Friday, 24 December 2010

Bah Humbug to The Productivity Gap Scrooges



No matter who you are and what you do, you should be able to enjoy the next week or so in North America. With a rare four day weekend thanks to the timing of the stat holidays, and plentiful feasts being spread out everywhere, I encourage you to imbibe some PC eggnog spiked with rum, ($3 compared to Neilson's 88 cent crap in a carton - totally worth it!) and remind yourself why you like all the important people in your life so much by being around them during that time. That, in any case, is what I'm going to be doing; I look very much forward to it, and leave you here with Lacking Credential's last posting of 2010.

Before signing off to do some much needed re-calibrating and maintenance on myself as well as on the blog, I would like to thank you personally whether you check in here regularly, irregularly, or for the first time. The blog has recently celebrated its one year anniversary, and my hope is to improve it and expand my audience in 2011. One of the ways I intend on doing that is making it more unique with "citizen letters" rather than opinion pieces. Details to follow.

For now, merry Christmas and happy New Year, and here is "Bah Humbug to the Productivity Gap scrooges!” a set of holiday musings.

I have found it difficult this year more than any other, to reconcile messages I have received from the media about the state of the nation and the economy, and the usual messages we hear the most at this time of year. You know the ones about “how lucky we are and the importance of helping those less fortunate."

It is true that in Canada it is impossible to witness such unusually consistent abundance across our land from coast to coast without realizing that one is indeed fortunate. Despite some damning statistics and daily doses bad news, there are some points we can observe about the environment in which we live in this country that indicate it is extremely opulent, and for this you can be thankful.

These include, but are not limited to

-There is nobody starving to death
-Poor and sometimes malnourished people still find large amounts of money to pay to rich and profitable corporation s (Nike, RIM, McDonalds, Apple, Rogers, Bell, to name a few)
-Homelessness is restricted to perhaps 1-3% of the population (no official statistics released and issue accepted and generally avoided by public opinion), mostly young-middle aged white and native males with addiction and/or mental health issues . I f they did not already suffer from these when they first become homeless they were surely driven there over time from living in that constant state of upheaval, because who wouldn't be.
-In fact, the majority of people are willing to part with most of their money , so that must mean they feel confident that they will be able to benefit from unending flows of liquidity and prosperity for the future. There is only a small part of the population that does not hand over the majority of their monthly income to the various cartels, but for this the majority are afforded a standard of living ranging from basic needs to relative comfort
- There are rich areas booming and new affluent areas are sprouting up from coast to coast all the time.
- There is near-universal , when official and unofficial sources are combined, income distribution, through government entitlements, food banks, and the goodwill of the populace with extra to give
-Still today in this country , there is an incomparable (except by Russia) reserve of virgin forest, water, and natural resources.

So, in spite of what I often complain about here , in spite of the doom and gloom, we are not doing too bad as a nation state all things considered. I mean, growing up here and being from here could be seen as an advantageous situation to have been born into. There are very few who will deny that the state of affaires I have described is roughly accurate description of why we would be fortunate in the days before Xmas 2010.

Yet in the past week I have come across two reports, which I have a feeling were ignored for the most part by a population absorbed in the "hustle and bustle" of the holiday season, despite being on the front page of two mainstream newspapers. The two reports depict issues that Canada is suffering from, that require immediate and urgent redressment. Why did they not represent earth-shaking revelations? The first one is undeniable and the second is a matter of opinion. The solutions for both will be impractical to put into place because of lack of political will, complacency, and abstraction. For it is very difficult for a country to "pull together" in the face of "adversity" as we have seen recently and will no doubt continue to see.

The first report was from a blue ribbon panel and released in the star last week. Surprise, surprise, in spite of the wealth and abundance I have described in my bullet points, more people than ever in our prosperous nation would be getting "left behind". Meaning, welfare and social services are over-extended from increased usage and reduced capacity, food bank usage is at an all time high, housing is in a permanent state of "crisis" as it has been for decades, waiting lists years long across Ontario. The report doesn't tell you anything you don't already know, but it portrays the situation as being so critical that it, well, made it to the front page.

People are more sensitive and receptive to problems outlined in the report at this time of year, and all would agree that the conclusions in the report are unfortunate and shameful. But the response from politicians will only differ cosmetically, if they lowered themselves to responding at all which they most likely won’t. The right will say that the poverty is a result of the Liberals' free spending economic policies which made us poorer and they will reduce inequalities by "letting people keep more money in their pockets" (reducing government revenues - to address poverty - wtf?) and the Liberals will say it is past Conservative fiscal irresponsibility and favourtism towards the rich and big business which has created income disparity and class cleavages they have insufficient resources to address ( even though they are in the pocket of bug business themselves )

And the funny thing is both sides of full of crap because they both find money for whatever they want. It's all about priorities, right? Like my mom always says. We are told all year that spending to reduce poverty/provide basic needs is far off because of the "challenging environment" yet conservative and liberal politicians alike continue to collect lifetime gold plated pensions and don't have the least amount of shame placing themselves under this noble banner of serving the public. Like former Hydro One CEO Eleanor Clitheroe applying to increase her pension to 437,000$ but having it denied and stuck at 300 some odd K. Billions for six figure pensions, subsidies and bailouts, and maintaining the most expensive network of roads in the world (because of changing temperatures and salt) are all "untouchable" but we cannot afford the relatively modest sum that would be required to ensure no homelessness and an acceptable level of dignity for poor people.

On the other side of the perverse logic coin, comes a different kind of slap on the wrist for Canada. A more bizarre one,
especially considering the time of year, coming out of the big business-big idea -think tank camp. I'm talking about my favourite patriotic capitalist lobby group, the Conference Board of Canada, and another professional MBA logic shill, the cryptically named Ontario Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity. If you read this link or this one , you'll see the beef of these two organizations is that, in this land of enormous amounts of hoarded wealth, wasted human capital, and pilfered resources, is that we are not "productive" enough. We lack the "ambition" and "innovative mentality" necessary to become "global leaders". Worse, this "complacent attitude" makes us each $7,000 poorer than our American counterpart to the south. To hear these people tell it, our country is practically third world, for no other reason than it is full of lazy losers.

The best part is, like the banks in economic discussions before them, they place the responsibility to change this squarely on the shoulders of an entity that has no shape, size, unity or leadership. The "private sector". Government has done all it can, they say by cutting taxes, cutting corporate taxes, and harmonizing taxes, and now it is this mysterious, elusive "private sector" that must act decisively to "fuel growth and recovery". What a moronic copout. Who do they mean? Sheet metal fabrication plants? Convenience stores? Meat packing warehouses? Ikea? British-Isle inspired pub chains with overpriced deep fryer fare? See how idiotic it suddenly sounds when you try to browbeat these kinds of businesses into "stimulating the economy", ”hiring workers" and "spurning growth"? But they certainly are all part of the private sector.

It is once again ironic to note that the right derives much of its popularity and credibility from attacking "elites" as "ivory tower" and "out of touch". Yet here the emperor is revealed to have no clothes. Private sector enterprises run their businesses according to what their current business needs and cash flow requirements are and get little help from anybody. Ask any small business owners how they like dealing with various levels of bureaucracy of government "committed to helping small businesses". Do you think before Joe the mechanic goes to open his garage or Chan goes to open his fruit stand this morning that they are really going to change anything their doing because of the pronouncements of some stuffed suit giving them shit for not being "innovative" or having any "global ambition"? No, because you couldn't make more elite, out of touch, meaningless, esoteric statements if you tried.

What we need to be wary of at this and at all times of year are business lobbyists inoculating us with myths, like that we are worse off than the Americans because we are poor, complacent losers. Who tell us we earn 7K less a year because we are lazy, and because we place no value on education. Well, America only has one real education system and it is reserved for the elite who can afford to pay 50K a year plus to attend it. The rest of their education is a "pretend" education system that the "elite" don't take seriously and doesn't allow you to qualify for the 1% club that controls the capital and the gears of the economy and reaps most of the largesse of U.S. Corporate Profits, half of which are made outside its borders. America is on the way down precisely because there is no "middle class", another abstract term whose notion provides a bedrock that makes people feel secure, anymore to fall back on.


Innovation, the competitive think tank guy rightly states, is not the blackberry. The blackberry is an invention. Innovation is questioning the way things work in an organization and pushing to make things better, more logical, and more efficient. Well, I'm going to be a good innovator and question the metrics used to arrive at the figures used by the Con Board and Competitive Institute.

The "7k gap" is being measured by the rudimentary metric of GDP, the sum total of all the economic output of the nation divided by each citizen. It works out roughly to the average salary. Canada's is 38k and the U.S.' is 45k. What GDP fails to take into account is concentration of wealth; if there are 11 people living in country A and 10 make $10,000 a year and 1 makes 10 times as much, $100,000, country A's GDP clears 18k, giving the illusion that the 10 workers are worth almost twice what they are economically.

So if these people really want this country to be like America (and from the past 5, 10, 15, 25 years, I believe we can surmise that it is definitely already trending this way) where 20% control 80% of the wealth and 1% controls something like 35%, and they are pushing for this greed and exploitation (for what other forces could result in situation?) precisely at this time of year , I am telling them, as an innovative minded person, that it is not a good idea, it is not the route we want to go down, and if we know what is good for us we will not take them seriously.

