Wednesday Night #1341

14 November 2007

A few weeks ago, Tony Deutsch suggested as a topic the subject of the New York Times article “The Prize That Even Some Laureates Question“. It seems that a number of Nobel economics laureates take issue with the kind of work that has often been honored.
Complaints about prize winners generally fall into one of three categories: too ideological; too preoccupied with theory and mathematics; or too narrowly focused on problems facing Wall Street instead of on pressing global issues like inequality, poverty and the environment.
We would suggest that the economist who can unravel the catastrophic effects of the rise of the Loonie on Canada’s economy would be a worthy recipient next year. Even though the exchange rate came down considerably today, there still seem to be a lot of problems, although we liked the idea that the stronger Canadian dollar could bring doctors back from the U.S.
No doubt there will be voices raised to deplore other awards and honours in a variety of fields. We would even suggest that this week’s bemoaning of the loss of Norman Mailer‘s great talent is a touch over the top. The more one examines the body of his work , the more one might be justified in suggesting that he hardly belongs in the same ranks as the giants whose equal he claimed to be.
So, who should be given prizes, awards and honours?
It’s a fairly easy segue from awards and honours to appointments. Stephen Harper’s volte face with the announcement that he was appointing an independent and impartial third party to review the allegations made about Brian Mulroney and his dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber leads us to wonder who is the unfortunate who will be given this honour. (Pierre Marc, please do not answer your phone!)
It mustn’t be anyone connected to the Liberals, or for sure the exercise would be dubbed a witch hunt; on the other hand, a Conservative would be accused of a whitewash. We agree with Garth Turner who said that bringing in a third-party assessment is a [gamble] for both parties. He went on to analyze the possible effects of the law of unintended consequences. Although his opponents can no longer accuse him of protecting his former mentor, “If Mr. Harper is found to be at the centre of this, it will take away from high moral ground that came from the sponsorship scandal.” However, if the findings rule in favour of Mr. Mulroney, the Liberals would be embarrassed because they badgered for an inquiry. If an auditor found Mr. Mulroney’s conduct questionable, Mr. Turner argued, Mr. Harper could take credit for being a transparent leader; in turn Mr. Dion and his team would have to come up with an adversarial stance — one that might place them in the unlikely role of defending Mr. Mulroney.
As unfortunately Inspector Clouseau/Peter Sellers is no longer with us, we solicit your help in designing the ideal candidate’s profile, and your nominations and/or guesses as to who will be given the dubious honour. We hear Mr. Harper would like to name someone before Question Period tomorrow, so record your guesses and we’ll look at them on Wednesday.
As long as we are on the topic of more-or-less local politics, did you catch Alan Hustak’s piece Race for third term starts now, Tremblay says Now here’s another challenge for Wednesday Night: who should run against Mayor Tremblay? Who would be the ideal candidate and can he/she be recruited? Peter Trent, where are you?
There’s always an election to watch for somewhere. As the world concentrates on whether or not Pakistanis will be allowed to vote on January 9 , and the news tonight that the Commonwealth foreign ministers have given Pakistan 10 days to lift its emergency rule or face suspension , the BBC reports that in advance of the November 24 elections “Tens of thousands of people have staged protests across Australia calling on political parties to take stronger action against climate change.” It will be remembered that current PM John Howard is a staunch ally of George Bush on this issue. Less recognized is that Australia is one of the worst per capita polluters.
It would not be Wednesday Night these years without environment issues, so following on from Australia, we first call to your attention the environmental disaster in the Sea of Azov/Black Sea (Black Sea faces oil ‘catastrophe’). We should also draw attention to messages from Ron Meisels who has become a great supporter of Lawrence Solomon’s pieces in the Financial Post. The latest is “The alignment of the planets, and especially that of Jupiter and Saturn, control the climate on Earth“.
Doug Lightfoot has sent along a Times online piece by Professor David Bellamy in which he argues that the science of global warming has not been done properly. Douglas adds “Incidentally, ‘consensus’ is not science. In any science controversy, someone is right and someone is wrong. Science is based on verifiable facts.” Finally, in the BBC’s Green Room , John Feeley argues that “total resource use is the product of population size and per capita consumption. We have no chance of solving our environmental predicament without reducing both factors in the equation.”
Things are heating up in the U.S. election campaign as polls indicate Hillary’s lead is shrinking and Obama was the star speaker at Saturday night’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner
We guess that’s why Bill Clinton wasn’t here for the (Montreal) Millennium Summit last week. On the Republican side, did anyone miss Pat Robertson’s endorsement of Rudy Giuliani , which gives a whole new meaning to “with friends like …”
While still on the topic of U.S. elections, how many realize that the date of the New Hampshire primary has yet to be set because by law it must be the earliest one? For those who care to know more about the decision, there’s a nice piece on Bloomberg
We were delighted to hear Robert Galbraith speaking from Afghanistan on Beryl Wajsman’s excellent Remembrance Day radio programme (940 AM) Sunday evening. Robert spoke about his most recent article and his experiences covering the war. Although he could not disclose his whereabouts, it seems that he is somewhere in the northern part of Afghanistan; he says he is in a mud fort that is a couple of centuries old. Wherever he is, our thoughts and prayers are with him.
On a lighter note – and we always need a lighter note – Sabra Ledent has forwarded this link to a wonderfully creative “aid-raising” website . It’s an online game that benefits the World Food Programme (WFP); it’s a vocabulary challenge and not only helps to feed the hungry, but to make any player more literate. It’s addictive for anyone who loves words, fun and instructive play. We are curious about the database; will it expand? Will they make a new version for George Bush?
On that happy note, we hope you will find food for thought and join us this Wednesday to munch on some kernels of truth.

