banner photo:

"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

Banner photo
Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Anti-Americanism in the locker room

I was at the gym yesterday and eavesdropped on a conversation between two elderly gentlemen about the relative merits of Canada and the U.S. They were apparently oblivious to my University of Wisconsin T-shirt. The exchange illustrates one of the worst and most annoying traits of most Canadians - a reflexive loathing of the United States and a talent for turning our short-comings into virtues.

old guy 1:
"When my father emigrated from Holland, he came to Canada but his brothers went to the U. S. Boy, am I glad it wasn't the other way around."
old guy 2:
"You got that right. Can you imagine living down there? Have you been to their cities? They're basically slums."
old guy 1:
"I know what you mean. You look at American trailer parks compared to Canadian trailer parks - ours are nice little communities. Pretty soon Americans will be coming up here just to live in our trailer parks."
old guy 2:
"Well of course our standard of living is much higher up here, and we have free health care. Lots of people down there are dying because they don't have health insurance."
And so it went. I didn't want to get into it with them for fear of having a barbell dropped on me, but let's examine the facts.
  1. The standard of living in Canada is NOT higher than the U.S. According to the OECD, in 1997 our standard of living based on GDP per capita was 23% less than the U.S.; our labour productivity lagged by 19%, and our workers' output per hour worked was 17% less than American workers. The situation had not improved much by 2001 - Canada then ranked 8th in the world for standard of living (based on GDP per capita), behind Denmark and Iceland. The U.S. ranked second, behind Luxembourg.
  2. Most poor Americans without health insurance do have access to health care via programs like Medicare. Poor people are not dying in droves in the U.S. because they don't have a state-run health care system. By the way, health care in Canada is not "free" - we pay for a poorly-run and inefficient system with exhorbitant taxes.
  3. Their cities are basically slums? Have they been to Jane & Finch in Toronto, or Vancouver's East End, or any number of run-down poor communities in Canada? Or, for that matter, have they been to Vermont, or Oregon, or South Dakota, or mid-town Manhattan? We're myopic when it comes to poverty and hopelessness in the cities and towns of our own country, and we make sweeping generalizations about problems in U.S. cities.
  4. Our trailer parks are nicer? Huh? We're reaching at straws here. U.S. trailer parks are more likely to be hit by tornadoes, but that's about it as far as I can see. I've seen some pretty sad trailer communities not too far from here.

I can't stand this knee-jerk anti-Americanism that pervades Canadian society - it is the main obstacle to our progress as a political and economic entity. Harper's declaration that Quebec is a nation is a moot point if we can't define Canada as a nation without casting it as some kind of anti-America. I would like to talk to old guy 1's uncles and ask them if they're sorry they chose the U.S. over Canada.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ontario students to study climate change in proposed new science curriculum

This was inevitable, I suppose. A draft document released in October by Ontario's Ministry of Education has outlined potential changes to the province's high school science curriculum. Among the changes is the replacement of the existing grade 10 unit on "Weather" with a new unit on "Climate Change". Where the old curriculum focused on weather and climate, the new document concentrates exclusively on global warming. Here are a few of the course expectations for the proposed Grade 10 Academic course:
  • assess the global and regional consequences of climate change
  • analyze, through experimentation, evidence to indentify the factors that influence climate change
  • demonstrate an understanding of the greenhouse effects and its influence on climate change
  • research and propose a course of action related to individual, regional or national initiatives (e.g. community action with industry, non-governmental organizations) to address climate change
  • assess and evaluate different tools used by scientists to make informed decisions on global climate change and evaluate their socio-economic and political impact
  • evaluate the impacts of climate change on human activities (e.g. agriculture, coastal inundation, desertification, famine and disease)
  • test a hypothesis about climate change cause and effect relationships (e.g. the combustion of fossil fuels is responsible for rising global temperatures; the concentration of atmospheric CO2 is responsible for an increase in global temperatures; global temperatures have been on the increase since the Industrial Revolution; and the frequency of cyclones, hurricanes or tornadoes increases as the atmospheric temperatures increase) using a simulated technology and/or data (e.g. Statistics Canada and Environment Canada) that models climate profiles

