Saturday, January 31, 2009

Iraq Provincial Vote Successful

The polls have closed in Iraq and with only a smattering of candidate assassinations, voter intimidation and ballot-buying, everything seems to have gone remarkably well.

Now the wait begins. The results of Iraq's provincial elections may be a harbinger of what lies in store for that country over the next few years. Only Arab provinces, 14 of the 18 in total, will vote. Three Kurdish provinces will vote separately and the final district, Kirkuk, won't be voting at all. Kirkuk is the OK Corral of Iraq, the place where the Arab/Kurd showdown awaits. Baghdad doesn't want to light that fuze anytime soon even as the Kurds keep pushing Arabs out and Kurds in to make sure the referendum comes out their way.

The vote will test the relative strength of Maliki and Muqtada al Sadr; of the Shiite and the minority Sunni Arab factions. The provincial elections may also indicate what the future holds for Maliki in Iraq's national elections later this year. That's when Maliki could be challenged by his country's largest Shia party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

The real threat to the survival of Iraq as a nation remains in the Kurdish north. If the Kurds secede, observers see Iraq splitting into three states; the Kurdish north, the Shiite south and the Sunni centre. There are some who think that outcome is literally pre-ordained by the Kurdish constitution which, to prevent civil war, the Baghdad government incorporated into the Iraqi constitution.

The Fat Lady sits patiently in Kirkuk, waiting to sing.

Whither Athabasca?

The bitumen rich Athabasca Tar Sands are in a slump now that world oil prices have collapsed to rational values. The Tar Sands are not only an environmental scourge but they're also incredibly expensive when it comes to producing a barrel of synthetic oil. It's costly to get the goop out of the sand and costly again to refine it into a form of oil capable of being refined into conventional petroleum products. Other unique features of the Tar Sands include the insane amount of greenhouse-gas emitting energy needed to extract and refine the goop and the massive quantities of water consumed in the process - not to mention those ginormous tailing ponds of toxic sludge, big enough they're visible from space, for which nobody has any solutions other than to let them slowly leech into the soil and water table.

Back when the Oil Patch was giddy with anticipation of $200 per barrel oil prices there was talk of carbon sequestration, an expensive and unproven scheme to capture the CO2 emissions and pump them into permanent storage in deep underground crevices. The viability of this technology is uncertain at best but you can draw your own conclusions by asking how much Athabasca CO2 has ever been sequestered. In today's economy it's a safe bet that the Oil Patch and the Conservative governments in Alberta and Ottawa are in no mood for bitumen sin taxes.

Still, with world oil prices in the tank and a decidedly Tar Sands unfriendly administration now in place in Washington, what will be the fate of the long-promised environmental remediation of Athabasca? It's already an environmental mess. Could that turn into an environmental catastrophe if these two governments don't start putting a boot up the backside of the Oil Patch to clean up the mess they've already made?

Both Harper and Ignatieff have warmly embraced the Tar Sands as a century's worth of wealth for Canada. Both have paid lip service to environmental problems in Athabasca. Neither has demanded a damned thing be done to really clean up this mess. Fortunately there's a guy headed to Ottawa next month who actually does have a spine and he's got the Tar Sands on his agenda, some might say in his crosshairs. Maybe the best solutions for Athabasca will be Made in America.

Suddenly It's Raining Black Men

Don't get me wrong. I'm enormously happy that Americans elected a black president but the cynic in me can't help but noticing how many white bread operations are now looking whole wheat.

The Repuglicans seem pretty adept at this. When Hillary lost the Democratic presidential nomination, John McCain dropped his list of running-mate favourites and chose someone he'd met just once in his life - surprise, it's Sarah Palin! Given the governor's astonishing ignorance of all things national and international - staggering even for the anti-intellectual, "know nothing" party of the Deep South - it was obviously a ploy to snag disaffected female Democrats.

Now, with a black Democrat less than two weeks in the White House, the Repugs have done it again. Enter the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, the first African American to chair the RNC. From The New York Times:

The election of Mr. Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, means that both major political parties are being led by African-Americans. Mr. Steele is the first black chairman of his party, and his selection was particularly striking for Republicans, who have been criticized over the years as stirring racial animosities in an effort to build political coalitions, particularly in the South.

“It’s time for something completely different, and we’re going to bring it to them,” Mr. Steele said. “We’re going to bring this party to every corner, to every boardroom, to every neighborhood, to every community. And we’re going to say to friend and foe alike: ‘We want you to be a part of us. We want you to be with us, and for those of you who are going to obstruct, get ready to be knocked over.’ ”

Wait a minute, did you hear what he said, "time for something completely different?" Maybe someone should tell Mike that America just got something completely different eleven days ago. And that street brawling lingo, you're either with us or we're gonna knock you over? Two can play that game Mr. Steele and right now the weak bench is your team's.

Keeping Down With The Jonses - California Style

Every now and then a really good, delightfully simple idea comes along - one of those "why didn't I think of that?" moments.

California is the home of a lot of leading-edge ideas, most, but not all, of them good and this is a good one. To get homeowners to conserve electricity, utilities are experimenting with monthly statements that compare the customer's energy usage with the average in that neighbourhood and then with what their really efficient neighbours use. From The New York Times:

The district had been trying for years to prod customers into using less energy with tactics like rebates for energy-saving appliances. But the traditional approaches were not meeting the energy reduction goals set by the nonprofit utility’s board.

So, in a move that has proved surprisingly effective, the [Sacramento] district decided to tap into a time-honored American passion: keeping up with the neighbors.

Last April, it began sending out statements to 35,000 randomly selected customers, rating them on their energy use compared with that of neighbors in 100 homes of similar size that used the same heating fuel.
The customers were also compared with the 20 neighbors who were especially efficient in saving energy.

When the Sacramento utility conducted its first assessment of the program after six months, it found that customers who received the personalized report reduced energy use by 2 percent more than those who got standard statements — an improvement that Alexandra Crawford, a spokeswoman for the utility, said was very encouraging.

The approach has now been picked up by utilities in 10 major metropolitan areas eager to reap rewards through increased efficiencies, including Chicago and Seattle, according to Positive Energy, the software company that conceived of the reports and contracts to produce them. Following Sacramento’s lead, they award smiley faces only.

Two per cent doesn't sound like much but it's a good start and it supports research showing that, when trying to motivate behaviour of consumers, few techniques are as effective as comparing individuals to their peers.

Friday, January 30, 2009

60 Minutes' Bob Simon Under Attack

It took a lot of courage and integrity for 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon to produce his recent piece on the Palestinian plight in the West Bank and Israel's apartheid policy. The network and Simon have since come under attack from Jewish groups enraged at the report. Watch it for yourself and then think about writing CBS News with your thoughts.

Watch CBS Videos Online

Where Did All The Money Go?

Just a year or two ago it seemed that everyone was flying high. Money was plentiful, interest rates were cheap. Today the $ signs are used as a measure of debts and deficits instead. So what happened, where did all that money go? If you're curious, check out this informative presentation from The Guardian:

The notional value of all derivatives, including credit default swaps, is estimated as high as EIGHT HUNDRED AND SIXTY THREE TRILLION DOLLARS! Impossible, you say? Well, you're right and you're wrong. We've entered an era where fiction and reality have combined.

Take credit default swaps, for example. They're a recently decriminalized form of bogus insurance. The Wall Street house wanted to sell you derivatives - hodgepodge bundles of bits of countless mortgages. You wanted extra protection so, to cinch the sale, the Wall Street house sold you a side bet called a credit default swap. The Wall Street house was, for pennies on the dollar, promising to insure your investment.

Now here's the thing. Anyone in his right mind who looked at these mortgage derivatives and the associated credit default swaps would know the Wall Street houses never had the mountain of retained assets that would be needed to make good those credit default swap insurance policies.

All of a sudden you have both notional assets plus notional debt obligations. It's not a lot better than buying a billion dollar IOU from the bum begging on the street corner.

I still maintain that the global financial crisis would be manageable if all this notional debt was parcelled out of the equation and recognized as debt only to the value actually paid for these swaps, pennies on the dollar. These were assets that were worthless to begin with. Why should anyone, especially innocent tax payers footing the bill, recognize them for a dime more than that? In fact you could argue that they should just be declared null and void. The mind boggles.

What Is This? A Puppy Mill?

It's come out today that the woman who just gave birth to octuplets - as in eight sprogs - already had six kids at home, including a pair of two year old twins.

