Pedantry - Moved to

Friday, April 18, 2003
The Revolutionary Council calls for a vote

Pedantry is, to put it bluntly, not a democracy. My posts, my choice, my editorial authority. I am the General Secretary, the Chairman, El Presidente and the Great Helmsman. That's what blogging is all about: low cost, small market self-publishing. We babble, you decide.

Nonetheless, today I'm going to try an experiment in "guided democracy" in order to show the masses that I am not without populist impulses.

Those of you who have been following the semi-regular postings of my Grandfather's papers know that we are now up to part seven. Grandpa is 23 years old and has managed to win an indefinite postponement from his draft board during the Second World War.

One of the problems with this project has been the size of Grandpa's papers. They fill four substantial binders, and I have not read them from end to end. Consequently, there is material I am only now discovering that I would have liked to have posted earlier, particularly about life in Russia.

I should have put all this stuff together when I was still talking about Russia a month ago. Unfortunately, it's buried in a binder marked "Farm Credit Guidelines - Accountant's Manual" in the middle of a lot of obituaries of people I don't remember and some stuff about my own father and his death that, frankly, is a bit depressing for me to read. So I've only gotten to it in the last few days.

I have come across a lengthy section containing Grandpa Dick's (my Grandfather's adopted father's) first person account of his experiences in the failed 1905 rebellion and during the Russian Civil War, his memories of his family's business and estate and about his life in Russia. There is also Grandma Dick's (my great-grandmother's) account of her parents' murder in 1907 and of her life in Russia, along with a love letter she received from my great-grandfather Kornelius Petrovich Martens. There are also a variety of official documents which will, no doubt, test my remaining knowledge of German and Russian. Furthermore, I found the one and only document Grandpa ever asked me to translate and my only direct contribution to this material: Grandpa Dick's Russian birth certificate.

I am aware that early 20th century Russia is probably more popular than rural life in Saskatchewan. My last post is intended to be the only one set primarily in Saskatchewan before moving on to more interesting stuff.

1943 is a pretty good place to pause in discussing Grandpa's life. The very next paragraph after end of the last section is something I considered including, but I wanted to end with Grandpa's praise for how, according to him, God took care of him during the war. Here is the cut paragraph:

One winter on the farm, when there was less work to do and only the cows to milk and the livestock to feed, I was wondering whether it would be more advisable for me to go logging for the winter. We prayed about it and wondered what to do. I vivdly remember how the answer came. I was up in the hay loft throwing down feed when an absolute peace about staying on the farm simply flooded my soul, and I had complete assurance that that was what the Lord wanted me to do.

I'm strongly tempted to leave him there in that moment of peace for a little longer, because whether or not it was what the Lord wanted him to do, it isn't what he in fact did. His faith led him into a very different life than he would have expected at that moment. The next fifteen years of his life take almost two binders by themselves, and I don't know how many posts it will turn into.

So, I'm soliciting opinons. I have good stuff from Russia that I can work with. It includes not one, but two sets of brutal murders as well as a lot of details about old Russia from an admittedly unusual perspective. Alternatively, I can press ahead with Grandpa. I have been vague in my posts about where he goes and what he does, but my readers who know me in real life have some idea where Grandpa is headed.

I don't promise to just count votes and go with the majority - this is after all a guided democracy - but I want some sense of my audience's interest in this tale. For those who feel whole sentences are too much work, feel free to just leave the word "Russia" or "Canada" in the comments, although you should also feel free to leave any other commentary you like. I won't decide until at least Monday and I'll read the comments over the weekend and answer questions if anyone has any.

For those who want to reread the past posts in this series:

Part 1: Nestor Makhno and me
Part 2: Das Alter Buch
Part 3: Out of Friesia
Part 4: One third of the way around the world in 30 days
Part 5: Down and out in Siberia
Part 6: Winnipeg emm Kjalla
Part 7: Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows

It's been... what? nine days?

I haven't watched the news on TV in about a week, but something motivated me to turn it on a half hour ago. I'm glad I did.

BBC World just reported on the protest against the US in Baghdad. The print story doesn't quite do it justice. First, they showed the protest. The protesters want the US out ASAP. There was no ambiguity about it. The protesters stayed on message. They interviewed a cleric - apparently this rally had lots of both Sunnis and Shi'ites and was led by clerics from both - saying that if the US was planning a long occupation than they could look forward to a holy war.

Remember, this is the first public protest of the post-Saddam era. 25 years of repression, and the first thing they protest is the US. So much for a public that's grateful to be liberated.

Then, a US patrol shows up. Bad scene. Young fresh faced American kid in khakis with a big gun suddenly has lots of angry Arab men in his face. The kid, whoever he is, clearly is not happy about this. He tells them to back off. He threatens to shoot them if they fail to do so. Of course, he's speaking English, which is doing him no good whatsoever.

No violence folllows. I'm only seeing the BBC edited version anyway, so I don't know exactly what happened next. The web version says that "the US commander skilfully withdrew his troops and defused the situation." That was not what I saw on TV. What I saw was that a squad car with a couple of Baghdad cops showed up - they've been back at work since yesterday - and, in the words of the BBC correspondent, "escorted the unit out of the area."

From there, they go to this Ahmed Chalabi character, who just about comes out and says that Iraq should have an interim government with full authority in a matter of weeks, that the UN should come in and that the US should get out.. This is certainly the direction his rhetoric seemed to be taking. Apparently the monarchs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia agree with him. And remember, this is Bush's candidate to run the country. With friends like these, who need enemies?

Lastly, they cut to a live interview with a French representative of Save the Children, which has apparently been trying to land a food and medicine flight in Mosul, but the US won't let them. So, they're preparing to file a suit in Belgian court against Jay Garner - theoretically the current civil administrator of Iraq - for violating the Geneva Convention by failing to provide adequately for the civilian population. The spokesman said that they would pursue Tony Blair and George Bush, except that as heads of state they have immunity.

George Bush - snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Another Sunny Afternoon

We're having beautiful weather here and I'm sitting in my office writing code. In a place like this, every sunny day over 20 degrees Celsius should be a statutory public holiday. Really, it wouldn't shorten the work year much considering how often it rains in Belgium.

I should be in a park, watching pretty girls in short skirts. *sigh* It sucks to be a grown-up.

Thursday, April 17, 2003
I hate to go to bed irritated...

...but thanks to Atrios, I no longer have the choice. Let me quote him in his entirety:

"The inspectors didn't find anything and I doubt that we will."

-Donald Rumsfeld, today.

Remind me again, this was all about how Iraq was in breech of UN resolutions concerning disarmament, right? Or do they just think they can change their story now and no one will notice?

Take a gander at this:

Rumsfeld Says U.S. Will Find Iraqi WMD Materials
USA American Forces Press Service

April 13, 2003 - Saddam Hussein's scientific adviser surrendered to U.S. forces Saturday, proclaiming that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction.

"Do you believe it?" NBC's "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on today's edition.

"No, goodness no," the secretary responded.

Rumsfeld said he is convinced the Iraqi regime has squirreled its weapons of mass destruction around the country. He said the United States has evidence of Iraq's chemical and biological activities as well as the restart of its nuclear program.

That was published four days ago. That's pretty fast turnaround, even in politics.

Also, since you're (I hope) already pissed off, check this out:

US Culture Advisers Resign Over Iraq Museum Looting

Two cultural advisers to the Bush administration have resigned in protest over the failure of U.S. forces to prevent the wholesale looting of priceless treasures from Baghdad's antiquities museum. Martin Sullivan, who chaired the President's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property for eight years, and panel member Gary Vikan said they resigned because the U.S. military had had advance warning of the danger to Iraq's historical treasures.

"We certainly know the value of oil but we certainly don't know the value of historical artifacts," Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, told Reuters on Thursday.

At the start of the U.S.-led campaign against Iraq, military forces quickly secured valuable oil fields.

