Thursday, December 27, 2012

"Free to Be" -- 40 years on

For what I think will be my last post of the year, I wanted to reflect on something I heard about a couple of weeks ago -- the 40th anniversary of Free to Be... You and Me and the impact it had on a generation of kids.    Including me, who was born the year the record was first released.

To this day, it's unbelievable that a series of stories about encouraging kids to meet their own expectations rather than that of their caregivers or "society" at large would have angered so many people.   Maybe the fact it was sponsored by Ms. Magazine was a red flag in and of itself.   The topics that it raised (gender appropriate toys and sports, interracial marriages, who should do housework, etc.)  Or that Marlo Thomas got a whole cortège of celebrities to join her in the recording studio, every one of which were derided as liberals and therefore not in the so-called "silent majority" that supposedly opposed the values the book spoke of.

Who knows?   But the album and book did have a minor but still significant part in my life.   Here's my story.

Back in the winter of 1987, during my freshman year at high school, I was learning to play the clarinet, my third instrument after classical piano and church organ.   The teacher, surprised at my knowledge of music theory (I was, without being boastful, acing the theoretical tests) was even more surprised when she learned I knew the piano.

It turned out the music teacher was putting together a performance of Free to Be... You and Me using a lot of the material from the book -- and after hearing me play a few classical pieces off the cuff, tapped me for the musical accompaniment.   The TV special spawned about two years after the book was not available, but the cassette tape was, as was a book that had the sheet music.   Having a chance to go through a book I had so much fun reading back in elementary school (during my two years in special education) was fun, but listening to the tape for the first time gave me a fresh insight I could not have anticipated.   I knew who Marlo Thomas was of course -- daughter of Danny, wife of Phil Donahue  -- but I never expected to hear Alan Alda, Harry Belafonte, Rita Coolidge, Dionne Warwick and others (they didn't need to be introduced, I knew the voices, simple as that).

The acting group, across all levels of high school, was a great cast and I don't think I ever had so much fun in school up to that point.   The "work in progress" performance at school (actually two campuses since at the time the freshman and sophomore levels were in one cramped building, and the junior and senior levels at another larger but half-empty campus  -- eventually the two campuses were re-merged at the latter a couple of years later) got very favourable comments from the rest of the student body who too loved the album when they were younger.

Encouraged by that, we castmates then spent the next month rearranging the numbers into a coherent one act play and took it to a city-wide high school drama contest.   Actually we were in an "out of competition" section  because the rules stipulated an "in competition" play had to be completely original. 

There were only two plays "out of competition".   One was ours.   The other, performed first, was a two person play called Next -- the 1969 story written by Terrence McNally about a man mistakenly called to the draft board who wants out, and the female drill sergeant just as determined to sign him up   I can't remember which high school, unfortunately.    Of course, our cast watched their play from the audience -- I'm still not sure if most of us had even heard of Next before -- and to be honest the one hour battle of wits was so engaging it almost completely threw off our concentration for our performance ahead and we actually had to regroup for a few minutes before setting up the backdrop and furniture, and their cast watched ours.   Afterwards backstage all of us (including the other guys), as well as the contest's organizers,   commented at the shocking but very appropriate  juxtaposition between the two, and within the same general backdrop (the conflict in Vietnam).

It's funny in a way -- Thomas and McNally.    How two completely different stories with completely different geneses could actually compliment each other.

But that's my story about "Free to Be."    And how it reaffirmed my belief and those of my classmates in the importance of sticking to one's guns and holding your ground, whether through measured optimism or carefully directed cynicism.

If we only teach our kids or younger siblings those very simple values, then we will all be truly free.   I firmly believe that.

Happy New Year, folks ... try not to get too drunk.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Now we finally know the real price of milk, thanks to the teabags

We're all familiar with the concept of a loss leader -- a store will deliberately price key products to a price below cost, often way below cost.    This is to get people into the store to buy stuff that is overpriced.    A good example are razor handles and blades -- the sample pack is cheap, but the replacement refills are extortionist, even at club pack warehouses.    The same with food staples like milk and sugar.   We get upset when milk goes up even ten cents a 4 litre bag or jug but the price has been more or less steady the last seven or eight years and growth well below inflation.  But the price stores pay is still less than the real price of production.

But there's another a part to the problem.   Whether by marketing boards that set a cartel price (and guaranteed profit for producers) or by any of a number of farm subsidies (one kind of "corporate welfare") stores actually pay less than they otherwise would.   If they paid the true price of production, in other words break even for the farmers, food would get way more expensive than it otherwise could be.

We often think of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy for making food prices more than they should be.   But for some foods it could be way more and put many less well off consumers into greater hardship were the subsidies were not there.

