Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Déjà vu 2011 style

If this is déjà vu all over again, well it is.   Fearing another crisis like the one in 2008, during the US election no less, those who control the supply of money are again swinging into action.   And once again it's making me ask about our complacency about these things in Canada.

In the last hour as I write this, the central banks of Canadam the US, the Eurozone, the UK, Switzerland and Japan are once again coordinating currency swaps to prevent runs on the euro and the greenback.   The rate the central banks are charging each other will be Fed Funds plus 0.5% -- or just under 0.7%; as well swaps that were due to expire in August of next year have been extended until February 2013.   It seems to have had its intended effect at least short term -- the Euro went up nearly a cent and a half in the last hour and short term bonds in the US have increased their yields to just over 2% for the first time in quite a while.

So far this year, 90 banks have failed in the United States.   The rate has slowed down considerably from the peak of 157 for all of last year which is a good sign, but it's a constant reminder that while we may have a structrually much more sound banking system in Canada we're not entirely immune.    A lot of our banks' capitalization is still denominated in greenbacks and euros as are future debt obligations.    A huge devaluation or revaluation (one way or the other) could have huge effects on a bank's stability.   The Superintendent of Financial Institutions has the right to seize a bank, trust or insurance company if it is teetering, but even short term effects while that bank is being flipped to a more stable one can cause a panic.

Yes deposit insurance is supposed to stop a run on the banks, but there are a lot of people who don't even know such a thing exists, and they could either go postal or drop dead from the shock of a failure.   Even in the best case scenario for a failure, it would be a huge headache to change payment authorizations for expected deposits from entitlements and pay cheques as well as withdrawals for bill payments.    You just can't write an old cheque on a new bank account even if it is the same physical plant; and far as I know, although there is competition for B2B cheques, there is only one company that makes personal cheques in Canada and it can take two weeks to get the new wallet book (hello, Competition Bureau???)

Any time a central bank prints more money, or even creates it virtually, it makes me ask if things will get worse before they get better.    Somehow Canada this morning found it was able to extend the loans it gave to the US for a few more months -- a couple years after it found $30 billion out of nothing at all.    Is something wrong with this picture?   If we were Joe or Jane Blow, our asses would have been foreclosed ages ago.   State immunity my ass.   The is real money we're talking about, money that shouldn't even exist.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Attawapiskat Outrage

It is simply inexcusable that people should have to live in third world conditions in Canada.    Yet that is how people in many First Nations (FN) communities across Canada do live.    And it gotten so bad in Attawapiskat FN, Ontario -- 694 km (432 miles) northeast of Thunder Bay, and which can only be reached by plane from places such as Timmins and Kapuskasing as well as Ottawa -- a reservation on about the same latitude as Red Deer, Alberta is so bad that even the Red Cross doesn't know what to do and has asked for help from other NGOs.

Bad enough that everything has to be shipped in which increases costs.  (The Northern residents deduction, which reduces taxable income by about $3000 per person plus eligible travel costs, doesn't begin to cover the gap between what we pay for food in the South and those in the Great White North do.)  Bad enough there is a huge unemployment rate there and despair to the level that nearly 40% of youth choose to end their own lives.    The notion that any home could be uninsulated or could have no running potable water is outrageous and disgusting.

How can this be tolerated in a country of plenty, especially in a part of Ontario that is within a new "Northern ring of fire" with vast supplies of diamonds (clean, non-conflict diamonds), nickel, copper, palladium, platinum and possibly new sources of gold, silver and cobalt?   As the original owners of the land, Aboriginals are entitled to at least a fair share of the royalties.   Whatever the rate is, a fairer share would be a huge first step in and of itself to lifting people up there out of despair.

(The rate of the royalties which is as much as joke to begin with, isn't as bad as the fact that the royalties are going into general revenues rather than into a real sovereign wealth fund to compete with those in Norway and Mainland China, and the fact such a fund should continue to have inflows as long as the mines and forests haven't been totally exhausted -- but I digress, that's for an upcoming post.)

Instead, Pointy Head McGuinty creates "Five Year Plans" for Northern Ontario (yes, 5YPs, like Eva Perón did for Argentina, no wonder they still think she's a goddess -- as did Mao for Red China and Stalin for the USSR), and the feds shirk their responsibilities also especially with education.   Still no plans for a permanent school rather than one in a moulding portable structure.   Oh sure, they can say they have spent $80 million in the town over the last few years.    If that's the case why is the community still $16 million in debt?    If mining encampments can be built up rapidly and with much more humane living conditions a relative stone's throw away, then what is the problem?

