Monthly Archives: September 2013

Canada the war-friender?

Death in Dhaka...600 and counting

Death by unregulated guns…500-million triggers and counting

 

To the bemusement of many career diplomats and most human rights groups, standing apart – alone and aloof – has become the Canadian government’s preferred modus operandi to the United Nations.

In fact, one of the few truly substantial differences between the Tories in power and their Grit predecessors has been their unconcealed animus towards most things UN-related. The organization, they seem to believe, is broken, inefficient, hypocritical, duplicitous and needlessly bureaucratic. Worse, this cradle for the international community allows far too much license to rogue nations, and not enough to democratic, peaceful ones.

They have a point. But the federal Conservative regime would not be the first government in the world to question the value of its country’s membership. The organization is as flawed, or virtuous, as are its fellow states. Canada’s role and opportunity has always been to engage by setting a moral example – something which, until recently, it has been demonstrably willing to do.

The Harper government’s decision to delay signing the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which seeks to regulate international shipments of conventional weapons worth as much as $70 billion a year, is lamentably ironic. While it laudably pledges $3-billion pledge to improve the welfare of mothers and children around the world, the unfettered arms trade decimates the very people the Department of Foreign Affairs would otherwise help.

Even the United States, with its lock-and-load gun culture, has signed on to the Treaty, making it the 91st country to do so. “We are talking about the kind of export controls that for decades have not diminished one iota our ability in the United States as Americans to exercise our rights under the constitution,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said of his nation’s decision last week. “This treaty will not diminish anyone’s freedom. . . .Make no mistake, we would never think about supporting a treaty that is inconsistent with the rights of Americans, the rights of American citizens to be able to exercise their guaranteed rights under our constitution.”

Ottawa’s position suggests it is not as certain about the safeguards protecting this country’s gun owners. According to the Globe and Mail last week, “Rick Roth, a spokesman for (Foreign Affairs Minister John) Baird, said Ottawa is still studying whether joining the accord would have consequences for Canadians. “It is important that such a treaty not affect lawful and responsible firearms owners nor discourage the transfer of firearms for recreational uses such as sport shooting and hunting.”

That’s fair as far as it goes. But while the federal government waits, the arms trade continues its vile business in some of the world’s poorest nations.

In his book, Public Corruption; The Dark Side of Social Evolution, Robert Neild of Cambridge University observes, “It has been estimated that there are now about 500 million small arms and light weapons in circulation in the world, one for every twelve people. Gone long ago is the time when we Europeans could subdue other continents because we had firearms and the local peoples had not. In 1999 it was reported that an AK-47 assault rifle could be bought in Uganda for the price of a chicken.”

Amnesty International states on its website, “War crimes, unlawful killings, torture and other serious human rights abuses have been committed around the world using a wide range of weapons, munitions and military and security equipment. These are often provided to perpetrators in almost unlimited supply, encouraging and prolonging unlawful violence. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, injured, raped and forced to flee from their homes as a result.”

Appallingly, says the organization, “Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of children under 18. . .are recruited into government armed forces, paramilitaries, civil militia and a variety of other armed groups.  Often they are abducted at school, on the streets or at home. Others enlist ‘voluntarily’, usually because they see few alternatives.”

Like it or not, the UN is the proper deliberative body through which to combat such turpitude.

Notwithstanding its distaste for the organization, Ottawa should set an example and ratify the Treaty.

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Sitting up for the real truth

The truth has gone to ground

The truth has gone to ground

In the immortal words of Fox Mulder, the fictional FBI agent in the ‘90s cult TV show, The X Files, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. I used to turn that aphorism on its ear: Just because they’re out to get you, doesn’t mean you’re paranoid.

At the time, that seemed to make more practical sense to me as I watched not one, but two, of my employers go bankrupt overnight, victims of shadowy forces they barely perceived, let alone feared.

Lately, though, I’ve come to believe that Mr. Mulder had a point. Conspiracies swirl. Threats are extant. The men in black wear double-wide sized 9s and stand at the foot of my driveway, sifting through the confetti my shredder produces.

Oh yeah. . .the truth is out there people, but trust no one to tell you exactly what that is. (Is it coincidental that the actor, David Duchovny, who played the G-man is exactly the same age as my wife, to the date and year, and that she finds him oddly off-putting? I think not. There’s more to this than meets the eye. But, I digress).

