Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Letter To A Prospective Conservative Voter

The noise and pace of a federal election campaign in the 2011 social media era are not something I feel compelled to take part in or contribute to over the next thirty two days. I think a nation who tries to get a grasp on the issues and the government's record over a short period of time is doomed to make misinformed decisions at the polls; it is impossible for many overworked, underpaid and distracted individuals to absorb the context and developments of the two and half year old 40th parliament from whatever BS is emanating from whichever leader's claptrap today. Sadly, however, this is the world we live in. Rather than research the facts and history before deciding for themselves, the voters in North American electoral campaigns are manipulated and fooled by slogans, advertising, photo-ops, and sound bites. Their evaluation of candidates is based more on roarschach test reactions to facial features and talking point delivery than any merits or character. This unfortunate tendency is exacerbated by the viral, sound-bite, tweet and status driven current landscape, which wouldn't matter if the mainstream media didn't reform every bit of verbal diarrhea into a series of catchy headlines. Now playing at a theatre near you - The 2011 political campaign: a war of attrition won by a barrage of provocative, yet insignificant and meaningless statements. I know, I know, I'll say it again. This is the world we live in.

I myself have been grinding on the politics file for too long and prefer to comment the rest of the time, not during the elections when rhetoric, promises and optimism flow like water despite their unfailing track record of going unfulfilled every time. So I am going to say my piece now, and will think and write about other things, including some interesting subjects I have been meaning to address for awhile but have been neglecting, until this is over. And for the other reason of a 10 day overdue and counting new child, I will be taking a little break from Lacking Credentials. Since this post is in the form of the letter, I am also posting it on my new site, Citizen Letters.

Citizen Letters is going to be a site made up of just those: letters I address to people or groups of people, and try to print and distribute via my own means as best I can. In this case I will be printing this letter on paper I've been collecting and circulating it. So here is the letter, happy month of diamonds, and go leafs go.

Dear Prospective Conservative Voter,

I am not writing this letter to you on behalf of any party, lobby, cause, or special interest group. I am writing to you as a Canadian citizen, one Canadian citizen to another. Whatever your reasons are for voting conservative, or thinking of voting conservative this election, I do not and cannot know; all I am asking of you is to consider the following facts, which you may or may not be aware of, before going to vote on election day.

The Conservative government fell on March 25th, 2011, due to its refusal to provide detailed cost estimates and documents for two of its key initiatives: a no-bid contract to purchase F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, the American arms manufacturer, and a plan to build several new prisons. The specific need for these new prisons has not been explained by the government, since crime rates have actually been declining, so we can deduce that it is presumably to accommodate the thousands of new inmates that will be created over night by its “tough on crime” agenda.

I want you to keep those two initiatives, which were not part of Canadian government policy up until this last parliament, in mind while I bring the fiscal situation of a country which ha s already gone through an experience implementing similar policies to your attention. The American President Ronald Reagan, who served two terms from 1981-1989, instituted a widespread “War on Drugs” policy that made mandatory minimum sentences for petty drug crimes, including possession of marijuana, standard fare for most states’ justice systems. These vary in length and severity from state to state, but they have given the country on the whole the largest prison population in the world. This is a significant contributor to the insolvency (bankruptcy) faced by many States, including California, New York, and Illinois, as well as to America’s $14.6 trillion National Debt and $1.6 trillion in deficit it adds to that every year. And when we examine the large ongoing and expanding legal costs of administering such a system, we have the complete picture of why this is not a prudent or sensible road for Canadian society to go down. The net benefit will not be to Canadian society, whose crime rates are declining, but to private construction, food service and security companies that service the prison industry (Yes, there is a private, unaccountable prison ”industry”, even though prisons are 100% taxpayer funded.)

The Fighter Jet deal is another policy which is contentious for Canadians and non-Conservative Members of Parliament, because we again have the American experience to show us why it is ill-advised. Reagan tripled the defence budget during 9 years of power, and the trend continued up through the last decade to the present. The American defence budget has quadrupled in the past eight years, and the American government’s finances are now spectacularly weighed down with a $671 billion defence budget. This is increased every year, mostly because of hundreds of millions of dollars spent by defence contractors and private companies to lobby the government to purchase their latest and greatest wares. When you consider America’s astronomical, structural, and totally unsustainable 1.6 trillion deficit, it is not hard to figure out what the principal source of added debt and debt maintenance has been : An endlessly skyrocketing defence budget that bypasses the nation’s means by a long shot.

As Canada has one of the highest debt-GDP ratios in the world (total debt is provincial and federal debt, not just federal debt, which is the numbers the conservatives use when they talk about our “low” debt-GDP ratio ) , it can ill afford to take on these two programs, which have been shown over the past three decades to have disastrous fiscal consequences and little net benefit. The Conservatives, however, seem intent on imposing a series of measures that have no rational purpose or benefit when held up to scrutiny, and are content to ignore and scorn push back from Canadian opposition M.P.s and citizens. While there is no example of success in a program funnelling billions of dollars a year into an expanded prison system or justification for it, the government insists it is needed to keep people safe. And the argument is not against purchasing upgraded hardware for the Canadian military; yet this is how the Conservatives frame the debate. We are not told why this cannot be costed out in a competitive bid process floated out to the hundreds of arms manufacturers in the world. Instead, for reasons which have still not been explained to the Canadian public, it must be done through a no-bid contract to an American manufacturer that at least three people associated with the Conservative party have current or former lobbying or business connections to.

The Conservative Party refuses to respond to any of these accusations; indeed, it refuses to respond to any enquiries under circumstances not tightly dictated by Stephen Harper. Pretty funny for a government that came to power five years ago promising a new era of “transparency and accountability.” As for the perception in some quarters that they are sound fiscal managers, we only have to look at their main priorities are ramming through two costly and ineffective initiatives, fighter jets and prisons, which will bankrupt Canadians for generations to come (To say nothing of the record budget deficits they've been putting the country in since '09). They also insist on continuing to cut taxes for corporation to 12% and below (this is on profits, after debt, depreciation, salaries and costs are all written off), while the average Canadian is expected to continue paying 24-52% in taxes on salaries between 30 and 70 thousand per year, then pay all of their expenses.

If you consider yourself a fiscally conservative, rational, fair minded individual, voting for this government simply makes no sense. On May 2nd, please do not legitimize the underhanded and heinous acts of the Conservative Party which seeks to ruin the Canadian state. Please weigh the facts, hold your nose and vote for the best M.P you think has a chance of beating them where you live. This Conservative rule, with its relentless attack on rationality, democracy and reason in Canada, must end.

