Is It Really That Bad?

America, if, in fact, it was ever any different, is officially now a land of vultures.   Virtually everything a human being can do to live his life today is subject to cons, snow jobs, theft, dishonesty, misrepresentation, fraud, and deceit.   And our new executive branch just made it worse.   

The race to steal your money has become so rampant, we’ve almost conceded its victory –  a fact of life in the second decade of the 21stcentury. Consider this:

  1.  Your cable/phone/internet provider is gouging you royally.
  2.  Your utility companies are doing likewise.
  3.  Your insurance company will, if you need them, forget they ever knew you.
  4.  Your bank, you know, the one that treasures you as a personal friend, lies in the     small print, and will sic the dogs on you if you’re in trouble.
  5.  The last politician you could trust was  . . . um, . . . . well . . . . moving on now  . . 
  6.  Your car dealer hides behind a mountain of gobbledy-gook, jargon, and option overload and is superbly skilled at convincing you to pay more than you should.
  7.  Your doctor and dentist will happily introduce you to the concept of astronomical fees.
  8.  Taking a sick car to a mechanic is akin to walking the plank – you’re doomed.
  9.  If you have a pet, a visit to the vet is more costly than a new BMW.
  10.  Your grocer sells you stuff he knows should not be on the shelves and is crassly dishonest (and dangerous) when it comes to anything from the meat department.
  11.  Your accountant MAY be the only one you can trust and, for the lucky, your lawyer, although the law profession lives in a world of deliberate obfuscation designed to make the average person think only a lawyer can solve a problem that, in all likelihood, only required common sense and a modicum of good will.
  12.  Any call for help to a plumber, electrician, or handy man, is an invitation to severe financial setback, all without being sure a) what they did and b) what was really needed. If you’re a senior living in a retirement community, there’s a neon light over your house identifying you as someone who can REALLY be taken to the cleaners.
  13.   Airlines say (and surely do) they want your business and then conduct their affairs with you as if you were a wad of pond scum.
  14.  Your post-secondary school fleeced you but good for something that will never pay off unless you undertook a liberal arts degree and then the pay off is personal (Which, come to think of it, should be its purpose anyway, unless it’s a trade school). 
  15.   Your computer supplier will afford you a brief window of free service; then it’s back to the money treadmill to deal with problems that weren’t problems during the inaugural freebie.
  16.  Your government (at all levels) is convinced you are a moron and wants you to shut up and keep paying your taxes. They may be the only thing keeping the Barbarians from our gates, but sometimes the distinction is confusing.
  17.   Advertisers, emboldened by decades of endlessly gullible consumers, now practice their dark art as if no lie is too monstrous to peddle.   Their bullshit is so pervasive, the ratio of content to advertising has gone from 80%-20% to 60-40 and getting worse every year.

And now we have the most duplicitous and ignorant person walking the face of the earth as President.    His first job?  Appoint a whole bunch of cronies whose claim to infamy has been a zealous pursuit of ill-gotten gains. His second task?  Officially proclaim lying as an “Alternate Truth”.  The circle is complete.  As if there weren’t enough crooks to worry about.

Let’s sum up what has likely happened to so many Americans in the past few years.   They’ve gone from having a decently-paid job with a tolerable pension and medical coverage to a contract position with no pension and no medical coverage. They’re now paid by the hour and the hours are dictated weekly and fluctuate wildly.   They still have title to a house but probably won’t qualify for a mortgage when renewal time arrives.  And heaven help them if interest rates climb. Their car is 6 years old and looks it. They hope that should one of their kids break a leg they can still get enough from the sale of the car to pay the doctor/hospital bill and prevent another caveat being put on the house. Half the neighborhood is unemployed or underemployed. Maintenance on the houses and yards dwindles.   Property crimes escalate and the city seems more reluctant every week to do anything to justify the property tax bill.  They can no longer afford to send their kids to even community college much less university and the lure to dump them into the armed forces just to give them some kind of chance is growing.  If they’re black or latino, the civics lesson they give their kids bears no resemblance whatsoever to the one given by white parents.  They still like to meet friends for a beer on Friday but the PC police frown on it and the neighborhood barkeep is considering converting to a money mart.

But, hey, it’s 2019 and Trump DID say he was going to look out for the little guy. Yeah, I know it – when pigs fly. Besides, you never thought of yourself as a “little guy”.  You were as gung-ho as the next American and the dream was within your reach.  So shit happens, as they say.  No sense crying about it. Maybe tomorrow a lottery win will change things.  Sure.   In the meantime, you’ve have to stay alert, on the watch for all those people and institutions committed to separating you from what wealth you do still have.   Feel free to buy a helmet, some ear plugs, and a thesaurus to brush up on all the synonyms for “Thief”,  “Liar”, and “Bully”.  We’re all in this together so if we’re gonna be angry, let’s make sure we direct it at the proper target.

Trump wants an “alternate truth”?   Everything described in this essay IS an alternate truth to him, to his family, to his cabinet, to Congress, and to the bully boys who buy them off.

Maybe the 2020 elections will ease the pain.

Robert Alan Davidson

Trump

As a student of history, it’s natural, I suppose, to cling to that oft-repeated maxim that ‘history repeats itself’ even though we know it simply is not true.  Still, it’s comforting, in times of severe upheaval, to think that what you are witnessing is merely another cycle in man’s eternal quest to confound himself.  

