What does the Wind Mobile sign really mean?

I may not have it verbatim, but the Wind Mobile sign visible from outside Cloverdale Mall has something like this on it.

All our plans are unlimited. Read the fine print and see.

I submit that this is clearly nonsense. If all plans are unlimited, there need only be one (unlimited) plan, eh? If the plan is unlimited, what does the fine print need to spell out?

It sounds like a dumb question, but what does this piece of advertising really mean?

Stroller limits on TTC buses?

There has been published, in the Toronto Star, a suggestion that no TTC bus should hold more than two strollers. I submit that this is a complaint, not a solution, and that the complainant does not consider ‘the system’ or how it operates.

A mother with a stroller is supposed to magically know there will not already be two strollers on the next bus(es) to arrive at her stop. This is nonsense. If there is room on the bus, those present should allow boarding.

Complainers should be told to get off, with a transfer, and wait for the next bus, which hopefully won’t already have two strollers on it. {8;^<}

Now for the dumb question: who should wait for the next bus, a person with a child in a stroller, or a complainer?

Moments of the Heart, by Inge H. Borg

This was my fourth review as an Amazon Kindle Book Review team member.

Strange and wonderful, covering a lot of ground. Human and memorable.

Three stars.

Wait: don’t let the three stars decide for you. This is an interesting and difficult work to rate. Maybe three point four nine nine nine stars. There is a wide range of material covering many situations. The human condition is explored in eleven prose pieces and twenty  poems. Make that ten  plus twenty one, as the opening prose piece is quite poetic, Summer’s Last Wild Irises.

You will be in a train in Russia, a garden at MIT, a boat in San Diego area, on the Eiger, and on the edge of a small lake. There is sadness in some of the love poems, and hope sometimes too. This poet isn’t afraid to make a little fun of herself as well, as in Pacific Ode. In Offshore Sailing you will find new and strong images. Other poems are quiet, gentle reflections of nature. There is social commentary in A Common Feast, which takes place in a laundromat, and in A Conversation Between Friends, which almost becomes an argument.

In this second edition six new prose pieces have been added, plus one new poem, and they are strong. In Hugo you will feel the terror of being at sea in that hurricane. Journey to Kiev has been edited, and I like this version even better. This story should be re-read to appreciate how cleverly the situations are set up, and the passion allowed to come through. At the end we feel the protagonist’s regret, unforgettably caught up in a dream/nightmare train image, taking love away.

If I had to make a tiny carp it would be that, sometimes, the phrasing could have been smoother, and the rhymes, when present, were occasionally imperfect.

Conclusion: in Moments of the Heart, you are in for a strange and wonderful trip, a most interesting read. Many of the individual pieces are quite unique. This is a writer of wide range and strength. Recommended.

Reviewed by Jim Bennett, KBR Review Team

What is an ‘Economy’?

I have taken a couple of ‘pass courses’ in economics, so you can assume I know nothing. I read Noam Chomsky, who clearly said that the supply and demand versus price curves taught in Economics 101 are simply, er, crap. So now you may assume I’m alert enough to ask the odd dumb question, and think about it. These are my thoughts on Economy and GDP, among other things.

For the primary insight I am indebted to Rebecca Moershall, who probably does not remember the conversation. She was raised in Amana, a closed commune of people in the USA. Before Amana was combined with Whirlpool and Maytag (and others) it was also a premium brand of large appliances: fridges, stoves, washers, driers.

The commune consisted of six villages in a few-miles circle surrounded by 250,000 acres of farmland. Rebecca considered that she, as a child, owned it all. Everything was done by community effort, with few exceptions. To get things they could not easily make, they started the Amana line of appliances. From this manufacturing they earned cash.

Sometimes a tricky system can be understood by looking at a simpler one that accomplishes many of the same things. It’s like looking at the ecosystem in the Galapagos Islands: there are so few moving parts, you can actually figure some of it out. I propose to use a thought experiment, a community like Amana, to think through what GDP and an economy really are.

“More” in Amana means, more children, more crops, a new barn, a new house. To build, trees are cut, planks are sawn, pegs and holes are fashioned, nails made or acquired, and labour applied until the job is done. If GDP were measured in successful running households, a new house and barn would be an increase.

If you need a haircut, maybe a family member or a friend does it for you. Maybe you trade that service for milking a cow or watching a toddler during hay season. In Amana this does not involve money, and does not involve construction, so it does not “add to GDP.” In a money economy, cash or equivalent would be exchanged and GDP would reflect this.

