I am the 0.7%

Occupy Wall Street poster
Occupy Wall Street poster (fair use)

I have been following the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest in New York. I am generally supportive of their aims – to bring awareness of the increasing inequality in America. Additionally, I feel there is a great deal of pent up anger at Wall Street for their contribution to the massive economic chaos of 2008 and the Global Financial Crisis. It not only seemed like those responsible were never taken to justice for their actions, but in many cases they just got richer while being bailed out by tax payers. I am angry that the moral hazard of their risk taking was never addressed.

They were not the only ones of course. The mortgage industry, the credit rating agencies, certain mortgage applicants, and the government all failed together. The impact is still being felt, for example in the on-going Euro crisis.

The contagion that started on Wall Street quickly spread to Europe, through the English banks and the over-leveraged banks in countries like Iceland.

It is true that the taxpayer bailouts included the very same bankers – they pay taxes too. However, as the OWS movement has brought up, the top earners (like the Wall Street financiers) often pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries. This idea spawned the “We are the 99%” movement.

Power in the US resides in the wealth class. The Senators and Representatives and Presidents are typically millionaires. The power of the ultra-wealthy, with few limits to their political contributions, has increased dramatically. Even corporations, thanks to the second-worst Supreme Court decision, can contribute with no limits to political campaigns.

The poor are not being represented. Even the middle class is less and less empowered, despite contributing the majority of the tax base for the US. It’s almost like taxation without representation.

I admit that I don’t understand the Occupy protests in other locations, such as Canada. There are protesters here in Ottawa. In Canada, our financial systems and banking are highly regulated and never got into the same sort of risk taking as Wall Street or Canary Wharf. And Ottawa is not even the business centre of Canada – that’s Toronto and Montreal. And in Canada, the tax rate are significantly higher. I think this is a good balance. I pay around 42% in income tax (even more once the 13% harmonized sales tax is included, even though it is not income tax). Although it is a high rate, I think that it provides a more balanced, civil society. It is one of the privileges of living in one of the best countries in the world.

[Updated Nov 25, 2012: The top 1% in Canada took almost a third of all growth in incomes between 1997 and 2007. I am now more understanding of the Occupy protests in Canada. Canada has inequality that could be addressed.]

In the 1950’s, with one of the greatest boom economies, the top tax rate in the US was 85% and rose to 91% by 1960. The same in Britain – the Beatles were paying 95% when George wrote Taxman. Although that rate might be too high, the ultra-wealthy should contribute to the overall common good. Today, the top tax rate for the ultra-wealthy Americans, according to the Internal Revenue Service, is 18%.

Coming back to the 99% protests, I decided to see where I fit in. I know that as a high-tech worker, I am above the Canadian average. I am in the second highest tax bracket. I found a website http://www.globalrichlist.com/ and input my income. I was flabbergasted to discover that I am in the top 0.7% world wide. I am roughly the 40,000,000th richest person in the world. There are 7 billion people in the world. I was stunned. Am I part of the problem? Am I a bad person?

But that’s the world wealth calculator. I found a separate Canadian calculator, http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/10/25/rank-your-income-where-do-you-stand-compared-to-the-rest-of-canada/. I put the same numbers in and found that I drop well out of the top 1% – Canada is a wealthy country overall and is a member of the G7.

It still left me wondering, “I am doing enough”? I think the answer is yes and no.

No, I do not donate as often as I could. I do donate to causes that are important to me, like diabetes research. I give blood. I give to local charities. And I volunteer my time. But I know, especially when I think about the numbers above, that there are many impoverished people in the world. I’ve been to India and other places where the difference between the First World and the rest of the world is stark.

But, Yes, I do feel that I contribute to the common good. I work for a telecommunications company. I am part of the team building network infrastructures that are used by people around the world to communicate. Although not everyone can afford a phone, it is surprising that even in a poor country like India, over 851 million people have mobile phones – that’s over 70% of the population. Access to information and people can increase socioeconomic development everywhere.

In the end, I guess that makes me feel better.

Capital Pride Parade 2011

Today Rosa and I went to the 2011 Capital Pride Parade. This was the 25th year for the parade. It was our first time. I’ve attended the post-parade event at City Hall in the past with friends.

We were not sure about the weather as Ottawa was about to feel the effects of distant Hurricane Irene. The clouds were building and rain was in the forecast. We viewed the parade from Bank and Laurier. There was a viewing area blocked off.

Capital Pride
Capital Pride

The parade was much longer than I was expecting – it lasted about 45 to 60 minutes. There were floats and vehicles from all over – city, provincial, and federal governments, school board, firefighters, police and ambulance services, the universities, groups and clubs, sports teams and so forth. Mayor Jim Watson started off the parade, following immediately behind Ms. & Mr. Capital Pride.

