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A Look Back At Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

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East Asia, Europe, Middle East, North America, South Asia

A Look Back At Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

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Obama was elected at a time when political anxiety in America was relatively high, particularly among Democratic voters who disliked George W. Bush’s seeming lack of sophistication. The feeling was that the US had wasted trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan and thus helped to ruin America’s economy and divert attention away from more serious adversaries like Russia and especially China. The economic failure they saw as being confirmed by the financial crisis that began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers a month or so before the election. The foreign policy failure they saw as being confirmed by, among other things, Russia’s invasion of Georgia three months before the election, followed a day later by the extravagant opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Even during the presidential lame duck period leading up to Obama’s inauguration a number of politically or symbolically negative global events occured, including the throwing of a shoe at Bush in Iraq, the 2008-2009 Israel-Hamas War in Gaza, and the Mumbai Attacks in India.

Obama ran against Clinton in the 2008 as an upstart candidate in the Democratic primary. He attacked her where she was least popular, which in foreign policy was her support for invading Iraq while in the Senate in 2002. The primary was a close one: Obama won 53 percent of the delegates but actually lost the popular vote as well as the largest state of California. As such, though it is always hard to untangle political strategy from principled belief, it does not seem far-fetched to imagine that Obama’s campaign policy of Afghanistan being “the good war” and Iraq “the bad war” was, at least in part, devised in order to exploit Clinton’s Iraq weakness without appearing to be dovish or isolationist. We do know Obama was not above abandoning his own principles for the sake of victory; he publicly opposed gay marriage until mid-2012, for example, when for intellectual and dispositional reasons it was obvious he was privately in support of it even at the time.

Upon coming into office, Obama formed three main foreign policy positions. One was the “pivot to Asia”, which included both the re-prioritization of Afghanistan over Iraq as well as the rhetorical move to acknowledge the 21st century as ”America’s Pacific Century” (which became the title of a widely heralded article in Foreign Affairs written by Secretary of State Clinton). While both the withdrawal from Iraq and the public assumption of a rising Asia preceded Obama’s arrival in office, he was a natural fit to promote such policies given that he never supported the invasion of Iraq (as 42 percent of the Democratic politicians in Congress had done in 2002; Obama did not enter the Senate until 2005, so he did not vote on the issue), and also that he had personal experience in the Pacific, having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia and attended college in Los Angeles.

While Obama’s pivot to Asia was mainly rhetorical — it had to be, since the American military never left Asia in the first place and so could not truly pivot back to a region it was already in — he and Clinton did begin healing American relations with a very important Asian country, Burma, a diplomatic feat similar to the one Obama would repeat in his second term with both Cuba and Iran.

Another policy was the “Reset with Russia”, which — as with the later reset with Iran — centred around nuclear de-proliferation but was intended as a broader political reconciliation between countries. Obama was attacked heavily by Mitt Romney and Republicans in the 2012 election for having carried out this Reset, to which he and the Democrats successfully responded by ridiculing the Republicans for being “stuck in the Cold War”. This now appears tragically ironic, given how the 2016 election campaigns turned out. But Obama’s Reset with Russia was quite rational.

America needed Russia in order to effectively carry out the surge of US troops into Afghanistan between 2010 and 2014. Russia retains, among other things, a substantial amount of political influence within countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which neighbour Afghanistan—and an estimated 30-40 percent of Afghanistan’s population is either ethno-linguistically Tajik or ethno-linguistically Uzbek. The fickle US media was also enormously more concerned with China than it was with Russia at the time, since China’s economy had not yet appeared to slow down and since Russia had not yet formally annexed Crimea or involved itself forcefully in other areas of Ukraine or in Syria.

Moreover, Obama’s Reset with Russia eventually contained a big caveat: the doubling-down of America’s growing military relationships with East European countries like Poland and Romania. Today, with with US-Russian tensions having risen tremendously and with the European Union no longer seeming like a potentially potent force, these relationships seem crucial and continue to grow. At the time, they were meant to reassure countries like Poland that they were not being abandoned in the Reset, and at the same time to return the favour those countries had provided when they sent lots of soldiers (relative to the size of their populations and economies, and relative to countries in continental Western Europe) to fight alongside the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among other things, this move included Obama planning missile defence system components in Poland, Romania, and Turkey. This occured a few years after Obama initially cancelled Bush-era plans for missile defence in Poland and the Czech Republic in return for Russia cancelling missile plans in Kaliningrad. The Russians objected loudly to any missile defence program, since they did not want to see the US military presence in Eastern Europe grow. Obama responded that the Russians were being paranoid and that the defence systems were in fact intended only to block future Iranian missile capabilities. This was a ridiculous claim, given that most of the countries involved in the plan surrounded Russia. But the American media mostly ate it up, either because they did not bother to look at a map, or because Conservatives preferred to attack Obama as too weak on Russia rather than too strong on Russia, or because many Liberals did not want to question Obama in general.

While the systems would not be able to block the Russian missile arsenal if it ever came to war, they were an important symbolic gesture and another step in the growing US military alliance with states like Poland. When Obama had earlier, in 2009, backed down on the missile defence issue — announcing, on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland in 1939, the cancellation of missile defence in Poland and the Czech Republic, and later being caught on a hot mic in 2012 saying to Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more flexibility on the issue once re-elected — Romney attacked Obama sharply for doing so. But Romney’s campaign was ridiculed for mistakingly using the name Czechoslovakia, taken as a another proof of his being trapped archaically in the Cold War. Romney was especially reproached, even by Republican Congressional leader John Boehner, for declaring Russia to be “America’s number one geopolitical foe”. (That Romney might now become Trump’s Secretary of State boggles the brain). And while Obama may have Reset with Russia early on, he has definitively broken with it since.

The third major policy early in Obama’s first term was an attempt at reconciliation with the Muslim world, and particularly with the Arab world, intended to reverse the negative feelings that had grown there — and that Liberals in the West had perceived to have grown there — during the Bush years. Obama was the right man for this job, given his moderate and liberal personality as well as his personal experiences in Indonesia, his middle name Hussein, his grandfather’s conversion to (Shiite) Islam, and his family in Kenya, a partially Muslim country. Obama went to Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt during parts of his first and second overseas trips as president, and gave one of his most famous speeches, A New Beginning, in Cairo, the largest Arab city, at an event co-hosted by Cairo University and Al-Azhar University. Obama’s first-ever presidential television interview was with Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned news channel.

This “apology tour”, as Obama-bashers call it, earned him the ire of Republicans for not having stopped in Israel while in the region (though he visited the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp the day after making the Cairo speech). It also helped racist or extreme right-wingers in their attempt to portray Obama as a hidden Muslim, quasi-Muslim or, in the case of those like the shameless, shameful Donald Trump, as possibly foreign-born and therefore not a legitimate president. (This was especially shameful given that the man Obama had beaten to become president, John McCain, was actually not born in an American state, but rather in Panama’s Canal Zone). Incidentally, Shiite Muslims have a centuries-long history of publicly pretending not to be Shiite for fear of being persecuted by the majority Sunnis; this, combined with Obama’s family background, has now led some in the Arab world to accuse Obama of being a secret Shiite with an agenda to allow Shiite Iran to emerge victorious over Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies.

Of course, Obama’s outreach to the Arab public was put to the test two years later in the Arab Spring, which also centred in Cairo. Predictably for an American president, Obama chose more or less to stand by America’s main allies in the Arab world — notably the Egyptian military and the royal families of the Arabian Peninsula.

Obama only abandoned Hosni Mubarak (a former general) during the middle of the 18-day protest in Tahrir Square, earlier only suggesting that Mubarak not run for re-election following the end of the term he was serving as Egypt’s president at the time. In the years since, Obama not pushed back against the Egyptian officer Sisi, who threw out the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Muhammad Morsi in a coup and has since declared the Brotherhood to be an illegal terrorist group. (The Sisi government also had support from the political parties which got the most votes in elections apart from the Brotherhood, namely the Saudi-backed religious Nour bloc). Similarly, Obama did not limit the Saudis from sending troops to break up Arab Spring protests in neighbouring Bahrain, a Shiite-majority state ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Maintaining the power of Bahrain’s royal family was a key issue for the Saudis, as Bahrain is connected by a road to Saudi Arabia’s remote, vast, sparsely populated and Shiite-majority Eastern Province, where most Saudi oil is located.