From The Guardian:

The woman, who has not been identified, received fertility treatment and was given the option of reducing the number of embryos but declined, according to her mother, Angela Suleman.
The embryos were implanted last year, and "they all happened to take," Suleman told the Los Angeles Times. "What do you suggest she should have done? She refused to have them killed. That is a very painful thing," she said.

The news that the woman would be faced with raising a family of 14 children came as medical experts continued to question the judgment of the team behind the delivery. Fertility specialists said that multiple births can endanger the mother and cause long-term health and developmental problems for the children.

Now reproductive freedom is one thing but using medical intervention to get 14-kids seems to go a tad beyond that. What kind of life are the parents going to be able to offer these kids? Do they even care? What if they decide to roll the dice again and head straight back to the fertility clinic?

Update - Oh great! CBS News is reporting that the mother, Hattie Kauffmann, is now living with her parents. The whereabouts of the father seems to be a mystery. A little over a year and a half ago, Hattie and Hubbie filed for bankruptcy and abandoned their home. Oh but it gets better.

Hattie's dad, the grandfather to the baker's dozen plus one gaggle of kids, has headed back to his native Iraq to earn money to support daughter and her kids. The grandparents' home, said to be a smallish, 2-3 bedroom bungalow, will house 14-children, eight of them infants, and three to four adults.

Pope's Holocaust Denier Says Remarks "Imprudent"

Bishop Richard Williamson, one of four previously excommunicated Catholic Bishops restored to the flock by Pope Benedict XVI, has apologized to the boss for all the fuss he's caused and said his remarks were "imprudent."

What Williamson hasn't done is to recant his views that the Holocaust is a wildly-exaggerated fair tale nor has he apologized to the people who really deserve it, the Jewish community worldwide.

So it sounds like Bishop Ricky is sticking to his guns on the Holocaust business. Now, Joe Ratzinger has to figure out what he's going to do about it.

Even CanWest Sees Straight Through Iggy

CanWest's Don Martin isn't pulling any punches when he describes Ignatieff as something of a Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

It's his budget, not mine," Ignatieff snapped of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's sharp lurch into a five-year series of new deficits, although the rookie leader did claim credit for all the good parts.

It's a shrewd move to reject a budget-backing coalition with the Conservatives, albeit transparently scheming with self-interest. This strategy does not reflect concern for the welfare of hard-hit Canadians, even though Ignatieff masked himself with a feel-your-pain wince to attack the budget's deficit of green initiatives, equalization fairness and child-care support.

The hard swallow of the Liberal's wait-and-see strategy is how it loops Parliament into a wearisome cycle of partisan brinkmanship when Canadians were hoping for unity of purpose to keep the economy moving.

But these are not normal times and if there's something, ANYTHING, this Parliament should be doing to ease the pain, it should be put on the table for discussion immediately. Waiting to capitalize on its failure for political gain is not an option.

Besides, I doubt the Liberals have much more than tinkering in mind when it comes to governing differently in rocky times. Ignatieff's boast that many of the budget's ideas would be right at home on the Liberal side of the House is correct and his objections were not terribly objectionable.

To take advantage of an electoral opportunity, putting the government in limbo at the peak heat of an economic meltdown, would be the height of political arrogance and recklessness, the very traits Ignatieff pins on the Conservatives.

Like Martin, I think Iggy is ducking a paternity issue. He claims to have shaped the government budget, says most of it would be just fine in a Liberal budget and then props it up by voting for it. After all that, he turns coy and says it's Harper's budget, not his. Oh dear.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Can You Feel the Heat? Libs Back Harper, Vote Down Pay Equity

That's what happens when you dance with the devil.

The Liberal Party of Canada (Ignatieff) was tonight forced to vote down pay equity. The pay equity issue was included in a Bloc Quebecois amendment motion that incorporated equalization formulae and rescinding the proposed tax breaks in the Harper-Ignatieff budget.

Way to go, guys. The Bloc had to stand up for pay equity - and you had to vote it down.

Doubtless though, the Liberal Party of Canada, to preserve its last shred of integrity and honour, will excise the pay equity issue from the Bloc's blatantly politico amendment and move to demand the very same themselves. Right? C'mon, we've had the glove across the face. This is the point where you stand up and defend your ideals, right?

What, I'm wrong? Oh, I see. We got rid of all those pesky ideals when we granted Israel pre-absolution for all the carnage it inflicted on Gaza. Of course, what was I thinking?

Tomorrow, Jack Layton will egg us on into defeating the amendment that scraps the tax cuts and frees the slaves. Do these guys sooo have us over the barrel, that same barrel we made.

Sorry, Iggy, but Ian is no Keith, not even remotely. And you're no Pierre, or Jean, or Alexander, you're no Lester, or Wilfred, or William Lyon, or Paul. Those guys made the ideals of this party and they made them on a perfectly defensible basis that people accepted. Yet, as though you would have far rather found a niche in a different party, you decided to accept second best - reshape the Liberal Party in your image according to your beliefs.

Ignatieff has pretty much shown his hand here and I think a lot of you Liberals who haven't been willing to acknowledge that yet, know it anyway.

Right now this country needs, so very much, a return to classic Liberal ideals that carry back to Alexander Mackenzie and the purpose of the party to stand for the weak every bit as much as anyone else. That's where we really started this thing - back at stonemason Alexander Mackenzie.

It's been a lumpy ride at times but, to hold and develop these ideals, you are going to be rocking some boats. Sometimes that was the big boats, usually it was the big boats, but, every now and then it was the little boats' turn to be rocked a bit. The idea was to balance all interests - in fairness.

This guy we've got now, he isn't much concerned about fairness. He's a one man show - he's the decider - and he'll gag his entire caucus to ensure his so very Harperesque iron-hand control of information. Let's face it, no matter whether you think Iggy is a conservative or not, you cannot deny that he likes Harper's style of running a party. We all found that contemptible when Harper did it but suddenly it's become just dandy when Ignatieff does it? Who actually gets the right to turn this Liberal Party of Canada's tap on and off? Did the job specification indicate "strongman" or "leader?" Here's a rule every Latin American knows by heart - never let a strongman in unless that's really what you want and unless you're willing to live with the inevitable outcome.

Now I am, for the first time in a long, long time, absolutely ashamed of the conduct of my party and its Members of Parliament. They've decided it's okay to pursue Harper not just to the right but also into the gutter.

And I guess that's where we part company.

"Buy American" - It Makes Good Sense

President Obama is putting America's neck on the line with a 0.9-trillion dollar stimulus budget. Emphasis solidly on "stimulus." This is, as it has to be to do any good, an artificial, emergency economy built upon his country's normal economy. That's the very reason he wants that stimulus spending to be channeled into buying American products.

This isn't about "free trade" as the Harper-Ignatieff government might claim in screaming "protectionism." This is about national recovery, saving America's economy.

What are we doing? We'll be doling out bags of deficit bucks to let provincees, cities and reasonably well-to-do taxpayers buy crap from China or wherever they can get it cheapest. We're the dummies, not Obama.

When working class taxpayers take their meagre saving, they'll spend it buying Indian textiles, or Chinese toasters or Indonesian television sets. Now just how stupid are we to set up a programme like that?

So Obama should tell Harper and the rest of the planet that he's sticking by his guns and he'll decide how his deficit bucks will be spent and it has nothing to do with protectionism or trade agreements. He's right. We should wake up and realize that.

Which Of These Is Not Like The Others?

h/t curiositycat

Now This Could Get Bloody

Let's see, Barack Obama, is the president of the United States of America. Being POTUS means you're Commander in Chief of the nation's armed forces, the top dog.

So, when the CinC "requests" that Gitmo trials be stood down for 90-days so his administration can scrutinize and assess the entire process, you might think it was a given that those military judges would click their heels, salute and wait to hear back from the boss.

Not so. From the Associated Press:

A military judge at Guantanamo on Thursday rejected a White House request to suspend a hearing for the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing, creating an unexpected challenge for the Obama administration as it reviews the U.S. war-crimes trials process.

The judge, Army Col. James Pohl, said his decision was difficult but necessary to protect "the public interest in a speedy trial." The ruling came in the case against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The bombing of the Navy destroyer in 2000 in the harbor of Aden, Yemen, killed 17 U.S. sailors.

It seemed to take the Pentagon completely by surprise.

