Saturday, April 28, 2012

My Log 303 April 28 2012

Oh, yes, those were the days, all right, when you could buy an ice cream scoop, and a big one, for 25 cents

For many years I used to irritate my wife when, as I was adding a tip of  $10, $15 and sometimes even more to a restaurant bill, I would say, “Do you remember when we could buy a five-course meal in Montreal for $1.75?”
The fact that it was true, that the meal was cooked by a well-known French chef who previously had run a restaurant in Paris, and that my wife remembered it just as well as I did, did not absolve me from being tabbed a tiresome complainer. This was one of those complaints that one could classify under the sub-heading,  “those were the days”, the sort of complaint that old-timers like me are somewhat prone to indulge themselves in.
I still have such a tendency, and was reminded of it this week when some visiting friends, having taken for out for dinner, decided to finish their evening by going into a new-fangled ice cream shop. I looked over the board of offerings, and almost collapsed. The basic ice cream, than which nothing cheaper was on sale, came in at $4.95. Four dollars and ninety five cents for an ice cream scoop? Was I dreaming? In fact, not only was I not dreaming, but I was at the end of a lineup of mostly young people who were buying up these ice creams with abandon. Many of them were buying  special cones (another 99 cents); additional toppings (they actually called them by the invented name “mixins” whose lack of a final g also irritated me); and various other additional elements which could have taken the price up to $10 and possibly even more.
To the sales methods one had become accustomed to in Baskin-Robbins, Tom and Jerry’s or Haagen-Daz shops, this one had added a new twist: each scoop was taken to the back counter and weighed, as if it were a slab of meat or  fish. Talk about useless technology!
It made me think of the days when we would travel each weekend from Montreal to a cottage we had on a small lake 40 miles north of Montreal, not far from Shawbridge. On the way through the small city of St. Jerome, it became a ritual for us to stop at a local ice cream shop, that made its own product, and buy everyone a delicious and gigantic ice cream for 25 cents each. As we stood in the queue the other night I told one of my friends this, and he looked slightly askance at me, and said, “Of course, that was quite a time ago, I suppose.”
Well, not so long, it was in the early 1970s, although come to think of it, that was  40 years ago. Forty years may be four decades, getting on for half a century, and yet, I can’t really think of 1971 as being that long ago:  it was the year I quit my job as a staff journalist on a daily paper (after doing such work for 26 years), a change in my life that feels like it occurred the day before yesterday.  That was the year the Quebec government launched its James Bay hydro scheme in the hunting grounds of the Cree people, and the unjust  and harsh way they went about it still sticks in my craw; it was the year I got into making documentary films, more or less by accident. That came about as a result of a gesture of remarkable generosity by Tony Ianzelo and Colin Low, two employees of the National Film Board, and the thought of it still warms my heart, as if it happened yesterday. All these things are all still so lively in my mind that I am constantly surprised to find people believe 40 years is a long time ago.
Of course, I understand that the value of money changes, but still, $4.95 cents for a scoop of ice cream is a discombobulating increase. But then, how about weekend hotel specials for the unimaginably special low rate of  $350 a night? I noticed the other day a special price of $150 a night in a Montreal hotel whose cheapest room, when it opened was $9 a night. (I was on the hotel beat, and knew about these things, but I never dreamed a moment that any hotel room would cost $100). 
This is an industry that seems to make its own rules. I remember staying in a posh New York hotel once for $140 a night, a price that, said the accountant back in the home office, would have choked him. (I also remember moving into a $26 a night room in a waterfront hotel in Vancouver, and thinking, “My God, this is expensive. The office will never go for this. I better get a cheaper room,” so I went down and changed to a cheaper room.)
One of my sons argues when I complain about being ripped off by certain expensive restaurants. “Remember, they have to pay the rent for their premises, they have had to equip their whole restaurant with extremely expensive stuff, they have to maintain a large staff, they have to buy a great deal of food of the best quality, much of which, if they have a slow evening, will go to waste. They are providing you with excellent value.”
Still, admitting all that, I have never heard a convincing rationale for the recent sharp increase in the cost of restaurant meals, which allows some restaurants to charge $16 and sometimes even more for a hamburger. It is not long since we could buy a gourmet dish in a good restaurant for $10.
My wife and I used to enjoy going out for lunch, and we always managed it for something around $30 or $35 for both of us, which provided us with plenty of good food and drink. That same meal today would cost us $50 or $60. And I am only now getting used to going into a pub and being confronted with their usually poorly cooked food for prices like $15 to $22 a dish, A damned cheek they’ve got, if you ask me.
What’s wrong with me? It’s just that the monetary system seems to be deliberately skewed in such a way as to squeeze the average guy for the benefit of the monied classes. I defy anybody to prove otherwise.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Barack Obama, President of the United States o...
Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, with Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Link of the day:
April 21 2012

