Saturday, 22 October 2011

What is Fair and Whose is Whose Final Instalment - Occupy Yo'self

"If you not rich, if you don't have a job, don't blame the big banks, don't blame Wall Street, blame yo self!"
-U.S. Republican Presidential Candidate and Former CEO of Godfather's Pizza Herman Cain

Can you bring some free pizza down to the protest?

Call Cain's remarks folksy, simplistic or misguided if you want. But they sure are funny.  At least you know where he stands on the issue that has dominated the airwaves in the month of October.  The Occupy Wall Street protestors don't claim to all be there for the same reasons or have a unified agenda.  Most mainstream Newspaper columnists present a token acknowledgement of forces at work in the world (stagnating and declining real wages, soaring executive pay, high unemployment despite record corporate profits), then dismiss the protests as disorganized, unrepresentative of society, and irrelevant (yet, they chose them as a subject for their columns).  The movement and its chances for having any long term impact are totally up in the air; what's astounding is the amount of coverage it has received despite these complaints about its flaws.  What is so intriguing about this anger if nobody other than Mr. Cain can agree on what it has coalesced around?
There have been no shortage of musings  from prominent individuals weighing in on that question.  Two influential global, ex-Goldman Sachs big bankers, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney and soon to be European Central Bank Governor Mario Draghi, surprised everybody by calling them "constructive" and saying that the anger was "understand(able)", respectively.  Less surprising was the disapproval and sniping by middle-aged, MSM columnists like Wente at the Globe and Mail and Brooks at the NY Times, whose main argument was that the North American middle class was busy re-aligning  and  re-building  itself , and going about its business in a  grown-up,  quiet, dignified way.  While the issues affecting this amorphous demographic are real,  they said,  it had no time for a group of fringe extremists who had received far too much attention already.  Getting behind their cool dismissive stance is tempting, especially when individual stories coming out of the occupy crowd in these columns reveal educated, out of work 20-somethings who've never experienced real hardship, and comments are being made below their article include somebody "seeing 24 people at Occupy Calgary and 24 Help Wanted signs the same day".  Is the occupy movement as simple as much ado about nothing
The  mainstream consensus gravitates toward yes.  The  most academic and statistic-based spelling out of the yes was perhaps in  the other day's  Globe, in which a Wilfrid Laurier economics prof argues that the now-infamous "99%" is more like "30%", and in the interest of transparency the occupiers should admit this.  The argument of her and everyone else before her is that the occupiers are nothing more than a hodgepodge of tenured Marxists, lazy college-educated kids who expect 80k out the graduation gate, ex-manufacturing nouveau-poor, and typical union hacks.  Economists like to point to the good news, like that extreme global poverty has been halved and here in Canada the bottom 20% standards of living have actually gone up.  There have been other reactions as well.  Chantal Hébert parsed in the Star that if the 18-35 demographic is so up in arms maybe more of them should cast ballots.  Funniest of all perhaps was Jim Flaherty's befuddled performance  on CTV in  which  he claimed something like "I just don't understand what this is all about"  The biggest media whore politician in Canadian history who is in the papers every day pretending to be a finance and economic sage is suddenly Mr. "Naive . 

   That the mainstream media, political, and business establishments has refused to take the movement seriously  should surprise no one: after all, it wields no real power.  It also does not speak their language of PR, spokespeople, and bullet points.  I think things have slightly progressed in that the protestors have generated some curious observation and sympathy from certain quarters of the establisment.  I have not been out to a protest myself, not because I disagree with their message or am silly enough to believe that we live in a non-stacked deck meritocracy, but because I know that almost everyone instinctively knows what the demonstrators are saying: "Society's unfair!" "Capitalism is a ponzi scheme!".  Sure, there is much that can be done collectively to take down powerful interests; but I think these protests are more symbolic than concrete.  They may "change the conversation", as the Rev Al Sharpton said this week on Jon Stewart, but they in and of themselves do not threaten the status quo.

But  that doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned about social justice, which is why  the person we should focus on, the person who has disappointed me most in all this, is President Obama, who dismissed the protests as "Lacking a clear agenda".  I've harped on the man here a fair bit, and  let me tell you that now more than ever it pains me to do so, as I recently read his book Dreams From My Father.  This guy was raised by stoutly lower-middle class people and knows all about the pains of trying to organize poor people to get together and demand better lives in the face of their own communities' profound ignorance and indifference. Whether the explanation for the change of heart is the short one (power corrupts), or the long one (ageing is making him losing his idealism and crusade), I hesitate to say that he's not the same person anymore.  The book is so witty, so earnest, and has such a nuanced and well-meaning understanding of humanity's problems that I can't bring myself to believe he doesn't see through the hypocrisy and cowardice present in so many of his administration's policies.

