On to something new …

I sent a slightly edited version of the following around to a few friends yesterday …

I’m pleased to let you know that I’ll be starting a new job on Monday. I’ll be doing many of the same things that I was doing for CTV National News – that is, reporting on the activities of the federal government – but I’ll be doing it on‘multiple platforms’, as we say in the media biz, for a different organization, Canwest Global Communications Corp.

Canwest is a Canadian media powerhouse. Every day, more than 1.5 million Canadians read one its major metropolitan dailies which include The Vancouver Sun, the Calgary Herald, the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette and many others. Canwest is also the publisher of National Post, which, this October, will celebrate its 10th year of publication. This will be a special moment for me as I was a member of the Post’s inaugural staff back in 1998 and I remember what an exciting time it was to build and launch a national newspaper. As the new National Affairs Correspondent for Canwest News Service (CNS), I will be part of a terrific team of Canwest reporters covering the activities of the federal government for these and other newspapers.

And while I’m excited to return to my roots in the world of print journalism, I’m going to continue with my involvement on television by joining Global National’s Kevin Newman in his new Ottawa digs to offer some analysis and context in their coverage of business and economic policy. Global National is now Canada’s most-watched national newscast. [You can get the free podcast via iTunes, I might add. Just search for 'Global National' within the iTunes store.] With an average of 963,000 viewers a night, it has eclipsed my old friends at CTV National News and beats the folks at CBC’s The National by more than 300,000 viewers a day. (Source: independent media monitors BBM Nielsen) Newman, you may also know, is the only anchor of a national newscast who reports from the nation’s capital. So look for me on Global National as well as on other Global Television programs throughout the country.

And, of course, I expect you’ll find my Canwest work on the Web at Canada.com.

I hope you’ll stay in touch with me and let me know what you’re up to. You can never send me too many story ideas, gossip tips, complaints or compliments.

My most recent contact info will be, as always, at www.davidakin.com

The U.S. government's 'unsustainable' fiscal outlook

The U.S. financial industry is in a crisis and though that's a very scary problem with some potentially disastrous outcomes the scarier crisis — and one that only politicians and not central bankers can solve — is the horrendous shape of the finances of the United States government. Don't take my word for it. Here's the latest report (PDF) from the the Government Accountability Office of the U.S. Congress (the American version of our Auditor General):

… the long-term fiscal outlook is unsustainable.

And that's the first line! It gets worse (PDF):

Despite a 3-year decline in the unified budget deficit, the federal government still faces large and growing structural deficits driven primarily by rising health care costs and known demographic trends. Last month, a baby boomer claimed Social Security retirement benefits for the first time, and this cohort will be eligible for Medicare benefits in less than 3 years. According to the Social Security Administration nearly 80 million Americans will become eligible for Social Security retirement benefits over the next two decades—an average of more than 10,000 per day. Although Social Security is important because of its size, the real driver of the long-term fiscal outlook is health care spending. Medicare and Medicaid are both large and projected to continue growing rapidly in the future.

The question is how and when the nation’s current imprudent and unsustainable path will end. At some point, action will be taken to change the nation’s fiscal course. The longer action to deal with the nation’s long-term fiscal outlook is delayed, the greater the risk that the eventual changes will be disruptive and destabilizing. Acting sooner rather than later will provide more time to phase in gradual changes, while also providing more time for those likely to be most affected to make compensatory changes.

Now, I'm no economist, but if I read the charts in this report correctly , if U.S. federal governments do not either cut spending and/or raise taxes, the United States deficit — not debt but the current excess of spending compared to revenue — will hit 5 per cent of US GDP within the decade (it's somewhere around 3 per cent now — and will hit 10 per cent by 2030. The U.S. deficit will be a whopping 20 per cent of GDP by 2045. This would be very bad for every economy in the world, but particularly bad for its largest trading partner, Canada.

Brian Mulroney faced a similar problem when he took office in Canada in 1984. Deficits and government spending were out of control. He did a decent job addressing the revenue side of the equation, albeit at great political cost, by bringing in the GST. Jean Chrétien continued that work by slashing spending when he took office. The result? After nearly a decade of federal penny-pinching, Canada's books are the best among the G8. Canada is the only G8 country whose federal government is running a budgetary surplus and whose debt, as a percentage of national GDP, is shrinking. Many say Ottawa accomplished this by dumping spending responsibilities on the provinces. Perhaps. But this year, every single provincial government will also be in a surplus budgetary position. That's pretty good.

It couldn't be more different in the U.S.

In his recent book, The Age of Turbulence, arch-Republican and former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has almost nothing nice to say about the fiscal management abilities of Presidents Reagan, Bush and Bush, but nice things to say about Democrats. Greenspan writes how, in his final years on the job, the most troubling thing he saw was “the readiness of both [the Republican-dominated] Congress and the [Republican] administration to abandon fiscal discipline.”

But it's not just Bush. Greenspan goes back to Reagan and snidely notes that “Reagan borrowed from Clinton and Clinton had to pay it back.”