But that could all change in the States as early as next Tuesday.   Among the many line items that will be affected if the US President and Congress can't agree on a fiscal plan by a week today are farm subsidies.  And if dairy producers in particular have their subsidies cut off, they'll have to either sell the milk on their own or go into a Canadian style marketing board to fix prices like OPEC does for oil, then stores will have to pay the full price.   Since stores buying the milk at the reset price would become so expensive that a loss leader price strategy would be fiscal suicide, they'll have no choice but to charge full price just to break even.

The average retail price of milk in the United States is $3.65 per US gallon (3.785 litres).   If the subsidies go, that price will skyrocket ... to eight bucks.    In other words, the real price.   (If the same applies to Canada, we're also paying only 40% of the true cost.)  To ensure a "stable" market, the Department of Agriculture would have to get into the business of buying milk -- by law, and this is a "poison pill" of sorts that was introduced in 1949 and never intended to be used -- just to try to backstop the carnage.   To stay afloat yoghurt, cheese and butter producers would have to import milk from other countries.   Including, say ... Canada?

As Yakov Smirnoff says, "What a country!!!"   The teabags -- or at least the true libertarians among them, not the fascists who want things to go back to the pre-civil rights era) are all about limiting government to the lowest level necessary.  But they don't have a problem with subsidizing the national forests, which are actually owned by the Department of Agriculture (not Interior as with National Parks or Fish and Wildlife areas, or other recreation areas owned by either Energy or Defense).   They don't have a problem with spending tons of money subsidizing the construction of toll roads that are privately owned and/or operated.   They also don't mind giving tax breaks to people who buy $100k + cars, but not to small businesses who want the ability to compete with the big guys.

So why do the TBs (yeah, really bad abbreviation) who backstop forest companies for cutting federal timber lands -- feel just fine with pissing off a major part of their base?

Actions, or the lack thereof, have consequences.    I've said it before and I'll say it again, America needs major austerity big time.   But if little people, upstream and downstream, are the victims -- then the GOP will rue the day they let the NRA buy them off because the gun nuts will get really and sorely tempted to turn their anger on the legislative, not the executive.

Fasten your seat belts.   If DC goes off the cliff next week, then the real fun begins.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

When will Scalia just shut up?

Antonin "Nino" Scalia, the current dean of the US Supreme Court and a very staunch conservative, has always had a way with words especially in the opinions he authors for the majority or in dissent.   There is no question he is a champion of free speech and expression -- he has often sided with liberals on such issues as flag burning and song parodies.

He has also been further to the right than even many in the right on issues such as airplane and maritime accidents -- his sentiment, which is carried by the Court as a whole, is that international treaties on shipping give passengers the same treatment as cargo and therefore mandatory payouts to families should be no different (in most cases, an accidental death of this nature results in reparations as little as $12,000 per head).

He has never made a secret of his opinion that homosexuals pose a grave threat to the so-called "morals" of America.   This has indeed been his long standing position over 25 years.

But just days after the Court agreed to hear and consolidate two appeals -- one, California's legal appeal of the Ninth Circuit striking down Proposition 8, the gay marriage ban (that is, a legal appeal in the sense that California is only asking for the court to uphold the law itself even though Governor Jerry Brown openly opposes it); and two, a gay couple challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act which denies spousal benefits to same sex couples even in states that allow gay marriage or recognize same sex common law partnerships -- Scalia got into an argument with a student at Princeton, in front of 800 others.

The student, a freshman named Duncan Hosie, is eighteen and openly gay -- asked if Scalia was at least willing to reconsider his on the court record harsh comments.   Said Hosie:
I think there is a fundamental difference between arguing the Constitution does not protect gay sex, which is a defensible and legitimate legal position I disagree with, and comparing gays to people who commit murder or engage in bestiality.  Do you have any regret or shame for drawing these comparisons you did in your dissents?
 Scalia remained unrepentant:
If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against these other things?  Of course we can. I don’t apologize for the things I raised. I’m not comparing homosexuality to murder. I’m comparing the principle that a society may not adopt moral sanctions, moral views, against certain conduct. I’m comparing that with respect to murder and that with respect to homosexuality.  It's an argument by way of reductio ad absurdim.  It’s a type of argument that I thought you would have known…. I’m surprised you aren’t persuaded.
Is this an issue about religion -- an apologist for the Vatican?   Hardly.   If that was the case, a lot of court decisions would have gone his way.   But the Catholics on the Court are as diverse as Catholics are -- indeed, any religious grouping is -- in America.

At the present time, the Court is composed of six Catholics and three Jews -- the first time ever that SCOTUS has no Protestants at the Marble Temple.  Besides Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito are almost certain to vote no on gay marriage.  I think the latter is a given, since he famously said at the appeals level in the Pennsylvania case 20 years ago that ultimately upheld abortion rights although also severely curtailed them -- that while he agreed with the majority the state had gone too far with mandatory spousal notification, the courts had no business in overturning laws even if they were patently stupid.