Baghdad's museums, galleries and libraries are empty shells, destroyed in a wave of looting that erupted as U.S.-led forces ended Saddam Hussein's rule last week, although antiquities experts have said they were given assurances months ago from U.S. military planners that Iraq's historic artifacts and sites would be protected by occupying forces.

"It didn't have to happen," Sullivan told Reuters. "In a pre-emptive war that's the kind of thing you should have planned for." Sullivan sent his letter of resignation earlier this week.

Bloody incompetent idiots.

Update: John Hardy in the comments has the full Rumsfeld quote, which, it turns out, is not quite the full turnaround that it appears to be. Fair enough. Let this be a lesson to those who quote out of context.

Enetation does good

It seems like the computers at have finally realised, after a half-dozen attempts, that I live in the Central European Time Zone. Comments are now being logged at the actual time that they are posted in my part of the world.

That would be Paris, Berlin and Rome time for those who need city names or an hour later than London time, six hours later than New York time and nine hours later than San Francisco time.

According to my hit counter, the overwhelming majority of you readers live in, or at least have your browsers set to, only five time zones: CET, UK time and North American Eastern, Central and Pacific times. So, I assume the rest of you can work out your own levels of temporal displacement.

Will economic growth now depend on China?

There's a lot in this Guardian article that should be taken with a grain of salt, but the main contention of this Victor Keegan piece is reasonably well defended:

All the prosperity in China

When economists talk about the global slowdown, they do not mean what they say. What they really mean is the economic slowdown in the west - with Japan usually thrown in as an honorary western economy.

If they were to travel to east Asia they would suddenly find themselves in the middle of a boom, notwithstanding the undoubted debilitating effects of the Sars virus.

Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand are all expanding at between 5% and 6% while South Korea (the broadband centre of the world) is steaming ahead at 6.8%. And these are just the relative failures.

The big success story is China, the most populated country in the world, which has long taken over the role of being the prime engine of east Asian growth from Japan. Figures released this week show that China's economy was expanding at more than 9% (annualised rate) in the first quarter of the year.

That compares with growth this year of only 0.5% in Germany (which is supposed to be Europe's prime engine of growth) and 4.3% in Russia. [...]

The lesson of this year's figures is that the more prosperous China becomes the more it wants to buy goods and services from the rest of the world. The health of east Asia's economy used to be a function of the state of the US to which it supplies so many final goods and components.

That is still true to an extent. But China has now emerged as a dynamic economy in its own right capable of energising the entire Pacific Rim. It won't be long before western countries start looking to China, as they have to the US, Europe and Japan, to become the locomotive of world recovery. With the rest of the world economy in the state it is in, that moment can't happen too soon.

I am less enthusiastic about the idea of a world where growth depends on what's going on in China, but the days when the world depended on American growth to carry everyone's economies are over, and Asian growth is now far more independent of American growth than it has been in the recent past.

The Russian growth numbers surprise me though. Are they for real? Is Russia really growing at over four percent? If so, that's wonderful, although not as wonderful as China's nine percent would be. Furthermore, as I understand it there are reasons to think China's numbers are somewhat fixed. Real growth may well be lower than nine percent, although it's clearly higher than the numbers coming out of the US and the EU.

Still, it seems that there is a decent case that Asian growth is now largely dependent on Asian investment and Asian consumption. Will nations outside of Asia start hitching their own economies to Asian growth?

Is this to be the ultimate legacy of the Bush Administration, the replacement of America as the essential nation with China?

Isn't this how we got into this mess?

Today's New York Times announces yet another strange twist in the continuing story of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

U.S. Bombs Iranian Guerrilla Forces Based in Iraq

American forces have bombed the bases of the main armed Iranian opposition group in Iraq, a guerrilla organization that maintained thousands of fighters with tanks and artillery along Iraq's border with Iran for more than a decade.

The group, the Mujahedeen Khalq, has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States since 1997, and Bush administration officials said the group had supported Saddam Hussein's military. Still, the biggest beneficiary of the strikes will be the Iranian government, which has lost scores of soldiers in recent years to cross-border attacks by the guerrillas seeking to overthrow Iran's Islamic government. [...]

A senior American military officer said the United States had "bombed the heck" out of at least two of the Mujahedeen group's bases, including its military headquarters at Camp Ashraf, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. [...]

The attacks could well anger the more than 150 members of Congress from both parties who have described the Iranian opposition group as an effective source of pressure against Iran's government. In a statement last November, the group urged the Bush administration to remove the organization from its terrorist list.

"We made it very clear that these folks are pro-democracy, antifundamentalism, antiterrorism, helpful to the U.S. in providing information about the activities of the Iranian regime, and advocates of a secular government in Iran," said Yleem Poblete, staff director for the House International Relations Committee's subcommittee on the Middle East and Asia.

"They are our friends, not our enemies," she said. "The fact that they are the main target of the Iranian regime says a lot about their effectiveness."

It was not clear today whether the attacks were intended in any way as a thank-you gesture by the United States for Iran's policy of noninterference in the war in Iraq.

At the White House and elsewhere, senior administration officials said today that the group had been bombed because its forces served as an extension of the Iraqi military and as a de facto security force for the old Iraqi government. [...]

The Mujahedeen Khalq was formed in the 1960's and expelled from Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In its most recent annual listing of terrorist groups, the State Department said of the group that "its history is studded with anti-Western attacks as well as terrorist attacks on the interests of the clerical regime in Iran and abroad." During the 1970's, the report noted, the group killed several American military personnel and civilians working in Iran.

The decision by the Clinton administration to add the group to its list of terrorist organizations in 1997 was widely interpreted as a goodwill gesture to the Iranian government.

Now, remind me, didn't Al Qaeda get started with US support during the Afghanistan War? Wasn't Saddam Hussein's military built and funded in large part by the US? Is it just me, or does America have a pretty pathetic history when it comes to picking winners in the Middle East?

I don't know what justification, if any, the US has in bombing the Mujahedeen Khalq, and I'm not saying that best course of action is bombing them or backing them. It just seems to me that every time someone in the US government decides to back questionable people with the logic "my enemy's enemy is my friend", bad things follow, and clearly there are some people in Congress who think the US should be backing them.

I really am confused. Is the Bush administration trying to make nice to Iran by doing this, or are they members of the "Axis of Evil"? Is Bush being a consistent anti-terrorist here, or is he trying to improve relations with Iran? Why do both options bother me a great deal?

Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.

Part 1: Nestor Makhno and me
Part 2: Das Alter Buch
Part 3: Out of Friesia
Part 4: One third of the way around the world in 30 days
Part 5: Down and out in Siberia
Part 6: Winnipeg emm Kjalla

Mrs. Tilton makes a point in the comments to a previous post:

I think the religious should not be shy about being seen as religious, and I would hope the influence of their belief upon their lives might prompt non-believers to wonder whether there might be something to all that. But intrusive crawthumping is not only offensive in itself; it's also likely to drive away non-believers who might not otherwise have been driven away. Note the difference in style between Tony Blair and George Bush, both committed Christians. One can disapprove of both (and for many of the same reasons); but Bush's religiosity puts Christianity in a bad light in a way that Blair's does not.

I agree entirely. Religious people should not shy away being recognised as such. No one should have to hide who and what they are. Not just in matters of religion, but in all aspects of identity. That is an important part of what substantial freedom, as opposed to legalistic freedom, should mean. And this has some bearing on today's instalment from Grandpa.

This part of Grandpa's story has been much harder for me to put together than any of the others and has taken up much of my free time for the last few days. In part, it's because this instalment is longer than any of the others. It covers almost fifteen years at once, from 1929 to approximately the end of 1943. Grandpa's memory of this period is much better, and he recounts a lot of bits about his childhood in Saskatchewan, many of them out of order and spread across several parts of his voluminous memoirs. Reassembling them into a single narrative has been difficult, and I fear less than totally successful.

