The risky business of economies planning for the future

 

A credible line of thinking among economists who are not enamored of their political reputations holds that governments bent on producing surpluses, come what may, are misguided, even morally bankrupt.

The argument goes something like this: Publicly elected officials and their bureaucratic minions produce nothing fungible; therefore, they should produce no returns. Rather, their function is to collect taxes responsibly and distribute the funds for the general good – to the rich, the poor and the rest of us. 

The general good comprises the schools we attend, the clinics we need, the roads we use, the parks we frequent, and the safe streets and gathering places we expect as dues-paying members of just and enlightened societies. 

In other words, there should plenty of work to occupy the minds of those we pay through the ballot box and those who serve the periodic democratic lotteries we call general elections. And, in this line of argument, ideally there should be nothing left in the kitty at the end of the political day. All money is absorbed, all money is spent. No deficit, no debt and, crucially, no surplus.

Except, of course, the system doesn’t work this way, anywhere.

But what if it did? Sort of. 

A reader writes, “I have been to Norway several times. By the way, Norway has some of the highest retail gas prices going and don’t even think about buying booze over there. Hard stuff was $50 per 750 ml 15 years ago and God help you if you did not bring in your duty-free limited when visiting.”

Still, as this reader points out, that Nordic country of just over five million souls has just now demonstrated (on paper, at least) that, thanks to its public sector’s perspicacity, attention and drive, each of its citizens is a millionaire, and will likely remain in that vaunted economic status for some time, as New Brunswick’s and Greece’s economies meet on the slide to perdition.

That doesn’t mean Norwegians get to cash in, individually; it means that Norwegians, collectively, get to enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, the chance that their children will be among the most highly educated in the world, the certainty that their health care will cost less for the benefits they receive than almost any other place in the world and that old-age peace of mind is actually, well, fungible. 

Here’s what the U.K.’s Daily Mail online edition had to say about the development in early January:

“Norway’s sovereign wealth fund has ballooned so much due to high oil and gas prices that every person in the country became a theoretical millionaire this week. The nation is proving to be an exception as others struggle under a mountain of debts. Set up in 1990, the fund owns around one per cent of the world’s stocks, as well as bonds and real estate from London to Boston. The surplus revenue is collected in the Government Pension Fund Global.”

Said Finance Minister Siv Jensen in an email to reporters: “Many countries have found that temporary large revenues from natural resource exploitation produce relatively short-lived booms that are followed by difficult adjustments.” Added Oeystein Doerum, chief economist at DNB Markets: “The fund is a success in the sense that parliament has managed to put aside money for the future. There are many examples of countries that have not managed that.”

Indeed, there are. 

Canada’s legislators drone on endlessly about this nation’s enormous natural resource potential. New Brunswick Premier David Alward almost begs citizens of this province to embrace the opportunities (as yet, unrealized) in shale gas development.

But what, exactly, is he and his confreres elsewhere in this country doing about securing the long-term efficacy such massive developments might contribute to social development: education, skills training, economic diversification, even (and most paradoxically) strategies to employ the windfalls from oil and gas to wean us off oil and gas with brave, interesting, new, renewable energy technologies?

So far, the genius of our political leaders seems confined to balancing the books, perhaps achieving small surpluses at some indeterminate point in the extenuated future. 

The risk of bankruptcy in this endeavor is not merely fiscal; it’s moral.

 

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The CBC’s slow-motion death from a thousand cuts

 

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Given the tongue-lashing my esteemed colleague, Norbert Cunningham, issued to the CBC in his regular space this Tuesday, I hesitate, for a moment, to crack my own bull whip. Then again, whaddya know? The moment’s gone.

The sorry truth is that the public broadcaster’s English television network hasn’t been much good since I was glued to Mr. Dressup in the mid-1960s. The other sorry truth is that the public broadcaster’s English radio network, once fantastically varied, has become a mere echo of its former self (though, miraculously, the quality of its on-air journalism and talent hasn’t slipped).

In fact, through most of my life, my relationship with the CBC has been littered with routine, tedious disappointments with its upper management. And so, when the corporation’s honchos announced last week that it was slashing 657 jobs and cutting $130 million from this year’s budget, I quietly mumbled, “What took you so long?”

That’s the one question CBC President Hubert Lacroix did not address in his statement to employees, which began on an appropriately humiliated note:

“Well, here we are again. This is the third time I have to stand up before you in these circumstances, and, I have to tell you, I hate doing this. I imagine you feel the same way. So how did we get here?”

Yes, Mr. Lacroix – you of the inadvertently claimed (and repaid) $30,000 expense claim – do tell.