Thank you for reading this unsolicited letter

Yours very truly,

Christopher Lackey (“Thorny Rose”),

Citizen and Taxpayer

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Ontario's Crumbling Finances - 3 1/2 Scenarios

Despite its faults and weaknesses, the main one being the squeaky, bleating emotional pleas to idealism in many of its editorials, the Toronto Star does have a few staff members who produce quality columns. I believe the work of such creative and esteemed individuals as Chantal Hébert, Royson James, and Joe Fiorito (not to mention ultimate Leafs authority Damien Cox) contributes to the small renaissance at the newspaper (which turned a profit last quarter). It is in the nomination lead for the upcoming National Newspaper Awards. I saw an example of this work today in this Martin Regg Cohn column, which should (but won't) dispel the popular belief in some quarters that the broadsheet is an official Liberal Party of Ontario organ. The competition, Quebecor (Sun) and Canwest (national post) are actually much more loyal and unconditional supporters of their man Harper than the Star could be accused of with its small p-progressive affinities, and this article is a perfect example.

It is a damning and sobering collection of 800 words that is staggering in its description of how badly this province is overextended and to what behaviour it has been reduced to stay afloat. The McGuinty government has presided as the financial brain of the provincial equivalent of an insolvent person, and resorted to the same ineffective tactics: multiplying sources of credit, fudging the numbers, having a shitty backup plan, and crossing its fingers. It has also seen the same consequences: downgraded credit rating, bruised ego, berating at the hands of all those familiar with its situation for being a financial basket case, and ultimately a denial-driven mentality. Did your heart not palpitate a bit at the evocation of an emergency $20 billion contingency fund in case the government “runs out of cash to pay the bills”? Well, based on what we read here it seems like a foregone conclusion that they will, so the real question is what happens at the end of that fund, which at current spending rates will be blown through in less than two months?

Before getting into that, allow me first distance myself from whoever places the blame for this sorry state of affairs squarely at the feet of the Premier and launches into wistful laments about how he single-handedly made this a “have not” province. The deck was stacked much deeper than anything that goes at Queen's Park, and the province will pay dearly for it, and to go on nostalgia-driven rants about the fall from grace is to demonstrate true ignorance of larger forces at work – higher levels of education, off-shoring of jobs, rising commodity prices, and socialization of risk/privatization of profits dynamic now at work everywhere. The things we could soften the impacts of these with are not here; we are still told they are unattainable, and to place our faith in the status quo. That is why instead of rapid transit, localized agriculture, and post-industrial workforce, which weren't even on the radar when we had the resources and means available to modernize into them, we have an aging, rotting, redundant industrial society. Unproductive industries like auto have been “bailed out”, accelerating the province's economic decline. The manufacturing and agriculture sectors intend to continue like its 1975 (with their worker populations who mostly were in their prime in that year), and the province's underfunded and overcrowded universities continue to duly pump out 120,000 new graduates every year to fill an ever diminishing number of diminishing wage “white collar positions”. This may continue until the futility of these endeavours outstrips value they could provide (I'm all for educating yourself, but doing it for the sake of the dollar alone is a sad and fortunately soon to be outdated reason for doing it), but it looks like the debt bell may toll before that. And this is about what we would be looking at whether a conservative, an NDP, or a cocker spaniel had been sitting in that premier desk for the last eight years, since these three entities are all equally unfamiliar with the laws of economics and finance so astutely outlined by Mr. Cohn; if you can remember one thing about modern politics, remember that in three hundred years, no party or government anywhere has ever reduced spending..

What does a society that experienced financial failure look like? I think the easy answer is that everyone will continue to get on as best they can. More difficult to determine is the role of the rich and powerful and the vast amounts of private wealth they preside over in a credit deprived, payment defaulting, ground to a halt Ontario.

Scenario One – Greecification

The government rides the demand and spending of a bloated public sector and tourism for decades, fudging its books and hiding its gets to get into a powerful monetary union. When this gets discovered, it is forced to take a massive bailout from the IMF. I have a hard time seeing the healthy, aging population of these sun-soaked islands suddenly taking up the thankless and brutal activities that constitute what this bailout is no doubt contingent on: economic productivity.Did the IMF and ECB have visions of Greek factories churning out product, demanding raw materials, and squeezing every last of physical and economic blood out of armies of hungry and desperate workers? Because I have to tell you, that sounds like one or two countries on Earth right now, but I don't see (and wouldn't want to see it happening) in Greece. Chance of happening here: Highly unlikely. Public Sector is dominant but economy is more diversified.

Scenario Two – New York-ification

The once mighty capital of capitalism, the “jewel” of the “empire state” is no longer the mecca heard in Sinatra's voice. The holy of holies of success, the top of the mountain of finance and commerce, has taken a beating in the media since the arrangement in which the nine bank cartel it houses funnels money out of the US treasury and the fed has become a matter of public record, though you'd never know it by visiting there. Wall Street is still there, CNN and Fox are still at Rockefeller square, the boutiques on Fifth Ave continue to open their doors, but symbols of the failures of the once romanticized and idolized world city are popping up in the unlikeliest of places: Hollywood movies. One example is the Other Guys, a ridiculous but enjoyable comedy starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as a pair of wuss-tough guy mismatched New York Cops who somehow bring down a huge white collar crime scam and look good doing it, That makes enough sense, but what to make of the charts and graphics that roll during the ending credits of the film showing income gaps, bank bonuses, federal debt, and all kinds of other useful and pertinent information? Twenty, ten, or even five years ago that part would have been thrown away on a soundtrack song and maybe some outtakes. And yesterday while watching Despicable Me, I noticed that when the main character, Gru, who aspires to be the greatest villain ever, goes into a “Bank of Evil” which is hidden inside a normal bank to try and get financing for his latest scheme, and it says – get this - “Formerly Lehman Brothers” on its sign. These things may seem insignificant or not worth mentioning, but try to imagine them happening at any other time. They haven't; pop culture has stripped the Big Apple of its big money and endless abundance having status. It's only a matter of time before the “extend and pretend” tactics of the federal administration stop working and catch up to this once fabled symbol of power and money.

