Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sharing Work and Food - Imagine That

Here's an article by Wayne Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council, quoted in full because I don't know how to link to it on Facebook.

BY Wayne Roberts

Unlike most people, Thomas Homer-Dixon doesn't think today's world economic crisis is very complicated. He thinks it's very complex, which makes for a world of difference in understanding which government anti-recession programs will fail (most of them) and deciding which ones can help.

Homer-Dixon, who chairs a centre for global systems analysis at the University of Waterloo, is one of the world’s leading thinkers in the field of “complexity theory,” and the author of several international bestsellers, including The Ingenuity Gap and The Upside of Down. He brings a missing dimension to thinking about remedies to the looming economic collapse that that’s so far been excluded from public and media debate. “If ever there was a case of experts not knowing what’s happening, it’s this economic crisis,” he says.

Hang in for the introductory lecture on Chaos Theory 101, and you’ll be able to follow and lead the economics debate in fresh ways.

Homer-Dixon is the first to admit he has no straight-ahead answers to a downturn that’s much more challenging that the Great Depression of the 1930s, to which it’s often unthinkingly compared. “We’ve never seen a collapse on this scale before in an environment of such enormous complexity and such a huge number of unk-unks,” he says, in a reference to the term used during his days working with Pentagon analysts who referred to unknown unknowns.

The way in which a relatively small proportion of mortgage defaults in one country during the fall of 2008 precipitated the collapse of a global economic house of cards expresses a telltale, if seemingly illogical, sign of complex systems in crisis – a very small cause leading to a very huge result, like the final grain of snow or shift of wind that produce a mountain avalanche.

But in Homer-Dixon’s view, that small cause, and even slightly bigger versions of that small cause – the breakdown of integrity in the global financial system, or the inequality that put home purchases beyond the reach of typical families, for example – is only a small part of an overall mix of “cascading failures.” His list of factors converging into a catastrophic perfect storm include intensified inequality, increased global warming, rising resource prices, and the “sheer productivity of capitalism – in many ways the deepest of all causes,” he says, since it produces chronic gluts in desperate search for markets. Together, they overloaded a rigid and “tightly coupled” global financial system that spread uncontrollable wildfires.
“Multiple stresses that reinforced each other” led to “a collapse of assets greater and faster” than anything witnessed during the simpler days of the Great Depression, he says. That’s why simplistic and one-dimensional rhetoric from politicians and pundits about fixing the problem, putting the pieces back together, and managing the crisis betrays a failure to understand what’s going down, he says. “Complex problems require complex solutions. It’s the law of requisite variety. We need a repertoire of responses as complex as the environment. “We must move from management to complex adaptation.”

Just as bodies under stress require core strength in the lower abdomen, economies and societies under shock require sources of core strength, what hip policy experts increasingly refer to as “robustness” and “resilience.” Government policy makers need to focus their view on the prize of supporting resilience in the population. Failure of governments to be on constant alert for the pitfalls of economic giantism or to be on guard for stresses in social resilience “is like not requiring cities to be earthquake-proof,” he says.

“Resilience means helping people to take care of themselves better in tough times,” rather than relying on specialization and expertise, he says, a guideline that puts a community’s ability to feed itself and care for each other at the top of his to-do list.

Here’s how I simplify Homer-Dixon’s analysis, in ways that he may or may not agree with.

When public money is used to keep enterprises afloat, the public has a right to demand that public benefits be spread among the general public. In my opinion, a longstanding (if best-kept secret) of Canadian employment insurance policy should be extended to all public enterprises and bailed-out private enterprises, including car companies and banks. Canada’s federal government allows workers at a company facing lay-offs to opt for everyone sharing the layoff by working a four day week, and everyone sharing the employment insurance by being covered on their one day a week of unemployment. This measure does not cost the employment insurance system a dime, since five people taking a payout for a day is the same as one person taking a payout for a week. It allows a workforce to stay intact for better times, maintains morale among workers and within a community, and protects younger workers with families, a group unlikely to enjoy high seniority.

This simple measure would abolish unemployment overnight, maintain purchasing power in the community, and buy people the time to become more resilient and self-reliant in their own lives, by gardening, cooking from scratch or insulating their walls, for example. It would even give people some time to sleep, the least acknowledged of the crucial determinants of health and well-being.

Only the epidemics of workaholism and every-man-for-himselfishism have kept this obvious low-pain remedy off the agenda for so long.

Having bolstered purchasing power in the community-at-large, the multiplier effect of that purchasing power needs to be captured for public benefit by requiring all government and publicly-bailed-out institutions to purchase local and local-sustainable food, recognizing that the food industry already produces almost as many jobs as the auto industry and can directly employ local people. Since one job for a local farmer commonly leads to five jobs producing farm inputs or off-farm processing, this doable measure is an employment bonanza that also yields major health and environmental benefits. This also fulfils Homer-Dixon’s call for self-reliant and unplugged systems that remove essentials of life from the vagaries of uncontrollable forces.

