September 14, 2018

I just ran across a brilliant idea in a comment on Quora.  This guy said that during campus voting his university always included a final choice:  Reopen Nominations!  In the case of a plurality of RON votes, I guess the election was quashed and re-run.

In a world where Proportional Representation has proven to break down quickly and give rise to authoritarian rule, the RON option might be a satisfying way to bring in the appearance of electoral reform.


A Quora questioner asked me to tell the story of the weirdest piece of driving on a public road I have ever seen.  There were a number of examples from that summer of 1970, not all of them my own creation, but this is the one I chose to recount.

It was 5:30 in the afternoon on a very hot day in August of 1970. The place was a highway overpass on the 401, the major highway through Ontario. I was working on an asphalt crew just outside Kingston, and as the sun got higher, the drivers grew sillier. The speed limit on the 401 at that time was 70 mph. We knew from experience to watch out for light green license plates from neighbouring Quebec. Ontario Place had opened that summer, so a lot of tourist traffic was making its way up and down the 401.

We had the traffic forced over into the centre lane, five or six trucks lined up ahead of the paver and the three rollers strung back at intervals over a half mile behind it on the right-hand lane.  Three flagmen and a few cones had the job of swinging the oncoming traffic into a single lane on the left.

All of the sudden a lime-green Mustang Mach-1 with a Quebec license plate appeared on the wrong side of the back roller, then slalomed around the other two rollers inside the cones before the driver realized that he was on soft asphalt and he had to get rid of some speed right then! He threw the Mustang sideways, or maybe the brakes weren’t balanced. Anyway, we weren’t quite over the driving lanes below, so those of us who could jumped off and dove under the guard rail.  The Mustang slid sideways until it stopped against the back ledge of the paver with a thump.

Hot asphalt had sprayed everywhere. The car was pretty messy, but drivable, so they took the guy’s insurance details and got him out of there. Traffic was heavy, eh?

There was no saving 100 yards of pavement. The only thing was to bring in loaders, pick it up, and send it back to the plant for re-manufacture.

Glen Lawrence, the company owner, swore that the Division Street Bridge was jinxed. Two previous times that summer he had to pick up the asphalt on that stretch. Once it was jammed electronics on a paver, another time the mix got too cold to roll properly and the inspector rejected it, and then this yob from Quebec slid through it sideways.

I wonder what sort of story the driver told his pals to account for his new car covered with asphalt?

A brief tree-hug

July 8, 2018


Then there’s the little white mulberry in my garden.  It came up as a weed and I drove over it with the mower but somehow the blades missed.  It bent over and avoided them.  I backed up and tried again.  Again I missed.  So I forgot about it and went on cutting weeds around the garden.  The next year it had righted itself and shot up into a little tree, though the trunk bore the scars of incredible abuse.  I mowed around it.  The year after that it offered a few amazingly sweet mauve mulberries to bribe me not to cut it down.  O.K.  Each year it has grown, self-repaired its shape, and produced more of the finest mulberries I have ever tasted.  Now the garden is gone but the tree remains a source of shade and comfort.

 A mulberry tree is God’s way of telling you to slow down and enjoy a hot day.  You get to stand in its shade and eat your fill.
Update:  July 24, 2018
The tree is still bearing away, but I hardly ever get a berry because of the tree’s overwhelming popularity with the local bird population.  At first there were just three cedar waxwings who could tell that these light mauve berries were sweeter than the tart-but- black fruit of the red mulberry trees around the garden.  Then one morning I flushed 13 goldfinches from the tree.  The robins caught on, and since then it has been an all-you-can-eat free-for-all.
I happened upon the tree at daylight this morning and savoured a dozen sweet, succulent fruit.  The early bird, and all that.

July 1st Canada responded to Trump’s trade war. Tariffs on steel and aluminum on top of softwood lumber and Bombardier aircraft made Canadian journalists and politicians jumpy, but then Trump shot off his mouth and Canadians got behind retaliatory tariffs on a shopping cart of items.

