Friday, July 29, 2011

Things I learned this week

I learned that:
• Beer is now alcohol in Russia. Until now, it was classified as food.

• Laughing lowers levels of stress hormones and strengthens the immune system. Six-year-olds laugh an average of 300 times a day. Adults only laugh 15 to 100 times a day.

Brains are larger, but intelligence no higher, in those who live farther from the equator.

• If 10% of the population emphatically embraces an idea, then it will spread rapidly to the majority of the population, scientists have found.

• Dave Evans, chief futurist at Cisco Systems Inc., forecasts that by 2025, the robot population will surpass the number of humans in the developed world. By 2032, robots will be mentally superior to humans and, by 2035, robots could completely replace humans in the workforce.

• The average woman consumes 6 lbs of lipstick in her lifetime.
How about that?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Wake-up call #5: Climate change

So far in this series about our planet's big problems, I have looked at the end of the Oil Age, the looming shortage of fresh water, the gap between rich and poor, and the millstone of debt that is dragging down nations, provinces, states, and cities.

The final problem, climate change, is perhaps the most dangerous, and the most intractable, of all.

This blue marble that supports almost 7 billion souls is a complex system that has demonstrated great recuperative powers over the centuries. It will likely survive for eons to come, although possibly without us.

The scary stories are coming thick and fast now.
July 14: Geophysicists predict a perpetual, never-ending, drought for the entire U.S. southwest by mid-century, caused by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

July 20: This year is headed for a record melt of Arctic sea ice. In the first half of July, an area roughly the size of Pennsylvania melted into the sea every 24 hours.

July 25: Warming in the Arctic is causing the release of toxic chemicals long trapped in the region's snow, ice, ocean and soil, according to a new study.
While average sea levels could rise as much as 2 metres in this century, even a more plausible 0.8 metres will threaten many coastal cities and low countries. The degree of change will vary from region to region.

If this were a disaster movie, we could settle in with a bag of popcorn to enjoy the thrills, but this is reality. Yet we seem unable to mobilize ourselves to deal with it. In fact, climate change seems to have become yesterday's issue, after a brief turn in the spotlight of public attention.

Meanwhile, scientists are pointing out that the greenhouse gases we have already put into the atmosphere have already committed us to a significant amount of global warming and sea level rise. A Canadian computer modelling study this year reaffirmed that global warming will happen, no matter what.

So the emphasis now must be on mitigating the effects by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and adapting to the inevitable higher temperatures and sea levels.

But what will it take to get us pushing our political leaders, our neighbours, ourselves to take action?

Famine in Africa and drowning polar bear cubs will not do it. The wake-up call must significantly threaten our way of life in North America and Europe, and it must do so with immediacy --- a clear and present danger.

Countries will need to get on a war footing, which means giving the assault on climate change the highest priority, and then attack it on all fronts --- legislative, social, scientific, and industrial.

It will be expensive. Oops, the treasuries are empty. We are already in hock up to our eyeballs. Oh, boy.

What can we expect?
• Greater temperature extremes.

• Depletion of the ozone layer that protects us from the sun's ultra-violet rays.

• Significantly more rainfall and snowfall in some areas, and long droughts in others.

• More intense, more frequent, and more unpredictable, weather events --- blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, electrical storms, flooding, droughts.

• More smog days in urban areas.

• Melting glaciers and polar ice, higher sea levels.

• Famine in the developing world.

• Possibly much worse if thermohaline circulation , the planet's ocean current temperature regulation system, shuts down.

What will be needed?

We shouldn't be surprised by:
• Increased need to protect skin and eyes from stronger UV rays.

• Declining interest in golf and other outdoor, summer sports.

• Tolls and permits that discourage driving of automobiles in urban areas.

• Stringent emission standards for all vehicles, and the demise of large cars with big engines.

• Encouragement/incentives for telecommuting.

• Incentives encouraging reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by both industries and homes.