Given that his support for Arabian kings and Egyptian generals was in some ways arguably an abandonment of the “Arab Street”, which Obama had previously supported rhetorically and which the Western media was going gaga over during its coverage of the Arab Spring, Obama’s war in Libya showed that he was still not entirely pro-dictator in the Arab world. (This is not to say that Obama waged the war for cynical political reasons, however). The case for the Libya war was fairly straightforward: Gaddafi was an aging tyrant who had ruled for four decades, his impending death or incapacitation due to old age would have risked a war anyway given the enormously divided nature of Libyan geo-politics, and any spillover from a war in Libya was unlikely to be too large given that Libya only has six million inhabitants and is surrounded by the Sahara.

Thus, eventually, we arrive at the events of September 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. Bengazhi is the largest city within a vast radius of itself, especially to the south; it was the city that was initially the centre of the anti-Gaddafi movement—the very city Obama had been aiming to protect from a massacre of Arab Spring protestors when he ordered the US military intervention in Libya. Of course, the Democrats are correct when they say that the Republicans shamelessly used Benghazi in order to try to tar the reputation of Hillary Clinton in order to win the White House in 2016. (If Trump boomerangs on the Republican Party at some point, they might finally get what they deserve for this). Republican cynicism notwithstanding, however, supporters of Obama have arguably misunderstood the Benghazi affair. It is now seen entirely, or almost entirely, as an anti-Clinton or anti-Obama stunt. To understand why this may be an incorrect view, it is important to recall how the war in Libya was interpreted between Gaddafi’s death in 2011 and the Benghazi attack ten and a half months later; a period that overlapped with most of the Obama-Romney presidential race and immediately followed Bin Laden’s death.

The Libya war was, at the time, seen as an enormous success by both the centre-left and the centre-right (and the centre-centre). The centre-right liked the war because the centre-right is hawkish. The centre-left liked the war because it was portrayed as a counter-argument to the Bush-era invasion of Iraq they so despised: Libya did not become a quagmire involving US ground troops, it was fought by a coalition that included European and Middle Eastern countries which had refused to be involved militarily in Iraq, it did not involve misleading claims about weapons of mass destruction (Gaddafi had already given Libya’s WMD program up in 2003, following the US invasion of Iraq), and it was part of a broader anti-tyranny movement, the Arab Spring. With Bin Laden too having just been killed — another feat Bush failed to achieve — Obama seemed to be moving from strength to strength. As Biden put it in the campaign: ““Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive”. As Clinton put it (regarding Gaddafi): we came, we saw, he died”.

Wars almost always boost a president’s popularity in the short term. Given that the American economy was still reeling from the Great Recession and thus ready to vote for change (which they did eventually, with Trump), and given that the Republicans had controlled Congress since 2010 and so could and did block most of Obama’s non-military initiatives, having Libya be seen as a quagmire-free foreign policy success was a boon for Obama. Though Obama went on to crush Romney in the electoral college, his victory was in fact not a large one: Ohio, Virginia, and especially Florida were extremely close, Obama received just 51 percent of the popular vote nationwide, and the Democratic Party did not succeed in winning back control of the Senate or the House.

Not long after Gaddafi was killed, the media largely stopped paying attention to Libya. The Republicans began to pin more of their hopes on portraying the withdrawal of troops from Iraq as having been destabilizing and a sign of the Democratic Party’s weakness of resolve and lack of manliness. However the Benghazi attack, just 25 days before the election, risked showing the American public that Obama’s war in Libya — along with the various other conflicts in the Arab  or Muslim world, including Iraq — was going to be somewhat messier than it had been portrayed as. This was an “October Surprise” that terrified the Democrats, since Obama was ahead in the polls.

Obama and the Democrats, it appears (though it is difficult to be sure), tried to obscure the Libya issue by exploiting the fact that the media was at the time spending most of its attention obsessing over an offensive, low-quality movie posted on Youtube, called the Innocence of Muslims. The claim was that the video had outraged Muslims and thus spontaneously caused protests that in turn caused the Benghazi  attack — a somewhat ludicrous claim (though plausible, and maybe even accurate) given that the attack was relatively sophisticated and, more importantly, that the attack was carried out on the anniversary of 9-11 and came in the wake of months of small attacks and attempted attacks on US and Western targets in Benghazi and in post-Gaddafi Libya in general. The Obama administration was later forced to walk this  claim back — and Susan Rice was forced to give up her bid for Secretary of State because of the claim, at least ostensibly — because the Republicans would not let the issue drop. However that same Republican relentlessness arguably ended up backfiring, since most people saw that the Republicans were mainly concerned with exploiting a tragic event in order to tarnish Obama and Clinton.

(The Republicans also purposefully confused the issue because of the unpopularity of their own hawkish political ideology. The Republican stance on Libya had, in genera, not been that entering Libya was a mistake, but rather that it was not forceful enough: they argued that Obama should not have “led from behind” the British, French, and Italians, and that the US should have committed more Special Forces. Yet the Republicans also knew that this stance of theirs was very unpopular among the US public, given that at the time the Iraq War was still extremely fresh in people’s minds and given that the troop surge in Afghanistan was occurring at the time. Thus, the Republicans were on the one hand worried that dwelling on Benghazi would make Americans voters realize that the Republicans were too hawkish, but on the other hand the Republicans were unwilling to pass up the opportunity to use Benghazi (and more generally, Libya) to catch Obama and Clinton in a potential lie over this potential new Middle Eastern quagmire. To square this circle, the Republicans resorted to making only vague, yet intense, accusations over the Benghazi issue. In turn, this left many Republican supporters across the United States to form their own conspiratorial versions of what exactly Obama or Clinton’s sins over Benghazi had been. Not that people needed any extra incentive to start forming conspiracy theories… in fact, maybe my whole opinion on this issue is nothing more than a conspiracy theory)

Moving on to Syria, and specifically to Obama’s “Red Line”: it is difficult to know whether or not the US should have intervened more forcefully in Syria, and it is also difficult to know how much truth there is to Obama’s claim that he extracted significant concessions from Assad as a result of bluffing during the Red Line affair. What we do know, though, is that in spite of the fact that most Republican supporters and even many Democrats claim that Obama was either weak for not following through on the bluff or stupid for bluffing in the first place, it is in fact not at all clear that bluffing in matters of war is stupid or that failing to follow through on a bluff in the event that it is called — even despite the risk of losing credibility as a result — is a weak thing to do. Thus while Syria remains an immense tragedy and Obama’s role in it is open to debate, the certainty with which many claim that Syria will be remembered as Obama’s top mistake appears to be unfounded.

Finally, let’s talk about Obama’s position regarding Iran, which, in the long term, will possibly be considered his most significant legacy in foreign policy, the equivalent of Jimmy Carter’s reacquaintance with Anwar Sadat’s Egypt or even of Nixon’s reacquaintance with Maoist China. The Obama stance on Iran has often been misunderstood in at least one of the following three ways. One, that it is primarily about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It is not (though this is of course not to say that nukes are not a very real issue). Two, that Obama and Netanyahu were at odds over America’s stance on Iran. They were not (though this is not to say that relations between Obama and Netanyahu have been hunky-dory or that Israel is not rightfully wary about the improving US-Iranian relationship and Iranian weaponry). Three, that Obama’s policy came from a place of dovishness. In fact, it came just as much from a place of hawkishness: Iran is in some respects a crucial potential US ally.

The conflict between America and Iran began to heat up after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. This was because both invasions had created overlapping spheres of influence between US soldiers and Iranian proxies, and because both invasions had strengthened Iran’s regional influence. Iran had been enemies of both Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. Saddam’s regime had been led by part of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, whereas as most of the rest of Iraq are Shiites like the Iranians or else Sunni Kurds (and Kurds are ethno-linguistically closer to Persians than to Arabs). Iran had fought a war against Iraq in the 1980s in which millions of its citizens were killed; the Iranians are now been interfering in Iraq in order to ensure this never happens again. The Taliban in Afghanistan, meanwhile, are predominantly composed of Sunni Pashto-speakers, yet Afghanistan also has a sizeable minority of Shiite Muslims and is more than a quarter Tajik (and Tajik is mutually intelligible with Persian). Iran had threatened to go war with the Taliban in 1998, following the group’s killing of Iranian diplomats. Apart from Pakistan, Iran is the crucial Muslim neighbour of Afghanistan. Iran’s border with Afghanistan is half as long as the enormous US-Mexican border, and even harder to build a wall across.

