Friday, December 4, 2009

Saint Nicholas and the Present

Beginning on his Feast Day of December 6 and continuing through the Christmas season, folks are put in mind of St. Nicholas, who comes in guises ranging from a red-suited elf to a retail pitchman. In reality, Nicholas was a Fourth Century Bishop of Myra, born in what is now southern Turkey, who personified the divine nature of generosity.

As the Patron Saint of, among others, archers, bakers, bankers, mariners, merchants and pawnbrokers, he has myriad responsibilities, to be certain. Of course, Nicholas is best known as the Patron Saint of Children.

At first, this may appear an impossibly eclectic group of things for one saint to represent. In particular, the idea that the same figure can oversee both businessmen and babies might seem a stretch. But there is something to Nicholas’ combined portfolio of commerce and kindness. Simply put, the more you give, the more you get.

Economist Arthur C. Brooks has done extensive research on this counterintuitive phenomenon, noting, “It’s like the hand of God or something on the economy.” Brooks concludes that being generous makes people happier and thereby more successful. He stresses that a person does not need to be rich before he or she can benefit from giving. That is, kindness of spirit does the trick, no matter your tax bracket. Such is the example of this Bishop from a backwater of Asia Minor.

Not much is known of Nicholas’ early life, but it is supposed that he grew up in great wealth and gave it away. One of the most commonly repeated tales of Nicholas’ generosity has to do with a poor father who could not afford dowries for his three daughters. As a result, the girls could not be married and would be sold into slavery. When Nicholas heard of this family’s trouble, he slipped three bags of gold through their windows and into socks that had been hung to dry. The relation of this tale to the modern practice of hanging Christmas stockings is obvious. The story’s more potent aspect is the virtue of showing kindness to people we don’t know, without expectation of recognition or reward.

Each year at Christmastime, we are reminded of the value of giving by greeting cards, The Grinch, and ghosts of past, present and future. This year, the lesson may be more relevant than ever.

World markets and economies have suffered as of late and this would seem an odd time to be generous. Who can think of giving when there may not be enough to cover one’s own expenses? But recent troubles should at least have relieved people of the illusion of control. That is, no amount of hoarding or responsible miserliness can protect against calamity – cash can lose its value as dollars are slugged by inflation, seemingly safe investments can be lost or stolen – and in any case, you can’t take it with you. So the choice for anyone – rich, poor, or at some point of transition between the two – is what type of person do you wish to be?

Unlike many saints, Nicholas was not martyred, although he was persecuted and imprisoned for his Christian faith. In this way, it is Nicholas’ life, rather than his death, that informs his legacy. To wit, while the catalogue of holy people is crammed with saints marching off to be killed in nasty ways, Nicholas demonstrated how to live. A wealthy man, he decided to make kindness his currency.

And so the decision is laid before each of us. Any given moment, we may choose to be kind. We can keep Christmas every day of the year, following St. Nicholas’ example and Charles Dickens’ advice, giving generously without regret for the past or fear of the future. As the adage goes, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift – that is why it is called the present.”

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ten Questions with Theo Caldwell

“Finn the half-Great was just that. Greater than some and less than others, he made his way in the world as best he could....” Open Book talks to Theo Caldwell about his book, Finn the half-Great (Tundra Books), his next project and more.

Open Book: Toronto:
Tell us about your book, Finn the half-Great.

Theo Caldwell:
Our hero, Finn McCool, is half a giant and the most famous hero in Ireland. At fourteen feet tall (give or take), you’d think Finn is the biggest thing on the Emerald Isle. Not so, not by a long chalk. When he ventures from his childhood home, Finn discovers that ancient Britain is a land of giants, dragons, wizards and men, in which he is only one little fellow. Just like in real life – there’s always someone bigger and there’s always someone smaller. To wit, we’re all half-great.

You work as an investment manager and a financial writer. What inspired you to write a young adult novel?

Investment managers are the folks most in need of inspiration these days.

Which books made a great impression on you when you were a child?

The Hobbit, Wind in the Willows, Watership Down and Animal Farm.

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

Kids are smarter than big people recognize. I wasn’t a particularly precocious child myself, but neither was I as gaping and gobsmacked as my superiors supposed. More than anything, I want children to read and be challenged by Finn’s adventures. If grown-ups want to have a look too, they’re certainly welcome (not that I could stop them, anyway), but little people are very important.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

Be there when it happens.

Describe your ideal writing environment.

Dogs are present and there is something else that I should be attending to. I read once that there is no amount of work a man cannot do, so long as it is not the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment. I thrive on distraction. F. Scott Fitzgerald described writing as holding your breath under water. For me, that means I can bang out a few words, then I need something to go busy myself with before I sit back down and write a few more.

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

Xenophobe’s Guide to the Canadians, Atlas Shrugged and I Want To Go Home.

What are you reading right now?

The Bible, cover to cover, including all the “Him-Ham begat Zim-Zam” stuff in the early books. I’m up to First Kings. We’re winning, so far.

What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?

Finish your project first. Once you have a complete piece, the world is your oyster. Selling your work is a separate skill set, so keep it out of your head while you’re writing and create the best book you can. To do that, write a couple hundred good words every day. No need to overdo it if the muse isn’t with you. Better a couple hundred well-chosen words than pages of balderdash. At that moderate pace, in the space of a year, you’ll have a novel. When it comes to getting published, there is no substitute for enthusiasm. I’ve heard that anyone can be enthusiastic for 30 minutes, but a successful person stays enthusiastic for 30 years. Go through your network of friends and colleagues to find publishing contacts. Publishers have Byzantine rules for submissions, but jumping the queue has a rich and noble tradition and I recommend it highly.

What is your next project?

The second book in Finn’s five-part journey, Finn the half-Great and the Death of Gogmagog.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Authors, Kids and the Canadian Position

The investment industry has a term for making statements in support of a stock you own: “Talking your position.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as full disclosure is made, so let me tend to that straight away: The initial reason my attention was caught, and my dander raised, by the set of circumstances described below is because my first kids’ novel, Finn the half-Great, goes on sale this autumn.

My published political views and this new foray combine to form the most unlikely of business card monikers: “Right-Wing Children’s Author.” But with those views in mind, consider that I am talking my position not only as a writer, but as a Canadian and a taxpayer.

On January 20, 2009, the Ontario Ministry of Education announced $15 million in discounts for the province’s elementary school libraries to purchase reading materials. Folks can agree that getting books to kids is a good thing. But here’s the onion – on June 17, the Canadian Coalition for School Libraries issued a media release stating, “Only a shocking 13% of the recent funds used to buy books for Ontario school libraries was spent on Canadian authored books.”

Canadian children’s publishing is a quiet, pleasant industry (I’ve only just arrived), so its stakeholders are disinclined to kick up a kerfuffle, but come along – 13 percent? In a nation where private broadcasters are required to carry higher percentages of Canadian content in return for use of the “public airwaves,” one would expect a targeted, tax-funded program to include at least some sweetener to purchase home-made materials.

I’m not a fan of “Buy Canadian” (or “Buy American”) policies, and I’ve often considered Canadian content mandates to be recipes for mediocrity. Moreover, I have opined in these pages against protectionism – recently and repeatedly.

