Saturday, December 17, 2011

Shopping Season

Unusual for me, I finished Christmas shopping Wednesday, a full ten days before Christmas.  Gifts are wrapped, put away, and I'm ready to contemplate the new year.

Neither Guildford nor Central City Shopping Centres seemed very crowded.  In fact, I kidded the salesperson at the Bay at Guildford for the lack of staff.  Whatever happened to holiday hiring?  Much of the merchandise at the Bay was 40%-50% off (genuinely so, compared to other years, not just marked up to be marked down), but still little traffic.

The new 212,000 square foot Wal-Mart Super Centre at Guildford is now open, but not accessible from the main mall.  It has a separate parking lot and entrance, and maybe that is part of the reason for fewer shoppers.  I predicted a year ago when construction began that the new store (now including a large grocery section) would negatively impact the other businesses in the mall.  We'll have to wait and see, but I'm not sure how stores can survive if they are empty during the Christmas season.

I had an afternoon dental appointment at Central City on Thursday, and it seemed empty as well.  I had a laugh at Lucinda's jewelry, promoting everything at 80% off.  The merchandise should have been flying off the shelves.  Instead only one sales clerk, looking a bit forlorn.  The only business with steady traffic seemed to be Tim Hortons, which always has a lineup.  People do like to eat.  I took home half a dozen doughnuts myself.

I'm not sure how the economic slowdown has impacted North Surrey.  No new businesses are opening up, but then hardly any have closed.  In the past, growth has been more dynamic, at least variable.  Maybe just a sign of a maturing neighborhood.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Disciplining Staff

The knives seem to be out for Joe Paterno.  We are rapidly learning about all of his shortcomings; things that were known for years, but no one was able to speak up, because of  the mysterious power that he possessed at Penn State.   We now know that he used off-colour language; told the odd tasteless joke; refused to retire when asked. Wow! Forget the good things he might have done: visiting kids in the hospital, contributing to the library, encouraging athletes to study.  He's now a target.

Maybe he knew more about the child molestation scandal at Penn State than we know.  Or maybe he heard rumours or noticed that his assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky,  was too attentive to young boys.  But rumours, denied; or a coach being interested in young boys are not enough to file a police complaint.  What do you usually do in these situations?  Maybe talk to the employee, sound him out, give some advice, and discuss with your superior.  In this case, Sandusky initially left his coaching position.  Later, when more serious charges became known, Paterno referred the matter to the athletic director.  Obviously, from what's now happening, he should have done more.

We had a wellness program at my workplace.  Ideally, staff and management worked together to promote a healthy environment.  From the standpoint of physical health, it worked well.  We had little illness due to colds or flu or "calling in sick"; by far the greatest problem was stress.  Sometimes staff had personal/relationship problems at home; sometimes conflicts arose in the workplace; sometimes underlying, emotional/psychological problems were triggered. We could refer staff to an occupational health doctor, if we felt that their conduct  warranted it.

A fellow who worked at a downtown district office once complained to me that he didn't like working with social service clients; that he found it stressful.  I offered him a position in our accounting office, thinking this might suit him better.  A mistake.  John soon transferred his stress to others, who became uncomfortable working with him, because of his erratic behaviour.  He once stormed into my office just before lunch, handed in his resignation, on the grounds that he could no longer work with his co-workers, because their standard of performance was too low.  Maybe I should have accepted it; but after lunch,  he came back and sheepishly asked for his letter back, and I gave it to him.  Eventually staff became concerned whether they were safe and started to turn their desks around, so that they could watch the door, in case he totally lost it.  We sent him to occupational health for evaluation, were told that he wasn't dangerous, and that we should be more "sensitive" to his needs.  Finally, when he put his supervisor on four months stress leave, my manager drew the line, kicked John out, and told Personnel to place him somewhere else.  The point of this is that employees in public service positions have quite a few rights, and it is not a simple thing to discharge an employee without good cause, once they have passed a probationary period.       

Over the years, I saw that an employee would be charged and fired for stealing money.  Other offenses more or less had to be endured until a series of incidences indicating unsuitability for the job were established.  This  process included a letter of expectations, coaching, written reprimand, and suspension, before someone could be discharged.  Usually, the problem employee would adjust or find other employment before this played out.

Maybe we'll find out that Paterno was more interested in "protecting the Penn State brand" than doing the right thing.  The list of people I've stuck up for also includes Al Campanis, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, and Helen Thomas, all of whom said "dumb" things, and lost their jobs; but I thought were victims of  "political correctness" and should have been allowed to explain themselves after some reflection.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Workplace Misconduct

After forty-six years on the job, Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno is fired, because he failed to report to the police alleged sexual abuse of young boys by an assistant no longer working under him.  Apparently, he did report the situation to his superior, the athletic director.  Maybe there's more to it, but this seems a bit harsh.

What do you normally do when you become aware of improper/possibly illegal conduct in the workplace?  You evaluate the source and bring it to the attention of your superior.  He may or may not act on it; but how far does your responsibility go if he doesn't?  Do you go to his boss?  Do you go to Human Resources?  When do you take it upon yourself to contact the police?

Over the years, I've witnessed lots of improper conduct.  Not assaults on children, but claims of sexual harassment,  prohibited sexual use of e-mail, violations of  labour laws, dishonest competitions, etc.  I've taken these up with my superior.   He, in turn, may take them up with his superior, with personnel, or ignore them.  Doing more may invite some risk.

A co-worker once complained to me that she wasn't being paid overtime for hours worked in a week after forty-eight, as required by the Ontario Hours of Work Act.  I asked my boss about it and was told it was none of my business.  I brought it to the attention of the Employment Standards Branch of the Ministry of Labour, who said they didn't believe me, and only the victim could file a complaint anyway.  I contacted the Canadian Labour Congress about union representation and told the staff what was going on.  I was fired, although my employer said that I quit.  I was disqualified from receiving unemployment insurance benefits for having "quit".  It may seem humorous today, but filing complaints is a tricky business.

I've participated on employment interview panels, where it was obvious that a candidate had been given  answers in advance.  I once brought this to the attention of my boss, making him quite unhappy, because the person in question was the best friend of his assistant, who had typed the questions.  A waste of time, but it was a public service position.            

Claims of unwanted sexual attention are usually dealt with by a discussion with the parties involved, some direction as to future conduct, and possibly a reprimand.  They are not always clear cut; one party pleads innocence; and they end up being monitored for future behaviour.

Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain insists that four complaints of sexual harassment brought against him are all false, and that he can't recall the incidents, although there were financial settlements in two of the cases.  Those coming forward are now subject to additional harassment and hate mail.  Making any form of  negative allegation against those in more powerful positions is always perilous. They tend to be believed or the issue is dismissed to the accuser's detriment.

So we'll see what happens to Joe Paterno.  If he didn't report the situation when he first knew about it, he would be failing his responsibility and deserves to be fired.  But if he reported it and trusted others in higher positions to follow through, I have sympathy for him..  

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Occupy Surrey

Former U. S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush spoke this morning at the Surrey Regional Economic Summit held at the Sheraton Guildford Hotel in Surrey, British Columbia. 
Previously, Amnesty International had  announced that Canada should arrest President Bush for war crimes when he came to Surrey.  As a result, some of the Greater Vancouver "Occupiers" arrived to demonstrate against Bush's appearance.  The location is five minutes from my house, so I ventured up to take a few pictures. 

There were plenty of police on site, just to make sure that no one thought about rushing into the hotel and upsetting the conference, chaired by Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts and attended by BC Premier Christy Clark.

