Politics in Government: The Problem with Representation

Long ago and far away, I was one of several high school students to participate in a Federal-Provincial Government Simulation. Each of us took on the role of a provincial or federal minister and met for three days of plenary sessions, committee meetings, and caucuses.

I was the federal Minister of State for Science and Technology, and I remember well the instructions of our Prime Minister: be vague; don’t commit yourself to anything; if you don’t know what they’re talking about and have never heard of it before, tell them they’re out of order; constantly assure them with such phrases as ‘We will consider that’, ‘You have our support’, and ‘That will be discussed at a later date’ – in other words, don’t say ‘I don’t know’, ‘That’s a good point’, or ‘This is a weakness with our policy, any suggestions?’. I was to represent and defend the federal government’s position. Period. (That and always disagree with the opposition’s position.)

I did my job well. And I guess because so many others did the same, it was three days of go-nowhere achieve-nothing head-butting and face-saving. Any strategizing at caucus was not to solve a real problem, but simply to protect ego: insist, and be confident about it, that our way is the best way. Obviously there weren’t any real discussions.

I went away disillusioned and discouraged. But I realize now that it was a political simulation, not a government simulation.

Then again, who am I kidding: after reading one Hansard or watching one televised parliamentary session, I knew it was a government simulation. So my question is, how did government ever get mixed up with politics? Read the rest of this entry »

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What’s so funny about a man getting pregnant?

I recently read The Fourth Procedure by Stanley Pottinger, in which, during a surgical procedure, a man is given a uterus containing a fertilized egg. He is enraged when he finds out, afraid that if it becomes public knowledge he’ll be a laughingstock. Turns out he’s right. But I don’t get it. What’s so funny about a man getting pregnant?

Is it like laughing at the guy who slips on a banana peel – laughing at another’s adversities? For when pregnancy is unwanted and occurs in a world without abortion, it is certainly an adversity. Forget going to college, forget that career. You’re screwed. (The double meaning of that phrase is no coincidence.) Even if you give the child to someone else, a good year of your life has been derailed. Read the rest of this entry »

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Baby Androids

It finally dawned on me after reading one too many ‘failed android’ stories. I can’t remember whether it was sci-fi or AI, but suddenly I saw the problem: they always try to create an adult without a childhood.

If it weren’t for Mary Shelley, I’d be tempted to put the blame on our sexist society: leave it to the men to ‘forget’ childhood, to forget that we don’t come out of the womb fully formed, to forget that we are as much a product of our nurture as our nature. After all, the most men aren’t responsible for it, they don’t participate in it, they don’t work at daycares, they don’t teach elementary school.

You want to create an android? An artificial life form that can think and feel, that can respond to questions, to situations, like an ordinary human being? Then create a baby android. One with the capacity to learn, to benefit from experience, to grow, to develop. In fifteen or twenty years, eureka!

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Fiscal Conscription

It’s income tax time. Do you know where 9.2% of your taxes will go?

Well, let’s just say that you bought the bullets. (Out out damned spot, you say?)

Then again, $2500 (if your taxable income is about $25,000) might buy more than a few bullets. Maybe you can pay for a whole box of screws for one of our nuclear submarines. Or maybe you even can buy a bit of gas for one of those fancy helicopters.

Sure, better your money than your life, but wouldn’t neither be better still? Wouldn’t it be good if at least you had a choice about serving the military?

I mean, it wouldn’t be so bad if it really were the Department of Defence. There are many arguments in favour of waging a war and, in truth, I find a few convincing; sometimes killing is the best of a bunch of really bad options.

But we live in a world in which countries routinely sell weapons to their enemies. Read the rest of this entry »

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Tax Exemptions for Charitable Institutions

If you believe in the supernatural and on that basis obtain a paying job, as a minister, priest, pastor, whatever, you don’t have to pay income tax.  If you establish a group of like believers and buy a piece of land and/or a building for meetings, you don’t have to pay property tax.  And if your group buys stuff, like computers, billboards, and so on, you don’t have to pay sales tax.   You’re a charitable institution.

What’s charitable about killing people who don’t believe what you believe?  What’s charitable about telling half of your group that they’re subordinate?  What’s charitable about telling another portion of your group that they’re sick?  What’s charitable about discouraging rational thought unless it supports your beliefs?  What’s charitable about telling all of them they’re sinners just by virtue of having been born?