And not to forget the media's role in their shirking of responsibility as well:   The community like so many "up north" only has repeaters, or translators, of big city TV stations which rarely if ever cover issues of import to the First Nations, focusing only on events in the larger and more accessible towns.    And the networks wanted to put these communities into everlasting darkness with the transition to digital earlier this year -- but were ordered by the regulators to give the "little people" a reprieve.   I have to admit I'm surprised that Attawapiskat has high speed internet -- many other FNs still have only 56k dial up.

It's not just Attawapiskat.   This is just the tip of the iceberg.    There are reserves here in the South that are pretty bad -- Six Nations just south of Hamilton is one example -- but that is nowhere compared to this monstrosity.   Even the still non-gentrified sections of South Central LA or Harlem, Manhattan are better than this.  Seriously.

And I think this is the first true test of how much of a "compassionate conservative" Stephen Harper thinks that he is.   Words are trite.   Actions, however constituted, are the real truth.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

When you can see the rebar sticking out, you have a problem

The idea behind reinforcing concrete with steel rebar is to ensure the concrete doesn't rip itself out during the expansion and contraction caused by temperature swings.

Yet just walk or drive around Hamilton.   You can easily see one or more rebar lines sticking out of light standards, overpasses, tunnels and so forth.   It could just take one bad weather event, or a major spike or crasg of temperature (say, in the order of 20 degrees Celsius) over a few hours for one of them to go Timber.   The city couldn't claim force majeure on this one, because they are supposed to be maintaining the infrastructure to a good standard.   Just as it is responsible for potholes, it too would be if a poorly maintained light pole comes tumbling down.

This is am embarrassment and an accident just waiting to happen, just as it has on several occasions in Montréal.   We pay some of the highest property taxes in the country and this is what we get?   Would it hurt too much to strengthen what's there if it is too much just to replace it all?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Who's protecting YOUR water?

This should really make us all wake up: Someone from Russia (it could have been the government or a private interest, we don't know yet) was able to remotely shut off then back on a second later a pump in Springfield, the capital of the state of Illinois -- and in so doing destroyed it.    While the other pumps kicked in for backup and there was never any real danger that the water in that city would become non-potable, the question is:  What was protecting the system?

According to the US Department of Homeland Security:   A three digit password.   That's it.   Presuming each character was one of the 256 possible in ASCII, there would be 256^3 possibilities, or 16,777,216.   A simple P3 250 MHz processor (like, over 10 years old), could crack the code in less than 0.07 seconds just by running through the possibilities one at a time.

Even in the age of the Tea Party, there is general agreement that there should be a basic standard for safe drinking water -- and that it needs to be protected at all costs necessary.   Does this make you feel safe?   We spend billions fighting wars overseas to no discernible end and yet we can't make ourselves safe from the interconnections that could threaten us.     Red China threw out the lights in Rio de Janeiro some time ago -- purposely.   If Russia or China were to do the same to us, should that not be considered an act of war?

Water should be no different.    We need to draw the line and say our water is ours and we mean to protect it.

A three digit password ... really.    Like we protect our treatment plants any more securely.   Isn't there a case to be made that some of our most important infrastructure should be completely off line permanently so they can't be hacked?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A reply to my tar sands entries

In response to some of my recent posts about the tar sands, I got an e-mail the other day in reply that was quite compelling enough that I asked the writer if I could use it here.   He agreed provided I not use his last name.   I am okay with that, so here are some thoughts from Jared:


Dear Robert: 

I'm a long-time reader, first time contacter of your blog posts. I really enjoy your blog in general, particularly in that you aren't rigidly left- or right-wing, something that I really like a lot. As an Albertan, I would however like to comment on what you said about the oilsands:
One of the funny things is that, for all that Alberta is the most conservative province in Canada, even we can become economic nationalists when we feel it's in our interests to do so. The royalty rate review we had a few years back in Alberta was convened because a lot of people weren't convinced that enough of our oil wealth was staying in Alberta. I somehow doubt it would have been convened if the Alberta Liberal and NDP parties were the only ones who wanted it. There's also a considerable movement in Alberta to have more of our bitumen refined here in Alberta, or at least in Canada, rather than shipping the raw material to the U.S. Even our former Premier Ed Stelmach likened it to selling off the raw topsoil on the family farm! 