The problem perhaps is  he is a prisoner in his post, or maybe being constantly present in the high arenas of the elite causes their ideas to leech into even the smartest people's brains through osmosis.  Yes, the protests attracted a rag-tag bundle of signs, and no, the movement doesn't have a "platform" or "spokespeople" , but to discredit and run to wall street's defence shows unbelievable condescension on the president's part.  The guy I read in that book would have been talking about the tent-car city in California where a shower truck passes by once a week, or the financial inability of Topeka, Kansas to legally enforce action against domestic violence.  And the federal government, adding 250$ billion of new debt every couple of months, is only going to be in less and less of a position to address the panoply of ills 2011 America is stricken with.
Yet when you're surrounded by people like Larry Summers, spouting chest-thumping drivel like "Predictions of America's decline are as old as the republic. But they perform a crucial function in driving the kind of renewal that is required of each generation of Americans. I submit to you that as long as we're worried about the future, the future will be better. We have our challenges. But we also have the most flexible, dynamic, entrepreneurial society the world has ever seen.", I can understand how you can become cold and indifferent, ensconced in your White House bubble.  After all, this guy was your chief economic adviser.  Let's look at his experience on his resume , all in his native country of America, where millions of resumes get tossed in the garbage every single day.  He went from being an adviser to Clinton, to dean of Harvard (whose financial running into the ground he presided over - see VF article), back to the Obama white house, and now onto the boards of Facebook and several silicon valley companies  who are making shitloads of money in one of the richest areas in America.  Yeah, Larry, with the uninterrupted stay you've had in the black escalades that shuffle the elite to and fro between the various bubbles they inhabit, I could see how you think you live in the greatest flippin' place ever.  Unfortunately its not the case, and even the ipad (made in China) can't save you.  Silicon valley firms are too busy creating mini-gods out of each of their employees to bother with a bunch of people they'd no doubt scornfully dismiss as dirty hippies, the same ones you pleasantly dismissed as "challenges".
I have been deeply concerned for a long time about the rigged system that caused the resentment which exploded in 951 protests around the world on Oct 16.  But these people will all go home, shower, eat, go back to work, inevitably go out and buy groceries again at some point.  There is no point in manifesting your dislike of the elite in the form of non-violent, polite demonstration.  They will emerge from their enclaves, smile, make empty promises, and then do the timeless act immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Great Gatsby, page 9 - "They were careless people...--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money...their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."
This is what Barack did when he invoked the spirit of Martin Luther King and said not to demonize Wall Street employees. - retreated into a cheap, moralizing civil rights discourse and alluded to the modernized circumstances that allowed him to become president instead of addressing the issues at hand.  There is no reasoning with people at the top.  If you want to occupy something occupy your own life; if you do it the right way you will engage in collective action much more powerful than any demonstration (which just increases taxpayer burden in the form of overtime police pay).  I happen to have some ideas about occupying your own life which may be more effective than freezing your ass out on Wall Street all winter, if you have a minute to listen to me.
If you live where you depend on a car, move.  Sell the car, break the lease, and quit complaining about auto bailouts and big oil.  It's called opting out.  Stay out of shopping malls, strip malls, and department stores: Walmart, Kmart, Dollarama, and the whole lot of them.  Plastic crap from China is filling your house with junk, its filling out landfills with crap, and it saps untold productivity and resources from our economy.  Make do with the electronics you have instead of buying into industry's planned obsolescence every few months - every TV, every computer, every iphone and ipad needs a shit-ton of rare earth minerals which are disappearing off the earth.  Don't use credit or credit cards unless you pay all your balances (and even then, its questionable because you penalize small independent merchants) every month, if you have debt or lines of credit, pay it down and stop.  Take as much of your money out of the stock market as you can afford to and move into cash and gold as much as you can.  Finally, if you can make, grow, sew, fix or cook something for yourself instead of paying someone else, do it.  Don't throw things out until they're absolute toast.  If we can occupy our lives by reclaiming these ancient values that have been scuttled away in the 20th and 21st centuries due to big capital and big cartels manipulating our minds into thinking it was necessary to ditch them in the name of "progress", we won't need to protest in the street.  I have a feeling a lot of the protesters, besides the young, easy target “hippies”, were self-identified "average folks" who just "can't get ahead" and "don't see how the middle class can take it any more".  Stop commuting, stop spending money you don't have, and stop thinking you're entitled to be in the "middle class" just because you were raised with the mindset of one that doesn't exist anymore.  You've only got one life to live and one self to live it with - occupy yourself!

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Wrecked Economy - What's Fair and Whose is Whose Part 2

" got that $600 trillion in your back pocket, right? Otherwise we're all going to look really stupid."