(“The aim of the robo-Conservative black-op was to obstruct anti-Tory voters from casting ballots. But it was also part of the broader agenda of Stephen Harper, Dalton McGuinty, and governments around the world, which is about a full frontal assault on popular power in all areas of life….In the age of austerity, governments around the world say they have no choice but to cut social assistance, pensions, public sector jobs, minimum wages and environmental
assessment programs. We're told that the masses are greedy and lazy and have been living beyond their means for too long. Now it's time to get real about what's affordable.
(“…politicians who serve the austerity agenda don't like even the limited version of capitalist democracy that exists today. It's why they're working hard to bring in new ways of ruling that allow them to erode the minimal democracy that's left within the official political system while leaving the official institutions in place. That's why in Greece, for example, the prime minister was forced to resign in late 2011 after merely raising the idea that unprecedented austerity policies be put to a national referendum. He was replaced by a non-elected technocratic leader who was given the freedom to impose the demands of European ruling classes without even the formal trappings of public accountability ….”)

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Jean-luc MELENCHONJean-luc MELENCHON (Photo credit: Parti socialiste)

Link of the Day April 17 2012

Jean-Luc Mélenchon? Never heard of him? He is the routinely denigrated (by the media commentariat) socialist candidate for president of France, who is putting forward, as this article from The Guardian newspaper shows, a programme of real socialist reform, and is winning support. Read this, and ponder the comparable, feeble policies of our own social democratic parties.

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

My Log 302 : Chasing Madoff: a film to shake anyone’s faith in the honesty of the capitalist system

Chasing MadoffChasing Madoff (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I saw a remarkable film last night, recommended to me by my son Thom, who gets most of his films through a web site called 1channel.

The film is called Chasing Madoff, and has been made by Jeff Prosserman about a Wall street employee called Harry Markopolos, and, in my humble opinion (or as the kids say nowadays IMHO) if you watch this movie and Ferguson’s Inside Job, which won an Academy Award last year, any faith you may have had in the capitalist system should be lying tattered in the gutter.

Of course, I don’t have any faith in it from the beginning, so that conclusion is easily reached for me. Others may be of greater faith.

The story is based on Markopolos and the reaction he had in 1991 when he first saw the figures produced by Bernie Madoff, who, as everyone now knows, conducted probably the biggest fraud in history, involving something like $30 billion of other people’s money.

“It took me five minutes to realize this was a fraud, it couldn’t be anything else, it was all there in the figures,” says Markopolos. “Five minutes.”

Of course, he could have just accepted it and stayed quiet, but, as he explains, he is not built like that. When he discovers a fraud, he wants to do something about it.

So, having consulted three friends within Wall street, who agreed with him, he painstakingly began to gather the evidence he would need to expose this fraud to the authorities.

To make a long story short, he gathered the evidence and sent it to the Securities and Exchange Commission of the US federal government, one of whose jobs is to protect the public from this kind of fraud. He waited for something to happen, but nothing happened.

At first Markopolos and his friends thought only $2.3 billion was involved; only gradually did they begin to realize the immense scope of Madoff’s ponzi scheme, in which he was always borrowing to pay off earlier borrowings, thus giving people the impression he was a safe, legitimate place to put their money. Investors were usually paid six to 10 per cent, but the problem with this kind of scheme is that eventually he is owing so much, and has to pay so much that the whole edifice comes crashing to the ground.

The guts of this story, however, is how successful Madoff was able to be, not just in North America, but as the searchers began to discover, all over Europe: in fact, he seemed to them to be bigger in Europe than in North America. And it was a notable fact that even when he was managing billions of other people’s money, he never showed up on the Wall Street radar as a recognized money manager. He worked away, but somehow or other remained more or less anonymous for many years.

Harry scurried around to identify investors who were being taken by this guy, but Madoff was such a pleasant fellow that none of them would believe he could do such a thing --- and after all, they were being paid all the time, so how could these guys be right?

In May 2001 they enlisted the support of a Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote a great article, and again they waited for something to happen. They waited one week, two, three, four, and now they were realizing that some $20 billion were involved in the scheme. They talked to investors as many as they could find, to banks, to charities, all of whom had dealings with Madoff ---- the film quotes one bank in Paris as saying, “Madoff is a safe place for our money, we never lose any money with Madoff.”

By this time Markopolos’s activities against Madoff were becoming well-known, and with the example of a whistleblower who had been rubbed out by the Mafia before him, he began to get really nervous. “Madoff was running money for offshore banks, which were also involved in organizing money-laundering and like activities for organized crime, but Harry’s gang of four, as one might call them, began to realize they were on their own. Funds that are known as “feeder funds” were making so much out of Madoff that they did not want to know, although, says Markopolos in the film, eventually many people in Wall street began to realize Madoff was running a fraud, but they simply shrugged and walked away. Some of these feeder firms agreed that if the SEC would call them, they would talk, and Harry handed this information on to the SEC. “But those calls were never made.”

