You’ve been ripped off

Do you read the news about the money problems in Europe any more? Do you bother to listen to the commentaries on TV about Greece and Spain and Portugal? Do you know what is happening in Ireland? Do you bother to watch the rioting and demonstrations in Greece? It’s all old news. News is defined as three days. More than three days requires constant new slants so the public doesn’t yawn and say “I heard that before.” Flick.
I mean, for most people, it’s probably “Flick.” on day one.
When I was an undergraduate at college, I got hooked on economics. I took theory of business, money and banking, labour relations, etc. I loved charts and diagrams. I liked the logic of supply and demand. That gives me an edge when it comes to reading stuff about the economy. By an edge, I mean that I actually understand some of it. A lot of it, though, doesn’t make any sense so how do most people who have no background in economics figure out what’s being talked about?
Most of the time, though, when I do watch TV, if stuff comes on about the economy, it’s “Flick.” Old movies are more fun.
I still haven’t got the Euro Zone and the EU and the EUC and who is in and who is out and where England is in all of this sorted out. Personally, until recently, I never cared. Except, of course, for what happened to Iceland. When the English declared the Icelanders terrorists, I lost it.
Awhile back, the Americans talked to decision makers around the world and convinced them that free trade was the way to go. A world economy was the goal. Go to where there is the cheapest production costs—little kids working under appalling conditions, no safety, hardly any wages—and sell the products in the countries where people had the most to spend. Great plan If you were a company with a lot of money. No business plan can beat it. Rip of the producers and the consumers.
The grease was cheap money. That’s your savings and my savings. The money we’d saved to live on when we retired. The money we’d expected to get five or six percent but the big companies wanted money at half a percent. What a break. What a business plan. Rip of the producers, consumers and the involuntary investors. Yah. The days of the Barbary Pirates was at hand again.
The problem, of course, was that cheap money is tempting. I mean, if someone says, you can borrow money at  two percent or three percent or four percent why wouldn’t you borrow it and buy lots? Why wouldn’t you buy big screen TVs, cars, houses? They were giving money away and since everybody was borrowing cheap money of course everthing was  going up in price. Why wouldn’t it. Those big screen TVs just flew off the shelf and those 60k SUVs roared out of the dealer’s lot. When you are using cheap money, price is no object.
The problem is that when you move all your jobs to places where there are no safety rules (they cost money), where you can pay people a dollar a day or so, where there are no pension plans, no medical plans, and those good, unionized jobs disappear and aren’t replaced, you replace producers with consumers and you take away their good incomes so they’re not good consumers anymore.
That’s when you get 40% of young Greeks unemployed. Four out of ten young people without a job. 43.1% of 15-24 years unemployed in Greece. Over all ages, 16 out of every hundred. In the United Kingdom 17.7% of 18-24 year olds unemployed. In Spain 21%. It makes the USA look good with 8.6%. Canada looks even better with an unemployment rate of 7.4%. But if you think it is going to stay there, you’ve got another think coming.
How many unemployed young people does it take to create a revolution?
In Ireland, the newest industry is bankruptcy tourism. Leave southern Ireland. Go to Northern Ireland to declare bankruptcy. The penalties are lot less severe. Who woulda thought it when we were being told about the Irish economic miracle. Amazing the mindless bullshit journalism presents as fact. 
In the UK unemployment is at a 17 year high. There are a million, count them, 1,000,000 young people unemployed.
The bright lights in Brussels and the IMF want to solve the problem by raising taxes and cutting government  jobs. Not their jobs, of course. Of course not. If the young people who are being told they have no future—no you cannot become a doctor, lawyer, teacher, university graduate, have a good job—use flash mobs to create a revolution and decide that what needs to be done is cutting off heads, the first likely to go are Brussels bureaucrats’ heads.
Of course, those young people without a future might question the trickle down theory. You know the theory. The rules were changed so a few people could make not millions but billions, and the theory was that some of it would trickle down when the billionaires buy expensive houses, cars, jewelry. Young people might point out that a pension of 400,000,000 dollars which some of the trickle down proponents have got would provide 8,000 people with a 50,000 dollar job for a year and that 8,000 people earning 50,000 a year might not just send a trickle down but a tsunami because they’d spend most of it on things like mortgages, food, clothes, education, their childrens’ teeth.  Eight thousand people will always have a greater multiplier effect than say one person (or even two) with the same amount of money.
I hate to say it but you’ve got to listen to the economic news. It’s only boring because you don’t know that they’re talking about how you’ve been and are being ripped off. I dunno. If someone was reading a report about how a burglar broke into my house, stole my furniture, trashed the house, totaled my car, I’d want to hear it. I’d want to know how he did it so I could set things up so he couldn’t do it again. I’d also like to see him in the slammer.
And if I was listening to how that thief wrecked my kids’ futures, I’d want to listen even more carefully and I’d keep in mind that old business maxim: Don’t get mad. Get even.
Flash mobs, the Occupy Movement are a start. The technology exists to marshal the victims. There are a lot more victims than perps. But that’s just the start. The real work is changing the rules. I was annoyed this summer when someone vandalized my car. I’m really mad about people who have vandalized my present and my kids’ and grandkids’ futures.