Two columns ago, I came out against some of the tactics and gaps in logic used by certain public sector unions and I would like to clarify those remarks in case they left anybody thinking I’m a callous or belligerent rich person. Something happened after the fact which has bothered me since and I just need to clear the air. I was speaking with somebody whose 13 member union was busted and locked out this year because the services they provide are for a student body and as such, the student government is their board they have to negotiate their contract with every year. Well, this year the student government is a bunch of grinning, frat boy business student Kevin O’Leary wannabes who claim the money used to pay people to run 200+ student programs is better spent on beer at the pub. They have taken to the twitter sphere regularly to brag about this while making it impossible for the 13 employees to make their living by refusing to negotiate at all. I just wanted to strike down any perception anybody may have had that I identify in any way, shape or form with douche bags like the ones the current Simon Fraser University student government is composed of. The difference between this case and the well-funded, PR-deploying teacher, cop and firefighter unions in Ontario who make up a nouveau-elite slice of our society is enormous, and I don’t like the way that these powerful guys cynically try to lump their interests into the broader “us against them”, “99% vs. 1%” argument with those of impoverished or disadvantaged people, or the masses upon masses who’ve got a patently raw deal.

I will not take part in the professional left’s endless bellyaching about the middle class and jobs, and the sneering of the right wing/business cabal at the Occupy Wall Street movement is a lesson in false pride if there ever was one. We are living in strange times and if we have a common enemy it is dogma. We need to understand what is happening in our world. Europe is, economically speaking, boiling over. While North America rushed to the aid of the old continent in other decades of the twentieth century because of ethnic fighting and warfare, the bill that has come due this time is not one of reckoning over broken treaties, nationalist tensions, or genocide. It is an actual, physical bill that needs to be paid. The world has realized that it was economic suicide to have countries with low birth rates, generous social programs, and little work (Greece, Ireland, Italy) share a currency with exporting, fiscally responsible countries that could actually afford their generous social programs like Germany and, to a lesser degree, France.

This is not the specific reason why the bubble of capitalism is about to burst, though. It is just that this has caused "anxiety" in the global stock markets, which causes "confidence" to fall. The main thing people need to have confidence in for capitalism to function properly is the solvency of banks, in this case European banks, which like banks all over the world don't actually possess the assets on their balance sheet. In simple terms, if everyone went into the bank for their money at the same time, they wouldn't get it. Although this fact is public knowledge, easily accessible with a Google search (it’s called a fractional reserve banking system), it for some reason has not wrought serious havoc up until now. But it has started to the last couple years, maybe because of all the ponzi schemes being layered on top of ponzi schemes in America with ABCPs, MBS, and CDSs and the like. The bailouts of 2008 did not make these things go away; on the contrary, in the eyes of the elite they set a new precedent where even blatant fraud and economy undermining activity like this could be rewarded with taxpayer rescue funds.

Now, when it looks like there is going to be a run on a bank, its leadership, the government of the country it operates in, and international bodies like the G20 speak of the need to “re-capitalize” or even “nationalise” it. This is a euphemism for stealing a bunch of money from the taxpayers, who will be stuck with the bill for the re-capitalization in the form of compound interest debt, to create the perception that the bank has the money it is supposed to have. But if you followed the bank through the scenario I just described, it was clear that it never had all the money before the recapitalization and it doesn’t have it after it either; the only thing that changed is the future generation of taxpayer whose lives were mortgaged away. This, dear reader, is what you need to know when you’re trying to make sense of the cryptic declarations of your country’s politicians, the head of the IMF, and the Occupy Wall Street protests.

That’s why asking the G20 leaders to solve the same global "crisis" they presided over the manufacturing of is like asking an 90 year old man to be a sperm donor for a single woman in her late thirties who feels her biological clock ticking. He may get a "rush" of appearing like a hero when he's asked to perform the action of a hero, but sooner or later reality will sink in for both parties. His "stuff" will not get the job done, and the job will not get done until some real stuff can be obtained. “Real” in this case would be an economy based on reasonably valued goods and services based on organic supply and demand. What we have now is a “Performance-enhanced” economy where the “juice” is the trickery and thievery of permanent ZIRP (zero interest rate policy that robs savers), bailouts and subsidies, orchestrated by the highest levels of government and finance.

The group think practiced by diverse economic sages like NY Times columnist Paul Krugman and Fed Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke: that piling on more debt, deficit, and stimulus to the record amounts that were produced from thin air in 2008/2009 will "kick-start confidence and growth" and "get the stalled recovery in gear", continues to be parroted by various media outlets, including the Toronto Star. The sad thing is, the lingo, the buzzwords, and the bluster are not cutting through to the heart of the problem anymore, and more and more people are realizing it. Further indebting the taxpayer to pretend that the economy is “recovering” and “growing” is a scam, and anybody can see that. That’s why these protests are starting to gain steam.

