Monday, 8 November 2010

The Slow Killing of Personal Finance Columnists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1)Save your money

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

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

2)Make a budget

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

3)Shop Around

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

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

4)Justify Each Purchase With a Cost-Benefit Analysis

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Who Are The Elites And What Do They Do?

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

August 6th

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

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

November 7th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Turn It Off Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

How Not To Take it Personally

It has become impossible to discuss immigration and multiculturalism without being accused of belonging to one of the two "camps" with equally misguided and misinformed positions on these two phenomena.

In the last Lacking Credentials posting, I said I was going to discuss immigration and how it relates to challenges Toronto is facing. These same challenges are also present in Canada's other two metropolises, Montreal and Vancouver, who with Toronto continue to be the destination for the majority of immigrants. While immigration has enormously benefited these cities and the country up until now from a cultural enrichment point of view, the fact that overinflated property values, insufficient infrastructure, and runaway sprawl are problems that all three of the cities have in common points to evidence that immigration may be a common denominator and the status quo is therefore no longer tenable as a policy. But in order to discuss what is wrong with immigration, what its unintended consequences are, and why what worked in 1975, 1985, 1995, and 2005 cannot and will not work in 2015, we must first debunk the six myths which are chiefly responsible for the polarized debate. This debate makes it impossible to talk about the issues surrounding immigration, which I am very excited to write here today in this uncensored space. I will attempt to roughly explain how the debate gets framed before going on to the entrenched myths.

On one side, the debate features what I will call “immigration reactionaries”. They do not require an explanation because they attempt to shut down every critique/discussion of immigration with some form of one of the six myths, of which detailed descriptions are to follow. The other side features what I will call the "old guard", whose ideas about immigration coalesce into a poisonous cocktail of taking our jobs, causing unemployment, not integrating into our culture, sneaking in here just to scam government entitlements, and harboring terrorist/foreign/religious extremist/undesirable elements within their ranks. I'm not saying these thoughts apply wholesale to all anti-immigration people, but the verbal and written knives that come out over blocking the Gardiner Expressway, honour killings, new mosques, and the like tend to be these sorts of insinuations (At least they are usually restricted to insinuations here. In America, Michael Savage and Lou Dobbs have made fortunes perpetuating these ideas for hours on the air every day). The "old guard" cannot help but feel alienated and annoyed travelling through kilometres of built up areas with malls, business parks, churches and plazas where everything is in chinese, or by walking into a lobby of a major companywhere 15 guys are waiting to do business wearing turbans and chattering loudly in the sitar - y airs of the Indian sub continent.

Personal opinions and preferences aside, I want the reader to understand two things. First, I am not proposing any new rules/reforms/changes for anybody who is already here. Please do not mistake me as some Canadian incarnation of Jean Marie Le Pen & Le Front Nationale or the British National Party or Allianza del Norte (all Extreme right European parties who advocate mass expulsion of immigrants). Too often attempts to initiate dialogue result in people taking what they perceive as an assault on their dearly held values, whether its multiculturalism or pre-immigration Canada personally, and accusing the other of belong to the side that they find toxic. But neither of these "values" reflect reality nor will they ever again. So let's look at the six myths, and my request to you today, reader, is PLEASE, not to take any of this personally.