But when Canadian tax dollars are being used to buy educational supplies, there should be some incentive toward products created by the taxpayers. And not for nothing, if the objective is to educate Canadian kids, how about giving Canadian authors first crack at the task?

There is another wave of funding coming from the Ontario Ministry this fall, as children return to school. The question becomes, then, how best to incentivize schools to buy Canadian materials?

And before some bureaucratic smarty-pants suggests it, the solution is not to slap a tax on foreign books. If our experience with the broadcasting industry is any guide, this will just limit the market and lower the number of purchases. We want more books getting to kids, not less.

How about adding 5 percent to the original discount for the purchase of Canadian books? That is, if there is some Dutch tome that a librarian feels the little darlings cannot live without, he or she should buy it with our blessing and, say, a $1 discount. If, however, there is a comparable Canadian book, make the discount $1.05. Perspicacious readers will point out that increasing the discount will simply cause schools to run through the allotted money faster, and that’s fair enough. So perhaps convince the federal government to waive the 5 percent GST on home-grown purchases, pointing out that they will make at least some of it back in taxes from Canadian publishers and authors.

This is, of course, part of a larger and distinctly Canadian question: How do we support our national arts without creating an artificial industry and subsidizing work that cannot stand on its own? Whether because of the relatively small size of our market or an aversion to local talent, Canada has a history of artists needing to move away to find real success (I call this, “The Celine Dion Principle”). But we can kindle enthusiasm for our arts industry by giving kids Canadian materials – and this worthy program provides an opportunity to do just that.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Some Men See Things As They Are

The Romans had a rule for those who would comment on departed foes: “Speak nothing but good about the dead.” So with the passing of US Senator Ted Kennedy, a man whose politics and personal life pressed the boundaries of that ubiquitous and respectful euphemism, “imperfect,” what to say?

Must we overlook his excesses in remembering one of the most significant American politicians of the last half-century? While he is celebrated as the “Lion of the Senate” by those who admired him, as well as opponents who are being polite, perhaps it is fitting to consider Kennedy’s career more fully.

Since Kennedy’s death, we have been reminded that on July 18, 1969, Mary Jo Kopechne died when the senator drove a car carrying the two of them off a bridge and into a tidal channel at Chappaquiddick, in his home state of Massachusetts. Rather than report the incident at once, Kennedy spent precious hours doing damage control with consultants as Mary Jo fought for air in the submerged vehicle. In the wake of Kennedy’s own demise, some say it is in poor taste to mention her – but why? What makes her life less valuable than his?

Mary Jo would be 69 today, had Kennedy evinced nobler priorities. Instead, she died in that river while he went on to be “lionized” in the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest deliberative body.” Perhaps, as his defenders suggest, the incident at Chappaquiddick did not define Kennedy’s life – but it certainly defined hers.

In the political arena, Kennedy’s career is often conflated with the Camelot mystique of his older brother, President John F. Kennedy. In reality, their policies were very different. While Ted was an unrepentant advocate of government intervention and income redistribution, JFK’s tax cuts exceeded even those of Republican White House successors like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

In foreign policy, JFK was a strong anti-communist who understood and articulated America’s unique responsibility to defend freedom in the world. Ted, meanwhile, adopted every tenet of the isolationist Left, from supporting the “Nuclear Freeze” that would have given the Soviet Union permanent military supremacy, to opposing the 1991 Gulf War.

As to communism, Ted’s campaign to de-fund the government of South Vietnam in the 1970s was the most significant move, in human terms, of his career. Millions were murdered in the aftermath. To his credit, Ted sought to help Vietnamese refugees, known as “boat people,” who after years of bombing and war only took to the seas as the Northern communists approached. But with a little foresight, this tragedy could have been prevented.

When a third brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1968, Ted eulogized him in words adapted from another unapologetic leftist, George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘why not?’” It was a magnificent, timeless address, suggesting a talent and intellect that one mourns in contemplation of what this man could have been.

Different as they were, I hope Jack, Bobby and Ted are happily reunited in Heaven. Brothers are brothers and anyway, politics, like life, is one big best guess.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Monday, August 24, 2009

What is Political and What is Important

The challenge for any elected official, especially one with a key portfolio, is separating what is political from what is important. Last week, Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty welcomed an eclectic group of Canadians to Meech Lake to help him do just that. Investment professionals, policy experts and entrepreneurs prioritized the nation’s problems and opportunities, from budget deficits to trade and beyond. Flaherty hoped to consult with Canada’s best and brightest, but one of them must have declined because I was invited, too.

Some issues that came in for discussion would seem beyond the purview of the Finance Department. But as other ministers inevitably request budget dollars to fund their priorities, Flaherty, or any Finance Minister, must exercise judgment on a plethora of concerns. Information and opinions abound. The trick is to determine what is germane and actionable. Two examples of matters that encroached on talk of dollars and cents were the environment and health care.

In the former case, there is an exhausting tendency in policy circles to couch every topic in terms of environmentalist dogma, no matter how tenuous the connection. Anyone familiar with this tic will appreciate that an otherwise cogent debate on Canadian pensions can quickly devolve to whether raising RRSP contribution limits will anger Gaia the Earth Mother. But issues like climate change do, in fact, hold real and immediate ramifications for the nation’s finances, especially in the area of trade.

The growing trend of “Green Protectionism” sees countries that enact environmental regulation adding duties to imports from nations that do not have the same Earth-centric standards. Owing to free trade agreements and economic reality, organized labour and other traditional tariff proponents cannot attain trade barriers overtly but, if they are able to achieve similar ends while wrapping themselves in the mantle of climate sanctimony, more the better. Such provisions are evident in America’s erstwhile “cap-and-trade” legislation which, though it may go no farther than the House of Representatives, provides a case study in this coupling of protectionism and piety.

Sagely, Flaherty sought insight on the state of this issue. Expanding Canada’s trade markets, while preserving the free trade relationships we have, is crucial to maintaining Canada’s economic strength, and understanding environmental policy is part of that task.

With an aging population, health care expenditures, particularly in the form of federal transfer payments to fund this provincial mandate, must factor into the Finance Minister’s calculus. Health care is perhaps Canada’s most contentious political issue, but with an unsustainable cost structure looming as baby-boomers enter their dotage, sober discussion cannot be delayed much longer. There was debate as to whether transfer payments should be increased, cut or eliminated to make room for private sector solutions. Folks could agree, however, that Flaherty will not be the last Finance Minister confronted by these questions. Over imminent years, political will and courage must be summoned and sustained to face this challenge.

In the field of finance proper, budget deficits can be both political and important. Oftentimes, when a government runs a deficit, its chief function is as a hobbyhorse for the opposition. “We left you nincompoops with balanced books and now look!” screams the finance critic of an ousted party anytime expenditures exceed revenues, no matter how marginally. This is the political factor. The important aspects to a budget deficit are the reasons it exists, the length of time it is sustained, and its size as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product. At 3.3% of the nation’s GDP, Canada’s deficit is relatively small (despite its ominous $50 billion appearance), especially when contrasted with the 13% of GDP shortfall currently hobbling the United States.

Even so, Flaherty understands the importance of getting the nation out of deficit and, in case he harboured any doubts, this priority was reinforced in the strongest terms by his invited interlocutors. The Finance Minister has announced a plan to return to surplus by 2014 and he was urged not to neglect that goal. As budget items are entrenched and spending is less discretionary, a deficit can become inescapable and structural. To wit, once a government begins running deficits, it becomes increasingly difficult to stop. Conservative and Liberal governments have reduced Canada’s debt in recent years, and no one wants to see that progress reversed by habitually spending more than we make.