Hunger

When you travel and spend time with the local people where you visit, you’ll always be subjected to various tests. A lot of the time the tests have to do with food.
One time when I was in Iceland, I was taken to a restaurant and when my host asked what I would like, shocked by the cost and unable to read an Icelandic menu, I told  him to order. He ordered raw whale meat and raw prawns. The whale meat was delicious and the prawns quite tasty.
Because both the whale and the prawns were caught off the coast of Iceland, I had no fear of being poisoned by pollution. The seafood comes from the cleanest fishing grounds in the world. 

Many people reading this blog site will have been to Iceland and while there have been offered hákarl (rotted shark) and brennivin. Brennivin is a kind of schnaps with the nickname Black Death. When you eat rotted deep sea shark, you usually wash it down with Black Death. The brennvin, I’ve found makes my mouth so numb that I can’t taste the putrid shark.

Some people claim to enjoy hákarl. I find the claim far-fetched but then some people enjoy being masochists. On the prairies, it would be similar to claiming that you enjoy being sprayed by a skunk.
However, the ritual offering of rotted shark and the sharing of it is valuable because it is a reminder of the poverty that held Iceland in its iron grip for centuries. Protein was in short supply. So was fat. So was grain. Deprived of grain crops by the drop in world temperatures, Icelanders were left with only one crop, grass. On that grass, cattle, sheep and horses had to feed. Deprived of a fair price for their meager trade goods by the Danish trade monopoly, Icelanders could not add to their food supply. With their precious arable land destroyed in places by volcanic eruption, they were pushed to the very edge of survival.
Food was so scarce and so precious that the worst crime that could be committed was to steal food.
Deep sea shark eaten fresh will kill you. The sharks, because of the depth at which they live, excrete their urine through their flesh. When the shark has been buried in the cold sand of a beach for six months, enough of the urine has dissipated that the flesh is edible. However, the urine has not all gone and the taste is challenging. Everyone who braves eating rotted shark should have a t-shirt that says, “I ate hákarl and survived.” Only starving people would have first eaten shark that had washed ashore and lay there long enough to be safe to eat. That’s like eating road kill.
Not only was protein in short supply in Iceland but there was so little fat available that the longing for fat has become part of Icelandic folk lore. In one story, a man sits nearly all night on a crossroad, refusing to be tempted by anything so that when dawn breaks, he will receive a large reward. He breaks his fast because he is offered fat and he says, “I couldn’t refuse the fat.”
The weather was too cold for grain to ripen. In its place there was a small amount of expensive imported barley or rye available for those who could afford it and, in some places in years when the weather was mild, the seeds of lime grass. Icelandic moss (actually a lichen) replaced grain and was used with other ingredients to make a kind of flat bread. In place of bread, dried cod was eaten with butter. The poor ate cod’s heads.
One time, when I was in Iceland, I saw an advertisement for a traditional Icelandic supper. I went and tried everything, including the ram’s testicles. They were a bit chewy and pretty well tasteless. The mutton soup was excellent. The rest of the meal must have been made up of foods I was used to eating: skyr, pancakes, rullupylsa, because I have no memory of them. There were cubes of rotted shark and an ounce of Black Death. There was no svið (a split and roasted sheep’s head). I’m sure that if there had been I’d have remembered an eye staring at me.
The traditional foods of immigrants are usually the foods of poverty because most of those who emigrated were the poor. The wealthy land owners and the nobility weren’t inclined to leave their home country. Why would they? Their political and social systems gave them everything the needed or wanted. Those people only moved when there was a political revolution and moving saved them from the firing squad or the chopping block.
One time when I was talking to a Ukrainian Canadian about emigration, he said, “We came to eat.”
Icelanders also came to eat. So did Norwegians and Danes and Swedes. There are documents from Scandinavia about people in times of starvation joining hands and jumping off cliffs. In times of starvation. Not because they missed one meal. Because they were dying of hunger and there was no food. None.
Today, there is still starvation but it is in countries like Somalia or North Korea where politics and warfare destroy the ability of people to create their own food.
In North America, we don’t have starvation but we do have hunger. That is in spite of the fact that in North America we have so much food that grocery stores have aisles devoted to nothing but dog and cat food.
We still live in a time of abundance. Our ability to grow food is such that we export it to other countries at so low a cost that we make it impossible for their farmers to earn a living.
Every week, stores throw out hundreds of thousands of pounds of food. Meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, bread. Into the dumpster. Sugar peas flown all the way from China. Into the dumpster. Meat shipped all the way from Australia. Into the dumpster. Manitoba pork. Into the dumpster.
No need to eat rotted shark. No demand for ram’s testicles. When we eat these, we are eating the memory of the times of starvation, when being fat was a sign of health and wealth, when being poor meant being emaciated and hungry all the time.
However, times are changing once again. In Vancouver, there are long lineups at the food kitchens. In Victoria, the Mustard Seed, a church that feeds poor people needs money so desperately to buy groceries that it has taken out of mortgage on its property. We have defeated diseases like polio, have driven back the scourge of tuberculosis. But we have not found a way to feed the hungry even though we waste vast quantities of food. We subsidize the use of corn for fuel so that corn for food is taken away from the food supply. That drives the price of food up, putting many food products out of the reach of the ill, the old, the unemployed, the working poor.