And so it is with Donald Trump’s ascendancy.  We want to think he’s just another obstacle for America to face as it tries to evolve as a democratic nation.  The country went through turmoil with Lincoln, with Nixon, Reagan and Bush.  We made it through with the state intact and we will do so again.

But.

This IS different.  We ALL know it is different.  This isn’t George Bush and a bunch of lightweight hawks sallying out to save America’s oil supply.   This isn’t FDR twisting America’s arm and forcing them to become their brother’s keeper.  This IS different.

It begins with an unbelievable longshot winning the election despite losing the popular vote by 3 million Americans.  How the hell did we elect  a man who doesn’t read, can’t talk coherently, never strays too far from a mirror, talks about women as if he was still in a Junior High School locker room, lies about virtually everything he does, chisels everyone who does business with him, has no obvious friends, has no political opinion other than a terse “I Like It” or “I Don’t Like It”, and has no obvious sense of where America has been or should be going beyond closing its borders and building walls?   His slogan “Make America Great Again” has no basis in history and no substance to suggest what it might mean., It’s an empty slogan – make of it what you will.

So now we have this appallingly unqualified egomaniac sitting in the oval office.  The first thing he did was appoint a gaggle of similarly unqualified rich white people whose general claim to notoriety is the ability to milk the system and who share Trump’s lack of vision or appreciation of any history save, perhaps, Lenin’s trip to the Finland Station or Hitler’s beerhall putsch, two famous events that effectively killed democracy in Russia and Germany.

With Trump,  we have experienced a blizzard of executive orders, a convenient tool for anyone leery of working with a democratically elected government. These orders did nothing to encourage the hopes of any American, save the rich and the greedy and the xenophobic.  Finally, he issued an EO that closed the country’s borders to Muslims.

So what we know at this point is that we are now in the grip of a dangerous megalomaniac whose support has, by and large, been grounded in an ignorant minority of the American public and the help of a disinformation program that is absolutely awesome in its size and reach.  He is surrounded by people who have no regard for truth or discussion.  They are on their way to do something but what that is, is speculative.  

 Should the country be worried?   Is this but another snag in the evolution of a country?   Does history suggest anything?

Yes.  No.  No.

I have no idea what mechanisms can be brought to bear to muzzle Trump and his henchmen.   But it is impossible to overstate the threat to the future of the country and, to some extent, the world.   We are in the thrall of a bunch of thugs who got there by thuggish means. The neighborhood has been lost to a gang of bullies.   There is nothing democratically or decently redeeming about anything they have done or are likely to do.

Pissing and moaning about the individual acts of insanity won’t solve the problem.  The body politic of the United States has to convene to deal with an ominous threat to its existence.  Gilding our responses in a knee-jerk respect to the highest office in the land is a luxury we cannot afford.  Respect is earned and none of the people in the Trump administration qualify.    Let’s get to work to clean out that office and start over.  

Just remember, once it is done, the country still needs to face the frustration that gave rise to Trump’s popularity and do something about the entrenched politics in Washington.  But first things first.

Robert Alan Davidson

Strange Economics

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Time is money.   How many times in your life have you heard that hoary old axiom?   It’s a fundamental tenet of capitalism and free enterprise, isn’t it?   You snooze, you lose.   Time waits for no man.   The time value of money.   The early bird gets the worm.   The meter is running.   A day late and a dollar short.  Heck, we could probably fill a book with clichés that underline the importance of time when it comes to money.   I doubt you could even raise an argument about its innate truth in North America.

But what if you’re in another part of the world where this rule does not apply? A part of the world that is unbelievably wealthy yet does not really subscribe to any notion that time is money?   Well, there is such a place.   It is Dubai. The second richest emirate in the United Arab Emirates.

Dubai has a well-deserved reputation as a fast-moving modern city that is rapidly becoming one of the travel crossroads of the world, a destination in some demand.  Spectacular architecture, luxurious hotels, attractive beaches, and a shiny huge airport combine to make it one of only a few places in the Middle East where the rest of the world feels safe to travel.  With the help of a very large police force and army, the ruling Sheikhs have seen to it that Dubai is a safe city, at least from a crime point of view. Being a shipping centre, they fight a continual battle with drugs and smuggling but compared to most cities with that problem, Dubai is almost crime-free.  

You could be forgiven for thinking that with all the wealth and the outward appearance of a dynamic commercial centre that the phrase ‘time is money’ would be near and dear to the city’s heart.   But you would be wrong.

Consider the construction of a high-rise office or apartment building.  In North America, the focus on a timely transition from acquiring the property to making the decision to proceed to breaking the ground to achieving a 100% occupancy rate, is, shall we say, intense.  A lot of money is going to be spent before a return is forthcoming.  The money spent has a cost attached to it.   We call it the Opportunity Cost, the return that could be made from doing something else with the money.  Developers, Investors, and Bankers all consider the Opportunity Cost of this building.  IF, and it’s a major ‘IF’, they think the return from this investment will be greater or safer or whatever, they will invest in it.   But they want their Return on Investment to begin as soon as possible, knowing that with the erection of a large and complex structure like a high-rise building considerable time must elapse before that ROI can begin.  Of course, a lot of other things can happen while the building is being constructed, some good, some not so good.  But the overall emphasis is on getting the building up as quickly as possible and leased out as quickly as possible.