It was a warm atmosphere (unlike the actual weather) – everyone was clapping, yelling encouragements and shouting, “Happy Pride Day! We are so happy for you!”

The weather held off until the parade finished and it started to rain as soon as the parade finished as we were walking back to the car. The reports about the event indicate that it had record crowds this year – 50,000.

On Stopping Conspiracy Theories

I am really surprised at how bad the Obama administration has been at stopping ridiculous conspiracy theories. I had higher hopes for this administration than what I’ve been seeing over the last 2 years.

On Friday President Obama released his long-form birth certificate. I thought that there was no such document, that Hawaii only had birth registration documents. Now, years later and it turns out there is a birth certificate. Seeing how the silly Birthers have been making fodder of this issue since before the election, why in the hell did it take this long to provide this document?

Then came the stunning news that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed in the middle of Pakistan.

What could have been an amazing story in a year of stunning news – history being made – was soon sullied by a changing story that has cast doubt on the veracity of any part of the account.

The first reports on Operation Neptune Spear were that there was a gunfight throughout the compound, bin Laden “resisted the assault force” and used one of his wives as a shield, and both were “killed in the middle of an intense gun battle” (New York Times). It seemed cut-and-dry: bin Laden was actively resisting capture. There were rumours of a live video feed from the raid, directly to the White House Situation Room.

Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA (soon to take over at the Department of Defense) provided much of that story. For example, in a television interview on PBS, he said “There were some firefights that were going on as these guys were making their way up the staircase of that compound.” The Pentagon claimed that bin Laden was shot while holding an AK-47.

Later, nearly all the details of the raid changed completely.

Now the story is that he gunfight only lasted a few minutes at the start of the operation, as only the courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, opened fire and was killed in the return fire from the American forces. No one else fired at the assault force, and no one else was even armed at the time. No one was being used as a human shield. Bin Laden did not have a gun or shoot. And there was no live video feed during the raid, as originally reported.

The easiest way to prevent changing stories in the fog of war is to wait until the full data is available before releasing the information to the press. There was no need to hurry on the story details – the operation was over and did not need to be timely (as it would for an on-going event). The administration cannot be changing the story. This is like catnip to people who believe conspiracy theories.

Finally, the administration has stated that they will not release any photos of bin Laden. This seems to leave a huge hole that can only be filled with more conspiracy theories.

I think the U.S. will have to release photos of bin Laden. Otherwise, it will blow up into another conspiracy theory. But to stop that from happening, they have to do it now. The longer they wait, the more likely that people will think that there is something they are covering up. For example, Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay. They released photos in the days following their death in Mosul to prove to the Iraqi people that they really had killed them.

When the government, or members of the government, lie or exaggerate, it causes a loss of faith and trust. This is damaging to the country as a whole. I cannot believe how bad the US government is at understanding this. It seems so self-evident. They should provide the confirmed evidence as soon as possible and don’t change the story.

On a related topic, President Obama stated more clearly than I could what I was trying to say two months ago about terrorists not being Muslim. President Obama said, “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.

[Updated May 6, 2011: Al-Qaeda (القاعدة‎) has acknowledged that bin Laden was killed. Perhaps this will change the need to release photos after all]

Ignorance has its costs

I wonder how well the pastor in Florida sleeps at night? When, against all good sense, he went ahead with the burning of the Muslim holy book, it sparked a series of protests that cost the lives of many innocent people?

In the book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People“, Stephen Covey used the phrase “when you pick up one end of the stick, you pick up the other”. This suggests being prepared for the consequences of your actions.

In this case, the pastor’s ill-thought-out project triggered violence in Afghanistan that killed more than 30 people. If he had been clear-headed about what he was doing, he should have understood that there would be consequences and that others could use his actions for their own purposes.

In this case, it appears that the protests started peacefully, as people expressed their outrage that someone would attack their religion. Then the Taliban may have become involved and escalated the protests into their violent peak. They used the protests to advance their own political goals, much like the Florida pastor used the media to advance his own agenda and bigotry.

Now, 30 people are dead.

News Overload

I feel like I’m suffering from news overload. There is so much going on. Who would have predicted any of the events of the first 11 weeks of 2011 (also, the first 11 weeks of the new decade). What’s going to happen in the next 41 weeks?

First, the UN declares a no-fly zone over Libya. With the opposition forces pushed back from the outskirts of Tripoli to their main area of control in Benghazi, it almost seems too late. They had almost completed the overthrow of their dictator ruler and soon lost momentum within sight of their goal.

Then CBC reported that special forces have already been in Libya. I didn’t know that. What the hell are special forces doing in a foreign country like that? That doesn’t seem right, even if Qaddafi is a complete nut case. I’m so conflicted – the people of Libya deserve freedom, but I would hesitate to engage another country militarily, especially after the stellar jobs the Western powers have done in Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon, Cambodia, IranYemen and Somalia, just to name a few.

