Category Archives: Idiocracy

What’s another weasel word for ‘waterboarding’?


Oh, Dick Cheney; God, love you, man.

At least, you’d better hope the Almighty has a soft spot in his eternal, cosmic heart for ilk such as yours.

Down here, on planet Earth, we mortals wrote you off at about the time you insisted that forcibly pouring water down someone’s throat to the point of nearly asphyxiating him was not torture.

Indeed, you sly dog, you casually observed it was merely an “enhanced interrogation technique.” Why, it happens all the time. Right? Move along people; nothing to see here.

Earlier this week, the former vice president of the United States in the George W. Bush administrations of 2000-04 and 2004-08 (the world’s very own, live-action Darth Vader-Emperor Palpatine dynamic duo of the early 21st century) was at it again, defending, on major news programs in the United States, the indefensible.

Lending a hand to congressional Republicans in a co-ordinated attack on a scathing report by Senate Democrats on the CIA’s predilection for torturing people it suspected of being terrorists in the years following the 9/11 attacks on lower Manhattan and Washington, D.C., Cheney declared, “I would do it again in a minute.”

Naturally, he denied that what American intelligence officials were authorized to do to its detainees and prisoners constituted anything like torture, a claim that is almost as risible as his own definition: “Torture is what the al-Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation techniques.”

There they are again, three of the ugliest weasel words of the modern age: enhanced interrogation techniques. The intelligence community, ever up for a twisted joke, actually slaps an acronym on them (EITs) as if to further distance the practices to which they refer from what regular folks generally understand to be torture

According to information contained in a 2005 Justice Department memo, obtained by The Associated Press last week, “EITs” included: abdominal slaps, attention grasps, cramped confinement, dietary manipulation, facial holds, facial slaps, insult slaps, forced nudity, stress positions, sleep deprivation, wall standing, wall slamming, water dousing and, of course, everybody’s favorite, waterboarding.”

None of which gave Cheney pause to reflect when he was in office; it still doesn’t.

During one news program on which he appeared, he seemed genuinely unfazed by a section of the Senate report which described the mistaken identity of a man who subsequently died at the hands of his interrogators:

“The problem I had is with the folks that we did release that end(ed) up back on the battlefield,” he said.

When pressed about findings indicating that as many as 25 per cent of those who were detained were innocent, he said, “I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent. . .I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective. And our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States.”

And how did that work out for him?

According to the current director of the CIA, EITs didn’t actually get the job done as Cheney and his pals like to claim. At a press conference convened at the Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, last week, John Brennan stated: “Our reviews indicate that the detention and interrogation program produced useful intelligence that helped the United States thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives.”

“But,” he said (and it’s a mighty big but), “let me be  clear. . .We have not concluded that it was the use of EITs within that program that allowed us to obtain useful information from detainees.”

In other words, “the cause-and-effect relationship between the use of EITs and useful information subsequently provided by the detainees is, in my view, unknowable.”

In fact, The Stars and Stripes’ Jon Harper reported this week “More than a decade (ago). . .the U.S. military’s top lawyers were warning that ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were legally questionable, likely ineffectual and could expose American troops to criminal prosecution and torture at the hands of their own captors,”

So, then, the CIA’s EITs quite probably violated several specific human rights and, what’s more, they didn’t work.

Would it, I wonder, torture the world’s news media to turn their collective back the next time Dick Cheney comes running for an interview?

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Out of the mouths of babes as the wrecking ball swings

It is, perhaps, only natural to expect a fundamentally good economic-development idea in this province to fall prey to petty, partisan politics, posturing and breathtakingly vast buckets of bovine effluent.

Still, that doesn’t excuse the jaw-dropping imbecility that both the Grit-dominated Government of New Brunswick and the Tory-ruled Government of Canada seem determined to manufacture in their respective (and predictably doomed) efforts to win friends and influence people over yet another municipal turf war.

In this instance, the turf in question is a demolition zone where a mall once stood, and where a downtown, mixed-use sports and entertainment facility may one day occupy (if, course, our pols manage to get out of the way of their own wrecking balls to consensus).   

