Monday, August 31, 2009

Desperate For Good News

I was surprised (pleasantly I think) by the media's coverage of Canada's GDP numbers. I read a note from RBC this morning that said consensus was that Canada's 2nd quarter GDP would shrink by 3% and that anything worse than that would be negative to the Canadian dollar. Actual 2nd quarter growth fell far short of that and yet the media have jumped on this as a good news story:

Canada's economy grew for the first time in 11 months in June, providing a glimmer of hope at the end of a period that still marked the country's third consecutive quarter of economic contraction.

Gross Domestic Product increased 0.1 per cent in June from May, led by drillers of oil and gas, wholesalers and real estate agents, Statistics Canada reported Monday.

Over the second quarter as a whole, GDP shrank at an annual rate of 3.4 per cent, compared with a contraction of 6.1 per cent in the first three months of the year, as exporters continued to struggle to find markets amid the deepest global downturn since the Second World War.

Statscan's latest GDP figures reinforce the Bank of Canada's outlook. The central bank, led by Governor Mark Carney, predicted last month that Canada's first recession since 1992 would end this quarter and begin a long, slow climb out of the hole created by the financial crisis.

I've gotta commend the media for finding the silver lining. People really are desperate for good news and it looks like we've found it.

Also I've gotta feel for the RBC forecaster, he was right about weaker overall growth in the quarter, but he got the market reaction all wrong.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Catholic Schools Outperform

This story made the front page of the Guelph Mercury last week. Apparently Catholic students in Ontario outperform public school students by a significant margin in standardized tests. I really wanted to title the post "Catholics are Smarter" but there's not enough data to support that statement - at least not beyond grade 6. Even so the C. D. Howe Institute report was bold in it's conclusions:

Students in Catholic schools perform better than their counterparts in the public education system, believes an analyst who has extensively studied Ontario's schools.

“For reasons we don't necessarily know, Catholic schools do better in Ontario,” said David Johnson of the independent C.D. Howe Institute.

“My conclusion is that Catholic boards are better. No matter how you slice this data, the Catholic boards outperform the public boards.”

The institute's latest report on education notes 10 of the top 11 schools in the province – based on test results of students in grades three and six – are Catholic schools.

Johnson, an economics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, noted across the province, students in Catholic schools always do better than their public board peers.

That's a pretty solid endorsement of Catholic education. Parents take note.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Welcome Warning from the Bank of Canada

I caught this story on the radio this morning:

In a speech Tuesday, the Bank of Canada's deputy governor, Timothy Lane, said there was a real danger that the nascent recovery would be hobbled if the dollar continued to rise.

"A persistently strong Canadian dollar would reduce real growth and delay the return of inflation to target," Lane said. "If a stronger dollar were to alter the path of projected inflation … we would need to take that into account."

Finally! The rapid rise in the Canadian dollar has put a crushing burden on exporters and our fragile economy can't afford the massive drag that the dollar's rise creates. So far the Bank of Canada has avoided taking measures like increasing the money supply through quantitative easing even though the American government increased it's money supply drastically at the beginning of the financial crisis and has shown little effort to reign the money supply back in.

The Bank of Canada and our government should continue to make every effort to ensure fluctuations in the exchange rate don't wreak havoc on our economy.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

My Reading List Just Got Longer

I'm still coming to terms with the fact that I read this book review in the Toronto Star. James Grainger has high praise for David Adams Richard's book, "God Is. My Search for Faith in a Secular World." I hadn't heard of this author before, but he's being compared with some pretty heavy hitters.
Author David Adams Richards is regarded as a rare voice of moral and spiritual certainty in the Canadian literary scene, rejecting the postmodern ambiguities of most of his fellow novelists and earning comparisons to Hardy, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Richards' best fiction dramatizes the struggle of those rare heroic individuals who try to live by faith, and the almost equally heroic individuals whose struggles with sin and temptation often drive them to destruction.
The book appears to tell a personal story of God's active involvement his life as well as targeting a deeply entrenched bias against religion in Canada:

Richards was raised as a Catholic, and though he fell away from the church as a young man and still quarrels with many of its teachings, he has found his way back to the faith again and again. In God Is., Richards shares his personal and theological enquiry into the nature of faith, broadly defined as the belief in a fundamental meaning and order to life, one created and sustained in the individual believer by periodic glimpses of God's love and guiding presence.

That Richards' novels of sin and faith have attracted a largely non-religious (and certainly non-Catholic) readership is proof of his talent and vision. But to make an argument, in non-fiction form, that our struggles with faith and sin define us as human beings is a pretty bold move.

As Richards argues in the book's first section, a bias against religion, especially the Christian religion, is practically de rigueur for even mildly progressive types these days. (No less an authority than Brad Pitt recently stated that he understood why gay couples would want to marry but he couldn't understand why people still needed religion.)

That bias, Richards claims, is particularly strong in the Canadian literary community, where the denigration of religious belief is a "kind of swaggering doctrine that in its own way is as rigid in its essential belief as the evangelical or Catholic dogma it mocks."

