December 28, 2008

Origins and Exodus

In England now, tucked into the South-west corner. Had a perfectly delightful time with a perfectly delightful and enthusiastic lady the evening before we left, and will jot down impressions of here when I've got a bit more time. Perhaps in London.

For some reason, I've really been hit with jet lag, even though I didn't even notice the difference last time over... Of course, I didn't write for the first week, either, so that could be the difference there.

I have been shamed into FINALLY reading Darwin's Origin of the Species - one of my favorite features of this nation is how many people are educated, in school or otherwise. There is none of that idiot anti-intellectualism that's infecting North America: people here are unashamed to have books on their shelves, despite George Orwell's protests of years ago.

One of those books happened to be the sixth (and final) edition of Darwin's, and it's one I haven't yet managed to read. It's astoundingly accessible (allowing for the usual purple prose of Victorian times), and there is no reason not to have read it by now - the only excuse I can manage is that it is such an integral part of our lives that there is no need to read Darwin in the same way there's no need to read Pythagoras (if anything was left) in order to understand geometry.

But there's a better excuse to read Darwin's masterwork than guilt: in February, it will be that great man's 200th birthday, and come November, Origin will have been continuously published for 150 years. (By sheer coincidence, I got a comment at this post today, which I consider an entirely appropriate mention.) Tragically, that last major mention of Darwin's world changing theory was the execrable eXpelled: No Intelligence Allowed (which certainly lived up to its name), so it's time to make up for that.

This year, we can push his name into public consciousness as something more than a muttered grey man in Grade 8 Biology. That you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who has done more for our understanding of the universe since Newton is rarely mentioned: this really is someone who deserves to be enshrined for elucidating something so basic that modern science would be literally impossible without it.

He will be mentioned again, of course: what's important is where. His writing was for reasonably educated people who would not have known too many specialist terms one hundred and fifty years ago, so there is little excuse not to expose him to the same sort of people today.

Time to spread the word!

***

The Significant Other, reading over my shoulder as I write this, would like me to amend the "200th birthday" remark, as Darwin stopped having birthdays some time ago.

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posted by Thursday at 12:17 pm 3 comments

December 22, 2008

Rewarding Year in Review

Need a reminder why veering left in your politics is evidence of intelligence? Check the Year in Review (and award nominees!) over at the Poor Man's Institute.

Vote early, vote often!

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posted by Thursday at 11:38 am 0 comments

December 21, 2008

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Going to Vancouver in three days, London in four. Re-scheduled ferry reservation; got an hotel room; made arrangements for someone to harass our cats one day sooner.

Horrid weather has forced our hand with all of these changes, but all told it's something we were considering any way. No hardship there.

Meaning: it's time for the truck to die.

Fortunately, it's just the belt tensioner. We've got a dead-common truck, and it's not a rare part. It is, however, a few days before Christmas. If there isn't one on in town, we may be in trouble.

Drum roll, please...

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posted by Thursday at 11:26 pm 0 comments

December 20, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me!

This year, and at my location, Global Orgasm Day is happening on December 21st at 4:00 AM. Okay, so it's actually the day before my birthday, but when I was born the solstice fell on the 22nd, so I consider the solstice to be my birthday, whichever day it happens to actually fall on.

Frankly, I don't give a rip about feel-good movements: the people who tend to participate in them are already a pretty peaceful bunch. But this one just makes sense, dammit! Hence I encourage everyone to participate. And don't let the time frame limit you: the orgasms are effective throughout the entire day. Promise.

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posted by Thursday at 4:44 pm 2 comments

December 18, 2008

Focus, Lads! Focus!

Speaking of sex selling...



Perhaps not safe for work...

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posted by Thursday at 10:36 pm 0 comments

Sex Sells; Fear of Sex Sells More

So I'm catching up on Blue Gal's blog, and find a link to a bit of advertising hysteria that got posted at Huffington Post:
Yet the advertising world has not caught up to the advances of half our population and continues to use stereotypes and violence to prey on our most vile desires. Here are the worst of them--the trends that won't die despite our cultural outrage, and personal boredom.
Well, first off: "outrage" and "boredom" are pretty much antonyms. You really can't have both at once. It does serve as a nice warning for what is to follow, however.
You may think, "hey this one shows two women, there aren't even men involved, how can it be sexist?" [...] these women are obviously putting on a show for an outsider, not having a passionate lesbian love affair for themselves.
Note that this is about a series of ads for Remy Martin. You know, booze. And the two women in the ad pictured? Are two women in a heavy flirtation with a bondage subtext. Women who engage in bondage are apparently bad, though I personally remain unconvinced.
Next up is rape:
The world of high fashion has been the worst offender in the violence-as-art game. Cavalli had pirates, Chanel had a wife beater, and now Dolce and Gabbana has this.
Yup, Dolce & Gabbana. Lots and lots of guys buy Dolce & Gabbana. That's why that fashion company is so successful - they know their market. Oh, and any guy who doesn't think a rape is going on right there on the set is a fag.
They are offering you a virgin in looks and expression, and a slut in the tagline: "You know you're not the first." [...] She's the ultimate fantasy: a virgin who won't say no to anything.
Other than contradicting yourself, you could simply say that kids in advertising are creepy - which is absolutely true. But the writer shoots herself in the foot by bringing up that Calvin Klien campaign featuring young people in sexual circumstances; apparently she missed the part where the models were both male and female...
There are many meanings to the term corporate responsibility and one of them is not to fetishize female sexuality.
That when she's talking about a Nikon ad featuring two women on a bed, posing for the camera.

Sigh.

Okay, I'll type slowly so you can follow along: the term "fetish", when used in a discussion of sexuality, means something that the victim of the fetish cannot achieve sexual wholeness without. To enjoy sex, they must have their fetish indulged. The term "sexuality" is misused here as well, unless you are talking about the sexuality of the two women in the picture. Meaning: unless you intended to state that Nikon is taking advantage of the poor lesbians in the crowd, I think you've missed your mark.

However, in case you meant that companies shouldn't advertise using men's fantasies, boy are you going to be disappointed for the next, oh... 1,035,626 years or so. Fantasies are exactly what advertising is, whether sex is involved or not.
The images and tag lines reinforce the idea of women sex receptacle, and therefore simply a receiver of sex, not one engaging in an equal process. This ad reads "I Want You All Over Me," which is as subtle as it is sexy.
It's also for a perfume. Called "Lamb", of all things. No comment on women being "led to the slaughter"? I'm shocked! Shocked, I tell you!

The ending paragraph is probably one the writer wants to have back, too:
The fact that these trends are so widespread is not the fault of the advertising world--these people are paid to appeal to our ids, they are often self-aware in their tendency to make the world harder for women, that's the life they've chosen.
So, they are deliberately making the world harder for women, but it's not their fault? Huh. And it's true, you know: life has been getting harder and harder for women ever since advertising came out this year.

I'm still bemused that of the five advertisements the writer complains about, all are for luxury items - unless stupidly expensive shoes have become somehow essential - and two are targeted specifically at women. Add that to her astounding ability to chase her own tail (logically speaking) and you end up with a post filled with despair and anger and not a small amount of cluelessness.

Makes you wonder what complaints she'd file about this jeans ad.

Given time, these things will balance themselves out. Maybe we'll be hearing Dan Savage complaining bitterly about the wall-to-wall gay porn being used to sell lipstick in his podcasts by 2010.

We can only hope.

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posted by Thursday at 8:06 pm 0 comments

December 17, 2008

The Politics of Blogging

Looks like the secret tapes are out, and boy, it doesn't look good for Rod Blagojevich. We knew he was bad, but NOW we know he's eeeeevil, too!

All the proof is at this week's Skeptics' Circle, served up at Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes.

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posted by Thursday at 7:56 pm 0 comments

December 16, 2008

Ancient History and New Victims

Story Time!

A long time ago, there was a young man who was a new immigrant to America. He had been told, and he believed, that America was the land of opportunity for anyone willing to work hard and learn a trade. He tried various approaches to earning money, including work as a dishwasher (and eventual waiter) of the restaurant on whose floor he slept and a bank teller.

His fortune was finally made when, while selling advertising to businesses, he hit upon the idea of arbitrage - buying goods from one market where it is cheap and selling it in another where it is more valuable. The distances are irrelevant: so long as there is a seller and purchaser who have different ideas of the value for an item, money can be made between them.

