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Road Through Time

by Mary Soderstrom

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Friday, 31 October 2008

Boooh! Quebec's Forest Industry Presents Brief on the Forest's Future

It was the day before Halloween but it seems that representatives of the forest industry in Quebec did a little trick or treating on Thursday at the parliamentary commission studying the health and future of the province’s forests. As usual, Louis-Gilles Francoeur of Le Devoir had the story first, reporting yesterday that what forest companies want is to cut trees and do little else—not replant the forest, or maintain roads or fight fires or any of the things they’ve been supposed to do in return for the right to exploit Quebec’s enormous forests. The implicit threat—or trick—is the end of the industry as we know it.

Now, it’s quite possible things can be reorganized to function more efficiently, and it’s equally true that economic hard times are usually particularly tough on pulp, paper and milled lumber companies. But giving carte blanche to the industry is not the way to do it. Several other interests—including conservation groups—will also present their points of view before the commission.

A subject to be followed closely.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

The Future of "Old Media," Google and Who's Going to Pay for Good Information

Yesterday The New York Times was full of stories about electronic rights and the demise of print journalism. First there is the landmark agreement between Google, the American Association of Publishers and the Authors’ Guild. Mechanisms will be set up so that writers, publishers and Google will share in revenue from the massive scanning project Google began several years ago: in all the agreement is for $125 million but details are not immediately available. At the same time The Christian Science Monitor announced that it is eliminating its daily print edition, and David Carr reflected on the demise of “old media.”

A good part of Carr’s musings were devoted to listing cuts to newspaper staffs around the country: The Los Angeles Times has only one movie reviewer left on staff, for example. The big problem, he says, is that advertising revenue for print media is falling, while revenue from on-line editions of the same publication don’t fill the gap so newspaper management cuts everywhere including the newsrooms.

There has to be a way out, though. Production costs for “new media” journalism must be less than for old—printing and delivering newspapers and magazines is very expensive, but even sophisticated web systems are cheap in comparison. The trick is in finding the model which will pay for the writers and researchers necessary for good, in-depth journalism which is the strong suit of newspapers and magazines.

If not, we’re all in trouble. Carr noted in his piece that even Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google is concerned. He told a recent American Magazine Conference, that if "the great brands of journalism — the trusted news sources readers have relied on — were to vanish, then the Web itself would quickly become a “cesspool” of useless information. "

Amen. A case in point: according to Alec Castonguay of Le Devoir, right wing bloggers will be invited to the Conservatives' convention in Winnipeg week after next with the same status as newspaper, radio and television journalists.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Memo to Jean Charest: December Elections May Be Hazardous for Your Health, and Not Just Because of Slippery Sidewalks

Quebec is abuzz with the news that a provincial general election will be called next week for December 8. The population doesn’t seemed thrilled with the idea—“Oh come on, not again!” “What a waste of money!” were two comments broadcast from streeter interviews by the CBC—but Premier Jean Charest seems to think things are going to get a lot worse and it’s worth a gamble to try to win a majority now.

This morning we were greeted by one of the big arguments against an election this time of year—snow. Only the lawns currently are white in our neighborhood—sidewalks and streets remain warm enough for snow to melt immediately—but in outlying areas as much as 10 cm were reported. One of my first experiences in politics was in an election this time of year—the one held December 2, 1985 when Liberals led by Robert Bourassa beat the incumbent Parti Québécois led by Pierre-Marc Johnson. It was Bourassa’s second mandate—he’d been premier from 1970 to 1976 when his Liberals lost to René Lévesque’s PQ.

That was not a fun campaign, and I don’t expect one this December would be a joy either. Before he calls an election, Charest might be wise to remember the downside of Bourassa’s victory in 1985: he lost his own seat. In order to sit in the National Assembly Bourassa had to win a by-election called in January 1986 in the safe seat of Saint-Laurent whose MNA obligingly stepped down.

Charest might also reflect on the irony of his appointment of Pierre-Marc Johnson to head a delegation from Quebec scheduled to go to China next month which Charest had planned to lead himself. Johnson was deposed—flushé, as they say here—shortly after the 1985 debacle, but he’s found a new role as an elder statesman. There is life after politics—for some people, at least. Will Charest be forced to find out for himself?

