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Never Mind Trump. What’s Wrong with Everybody Else?

“Donald Trump said…”

Donald Trump has occasionally done some things that are right (which is why he got elected and why he still has supporters). But generally his term as President of the United States has revealed him to be foolish, erratic, self-centered, spiteful, impulsive, reckless, narrow-minded, and often untruthful and dishonest. I get that.

What I don’t get is other people. Every time Trump speaks or tweets, his words are greeted by an outpouring of surprise, shock, anger, outrage, horror, disbelief, mocking, and calls for his impeachment. His every word is reported and analyzed endlessly in the news media. Comedians, late night talk show hosts, and others in the entertainment industry attack him relentlessly, making him the prime target of their rants night after night. I have friends, many of them Canadian, who tweet or post negative things about Trump several times a day. Why? Don’t they have anything better to do? Is it like a car crash that is so horrible that they just can’t look away? I should say that I also have contacts—not as many— who tweet and post—not as often—positive things about Trump. But why this obsession with Donald Trump?

And why is the focus on Trump’s words? Some of his policies make sense, and some of them don’t. But nobody seems to care greatly about them. It is his words that everybody focuses on. And if people do comment on his policies, they comment on what he has said about his policies, not about the policies themselves. In fact, I am not sure that many Canadians, or even Americans, know what his policies are. We know what he has said, but do we know much about what he has done?  

Why the focus on Donald Trump’s words? It is not as if he is revealing anything new or, in many cases, important or insightful.

And what good does it do? While everyone is busy responding to Trump’s first words, he has often already contradicted himself, denied he said it, or said something else, which everyone feels they must also respond to. Why so much focus on Trump’s words, which receive far more attention than his policies? Why so much arguing about words, which leave everyone as confused as he is?

Why is there so much focus on Donald Trump in the media and social media? Most of his ideas are not profound enough to waste time on. Giving him that much attention just feeds into his agenda and bolsters his ego, showing him how important and ground-breaking he is. And the more he is attacked by other politicians, the media, and the entertainment industry (which has enough shallow, self-centered egotists and scandals of its own, including Trump at one time), the more his supporters rally around him, defending him against “the conspiracy of the liberal establishment.”

Why do so many people keep letting Trump set the agenda?

Do people think that if he hears enough criticism, he will change? Maybe, instead of attacking Donald Trump, people should just ignore him. Maybe if he was denied attention, he would just wither away into the insignificance he so richly deserves. Maybe if everybody focused on some other Republican, that Republican would gain enough attention and support that he or she could run against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. Why reinforce Trump’s position as the most important Republican?

And why all the concern with impeachment? The checks and balances in the American system have worked well enough for the past three years that he has not been able to bring about the end of the world. If Trump ordered something truly catastrophic to be done, I suspect that his minions would quietly ignore him and wait for his attention to shift to something else. Surely Americans can put up with him and his nonsense for one more year.

Any attempt at impeachment would take a long time and would likely founder on the rock of political partisanship since the Republicans still have a majority in the Senate—just as Democrats countered Republican efforts to impeach Bill Clinton for professional sexual abuse. Any impeachment attempt, whether it succeeded or not, would be seen as a partisan effort—as it would be in reality since the only impeachment process in the American system is handled by politicians. There is no impartial judicial process to get rid of a sitting president. Even if impeachment succeeded, it would still be greeted by partisan bickering for months or years afterward. And the impeachment process would keep the focus right where it is now—on Donald Trump.

Why all the focus on impeaching him when a much easier solution is available in the ballot box? Is everyone afraid he might be re-elected? If so, shouldn’t people be focusing instead on why Trump might be re-elected? What is he saying and doing that might get him re-elected? Never mind what is wrong with Trump. What is wrong with the other candidates that many people think Trump might be preferable? Why is no one thinking and talking about that?

Why do Republicans put up with all of this? Why are they determined to let Donald Trump spoil their brand and drag them down with him? Why don’t they run a candidate against him in the primaries? Just about any candidate would appear intelligent, reasonable, and attractive by comparison.

I particularly don’t understand the Democrats. They are so locked into their feud with Trump that they go to the opposite extreme on every issue. He wants to build a wall, so they advocate for totally unfettered immigration. He is a capitalist, so they are pushing for socialism. He is labeled a “conservative,” so they seek out and promote the most extreme forms of sexual politics and social engineering they can find.  Every policy they propose is presented in terms of how it is different from one of Trump’s policies. Their speeches are full of vitriol, accusations, self-righteous anger, and name-calling, all directed at Trump. In fighting Trump, they have descended to his level. They are so busy bashing Trump that they are not thinking clearly about the American people and about the real issues that led people to vote for Trump in the first place. If the Democrats put up a middle-of-the-road candidate who could appeal to even some of Trump’s supporters, I think they would win in a landslide. If they could present a positive platform and an attractive vision for the country and offer a candidate who would appear presidential and statesmanlike, rising above the current deplorable state of American politics, Americans would most likely welcome that platform and that candidate with open arms. But they don’t. Why?