With Saddam’s Baathists and the Taliban out of power in cities like Baghdad and Kandahar, the Iranians were free to spread their political wings within the region, especially once the US left Iraq. To clip these wings, the US enforced sanctions on Iran and played good-cop bad-cop with the Israelis in threatening to carry out strikes against Iranian military and infrastructural targets. At one point, around 2010-2013, it was commonly expected that Israel and/or America would attack Iran imminently. This good-cop bad-cop role also served both Obama and Netanyahu quite well in their own respective domestic politics. Obama did not his anger base by appearing to be a warmonger, while Netanyahu was able to portray himself as bravely standing up to both the White House and the mullahs in Iran in an attempt to ensure security for the Israeli public at any cost.

Indeed, Israeli-Iranian tensions were dclining even before Netanyahu’s famous speechs in New York or, later, in Washington. Hamas’s relationship with Iran weakened as a result of Iran’s backing of Assad (Hamas’ leadership moved out of Syria in 2012, to Qatar, the only Gulf Arab monarchy that is supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood). Iran’s proxy Hezzbolah also became too distracted with helping to prop up Assad inn Syria to focus on Israel as it had in its war with Israel in 2006. Moreover, around this same period Israel’s relationship with Turkey deteriorated sharply as a result of the Gaza Flotilla incident in May 2010, and later because Turkey was angered by the coup against Muhammad Morsi of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which the Hamas movement was originally sprung. The Iran-Hamas breach over Assad, Hezzbolah’s distraction, and Israel’s growing wariness of Turkey brought a thaw between Iran and Israel. But politics is politics; for now, both countries remain boogeymen in the eyes of one another’s medias.

Many, similarly, believe Obama and Netanyahu to be hated rivals, or, at least, frenemies, when it is not at all clear that their opinions of one another are really so low as they are portrayed. Those who watch NBA basketball (as Obama does) would be familiar with the “hold me back” strategy Obama and Netanyahu arguably used against Iran in the years before the Iran nuclear deal was signed. The real breach between the US and Israel, if indeed there is to be one in the years ahead, is likelier to occur over issues like Palestine or even Pakistan (where the larger nuclear threat to Israel is located, arguably) than Iran, given Iran has shared interests with both Israel and the US.

The Obama rapprochment with Iran occured as a result of the fact that Iranian influence was curtailed by the Arab Spring, with the Saudis quelling Shiite protests in Bahrain (Persia, by the way, historically often controlled Bahrain) and, even more importantly, with large chunks of territory within Syria and Iraq being taken over by militant Sunni groups, including but not limited to ISIS and Al-Nusra. Iran is no longer in a potentially dominant position in the Middle East. As a result, Obama has in recent years has been able to have warming relations with Iran and work, in effect, alongside the Iranians in containing ISIS and in trying to have US troops withdraw from Afghanistan without sacrificing major cities to the Taliban. While the media now gives a lot of attention to how the US and Iranian interest in blocking ISIS have become aligned with one another, their shared or overlapping interests in Afghanistan are generally overlooked. But the US desperately wants to avoid a situation akin to when the Soviets left Afghanistan in the late 1980s—which brought civil war, the mutilation of the Afghan Prime Minister, a spillover of violence into Pakistan and between Pakistan and India, and eventually Al Qaeda’s attack on the US on 9-11.

The Republicans, who continue to try to make Obama’s deal with Iran appear to be Munich-style appeasement rather than typical presidential diplomacy, do not usually point any of this out. Instead they focus on the Iranian regime’s tyranny and religiosity. Bringing up the extremism of Iran’s government should not be an irrelevant point, of course, but still it comes across as a rather weak excuse to fault the deal, given America’s closer alliance with countries like Saudi Arabia; an alliance the Republicans have played a part in. Their response that Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia, should be resisted the most because it has the potential to become a regional power, ignores not only the fact that Iran’s position has been set back by the ongoing war in Syria, but also the fact that the US wants Iran to help them contain more plausible regional powers, Turkey and Russia.

The US-Russian relationship has, of course, suffered seriously in recent years as a result of the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as because of the the meddling of Russia in the recent American election (assuming that either Putin or supporters of Putin were indeed behind the hacking of the DNC’s emails, as appears highly plausible). The Iranians are useful to the US in parrying Russian influence in both Central Asia and the Caucuses, in spite of the fact that Iran, Russia, and even the United States have in effect been working on the same side of the Syrian civil war at times. Iran has significant ties to a number of countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union, most notably Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Given that large Muslim populations in the Caucuses border large Muslim populations living within Russia, and given that Putin himself presided over the Second Chechen War, Iran’s position if of significance here. Reviving the stagnant energy industries in Iran and in Iran’s Shiite-majority ally Iraq also helps reduce the price of oil and, in the long-run, of natural gas, both of which Russia depends highly upon.

Turkey, meanwhile, is a country that has a far larger economy than Iran, an economy that is not at all based on oil exports as Iran’s is thus much less exposed to the recent crash in oil prices. Turkey is also, unlike Iran, a country that is dominated by a single ethno-linguisitc group. Partly as a result of this, Turkey is not home to numerous separatist or regionalist movements like Iran is (the PKK being the notable exception). An estimated 75 percent of people in Turkey are Turkish, whereas an estimated 60 percent of people in Iran are Persian. Iran is also a Shiite country, setting it apart from the large Sunni majority in the Middle East and in the Muslim world in general.

In recent years, a number of areas that were once in the Ottoman Empire have been hit hard by crises; notably Syria, Iraq, Libya, Greece, Ukraine, Cyprus, and Georgia. Turkish politics, led by Erdogan, have also become more Islamic than at any time since the empire fell in WW1. Recently, with Erdogan’s accusation that the Turkish cleric Gulen was behind the failed 2016 coup, and his demand the US extradite Gulen, Turkey’s Islamic politics may be becoming more unified and anti-American. US-Turkish ties have also become strained over America’s close ties to the Kurds in Syria and especially in Iraq. While relations between Turkey and America are still decent in spite of this, in part because the US wants Turkey to help block both Russia and Iran as well as re-establish a semblance of order within Syria and Iraq (where Turkey has troops), the writing is clearly on the wall: Turkey is more likely to be a major regional power than Iran is. Obama’s attempt at a political reengagement with Iran most likely reflected an understanding of this fact, given that Obama is a keen and “realist” policymaker, as most recent US presidents have been.

Ultimately, it is often said presidents are most important in their symbolism rather than in any specific deals they manage to hammer out. If that is correct, Obama appears to score quite well on the short roll of post-Cold War presidents. Obama has been more articulate and likely more sophisticate than George W Bush was, and also more scandal-free and likely more genuine than Bill Clinton was. Obama’s critics often claim too that Obama’s most notable decisions in foreign policy were of the symbolic sort, whether it be his refusal to use the term Islamic terrorism, attend funerals in solidarity with the Charlie Hedbo and kosher supermarket victims in France (two weeks before attending King Abudllah’s in Saudi Arabia), or decline the Nobel Peace Prize awarded him by starstruck Norwegians in the first year of his first term. Even those that do believe the worst of Obama, however — and there really is little reason to do so — should acknowledge he has done less harm to America’s reputation in eight years than Trump now has in the past eight months.

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North America

The Case For A DVP Relief Subway (and Gondola) in Toronto

Toronto’s subway plans contain a little problem and a big problem. The little problem is that over a third of the “preferred route” for the Downtown Relief Line subway (see map below) uses Pape, a street comprised almost entirely of houses rather than apartments or businesses. Pape is only 0.7-1.3 km east of the DVP, so it might become a bit redundant given that ride-sharing apps and eventually self-driving vehicles could turn the DVP into an efficient transit corridor. The far bigger problem, however, is that many of Toronto’s municipal councillors continue to vote in favour of extending subways into relatively sparsely populated areas like Scarborough, even as funding for transit construction remains scarce. Provincial policymakers too are loath to prioritize the Downtown Relief Line ahead of other, much less urgent subway projects within the GTA, like Yonge North. 

A compromise, it seems to me, might therefore be desirable. The Relief Line will finally receive top priority and funding, but in return it will will be reconfigured so as to become cheaper to build than the current preferred route, and more easily accessible to commuters from suburban and midtown Toronto who are ride-sharing on the DVP or Bayview Extension. It will be a DVP Relief Line.

