Christmas Wish

poinsetta

Expendable

That’s you. That’s me. Our previous government thought we were expendable. Do you know what that means? We don’t matter. We can be sacrificed at no cost to anyone important. Our young family members were expendable during WW2. Fifty thousand killed in an attack? A hundred thousand killed in an attack? Didn’tmatter. They didn’t matter. Their families didn’t matter.

Expendable. It’s an ugly word. It separates the necessary, the important, the valuable people from the rest of us peasants. The old stock and the new stock. Remember that? We were told that gee whillikers, it just meant some people’s families were here longer than others. No, it didn’t. It made it clear that the government divided us into the important and unimportant. I hate to say it, but most of us are unimportant. If we suffer, if we get ill, if we lose our house, if someone we loves die, if we die, it doesn’t matter because we are expendable. When I say we, I mean you, your kids, your grandkids, your parents, your relatives, your friends. Mine, too.

Hopefully, that has changed with the election of the new government. I pray that it has. I don’t want our government thinking my kids and grandkids are expendable.

A large test is coming. Most people don’t understand the implications of the fall in the price in oil. They don’t understand the fact that the US is going to raise interest rates. They don’t understand what the Canadian dollar falling to seventy cents US means for their daily lives. They don’t understand why their lives are going to be changed by the fall in the price of iron ore, copper, oil, natural gas, nickle, and grain.

That is, they won’t understand until they get a pink slip. But, but, but I don’t work in mining, or the oil business or farming. No, but it is those industries that provide the profits and the taxes that mean you get your pension cheque. It’s not magic. Pension funds get their money from profit and interest payments. In a year of bad crops and bad prices for crops look and see how every business in a farming community gets hurt. Not just the businesses selling farm equipment. The café, the coffee shop, the furniture store, the bar, the hotel. The list is endless. The people running those businesses say business is down, we’re sorry but we’ve got to lay you off. But, but, you can’t do that, my kids have braces, I’ve got a mortgage and a car payment. Sorry, we don’t have the money to pay you. You will have to apply for EI.

There are people ranting, raving, being absurd about how Notley and the NDP are ruining Alberta. North Dakota is going into to a recession. The ND Governor, just like Notley, didn’t bring oil down to 27$ American. Some people in Alberta have been threatening to murder Notley. I wonder if they’re going to want to murder the Governor of North Dakota? Whatever you do, don’t tar all Conservatives with this brush. I have a lot of Conservative friends. I like them. I admire them. They’re smart. They’re good people. They’re not going on the internet and saying that the way to fix Alberta’s problems is to put a pitch fork through Notley’s neck.

I’m sure the ND Governor, Jack Dalrymple, just like Notely, is doing the best he can but the price of oil isn’t partisan. What the Saudis are doing is going to hurt people all across North America, in cities and in small towns, Republican, Democrat, LIberal, Conservative, NDP.

Canada is going to get hurt twice. The drop in the price of oil has done serious damage to Russia and Putin says they are going to compensate by growing more grain. Just what our farmers don’t need.

Low interest rates have not, as classical economics would predict, helped our exports. Instead, low interest rates have removed our large retired community from purchasing groceries, clothes, holidays, vehicles, everything that retired people buy. They didn’t help create a diversified manufacturing structure. An economic principle that is outdated being applied by people who don’t understand the economics of today.

Low interest rates have resulted in insane house prices, massive mortgage debt that the banks convinced the Conservative government to unload on CMHC. What has that got to do with you? Everything. You see, CMHC is you. You are guaranteeing to pay the banks all the money that will be owed when people default on their mortgages. There is no such thing as government money. It’s your money. Money that the government has collected from you in taxes and fees. Every time someone defaults on a mortgage, your tax money is going to be paid to a bank. That money won’t be available for health care, or paving roads, or building schools, or outfitting the military, or anything else.

The Harper Political Party has left you in a terrible mess. It’s left your parents and your kids and grandkids in a terrible mess. But we’re all adults, right? Nobody gets to say, give me back my money. It’s gone. Your money was expendable. Where did it go? I don’t know. It certainly didn’t go to buy new equipment for the military. Our navy is falling apart. Our airforce is flying old planes. Bombs nowadays are very expensive. Don’t think of them as explosives, think of them, when they explode as a million of your tax dollars blowing up.

Will JT make things right? I hope so but I have no idea.I don’t know what has to be done. I don’t know what is possible. I know I want health care, I want education, I want infrastructure, I want security, I want compassion and caring. I don’t want to be expendable. I want the government to think I matter.