In Amana, you can borrow only against future expected help. In a money economy, you can borrow at the bank and outbid your neighbour at an auction; doubly ironic when his cash deposit is part of the bank’s reserve against your loan. A money economy can often create apparent wealth ‘out of thin air’, and allow purchases to be made with it. Those countries now crashing in the Euro-zone know well how this is done, as do Germany and the other banker-exporter nations. The USA is in this boat too, as it must raise its debt ceiling, and somehow keep its credit rating, and somehow keep its freely-printed bonds selling abroad. ‘Quantitative Easing’ is where the Fed prints money and itself buys bonds the US Government prints. It is literally cash out of thin air. In theory, it should devalue all existing cash and cash equivalents, causing inflation.

The value of gold and diamonds deserves some discussion. For a bit of fun, I am going to relate from memory a story about coco de mer. This very large seed would show up from time to time in Europe. It was mythologized to be from an underwater tree. It was rare and potentially very valuable. When a Spanish ship returned from the Seychelles with a hold full of these nuts, it was estimated that, had the treasure been kept quiet and sold one at a time, the Spanish nation’s fortunes could have been recovered. Instead, the word got out and the value of the huge nut crashed. I mention this because, other than decoration or possibly food, there is not much inherent value in a nut you can’t grow into a tree in your climate. Yet its value was, temporarily, quite high.

Back to gold. Imagine a Spanish ship returning from the Americas laden with (stolen) Inca gold (and silver and whoever else’s precious metal they could get). Suddenly Spain is in good shape. Why is this? Because other countries, and internal interests, will offer money and goods and services in exchange for this gold. Please note that nothing extra is actually produced in Spain: no planks sawn. Except for the gold made into jewellery, it is merely a representation of value. Value is, of course, a myth made true by the actions of people who believe it. So, in an international sense, Spain was able to pull real things into its borders by exchanging this ‘medium’ with outside suppliers. Overall, the only real increase in world GDP occurred where those suppliers made things they would not have made otherwise.

So, what is an economy? There are at many views:

  • what is made in the country, including food, shelter, clothing.
  • above, plus what immediately permits or assists: roads electricity police protection.
  • above, plus services traded for it. Concert singers. Hair cutters. Doctors. Teachers.
  • above, plus add-ons created by laws and contracts: lawyers, politicians, lobbyists.
  • above, plus extraction bonuses coming from oil, gold, diamonds, etc.
  • every purchase made inside the borders.

Since the latter includes credit and trade deficits, I conclude that a modern economy with surging GDP is likely to end up in a debt crisis: personal debt, business debt, and government debt.

Conclusion: the Amana view of an economy may be more realistic than ours, of borrowing, importing, and measuring GDP. Debt with interest is a formula for disaster, when that debt keeps increasing. Outsourcing increases trade deficit and country debt. Amana ‘in-sourced’ the appliances in order to ‘outsource’ tricky bits of metal. North America can only in-source resources (Canada) and paper debt (USA).

Now what? Vote, lobby, blog, call, eMail anyone you can move even incrementally to get all of us out of this debt trap. When our lights go off, the rich will have generators.

Fighter Disasters

The F-35 is, imho, a disaster. There are CRS reports (available at www.fas.org) on the schedule and cost overruns, lists of specific problems, et cetera. For a scathing article on this, see this one by the respected business columnist David Olive.

Every politician and armed forces official that speaks of this acts as if one of a number of things were true:

  • The problems could not have been anticipated
  • This is a unique problem due to the advanced nature of the airplane
  • Everything will work out in the end, with a safe and effective airplane

I beg to differ. There was another fighter aircraft, also made by Lockheed, called the F-104. The German fighter pilot ace Erich Hartmann called this plane the Witwenmacher, which means widow-maker. (I am aware of this because of an excellent story by Eusebius Clay, but that’s a topic for a later post.)

When an F-100 Super Sabre had 16.25 failures per 100,000 hours, and the Convair F102 Dagger was at 13.69, the F-104 had the number of 30.63 failures – per 100,000 operating hours. Failure means crash.

In addition, the F-104 had some interesting scandals surrounding it as well, with claims of bribes offered to foreign influencers to buy this plane. There is a fine summary of this in Wikipedia here.

My point here: US fighter aircraft are not always a good deal (otherwise, why bribes, in the F104 case, eh?). and, US fighter aircraft are not always safe and effective.