"The Department of Defense is currently reviewing Judge Pohl's ruling," said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman. "We will be in compliance with the President's orders regarding Guantanamo."

C'mon, a "speedy trial?" Gitmo? Get real.

That flushing sound you hear is the Colonel's chance of ever making Brigadier. Maybe he's looking to get out and run as a Republican anyway.

Obama Dems To The Rescue - Again

For two guys so utterly bereft of vision, Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff could get so much if they just looked south.

Remind me. How long have Steve and Mike had their jobs anyway? Now, how long as Obama had his? Last Tuesday was pretty much a party day and, after all, it only really started at noon, so let's call it eight days all in.

Barack Obama has done more, clear-headed rescue/stimulus work in eight days than our best and brightest have managed to achieve in months.

The latest? Today it's goodies for the poor and financially beset homeowner. From the Washington Post:

A measure allowing bankruptcy judges to modify the mortgages of troubled homeowners, including cutting the principal they owe, cleared a key congressional committee yesterday.
Under legislation passed by the House Judiciary Committee, a bankruptcy judge could change the terms of a loan by reducing its interest rate, extending its length, or lowering the principal or loan balance. These are known as "cramdown" provisions.

"While bankruptcy reform may not provide all of the answers to this crisis, surely it provides a common sense and practical approach to helping stop the spiral of home foreclosures, which are not helping anyone," committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said.

My God but these guys are making us look pathetic, even clueless.

Ten Trillion Dollars Worth of Stimulus Spending - for Survival

The World Economic Forum, the outfit that puts on the annual Davos summit of business and political leaders, estimates that ten trillion dollars will have to be invested in green technology between now and 2030 if the planet is to avoid an unsustainable warming. From The Guardian:

Green investment has increased more than fourfold, from $30bn to $140bn, between 2004 and 2008, but would still need to triple to meet the target set by the WEF and the co-authors of the report, New Energy Finance. Outlays of $500bn a year would be needed to prevent a rise of more than 2C in global temperatures by 2030.

The study identified eight emerging, large-scale clean energy sectors that were seen as playing a crucial role in the transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy strategy over the next two decades. These were: onshore wind, offshore wind, solar photovoltaic, solar thermal electricity generation, municipal solar waste-to-energy, sugar-based ethanol, cellulosic and next-generation biofuels, and geothermal power.

Max von Bismarck and Anuradha Gurung from the World Economic Forum, and Chris Greenwood and Michael Liebreich from New Energy Finance, said "enormous investment in energy infrastructure is required to address the twin threats of energy insecurity and climate change. In light of the global financial crisis, it is crucial that every dollar is made to 'multi-task' to create a sustainable low-carbon economy."

At a time when the global economy
has been struggling, the report said business had an opportunity to make healthy profits from the fight against climate change. An index of the world's 90 leading clean energy companies had a five-year compounded annualised return of almost 10%, unmatched by the world's major stock indices.

Thinking about this, in conjunction with the Harper-Ignatieff "stimulus" budget, is just depressing.

Bad Times for Pope Benny

Vatican boss, Pope Benedict Ex Vee Eye, just keeps getting drawn deeper in controversy over his decision to restore to the RC fold four previously excommunicated Bishops, one of whom is - well, let's face it - a Holocaust denier.

The wave of outrage and condemnation has had the Vatican spin doctors in overdrive. But today, it all got so much worse. From the Associated Press:

A priest in an ultraconservative society recently rehabilitated by Pope Benedict XVI has defended a bishop in his group and joined him in expressing doubts about the Holocaust.

While making more cautious remarks than Bishop Richard Williamson, the Rev. Floriano Abrahamowicz echoed, in an interview published Thursday by an Italian daily, the prelate's doubts that Jews were gassed during World War II.

"I know gas chambers existed at least to disinfect, I can't say if anybody was killed in them or not," Abrahamowicz told "La Tribuna di Treviso," a newspaper in northern Italy.

And, as if that wasn't bad enough, Father Floriano managed to put the other boot in at the same time:

Abrahamowicz also referred to Jews as being "the people of God who then became the God-killing people" — a remark that contradicts the Vatican II teaching that Jews as a people cannot be held responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

More Democracy Than The Middle East Can Handle

Well that should simplify the recounts. Three days before Iraqis go to the polls, gunmen and simplifying the slate of candidates in next week's runoff by gunning down three of them - for starters. You can be pretty sure there'll be more, especially in the cauldron of the Kurdish-Arab region.

And, in that other showcase of Western democracy, Afghanistan, the electoral commission says, constitution or no, they're putting the general election back to next August. Karzai's term of office expires in May and there's nothing in the constitution that allows him to govern after that.

The Afghan opposition legislators say, kind of understandably, that they won't recognize anything Karzai tries to do after the mandated end of his term.

If You Like Michelle Obama

I sure do, I think she's an awesome First Lady.

Fresh faces. Hardly any of us even knew these people a couple of years ago but we all know them now, or at least we think we do.

That's why I was intrigued to read "A Couple in Chicago" an interview with Michelle and Barack Obama from 1996 before he began his political career. You can find it in the January 19 edition of the New Yorker.

I don't want to try to paraphrase the interviews but, if you're wondering if the Obamas you see today are genuine, this article will put your mind at ease.

Layton Attacks - Brace Yourselves, There'll Be More

Layton and the NDP haven't wasted a minute airing their first round of attack ads. Nothing surprising there, Ignatieff practically wrote them himself.

Jack is now positioned to do what he did so effectively to Stephane Dion; paint the Liberal leader as a feckless stooge of Stephen Harper. He can already make a plausible argument that there exists a Tory-Liberal coalition, that Steve and Mikey are peas in a pod.

The NDP attack ads are just the beginning. Secure in their third party status, the New Democrats have everything to gain and nothing to lose by depicting Harper and Iggy in bed together and then positioning the NDP well clear of them.

All you Liberal strategists who claim that Iggy's propping up Harper's pathetic stimulus/recovery budget somehow positions Ignatieff to hold the whip hand over the Cons, to simply pull the pin at a moment of his choosing, miss the point. To bring down Harper, the Libs will need the support of the NDP and the Bloc and I think Ignatieff has given them solid grounds to refuse, saying "you made your bed, sleep in it."

What was supposed to be a three ring circus is a thing of the past.

It frustrated me to no end to watch Jack Layton repeatedly out maneuvre Stephane Dion, something that damaged the Libs in the last election and really helped out Jack. Now I fear Layton is going to be able to effectively depict Michael Ignatieff as just a continuation of feckless Liberal leadership.

No Matter How You Cut It, Ignatieff Failed Canada

Let's put aside what some of us consider Michael Ignatieff's inexcusable capitulation to Steve Harper's ginormous dud of a recovery stimulus budget. What's done is done and even as Mike gets ready to "swallow hard" on Stephen's package, the question is what has Mr. Ignatieff foisted on Canada?

I was watching the news last night. I thought I could use a bit of inspiration so I watched an American newscast. On cue, there was Obama, outlining his vision for stimulus spending. Surprise, Obama actually has a vision! He outlined projects and programmes that will leave America stronger, more resilient, more competitive.

First and foremost was the overhaul of America's Edison-era power grid. Now there's a stimulus package worth going into deficit for. The existing power grid is antiquated and ureliable and, for America, it's actually dangerous. So, it's an ideal candidate for a major overhaul, a programme that will create the sort of electricity grid America will need in the century to come. Then there was a major renewal programme for the nation's highways and bridges. Again, big investment for long-term dividends.

So, just what vision did Stephen Harper bring to Canada's stimulus budget that Michael Ignatieff found so irresistible? What visionary programmes did these two offer a worried Canadian people in their moment of uncertainty? What are we getting? New highways? A new national railroad? Airports, bridges, harbours, schools, what exactly? Exactly.

These two guys turned up for their showdown with no vision. Their best effort was a plan to have the feds borrow billions in deficit bucks and hope somebody else can find something to spend it on. Jesus Christ on a crutch, that's all Canada's two top politicians had to show for their two month Christmas holiday!

I've said quite a bit on Blind Steve leading Blind Mike, so I'll let the Toronto Star's James Travers have a go:

.Canada's ruling elite is what your grandmother might have called hard of hearing. Even when opportunity pounds on the door, as it is now, politicians are too preoccupied with politics to respond
Bad as these times are, they are surprisingly good for making the difference party leaders loudly promise before quietly forgetting. This country has work to do and the money to do it while waiting to be dragged out of the recession it was dragged into by the U.S. Better yet, politicians have public permission to dance with the deficit devil to get the job done.

