Monday, September 29, 2008

Lessons From a Financial Crisis

By now, with the stock exchange herd mentality in full swing, it's painfully obvious that the financial world is in for some changes, regardless of what happens. Being a student of history and current events, it's equally obvious that there are some important takeaway lessons from this financial situation. Whether anyone learns from their mistakes and uses the dislocation as an opportunity to effect major changes (as opposed to retrenching and doubling down on the conventional wisdom) is anybody's guess; I suspect that getting anyone much in North America to learn from history at this late date is a fool's errand, but I may be a fool, so I'll just keep talking.

The points lessons that are apparent from where I'm sitting are as follows:
  1. Deregulation is evil. This lesson isn't news to anyone who's been paying attention, but I should point out that tighter and more rigourous regulation would have prevented many of these problems from existing. Predatory lending and entirely speculative leveraging methods can only flourish in an unregulated, non-transparent environment.

  2. Speculation is equally evil, and needs to be replaced with saner, sounder investment. We as a culture need to return to market fundamentals, like actually investing in companies over a long period of time, rather than just trying to flip stocks and forex to make a quick profit.

  3. It's time for a Tobin tax, and a small surcharge on all stock trades. Even something as miniscule as a quarter of a percent would wipe out much "stock churning" (because it would effectively eliminate its exceedingly narrow profit margin), thereby reducing market volatility and removing the temptation for professionally high-strung traders to stampede in one direction or the other.

  4. The credit-dependent economy needs to shrink, and badly. There is no earthly reason why the world in general needs to be that dependent on credit.

    Businesses need to learn how to buy in cash again, like Granddad did, and citizens need to stop feeling like their personhood is defined by their credit cards, and/or debt level, and the culture at large needs to stop encouraging people to be in debt.1 (As this article demonstrates, there are a substantial number of credit card companies whose revenue stream depends on people not paying off their card balances. Do I actually need to mention how fundamentally broken that system is?)

    For that matter, corporations in general need to stop acting like consumers' cash money is no good -- ever tried to get an ISP account (for example) without a credit card?! Marginalisation and penalisation should not be the default response to someone who wants to deal in cash (read: prefers to use their money unmediated by a giant transnational corporation); that response is symptomatic of a big big problem and needs to go away.

  5. The business culture in general needs to start making longer term plans than "close of trading today," and "next quarter." I don't mean to harp on the "back to basics" idea too much, but Granddad and Grandma really did have the right idea there as well.

  6. SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SMALL, INDEPENDENT RETAILERS. Unless I completely miss my guess, large corporations are going to get hit far more by this than the mom-and-pop shop at the corner, unless Mom and Pop's statistics pan out very badly (they had all their money wrapped up in investments, for instance).

For those of you inclined to go the extra 1.609344km, I would add a seventh point: If you haven't started already, now is the time to begin decoupling from the mainstream economy. Stop shopping at chain stores, or transnationals; cut down your discretionary spending; if you're in debt, make getting out of it a priority; find out who speaks barter in your local area; join a Freecycle group or swap meet; join or support a co-op or farm basket programme in your area; look for alternate employment, that kind of thing.

Maybe it's too late for some people to learn from their mistakes, and I'm not expecting a business culture revolution, but if small and micro businesspeople implemented changes like these, North America might be a very different -- and better -- place in ten or fifteen years. We can hope, right?

1 Companies that depend on their clients maintaining a debt balance in order to derive revenue refer to frustrating people like me (who pay off their balance on time or ahead of time) as "deadbeats." Spot the dysfunction, boys and girls!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Okay. Folks? Folks, please? Listen up...

This is an example of a real live, living, breathing example of a genuine Canadian hard right-winger. Right now, he's got an erection the size of Alberta contemplating the thought of a Harper majority, because people on the voting left (which is plus or minus 60% of us, and probably would be more if people like my folks really paid attention to what the right-CPC was about, rather than just thinking it'll allow them to pay less taxes) can't get their shit together and are about to split the vote.


We've been here before, at least those of us in Ontario. I'm speaking, of course, of Mike Harris' eking out narrow-margin victories in two elections. Speaking as someone who spent most of the Harris years broke and unemployed, it sucked. (Oddly, my work prospects improved dramatically once McGuinty got in office and got settled. Funny, that.)