The other thing I wanted to mention was the discussion about Alberta requiring improved oil extraction processes and the notion of Alberta's oil being "dirty". Although Ezra Levant and others are making an effort to promote the idea of Ethical Oil, what they seem to forget is how much Eastern Canada relies on "dirty" oil from overseas. One thing I'd like to know is what Levant et al. have to say about this question-I personally would love to see stronger energy links between Eastern and Western Canada if it benefited both parts of the country. And judging by the reaction among many Nebraska landowners-people who aren't known for their left wing sympathies-to Keystone XL it's clear that there are still a lot of questions still in the air about how oil is extracted and developed in North America, and it'd be a big mistake to assume otherwise. 

Of course, although there are still issues we need to resolve over oil and gas development, the idea of shutting down the Alberta oilsands is absolutely ridiculous. Doing that would destroy Alberta's economy and give Canadian unity a major kick in the teeth, to say nothing of all the problems it would cause for the Easterners who come out here to work on the rigs and then send money back to their communities. Besides which, it should be pointed out that many of the better players in the oil industry are making a commendable effort to develop the tarsands in a more sustainable fashion. Many of those oilmen are probably avid outdoorsmen themselves, and have friends or family working in the agriculture and ranching industries. They have a vested interest in a healthy environment too. Unfortunately, some anti-oilsands activists seem more interested in portraying the energy industry and its workers as evil moustache-twirling villains who seem to wake up every morning plotting about how they're going to pollute the land today, when all they really are is people who are just trying to make a living. 

The danger here is that we end up with a polarized debate where you're either with someone, or you're against them. On the one hand, any pertinent questions about oil and gas development are dismissed out of hand and the people who ask them are insulted and mocked, or those who try to defend the need for the oilsands are condemned as corporate sellouts and stooges. I don't know what the answers to the debate are myself, but I do know that blithely dismissing concerns over development out of hand or trying to shut down the tarsands aren't going to get us anywhere. 

All the best,

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Railway bridges are falling down in Hamilton

You'd think that if a bridge carries a railway then it should be the railroad company that pays for repairs and/or replacement.    Not necessarily.   Hamilton has about 400 bridges across the vast city, many of them downloaded to the city years ago.   And there are seven, all of them for the steel wheels, where no one is sure who owns them.    Another, the underpass that carries Centennial Parkway away from the QEW, is a rail bridge but is actually owned by the city -- and is crumbling fast to the point where it will have to be replaced for at least $12 million, even more if a third line is in fact built for the extension of commuter rail to Saint Catherines.   It's supposed to be 85% to the city, but the older a bridge gets the more it costs to replace; guess who pays for that.

(A larger map of the railway bridges in question is here -- when we say Hamilton megacity this is what I'm talking about -- the inner city is mostly pedestrian friendly but the outer areas are vast distances and not served by any public transit at all; and infrastructure costs both in and out are paid by everyone.   One of the most notorious is Kenilworth, where four lanes narrow down to two on each side and it keeps flooding during major storms causing traffic tie-ups.)

So much air has been spent on amalgamation and deamalgamation (the latter of which will never, ever happen -- with the exception that maybe the northwest of Flamborough could go to Cambridge and the northeast of same to any of Burlington, Halton Hills or Puslinch -- or a split, based on telephone boundaries -- but that's it) that we have failed to spend the basic money to fix what we have.   It's outrageous that ownership hadn't been determined long ago.   And even so, I'd much rather have my tax dollars spent on fixing those bridges so we can improve freight and passenger rail, as well as eliminating all level crossings (with adequate flood protection) to speed up road traffic, including public transit ... rather than all the money we're spending just to keep the Tiger Cats in town (i.e. a new Ivor Wynne stadium or whatever it'll be called when the naming rights go up for sale.)

How will DSK beat off this one? ... pardon the expression

No sooner did Dominique Strauss Kahn manage to stave off sexual assault charges in Manhattan than he now faces allegations he has ties to ... a call girl.   In northern France.   For €500 to 1500 -- a night.   (The French newspaper L'Express has much much more in their article published last night -- sorry, it's only in French.   Over 20,000 sent and 10,000 received SMS messages as well.    Even more remarkable -- he had his flings with the call girl while negotiating high stakes bailouts in his role as then IMF chief, including a €25 billion lifeboat to Ireland.