What that means is this: Between now and when bust swings back toward boom, Canada has a chance to dramatically raise its game. It could make cities more habitable, energize lethargic productivity or open sclerotic trade arteries to southern, sustaining markets. It could get serious about shading brown to green, making Canadians the big-brains of the knowledge economy or erasing the national stain of aboriginal despair.

Beyond vision and focus, establishing clear, quantifiable objectives would demand some of the courage and purpose past generations found in confronting fascism and outlasting the Great Depression. That would ask a lot of fortunate Canadians who don't want for much. So ruling Conservatives, with the conditional approval of opposition Liberals, will be satisfied if you build a deck, buy a furnace or pocket a modest tax cut.

Measured only against the list of beneficiaries, the billions to be spent, and the government's escape, the budget could easily be mistaken for a success. Instead, it's a crushing disappointment. In saving themselves, Tories fell back on the mushy-middle, high-cost, low-return politics and policies of the last century. In failing to seize the moment, they failed to invite Canadians to rise to the occasion.

But it's also true, as well as self-evident, that just getting by is no longer good enough. By not investing shrewdly in the future, Canada squandered a decade of surpluses. Now politicians are so absorbed in partisan games that they're deaf to the opportunity that, along with deficits, has come knocking.

So, yeah, please remind me again what a brilliant coup the interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada achieved in backing this stillborn stimulus budget. Coming off his masterful performance on the Gaza crisis, Iggy has succeeded in lowering the bar yet again.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What Choice Did They Have?

There's been a river of drivel flowing out of Iggy supporters and Iggy apologists today since he folded and embraced the Harper stimulus budget.

Here's one some joker threw my way. A majority of Canadians and a majority of Liberals support this budget. Okay, I tracked down one poll showing 51% of Canadians surveyed supported the budget. But wait, what choice did they have? Was anybody offering an alternative? No, of course not. An opposition party might have done that but the existing Liberal opposition came with empty hands, said "me too," and cinched the deal.

There being no other proposals on the table and the crest of the recession wave nearing shore, what's a girl to do but take what she can get?

But there are Iggy supporters who say that the budget is okay because Harper folded to Iggy's demands. Ignatieff actually made Harper produce this budget. Really? Why then is it so godawful?

What I like best, though, is how these same Iggy supporters howl like vampires caught in the noonday sun when anyone suggests this is a Harper-Ignatieff budget. Well it must be if Iggy forced Harper's hand. Geez, that sounds like a coalition government in everything but name.

Well if these Iggy supporters are right, that speaks volumes. The total lack of vision in this illegitimate creature is a collaborative effort. Neither of these, er, leaders has any vision. That's why this budget isn't driven by federal recovery spending programmes. It's just the feds throwing money around for others to figure out how it will be spent.

This country may be in for a fiscal thumping worse than any seen in generations. Jobs will be lost, homes too. Families will fall apart. Yet so many of my fellow Liberals are focused instead on who's ahead on points as though this was a political football game. Oh, Iggy's setting Steve up so he can pounce on him when the moment is ripe. Of for Christ's sake, the time is now, maybe not for Harper or for Iggy or for those who cheer on this game - but for a lot of your fellow Canadians, the time is definitely now.

Christ what a sad pair. But a pair nonetheless.

I Told You So

When Governor General Michaelle Jean granted Stephen Harper's wish and prorogued parliament, I wrote that the opposition parties absolutely had to take advantage of the opportunity to sit down and work out an alternative budget so they could have something to present to the Canadian public, something with clear vision, something assuring, should the government fall when it returned.

Now you would have thought the guy who stood next in line to the throne, Michael Ignatieff, wouldn't have to be told that. You would have thought the guy who wants Canadians to believe he has what it takes to govern would have sat down and hammered out a Liberal plan to respond to the country's economic emergency.

So what did we get? Nothing, at least nothing from Michael Ignatieff.

We got a deeply flawed, ill-conceived and ineffectual recovery budget crafted by a pack of clowns who, just four months back, were predicting five years of budget surpluses. Oh yeah, we also got a guy who, by virtue of living in Stornoway if nothing else, is supposed to be an opposition leader who came to the party with empty hands and had no choice but to say "me too."

If there was ever a chance to lower the boom on Stephen Harper, this was it. It's a sad day for the Liberal Party that this moment slipped through our fingers.

Now That The Emergency's Over - How About a Leadership Contest?

I don't follow these things as closely as I should so please correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding of the reason Michael Ignatieff was anointed interim leader of the LPC was due to the prospect of the Harper goverenment falling. Am I right?

So, now that Ignatieff has taken Harper's outstretched hand and formed a Tory-Grit coalition, that whole emergency thing is over, right?

And as Ignatieff has shown himself devoid of both vision and good judgment, wouldn't this be a good time to find a fitting leader for the Liberal Party of Canada?

I realize that, thanks to GG Jean, Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff, it's a bit late in the day for contenders to step forward but surely there must be somone who can at least make sure that our Imperial leadership doesn't turn into a rank coronation. Of is it too late?

How to Guarantee a World War

I've just been re-reading a Harper's article on Georgia and Shakashvili and it got me thinking about NATO's expansion under the Bush regime.

I got to wondering how NATO functioned so well for so long and how it began to show such weakness and division since the end of the Cold War?

It became apparent (to me at least) that an alliance like NATO really only works well when it is confined both in membership and in purpose. The rationale for NATO made sense when the Soviet Union presented a genuine menace to Western Europe and North America. It made sense when its membership was delineated by the North Atlantic and the northern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean. It made sense when the United States was counterbalanced by the Soviet Union and NATO was vaguely offset by the Warsaw Pact. It made sense because its very organization almost completely eliminated the chance of a shooting war.

Bush really, really wanted NATO to open the roster and ink in the names of Georgia and Ukraine and what a disastrous thing that could have been.

Shakashvili turned out to be a lying hothead who couldn't wait to poke Moscow in the eye with a sharp stick. Imagine what he might have done if he believed he could invoke Article 5, the mutual-defence provision of the NATO charter?

If this nutjob (okay, both nutjobs - Bush and Shakashvili) had his way, Canada could have been duty bound to get into a shooting war with Russia and Shakashvili has made it plain he thinks that would have been a fine idea.

And just what have all these newly-minted NATO members been doing to pull their weight in Alliance hot spots like Afghanistan? They act like they've never heard of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It's not like they haven't got troops, scads of troops. They do. You would think they'd be lining up for the chance to replace the Dutch contingent next year or our own forces the year after that. But they're not. NATO calls and calls and calls and they don't pick up the phone. Yet we're supposed to go running to their defence if they pick a fight with Moscow?

There was even talk under Bush of somehow stretching the North Atlantic all the way over to South Asia, perhaps even Australia. Now, wait a minute. Of course that was when Bush was just getting old NATO accustomed to serving as America's Foreign Legion. Here's hoping Obama will simply let that perverse initiative die a natural death.

There will always be wars, especially during periods that usher in changes in global power structures. The more we push, the more push back we can expect, especially from China. Quite frankly, I don't want Canadian Forces dragged into a war with Russia over Georgia any more than I want them dragged into a war with China over Taiwan.

If NATO is going to keep heading down this dangerous path, it's a formula for disaster. We either rationalize and consolidate the membership or we shed Article 5 entirely. We might as well ditch the mutual defence provision. We know that several Western European states have said they wouldn't get into a shooting war with Russia over Georgia anyway.

The Coalition Lives!

It's on. It's just not a Liberal/NDP coalition. It's a Tory/Liberal coalition with Iggy playing the dutiful handmaiden to his new master.

Try as he might to squirm and spin himself a safe distance from this ill-conceived stimulus budget, Iggy can't get out from under himself. It was his call. It was his budget to reject or embrace. It is now the Stephen Harper-Michael Ignatieff budget.

Today's International Monetary Fund report doesn't mince words. It claims that the fiscal assumptions on which the Harper-Ignatieff budget is based are unsound. The IMF says the recession Canada is facing is going to be far deeper and more protracted than the far milder recession the Harper-Ignatieff budget pretends to be able to meet.

So, how is Iggy going to pin this on Harper if the budget flops, the budget he has chosen to back?

If you're going into a battle that requires six divisions of troops to win but all you show up with are three divisions, who do you blame when you get wiped out?