You will remember that a lot of Harper's advisors and brain trust are ex-Harrisites.

Harper has also already gone on record saying (to a group of American right-wing think-tankers) that he wants to make Canada over in their image, and that if he gets elected even with a minority, he's going to govern as if he had a "mandate." (Shades of Bush the Younger.)

Let's play that back again, with a slightly less charitable perspective, shall we: The man is saying that he's going to actively go against at least 60% of the electorate with the aim of turning this country into USA North.

Do you people who are throwing your support behind the laughable Greens and the NDP really want that? Is it fucking worth not sucking it up and voting for Stephane Dion this once just so that you can act all smug about how righteous you are? Meanwhile Harper will be burning down civil rights (as he's already shown a willingness to do, since he apparently doesn't have a mother or doesn't think his mother is human), Medicare, a humane criminal-justice system with a low recidivism rate (to replace it with the high-recidivism rate, state-sanctioned torture, US-style Prison-Industrial Complex), and so on...

Yeah, thank you ever so much for being so ideologically pure, you've lost all sense of perspective. And since I'm not optimistic about the leftward-leaning politicians' ability to get their shit together and form a coalition government in the event of another minority government, I'll righteously punch you in the head every time the second Harper administration takes down another institution on the advice of their Scaife-funded ideological mentors in the US. I hope you don't mind. Country over party this time, please?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Resources for Interesting Times: An Annotated Linkography

This entry is an annotated list of some resources you might need to help you survive times of political and social upheaval, posted purely for informational purposes.

1: Documentation

This section will give links to and information about obtaining identification and other documents.

Passport Canada: Information on applying for and renewing a Canadian passport. Includes a link to downloadable forms (left sidebar) and service locations.

CDC NCHS site with state information on obtaining birth, death, marriage, and divorce certificates.

United States Passport Office: Information on obtaining and renewing a United States passport. Includes downloadable forms, an application status check, and information on office closures.

UK Identity and Passport Service: Gives instructions on applying for and renewing passports, has links to the site for obtaining UK identity cards, travel advice, and services for people with disabilities.

Birth Certificate information page from Service Canada, with links to provincial pages with the relevant birth certificate information.

Order Certificates site from the General Register Office, UK, for obtaining copies of birth, death, adoption, marriage, and civil partnership certificates.

Service Canada site with information on obtaining or updating a Social Insurance card.

Social Security site with information on how to request a Social Security card. Includes a location finder.

2: How-Tos

This section gives information on how to do specific tasks, as noted below. I've included regional information for how-tos that are specific to one country or jurisdiction.

How To Put Together a Bugout Bag -- A "bugout bag" is a kit (or a list of easily-grabbable items) you can have on hand that you can take with you in the event of having to leave your home on extremely short notice in case of an emergency.

How to Get Legal Aid (Canada). Also see Canlaw's guide to Legal Aid Offices in Canada.

How To Find Cheap Legal Services (US-based). Feministe's "Help Us Help Ourselves" guide to finding a lawyer when you don't have a lot of money.

How to Deal With Being Arrested; the ACLU's guide on what to do if you get arrested. (US) Here is a similar how-to for Canada.

How To Make a Refugee Claim in Canada from

How to Assemble a Document Emergency Kit: Good advice on making sure your critical documents (or at least copies of them with all the information required to obtain replacement copies) survive an emergency.

How To Blog Anonymously And Safely: Tips on preserving your anonymity in the blogosphere.

How to Deal with Identity Theft: Information from the Federal Trade Commission (US).

Privacy Commissioner's site on identity theft and how to deal with it.

Home Office Identity Fraud Steering Committee page on what to do if your identity is stolen (UK).

How to Pay Your Bills Late and Avoid Disconnection: This guide is primarily aimed at readers in the US, but some of the information applies as well in Canada.

How to Eat Well While Poor guide from Brownfemipower.

3: Other

This section contains miscellaneous useful links.

UK Legal Services Commission, legal aid in the UK.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What Mark Chu-Carroll Said

Curious about the background I was talking about in my last post. Don't be. Just go read this.