You’d never know it, though, with the speed the finance minister Jim Flaherty and other members of the Canadian body politic take to the airwaves every other day to assure us that everything’s fine and they’re out hectoring the world in its and our own best interest. Prime Minister Harper himself even wrote this gem for the Globe and Mail, I’m guessing on the back of a McDonald’s paper bag in the back seat of his limo judging by the amount of substance it contains. He and Flaherty both browbeat Europe non-stop on the need to take “decisive action” to “restore confidence and growth” and at the same time “get their deficit under control ASAP”. Because this article by Harper contains 100% rhetoric/adjectives and zero specifics, we can’t know what he's thinking when insisting a continent perform this physically impossible feat. We can only speculate on what he means when he says “Our challenges our great but our will to overcome them is greater”. But based on Flaherty’s demand to Europe a few weeks ago that the continent increase its bailout fund from 400 billion to a trillion Euros, I’m assuming the “will to overcome” is actually the will to demand the European Central Bank to put a new 600 billion euro debt on the heads of unborn Slovaks, Croatians, Lithuanians, Maltese, and the children of the other 23 nations of the great, old continent. Or to make this example more concrete, the Canadian Prime Minister and his allies all over the world - arrogant, dismissive, rich pricks like Kevin O’Leary - figure the silver haired banker guys in Europe who wear silk ties and fitted suits and live in their posh apartments in the toniest areas of Dublin and Paris deserve to maintain their standard of living. In their minds, if they snow the under classes living in high rises grappling with 40% unemployment on the fringes of these same cities, their victims probably a) won’t notice it or b) deserve it for being poor.

The two Canadian con artists in chief will have at least one staunch ally when they head to Europe for G20 negotiations in three weeks: British Prime Minister David Cameron. His country, whose currency, the pound sterling depreciated considerably after its government threw good taxpayer money after the bad housing bubble money at its banks, will put its collapsing economy shoulder to shoulder with Canada’s at the meeting. He and Harper seem to have made a secret agreement – Cameron to be the cross Atlantic “ethical oil” shill for the Tar Sands, Harp to do this bizarre and pathetic reframing of Canadian government branding and priorities around the Queen and the Royal family. Stay tuned for more antics from the Windsor family’s two new Stooge Twins in Chief. After Cameron’s recent aloud musing of needing a “big bazooka” to tackle his country’s debt, I don’t think you’ll have to wait long. The last public figure to use that word was then-U.S. treasury secretary Hank Paulson in 2008. He wanted his “bazooka” to be over a trillion; the bazooka being, of course, the $700 billion Wall Street Bailout that was tacked onto the U.S's then record 11 trillion national debt (it's now cracked 15 trillion).

That brings us to American Politics, and Wall Street, and its occupation. But rather than risk losing you here, I will devote to those subjects the detail they deserve – in my entire next column, because they are so crazy they really deserve all our attention right now.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Five Ways To Improve Voter Turnout Right Now

Unrepresentative democracy and undemocratic elections in Canadian society? Check

There are no nice ways to put it and no positive ways to spin it. Voter turnout is a huge problem. The good news is that it is one of the few problems we have as a society that is relatively simple to solve. I'm not interested in the "what" anymore; "Election fatigue", "Candidates promising little change" and "voter disengagement" are the latest lazy, unhelpful terms columnists are employing to describe the trend in public reaction to elections. That reaction was clearly, on October 6 in Ontario as it was in all other Canadian elections in recent memory, "I DON'T GIVE A F___!" How else to explain last Thursday's 49% voter turnout, meaning that a whole 18% of eligible voters in Ontario actually voted for McGuinty's "Major-Minority"?

That tells me that the state of democracy in this country is a travesty. Why? Because it allows politicians to strut around and act like they're legit and vindicated even though in many cases (like the October 2011 Ontario election) the voters who won a "majority" are those who didn't vote at all, which last time I checked constitutes...a boycott!

The time for cute antics and slogans like "Rock the vote" "Vote or die" and "Yes we can" is over. The gloves have to come off. Elections Ontario beefed up its offer to voters considerably this year by having twenty-eight days of advance polling, the first mail-in ballots ever, and a clear, visible, no-nonsense ad campaign explaining to people the voting options available to them. I had the privelege of participating in the Star's Speak Your Mind platform, which tried to offer local riding coverage and social media overlaps to reach voters and get them out, pointing them to their local race. And voters responded emphatically to all of this by not showing up. When I say gloves off, what I mean is I don't see the point of whining our faces off after the next election when, to everyone's great surprise, voter turnout will have dropped yet again. We've witnessed this outcome too many times and it's time to take steps to make our democracy a functioning one. Unless you want to read this kind of stuff for the rest of your life

And today, Lacking Credentials actually has solutions! Real, original, simple solutions. This is a problem about which I feel qualified to do more than complain and critique, because I actually have ideas that address it. This essay is a project I'm starting about voter turnout because I believe these ideas are necessary tools for raising it. Here they are:

#1 - Introduce Mandatory Voting - People who want to stay home from the polls on election day will be levied a $150 charge, non-negotiable, payable on their annual tax return. This will immediately plug the persistent gap between the unaware/uninterested eligible voters and the distressed citizens concerned about the illegitimacy and malaise that slowly creep into a democracies with such low turnouts.

