30 November 2008

November word cloud

created at TagCrowd.com

I had a pretty grumpy November if my posts for the month are any indication. This happens every year when the days get short and the weather nasty. This year, I've had time to write and thus share my dark thoughts, whereas in years past I suffered through them mostly alone. Some of my readers have indicated that they don't really appreciate my generosity. Now that we're within spitting distance of the solstice and my brain chemistry finally feels like it has adjusted to the darkness, I'll try to rant a little less. Unlesssomethingreallypissesmeoff.

Happy Birthday to my favourite guy!

28 November 2008

The original, unexpurgated Debt Rattle intro

Check out The Automatic Earth today. The following piece, (minus the snarky bits) is the intro for the daily Debt Rattle. Yep, written by yours truly.
In Canada, we're already fully recovered from our Thanksgiving festivities. We wisely take a long weekend in early October to gather with family to give thanks. The weather is often very fine and the fall foliage spectacular, allowing us to escape the usual family drama with a lovely walk outdoors. If all goes well we end the weekend with a vague sense of wellbeing (if only because the family has finally gone) and the fixings for some great sandwiches. The day after Canadian Thanksgiving is called Dieting Tuesday.

And so it is that I have no practical experience of Black Friday, the day after American Thanksgiving when door-crasher specials and deep discounts entice Americans into malls to start the Christmas shopping season. Wikipedia tells me that the term Black Friday was originally used by traffic cops and bus drivers in Philadelphia because of the headaches caused by the traffic jams downtown. Only later was it used as a moniker for the day on which retailers became profitable. Neither of these definitions is what jumps to my mind when I hear the term - rather I think of the devastation caused by the mining of minerals and the production of plastic, the poor working conditions of the assemblers, the pollution caused by shipping, the energy consumed in operating the gadgets and the future landfills overflowing with toxins all as a result of the frantic consuming of the world's wealthiest people.

As we enter the sputtering last days of late capitalism, the messages from the powers that be become more and more absurd. Drill! Buy! Bail! These are the panicky cries of the masters of an unravelling economic system based on exponential growth. The Canadian prime minister promised that in an effort to stimulate the economy he will open up uranium resources to foreign companies (presumably to rip it out of the ground faster) and relax environmental regulations for oil exploration and development in the Arctic. Canadians have been hearing this type of nonsense for so long we elected him instead of running him out of town. Corporations fill our mailboxes with advertising porn enticing us to spend spend spend. And generally, as good citizens of capitalist countries, we do. We consume to the limit of our incomes and often a good deal more. We listen to politicians explaining how the only solution is to give our grandchildren's money to bloated half-dead corporations and we mutter but we don't mutiny.

According to the bleating heads, now is a good time to buy a brand new V8 Dodge Charger. Chrysler is offering employee pricing and a major Canadian bank (the soundest banks in the world we're told) will provide 0% financing for 84 months. I'm astonished at the absurdity of this. It makes sense for Chrysler to try to unload these ugly, impractical symbols of excess, and that is where the sense ends. Even if I was a middle aged guy who hasn't achieved closure on some high school trauma and I thought owning one of these powerful gas guzzlers would make me whole, I would surely think twice about dropping my hard earned after-tax dollars on a car made by a near-bankrupt company notorious for producing unreliable vehicles. If I could, through denial or Prozac, get over that hurdle, I could probably also be convinced to avail myself of the opportunity to be indebted to RBC for the next seven years. If I was a loan officer at the bank though, I would automatically deny any applicant for a seven year loan on a Dodge Charger by simple virtue of the fact that to even consider such a thing is indicative of such poor judgment I wouldn't take the risk. Perhaps if I was a loan officer who happens to read TAE from time to time, I might take into consideration that the value of this car might rise from zero to something in year 3 or so of the loan as it is pressed into service as shelter for our unfortunate mid-life crisis and what's left of his family.

We just held a party using our children's cheap fuel, deep topsoil, abundant forests and clean water behaving like crack addicts frantically sampling every white speck, looking for more nature to keep the party going. We let ourselves be abused and lied to by governments and corporations because we didn't want to acknowledge that our way of life couldn't be sustained. And so we find ourselves still in the bar, minutes from closing time. We know the lights will come on and in the greenish glare, even in our impaired state, we'll recognize the ugly truth that we've wasted a lot of time and resources, hurt a lot of people and there's not a chance in hell of spending the rest of the night with someone remotely attractive. And even if we could afford the gas for our new Dodge Charger, we're too drunk to drive it home.