Money quote: "Of course, it gets even stupider."

The Invisible Hand Needs a Medina Mugger's Manicure

Or, Who Put the Children In Charge, Again?

The conventional wisdom put forth by the instrumentalities and instruments of the current US/UK financial crisis is this, and it's tiring: There is a huge crisis going on, and the middle and lower class taxpayers should be on the hook for cleaning it up -- rather than allowing that responsibility to fall to the perpetrators -- simply because it's important. The market deserves it.1

Well, you'd have to be historically illiterate, stupid, or a blind ideological glibertarian at this point not to realise that laissez-faire capitalism is a failed ideology. We've been here before. Laissez-faire capitalism is what produced such a terrifying cycle of vast booms and busts between the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression, and a class of gilded plutocrats living on the sweat of a vast mass of slum-dwelling labourers. There was a reason the New Deal included historically-unprecedented levels of regulation (and why the gilded plutocrats fought it so hard, and have been working ever since to undo it); and why the Great Society which followed it (with its historically-unprecedented sky-high tax rates on the wealthy) created a flourishing, strong, stable society, and why eroding those protections and foundations ever since has steadily eaten away at the foundations of a peaceful, orderly civil society -- a good publicly-funded education system, public investment in research and development and infrastructure, and a functioning social safety net. (Canada's amazing entrepreneurial culture at the microbusiness level is ample evidence of the incentive toward business risk-taking that minimising personal risk to the lower and middle classes encourages, likewise the counterexample would be the millions of Americans stuck at jobs they hate for the health insurance.)

The current cohort of gilded plutocrats, plump as gorged mosquitoes on what they've been sucking out of the deregulated US economy for the past several years, are taking this pretty hard. Despite playing for tears in the right-leaning and financial press, as evidenced brilliantly by the excerpt at Hullabaloo about the poor dear who was facing the most difficult crisis of his entire life -- giving up his private jet, they're not doing a very good job at winning sympathy from left-leaning hardasses like me. My heart, which, like the rest of me, has never earned more than thirty grand a year in my entire adult life, bleeds...

...from the pain of having to listen to these entitled shitstains whine about how hard-done-by they are.

And that's why nobody should be asking for a fucking bailout of seven hundred thousand million dollars, for chrissakes.

Call me a Communist if you want (I'm not), but I don't think people really need to own private jets in the first place. Once you've accumulated an obscene enough amount of money that you can afford a private jet (as opposed to the kind of private plane that you're, you know, flying yourself because it's a hobby), you're basically doing nothing but masturbating your greed anyway, and that kind of thing needs to fucking stop. Greed wankers are eating the culture of not just the United States, but the entire world alive in their rapacious quest to own more and more of the world's wealth (and drive people like us to produce more and more wealth so they can harvest it from us).

Some of us aren't exactly too happy about explicitly being the endlessly sacrificing impoverished parent-figures of the ruling class, to the point where the ruling class is saying at an economic level, that a good many of us deserve to be metaphorically or literally taken to the poorhouse so that we can enable them to maintain (most of) their grossly inflated standard of living. I'm a small business owner, for chrissakes, and if I'd been so incompetent as to not only lose my business but also to have destabilised the world's financial markets in losing that business, I think I could pretty much expect to be eating lentils and rice in my one-room dive for the next, oh, several decades, don't you think, and not just snivelling about how poor me, I might have to sell my third vacation home and two of my twelve cars...

Fuck them and their obscene case of the poor-mouth. No seven hundred thousand million dollar quicker-picker-upper. If they want the world's economy -- as opposed to simply themselves -- to maintain financial integrity, they can start by doing what that that AIG CEO did, and refusing their severances. They got the world into this mess, first by agitating for the deregulation that would allow economic jiggery-pokery on a transnational scale, and then by running around like small children on a Halloween candy binge, virtually shrieking "Whee, everything's deregulated, let's just make shit up!"; they can at least help pay for the broken glass and plaster.