The Report

Public perceptions
It has been quite a while since humans in civilized countries have been thrown to the lions. In Europe, corruption and the allegation of corruption in government are taken as some of the risks of life, but here they bear some aspects of a blood sport. Any public figure who is accused of wrongdoing will be the subject of massive and often intemperate news coverage designed to maximize readership and advertising revenue, however the same publicity is never given subsequently if the accusations are proved false, and thus the presumption of guilt lives on in the mind of the public.
The alternative is not to have freedom of the press and that is unacceptable in civil society
Many North Americans believe Conrad Black to be guilty with no more basis than news stories and an innate belief that the success of others may very well be at least partly due to some lapse in morality. But it must be recognized that the law has changed. Businessmen in the past did many things that today are unacceptable in light of business ethics, shareholder rights and corporate governance.

Guilty until proven innocent?
Both supporters and detractors of amiable, articulate former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney have formulated an opinion of the man and his relationship with Karlheinz Schreiber. Upon returning to his private law practice following his stint in Parliament, it was normal for Mr. Mulroney (as is the case for many former prime ministers and presidents) to represent people dealing with the government and to accept retainers for his services. Certainly his experience in office enabled him to be a credible adviser. That he may have accepted the money in cash should not have been an issue, nor should the current Prime Minister’s waffling on setting up an Inquiry. But the question remains, if innocent, why did Mr. Mulroney not explain at the outset what the retainer was for?
Despite widely varied opinions on all related matters, Wednesday Nighters agree that David Johnston, who will set the terms and conditions for the Inquiry, is an excellent choice. [It wasn’t immediately clear after Mr. Harper’s announcement whether Dr. Johnston would also be heading the inquiry itself. “[He] been given a wide mandate to propose independently terms of reference on a public inquiry, or any other actions that he deems are necessary. The government will follow those recommendations,” Harper said.] Who will actually lead the Inquiry will remain a matter of conjecture for some time.
Whether he is guilty or not, the mood of the Canadian public appears to resemble that of the spectators at a Roman amphitheatre more than an inquiry to establish the facts. The main differences may very well be the high price of admission and the blood letting in the contests that may follow. Especially, if indeed Mr. Mulroney is exonerated, might Messrs. Martin and/or Chrétien follow to the delight of the spectators? Whatever the outcome, more likely than taking the results at face value, the public will accept them as affirmation of either the culpability of the accused or the partiality of those judging them. The only certain winner is Karlheinz Schreiber who gets to remain in Canada (maybe) a while longer if nothing else.
I have been in business for 12 years and I have NEVER, EVER accepted a mandate in cash from anybody. There are invoices – Cash is only used when there is sleaze involved

Accepting a retainer in cash per se is not illegal

If you are stupid enough to accept a retainer from someone like Schreiber whose cheques are made of rubber, obviously you want it in cash
Is there so little corruption in Canada that we are willing to spend $30 million to find out the story behind $300,000
No matter what Brian Mulroney does, he will never be able to clear his name, people are too set in their opinions