I can envision two routes along which a DVP Relief subway might, just maybe, be worthwhile. In one, the subway would run under Queen to River Street, then under River Street to Gerrard. In the other, the subway would run under Queen to Parliament Street, then under Parliament to the Danforth. The Queen-River route would be just half the length of the preferred Queen-Pape route; the Queen-Parliament route would be roughly 58 percent the length of the Queen-Pape route. Also, unlike the Pape route, the Parliament and River routes would not involve crossing the Don Valley, which is one of the more costly necessities of the existing Downtown Relief Line plan.

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 Above: Queen-River — Below: Queen-Parliament

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The goal of either DVP Relief Line route would be threefold. One, to create ride-sharing transfer areas* for the DVP and Bayview Extension; areas that would be directly accessible to the Bloor-Danforth subway and the Relief Line subway. Two, to connect the Bloor-Danforth subway to the Relief Line subway. Three, to allow the DVP south of Gerrard or the Danforth to be gotten rid of in the long-run, so riverside parks and boardwalks could be put in its place and apartments built next to it.

*A ride-sharing transfer area is a place where anybody using a service like Car2Go, UberPool, or UberHop could disembark their vehicle and switch to a subway or to a different Car2Go, Uber vehicle, etc. A commuter in Markham, for example, could share an UberPool to the transfer area in Toronto with other people living in his or her neighbourhood, then travel from the transfer area to his or her office downtown by switching either to a Car2Go or to a different UberPool (one in which the other passengers are travelling to destinations near his or her office). Or, to give a different example, a commuter from Scarborough may take a Car2Go to the transfer area and then switch to a subway to reach his or her office, leaving the Car2Go car behind for others. Transfer areas of this sort would be especially useful if self-driving vehicles eventually become available.

A ride-sharing transfer area that would serve the DVP and Bayview Extension would need to be located within the Don Valley in order to prevent significant traffic bottlenecks from forming on the Parkway’s on/off-ramps. It would also need to be large enough to prevent significant traffic bottlenecks from forming at its own entrances and exits, and to leave a bit of room for parked vehicles like Car2Go. And it would need to be located next to the Bloor-Danforth and Relief Line subways. This leaves two possible locations: the area of the valley between Gerrard and the Danforth, or the area of the valley between the Danforth and Pottery Road. Both are 1.3 km in length.

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If the Queen-River route was chosen, the accompanying ride-sharing transfer area would have to be located in the valley between Gerrard and the Danforth. This is where the gondola that is mentioned in the title of this article comes into play. What I am proposing is that the ride-sharing areas be located in part of the track field next to the DVP and in part of the baseball field next to Bayview. These two fields, which are already linked to one another by the Riverdale Pedestrian Bridge, would then in addition be linked to one another by a 1.3 km aerial gondola that would in turn connect both of them to Broadview Station in the northeast and to the intersection of Gerrard and River Street — where a DVP Relief Line subway station would be located — in the southwest.

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Queen-River Subway plus Don Valley Gondola

This would only be a temporary solution to the overcrowding on the Yonge subway line. Over the longer-term, a direct subway connection rather than an indirect gondola connection would be needed between the Bloor-Danforth subway and the Relief Line subway. The Relief Line subway would then need to be extended east along Gerrard to reach the future GO/SmartTrack station at Pape-and-Gerrard (see maps below) and then turn north to reach Pape Station on the Danforth.

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  Source for Map Above: Toronto Star, June 2016

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 Long Term: Queen-River-Gerrard-Pape Subway plus Don Valley Gondola 

In the nearer-term, however, the gondola link might suffice to relieve the Yonge line, for three reasons. First, it would allow commuters who live along streets like Bayview, who might today take the Yonge subway, to instead ride-share down Bayview to the ride-sharing transfer areas and the Relief Line. Second, it would allow commuters who are not in a rush to transfer from the Bloor-Danforth subway to the Relief Line subway via the gondola, thereby avoiding the hectic mass of commuters at Yonge-and-Bloor station. (Ideally the gondola would even descend underground, into the subway stations, allowing transfers to be made from subway to gondola to subway without anybody needing to go up or down a flight of stairs, escalator, or elevator). Third, the Yonge line is likely to be relieved to a certain extent in the coming years by the fact that the Internet is increasingly allowing many people to work from home for a day or two a week, or at least to work from home in the morning sometimes, thereby avoiding the rush hour crush.

These three factors could buy time for the Yonge line, for the years in which the Queen-River portion of the Relief Line is complete but before the extension of the Relief Line to Pape Station is done.

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 Images above from donvalleycablecar.com

If, alternatively, the DVP Relief Line was to use the Queen-Parliament route, the ride-sharing transfer areas would instead have to be located north of the Danforth. One such area would be put in the parking lots of the Evergreen BrickWorks. A gondola would link these transfer areas to Castle Frank subway station, then go beyond it to reach a Relief Line station beneath St. James Cemetery.

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Above: BrickWorks-Castle Frank-Parliament Gondola — Below: Queen-Parliament Subway plus Gondola

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In the long-term, this subway line could be connected directly to Castle Frank or Sherbourne stations. Castle Frank is 0.25 km away but is across the Rosedale Valley Road and is relatively remote as subway stations go, whereas Sherbourne Station is 0.5 km away but otherwise may be the better option. It could also be extended to reach the future Unilever GO/SmartTrack station and high-rise developments south of Queen and east of the DVP, just like the ‘preferred’ Relief Line route does. And perhaps eventually it could even be extended to reach Rosedale Station on the Yonge subway line, in order to further reduce the severe overcrowding at Yonge-and-Bloor.

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Queen-Parliament Subway, plus extensions to Unilever, Sherbourne, and/or Rosedale stations, plus Gondola

Those who want the subway under Pape — Papists — might say it is unwise that all the transit corridors should be concentrated downtown. In this plan, the University, Yonge, and Parliament subways and the DVP/Bayview/gondola would all be within 2.8 km from east to west, while the Bloor and Queen subways, Gardiner Expressway and Front St. GO line would be within 3 km north to south. But such transit inequality might actually make sense, as it reflects the inequality between the weakness of human legs and strength of an internal combustion engine. Downtown Toronto will hopefully be built around pedestrians’ weak legs, and so require subways as an aid, whereas the rest of the city would be built around the strength of the internal combustion engine (whether car or bus; personal or ride-share; human-driven or self-driving), and so might not need the extra subway. Parliament, unlike Pape or River Street, already has a high population density.

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Ideally, this project will help to create the conditions to allow carpools or busses within the DVP and Bayview Extension to be used effectively, and to ease subway access and make the Valley simpler to cross over or into. Gondolas are very cheap and quick to build, relative to LRTs. They have decent capacities: up to 6000 people per direction per hour (ppdph) (by comparison, the Queen Street streetcar during rush hour has a capacity of 2000 ppdph, roughly speaking). That  said, without a DVP Relief Subway and a rise in ride-sharing on the DVP, Bayview, or in Toronto in general, any gondola would be frivolous. With ride-sharing, however, it could be an incredible boon.

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North America

Presidential Beginnings and Regionalism in America

Hillary Clinton would not just have been the first female president. She would also have been the first modern Democratic candidate born in a northern state to have become president. The past four Democrats who have won presidential contests (or five, if you count Al Gore’s ambiguous election result) were not from the North.

This is counting Obama as a non-Northern politician, which may not be entirely unfair: Hawaii is the southernmost state in the US, Obama was raised by his Kansas-born mother and grandparents, and African-American society in Illinois remains recently rooted in the South. Obama himself has a bit of a southern accent that he is able to turn on or off as required. (Clinton had one too back in the early 1990’s, when she was still living in the governor’s mansion in Arkansas). Indeed, you have to go back all the way to John F Kennedy in order to break this pattern—but not to Truman before him, a Missouri-born Democrat.

In contrast, on the Republican side all the recent presidents who have won elections (in other words, all the recent Republican presidents apart from Gerald Ford, who inherited Nixon’s presidency post-impeachment) have had close ties to either California or Texas. The Bush family, though originally aristocrats hailing from New England, adopted Texas as their home, with Bush Sr. representing it in Congress for four years and Bush Jr. later serving as its governor for five years. Eisenhower too was from Texas. Reagan on the other hand was a Hollywood actor turned governor of California, while Nixon was born and raised in California and represented it in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Trump’s victory in a sense breaks this pattern (at least, if you ignore the fact that the new Celebrity Apprentice is being filmed in California). Trump will be the first New York-born Republican president since Teddy Roosevelt, and the first New York-born president of either party since Franklin Roosevelt. Trump is also the only Republican president to have ever lost the Texas primary (he got just 27 percent of the vote there; Ted Cruz got 44 percent) and was the first Republican presidential nominee to have lost the Texas primary since Ford lost it to Reagan in 1976, in an election Ford later lost to Jimmy Carter.