And he thought he wouldn't get caught?   And incredible he was able to fuck a woman not his wife and fuck a once great country not his homeland at the same time -- and not give anything away.   (Or did he fill the spare not just with wild oats but also super secret information that even most financial insiders would give their gold fillings for?   If he did he betrayed a heck of a lot of countries as well.)

I thought American politicians were stupid when it came to their tabs and slots.   But this goes way beyond the foibles we see south of 49 and north of the Rio Grande.    If DSK had any outside chance of still getting the Socialist nod to challenge Sarkozy next year, this will have finished that once and for all.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

From the drive-in to the Crystal Cathedral ... and back again

The in-Chapter 11 Hour of Power Ministry is so over its head that it reluctantly decided to sell off its flagship piece of real estate in Garden Grove, California.   The bidding war for the Crystal Cathedral has come down to three candidates, but only two of them are really credible, reports the LA Times:   the Disciples of Christ affiliated Chapman University, which would buy the property (essentially wiping out its debts) and then leasing the building back for a buck a month; and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County which would promptly turn it into its new cathedral (after giving the church formerly run by Robert Schuller Sr a three year stay of execution).

The Times story suggests that the Chapman proposal would only be delaying the inevitable complete shut down of the ministry; besides which, Rev Schuller is also in court fighting for what he claims is a contracted $350k per year allowance for his and his wife's rest of their lives as well as the copyrights to all his sermons and video and radio appearances.   (The Chapman proposal offers to buy out the family for a lump sum $2 million.)   It should be pointed out that while Chapman U is one of the things keeping the OC afloat, other than Disneyworld ™, it has also managed to attract faculty that gathers scorn from both the right and the left.   I'm not too sure what's left of the church would want an association like that.

As for the RC proposal -- well, Schuller has long come off as a proponent of the ecumenical movement, pointing out the similarities of Christianity rather than what divides the global Church.   During the 1970s, he even had Archbishop Fulton J Sheen ("Life is Worth Living") on his show on several occasions, and numerous Catholic guests (ministry and lay) since.   Some of Schuller's parishioners however aren't necessarily that open minded.   Getting the "get" would be a jackpot prize for the Roman Church without question (although with all the sex abuse scandals, you have to ask where they can get the money).   There would also be an irony too -- the reason why newer churches of all denominations have used regular glass instead of stained is to show that that church is looking out into the world; however, it also means the world is looking in and holding it accountable.

Perhaps Schuller forgot about that which is why his former ministry is now in the fix it's in.

I wonder too, whichever way the bankruptcy court rules, if the sale of the Crystal Cathedral might also mean the end of the spectacular annual Christmas Pageant the HoP puts on every Yuletide -- the biggest one of all.   It has never failed to sell out and competes for prima donna with the series of concerts at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah.   But seemingly lost in the message is that to give of your excess, not build up more and more of it -- to lay up treasures not on earth but in heaven (Matthew 6:20).

I'll give my donation money to those who actually give back to the community, openly -- or who practices the "reverse tithe," that is giving 90% of one's gross to charity and living off the remaining 10.   Rick Warren, also an OCer, lives by this principle (since he earns so much from book and podcast royalties, he can afford to live just off his church's stipend while handing over the royalties to medical mission and AIDS prevention causes).   Billy Graham, too, has long chosen to live a very simple life despite raking in $89 million last year and sitting on a foundation with $341 million in assets.   Compare that to Frederick KC Price who drives a Rolls-Royce ™ (because "that's what Jesus would drive if he was here today") or Benny Hinn -- don't get me started again on him.    As far as Schuller -- well, until the financials were forced open in bankruptcy court we weren't even allowed to know about what finer things he chose to live off of.   And remember his air rage incident?

It'll be interesting to see how this turns out.   Because either way, no amount of "possibility thinking" will get the Schullers their church back, or the wholeness of their family which had been ripped apart even before Chapter 11.  (I was going to type "positive thinking / living" but that was Norman Vincent Peale, who also practiced what he preached.)

UPDATE (6:26 PM EST, 2326 GMT):  A couple of points -- first, the bid from the diocese also offers a campus swap -- cathedral for cathedral -- so the Schullers wouldn't be totally out of the cold.   But that would be quite the spectacle, a mass desanctification and rededication ceremony for both buildings.   Many are already speculating that, even if Chapman wins, after a few years it would just kick out its "tenants" anyway and sell the CC to the RC of OC for a profit.