Over the years, the police have gotten smarter about controlling crowds wanting to convey a message.  Although lined up in front of the Sheraton, they didn't object to demonstrators taking over the westbound traffic lane and provided flaggers to slow the traffic going eastbound.

Years ago, stepping off the curb might have resulted in action with the baton.  Today, the demonstrators and the police stood pretty much next to each other, each content to let the other fulfill their mission.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Taxes and Social Equity

I don't really mind paying my taxes.  I can afford them; and I feel an obligation to pay my share for public services.  Of course, taxes should be fair and equitable, meaning that those who benefit should pay and those who have more should pay more.  They should also be collectible.

Taxes in the U. S. are a big issue, largely because of a sense that they are not fair and equitable.  Apparently, 47% of American households pay no income tax, creating a resentment among the "53%" who do.  Having spent my life with others who worked and paid taxes, I was somewhat surprised to hear this.  Canada Revenue Agency was immediately questioned and assured the public that only 34% of Canadians didn't pay, being primarily those earning minimum wage, part-timers, students, seniors on pension, and the disabled.  This figure seemed more reasonable and not much more was heard about it.

The other issue in the U. S. is that the wealthy don't pay an equitable share, because of  low tax rates and available deductions.  I noticed that Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest men in the U. S., reportedly pays a lower marginal tax rate (17.5%) and a lower percentage of income (about 10%) as taxes than I do.  My enthusiasm waned a bit, but then maybe he gives a lot to charity.

Of course, I feel that I justly should pay.  I read a survey, however, than only 18% pay all of their income taxes, because it's the right thing to do.  32% pay out of fear of being caught cheating. (Fair enough; I have to own this, too.)  But then another 38% cheat to some extent; and 12% completely evade taxes.  Statistics like this may not be terrible, but they definitely make me think another system might be fairer.

The real need is to maintain a middle class with productive, well-paying jobs.  When there is a growing economy, there is better feeling towards the Government, less pressure to cheat, less concern about the "lazy" unemployed,  less resentment of the wealthy,  and fewer demands that immigrants be deported.

One effect of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement is to give an alternative to the "Tea Party".  While the "Occupiers" concerns are amorphous, multiple, and social, they contrast to the "Tea Party" approach of reaction, self-absorption, and individualism.  The "Tea Party" resents paying taxes; the "Occupiers" want a more equitable society.  The "Occupiers" are resented by the established players as a threat to their control.

For the time being, the "Occupiers" are being tolerated with the belief that they will die out.  It will be interesting to see if a movement generated by the social media can expand and have a permanent impact, potentially creating a fairer, more accessible, democratic, inclusive, and equal society.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Pandering to the Right

Fortunately, when it comes to Republican Presidential debates, I can switch to another channel or find something useful to do.  I've tried watching a few times, but my tolerance (even pretending that it's only entertainment) runs out after a few minutes.

Whether it's Rick Perry (Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme; If you think I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended); Newt Gingrich (Building a mosque anywhere near the Twin Towers site is Muslim "Triumphalism"); Rick Santorum (I believe American "Exceptionalism" should guide the world); Herman Cain (Wouldn't appoint a Muslim to his cabinet; Blacks are "brainwashed" into voting Democratic); Ron Paul (If you can't afford health insurance, you may die, but that's the risk you take); or Michele Bachmann (The Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery; Jesus Christ is the creator of the Universe!; Giving adolescents vaccine for cervical cancer causes mental retardation); they seem to be a group out of touch with any progressive thinking.

Of course, they are pandering to the extreme right of the Republican party, and the extremes frequently win primaries, although their candidates generally fail in general elections.  But what if one of these actually became President?  The United States has had weak Presidents in the Nineteenth Century, but has never had a blatantly unqualified person in the Twentieth.  At some point there is a risk of nullification by the public, refusing to accept the election results (as the Southern States did after the election of Lincoln).

The Republicans have two mainstream (and qualified) choices in Mitt Romney and John Huntsman. Romney is not the choice of the "Tea Party", having shifted on a number of issues after being Governor of Massachusetts; and Huntsman is unable to attract much support, having been President Obama's  Ambassador to China.    

It's been a sour summer listening to these people, including the "debt ceiling" spectacle.  I realize that I can ignore them, but it almost means blocking out the U. S. news.

Friday, September 16, 2011

La Paz - Historic Place

The United Farm Workers Union headquarters at Keene, California, Nuestra Senora Reina de La Paz (Our Lady Queen of Peace), has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.  Union founder Cesar Chavez worked and lived there from 1971 until his death in 1993.

Originally a tuberculosis treatment centre, the property was purchased and donated to the Union in 1970.  I was a volunteer at the Union headquarters in Delano in April 1971 when Cesar decided to move the central Union offices to La Paz.

The site wasn't much.  It had an administration building, a small hospital, a dining room, a couple of houses, and a few small cottages.  A few trailers were brought in for married couples. Staff  moved into the hospital; spent a week painting; and set up the Union administration, legal, boycott, accounting, and data processing offices, as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Farm Worker Medical Plan.

There wasn't any money for improvements. Cesar was very sensitive about appearing to be benefit personally from the Union, and La Paz was left in a fairly primitive condition. There were vague plans about transforming the property into a retreat for farm workers, but that was for some time in the future.

Today, La Paz is somewhat changed.  The National Chavez Centre includes a visitors centre, conference facilities, a museum, monuments, and gardens.  The walks are paved and there are stone benches.  Nice facilities, perhaps what Cesar would have wanted, but I wonder what the cost has been.  

One thing Cesar was very opposed to was creating a cult of personality around him.  Once, Ben Maddock at the print shop in Delano produced a badge with Cesar's picture on it, framed with "Boycott the Hell Out of Them".  Cesar became angry when he saw it and made Ben destroy the badges.  He said that the Union was about farm workers, and the last thing he wanted was to give the impression of self-promotion.

Cesar Chavez Gravesite
Opponents of the Farm Worker Union liked to claim that Cesar was secretly hiding a fortune away somewhere.  When I knew him, he had a family with six still dependent children.  For someone who had many opportunities to take a well-paying position, he received $231/month.  Today the staff are paid reasonably well; we received either $5 or $15/week, plus meals and accommodation.

I'm not suggesting that there is anything excessive about what's been done at La Paz.  However, when you have nice facilities and start paying staff good salaries, it may be harder to recruit volunteers and maintain grassroots support. The social and economic justice aspect diminishes, and the organization starts looking like a business. There is also some irony in making a modern facility a historic site.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Rhodes Family - Maryland and Pennsylvania

My 3x great grandfather George Rhodes (1783-1847) was a stonemason and house builder, who contracted for the U. S. Naval Shipyard at Gosport, Virginia.  He married Anna Maria McCabe in 1805.  Their third  son George (1813-1885) married Elizabeth Cunningham  at Georgetown, Washington, DC, in 1838, and took up farming around Hyattstown, Frederick Co., Maryland. George and Elizabeth had nine children, the eldest being my great grandfather William Lee Rhodes, born at Hyattstown in 1840.
William Lee Rhodes (1840-1902)

Maryland, being a slave state, but not in rebellion, had divided loyalties during the American Civil War.  Their father being a slaveholder, William Lee and his brother George joined the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, William attaining rank of captain, his brother that of sergeant.  A letter received by William's daughter Nelle in the 1920's indicates that her father served in General Jubal Early's Corps, General Robert Rodes Division.  He may have been at Petersburg at the end of the War.  His father George was held at Fort McHenry, Maryland, for two weeks in October-November, 1862, as a political prisoner, probably because of his sympathies or aid he may have offered the Confederates. (The Battle of Sharpsburg/Antietam was fought nearby in Maryland in September, 1862).