1) We Need Immigrants to Compensate for our low birth rate

This is totally ridiculous. The notion that a nation needs to expand or at the very least maintain its existing population is a couple of decades old at best. It is a sort of perverse Malthusianism, which I believe like the brilliant but premature theories of the man who thought population growth was outstripping food supply in the early 1800s will be proven dubious. It is a companion to the dying and soon to be discredited paradigm of unending growth, which anyone realizes is physically impossible when they stop to think about it. There were so many demographic factors at play in the past (societal mores and religion demanded large families, and plagues, wars, famines, and lack of medical technology ensured natural selection and sustainable population growth) that to pine today for the high birthrates of yesteryear is absurd. There is simply no incentive other than pure masochism for the majority of people to have four to ten kids anymore. Most people find two quite satisfactory and higher education levels and individual autonomy have made none, thank you, a viable option. This has made all western democracies well below the 2.2 threshold needed to sustain population growth (Canada’s is 1.7). Not to mention that life expectancy has increased triplefold and the planet’s population has increased exponentially. But higher birthrates make some of our odious anti-immigrant fellow citizens excited because they create an illusion of racial purity which is thus less threatened to be watered down by foreigners. That silly racist crap aside, I fail to see how a society who has more people tomorrow will by extension have less problems than it has today. Yes, you say, but we'll need them to pay for all the healthcare/entitlements of all the old people were going to have, or else how will we pay? And I'll answer your question with a question: What makes you think you can convince people who aren't even born to be worker bees for their whole lives? How do you know they won't opt out of the system? Or transform the way the system works entirely when there are no jobs or oppurtunities or any choices to interest them? Or leave? Future planning of the population makes no sense because nobody can predict the future. Do you agree with the analysis about our country that came out of the Globe in the summer around the annual Couchiching conference about it needing three times more residents (100 million) to realize its potential? It was an audacious take on Myth #1 - a vision for the country's future generations' slave labour to carry the load of the generation(s) from a different time who bankrupted us. But of course, the koolaid drinker doesn't think it will be so bad because they've injected plenty of hazy science fiction fantasy into their analysis about how "innovation" and "technology" are going to transform our 100 million strong capitalistimegalalopolis into a star trek dream. Good luck with that.

2) We Need to Attract the World's "Best and Brightest" to foster innovation and keep our enomony strong

I’m sorry, MBA grads, for my heresy, but this is really bizarre. What we have fostered is a perverse and now widely accepted idea is that two parties can serve their own narrow interests and parlay it into a saccharine phrase that confuses people.

Why don't the world's "best and brightest", if they really are that, stay where they are and use their talents to the betterment of their homelands, since they can probably make a bigger impact there than here? Probably because they are attracted by better wages, better social services, more efficient bureaucracy, "world-class" universities, and the ability to consume conspicuously without attracting the ire of their fellow citizens or having glaring inequality rankle their consciences once they achieve success. I understand its a no-brainer for them. What I don't understand is how its a no-brainer for Western countries to poach economically productive people from societies that have a shortage of them when we have plenty of unproductive people right here, sitting around watching TV, eating pepperoni sticks, driving to the reserve to get a shipment of native cigarettes to sell to their friends, taking their 4 wheelers or dirt bikes out for rides in the bush, or whatever the hell else these people do. I believe it might be easier to work on transforming our society's "failures" into successes than skimming the "cream" or the "successes" of other societies. Of course that would require real effort and ingenuity, so count this country out, and I also suspect that our governments prefer not to acknowledge the relative term of societal "failures". Not only does it reflect badly on them, it threatens their hegemony which is maintained by the "failures"' apathy and ignorance. It is cheaper for them (or at least, they have made a conscious or unconscious calculation that it is) to buy these people off with welfare, disability or whatever and recoup part through BLS (Booze/Lottery/Smokes) taxes, write part of society off so to speak, and use an offshore advantage, rather than to work towards making the existing society function to its full potential. In this way, our governments actions are similar to those of Western multinationals who have orchestrated the massive migration of low wage, low skill jobs we've witnessed over the past 20 or so years.

3)Diversity and Multiculturalism are one of our strengths

I agree 110%. So, if we are so open minded, why do we restrict it to a few cities? Why don't we dramatically increase the diversity of destinations we send our immigrants to? While a few "non old-stock" (i.e., non white) people can be found in most communities of various sizes across Canada now, the majority of immigrants are still directed to the greater Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver areas. The remaining are invited to check out Calgary, Edmonton, Winnepeg, and Ottawa. Often they are allowed to move freely to another city where they think there may be more oppurtunity after spending just a couple months where the government decides to place them. I am of the opinion that our three major cities are overcrowded and underserved by infrastructure, and our next seven biggest cities are not there yet but will get there soon enough if the status quo is maintained.

Meanwhile, Thunder Bay, Timmins, Petrolia, Repentigny, London, Windsor, Red Deer, Brandon, Kelowna, Regina, Prince Albert, Charlottetown, Saint John, Corner Brook, Trois Rivières, Saguenay, Peterborough, Belleville, Kingston, Yorkton, Lethbridge, Prince George, Port Alberni, Sarnia, Gaspé, Moncton, Brooks, Sherbrooke, Ingersoll, Woodstock & Aylmer are all Canadian communities with comparable services to the big cities, but probably not the same cultural amenities, and are all open for growth, residents, and business. And if you're not asking where these places are, you're probably asking why would anyone want to live in any of them.

