Thursday, January 29, 2009

The New World of Employment

At banks, government offices and many other employers, a large proportion of the staff is on contract - in some cases as many as 50%. This has been going on for a long time; the incentive for employers is that they don't have to pay vacation, holidays, benefits, CPP, or other costs of having full-time employees, and they can ditch people at will. Contracts tend to be three months in length and the contractor is informed within the last few weeks whether it will be rolled over. In many cases it is rolled over for years and years, but the contractor never has any job security. Even within a contract period the employer can sever the contract, usually with only ten days notice.

A while back a Royal Bank contractor who'd been on contract for many years was let go and sued for severance. Since then the banks don't hire contractors directly; they go through staffing agencies to protect themselves from law suits. These agencies collect money from the employer and pay it to the contractor; for this middleman role they often pocket at least 15% of the contractor's gross. In many cases they do nothing other than pass through the money: the contractor gets the job, negotiates the contract, and then is directed to an agency. In some cases the employer contacts the agency to find candidates, and while there are cases where the agency performs a useful service, in many cases they do no more than leaf through workopolis and monster.

The staffing agency business appears to be completely unregulated. You'd think that there might be limits on how much they can charge for their services, or rules about having to disclose to contractors how much they're skimming off their backs, but there don't appear to be any at all. I've heard rumors of people who got shafted by unscrupulous staffing agencies, finding out too late that much more than 20% of the employer's payouts were staying in agency pockets. And once you have a relationship with an agency that has contracts with employers, your options are limited.

Employers use contractors to reduce their costs, but some contractors like being on contract because they can reduce their taxes. They are self-employed, and so can deduct the costs of driving to work and working at home and the like. (Strangely, though, the self-employed cannot deduct health costs or the costs of buying benefits.) Smart contractors form co-ops with a few other contractors and so reduce health costs, as well as share accounting and incorporation costs.

White collar labor is a seller's market right now, so it doesn't seem so foolish to be a contractor at the moment - lose the contract and you can move into another one quite quickly. (I can attest to that: I posted my CV on workopolis a while back and have been flooded with offers from staffing agencies.) But with the economic downturn starting to get serious, that's likely not going to last.

The self-employment white collar world is chaotic and unregulated, and everyone is taking advantage of the situation. It creates distortions that are unproductive. For example, contractors can write off the vehicle they drive to work, so are incentivized to buy expensive gas guzzlers. Short-term budgets lead employers to think they're saving money by using hired guns, but they end up with a work force that lacks experience and institutional knowledge, and who takes care not to get their budgeted work done before the deadline. Staffing agencies are expensive, but add very little to productivity. Their necessity for domestic contracts also makes off-shore contracts more affordable. This is a situation that is crying out for some government attention.


More Bad News

Nortel employees and ex-employees have been sent letters informing them that they are now considered creditors. This appears to be a head's up that their pensions are toast.

If this country were run for the good of the people, rather than the good of the rich and the corporations the rich use to get richer, then there would be some effective protection for corporate pensions. It's bad enough that virtually noone outside the civil service gets pensions anymore; now those few remaining holdouts are starting to default.



Saturday, January 24, 2009

Market Memories

I went to the Waterloo Farmer's Market yesterday to find out what my favorite vendors are going to do when the market closes in a couple of weeks. I bought some amazing smoked cheddar from Mickey McGuire and some sausage from Stemmlers... there wasn't much else left beyond tube socks and Tupperware. As I was leaving I picked up some apples from the guy with astronomical prices and a sign saying he doesn't use chemicals. When I got home I realized he had conned me; the apple on top was in good shape, but all the rest were wizened and rotten.

I'd forgotten that I'd seen that guy try to pull the same trick before. One Saturday a few winters ago I was looking for pears and noticed at his stand that the baskets were full of rotten fruit with one or two good ones on top. I walked across the sidewalk to where a guy had a truck backed up, the back open, with tables of pears and potatoes laid out. I saw the kind I wanted and lifted the top pear to check the rest were okay. The farmer, an old man, was sitting in his truck; he started yelling at me in a strong German accent to not touch his fruit. I put down the pear but stood there, sort of stunned, and that somehow made him madder. He not only yelled louder, but came towards me in a threatening manner... at which point I assembled my wits and took off.

I grew up in Waterloo in the 60s, so I have some experience with being yelled at by men with thick German accents. Back then a lot of stores in the area were German-speaking, and non-German speaking kids were frequently met with some abuse. Maybe the market was the last vestige of Old Waterloo.