When you are in Iceland, eat rotted shark, chew on ram’s testicles but, as you eat them, remember why they are part of our history, remember the times of starvation and why our people migrated to Canada. We came to eat.When the immigrants first came to Canada, they faced hard times. Diaries and letters are filled with references to the struggle to provide food for their families. They’re also filled with references to the generosity of neighbors sharing what they had and of Icelandic community groups holding fund raising events to pay for groceries to help feed those less fortunate. It’s a good tradition, a tradition of which we can be proud. When we say “I’m proud to be of Icelandic origin.”, let this be one of the things of which we are proud.

Dare to look

When I recently checked into the Delta, the woman checking me in said, “I’ll show you on a map the most direct route to where you are giving your reading. However, it goes through the East Side. There are a lot of homeless people there. Don’t worry, they’re harmless. They won’t hurt you. Just don’t look.”

Don’t look. Don’t look. That’s always the message, isn’t it? Don’t look.

The suite at the Delta was beautiful. A bedroom with a big TV. A living room. A bathroom. A small fridge. A desk and chair. An easy chair. A good sized closet. An iron and ironing board. A person could live there. They had a promotion on so I got it cheap.

As I passed through the East side on my way to my reading, I looked. I looked long and hard. I saw hundreds of homeless people. I saw what I never expected to see in Canada. A line of people more than a block long waiting to get a free meal from a tent soup-kitchen. People with shopping carts piled high with their belongings. A lot of these people are mentally ill. No one chooses to be mentally ill. No one says, “Oh, goody. I’m going to mentally ill. Lucky me. I’m going to be free to live on the street because I don’t have the capacity to take my pills every day. I get to keep my belongings in a grocery cart. I get to sleep in doorways. I get to compete in dumpster diving competitions.”

No one says that.

Some of these people are drug addicts or alcoholics. Some of them are just unemployed and can’t pay for an apartment in Vancouver. Even some full-time employed can’t afford an apartment in Vancouver.

Or Victoria. Or Toronto. Or lots of other places.

Some of these people are extremely difficult to deal with. Mental illness and addiction are difficult to deal with.

But not looking shows the mentality of a socio-path. I insist you look. That’s my job as a writer. To make you look.

The Business Cycle usually gets it right. It now says that we are going into or have already entered another recession. That means there are going to be longer lineups at the food kitchens. There are going to be more people whose home is a doorway and whose vehicle is a shopping cart. These won’t be the mentally ill, the mentally retarded. These will be those let go as companies cut back even more. You may be one of them. In the USA, tent cities made up of the unemployed are appearing. Unemployment benefits are running out. It may be you that I’m told not to look at as I drive by.

There is a new report out from England. At 8.1% unemployment is at a 17 year high. The unemployment of young people, 16-24, is at a record high of 991,000. Half of the people in this age group are unemployed. 150,000 lost their jobs in the last month.

Future Shop has large screen TVs at 1,000 dollars and up. Up being around 4,000 dollars. As unemployment in Canada moves up, who is going to buy these TVs? Who is going to buy automobiles at forty to sixty thousand dollars or houses at $600,000.00. If no one is buying them, the people producing them are going to be laid off.

Canada has been sheltered from the worst of the last recession but our prosperity comes from natural resources. Those unemployed people in England aren’t going to be buying anything made from our exports. Nor are the unemployed in Greece, or Spain, or Italy, or Portugal.

What the rooms at the Delta show is that there are places for people to live. Really nice places. Lack of places to live isn’t the problem. It’s the fact that the people who need places to live haven’t got the money to pay the rent. Unemployment benefits, welfare, disability benefits won’t pay for rooms in Vancouver. It’s a bit like the Irish potato famine. All those people didn’t need to die of starvation. There was food. They just couldn’t afford it. So it was shipped to England.

As the lines grow longer at the food kitchens, as more downtown doorways become bedrooms, as more shopping carts become the vehicles of the unemployed, should we just not look? When you’re in that line up or sitting on the street, how will you feel about being invisible?