It sounds harsh to say, but I’ve seen most of these places and I can tell you they get the short shrift. The first seven cities I mentioned, along with Quebec City and Halifax, are home to 80% of Canada’s population. These other places, while retaining “city” status, have complexes in their minds of being eternally marginalized, ignored, scorned, disdained, and forgotten, because they pretty much are in the collective consciousness, by bigger provinces, bigger cities, and the nearest metropolises they sit in the shadow of. Big city media and the country’s intelligentsia pretend these places are equal with that sea to shining sea crap, but for the most part consider them as part of a sort of abstract romanticized group of seven painting, not places they would consider visiting or god forbid, living in. I recently was fortunate enough to attend a symposium the NFB hosts in communities across Canada, and the president said where we were (Kitchener-Waterloo tri-cities) was the first place out of seven he went where such sentiments of inferiority were not voiced. And I've only named a handful of such places. If you jump to the defence of immigrants and ask why should they live in them I answer: for the same reason regular Canadians live in them. These are Canadian communities. And they did apply to immigrate to Canada, right? If you say there's no jobs or way for them to earn a living there, I say, they'll figure it out. Don't worry about them. It can't be as rough as what they're used to. And won't the lousy money they make working at tims or driving a taxi (which many of them seem to do, despite having left phds and successful businesses behind) go a lot further in places where the cost of living has not been totally blown out of the water by real estate speculation?

I agree that multiculturalism, in a cost benefit analysis, has overall made society better and more interesting to live in. So why don't we practice what we preach and make it a country wide phenomenom, instead of paying lip service to it and only allowing it to exist in large cities which are already extremely diverse. This will help reduce the rural /urban divide our country faces, because small communities will be less homogenous and thus more attractive, and both sides will have one less caricature /negative attribute to write each other off with. It will make growth occur more evenly instead of in places already bursting at the pants, providing relief to the city and reinforcements to the country, which has lost enough kids to the city already.

4) We are historically known as a compassionate/helpful society and we need to give the world's downtrodden a chance to enjoy our prosperity/oppurtunities

If only that was true. The immigration "points" questionnaire virtually ensures that 90% of successful Canadian immigration applicants belong to the world's elite. Not the billionaire elite, the people who are elite relative to the majority of the world's population. They are folks who can answer yes to a few of these questions,

1) Do you have cashable assets over $30,000?
2)Do you know English or French?
3) Do you have post secondary education?
4)Do you know people/have family in Canada?

If the answer to any of those questions is "yes", than you probably are already among the elite in the 150 poorest out of 200 countries on Earth. Hell, how many born and bred Canadian citizens do you know with 30 grand cash lying around? The government effectively mitigates any risks it assumes bringing you here by assuring you meet these requirements, especially the fourth one of you having a network here because you can just depend on them while you get set up. And it is always at their discretion to say no to your application. Even with this test passed, the first little while is no day at the beach. Cash dries up like nothing, knowledge of a language is not fluency, credentials are not recognized, and your relatives are assholes. Hence Margaret Wente’s lamenting every four columns that immigrants are seriously dragging us down. All she is saying, and all I’m saying, even though we would no doubt disagree with each other on many points, is a conversation needs to be had. And the notions that we are helping people by bringing them here and that life is a breezy picnic in gold plated park once you get here have both become a little too entrenched in their broader acceptance for my liking.

What ever happened to showing up with 10 dollars in your pocket and not 2 words of English to speak of? Well, although our popular mythology loves to lionize this story, because most of us know some old person it applies to, and to use it at the same time to demonize today's "lazy" "entitled" "ungrateful" immigrant communities, you will not find it here in Canada anymore. Today's immigrants are not your grandmothers immigrants. In fact, your grandmother's immigrants who are the elder statespeople of your family would have a hard time even getting in the queue today. And its not that we were wrong to let them in; nothing could be further from the truth. But let's stop the misty eyed bullshit and quit talking like that's still reality.