I also think it's pretty obvious that the three Jewish justices will vote for gay marriage.   Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan have consistent liberal records so that's a no brainer.

One of the other Catholics, Sonia Sotomayor, will almost certainly vote for gay marriage too.

So with the balance 4-3, once again, it comes down to the two swing votes.    Kennedy is a conservative on most criminal matters but on social issues has tended to lean left.    A yea vote would put it over the top.   But it is not at all clear how he'll vote on this issue.    Chief Justice Roberts has also proven to be a conservative -- but he voted to uphold "Obamacare" earlier this year, to the shock of just about everyone.

It's okay to have one's opinions.   But to express them so openly, outside of the courtroom, morally disqualifies Scalia from participating in consideration.    It can be tricky having an eight member bench, since in case of a tie the appeals court holding is what stands.   But if Roberts can be persuaded, then gay marriage would win whether it's 5-4 or 4-4.   Then anything Scalia has said, no matter how much he has a right to that opinion, won't matter at all.

And I think that's a good thing.   For as another conservative but very open minded former Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision that upheld Roe v. Wade, "Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code."


UPDATE 7:20 PM EST, 0020 GMT Friday):  A couple of clarifying additions.  Also, the more I think about Scalia's comments, the more of a pinhead he is showing himself to be.   If Rush Limbaugh was labelled as such by no less than Bill O'Reilly then Scalia deserves at least as much derision.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Canada's F-35 -- the $46 billion dollar boondoggle

Later today, the Amsterdam based accounting firm Kynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG ™) will issue a report regarding the proposed procurement of 65 Lockheed-Martin F-35-A Lightning II fighter jets for the Canadian Air Force.   If media previews are to be believed, the program will be way higher than the $9 billion originally claimed by PMS and Co.   Higher than the $30 billion suggested some time ago by the Parliamentary Budget Officer.   (And who knows how much the Auditor General, Canada's top accountant, will say it is when he files his findings in an upcoming quarterly report).

KPMG will say that the actual cost of the jets, including maintenance over a projected 36 year life cycle will, in fact, be anywhere from $40 to $46 billion.   At an original sale price of $75,000,000 per pop, plus about $9 billion in maintenance costs the government originally claimed, we're looking at a boondoggle that is 3.5 to 4 times originally budgeted.    Worse, the Canadian share of maintenance contracts will be only $9 billion, most of the rest will likely go to the States.    Keep in mind the $75 mill was the original price -- current estimates are actually about $150,000,000 off the shelf; which jumps to about $250,000,000 with weapons systems attached plus adaptations for Canada's very harsh climate both winter and summer.

Military contracts gone out of control has been the bane of too many governments both left and right.   One thinks of relatively "minor" infractions over the years such as the feds providing infrastructure money for building overpasses for highways that were originally decades away from being built (the roads often later tolled despite commitments from the provinces not to do so, were later fast-tracked due to safety issues on arterial roads, inclement micro-climates, or both).

But this goes way beyond that.   The Air Force is our first line of military defence -- not just against hostile régimes such as North Korea (which finally has succeeded in launching a three stage rocket, putting the Canadian and American West Coasts firmly in the Kim dynasty's sights) -- but also against the current and equally ominous threat of terrorists who are fighting for some kind of "nation" but actually neither have a country nor can have something taken away from them that which they have already renounced.

Of course, this branch of the military, perhaps even more so than the other two (Army and Navy) needs to have the best possible equipment.    We as civilians should demand nothing less for our courageous men and women.

But as on the civilian side of all matters fiscal, we need to also insist not just on value for money (a single engine fighter jet is a cockamamie idea for the obvious reason) but also that midstream and back-ended costs are properly calculated and budgeted for.   In the present circumstance, it also requires the manufacturer warranty any unexpected repairs and for an extended period, for all or most of the anticipated life cycle.   If the plane is sold more or less as is, then it becomes a bill of goods.

The fact that the purchase decision for this particular plane was made almost totally untendered (by the previous Liberals who started the ball rolling, unfortunately) is bad enough.   But the Con government couldn't just blame things entirely on their predecessors    Despite growing evidence that the maintenance costs were much higher than claimed, indeed were getting more and more expensive as time went on, the executive kept sticking to the lower figure.

If the government misrepresented the truth in Parliament then they are in contempt of the national legislature.   In that case, Harper has to have the guts to say "I'm sorry."   Two simple words.    If Michael McCain of Maple Leaf Foods ™ could do so on tainted meat products, then the PM has a duty to do so on something far more grave than that -- nothing should be more important to the duties of our head of government than national security.    I'm not talking about going public the launch codes for our non-nuclear (which all of them are) missiles.   That of course, should be a closely guarded secret.   I'm talking about transparency of the kind that ensures we have the confidence that what we are buying for the military is the best equipment at the best price.