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Reading for Hard Times: A Handful of Novels about How We Got Where We Are, How People Cope, and Krugman on How to Turn Things around

What to read when the news is so depressing? What are the books that can help get us through this rough period? I thought about that this morning when I was out walking, Good times and wars seem to invite more fictional creations than do depressions, or so it seems to me after, admittedly, short reflection.

Two books about how the world gets into a bad spot:

The Kill by Emile Zola: Published in 1872, it tells the riveting story of speculation, greed and lust in the Paris of Napoléon III and Georges-Eugène Haussmann. It’s a book I discovered when researching The Walkable City and which two of my book groups are discussing this year. A sexy story that sounds extremely contemporary

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: I don’t believe I’ve properly appreciated this book in the past, since it’s characters seemed to me to be so frivolous. But I expect I’ve underestimated the role of frivolity in the human aspirations. Fitzgerald was writing before the Crash of 1929, but he very brilliantly exposes the society that raced headlong toward disaster. A cautionary tale whose import I (and many others) had forgotten


Three writers on the difficulties of life in hard times:

The three books of Wyoming stories by Annie Proulx, Close Range, Bad Dirt and Fine Just the Way It Is. There isn’t much joy in these books: for that read The Shipping News, which Proulx herself says is an exercise in telling a story where at the end one rejoices in ordinary happiness.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. The Depression classic about a family heading west to escape the Dust Bowl

Cathedral by Raymond Carver. Stories about people up against the world in which even the good times aren’t all that good.

A Nobel prize winner to give some hope

The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman. This year’s Nobel Prize winner for economics outlines how a relatively equitable society was forged during the Depression of the 1930s and World War II, how free market and fundamentalist ideologues worked to destroy that after the mid-1970s, and what we might do to recover lost ground today. Published more than a year ago, it does not foresee the mess we’re in today, but it shows a way out—vote left, vote Barack Obama.

And closer to home:

Note: Yann Martel is suggesting that Stephen Harper read Gilgamesh, the ancient Babylonian epic in a translation by Stephen Mitchell. He sent the book along with his congratulations on Harper’s election win this week. “What your continued tenure as prime minister means, among other things, is that our book club has survived. We can now really settle into this business of discussing books,” he writes.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Fashion Makeover Front: Why Don't the Republicans Raffle off Sarah's Clothes

Makeovers have always been about my favourite things in so-called women’s magazines. An ordinary looking woman or girl is photographed, almost always in black and white, wearing her usual hairdo and her own clothes. Then the reader gets a glimpse at how a team of fashion and beauty experts tackle all her weak points. The same sort of thing is fodder for specialty TV channels and on You Tube while The Globe and Mail just ran a contest to pick two young business people to makeover.

But the makeover was kicked into a higher level this fall when, it appears, the Republican Party paid $150,000 to buy clothes and accessories for Sarah Palin and members of her family. The clothes were nice, even though The Washington Post carried a story about what a low key fashion statement Palin was making. Certainly the good old boys at Palin rallies loved them (she drives men wild, Margaret Wente says) but makeover candidates isn’t quite what political parties are supposed to do, many think. When the story first broke, the explanation was that all the poor dear had was clothes suitable for Alaska and was going to need some dresses etc for campaigning in the lower 48. Then, as criticism mounted (including a threatened suit—pun intended—by a watchdog group) we were told that she was giving them back to the party. Now we’re told that about a third of the purchases were sent back anyway because they were the wrong size or colour, and that the rest will be given to charity.

Can you imagine what a charity garage sale that will make? Why didn’t they just put everything on eBay: the McCain-Palin campaign supposedly is short of cash, and selling off Sarah’s wardrobe would raise a bundle, I’d think. That they haven’t is another sign that a campaign which has been extolling the common sense of Joe Six-Pack and his buddies hasn’t got a clue about what works,

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Saturday Photo: Infrastructure Replacement at Work



Yesterday I mentioned that infrastructure projects could be used as a way to weather the current crisis in classic Keynesian style.

This is an example of the kind of thing that should be going on: replacement of an aging water system with new pipes. Montreal is in the middle a major replacement project on its aqueduct and water transmission network. The big pipe on the left will carry water soon, replacing pipe laid when this neighborhood was laid out at the beginning of the 20th century.

I asked the workers if the pipe in the brick vault on the right was water too, but they were pretty sure it was sewer. Guess their job was centered on getting the underpinnings for the big pipe in place and not in any detailed work on the old system.