Clinton, like Mulroney, embarked on a fiscal discipline program upon taking office that cost him political capital but was the right thing to do. Greenspan says what Clinton did was “an act of political courage” and represented America's “best chance in forty years to get stable long-term growth.”

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Tony Judt on accepting the 2007 Hannah Arendt prize

“…if we wish to grasp the true significance of evil—what Hannah Arendt intended by calling it “banal”—then we must remember that what is truly awful about the destruction of the Jews is not that it mattered so much but that it mattered so little.

“The question is not whether terrorism exists: of course it exists. Nor is it a question of whether terrorism and terrorists should be fought: of course they should be fought. The question is what other evils we shall neglect—or create—by focusing exclusively upon a single enemy and using it to justify a hundred lesser crimes of our own.

“Meanwhile, we should all of us perhaps take care when we speak of the problem of evil. For there is more than one sort of banality. There is the notorious banality of which Arendt spoke—the unsettling, normal, neighborly, everyday evil in humans. But there is another banality: the banality of overuse—the flattening, desensitizing effect of seeing or saying or thinking the same thing too many times until we have numbed our audience and rendered them immune to the evil we are describing. And that is the banality—or “banalization”—that we face today.

After 1945 our parents' generation set aside the problem of evil because—for them—it contained too much meaning. The generation that will follow us is in danger of setting the problem aside because it now contains too little meaning.”

– From Tony Judt, “The 'Problem of Evil' in Postwar Europe” in The New York Review of Books, Feb. 14, 2008, pp. 33-35

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Water: We got it, lots don't

The science journal Nature today focuses on water and includes a review article titled “Science and technology for water in the coming decades.” (It leaves out the great Canadian success story in this area — Zenon Environmental Inc. of Oakville, Ont. which is now a division of the General Electric Company). Here in Canada where water, particularly in its 'snow' form, seems to be in overabundance right now, it's worth noting this rather sobering opening paragraph (that's me bolding some parts for emphasis) in that review article:

The many problems worldwide associated with the lack of clean, fresh water are well known: 1.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, 2.6 billion have little or no sanitation, millions of people die annually—3,900 children a day—from diseases transmitted through unsafe water or human excreta1. Countless more are sickened from disease and contamination. Intestinal parasitic infections and diarrheal diseases caused by waterborne bacteria and enteric viruses have become a leading cause of malnutrition owing to poor digestion of the food eaten by people sickened by water2,3. In both developing and industrialized nations, a growing number of contaminants are entering water supplies from human activity: from traditional compounds such as heavy metals and distillates to emerging micropollutants such as endocrine disrupters and nitrosoamines. Increasingly, public health and environmental concerns drive efforts to decontaminate waters previously considered clean.

Nature also asks, and tries to answer, the question: If each us needs about 1,000 cubic metres of water a year, is there enough water to go around?

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Newspaper readership dropping, but not news reading, says study

As someone whose livelihood has, at times, depended on the number of people who buy and read newspapers, I'm not sure if this is good news or bad news: A media monitoring firm says that non-newspaper readers are likely to be younger, and spend more time than others at online news sites. Meanwhile, heavy newspaper readers are more likely than average to engage with traditional print news brands online.

“That current generations are growing up getting their news online for free is an indicator that print circulations are likely to continue their decline,” said Jack Flanagan, executive vice president of media monitoring firm comScore Inc.. “But the Internet represents a significant opportunity to extend – and even improve upon – existing news brands and reach out to new consumers with living, breathing real-time content. Just because print circulations are declining does not mean there are fewer news consumers. In fact, just the opposite is true.”

The conclusions are based on some U.S. data but I suspect the general trend likely holds for Canada.

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Sorting your iTunes Library

I'm in the process of digitizing my CD and vinyl music library which means my iTunes library is swelling — 25,000 titles and growing — and becoming more of a challenge to manage.

Luckily, since iTunes 7.1, Apple has been building in more 'Sort' functionality to the application but Apple has never done a great job of explaining how power users might put that new Advanced Sort function to work.

Blogger Paul Mison, on the other hand, has very helpfully sorted through iTunes 'sort' issues in a post I discovered almost a year to the day he put it up. It had the answer to the problem I was trying to solve:

Astute readers will have realised this only applies to the track they've selected, and possibly leapt ahead and tried selecting multiple tracks and opening Get Info once more. Here we hit a snag- this dialog doesn't show any sort fields. How, then, do you fix up all those tracks? It's far from obvious, but there's a menu option: Advanced > Apply Sort Field (also available in the context menu). Select a track for which you've already mofidied a sort field, then select this option, and you'll see one of the least clear dialog boxes I've seen recently.