This will make the folks over at the Suzuki Foundation happy, and I'm sure the teachers of Ontario will deliver this unit with their usual level of objectivity and skepticism. I can't help but think of the Jesuit maxim: "give us a child for his first seven years, and he is ours for life." Good luck, Rona Ambrose.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Breaking free from the clammy grip of the CBC

Since I moved out to the country from Toronto almost 20 years ago, I have gone through a daily morning ritual on the 40 minute drive to work; I turn on the radio to listen to the news and find out what's happened overnight. I have two basic options - the local "Lite Rock" station, which broadcasts a two-minute news update every half hour which is heavy on minor hockey scores, or one of the two CBC radio channels. Out here, you have to listen to CBC radio for any kind of in-depth news reporting, since there are no other options when you live outside radio range of Toronto or Ottawa. Without fail, I would listen to CBC news for a few minutes, blood pressure rising exponentially, until the inevitable story of victimhood or environmental degradation made its appearance, complete with an interview of an expert from the Suzuki Foundation, the Coalition Against Poverty, or Doctors Without Borders. At that point, I punched the off button furiously and continued the drive in silence.

No more. I have gone over to the dark side, and am now the proud owner of a satellite radio. For a modest outlay for the hardware and a $15 monthly subscription fee I now have over 100 channels of music & information at my fingertips, and as God is my witness, I'll never listen to CBC radio again.

I chose XM Radio, since Sirius Canada is partly owned by the CBC itself, and now I can choose between audio feeds of Fox TV News, the BBC World service, CNBC, CNN, Public Radio International, plus Canadian news in either French or English. Imagine that - I now get information from sources that represent a broad spectrum of political opinion, and I can actually hear opposing views on issues that haven't been processed through the filter of the CBC's "consensus".

It has been a liberating experience, and I have yet to experience a downside. I travelled to New York City last summer and had uninterrupted reception the whole way there. The big upside of course is that technology is making a mockery of organizations like the CRTC that in that annoying paternalistic nanny-state way have erected cultural walls to protect us dumb citizens from hearing things that might challenge the stifling orthodoxy in this country. Bring it on! I do still have one nagging annoyance: I continue to pay for the CBC with my taxes, even though I now never watch or listen to it.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Is democracy suited to municipal government?

Even though I have reservations about democracy as a form of government and have some deeply-rooted discomfort with the concept that every citizen should be allowed to vote, I generally agree with Winston Churchill's quip that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. I take my civic duties seriously and vote in every provincial and federal election. However, try as I might, I cannot work up any interest in municipal politics and will not vote in the upcoming Ontario municipal elections.

I live in a small rural municipality in Eastern Ontario, population 4 000, which consists of a small village of 1500 and a large surrounding rural district. The municipal government collects my trash, maintains and plows my roads, treats my sewage and delivers drinking water to my house. That's about the limit of its impact on my life, and I really can't work up any interest in who manages those functions as long as it is done competently, which it usually is regardless of who sits on the municipal council.

There are a few serious issues that confront this community - a lack of doctors, petty crime and a lack of local policing, unruly teenagers who regularly visit their antisocial behaviour on the citizenry, to name a few. However, the municipal government has little control over these areas - they are dealt with (or not) by the provincial or federal authorities who control the police, the court system and the various laws & policies that direct them.

The real local issue is the economy - the area is depressed, with little economic activity outside agriculture or the service sector. The municipal government seems unable to cope with this problem - it routinely opposes bylaw amendments or zoning changes that would attract light industry, and therefore jobs & economic activity, on the grounds that it would harm the area's bucolic charm. So, people enjoy the bucolic charm through their car windows as they pass through our community on the highway, while our young people move away to urban areas where the jobs are. Our latest municipal scheme to "revitalize" the area amounts to placing quaint planters full of geraniums on the main street of the village, while at the same time denying permits to businesses that want to open a large hog-slaughtering operation and a transport-truck service centre because of concerns over noise pollution.