Why?

Why?

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Fortune Cookies

Have you ever experienced opening a fortune cookie and finding a message that seemed very appropriate to your situation?

A while back, I was in a Chinese restaurant. My dinner companion ate three fortune cookies and found three messages:

• “You can be lucky today regarding your romantic enterprise.”

• “Fun and excitement will soon be yours.”

• “Today is the day to make your move.”

Together, the three fortunes presented a very clear message, a very clear path forward for my dinner companion. My dinner companion might have considered the message very seriously and moved forward in his quest for romance—if it weren’t for the fact that he was four years old.

When a golfer hits a hole in one (puts the ball into the hole with only one strike of the ball), it is considered a remarkable achievement. But is it really? The European Tour has set up a “Chase the Ace” promotion in which it gives one of its professional golfers 500 chances in a row to hit a hole in one on the same hole. Several have tried and failed. Would it be so remarkable? Average golfers get a hole in one once in every 100,000 tee shots. Professional golfers on the European tour do it once in every 2500 tee shots. Skill will get the ball close to the hole but will not guarantee a hole in one. Consider that there are multiple variations in the golfer’s swing, minute differences in the placement of the ball, and vagaries of wind, green slope, and grass blades. It is impossible for a golfer to control all of these variables. The reality is that if a golfer drives enough balls toward a green, eventually he will get lucky and one ball will go in.

The same is true for fortune cookies, fortune tellers, and other forms of “magic.” If you make enough predictions, eventually one will turn out right—and that is the one that will be remembered, just as it is the lucky hole in one that the golfer remembers.

There is in the human mind a desire to have magical answers to the dilemmas if life, to have someone or something tell us exactly what to do—so that we will be absolved of the responsibility to make a decision.

The God of the Bible does give guidance, and sometimes it is clear, specific, and direct. But often God lays out the general realities of life, the principles of proper behavior, and leaves it to us to choose to do right or not. We want to know which option will bring success and prosperity. God is more interested in us choosing the option that is loving, just, and good. 

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Anomalies of the Environmental Movement

One of the anomalies of the environmental movement is the sources of its strength. Support for the Green Party varied widely in the 2015 federal election, but where it produced its best results was somewhat puzzling.

The greatest area of strength by far was on Vancouver Island, where Elizabeth May won the only Green seat. The other area of strength in British Columbia was Vancouver and its closest suburbs. The party polled poorly in most of the interior of British Columbia.

The Green Party also did poorly in the Prairies. In Ontario, its best showing was in smaller cities such as Guelph, Barrie, and Thunder Bay.

In New Brunswick, its best showing was in the city of Fredericton. The Green Party also did well in Prince Edward Island.

But the Green Party results are not the only indicator of environmental commitment. The Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau also championed the environmental cause. That party’s greatest strength across the country was in big cities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. The Conservative Party, which was considered the weakest party on the environment, found its greatest strength in rural areas, the agricultural areas and the wilderness areas.

The strength of the Green Party on Vancouver Island would seem to disprove this generalization, but it doesn’t really. The Green Party found its greatest strength in the city of Victoria and along the eastern coast of the Island, including the smaller islands between Vancouver Island and the Mainland. These areas have large populations of retirees (particularly professional people who practised their careers in cities farther east); communities of artists and writers; and people who work in the tourist industry. Opposition to the Trans-Mountain pipeline also boosted environmental concern in that area.

The Urban Factor

The irony, then, is that the environmental movement finds its greatest strength in cities. Perhaps those who live surrounded by steel and glass high rises develop a longing for green forests and open seas.

It is odd that environmentalists are thus more often people with the least experience with the environment. Their food and other goods come to them through stores. They do not have the experience of farmers, fishermen, and loggers, who know that the necessities of life often have to be wrested from the environment by hard work at great cost and even with some destruction. People in rural areas have a more realistic and practical experience of nature, while city dwellers can afford the luxury of maintaining an idealistic view.

Similarly, for city dwellers, electricity comes from an outlet in the wall. This helps explain the popularity of electric vehicles and of wind and solar power in cities. Electricity, whether derived from water, wind, or the sun, is generated in rural areas and mostly consumed in the cities. Electric vehicles and rapid transit work well in cities, but don’t make sense in rural areas. There is no transit in rural areas, they don’t make electric combines to harvest wheat, and electric vehicles are impractical in areas such as the Prairies, where there are long distances between charging stations and where farmers have to drive 30 miles on rough roads just to pick up the mail. Besides, with no mountains and waterfalls, hydroelectric power is impossible on the Prairies, and electricity there is often generated by burning fossil fuels.

