Monday, December 24, 2012

Steven Pinker and Funny Numbers

Harvard professor Steven Pinker opens his 800-page door-stopper, The better angels of our nature: why violence has decreased, with mind-boggling historical revisionism.

As if it were actual history, Pinker cites the story of Adam and Eve where Cain killed his brother Abel. He writes, "With a world population of exactly four, that works out to a homicide rate of 25 percent, which is about a thousand times higher than the equivalent rates in Western countries today."

He continues in this mind-boggling vein through the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, up to the present applying curious interpretations to selective history. Pinker exposes his non-historical credentials in describing certain events as "forgotten violence," revealing his belief that, as he did not previously know it, it must have been forgotten.

Deeming it hard evidence, Pinker uses such examples as 1940s body-building Charles Atlas ads which advocate physical revenge on a bully. Whereas today, the emphasis is on muscle building for peaceful purposes. Has he not seen an Arnold Schwarzenegger film?

He mentions recent war memorials which no longer honour military leaders but the fallen in battle. These monuments were built by supposedly civilized nations which annually spend billions of dollars  in arms production.

Pinker takes the number of people killed in a war and compares it to the then population of the world. Remember Cain and Abel? With increased population throughout history, the percentage number lowers, even though millions more are killed.

The possible reason for his conclusions about violence is that his history of benevolence begins sometime in the 1980s. Even then, the atrocitologist (that's a real title) Matthew White "estimates that around 180 million deaths can be blamed on all of these human causes put together [war, genocide, purges etc.]. That still amounts to only 3 percent of the deaths of the 20th century."  To Pinker, that's better than the one death that took 25 percent of the then world population.

Two examples.In the 1994 Rwanda civil war 75 per cent of the Tutsi population was massacred. The total count was one million killed in a population of 7 million. As that amounted to only 14 per cent, does Pinker deem that an improvement over the single death in Genesis? During the Cambodian atrocities by Pol Pot, 1.5 million Cambodians were slaughtered of a population of 7.5 million, about one-quarter of the population. Where does that leave Professor Pinker?

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"Our Twentieth Century has proved to be more cruel that preceding centuries, and the first fifty years have not erased all its horrors."  Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

"The worst century there has ever been." Isaiah Berlin.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Law versus Public Interest

We, "the great unwashed outside the law" continue to marvel at the "entanglements of the law".

The current case in point concerns a company that polluted the ground, and then vacated the site. A court said the the public must pay the estimated $50-100 million to repair the corporation's damage to the environment.

In its decision, seven of the nine Supreme Court of Canada Justices bowed to the legal mumbo-jumbo that lets corporations hide behind the law, regardless of public interest.

The Court majority ruled that the province of Newfoundland and Labrador must get in line with other creditors, and share in whatever may be left in the coffers of insolvent AbitibiBowater Inc. In other words, public interest -- the taxpayer -- has no more status than corporate debtors.

One of the Justices wrote, "[T]he province's position would result not only in a super-priority, but in the acceptance of a 'third party pay' principle".  Absolutely correct, and that would be a good thing.

The law must be reformed to establish a common sense hierarchy for the droppings of fugitive corporations. The first claim on the remaining assets belongs to workers, regardless, whether in the form of wages, pensions or other entitlements. Next in line is the tax-paying public as represented by the government. After that, the banks and other corporate lenders. At the end of the line are shareholders.

Note. "The great unwashed outside of the law" was how a law school dean once described to me his opinion of the  general public. "Entanglements of the law" was Winston Churchill's description of the law process.

Feb. 2, 2013.  In the unrelated case of Indalex Ltd., the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the pensions of the firm's retirees were entitled to a share of the the remaining assets.This, because the company had breached its duties to its retirees by failing to keep its pension plans fully funded, and failing to give proper notice that it was seeking bankruptcy protection.

The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) did not like that decision, and reversed it on the grounds of hardship for the company to re-define itself. While some lawyers cheered this socially immoral decision, another described it as "leaving more room for potential abuse of the bankruptcy system."  A former Indalex executive, whose pension was cut in half by the SCC claimed, "To allow this pension plan to be underfunded  is an indictment of the whole system."

The same might be said of former employees of the late Nortel Networks Corp. who were left with little after the firm went bankrupt due to corporate malfeasance for which no one was punished except employees and shareholders.

Friday, December 7, 2012

More Residential Schools Misinformation

Emails sent December 4, 2012

To the National Post. Published December 6, 2012

It would be conducive to enlightened conversation of the National Post presented all available facts concerning our Residential Schools. It is not true that "about 150,000 native children were taken from their families and sent to church-run schools under a deliberate policy of 'civilizing' First Nations" (Residential schools inquiry turns to courts, Dec.3).