There is no such emphasis in the UAE.   Construction proceeds sporadically, much of the work performed by unskilled Indian laborers.  There is no such thing in the UAE as the Marginal Rate of Technical Substitution.   Increased productivity, if it is required, is achieved with yet more untrained workers swarming over the job site.  It is not inconceivable that a construction project will take three years or more just to reach the stage where leasing can begin.   No one seems to be in a hurry to do anything.   Incidental to this casual approach to project management is the nagging spectre of non-payment.  Sub-trades and construction workers are habitually stiffed by a developer clique one might expect to exist in a land of sheikhs and secrecy.   

The situation does not change appreciably after the building is ready for occupancy.  The owners set the rental/lease/purchase prices and then tend to stick with them, regardless of public demand.  They will, in effect, wait for the market to come to them (With the attendant strain on the time value of money).  And, perhaps most peculiar of all, the prospective tenant/buyer will in all likelihood, have to pay a commission to a real estate agent for the privilege of renting or leasing or buying.

If this all sounds slightly backward and impossible from a North American perspective, it’s because we don’t understand the nature of the UAE wealth.  Beginning with the ruling Sheikhs, there is an intricate web of generations-old tribal loyalties that props up the ruling regime.  Fifty years ago, the tribes were still being fought over by the Sheikhs of Dubai, Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi in a competition to see who could command the most loyalty and consequently, the most power.  Allegiances shifted with rapidity and it could be argued that it’s only since the discovery of oil that some political stability has been attained.  But when studying the economy of Dubai, this lacework of tribal-family loyalty is important to understanding.  It is with the leaders of these tribes that the wealth is shared if it is shared at all. Outsiders do occasionally infiltrate this elite – aggressive businessmen who thrive in any environment are no less evident in Dubai and they eventually form part of this elite economic fabric. They will also tell you it was not easy.  This association with the Sheikhs is called ‘Wusta’’ and means the power one wields because of proximity to the Sheikh.  For instance, a man with wusta is not someone you want to run into with your car, right or wrong.  You will be wrong.

Those of us from North America who have experienced the excesses of the oil industry when it is in full bloom have some idea of how money can be spilled when things are good.  It used to be said of the oil industry that the amount of money didn’t really matter – what mattered was getting the job done on time.  If you could do that, they would pay you handsomely, perhaps even excessively.  It didn’t matter, the profits would take care all the excesses.  And this is coming from corporations that had to share their revenues with shareholders, employees, and governments.   

Now imagine those same kinds of revenue streaming in and you don’t have to worry about shareholders, employees or governments.   That’s the Arab world of petroleum and it’s on a scale sometimes greater than the oil revenues generated in North America.  The money is staggering. It’s every hour of every day pouring into the coffers of the elite and used to create a lifestyle that dwarfs everyone save 0.1 percenters perhaps.  The economy of the UAE is run by the ruling sheikhs, a handful of associates who have ‘wusta’  and a small band of compliant banks with interlocking directorates and close ties with those who call the business shots.  Factor in some Islamic rules regarding the evil of passive income known better in the west as interest, and you have a situation where decisions are made based on factors only incidentally related to what we westerners traditionally think of as sound business practices.  No one NEEDS to be in a hurry to get that project finished.  No one is going to call them for lack of due diligence.  Ever.   The rich literally throwmoney at projects and lose no sleep over the economic merits.   There’s more money where that came from.

It will be indeed be interesting to see what happens when the money runs out. When the UAE youth are asked about this, chances are they will simply shrug and admit they will probably have to go back to living a life similar to their grandfather’s before the oil was discovered.   They don’t really believe that but neither do they see any solutions to a situation where the wealth is being splashed about in the most ostentatious way possible, with little of it being shared with the general population.  There should be widespread resentment but it’s hard to detect.

When it comes to operating as a dynamic western-style economy, I like to think of the UAE as ‘Three-Quartersville’.  Everything is taken three-quarters of the way to completion.   If it’s a restaurant or hotel, they will build the most fabulous facilities imaginable, produce a good menu, and a solicitous staff and then deliver the shabbiest meal you’ve ever eaten for 50 dollars an entrée.  This shortcoming is evident is almost everything the country does.   It’s as if some point in a project is reached where the protagonists stand back and say ‘Well, that’s enough for now.  Let’s move on.”

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I’d be happy to conclude that the situation is not beyond redemption.  But after you see the economy in action for a number of years, you realize this is not likely to happen. There’s simply too much money and too few constraints on how it is spent.   In fairness, I suppose, we might all ask ourselves if we would do differently if it were our country and our money and we didn’t have to answer to anyone but ourselves.  After all, the excesses of the Western wealthy are hardly examples of what not to do flagrantly and tastelessly.  

Robert Alan Davidson

Robert Alan Davidson

What Happened?

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The United States is headed toward oblivion.  Rapidly.

It is impossible to overstate both the speed and the extent to which the United States as a) a home to democratic institutions and b) a safe environment has deteriorated into a true have-not country in which the spoils go ONLY to a small percentage of the population and in which fairness in any context is an alien concept.

Donald Trump is the emblem of this catastrophic collapse but he is by no means its only architect.  For that we must point to the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the white racist, poorly-educated minority and a manipulative corporate world.