The Wealth Factor

The urban nature of the support for the environmental movement may also indicate that there is a socio-economic component to that support. For instance, the Green Party’s best showing in the Vancouver area was in the wealthy suburbs of North Vancouver and West Vancouver. The upper middle class, including university elites, the media, and other members of the intelligentsia, can afford to pay more in carbon taxes and buy more expensive, electric vehicles. They are also not concerned about the job losses (the loss of working class jobs, that is) that might result from environmental protection. This is not true of the working class, including the working poor. Similarly, environmental activism is a luxury afforded only to those with leisure time. The working classes are often too busy working to take part in demonstrations and too poor to travel to protests and environmental conferences. If you ask what Elizabeth May’s job was before she became an environmental activist, the answer is that she never really had one. Similar to Justin Trudeau, she has dabbled in a number of occupations but never seems to have had to work for a living.

It is significant that the early environmental movement in Europe was seen as “a reaction to the urban conditions of the industrial towns.” It was often supported by the landed gentry, who were living off the wealth accumulated by their ancestors and who saw the industrial revolution as a threat to their own power and wealth. They did not want the lower classes intruding into their forests and estates to gain food, building materials, and other supplies.

The Romantic Movement

Many supporters of the environmental movement are extremely passionate about the issue, sometimes to the point of obsession. This is partly obscured by the fact that the environmental movement is also strong in universities and intellectual circles. But the philosophical roots of the environmental movement lie in the Romantic Movement of the 19th century, which arose in reaction against the Enlightenment, which valued reason and science. Its emphasis was on “emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and nature.” It presented a view of nature that was “unified and organic” (a view that derived from philosophy rather than scientific study of nature) and suggested that understanding nature required “an attitude of admiration, love and worship…a personal response.” Theologically, it found ultimate meaning in Deism (the idea that religious knowledge comes from observation of the natural world rather than revelation) and the human spirit rather than in organized religion. In one sense, in spite of the many scientific studies which endorse it, the deep commitment to the environmental movement is based more on emotion than on reason and science. This helps explain why one of the people considered to be a leading expert in the environmental movement is a 16-year-old girl from Sweden.

The Romantic Movement was promoted by some of the radicals who provided the ideology for the French Revolution and by English poets such as William Wordsworth. They put forth the idea that there is a balance in nature and it will function best if humans leave it alone―even though this belies that fact that many species have gone extinct in the past without human intervention.

As a corollary, early leaders of the Romantic Movement, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, also promulgated “the myth of the noble savage,” the idea that indigenous peoples live in idyllic harmony with nature and are more noble and altruistic than urbanized people. It is significant that Rousseau lived his whole life in Europe, mostly in cities, and his understanding of the state of nature was theoretical rather than practical; his knowledge of indigenous people was secondhand. Again, in the modern world, support for indigenous land claims and aid to First Nations people seems higher in urban areas than in rural areas, where people rub shoulders with actual aboriginal people and whose land (and the jobs that go with it) could be taken to settle land claims. In contrast to the Romantic Movement and the myth of the noble savage is Hobbes’s view that life in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

One of the great strengths of the environmental movement is its idealism, its desire to restore a more perfect world. One of the great weaknesses of the environmental movement is its idealism, its belief that the industrial revolution can be reversed and we can go back to living in a harmonious state of nature without cost, without pain and suffering, and without severe economic dislocation.

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The Value of a Twelve Million Dollar Man

Imagine you’re a General Manager assigned the task of assembling a winning National Hockey League team.

Would you pay two players $12 million each to produce 100 points (goals plus assists) in the 82-game regular season? Or would you rather pay four players $6 million each to produce 50-60 points in a season? Or would you pay eight players $3 million each to produce 25-35 points in a season?

As a General Manager (or GM) in the current NHL, those are the kinds of questions you would have to wrestle with.

Under the current salary cap, an NHL team can pay its players no more than $81.5 million in a season. Since each team has a maximum of 23 players on its roster, that means that the average player gets a salary of about $3.5 million. However, it is not quite that simple. For technical reasons (contracts bought out, salary retained from players who have been traded, etc.), most teams are paying a little of that $81.5 million to players who are no longer playing for the team.

Furthermore, player contracts are negotiated based on what a player is expected to produce or what the player used to produce, not on what a player actually produces. All teams have some players who produce less than they are being paid for—such as a $6 million player who produces only 20 points a season. Most teams also have players who produce at a higher level than expected. This is especially true of younger players. The NHL agreement with its players limits the salaries of new players in the league to about $1 million per season for their first three years. It is not unusual for one of these players to produce 50-60 points in a season.

Regardless, the basic question remains: What mix of players should a GM assemble for his team. Should he assemble players with similar levels of skill and pay them all $3.5 million? Or should he assemble players with different levels of skill and pay some players more and others less?

Higher paid players are often expected to play more minutes per game; therefore, per minute, the salary difference, while still large, is not as large as it might seem at first glance. On the other hand, playing more minutes brings the risk of burning out the $12 million player.