Water systems all over North America will need work like this in the next 20 years. Governments would do well to think of getting on with them now, rather than waiting. That kind of stimulus package would be far more effective than giving money back to taxpayers directly since the money is delivered to workers and the benefit will stay at home.

For those who care: the pictures was taken on the corner of Bernard and Outremont in Montreal's Outremont neighborhood.

Friday, 24 October 2008

The New Keynesians and Rapidly Changing Economic Conditions: Planning for a High Cost Petroleum Future Will Be Essential

One of the major problems with what is happening in the world is that it is happening so fast. The sudden decrease in the value of the Canadian dollar in relation to the US greenback is a case in point. Last spring, the two dollars were more or less at par, but today the loonie is worth about the same as it did 15 years ago. The advantages of having “cheap” manufactured goods are a long way from being felt. No one is sure how long this will last so no foreign enterprise is going to make long term commitments to buy Canadian products and in so doing kick start manufacturing here.

Another pitfall of the rapid downslide of most economic indicators is the declining attractiveness of green energy projects. As Thomas Friedman noted in The New York Times this week, when gasoline prices rose our consumption fell. With a petroleum and petroleum prices falling, however, the temptation is to think that it will be business as usual in the future and to quit encouraging green initiatives.

That would be a terrible mistake. The future will belong to those who see beyond the current crisis and plan for a high-cost petroleum world. The political jurisdictions who come out of this crisis with the least damage will also be those who think ahead. That is why putting money into infrastructure projects—as Quebec Premier Jean Charest has been proudly saying lately—is a good way to cushion the roller coaster ride we’re on. One can argue about what the best of these projects are, but this kind of Keynesian stimulus is the path that all governments should take.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Dow Suit against Quebec Pesticide Ban Raises Sovreignty and Other Questions: Just Who Can Call the Shots in This Country?

The huge chemical and agricultural company Dow Agrosciences is getting ready to sue the Canadian government for compensation because Quebec banned its weed killer 2,4-D a couple of years ago. The charge is that the provincial ban breaches legal protections guaranteed under Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA. In other words, provincial laws are trumped by NAFTA. In effect, the case argues that Quebec can’t ban the chemical, nor can Ontario, which has already announced it wants to outlaw it too.

Not only will this suit open a can of worms in Quebec which is always worried about its sovereignty, it points out the perils of NAFTA which a number of voices have criticized but of whom few have been heard.

As Luke Eric Peterson writes in Embassy Magazine: the Chapter 11 suit is a “legal back channel which permits foreign investors to detour around local courts and sue the federal government before an international tribunal.” This can lead to binding arbitration.

“For cross-border investors,” Peterson continues, “these types of legal protections can come in handy if a tin-pot dictator sends in the tanks and seizes your factories or oil fields. But when such legal provisions are invoked by foreign investors in an effort to ward off health or environmental regulations, eyebrows drift skyward.”

Peterson adds that the Dow case is not the first or least. “Already, the government is defending against …(a) claim filed by another U.S.-based chemical producer. When Canada's Pest Regulatory Management Agency moved to ban the use of Lindane-based seed treatments, U.S.-based Chemtura Corporation sued for $100 million in damages. That arbitration is currently going on behind closed doors, following a January confidentiality order.”

If Barack Obama is serious about wanting to reopen NAFTA after he's elected we ought to be front and center, saying Yes! That's a very good idea!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Winter on Its Way! Snow Sighted in Montreal!

Brrr! The first snow flakes fell on Montreal today, and high places in the outlying areas are reporting a couple of centimeters of snow. This is perfectly in keeping with the order of things: my birthday is November 8, and in the many, many years we've lived in Montreal never has there not been at least a little snow before that date.

From mid-April until as late as I can stand it I eat breakfast on the back porch--nothing fancy, just cereal, juice and the newspaper. Sitting out there, looking at our small garden and observing how it changes with the seasons gives me great pleasure. But this morning I think will be the last for this year. Not all the leaves are off the trees, the grass is still green and the begonia I forgot to bring in--all the other house plants came in around the first of the month--has not wilted. Yet I found myself shivering, having trouble unfolding the paper in the breeze, generally being uncomfortable.

