Thursday, April 29, 2010


Getting Too Used To Crooks

The disgusting thing about the Goldman scandal is how tolerant the business and investing media are in saying it was just business as usual. Ho hum!
I've listened with revulsion while writers for the Globe and the Post have said in their papers and on the BNN TV channel that Goldman really shouldn't have pulled that scam on investors but, hey, the investors were big boys too and, gee, that's how it's been going for decades on Bay St. and Wall St.
So the crime is not in stealing from people but being found out. And if you brazen it out in hearings and pretend that you have to get big bonuses or you would go to another den of thieves, then the politicians will let you get away with it, providing the political contributions keep coming from the armies of lobbyists.
There are exceptions, but many financial commentators don't expect any securities body to do much in punishing Goldman Sachs or any other company and really don't think that's awful.
So the financial media is as out-of-touch with the ordinary Joes and Janes about how scandalized they are about the stock market shenanigans as Bay St. and Wall St. There is a Grand Canyon between Wall Street and Main Street.
Financial institutions had little credibility with the public and they certainly have none now. No one loves a banker, and stock brokers are a mysterious breed too, but at least there was a feeling that if you were careful, you could make a little money for a rainy day.
It has been proven rather conclusively that the big financial outfits considered us all as suckers to be disemboweled of every last buck, and they included their colleagues in that too. There is no honour among thieves, as Bay St. and Wall St. have just proven again. These guys weren't just about to steal all our savings for a rainy day, they wanted the umbrella and the rubbers and anything else they could rip off our carcasses.
Ironically, such a flawed commentator as Eliot Spitzer, who is trying to resurrect a career out of the beds of expensive hookers, wrote tough comments on Goldman and the fellow travellers. He said: "Now that we are seeing the inner workings of the products that Goldman is marketing, we must ask whether Goldman and other investment banks do deserve the huge public subsidies they have received. Do they do anything that has any real social value?"
There has been a lot of wonder about that lately. Are Goldman and the others just immoral operators of casinos? Or it is really, as the commentators insist, just the way our financial world has worked, works now, and will work eternally.
Yet isn't it strange that we have to go to the disgraced former governor of New York State to hear tough views about that, but the typical business columnist has the attitude of let the big boys look after themselves and if the rest of us are smart, we would invest only in mutual funds and pay those hefty annual fees.
Why even the great guru who walks on water, if it's in Coke, Warren Buffet, has come to Goldman's defence. It would be believable if Buffet didn't have a huge investment in Goldman, something like $5 billion. Buffet is used to big bets, and winning, like on Coke, but even such a respected sage can't be trusted when he's put $5 billion where his critical mouth should be.
I was disappointed that contrarian Terence Corcoran, the Post editor who loves to swim against majority opinion, didn't gut the Goldman crooks for me. I'm a fan of Corcoran and when I was Editor of the Toronto Sun tried to hire him. The Sun owned the Post at the time, and I could pay him at least 20% more than he was getting, but the Posties loved to regard Sun staffers as swimmers in pond scum.
Tolerance for cheats is something I don't understand. But then the National Post uses columns by Conrad Black, languishing deservedly in prison. Black was a con artist right from high school but he still managed to trap many of us, and I was one, into losing thousands with his companies. I asked the Post brass why they had the gall to have Black as a regular columnist after his dismal record and the lofty reply was that readership surveys showed him right up at the top. Apparently Post readers have a great tolerance for cheating too.
The best line about Black was given by Hal Jackman, the former lieutenant-governor and multi millionaire with nearly 30 companies. Jackman said that Black was a friend of his but he would never dream of investing with him.
When I was a kid reporter and occasionally covered annual financial meetings, my older colleagues talked about how big a crap shoot the Toronto Stock Exchange was. They talked about boiler room operations and Ponzi schemes and con men. But then some of them made a lot of money on a northern mine. So I've been investing for four decades and done okay except for the occasional mysterious bankruptcy. Yet when I sample the sloppy coverage of the North American financial media and survey the financial carnage of the last few years, I consider myself lucky.
No one is prepared to be a real watchdog with more bite than bark, to savage the liars when the big boys concoct another fraud that no one, including themselves, really understands. And when politicians keep stopping short of real reform and huge fines, it makes me feel humble because I managed not to be taken in, but I had a good broker.
Dealing with financial institutes without a good broker riding shotgun is like jumping into the lions' den and pulling the tail of the nearest big cat. The wonder is that some humble investors still manage to survive with any profit at all.

