Wednesday Night #1540

Written by  //  September 7, 2011  //  Herb Bercovitz, Wednesday Nights  //  No comments

In memorium

A memorial service was held today in Victoria Hall commemorating the life of the late Sally Aitken. The large number of guests attending the service was a tribute to the nature of one who, despite a severe handicap that would have been the prime motivator of the average person’s actions, ignored her personal life’s hurdles to inspire disparate individuals to achieve unity in thought and action within the community. If there were a comparative or superlative to the adjective incredible, Sally would have qualified for both.
There is sad news as the ranks of the earliest Wednesday Nighters have suffered another loss: Karen Hamilton Walls OWN aka Lady Hamilton and/or The Voice of Wednesday Night. In the days when invitations to Wednesday Night were delivered by telephone – that would be land line – Karen was the Wednesday Night convener and her husky Lauren Bacall voice was irresistible. In addition to being an enthusiastic participant in the organization of Wednesday Nights, Karen was a witty and dear friend to many of us. She was very ill for some time and we can only hope that now that her valiant battle is over, she is at peace – no doubt calling the chosen to join with her good friends Carl Beigie, Harry Mayerovitch and many others for the Wednesday-Night-in-the-sky.

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“One reason that we can’t get the right solution is that we can’t define the problem.
Attacking the wrong disease won’t solve the problem.”   — Prominent Wednesday Nighter

Leadership in our dysfunctional world
Europe and the United States are currently living through a seemingly intractable problem of debt and unemployment, proposing solutions that may be partly or totally unrelated to the problem. One Wednesday Nighter defines it as a problem of the dysfunctional nature of the quality of public discourse, citing as an example, the Italian electorate electing a Prime Minister who is said to own most of the Italian media. Others see Silvio Berlusconi’s success as evidence that the average voter is looking for fewer scientists and more philosophers, representatives with a vision that extends beyond their term of office. Cited as another example is Helen Elizabeth Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand for the nine years between 1999 and 2008. Concern is expressed for Canada, where the school dropout rate for males in Québec is quoted at forty percent. The fear is that they will feel disenfranchised, forming part of a larger separatist movement whose charismatic leader will convince them that it is not their fault.
Young people do not invest early enough in pension plans, placing greater emphasis on the pleasure of immediate acquisition than on the value of time on growth of capital. That President Obama has not only appeared to have failed to solve his country’s current problems, may be proof, if proof were really required, that handsome, great orators may not be the best administrators. He has failed to demonstrate the leadership that was expected of him.

The economy
There is little, if any, enthusiasm concerning the solution of the situation of Europe’s problems, described as intractable.

As for the United States, two problems are especially evident, namely the housing market and the labor market. The U.S. unemployment figure given as 10% is misleading, as it does not include prisoners, people who have stopped looking for employment and part time employees. The present situation is not unique. Every major leap in technology has led to increased profits and higher unemployment. Few if any of today’s employers choose to follow Henry Ford’s example of paying his employees well enough that they could afford to purchase the product that they produced. Although outsourcing is frequently blamed for current U.S. unemployment this is at least partially offset by the purchasing of U.S. technology by the foreign producers. Possibly more important is the shift in the distribution of the fruits of improved technology. Four hundred families in the U.S. are said to own fifty percent of the wealth.
Half a century ago students were taught that profit was the measuring stick by which the quality of the goods or services was measured, quality being the objective. The reverse appears to be true in this century.
Although outsourcing, especially to China and India, is blamed for much of the problem in Europe and the U.S., the latter two are the source of much of the skilled labor required in the manufacturing process in both countries in which the manufacturing and/or processing occurs. It is as if we had moved our own sweatshops to a more receptive climate, giving the appearance of remaining squeaky-clean here. Unlike Europe, however, China, has the money and/or can acquire the expertise to become the leader in solar and nuclear energy. Previously unforeseeable, China may very well be the first country to transform itself from dirty to clean.
In the United States, productivity is flat and employment has dropped. The net deficit of 5 1/2 million jobs in the U.S. has a lot has to do with banks having tightened loan requirements. It is claimed by some that the financial crisis has been more responsible for unemployment than has inadequate productivity.