Within days, he was making thousands of dollars. He showed potential investors the money he had made, and offered to let them in on what was a stunning return (fifty percent!) for what was an easily explained - and clearly demonstrated - idea.

They invested, he produced; within weeks word was getting around about the immigrant with a golden touch. New investment started flowing in from more and more people getting the astounding return exactly as promised. People saw cash in their hands and promptly threw it back into the new company that was making them rich.

Soon enough, investment capital had gone from a few thousand to millions. As there always is when millions of dollars is involved, a lawsuit raised questions; and as often happens when millions is involves, the Financial Wizard paid everyone who asked questions, and the questions stopped.

But questions soon followed from people he couldn't simply hand money to go away. He was exposed as a fraud, arrested, and eventually deported. Investigators couldn't find where the investor's money went, and finally concluded he had simply spent millions of dollars of other people's money. Some went to his exuberant living expenses (He's rich, and thus good with money! Invest with him!) and more went to the investors themselves. Well, some of it did, any way.

Later investors provided the cash for him to pay older investors when their dividends came due. The older investors saw their cash, plus a generous profit, and handed it back (plus more, having gotten a mortgage for this fantastic deal). That money was later returned, plus yet another huge bonus, with the sure knowledge that they would reinvest. Who needed to make money when people would simply hand it to you?

The man's name was Carlo ("Charles") Ponzi, and he has a financial scam variant named after him. He had, and pissed away, millions of dollars in a matter of months, scamming some 17,000 hopeful victims. In 1920 dollars, that would be the equivalent of $10,000,000 using the Consumer Price Index.

Not bad for four months, eh? If he had been set loose for 40 years, perhaps he'd have been close to Bernard L. Madoff's $50 billion of ghost money.

The scam has been around for decades, and it's always the same bait and the same hook.

The Bait

Cash. It's that simple. Ponzi offered a staggering 50% return on investment: that's more than enough to make any reasonably intelligent person highly suspicious. (Note: having money does not make one intelligent; not even reasonably so.) Madoff handed out 11% or better on investor's returns for fifteen straight years - including through two market crashes.

The Hook

When questions arise, there's an extra layer of protection scam runners have: trust. Ponzi had the newly arrived Italians; Madoff had the members of his country club. Both of them started out talking to people they knew, people like them. Those first victims would be talking to someone who they knew they could trust. He's our people, and he wouldn't betray our people, would he?

And then those folks, getting huge returns on their investment, would tell others they knew: you know, people like them. Hey, there's this great kid made good, he's looking for investors, and you could do worse, yes? Look what he did for me! And my gosh, have you seen his house?

Madoff, unlike Ponzi, likely had no intention of stealing money from his investors. Most likely he got caught in one of the many pitfalls of the markets he played in, and simply couldn't stand to tell the people who trusted him, many of whom were philanthropic institutions, that they wouldn't be meeting projected marks. It was just a little cover-up: they would make up for it next year...

Sound familiar?

You want to trust people, especially ones who remind you of yourself. It's difficult to question someone who you already believe knows more than you do; but to doubt one that has brought you a reward for trusting him is nearly impossible for many.

Many investment scams still rely on exactly this tribalism to find new victims: Hispanics in the southern United States have seen Spanish-only banks appear, last for a year or two, then vanish. How can that happen? The people investing are strangers in a strange land, exactly as the first of Ponzi's victims were - they need someone they can trust, who also knows the world they are trying to exist in. Who better than someone who speaks their language? There are even smaller groups catered to, sometimes opening in rented mall space.

There are other variants circulating about that use the Us-verses-Them mindset to ensure trust, and to encourage the idea that to question is to betray that trust. "Women's Investment Circles" are a classic example, meeting at each other's homes (with help from a facilitator), getting women to recruit their friends and expand the Circle - whose members then go looking for others to recruit... There are people who prey on religious congregations; who pose as new-age gurus starting "healing colonies"; who have free-energy machines that "they" don't want you to know about.

Every group has been ripped off at one point or another: religious congregations, political activists, home makers, sports fans. I'm sure if I lived in Italy, I'd be writing about how the Moroccans coming to the country are too naive; or about the Koreans if I lived in Japan.

