Wednesday Night #1245

RECESS IS OVER!
Greetings, salutations and obfuscations to all.
Trusting that, having duly enjoyed a period of jollity and merriment under tropic skies or in the not-so-frozen northern wastelands, you are now prepared to feast on a buffet of newsworthy events and prognostication of the economic, political and geopolitical variety.
For an hors d’oeuvre we offer treats from oriental cuisine: continuing liberalisation of the Chinese yuan along with conclusions of a recent report by UBS’s chief Asia economist Jonathan Anderson that :
“China’s state run firms are no more loss-making than their US-listed counterparts” and
“Chinese firms are not subsidised by China’s government or its state owned banks in any meaningful way” and revised economic growth figures for China that exceed previously published reports
We add a little sushi: The OECD forecasts Japanese economic growth will slow to 1.9 percent this year, from 2.2 in 2005. The China-Japan talks on energy resources in the Eastern China Seas stall, while the tug-of-war continues over which countries will become members of an expanded UN Security Council and Japan has opted out of the G-4 (Brazil, Germany & India) to hold bilateral talks with the U.S.
And where we would be without nan in the ongoing debates on the respective importance of India and China? For those who subscribe, we recommend the New York Times piece of December 15 that points out that:” As recent investments by Microsoft, Intel and Cisco Systems attest, corporate America has come to view India not just as a source of low-cost talent but also as an emerging economic power to be reckoned with.”

For our next course (fowl), dare we mention avian flu in Turkey (sorry! That is worthy of Peter Trent).
Savoring the stew: events south of the border (Abramoff, Alito, et.al.) seem destined to cause some severe cases of heartburn. And there’s always Cajun cuisine from New Orleans, spiced up with a development plan or two or three.
Austria has been tasked with reviving debate on the EU’s future after the rejection of the constitution by French and Dutch voters last year – diplomacy by sachertorte?
Digesting the indigestible: The Leaders Debate – did it change your mind, turn your stomach, or leave you in a profound state of torpor? Tony Deutsch reminds us that all these electoral promises may bear bitter fruit. He cites the recent story in the New York Times: “A 78-year-old Italian woman is suing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi because her pension has not been raised despite his pre-electoral pledge five years ago.”
For our pousse-café, we offer the headline for the New York Times: The World Isn’t Flat, but Its Yield Curve May Be, to which our inimitable Tony replies “I know as much about this as all others who read this stuff”.
Events in the Middle East defy our culinary metaphors and are not appropriate subjects for levity. We are appalled by the news item from Afghanistan concerning the man who was beheaded by the Taliban for educating girls and believe that this event serves to underline what Robert Galbraith has been trying to tell us all about the difficulties faced there by our Peacekeeping troops. The constant barrage of news of bombings and kidnappings in Iraq continues, and the struggle of Ariel Sharon for his life bodes ill for the future of any form of peace with Palestine. Equally, the situation in Africa, where millions are starving is hardly appropriate material for discussion of banquets of topics.
Finally: is anyone surprised by the news item today “Cellphones fray nerves, study finds” We wonder how much it cost to find out what everyone already knew?
Come help us choose the menu and enjoy a dégustation of topics.

The Report – Notes and photos

The Campaign (round II)
With the major part of Canada back in post-holiday mode, the federal campaign is heating up. Despite the Chairman’s unequivocal pronouncement on December 28 that “The Conservatives have as much chance of forming the next government as Nortel has of going back to $124”, the second round of debates has caused a shift in public opinion and there is now a strong possibility of a Conservative government; whether majority or minority is a matter of debate.
Had television been available at the time, would Franklin Delano Roosevelt have been elected President of the United States, or William Lyon McKenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada? In pre-T.V. days, would Robert Stanfield’s name have been added to those of that august group? Is it true, as it has been claimed that John Fitzgerald Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon largely by manipulating the background and his choice of clothing in their great television debate? In this era of prepackaged journalism, do we place more emphasis on appearance than we do on issues? It would appear that visual impression has been more important than political issues in the current federal election race. In contrast to his three opponents, Mr. Martin appears uncertain, serious, concerned, and loses support with each television appearance. One might then conclude that gut feeling, intuition and the herd influence hold more importance than issues in the mind of the voter. Rather than logic or the crystal ball, shifts in party loyalty in Québec appear to be an equally reliable predictor of outcome.
Does voter sentiment influence the polls or vice versa? The answer to that question is probably yes. It is true that the rules of probability apply quite accurately within the parameters of the questions asked, sample size and representativity. However, depending on the specific questions asked and possibly, the loyalty and/or sentiment of the entity commissioning or performing the polling function, questions may sometimes arise as to the influences of factors other than voters’ reactions to the words, deeds and promises of candidates.
As for the expansive promises made by candidates of both major parties, in the absence of major crises, the growth of the economy and foreseeable surpluses for the next five years should be able to handle them in the event that those promises are uncharacteristically fulfilled. The only minor glitch is the probability that Bank of Canada will continue to tighten during the probable pause in the U.S. during the Greenspan/Bernanke interregnum.