Keep in mind, this economic crisis is mostly not about subprime mortgages; the bulk of the bailout would be going to reward fraudsters and people who thought that an unregulated derivative market (which, worldwide may be in the hundreds of trillions of dollars or more) was not only a good idea, but ideologically the right thing to do.

Also, last I'd heard, part of the $700B swindle was going to go to pay $2.5B in bonuses to Lehman Brothers employees. They helped destabilise the world economy and they think they deserve two and a half billion dollars in bonuses?! For fucking what?! (Is anyone else reminded of kids insisting that they do so deserve their allowances despite being holy terrors all week and not doing any of their chores?)

Before Mommy and Daddy Taxpayer shells out dime one (and does anybody seriously believe the $700B would be the end of it?), the holy terrors of Wall Street (and Bay Street, and the Square Mile) can give back their bonuses, their fucking golden parachutes, their years' worth of ill-gotten gains, and maybe even their salaries to not more than twice what their highest-paid non-upper-management workers make. If they did all that, maybe nobody in the middle and lower classes would even be on the hook for a bailout, because they'd no doubt have more than enough cash to go around.

Also maybe if their actions actually had real consequenses, they'd be a damn sight more careful in the future.

I'm personally awfully weary of the attitude that just because something is ostensibly "a crisis," that somehow absolves the people who were instrumental in creating the crisis (or allowing it to happen) from any responsibility to fix it, or from experiencing any the real-world consequenses of their actions. That kind of attitude is disturbingly Christian to me -- cry, "Oh, I'm sorry, I repent!" loudly enough, and someone will either pat you on the head and tell you you're forgiven, so it doesn't matter anymore, or sell you an indulgence. Me, I'm a philosophical Jew when it comes to that sort of thing -- if you fuck it up, you're responsible for it, and you not only had better ask forgiveness to the party or parties you've wronged, but you'd also better get your tuchis in gear and at least attempt to fix it.2

I don't see much of an attempt to fix it forthcoming from the perpetrators, just a plea to Mama or Mammon to make it awwww bettoww...

1 I'm with Bernie Sanders here: Any company that is "too big to fail" is perforce too big to exist.

2 For those of you who in the upper-class crowd who are actually Jewish, Rosh Hashana is in six days. You've got some heavy-duty atoning and repaying of debts to do before the end of the year; I'd hop to it if I were you.

Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/AFP/Getty Images: A protestor visually heckling US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (left), and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke (right).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Liked Mike Harris? You'll Love a Harper Majority

Here's what you are voting for, if you mark that ballot for your local CPC candidate:
  • fewer and less stringent food and water inspections -- Walkerton: The Sequel, coming soon to your town!

  • the further demotion of women to a "special interest group" (Does The Smirking Corpse not have a mother?)

  • allowing the continued abrogation of the Treaty of 1814 by the US government without so much of a murmur of protest (Hey, Corpsey, you're all about northern sovereignty; what about southern sovereignty? What about that "longest undefended border" thing? Are we not into doing that anymore? If so, I demand you arm the rest of the border, to keep the Americans out.)

  • an economic plan guaranteed to cause further rising income inequality

  • a Prime Minister who promises to "govern as though he has a majority" even if he doesn't (shades of his alter ego Bush in 2004)

  • cuts to social spending (Look for the part in the Star article where Harper says "...spending ourselves into oblivion either through deficits or through raising one tax or another. It's all the wrong direction." If that isn't neocon code-speak for cutting social programmes, I need to turn in my rhetorician license.)

  • a continued presence in Afghanistan, where, I should remind you, we are doing "counterinsurgency" (aka "picking sides in a civil war"), not peacekeeping.

  • a continuation of the Great Canadian Sell-Off (h/t for the title to Sophie Kneisel, Centre Magazine)

  • further encroachments of "public-private partnership" healthcare (that is, healthcare administered by for-profit entities, driving costs up and service levels down*)

  • American-style mandatory minimum sentencing that ties the hands of judges and prevents them from exercising discretion in extenuating circumstances

  • further legislative encroachments along the lines of Bill C-484

  • further deregulation and the creation of an even larger speculation-driven economy in Canada

  • pulling Canada out of the Commonwealth Scholarship programme such that foreign students can no longer use the programme to study in Canada

  • the embrace of wannabe-Republicans like the execrable carpetbagging Dianne Haskett, who disappeared from her riding's area for four years to go work for the Republicans in Washington, DC, only to magically reappear when her former riding was having a by-election, saying she wanted to represent it in Ottawa.

