Archive for February, 2008
Sunday, February 24th, 2008
The message came over the Internet, and it began in an amusing and informative way.
“A billion is a difficult number to comprehend,” it said, “but one advertising agency did a good job of putting that figure into some perspective in one of its releases.
“A billion seconds ago it was 1959. A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive. A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age. A billion days ago no-one walked on the earth on two feet.”
But, notes Our Correspondent, in bold red type, “A billion dollars ago was only 8 hours and 20 minutes, at the rate our government is spending it.” That would be the US government, I assume, although there is a later reference to both Washington and Ottawa. And then the message goes on to note that Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu is asking Congress for $250 billion to rebuild New Orleans – which works out to $516,528 for every person, or $1,329,787 for each home, or $2,066,012 for a family of four.
I would have some trouble with that, too – though probably not for the same reasons as our anonymous author. Sea level is rising, the Mississippi delta is sinking, and Katrina was only the first catastrophe. What the good Senator is trying to do, really, is hold back the sea with money. It would be smarter to rebuild somewhere else.
But that’s not the conclusion in the message. Our Correspondent works himself – herself? itself? — into a full-court lather about reckless government spending and rampant taxation. First comes a poem:
Tax his land,
Tax his wage,
Tax his bed in which he lays.
Tax his tractor,
Tax his mule,
Teach him taxes is the rule….
And then an endless list of taxes – income taxes, tobacco and liquor taxes, dog and vehicle licenses, unemployment insurance premiums, and so on for roughly a page.
“Not one of these taxes existed 100 years ago,” cries Our Correspondent, “and our nations were the most prosperous in the world. We had absolutely no national debt, had the largest middle class in the world, and Mom stayed home to raise the kids. AND NOW WE ARE THE MOST IN DEBT OF ANY COUNTRY ON EARTH!!!”
Hold on, now. “We” are not. Despite the ambitions of the corporate elite, Canada and the US are still two separate countries. Only one has been ruled by for the past eight years by ideologically-motivated tax-cutting spendthrifts – financial idiots, in short – and it wasn’t Canada.
And – though I don’t enjoy paying taxes any more than anyone else – I complain about the ludicrous complexity of our tax system, not about the fact that we have to pay taxes.
Income tax, for instance, ought to be fairly straightforward – but the Income Tax Act now runs to 2,226 pages, mainly because it’s full of tax breaks for various interest groups. It doesn’t have to be. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation recently published a report on tax reform proposing a simple, revenue-neutral set of reforms. Write down your income. Subtract a few standard deductions which apply to everyone – basic but generous deductions for yourself, your dependents, your RRSP – and then pay 15% tax if the remaining amount is less than $80,000, and 25% if it’s more.
Done. And you don’t need 2,000 pages of text to describe it.
But the larger point is that tax-denouncers like Our Correspondent assume that one’s income is fundamentally one’s own, and that taxes are inherently a form of theft. That’s codswallop. The economy, within which your success occurs, is a social framework Your earnings involve employers, producers, customers, suppliers, and the orderly marketplace which government provides. Your success also relies on the whole infrastructure of modern life – highways to move people and materials, an educational system to provide literate workers, health care facilities to help them stay productive, police to protect the whole enterprise. You couldn’t succeed without the services that taxes buy.
So yes, we didn’t have most of those taxes 100 years ago, but we also didn’t have today’s wealth, today’s levels of literacy and education, today’s capacity to travel, today’s support system for the unfortunate. Perhaps most important, we didn’t have today’s life expectancy. Admittedly, it’s expensive to keep old people alive – but the older you get, the more worthwhile that expense seems to be.
And of course Our Correspondent overlooks the fact that many taxes are essentially transfers from the taxpayer to the private sector. Why is health care so expensive? Talk to the manufacturers of medical equipment and to the pharmaceutical companies. Why is defense so expensive? Talk to your friendly defense contractors, like GM and Boeing.