After the Civil War, William returned to Hyattstown for a short time, then moved to Chambersburg, Pennysylvania, where he married Barbara Allen Heayd in 1869.   William's uncle, William Powell Rhodes (1809-1887), had purchased property at Chambersburg in 1849, and it may have been this tie which attracted him there.  (William Powell Rhodes later relocated to Virginia and Missouri).

William Powell Rhodes' daughter Annie (William Lee's first cousin), who grew up near Chambersburg, married a Methodist Minster, Reverend Leonard Marsden Gardner (1831-1925).  They resided at York Springs, Adams County, Pennsylvania, north of Gettysburg.  On the morning of July 4, 1863, as Lee was withdrawing form Gettysburg, a messenger with dispatches for Union commander General George Meade asked Reverend Gardner how to get around the rebel forces and reach Meade's headquarters.  Gardner, being a strong Union supporter, personally escorted the messenger there; and then spent the following week assisting the sick and wounded from both armies who remained at Gettysburg.  He described the scene in an article, "The Carnage at Gettysburg - As Seen by A Minister".  During the Wilderness Campaign of 1864, he again ministered to and aided wounded soldiers, serving with the Union Army of the Potomac.

Of William Lee Rhodes' siblings, his brothers Charles Cunningham Rhodes (1850-1921) and Frank Valerius Rhodes became lawyers and formed the law firm Rhodes and Rhodes in Baltimore, Maryland.  Charles Rhodes met a sad end, when returning home from a store on the evening of November 29, 1921, and crossing the tracks at the Howardville, Maryland, station, he was struck and killed by the mail train of the Western Maryland Railroad.

William Lee Rhodes and Barbara Heayd had nine children, the second youngest being my father's mother Nelle, who married James Cowsill, Sr., in 1913.  The Chambersburg farm was sold in 1917 and is now the Rhodes Grove Camp and Conference Centre, a Christian retreat. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Market Volatility

I keep hearing to expect "Volatility" in the stock markets.  Nothing new, really.  Some event spooks investors and they sell in a panic.  Sometimes it lasts a few hours; sometimes a few days; but sometimes a prolonged slump sets in.  Eventually, however, good companies return to their original prices.

During the fall of 2008, stock prices fell 40% in reaction to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the panic that ensued.  By the following summer, most had recovered substantially.  However, the American and Canadian economies have limped along and anticipated growth hasn't occurred.

Last week, the markets continued a two-week downtrend, particularly alarming on Thursday, when the Dow Industrial Average had its sharpest sell-off since 2008.  The current slump is attributed to sovereign debt problems in the U. S. and Europe, a fear that austerity measures to reduce debt will further injure weak economies.

After the markets closed on Friday, Standard and Poor's reduced their rating on U. S. Government bonds from AAA (top) to AA+, the first time U. S. bonds have not had the highest rating.   Standard and Poor's doesn't believe that the U. S. is in danger of defaulting on its bonds, but instead cited a lack of political will by the Federal Government to deal with its growing debt.

How will this affect the stock market?  We'll have to wait and see.  A lack of confidence in the future of the U. S. economy may lead to a sell-off.  On the other hand, nothing immediately changes, and two other bond rating agencies (Moody's and Fitch) continue to rate U. S. bonds AAA.

What do I do as an individual?  The stocks I hold are high quality, pay dividends, aren't overpriced, and have had good growth long-term (more modest recently).  As a long-term investor, I should hold on and not be checking the market every day.  At least this is the advice I hear.  I don't consider myself good at predicting the future, so I shouldn't try to be too smart.  Emotions are likely to take control if I do.

Before the crash of 2008, there were a lot of signs of problems. Asset-backed commercial paper had frozen in Canada in August 2007.  Bear Stearnes investment bank had collapsed, and fears about Lehman Brothers were prominent.  At that time, I sold most of my market holdings ahead of the crash. Now I'm much more heavily-invested.  How worried should I be?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Getting On

I visited with my sister-in-law (or maybe my ex-sister-in-law) yesterday.  She was married to my brother for forty-two years, but they separated in 2007 and later divorced.  They had four children, all grown, and now scattered in different locations, none nearby.  She lives alone in a small two-bedroom apartment in an adjoining municipality.

I don't know if anyone's life unfolds as they expected it too.  We end up living in different locations, having careers that we sometimes fall into more than plan, with partners who came along at the right time.  Relationships are built on fulfilling one another's needs, sometimes held together by a sense of commitment, obligation, or simply convenience. Even when you've been together a long time, the relationship is vulnerable.

My sister-in-law and I talked about what older people often do, our histories, family members no longer with us, things we remember more than plans for the future.  We discussed her Mother and Father, her younger brother who died suddenly last year, some of my family members. (I don't discuss her relationship with my brother or his new life.)  We also discussed whatever small plans she has (her patio garden, decorating), her health, her old friends (and any new ones she might be making), how she gets around, whether she's able to get the things she needs. Her knees are bad and she has some trouble walking distances. She's lost weight, which she attributes to giving up junk food.  She says that she suffered a nervous breakdown after the separation, and I wonder whether she's fully recovered.  She says that she has unlimited, free long distance calling and talks to her children; but she's not active on the internet and I wonder why.

Getting older can be a little sad, not always the "golden years" that we hope for.  Some people cope with it fairly well, as long as their health holds up.  With others, you worry.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Liberal vs. Conservative

Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis, "of freedom") is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but most liberals support such fundamental ideas as constitutionalism, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights, free trade, and the freedom of religion. These ideas are widely accepted, even by political groups that do not openly profess a liberal ideological orientation. Liberalism encompasses several intellectual trends and traditions, but the dominant variants are classical liberalism, which became popular in the eighteenth century, and social liberalism, which became popular in the twentieth century.
Liberalism first became a powerful force in the Age of Enlightenment, rejecting several foundational assumptions that dominated most earlier theories of government, such as hereditary status, established religion, absolute monarchy, and the Divine Right of Kings. The early liberal thinker John Locke, who is often credited for the creation of liberalism as a distinct philosophical tradition, employed the concept of natural rights and the social contract to argue that the rule of law should replace absolutism in government, that rulers were subject to the consent of the governed, and that private individuals had a fundamental right to life, liberty, and property.

Social liberalism is the belief that liberalism should include social justice. It differs from classical liberalism in that it believes it to be a legitimate role of the state to address economic and social issues such as unemployment, health care, and education while simultaneously expanding civil rights. Under social liberalism, the good of the community is viewed as harmonious with the freedom of the individual. Social liberal policies have been widely adopted in much of the capitalist world, particularly following World War II. Social liberal ideas and parties tend to be considered centrist or centre-left.

By Contrast:
Conservatism is a political and social philosophy that promotes the maintenance of traditional institutions and supports, at the most, minimal and gradual change in society. Some conservatives seek to preserve things as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity, while others oppose modernism and seek a return to the way things were. The first established use of the term in a political context was by François-René de Chateaubriand in 1819, following the French Revolution. The term has since been used to describe a wide range of views.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dreary in Vancouver

I suppose if all I have to do is complain about the rain in Vancouver, things can't be that bad.  After all, about  one-third of my Facebook friends are leading miserable lives (according to them), either struggling with relationships, health problems, finances, drugs, loneliness, or what-have-you.

The irritations in my life are always temporary.  Right now I have the deck half-stained and can't continue, because it's been raining for the last three days.  Pretty small problem.

On the other hand, some of my "friends" struggle with divorce, relationship break-ups, chronic health problems, unaffordable health insurance, drug addiction, isolation, unemployment, anger, depression, etc.  It seems to rain on them continuously.