At a point at which 29 red flags warning about Madoff had been identified, Harry managed to persuade another Wall Sreet Journal writer, one of the top investigative journalists in the country, about what was happening. He hesitated, wanting to be sure of his facts, but eventually he wrote the story, and Harry and his boys sat back and waited for the exposé. The article never appeared. “Someone higher up in the Wall Street Journal stopped that story cold.”

Markopolos says: “I began to wonder is there someone higher up in the government stopping this? By 2001 I came very close to giving it all up.”

In 2008 came the global financial crisis, and Bernie Madoff ran out of money. Finally it was the market that brought him down. He was arrested, and the government now admitted they had known all the facts for more than a decade. What had happened to the regulatory agencies, established specifically to see that this sort of thing doesn’t ever happen?

“You guys fell down on your job,” shouted a Senator at a line of chastened Wall street types during a congressional hearing.

In the end Madoff pleaded guilty, and went down without talking, facing a 150 year prison sentence. Harry Markopolos was honoured for his sterling work in tracking Madoff by a national organization of fraud examiners. He was described as a hero. “I’m no hero,” he said, “I don’t like it when people say that. I was just doing what I was supposed to do.”

Some 300 firms have since admitted having been involved with Madoff, but only 12 people have been arrested, while hundreds, perhaps even thousands of individuals were totally ruined, not to mention charities that Madoff also targetted.

Markopolos’s conclusion on the SEC: “It roars like a mouse, and fights like a flea.”

This whole story makes me think of a book I read a few years ago by a British writer called Gangster Capitalism. The author's thesis was that all this publicity about organized crime and its misdemeanours is encouraged by the corporate world to draw attention away from the far greater crimes of corporations, that are being perpetrated every day of the year, and going largely unpunished.

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Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Log 301:BC First Nations chiefs warn Harper: the days when we could be ignored are long gone

Prime Minister Harper has been reminded by a coalition of important British Columbia First Nations chiefs that Canada has constitutional responsibility to consult and accommodate First Nations people even in the making of vital economic and environmental decisions.
This letter should be regarded by Harper as a first shot across his bows as his government pushes on with a policy that, on the surface, seems likely to try to ignore First Nations protests against major directional changes by his government.
This letter reminds me forcefully of the moment in 1972 when the Cree people entered the Montreal courtroom to fight the proposal of the Quebec government to build the huge hydro project in their traditional lands in James Bay area. The lawyers for the Quebec government really did not believe they had a case to answer, an arrogance that was knocked out of them by the persistent six-month case presented by the Cree lawyer James O’Reilly, and by other lawyers representing the Inuit of northern Quebec.
The days when governments could simply ignore the wishes of First Nations are long over, as Harper and his gang are likely to discover to their cost in the next few months.
“We remind you that the Crown cannot legislate itself out of its duties to consult and accommodate First Nations,” the BC chiefs write to Harper in an open letter, commenting on the government’s decision to proceed with changes to the Fisheries Act, and weakening environmental regulations without any reference to First Nations whose lands lie in the path of the so-called Gateway pipeline that the government hopes will carry oil sands oil to the British Columbia coast for export.
The chiefs add: “Removing or weakening environmental reviews for projects will only result in greater uncertainty and conflict. We urge you to reconsider your position and work with First Nations to strengthen habitat protection for the continued survival of fish stocks and for the benefit of our future generations.
“We are similarly concerned with the changes we understand may be included in the Budget to environmental assessment legislation, and other environmental protection laws. These environmental laws and the processes established under them are a central part of the Crown’s relationship with First Nations. Changes to these laws, as with the Fisheries Act, should only be undertaken in meaningful consultation with First Nations, and to the extent these protections are changed they should be improved rather than weakened.
“A recent report by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination further emphasized the need for Canada to include Indigenous peoples in decision making, recommending that Canada ‘Implement in good faith the right to consultation and to free, prior and informed consent of Aboriginal peoples whenever their rights may be affected by projects carried out on their lands, as set forth in international standards and the State party’s legislation.’
“Further, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets out in Article 26(1) that ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied, or otherwise used or acquired.’
“We ask Canada to uphold its commitment to this important international doctrine. We also point out that Canada must uphold its commitments in existing treaties to protect fisheries under those treaties.
“Although your government is moving forward with potential economic development projects, this cannot be at the risk of the surrounding environment. We remind you that the Crown cannot legislate itself out of its duties to consult and accommodate First Nations…..”
The letter is sent in the name of the FIRST NATIONS LEADERSHIP COUNCIL, and is signed on behalf of the FIRST NATIONS SUMMIT by Grand Chief Edward John,
Chief Douglas White III Kwulasultun and Dan Smith;
on behalf of the UNION OF BC INDIAN CHIEFS, signed by
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip,Chief Bob Chamberlin, and
Chief Marilyn Baptiste; on behalf of the BC ASSEMBLY OF FIRST NATIONS, signed by Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould.