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‘I’ Obituary for Stage Magician and Sceptic James Randi

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 26/10/2020 - 10:43pm in

Last Tuesday, 20th October 2020, the stage magician and sceptic James Randi passed away at the age of 92. Randy was a controversial. After starting out as a stage magician, Randi turned to exposing fake psychics. He was a prominent member of the Sceptics’ organisation CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal, along with scientist and broadcaster Carl Sagan and the mathematician Martin Gardner. CSICOP’s founders were alarmed at the growth of interest in the occult. Sagan, a Humanist, published his attack on the supernatural in the Demon Haunted World. He seemed to be frightened that we were entering a new Dark Age of superstition, where science and rationality would be forgotten, and in which people would begin their day by poring over their horoscopes.

The I published this obituary of Randi in their weekend edition for 24th-25th October 2020, reprinted from the Washington Post. It runs

James Randi, who has died aged 92, was an internationally acclaimed magician and escape artist who spent much of his career debunking all things paranormal – from spoon bending and water dowsing to spirit channelling and faith healing.

Randall James Ham Hamilton Zwinge was born in Toronto in 1928. A child prodigy, he was shy and often lonely. Bored by rote classroom learning, he sought refuge in the library. At a young age, he developed an interest in magic, and at 17 he dropped out of high school, turned down several college scholarships and joined a travelling carnival as junior magician.

He overcame a stammer and fear of speaking in public, affected a turban and goatee, and honed his illusionist skills under a series of stage names, including Zo-Ran, Prince Iblis, Telepath and the Great Randall.

After a stint at faking clairvoyance, in which many took his prophecies seriously – he correctly predicted the winner of baseball’s World Series in 1949, for example – he said he was unable to persuade believerss that his powers were strictly terrestrial. He said he “couldn’t live that kind of lie” and returned to conventional magic as The Amazing Randi.

He also became an escape artist and held Guinness world records for surviving the longest time inside a block of ice (55 minutes) and for being sealed the longest in an underwater coffin (one hour and 44 minutes), breaking a record set by Harry Houdini.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Randi’s many appearances on television made him a fixture of prime time entertainment. In 1973 he toured with heavy metal rock star Alice Cooper as an executioner simulating the beheading of the singer at each performance.

Randi cheerfully described himself as a “liar” and “cheat” in mock recognition of his magician’s skills at duping people into thinking they had seen something inexplicable when it was, in fact, the result of simple physical deception. He was equally dismissive of psychics, seers and soothsayers. “The difference between them and me,” Randi told The New York Times in 1981, “is that I admit that I’m a charlatan. They don’t. I don’t have time for things that go bump in the night.”

Randi and the research organisation he helped found in 1976, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, offered payouts ranging up to $1m (£77,000) to anyone who could demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal phenomenon under controlled conditions. While he had many takers, he said, none of them earned a cent.

In 2010, at the age of 81, Randi publicly announced he was gay. He married a Venezuelan artist, Deyvi Pena in 2013. The following year, film-maker Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein released An Honest Liar, a documentary of Randi’s life.

I first became aware of Randi in the early 1980s, when he appeared in the pages of the Absurder attacking Doris Stokes. Stokes was a medium, who was then in news, much like Derek Acorah and other celebrity psychics a few years ago. Randi showed that much of her comments and remarks when she was supposedly getting in touch with the dead were ‘bunkum statements’. They sounded true and unique to the reader or listener, but they were actually vague and described the way most people felt. Her descriptions of the deceased and the questions she asked her audience were also so vague that they would apply to someone there, who would then become convinced that Stokes was genuinely in contact with a dead friend or relative.

Several times Randi’s own outspoken comment about those he judged to be frauds landed him in legal. In one case, he was sued for libel by a man he claimed was called by the police ‘the shopping mall molester’. Er, not quite. The target of Randi’s wrath had been arrested for sexually assaulting a 12 or 13 year old girl in a shopping centre. But he hadn’t been charged with the offence, as it was dropped due to plea bargaining. And because he hadn’t been charged with it, Randi’s comments were technically libel.

He also got into similar trouble with Uri Geller. He called him a fraud, at which Geller sued him in every country in the world. This resulted in Randi settling out of court with the notorious spoon-bender.

Actually, I think Randi is probably right here. Geller’s most famous trick of bending spoons has been around since at least in the 18th century. It’s mentioned in a book of such amusements from that time, Rational Recreations. Geller was also successfully sued in the 1970s or so by an Israeli engineering student for misleading advertising. Geller’s publicity claimed his act presented overwhelming proof of the paranormal. The student went to see it and wasn’t impressed. He sued, claiming that all he’d seen was standard stage magic. The beak concurred, and judged in his favour.

There was also a scandal a few years ago when it turned out that Randi’s partner was actually an illegal immigrant, who was living in the US under an identity he’d stolen.

Randi was a colourful figure, but I was never a fan of his. While I agree that fake psychics and mediums certainly exist, and should be exposed because of the way they exploit the grieving and vulnerable, I don’t share his dismissal of the supernatural. I think it’s genuine, but that its very nature makes scientific verification extremely difficult, if not impossible. CSICOP also came off as arrogant, smug and vindictive in their attacks on the paranormal and its believers and practitioners. So much so that they were seen as a kind of scientific witch hunt by their victims. A few years ago the organisation changed its name to CSI, which stands for the Committee for Scientific Investigation. And not Crime Scene Investigation. The name change was not occasioned because there was a cop drama with that acronym as its title playing at the time.

So RIP James Randi. He was a colourful character, who entertained millions, particularly in his bust-up with Geller. Gray Barker, the former Ufologist who began the Men In Black myth with his book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, took great pleasure in Randi’s antics, calling him ‘the Amusing Randi’. But I leave to the reader to decide for themselves whether the paranormal exists. And not everybody who believes in it deserves sneers and ridicule.

Transnational Francoism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 23/10/2020 - 6:14pm in

Bàrbara Molas discusses Transnational Francoism: The British and The Canadian Friends of National Spain as part of the TORCH Network Conversations in Identity, Ethnicity and Nationhood. Bàrbara Molas is a PHD Candidate in History at York University

Rising Interest Rates Is A Good Thing For Governments

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 05/10/2020 - 12:00am in


Canada, fiscal

Worries about the effects of rising interest rates on government finances is a standard feature of editorial pieces. However, a floating currency sovereign should not be analysed in the same way as a household or business. An individual should reasonably worry about the effect of rising interest rates on their finances; if they face financial failure, the side-effects are not enough to affect macro outcomes. This is not the case for a central government: interest rates reflect macro outcomes, and the analysis needs to take into account why interest rates are rising.
A recent article by a Canadian journalist motivated this discussion. Although Ken Boessenkool's article "Money's not for nothing" has some obvious weaknesses, it has the advantage of laying out clear logic. Most pro-austerity arguments rely on vague, unquantifiable threats. The concerns are fairly standard: the Canadian Federal Government should fear rising interest rates, in the same way that a household would.
Although this article is responding to discussions about the Canadian government, it probably applies to most of the "Anglo" developed economies.Central Banks Mandate Is InflationCentral bank mandates are to target inflation, not to bankrupt central governments because they do not approve of fiscal policies. Given the inability of inflation to rise since the early 1990s -- and the consistent forecast failures by inflation hawks -- there is no particular reason for central banks to be jumpy about inflation. 
Although opinion pieces are filled with wailing about particular prices rising, consumer prices can only durably rise if consumers can pay for the more expensive products. Although there are potential stories that support this narrative (e.g., central government transfers raised aggregate incomes in the second quarter, despite the lockdown), the question remains how durable these trends are.
Admittedly, suggestions by the Canadian Federal Government that transfer payments will rise does offer a somewhat plausible scenario for rising inflation, but it remains to be seen how expansive fiscal policy will turn out to be.
In any event, we need to see rising inflation, which implies rising nominal GDP. From the perspective of an analysis of the debt-to-GDP ratio, this means that the denominator is rising rapidly. The main taxes levied by the Federal Government — income taxes and the value-added tax — would mechanically rise. Meanwhile, the duration of central government debt is not zero, and so it will take years for the weighted average interest rate on government debt to rise. 
In other words, a rising debt-to-GDP ratio is the last thing to worry about in a transition to a higher inflation environment.QE: No Reason to Reverse RapidlyWith that background out of the way, we can examine a few of Boessenkool's points. His first refers to the expansion of the Bank of Canada's balance — quantitative easing — which is a novel policy for Canada.

And in fact, central banks around the world have been printing money — which is what this practice amounts to — to protect their populations. The U.S. government engaged in a massive amount of this activity after the 2008 financial crisis and that all seemed to work out fine. As the debt held by the central bank expired, buyers appeared to take this debt off their hands. And when the buyers didn’t materialize, the Federal Reserve refinanced it by printing another batch of money. 
So we’re fine, right? Money for nothing, and your cheques for free.
First, the government debt bought by the Bank of Canada will expire. It is all of relatively short duration. And when it expires the bank can sit back and relax as private markets scoop up the debt.

I believe this is a fairly common concern — sure, the central bank can buy the debt now, but what happens when in matures?Fed's Balance Sheet (no second y-axis!)

However, we do know what happens. Central banks always have had to maintain their balance sheet sizes, and there were a number of test cases of quantitative easing over the past decades. They just roll over maturing bonds in their debt portfolio, like every other large bond holder. Whether or not the policy makes sense, the size of the central bank's balance sheet has been turned into a policy variable. As the figure above (showing the Fed's post-QE trajectory), the central bank attempts to slowly shrink its balance sheet size once the recovery is underway.
Once again, the mandate of the central bank is to target inflation. Disrupting the housing market rapidly rising mortgage rates is not going to help a central bank that is likely to miss its inflation target on the downside (unless the Liberal government is serious about fiscal easing).Currency Weakness RiskUnsurprisingly, the "reserve currency" and currency weakness show up in the logic.

The sheer amount of debt refinancing that markets will be asked to refinance in the coming year will be immense, gargantuan, stupendous. And markets get to chose whether to buy American, German, British, French, Canadian, Italian or Greek debt. 

That is not how bond markets work; to buy Canadian bonds, they need Canadian dollars. Those Canadian dollars were already injected into the Canadian financial system by deficit spending. If an international investor wants to buy a Canadian bond, they need get those dollars from an existing holder. (This logic applies to all the currency blocs in the list above.) The risk that is normally of concern is that investors will shun the Canadian dollar, causing its value to fall.
Back in the 1990s, economists wildly over-estimated the effects of currency weakness on domestic inflation. However, it is clear that weakness in the Canadian dollar has extremely mild effects on inflation. As such, there is no particular need for the Bank of Canada to over-react to currency moves. 
Meanwhile, Canada has been placed in a highly vulnerable position as a result of making private sector growth largely a function of a housing bubble. A weaker Canadian dollar boosts exporters, creating the theoretical possibility of rebalancing the private sector away from housing. In other words, this is actually a good thing.Interest Rates Limited by Private Sector FragilityThe rest of the article mainly consists of an appeal to central bank independence. The argument being that rates are low because of Federal Government vulnerability to higher rates.