Don't get me wrong: I love the market. I'm a regular shopper, and I stayed loyal even as most of the good vendors moved across the street to the stockyards while sellers of miracle supplements and cut-rate throw rugs moved in. But my final purchase seems sort of fitting, given the shady commercial history of our farmer's markets.

When I was growing up there was a very successful farmer's market in Kitchener, in a wood building not unlike Toronto's St. Lawrence Market. In 1971 the Eaton Company won a fight to tear down the market building and Kitchener City Hall to make way for an Eaton Center. Eaton's did this in small towns all over Ontario, replacing historic downtown buildings with featureless red-brick malls. Saturday market vendors were moved into the parking garage of the new Eaton Center. While the old market had outside spots with hitching posts, the new market was not Mennonite-friendly, and so the old order Mennonites who had sold at the old market refused to move to the parking garage. Thus was born the Waterloo Farmer's Market.

The Mennonite Market (as we called it then) was built in the country just north of Waterloo, across the street from the stockyards (where live animals were sold at auction). Market-goers started wandering over to the stockyards, and so a few vendors set up there, selling things like cheap broken cookies.

Meanwhile, a man called Milo Shantz started a company called Mercedes Corp that aimed to make money off of tourism based on old order Mennonites. They bought up much of the town of St. Jacobs and turned it into a tourist center. Eventually they bought the stockyards and started to market it aggressively to tourists. They rebranded the stockyards "The St. Jacobs Farmer's Market and Flea Market", and it became a second produce market, plus a lot of other junk. It always had a very different feel from the Mennonite market: the vendors aggressively shout to shoppers; there is a wider range of goods and kitsch; there are a lot more tourists.

Everything was fine until about five years ago, when Mercedes managed to purchase the Mennonite market. Immediately the market changed. The very first Saturday, Mercedes closed down the stand that sold Oktoberfest sausages, hot sauerkraut and cups of local apple cider, and replaced it with a concession stand that sold Italian sausage and canned pop. Then they started harassing the vendors. Rates would double or triple with no notice. Vendors who had been in a spot for decades were suddenly moved. There were so many moves that it started to be difficult to find vendors. My favorite bread seller was moved into a remote corner and lost so much business that he had to give up. One by one, most of the good vendors either gave up or moved across the street to the stockyards, while their spaces were rented to the tube sock crowd.

Then last week Mercedes announced that they're turning the Mennonite market into an antique mart. Vendors got only three week's notice. Some have the option to move across the street to the former stockyards, but they were told there will be a delay of several weeks until they can set up. (I believe Mickey McGuire is going to be able to start selling there in April.) Some chose not to move - Stemmlers has recently built an expanded store in Heidelberg, and will give up its market presence.

It's not clear what the old order Mennonites are going to do. For over 20 years I've been buying assorted garden goods from an old order woman who backs in her small buggy and sells from a table behind it. She picks lettuce and other vegetables from her garden on market mornings, and sells them along with some hooked trivets that a relative makes and some other homemade stuff. It's a small operation, and I can't imagine there's room for her in the bustle across the street. I meant to ask her yesterday, but her spot had already been eliminated to expand the car park.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Citigroup has more employees than the American navy and, apparently, greater destructive power. - The Economist

I've been meaning to write an article about Citigroup for some time, but I keep not getting around to it. For anyone interested in the topic, this article, written in 2003, is a must-read, as is this article from the Columbia Journalism Review, which is about the first article.

Polar Bears

It's sad but true that environmentalists and animal welfare groups are not a very credible lot. Many of them spread misinformation in alarming ways; media prints their claims without sufficient research; and the public is left not knowing what to believe. The real shame is that environmentalists have framed several issues in such unrealistic ways that there is little hope now that the public will ever grasp the reality of the situation. And increasingly, the target is animals in northern countries: seals, polar bears, whales.

For example, this article is a fascinating discussion of the framing of the anti-whaling debate. The author says, "Environmental and animal welfare activists often speak about the whale in the singular. We are told that the whale is the world's largest animal, that it has the world's largest brain, that its brain is large in comparison to body weight, that it is social and friendly, that it sings, that it has its own child care system, and that it is threatened, etc. It is true that the blue whale is the world's largest animal and that the sperm whale has the world's largest brain (although it is small in comparison to the animal's size), but most of the other assertions are difficult to prove. Those that do hold some truth are rarely true for more than one or two of the more than 75 different whale species which exist. When one speaks about the whale they are combining all the characteristics found among the various species, such that the whale has them all. But such a whale does not exist; it is a mythical creation, a "super whale"..."