Now let’s look further at that $12 million player. Every GM seems to want one or two of them. That is why they jockey to get a top draft pick, hoping that a young player will develop into a $12 million player. And that is also why they offer huge contracts to free agents.

But is that the best strategy?

If your team is behind by a goal late in a game, you would surely want to have one of those $12 million players to put onto the ice to try to score a goal and tie the game up. But putting so much emphasis on one player (putting all your eggs in one basket, so to speak), can leave you vulnerable. If that player is injured or the other team puts enough focus on preventing that one player from scoring, then your team might be left with no other options.

Also consider this: The more $12 million players a team has, the fewer medium-priced players it is likely to have. There is a limited amount of salary money to go around. The result might be a team that has great strengths in one area and great weaknesses in others. For instance, if the top forwards are paid more, the team’s defence might be weak. Or the first line might be great while the other three forward lines don’t score very much (in hockey parlance, the team lacks secondary scoring).

Let’s look at some concrete examples. In 2018-2019, the highest paid player was Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers at $12.5 million. (For the purposes of this article, I am using the “cap hit” or average annual salary.) The Oilers also had Leon Draisaitl at $8.5 million. McDavid did his part, producing 116 points, the second highest total in the league, and Draisaitl finished fourth with 105 points. However, the team only had two other players being paid over $5 million. The team finished 25th in the 31-team league.

The Toronto Maple Leafs had two players in the top six mostly highly paid players: Auston Matthews at $11.634 million and John Tavares at $11 million. Matthews produced 73 points (while playing in only 68 games due to injury) and Tavares 88 points. The Leafs had only three more players being paid over $5 million. The team finished 7th, but tailed off in the second half of the season and lost in the first round of the playoffs. In the upcoming 2019-2020 season, the Leafs have three players in the $11-$12 million range, making up three of the seven highest paid players in the league. Their top two lines are likely going to score a ton of goals—and they will have to because the Leafs’ bottom two lines aren’t likely to score many at all.

At the other end of the spectrum, the top player on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Steven Stamkos, was paid $8.5 million, and five other players were paid over $5 million. The Lightning were by far the best team in the regular season, but lost out in the first round of the playoffs.

The highest paid players on the Calgary Flames were Johnny Gaudreau at $6.75 million, Mike Giordano at $6.75 million, and Gary Monahan at $6.375 million. Two other players were paid more than $5 million. The Flames finished second in the regular season and also lost out in the first round of the playoffs.

The highest paid player on the Washington Capitals was Alex Ovechkin at $9.538 million. The Capitals paid eight other players over $5 million. They finished fourth in the regular season but lost in the first round of the playoffs.

The highest paid player on the Boston Bruins was David Krejci at $7.25 million. The Bruins paid six other players more than $5 million. The Bruins finished third in the regular season and were the second best team in the playoffs, losing in the Stanley Cup final.

The highest paid players on the St. Louis Blues were Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly at $7.5 million each. They produced 68 and 77 points respectively. The team had seven other players paid over $5 million. The Blues finished 12th (tied with two other teams for 10th) in the regular season but had the best record in the second half of the season and eventually won the Stanley Cup.

Also consider this: Of the 12 players paid $10 million or more, seven played on teams that did not make the playoffs.

Hockey is a team game. The best strategy to have a winning team does not seem to be to acquire one or two $12 million superstars. Rather, the best strategy seems to be to have a cluster of very good players in the $5-$8 million range.

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Why the Federal Government Deficit Matters to You

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When most Canadians look at a federal government budget (or a provincial government budget), they look to see what is in it for them. Is there some new program or subsidy or grant that will benefit them or their children? Is the government going to provide a home ownership grant or a child daycare grant or an increase in government pensions or even a new highway to their community? They also look at taxes. Is the government going to increase (or decrease) income tax rates or sales tax rates or impose a new tax on alcohol or gasoline or something else?

It seems that most citizens look at elections the same way. They focus on what promises the various parties have made that will benefit or harm them individually and then often use that information to determine who they will vote for.

But most citizens never look at the bigger picture, the overall budget and whether the government is projecting a surplus or deficit. Most citizens assume that is not their problem. That is a problem for the government or the politicians or someone else to solve.

They are wrong.

How wrong are they?

That is not easy to answer. It takes extensive digging to discover the facts. For instance, the 2019 budget presented by the federal government last March 19 was a 460-page document, but it contained very little factual data on government spending. It was a philosophical treatise full of vague generalities such as “investing in the middle class,” “building strong communities,” “building a nation of innovators,” “advancing reconciliation,” “delivering real change,” and “advancing general equality and diversity.” It said very little about what is actually being spent and on what. No company would ever get away with such inexact financial reporting. Shareholders (not to mention government regulatory agencies) would never allow it.

It takes a fair amount of diligent research into other government documents and non-government studies to ferret out the facts. (One would almost suspect the government does not want Canadians to know what is going on.)

The Bottom Line

Here are some of the facts.