Second, in case you were wondering about the drive in reference -- that's how the church got started, at a drive in theatre and the fact people can still drive right up to the glass of the complex itself.

I have to wonder if everything started going downhill after the brutal rape and murder in 2002 of a little 5 year old girl who was a parishioner there, Samantha Runion; or the 2004 on-campus suicide of Johnnie Carl Jr, the music director (remember when that was breaking news on CNN -- the gunshots being fired in the empty sanctuary during a pageant rehersal?).   And while the church has traditionally stuck to a form of "blab it and grab it" it has really ratcheted that up since daughter Sheila took over.   Not a good sign ... and definitely against the ethic of Chapman's parent church, the Disciples of Christ, which appears on the face of it to support the principles of the Social Gospel, the exact opposite of the Word of Faith.

Bottom line ... again, it will be the Diocese that gets the Crystal Cathedral.   Not if, but when.

Monday, November 14, 2011

If you can't track the guns, you can't track the criminals

The Brady Law in the States, which is supposed to ensure felons don't have access to guns (they are supposed to be flagged by a background check), has proven to be a joke, the NYT reports today.   In just one state -- the State of Washington -- nearly 3300 convicts have had their "right to bear arms" that they forfeited, restored.   In one case, a man out of jail for just two months shot dead his girlfriend's lover -- then forced the dead man's fiancée to dump him into a river.     How did he get the gun?   They were in safekeeping through another friend while the guy was doing time in jail; and the judge who paroled the man said he had no choice under state law even though the judge knew the suspect was a ticking time bomb.

Here in Canada, of course, gun ownership is a privilege and not a right.   I know of some people who are perfectly law abiding but would never be allowed to get a gun license because of various mental health issues.    But it raises a question -- with the Cons bent on abolishing the long gun registry, are we about to become the outlaw country that the United States is -- and an increasingly woman hating one, thanks to the mostly white supremacist religious right and the even more non-white hating and misogynist Tea Party (two sides of the same coin)?

Or that Switzerland is?   While some of its very lax gun laws have been somewhat tightened to comply with general policies in the Schengen open border area that it joined in 2008 after much internal resistance (trade and tourism were the deciding factors in finally giving in), the fact is that most domestic violence incidents that result in death are the result of mandatory firearms possession (every male in Switzerland must possess a rifle until they are at least 30, 34 if they have served as officers).   The rate of firearms ownership there is about 50% higher than Canada (per capita) but only half in turn as that in the United States.    Part of the history is a long standing fear of invasion from its "enemies" but since every country that surrounds Switzerland is a fully fledged democracy and all of which are trustworthy enough to have open borders with, it's more an anachronism than anything else -- albeit a lethal one.

However, one of the reasons Switzerland has a higher conviction rate is that all guns, regardless of size, must be registered and provided with a unique ID number.   That makes guns easier to track and to finger the shooter (since missing weapons must also be reported).   It is true that there are quite a few unregistered weapons there, but if you get caught there you will more likely than not forfeit the right to possess a legal weapon.

Some in this country of Canada go to the old canard that we were trying to make criminals out of legal gun owners, and that a lot of unregistered weapons were making it across the border anyway, which is why the registry has to be abolished.   I agree that some of the penalties for non-registry are ridiculous and need to be revisited; but if we're getting rid of a $2 billion tool that police rely on, doesn't getting rid of the bathwater actually make their job more difficult and make the Harper government guilty of dereliction of duty -- not to mention it actually goes against their promise to be tough on crime?

You can't have it both ways.   Either you get tough on crime and increase the penalties for misuse of a firearm or the illegal possession of one, or you relax the rules on both.   Going at cross purposes (getting "tough" on one but easing up on the other) is a recipe for disaster.   The provinces and territories are well within their rights to say, if the feds want to get rid of the registry, they'll maintain their own -- and this I would support provided that they maintain a unified system rather than a "Balkanized" one.  The jurisdictions would also have every right to demand just and timely compensation for what would be another unfunded mandate on top of the one the Cons are creating with their "crime" bill.

Put it this way:   It makes as much sense as having capitalism in a country with a dictatorship -- sooner or later the regime must fall.   It happened in Yugoslavia, it's happening across the Middle East and eventually Mainland China too will rise up against its communist masters and usher in democracy.   I would welcome that day.   But then we'd better be prepared, because if we can't keep our own country safe from lead paint imports from "over there" heaven help us when we let people through with their firearms and rifles, in full view and not merely concealed, because we said it's okay for our own people.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Keystone XL delayed; and how many Wal-Marts does Hamilton need?