As it happens, I live not five minutes from the proposed site in Moncton’s west end; and as much fun as it is to show my grandkids how “Bob the Builder” likes razing the old almost as much as he enjoys raising the new, it’s a trial to explain to my IQ-enhanced three and five-year-old compatriots why the Hub City might not actually see a new, galvanizing civic centre in their good, old Poppy’s lifetime.


Well, you see, boys, we have a member of parliament who likes to issue statements that sound suspiciously disingenuous from time to time: Why, of course, we’re all for a new downtown events centre. Why, you must know, this has been a singular preoccupation of mine and the Government of Canada’s,  for. . .oh. . .you know. . .forever, it seems. It’s just that we’ve been waiting for our friends in the New Brunswick government to get on board.

On the other hand, fellows, we have a new premier of the province who seems to have been asleep over the past year whilst in opposition, when all of the forward economic forecasting, cost analyses and return-on-investment calculations definitively stated that if such a facility were to be built in Moncton’s downtown, it would generate more than $12 million for the feds and $7 million for the province in sales tax on construction outlays, even before the blessed facility’s doors open for regular business.

Still, Premier Gallant is on record, saying: “We’re not simply going to continue a project because expectations were given by the previous government for the wrong reasons.”

To which Mr. Goguen has replied (recently, to the CBC), “The province has to sign in on this, so if they don’t put their share in, we don’t put our share in.” Quoting from the public broadcaster’s report last week, the minister added that “the only thing standing in the way of federal funding is for the provincial government to agree to pay its share of. . .six infrastructure projects (road, water and sewer). ‘So, yes, they (the projects) have been identified, they have been submitted, we studied them and we’re to the point where we’re waiting for the sign-off from the province.”

Meanwhile, the only progressive moves appear to involve the steady dismantling of the old Highfield Square property and adjacent structures, which is, of course, both necessary and to, certain young acquaintances of mine, absolutely awesome.

“Can we go in there?”


“How much longer will it take?”

No idea.

“Is it going to stay empty like that, or will they make a big snow fort in the winter?

Probably and probably not, in that order.

“So, then, why don’t they build something? Like a building or something.”

Good question, I muse. Hey, I venture, maybe you two should become Premier of New Brunswick or even Prime Minister of Canada some day. That way, you can make sure things get done for the benefit of an entire community, and not just a couple of narrow, vote-getting interests. You know what I mean?

A quick pause ensues as I toss one over my shoulder and grab the other one, sack-of-potatoes-like, at my hip, and head off to Grandma’s house, where sausages and maple syrup await the hungry inquisitors.

“What’s Premier of New Brunswick, Pops?”

“Yeah, Pops,” the spud bag joins in, “What’s Prime Minister of Canada?”

Exactly, men, exactly.

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Belly-button-peering boomers don’t worry, be happy

Who says I'm not happy?

Who says I’m not happy?

As the days trundle by like rocks, gathering speed, rolling down a hill, my thoughts frequently turn inward; and from such reverie a question inevitably arises: Am I happy?

I don’t mean contented or merely satisfied with my lot – my spiffy, little car that still drives, after three years, the way my bank balance hoped it would; my fine ramshackle of a house in Moncton’s gracious Old West End whose basement doesn’t always begin leaking at the merest mention of rain; my cellar stocked with holiday wine and spirits, including a not-quite sufficient supply of New Brunswick-distilled Gin Thuya, the undisputed ambrosia of all such heady elixirs.

By these standards, I would have to conclude that, yes, I am, indeed, happy (especially on Friday and Saturday nights when I’m likely to be found vigorously explaining to one or more hapless family members why James Bond was utterly correct: A martini must be shaken, not stirred).

But these aren’t the benchmarks of bliss an extensive exercise in mid-life naval-gazing in the December issue of The Atlantic magazine deems authentic.

Happiness, writes contributing editor Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, is not about stuff or loot or even the absence of serious injury and life-threatening infirmity. It’s about something called the “U-curve” and for many, if not everyone, it is as inescapable as aging, itself.