27 November 2008

Neoliberal weasels run amok

I usually rant about the state of the world in general without offering too much in the way of specifics. Not today. Today I'm specifically pissed at the prime minister, the minister of finance and whatever weasels they're keeping as advisors. It appears the bunch of them have just passed with flying colours Milton Friedman's Disaster Capitalism 101 course which he teaches by distance education from hell.

The current economic situation has given them the perfect opportunity to practice some of what they've learned. Jim Flaherty outlined the plan today. Firstly he cancelled federal funding for political parties. After all, 90 cents for every citizen of the country is an outrageous sum for an effective opposition. Second, he suspended the right of federal civil servants to strike for two years. That's because one should never pass on an opportunity to take away workers' rights. Pay equity settlements will now have to be negotiated in contract bargaining rather than through the Human Rights Commission to avoid "double pay equity" payments. Jim says we taxpayers have paid too much money to those angry women already. The government is granting an extension to the deadline for corporations to fully fund their pension plans. Those workers can be so annoying with all their bleating for pensions, and this will provide a little relief. The icing on this cake is the plan to sell government assets. This is well timed to ensure that the corporations who buy them spend as little as possible.

Read The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein if you haven't done so already to see what's going on here. The government is using the excuse of a financial crisis to kick the legs out from under workers while offering no meaningful assistance to anyone. Publicly owned assets will be practically donated to the private sector. And the party is just beginning.

24 November 2008

Forgive me...

There was a lot of advertising porn around the house this weekend and the entire family dove into it with gusto. It seems retailers have cranked up the heat to extract every possible penny from folks, and part of the strategy is sending out colourful flyers with tempting deal after tempting deal. I've had an eye out for a new camera ever since mine died in Norway this summer. I've been using M's perfectly decent camera, but the new ones still call out to me. They have beautiful colours and gazillions of pixels and image stabilization and big screens and they're thin and I need one.

After spending some time with the flyers, I realized I also need a GPS unit. That was a bit of a surprise to me, as I have been in a car with a GPS precisely once. I'm not sure how I missed knowing how much I needed one up til now, but I do. And I need a waffle maker. And an espresso machine and one of those denim work jackets they're selling at Lee Valley Tools. And if I don't get some LED Christmas lights I'll burst.

And seed catalogue season is just around the corner.

20 November 2008

Abandon magical thinking, all ye who enter here

Hope has taken a huge shit kicking in my mental space lately. I just finished watching Children of Men, a brutal but not inconceivable look at the near future. This after reading A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright and watching a talk by Derrick Jensen. Oh, and Joe Bageant's blog does some serious hope bashing, too. And that doesn't include the evening news.

I see my current lack of hope as acceptance, rather than despair. A significant ratcheting down of expectations based on what I see as overwhelming evidence of generalized collapse. Someone (Dan Gardner, if you must know) suggested I should read some optimistic stuff to counterbalance the negative. I couldn't actually find anything credible so I left it at that, but it reminded me that conventional thinking seems to be that the truth lies somewhere in the middle ground, but the location of said reasonable place is entirely dependent on where you put the ends. Just because I'm asking for a million dollar salary, it doesn't mean that 500k is reasonable.

Wishful thinking has been legitimized to the point that people can have serious conversations about the "law" of attraction and otherwise intelligent people look at reams of evidence that points to we're fucked and cling to the hope that some technological solution will cure our problems. We're encouraged to replace our old stuff with new stuff to minimize our impact, but we mustn't say out loud that there are too many people consuming way too much and the whole thing is a house of cards that shouldn't be propped up anyway.

Lest anyone worry about my mental state, I assure you I'm fine. It's a beautiful day, the birds are flitting around the feeder just outside the window, and I brew a fine cup of coffee. I'm warm and safe and so is my family, and that's good enough. No delusions required.

18 November 2008

This might pinch a little

Anyone who has read more than a few of my blog posts knows that I have a tendency to rant about over-consumption and the end of the world as we know it. I've just had my thermostat-lowering, paper-recycling, organic world view shaken up, once again, by Derrick Jensen. He's written a graphic novel with Stephanie McMillan called As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial. They basically advocate dismantling our entire industrial civilization, using whatever means possible. Last year, I read Endgame Volume 2, which if you make it through, will have you feeling guilty for not blowing up dams. The premise of both of these books is that as humans we have no right to destroy the livelihood of wild creatures for our own financial gain. He doesn't mean we should consume a little less and minimize our impact, he means we should cease and desist destroying the environment.