In the previous parts that I've posted, Grandpa occasionally digresses into highly religious material, which I have largely cut. It isn't really necessary and it impedes the flow of the narrative. I have only discussed religion in order to make sense of Mennonite history. And - I remind my readers - Mennonites have traditionally been people who refused to serve in armies. For many of them, thou shalt not kill is not followed by unless your draft board tells you to. This will be important in understanding the last part.

In writing this section, I have had to give some thought to how to handle religion, because starting here I can no longer treat it as secondary to the narrative. For basically the whole of his adult life, my Grandfather was devoted to his church - the Mennonite Brethren Church - and to God. If I were to try to tell you about his life and ignore this central fact about him, I would not be doing him justice. I would be denying his identity in exactly the manner that I refuse to do to other people and that I try not to do to myself.

This leads me into a quandary. I have not exactly asked the rest of my family for permission to do this on my blog. I don't know if any of them are reading me here. At some point - in fact in my next instalment - I will have to face the issue of how I handle Grandpa talking about the people who are still alive: his wife and his children. For the moment though, I have to ask myself how I should handle Grandpa's most personal experiences, particularly, his highly personal religious experiences. I am sure that if Grandpa were alive, he would not want me to distort or minimise the extremely important religious component of his life.

There is a story told in Sunday Schools about three great missionaries in Heaven. The first one says to the second, "I brought a whole nation to God. How many did you convert?" The second one says "I brought thousands of men to God," and then turns to the third and asks, "How many did you convert?" The last man says, "One." If his story makes anyone's faith just a little stronger, I think Grandpa would say it was worth it. If it doesn't, well, it may grate the ears of some, but this is still who my Grandfather was.

The topic of evolution, and my contention that it is really a question about the proper source of authority is what has brought this introduction on. The thing that most shocks and bothers people is not anything that I happen to think about evolution, but that I'm willing to think about it as a matter of ideology rather than of fact and that I encourage others to do the same. I do credit evolution - I'm not willing to use the word "believe" to discuss it - and my reason is the one famously advanced by Dobzhansky himself: Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. This is not evolution is a demonstrable and certain fact, as true as 2+2=4. It means that with evolution as a concept and an intellectual tool, I can make sense of a lot of what I have seen and read. It is the ability of a theory to make sense of things that is most essential to it.

Well, there are people - people like my Grandfather - for whom their religious faith is essential to their ability to make sense of their lives and the world around them. I am not one of those people, but I promise you that they do exist. They are not less intelligent or less capable than other people, and they are not simply being, to use the Dennettite terminology, parasitised by memes. The reasons they believe as they do are not substantially different from the reasons I or anyone else believes in materialist explanations or particular scientific theories.

That is why I resent seeing religion treated as mere superstition while science is held up as Truth, because it does a disservice to people who deserve better consideration. I assure you, I resent being told what God thinks by someone who claims to be in the know every bit as much or more.

There is other stuff here besides religion. Grandpa talks about life on the farm in the last years of horse-driven agriculture and in the transition to fully mechanised farming as well as talking about school in the days when grade 12 was considered an advanced education. He also talks about playing with electricity when it was still a new thing.

Furthermore, Grandpa and I have something in common: shortly before our 16th birthdays, we both chose to leave home, ostensibly to pursue a higher education, but really because we were teenage boys who wanted a taste of adult freedom. After that, of course, our lives differ sharply. By the age of 23, when this post ends, Grandpa was back on the farm having dropped out before completing grade 12. At the same age, I was living in sin with my future wife in a hotel on Polk Street in San Francisco after having dropped out of my Master's degree. No draft board ever interfered with my education, although I did have to register for the Selective Service in order to get student loans. And I have never, ever, worked on a farm.

The house we lived in on the the Henry Craig farm was a storey and a half and measured 18x20 ft. I have the feeling that originally there were two 10x18 ft. granaries or homesteader's shacks that were moved together to make the house. The Craig farm itself consisted of one section of land at 24-30-18 W3 plus another quarter at SE25-30-18 W3 (Southeast quarter of section 25, township 30, range 18, west of the 3rd meridian.)

[Grandpa covers some of this information in bits and dribbles in parts that I've cut. To make it a little easier to understand where he is, the Craig farm was about five miles south of the town of Herschel, Saskatchewan and perhaps six miles or so north of Fiske, where he lived earlier with his mother. (See the last chapter.) This is in western Saskatchewan, about a hundred kilometres east of the Alberta border, 250km or so north of the US border in Montana and about 150km west-southwest of the city of Saskatoon. This is somewhat further west than Albuquerque, NM and not quite as far north as the southernmost part of Alaska. This part of Saskatchewan is moderately fertile, far more so than the drylands to the south in Montana, but not as fertile as the much wetter lands a few hundred kilometres to the north. In the 1930's, there was still cheap unfarmed land in the area, but the best plots were already settled.]

Before the West could be settled, the land had to be surveyed and it was divided into sections of one mile by one mile containing 640 acres. Each section was divided into four quarters of a half mile by a half mile, containing 160 acres. A block of land six miles by six miles was a township. In Saskatchewan, there was a north-south road every mile. East-west roads were every two miles. For a fee of $10 one could homestead a quarter section. Because the Hudson's Bay Company had to be compensated for the loss of all the Northwest Territories, they were given some of the land. In every township, they were given section 8 and all but the northwest quarter of section 26. To finance education, section 11 and 29 were reserved as school land and to encourage the building of the railway, the railways were given all the remaining odd numbered sections. The rest of the numbered sections were available to homestead on a first-come first-served basis. Otherwise, land had to be purchased from the new owners. Dad had bought the Craig farm with his brother-in-law John Epp in 1927.

From the Craig farm I attended Kensington school #2723. It was about three and a half miles to school. We had to go one and a half miles west and then two miles to the south. [Remember, all roads ran either exactly north-south or exactly east-west.] In the beginning, Dad took me to school in winter, but later on I rode most of the time.

Kensington was a typical one-room school where one teacher taught all the grades from one through eight and then helped the grades nine and ten correspondence students after school. The school had a full basement with a furnace, and a lean-to on the south end provided cloak rooms for the boys and the girls. There were two outhouses on the east side among the trees that surrounded the school yard. But Kensington was quite modern and had a toilet for girls in their cloak room while the boys' facilities were in the southwest corner of the basement. A large plunger was connected by rope and pulley to the door and this served to agitate the contents of the pit. Every summer, it had to be pumped out.

At Kensington, I continued in grade three, but my recollection of that year is completely missing. All told, I took ten grades in nine years. I skipped grades two and four, but I took grade three a second year. By June, however, the teacher asked me if I wanted to write grade four exams. I'm sure my English had improved to the point where I could handle the work.

I passed all the exams except one. Yes, you guessed it: spelling. I had 25% on that one. I never did get a foundation in spelling.

At Kensington, we had a new teacher every year or two. I'm sure they were straight out of teacher's college. One was Ida Mae Gowanlock from Davidson. About a mile and a half straight east of the school was a bachelor named George Scott. I was once told that he was still single because none of the teachers would marry him. Seems his luck changed and this teacher did.

Mr. Scott was the secretary of the school district for many years afterwards. It may have been Miss Gowanlock that asked Mother to sew a new slip for her. I was of no help at all in the transaction. But a picture is worth a thousand words, so the Eaton's catalogue had to render translation services in the negotiation.

When I think back on it, I believe our school must have been a picnic for the teachers as far as discipline was concerned. There were just three Mennonite families that provided the majority of the older students, and for us to disobey the teacher was unthinkable.

There is one unique event from that period that I remember clearly. Tuesday, April 9, 1935 had been no different from other school days, but when I got home from school, I was met by the news that Herschel had burned down. Both sides of Main Street were completely gutted. All the old business places were two-storey and housed merchants' families, so besides losing their businesses the inhabitants of Main Street had lost their homes and belongings as well.

