Sunday, 26 September 2010

Diss Integration

For twenty-five years we have been told that economic integration, convergence, and deregulation are the only way to raise everyone’s standard of living and reduce income disparity on earth. The embryo of Adam Smith’s groundbreaking and logical theories in The Wealth of Nations has slid down a three hundred year slippery slope, twisted and perverted through its evolution into recent history’s hydra of global supply lines, financial speculation, industrial agriculture and unchecked energy consumption with their accompanying “free market” justifications. These activities are harmful and unhealthy to the earth and to humanity, and yet are assumed to be innate to our nature (for no other reason than they are what we happen to be doing right now), and heralded as modern technological solutions without which any attempt at solving our global problems of which they are the principal cause is a non-starter.

Boldly leading this march to obsolescence and destruction are western governments, both individually, and speaking as a group at global symposiums such as the UN, Davos, G20, etc. These governments, initially created to be at the service of the people during the advent of revolutions and republics in the 18th century when the masses determined their right to govern themselves, are now the most guilty for what ails us. They talk tough about the excesses and irresponsibilities of bankers, short sellers, and credit default swaps, and the need for better regulation to pretend they have things under control and curry populist favour with their electorate. They don’t seem to realize that where the system really went wrong is, in fact, when the one-time “citizen” governments they lead decided that Smith’s laissez-faire logic applied to them. This allowed them to be present in all sectors of life and claim to take responsibility for everything, giving them and the companies whose pockets they’re in free reign to monopolize everything. Now we find ourselves in a situation where we are unable to provide for any of our own needs, but conditioned to retain a ridiculous illusion that the government will take care of our health, give us an income even if we squandered our own recklessly, “manage the economy”, etc, forever and ever. I do think government can and should do these things to some extent if they are self financing and within a nations’ means. What governments have done is allow themselves to balloon to the same obesity levels and lose money at the same rate as some of the stupendous failures of capitalism we’ve witnessed in the past two years, to the point that they will soon be justifying their legitimacy with the same ridiculous premise that they are “too big to fail”. Worse, they have given themselves carte blanche to behave as actors in the economy in the unprecedented way of the bailouts of ’08 and will not hesitate to do it again. It is symptomatic of a system that is crumbling under its own weight. How did this happen?

When entities expand too quickly and are sprawled across too many domains, the accompanying overhead and lack of accountability (too many chiefs) leads the obese beasts to collapse. General Motors’ costs running 15-20 brands in 70 countries and retiree pensions and benefits far exceeded anything it ever could have possibly hoped to earn selling cars. It tried to “stimulate” itself for many years by selling, financing, and manufacturing cheap and throwing in all kinds of rebates and incentives. By the time they were totally insolvent they were $90 billion in the red. (And thanks to the transfer of Canadian and American tax dollars to this company, they are now only 17$ billion in the red. Even though many people believe they have “paid it all back”. Doesn’t that make you feel good?) It is a game you cannot play catch up in. Even almighty Walmart, every well-meaning citizen’s favourite evil punching bag, started to fall out of favour with Wall Street in 2010 (see USA Today, March 2010). It has saturated so many markets to the point that the exponential growth the street pathologically craves has become mathematically impossible. As a result, its share price can now only be expected to stagnate or decline (which means BO-ring! in capitalistish). Of course, they are much better positioned than GM was (no obligations to underpaid workforce, massive low-class market cornered, shameless cheap and short sighted middle and upper class market segments also cornered), but what happens when their supply lines experience disturbance by shortages/energy prices? Same result: small blips will transform the now impressive and unimaginable number of square feet into an impossibly expensive to maintain albatross. You can extend this analysis to all business monopolies that exist with the overt and covert sympathy of Western governments, all of whom consider themselves, no doubt, too big to fail (mortgages, agriculture, finance, tech, telecom, staples), and indeed, to Western governments themselves. It is not that these enterprises and the governments that support them with our money will be done in by some inherent evil. Their massiveness assures their eventual redundance.

I know libertarianism is on the rise these days, and I assure the reader I have not bought in and am not clamouring to take my chainsaw to parliament tomorrow. The most outright manifestation of the phenomenon in the media is the American Tea Party, screaming that there is "too much government in our lives" and the "expansion of government is unconstitutional and must be curbed". The sentiments are echoing the "government is the problem, not the solution" zeitgeist of the Reagan-Thatcher 1980s. However, as Thomas Friedman so aptly pointed out in his NY Times column this week, the movement is more about blowing off steam about a whole bunch of things than proposing any meaningful changes in the governance structure. The political anger they're capitalizing on is justified, but it is misplaced. As opposition they are not exactly taking advantage of an oppurtunity; they are proposing to solve the problems by playing to people's worst instincts of more free rides and more taking the easy way out. These tactics may get them in power, but because they don't deal with the real problems at the heart of the matter, their honeymoons will last for about a day. A changing of the guard in America will create a different coloured party and different faces to yell out, while the so-called agents of change avoid taking any responsibility for a system which is, after all, theirs to shape, if only they could remember what things like revolution and civic engagement were.

N’empêche, the Canadian commentariat is waxing philosophical these days about whether this “tea party effect” is contributing to the wave of anti-incumbent sentiment here. The premiers of the four largest provinces are all waiting out their majorities hiding in their offices now, for different reasons. They are fearful of their citizens' discontent and malaise that they did largely earn during their mandates, but is now being stoked and exacerbated by the mainstream media on a daily basis. It used to be conventional knowledge in Canadian politics that being in opposition is a hard and thankless job. You must criticize the government non-stop while not elaborating any policies of your own, for this makes you vulnerable to the sitting government which from its incumbent position has more visibility and an advantage to ridicule your untested plans. It seems this is no longer the case. These are good times to be a challenger, and indeed the opposition seems to be relishing their incumbent opponents’ falls from grace with glee. Good for them, because again it is just a lot of hot air. Change in any of the provincial or federal regimes in Canada will produce the same result as our tea party friends winning the midterm elections in December: More decay and disillusionment, and no change or improvement. For it is considered “political suicide” to deal in the realities and truths that are becoming apparent everywhere, it seems, but on the campaign trail.

And that’s where I differ from Mr. Friedman in his analysis that I cited earlier: leadership. He is still waiting for some trailblazing visionary to rally the troops and get everybody on board for the great extreme nation makeover of 2010. Not only have I abandoned the illusion that such people exist, seeing no reason why we should waste our time waiting for some mythical messiah who’s never going to come to solve our problems, but a person demonstrating such leadership will be summarily ignorned and scorned just as the many people who propose ideas and solutions are now. What will happen, though, is every provincial challenger in Canada will attempt to self-style themselves as this figure by appealing to optimism and vagueness, and everyone will be exposed as a fraud shortly after their victory just like Barack Obama was.

Past and future failures should not be blamed solely on politicians, and this is not a rant against them. There are deep cancers in the system which are far betyond their ability to fix even if they wanted to. Basically, the state no longer collects the money it needs to buy people, and its willingness to go further and further into debt to achieve this end is more and more transparently bald and offensive. The tea party is right that government has expanded in an exponential and unsustainable fashion to a ridiculous size, but they are wrong to think that paying the bill can somehow be circumvented (which is what they are advocating by proposing a large tax cut) before the size of the state is reduced. If the taxes that needed to be collected had been up until now and the entitlements issued were within the means of those revenues, we would be fine. Obviously, it was quite the opposite that happened. The system collects from about 35-40% of the productive population and guarantees entitlements for 100%. Now, as everyone but the political class can plainly see, the only way out of this mess is raising taxes and cutting spending, which is what I meant earlier when I said political suicide.