In fact, that’s kind of the point.

“In the 1970s, an economist named Richard Easterlin, then at the University of Pennsylvania, learned of surveys gauging people’s happiness in countries around the world,” Mr. Rauch reports. “Intrigued, he set about amassing and analyzing the data, in the process discovering what came to be known as the Easterlin paradox: beyond a certain point, countries don’t get happier as they get richer.”

Flash forward 20 years or so and, “happiness economics” re-emerges. “This time a cluster of labor economists, among them David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, got interested in the relationship between work and happiness,” Mr. Rauch explains. “That led them to international surveys of life satisfaction and the discovery, quite unexpected, of a recurrent pattern in countries around the world.”

“‘Whatever sets of data you looked at,’ Blanchflower told me in a recent interview, ‘you got the same things’: life satisfaction would decline with age for the first couple of decades of adulthood, bottom out somewhere in the 40s or early 50s, and then, until the very last years, increase with age, often (though not always) reaching a higher level than in young adulthood. The pattern came to be known as the happiness U-curve. . .which emerges in answers to survey questions that measure satisfaction with life as a whole, not mood from moment to moment.”

All of which suggests that human evolution favors the cheerful – or, at least, those who enjoy enough time, leisure, money and job security to ask an existential question or two and, in Mr. Rauch’s case, get paid for running a few answers up the experiential flagpole.

Notably absent from this particular investigation, of course, is any shred of anecdotal evidence from people who might evince real and just cause to feel thoroughly horrible about their lives. Mr. Rauch (who is 54) interviewed people whose mien – baby-boomerish, affluent, employed. . .whiny – resembles his own.   

How happy, one wonders, will the victims of the Central Intelligence Agency’s systematic water-boardings, “rectal feedings”, beatings, and sleep-depriving isolation sessions find themselves as they cross into their 50s and 60s, a period when the “research” says they should start feeling perfectly marvelous about themselves?

How beatific is U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, these days? Her report – the first of its kind from any chamber of American government – outlines in devastating detail the horrific crimes against basic decency CIA perpetrated against its prisoners in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Said Senator Feinstein: “History will judge us by our commitment to a just society government by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again.’”

Am I happy?

Let’s just say that life could be worse, as it evidently is for the millions who haven’t had the pleasure of pondering their own navels at the behest of the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine.

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On the Internet, what’s old is new again




Once upon a time in the cybersphere, I awoke many mornings to tidings from a Nigerian prince in dire need of my inestimable services as a funnel for his improbable wealth. “Dear sir,” the missive would begin, “I write to you today concerning a large sum of money. . .”

That booty was his and I stood to earn a big chunk of it the moment I forked over my personal banking information. 

It was, of course a scam, and, interestingly enough, not an especially novel one.      

Says one Lauren O’Neil writing in “Your Community Blog” on the CBC News website in 2013: “Also known as a ‘4-1-9‘ or ‘Advance Fee Fraud’ scheme, according to, millions of these emails are sent each year by spambots. So many people receive them, in fact, that the concept of the ‘Nigerian prince’ has itself become an internet meme.”

Ms. O’Neil consults for this fulsome explanation: “This style of scam has been recorded as early as in the 19th century with a confidence trick known as The Spanish Prisoner, but the modern Nigerian 419 scheme began as a postal scam during the corrupt years of the Second Nigerian Republic between the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

“During this time, numerous variations of the scheme were discovered for the first time, many of which claimed to have been written by wealthy members of the royal family, businessmen or government officials soliciting for personal financial information such as bank account numbers.”

Still, I have often wondered why, if the fraud is so transparently obvious and ancient, those behind it even bother. Then, the other day, I came across the following “comment” in my own blog site’s spam folder:

“I see a lot of interesting content on your page. You have to spend a lot of time writing. I know how to save you a lot of work. There is a tool that creates unique, Google- friendly articles in couple of seconds. Just search in Google: k2 unlimited content.”

Intrigued, I followed the link and promptly entered the domain of “article spinning, text rewriting” and “content creation”.