Some individuals seem to be able to "right the ship".  Others just seem to lurch from one unhappy situation to another.  You would like to tell them to analyze their situation, cut out the bad habits, make a plan, follow it up.  But it's usually not that simple.  Bad habits, refusal to take responsibility, inability to "move on", are ingrained.

I suppose I've experienced things in life that would depress others.  But I've always had as a first principle never to let myself get down, never to dwell on misfortune, never to be without a plan, never to put the control of my life in the hands of others.  If one thing doesn't work, try another.  Maybe I've just been fortunate.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Vancouver Riots

The words used most frequently to describe the rioting that occurred in Vancouver after the Game 7 Stanley Cup loss are "embarrassing" and "shameful".  Much better than "tragic" and "deadly".  No one died.  No buildings were torched.   It was all over before 11:00 pm.  Three hours of mayhem, property damage, and looting over a few blocks.  Hundreds of volunteers came out the next day to clean up.  By its end, the city was back together, except for some boarded up windows. By other standards, not that much of an event.

However, people in Vancouver are plenty upset that this occurred.  There doesn't seem to be any excuse, except some young people wanting to see some action, being drunk, having a stage, and an opportunity to grab some free stuff.   People around the world with legitimate concerns of poverty, democracy, and oppression are demonstrating for their rights; in Vancouver, they riot for electronic gear to sell on the internet, on the excuse of  losing a hockey game.  The image spread around the world is that of hooligan children of affluent parents; any child of the third world (think Tahrir Square) would know better.

It's interesting that my liberal friends seem more upset than the conservative, law and order types.  After all, they are the ones who usually complain about heavy-handed police presence, being too quick to arrest, and violating rights.  None of that here.  Suddenly the call is for more police, more crowd infiltrators, removal of the rowdy early, examination of back packs, put up more fences, have a more secure venue, raise the drinking age, and jail time for those convicted.

The electronic age has changed the dynamics.  While some looted and broke windows, just as many seem to have been taking pictures.  Together with surveillance cameras, the events were well documented.  Some of the rioters have become internet celebrities, something they weren't counting on in the apparent anonymity of the crowd. Some have had their addresses and phone numbers published, to the great discomfort of their families.  Their fifteen minutes of fame may cost jobs, scholarships, and result in criminal charges.  A kind of people's justice has sprung up, some might say vigilantism by the internet.  The legal protection for young offenders not to have their names revealed isn't much use when their actions have already been splashed online.  It will be interesting to see if the pictures can be used in court, unless actual witnesses come forward, but some already stand condemned and are feeling the effects.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Samuel Cowsill

Cowsill family monument, Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC
On Dec 30, 1884, my gggrandfather Samuel Cowsill arrived at Baltimore, Maryland,  from Liverpool, England, aboard the ship Circassian, with his wife Catherine and daughters Emma, 15, and Ada, 14.

Samuel had been born in 1831 in Kearsley,  Lancashire, England.  At eleven, his father, also Samuel, was killed in a mine accident at Botany Bay Colliery, Clifton, Eccles Parish, Lancashire, leaving his mother Mary Ann a widow with seven children, ages two to fifteen.  Five years after his father's death, in 1847, his uncle James Cowsill and James' son William were killed on the same day in another mine accident at Spindle Point Colliery.  Prudently, Samuel took up bricklaying as a trade.   He married Catherine in 1854.

Two years before Samuel's arrival in America, his sons Nathan (1855), Edmund Turner (1857),  James (1860), and Arthur (1864) had immigrated from Farnworth, Bolton, England.  They first settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where my grandfather, James Arthur, son of Edmund and Margaret Oakes, was born in 1883.  A few years later, the family relocated to Washington, DC.

In America, the Cowsills became brick contractors.  Nathan and Margaret Evans had five children, Vincent, Evelyn, Nellie, Harold, and Alma.  Edmund and Margaret Oakes had Frederick, Lillian, and James.  Arthur and Matilda Rutherford had Catherine and Arthur Rutherford.  Tragically,  in 1916, 19-year-old Arthur Rutherford Cowsill and a friend drowned in the Potomac River (near the Aqueduct Bridge), when their canoe capsized.  James, who went to San Francisco about 1895, died there in January, 1896, age 35.  In 1906, my grandfather also relocated to San Francisco, in search of work after the great earthquake and fire. 

Some of Samuel's relatives spelled their name Coucill.  His uncle William, whose descendant Walter Jackson Coucill (1915-1982) became a well-known Canadian artist, took this spelling.

Several of Samuel's third cousins also immigrated to the U. S. and Canada at about the same time as he.  Together their descendants make up most of the Cowsills found today in the United States and Canada.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Missouri Connection

Whether events are shaped by the "Hand of God" or are just random permutations of the possible is a matter of speculation. A tornado strikes in Missouri and lives are transformed.  Being that my Mother's family was situated in Missouri for multiple generations leads me to reflect.

By 1900, my Mother's grandparents Dan Igo, Emma Fisher, Robert Woods, and Mary Helen White were starting families in Missouri.  Their ancestors a few generations before had left France, Germany, Ireland, and England, because of religious and political conflict.  Few seem attracted for economic benefits, the present day motivation, North America being a site for refuge or banishment.

Lewis Igou probably didn't expect to leave Normandy, France, for Massachusetts and Maryland, but when Louis XIV rescinded the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and targeted French Huguenots for persecution, he and his family immigrated first to England in 1687 and then to America in 1688.

German Baron Johann Adam Fischer von Fischerbach probably had other plans for his son Adam, but when Adam injudiciously killed the King's deer, he was sent off from Silesia to Philadelphia for his safety in 1742.

If the English Parliament had treated the Scots-Irish better, instead of imposing test acts, refusing to recognize their Presbyterian religion, and discounting their service to the King, Michael Woods and his family might  not have immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1724, and carried their animosity towards the English into the American Revolution a few years later.

Mary Helen White's ancestor Walter Powers  was shipped to Massachusetts from Ireland at age 14 (1654) to be indentured to his future father-in-law Ralph Shepard, himself recently arrived from London in 1635, being an English Dissenter, at odds with the Church of England.  Another of her ancestors, James Murray, a Scot who participated in Argyll's Rebellion, was banished from Scotland and transported to the "Plantations" in 1685.

These families, arriving first at Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, soon migrated to Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  By the early 1800's, they were in Missouri.  Was this according to a grand plan?  Or circumstance?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Tea Party is Coming

Recently, I've considered writing about how I first came to Canada, my motivations, and how I felt after I came here.  It happened a long time ago.  Most of the issues are now forgotten history.

Then I run into a member of the Tea Party on the internet.  All the "Love or Leave It" meanness returns. But then it's just tribalism. Us against them.  It exists everywhere.

I have at times been in a Facebook group, "Americans in Canada".  I thought it might be interesting to share histories with other Americans who came to Canada.  Unfortunately, the conversation tends to be from young women who married Canadians, moved to Canada, and are homesick. What can I say?  It's a form of grieving.  Hang in there.  The posts tend either to consist of what they miss from the U. S. or their sensitivity to Anti-Americanism they find in Canada.

Anti-Americanism?  I have to think, "Have I experienced that here?"  Well, maybe.  I've always just laughed it off.  It's perplexed me more than offended.  And I've never really believed it, seeing all the travel and vacationing that Canadians do in the U. S.  It doesn't begin to compare with all the racial remarks that Canadians make about other groups that have immigrated to Canada. But if you're young and alone and been raised in the U. S. culture of seeing your history as heroic and virtuous, rather than self-interested, casual remarks can injure.