Taxes are just a form of expenditure which buys us the essential components of a modern, civilized society – the very framework within which wealth is created. The economy, I’m told, has grown sevenfold since 1950. Have taxes harmed that economic growth? Hardly. Taxes have made it possible.
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Sunday, February 24th, 2008
In 1993, I published a book called Sniffing the Coast, the story of a memorable 600-mile cruise from Cape Breton to PEI, New Brunswick and the Magdalen Islands.
Sailing our engineless sailboat Silversark, my late wife Lulu and I met the shades of K.C. Irving, La Sagouine and Anne of Green Gables, hung out with Grand Prix hydroplane racers, and learned more than you’d believe about potatoes. We foregathered with poets, sand sculptors, silver fox farmers. I declared, quite confidently, that a bridge to PEI would never be built.
And we discovered a new province. Here’s the story, as recounted in the book:
Around 1653, the government of France created a Province de la Grande Baie de St. Laurent, notes Mark Haines, a devoted amateur historian in Guysborough County. The new province took in all the Gulf coast from the Isthmus of Chignecto, between today’s Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, to Canso, Nova Scotia. It was a properly constituted jurisdiction; its governor was Nicolas Denys.
Just a year later, in 1654, the British captured Acadia; in 1670 they gave to back to the French; in 1690 and 1710 they recaptured it; and in 1713, under the Treaty of Utrecht, they forced the French to give up, forever, “all Nova Scotia or Acadie with its ancient boundaries.”
But what were the ancient boundaries of Acadia? Nobody knew, and an international commission was appointed to decide. The commission inaugurated a venerable Canadian tradition. It abducted and absorbed the issue as completely and permanently as a black hole absorbs light: it sat for 60 years and never reached a conclusion.
In the meantime, Acadia – including a great stretch of the adjoining continental land mass – became Nova Scotia. The continental territory was split off in 1784 and became New Brunswick, and both colonies became part of Canada in 1867. In all these transactions, the terrain covered by Denys’s Province de la Grande Baie de St. Laurent was assumed to be part of Acadia– but Mark Haines can find no record that the province was ever extinguished or legally conveyed to the British. So the coast down which we sailed may still be a French colonial province.
I am eager to get a speeding ticket in New Glasgow or Antigonish. I will fight it on the grounds that the court has no jurisdiction, since the alleged offence did not take place in Canada, and Canadian laws do not apply in the Province de la Grande Baie de St. Laurent.
Readers and reviewers said all manner of nice things about Sniffing the Coast. When the hardcover’s run was finished, however, the publishers declared that an affordable paperback would require a print run of several thousand copies – and they weren’t sure they could sell thousands. So the book went out of print.
At roughly the same time, my friend Charlie Doucet and I produced a VHS videotape called Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lakes: A Sailing Tour with Silver Donald Cameron. Sailors and tourists loved the video, but we never found an efficient way to distribute it. We got caught up with other projects, and then VHS itself became almost as obsolete as the eight-track. So the video also vanished.
Fifteen years later, information technology came to our rescue. Unlike a videotape, a video on DVD can be duplicated easily and marketed on the Web or transmitted electronically as a download. So can a book. And book production has been transformed by a technology called print-on-demand, which allows publishers to produce books in tiny print runs – five books, fifty books – and still keep prices affordable.
So Sniffing the Coast has just been re-issued by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, a literary press operated by a medical doctor named George Vanderburgh in Shelburne, Ontario (www.batteredbox.com) Meanwhile, Charlie has digitized the Bras d’Or Lakes video, and we’ve re-packaged it as a DVD.
Neither product, however, is available in traditional stores. Both are available on the Web at Ron Caplan’s site, www.capebretonbooks.com . I’ll also be selling them at events like the Halifax International Boat Show, where I’ll be showing the DVD and reading from Sniffing the Coast next Saturday.
All of which illuminates the fate of fine independent book stores like The Book Room, now closing after serving Haligonians faithfully for 170 years. These wonderful stores were created to serve a local market – but that market has almost gone away. Book buyers shop globally, lured by big boxes like Chapters and on-line vendors like Amazon, which can afford to carry almost everything and ship it anywhere. And though niche publishing and bookselling survives, it too is global, selling special-interest books to narrow world-wide markets.