Hundreds of native elders and chiefs agreed, and signed the many treaties which created the schools. They voluntarily enrolled their children in the government-sponsored schools. The James Bay Treaty bears the names of more than 70 of these native representatives.

To refer collectively to all students as "victims" violates not only the truth but common sense. Punishment meted out in these schools differed little from that in public schools of the time.

What abuse occurred in some of these schools was a crime. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee is currently in the process of determining how much of that abuse was inflicted by older students and by community leaders themselves.
Email to The Globe and Mail. Not published 

While in no way condoning the evils that occurred in some of our residential schools, some objectivity would better inform your readers (Ottawa taken to court over residential-schools documents, Dec.3). This report repeats the old canard of "the forced assimilation of more than 150,000 first nations, Innuit and Métis children at the schools".

Native leaders wanted their children educated in European ways, knowing full well it would change their culture. For example, The James Bay Treaty bears the marks and signatures of more than 70 elders and chiefs. To claim they did not know what they were doing amounts to condescension of the worst order.

There was no "forced assimilation". They wanted their children to learn English -- the only language common among the various tribes and nations represented at the schools. As for abuse, a Globe and Mail report (Truth commission confronts unexpected issue: student-on-student abuse, September 22, 2009) stated, "Some of the alleged abusers are community leaders even family members."

Monday, December 3, 2012

Worker Oppression Continues

"We appreciate our staff" bragged the banks in the 1940s, when they closed their branches on Saturdays. Banks then operated six days a week. With the new policy, employees enjoyed a full weekend.

Sometime in the 1970s, the banks withdrew staff appreciation, and replaced it with Saturday service "for customer convenience". 

In February 2011, the banks announced Sunday openings.  Research showed that "customers were looking for banking hours to better suit their lifestyle", TD-Canada Trust half-apologized.  "Being open Sundays is about working around peoples' lives."

In its current ad campaign, TD proclaims, "Banking can be this comfortable".   Perhaps, but not for staff whose family weekends have been destroyed.   Six days a week, evening hours and 24-hour ATMs are not enough for customer lifestyles?  

With high unemployment, jobs, salaries and benefits are at the discretion (read mercy) of corporate bosses.   Bank employees no longer receive extra pay for weekend work.   What's to complain?  Staff will enjoy their Tuesday-Wednesday week.  That's just great for family weekends. 

TD chief executive Ed Clark worries about bank costs. "Politically it's difficult" to raise fees," he contends. His gaze drifts to his staff.  But fear not.  "We are not going to do this on the backs of the average employee," he promises. Is he aware that that's how the did it in the recent past? One suggestion might be to close operations on weekends, and return staff to their families. Clark's fear was not shared by CIBC who have just announced a banking fee increase.

September 2011 brought word that Loblaw Companies, the grocery people, would also destroy employee family weekends.  Staff must work Sundays at regular pay.  If they object, they are told their replacements are knocking at the door.   

John Steinbeck's masterful The Grapes of Wrath is not history but contemporary -- the business plan where the unemployed are played off one against the other, or the under-paid against those at the door.  Comes to mind Target's take-over of  Zellers whose former staff were invited to apply for their old jobs  at reduced salaries.

The August 2011 issue of Harper's magazine reported that 75 per cent of the increase in US corporate profits since 2001 has come from depressed wages.  Doubtless, the same holds true for Canada.  This explains the gap between the rich and the working poor.

In the 1950s, my father worked for the Loblaw Companies.  He was told to work on Saturdays or be fired. He quit, and soon got another job.  In today's world of downsizing, rationalizing, part-time or temporary work, low wages, and no benefits, workers no longer enjoy the freedom of earlier generations. 

When my generation finished university in the fifties and sixties, companies invited us their their hospitality suites to explain their employment benefits.  All that changed in the seventies and eighties.

As our standard of living declines, corporate profits soar.  Trickle down is code for urinated on.

Formerly, it was called the Personnel Department where humans were deemed persons.  Now it's Human Resources on the same level as Natural Resources, that is, something to be exploited. Humans have become commodities. Dare we fear the next stage of this degradation -- employees described as human cargo or livestock? 

Pope Benedict XVI described this situation in its most brutal form:  "Man is nowadays considered in predominately biological terms or as 'human capital', a 'resource', part of a dominant or financial mechanism." 

 The sword of Damocles hanging over our world is not the atomic bomb; it is the depersonalization of man. -- Anton Pegis,  The Wisdom of Catholicism.