It is absolutely insane that we allow every member of the citizenry the right to demand free medical care, public transportation, trains on time, lights that switch on and taps that run, but totally let them off the hook when the time comes to choose the people responsible for legislating these things. An indignant "Huh?" is what you get then; a deer in the headlights, don't know, don't care, why-are-you-bugging-me-about this reaction. Sorry folks, these politicians are making serious decisions about your tax dollars being spent and the regulations governing your life and it's not somebody else's problem. It's not an inconvenient telemarketing call during dinner. It's democracy and you will participate or else it will cost you this token sum to tell us you refuse to. And of course, I don't want to make invalids and bedridden old people and whoever else really can't move suffer - there would be a streamlined, lenient, less than 1 page, exception process. But everybody else is back on the hook. Don't tell me its not feasible or unrealistic. We do a crack job making sure every driver on the road has a valid licence and insurance, and that the parents of every baby born register the birth, and that anyone who wants to leave the country visits the passport office. Governments have decided these things are important, because they are, and they've created rules and fines to back them up. They've also decided mandatory voting isn't important, because its not - to them. Apathy and staying home help them stay in power. This rule would allow us to take the power back.

#2 - Introduce a "None of the above" option on the ballot. My first idea would be a big improvement - I truly believe that ignorance is the main source of these pathetic turnouts and it would stamp out a lot of it in a hurry. But why stop there and settle for forced voting? We can also make voting more interesting for all these new voters and throw another group driving low turnout, the "Those bastards have screwed me too many times!" crowd, a bone in the process. But there would be a condition to this "protest" vote, which is agreeing to participate in a local assembly if "None of the above" actually won the most votes in a riding. This slightly contravenes the sacred "secret ballot" principle, but you wouldn't be forced to show up - if anything you'd risk a room of your fellow constituents picking a random and sending him to the legislature, which I think would suit a lot of disgusted voters just fine.

#3 - Improve Political Education. Okay, my last one maybe has some logistics issues, but nothing that can't be hammered out by some intelligent folks in an evening. This one here is dead simple, and has been overlooked up until now because its not valued. And who decides what gets taught and what doesn't? You guessed it. Politicians, ministries and bureaucrats.

Why do most people leave school knowing how to add, subtract, read, write, and identify elements on the periodic table, but when you mention constituencies, candidates, majorities, minorities, ballots and riding associations they look at you like you're speaking a foreign language. All students should be learning 1) How to run for public office 2) How political parties operate 3)What the responsibilities of each level of government are and 4)How to vote. And I don't mean some crappy, half-credit online civics course that everyone cheats on like we have now. These basic things that all citizens need to know before they leave secondary school and reach voting age, two things which usually happen at about the same time, are clearly being overlooked when our children are being educated.

#4 - Add "Political Credit Scores" to the ballot. You hear a lot about not understanding "the issues". Or, your "choices". And I don't blame you. Requiring society to read 15-62 page platforms and bore through reams of newspapers every day is neither possible nor desirable. I want citizens to participate; I can't and shouldn't expect them to be extremely well-versed on the intricacies of fifteen or twenty issues.

How then do we cut to the heart of the matter? What is it about politics that really matters? Are we seeking the leader who most passionately and valiantly defends his/her ideals? The orator with the most stirring rhetoric and debate performance?

The politicians may think we are, but we don't have time to waste on this stuff. If you want stirring speeches, arguments and flourish, read Cicero. Or just watch Hollywood movies about sports. If you want to see how far oratory skills take a country, look at America's trajectory under Barack Obama. People think politics is about putting a suit on and making speeches. I wouldn't be writing this if that were true; in fact, I'd be less inclined to vote myself. The truth is, we elect politicians because they get to put their hands on the purse strings. They manage our money, we trust them with it. When they screw up, we have to pay. And when they do a good job, we save. That's pretty much all we can hope and expect all voters to know and understand.

So the question then becomes how to present this information to voters. I think a "credit-worthiness" angle would be most effective. When a person goes into a bank asking to borrow money to purchase a home or start a business, does the bank employee spend weeks looking through their shoeboxes of receipts and ask for a 40 slide powerpoint presentation, a speech, and a ten page essay? No. They look at the customer's financial situation and the credit score, and they learn everything they need to know. At the political level, everything we need to know can be found in the same pertinent questions a bank employee asks when granting credit. How much is coming in and how much is going out? What revenue will likely come in down the road and what is the risk that it won't? Most important, what does this person owe out there? Do they pay on time? Are they overextended? Have they let stuff go bad? Are they starting to?

You could develop a three-sentence, non-partisan credit report of each party, the last time it was in government, and how it managed public finances, to accompany each ballot. No BS, no spin, no judgement either way - just facts. Hard, proven numbers and time lines. Banks won't think of lending to an individual without this. Why should we treat politicians any differently? They are, after all, individuals too.