Let’s talk about sitting.

Just released is another in a long line of studies that “prove” that resting on one’s derrière for long hours a day is not only bad for you; it will actually kill you as surely as an assassin’s blade.

Late last year, The Guardian had this to say about the hazard: “Sitting for more than three hours per day cuts about two years off your life expectancy. . .Watching more than two hours of TV per day will cut your life expectancy down another year. An even bleaker discovery? Moderate exercise doesn’t seem to offset the effects of this excessive sitting either. ‘It’s not just about getting physical activity in your life,’ Dr. Peter T. Katzmarzyk of Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, told Businessweek. ‘Just because you’re doing 30 minutes of physical activity, what about the other 23.5 hours. Don’t just sit the rest of the day.’”

That sounds like good advice, until you consider the source: The globally interconnected medical establishment.

By now, it knows that most people don’t trust it. (How else do you explain the rise of homeopathy and the latent terror of vaccinations)? Therefore, most people will continue to sit around on their arses, watching, say, reruns of The X Files, despite, or, indeed, because of, the expert warnings.

That plays magnificently well into the hands of Big Pharma, who can expect record profits accruing from the drugs they sell to cancer-ridden, diabetes-debilitated patients, ministered to by – you guessed it – the medical establishment. Let the kickbacks commence.

But the conspiracy doesn’t end there. In fact, it’s diabolically nuanced. Think office furniture. Are you getting the picture?

Physicians know that a percentage of people, though in the minority, will actually heed their warnings and immediately shell out hundreds of dollars each for the latest, spiffiest “standing desk” and workplace treadmill so as to avoid stroking out at his keyboard. What’s in it for the doctors? Prescription and post-it pads for life. I kid you not. You can’t make this stuff up.

Yes, gentle reader, the dark confederacies are everywhere.

Just ask Jesse Ventura, former pro wrestler, Minnesota governor, author and occasional actor. (He actually played a man in black in several episodes of The X Files. So, he should know a thing or two about cover ups). “Hidden power, secrets, corruption,” he said at the top of his short-lived TV show, Conspiracy Theory. “You think you know the whole story? Think again. I’ve been a Navy SEAL, a fighter. I’ve heard things that will blow your mind. And now I think it’s time that you get the whole story.”

On the other hand, we may never really want to know the whole story.

The truth may be out there. But you can keep it to yourself, especially if it’s boring.

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Climate science’s vaporous certainties

Ooops! Are my windmills suddenly blowing hot air?

Ooops! Are my windmills suddenly blowing hot air?

 

Mother Nature abhors a pigeon hole. Just when we think we’ve labelled and tagged her and put her to bed for the night, she flies the coop, leaving us with the uneasy feeling that when it comes to the vagaries of creation we don’t actually know as much as we thought we did.

That proposition must be dawning in the minds of several scientists these days as they prepare to receive the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fifth report on global warming. Conventional wisdom would expect the document to confirm the inexorable, upward rise of global temperature as a result, in large part, to manmade sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Conventional wisdom would be wrong.

Instead, according to information leaked to the world’s media, the report will likely observe that the planet’s average surface temperature has held pretty much steadily since the turn of the century and that increases in the near-to-medium-term will probably not be as dramatic as was once predicted back in 2007, when Al Gore and co. snagged a Nobel Peace Prize for playing the environment’s Cassandra.

It is, to say the least, an inconvenient truth. Or, as IPCC member Shang-Ping Xie, a California-based oceanographer, told the Los Angeles Times last week, “It’s contentious. The stakes have been raised by various people, especially the skeptics.”

So, what went wrong? The broad consensus is: Nobody knows.

Some criticize the IPCC for its bloody-minded swagger over the past several years. Judith Curry, a Georgia Institute of Technology climatologist – who was herself a panel assessor – told the LA Times, “All other things being equal, adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will have a warming effect on the planet. However, all things are never equal, and what we are seeing is natural climate variability dominating over human impact.”

Others insist that anthropogenic warming is still extant. It’s just on vacation. Meanwhile, researchers, including Xie, are floating a theory that the Pacific Ocean – the world’s largest body of water – has been sucking the heat out of the atmosphere and storing it presumably until such time as it belches it back out.

