Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ontario liquor laws to chill out

Ontario liquor laws are going to be loosened this summer, an idea which has overwhelming support in the Canadian province. The new relaxed laws will permit drinking to occur in public spaces during festivals instead of restricting them to beer tents and will allow weddings to serve alcohol until 2am. Yes, among the more relaxed drinking rules, people will have a little more leeway to drink at happy occasions, instead of having to sneak around or charge the bar at last call in the middle of the Macarena at their cousin's wedding.

Among the concerns regarding relaxed liquor laws: immorality, underage drinking, law enforcement issues. Really? Weren't these the same concerns during the Prohibition? Immorality for sure was on that list- it conjures up images of moral-less saloons full of low lifes and deadbeats, gambling and drinking with prostitutes before having an all out brawl to end the evening. I'm going to venture a guess that people have learned their lesson since then and that we won't have a repeat of the saloon age.

Then there's the underage drinking. Yeah, because when it comes to youth today, that's the most serious problem. Every time that I see ads on television for concerned parents, I can't help but roll my eyes. In the midst of bullying, drugs, smoking, body image, self-mutilation, and suicide, does anyone actually believe that a couple of kids trying beer for the first time in the bushes behind the school is a significant problem?

Responsible parents who are concerned about their children should talk to their kids and not worry that their first drink is going to kill them. And if they want to be the pro-active parent? They will let their child have a drink with them when they turn 16. Not a bottle of vodka during Monopoly- a glass of wine with dinner to show them that it's no big deal. Or a beer during the game. If they're given the chance to test it out and talk it over and see what responsible drinking is like, this might prevent these same kids from getting alcohol poisoning in their first year at university when they have no idea what they're doing.

Then there are law enforcement issues. While it's not illegal to drink, it is illegal to be drunk in public. It's a strange nuance of the law and one that can be enforced. The problem is, the police imagine that we're all going to behave like little children who have been let out for recess with lots of juice money in our pockets, and imagine that they will have to keep us all in line. Most hard-drinking citizens will declare that nobody has ever had to keep them in line and that they've stumbled out of more cabs than the common man. Others have never had an issue with public drunkenness because they usually fall down and sleep it off somewhere.

This thought that there will be more need to control drunken people because there will be more opportunity to drink is ridiculous. That's typical Puritan finger-wagging. It assumes that people won't adjust to the laws and be responsible. But if you assume that people won't be responsible with liquor, why allow them to drink at all? The stupid people who will abuse alcohol and tease law enforcers will always do it, whether you tell them to get drunk in the beer tent or two feet away from it in a park. The drunken conga line led by your uncle will always happen at your wedding, whether it's at 1am or 2am.

The majority of people will be responsible. New laws are not considered a license to go crazy and most people are smart enough to know that. It's probably about time that the government realized that and did something that it rarely ever does: trust us to be adults.

Insert Order Here

McDonald's in the UK will now feature machines to take your order instead of cashiers. While this may seem like a great idea to technogeeks and senior citizens who are sick of dealing with those 'young people' when they head to the chain, it does beg the question: where will all the 16 year old kids work during the summer? It's a pretty common sight to see 'young people' get their first job at a fast food chain or coffee shop. While not the most glamourous place to work, it's not a bad starting point, particularly when you need have cash flow other than the Bank of Dad; not to mention soaring tuition rates for post-secondary.

On the other hand, there are many advantages to the new system. The representatives from McDonald's say that it's actually 3-4 seconds faster than ordering from a cashier. That's right, because when you're looking for fast food, every second counts. In fact, if you consider every visit that you've ever made to McDonald's and all the 3-4 seconds that you've lost in the past while talking to some dumb person, the franchise probably owes you minutes of your life that you'll never get back again.

Then there's the fact that it will be cost-effective. Instead of paying the mind-numbing $7-$9 an hour that some employee might cost, money which is just spilling out of the billion dollar franchise's pockets, they will use machines with a set price and minor maintenance fees.

And since we all know that machines never get our order wrong, or charge our credit card twice for the same thing, or break down, or go offline, or even freeze- well, we can all safely trust the machine, because machines already run half of our lives anyway.

It's hardly an improvement to go from indifferent teenagers to cold, sterile machines. Perhaps McDonald's can improve its customer service by making the machines sound friendly. They can try to find new voices that make us happy and want to buy burgers. Like George Clooney mode or 007- don't we all want to buy burgers from 007? Will there be a supersize button somewhere? What if you have a particular way that you like your burger, like no onions, or you want some extra barbecue sauce on the side for your fries? One good thing that nuisance people did is that they actually considered those special orders- even if they didn't always come through.