Four years ago, Justin Trudeau was elected promising to run “modest deficits” (of less than $10 billion a year) for a couple of years and then balance the budget. Those modest deficits turned out to be closer to $20 billion a year: $17.8 billion in 2016-2017, $19 billion in 2017-208, a projected $18.1 billion in 2018-2019, and a projected $19.6 billion in 2019-2020. Those add up to $74.5 billion. (The Parliamentary Budget Officer has since reported that the actual deficit for 2018-2019 was a little lower and the deficit for 2019-2020 might be a little higher.)

That $74.5 billion is on top of the $600 billion or so in deficits previous federal governments had already accumulated. And Justin Trudeau is now promising to add another $93 billion in further debt over the next four years if his Liberal government is re-elected. And the New Democratic Party and Green Party are promising even higher levels of spending, which might result in even higher levels of debt.

But let’s ignore that for now. Let’s just look at the $74.5 billion in new debt.

Where did the government get the $74.5 billion? The answer is that it has borrowed that money from Canadians and from non-Canadians, anyone it could find willing to lend the money. Just like anyone else, when the government borrows money, it has to pay interest on that debt—and the interest payments can come from only one source, the Canadian taxpayer.

Now let us look again at that $74.5 billion. Given that there are about 37 million Canadians, this means that the increased government debt incurred by the Trudeau government alone amounts to about $2,000 for every Canadian ($74.5 billion divided by 37 million citizens).

Canada’s total accumulated debt amounts to over $18,500 for every Canadian, but let’s just talk about the debt incurred under Justin Trudeau.

The government reports that it is paying about 3.5% interest on that debt, which is a pretty favourable interest rate. In fact, it is a historically low interest rate, and the rate will most likely be higher in some future years. That means that the annual interest on the Trudeau government’s debt currently amounts to about $70 for every Canadian ($2,000 X 3.5%).

That means that next year, you are going to be paying $70 in taxes to the government to cover the interest on the debt incurred over the last four years. For that $70, you are not going to get anything at all. No roads, no schools, no hospitals, no police protection, nothing. It is like taking $70 from your pocket and burning it.

It gets worse. You are also going to have to pay another $70 the next year. And the next year. And the next year. And every year after that for the rest of your life. And your spouse is going to have to pay $70 a year for the rest of his or her life. And so is each one of your children. And your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren. The debt will go on forever.

And that is assuming that the Canadian government never runs another deficit and always balances the budget every year from now on. The debt will still go on forever.

Unless, that is, we decide to pay it off. So, next year, let’s all agree to pay an extra $2,000 each to the government and pay this thing off. Don’t forget to kick in an extra $2,000 for your spouse and each of your children.

Too much? Okay, let’s pay this off a little more gradually. Let’s all pay $140 a year instead of $70 (and don’t forget to add another $140 for your spouse and $140 for each of your children). Remember this is $140 for which you will get absolutely nothing. No roads, no schools, no hospitals, no police protection. Nothing. It will all go to pay off the debt, including interest. Will that work? Sure. But it will take about 15 years. Can you afford that?

Remember, also, that every dollar the government spends on interest is a dollar that it does not have available for roads and schools and hospitals. In 2017-2018, the federal government paid $21.9 billion in interest on its accumulated debt. In 2019-2020, the government is expected to pay $26.2 billion on interest. And the amount is expected to continue to rise every year in the future unless something changes. Think about how much good the government could do with $26.2 billion if it wasn’t wasting it on interest payments. Think of the new programs that could be implemented. Think of the taxes that could be reduced or eliminated. (If it were not for interest payments, the government would be running sizeable surpluses every year.) Think of what you yourself could do with that extra money as a result of the lowered taxes.

Let Someone Else Pay

Now perhaps you are saying that you don’t make that much money, you pay very little (or even nothing) in income tax every year, so you will not really have to pay your share of the debt anyway. Let the government tax the rich or tax big companies. Let them pay for your share of the debt.

But you are forgetting about sales taxes (remember the GST?) and levies such as carbon taxes. You pay taxes on almost everything you buy. But it gets worse. There are also hidden taxes on some goods (such as gasoline). And don’t assume that the taxes that big businesses pay will have no effect on you. Companies pay payroll taxes for their employees and sales taxes and carbon taxes and import duties and various other fees and licenses. There are taxes on everything companies produce, import, transport, or sell. How do these companies get the money to pay all those taxes? By raising the price of the goods and services they sell to you. There is at least a slice of tax embedded in everything you buy. You are going to pay. No matter how you try to avoid it, you are going to pay.

Keynesian Economics

Now, you may ask: Isn’t there some theory that says it is sometimes good for a government to run a deficit in order to stimulate the economy?

You are talking about something popularly called “Keynesian economics” (named after a 20th-century economist named John Maynard Keynes). The theory is actually quite complex, and it was not all developed by Keynes, but let’s simplify the issue.

