Sunday, August 28, 2011
The blogosphere can be a strange place. Sometimes you make friends there and then just as quickly alienate them as I recently discovered.
I’d been involved in a blog debate with some newfound friends in the States. It was interesting, I thought, that Barack Obama had stacked his administration with the same bankers and financial advisers who were responsible for creating the 2008 financial crisis in the first place, and that the government bailout benefitted the financial elite—at the expense of ordinary people. It seemed to me that Obama had abandoned working class homeowners to save the big financial institutions. It was clearly a failed strategy. The U.S. economy is sputtering and the country has sunken deeper in debt—$14.7 trillion and counting—threatening to set off another financial crisis.
When my blogger buds defended Obama on the grounds that he made the best deal he could under the circumstances, I cited Iceland as a very different example. Iceland’s banks—which had been privatized—had also collapsed, far more dramatically than their U.S. counterparts. The minute the Icelandic government nationalized the banks, the country slipped into a deep recession. Finally the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in offering to lend the country $2.1 billion to bail itself out. And then an odd thing happened. The 320,000 Icelandic citizens just said “no.” They refused to pay the debt, changed governments, told their creditors and the IMF to take a hike and are in the process of rewriting their constitution to prevent anything similar happening in the future.
Of course this hasn’t been reported in the international mainstream media. Instead we hear a lot in the news about the punishing IMF loans being inflicted on Ireland and Greece, and possibly Spain, Portugal, Italy and maybe even France, which all serve as a stiff warning to the Americans to get their financial house in order.
But America isn’t in debt because of its recent love affair with casino capitalism. After all, the $1 trillion U.S. bailout of its financial sector is less than 10 percent of its national debt. So where did the money go?
It’s not much of a mystery. Today, the U.S. military accounts for 47 percent of the world’s total military spending. That’s almost as much as the rest of the world combined. Put in another perspective, the U.S. spends 8 times more than the second place spender, China. The U.S. is currently burning through almost $700 billion a year on its armed forces, and with all hidden costs accounted, is spending 54 percent of the entire national budget on military-related expenses.
So why is the U.S. government giving its corporate class an easy ride while punishing its own working class people to support such a large military force with 737 military bases around the world?
Simply put, corporate America is acutely aware of the fact that the world is running out of fossil fuel. That’s why seven of the world’s top-ten largest corporations are oil-energy companies, and, surprisingly, three of those are Chinese state-owned corporations. The other four are Dutch Royal Shell, Exxon-Mobil, BP and Chevron. And all of these companies have major stakes in the Middle East.
Even before the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush Administration had been planning a military intervention in Afghanistan. The corporate objective was the construction of a major oil pipeline through Afghanistan that was being blocked by the Taliban. Since 9/11 the rest is history.
Afghanistan and oil-rich Iraq have been subjected to a decade of war at a cost of several hundred thousand lives and trillions of dollars. But the U.S. and western corporations have been involved in the region for decades before that, starting in 1933 with Standard Oil in Saudi Arabia and soon afterward the British development of the Iranian oil fields. Today, the Middle East is still the biggest prize in the world’s dwindling oil reserve.
And a military map of the region tells the story. America and its allies are presently involved military ventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, and may be instrumental in funding “Arab Spring” uprisings elsewhere in the region.
Meanwhile, the Russians are actively involved on the northern periphery. And the Chinese have been building strong trade and military alliances with Pakistan, Iran and Turkey—now directly connecting themselves to the Mediterranean along the old Silk Road. And China also has growing relations with Algeria, Morocco, Chad, Nigeria and Ethiopia and the African Union, mirroring the U.S. strategy.
In other words, we have the makings of a major geopolitical resource war heating up between the U.S. alliance and China in the Middle East-North Africa corridor—with Pakistan and Iran as the most likely flash points.
How does that affect us here in Canada? Aside from our own cozy oil relationship (read: tar sands) with the U.S., the Canadian government told us it was going to war with Afghanistan after 9/11 to a) defend Canada’s national interests, b) ensure Canadian leadership in world affairs and c) help Afghanistan rebuild. Huh? Those can’t be the real reasons. And we were initially told that we’d be out of the war in a little over a year. But we weren’t told anything about the existing U.S. invasion-and-pipeline plans there.
So to date 157 Canadians—including 10 New Brunswickers and 24 other Maritimers—have died in Afghanistan since we entered the war a decade ago, and some 2500 to 2800 Canadian Forces personnel are still on the ground, with recent estimates pegging our cost for the war in excess of $18 billion.
