Monthly Archives: April 2014

Pulling New Brunswick back from the brink



Conspicuous by its almost complete absence from the agonizing ruminations over New Brunswick’s perilous fiscal situation has been any suggestion of a real solution. 

No one in government, it seems, has wanted to poke the 800-pound gorilla that is the electorate for fear of getting squashed en route to the ballot box.

That is, of course, a politician’s prerogative: to hand-ring with the best of them, pledge to swallow the bitter pills and persevere for the sake of all our children, only to turn around and waste millions of dollars on doomed schemes in the name of economic development, if not calculated self-aggrandizement.  

Economists and academics are at somewhat greater liberty to tell it like it is without concern for public reprisals.

Indeed, Donald Savoie, the Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the Universite de Moncton has made the province’s $12-billion debt, $500-million deficit and public-spending crisis key features of his public commentary, almost delighting (if that is the word) in jabbing voters for their refusal (or unwillingness) to reconcile their expectations of government programs with the reality of their province’s circumstances.   

Now, his colleague, Richard Saillant, the Director General of the Canadian Institute for Research on Public Policy and Public Administration at UdeM, has produced a tight book of 150 pages, or so, provocatively entitled, Over the Cliff? Acting Now to Avoid New Brunswick’s Bankruptcy.

Dr. Savoie is right when he enthuses in the preface that the author, who is also a former federal public servant, “has done New Brunswickers a great service.” In fact, what his dissertation contains is precisely that which has been missing since the discussion began: a solution, or, at least a credible stab at one with enough detail to both warrant and fuel serious debate. 

Be warned, however; Mr. Saillant’s fixes are far from easy, and he pulls no punches in describing them or the conditions that make them necessary.

“For several decades, New Brunswick’s economy has surfed on a rising tide of labour force growth, fueled by the baby boom generation and the steady, largely successful march of women towards equal participation in the workforce,” he writes. “The tide is now receding, dragging down the economy with it. A new Age of Diminished Expectations is upon us.”

Most sobering, perhaps, is his message about public priorities. While he congratulates the Alward government’s success, since 2010, in holding program spending growth to less than one per cent, he insists that the austerity can’t last “while maintaining today’s levels of public services, particularly in the health care sector.”

Indeed, “if the government does not raise taxes further and if it maintains the same public spending patterns as it did on average over the past quarter century,” by 2035-36 New Brunswick can expect to run an annual deficit of $5.5 billion on a long-term debt of $62.3 billion and a whopping debt-to-GDP ratio of 172 per cent. Not that things would likely get that far: “Credit-rating agencies would most likely pull the plug long before this happens.”

As for the solution, Mr. Saillant’s cold-eyed approach involves cutting down “baseline program spending growth every year by at least one-third of the previous year’s deficit from 2014-15 to 2029-30. Starting in 2030-31, this proportion is reduced to one-sixth.”

At the same time, he writes, “The government increases taxes and other revenues above their baseline growth by at least one-third of the previous year’s deficit from 2014-15 to 2029-30.” Again, “starting in 2030-31, this proportion is reduced to one-sixth.”

In the end, this strategy would effectively stabilize the province’s accounts. The annual deficit would fluctuate between $100-500 million. The net debt would peak in 2035-36 at about $17 billion.” 

It’s not, perhaps, the most favorable scenario (we weren’t smart enough, early enough in our collective unravelling to now expect a better result), but it’s the best we can do given our current demographic and economic challenges. And, realistically, even this approach is fraught with all the usual political perils.

But, as Mr. Saillant correctly observes, we voters “need to stop rewarding politicians who make lofty promises without explaining where the money will come from.”


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Canada’s feuding, fuming democracy 



That there is no love lost between Canada’s top jurists and its prime minister became brilliantly obvious last week when the Supreme Court of Canada squashed the federal Tories’ fondly held Senate reform ambitions.

Less obvious was whether the executive and judicial branches of government in this country will ever find common ground on any issue of substance that’s dear to a true, blue Harperite heart. 