On the weekend I'll have to cut some of the plants back, save seeds from asters and rudebeckia, rake up the leaves have fallen. In the meantime I'll sit by the fire and keep myself warm, like Robin in the Mother Goose rhyme:

The north wind doth blow,
And we shall have snow,
And what will the robin do then,
Poor thing?

He'll sit in a barn (or as my mother would say 'by the fire"),
To keep himself warm,
And hide his head under his wing,
Poor thing.

That last is, I guess, better than hiding your head in the sand!

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

$155 Million for Commuter Trains in Greater Montreal: A Step in the Right Direction?

The Quebec government and the Montreal Transportation Authority will invest $155 million in new rail service to outlying suburban communities beginning in January, it was announced Monday. This comes hot on the heels of announcements that more rain departures and bus lanes will be set up in other parts of the Montreal area. Commuter rail ridership has gone up by 125 per cent over the last ten years, according to the MTA’s chair Joe Gauthier.

Sounds like a plan. Certainly getting commuters out of their cars and on to public transportation is a good things for the people involved concerned. Companies who had been relying on their middle management extending their working day by talking on their cell phones during the commute will probably be happy too. Hand held cell phone use has been illegal in Quebec since the summer, and while many people are using headsets, anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s not the same. Nothing is stopping you from using your cell on a bus or train though, and you even can claw through your paper work or consult your computer during the commute.

However, the frequency of buses and Metro trains in the city should be increased too. There’s no point in bringing people from the suburbs into the center of the city if it’s not easy to get around quickly in it. And there is no reason why those of use who have chosen the “greener” lifestyle center city living provides should have to be crowded when we take the bus or Metro.

Monday, 20 October 2008

A Little Levity to Start the Week: The World's First Stand-up Economist

Who said economics was the dismal science? David Ricardo, actually, but he’s been dead since 1823 so what does he know.

Yoram Bauman, who bills himself as the world’s first stand-up economist, definitely does not agree with Ricardo, either. Bauman has some serious credentials. His bio says that he “has a BA in mathematics from Reed College, a PhD in economics from the University of Washington, and spends his non-comedy hours teaching in the UW environmental studies program and researching the economics of climate change. He has authored or co-authored three books (Tax Shift, Quantum Microeconomics, and Quantum Microeconomics with Calculus) as well as articles in popular and scholarly publications.”

But just as importantly he is an extremely funny guy who sends up some of the economic theories which have brought us to the current world wide economic mess. Check out his “Principles of Economics, Translated” if you’ve been wondering what lies behind it all. A sample on the reliability of economic forecasting: “Economists have predicted nine of the last five recessions.”

Just what we need these days.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Saturday Photo: Shoes for The Walkable City

Ms. Julie likes shoes, as we saw in yesterday's post, but these shoes are ones I like a lot too. The shoe is gorgeous, I think, although you would never be able to wear it anywhere you had to walk very far.

In the reflection you'll see part of Laurier Avenue in the Outremont section of Montreal. It's about two blocks from where I live, and is a stretch of street with many upscale shops--Tilley, the liquor commission, some fancy groceries. But despite its extremely walkable layout, I think I wouldn't wear these shoes to walk there, no matter how lovely they are. They're shoes for a dinner party, in fact--who'd want to stand in them very long either? But, boy, would you feel good looking in them even if you're feet didn't feel all that good.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Ms. Julie Loves The Walkable City


Ms. Julie, the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s creation, has an amusing blog entry about The Walkable City this week. She is supposed to be a hip librarian who just loves Québooks, rating them with a kiss.

She also loves shoes, and likes walkable cities because she can wear fancy ones “in the kind of dense cities Mary writes about like Toronto, Paris, New York and Singapore. The distances in walkable cities aren't all that great so you can indulge your passion for pretty shoes!”

You'll have to scroll down past the announcement of the short list for the QWF awards, but if you persist you'll find Ms. Julie, her feet and her musings in all their glory.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Quants, Comics and Financial Catastrophe: Explanations for What's Going on with the Markets

The markets continued their decline yesterday, and the question for today is: what the hell is going on?

The British satirists John Bird and John Fortune have a terrific skit that may explain in part. To sum up: the financial markets are run by the "greatest minds in the world" who after careful consideration either run around yelling Sell! Sell! Sell! or Buy! Buy! Buy!. Check it out here.