Unfortunately, the Dynamic Duo share the same flaw. They both lack vision. It's reflected in the timidity of their response to this recession and it virtually guarantees that the scores of billions of Harper Bucks that will be poured into this will be haphazardly and ineffectually spent.

IMF Says Harper/Iggy Are Dead Wrong

The International Monetary Fund says Canada is in for a tougher recession ride than what's been forecasted by the Bank of Canada, the Harper government and their supporting cast of Ignatieff Liberals.

From, of all places, CanWest:

...the recession in Canada this year will be much deeper than this week's federal budget is projecting and the recovery next year a lot weaker than projected by either the government or Bank of Canada.

"A sustained economic recovery will not be possible until the financial sector's functionality is restored and credit markets are unclogged," the global lender of last resort warned in releasing its latest forecast.

It now sees the Canadian economy contracting by 1.2% this year, which is weaker than the 0.8% shrinkage projected in the federal budget, and then posting only a marginal 1.6% recovery next year, which is also less than the 2.4% projected in the budget and the 3.8% forecast last week by the Bank of Canada.
The IMF's forecast for Canada this year is also down from its previous projection of 0.3%, noted TD economist Eric Lascelles.

More interesting, however, is the weakness of the IMF forecast for Canada's economy next year, he added.

"This is the weakest figure we have seen, and it appears that the IMF has revised the Canadian outlook downward by the most of any 'advanced economy,' " he observed. "The divergence between the IMF and the Bank of Canada outlooks are extreme, and we are more sympathetic to the IMF than the Bank of Canada outlook at this juncture, given all of the risks of a sustained slowdown."

Great, so we've got a stimulus budget - backed by the Ignatieff Liberals - that's based on hopelessly flawed, fatally optimistic projections.

Way to go, Iggy.

Straight from the Horse's Mouth - Propping Up Harper and Supporting the Harper Budget IS In Canada's Interests

No matter which way he squirms and spins, Michael Ignatieff is going to be saddled with this decision and it's going to come back to haunt him for years.

We won't support a budget that contains tax cuts! Remember that? It sounds an awful lot like Stephane Dion saying the Liberals would never, ever, positively not ever support an extension of the Afghanistan mission past 2009.

In his statement, Iggy goes on to list some of the many obvious failures in the Harper budget and then says he's going to demand it be amended. What, to address those failures? That would be a good thing, no? No. He's going to demand periodic reporting to, well to him. Whoa, now there's a man of action!

This government’s mismanagement of the economic crisis and failure to act has rightfully given Parliament – and Canadians – a reason to question the credibility of this government on economic matters,” which, in Iggy talk somehow comes out to mean, "all the more reason to give the Tories carte blanche approval." (oh yeah, with periodic report cards).

You can read the oh-so interim leader's statement here:

Iggy, You Want - Reports?

If the Toronto Star is right, the Iggy Liberals are everything I feared they could become.

The paper claims that Ignatieff has offered to support Stephen Harper's ridiculously flawed, overpriced, do-nothing budget - if Harpo agrees to provide "periodic economic statements" to parliament.

Puffing himself up as perhaps no one else can, Iggy said, "We are putting this government on probation." Gee, Mike, I thought a minority government with an unruly opposition was always on probation. Was I missing something?

"We will be watching like hawks to make sure the investments Canadians need actually reach them," he said. Gee, he sounds to me a lot more like the legendary Norwegian Blue than any manner of hawk.

Let's get this straight. The interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, our nation's Official Opposition, is content to allow Canada in the face of this fiscal emergency to wallow haplessly under the weight of Harper's visionless bailout budget. If Ignatieff supports this budget, that's exactly what he has done.

If Ignatieff supports Harper on this one, he'll chalk up one more odious similarity to our Furious Leader - he'll put his personal political fortunes ahead of the interests of Canada.

Harper's budget is the fiscal equivalent of kicking a soccer ball halfway up a steep hill. It's a lot of effort to get nowhere.

I'm sorry Mr. Ignatieff but periodic reports aren't going to do bugger all for Canadians and their economy and neither is Harper's budget. If you support this budget, Mikey, you're saying "okay" to everything that's in it - and that's anything but okay to me.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Are Ya Feelin' Stimulated Yet?

Define stimulus. Okay, now define what stimulus spending isn't.

You see, without a definition, it's just a lot of money wandering about aimlessly and, when that happens, it almost never winds up where you wanted it to go.

Now I suppose you could say that any spending, by any entity, for any purpose is stimulus spending. You could say that, but would you? Maybe you would if you were a guy named Steve with a last name that rhymed with Carper but I'm not that guy and I'm pretty sure you aren't either.

Harper's focus seems to be on getting money moving faster. He's placing less emphasis on what that money is for. But isn't it important that the money he's borrowing, the money we'll have to repay with interest in the future, went on "new" spending. Isn't that more effective, more bang for the buck, than throwing federal deficit dollars on projects that were going to be built anyway?

Take Vancouver - please! I just listened to an interview with the city's newly minted mayor, Angus MacFergus MacTavish Dundee Robertson. He can't wait to get his hands on a truckload of Harper Bucks to pour into Vancouver's sewers. You see, the city's water/sewer system is old and has been neglected by the city fathers so long that it's at risk of becoming just one system (sewer plus water - just don't turn on the taps).

Now those sewer and water pipes were going to be repaired anyway so is that a "stimulus" project? Or is it just a federally subsidized municipal works programme that was going ahead even without the federal money. Is it simply replacing municipal borrowing with federal borrowing? Does it even matter? Call me an unrepentant sinner but I think it does.

Yes the Harper Bucks extravaganza may cause some projects to be accelerated and yes, I suppose, that'll get money into circulation a bit quicker, but is that as good a deal as it can be, as good a deal as it should be?

Maybe it's time for a new deck, or a New Deal. You see, Harper isn't stimulating anything, he doesn't have a clue. His response is to use the federal government's borrowing power to come up with truckloads of Harper Bucks to throw about in the general direction of anyone who says they can use it.

If it's infrastructure he wants to spend money on, why doesn't He spend it - on new, federal infrastructure programmes that will benefit the entire country at large rather than a gaggle of municipalities who've got a convenient pocket ready to snag a bag of Harper Bucks?

Why doesn't Harper put up some serious money and build us all a Canadian railroad for the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd centuries, something that would return plenty of dividends - fiscally and environmentally - for as long as we can possibly imagine, certainly for the duration of our lifetimes and those of our kids and grandkids? After all, those "taxpayers yet to be" will be picking up their share of this too.

Christ, this country is calling out for that sort of vision, that type of nation-building initiative. When since Confederation has the moment been better?

But you see, Stephen Harper isn't a man of vision. He doesn't see horizons any more than he sees the future. Stephen Harper has very small vision because all he ever sees is Stephen Harper and the only future he's interested in exploring is Stephen Harper's political future.

Is Iggy any better? I'm the last person anyone should ask. But he might be good enough, if he really cares for our country more than he cares for his hold on the Liberal Party. If he ever wanted an opportunity to show what he's made of, this is it.

Keeping the Focus on Stimulus Spending

Obama made it plain from the outset that his government's stimulus package would target "made in America" products and services. It only makes sense to ensure that the bang you get for the buck is felt at home where it'll do some good.

So, what's the average middle class Canadian going to do to help stimulate the Canadian economy - that is, of course, assuming they don't just hoard the money or pay off old debts?

Well, I suppose these being lean times and all, they could head down to Wal-Mart for a little stimulus spending. What are they going to buy? A toaster made in China, a T-shirt made in India, maybe a television made in Malaya? I guess that is stimulus spending - if you're Chinese or Indian or Malayan.

The government can control both the bucks and the bang which is probably a good idea when it's all borrowed money anyway. But when you're borrowing money - the bucks - and handing it out in tax cuts - chances are that if there even is a bang, it's not going to be where you wanted it.

So please Steve, if you're going to saddle us with the debts anyway, how be you spend that money so the buck truly does stop here?

What's That? It's The Smell of Consensus

It's taken a couple of hours to gel but there is a clear consensus emerging from the left and centre that the Harper budget is a travesty that will do next to nothing to help Canada bounce back from a recession.

The more you read, the more it becomes clear that a lot of snake oil has gone into the production of this budget. It's a plan crafted mainly for spin potential rather than to help the country and the Canadian people.