But the Tea Party is something else.  Yesterday, I followed the remarks of a Tea Party member (self-described) from Michigan, who was immigrating to Alberta to be with her Canadian husband.  She claimed to know everything about Canada.  After all, she had grown up in Detroit, able to see Canada.

She began by informing me that in the Winter Olympics, Canadian athletes had been shamefully subsidized by their government, being, I guess, some form of hired guns.  American athletes, on the other hand, performed out of  "love for their country", without government assistance.

She informed me that the U. S. was a republic, where people voted for individuals to represent them.  Canada, on the other hand, had a parliamentary system, which was sinisterly "European" and foreign, and you had to vote for the "party", not the individual.

She knew that Canada was "socialist" and that the NDP was very dangerous and "Marxist".  I said I thought she was probably referring to Canada's single payer health care system, but she said there were many other things besides health care, although she didn't identify any.  I tried to help her by pointing out that Canada was so far "left", that it had run surplus budgets twelve years in a row (1997-2008).  She countered with the observation that the United States was "broke", and that's where Canadian policies like government-paid  health care had gotten them.

To sum up, she was happy to see that Stephen Harper had won the election, and she knew that many little "tea parties" were sprouting up in Canada to help save it.  That certainly made my day.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

All Culture is Conditioning

It occurs to me that I may not ever have an original thought.  Whenever I think I've stumbled upon something: "All culture is conditioning"; "All politics is tribal"; "All English (excepting immigrants) are descended from King Edward I", I test it on Google, and there it is.  On the one hand, it confirms what I've been thinking; on the other, my idea is probably not as insightful as I had imagined.

As I watched the wedding of Prince William and Catherine, I thought, "Well, there's goes my cousin!"  A bit of self-indulgence, because almost every other person with English roots can claim the same thing (even if quite distant).  In fact, on the same basis, I can also claim a relationship with George Washington, George Bush, and Barack Obama.  After all, inter-relationship over time is what makes races.  It also creates the tribe and informs the biases.

Along with "All culture is conditioning", is my corollary, "All beliefs are tied to the ego".  This is why it is so difficult to resolve disagreements, especially if there has been an investment in social approval or self-esteem. People aren't particularly receptive to ideas which conflict with attitudes developed over time, selectively re-inforced, and tied to their social group.  Extended to politics, it means one tribe against another.  Forget objective evidence.  We are attracted to ideas which make us feel good.  Dominance is one of them.

I notice on social networking, the intensity by which posters vie for attention, attack each other, protect their imagined turf.  Liberals hook up with other Liberals and attack Conservatives; Conservatives hook up with other Conservatives and attack Liberals.  They re-inforce each other.  Extreme statements get tested for validation (or just to attract attention).  Finding common ground with the enemy is disloyalty to the tribe.  Desertion or banishment would be a psychological "no-man's land".

Two weeks ago, we celebrated Easter, the holiest of Christian holidays.  Most North Americans claim to be Christians, so you would think this might be an important spiritual event.  From what I could see on social networks, Easter is the celebration of chocolate, colored eggs, eating, and, of course, more shopping.  "Love your neighbour?"; "Forgive your enemy?"  Not quite.  Not when there's a good attack to get in on.

It seems a long time, since "Change came to America".  But human beings didn't evolve through large-scale cooperation.  They evolved through tribal warfare.  Selection of the fittest.  Survival against threat: physical, psychological, and emotional.  It's hard-coded in our genes.   

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Good Business Decisions

I spent some time this week discussing the subject of  "Good Business Decisions" on the internet.  A more accurate description would be, "How to Justify Running Out on Your Debts".  In reality, well-run businesses don't do this, but that's not the point.

Three years ago, the U. S. created a housing "bubble", through speculation, lack of regulation, and easy credit.  When the  economic downturn occurred, many found that they could no longer afford their mortgage payments, and their lenders foreclosed. The surplus of houses on the market and the changed outlook drove  prices down.  Many others found that the market value of their home had fallen below the amount still owing on their mortgage.  Their home equity had disappeared or gone "negative".

While many were forced out of their homes, others adopted a plan of  "strategic default", by which they walked away from their home and mortgage obligations, because they no longer saw it as a good investment. This practice they suggested was a "Good Business Decision".

Maybe yes and maybe no.  If you default on your mortgage, you may it difficult to get financing in the future.  If you leave at the bottom of the market, you may not be participating in an eventual market recovery.  Housing markets have corrected in the past (notably in the 1980's), and then recovered substantially.

More than a response to market conditions, I wonder about the attitude being expressed.  If it serves my interest, regardless of the impact on others, then it is a "Good Business Decision".  That I entered into an agreement to pay is unimportant, if the agreement is no longer beneficial to me.  After all, I had expected the property to increase in value, not decline.

One woman was particularly incensed that her friend had purchased property in 1996, sold it in 2005, "tripling" his investment, and was later able to pay cash for a new home, while her home had fallen in value, leaving her "underwater".  Considering how unfair all this was, she was contemplating a default.  However,  I imagine her attitude would have been different, if she had followed her friend's course and enriched herself.   

What I heard from others was that the banks had caused the problem (forget that the buyers had sought the financing), were responsible for their loss, and therefore they were morally justified to default.  And wise to be making "A Good Business Decision".  On the other hand, I was branded one of  "you people", "brainwashed by bank propaganda", for saying that I  "give credit" to those who honor their agreements.

The reality is that we live in a market economy, not always well-regulated, where prices are determined by supply and demand, psychology, fear, and greed.  A lot of people participate in creating the fluctuations.  A lot feel that they are just swept along by them.  The rationale that we use to justify our response is frequently self-serving.  Regardless of our original motivation, it may become, "the bad guys have done this to me".

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

War of the Rebellion

150 years ago today, southern rebels attacked Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, and began the American War of the Rebellion (known more often today as the Civil War).  It lasted four years and was the greatest tragedy in American history.

President Lincoln, who had sworn to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States", did just that, and the rebels were eventually suppressed.  My ancestors, living in border states, where the loyalties were most divided, struggled through the period.

William Lee Rhodes
Three of my Mother's ggrandfathers, Lewis Igo (1832-1918), William Woods (1833-1914), and  Robert White (1844-1938), served the Union side, either in the Missouri Militia or the Volunteer Cavalry.  My Dad's grandfather, William Lee Rhodes (1840-1902) from Maryland, served the southern Army of Northern Virginia, under General Early (and Robert E. Lee).  His father, George Rhodes, was held briefly as a political prisoner at Fort McHenry, Maryland, in the fall of 1862.

 Robert  Macklin White
My gggrandmother, Nancy Powers White, whose father had been a Missouri State Senator and quite prosperous, saw her farm destroyed by Union forces, and was left  destitute with her sisters (her parents having died shortly before the War).  Her uncle,  Justus Franklin Powers, a doctor and former state legislator, was imprisoned  for assisting southern soldiers.  Her second cousin, Union Lieutenant Colonel Melzar  "Fighting Melz" Richards, was fatally wounded at Amelia Springs, Virginia, on April  5, 1865 (four days before the end of the War) and died at the Union hospital at  Citypoint, Virginia, on April 13.

Snowden Morris, a first cousin of my gggrandmother, Susan Tevis Igo, brought his  family north to Cooper County, Missouri, at the start of the War, and spent 3 1/2  years serving the rebel cause, before finally surrendering May 26, 1865, (being paroled June 7).