Does anyone else think that our precious blood and treasure might be better spent developing viable fuel alternatives? Or are we just too far gone on our dirty addiction to fossil fuel to get that we’re ready to kill and be killed for the stuff?
Monday, August 22, 2011
The faint electronic-sounding whisper barely caught my attention. I glanced up from my gardening. Two helmeted older people—riding the quietest, sleekest, deepest burgundy motorcycle I’d ever seen—went gliding past our front lawn.
The bike stopped at the stop sign and took off, and it was only then I could tell it was gas-powered. But even then it was whisper quiet—a highly sophisticated four cylinder or six I figured.
I compared it to the bike and sidecar I’d seen in town a couple of weeks before. It was a noisy antique contraption, its riders wearing matching gang colours: ragged jackets with big Hell’s Angels patches on the backs.
Since the arrival of the Altanticade motorcycle event there’s been a lot more motorcycle traffic to our little town. Most of these bikes—ridden by aging Baby Boomers—are Harleys or Harley knockoffs, with big V-twin engines and minimal exhaust systems. They’re loud, even when the riders are trying to be quiet.
Welcome to the new age of retirement, in which “do your own thing” is the mantra. So the question becomes, how does a small tourist town accommodate the diversity? Well, it can—and it can’t. The town first has to decide what it wants to be. Does it want to cater to folks who like art galleries, crafts shops and upmarket restaurants, or does it want to cater to people who like stripper bars, fast food, loud entertainment and rebel paraphernalia? Either group can spend a lot of money.
These value choices are extremely important: these choices shape the culture in which we live. For example, our small town has somehow managed to keep big franchise stores out of the community, so you won’t find a Burger King or McDonalds or even a Red Lobster here. The people here seem to care about what fits and what doesn’t.
So why is the town willing to distort its values to accommodate motorcycle tourism? The easy answer would be money. But that’s not the whole story. The answer is numbers. Tourism runs on traffic, and motorcycles bring visitors. And when tourist destinations in town sense that their numbers are dropping, they tend to look to “the low-hanging fruit,” which in this case is motorcycle tourism. But whether that type of tourism best fits their existing businesses or their community’ culture is another issue.
As the Baby Boom generation starts to impose new challenges on national scene these value choices aren’t limited to small town tourism. And these challenges bring more paradoxes. Affluent Boomers want to preserve their wealth, while their less affluent cohorts will be relying on the government and social security cheques. And Boomers of all types will be looking at affordable, high quality retirement locations.
Real estate in some parts of Canada is expensive, which makes the East Coast, with its affordable real estate attractive to potential retirees. But the eastern provinces—especially New Brunswick—are “have-not” provinces that depend on federal transfer payments to remain viable. So if the federal government neutralizes the transfer payments, or decides to disconnect the provinces from a national universal health care system (allowing any province to develop a two-tiered, private-public system), the entire social services picture could change depending on where one retires.
New Brunswick also has a rapidly aging population and a historical problem with outmigration of young people. So one would think that these demographic dynamics are extremely important to policy developers, who might view building affordable and efficient retirement housing, seniors’ health care, social and cultural centres, and attracting young and capable service workers as primary challenges.
But reality check: the current provincial government is forced by necessity to focus on internal cost-reduction and paring back its spending to control its spiralling debt rather than looking at the future. And there’s the rock and the hard place.
Retirees from across Canada and the U.S. are looking at attractive, affordable retirement locations. Many of them will make the leap without a full understanding of the long-term implications. Pretty seaside towns may be quaint, affordable and fun while these retirees are still relatively young but may become less desirable as these newcomers move into old age. But the lack of assisted living facilities and distance from comprehensive medical facilities will pose new challenges. As will living within the financial constraints of a “have-not” province.
Perhaps, for the first time, we’re seeing a three-stage retirement: early retirement in which retirees in good health explore their inner adolescent in seaside towns along the coast, mid-retirement in which they scale back youthful desires and move into affordable condo living, and late retirement in which they tighten up their expenses and look after their fading health.
Geographically speaking, these three phases might suggest living in three different towns, creating a new class of aging nomads. Disconnected from their children, who have moved away from home after college, and thus from their grandchildren, the new retirees are a footloose, go-anywhere group.
And that simply means another new market to exploit. Paradoxes and challenges always bring new opportunities for those who willing to anticipate the future. Retirement, like everything else, isn’t what it used to be.
(On a sadder note, rest in peace Jack Layton.)