The unnecessary measures to thwart pay equity are bad enough but the ludicrous middle class tax cuts are inexcusable. A government doesn't make tax cuts when they can only be paid for out of borrowed money.

What infrastructure spending there is has been grossly overstated. The priorities are skewed. Missing is the essential emphasis on investment spending, the sort of infrastructure programmes that will pay big dividends in the long-term, and visibility. The public needs to know where the money is going. They need to see it and they need to see it in every part of the country. Doing that means going big.

The Tories have had plenty of time to come up with big ideas, the sort of projects that can capture the public imagination and the public's support. But the budget doesn't contain that sort of substance but, then again, it can't because the actual infrastructure spending is a pittance of what would be needed for any realistic investment.

Harper has mastered the Bush/Cheney/Rove art of saying what people want to hear and then delivering just the opposite. Remember when Harper admitted that global warming was the greatest threat to mankind and needed urgent action? So, what's he done in your neighbourhood, in your province?

No, this is a budget that reveals incredibly insincere commitment to rather loudly stated promises. It's a hoax, a fraud ginned up with Harper's electoral fortunes first and foremost.

I guess it's fair to say that the Harper budget is "predictable." What remains uncertain is what we can expect from Michael Ignatieff. Will he and the Liberal Party choose Canada or Stephen Harper?

The Inconvenient Truth of Tax Cuts

Tax cuts by a government running a deficit are a different creature than tax cuts by a government with a balanced budget. The latter is merely a distribution of surplus. The former, the tax cut we have in the Harper budget, is a distribution of borrowed money.

The Harper government wants stimulus spending and tax cuts. The stimulus spending alone will put the government budget into deficit. That means the added tax cuts will have to be funded by increased government borrowing, by new debt that will have to be repaid, with interest, by future taxpayers.

In essence, Stephen Harper is doing what Bush did during his regime - playing politics with tax cuts his government couldn't afford. Bush was putting his partisan interests ahead of his country.

Stephen Harper, like Bush, is putting his partisan interests ahead of Canada's. It's that plain, that simple.

If those tax cuts would actually generate economic stimulus they might be more tolerable. They won't. Those who do get a tax break are those lucky enough not to have lost their jobs, those who still have an income in a highly uncertain economy. They will do what those in such vulnerable circumstances inevitably do - they will hoard the money or use it to pay off debts for things they bought long ago, goods and services past, that have no stimulus effect.

Middle class tax cuts are a partisan political scam, compounding the ills of an already defunded federal government. Harper is giving away money the government doesn't have. He is going to borrow every last dime needed to fund this programme.

The only question now is whether the interim leader of the Liberal Party will condone this sham. It's been a hallmark of Harper's style of government that he doesn't hesitate to put his partisan political advantage ahead of the interests of Canada. Now he's extending his hand, asking Iggy to do the same.

What Goes Up...

What goes up must come down but what goes way, way up tends to come down an awful lot harder. That's the lesson of the Athabasca Tar Sands.

When crude oil prices were gamed last year upwards of $150 per barrel, Alberta's Tar Sands looked like a bottomless well of wealth. And, man, did that wealth get around.

I rode my motorcycle through the oil patch in the heydays. At a gas pump I met a young fellow who, as fate would have it, was from my own small town on Vancouver Island. He said how he'd been lucky to earn $30,000 a year as a labourer at home but was pulling in $130,000 a year as a labourer in the oil patch. The big-ass, top of the line pick up truck he was driving left no doubt that the kid was enjoying his newfound prosperity.

That was then, this is now. Oil has fallen to its rational price, well below $50 per barrel and, with the global economy in such a rotten mess, it's likely to stay there for a good while to come. Good news for some, bad news for others, especially if you're a province that got hooked on an enormous oil boom.

Booms touch every aspect of an economy. As more money starts circulating, prices go up - way up. The Tar Sands expansion brought an influx of workers from other parts of Canada, each of them a fresh consumer with pockets full of money. Oil companies found their Tar Sands project development costs skyrocketing in the supply and demand nutckracker they themselves had created.

Booms, whether technology or housing or oil driven, bring inelasticity to affected economies. The more expansion, the nearer the breaking point. Overheated economies rarely end well.

According to the Calgary Herald, Calgarians are bracing for a shock wave of bad news:

Calgarians will see more layoffs, cancelled projects and losses on investment this week and over the next several weeks as oil and gas companies deliver what analysts are predicting will be the worst fourth-quarter results in years.

The contrast with the third quarter, when many companies reported record profits, couldn’t be more stark. As oil prices plunged from all-time highs last summer and credit markets tightened, trust companies have chopped distributions to investors, stock prices have plummeted and 2009 spending plans have been cut to the bone.

UBS economist Jan Stuart warned in a published report last week there’s little in market recovery to fuel a rebound in commodity prices.

“Latest data confirm our projections of unprecedented, steep contractions of global oil demand in the last few months of 2008,” said the report, adding a three per cent decline in world demand in the fourth quarter will likely be repeated in the first three months of 2009 and demand is not likely to turn around until after the third quarter.

One constant problem with booms is that as notional wealth expands, so too does the willingness of business and individuals to take on debt. Debt, unfortunately, is not notional. Wealth can disappear but debt lives on and on and on. And when you do look to those assets you bought with your notional wealth and inflated borrowing power, you find that their value was as notional as your wealth.

A Big Box of BandAids

It's shaping up to be a Post-It Notes budget, a hobbled-together porridge of ordinary government spending, stimulus spending, non-stimulus handouts and income tax cuts.

Now, if it sounds a bit rich for a government that emptied the federal coffers in good times to introduce further tax cuts when it's just settling in to a return of Mulroney-era deficits - well, it is. It sounds like Harper has been on the phone to Congressional Republicans in Washington.

Naturally, a lot of the "new" spending is simply recycled old spending, the run of the mill sleight of hand we've come to expect from Harper. Income tax cuts are great - for those who manage to keep their jobs, and income - but inevitably lessen the support the feds can provide to those who don't.

And, for what little actual stimulus spending there is, it has one fatal flaw. It's penny ante, small stuff. Canadians will lose sight of it and, as they say, out of sight, out of mind.

Infrastructure spending is about more than employment and getting money moving again, much more than that. It has to be money spent on investments that will yield returns for decades to come. It has to go on investments that are big and plainly visible. There has to be both the payback factor - the return generated by real infrastructure projects - and there has to be the added, psychological factor, the confidence building that occurs when people see and understand that infrastructure investment in action.

When Jim down the block gets a thousand dollar grant to help renovate his house with energy-efficient windows that's not really infrastructure spending. Sure a small amount of money - his and the government's - gets injected in the economy and, sure, a couple of guys get a day or two's work out of it but that's pretty much where it ends. There's no great return on investment for the nation and even if the neighbours notice the new windows they won't for long.

But it's the middle class tax cuts, a sheer vote-buying ploy that undermines the stimulus budget, that Iggy must reject. As mentioned previously, those tax cuts are only relevant to those who have kept their jobs and incomes. But, worse, in trying times people horde money, they don't spend it. They won't stimulate spending among people who have doubts about the security of their job. In terms of helping Canada, these tax cuts are daft. In terms of helping Harper at the expense of Canada, they make perfect sense.

Let's hope Ignatieff has the courage to say no to a tax cut budget.

Global Warming Could Be Over By 3009!

If we get our act together - very soon - and slash carbon emissions - a lot - the effects of man-made global warming could pass within a mere thousand years.

The 22nd century is out, so is the 23rd, ditto for the 24th.

An international team of researchers led by some flaky outfit called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Laboratory has released a report showing that the climate change effects we've already caused are slow to become apparent but infinitely slower to recede, a millenium worth of slow.

From CBC News:

In her paper, [the NOAA's Susan] Solomon, a leader of the International Panel on Climate Change and one of the world's best known researchers on the subject, noted that temperatures around the globe have risen and changes in rainfall patterns have been observed in areas around the Mediterranean, southern Africa and southwestern North America.
Warmer climate also is causing expansion of the ocean, and that is expected to increase with the melting of ice on Greenland and Antarctica, the researchers said.

"I don't think that the very long time scale of the persistence of these effects has been understood," Solomon said.

Global warming has been slowed by the ocean, Solomon said, because water absorbs a lot of energy to warm up. But that good effect will not only wane over time, the ocean will also help keep the planet warmer by giving off its accumulated heat to the air.