Richards is not the first to make the point that atheism or secularism requires just as much 'faith' in unprovable assertions, nor is he the first to show how decidely illiberal 'liberal' thinkers can be. However, anti-Christian bias seems particularly strong in Canada, and I wish Mr. Richard every success in battling against it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A False Controversy

Today the Globe and Mail asks the question, 'Were Afghans Brave Enough?' as they reported claims that Taliban intimidation may call the result of Afghanistan's election into question:
Millions of Afghans braved Taliban threats to cast their ballot in a crucial presidential election Thursday as doubts surged over whether the turnout was enough to deliver a credible result.
The answer already seems clear. Yes, Afghans were brave enough. The reasons come directly from the article itself:
United Nations, American, Canadian and Afghan officials praised the election as a success, with Washington expressing cautious optimism that Afghans would respect the result.
The optimism is well founded considering that:
The violence fell well short of what was initially threatened by Taliban commanders who had vowed to deploy dozens of suicide bombers on voting day, promising death and dismemberment to anyone who dared vote.
While the threats may have been effective at intimidating some voters to stay home, John Manley's analysis seems apt:

John Manley, Canada's former foreign minister, monitored the election as part of a delegation from the National Democratic Institute. He saluted the bravery of Afghan voters. “If somebody told me I would have my right index finger cut off if I voted, it would certainly impact me. These are courageous people,” he said of those Afghans who cast a ballot. . .

Mr. Manley said in the coming days, everyone needed to take a step back: “You can't necessarily say this election needs to be perfect. It clearly won't be perfect, but the question we need to answer is, does it overall reflect the will of the Afghan people.”

There doesn't appear to be any reason to think that the result won't be accepted. The Taliban will not be able to orchestrate a popular uprising because the people they disenfranchised will be highly unlikely to join with them regardless of the result. Mainstream media should be careful about casting unnecessary doubt on the result.

The Foremost Responsibility of a National Government

Stephen Harper's visit to highlight our military exercises in the North is timely and necessary as other nations set their sights on Canada's rich natural resources. While it might seem like just another photo-op, our Prime Minister made a pretty bold philisophical statement on board the HMCS Toronto:

"Protecting national sovereignty, the integrity of our borders, is the first and foremost responsibility of a national government," Harper said.

"It is a responsibility that has too often been neglected in our history."

That's absolutely true. With all the debate about health care and social programs, it's easy to forget that government's first responsibility is our security. The Obama administration would do well to listen to that advice as well.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

United Breaks Guitars: Song 2

After last month's YouTube sensation, United Breaks Guitars, Dave Carrol is back with the second song in the trilogy. It's as original as the first and definitely worth the 3 minutes to give it a listen.

I heard the original on the radio during my drive in to work and it just made me happy. I quite enjoy the sound of Sons of Maxwell and Dave Carroll. I may have to download one or more of the songs, it'll be great driving music.

Gran Torino

Gran Torino is an amazing, uplifting movie. If you haven't seen it rent it.
It's about an angry old man who first despises and then protects his Vietnamese neighbours. The characters are all very real and they all grow throughout the movie. I don't know what to say except that it's excellent, and that it has a very positive portrayal of the Church, which is rare for Hollywood.
If you follow the link to the Wikipedia article, you'll see the movie was from 2008. I found that strange because it wasn't on the Oscar pool that I filled out earlier this year. Hmm. . . that's probably another post altogether.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Steyn Makes a Good Point

I'll admit, I find it hard to care too much about the great debate on Obamacare. I will say that the level of service I received when I went to an emergency room in the US blew my mind when I'm used to waiting in line just to be ignored here in Canada. Americans are rightly concerned that under a nationalized system the level of care they can expect will steadily decrease.

What I find most interesting about the debate though is the fundamental, philosophical arguments that are being brought forward. One of the most interesting points was how becoming dependant on governments to meet all our basic needs hurts society. I read it first in a Macleans article by Mark Steyn:

A few weeks ago, Charles Murray gave a speech in Washington on “the European
model.” Please, no Carla Bruni gags. Mr. Murray is a very sober political scientist, and he eschewed such time-honoured jests.

Nonetheless, it was an arresting address, beginning with this diagnosis of “the European model’s” principal defect: “It drains too much of the life from life,” said Murray. “And that statement applies as much to the lives of janitors—even more to the lives of janitors—as it does to the lives of CEOs”—or novelists or musicians. As Murray sees it, government social policy is intended to take “some of the trouble out of things”—getting sick, having a kid, holding down a job, taking care of elderly parents. But, when government takes too much of the trouble out of things, it makes it impossible to lead a satisfying life.

“Trouble”—responsibility, choices, consequences—is intimately tied to human dignity. And thus the human dignity in working hard, raising a family and withstanding the vicissitudes of life has been devalued. And society is just a matter of passing the time.

It's true, it's in overcoming our 'troubles' that we gain both valuable experience and satisfaction.

Keep Life Jackets Optional

Yesterday the Ontario Provincial Police issued a press release calling for laws to make wearing life jackets mandatory when boating:

In the wake of a number of boating tragedies on Ontario waterways, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Commissioner Julian Fantino supports a review by
Transport Canada of legislation to make the wearing of life jackets or personal flotation devices (PFD) mandatory when boating.