Senate reform was the fifth, straight juridical mauling of the Conservatives in recent months, and, like all the others, the outcome was hardly surprising. In its ruling, the court was unequivocal about the limits of legislative meddling.    

“The framers sought to endow the Senate with independence from the electoral process to which members of the House of Commons were subject, to remove Senators from a partisan political arena that required unremitting consideration of short-term political objectives,” it declared (as quoted by the Globe and Mail). “The provinces must have a say in constitutional changes that engage their interests.”

To the federal government’s contention that the nation badly needs a more accountable, more transparent Senate whose newly elected members must serve short sprints – rather than lifelong marathons – in office, the Supremes responded that “the purpose of the (government) bills is clear: to bring about a Senate with a popular mandate. . .Legal analysis of the constitutional nature and effects of proposed legislation cannot be premised on the assumption that the legislation will fail to bring about the changes it seeks to achieve.”

As for the populist notion of abolition (enthusiastically endorsed by the NDP and others), it would  “fundamentally alter our constitutional architecture – by removing the bicameral form of government that gives shape to the Constitution Act, 1867. (Abolition) requires the unanimous consent of the Senate, the House of Commons, and the legislative assemblies of all Canadian provinces.”

With that, Prime Minister Stephen Harper bid farewell, once and for all, to a cherished plank of his policy platform. “We know that there is no consensus among the provinces on reform, no consensus on abolition, and no desire of anyone to reopen the Constitution and have a bunch of constitutional negotiations,” he said following the court’s announcement. “I think it’s a decision that the vast majority of Canadians will be very disappointed with, but obviously we will respect that decision.” 

In fact, despite their rhetoric and table pounding, the Tories never really formulated a clear idea about how to reform the Senate without dismantling the constitutional protections of a sizable number of Canadians. Every notion it floated was predicated on the faulty and profoundly self-important assumption that worthwhile changes to the institution did not require much, if any, consultation with the provinces.

The arrogance of that central conceit – that under Stephen Harper, the executive can conduct itself as it sees fit without recourse to any other branch of government – evidently rubbed the court the wrong way, as it has in four other cases since late March. 

When Peter MacKay, minister of justice, barred first-time, non-violent federal convict from obtaining early parole, the court ruled unanimously on March 20 to reverse the decision. 

One day later, the Globe reports, “Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Justice Marc Nadon to the court, to fill a Quebec vacancy. The question was whether, as a judge on the Federal Court of Appeal, he was eligible to represent Quebec. (The Supreme Court ruled 6-1) that he was ineligible because he did not have the special qualifications required for Quebec judges on the Supreme Court.”

Meanwhile, as the Globe chronicles, “Under the Truth in Sentencing Act, the government tried to stop judges from routinely giving extra credit to offenders for the time they serve in custody before sentencing. (The court ruled) 7-0 that judges have discretion under the act to routinely give 1.5 days credit for every day served.”

Finally, “A prisoner wanted to challenge his transfer to a maximum-security jail from a medium-security one. The federal government said he had to go through a slow process that involved the Federal Court. (The court ruled) 8-0 that prisoners’ ancient right to habeas corpus gives them prompt access to superior courts in whatever province they are in.”

Of course, amity between branches of government is not a prerequisite for maintaining a hale and hardy democracy (just the opposite, one could argue). 

If that’s true, then Canada’s successful union is the very picture of health.


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Can Elections Canada walk and chew gum?



Conservative Senator Linda Frum’s dislike of collegial discourse is almost as sharp as her contempt for logical debate, which, given the lamentable quality of political talent these days, perfectly qualifies her to sit in this country’s Red Chamber.   

Installed in 2009 by Stephen Harper to, presumably, bolster the PMO’s determination to transform all parliamentarians into caterers of official government policy or, in the alternative, portray the hold-outs as renegades against the group-think her party expects of everyone in its orbit, Senator Frum has revealed her colours in recent comments before the nation.