These patterns are telling. Most of the post-election discussions thus far have been devoted to the ethnic, rural-urban, class, age, or gender divisions that helped Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton, but this is partly a result of the fact that two of America’s other political macro-divisions — the North-South divide and the California-Texas divide — appear so obvious and are so normalized that they have been dwelt upon very little by comparison.

The North-South divide is partially obscured by the fact that there are large numbers of African-American and Hispanic voters living in most states in the South. Thus, Clinton fared worse in heartland states like Idaho, Utah, and the Dakotas than she did in southeastern states like Alabama, Georgia, or the Carolinas, even as her worst showing of all was among white Southern voters. More than 70 percent of white voters in Texas and in most of the Southeast (apart from Florida) did not vote for Clinton—a stupefying level of political unanimity for such a large region and demographic group. Nationally, by comparison, even an estimated 28 percent of white voters without a college degree voted for Clinton. Even white voters in the coal-producing states of Wyoming and West Virginia were not enticed to vote for Trump in such large proportions as Southern ones were.

Note: this is a map of poll-based projections from just before the election; it does not show the actual results of the election. I couldn’t find a map that does show the results of the election based solely on white voters

 

Trump, meanwhile, received an estimated 49 percent of white college graduates, 23 percent of non-white college graduates, and even 29 percent of Hispanic-Americans, yet in California got just 33 percent of the overall vote, less than in any other state apart from Hawaii or Vermont. In Massachusetts Trump got just 33.5 percent. In New York he got 37 percent, the first time a president failed to win his own home state since Lincoln lost Kentucky in 1864.

Still, as with that 1864 election, race proved far more divisive even than intense regionalism; Trump only won 8 percent of African-American votes. By contrast, Trump received at least 29 percent of the overall vote in every state. Only in Trump’s future home of Washington D.C. was he blown-out, getting just 4 percent of the overall vote there.

Compared to the bitter North-South divide, which dates back to America’s early years, the California-Texas divide is extremely new and emotionally far less encumbered by historical(-racial) divisions. California and Texas have not voted in unison only since 1988. They have voted in unison in 5 of the past 13 elections — twice for Reagan (a Californian), twice for the Nixon (a Californian), and once for George H W Bush, who had been Reagan’s vice president prior to the election. Indeed, Texas and California also voted in unison seven out of ten times between 1952 and 1988 and fourteen out of nineteen times between 1916 and 1988. During this span California voted for the Republicans nine out of ten times, while Texas voted for the Democrats four out of ten times.

Today, however, it is already becoming difficult to believe that this ever used to occur. The growing division between California and Texas has perhaps more than anything else defined modern American politics. California and Texas are the most populous states in the country, accounting for 17 percent of the electoral college votes in the election. The next most populous state, the swing-state of Florida, has just 52 percent the population size of California and 74 percent that of Texas. Illinois, the most populous state in the Midwest and the fifth most populous state in the country, has just 33 percent the population size of California and 47 percent that of Texas. Had Texas voted for the Democrats in this past election, Hillary Clinton would have won the electoral college by a score of 270 to 268. Had Trump fared better in California, he would not have lost the popular vote.

(The division between California and Texas might also be preventing both from pursuing their shared interest of achieving structural reform in the Senate. While Democrats are outraged that Trump and George W Bush both won the presidency even after losing the popular vote, what is arguably much more troubling is that tiny states like Rhode Island and Wyoming still receive as many votes in the Senate as do giants like California and Texas. Given the difficulty of amending the structure of the Senate, such reform would require at a minimum the cooperation of Congressional representatives from Texas and California).

Past presidents also used to transcend the more deeply entrenched North-South divide on occasion. Bill Clinton did it to a certain extent when he won in states like Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Reagan did it when he swept the Northeast twice, as to a lesser extent did George H W Bush. And Carter did it when he swept the entire Southeast, even as he failed to win any of the 16 states in the lower 48 west of Texas or Minnesota.

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Carter defeats Ford in 1976; in that election the divide was east-west, not north-south

If such occurrences are impossible nowadays, we might see more elections in the future that are not too dissimilar from the recent one, with the Democrats no longer running a Southern candidate, the Republicans no longer running one from California or Texas (since they are no longer swing-states), and both of the parties instead focusing their efforts squarely upon the Midwest, Florida, and a few other smaller states like Arizona. Perhaps, though, these divisions will not persist. Maybe a Northern Democrat will have a shot at winning states in the South next time—instead of just some Yankee showman like Trump.

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Africa, Europe, Middle East

The Day After Tomorrow, in Morocco

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Amid the election victory of the intensely pro-coal, global warming denier Donald Trump, the UN’s annual Climate Change Conference is underway in Marrakech, Morocco, and is aiming to build on last year’s Paris Agreement. The conference began on November 7 and will run until the 18th.

Trump aside, getting any far-reaching climate deal done will be a herculean challenge involving unprecedented cooperation and goodwill between nations. Specifically, it will require cooperation between developed economies, which account for most greenhouse gas emissions in per capita as well as historical terms, and developing ones, which have the most urgent need for an increase in carbon emissions and carbohydrates consumption. Morocco, which is a developing, African, Muslim economy that shares the pillars of Hercules with its developed, European, Christian neighbour Spain, could therefore be among the most fitting places to accomplish such an effort.

Morocco exemplifies many of the greatest challenges as well as greatest opportunities of a world in which the use of fossil fuels is relegated to the back-burner. Using Morocco as a case study, one can explore in detail what the Day After Tomorrow could look like. Not the apocalyptic version of climate change that Hollywood has repeatedly shown us, but rather a more hopeful Day After Tomorrow: the lower-pollution world those at the conference in Marrakech are hoping to build.

On the challenge side of the ledger, Morocco is one of the poorer countries of the Arab world, and, while not an energy exporter itself, it does rely on business with and investment from the oil-rich Gulf. Moreover it is one of the largest food importers in the world (relative to GDP size), and is part of both the Arab and Saharan worlds which are similarly beholden to food imports. Given the energy-food-water nexus, which has many aspects, there is a far-reaching link between food and fuel prices. In any climate deal, countries like Morocco and regions like the Middle East must be supported in one way or another if they are to avoid economic crises due to food-price inflation and declining energy export revenues.

There is also a geopolitical and humanitarian component to this. Conflicts can be started in response to food prices: the current Syrian war may have been sparked or at least exacerbated by drought. Morocco has its own dormant food-related conflict with its gas-rich neighbour Algeria over Western Sahara, the large Moroccan-controlled former Spanish colony which holds perhaps three-quarters of global reserves of phosphate fertilizer.

In terms of opportunities in a lower-emissions world, Morocco has three factors working in its favour. First, its location at the exact crossroads of the Atlantic and Mediterranean puts it in a strong position to engage in fuel-efficient maritime trade with large markets like Europe, the Americas, and South Asia. Second, Morocco has renewable energy to harness: the Saharan sun, seaside wind (Morocco’s coast is over 1800 km long), and direct electricity-grid linkages via Spain to the hefty renewables output of Europe. Indeed, Morocco built the largest solar plant in the world this year, while Spain is the world’s fourth largest producer of wind power and tenth largest of ‘renewables’ in general. Beyond Spain, Morroco’s largest trading partner France is by far the least dependent on fossil fuels of any of the world’s biggest economies. Finally, Morocco is one of the few countries to speak three global languages pretty well: Arabic, French, and Spanish. As such it is well-placed to engage in emissions-free trading of services and media on the Internet. Morroco’s even getting decent at English now, because of tourists from the UK, US, and EU.

Morocco has, indeed, always been something of an outlier. Today, it is arguably the only country in the Middle East or North Africa that is not or does not border a failed or semi-failed state. In recent years Morocco has been one of the few places in the region where good news has not been too difficult to come by. And with Trump’s victory last night, and the end of the climate conference approaching next week, we could all use some more good news out of Morocco right now.

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North America

In Politics, the Triple Crown is Even More Elusive

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Last year, the horse American Pharaoh became the first since 1978 to achieve the Triple Crown, winning in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. Having a single political party win all three branches in Washington, however — controlling the White House and Congress while having nominated a majority of Supreme Court justices — is even rarer. The Democrats last achieved it in 1969, while the Republicans managed it for four and a half years under George W. Bush but before then had not done it since 1931.