Monday, April 19, 2010



I know bureaucrats think the federal government is in the taxation business but the way it is supposed to work in a democracy is that the feds are in the service business.
Every time I get involved with federal red tape, I wonder if any boss ever checks out a service from A to Z to see how things are working.
I went to renew my passport for my wife and I and found, fortunately, by checking the Canadian passport site on the Internet that things are a lot simpler if you have already had a passport. Which is the way it should be.
So I threw away the forms that my wife had collected at the border and downloaded simpler forms from the Internet that didn't require a guarantor to sign the back of pictures etc.
I also got the addresses for the nearest two passport offices.
Off I went one fine morning for the office at 377 Burnhamthorpe Rd. East in Mississauga. I had used the office once before, so I had a faded memory.
I found the usual as I drove along Burhamthorpe, since most buildings there are oriented away from the street and the noise. Street numbers, the most useful thing you can have on your buildings, were in hiding.
So I drove west and west and west, trying to see a street number. Finally I reached a plaza that I vaguely remember might be 'home free,' my destination. Drove around and around the parking lot looking for a number. None to be seen. Saw a post office sign and thought someone there might know the street address of where they were. Hunted in vain. Went into the plaza's main doors and found, believe it or not, a sign for the passport office on the second floor. Wandered around and around and finally found the stairs.
The usual crammed interior awaited me, as it does in all government offices, but things were handled in an elaborate electronic way with flashing numbers sorting out the waiters. There are preliminary desks where they doublecheck your forms before you endure the wait, 30 minutes or more. I said to that clerk that it would be nice if there was actually a street number for the plaza and exterior signs for the passport office itself.
No comments. She continued to look bored.
When I finally got to the passport window, the clerk shuffled through the two forms and I handed over the old passports and my VISA card.
"How are you going to pay for this," she asked? "With the VISA card that you have," I said. "Oh," she said.
She asked for my driver's licence for identification purposes. I told her she already had my old passport, which was still valid, plus two pages of signatures and forms and new pictures, so it did seem I had established who I was.
But, hey, when you're dealing with a government agency, you're lucky if they don't ask you to produce your first-born as collateral.
Besides, the teller at my local TD bank, located on the corner where I've been dealing with banks and trust companies for nearly 50 years, asked me recently for identification.
I spluttered indignantly that I had just deposited $12,000 in cheques into my account and had my bankbook. (Believe me, the money didn't last long before it went for bills.) If he didn't need my identification to accept $12,000 in cheques, why did he need my identification when I was withdrawing a piffling $200? There was some dumb explanation which I don't accept.
But back to the passport office. When I was finished, I said to the clerk that it really didn't make much sense to have an elaborate Internet site and to give the street addresses for the passport office when this particular office was located anonymously in a plaza that had no street number that I could find.
She warmed up. She said everyone working there thought the lack of identification was dumb and that there was no need to make the office sort of the goal in a treasure hunt.
Of course that would be too elementary for the civil servants in charge, that they actually made it simple for people to find the office so they could hand over the tedious forms and the hefty $87 fee.
Canadian passports are notorious for having been used by spies, terrorists and assassins throughout the world for more than a century. I doubt that we are going to keep our passports out of criminal hands just by making it difficult to find the office.