But Flaherty remains fretful for the goliath and growing budget deficit south of the border. Projected at $9 trillion over the next decade, it seems a matter of time before America’s spending overruns call the country’s creditworthiness into question. And the Finance Minister is not the only one who’s noticed. On his recent trip to China, a major creditor to the United States, Flaherty was gratified to learn that the Asian nation wishes to take its relationship with Canada to a higher level. It is unfortunate, though, that these overtures are partially prompted by Chinese concerns about our neighbour. The Canada-US trade relationship is the largest in the world, and no ancillary benefit of new markets can eclipse its importance. America must get its books in order, though there is precious little Flaherty can do about it. In this way, the matter is important without being especially political.

Flaherty thanked his guests in words of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, appropriate to a great nation in a challenging time: “Look a little ahead, my friends.”

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Wisdom Store

It is said that when the Royal Library at Alexandria was burned down, perhaps by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C. or by the Bishop Theophilus or Caliph Omar sometime later (depending on which version of events you choose to believe), the progress of human knowledge was delayed by centuries.

The library was the vision of Egypt’s King Ptolemy, who wanted to possess all the literature of the world, encompassing history, astronomy, mathematics and medicine.

Nowadays, the notion of keeping the canon of the planet in one location and in tangible form seems quaint. With our technology, we can access the learning of the ages from almost anyplace.

For example, if you are reading this column anytime after August 2009 or anywhere besides a Canadian city, chances are you are seeing it on some lighted screen, rather than on paper. If a century or more has passed since these words were written and cross-time communication has been mastered, please email to let me know if the Leafs have won the Stanley Cup.

Newspapers have been especially affected by the advent of the electronic age, in terms of relevance and revenue. With the egalitarian influence of the Internet, a respected reporter who has won several Frowning Beaver Awards for Serious Canadian Journalism may have less readership than some crank at a keyboard in his mother’s basement in Chatham, Ontario. And from a business perspective, how can they coax folks to pay for what is freely available?

News Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch recently announced that the company would begin charging for all its online reporting, but this has already been attempted by publications large and small, without success. Many have supposed, therefore, that newspapers as we know them are doomed. What of books, though?

My own book, Finn the half-Great, is juvenile fiction (which is also how some critics describe my newspaper columns). Books of this genre tend to sell moderately over time, rather than in large numbers when first released. As young people become increasingly inclined toward items that are electronic, rather than tactile, and making the massive assumption of at least a modicum of public interest in my tome, will it be more commonly read in print or on displays like Kindle and Sony Reader? While “E-book” sales represent maybe 4 percent of the total market today, convenience is a cousin to exponential growth.

But is our information any safer now than it was at Alexandria? For all environmentalists’ insistence that we rely on windmills and hamster wheels to power our computers and gizmos, are these energy sources reliable? Or suppose some malefactor nation or group succeeds in detonating an Electro-Magnetic Pulse, which could permanently disable all electronic devices and communications over a continent-wide area. What then? How much of our accumulated millennia of learning could we recall and preserve through oral tradition, passing the Talking Stick from generation to generation as we re-build from scratch?

With today’s technology, one can hold Ptolemy’s dream in a device. But information is not knowledge, and wisdom trumps them both. However we express ourselves and catalogue facts in years to come, let’s hope we hold on to timeless truths.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Walled Garden

In the syllabus to his fictitious Fundamental Astronomy class, Woody Allen wrote, “The sun, which is made of gas, can explode at any moment, sending our entire planetary system hurtling to destruction; students are advised what the average citizen can do in such a case.”

A reminder of just how small and vulnerable we are – or, at least, of how humungous and dangerous the rest of the universe can be – came in recent days as a meteor hundreds of metres wide hit Jupiter, leaving a hole the size of the Pacific Ocean in the massive planet’s atmosphere. Jupiter is about 318 times the size of Earth, so if that collision had happened here, it’s safe to say the Canadian National Exhibition wouldn’t open on time this summer.

An enormous outer space smash-up puts into context some of the trifling issues that come in for wide-eyed seriousness and spittle-flecked rage here on Earth, from bike lanes to recycle bins and, especially, politics (as the saying goes, all maniacs are local). Moreover, it reminds us how little we can control, or even predict, in the darkness that surrounds us.

A similar incident occurred in 1994, when pieces of the Shoemaker-Levy IX comet hit Jupiter, and astronomers supposed that such collisions only happened every few thousand years. It seems one of those Poindexters forgot to carry the remainder because a blink of an eye later, here we are again.

This is, incidentally, what Jupiter does – it takes the hit for the rest of us. Its immense gravity pulls in debris left over from the creation of the solar system (whether it’s called a “comet” or an “asteroid,” the upshot is it’s a great big rock that can ruin your lunch plans), keeping other planets safe – usually.

Columnist Jonah Goldberg notes that there are 1,000 near-Earth meteors more than a kilometre wide, adding, “Those are the ones that really leave a mark. Just ask the dinosaurs.”

If we missed one of these coming, it might be similar to how Obi-Wan Kenobi described the destruction of Alderon in Star Wars: Millions of voices screaming in terror and one nerd at a telescope saying, “Oops.”

Perhaps it’s just as well we have no sway over the solar system. The smartest person you’ve ever heard of cannot tell you with certainty what the weather will be like a week from Tuesday or who will win the Stanley Cup next year. People are idiots, even the geniuses. Just as William F. Buckley famously said he’d rather have been governed by the first 400 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard, I’d rather take my chances in a cosmic shooting gallery than surrender control of the universe to the most brilliant man who ever lived.

But there is comfort to be taken in the symphony of the cosmos. Jupiter plays its role as giant protector of smaller planets, giving us the luxury of eons to grow and learn, creating civilizations, countries, Pilates and fondue. In a dangerous galaxy, Earth is an oasis of existence, a walled garden, guarded by the heavens’ design – and that is an encouraging thought.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Latest Kerfuffle

The course of intelligence gathering never did run smooth. In the United States, this challenge is compounded by the imperfect dynamic between those tasked with protecting the country and liberal legislators who believe they are protecting the country from itself.

The latest kerfuffle has Congressional Democrats accusing the Central Intelligence Agency of having a “secret plan” to capture or kill al-Qaeda leadership. To this, any reasonable person might respond, “I should bloody well hope so!” Who doubts that eliminating Osama bin Laden would be a good thing? And as for the plan being secret, what is the CIA to do? Announce on its website that, “agents with baseball bats will be waiting for bin Laden when he comes out of 31 Flavours this evening”?

Of course, this whole issue has been constructed to protect Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one of the most remarkable moonbats ever to appear in American public life. Back in May, while attempting to chew her way out of a leg-trap set by her left-wing base as to whether she was aware of waterboarding and enhanced interrogation by the CIA, Pelosi accused the agency of misleading Congress “all the time.”

Folks who feign fright that the supposedly vapid Sarah Palin could have become vice president of the United States should consider that, as a Constitutional and practical matter, the Speaker of the House of Representatives wields vastly more power than the vice president does. And compared to Pelosi, Palin is Golda flippin’ Meir.