Notes on Canada's manufacturing sector

Millan Mulraine, an economist at the Toronto Dominion Bank, authored a report out today “What’s Behind the Canadian Manufacturing Sector Recession?”. (PDF) Those interested in the policy debate surrounding manufacturers — the whole McGuinty vs Flaherty thing — will find it interesting reading (It’s only 8 pages). Here are the bits I’ve underlined:

  • … the Canadian manufacturing sector has survived the massive rally in the loonie and the relentless march of the Chinese export juggernaut — though it has the cuts and bruises to show for the effort.
  • We identify three' key contributory factors to this survival, namely the above (economy-wide) average productivity gains in the sector, favourable domestic economic conditions, and supportive labour market dynamics.
  • We identify three key contributory factors to this survival, namely the above (economy-wide) average productivity gains in the sector, favourable domestic economic conditions, and supportive labour market dynamics.
  • After reaching a recent peak of 15.3% in 1999, the Canadian manufacturing sector's share of total employment has steadily declined to a historic low mark- standing at 11.7% by the end of 2007.
  • …the evidence suggests a dramatic decline in the importance ofthe manufacturing sector to Canadian economic activity, while the importance of the service sector has risen appreciably.
  • The decline in the manufacturing sector is in no way unique to Canada. In fact, across the industrialised world there have been similar long-term trends of downward shifts in the size and importance of the manufacturing sector over the past three decades.
  • …there are indications that the financial position of the surviving manufacturing firms is not entirely dire. In fact, the rationalization of activity in the sector has been to increase efficiency in the remaining firms ensuring that the sector has remained profitable.
  • The stark disparity between the rate of capital expenditure between the manufacturing sector and the economy as a whole has grown particularly pronounced in the recent years.
  • …the Canadian manufacturing sector has been outperformed, by its US. counterpart on the dimension that is most is important for long-term survival. That is labour productivity. And while this is clearly the case for the entire Canadian economy as a whole, the problems that this will engender in the manufacturing sector which will he competing directly with U.S. manufacturers are certainly more acute.
  • …the lagging of Canadian manufacturing sector behind the U.S. on the productivity front will continue to neutralise the other advantages such as the lower private health care costs that the Canadian manufacturers have enjoyed over the years.
  • In the case of the U.S. manufacturing sector, the increased productivity has resulted in wages rising by 63% since 1997, while in Canada the rise was a more modest 39%. Moreover, since 2001, the increases were 30% and 24%, for the US. and Canada, respectively.

One confidence motion after another

If you like politics, well, you’re probably watching what’s going on south of the border. But there’s going to be a little fun up here as well over the next week or so. First up, in a few minutes, the Liberals present their amendment on the budget. Here it is:

That the motion be amended by deleting all of the words after the word 'That' and by substituting the following therefore:

'this House recognizes that this Budget contains some initiatives that attempt to mirror sound and intelligent Liberal policy proposals, but regrets that the government has made significant economic policy mistakes over the past two years and shown an NDP-like lack of fiscal prudence that prevent it from dealing with a downturn in the Canadian economy.'

Voting on this amendment begins at 6:30 pm Ottawa time. We should have it live on CTV Newsnet  is now over. Just 7 Liberal MPs were present in the House at the time of the vote on their amendment and they were the only ones to vote in favour of it. Every MP from every other party was present.

If the government loses the vote on this — and all three Opposition parties have to vote in favour of it in order for the Government to lose — then, that’s it: We go to the polls. It’s unlikely, however, the NDP, at least, votes for this because of the little NDP dig in the middle of the motion. Mind you, the NDP is so annoyed at the Libs nowadays that maybe they vote in favour of it, just to bring the government down and spite the Liberals, who, many believe are not ready for an election. Don’t count on that: The smart money is on the Government surviving for the following:

TUE MAR 4 – The main budget vote. So this is big budget vote. The NDP and Bloc will vote against; the Conservatives in favour. The Liberals are already on record as saying they won’t bring the government down over the budget so they need to figure out what to do here. They could abstain or only a small number of Liberals might be present to vote against the budget.

  • WED MAR 5 – This is the first of six consecutive “Opposition Days”. Each Opposition party is allotted so many days in the Parliamentary calendar during which they can introduce and debate – and vote on — anything they want. The Bloc Quebecois is up first so, presumably, if they want an election, they can write up a confidence motion and present it today.
  • THU MAR 6 – The Liberals have their Opposition day.
  • FRI MAR 7 – The NDP have their Opposition day and we hear rumours that they may try to craft a non-confidence motion the Liberals would have to support — something about environment and didn’t Stephane Dion do a better job when he was Environment Minister.
  • NEXT WEEK – There will be three Opposition days next week — likely Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Not clear yet which party gets which day.
  • THU MAR 13 – The Afghanistan Motion. This is the governnment’s motion, re-written with Liberal input. It’s a confidence motion but, as both the Tories and Grits agree on the essence of the motion, this one should pass.


Liberals to Harper: We ain't backing down, buddy!

Leslie Swartman, the director of communications for the Leader of the Official Opposition, just distributed the following to newsrooms in the nation’s capital:

Neither Mr. Dion nor any member of the Liberal Party will apologize.  If anyone owes an apology, it is the Prime Minister to the Canadian people.

What we are witnessing is yet another example of the Prime Minister silencing his critics and shutting down debate by threat and intimidation.  

This is what is known as a 'libel chill' – using the threat of a libel suit to remove an issue from where it should be rightfully debated:  before the Canadian public.  It is Mr. Dion's duty and responsibility to raise these issues before the Canadian public to get the answers they deserve.

Rather than using the courts to intimidate critics, the Prime Minister should simply provide credible answers to straightforward questions.