Back when Dad had bought the Craig farm with his brother-in-law John Epp, the two had co-signed each other's loans from the Royal Bank in Herschel. Dad repaid his loan, but Uncle John had not. Perhaps it was easier for him because he didn't have a family. However, Dad became responsible for the debt. It was "only a hundred dollars," but in those days it was a lot of money.

On April 9, 1935, this note was still in the vault of the Herschel bank. The contents of the vault were not touched by the fire, but they had suffered from the heat. Dad's note was carefully preserved between two sheets of glass until the debt was paid, probably in 1938. Of course, Dad had to pay interest on the money during all that time, but I never heard him say anything derogatory about his brother-in-law and he never tried to collect from him.

I did not see the town itself until the next Saturday. The day after the fire, Eagle Creek had overflowed and flooded everything left in Herschel. Where the hardware store had been, I found a golf club with most of the handle missing. I used it to knock a ball around a few times - that was the closest I ever got to playing golf.

We did our shopping at Bill Loewen's store in Herschel. One time Mr. Cruikshank, the owner of the other store in town, asked Dad why he did not do any business at his store. Dad reminded him that during the difficult years at the beginning of the depression, he had wanted to buy a piece of meat for his threshing crew and Mr. Cruikshank had refused to give it to him on credit. So, he had turned to Bill Loewen for help and took all his business there after that.

Most of the buying in those days was done on credit. Sometimes Bill Loewen would take potatoes in payment in the form of 75 pound sacks. Mother would also make butter to pay the bills. Butter brought in 25 cents a pound and I think potatoes were a cent a pound.

If Dad had let me, I'm sure I would have dropped out of school after grade eight. After all, only one of the children in our community - David Heinrichs - had ever gone beyond grade ten, and he had to go to the German English Academy in Rosthern to finish high school. He went on to study agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and ended up with a doctorate and a reputation as an expert in forage grasses.

Dad insisted that I take grades nine and ten by correspondence, so I dutifully returned to Kensington school to take grade nine. When I got to grade ten, Dad gave me a choice. I could continue by correspondence and ride three and half miles a day to school, or I could ride five and half miles to take grade ten in a one room high school in Herschel, or I could go to the boarding school at Rosthern. Being an innocent (and ignorant?) fifteen year old, I chose what I thought was the least of the three evils and opted for Rosthern. This was in the fall of 1935.

[Rosthern was a larger community on the rail line between Saskatoon and Prince Albert. It was about 150km away to the Northeast as the crow flies, and probably over 200km by rail.]

I guess I came a little late, because by then all the rooms in the dorm were taken and I ended up rooming with the Lehn sisters, who knew my mother in Russia. We students paid ten dollars a month for room and board. I imagine the sisters had a problem making ends meet and often bought the cheapest products. That was surely the case with the honey. When we complained about all the stuff in the honey that wasn't honey, they told us that everyone had to eat his peck of dirt before he died. [This must be another common Mennonite saying - I've heard it from everyone in my family to excuse some piece of food that hasn't been treated with the strictest hygienic practices.]

My roommate, David Wirsche, was a couple years older than I. We shared the same double bed that sagged badly in the middle. He was my senior and got up earlier than me, so I got to sleep in the back. Dave was a Christian at this point; I was not. Five years later I was to meet him at Bethany Bible Institute in Hepburn. He got to the mission field much sooner than I did too.

[The bit that probably requires some explaining here is Grandpa's claim that he wasn't a Christian. Mennonites - like all Anabaptists - do not believe in child baptism. Salvation is by faith, as it is in most Protestant denominations, and that faith can only be an uncoerced adult decision. This is symbolised by baptism, which most frequently takes place in one's late teens although in principle it could happen at any time in life. In a theological sense, most Mennonites recognise that someone's faith is only symbolised by baptism. God isn't usually believed to necessarily be doing anything special at the moment of baptism. It is as much an outward declaration to the community as a sacrament. Baptism is not required, as far as I know, to attend a religious school or even a Bible college anywhere in the Mennonite world. It is usually required to become a church member. Grandpa is merely saying that he had not been baptised and had not made that essential and personal decision - a whole-hearted devotion to God - expected to preceed baptism. His roommate Dave had. Grandpa nonetheless grew up in a firmly and thoroughly religious home and presumably believed in both God and the basic tenets of his church. As for the "mission field" - think of it as foreshadowing.]

I remember the time the guys in the Lehn place had two bare electric wires in series with a light bulb and tested our ink to see if it conducted electricity. It did. Then Dave decided to try the gold nib on his pen. It conducted too, but it melted in the process and he had to have it replaced. Durch Erfahrung wird man klug aber nicht reich. (Through experience one gets to be wise but not rich.)

Although we were far from home, [and therefor no one could tell their parents] we thought it would be safer just the same if we got permission to go see a movie. Jacob Schmidt, teacher at the school and houseparent at the dormitory, gave Jake Ediger and me permission to go to the Rosthern theatre. The movie we saw dealt with G-Men, evidently a forerunner of the FBI. [As my anglophone readers no doubt all know, "G-Men" is a very archaic slang term for an FBI agent.] They were after bad guys - organised crime - and as I remember it there was shoot-out or two. Admission was 25 cents in those days - about a week's wages for us helping out around the house. We would have loved to watch the hockey games at the enclosed town rink, but that would have cost 25 cents too and we did not have that many quarters. So we had to make do with looking through the knot holes until the third period was well underway and they no longer charged admission. There was another quarter that I did spend for a second hand box camera that took a 127 film. I filled one film with pictures and those are the only ones that I have of all my school days up to that point. [Grandpa was an avid amateur photographer all the rest of his life. He had quite literally thousands of slides in his collection.]

It must have been at Christmas and Easter that Jake and I went to the movies in Saskatoon while we waited for our train. We saw the original Mutiny on the Bounty and another movie about the Mexican Revolution and the former bandit chieftain Pancho Villa. [I think he must have seen the 1934 minor classic Viva Villa! starring Wallace Beery, Leo Carrillo and Fay Wray.]

There were two outstanding events that happened that winter. One was in January when Jake Ediger and I were walking uptown in the afternoon. All of a sudden, one church bell began to ring, and then another, and another, until all the bells in the whole town were ringing. This was January 20, 1936 and King George V had just passed away.

The other event took place late one evening while I was walking home alone from school. I was walking through our back alley and had almost reached the gate at the barn. Suddenly it was exceptionally bright - so bright I turned around to see if there was a car behind me. The back alley was completely empty except for a lone pedestrian who was coming home late from school. By the time I realised that it had been a comet or something [more likely a meteor], the light was gone.

Of course, I went home for Christmas. I don't know whether it was before grade nine or after that Dad gave me a new single shot .22, a Springfield Model 53-B manufactured by the J. Stevens Arms Company. Dad had always been an ardent hunter in his youth, and that winter there were exceptionally many rabbits. One day, we hitched the team to the sleigh and drove to a slough one mile due south. At the bottom of the hill below the old Craig place they had deposited a bunch of old farm machinery. The slough stretched at least a quarter mile into the next section and was quite wide. It had willows growing to the east and west sides and hills rose to both sides as well. The wind was drifting snow from the west and I sat down among the machinery with my .22. Dad drove to the east and just walked the team along the the willows. It didn't take long before the rabbits started coming. Of course, they did not sit still for me, so I kept plunking away at them as they ran. I counted 200 jack rabbits, but I could not keep up with all of them. We found 16 dead rabbits which I skinned and then stretched and dried the furs. I had used over 60 .22 shorts. I sold the skins in Saskatoon and got 25 cents for the best ones, but all told my income from skins that winter was less than $5.00.