#5 - Clean up the discourse. I am all for free expression when it comes to private consumption and private production. But all of the strategies I've described above won't work unless we unplug what is driving the cynicism that is corroding the insides of our democracy inside the minds of voters and non-voters alike. Get rid of all these attack ads, partisan ads, partisan junk mail, radio ads, robo-calls - enough! Like Harlequin Romance novels, nobody will admit to having anything to do with these things, yet they do brisker business every year. This is the issue the political leaders are the most cowardly on: They'll never admit in public that they think misleading and frightening five people into voting for them is worth it if it makes forty people stay home - but they do. Their actions speak louder than words, and their silence on this particular issue is deafening.

So who's with me? Mandatory voting, None of the above ballot option, political education, political party credit scores, and an immediate end to all the toxic, partisan, substance-free junk. Simple and clear rules to correct this disgraceful voter turnout situation right away. If you have any doubts about any of it, I'd love to hear them and discuss with you.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Wrecked Economy - What Is Fair and Whose is Whose?

Dogma, rhetoric, pounding on the table, and evocation of dead leaders are all ways to convince your audience that you and them are in the same struggle

Well, it's thanksgiving Sunday and Ontarians have shown three days ago that they are evenly split on whose rose-coloured screened vision for the province they are opting into. An encouraging result is the McGuinty Liberals missing a majority by one seat, which means they will not have carte blanche over the next four years to secretly take out payday loans and shower cash on whatever public employee group is putting the heat on them this week. These various groups drove the McGuinty government to print an extra $100 billion dollars in Provincial Bonds (compound interest debt owed by Ontario taxpayers to the purchasers of them) over the past eight years because taxes collected weren't sufficient to cover their salaries, benefits, and pensions. The worst part is the Cash Store Liberal government claimed there was a "freeze" since 2009 but wages often still rose between 10-20%. Plenty of otherwise progressive, environmentalist, anti-poverty people who've been excluded from these back-scratching cartels didn't know who to cast their ballot for on election day since all three major parties committed more or less to the continued appeasement of these groups.

I'm not going to use the word "predictably", because it is "presumptuous" but more on that in a minute. For now, let's just say that understandably the Public Sector Union Machine has come out swinging and punching with a noticeably increased intensity the past few months. Serious financial resources have been deployed by unions to wage a PR war against public perception (and, perhaps, some of their own members misgivings over the incompatibility of these unions' actions and their so-called "social justice missions") about the inherent unfairness in the way the public/private wage split in society is currently structured. On TTC vehicles, CUPE ads portray their holistic, caring members (Hey! We're just giving seniors aquafit lessons and teaching yoga for peanuts. Don't blame us.), and on the airwaves the past few weeks you may have noticed the 8 million dollar "Working Families" ad campaign. Because it is heretofore and henceforth impossible for an Ontario politician to address a crowd without employing this label with tourette's-level frequency, even the unions figured that their message wouldn't get anywhere without it. But what provoked the hundreds of thousands of government workers to get so aggressive on the defensive all of a sudden?

Well, it's pretty simple. Despite Canada's "7.1%" "official" unemployment rate, people are wondering. Why are phds waiting tables and driving taxis? How many millions of people in their fifties and sixties that used to rake it in don't get included in this stat either because they've declared themselves officially unemployable or have resigned themselves to settling for walmart/mcjobs? How many people in their twenties can't find any decent work? There are literally millions of unemployed, underemployed, part time and poverty wage employees in Canada, and its been evolving that way for some years. It wasn't like this permanent "recession" state of mind flipped a switch and made things this way overnight.

So all these people struggling and utilising a ragtag patchwork of services, workshops, and re-education programs which are better than nothing but don't seem to be improving the situation on the whole wonder: Why is some 31 year old guy wearing a high-viz orange/yellow x t-shirt and driving a pick-up truck around all day making $29.74 an hour (+ 2.5x that on over time), with a 3.5% increase this year, a 4.5% increase the year after, and a 6% increase the year after that (which will be followed by an intense round of collective bargaining for more guaranteed increases) until he's fifty five? Wait, it gets better. At fifty five, when he's making $63.37 an hour, he can cash out the 30 years of sick days he never took at his current $165,000 a year salary, then retire earning this same amount while not working until he dies! Hmm, I wonder where all this backlash comes from against unions.

Of course, my example is extreme and may not necessarily describe the compensation package of each unionized, public sector employee. But the phenomena I've described are more or less standard in the majority of these packages. Now for my explanation of not wanting to use the word "predictable". Yesterday I read Robin Jones, director of CUPE BC say "Sadly, but predictably, the CFIB (Canadian Federation of Independent Business)'s solution is not to improve pensions for all workers but get rid of ours." He wanted to remind member that "Defined Benefit=Good" and "Defined Contribution=bad". In other words, don't hate us for having to maintain our standard of living, fight for your own.

