Wednesday Night #1484

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A very celebratory night with some long-time absentees and some very welcome new faces. Among the former, Robert Landori who presented his latest spy/political thriller (book) “Havana Harvest“, to be in Canadian book stores on September 1. It sounds wonderful. Adding to the paprika flavor was Tony Deutsch on a quick visit from his beloved Canoe Lake. Among the new and very welcome: Jeannette Whitton, and Marc’s LCC classmate and friend, Jonathan Levinson and his wife Josée-Désirée Corbeil.

The economy
As we emerge from the inevitable man-made economic disaster, many tend to be negative, looking for any evidence of a “double-dip,” viewing the current recovery as a mirage leading to tougher times ahead. Just as world influence shifted from Britain to the U.S., Wednesday Night mavens recognize the current shift to include Asia; that China cannot forever continue to control the value of world currencies by controlling the value of the yuan. With U.S. policies no longer the sole determinant of the direction of world economy, China’s monetary control tends to be an inhibiting factor in economic growth by hindering free trade. Chinese workers no longer accept the working conditions and ways that they used to; consumerism is increasing rapidly. We will see a gradual levelling out with Chinese buying more goods from America.

In general, however, people are negative. Contrary to the forecast, the market has done well since March 2009 followed by a rest in the market which will inevitably be followed by an upturn. An anticipated decline is expected in November heralding a great new buying opportunity. Reflecting the allegory of the blind men and the elephant, Economists tend to be at odds with Technical Analysts, the latter, especially in view of today’s low interest rates, see a great deal of currently unproductive money that will inevitably find its way into the markets. Journalists, who generally take their cues from Economists, tend to see continuing market woes. Although fears of deflation seem unfounded to Wednesday Night analysts, structural unemployment remains a definite possibility.

Enormous consumption-oriented debt, largely arising from extremely low interest rates, has driven the economy since 2000. It would appear that central banks have been attempting the impossible task in today’s world of rejuvenating the economy. It is worthy of note that despite constantly rising cost, petroleum remains relatively inexpensive. Once it gets excessively costly, we will have no choice but to change the current model in favour of mass transportation, a move that would will stimulate the economy. Our present economy, in some ways reflects that of Japan and will continue to do so until we are forced into another paradigm. Our strong imports and weak exports exacerbate the problem. The U.S. cannot possibly grow its economy because free trade can no longer exist as long as China continues to manipulate its money quantity. As long as it continues to do so, trade with the West will remain unequal.

Although it is a very young country, having become independent almost exactly 45 years ago, the roots of Singapore’s strength today can be found in the extraordinary vision of one individual – Sir Stamford Raffles.
Today, Singapore, the fourth wealthiest country in the world, governed as a quasi-family business, is thriving (CBS reports that the Singapore Economy May Grow 15 Percent in 2010). Health care is superb, can be expensive, but there is insurance. There is no safety net by western standards – the family is the safety net and is expected to look after its own, a custom from which the West could learn. Strict rules governing many aspects of life and swift and painful punishment represent the price to pay for a thriving economy induced by a dedicated, although not democratically elected, government that plans virtually all aspects of life and business on a 25-year plan – with rules and long-term planning based on consensus and uninhibited by political motivation.

Carl Beigie wrote in the 1980s : People alive today are becoming so adamant about having their wants satisfied now that it takes a rare person to reflect, for more than a brief moment, on the needs of the yet unborn.  How he would have admired the government planners of Singapore!

The government has established a powerful investment fund in which all Singaporean employees and citizens are shareholders and from which they benefit. The fact that politicians are paid on a scale pegged to that of professionals and the punishment for corruption is massive, their honesty is virtually assured in achieving government goals.
Could the Singapore model be adopted in other countries? One former resident suggests that the strength of the system rests on the large population of relatively recent Chinese immigrants whose value system is described as Neo-Confucianism [Editor’s note: Although it appears to be about ten years old (undated as far as we could ascertain), Leninism, Asian Culture and Singapore expands on a number of the points discussed.] Another economist comments that Singapore’s location close to India and China has been a positive factor, particularly in recent years although there is the difficult balancing act required to maintain the relevance of a tiny nation state to the two economic giants of Asia.

Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim population, but a secular government, is enjoying a period of stability and 3% growth.