It was a big surprise but also a delight to hear that Hillary Clinton's State Department has ordered Trans Canada Pipelines to reconsider the proposed route of the Keystone XL project, in particular the section that would have gone through Nebraska's Sandhills.   As a result final approval has been put off until sometime in 2013, a year after the next presidential election; but it also means TCP has to go back to the drawing board and write a whole new environmental assessment.

The States won't be off its addiction to oil for a long time to come; but while I as a Canadian would welcome our American cousins ending its purchases of OPEC oil and buying more of ours (which would also, in turn, improve the national security of both countries), that does not automatically make tar sands oil "ethical" by any means, no matter what Ezra Levant has to say about it.    There are absolutely cleaner ways to extract the liquid gold from the bitumen but these projects only account for maybe 1 or 2% of the total.   Unless Alberta forces the issue by increasing royalty rates or requiring improved processes, I think the US is well within its rights to defer the issue.


Also this week but little reported, Wal-Mart ™ got approval to build yet another store in Hamilton, this time at Fifty Road (so called because it's fifty miles from the US border) and the QEW at the far eastern edge of the city (the Winona district).  Ah yes, the sleepy community that gave us the Thomas Brothers (Dave and Ian) will be home to a "supercentre" when there are already WM hyper-marts on Upper James, Wilson Avenue West and Rymal Road East.   (The fifth, a conventional department store at Eastgate, is scheduled to close and move up Centennial to the QEW, two interchanges west of the Fifty Road store; and the new store will also be a hyper-mart; and if reports are to be believed, there will also be a sixth at Centre Mall in the next year or two and it could very well be a hypermart too).

Yes.   The Hamilton mega-city, an area double the size of Toronto, will have six WMs compared to Toronto which with five times the population gets by with just eight.

To be fair part of the project does include a transit hub -- this part of Hamilton is poorly served at present by public transit; one presumes both local bus service as well as commuter bus and rail (GO) will improve a great deal.   If it gets people to carpool then transit, that would be great -- it certainly has helped Toronto which has long had transit hubs in the outer 'burbs.   And there is talk that this store will have a "green" format like the location across the harbour in Burlington (solar and wind power and recycling water on site -- an "off the grid" store if one will).   A measure of long overdue corporate responsibility -- but it doesn't excuse its anti-union sentiments.

I plead guilty to shopping at Wal-Mart, especially the one stop shopping stores (there is actually local food and the price makes it worth the drive) -- but come on.   Six?    In most parts of the States there is nowhere near that kind of saturation.   A quick search shows down the highway in Buffalo they have five locations (with double the population of Hamilton).   Niagara Falls (both side) has a total of three and they get WAY more tourist traffic than either Hamilton or Buffalo.

I don't know what to make of this but I have to consider that the road signs at the entrance to Hamilton says "One City, Many Communities" and "City of Waterfalls" (125+, although about twenty or so of them don't really count because they're drainage overflows that spill over the Niagara Escarpment that slices through the city).

It would be more honest to call Hamilton "City of Wal-Marts."   Steeltown is no longer true and "Art is the new steel" is catchy but only applies to a few gentrified areas of the city where the arts has taken off.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Perry's brain freeze

Last night, Rick Perry, the most bloodthirsty governor in American history (he has permitted 234 legal murders and counting) had a major big time brain freeze when asked what three agencies he would try to cut from the US government (presuming of course Congress agreed).    It's not just how he stalled but what he stalled on.   He named Commerce (which would mean the end of official weather forecasts, time keeping, issuing of patents, and the constitutionally mandated census), Education (no more federal loan guarantees for students, just leave it to the morally corrupt banks), ... then stalled for 53 seconds, saying he couldn't think of the third one, before he finally named the Environmental Protection Agency (part of Interior, like national parks are, but so huge that it probably merits being a separate department all together).

This, broadcast on worldwide television.   Set aside his totally stupid policy proposals, his bloody hands or the fact he coddles the worst televangelists.   Does someone who can't answer a simple question rapidly deserve to have his fingers on The Button?   What if a nuclear missile was aimed at the US or one of its allies, would he pause long enough until it was too late; and even if he didn't what would his retaliatory option be (rare, medium or well done -- those have been the actual code names of minimum, medium and maximum strike back choices)?