That is my Christmas message. I hope it echoes many themes I have sought to explore on this blog. Our country is exceptional if only we knew how to keep things in perspective and administer it and its resources carefully and responsibly. That we think we can do whatever we want but are subservient to cartels who trick us, through the mainstream media, into thinking what is good for them is good for all of us. And that "the economy" that every leader drones on endlessly about like its going to save us actually leaves most of the world outside looking in, and with its pathological nature, is on its way to sending billions more to these ranks, until the day we are able to see things what they are, get back to what is real, and realize we are in control of our own destiny even when we feel powerless.

All the best for 2011. I hope to see you here then.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

MADD


It is the holiday season, so please don’t drink and drive. My title, however, has nothing to do with drunk driving, but rather seeks to co-opt the famous acronym of the mothers and apply it to a grand majority of Canadians. And my new acronym, Mortgage Attention Deficit Disorder, is not so much about what anybody is against as what they have trained themselves to forget and ignore: the stupendous amounts of debt that are now universally regarded as a fact of life here in Canada.

It seems that once again the ideals that we have been keen to use as a country to generalize about ourselves are misplaced: rather than a “prudent, conservative” fiscal nation, we would be a “greedy, speculative” one. A "stable" "rock-solid" economic environment, qualifiers that have been used to describe ours ad nauseum, is only so when people are capable of servicing their debt and willing to constantly part with their money in the hopes that the Bay Street-Central Bank-government cartel will take care of them and knows what its doing. I have brought this up repeatedly for awhile now, over the last many months during which which financial statistics on Canadian households have been quietly released by the bank of Canada a regular intervals.

Though it looks like this month, the fiscal manipulator in chief, Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, has finally sounded the alarm so loudly and so forcefully that the hankering debt issue has been brought out into the open. His comments have acted as ritalin to the hubris and sand-covered brains in our heads which have been the symptoms of MADD. So it was that the chief pushers of the bubble, the big five banks and their economists, plus all their minions in the press, were unwittingly launched into discussion in which they simultaneously philosophize about the governor's comments and demand explanations for them, which has been going on non stop in the two weeks since. The noise has been so steady throughout all the front pages that it almost feels redundant discussing it on a blog.

I am discussing it anyway, because I need to in the face of a lot of fearful and belligerent commentary that exists out there. Fearful that a veritable bubble has been inflated, belligerence that we will ride it forever into the sunset. Unfortunately, none of this is of much substance, because as usual, the heart of the problem remains unaddressed. Mr. Carney has two dilemmas to contend with. The first is that our great nation could never set an independent economic policy of its own and the best thing those that governed us could think of (beginning with Borden's "branch plant" policies of the teens but culminating with the Mulroney free trade regime of the 80s) was to chain us as an economic lackey to the great rocking and sinking ship of the south. One thing this does makes it difficult to export our commodities anywhere else, but a more important side effect to what we are discussing, is it makes our central bank to raise rates to curb runaway inflation speculation until US fed reserve chairman Ben "Bada-Bing" Bernanke does the same. Canada’s prime rate is already 75 basis points higher than the federal reserve, and some unknown mechanism prevents us from raising it much further.

Here’s the real rub though; no matter how dumb or how smart you are, I don’t know what you do in Carney’s predicament. Do you raise rates and make three million loans and mortgages go bad overnight (which would only punish the big five, so really, I’m all for it) or do you keep them low and watch as Canadians continue to take on debt at blistering levels (which a recent poll indicated they are more ready than ever to do)? Based on our recent experience as a country, we can say that this is something the citizens of this country have been more than happy to do up until now, and will only continue to do should the rates remain at their historic lows.

Either way, I'm probably not the best person to ask, since my skepticism of the "recovery" the public figures verbally dance around with such caution due to it being so "fragile" has only grown with time. I do think there is a lot of unworthy and bad debt in the system that it would probably be beneficial to wash out as soon as possible, but you can most likely count on the government to do just the opposite. Because the pre -conditions they are setting for themselves to do right and responsible things like curb speculation, reduce debt, and address inequality are almost sure to never materialize. Those preconditions being a return to "robust", "sustained" economic growth. Surely these people are smart enough to realize they are rigging this for colossal failure.

What would drive such a failure that would require the use of an outsize adjective like "colossal"? I think that is usually the scope of the problem when an entity (in this case, a nation state) realizes that it is engaged in reckless/self destructive behaviour but maintains its way of thinking in all of the solutions it comes up with. I believe economic growth would call for the economy increasing its value, so why do we think economic growth is possible when we've made real-estate speculation, a sector which adds little to no real value, such an integral part of the economic equation?

I want to come back here to these people I call the pushers, the best example of which I can think of is this real estate agent who writes a column in the free local here. I will share two of his profound insights. Here in Waterloo, with a large university-attending population, there are a good deal of clusters of absentee-owned, slumlord, student housing areas. When the government raised the capital requirements for owning secondary properties this year, this columnist lamented how what his slumlord client could once buy four properties with would now only land him two, which in turn halves his commissions and means "less money pouring back into the local economy". As if the local economy has any value added to it by some asshole whose sole role in it is trying to get rich by skimming the bubble that expands by successfully encouraging people to go in over their heads. Another even better one was when he was sitting at a bar and he overheard a pilot mulling over buying a house to two friends, but ultimately deciding against it due to ongoing overhead costs, concerns about an overinflated housing sector, and endless maintenance responsibility bullshit. The columnist wanted to grab the stranger by the collar and tell him his buddies were only trying to house-block him because they couldn't own themselves. Hidden message - "your friends are losers cause they don't own, so stop being dragged down by them." And his justification for his "house-block conspiracy"? His mantra of “It only trends upward”. This phrase making it in print at all is proof to me of either A) how deluded the collective mentality has allowed itself to become or B) how strapped independent newsrooms are for talent and content.

It's not just some small-time agent/broker with Trump Ego-sized delusions of grandeur that I'm worried about. It's Canada's cartel of banks that have facilitated the whole situation to evolve as it has, with the more cryptic and sombre declarations of celebrity CEOs transmitting the same messages in the business pages. TD CEO Ed Clark declared that if one bank actually wanted to cool down on blowing bubbles, the other four would "carve up" its (unworthy) client base. If the army of mortgage brokers, private lenders, and agents are the pushers, the banks are both the kingpin and an enabler to a population so vain it is convinced that home ownership is a privelege, a right, and rite of passage. If you leave North America, you discover that it is in fact none of these things. But the charade continues with all of the fervour and bustle of the drug trade where I borrowed the names of the interested parties from, for the same reason that it is very, very good business. Until a widespread contagion of cognizance materializes that makes the whole rotten bottom fall out.

Consider the observation this week that an average three bedroom house in the Vancouver area, the country's most "bubble-danger" real estate market, now would cost you $600,000. So first, you have to save $165,000, at which point you would qualify for a 25 year mortgage at $2,700 a month. That is calculated at today's historically low rates, which have nowhere to go but up, plus untold thousands in rising taxes, junk fees, renos, upgrades, maintenance, and on and on and on.

It's not that I'm ideologically opposed to owning, it's that we could have avoided such a patently absurd proposition to people the future foundation of society is supposed to rest on. Financial institutions and the government should be rewarding a young family starting out or a responsible individual for earning and accumulating real capital to invest by telling them they are sorry, but they won't lend to them until they come up with enough money to prove that they are serious about developing financially responsible habits. Of course it is impossible to say this now, but if it had been done at the outset, it would have kept prices reasonable and assured that they rose at a sustainable pace. Instead, we've created a situation where you have an enormous amount of the population living paycheque to paycheque servicing debt in the hope that the worth of what that debt represents "will only trend upward" and the government will subsidize their lifestyle through low rates and tax breaks. It's not surprising since the government manages its finances the same way; it is surprising that in light of that the Prime Minister has the gall to tell Canadians to "manage their affaires soundly" after presiding over and facilitating the biggest real estate bubble in Canadian history, 2006-present.

While Mr. Carney's warnings may enable him in the future to say "I told you so", people will not forgive him for not taking more active steps to save them from themselves. Which he will be forced to do anyway by raising rates. This is where people who did not have the financial literacy tools to live within their means will be punished, and not necessarily deserve it. Just as a one size fits all school system often "fails" people with learning disabilities who are only themselves able to realize this much later on. The only thing the MADDs will be guilty of is believing that a 148% indebtedness rate (US pre-crash peak: 162%) was "normal" and it was worthy price to belong to the 70% homeowning majority segment of the population (US pre-crash peak: 67%).

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Edge of Darkness and Where Wikileaks Shone a Light

Recently on a trip to Port Alberni, British Columbia, a town which seemed like a dreary and depressing place on the winter day I was there, I was recommended a film. It happened while we were combatting the surroundings by browsing the shelves of the local video store. Fortunately for the townspeople, this was no run of the mill establishment; they are blessed with a stellar independent video store. The owner (I've never seen this before, and I've been to a lot of video stroes) even cares enough to put recommendations inside the shelf copy covers of the movies, and I could tell he had unusually good taste.

