Monday, March 15, 2010

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY - LESSONS LEARNED

Last weekend, I finally had the opportunity to pick up my own copy of Michael Moore's latest movie Capitalism: A Love Story. I watched it three times since, and others in my family enjoyed it too! My favourite part was when it showed Moore wrapping several buildings in New York's financial district with crime scene tape, and as people go by it, others crawl under it, others smile and wave at him, until finally, he takes his bullhorn and shouts out, "I'm making a citizen's arrest. Please come out of the building now. I hear federal prison is a nice place."

The movie is about how the stock market crashed in the U.S. and how the banking system collapsed, all as a result of deregulation and watchdogs becoming lapdogs. Many different items were covered ranging from the Dead Peasants insurance, which many people did not know about, probably until this was exposed. This is an insurance policy taken out by your employer and when you die, your employer gets paid off hundreds of thousands of dollars as its "beneficiary". Deregulation made it easy for banks to hike interest rates, then throw people out of their homes. Employers would close up shop, leaving their employees with nothing. It is an interesting watch - something people need to be aware of when we leave too much up to politicians who are beholden to large corporations. In the case of the executive branch under George Bush, several of the top people were from finance companies like Goldman Sachs; naturally, certain companies were favoured when the banks were bailed out over there.

What was good about this is that it also showed American citizens fighting back. When a couple dozen top staffers of AIG got million dollars bonuses after they were bailed out by taxpayers, thousands of people hit the streets and protested. When companies were going to close their doors and kick their workers out with nothing, workers instead occupied the plant and refused to leave until the company finally gave in and paid what was owed. When families were being evicted, hundreds of their neighbours would gather around as the evicted family literally refused to leave, and squatted in their own home. People camped out until the bankers and sheriff gave up trying to move the family. This was in the spirit of community, the spirit of "we the people" as found in the American constitution.

The American economy is starting to turn around some, but at a glacial pace. Our Canadian economy is very inter-twined with the American economy. However, we are still infected by politicians that remain smug about this recession thinking that as Canadians, we "are better off" than the Americans. They smugly tell people in the city of Welland, shortly after John Deere issued all of its workers pink slips, that the economy in that community is doing very well. As PM Harper traveled through that community, he commented that one of his election goals was to eliminate chocolate flavoured cigarettes because they were too tempting for young people. The city of Welland is even sadder than it was at that time, whereby two of my favourite restaurants I used to go to after court are now closed. There are many more boarded up businesses, and on the Main Street is the office of a psychiatrist that among his services, provides medical evaluations for people seeking to go on disability.

Friends of mine in Welland that are landlords are having trouble renting their properties at even the very low rates they were charging because nobody can afford to rent there. Another gentleman was afraid that he would not be able to find a tenant because he literally could not afford to rent his upstairs unit for less than he did, or he would not be paying the mortgage. He was on EI himself, and was very cognizant that the clock was ticking. Others live in Welland and have found low cost housing, but can't travel anywhere because of poor transit service - often relying on friends and family, which anybody that doesn't own a car knows, is not the most reliable way to get around. Another friend of mine has been trying to sell his building, but fears he will have to sell it at a loss. He is in business but cannot survive in Welland, so he is moving to Toronto where he believes he will have a greater chance of success. The last time I was in Welland attending court, I walked down the street and it was suddenly strange I could not even find a single place close by to purchase a newspaper. On my way to search for such a place, there were drug addled strangers making deals with other drug addled strangers, while others simply turned their heads and moved on.

My own community of St. Catharines, which is supposed to be the "capital" of Niagara Region, or in accordance to the Places to Grow Act, is the administrative center of the region. St. Catharines council is fighting with Niagara Falls City council over where to re-locate the police headquarters, while the Niagara Regional Police Service threatens a multi-million dollar trip to Ontario Civilian Commission on Policing Services (OCCOPS). Well, Niagara Falls got their conference center, their two casinos and other developments, and St. Catharines is promised the Performing Arts Center and the new parking garage ... both are fighting to see who is more "deserving" of the headquarters. My main concern with this is that those who do not drive will likely have to quit their job at the administrative office, if it moves to Niagara Falls. Transit service remains very poor or non-existent in most places of Niagara, unless you have all the time in the world or are on ODSP and only plan to see doctors as a way to spend your day.