This is a fairly basic misreading of the situation. The household sector is far more vulnerable to rising interest rates. The chart above shows the debt-to-disposable income for the Canadian household sector. (The dip down at the end reflects the transfer payments of the second quarter). With that ratio tracking bouncing around 175%, we see that there is a very large sensitivity to interest rates. At the same time, Canadian households only lock interest rates for a maximum of five years. (It is possible to get 10-year fixed, but that is expensive and thus rare.) We can then add into the outlook that residential construction jobs are a big part of income growth, which is vulnerable to higher rates.
The Bank of Canada is boxed in because of debt, but Federal Government debt is not the source of concern.Rising Rates: A Good ThingThe only plausible scenarios where Canadian interest rates are rising involve wage growth being sufficiently strong to absorb the drain of increased household debt service. Although this might make hard money aficionados unhappy, this means that the Canadian economy has avoided being crushed by mortgage debt. The central will have escaped the gravitational pull of the zero bound.
The alternative is the status quo:  low income growth co-existing with big balance sheets and near-zero interest rates.
Given that how to escape from the zero bound has been the main topic of economic debate for about a decade, we see that the worries about Federal debt servicing are flipped 180 degrees from actual pressing problems.
(c) Brian Romanchuk 2020

Homelessness in canada could rise due to recession

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 26/09/2020 - 2:50am in

I am currently writing a report for Employment and Social Development Canada looking at the long-term impact of the current recession on homelessness. It should be ready by early November.

In the meantime, a teaser blog post I’ve just written on the same topic is available here.

Homelessness in canada could rise due to recession

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 26/09/2020 - 2:50am in

I am currently writing a report for Employment and Social Development Canada looking at the long-term impact of the current recession on homelessness. It should be ready by early November.

In the meantime, a teaser blog post I’ve just written on the same topic is available here.

Canadian Establishment: "Deficit Myths? Yes, Please!"

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 16/09/2020 - 10:14am in


Canada, fiscal

 Canadian 5-Year Rate And Bank Rate
The Canadian Establishment has launched a full-court press against lax fiscal policy of the Trudeau government. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that they are calling for austerity (at least not immediately), but rumours of policies like Universal Basic Income are causing alarm bells to ring. The Canadian economic establishment is very much wedded to sound finance beliefs, courtesy  of the Great Canadian Fiscal Crisis of the early 1990s.A ConfessionI was out of the country when the Great Canadian Fiscal Crisis happened, and heard nothing about it. (I was an engineering student enjoying the increase of purchasing power that resulted from the U.K. being vomited out of the ERM.) I only found out about the Great Canadian Fiscal Crisis years later, when I was working with economists (many who were at the Bank of Canada at the time).
I was working for a large investment firm during the Financial Crisis (that peaked in 2008). Not wanting to experience such a crisis is an entirely reasonable view to have. (As a Minsky-ite, I view financial crises as being a great source of intellectual stimulation, so I am not as crisis-averse as others. But I see how extreme crisis-aversion is a reasonable world-view.)
I spent my career staring at time series databases of bond yields for the developed countries. My memory is far from photographic, but I pretty much knew all the major developments in bond yields, slopes, and swap spreads across the developed markets (generally post-1990, where the data started being reliable). For the life of me, I never could find the evidence of The Great Canadian Fiscal Crisis in the charts. The top of this article shows the Bank rate (policy rate), and the 5-year Government of Canada benchmark (Bank of Canada data, Wednesday figures). I can perhaps guess where the fiscal crisis is supposed to lie, but the 5-year did not seem to be moving the way a bond that is being priced for default should be.
Admittedly, I could look up the date for the occurrence of The Great Canadian Fiscal Crisis, but it is frankly hilarious not being able to figure it out from bond data, so I am leaving it as a personal mystery.David Dodge ArticleAs I noted, there has been a barrage of articles in recent days by Canadian fiscal conservatives. I will pick out one, by David Dodge: "Ottawa must tame deficits by boosting future production with borrowed money" (I have a subscription, but I think you can get a free account to view at least some Globe and Mail articles.)
David Dodge was formerly a Governor of the Bank of Canada, and deputy finance minister during the Fiscal Crisis of 199X. He appears to be a quite serious person, so I will try to limit my snide remarks.
This is his take on that fiscal crisis, which he intimates could repeat.

Right now, confidence in Canada is intact. But confidence, as I witnessed firsthand as deputy minister of finance in the 1990s, can evaporate pretty quickly. Suddenly, investors seek greater assurance to cover our debts. That puts downward pressure on the dollar – making both direct investment and consumer goods more expensive – and raises the risk premium on our interest payments, something we can ill-afford. When confidence waned in the mid-1990s, the rising risk premium added $4-billion in interest costs in a single year, squeezing out better spending.

Given that I have severe doubts about any risk premium estimates, I would question the false precision of the $4 billion figure. That said, that is what he and (probably every other member of the Canadian Establishment) believes that number.

The other angle is the collapse in the Canadian dollar. This was the other leg to the fiscal crisis. (The only useful piece of data I could get on the crisis when talking to one ex-Bank alumnus was that the Wall Street Journal  called the Canadian dollar "the Canadian peso" -- which caused the Canadian Establishment to flip out.)

Their flipping out was no accident. Even though Canada had a mere four decades of experience with a floating currency, pretty much every country was fooling with pegged currencies relatively recently. Even after the United States threw in the towel on Bretton Woods, various hare-brained schemes to manage currency volatility were implemented (Plaza Accord, etc.). One of the most-followed indicators in the Bank of Canada until the late 1990s was The Monetary Conditions Index (MCI), which was a mixture of the policy rate plus 10% of the change in the Canadian dollar. Given the volatility of the currency, the currency component often contributed more volatility than interest rate changes.

That said, by the late 1990s, discontent with the Monetary Conditions Index was setting in, and the indicator was taken behind the barn and shot. New variants may have appeared (often labelled the Financial Conditions Index, to distance it from past failures), but the currency weighting was greatly reduced (and things like spreads added). The empirical reality that domestic inflation did not budge in response to even large swings in the currency had been accepted.  (Update: Fixed the indicator naming! The burying of the MCI was so complete that I temporarily forgot that is what it was called.)