Actually Bird and Fortune are talking about last summer’s sub prime mess in particular but what they have to say is even more appropriate today when, despite some rather robust action around the world, stock prices continue to tumble. What’s going on at the moment may also be affected by the decision making systems put in place by financial engineers or quants. These bright young mathematicians working for financial institutions have made elaborate models for banks which are so complex that the market decision makers don’t understand them and so can’t make appropriate decisions. The situation is aggravated by the fact that these models—despite their sophistication—are not really adequate to explain or predict the markets, an Agence France Press story warns. What we have is signals to sell coming on all sides from the programs the quants have developed, but which can’t really deal with new information and arrangements just set in place by governments.

Are we going to have to declare a world wide bank holiday for a few days the way Roosevelt did in the 1930s in order for the overheated decision making systems to cool off? Would it even be possible to do that?

I guess we have nothing to do but wait and see. Hold on to your hats--and maybe your shirts too.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Reading for the Day after the Election: Yann Martel, Stephen Harper, and Thomas Mulcair

Among the many things that occur to me this morning after the Canadian election is that Yann Martel is going to have up to five more years of sending Stephen Harper books every two weeks. I have no doubt he'll find much good reading to send the PM--still head of a minority government even though he thought he'd get a majority--but I'm sure Martel is disappointed that it is necessary. He'd hoped that his campaign to provide the PM with a little instructive and pleasurable bedtime reading would only last a few months when he began more than a year ago.

As Martel wrote in the letter accompanying Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange sent the day before the election, "There’s an element in the novel that is eerily familiar. The government under which Alex (the hero) lives is democratically elected, yet it has recourse to policies that undermine the foundations of democracy. We have seen these kinds of policies for eight years now in the United States, a country morally bankrupted by its current president. You claim to have a solution for what to do with Alex. The experts disagree with you, and the courts and the people, certainly the people in Quebec, are also resisting your ideas, but you think you know better.

"Are you sure, Mr. Harper, that what you have up your sleeve aren’t so many" of the same method used to brainwash Alex?

Let us hope that the three opposition parties will find common cause frequently in the next Parliament and thus be able to turn back the retrograde, ill-considered, uneffective program of the Conservative Party.

And it's good to see that Tom Mulcair won again in Outremont, proving that his by election victory wasn't a fluke. I spent 12 hours helping to get out the vote, climbing stairs to triplexes, knocking on doors, explaining how important this election was. The work paid off because the gang of NDP volunteers--almost all young, I was older by 20 years than the vast majority of them--brought Mulcair a significant victory.

Kudos also to Anne Lagacé Dowson and her excellent team in Westmount-Ville Marie. What a great job against very tough odds!

Monday, 13 October 2008

Krugman Wins Nobel for Economics: A Harbinger of Change in the Right Directon?

Great news Monday morning: Paul Krugman got the Nobel for economics. His win was big surprise, because the prize has gone most often to conservative thinkers and upholders of the ideas that perfect competition can be assumed and that the market always works.

As we have been seeing over the last few months, that kind of ideology is filled with holes, and unfortunately the world seems to have fallen into one of them. Krugman thinks the Brits may have found a way for us to fall out--he said in an interview today that he felt more hopeful after Sunday's meeting of European finance ministers than he had on Thursday--but the really encouraging thing is that perhaps the era of blind faith in retrograde economics may be ending.

Let us hope that Canadians vote strongly in favour of more progressive ideas today.

Happy Thanksgiving, and Let's Get the Good Guys to Out Vote

It's Thanksgiving Day in Canada and we are recovering from our Thanksgiving dinner yesterday. About 30 people ranging age from 14 months to 83 years--a great pleasure to see so many friends and family. We did the turkey, chicken, a Vegan chili and some vegies and everyone else brought a great variety of delicious things. The coup de théâtre came when Emmanuel, Elin's cojoint, carved the turkey on a movable cart next to the buffet table. White or dark, as you liked it. Great fun!

And today, once everything is put away, the task is help Tom Mulcair win this election.

Enjoy the holiday, and figure out who you should vote for in order to stop Harper. The news this morning had Elizabeth May of the Greens telling her supporters to vote for her only where an opposition canidate was out of the running: in other words, anybody but Harper.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Saturday Photo: Good News on the Tar Spot Front

A summer of rain, last year's effort to rake up infected leaves, or maybe just the natural immune system of trees. Whatever the reason this year the dreaded tar spot disease has not been as prevalent. These leaves were picked up yesterday, as the fall colours begin to come out spectacularly. A year ago not one of the leaves would not have been splotched with fungus growths which look just like tar spots.