The only poor and downtrodden we still help are refugees and the only way you can get in line there is if you are in immediate danger/jeopardy and can prove you are experiencing personal/political persecution. The government decides according to its mood and this queue is backed up for about 30 years, which is better than nothing but hardly reflects a “tired, huddled masses” policy. The government’s ever tightening filter on the majority of immigration is reflected by many of the demographics who became predominant from countries who have had large amounts of immigration to Canada, such as Indian-Canadians (mostly high caste) and Chinese Canadians (the majority from Hong Kong and Canton province, historically in the last century the more capitalist and prosperous part of China, and Canada is one of the main places many of them parked their money after the British pulled out and ceded to the communists in ’97).

I picked up an issue of Canadian Immigrant magazine on the Go Transit one day and learned that there is a whole industry of lawyers, consultants, advisors, and lobbyists who have interest in perpetuating the status quo and want to keep the mill turning year after year, damn the consequences. The magazine was not destined to a lost broke person wandering the streets looking for a meal; it was telling immigrants how to get on leasing cars, purchasing real estate in new subdivisions, and investing in Subway and Tim Horton’s franchises as soon as possible. In other words, to pump new foreign money into a defunct status quo that is being sold as the safest, most secure, most practical and most desirable investment to people who think they’ve hit the jackpot. When you see these articles, you realize how far from the ideal we have truly strayed, and that politicians are in bed with these guys the same way they are with real estate developers and resource companies, literally auctioning off our country’s future and spending the proceeds like drunken sailors. But how many lifelong Canadian citizens read Canadian Immigrant? It’s easier just to stick with what you were told in 1975.

5) We are a nation of immigrants

Oh yes, my favourite. This is what we’ve always done so why don’t we just keep continuing on doing what were doing. I love how in this knowledge innovation cutting edge economy the barricades fly up like F-14s as soon as the prospect of doing anything different comes up. Well, this is all we’ve ever done so…let’s just do what works. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Great. Except, as I hope to have demonstrated by now, the policies that allowed most 1st generation immigrants to come to Canada do not exist in those forms anymore. I agree that you can’t help but feel they were lucky, especially if they’re successful now, while others’ window of oppurtunity has been missed, but let’s be realistic. We’re still a small country, not on a lot of people’s radars, and we can’t just be great unless we learn to start talking about how and why we do things, which has become verboten. On this subject The left accuses the right of bigotry and intolerance, which nobody other than maybe Rob Anders openly exhibits anymore, and the right accuses the left of being naïve, bleeding heart, and ripe for exploitation. Hence the NDP’s accusation of “un-Canadianess” Ms Wente mentions (what pathetic intellectual laziness!)

If we are always a nation of immigrants, when will be able to take on collective responsibility as citizens?

6) Questioning our immigrant policy will fuel anti-immigrant backlash and intolerance

Certainly not. Canada is the only Western country with no extreme right wing party. Yes, there are a few underground neo-nazi chapters, but there are no openly racist, anti-immigrant parties or candidates on ballots. This makes us literally an anomaly amongst our peers. Could high unemployment and social unrest turn the tide? No, because the die is already cast. There are so few racist people in this country, barely any in the younger generations, and the millions of children of immigrants who grew up here are indistinguishable in speech and culture from “old stock” kids. “Ethnic” people will not make viable victims or scapegoats in this country. And because there is no Canadian extreme right figure to speak of who is a household name, it is difficult to imagine a political entity coming out of nowhere built solely on those repulsive ideals.

The greatest threat to Canadian social stability /cohesion is the complacency of resting on the laurels of the social model that we’ve built, and that’s true for immigration, health care, levels of government, resources, whatever. The biggest mistake is defining any subject as a taboo, including immigration. The racial harmony in Canada is truly an accomplishment and I’m not worried about race riots as much society’s eventual inability to manage itself and take care of people because of poor planning, lack of foresight, and refusal to have a conversation. After all, when you start an experiment its not like you just keep pouring new things in the beakers and turning up the bunson burners forever and ever. This isn’t some I was here first garbage. This is a request to ask why, how, and for what we bring 250,000 people a year into the country, stick them in big cities, and wait for a good amount of them to join in the speculation.