With the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year, though, both parties now have a shot at the political Triple Crown in the upcoming election: the Democrats if they can somehow retake Congress, the Republicans if they can somehow retake the White House. Both Clinton and Trump have a chance at making history this year, in that case. One of them could soon become a political stud, while the other (hopefully Trump) could be sent off to the glue-factory.

Democrats and Republicans

The last time the Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress — but not the Supreme Court — was during a two-year span from 2009 until 2011, at the start of Obama’s first term. Before then, the Democrats had not controlled both branches of government at the same time since 1992-1994, and before that not since 1976-1980. They did not manage to control Congress at all between 1995 and 2007, and in 2007 and 2008 only controlled it narrowly with the help of left-leaning Independent senators Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have controlled both houses of Congress since 2015, and did so also from 2003 until 2007 and from 1995 until 2001. (The 2001 streak ended half a year after George W. Bush was elected when, in May of 2001, sitting Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican party to become a Democrat-leaning Independent). Before then, however, the Republicans had not controlled both houses of Congress simultaneously since 1953-1955, during the first two years of the presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower.

For a long time, the Republicans’ bane was the House of Representatives (one of the two houses of Congress, the other being the Senate). For forty years, between 1955 and 1995, the Republicans failed to win the House even once. Yet they have reached the promised land since: they have won the House in nine of the past eleven elections, and today control the largest House majority they have had since 1928. Winning big in the House in the election of 2010 (the first election following “the Great Recession”) was particularly nice for the Republicans, as in 2011 the US had its once-a-decade redrawing of congressional district boundaries, and the Republicans were thus able to redraw four times as many districts as the Democrats could. Taking the House back is by far the main hurdle the Democrats will have to winning the political Triple Crown.

In contrast to the House of Representatives, the Senate and White House have not been kind to the Republicans of late. They have lost the Senate in four out of the past five elections and the White House in four of the past six presidential elections (or four of five, if you count the Bush-Gore-Nader election in 2000 as a wash). That they have staved off a Democrat Triple Crown during this period is only because they have enjoyed Republican-appointed majorities in the Supreme Court for decades. Their Supreme Court dominance has been legacy of having controlled the White House for 20 out of 24 years between 1969 and 1992, under Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush. At the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, in fact, only one of nine justices had been appointed by a Democrat president.

This huge Supreme Court majority was in part a lucky break, however. It was a result of Democrat Jimmy Carter (president from 1977-1981) having been one of just four presidents in US history, and the only one since the 1860s, not to get to appoint any Supreme Court judges. Clinton only appointed two in eight years, meanwhile, whereas Bush Sr. and Reagan together appointed five in twelve years and Nixon and Ford together appointed four in eight years. According to some Democrat supporters, this Court majority was not only unlucky but also, eventually, unjust, since it was the majority-Republican Court ruled that Bush defeated Gore in Florida during the 2000 election, which in turn resulted in Bush getting to appoint another two justices to the Court during his two terms in office.

Odds For 2016 

According to Nate Silver’s data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, Trump has roughly a 13 or 26 percent chance at beating Clinton (depending on whether you use their “polls-only” or “polls-plus” forecast). While FiveThirtyEight has not released their predictions for Congress yet, they have also explained why they see the Senate race as possibly being a very close one this year. They have said as well that for the Democrats to retake the House will require at least a Clinton landslide victory (defining landslide as a double-digit popular vote margin, which has not happened since Reagan, Nixon, or, for the Democrats, Lyndon Johnson) — and they have the odds of such a Clinton landslide at 35 percent or lower.

Historical Circumstances

It is clear that, in modern times, it usually takes fairly special circumstances to bring about a situation in which one party controls the Congress and White House at the same time. The Democrats did it for two years after the 2008 election because of excitement over Obama, disappointment with George W Bush (and Sarah Palin), the financial crisis in late 2007, and frustration with the Iraq War. The Republicans did it for a few years under Bush Jr. — during which time they also had a Supreme Court majority — but they only achieved this through the narrowest of victories over Al Gore in the 2000 election, and they may also have been bolstered by 9-11, which occured just over eight months into Bush’s presidency.

The Democrats, similarly, did it for the first few years of Clinton’s presidency, in the wake of the 1991 recession and Desert Storm, and with the help of Clinton’s political skills and a unique ticket headed by two Southern Democrats (Clinton from Arkansas, Gore from Washington D.C. and Tennessee). Republicans Reagan, Bush Sr., Ford, and Nixon never managed to have their party run Congress, but another Southern Democrat, Jimmy Carter, did so during all four of his years in office, which he came into in the election following Watergate and the end of the American Vietnam War. It probably also helped that, unlike Clinton’s – and even Obama’s – feigned religiosity, Carter was a devout Southern Democrat.

Before that, though, one party controlling multiple branches of the government used to happen quite frequently. The Democrats dominated Washington D.C. during the eras around WW1, the Depression, WW2, and most of the post-WW2 generation, while the Republicans dominated the post-Civil War generation and the “Roaring ‘20s”, then took office again following Democratic president Truman’s waging of the Korean War and Democratic president Johnson’s massive troop surge into Vietnam. In the twentieth century, the Democrats had the political Triple Crown from 1939-1952 and from 1962-1969, while the Republicans had it from 1921-1931. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency was particularly impactful, not only because of the Depression and War but also because he had personally appointed eight of the nine judges on the Supreme Court by the time he left office.

That is all in the past though. For the 2016 election, going by the odds of FiveThirtyEight and by other predictions that have been made, there is perhaps a 10-20 percent chance the Democrats will win their first Triple Crown since 1969, and also a 10-20 percent chance that the Republicans will get their first Triple Crown since 2006. Clinton or Trump, then, could end up becoming the next American Pharaoh.

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North America

The Blessings of St Catharines

If extremely high taxes on greenhouse gas emissions were to be enacted worldwide, which part of Ontario would be poised to lead in terms of population growth and economic development as a result?

My guess would be St Catharines-Niagara, which at the moment is Canada’s 12th most populous census metropolitan area (just ahead of Halifax-Dartmouth), home to approximately 400,000 people.

A low-emissions city should at least a few of the following five characteristics, all of which define Niagara. One, it should be easily accessible by barge, as water remains far and away the most fuel-efficient mode of transportation. Two, it should not have much suburban sprawl. Three, it should be located close to other major cities in order to create urban economies of scale. Four, it should have a mild climate: not too cold or snowy in the winter, not too hot in the summer. And five, it should have an abundant source of clean power — and ideally also the ability to store up its energy in order to assist clean but intermittent power sources like solar, wind, and run-of-river hydro.

1. Water Transport

St Catharines-Niagara is one of only two urban areas in Canada or the US to be situated on more than one Great Lake. (The other is Sault St Marie). It links Lake Ontario to Lake Erie via the Welland Canal, a canal 43 km long and, in most places, 100-150 metres wide. The canal has seven locks on its northern end and one lock on its southern end; it takes ships around 10 hours to cross in full. However it has a lock-free middle stretch that is close to 25 km long, next to the city of Welland (pop. 50,000). It runs perpendicular to the Erie Canal, the longest shipping canal in the United States, which links Niagara Falls and Buffalo to New York City and Lake Champlain via the navigable Hudson River, passing by Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany along the way.

LR Welland Canal Map

Canals, when they are not frozen in the winter, are in many ways the ideal form of water transportation. They lack the difficulties of rivers (bends, rapids, shallows, etc.) and seas (storms, tides, waves, etc.), and are not too wide to make building bridges or tunnels across them too expensive. According to the New York Times, “one gallon of diesel pulls one ton of cargo 59 miles by truck, 202 miles by train and 514 miles by [Erie] canal barge… A single barge can carry 3,000 tons, enough to replace 100 trucks”.

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Erie Canal

As recently as the 1890s, prior to the modern age of highways, cars, and trucks, the Erie Canal allowed Buffalo to become the eighth most populous in the US and fourth most populous inland city in the US. And while Niagara never shared in Buffalo’s prominence (in part as it was too close to the US border for comfort; it was captured in the War of 1812, and became the refuge for William Lyon Mackenzie and his supporters during the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837-38), the adjacent city of Hamilton did. Hamilton was Canada’s fourth most populous city during the 1890s, and was about half as populous as Toronto in 1870. Today, in comparison, Hamilton is only around 13 percent as populous as Toronto.