None of this is new or revolutionary - it is hammered relentlessly by all kinds of commentators day in day out. I'm not writing today to say that the problems can be solved by kitchen table logic - "You have more money going out than you do coming in and you need to reverse this!", although a bout of that could only help. I'm also not writing to say "Throw the bums out!" as if the opposition (or rather, the oppurtunimisition) had any credible soltuins. I'm writing to say that the problem lies literally in the size and the scope of the government itself. The size is totally unmanageable, and the layers ensure endless buck-passing, running up new bills to throw money at every new problem, and zero accountability for what is happening.

The political-economic system in North America is filled with an ever expanding array of popular (and expensive) value-sapping drags that most of these so-called "libertarians" are loath to forego. The most absurd example would be tax deductible mortgage interest in America, which effectively subsidizes the housing market with taxpayer money, and which I’m sure more than a few tea party members no doubt duly file for on their annual return. Then how about all those six figure outsize public sector salaries? This is a relatively recent development, and there are a few bucks in there. Then there is the fierce opposition to taxes on resource extraction, which the status quo set claim will make precious foreign investment flee. These people don't understand that resources are not call centres - they can't be shipped to poor countries. I cannot go on for the rest of the night about expensive bills for health care system, free roads, indexed pensions, individual and corporate welfare, political advertising and rural vote buying, and onward and upward that need to be paid and aren’t getting paid. I can only say that there are more sucklings on the teat than there have ever been before, and every new event representing the least upheaval (floods, hurricanes, going out of business) prompts yet another instinctive bee-line to it

If you let me at the provincial or federal books, I could balance the budget. But not without drawing the ire of public service union cartels, the howling of editorial boards, and the rage of people who now get paid to do everything from buy transit passes to working in industries that cannot stand on their own two feet like auto and fisheries. However, this will be nothing compared to the agony that will be felt once the financial collapse we are headed for hits. Even if people stand don’t really understand or want to hear that the Western democracies they live in are insolvent and line up firmly behind the government’s “fuck it, we don’t have to pay attitude”, if it decides to go that route eventually, the nation would end up defaulting, the currency would be massively devalued, and suddenly your 400,000 home you signed your life away for is worthless

In Thursday’s Globe and Mail, there were all kinds of catastrophic warnings. In an otherwise saccharine and whiny analysis of the perils faced by the Canadian "middle class" which has placed itself in record levels of indebtedness, former liberal speechwriter Scott Reid says Canadian debt levels are approaching that of Greece’s. And columnist Neil Reynolds today says despite the federal government's bragging about our low debt-GDP ratio, it is actually as high as the United States' when federal and provincial debt are taken into account, which after all is all debt owed by Canadian citizens. Given that we owe nearly 100% of our yearly output which keeps us afloat, it is difficult to imagine how we would ever dig ourselves out of the hole.

We won’t. The size of the entreprise is the problem is so great and provides comfortable liefstyles to so many people that it will persist until it abruptly stops. As Vanity Fair editorialist Graydon Carter pointed out in this month's issue, the United States had a smaller army than Romania in 1915. Today, no fewer than 1,200 government agencies and 1,900 private companies and contractors suck up the three quarters of a trillion-dollar defence budget, greater than all other defense budgets of earth’s countries combined. Although this is certainly the most "obese" government department in human history, the same logic has infiltrated all levels of North American governments who, after all, cannot afford to neglect any of their citizens or regions.

However, the federal republic model clearly creates rivalries and cleavages between regions, and is ultimately artificial. It is imposed by a central authority and has created bloated bureaucracy which is unsustainable and has no credibility in the eyes of many citizens because it is has no relevance or real value to them. Equalization payments in Canada that cause endless rivalries and tension between provinces have ensured that that no elusive “big tent” party will ever get the free hand to govern that past majorities have, and the current political logjam looks set to last for years to come. Across the pond, no less than 1.3 trillion euros have been transferred from West to East Germany in 21 years, where unemployment remains high and the biggest employer is the government. And to lead a country like America, where the citizens of 15 or 20 cities economically productive hub cities’ lives have nothing to do with and zero exposure to the masses dwelling in suburban or rural areas with zero economic prospects other than working at Mickey Ds or wall mart, as a “unifier” is a dubious proposition in itself. These countries are not (or at least, no longer) meant to be governed by all-powerful, central authorities. We are starting to see cracks in the unity that will evolve into full blown fractures as strains and tensions on centralized structures increase.

Once powerful ideas like "strength in unity" "divided we fall" and "bigger is better" will be discredited once central authorities realize they have nothing substantive to base such claims on, and that the satisfying of certain constituencies can no longer be done at the price of alienating and ignoring others based on the political calculation that you can take them for granted. When they are cut off from the central structure and lose the instinct to run to it to solve our their problems, people will re-learn to do the things they did for themselves for thousands of years – trade, commerce, provide skills, exchange with those around them, circulate in a human-scale space, grow food and no longer segregate themselves by age. The world will be truly liberated when it dis-integrates, or un- or de-integrates if you like to use whatever the correct word that is the opposite of integration. Not when it disintegrates. Sounds the same, but we need to get off the track headed towards the latter and onto the one towards the former. Integration is a popular widely used buzzword but it is forced and unnatural and cannot remain so. This is why we must loudly, forcefully, diss integration in all its forms.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

It's the Stupid Economy

If you reverse the first two letters of this posting's title, you have the slogan of Bill Clinton's very successful 1992 Presidential Campaign. It is an approach that floundering defenders of the status quo in North American politics are trying to mimic now, in an attempt to repeat their past electoral successes. But unless they figure out away to start their nations or provinces from economic scratch all over again, I suspect it will not work. For this time around, they have not had an ingenious epiphany to remind them to stop talking big ideas and re-focus on the economy, but rather are suffering from a staggering myopic tendency to be unable to produce any ideas of substance or policies of value or talk about anything else. They are being left scratching their heads figuring out why a so-called "free-market" economy doesn't respond to their meddling in it and manipulation of it, and have their fingers crossed behind their backs in proverbial hail marys hoping some imaginary massive wave of economic growth will fool people into thinking that they have this under control in time for their next electoral calendar obligation. Let's explore the rationale behind this approach, and have a look at the dynamic in action in governments across North America and elsewhere.

The premise that helped Clinton and that governments hope will help them now is that people are as genuinely short sighted and self interested as corporations and shareholders. What they want from you as a politician is ways you will improve their bottom line. Less taxes, low inflation, low unemployment rates, purchasing power. People are made aware of these phenomena at work both from their own personal situations and data and commentary distilled through the mainstream media and fed to them, and the party that wins elections in 2010 is the one that is seen as the most "competent" (even though the functioning of the system has very little to do with what happens in legislatures) to manage the status quo to make everyone "richer" and optimize "growth". Even if there are members of the electorate who deplore your pandering, lack of long term vision, or appeals to people's selfishness, the people you are after outnumber them, and the vast amount of voters who have opted out because of disillusion or ignorance ensure that you win in the outmoted system that dates from when only white property owning males could vote.