Evidence for this phenomenon apparently shows up in average sea levels, which are continuing to rise. Quoting one climate scientist, the LA Times writes that this proves  “that greenhouse gases are continuing to heat the planet. . .(because). . .as ocean water warms, it expands and drives sea levels higher.”

Still, if we can’t reliably predict how the climate will behave, we have no such difficulty anticipating the opprobrium among the world’s chattering skeptics. A virtual tidal wave of “I-told-you-so” now threatens to drown what remains of the science.

“Too many people have too much invested in perpetuating this fiction,” Cal Thomas of the Tribune Content Agency writes, without actually commenting on the latest IPCC report. “Billions of dollars and other currencies have been diverted into ‘green’ projects in a Chicken Little attempt to stop the sky from falling. The BBC reports it as fact in virtually every story it does on the environment. Ditto the American media. Most media ignore evidence that counters climate change proponents.

“Former Vice President Al Gore has made a personal fortune promoting the cult of global warming, a cult being partially defined as a belief system that ignores proof contrary to its beliefs. Perhaps the climate change counter-revolutionaries should adopt the yo-yo as their symbol and send Gore and his apostles a box of them.”

The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente comments more circumspectly: “When it comes to the intricacies of climate change, the science is notoriously unsettled. the only consensus that exists is the well-established fact that human activity is contributing to global warming. Beyond that, it’s all hypothesis and speculation.”

What’s more, there’s now less certainty in research circles about the deleterious effects of climate change. Some experts (though, not many) are beginning to suggest that slightly milder temperatures might actually benefit societies, especially those north of the equator.

Again, though, who’s to say?

About the only certain comfort the world’s climatologists can take from all of this is that the renewed uncertainty about the weather is not born of inexpert opinion.

They, the scientists themselves, observe nature’s fickle response to the incontrovertible facts they thought they knew.

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Forget ‘slow pay.’ How about ‘no pay?’

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Help Wanted: Are you a self-starter, a go-getter, someone who takes care of business and, to paraphrase Bachman-Turner Overdrive, loves to work for nothing all day?

Are you young, eager, over-educated, underemployed, desperate to gain a toe-hold in the wonderful world of work? Are you at the end of your rope?

If this sounds like you, then look no further. We at The Ritual Abuse Corporation – one of the largest private employment agencies in the world – want to meet you. Our inboxes are on fire thanks the steadily rising number of our clients who are searching for someone just like you; someone who will fill a short-term, unpaid internship and whistle a happy tune whilst doing it. “Thank you mother,” you’ll croon, “may I have another?”

You must have heard about this. It’s all the rage in the post-apocalyptic, financially melted global economy.

According to an article a in the Daily Mail, out of the UK, a couple years back, “Firms across the country are increasingly relying on unpaid interns in a bid to cut costs in a tough economic climate, according to a new study. Bosses in the design and digital industry expect more work for less money, leading to fewer permanent staff members and more unpaid interns, according to think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, which carried out a survey of 500 agency workers.”

More recently, Susan Adams, a staff writer at Forbes, observed, “As the ranks of the unemployed have swelled and the surplus of jobless college students and grads has grown, increasing numbers of people young and old have been signing on for unpaid internships, wanting to make contacts and accumulate résumé lines that can help them get paying work.”

Indeed, it’s a win-win for everybody – a joyful alliance between probity and exigency. Think of the opportunities that await you.

As an unpaid intern, everything is within your job description. On any given day, you might find yourself slinging coffee. When your bosses (a group which comprises just about everyone else in the organization) spill said coffee, you’ll be dispatched to clean up the mess. Think of the contacts you’ll make. Imagine the résumé lines you’ll be able to accumulate.

Of course, your employer also benefits from not having to book your wages and benefits (because, officially, there are none). That means it gets to keep its hard-earned cash in the bank where it’s been sitting for years.

That’s important, especially when you consider the natural oder of the universe, neatly summarized in a CNN Money piece late last year: “Just four years after the worst shock to the economy since the Great Depression, U.S. corporate profits are stronger than ever. In the third quarter, corporate earnings were $1.75 trillion, up 18.6 per cent from a year ago. . .That took after-tax profits to their greatest percentage of GDP in history. But the record profits come at the same time that workers’ wages have fallen to their lowest-ever share of GDP. ‘That’s how it works,’ said Robert Brusca, economist with FAO Research in New York, who said there is a natural tension between profits and the cost of labor. ‘If one gets bigger, the other gets smaller.’”

