Friday, May 25, 2007

Democrats: Winning, One Loss at a Time

Dubbya has done it again. George W. Bush -a lame duck President, riding out the second of two disastrous terms, presiding over an ill-conceived and unpopular war, enjoying the support of less than 30% of Americans, surrounded by a diminishing number of close friends many of whom are themselves under investigation for various forms of malfeasance - has managed to score a political victory over the Democratic majority in Congress.

After their first bill was vetoed, Congress yesterday reached a new low by approving almost $95 billion dollars in extra funding for the war in Iraq, without any attached withdrawal plan. Democrats then showed off their versatility - that rare combination of spinelessness and shamelessness not seen since the run-up to the war itself. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out an e-mail, bragging about their humiliating capitulation! If you have the stomach for it, you can read it here, courtesy of Daily Kos. “This debate will go on,” vowed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Bravo, Nancy, bravo.

The bill establishes a series of goals for the Iraqi government to meet as it strives to build a democratic country able to defend its own borders. Continued U.S. reconstruction aid would be conditioned on progress toward the so-called benchmarks, although Mr. Bush retains the authority to order that the funds be spent regardless of how the Baghdad government performs.
All of this has no doubt been confusing for voters who elected a Democratic Congress on the promise of a "change in direction" and as a direct rebuke of the President's Iraq policy. Perhaps sensing their ownership of shamelessness slipping, House Republicans sent in their leader John Boehner to play the 9/11 card, and to tearfully reiterate the long-ago debunked myth of a link between the terror attacks and Iraq.

John Boehner of Ohio choked back tears as he stirred memories of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “After 3,000 of our fellow citizens died at the hands of these terrorists, when are we going to take them on? When are we going to defeat them,” he asked.
But Boehner needn't cry too much. When Congress plays the Shame Game, everyone's a winner.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Moscoe On The Hudson

Responding to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's announcement that New York's cab fleet will be entirely hybrid within 5 years, Toronto councillor Howard Moscoe took the progressive position that Toronto wouldn't be ready for such changes for at least another 10 years. According to Moscoe, the greening of Hogtown's taxi fleet "doesn't fit the economics of the taxi industry in Toronto". He points to the fact that a new Toyota Prius Hybrid costs about $40,000, while a 2 year old gas guzzler can be put on the street for a mere $15,000. Gail Beck Souter, general manager of Beck Taxi, chimes in, bemoaning that in the economically-challenged Toronto cab industry, there are already too many cabs chasing too few customers. How exactly this supply side excess is addressed by continuing to license cheap, fuel-inefficient taxis is anyone's guess. Maybe they'll figure that out in 10 years as well.
By way of contrast, the BC government has taken steps to ensure that taxi fleets in Vancouver and Victoria become more environmentally friendly.
The province has asked the province's Passenger Transportation Board to approve taxi licences for only hybrid or other highly fuel-efficient cars, Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon said Monday. He also wants the 100 existing applications before the board to only be approved if they're for the greener vehicles.
So, while Vancouver and NYC make the move towards hybrid taxis, Toronto trudges along with its armada of Ford Crown Vics. Dean del Mastro would be proud.

Nauseating Picture of the Day

Needed: 1 "plus-sized" kevlar vest for self-important boob.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Catch Me If You Can

Ever heard of a man named Ciprian Skeid? Well, up until recently, neither had Ciprian Skeid. Or so he claimed. According to a story in the Globe & Mail, the talented Mr. Skeid made his first appearance on the Canadian scene in 1999 when he wandered into a Toronto hospital. He insisted he had been beaten and robbed of all his identification, and worse that he had been left with an unfortunate case of amnesia. The press dubbed him "Mr. Nobody", but he preferred the name Philip Staufen (coincidentally also the name of a medieval German king). Unable to obtain a Canadian passport, B.C. birth certificate, or an extension on a temporary permit allowing him to remain in Canada, Skeid did the only logical thing. He married his lawyer's daughter and moved to Portugal. Over the next few years, his other various incarnations started to come to light: German cook, professional mooch, masseur in a gay bath house, and French male model. Quite the resume! Finally, when confronted by intrepid reporters in possession of his Romanian birth certificate, he admitted his identity and confessed to the fraud. Said Skeid, "I'd rather be a fake nobody than the real me".
Ordinarily, you wouldn't think that a story about a Romanian bunko artist who bears an odd resemblance to Tom Cruise would have political implications. But, leave it to the commenters at the Globe to correct such an assumption:

Didn't the Conservatives promise to put a stop to this sort of thing.

This jerk sounds like he'd make a great member of the Liberal party of Canada. Fraud, stealing, dishonest con-artist and living off of Canadian taxpayers.

