Attention America: Don't make the mistakes of The Great Depression

I can't believe I'm putting up what you might interpret as a pro-free-trade post. Twenty years ago, as a student journalist, I remember writing editorials ridiculing attempts by then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to negotiate the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. Now there are substantial — monumental, some might say — flaws with the agreement and its successor NAFTA as well as the approach U.S. administrations have taken since then to circumvent the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement. (See Softwood Lumber) But the evidence seems to suggest that, since signing those agreements, Canada is a wealtheri country for the deal than it would have been without it. (And, it seems to me, just as sovereign. My concerns in 1985 centred on the potential loss of cultural autonomy through free trade. I concede that the effects of free trade on our cultural autonomy remain a hotly debated question but I don't think they're as bad as some predicted in 1985.)

Moreover, I tend to agree with those, like the spokesman for one of America's biggest companies, below, that one of the major mistakes policy makers made during the 1930s was raise trade barriers. And yet – though it signed an agreement at APEC in Peru saying it would not do so, the U.S. is poised to do just that, the Washington Post reports, partly in retaliation for perceived trade barriers recently erected in China and in Europe:

Nations including China and many in Europe are preparing to spend billions of dollars of taxpayer money on stimulus projects. American companies are angling for a piece of those pies, and retaliatory measures against U.S. companies, executives argue, could significantly complicate those efforts. This week, a European Commission spokesman threatened countermeasures if the Buy American provisions are approved.

“There is no company that is going to benefit more from the stimulus package than Caterpillar, but I am telling you that by embracing Buy American you are undermining our ability to export U.S. produced products overseas,” said Bill Lane, government affairs director for Caterpillar in Washington. More than half of Caterpillar's sales — including big-ticket items like construction cranes and land movers — are sold overseas.

“Any student of history will tell you that one of the most significant mistakes of the 1930s is when the U.S. embraced protectionism,” Lane said. “It had a cascading effect that ground world trade almost to a halt, and turned a one-year recession into the Great Depression.”

Lane sounds he might have been listening to Canada's prime minister address business leaders at APEC:

…let us remember what led to the Great Depression. It was not caused by a stock market crash. That was only the beginning. Policymakers pursued four sets of actions that defined that terrible decade. They allowed a rapid contraction of the banking system. They allowed widespread deflation as a consequence. They undertook to balance the books at all costs – raising taxes and contracting government economic activity at the one time when fiscal stimulus was absolutely essential. And, finally, they erected protectionist barriers in a short-sighted attempt to preserve jobs. These are mistakes the Government of Canada will not make.
Some of these things – letting badly run institutions fail, falling inflation, a balanced budget – would have been the right policies at a different time. But not building walls. Not closing doors. That is always wrong.

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Chinese restaurant to win new parliamentary business

Further to this, I am told on the deepest of backgrounds by top sources in Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's office, that, on Monday, Kenney and other Parliamentarians plan to dine in the very Chinese restaurant that Warren Kinsella highlighted in the now-removed blog posting that sparked Conservative calls for Kinsella's head.

And not only will they be dining there, Kenney will be presenting the restaurant's owner with the first ever “Minister's Award for Culinary Excellence in Multicultural Cuisine”. I kid you not.

I have not identified the restaurant — as I don't think I should be in the business of causing it collateral damage and/or collateral benefit but it's in Ottawa and it surely shouldn't be too hard, by now, to find via a Google search.

MP demands Kinsella's resignation

A couple of days ago I noted that the Chinese Canadian Conservative Association was upset at Warren Kinsella, the political advisor appointed by the Ignatieff team to run the war room in the next federal election. Kinsella, in a blog posting, mentioned that he was pleased to be able to visit a favourite Chinese restaurant for some BBQ “cat” and rice.

Initially, I thought the “outrage” from the CCCA was one of those low-level political brushfires that would confine itself largely to partisan blogs. Well, it has yet to surface, so far as I know, in the English- or French-language mainstream media but it has made the mainstream Chinese-language media. Indeed, it pushed the federal budget off the front pages of some Chinese language newspapers.