Speaking to Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand during a Senate hearing on the “Fair Elections Act” (Bill C-23) 11 days ago, she effused: “Your concerns about section 18 removing your ability in future get-out-the-vote initiatives. Do you not see why there is a conflict of interest between you as a chief electoral administrator being in charge of the administrations of free and fair elections and also you being invested in get-out-the-vote initiatives so that you have then a vested interest in seeing the numbers increase? And that that balance. . .You don’t see the conflict there?”

Ms. Frum later defended her bizarre assertion (that Elections Canada’s CEO ought not be permitted to simultaneously walk and chew gum, electorally speaking, lest his enthusiasm for greater voter turnout somehow corrupts our representative democracy) in the Twitterverse. 

“Elections Canada should not have a vested interest in recording a high voter turnout. That’s a conflict,” she tweeted on April 9, to which political consultant Bruce Anderson remarked, “Don’t we all have a vested interest in a high voter turnout?”

Ms. Frum: “Absolutely we do. Who is suggesting otherwise?”

Mr. Anderson: “You did Senator: ‘Elections Canada should not have a vested interest in recording a high voter turnout.’” 

Ms. Frum: “Sigh. If u don’t agree – fine. But stop pretending u don’t know what I’m saying. It’s not EC’s role to motivate ppl to vote.”

Mr. Anderson: “Not pretending. . .with respect, I truly don’t know why a high turnout is a conflict 4 EC. But agree to disagree.”

Mr. Anderson was not the only witness to this carefully staged play who was left bothered and bemused by Ms. Frum’s political performance. Still, she refused to relent. In a guest editorial for the Globe and Mail, some days later, she noted that “Elections Canada is a bureaucracy with two missions: to ensure the integrity of the voting process and also to promote voter turnout,” before declaring that the two missions are fundamentally at odds with one another.

“You want the biggest vote total? Accept every ballot. You want to eliminate voter fraud? Eliminating improper ballots may reduce vote totals. In attempting to achieve a balance between these two different missions, the evidence suggests that Elections Canada has favoured its turnout goals over preserving the integrity of the process.”

What utter rot. Nothing prevents Elections Canada from both promoting the general vote and safeguarding the system. It’s not an either-or proposition. It’s a double-barreled responsibility that, when executed properly, enhances, rather than diminishes, the democratic process.

As one letter writer to the Globe astutely pointed out, “competing interests are not the same as a conflict of interest. Both are goods to be pursued to reach the goal of democratic elections.” 

Commented another: “Senator Frum’s argument does not demonstrate that there is an essential conflict of interest – rather that Elections Canada’s efforts to do both need to be administered more effectively. Conservatives cannot justify removing certain populations’ power to vote just because there are potential ways to be fraudulent.”

Rejoined yet another reader: “This is like saying judges should not be involved in preliminary hearings because they have a vested interest in the outcome. To be kind, the only thing Senator Frum’s argument supports is a bigger bureaucracy, not something one expects to hear from the ‘Government is the problem’ people.”

In fact, the contempt Ms. Frum displays is of the same species that routinely lumbers down Parliament Hill’s hallways en route to its familiar perches in the committee chambers and hearing rooms of Government – hers is a visceral contempt of the electors, themselves.


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Are things really looking up for middle-income earners?



We Canadians are richer than we thought, which is a relief, because the pickle barrels increasing numbers of us are wearing to the spring fashion shows this year have begun to chafe. 

According to the New York Times on Tuesday, “The American middle class, long the most affluent in the world, has lost that distinction. While the wealthiest Americans are outpacing many of their global peers, a (Times) analysis shows that across the lower- and middle-income tiers, citizens of other advanced countries have received considerably larger raises over the last three decades.”

Drum roll, please. . .”After-tax middle-class incomes in Canada – substantially behind in 2000 – now appear to be higher than in the United States.”

The review relies on the methodology of the Luxembourg Income Study Database, which includes household and person information on market and government income, demography, employment, and expenditures, as well as intelligence from other datasets in Europe, North America, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Australasia.

In other words, the source is unimpeachable, which means, apparently, that the findings are unassailable.