Part of the lack of credibility is due to the pressures for funding. Environmental organizations (like poverty organizations) need something catchy to put in their TV ads and flyers because that's how they attract donors. And funding requires the appearance of effectiveness, so they can never back down, never admit they were wrong, rarely even lay off on a topic. When it becomes clear that most whale species are not endangered, they just switch tacks and oppose whaling on moral grounds. When the Canadian government made it illegal to hunt those doe-eyed white seal pups, they just keep on fighting to save them - even make them the centerpiece of their anti-sealing campaigns for decades after they were protected.

At last week's polar bear summit, a new fight started to take shape: scientists and environmentalists argued that polar bears are endangered and need protection from hunting; and Inuit representatives claimed that polar bear populations are rising. Environmentalists relied on models that project the effect of global warming decades into the future; Inuit spoke with first-hand knowledge of bears, both current and based on oral history. Both points of view had merit, and it's unfortunate that the groups are polarized - but in terms of credibility, I'm with the Inuit.

It's not just the Inuit who oppose protection of polar bears. A pattern has emerged: people who live in the north tend to oppose protection, while those who support moves like the recent US endangered species designation for polar bears are largely from the south. For example, see this NYT op-ed by Sarah Palin.

Why the difference? Here are some possible reasons:
* Many populations of polar bears are increasing. Some in northern Ontario have increased by 50% in recent years. Only a couple of populations have decreased yet.
* Polar bears are one of the most dangerous predators in the world. In communities that have polar bear incursions, there is virtually no way to keep them from attacking houses, short of building the house up on stilts and putting spikes on the steps. In such areas, every person - even co-op students - must have gun training and be armed at all times.
* Global warming is wreaking havoc on the north in all sorts of ways. The cause is all "from away" but the lifestyle of northerners is being affected negatively, and it must seem to them like adding insult to injury for southerners to first cause the pollution that's messing things up in the north, and now to try to curtail the activities of northerners because things are messed up.
* The Inuit have a long oral history and the north has seem plenty of change. Animals adapt, and the Inuit believe that polar bears will adapt to global warming.

Two-thirds of the world's polar bears live in Canada. It looks like polar bears may become the target of environmental organizations just as whales and seals have, and we may be in for a lot more disinformation.



Okay, I admit it: I have been slow to warm up to Barack Obama. I guess I just see the US as the bad guys. Ever since Jimmy Carter left office (and for a good long time before he became president), the US has seemed to me like a negative force in the world. It has a huge army and it uses its muscle to force its corporate goods on the world. It is imperialist. It invades countries and murders civilians to further its greedy ends. It bellows about being the world's greatest democracy while having the shoddiest democratic process in the western world. I'm a US citizen, but I frequently feel about that the way I do about having slave-owning ancestors. I'm embarrassed.

Then here came Obama: Mr. Hope. He sounded to me like Mr. Hype. I didn't see much difference between him and the rest of the right-wing hawks who run the US. It's definitely neat that he's a black man, but then it seems he won the nomination of his party largely because Democrats are so sexist that they couldn't stomach a female leader.

But today I'm starting to feel a bit differently about President O. The Pres had a good first day. Along with some other minor measures, he:

- Announced he's closing the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp and halting the unjust trials of its prisoners.
- Tightened up the rules on lobbying.
- Told government officials to be more forthcoming in Freedom of Information Act requests.

Maybe there is hope. Or should I say Hope. (And does that require a TM?)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Is Barbara Willis Sweete Destroying the Met HD Program?

Barbara Willis Sweete, Transmission Director for the Met HD program, has repeatedly bungled the transmission of Met operas. I have already written about last season's disastrous filming of Tristan und Isolde. This year's Damnation of Faust is another disaster.

Berlioz's Faust is an odd, episodic opera - really poor structurally, but with wonderful music. The Met brought in Robert Lepage to design the production and he made the opera work. It was full of wows - well, at least we presume they were wows, as Sweete did all she could to destroy the effects Lepage worked so hard to produce.

Lepage made great use of ropes (with harnesses hidden under clothing). At one point a row of soldiers march up the gridwork on stage, mime dying, and are lowered into the laps of women below, only to revive, march up the wall again, and repeat. It was a moving and jaw-dropping effect - I think. We mostly saw close-ups.