I want the government to think you matter. I guess that’s my Christmas wish.

Home or House?

 

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Someone asked me what I’ve been doing lately.

I said, “Fixing up my house.” It’s true. I fixed up my office: repairs, paint, new floor, etc. Now, I’m fixing up the laundry room. I’m not planning on selling. I’m just dealing with normal wear and tear. But just down the street is a house for sale. Nice place. The people who bought it and renovated it are asking 995,000. If someone puts twenty percent down and pays all the expenses, taxes with cash, they’ll still have a mortgage of 805,000. If they own 190,000 of the house and the bank owns 805,000, who really owns the house?

Made me think about my house. That’s what we say, isn’t it? My house. But it isn’t really my house.

When I had a mortgage, it was mostly the bank’s house. If I’d sold my house, the bank would have got most of the money. Some of my friends who didn’t have houses thought owning that 1915 house built by a Welsh shipwright meant I was rich. They mixed up debt with assets. I just owed more than them.

My grandparents and my parents were scarred by the Great Depression. My grandparents had their house taken away by the bank. The bank foreclosed. It really didn’t take my grandparent’s house. The bank took back its own house.

The problem is that we all suffer from recency. We think whatever conditions exist will continue to exist. If there is a depression , there will always be a depression. If there are high interest rates, there will always be high interest rates. If house prices are going up, they will always go up.

The longer a trend continues, the more recency is reinforced. Even though housing prices are at absurd levels in Vancouver and Toronto—in Vancouver, a vacant lot can cost two million dollars—people are still buying. Young people are taking out 700,000 dollar mortgages. Are they afraid that house prices could fall twenty percent (140,000)? Their down payment and their equity could be wiped out? No, because, you see, house prices always go up. That’s what the TV shows say.

House prices don’t always go up. House prices crashed in the USA. House prices in Victoria in the 1980s fell so hard that the banks and credit unions had room dividers set up that were covered in pictures of houses they needed to sell. An offer of fifty percent of the mortgage would get you a deal.

House prices in many areas in Canada are starting to slip. Money is still cheap but it isn’t just in Alberta that people are losing their jobs. It doesn’t matter how cheap money is if you are unemployed. Or underemployed. My grandfather always had a job but the railway cut his wages not just once but many times. He was working full time but he no longer could make the monthly payments.

According to Garth Turner’s blog, http://www.greaterfool.ca/, house prices in Saskatoon are down 15% from this time last year. 96 houses sold last week. 85 went for below the asking price. Then there is Calgary.

House prices are notoriously sticky. People who have financial problems will keep paying the mortgage as long as possible. They need a place to live. They’ll skimp on other things but they’ll make that payment. When they can’t, they’ll put the house up for sale. They’ll start by asking for a price that’ll get them back the money they’ve paid. If the market isn’t there, they’ll be forced to drop their price so they can give the bank the money they owe. If they don’t get enough money to cover closing costs and the bank debt, they still owe the difference. A lot of people think they can just walk away from a mortgage. Nope, no jingle mail here. You owe 700,000 The house sells for 500,000. You owe 200,000.

Recency. We all suffer from it.

I sold my first house for more than double what I originally paid. My second house I sold for four times what I paid. I wasn’t investing in houses. I just bought a house I needed and then a house I wanted. It seems to prove that house prices always go up. Buy now or buy never. That’s the mantra. Except the assessed value of this present house has slipped every year since I bought it. I’m glad I’m not planning on selling it to provide a pension. I’m glad I don’t have a big mortgage. I’m glad I accidentally made money on the first two houses.

My house. Maybe. In a way, I guess it’s my house. If I pay the strata fee every year. If I pay the taxes every year. If I pay the utilities every year. Stop paying those plus the mortgage and, like my grandfather, I’ll discover whose house it really is.

It’s not just Alberta that is having economic problems. It’s not just low prices for oil and natural gas. Our economy is resource based. We sell oil, gas, ore, lumber, grain, fish. China doesn’t need our natural resources or Australia’s natural resources the way it did. Our oil can’t compete with oil that can be sold for as little as twenty dollars a barrel. You don’t work in any of these areas so you are okay, Jack? No, you are not. There is a business and tax chain that runs right through the country. Oil field workers come from all over the country. Suppliers exist all over the country. They can’t sell their product, they’ll shut their doors. Medicine Hat is already seeing service and supply businesses closing.