“Although economic growth in the United States continues to be as strong as in many other countries, or stronger, a small percentage of American households is fully benefiting from it,” the Times piece observes. “Median income in Canada pulled into a tie with median United States income in 2010 and has most likely surpassed it since then. Median incomes in Western European countries still trail those in the United States, but the gap in several – including Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden – is much smaller than it was a decade ago.”

What’s more, “The struggles of the poor in the United States are even starker than those of the middle class. A family at the 20th percentile of the income distribution in this country makes significantly less money than a similar family in Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland or the Netherlands. Thirty-five years ago, the reverse was true.”

Naturally, the news of the sudden, inexplicable resuscitation of this nation’s middle class, so soon after demographic coroners pronounced it dead on arrival, have crowded the front pages and lead the broadcasts for days.

The Globe and Mail queried coyly, “Can it be true that the Canadian middle class has never had it so good? And if so, what will it mean for the Liberals and the NDP, who have focused their strategies on promoting the notion of middle-class decline under the Conservatives?”

Certainly, the Tories are letting no opportunity to crow pass them by. “This study would appear to confirm that our government’s approach to creating jobs and economic growth, while keeping taxes low, is working,” Jason MacDonald told the Globe. “We’ll continue with our low tax plan, unlike the tax-and-spend Liberals and NDP, whose approach will only cost Canadian families.”

Nice try, Mr. MacDonald, but no cigar. The study neither confirms nor denies the efficacy of the government’s “approach to creating jobs and economic growth” because that’s not what it explicitly measures. But if it did, the findings would suggest that Liberal policies in the early part of the Century were far more successful as “job-generators” than were post-recession Conservative ones. 

As for the rest of us breathlessly revising our versions of the economic universe, we might pause and consider what’s written in the space between the lines of this study.

Middle incomes in Canada have, indeed, surpassed those in the United States. But that speaks more about the desperate condition of the American economy – in which millions of jobs vanished almost overnight in the aftermath of the financial meltdown and the fiscal collapse of 2008 – than it does about stellar conditions in ours.

The study ranks percentage increases in middle incomes, placing Canada high on the list at 19.7 per cent (along with Britain), and ahead of Ireland, Netherlands, Spain, and Germany (16.2, 13.9, 4.1, and 1.4 per percent, respectively). 

In absolute terms, however, middle-class salaries and benefits in this country have not risen appreciably since the Great Recession. In fact, those in the larger percentiles of the income range (i.e., lower) have seen their levels of real wealth actually contract, despite historically low interest rates and near-zero inflation.

All of which is to say that now is probably not the time to trade in that pickle barrel for an Armani sport coat, just yet. 


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Ottawa’s penny-pinching pound-foolishness



For a government that purports to hold the interests of hard-working, middle-class folks close to heart, Harpertown sure has a funny way of showing it. 

Unless, of course, by showing it, our estimable representatives in Ottawa mean to produce precisely nothing to show for the $4.6 million they recently flushed down the public’s drain.   

That was the tidy sum Statistics Canada spent in 2012 asking 25,000 employers across the country about such timely matters as the workplace skills gap – surveys that now sit on a shelf, unanalyzed and unpublished, because the money’s run out to complete the job. 

Not for nothing, but no less a formidable parliamentarian than Employment Minister Jason Kenney has framed skills shortages and mismatches as one of the most important issues in the nation’s recent history. Indeed, in a speech to the Economic Club of Canada last fall, he was adamant and unequivocal. 

“As the head of Canada’s economic union, the federal government plays a critical role in creating the conditions for strong private sector job creation to position our country for success in an increasingly competitive global economy,” he declared. 

“What I’m going to do is to share with you my take on what many agree is the biggest challenge facing our economy. I’m going to talk about how we can tackle skill shortages and skill mismatches, turning them into good jobs for Canadians and greater prosperity for the long term because I think my number one priority is to address this paradox of too many Canadians without jobs in an economy that has too many jobs without skilled workers.”

Of course, to do this, one needs an arsenal of good, accurate information. Or, does one?

Thanks to some intrepid reporting by the Globe and Mail this week, we now know that the StatsCan data, which was collected at the behest of Employment and Social Development Canada, “has sat idle for two years due to lack of funding to make it public. . .StatsCan collected the surveys over the first three months of 2012, but the funding ended there, before the data could be analyzed.”