Calling for political leadership
Many Wednesday Nighters view the impending municipal election in Montreal and provincial elections in Québec with alarm. Both jurisdictions are falling behind mostly because of inept elected representatives. In Montreal, the mantra seems to be that by investing in municipal structures, the city will thrive. In fact, the reverse is true. If the city is well run and taxes are low, people will be attracted to it. What is required is a real team (Mayor, executive committee members, etc.) of civic minded businessmen with real management/business experience who understand that unlike other levels of government, municipal politicians actually have to run the city and they must be willing to devote four or five years of their time to the task. Priorities must be to reduce the layers of management, meet the unions head-on in contracting out services, and implement accepted business practices into government. Failing to do so will leave us further behind cities in both Canada and the United States that have taken that course of action. Unfortunately at both levels, the current actors do not seem have the will and certainly not the experience to follow this course of action.
There appear, however, to be at least a few citizens who, while not looking for a long-term political career, see it as their civic duty to put us on the map through implementing good business practices and principles. The concept of a Ralliement of competent individuals from all spectrums is not only attractive, but also do-able and could certainly generate interest amongst the large percentage of voters who are disenchanted with the current options. It is to be hoped that they persist and succeed, as Governor Schwarzenneger has done in California.
[We cannot resist adding a quotation here that relates to an Episcopal election. Addressing the unsuccessful candidate: Ah, you felt the flutter of the Dove’s wings as It drifted over your head and landed on the man next to you]

Nobel Prizes
There is some concern that the prestige of the Nobel Prize may be diminishing. The prizes in sciences are awarded for seminal research which in some way redirects the discipline, sets new paradigms, pioneers new work. Prizes therefore tend to go to older laureates because it is only with historical perspective that their work can be evaluated. This works quite well for the science prizes. The Nobel Prize in Economic Science is supposed to be awarded in the same manner. With the possible exception of the work done by Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize in Economics appears trivialized by the requirement that the prize be given annually. There is an underlying (false) assumption that science progresses at the same rate from one year to another, so someone has to get a prize. The prestige of the award is such that the mere fact of having been nominated raises one’s status in the eye of the public, but as nominations are matters of public record they are often a source of considerable heartbreak to the unsuccessful candidates. The horse-trading that occurs between the nomination and the award of a Nobel Prize further diminishes the transparency of that event.
It would be far better to follow the incorruptible example of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship awards which are granted without the candidates knowing that they have been nominated. [It will be remembered that John Curtin’s brother, Joseph, a renowned violin maker, received a Fellowship in 2005]

Alberta Tar Sands (a continuing debate)
One of the biggest events in the history of Canada, or one of the largest man-made environmental disasters?
In the ongoing discussion of the environmental impact of the Tar Sands, recent visitors to the area, while emphasizing that on a one-day trip as corporate guests they can hardly be considered experts, indicated that they were reassured to learn that after being recycled 18 times, the water used in the process is poured back into the Athabaska River. Not everyone found this a comforting thought. An enthusiastic supporter of the Tar Sands development believes that, while not perfect, operations are being carried out ‘very conscientiously’ [compared with the past]. In his view, within ten years the Tar Sands will be a 3 million bbl per day operation, filling an important continental need and bringing prosperity to Canada; technology will have solved the ‘CO2 problems’; and it is wrong to view their development as a contribution to global warming. Others are more sceptical.

3 Comments on "Wednesday Night #1341"

  1. Diana Thébaud Nicholson November 13, 2007 at 10:31 pm · Reply

    13 November
    It’s really hard to keep up with the twists and turns
    The RCMP said Tuesday it has launched a review of new allegations by Karlheinz Schreiber against Brian Mulroney — hours after Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced there would be a formal public inquiry into the allegations.
    A spokesman for the Mounties told the Canadian Press that the force would review claims made by Schreiber against the former Progressive Conservative prime minister and decide whether there should be a formal investigation.
    Earlier in the day, Harper said an inquiry into the allegations would be set in motion once he names an independent third-party adviser to recommend parameters for such an inquiry. He said the adviser would be named “shortly.”

  2. Diana Thébaud Nicholson November 14, 2007 at 10:20 am · Reply

    Challenge: name the independent, impartial 3rd party
    “I couldn’t resist a reply to your challenge”, writes David Mitchell, “Not sure if you are familiar with Rowan Atkinson (an electrical engineer, by the way, with Master’s from Oxford!) as Mister Bean but I nominate Mr. Bean. He’d provide just the right approach without saying too much!”
    Ron Meisels suggests Conrad Black, while in a more serious vein, Stephen Kinsman wonders whether Roy Romanow or Allan Blakeney (probably too old?) would fit the bill.

  3. Diana Thébaud Nicholson November 14, 2007 at 2:45 pm · Reply

    Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced during Question Period Wednesday that David Johnston, president of University of Waterloo in Ontario, will offer advice to the government on how it should handle an inquiry into the relationship between former prime minister Brian Mulroney and businessman Karlheinz Schreiber.
    “Dr. Johnston has served various governments in various public policy capacities and we certainly appreciate his willingness to serve once again in what will be a difficult (endeavour),” Mr. Harper said.
    … It’s estimated the new inquiry could cost upward of $30 million. more

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