News stories invariably refer to whiskey, boats, sleeping bags, maple syrup and Harley Davidsons when they talk of the trade war, but I would suggest to you than none of the items on that list mean much, except for Heinz Ketchup.

Heinz Ketchup. “I’ll wait for the Heinz.” How many times have you heard that slogan? It has been the punch line in generations of high-quality T.V. ads designed to make the Heinz Ketchup brand identification as visceral as any. Product placements surpass those of Coca Cola.

But Heinz, a major employer in Leamington, Ontario “The Tomato Capital of Canada”, abruptly dumped its Canadian supplier and moved the factory south. Well-read shoppers took umbrage and discovered that French’s Ketchup could easily fill the niche as Canada’s ketchup, if they could dragoon Loblaw’s into stocking it. Loblaw’s did, and other supermarkets followed. French’s Ketchup may now appear on a bottom shelf, but it is at least present in the store.

The next squabble may be fought in fast food chains, where the bulk stuff and the nasty little plastic packets will need to change their brand labels, if not the actual content, in order to protect their bottom line.

But The Ketchup War will succeed or fail on the very type of decision which put Donald Trump in the White House. The supermarket ketchup aisle has become a ballot box, complete with its moment of private introspection where the barrage of subliminal information meets one’s private urges, prejudices, aspirations and pocket-book calculations.  The shopper must consciously reflect upon the choice of condiment. Will they* wear their maple leaf on their sleeve and boycott Heinz, or follow deeply-ingrained habits and grab another bottle of the all-too-available foreign product?  (*I know.  The mangled pronoun agreement gives me feelings of nausea as well, but the language has changed.)

Update, 4 July, 2018, 12:33 p.m.:

My wife read this over and demanded that I remove a comment she had made about the relative unavailability of alternatives to Heinz Ketchup in smaller supermarkets, so I have complied with her desire. She further reported that the display of large ketchup bottles she examined at Gordanier’s in Elgin this morning is located on a bottom shelf. Half of the display markets store brands: President’s Choice and No Name, in equal proportion. She noticed little depletion on this portion of the shelf. The other half of the display allocates the space equally to Heinz and French’s. Both appeared to have been equally depleted by the weekend shopping blitz.

Update, 9 July, 10:30 a.m.

CBC Business Reporter Sophia Harris has an article on The Ketchup Wars on the CBC website this morning.  The head marketing guy for Heinz is whining about the unfairness of the ketchup tariff, yada yada yada.  The compilers of the Canadian tariff list  seem to have taken a dim view of town-killing decisions by American businesses.  Heinz got it for leaving Leamington tomato growers and processing-plant workers in the lurch.  Hershey’s Chocolate received similar vengeful thoughts when the charitable corporation (I read the charter) pulled the factory operation out of Smiths Falls with no plausible reason to do so.  There was labour peace, a skilled work force, status as the largest employer in town — Hell, the water tower still advertises Hershey!  Still, they put 550 people out of work and abandoned a profitable factory in perfect condition.

But just wait and see what happens if Trump puts a tariff on automobiles.  Then it will be time to go after the drug patents controlled by American drug companies.  I’m inclined to think that the enabling legislation is already written, and there won’t be any month-long delay this time.  Let’s see how Trump reacts to the president of a drug company shooting out his porch light.  Big Pharma has more money than the auto sector.

If you feel helpless but angry in the face of a trade war, take heart from the gander in the video.

Fake news and NAFTA

June 28, 2018

Donald Trump has regularly used lies and exaggerations in his public pronouncements. According to the Globe and Mail, a fake chart of Canadian tariffs levied against the United States is making the rounds, with no effort to correct the record by the posting websites when presented with the facts by the Globe. The tacit approval of this misinformation from the White House seems as to indicate that in the current administration’s view, lies are fair game in beating down an opponent. No wonder Canadians are staying away from the border and making their Internet purchases on Canadian sites.