Well, first, of course, there was that whole hockey disaster. Losing the NHL broadcasts to Rogers was, let’s just say, disappointing. But that wasn’t the only thing that went sideways over the past 12 months.

“There’s an industry-wide softening of the television advertising market – down approximately 5 per cent overall in the last year,” Mr. Lacroix said. “This is common to all conventional broadcasters, and neither CBC nor Radio-Canada was spared. 

“In addition, on the CBC side, since last summer, our prime time TV schedule performed poorly in attracting 25-54 year-old viewers, the most important demographic for advertisers.”

Combine this with the loss of professional hockey broadcasts, and the revenue hit came to about $47 million. And that’s still not all.

“As you know, advertising sales on CBC Radio 2 and Espace musique are much weaker than expected,” Mr. Lacroix continued. “This is a major disappointment. We’re trying to fix this, but the initial projections won’t be met. We are not close. This represents a $13 million shortfall, nearly all of it impacting English Services.”

Throw in the federal government’s “two-year salary inflation funding freeze” of $72 million, and, hey presto, we arrive at our present dismal circumstances.

Of course, if all this feels somehow familiar, it should. None of Mr. Lacroix’s explanations/excuses seem particularly novel. To one degree or another, they are variations on a theme that has been playing and replaying since I was a kid: a business that – if left to stitching together its own safety net – should have been out of business  along time ago. 

Currently, 64 per cent of Mother Corp.’s $1.8 billion in annual revenue come from taxpayers. Another $330 million derive from advertising. The balance is from specialty services (subscription revenue and advertising from CBC News Network, bold, documentary, Explora, ARTV and the Réseau de l’information de Radio-Canada) and financing.

It’s that billion bucks from citizens that gets right-wingers and purse-string-pullers riled up. They don’t like anything that smacks of welfare (corporate or otherwise). And they don’t watch or listen to the CBC, which, in their heart of hearts, they believe is a nest of socially progressive vipers. 

Of course, they’re right, which is why I continue to be an avid consumer of CBC radio. I grew up with it. I fell asleep to Max Ferguson and Allan McFee. I woke up to Peter Gzowski. And despite the cutbacks, it still produces damn fine programming – just not enough of it.

I don’t give a fig about the public money. Make it $2 billion a year. But, for God’s sake, let us finally acknowledge what the CBC (radio, at any rate) does peerlessly well: public affairs journalism and documentary reporting that reflects the moral compass of the Canadian majority.

Forget the rest; just do more of that. Okay, mother?

 

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All the pretty ironies in Canada’s ‘Unfair’ Elections Act

 

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But for Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre’s spiteful determination to ram his partisan conception of electoral freedom down his country’s throat, it’s getting hard to fathom what keeps his Bill C-23 – also known, with exquisitely unintended irony, as the Fair Elections Act – from perishing under the weight of public opprobrium.

Almost no one who has reviewed this monstrous abuse of voting rights and procedure in Canada has anything good to say about the unamended iteration awaiting passage. Not Marc Mayrand, the country’s chief electoral officer. Not Yves Côté, the commissioner of elections. Not Sheila Fraser, former auditor-general. Not a slew of jurists, educators and legislators from across Canada and all over the world.  

A month ago, Mr. Mayrand told the Ottawa Citizen he believed Minister Poilievre simply ignored his recommendation to enhance the elections commissioner’s investigative powers. “What worries me, I must say, is whether (he) will get the tool box he needs to do his job and I’m afraid that I don’t see it in the act that is currently written,” he said. “The commissioner doesn’t get the authority to compel witnesses.” 

Then, as recently as last week, Commissioner Côté told the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs that the Bill’s measure to transfer the auspices of his duties from the Chief Electoral Officer to Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) is “both unnecessary and problematic. . .Placing the Commissioner within the Office of the DPP is an attempt to respond to a problem that. . .does not exist.”

Throughout, the archest criticism has concerned the Bill’s perspective on what constitutes an authentic Canadian voter. (Specifically, it’s one who carries a photo ID. Period. A voter registration card will no longer be enough. Neither will a sufficiently identified fellow voter vouching for his buddy in the ballot queue).

“The prohibition against vouching is ostensibly to reduce voter fraud yet there is no evidence. . .that vouching results in voter fraud,” a letter signed and sent in March  by 19 international scholars and political scientists declared. “These changes to the voter eligibility rules will disproportionately impact seniors, students, the economically disadvantaged, and First Nations citizens, leading to an estimated disenfranchisement of over 120,000 citizens.”

