Is Democracy Always Good?

February 10, 2010

Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
~Sir Winston Churchill

When George Bush was trying to export democracy to the Middle East before the attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon, I thought it had to be a mistake, since trying to export a form of government has usually the same results that trying to impose your language to a foreign nation. Karl Marx hypothesed in Das Kapital, that Democracy is archived in an evolutionary fashion, and it is only when a nation is ripe for self government, when Democracy can plants its roots.

Analysing the problem with Democracy in places that it was imposed by foreign policy, we discover that it has not always yield to any results. A lot of countries in Africa are now democratic, but they are dirty poor. In Latin America, the new democracies, with exception of Chile and Brazil, have not achieved the desired economic welfare that it was expected.

Returning to the Dutch Disease problem that I mentioned in a previous post, some countries in the bottom billion are resource rich, democratic nations, and they remain trapped in poverty. These phenomena need to be explained by dissecting Democracy in its two main components: Free elections and internal restrains.

What the USA has being trying to export is a system of free elections. In such model, political parties compete for the electoral favour of the citizens. Every number of years, a political campaign would start, the political parties will compete against each other, and the people will go and vote.

This is a deadly system for some countries. In many of the resource rich countries, the party in power will deplete the national treasury to get re elected. They will have more resources (money, control of radio and TV, utilization of public works as a mean to gain voters) than competition. Politicians are not worry about governing but about getting re-elected. Even in a mature democracy like the United States, the first term is used as a mean to get a second term.

The second element in Democracy is the system of check and balances. This means a real opposition, a working government model, and an active civil society. These elements cannot just be exported, they need to be conceived and develop within the host society. That is the failure of the model of exporting democracy; you can export an effective electoral system, but without the check and balances that Democracy needs, the system will quickly move down to a bunch of corrupt officials buying the population vote.

There is something that the developed world can do to help democracies thrive, we will see this in coming posts.


Al Gore vs Gorvachev: The .eco Domain

August 27, 2009

Those who try to lead the people can only do so by following the mob
~Oscar Wilde

Al Gore and Mikhail Gorbachev are in a battle for the control of the .eco domain. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), the body that oversees the internet’s structure, decided to make available the “green” domain. Gore supports Dot Eco LLC, while Gorbachev is linked to the Canadian Big Room through Green Cross International, the charity that he founded.

Big Room promises to donate a quarter of the sales to environmental and social causes, it is also saying that they will to ensure that it will award a domain name only to groups that provide proof of their green credentials, thus making .eco into a cyber environmental certificate. Dot Eco is promising 50% of their profit to green causes, and it has no defined if they will be vetting any company to get the .eco domain. Note the difference between offering a percentage of sales versus profits.

Of course, Gore and Gorvachev do not mention the amount of money that they expect to make with the .eco domain. The price tag is $100,000 USD, but the Daily Telegraph calculates is worth billions.

The problem I see with this internet news is the bastardization of the words sustainability and green. The word sustainability has been cheapen down in the media to mean “ecologically friendly”, ignoring the economic and social factors inherent to it. I do not want to start raging again the concept of “green” that neohippies all over the world are spewing guised as knowledge. This is the mob I refer to in my quote, the people that promote green business until big business want to go green, then they will cry foul and hypocrisy. The fact that they do not mention the huge profit they can make from the domain also makes me wonder how innocent the business are. It is OK to make loads of money, but is not OK to pretend all you want is a better world; Sustainability is about BOTH, and the fact that they do not recognise it shows how the leaders become the followers of wannabe good-doers.

Who are this companies to decide who is green and who is not? Certain companies are not environmentally friendly by nature, e.g. oil companies, but they are companies like British Petroleum with a CSR and some like Pemex or Shell. A lot of companies, specially organic promoters, lie about the goods of their “green” products. As students of sustainability, we have it hard enough to define which companies are or are not following sustainable practices, we do not need self serving institutions policing the internet, which is the ultimate free expression medium.

The World at Your Door

May 8, 2009

if Muhammad doesn’t go to the mountain, then the mountain will go to Muhammad
~Variation of a Spanish Saying.

One of my fellow bloggers theme is travel, but not travelling as a tourist but travelling as a voyager, as a discovery destination, where you can be exposed at other people’s food, tradition, architecture,  culture. He often talks that is not how many pictures did you take, but what kind of person you become after travelling.

I cannot agree more with his points, but one downsize of travelling is that you require both time and money, and sometimes time and money are scarce resources. Even if you backpack and do not change your socks for three weeks, you still need to pay airfare (if you can get there by bus is not really travelling, right?), food, some kind of accommodation (even camping costs) and of course you need those three weeks off. So, the world is out there waiting for you, and you hear the call, but simply you cannot go for the moment.

I recently moved from Toronto to Montréal and yesterday I rediscovered something I longtime forgot, that if you cannot go to the world, the world may be already at your door. No matter if you live in a small town or in a mega city, chances are, in those places you never go because they are for tourist, there is a vibrant community of people who is eager to talk to you.