After the War, some of the families continued on their farms; others relocated.  The 13th Amendment, in effect December 18, 1865, made slavery, the other major issue along with the preservation of the Union,  illegal.  (Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation issued January 1, 1863, had declared slaves in the rebelling territory free, but did not include slaves in territory not in rebellion, such as the border states, West Virginia, Tennessee, parts of Louisiana, and Texas.)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Women's Work; Men's Work

Because of their labour practices, I don't shop at Wal-Mart, although their prices are probably the lowest. They currently have a class action wage/gender discrimination suit pending against them in the U. S and are strongly anti-union.   This has made me think about practices at other stores at which I shop.

I do my grocery shopping at Save-On-Foods, which is convenient, customer-oriented, and unionized.  However, the work tends to be organized by gender.  The cashiers are almost all female, as are the price checkers; the produce, packaged products, and frozen food/dairy/bread clerks are male; managers and assistant managers are male.  Only the bakery and meat departments seem equally divided.

Some of the work, such as stocking canned goods, may involve a bit more strength. Boxes of produce are heavy, but usually they are put on carts and rolled around.  The division seems to be cultural.

Many of the cashiers are either part-time or have very flexible hours.  I suspect the first, which would keep Save-On from paying benefits.  Some of the cashiers during the week are full-time.  The busiest time is on the weekends, but very few of the weekend staff work during the week, and must be all part-time.

I'd be curious to know the difference in rates between the cashiers and stock clerks.  The cashiers should be paid more, because they have to handle customers (some can be rude), process cash, recognize all products, learn new prices, bag groceries, load carts, and, of course, keep moving.  Those who find this too stressing don't last. Stocking shelves is far more relaxed.

I asked Tyler, who bags groceries when the lines start to get long, why they didn't let him cashier.  He said it was because of the classification.  I've occasionally seen young women being trained as cashiers.  It takes a few days to become knowledgeable and comfortable with the customers.  There is a customer-friendly patter that they are expected to follow: "How are you, today?"; "Did you find everything?"; "Have a nice day."  It seems like men could master this as well as women.

Whether the practices are economic (reduced wages and benefits for part-timers); or cultural (women's work; men's work); or both, I'm not sure.  It seems that there are still a lot of gender barriers to break down. 


Monday, March 28, 2011

Surrey Rally

I attended a federal election kick-off rally for Jack Layton and the New Democratic Party at the Sheraton Guildford yesterday.  My constituency, Surrey North, is a swing riding, which has elected both NDP and Conservative MPs in the past.  The local MLAs for Surrey-Fleetwood, Surrey-Whalley, and Surrey-Green Timbers are NDP.  The federal Liberals are a non-factor, always placing third.

The turnout for the rally filled the room, but it was not overflow.  At 9:30 am Sunday morning, it largely attracted long-time NDP members, officials, and candidates.  It was also an event at which I didn't feel particularly old, seeing almost a complete absence of young people.

The two local candidates spoke briefly (the Sheraton Guildford sits on the dividing line between the ridings of Surrey North and Fleetwood-Port Kells), and then Jack came in.  He was limping badly and using a crutch, the result of a stress fracture suffered recently.  He says that he's able to campaign, but I wondered if he'll hold up.  I can't see him doing much main-streeting.

Jack's speech was a pep talk, promising better pensions, more doctors and health services, assistance to families, more affordability, and an attempt to link the Conservatives with the unpopular Harmonized Sales Tax, which caused the BC Premier to resign last fall.  He urged everyone to get out and work for the NDP candidates.

As Jack was speaking, his speech was also displayed on three large tele-prompters, allowing him to see it, regardless of the direction in which he faced.  This gave the impression of speaking spontaneously, but I could read the words before he said them.  Obviously, this technique serves well for people watching at home, but it seemed somewhat artificial for a rally.

Also missing was any literature spelling out details of the NDP program.  Hopefully, this will develop as the campaign progresses.   Speaking generally about improving services or reducing living costs makes the NDP sound similar to the other parties.  They need specific proposals.  He didn't mention the environment, alternative energy sources, job training, youth issues, or the cost of housing.  Of course, you can only do so much in a short speech.

I shook Jack's hand and wished him good luck.  I noticed the NDP were ahead of the other parties with their signs, already staking out good locations.  Voting is May 2.   

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ray Lockard

Ray Lockard and his wife, Yvonne, were longtime friends of our family.  I came across this obituary the other day.

Obituary : Ray W. Lockard Print E-mail
Ray W. Lockard March 11, 1927 - September 22, 2010 Funeral services for Ray will be held at Greenlawn Southwest Mortuary, 2739 Panama Lane, Bakersfield CA, at 3:00 p.m., Monday, September 27, 2010. Visitation will be Sunday, September 26th, from 12:00 to 4:00 p.m. Ray was born in Tolbert TX, the 9th of 11 children, to Thomas and Birdie Lockard. The family moved to Bakersfield in 1939. He attended Kern County Union High School (BHS) and after serving in the Army, met and married the love of his life, Yvonne Jones. They were inseparable for almost sixty years. Ray dedicated his life to Yvonne and his daughters Lisa and Kathy and later to his three beloved grandchildren. He worked as an accountant for Trico, Bender, Apex and Fairway/Houchin. Family and friends will miss his great sense of humor and his intellect. He had an uncanny way of making everyone feel as if they were the most important person in the room. His favorite things were playing dominos at the Petroleum Club and Friday night dinners at Mexicali with family and friends. He and Yvonne were lifetime members of the Bakersfield Racquet Club. They loved playing tennis and played often with good friends Bob and Margaret Self. They also loved their wonderful friends on Cork Lane. Ray is survived by his daughter, Kathy Graham; grandson, Jayce Graham; granddaughters, Kaydee and husband Steve Trojanowski, Candice Graham, Brandee and Chris Ramirez; and beloved brother, T.H. Lockard. Ray was preceded in death by parents, Thomas and Birdie Lockard; his wife, Yvonne; daughter, Lisa; sisters, Nita, Reudean, Mary and Louise; brothers, Ralph, Shaw, Bedford, Chancy and Curtis. In lieu of flowers, make donations to Hoffmann Hospice, 8501 Brimhall Road #100, Bakersfield, CA 93312. Greenlawn Southwest Mortuary

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Preparing for Disasters

At work, we had many fire drills and alarms over the years.  Get up from your work station immediately, proceed to your designated exit, leave the building, go to the designated assembly point, do not return until you receive the all clear from the fire department.

For earthquakes, it was similar.  When you feel a tremor, duck under your desk or table, wait for the tremors to stop, leave the building if ordered, don't stand near the building, go to the designated assembly point, wait for further instructions. 

It was necessary to practice.  The first time we had an alarm, some staff wanted to log off their computer, finish a task, run to the washroom, or return for a forgotten purse.  After a few trials, we improved.

We also trained first aid attendants, stocked emergency supplies, brought canned food, held monthly meetings of the health and safety committee.  We had inspections for occupational hazards (loose electrical cords, blocked doors, tidiness).  We appointed floor wardens and fire marshals.

Of course, no one knew what would happen if we had a once in two hundred years, 9.0 earthquake.  The building might be severely damaged, the bridges down, the power out, possibly flooding along the Fraser River.  We considered that we might not be able to get home.

In Japan, for all their training for earthquakes, they had not practiced what to do in a real tsunami.  It's difficult to anticipate exactly what the situation might be: how high the water might reach, how much time you might have, how to protect vulnerable people. Clearly, they needed a better plan in some of the towns affected. Those who left immediately when the alarm sounded, survived.  Those who procrastinated, did not.  In all cases, you need a plan; to practice it; to act on it immediately.

There are similarities between the Japan tsunamis and the Katrina hurricane.  Risks not properly assessed.  Failure of the evacuation plan.  Resistance of  the population.  Difficulty assisting the elderly and sick.  In some ways, these seem to be recurring factors in all large scale disasters.   