In fact, the number is now thought to be closer to 500,000. Still, neither this nor any other criticism, no matter how reasonable, has managed to move Mr. Poilievre from the hard line in the sand he has drawn. He has viciously attacked those who have opposed him, most recently hurling mud at Mr. Mayrand, stipulating that the latter’s “recommendations really boil down to three broad requirements for him. He wants more power, a bigger budget and less accountability.”

One can only wait in wonder for Mr. Poilievre’s response to his latest setback. This one’s a doozy, as Josh Wingrove reports this week for the Globe and Mail: “In a rare exercise of power, a Senate committee (on Legal and Constitutional Affairs) is pushing back against Stephen Harper’s Conservative government by unanimously recommending changes to the Fair Elections Act, an overhaul of electoral law that is fiercely opposed by other parties. The. . .report, which will be made public this week, amounts to a warning shot from the embattled Senate.”

It sure does. According to Mr. Wingrove’s research, the Upper Chamber, two-thirds of which is composed of Conservative members, wants to ensure that the Chief Electoral Officer and Commissioner of Elections have more, not less authority, to prosecute their roles and responsibilities. It’s also skeptical about the utility in separating the two. Altogether, the Senate makes nine recommendations, the essence of which slaps Mr. Poilievre’s hands, depending on which version of spin one is inclined to swallow.

“I think it’s a recognition by all senators that there is something seriously wrong with this bill, according to every single witness that has appeared before both committees in the House of Commons and the Senate,” Liberal Senator George Baker told the Globe. “It’s really an expression of the impartiality of members of the Senate.”

On the other hand, said Conservative Senator Linda Frum, “Minister Poilievre has repeatedly expressed a sincere interest in any recommendations the Senate may have to improve the bill.”

Whether he has or he hasn’t, democracy’s self-appointed attack dog might finally face opponents he can’t readily ignore. That many are members of his own party merely transforms the many ironies about Bill C-23 from exquisite to downright delicious.

 

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Romancing a stoned and sluggish economy

 

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In hard times, few articles of faith are more dear to the Harper Tories than the dogma of economic salvation through stimulus spending. After all, this is what kept Canada from losing its capitalist soul during the Great Recession. Was it not?

To hear the freshly minted Finance Minister Joe Oliver sputter you might wonder. “We worked hard to return to a balanced budget to throw it all away,” he told a business crowd in Toronto last week, alluding to the feather-weight, on-paper-only budgetary surplus of $2.2 billion for fiscal 2014. 

It was his first speech as the late Jim Flaherty’s successor, and he was, among other things, concerned about establishing his street cred.

“So do not expect a big stimulus program,” he announced with a thump.

Instead, now that the country is back on track, chugging away, it’s only fair and sensible to return the moolah to “hard-working, taxpaying Canadian families.” (Really, Mr. Oliver, is there any other sort?) “We’re going to, of course, be talking to people.”

All of which sounds mighty “Main Street” of the good fellow. Still, his posture towards the economy and his fellow citizens assumes certain facts that may not be in evidence – at least, not entirely. Have the happy days actually returned? 

True, the country has managed to avoid many of the predations that visited its allies and trading partners during and after the financial collapse of ‘08. Among other mercies, both large and small, the treasury wasn’t impelled to bail out any banks or credit unions.

But the nation’s economic performance cannot, in any rational way, be described as robust. We didn’t come sprinting off the blocks. Our gait was more tentative; like that of a late-night office worker skittering to his car in a bad part of town.

According to RBC Economic, in March, the unemployment rate across the county was 6.9 per cent, representing a 24-basis-point (0.24 per cent) improvement over the previous month. Year-over-year, however, the uptick was almost negligible, even statistically meaningless. 

That’s been more-or-less the story for real gross domestic product. In April 2013, GDP advanced by 13 basis points, then in December of that year, it dropped by 53 points, only to recover in January by 51 points. The net gain was a virtual (though not quite) zero sum.

Again and again, the indicators refuse to support the more populist brands of politicking. Manufacturing shipments swing up a couple of percentage points in one month; and down again in another. Inventories and unfilled orders continue to oscillate gently along the x axis, denoting a no-to-low-growth commercial environment.

Under the circumstances, does awarding Canadians with sums that would, per capita, amount to chicken feed represent the best use of any largess the federal government might one day find itself holding? Are there not more effective ways to stimulate the economy than helping each taxpayer save a few hundred bucks on his T2014 Schedule One? 

In fact, Mr. Oliver said it himself. “We need to discuss domestically the issue of skills shortage, infrastructure and productivity and how that is all addressed in our fiscal framework,” he declared after his speech in response to a question from an audience member. Moreover, he added, Too many Canadians are looking for work.”

