New York Times.

In 2008, Chavez introduced a windfall tax of 50 per cent for prices over $70 per barrel, and 60 per cent on oil over $100. The president is committed to directing a significant share of oil profits to Venezuelans-who just happen to be sitting on top of the nation’s reserves. His populism has made him wildly popular with the nation’s poor and massively unpopular with the nation’s rich.

Meanwhile, Harper is much appreciated by foreign oil companies and our nation’s comprador class, even though royalties in Alberta’s tar sands have been among the lowest in the world for years. The petroleum taxes, royalties and revenue-sharing in the petroleum industry in Canada are less than a third of those in Norway, says Canadian nationalist Mel Hurtig.

“No other in the world would have been stupid enough to have agreed to the mandatory sharing and ridiculous pricing provisions of NAFTA,” the former publisher observed in his 2008 book The Truth About Canada.

In a recent talk at SFU Harbourside campus sponsored by the Tyee, author Andrew Nikiforuk noted, “If you go to any petrostate one thing you learn very quickly is that oil money can preserve the shelf life of a political party long beyond its expiration date.” The author indicates his own home province, Alberta, which has been ruled by the Progressive Conservative party for 45 years. Similarly, the Republican Party has ruled Texas for 26 years and the PRI in Mexico had a seven-decade reign. Petrostates are often characterized by official secrecy, low taxes, slashed social services and an aggressive disregard for the environment.

“Where taxation is absent, populations tend to be politically inactive, relatively obedient and surprisingly loyal,” says Nikiforuk, saying this perfectly describes his fellow Albertans.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford does not represent her voting constituents, but rather the resource sector. The democratically corrosive influence of transnational energy extractors goes right to the top in Canada, finding its peak in the PMO. In contrast, Chavez stands out like a sore thumb in the geopolitical scene. Socialist leaders rarely get into power in petrostates, but it happens.

After examining the evidence, even those not favourably disposed to socialism in Canada might agree that when it comes to autocrats, this country could use a bit more Chavez and a lot less Harper. But no “northern Bolivarian” is likely to emerge and have a crack at national leadership until we see a supremely pissed off, nation-wide, wide awake electorate. With Canada’s massive foreign ownership, captured media, and tepid political parties, that doesn’t seem likely. But if the history of Venezuela is any indication it’s not impossible.

The Vancouver Courier, October 25, 2012


There’s been a lot of ink spilled lately about loneliness in Vancouver. Courier contributor Tom Sandborn offered some practical advice for going against the isolationist flow, so I didn’t feel I could add anything new or interesting to the conversation.

Yet perhaps I can get in a last word before the conversation moves on. This city has long had an international image as an aloof locale. Traveling through Europe years ago, I heard Vancouver described several times as a “city without a soul.” On a recent trip out east, I witnessed a scene in a Montreal park that would look out of place here: strangers casually conversing with one another without glancing down uncomfortably at their watches or mobile devices.

That said, this isn’t a new conversation, limited to our damp corner of Pacific rainforest. Over a century ago, Friedrich Engels lamented Manchester’s experiment in eco-free density: “The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interests becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together,” he wrote in The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Today’s widespread sense of social isolation can’t be blamed solely on cramped living conditions. A 2006 report in The Washington Post observed that a “quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985.”

The Vancouver Foundation and Sentis Market Research recently surveyed nearly 4,000 people living in Metro Vancouver and determined that a third of them have difficulty making friends. One quarter spend more time alone than they would prefer. More than three-quarters of apartment dwellers have never helped a neighbour. A third mistrust their neighbours.

One local pundit diminished the findings, citing the online communities that have taken up the face-to-face slack. Yet with these surveys of widespread personal isolation, both civically and beyond, can we still talk about “society” in the accepted sense of the word? Social networks have their place, but I hope most of us would put one good friend up against 500 Facebook “friends.”

Social isolation extends into the ‘burbs and beyond. It isn’t bundled with economic misery, as in Engels’ time. Across all incomes, many people have come to think of themselves as consumers first and citizens second, a viewpoint that has empowered political and financial interests at the expense of non-virtual communities.

Fear—whether it’s of age, weight, status, strangers, terrorists or viruses (manmade and otherwise)—is the best friend of marketers and social engineers, who have ratcheted up social anxiety to previously unimaginable heights.