To say that I was gob-smacked is only to say that I am an old fogey who doesn’t get around much in the truly hip neighborhoods of the webbed world of wonder. But apparently and increasingly much of what we read and imagine to be original word-smithing on the Internet is nearly as old as a 200-year-old Spanish-prisoner-cum-Nigerian-prince grift.

Here’s what helpfully informs:

“You don’t have to lose many hours writing content on your blog, you can rewrite articles from other sites and pass copyscape test.”

For those readers who, like me, are broadly unfamiliar with most online tools, copyscape is a plagiarism detector. By using’s promoted product, WordAi, “Google will love your new unique articles.”

As the good folks at WordAi, itself, declare, “Unlike other spinners, WordAi fully understands what each word content means. It doesn’t view sentences as just a list of words, it views them as real things that interact with each other. This human like understanding allows WordAi to automatically rewrite entire sentences from scratch. This high level of rewriting ensures that Google and Copyscape can’t detect your content while still remaining human readable!”

The website even provides an example of the software in action.

“Original sentence: Nobody has been arrested by the police officers, but the suspect is being interrogated by them. Automatic Rewrite: Law enforcement are interrogating the defendant, although they have not detained anybody.”

What’s more, says another service, Spinbot: “For you blog users, the newly added ‘Post Spun Text to WordPress or Blogger’ feature will save you from having to take the additional steps of copying and pasting your spun content into a separate (authenticated) web browser tab/window. You can now post whatever rewritten article you have created directly to your WordPress or Blogger blog from the same page you used to rewrite the article.”

Hey presto! Something for nothing over and over again. 

All of which, I suspect, explains why so much Internet content – apart from that which resides safely behind pay walls and the equivalent – is so numbingly familiar. Does this apply do various iterations of Nigerian princes?

Who knows, but here’s what just popped into my inbox:

“Dear Madam, I communicate with you on this fine morning regarding a fortune with which I would like to make you acquainted.”

Where have I heard that before?


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A year in the life of a Hog Town mayor



For reasons known only to the furies, each time I travel to Toronto, I bring with me atrocious luck for its hapless, erstwhile chief magistrate.

To be honest, I had no inkling I had such compelling cosmic connections. But the evidence is now irrefutable.

First, last spring, I deplaned into a waiting limo at Pearson airport, there to tuck into copies of the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail dutifully reporting sorry, scandalous allegations about Rob Ford’s extracurricular activities involving known drug dealers, a crack pipe and cell phone video clip.

“Absolutely not true,” the wounded mayor bellowed when scrummed by members of the media. “It’s ridiculous. It’s another Toronto Star whatever. . .I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I addicted to crack cocaine. As for a video, I cannot comment on a video that I have never seen or does not exist. It is most unfortunate, very unfortunate, that my colleagues and the great people of this city have been exposed to the fact that I have been judged by the media without evidence.”

In August, I was back and so was Mr. Ford in Hog Town’s increasingly funny papers. Having raised a ruckus in the city’s east end, the visibly inebriated public official  later insisted on his radio call-in show: “I drove myself down there, I was not drinking. I went out, had a few beers and I did not drive home. My people met me.”

Some after that, however, he admitted that what had occurred “was pure stupidity I shouldn’t have got hammered down at the Danforth. If you’re going to have a couple drinks you stay home, and that’s it. You don’t make a public spectacle of yourself.”

Summer faded as Mr. Ford’s troubles escalated, and by my November trip to TO, the mayor was sullenly singing a different tune. 

“I am not perfect,” he said. “I have made mistakes. I have made mistakes, and all I can do right now is apologize for the mistakes. . .Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine. But, no – do I? Am I an addict? No. Have I tried it? Um, probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago.”

Now, courtesy of a Globe and Mail “exclusive” last Thursday (just in time for my first visit with my second Toronto grandkiddy), we are proud to witness this:  

“A second video of. . .Rob Ford smoking what has been described as crack cocaine by a self-professed drug dealer was secretly filmed in his sister’s basement early Saturday morning. The clip, which was viewed by two Globe and Mail reporters , shows Mr. Ford taking a drag from a long copper-coloured pipe, exhaling a cloud of smoke and then frantically shaking his right hand.”