Still, you shouldn’t delay hitching up for the next available unpaid tour of duty. Storm clouds are gathering and pretty soon it may begin to rain on everyone’s parade. Consider one recent headline.

“Two former interns have filed complaints with government against Bell Mobility, alleging the telecom giant broke labour laws by not paying them for work they did for the company,” CBC News reported in June. ‘It felt like I was sitting in an office as an employee, doing regular work. It didn’t feel like a sort of training program,’ said Jainna Patel, 24, who was an unpaid intern with Bell for five weeks last year. ‘They just squeezed out of you every hour they could get and never showed any intent of paying.’”

In fact, that sounds very much like another species of unpaid labour that even we, at The Ritual Abuse Corporation, would never condone: entrepreneurship.

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A grim fable for the fiscally frightened

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“No fairy tales, please” – New Brunswick policy specialist Donald Savoie, a long-time advocate for debt reform in government, on public attitudes towards political promises during the run-up to next year’s election, Saint John Telegraph-Journal, Sept. 21, 2013.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, in the land between the rising and setting sun, there lived a troll under a covered bridge, next to Perdition Highway, known locally as The Road to Nowhere.

Unlike most trolls, who are fierce and lean, this one was lazy and fat. He spent a good deal of his time, days and nights, fantasizing about his next meal, which was, in fact, never very far away. So bottomless was his appetite that the villagers in the area called him Poor Black Hole.

“Look how hungry he is,” they would say. “He must have a tape worm.”

But no matter how much or how frequently they fed him, Poor Black Hole was never full. Indeed, he grew so big his bulk threatened to break the deck of the bridge above him; still, he couldn’t get enough to eat.

“I need more,” he would cry. “Can’t you see that I am wasting away.”

Clearly, Poor Black Hole had body image issues. But the villagers were too polite to mount any sort of intervention. So, they continued to empty their pantries and drain their cupboards in the hope – vain though it was – that he would finally shut up.

Eventually, the people’s plight came to the attention of the king, who worried that his subjects would soon run out of the staples they needed to survive.

“We must do something about Poor Black Hole,” he told his chancellor of the exchequer. “He’s sucking the life out of my tithe-payers. At the rate he’s going, there won’t be anything left for roads or schools or hospitals.”

The chancellor, a pragmatic sort of fellow, agreed. “It is a serious problem, o sire,” he said. “The circumstances are drastic and they require drastic measures. I suggest that the royal court stop giving the people their special dispensations whenever they demand. They only hand them over to the troll, anyway. Then, we should increase the levies on every adult man and woman in the kingdom and use the money to raise an army with which to vanquish the filthy beast.”

The king pondered awhile and then turned to his faithful servant and said, “I’ll get back to you,” whereupon he promptly fell into a deep slumber.

Days passed, then months, then years. And as the king slept, the people grew poorer and the troll grew fatter. Eventually, the bridge over Poor Black Hole’s head cracked and tumbled to the ground. He didn’t mind, just as long as his meals came fast and furious, which, of course, they did.

Meanwhile, other bridges cracked and tumbled to the ground. Schools closed. Emergency rooms shut down. Roads became impassable. Perdition Highway, long the most heavily travelled thoroughfare in the realm, failed under the weight of its traffic.

When the king finally awoke, he was dismayed and a tad rueful.

“I guess I should have gotten back to you earlier,” he told his chancellor, to which the weary factotum replied in a voice that was barely audible: “You think?”

What, the king demanded to know, could they do now? The treasury had been emptied, the courtiers disbanded. Worse, perhaps, the villagers were revolting on rumours that their royal favours were about to be cut off.

Their land was a shambles and they were in constant danger from foreign carpetbaggers and moneylenders. But they were entitled to their entitlements. Weren’t they? Apart from anything else, these were how they fed the troll.

“Maybe,” the king ventured, “we should just tell everybody to move. . .you know. . .lock the gates, haul up the drawbridge, shutter the windows before things get really bad.”

The chancellor furrowed his brow and, pulling a parchment from his satchel, declared, “Sire, it may already be too late. I have a report that indicates that the villagers are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect their state perks. . .apparently, they’ve started to feed Poor Black Hole something new.”

The king raised an eyebrow. “What’s that?” he asked.