But let us return to the gravity of what Speaker Pelosi said. For Canadians who are unfamiliar with American civics, lying to Congress is not equivalent to telling your MP he can count on your vote just so he’ll get off your front porch. It is a major offense. Here, Pelosi has accused America’s flagship intelligence agency of doing so not only once, or inadvertently, but “all the time.”

Pressed for specifics, Pelosi was desolate, culminating in a painful press conference wherein the Speaker made Jon Lovitz’s truth-challenged “that’s the ticket” SNL character seem like the voice of authority.

So, unable to answer questions about these unfounded allegations, what do Pelosi and the Democrats do? They viciously accuse the CIA of doing its job. If the CIA were NOT planning to put the kibosh on terrorists who killed thousands of Americans and aspire to do so again, an overtaxed populace would wonder just what they were paying these eggheads for.

The ostensible crux of the Democrats’ complaint is that Congress was not briefed on this particular plan, which in any case never got off the drawing board. Columnist Andrew C. McCarthy has sagely advocated more judicious communication between the CIA and federal legislators, noting, “Problems arise, though, when congressional leadership goes juvenile, as has happened in recent times.”

The CIA is not perfect and its failings are highly publicized, from the inability to find WMD in Iraq to sending exploding cigars, Wile E. Coyote-style, to Fidel Castro in Cuba. But as Congressional Democrats question the agency’s honesty and candour, its operatives are risking their lives in locations around the world. There are 90 stars on a wall in Langley, Virginia, representing agents who have paid the ultimate price in defence of freedom. With this in mind, a little respect would go a long way.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Palin Pulls the Chute

Last fall, a friend who works in television told me, “I supported John McCain until he put Sarah Palin on the ticket – that woman is a deal-breaker!” Now, this pal of mine didn’t know the first thing about Palin’s politics, but she had made up her mind, and she was mad about it, to boot. As American philosopher William James stated, “Many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

Now that Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, has announced her intention to step down as governor of Alaska with sixteen months remaining in her single term, she is once again in the spotlight (as if she ever left it). Some admirers tout Palin as a presidential candidate in her own right, but what is most striking about the Palin phenomenon is the viscerally negative reaction she engenders.

I was in the hall at the Republican National Convention in Minnesota when Palin delivered her famous “pit bull” speech, and the atmosphere was extraordinary. But almost as soon as that night was over, Palin’s performance on the campaign trail, and her poll numbers, slumped.

National media interviews exposed gaps in her knowledge and perhaps this was for the best. After all, if you can’t handle Katie Couric, how will you cope with Vladimir Putin? To that point, I wish Barack Obama had been subject to at least half the scrutiny Palin got. I don’t mean the personal attacks and cracks about her children, I mean the pointed questioning she received from Couric, Charlie Gibson and others. Left-wing media are a refining fire for conservative candidates. Liberals and Democrats have no such advantage. If more reporters had asked frankly of Candidate Obama, “Do you understand the basics?” he might have been better prepared when he attained America’s highest office.

But Palin-hatred did not begin when she booted Gibson’s nebulous question about the “Bush Doctrine.” Rather, as with my TV friend, some folks just detested her from the jump. Whether it’s because of her pro-life views and the threat she poses to modern feminism, as some have suggested, I do not know, but it is a peculiar and ugly thing. In response, comedian Dennis Miller summarized why he likes Palin: “Too many people I don’t respect hate her.”

The unhinged hatred of Palin and idol worship of Obama are inverse symptoms of the same mass psychosis. As I have written before, if a commentator makes even the slightest criticism of Obama, he or she will hear at once from angry, glazed-over nutcakes, issuing pronouncements like, “Obama is building a new world for us all!” To those people I say, softly and with concern, you very badly need to get a life.

And to those who’ve shown hatred toward Palin, I say you’re better than that. Do you really want to be part of a mob that goes after a woman’s teenage daughters and questions the parentage of her infant son in vicious terms? There are excellent reasons to oppose Sarah Palin becoming president of the United States, but many of her harshest detractors couldn’t tell you what they are.

Ideas, not personalities; facts, not caricatures, should prevail in our public discussion. That may seem unrealistic and simple-minded, but the same can be said of politics.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The President's Parade of Horribles

Former French President Charles de Gaulle observed, “To govern is always to choose among disadvantages.” This wisdom was amplified by Canadian rock super-group Rush, who advised, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Both axioms are applicable to the set of foreign policy challenges facing U.S. President Barack Obama.

The president of the United States has a unique job description. On any major global issue, he must take a position and, regardless of what stance he adopts, there will be consequences. At times, a leader may want to reserve judgment on a tricky situation of international importance, and that’s okay – if that leader is the prime minister of Burkina Faso. The American president, however, has no such luxury.

Most prominent among the parade of horribles presented to President Obama are the imbroglios in Iran and North Korea.

In the former case, a corrupt theocracy rigged the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then cracked down viciously on the civilian protests that followed. Obama’s response options included detached equivocation, which was his original tack, and stern condemnation of the Iranian regime, to which he correctly switched.

Even if one disagrees with the wisdom of the president’s initial reluctance to antagonize Persian rulers, one can see the logic that visible American support might have undermined the protesters’ credibility in the Middle East. And anyway, for all the grief Obama got for referring to Iran’s Ayatollah Khameini as “the Supreme Leader,” perhaps the president was merely speaking of himself in the third person.

North Korea, meanwhile, presents a more immediate problem. Its dictator, Kim Jong Il, has contemplated launching a nuclear missile toward Hawaii on or around the Fourth of July. In this case, President Obama must choose among strong diplomacy, deploying missile defence, and intercepting or boarding North Korean ships.

Obama has no ideal options in dealing with Iran and North Korea and, whatever choices the president makes, the consequences may not become clear for some time. But choose he must for, as the Romans would say, “Qui tacet consentit” (He who is silent consents).

Commentator Dick Morris has written that prior to World War II, Germany and Italy were emboldened by the West’s acquiescence to the Japanese occupation of Manchuria during the 1930s. When you are president, the world is watching – and that doesn’t just mean Newsweek, Mr. Obama. Harsher observers with unpleasant intentions are sizing you up and figuring what they can get away with.

America’s true strength is not born of its military or its missiles – although this power is nothing to sneeze at – but of its concept and practice of freedom. As another Frenchman, Victor Hugo, put forth, “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.” When Ronald Reagan stood at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and urged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” those words were more effective than tanks or bombs could have been.

No sensible person suggests the United States should go to war over who is president of Iran, or to depose the maniacal gremlin who rules North Korea. Obama’s great strength is his oratory, or so we are told. Let him deploy it, then, in defence of liberty.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Killer and the Hall of Fame

Last summer, shortly after the Hockey Hall of Fame announced its inductees for 2008, I wrote a column decrying the omission of former Toronto Maple Leafs’ captain Doug Gilmour. Like most opinions published in a newspaper, mine engendered both positive and negative reactions; and, since the topic was hockey, Canadian passions ran high on both sides.

As always, I am thankful to those who took my side and I admire their perspicacity. Among those who disagreed with me, however, objections fit into two major categories: Some supposed that my complaint was born of a Toronto-centric view of Canada’s national winter sport, as though any captain of the Leafs should, ipso facto, be granted entry to the Hall in his dotage (I don’t believe this, actually, although the annual snubbing of Wendel Clark, as well as Gilmour, remains a travesty). Others, meanwhile, wondered about my credentials to opine on hockey matters (I am, after all, an investment advisor), and this latter point is my detractors’ strongest.