I'm told the it was also a topic of discussion on A1 Chinese Radio and Fairchild Radio on Wednesday night.

The attention from the Chinese-language media — a group which has been assiduously courted by the Conservatives, I should point out — was interesting. But so was this: After the initial criticism, Kinsella altered the blog posting in question, removing the phrase that offended the CCCA and, in replacement, went on the attack.

“I changed the post to emphasize Conservative hypocrisy, for anyone this angry fellow directed there,” Kinsella said when I asked him about it. “In the era of screen caps and Google cache, deletions don't happen anymore. The video is still in YouTube, too, and any reasonable person who sees it will know that the allegation being made is utterly ridiculous.”

And Kinsella, the author of a well-received book that exposed white supremacists in Canada, rejected the not-so-subtle hint from his Conservative detractors that he was some sort of closet racist. “Morality lectures from the party that came up with “Asian invasion?” That's a bit silly, isn't it? Why doesn't this fellow condemn his party for that? Or likening immigrants to criminals? Or any one of a dozen other examples of bigotry originating from Reform-Alliance-Conservative MPs/candidates?”

Moments ago, in the House of Commons, Vancouver area Conservative MP Alice Wong rose to say this:

My constituents are asking me why the Liberal leader is refusing to fire his top political aide, Warren Kinsella. Was Mr. Kinsella’s comment about tucking into a “Bowl of BBQ cat” at Yang Sheng’s here in Ottawa done in his ‘official’ role as Liberal party spokesman? His comments that Chinese restaurants serve cat meat deeply offended the Chinese community in Canada, and have already been condemned in Sing Tao Daily, Ming Pao, World Journal, and across Chinese language talk radio.

As a Chinese Canadian and someone who appreciates the freedom and opportunity that Canada provides, it hurts me and my community greatly to see racially ignorant comments coming from official spokesmen for the Liberal party.

When will the Liberal leader realise that Canada’s political system doesn't have room for someone with Warren Kinsella's offensive views? When will he fire Warren Kinsella?

I'm de-Twittering: Here's why

I’ve been on Twitter  for — I don’t know — six or seven months now. Can’t see much use for it and, frankly, in terms of the time and bandwidth I’m wasting, it ain’t worth it. So i’m de-Twittering or un-Twittering. I will be an ex-Tweeter.

Reason? Basically, there’s nothing I’m getting from the Twitter folks I follow that I can’t get in person, via e-mail, via RSS or via the good old-fashioned phone.

You may have a different Twitter experience, of course, and I’m not saying Twitter is bad. For journalists, Twitter, had its one shining moment, so far as I can tell, during the Mumbai terrorist attacks. (I’ve heard there were lots of cool Tweets as that Airbus landed on the Hudson river.)

But as party of my daily/hourly digital toolbox and with more and more tools showing up on the Internet, I think you’ve got to make some decisions about what’s useful and why. Digg, for example, seems like a useful tool for newsroom managers and assignment editors but for the blue-collar grunts like me out there pounding the digital pavement, Digg, Twitter, and services like it are just time-wasters.

The social software tools I find valuable for the work I do are Facebook and Google Reader. I’m a big Google Notebook fan as well. Notebook is “share-able” but I tend to keep all my Notebook stuff private cuz that’s where tidbits for the scoops I’m working on end up.

E-mail — so ubiquitous now that its value is overlooked — remains the all-time killer app for a reporter, if you ask me. Web browsers are a close second but e-mail lets you reach out, get personal, stay anonymous if you need to, and can be your conduit to file to your desk and the wider world. Plain-text e-mail works on every hardware platform and every bandwidth situation. (And I’ve reported from spots where the story was getting out at 1200 baud ! ) The Web, of course, is a wonderful Internet application for journalists but content coming and going via HTTP can be a bandwidth hog and the browser that will interpret all that content will vary considerably on different hardware platforms. Of course, we don’t think about bandwidth or platforms nowadays when we’re using the PC in our office which is connected to somebody’s 802.11n WLAN.