In general, Keynesian economics suggests that a government should spend more than it brings in in taxes in bad times. This will stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment. Conversely, when times are good, the government should raise taxes, cut spending, and run a surplus in order to slow down the economy and prevent inflation. There is some merit to the theory, and it works in a general sort of way.

Something similar works for individuals. Remember that year when you lost your job? You borrowed money to pay your bills until you could get a new job. Then, when you were working again, you began to pay off the debt or even put some money into savings to help you out on the next “rainy day” when you would have some unexpected extra expenses or some reduction in your income.

It works in theory, for individuals and for governments. Except that too many governments (and, it must be said, too many individuals) never get around to the second half of the theory. They never get around to paying off their debt or saving for the future.

What Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has done over the past four years is particularly irresponsible. It has run massive deficits (of close to $20 billion a year) at a time when the economy was doing very well and unemployment was very low. It might be remembered that the Stephen Harper government ran big deficits to counter the effects of the 2008 worldwide recession, and it worked very well for the Canadian economy. But once the recession was over, the Harper government began moving toward running small surpluses to pay off the debt it had accumulated.

In contrast, there is absolutely no economic justification for the deficits the Trudeau government has been running.

It Could Get Worse

There is an even bigger danger to governments running unnecessary and irresponsible deficits. Essentially, it puts government finances in a precarious situation. It means that the government will not be able to respond appropriately when the next recession hits. If it is already running a large deficit, it will not be in a position to increase the deficit to counter the recession without facing very serious consequences. When a government’s debt becomes too great, lenders will refuse to lend any more money and/or will charge higher interest rates. At that point, the government will be forced to cut spending, reduce government grants and services, and increase taxes. This will deepen the recession and throw millions of people out of work. In essence, when a government (or an individual) gets too deeply onto debt, it goes bankrupt.

If that happens, it will very definitely affect you.

We may think it won’t or can’t happen here, but it can. It has happened recently in Greece and Spain and many other countries. Lending analysts have already begun expressing concern about the increasing levels of Canadian government debt and issuing warnings about possible interest rate increases.

So, does the Canadian government’s budget deficit matter to you? Absolutely, it does.

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Reflections on Max 8: Sophisticated Airplanes and Self-Driving Cars

Would you feel safer flying in a Boeing 737 Max 8—or in the 40-year-old formerly mothballed plane pulled out of retirement to replace it?

Have 40-year-old planes actually been pulled out of retirement and put into service? Probably not. But, since hundreds of Max 8s have been grounded, replacements have had to come from somewhere. Airlines don’t have hundreds of extra planes sitting around. It will take months or years to build new planes. The only alternatives have been to cancel flights, look for older, underused airplanes, and/or reduce routine maintenance in order to keep existing planes constantly flying.

Much of the reporting of the Max 8 issue has been shallow. The idea that air travel is safer now that the “dangerous” Max 8s are grounded ignores the alternatives. “Dangerous” is a relative term when dealing with complex machines and equally complex human beings.

Generally, air travel is very safe. When accidents happen, there are mass casualties, and that draws attention, but such accidents are actually very rare. Airplanes have far better technology than cars, and pilots are much better trained than automobile drivers. The standards are higher.    

The Discovery channel program Mayday provides a wealth of information about aviation issues. Each episode of this program recounts the investigation into a single plane crash. The investigations take months. It takes a long time to decode and analyze what is in the black boxes. There are actually two of these boxes (painted orange)—a cockpit voice recorder and a data recorder that records speed, altitude, control settings, fuel consumption, and dozens of other pieces of information.

In addition, investigators examine the wreckage in minute detail, talk to witnesses, interview air traffic controllers, interview survivors, interview mechanics, review pilot histories, check training procedures and manuals, check maintenance histories and maintenance procedures, look at previous crashes, and even investigate human psychology in areas such as blind spots, distractions, and fatigue.

After months of painstaking investigation and analysis of an accident, the investigators write a report. What often emerges is that a crash had multiple causes. Airplanes have many safety and backup features designed to prevent accidents. If a mechanical problem occurs, pilots are trained to work around the problem and keep the plane flying. If a pilot makes an error, the co-pilot is there to offer a correction, often using a troubleshooting manual, and the plane itself will sound a warning or even override the pilot’s error. Therefore, when there is a plane crash, it is usually caused by a combination of human and mechanical failures. This happens for instance, when a pilot chooses the wrong response to a mechanical problem or when a pilot is confused because more than one thing went wrong at the same time. It is easy to blame pilots for such errors, but modern airplanes are very complex, and pilots often have only minutes or even seconds to diagnose and respond to problems. A complicating factor is that pilots have learned to depend on airplanes’ automated and safety/backup systems and can become complacent. In a crisis, it may take precious time for them to realize there is a problem, take responsibility, analyze the problem, and act.