This depression does not have to hurt. Get beyond the complications into the complexity, and discover what Homer-Dixon calls “the upside to down.”

(adapted from NOW Magazine, February 26-March 4, 2009. Wayne Roberts is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.)

Friday, February 27, 2009

BBC's The Big Read top 100 books

A friend passed this on. She says the BBC believes the average person will only have read 6 books from this list. At least 6 of these I had to read for school. It is definitely a British list but there are several important books on it.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings X
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – X
6 The Bible - X (though I may have skimmed the begats)
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell X+
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott X
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller (started but didn't finish)
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare - hahahaha! About 5 or 6 of them
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier X
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien X+
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - X
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald X
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams - X+
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck X
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll – X+
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame X
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy -
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis X
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis – X+
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini – X
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne – X+
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell X
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown -
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery - X+
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood -X
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding X
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan X
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel X+
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley X
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck - X
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac -
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding -
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville -
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens -
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett - X+
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce - (I tried, oh how I tried!)
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola - (I tried this one in French but didn't finish)
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White - X
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - X (I think so)
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery X
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare - X
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl - X
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Read - 31
Loved - 9

Recent reads that I really enjoyed:
Eva Hoffman - Lost in Translation
Heather O'Neill - Lullabies for Little Criminals
Milan Kundera - The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Sara Gruen - Water for Elephants

Currently reading (both nonfiction):
Tony Horwitz - Confederates in the Attic
Ronald Wright - Stolen Continents

On my reading shelf just waiting for me to get to them:
Isabel Allende - Eva Luna
Marie Phillips - Gods Behaving Badly
Dionne Brand - What we all Long For
Alexandra Fuller - Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Purple Hibiscus

Anyone else have any good reads to suggest?

To participate, say on Facebook, copy and paste into your own notes then delete my comments add your own and tag the friends you want to share this with.

1) Look at the list and put an 'x' after those you have read.
2) Add a '+' to the ones you LOVE.
3) Star '*' those you plan on reading.
4) Tally your total at the bottom.
5) Tag your friends including the person whose list you saw!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Worst Headline Ever

If there were an annual worst headline award, The Sun would probably win pretty much every year. Today's paper screamed "'Enormous' fraud at City Hall"

It makes it sound as though the city council or mayor has been caught doing something corrupt or fraudulent. Reading the article, one finds out there were 9 civil servants (working in social services) who are accused of insurance scams with Manulife, the city's supplier of health insurance. They allegedly made fake claims. This is being investigated, has been turned over to the Toronto Police right now, and the city sent the accused employees home (with pay, which is necessary when a charge is unproven).

Rob Ford, (the only councillor interviewed in this article on the same topic, opined "I've always said corruption is rampant at City Hall," he said. "I believe this is the tip of the iceberg."

The city is scrutinized in ways the federal and provincial governments aren't. The city is more efficient than any other level of government - it has to be - and yet, it is constantly being accused of waste. Our city budget is well in line with other large North American cities, it supplies services many other cities don't have to (due to good old Mike Harris), and every penny is watched. If 9 low-level employees of a company which employed over 50,000 were to scam their health insurance, nobody would claim the company itself was corrupt.

City News coverage of the same story

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Call for Submissions to Briarpatch

I like this magazine and it seems they are looking for submissions for their upcoming edition "How I learned to stop destroying the planet and love the global recession"
What if the economic recession we're presently experiencing
is not just a regrettable temporary setback in the never-ending
march of growth-fuelled prosperity, but the beginning of a
painful but ecologically necessary process of scaling back
our footprint to a more sustainable level?

How would we manage the decline so as to ensure the burdens
are shared out equitably? How would we go about reorganizing
our society and economy around conservation and community
well-being rather than economic growth and short-term profit?

The revolution envisioned above would require a fundamental
transformation in every aspect of our lives -- our jobs, our
homes, our food system, our arts and entertainment, etc.
It's certainly beyond the scope of a single issue of Briarpatch
to describe, but in our July/August 2009 issue, we hope to
sketch out some of the broad contours and specific
opportunities so our readers can get to work on the rest.

What principles should guide our efforts to reorganize our
lives and communities on a human scale? What initiatives
already underway deserve to be profiled, celebrated, and
imitated? What can we learn from what other people are doing
in other parts of the world? What books and films shed light
on the key issues and should be reviewed? How can our
efforts to cope with the global recession pave the way to
a more stable and sustainable future?