Avian Influenza – pandemic or media exaggeration?
As for other suggestions that the media influence the news, some may tend to exaggerate the power of the press to convince. Currently at issue is the news of an impending pandemic, possibly a form of avian flu. Reuters environmental news (Planet Ark) reports that:
“The virus, while it is spreading and changing, still poses no immediate threat of a pandemic, but experts stress it could do so at any time. They say it is vital to prepare emergency response teams, stockpile what drugs there are and build up surveillance networks to detect new outbreaks.”
The H5N1 virus has been found in wild birds and poultry across large parts of Turkey, particularly in poor villages stretching from Istanbul to the Iranian and Iraqi borders. It has killed three children in Turkey and the WHO says a total of 18 people have been infected. All had close contact with sick chickens. Globally H5N1 has infected 147 people and killed 78 of them, according to the latest official WHO tally.
It is always wise to prepare for emergencies, whether national or worldwide, natural or manmade. However, while there is no evidence of manufactured news on this topic, there are some who may have profited from the paranoia emanating from it, notably the media and the manufacturers and distributors of antiviral pharmaceuticals.

Greenhouse gasses
German scientists at the Max-Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics have discovered a new source of methane, a greenhouse gas that is second only to carbon dioxide in its impact on climate change. The culprits are plants – from grasses to trees. The scientists measured the amount of methane released by plants in controlled experiments. They found it increases with rising temperatures and exposure to sunlight.
Plants have long been known to act as a greenhouse gas “sink,” absorbing and removing carbon dioxide – the most abundant greenhouse gas – from the atmosphere. However, scientists point out that plants will continue to have a positive net effect – the benefits gained by carbon dioxide uptake will only be slightly lessened by their methane output. Also, “people should keep in mind that vegetation is important for other things, including oxygen production. It’s still a good idea to plant trees.” The major environmental problem is still carbon dioxide.
Cattle, which form a great part of Western diets, produce far more methane than do trees, as well as carbon dioxide. Part of the solution might be for Westerners to adopt a diet more like that of Asians, but perhaps there too, the resulting increased longevity might have a deleterious effect on the planet. There are some skeptics, too, who question who could possibly benefit from the report. As long as the world’s inhabitants see the planet as an integrated system and continue to tinker with its subsystems, an integrated, hence effective solution will remain undiscovered.

Public policy debate
Public policy debate in Canada leaves much to be desired. Unlike the U.S., Canadian Parliamentarians have no budget, no staff and so the debate is carried on largely by non-governmental organizations and interested parties in the private and public sectors and in the media. In the United States, serious issues are debated in very serious ways at all levels, including Congress and congressional committees where more time is taken to understand issues and formulate policy.
Healthcare proposals
Jack Layton has uncharacteristically proposed not-for-profit private health care, while Paul Martin recommends a basically unchanged system with a waiting time guaranteed by mutual inter-provincial service and Stephen Harper would provide service anywhere available at federal expense while billing the province for services rendered.

[Editor’s note: The National Post summary of the party platforms is the most useful document we have found. The principal pledges on healthcare are summarised below.
LIBERAL: Has promised a health care guarantee for Canadians, and plans to spend $845-million in new money on items aimed at reducing waiting times and ensuring public health services. Those items include: increasing capacity at teaching hospitals; pay for a patient’s travel to another province to receive medical treatment not available at home; and add up to 1,000 new doctors. Also, a national cancer strategy aimed at conducting cutting-edge research. Has set up a committee with provinces to report on a national drug plan.
CONSERVATIVE PARTY OF CANADA: Pledges to work with provinces to develop a nation-wide guarantee on wait times, as envisaged by a Senate committee; honour the Canada Health Act; work to expand educational programs for doctors and nurses; and spend $260-million over five years to improve cancer screening and prevention.
NDP: Has vowed that no federal money could be used to cover the salaries or costs of doctors and any other medical personnel involved in a profit-making private insurance system. Would establish a fund, at $200-million a year, to address skills shortages, such as nurses. And it would introduce a $3-billion national prescription drug plan, to cover 50% of costs of drug costs of more than $1,500.]

The common cold, however, remains very much a non-insured service with many remedies old and new being offered, but the professionals state that their preferred preventative is non-medical and non-pharmaceutical, namely the wearing of a hat in cold weather.

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