Sighed the Chancellor: “Their young.”

And they all lived. . .well. . .must I spell it out?

The End.

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Our increasingly dull song of praise for oil

You can just smell the methane

You can just smell the methane

One public page of the member-driven website, Geo-Help Inc., which bills itself as “The Virtual Geology Department providing Geological Expertise and Services to the Oil and Gas Industry in Canada,” offers a collection of quotes that reaffirms man’s (though, interestingly, not even one woman’s) abiding love affair with liquid, black gold down through the decades.

Odes have been written to exalt the substance, including this one, sponsored by Seneca Oil and published in 1850:

“The healthful balm, from Nature’s secret spring/ The bloom of health, and life, to man will bring/ As from her depths the magic liquid flows/ To calm our sufferings, and assuage our woes.”

Others, like Kansas geologist Wallace Pratt (1885-1981), also recognized the allure when he said, “Where oil is first found is in the minds of men.” Men, presumably, like American industrialist J. Paul Getty (1892-1976) who once declared that his formula for success was to “rise early, work hard, strike oil.”

The quotes are not uniformly laudatory. One describes oil as “the excrement of the devil.” Another complains, “You can’t get the grease without a lease.”

And some are way off the mark, as is one attributed to the Director of Anglo Persian Oil Company who, in 1926, observed, “Saudi Arabia appears devoid of all prospects for oil.”

Historically, though, our preoccupation with the stuff has been, until quite recently, laced with positive connotations. And this strikes me as somewhat paradoxical, because unless you happen to be an industry executive or petroleum geologist, the chances are very good that you, like me, find oil to be. . .well, pedestrian.

Or, if you will pardon the pun, boring.

Whenever a fixation becomes mundane, it has a tendency to subdue the other faculties of mind – imagination, ingenuity, creativity – that can, quite often, improve social, political and economic conditions.

This might help explain New Brunswick’s current circumstances. The rut the province is in – fiscally, commercially, even demographically – could well be related to, if not actually derive from, our single-minded focus on the promise of a pipeline from Alberta’s oil patch and the putative promise (and danger) of a fully functioning shale gas industry in the future.

I would never suggest that we should dismiss these projects for the sake of our becoming less tedious people. But it might profit us to pull our heads from the sand and take a look at what other jurisdictions around the world are doing with energy development. (A well-known writer – though, his name escapes me – on the industry from, of all places, Calgary made a similar observation on New Brunswick CBC Radio’s rolling-home show last week).

Science Daily reports, “It’s less costly to get electricity from wind turbines and solar panels than coal-fired power plants when climate change costs and other health impacts are factored in, according to a new study published in Springer’s Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

“In fact – using the official U.S. government estimates of health and environmental costs from burning fossil fuels – the study shows it’s cheaper to replace a typical existing coal-fired power plant with a wind turbine than to keep the old plant running. And new electricity generation from wind could be more economically efficient than natural gas.”

Meanwhile, also according to Science Daily, “High school and college students got a recruiting call. . .to join the Solar Army and help solve one of the 21st century’s greatest scientific challenges: finding the dirt-cheap ingredients that would make sunlight a practical alternative to oil, coal and other traditional sources of energy.

‘Enough sunlight falls on Earth in one hour to provide all of the world’s energy – for 7 billion people – for an entire year,’ said Harry B. Gray, Ph.D., leader of the army. He is the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and Founding Director of the Beckman Institute at the California Institute of Technology. ‘If we can capture that energy and use it to split water, burning coal, gasoline and other fossil fuels will be history.’

Maybe. Maybe not. But even the thought is inspirational – which is more than I can say about oil.

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Facing up to the pension challenge

In the unlikely event that New Brunswickers, en masse, get busy and jump start another baby boom to someday repopulate the ranks of the provincial civil service, we might just avoid the fiscal crisis that now looms over public pensions.

The sad truth is, though, the $1 billion in unfunded liability will not vanish so appealingly. No fancies of the imagination, no wishful thinking, no sleights of the accountant’s hand will make it go away. Someone’s going to have to pay for it. The debate that roils now is solely about who.

Will it be, to some extent, those who paid faithfully into the fund for decades –  presuming that they would receive, upon their retirement, a predictable amount on which to survive their sunset years? Or will it be, to a much larger extent, those who are still working – many in the public sector; many more in the private sector where taxes must, by necessity, cover the pension shortfall.