If you've got something to contribute to this discussion,
then we want to hear from you. We are looking for articles,
essays, investigative reportage, news briefs, project profiles,
interviews with luminary thinkers, reviews, poetry, humour,
artwork & photography that explore how we can unplug
from the growth machine and cope with the global recession.

We seek to cast a broad net in our approach, profiling
initiatives in energy alternatives, housing and urban
planning, transportation, job (re)training, ecological
economics and much more -- this is not an exhaustive list!

Queries are due by March 23, 2009. If your query is
accepted, first drafts are due by May 1, 2009. Your query
should outline what ground your contribution will cover and
include an estimated word count and a short writing sample.

Please review our submission guidelines before submitting
your query. Send your queries to:
editor AT briarpatchmagazine DOT com.

We reserve the right to edit your work (with your active
involvement) and cannot guarantee publication. Briarpatch
pays $0.05/word.

Some of my blogging friends (and the non-bloggy ones too) have certainly been opining on exactly this topic - perhaps one of you wants to submit something. If I can get my act together, I just might as well.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Gender, Jobs, Recession... and bad math

Usually the Toronto Star has pretty decent writing, but this was one of the poorest pieces I've seen in a while. There are some good points made, but the headline ("In shrinking workforce, women may surpass men") is misleading, and the writing jumps around without leading to any reasonable conclusion.

Perhaps this is nitpicky, but there is some sloppy math here. The article claims "there's a possibility women will soon outnumber men in the job force." The numbers quoted in the same article don't really bear that out, unless you define "soon" as "probably never".
According to StatsCan, there were 7,295,900 men with full-time jobs in January 2005 and 6,297,400 women working full-time.

By January 2008, that number had dropped to 7,186,800 for men and to 5,339,200 for women. And as of last month, it fell further, to 7,095,000 full-time jobs for men and slightly for women, to 5,339,000 full-time positions.

So the trend shows in the longer term women losing significantly more full-time jobs than men (from 2005-2009, men lost 200,000 while women lost 958,400 jobs, or put another way men lost 2.7% of their full-time jobs while women lost 15.2%). From 2008-2009, men lost 91,800 jobs and women lost only 200. Now there are 1,756,000 more men than women employed full-time. If this trend were to continue, exactly as is, it would take over 19 years for the number of men and women employed full time to equalize. I don't know about you, but I don't consider 19 years as "soon". In addition, most stimulus money is targeted to male-dominated industries, so if the stimulus package has any effect, traditionally masculine industries will see a boost, slowing or reversing this trend.

If they had included part-time work as well, maybe the conclusion would be justified (women's part-time job participation is about three times that of men). Here's the most recent Statcan numbers.

If it were true that women were surpassing men in the full-time paid workforce, why is this a problem? Aren't we supposed to be living in the land of equality?

One reason this is indeed a problem is that women still make less money than men, partly because pink-collar jobs typically offer lower pay and fewer benefits. Women-headed households are on average much poorer, even when there are two parents.
Economists also point out that men have lost high-paying jobs with health care and pensions but women are supporting families with jobs that are not necessarily as good.

The article also points out:
This trend can also mean a shift in family dynamics. "If more men find themselves home, that has important implications for the way families operate," said Julie McCarthy, assistant professor at Rotman School of Management. "It's not a bad thing – most men are amazing parents but traditionally, it's not their primary role. Perhaps this trend will facilitate that."

Why shouldn't men stay home and watch the kids half the time? Many men I know would love to have more time with their kids. And most kids would love to have their fathers around more.

Wouldn't it be nice if mommy's salary was enough to support the family while daddy took care of the cooking, cleaning and kids. Or perhaps, his EI benefits could help the family pay the bills (except that like Diane Finley said, "We do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay home and get paid for it, not when we have significant skills shortages in many parts of the country." This government wanted to make it easier for women to stay at home, but I guess the same doesn't apply to men.) Or perhaps a decent subsidized daycare system could help out when both mommy and daddy need their crappy minimum wage jobs, or when mommy is single.

Then I don't think we would worry so much about equal job participation rate among men and women.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Art of Don Simon

Don Simon, The Herd 2
This is from a series called Unnaturalism, which he describes:
Throughout history, particularly since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, mankind has been less than kind to our cohabitants on the planet. We build, produce, and consume with little or no regard to the impact it has on the environment. It is the nature of nature to adapt and evolve in order to survive, and we are forcing other species to deal with compromised, damaged, or destroyed ecosystems.

This series of triptychs depicts scenes resulting from our tragic indifference. They are rendered in a beautiful and natural way, highlighting the idea that we find this acceptable. We are numb to the damage -- and so, the unnatural becomes natural to us. This may be the saddest commentary of all.

Strangely beautiful and peaceful. View more of his art or watch a video