Usually in these special-interest bromides, the union leadership of well-paid, unskilled lifers who own big cars and expensive real estate sanctimoniously remind us that they're just "the little guy fighting the fight" and we should turn our anger and attention to "bankers, bailouts, and tax-cutting governments" who "wrecked the US economy". Both of these groups which have nothing to do with the average citizen tell the average citizen "We add no value to your lives on a day to day basis and actually make your life more expensive but, you have to meet our demands just because - we "serve the public" or "keep the economy moving".

But I have to hand it to Mr. Jones, who relies on more than just a leap of faith and logic on why I should care about all his six figure pensioners. He says that "Fairness (is in) immediately doubling CPP, increasing OAS and GIS (Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, and Guaranteed Income Supplement, the three government income streams that assure basic needs for all seniors in Canada)...and passing legislation guaranteeing defined benefit public service pension plans". The first part is very flattering, of course, but as one sentence in a one page article is clearly lip service. Is CUPE willing to strike, picket, march, or walkout over granny's 1400 bucks a months to raise it to $2200? I thought not, and that's very telling. They're only willing to when its their swag on the chopping block, which it never is, but even the prospect that someday some of it might be is enough to cause "action". That's why he concludes telling his readership that they need to put a bunch more legal chains and padlocks on the ironclad megabucks they are already guaranteed to receive, to be spent however they wish: on boats, jet skis, cruises, Florida condos, RVs, and the property taxes and credit lines on their expensive big city real estate and Muskoka cottages.

Why else would anyone need to make $84,000 being an "admin assistant" for the city of x______ at 57 years old when they'd be lucky to get 13 bucks an hour doing the same work in the private sector? Why do "years of service" mean "oodles of more money". If anything, I've noticed that people who have been around the longest and make the most usually do the least work and have the least involvement in the actual day to day operations that keep an entertprise going. They have the art of doing as little work as possible while appearing to be indispensible down to a science. Ouch. A little marxist theory slap for our so-called "left" union leaders concerned about the "collective". In their perverse version of utopia, every worker now has a right to own the means of production for his own state-subsidized, bourgeois capitalist dream.

I am generalizing here, and I know that many people in the public sector have vital, life or death important jobs. But not all of them do by virtue of belonging to it. And we as a society are bullied and prohibited from scrutinizing how our public service sector operates and how dollars are spent. We are repelled with shouts of being "right-wing" "anti-labour, anti-union, and anti-worker" when members of the citizenry try to come to grips with the simple "why?" inside pertinent inquiries into public sector pay.

Occupy Wall Street is happening because people are waking up to the fact that these bankers downtown are not oracles, they're not experts, they're just snakes in expensive suits who pretend they have esoteric knowledge that we all owe them our livelihoods for. As people continue to ask why our Western "rich" societies are actually broke as shit and the majority of us "outsiders" are getting stuck with the bill and all of its nasty "order to pay" enclosed rhetoric, a look under the hood of these newly belligerent unions in surely next in line.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Presidential 2012 – The Elephants In the Room Seriously Lacking Heft

Ron? Ron? Where are you? I'm stuck in zombieland...

It has been a crazy month, and the flurry of covering the provincial election has spurned me, perhaps, to sneak in a post about something less redundant in these days of diminishing daylight. The time has come to stop writing about what a colossal flop Barack Obama has been as President, and start looking at who might be gearing up to replace him and survey if there is any wreckage left to, well, wreck.

Doesn't it just feel like yesterday that you were watching that inauguration in the office cafeteria? It was less than three years ago. But the 24 hour news cycle calls for non-stop coverage of...nothing, really, so the analysis for when this happens again in early 2013 has already begun in earnest. Nobody can figure out who will win out to take on the Wall Street lackey talk radio loves to call a black enviro-socialist muslim marxist-leninist president.

Well, I felt the need to inform you that the talent pool so far is looking pretty weak. Not that I imagine many of my readers are registered Republicans, but the candidates being discussed for the herculean task of defeating his royal virtuousness Barack Obama are serious pylons. In France they call the prominent figures in the opposition Socialist Party Les Éléphants. Presumably because of their personalities, which loom large over the party, as does the disproportionate amount of influence in it that they carry. Now, in America the logo of the opposition, the Republican Party, is an actual elephant. But none of the Presidential candidates in it are putting out a particularly elephantesque vibe. The only elephant in this room of candidates is how the media continues to cover them despite how terrible they all are.

When you watch Michael Douglas, or Harrison Ford, or Josh Brolin, or Martin Sheen play an American president, they know that to appear credible and match the grandeur the audience instinctively assigns to the role, certain traits need to be displayed. Earnestness. Optimism. Elegance and savvy with just the right splash of toughness. In short, they subtly effuse their recognition that no man ever got the role that has an impossible amount of pressure and expectations for a human being to deal with right, but at least the guys (the ones we remember) gave an acceptable effort. These candidates were dealing with right now? I'm not even sure they're middle management material.