What will the new machines do? They'll be faster and more cost-effective, sure. But those are the advantages that will most benefit McDonald's itself, not you, the consumer. It's another way that McDonald's shows how much it cares.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Trimming the Fat in Canada

The Canadian government is looking to 'trim the fat'; no, this is not Canada's version of the Biggest Loser. It's a Conservative government exercise that seeks to cut out the excess expenditures by government in the interest of balancing the budget and practicing fiscal responsibility. Which is precisely why the Conservatives have decided to create the largest cabinet in Canadian history with 39 ministers and junior ministers for a whopping total bill of $9 million dollars. Wow. That's showing some restraint.

Yes, it takes work to run the country and you need competent people who should be well-compensated for the task. But the other facet of the trimming the fat exercise doesn't apply to the Cabinet- it applies to the public service, where the government intends to slash $4 billion dollars. The federal public service is the world of the lowly bureaucrat, which in case you're wondering, are the people who are paid to do the work that the Cabinet dreams up and sends down. While Cabinet argues, debates and thinks big thoughts to themselves, the public service are the people who run the programs, monitor them, and delivers services to people.

It is not a fun job. The work is often uninspiring even in the best of times and the population writ large has no love for the public service, and in most cases, actually despises them in the same way that people despise tobacco lobbyists and hotel heiresses. They seem them as lazy, overprivileged, safe and secure in their little jobs and taking home big fat cheques for no reason in particular.

Which is exactly the kind of image that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would be happy for the country to keep. Because while he slashes and dashes via his Minister Tony Clement, he wants people to remember that they hate the public service. He wants people to think of them as wasteful and lazy, unnecessary costs that can be carved like fat off a Thanksgiving turkey.

It also helpfully keeps everyone's attention diverted away from the perks that he and his own Cabinet members are keeping for themselves. While the rest of the population watches the fat get trimmed off one side of the big bird that is our federal budget, they don't pay attention to the opposite side where the white meat is getting sliced off and delivered onto the plates of Cabinet Ministers.

It's not the salaries that are truly questionable, but the perks. Car allowances, expense allowances, particularly generous top offs for those who live outside of Ottawa (which, in case you're wondering, is probably 90% of the Cabinet) and then the pension contributions. Where the government gives a modest pension contribution to its federal public servants, it provides $4 for every $1 that is contributed by a Cabinet Minister. That's making your dollar go far.

In a country where the average combined income of a family with two working adults is $63,900 and the average Cabinet Minister salary is $157,731 for one Minister, does it not seem plain mean that the government wants to target the federal public service for its primary cuts while giving nothing up for itself and then claiming that they're fiscally responsible?

It seems like the Conservative government may be suffering a 'Let them eat cake' mentality, which would not be surprising to most people, given the state of affairs in the world today. How many years can this go on without a peasants revolt? With the increase of taxes, fuel prices, inflation, wage freezes and the very dim possibility of ever owning one's own home, it's going to be time for the population at large to say that enough is enough.

I don't have either a torch or a pitchfork, but when the time comes, I'll be ready. I have all the indignation I need to join in. And the Conservatives are doing a good job of keeping that feeling alive.

No Home to Call My Own

We all need a roof over our heads. So why is it becoming impossible for most of us to have one? Recent numbers regarding housing in Canada has shown that housing prices have increased nationally by 8 percent over the year- well over the 1 percent pay increase that most 'well off' Canadians can expect in their pay- and that the average cost of a home is now $372,544.

That's a staggering amount when you think about it. The average home costs well over a quarter of a million dollars and it's not because of granite countertops. The average home is a semi detached with possibly 2 bedrooms at a commute or a condo in the city.

And another disturbing trend? The percentage of a family's income that goes towards paying housing costs. Finance experts have said in the past, and the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation continues to say, that no more than 30% of your income should be directed towards shelter. Anything more would pose a potential risk to your financial balance, meaning that you are effectively house poor. The national average is now 40.5% according to a recent study by RBC. That means that the nation is effectively house poor and in serious danger of teetering over the financial edge.

Add to that the rising cost of fuel, the newly introduced Harmonized Sales Tax in provinces like BC and Ontario, the wage freeze across the public service which employs the largest portion of the average Canadian families, a fragile economic situation and an expected rise in interest rates, and it may soon be considered a luxury to own a home, not a necessity.

