Sunday, 29 August 2010

So You Wanna Be A Tough Guy?

Here at Lacking Credentials, a lot of time gets spent detailing why I think everything in the west is more or less doomed to fall apart at some point. However, not having ever lived in a conflict zone or a poverty stricken economic dead zone, I really have no appreciation for the possible circumstances which may befall us North Americans and Westerners in the long term. The downtrodden of this world are not concerned with the speculative preoccupations of what could happen in a week or a month or a year from now, because they don't know if they are going to make it through tomorrow. Therefore, it makes sense for them to try making it to a place where they might survive today. The West, last time they heard, was still rich.

As such, there is a trickle from "hot" zones (not climate - war and poverty, although it says here the trickle will soon include the former too, and according to the U.N. it already does (google “Climate Refugees”)) to safer and more economically productive countries. The refugees/migrants/"illegal" immigrants (Noone is illegal. 3 words. A very powerful idea. More on that later) are often shaken out of their disoriented state on arrival by the "cold shoulder" of the receiving country's government. They are not deterred, however, because survival is clearly now a possibility, and even in an era of ever-tightening regulation and borders, navigating Canada's Citizenship and Immigration bureaucracy has to still be easier than dealing with whatever bullshit they fled.

In these situations, right leaning govenrments will typically try to score points with xenophobes and in public opinion at large (which, we learn in these cases, remains more xenophobe than we would like to believe) on the backs of such people. Today, we will take a look at some migrant routes, what they mean for the countries on the receiving end, and whether the middle aged right wing man/politician/radio host/newspaper columnist tough-guy stance is justified or even backed up by anything substantive.

There is very much a "hoarder" mentality at work in all Western Democracies that penetrates people's psyche over time. Something like, "We can't take anybody else on, because we've already done our fair share to solve the problems of the world, and there's too many immigrants already, thank you, good bye." There is the idea that, well, we've been so welcoming, and people just take advantage. We can't have people who aren't from here collecting entitlements from the state, who don't integrate to our culture, and did I mention we're doing just fine, thank you? And we can barely even claim that anymore. I mean, Rob Ford said if he becomes mayor of Toronto that he can't even promise he'll be able to take care of 2.5 million starving Torontonians. Lord knows we've taken in enough people and gave poor places enough aid, and frankly we're just wiped from being taken for granted to be such an endless beacon of goodness and hope to humanity named Canada.

Thus, with the propogation of such myths the immigration "debate" becomes so ridiculous, cuts across so many lines, and involves such deep study of attitudes and mentalities that it can't even really be explored here. Most of the aforementioned ideas, which you may have already heard in some form or another, are so stupid that I don't actually want to spend much time refuting them here. But I will. First of all, the notion of "We", "yours" and "ours" is complete bunk, since we stole this land, and the fact people feel entitled to speak this way is insanity. Second, all immigrants do end up becoming relatively prosperous and integrated, compared to the average Canadian and the average human. If they don't, public education takes care of their kids. Don't believe me? How many generations has your family been in Canada? Were they millionaires when they showed up? Third, immigrants are way more appreciative and economically productive, since that is how we insist on measuring the value of people in this debate, on average than regular Canadians. Most of the really poor, really messed up people you see in rural Canada or streets of Canadian cities are white or native.

But beyond generalizations (because it's just my opinion and it doesn't actually mean anything), there is a fact that's undeniable. The reason a boat full of Tamils is an oppurtunity seized upon by the Conservative government to stoke the flames of anti-immigrant rhetoric and fire up its redneck base is because the media has done an excellent job of teaching every Canadian that this is a terrorist group. Actually, it was officially designated as such by the previous Liberal Government. Yes, we have an actual list of people we don't like and won't entertain conversations with in this supposedly open-minded country, and the Tamil Tigers are on it. Even I was convinced they were bad guys, until I did about five minutes of research.

Turns out, in a literal carbon copy of the Rwanda situation that culminated in the 1994 tragic genocide, the colonial power (England) stumbled upon two ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, the island formerly known as Ceylon, in the 1800s. The Sinhalese had two kingdoms and the Tamils had one, logical based on the proportions of their respective populations. Then of course, when the British leave in 1922 they put the dominant group in charge. The Tamils get shit on for 60 years straight, pushed around, and denied their rights, until the seventies when they form the Tigers to create a state in the areas in which they are majority. After 22 years of civil war that began in 1983, a hardline Sinhalese government was elected by the Sinhalese majority in 2005 who set to work exterminating the Tigers, rounding up any potential sympathizers (e.g., all Tamils) into refugee camps, and reassuring the international community that despite systematic discrimination and oppression of an ethnic minority, the country was now open for business. They are pleased to see today that they have been largely successful in achieving these objectives, and are hard at work making their country an economic powerhouse, with dynamic industries like tourism, sweatshops, and before long, who knows? Maybe even call centres. Music to the Wall Street Journal's ears, cultural, political and economic genocide be damned.

