Thursday, November 29, 2012

Mayors Behaving Badly

The number of mayors in the last two weeks that have crashed and burned astounds. What is it about political power that, Circe-like, leads such men to Bad Ends? (No women mayors seem so afflicted).

Here is a brief re-cap:

City:       Montreal.
Mayor: Gerard Tremblay
Issue:   Graft and corruption
Result:   Dismissal, public enquiry, criminal charges possibly pending
Cost to taxpayers: $Millions

City:   Laval
Mayor: Gilles Vaillancourt
Issue:  Bribery,
Result: Dismissal, criminal charges possibly pending.
Cost to taxpayers: $Thousands

City: London*
Mayor: Joe Fontana
Issue: Taxpayer dollars used to fund son's wedding
Result: Mayor hanging on, but barely.
Cost to taxpayers: $15,000.

City: Toronto
Mayor: Rob Ford
Issue: Improper legal procedure with respect to conflict of interest.
Result: Dismissal pending
Cost to taxpayers: $Zero

Yes, a sorry tale. The first three can rightly be accused of squandering a ton of taxpayer dollars. As for the forth, we are more in the arena of bull-headed stupidity than graft and corruption. All Mayor Ford had to do was recuse himself when Council was determining if the Mayor should pay back funds solicited on official letterhead for an economically-disadvantaged football team.** The amount was some $3150.00, none of which came from the City budget. Indeed, Council, by a significant majority, decided in favour of the Mayor and there the matter would have rested. Indeed, should have rested -- the optics alone would have been severe enough.

Enter The Left.

Furrier Paul Magdar, with lawyer Clayton Ruby in tow, launched a conflict of interest lawsuit against Ford, calling for his dismissal. The suit was successful, delighting the left wing of Council. On the other hand, the action did prompt this comment from, of all newspapers, Quebec's La Presse, in which columnist Yves Boisvert writes on November 27: "Great minds in the Toronto media, too happy to get rid of this right-wing firebrand, seem to have easily forgotten a principle of universal justice: The punishment needs to fit the crime. In the Toronto mayor's case, we are applying a professional death penalty for a minor breach."

Says it all, really, and now Toronto faces a very real possibility of the Left taking control, and bringing back the fiscal madness that had bedevilled Toronto during the previous administration. Mayor Ford had tried, and was succeeding, in correcting this fiscal imbalance. Now, however, a death spiral looms as the Left looks to Greece as its fiscal model.

Poor Toronto.

*For my UK readers, I refer to London, Ontario, not London, England. Boris Johnson seems to be doing just fine.

** Don Bosco, a Catholic secondary school. Goodness, if some funds were needed, you would think the Vatican could sell a painting or two.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Believe It Or Not

No, this is not a discussion on the work of Robert Ripley, but rather an examination of a philosophical  phrase that startled me, as did the identity of the author. Now where philosophy is concerned, I tend to the classics, drawing on such works as Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, Plato's Republic, or even The Biblical Ten Commandments, which all by themselves outline an ethical path. (the rest is commentary).

The phrase in question? "Seeing is believing puts the horse before the cart."* The author? Stephen King, of all people, he who writes all that hairy stuff about worlds that lie just beyond our present veil of existence. Great for escapism, and therefore I was surprised to be confronted with a truth that has nothing to do with fantasy but everything to do with day-to-day reality.

Certainly King would not leap to the mind as a deep-thinking philosopher, or at least not to my mind. Yet his horse-cart analogy bears some looking into.

The argument here is the proposition that what we see is determined by what we believe. In classical times, belief held that the world was flat, and  maps from that era indicate this, along with fuzzy edges that are highlighted by the phrase "Here Be Dragons." Yes, Thales of Miletus sometime around 620 BCE predicted an eclipse, but then, there have always been outliers, who had a different belief than the belief currently in vogue. Think Galileo. Think Copernicus. Think Einstein. Think Heisenberg. Or Rachel Carson and her Silent Spring. (I was determined to get a woman 'outlier' in there somewhere). All these departed from the prevailing belief and hence put forward another way to view the world and, indeed, the cosmos.

Thus it does no harm, before putting forward a point of view, to seek out the underlying belief that structures that point of view. Much of organized religion falls under such a rubric, and a great deal of nationalism, the twin causes of reprehensible actions that are all too evident in today's world. The belief that a certain way of viewing the world is the ONLY way to view the world is horribly counter-productive, particularly when that belief is juiced up to allow for killing anyone that does not succumb to that belief. All of which would indicate that the belief in question deserves a close, very close, examination, and if the belief is found wanting, alter it to one that allows for progression rather than stasis. So William Blake: "The cut worm forgives the plow."

