Category Archives: China

Douglas, Deng and Diocletian

(originally written May 21, 2012.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

Tommy Douglas

I read a bio of Tommy Douglas recently, figuring as a guy with sinister leanings (sinister in the original Latin sense of “left”, that is :) ) I might as well brush up on the father of Canadian Medicare, and reigning Greatest Canadian.

To me, the biggest surprise was the standing ovation he got from the NDP faithful after his farewell speech at their 1983 convention. Not the fact that he got one, mind you; the fact that it was twenty-three minutes long!  Given the way he shaped the CCF, its successor the NDP, and ultimately the scope of the Canadian welfare state, a standing ovation was a given. But twenty-three minutes — holy cow! …TV sitcoms are only twenty-two!

From this, we can infer that Douglas was a rare political leader who was able to transcend party factions after he stepped down. Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien may have led the Liberals to three majority governments, but there’s no way his successor’s faction would’ve clapped that long: Chretien beat Paul Martin in the 1990 Liberal leadership convention, and Martin’s supporters were impatient to see P.M. become PM.

It’s also hard to see current PM Stephen Harper getting that kind of ovation, however long he leads Canada’s Conservative Party: he’s already infuriated libertarians (having characterized them as child porn supporters) and religious conservatives (by refusing to reopen the abortion debate). At the end of his career, those conservatives will give him the clap, but not twenty-three minutes’ worth, however much Ezra (“ethical oil”) Levant urges them on. :)

Douglas, a socialist, was famous for his parable of Mouseland, which went to the effect of:
“every few years, the mice of Mouseville would elect a black or white cat to Parliament [ie. the Liberals or Progressive Conservatives]. One year a mouse suggested they elect mice instead [ie. the CCF]. He was branded a Bolshevik and jailed.”

Funnily enough, Deng Xiaopeng, the Communist, was famous for a very different cat/mouse parable, along the lines of:

“I don’t care if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.”

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Dinner with the Overclass (“Great Upload of 2013”)

(originally written Nov 17, 2010.  Part of the Great Upload of 2013.)

We had the pleasure of dining with the overclass on Monday, at an event put on by the wealth-services branch of a mutual fund company.  I’d charmed our way into that club earlier in the year, despite falling well short of the minimum asset requirements, using those charismatic powers that my wife seems curiously oblivious to. ;)  What clinched the deal for me, was the lure of a free dinner every time those guys swung through town — finally, someone giving us something for letting them gamble with our money! ;)

While there were a few of us pre-retirees there, the crowd leaned well-dressed and geriatric. No doubt some were keen wanting to move from merely ostentatious to fully obscene wealth — the kind of folks who might have forgotten (or never known?) the more immediate financial concerns of the bottom 98% of their fellow citizens, even in a well-to-do country like Canada. I believe I was the only person wearing sneakers. :)

A lot of people looked like they could’ve been from (exclusive Vancouver private boys’ school) St. George’s class of 1960. Or maybe 1950. But ex-Ballard colleagues were there — which was pretty cool. If anyone wants to get in touch with them, let me know.

The Eur-“uh-oh”-zone

The evening consisted of free (I wish I was a drinker!) cocktails followed by a dinner lecture during which each money manager discussed their economic outlook — which generally fell somewhere in the ominous-to-apocalyptic spectrum. (“The market giveth, and the market taketh away…”) Mainly for the reasons described in this deservedly-viral YouTube video.

With catastrophic irony, though the US Federal Reserve is trying to weaken the dollar with “quantitative easing” (to improve their economy through exports) it seems more probable (60/40?) that the US dollar will rise from here. (It’s notable that the Japanese government has been trying on and off to weaken the yen for, oh, half my life, but their currency recently hit all-time highs against the US dollar.) As bad as things are in the US, they’re even worse in Western Europe. It’s as if the US has halted its horse on the racetrack… but the EU’s horse is moving backwards.

Ireland is going to need a bailout; they’ll probably get one, because Germany leads the Euro bloc, and German banks are acutely exposed to Irish debt. Portugal’s also looking “sinking ship”-shape, and Spain — whose economy is roughly the size of Canada’s — is listing badly. Back in the day the US used “domino theory” to justify propping up governments in south-east Asia to prevent communism from spreading (“if Vietnam falls, Cambodia will fall, then Laos, and then … eventually, India”).

Right now, Eurozone governments are using similar logic, trying vainly to contain the financial contagion. Political problems are inevitably going to emerge from German bankers imposing austerity on Ireland, French citizens subsidizing Greek ones, and so forth. At least in the US, while “red states” might be irritated at having to bail out California, they share a national identity and mythos.