In short, I am no more qualified than any of the millions of other Canadian ankle-burners who, as the advertisement says, “have driven an hour for 19 minutes of ice time.” That said, having braved decades of early winter mornings for the sake of a few shifts, I am no less qualified than they are, either.

But as to Gilmour and his claims to fame, I note that no critic took issue with the substance of my case. To wit, this man scored a point a game over 20 NHL seasons with seven different teams. As I wrote last summer: “For a year or so during the 1993-94 season, he was touted in many quarters as the best hockey player in the world. Was there one day, or even a single game, when the same was said of Anderson or Larionov [two players admitted to the Hall in 2008]? Moreover, Gilmour's career included captaincies of two Original Six teams (Toronto and Chicago), a Stanley Cup, a Canada Cup and the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward.”

Speaking of that Stanley Cup, Gilmour was the only player to score a Cup-winning goal against the Canadiens in the Montreal Forum, leading the Calgary Flames to victory in 1989 (anything Toronto-centric about that?).

As the Hockey Hall of Fame prepares to vote on its inductees for 2009, it looks to be a bottleneck, with only four spots available and such superstars as Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Alexander Mogilny and Brian Leetch eligible for the first time. The funny thing is, with the exception of Yzerman, Gilmour outscored every one of them.

Yes, that is correct: Doug Gilmour scored more career points than Brett Hull, one of the deadliest snipers in hockey history, or Alexander Mogilny, one of only eight players to score over 70 goals in a season (quick – name the others), and he did so while setting the gold standard for a back-checking forward. Granted, Leetch was a defenceman who managed to rack up over 1,000 points on the blue line while winning a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP with the 1994 New York Rangers, but the point is not to run down these astounding players, it is to highlight Gilmour’s overlooked greatness.

With that in mind, as the Hall of Fame’s Selection Committee convenes on June 23, they should allocate this year’s four available spots to Yzerman, Gilmour, Leetch and Hull. If it seems unreasonable that superstars like Robitaille and Mogilny should be passed over in their first year of eligibility, along with perennial outsiders like Clark, Kirk Muller and Claude Lemieux, that’s because it is. But fame, like hockey, is a tough game.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Monday, May 11, 2009

In Praise of the Quiet Professional

In a dangerous world, there is a need for the quiet professional. Gen. Victor E. “Gene” Renuart, who heads up both the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), is a loquacious fellow on a personal basis, but he is all business and no bluster when it comes to his job.

Over the course of a week, I was part of a privileged group who accompanied Gen. Renuart on a tour of his operations throughout the United States. Despite its name, USNORTHCOM includes components in the South and East of the country, and our journey took us from the Colorado headquarters to Florida, Virginia, Maryland, and New York. On each stop, we were introduced to personnel in every branch of the military, and given demonstrations on how they guard against threats ranging from cyber attacks to nuclear detonations. These dangers may be extraordinary but, fortunately, so are the folks standing against them.

In his capacity as head of NORAD, Gen. Renuart is equally responsible to Canada’s Defence Minister and Prime Minister as he is to the American Secretary of Defense and President. The foyer of the General’s headquarters features official photos of Stephen Harper and Barack Obama, displayed with equal prominence, eyeing each other from opposite walls. Whatever political or cultural quarrels may exist between the two countries, the working relationship between Canadian and American personnel is seamless – they are all part of the same team.

The issues dealt with by Gen. Renuart and his staff are eclectic and ongoing, involving diplomatic, military and political leaders of both countries. For example, Operation Podium is the mission to protect the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. While overall responsibility for security at the 2010 Olympics resides with the RCMP, NORAD will monitor airspace, backed up by USNORTHCOM aircraft. In this way, U.S. forces normally reserved for protection of that nation’s homeland will help to protect the Canadian skies. This sort of thing requires a tremendous amount of negotiation, consultation and trust.

Consider that in the U.S., all domestic air traffic, whether it is military, commercial or private, is monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In Canada, meanwhile, two separate entities direct military and other aircraft. If, for example, a rogue airplane being chased by American fighters were to fly into Canadian airspace, would the U.S. have to abandon the chase, forcing the Canadian military to pick it up? Remember that in this plausible circumstance, we would have two national governments, three traffic control bodies, at least one renegade aircraft and any number of military planes carrying missiles. It is with good reason that the NORAD and USNORTHCOM folks are planning ahead.

Indeed, during a stopover in Washington, D.C., Gen. Renuart had to break off for a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on just this topic, since the diplomatic implications of such a scenario are huge. He reported back that he was very pleased with the substance of their discussion and the progress being made.

The North American missile defence shield may have moved off the front pages since Prime Minister Paul Martin opted to withhold Canada’s official participation in 2005, but protecting the continent from nuclear attack remains part of Gen. Renuart’s day-to-day. He points out that the shield was designed to guard against an isolated launch from North Korea, rather than a massive onslaught from China or Russia, and he adds unequivocally, “It works.” North Korean targeting systems are notoriously unreliable and, that being the case, any missile headed toward Canada’s populated southern portion could reasonably be considered a threat to the American homeland and would be taken out: “That’s just what would happen.” Oftentimes, political and practical realities diverge. When it comes to missile defence, although Canada’s official policy has not been reversed under Prime Minister Harper, the nation still benefits from the system’s aegis.

The most chilling words one hears at NORAD are, “Operation Noble Eagle.” This is the mission by which wayward aircraft are identified, approached, communicated with, warned and – if ultimately necessary – shot down. This includes hijacked passenger planes that threaten to crash into buildings or populated areas. Comfortingly, this scenario includes multiple layers of contingency and consultation and is drilled repeatedly in order to find alternatives.

For a job like this, in which vigilance is required and crucial decisions must sometimes be made, Gen. Renuart’s staff – Canadians and Americans, military and civilian – are precisely the sort of folks you would want. The General himself possesses the rare ability to see things from other people’s point of view, and he is slow to pass judgment on those with whom he disagrees. He is well-suited to his Canada-U.S. portfolio, pointing out, “I’m three-quarters Canadian,” since three of his grandparents were from above the 49th parallel.

Despite the stars on his uniform and the weight of his command, Gen. Renuart issues no sputtering declarations of his own necessity and the nature of war, in the manner of George C. Scott's "Patton" or Jack Nicholson's Col. Nathan Jessop ("You want me on that wall – you NEED me on that wall"). Instead, he understands that in high stakes situations, panic is contagious, but so is calm. That kind of thinking can save lives.

And that is the purpose of this sprawling enterprise – saving lives. Every branch of the military and Coast Guard in two countries works in concert to protect the people of this continent. This is a tough job, and it is being done by remarkable individuals. This is why it is called military “service.” For all the power on display at NORAD and USNORTHCOM, one hears very little about killing or force – rather, these folks have devoted themselves to serving others.

Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in Canada and the United States.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Bush by Any Other Name

When catastrophe comes along, it opens a market for solutions. For the Republican Party, which has been shellacked in the last two American elections, this means every conservative with a platform is selling some prescription for a comeback.