But apart from restating the blindingly obvious (over and over again), this government’s chief lieutenants have been loath to embrace a more progressive, pervasive and enduring version of what they all agree worked reasonably well during the Great Recession.

If any lesson emerges from the past few years’ experience on the global roller coaster, it is that government stimulus spending can have important palliative effects on troubled economies. 

The other one is that such exercises in monetary loosening are almost never bold enough or targeted well enough to render the structural changes that are necessary to keeping an economy nimble, entrepreneurial and innovative. The western world can thank the corrosive policies of self-hating government archetypes, such as the late Margaret Thatcher, for that.

When times were hard, the Harper Tories genuinely adored the stimulus phase of their Economic Action Plan. Clearly, though, times change and so does romance.

 

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No need to gild the finance minister’s good record

 

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They came not to bury Caesar, but to praise him. Boy, did they ever. 

Former federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s passing on Thursday – at 64, reportedly from a heart attack – dominated the front page of the Globe and Mail’s Friday edition. In fact, “dominated” might not be the right word; utterly blanketed would be a more accurate description. 

Apart from an ad announcing Toyota’s “red tag” days, nothing else appeared Page-One-worthy for “Canada’s National Newspaper”. 

Our “guiding force” was gone; the man who “shaped the Conservative Party, the nation and the world’s response to the Great Recession” was no more, tragically cut down in the late-middle-age of his life. It took eight reporters and editorialists to say so.

Political Affairs Correspondent John Ibbitson’s walk down memory lane was almost affecting: “In politics, you do what you gotta do. . .At the end he (Flaherty) was pretty happy with his record. . .But then, he was a pretty happy guy. Back when we were  both at Queen’s Park, he’d drop by the press lounge every now and then late on a Friday afternoon to mooch a beer and find out what the boys and girls were saying. He always greeted you with that impish grin, trolling for gossip, though he seldom offered up any of his own.”

At the back of the paper’s front section, the lead editorial continued the eulogy: “Goodbye to the little giant. . .Mr. Flaherty was a giant in the Harper cabinet, and not just because he ran the department whose control of the purse strings makes it, to some extent, the ministry of everything. He was one of the few Harper ministers who acted with considerable independent authority.”

Indeed, it’s difficult, even impossible, to recall another Canadian public official of Flaherty’s metier accorded such a fulsome tribute as this. Pierre Trudeau, Tommy Douglas, Jack Layton, perhaps; still, they were all leaders of national parties and political movements. They weren’t finance ministers.

But, of course, therein lies the answer. 

One of the great foundational assumptions of the post-recession era – especially by the Ontario-centric national press gallery – is that Mr. Flaherty’s foresight and steady hand prevented the country’s Toronto-based financial institutions from circling the drain along with all the others in the wild, wild west during the financial collapse of ’08. For many media mavens, that “fact”, alone, makes the former finance minister’s track record a far more compelling story to tell than even the prime minister’s.   

Another key supposition of the modern age is that Mr. Flaherty’s fiscal stimulus program (Economic Action Plan) – all tallied, about $150 billion – was singularly responsible for preventing the economy from crashing and burning, given the private lending community’s terror of bad debt during the recession. Again, this “fact” has served the frequent press portrayals of the “little giant’s” rock-star status both at home and abroad.

There’s truth in both claims: Mr. Flaherty was a competent steward of the economy in tough times; had he been an inflexible ideologue with a fetish for balancing the nation’s accounts in a zero-growth environment, the road to recovery would have been much rockier than it was. 

But the real secret behind Canada’s relatively robust financial performance during the era of diminishing expectations – at least compared with those of the United Sates, and much of continental Europe – was, and is, its responsible and well-regulated banking system and monetary traditions. 

Mr. Flaherty deserves plaudits for not messing with these (the way former U.S. President Bill Clinton disastrously did with his nation’s laws when he repealed the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that had, for 66 years, successfully separated commercial from investment banking). But he doesn’t deserve credit for engineering a recovery with a system he merely inherited. 

Neither does he warrant much praise for using the Economic Action Plan creatively and to truly productive effect by making strategic investments in crucial infrastructure, higher education and training, advanced technology commercialization, and work-based poverty reduction programs. To have done so would have invited internecine warfare in his own party. 

Mr. Flaherty should be remembered in public circles as a bright, decent, effective, and tough cabinet minister. He was also that rarest of birds in the Harper government: he could both tell and take a joke. 

But he was not Caesar, and he never sought that company. 