So, while waiting for my permanent apartment, I found a backpackers hostel. After be assured by the clerk that my liver and kidneys will stay with me if I sleep in his facilities, I took off the streets to get to know my new environment. The first thing that I need to check in a new city is if the pubs offer decent food and local beer, so, armed with a book (it is always awkward to dine looking at the ceiling) I went in a brasserie. I sat and after eight minutes, a group sat next to me and order a beer that looked better that the sludge I was having, so I asked them what beer it was; since I couldn’t understand a thing they were saying I though they were Montréalers and asked in French; they just stared at me. I asked again in English and then, at unison, they said “ah, dis iz cider, mayve too zweet for yu” -are you from Europe? -Finland! -Ah! Suomen Tasavalta! -Ah! ja! ja! ja!

From there I learnt that Stolishnaya is regarded as an inferior Vodka, real men drink Finlandia; that there is actually reinders in the forest and not just in Santa Claus workshop, and that Finnish, to my dismay, find Montreal winter to be “too cold”. That Finland does not have 10 but exactly 5.1 million people (where vould wee put tenn?) that they prefer cider to beer (!) and, sadly, Helsinky’s outdoor mixed, naked hot tubs are an urban myth.

In the hostal I learnt that French people hate living in Paris (another big surprise that I keep hearing from French expatriates that prefer the snow to the Seine), that a Paris lady is happy living 80 kms NORTH of Yellowknife and do not plan to return to France, that a lot of people take better pictures than I do, and that Québec cheese is consider “almost as good as our [French] cheese”.

I used to do this in Mexico, but in Toronto I never did it because I was busy adapting to my new home. I rediscovered yesterday that you can adapt to your local world and, at the same time, enhance your links to the Global Village. Juan will be proud of me.

175 Years of Toronto

March 6, 2009


~The Fire of 1904

The settlement of York was incorporated as the City of Toronto on March 6, 1834, 175 years ago, and taking back its original native name. The population was only 9,000, and the first Mayor was William Lyon Mackenzie, who led the unsuccessful Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837 against the British colonial government. The city was severely damaged in The Great Fire of 1904, which explains the lack of XIX Century buildings in most of the city.

I am a Torontonian since 2001. The first thing I did was trying to make my new place of residence my home. In México I knew every story behind every corner of my city, and although I did have a Toronto address, I did not have any knowledge of my surroundings. The first thing I learnt about my new city is that Jarvis Street used to be a lovely, affluent neighbourhood with meridians and trees. This caught me by surprise given the deplorable state of the street nowadays, but then I start looking at the facades and beyond the neon light and I discovered such a beautiful architecture, revealing a proud past now lost but not forgotten.

As the months and years passed by, I learnt more and more stories about corners, buildings, parks of Toronto that made me love the city I live in.

Toronto has somehow an inferiority complex that makes claim of being a “World Class City”. Maybe because Toronto was no much of a town until the 1970s, and maybe because it still would be a medium size Canadian city if Montréal wouldn’t give up being Canada’s Economic and Cultural hub by enacting Bill 101, it would look like we are this teenager city trying to look for its identity.

I laugh when somebody try to compare Toronto with New York or when I heard a fellow Torontonian claiming the World Class City discourse, because I know that Toronto has an identity and a soul that we, somehow, take for granted; Toronto is a Garden City. It is vetted with parks, ravines, little rivers, little corridors of nature that have no comparison in any place I lived before (I am a veteran of half dozen cities). The lush of Sunnybrook Park and the path I can bike with my son to Edward Gardens or the paths from the Humber River at Lake Ontario to the Humbler Marshes Park and Étienne Brûlé Park (and the fact that I know Étienne Brûlé story) made Toronto my home long before I was a Canadian Citizen.

I also know that Toronto is a city of Neighbourhoods, each one with a distinct flavour, personality, and local characters. From Rosedale, Corso Italia, Greek Town, a Lilttle Malta!, Gerrard Street, too many Chinatowns to count, Queen West, to the shops in Bayview Av where I live. Those are my neighbourhoods, those are my people, and those are the reasons I feel home here.

A Real Alternative to Ethanol? I

July 27, 2007

No matter how dark the world becomes, the darkness can never extinguish the light.
~Reza Deghati

I had written two post trying to convince you that corn-based Ethanol will have a huge impact on the way third world people live and eat, and reading some of your comments in this blog and in several forums, I feel compelled to write a final exercise. I had to cut it in two parts because it was quite long, so this is the first part.