Toronto, of course, has had no such taking down of a notch to undergo. Real estate has soared, and so have Bay Street's profits. I wonder what will happen to all those little dogs, all those multi-million dollar real estate values of midtown and downtown when the fiscal levees break. One thing is certain; the banks don't seem too concerned about being the pot calling the kettle black. Today TD said the public was not “fussed enough” about deficits, while the cartel they're a part of is backstopped to the tune of two hundred billion dollars on the taxpayer's dime. The concentration of wealth and exclusion of not just poor people, but anyone with limited means from a growing number of neighbourhoods has been underway in New York for some time longer than in Toronto, and how this will play out in both cities is a huge question mark.

Likelihood of this happening: High, and could it lead to?

Scenario Three – Russification

What happened when the Soviet regime collapsed? No private property and worthless currency; what were people in positions of power to do? Buy up all the country's infrastructure and useful assets at bargain basement prices, of course. In typical Russian cutthroat passion, all the oligarchs were expected to sit on their money and take their emotions out on whatever suited their fancy, until an alpha male rose up in 2000 and demanded that everyone march to his tune. Those who played ball with Papa Bear Putin are your homegrown Russian Oligarchs of today (Roman Abramovitch) and those who didn't are jailed (Mikhail Khodorovsky) or exiled (Boris Berezokovsky). I don't think North America's elite have the temperament or carnivore instincts to cannibalize amongst themselves until power in concentrated as it is in Russia, but this scenario is instructive in showing that people in positions of power in old systems are likely to slip into powerful posts in new ones. It is uncertain whether they feel entitled to the power, or whether it comes naturally to them to seek it out where it might work for them. We can see a phenomenon somewhat parallels with this system gaming at work in America, where the “Hope and Change” administration is made up almost entirely of people recycled from the late 1990s and the elite of Corporate America and Ivy Leagues. You'd think a nation of 300 million would have a larger talent pool, especially when this one hasn't shown any grasp of the challenges of our time at all.

We face many a crisis as humanity today – moral, ecological, environmental, existential – but none appear more threatening or more imminent than the fiscal crisis. It was disheartening today to learn how clear and present that is in Ontario, which is run by a man so weak-kneed he couldn't even stand up to a publicly funded religious school boards flouting of equality, let alone tackle an $18 billion structural deficit that is going to make our province default when interest rates rise.

Wow, that's depressing. Scenario 4 – Californication. Everyone becomes enlightened by devoting themselves to study of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Just kidding; that's even more depressing.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

What Is An Economic Action Plan?

One of the dumbest things the opposition ever did in their ongoing bid to snatch the credibility baton from the “Harper government” was lampooning the government's (at the time) refusal to “take action”, meaning, spending oodles of money it didn't have with little oversight, following the stock market crash of September 2008.

The opposition thought they could score cool points by exhorting the government to practice orthodox Keynesian-ism. The British economist John Maynard Keynes's philosophy, which claimed that during periods of the economy faltering, governments have a moral responsibility to step in and provide artificial demand and employment, even if it means going further into debt (for no western democracy has been debt free, even within seconds of its inception), until things “picked up again”, has received much attention since that fateful crash. There is no substitute for real needs and organic demand, however, and this has only added to Canada and Western nations' death spiral of debts, the unravelling of which we are just at the beginning of.

So how did the Great Canadian Keynesian Experiment of '08 see the light of day? The popular historical narrative posits that the usually stonewalling and stubborn Conservatives acquiesced to opposition demands for stimulus because the nation wanted them to govern, following the unprecedented parliamentary crisis that the Conservatives themselves had just created, and popular support for stimulus was high. This is bullshit. The conservatives don't do anything because of opposition demands or complaining from special interest groups. That would be the job of the Ontario Liberals or the Obama democrats. No, the “Economic Action Plan” was created because the conservatives saw a golden opportunity to turn this “confrontation” which they “lost” and “backed down” from into the biggest taxpayer-funded, pro-government, propaganda orgy in Canadian history, of which they would be the sole, legitimate, and rightful beneficiaries.

Below are some examples that I pulled directly off the “Economic Action Plan” website, of dividends that propaganda campaign paid, in the form of hot air getting injected into Smirk Harper's already massive, overinflated ego.

“[Budget 2009 is] a clever package and hopefully it will win the support of the House. I am confident this will work.”
—  Glen Hodgson, The Conference Board of Canada
“A clear strategy should help to restore consumer and investor confidence over the medium term. We believe it is an important step forward.”
—  Canadian Chamber of Commerce
“…I would like to underscore the importance of the Home Renovation Tax Credit to the Canadian home improvement industry, to contractors, and to the many Canadian consumers who, with the help of the federal tax credit, are investing their own dollars to help spur the economy.”
— Michael Rowe, Vice President, Finance, The Home Depot Canada, November 3, 2009

If you look closer at the statements of these influential and savvy individuals, you will see that this “plan” was actually a “band-aid solution” to grant a reprieve. A stop gap measure to maintain the defunct status quo. The government would like you to believe that by subsidizing the home building, banking, and auto sectors with our future tax dollars, they have prudently prepared our country for tomorrow, when in fact what they have done is squandered billions on the unsustainable and redundant enterprises of yesterday. The whole premise of the economy is of course based on confidence, which we see now was in short supply in the fall of '08, and the government was gracious enough, in the chamber of commerce's view, to step up and provide it. The thing I have to reluctantly offer the government, because I do hate to disrupt their eternal hand job party, about confidence, is that it is a feeling, so it cannot be borrowed or manufactured. So that “restored” confidence will only be so until the ugliness of reality re-emerges, which is only a matter of time.
When you go on THE PLAN website (herein I will only refer to it as such, since that is what they have baptized it), you can get lost in the smash and grab dazzle whatever PR firm they hired on our dime unleashes on your mind. To hear them tell it, THE PLAN has propelled us straight into an ultra rich, ultra abundant future, the Jetsons meets Dubai Skyline powered by worker bee dudes in hard hats sipping Starbucks Lattes. It is a powerful and seductive sensory experience, something I didn't know the government in Canada was in the business of providing, until I remembered how hard they lean on propaganda. But I prefer to experience those types of experiences on my own time and my own dime, not from the state and filtered through their weird pseudo-hero lens. Let us ask, then, a very simple question, to step back from mental massaging: What is an economic action plan?

An economic action plan would be a list of several steps, or actions, progressing and converging in a fashion where they achieve a specific goal – related to the economy. The specific goal would imply that the economy is going to somehow be evolved or in a more advantageous position compared to its state at the time of crisis.