A little hope for the world!

Friday, 10 October 2008

Voting on Things Other Than Political Candidates: Horsetrading and Literary Prizes

Recently I’ve had the interesting but pleasurable experience of being on the jury for a literary prize in another province. We were asked to read about 30 books, and to come up with a winner and a short list of no fewer than five others. It was a relatively painless process since there was general agreement about the best. In addition there was no maximum number for the short list so we could add favourites to it which weren’t unanimous. The result will be known in November so I won’t say who won or even what province it was, but I thought of our cordial deliberations when I read an item from The Guardian which Quillblog points out in the run-up to the literary prize season.

The British newspaper talked to one member of every jury over the 40 year history of the Booker, and the result is both entertaining and very instructive about the process. Obviously there’s a lot of horse trading when the stakes are so high and only one book can bring home the prize.

The moral is: make sure that the juries change every year. That doesn’t happen with the Nobel Prize jury apparently, which allowed one misogynistic juror to block giving the prize to women for more than 20 years. As for this year’s prize winner, Le Clezio, I haven’t read anything by him, but like many others I’ll be looking for books by him the next time I go browsing for something to read.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

What the Crash of 1873 Means Today, Or Emile Zola, Greed and the Current Economic Mess

Of all the novels by Zola, why did you choose La Curée (The Kill in English) to discuss: that’s a question I’ve been asked several times this fall at the book discussions I lead in four Montreal libraries. My answer until now has been that it is a good yarn and when I read it in the summer of 2007 while researching my book The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets and Beyond I was struck by how much Aristide Saccard, the developer at the heart of the novel, resembled people involved in cities today.

According to Zola’s story, Saccard made a fortune in the Haussmannian re-building of Paris in the 1860s and early 1870s. How like the men behind the plans to redevelop Griffintown in Montreal. I thought. The developer Devimco has wrested big zoning concessions from the city with promises of a massive shopping/office/housing project that will radically change part of Montreal’s old industrial area. For a while it looked like Devimco was getting a license to make money while doing great damage to the city’s urban fabric.

Just how apt that comparison is came home this morning when I opened Le Devoir to read historian Scott Reynolds Nelson of William and Mary comparing the current economic crisis not to 1929, but to that of 1873. Real estate speculation, shaky financial arrangements, unsecured loans and most of all greed were behind that crash. “Land values seemed to climb and climb; borrowers ravenously assumed more and more credit, using unbuilt or half-built houses as collateral. The most marvelous spots for sightseers in the (Paris, Berlin and Vienna) today are the magisterial buildings erected in the so-called founder period,” Nelson writes in an article called “The Real Great Depression” published in The Chronicle Review and taken from the Oct. 17 number of The Chronicles of Higher Education, When the bubble burst the depression which followed lasted four years in North America and seven years in Europe, he says.

Needless to say tonight when we talk about La Curée in Kirkland, I’ll have his article on hand as well as the one from Le Devoir which includes comments from local historians on the effect of the 1873 Crisis. According to Jean-Claude Robert of the Université du Québec à Montréal, the slump here led to thousands of Québécois moving to the US North East to find work in the factories there. Should be a good discussion tonight, I think.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Problems with Private Public Partnerships: They Don't Save Money in Health Care, and They May Well Not Be Able to Renew Our Infrastructure

More Public Private Partnership woes: Martine M. Bellanger, economics professor at the French École des hatues études en santé publique, reports that European and North American experience shows that costs are higher in PPPs for health care than in publicly financed health services.

Governments have access to lower interest rates, she notes, adding that in the UK, where Margaret Thatcher’s government set up the first PPPs in 1992, the current government stopped plans for more in 2006. The fact that the profit motive is closely linked to any PPP also works against PPPs actually saving any money.

At the same time, the Quebec government announced that it will go ahead with a PPP to build an extension of highway 30 south west of Montreal. The project is supposed to cost $1.5 billion, or $43 million a year over 35 years. The same Le Devoir story that told of the agreement quoted government and consortium officials as saying the current financial turbulence shouldn’t affect the long term success of the project. Any further PPPs will be much harder to arranged, Pierre Lefebvre, the head of the PPP agency, admitted, however.