I do think that Biofuels may be an alternative to gasoline, but not by using corn-based ethanol, and not by mixing it with gasoline at a 10% ethanol content. Ethanol can come from grass, wood chips, sugar cane, and other non-staple foods; using non corn-based ethanol would not bind food prices to oil’s, and they produce Ethanol with a better energy conversion ratio (Ford Runge and Senauer)

Ethanol is a feel good solution because it allows us to keep our lifestyle. No need to park the Hummer, no need to move closer to work or use the public transit system, no need to carpooling…

The real measures are tougher and harder. It is not enough to save energy, it is necessarily to change our lifestyles. In this first part I present the suggestions for the citizens, and in the second part I will present the suggestions for the government


1) Consume Local Produce. If you live north of parallel 40°, getting all those tropical fruits to your table is burning gasoline and turbosine. Try to discover the local flavours, you do not need to give up your bananas and kiwis, but maybe try the local berries and apples. Buy local tomatoes and potatoes instead of organic, long-hauled products.

2) Park the Car. Enough of driving to the corner store, walk, bike, use public transit if possible. It is not always possible, but if you reduce your car use by merely 10% the effect in traffic and pollution, as well as in your budget, will be noticeable.

3) Recycle, Reuse, Reduce. I know it is wheat grinned, but say not to plastic bag; carry your own bag, c’mon, you know you want people see you carrying that big bag with a photo of Earth and the legend ‘Love it or Leave it’, they sell them in the hippies stores, go get one. If Subway is wrapping your sandwich in more than one layer, stop them and ask them to give you only one, or any, you are going to eat it now anyways.

4) Live Simple. There is a lot of goods and services that you do not need but you do want. That big plasma TV that you are not really watching, those toys for your kids that are having more fun with the box than with the toy, those battery-operated gadgets. Prefer electronics with rechargeable batteries to ones with disposable ones. Prefer manual can-openers to electrical ones. Cook at home from fresh products, reject frozen meats (a home made cheeseburger is delicious and nutritious)

5) You know better than anybody what can you do, so get informed about your situation. If you are already being provided with hydroelectricity, changing your bulbs may have zero impact on the environment. If your town does not provide recycle for metals, try to reuse them. Baby seat is old or in an accident and need to dispose of it? Take it apart, recycle the plastic bulk, reuse the metal parts if possible, and use the fabric as paddings for something, or make a cat toy with them. Almost all non recyclable goods have some recyclable parts.

6) Stop drinking bottled water. It is just silly to pay from $0.80 to $6.00 for a bottle of stalled water that, many times, comes from the municipal source, meaning, bottled tap water. Municipal tap water get tested many times during the day, your bottled water does once, when is bottled, and then let stall. If the flavor of tap water bothers you, get a filter. If the tap water of your town is not potable, buy purified water from those 20 lt, reusable containers, they are cheaper and they do not pollute. In Canada, 85% of water bottles end up in the land field. Bottled water, unless specified from Spring source, comes from municipal sources -tap water-, so you are paying several times for what you get from your sink. Pepsi’s Acuafina is just filtered tap water, as many others. Read Evian backwards, that is what it means to drink this expensive, unnecesary product.

Tomorrow, what should governments do…

Non-Conformist Conforming II

March 9, 2007


by Wiley Miller

Repercussions on Raising Prices for Commodities.

January 19, 2007


O son of man! If thine eyes be turned towards mercy, forsake the things that profit thee, and cleave unto that which will profit mankind. And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself.



We have been learning how the power of the market affects supply and demand. We have also see how Fair Trade may be utilized to raise the price of a commodity, like coffee or chocolate. But what happen when the price of a commodity rises naturally because demand raises? Since the price of oil has been in all times high, the ethanol is now being using as an alternative to produce fuel. Ethanol happens to come from yellow corn, which also may be used for human consumption. The pressure over the demand of ethanol has made the price of corn raise:

Supply and Demand IV

This should be good news. The ecologists should be happy because a renewable, less pollutant material is being used to fuel cars. Fair traders advocates should be happy because corn farmers have now increased their income.

But that is an incomplete point of view from the westerns.

In Mexico, Corn is used to made tortillas. Tortillas are not a simple food sold in fast food restaurants; it’s a basic food and part of that country’s culture. According to the National Institute of Nutrition, 40% of the poorest families get 50% of their calories from tortillas. Tortillas are basically mashed corn, no other ingredient but water is used. Last year, the price of a kilogram of tortillas was 60 cents (USD), then it was raised to 80 cents, but in January the Mexican Government announced that no further subsidies could be given to the tortilla, and the price for a kilogram was set at $1.60. In a country where the minimum wage lays between $6.00 and $8.00 a day this is nothing more that a national tragedy.

Thousands of families are being affected by the raise of the price of corn and tortillas. Then, chickens eat corn, so the price has been raised for eggs and poultry. Now the food in Mexico is more expensive than in last November.

Economic law dictates that the higher price of corn will be an incentive to corn production, but the Mexican capacity of cultivate more corn is limited and close to its edge, so they need to import more corn from the United States, where corn farms are hardly owned by small farmers but huge multinationals using pesticides and genetically modified corn, which is forbidben in Mexico.

Some producers thus have been beneficiated by the high price of corn, but the vast majority of Mexicans now will have to work more to have food in their table.

An unthought consequence of higher prices on commodities!