What happened with this economic action plan? Are we in $60 billion (that we've borrowed and have to pay back, just in case you thought the government dug deep in a benevolent pocket of money you've never seen, but is yours for the taking) better off?

Probably not. But we must discriminate; the amount was not a monolithic whole. Aside from the subsidies and bailouts already mentioned, which were about as valuable to the collective as a massive compound interest bill for a non-existent asset, there is the tranche devoted to those “projects” demarcated by those signs you see ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE. So did those at least give some relief to folks who were in tough feeling the pinch? Hmmm. I'm going to go with not likely. As the mockery of the Obama stimulus's $3 million to create one job statistic demonstrated, these gargantuan sums of money hardly equate jobs. Parliamentary Budget Office Kevin Page's own stimulus dollar to job match up exercise also revealed incredibly terrible bang for the buck. The mandate for THE PLAN, however, was not to create jobs, despite what all those pictures of blowtorches and cranes and photocopiers on its site might lead you to believe. It was something probably more modest, like this:
Almost every province and municipality, to service its expanding population and changing demographics, had some kind of construction, renovation or maintenance project underway at the time THE PLAN was announced. These projects had for the most part all been approved and were already underway past the preliminary. Materials were purchased, workers were hired, contracts were granted. Then the government said, here, you can apply for funding for this under “THE PLAN”.

Great. It's not like municipalities or provinces have any extra money (In fact, when you add their debts to the federal's our country is the most indebted on earth, so forget “Lowest debt to GDP ratio in the G7” crap you see in Conservative ads). So they duly submitted simple, 1 page applications for extra federal money for these projects. These were almost all rubber stamped with nary a follow up question or an audit, so the provinces and municipalities had some of the costs relative to their projects alleviated. The government kicked in non-existent money into existing projects. They did not create enormous work sites of smiling tradesman working on the great Canadian mega buildings of tomorrow as their website would have you believe.

Did this stimulate the economy? Its possible. Maybe a little bit. Did the government misrepresent the plan in its goals and scope? Absolutely. Was this such a bad thing they did, to subsidize all these projects? Other than being a huge sprinkling of patronage pork, I guess its okay. Is this an earth shattering scandal? Not really, if you like being advertised to in a misleading way with your own tax dollars about what your own tax dollars are paying for on a constant bases. Now just hold the phone a second about those applications. If you follow this government, you know that some things are just too innocent to be true.

Remember what I was just telling you about those breezy, simple, joke of a one page application forms that had to be filled out to apply for funding from THE PLAN? It sounded like the government didn't really care about what it was funding, right? That is correct; they didn't. What they cared about was that the massive signs and posts that were being imminently overnight couriered to you were put up in prominent places and photographs were taken of said signs in said prominent locations and sent back by courier within 48 hours. That is the honest to gods truth; I am not making that up. This requirement had to be filled or else the deposit of stimulus funds was simply not made, and I know this thanks to the excellent work of Le Devoir journalist and parliamentary press gallery president Hélène Buzzetti, in an article she published some time ago.

We talk a lot about bureaucratic inefficiency and red tape. Yet we can see quite clearly from this example, which is a marvel of the modern efficiencies of just-in-time shipping, what the slow, lumbering archaic government can accomplish when it sets it mind to something. And what it set its mind to here was the constant, sustained, perfectly placed exposure it could obtain through its dubious PLAN, and it wasted no time and pulled no punches in making every little pet project that made itself known to it a vehicle for that exposure.

Why do I mention this today? Well, it seems that we are a full twenty days – that's almost three weeks, into March 2011, the first post-PLAN month of the calendar since it started two years ago. All funds for THE PLAN are supposed to have dried up by now. And yet those signs stay up. They do not come down. Not at the side of Highway 8 in Kitchener, Ontario, the section that has been in the process of being expanded since before the PLAN and has quite a bit of work still left on it. Not at the Tax Centre or Federal Building in downtown Kitchener, Ontario where I've yet to see a contractor's pickup truck, machinery, construction, scaffolding, or any visible signs of work in 2+ years. Idem for the big government building at Yonge and Sheppard Streets in Toronto. The Community Centre in the tiny village of McKellar, Ontario, has a huge sign up in front of it. Nothing has happened to this building the entire time. But its okay, because the sign says “Investing in Community Centres”. And these signs sit there, screwed into their posts, nailed into the ground. I would risk that an outside impartial observer might mistake them for permanent fixtures.

If the government is serious about reducing the deficit and spending our tax dollars wisely, then perhaps they can apply the same technocratic rigour they applied to the signage at the start of the program to it at the end of the program. These signs should have been all down by March 3rd if that standard was being applied. Yet I will cut the government some slack here and I will say that since Tuesday is budget day and THE PLAN technically spanned two budget years, they can keep the signs up until midnight Thursday night. But I know that date will come and go and those signs pointing you to work that is not getting because it never existed in the first place will stay up. Because this was never about an “Economic Action Plan”. It was about putting a sign up that says “Thank you most wise and benevolent Harper government, for having your hand so firmly on the gears of Canada's economy” at as many locations in Canada as possible. And given that I just read today in some pre-budget commentary in the Globe that the PLAN is indeed done but parts of it are staying alive though a “Communities Fund” or some equally dubious bullshit, I think we can expect gratuitous, irrelevant and taxpayer funded propaganda splashed across many of our public spaces for some time to come.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Japanese Heartache - The world sends its deepest posturing and sincerest platitudes

Is anyone having as hard a time of me figuring out what the fuck is going on these days? I'm sorry for starting with such a vague and aggressive phase, but when I look around at media, the news, and politics lately, I cannot understand why anybody is saying what they are saying, what anybody means, or where their motives and intent lie. Not to mention the difficulty I have figuring out who they think could be so stupid to buy it and how they can descend to such pitiful depths inside the bowels of the human psyche. That covers the five basic questions of journalism, the W5H, that you ask yourself when you want to know more about something. I just want to know what the f--- is going on, and based on my recent experience, no one wants us to know anything about anything.