Meanwhile, the world is changing rapidly and we, in the West, probably because our politicians put more effort towards seducing the electors to re-elect them than they do in mid- and long-range planning, are not doing as well as we might. Differences between political parties in North America are more superficial than real. A source of concern is the slide in U.S. technological pre-eminence since the 1980s.

The Couchiching Annual Conference continues to be a bright star in the otherwise gloomy picture of inward-gazing, unimaginative, and rudderless society. This year’s was no exception. The over-arching theme – mentioned by almost all speakers – was the appalling spread between the very wealthy and the poor, which, if it continues, can only bring on social conflict. The keynote speaker, historian Margaret MacMillan, took her audience back to the Treaty of Westphalia (Wednesday Nighters will empathize) and spoke of the inability of any state today being able to act solely in its own interest without affecting events in our global society. Thus, the G8 has served its function and must be replaced by the G20 – at the least.
Sylvia Ostry, accepting the Couchiching Award for Public Policy Leadership, spoke of the differences between Canada and the United States, suggesting strongly that the two countries are diverging. She added that while Americans have all but lost their belief in government, Canadians still tend to continue to trust theirs. Among the global challenges that she identified, beyond the economic disparity mentioned by all, was the complete lack of visionary leadership in the West.

The predominant political issue in Canada remains the abolition of the mandatory long form census questionnaire. The unforeseen reaction of  a very broad range of Canadians to what had probably been seen as an issue of little importance, has apparently not even caused a dent in the Conservative Party’s determination to persevere in the face of the unforeseen vigor of opposing views, while successfully appealing to the base that distrusts government intervention at any and all levels, and does not perceive the connection of the census to so many aspects of the governance of the country. The census debate also serves as a useful distraction from other issues such as unemployment, immigration and refugee policy, infrastructure deficit.  The inability of the Liberal Party to capitalize on this issue – and others – is a source of some despair to supporters of the the Liberal Party, but it is suggested that there has been important work on a multitude of issues, all of which has been crowded out by minor issues.

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The Prologue

We have some VERY SPECIAL guests this Wednesday. Please join us for a mini family reunion, to meet and greet our son Marc and his wife Jean, who are arriving here for two weeks from Singapore via London (UK), and Diana’s daughter, (Professor) Jeannette Whitton, who is on her way back to Vancouver from a conference in Rhode Island.  We are delighted to be able to offer this/these ray(s) of sunshine amidst the gloomy news that has enveloped us over the past days.

The devastating floods in Pakistan, now affecting some 15 million people, and the seeming incompetence of the national authorities to deal with the disaster are of course dominant news – along with the prominent absence of President al-Zardari, who continues unapologetically on his tour of the UK – and concerns that the outcome may be yet another military coup. One Wednesday Nighter gives a personal view that illustrates far better than most news reports the nature of the problems with international relief.

Much of Pakistan’s rural economy is based on a complex system of barter agreements. In Swat, families in communities like Madyan would have a few weeks supply of corn flour or wheat flour that is made into one or two flatbreads per day supplemented with greens and tea.   The rains will prevent most families from using cooking fuel (dried animal dung and wood scavenged from forests and village trees).   Kerosene is expensive and requires a stove and money.  So even if food is being delivered there is no way for families to cook. This was one of the problems encountered in Afghan refugee camps run by the UNHCR (Pakistan).   Fuel sent to the camps as aid was sold on the black market.  Refugees received food that they couldn’t cook.  The images of sacks of flour and rice being distributed in the camps placated some, but others knew that it too would be sold on the black market by the refugees in order to buy food that they could eat.

Pakistan is not alone, China, Kashmir and, reportedly North Korea are all suffering Asia Flooding Plunges Millions Into Misery  Real concern focuses on food shortages Floods From Pakistan to North Korea Strain Aid as Global Food Costs Soar  and Russia’s drought and wildfires only add to them, as that country has seen 10 million hectares of arable land destroyed and the government has warned production this year will be lower than annual domestic demand at 70-75 million tonnes of grain.

The Economist mirrors an on-going Wednesday Night topic Is America facing an increase in structural unemployment?, and offers several informed analyses – excellent fodder for thought and follow-on to previous discussions.