How precipitous was this fall from grace?   Consider the following sad facts about the country we loved:

It’s entire infrastructure is crumbling – bridges, roads, water works, utility grids all are well past their prime.  Legislators behave as if there was no funding available to address these problems.  Yes, well over 50% of federal tax dollars go to funding wars and defense industries rather than ear-marking any portion for maintaining a domestic battle against deterioration and neglect.

The health care system is the most expensive in the world, is run by the pharmaceutical companies and their corporate cronies, and excludes a large portion of the population while placing the rest in mortal fear of a bankrupting health issue. No country in the world has anything close to this usurious and inhumane practice imposed on its people.

The country is a police state.  People are rooted from their homes and arrested without due process. Minorities are beaten and killed for merely encountering the police.  The police are now armed like the military and behave all too often as an invading force. With a police culture that will vigorously defend almost any transgression by its members, it is a very difficult task for any policeman who does want to serve the community    Meanwhile, the prison system has become a profit centre and with the help of a punitive court system, cells are filled to capacity, usually by minorities.  The rate of incarceration is the highest in the world and the absolute numbers have risen by a factor of 6 since 1970.  The US prison system now represents 24% of ALL imprisoned persons in the world.  How could this happen in a supposedly civilized country?

The school system is grotesquely uneven with too many graduating high school still functionally illiterate, challenged by the simplest mathematics, and woefully unaware of the world they inhabit.  Under-funding is epidemic and reveals a high level of disdain for the value of education beyond turning out a consumer.  This has always been true of the North American public education system but with the rest of the world concentrating more energetically on turning out a literate high school graduate (literate in many ways), the lethargy and disdain for American public education is an invitation to weep. What can anyone say when someone as unfit for ANY position of responsibility as Betsy DeVos is in charge?

The preposterously high cost of secondary education speaks to a vicious trap for young people who can think.  Gulled into believing they must have that degree in order to land a decent job, they incur a back-breaking debt load that, in effect, renders the majority of them helpless to do anything more than try to keep from starving.  Universities have become trade schools for the corporate world, young people likely to be pliant in a corporate world of rigid rules and zeal for profits above all else.

Low wages have delivered millions into a world of poverty and  destitution.  Unions are non-existent, job security is precarious, hours are erratic, and benefits illusory.

The entire political system has been hijacked by the wealthy and elections have become farces in which any voters are excluded, results are tampered with, and no skullduggery prohibited.

The wealth of the country now goes almost exclusively to the wealthy, leaving the majority as modern-day peasants. 

An obscene percentage of the GNP goes to the war machine with the result there is a) a state of continual war somewhere and b) little money left over for anything else, an unfair tax regime not withstanding. 

A wholesale assault on the environment, fueled by greed and shortsightedness has increased the danger to every living organism on the planet and reduced vital climate change discussion to coffee houses and the occasional classroom.

A campaign of misinformation has been conducted for several decades now with the result a discouragingly high percentage of the poorly-educated now live in a cocoon of lies and fabrications.  Brainwashed as they are, these people – who firmly believe the “outside world” is against them, can be used to physically stifle opposition. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out when asked about the growth of membership in “flat earth” societies, it’s what happens when you combine free speech with a terrible education system.

Make no mistake – this as all come about by a deliberate campaign to demolish the state as we knew it in the1970’s.  Its perpetrators, including Mercer and the Koch brothers, are a cabal of libertarians and free-booters who want the playing field open to them only. Trump is a useful tool for them as it focuses our anger at a public buffoon instead of the real criminal in America, the arch-criminals who work to monopolize the country’s wealth and impoverish everyone else.

The propaganda spread by these ruling elites guarantees every attempt at a reasoned dialogue devolves into a bitter left-vs-right ad hominum attack. It’s as if 2 languages were being spoken, neither of which is understood by the other.  It goes beyond this left-right divide.  Thanks probably to social media, you cannot conduct any conversation on any subject without arousing pockets of opposition. Think about that.  It means, for one thing, there is no “objective” truth, such as, so help me, the earth is a sphere.  In a functioning democracy, there are winners and losers at the polls.  The losers act as an opposition to the winners but, to varying degrees, keep their eyes on the overall welfare of the state and will cooperate when issues of national emergency and safety arise.  Not so with the present political divide and the tragedy is compounded by a two-party system that doesn’t allow for a third voice.

Finally, it is hard to argue now that the US has not become a rogue state all its own. It values nothing but corruption and profit and cares not at all for its citizens.  All those noble myths that helped build the country now are expressed only in irony. The millions upon millions of hard-working honest people who still believe in the country have been isolated by an angry racist minority on one side and, on the other, by the machinations of a bunch of oligarchs and mega-corporations who own governments at every level and don’t want anything except more profits.  The media seems content to perpetuate this tragedy.   If there is hope it lies with the youth, like the ones now fighting the NRA.   But they need to widen their vision to first absorb and then combat the terrible corruption that has overtaken their land.  I wish them luck.  Living up to those myths would have been nice.   

Our families deserve better; our communities deserve better; the nation deserves better; and the planet deserves better.Robert Alan Davidson

My Life in Politics

It wasn’t much of a life, really. It mainly deals with the time in the mid-1980’s when I volunteered to help a man running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party, a position that at that time also guaranteed the man (no women were conspicuously involved at this time) would also be Premier of Alberta (America equivalency is the Governor), while opposition parties were doomed to permanent obscurity and media snubs.