On Friday, shortly before midnight, the frequently dazed and confused mayor issued the following statement:

“Tonight, I want to take some time to speak from my heart to the people of Toronto.  It’s not easy to be vulnerable, and this is one of the most difficult times in my life. I have a problem with alcohol and the choices I have made while under the influence. I have struggled with this for some time. Today, after taking some time to think about my own well-being, how to best serve the people of Toronto and what is in the best interests of my family, I have decided to take a leave from campaigning and from my duties as mayor to seek immediate help.”

Of course, had he faced his responsibilities earlier, he might have saved the city and the people he claims he loves a whole lot of embarrassment and heartache. I doubt that a “leave of absence” to clean himself up will do much to restore confidence in Toronto’s municipal culture or civic leadership, both of which Mr. Ford and his cadre of “loyalists” have thoroughly fouled in recent months.

Through it all, it’s impossible to dismiss the conviction that Mr. Ford still doesn’t get it. He still thinks, at some infantile level, that the world is out to get him – that he is not the author of his own misfortunes.

When a man proves that he can’t run his own life, it’s tragic. 

When that man also happens to be the mayor of one of North America’s largest cities, it’s actually terrifying.



A tale of two urban legends



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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And now for something completely different: good news for New Brunswick. . .sort of



New Brunswick may be drowning in debt. In fact, practitioners of the wooly science of fiscal forensics may have already pronounced this province dead on arrival. But don’t we just do a bang-up job reporting our woes to the rest of the world?

The C.D. Howe Institute says we deserve a little praise for a change. Specifically, Colin Busby of The C.D. Howe Institute tells the Saint John Telegraph-Journal that, according to his annual study on government spending overruns in Canada (also known as “The Pinocchio Report”), this province does “reasonably well” predicting its financial condition. We are, in a phrase, “middle of the road”, which is better than road kill, I suppose.

What’s more, we’re brutally honest with ourselves and the rest of the country about the hobo clothes we’re forced to wear. “New Brunswick is one of the jurisdictions where you can clearly find comparable numbers,” Mr. Busby says. “You simply find what the budget promises were and then find the numbers in the public accounts and compare them. That’s a positive story for New Brunswick.”

Still, he adds, “When it comes to spending overruns and the ability to hit budget targets, either overshooting or undershooting (New Brunswick) is not in the range of Ontario and the federal government who have done a significantly better job in terms of holding to what they promised in their spring budgets.”

Here’s how the numbers shake out: Over the past 10 years, cumulative overruns, expressed as fractions of 2013/14 budgeted spending, were highest in Saskatchewan (36 per cent), Alberta (26 per cent) and Manitoba (22 per cent), lowest in Canada, overall (one per cent), Ontario (five per cent) and Nova Scotia (seven per cent).

New Brunswick overspent by $1.2 billion over the past decade, which is bad. On the other hand, averaged out over the period, we came in less than 15 per cent off our annual targeted goals, which is good. Sort of.

For a finance minister, there is, I’m guessing, a certain comfort in knowing, with any degree of accuracy, just how badly off your jurisdiction is in the scheme of things. It’s a little like being sentenced to an indeterminate jail term. At least you know you have a cot; let’s just hope your bunk buddies in the bond market aren’t complete psychos.

But, in the larger context, how instructive or useful are these sort of statistical parlour games?

That New Brunswick manages to “present well” is vastly less important than its moribund economy, the structural instability of which makes accurate budget forecasting a near impossibility (a fact which suggests that the province’s reasonably fair reporting record is more a function of good luck than good prognostication).

Meanwhile, the Conference Board of Canada forecasts continued stormy economic weather for the province. “Prospects for New Brunswick’s economy will remain dim for at least one more year,” it said in its revised winter outlook earlier this month. “Cuts in the potash industry, and the closing of the Maple Leaf Food plant in Moncton, will limit economic growth to 0.8 per cent in 2014.”

How will this affect the next round of budget promises?