Now you know why those Tamil protestors in Toronto last year were indignant and crazy enough to block a highway. And now you know why the migrants promised this year to pay huge sums of money to get the hell out of Sri Lanka. I'm not naive about the Tigers either - I know that suicide attacks and child soldiers were widespread current practives, and they were also ruthlessly efficient at eliminating moderate elements and opposition to such questionable practices within their own ranks. But they were the last best hope for the Tamils (who still cannot believe the assassinated leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is dead - the guy built up quite a personality cult around himself), who now seemed eternally condemned to be second class citizens in their homeland, and it doesn't mean all Tamil people are dog shit, okay Canada? Read up on what they been through.

Elsewhere in North America, one of the cause célèbres of the famous Tea Party is the expulsion of current and blocking of future "illegal aliens". It's time to get tough, they claim, because Mexicans are threatening the constitution and America's greatness by stealing jobs. No wonder the laid off factory worker or middle manager can't get that job cleaning the Starbucks toilet or picking lettuce. I know those tea party members are just dying to roll up their sleeves and make America great again, and since they talk about ad-nauseum how one of the things that made America great was that tough, can-do attitude, so lets see some of that tough elbow grease already.

Across the Atlantic in France, the Roma are being expulsed in large numbers by a government led by a ruling party who, similar to America's, came to power promising bold reforms and change. Although it likes to think of itself as "right", compared to the American Democrats' "left", both governments have actually done little other than maintain/expand the status quo and increase the anger and malaise of their citizens. But the French government has the ability to score cheap political points on this issue because it is more in keeping with the values of its basic core constituency - sending off people who wear rags, live in trailer parks and tent cities, have no jobs and don't go to school back to Romania and Moldova with 300 Euros in their pockets because they're killing the vibe in a nation with free university education, 250 cheeses, guaranteed minimum wage and welfare, heating, air conditioning, and the best rail system I've ever encountered. 20 or 30 thousand gypsies were the crack in the system threatening to bring it all down. Real tough. A pampered, cable TV watching nation with insurance on their house and cars cannot tolerate this encroachment on their lifestyle and threat to their security. Good thing they can count on the government they are otherwise disgusted with to at least make a tough decision to score some cheap popularity points.

Another tough guy making life easy for his people is the President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakhashvilli. In 2008, after boosting his country's defence budget for the previous four years to total a third of all government spending, he launched an invasion of two territories (South Ossetia and Abkhezia) who voted 99% for independence from Georgia in referendums. This tough-guy action of course resulted in Russia, a much tougher country, crushing Georgia and protecting the two territories which are now under dispute. The Harvard-educated Saakhashvilli wants to make Georgia a Western nation allied with the United States, and even has a former Reform Party evangelical running a private university there, but he has caused citizens wanting to go attempt their chance in Russia (because Georgia's economy is stil weak, partly from getting all its ports shelled by the Russian Navy in 2008) the grief of now having to pass through Turkey then be shunned upon arrival, thanks to his tough guy actions.

I don't understand why North American Tea Party libertarians who preach free trade and markets, free movement, and zero encroachment on their civil liberties are willing in the same breath to practice totalitarian discrimination and exclusion over territory, land, and resources. They will have no doubt supported Georgia, France, and the Governments of Canada and Sri Lanka in the above case studies because those are the sides that chose provincialism, aggression, and punishment of ethnic minorities. Yet these are the people who cry wolf at "liberal media" and "socialist takeovers" and send their trolls over to articles on news paper pages to protest the conspiracy against them and their freedom. I guess the freedom they talk about means freedom for them and whoever supports them to do whatever they decide we are free to do, which is the very antithesis of what they are preaching. Our borders are closed, but the world's better be open to our oil and pipelines, mines, fast food chains, shitty movies, and GMO seed patents. And let's not forget freedom of speech, which means freedom to lie and distort to further their agenda. That is why there are trolls on Canadian newspapers today stating things like the Sri Lankan migrants are entitled to 29k a year from the government and free dental care.

The "great country" that has "lost its way" (which is the narrative chosen by demagogic fear mongering politicians whenever illegal immigration is the subject in question) would never have been possible, if the pilgrims hadn't crossed the ocean on the mayflower, if the descendents of those pilgrims who remained loyal to England hadn't fled to Canada's atlantic provinces, if the Gauls hadn't wandered into France thousands of years ago just as this Gypsies did in the last few centuries. Stalin left Georgia in his youth and became a self-styled father of all things Russian to the Russian people, for better or for worse, and that legacy continues in the minds of many Russians today, yet the government wants to define their most famous son's adopted country as the enemy and have a closed border with it.