However, if there is one thing I can guarantee, and that a self respecting columnist or two can attest to, it is that neither richness or growth will be happening much anymore to people who haven't experienced them already. Lets take an example. The Ontario Liberal Party has racked up a record deficit and promises to bring it in line within 7 years. But, they have expanded entitlements. In fact, spending has increased a whole 50% under their reign, from 70 billion to 116 billion annually. I could probably live with this if we had something to show for it, but instead we have a stake in General Motors and twice as many lanes of traffic. And, they have made this promise assuming health care spending doesn't balloon, which it will, because when has it ever not?

This head in the sand approach is one thing. But blackballing ones rivals and accusing them of being irresponsible for even suggesting that an alternative to the current government exists is quite another. And that is what we are witnessing from the federal conservatives in Canada. Since the stock market crash, they have qualified all attempts by the opposition to express their political ambitions (which, in a democracy, we assume an opposition would have) as heresy and shot them down with childish screaming fits about how their election would equal guaranteed overnight third world status. I'm not suggesting that the opposition has really spelled out any credible/original/interesting policies of their own, but the current government sure as hell doesn't have anything to take credit for. Unless you consider taking 2 billion a year out of the public treasury with a useless GST cut, who knows how much out of the public treasury with corporate tax cuts (the exact figures of which are never disclosed to the public), and giving future Canadians a 47 billion deficit to deal with that mainly consists of an advertising program for the conservative party, highway expansion and various pork barrel projects in conservative ridings "sound economic management".

These examples of flagrant bad economic policy making are of course matters of public record, but I also have noticed lately that governments have taken the rhetoric a step further, claiming things like the HST creates 600,000 jobs in Ontatio, the opposition coalition in power would result in the loss of 400,000 jobs in Canada, and the opposition responding the increasing of EI premiums would result in the loss of 175,000 jobs. Throwing dubious claims like these into the mix of a government's poor (or an opposition's non-existant) track record and the absurd (but alas, true, if you listen to the mainstream media) premise of the whole election being fought over "economic management" adds an extra layer of silliness to an already throroughly farcical discourse.

Because the North American economy is highly diversified into several "tertiary" sectors which provide "jobs" (call centres, financials, transportation, construction, manufacturing) but not actual "work" towards anything useful or productive, since they further dig the twin environmental and economic debt and deficit ditches more and more people are noticing us languishing in, the government is able to get away with this. They can be more coy about the resource-extraction backbone on which it all relies (and which Western Canada likes to take credit for, acting as though its economic contribution to the country is somehow based on merit and not resources that it happens to be sitting on). The government does not have to admit that if you take petroleum and Canadian resources out of the equation, you literally take away the reserves that they draw their credibility on the matter from. For if we look at two other "developing countries" we see that petroleum is literally a bank account that the government uses to finance and float the economy, as well as a source of stolen slush, but I shouldn't even really have to mention that, with which the nations' fortunes are already linked to a point that they will rise and fall (and eventually, of course, fall) with. The difference between these places and here is that the citizens of these states already know it and acknowledge it, and the leaders are up front with the population about it because it is clear as day.

The two countries are Russia and Mexico, who both experienced chaotic twentieth centuries with intermittent periods of high political instability. Today, Mexico is becoming more and more fractious as the maquilodoro factories near the U.S. border that provide one third of employment to Mexicans feel America's slowdown, and the ground that marijuana and cocaine from down south pass through on their way to America is being fought over bloodily and mercilessly by the drug cartels. Seven million teenage boys are without work or education; guess what sector will absorb them? Amidst this, the Mexican state has only its deepwater petrol reserves to rely on, nationalized since 1936. But the reserves are in deeper and deeper water and running out. Can anyone see whatever peace existed until now was bought with and how this time bomb is ticking over Mexico? The right wing NAFTA stooge president is of course contemplating selling off the reserves to private companies to raise money, which will never wash with the population, and his army's war with the cartels has only strengthened them and intensified violence. This is a country that, unlike ours, doesn't have anything to hide the fact that it lives off a petroleum bank account behind and has no solutions or fixes for the future (other than tourism, also petroleum intensive, and also declining due to the beating the country's image is taking with rampant drug war-corruption bullshit going on).

Russia, meanwhile, has been run for a decade by the CEO of Gazprom, Vladimir Putin. The country that went through a fire sale of its most precious assets in the early 1990s to become the kleptocracy that it is today is in the hands of the Putinator so firmly due to his ability to distribute the windfall from the gas into some citizens' pockets, and push around its former colonies that the now smaller country no doubt feels bitter towards, especially when they try to become all Western and pro-American. He may have had a few good years and made himself and his cronies enormously rich in the process, but again: how powerful is the man when we pull his natural gas plug?

As the sun sets on petroleum, governments around the world stand to be turfed, scrapped, and ignored as illegimitate by their citizens. For it will no longer be a matter of governments saying "it's the economy, stupid" to their citizens but their citizens saying to them "why did you f--- us over with this stupid economy?"

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Lacking Credential’s 50th Post – Rob Ford the Assassin

I am happy to inform you all that after 9 months of activity, the Lacking Credentials weblog is commemorating and celebrating its fiftieth post with this facebook note. For the benefit of any anonymous readers who are smart and fortunate enough not to be on that foolish social networking machine (a goal which I am foolish to keep procrastinating hitting), I am also posting it here on the blog.

I feel that it is appropriate to do this roughly nine months after I started this blog. That the amount of time that has lapsed since then is equal to the length of the human gestational period gives me licence here to make an analogy on how this column I write has started from nothing, grown, evolved, taken shape and is now a little thing with life, life with nonetheless a long ways to go yet in its development. This "coming out" party for the blog does not aim to be significant or grandstanding, or to compare the blog's significance to that of a human life. Only to make you aware that this is something you now may want to take notice of, or get others who you think might be interested to take notice of, if for no other reason than me humbly, politely, earnestly asking you to.

In December of last year, some months into my first forays into freelance writing, someone suggested I start a blog. It hadn't crossed my mind, as I was spending more time trying to write short stories, articles and novels, and in my ignorance thought blogs were something in which people did nothing but talk about themselves, their lives, and their probably ignorant and impertinent opinions. Mastering a new technology for pointless narcissicism didn't seem to me to be a good use of time for what I was trying to do.

It turned out to be the best thing I could have done. Writing a blog ensures regular sit downs to work on thoughts and ideas, and more importantly gives a reluctant but hopelessly addicted consumer of news, articles, and editorial pieces on current a voice and a space to talk back to all the material being absorbed on an ongoing basis. Not only that, I discovered people doing the same thing as me in the blogosphere, but of course much better than me, being seasoned veterans that they are. Still, there is no feeling greater than hearing ones own thoughts and beliefs articulated by someone else and hearing voices that affirm ones own; I believe this is what all successful cultural products succeed at. I think my reading list shows how news information and current events really have become democratized by the availability of blog technology, and the work these people are doing is just an infinitely small percentile of what is available out there.

Writing "real" stuff on paper remains my principle pursuit and goal, but it requires a lot of edits, re-writes, research, and consulting with others which creates necessary delays in the creation and realization of content, especially when you're still stuck working for the man during the day. Writing fiction or non fiction you actually would want to show anybody is thus a much longer process than blogging, not that there isn't anything forthcoming from me or I'm trying to make excuses on that front. The nice thing about blogs, though, is sometimes you can write a pretty good piece sometimes in an hour if you're feeling inspired, just due to the nature of the beast.