Perhaps, that’s one reason he left Parliament a month ago: Too many little emperors running about, taking credit where credit is, most certainly, not due.

 

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Facing down the music on democratic reform

 

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As the choir of experts sings ever more harmoniously about the perils of the federal government’s Fair Elections Act, its ardent champion continues to counter with his patented – and, by now, painfully familiar – version of white noise.

Simply and evidently, insists Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, critics of Bill C-23 are misguided, ill-informed, disingenuous, or politically motivated – maybe a toxic mixture of all ingredients. 

There’s nothing wrong with the bill, he says. In fact, there’s everything right with legislation that improves the accountability, transparency and impartiality of the election process, and prevents voter fraud from drowning the system. Those who say otherwise are doing themselves and their fellow Canadians a grievous disservice.

To every other Canadian than Mr. Poilievre, however, those who say otherwise are not so easily dismissed. 

There’s Marc Mayrand, Canada’s chief electoral officer, and Yves Cote, commissioner of Canada Elections. There’s former Auditor-General Sheila Fraser and notable Elections Canada analyst Harry Neufeld. There’s even Preston Manning, former leader of the old Reform Party. 

Armed with impressive credentials, each trills the same melody: Any piece of legislation that curtails a citizen’s right to cast a ballot (in C-23’s case, by disallowing registration cards and voters “vouching” for one another as means of identification) is purely and self-evidently wrong.

What’s more, they argue, the measure to transfer the commissioner of elections into the Office of Public Prosecutions is, at best, unnecessary. At worst, it could obstruct the collaborative relationship between the chief electoral officer (who is responsible for overseeing the vote) and the commissioner (who is responsible for enforcing the Elections Act) –  a development that would not be, in Mr. Cote’s estimation, a step in the right direction.

Indeed, says Paul Thomas, an emeritus professor at the University of Manitoba and a well-known political scholar says, “This should not happen in Canada.” In an interview with The Huffington Post Canada last month, he noted, “(We have) one of the strongest reputations in the world for staging fair and free elections under the supervision of Elections Canada, the oldest independent and impartial national election body among established democracies.”

Earlier this month, Ms. Fraser appeared to concur, telling the Canadian Press that she had serious misgivings about the bill as it now stands. Not only would it deprive thousands of people their right to vote, she insisted, it would tip the playing field in favour of the government’s party, and hinder due process, generally. 

“Elections are the base of our democracy and if we do not have truly a fair electoral process and one that can be managed well by a truly independent body, it really is an attack on our democracy and we should all be concerned about that,” Ms. Fraser said.

“When you look at the people who may not be able to vote, when you look at the limitations that are being put on the chief electoral officer, when you see the difficulties, just the operational difficulties that are going to be created in all this, I think it’s going to be very difficult to have a fair, a truly fair, election.”

Yet, for all these principled objections – not one at variance with any other, not one even obliquely self-serving or politically motivated  – Mr. Poilievre refuses to acknowledge that his bill’s critics might have a legitimate point or two to make.

Instead, he chooses to make partisan hay, launching bitter, personal attacks, especially against Mr. Maynard, about whom, he said in the Commons on Tuesday, “The reality is that regardless of amendments and improvements that the bill potentially will have included, the CEO (Mr. Mayrand) will not ultimately approve it. (His) recommendations really boil down to three broad requirements for him: he wants more power, a bigger budget, and less accountability.”

When called to apologize for such a clear display of intemperance, Mr. Poilievre replied calmly, “I stand by my testimony” – a posture that is all the more lamentable.

For many who spend their days and nights pondering the weighty subject of democratic reform in Canada, C-23 is an eminently flawed document. 

Their concurrence on this matter should give the nation’s duly elected government reason to, at least, pause and consider – not crank up the volume of their noise makers in Parliament.

 

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A tale of two urban legends

 

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In his illuminating piece on American cities and why they work, (in the current edition of the Atlantic) national correspondent James Fallows observes a renaissance, of sorts, in the ranks of strong mayors.

This, in turn, leads him to a rather shocking conclusion, given the political distemper that plagues other levels of government in the United States: “Once you look away from the national level, the American style of self-government can seem practical-minded, nonideological, future-oriented, and capable of compromise. These are of course the very traits we seem to have lost in our national politics.”

He then names some of the country’s more successful, recent big-city mayors, such as New York’s Michael Bloomberg, Boston’s Tom Menino and Chicago’s Richard Daley who, “even with their excesses. . .have been. . .the people who could get things done, while presidents and legislators seem ever more pathetically hamstrung.”