From David Frum to Rush Limbaugh to Newt Gingrich and beyond, there is no shortage of alchemists who claim they can convert the GOP’s recent lead-balloon performances into electoral gold. History will judge whether some, none, or all of these people were correct, but there is one advocate to whom Republicans pay particular attention: former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

As the son and brother of former American Presidents, Jeb Bush is a person of unique prominence and privilege. He is also anomalous among his Republican colleagues inasmuch as he has maintained some measure of personal popularity, while the party itself has fallen out of favour.

Recently, at the Greenville, South Carolina, home of former U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins (who was appointed by the governor’s brother, President George W. Bush), Jeb Bush laid out his four-point plan for a Republican rebound.

First, Gov. Bush advises that Republicans must recruit new, exciting candidates for the 2010 Congressional elections, while supporting deserving incumbents. Prosaic as this may seem, it is easier said than done. The GOP is in the minority and the tone in Washington, D.C, is as dyspeptic as ever, so it will take some doing to coax quality folks into the contest.

As for supporting Republican incumbents, which ones are deserving and which should go? With the Democrats already within one Senate seat of a filibuster-proof majority, such decisions could mean the difference between a Republican comeback and irrelevance.

Next, Gov. Bush insists the GOP must, “Advocate ideas.” He points out that both Republicans and Democrats have lost Congressional majorities in recent decades because they failed to express their core beliefs, articulately and consistently, between elections. “You can’t just think that people are going to support you because you’re in power,” he observes, adding that his chastened party can, “Regain power by humility.”

Third, he urges the GOP to be forward-looking and eschew nostalgia: “As much as I love Ronald Reagan...the world has radically changed. The world is moving at warp speed and our politics is moving like a tortoise.” By focusing on today’s challenges, rather than the glory days, Republicans can reclaim their relevance to voters, Jeb avers.

Finally, the GOP must, “Get better at the game.” Bush notes that his brother’s victorious 2004 campaign was the last 20th century-style election, with mailers and phone calls and traditional tactics. In 2008, the contest went viral, with Internet-based fundraising and organizing ruling the day. But as the game changed, the GOP did not, and the results speak for themselves. To regain power, Republicans must adopt modern methods.

Jeb Bush’s plan, compact and cogent, is delivered with the calm objectivity of an accomplished fellow who is not running for anything in particular. No longer looking for votes, he is asking folks for nothing more than a few moments of their attention.

But what gives Jeb Bush special resonance among Republicans? Some might suggest that he would never have been governor of Florida in the first place, were it not for his family name, and that’s fair enough. Even so, it was not his surname that achieved high approval ratings for two terms as he contended with hurricanes, health care and education reform, nor was it the Bush moniker that made him the only Republican governor to be re-elected in the Sunshine State.

And it is not as though the Bush brand has been wildly popular in recent years. But just as his host in South Carolina, Ambassador Wilkins, was consistently more popular in Canada than the president who appointed him, so Jeb Bush has crafted a political identity that is distinct from those who share his name.

In fact, if Jeb’s surname were anything but Bush, as the popular two-term chief executive of America’s most important swing state, he very likely would have appeared on the Republican presidential ticket in 2008.

Folks reflexively ask if Jeb Bush will ever run for president. The answer is a definite maybe. At 56 years of age, he could toss his hat into the ring anytime during the next four or more presidential election cycles. Even if he were to wait until 2024, Jeb would still be younger than the 2008 GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain, was on Election Day.

More important than the chronology is Jeb Bush’s sense of service. The governor plainly believes in working for the good of his nation, but he seems genuinely undecided as to if and when he will ever do so again in public office. Such thinking is consistent with the tenets of conservatism and citizen government, whereby individuals put forward the better angels of their nature as an onus of citizenship, not a function of getting elected.

At the moment, the governor comments on those policy issues that mean the most to him, especially education, and he campaigns only for those Republican candidates in whom he truly believes. He receives many invitations to speak on behalf of the party, but he notes that as a private citizen, “I get to pick and choose.” Together with his son, Jeb Jr., the governor has founded Jeb Bush and Associates, LLC, which is involved in a variety of business projects, including infrastructure and consultancy.

Through his years as governor and since rejoining the private sector in 2007, Jeb Bush has shown himself to be less a political family scion than a candid and clear policy advocate. Whether or not he holds office again, he remains a person of consequence.

Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset
Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Future of the CBC

As our national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation strives to offer original programming in both French and English but, when it comes to accepting taxpayers’ money, the CBC cannot say “no” in either official language. Each year, the enterprise receives over one billion dollars from the federal government. Now that difficult economic times have encompassed even the so-called “Mother Corp.,” the CBC has asked for an additional $60 million to make up an advertising revenue shortfall. Thus far, these requests have been rebuffed, but present circumstances occasion a reassessment of the status quo.

For all the things that make up the CBC – radio, Internet, other properties – it is the television component that is most problematic, in terms of cost and content. Therein lays the quandary – should taxpayers be financing this one broadcaster, even as it competes with private networks like Global and CTV?

As it accepts public funding, does the CBC offer content that could not be provided by private entities and, if so, does that content reflect the Canadian mainstream, or the worldview of the oligarchy that runs the network? Much has been made of the left-leaning nature of the CBC’s news coverage. As I wrote last year, “this is the network that marked the fifth anniversary of 9/11 with a special investigation into whether the terrorist attacks were an inside job by the U.S. government (CBC gave ‘both sides’ of the story – note to our national broadcaster: both sides of bollocks is still bollocks).” But liberal media bias is not peculiar to public news outlets, or even to Canada. What sets the CBC apart is the nature and funding of its other TV programming, including comedy and drama.

Experienced viewers of television in this country can detect the bacon-y scent of Canadian production values almost at once. Sets and lighting are odd, wardrobes appear to have been selected in pitch darkness, and casts are made up of the same handful of actors who – when they are not manning picket lines to demand yet more handouts and guaranteed airtime – are mugging unmercifully on the taxpayers' dime. Bad television may not be a crime, but why should innocent folks have to pay for it?

Why, for example, should taxpayers foot the bill for CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie, an unwatchable politically correct harangue? Adding insult to injury, when 3.7 million people saw the debut episode of this monstrosity – presumably because they had passed out or were trapped under something heavy, rendering them unable to change channels – the aberration got banner reportage throughout the CBC’s 2006-7 Annual Report. That is, just over ten percent of the country tuned in to a production for which one hundred percent of the country was obliged to pay, and this success rate was sufficiently anomalous to be trumpeted to the skies.

In its 2007-8 Annual Report, the CBC acknowledges that Canadian television production is not profitable and avers that private broadcasters receive more money in tax concessions and “other indirect government support” than CBC Television receives in government funding. For the sake of argument, let’s say that’s true. Would this not suggest that the private broadcaster model is a better one? If CBC Television is so hell-bent on producing shows that are “distinctly Canadian” (a phrase repeated so often in CBC publications that it cries out for a drinking game), then wouldn’t this task be made easier by opting for the more lucrative, tax-advantaged route of its private sector competitors, rather than consuming over a billion dollars in direct subsidies every year?

The CBC contends that 80 percent of its television programming consists of Canadian content – notwithstanding the network’s ubiquitous imports like The Simpsons, Coronation Street, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy! and myriad American movies – but this misses the point. If there is a need and appetite for the Canadian television the CBC provides, then it should be able to find viewers and private sponsors. If, however, there is an insufficient audience for their product, then the CBC is simply indulging in sanctimony at taxpayers’ expense.