Anybody who still hasn't come to the conclusion that NEOCONSERVATISM IS A FAILED IDEOLOGY FOR GOVERNANCE (although it is great for vacuuming money out of the pockets of the lower 99% and into the pockets of the top 1%) does not deserve to be in office. We suffered through years of neocon misrule here under Mike Harris' government (aka Harper's Brain Trust, or The Stupidest Guys In The Room); failing them upward to the federal level a second time would be a disaster.

* The most disgusting hospital I was ever in was picking up my broken-backed ex from a PPP hospital in Brampton. The place was filthy, the people working there were surly, and it was so understaffed, he'd been lying on a gurney in the hallway all night. The foyer was lavishly appointed, though...

Thursday, September 04, 2008

We're Not Potted Plants

I'm getting damn sick of this meme that Sarah Palin is some kind of saint for choosing to have a baby with Down Syndrome even though apparently most people choose not to. Some people are even going so far as to label this phenomenon a new form of eugenics, and assuming that it's entirely predicated on how much the prospective parents think the potential baby would be "worth," whatever the hell that means.

Did it ever occur to you folks that maybe, just maybe, prospective parents of disabled children (who will most probably grow up to be disabled adults) look around themselves and see what a horribly ableist society this is, and how hard it is for parents -- even Canadian parents with single-payer healthcare -- especially rural, low-income, minority, or otherwise disadvantaged parents to access the kinds of services and support they need to do the job of raising a disabled child properly?

Shark-Fu's recent post at Shakesville contains a really telling anecdote about her highly autistic brother:
My mother dedicated her life to helping my brother find a way to cope in a world that isn’t tolerant of understanding of difference. I watched as she sank deeply into a depression that, sadly, she has never fully recovered from…all because she couldn’t find that cure or treatment that would fix my brother. ... And I know this one true thing…my brother is now in residential treatment and it takes a rotating staff of eight people to do what my mother did for the first 13 years of my brother’s life.
Not every parent is going to be in that situation. I never needed residential care, and it certainly doesn't take a staff of eight to maintain me (although I'd really like a staff of eight just so that I could get some stuff done for once, but who doesn't?), but. Even with a kid who's about as non-handicapped as it's possible for someone with a disability to be (thanks, doctors!), my mother put in a lot of work of the sort that parents of able-bodied children never have to do. One story that sticks in my mind is her account of when I first got my diagnosis, in the mid-1970s. Apparently a doctor came into the room where she was waiting, made some kind of pronouncement in medical jargon which Mom didn't understand at all, and then turned and went to walk out. Mom, showing the first traces of the deep steel spine she's had to grow (largely because of me!), grabbed the doctor by the collar and demanded that he sit down and talk to her in plain English until she understood what was going on. (Go Mom!)

I'd also like to, if I may, drive a 1979 Impala over the idea that handicapped people are special and better and maybe even morally superior because we exist to teach able-bodied people about tolerance and suffering and patience and keeping a good demeanour under adverse circumstances. How self-centred can able-bodied people be?! We're not angels or saints (and neither are our parents, goodness knows); we're human beings.

Although I know I'm irrevocably putting myself in the "One of Those Ones" category by saying this, because I'm angry about it, disabled people are not about you. We don't exist for your edification. We don't exist to give you moral lessons. We don't exist to make you feel morally superior, either, so knock it the fuck off right now. Please stop appropriating our bodies for your misguided cultural narrative already. (We're also not potted plants, and if you want to be involved with disabled people, children in particular, strictly because you feel an urge to fix something, please, for the love of squid, take up gardening. Or go volunteer for Habitat For Humanity or something.)

While I am firmly behind the idea that the disabled experience is a valid, and above all, human experience like any other, I'm getting the distinct impression from some people that they see it as a more valuable human experience than some. What is with that? It is not all sunshine and roses out here, folks. As you can see from some of the links here, it's often more like thunderstorms and thorns.