Jim Rodgers, a successful billionaire who travelled all over the world in a sort of buggy he had Mercedes make for him, and a true capitalist if I ever saw one, openly makes this point in the book he documents those travels in. Columbus and Magellan had no passports. What the world be like today if we imposed the constraints of ancient explorers we impose on ourselves? We claim to be a "global society", yet remain more distrustful of each other and provincial than ever.

In a society that imagines itself global, anybody who manages to get anywhere and survive and thrive is not just a human, they are an exceptional and above average human. They are subject to the laws of earth, not the laws of any country or government, and by surviving they are in accordance with those laws. If they kill or commit acts of terrorism they should of course be punished, but to say they are more likely to do such things puts us down the slippery slope of racism. Instead, we have to accept that this is what real globalization would look like. We are a long ways away. Real tough guys should look in their own mirrors and backyards, if they want to be tough, and stop blaming people who look and talk different for all their problems.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Devil Is In The Big Fat Details

We can agree that the traditional image of the devil in our minds is red, burgundy, red, and gold. A picture of the devil in his environment would most likely include these colours.

And if you watch BNN or read the business section, you cannot go too long without hearing about Goldman Sachs or China. These two entities fly the above mentioned colours, and although they don't "bedevil" me the way they do many left and right pundits, they are so grand that they definitely must be included in the details of a current economic picture.

Pursuing our religion/capitalism theme from where we left off in the last post, today's inspiration came from a very interesting analysis I read about the investment back Goldman Sachs. In case you are not familiar with the Wall Street powerhouse, I will give you a pop-rock populist version of the critique against them here and I also recommend googling the Vanity Fair analysis, "Too Bare-Knuckled to Fail". While the Rolling Stone analysis may win the shock value award, having best captured the public's mood and retained it's imagination & indignation by qualifying the firm as a "vampire squid", the critique I read today "Presidents come and Go, But Goldman is forever" was considerably more nuanced, and meshed very much with my recent theme about what is accepted as knowledge and who has monopolies on it.

The article spoke of the now infamous "quants" (quantitative analysts), who used complex math to sell and trade Credit Default Swaps and other exotic vehicles which are basically figments of our imagination but allow rich firms like Goldman to speculate and, well, get richer. It went as far to say that those who propogated these so called "financial weapons of mass destruction"'s knowledge of numbers is similar to middle age priests' knowledge of latin. It outlined great examples of Goldman's truly cunning and manipulative behaviour. It was taken to court for simultaneously continuing to sell clients these same "Default Swaps" while pulling out of them in the market and betting against them, when the tide started to turn on the American debt house of cards in the fall of '07. More recently, it has helped finance Greece's bailout while hedging it's own bets on it failing. And before you think that a couple Manhattan manipulator evil geniuses conjured this all up, look at the company's global roster. You'll notice that the past and present financial and economic elite of any economically significant nation work or have worked for "the firm", as it is sometimes referred to. And "the firm" always wins in court, as it did in the CDS case, not thanks to a corrupt judge who is going to take off his mask to reveal himself a reptile, but by his affirmation of two simple and accepted principles in the legal system which are 1) Caveat emptor/buyer beware and 2) all a company is responsible for is making good on its fiduciary resposibility to clients, shareholders, bla bla bla. Goldman is just the most notorious example of what is endemic in an evil system because it is the smartest at taking advantage of it. Which is really all really smart people and companies do, take advantage of oppurtunities noone else sees and maximizing the utility of their assets (one of which definitely is in this case all those people in high places). Politicians may think there is short term gain in lambasting such a company, but any observant person would no that this causes the firm no harm, in addition to being inherently ridiculous coming from the structure which colludes with and supports it.

So what does that mean? That there's a big, evil, international Goldman-political cabal conspiracy? That a massive international brigade needs to march on Manhattan and return with the "traders" (or traitors, if you prefer) clapped in irons and 70 million a year CEO Lloyd Blankfein's bald smirking head on a stick? No. It means we are pissed off that a firm like Goldman is so good at what it does, has capitalism figured out so well, that it cannot actually be stopped. It won't be stopped. It has the smartest people working for it, or rather people who are smart enough to bet down as well as up and buy into the firm's evil genius-pseudo mysterious corporate culture (go to their website and click on "oppurtunities"). It plays both sides against each other, enriches itself to ever greater heights, and laughs at the indignation of governments whose leaders it will poach for employment when their done in politics.

I have recently quit reading the news, or attempted to, because I realized that the day to day sniping of politics and the stock market does not really tell us anything about the state of the world - it's as much of a distraction and as inconsequential as professional sports. To understand, you have to look at the big picture

The oppurtunities noone else sees are in fact ones that many more people see now, and in the long term should actually make things difficult for the financial sector, even for "the firm" which calls itself "long term greedy". Before the 1980s, companies had to be established and profitable before they could be traded or invested in; government deregulation made it much easier to speculate on startups(i.e., bet on things that may or may not succeed or even exist, which added a lot of risk that wasn't there before). Before the 1990s, the government used to let people rent apartments until they could afford market rates on mortgages, but then to give an artificial boost to the sacred "free-market" economy they supposedly held so dear, they just started cheating and keeping the rates low all the time so everybody could speculate in real estate, creating past and current bubbles. Finally, before the 2000s, stock trading was a lifelong trade reserved for stuffy men in suits who took the subway downtown to the actual floor of the stock market. Now any schmuck with a computer can bet like it's a casino, and it is. What's made the stock market identical to a casino is you can now bet both ways, which was banned temporarily by the U.S. and Britain, more cheating by supposed free market governments.