BC is in a unique situation, as their property rates are being driven up by foreign investment, particularly in luxury homes. The majority of this investment is from China, where their economy is booming. And yet, this investment is driving Canadians out of this beautiful province. The average Canadian can no longer afford to live in Vancouver. There is definitely something wrong with this picture.

There needs to be action taken. The government needs to take the proactive stance. They need to find a way to limit foreign investments in Canadian housing markets that drive the prices up for average Canadians and pushes them out of the market entirely. They need to introduce laws that limit the increases that can be imposed on homeowners and renters, so that people can actually afford the roofs that they have over their heads. They need to recognize that average Canadians shouldn't be forced to choose between food and shelter, that they are both basic necessities and not silly luxuries.

The government claims that their main priority is the economy. But if the population can't afford the basics, they also can't afford anything else, which means that there will be no economic stimulation from within. If life isn't affordable, it can't be profitable. It cannot be expected that families will live on less, spend more and play an active role in the economy when they can't keep their home. Wages should also be in line with inflation. People need to be able to keep up with the basic cost of living.

If the government is going to help, these are the ways in which it can help. Making life more affordable is not about cutting the GST (which is also ineffective because some new provinces now have the HST). A consumer tax is only helpful when the base population is spending large amounts of money and average Canadians don't have that money to spend. We don't buy a car or house every year, so the 10 cents that we save on candy bars isn't making a difference when our housing costs soar 8% a year and take up over 40% of our income.

There needs to be an acknowledgement that the basics of life are slipping out of the grasp of the average Canadian, much like it has in the US, where many people have been devastated by their housing market. We've prided ourselves in being more responsible and forward thinking than the US in that respect and this has also been used to explain our fragile economic recovery. But these are just words and nice thoughts without some positive action to back it up. The time to act is now, before the rates run up to 50% and more families are driven to the brink.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Not for a Million Dollars

It's one of those things that we used to say growing up- not for a million dollars. There were a lot of ways to apply this statement, but in general, it was used to indicate that we would never, ever do certain things, even if there was a big cash reward at the end of it.

Does anyone feel that way anymore?

It seems like everyone is willing to do a heck of a lot for a million dollars these days. And it's strange to think that way, because today, a million dollars is not as much money as it used to be. Millionnaires are much more common these days than they were 20 years ago, and many don't even consider a million to be rich. In fact, recent American studies indicated that those with less than $7 million in assets didn't consider themselves to be 'rich.' It was their counterparts with $7 million plus who considered themselves to belong to that special category, which is not as special as it used to be.

It might be that more people are willing to do more things to get that million dollars which could explain why there are more millionnaires than before. Some people work for it, others inherit it, and then there are all these other people for whom the work is debatable. Among the list of unlikely list of millionnaires is Rebecca Black, made famous for what some consider to be 'the worst song in the world.' It's called Friday, and unlike that glorious day of the week, is not exciting or original in any way. In fact, it's actually quite dumb. Even the singer herself admits it. And yet, she can cry all the way to the bank, because that dumb song has made her a millionnaire.

The song was recorded for a nominal $2200 fee paid for by her mother- a $2200 investment with a $1 million return is impressive and you don't have to be a business major to figure that out. But is the 'worst song in the world' worthy of that much money? And who wants to be known for that? Being famous may be great and all, but even if I was famous for having the world's ugliest hair and was given $1 million in return for that claim to fame, would I really want it?

The desire to be known for something is usually the product of a creative spirit and the knowledge of one's own mortality. It comes from a desire to leave something behind, something that is unique to us and of our own creation. This is what inspires every artist to get up in the morning. So we're not all going to paint the Mona Lisa and I get that. But should we really strive so low?

How much is our identity and sense of self worth worth? Is it worth $1 million? Maybe 2? And how many people have lived to regret their million dollar decisions? How many actors have found themselves eternally typecast in exchange for their success? Worse, how many of them have turned against the very franchises that have built them up? And then there are those who disappear in the shadows...

Is it more important to have cold hard cash than a sense of pride in what we do and what we're known for? I guess that means that the people of principle will always be self-righteous...and poor.

Self-righteous and rich always looks so obnoxious, so I guess it's better this way. It's hard to tell what any of us would do when faced with the temptation of doing something stupid for money. There are many ways to justify those kinds of decisions and tell ourselves that the money, if put to good use, will mean more in the end than a little embarrassment or discomfort. Which is a slippery slope of the indecent proposal variety.