Thursday, April 15, 2010



There is good news and bad news about this proposal to put bike lanes along University, Toronto's major ceremonial avenue.
If the silly leftist majority of Toronto council actually does something that dumb, more Torontonians will wake up to the fact we are ruled by loonies. Could make election day more challenging!
Is there nothing that councillors won't do to screw motorists?
The bike nuts see this a wonderful summer pilot project which will lead to more bike lanes on more Toronto major streets.
I think they have bit off more than the long-suffering public can chew.
For starters, roads must be built to a far higher standard than bike paths. Paths in parks are a good idea and don't have to have an intensive underpad. Bike paths on the side of roads that are so costly to construct is economic lunacy. Yet a bankrupted city has to pay around $4 million a year because the bike nuts, generally socialists who don't give a damn about citizens/motorists, want bike lanes to run down every major street in a sprawling city.
Second, traffic is already obscenely congested because of all the shenanigans of council's left, such as interfering with turns, signals, intersection constrictions, the measle epidemic of stop signs, one-way mazes, mischievous bus stop locations etc.
Since all TTC vehicles other than subway trains use this congested network of roads, any interference with the traffic flow of cars and trucks also interferes with the flow of buses and streetcars. Surely that is elementary, but not to the stolid Dr. Watsons of council.
This proposal has brought an interesting reaction from Giorgio Mammoliti, who is running for mayor. Mammoliti has been a florid expensive MPP and now councillor, and he has never seen an expense account from the public that he hasn't wanted to goose in his favour, but his idea of a $20 or $30 registration fee for bikes is interesting.
After all, if the cyclists want to have more rights on the roads, let them pay for it, like the motorists do and do and do.
It should be a token $10 for kids and seniors, but $30 is appropriate for adults. The registration number would be useful in soothing the epidemic of stolen bikes. And, of course, enforcement could be non-aggressive, except for adults riding bikes in bike lanes.
I hate to have more bureaucracy and more forms but if the cyclists want to ride with the big boys, then they have to pay their share, and it would be nice if they honoured the traffic rules too.
As I wrote in columns last year in June and May, there really isn't that great a use of bike lanes, except by in-your-face activists and politicians.
After all, in the old line about our weather, Canada has 10 months of winter and two months of bad skiing. So who in their right mind from early December to late April is going to use bike lanes on a regular basis?
You have to be as nutty as Councillor Glenn DeBaermaeker who rides incredible distances to City Hall each day to plan the next goofy wasteful scheme to rob the taxpayers.
So let the city measure the use of bike lanes. It is routine to put a rubber tube gadget down to measure the flow of cars along a street. Let them put the same gadgets on bike lanes, and if the bikes and riders aren't heavy enough to trigger them, let them do an eyeball count.
I have found on the expensive bike lanes that hinder traffic on Royal York Rd near where I live that cyclists are a rare sight. I'm with the Toronto Star columnist who counted only 15 bicyclists on a trip along Wellesley, down Sherbourne to the waterfront, then along the waterfront to Yonge St.
Of course the time of day would have a lot to do with it. And the weather. Except the roads are hindered by the bike lanes on cold wet days, whether it's night or rushhour.
The bike community, of course, have figures about use that are so exaggerated, they should make a councillor laugh, except most of our lefty/mushy politicians don't live in the real world with the rest of us but in some strange creation where the championship of ideas is more important than the cost, where grumbles from taxpayers are put down to malcontents who don't know how lucky they are to live in a community ruled by enlightened civic deep thinkers.
The reason bikes lanes are important is they are iconic symbols for the left and a thorn for the motorists and residents who already pay more than their share of this city's operation, that is if you want to pretend that this city really works.
Councillors at the committee when the bike lanes for University were approved put a great deal of importance on the fact that only one person, a motor league official, showed up to protest such a decision. Except the comment in the media was hostile. And there are many people in this city who can't take the time off work to attend a city committee meeting which can last most of a day, although it often seems like a week. There was also a poll that showed considerable opposition to bike lanes, although they got more support than I expected. Maybe people didn't understand the question. There is also the problem that most people don't answer polls, which makes them of limited value.
The anti-car jerks of council are so strident, they actually planned to put bike lanes on the Front St. extension, which was killed as a project because the anti-car jerks drove the cost so high. So why do I bring up bike lanes on those proposed ramps? Because legally you can't ride bikes on the Gardiner expressway, so these were bike lanes to nowhere.
Suitable, somehow, because that's the general direction of this council's majority. If only they would stick to the basic business of running a city, which is too boring for them, so as a result we have an infrastructure that is rotting and rusty and sinking. Too bad those councillors won't follow.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