But back to Twitter. When I signed up for a Twitter account I couldn’t, to be honest, envision how it might make me a better reporter but I had faith that, like a lot of other online tools I’ve used since I downloaded Netscape’s Mosaic in 1994, its value as tool to help me improve the quality, efficiency, or scope of my newsgathering.

Unlike Facebook, where I’m approaching 1,000 friends (many personal but most professional), I thought I’d restrict my Twitter “Follows” to key or frequently used sources — political operators like Jack Layton or Gilles Duceppe or folks with expertise, like Michael Geist or Jim Carroll, that I’ve called upon many times over the years to help with my stories. I also included a few digital-savvy journalists in my follow list. I vowed not to clutter up my “Follow” list with personal friends or those folks who I didn’t already have a working professional relationship with.

Now one of those journalists who I’ve following on Twitter is my friend and former boss Kirk Lapointe. Kirk’s assignment right now is at the Vancouver Sun where he’s the managing editor. Ever since I first worked for him back at The Hamilton Spectator in 1996, I’ve known Kirk to keep an eye on the future. Over the last few months, I’ve admired the commitment he has made to Twitter. He sees something there and the Twitterverse is definitely richer for him being in it. But you know what? The real interesting stuff from Kirk I find in his newspaper or his blog. Is there “must-have” unique content from Kirk or any of the others I’m following on Twitter? Nope. [I single Kirk out here, not because I disagree with him. In fact, I think he and I agree on a whole pile of things when it comes to our brave new digital world and journalism.]

So aside from the fact that I just found nothing on Twitter that made me a better, faster, reporter — what else is it that’s bugging me? Search.

Search, for a reporter, is a must-have. In fact, the lack of decent search within Facebook is one of things which may eventually drive me from that club. On the other hand, one of the things I love about Facebook is the photos of young political staffers who-want-to-be-cabinet-ministers doing crazy, drunk things while they let other people take pictures. I’m collecting all those photos and, believe me, the dirty-tricks operatives at Liberal and Conservative research groups are doing the same thing. But I digress …

How is search valuable? Today, for example, as we were reporting on the issue of U.S. protectionism, we needed to know, on deadline (i.e. within about 5 minutes) what percentage of steel made in Canada gets exported to the U.S. I had the answer within that five minute window because I’ve set up my digital world to answer that question. Here’s how: First, I’m running Google Desktop so that all the stuff on my local machine and local servers gets the Google index treatment. I know there are other search engines out there but, I’m sorry, Google is still king.

Next: Everything I touch on the Web and every piece of e-mail and paper I get ends up in digital form on my drive. I do lots of ATI requests and every one I get is digitized and then run through the OCR function in Adobe Acrobat. Google gobbles it up.

So today, on deadline, I’m a keystroke to Google Desktop, type in “steel canada exports u.s.” and, presto, up pops a briefing note the Department of Finance prepared for a meeting Jim Flaherty had with a CEO from a Canadian steel company. In the briefing note? You guessed it. Finance department officials say Canada exports about 40 per cent of all steel made in the country, 90 per cent of which goes to the U.S.

That’s the power of search for a journalist on deadline. Twitter’s search capabilities are far too rigid (Find people using twittername, lastname or firstname. That’s it. I can’t easily or with precisely search my own tweets, my follower’s tweets, or my followee’s tweets.

Google Reader is my preferred RSS reader for the same reason I like Google Desktop. I can search with a good deal of precision through all the content I’ve ever received through RSS. Can’t do that with Bloglines which I used to use.

So there you go: So long Twitter and good luck! I’ll keep the account open just in case there’s another Mumbai moment but I suspect I’ve tweeted my last.

To those I’ve been following via Twitter: I’ll see you at other digital hangouts. To those who’ve been following my Tweets: You can find me right here.