In the wake of a $30 million budget cut to the numbers-crunching Agency’s budget over the past 24 months, it’s hard to avoid a creepy sensation of deja vu.  

In 2010, when the federal government announced it was scrapping the mandatory long-form census in favour of a “voluntary” household survey, editorials in just about every major newspaper in Canada screamed their disapproval. The nation’s two top statisticians, Munir Sheikh and Phil Cross, actually resigned their posts in evident, if dignified, protest.

In a news advisory at the time, Mr. Sheikh wrote that while he could not “reveal and comment on (the) advice” he gave the government “because this information is protected under the law,” he wanted to “take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census. . .It can not.”

Only last summer, Robert Gerst, a partner in charge of operational excellence and research and statistical methods at Calgary-based Converge Consulting Group Inc., declared in an opinion piece for the Waterloo Region Record, “The quality of the results has come under criticism because the voluntary survey replaced the compulsory long-form census questionnaire. In effect, this replaced a random sample with a non-random sample. Non-random samples have their place, but making conclusions about the population isn’t one of them.

Naturally, then, “no conclusions about the Canadian population can be drawn from the national household survey. Since making these types of conclusions is the whole point of a census, the survey data is worthless. (This is also true for any survey where participation is voluntary, including citizen, customer and employee satisfaction surveys).”

Apparently, we’ve devolved from worthless survey data to non-existent survey data – or, at least, unexamined and, therefore, worse than worthless if only because we’ve still had to pay the bill for its compilation.

When will this government get it through its institutional head that to speak with any degree of authority about anything, one must first have facts and figures – evidence – at one’s disposal? 

That’s what truly concerns hard-working, middle-class Canadians about their elected officials and the policies they pursue in the interests they purport to hold dear.


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The secret of our success is simple. We’re crazy



Each day that passes on this third rock from an average star in the boondocks of a commonplace galaxy brings fresh evidence of the truth about our circumstances as, very likely, the only sentient creatures in this region of the universe.

Homo sapiens sapiens (us) are certifiably nuts. This, we already know. But that our derangement may very well derive directly from our intelligence is a proposition no evolutionary biologist would ever entertain. Until now.

In a marvelous review – still more marvelously titled “Consume, screw, kill” – of environment writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Harper’s writer Daniel Smith explains Swedish geneticist Svante Paabo’s determination to locate and identify the “madness gene” that makes us unique among hominins (all humans, including the extinct ones).

Mr. Smith quotes a passage from Ms. Kolbert’s work, directly:

“Archaic human like Homo erectus ‘spread like many other mammals in the Old World,’ Paabo told me. ‘They never came to Madagascar, never to Australia. Neither did Neanderthals. It’s only the fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land. Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think, some madness there. You know?’”

Indeed, who does that? Go off into the wild, blue yonder without an exit strategy? Apparently, we do. And not just that.

Writes Smith about The Sixth Extinction (for which, you may have guessed, our lunatic species is solely responsible), “Kolbert begins coyly with a kind of fairy tale. ‘Maybe two hundred thousand years ago,’ a new species emerges on Earth. Compared with other species around at the time – mammoths, mastodons, armadillos the size of Smart cars  – the members of this new species aren’t very fast or very strong. But they are shrewd or reckless or both. ‘None of the usual constraints of habitat or geography seem to check them.’”

What do they do when they finally reach what we now know as Europe? Writes Kolbert: “They encounter creatures very much like themselves (Neanderthals), but stockier and probably brawnier, who have been living in the continent far longer. They interbreed with these creatures and, by one means or another, kill them off.”

How, then, do our tendencies, singular among all animals, to wander like zombies into unfamiliar and treacherous territories only to plunder the local wildlife (and nightlife) before moving along relate to our possessing uniquely big brains?