• Restrictions and prohibitions on barbequing and outdoor fires.

• Engineering of crops that can withstand drought.

• Severe water restrictions, and emphasis on capture of rainwater for domestic use.

• Retrofitting homes and industrial buildings to conserve energy.

• Tree planting and roof gardens.

• Reflective cool roof projects.

• Replacement of old infrastructure that was not designed for energy efficiency or to withstand changing climate conditions.

• Increased reliance on renewable energy sources for generation of electricity. Expect to see lots of wind farms and solar panels.

• Development of new alert and response systems for climate and health threats, including infectious, waterborne, and tropical diseases.

• Building dams to contain glacial lakes created by retreating glaciers.

• Tethering icebergs to prevent them drifting into warmer waters and melting.

• International efforts to mitigate severe food and water shortages in developing countries.

• Giant flood barriers to protect major cities from exceptionally high tides and storm surges moving up rivers from the sea.

• Huge, almost fanciful, geo-engineering projects designed to combat or counteract the effects of global warming. Such (unproven) proposals include ocean fertilization to remove CO2 from the atmosphere; injection of sulfate particles or sulfide gases into the stratosphere; storage of CO2 in depleted gas reservoirs and other geological formations; space mirrors; reflective clouds; and so on.

• Much more that has yet to be conceived, in response to changes we can not yet imagine.

A hopeful thought:

Might this be the survival threat that prompts the nations of the world to work together?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

You be the judge

The Harper government is moving to expand the prison system, and toughen Canadian corrections policies, including pushing for longer, harsher prison sentences.
• Statistics Canada report: "Police-reported crime in Canada continues to decline. Both the volume and severity of police-reported crime fell in 2009, continuing the downward trend seen over the past decade."

• UBC professor Michael Jackson and former John Howard Society head Graham Stewart in their report rebutting the Harper government's proposals: "This is a vision that offers a false promise of public safety, obscuring its great detrimental impact on the protection of human rights and effective corrections."

• Ian Brodie, Prime Minister Harper's former chief of staff: “Politically it helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition [of sociologists, lawyers and criminologists]. So we never really had to engage in the question of what the evidence actually shows about various approaches to crime.”

The Economist article: "In 1970 the proportion of Americans behind bars was below one in 400, compared with today’s one in 100. Since then, the voters, alarmed at a surge in violent crime, have demanded fiercer sentences. Politicians have obliged. New laws have removed from judges much of their discretion to set a sentence that takes full account of the circumstances of the offence. Since no politician wants to be tarred as soft on crime, such laws, mandating minimum sentences, are seldom softened. On the contrary, they tend to get harder."

Wikipedia item: "According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) 7,225,800 people at year end 2009 were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole — about 3.1% of adults in the U.S. resident population."

• Former prisoner and now ordained United Church minister, Rod Carter: "If long harsh prison sentences worked, the United States would be the safest country in the world. This is certainly not the case."

Washington Post article: "In 2005, Texas began implementing sentencing changes and poured money into drug treatment and probation programs. The overhaul slowed the state’s incarceration rate, led to a 12.8 percent drop in violent crime since 2003 and saved the estimated $2 billion that would have gone to building new prisons to house inmates, according to a 2010 state report and advocates. Lawmakers in Florida and Georgia are considering similar changes. "

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The new face of Greece

A mother begs in traffic for money to feed her child.
Politicians pontificate, wrangle, maneuver. Decades of acts in their own self-interest, craven decisions designed to win and hold power, have produced this. Will she forgive them? Unlikely.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Top of the food chain

Friday, July 22, 2011

Things I learned this week

I learned that:
• Women with a Ph.D. are twice as likely to be interested in a one-night stand as those with only a bachelor's degree.

• Caltech researchers say the power output of wind-farms can be increased tenfold if vertical turbines (they look like eggbeaters) are used instead of the conventional propeller type.