We didn't end up renting anything because we didn't have the current phone number for the town resident whose house we were staying at. However, one title did stick with me, and I made sure I rented it when I got home. My gym rents out movies for free, mostly bad formula-crap but also the occasional gem that performed poorly at the box office and must be cheap to licence. I suspect this perk is to thank the members of a club that otherwise has low enrollment, possibly due to being located in the less frequented downtown section of another dreary town, Kitchener. Sorry, I digress. I knew the film was there, and walked by it a dozen times before seeing the video shop owner's unlikely recommendation. It was Mel Gibson's Edge Of Darkness

Why had I ignored this film? Well, despite heavily guarding my mind against mainstream media tripe and brainwashing, I cannot have a 1.000 Goals Against Average. It seems a flubbing shot with the message that Mel Gibson is crazy, unstable, and off the deep end had slipped past my mental knee pads and lodged itself in the net of my cerebral cortex. This allowed my brain (which is obviously occupied with a million other things) to make the simple dismissive computation: Mel G x allegations of abuse/unstable behaviour + history of saying wacky shit = obvious wack job therefore latest project waste of time.

Nevermind that the man has had a great career and I have greatly enjoyed much of what he's been involved with in the past (apart from Passion Of the Christ, which I refused to watch). The media managed to rob my abilities to judge for myself by stealth. How? By the same means they always employ when it comes to discrediting people. By smearing, insinuating, and embarrassing the person in question, while lining him up for the ultimate softball lob to smack out of the park once and for all - "crazy" and "unstable". It has nothing to do with the person's actual situation or mental state (see Toronto, erratic mayor of) as much as them deciding when people are going to stop taking you seriously.

It is ironic that this happened to me over this particular film, because it turned out to be quite good. If a character judgement of Mel Gibson has been preventing you from seeing it, I suggest you drop it and give it a watch. Gibson in fact still has the ability to act. The film deals quite adeptly with the story of a single main character with integrity trying to expose the evil deeds of a large, multifaceted, secretive consortium type entity (and apart from the slight cheese veneer of him doing this for entirely personal, noble reasons, it works quite well). Gibson plays a cop trying to simultaneously expose and outmanoeuver a massive government/defence contractor/shadowy operator machine that is playing all kinds of dangerous games by manufacturing nuclear weapons in the U.S. which will have the appear of belonging to other nations. They murder his daughter for imminently threatening to expose this, and he is the one man wrecking crew hot on their tails. So yes, the man against evil machine narrative is very entertaining once the film gets going, if you can suspend your disbelief about its unlikeliness. The unstable Gibson also delivers a rock solid performance that carries a film otherwise populated by a bunch of mostly capable but unknown actors. What is unbelievable about the film is the powers that be (a CEO, a senator, hitmen)'s struggle to keep a lid on their sinister machinations, and their clumsy ineptness once the cat gets out of the bag.

The irony I mentioned is also that its not so unbelievable anymore, with rise of Wikileaks and the viral fame of Julian Assange, who is also now the target of a mainstream media takedown campaign. It has been nothing less than hilarious to watch public figures for the last couple of weeks clam up and sputter while eggs fell on their faces. The site has been up and running for awhile, and gaining notoriety for exposing such widely known facts as civilians were killed in Iraq, publicly crushing the ambiguity and lies of the official American line once and for all. It recently went "too far" when it exposed the United States to be a highly paranoid and megalomaniacal nation, obsessed with its enemies and the direction of any other sovereign nation, including its closest "allies". Other leaks included comments by a spy agency director at one of the said allies. The head of Canada's FBI-CIA wannabe clone, CSIS, went as far to accuse the people who handed the prison buildin', war in afghanistan wagin', mandatory minimum sentence hankerin' Harper conservatives two straight governments of having an "Alice in Wonderland worldview".

The past leaks involving more serious matters give pause for lament and reflection; the bluster and indignation of people in power following their private conversations being exposed is as delectable as it is predictable.

Their anger is probably due to having their bubble of the appearance of wisdom and infallibility punctured, losing even more of a dwindling number of people who continue to take them seriously, and especially, especially, having it out in the open that they are a bunch of lying, backstabbing, scheming goddamn nincompoops who aren't to be trusted as far as they can be thrown. Again, for the few concerned who did not think that already.

The juicy stuff from the leaks can be followed in a mainstream-media approved, in pictures slideshow here, and typical middle aged anger at Assange for "preventing people in power from doing their very important jobs by embarassing them with sideshows they have no power to defend themselves against (because they said these things) is here. I don't understand how people who usually don't hesistate to weigh in on issues of concern with untold amounts of moral authority are suddenly depending public figures who are supposed to be conducting themselves with integrity at all times against someone who has no public mandate to anyone.

And what do we learn in these leaks, really? That the group of politicians who gather at the G20, with the very serious demeanour they project while they talk about promoting democracy and managing the economy, talk shit about each other and make snide comments behind each others backs. That an oil company has an outsize amount of control over Nigeria's government. That the Mugabes are rich off their impoverished country's diamonds. Who would be surprised by such revelations? In most people I know they would prompt at best a shrug.

But the establishment does not take kindly to being exposed as foolish or worse, human, and so you have all their defenders trying to take down Assange now and even the Canadian political commentator Tom Flanagan saying he should be assassinated.

The diplomatic cables are not the massive international evil conspiracy that Assange would have exposed if he was a character in a Hollywood movie. It is nevertheless not total banality to find out that in the great International High School, America is the annoying type A class president who doesn't like the Russian bully Prime Minister, or the hard partying womanizing septugenarian Italian Prime Minister, but also derides its Canadian butt boy for having an "inferiority complex" and gets its female executive member to pull some mean girls shit on the female president of Argentina by asking if shes medicated and calling her mental stability into question.

What we are left with is the impression that these leaks represent a huge inconvenience. As people in power prefer things to be as predictable and reliable as possible, including details we may find inconsequential, this inconvenience would best be removed and shut down as soon as possible. Finding out what we've found out may not be so bad after all, but the people in power do not see it that way. Remember, they got where they were less because of their nice smiles and pleasant appearances than because of their ruthless, obsessive micromanaging. So the movement to discredit and take out Assange as a factor has begun in earnest. He has some rape charges to face in Sweden. Its all in the link above; I don't think there's anything there. That article does describe him as a "rockstar" which means anybody who supports him is a deluded follower who can't think for themselves. The charges are a stain on his personal character that can now be used to discredit him. Worst of all, the mission of his life and some past things he wrote define him as an "anarchist". This is one of the worst labels that can be applied to one now, along with crazy and unstable, because its defines one as being so alienated from the status quo that ones undermines it. I doubt Assange will be able to take down the establishment with the amount of firepower Mel Gibson does in Edge of Darkness. What will be interesting to see is what tactics are henceforth used to try and silence him forever now that he is a very public figure.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Green Technology is Green, Alright


Although not the green you're thinking. It's green at the serious business capitalist game. As in untested, inexperienced, disappointing, and feeble. Totally in over it's head. The kind of "green" one describes oneself as in the early days of ones career.

Started 3-4 years ago and trumpeted earnestly with the onset of the '08 crash, the promises of ethanol, biogas, biomass, wind, solar, hydrogen and other various "green technologies" were seen as the key to fuelling the next wave of economic growth, solving the problems making the earth's ecological system burst at the seams with pain, and gainfully employing millions of disenfranchised, unskilled, out of work middle aged workers. I'm not going to lie and say that I wasn't optimistic, that I didn't see a lot of promise in the scenario. But the dream is dead, hopelessly, rottenly dead.

Nobody is more ideologically blunt about this than Terence Cocoran in the National Post who lays down some painful, brutal, truth in his article that I can't deny: As long as oil, gas, and coal are available, Russia, China, and India will be eagerly gobbling them up. Gasoline consumption is also expected to rise in North America. Yikes. How is that even possible?

It's really not a surprise. Methods of recovering these resources and extracting energy from them are proven and the networks to deliver them are in place. Terry even thumbs up his nose at nuclear, too risky, too high maintenance, too expensive, he says.

Over at the business network, the guy they had on today to give his analysis and picks had a pretty good investor track record over the last five years. In fact, he had beaten the markets regularly. This is not an investment column but I will give you two of his main money makers - an auto-loan finance company for high-risk borrowers that finances cars with built in GPS that ground them immediately when they go deadbeat on the loan, and a coal company. He also is into banks, who invest heavily in the dirty resources, because they are profitable. His biggest frown on the program? A biogas company in Saskatoon. Overvalued, because tons of capital had been sunk into it and who knew if it would ever produce any considerable amounts of energy or even be profitable.

The promise of the new decade and the optimism of new possibilities have quickly faded into a gruff, sinister, back to the dirty work vibe. Green technologies were never anything more than a cute sideshow, a grade 8 science project, and a feel good paragraph in the hollow speeches of well-meaning politicians. It doesn't mean I don't wish they could compete with bad stuff - I think if they could, we'd already be onto them en masse. But it does mean that governments and business have grown tired of the charade and have gone back to the dirty stuff they never left in earnest - even though we can all agree that this stuff has finite limits to its supply, and terrible consequences when it is burned in large quantities.