Population
As the world population increases Man infringes on agricultural land, which must ultimately result in the diminution of world population growth and/or more efficient food production.
The human psyche has always found solutions, the obvious, but not only one to overpopulation being war. In the history of our own planet, unemployment and overpopulation have led to exploration and new settlements. When the world was large and the population small, nomads solved their problems by packing up and following the food. In the sixteenth century a long, dangerous voyage to an unknown, possibly hostile continent seemed like an attractive alternative to a life of poverty, oppression and despair. As the current situation on earth appears increasingly analogous, Mars may seem to be the New World of the twenty-second century. Captain Kirk may one day actually come to life.

The Prologue

With all the doleful news and in anticipation of President Obama’s speech to Congress on Thursday, it hardly seems that we can avoid making the economy the focus of this Wednesday Night.
Peter Berezin is more optimistic than most. He tells us that according to BCA “The global economy is sputtering but a soft-patch, rather than a recession, is the most likely outcome. While the near-term outlook remains daunting, warranting a tactically neutral stance, risk assets should gain ground over a 12-month horizon. This month’s Special Report makes the case that U.S. growth should rebound to about 2% to 3% by the end of the year. Unfortunately, even growth of this level will not be enough to make a major dent in the unemployment rate. This will ensure that wage growth stays weak and the Fed remains highly accommodative.”
On Friday evening’s PBS Newshour Can America’s Jobless Fill American Jobs? Paul Solman explored whether widespread joblessness is simply the result of a weak economy or if a broader shift toward higher-skill work is occurring that could leave many Americans behind even when the economy recovers. His interviews with economist Zachary Karabell, who believes that the problem is one of structural unemployment, and Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, who insists unemployment is cyclical, not structural, were informative, but left us wondering who is right? Both were reasonable and convincing. We suspect this may be President Obama’s dilemma as well.

What would you say to Congress on Thursday if you were the President?

On the world economic scene, George Magnus’ Crisis Convergence in Foreign Policy argues that the global economic crash, the rise of the Tea Party, the Arab Spring, and China’s coming fall are all connected, that the crisis of capitalism that erupted with the 2008 financial bust has very much to do with all of these seemingly disparate events. Reactions from some members of the Wednesday Night Economists Caucus range from Tony’s slightly scathing He left out the big California earthquake from the list of imminent tragedies. These Chicken Little articles can be dusted off, slightly altered , and sent out for publication again approximately every five years. There is no danger that anyone will recall reading the same stuff five years back by the same author to Kimon’s (Yes, he is back) endorsement I believe George Magnus has a point, which should not be surprising since, I have been making the same point since the beginning of the 2008 Crisis. The initial financial earthquake has led to a socio-political tsunami which expresses itself in many different ways.  We look forward to hearing more opinions.

Among other newsworthy items is the massive dump of 250,000 (the Independent precises 251,287) unredacted cables from Wikileaks amidst charges and counter charges of who leaked what, when, to whom, in which the Wall Street Journal seems to take some delight – revenge of Mr Murdoch’s minions?  On Friday night, “As It Happens” aired an interview with Jean-François Julliard, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, who condemned the dumping and said firmly that Wikileaks has lost the support of his group and that the action was self-defeating. There are many like-minded others who deplore that thousands of sources and activists have been left wide open to reprisals. See The Independent , which also muses on Mr. Assange’s future. Not to belittle the dangers to many foreign ‘assets’ around the world, we are particularly intrigued by the Toronto Star report on the apparent undue influence of the U.S. over the drafting of the Harper government’s copyright legislation. We have been missing references to Mad Max Bernier and there he is in the thick of things. Meantime, The Gazette chose to focus on the not-terribly-startling observation of the U.S. Ambassador that Mr. Harper’s priority was to stay in power. We guess that was a slow news day in the U.S. Embassy.
On the topic of Mr. Harper, his choice of the new Director of Communications to replace the unfortunate Dmitri Soudas appears to be attracting more than a bit of controversy. As Chantal Hébert points out “Persichilli’s recruitment also compounds what amounts to the party’s greatest election failure in the shape of its abysmal absence in Quebec. At a time when the province is opening up to the federalist parties for the first time in decades, the first post-election addition to the senior ranks of the PMO cannot speak French and has a track record of lamenting Quebec’s influence on national affairs.” As usual, Mme Hébert sums it up.