Two Interpretations

There are two interpretations to the Canadian Fiscal Crisis.

  1. The establishment was correctly scared, and fiscal policy needed to be tightened to stave off catastrophe.
  2. Neoliberal politicians and bureaucrats seized on an opportunity to slash the Canadian welfare state, egged on by headlines in the Wall Street Journal, and obliging Bay Street economists and bond traders.

I leave picking an interpretation as an exercise to the reader. 
I return to the Dodge argumentation.r and g? Mais Oui!As expected, r and g show up in the article.

A lot of people are asking whether we can manage our ballooning budget deficit. The answer is yes we can, if we act prudently. How so? We need to ensure our growth rate (which determines government revenue) remains higher than interest rates – the critical G-R equation. Interest rates have been running about one percentage point below growth so far this century, and, assuming no sudden loss of confidence, should continue to do so. This is dramatically different from the 1990s, when government borrowing costs exceeded revenue growth by about four percentage points, a negative G-R.

Of course, the possibility that interest rates are a policy variable is ignored. Apparently, he did not set rates when he was Governor.New Fiscal RuleDodge argues in favour of a new fiscal rule.

I would suggest that a 10-per-cent debt servicing target should become the federal government’s new fiscal anchor, providing assurance to the marketplace and transparency to voters that the government is tied to the discipline of a fiscal plan over future borrowing, expenditures and revenue.

(Since it is not perhaps clear, the "10-per-cent debt servicing target" means that interest expenditures are less than 10% of the Federal budget. Interestingly enough, I had never seen anyone hyphenate "per-cent". Per cent is used in my Canadian Press style guide, but I am apparently following the American spelling. Oops.)
Given that interest rates follow what the Bank of Canada sets, this makes fiscal policy subordinate to monetary policy. Snugging up interest rates even slightly would force a fiscal tightening in order to meet the 10% rule. Alternatively, austerity policies have to be implemented in order to create room for potential future rate hikes. Why are fiscal policy makers going to have to tighten policy when the economy is weak, on the basis that the central bank might raise rates drastically in the future?Investment OnlyFinally, it is argued that deficits need to be matched to "finance investments" (presumably includes things like PPPs), and they cannot be used to alleviate poverty or counter-act weak aggregate demand.

There is a stipulation, however. For G to remain greater than R over the medium and long term, government borrowing must be primarily used to finance investments that will augment the growth of domestic production and the global competitiveness of Canadian industry – thus shoring up the current account and warding off the penalties of diminished confidence. Following this course will allow us to get the twin deficits under control without resorting to the drastic measures of 25 years ago.

Given that spending is fungible, and one person's programme spending is another person's investment, it is unclear what this means in practice. But it is a pretty clear warning shot at Liberal Party caucus members who are pushing for a Universal Basic Income.No MMT...This is about as clear as an anti-MMT piece one could hope for. We see arbitrary rules on fiscal policy, based entirely upon fears about the reaction of bond and currency markets. To be fair, the arguments are self-fulfilling: if the central bank fears the markets, it will cave in and a crisis will ensue.
The question is whether these arguments will survive politically. Justin Trudeau could listen the establishment, and implement an austerity policy as soon as the economy is showing any sign of perkiness. However, the predictable result is that this will lock the economy again in a low-growth trajectory, which did absolute wonders for the legacy of the Obama administration. Even if the Liberal Party is not a fan of MMT (seems likely), austerity policies will get serious pushback once implemented. My guess is that austerity is the path of least resistance for the Liberal Party, but Trudeau has enough of a grasp of the issues that he could do at least a partial end run around the establishment.
(I am in the editing pass of my MMT primer, which discusses the upcoming expansion. I may need to update my text to reflect the reality that the push for austerity has already started, at least here.)
(c) Brian Romanchuk 2020

Comments On Canadian Inflation Risks

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 23/08/2020 - 1:43am in


Canada, Inflation

 Canadian Unemployment Rate
There has been a cabinet shuffle in Canada, with the Finance Minister position moving from Bill Morneau to Chrystia Freeland. Newspaper reports hint at philosophical changes, moving towards a more free-spending strategy. Although the messaging might change, I would lean towards changes in practice being incremental. It is entirely possible that economic differences were played up to move attention away from other political concerns about the old finance minister.

Although supply disruptions might be tied to a bump in the price level, telling a story about sustained price increases -- inflation -- seems awkward, even with looser fiscal policy.

In recent decades, Canada has followed fiscally conservative consensus, although some of the sillier aspects of that were shed earlier. The reality is that the government had to unleash a spending firehouse to keep the economy going just a couple of months ago. It would be a bit lame to come up with some "there is no money" story right now -- why was the money available a few months ago? That said, it could just be that a retreat from a balanced budget orthodoxy is tactical, and howling for fiscal retrenchment will start up once the worst of the pandemic is behind us.

As the chart above indicates, there has been a reasonable bounce in the economy, with the unemployment rate retracing towards the worst period of the Financial Crisis aftermath. Although that does not sound that impressive, we should return to a situation where fiscal deficit levels are near historical precedents.

The bottom panel updates the situation in Quebec and Manitoba -- two provinces that were at the opposite ends of the pandemic case spectrum, and without the complicating factor of oil industry woes. Quebec was a COVID-19 hotspot early, while Manitoba had few cases. The situation in Quebec is not perfect, but there is a return to something resembling normalcy. The only question is how the return to school will work, which is starting over the next two weeks (exact dates depending on the school board). This is showing up in the unemployment rate, which converged to the one in Manitoba. Roughly speaking, what we are seeing now is the new steady state -- operating with various safety protocols in place.
Supply Chain AnecdotesSo far, we have not seen the big bump in aggregate prices due to supply chain disruptions that was a legitimate worry. Unlike online stores with flexible prices (e.g., price gouging is accepted), normal retailers just used quantity rationing on most affected items.

However, the recovery has seen some behavioural changes, with the Canadian housing market being a winner (again). For example, in my neck of the woods, there has been a decent number of pools installed, whereas in previous years, the trend was towards existing pools being filled in. (A combination of the lockdown and record heat in June changed the calculus for pool ownership.) We are looking at a bathroom renovation, and the contractor confirmed that materials prices are rising rapidly.

I am dovish on inflation, but one should expect some perky numbers in at least some CPI components as the economy moves toward steady state.
EI ReformsThe Federal Government has announced changed to the Employment Insurance (EI) programme (which is an umbrella programme that replaced Unemployment Insurance, as well as other employment-related programmes like training grants). Criteria for getting grants has been loosened, and a $400/week floor has been added, which replaces the earlier ad hoc programmes.

As expected, Bay Street economists are already complaining about this programme. I could very easily have missed something that will have a major side effect on behaviour, but my reading of the changes is they will do what the previous support programmes did -- keep nominal incomes steady for people that have lose employment income.

Replacing employment income is an automatic stabiliser: it just allows the previous pattern of spending to be sustained (avoiding a crisis from the second round effects like debt defaults), but is not going to spur growth directly (although we would expect second-round effects, that is, the multiplier is greater than 1). However, a growing economy will draw people into more hours of work, and so this stimulus is self-limiting.

The fear on Bay Street is that if workers do not face immediate starvation risk, they will demand higher wages to work. I am sure the business press can find anecdotes of this happening. I remain skeptical that these scattered incidents would measurably move the aggregate wage bill.
Green Initiative?Another point of discussion is the potential for a green initiative by the Federal Government. I have very little idea of what is being considered, so what follows is guesswork.

If the programme is aimed at infrastructure -- e.g., renewable energy sources, storage -- then the programme will be capital-intensive. However, unless the plan is to build the manufacturing capabilities in Canada, it seems likely that much of the inputs would be imported.

If the Canadian government is buying the same sort of equipment that other countries are buying, this would help drive up the price of said equipment. The government would face a rising "price level" on the basket of goods it is buying.

This fits in with the MMT story of government provisioning. However, it remains to be seen how much of an overlap there is between the renewable energy equipment supply chain and that of the broader economy. Given the weight of services in the CPI, the effect could easily be minimal.

In order to get inflationary risks, the programme would need to bid up the wages of a decent number of workers. This would require the emphasis on requisition being towards domestic labour, not (imported) capital.
Blowing Up MV=PQ
 Canada Money SupplyWe turn from things that might cause inflationary risks to one that certainly will not -- the monetary shenanigans of the Bank of Canada.

The top panel of the chart shows the Canadian monetary base -- which has taken too sharp a turn to be described as a hockey stick. The BoC previously followed a policy where bank settlement balances ("reserves" in American common discussion) were $0 (within rounding errors), and so the monetary base just consisted of notes in circulation, which grew at a sedate pace, meeting the needs to retail and criminals. Just as in 2008 (there is a bump that is not visible on the chart), the BoC dumped that policy and left private banks with large settlement balances, creating the vertical jump.

The explanation for this is that the BoC was concerned about wholesale funding markets, and so it undertook hefty repo operations -- removing that intermediation from the private sector. This helped avert a crisis, but that does not imply an acceleration in the economy.

The bottom panel shows M2+, which is a broader money measure, shown as an annual rate of change. The change is less extreme, but growth has still hit a recent record.

The reality that the economy is going to be lucky if nominal GDP claws back to a level below the previous trend path. As such, this is yet another reminder that the MV=PQ relationship contains no useful information. Anyone who argues that the changes in M2+ has leading information on the real economy is due for a surprise.
Concluding RemarksIf we do get a couple of decent CPI numbers due to supply chain issues, the inflation bears will be frothing at the mouth. However, something needs to move the aggregate wage bill for price rises to have legs. Loose fiscal policy -- and not the change in the monetary aggregates -- might do the job, at least theoretically. That said, I remain unconvinced that the political consensus has greatly shifted; once unemployment rates are at "acceptable" levels, a move towards fiscal "renormalisation" will be the path of least political resistance.

(c) Brian Romanchuk 2020

A UN Vote Exposed Canada’s Blind and Unconditional Support for Israel

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 22/08/2020 - 5:18am in

The notion that ‘Canada is better’, especially when compared with US foreign policy, has persisted for many years. Recent events at the United Nations have, however, exposed the true nature of Canada’s global position, particularly in the matter of its blind and unconditional support for Israel.

On June 17, Canada lost its second bid for the coveted UN Security Council seat, which, had it won, would have allowed Ottawa the opportunity to become a world leader, pushing its own agenda – and those of its allies – on the global stage.

However, this, too, was a wasted opportunity. Only 108 countries voted for Canada while 130 and 128 voted for Norway and Ireland respectively. Both these countries will be admitted to the Security Council, starting January 1, 2021.

What is striking about Canada’s missed opportunity is that it was in retribution for Canada’s bias towards Israel, at the expense of Palestine, international and humanitarian laws.  Over the last twenty years alone, for example, Canada has voted against 166 resolutions supporting Palestinian rights, says Canadian author and human rights advocate, Yves Engler.

Moreover, Canada has lobbied – and continues to lobby – against the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation of war crimes in Palestine. Along with Germany, Austria and others, Canada has challenged the ICC’s jurisdiction on the matter, erroneously alleging that Palestine is not a State.