Overall, I think I got along quite well at school, but for some reason none of the other grade ten students planned to return after Easter and I did not want to be the only one, so I bought Jake Ediger's correspondence course which he had taken the year before. My whole stay at Rosthern, including train fare, cost about $120. Dad had a fair crop that year - about 4000 bushels of wheat, but the crop froze and he sold it at 19 cents a bushel. When I think about it in terms of the proportion of the crop, I realise now that it was a considerable sacrifice for Dad to send me to school that year. I wrote the exams at Kensington and passed everything.

In the fall of 1936 we did not have a good crop. Saskatchewan's average was eight bushels to the acre, and that was our average too. 1937 was even worse. Summerfallow yielded five bushels per acre, and from a 97 acre field of stubble wheat we salvaged about 50 bushels in the valleys. The whole crop that year was just below 400 bushels. For me, high school was out of the question.

I remember some things about life in Saskatchewan in those years. During the depression, Mother always planted a big garden and did a lot of canning. We had no fresh vegetables in winter, but there were always dill pickles and lots of sauerkraut with the occasional pickled watermelon if we were lucky enough to get a crop that year. Fried potatoes were standard fare for supper and meat was provided by the one pig we butchered in late fall after the weather turned cold.

During those years Saskatchewan had an open herd law. The municipalities set a date by which all grain and feed had to be adequately protected by fences. On that day, the horses that were not used for the winter were turned loose for the duration to fend for themselves. We kept one team of horses for driving during the winter. Cattle were turned out for the day only and brought back for the night because they had to be milked.

Weather forecasting in those days was not what it is today, but we always knew when a blizzard was coming. The horses always sensed it and would head for the nearest farm. And, in spring it was always necessary to round up the horses again. Dad would ride miles looking for them.

About 1937 there was a year when Dad promised me 25 bushels of wheat for working on the farm and the agent at the lumber yard was selling his mantelpiece radio to buy one for his car instead. My wheat went in payment for that five-tube Spartan radio. Of course it was battery operated: a wet 2-volt A cell that had to be recharged, two dry B cells and one dry C cell. It gave us very good reception. We could even pick up a one-watt station that was operating out of "Pumpkin Center" (a.k.a. Fiske) until the Mounties zeroed in on its location. By the time they got there, they only found the board on which to the instruments had been mounted. Back in those days, you needed a license to operate a receiving set, not to mention a broadcasting station. We also had no trouble picking up a Chicago station, but that was back before there were so many radio stations competing on the waves.

[Canadian winters helped too. My father told me that on cold, clear days in winter in Manitoba, he would listen to the Wolfman Jack show on XERB from Tijuana. The signal bounces off the ionosphere, and in the north in winter the ionosphere is particularly strong and reflective.]

It was radio that brought us many of the spiritual benefits that were not available locally. Rev. Brooks of the Christian and Missionary Alliance had a programme from Regina and another from Moose Jaw. We heard Charles Fuller on the Old Fashioned Revival Hour. He used to call his wife "Honey" when he asked her to read letters from the listening audience.

In the fall of 1938, Oscar Lowrey had evangelistic services over the radio, first I believe from Regina, and then he repeated the same messages from Moose Jaw. On the evening of December 4th he spoke on the consequences of resisting the Holy Spirit. I knew Mother was praying for me and that night I accepted Christ as my personal Saviour. I remember how disappointed my parents were when I did not pray publicly at the next opportunity. That was something that believers expected of themselves.

The following fall, August 28, 1939, I was baptised in the South Saskatchewan River. When those of us being baptised that day gave our testimonies before the church in Saskatoon, someone asked how I could prove that I was born again. That is a question that I still can not answer. His Spirit gives witness to our spirit that we are the children of God, but that can not be proven to anyone.

We had had a good crop in 1938 and bought a new John Deere model "D" tractor and a new 10 ft. John Deere power binder. In 1939, we had another good crop year and used the binder as a swather for the 8 ft. power take-off Massey Harris combine that Dad bought that fall. We had Thatcher wheat that year with a heavy stand around the sloughs and no live power take-off on the tractor, so the cylinder got clogged numerous times before the season was over. Thatcher wheat was more resistant to saw fly because it had harder straw.

[I understand some of the farm terminology Grandpa uses from listening to farmers talk over the years. I know what a combine and a tractor are of course, and I think I know what a binder is. The brand names are also familiar: John Deere is well-known enough, and I think Massey Harris became Massey Ferguson in the 1960's. In 1994 it was acquired by the giant AGCO Corporation, which still sells farm equipment under the Massey Ferguson brand name. The rest is a lot of educated guesses. I presume that this paragraph could be translated into a less agrarian dialect as something like this:

In 1938 we had a good crop and bought some better farm equipment. In 1939, we also had a good crop and we planted a sturdier and more pest resistant kind of wheat. Unfortunately, that variety of wheat had a very stiff stalk and kept clogging up our harvesting machinery. Since we had had a good year though, after harvest we went out and bought some more modern farm equipment.

Three cheers for primitive capital accumulation! Of course, modernisation has consequences.]

Over the years, I have ridden all our horses, with and without saddle, sometimes without bit and halter. Dad gave me a colt he had raised one year, and by 1938 I ended up owning three horses. But, one by one, the horses we had bought with the farm reached the end of their life, and after 1938, the days of horsepower were about over. $12.50 was all I got for my horses as mink feed.

In 1939, we had threshed 18,000 bushels. The granaries were full and there were large piles of grain on the ground. After I became a Christian, the question of my continuing education came up. Dad, however, was not too interested in the school in Rosthern, because he felt it lacked spiritual emphasis. ["Spiritual emphasis" is a difficult thing to define, but it is a word I've heard frequently enough in describing various choices in churches or religious schools. It seems most frequently to mean places where religion is not mere ritual or form, but also usually excludes the kinds of churches where it seems like you can bargain your way into heaven by being doctrinaire.]

World War II started only days after I was baptised. [September 1, 1939 to be exact. Three days after Grandpa's baptism.] Nonetheless, in the fall of 1940, I attended Bethany Bible Institute in Hepburn. [Bethany Bible Institute - now Bethany College - is a Mennonite Bible college on a small rural tract informally called Hepburn about 50km north of Saskatoon.]

Because I was just short of 21 years old, they let me take mostly second year subjects. Here too, we paid about $10 a month for room and board and all my expenses for the year amounted to about $120. The next year, Dad asked me how much he should pay me for working for him. My reply was that he should put me through the next year of Bible school.

To go to Hepburn, we had to take the train at Fiske, because the CN [Canadian National Rail] line went to Saskatoon. [The train line that went to Herschel was presumably Canadian Pacific Rail and didn't pass through Saskatoon.] From there we would take the bus and get off at the road leading into Hepburn. That left us with a three mile walk.

After the first year of Bible school, I volunteered to teach vacation Bible school [a sort of religious summer day camp] under the Western Children's Mission. It was at the closing program that I preached my first "sermon." For the second two week session, I had Sam Ediger as my partner. He had already graduated from Bible school and was much more experienced.

It believe it was while we were at that second school that we visited a home after class and they asked us to share their noon meal with them. It was still early for potatoes and these people were homesteading in the bush. [I take this to mean that they were living on public land semi-illegally.] The father asked us a question that put us on the spot. "If a deer were to cross my yard, would it be wrong for me to shoot it?" Out of season, yes, but his family was certainly in need of food.

I suppose most of us grew up on the farm in isolated locations and lacked many of the social graces. To help us along a bit, the administration decided that boys would sit on one side of the long table at dinner and girls on the other. The hope was that this would help to improve our manners. I wonder if it did? I remember one of the boys saying that as long as one foot touched the ground, it was all right to reach over.

While I was still at Bible school, the draft board caught up with me. My medical proved satisfactory, so I was to enlist in the army. I applied as a CO and had to appear at a hearing before Judge Embury in Saskatoon. There was a group of about a half a dozen from the Hepburn-Dalmeny area who had been turned down at a previous occasion. They had their second hearing and were promptly rejected again. By the time Judge Embury was through with them, he was in no mood to accept anyone else as CO. I was rejected.