Libya – what to say? As the Qaddafi regime crumbles, the squabbling among the allies over division of spoils will intensify; the NTC will be under intense scrutiny and we are left to wonder whether the Libyan people will be permitted to enjoy a better life. The world will no doubt turn its intense scrutiny to Syria and we will witness a similar upheaval, but will the outcome for the Arab world be any better than before? It is impossible to separate the Good (intentions), the Bad (some really nasty heads of state/regimes) and the Ugly (truth that nations have no friends, only interests).

A final oil-related topic (because of course Libya and Syria come under that heading): the Keystone XL pipeline. We have dealt it only glancing conversational blows. Is it really going to alleviate U.S. energy needs and is the pipeline construction part of Canada’s obligation under NAFTA? Guy Stanley says no to the latter. Is it the-environmental-disaster-waiting-to-happen that many fear (in our view, probably); is there a more sinister aspect related to Sinopec’s presence in the Tar Sands and in Houston? Will the pipeline simply serve China’s interests? Two good pieces on the topic are from PBS Newshour: Tar Sands Pipeline Plan Renews Energy vs. Environment Debate and National Geographic News: Is Canadian Oil Bound for China Via Pipeline to Texas? – neither noted for hysterical hype.

We cannot overlook the latest Republican foreign affairs initiative, the Anti-UN bill in Congress linked to Palestinian vote  backed by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., would cut off funding to any United Nations program that endorses changes to Palestinians’ diplomatic status, The Jerusalem Post/Reuters  It goes much further – more broadly, the bill would shift U.S. contributions to the United Nations to a “voluntary basis,” rather than have them follow the compulsory assessed fees system that is in place now. If the United Nations doesn’t get 80 percent of its money from voluntary contributions, the bill would then require the United State to cut its contribution by 50 percent. The bill would also halt new U.S. contributions to U.N. peacekeeping missions until reforms are implemented, and institute a new regime of reporting requirements and auditing powers for examining U.S. contributions to the United Nations. Poor Mrs Clinton, poor President Obama – more problems posed by fellow citizens than by foreign non-allies.

Notes for your calendar:
As most of you know by now, we are deeply concerned by issues of world hunger and food security. We would therefore call your attention to the McGill Conference on Global Food Security October 4-6
Two weeks later, on October 20 and 21st, The Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) is organizing a public policy conference with Senator Roméo Dallaire “THE PROMISE OF THE MEDIA IN HALTING MASS ATROCITIES”. Kyle Matthews promises more to come on this important conference, including a dedicated website. We will keep you informed.

We always try to leave you with one or two items that may lighten the discourse. The first, With Trouble on the Range, Ranchers Wish They Could Leave It to Beavers comes to us from Terry Jones. Maybe finally Canada will get respect?
The second describes the contribution of Mohawks and Newfoundlanders to the construction of the Manhattan skyline, Rebuilding N.Y.’s Twin Towers – Canadian ironworkers are helping to rebuild the Twin Towers at New York’s Ground Zero  and  Mohawk “skywalkers” continue to help shape N.Y. skyline – we note with sadness that the next generation will likely follow other educational paths and this incredible talent may eventually die out. This brings us back to the recurring Wednesday Night discussion of how our society must place more value on skills and trades that do not come from formal university education.

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