A total of 23 persons lost their lives in 2008 while boating on waterways policed by the OPP and this year 20 people have perished. Only 2 casualties this season were wearing life jackets or PFDs. Since 2000, 350 people have lost their lives in boating incidents and of them, only 13 per cent were wearing life jackets.

"The vast majority of boaters are good, law-abiding people. We know that mandatory life jacket or PFD use will start saving lives immediately," Commissioner Fantino said. "It's already been a summer filled with needless tragedy for many families. Many of these deaths would have been prevented," added Fantino.

Saving lives is commendable, but I really hope this law doesn't come to pass. The law already requires a life jacket for each person in the boat. If there's any question at all about safety then most people would voluntarily put on their life jackets.

In most cases boating is a recreational activity that involves nice weather and calm water, it's more than rational to want to spend some of that time on the boat soaking up the sun and a hot, bulky life vest doesn't exactly lend itself to getting a tan or enjoying a breeze on a hot summer day. 20 deaths are 20 too many, but this must be an absolutely miniscule fraction of the number of people on the water each summer. This is one area where the risk should be up to the individual. Boaters who choose not to wear a life jacket aren't putting anyone else at risk and they are simply maximizing their enjoyment of the great outdoors. Let them be.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Canadian Government Must Not Delay Help for Hog Farmers

The American government seems poised to offer help to the hog industry in the form of loans, government purchases of pork, and help accessing markets:

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced that USDA is undertaking an unprecedented effort to use the department's administrative flexibility to provide relief to individuals and businesses in struggling agriculture industries.

Vilsack has ordered USDA Rural Development and the Farm Service Agency to use all available means to help producers, processors and other small businesses who have been hit by worsening economic conditions.

"The Obama Administration is committed to doing everything it can to help families and businesses in agriculture to get through these tough economic times," said
Vilsack. "Not only is this effort critical to restoring economic prosperity in America's rural communities, it is essential to ensure that Americans continue to have access to a safe, secure, and healthy food supply."

And in addition to the loans:
The governors of nine key pork-producing states sent President Obama a letter Friday urging him to rescue an industry that's been battered by high commodity prices and worries about disease. "Today, the pork industry is facing an economic crisis that is catastrophic in nature," the governors said in the letter. They urged Obama to purchase an additional $50 million in pork for government nutrition programs, eliminate a ceiling on how much surplus product the Agriculture Department can buy and push to expand export markets, primarily to China.
Pretty reasonable really, nothing on the scale of the bank and auto bailouts. So why the vicious attack on Canadian hog farmers for doing the same thing? The Financial Post reported Friday:

Aid for Canadian hogs will read as an attack on farmers in the United States, Canada’s largest market, where producers say they’ll do what they can to stop the proposal.

“Essentially, what this does is it transfers suffering among pork producers from north of the border to south of the border, and we’re not going to stand by and let that happen,” said Nick Giordano, vice-president of the U.S. National Pork Producers Council. “We’re not going to want to wait. We’re going to scream bloody murder. We’re going to go political.”

What he means is a trade action, the kind that cost Ontario hog producers $5 million to defend less than 5 years ago. It's an empty threat. In order for the Americans to defend a duty they need to show injury and typically that involves increased shipments into the US market. However, the Canadian hog industry has shrunk dramatically in response to low prices, high feed costs, unfavourable exchange rates, and trade challenges like Country of Origin Labelling and the H1N1 impact on export markets. The Canadian Pork Council has put forward a very mild ask of the Canadian government for loans to help farmers restructure their operations and a program to help others exit the industry. The American industry looks like it will receive the same kind of help, there's no time for delay.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Newfoundlanders Fight Back

I've just returned from a vacation to Newfoundland. The Newfoundlanders have a great sense of humour - some of them certainly tell the best Newfie jokes. On the Island I found out they're pretty good at laughing at the rest of us too. Here are two examples. A Newfie told me:
A group of American tourists in Newfoundland went down to the harbour to buy some fresh lobster, but they didn't know how to cook them they asked the Newfies what to do. The Newfies said boil some water and throw in the lobster. So the Americans lit a big fire on the beach put a big pot on top and let it boil. When it was time to throw the lobsters in the Americans just couldn't bring themselves to kill the lobsters so they ran up the hill and released the lobsters in the forest.
But it's not just Americans the Newfies poke fun at. Driving through Gander I heard this advertisement on the radio:

Toronto used to be a great city . . . It used to have the world's tallest free standing structure, now it's the second tallest. . .

It used to be a clean city now they can't even handle their garbage. . .

They used to have a good hockey team, but the Maple Leafs haven't won a Stanley Cup in over 40 years. . .

Toronto needs your help . . .

Fly direct to Toronto from Gander International Airport.

Aside from the humour and the genuinely friendly people, it's a great vacation spot. There's breath taking scenery every where you go, a rich history, amazing wildlife on land and at sea and great parties. Plan a visit sometime.