• Several Italian seismologists are being tried for manslaughter for failing to alert the public to the risk of an earthquake that killed about 300 people.

• According to a Pew Research survey, about 53% of Americans say that the United States is one of the greatest countries in the world. 38% say that the U.S. stands above all other countries. 8% think there are other countries that are better than the U.S.

• This year could be well on its way toward a record melt of Arctic sea ice. In the first half of July, an area roughly the size of Pennsylvania melted into the sea every 24 hours.

• The bikini is 65.
How about that?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Beach blanket magic

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Driving lessons

I'm a car nut. Sorry, I know it's become socially unacceptable, but that's the way it is.

The rumble of a flathead Ford V-8 and the high-pitched scream of a racing engine are both music to my ears. I appreciate the voluptuous curves of the classic Jags and Alpha Romeos and the functional minimalism of the Porsche 356 and the Lotus 7.

As a kid, I sketched futuristic designs for the automobiles I wished the automakers would build, instead of the uninspired boxes that were rolling off their assembly lines.

An uncle who shared my addiction passed along copies of his British sports car magazines so, by the age of 10, I was immersed in the details of Morgans, MGs, Allards, and Triumphs. I followed the results of the historic Mille Miglia race and the 24-hours of LeMans.

I remember a story in one of those magazines about a young lad who found a beat up old MG in a barn and brought it back to life. How I wished that would happen to me.

By the age of 12, I was driving the family car on the back roads, unsupervised, as most farm kids did back then, and presented myself to the driving examiner for The Test immediately upon turning 16.

I've had 16 automobiles, and have sampled the offerings of the Detroit "big 3," as well as the German "big 3" and a few British and Japanese brands, too.

Each of those rides taught me something.

They say you never forget your first, and my first was a used, sky blue, 1958 Volkswagen Beetle. That was one tough little car. It cost $700.

For all practical purposes, the car had no heater or defrosters. It also had no snow tires. I actually kept an ice scraper handy for the inside of the windshield. To get started in snow, the effective technique was to get the rear wheels turning in first gear, jump out and push while running along beside, then jump back in behind the wheel when you got some traction.

My buddy Huck and I would travel home from university on weekends in it, once with his three new beagle pups in the trunk. I also remember a trip back to school at the end of a weekend when I had run down the gas to just the reserve supply. We knew we had insufficient fuel to make it, and in those years gas stations were closed on Sunday nights so, coasting down all the hills, we stopped at every one of those stations and drained what was left in the pump hoses. Approaching one of them, the engine died and we we actually coasted in.

We made it.

Sometimes there were enough guys in that car to make a baseball team and it would squat down on its little wheels, but it would get us to wherever we were going, usually the pub or the pizzeria.

Finally, at the end, the wheel bearings were seized, the clutch was slipping, the interior smelled like a hockey bag, and there were plenty of squeaks and leaks. I still got $200 for it as a trade-in on an actual sports car.

I've had fancier cars, sexier cars, faster cars, quieter cars, more comfortable cars, but never one that was part of the team for so many adventures.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Charity salaries

I see some media folks are all aflutter again because some executives that work in the nonprofit sector are paid a reasonable salary.

The news item says that three tenths of one percent of the two million or so people that work in charities earn more than $120,000.

Let's get real. Most of these high earners are in upper management positions in large, complex organizations --- universities, hospitals, major museums, and the like. These organizations have budgets in the hundreds of millions, and employ thousands of people.

In most cases, they are charged with delivering education, healthcare, or social programs to thousands of clients on behalf of the federal or provincial government.

Screwing up is not an option.

They have spent their careers preparing for these key roles. Many require post-graduate education in management and/or a specialized field.

They are dedicated, work ridiculous hours under high pressure, sacrifice personal and family time, and receive much less in compensation than they could earn elsewhere.

Similar positions in comparable private sector companies pay significantly (usually several times) more. For heavens sake, the average brand new MBA from McGill University, with zero experience, starts at $103,000.