Even the nation’s more modestly sized cities, he says, deserve praise, including Greenville, South Carolina, where noting its “walkable and gracious downtown is like mentioning that Seattle has good coffee,” and Burlington, Vermont, a community “so liberal that it elected a socialist mayor” who, nevertheless, “overrode resistance to clear the waterfront, bring back the downtown, and attract businesses.”

Reading this account of Mr. Fallows’ happy adventures along the main streets of his nation, I can’t help but feel a might bewildered. 

American cities aren’t supposed to be paragons of anything. In fact, they are supposed to be dystopian hell holes where elected officials are in the back pockets of organized criminals, the cops are on the take, and murder and mayhem lurks behind every street corner. 

Canadian cities, on the other hand, are supposed to be legendarily well-ordered, well-managed and. . .well. . .boring. Typically, its mayors are supposed to be either courtly older gentlemen or feisty older ladies whose affection for controversy begins and ends with zoning restrictions in exurban subdivision developments.

Well, aren’t they?

Rob Ford was in the news the other day. It appears that Toronto’s mayor was “visibly upset” after being barred from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s board of directors’ lounge at the Air Canada Centre during a hockey game. At least, that’s how his companion described the chief magistrate on Saturday. 

“To the extent possible, yeah, they (security staff) asked me to keep him under control,” Toronto Councillor Frank Di Giorgio told the Globe and Mail. “That was one of things I hadn’t anticipated my having to do, let’s put it that way. I think if his older brother had been there, it would have been easier to control him. . .(He was) certainly visibly upset.”

Was he drunk? Was he high? Nope, hizzoner said, not this time. 

Sure, over the past year, he has admitted to smoking crack (after having lied about it) in a drunken stupor. Yes, police documents, unsealed last month, describe the a mobile phone video in which the mayor is “holding what appears to be a glass cylinder in one hand and a lighter in the othe . . .At one point Mayor Ford holds the glass cylinder to his mouth. Lights the lighter and applies the flame to the tip of the glass cylinder in a circular motion. After several seconds Mayor Ford appears to inhale the vapour which is produced, then exhale vapour.”

But last Saturday, he was as clean and sober as a Tibetan monk, even though, as the Toronto Star reported yesterday, the incident at the hockey game “marked the fourth occasion in the past three months that the mayor has been filmed acting erratic in public. In January, a video made at a fast-food restaurant showed him slurring and making disparaging remarks about the chief of police. In early February, he was seen drinking and speaking ‘gibberish’ at a British Columbia pub. And on St. Patrick’s Day, Ford was again taped stumbling and swearing outside city hall.”

For all that, Mayor Ford is just an average guy. At least that’s what he told the profile writer from Esquire last month: “I’m very humble. Some people call it shy. I am who I am. I love my football, and I love my family, and that’s pretty well it.”

Should Mr. Fallows want to write a Canadian follow-up to his excellent essay on American mayors, Mr. Ford is almost certainly available to oblige with an interview. 

Just as soon as he nails down that reality show.

 After all, for the mayor of Canada’s largest city, priorities are everything.

 

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What’s wrong with Gen Y? Their parents

 

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Wrapped in caution tape and kept far away from even the least consequential threats mankind invents on a quotidian basis, our children are forever doomed to lives of neurotic self-absorption. Forget saving the planet from the depredations their parents and grandparents have bequeathed.

At least, that’s the thinking, these days, among certain leftish-leaning editors, writers and, presumably, readers who bemoan the softening of youthful spines across these vast and trust-fund-encumbered lands.

Funny that – the thinking, I mean; as it seems so down-to-earth, not at all like the vaulted prose the bloody-minded right wing assumes progressives embrace with relish (and sometimes dijon). 

But there it was, in all its small-l liberal glory: An article brimming with genuinely fretful observations about lost childhood in sea of otherwise confident, consumer-driven print journalism for upwardly mobile adults.

“Hey parents, leave those kids alone” demands the display copy in Hanna Rosin’s cover story in April edition of The Atlantic. “In the past generation, the rising preoccupation with children’s safety has transformed childhood, stripping it of independence, risk-taking, and discovery. What’s been gained is unclear: rates of injury have remained fairly stead since the 1970s, and abduction by strangers was as rare then as it is now. What’s been lost is creativity, passion and courage. Now a countermovement is arising, based on mounting evidence that today’s parenting norms do children more harm than good.”

So, let me get this straight. The generation of parents who think that offering youngsters metal-spiked lawn darts and the opportunity to play helmut-less hockey is tantamount to child abuse is, nevertheless, reconsidering its position on the subject of juvenile risk-taking – as in, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to let junior remove the training wheels from his trike. 

