Category Archives: Greece

From housing to plumbing

(originally written Mar 4, 2012.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

Readers (regular and irregular both) may know that about six years ago, I was quoted in MacLean’s saying Canadian housing was in a bubble.  So after six long years of looking very wrong, I was delighted to see the right-wing rag run a cover story proclaiming that Canadian housing is in a bubble!  So I’ll dedicate this email to all the stopped clocks out there — twice a day, your time will come!  :)

Like anyone else challenged by a cognitive dissonance between ego and evidence, I naturally prefer the delusion that I wasn’t wrong, just early.  ;)  Having figured prices would fall by 2008 at the latest, I like to think I was only off by an Olympiad, or eight “Friedman units“.  On the more forgiving fossil-record timescale, I nailed it!

MacLean’s take

MacLean’s cites low interest rates and lax lending standards as a (sub?)prime reason for the real estate boom-turned-bubble.  This can kind of be expected, because most people aren’t great with money.  It’s a financial variant of Sturgeon’s Law, which says that “ninety percent of everything is crap”.  Take housing market predictions, for example…  ;)

Given the opportunity to make very bad decisions by enabling financial institutions, most people will do so.  Indeed, the mutual fund industry owes its existence to people’s predilection for sub-par performance!  Of course, most guys who throw their own darts probably do even worse, so the best way to look at mutual funds is probably to see them as a less-damaging “cowpox” to the “smallpox” of DIY investing.  :)

My take

As you’d expect from a left-leaning atheist on an issue like this, I’m with… Jesus, and blame the bankers.  ;)  If people are trying to borrow beyond their means, competent financial institutions are supposed to not make loans.  Of course, fewer loans means lower profits and much lower stock-option-based executive compensation.  (As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.)  By loosening lending standards, bank executives can enjoy kingly compensation; and by the time the crisis hits, they’ve moved on to other pillage-able pastures.  Which explains why cartoons like this make the rounds:

Banks lending / too much damn money / to people, is a haiku microcosm of how Greece came to be in its quandary: it borrowed more than any sane lender could’ve reasonably expected it to repay.  Which is why European governments are trying to work out “bailouts” by which they launder money through Greece to recapitalize their countries’ banks.  The “choose your own adventure” blog entry here does a pretty good job of showing the stalemate.

Compounding the problem, austerity packages are being pitched, which will only make the crisis worse; in cutting public services, austerity measures reduce a country’s GDP (because public-sector activities count towards GDP) meaning debt has to be repaid from an even smaller national account.

The endgame seems to be that Greece defaults and reverts to its own currency, while everyone else does the duck-and-cover.  After mistiming the Canadian housing market — and fuel cell vehicle commercialization for that matter — I’ll decline to guess when that happens.  ;)  A cheaper currency would cement Greece as a cheap vacationing spot (tourism is one of their biggest industries) and allow them to attract some manufacturing jobs with which to rebuild their economy.

There’re many precedents for thinking that default and devaluation would work.  Iceland defaulted a few years back; its GDP is now higher than pre-crisis levels, and its government debt is now back at “investment grade”!  Argentina also did pretty well after its default in the early 2000’s… and a forgiving of debts (effectively a society-wide default) preceded the rise of democracy in classical Athens.

The march of progress.  And plumbing!

Pessimists might note that we’re not always that good at learning the lessons of history — even as Iceland resurges, Latvia is in a “Shock Doctrine” death spiral.  But here on Team Glass-half-full, I like to think that we do in fact make slow progress.  :)   Consider universal indoor plumbing, which none of us would want to live without.  First invented around 2000BC by some proto-Tommy Douglas of the Harappan Civilization in the Indus Valley, this was such a breakthrough that within thirty-eight centuries London, England — capital of the globe-straddling British Empire — had decided to build its own!  Progress — there’s no stopping it!  ;)

Homer (not Simpson) and the Kaopectate Kid

The doctor diagnosed young son Leo recently with the stomach flu — which is colloquial shorthand for a condition which isn’t the flu, per se.  (The most recent editor of the relevant article on the almighty Wiki agrees!)