Anyway, it wasn’t my first leap into this sordid arena. My father ran for MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly, the equivalent of a state representative) in 1955 in Wainwright, Alberta and I helped him hand out brochures and tack posters to telephone poles. It was a exciting experience for me and I got to visit a lot of dusty corners of eastern Alberta. He was a Liberal candidate running in a province dominated by the Social Credit party. I’m not biased, of course, but dad was a quantum improvement on the straw-chewing rube incumbent but that cut no ice in rural Alberta. Straw-chewing rubes were popular. My father lost decisively. The Social Credit party could have run a garden slug and not even bothered to publicly endorse it. It was my first exposure to the intellectual vacuum that was Alberta politics. After the election, the headline in the biggest newspaper read “God sent us Ernest Manning”. Ernie was the Premier and the leader of the Social Credit party, a fuzzy-thinking gaggle of populists originally given to obscure economic theories. The SC had held power since 1935, so change was not on the minds of most Albertans. My poly sci profs in the US were fascinated that such a strange political movement could flourish so close to the oppressive American model. In truth, the SC had more in common with Huey Long’s rural popularity than any economic theory.

In 1965, bright-eyed from four years of college training, I agreed to act as campaign manager for a co-worker running for alderman in Edmonton. My candidate, a Mr. Basset, was a nice man with no real political ambition beyond fighting for some community issue I’ve long forgotten, maybe a leash law or a plan to remove the slivers from the park slides. His problem was twofold. No one knew who he was, including many of his neighbors. Moreover, these were the days before the ward system so every aldermanic candidate was a city-wide candidate. A city of 400,000 people. The upshot was that no less than 70 candidates were on the ballot to fill 7 positions. It was chaos. Imagine trying to select 7 favorites from a list of 70. Many Edmonton voters couldn’t count to 70. My great achievement in this short campaign was listening to some of the most stultifying campaign speeches in the history of representative government. The incumbent aldermen were overwhelming favorites even if their collective brain-power would hit a wall with 6th grade arithmetic. Modesty prohibits me from touting my campaign slogan “For a civic asset, vote Basset”. He liked it, finished 35th and said he’d had enough. I agreed. Given his problem with name recognition, I credit the slogan for his 35th place finish, although it might have been “Basset” placed near the front of the ballot.

In 1970, I was asked to be campaign manager for a lupine young lawyer trying to latch onto the Premier Lougheed bandwagon. We didn’t get along. He was a duplicitous piece of shit and an affront, I thought, to whatever fresh new honesty was emanating from Lougheed’s young corral of candidates. The smirking creep was a harbinger of the greasy conservatives we find in North American politics today. We parted company in short order. Fortunately, the electorate found him as distasteful as I did and he quickly lapsed into a well-deserved anonymity.

So now it’s 1985 and I volunteer to help a Calgary MLA who I have never met. His name was Ron Ghitter and he was a rare honorable man. As a backbencher he had sponsored an impressive list of worthwhile legislation. He was someone with a vision of a better Alberta.   Unfortunately, he was running a distant third. Leading the pack was an ex-football player who parlayed an easy-going manner into a durable political career as a cabinet member, even if he always seemed a tad distracted by his real love in life, betting on the ponies. In second place was a hotel owner who capitalized on three political assets, a mop of thick black hair, a mouthful of perfect teeth and a perpetual smile that could endure a thumbscrew. They were enough to challenge for the party leadership. Call it the JFK factor.   Mr. Ghitter was in tough.

One Wednesday night in October, I drove 25 miles out to Stony Plain west of Edmonton at attend a election for party delegates for the leadership convention. This is politics at its rawest, rural folk gathering to recommend which of their neighbors deserved a trip to the party’s nomination convention Calgary in November. These people were – as Gene Wilder so accurately described in “Blazing Saddles” – the ‘common clay, you know, morons.’   It was a prescient description.

My job was a) to hand out brochures for Mr. Ghitter in the vain hope the material would sway stolid minds at the last minute and b) help with the vote count or scrutineering. I felt I was fulfilling my community obligation and perhaps helping my candidate.

The handing out of brochures went badly. This was a well-attended affair and I stood at the door trying to press brochures into hands as people rushed by, evidently eager to get inside to light up another cigarette. Most of them ignored me. But in two separate incidents, a man, then a lady, reminded me of something I truly did not know and would not have cared had I known. “You know he’s a fucking Jew, eh?” they both barked. I stood gaping after the first one but had the presence of mind on the second to remind the lady that at least he didn’t fornicate with sheep like some I could name. This was obviously a sensitive subject in the Stony Plain area as she spent most of the night glaring at me and slapping her husband on the arm. I wondered whether she was upset with the suggestion of an unnatural relationship with farm animals by her husband or ignorance as to what the word ‘fornicate’ meant. I could see her husband was no help in either case. Whatever, I had forgotten anti-semitism lived in Alberta

Next came the speeches. The idea was the crowd would vote to see which six people from their community would be selected to attend the leadership convention and, believe it or not, no less than 45 men and 3 women announced their wish to be one of those six. 48 people for 6 spots! Holy democratic overkill! It would be fair of you to ask at this point why such a modest political outcome could generate such a huge interest. Well, I’m afraid the answer has little to do with democratic town hall enthusiasm and more to do with the possibility that getting close to the Premier could be good for one’s bank account. Surely everyone knew there was a zillion publicly-appointed jobs that paid obscenely high wages, fees, and benefits and are landed due to proximity to the Premier.   The zeal was, in truth, plain old avarice. Help your boy gain the Premier’s office and he’ll surely reward you. What can you say about a political system in which the citizen sees the guy at the top as a dollar sign?