As I recall, the trial was on a Friday. The following Wednesday was to be my turn to give a Probepredigt - a trial sermon. I left for home on Monday and never found out whether I could preach or not.

My parents had just concluded the purchase of the Booth farm. Dad could have bought it a year earlier, but the Booth family was still living in the place and it was against his principles to put them off their own homestead. The bank did not feel that way, and rented it out to a Mr. Waterstone for a year. Since Dad's refusal had not prevented the loss of the land, Dad bought it in the spring of 1942 and by the time I was back they had already moved. I now rented the south half-section of the Craig farm while Dad kept the other three quarter-sections. When I applied for a draft postponement as a farmer, I received one for six months and when I applied again I received an indefinite postponement. With that much land and being the only boy in the family, it must have had some bearing on the matter.

[I presume the draft board decided that the Empire could be better served by Grandpa bringing in Saskatchewan wheat than by putting him in jail as an example. He would have gone to jail rather than be drafted.]

Personally, I felt my experience was like that of Joseph: "... ye thought evil against me, but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day..." [Genesis 50:20] Those that were accepted as CO's had to go to a forest camp or pay $15 a month to the Red Cross. I did not have to do any of those things. How wonderfully God takes care of his own children!


Tuesday, April 15, 2003
Speaking of elections...

As I've pointed out before, it's election season in Belgium. There is a new sort of party here in Belgium. I've only recently become aware of them from their bumperstickers, which seem to be proliferating in college-town-liberal Leuven. They're called Vivant and they have an ad on the front page of Metro today - a free newspaper distributed in the train stations in both French and Dutch.

Imposer le travail, c'est tuer l'emploi
Si elles produisent chez nous, les entreprises paient plus d'impôts que si elles produisent en Chine. Par rapport au salaire net, les impôts sur le travail dans les entreprise belges sont de 150%; à Taiwan par example, c'est 20%. Les entreprises délocalisent non pas pour les bas salaires, mais à cause des impôts outranciers en Belgique. Vivant veut remplacer les impôts sur le travail par d'autres impôts. Pour faire revivre les entreprises, l'emploi et le bien-être.
Libérez-vous      Vivant

Since this is such a key text for this post, I'll break my usual rule of pretending that anyone who is literate can read French and translate:

Taxing work kills employment
If they operate in here in Belgium, businesses pay higher taxes than if they operate in China. As a proportion of net salary, taxes on labour in Belgium are 150%; in Taiwan, it's only 20%. Enterprises relocate not for lower salaries but because of outrageous taxes in Belgium. Vivant wants to replace taxes on labour with other kinds of taxes. Revive business, employment and the public welfare.
Free yourself      Vivant

Now, reading this, you might understand why my first response was, great, another bunch of low-tax-miracle, night-watchman-state, libertarian wankers.

Consider what thay are saying: businesses don't mind paying wages, they just mind paying taxes. Government needs to lower taxes on labour to bring back employment. The first part, is, even to the most charitable reading, bull. Business don't like parting with any of their money, but they don't generally have a preference about who they are actually paying. They relocate to where the ratio of labour productivity to total cost of labour is highest, regardless of who the checks for their labour costs are addressed to. The total cost of my labour in Silicon Valley was about 150% of my total cost to my employer in Belgium. More of it went to me directly and less to the government, but the actual cost to employers in my labour class is substantially lower in Belgium.

The second part is more frightening. They claim, at least by all appearances, that government has to create an internationally competitive labour environment in order to sustain standards of living. Calling it "international competitiveness" gives a polite and reasonable sounding name to something that ought to be chilling. Whenever someone says "international competitiveness" what you need to understand is "the government becoming a pimp for its labour force."

It is pimping, and there is no other way to understand it. The arguments for it are identical to the reasons why a desperate woman might continue to sell her body even if she finds it degrading. The idea is profoundly simple: There are these people called investors, and they have money. We can only have money if we have something they are willing to pay money for. Some countries might have natural resources to sell, but we don't. The only things we have to sell the investors are our bodies, our labour. The problem is that lots of countries are full of people, and we have to compete with them, so we have to sell our labour cheap.

It's a simple, easy to understand argument well within the intellectual grasp of anyone who has ever had to buy or sell things. And, it's complete nonsense.

Vivant has ignored the simple fact that total cost of labour is not a function of the tax rate, it is a function of both the tax rate and salaries. Furthermore, by reducing the tax on labour and raising taxes from other sources - sales taxes, user fees, property taxes, etc. - they are raising the cost of living. In order to keep the same standard of living, wages would have to rise to compensate, eliminating any gain the employer could make. In the end either workers earn less, or employers pay out more.

Second, they have ignored the simple fact that employers aren't trying to minimise labour costs per se. They are trying to maximise the ratio of labour productivity to labour costs. Raising productivity serves just as well as lowering labour costs from the employer's point of view. Unfortunatly, increasing productivity is more complicated. It may require a highly interventionist government able to build infrastructure. Productivity increases when people have fewer sick days, which implies government involvement in public health. Productivity increases with new technologies, which contrary to popular belief come overwhelmingly from publicly funded sources.

Lastly, the idea that surplus capital can only come from some international investor class outside the reach of government is a complete crock. In a developing country, there is some justification for this sort of thinking. They have little or no capital of their own, and they need to buy things from more developed countries in order to raise their own productivity and standards of living. The only way to get those things is to attract investment by some means.

The thing is, those investors have to live somewhere, and unsurprisingly most of them prefer to live in developed countries, where the water is clean, crime is low and the schools are good. A few super-rich manage to live in tax-free statelets like Aruba or Jersey, but actually not all that many. And even those people are only rich because they own things in other countries. The truth is that rich people are only able to escape the reach of government when governments let them get away.

This perspective has been carefully engineered by a few people who seem to believe that such a vision is the inevitable destiny of capitalism, and have found willing accomplices in every pro-business Republican or Liberal party and all the people who think that wealth is created by entrepreneurs and that labour is merely something to be bought and sold. This ideology - the state not as night watchman but as pimp - is one that I find alternately horrifying and pitiful

Then, I tracked down Vivant's website, and I was shocked. Vivant's election ads completely misrepresent what kind of party they are. Vivant is a member of the Basic Income European Network, which is neatly abbreviated as BIEN, the French word for "well." They are not only carefully linguistically correct, they are leftists of the social democratic to out-and-out socialist variety. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

From the BIEN website:

Founded in 1986, the Basic Income European Network (BIEN) aims to serve as a link between individuals and groups committed to, or interested in, basic income, i.e. an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement, and to foster informed discussion on this topic throughout Europe. [...]

Common to all is the belief that some sort of economic right based upon citizenship - rather than upon one's relationship to the production process or one's family status - is called for as part of the just solution to social problems in advanced societies. Basic Income, conceived as a universal and unconditional, if modest, continuous stream of income granted throughout life to all members of a political community is just the simplest and most striking element in an expanding set of social policy proposals inspired by this belief and currently debated, if not already implemented.

The idea of a basic income has a long and complicated history, some of which is summarised on the BIEN webpage. The current movement has only come to my attention through the works of Philippe van Parijs, an economist at the Université Catholique de Louvain (the francophone sister university of my alma mater.)

Canadians may have some familiarity with the basic concept. In Canada, it's called family allowance, and it goes to every household with dependent children. It is not a means-tested benefit, but it's also not very much money. No matter how much money you make, you get an amount that depends only on the number of children you have. Van Parijs and BIEN are advocating just giving everyone a regular check for some fixed amount, whether they need it or not.