If we want the best people we can find to take these demanding positions, we must pay adequate compensation.

Charities are an easy target because they usually don't fight back. A fairer target would be Canada's best-paid CEO's, whose average paycheque is $6.6 million.

Meanwhile, the huge majority of people who work in the nonprofit sector receives compensation that is a fraction of that enjoyed by their peers in the private sector. They do this work because they want to make Canada a better place. For more facts, read this.

The media needs to give its head a shake, and stop peddling this irresponsible garbage.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Just a dog

Meet our Corgi, Sydney. She is in charge of our household.

From time to time people tell me, "Lighten up, it's just a dog," or "That's a lot of money for just a dog."

They don't understand the distance travelled, time spent, or costs involved for "Just a dog." Some of my proudest moments have come about with "Just a dog." Many hours have passed with my only company being "Just a dog," and not once have I felt slighted.

Some of my saddest moments were brought about by "Just a dog." In those days of darkness, the gentle touch of "Just a dog" provided comfort and purpose to overcome the day.

If you, too, think its "Just a dog," you will probably understand phrases like "Just a friend," "Just a sunrise," or "Just a promise."

"Just a dog" brings into my life the very essence of friendship, trust, and unbridled joy. "Just a dog" brings out the compassion and patience that makes me a better person. Because of "Just a dog," I will rise early, take long walks, and look longingly to the future.

For me and folks like me, it's not "Just a dog." It's an embodiment of all the hopes and dreams of the future, the fond memories of the past, and the pure joy of the moment. "Just a dog" brings out what's good in me, and diverts my thoughts away from myself and the worries of the day.

I hope that some day people can understand it's not "Just a dog." It's the thing that gives me humanity and keeps me from being "Just a man or woman."

So the next time you hear the phrase "Just a dog," smile, because they "just don't understand."

[Author Unknown]

Friday, July 15, 2011

Things I learned this week

I learned that:
• The largest living organism on earth is Australia's Great Barrier Reef. It has a larger surface area than all of England.

• A fan of Facebook has named their child after the site's "Like" button.

• Researchers have discovered that the best things for attracting mosquitoes to a trap are --- stinky socks.

• A 23-year old with the nickname "Atlas" is in charge of the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) that does everything from navigation for civilian and military aircraft to calculating the distance from your golf ball to the green.

• You may have 1,400 strains of bacteria lurking in your belly button.

Pig power may be the big new thing in the energy industry.
How about that?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Thus spake the consultants

I thought you folks in more pastoral precincts might enjoy hearing about the latest goofiness in Toronto.

It seems that Mayor Ford and city council feel they need outside help to find ways to "stop the gravy train" and get spending under control, so a big-time consulting firm was retained to take a look for wasteful extravagance in the public works department.

I guess that when you've been paid $350,000 to make recommendations, you have to come up with something, but KPMG's cost-cutting advice for the City of Toronto (as reported in the Toronto Star) is pretty lame, especially given that it would only save 1 - 1.5% of the public works budget if fully implemented.

Among the suggestions:
• Recycle less, because sending garbage to landfills is cheaper. (I am speechless! Did the last 25 years not even happen?)

• Curtail collection of toxic substances and hazardous waste. (Just dump it down the drain?)

• Eliminate garbage collection for small businesses. (Ignoring the facts that they pay taxes, create jobs, mostly operate with thin margins, and are core elements of our neighbourhoods. Like we need more empty storefronts!)

• Scrap the four free garbage bag tags given annually to each household. (You gotta be kidding. How do we get rid of all that wrapping paper and plastic packaging at Christmas?)

• Cut back on street cleaning. (Sure, like the empty water bottles, pop cans, and fast food containers will just evaporate, or blow over into Whitby.)

• Reduce "bike infrastructure." (Shut down those bike lanes. Get the bicycle pinkos back into cars and helping to make Toronto #1 in gridlock. Man up, bikers! Get out there and mix it up with the cars and trucks.)