Anyway, tradition dictated that each of these 48 hopeful trough feeders got to make a speech telling the crowd what made them worthy of being selected. The prospect of 48 decidedly untrained public speakers stammering for support was nothing if not daunting and could easily become a brain-killing marathon that lasted until sunup. That would not do. So each candidate was given one minute to make his or her case. One minute.

You haven’t lived until you hear 48 one-minute speeches by non-public speakers.   They ranged from “Uh, you know me . . . Clyde Stool .   . uh” to “I’mFredFrutzandIcanserveyouallrealgood andyouseknowitsovoteformeyahear.” It was pure agony, a display of mass insanity and I have no idea how the crowd actually decided who to vote for other than they were each introduced as someone representing one of the three premier candidates. The two men and one woman who stood up for my guy were booed. So much for my brochures.

They voted – it took a while and the cliche, “herding cats’ was front and centre. Eventually, though, I joined six other people in a second-story windowless room to do our duty as scrutineers. Keep in mind here, I had never done this before.  How hard could it be?

Well, hard enough. Seems no one knew what to do. Three boxes full of voting slips sat ominously on the floor, the six scrutineers eying them as if they were props from an Indiana Jones movie about to release some unspeakable scourge. No one said anything. They were waiting to be told what to do. It occurred to me at this point that unless somebody did something, we’d be stuck in this room until those voting slips turned to dust.

Did I mention this room was a tad on the warm side? Did I mention that all six of my colleagues smoked – aggressively? If I was going to survive, I needed to move. So I took over, acted like I knew what I was doing and let common sense run the show. I paired them off and gave each pair a box and a letter-sized pad of note paper. After a long time spent instructing each pair with an exact set of steps to record the vote, handle the voting slip, and deal with possible anomalies, they began to count, stopping only to light up another cigarette.   I stepped out of the room for a minute. The crowd below milled about like cattle twitching at the sound of a thunder storm, most of them chain-smoking and acting like the Vatican freaks watching for a puff of white smoke to announce a new pope.

After what seemed like days, the count was finished. A lot of work probably for what was a foregone conclusion – the football player with a love for the thoroughbreds won handily. My guy and Mr. Hair/Smile both finished well up the track.   In the end the football player became Premier of Alberta and I’m guessing the six duly elected bozos from Stony Plain immediately sat down by their phones to await the reward that would surely come.

In the meantime, it took me two laundries and two showers to get rid of the tobacco smell. My career in politics was over. And I still quiver when I hear the political cliche, “a smoke-filled room”.

Robert Alan Davidson

March, 2018

The Con

I am a retired white male who spent his entire career as a small businessman – never once did I work for any government and as a self-employed businessman, never once did business with any government. Sometimes I felt as if government was in my way; sometimes I remembered that it was there to serve it citizens. That was a trade-off we all made.   The few times I became involved in the political process was with the provincial Progressive Conservative Party. Yet I voted Liberal federally. The differences didn’t seem that great. Going to University in the States in the early 1960’s, I was a Democrat. Kennedy versus Nixon was no contest.

I believed in a social safety net, in the role of government to keep its citizens safe, in the need for cooperation from all to make society work effectively, and in a free enterprise system that with hard work and luck could fuel hopes for a better life while still providing a living wage for all.

And, looking back, I don’t think I was much different from most people in the conservative, democratic, or liberal parties.   We believed in that trite phrase, a “Just Society”. Some more than others, to be sure.

But over the next 30+ years, something poisonous happened to the conservative movement. I puzzle often over that sad turn of events.   The PC’s and GOP have become so toxic with amoral egomaniacs that it’s hard to know where to start to try to understand.

What had happened to the conservative world? Was it merely, as Rebecca West said in “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon”, “Nearly always man’s inherent malignity comes in . . . .” or something more humane?

Politics is, of course, the art of the pragmatic. As hard as both left and right try to justify their actions with appeals to a more noble philosophical motivation, they’re both only truly committed to finding ways to win elections.   Having said that, the size and extent of the right wing’s drift into the realm of pandering to man’s greedier instincts is both shocking and sad. As one writer said, the right has become a deadly cocktail of belligerence and intellectual sloppiness. Finding reasons for this drift is both revealing and discouraging.

It’s easy to assign the blame to Ronald Reagan, he of the simplistic mind and malleable nature who signaled a shift in political thought from what was possible to “what’s in it for me?”. The idea was to simply convert the nation into a world of few laws, a non-interfering government, and an open playing field for anyone wishing to chase the dollar by means fair or foul.   Even organized crime had to be impressed.

When you battle through the tired jargon of the right wing, you are forced to conclude they want a democracy that works for some, not all. They want an uneven playing field when it comes to sharing the bounty of this great land. They do not think we are our brother’s keeper. The do believe wealth should accrue only to those who fight the fiercest to obtain it, legally or otherwise. To the victor go the spoils.   Not very uplifting, but accurate.