Such is New Brunswick’s “Sophie’s Choice”.

The David Alward government has never been clearer about its stand on any matter of public policy than it has on this one. It wants to move to a shared-risk approach, modeled after some European systems, in which pensioners assume some of the hazards of their variably performing investments directly. Gone, then, would be the traditional and fixed guarantees, including yearly CPI indexing.

In a letter to the New Brunswick Pension Coalition (obtained earlier this week by the Telegraph-Journal), provincial Finance Minister Blaine Higgs said the status quo is unacceptable. So are the quick fixes contemplated to postpone the inevitable. “It would be impossible for the province to consider ‘Band-Aid‘ solutions,” he wrote. “Nor could we accept changes to the proposed model which would be unfair to our current and future employees or to New Brunswick taxpayers.”

It is around this issue of fairness than members of the Coalition also rally. Is it fair, they ask, for the provincial government to unilaterally claw back pension guarantees? Is it fair to force a retiree, with few economic options available to him, to accept a level of risk shrouding his income he was never led to expect until now? When, in essence, is breaking a deal ever fair?

Who’s right? In a way, everyone is. Still, and lamentably, for the current cohort of pensioners, there is no moral equivalency between these opposed positions. The ground on which the government stands is higher if only because most people in the province do not enjoy the arrangements at issue. Absent any reform, they would, however, have to pay for them.

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The disputants may blame each other until all the clauses in the Public Service Superannuation Act sunset. But the real enemy is demographics. And the cold, if somewhat comforting, fact is New Brunswick is not alone.

Just about everywhere in Canada, public pensions are in trouble. They were crafted at a time in the nation’s history when the future looked much more munificent than it does today. The pay-it-forward model – in which the existing generation of public workers essentially contributes to the retirement well being of future ones as it relies on the beneficence of past ones – is, for all practical purposes, broken.

Today, the population is increasingly geriatric and that – according to public policy experts William Robson and Alexandre Laurin, writing in the Globe and Mail this week – means “there are fewer active employees to support the pensions of retired beneficiaries. People are living longer, which means pensions need to be paid out for longer periods.”

In fact, as they discuss pension reforms underway in Alberta, they single out New Brunswick’s proposed changes as “ambitious” and “far-reaching,” suggesting that the “new shared-risk model. . .protects future generations by permitting reductions of base benefits already accrued, in extreme situations.”

For most New Brunswickers, the choice, though unhappy, is clear. In the interests of fairness, and for the sake of what’s left of the system, pension reform is necessary.

In fact, wishful thinking to the contrary, it’s unavoidable.

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Another day, another plan to fix New Brunswick

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Somewhere, beneath the florid appeals to New Brunswick’s angels – to its fairness, justness, competence, impartiality, integrity, and respect – lies a plan to exorcise the province of its equally durable demons, its languishing labour force and perishing skills.

Thus begins the David Alward government’s glittering, new Labour Force and Skills Development Strategy, inscribed as if on tablets come down from the mount: “New Brunswick has a proud history of innovation and national and international leadership. We have flourishing multinational companies and thriving small- and medium-size enterprises.”

And yet, o brothers and sisters, woe still walks among us: “New Brunswick is, however, facing challenges that cannot be solved quickly. . .a median population age that is older than all other provinces, a shrinking youth age group, a decreasing birth rate, and an adult literacy rate that limits employment options for some.”

What shall we do? For starters, we shall engage in the making and reading of charts, specifically the “GNB Strategy Map”, in which a “stronger economy” and an “enhanced quality of life” are possible even though we must, henceforth, live “within our means”.

This implies that “all working-age New Brunswickers and newcomers” will have “an opportunity to participate in the labour market” provided “that they have the right skills to match provincial labour market needs.”

How shall this be accomplished? It has something to do with stimulating “the creation of quality jobs” for citizens, fostering “private sector business growth” and “driving economic development efforts” to, in the final analysis, “provide value for tax dollars. . .achieve a sustainable budget” and “prioritize, optimize and improve processes” in government.

All of which suggests, if little else, that this government is no slouch in the report-writing department. And, to be fair, the document does contain no fewer than 44 “action” items, some of which actually make sense.