In other words, this generation of parents is suddenly worrying too much about worrying too much. Does anything say “baby-boomer” better than that?

“It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation,” Ms. Rosin writes. “Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ‘70s walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap – are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of ‘children’s independent mobility,’ conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 per cent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to nine per cent, and now it’s even lower.” 

Another piece in the same issue of the magazine quotes from a “ground-breaking study” that recently found parents to be responsible for their kids’ lousy performance in school: “Most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic dividends for kids, or even to backfire – regardless of a parent’s race, class, or level of education. . .Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down, an effect Robinson says could be caused by the fact that many parents may have forgotten, or never truly understood, the material their children learn in school.”

How much of this actually rings true for most people, and how much is actually phantasmagoria fueled by an increasingly rarified combination of generational guilt and healthy disposable incomes is hard to say. 

But we of the chattering classes do like to see perils and trends (indeed, perilous trends are among our favorite preoccupations) where none actually exist, or, at least, manifest themselves much in the general population.

Looking out my office window onto my residential neighbourhood, heavily peopled with rug rats of various shapes and sizes, I see games of tag, war, hide and seek; occasional punching, slapping and kicking. I see scraped elbows, skinned knees and bruised foreheads.

     I don’t see pampered darlings under escort to various play-dates. I don’t see adult authority figures brokering cease fires on the battlefields of childhood dreams. 

All of which is to say that “the overprotected kid” might be more myth than reality. On the other hand, “the anxiety-riddled adult” is all too common, indeed.

 

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New Brunswick for sale: Everything must go!

 

What am I bid for the Petitcodiac River

What am I bid for the Petitcodiac River?

After reading the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ (CCPA) assertion that, together, the country’s 86 wealthiest residents could buy New Brunswick, lock, stock and barrel, and still have enough in the kitty to pay for a round-trip expedition to Mars, I have but one thing to say to that estimable, left-leaning think tank: Oh, you tease.

Perhaps our good premier, David Alward, and his finance minister, Blaine Higgs, have been approaching this economic development thing all wrong from the get-go. Their much-reviled predecessors in the Graham government may have been right, after all; they just didn’t go far enough. Sure, sell NB Power for a cool $4 billion if you can. But why stop there?

“New Brunswickers held $141 billion worth of assets in 2012,” writes the CCPA’s senior economist, David Macdonald, in his new paper, Outrageous Fortune: Documenting Canada’s Wealth Gap. “Of all of the provinces, this most closely approaches the net worth of The Wealthy 86 of $178 billion, without exceeding it. 

“What this means is that The Wealthy 86 could buy up all of New Brunswickers’ 545,000 motor vehicles, all of their 314,000 houses and cottages, all of their undeveloped land, all of their stocks and bonds, all of their pension funds, all of their RRSPs, all of their jewellery, and all of their furniture. The Wealthy 86 have enough money to buy absolutely everything in the private hands of every New Brunswicker, 

with billions to spare.” ($37 billion, to be precise). 

Following the data’s release last week, and in the collective interest of the rest of us, local CBC radio host Paul Castle helpfully informed his listening audience that the per-capita haul on a bounty of 141 billion simoleons is $188,000, which isn’t bad. But, it’s nowhere near enough to propel anyone over the gates that surround the super-rich. And, of course, that’s the CCPA’s point.

“The latest Statistics Canada wealth survey reveals income in equality isn’t Canada’s only problem: wealth inequality in Canada is worse,” Mr. Macdonald observes “For instance, many gasp at the fact that Canada’s richest 20 per cent of families take almost 50 per cent of all income. But when it comes to wealth, almost 70 per cent of all Canadian wealth belongs to Canada’s wealthiest 20 per cent.”

All of which proves there’s truth in the old adage that you have to have moolah to make moolah; indeed, the more boodle you have, the more boodle you tend to generate (thanks to the miraculous effects of certain financial instruments, not least of which is  compound interest). 

 Of course, real money is also incredibly rare. If everybody had it – lots of it – who would care about concepts of fairness predicated on simple pocket-book envy?Certainly, the CCPA wouldn’t, but that’s only because it would be out of job chronicling and cataloging the rapacity of the gilded galoots and pampered plunderers among us.

“The level of wealth inequality in Canada has reached such extremes that in 2012, according to figures derived from Canadian Business magazine, the 86 wealthiest Canadian-resident individuals (and families) held the same amount of wealth as the poorest 11.4 million Canadian combined,” Mr. Macdonald writes. “To put these findings into historical perspective, in 1999, The Wealthy 86 held the same wealth as the bottom 10.1 million Canadians.”

