Tag Archives: The New Yorker

Freaky. . .well, any day

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Canada, it goes without saying, follows the Unites States like a puppy unable to keep up with its mother. Politically, culturally and even economically, we’re always running at least ten paces behind the world’s acknowledged trendsetter.

A recent case in point comes courtesy of The New Yorker magazine. In his piece, “Prison Revolt”, Bill Keller writes, “Criminal-justice reformers like to say that if a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, a liberal is a conservative who has served time. . .These days, it is hard to ignore a rising conservative clamor to rehabilitate the criminal-justice system.

“Conservatives are as quick as liberals to note that the United States, a country with less than five per cent of the world’s population, houses nearly twenty-five per cent of the world’s prisoners. Some 2.2 million Americans are now incarcerated – about triple the number locked up in the 1980s, when, in a panic over drugs and urban crime, conservative legislators demanded tougher policies, and liberals who feared being portrayed as weak went along with them.   In this historical context, today, Mr. Keller points out, “African-Americans are nearly six times as likely as whites to be incarcerated, and Latinos are more than twice as likely. More than 40 per cent of released offenders return to prison within three years.”

The piece essentially chronicles the odd, even counter-intuitive, rise of social conscience among some the most bloody-minded hardliners in the United States and, essential, asks the question: What’s going on here?

As Mr. Keller writes, “Several Republican Presidential candidates – Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz – have been embraced by Right on Crime, a campaign to promote ‘successful, conservative solutions’ to the punitive excesses of American law and order. In February, the American Conservative Union’s Conservative Political Action Conference, which serves as an audition for right-wing Presidential aspirants, featured three panels on criminal-justice reform, including one called Prosecutors Gone Wild.”

Meanwhile, “Bernard Kerik, who was Rudolph Giuliani’s police commissioner and served three years in prison for tax fraud and other crimes, now promotes an agenda of reforms, including voting rights for ex-felons. The libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch are donating money to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, to help insure that indigent defendants get competent legal representation, and they are co-sponsoring conferences on judicial reform.”

What seems to be driving this progressive trend within this formerly regressive segment of American society is a number of factors, some of which are easy to understand. State prisons cost a lot to maintain; keeping people out of jail saves taxpayers money. Then again, there does seem to be a genuine interest in social utility. As Mr. Keller quotes one Republican figure, “It’s human dignity that really motivates us.”

Now, flash over to the Great White North, and what do we observe? This federal government is tearing pages from the Republican playbook and burning them on a pyre of law-and-order moralism that properly belongs to the Richard Nixon era.

Despite seeing rates of violent crime plummet to 40-year lows, Ottawa’s majority lawmakers prefer to throw more people in overcrowded prisons for increasingly feeble offences. They insist that Canada’s city streets are not safe even though such claims are demonstrably false. And, naturally, they castigate those who disagree with them, calling their critics sympathizers and colluders of and with the “evil-doers” in our midst.

All of which feels uncomfortably sophomoric in a nation that once lead the world in grown-up behaviour – especially now, as we must look to the United States for the latest trends in social maturity.

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When less means more, at least politically

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New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant has decided to chop his annual salary by 15 per cent this year. His fellow cabineteers – all 12 of them – have agreed (if that is the right word) to follow suit, each taking pay cuts of ten per cent.

Sure, these are symbolic gestures at a time when the province struggles with structurally high yearly deficits and a long-term debt of some $12 billion.

But what’s wrong with that?

No, these voluntary rollbacks won’t rescue New Brunswick from fiscal quicksand. And, no, they won’t put money back into the pockets of hard-working men and women who run businesses, struggle to make their payrolls and watch their limited financial resources fail to meet their own, and others’, expectations.

But, we have to start somewhere. And where better to begin more visibly than right at the top of the public sector, where ministers of the Crown hold the keys – in more ways than merely symbolic – to everyone’s safety deposit box?

Besides, when was the last time you witnessed a private-sector fat cat, having seen the communitarian light, announce that he (or she) will gladly undergo self-administered liposuction in order to protect at least the appearance of fairness and equity in his or her corner of the corporate steppe?

I didn’t think so.

On the other hand, it does happen, if rarely.

Writing in the February 9 edition of The New Yorker magazine, financial columnist James Surowiecki, reported, “It’s no secret that the years since the Great Recession have been hard on American workers. Though unemployment has finally dipped below six per cent, real wages for most have barely budged since 2007. Indeed, the whole century so far has been tough: wages haven’t grown much since 2000.