Siiiiiiilver

The speakers spent a bunch of time talking about silver, which has gotten a bit of attention with its sharp ascent (and descent) lately. While falling industrial consumption can negatively impact prices during tougher times, it would seem that in upcoming years it should continue to do well. This is mainly because, over the years, the “geniuses” at certain investment banks placed highly-leveraged bets on the commodity’s price… never imagined that anyone would actually be paranoid enough to take delivery of the actual metal, instead of booking paper profits. So they’re actually on the hook for a lot more silver than is readily available for purchase on the market.

Smelling blood, their deep-pocketed rivals have been hoovering up all available silver, in a successful-thus-far attempt to create scarcity and gouge the investment banks. As an example, the Sprott folks recently started up an exchange-traded fund whose business plan is… to store silver bars in a vault. They had to cut their IPO back from $750 million, though, because they could ‘only’ find about $600 million worth of silver on the open market. One of those ‘rich people problems’…

Mind you, I largely ignore the silver market. Because it’s so small, it’s insanely volatile — relatively small flows of money (by global standards) can completely distort the market, upwards or downwards. Most developing countries which successfully navigated their way to reasonable prosperity restricted capital flows for this same reason: too much money suddenly coming into a small economy can quickly create a bubble, and too much money suddenly leaving can exacerbate misery, neither of which are particularly beneficial.

517 – 1 !!  Awwwright!

One bright side for the global south did come out of the Overclass Night, though — it was the firm’s assessment that after centuries of colonization, mercantilism and marginalization, developing countries are generally in much better financial shape than their First World counterparts. Stagnation in the West for the next several years, should contrast with relative health in the majority world. Score one for the underdogs! :)

By my scorecard that makes it — let’s see, Columbus was 1492, right? — oh, about 517-1. ;)

Muslims in America and other hidden ethnic histories

Yves at Naked Capitalism cross-posted a wonderful Alternet piece by Lynn Parramore, eviscerating the idea that Islam is new or alien to America.  In truth, the Muslim faith has had a long (if lightly-populated) history in the United States.  Islam arrived in America so early, the Puritans hadn’t even burnt their first witch!!

While the 1620 voyage of The Mayflower is deeply mythologized in the American psyche, the 1630 arrival of devout Muslim Anthony Janszoon van Salee in the New Netherlands, gets a lot less attention.  Which is a pity, because he seems to’ve been a business magnate — he had the foresight to buy Manhattan real estate back when it was cheap!  (It seems he once owned the land on which Wall Street was built.)  On top of that, he winds up being an ancestor of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men of all time.  Why is this Horatio Alger-style “self-made man” not already an American legend??

(For those of you keeping track, van Salee arrived a short ten years after The Mayflower.  According to Wiki, New England executed its first “witch” seventeen years later, in 1647.  And the Salem witch trials occurred in 1692/1693.)

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It’s deplorable that a fringe of American society wants to pretend the country is / should be Christian, on the flimsy and faulty premise that it was founded as such.  While the first pioneers in the 1600’s may have been passionately religious, by the late 1700’s the colonies were led by men whose intellect helped shape the Age of Enlightenment: or, as it was also known, the Age of Reason.  For many of them, the philosophy of choice was Deism — the atheism of its day, attacked by the righteous cacophony of religious conservatives.

One example is Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense may have done more than any other document to galvanize the independence movement.  He was ostracized later in life for his scathing criticism of Christianity, his funeral attended by a mere six people.  The more potent case is Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, who created his own Gospel — commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible” — by literally cutting-and-pasting the four gospels of the New Testament into one combined, miracle-free, Resurrection-less narrative.  (Definitely not the behaviour of the faithfully devout, or one considering the text holy.)  To quote from the Wiki article:

[It] begins with an account of Jesus’s birth without references to angels (at that time), genealogy, or prophecy. Miracles, references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus’ resurrection are also absent from his collection.

With “Christians” like that, who needs atheists?

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Holding a mirror to country and community reveals hidden ethnic histories of our own — and not just of the Aboriginal peoples, who have suffered seemingly-interminable injustices over the centuries.  In my home province of British Columbia, Vancouver and the surrounding suburbs has seen an influx of east Asians in recent decades.  (My wife among them.)

As of the 2006 census, 45% of residents in the suburb of Richmond claimed Chinese heritage.  Given that the Chinese population grew by 20% in the five years from 2001 to 2006, it’s possible that as I write this (2012) Chinese-Canadians are the majority in Richmond.  Delving further, we see that “visible minorities” in Richmond have a formidable 2/3 majority!  Which makes for some exceptional cuisine.  :)

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Doubting “doubting” Thomas

(written March 17; uploaded Aug 9)

Dang, I missed being able to send this out on 3:16 — wouldn’t that’ve been topical! Oh well, St. Patrick’s Day it is, then…

I should also note that I’ll be using the conventions of modern scholarship.*

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I’ll be picking up a physical copy of the latest National Geographic, as its cover story “The Journey of the Apostles” has a great bit on “doubting” Thomas, whom tradition has it (and scholarship largely accepts, based on the balance of evidence) travelled to Jewish colonies in India, to proselytize there.