We have somehow neglected President Obama’s Education Reform. It appears to have many good points and we certainly agree with his position that education is “the economic issue of our time”, linking America’s declining public schools with its struggles to remain competitive. In his recent speech to the National Urban League, he pointed out that America has been dropping steadily down the international league tables, particularly in mathematics and the sciences,  and made a coded plea for America’s teachers’ unions to comply with the controversial “Race to the Top” reforms he is pushing. Education is ‘economic issue’, says Obama Despite all the problems he and Arne Duncan are encountering in pushing the reform, we would only wish that there were a similar interest in debating education values in Canada – yes, we know it is a provincial responsibility and that is a very large part of our problem.

Good news in the U.S. – not much but …
Elena Kagan, despite some quite vile opposition has been confirmed as Supreme Court Justice.
The Gulf spill appears to have been successfully capped – but how many noticed that BP says it will seek a $9.9 billion tax write-off based on the $32 billion it expects to spend on Gulf oil spill cleanup and recovery. One US senator is already calling for hearings to prevent it. Really, who do they have advising them on PR?

We are happy to note that Conrad Black is back with a vengeance. NOT that he minced words while incarcerated, but he again has the wind in his sails and is on the attack Diluting our sovereignty, selling out our citizens – and in the National Post! Beware Mr. Harper. And the ever-loyal Terence Corcoran is in the unfamiliar role of critic: The new Prohibition – Under the guise of fighting ‘organized crime,’ Stephen Harper is escalating the bonkers American-style war on drugs, gambling and sex. Strong words from the Conservatives’ tame columnist. The census debate continues, but as Paul Wells suggests, there appears to be less and less hope that Mr. Harper will back down. And then, we had Friday’s announcement of the mini Cabinet shuffle with John Baird’s appointment as House Leader – in our opinion this does not bode well for civility in the House.

Any good news? Yes, kudos and applesauce to Margaret Lefebvre and her colleagues at the Couchiching Institute Annual Conference – once again, they have brought off an outstanding event with superb speakers, who, it seems were even polite to one another despite vast differences in their thinking and attitudes. Our Margaret must have been ‘tickled pink’ with Mr. Flaherty’s semi apology for the Income Trust débacle and we are looking forward to hearing more from her.  By all accounts Margaret MacMillan was the outstanding contributor with her opening keynote on innovation (a favorite WN topic), reviewing some 400 years of history to illustrate how humans have used crises – wars, pandemics and financial catastrophes – to innovate, create new institutions, invent previously unachievable drugs, machines, domestic policies and international rules to better the world.

This has triggered some ‘sidebar exchanges’ and a referral to Inventing Our Way Out of Joblessness which in turn gave rise to a discussion of Canada’s peculiar policy that does not allow professors to apply for funds to anticipate the need to pay for the protection of intellectual property.  Thus innovators must turn to the valorisation societies set up in Quebec specifically to fund IP protection.  However, there are often no qualified persons available to properly evaluate and know that actual value and intended use of the IP (invention). Without going into further detail, it is obvious that there is room for improvement.

On a related topic, the World Conference on Research Integrity recently took place in Singapore, where a set of principles and a voluntary code on research integrity, intended to serve as a “guide for professionally responsible research practices throughout the world”, were debated and will be published (Conference agrees global science ethics code)  in a few weeks as the ‘Singapore Statement on Research Integrity’. We look forward to hearing what our family may be able to tell us about the conference.[Update: Singapore Statement on Research Integrity]

Oh yes, another late Friday afternoon announcement – this time from CBC. Richard Stursberg has left his position as head of CBC’s English-language services. In our opinion this is a hopeful sign, as we believe many of the changes wrought by Mr. Stursberg and his accomplices were highly detrimental to both radio and television. And in the words of one comment on the CBC website “Can Peter sit down again?”

In closing, we call your attention to our Vancouver sibling’s 29th monthly meeting this Wednesday. As always, Alexandra and James have put together a tempting agenda and we may, if time permits, join them by addressing the plan offered publicly by the CMA ahead of their annual meeting  CMA issues five-pillar plan for health-care reform
In a new report entitled “Health Care Transformation in Canada: Change that Works, Care that Lasts,” the CMA says health-care reform is urgently needed if the system is to remain sustainable in the future.  (CBC) Help transform medicare, CMA tells Canadians


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