Monday, August 15, 2011
There it was, that disturbing video clip on the web: a gang of street hoodies in London helping a dazed and injured kid to his feet, then riffling through his packsack, stealing the contents. The incident fit with the stern condemnations of the rioters proffered by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron last week.
It’s only a slightly different story this week. In a speech just hours ago Cameron chastised the entire English society for a “slow-motion moral collapse” and pledged to examine policies to tackle a culture of laziness, irresponsibility and selfishness. To be fair, he not only included the young and indigent rioters but also Britain’s privileged: reckless bankers, scandal-prone politicians and the dirt-mongering media itself. The speech was, in Cameron’s own words, “a wake-up call.”
The political reaction has been swift. A couple of hours ago, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband declared that Cameron “has revealed himself to be reaching for shallow and superficial answers,” and pointed out that an economy that required both parents to work 70-hour weeks to raise a family hardly constituted the foundations for a healthy society. And yet Miliband ended up agreeing with Cameron. He too blamed the greedy, immoral, self-serving ruling class in Britain.
Miliband wisely concluded, “Let's not pretend that the crisis of values in our society is confined to a minority only at the bottom when we see the morality of millions of hardworking, decent people under siege from the top as well.”
And it’s true. But where the bottom has only raw, undisciplined street power, the controlling elite have every kind of power, from the powers of law and politics to corporate control to the control of the money supply itself.
But just who are those people and to whom are they responsible?
In July U.S. Representative Alan Grayson tried to find out during an investigation into the disappearance of $9 trillion in off balance sheet transactions at the U.S. Federal Reserve over the previous eight months. How does a bank lose track of $9 trillion? The Fed’s inspector general Elizabeth Coleman didn’t have an answer.
She didn’t really need to have one. Why? Because the U.S. Federal Reserve—unlike the Bank of Canada but similar to the Bank of England and the majority of national central banks in the world—is privately held. And, in special legislative deals with governments, these banks are not required to reveal their owners.
These hidden owners introduce the spectre of great wealth controlling the global economy. Wealth as in people like the Rothschilds. But one doesn’t have to look to the Rothschilds and their great wealth (in some circles estimated to be $500 trillion, or fully half the world’s wealth) to understand the damning effects of economic inequality.
The popular uprisings in the Middle East, the so-called “Arab Spring,” share one thing in common with the British riots: both cultures have a wide disparity between the powerful rich and the disenfranchised poor. The U.K. consistently ranks near the bottom of the European income equity-disparity scale.
This wouldn’t be a problem if there were a public perception of possible upward mobility, which has been a fundamental underpinning of, say, the American Dream, wherein, with talent and hard work and a little bit of luck, you too can become rich. But the financial facts no longer square with the dream. In America and elsewhere in the Western world, the rich are definitely getting richer and the poor poorer, while the middle class plays a desperate game of clinging to its own collapsing rungs on the economic ladder.
Meanwhile the poor are being targeted and punished for their circumstances. In a great piece in the Wall Street Journal, Jessica Silver-Greenberg writes about the return of debtors’ prisons in the U.S. She reports, for example, that a third of all U.S. states allow the jailing borrowers who can’t repay their debts—even if the borrower doesn’t get advance notice through sloppy paperwork, which happened to a young business owner, Jeffrey Sterns, who was arrested by a deputy sheriff, handcuffed in front of his kids, locked up, strip searched, de-loused, and finally released after agreeing to pay $1500 cash to the loan company— even though he’d never been notified he was about to be sued.
This is what happens in stagnating societies when wealth accumulates at the top and ordinary job opportunities disappear.
Meanwhile we’re being constantly chided by the wealthy in the media. Here in Canada there’s David Radler for one. Radler writes a semi-regular column aptly titled “Radler’s Rants” for a chain of western newspapers. In June he bashed the postal union for the recent Canada Post strike. His conclusion: “The best response the government can provide to all of us is to teach them [strikers and union] a lesson.” His solution? To slash the operating budget of Canada Post by 40 percent. One could only conclude that the cuts would come in the form of massive staff reductions. And just how is that going to help the Canadian economy? The only likely way would be through increased dependence on the private courier corporations, which charge up to 10 times more for similar services.
We might take his economic advice with a grain of salt. Radler is a convicted felon, one of Conrad Black’s partners in crime. He’s also, conveniently, a part owner and VP of the western newspaper chain that runs his columns.