Well, some would reply, why don't you vote for someone who will change direction? Good idea, I suppose, but the candidates never want to do this. My mailbox is full of pamphlets at election time from nice, well-meaning candidates who have no new ideas. There's Barb, whose claim to fame is that on the last council she got our municipality designated by the province as an "underserviced area" and accessed funding for local tree planting and sits on her church's parish council, or Darlene, who vows to make council meetings more open with fewer sessions that exclude the press, and led the charge to have regular teen dances in the village and helped organize the building of a skateboard park for local youth. Everybody loves the community just the way it is and wants to keep it that way. They are all nice people, and some of them are my neighbours, but is this any way to run a municipality?

I give up. I just can't get interested in local politics. I'll get involved in the next provincial and federal elections, where the real decisions are made, but as long as the water keeps flowing and the sidewalk is kept plowed in the winter, I'll delegate the running of the municipality to the retirees who make up most of the population, and have the time to worry about things like that.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

"Buy Locally Owned" - why bother?

Business owners in the city of Belleville, Ontario have an advertising campaign that encourages citizens to "buy locally owned". The bus shelters and billboards of the area are plastered with the slogan, and local radio stations carry irritating commercials (similar to that annoying "Head On - apply directly to the forehead" TV spot) which repeat "buy locally owned" ad nauseam. Most people wouldn’t argue with the sentiment - who wouldn’t want to patronize local mom-and-pop stores to help their owners (and their neighbours) put food on the table? The trouble is, it isn’t mostly the mom-and-pop operators that are behind it.

I checked out the organization’s website to get more information. It has a link to a list of businesses who are backing the ad campaign, and it appears that the group defines "locally owned" rather loosely. Independent mom-and-pop businesses? There are a few, but the list includes lots of franchises like Kwik Kopy and Dairy Queen. Local greasy-spoon restaurants? Try Boston Pizza, Kelsey’s, Montana’s and Tim Horton’s, all of which are not located in the downtown business district but rather out on the four-lane strip near the mall.

OK, so maybe it’s an attempt to pry people out of the mall and the big box stores. Nope- there’s Canadian Tire, which operates a monster big-box store across the street from the biggest mall in the area, and must suck business away from independent hardware stores like a shop-vac. Several business right in the mall are members. Conspicuous by its absence - Walmart, Satan’s Big Box Store, which operates a huge store on the edge of town. Is this a thinly-disguised attempt to fight Walmart?

People have a mistaken idea that businesses run by big multi-national corporations do nothing but take local money out of the community and send it to places like Arkansas and Tokyo. However, the franchise owners of these stores are local people, who pay local taxes and send their kids to local schools. They hire local employees, who also pay taxes and spend their wages in the community. I would hazard a guess that Walmart contributes more to the economy of Belleville than all the downtown businesses combined - I would like to see the figures on that. Economically depressed areas like Eastern Ontario can ill-afford to be antagonistic to any corporation willing to set up shop in their limited markets, and trying to use leftist guilt about evil corporations to drum up business is just a cheap shot. All local businesses are in some sense locally-owned - why differentiate?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Gay marriage in Scandinavia - no slippery slope

Dale Carpenter, blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy , has reviewed a book by William Eskridge and Darren Spedale, Gay Marriage: For Better or For Worse? What We've Learned From the Evidence (Oxford University Press, 2006). The authors' conclusion?
Seventeen years after recognizing same-sex relationships in Scandinavia there are higher marriage rates for heterosexuals, lower divorce rates, lower rates for out-of-wedlock births, lower STD rates, more stable and durable gay relationships, more monogamy among gay couples, and so far no slippery slope to polygamy, incestuous marriages, or "man-on-dog" unions.

Although Carpenter cautions against drawing the conclusion that there is a direct causal relationship between gay marriage in Scandinavia and these statistics, clearly gay marriage there has not resulted in "the sort of cataclysmic consequences predicted by opponents of gay marriage."

Read the whole thing.