The Max 8 Accidents

What seems to have happened in the Max 8 crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia is that a sensor was out of position and gave incorrect data to the airplane’s computer, which triggered an automatic safety response; that is, the airplane computer received data that suggested the plane was about to stall, and so the computer pushed the nose of the plane down to prevent the stall. The pilot’s response should have been to disengage the safety system and fly the plane manually.

The Max 8 is a new plane with many new safety systems to prevent crashes, and that has raised a number of questions. There have been allegations that the pilots were not fully trained to understand these new systems and know how to handle this new technology. There have been suggestions that the training programs themselves were not fully developed and not readily available. Regardless of training, it is undoubtedly true that the pilots had not flown the planes enough to have become experienced in dealing with the new systems. There have also been allegations that there were bugs in the plane’s computer systems and/or design flaws that had not shown up in the testing of the new plane model and that may only have become evident in a few of the many varied situations that airplanes actually fly in. Since both Max 8 crashes occurred in the Third World, there have also been suggestions that that these pilots were less well trained on the new plane than North American pilots, perhaps because of language issues, but that might not be the case either.

As far as I know, while preliminary conclusions have been reached pointing to design faults and inadequate training, the final reports have not yet been written on the two crashes, and so the full answers are not yet fully known.

Even if the same problem brought down both planes, solving the problem is obviously taking considerable time. Overhauling a complex set of operating guidance systems is not an easy process. Fixing one problem might create new ones. Retraining pilots on all of the many things that might go wrong is also a lengthy and complex procedure.    

It is disconcerting to ponder that a computer-controlled system designed to keep the airplane safe might actually have caused it to crash.

Implications for Automobiles

The recent Max 8 crashes and the resulting safety concerns also raise questions for automobile safety.  

Like piloting a modern aircraft, driving a modern automobile requires interaction between human beings and increasingly complex mechanical and computerized machinery. Modern automobiles have self-parking technology, lane departure warnings, automatic braking systems, innumerable sensors, and much more. These systems are designed to make automobiles safer, and in general they do, but they do not necessarily make driving simpler.

And such systems are only the beginning.

Automobile manufacturers are now designing autonomous or self-driving cars, assuring us that this will make us much safer. They tell us that since human error causes most automobile accidents, eliminating human control will eliminate accidents.

This leads to several thoughts.

1. Computerizing cars and adding safety warning, backup, and autonomous systems is reducing accidents in automobiles just as it has done in airplanes, and further innovations will no doubt reduce accidents even further.

2. While in the past most accidents were due to human error, in the future most accidents will be due to computer errors or failures in the interaction between human beings and the computer-controlled machine. The reason most accidents are currently due to human error is because most vehicles are currently controlled by humans. When most vehicles are controlled by computers, most accidents will be caused by mechanical failures and computer problems.

3. Computers are fragile. The life expectancy of a cell phone is two to three years. The life expectancy of a desktop computer is about five years. The lifetime expectancy of a computerized home appliance is five to ten years, about half the lifetime of the non-computerized older appliances. No matter how well the systems work when heavily computerized vehicles are new, how well will they work when they are five to ten years old?

4. Sensors are also fragile. The misalignment of a single sensor might have brought down the Max 8 planes. Like airplanes, autonomous vehicles will only be as reliable as the data they receive. In an automobile, the sensors must correctly measure the position of other vehicles, the edges of highways, and much more. And sensors on vehicles are more vulnerable. What happens if mud or slush or a rock gets splashed or thrown onto a sensor? What happens if a sensor fails?

5. Airplanes rely on radar and airport guidance systems. Automated vehicles must rely on GPS systems and external data, which are more complex and less dependable. There are far more cars on the road than there are airplanes in the sky, and GPS systems are not maintained with the same rigorous attention to detail. What happens if a dog or a rock or a snowbank or something else unexpectedly appears on the highway? What happens if there is a detour? What happens if someone has incorrectly entered the wrong coordinates or other data into a GPS system?

6. Computerized and autonomous vehicles are more expensive. I once had to get rid of a car because a sensor designed to measure evaporation in the gas tank failed and it would have cost too much to replace the sensor and the computer system that monitored it.

7. Will autonomous vehicles have the same level of testing and reliability as airplanes? Can we expect a $100,000 vehicle to be as safe as a $100 million airplane?

8. Airplanes undergo rigorous maintenance and inspection regimes. Pilots are required to inspect and check all systems before takeoff. Can we expect drivers of autonomous vehicles to be as diligent?  

9. There is more congestion and far less reaction time in vehicles. The Max 8 pilots had minutes or seconds to correct their problem. Now imagine if they were flying in close formation with a thousand other planes. That is the situation on most highways.

10. In spite of their automation and sophistication, modern airplanes require the presence of two (and sometimes three) trained pilots. Can automobiles be expected to be so safe that they do not require a human backup system?