One thing that comes to mind is that our corporate civilization seems to be collapsing under the weight of its own excess without any help at all from one-eyed terrorist bunnies planting dynamite (read the book). Maybe that's not so bad. One thing's for certain. If you read Derrick Jensen, you'll never look at the status quo the same way again.

16 November 2008

What's going on for dummies

Stoneleigh from The Automatic Earth has posted a comment on Garth Turner's blog that sums up our current financial situation in the simplest terms possible. I've quoted the whole thing here so you don't have to search for it. Once you've read this a few times, you'll understand a whole lot more than your financial advisor or real estate agent will tell you.

A 1930s style depression is not impossible by any means. If governments could avoid a depression merely by printing money, then one would never have happened. Unfortunately, depressions do happen, because ‘money printing’ (monetizing debt) doesn’t cause inflation (ie an increase in the effective money supply) during a hurricane of credit destruction. Traditional money supply measures don’t capture the full picture.

Credit functions as a money equivalent during the expansion phase, but loses the quality of ‘moneyness’ once expansion morphs into contraction. As the vast majority of the effective money supply is currently credit, the collapse of credit will crash the money supply. As is already happening, ‘printing’ merely send money into a giant black hole of credit destruction, thanks to the hoarding mentality that has taken hold amongst banks due to the collapse of trust. Banks know what toxic waste they hold in their own vaults, and certainly aren’t going to trust their colleagues who almost certainly hold the same.

Attempts to stimulate interbank lending are failing miserably, because you can’t ‘print’ trust. Once a deleveraging event has begun, it will proceed to its natural conclusion - the point where the (small amount of) remaining debt is acceptably collateralized to the (few) remaining creditors. All governments can do is to make it worse in the meantime.

We are still in the very early stages of the deleveraging process, where toxic ‘assets’ are being shielded from the harsh light of day, so to speak. Eventually, there will be a mark-to-market event, however hard governments and central bankers try to avoid one, and that will precipitate a firesale of assets at pennies on the dollar.

Such an event cannot be avoided, at least partially due to the creation of perverse incentives in the derivatives market. For instance, allowing a third party to take out a credit default swap against a company they do not own is analogous to allowing me to take out fire insurance on your home, thereby giving me an incentive to burn it down for profit. We have yet to see the ‘burning down for profit’ phase, but it is coming, and when it does, the scale of counterparty risk in the CDS market will also be revealed. A large percentage of companies will not be able to collect on winning bets, and will therefore not be able to pay out on losing ones in turn. This will turn into a cascade event in a $62 trillion market, the effect of which will dwarf the credit destruction we’ve seen so far.

This event is truly global - thanks to the tight coupling in global financial markets, contagion inevitably spreads. The use of derivatives intended to mitigate risk has in fact led to systemic risk. There’s a reason why Warren Buffet refers to derivatives as financial weapons of mass destruction.

If you follow the global media, rather than just the blinkered North American version, you will see how many countries are already teetering on the brink as a result of the credit crunch. Check out Iceland, or Pakistan, the Ukraine, Spain, the UK, Ireland, much of eastern Europe and many more. Many of those countries had far worse housing bubbles than the US and have much further to fall as a result. To imagine Canada to be immune from such a conflagration is simply fanciful. Our real estate excesses have been less extreme, but our banking system is vulnerable, and our export economy will take an enormous hit.

Have you noticed the extent to which shipping is collapsing worldwide? Check out the Baltic Dry index for a leading indicator of the effect of the credit crunch on the real economy. The letters of credit that used to be routine are no longer available, so goods do not move. We live in a just-in-time economy and the paralysis of shipping will eventually lead to empty shelves.

This crisis is very much larger than merely real estate. Liquidity, the supply of which ultimately depends on trust, is the lubricant in the economic engine. Without a sufficient supply, that engine will seize up, just as it did in the 1930s. With no means to connect buyers and sellers, people can starve amid plenty, as they did then. In the 1930s both resources and real skills were plentiful, expectations were nowhere near so inflated and we had none of the structural dependencies on cheap energy and credit that we have now. Without cheap energy and cheap credit, our highly complex socioeconomic system cannot function. A long and painful readjustment is not just likely, but inevitable.

How to avoid Harperville

Have a listen to this episode of the NPR radio show This American Life. There's an eye opening segment of Studs Terkel talking to people who lived through the depression in the US. It sounds pretty grim until one of the interviewees talks of being taken to see a huge shanty town where people lived in old cars and fruit crates cobbled together. Then you see just how much worse it could get. But this is not much different than how millions of people currently live in the slums of the cities of the third world.