These are not so much trends based on any viable economic data as they are fashionable fads which have retained their popularity. But if you think the veritable army of suits they gave birth to in North America - an ever expanding pile of brokers, traders, agents, administrative staff, salesmen, middlemen, fund managers, and advisors - can sustain indefinitely, each getting their cut for a single family, luxury vehicle and swimming pool - at Goldman and everywhere else - you're sadly mistaken. There will be no more double digit surges of economic growth that could justify the existence of such a piggyback chain of highly paid people's livings - and yet the system's assumption rests on the hazy half-hearted hope that it will, even though on the business network today there was a professor openly speculating on whether America was bankrupt and was actually saying some pretty real shit to the fluff, head in the sand host before she cut him off for commercial. So Goldman may be laughing now by having all its bets covered but I bet it will not have the last laugh. While it may seem like a "devil" for it's actions in the economic collapse, it was merely profiting from the circumstances described above, which are the real "devil in the details", just like everyone else. Better than everyone else, in fact, which is why it get's singled out.

Is my ranting and raving at least followed by some solutions, some controls the government can create to intervene with and stop the madness? Actually, no. The government getting tough and cracking down and putting a stop to this will change nothing. Economies work when they are compact, local, and manageable, in other words when the people involved with them can see what they are acting in and the benefits for their community. By placing the economy far away, all our stuff together in the hands of governments or bay street or wall street, we have guaranteed its irrelvance and redundancy because they cannot possibly account for what is actually happening and we cannot possibly know what they are doing. They also don't want to admit what is increasingly common knowledge. So the government ham fisting a clumsy solution will have adverse effects and cause just as much if not more shit. Don't believe me? Look at devil #2, China.

The MSM have a love hate with China because of the role it plays in North America's economy (premier supplier of useless crap/premier creditor of America, which is the premier buyer of Canada's exports). But unlike North America, China doesn't give a shit how its people earn a living or have this ridiculous cult of home ownership. So they cracked down hard on banks and told them they were tightening the credit rules and wanted to see their balance sheets. So the developers and banks, very aware of the acute demand for property and eager to fuel a red hot surge in values, started packaging real estate debt to sell to consumers. The number has passed from zero to 400 billion dollars in less than 2 years, and property loans have increased 40% in the last year alone. So while columnists withered away at the government's complacency and looking the other way in North America, an authoritarian government worried about runaway bubbles that clamped down on the other side of the world produced the exact same result - a bubble. And if their economy wasn't in so deep with North America's debt, financed by property and consumer debt speculation, then they would have more power to stop everyone from thinking they could own a house and an eager bank/developer speculation machine only to eager to provide them with that illusion. With bubbles, crashes, and unsustainable economic structures, columnists and do-gooder public opinion populists need to turn down their rhetoric to Goldman, China, or whoever and realize that they are not the "devils" or the problem, but its these devilish details inherent in what they're involved in that are.

(Oh and by the way, I found out GOldman's logo is not actually red or gold. It's blue and white. I guess I got them mixed up with Wells Fargo or something. Oh well, they're evil blue devils then. Like facebook. Mmm bwa ha ha ha ha.

Friday, 13 August 2010

The Evolution of the Church of Unlimited Growth

You know during the Middle ages or the Dark ages or whenever it was that we were draining blood from ourselves to kill the black death plague or leaving our parents' farms as teenagers to march across Europe and die or make people die by the sword in the holy lands or getting our balls ripped off and thrown into iron maidens by Spanish judges? Surely you have some inkling of these things occurring, because they sound so bloody awful, and they mainly occurred for one reason - the church. The Roman Catholic Church.

No, the church did not cause the black death itself nor is this an inquiry into whether it possessed scientific knowledge at the time to do more. What I want to talk about today is the amount of authority and devotion the church commanded in Europe at that time, and how that was a major factor in the events described above.

That authority was derived partly from rigourous and minute studies of ancient texts, languages, and tradition that was not available to the average person at that time, that allowed the clergy to claim to have the authority to tell regular people that they knew what was up so they better listen up.

It also gave them enormous amounts of influence - to interpret and analyze the phenomena of the day and explain them through the filter of their perspective and ideology. To prescribe solutions for better or for worse. And to use their influence with monarchs and parliaments to dictate what procedure and policy would be going forward.