I will end with a dumb question: For whom will the F-35 be a disaster? Potential candidates include: armed forces leaders of countries like Canada, who have recommended purchasing the plane; political leaders of countries in the same boat (craft, actually, {8;^<}); and let us not forget the end users: our brave air force pilots. Let’s not foist another Witwenmacher onto them. Or are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, because our military and political leaders are not willing to learn the clear lessons of history? It is a dumb question.


Casino: Gambling for Benefits

There has been much talk of putting a casino in Toronto, either downtown or at the Woodbine complex. I think this is a really bad idea.

The benefits of a casino seem to be extremely variable and often overstated. One Star article quoted the developers as saying $286Million per year could be the net benefit, in cash, to the city of Toronto. The same article said another estimate put the benefit (royalties, taxes, et cetera) at between $100Million and $50Million per year.

In today’s paper, the latest estimate by the gambler-pushers, is $400Million.

I submit that this is ridiculous. We should all take all of these numbers with a huge grain of salt, and perhaps a double dose of Tylenol as well. The developers and pro-gamblers can promise anything at all, as they have no contractual obligation to deliver on future revenues. (Even if they did, they could collapse the holding company and leave us holding an empty bag.)

The Tylenol ™ is for the inevitable headaches the day (and week and year and decade) after. Casinos do not generate wealth, they merely redistribute it. They provide no real service, other than telling you when you win and when you lose, and guaranteeing that the overall effect of the latter will be profitable to them.

Casinos make a large fraction (perhaps 40%) of their profit from problem gamblers.

Disclosure: I play one lottery (649) and I consider my ticket to be a tax on the stupid. I might win big, but it is unlikely. I understand the odds. I play within my limit, eh?

Problem gamblers cannot make any of the above statements. They expect to win, somehow, someday, miraculously. They think they can beat the odds. They play until they can no longer sign cheques or IOUs.

They ruin their lives, and the lives of any unfortunate dependents, lovers, friends.

So, having a casino is like entering one as a problem gambler. You are going to lose, Toronto, and you will be paying the social costs while the casino rakes in more profit for less benefit than you expected. That’s my opinion, and I think it is correct.

On Openness

The labour unions in Canada are screaming about a bill which would potentially allow workers to opt out of paying union dues. There is merit to their position that this could reduce membership, and is aimed at weakening their bargaining power.

In the same bill is a provision that unions would have to publish their finances: how much they collect, and how they spend it, how much they retain, invest, whatever. There are howls of outrage against this as an invasion of ? what? privacy of special interests? What could the union possibly be doing with the money that they are ashamed, or afraid, for us to know about?

Meanwhile, the aboriginal showdown against bill C-45 continues. I agree that the omnibus bill makes environmental damage easier to get away with, makes assessments go away in too many cases, and is (with its some 70 changes to federal statutes) and affront to democracy. I agree with Chief Spence and am sorry that a hunger strike is needed to get things fixed in Attawapiskat.

At the same time, the aboriginals seem ready to go to the wall to prevent their fincances from becoming a matter of public record. Why not? A lot of money goes into each reserve, and conditions don’t seem to improve.

Now for the dumb questions:

in each case, why is the funding and spending held secret? Could it be that with visibility comes accountability?

Gerard Dapardieu, and International Tax Rates

Today this famous French actor denied he obtained Russian, and possibly Belgian, citizenship to escape French taxes. Conveniently, this claim was made after an attempt to raise the highest tax rate to 75% was struck down by a court. Depardieu did say that high earners were being punished in France, and he did meet with Vladimir Putin to receive his Russian passport.

A comparison of various corporate and personal tax rates can be found here.

There are some interesting things in this table. The tax rates for Canada are unclear as provincial rates vary. The claim is that the max individual rate is 53%. My quick check at last year’s tax return (spreadsheet) seems to say that, in Ontario, the top marginal tax rate was 11.16 + 29 (provincial plus federal) for 40.16%. (I did not pay this rate, eh?) I am not certain that that is correct, and it ignores the Ontario ‘health tax’ which is not, supposedly, a tax but a levy. {8;^<}

The maximum tax rates in a few countries are given below. The format I use is as follows:

Country:   CorporateRate IndividualMinimumRate IndividualMaximumRate

Argentina   :   35%    9%   35%

Australia    :   30%    0%   46.5%

Canada     :16-41%  4%   53%

France      : 33.33% 0%   75%

UK            : 20-24% 0%    50%

US            :0-51%    0%    35%

So what, you might ask. Well, now for the dumb questions.