As land transport became dominant, however, Hamilton found itself blocked in by the Hamilton Harbour (which until then had been the main source of its success) as well as by the Niagara Escarpment. Toronto, in contrast, has been able to expand barrier-free, now reaching to Lake Simcoe in the north, Oshawa and Clarington in the east, and Hamilton’s suburbs in the west.

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Niagara Escarpment

Admittedly, it is still quite expensive to build bridges across harbours or wide canals; they must be either high enough to let large ships pass below, or else be lift-bridges. The Welland Canal overall has two tunnels and ten bridges, all but one of which are lift-bridges. Given that the population of the region is split by the canal (St Catharines and Hamilton are to its west, Niagara Falls and Buffalo are to its east), these lift-bridges and tunnel crossings could lead to traffic bottlenecks if its population or economic activity were to experience growth.

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This canal-crossing problem can be managed, however, by switching over from cars to public transit. Luckily for St Catharines-Niagara, such a switch which would be necessary anyway if greenhouse gas emissions were to be highly taxed.

Public transit, including new transit services like Car2Go, Uber, and UberPool, can allow canals to be crossed more easily via bridge or tunnel, by reducing traffic bottlenecks and by letting its passengers relax rather than drive when there are traffic bottlenecks. In addition, public transit can allow for easier canal crossings via boat, pedestrian bridge, cable car, or even ice-sled, by making transit available upon crossing. For the same reason, crossing canals will also become easier as parking apps like Rover and PocketParker become common (and if cars that come equipped with parallel parking sensors or can parallel park themselves become common), as people will be able to park a car easily on one side of the canal and then take public transit after crossing.

In the St Catharines-Niagara area, public transit will be similarly useful in helping to cross the Niagara River (which is one of the widest and, in places, the most treacherous rivers in southern Ontario), Hamilton Harbour (which has two bridges crossing it at present, and no tunnels), and perhaps even the 45 km Lake Ontario shortcut that separates St Catharines (and Buffalo) from Toronto.


2. Suburban Sprawl

St Catharines-Niagara, as well as the nearby urban areas of Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo, are among the cities with a relatively high population density in Canada. Kitchener-Waterloo and Hamilton have the highest population densities among urban areas in Canada apart from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, according to the 2011 census, while St Catharines-Niagara has the seventh highest population density (though this does not take into account the 50,000 people living in Niagara Falls, NY).

Niagara may be particularly well-placed to benefit if suburban sprawl in general is reversed as a result of eco-taxes. This is because many of the big cities around Niagara have had their suburbs sprawl away from Niagara during their recent generations of suburbanization. As a result, a reversal of this sprawl would bring people back closer to Niagara.

Toronto has sprawled north and to a lesser extent east, away from Lake Ontario and Niagara. Northern Toronto suburbs like King city, Caledon, and Whitchurch-Stoufville  tend have population densities that are far lower than in suburbs closer to the lake, like Mississauga, Oakville, and Oshawa — nearly 30 times lower in the case of Caledon compared to Mississauga. Indeed some of Toronto’s lakeside suburbs, particularly to its west (towards Hamilton and Niagara), are themselves among the cities with the highest population densities in the country. Toronto’s easternmost suburbs, on the other hand, like Clarington and Scugog, have relatively low densities too.

Buffalo’s suburbs sprawl away from the border with Niagara, meanwhile, and Detroit’s sprawl away from Windsor (which is 315 km from St Catharines). Cleveland’s suburbs away from Lake Erie,  mainly to the south and west. If, then, suburban sprawl gives way to urban re-densification, it could lead to population growth along the coasts of both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, which Niagara shares, as well as along the Buffalo and Detroit borders with Canada, which Niagara either shares or is at least not too far away from.

Another energy advantage of de-suburbanization is that it frees up land to be re-converted into farmland. This is important, as importing food is highly energy-intensive; food is much more bulky than most other goods, and also often requires refrigeration or freezing while it is being transported. This means that areas that are not suitable to agriculture — areas that include most of Ontario, as the Canadian Shield generally is not farmable in the economic sense — will not benefit as much from de-surbanization in an eco-tax world as areas that are best suited to be used for agriculture.  For Ontario, these areas are  Southwestern Ontario and adjacent lands of the United States.

3. Proximity to Major Cities

St Catharines is around 50km from Toronto by way of Lake Ontario and about 100 km from Toronto via land. To put that into perspective, Oshawa, Burlington, and Newmarket, all three of which are in the Greater Toronto Area, are around 45 km from downtown Toronto, and Barrie is around 85 km from downtown Toronto. St Catharines is also around 40 km from downtown Buffalo (and Niagara Falls is less than 30 km from downtown Buffalo), 65 km from downtown Hamilton, 120 km from Kitchener-Waterloo and from Rochester, 270 km from Cleveland, 300 km from Pittsburgh, and 320 km from Detroit, and 500 km from New York City and Washington, D.C.

Hamilton and Toronto

St Catharine’s proximity to the New York City-to-Washington “Megalopolis” is unique and, in an eco-tax world, could be economically significant. If you extend the Megalopolis all the way north to Boston, however, then St Catharines’ proximity is less unique, as Ottawa and Kingston are both closer to Boston than St Catharines is. That said, the population density of the area between New York and Boston is quite a bit less than between New York City and Washington, so it is not clear Boston really should be counted as part of the Megalopolis core. St Catharines is also around 40 km closer to New York City and 250 km closer to Washington than Ottawa is, whereas Ottawa is only around 160 km closer to Boston than St Catharines is. Only Kingston then, among notable Ontario cities, can be said to be closer in proximity to the Megalopolis than St Catharines is.

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pop dens

Population density, US

 

4. Climate

Niagara, because of its relatively southern location and the temperate effect of the Great Lakes that surround it, has a mild climate compared to most other cities in Ontario. It tends to be around a degree warmer than Toronto in the winter and a degree cooler than Toronto in the summer, and it is much milder than the weather in more northern cities like Ottawa or Thunder Bay. It is also located outside any of the Great Lakes Snowbelts, unlike, for example, Sudbury or Barrie.

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Niagara’s position next to the US border may also be significant, as eco-taxes could lead Americans to come north to where the climate is more mild, at least during the summer. The average annual daily temperature highs in Buffalo is 14 degrees celsius, compared, for example, to 29 degrees for Miami or 31 degrees for Phoenix. Cool climate zones may also end up using more eco-friendly energy for heating than hot climates do for cooling, because the weather gets coldest at night when there are typically surpluses of electricity available (including low-carbon sources, like wind, base-load nuclear, and run-of-river hydro), whereas it is hottest during the day when no such energy surpluses typically exist. Admittedly only seven percent or so of American households use electric heaters, but a high eco-tax could cause them to be adopted more widely. Plus, it is possible to stay warm using clothing and blankets rather cranking the heat.

The arid climate and diffuse population settlement in the US Southwest in particular leads to a high energy footprint. Any extended drought in the Southwest, for example, would necessitate water desalination, water treatment, or increased food imports, all three of which are extremely energy-intensive. The most extreme of these, Las Vegas, which is a gambling and tourism competitor of Niagara to a certain extent, relies on long-distance air travel, long-distance food imports, air conditioning during the day, and heating at night (the desert can get cold at night, after all).

Owning, renting, or Airbnb-ing a home or cottage in upstate New York or upstate Pennsylvania, in contrast, will help keep air conditioning costs down in summer. Moreover, because both are located in the Great Lake Snowbelts and Appalachia, these also be used recreationally during the winter. This may be an advantage too, given that eco-taxes will make it far more expensive to fly to the Rockies to ski, and given that aging Baby Boomers are going to be switching from downhill skiing to cross-country skiing. Similarly, eco-taxes could make Canadian vacationers who head south to escape the winter forgo flying to places like Arizona, California, and Mexico, and instead travel by train or bus to the US Southeast (and perhaps from there on by cruise or plane to islands in Cuba or the Bahamas). Such train and bus journeys will usually pass through Niagara.

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Great Lake Snowbelts

US Snow Map

US average annual snowfall map

 

5. Energy Production

In a world in which greenhouse gas emissions are highly taxed, it would no longer be viable for Ontario to import so many manufactured goods from Asia, since Asia is so far away and relies on burning coal to power its industrial activity. Ontario would instead have to manufacture more products locally, making up for its lack of low-wage labour by using machines, having foreign engineers and other skilled labour e-commute from afar, etc. Such industrialization, particularly as it will depend on machines to assist or replace human workers, will need a lot of low-carbon energy.