It remains to be seen how the credit crunch which is affecting banks and financial markets all over the world plays out in providing the renewal of infrastructure and the health system that we are going to need over the next decade. Setting up PPPs where the motivation is profit doesn’t seem to me to be a wise use of either our energy or of the money which the public sector will have available to invest in the fulfilling the needs of citizens.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Of Slugs and Life Cycles: Early October Notes

Indian summer, Véronique the weather woman explained on Radio Can this morning, is when we get three sunny day with temperatures above normal after the first frost. In Montreal we aren’t there yet, since there hasn’t yet been frost, but certainly after several nights of near freezing temperatures today looks like Indian summer—clear blue sky and lots of sun. What my mother called “October’s Bright Blue Weather.” Lee says this is the finest season of the year

However, one of the downsides of this splendid season is that tender plants have to brought inside to escape the cold. Not only is it fair amount of work, but sometimes you bring in more than the Boston ferns, begonias and the like. Last night I saw a glob of something on the floor of the living room, and discovered a slug, valiantly making its way across the polished hard wood toward…well, I imagine it was seeking a place of shade and moisture.

Like the insects that Renaissance painters often put among flowers and lush vegetables in their still lifes to indicate the tension between the abundance of life and our eventual death, the beastie made me think of the various fashions one can view things. I profoundly dislike slugs, and I dropped this one in the trash with no compunction. Yet its end must have been a tragedy in slug terms. Slugs, like the lovely spider in Charlotte's Web, die in the fall.

Those painters knew that we will die too. For the generations brought up since the advent of antibiotic and vaccines against many killer diseases in peaceful countries, death is a stranger, so it is understandable that many of us forget that simple fact. Knowing that is essential to making the most of what we have and can do between now and the end--and hope that our fall will not come either painfully or before our time.

Carpe diem!

Monday, 6 October 2008

Time and Tide Wait for No Man, and Stephen Harper's May Be on the Wane

A week and a day before the Canadian federal election, and perhaps the tide is turning. A Canadian Press –Decima poll show Conservative support slipping to its lowest since the campaign started, while the NDP and the Greens have made nice gains and the Liberals remained steady. Stephen Harper’s gang had 39 per cent on Sept. 17-20, but only 34 last week, the Liberals 23 vs 24, the NDP 17 vs 20, the Greens 11 vs 13, and the Bloc, steady at 8 per cent.

That last figure is particularly important, since one of Harper’s hopes was to pick many seats in Quebec from former Bloc voters. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, and over the weekend a number of big, mult-organizational rallies came out against the Conservatives. They didn’t say who to vote for, but the message was sure: vote for which ever candidate can beat the Conservative in your riding.

Simon Jackson has some interesting musings on the CBC’s web site about strategic voting. He’s talking mostly about voting to push an environmental agenda, but certainly in other places many voters will vote Bloc or Liberal or NDP in order to assure that Harper will not get a majority. I’m convinced that the NDP has a good chance of picking up a couple of more seats in Quebec because disaffected Liberal voters are realizing that giving Layton and his team a louder voice in Ottawa is gong to help all of us. Certainly its clear that Tom Mulcair’s support--which was supposed to evaporate after his by election win last year--is holding very strong. And in Westmount-Ville Marie, Marc Garneau has effectively disappeared from the campaign, I’m told. The idea of his NDP opponent Anne Lagacé Dowson in Parliament makes me want to stand up and cheer.

We shall see what we shall see, of course. Excuse me now, though. Must get some work done here before I go off to see if I can lend a hand on the campaign trail.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Saturday Photo: Temperatures Drop, but the Chilis Keep It Hot

Jean Talon Market is full of produce right now, the bounty of months of sun and summer rain. I've never bought a skein of chilis, but a string of garlic is something that I'll have to get this year. By spring, the stores here are selling garlic from China, which seems incredible. Far better for the local growers and our carbon imprint if we buy garlic from Quebec, it seems to me.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Forced Migration and the Politics of the Future: A New Report from Oxford

The migrating geese remind me that humans migrate too, and have done so since our ancestsors began following herds across the savanah or moving wih the seasons into uplands as the berries, seeds and roots ripened. We were part of a wave of migration ourselves, that of the late 1960s and early 1970s which saw Canada welcome thousands of educated Brits and Yanks, arriving to teach and do research in a rapidly expanding system of higher education. As I’ve said before in this blog, we came when Lee got a three year contract at McGill in 1968, and we stayed