Thankfully the enlightenment came, then the steam engine, then the TV, and today we're free and prosperous and don't have the big bad stupid vatican telling us to burn the local stripper at the stake when our stock portfolio crashes.

But we do have new authorities who propound new myths, which have reached medieval flat-earth levels of absurdity, and yet enjoy complete and unthreatened indisputability in the public and mainstream media discourses without ever having to answer for themselves.

I would like to present some economic-related news releases (edicts) that were released this weak by our politico-financial kleptocracy authority. They are about as logically sound as telling people that masturbation creates dark circles under their eyes and adulteresses will be swallowed by flames until the end of time. Ladies and gentleman, may I present exhibit A, who we will call for fun the modern incarnation of Pope Innocent V, I present to you the chief economist at BMO, Mr. Douglas Porter

So here we are told, by someone who has a lot of real authority in a first instance over the eighth of the country in hock to his employer, then in a second instance in his being quoted regularly on all matters economic, that the government better not stop going into to debt to finance the economic "recovery", and if it does it's at it's own peril. And no more raising rates, which his financial institution would then have to charge, because even though this sounds good it would ultimately threaten their interests too much, since they've allowed so many people to become house-poor serfs on the now culturally ingrained dubious idea that you haven't become "somebody" until you've achieved "home-owner status" (Similarly to how a "virtuous" person could not have ever foregone paying his tithe to the supreme authority of the lord on earth, rome)

Thus a bank, with private interests, gets its views aired for free on our public and private networks, and its advice a listen from our publicly elected officials who are paid with our money, and we take their word for it because the guy is an economist. And because we believe the advice is sound, it provides free advertising enhancing the bank's reputation, which it doesn't need because it's already part of an oligopoly. And we assume he thinks we're all in this together so he must be acting in all of our own best interests.

Am I railing against a big, evil "BMO conspiracy"? No, but seriously, what the fuck do they know? And why do we instinctively take them so seriously? No matter what, to get past the jargon and take their prognostications seriously, you have to believe in a magical endless growth light at the end of the tunnel. Is that really possible for people? It seems like it would take a least a jug or kool aid or two for me.

Let's move over here to exhibit two. We'll call Anne Golden of the conference board of Canada Cardinal Richelieu. She is a powerful and influential lady you've never heard of (but the conference board gets plenty of airtime on the same airwaves as Doug Porter, usually about the job market and manufacturing) with very enlightened ideals, as evidenced by her presence this week at the annual Couchiching "thinkers" conference that happens on the eponymous lake near Orillia, Ontario. This is where the best and the brightest get together to debate ideas and policy à la Council of Trent. And she does not represent a 300+ billion dollar juggarnaut like BMO. Listen to her bold, impassioned arguments that dare us Canadians to really grab life by the cahones and INNOVATE

Like Richelieu, who wanted to be "innovative" and create a civil society (his accomplishments include the founding of l'Académie Française and advocating for expansion of empire), Golden has big ambitions for our country. She thinks we're just so darn great and loveable, but our cautious and timid national psyche unfortunately prevents us from innovating as much as we should be able to. This is what causes economic growth clergy everywhere to drool all over each other and Thomas Friedman (I respect him a lot for his unique delivery, but pot shot coming up) to drool all over himself about how great America is, how that competitive and enterprising spirit that gave us Google and the ipod is the most noble thing that humanity has ever produced, the salt of the earth and the light of the world that will make us all Bill Gates if we just, if we just find a way to harness it and do it like the tech guys do, everyone one of us. It's hero worship mixed with half-assed appeals to cheap nationalism. After that, they fail to explain how a continent with myriad pockets of people living in dire poverty, a bankruptcy worth of entitlements promised to current and future generations, and a bunch of middle aged mediocre people who can't remember 5 different frickin' passwords and have to drive everywhere under 10 metres away and all have high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes are going to turn this place into a giant labratory money machine episode of Weird Science other than saying "We need to be more innovative" "China and India are going to kick our ass in R & D" No shit they are, they got 10 times more people who are HUNGRY and want to get rich. Simple laws of physics, just like the ones 17th century home tried so hard, but was unsuccessful even with its deep pockets, to disprove.

Finally, rounding out the trio of bankrupt ideology growth cult leaders is Benedict XVI, played by...Benedict XVI. The current pontiff released a wide-ranging "Love in Truth" doctrine called Caritas in veritate
last April in which he paid homage to the "good economy". Matthew's Gospel's famous words - "No man can serve two masters, for he will always hate one and love the other" that provided the inspiration for the church's chaste values and claim that poverty is a virtue for 2000 years - have been revoked. Now, according to the heavenly father's representative on earth, growth, finance, capitalism, environmental degradation, resource pillaging colonialism, finance and offshore accounts are not wrong or evil - only their "excesses". (Just so you know, I'm paraphrasing from here for the benefit of my English speaking readership. It's an excellent article that I highly recommend you read yourself if you are able)

What this means is that, despite the gargantuan contradiction and hypocrisy inherent in the world's biggest real estate owner preaching ascetic and simple life is the way to go, we can no longer even count on it to do so. The fact that it only paid vague and limited lip service to environmental protection and social responsibility in a 129 page document but mentioned the words "growth" and "development" at least twice a page shows that the medieval authority I have been mocking (but which takes itself just as seriously today) has now submitted to a higher power. The Vatican, make no mistake, has done nothing left but traded in Aquinas and Augustine for The Economist, the World Bank, and U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's brilliant and eloquent master plan to save the economy.