Green technology did not fail because it doesn't work or because the people working in the sector aren't smart. It fails because it will simply not produce anything close to the scale that would be needed to provide a viable alternative to our current oil coal gas and uranium burning system. The autos can't be mass produced, the energy can't be stored and moved, and the power grid will keep whirring along on the energy it constantly burns through every day. The use of the clean stuff will never get over 5%, and people need to get away from the idea that some elaborate technology is going to save the earth, because that's the same damn thinking that got us into the unsustainable rolling off a cliff humanity is taking. Trying to take on fossil fuels in 2010 with hazy promises of solar cars and wind planes is like an anorexic 14 year old getting in the ring with Mike Tyson in his prime. They're laughing so hard all the way to the bank that they can even afford to waste money on hilarious joke ads about carbon capture, clean coal, and biodiversity. There's no way of even knowing if this is a good investment - the people who care won't believe them and the people who don't care will never see them and, well, don't care. Mike Tyson was always a little bit twisted and sadistic, which I feel describes the behaviour behind these ads.

Rather than wasting time and resources trying to convince people of the benefits of "smart" power (what is smart about something that allows you to feel good about yourself and a few other people to get rich - hybrid cars, carbon credits, bullfrog power - but is inaccessible to most, is not a mass solution, and does nothing to address the fundamental issue of dirty resource dependence?), why don't we encourage people to do a little more of what the future, sooner or later, will really hold? Go "no" power. Because the people pounding on the table to let us at the rest of the fossil fuels and coal with battering rams will refuse to understand the implications of burning through the remaining amounts of these materials at record rates even as the waterways choke, the atmosphere chokes, the soil turns to junk, and industrial agriculture collapses. I don't know which one of these things will happen first, the stuff running out or the earth pushing back. But when it does, we are going back to walking, fire, villages, and scavenging. And I don't know whose face will be funnier - the mean bespectacled white hair capitalists who thought the planet would take being shit on forever or the misty eyed "liberal" dreamers who thought we'd be whizzing around jetsons style on light speed green technology.

Anyway, I'm trying to rely on the dirty stuff as little as possible today. Not continuing to use it while counting on someone else to phase it out. If we starve the dirty bastards, which we have the power to do, we have a hell of a lot better shot than clinging to heavily subsidized techie daydreams. Presidents can take turns putting solar panels on the white house only to have the next one take them off until the cows come home - it just distracts us from the real problem, which is consumption of the bad stuff itself. I stumbled across the quote that follows today, and I believe it remains a prevelant view at the heart of many of our problems today

"Not being the offspring of a family with any claim to distinction, not coming from a background I felt any need to live up to, or live down to, I have always been impatient with those who express emotional attachment to the past. Man might not yet be perfect, but it suited me to think he was better than he had ever been. The belief that he was once wiser and kinder, more courageous and more beautiful, that he once has instinctive understanding we have lost, I dismissed as sentimental myth." - M. Ebbitt Cutler, 1967

I wasn't really surprised when I finished reading this statement that I related to the first part of it and disagreed entirely with the second. But I don' think we will get back to that "sentimental myth" until the fact that we are being forced to is staring us in the face and weighing on us like the ass of two ton gorilla.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Lunch Pail Revolution

Don Cherry's appeal as a public persona is his brashness and his frank opinions. I understand that. That is why I enjoy his hockey commentary on Coach's Corner, where he has found an interesting niche role to occupy for the past thirty or so years, and tune in whenever I happen to be near it on Saturday night. Despite being a lousy-to-average player, coach, and owner during his lifetime, Don is an unmistakeable authority on the goings-on of the NHL and very few people with an interest in professional hockey in Canada will say otherwise.

However, in the last few years I have noticed that he has been more and more keen to wade in to the political arena with the same loudmouth stuff he does on HNIC. Whether his high profile will result in the widespread acceptance of the nonsense he's been talking or not is out of my control, but it is so outrageous that I have taken to the blog here to respond to it. Don, I can forgive you for deliberately mispronouncing Russian players names and for the occasional disparaging insinuation that European and Quebec players are "soft". But when I read your comments in yesterday's Star when it was revealed you would be Rob Ford's special guest at his first council meeting, I had to personally take issue with what you said, because it is complete bullshit, and politics is a way more serious matter than hockey.

It's all in the link, so I won't bother transcribing. The quote that got me, if you haven't already guessed by my title, is this one:

“I’m happy — it seems things are shifting around a bit to the right, with Julian Fantino getting elected, and Rob,” Cherry said.

“People are sick of the elites and artsy people running the show. It’s time for some lunch pail, blue-collar people.”

Lunch pail people. Blue collar. That's real tough, Don. Real profond. What does it take to join your national association of "lunch pail people"? Do I not qualify because I bring my lunch to work in tupperwares, in a plastic bag, in my backpack? I guess in your world, the real man brings his lunch pail in the morning when he goes off to the factory. When his dutiful housewife gives it to him and gives him a pat on the shoulder, before it swings in his hand on his way to his pickup or SUV or mustang. Of course he didn't make the lunch himself, that would be too girly. He was just doing what he was supposed to be doing the night before, watching sports on the couch. Cause he's just your regular, average, hard-working joe. Not like those "elites" who eat foie gras and sip red wine down at the bistro at lunch every day, before they stop for some grey poupon and sprouts at the organic health food store on the way home. Thank god we've woken up and thrown these scum out of power!

I'm not shocked by your politics, Don. I knew exactly what they were. And I've stayed quiet while you called our country a "disgrace" for not going to Iraq in 2003, while you expressed your admiration for Stephen Harper by calling him the names for your two most dear types of hockey players, a "grinder and a mucker" and even while you've turned your segment into an almost full time shill for the Canadian Forces. But your use of this lunch pail term is way off for two reasons.

First, there's a lot more to the term "Lunch Pail" than it would initially appear. I see it as a code word you're using to talk to a core constituency you've embraced: The lower to middle class people who think they're oppressed. Those who are manipulated into being angry by talk radio, the Sun, and all the exaggerated and vitriolic statements laden with ridiculous terms that shameless politicians use to speak for the collective. I don't understand how politicians can with straight faces use broad and vague terms like "Canadians", "Ontarians", "Residents", "Taxpayers", or my personal favourite, which Ontario PC Tim Hudak uses with tourette-level frequency, "Hard-working families" to speak for millions of people they have never seen, talked to, or met in their lives. The use of those terms tends to be ignored for two reasons: noone is listening and they are bland, overused, and meaningless. Don, however, has never been one for dullness or not making a splash, whether its with his language or his suits, and the lunch pail reference is where we finally have to call bullshit. If for no other reason than we do not need a demographic now identifying themselves as "lunch pail".

Especially when the lunch pail people's spokeperson/advocate is a guy who makes $650,000 a year, 100% Canadian taxpayer funded, to rant about Hockey for five minutes on Saturday for 8 months of the year! Do you not see Don, how your flippant comments make you look like the biggest fool/hypocrite in recent memory? Where is your lunch pail, Don? Where do you eat lunch? It sounds like you're at home most days at lunchtime, no, wait, make that every day! If you're not an "elite", I don't know who is.

And that is my second beef, Don. The company you place yourself in with your political support is hardly any more in the "lunch pail" league than you. I've noted in a previous column how Fantino, who now will be making 155K a year as an MP + lifetime pension and benefits, is the furthest thing from lunch pail that exists having earned multiple six figures for decades as a police chief. Rob Ford is maybe a little better, his father being a career politican, his family having built a successful printing business before he came along, and he's been making 85K at council for 10 years and now is bumped up to 155K as mayor. Is this the "blue collar" crowd you're referring to, Don? Your "grinder and mucker" prime minister is a lifetime public servant and has a master's degree in economics. Do you think the uneducated, laid off manufacturing worker or auto worker on reduced hours can relate to you and your friends' iron-clad protected lifelong incomes on the public dollar?

Enough questions. All the above inconvenient facts aside, you say in the article that the lunchpailers understand you and Ford because "you speak the people's language". Again, you cast your net way too wide and what you meant, I believe, is that you speak the language of the white, middle-aged, dis-affected, faux-oppressed, rural dweller or suburbanite. And it is a shame that they let you get away with desecrating the intellectual fortitude and relevant discourse that exists within the conservative movement with your wannabe populist pandering. The North-American right on both sides of the border that blasts the "elites", "liberals" and "ivory tower" are nothing more than oppurtunists debasing and doing disservice to the credible, very smart conservative people who are advancing the public discourse. People who could even be considered - horror! - elites

Conrad Black has continued to publish in the National Post throughout his whole court process and prison term. An unabashed right-leaning public figure, he has presented compelling arguments for decriminializing weed and overhauling the tax system that go directly against the "tough on crime, status quo" agenda we have in the Canadian federal government. He has been a Lord in Britain, and his use of hundred dollar words is dizzying and rampant. He is...gasp...an elite.

David Frum, the son of the famous Canadian broadcaster Barbara, studied at Yale and wrote speeches for President Bush, who is now a republican strategist, is about as convinced of a conservative true believer as I can think of. He is ivy league educated, has lived outside the country for many years, and has written several books. Sound like a certain "out of touch, elite, un-Canadian, snob" opposition leader the conservatives have been attacking on the taxpayer funded propoganda they've been filling your mailbox with for the last couple years.