There may be three people in New Zealand who will want our DVD. They’ll find us, and we’ll sell it to them. How truly odd is that?
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Saturday, February 16th, 2008
I drove up to the D’Escousse credit union to deposit a cheque, and found Willard Fougere’s car backed up to the door with its trunk open. Willard was filling the trunk with money – bags and boxes of coins.
“Willard,” I said, “I knew you were filthy rich, but I had no idea you had to load up your car when you came to make a withdrawal.”
“Oh, yes,” said Willard, his broad face opening up with a smile. “The weekend’s coming, I don’t want to run short.”
“From now on,” I said, “I’m calling you ‘Moneybags.’”
The mundane truth was that the credit union, where Willard’s wife Naomi worked, had gradually accumulated an enormous number of pennies, nickels and dimes. Willard and Naomi were taking the coins to Halifax to exchange for more usable forms of money. But I called Willard “Moneybags” all the rest of his life, and the two of us always had a chuckle out of it.
When I moved to Isle Madame in 1971, Willard and Naomi were still operating the little red general store hanging out over the water in the neighbouring village of Poulamon. In those days shopping centres were few and far away, so village stores were sturdy and essential little businesses. The individual villages of North Isle Madame still preserved some distinctness, an echo of the days when each had things like a government wharf, a post office, a general store, a one-room school. Even in 1971, the Northside had at least four stores. It only has one today.
Willard’s service was remarkable. He did deliveries, so house-bound people could shop by phone, and Willard would deliver the order right to their kitchens. He was a gregarious man, and he would stop and visit for a moment. He always knew what was going on, as storekeepers tend to do. Travelling through the villages on the north side of Isle Madame, Willard was a key component in the network of interest and concern that carries information in rural communities.
“I always saw Willard as a pillar in the community,” says Father John J. MacDonald, who knew him for more than 50 years. “He was a very welcoming person, and he easily related to all kinds of different personalities. He served in the merchant navy during World War II. That’s why there was a flag on his obituary. He was quite close to Allan J. MacEachen, did you know that?”
I didn’t, though I did know that Willard was an ardent Liberal – a hereditary affliction which is distressingly common on Isle Madame. Moneybags, Moneybags, I would think, shaking my head, how regrettable. But his Liberal sympathies were an integral part of who he was.
He and Naomi bought the store in 1957, three years after their marriage. He was 39 when they married, and she was 21, a beautiful young woman from River Bourgeois, on the opposite side of Lennox Passage. Almost 55 years later, he was still handsome, and she is still beautiful.
“I never saw him cross or cranky,” Naomi told me. “I’ve never seen him out of sorts. He was the same with me as he was with you or anybody else. He was always cheerful, always smiling.”
They sold the store in 1974, so I knew Willard mostly in his three decades of retirement. No man ever found more happiness in retirement than he did. He turned his attention to community affairs, becoming a diligent and generous volunteer in all the local organizations. His special love was the Lennox Passage Yacht Club, of which he eventually became an honorary lifetime member. The club’s membership consisted mainly of people half his age, but he worked and played alongside them with a spirit that simply erased the age difference. He was one of those people who never really become old, even though their bodies eventually give out.
He had a little red truck, and a succession of fierce little white dogs, and he would cruise the island’s roads on his various errands, smiling cheerily, with the dog sitting beside him like a co-pilot. He lived every day with zest and gratitude. When I found myself cruising the island in a little red truck, with a dog beside me, I told Willard I was training to become him, because he was what I wanted to be when I grew up. He thought it was a joke. It wasn’t.
Willard Fougere died on January 28. He was 93 years old, a living treasure in his own corner of the world. “We’ve lost our lovely man,” said Naomi when I called her. And it’s true, all that remains is our memory of his laughter and his smile.
But that’s a sparkling legacy. And I will not stop striving to be like Willard when I grow up.