"We've got to find a way to get this thing back to growth" he says, turning around and looking over the port at the New York skyline. "No, let me clarify" he says turning towards me "First, growth." (Vanity Fair, 2010)

Growth and Development are what are killing us. Contraction and paring down might give us relief. Unfortunately, the flawed orthodox has reached record high levels of followers. Including the self-described infallible Vatican itself whose monopoly on knowledge the modern economy so pluckily broke up 400 years ago.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Power of What If

On Clusterfuck Nation by James Howard Kunstler, an American blog that makes no bones about the economic and environmental threats created by the uniterrupted globalized consumer society if there ever was one, (and which I highly recommend), this particular comment from a reader of the last posting stuck with me -

"Hey, just so you know: there are plenty of people doing something more constructive with their lives than endlessly prognosticating about coming shitstorms. No matter how eloquently stated, what use is more fear and trepidation? Yes, the world (as you know it) is coming to an end. Isn't it time to get over it and move on to doing, or at least talking about something else a bit more positive and productive?"

Whoever and wherever you are, sir or madam (I suspect sir), I commend you on your extremely well-stated and thought provoking comment. Couldn't have said it better myself. Millions of MSM, Status-Quo toutin' columnists have already responded to millions of loser serf bloggers warnings of the apocalypse with less eloquent and more indignant versions of this self-evident truth. We get it. We know. We're fucked. Now stop thinking you're so smart and acting as if you're changing the world or accomplishing anything and fuck off. You're depressing the shit out of everyone.

Certainly anyone in "the remnant" who doesn't have a complete tin ear for irony and a sense of humour could stop taking themselves seriously for a moment and agree. If we harbinger-of doom-bloggers were so sure of ourselves, wouldn't we be enjoying the last few precious days, weeks, months, years, decades or whatever's left as best we could? Would this small amount of time really be best spent hunched over our laptops, burning the midnight oil, poring over the news sites? If so many people don't care, and we can't make them, then why should we? How do you expect people to change when the prognosis is so severe? As Margaret Wente has stated, and I do tend to agree with her on this, people's reaction to constant severe warnings is to become dull and de-sensitized to them. And, as I've stated before, there is a wider variety of more great things in the world, past and present, at our fingertips' access, than ever before. Don't we owe it to ourselves to take advantage? We've been dead wrong all along!

Hey, wo, wo, wo.

Just a second.

In case you think you are witnessing me hang my hat, suspend my disbelief indefinitely, and joining up with the apathetic bonehead army who is never short people but always looking for new recruits, I can assure you that I am not. I am responding here to criticism which is justified, yes, but often comes from well meaning folk advocating another dangerous extreme. One that appeals to many, which is: Instead of bitching about everything, why don't we just do nothing.

This is where the title comes in: I want us to share the empowerment that comes with asking ourselves the question: What if?

No, this isn't Imagine or Heal the World or We are the World or the Bono magic Africa brow beating hour. This is asking some simple, concrete questions in a province in a country in a world where too often the response to overwhelming problems is, well, they're too overwhelming so let's just do nothing.

Here are some examples:

What if Torontonians took the initiative to build toll gates and pay and collect tolls as a public resource? Instead of sitting around waiting for the federal and provincial governments to cough up money that they have no intention of coughing up and in any case is not theirs to cough up, why don't people accept responsibility for the city's traffic and air pollution and do something about it themselves? What if some entrepreneurs took that idea to the city, which would then build the transit that government has refused to build? Royson James discussed this recently in the Star, a proposal in mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson's platform (who of course doesn't get taken seriously). Of course people will yell and scream about "new taxes" and how "it's not their problem". Well, what if I told you that as a resident of this city, it is your fucking problem. I'd offend you. But I'd have said what I believe.

What if unionized public servants across the board in Ontario were obliged to contribute a modest amount to a fund - $5 per paycheque - to help retransform this moribund economy whose manufacturing sector will not be providing much of a tax base for their 80k salaries soon. What if, instead of bitching about their salaries and entitlements in the pages of Sun Media, we removed the sacred cow bubble around the question of where their wages come from and actually figured out how to have a dialogue that is not based on "fire them all rhetoric"?