An even more intriguing question is whether a fully functioning shale gas industry, which should make us all filthy rich, will also make our elected officials filthy liars, though through no fault of their own.

The C.D. Howe Report notes the paradox common to provinces rich in natural resources: Their budgets are even farther from target than are those of patently poor provinces, such as New Brunswick. Economic instability, it seems, cuts both ways.

“Jurisdictions that are more dependent on natural resources showed sizable positive revenue biases: Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and labrador and Alberta all had biases of eight to 10 per cent,” the Institute noted. The natural-resource dependent jurisdictions that more affected by commodity-price swings also had low accuracy scores.”

So, then, the more money a jurisdiction has sloshing around in oil and gas wells, the less veracious are its budget forecasts.

What a delicious irony.

Still, if I had to choose, I’d rather the province I call home be recognized for the power of its industry, than the accuracy of its numbers-crunchers.

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The roiling tale of two imaginary pipelines


In one hand, New Brunswick grips the key to its putative economic salvation; a pipeline spanning the better part of the second-largest landmass on the planet, from the oil fields and tar sands of Alberta right into little, old, plucky Saint John where the Irving refinery awaits, with bated breath, another profitable lease on life.

In the other, the picture-perfect province loosens it grip on everything its forebears allegedly designed (a healthy, self-sufficient, environmentally pristine part of the world) in the backwash of a curtailed and stolen future; a pipeline that would foul the ground, incinerate communities and spoil the water; a horrible industrial project that would return fleeting boons to short-term-thinking politicians, their confederates in commerce and not much else.

It’s odd how deliberately these opposing views manage to express themselves in New Brunswick’s print and broadcast media – as if never the twain shall meet, as if we, the sidelined majority, have nothing useful to lend to the debate over the province’s energy providence except, of course, our taxes and (sigh) our ears.

“Putative” and “alleged” are good words to describe the cases for and against a pipeline that does not, in fact, yet exist.

There are, of course, several ways to build a permanent way into a community. None of these, however, should have anything to do with terrorizing the citizenry or fictionalizing the landscape.

When Colleen Mitchell, president of Atlantica Centre for Energy, boosts on the front page of the Saint John Telegraph-Journal the benefits of an East Coast pipeline (without, I will note, a word of reasonable rebuttal), her kite flew so low, her hot air claimed its tail. She both terrorized the citizenry and fictionalized the landscape.

Here she is on her extraordinarily well-written rant:

“Five years (after the Great Recession of 2008) the gap between Atlantic Canada and the rest of Canada remains significant. . .The development of key oil and gas projects have the potential to reverse these economic trends. . .This project (TransCanada’s East Energy pipeline) is of such significance that if it proceeds to completion it will have a profound impact on the Atlantic region”

So profound, she says, it could amount to $35.3-billion in new gross domestic product across the country. So profound, she says, it could result in $266 million in new taxes to New Brunswick (during pipefitting) and maybe as much as $500 million after that. Moreover, she claimed with the sort of authority only an insider gets (and, trust me, she’s no insider), Irving Oil might just well spend upwards of $2 billion upgrading its coking and refining facilities in Saint John.

Oh, really?

This is irresponsible, unverified piffle; its feedstock derives directly from industry, itself. There is no way to credibly measure the merits of her assessments, just as there is no way to calibrate the real value of what she parrots are vast reserves of trapped shale gas in New Brunswick sedimentary rock. Why? Because industry, itself, is still reckoning the commercial viability of the resource. And, frankly, they’re not talking (which, in and of itself, should tell us something).

Still, she’s not the only partisan in the arena. Bid a welcome to the died-in-the-wool naysayers, who would rather buy their hemp oil from The Body Shop than see any of the dirty, necessary stuff that fuels their spectacularly energy-efficient homes spoil their golf-course-sized and well-fertilized lawns and gardens splendidly attended by certified “green” landscapers.

TransCanada Corp. has run afoul of four of nine National Energy Board regulations regarding its proper care and feeding of pipelines. This motivates New Brunswick Green Party honcho David Coon to theorize that “anything that suggests an increased risk of leaks will make everyone nervous.”