And just minutes ago, CNN announced that Libya is calling for a cease-fire, which would be a good sign if true.

In Japan, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has announced that the problems at Fukushima are now a Level 5 nuclear incident on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. This is equal to the Three Mile Island incident.

In Yemen, 45 people were massacred while protesting against the government.

And for some good news, you have to leave the planet. For the first time in history, a space probe has entered the orbit of Mercury. Surprisingly, probes have already been in orbit around Venus, the Earth and Moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, but not Mercury. The surface of Mercury was only 40-45% mapped before the MESSENGER probe was launched. We know far more about Saturn, which is 14 times further away (0.6 AU vs 8.5 AU).

20th Century History of China

There is much of history that I do not know. In Canada, the history education is keyed towards the story of the civilizations that contributed to Canada – from the Fertile Crescent, Egyptian empire, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, a little bit about the Middle Ages, Christopher Columbus, the French Revolution, Napoleon, the British Empire, the US Revolution and Civil War, culminating in World Wars I and II. The history courses barely touched the post-war era.

The gaps in my knowledge include the history of Africa, South America and Asia. For example, my knowledge of Chinese history was only cursory: they invented gunpowder, there was a guy named Confucius, a bunch of dynasties, Genghis Khan, they built a wall to keep someone out, then Chairman Mao and Tiananmen Square.

I had read a little bit about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and how they effected people in China. But I did not know why those events happened.

And I’ve read about what China is like today (the booming economy, the mass migration, etc) via the journalist James Fallows (The Atlantic), through TV and YouTube video clips, and by reading the book China Road by Rob Gifford.

None of that helped explain why there are major tensions between Mainland China and the island of Taiwan.

Therefore, I was very pleased to have bought and read “China: A New History, Second Enlarged Edition” by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman. This book has filled in those huge gaping holes in my knowledge and understanding. And it has been full of real surprises, especially around the tumultuous events of the 20th Century in China.

I did not know about the conflicts between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao and the Kuomintang (GMD) under Chiang Kai-shek, how they had partly worked together to fight the Japanese invasion, then in the post-war years the CCP pushed the GMD out of mainland China. The GMD leaders fled to the island of Taiwan (then known as Formosa).

What surprised me the most was how cut-off mainland China was from the rest of the world. I was stunned to learn that until 1979, Taiwan was recognized as the sole legitimate government for all of China. Taiwan represented China at the United Nations Security Council until 1971. I had assumed that there had always been recognition of mainland China as a separate entity from Taiwan since their modern formation in the late 1940’s.

China was completely cut-off from the world for decades, similar to North Korea today. It was inwardly focused. After the Sino-Soviet split of 1961, China was even more alone.

I had known that Nixon’s 1972 trip to China was pivotal for opening up of China, but I never had the context to fully understand why. Now I can see how crucial that visit was.

The current status of Taiwan is also better understood with the new historical framework. Taiwan continues to be protected by the US. In the late 1940’s, the US protected and even sent troops to the island to defend it as part of the communism containment policy; this was only a few years into the Cold War. The US Seventh Fleet patrolled the East China Sea to bolster the defense of Taiwan from the communist mainland. At the same time, the US was involved in the Korean War, where General MacArthur specifically planned to invade China across the Yalu River before he was relieved of command. As with Germany and Japan, this fed the economic growth from being within the US sphere of influence.

The events in Tiananmen Square took place only 10 years after official recognition. It would be easy to guess that the older hardliners in the CCP were surprised by the reaction from the rest of the world for what it might have seen as a purely internal matter. Once it opened itself to the world, it also opened itself to critism of its human rights records, its pollution, and so forth. Like a company that just had an IPO, everything that was once private becomes very public. and open to criticism and condemnation.

Reading “China: A New History” has opened up more of history than any book I have read in the last two decades.


I want to see a better government in the US, and have been so hopeful that Obama will bring that change to Washington.

But so far, there has been some disappointment.

  • Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner did not pay $34,000 in Social Security and Medicare taxes.
  • Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Tom Daschle owed over $128,000 in taxes over three years.
  • Chief Performance Officer nominee Nancy Killefer had failed to pay the unemployment compensation tax for a household employee.
  • Labor Secretary nominee Hilda Solis’s had issues because of $6,400 in unpaid tax liens against her husbands auto shop.
  • Judd Gregg withdrew his name from consideration as United States Commerce Secretary, citing policy differences with Obama.
  • Chas Freeman withdrew his nomination for chair the National Intelligence Council due to a firestorm over his comments on foreign policy.

Hope is what makes us human.