Consider the results of separate research conducted in Israel. Scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem compared the DNA of ancient Neanderthals with that of modern humans and found them to be about 99 per cent identical, which is what they expected. But when they examined the evidence more closely, they discovered significant differences in the remaining one per cent – specifically, between those parts of the archaic and contemporary genomes that were linked to disease, especially mental disease. Suffice to say, we modern types fared rather poorly. 

“Scientists are a long way from being able to understand what this means, stressed Liran Carmel, who led the study along with Eran Meshorer and David Gokhman,” Torstar reported the other day. ‘But this raises the hypothesis that perhaps many genes in our brain have changed recently, specifically in our lineage, the lineage leading to Homo sapiens. And perhaps things like autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s are side-effects of these very recent changes,’ said Carmel. ‘This is an interesting suggestion, that (brain disease) is a side-effect of us being Homo sapiens and having our unique cognitive capabilities.’”

“Interesting suggestion” doesn’t even begin to cover it. 

For the first time in our lousy, rotten history, we may be at the threshold of obtaining true self-knowledge. 

Forget Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius. Keep your Enlightenment thinkers to yourself. And if you think religion is going to get you out of this one, think again.

The fix was always in; the game was rigged from the get-go. To paraphrase from a tune popular during the self-obsessed “Me Decade” of the ‘70s, we’re just no good, no good, no good. . .baby, we’re no good!

Of course, this also raises a rather unsettling corollary. If cognitive capacity actually produces mental disease, does the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence amount to nothing more than a bed count at a cosmic loony bin?

Then again, at least we’ll know we’re not alone in our insanity.


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Putting the true profit motive back into government


At some point during their long campaign to regain the relevance they once enjoyed in western society, progressive liberals of the social-democratic mien finally wised-up to the fact that filthy lucre, not moral suasion, makes the world go round.

Specifically, unless they can link improvements in living standards, literacy and child care to actual wealth creation, they might as well go home and write folk songs for all the influence they’ll wield.

The money principle has been the genius of the counter-counter-culture that began with the reign of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, continued under the “everything goes” administration of Bill Clinton, persisted during the corporatist eras of the daddy-son Bush tag-team of George and Georgie W. It now languishes in Barack Obama’s uncertain hands. 

The fundamental idea was, and is, that Government is, at best, a necessary evil. Most of the time it’s just evil by nature – wasteful, tyrannical, ineffective. 

The “market” was, and is, mankind’s true salvation. Individuals, properly motivated through low taxation, will solve their own problems.

In this conception of reality, welfare is for weaklings, schools are for learnin’ the three Rs and, higher education is for snooty elites unless it leads to a job at a billion-dollar tech firm in Silicon Valley.

Or, as the late Margaret Thatcher once opined, “We want a society where people are free to make choices, to make mistakes, to be generous and compassionate. This is what we mean by a moral society; not a society where the state is responsible for everything, and no one is responsible for the state.”

Lately, though, that notion has been turning on its head.

Andre Picard, the Globe and Mail’s award-winning public health reporter, recently quoted from a study underwritten by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The findings were startling.

“For every $1 spent providing housing and support for a homeless person with sever mental illness, $2.17 in savings are reaped because they spend less time in hospital, in prison and in shelters,” Mr. Picard reported earlier this month.

“People who are severely mentally ill and chronically homeless use a lot of services – an average of $225,000 a year, according to research. Providing housing and support is costly too – an average of $19,582 per person. But the avoided costs are much greater, $42,536 on average, because those who are housed are put in hospital less often, make fewer ER visits and do not use shelters as often. . .For people with less severe mental illness and lesser needs, 96 cents is saves for every additional $1 spent on housing.”

The results suggest that, contrary to the opinions of nanny-state decriers, Government’s obligations to provide safe, reliable housing to the erstwhile homeless is not only moral – it’s also financial, as the investment yields an enviable return for all taxpayers.

Apparently, that’s something even a Harperite can get behind. 

“We can do more – not just manage homelessness, but eliminate it altogether,” Candice Bergen, federal minister of social development, said at the study’s unveiling in Ottawa on April 8. “I’m realistic. I know there will always be people who will be homeless and who will need help. But most people can recover, they can get back on their feet.”