But other migrations are neither has happy or as volulntary. The Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford has just published an issue of Forced Migration Review containing 38 articles on climate change, displacement and migration. Available as pdf files or in printed copies, the publication examines the role that global warming and erratic weather patterns have played and will play in the movement of populations. Not only will rising sea levels in the future affect low-lying regions of the world, but drought and floods—amplified by human destruction like deforestation—threaten increasingly to destroy people’s homes and farms, sending them on the road, seeking somewhere else to live.

We in North America may think that we are more or less sheltered from this. The effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 are still viewed as an aberration, an example of bad disaster planning, although we will be affected too. What should be our stance vis à vis the displacement of millions? Do we open our doors to those with money and training? Do we shut down completely? Do we assume our responsibility for what is causing these climate changes? Will the current financial crisis in the US make things that much worse?

These are big questions, which aren’t going to go away. Ask your local candidates about them.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

What to Answer When the Phone Rings: Getting Polled in the Middle of the Leaders' Debate

Right in the middle of the debate between the five Federal party leaders last night we got a call from a polling firm wanting to know what we thought about the leaders, what we thought were the issues, and how we rated the local candidates. It is the second time in a lifetime of political action that we’ve been polled, and I was delighted to give the NDP, Jack Layton and our local MP Thomas Mulcair full marks. In so far as the poll is large enough, my comments will be lost among the others polled, but they aren’t going to hurt in an election where a lot of people are considering strategic voting. A winning non-Conservative candidate is what a lot of voters are looking for, whatever their nominal political allegiance.

The strategic vote in Outremont should definitely go to Mulcair and the NDP. Over the last three weeks I’ve made a lot of calls for Mulcair, and it’s clear the support he had a year ago when he won a by election is holding. There’s some fall off among Bloc supporters who voted for him to keep out the Liberals, but my guess that’s not going to make much difference. Last week a poll for La Presse gave him a 10 point lead over the Liberal Sébastien Dhavernas, 37 per cent to 27 per cent.

Of course you may ask why I answered the telephone when I should have been glued to the television watching the debate. Well, there’s only so much political discourse one can take, particularly when one has a good idea of the principles and policies each leader champions, so I retreated after 15 minutes to get some work done for my book talks next week.

The same logic will apply tonight for the English language debate and the one between the two vice-presidential candidates in the US. Besides we’ll be celebrating the launch of my friend Ann Charney’s new novel Distantly Related to Freud (Cormorant Books.) The party runs from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Nicolas Hoare Books, 1366 Green Avenue, Westmount. Should be a lot more fun…

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

To Everything There Is A Season: Looking Up from the Economic Mess to See the Geese Flying

The world is in flux, and not just economically. Yesterday afternoon I heard a skein of Canada geese honking their way across the sky, and at noon the farm program on the CBC was full of complaints about geese scouring fields as they begin their migration. One of panelists, a dairy farmer, told of having to out six or seven times a day to shoo them away. Last week travelling by train from Ottawa to Toronto we saw a couple of hundred of them rise from a lake or marsh in the distance, fly seemingly randomly at first and then slowly form the familiar Vs as they gained altitude.

Seems a little early for the migration to me. I usually hear the flocks flying over a little later in October, but perhaps this year is different in some way. Certainly the trees are turning glorious colours earlier than I’ve noted in the past. Last year it was a dry during the summer, but began to rain in September and it seemed the leaves stayed on the branches quite a long time as if to draw all the strength they could from the growing season. This summer was lush and wet, and already many trees are turning fabulous shades of red and gold. Perhaps the good conditions allowed them to store up lots of sugar which now they can display as if at their leisure since the temperatures have so far stayed quite warm. (Is there a lesson about saving to draw from this? Maybe.)

Whatever, on this mild, overcast morning several of the trees in the cemetery were already glowing with colour as if lit from the interior. This annual spectacle is one of the pleasures of living in this climate, and a reminder that there are forces in action that continue no matter what our current, pressing worries are.

And if you’d like to know more about the science behind this (because most things have a explanation) check out the National Geographic’s 2004 article “Why Do Fall Leaves Change Color?”