Still, one can’t help suspect that, a mere 12 months before the next election, many of these measures have lost much of their utility. They would have been more effective three years ago when the problems that beset the province’s labour force were just as clear, if not as acute, as they are today.

“In coordination with other partners,” the government intends to “develop labour market information products to assist with selecting relevant post-secondary education and employment opportunities in New Brunswick.” What’s more, it will encourage “employment counsellors” to “visit students beginning in middle school and again in high school to provide awareness of occupational forecasts and related skills requirements.”

The strategy is also big on collaboration to wit: “Government will develop a coordinated approach with departments and other partners to ensure that all parties entrusted with growing the economy, work together and are aware of each others strategies and programs, i.e., New Brunswick Business Council, Conseil économique du Nouveau-Brunswick.”

It will also “work with employers to increase their knowledge of the benefits and opportunities surrounding posting of jobs on the Job Bank and assist them in developing job and position descriptions.”

In fact, the key to the plan’s success, it seems, is its “many-voices” approach, for “to meet (the) challenges facing the province, strong, collaborative partnerships are required not only within government, but with communities, industry, businesses, educators, and labour to ensure that New Brunswick has the human resource capital to meet the needs of the labour market.”

Again, though, we’ve known this for years. What’s different now, apart from the fact that things are getting worse?

The frayed achilles tendon of this report – indeed, of virtually every version of a prosperity agenda since before Bernard Lord was premier – is the specific who, what, where, when and how much.

It’s one thing to declare that “Government will work towards ensuring that all high school students have a transition exit plan prior to graduation” or that it will likewise “work with the early childhood education sector to strengthen the sector’s capability to administer high-quality programming by its members for the benefit of young children.”

It’s quite another to spell out the actual mechanics. That’s what a proper, useful  strategy does.

One must assume that this government has a real plan.

Sadly, this particular document, as loftily well-intentioned as it may be, just isn’t it.

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Cracking the algebra of federal R&D funding

Erecting fences between scientific inquiry and sound public policy

Erecting fences between scientific inquiry and sound public policy

Here’s a math problem for our evidence-distrusting times: In the equation ‘x+y=z’, ‘x’ represents federal government support for commercially promising science and ‘y’ stands for calls among university boffins for a broader definition of useful research. What, then, is the value of ‘z’?

Ottawa is firm about its dedication to the hard arts. In a statement the Globe and Mail carried recently, Greg Rockford, the federal minister of state for science and technology, declared, “Our government is committed to science, technology, innovation and taking ideas to the marketplace. Canada is ranked number one among G7 countries for its higher education expenditures on research and development.”

Well, yes and no.

According to Howard Solomon, editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada, “Overall R&D spending [in Canada] is low and declining as the manufacturing sector shrinks, including in the communications equipment manufacturing sector. . .a new study by leading academics…(says). . .Communications equipment makers scored well for getting patents and articles in scientific publications. . .However, the group also showed a decline in R&D expenditures and economic output in the last few years, whether that was in R&D growth between 2001 and 2012, or export growth.”

He was writing last month, but the chances are things haven’t improved much since then. A Conference Board of Canada report a couple of years ago, concluded that when it comes to public R&D spending, this country merits “a ‘B’ and ranks eighth out of 16 countries. . .Increases in Canada’s higher-education R&D spending since the mid-1990s provided a temporary advantage, but international peers have closed the gap since the mid-2000s.”

The Board then makes this fateful recommendation: “Future public R&D spending should be aligned with innovation and commercialization needs and attentive to the possible ‘crowding out’ of private R&D by public R&D.”

To commercialize or not to commercialize. That is the question. And it’s clear that policy makers and legislators in Ottawa embrace an entirely different vision than that of working scientists who are growing increasingly frustrated with what they view as Ottawa’s entirely false dichotomy between pure and applied research.

Fundamentally, the research community is correct: This really is a chew-gum-and-walk-at-the-same-time conundrum. Hard science doesn’t always immediately yield commercial applications that build productivity and competitiveness for regional and national economies. But without it, you get nothing. No RIMs, no Nortels, no so-called clusters of excellence and innovation corridors.

That Ottawa talks incessantly about commercial applications and seems to eschew any mention of the lonely wetware, entombed in laboratories and classrooms, that’s vitally responsible for them is more a matter of semantics than ideology. Politicians (their party affiliations are irrelevant) are all about results and success stories and ribbon cuttings.