Climate change has been driven by gases in the atmosphere that trap heat from solar radiation and raise the planet's temperature — the "greenhouse effect." Carbon dioxide has been the most important of those gases because it remains in the air for hundreds of years. While other gases are responsible for nearly half of the warming, they degrade more rapidly, Solomon said.

Top climate scientists are becoming increasingly vocal in warning that the IPCC "consensus" reports, alarming as they may sound, tend to sugar coat the problem.

Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research added, "The temperature changes and the sea level changes are, if anything, underestimated and quite conservative, especially for sea level."

Psst - about your plans for that retirement condo in Arizona.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sussex Drive Renamed In Honour of Current Occupant

Sorry, I couldn't resist. This came from a New York Times fluff piece today exploring the English penchant for weird names.

At Least She's Not Sitting In His Lap

National Post released this delightful photo of the Governor General and Furious Leader yucking it up moments before Madame Jean read today's Throne Speech. It sounded like 10-minutes of standard Harper drivel.

The Daisy Chain of Bailout Begging

Before Christmas it was the Big Three automakers that headed to Washington, begging bowls in hand. Now, according to the Washington Post, it's the auto supplier industry, the smaller companies that build parts and components for the Big Three and other car companies.

Suppliers are bracing themselves to feel the brunt of the weak U.S. auto market. The auto industry ended 2008 with its worst sales in 16 years. Industry-wide, automakers sold 896,124 new cars, minivans and trucks in December, a drop of 36 percent compared with December 2007.
It's a complex, interwoven predicament: Many automakers and suppliers rely on a trade credit system, in which the supplier provides parts to the automakers under an agreement to be paid at a later date. Suppliers then put up those billings, or receivables, up as collateral for working capital loans.

If the auto suppliers get bail outs, just where is this going to stop? There has to be a clear delineating rationale for bail outs. If the auto industry needs only four companies to produce door handles why not keep the best four alive and let the others close? What is the possible advantage to the United States of burdening taxpayers, present and in generations to come, with the expense of keeping surplus door handle manufacturers alive? It's not going to increase the demand for door handles, is it?

In the United States today, who doesn't want a bail out? Most of the states are asking Washington for bail out money. A lot of cities are heading the same way. Individual homeowners want Washington to come through with foreclosure relief. Everybody can't be lending bail out money to everyone else.

Let's face it. A major factor in today's fiscal mess is that, for years, Americans were so awash in cheap money that they borrowed as though they believed they could defy gravity, that there would be no tomorrow.

Money borrowed to spend on bail outs is money Washington won't have to invest on infrastructure projects. Money handed out to allow a company to buy a little time is money that won't be available to buy a bridge.

It's an ordinary part of business that, when downturns arrive, it's survival of the fittest with the weakest, most poorly managed firms going under. Bail outs should not be used in a futile effort to prop up failed business.

Can Obama Resist Putting the Bushies on Trial?

Barack Obama is in a morally risky position in dealing with the blatant criminality of the Bush regime and its flunkeys. Obama has skirted the issue, saying there are too many urgent demands ahead to be dealt with to waste time looking back. It's pretty clear that he doesn't want to start a precedent of an incoming administration leaping into action to prosecute an outgoing administration. And yet there is a growing outcry for redress, for correcting the way the presidency was skewed and criminalized.

The latest voice is that of Joe Galloway, the veteran Vietnam war correspondent with McClatchey Newspapers:

...It's the attorney general's sworn duty to uphold the law and pursue criminal violations, wherever they lead. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the President of the United States and those around him are immune to criminal charges.

The Republicans ...want a Justice Department and an attorney general who will sign on to politics as usual, as it was defined in the time of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and their pitiful attorneys general from John Ashcroft to Michael Mukasey.

Not since the days of John Mitchell has the office of attorney general been so degraded as it was during the tenure of Alberto Gonzales, who today has a grand jury all over him investigating whether he committed crimes large and small.

The Republicans in the Senate apparently want Holder to reprise Gonzales' role of seeing, speaking and hearing no evil, even when evil is all around him.

Mr. Holder's response must be a simple, “No, I cannot and I will not do that. I will repair and restore a Justice Department that will fulfill its duty and mission of upholding the law. I cannot begin my term by promising that I won't do my duty under the law.”

And as much as President Obama may want to focus on the urgent problems he's inherited and face the future, not the past, it would be a grievous error to turn a blind eye to the criminal behavior of the last administration.

It will fall to Mr. Holder and his renovated and reinvigorated Justice Department to plumb the depths of lawbreaking by the previous administration and its leaders and followers.

Nothing less will suffice. Nothing less will convince the American people that we live in a nation where no man is above the law.

Our farsighted forebears had reason to fear and hate the capricious rule of kings and emperors, and they sought in virtually every line of our Constitution and Bill of Rights to ensure that no man was ever above the law; that no man in America could ever appropriate absolute power for himself.

We've lived through a long national nightmare — a time when those in power played on our fears to emasculate constitutional protections and individual rights in the name of security. Taking away freedom to protect freedom is akin to that Vietnam War officer who famously said: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."

The only way we can repair all the damage they did is to confront those who led us astray, led us far from our roots and our hopes and our dreams and into a dark nether world where in order to save freedom we were willing to surrender it.

All that is necessary for evil to triumph, after all, is for good men to do nothing.

Hardball. Ignatieff Up to Bat

Remember the Ralph Goodale/income trust leak scandal that allowed Stephen Harper defeat the Martin government? Weren't the Cons indignant and self-righteous back then? That was then, this is now.

The Cons, with Parliament locked down to preserve their power, are freely leaking budget details at every turn. They're openly admitting they're leaking the budget to garner public support that they hope will deter the opposition from showing them the door. But they're quick to add this isn't a "political game." Say what?

Harper and his minions are playing hardball. They're pitching to the public and the batter is Michael Ignatieff. This is a tactic to get at Iggy, to sap his will, to intimidate him. Pretty aggressive stuff that.

Ignatieff is being shoved around. I think Harper figures he's got the measure of Ignatieff and that all that remains now is to get Iggy to actually jump through that hoop.

American Madness

How can an entire country go mad. The while thing - a people, their economy, their governments - all of them mad as hatters.

As details emerge demonstrating that America is gripped not by a liquidity problem but a widespread insolvency problem, the question must become how could such a powerful, privileged and advanced people have thought to spend themselves into a fiscal gutter?

We know where the madness began. It started with the Nixon administration. That ushered in what Lewis Lapham has described as the moment when Americans began to equate wealth with virtue. It was when the Calvinism of the pilgrims began yielding to hedonistic nationalism. But it was the presidential mad hatter himself, Ronald Reagan, who launched America headlong onto the path of illusion and self-deception.

Remember the anecdote of Cheney, goading Bush into a second wave of tax cuts for the rich, noting that Reagan had shown that "deficits don't matter." It was lunacy enough that Cheney should make the point but even more insane that Bush should swallow it. It echoed in a blue collar class fed a diet rich in triumphalism to mask their famine.

There's been a lot of nonsense spawned over the last decade about Canadians harbouring a seething anti-Americanism. In my case, at least, it wasn't envy at American prosperity that led me to speak out, it was fear of American profligacy. I knew that Reagan had transformed the United States from the world's largest creditor nation, when he took office, to the world's largest debtor nation, when he left office just eight years later. I followed America's balance of trade deficits and their balance of payments deficits along with their wholesale outsourcing of manufacturing to Asia. I watched the Dot.Com bubble and saw how people made and lost fortunes on companies that never, ever, not once turned a profit before they disintegrated. I watched as the Dot.Com bubble gave way to an equally insane housing bubble. I watched, and worried, as the initiative to deeply integrate the Canadian and American economies quietly progressed.

And yes I did speak out about this and I freely criticized the United States and the American people for acting as though they could actually defy gravity. Bear in mind that there were a great many Americans saying the same thing - a lot but just not enough.

And yes I criticized the Bush government at every turn. I criticized the juvenile Bush doctrine and a foreign policy that undermined global security and even fueled Islamist extremism. I criticized Bush for his illegal invasion of Iraq, a folly that, like so many stupid things he did, added more bricks to the backpack America carried until it could carry it no more.

And when we became ensnarled with a prime minister who actually admired the people and politics that were bringing America to the edge of collapse, I criticized the American government even more. It was a close thing. It was more than fate that kept the Reform/Alliance/Conservatives from coming to power with the majority they would have required to steer Canada down the Bush/Cheney/Howard path. It was a level of awareness, or unease that stopped Harper in his pro-Republican tracks.