My house. I want to feel that it is my house. Although someone else lived here before I did and someone else will live here after I leave. The banks, the credit unions, the mortgage brokers, the real estate agents, the TV hypsters, all say now is the time to buy. Certainly, for them it’s a good time for you to buy. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I grew up too close to the Great Depression. Maybe I’m still influenced by the Great Depression that destroyed so many lives. Maybe house prices always go up. Maybe. Maybe no one will ever have to go through the trauma my grandparent’s went through. I hope so but I wouldn’t bet on it.

(WDV studied economics in university. Theory of Business, Money and Banking, Labour Relations, International Trade but then foolishly went off to write poetry, fiction, and drama.)

Stephan G honored in Iceland

 

On May 30th, 1917, Stephan G began his trip to Iceland. First from New York to Halifax and from there to Iceland. On board the Gullfoss, everyone treated him kindly and with respect. In Canada, there were some who had tried to have him charged with treason and put in prison because he disagreed with them about the slaughter in Europe. They saw glory in it. He saw nothing but tragedy and wasted lives. On the Gullfoss, people only wanted to honour him.

Of course, one has to remember that the attitude of people in Iceland, a country that was a non-combatant, was different from that in Canada which, as a colony of England, had soldiers at the battlefront. In Canada, some Icelanders hoped that the participation of young Icelandic men in the war would help Icelandic immigrants gain an honorable place in Canadian society.

However, Laxness describes in the section of Independent People called “The Years of Prosperity”, the attitude prevalent in Iceland. “This so-called World War, perhaps the most bountiful blessing that God has sent our country since the Napoleonic Wars saved the nation from the consequences of the Great Eruption and raised our culture from the ruins with an increased demand for fish and whale-oil, yes, this beautiful war, and may the Almighty grant us another equally beautiful at the earliest possible  moment”. WWI wasn’t Iceland’s war. It was an opportunity to sell wool and meat and fish to a host of “various ill-disposed citizens that…kept on hacking one another to pieces like suet in a trough, for four consecutive years and more.”

On June 16, the ship arrived in the Reykjavik harbour. The invitation committee came onto the ship. A crowd gathered at the harbour to cheer Stephan. The next day was June 17th. There was a banquet that night with fine food and coffee. There were speeches, including one by Stephan.

He was a guest of honour at Women’s Day. He gave another speech and poetic toast. According to Viðar, “Stephan took long walks with some of Iceland´s most prominent intellectuals and attended an endless round of receptions and parties.” He went sightseeing and even managed, in spite of prohibition, to find a drink or two.

He traveled by boat along the coast, then by horseback. All this time, he was writing poetry.

It was at this spot in Wakeful Nights that I had to pause in my reading, deeply touched by the Icelanders’ greeting to him. To understand the significance of what happens, you have to understand the importance of hay making and the precarious weather of Iceland. There is only one crop, hay. No grain will ripen. The hay must feed the milk cows and sheep for it is upon them that everyone’s life depends.  In good weather, people will cut and rake hay for twenty-four hours a day. They work as if their lives depend on it and, in fact, their lives did depend on it.

“The group then took a ferry across the glacial river Jökulsá, while four men waited on the west side to accompany them through the geothermal pass known as Mámaskarð and down to Lake Mývatn.”

“as he and his companions descended from the pass, Stephan was astounded to encounter a crowd of people singing and celebrating as they rode to meet  him. ‘There, on the rocky path…where harsh lava and human habitation merge, people came riding in a long procession, evidently on their way to some gathering.’ Stephan first thought they must be riding to town, but then recalled that any towns were by the sea, not inland. When these people in the procession dismounted from their horses and waited for him he realized that this was in fact a display of Icelandic hospitality. Although it was a good dry day in the middle of the haying, people had left the hayfield to come and meet him.”

Stephan was escorted from farm to farm. He came to Iceland as a great poet but also as a farmer who had worked all his life to create a farm that would support his family and, as a farmer, he was interested in agriculture in Iceland.

“Wherever Stephan went on this trip, he was greeted with flags, speeches, and song. At Ytra-Fjall in the valley of Aðaldalur he had a lively discussion with farmer-poet Indriði Þorkelsson….Indriði had been mowing hay with his sons. He stopped cutting unusually early, however, went inside, washed his hands, and put on a clean jacket.” He was going to meet Stephan.

“As the group approached the village of Húsavík at 6 o´clock in the morning, the poet Hulda, together with her husband and a few dignitaries, rode out to meet them. That evening, a gathering was held in Stephan´s honour.”