Maybe we should all ask ourselves what our sense of self-pride is really worth.

Or maybe we should raise the stakes a bit and say 'not for a BILLION dollars.'

There. Now we have standards.

A Real Job

What's a real job? Everyone talks about it like it's a universally accepted concept, but is it really? Parents will explain patiently that a real job is something you do in exchange for money, something which is legal and preferably moral, and usually involves a desk of some kind. Because there are 'real' jobs and 'little' jobs, it seems, with all the 'little' jobs being the kind that you can do when you're a teenager, with very little education. The after school jobs, the coffee shop jobs, the retail positions. But how does one begin to think that these aren't real? Are there any fake jobs out there? After all, all the 'little' jobs require real effort and real headaches; more real, in fact, than most supposedly 'real' jobs.

Consider the fact that a non-desk job usually requires physical labour or dealing directly with the public, two things that are not always the most rewarding on the big scale of rewards in life. Physical labour is taxing, but so are the petty complaints and degrading comments of people who have fairly high opinions of themselves and their real jobs. Not to mention the relative pay, which is never, ever enough to put up with that kind of punishment. So is this real? How is this job not real if you're running off your feet for hours and dealing with real people?

Some will say that you're not obligated to use your brain or your education in these jobs. That's just silliness. Have you ever had to use your mental faculties in order to explain to a dissatisfied customer that they don't know how to use a product without telling them that they don't know how to use a product? And as for education, well, I don't remember the last time that my 'real' job required me to use fractions or argue the merits of Locke vs. Hobbes in social theory.

I'll tell you what's NOT a real job: socialite and reality tv star. Let's admit it; there are plenty of people out there who are famous for the sake of being famous, and usually that can be attributed to their bad attitudes or big bottoms. Getting paid to act rude to people and attend certain nightclub activities don't require education, effort or physical duress- but they do command big paycheques. Go figure.

There are no fake or little jobs out there, other than these social parasites. The rest of us do real work, often for very little money and it doesn't get much more real than that.

The End- Again

Well, it looks like the end is once again near. And pretty near at that. Christian Fundamentalists have been saying that the end of the world would happen for quite some time, but apparently, a new mathematical equation has fixed the new end to occur on May 21, 2011. The equation is much too sophisticated to make an appearance on this blog, as math in general befuddles and irritates me the way that old ladies with coin purses in supermarkets do, but if you were to believe this new end formula, the end will begin on May 21st and then the end will end on October 21st. So it won't happen in a great zombie style apocalypse, but it will gradually occur, once the real Christians of the world have been delivered, leaving the rest of us to suffer hell on earth.

May 21st happens to be the long weekend, the first of many summer pleasures. So while most of us are going to be thinking barbecues, fighting with weeds, putting in tomato plants, and debating that 24 of beer, the 'real' Christians are going to prepare to meet their Maker and experience life everlasting in eternal Paradise with God.

Well, no need to rethink that 24.

It's kind of nice to know that the end is going to be a gradual process. I'm not a big fan of radical change overnight, and as any good historian will tell you, change rarely occurs like that in real life. In fact, many factors generally lead to those grand changes. There are often facts that show mini-incidents leading up to revolutions and for every person who has ever expressed an original idea, there have been thousands before who have thought it and never thought to express it. So it makes sense that things have a process involved.

If you follow Biblical doctrine closely, the process should be gradual and painful, slowly reducing the human race through a series of violent plagues. My limited Sunday School education with the puppets talking about God tells me that there are 7 of them in all. Which basically means that we're in for what pop stars call a Cruel Summer.

Phew. That means that I don't have to start dieting in order to get ready for bathing suit season; I'll have way more important things to do, like organize my Rapture Day party. I hope that I have enough icecubes.

Of course, not all Christians are convinced that the end is quite so nigh. They argue that a literal and numerical interpretation of the Bible is probably incorrect and likewise, that it has been stated by one of the apostles that the end date of the world is not knowable- at least, probably not to us. Which makes sense, because history also indicates that even when faced with great change and seeing the warning signs along the way, none of us are ever able to predict things with great accuracy. It's part of the great mysteries of the universe, the things that we can't know in life, like when it will end, either for us as individuals or for us as humankind.

And respecting the great mysteries of the universe, leaving them to God, and not calling upon ourselves to do it for God, is probably the most religious thing you can do.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Allergic to Violence?