Friday, March 4, 2011

Free Speech -- U. S. Style

The U. S. Supreme Court has ruled 8-1 that the Westboro Baptist Church has a right under  the 1st Amendment  to picket funerals of soldiers and display signs such as, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers", "God Hates Fags", and "God Hates Jews".   In Canada and European countries, their signs would be prohibited as hate speech.  In the U. S., they are protected as free speech.

The protection stems from a strict legalistic interpretation of the U. S. Constitution regarding  freedom of speech, although the U. S. does place some limits on it.  Initially, it may be limited by considerations of place, time, and manner.  You may not, for example, shout your message in a quiet neighborhood at 3:00 in the morning. You may not be able to say what you want in your workplace or on a university campus.  You may not incite a riot or violence against a group or individual, where the prospect of violence is imminent.

However, if the violence is not imminent, you are in a public place, and not interfering with others, you may spout hate speech as much as you like, attacking race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

I wonder whether this "freedom" really serves the United States, or  is even what the framers of the Constitution intended.

Other countries realize that attacking diverse groups because of  race, ethnicity, or religion divides the society and leads to group animosity.  Attacking someone for gender or sexual orientation is degrading.  It's hard to see that allowing this with impunity promotes in any way a stable, harmonious society, or "promotes the general welfare", which is a principal responsibility of laws and government.

The argument that hate speech may be prohibited only if produces "imminent" violence, but is protected if it only contributes to "eventual" violence seems flawed.  In either case, the harm is potentially the same.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

New Era of Labour Conflict

Free market capitalism is praised for creating an efficient utilization of resources, producing  goods with high demand and low cost. Uncontrolled, it also has the disadvantages of reducing competition through corporate consolidation, producing unemployment, and concentrating wealth.

During the last century, federal reforms were legislated to reduce practices that limited competition (anti-trust acts); create social safety nets (unemployment insurance); and mitigate the impact of the business cycle (fiscal and monetary policies of the Federal Reserve Bank). 

In 1935,  in an attempt to reduce labour conflict and provide for a greater sharing of wealth, the U. S. passed the National Labor Relations Act, allowing employees to establish collective bargaining through labour union representation.   It became illegal for employers to interfere with the process of union certification, to attempt to intimidate employees, or to refuse to bargain in good faith.

We now have the sad situation in Wisconsin, in which the recently elected governor has announced that he doesn't believe in collective bargaining. His position is that management alone should establish wages, benefits, and working conditions.  The rationale given is the need to reduce a projected state budget deficit.  Further, he threatens the employees with massive layoffs, if he doesn't get his way.

These tactics are meant to intimidate employees and reduce their power in the workplace.  The proper, honest way to amend a collective agreement is through negotiation, not by decree.

Prior to the passage of the NLRA, clashes between union organizers and management security were frequently violent.  Employees advocating unionization could be fired and blacklisted.  They fought back through sit-ins and wildcat strikes.  I wonder if this is where we are headed again.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Debt Woes

In 1993, Canadians became concerned about the amount of debt its federal government was accumulating.  The debt/GDP ratio had risen to 68% and 35% of all revenue was going to pay interest on the debt.  It was time to get the financial house in order.

Over the next few years, a number of unpopular measures were instituted.  The Goods/Services Tax was introduced; the federal government stopped cost sharing with the provinces for health and social services; Employment Insurance eligibility was curtailed.  For a dozen years (1997-2008), the Canadian federal government ran a surplus.  The debt/GDP ratio fell to 29%, by far the lowest of the G7 countries.

Canadians, as usual, took these changes with stoicism, perhaps even with some satisfaction.  There was grumbling about the GST, but not many demonstrations.  Part of the reason was that the increased burden of providing services was absorbed by the Provinces; and the cutbacks were followed by a period of relative prosperity, during which the economy grew.

During the current recession, the Canadian federal debt/GDP ratio has climbed back to 38%.  The situation in all other developed countries seems much worse.  In the U. S., it sits at 70%; (100%, if you count debt to the Federal Reserve).  Some European countries have debt over 100% of GDP.

The Canadian and U. S. federal figures, of course, don't show the debt of the Provinces/States.  The Provinces of Ontario and Quebec have fared more poorly than the western provinces, as the Canadian economy has shifted from manufacturing to resources.  Down the road, they may face more austerity.

In the U. S., many states are struggling with their budgets.  Sadly, in Wisconsin, the first remedy is an attack on the collective bargaining rights of the public employees.  Turning Wisconsin into a "right-to-work" state (union membership not required, regardless of vote) will not help the people of Wisconsin.          

The solution to U. S. debt woes is tax reform; an honest, perhaps unpopular, review of entitlement programs; as well as the question of how much world-policing can they afford. For all the complaining about taxes, U. S. tax rates are low.  Such deductions as mortgage interest are of most benefit to the wealthy.  And why mortgage interest any more than rent?  Most developed countries have some form of value-added or federal sales tax.  There are bound to be unpopular choices, but they are much better than attacking middle-class workers.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pension Perils

Some say that I'm lucky to be retired and have an employment pension.  I agree.  My complaint is that my pension benefits seem to be deteriorating bit by bit.

I retired at a time when my employer was downsizing and the number of retirees suddenly increasing.  The Pension Board of Trustees announced that they could no longer afford the dental plan.  I could purchase Blue Cross dental insurance if I wanted.  Shortly after, the Extended Health Care annual deductible was increased from $30 to $250. 

The latest revelation from the Pension Trustees is that most of the group benefits are being eliminated, effective April, 2012.  This includes the Pension Plan portion of the Medical Services Plan premiums, which will increase my monthly payments from $45 to $109 ($768 annually); and Extended Health Care for spouses/dependents.  The latter covers 70% of the cost of prescription drugs, but it looks like I'll have to purchase more Blue Cross insurance if I want to include my wife's needs.  Group life insurance is also being eliminated, although I lost this a few years ago when I turned 65.  Those 60-65 will have to buy their own insurance (expensive when you are no longer in the larger pool of younger employees).

These benefits were promised, and we thought we were paying for them through years of contributing to the Pension fund.  We were assured that they would be there, and that the Plan was prudently administered.  The current newsletter states that the basic pension plan is secured and assured for life.  Unfortunately, that only means if nothing upsets the projections.

In reality, the Pension Board can't assure the pension.  Unforeseen events can bring it down.  Pension payout projections depend on forecasting the amount of contributions, the amount of benefit payments, and the amount of investment income.

When the BC Liberals reduced the size of Provincial Government in 2002-2003, the amount of contributions declined and the benefit payments dramatically increased.  This resulted in the elimination of dental coverage and the increased Extended Health Care deductible.  The current round of reductions is the result of mismanagement of the fund and a loss of $2.5 billion (14% of fund) in the economic downturn of 2008-2009.  Obviously not prudent management.  Although it has recovered somewhat, the amount of the Pension fund is still less than it was in 2007.

The consolation we are left with is that other major pension plans in BC are having to make similar changes.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

For All Seasons

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540)
I was watching "A Man for All Seasons", in which Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), Chief Minister to Henry VIII,  attempts in a heavy manner to persuade a very principled Thomas More to support Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn.  I felt a little uncomfortable, Thomas Cromwell being my 14th Great Granduncle.

I am descended from Thomas' sister Katherine Cromwell.  Although Katherine's husband was Morgan ap Williams, her son Richard preferred the Cromwell association so much that he adopted his Mother's name (and his descendants kept it).