But that nature of the beast is also a double-edged sword, and something inside me subconsciously prevented me from doing this until now. Told me it wasn't yet time to "do myself a favour" by "putting myself out there" and "telling my friends". Of course I have mentioned it to friends I see, in passing. There are issues that must be worked out, however, if one wants one's blog to be read by anybody. The ability of instantaneous publishing can lead to outbursts of verbal diarrhea. It can also lead to hyperbole and exaggeration. There is no editing or self-censoring mechanism built in, so ideas can quickly turn into long winded rants and emotion can carry away an article into several places where it might lose the reader. I still struggle with these things, and they are probably related as much to me as to the blog, but I think I have culled their occurrence to an acceptable level and the blog is consequently more readable and interesting now than it was at its debut.

Then there was of course the technology issue that kept me away for a long time. I groaned at learning that even on an idiot-proof, tech pablum platform like blogspot it is really difficult to make your blog look half-decent. Thankfully, I refused to be deterred at the very beginning and am glad at this point that save for 2 hours on a serious image clean up six months in, I am still working on a bare-bones, no frills surface. The articles are there and they are accessible and readable, and that's all I can claim to want to able to share with you. Eventually someone can maybe help me make the blog more visually exciting and appealing, but if this thing is going to have any exposure, it will have to be on the strength of its articles which all come from the same place (up here, on my throne in heaven - no, just kidding)

And outside the part of the blogosphere devoted to baby picture posting and embarassing personal droning about mundane lives, there is the problem of marketability for people wanting to get their writings out there. What "niche" are you trying to corner? How are you "monetizing" your blog? What separates your "product" from all the junk out there?

Thinking about those kinds of questions gives me an enormous headache, and I'm convinced that trying to act on them would make things worse starting with stealing the time I should spend gathering and writing ideas. I think the best shot one has is to be oneself. The blog is called Lacking Credentials because it is a play on my last name (which happens to include the verb "to lack") and the total absence of credibility I have to comment on the main subjects that interest me (politics, economics, resources, the environment, media, and culture) in a society that measure you by your credentials. I have no press credentials, no PhD credentials, no professional credentials, no artistic credentials, and no business credentials. I have no motivation or compensation to do this other than wanting to do it, than compulsively doing it.

So why should you read my blog? Because when you read the mainstream media, you get a cosmetic diversity of opinions and a token spectrum of views and perspectives. If you read enough you eventually realize that it is a crushing and demoralizing monolith of churning, status quo perpetration. The subjects I mentioned are discussed with about as much flavour as club soda and as much boldness as the weather report - or else are reduced, despite their significance, to being covered like sports. Most people can confirm things are going to shit on several of these fronts, and several commentators are skilled at documenting and providing commentary in that regard, but why leave all the fun to them? I just try to reasonably inform myself and weigh in. As I said before, there are many other excellent bloggers doing the same thing, much better and since way before I started. Some of their links are on my blog. I aspire to accomplish what many of them are doing, but from a new and different perspective. And if you don’t want to click on the link, here is the fiftieth posting right here. Without further ado

The Assassination of the Toronto Citizenry's Sense of Civic Obligations by the Coward Robert Ford

Toronto, Ontario, my hometown, is an anomaly in the category of comparably sized and populated cities on earth. It is a city that tops the charts in this group for both highest rates of car ownership and lowest amount of transit infrastructure. Its newspapers and genteel-elite continually moan about its exclusion from the planetary class of cities considered "world class", not realizing until the recent mayoralty campaign that the fundamental issue holding the city back is transit. This has become a central, if not the central issue of the campaign, but unfortunately the debate is framed in the worst possible way. A well functioning transit system on par with other global population centres (Moscow, Beijing, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, Milan, London, New York) could give Toronto some serenity to replace its current state of malaise, so great that the municipal campaign has brought the issue to the forefront…but, the municipal government is powerless to raise the cash and cut through various levels of bureaucracy to act in this regard. So, we complain on blogs and in letters to the editor. For the problem is there is no one person or even government to blame.

Toronto is the financial capital and an economic capital of Canada, yet stubbornly remains a political leper at the highest level of government – the one with the cash (or ability to borrow cash) to give it the transit it needs. No wonder, since votes in it are as meaningless as Democratic votes in New York or Los Angeles (to be precise – one fifteenth of the votes in Canada for one sixth of the population), and to boot they have been for the despised opposition liberals. The feds are thus happy to dump on the city by staging ridiculous boondoggle summits there and trashing its citizens as "out of touch elites" to consolidate their rural base. Naturally all while drawing a good chunk of the CRAs tax revenues and the country's GDP they love to brag about from the city. It is a city with a total vacuum of local leadership, vision, and priorities, which is frustrating, when you live there, and frustrating to witness other Canadians glee and schadenfraude towards when you don't. A man has now stepped into that vacuum. He is so popular he risks clogging the vacuum (pardon the pun) and his name is Robert Ford. He thinks the city can be something even better than what it is today: A parking lot. But isn't that what it is right now? No. You see, if only we took everything off the roads except cars (I'm looking at you, lousy good for nothing Kensington hipsters!), we would have unlimited space to speed down them He's talkin' tough, he's talkin' rough, he doesn't use big words, and he doesn't spend public money. The citizens of Toronto, in a twilight zone haze from being hammered day and night for decades by Sun Media about how they're overtaxed, underappreciated, and on the brink of being 3rd world, and reeling from spending their lives in never ending traffic, are confused and angry, and fleeing into the big mans arms in droves

Granted, the city's inertia can also be blamed largely on its property owning citizens, most of whom expect Port Elgin, Ontario levels of pollution, cost of living, and peace and quiet, but New York City levels of culture, amenities, and international visibility. The only city its size in the world with no train to the airport sees fierce NIMBY neighbourhood association opposition in Weston when it tries to build one. A city for whom the provinces energy grid is woefully under-capacity in terms of serving future demand sees another NIMBY blockage in south west scarborough over plans to put a weather station - a little weather station the size of a suitcase - 25km offshore in the lake to evaluate wind potential. Imagine if anything seriously futuristic happened like a biogas plant or dedicated tram lanes happened. No, Toronto is clearly in a gridlocking themselves to death in darkness mood these days. Ford's imminent election is what they want, and they will get it.

Before I go any further, I just want to clarify that his and everyone elses campaign promises are all bunk, because he is not a dictator who can decree his wishes into law the day after his election. He's a mayor who has to work with a council. So the spectre of fear hanging over Toronto progressives that their city is going to turn into Lubbock, Texas overnight is slightly overstated. Also, I want to clarify that all the other candidates are clearly non-entities not up to the job for allowing somebody like this to leap in front like he has, and I will not waste my time mentioning any of them (except Sarah Thomson, because she actually has an idea - yes, an idea! to raise money for the city. It's called tolls. Transit isn't free, so why are highways, considering the perpetual cash sucking pothole fields that they are? Again, look around the world to see examples of how these roads can pay for themselves and other things, and then look at Toronto). This article is a strictly non-partisan lament about how a guy who I'd probably have a heated conversation with at the bar, but am not going to bother taking down with straw mans because he's pretty irreproachable as a person. Just noticing a man with no ideas and nothing original to say has captured a city's imagination to the point that the populace is salivating to hand him the keys.