• End fluordination of water. (My dentist says this is a stupid idea.)
I'd guess a Grade 4 class project could have come up with something more useful.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wake-up call #4: Debt

Newsflash: According to, it is now mathematically impossible to pay off the U.S. national debt because it is greater than the number of dollars that exist, and increasing the number of dollars would actually increase the debt, due to the way the system works.

Okay, everyone exhale now.

In this series about the big problems besetting our planet, I have looked at the end of the Oil Age, the looming shortage of fresh water, and the gap between rich and poor.

I'll also examine climate change, but this week I'm looking at the huge debts of nations, provinces, states, and cities.

First, just a few points that might be helpful:
• A deficit is the annual shortfall between revenues and expenditures. In other words, the amount we borrowed last year and didn't pay off. A debt is the accumulated total of all those deficits.

• A trillion is 1,000,000,000,000. That's too large to comprehend, so try this: If you spent a million dollars per day, spending a trillion would take more than 2,700 years.

• Money is borrowed by nations by exchanging paper (bonds) for money. The level of interest demanded by the buyer of the paper (lender) reflects the perceived risk of default (not being paid back).

[Note: I'll mostly focus on North America, although the same problems prevail in Europe. For an excellent analysis of the U.S. situation, read How Much Does The National Debt Matter?, by Bruce Bartlett.]

What's the Problem?

When the iconic RCMP is required to tighten its belt, you know the beancounters are ascendant, even in Canada. This country's debt and deficit problems are less dramatic than those of our American neighbours or the basket cases of Europe. Nonetheless, we do have a substantial national debt of $562 billion, and your personal share is about $16,000. By comparison, The U.S. owes $14 trillion, and your American cousin's share is $46,000.

You think that's a scary number? Consider this: The U.S. is also obligated to pay $5 trillion in pensions to veterans and federal employees, and $46 trillion in benefits over the next 75 years under the Social Security and Medicare programs. Total of all the above: $65 trillion. And, oh yeah, that does not factor in the interest charges or the fact that the U.S. national debt is growing at more than $1 trillion annually.

The Americans will find it particularly difficult to find ways to balance the books given that 3/4 of federal government spending goes to defence, medicare, medicaid, social security, and interest payments.

States and provinces are also in the hole. My own province of Ontario owes $236 billion, and now spends more on interest payments than on post-secondary education. My share (and yours if you live here) is about $17,000, up by $2,100 in just the last year.

Then there are the cities. Toronto's debt is $4.4 billion, up by $721 million in 2010. Paying off principal and interest is now the city's third-highest expense. Each citizen's share is about $1800.

Why does it matter?

As debt increases, so do the interest payments on that debt. Some calculate that, by 2050, half of all federal taxes in the U.S. will be going to pay interest on the debt. If interest rates go up, as many analysts predict they will with rising inflation, paying the interest will starve spending on programs, and citizens will be very unhappy.

It appears that, in addition to restrained spending, higher taxes will be needed to reduce deficits (Some pols are still in denial about this). Higher taxes mean less money available to consumers for spending and to businesses for increased hiring and investment in projects for expansion, all needed to grow the economy.

As there is a finite amount of capital available for lending, the growing portion soaked up by government borrowing can push up interest rates (hugely so, if there are any concerns about possible default), and may also "crowd out" business borrowing, both of which depress economic growth.

About half of the U.S.national debt is held by foreigners. If they become concerned about inflation and devaluation of the currency, they will demand higher interest "yields" to buy more bonds (i.e. lend more). That will make interest costs and repayment even more difficult.

Default is not an option because government bonds are held by pension funds, mutual find investors, private investors, states, and cities. Imagine having them wake up to discover that hundreds of billions of their wealth had evaporated. In addition, interest rates would spike to unthinkable levels and future government borrowing would become almost impossible.