Shortly before the June vote on new Security Council members was held, a group of human rights activists circulated a letter to all UN members, detailing Canada’s poor record on Palestine.  “Despite its peaceful reputation, Canada is not acting as a benevolent player on the international stage,” the letter read.

It added, “Since coming to power, the Justin Trudeau government has voted against more than 50 UN resolutions upholding Palestinian rights, even though they have been backed by the overwhelming majority of member states.”

Among the signatories of the letter were renowned American intellectual, Noam Chomsky, famed rock star, Roger Waters and former Quebec National Assembly member, Amir Khadir.

The vote against Canada at the UN was understood to be a stance against Ottawa’s position on Israel and Palestine, despite Canada’s Ambassador to the UN, Marc-Andre Blanchard, going on the defensive in a desperate attempt to dissuade member states from voting against his country.

In a letter sent to all member states, Blanchard argued that an earlier document written by “a group of Canadians regarding Canada’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict  … contains significant inaccuracies and characterizes Canada’s longstanding policy positions”.

This succession of actions is unprecedented in recent years, where a country like Canada loses the respect and support of other UN member states largely due to its failure to respect the rights of the Palestinian people. To better understand the significance of this event, we spoke to Yves Engler, who played a direct role in championing the Palestinian cause and pushing for Canadian accountability at the United Nations.

Engler has also authored several books, among them “Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid” and “Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada”.

“It is important for people to realize that this anti-Palestinian position that Canada pursues today is not new. It is grounded in at least a century of Zionist policy in this country,” Engler said.


The UN vote

Explaining the context of the June UN vote, Engler said that “the current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who is a liberal politician, expended a lot of energy into winning that seat; he undertook a huge campaign, called dozens of leaders around the world, lobbied very hard for that seat but, on the first round of voting, Canada was defeated resoundingly by Ireland and Norway.”

Engler added, “In my mind, there was no issue that contributed more to Canada’s loss in its bid for a Security Council seat than its anti-Palestinian record. And, more specifically, its voting against UN General Assembly resolutions that almost the entire world supports, isolated Canada with the US, Israel, Micronesia, and maybe one or two other countries.”

The Canadian setback at the UN should be directly attributed to grassroots activists and intellectuals like Engler.

“Activists’ groups – that I was part of – exposed records spanning the past two decades of the Canadian government voting consistently against the UN General Assembly resolutions. It voted against 166 UN General Assembly resolutions over the past twenty years. In comparison, Ireland and Norway did not vote against a single one of those UN General Assembly resolutions.”


The media lobby

“But how did Canada become pro-Israel?” we asked Engler.

“There is a very well-organized, pro-Israel lobby in Canada that is able to exert its influence over the media,” Engler said. “For instance, the pro-Israel group, ‘Honest Reporting Canada’, concentrates on criticizing every media source that expresses even a hint of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.”

However, compared with the dynamics of Israeli influence over Washington, Canada is quite different. Unlike the US, Engler continues, “Canada has much clearer restrictions on the funding of politicians, so there is nobody like Sheldon Adelson who gives a couple of hundred million dollars to Donald Trump which, then,  sway Trump to adopt even more extreme anti-Palestinian positions. This dynamic does not exist in Canada, but the dominant media has always been sympathetic to the Zionist movement.”

Encouragingly, pro-Palestinian sentiment in Canada has grown over the last twenty years or so, to become a large network, an organized movement in its own right, which has, according to Engler, to “some extent, countered the dominance of the Zionist narrative.”

Canadian media, however, is still unwilling to challenge Israel’s power in the country, leaving the stage open to “pro-Israel groups  … to attack pro-Palestinian activists.”  “There is an incredible amount of trepidation, even in the pro-Palestinian movement, of being labeled as anti-Jewish,” Engler said.


Grassroots activism

Similar to the trend in other western countries, pro-Palestine groups in Canada are small, diverse, and organized at grassroots levels. These groups “tend not to be particularly well-founded or institutionally strong, while the pro-Israel side is far better organized.”

Yet, despite the pro-Israeli influence in government and media, “polls show, repeatedly, that the public is increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than what appears in the dominant media or in the official protocol. A recent poll has revealed that Canadians are very sympathetic towards boycotting Israel for violating international law.”

A March 2017 poll indicated that 78% of all Canadians believe that “BDS is reasonable”. Engler sees much hope in these numbers, referring to them and to the vote at the UN as “small victories.”

The growing pro-Palestinian sentiment is now also seeping into politics. Following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent decision to annex nearly a third of the occupied Palestinian West Bank, 57 members of parliament strongly protested this decision, demanding action from their government should Tel Aviv proceed with its illegal measures.

The change is far more rewarding within labor unions in the country than in politics. “Forty years, ago… unions were aggressive in their support of Zionism; today, this is no longer the case, as many unions have passed resolutions supporting BDS campaigns.”

While Canada’s support for Israel is, to a certain extent, consistent with Canada’s own colonial past and present interventionist foreign policy, the Canadian people and the international community remain major obstacles, challenging the toxic affinity between Ottawa and Tel Aviv.

The hope is that the growing pro-Palestinian tide, predicated on respect for international law and human rights, will eventually prevail in order to sever the Canada-Israel rapport permanently, and allow Canada to earn its place as a global leader.

Feature photo | A worker prepares the Canadian flag next to the Israeli flag ahead of the arrival of Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland who meets with Israeli Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during her first to Israel, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Oct. 31, 2018. Jim Hollander | Pool via AP

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press, Atlanta). Dr. Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), Istanbul Zaim University (IZU). His website is

Romana Rubeo is an Italian writer and the managing editor of The Palestine Chronicle. Her articles appeared in many online newspapers and academic journals. She holds a Master’s Degree in Foreign Languages and Literature, and specializes in audio-visual and journalism translation.