It is true that Ford deserves to be commended for not spending his council office budget. And it is true that his anti-waste message resonates and no other candidate has delivered a coherent narrative. But it is also unfortunate that people blame all their problems on the previous guy in charge, as if he was solely responsible for the city's over-extended and under-funded current fiscal state. I see the problems many frustrated voters see, but I recognize that they are not the product of one man's reign, but rather structural limits that prevent any real advancement or progress from being realized. A big one is the union cartels which sap the city of cash and overpay workers who have no particular value added skills other than having won the unbreakable public sector union lottery - to do jobs not beyond the average citizens’ abilities or comprehension in exchange ridiculous amounts of money and gold plated retirements which definitely are. Modernizing, environmental initiaives suffer because of it: The TTC is blocking meaningful transit expansion as much if not more than the province and the feds. There would be enormous cost savings to be realized in busting these unions, which the city have viewed up until now as sacrosanct as consequently has had to resort to slapping all kinds of fees on everything else, which has greatly annoyed citizens.

It doesn't start and end with the TTC. It spills over into other departments of the city, and indeed, other unions in all three levels of government: Police, Firemen, Teachers, Garbage Collectors, University Maintenance and moribund government office desk jockey employees have to all stop hiding and come forward to admit the enormous role they play in the unsustainably in-the-red finances of governments. As much as I am aware of the importance of taxes and hostile towards the mainstream media’s persistent framing of them as a negative, evil creation, balancing the books cannot be done on higher taxes and cuts to our vital social services alone. The cartels need to be called out, and they need to be called out soon.

So by now the Ford supporter understand that I am no CUPE shill. But the police, whose salaries and bennies I'm sure he'd never touch with a ten foot pole, have a role to play in the restoration of respectable public finances too. However, conservatives are generally hostile to government spending except when it comes to the tools of the state that could be used if necessary, god forbid, to enforce a fascist regime. But in an election about transit, in a city where transporting oneself is generally a nightmare no matter what means they choose (I can definitely attest to this), it is sad to see the front runner pounding the same message, day in and day out. Shut up, tax me less, and let me drive my f----ng car for free.

But those citizens need to realize that there is a price to live somewhere where everyone wants to be and every immigrant gets sent to. It creates enormous amounts of property speculation and inflation, as well as an overgrown populace that expects librairies, roads, garbage collection, etc. The feds firing one in three Canadian immigrants to Toronto every year, year after year, for the past thirty years, has been a major factor in its unmanageable growth and sprawl. Not that I am opposed to immigration, but for the city to continue accepting 50,000 new arrivals every year without making significant upgrades in its ability to move people and procure electricity is ridiculous.

Of course, therein lays Toronto’s real problem. Three levels of government are setting policies contrary to both the wishes and best interests of its citizenry, as well as contradictory to each other. And while voting for Rob Ford may provide some temporary cathartic relief for fed up citizens, it will not inject any new vision or comprehensive plan to deal with transit problems, finance problems or environmental problems - aspects of a decaying political system which no longer possesses the ability to work for positive change because of its multi-level, unsynchronised bureaucracy and the willingness of cynical individuals to exploit voters by pandering to their status quo instincts rather than explaining to them like adults what the f--- is going on and how they are going to collaborate with citizens to create strategies to fundamentally change how the city, province, and country’s infrastructure and political apparatuses are organized and governed.

Until then, Rob Ford looks real cool telling people to sit by themselves on the DVP for 2 hours every morning, letting their road rage rise by listening to whoever shills for him on CFRB, and taking out that pent up anger on cyclists once their Ford Expedition hits the narrow downtown streets. I, meanwhile, have no other candidate to offer you: who needs friends when this guys enemies talk about building tunnels to drive downtown in? It’s the same as the tea party, who are primed to take their rage out on America by drilling in its last remaining untouched source of oil, in Alaska. The fiercest denial from addicts comes at the end of the line. Odious individuals like these are not and will not be defeated by perhaps less offensive to certain, but no different in substance, “progressive” wannabes like the Ontario Liberals or the US Democrats. They will be defeated by $10 a litre gasoline. Or, by no gasoline, if OPEC decides to sell cheap to the end to try and maximize its gains. Either way, these guys are 100% right that transit is the issue of the century, and 100% wrong that everybody sitting in a car, by themselves, in gridlock is the best possible way to deal with it. I wonder if they realize what they are doing.
In 2007, Brad Pitt starred in a movie “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”. It did not do very well but is a masterful movie, and is worth a watch. Jesse James, you may have heard, was a real life gangster and train robber in the 1800s. Robert Ford, who you most likely had not heard of before the film, was one of his lieutenants who suffered from a bout of delusion and killed his notorious and charismatic figure of a boss in a moment when Jesse permitted himself a fleeting second of vulnerability. Yet it was clear whose legend lived on, and who the oppurtunist suffering from an acute case of inflated ego-titis was. Rob Ford will be mayor because nobody’s stopping him now, and I’m not going to give the outgoing mayor or any of his useless opponents the credit they don’t deserve to say he’s assassinated them. No, it is surely the lack of civic engagement from a city whose structure and culture is not very conducive to it that has permitted this angry white man’s ascent. Although pockets of it have emerged from the scores of committed, concerned, engaged citizens living with the city, their voices are about to be trampled under a horde of suburban wildebeests, drowning out their shouting like James Earl Jones’ in the lion king when Mustafa fell to his death.

Sunday, 12 September 2010


What is the breakpoint?

In other words, what is going to be the straw that breaks the camels back? This is the question that I ask myself in some of the cases, public and private, of entities we see maneouvering and flirting with disaster. The solutions that are provided to what ails them usually fall far short of what is needed, in an attempt to minimize pain/adjustment, and defer dealing with problems to some future date. Where and when will these institutions be forced to stop papering over the unsustainablity of their operations and actually adapt (or perish, as per the rules of Darwin) is the question this blog is concerned with today.

The first industry is forestry. How an industry that involves the simple exploitation of a natural resource for products (paper and wood) in constant high demand can perpetually be in "crisis" defies market logic. Either paper is underpriced and undervalued, or these companies have been terribly managed (I suspect both are true). How a company like Abitibi-Bowater can have exclusive cutting rights over much of Quebec's forests and be the recipient of 150$ million in loan guarantees from its government and be in bankruptcy protection has me scratching my head. That forests are not valued as a prized asset of biodiversity refuge, natural beauty, and carbon sucking vacuums (all well-known facts and common sense) that can be stewarded and managed as a public resource, but are rather controlled by a couple of inept cartels that can only talk about how many billion board feet they produce per year then cry the blues to the government that they are hurting from the tepid American housing market (news flash... that's underwater and ain't coming back. Do you overpaid forestry executives ever read anything on the newsprint your companies produce?) and ask for subsidies, guarantees and bailouts, then close plants and deny existing pension agreements anyway is a scandal. Not just a scandal, this is a ridiculous situation makes no sense for anybody anywhere. I'm just wondering when the bottom will truly fall out of it.

Airlines is another industry filled with multiple-bankruptcy, regular bailout requesting entities that it is impossible to make a profit in, and yet persists. Little wonder; I have not gotten through a year without taking a plane in probably ten. I am always amazed how despite fuel's increased cost and (we would assume) relative scarcity, tickets just get cheaper and cheaper. It used to take humans days to travel distances of less than 100 km - can airlines not offer 3 flights a week to a destination rather than 5 half empty flights a day so that there is less of a shock when they have to shut down overnight? Just an idea to get them started. Small airlines disappeared overnight in the past decade when they went bankrupt - what will happen to the big boys when the government is no longer in a position to throw them bones or if the cost of oil rises sharply?