As he traveled about the country, he was greeted as a great poet in a country which revered poetry. There were those who refused to participate in this homecoming, but from what I read in Wakeful Nights, it was not religious conflict that kept them away but secular conflict, the distaste of the wealthy and privileged for a poet who writes of financial and social injustice. What else can one expect? If the poet writes about the exploitation of the ordinary person by the privileged why should the privileged cheer him? If Stephan were alive today, he would surely have been composing poems about the banksters and politicians responsible for the kreppa. One would hardly expect the objects of his scorn to honour him.

As Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in y our life.” Stephan stood up for something all his life.

I admire the Icelandic people because they honoured Stephan G in spite of the fact that he struggled all his life to be a good farmer yet never made much money. They honoured him for his poetry, for his talent, for his intelligence and for his bravery. Few of us are brave enough to stand up to those who are wealthy or hold positions of power. Then and now, those who are adept at making money, are quick to assume that having done so means that they are superior to others who have not done as well financially, and that their opinions on all things must also be superior. There is something about the making of money that feeds vanity.

However, Icelanders were well acquainted with men like Björn of Leirur from Paradise Reclaimed. Björn had married for money, had become “an agent for the Scots, buying up ponies and sheep on their behalf for gold.” He was always ready to take advantage of anyone who had fallen on hard times. He used bribery and attached himself to important people. Paradise Reclaimed is a novel by Laxness, a fictional account of life around the time of emigration to North America, but it is also an accurate account of the behaviour of many of those who prospered while others, faced with a harsh climate, harsh Danish rule and harsh local laws, worked endlessly just to feed themselves and their families. Björn is part of a small, corrupt group of the priviliged class. It is people like these that the emigrants fled. The people who emigrated did so for an opportunity to own their own land, to have a chance to better themselves and their families. However, there were those who came with them who wanted to perpetuate the old system. Stephan, to his credit, did not write in praise of the wealthy in order to receive gifts or favours from them.

There is no more dangerous person than the one who will stand up for his beliefs. Ask the Poles about Lech Walesa. Communism laid claim to represent the ordinary working class. It represented only the ruling class. To exploit others, you don’t have to be a capitalist. Every economic, religious, and social system contains within it, people who will use the system to benefit themselves at the expense of others. To them, the person who reveals what is being done is the enemy for such a person would incite others to take away privilege, distribute resources more fairly, and demand honesty.

Today, more than ever, we need Stephan G, we need  ten or a hundred or a thousand Stephan Gs, writing, speaking, publishing, broadcasting, investigating in the face of ever greater accumulation of wealth by the few and political and economic power by even fewer.

Meeting Stephan, many people were surprised, taken aback, because they saw a small, weather worn farmer when they’d expected a giant. He was a giant, a giant of words.

Like the people of Myvatn, we need to ride out to greet him, to honour him, to sing his praise, for it is of us and for us that he writes.

I do not understand the religious conflicts in which Stephan participated in Canada. Wakeful Nights refers to them but does not discuss them. From the perspective of 2012, with the sharpest rate of membership decline being in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, with empty pews and few new clergy, the conflicts within the Lutheran church during the late 1800s and the early 1900s, seem strange, self-destructive, more about opinionated, self-righteous individuals and social class than about theology. Those conflicts have divided and weakened the church and driven away its members.

That’s not to criticize any of those involved in the conflicts. To criticize, I’d have to have a historical understanding and know enough about religion at the time to draw a conclusion about who was and who wasn’t being reasonable. Religion is not based on reason but on faith and history so that makes it even more difficult to understand. It may be that to understand the religious conflicts referred to, one would have to have a companion volume describing the positions taken and the reasons for them. Would anyone actually read it? I doubt it.

To me, the finest writing in Wakeful Nights is this section describing Stephan’s visit to Iceland. It describes  Icelanders in a way that makes me proud of my Icelandic background. The people ride toward him and sing just as they rode to greet King Christian IX in 1874. Their action reveals not just the esteem in which they hold the author of Andvökur but also their values, values that do them honour. This is Iceland at its best.

When I was editor of Logberg-Heimskringla, I had a number of people say, in one way or another, “I’m a proud Icelander.” Or “I’m proud  of my Icelandic background.” When I asked them what they were proud of, they seldom could pin it down to something specific. Buy Wakeful Nights, read it, if you don’t read all of it, read the section describing Stephan G’s triumphant visit to Iceland. Imagine the landscape, the mountains, the glaciers, the rivers, the narrow trails. Imagine the people on the farms setting aside their scythes and rakes, mounting their horses and riding to meet the poet of the Rocky Mountains.