First, did you realize that the US Corporate tax rate is misleading, as companies like Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft regularly (and legally) avoid lots of tax? One uses inter-company investment loans to get tax breaks in various jurisdictions (HP) and the other uses offshore profit movement to avoid paying tax on billions of dollars.

Second, did you hear all the screaming when the US tax rates on the rich went up, for those who were unable to manoeuvre around them? Now that rate is 39.6% on income over $400K ($450K for joint filers), the USA still has lower rates than Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Third, what do you make of Egypt’s tax rate of 20, 10, 20%? However, the country is a major recipient of aid (mostly military) from the USA. Israel’s tax rates are 24%, 14.5%, 46%. Overall I’ll bet that’s higher taxation in all categories than the effective rates in the USA.

Fourth, Russia’s rates are: 20%, 13%, 13%. That’s why Gerard Depardieu wants to be taxed there. Again, a dumb question: what will happen to Russia’s economy when its oil and gas exports slow? Can a country function at this level of taxation?

In short, there is no free lunch, but the rich would like to have one. The intention in all cases is to move taxes from corporations to mere citizens.

Finally, are we going to let the rich, and the corporations, lower their taxes while shifting the burden to us? While they are also cutting social services? Are we that dumb, or that powerless?  Is this a dumb question?

Keith Prabhu, Songs of Life

This was my third review as a Kindle Book Review team member.

Three stars.

In his prologue, Keith Prabhu says this: This collection of poems explores and celebrates life in all its richness.   It explores the kaleidoscope of emotions that a human experiences during the journey through life.   The journey of finding and losing,   The journey of loving and hating.   The journey of rising and falling.  The journey of a soul as it traverses multiple lives.   Come walk this path with me…

You will find twenty poems.  They contain more a teaching, a point of view, than does other poetry which might try to push the writer’s physical/sensual experience into the reader.  This book is really a gentle philosophy course, and its point of view includes reincarnation with the hope of achieving some form of super-excellence as well. The word “God” occurs only four times, and two of those are in negative contexts. However, the opening poem, ‘The Sea of Life’, introduces Prabhu’s philosophy with a ray of hope in a difficult world. There are negative poems as well; in ‘Life is a Conman’ we are told we can’t win.

There is also sexual longing: in ‘Dream Lover’, unsatisfied; in ‘With a Girl Like You’, satisfied but with an unsettling surprise ending.

If I had to make a tiny carp or two, they would be these: the rhyme and rhythm aren’t always perfect, and, the subject matter perhaps of necessity leads to experiences that are mostly abstract. You will see the girl’s skin and eyes, but you won’t touch them and your heart won’t flutter. Nevertheless there is real value in this book.

Perhaps my favourite in this collection is the poem ‘Going to the dark side.’ Here the ability to make a choice is placed above the ability to endure a difficult world in virtue. This is continued further in the poem ‘I’ll Be Back’ where ambition is driven by the possibility of future revenge.

I felt the strongest social commentary was in the poem, ‘Modern Times’. This is another of my favourites in this book.

If you want a slightly abstract, definitely philosophical, book to read, then this collection is for you. Recommended.

Jim Bennett  (The Kindle Book Review Team)

Like.Love.Hate by A. D. Joyce

This was my second review as a member of the Amazon Kindle Book Review team.

Four stars.

This is not a simple collection of poems, even though there are only four of them.  In Like. Love. Hate. (the first poem) we have a triple delivery with many clever parallels between the three topics. This is not, repeat not, simple. It is mind-bending, and after three or four readings I’m still not certain I get it all.

The second poem, Like, or Victoria’s Dress, is much more accessible and takes the reader into the mind of a young girl choosing a dress. This is simpler, but perhaps my favourite of this collection.

The third poem, Love, or the buddha of questions, is again subtle and requires multiple readings. It concludes with a unique description of total capture in love.

The fourth poem, Hate, or The Beginning and the End, is very clever, brilliant even. The images are fresh and compelling. The subject matter is quite disturbing. Of all the poems this is the strongest, the one which for me most powerfully forces the intended experience onto the reader.

Why only four stars? There were a few things I could not understand, and while I read Seven Types of Ambiguity (William Empson) a very long time ago, I still expect to feel I am entitled to guess the meaning of the author eventually. I suspect I’m seeing ambiguity type 6 in, for example, the hand with 11 fingers. Given the superb control shown by the author, I wonder what I am to make of this image.

This is of course my personal opinion. Your pleasure may vary. If you enjoy poetry that makes you think, this collection is definitely recommended for you.