I'm not the only one who's suggested this but we need to start all over, albeit on a fast track process, and have bureaucrats from a non-military department go through the potential bidders and pick what is truly the best one -- just as we did for the Navy procurement program recently.

This is one hell of a Christmas present.   In this case, we get stuck with a huge lump of coal -- pretty much all the coal mines in the country's production for several years worth.   If no one's minding the store on this file, who knows what big surprise lies ahead next?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Immigration "reforms" actually regressive

We're starting to see the fallout from the Con government's proposed changes to immigration policy.   And while I agree that such policies need a reboot every now and then to meet current trends (and to a lesser extent, changes in social morés), what is shaping up to be what we'll be stuck with for at least the next twenty years is anything but promising.

For one thing, I see absolutely no evidence that the provinces were consulted.    This is a huge warning flag since immigration is supposed to be a shared responsibility between the federal and provincial governments.   In a world of extremely tight budgets, it is well and proper that the provinces should have the lead role in determining their respective needs for certain types of workers (Alberta, obviously, needs energy  and agricultural workers; while Ontario requires people in high tech and health care companies as well as for forests and mines).   This is because it's the high value and high paying jobs that generate the most revenues for the sub national governments.

There does appear to be some sense in reducing the weighting on proficiency in either English or French (although there should be some competency in one or both languages if not outright fluency).

But there appear to be no changes in the settlement monies to the provinces for regular class immigrants.   The amounts offered (about $5000 per capita in Québec and $3400 in the other provinces) don't even begin to cover the upfront costs.   The provinces have every right to demand a bigger slice of the pie and to increase their role in the selection process with agreements renegotiated more frequently (say, every five years or so instead of decades) and more transparently with legislative review.

As well there also doesn't appear (still) to be any fiscal arrangements to help legitimate refugees settle other than the "good offices" of local social groups as well as international NGOs such as the Red Cross-Red Crescent alliance and the Salvation Army.   And if that's not bad enough, the Cons are changing the list of what are considered "safe countries of origin" -- those where the receiving country believes that a "well founded fear of persecution" never or almost never exists.

These include, amongst others, the 27 European Union members, the US and Australia, among others.   But among the proposed list are some Central American countries which while nominally are democracies (finally) still have pretty bleak (and that is being mild) human rights records -- especially against women, Native North Americans and journalists.    Also are countries in Africa which have well known abuses against minorities and women even if they too have democratized.

And let's not forget, there are still many countries where the mere fact that one is LGBT is cause for persecution as well as prosecution.   True, there are many Canadians who have major personal moral qualms about alternative lifestyles but are at least willing to be tolerant of them.    What lies ahead possibly is a situation not unlike the "Voyage of the Damned" where this country indirectly participated in the Holocaust by sending a boatload of European Jews back to the other side of the pond because of widespread prejudice here at the time, including very prominently from "monarchist women's" groups.

Those on the so-called "safe list" will still get a Singh hearing but will not be able to appeal a negative decision to the Refugee Appeals Board; instead they will have to go directly to the Federal Court of Appeal (which normally handles such issues as claims for disability pensions denied by the CPP, patent and copyright disputes, and appeals for worker's comp for federal public servants).   Most lawyers will tell you that a "federal case" can be way more costly to prepare than a provincial civil trial and legal aid even more difficult to obtain than for the provincial courts or tribunals.    Most refugees therefore will just go home, or maybe even "forum shop" to another country that doesn't share "black lists" with Canada.

But lastly, it's not heartening to hear that the "investor" class is getting the short shaft.   While there have been some families who have "bought" citizenships as a matter of convenience in case things go really wrong in their home countries (think Mainland China, for instance, which keeps regressing on human rights) most have put their money here on good faith, creating jobs and on the presumption that they would get a fast track to naturalization.     Now, it seems, many of them are being forced to the back of the line to start over even though they have successfully resettled here.    If that's not acting in bad faith I'm not sure what is.

There's no way that we should ever go back to the "Whites First" policy we had for decades (and white supremacists -- ahem, "British Israelists" -- have long lobbied to have reinstated).

But I suspect many first and second generation Canadians would never have gotten over here if they had to qualify under the new proposed rules.   Canada is a better country because we have welcomed immigrants of all classes, all races and from all countries.   Most importantly, there may be an argument for "safe third countries" but the list has to be a lot narrower, otherwise Canada will lose a lot of potential migrants.    Even the  policies of the US and the Schengen bloc in Europe right now look way more enlightened.