There is near panic in many national capitals as platitudes and procrastinating no longer cut it, and politicians confront the need to be honest about the pickle we're in. Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain, the so-called PIGS, are teetering on the edge of collapse. Deficit-cutting is now the dominant issue for the U.S. government.

Here in Canada, having gone through our own mid-1990s belt tightening, we are in better shape. Canadians, not wanting to relive those days, want balanced budgets and elect federal, provincial and city governments that promise to produce them. Unfortunately, there has been more talk than action on this in recent years.

On the other hand, any cuts to programs like healthcare, will trigger howls of protest, so Canadian pols, like their counterparts elsewhere, face a dilemma. By the way, in Ontario, healthcare is 46% of the provincial budget and, if present trends continue, it will represent 80% of the province's spending by 2030.

What does the future hold?

First, it must be said that there are no easy choices. Both higher taxes and spending cuts will be needed.

We are already seeing moves to slow growth in the public service, to reduce future pension benefits for public servants, and to restrain their wage increases. This is almost certain to erode the quality and accessibility of the services they provide, so be prepared to wait longer in queues for drivers licenses, passports, and airport security screening, and expect poorer service from government departments.

All levels of government will reduce their support of the charities and other nonprofit organizations that deliver many of Canada's social services. They include our universities, our hospitals, our food banks, our amateur sports, our museums, our arts groups, our substance abuse clinics, our refuges for abused women, our animal shelters, our environmental watchdog agencies, our poverty safety nets, and much more. Inevitably, Canada will be a less kind and less civilized place in which to live as the screws tighten.

We can also expect an end to the well entrenched principle of universality, which ensures that many government programs deliver services to everyone, regardless of individual need or ability to pay. I benefit from this policy. Despite being quite able to pay for my own drugs, as a senior citizen I pay only a dispensing fee thanks to the Ontario Drug Benefit Program.

Cuts to universal programs will be quite unpopular. A recent Pew Research poll found that regular folk in the U.S. have little interest in cuts to "entitlements" such as Medicare and Social Security benefits.

We can expect an increase in wait times for hospital beds, MRI's, cancer treatment, and the like as a growing and aging population collides with spending cuts. User fees and private sector healthcare providers are inevitable, in my view.

Our infrastructure is in terrible shape. In 2007, it was estimated that $123 billion was needed to rehabilitate the infrastructure in our cities and towns. It is much higher today.

Politicians love to announce new highways, bridges, and so on, but maintenance contains no excitement, so it has been largely ignored for decades. As a result, our sewer systems flush pollution into our lakes and rivers during storms. Our bridges are rusting. Our water mains are leaking. Our sewage plants are often over capacity. Our streets and highways are full of potholes. Our public buildings are deteriorating. Our parks are overgrown with weeds. Our beaches are sometimes unfit for swimming.

And you ain't seen nuthin' yet. Expect all of this to get worse in the future.

A sampling of the many programs that will likely take a hit includes welfare, policing, daycare, street-cleaning, snow removal, regulation of air and water pollution, inspection of abbatoirs and other food handling, student loans, expansion of public transit, public housing, daycare support, assistance for research and so on.

Also, expect user fees for almost every government service that is now "free," including use of public highways.

In summary, we'll be receiving less and paying more, for as far out as we can see, as the services and protections we designed in the second half of the 20th century become unaffordable. Means testing for government-run programs will be standard procedure.

Life will be harder, and our cities dirtier. There will be more weeds in our parks, and more homeless people on our streets. There will be fewer places to turn to for help if we are old, sick, unemployed, lonely, abused, or addicted. There will be less music and art in our lives. It will be harder to become educated.

We will feel less secure. Nothing will be free. Epidemics and pandemics will overwhelm our healthcare resources. Responsive, high quality healthcare will be reserved for the wealthy. We will be made ill by food that should never have made it to our tables. Our lakes, rivers and air will be more polluted.

Heard enough?