When Ponzi was arrested, people were furious... with the officers. Even in prison, he was getting inquiries from potential and past investors who simply didn't believe he was misleading them, combined with the fervent hope that the magic ride wasn't over... plus one other thing.

A funny thing about poker hands: many people find it harder to fold a hand they've put $500 into than one they've only invested $5 into. There comes a tipping point, different for everyone, where the gambler decides they "can't afford to walk away" from their investment. So they pay more, dream bigger, and ignore any signs that they're headed for disaster. Even more interesting is that people who are bluffing, who know their hand is worthless, are more likely to fold their hand, cut their losses and look for the next opportunity. But people who have bad hands, ones that they are playing despite fifty-to-one odds against, they're the ones who stick around. They pray, deeply and devoutly, that a miracle happens to pull them back to their original level of savings. The hope is what keeps them, misplaced though it may be.

This simile falls apart when you realize while there are few miracles in poker, there are none in the financial world.

The big question is this: how can you trust any of your investing when some of the wealthiest people in the world fall victim to a well known scheme more than seventy-five years old?

All that can help is the same thing that help in every other circumstance where people are looking to take advantage of you:

1) Multiple sources of information;
2) Increase your personal knowledge of what's claimed;
3) Keep your emotions in check, especially if you hear an Us-verses-Them message.

Money: yet another reason why keeping skeptical is a healthy idea, physically and financially.

***

Since I have the chance, I'm going to point you to a certain Mr. Madoff pontificating on the economy (hat tip to Crawl Across the Ocean, or CAtO, over on the right, there). As he puts it:
Red Tory links to an old video of Madoff pontificating on life on Wall Street, and how he goes down to the SEC and complains that Wall Street is over-regulated, and how now that they can't make money from commissions any more, the big money is made by taking risks, and how the public doesn't understand that "in today's regulatory environment is is impossible for a violation of the rules to go undetected, particularly over a long period of time". Great stuff!


Go, look, and laugh.

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posted by Thursday at 10:25 pm 0 comments

December 15, 2008

Time and Communication

Trevor Greene hasn't learned how to walk yet. But the 41 year-old Canadian soldier is working on it.

He was attending a shura in the village of Shinkay in March of 2006, talking with elders there about what they would need for reconstruction. Shinkay is in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, where the mountains have provided shelter for Taliban fighters conducting hit-and-run attacks, and where Canada's military actions are focused. Greene had previously written books on missing women from Vancouver's East Side and the homeless in Japan, and was most interested in bringing education opportunities to girls and women in Afghanistan. He was a member of a provincial reconstruction team, focusing mainly on providing wells for villages.

While seated the the shura, he was attacked by a 16 year-old boy wielding an axe. Greene had his helmet off and rifle on the ground, as a sign of respect for the shura, so there was nothing to prevent the axe from essentially splitting his brain in half. Fortunately, a medic had decided to accompany him despite Greene's insistence that one wouldn't be needed. It was, after all, a simple meeting with an organizational committee to discuss what the town needed.

In the past two and a half years of rehabilitation, Greene has nearly died three times. He's managed to speak above a whisper. He has some control over a motorized wheelchair. And he now lives at home, and has pretend tea with his daughter. As far as a list of accomplishments goes, it's short - but surprising none the less.

If anyone had reason for despair, resentment, or hatred, it would be him. When asked what he would say to his assailant if he met the boy now, he said this:
I'm sorry. Because he's dead now. I know my comrades killed him. I was there in a uniform with a weapon. He had reason to attack me.

The Canadian government has said that it fully intends to pull out of Afghanistan on schedule in 2011, probably with some developmental assistance and technical support deployment - troops numbering in the dozens rather than thousands. I can only hope that there is enough stability left behind so that the people there will have the luxury of choice; that desperation or fear or hunger won't be the overriding factor in their lives.

If we can keep employing people like Trevor Greene to represent us around the world, I do believe that the hope I have has reason as well.

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posted by Thursday at 6:58 pm 2 comments

There Are Times...

I wish I didn't read Orcinus. Often, it's those same times I wish he wasn't right.