Sadly, when Portugese imperialists got to India around 1600 and discovered a heretical Christian sect with their own holy texts, they kinda had all the bad books burned. Which means that we may never know the literature the relatively-isolated Thomas Christians passed down from generation to generation. (Happily for them, Thomas Christians are still around in India, which hit on the idea of freedom of religion about two thousand years before America’s Founding Fathers made a big deal of it.) A hint of what might have been, comes from the “Jesus Sutras“, a set of Chinese-language Christian scriptures discovered recently in China, dating to roughly 1000 years ago.

Wildly heretical by most Christian standards, they poetically convey the transformative experience the faith has brought so many, over the years. If nothing else, they show the challenges of transposing subtle theological ideas across languages and cultures — something to keep in mind, when we consider that Christianity in Western Europe was a Gentile religion shaped by Latin-language liturgy based on manuscripts translated from Greek, about a Jewish founding community which spoke Aramaic! Suddenly the idea of the Buddha, a skinny Indian, being represented as a portly Chinese fellow, doesn’t seem so farfetched now, hmm? ;)

Now, I have sympathy for Thomas — so much so that Thomas was one of the few “normal” names I pitched for our son, early on — in part because I think he got a bad break with the whole “doubting” Thomas thing.

In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) the Big Three apostles are Peter, James and John. (And Mary, but that’s a different note, maybe for International Women’s Day or something.) While Jesus gives extra attention to the Big Three/Four, and Judas gets his big moment near the end, Thomas and the rest largely put in cameo appearances.

The Gospel of John is very different, coming from a different Christian community in a different area, with different priorities. And one of those priorities was sticking it to Thomas at every turn (hence the doubting-Thomas episode, among others). The Biblically curious only had one side of the story to go on, until a copy of The Gospel of Thomas was unearthed in Egypt about sixty years ago. Thought to’ve been written in a community near John’s community. And taking a few jabs at John’s beliefs about the Christ. Turn the other cheek, indeed…!  (This is the primary source for the preceding paragraph.)

So we now have the religious literature of two feuding, neighbouring faith communities, one of which came to overwhelmingly overshadow the other. To use a TV cartoon analogy, John is to Springfield as Thomas is to Shelbyville.

For many scholars, the Thomas Gospel is fascinating because parts of it may predate the Gospels. Among other things, it points to James the Just as the arbitrer of disagreements; he died in the early 60’s AD, while non-fundamentalist scholars tend to date the canonical Gospels to the period of roughly 70 to 100 AD. A healthy-but-not-overwhelming majority of scholars argue that Thomas came later, because other portions hint at the worldview of later-developing Gnostic Christianity. In a sense, it’s a case of whether scholars feel the glass is more half-full (parts of it seem early!) or half-empty (other parts seem late!).

As someone without a horse in the race, but with a chronic fondness for the underdog, I’m partial to the idea that there was an early Christian community espousing at least some of the ideas in the Gospel of Thomas, who didn’t get along with the community where the Gospel of John was written. Which would explain why both sides’ literature contains subtle digs against the other. It wouldn’t be the only case of this happening.

The unflattering depiction of Peter in the Gospel of Mark leads some scholars to think the author of Mark wasn’t a fan. Nor was John, who describes the “Beloved Disciple” in more flattering terms. (Tradition has it that the “Beloved Discipline” is John himself; convenient, eh? :) ) And nor was Thomas. But the fact that all three are uncharitable towards Peter, more or less proves he was an important figure in the early Christian communities. After all, if he was unimportant, why bother? In the same way, the Gospel of John’s criticism of the apostle Thomas suggests that there already existed a community identifying itself with that apostle, which had the “wrong” ideas about Jesus. Since Thomas doesn’t feature much in the other canonical Gospels, that community may have been pretty marginal. Perhaps because it didn’t yet exist…?  ;)

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It should be emphasized that none of these human foibles diminish in any way the life-changing experience of faith these early Christians were trying to convey in the words and deeds and miracles they recorded. While we live in a scientific era with a strict binary division between fiction and non-fiction, this was not the case when so much of the world’s profoundest religious literature was written. So it’s unfortunate that we moderns tend to get tied down in questions of factual accuracy, when the point of such scriptures is to point to timeless truths, not event-specific ones. A good modern analogy might be the US Declaration of Independence, which says that “all men are created equal”. This is technically untrue — we’re all different in our DNA, socioeconomic background, and so forth — and also overlooks half of humanity, but we accept it based on the deeper truth it points to. So it was for our forebears, and their guiding documents, in an earlier age.