Next: Climate Change

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Passing the torch

Monday, July 11, 2011

Computer crime

Friday, July 8, 2011

Things I learned this week

I learned that:
• A Rolls-Royce version of the Mini is being produced. There will be 1,000 sold at a price of £41,000 ($CAD 63,500). It features exceptionally high-grade materials used on the Rolls, such as deep-pile lambswool floor mats and premium wood trim. Just the thing for a pop down to Harrods for some Beluga and Dom.

• When planes fly through certain types of clouds, they can trigger a chain reaction that causes precipitation for miles around.

• Canada has the highest golf participation rate in the world, and there are more golfers than hockey players in Canada.

• IKEA stands for Ingvar Kamprad (founder), Elmtaryd (farm where he grew up), and Agunnaryd (his home parish in Sweden).

A bare-headed motorcyclist riding in protest of New York state's helmet law crashed, struck his head on the roadway and died from his injuries.

• The U.S. government borrows 40 cents for every dollar it spends, resulting in a deficit of about $125 billion each month.
How about that?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Wake-up call #3: The Wealth Gap

This is the third in a series that asks whether we are headed for a dark age, after decades of prosperity and progress.

So far, I have looked at the possible consequences of the end of the Oil Age, and what may happen as the world runs out of fresh water.

Future posts will look at climate change, and national indebtedness, but this week I'm considering that old proverb, "The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer."

Of course, there are exceptions. Plenty of entrepreneurs will be happy to tell you how they overcame poverty and hardship to climb the ladder of success. But, inspirational as those tales may be, most poor people just stay poor, there are more of them, and they are falling farther behind.
What's the Problem?

A disproportionate share of private wealth is owned by a small segment of the population in many rich countries. In the U.S. and Sweden, according to a 2010 Credit Suisse report, 10% of families own about 72% of private assets. In Canada, 69% of such assets are owned by 20% of families. Such gaps are universal, but perhaps most sharply drawn in affluent societies. Show me a country that has a narrow income gap, and I will show you a country where EVERYONE is poor (with the exception of a governing elite that is usually corrupt).

In North America, it has been blamed on the decline of the union movement, stubbornly high student dropout rates, tax policy that favours the wealthy, the entrenchment of a multi-generational underclass, an overly generous welfare system, an insufficiently generous welfare system, teenage pregnancies, immigration policy, racial and gender bias in hiring and promotion, abuse of credit cards, payday loan operators, a too-low minimum wage, a too-high minimum wage, declining industries, offshoring of jobs, widespread gambling, drug and alcohol addiction, inflation, government spending cutbacks that eliminate social programs, etc., etc.

Even in rapidly developing economies, the middle and upper classes enjoy most of the goodies while the masses struggle to make ends meet. China now has this problem. Hundreds of millions of Chinese are not sharing in rising affluence, and the rural poor have a very low standard of living. Angry protests have been seen in Hong Kong, Xintang, and elsewhere.

Whatever the causes, it is difficult in every country for individuals to escape poverty's grip. Most poor people are running hard just to pay their monthly bills, and therefore have little hope of saving or borrowing sufficient capital to buy their own truck or taxicab, get an advanced education, start a business, or make investments, whereas an individual who accumulates a nest egg will tend to become more affluent because he/she can do these things. This is described as wealth condensation.

Why does it matter?

There are many countries, in Africa and elsewhere, with populations locked in grinding poverty, and with no visible route to meaningful participation in the global marketplace. All developed countries fear waves of immigrants landing on their shores from this impoverished world, and the possibility that illegal immigration will become uncontrollable.

On a domestic level, there is potential for civil unrest and terrorism. Unemployed, disaffected youth are easy targets for those who would destabilize society, or profit from illicit actviity. Some will become part of gang culture and organized crime. Others will be recruited into quasi-religious or anarchic terrorist organizations sponsored by networks bent on destruction of western societies, regime change, etc.