Furthermore, he postulates, “Since Stephen Harper has been prime minister, his orientation has been to ensure the National Energy Board is greasing the wheels of pipeline construction, not slowing it down because of things like safety and environmental impact.”

In other words, he seems to be saying, since the National Energy Board is, ipso facto, already compromised by the Conservative agenda, we must assume that its recent “harsh” judgement of TransCanada Corp. actually amounts  kid gloves’ treatment.

Again, so much for empirical evidence.

In one hand, the conspiracy theorists taketh away.

In the other, the apologists giveth back.

And, finally, no hands actually come together.

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It’s time to stop thinking magically about the future


Those of us who are well-established in our irascibility – a function of our sullen conviction that most people are thoroughgoing nincompoops – approach the dawn of a new year experiencing an odd mixture of dread and resignation.

Didn’t we just come off the tail-end of one of the stupidest 12-month periods in recent Canadian history? Why must we do this all over again? Do we really expect to get it right this time when getting it wrong is what we do best?

Of course, part of getting it wrong – maybe the most important part – is making darn sure that otherwise eminently solvable problems become utterly intractable and, so, eternally, nauseatingly durable.

Consider, in this context, shale gas.

There might be 70 trillion cubic feet of the stuff trapped in sedimentary rock beneath the surface of New Brunswick. Presently, a handful of companies pursue exploration leases to determine whether any of the resource is commercially exploitable. If any of it is, then a new industry dedicated to its extraction and export could create hundreds of jobs and replenish provincial government coffers with royalty revenues.

Meanwhile, cognizant of the potential environmental hazards associated with drilling operations, the Government of New Brunswick has released not one, but three sets of guidelines to govern industry practices. Premier David Alward calls these rules “the toughest and most comprehensive in North America.” He’s not wrong.

All things being equal, then, one should expect a broad level of public support for the investigative phase of this resource’s development. After all, no one’s building a strip mine or digging a quarry, many of which exist in New Brunswick, posing far more of an existential threat to potable water and uncontaminated soil than do shale gas wells.

But lest John Q. Public becomes confused, he must always ignore the facts. Now, the only images tight plays of petroleum conjure in the minds of the majority are those of angry, rural locals (and their urban, politically correct confederates) who are convinced that democratically elected governments cannot be trusted to regulate industry responsibly.

Somehow, placards, barricades and protest lines do a far better job than does the law of holding accountable those dirty, rapacious drilling operations.

Equally absurd, and no less irksome, is the notion, gaining widespread currency in the mainstream of the population, that New Brunswick should abandon all efforts to develop any of its natural resources – non-renewable and otherwise.

The argument against harvesting and processing fossil fuels is already familiar and, though not actually practical, not without some merit. But many of those who decry pipelines for Alberta bitumen into Saint John’s refinery also condemn wind turbines, which pollute nothing, contribute no green house gases to global warming, as they add 500 megawatts of electricity to the province’s power grid each year.

With evidence that is almost diaphanous, opponents of “big wind” claim that proximity to the rotating blades produces everything from migraines to vertigo to brain tumors. Besides, they whine, they’re ugly.

Such was the condition of New Brunswick’s polity in the year that was. Such, we may reasonably fear, will be its condition in the year ahead, solely because, in this province, a lack of intellectual firepower is matched only by a catastrophic failure of the collective imagination.

Increasingly, far too many of us cannot conceive of a day when we will witness the economic engines and commercial levers freeze for good. It’s never happened before. We’ve always managed to pull through, demanding and pretty much getting everything we’ve asked our politicians to deliver.

The corollary effect, of course, is that we get politicians who will only pander to our misguided, uninformed expectations.

But the day of reckoning is nearly upon us. A province of 750,000 people, sporting a structural deficit of $500 million on a long-term debt of $11 billion – a province that is shedding people and jobs faster than any other in Canada – cannot afford to engage in magical thinking about its future.

Should this realization eventually dawn on New Brunswick, version 2014, I’ll gladly apologize to all those of my fellow citizens who once apprenticed in this sullen, self-satisfied land as nincompoops.

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