Sweete and the rest of the videography team over-use close-ups. Singers tend to sweat, and a giant screen filled with a close-up of their face is not always a pleasant image. There is also much too much camera movement, zooming in, panning, pulling back, changing cameras. It is all very distracting, and very little of it is effective. It's as if Sweete is trying to compete with Lepage in artiness... but the videography should aim to enhance the production, not compete with it.

We are now in the third season of the Metropolitan Opera's Met HD series. I don't recall the first season having these video problems. In particular, I recall thinking during Il Trittico that the film experience was like hovering above the fifth row - better than the best seat in the house. That's what the transmission director should aim for.

The experience of opera is about a state of concentration that opera makes possible. The orchestration, singing, plot, iconography, set, costumes, lighting and personalities all hit the senses of the audience is a way that is unique to opera. To achieve the optimum concentration, I like to attend operas in an unstressed, well-rested frame of mind; I don't drink alchohol beforehand; and I eat a light, low-carb meal followed by an espresso. When fully engaged I can attain that wonderful state, even in cinema transmissions... But not when filtered through distracting faux-arty video direction.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Opera Kitchener a Smashing Success

Back in the bad old days (up to 15 years ago?), the Canadian Opera Company was not always a first class company. Even when they had good principals, sometimes the secondary singers caused a lot of wincing. A lot of hard work brought the quality up, and John Bradshaw sealed the deal.

The problem was that back when the COC wasn't always so hot, it still had the pretensions of a great company. The audience was dominated by society folks in their tuxes and furs, and that somehow made the whole thing a bit pathetic. I knew more than one wealthy businessman whose favorite opera was La Boheme - which (not coincidentally) was produced at the COC with three intermissions, resulting in a great upswing in liquor sales in the lobby.

Five or ten years ago opera was briefly trendy and the young trendoids started showing up at the COC. Although the quality of the operas was much better little else had changed: like Old Society the trendoids dressed up and they liked to tipple. The new twist was that they walked out in droves during the first act. From my cheap subscriber seat on the aisle of the back row I felt the wind of their flooding past, half an hour into a production. Apparently it was enough to have showed up in $200 seats; they didn't have to sit through the whole thing.

Opera Kitchener, which mounted its first production last Saturday, is not having a society problem or a trendiness problem. The best seats cost about 25 bucks and the audience seems to be there for all the right reasons. Opera Kitchener is operating on the slenderest of shoestrings (it doesn't yet have a board or charitable status, or any donors) but it is exhibiting all the best of a promising young company.

Saturday's Marriage of Figaro was delightful. The orchestra was small but fine. The singers were all very good. There was one great performance, which stole the show: Karen Bojti in the role of the Marcellina. It was a small production and the direction enhanced that: the performers directly engaged the audience, at one point even stepping out into the seats. We laughed - loudly - over and over. It was high quality, it was charming, and it was wonderfully entertaining. I'd say that Opera Kitchener founders (and currently the whote enchilada) Emilio and Jennifer Fina are doing this just right. Center-in-the-Square has 2,000 seats, and they sold nearly half, so their fledgling outing must be deemed a success. The pity is that they only sold 200 subscriptions for the season. I hope they can do as well for the rest of the season. This is a company that deserves an audience.


Economic Doom and Gloom: The Light

The US is in a right mess. I would be extremely pessimistic about the next few years, but for one thing: Obama. As any regular readers will know, I am not a great fan of Obama (he seems a bit too hawkish and a bit too right and a bit too same-old US imperialism to me) but... big but... he's so charismatic that I think he may just be able to lift up Americans and get them out of this enormous hole.

Because while the situation is dire, and the deficit/war/regulatory mess all place enormous burdens and challenges on the future administration, in the end it's all about the confidence and will of the people. And one thing Americans have going for them more than anyone else is the ability to mobilize emotionally. George Bush mobilized them to be militarily patriotic, with devastating effects, but Obama just may be able to mobilize them to be great again. We live in interesting times.


Sunday, January 04, 2009

Fiscal Stimulus Part 5: Liberal Strategy

Using the threat of a coalition government, we were able to stop the insanity and force Harper/Flaherty to finally admit the necessity of a fiscal stimulus. Now the question is: What will they propose as the details of the stimulus? And how should we respond?

If the stimulus package looks like it has a reasonable chance of being effective, then I think we should support it. But there is a good chance that the ideological obsessions that led Harper to deny the need for a fiscal stimulus will now lead him to create an ineffective fiscal stimulus. He very well might use this opportunity as a blank cheque to follow his own agenda, regardless of how effective it will be in stimulating the economy. If the stimulus doesn't work, he can always blame it on the Liberals who forced him to do it.

