Is This Progress? This Is Progress.

What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

On Mulcair

This weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the 2012 New Democratic Party Leadership Convention. Held in downtown Toronto, it was the culmination of about four months of deliberation regarding the leadership of the country's social-democratic party.

With the unfortunate passing of Jack Layton last August, the NDP was elected with a strong mandate. However, the party was thrust into new territory as official opposition and without Jack's leadership the party was almost rudderless for much of 2011, leaving the Liberals to be the de facto opposition in the House of Commons.

Although it was immediately obvious that the NDP needed to select a new leader, the process didn't really get started until about November, with the first debate taking place in Ottawa at the beginning of December. I was in attendance at the event, and I was pleased not only with the calibre of the candidates, but also with the atmosphere of respect and cooperation. Despite the fact that over the course of the four months it took to ultimately select a leader, there was a distinct lack of infighting. Candidates openly disagreed with one another regarding policy matters, but never in a venomous way.

As the convention approached, it became obvious that Thomas Mulcair was the frontrunner, and friendly opposition galvanised behind Brian Topp. Mulcair, a bilingual anglophone from Montréal, was previously a cabinet minister in the Québec Liberal Party, advocating for sustainable development in the province. Despite his agreeable environmental record, he drew significant criticism for his socio-economic perspectives, namely bringing the party closer to the "centre" in order to capture votes from Liberal supporters. Topp, who represented traditional leftist NDP principles, notably strong labour support, was not able to successfully unite those segments of the party against Mulcair.

With that background out of the way, I would like to talk briefly about the convention. I think that the NDP did an excellent job overall in setting up a great event. Despite some of the criticism from the media, the event was exciting, well-attended, quite effectively managed. That said, there were a few issues I'd like to briefly address.

The most controversial item is the failure of the voting servers during the second ballot. While there is no way to tell what exactly happened, there were reports of a Denial of Service problem, causing massive delays and much frustration in getting votes entered both live on the net and in person at the convention. Regardless of whatever happened (I doubt that the Conservatives were behind some malicious attack), the NDP probably could have contracted out the work to a group that was more capable of running such a project. The reality is that the failure to run the internal elections reflected very poorly on the NDP as an organisation. I heard someone beside me when we were voting saying "how is anyone going to let us run the country if we can't run an online election".

Secondly, there were many media reports around low attendance on the convention floor. While much of the time the room was packed with supporters and the media, there were plenty of times when there was literally nothing going on. By virtue of setting up large gaps in the timetable, there were many instances where the media were filling dead air. In my opinion, the party could have better organised the schedule so that there would not be long periods of inactivity. That said, some of these were unforeseen, such as the voting problems. At any rate, it a again negatively impacted the NDP in the media, leading the average Canadian to get an impression that the party was not very exciting. My uncle pointed out to me, quite rightly, that the NDP missed a great marketing chance by failing to deliver exciting television.

Perhaps the most disappointing element was the voting structure. In an attempt to be inclusive, the NDP used a preferential ballot system for those voting before the event. While the idea behind the preferential ballot is quite simple, many watching the event from the outside were very confused by it. What's even more troubling, however, is that such a high proportion of those voting used the preferential ballot that the ones cast live (in person or on the internet) only accounted for a minority of the votes overall. That has two devastating effects: firstly, it meant that none of the candidates ever moved up or down in the standings as the race went on; secondly, no candidate was able to throw his or her support behind someone else as there was no way to ensure that these votes would actually move anywhere. The product of this was, predictably, a lack of excitement in the event, and a perceived lack of control over events by the leadership candidates.

All that said, the NDP ran a very successful and fun event. I am exceptionally lucky to have attended and I will go again in a heartbeat. I sincerely hope that the NDP takes a hard look at some of the problems they experienced in the convention so that they can learn from them for next time. However, for now, this items are water under the bridge and the party now has to move on to re-establishing itself in the House of Commons.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Apple and Corporate Social Responsibility

During the past few weeks a lot of media attention has been devoted to Apple for its corporate record in the developing world. Allegations have been made about literally every possible basic human rights abuse. Since the story leaked about a month ago, reports have surfaced from repetitive strains, to exposure to toxic chemicals, to the deprivation of breaks from work.

In the age of Corporate Social Responsibility large companies such as Apple are expected to act not just in their own best interests, but in the best interests of a wider community. Money spent on marketing and public relations generally reinforces the benign role of the corporation in society. However, as this post will display, Apple, and many other corporations, are not acting in the best interest of anyone aside from their shareholders.

Apple is obviously not alone in these practices. The "Race to the Bottom" of the past two decades has made similar realities ubiquitous in the production of most consumer goods, whether textiles, technology, or trinkets. Practices are widespread across the globe (known as Maquiladoras in Central and South America, or sweatshops across most of Asia). Either way, local populations are exploited by large transnational corporations from the West.

The case has been made frequently that there is nothing wrong with this arrangement and the discourse is still present with the allegations against Apple. Many politicians and business leaders posit that the developing world needs employment, large corporations need cheap labour, and the general public of Western societies desire inexpensive goods. Googling "why outsourcing is good" will provide a better sense of what this argument is all about.

But the question remains: if literally everyone is participating in these practices, why is Apple getting so much attention? The general consensus is that Apple has surged in popularity over the past decade and that it has presented a very clean image through its intelligent branding process. However, I would suggest that an additional item is that Apple's competitors (who are many and difficult to identify for those who aren't familiar with the tech world) have never really had an opportunity to attack Apple successfully. Supporting media attention has been a successful way for Apple's competitors to coordinate. Their aspiration? To gain market share in tablets, smart phones, music, software, and computers (again facing different blocs of competition).

But some of Apple's largest competitors have also been publicly attacked (though only for a short time) for their malicious practices. Some of the best examples are Dell's labour practices in India, Microsoft's tax evasion, and Google's antitrust case. And these items don't even get into the questions of environmental externalities.

Finally, there has been a lot of deference and memorialising given to Apple around the passing of Steve Jobs. The grieving process was very public because of the degree to which Steve was a cultural icon. In the numerous biographies that were produced, the characterisation of Steve was very much centred on his audacious personality. He was renowned for his inventiveness, honesty, and passion . This, of course, despite the degree to which Apple was renowned for not only participating in the Race to the Bottom, but also for being neither philanthropic nor transparent.

What's ultimately, remarkable is that Steve passed away at roughly the same time as Jack Layton (read my post). Despite both being treated like heroes and cultural icons, only one was committed to making the world a better place.