So why do most of us, who depend on wages or retirement benefits to feed ourselves, feel so immune from this kind of poverty? It may turn out that our jobs, retirement funds and the promises the government has been making to us over the last fifty years about using our money to ensure we don't ever have to live in dire poverty aren't worth much anymore. The federal governments of the world's wealthiest countries have decided to test the laws of thermodynamics by throwing money at big corporations to encourage economic growth in an environment of diminishing energy production. Since we know the economists were not paying attention in high school physics class (that's why they studied economics in university), the rest of us can just watch while they learn this lesson first hand. Of course, they haven't finished learning that the money from nothing trick was a Ponzi scheme, so this physics lesson is going to get quite expensive.

If so, we should all probably start living as though we could face hard times, too. Learning to live with less money and using less energy are two of the biggest things I can think of. Having a well-stocked pantry could allow you to ride out a short term crisis and keep you out of lines at supermarkets. And pay attention to what's going on. Remember that conventional wisdom has a habit of shifting suddenly, and while it used to seem sensible to take on mortgages, student loans and lines of credit to finance a middle class life, these things could seem as imprudent as a payday loan if the deflationary spiral continues much longer.

Really though, even if the economy was roaring ahead and we were all flush with money, if we were thinking about our neighbours in the global south, or our grandkids, we'd still be trying to live smaller, simpler lives. After all, how much economic growth can the planet take?

14 November 2008

Bloomin' heck!

A couple of years ago, we received this Thanksgiving cactus as a gift. Ever since, it has bloomed twice a year in spite of the minimal care it has received. The flowers are so large and vivid, they hardly seem real.

12 November 2008

Time for the annual Christmas rant

I wish Christmas was like Thanksgiving. A holiday with very little baggage. Of course, there are some people who get hung up on whether it's a Christian holiday or a pagan harvest festival and whether those things are good or bad, but for most of us, it's an opportunity to share a nice meal with family and be grateful, if only that the turkey is not too dry this year. In Canada, we wisely celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October which tends to be the peak of autumn colour and is often a lovely mild day. We enjoy a long weekend, maybe take a drive in the country and that's it. Unless you count planning and buying groceries for a big meal, there isn't much preparation required. There are no parties with people at work, no gift buying, no Santa lie to perpetuate with kids, no chocolate, no stockings, no dead trees, no light displays, no wrapping, no expectations, no cards, no political correctness, no advertising, no credit card hangover, no concerts, and no pressure to buy anything. It's basically even optional, with no explanation required if you choose to opt out (except to your mother, and even she will get over it).
Thanksgiving has such a nice small footprint compared to Christmas. The food tends to be locally grown (or could easily be, with a little awareness) and other than the travel, celebrating Thanksgiving doesn't much change your environmental impact. Christmas is another story. Last year I figured out that the amount of money I budgeted for Christmas gifts for my more-than-adequately-possessioned family was more than what 15% of the world's population earns in an entire year. I get the same feeling when I see the tons of gold, red and green plastic crap in every retail outlet as I do when I see farmland destroyed for more McMansions or yet another big box mall.
Every year I rant about Christmas, every year I get accused of being a grinch, every year I reluctantly participate to appease others' expectations (not least of which are my own child's) and every year I grit my teeth until the “holiday season” is over. I expect this year to be no different. I will, however, happily mark the longest night with a warming beverage, lest anyone think me too Puritan.

11 November 2008

Lacto-fermented ginger beer...really

I've been raising this ginger bug on the counter for the past while. Every day I feed it some grated ginger and a bit of sugar. After a week or so, it starts bubbling and becomes the basis for a batch of ginger beer. The ginger beer is dry, a little fizzy, and very gingery. Delicious! Oh, and did I mention, loaded with lactobacilli, those friendly little organisms that keep your digestive system working?

I followed the recipe from Wild Fermentation, the book, but there's a similar recipe here.

06 November 2008

It's not easy being green

I've written before on some ideas from the book Radical Simplicity by Jim Merkel. In it, he prescribes a solution to the problem that we're using up considerably more of the world's resources than is sustainable. There are two main issues: first, there are too many people in the world, and second, some of those people are using way more than their share. He gives the example of billions of people in line at an all-you-can-eat buffet, where everything is pretty much picked over by the time the first billion have gone through. His solution is a radical downscaling in consumption (for the developed world) and population. Lest we get smug about those poor people and their large families, he reminds us that reducing population in the developed world would have a greater impact on overall consumption than reducing population in the developing world because of our much larger footprint.