William F. Buckley Jr., Samuel P. Huntington, Tom Flanagan and Barry Cooper, profs at U of Calgary and members of the "Calgary school" that formed Stephen Harper and Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith, William Watson at McGill, and I could go on all night, are or were all scholars. They all have or have had above average vocabularies, graduate degrees, published bodies of work, and incomes well above average and at least partly taxpayer funded. And there is one thing to be noted here, which is that they are all part of the conservative movement, and they are all "elites" according to the anti-intellectual witch-hunting that is going on in that movement right now. These are the people in the movement whose opinions I may not always agree with, but whom I respect for their intellectual rigour and articulate arguments, especially on subjects like getting rid of wasteful spending, efficient bureaucracy, and holding public officials accountable. They are the people whose work and credentials conservatives in Canada are happy to base their credibility on and get into power with. Then to maintain power they turn their backs on these ideas with stuff like this and engage in the worst kind of pandering to ignorance and stupidity. Which is precisely what they are doing when they talk about "lunch pail people" or the "tim hortons crowd" or "regular hardworking families", and why I cringe so much to hear it from Don Cherry or anybody else.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The (Lame) Name Game

As I perused the major economic news stories of the last couple weeks, which have revolved around the recent dominant issues of foreign and sovereign debt, currency wars, and quantitative easing, one thing struck me. When world finance ministers, central bankers, and financial columnists try to hide what amounts to trickery and manipulation behind jargon, rhetoric, implied clairvoyance, and reassurance, we are too often predisposed to take them seriously. Perhaps we are intimidated by their imposing suits with snazzy ties. Or maybe it is the bravado and (they hope) gravitas of their tone, and their (less and less) sophisticated lingo. And I think this could be what prevents the legitimate calling into question of current national and global economic systems and structures. However, it is becoming clear to more and more people that these subjects represent cracks in the capitalist foundation, fractures developing in the areas where it is fatally flawed.

Let’s pull back the suits and the lingo. What are these people really hiding behind? What do the finance ministers of Canada, the treasury secretary of the U.S., and the European Central Bank have in common? They are all in charge of deeply indebted nations’ economic departments. The governments they are a part of currently don’t collect enough taxes to stay in the black, let alone to begin tackling that debt. They are too timid to raise taxes, or appropriate the vast unproductive piles of their nations’ private wealth sitting mostly in the hands of a miniscule part of the population (1-5%). If everybody knows this, and they should because its not like I’m an investigative journalist, then why are the markets, public finances, and the citizens of these “rich” nations continuing to listen to the garble of the elite transmitted by the MSM?

If we are to imagine states as autonomous actors, flag coloured bubbles floating around in a chamber, which is the simplest thing to do when talking about country’s inter-economic relations, then what is causing certain ones to dominate the headlines so much? Imagine the bubbles are all of equal size, just as the country’s flags are all of equal size. How does that green, white, and orange one, the same size as the rest on paper but of course representing a small country with a few million people and not much economy besides old stone buildings, a shattered real estate bubble, and booze cause so much havoc? And why is it still so damn expensive there if the economy is so bad?

It is, broadly put, a case of no nations being created equal, even if we managed to give them equally sized flags. The point of the U.N. and perhaps these flags is to give the impression that each nation is sovereign and legitimate, that each nation has a voice. But with Europe’s recent troubles, we are seeing the international community divide the continent into “productive” and “deadbeat” categories in order to call its ‘strong’ currency into question. The two smallest of the so called “PIIGS” five of countries at the heart of the issue, Ireland and Greece, have already needed bailouts. These have come from Germany, fit as a fiddle from all its “poomping eecunumic eye-yarn”. The common currency answers why Germany should care and spend its hard earned euros it earned from selling luxury cars and knives to two nations who were in hock so many euros that “default” was imminent. The “bailout”, finally, is not one for the citizens of these nations who cannot find work because there is nowhere to work (even though they still probably have way more fun and are way happier than most people in North America) but for banks to reassure investors and bondholders who hold these nations’ government issued bonds (which is a major cashflow source for all “rich country” governments). Hence why Ireland is “bailed out” but not anymore “affordable”. Because obviously affordability and standards of living are the last things on the international bond market’s minds.

All this “rescue” may be normal and expected by the international community, but you can bet the German nation is angrily gritting its teeth. That is why we are getting to the point where thei G20’s international photo-ops at summits, meetings, and press conferences all worthy of a UN-sponsored toothpaste ad turn into a wallpaper façade on top of the name-calling and acrimony, which can no longer be prevented from surfacing and dissipating into the MSM. If their scared to do it publicly we can just find out from wikileaks now what they really think. These meetings that concern only the international power brokers and are only taken seriously by them can no longer even provide an illusion of legitimacy when it is revealed that each actor is only out for itself (not that they have ever not been, but only in the 20th century when broadcasts to the whole world became commonplace did they feel the need to display this fake “one for all” attitude) . In simple terms, they are committed to a “united front” to focus on “global economic recovery” until these things called “national interests” trump those meaningless platitudes. Then, possibly to score points with its own electorate or the stock markets or some combination then therof, the gloves come off and governments accuse each other of sabotage, deceit, and selfishness. They express “frustration” and “doubt”. In other words, they start to resemble the paternal, rational “father figures” whose “cooler heads prevailed” during the fraudulent and dubious “stimulus/recovery” exercise that “saved” capitalism less, and make me think of a kindergarten classroom or schoolyard playground a lot more. With their ideas increasingly being exposed as obsolete, they resort to the ultimate childish behaviour: name calling, tattle-taleing, and squabbling. But before the mud really starts to fly, we will have to endure through another childish tendancy for some time still: endless repetition. Children can run in circles yelling the same phrase or spend hours singing the same song and quite enjoy themselves: it is a way their young minds develop. Adults, of course, must steel themselves to participate in this test very tedious to their grown minds and not show their irritation. But one loses patience when one witnesses the financial power elite and mainstream media engaged in this type of behaviour. They are reminded of a bunch of kids dancing around with different flags to Sharon, Lois and Bram’s “The Name Game”. They all took turns singing a verse out of this song, with the same mind numbing results as when you rocked out to that cassette in pre-school.

China!
China china bo china banana bana bo china, un peg the yuan and let it rise china, fee fi fo china – china…
America!
U-S U-S bo U-S bo U-S banana bana bo U.S., stop printing fake money U.S. fee fi fo U.S – U.S..
Germany!
German german bo german bailout europe and stop scaring bondholders german fee fi fo german. German!

Because the inherent futility of trying to manage the “global economy” from sporadic heavily guarded closed door meetings prevents any visible solutions to economic woes from being realized, other dominant economic nations are now lashing out. The tepid growth and deadbeat account balances of most Western nations, who are still as “rich” nations absurdly counted on to fuel global growth, has created a prolonged stasis that the attendees of these name calling sessions have to pretend they are working very hard to pull us out of. A chief source of frustration is the biggest debtor nation in history, the most deadbeat nation of all, America, led by its two international financial superstars in chief, Geithner and Bernanke, still “leading” and “dominating” the discussion. China and Germany are still very dependent upon the situation in the U.S., not least by its currency representing the global reserve, so they are surely annoyed at having to accommodate this. They have to try and out-earn and out-work America with real economic productivity while the two hotshots at the treasury and the fed play their last card with as much dramatic flair as possible, printing money (referred to in the news as the QE2 experiment). Rather than boost its exports, increase its productivity, or invest in its education, America’s economic reforms are to nationalize its mortgage debt and all the rotten derivatives that stemmed out of it and put more money it doesn’t have in circulation. And as much as the world would love to tell them to go to hell, it is in too deep itself to try. So thinly veiled attacks are issued in speeches and announcements, and America is more than happy to respond in kind to a war of trash-talking and rhetoric. The thing is, America is very, very much alone in the world today believing its own hype and intellectually defending the credibility of its own machinations. But when it has resorted to naming China as a source of its economic problems, it is engaging in the worst kind of name calling - trying to divert focus off of itself in the minds of the ignorant and onto a foreign, competitive country that has only been too happy to take advantage of the mutually destructive arrangement America offered it on a silver platter – what James Howard Kunstler referred to in his last post as the “China-Walmart conveyor belt”.