Scientists, it’s safe to say, are all about reason, the long game to enlightenment. And it’s reason to which they invariably appeal, as they have this week during their Stand Up for Science demonstrations in cities across the country. According to a Globe report, the nation’s research community intends to shift its attention to “drafting policies that reflect best practices on research integrity and funding priorities and will urge the country’s political leaders to adopt them.”

In essence, they hope to capitalize on developments over the past eight years in the United States, where science-friendly policies in the Obama administration have sparked something of a renaissance of respect, if not always funding, for the harder disciplines of inquiry. 

“Canadian scientists are where American scientists were maybe a decade ago,” Michael Halpern of the Washington, D.C.-headquartered Union of Concerned Scientists told the Globe on Monday. “They’re trying to figure out how to protect themselves from a government that’s increasingly focused on message control over a more open discussion of the facts.”

In fact, they’ve been trying to figure out that problem for some time now, with little to recommend their eventual success short of a change in government. That’s why the value of ‘z‘ is likely, for the moment, to remain a big, fact zero.

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The tragicomedy stylings of the expert elites

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Every so often, when a major newspaper musters a considerable pool of expertise to explain what it regards, with solemn conviction, as an enormously complex tale of hubris and woe, I am struck not by how difficult but by how strangely easy it is to follow the human saga.

This, despite the fact that the customary, editorial waiver clearly alerts me, like a warning label on a pill bottle, that what I am about to consume may cause drowsiness, confusion or even nausea.

So it was a few days ago when, on the fifth anniversary of the global liquidity  meltdown, I had occasion to delve into the Report on Business’s (ROB) cover story, “The financial crisis: Through their eyes,” in which no fewer than nine senior reporters presented the results of their interviews with 18 “key players” in Canada’s capital markets, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, former Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney and three private bank CEOs.

Part testimony, part confession, the piece reads a bit like a transcript of a group therapy session for capitalists still suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder even as, the ROB notes, “the visible scars of the financial crisis are fading.”

But if I had expected, while reading the piece, to fight a battle for illumination with only dim certainty of winning – if I had assumed that I would necessarily marshall every weapon in my intellectual arsenal to fully understand what really happened to the global economy in 2008 and 2009 – it became quickly apparent that no such effort would be required of me.

These experts, these “key players”, are no more lucid on the subject today than they were a half-decade ago. Their most revealing observations are entirely familiar, thoroughly explicable, and could apply to any catastrophe the fates and furies periodically visit on hapless souls.

“In July of ’08, I attended what’s called the international pensions conference, [attended by] CEOs of the 40 largest pension plans, corporate and public,” Jim Leech, who was a senior vice-president of Teachers’ Private Capital in 2008, tells the ROB. “They were pretty oblivious to what was going on.”

Mark Carney: “The summer of 2008 was awful because the system was coming apart and people didn’t appreciate what was happening.”

Louis Vachon, CEO of the National Bank of Canada: “It’s definitely not the end of financial crises. I think there will be more. Will we see something as bad, and as socially impacting as we saw in ’08? I think the odds of that occurring again are very, very low in the next few decades. From my lips to God’s ears on that one.”

That all of us – common investors and financial adepts, alike – were “oblivious to what was going on” and that “people didn’t appreciate what was happening” and that avoiding a repeat performance at some point down the road may hinge on some sort of supernatural intervention confirm what we already suspect, and have suspected all along: None of us really know much about anything, especially the big things in life.

Still, David H. Freedman, a regular contributor to The Atlantic, thinks he knows just enough about the blind spots in human comprehension to write a whole book on the subject. In his 2010 effort, Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not to Trust Them, he observes, “Economists weren’t exactly lining up in late 2007 and early 2008 to warn us all that national economies, global financial institutions, and real estate markets were rapidly spiraling toward a black hole of potential collapse.”

That’s because they didn’t know. At least, they didn’t know the larger story as it grew unwieldy, elaborate and, ultimately, out of control.

In fact, I like to express the limits of expertise almost algorithmically: Specialized knowledge grows increasingly superficial and unreliable in direct proportion to the degree of complexity built into any system of human endeavor. This goes for financial markets, political regimes, Greek tragedies, Norse sagas, and the comedy routines of the late, great George Carlin.

Of course, I could be wrong about this. I’m no expert.

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