In the sorry ass world of Canadian politics, the government seems to be pouring all of its energies into a character assassination of the leader of the opposition, Michael Ignatieff. That government. Never there when you want them, during the two prorogues and just about any other time that you want to speak with them under circumstances which they do not control and script every single aspect of, but they manage to put this trash all over prime time all the time. To tell me what? That he compared our flag to a beer label? That he wouldn't rule out a tax increase? Here's the question - Do I care about a flippant remark made ten years ago? More to the point, do I need to be hearing this from the government? I don't know who they think they're fooling; with the 40 billion+ structural deficit they've created, someone should talk about some way to generate money for a country living beyond its means (which the guy they're attacking did, for the fleeting seconds of that quote), but what do I know? I live in a "democracy" run by a democratically elected government who deliberately lies to and misinforms the population on a constant basis, and my self-doubt and incredulity are symptoms of this. These attack ads are so obviously irrelevant to the challenges our country faces and a waste of everyone's time, yet we've accepted a constant debasing of our country's civic and democratic traditions by allowing them to continue.

"You stupid liberal! You just don't like the ads because they show what an out of touch, ineffectual loser Ignatieff is."

Maybe he is out of touch with ordinary Canadians, because mentioning a tax increase would mean he is in touch with reality, which conservatives, when faced with the numbers, are not. So when you look at the sitting government's debt and deficit, and the national consumer debt levels which break previous records every month, the liberal-basher is probably right. The government is more in touch with the average ignorant, apathetic, over-indebted suburbanite because, like them, it is completely out of touch with reality. But if it is the right thing to do, why do liberals pain themselves to appear as though they don't want to do it?

If the liberals, or any of the "other guys" took the high road, if they ignored this childish slander and didn't engage in it, then they would maybe have a shred of a case. A leg to stand on, in vernacular. If it was only as simple as not liking those bad conservatives who raid the airwaves with those awful attack ads. Maybe that would assist me in figuring out what's going on.

Yet today, I saw those ads that I read about in the paper the other day. The ones with a faceless Tim Hudak, leader of the provincial conservatives, being exposed as a Bay Street lapdog. Don't vote for the party of those big, bad bay street businessman, or we'll have another Wisconsin on our hands.

Hmmm...but the big 5 banks on Bay Street have been making record profits under a Liberal regime for eight years. In fact, a couple of them have released such results in recent weeks. What could be so bad that they feel the need to turn on the government that presided over these conditions?

Oh, probably its because its that same government that has an $18 billion structural deficit and employs more than 1 million people in various indexed-wage, high paying, defined benefit public service cartels. We don't want another Wisconsin, all right. That state is probably a third as economically productive as Ontario and yet its workers have gamed the system just as bad. It is not pretty all across the fifty states who are coming to terms with their finances no longer being viable, but all we can do now is watch it go. We are not far behind.

"You capitalist pig! You right-wing, union busting, neo-con bastard who doesn't care about workers rights and hard working families."

Sorry, I call bullshit on you people too, because you don't have the courage to follow your logic to the end. The only wages and livelihoods you care about are your own, at the expense of everyone else's and the states insolvency. So guess what? Your attack sucks as much, if not more, than those of the people you claim to be so morally superior to.

As humanity builds more castles in the air on house of cards foundations without the slightest regard to future consequences' constraints on its designs, this idiotic simulacrum of polarized society debate we have in North America is interrupted by disasters with increasing frequency. Such as North African political revolts and, most recently, disturbed nuclear reactors on the coastline of the most earthquake-prone archipelago on earth. No need to tell you a massive earthquake ripped through the country a few days ago, and most of the messages the media has been passing onto me have been troubling. The pathetic public discourse in North America during election year I can account for. The reactions to this natural disaster I cannot.

When this happens to poor countries you see a massive pouring out of sadness and generosity. When it happens to Japan, the world's "3rd biggest economy", you see a lot of posturing. While battleships and supplies were swiftly sent over by the Canadian and U.S. leaders, the biggest headlines I've been reading are about the stock market and the recovery in relation to the disaster. Because it was a "global recession" it is a "global recovery" ostensibly participated in by Japan as the "3rd biggest economy".

Japan may look big on paper because many of its big companies (Mitsubishi, Sony, Hitachi, Honda, Toyota) are profitable, and most of these profits are made overseas. The United States, the "largest economy" with half of its corporate profits "earned" abroad and 50 million domestic unemployed, knows a thing or two about real people's real lives and numbers and figures that give people confidence and make them feel good. But what ails Japan is much different than what ails America. Without ever visiting there, here's what I know.

-Oldest population in the world
-One of the lowest birthrates in the world
-No immigration
-Technocratic society with "jobs for life". An employee's lifelong loyalty to company and unquestioned deference to staff senior to him taken for granted. Karōshi is a unique word in their language for "working yourself to death", and it is so common that they are one of few countries to keep separate statistics on this.
-As a result, there is little family cohesion. Infidelity and vice are rampant, clandestine aspects of millions of Japanese' lives.
-Young people (the much smaller number of them that there are) leave school with little hope to break into the grinding mega-gears of Japan Inc., entrepreneuralism is scant, disillusionment high.
-The Liberal Democratic Party that ran Japan uncontested and unchallenged for 55 years (structured like its companies) collapsed 5 years ago, and the country has lurched from shaky government to shaky government, changing every year or so since.

Oh, and one of the highest debt to GDP ratios in the world.

So to say that the earthquake doesn't bode well for the recovery is to make an absurd and pointless statement, because who the hell could look at those data and honestly tell himself that they were the recipe for a recovery? And aside from the fact that "recovery" was, is, a statistical impossibility in this country, since when did 10,000+ people's lives only become relevant in that context?

The other thing I witnessed today on the elliptical BNN ride was the now well-known "disaster capitalism" philosophy at work. Some smug overweight 40 year old virgin with a lisp who also happens to have a hot stock tip blog right now out of New York came on the network to trumpet about what stocks he was buying up in the wake of this. The worst part was he interrupted his spiel to say "You know, obviously its terrible when something like this happens but at the same time..." Seriously, why even bother saying that? Don't you mean, "I don't actually give a shit about any of those people, but when they do disrupt people trying to gamble and make money, that is a serious fuckin' buzzkill dude. And if it turns out I can actually make money, great. I'll just have to mutter a meaningless platitude so people think I have a conscience or a heart or something" As KRS One says, go ahead and be a hero. Get your cheddar.

I know that even when reality hits Japan's demographics and its population decreases from 129 million to 75 or 80 million or whatever, they will survive. They will survive without the doomsday banter of North American stock market pundits. I don't underestimate their toughness, though. This is the only nation of earth that withstood an attack on them where the enemy used weapons of mass destruction.