America does not have to feel so pathetic yet because It is much obliged by the cheerleading, rah-rah English-speaking MSM and conservative blogosphere. All eyes are on the fed chairman for the wrong reasons, they say, who is just doing what he has to do because he doesn’t have a choice. The last two entries of York professor Fred Lazar’s blog on globalbrief.ca summed up the majority of Western media’s defences of the Fed and its head quite well for me; he lashed out at the countries criticizing America’s monetary policy as “crybabies” and he derided all those critical of Bernanke and co as “critics” who had nothing productive to contribute to the discussion. Everyone else should just shut up and wait while the grandest embezzler in the world figures out a new way to placate and pacify its impoverished and disenfrancishised population to believe in an even more crooked and warped pretzel twist of the terms “growth” and prosperity”. It has rightly been stated recently that a greater portion of the world’s population has better access to food, water, education, and government services than at any time in history. The media knows that and because reality checks and market forces are now outlawed, wishes the bankers and governments to continue on this off the rails train of borrowing, rate manipulation and bailouts because they believe and want us to believe that constant economic growth must occur by any means necessary. It is this thinking that the party can last forever and sacrifices no longer need to be made that I so deplore: if we don’t get back to understanding that we cannot expect for things to get better all the time then shocks that we could have easily prepared for will be so much more painful for everyone

It is all very complicated, isn’t it? I have a headache just thinking about it. I do admire some of what the economic paradigm of the last hundred years has been able to accomplish for certain impovershed parts of the world. But to believe that statistic and to leave it there is to ignore the greatest amount swindling, book cooking, fraud and exploitation it took to get there, and the untold future widespread practice of these sins the elite have planned. Crashes are deserved by masses who have consented to let themselves be mindlessly “led” by this black cadilllac escalade convoy of fools. There is a solution, though. A simple solution. One solution that will make dominoes fall, allow us to see the shiny suits and exaggerated smiles for what they areally are, and more importantly our economic situation for what its really is, and put an end to name calling once and for all.

NO MORE BAILOUTS NOT FOR ANYBODY NOT EVER!

For we must ask ourselves: who are we really bailing out, and what are we bailing them out of? The smug columnists who defend a bizarre and imploding status quo by appealing to people’s comfort in it while ignoring the debilitating economic conditions that necessitate bailouts tend not to specify that, only assuring us that it is absolutely vital and warning us of the perils of listening to the “doomsayers” and “collapsitarians”. They cannot face their own uncomfortableness with the flawed and perverse logic of Keynesian bailoutism, even though they know it is wrong and against their convictions. For if they did, they might see the situation through the smoke and mirrors for what it really is.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Slow Killing of Finance...by Personal Finance Columnists

Are political blogs getting a little heavy for you these days? Is pondering quantitative easing and resource shortages giving you headaches? How about a little bit of fun stuff about the status quo today? Let's talk personal finance, like the many personal finance columnists whose expert opinions we heed. I want to explain today a revelation I had, which is that the personal finance people in the business section, the columnists in magazines, and the scores of authors who've made mints telling you how to think rich, get rich, stay rich, and explaining why they're already rich and you're not, are in fact seriously undermining our capitalist system.

At first glance, you may think these people are the ones who are going to be the last ones standing after the dynamiting of the North American debt mountain range, fighting tooth and nail to the death to defend the current status quo. After all, their living depends on educating you how to succeed in it; credit ratings, investing, rate shopping, "getting ahead", etc. But when you take a closer look, it turns out that these people would be active contributors to such a scenario. If oil depletion, a motherload of inflation to end all inflation, and a population that keeps on growing are all potential ticking time bombs waiting to kickstart earth capitalism's death spiral with giant explosions, then the army of authors, columnists, and TV personalities who advise to live within ones own means are a slow leak of chinese water torture, chipping away at the fragile shell of debt the system created for itself to feed off of that requires massive amounts of people to live beyond their means. Even though this responsibility-advocating battalion generally avoids heady and macro-scale themes, the small changes that the vast majority of them propose people to make in their lives and the prudence and deliberation they propose people exercise would, I'm convinced, wreak enough havoc on the system to do it in. Let's look at four common pillars of advice in the financial advice world, that, if truly followed en masse, would seriously undermine the stability of the whole proposition of western society long before the time bombs even got down to their last ticks.

1)Save your money
2)Make A Budget
3)Shop Around
4)Justify each purchase with a cost/benefit analysis

Oh, but everyone already agrees, you say. How could they not? These are principles intrinsic to thousands of years of human cultural heritage. This is not some ill-advised collapsitarian rant solution, wading into the hazy untested ideas of eco-taxes and fines for polluters that make people so uncomfortable. They are simple, basic common sense ideas, admirably manifested in hundreds of different cultures on earth. Maybe they make you think of your prosperous parents, or your frugal grandparents. In any case, with so many parents and grandparents and cultures in Canada, surely we must already be doing these things and I am exaggerating about the gravity of our profilgacy.

Only if the numbers I've been given are unreliable. Considering I've got them from the BoC, the Real Estate Board, and big banks, which are financial entities that have interest in perpetuating the current status quo if there are any, I don't see why they would be. They wouldn't be sounding alarm bells unless they had a legitimate reason to. And they are. We have become a nation of goddamned debt addicts. The worst part is we can't even be upfront about it: the warnings are ignored as if they were in a different language. The denial is like that of suburban fathers you hear about but never think you know personally who have severe gambling and/or prostitutes on the side. When it comes to finance, that's what we resemble. Like those dads, we're on our high horse in public: at church on Sunday, at the kids sport activity on the weeknight, at family dinner. Look at that subprime bubble, we write to the editor, look at that unregulated American economy that led to all that meltdown madness, a commentator says on TV. No wonder, they were giving unemployed people 500,000$ mortgages, someone posts on a comment board. Canada, when its citizens believe its own hype, is the hypocritical, sanctimonious, preachy subruban dad, when it comes to finance. It has the most to learn from the dollars and cents type of columnists of any nation.

The numbers really don't bear out our attitude. While we pat ourselves on the back knowing the big five would not engage in the foolhardy madness of stories like the one about the mexican strawberry picker with the $750,000 mortgage, which only could have finished by becoming popularized, we shy away from our own backyard. Nobody wants to admit it publicly or to each other. That's why the comment boards are awash in the redundant observations about and comparisons to America. Nobody's coming forward and saying they belong to the something like 82% of the Canadian population who would be totally screwed if they missed a single paycheque. On November 8th, for the first time, it was reported that Canadian real estate debt topped a trillion dollars. Would we really have gotten there if anybody was listening to the sage musings of our advisor friends? Of course not, and therein lies the folly of our schadenfraude.

You have to really hit rock bottom sometimes to come out on the better end of things. So while Americans gorged on easy mortgages, easy borrowing against those mortgages, easy credit cards, and easy car leases, they are now tapped out, and the savings rate has apparently gone from 0 - 6% in less than two years. Up here, meanwhile, we don't seem capable to stop blathering about the strength of our economy and the stability of our banking system while our public and private indebtedness soars to first place in the West and the developed world. We are unlike America, which is flushing out its fraud and rot from the financial system for better or for worse, likely taking a fair bit more pain on the way down, because the jig is up. Instead, we have become an East-German style closet case, where everyone was denouncing their best friends to the Stasi as traitors out of paranoid fear of being accused themselves. Sure there's no stasi, but are we not maintaining the same illusion of virtue and irreproachability by letting our pathetic government proclaim its doing "a great job of managing the economy" and by other levels of governments endlessly putting off any tough decisions or changes that need to be made because of some half-baked "recovery" they think is going to put everyone back on top? Isn't this speculation on the future and disconnect with real what brought on the crash of '08 to the south, which we are so smug in our perceived avoidance of? Our need to talk this way, or at least absorb these messages from the media, points to a fear to address the underlying structures and nut and bolts of our economy, which is entirely reliant on heavy duty indebetedness. Unless enough people come across four main personal finance messages, which would derail the fraudulent façade and get us back to old-style, living with means, sacrifice making real economy. It would subvert the constant going deeper in debt the banks, monetary policy setters, and governments tell us is needed to get back to growth.

1)Save your money


People these days don't really have motivation to save money to begin with, and when the government further disincentivizes this action by making not pay any interest, it drives them to "conventional" wisdom about "traditional" wealth building strategies like real estate, the stock market, etc. There is a very deliberate strategy behind this; it directs people to funnel all their economic productivity to the bubbles that the government hopes continue to balloon to maintain the illusions of inflation/GDP growth, etc. Rather than be glum about the big bad government machinations you can, in our era, intentionally subvert them just by hanging onto your cash and earning almost no interest on it. This is what the japanese have been doing for twenty years.

But seriously, at the household level, every expert says you should be saving cash for rainy days. This helps build your discipline and appreciate the difficulty in accumulating real dollars which are your own to dispense with.

2)Make a budget

Tracking purchases and compiling totals on a monthly spreadsheet, rudimentary advice for anyone who suffered financial meltdown and is not trying to re-establish themselves and get back on their feet, is the worst kind of poison for the system. The "weak demand" so many economists lament about that is holding back the "recovery" is a simpler term for an essential ingredient to the economy we are operating in, consumer discretionary spending It says here that while spreadsheets may not succeed at killing this phenomenon altogether, they would put enough purchases in doubt and provide enough re-thinking and second looks to take most of the impulse purchase wind out of the sails of the economic ship. How much will the minimum wage worker need that smartphone when they realize it is one eighth of their monthly income?

3)Shop Around

What would become of the billions of North American retail square footage space if people really knew how to search for deals and things they needed? The active encouragement of a I-want-this-I-need-this-I've-got-to-have-this-right-now justification being all that one requires of oneself before making a purchase is why mall parking lots are still full every saturday morning. More dicey is the extra capacity in the form of new mall and new parking lots being added to this iffy proposition everyday.