People complain about not being able to water and pesticide their lawns. What if we had a real, hard, adult conversation on how useful lawns and grass are? What if we incentivitized growing one's own food on their front lawn, even just a few veggies a year?

What if everyone made a more determined and conscious effort not to buy shitty products from China, except when they really needed to?

What if people had to start saving money for things again, or at least, say, 20%. What if we outlawed no money down on all products?

See, the changes I am proposing, or rather adult conversations about possible changes, are not some smug solution sermon delivered from atop of ivory tower mountain and imposed with a punishment of death for violation. And they are not going to be justified by immediate desirable outcomes such as reducing carbon to 350,000 ppi in the atmosphere, saving coral reefs and photoplankton and bees, or making the stock market permanently go up so everyone could get rich. At best they would represent small, incremental improvements that could be realized through good organization and collective participation and effort. They are changes that I would be or have been willing to make that could make a difference. And there are thousands more potential ones.

Realism is helpful and a thirty year, two pack a day smoker probably cannot quit cold turkey tomorrow. Their nerves might be so acutely affected that it might be unadvisable. But we could probably gradually get them down to one pack, then half, etc.

The recent story in BC of the guy who asked to be placed on the not allowed to gamble list only to gamble without hindrance anyway then denied his earnings by the provincial lottery corporation is interesting and funny, sure, but the guy was clearly not ready to quit gambling anyway. Why don't we get people on a visit limit or cash amount budget that makes reductions in their time available to pursue their destructive habit, rather than stigmatize them for not wanting to go on full abstaining recovery right now?

There is nothing that prevents a person from going through multiple bankruptcies - why aren't saving and living within means more encouraged and enforced by society?

You don't get a smoker or a drinker or a gambler or a heavily indebted debtor to think about positive changes they need to make in their life by berating them and making them feel like shit, because a) they probably do already b) they've already made the decision to turn to this to escape hard/unpleasant reality they don't want to deal with. Sound like a phenomenon were familar with called the human race? Well, let's get addicts to use their imaginations to ask simple questions which make them realize not how their lives would be better without addiction, that is too overwhelming and surreal, but how their lives might be a little better with consistent efforts to reduce deadly consumption. This is all I want to do. Make little suggestions and use my imagination. People massively avoid "endless prognostication" for a reason; it's about as fun as it sounds.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Where I Draw The Line

There is a deliberate spreading of misinformation coming out of one corner of the MSM that needs to be forcefully and thoroughly debunked right now. I will do my best. It is an argument I have encountered numerous times, because has been a dominant theme over the past two years. The latest Star editorial, after the Premiers of Canada's 10 provinces and 3 territories' summer meeting, was upset that the premiers were not united in their support for receiving continued "stimulus" from the government, and angry that certain premiers do not want to go that route. It pushed me over the edge. This is where I draw the line.

In case you are not familiar with how the dumbed-down, reductionist way of thinking that is permeates everything now (coffee - tims vs. starbucks, computers - macs vs PC, politics - dem/repub, con/lib, soft drinks - coke/pepsi, etc) works with this particular subject, I will attempt a rundown. There are two camps in the discourse on how to manipulate our dubious economy. Keynesians (named after the British economist John Maynard Keynes and his ideas) believe that government can "stimulate" (spend money it doesn't have) the economy into doing what everyone wants it to do, grow. "Thatcherites" or "deficit hawks" believe government should spend and be involved in the economy as little as possible, and this how the economy will grow. This is as sterile and ridiculous a debate as any of the ones in parentheses above, because how could anything "grow" forever, especially a society as developed and economically mature as ours? Yet it sustains, and why? Because some people can't accept that the government can and should and inevitably will be involved in certain aspects of life, so they are seduced by the thatcherites empty rhetoric. Other more well-meaning, idealistic people believe in the power of the just-as-bad Keynesian argument, because they want everyone to participate in and enjoy the benefits of a "free-market" economy (which is nice of them, don't get me wrong), but don't understand that you cannot by definition manipulate such an economy to do whatever you want it to do. Sadly, this is exactly what we've been doing.

Governments in North America presided over a so-called "Period of Unprecedented Prosperity" for 10 years by doing one thing - keeping interest rates artificially low. This in turn fuelled real-estate speculation, which then created bubbles. Another effect of these same rates is encouraging people to go into debt in as many ways and for as much as they possibly can. When this caused economic collapse (because banks were posting record profits and growth on the back of this house of cards of bad debt) in the fall of '08, Europeans, Canadians, and Americans were all told that governments who were already tremendously indebted needed to borrow more in order to "stimulate" economies that, in fundamental terms, don't perform and are moribund anyways, due to the amount of public and private debt in the system, the lack of any real, tangible economic productivity, and over-dependance on scarce resources.