The madness of America is only starting to be played out. The recession won't be like other downturns in which an otherwise sound economy bounces back. This recession has a millstone tied around its feet, a massive indebtedness that reaches through the federal, state and municipal governments; most of the corporate sector; and straight into American families. Losing your job is one thing but losing your job right when you're up to your alligators in debt with assets whose value is steadily dwindling is another matter altogether. It's enough to drive you mad.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Riding the Tiger

I've written about this before but Mike ("Rational Reasons") posted a link to this clip at Red Tory.

Canada is straddled atop the tiger that is the United States. We have no choice but to stay where we are because it's just too dangerous to get off.

Wonder what's coming? Check this out:

I love how the American narrative has shifted to evil "entitlement" programmes, a term that plainly implies unearned, undeserved charity. As this clip shows, American workers have done just fine by their Social Security system which, for decades, has been running a surplus (that was money the Boomers were putting in for their retirement). Instead of retaining and investing those "surpluses", the US government simply stole the money, took it into general revenue and used it to fund current expenses.

Now that they've stolen the blue and white-collar workers' contributions, Congress - Republican and Democrat alike - are pointing the finger at "entitlement" programmes, blaming the victims. This is just scandalous.

Obama's First Weekend Message

Dumbing Down

It's easy to blame television for "dumbing down" modern society. We blame the media because with the advent of guys like Geraldo Rivera, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and those of their kind, control of public airwaves has been used to skew information, distort reality and manipulate public opinion.

But our governments have played a major role in bringing about a lowering of public awareness and a coarsening of public debate. They did this by deciding to step back from regulating and supporting our news media.

There was a time, a couple of decades back, where we discussed issues such as concentration of media ownership and cross-ownership. We saw these as problems, genuine threats to democracy. Media outlets have the same monopolistic bent as other industries, perhaps even more so. As they expand their influence in various markets, they also expand their political clout exponentially. Politicians and media barons go hand in hand, each positioned to scratch the other's back. What does a politician care if there's only one media voice dominating a particular market so long as that voice echoes that politician's message?

Restricting concentration of ownership and cross-ownership benefits the public rather than the politician. It introduces new voices and encourages independent thought. It raises the essential level of debate and leaves the several owners of media outlets less beholden to political benefactors.

I expect we'll see movement on this problem, eventually, by the Obama camp. The FCC had a pretty rough time of it during the Bush years. I hope we'll also see the issue brought forward as a priority should the Harper government be unseated. We've been going the wrong way on this one for far, far too long.

Oh Dear - California Craters

With the focus on Wall Street and the US federal government, the fiscal plight of individual states is understandably overlooked. Well, no longer. California, which if it were a country, would have the 7th largest economy in the world, is tapped.

The last time the state had money to pay its bills was July 17th, 2008. Since then it's been borrow, borrow, borrow until it can't borrow any more or, in layman's terms, today. McClatchey Newspapers reports California has gone through a mountain of borrowed money:

As in $21.5 billion worth of borrowed money, according to state Controller John Chiang: $16.5 billion borrowed from some of the state's 1,000-plus special funds, plus $5 billion in "revenue anticipation notes," which are basically money borrowed from private investors.

But, Chiang, whose office writes the state's checks, says California is about out of stopgap tricks to pay its bills and keep all its programs running.

The controller says California is down to Plan D on its checklist of paying bills. Its cash reserves are piddling; the special funds it borrows from are tapped out, and no one in the private sector is going to lend it any cash at a reasonable interest rate.

That leaves what in state government circles are called "payment deferrals" and what in real life is called "stiffing your creditors."

California contributes about 13% of the American economy. The fiscal health of the state (and it's also unmentioned municipalities) impacts on the entire nation. The trouble is that bailing out California (the Governator already asked Bush) is to open a door to the swarm of other states in the same predicament.

When you begin factoring in broke states and municipalities and heap them up on the pile of broke industries, federal government debt and homeowner debt, about the only thing that America has in abundance is debt.

I think the experts may be right. What's facing Obama now isn't a matter of liquidity, it's a full-blown, national insolvency. And, just to tweak your memory, our economy is lashed tightly to theirs.

Someone's Going to Flinch on Tuesday - Will It Be Harper or Ignatieff?

We know it's going to be big and we know it's going to be printed with red ink - and that's about all we know about the Conservatives' budget until the wraps come off on Tuesday.

There's been talk of a middle class tax cut which would be the most blatantly partisan ploy imaginable in a deficit budget. To the extent this sort of tax cut ever works, it depends on the beneficiaries identifying their windfall and then spending it - putting it into the economy. At a time when the country is just getting into a recession of a scope and duration nobody, I repeat nobody, can reliably forecast, the middle class won't be spending what they pocket from tax cuts. They'll be hording it either tucking it away or paying down debt from past spending.

If Harper goes for middle class tax cuts, he'll be running true to form in putting his own partisan interests ahead of the nation's. In that case, what choice would Iggy have but to pull the pin and defeat the government?

I think Harper is too clever by far to risk putting Ignatieff in a corner where he has no choice but to vote down the budget. He'll draft his budget with a general election in mind. Harper will want to build in provisions on which he could attack the Libs in an election.

Poor Harp, he of the far right branch of the conservative tree. A lot of Harper's base gags at the very mention of deficits. I spoke with a well-placed Tory insider recently and was shocked at the vitriol in his comments on Harper and deficit budgets. Harper is in a position where he has to override his base on a budget that could land him in an election and dependent on that base for his survival. It won't take many of them staying home on voting day to end Stephen Harper's political career.

Come Tuesday, somebody's going to flinch. If it's Ignatieff he risks being seen as just another feckless leader like Dion whose caucus was known to steer clear of Parliament on confidence votes they couldn't support. Iggy is still just interim leader. How he handles the budget on Tuesday could impact on his expected coronation. He too has issues with his base, both existing supporters and those voters he needs to attract to the party.

Can Harper serve up a budget Ignatieff can't refuse without looking weak, even frightened of the new Liberal leader? Can Ignatieff support a deficit budget that doesn't meet his stated demands?

The optics of this contest are fascinating. What a week this is going to be.

Remember Those GST Cuts? Here's Your Bill and Have A Nice Day

When Stephen Harper comes calling with his "rescue" budget on Tuesday, he'll be handing you the bill for those GST cuts he gave you. That 2% sales tax break is going to be charged back to your account. Because of the size of the deficit, it's like Harper's taking all that money back - with interest from the date you began enjoying the savings, interest that will continue to accrue on the deficit until you pay that off too.

Who knows, maybe you're one of the few who really benefited from the tax cuts. Maybe you shaved a couple of points off a new car or, better yet, a brand new house. Or maybe, like the rest of us, you just got an almost unnoticeable lightening of your grocery bills. Be that as it may, that money is all being recalled through the levying of the deficit on our tax bills.

I am hardly opposing stimulus spending. There's really not much choice. I'm just miffed that Boss Harp fiddled with federal finances for his personal political advantage in the good times, leaving the cupboard bare when the tough times inevitably arrived.

Just keep in mind that the 2% GST cut Harper said he was giving you was just a gag, a cheap political stunt. Now give us that money back and don't forget a penny of interest either.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Older We Get

When I was a kid we were - there's no other word for it - racist. Our parents fed us this stuff and, there being no contrary voice raised, we pretty much bought.

We also believed it was worth an Armageddon-level nuke strike on Moscow to preserve our God-given right to something - oh yeah, now I.remember, our right to capitalism.

But, for all the Pat Boones, there were singers and writers who stayed with the tried and true - with the blues. They made unforgettable music - just like this by Joan Osbourne. (psss. up the bass, now)

And, if you liked that, I'm pretty sure you'll be swept away with this:

Do let me know if I'm wrong.

These clips are courtesy of a bunch of southern musicians who were carried north to work in factories, in particular the car plants in Detroit. They worked their musical way out of the factories slowly and almost under the radar.

Yet, when Motown evolved it needed a pop/blues "orchestra" that would write it's own music to the tune. That group of exceptional musicians became known as The Funk Brothers.

Time passes, memory fades. The Funk Brothers I knew and understood in the late 60's/early 70's were lost to us just a couple of years after they had really taken off. Once Motown became the music focus for Michael Jackson, any remaining hope of jazz and blues became one dark farce.

Only today are we recognizing the Funk Brothers. That's long overdue.