But let's just say that half of the transactions occurring in such environments represented real, honest to God needs. The goods you would obtain in the mall would likely, no surely, be overpriced, of poor quality, and your decision would also be clouded by the distraction of the crowd and made irrational by the surrealness of the environment with thousands of neon let brands shouting with their signs nonstop at you. These would end up becoming blemishes on the spreadsheet in pillar two. What you would be no doubt encouraged to do by the advisors is find quality items, new or used, from people who understand the importance of their quality, after determining your absolute need for them. Tailored shirts, leather shoes, used appliances, used cars. There is a bit on leather shoes in the "Millionaire Mind" that explains how and why rich people repair the same shoes, over and over. For most of the things you will pay little for but derive little satisfaction from and purchase at an enormous cost to the environment and independent business, there are plenty of quality items already in circulation, and artisanally made articles that cost more but last longer, are repairable, and have actual value. These are the items advisors would no doubt steer you towards.

4)Justify Each Purchase With a Cost-Benefit Analysis

Of course this is not to say you cannot enjoy the occasional glass of expensive booze or buy that limited edition re-issue of a classic book you're excited about. This appeal to parsimony is not going as far to demand the "self-flagellation" of you that Paul Krugman thought he perceived when listening to a German finance minister's speech on austerity and belt-tightening. I know as well as anybody that you only live once and you should take advantage of the things money allows you to do with it. This tenet does not mean to drive yourself to the grave with penny-pinching neurosis that keeps you in a state of perpetual anxiety and insomnia over whether the coffee you bought today could be a canned good that will keep you alive tomorrow, or whether the 13$ you wasted on the latest Angelina Jolie dud could be appreciating in your RSP. Rather, it is a rebuke of all the spending that occurs that so recklessly takes for granted the incomes and living we are fortunate enough to earn today.

It is not about saying "is this really worth it?", because other than food, utilities, clothes, transport, and shelter, the answer is obviously "no", but what kind of miserable life would we be then leading? It is more about "is this in keeping with my income, goals, and assets, in other words is it truly representative of the life I should be able to afford, and if not what sort of sacrifices might it require down the road and am I prepared to take this?" This deeper cost-benefit analysis would annhilate, if they weren't already by pillars 1-3, every low-middle income luxury car lease, don't pay a cent event furnishing "purchase", smartphone plan, pet, and over-leveraged mortgage. The true cost of things that provide an illusion of affordability to the average income earner are truthfully out of reach of a great many, even though this does not prevent them from having them. If they had saved their own money for these things as they made it, it would have taken them way longer to acquire them and they would have thought a lot harder about acquiring them at all. Go on. Read some Gordon Pape, Suze Orman, The Millionaire Mind, the columns in any major newspaper, and the mushrooming frugality/financial rehab blogs on the web. You don't have to admit to me that your a debt closet case. When you feel powerless in the system as we all do, and then put an exponent on your powerlessness because of the crushing debt load on top of you, the solutions and the truths that will set you free from gears of debt serf capitalism may be found in a much more conventional and unlikely source than you would have thought.

what is the future value of what we consider to have worth today?

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Who Are The Elites And What Do They Do?

***Dear Reader, I was working on this column some months ago and for some reason abandoned it. Today I read an exhaustive article about "elites", and decided right away to dust this off and put it up, with some recent additions.

August 6th

We hear much talk these days about the "elite". That would be the loose assortment of billionaires, captains of industry, politicians, celebrities and lobbyists we blame all our problems on and point our fingers at for the problems in our society and the aspects of it currently at various degenerative stages. Yet there is no easy categorization or definition of the elite. Who are the elite? The word is not, despite its lofty baggage, as negatively loaded as its cousins "elitist" and "elitism", often deployed by elites themselves against other elites trying to discredit their rival elites by exposing them to common people as elites. But it is a question I've been mulling for several days and one that I wanted to air out here over the blogwaves.

I don't believe that the elite are some evil shadow group working clandestinely towards sinister goals, although I admire those who have made careers online and in fringe media out of exposing conspiracies and making those claims, simply because that is an art in itself. Nor do I believe that all the elite are monolithic and belong in the same category. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of considerable family fortunes and extensive networks of business interests throughout the world, and while the people in possession of these do certainly belong to a global material elite, insofar as their money gives them choices and allows them to do things far beyond the average person's means, I do not think they are the ones specifically being referred to in general discussions around the elite. Being rich and unknown does not buy you membership into the elite, just as being famous and broke like Nic Cage, Hulk Hogan or Leonard Cohen does not get you an invite to Davos. So how does one know if they're elite?


November 7th

Hi, I had forgotten all about this until I read Margaret Wente's "Test to see if you are an elite" in today's Globe and Mail. I couldn't help but feeling that my unfinished thunder was stolen, reading Margaret Wente try to explain the "anti-elitism" that has affected a veritable political tour de force since my words on August 8th. Wente relies on clean, convienient clichés to brand you as either an elite, or not. Drink starbucks, live downtown, listen to public broadcasting, make good money, have a good education? You're elite. Like Nascar, tim hortons, UFC, Oprah, and double downs? You're part of the masses, and tired of the folks in column A telling you what's right from their insulated bubble, when they've never walked a mile in your Column B shoes.

We can go on with this categorization all day like the media does because it is entertaining, to some extent. But you're not here for that; you know where to find those polarizing and unhelpful generalizations. I want to finish what I started, answering the question that is the title of this posting. I'm pretty sure I know the answer. Mocking the "non-elites" with an expanded list of column B items and other stereotypes will only give people ammunition to attack you as an elite with, even if you are not. So, I will turn my attention to the elites, who are so much more fun to deride. Richard Florida thinks these are the freest members of our society and we will be liberated when we all become like them. Here is the real definition of elite.

1) You make six figures, preferably a comfortable margin of error over six figures.
2) You live in a neighbourhood where real estate is very expensive due to people with similar incomes also choosing to live there.
3) Here are some jobs you might do: University professor, Cabinet Minister, Bank executive, Law/Accounting Firm partner, CEO, Non-Profit Director, Newspaper columnist
4) No matter your background, you have a knack for forging alliances, building relationships, and thinking "strategically"
5) You are almost certainly educated, or have spent time in an educational institution considered "elite"
6) You have got to where you are today due to a combination of ambition and ruthlessness.
7) You sit on boards of charities, corporations, galleries, and are summonned regularly for panels, commentary, advice, and favours

Ok, there's your praise. I'm not particularly impressed, but the system has been set up to be, and that's why you are where you are and I am where I am. And this is where I take the gloves off. Want to know more about yourself?

1) You don't walk down the street or take transit or even drive. You get driven around. And if you do drive, your car is very expensive (Audi, BMW, Range Rover, Porsche), and even if it is older model, very expensive to fix. You don't think there's anything wrong with driving a car that costs 50x what a car that does the same thing costs.

2) You own considerable amounts of stocks/securities/real estate, and if you are a "public servant" who cannot have a "conflict of interest", your network and prestige will allow you endless oppurtunities to obtain such things once you leave public life (and many of you see no reason even to wait until then)

2A) Whoever buys your groceries, or you in the unlikely event you buy your own groceries, buys them in a small, snooty, expensive store where, truthfully, some harder to find exotic items are available, but the bulk of the inventory could be purchased from a normal supermarket for half or a third of the price. But this thought has never once crossed your mind.

3)You don't clean your own house or do your own dishes or clean your own toilet. Most of the time you don't even cook, if you ever do. You don't shovel snow, you don't take out garbage, you don't do laundry or fold clothes, and you don't make your bed. People do these things for you for low salaries, which is scandalous, just as it would be scandalous if they did them for you for high salaries, because you are paid in public money, whether its taxpayers, clients, shareholders, and you are in a certain way accountable for how that money is spent.

4) You have a reason for not doing any of these things. Your time is too valuable. I know. You're too busy making speeches, going to business lunches, holding press conferences, meeting with and ordering around underlings, making appearances, taking conference calls, talking on your blackberry, and getting on planes. You don't have any worthwhile relationships with your family, who stoically steel themselves to appear harmonious in a "sacrifice" for your "career" even though you have no time to pay attention to any of them and this arrangement often fractures uncomfortably.

5) You fly, a lot, but are more than likely in private plane by yourself, if not in business class

6) Finally, you think that you do this all in a sacrifice for the greater good. You really think you are making an enormous contribution to humanity. That is why that blackberry is going off all the time, or if you're important enough, that person you pay to hold your blackberry and let you know when its going off. You are always "on", "in demand", which requires that you be in public persona, and you have no "free time" or "friendships". Your life basically sucks. But you have, again, "sacrificed" all the things I mentioned that normal people do that you don't do because you're "making a difference". And of course, "you've earned the right."

Those are elites. The simplest way to describe them is "mo money, mo problems". Too much money or too much power/public profile or some combination thereof dehumanizes people; it removes what makes us able to relate to them and replaces it with something that makes us think they clearly put themselves on a pedestal above us, even though some of them may not do it on purpose. Adam Radwanski's recent up close and personal profile/exposé of the premier of Ontario revealed a man who has no friends or social life and, he admitted himself, very little contact with the outside world. When I think of the "global elite" I mentioned on August 6th, I cannot see how they avoid all the characterizations I outlined though it would be a mistake to believe they all apply to everyone. But I am not surprised that "anti-elitists" are gaining in popularity. Do you really want to support elites if what I wrote about them is true?