While Niagara Region is not what I would call purist capitalist like the financial centers of New York that were accused by Michael Moore, there is a different kind of elitism that dominates its thinking. Parochialism is as much a sport in Niagara, as hockey is the national sport in Canada. Niagara Region will never get its act together on transit because many of its smaller communities don't want it; that is, they don't want to pay for it. Yet they don't mind doling out millions and millions of dollars on automobile infrastructure that essential subsidizes people who drive, while the only people who pay full freight are those that don't -- if they want to get around at all. Further, the municipalities of Niagara are suing one another and the region, and the province is apparently suing the region for disobeying its own official plan and over-estimating its own growth estimates. I always knew Niagara over-estimated its growth estimates, because I truly believe the population here will at best remain the same with an ever aging demographic, while younger people leave by the dozens and do their procreating in communities that offer more.

I met a man that walks from Niagara-on-the-Lake to try to find housing in this city, as there is no way for him to get to Niagara-on-the-Lake and back, as this town does not believe in public transit. This man has epilepsy so a driver's license is out of the question. I had another meeting a few weeks ago, where about thirty people of all ages were present, averaging at about forty to fifty years old. Among those present, six identified themselves as having a medical condition that restricted their right to drive. Why does it not surprise me that virtually none of these people are working? One has a master's degree, and another is a trained nurse. To me, employers couldn't be too serious about rectifying their so-called skills shortage if they continue to fail to tap into the talents of many people who are currently sidelined for various reasons from the labour force.

This reflects much of what goes on in Ontario as well. Our lovely Minister in charge of issues for persons with disabilities, or Madeleine Meilleur, is also the Minister of Community and Social Services. She, like many other politicians, particularly on the political right, actually try to delude themselves and delude the public that employers are eager to hire people with disabilities. One does have to credit Minister Meilleur for attempting to push for the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act; nevertheless, her staff is still reviewing the standards developed by the committees set up to deal with transportation, employment, information and communications, and built environment. Her challenge is to ensure that what comes out does not lower requirements for employers than what is required under the Human Rights Code. It would certainly look bad if employers can comply with the set standards, but still run afoul of the Code. This also applies to transportation and the other standards.

At the same time, there are too many instances where Madeleine Meilleur has sparked the rumour mill, or at least hasn't stopped it, by not denying that the government plans to make deep cuts to Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program benefits this coming budget. She has never been viewed as a fan of the special diet benefit, which is given to people who have medical conditions that require them to follow a more expensive eating regimen that cannot be met by simply following the Canada's Food Guide. This only assumes that anybody on OW or ODSP can afford a diet that even half way complies with the Canada Food Guide, but that's another story. After controversial changes were made in 2005, the provincial government was sued through the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, and recently a decision was made in favour of enhancing the special diet for many persons, where it can be proven that a disability warrants it.

The Minister has refused to dispel that the government plans to scrap it. Even worse, there are intolerant rednecks putting a huge amount of pressure on the government to scrap the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario altogether. This type of thinking is being found in terms of the government's hesitancy in re-appointing Andre Marin, an excellent and reputable Ombudsman that has forced the government to make many positive changes in its administration, and Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner. Our fear is that our government does not want critics and watchdogs; it wants "yes men" and lapdogs. Does this sound familiar?

As both the federal and provincial government continue to throw money at our banks, insurance companies and auto manufacturers, hoping for what former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's ultimate theory of a "trickle down" effect (which nobody ever seen happen), perhaps I can also foresee a form of workfare in the future for people on ODSP -- throw them in the low paying jobs that able-bodied will not take. Disregard their skills, education and achievements and aim low, as usual. If anybody complains, there won't be any more watchdogs to go to, given the desires and apparent direction this government wants to go. All I am right now is fed up with paying for it, and watching the inevitable disasters that will follow.

I would love to see good natured taxpayers to suddenly withhold the amount of money that we have paid to the banks, auto manufacturers, insurance companies, automobile infrastructure and so forth ... and tell the government to make these entities self-supporting, the same way the poor, the sick and unemployed are supposed to be self-supporting with less and less help from anybody. This will only happen when we act. Just as Michael Moore said at the end of his movie, he can no longer do this alone. All Canadians, regardless of political stripe or station in life, need to stop and listen. Reality here is when it happens to you. It is not a question of "if", but a question of "when", and I would expect reciprocal treatment likewise.

I just hope people will understand why I say I don't care about how GM fares; unfortunately, it never had to stand on its two feet like we expect our most vulnerable of our community to do.

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