But I feel bad for all the sadness and heartache I know is in that nation, and not just because of earthquakes. Its a nation with an intensely insular and foreign culture, a hierarchical and traditional society which has adopted the worst elements of ours and created the chemical reaction causing its woes today. It adopted the boringest western sport, the boring western attire, the desire to grow and speculate and make profits at any price (remember, they still haven't got back to where they were when their housing and stock bubble burst in '89), and acquired with obsessions with things we could take or leave, like cheap trick and comic book porn. They couldn't take on the good stuff, like ethnic restaurants, gay marraige, and the option to say "take this job and shove it". I think when the Japanese come out of the economic, demographic, and political nightmare that is theirs, they will be successful when they learn to enjoy themselves again. Which will happen when they learn how to be themselves again, not obsessive compulsive secretly hedonistic westerners oriental only in language and appearance. Not to say that their bullet trains and digital blinds aren't cool; what I'm trying to say is, Japan has always had a lot to teach and offer the world, but the time of them doing that in Western ways on Western terms is over. You have to be deluded North American politician to believe it is not.

And over here, back across the atlantic, we will continue to have pointless debates about headshots. Although poor Max Pacioretty is an engaged and outspoken young man, according to Elliotte Freidman now that he has opened a twitter account. That is all it takes now to join the public debate and speak your mind. All Harper's ministers on there, Gilbert Gottfried and 50 cent are making inappropriate remarks about Japan on there, and everybody with nothing to say but lots of nonsense to sputter out is on there. I think it is a major negative factor in all we discussed today.

This just in, Prime Minister says an election in Canada would have the same effect as Japanese Earthquake. Hell, he probably tweeted it. See what I mean?

Thursday, 10 March 2011

A Tale of Two Cities' (dreadful incumbents)

2011 Election Year - A defiant belligerent in a staid, boring capital and a timid, weak, spineless retreater in the brash and bold metropolis

I originally only had the latter of these two subjects in mind, but recent events have forced me to include the former.  The province that houses two capitals, one provincial and one federal, Ontario - is seeing opposite styles and tactics at work by the leaders of their legislatures.  I will begin with the one that bears some good news.  I have to give a little “Woot-woot” to show my happiness at the remaining vigour of Canadian democracy. A little “ka-pow” with a bit of “shazam”, “ka-zam” and “buh-blang”. This just in, the Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons, Peter Milliken, has made two key rulings that find Conservatives in contempt of parliament, for forging documents in the Bev Oda-Kairos affair and for refusing to disclose any costs associated with their supposed “tough on crime” agenda. The rulings are a setback for Smug Harper, who of late has treated the Canadian taxpayer to commercials of himself pacing late at night in his office, drinking coffee and signing documents as though he was personally responsible for all 34 million of our livelihoods. It turns out some shards of Canadian democracy's former shell remain.  Contrary to the the deluded vision of himself the Prime Minister has broadcast over the air during prime time for several weeks, he does not have absolute power to do whatever he wants. We have recently learned at what heights this man's impunity reaches, with no less than four violations under investigation at this moment for breaching taxpayers' trust by using their funds for blatant partisan and advertising purposes (Lawrence Martin's last column gives a pretty good run-down). The timing of the parliamentary calendar means these matter will not end up as confidence votes, and an election is in the cards after the budget anyway, but they are being aired out in public openly and may contribute to a wider dislike of the PM by the Canadian public.

Of course, Smirk Harper still has two forces working tirelessly for him outside of his spin-fund raising-personality cult-mega machine, so he should not be considered down for the count. Force One is the Canadian community of political journalists led by Jane “TMZ” Tiber at the Globe and Mail, who cover politics like football and are in firm awe of Harp by virtue of the position he holds (it must be that, because I cannot think of anything else significant or endearing about the man). This probably isn't completely unavoidable, but if these “reporters” even sometimes used to their clout to report of the deceit and fraud of the government's misadventures, I could go easier on them. Instead, they insult everyone's intelligence by appealing, without fail, to the lowest common denominator: “Canadians don't want an election over $7 million dollars that the PM denied CIDA for Kairos” Yes, but if it was in his power to deny, why did he have to order a document to be forged? “Canadians don't want an election over a financing scheme in which the Conservatives deliberately misappropriated taxpayer funds”. “Canadians don't want an election over papers the government refuses to hand over that confirm they passed detainees into the custody of locals at whose hands they were certain to be tortured.” I have a better generalization, and unlike all of theirs it is not phrased as an excuse for intellectual laziness: “Canadians don't like being referred to as an idiotic, apathetic, monolithic whole, by people who respect the PM only because of all the cunning manoeuvers he executed and conniving manipulation he engaged in to get where he was.”

Force Two is the rock-hard, dyed-in-the-wool CPC loyalists. Their rise corresponds with that of the man who monopolizes his party's and, increasingly, all of federal politics. They like the strong man who runs roughshod over everybody and never compromises, and are encouraged in this by all of the conservative media. Where you find these people is on talk radio and on comment boards of internet articles, and they will not be swayed. They will find a way to turn the most damning and well-researched exposé on the Harper government (as it now wishes to be called) into a way to shout and scream their visceral hatred of any opposition. But they don't even discern that the opposition is varied and diverse in nature. Harper's pissed off a lot of conservative people too. They'll say things like “Well this is nothing compared to what we'd be going through under the LIEberals. Adscam, anybody?” Or “the LEFT is so bankrupt and pathetic they have nothing better to do than go after competent ministers managing the economy.” In case you haven't noticed, the words “Liberals” (or even better, Fiberals or Lieberals) and the “Left” are sufficient argument and adequate defence against any affront of their champion. If they ever got their heads out of their buttholes and left their rifle rooms on the Canadian prairie, or tricked out suburban basement home theatres, or wherever place it is that such myopically retarded ways of viewing the world are developed, they might be surprised to find out there are people who hold all political parties to the same standards, and who don't fit the descriptions of their lazy and unoriginal caricatures.  It says a lot about the people who unflaggingly support a leader when all they can defend him with are ad-hominems comprised always of the same two insults.  If they could admit that not everyone against the PM fits into these mythical evil demographic groups they've created ("Liberals and the left"), and step back and look at his performance and actions objectively, that would effectively evaporate all of his support. And because they will respond to everything I just said by shouting "Liberal!" and "Lefty" at me, I shall now proceed to my original subject of today to prove to them, to drive it through their thick skulls that I in fact have no axe to grind, liberal or otherwise.