That said, I'll also add that I'm firmly in favour of anyone making the reproductive choices they feel are best for them and their families, including having abortions for any reasons.

You may have doubts about your ability to properly raise a child with a disability. Okay, that's honest. Good for you. It's a lot of work and shouldn't be taken lightly.

As I've pointed out, even the best possible life for a visibly disabled person may not be the life you envisioned for your kid once they've grown up (and kudos to parents who think that far ahead!).

That's fine with me. Every child a wanted child, even the disabled ones. Also, speaking purely from my point of view, I don't want anyone to carry a pregnancy to term when they don't want to for the same reasons you don't want me doing your accounting -- I'd suck at it and hate every minute of it.

Not being an adherent to cultural Calvinism, I'm not into the idea that the conservation of misery is a good thing.

Conflict of Interests

I'm very interested in the Small Space Living idea. I do think there's something to be said for a design aesthetic that can produce livable spaces that don't contribute to urban sprawl, for instance, or a workspace that can be more worn than used, if you get my drift.

However, I find I really can't endorse a lot of small-space projects for one simple fact: Almost none of them are accessible, let alone handicap-friendly.

Yes, if you want to reduce the amount of square footage a structure's footprint uses, up is a great direction in which to build. But even I, who am pretty able-bodied by the standards of non-able-bodied people, am really really not enthused about the prospect of having to climb a ladder to go to bed at night, because the designer of my tiny space has thoughtfully created a "sleeping loft." Assuming that the entire bedroom space is supposed to be in such a loft, I can't even fathom trying to, oh, say, haul a laundry bag up there. (Has any loft-happy designer ever thought to include a dumbwaiter?) Let alone trying to get up and down between bed and bathroom when I'm sick, for instance.

Also, I don't think I've ever seen a tiny space that's wheelchair-accessible, let alone crutches-friendly, owing to narrowness. I realise that smallness is a goal here, but my counterargument is, I guess, that there are lots of things about the small-space living design aesthetic and movement that could be used to enhance handicap-friendliness and wheelchair accessibility in spaces (such as making sure everything was within easy reach, providing easier-to-manipulate and well-designed furniture and fixtures, making housework easier for disabled people, and maximising space and design and function considerations to provide useful, safe, and accessible spaces for handicapped people).

I mean, really, can you imagine how well the small-space living movement's same care and attention to detail and willingness to privilege function over tradition would work for desgning handicap-friendly bathrooms?

My suggestions for creating better small spaces for disabled people would be:

  • Pay attention to the different ergonomic needs of people with disabilities. Things like grab rails, bath seats, level access, wider doorways and hallways, placement of fixtures and outlets, heights of countertops and shelves become really important.

  • Think outside the "up." An able-bodied person might be just fine using a library ladder or a ladder to a sleeping loft or using a stepladder to access a high shelf. A walking disabled person, maybe not, and for a wheelchair user, it's impossible.

  • Use different dimensions. Change your perspective to include different approaches for different levels of mobility. For example, instead of designing in a tall, steep staircase, try to find a way to design in a short, wide staircase. Instead of designing a tall counter with drawers underneath, try designing a counter with nesting pull-out countertop-type tables (for use by seated or wheelchair-using cooks), as shown here.

  • Get friendly with the floor. Use the spaces along the baseboards, rather than around the crown mouldings.

  • Sacrifice. Yeah, an accessible building isn't going to be as perfectly small as something designed to be used by able-bodied people. For one thing, you're probably going to have to trade off height for width. But on the other hand, that sacrifice will probably pay off, especially when the current crop of temporarily able-bodied tiny space fans start getting older.

A Small Accessible Spaces Linkography

Cool House Plans with handicap-friendly house plans.
The Accessible Kitchen: A site with design information for creating barrier-free kitchens.

Accessible Housing By Design (scroll down to "Accessible Housing") -- From the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, this section covers home automation, lifts and residential elevators, kitchens, bathrooms, appliances, residential hoists and ceiling lifts, and ramps. (This is a really excellent set of guidelines, with pictures and diagrams.)
HowTo Library -- Accessibility from Bob Vila.