But that’s an old story. The elites, such as the Rothchilds, have been buying up the media for over a century, and filling us up with what they want us to hear. As for the real news, it will keep on happening on the streets—until some of the wealth at the top is redistributed back to the bottom—to the people who have actually produced the goods and services, and the real value in the economy.
And the moral crisis to which Prime Minister Cameron refers, is the failure of governments to redistribute the wealth.
Monday, August 8, 2011
It was a quiet little news story but it caught my attention. The Harper government has just laid off 700 Environment Canada workers—that’s a whopping 11 percent of the whole operation. Not surprisingly, the union representing the workers observes that the cuts have been ongoing through attrition (not replacing retiring workers) and that further cuts are in the works.
To say that these cuts to Environment are ideological is an understatement. The Conservatives have long been opposed to funding protection and scientific research related to the environment.
I don’t make this claim lightly. Remember the Bruce Carson scandal that broke out in the news last spring? The 66-year-old Carson, a convicted fraudster and one of Harper’s key political troubleshooters, was accused of lobbying the government on behalf of his 22-year-old fiancée, a former sex trade worker. Harper summarily washed his hands of the issue and sent the matter to the RCMP. But that’s not the whole story.
Investigative reporter Andrew Nikiforuk writes that Carson, while working in the Prime Minister’s Office, was lobbied for money by a University of Calgary think tank—the Canada School of Energy and the Environment. Apparently, Carson then left the Prime Minister’s Office to become the think tank’s executive director, which had just been conveniently awarded a $15 million grant from the Harper government. You might recall that U of C is Harper’s alma mater. But it still doesn’t end there.
Carson went on to revise the think tank’s mandate to include government lobbying and policy development on the oil sands, and then successfully lobbied the feds for another $25 million, while doing work for three federal cabinet ministers—his former associates—and directing a joint industry-government campaign to improve the image of the oil sands industry. Nice work, Bruce.
Nikiforuk concludes that, “In the end, the school [became} a clearinghouse for industrial energy lobbyists working hand in hand with the federal and Alberta Tory government.” Hmm. Isn’t it great to see our tax dollars so wisely spent?
On the other side of the story columnist Barbara Yaffee wrote a vaguely positive account of oil sands lobbying in Saturday’s Telegraph-Journal. She opens with, “Companies harvesting Alberta’s oil sands have begun aggressively fighting back against North American activists working to discredit their industry.” To that end the industry trade organization, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, hosted a media trip to the oil sands operation for an all-paid first hand look, and Barbara went along for the ride. She concluded that, sure, open pit mining is ugly but so are slaughterhouses, but Canada’s oil sands produce only 3.5 percent of the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by US coal-fired generating plants annually. So I guess she means that 45 megatonnes of GHG is acceptable. OK…
But what about those 700 disappearing environmental jobs? Well, Carson’s $40 million in funding would have supported them for another full year—in wages that would contribute directly to our economy. On the other hand, who knows where Carson’s outfit spent its money?
Closer to home, I read that 1,500 jobs “vanished” in New Brunswick last month; that’s 10,100 jobs lost since the beginning of the year, with the province’s “official” unemployment rate now hovering over 10 percent. Nationwide, Canada isn’t faring much better—with the entire economy producing only 7,100 jobs last month.
This is not a time for the Harper government to be cutting back in a severe austerity effort to reduce the debt that they racked up. Nor is it even time for our destitute Alward-led provincial government to get too tight. The real economy—that is, the one that affects ordinary people like us—is already limping badly. This is a time for government to raise taxes on the top income earners and increase funding for research and innovation to lead us into this new century. That means finding money for things like energy alternatives on a massive scale, new forms of food production that require less fossil fuel inputs and new modes of energy-efficient transportation, to name a few.
Like it or not, we Canadians have a government-heavy country. We depend on our government to protect our way of life, administer our legal and health care systems and safeguard our environment—and to provide us with steady government jobs to do that good work. And it’s a system that does function well, for the most part.
For example, according to commentators Susanna Fuller and Matthew Abbot, the cod and haddock are back. And why is that? Because our government finally shut down the fishery (too little and too late, but still). Not that the writers are fans of government, especially the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which they feel has gone too far supporting big aqua business at the expense of the small family fishermen.
All of this story points in one direction, which is simply this. Our Canadian governments, like their U.S. counterparts, have climbed into bed with big corporate interests at the expense of the rest of us.
The 700 displaced employees, I fear, are headed where many of us are headed: home, without paycheques. And into that particular valley of slow Death we seem to be rushing at breakneck speed.