These two industries do provide vital services. Like everyone, I have become accustomed to the convenience and usefulness of the products/services they provide, which I would probably be loathe to forsake. But acknowledging this as a real possibility now will surely lighten the blow when I am obliged to. This does not mean that we need to tear industries or the system down entirely, as nobody likes a "collapsitarian" who just pooh-poohs everything. It just means that industries will have to adapt or die, à la IBM between 1945 and now. It also means they will have to fundamentally re-evaluate their priorities and raison d'êtres. We need to move away from shareholder returns and profit growth being the sole rating system on which to base companies' values. Our primary concern should be their respecting of the current account balance of whichever of Earth's resources is necessary for their operations. Companies would have no choice but to comply with this if the consumer held them accountable in this regard, which means we shouldn't be expecting any reasonable change on this front anytime soon as the paradigm has not yet sufficiently shifted. That alone would to achieve this goal, but government quitting the handing out of reacharound tax deals and subsidies would greatly assist in bringing about change on this matter as well.

One area where more people do tend to pay attention to unhealthy economic bahaviour is in the public arena: the financial actings and doings of our government. The increased concern and attention is better than total apathy from the public, but it is hardly helpful in limiting stupid fiscal decision making, so the results of public finances are often as contradictory and logic defying as those of the private industries outlined above. That is why I was so annoyed last week to hear the premier of this province, Dalton "Kool-Aid" McGuinty, bleat on his usual faux-nice guy blather about how the federal government was wrong to raise EI premiums businesses pay and the Bank of Canada to raise the interest rate because of the "fragile" status of the recovery. No doubt, the feds have mismanaged EI under this regime - the program had a 54 Billion dollar surplus five years ago and should be mostly self financing - but the fact that they are taking steps to scale back the debt (and raising taxes on business) gets them some rare light props in this corner. Mr Kool Aid's government - with its 27$ billion army of overpaid admin staff, communications specialists, advisors, and fire, police and teacher pension, benefit, and indexed salary cartels- can learn something from this, i.e., not only does it not make sense to perpetually go deeper and deeper in debt as a country or province for no other purpose than subsidizing a bunch of overpaid peoples' standards of living to contribute to speculation and inflation that squeezes everybody else, it's no longer physically possible. So if the Bank of Canada raises the interest rate that raises the mortgage payment of people who couldn't afford their houses in the first place, while forcing the bank to pay me some interest to use the money that I saved, who wins there? The BoC or the lame out of touch wannabe father figure scolding me over skipping his recovery Sunday school class? I want people to be gainfully employed and for this province to be a better place too, but the Paul Krugman cult of throwing more fake money at the problem is dangerous and must be debunked in a non-ideological fashion by as many voices as possible. It's merely a delusional extension, and professors and premiers should think more of often of the simple beauty of Einstein's phrase - we cannot solve tomorrow's problems with yesterdays thinking.

The truth is, his government has no plan and their talk about building tomorrow's green economy is a bunch of PR bullshit. That is why no steps have been taken to improve the provinces finances, no transportation infrastructure has been built, no responsible zoning and land management policies have been put in place because the OMB is a one stop shop developer-rubber-stamp, vision lacking buck passing factory, and no reasonable solution has been offered to modernize the society that has sufficient population and assets living inside a small enough space to handle cutting edge rail/manufacturing/education/fiscally efficient structures and systems and have them put in place, managed, and facilitated by government on par with say, Japanese or German society. Instead, what we get are new "agencies" which are new layers of highly paid useless bureaucrats with extra euphemisms added to their titles (see: ehealth, metrolinx) that do nothing more than convolute and complicate problems that are not that hard to solve to begin with.

Sadly, much of the observations and commentary critical of these facts come from the Toronto Sun-CFRB-Conservative blogosphere crowd who love to criticize but for the wrong reason (profound hatred of anything with the name "liberal" attached to it), and without proposing any innovative solutions other than unbridled and unabashed return to the status quo. This irresponsible, libertarian approach will only aggravate and precipitate collapse and chaos. However, the Ontario liberals have driven both the management of the province and the public opinion of them to the breakpoint of reaching strongly negative with their well-meaning, but equally head in sand approach to solving the public issues that plague the province. But since they are in astronomical amounts of debt anyway, they could have at least ponied up the cash to accomplish something like build that frickin' subway to York University already. In Canada, however, we have another irrational and infuriating practice of having different levels of governments make announcements for things that will never happen. Let me be clear - I'm not talking about campaign promises. Those are obvious bunk, as evidenced in Toronto's mayoralty rase, since none of these candidates will actually have any power if elected to unilaterally dictate any of the changes they are proposing. What I'm talking about is the equivalent of standing up at a party where everyone's having a good time and standing on a chair and yelling "Ding! Ding! Ding! Attention everyone. Great news. Outside, in the parking lot, I have bought, for each one of you (cue Price is Right voice) A neeeewwwwwww carrrrrrrrr!"

The crowd turns around at each other and smiles at their good fortune and the benevolence of the announcement maker, but he's not done yet. "Your car will not start for several years, but I'm just telling you know so you can see and know and remember what a great guy I am. And of course, its contingent on my buddies Dwayne and Tony each chipping in a third of the money for my generous initiative, because I only have a third. Like you, they've never heard of this plan until now, but I know we can count on their support because a strong us is a strong them."

Ontario's government has a year to fix any of the things they've been promising to for eight. I'm not counting on it. I'm also not counting on them making any courageous or correct decisions, just as I expect the airlines and the paper makers to keep doing what they're doing. But if I hear one more fake funding announcement, veiled jab over not throwing more money down a black hole, or pronouncement made on behalf of "our families" and "folks" I will have to send my second letter to the government in less than a year. Telling them I've reached my being taken for a stupid ass breakpoint.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Playing What We Want


The fury, rhetoric, and indignation coming out of all corners over this idiot "pastor"'s plans to burn the Qu'ran in Florida is a striking example of many things. The inability of the status-quo defending North American leadership to have any priorities that matter, the glee with which the North American media stokes the sterile and futile class of civilizations debate, and the unfailing ability of a "critical mass"-level North American audience to be captivated by utter stupidity instead of asking simple questions that would immediately turn their minds to more important things.

The first question I want to ask is if there is anything, anywhere, that has got the attention of the President of the United States and the head of its army to react so boldly, so strongly, so decisively, and as quickly as this. The underlying assumption about men in such positions is that they are extremely busy, extremely important, and wouldn't have got to where they were today without extreme shrewdness and intelligence (though I personally have long ceased to believe in this hero-worshipping ideal). Yet they are literally brought to their knees, reduced to begging this man to not go through with his plans, and in doing so raising his profile to the highest possible level and giving him more power over them than anybody else on Earth dares to claim to wield. How could men of such sharp political acumen, such supposedly strategic thinkers, allow themselves to be manipulated and drawn into the games of some two-bit snake-oil huckster nobody instead of making the no-brainer decision of, well, ignorning him and leaving him in the obscurity of Gainesville, Florida to remain, well, a two-bit snake-oil huckster nobody for the rest of his days? I am just beside myself.

In many ways that have been outlined in innumerable previous columns by me and countless others, America is rotting on the inside and living off borrowed money and borrowed time. And yes, while that somewhat abstract declaration may not succeed in precipitating any sense of urgency to take meaningful stabs at slow-killing status quo cancer like cheap oil, trade deficits, obesity and wars, I would really hope that leaders would at least have some real crises in mind that they would be too busy attacking to think about Terry Jones for two seconds, let alone schedule a press conference devoted to this loser.