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The only leader to stand up to Harper …

… is Jack Layton. So says the new radio spots the New Democratic Party plans to begin airing today.

One spot argues that everyday families were “counting on Michael Ignatieff” to stand up to Stephen Harper but “he failed” in his first test as Liberal Leader. Now, “Jack Layton's the only leader strong enough to stand up to Harper and get us through this economic crisis,” a female announcer says.

Layton, of course, and a handful of other NDP MPs would have been ministers in a Liberal-led government had Ignatieff decided to choose a coalition government instead of Flaherty's budget.

The NDP says these ads will air in parts of the country where they found electoral success last fall and in parts where they believe they can pick up seats in the next election. So, I'm sorry, Western Canada, you're not going to hear them on the radio but you can check them out on the NDP's Web site. For those of you in Northern Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, South Western Ontario, Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver — keep your ears open when listening to the radio.

Meanwhile, I can tell you that the Conservatives this morning were continuing to air their radio spots attacking the idea of a coalition government. Heard one on the radio on the way in to work this morning.

All-riiiiight! House of Commons committee swing back into action!

Ok. Ok. We've had 15 cm of snow in Ottawa and at least that if not more is on the way.

So that may be the excuse for the enthusiasm I hold, as do many Canadians I'm certain, for the Standing Committees of the House of Commons. You can imagine how excited I was to learn that committees will soon hold their inaugural meetings for the 2nd session of the 40th Parliament. The grandly titled Standing Committee of the House of Commons on Foreign Affairs and International Development kicks things off with a meeting on Feb. 2 (why, that's just next week! – ed.) at 3:30 pm.

Indeed, the NDP, at least, is chomping at the bit to get the Natural Resources Committee going so it can grill witnesses from AECL, CNSC and NRCAN Minister Lisa Raitt about Chalk River. It looks, though, like the CNSC, at least, is stepping up to play some public relations in the wake of what Brother Greg has been reporting.

Personally, given what I cover for Canwest and Global National, I'm looking forward to seeing how the Finance Committee shapes up with James Rajotte as chair (should he be elected, of course!) and Garth Turner absent. This committee meets on Tuesday next week. The Libs on that committee I suspect will be the same gang: John McCallum, Massimo Pacetti, and John MacKay with Martha Hall Findlay pitching in as an associate member. I would be bet that the lone NDP member on that committee is Thomas Mulcair. The BQ will send in Jean-Yves Laforest and someone else.

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Chinese Conservatives outraged at Kinsella

In news likely to make headlines on blogs only, we have learned that the Chinese Canadian Conservative Association is demanding that federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff fire Warren Kinsella for what they allege are some racially insensitive remarks about Chinese food.

In a recent blog posting Kinsella likened the meat found in Chinese cuisine to cat meat:

“Back in the Big Owe for a couple weeks, so what better way to kick things off than with some BBQ cat and rice at the Yang Sheng, hangout of our youth? Yay!

Kinsella repeated the offensive comment in a video posting on his website.

Alex Yuan, chair of the Chinese Canadian Conservative Association, said: “Our community is deeply concerned with Mr. Kinsella's comments. Kinsella repeats the most vulgar and offensive stereotypes by associating the meat served by Chinese restaurants to cat meat. He has hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and disrespected the Chinese culture.”
Yuan ran for the Progressive Conservatives in the last Ontario election. He lost in the riding of Markham and the Progressive Conservatives generally were soundly thrashed by the provincial Liberals. Kinsella was a key player on the Liberal election squad that beat the Tories.
Earlier this month, Kinsella agreed to join Ignatieff's team to lead the Liberal's federal election war room.
I am also able to report that this matter did not come up at the just -concluded press conference Ignatieff held at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa.