The following appeared in the Globe and Mail this morning:


If you believe a chart of tariff rates circulating on Facebook and Twitter by supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump, Canada is egregiously gouging the United States.

Under the North American free-trade agreement, the table claims, Canada charges levies of 45 per cent on aluminum, HVAC equipment and televisions; 35 per cent on vacuums and cable boxes; 25 per cent on cars and steel; and 48 per cent on copper. The highest U.S. rate for any of these items, by contrast, is listed at just 5 per cent.

There’s just one problem: Every Canadian number on the chart is false. Under NAFTA, the tariff Canada charges the United States for every one of the listed items is zero.

(Graphic missing here)

Globe and Mail Evening Update, June 28, 2018, provided a summary:

Have you seen the chart of tariff rates circulating on Facebook and Twitter by supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump, suggesting Canada is gouging the United States? Under the North American free-trade agreement, it says, Canada charges levies of 45 per cent on aluminum, HVAC equipment and televisions; 35 per cent on vacuums and cable boxes; 25 per cent on cars and steel; and 48 per cent on copper. The highest U.S. rate for any of these items, by contrast, is listed at just 5 per cent. One problem: Every Canadian number on the chart is false. Under NAFTA, the tariff Canada charges the United States for every item listed is zero. The origin of the fake tariff chart is not clear. It first cropped up on social media in the days after the Group of Seven summit in Quebec, when Trump called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “dishonest and weak” for complaining about the President’s metals tariffs. (subscribers)

The only thing ‘wrong’ about this chart is that all the numbers are completely wrong. There are no such tariffs.

The misinformation comes as Mr. Trump ratchets up his trade attacks on Canada. He has hit the country with steel and aluminum tariffs, demanded changes to NAFTA to tilt the playing field toward the United States and threatened crippling levies of 25 per cent on Canadian-made cars.

False, shareable memes, including some created by Russian agents, have been circulating among Trump supporters for years. But they have usually targeted emotionally charged topics, not dry policy matters. The emergence of the chart reflects the increasing furor with which the President’s base sees international trade. And it has observers worried that such misinformation will contribute to the momentum Mr. Trump is building for an escalating continental trade war.

“The President is purposefully evoking a fight against Canada right now. He has an agenda to demonize the trade relationship,” said Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, who said the popularity of the chart is an outgrowth of Mr. Trump’s misleading and hyperbolic trade rhetoric.

The President has, for instance, repeatedly accused Canada of “taking advantage” of the U.S. with its high tariffs on dairy – one of the few barriers that remain under NAFTA – but has been silent on the United States’ own tariffs on a range of food products from sugar to peanuts to sour cream.

At a Monday rally in South Carolina, the mere mention of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s name drew boos from the crowd. “Justin, what’s your problem, Justin?” Mr. Trump said. “Canada has a 275-per-cent tariff on dairy products … I said, ‘Look, if you want to do that, we’re going to put a little tariff on your cars coming in.’ ”

The exact origin of the fake tariff chart is not clear. It first cropped up on social media in the days after the Group of Seven summit in Quebec, when Mr. Trump called Mr. Trudeau “dishonest and weak” for complaining about the President’s metals tariffs.

On June 13, a pro-Trump Twitter account called @TakebkUS tweeted the chart. Both the chart and the tweet contained the same grammatical error, mistakenly inserting an apostrophe to pluralize “tariffs” and “TVs.” But the person who runs @TakebkUS, who would not give his or her name, told The Globe he or she did not create the chart and did not remember where it came from.

The next day, a Trump-supporting Facebook page called The Federalist Papers posted the chart with the comment “Does this seem wrong to you?” and garnered 27,000 reactions.

On June 21, Charlie Kirk, the founder of a conservative student group, fell for the hoax. “Trump is levelling the playing field with Canada who has been ripping us off,” he tweeted, along with the false Canadian tariff levels. His tweet received more than 10,000 retweets and 20,000 likes.