That agenda might contain corporate tax cuts and across the board tax cuts, even though it is widely understood that tax cuts are not an effective stimulus. It might be stuffed with pork-barrel spending targeted at winning Conservatives more seats.

The problem is that Harper doesn't believe in fiscal stimulus. His heart isn't in it. He may very well come up with a budget that doesn't help the economy - but pretends to. Flaherty already seems to be telegraphing that strategy.

Do we have a response to that scenario? It always seems to come back to the need for effective PR. We need to have not just a correct response, but a convincing response.

See also:
Fiscal Stimulus Part 1
Fiscal Stimulus Part 2: Size
Fiscal Stimulus Part 3: Federal Spending v Tax Cuts
Fiscal Stimulus Part 4: Deficit Implications

Fiscal Stimulus Part 4: Deficit Implications

Harper/Flaherty have repeatedly implied that a fiscal stimulus will cause a deficit that would not occur without the stimulus spending. This is just not so.

In a recession, government revenues fall with declining economic activity. In this economy, the more we try to cut funding to avoid a deficit, the larger the recession will become and the larger the deficit will be.

An effective stimulus will increase economic activity, which will increase government revenue and result in a smaller deficit.

Increased government spending is currently the most effective way to stimulate the economy. If we didn't have near-zero interest rates we could rely on monetary policy to stimulate the economy. Monetary policy is usually just what's wanted. But now that we're in a liquidity trap, monetary policy is ineffective. The IMF says, "the room for further monetary easing—at least in a traditional sense—is shrinking: in some countries, policy interest rates are approaching zero. Moreover, the effect of lower interest rates on demand is weakened by the disruption in credit markets."

In the words of Paul Krugman, Harper is being a Herbert Hoover.

There are two types of deficit: structural and temporary. Structural deficits are like the deficits that Brian Mulroney gave us: they are situations where government spending exceeds its revenue year after year, even in boom times. Jean Chretien and Paul Martin worked hard to rid Canada of structural deficits, and we do not now have one at the federal level. Temporary deficits are not problems in the same way structural deficits are, and if they are used to effectively stimulate the economy, they can actually avoid structural deficits.

For a more wonkish explanation of the deficit implications of fiscal stimulus, see here.

See also:
Fiscal Stimulus Part 1
Fiscal Stimulus Part 2: Size
Fiscal Stimulus Part 3: Federal Spending v Tax Cuts

Fiscal Stimulus Part 3: Federal Spending v Tax Cuts

Harper/Flaherty are floating the idea of trying to stimulate the economy with tax cuts rather than federal spending.

The IMF disagrees, saying that tax cuts are less effective than government spending. Tax cuts can be a small component of the total package to target specific aspects of the economy, but cannot be relied on as major stimulators. In addition, there is almost always a delay in implementing a tax cut.

Here are some suggestions I've seen floating around recently:

Cut all corporate taxes for one year
This will create windfall profits for some companies, but it won't cause much new investment because there isn't time for investment to be implemented before the tax break is over. It will not help companies that need help - they're already losing money and so paying less or no taxes. The windfall profits will result in some job savings and investment, but they may be as temporary as the tax break. Much of the profit windfall will be sent to corporate HQ (often in the US or elsewhere), be distributed to international shareholders, be used as management bonuses, and so on. There are also fairness implications. For example, self-employed people can choose whether to incorporate or not, and there is currently very little tax difference: it would not be fair if suddenly all the incorporated people got a 100% tax reduction, while the sole proprietors did not. (That's one of many examples of unfairness that would be created.)
Conclusion: Ineffective, expensive and unfair

Further cuts to the GST
When Harper cut the GST two years ago, every economist in the country said that it was a poor move because it would not stimulate the economy. Then it didn't stimulate the economy. I don't know why we're still talking about this idea. The IMF has specifically warned against cuts to value added taxes like the GST on the grounds it will not create stimulus.
Conclusion: Completely ineffective

Cut taxes to poor people
This is the most effective form of tax cut, as poorer people are less likely to save any extra funds they get, and in addition more of the money will be spent on domestic (rather than imported luxury) goods. However, poorer people pay less tax, and also the tax method will result in a delay. It would be more effective to increase transfers than cut taxes. A recent article in the Toronto Star argued for increasing "the Canada Child Tax Benefit, the refundable GST credit and the Working Income Tax Benefit". The IMF recommends "extending unemployment benefits, increasing earned income tax credit or equivalent tax cuts targeted to households that are likely to be credit constrained, and expanding social safety nets." I favor permanent changes to employment insurance and welfare, which create automatic stimulus whenever the economy starts to sink, as well as helping those most in need.
Conclusion: Increased transfers would be quicker and more effective

Some people have got stuck in the idea that private spending is somehow more effective for stimulating the economy than public spending. Paul Krugman refutes that argument here.