The Kaopectate Kid

Our medical professional then suggested we give Leo some Kaopectate to soothe his stomach.  So, what is the active ingredient in Kaopectate?  Clay.  Yes, modern medicine’s 21st-century response to our son’s stomach flu … was for him to eat dirt.  (Expert biologists will surely argue that clay isn’t dirt per se, but we ignoramuses outnumber them.  ;)  )

I didn’t realize Kaopectate was a real-life product, never having used it in my youth.  The first time I’d heard of the stuff, I was about twenty, and listening to my brother’s copy of The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight — the fourteen-minute version.  (The song makes Don McLean’s interminable “American Pie” seem short in comparison!)

In Rapper’s Delight — recently rated the 2nd-best hip-hop song of all time by Rolling Stone — one of the MC’s raps about the universal human experience of, um, not enjoying a friend’s partner’s cooking:

“Have you ever went over a friend’s house to eat, and the food just ain’t no good?

I mean the macaroni’s soggy, the peas are mush, and the chicken tastes like wood.”

… a story which eventually culminates with this masterful flow:

“So you bust out the door while it’s still closed, still sick from the food you ate

And then you run to the store for quick relief from a bottle of Kaopectate.”

.

Since I’d never seen a bottle of Kaopectate in my life, I’d always assumed it was urban slang…!

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The Sugarhill Gang

While The Sugarhill Gang were the ones who brought hip-hop to a wider audience (among other things, Rapper’s Delight opens with the lyrics “I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip hip hop”) they were complete nobodies.

As chronicled by Wikipedia’s sources, the Gang were the first to record a popular rap record … mainly because they were the first rappers to record (verb) a rap record (noun).  And that was because most rappers — the better rappers, the artists — weren’t interested in recording.

Instead, it fell to a bunch of rank amateurs — no, make that rank-less amateurs — to bring rap to a wider audience.  Better-skilled, higher-regarded MC’s must’ve been horrified to learn that their art — their art! — was being introduced to white America with legendarily-terrible lyrics like:

“…Like a can of beer that’s sweeter than honey,

Like a millionaire that has no money…”

“…It was the best advice that I ever had,

It came from my wise dear old dad…”

.

Rapper’s Delight was probably the first rap song to get censored on the radio as well, with these lines addressed to Lois Lane, in reference to Superman:

“He may be able to fly all through the night,

But can he rock a party ’til the early light;

He can’t satisfy you with his little worm,

But I can bust you out with my super [yep, they went there].”

This was immediately followed by the following example of virtuoso “flow”:

I’m goin’ do it, I’m goin’ do it, I’m goin’ do it, do it, do it.

“Big bank Hank” then brings it all home with the now-cliched lines:

“Just throw your hands up in the air

And party hardy like you just don’t care.”

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Of course, The Sugarhill Gang weren’t the first to put these lines together (the modern variant of which is “wave them around” like you just don’t care) but again, they seem to’ve been the first to record them.  Like bards of old, MC’s probably kept a mental catalogue of stock rhymes, and “hands in the air / just don’t care” proved popular.  Indeed, Rapper’s Delight is so massively long, that it delivers another variant that fell by the catchphrase wayside.  Partway through, Master Gee raps:

“Then you throw your hands high in the air,

Ya rockin’ to the rhythm, shake your derriere.”

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Homer (not Simpson)

The fact that the first rap record was brought out by the marginal, unknown Sugarhill Gang — because no rapper of stature deigned to record themselves — opens the delicious possibility that maybe, just maybe, Homer (of The Iliad and The Odyssey fame) was a third-rate rhapsode in his day.

Back in the day, blind bards would go from town to town recounting their stories, entertaining the masses.  If you were a revered poet, you probably did pretty well for yourself (whatever “pretty well” passed for, in that era) and you probably wouldn’t have the drive or need to collaborate with some scribe on this new “writing” technology.  Indeed, you might take offence that someone else wanted to take your exact words so they could try to replicate your divinely-inspired performances… without you!

But if you were a third-stringer who only ever booked the worst gigs in the barren rock-pile that was ancient Greece (and, what with the austerity measures, future Greece*) well, maybe, just maybe, you might indulge some stranger who came up to you asking if you could recite your story, v-e-r-y   s-l-o-w-l-y, so he could write it all down!  :)

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* Greek car sales in 2012 were about 60,000.  Greek car sales in 2008, were about 260,000.  Ouch.  As Chris Rock would say, they’re way past Robitussin.  Kaopectate, too, for that matter.  :)