Ample food for thought here.

* Stephen King, Duma Key, 'How to Draw a Picture' (VII)

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Seedy Tale

I was dealing with one problem when, out of the blue, another surfaced. The initial problem, in response to a request by Sir Harry, was to somehow to come to grips with the Hamas attack upon Israel -- in particular, the viciousness of locating their rocket launchers in close proximity to schools and hospitals -- and to develop an appropriate response strategy. For  Hamas, this was a nasty step forward and deeper into the Dark Side, and I suspected that the purveyors of said rocket launchers (Iran) lurked at the bottom of it all.

Then came the second problem.

Bohdan, who manages my sugar beet plantation in Ukraine, called, alerting me to a serious attack on my holdings. Through some reliable sources, Bohdan had learned that Viktor Yanukovych, the President of Ukraine and no friend of mine, had seen fit to lease an adjoining property to Monsanto. The aim here would be to genetically modify sugar beets, and plant them so that the wind-borne seeds would then contaminate my own crop. This would spark two actions: Monsanto would sue, stating that I had contaminated their crop. And secondly, any European sales would be at risk, Europe being very risk averse when it came to genetically-altered produce. Germany, of course, would be aghast at having their beloved Zuckerruben-Sirup so infected. Monsanto really is evil, and in pursuing such a course, showed themselves to be a true member of the Dark Side.

What to do?

I was well aware that Monsanto had tried similar cases in court, and had won.* Pursuing a strictly legal solution would, then, be unsuccessful, case law being what it is. So another measure was called for.

Now I also have friends on the Dark Side, and placed a call to Don Guido.

"Bella! Always good to hear from you. And you will be pleased to know that I have purchased your figlia's CD featuring the Sibelius Violin Concerto. The fair Victoria does a superb job. You must be proud."

"I am. I will let her know you approve." Don Guido was especially fond of Victoria, and I knew for a fact that he watched over her as she trundled around the globe. Don Guido beats travel insurance every time.

We continued briefly this little exchange of pleasantries, but I soon came to the heart of the matter.

"Don Guido, I don't suppose you have any contacts in Ukraine?"

"Not many, but enough to buttress a small but profitable enterprise. Why do you ask?"

I then explained my problem, indicating that Yanukovych was behind it all. I needed to persuade him that the Monsanto purchase was a non-starter, and that perhaps (to use a trite phrase) an offer could be made that Yanukovych could not refuse.

"This isn't your campaign to get that woman, Julie or Julia, out of prison, is it? Can't do anything there. The action stems from Putin himself, and I'd rather not irritate the man right now. Appears to be going through some kind of mid-life crisis, and hence any annoyance...well...could be bad for business."

"No, Yuliya Tymoshenko isn't at issue here, more's the pity. It's the deal Yanukovych has struck with Monsanto. If that could be, er, annulled in some way...."

Don Guido thhought for a moment, then said, "I understand that our Viktor is very fond of chinchillas. Keeps a sizeable pen of them, in fact. Perhaps if he awoke one morning and found in his bed six or seven slaughtered -- "

"I don't need the details. What is this going to cost me?"

"You have two coastal properties in Greece, Lots 107665 and 107666. I would like to purchase Lot 107666."

Now Lot 107665 I have designs on for a possible seaside resort, but Lot 107666?

"I am agreeable" I told Don Guido. "But the lot you requested  has a shoreline comprised of nothing but a path leading through a sheer rock face. In order to get one lot, I had to take them both. Why would you want -- "

"But that lot has an excellent and deep harbour. Is it a deal?"

"It is. I will have the necessary papers drawn up." I decided not to enquire about Don Guido's reasons for wanting a harbour in Greece. It is one reason why we get along so well.

Shortly after, I learned from Bohdan that Monsanto had withdrawn its offer to purchase the adjoining acreage. I also felt it  incumbent to make a hefty donation to the World Wildlife Foundation, to be directed to the preservation of the habitat of the Andean chinchillan population. After all, when one incurs a debt, it is only fair that one pays.

*Cf. Monsanto Canada v. Schmeiser, Docket T.1593 -- 98. This case went all the way to Canada's Supreme Court, where Monsanto prevailed in a 5-4 decision. It is unfortunate that not enough of the Justices could see the obvious solution, as sung by Bob Dylan: "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind."

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A House Divided

Well, there you have it. The American Presidential Election finally occurred -- some 5 billion dollars spent to achieve the same congressional gridlock that previously existed. Not exactly a harbinger of hope, if things remain as they were.