The post A UN Vote Exposed Canada’s Blind and Unconditional Support for Israel appeared first on MintPress News.

‘I’ Article on ‘Bardcore’ – Postmodern Fusion of Medieval Music and Modern Pop

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 05/08/2020 - 8:20pm in

I’m a fan of early music, which is the name that’s been given to music from the ancient period through medieval to baroque. It partly comes from having studied medieval history at ‘A’ level, and then being in a medieval re-enactment group for several years. Bardcore is, as this article explains, a strange fusion of modern pop and rock with medieval music, played on medieval instruments and with a medieval vocal arrangement. I’ve been finding a good deal of it on my YouTube page at the moment, which means that there are a good many people out there listening to it. On Monday the I’s Gillian Fisher published a piece about this strange new genre of pop music, ‘Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1199’, with the subtitle ‘Bardcare reimagines modern pop with a medieval slant. Hark, says Gillian Fisher’. The article ran

“Hadst thou need to stoop so low? To send a wagon for thy minstrel and refuse my letters, I need no longer write them though. Now thou art somebody whom I used to know.”

If you can’t quite place this verse, let me help – it’s the chorus from the 2011 number one Somebody That I Used to Know, by Gotye. It might seem different to how you remember it, which is no surprise – this is the 2020 Bardcore version. Sometimes known as Tavernwave, Bardcore gives modern hits a medieval makeover with crumhorns a plenty and lashings of lute. Sometimes lyrics are also rejigged as per Hildegard von Blingin’s offering above.

Algal (41-year-old Alvaro Galan) has been creating medieval covers since 2016, a notable example being his 2017 version of System of a Down’s Toxicity. Largely overlooked at the time, the video now boasts over 4.4 million views. Full-time musician Alvaro explains that “making the right song at the right moment” is key, and believes that Bardcore offers absolute escapism.

Alvaro says: “What I enjoy most about Bardcore is that I can close my eyes and imagine being in a medieval tavern playing for a drunk public waiting to dance! But from a more realistic perspective , I love to investigate the sounds of the past.”

In these precarious times, switching off Zoom calls and apocalyptic headlines to kick back with a flagon of mead offers a break from the shambles of 2020. Looking back on simpler times during periods of unrest is a common coping mechanism, as Krystine Batcho, professor of psychology at New York’ Le Moyne College explained in her paper on nostalgia: “Nostalgic yearning for the past is especially likely to occur during periods of transition, like maturing into adulthood or aging into retirement. Dislocation or alienation can also elicit nostalgia.”

The fact that Bardcore is also pretty funny also offers light relief. The juxtaposition of ancient sound with 21st-century sentiment is epitomised in Stantough’s medieval oeuvre, such as his cover of Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie. Originally from Singapore, Stantough (Stanley Yong), 35 says: “I really like the fact we don’t really take it very seriously. We’re all aware what we’re making isn’t really medieval but the idea of modern songs being “medievalised” is just too funny.”

One of Bardcore’s greatest hits, is Astronomia by Cornelius Link, which features trilling flutes and archaic vocal by Hildegard. It’s a tune that has been enjoyed by 5.3 million listeners. Silver-tongued Hildegard presides over the Bardcore realm, with her cover of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance clocking up 5 million views. Canadian illustrator Hildegard, 28, fits Bardcore around work and describes herself as “an absolute beginner” with the Celtic harp and “enthusiastically mediocre” with the recorder. Her lyric adaptations have produced some humdingers such as “All ye bully-rooks with your buskin boots which she sings in rich, resonant tones.

HIldegard, who wishes to remain anonymous, believes the Bardcore boom can be “chalked up to luck, boredom and a collective desire to connect and laugh.”

In three months, the Bardcore trend has evolved with some minstrels covering Disney anthems, while others croon Nirvana hits in classical Latin. While slightly absurd, this fusion genre has ostensibly provided a sense of unity and catharsis.

The humming harps and rhythmic tabor beats evoke a sense of connection with our feudal ancestors and their own grim experience of battening down the hatches against the latest outbreak. Alongside appealing to the global sense of pandemic ennui, connecting to our forbears through music is predicated upon the fact that they survived their darkest hours. And so shall we.

While Bardcore’s a recent phenomenon, I think it’s been drawing on trends in pop music that have happening for quite long time. For example, I noticed in the 1990s when I went to a performance of the early music vocal group, the Hilliard Ensemble, when they performed at Brandon Hill in Bristol that the audience also included a number of Goths. And long-haired hippy types also formed part of the audience for Benjamin Bagley when he gave his performance of what the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf probably sounded like on Anglo-Saxon lyre at the Barbican centre in the same decade.

Bardcore also seems connected to other forms of postmodern music. There’s the group the Postmodern Jukebox, whose tunes can also be found on YouTube, who specialise in different 20th century arrangements of modern pop songs. Like doing a rock anthem as a piece of New Orleans Jazz, for example. And then there’s Orkestra Obsolete, who’ve arranged New Order’s Blue Monday using the instruments of the early 20th century, including musical saws and Theremin. There’s definitely a sense of fun with all these musical experiments, and behind the postmodern laughter it is good music. An as this article points out, we need this in these grim times.

Here’s an example of the type of music we’re talking about: It’s Samuel Kim’s medieval arrangement of Star Wars’ Imperial March from his channel on YouTube.

And here’s Orkestra Obsolete’s Blue Monday.







‘Financial Times’ Review of Book on Real, Modern Slavery

This is another old clipping I’ve kept in my scrapbooks from the Financial Times, from May 29/30th 1999. It’s a review by their columnist, Ben Rogers, ‘Forced into human bondage’, of Kevin Bales’ Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global  Economy. This is another book that the former Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol had in its library. It’s an excellent book, but obviously very, very grim reading in its truly harrowing accounts of the brutality meted out to real, enslaved people across the world. I’m posting the review here because, while Britain and America are re-evaluating the legacy of slavery following the Black Lives Matter protests, real slavery and its horrors still exist around the world and I am afraid that this is being overshadowed by the debates over historic European slavery.