At a time when economic turmoil is forcing governments and individual citizens to make cutbacks, cringe-inducing television is a good place to start. Moreover, if a private model provides greater funding for production, as the CBC suggests, perhaps a change would be in everyone’s interest. There is a place for public broadcasting, but in its current form – accepting billions of taxpayer dollars while bidding against private counterparts for U.S. programming and major events like the Olympics – the CBC does not fill it.

By all means, if the network wishes to take on a truly public role, it would be serving a need. Otherwise, the CBC should let us keep our billion bucks and compete for programming, audiences and advertising dollars as private networks are compelled to do.

Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in Canada and the United States.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

It's Not About You

“It’s not about you.”

These are the opening words of the Rev. Rick Warren’s best-selling book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” and the sentiment may be comforting to everyone affected by this unhappy economy.

To wit, we are all in this together. As much as folks who have lost their jobs or seen their incomes and retirement funds shrink may feel alone in the storm, in fact every one of us is touched in some way.

Of course, this is somewhat distinct from Warren’s intention of the words – he advocates a life of service to others with a higher meaning in mind – but the interconnected nature of our travails is worth a look.

In Canada, manufacturers and exporters were having a difficult time even before the current downturn began, owing in part to an inflated currency that made our goods more expensive. But now that our international trading partners, including and especially the United States, find themselves in financial turmoil and unable to buy what we are selling, times get even tougher. This translates to share price declines and massive job losses – 129,000 in January 2009 alone – which means that whether you are an investor, a worker, or both, you got hit.

On Parliament Hill, opposition parties have pledged to force an election if Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty do not turn around the country’s economic fortunes by June. This is Olympic-calibre silliness. One hopes, certainly, that Canada’s economy rebounds in the next three months, but many of the factors affecting that outcome are beyond the powers of any Prime Minister or his cabinet. International trade and the global nature of our economy dictate that recovery or recession depend in large measure on the health of our trading partners. If other countries do not have the demand for our commodities and manufactured exports, the rest is just so much chin music.

As for the United States, the markets have rendered their verdict on the high tax, spending and borrowing prescriptions of a new president and Congress, and it is not good. Indeed, the Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 20% of its value in the six weeks after Barack Obama became Commander-in-Chief and began to re-centralize the American economy.

Markets don't take things personally. The market has no politics, per se. What you see in the Dow and other indices is an objective assessment government policy and where it could lead. This is distinct from a poll or a vote in that investors’ assets are at stake, not their ideas. Opinions on abortion or government-funded television do not steer the markets; that is the task of steely-eyed pecuniary interest. So when a president announces higher taxes and unprecedented borrowing, market downturns occur as night follows day.

The good news is that this can be remedied, and whether you are in government, invested in the markets, or just working day-to-day, there are reasons for hope and steps you can take.

For example, companies that emerge from this period intact will be leaner and healthier than they were before this started. Bad news and cutbacks are announced and effected during such times, so when companies start to generate income again, it goes straight to the bottom line.

The task for investors, then, is to find the best companies in the best industries and buy with discipline and careful planning. For managers and workers, be brave and alert, ready and willing to adapt to new realities, in the form of concessions and improvements. Lastly, if you are in government, by all means spend and regulate where you must in order to get us out of this fix in the short-term, but then get out of the way and let people’s innovation and initiative lead on. One hopes that somewhere in this list of prescriptions, readers will recognize themselves.

It may seem like cold comfort to be reminded that the global downturn is not something that is happening to you, personally, but it is nonetheless true. More important, bleak as things may seem and despite the blame-laying on all sides, bear in mind that we as a society, a system, and a family of nations will get out of this mess the same way we got into it – together.

Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Words Are Important: Stimulus and the Environment

In recent years, as brutal winters rendered the spectre of “global warming” a punch line, environmentalists have edged their argot toward the catch-all term, “climate change.” In the United States, a similarly subtle rhetorical shift has occurred regarding the so-called “Stimulus” package that President Obama and Democrats in Congress are pitching to the American people.

To wit, as the nearly trillion-dollar monstrosity lurching through the legislative corridors of D.C. is revealed to be primarily concerned with stimulating government, rather than the economy, its proponents have taken to calling it by the official short-form, “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”

Words are important, and since not even the silver-tongued 44th president of the United States can explain how an omnibus appropriations bill that allocates billions to the ballet, hanging gardens, STD prevention and “neighbourhood stabilization activities” will do the first blessed thing to stimulate the economy, he and his colleagues must appeal to the greater good of “Reinvestment.”

This terminology adjustment is part and parcel with the political rudiment that whoever frames the question wins the debate. Throughout the sales process for this package, President Obama has chosen for his opponents straw men of his own design, refuting arguments that were never made. In his first White House news conference this week, Obama repeatedly chastised those “who believe we should do nothing,” as if opposition to this particular legislation were tantamount to declaring government has no place to address market failure. He spoke heart-wrenchingly of a school in South Carolina, where nearby train tracks disrupt classes, saying this package would help them. The president’s logic seems to be that if you oppose giving another $850 million to Amtrak, as the Reinvestment Act provides, ipso facto, you don’t care if kids learn to read.

Indeed, alternatives to this package, including a prominent role for government, have been suggested and summarily rejected. Senate Republicans cobbled together a mere $445 billion proposal that began by considering the most pressing causes of the current crisis – the housing meltdown and credit market freeze – then determining what should be done to remedy them. But Obama and Congressional Democrats prefer to stick with their method of dreaming up the largest dollar sum they can, then deciding after the fact how to spend the money.

Further similarity to the environmental movement can be seen in the urgency with which the Reinvestment Act’s supporters press their case. There is no time to debate, environmentalists have warned for years, the planet will incinerate if we do not switch to hybrid cars and unicycles by the end of the week. Likewise, Obama has set a deadline of February 16 for the Reinvestment Act, as though $650 million for digital TV coupons or $6.2 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program could not wait one more day.

But crying wolf on a mass scale is always a risky proposition. As weeks pass and birds aren’t bursting into flames in mid-air, more and more people begin to question the purple-faced predictions of the green-savvy friends in our midst. Similarly, if Americans discover that the Republic can stand until, say, March, without spending $7.6 billion on “rural community advancement programs,” Obama may have a problem.

Speed and a lack of scrutiny serve the purposes of the Reinvestment Act’s advocates. For example, would House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey prefer America to linger on a bill that awards $1.7 billion to the National Parks System, for which his son, Craig, is the chief lobbyist?

Most important, once this massive spending is enacted, Americans will be stuck with it for decades to come. In Washington, government spending increases are used as baselines for subsequent years, making huge expenditures very difficult to undo.

As Milton Friedman observed, “There is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.” If President Obama and Congressional Democrats insist on “reinvesting” in haste, the nation will repent at leisure.

Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Simple Tax Relief and a Capital Holiday

One hopes the January 27 Federal Budget will allow Canadians to keep more of their own money and invest it with confidence.

Cuts in personal and corporate taxes, as well as a holiday from the capital gains tax (which would be relatively painless, since not many Canadians are fretting about how to offset gains just now), would place billions of stimulus dollars in the hands of private citizens and go a long way toward helping our country through its economic troubles.