Neither Mr. Kirk nor The Federalist Papers responded to requests for comment. None of the people who shared the table erased or corrected it after informed by The Globe that the numbers are fake.

Scott Lincicome, a trade expert with the Cato Institute think tank, said the chart’s figures are so outlandish that it is clearly a deliberate hoax and not an honest mistake.

“It strikes me as so obviously wrong that it wasn’t unintentional,” he said. “Someone sat down and decided they would create a fake chart.”

The table’s creator even cited three supposed sources for the false numbers: The Office of the United States Trade Representative, the U.S. International Trade Commission and the Canadian Minister of International Trade. None of the three show figures on their websites anywhere close to the supposed Canadian NAFTA tariffs in the chart. The spread of politically charged internet hoaxes first came to public attention during the 2016 presidential election, when made-up news stories and memes – generally targeted at Trump supporters – spread through Facebook and Twitter. Some were allegedly built by Russian agents trying to tip the election to Mr. Trump.

“Trump made NAFTA an emotional issue and made his supporters think about it in emotional terms,” said David Carroll, an associate professor at the Parsons School of Design who has tracked the rise of false news. “There’s no issue that isn’t seen through a sense of resentment.”

In reality, Mr. Heyman said, the few trade disputes between the two countries are small blemishes in a mostly harmonious and 99-per-cent tariff-free trading relationship worth $900-billion last year.

“Imagine a pristine sports field, and in the middle of it, Trump sees a single dandelion,” Mr. Heyman said. “He says, ‘Oh my God, look at that – it’s full of weeds, we’d better rip up the whole field.’ ”

Remember the great fuss about BPA, the toxic lining in baby bottles which was run out of North American stores? It’s returning to popularity as toxin-of-the-month, tied with Roundup, the popular herbicide.

And this is just sickening:

How can the American people allow abuse like this in their own country? It’s fascism, folks. Remember, Hitler was elected to power. It took the German people seventy years to get over that mistake.

Why pharmaceuticals could be the prescription for trade warfare that truly hurts America

Opinion: If Canada wants to decisively threaten maximum pain and stop the escalating trade war with the U.S., it should propose expropriating pharmaceutical patents

by Amir Attaran

Amir Attaran is a lawyer, biomedical scientist, and professor in the faculty of law and the faculty of medicine at the University of Ottawa.

What began as a trade skirmish over Donald Trump’s imposition of a 10-per-cent tariff on Canadian steel and aluminum is now clearly a trade war. The miasma is only just lifting from the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Que., in which a Justin Trudeau press conference over a spiked communiqué sparked a Trump tantrum.

But the war’s final battle will not be the tariff that our government has already imposed in retaliation on American pizza, whisky, mattresses, coffee, et cetera—in fact, our tit-for-tat tariffs have only caused the White House to double down and promise even more tariffs against Canada soon. That means that Canada’s symmetrical retaliation is not working—and if we do not rethink our strategy now, we could soon be inside a tornado-like spiral of escalating tariffs, causing rising prices, sinking economies, and growing joblessness on both sides of the border.

If we are not to let the bully win, Canada must find an asymmetrical way to retaliate in this trade war. One that destroys American resolve, but spares us—or even benefits us. But how?

There are several ways, but Canada should consider—and threaten—expropriating American pharmaceutical patents.

Pharmaceutical patents are ultra-valuable assets. Whoever controls a drug’s patent has the exclusive right to make and export that drug. With typical drug prices growing an average of 12 per cent annually, and with certain specialty drugs priced over $500,000, controlling the right pharmaceutical patents is like having several gold mines.

But what makes pharmaceutical patents ripe for retaliation is the vulnerability of America’s pharmaceutical industry. Six of the world’s top ten pharmaceutical companies are American. No industry throws more lobbying dollars around Washington—more than the banking, defence, and automobile industries combined. Any trade retaliation aimed at pharmaceuticals certainly will be felt on Wall Street and heard in the White House.

