Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Some lessons from a bizarre year

So how about these four lessons from 2008?
Things can change dramatically and rapidly.
People who are supposed to be smart and knowledgeable are neither.
People who are supposed to be looking after the public interest aren't.
And in response to those three, we have to accept our personal responsibility - including our responsibility to demand better from the people who are supposed to be acting in our interest.
A year ago, Premier Gordon Campbell was all fired up about climate change. Dealing with it was a moral and practical imperative, he said, calling for a focus and effort like Canadians brought to two world wars. People should be prepared to sacrifice.
And the public was mostly onside. After all, homeowners were feeling pretty rich as prices climbed ever upward. The economy was ticking along nicely, unless you were a coastal forest worker. Most forecasts called for more growth and rising markets.
A year later, nothing seems certain. The news is all bad and there's no clear bottom in sight. The public isn't quite so convinced that climate change is the big priority.
And the people who were supposed to see the change coming - the ones who are paid well because they claim that ability - didn't.
Packs of quite smart, trained people are paid to focus on a limited number of companies and report on their prospects. They've got great educations, superb technical support and good access to information.
And they were hopeless. An analyst tracking one media company rated it a speculative buy and set a target price of $3.50. It's trading at 50 cents.
They're hopelessness was exceeded by the failure of the agencies that were supposed to be protecting the public interest by regulating markets.
Start with government, of course. It's become fashionable to see regulation as a bad thing. Gordon Campbell even set up Kevin Falcon as junior minister of deregulation in 2001 and set out to cut one-third of the rules in place.
The U.S. deregulation push removed rules that have prevented lenders from offering $500,000 mortgages, with no payments for a year, to people earning minimum wage.
Deregulation allowed the lenders to package the loans in bundles, claim they would produce a steady income, and sell shares in them to other companies. They in turn flogged them- including to people trying to set aside money for retirement.
Deregulation was supposed to be good for the economy. The people who have lost billions and the taxpayers bailing out companies won't agree.
It's not just government regulators who have failed. The big accounting firms audited these companies and didn't report any problems. Bond rating agencies reviewed them and gave great ratings for stability and safety.
Economies go through good and bad times, of course.
But this collapse, without warning, did terrible damage. Remember, in early October Prime Minister Stephen Harper was suggesting the drop in markets was a "buying opportunity." Anyone who took his advice and bought a bundle of leading Canadian stocks has lost about 35 per cent of his money so far.
Cutting unneeded regulation increases freedom and encourages innovation and brings few risks. The fewer unnecessary rules the better. Letting barbers cut hair without a licence means a few people might look funny, but a few great haircutters might emerge.
But that kind of deregulation wasn't at the core of the agendas of many governments over the past two decades.
Which leads to the fourth lesson, based on the first three.
If you want something done right, be prepared to take some personal responsibility. The people who are being paid to work on your behalf might not.
That includes taking responsibility for the people you elect to all levels of government - to vote, of course, but also to keep informed about what they're doing and offer your views.
Onward to 2009.
Footnote: After more than a hundred columns over the last 12 months, I wanted to thank everyone who took the time to read at least some of them and the editors who have found a place in their newspapers. It's a great privilege to have the chance to be part of a discussion with the people who will decide our shared future.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks to you, Paul, for providing thoughtful insights and commentary on current affairs that the media at large tend to shy away from.

Seasons Greetings!

Raymond Graham

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DPL said...

Pretty good ideas Paul. However we will still go and vote for the same clowns again. By we, I mean the majority in this provicne and, all bets are off in Ottawa. I'm quite satisfied with my MP, she works hard for us. Can't say the same for King Gordo and his band of little men and women.

Hopefully this upcoming year will give us changes to the better.Better doesn't involve theConservative supporters who joined the team at the public trough down at the Red Chamber.

Not being a betting person , and with no knowledge of stock investment I didn't listen to Steve Harper. Our small mortgage is with our favourite Credit Union, VanCity, so pretty good shape in that area. People who went for 40 year morgages were it would appear, to be getting in expecting prices to rise, and many would be flipping the places. Why else do we see so many Condos for rent in Victoria at very high price.

BC Mary said...

.
Paul,

As a regular visitor to your blog (and as an occasional borrower from it), I send many, many thanks right back to you.

Thanks especially for the time and effort it takes, for you to produce each column. That quality of research and reasoning are a bonanza for your readers. And B.C. is all the better for it.

Best wishes to you for good health, good friends, and more good stories in the New Year.


BC Mary
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