What exactly are we talking about? Well, according to Jim, the planet can support about one billion people consuming about a quarter of what the average North American consumes today. Since no one is advocating any kind of mass die off, the only sensible way to reduce population is to stop having so many kids. Mathematically, this is surprisingly easy: if everyone alive today limited themselves to one child or less, the world's population would be one billion in a hundred years. Practically – well, it ain't gonna happen. For arguments sake let's suppose we were on the path to a billion people, now, how could we consume a quarter of what we do now? Well, it's simple but it's not easy. We would simply own a quarter of what we own, use a quarter of the electricity, live in a one quarter size house, drive a quarter of the distance, eat a quarter of the food, do a quarter of the things, and generally live a much smaller life than we do now. A simpler way of visualizing all of this is to imagine living on $5000 a year, roughly a quarter of what the average North American lives on.

What would that look like? Well, for the purposes of this exercise, I'm not going to count income taxes or government or employer provided benefits which are deducted from a paycheck, even though they represent consumption, just because it's way too complicated. So let's assume we have $5000 cash money for each member of our 3 person family. We're up to $15000 for the year or $1250 per month. The good news is that we'll have no expenses associated with owning, maintaining or operating a car. The bad news is we'll have no car. Living car-free is possible, but we'll have to be careful about where we choose to live. It will have to be close to work, shopping, recreation and public transit, so we won't get to take advantage of cheaper rents in more rural areas. I think we could budget no more than $600 for rent. A quick check of the rentals available in our nearest urban area finds nothing other than single rooms in private homes available at that price but there are a couple of townhouses in the $1100 range, so we'll share a 3 bedroom townhouse with someone else. Sharing a home will allow us to share the electricity and heating costs as well: so total housing costs will be about $650 per month. That's shelter taken care of - on to food: I spend over $600 per month on groceries, but I am prone to buying luxury items like fresh vegetables and coffee. With our global justice budget, no more than $400 per month can be allocated to food. This includes groceries, restaurant meals and alcoholic beverages. If each of us takes the bus 5 trips a month, at $4 per round trip, our monthly transportation cost is $60. The remaining $140 per month can be spent anyway we choose on clothing, recreation, toilet paper, haircuts, laundry, music lessons, telephone, internet service, bank service charges, tenants insurance, library fines, dentists or charitable donations.

Well, this isn't so bad. We're warm, dry, safe and fed and still better off than 85% of the world's population. But living like this would be difficult and stressful. A bout of strep throat could force a decision about whether to buy medicine or groceries. This budget obviously has no room for debt repayment, higher education or much in the way of “stuff”. On the other hand, 2 adults working 2 days a week at $10 per hour could earn all the money required. So there could be plenty of time. Time that could be spent trading music lessons for haircuts, reading, tending a garden or visiting with friends.

Keep in mind that this “simple life” is only sustainable with one billion people on the planet. With close to a billion people already living like this or better, and the remaining 6 billion or so aspiring to, the ability of the planet to support us all is going to be severely tested. You see how overwhelmingly large this problem is. As long as the capitalist religion is being preached from every government, academic and corporate pulpit and people are urged to spend out of patriotism and procreate for the New Jerusalem we're just not going to make any progress. We're told that the American way of life is not negotiable. We're told we can reduce our global footprint by changing lightbulbs, not lifestyles. Don't believe it.

05 November 2008

Good choice

How refreshing. We woke up this morning to find our American neighbours had done the right thing in electing Barack Obama. It's like the first day of school, with clean notebooks and possibilities. We know it won't last - it never does - but we can enjoy it for a while. In contrast, in Canada we've just elected a leader with all the charisma of the vice-principal who really wanted to be an actuary. Even knowing that disappointment is inevitable, I'm a little jealous.

04 November 2008

Eating like birds

We're signed up with Project Feederwatch this year. We'll record all the birds we see at our feeders during the winter. We often have half a dozen different varieties of birds as well as red and black squirrels, chipmunks and the occasional cat at any given time. We seem to have deterred the raccoons by coating the feeder pole in vaseline, which they really really do not like on their paws.

01 November 2008

Clear skies tonight

The picture doesn't do justice to the beautiful view out our back windows tonight. The sky was as clear as it gets here, and the crescent moon and Venus were stunning. Our view was greatly expanded today, as well, due to the removal of some cedars that were blocking the midday sun.


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