Canada has already expropriated pharmaceutical patents in the past: The federal government did so hundreds of times in the 1970s and 1980s, but stopped because of the 1988 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which later inspired NAFTA. Now that the White House wants to back out of our trading relations and NAFTA too, it is fair to revisit that decision.

Thanks to an obscure twist of world trade law, doing so is perfectly legal, too. In the years since NAFTA, developments in international law have made expropriation of pharmaceutical patents easier and less risky than ever. Between 1998 and 2005, at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the World Trade Organization cobbled together special rules making it lawful to “compulsory license”—or, essentially, expropriate—pharmaceutical patents. The rules allow Canada’s government to authorize Canadian companies to copy patented drugs controlled by U.S. companies. There is no need for an AIDS-like health emergency, so long as certain manageable procedural steps are followed. Further, those procedural steps can be shortcut “to remedy a practice determined after … administrative process to be anti-competitive”—likely an easy determination for President Trump’s bogus claim that aluminum and steel tariffs are needed for national security.

Once granted, a compulsory license leaves Canadian firms with the right to copy, sell, and potentially export the targeted drug, at the expense of a U.S. firm who is compensated only pennies on the dollar for the lost value of its patent monopoly. The White House would be left furious by Canada’s decision, but it would be without legal recourse.

There would be several advantages to this move. Macroeconomically, compulsory licensing would mean growth for the Canadian pharmaceutical industry, and decline for the U.S. pharmaceutical industry. Microeconomically, it would mean cheaper drugs for Canadian households, once the American companies’ patent monopoly is broken. From a domestic policy angle, it would mean billions of dollars of savings for Canada’s publicly-funded Medicare system.

And most importantly, diplomatically, it would mean unleashing the most powerful industrial lobby in Washington to beat up the White House on our behalf.

Normally, I wouldn’t advocate for compulsory licensing. Throughout my career, writing public health and legal reports for the United Nations, I have been skeptical of it, because there are almost always better ways to obtain drugs cheaply than snatching patents. But in a trade war, that’s beside the point. Winning means using economic and political power to intimidate and injure your opponent while staying legally onside yourself. The asymmetrical warfare of pharmaceutical compulsory licensing would be unsurpassable for that.

Just look at the threat posed by a precision offensive of Canadian compulsory licensing. For the American pharmaceutical industry, which claims to be worth USD$1.3 trillion to the American economy, picking off its most profitable drugs poses a near-existential threat, because once Canada shows how to unravel patents, other countries will copy us. There would also probably be no greater disaster for the White House’s trade agenda, which has made a priority to demand stronger pharmaceutical patent protection fromCanada, Mexico, the EU, China, India, Japan, and elsewhere. If Canada started with the drugs of Eli Lilly and Company, say—headquartered in Vice President Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana—fear would set in quickly.

With President Trump intent on trashing America’s allies and wrecking the postwar trade order, Canada has reason to threaten compulsory licensing and show the White House where its folly will lead. Republicans and Democrats benefit about equally from the pharmaceutical industry’s campaign donations, so a credible outcome would be that the industry lobbies furiously for a bipartisan agreement in Congress overriding President Trump’s misbegotten tariffs.

In short, this strategy would inflict far greater agony on the White House, at a lower risk, than retaliatory tariffs alone—and boost Canada’s economy and health care system while it was at it.

Expropriating pharmaceutical patents sounds like a significant, hardball play—and that is what it is, undeniably. But as huge as the impact would be, it wouldn’t permanently damage relations not just because Canada has made this threat before—a 2001 ultimatum over anthrax drugs—but because the threat would never need to be enacted. Congress would intervene, thanks to the ferocious pharma lobby, and relations would return to normal.

And remember: that free, global trade has kept the peace for decades by making customers of former enemies who once fought real wars. We cannot afford to forget that a hard-fought trade war is conservative and preferable in comparison.