It appears that a now iconic photo of White House officials watching the Osama Bin Laden raid live with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with her hand over her mouth has been explained as an allergy rather than anguish. Which is strange that anyone would consider it necessary to explain such a reaction, in light of the fact that watching a very dangerous military intervention live would cause many of us to do the same, and it would likely be out of anguish. Perhaps it's because it would be unseemly for the greatest military nation on earth to be shocked by violence? After all, Barack Obama looks intense, yet carries enough sang froid for anyone to think that this is just a bad day in the office.

One might say that the look of anguish needed to be explained to the American public so as to put their minds at ease, that this is not a shocking or terrible moment, but rather, just a simple operation for which anguish is not required. Even in today's cynical age, it's a wonder that anyone should be expected to witness a live firefight resulting in multiple deaths without anguish- even if they do happen to be Secretary of State.

Perhaps it's because she's a woman. It's hard to be part of an all boys club when you shirk from the sight of blood or icky things. So just as your guy friend is not crying when you go to the movies, he actually "has something in his eye", Hillary is not anxious during the operation, she's merely "holding back a cough."

I understand that America needs to keep its' tough image, especially as it polices the world and eliminates its enemies, but that doesn't mean that they need to be as stoic about it. They can still be human beings. Violence should shock people; especially when it's real and not the video-game variety (although video games are getting up there on both realism and shock value). And if the Secretary of State looks concerned, well, there's good reason to be concerned. The stakes in this situation are pretty high and there are real lives on the line for the special forces carrying out the mission.

America wants to appear strong in the world, but it doesn't need to appear entirely insensitive. It won't undermine your ability to make hard decisions to appear anxious about them; indeed, the hardest decisions cause us to be anxious, and it's our ability to still make them which makes us strong.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The World Today

So let's say the aliens show up on Earth today and that they're a friendly, curious bunch. They want to know what's happening in the world and it just so happens that this has been a good news week, full of historic moments and firsts. Where should we begin?

The world is on high alert for terrorist attacks now that the news of Bin Laden's death has spread. While Pakistan was accused of harbouring Bin Laden and not cooperating with the US, it was actually Pakistan that assisted in the leader's takedown, leading to a strange quandary whereby the Western world isn't sure it should be grateful for their 'help' and the Eastern world is not at all happy with Pakistan aiding and abetting 'the great devil' known as the USA.

It is claimed that the body was identified and then buried at sea while observing Muslim rites. Many don't believe he's actually dead; while others are concerned that Muslim rites may not have been properly observed since he was buried at sea by Americans who are clearly not Muslim and the Muslims don't bury anyone at sea unless they've been travelling.

While the US celebrates its 'victory', it also warns that the war against terror is far from over while tornadoes rip through the country and the economy struggles to recover after billions of dollars bailed out the biggest banks at the expense of its people. So the unemployed victims of natural disasters are supposed to celebrate what could be the murder of a Muslim man who may or may not be Bin Laden, a move that will surely anger the Muslim world who wants retribution.

Canada just got a new government with a Conservative majority and Stephen Harper as its Prime Minister for another 4 years despite the fact that roughly 60% of the country does not want him as their leader. The country has been severely polarized with a Right wing majority set to fight with a Left wing Official Opposition and a vaporized Centre party. So basically every day at the Parliament is going to look like an awkward family dinner party where your grandparents tell you to beware of immigrants and your grandchildren tell them that gays will not ruin the country if they get married. We all know how those dinner parties end.

In other world news, billions of people around the world tuned in to watch the wedding of William of Wales and Kate Middleton, who became the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. There is now a whole series of debates that have resulted around the role of the monarchy, the changing face of the monarchy in Britain, how much privacy the Royal Couple should have, whether or not William should overtake his father in the succession plan should the Queen keel, who liked Kate's dress and whether or not Kate should be given the title of Princess.

If the aliens ask me which is the most important issue of the day, I will take William and Kate. On the one hand, because the other issues simply boggle my mind and on the other, because my opinions will be completely lost in the void of an uncaring world that is slowly going to hell in a handcart.

I believe that the Royal Couple was more than generous with the public and the gutter media should now leave them alone. I believe that the monarchy's role is changing and that it's refreshing to see them play a more active role as citizens rather than as socialites with crowns. While titles are insignificant for the most part, I believe that William wants Kate to have the princess title simply because he considers her to be his equal in all things, which makes him a true gentleman and quite possibly one of the better husbands this world has to offer.

And I like the dress.