How Not To Fight A Pandemic

Now that the swine flu has come and gone - or did it really come at all? - the public are counting the wasted millions and the experts are condemning just how the healthcrats fought the supposed crisis.
I have already criticized just how we fought the swine flu in a column on Dec. 15, titled Save Us From Our Health Bureaucrats. But the post mortems go far beyond my modest critique.
I suppose we should have know we were in trouble with the healthcrats when they tried to talk the public out of a perfectly good name because the pig producers were mad. So the swine flu became H1N1, which many couldn't remember.
Turns out the feds spent $37 million just warning us about the swine flu, and one prominent critic says much of the blitz in ads and various communications came after the supposed epidemic peaked. Dr. Richard Schabas, former chief medical officer of health for Ontario, said all the extra millions were spent urging Ontarians to get flu shots when at that point they were almost useless.
Schabas says Canada's public health agencies overreacted, and he found the persistence of everyone after the outbreak had passed to be offensive.
We're not talking chicken feed when it comes to fighting the swine flu. The federal health agency spent a third of a billion dollars on the swine flu campaign. Then we add in the hundreds of millions spent by the provinces and the municipal health departments and we probably hit a billion dollars.
Then there's a huge cost in public cynicism, and that may be the biggest problem of all. Joe and Jane Canuck, and their kids, and their aged parents who were denied first crack at the vaccine, are going to remember the next time the public health boys and girls start beating the drums about another pandemic about what happened last time.
On April 12, the World Health Organization, a very political body, acknowledged that it did a poor job of communicating the uncertainties about swine flu, and that caused confusion with the public. The WHO's leading pandemic expert, Keiji Fukuda, said there is a huge uncertainty around pandemics. "I think we did not convey that uncertainty." So the public saw that as a non-transparent process. he added. He certainly wasn't kidding about that as there was, he admits, fear and confusion throughout the world.
Of course the whole pandemic panic started with the WHO when it labelled the swine flu as a "level 6" pandemic, which is bureaucratese for a threat of the highest order. Turned out that as viruses go, swine flu was relatively mild, perhaps not as serious as the annual flu that many of us endure. ( I always have got a flu shot every fall since they were available. And 99% of them have worked.)
Despite the proof all around us, the WHO is still fibbing about its over-reaction. Indeed only a week before Fukuda's confession, he was still defending the WHO's rush to battle stations.
We shouldn't screw up when it comes to injecting stuff into our bodies because there are activists who scream out against any shots and then there are those who should know better, like paramedics and a few doctors and some usually bright commentators like Bill Maher. The blunt truth based on detailed medical research by dedicated scientists is that the ordinary fall flu shot and anything else we may inject into our kids to save them from all sorts of nasty diseases is the smartest thing for us to do. The objections often seem primitive, as if Governor Palin had thought them up, or is it a mistake to connect Palin with thoughts.
So we have to get these things right and not have parts of the fight against swine flu resemble a clutch of clowns stumbling around our labs and treasuries. All the signs point to the world facing stubborn epidemics, and even the horror of a real pandemic murdering us by the tens of thousands, because of the daily flow of people throughout the world, and the fact that countries like China still lie when serious illnesses break out there because they don't want to lose face.
The last thing we need when we face a real pandemic is these healthcrats who panic and throw hundreds of millions around without really using their heads.
Woe Canada! And woe those who put all their faith in the WHO, an outfit so political that it keeps out Taiwan because China wants it that way, even though Taiwan, thanks to its proximity to China, has been in the eye of recent medical storms born in China.
Conspiracy theorists look beyond the WHO comfortable bureaucrats to big pharma and say that the drug giants of the world made fortunes as countries dealt with the swine flu.
Now we know from the latest financial post mortems that the ad companies and media giants did too. The only suckers were the Canadians who lined up for hours because the WHO had put the fear of death in them. But then what's new about that!