While theyʼre at it, letʼs hope the government extends the end date for income trusts past 2011. Setting aside the questionable wisdom of cancelling the trusts in the first place, our economy was rather different when that decision was made. The price of energy was heading for the stratosphere and markets were in reasonable shape. It may seem awkward for the Tories to change course on this issue yet again, having repeatedly promised to leave income trusts untouched before reversing themselves completely, but inconsistent wisdom is preferable to intransigent folly. To wit, flip-flops can be forgiven, so long as you land the right way up.

Finally, when it comes to letting Canadians keep their own money, donʼt gild the lily. Make a tax cut a tax cut, not a credit where a person has to reinvest in government-approved silly-bears then run to the Parliament Hill parking lot and touch the hood of Michael Ignatieffʼs Thunderbird before getting any benefit. For once, make Canadian tax relief comprehensive and simple.

Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hope at High Noon

At noon today, Barack Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States. Here’s hoping that he is such a smashing success that he gets busted onto Mt. Rushmore and his face knocks Thomas Jefferson’s right off the nickel.

The presidency is always a heavy burden, but I have profound respect and compassion for anyone who would take on the leadership of the free world at this particular time. The economy is in ghastly shape and, around the globe, very bad men continue to plot the death of civilians in general and Americans in particular.

Here, one might cue the rubbish and rhubarb about how badly George W. Bush botched the last eight years, getting the nation into this fix. But many of these problems were decades in the making and are larger than one man. In any case, as the United States turns the page, one hopes the 16-year national pastime of hating the president (Bush Derangement Syndrome having been preceded by two terms of Clinton Hatred) is at an end.

Right now, America needs a president who has the endorsement of a majority of its citizens. Whatever your politics, Obama is that man today. The foreign and domestic problems facing the United States are such that a peaceful consensus is a necessary first step to solving them. Whether folks supported candidate Obama or not – and few commentators in Canada were as critical of him as I was – he is president now and we will all be better off if he does well.

I was wrong about Obama in many ways – not least, about his prospects for getting elected – and I hope I continue to be. To wit, he has shown signs of being a thoughtful pragmatist – advocating business investment tax cuts and retaining Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, for example – rather than the left-wing ideologue he seemed to be during the primaries. Moreover, he has already made many of the right people mad. Rep. Barney Frank (D.-MA) is upset that Rev. Rick Warren is giving Obama’s inaugural invocation; Sen. John Kerry (D.-MA) is upset that he is not Secretary of State; Sen. Harry Reid (D.-NV) is upset about being Sen. Harry Reid (D.-NV). With these folks up in arms, Obama is off to a good start.

He has reached across the aisle, attempting to secure Republican support for his proposed stimulus package. To be sure, this is largely a political manoeuvre, to provide bipartisan cover for the 2010 midterm elections in case the legislation fails to right the economy, but it is a sensible approach. A week ago, Obama had a two-hour private dinner with conservative commentators at the home George F. Will. It was an informal, off-the-record meeting for the purpose of exchanging ideas. Such early-administration overtures have been tried before with middling success – recall Bush inviting Sen. Ted Kennedy to the White House for movie night in 2001 – but it is still the right thing to do.

Over the next four or eight years, there will doubtless be cause to criticize Obama, and I will likely sing a solo or two in that chorus. I prefer to think that such disagreement, whenever and for whatever reason it comes, will be based on legitimate policy, in contrast to partisans who refuse to give the man a chance. Step-on-a-crack silly-bears is no kind of loyal opposition. For example, to those conspiracy-minded stragglers who still obsess over whether Obama was born in Hawaii or a manger in Burkina Faso, I suggest moving on. The Constitution and people of the United States are satisfied that Obama is a natural-born citizen and anyway, what a man chooses to do with his life means more than how and where it began. Obama is a bona fide success story and his opponents would do well to recognize his qualities.

On his first day in office, there is such widespread adoration for the man that one wonders: Whither Obama’s admirers when it is revealed, inevitably, that he is less than perfect? No one can know for certain, but loyal Americans, and all those who hope for peace and freedom in the world, should wish this new president Godspeed.

Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

“How do I raise my children not to hate?”

JERUSALEM -- “How do I raise my children not to hate?”

This was the question posed by a prominent Israeli journalist whose eldest son is now serving on the front lines in Gaza. In reflecting on bringing up his children amidst suicide bombings and rocket attacks, he was particularly concerned with their teen years: “As if it isn’t tough enough to raise teenagers.”

Faces here are filled with sorrow and resolve. Israelis know they are in the midst of a war they must win, waged by the most beloved among them – the young.

Quite reasonably, one might ask about the plight of Palestinian children, and it is a cruel irony that they are victims of the same violence. If only the grown-ups influencing them placed the same priority on barring hatred from their hearts. Instead, they are inculcated with perverse histories and vicious notions of murder and martyrdom from their earliest years.

World opinion has long since swayed in favour of creating a Palestinian state. The outgoing and incoming presidents of the United States, as well as leaders in Canada, Britain, and many citizens of Israel are on board with the concept, provided it can lead to some good end. No one needs another Syria – or worse – on Israel’s border, and it would be naïve to assume that simply conferring statehood on the current arrangement would quell the violence here. So to whom would the state be granted? To Hamas, the Palestinians’ elected leaders who have launched 3,000 rockets at Israel in the last year alone? How about no.

Indeed, one of the saddest aspects of the current conflict is the waste that the Palestinian leadership has made of the Gaza project. When Israelis withdrew completely from the territory in 2005, they left behind greenhouses, infrastructure and the makings of a community. Within days, however, Gaza became a staging ground for rocket attacks on southern Israel. The greenhouses are gone and the misery has returned. As much as many of us advocate the creation of a Palestinian state, we must recognize that no responsible Palestinian leadership exists to shoulder it.

The refusal of Palestinians and their leaders to move beyond grievances and make the most of their opportunities is a source of frustration to some Israelis, who recognize that their own country has managed to survive and thrive against towering odds. One Israeli privately remarked of the Palestinian failure to establish a place in the world: “If they spent time and energy building up their own state instead of trying to destroy mine, they might have something.”

A woman in Jerusalem echoed former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in lamenting, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.” As Meir perhaps had done, the woman spoke the first of these sentences with sadness; the second, with a touch of anger.

Certainly, there are Palestinian moms and dads who care for their children, just as Israeli parents do. Trouble is, those decent folks have no voice in their leadership. In Israel, meanwhile, the armed defense of the nation touches parents deeply.

Military service is prevalent in this country, where young people perform a mandatory three years, and decades in the reserves often follow. All over Israel, families are fretting for loved ones in harm’s way, as active duty troops have been deployed and tens of thousands of reserves have been called up or notified to prepare.

With parents desperately worried, the Israel Defense Forces have taken the precautionary step of confiscating cell phones from troops. There are two principal reasons for this. First, it is a case of good old-fashioned, “Loose lips sink ships.” To wit, even the most innocent revelation of military locations can be overheard or intercepted and lead to lost lives. Second, there is no percentage in having panicked parents all across the country. Knowing that their grown children are without means to communicate, Israeli parents do not want their phones to ring, as they assume it can only be bad news.

Such is the reality for families here. Israelis accept it with courage and determination. Most important, even as they live in the shadow of death, they teach their children to love life.

Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.