In contrast, I marvel how fearlessly my parents raised me. Like all the other kids in our neighbourhood, I was allowed to walk to school alone, and on weekends I ran free with friends until nightfall. I rode my bike without a helmet and hung upside down on monkey bars in unsafe playgrounds. I blew up fireworks in the driveway, all with my mom and dad’s approval. And wonder of wonders, they didn’t have to schedule any playtime for me; I just stepped out the door. On Halloween, I even actively solicited strangers for candy at their own properties, and I’m still alive to tell the tale. These days I’d probably be snatched by the Ministry for Human Resources and spun as a cautionary tale in The Province.

Raise a child with a community-sized hole in his or her soul, and you’ll likely end up with an adult who will run to the market to shovel things in, rather than ponder how they got so drafty in the first place. After decades of fear-fuelled helicopter parenting, perhaps we’re seeing the human fallout in our urban centres: wired-up narcissists so far up their own backsides they’d need proctologists in scuba gear to extract them for spontaneous interactions.

It’s no accident that half of the mobile devices in circulation are prefaced by an “i.” The self, that fortress of solitude, is our real place of worship—not the virtual community.

Awareness of what we’re all up against is the first step of getting out of this jam, not as victims of abstract, impersonal forces, but as partly conscious agents of our own discontent. As that old proctological ’60s expression put it, “Free your ass, and your mind will follow.”

Vancouver Courier October 18


Last week I wrote about how we’re programmed with distorted ideas of success. All you need is a TV remote to see these warped values in sharp outline, if not high definition.

A while back I caught the last half-hour of the ABC reality TV series Bachelor Pad, my partner’s latest guilty pleasure. This Schadenfreude-fuelled production takes the adult castoffs from The Bachelor and The Bachelorette and sticks them in a ritzy villa where they compete in juvenile competitions and form alliances of convenience. It’s like reverse-engineering high school, in the worst sense of the term.

It’s hard to believe any of the participants on Bachelor Pad enter with the intention to compete honourably, considering the series is structured to make this impossible. Backstabbing, bitching, and bad feelings are written into the producers’ template (there wouldn’t be much drama without these elements, obviously).

The premise on the show is that the last couple remaining at the end of the season has a chance to win $250,000. There’s a catch, of course. If they both choose “share,” they split the amount. If they both choose “keep” they walk away with nothing. If one chooses keep and the other chooses share, then the keeper walks away with the total amount.

If you’re familiar with Game Theory, you’ll recognize this as a variant of the classic “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” a strategy puzzle involving two imaginary, separately secluded prisoners. They each have to make a decision based on what they think the other will decide, affecting the possibility of freedom for both.

During the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, the Prisoner’s Dilemma was trotted out by wargamers modelling nuclear war scenarios because it involves the paradox of people consciously navigating toward suboptimal outcomes. You have probably heard the expression “zero-sum game.” In Game Theory, this is a situation “where for one person (or side) to win, another must lose—i.e. that any advantage accrued by one party to the negotiations must be obtained at the expense of the other party(ies),” according to RationalWiki.

Technically speaking, nuclear deterrence functions like the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a non-zero sum game where there were multiple possibilities for nuke-equipped nation states to cooperate for net advantages or net disadvantages. Without cooperating, there was—and is—a real-world risk of a loss for all, in the form of a radioactive wasteland. A “republic of insects and grass” as writer Jonathan Schell once called it.

Anyway, back to the show. On the Bachelor Pad finale, the woman revealed her choice to the studio audience: to share. Her partner then revealed his choice: to keep. He got the whole pot and his partner got nothing. She wore a scowl and began to tear up. He pumped his fist and crowed about being the guy no one expected to win. It was the interpersonal equivalent of a nuclear first strike. Half the audience looked appalled and the other half clapped and cheered his success.

I find it fascinating that the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a thought experiment once used for modelling atomic brinkmanship, has become a tool for structuring reality television competitions where players regularly betray one another. The wargamer mentality has descended from the think tank to the boob tube—and couch potatoes regard this Cold War-style voyeurism as normal viewing fare.

It’s long been assumed that the best gambit in repeated plays of the Prisoners Dilemma was to mimic the other players’ behaviour in the next round: to screw the other guy first. Yet last month mathematicians discovered there is another solution for the so-called “Nash equilibrium,” named after John Nash, the game theory guru portrayed by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.

I don’t have the space for the details, which I only half-understand myself. It can be summed up by saying that winning isn’t everything. But was it ever? When Nash tested out the Prisoner’s Dilemma on the secretaries at RAND Corporation, the results went sideways. Instead of betraying one another, they went with trust and decided to cooperate.

In other words, real-life people don’t always behave like they’re competitors on reality TV programs or widgets in war-game scenarios. Success doesn’t always depend on someone else’s failure. And the less I watch of television, the more I realize I should avoid it altogether.

The Vancouver Courier, Oct. 12