Just so we're clear on the budget spin …

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty speaks to the Chamber of Commerce in his hometown of Whitby, Ont. at lunch today, officially kicking off the budget “sell”. Flaherty, John Baird, Lisa Raitt, Jim Prentice and other cabinet ministers will be dispatched across the country to tell you how great the budget it is. You may very well agree with them; you may have some points to ponder.

In any event, you are likely to hear politicians from each side advance a series of numbers from the budget that best supports their individual position.

As you hear the spin war begin about the size of the deficit and the size of the stimulus package, the following might be helpful. Much of the following is based on the analysis of the budget by the economists at BMO Capital Markets [PDF]. That bank's chief economist, Sherry Cooper, and its deputy chief economist, Doug Porter, were among the 40 or so reporters, editors and experts that Canwest News Service had in the budget lockup yesterday and we very much appreciated their advice and counsel.

The Deficit:

  • For the fiscal year beginning on April 1 2009 and ending March 31 2010 (This is known as Fiscal 2010 or FY2010), the deficit is $34 billion.
  • For the following fiscal year, it is $30 billion.
  • *** Buried news of the day*** The government will finish the current fiscal year (April 1, 2008 to March 31, 2009) in a deficit. If you've got a copy of the Budget Plan [PDF]it's all right there in the chart on page 217. That's the first time any official government document has concluded that this year, not next year, is the first deficit year since 1998. Finance officials estimate Ottawa will finish in the red by about $1.1 billion this year.
  • If the government had done nothing yesterday, the so-called “status quo” deficit before the Flaherty cut a single tax or spent a dime, is about $15 billion for fiscal 2010, higher than expected.

How big is the stimulus package?

  •   The economists at BMO Nesbitt Burns estimate that the size of the stimulus package is just $33.5 billion over two years. That's $18 billion this year and $15.5 billion.
  • All G20 countries were to introduce a stimulus package worth 2 per cent of GDP. Two per cent of Canada's GDP is about $32 billion.
  • The government estimates that, because of the $33.5 billion stimulus package, the GDP will grow this year by an extra 1.2 per cent.
  • The government believes their plan will create 142,000 new jobs by the end of the year.
  • Porter estimates that the tax cuts in the stimulus plan are worth $6 billion this year and the new spending in the stimulus plan accounts for $17 billion this year.

Credit crunch? What credit crunch? Oh, and consumer confidence up is up, too!

Two datapoints out this morning that might give us pause as the federal government prepares to release the hounds of spending.

First, the economics department at the T-D Bank says that ” despite perceptions of tightening conditions, bank credit continues to flow at a strong pace to households and firms.” The report, written by the bank's deputy chief economist Craig Alexander and economist Grant Bishop, concludes that “business credit expanded by 13.2% Y/Y in December fuelled by Canadian-denominated business loans and much expanded reliance on Bankers’ Acceptances.”

Business lobbies such as the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business have been saying for weeks that credit for many of their members is drying up.

Second, the Conference Board of Canada today reports that consumer confidence is up this month. That's right — up! It's not up much but the board's survey found that an increasing number of Canadians are feeling better about their financial situation and are considering purchasing big-ticket items.

Happae birthday Rabbie …

Not that it takes much encouragement, but, as it's Sunday night and I don't have to report to work for at least another 10 hours, I'm pleased to enjoy an extra whisky in honour of the 250th birthday of Robert Burns:

About 4.2 million Canadians claim heritage ties to Scotland, so it's no surprise that there are a dozen statues erected to Burns across the country. After all, Canada's first two prime ministers were Scots.

I'm one of those. My dad's dad hailed from Edinburgh; my mom's dad sailed from Greenock, near Glasgow, a month before the Titanic left Southampton and arrived in Halifax a few days after Titanic was supposed to have arrived in New York.

And yet, though I feel a powerful attraction and fondness for the land of my ancestors, I've never been there! (Je suis né à Montréal!) Perhaps that will change in 2009. In the meantime, I'm told – perhaps best in “Scotland's Story” by The Proclaimers (left) — Scotland is not just for white guys who like fried food.

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