Vivant has a very slick line in many ways. If you can read French, Dutch or German, I recommend taking a look at their manifesto. The French version - which I presume is the most likely of those languages for my readers to have - is at, but hunting around at will get you the other versions. For the merely anglo, there is a less compelling discussion of basic income on the BIEN homepage.

They have certainly figured out how to present their ideas to Europhilic leftish academic types like me. Starting with the first line of their manifesto - L'Europe est hantée; hantée par le revenu de base - recalling the first line of the Communist Manifesto, and their claim - with supporting text - that a basic income is the fulfillment of the values of the French Revolution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they know how to pick their historical analogies and how to attach otherwise unrelated issues - education reform, electoral reform, international financial reform, environmental issues - to the centrepiece of their programme: the universal basic income.

Frankly, I suspect something like this is the future of social democracy and ought to be taken seriously. People in social democracies live pretty well and it doesn't take a very long downturn to make social safety nets seem worth the price. This cult of the entrepreneur and the minimal state is a hothouse flower, only able to grow when people feel secure about their incomes and futures. It is important to start talking about reclaiming the wasted productivity of Europe's armies of unemployed. It's important to talk about getting people off of an economic treadmill that seems to press people to work more and harder for ever more remote goals.

But, alas, I don't find Vivant's programme to be a very encouraging development in this direction. For each basic principle they've got right, there is some fundamental issue that they have wrong. For each time I think they may be on to something, they shoot out on a tangent that makes me deeply uncomfortable. The first is their apparent acceptance of the "international competitiveness" model of growth. They are simply ignoring what even most Americans have learned to accept: it doesn't matter if Belgium cut its payroll and income taxes to zero, the factories that once dominated Belgian employment are never, ever coming back. Belgians neither want, nor should they want, to be competitive in terms of total cost of labour with the people of Indonesia, Vietnam or India. The people who live in those countries would trade their low tax incomes for Belgian after-tax incomes in a second.

Their focus on labour taxes as a barrier to employment has lead them into advocating a shift of taxation from wages to consumption. This reflects another rather strange set of values. They wish to encourage people to save money by taxing spending, claiming that it is inherently unjust to tax people for working and contributing to society. However, they are not advocating any sort of progressive tax on consumption. They just want to raise the VAT. This shift in the tax burden has the inevitable effect of penalising people who earn less money in favour of those whose earnings exceed their expenses. For all the ink they waste talking about how wrong it is to tax labour for its productivity, the solution they offer is actually worse in terms of desireable social outcomes.

The people at Vivant appear to think that the main function of taxes is to discourage behaviour, but that is only a side effect. The main function of taxes is to enable the government to lay claim to a portion of a nation's production. A nation's production is produced by its workers. Ergo, labour is taxed not to discourage working, it is taxed because in the end there is nothing else that can be taxed.

This whole business makes me think of the Canadian Social Credit Party - people advocating massive social reforms by carefully reallocating current resources and claiming that the numbers all add up. They have given no thought to consequences that extend beyond budget statistics. Massive social reform has to meet equally massive social needs. Otherwise, piecemeal reform is not only more likely to win elections, it's more likely to succeed. Radical programmes require a huge commitment to making them work no matter what and they have to extend beyond being mere election promises.

That is what I am not seeing here, and that is why the basic income is not "haunting Europe." What I really fear is that people like this would get elected - most likely in a coalition government of some kind - and manage to promote all the fundamentally unsound parts of their programme - the replacement of income taxes with sales taxes, the assertion of the government's role pimping labour out - while failing to pass any sort of radical income reform that might have actually stood a chance of helping someone.

You see, I support the idea of a universal wage and an extensive social insurance system. I support these things because I believe the freedom to develop yourself is the only real freedom, and that work takes away from that freedom whenever it is not what I want to do. Work is necessary, and often work that you don't enjoy is necessary. Right now, I am procrastinating about writing some code that I hate on a project that I consider both below my abilities and not worth doing. I want the freedom to balance the needs that work can meet with my desire to do the things that develop myself. That is what social democracy can, in some measure, offer. I want the freedom to quit my job, go back to school and raise a baby. Vivant wants to give me €500 a month to do those things, trusting me to judge whether or not I am more productive doing uncompensated work.

The principles of basic income are really far less complicated than Vivant makes them out to be. The money they want to give everyone isn't that much. Contrary to the old Reaganomics thinking I grew up with, it takes a lot more money than that to extinguish the rewards of work, while that much money can take a lot of uncertainty out of life. And, people who don't have jobs are often highly productive people. Back in the days when there were stay-at-home moms, those moms often worked hard. In my old neighbourhood in New Jersey, the stay-at-home-moms effectively ran the municipal government through various volunteer activities.

In order for this to work, people have to be convinced that income redistribution isn't robbing hard working people to pay off lazy bums. Even if you can show that a universal income costs less than means-tested benefits, some people will seen universal wage guarantees as moral hazards if nothing else.

Revising the tax code, the Tobin plan, the environment, all the other things Vivant stands for - these things have nothing to do with basic income and even if they are worth supporting shouldn't be mixed up in what is really a simple concept. The existing notion of a progressive tax code is more than good enough to support a basic wage. As Vivant points out, Belgium already collects and redistributes enough money to make a basic wage possible without changing budget priorities in general. There are good reasons to reduce payroll taxes in Belgium in favour of a more progressive tax code, not the least reason is because unemployment is very low in the Netherlands in part because low payroll taxes encourage part-time and temporary work, but they are good reasons quite appart from Vivant's main legislative goals.

Throwing all these bits together does not make a coherent platform. The tax changes they are advocating will certainly not benefit most workers even if it does create jobs. Advocating following the Dutch example of reducing or eliminating many payroll taxes and accepting that people will have temporary and part-time work instead of solid jobs would make a far more credible and more attainable programme. That is the sort of platform from which a basic wage could be advanced. People who work - even if they are just working sometimes - elicit far more voter sympathy.

If Vivant feels the need to buy into some doctrine of right-wing economics in order to be credible leftists, they might consider buying into the idea that labour productivity and full employment are linked to labour flexibility. There is at least some truth to that idea, and if people's paid wages are going to be unstable (which is what "labour flexibility" really means: you have to be flexible about whether or not you get paid) then it behooves the state to offer them some sort of stablising income guarantee. There is a role that the basic wage could help fill.

"Restons Forts" - *snort*

Unless you're either Canadian or a reader of Matthew Yglesias' blog, you probably neither know, nor care that there was an election in Québec yesterday. Since Canadian ballots are handmarked and manually counted without any labour-saving machinery, the election was over in a few hours, without court intervention or hanging chads. The winner: Jean Charest's Liberal Party with 76 out of 125 seats and 45% of the popular vote.

The PQ has been down before, and it's a little early to tell whether Mario Dumont's Action Démocratique is another H. Ross Perot, or a new permanent feature in Quebec politics. Despite winning 18% of the vote, they have only four seats. Not much of a pulpit really.

I'm rather gratified, not only because I think Dumont's platform was far too pro-business to be viable, but also for the selfish reason that Mario Dumont is still "Super Mario" to me. We are almost the same age, and we had some mutual acquaintances when I was a student at UdM and he was studying at Concordia. I'm already unhappy that the hot young actors whose careers get hyped are younger than me. I'm not ready for the idea that someone my age can be premier of a province.

My old riding - Montréal Mercier - voted PQ. Mercier is one of the most loyally PQ ridings on the island. They voted for former liberal premier Robert Bourassa (Boo-boo - after the character in Yogi Bear cartoons - was what he used to get called) until 1976, when they put in high level PQ wonk Gerald Godin and voted consistently PQ from then until the by-election in 2001 after Robert Perreault resigned. The PQ then had this little snafu where their initial candidate was accused of beating his wife and dropped out. The riding then went Liberal for the first time in almost 25 years.

But now, they've returned Daniel Turp, former blocquist who lost in the 2000 federal election and law professor at UdM on semi-permanent sabatical. Just what the PQ needs to get back its vibrancy - another lawyer.