So not everyone is equal. Birth, education, geography, color, religion, unfair competition are all factors that can impede, if not kill, a citizen’s hope for a good life. We know all that. But the GOP goes beyond that, starting with having no intention of mitigating those factors. They would never admit this publicly but they’ve become the party of the economic elite. And the vast majority of their captains and power brokers are white and wealthy, some very, very wealthy. In their world, they’d be the only ones qualified to vote. (There is, of course, much precedence for this elitism – the founding fathers, the British gentry, to name two). But such a presumptuous notion doesn’t sit well in a country where, in theory, anyone can become President and all can vote.

It’s a dilemma.   How do you preserve the illusion of representative government and deliver instead a plutocracy? How do you get people to vote against their own best interests?

In America, solving this problem was easier than first thought. It didn’t hurt that a sizeable portion of the country’s electorate was saddled with a terrible education and a vague sense that all was not right with their lives. With that foundation – or lack of foundation – the elites (I speak of economic elites here not intellectual or cultural elites) contrived to influence those voters possessing, in varying degrees, a toxic brew of poor thinking skills, pervasive drug habits, susceptibility to predatory advertising, long-standing racism and anti-intellectualism, and prey to the ever-present malignity of an evangelical Christianity that promised heaven while demonizing half the world. All the economic elite had to do was fill voters’ heads with lies, disinformation, and misconceptions. Influencing this vulnerable group became an art form based upon deception. Finding venal politicians who would do their bidding was even easier and, in many cases, delightfully inexpensive.

Keep in mind the overarching goal for the elite was to increase their wealth, preferably at the expense of the non-elites. This all probably started with a couple of billionaires (notably the Koch Bros) sharing thoughts back in the 1970’s. With liberalism in the ascendancy, they evidently worried about the future of a free market, free as in ‘free’ for them. By the way, you can substitute “Big Corporations” for “billionaires” without confusing anyone. And Canada’s conservative is roughly analogous to America’s.

So they set out to steer American thinking. It was daring plan that encompassed virtually every aspect of American public life. They established so-called think tanks; they funded talk radio where people could vent without being ridiculed; they bought educators and wormed their way into college curricula; they bought newspapers and television studios; they undertook campaigns to spread misinformation; and most of all, they bought politicians (mostly Republicans) at every level of government, right up to and including Presidents.   They were everywhere and nowhere to be seen. For years, they operated in comparative obscurity, slowly but surely changing the way America thought. The steady drip-drip of right wing propaganda succeeded in enlisting the support of the aforementioned toxic brew of voters, which, as it happened, turned out to be a very healthy segment of American society. This dramatic shift in voter allegiance was inadvertently nurtured by the semi-comatose Democratic party. These self-absorbed wizards concluded economic problems and voter unhappiness were being grossly overstated and, instead, they would continue to let Hillary trundle on, charging Wall Street a quarter of a million to hear platitudes.

Meanwhile, the cynical right recruited an electorate both angry and deluded.

Over the years, a phony world developed in which the so-called ordinary citizen was voting for a slate of politicians who purported to represent them but who were, in fact, bought and paid for by the billionaires. It was astonishing how effective this campaign to pervert the American mind was.   Why would so many millions of people buy into the claptrap of a free country with unlimited opportunity and riches for all when the majority were buried in a miserable existence that revealed the exact opposite? Maybe the only answer one can make without wincing is that it was a measure of the discontent. The billionaires expected and received the politicians’ support – pretty much exclusively. The GOP politicians fought to stop any government effort to help its citizens in any meaningful way. The effect was a much better world for the billionaires and little or no improvement for the poor or the middle class. It was – and is – a con of historic proportions.

But, as wildly successful as this campaign was, it still had a big problem. Its hard-core recruits represented something less than 40% of the electorate. How could the elites control Congress when over 60% of the country wasn’t necessarily buying their perverted views? The answers were gerrymandering and voter qualifications, the same two bad actors that have plagued American politics from the beginning.   With state-held majorities, they could freely re-draft constituency boundaries so as to ensure their candidate was elected. Complicating the voter registration process would guarantee the poorer constituents would opt out of the process.

Now we have the Trump Presidency. He rode to office on the coattails of the eilte’s campaign of misinformation. He benefitted hugely from the groundwork laid by those billionaires who managed to confuse the public and establish a bizarre world in which the average man could be convinced he was going to get help when the opposite was actually intended. Trump campaigned on the promise he would “drain the swamp” but his first few decisions indicated he is every bit a part of that billionaire clique, even if they privately loathe the ignorant windbag. Any hope for an improved economic world for the average person became more remote by the day.

With a GOP President, GOP-controlled Congress, a vicious media arm, and a right-leaning Supreme Court, the outlook for America was bleak. What America needed to know if it knew nothing else was that the sole goal of this billionaire clique was a nation in which the plutocrats and corporations could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, and no one, in or out of government, could stop them. Oh, and they did not wish to pay taxes. None. Zip.

This was an aristocracy of wealth. In behavior these billionaires more closely resembled the French aristocracy of 1788 than they did well-to-do American citizens. And so it is today.   They don’t want to know you; they don’t want to hear from you; they only want you to work and pay taxes, preferably at a low wage and a high tax rate. Just leave them to make profits and avoid the IRS. If you’re looking for some philosophical grounding in freedom and lofty language, forget it. This is entirely about greed.

You have to wonder when, and if, all those millions of people who voted for Trump and the GOP Congress will wake up and realize they’ve been had. The one positive to take away from this dismal assessment is that more than 50% of the electorate is NOT buying the big corporate/1% lie. They are the last line of defense.   That’s your neighbor.