“So it was big news when, last month, Aetna’s C.E.O., Mark Bertolini, announced that the company’s lowest-paid workers would get a substantial raise – from twelve to sixteen dollars an hour, in some cases – as well as improved medical coverage.” Indeed, “Bertolini didn’t stop there. He said that it was not ‘fair’ for employees of a Fortune 50 company to be struggling to make ends meet. He explicitly linked the decision to the broader debate about inequality, mentioning that he had given copies of Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-first Century’ to all his top executives. ‘Companies are not just money-making machines,’ he told me last week. ‘For the good of the social order, these are the kinds of investments we should be willing to make.’”

So, perhaps, the better question is: When was the last time you heard a corporate fat cat talk like a progressive reformer?

The case of Mark Bertolini may only be the exception that proves the rule.

But, in the New Brunswick government’s case, they, too, seem to have figured out that a public gesture can go a long way – that they’d better be prepared to demonstrate a little personal austerity in the assemblies of decision-making before they start chopping frontline workers’ wages and salaries and raising taxes, as they most surely will.

Apart from anything else, it’s a move they can make without engendering a shred of controversy. (Take that Tory opposition). Fundamentally, though, it stands as a statement of principle – a guiding norm for the tough years ahead.

Sacrifice, it connotes, is no sacrifice at all as long as something durably good causally results: a healthier public balance sheet; a smarter, leaner, nimbler government sector and, by extension, civil service; a province, whose citizens, businesses and institutions are, for once, united in joint service to one another and not divided by the absurd venalities of intra-regional entitlements and juvenile, extraordinarily costly, preoccupations with local oneupmanship.

Governments rarely lead the way, point to the horizon. But when they do – and do it convincingly – their efforts can produce remarkable effects.

Their symbolic gestures, especially the good ones, tend to etch a path of memory in the popular imagination, where reality finally takes root.

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The incredible shrinking man mourns our dietary obsessions

Big and bigger cavemen rejoice

Big and bigger cavemen rejoice

If I were a caveman, living 30,000 years ago, I would, in all likelihood, resemble Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1970s and not Woody Allen in the 1970s. That’s because my caveman antecedent (and Arnold) ate meat, eggs, nuts, fruit and that’s about it; whereas Woody and I ate bagels.

I can’t speak for one of my favorite (if diminutive) filmmakers, but Elizabeth Kolbert can. She’s a staffer at the New Yorker magazine. She’s also a former Fulbright scholar and, recently, the author of “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History”.

So, I assume she knows what she’s talking about when she pronounces, as she does in a recent issue of her esteemed organ, “According to a study of human remains from China and Japan, the height of the average person declined by more than three inches during the millennia in which rice cultivation intensified. According to another study, of bones from Mesoamerica, women’s heights dropped by three inches and men’s by two inches as farming spread.”

Indeed, she writes, “A recent survey of more than twenty studies on this subject, published in the journal Economics and Human Biology, found that the adoption of agriculture ‘was observed to decrease stature in populations from across the entire globe,’ including in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and South America.”

And that’s not all: “Early farmers were not just shorter than hunter-gatherers; they were also more sickly. They had worse teeth – one analysis from the Near East suggests that the incidence of cavities jumped sixfold as people started relying on grain – and they suffered from increased rates of anemia and infectious disease. Many now familiar infections – measles, for instance – require high population densities to persist; thus, it wasn’t until people established towns and cities that such ‘crowd epidemic diseases’ could flourish. And, by living in close proximity to their equally crowded farm animals, early agriculturalists helped to bring into being a whole set of diseases that jumped from livestock to people.”

In fact, according to Ms. Kolbert and her expert authorities, it took thousands of years for humankind to recover its physical stature following the so-called Agricultural Revolution of the Neolithic Age.

To be clear, it took me only 27 months to get to a fighting, palaeolithic, trim weight of 150 pounds (waist size of 30 inches), from a relatively corpulent 180 pounds (waist size of. . .well, let’s just say, capable of eclipsing my view of my shoe tips). I did it by obsessively exercising daily and adjusting my diet and portion sizes.

As a result, my blood pressure is delightfully low (when, not too long ago, it was alarmingly high), my cholesterol is standing where it did when I was a callow youth of 17. I have more energy and enthusiasm for everything (which is fortunate, given that my beautiful daughters and their husbands have, in the past five years, given me four grandchildren).