Here I will go out on a limb, and state that there will be change.

One change immediately noticeable is the disappearance of references to the Deity in Republican comments on the election result. Not surprising, given that to the Tea Party evangelicals Mitt Romney was chosen by God to lead the U.S.A. out of the financial wilderness. This didn't work out so well: God apparently overlooked the role of the 'swing states' upon the Electoral College.

Of course, this is not the first time there has been some Republican religious backsliding. I recall, early in the Presidency of George W. Bush, that he would be guided by the precept,  'What would Jesus do?' This was hastily forgotten shortly after, it being highly improbable that Jesus would have authorized the invasion of Iraq. I remember calling Laura on the matter, suggesting that George look more to the Old Testament for models, where, to use a phrase, 'there's a whole lotta smiting goin' on' (apologies to Jerry Lee Lewis here).

There is, however, a change in tone from the Republicans -- or at least from the Leader of the House, John Boehner. He is still averse to raising taxes, but is willing to discuss other ways and means whereby cooperation might be achieved. This does not surprise, given the necessity of some clever mountaineering on the 'fiscal cliff' that must be dealt with prior to January 1, 2013.

This is no small matter. If there is no congressional action, the following occurs. The combination of higher taxes and spending cuts would reduce the deficit by an estimated 560 billion, roughly cutting it in half. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that gross domestic product (GDP) would be go down by four percentage points in 2013, sending the economy into recession. Unemployment would rise by close to a full percentage point, involving the loss of some 2 million jobs. The word 'unacceptable' doesn't begin to cover the effect.

Congress, however, does have two other options. Some or all of the scheduled tax cuts and spending cuts can be cancelled, ensuring that the debt will continue to grow. Step forward, Greece. Or a middle course can be adopted, one that would address the budget issues to a limited extent, but also would have a more modest effect on growth.

So over to you, Congress, but keep in mind Lincoln's words upon accepting the Senate nomination from the Illinois Republican Party in 1858: "A House divided against itself cannot stand." And let's not forget hope, and here I turn to -- who else? -- the Rolling Stones: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you get what you need."

Try, people.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Act of God

The storm known as 'Sandy' tore through Toronto yesterday, and did some damage, although nothing to compare to what occurred at the Jersey Shore (wonder if Snooki remained safe?) and inundated New York City. That phrase 'some damage' included a tree falling on the roof of a colleague's house, barely missing Code Barry and his wife, who were asleep at the time. I am informed that the insurance company will step up to the plate under the 'Act of God' rubric. Good on them -- this is not always the case, and even cursory research into this type of tort indicates that assured coverage is by no means a sure thing.*

I ruminated a bit on the phrase 'Act of God'.

In paleolithic times, the words made sense. Earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, volcanic eruptions -- all were attributed to various gods and goddesses. (If nothing else, the Stone Age at least supported a kind of gender equality.) Later, lightning bolts were hurled by Zeus; a typhoon or tsunami was Poseidon feeling a bit testy; an overwhelming passion was the fault of Aphrodite and a raging forest fire was Loki losing it. Out of all this sprang organized religion, and my own research points to the entire Judaic edifice springing from a minor desert storm god.

These 'divine' figures were given very human attributes, and one was never entirely sure which side they were on or just who would be supported. This was captured well by Shakespeare (are we surprised?) in King Lear when Gloucester states, "As flies to wanton boys are we to th'gods / They kill us for their sport." Again, this made a sort of sense; the world was fraught with the unknown, and having a number of supernatural deities to blame for misfortune, or to credit when one's lot improved, made an existence bearable, particularly when that existence, to use Thomas Hobbes' phrase, was "nasty, brutish and short."

As science advanced, however, gods came into question. Tidal waves, tsunamis and earthquakes owed their formation, not to the actions of a god, but to the clash of the earth's tectonic plates. Lightning caused forest fires, and a violent thunderstorm was the result of hot and cold air masses coming together in a manner far removed from a tender embrace.

All these advances, of course, were fought tooth and nail by those with an interest (and prosperous livelihood) in maintaining their status as guardians of God -- priests, bishops, imams, mullahs -- the list goes on and on. Eventually, of course, the whole hoax will come crashing down. I mean, one can but hope. Perhaps this would be the finest, and final, Act of God.

As for my own belief, it is simply this: GOD IS A PLACEHOLDER FOR WHAT WE DON'T AS YET UNDERSTAND.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

*In fact, it is a mess. Insurance companies hate the phrase 'Act of God', and much prefer dealing with terms such as 'perils' and 'exclusions from these perils'. No doubt.