So they stimulated. Massive amounts of borrowed, non-existant capital were injected into the economic system. This was thanks to weeks of endless MSM hammering on about how "we were all Keynesians" now and it was just a matter of pulling through, as if we did something really tough or made some courageous decision or sacrifice. But starting a sentence with "We are all...", especially at a time when something bad happens, is a bad idea, because it results in group think, which usually ends up with terrible decisions being made (See "we are all americans", post 9-11)

The accomplishment of the stimulus, then , has been for a sick and broken system to carry on for 18 more months in a damaged and inherently flawed status quo (since the "confidence" the stock market relies on to stay above anxiety-causing levels has also acquired the habit of waiting for "stimulus" and "bailouts" to maintain its value). Now there are people advocating to continue on like this into eternity, lest we jeopardize the "fragile" recovery. Let me say this in as few words as possible - if you have to artificially prop something up indefinitely, that means THERE IS NO CHANCE FOR A RECOVERY! That's like saying somebody in a multi-year coma on life support is headed to recovery. I think the whole thing is summed up beautifully by these lyrics, from the 1987 Guns N' Roses song "Mr. Brownstone". See if you can figure out what they're referring to:

"I used to do a little but little wouldn't do it so a little got more and more.
I just keep trying to get a little better, said a little better than before.
I used to do a little but little wouldn't do it so a little got more and more.
I just keep trying to get a little better, said a little better than before.

We've been dancing with, Mr. Brownstone. He's been knooooooockin'
He won't leeeeeeeave me alone"

Isn't that cool? I don't know. Maybe something gets lost without the accompanying musical soundtrack. Anyway, not to insult anybody's intelligence, but just in case anyone's lost, Axl is clearly singing about Heroin, using the code name used for it among this group of people at that time (I know that from reading GNR biography that belonged to my old roommate who was obsessed with them). And when I hear that second part of the chorus, that whiny high voice stretching out those vowel sounds, I can literally see someone just going crazy, fidgeting and scratching their neck. It seems like a lot of moving art comes from authentic places of real experience, and I think everyone in the band who created this incredibly evocative piece dabbled and knew a thing or two about the subject matter. Twenty-three years later, I think this accurate portrayal of a junkie mindset actually sums up our economic situation and the relationship we've forcefully forged between it and government quite well, although I'm sure that was the last thing on their minds at the time.

Presumably in North America, once we got that first little boost from the government, we now have that precedent to be able to go back and increase our request, or at least the Star and Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman feel like we do. Interestingly enough with heroin, as the drug pushes the junkie deeper into societal marginalization and inability to function, he somehow finds ways to procure himself more and more. But he gets the sweet satisfaction of addiction; what did North America get for its massive stimuli? I could have lived with it if it had actually gone towards towards public investments dedicated to modernizing our civilizations for the future. Urban agriculture, high speed trains, venture capital; those are just a couple ideas of the top of my head. Yet at the end of this 8 billion gabajillion dollar rope, North America will still be lacking a comprehensive and efficient rail system. What it will have is even more roads, highways, and bridges to nowhere, and a more diverse array of rural pork-barrel vote-buying construction projects than ever before. Not to mention those stupid ubiquitous economic action plan signs. I don't think the government will ever have any intention of taking those down since they provide it with more visible advertising than they could ever hope to put out on their own while retaining any illusion of self respect. These signs are outside the government buildings where I live, and I kid you not, I have not noticed one goddamn tool or workman or any change whatsoever to speak of in or around these buildings. So the stimulus is also working as part of a grand propaganda scheme, playing into people's perverse perception that they've been subtly indoctrinated with that government has everything under control and is taking care of everything. If the government hadn't done anything the first time, we would have witnessed real adaptation, survival and innovation because it would have forced individuals to take responsibility. It also would have allowed us to expose both sides of the Koolaid drinkers debate: We would have seen what the so-called "anti-government" thatcherites were really made of, while quieting the bleating of the Keynesians by throwing them a bone for their precious "recovery". For as any ex-junkie know, rehabilitation is the only true road to recovery.

There is just no backup plan on file if we are plunged into a second recession, as I
believe we inevitably will be due to the structural issues that caused the first one remaining unaddressed. What is the government going to do then? Go into more debt to stimulate our way out of that one? This is a downward spiral, and a line needs to be drawn in the sand to cut it off. I really think its equivalent to denying a junkie that last blast tomorrow and shipping him to rehab today, which may not even work the first time. We've got to realize how dependent the system is on cheap credit, overly optimistic future predictions, speculation, and greed. The MSM is a main enabler, as is TV, Hollywood, and online and gadget distractions. If we don't cut off the bad stuff, whether it be in the form of stimulus, bailouts, eternally low interest rates, or being held hostage by the stock market, we're going to OD. But try to reason with a junkie that way. All he can think about is making it to his next score. But deep down he knows its bad for him if he's smart, and people usually are. That's why it will be interesting to see how the court of public opinion will respond to a serious push for another stimulus, if and when there is one.