But they do, and what happens? Notables from all over the world line up to greet the impassioned-pleas-to-reason-and-tolerance express, from the Danish head of NATO to the Canadian Prime Minister with stops at every editorial board on the way. The learned and savvy international elite, who we respect so much for becoming elite and presiding over us in their infinite wisdom, unite their voices in one incredibly smart and meaningful statement: "Don't Burn the Book. It will encourage our enemies. Don't do it. (Cue Slow motion voice effect) NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO."

Some years ago, a radio station somewhere I lived (I think it was Ottawa) called Jack FM had a slogan – "playing what we want". They played a lot of hits, oldies, top 40, seventies, eighties, and nineties pop. It was a real mixed bag of inoffensive background music that was guaranteed to please no-one except people who listen to the radio without paying attention to the music – just to distract them from their thoughts or provide background noise or whatever. I know such people exist (I sit by one), and as a music lover have never understood them –but to that radio station the slogan made sense to go after their bottom line with. They were not playing what the royal "we" wanted but rather what they thought their target audience wanted. This is why commercial radio is redundant and fading; it sacrifices all risks and originality in its dogged pursuit of the aging "I like everything" middle aged office worker or assembly line operator, even though all stations are going after this tiny sliver of their potential audience at the same time. It is difficult to find a station that plays anything anyone would want to listen to or plays anything you haven't already heard ad nauseum. Yet, there are some people who do actually want to hear that and for whom that is an exact reflection of what they can relate to and enjoy.

That is why, whether you are disgusted by Jones or by the growing amount of mosques, hijabs, and halal butchers serving the Muslims of North America and their place in the discourse, the whole spectacle is so hot, the top news story for three days now, because it is what people want to hear about and talk about. The developments are the top headline every hour, the articles are the most popular and most shared, and the comment boards are afire into the four figures. What nerve has been struck in the collective consciousness?

I am of the opinion that the evolution of popular culture has conditioned us to crave and demand extremes. Nothing else gets us excited anymore. So we have showered a man practicing the worst kind of anti-intellectualism, the burning of a book, the repudiation of the amendment guaranteeing free speech, with attention because he has gone straight for the throat of islam, something conservative commentators with all their bravado have yet to do to this extreme. On the other hand, we have a relatively insignificant and pointless act, if we look at the act in and of itself, that has caused the holder of the highest office in the nation to, today, pick up the phone. There is a lot better stuff that this guy could be picking up a phone over. You light a book on fire, its pages burn, and a few minutes later it's black flakes. I was burning old catalogues and readers digest in a campfire last weekend. Who gives a shit what book I burn, if it is my property? How does this infringe on the rights of anybody else? If you burned my copy of The Trial or The Stranger, which are the two books that might mean a thousandth of what the Qu'ran means to these shouting mobs to me, I might be annoyed. But I wouldn't despair – material objects are not that important, you cannot take them with you, and I'm pretty sure I could find other copies, if I wanted to read either again which is unlikely as I've read them both twice. And there is a type of man in Islam (of course, Muslims don't consider women smart enough to do this, although I'm not saying none have) who can recite the whole book by heart. So even if all the Qu'rans in the world were burnt, these guys could have new ones in circulation in a couple of days. So let Jones and Co burn the Qu'ran. In fact, I have a copy of the Qu'ran in my house right now. I also have matches and lighters. I could go burn it, on my back porch, right now, and no-one would ever know. The only other person who lives here would probably never notice. The text of the Qu'ran and the language in which it is published are in no danger, and it probably is in the top ten with Agatha Christie and the Bible for copies in print. So there's no musuem curator-conservator argument against it. We have determined the physical and cultural value of the book or these books that Mr Jones is in possession of is practically nil.

But it is not the Qu'rans themselves, you tell me. It is what the act symbolizes. It is a symbolic act that creates tension because it shows people in America hate Islam. Well, is that really such a bad thing to show when many of them do because they're racist and they're totally down with what this guy is doing? And I understand symbolism very well; it's what these throngs of illiterate peasants shouting "Death to America" and burning effigies and flags and stomping on them are in the business of. They are trying to symbolize their anger and frustration, and they end up looking look like a raving bunch of fucking idiots, which is why they're weird and entertaining to our "extreme-conscious sensibilities, and why these images have been diffused in North America, which is how I'm describing to you right now what you've already seen.

To say this "puts troops in danger" is even more ludicrous. Of course they're in danger. That's the job they signed up for. And don't you think some of the people in the countries that they're in or that feel threatened by their presence will understand that there is one wackjob in America whose lunacy matches that of their shouting mobs? When one man can get the world's attention to this laserlike of a focus over something this ridiculous, when all we talk about is precisely how the total lack of a collective attention span is one of our major liabilities in changing anything for the better, you know we got problems. And it's because in the macho man, UFC, sides taking world, we really do want to see this provocation and pig-headedness.

Whatever floats your religious boat and whatever you think of Islam, there has not exactly been a shortage of men who have not hesitated to pillior the Islamic faith on a regular basis in the North American media. For regular verbal craps on the religion, google the websites of Daniel Pipes, Michael Savage, and Mark Steyn. These guys are the "fringe" figures that the leadership is now so desperately trying to paint this Jones joker as, raising his profile and giving him more power with each passing day. I find the whole spectacle so disheartening that I haven't even bothered to read the analysis from columnists I usually read and respect. For a nobody like me to rant about this is one thing. For the media and political structure of a continent to waste the last three days on this is a travesty. But I should know by now; those channels abandonned their duty to the public they serve long ago, and now they do the easy thing: just play what people want.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

One For The Good Guys

I don't think we can assume that convincing 100% of the world population not to cross over to the "dark" side is doable, or that there is a foolproof way to nip those that do or want to in the bud (although here in Canada, CSIS and the RCMP seem to have their fingers deep enough in enough pies to feel a pulse of a threat and foil it), or even that everyone will be able to honestly view this side as "dark". Neutrality and freewill are not acknowledged in the dominant discourse about terrorism, threats, bad guys, and general war-mayhem type stuff we're supposed to be all riled up about, and prejudiced subjective opinions are whats passing for journalism on the matter these days.

Hot on the heels of the recently foiled terrorist plot in Ottawa, the Canadian public could count on interpretation and analysis to follow in the columns of the two snippy upper class middle aged pillars of public morality at the Globe and Mail, Christie Blatchford and Margaret Wente. They could also count on the Globe, for all its past high-flying editorials pleading for press freedom and transparency elsewhere, to immediately disable the comments. They don't mind printing opinionated musings about why muslims, and now Canadian-born muslims, are terrorists, which they are in their right to publish in a society that values free speech, but they are presumably worried about threats from anti-islamic trolls and anti-strong women columnist trolls alike. The authors' pieces, then, must be critiqued in the court of this blogspot blog.

Exhibit A
was about who we are dealing with, what we are dealing with, and why we are dealing with it. Blatchford informed us of the cold hard legal facts - in the closet full of circuit boards terrorism ring, we are dealing with a 30 year old former halal butcher employee welfare recipient mastermind, a doctor, a pathologist, and a fourth suspect. I didn't bother looking into which one was the former Canadian idol contestant. A part that stuck with me was when there were veil clad muslim women having vigil outside the courtroom, and one of them pushed a Canadian journalists' camera away saying she has no morals. Well, she could have had some manners - "Excuse me, could you please not photograph me?".