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posted by Thursday at 6:26 pm 0 comments

December 12, 2008

It's Official: I'm Legal

And no, this has nothing to do with age.

I just got my Security Industry Licence: Worker and Security Industry Licence: Business Owner cards.

So now when I enter a home/car/what have you, it will be because I have permission!

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posted by Thursday at 8:15 pm 0 comments

December 07, 2008

"Daddy, What's a Pusher?"

"It's a kind of pollster, son..."

What do you get when you have a reckless warrior,



a three-headed monster,







and a member of the arts?



Brave Sir Robin, of course!



But the same day Plastic Man did run away, a poll was released that showed we shared the overwhelming terror he felt:

What Canadians are witnessing has shaken them pretty much to the core: almost three quarters (72%) of Canadians indicate that they are truly scared for the future of the country with what is going on in Ottawa[...]


What didn't get mentioned in the story is exactly what question was asked:

The findings were in response to a question about whether Harper should remain in government "because of the severe economic situation the country faces and the fact the Liberals and NDP have entered into an 'unholy' deal with the Bloc separatists."


You know, you can really tell the quality of a poll question by the number of times 'unholy' appears in it. This poll was about as honest as Daddy's answer.

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posted by Thursday at 8:24 pm 0 comments

December 05, 2008

That's What She Said!


And so, friends, we come to a break in the proceedings. This dramatic tale of politics, power, betrayal, and, apparently, pants-wetting terror come to a close until January 26th (or so).

For now, let us hear the joyous sounds of Talking Points and Counter Points ring through the land this holiday season:

  • We're not even two months removed from the last election, and a group of backroom politicians are going to pick who the Prime Minister is. Canadians didn't vote for this person. We don't even know who this person will be.
Actually, we do. He just won't be there longer than a few months when he'll get replaced with someone else. That's who we don't know.
  • Not a single voter voted for a Liberal-NDP coalition. Certainly not a single voter voted for the Liberals to form a coalition with the separatists in the Bloc.
And yet 62% of the voters did vote against Stephen Harper, including those Canadians who voted for the Bloc. Though you do raise a good point: from now on, we should be allowed to choose coalitions on our ballots! Otherwise, how will they ever know to cooperate with each other and actually get things done when they're in Ottawa?
  • This is what bothers me the most. The Conservatives won the election. The Opposition keeps saying that the Conservatives have to respect the will of the voters that this is a minority and so on.
Isn't stepping on their throats respect enough?
  • …how about Liberals, NDP and Bloc respecting the will of the voters when they said "YOU LOSE".
How dare the opposition oppose the current government! How dare they?!
  • And what's this going to do to the economy. I'm sorry, I don't care how desperate the Liberals are — giving socialists (Jack Layton) and separatists (Gilles Duceppe) a veto over every decision in government — that is a recipe for total economic disaster.
First, thanks for letting us know who you meant. I thought Elizabeth May was the separatist, and Ron Gray was the socialist. (Can you really blame me for the last one, though? Look what that other evangelical fanatic did to our nation.) Still, is 'socialist' still your big, scary boogieman? Really? Despite the financial record of left-wing leaderships compared to right-wing ones? Well, if you insist...
  • But how more phony could these guys be?
Call me when you've got a leader who has a memory longer than four years old. And doesn't repeatedly proclaim that 'the people of Canada demand immediate action on the the economy' and then promptly run away for seven weeks to let ad men do his job for him.
  • I mean, I follow the news, virtually every single day you have Harper or Flaherty out there telegraphing exactly what they plan to do with the economy. And not once did you hear the Liberals, NDP or separatists talking about toppling the government in response.
No, "you" don't - you're a list of talking points. Otherwise you may have noticed that talking about buying your son a car so he'll love you is not the same as actually buying him a car so he'll love you. Plus, when it was made clear that Haprer and Flaherty wanted to cripple their political opponents, attack unions, and stop women fro using the Human Rights Commission, then boy howdy! did you ever hear the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc talk about toppling the government! In fact, that's what this whole embroglio is about, remember?
  • No — do you know what set this off. When Flaherty said he was going to take taxpayer-funded subsidies away from the opposition. Now there is a reason to try and overturn an election— because the Conservatives the audacity to say "Hey, it's a recession, maybe you should take your nose out of the trough."
Which explains taking away the right to strike and stopping women from using the Human Rights Commission to address workplace pay inequities. That'll save this nation some cash!
  • And I wish the media would be more clear on this point — the opposition aren't being singled out by this fact the Conservatives stand to lose the most money of all. The only difference is that Canadians are voluntarily giving money the Conservatives, so they don't need taxpayer handouts. The only reason the opposition would be hurt more is because nobody wants to donate to them. They should be putting their efforts towards fixing that problem.
It is, of course, the media's fault. Just ask John Ziegler.
  • I don't want another election. But what I want even less is a surprise backroom Prime Minister whom I never even had the opportunity to vote for or against. What an insult to democracy.
And no one wanted to piss away $300 million on the last election, either: still happened, though. Strange how Harper insisted on having one even when he knew ahead of time what the results would be. I suppose he knows something about sound fiscal management that we leftie types don't. Of course, acting like he had a majority when he didn't wasn't exaclty respectful of democracy, either.