11. Pilots learn to depend on the automated and computerized safety systems in airplanes and can become complacent. In a crisis, it often takes precious time for them to realize there is a problem, take responsibility, and act. Drivers of computerized and autonomous automobiles will be tempted to also become complacent. Will a human being who becomes conditioned to just being along for the ride be able to react in time when a problem arises?

12. One of the factors in the Max 8 crashes seems to have been that the pilots were not fully trained on how to monitor and troubleshoot the problems in their highly sophisticated aircraft. As automobiles become ever complex, they will require far more and better driver training, not less.

13. When an airplane crashes, investigators spend months investigating every facet of the crash and determining ways to make airplanes safer so that similar accidents do not happen again. No matter how complex vehicles become, there is no way that experts can devote the same level of investigation into vehicle crashes. It is probably unrealistic to expect vehicle travel to ever be as safe as air travel.

14. Technology has generally made us safer. Computerized and automated systems on automobiles will make them safer and reduce accidents. But complex machines can break down just as easily as complex human beings. As much as we want to believe it, there is no person or machine or computer than can guarantee safety and eliminate all risk.

A version of this article was published in the summer 2019 issue of Collision Quarterly

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The Hypocrisy of the Entertainment Industry

Item: Netflix has decided to “ban smoking from all original content rated TV-14 or PG-13 and below.”

The media giant known for its risqué content will continue to present shows filled with violence, crime, sexual promiscuity, drug addiction, excessive consumption of alcohol, murder, theft, fraud, dishonesty, and occult practices. But it is good to see that Netflix wants to do the right thing and its shows won’t encourage young people to smoke.

Item: Some theatres have cancelled showings of the movie Unplanned, although it will still be screened by more than 24 theatres in Canada starting this weekend.

The showing of this movie has attracted considerable attention in the media, almost all of it negative. In this coverage, this movie has almost universally been labelled “controversial.” It is hard to remember any other movie that the media have called “controversial.” “Controversial” is a buzz word used by the media as a covert way of saying, “We don’t agree with it.”

The Canadian news media have generally shown their bias not only by referring to the movie as “controversial” but also by describing it as being “anti-abortion.” The media are careful to call other groups by their preferred labels, but the media insist on calling “pro-life” groups “anti-abortion” groups. The bias is evident in that they refer to groups such as Planned Parenthood as “pro-choice” groups rather than “pro-abortion” groups. Furthermore, the news coverage has not focused on the film itself nor the human story behind it, as would happen with other movies. Rather, the news coverage has been focused on the opposition to the movie and criticisms by groups such as Planned Parenthood.

When criticized for offering movies filled with sex and violence, for years movie makers and movie distributors have routinely said that they do not censor movies and are only giving people what they want. Yet they are often reluctant to show “Christian” movies and “controversial” movies such as Unplanned even though theatres are often “packed” when they do show such movies and empty when they show some of the more extremely violent and pornographic movies. In fact, the theatres often agree to show such movies only after an intense lobbying effort, such as occurred before they agreed to show Unplanned. And they certainly don’t waste much money advertising such movies as they do with other movies.

Many of the news reports have quoted a news release from the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) calling Unplanned “a dangerous piece of anti-abortion propaganda.”

Of course, movies such as Brokeback Mountain and Milk would never be called “propaganda” for homosexuality. And Million Dollar Baby would not be called “propaganda” for assisted suicide. As with “controversial,” calling something “propaganda” just means “I personally don’t agree with it.”

The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada “fears the movie could incite fanatics to commit acts of harassment or violence against clinics or doctors.” This is ironic considering that the Salmar Theatre in Salmon Arm, BC, cancelled its plans to show the movie after violent threats were made against theatre staff and their families. The Movie Mill in Lethbridge, Alberta, is showing the movie but has taken the precaution of hiring extra security. Which side is actually most violent?

Planned Parenthood also says that the movie contains “vicious falsehoods” and “has nothing to do with reality.” This is even though the movie is based on a true story, a memoir of Abby Johnson, a Planned Parenthood worker who became a convinced pro-life advocate. “Based on” is a common Hollywood claim for many movies whose veracity is very questionable but rarely questioned. There is clearly a double standard at work.

ARCC executive director Joyce Arthur also noted that the film’s attempt to challenge abortion rights is “a non-starter in Canada, where women and transgender people have a Charter right to abortion based on their rights to bodily autonomy and equality.” Speaking of falsehoods, this is not technically true. When it struck down Canada’s last abortion law, the Supreme Court of Canada encouraged the government to enact an amended law; as far as I know, it has never declared that there is an unfettered “right” to abortion.

To their credit, the theatre chains Cineplex and Landmark have agreed to show Unplanned and to resist the calls to ban it—although only for a single week in a very few theatres. Furthermore, agreeing to show a movie is not the same thing as ardently promoting a movie, as they might do for “controversial” movies on the other side of the morality spectrum.

Unplanned reveals as much about the hypocrisy of the entertainment industry and the bias of mainstream news media as it does about abortion.