Okay, so Obama referred to the 57 states back in 2008 (he meant of course, 51 races in 50 states -- Texas had both a primary and caucus -- DC, the territories and American Dem expats living abroad).   Reagan said the Russians had no word for freedom (anyone who knows any Slavic language knows the word is svoboda).    The elder Bush put his foot in it when he said he doesn't like broccoli.    And of course, we all remember Clinton saying, "It depends on what your definition of 'is', is."

But these were caught in the moment twists of phrase that could easily be forgiven and usually were.   Pausing that long in a live debate?     Way back in 1980 when the great Roger Mudd asked Ted Kennedy why he was challenging then President Carter for the Democratic nomination, "Teddy Bear" gave such a rambling answer (350+ words, with the "answer" only beginning around word 240) it became clear he didn't know why, and that was the end of his chances -- forget the Chappaquiddick affair.   I was seven at the time and even then I thought, what an idiot.   (At least he did more good in the Senate than he ever could have done in the White House.)

I'm amazed Perry was even allowed to govern Texas at all.   Then again, they did vote out a very smart woman (Ann Richards) in favour of ... um, what is the right word to describe Bush 43; simpleton is too kind.

Perry needs to throw in the towel and let the serious people run.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dems kick back at Tea Party

The Tea Party in the States got a huge slap in the face in yesterday's off-year elections in the States.    Among the biggest ones:

Voters in Ohio rejected by a huge margin a law that effectively placed public servants in a "right to work state" situation.

Maine voters approved same day voting registration, making it a "normal" democracy like Canada (this principle is opposed by Tea Partiers as an "open door to fraud" -- and in this state, the tea-baggers actually ran ads saying that it's a "gay" idea.   Like that will work in a libertarian state).

In Mississippi, voters in the mostly pro-life state slammed down a "personhood" measure so vaguely worded that the morning after pill and the IUD would have been outlawed.   (Voters there, however, did approve tighter voter identification requirements.)

In Arizona, the person responsible for that state's anti-immigration law was recalled.

Most high profile incumbents for local and state office appeared to survive, although in Erie County, New York (which includes Buffalo) the GOP county executive was bounced for a Democratic labour operative.

Hard to say what this means for the Congressional elections next year, but if people's appetites for change were worsened by what the Tea Party was really up to once they got in, it could be a torrent that runs all the way downticket.   People want less government, they just don't want their rights taken away and they want migrants to have a fighting chance.    Common sense tends to win out overall and it's good to see there was plenty of it stateside yesterday.

Berlusconi out, not because of "bunga bunga" but bonda bonda

After sticking around what seemed like forever, and beating off one sleaze scandal after another, the world's most powerful womanizer, Silvio Berlusconi, has finally said he's going to resign after bond markets pushed up the yield of Italy's 10 year bonds to 7.25% (according to Bloomberg).   Compare that huge rate with fellow euro traveller Germany with a yield of just 1.7% -- practically giving it away.

This of course is because Germany has since World War II operated mostly on a pay as you go basis -- revenues match expenditures and borrowings if necessary are short term and paid back as quickly as possible.   Long term bonds are issued but it's not uncommon for Germany to retire them early.

For a populist, even a right wing one like Silvio, making every one live like a king means doing some truly irresponsible things on the backs of first the taxpayers and then the bondholders.    The difference of course is that the taxpayers, the citizens of a country, can always get rid of their rulers.   Bondholders often have little recourse but to dump their bonds, often at a loss or break-even if they get lucky.    The break-even point right this morning, for Italy to avoid default, sez Bloomberg, is 5.62%.

It's easy to forget that it could happen here.   We went through one round of austerity measures in Canada in the 1990s.    We could again unless we build a few firewalls here and there to stop the contagion from spreading here.   America's credit is at the breaking point as well, and the sneeze from them and Europe will make us catch cold big time.

For now, in any case, I say good riddance to the king of bunga.  It was bad enough he disgraced himself, now he may have taken an entire civilization back to the Dark Ages for another 1400 years.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Immigrants and "states' rights"

Among the most commonly held misconceptions about immigrants:   They don't pay taxes, they steal jobs, they are criminals, they're a burden on our social safety net.    All four are demonstrably false -- they do pay taxes at the same rates as the rest of us, they create jobs, they are more law abiding than native-born citizens, they tend overall not to rely on social services.    This past week, the Alabama Attorney General actually dared to do something no one has tried to do since 1964 -- challenge the federal government over the validity of a law that on the surface runs afoul of the Civil Rights Act.