Will average folk, faced with the loss of their homes, businesses, and livelihoods, rebel in frustration with an economic order that defeats their hopes and dreams? There is much talk about the shrinking middle class, that formerly huge segment of society with which most people identified, and whose aspirations and spending fuelled 20th century growth and prosperity.

Will charismatic ideologues manipulate and exploit the public mood to achieve high office, then implement a destructive agenda? The populist, isolationist, libertarian, Tea Party in the U.S. has largely sprung from widespread loss of confidence in the ability of government and the financial sector to effectively manage the country out of its problems. In Greece, looming austerity has given a boost to extremist parties on both right and left. These kinds of movements have the potential to be very disruptive.

Today's young people in North America may be the first generation to enjoy a lower standard of living than their parents. On the other end of the age spectrum, many boomers are awakening to the realization that they have insufficient funds to support their retirement.

As the social safety net, now believed to be unsupportable in its entirety, unravels, life will become even harder for those who need help to survive, driving some to crime and others to physical and/or mental collapse.

All of these things impact economies negatively.

Meanwhile, Vancouver and Toronto condo prices reach new highs, luxury goods are in high demand, university tuitions continue to rise, and reservations for cruises and exotic vacations must be made months in advance.

Two separate worlds.

Surely this can't continue without sacrifices and compromises.

Next: Debt and Deficits

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Stray thoughts

Wife’s Diary:
Tonight, I thought my husband was acting weird. We had made plans to meet at a nice restaurant for dinner. I thought he was upset at the fact that I was a bit late, but he made no comment on it. Conversation wasn't flowing, so I suggested that we go somewhere quiet so we could talk. He agreed, but he didn't say much.

I asked him what was wrong. He said, "Nothing." I asked him if it was my fault that he was upset. He said he wasn't upset, that it had nothing to do with me, and not to worry about it. On the way home, I told him that I loved him. He smiled slightly, and kept driving.

I can't explain his behavior I don't know why he didn't say, "I love you, too." When we got home, I felt as if I had lost him completely, as if he wanted nothing to do with me anymore. He just sat there quietly, and watched TV. He continued to seem distant and absent. Finally, with silence all around us, I decided to go to bed. About 15 minutes later, he came to bed. But I still felt that he was distracted, and his thoughts were somewhere else. He fell asleep. I cried. I don't know what to do. I'm almost sure that his thoughts are with someone else. My life is a disaster.
Husband's Diary:
A four putt! Who the hell four putts?
[Author unknown]

Monday, July 4, 2011

Culture clash

Friday, July 1, 2011

An independent thought

Apologies to my late mother, a lifelong monarchist, devotee of all things pertaining to the royal family, and much more accommodating of their occasional misdemeanours and transgressions than she was of mine.

I have nothing against the British monarchy. I hold Queen Liz in highest esteem for unwavering devotion to duty, and for putting up uncomplainingly with the Duke for 64 years. I'm guessing the Queen Mom was probably a bit of a handful, too, when she was in her cups, not to mention number one son hanging about with no firm prospects.

All in all, she need apologize for nothing, and I would welcome her to our shores anytime she wants to take a break from old Blighty for a fortnight in the colonies.

It's just that I don't want her, or Charlie, or William, as our head of state.

It's nothing personal. If William wishes to defect and run for nomination as leader of any of our fine political parties, I think that would be rather sporting. Or perhaps his brother Harry would like to have a go. He seems like a good lad.

But isn't it time for Canada to leave the nest, fly free, poop where it wants to, so to speak?

Doesn't our Prime Minister want to attend get-togethers of heads of state as an actual head of state?

Bottom line, being acutely passive aggressive in the best Canadian tradition, I wish not to offend but, if it should please her majesty at some convenient time, and if the paperwork isn't too burdensome, some of us would take it as a great favour if...

Sorry, I see that I have breached the bounds of propriety, and risked the crown's displeasure.

Never mind.

Forelock tugged, humbly. Happy Canada Day.