Takes a long time to expose these imported liberal votes.

This guy is a wet dream for the NDP and their open door policy (especially Svend?). Where does Taliban Jack stand on this issue now?

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Unkindest Cut

In the spirit of the holiday, the post today is decidedly non-political. Instead, for your viewing pleasure, I present this interesting picture.

This is an actual billboard in Mbabane, Swaziland. I don't know who the three guys are, but they are clearly pleased about being circumcised. The photograph was snapped by my good friend Stephen Mostad on a recent trip to the region. Stephen is a journalist and communications consultant who has been doing contract work for the United Nations. In this capacity he has been fortunate to travel to some pretty exotic places, including Angola, Iran, Gambia and the aforementioned Swaziland. Oh, and he's also been to Vancouver.

If you're interested in seeing some truly amazing pictures of his adventures, surf on over to his website.

Finally, as a physician, I would be remiss not to give at least passing mention to the practice of male circumcision. Although it's not within my area of specialty, the procedure itself remains somewhat controversial. There is data to suggest that neonatal circumcision reduces the risk of transmission of ulcerative STD's such as herpes anywhere from 2 - 7 fold. Additionally, there may be a reduced rate of HIV transmissability amongst circumcised males, but the quality and methods of these studies have been questioned. Circumcision may also reduce the rate of urinary tract infections during the first year of life. Having said all of that, there is evidence that many of the potential risks may be mitigated by good hygeine, and that transmission of STD's has substantially more to do with sexual habits than with circumcision. As a result, there is little in the way of compelling evidence either way. The Canadian Pediatric Society echoes this in its position statement: "The overall evidence of the benefits and harms of circumcision is so evenly balanced that it does not support recommending circumcision as a routine procedure for newborns". If you are an expectant mother (or just a curious guy) and have further questions, you should consult your local family physician or pediatrician.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Not Sold on Electoral Reform

Yesterday's Toronto Star had an interesting column by Thomas Walkom, a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of racing ahead with electoral reform. He tells the tale of electoral reform in New Zealand, a country that switched to a system of proportional representation in 1996.
[It was] the result of widespread dissatisfaction with a system that over decades had awarded government to only two parties – Labour on the centre-left and the National Party on the centre-right.
The new pressures and incentives of proportional representation resulted in the fracturing of the countries two largest parties, Labour and National. The centre-left Labour party split into Alliance and ACT, while the centre-right National party split into several others including the anti-immigrant New Zealand First party.
When the votes were counted in 1996, neither old-line party had enough seats to form a majority government. But this didn't signal a victory for the left. After two months of horse-trading, the government that emerged was a conservative coalition of two parties that had vowed never to co-operate – National and New Zealand First. "Grumpy protest voters ... got the government they least wanted," concluded one newspaper.
Another indecisive election was held in 1999, after which a left-leaning coalition was cobbled together between three parties. However, the Iraq war put an end to that alliance as, predictably, the coalition was unable to survive multiple conflicting opinions between its members.
Walkom details the troubles New Zealand has suffered during that time, struggling to find stable governing alliances election after election. He makes some important observations about the lessons learned from the Kiwi experience.
First, expect existing parties to fracture. The NDP alone could spin off a radical socialist party, a trade union party, a market-friendly party and a northern party. Second, don't expect coalitions to result in progressive, or indeed any kind of ideologically coherent government. Big parties will make deals with anyone to stay in power. Since proportional representation creates a plethora of small, opportunistic political parties, there are always plenty of candidates to choose from.
Most important, don't expect radical changes. Critics of electoral reform say it would create deeply unstable governments. Fans say it would make politics more responsive. In New Zealand, neither happened. The country muddles along much as it did before.

Personally, I have deep reservations about abandoning a first-past-the-post system in favour of proportional representation. Is FPTP perfect? No. But as Walkom illustrates, neither is proportional representation. In our haste to "fix" the system, we may simply be replacing one set of problems with another. FPTP has in its favour the fact that it is entirely elected and easy to understand. The proposed Ontario amendments would include electing some MPPs, but selecting others from a 'list' to ensure proportional representation. This raises obvious concerns. To whom are these 'list' members accountable? They haven't been voted in by anyone in particular. Should they have the same privileges in the House as elected members?
A couple of years ago, I voted against implementing a similar measure in British Columbia (the Single Transferrable Vote), partly because of the reasons outlined above, but mostly because it seemed a difficult system to understand. Electoral reform is sold on the basis of making our system of government more 'democratic'. As voters, we should therefore be completely clear on what exactly we are buying. The political headaches now experienced by New Zealanders seem a steep price to pay for rushing into "improving" our democracy.