Robert Alan Davidson

November, 2017.

Megalomania

Megalomania.   Time was, this was a rarely used word, used to describe third world despots, religious cranks, and the Hitlers of the world. But it is a word that perhaps is in need of a revival. It’s application seems to have grown considerably.

I’m just a country boy (I can’t believe I said that!) who happened to be a small businessman all my life.   The only major corporation I ever worked for (Texas to New York to London ownership) went broke in 1982 after a series of ill-considered decisions regarding the economy).   I wasn’t a wildly successful businessman, although I did have some successes and did manage to run my own business for 25 years.   But creating an environment in which a group of disparate people can coordinate their efforts well enough to have a sense of accomplishment and turn a profit is a very special thing.   Very special.

But sometimes, the arena gets over-crowded and out of whack. This, to me, is one of those times.   Business has become way too big and too pushy.

I believe there are two basic types of businessmen.   The first is the genuine entrepreneur, the individual who has an idea and has the brains, the luck, and the work ethic to run with it. These are very special people and, naturally, are fairly rare.   Actually, there are many, many would-be entrepreneurs who, for various reasons, miss out on the ‘luck’ aspect of success and flounder even though they, too, have the work ethic and the brains.   It’s no fun watching this person fail when his neighbor, for no apparent reason, succeeds. Such is the nature of luck. In any case, the true entrepreneur is fun to watch and his story is always interesting. No less than a great composer or writer, they have a ‘vision’.

The second type of businessman is what I like to call the ‘functionary’. Their job is to be custodian of the business, making sure it doesn’t fall of the rails and working to see that it attains certain goals. Most businessmen fall into this category and while many of them are supremely competent and possess definite leadership qualities, they’re not entrepreneurs and they sure as hell don’t need their egos inflated with such odious descriptors as ‘community leaders’ and ‘captains of industry’. They’re caretakers. Most of them go to work everyday hoping the rails don’t come off the train they’re conducting. They’re quite happy with a holding pattern.

But sometimes the market forces allow the ‘custodian’ businesses to grow in spite of their leadership. Stock market expectations explain the goal – if you are not growing you’re dying – and see-no-evil governments refrain from imposing any curbs on business affairs.

Forget the morality of large corporations for a minute.

What we have now is a proliferation of multi-national corporations.   Their sheer size and political clout practically ensures that they can conduct their affairs with very little restraint. What this does to any one particular community is an ongoing subject for research (If you live in an urban area and frequent a shopping centre or big box centre, you’re almost guaranteed not to be able to find one small independent store, not even a coffee shop. What this says about the level of competition in the commercial world is discouraging to say the least) but what is MOST interesting is what it has done to those who actually run these huge operations.

Corporate execs may be functionaries at heart but today they come as close as any one group to being a modern form of royalty. One has only to look at how they live.   They are paid obscene salaries with almost limitless perks. They live in enclaves and spend most of their time either travelling to their places of business, or to their places of leisure.   They move about in limos and private jets. Most of them have little or no knowledge of the actual community in which they live. Their social contacts are their peers and the politicians they either own or plan to own.   Troubling questions arise. Are we creating a new privileged class no different from Europe in the early middle ages?   How do these people see themselves?

Well, it’s all plenty of stuff for op-ed dissection and graduate theses. But let’s look at one small detail to see what it tells us.   This is one advertisement placed in the Economist for a Ph.D in economics (If you weren’t aware, the Economist’s target market is not middle America).

“. . . . . Institute has been offering a unique PhD in Finance programme to elite practitioners who aspire to higher intellectual levels and aim to redefine the investment banking and asset management industries.

Drawing its faculty from the world’s best universities and enjoying the support of a leader in industry-relevant academic research, the . . . Institute PhD in Finance creates an extraordinary platform for professional development and industry innovation

Following a stimulating scientific curriculum and working individually with leading specialists on research issues of particular relevance to their organizations, practitioners on the programme’s executive track learn tom leverage their experience and insights to make original contributions to the frontiers of financial knowledge and practices.

Challenging professionals to step back, reflect, and generate radical innovations, the . . .

Institute PhD in Finance is the ultimate degree for financial executives.”

I don’t know about you but I don’t think that ad was aimed at me or anyone I know. I’d like to examine it from a thousand different perspectives but, assuming the writer of the ad has stopped patting himself on the back for his glorious adherence to academic gobbledegook, let’s see what the ad says about the world of business.

A world of privilege, elitism, and pretension might be a start. I know any number of academic disciplines are guilty of self-importance masquerading as intellectual ‘frontiers’, but this PhD is aimed directly at those who see themselves at the cutting edge of . . what? . . . Innovation? Market penetration? Market rigging? Mergers and acquisitions?   Outsourcing?   Obviously it’s aimed at a world of self-satisfied corporate types who hunger for something more, presumably as long as it is in that corporate world.

The arrogance of the ad is staggering and we wonder how closely it represents the natures of the people it was meant to attract.   If it is close, the world may be in trouble. If it isn’t close and is, instead, the result of an excess of self-love, it would be interesting to hear the comments of those short-listed for the position. Either way, it’s a vivid example of how misguided the corporate world can be.

Perhaps, if Citizen’s United is with us for the long-term, then the least we can if corporations are people, is take steps to make sure they, like us, don’t live forever.   Let the next generation have its day too.

Robert Alan Davidson

(February, 2016)