I still stand only five-foot-nine and a bit on a good day (nothing I can do about that – thanks Agricultural Revolution!). But, generally, I feel pretty good for a man who’s about to matriculate into his 54th year.

But here’s the thing: The so-called paleo-diet fad has conquered the affluent corner of the western world, and to almost fascistic effect.

As Ms. Kolbert writes: “In promoting red meat and rejecting grains, the paleo diet challenges just about every precept that nutritionists have been pushing for the past fifty years. In effect, it turns the familiar food pyramid on its point. This is an increasingly common inversion, if not in academic circles or at the U.S. Department of Agriculture then on the talk-show circuit. In his wildly popular manifesto-cum-recipe book, ‘Grain Brain,’ David Perlmutter, a Naples, Florida, neurologist, maintains that sandwiches are not just hard on the digestive system; they wreak havoc on the mind. ‘Modern grains are silently destroying your brain,’ he writes. ‘Basically, I am calling what is arguably our most beloved dietary staple a terrorist group.’”

Is he joking? Does Woody Allen know about this?

Chill out, doc. The chances are that your inner caveman will appreciate the odd P-P-J on Wonder Bread, if only to prove that the species is just a tad more digestively adaptable than a young Arnold would allow.

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Praise be for our disruptive human tendencies

 

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For those of us who do not spend our every idle moment glued to LinkedIn or any number of other warehouses of business management trends, the phrase “disruptive innovation” makes about as much sense as particle physics. In fact, the former may be even more inscrutable than the latter.

So, here is a quick and easy definition, courtesy of Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who coined the term and wrote a book on the subject back in 1997: “Disruptive innovation takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing competitors.”

The idea is that “as companies tend to innovate faster than their customers’ needs evolve, most organizations eventually end up producing products or services that are actually too sophisticated, too expensive and too complicated for many in their market.”

Traditionally, this niche approach to marketing and technology development secures higher rates of return on investment and better, more sustained profits, because expert consumers will spend money on gear that they think will separate them from the herd. And herein lies the peril.

By focussing on these so-called “sustaining innovations” producers “unwittingly open the door to disruptive innovations at the bottom end of the market.” An innovation that is disruptive essentially upsets the apple cart by allowing “a whole new population of consumers at the bottom of the market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.”

Call it extinction by inattention. But whatever you call it, examples of disruptive technologies, processes and services are everywhere. 

Think about that smart phone in your pocket. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, it was a ludicrously larded device that, conventional wisdom insisted, would be forever relegated to the lifestyles of the rich and powerful. Now, thanks to some cheap and efficient applications in hardware and software, it’s as common and as pricey as a set of all-weather tires on a Nissan Versa.

New “disruptives” available in the near future will likely include: embedded sensors in that  smart phone you’re caressing that tell you whether you’ve brushed your teeth properly; wearable technologies that, among things, track your sleep patterns; and, naturally, driverless cars that eliminate the dangers of texting while cruising down the highway.

Not everyone thinks this stuff is all it’s cracked up to be. New Yorker writer and Harvard history professor Jill Lepore, in a brilliantly argued essay this month, suggests that Mr. Christensen essentially kites his data by finding facts that are not in evidence. Some of the biggest “disrupters”, she says, are the very firms the theory predicts will and do fail. 

Besides, she suggests, innovation is always inherently upsetting. Companies rise and fall just as easily according to the ephemeral rules of luck and timing. In this case, size and longevity do not necessarily matter. 

Frankly, I take comfort in both views, especially as they apply to southeastern New Brunswick and its acknowledged centre of enterprise, Metro Moncton.

Here, of course, disruption has been our cardinal métier since anyone can remember. 

Once, we were all about shipping and shipbuilding. Then we weren’t. Once, we were all about wholesaling and retailing. Then we weren’t. 

Now, we’re all about IT, multi-modal transportation, health care, and software development. 

Each bump along the road to sustained economic progress elevated disrupters and, in the process, changed our local economy mostly for the better. 

And not just our economy. 

The Petitcodiac River flowed freely for thousands of years before our forebears erected a causeway between Moncton and Riverview in 1968. We disrupted it. Then, a few years ago we disrupted it again by permanently opening the gates. Now, the river attracts surfers from California, desperate to ride the renewed tidal bore for 90 minutes at a go. Disruption? You bet, and thanks be for it. 

In the end, we engineer what we need. Disruption? Perchance, thy name is a multi-purpose, downtown events centre.

 

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