Well, I suspect this election gets separation off the table for a few years at least. With Canada now a single party state at the federal level - and appearing likely to remain that way for some time - the pressure for political independence has abated significantly. There is little risk of a change of government in Ottawa scuttling whatever new division of powers gets negociated.

Otherwise, I doubt there is any meaningful change on the agenda for Québec. I gather one of the things Jean Charest ran on to get the Montreal anglo vote was undoing the fusion of Montreal Island into a single city. It won't happen. The bureaucracy alone won't support it.

Students of Canadian politics (I'm looking at you Yglesias) might start looking west, where a resurgent NDP has absorbed a lot of the Green/progressive agenda and is actually winning some local elections with it despite the fiasco of the 2001 BC election.

Monday, April 14, 2003
And for my American readers...

Happy taxday's eve. For those of you resentfully filling out your tax forms today, I have nothing but a great big raspberry for you. I pay about 50% of my income to the Belgian government, a good 10% more than I did in high-tax California when I had more than twice the income.

So be happy and *thbffffft*.

La troïka du refus

Good and very short editorial in today's Le Monde, providing a summary of the current political situation from the point of view of the countries that wanted nothing to do with the war.

Le "camp de la paix" a pour lui la morale, la légalité, voire la raison. Les arguments qu'il a développés, parfois avec fougue, avant les hostilités, n'ont rien perdu de leur valeur. Pour régler les conflits internationaux, la guerre – qui, selon Kant, "crée plus de méchants qu'elle n'en supprime" – doit rester un ultime recours. Aucun pays, si puissant soit-il, n'a le droit de s'ériger en juge et en gendarme du monde. Le droit international doit être respecté. La lutte contre la prolifération des armes de destruction massive doit être menée selon des règles soutenues par l'ensemble de la communauté internationale, au moment où se profilent de vraies menaces, par exemple en Corée du Nord.

A ces arguments généraux s'ajoutent des craintes liées à la situation du Moyen-Orient. La tournure des événements en Irak ne les a pas apaisées. Bien au contraire. Le pays risque d'être ingouvernable, la région déstabilisée, le terrorisme encouragé, quand il s'agissait de l'éradiquer.

L'histoire donnera peut-être raison à la troïka du refus. En attendant, Jacques Chirac, Vladimir Poutine et Gerhard Schröder sont bien obligés d'admettre qu'ils ont échoué à empêcher la guerre. Ils sont contraints de se féliciter, mezza voce, de la chute d'une dictature à laquelle ils n'ont pas contribué. En continuant à se montrer intransigeants sur le rôle de l'ONU, ils risquent d'encourager Washington à se passer encore une fois de l'organisation internationale. Ce n'est pas dans leur intérêt puisque leur statut international dépend largement de leur siège au Conseil de sécurité.

Les dernières semaines ont montré qu'une posture morale ne garantit pas un succès diplomatique. Il ne s'agit pas de tomber dans la position cynique consistant à s'accommoder de la toute-puissance américaine. Mais la sagesse commande de renouer les fils du dialogue, de reconstruire une attitude européenne, de rechercher des compromis sans brader les principes. Ce serait certes plus facile s'il n'y avait à Washington une administration à la fois hautaine et autiste.

The awkward position of the Franco-Russo-German alliance is quite plain. They do not, and never have, seen preserving Saddam Hussein's rule as a reason to oppose war in Iraq. It is on the contrary this idea that the US can "set itself up as the world's policeman" that they consider dangerous, and I can only agree. Clearly, the editorial board of Le Monde has not budged an inch in their opposition to war. Furthermore, they appear to at least support France's efforts to establish that only the UN can legitimately administer occupied Iraq.

But, the need to repair relations with the US is clear on this side of the Atlantic, and Colin Powell's recent efforts suggest that it is clear to at least some people in Washington. Tony Blair appears to be going out of his way to be nice to Chirac and Schröder. The main barrier, as one might expect is "une administration à la fois hautaine et autiste" - an administration that is at once haughty and autistic. Not a bad description.

Bomb before you buy

I like Naomi Klein, but this article in today's Guardian makes me understand why some people don't. She has a collection of bits about how the various reconstruction and facilities management contracts in Iraq are being handed out. And the process is quite honestly scandalous.

While I suspect her main allegation - [T]he country is being treated as a blank slate on which the most ideological Washington neo-liberals can design their dream economy: fully privatised, foreign-owned and open for business - may well be true, there is no way that the costs of war can be recuperated in that way.

In order to make this theory work, you either have to believe that the people who run America now are too dumb not to know that, or you have to believe that the people who run America do know that and are willing to bankrupt the government to enhance their own businesses. Either one is a far greater scandal, and far more disturbing, than the mere presence of corruption in government contracts.

It just doesn't make sense for this war to be about oil, or about any natural resource that Iraq has. There isn't enough money or political power in controlling any of it to pay the price of invasion and occupation. The US can't simply refuse to sell Iraqi oil to countries they don't like, to do so is as much economic suicide as if they restricted their own purchases. There's nothing else Iraq exports to the world market worth the trouble.

The more likely conclusion is that the scandalous way contracts in Iraq are being handled is nothing more than ordinary corruption of the kind that it's all too easy to see the Bush administration doing. The real, underlying causes of war remain as mired in the internal workings of the Bush administration as ever. Perhaps they really do believe their own rhetoric and think Iraq can be the leader in a new age for the Middle East. Perhaps it's all about being able to threaten Iraq's neighbours more directly, and foolishly thinking that they won't respond to the threat with greater belligerence. I don't know.

But looking for this golden pay-off that explains the war is hopeless. There is no way the numbers add up.

Dark Light and the neo-conservative revolution in America

Patrick Nielsen Hayden takes on this rather odd combination topic over at Electrolite. It's a kind of frightening thought really, life imitating science fiction. As a fan of Ken McLeod, I recommend it to all those similarly inclined towards SF and leftist politics.

Mama said there'd be days like this

I've been pretty much off the web this weekend. I had planned to put the next bit of Grandpa's memoirs up, but the truth is that I've been having a hard time facing my blog this weekend.

I'm someone who likes to think of himself as having great deal of control over language, and I know that in contrast sometimes I have very little control of my own emotions. I received some very kind e-mail over the weekend from a reader thanking me for revising my post below, and I thought I ought to clear the air here as well before moving on. Just about the last thing on earth I intended in that post was to say anything genuinely controversial, and that I failed to have even that level of control over my rhetorical choices is something of a blow to my ego.

Again, usually I have the common sense to respond better when I'm wrong. It's hardly the first time in my life that I've screwed something up. I can only plead temporary insanity. There are a couple other things going on in my personal life that had already weakened my sense of my own abilities - things I don't intend to discuss publicly - and, like most people, I have a natural distaste for eating crow.

So, I responded badly, and then made things worse by responding badly to knowing that I responded badly.

Those who've been reading me for a while know that I have a lot of sympathy for more impressionistic, praxis-oriented and non-rationalist kinds of epistemology, far more than usual for someone whose background is as deeply rationalist and scientific as mine. The experience of a lifetime fighting with the ability to recognise, usually well after the fact, that I've been irrational about something without having the ability to keep myself from being irrational again, is one of the reasons that I'm not particularly sympathetic to any conception of the universe that requires me to pretend to possess Vulcanesque logic. This is an object lesson in why.

So in the end, I apologise, and I hope my regular readers will continue to read Pedantry.

I have some good stuff prepared for this week, another chapter from Grandpa leading up to WWII, or possibly up to his marriage in 1946. After that, Grandpa and his family will change countries again, to a new and still more exotic location. I also will be spending Wednesday morning split between my dentist and plumbing, once again, the depths of the Belgian immigration bureaucracy, and I expect I will probably be able to get a post out of trying to figure out which is less pleasant.