An equally important consideration is that of fairness. Fairness requires that the tax structure should be as stable as possible. When we know how we will be taxed, we can plan around it. When there are major changes to taxation, there's a lottery effect: some people win big, but other people lose (think of the recent debacle over income trusts). Governments must be much more careful about changing taxes, and only change them to achieve long-term goals.

See also:
Fiscal Stimulus Part 1
Fiscal Stimulus Part 2: Size

Friday, January 02, 2009

Fiscal Stimulus Part 2: Size

According to the Financial Times, the IMF is recommending that fiscal stimulus should be 5-6% of GDP. In other places the IMF has said they recommend 2%, so there is some confusion: perhaps the smaller figure means that the combined stimulus of all developed countries should be 2% of global GDP.

Some other recommendations:

- Paul Krugman estimated that the US needs a package of about 4% of GDP; that was back on November 10, and things have gone way downhill since then.
- Barack Obama's proposed two-year US$700B stimulus package works out to about 2.5% of US GDP (on top of previous stimulus).
- China is planning a $586 billion stimulus package, which is about 6 per cent of its GDP.
- Germany and Britain are each proposing stimulus packages that are about 1% of their GDP.
- The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is calling for a 2% stimulus package (about $32B).
- The Conference Board of Canada recommends a $13 billion stimulus package.

Five to six percent of Canadian GDP is $65B-$96B, depending on how you measure GDP. That puts Curiosity Cat's recommendation of $80B right in the middle of the range.

Paul Krugman argues that the fiscal stimulus package must be big:
If fiscal expansion is too little, that’s the end of the story. If it’s too much, the Fed can head off inflation by raising rates. So there’s an asymmetry. In reality, we can’t be sure how much bang we’ll get for the buck. What the asymmetry means is that we should err on the side of too much.

Or as IMF Economic Counsellor Olivier Blanchard said recently:
In normal times, the Fund would indeed be recommending to many countries that they reduce their budget deficit and their public debt. But these are not normal times, and the balance of risks today is very different.

If no fiscal stimulus is implemented, then demand may continue to fall. And with it, we may see some of the vicious cycles we have seen in the past: deflation and liquidity traps, expectations becoming more and more pessimistic and, as a result, a deeper and deeper recession. If, instead, a fiscal stimulus is implemented but proves unnecessary, the risk is that the economy recovers too fast. Surely, this risk is easier to control than the risk of an ever deepening recession.

I would put it even more starkly. What is needed is not only a fiscal stimulus now but a commitment by governments that they will follow whatever policies it takes to avoid a repeat of a Great Depression scenario. If they do so, the fear that people and firms have today will fade, and demand will pick up.

See also: Fiscal Stimulus Part 1

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Liberal Strategy: Attack!

Stephen Harper has behaved abysmally, leaving a portion of the country wondering what the heck is wrong with him. It's time to build on that disillusion. Harper has spent the last three years in vicious attacks on us and our leader: I only propose that we return the favor by publicizing fair and factual criticism of him. But to be effective the criticism should be directly aimed at undermining his character and competence. We can't delay. We should be doing this now - before the January 26 budget - and we should continue hammering him all year.

We have so many scandals to choose from. Here's a list. It's amazing that Harper has managed to avoid public fallout from the "in and out scam", Cadman bribe, the reduction in food safety inspections leading to the listeriosis outbreak, his pattern of incompetent cabinet appointments, his personal plagiarism (not just in speeches but also in articles published in major newspapers), his firing of nuclear safety watchdog when she tried to keep our nuclear power safe...

Are we holding back because we're afraid he'll sue again? We can't do that. Litigious men like Conrad Black and Brian Mulroney seem to have gotten away with criminal acts because newspapers and politicians were afraid to take them on. We can't be bullied by Harper.

The offensive should hammer Harper, and also should mobilize our members early for the next election. In September we were too slow getting started. We need to have an election plan ready so that we can hit the ground running next time.

Liberals want to be mobilized and energized... we've been calling for it for years. For three years we have been watching in frustration as the Harper Agenda puts more young people in jail, wreaks havoc with our investments, makes our food unsafe, undermines our democracy, and on and on. We are ready to rally against Harper: give us some leadership, please!