Niagara Falls hydro (not counting the American side of the border) accounts for around 5-6 percent of Ontario’s power generation capacity, but more than 7 percent of non-fossil fuel generation capacity and more than 20 percent if you also ignore nuclear power. Niagara accounts for about a quarter of all Ontario hydropower, and its dams also happen to be located far further south than the majority of other dams in the province or country, meaning that the energy and capital used to maintain Niagara’s dams (and to maintain the electricity grid infrastructure that is connected to them) tends to be less than it is for other hydroelectric facilities. Most of Ontario’s other dams are either located near to or north of Ottawa – far north, in many cases – while most of the hydropower in the country comes from central or northern Quebec.

In addition, the hydropower facility on the US side of Niagara Falls produces 25 percent more power than those on the Canadian side of the Falls; it produces more power than all but three other dams in the United States and accounts for nearly 60 percent of New York state’s hydropower (and New York ranks third in hydropower among US states). It also has a pumped storage capability that by itself is larger than the hydropower storage available in all of Ontario outside of Niagara, which is significant since hydro-storage remains the leading method of assisting intermittent energy sources like wind and solar. (Batteries are still not generally up to the job of storing energy in a cost-effective or eco-friendly manner, in spite of all the hoopla surrounding Tesla).

Niagara is, similarly, home to nearly all of Ontario’s pumped storage hydro capacity. Moreover, it is located relatively close to the pumped storage facilities across the United States (apart from the pumped storage in California,  but those have been under-utilized in recent years as a result of drought), not just those on the US side of Niagara Falls.

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Niagara is also, along with the rest of Southwestern Ontario and the adjacent Bruce Peninsula, home to most of the province’s wind power production and solar power potential.

While 60 percent or so of Ontario’s electricity comes from nuclear, people do not want to live in urban areas that contain nuclear facilities. In addition, more than half of Ontario’s nuclear power capacity is located directly on the coast of Lake Ontario, 30-60 km east of downtown Toronto, which means that, when you combine their output with that of Niagara’s dams (not even counting the US Niagara dams), the coastlands of western Lake Ontario account for more than 40 percent of Ontario’s non-fossil fuel power capacity and nearly 40 percent of Ontario’s overall power capacity.

If, finally, you look at natural gas storage – both underground storage and LNG storage – Niagara is also well-placed. Natural gas could be useful in assisting intermittent sources like solar and wind, because like hydro, but unlike coal or nuclear, a gas-fired power plant can ramp up and down energy rapidly in response to the wind suddenly slowing or the sun suddenly being blocked by clouds. Most US underground storage is surrounding Niagara, in a broad sense.

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In Ontario, which in contrast to the US has very little gas storage capability, much of the gas storage is around Sarnia, with potential further development in Goderich, both of which are not too far away from Niagara. Most LNG storage and peakshaving capacity, meanwhile — which, while smaller in scale than underground storage, is better for delivering gas quickly in order to assist wind or solar intermittency — is located mostly on the Northeast coast, much of it within New York state.

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lngpeakshaving

The gas pipelines that bring US gas to Ontario also mainly run through or near to Niagara. Ontario used to get its gas from Western Canada, but with the shale boom in nearby US states, particularly in Pennsylvania which has led the shale gas boom, the province has begun to use US gas instead. The shale boom has revolutionized the gas industry, and should it continue it is likely to put the border areas of Ontario in a strong position relative to non-border areas, energy-wise.

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North America

Night Moves: The Future of Charging Electric Cars in Ontario

The Ontario government recently announced a plan to subsidize electric cars by up to $14,000 per vehicle and pay for them to be charged at night, among other things. Night-time charging is a key factor in electric vehicle ownership, as in most cases it takes several hours to charge an electric car.

This begs the question: what will the price of overnight electricity in Ontario be in the years ahead?

Today overnight electricity is cheap because most nuclear power plants in Ontario and coal plants in nearby states like Michigan cannot easily be turned off at night, in contrast to gas plants or hydropower facilities which can more easily ramp up and down their output to match real-time electricity demand. An estimated 60 percent of Ontario’s power is generated from nuclear, compared to around 15 percent in Canada as a whole and 20 percent in the US. Around 50 percent of the power in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois (states that are close to Ontario) comes from coal, compared to 33 percent in the US as a whole and 10-15 percent in Canada. Ontario and the Midwest are also among the leaders in wind turbines, which do not turn off at night either, and Ontario, Illinois, and Pennsylvania are by far the top three North American producers of nuclear power.

Going forward, however, there are compelling reasons to think that this overnight surplus of electricity will no longer exist.

The first reason is fracking. In the past few years the US has seen an enormous boom in shale gas production, which has been leading much of the country to begin switching off their coal plants and replacing them with cheap natural gas. The stock prices of US coal companies have already dropped by over 90 percent since 2014, and by over 97 percent since 2011. As more gas and less coal is used to generate electricity, the price of overnight electricity is likely to spike relative to the price of daytime electricity, since gas plants tend to be far easier to shut off at night than coal plants.

This is relevant to Ontario because the biggest gas booms in the US since 2010 have been in nearby states like Pennsylvania, and because Ontario already has the extensive natural gas infrastructure required to import and distribute American gas (especially via Michigan, which has the largest gas storage capacity in the US). Indeed fracking has made gas so cheap in the region that even Ontario might look to it again as a source of energy production, instead of building new nuclear plants or wind farms.

The second reason overnight electricity prices are likely to rise is robots. Machines that combine mobility with computation are highly energy-intensive, but, unlike humans, they do not need to sleep at night or relax in the evening. Take, for example, Amazon’s robotic warehouses: they have caused the company’s night-time electricity use to rise substantially since they were introduced, given that before they came along Amazon’s warehouses were either inactive overnight or else employed human workers who ran on food (and overtime pay) instead of electricity. If and when this robotic economy finally goes mainstream, then, such demand for overnight power could be replicated at large. We should expect late-night electricity use to skyrocket: robots are no longer science-fiction.

The final reason is environmentalism. In order to keep greenhouse gas emissions down (which is, after all, the main point of subsidizing EVs), many voters are pushing for more solar panels and wind turbines to be built. Solar and wind are complementary to one another, not only because the sun often shines brightly at different times as the wind blows strongly, but also because wind farms and solar farms usually inspire non-overlapping types of NIMBY-driven political backlash. Ontario already gets 5-6 percent of its electricity from wind compared to less than one percent from solar, so it might be that going forward its solar power growth will outstrip its wind power growth. Of course, solar power will not help to bring down overnight electricity prices. Even the wind, however, tends to blow less strongly overnight than during the day – a fact that runs contrary to conventional wisdom, since the wind can usually be heard more clearly at night.

As solar, wind, and gas replace dirtier coal in the regional electricity network, there will also be environmentalist-led pressure to stop heating homes with fossil fuels and instead adopt electric-powered heaters like those used in Quebec and the Pacific Northwest. This too would be likely to cause overnight electricity prices to rise. Quebec, for example, uses electric-powered heating and so has its electricity demand peak during frigid winter nights, whereas Ontario primarily uses gas-powered heating and therefore has its electricity demand peak during hot summer days. Should Ontario or nearby US states switch over to electric heating in order to reduce carbon and methane emissions from natural gas, the region’s overnight electricity usage will rise.

The need to help support solar and wind power could lead as well to the building of more pumped-hydro facilities, which pump water uphill so that it can flow back downstream through a turbine when other power sources are in low supply, such as when solar panels are blocked by clouds or the wind is not blowing. There has been talk lately of building more pumped hydro in Ontario, in places like Niagara and Marmora, as pumped hydro is the most efficient form of electricity storage. Given that Ontario’s daytime power is not cheap (at least, not by Canadian or American standards), this water would be pumped at night. It is an energy-intensive process, however, requiring 20 percent or so more energy to pump uphill than is generated from releasing it back downhill. Thus it would lead overnight prices to rise.

In closing, any electric-vehicle policy approach that assumes that Ontario’s overnight electricity costs will remain cheap is probably a shortsighted one. Ontario’s overnight electricity costs are likely to rise substantially as a result of natural gas replacing coal, robots working slavishly every night, and the move towards cleaner sources of energy like wind power and, especially, solar power.

Without being certain of future electricity prices,  the EV subsidy plan is like a leap, or Leaf, in the dark.

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