These suspects were born right here at home yet were a threat in this war far away in a country where most Canadians have never been and will never go to, where 130+ Canadians have perished at the hands of the same Improvised Explosive Devices that these guys were intent on manufacturing. The author claims this shows that despite our best efforts to, some people have not moved on after 9/11. Namely, Muslim Terrorists, who are still out for blood. What is Blatchford's point? That a 21 year old was fighting in Afghanistan over 9/11 and died from IEDs that his own countrymen were manufacturing. Maybe. Yet, I have a hard time mustering up any worry about any immediate threat to my personal security. I know the subtext - that our lax immigration, lax security, naivete about muslims and unwillingness to force them to "integrate" are the villains that created this situation. Mark Steyn will be writing about it in Macleans next month, with an ironic sense of humour, as conservative bloggers everywhere no doubt already have, sans humour. Unlike most people, they are very, very concerned about this.

Over at Exhibit B, in Wente's column, we are perplexed that Canadian born and raised, integrated, successful people could be involved in the planning of a terrorist attack. The typical accepted root causes of terrorism - poverty, marginalization, and living in mountains surrounded by goats and never reading anything but the Qu'ran - do not apply in this case. Which leads Ms. Wente to ask, in a frustrated way, how we could combat such a phenomenon that regular citizens could now apparently be seduced by. She feels that what ails the stereotypical terrorist recruit can be combatted with resources, but if it has appeal among such unsuspecting suspects, what is a society to do? What a great question to ask. It's about as easy as answering questions about god and the afterlife.

I have a hard time figuring out who these women think is stupider - their readers or the alleged perpetrators? Their value judgements are atrocious. Yes, the vast majority of their upper middle class Canadian readership will probably concur with them, but to assume that (terrorism) this is something that can be fought/defeated/intellectually debunked is both pretentious and unrealistic. It presupposes that terrorism is a unified structure you can somehow wage war against. Other false assumptions are that all terrorists are inherently stupid, they are all inherently evil, and that you have to be muslim to be a terrorist.

It is precisely this kind of generalizing that leads us back to nowhere other than "You're with us or against us" and other non-starter prepositions that place humanity into good and evil, right and wrong, virtuous and selfish, WASP and Middle-Eastern. These women clearly do not want to admit that these men weren't stupid, even though their little popular mechanics for islamic martyrs club got shut down. Just like Osama and Moqtada Al-Sadr and Hassan Nasrallah the Ayatollah and Kim Jong-Il are not stupid. These guys know exactly what they're doing. And every time they do something, they calculate the corresponding level blustering rhetoric that's going to come out of Western Leaders, which are then transmitted to the population by the media in layers of bonus indignant editorials and scolding columnists, to say nothing of Michael Savage and his ilk to the South gleefully calling the president a muslim and fanning the flames of intolerance over the ground zero mosque debacle. Slowly, over time, it seeps into the collective consciousness that there are "good guys" and "bad guys" and the good guys need to just buckle down and make the world good for everybody once and for all. In academia and in the foreign policy community, these people are called "hawks". And they want you to believe people doing bad things are part of an entity to be defeated, which we are patently superior to. They must be stupid. They hate us. They want to hurt us.

No, what is stupid is saying these guys are stupid. These guys are not stupid. These guys are well-read, international financiers. They may be eccentric, reprehensible, vile, or islamic fundamentalists, but mayhem and trouble making and killing people does not make them stupid. To hold our civilization, or any civilization in such esteem to say anyone who opposes it is a frothing at the mouth, insane lunatic is to be intellectually dishonest and overly optimistic. Intellectually dishonest in thinking it is impossible to be cold, calculating, ruthless and evil incarnate all at the same time, and in falling for Hollywood's best efforts that these guys always lose. Overly optimistic in thinking you could somehow police the entire world to ensure nobody got any terroristy ideas ever.

Could it be that men and woman act autonomously and behave and decide what to do with their lives as autonomous, rational individuals? Does blood still run thicker than water, or do we have in 2010 the reasoning power to talk ourselves out of loyalty to king and country and homeland?

Well, I'm not going to try to answer that, and I'm not going to generalize. I believe people act for both reasons. I'm just trying to talk, to get a break from hearing the chorus of middle aged columnists in the West dismiss this possibility of freewill entirely again and again. Like, there is no magic equation that is going to figure out why a guy can sing Avril on Canadian Idol and wage jihad. That's why the first headlines said "absurd". People cannot understand how somebody could end up like this, so they just criticize, complain, and launch veiled speculations about what we'll do now that were really not able to trust muslims anymore jumping over to the dark sidem especially when they're becoming more and more integrated and even successful Western ones are waging jihad.

It is difficult to say what makes people sympathize with causes, and even more to predict how far they are willing to go in pursuit/defence of that cause. What made Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell so passionate about the Spanish Civil War to get involved, in a dangerous fight they had no skin in? (They were Republican sidesympathizers, while U.S. companies provided machinery and fuel for the Fascists who eventually won the conflict). In Les Bienveillantesby Jonathan Littell a high ranking Nazi is a Brit who becomes naturalized German. A character in the Nazi regime in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five is American. Although the characters are fictional, they are believable. Everyone wants to think there were millions like Tom Cruise in Valkyrie now who knew exactly what was going on and firmly opposed Germany in WWII, but many people knew and admired what they were doing, including (again) US business. Loyalty shifts with goals and priorities - the character Paul Atreides in Dune is a noble heir to a Duke who is supposed to colonize the Fremen for their natural resource, spice, but ends up "going native" and leading them to victory. The betrayals, in all the cases, are grand and shocking, yet represent something which is clearly within our human range of abilities, and the success of these books attest to people being able to relate to that theme.

It's maybe because of my fascination with these stories of shifting loyalties and adopted patriotisms that I find the whole argument to nowhere that muslims are more of a threat ridiculous. There is no way to prove this, and there is also no going back to our society's pre-islamic stage. There's a ton of them, they are everywhere, and you cannot round them up to protect public safety. To do so would be fascist. And look how far ahead two multi-trillion dollar wars have got the west, if it really is that concerned about building "relations" and "goodwill" with them.

Any man has the ability to wreak serious havoc if he puts his mind to it. And Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber did. What about that white Australian dude who was in Guantanamo? I want the media to stop talking about crime perpetrated by muslims as if it has more gravity or represents something more sinister that we have to be "vigilant" and cannot afford to be "complacent" about. You'll never see an article on this subject without those phrases. I wish they could talk about things that actually mattered with the same fervour.

Last weekend, an Israeli settler rabbi said Palestinians were horrible people and should all die in his sermon. Meanwhile, I know a Jewish man who now devotes all his time to being a hardcore Palestinian activist. People think the Dalai Lama is the nicest dude in the world, the Chinese openly call him a terrorist. Russia turned Chechnya into a parking lot under the pretext that it harboured "terrorists". This type of behaviour reinforces stereotypes and justifies ethnic violence and more terrorism. Same thing with the Tamils who I talked about in the last blog. The hysteria that marked the beginning of the previous decade (and that got us nowhere) cannot and should not be repeated in the event of more attacks, but of course they will because they are already now. We have to have confidence in our spy agencies to keep doing such a good job spying on everybody, and remember to keep cool heads if anything ever happens. Anyone can be a terrorist, and by continuing to draw lines between good guys and bad guys in our minds, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of almost ten years ago. Which is what the "manipulators" I mentioned above, the Al Qaedas and rogue states of this world really want. I'm not going to give them the satisfaction of calling them bad guys, nor the satisfaction (for this is what they surely wish for) of me calling myself and thinking of myself as a "good" guy.