Because while Harper's dogged unwillingness to compromise or back down even in the face of overwhelming evidence of CPC meddling douchebaggery will end his string of lengthy minorities or vault him into the majoristratosphere remains to be seen, the winds are blowing in a different direction in the provincial capital 400 kilometres down the road.  "Premier Dad" has no admiring high profile media personalities fawning over him, nor does he have an army of strident pit bulls to defend him on the internet.  You have to think he's clinging to memories of his popularity and boldness of the past, and wondering when a massive collective understanding of his greatness is going to magically come alive in the minds of the population and sweep him back into power in October.

I would totally understand why the premier would prefer to dwell on the past rather than the present or (*gasp*) the future.  Going on eight years in power and gunning for a third majority, Dalton McGuinty's tenure as Premier of Ontario, just in terms of length, could already be considered prolific. There is a long tradition of writing thick biographies about prolific politicians.  Their always unlikely rise to power, their individual stories, their maddening and inherent contradictions, and their inevitable decline, whether its into obscurity and irrelevance or more likely into the history books if they're being biographed, all contribute to the publication of these books being a frequent occurrence. The material is often abundant and the well of public interest deep.  It is also fascinating for people to be able to appreciate the faults, the fallibility and the humanity of those larger than life, uber-managed figures they are "governed" by; by chronicling their humanity, the biographer allows "regular" people to suddenly see themselves in those who pulled off the most difficult feat to get where they are: seeming normal, regular, and down to earth while simultaneously appearing visionary, exceptional, and authoritative.  This always inevitably ends in the public being disillusioned and disappointed, and rightly so.  Very few people in history have been able to live up to the expectations placed on them.  It is probably because, at the end of the day, one person is just one person.

And that is why, despite being in power since my second year of University (now that's a long time), one person who is unlikely to be the subject of a biography anytime soon is the said Premier of Ontario, Mr. Dalton McGuinty
The man is in the middle of a long, hard, painful, gut-wrenching fall from grace.  I have a hard time with immortalizing, biographer stuff, but in his case it is just too intriguing to not address.  How did a man go from two massive majorities to being the media's daily soccer ball they kick around as hard as they can, and possibly the most hated man in Canadian politics? The past year has seen popular anger and disgust with the premiers of Canada's four most populous provinces rise to spectacular levels. Two, in Alberta and BC, have already got out while the getting was good. But Jean Charest (whose government's follies require at least five columns so I can't go there today) and McTwerpy seem emboldened to ride down a bumpy, hostile road dragged by the scruffs of their neck into infinity. Except that we all know that when being dragged by a moving car, you can only survive for so long even if you manage to dodge a few rocks in the road.
There was a time when McGuinty could do no wrong. When Ernie Eves hurled the "reptilian kitten eater" insult at him in the election campaign of 2003, it failed to resonate.  This failure wasn't because of the poor taste, desperation, or viciousness of an attack on a man who was after all at that time a pretty much unknown entity.  It was because it missed the mark entirely on what is repugnant about him as an individual.
First, there is the panoply of nerdy-sounding, silly re-namings that you can make out of a name you have learned to blame all your problems on.  McGuinty's taxes, McGuinty's flip-flops, McGuinty's lies, McGuinty's deficits, McGuinty's secrecy, McGuinty's boondoggles.  Suddenly this name in your head, associated with all this negativity, has a cursed ring to it that allows you to form it into all kinds of ridiculous titles.  McQuinty. McSquinty, McWimpy, McDimpy, McStinky, McWinky, McSpinty, McFlinty.
But the way his name rolls off the tongue is something beyond his control, so I won't fault him for it. Combined, however, with the problems of extreme overexposure and bumbling incoherence, it is lethal.  When you are the butt of every single joke and the target of every single attack, as a serious politician you want to lay low. Operate with stealth.  Use your strong mandate to make effectual changes.  Take no prisoners and don't back down.
Instead, this guy is in the media every day, digging himself into a deeper hole and tying himself into more pretzel shaped knots than ever before.  A typical sight would be the premier, top button undone, appearing in front of a green background with the words "Jobs and growth" on it, answering the question: "Why has your government changed its wind-turbine policy three times in the past nine months"
Typical McGuinty answer: "Well, you know, I think if you look carefully at what it is you think you want to accomplish, I think folks will agree that we've really tried to make some progress on this.  I know some folks will think that there could have been some things done a little bit differently, but we just have to do what we need to do to make this province the one that I think has a chance of becoming a green energy superpower of the future."
Do you want to write talking points for McLimpsky? It's really easy.  Just go heavy on the "think", "folks", unnecessary conjunctions, and complete void of meaning.

Really, why does McSquirmy not deserve anybody's vote? This may have been a little too personal up until now. It is because, despite all his blathering about “prosperity” and “fairness” for Ontarians, he only actually cares about two very powerful, influential groups: public employees and the business lobby. His government lives in a fantasy world where these two groups are kept happy and everyone else smiles between their enormous mouthfuls of shit.

He is guilty of the same self-aggrandizement as Harper – putting his name on a Metrolinx ad to insinuate that he personally wrote the cheque for it “Were breaking new ground this year thanks to an investment from Premier McGuinty”. But at least Harper would have stuck to his guns. McGuinty, on the other hand, then backed away from a project that was funded and approved two years ago because he's scared to death of Rob Ford. That is why nobody has an respect for him anymore. He is a coward.

1) Backed away from an ambitious pro-gay, pro-contraception, explicit sex-ed program within 48 hours because of pressure from evangelicals.
2) Backed off a relatively cheap anti-poverty initiative to help the poorest of the poor because of “challenges” during the “recession” (but sure as hell found money to bailout general motors)
3) Has muddled and watered down his alternative energy plans into an incoherent nonsensical mess because of pressure from the wind concerns Ontario grouping of blogs and other NIMBYists.
4) Implemented the HST because of pressure from Bay Street and the Federal Conservatives (then took all the flak for it...what an IDIOT!)
5) Secretly passed anti-constitutional legislation during the G20, and was called out on it by the ombudsman whose powers his government subsequently tried to strip.
6) Has doled out pork subsidies to everyone from international video game companies to a hot dog factory in Listowel.
7) Has created 19 new bureaucracies and hired $27 billion worth of unfireable government salaries
8) And I have no doctor, and one of these bureaucracies sends me a letter every six months to tell me that they have still received my letter

Not to rant and rave, but I could give the guy some credit if all this backing down and backing off and giving up got him somewhere. Instead, it has given his opponents the scent of blood. And for completely different reasons, he magically ends up appears as odious and untrustworthy of a leader as his federal counterpart.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

What the hell...?