I don't want to glorify a man who caused the death of so many with famines, but you can't help but thinking of Mao sending people to be "reeducated". Society seems to have the same desire to do that now, when it sees what royalty looks like in 2010.

Having said that there is a path to criticizing elite by thinking objectively of their condition. Culinary skills, readership of certain newspapers, fitness, environmental choices and refusal to consume do not and should not brand one as elite. I might have had it in me to work hard and join their ranks once upon a time but now I don't know how they can take themselves so seriously all the time

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Turn It Off Again

America, you need to take your national soundtrack, Journey's Don't Stop Believing off of repeat already.

Of course I need to write about America and its politics in the aftermath of monday's midterm elections that saw the first two tea party senators elected. But what you don't need to read, and what I don't need to waste time writing, is more refrains to add to the same thick, stewy chorus of pointless crap on the subject. As I've said before, the tricky thing about doing this is avoiding repeating and regurgitating the same obvious and meaningless conclusions that are rehashed by every MSM columnist with varying degrees of eloquency following such closely watched and (supposedly) significant events as midterm elections, just as they are for every other important issue of the day.

And what would those conclusions be, with respect to American politics? Oh, you know, the usual stuff. About how Fox News and the Tea Party have set the agenda, how the debate and the nation are so polarized, how there is so much uncertainty and fear about the economy, how Americans are disappointed and disillusioned with the president, and by the way, have you heard of this thing called the tea party? They want to roll back health care and reduce the size of government.

I don't know why they pay each of these columnists a salary, when they could just pay one to say these same things they basically all end up saying and then print it in every newspaper. Hell, why don't you just hand the control of all media outlets to Rupert Murdoch already? If he's so scary, why does every media outlet, including supposedly "liberal" ones, spout off about him and his big scary evil fox news empire everyday? Haven't these seasoned media veterans ever heard there's no such thing as bad press?

What's so annoying is not that writing about Mr. Murdoch and Fox is easy, or that the subject is interesting because of its tittilating sinisterness. It's that none of the media can come up with any interesting or original points of view in the wake of the fox/talk radio/tea party machine's seizure of the public consciousness and debate. All anybody has seemed interested in doing over the past couple weeks is adding their voices to the feedback loop of the narrative I just described. When the media beats these drums endlessly leading up to election day, guess what happens to their self-fulfilling prophecy, the one the New York Times weighs in on every day with dread and the National Post with barely sustained glee, on that day? It gets fulfilled. Then these papers have the nerve to write the next day like somebody should be surprised by the results.

Many people are so smart that they ignore this whole charade entirely. Yet the fact that this is what continues to get served up shows that there continues to be enormous buying in and hope for the system. Observers, and apparently people in this country called America, don't stop believing. In spite of a prevailing narrative of a country gone horribly astray, a country where many people believe God is watching over the nation and the president is a satanic (or worse, muslim) usurper, every commentator has the underlying assumption that America will slowly but surely find its way again, no matter how far or close he or she is to that insane belief. They lament how a country “opted for hope and optimism two years ago”, and is now opting for “reduction and retribution”. Here again is choral MSM generalizing from the last couple days (see what I mean by how hard it is not to repeat it?)

It inevitably ends with "Don't bet against this country, because anybody who ever has lost", "we just gotta focus on jobs and get the economy moving again" or my personal favourite "the can-do attitude". What is it exactly that America knows how to do anymore? Seems to me the rest of the world is getting on with its life doing what it has to do, and America is standing around listening to how whenever they just figure out where they put that can-do attitude, they’ll be right back in the swing of things. People have the right to believe whatever they want, but here’s a tip – if you’re believe looking for solutions from republicans, democrats, the tea party, or ghost written huckster bestsellers is going to cure what ails America, you are invariably going to be disappointed. If you want to get back to greatness, elbow grease, the founding fathers, and whatever other stuff that is currently lacking that causes you to want to contribute to moving deck chairs on the Titanic of America, I have a suggestion for you. Turn it all off.

I know that there is a widespread tendancy to describe our modern condition as irrevocable, and I know that eighty years of exponential improvement in media technology has caused a corresponding drop in the attention span, and as a result, the collective memory. It was when these channels were turned on that the media discourse on American politics began its precipitous skid to todays cacophonous "echo chamber" of vitriol and misinformed nonsense. So you can keep the Journey, America, just change the song. How about Turn It On Again. Though of course, you'll need to replace the "on" with "off".

Every commentator likes to compare the current era to past eras based on U.S. political history. All of a sudden, were hearing more about Roosevelt, Lincoln, the founding fathers, Jefferson, Washington. There comparisons are facile and, more importantly, irrelevant to the current American political context and globalized economic context. And the main reason is because people in those days, while significantly less educated, had peace and quiet in their minds to develop their creative and mechanical faculties. These distant historical figures, whose greatness and willingness to make tough decisions makes people quick to cite them as a way to deplore the current situation and mock those they hold responsible for it, had something in common. They existed before the era of everything being turned on all the time. But because of our short memories, we have difficulty acknowledging that humans lived at one time without 24 hour news channels, social networking sites, smartphones, 500 channel universes, consolidated print media empires, schlock jock sportscaster political pundits, and political apparatuses fully bought by special interests and completely subservient to them.

Of course if you listen to people like John Doyle, the smarmy, smug TV critic at the Globe and Mail, you’re just deluding yourself by trying to look away from the carnage because you know you really want it. The giants who tower over us with success in this media-political universe do it by staying ruthless, simple, and on message. He admires those have who have done it this way recently (like Rob Ford) and says if you have a problem with it you’re just mad because it’s not you there in the spotlight. If you want to listen to Horatio Alger stories about how you can be a superstar in the two thousand teens, then you probably need to get it from someone who is so dumb they watch TV for a living and are proud of it. “Duh…wow. I wish I had that job.”

If you are finding its all getting a bit too noisy and there isn’t really much of a payoff to listennig to any of the noise since so little of it makes any sense, there are several ways you can turn it off. Start by swearing off of CNN, Fox, MSNBC, all of it. 24 hour news. I’m serious. That stuff will kill you. Like a dietician who rips out the synthetic contents of your freezer and sends them crashing onto the linoleum without a shred of pity, this is step #1 on your detox. You will immediately have your thinking powers restored. Then, in a few months, you can watch it for 10 minutes and laugh at it in the way it should be appreciated, as mildly amusing entertainment. Just as the guy with an empty freezer can celebrate his 1st 10 pound drop with a token burger.

Secondly, ignore the delusional tweets and facebook postings that these fundamentally selfish wannabe politician people put up to boost their public profiles, and various other up to the minute internet self promotion, look-at-this-person-because-they’re-great idolatry put to their service by others.

Very important: When you see tickers, feeds, headlines, blurbs, and rundowns, ignore them. These are the bait that draw you into more detailed, but equally lacking in substance, media vehicles that waste your time confirming your worst suspicions, and transmitting lies from the mouths of the spokespeople of these narcissists, who are only validated because we pay attention to them.

Finally, turn off those hectoring old grumps on the radio. You think you’re mad about the same things as them, but really you’re mad because they want you to be as stupid as they are. It takes a special kind of boisterous, misplaced indignation about nothing and everything to be one of these guys (they’re always guys) and the fact that they are more popular than ever is a reason to stay away, not be drawn in.

People are guaranteed to feel disillusioned with politics when they use their five senses to be receptors to a constant barrage of shite. So turn it all off. Then use your hands, to make something. Use your feet, to walk around your neighbourhood. There are plenty of good publications that deserve your support that you’ve never heard of; the real information you find there far exceeds the odd bit of wackiness that gets put it. Check out some books and movies at your local library. Use your ears; dig out a classic album and put the TV on mute if you absolutely have to have Wolf Blitzer’s face in your living room after work. Call someone you haven’t spoke to in a long time or write them a letter. About politics. About this situation. About all this stuff. If they don’t want to hear it, at least you tried; send it to your local counsellor or MPP or MP adjusted with addendum. Or just talk to anybody about it. Allow yourself to have a real, person to person conversation about issues without resorting to spewing MSM lies to explain what’s happening. They’re like crutches, or training wheels. It’s hard to get rid of them at first but once you do it’s incredibly liberating. Despite the onslaught, people have their own ideas which are actually interesting because they do not repeat the discourse that wants itself to be dominant (I will not glorify it by calling it the dominant discourse)

By the way I apologize, I lied to you earlier. Turn it On Again is by Genesis. But I admitted I lied. And it remains the point I want to make. It’s part of a medley of covers played by Dream Theater on the Change of Seasons album, I guess that’s why I got it mixed up. Now you know I use progressive rock to understand life. I cannot, however, make such demands on you.

So in the spirit of Journey, America, I’ll give you a slightly less irritating (but still very irritating) song of theirs: Anyway You Want It. But on the condition that you don’t misinterpret that to mean the tea party or the Obama administration is going to give it to you. It means you’ll be able to make your life, and the politics of your life, anyway you want it once you turn it off. Again.