Well, that's enough for now. If you'll excuse me, I now have a second reason to turn off the radio for the next several weeks...

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posted by Thursday at 11:49 am 0 comments

December 04, 2008

Ye Gods

Okay, three hours writing a post about the silliness we got out of Ottawa this week, and somehow it got eaten.

I feel certain this creature was somehow involved:


I feel so very, very sad. Like my time was completely wasted. Like a Prime Minister gone prorogue.

Perhaps a redo tomorrow. Perhaps.

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posted by Thursday at 5:29 pm 0 comments

Speaking of Autocratic Dictatorships...

A ray of light from the so-called "Dark Continent", this edition of the Skeptics' Circle comes to us from Africa by way of Michael Meadon at Ionian Enchantment.

The post title is in reference to some of the criticisms levelled at... well, pretty much everyone in Canadian politics right now. (More on that next post - check out these folks first!)

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posted by Thursday at 1:00 pm 0 comments

December 02, 2008

...And Here My Troubles Began

(Apologies to Art Spiegelman's brilliant work)

Well, this does look interesting...

After a year and a half of governing as a minority, and a year of that campaigning for an unnecessary and ultimately useless $300 million election, the first act of the newly minted Team Blue minority government was to try screwing the other parties by reversing something put in place as a means for smaller parties to have financial support (yes, kiddies: your votes do count). The excuse was to 'save' Canadians $28 million - but the reason was to quickly kneecap the other parties when their political war chests were at their lowest.

Surprisingly, this backfired. I say surprisingly because for the first year of the last run, the Perpetual Party had done nothing but whine about how "Canadians don't want an election". That ended up being true, of course, but it's a bad excuse for not doing your job, and the electorate responded accordingly.

There were rumours of an overthrow, so Plastic Man's chief of staff Guy Giorno promptly sent out a Talking Points Memo of their very own, including magic phrases for folks to use on television, radio, and the immortal 'Letters to the Editor'. How many have you heard? Don't worry, you'll hear them a whole lot more in the coming months...

In any case, Plastic Man quickly melted (one day has got to be a record) and backtracked on that 'promise', as he did his insistence that federal employees be forbidden to strike for three years. Or did you miss that? Yeah, somehow that was going to save us millions, too. No details, but trust them, it woulda fer shuuuure.

Weirdly, when Harper was in opposition, his strength was supposed to be finances, and his reputation was as an in-the-trenches political fighter. On the other hand, the latest incarnation of what it means to be a Conservative seems to include an astounding amount of pollyannaish thinking about, well, everything: nothing will ever, ever go wrong, so we don't need to plan for the future. These are people who still think the Laffer Curve exists.

The two percent reduction in the sales tax has been kind of like trading off your raincoat for a cold beer in August. It feels good, but wasn't exactly a long-term consideration. Frankly, I bought a truck after taxes were reduced, and it saved me $80. Can't say that the reduction has even been noticeable for any other purchase I've made since.

In exchange for that, I'll take eleven consecutive years of budget balancing, and nine of surplus. If the option is a federal party that pulls a Plaxico Burress, it will be the best $80 I've ever spent.

We'll take a look the strangely hysterical criticism tomorrow.

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posted by Thursday at 7:48 pm 0 comments