Let's start our list with Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, the two biggest textbook dickhead-in-suit, shit eating grin corporate glad-handlers I think I've ever seen. Look at those static, plastic grins. Are they in ads for Just for Men? Crest Whitestrips? Eddie Bauer? Are they approaching a lectern in a dreary hotel conference room to woodenly deliver worse then expected quarterly results? No, they're running for president, even though their faces belong in ads aimed at making stiff middle-aged men think its worth it to pretend they're in their primes again, or in front of audiences making stiff middle-aged men think they're gonna earn returns on their investments. Do I judge a book by its cover? Of course not. I know that Mitt Romney has cruised his whole adult life on the coattails of the business achievements and political acumen of his dad George. Rick Perry, meanwhile, in his last ten years as governor of Texas, has pursued the same evangelical, big oil, death sentencing, tough-talkin' agenda of his predecessor in the post, George W., and has presided over such shining achievements as having his state go from second worst to worst level of education in the State of the Union. I don't know why anyone pays attention to these idiots drone on about how they're going to turn around a bankrupt nation. Folks, we are heading into some dark days.

Will they beat Obama? Macleans had him walking off a cliff on the cover last week. He's trying to see just how many cartilages he can make the hordes of American left and progressive voters break in their noses while they hold them and vote for him. Let's go through his "change" checklist – 1)Close Guantanamo 2) End Wars 3) End Bush-era financial profilgacy and bailouts 4) Implement meaningful environmental policies 5)Broker mideast peace process, which is the latest to fall by the way side because “It's too close to election time and he's not gonna risk his neck over it”...Wow, a perfect doughnut zero for 5. And why were things so horrible under the previous administration again? Well, the fed shovelling endless trillions into Wall Street, two wars in far off muslim countries, and 40 million Americans with no health care, of course. The exact same state things are in right now under Mr. “Change We Can Believe In Himself”. If the American public realizes this, which they surely must as unemployment continues to rise and tent cities continue to sprout up from sea to shining sea, I declare this guy 100% f------ un-re-electable.

The problem with those first two republican guys I mentioned is that they're not candid. Who can relate to two lifelong pampered establishment figures in their mid-fifties? They just say whatever their people tell them to say and of course, oppose Obama for the sake of opposing him. This means they'll have about as much cred as the guys they resemble: Square middle-aged suburban dads. No, you need real, sexy outspoken heartland women to stand up to the demagogue in the white house and do him one better by breaking the final glass ceiling. That's why Congressman Bachmann of Minnesota is such a breath of fresh air from these two staid posers. Breathing fire about “homosexual lifestyles” and “Iowa tough-girl ness” will teach these newbies that less spine is not more and non-offensive is not the new black.

What remains to be seen is of course if she can stave off Miss “Too cool for school because I'm still in high school” Palin. The woman looms large and often silent over the media coverage, taking on Lord Voldemort “He who must not be named” characteristics. The high school reference is because she, due to already enjoying an extremely high profile, does not have to lower her notoriety factor by declaring that she's actually running. She prances around the halls of the nation, a gaggle of losers tugging at her skirt for attention while she retains her haughty expression and turned up nose. Such women in high school are not immune to the universal forces of age and decay, which continue to work away on them at an accelerated pace decades later when everyone has forgotten about them but they continue to be sustained by their powerful teenage status on the restaurant or retail shop floor. How many years will we have to watch Sarah's lustre dwindle over the jeopardy music of “Will she run? Won't she? Will she? Won't she?” Hopefully not past the next one.

Who knows. The sad thing is that there is a candidate, who consistently finishes first or close in the straw polls and primaries, and who is systematically ignored and snickered at by the mainstream media. His name is Ron Paul, and you've heard his name here before because he is maybe the only politician in North America who says anything true or real. Namely, that the federal reserve has bankrupted the country to the point where we have no choice but to return to currency that is verifiable because it is REAL (e.g., gold). He also says that U.S. should immediately end its wars and network of bases abroad because they are far too expensive. A 76 year old medical doctor, who because of thpse two sensible ideas that should be an instant landslide success, is instead dismissed as an old crazy nutbar.

Mr Paul enjoys support from a wide variety of people across the political spectrum who are tired of the lies, the malaise, and the bullshit of partisan politics and massaged strategy and messaging. In this way, he is the real elephant in the room. But the LCBO has an elephant in the room campaign too, in which they advise people not to let the drunk person who insists on driving become that elephant. Sadly, people still drive drunk. And republicans are probably determined to ignore this elephant and drive their party, and the country, into a solid tree at the side of the road.

If America and the Republican party had any sense they'd let Ron go kick this spineless poser of a progressive to the curb next year. But if they listen to stunned baby boomers like David Frum (who's considered an “enlightened” republican), they'll elect personality-less corporate robot whore like Romney who will duly bring the nation to its knees and then ride off in a helicopter with Wall Street bankers and the Koch brothers the same way Barack will if he gets re-elected.