Rogers begins his review with the subtitled ‘Slavery today may be illegal, but it is still rife’. The review then goes on

It is tempting to think of slavery as a thing of the past. Its legacy lives on, disfiguring relations between Black and Whites everywhere, but surely the practice itself has gone?

This sober, well-researched, pioneering study shows that this, alas, is far from the case. Bales, an American social scientist who teaches in London at the Roehampton Institute, is careful to distinguish slavery from other forms of exploitation: the Pakistani child labourer, the Burmese agricultural worker, although paid a subsistence wage, are not necessarily slaves. Nevertheless, he argues that there are still, on a conservative estimate, perhaps 27m slaves in the world today – a population greater than that of Canada.

Most are located in the Indian subcontinent where they work as bonded labourers, but they exist in almost every country in the world. Paris harbours as many as 3,000 household slaves, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Arab states many more. In the Dominican Republic, enslaved Haitians harvest the sugar that we eat. In Brazil, child prostitutes are forced to service the miners of the metals we use.

Of course, modern slavery is different from the old variety practised in ancient Athens or the American South. But in certain respects, Bales persuasively argues, the new variety is worse. In the traditional version, slave holders owned their slaves, who were almost always of a different race or religion from their masters; slaves were relatively expensive “capital” goods and usually kept up for life. Nowadays legal ownership is outlawed in every country of the world (Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, after all, states that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude”), so modern slavery is disguised and “ownership” is replaced by manipulative debt bondage or fictive long-term “contracts”. Modern slaves tend to be taken from the same ethnic group as their holders and, because they are cheap, they are often used for only months or a few years before being discarded. Another difference is the size of the profit slaves produce. Agricultural bonded labourers in India generate not 5 per cent, as did slaves in the American South, but over 50 per cent profit per year for the slave holder; a Thai brothel owner can make 800 per cent on a new teenage girl.

To illustrate the nature of the new slavery, Bales has travelled around the world to investigate five cases in detail (often at some risk to himself): that of an enslaved prostitute in Ubon Ratchitani, Thailand; a water carrier in Mauritania; charcoal burners in the camps in Matto Grosso do Sul, Brazil; brickmakers in the Punjab, Pakistan; and bonded agricultural labourers in Uttar Pradesh, India.

The cases varied in significant ways. Ironically the one that most resembles old-style slavery – that of the water carrier from Mauritania – proves perhaps to be the least vicious. Slavery in Mauritania represents a lightly disguised continuation of a centuries-old practice; there slaves are kept for life and many slave families have been working for the same masters for generations. The cruellest example, by contrast, is provided by “Siri” the Thai prostitute, who was sold into slavery by her parents aged 14. Her debts to her owners are manipulate to ensure that she will continue to work until she is too tired or ill to be profitable.

Despite the differences, however, two continuities run through all the cases Bales so  graphically describes. In every case the worker is tricked or forced into bondage; in every case he or she is provided with the barest means of subsistence and sometimes not even that. In the charcoal camps of Brazil the men are often denied medication and left to die – on the principle that it is cheaper to acquire a new worker than repair an old one.

The western world has been slow to recognise the problem of the new slavery – in part because it is carefully disguised. The slave holders hide it from their government, governments hide it from the international community. The result is that, unlike, say, torture or censorship, slavery has yet to become a major human rights issue. The main international organisation dedicated to the abolition of slavery, Anti-Slavery International, has only 6,000 members. And without grass roots pressure, the World Bank, IMF and national governments are not inclined to show much concern.

“What country,” as Bales asks, “has been sanctioned by the UN for slavery? Where are the UN inspection teams charged with searching out slave labour? Who speaks for the slaves in the International Court of Justice? Governments and business are more likely to suffer international penalties today for counterfeiting a Michael Jackson CD than for using slaves.”

Modern slaves face the same conditions as the poor of the third world – they are the victims of industrialisation, population explosion and government corruption. Where labour is abundant, wages low, bribery rife, workers often face a stark choice between enslavement and starvation. Slavery, however, calls for its own particular solutions. Bales shows how strict enforcement of existing laws combined with programmes aimed at enabling slaves to set up on their own, have had some effect in diminishing debt bondage in northern India – although, as he reminds us, unless steps are taken slavery is set to grow.

Incredibly, Bales’ study is about the first to explore slavery in its modern international guise. The picture it offers remains patchy, given the limited resources at Bales’ disposal. He makes much of the west’s role in aiding and abetting slavery, yet most of the cases he studies belongs to local economies. This remains, however, a convincing and moving book. One can only hope that it will draw some attention to the terrible phenomenon it describes.

Although this was written 21 years ago, I’ve no doubt that it’s still acutely relevant and the situation has got worse. Since then there have been a series of scandals involving the enslavement of migrant workers in Britain and eastern European women trafficked into sex slavery. And, as the book Falling Off the Edge, shows very clearly, poverty around the world and the consequent exploitation of the poor has got much worse due to neoliberalism and globalisation. One of the programmes due to be shown on the Beeb – but I can’t remember whether it’s on TV or radio – is an examination of global terrorism. One of the groups looked at are Maoist terrorists in India. They’re a horrifically violent outfit, but they’re the result, according to Falling Off the Edge, of the horrific poverty and exploitation foisted upon the agricultural workers of central India.

And then there’s the increasing poverty and mounting debts of the British poor, thanks to Thatcherite welfare cuts, wage freezes and the replacement of loans for welfare payments and services. I wonder how long before this morphs into something very much like debt bondage over here.