If we’re going to exempt people from contributing to the upkeep of our roads, hospitals, schools, and so on because of their (presumed) ethically good behavior (an interesting idea, by the way), then let’s at least be consistent: let’s exempt snowplow operators, doctors, nurses, teachers, firefighters, police officers, counselors, plumbers, electricians.  And so on.

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Property Tax

Property tax (money one must pay to the government based on the land, and the building/s on the land, that one owns) is odd in that unlike sales tax (money one must pay to the government based on the goods and services one purchases), it is payable every year, not just once when you buy it. It is, in this respect, more like income tax, which is payable every year. But if you don’t pay your property tax, you lose your property; if you don’t pay your income tax, you don’t lose your income. (Well, you might, if you’re imprisoned, but that’s an indirect result, whereas losing one’s property for failure to pay one’s property tax is a direct result). What justifies this difference, this having to keep on paying property tax even though you own the property (that is, even though you’re not renting, not paying to use someone else’s property)?

One response may be Read the rest of this entry »

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Income Tax Deductions

In Canada, if one agrees to pay someone else’s way in life, one gets to pay $7,500 less in income tax. I’m referring, of course, to the spousal deduction.

If one decides to make some people and pay their way, one gets to pay $7,500 less per person in income tax. The deduction for kids.

What’s the ethical basis for these deductions? If you’ve agreed to pay someone else’s way in life and therefore pay less income tax, who picks up the slack? Me! How is that fair?

Maybe we can answer that question if we first answer the question ‘Why are there any deductions at all?’ That is, why shouldn’t we all just pay a percentage of our total income, period?

Are the deductions corrections for other errors? University tuition is too high, so those who pay it get to deduct a certain amount on their income tax as compensation? Well, fix the high tuition! And in the case of spousal and dependent deductions, what error is being corrected?

Or are deductions a sort of social engineering? Is the spousal deduction meant to encourage men to have wives? Why? Why is it such a good thing to have, or to be, a ‘kept woman’? And is the species in danger of becoming extinct? Is that why we need to encourage people to make more people?

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Who Owns the Water?

I am intrigued by struggles over ownership of water – not so much the issue of whether or not Canada should sell its lakes, but whether or not they are Canada’s to sell. Similar struggles arise in our international deliberations over blame for air quality. What intrigues me is not that we are struggling with ownership of water and air, but that we are not struggling with ownership of land.

We accept the concept: someone owns the land and when you want some, you have to buy it from the owner, who bought it from the previous owner, and so on. But ‘and so on’ to what? To the first person who simply said, without any justification whatsoever (not even recourse to the irrelevant claim of being there first – certainly not recourse to the stronger claims of having maintained or improved the land), this land is mine and you have to give me money if you want to do anything with it.

Is this inconsistency due to our being ‘solids’ as Star Trek Voyager‘s Odo might note (solids who, nevertheless, need both gases and liquids to survive and, further, who are actually partly gas and mostly liquid)? Or is it an indication of our bias toward the visual – we can’t see air, nor can we draw lines in water? Whatever, it is certainly not the result of rational consideration.

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How many specialists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Every now and then, perhaps with Hegelian predictability, there is a swing in academia toward the holistic approach, toward systems theory, if you will. In this anti-atomistic, anti-reductionist view, the essence is the process, not the structure; what’s important is not so much the thing, but the relationship between the thing and other things. I think of Fritjof Capra’s work of fifteen years ago, The Turning Point, and I wonder if perhaps quantum physics will provide the necessary weight once and for all for critical mass so the pendulum will stop, making the atomistic view history.

Given this, it’s too bad people think ‘jack of all, master of none’; Read the rest of this entry »

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What’s Wrong with Profit?

Many would say it’s simply undeserved.  By any standard – be it need, ability, effort, or accomplishment/contribution.  In this respect, one might be tempted to compare profit to the ridiculously high salaries of sports stars.  And senators.  But salary is not profit.  Even if a salary is ridiculously high, it is still a salary, a payment for services rendered; and as such it is, in theory, deserved.  Or at least earned.

Profit, on the other hand, Read the rest of this entry »

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