Simply stated, since this law -- probably the most anti-immigrant law of any state -- took effect, a lot of parents have been keeping their kids out of school for fear of harassment, even the children of legal immigrants.   The federal Department of Justice wrote a letter requesting school attendance records.   The state AG wrote back demanding to know what authority gives the feds that right.    The response from the feds cites not just the Civil Rights Act but also the Fair Housing Act, the Safe Streets Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, etc.

Alabama, along with a number of states, seems to be of the opinion it has the right to craft immigration policy.   My research on the subject, limited as it is, indicates there is one -- only one -- federal country on the planet where subnational governments have authority on the inflow of foreign nationals and that country is Canada.   This owes primarily due to the fact that while there are categories of jobs that never change from one province to another such as migrant farmers and lumberjacks, each province may also have different and specific labour demands -- oil and gas workers in Alberta, high tech workers for the auto parts and assembly industries in Ontario and Québec, etc. -- so rightly should have a say in who is the best qualified.  All the other federations have immigration handled by the federal government for the simple reason that most see immigration, quite rightly to an extent, as a law and order issue that affects everyone -- immigration is usually handled, therefore, by the justice department of that country.

The sense I get is that since it is no longer acceptable to pick on blacks, it's okay to pick on what's left to pick on and that would be those who are "different" than the rest of the population.   Yet there seems to be such hypocrisy.    A racist will think it's perfectly okay to use a racist slur against someone from, say, Mainland China, yet barely a half hour later have takeout at a Chinese food outlet.    Or one will rail against "The Mexicans" but pump gas at a station managed by a Latino.

Rather than lashing out against the feds for "interfering in state affairs" the states should be working with each other as well as the feds to find out the real criminals who may be ripping off migrants who don't know what rights they are entitled to, so those who haven't broken laws can regularize their status, start paying taxes and help all three levels of government with their massive debt loads.    Otherwise, Alabama and other similarly minded states could be facing an economic and travel boycott which winds up hurting everyone, does no one any good, and only exacerbates the problem.    If Lady Liberty could speak, she'd light her torch and fire it with dead aim at the Alabama State Capitol, and with just cause.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Greece and the game of chicken

It is truly unbelievable the game of chicken we've seen played this week in Europe.   Just one week ago, Greece's PM George Papandreou, was handed the deal of the millennium - a write off of 50% of his country's debts -- and he caused havoc when he wanted to put the sweetheart arrangement to a referendum.   He came dangerously close to being overthrown by an internal putsch just this morning but has survived by backing off on the plebiscite.  (This summary from the BBC, twitted in real time, shows just how crazy it was today.)    Making it an even nuttier day, Europe's central bank cut its overnight rate to 1¼%, cutting the spread with the States back to the traditional 1%.

I'm not a real camp follower of the ins and outs of the Eurozone, much less the EU as a whole; but this is no way to run any country, especially one that is part of a multinational currency.   The drachma is as dead as the dodo and the euro is here to stay.  But gone too is the fact that a lot of the entitlements people across Europe have become so attached to will have to go and the others cut back to a sustainable level.    Many of us on this side of the pond get by just fine with two weeks vacation -- six to eight weeks from year one seems quite extravagant unless one is in the military and needs the leave to decompress.    One can understand the protests against entitlement cuts, but where else is there to cut realistically?   And the retirement age has to be 65 to 70 -- people are living longer and the current pension structures can't handle "Freedom 50."

Also dead is the idea of easy credit -- the world got shot in 1929 over sub-prime mortgages and it did again in 2008; haven't we learned anything?    (Canada's exposure may have been far less in that area, maybe 5% of the total but sub-prime mortgages are still to be had.)  Some things like six months maternity leave paid of course should remain, but what about increasing co-pays and actually cracking down on tax cheats?

Future EU candidates as well as present EU countries due to join the Euro next should be subjected to a truly independent forensic audit to show they meet the "stress tests" that a common currency demands.   It's not just Europe that's at stake.     With Canada due to sign a free trade and labour agreement with the bloc in the near future, it's vital we know what we're getting into.   Including the weird characters who can hold the world at bay like a puppet master manipulating a marionette.