Lately, the same line of reasoning has been leaking from commentaries by the unlikeliest sources: economists. 

When TD Bank Group’s Craig Alexander is not talking about the dollars-and-cents benefits of structured, universally accessible early childhood education, he’s pointing out the enormous costs to society of structural, endemic illiteracy.

Halting it, he recently told a business crowd in Saint John, “raises your income, which ends up creating a better standard of living. You invest in people. You improve their skills. You give them the ability to be much more productive. It’s good for business.”

It’s also good for the state – which, for all practical purposes, means all of us.



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Seated or upright: It’s a standoff



Don’t say I never heed the warnings about my imminent doom, physical, spiritual, moral or otherwise.

Why, just the other day, having begun to peruse a lengthy report on the dangers of sitting around all day, I did something about my habit of rump perching. I raised my legs to roughly waist height, crossed my ankles, placed my feet on the desk, leaned back in my chair, and continued to read.

This from Dr. James Levine of The Mayo Clinic:

“Researchers have linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns, including obesity and metabolic syndrome a cluster of conditions that includes increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels. Too much sitting also seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

Indeed, the good doctor reports, “One recent study compared adults who spent less than two hours a day in front of the TV or other screen-based entertainment with those who logged more than four hours a day of recreational screen time. Those with greater screen time had: A nearly 50 per cent increased risk of death from any cause; (and) about a 125 per cent increased risk of events associated with cardiovascular disease, such as chest pain (angina) or heart attack.”

Well, then, the solution seemed obvious: Install a standing desk. These days, they’re everywhere. A simple google search pulled up Workrite’s Sierra HX-Electric Height Adjustable Stand Up Desk for a princely $1,479.00. There’s also National Business Furniture’s Standing Height Workstation for a more cost-effective $659. 

I had a better idea. I jumped to my feet and into the car. At my local Kent Building Supplies store, I procured a three-foot-square sheet of plywood (good one side), four 12-inch long pieces of 2×2-inch pine, 16 l-brackets, and a bunch of screws.

Once home, I assembled my custom-designed platform – expansive enough to accommodate my IMac, keyboard and mouse, with room to spare – and placed it atop the banquet table that subs for my desk. It was perfect. And cheap ($49.95).

Feeling enormously pleased with myself, I commenced to work from the standing position like some clerk in a Dickensian counting house. 

Naturally, my reverie was short-lived.

“Sitting at your desk all day is killing you whether or not you exercise, which is why so many people are building standing desks,” confirmed Adam Pash, writing in Lifehacker in 2011 (though I only came across his report last week). “But the ergonomics team at Cornell University points out that standing also has its problems.”

Quoting from the crew at Cornell, he wrote, “It (standing) dramatically increases the risks of carotid atherosclerosis (ninefold) because of the additional load on the circulatory system, and it also increases the risks of varicose veins, so standing all day is unhealthy. The performance of many fine motor skills also is less good when people stand rather than sit.”

Intrigued (and annoyed), I commenced to dig a little deeper and, in due course, uncovered, in the provocatively named “Hazards Magazine”, an August 2005 piece that dropped such pearls of wisdom:

“Health statistics suggest hundreds of thousands of people in the UK could be suffering health problems related to prolonged standing. Almost 200,000 report lower limb symptoms caused or made worse by the job. . .Lower limb disorders cause over two million days sick leave a year. . .Chronic heart and circulatory disorders are linked to prolonged standing at work. . .Prolonged time in an upright posture at work may cause hypertension comparable to 20 years of aging.”

What’s more, the story contends, “There has never been a Health and Safety Executive prosecution for a breach of the current health and safety regulation covering provision of seating at work. Legal protection for many workers was better in 1917.”

As you might imagine, none of this sits well with me at all. In fact, you might say, I simply won’t stand for it.

Everywhere we go, the hazards to our health are multiplying. Now, they’re becoming maddeningly conflicting. 

Eggs or no eggs. Gluten or gluten-free. Rice milk or soy.

I think I’ll have a lie-down, as the jury’s still out the health effects of the prone position.


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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



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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