In today's departure off the beaten track of usual subjects, I want to share some things that have caught my attention for their total bizarreness. These are major news items, yes. But they have contorted my face into grimaces, frowns, and expressions of sheer despair that I have never previously experienced. Maybe that is a stretch; but if my physical face wasn't doing those things, my mental one sure was. I can say that as someone who has been forced to cultivate cynical, pessimistic, or contrairian perspectives on many current issues, when faced with the evidence, I was still beside myself as I pondered the four things I am about to share. Things that made my voice shout "What the hell...?" in the most disturbed octave that came to its register.

I could go on a tear now about how we've hit rock bottom. Or unleash several paragraphs about how there are no more boundaries, telling you we are going to hell in a hand basket and this just proves it, etc. Yet this would be too easy. A waste of time. With these cases, its more than obvious and there is no need to dwell on the obvious. I mean, in an era when grandparents are on facebook and Jersey Shore is a top show, sane people have already had to develop pretty thick skin in order to keep their heads on straight. But this...this...its the beginning of March 2011...and...I don't even have any more intro to give you...what the hell, man?

Starting off today's post, as he starts off every single piece of media that exists these days, is none other than Mr. Carlos Estevez Jr., son of Carlos Estevez Senior and brother of Emilio, of Mighty Ducks fame. Yes, as much as I avoid the celebritrash machine and all the bile that leaks out of its churning vats, the travails of the man you probably know as Charlie Sheen upended me as no previous gossip ever has. This guy is so over the top that nobody can stop looking at him or talking about him.

I don't want to get into weighing in on this man's ridiculous life or trying to sort out why he chose such an outrageous lifestyle; you can read that on every other internet site. Nor do I want to get into tying this into some doom and gloom sociology about our zeitgeist. I just want you to know that I read this trash today and I couldn't believe it. Upstaged the oscars? Usually, when over a period of several months you've made as most sorry spectacle of yourself as anybody has in recent memory, and made absolutely certain that the whole world knows you're an erratic egomaniac hooked on whores and blow, you do something other than hit the primetime interview circuit with a bunch of incoherent rants and gestures proclaiming your the greatest thing to ever happen to humanity. Have you ever seen gas poured on a fire like this before?

I leave the Spears, the Hiltons, the Lohans, the Hills stars, et al, out of my column and my conversations because none of them were ever worth a damn culturally to begin with. People with lots of money, plastic faces, and no talent or anything useful to say don't deserve the time of day or being paid attention to. The crazy thing about Sheen, what separates him from the interchangeable tabloid rag lot, is he actually was a good actor at one time, in films. The guy has some accomplishments; Platoon, Hot Shots Part Deux. I mean, that is some classic stuff. To waste it all calling yourself a drug and saying every dude wishes he were you? There's no coming back from that, and I hope the cameras will do themselves and all of us a favour soon and turn away from what is bound to be a steep and sorry ass decline into obscurity.

Moving from the strange train wreck to the utterly shameful, we have here the son of the ultimate African dictator resource stooge, Equatorial Guinea's Teodorin Obiang, making plans to build himself a $380 million yacht. This is a man from a country where 20% of kids don't make it to age 5, 60% of the population lives on a dollar a day, and the life expectancy according to this is a whopping 51. It's nice that Craig Kielburger and Oprah try to make everybody feel all do-goody and fuzzy with their awareness raising and generalized indignation at the world's injustice, but with pieces of garbage like this walking around, I have a hard time sharing their optimism.

It's hard to get idealistic with them after you discover this case, because even compared to a place like Congo, with its notorious child soldiers and rape/pillage/civil war militia anarchy in the east, Equatorial Guinea is doing fine, thank you. Congo is one of the richest countries in resources but poorest economically, which is a direct result of multi-nationals seeing the size of the country and lack of development as proof that it is vulnerable and the shit I just mentioned as a free pass to take all that's there for the taking. EQG, on the other hand, has a GDP higher than many Asian or European nations, one that blows other African countries out of the water. So what gives?

Well, offshore oil in 1996. Which has been gladly developed by multinational corporations, who have then gladly handed all the runoff spoils to Mr. Obiang's inner circle, so they can buy mansions in malibu and the biggest yacht in the world, as his son proudly states in the link. But give your money to World Vision and Kielburger, I'm sure they're right one the case.

Back here in Ontario, on an issue that you may feel slightly less powerless and depressed about, former eHealth CEO Sarah Kramer was sighted in...Southern California, doing the same thing she did here: making millions consulting! Way to go Sarah! The star pick of the Ontario government to complete the digitizing of the provinces' paper health files, the navy blazer wearin', creepy camera gaze havin', roly poly elitist oversaw the shovelling and waste of a billion dollars to private consultants who accomplished little to no progress on the one straightforward and simple objective they had. The government who loves to brag about the province being a hub for innovation and the seat of RIM couldn't seem to find someone up to the job of setting up some scanners and servers for a lower fee than Ms. Kramer's or who could finish earlier than her expected completion date of 2075. When Ms. Kramer pocketed over 300K severance after a whopping seven months on the job, the government came out with a bumbled response to public rage about how it had to find the "best people" to "compete with the private sector".

Anyway, its good to see she's landed on her feet in a bankrupt state where she can skim her outrageous fees from the top triangle of the American sickcare pyramid. That's 99% of the voters in that State who have absolutely 0 chance of getting health care from the facility employing her
whose scrutiny she won't need to worry about. Maybe Charlie Sheen will come in to revive the lobotomy, paying for some of that "leading edge" care she mentioned in her speech.

Rounding out this bombastic cornucopia of bullshit is an interview with probably the one man on earth more delusional than Charlie Sheen, Moammar Gadhafi. Other than reiterating the cause of his country's unrest, Al Qaeda spiking the youth's coffee, his finest moments include saying he has not had an official position for 35 years since Libya is governed by the people. Ben Ali lasted 36 hours in Tunisia, Mubarak 19 days in Egypt, and Gadhafi - I know he's got great skin for a guy his age, but with nothing else going for him - seems determined to win the dictator longevity contest. Only 60 days into 2011, I wonder what other true absurdity our young year can hold.