Saturday, February 16th, 2008
My initiation into the world of protest movements took place in 1947, when I was 10 years old. For a middle-class kid in postwar Canada, strikes and demonstrations were someone else’s news. But when the candy manufacturers jacked up the price of a chocolate bar from five cents to eight cents, I joined with other kids by picking up a placard and going on strike.
I remember it vividly – a couple of dozen kids waving signs in front of the confectionery stores in the shopping district (there were no malls) just a few blocks from our school. DOWN WITH EIGHT-CENT CHOCOLATE BARS! BRING BACK THE NICKEL BAR!
At the time, I thought this was a local battle – but in fact it was a strike by all the children of Canada. It began in Ladysmith, BC, and rapidly spread across the country. Mobs of kids marched down Bloor Street in Toronto. Ottawa kids demonstrated on Parliament Hill. Adults were sympathetic; the end of wartime wage and price controls had resulted in a tide of rising prices, but nobody had expressed the general resentment until the kids tackled the candy companies.
The boycott worked, too. Chocolate bar sales plunged by 80%.
And then the tide changed. Ludicrous as it seems, right-wing outlets like the Toronto Telegram denounced the movement as a communist-inspired threat to national security. The Mounties muttered darkly that the boycott had been cooked up in Moscow. Reds under the bed. Principals, parents and priests fell in line. The strike soon faded away.
I think I remember that prices did go down, but only briefly. After things cooled off, the companies quietly raised the price again, and this time it stuck.
What astonishes me, as I revisit the 1947 boycott in Carol Off’s fine book, Bitter Chocolate, is the way the protest prefigures so many themes in the world I would grow up to live in. Inflation, for instance, which had been unknown during the depression and the war. And the attempt by all the elites – the police, the press, the educators, the politicians, the churches, you name it – to discredit protest by ignoring the grievances and blaming Reds, furriners and “outside agitators.” the system used the same technique against labour, against the peace movement, against women’s organizations, against students.
But the most powerful weapon of all was time. A government, a university or a wealthy company can always outwait its opponents.
My childhood experience of unfairness apparently typifies the chocolate trade throughout history. Bitter Chocolate (Random House, $34.95) is sub-titled “Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet.” In it, Carol Off makes the case that chocolate is the blood diamond of the candy-box, rooted in conquest, corruption, slavery, child labour and hypocrisy. Her story begins with Cortez , who conquered Montezuma’s Aztecs, learned the value of the cocoa bean, and promptly enslaved the Aztecs. Cocoa plantations in Central America and the Caribbean were subsequently manned by slaves transported from Africa.
The story seemed different in the 19th century, when British chocolate manufacturing was dominated by earnest Quakers. Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree were benevolent capitalists who, Off says, “managed what was near at hand with impeccable regard for human dignity.” They built model communities around their model factories, and often supported progressive measures like a minimum wage and family allowances.
But their cocoa came from a couple of Portuguese-owned islands in the Gulf of Guinea, which were, a century ago, the world’s leading source of cocoa. And the cocoa was produced by a vicious system of forced labour – as it is to this day, notably in the backwoods of Cote d’Ivoire.
Cote d’Ivoire was once a prosperous place, an “African miracle” based on cocoa. Then cocoa prices dived, and the economy was savaged by the “assistance” of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. With newly-impoverished Ivorian farmers desperate for labour, smugglers began trucking children from nearby Mali and Burkina Faso. By 2000, the US state department estimated that 15,000 Malian children were working in the cocoa plantations. “Many are under 12 years of age, sold into indentured servitude for $140 and work 12-hour days for $135 to $189 per year.”
The only hopeful note is the emergence of new “fair trade” companies like Green & Blacks, who established a mutually-respectful cocoa business with the Mayans of Belize, and marketed a premium chocolate bar called Maya Gold. So far, so good – but in 2005, Cadbury Schweppes bought control of Green & Blacks. What next? Will the fair trade movement transform the multinational? Or will the chocolate barons eviscerate the standards of fair trade?
That’s the industry we were taking on as school children in 1947. No wonder we lost. But what a good foe to have chosen!
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