Naturally, Mr. Macdonald and his fellow travelers want Government (big surprise, here) to fix the situation and pronto. 

Maybe it should remove some of the protections on wealth, such as the favorable capital gains tax rate (half of that levied against income), or slap new taxes on the income of the wildly wealthy on the theory is that such “progressive” moves will redistribute some of the accumulated capital to the rest of society where it can do some broad, general good. 

It’s a nice theory that rests on only two flawed assumptions: first, that higher taxes on fat incomes will have any effect on “breaking up” private pools of capital; and, second, that capital gains exclusions will only affect the super-rich, and not the majority of entrepreneurs who dutifully ply their trades somewhere in the middle of the pack of affluence.

Nope, the solution is, was and and always shall be right in front of our faces: Persuade The Wealthy 86 to buy New Brunswick. 

Make them an offer they can’t refuse: Throw in P.E.I. as a signing bonus. It won’t mind. Honest.   

 

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Early learning programs play critical role

 

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A debate now rages over what constitutes a proper grade-school education in Canada. Should it be, for example, a straight, by-the-numbers approach (literally) to teaching math? Or should it be a more flexible, creative, play-based model of problem solving?

It matters, because, until just recently, Canadian children have lagged their counterparts in other developed countries on international tests of basic numeracy and literacy skills. Increasingly, the best jobs in the world are going to European kids, whose educational systems have given them a leg up in the competitive, knowledge-reliant global economy.

So, it should come as no surprise that a recent study on the efficacy of full-day kindergarten in Ontario – introduced four gears ago – is generating ample heat in the pages of the nation’s self-appointed arbiter of social values.

Last week, the Globe and Mail’s education reporter, Caroline Alphonso, bylined a story claiming that a new analysis from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto “is raising questions about the value of full-day kindergarten, showing children attending the program in Ontario are no better in reading, writing and number knowledge at the end if Grade 1 than their half-day peers.”

The piece quoted study leader Janette Pelletier, a professor at OISE, thusly: “I would say the challenge is to improve play-based programs that contribute to lasting change in things like writing and number knowledge. And we want to make sure that learning in Grades 1 and 2 builds on engaging learning in full-day kindergarten.” 

Within a day of the article’s publication, the Globe’s letters page bristled with commentary, both for and against FDK, starting with Professor Pelletier, herself. “Your report on my preliminary research,” she wrote, “did not put enough emphasis on the significant benefits of full-day kindergarten. I stressed that the findings of the study show the strong vocabulary and self-regulation benefits of full-day kindergarten. These are the cornerstones for life-long benefits of early childhood programs, including better education and mental health.”

Moreover, she scolded, “cherry-picking to create a negative impression regarding positive research results is not helpful to the public discourse about something as important as early childhood education.”  

Such are the perils, perhaps, of reporting from the front lines of the great and eternal conflict over human perfectibility. How do we measure achievement, and which achievements are more relevant than others at various stages in a kid’s academic career? What’s more, whose opinions should we heed? 

Doretta Wilson of the Society for Quality Education in Toronto thinks that would be her. In a letter she wrote wrote to the Globe, she insisted that “the best way to ensure that children are prepared to learn is to implement explicit, direct instruction of primary reading and mathematics in Grades 1 to 3.”

But is this actually verifiable? Is the best way to make kids active learners to keep them out of early childhood education programs and away from school until the last, possible minute and only then commence drilling math and language concepts into their supple minds. 

All of which, of course, misses the larger point about play-oriented (yet, also structured) early childhood education: Its true value, as Professor Pelletier and other experts in the field attest, is in its capacity to nurture and encourage certain qualities of character and habits of mind and expression that are foundation stones to later learning.

In her letter to the Globe on March 31, Kerry McCuaig, fellow in early childhood policy at the Atkinson Centre of the University of Toronto, wrote, “all the full-day children (in the OISE study) were significantly ahead of their half-day counterparts in self-regulation, which includes impulse control and the ability to focus on tasks. Research is showing that self-regulation may be far more important than IQ in determining the grades children achieve in school, attendance, time spent on homework, how aggressive they are, and even how vulnerable they are to risky behaviour as teens.” 

In fact, the body of evidence suggests that early childhood learning before and right through full-day kindergarten is not the expensive frill its detractors claim; rather, it is an essential aspect of a student’s entire academic career, and a fundamental predictor of human health and social stability. 

The only debate that now makes sense having is how best to implement these programs universally and publicly across Canada. 

 

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