Katherine's grandson Henry Cromwell was grandfather (through his son Robert) of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), Lord Protector of England.  Henry's great granddaughter Edith Cromwell (through his son John and grandson Richard) joined her brothers in Maryland and married Christopher Gist, my 9X great grandfather.
Christopher Gist, George Washington

Christopher and Edith (Cromwell) Gist's grandson, also Christopher Gist, was a scout for George Washington; and in turn grandfather of George Gist (Cherokee Native name Sequoyah), who developed a syllabary of the Native language.

My 5X great grandmother Mary Gist, also descended from Christopher and Edith (and second cousin to Sequoyah)  married James Stevenson (1754-1845), who served in the Revolutionary War at the Battle of King's Mountain.  Mary's granddaughter Mary Stinson (shortened from Stevenson) married John White  (1807-1857), had eleven children, including my gg grandfather Robert White (1844-1938).
James Stevenson

As well as Thomas Cromwell,  "A Man for All Seasons" also includes Anne Boleyn, my 1st cousin 14X removed.  We are both descended from Thomas Howard (1443-1524), 2nd Duke of Norfolk, his daughter and my 13th great grandmother Katherine Howard being sister to Anne Boleyn's mother Elizabeth.  I have the same relationship to Henry VIII's fifth wife, Catherine Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard's son Edmund.
Unfortunately for Anne, Catherine, and Thomas Cromwell, they all lost their heads at the Tower of London; Anne and Catherine for adultery (treason) and  Thomas for mismanaging Henry's fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves.  My own ancestor, Katherine, was widowed in 1531 by the execution of her husband Rhys ap Griffith Fitzuryan, also at the Tower for conspiring against the King.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Gunplay at San Francisco

My grandfather, James A. Cowsill, Sr., was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1883.  A few years later, he and his family moved to Washington, DC.  Shortly after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he came to California to work as a bricklayer. 

My cousin came across this newspaper article from 1909, featuring some fun he had during his bachelor days.

He married my grandmother in 1913 and reformed his wild ways.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Left Too Long

Three factors have to be considered in establishing a national health care plan: (1) Who is to be covered; (2) The quality of care; (3) Cost.  Unfortunately, as (1) and (2) increase, so does (3).  The U. S. is now faced with a difficult debate about quality of health care, coverage, and cost, at a time when the percentage of seniors (who consume a majority of services) is rising.  They have left it too long.

Fortunately for Canada, some of the contentious issues were decided forty years ago.  It has universal health care coverage for illness and injury, and participation is mandatory.  It is not faced with the dilemma of having 15% of the population without coverage. The young pay premiums, thereby effectively subsidizing the more expensive costs of seniors; and issues such as pre-existing conditions don't arise.

Extending coverage to previously uninsured in the U. S. increases costs.  For those who choose not to insure until they have a medical problem, the cost can be prohibitive; and to provide them with the same cost coverage as those who have always carried insurance, unfairly increases the cost for the latter.  In an aging population, the outlook is unpleasant.  Therefore, the new health care legislation made private health insurance mandatory.

Of course, people don't like to be told what to do, particularly when it means higher costs.  But you can't have your cake and eat it, too.

It's possible that health care costs might be reduced.  Many of the tasks performed by doctors; e. g., vaccinations, prescription renewals, review of routine medical tests, and physical exams, might be conducted by lesser trained health care practitioners.  However, the number of procedures requiring high-trained specialists will probably grow.

The best choice for the U. S. would be to have a public option to private insurance, with assistance for low-income persons.   The plan should be mandatory and tax-deductible, leveling the burden, making coverage universal, and eliminating the issue of pre-existing conditions.  Unfortunately, it looks like the disagreements will go on and on, given the number of competing interests, and the ability of these interests to promote dissent, rather than to resolve it.  

Monday, January 10, 2011

You Remember Some Things

To quote Forrest Gump, "It's funny how you remember some things, but some things you can't".  Some things that you do remember are assassinations of prominent persons.  I'll probably remember the shooting in Tucson this past weekend and the circumstances surrounding it.

In October 1963, U. N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was jeered, spit upon, and hit by a sign during  a United Nations Day speech in Dallas, Texas.  A few weeks later, President Kennedy visited Dallas in an attempt to improve his popularity in the state.

I was at UCLA at the time, and we wondered how the President would be received in Dallas.  At about 9:30 am, I was listening to a lecture in American Literature on "The Great Gatsby".  The discussion turned to the sacrifices that persons in public office sometimes make, at great cost to themselves and their families.   When I got back to my fraternity house at 10:00 am, Lowell Hahn came in and said, "Did you hear the news. Kennedy's been shot".  We didn't believe him; it was Lowell's idea of a joke.  Then Al Bock came downstairs with a radio, and said, "He's dead".  The University closed; we were left to reflect.

On the afternoon of April 4, 1968, I was working at Southern Pacific Railroad at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco.  Sometime in the early afternoon, word came that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis.  A little later, someone said that a riot had started up Market Street and was moving towards us.  Most of the office left.  At 5:00 pm, however, I found it normal on the street.  I wondered if there would be trouble in Oakland, a largely black neighborhood that the bus passed through on my way home to Berkeley.  Again, nothing.

When I walked into my apartment, my roommate said, "He's dead".  I took the letter that I had written to my draft board two days earlier, expressing my opinion about the war and the draft, but which I had been undecided about posting, and put it in the mailbox.  A small protest.  The next day, of course, much larger protests took place across the country.

Two months later, June 4, 1968, I voted in the California Democratic primary between Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.  I had voted for McCarthy, but also supported Kennedy.  A year earlier, I had shook Kennedy's hand during a rally, but had been a little disappointed with his speech, in which he only promised "to do better" in Vietnam.  Gene McCarthy seemed  less equivocal.  I watched Kennedy give his victory speech in Los Angeles around midnight, got ready for bed, when shouting broke out, "The Senator has been shot".  For a few moments, it wasn't clear which Senator they meant.  Two days later, Robert Kennedy died in hospital.

As with the assassination attempt in Tucson, political feelings were running high in the 1960's.  Issues of civil rights, war, free speech, and role of government divided the U. S. left and right. These events tend to leave their marks on the public psyche.  In most instances, these and those which followed, the perpetrator was a young male, alienated, angry, confused, lashing out against his circumstances. Unfortunately, he may sometimes have been set off by the rhetoric and bombast of others.  You wonder if we ever move forward.  

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year's Day

We all had a very enjoyable New Year's Day with four generations.  Vera said she liked the time with her great grandchildren as much as or more than Christmas.

Given that the children are young, they are very well-behaved.  The parents do an excellent job with them; much more patient than my own upbringing.  I have a pretty strong sense of right and wrong, so the possibility of my correcting them always looms.

Christmas Dinner at Grandma's 1948
The four-year-old climbed on the sofa and knocked a picture off the wall.  I told him firmly to get down, and he went off and pouted with hurt feelings for a time.  Fortunately, his parents didn't rescue him, and after awhile he returned to the group and we reconciled.

Sometimes I ignore boorish behaviour; sometimes not.  A few years ago, I told the grandson not to suck his food off the plate and to use a knife and fork.  He was surprised, but did what I asked.  He still wears his cap in the house, even to the dinner table.  I just absorb this, since no one else seems to notice.

On some occasions, such as Christmas, I also absorb cigarette smoking in the house.  The offenders know well my attitude, but apparently assume that they are safe in the circumstances.

The grandson's girlfriend didn't appear for either Christmas or New Year's Day.  This is sad, because she misses sharing the occasion with her son, but all we can do is invite her and see what happens.    

The holidays were a big success.  We escaped healthy, a few pounds heavier, and resolved to accomplish a few things in the new year that we put off in the old.