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* funnily enough, one of the conventions is to refer to the authors of the various Gospels as Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, despite the fact that these almost certainly weren’t the authors’ names. And though Matthew gets pole position in the New Testament, Mark was written first (then used as a quasi-template by both Matthew and Luke) hence the order I’m using here…

The to-may-to, to-mah-to of economic statistics

(written June 28, uploaded July 16)

There was an alarming report out a couple weeks ago alleging that China was vastly underreporting its emissions, because the coal consumption reported by the Chinese national government was smaller than the sum of consumption totals reported by various Chinese provinces. Purportedly, the Communist Party didn’t want to reveal to the outside world just how much pollution it’s emitting, trying to raise the country’s standard of living.

This was followed the other day by a report that coal inventories in Chinese ports are at record highs (in other words, it’s not being burnt as fast as it’s being imported). The theory is that Chinese provinces have been overreporting electricity production to meet national targets for economic growth. If this is the case, then the national government is correct to apply a “fudge factor” and report lower production totals than the sum total of the numbers they’re given!

In light of the high coal inventories, I’d side with the national government on this one, and assume China is slowing down. And since China consumes so much of everything (urbanizing thirty million people per year takes a lot of material!) a slowdown there would drag down prices of most of the resources Canada is so good at exporting raw and unfinished — lumber, metal ores, bitumen, and so forth. Sigh — it’s as if we suffer from a lingering “economic colony complex”…

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A Chinese slowdown would exacerbate the problems our Albertan friends are facing: the price of oil is already sagging to levels which threaten the economic viability of (some) new tar sands projects. This Globe article lists a consultant study saying $80 per barrel is needed for a variety of projects to break even. As I write this, the price of the West Texas Intermediate Crude (“WTIC”) benchmark is $79. And as the Globe article notes, our countrymen aren’t even getting this much, since oil from North Dakota is clogging south-flowing pipelines in the US, forcing Albertans (who are upstream) to sell at a discount. Selling unrefined bitumen would incur a further discount.

And it just gets worse for our Calgarian cousins/rivals: US oil consumption peaked six years ago, and is set to keep falling. Not only are fewer teens getting licenses, and fewer total miles being driven per year, but those miles are being driven in more fuel-efficient vehicles, as the gas guzzlers of the cheap-oil-era early 2000’s get traded in for more fuel efficient ones. And while electric cars won’t displace much oil demand in the near term, some truck fleets are beginning to switch to natural gas — and trucking represents a huge 12% of US oil consumption! Not all of them will switch, and natural gas will get more expensive again, but the net effect will be that US oil consumption is likely to keep… on… falling, like a Japanese stock market index. (Incidentally, kudos to our friends at Westport for persisting in that natural-gas-vehicle market long enough to get to this tipping point; it’s a good lesson for us fuel-cell folks to learn from.)

Without a path to Asia, Alberta would be stuck selling its oil into a declining market — and that would make it impossible for them to shift the heart of Canadian power westwards, as has been their dream for decades. It’s a 180-degree turn from the message everyone has told our neighbours for the past several years, namely that they faced unprecedented wealth. With stagnant US and European demand, the only way for the oil patch to keep those dreams alive is to force pipelines through BC. Which is what the Prime Minister is agitating for, with the determination you’d expect from the son of an Exxon accountant. (Harper’s dad worked for Exxon’s Canadian arm, Imperial Oil / Esso.)

If we assume those coal mountains in China mean the country is slowing down, the oil price is likely to drift lower in 2013 (commodity trader group-think suggests a bounce up in the near term; not sure what Nostradamus’ take is). A lower oil price would probably mean further gnashing of teeth and scapegoating of “BC radicals” in Calgary* though the root cause would of course be that the market is a fickle god: it giveth, and it taketh away. Not infrequently taking its cues from those godless communists. ;)

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* Misplaced anger also applies to the 1970s’ National Energy Policy. While Trudeau reduced the oilpatch boom, he didn’t actually cause the bust; in fact, when oil prices dropped in the early 80’s, Alberta got more-than-market-rates for its oil. The guys who caused the real pain in Calgary were the Saudis, who turned the spigots on enough to drive the price of oil so low, they were basically the only ones making money. (They were punishing other OPEC members for exceeding their production quotas. Every other oil producer in the world, became collateral damage.) More recently, Alberta’s Wildrose Party seems convinced that over-regulation is what caused a slowdown in bitumen development in the past few years, neatly overlooking the Massive Financial Crisis of 2008/09 that caused the oil to drop to about $40 per barrel, before gradually floating back to the low $100’s, from which it has resumed sagging.