Henry Cisneros

America the Pure

Henry Cisneros was the Mayor of San Antonio in 1988. He was married with children. Then he had an affair with his campaign manager, Linda Jones. It was not a very secret affair: almost everybody involved in civic politics in San Antonio knew about it. Cisneros decided to come clean about the affair: he called a press conference and admitted the truth. Then he left his wife, and moved in with Linda Jones.

Nobody admires an adulterer, of course, but it isn’t against any law in the United States or Canada. Cisneros left politics and tried to make a new life for himself with his new partner. Big deal.

About a year after he left his wife, Cisneros changed his mind and moved back in with his wife. Good. He did the right thing. But Linda Jones, in the meantime, had left her own husband. She graciously asked for a divorce without alimony. Gracious indeed, since she was the one who broke her marriage vows. After Cisneros left her to go back to his wife, Jones was not as gracious. She demanded some kind of support payments. She wanted $4,000 a month. Cisneros agreed. Everything, at this point, looks a little tawdry, don’t you think? Still, nothing illegal about it all.

In 1992, Bill Clinton made Cisneros head of the Housing and Urban Development Agency (HUD). Before he could take up his new position, he had to pass an FBI “background check”. The FBI asked about financial issues and Cisneros did something a little strange. He informed the FBI that he had given money to Jones but he said that he gave a lot less than he really did. This is strange because there is nothing illegal– quite the contrary– about paying support to a former partner. Nevertheless, when Cisneros’ financial obligations increased– he has a child with a heart defect and two daughters in college– he stopped making payments to Jones. Jones sold her stories to the tabloids and launched a lawsuit. The FBI found out that the amounts he had previously paid her were far in excess of what he had said he paid her– more like $40,000 instead of $10,000 a year.

Janet Reno appointed an independent prosecutor to investigate the charges. Why? Who knows? It cost the FBI and the Independent Counsel $9 million to investigate Cisneros’ consensual relationship.

Cisneros now faces 90 years in jail. I’m not kidding. For what? For “conspiracy”, “lying to a law enforcement officer”, “obstruction of justice” (which sometimes appears to be the major crime of not telling the police when you are committing a minor crime or something that could be construed as a crime). Whatever.

What kind of a lunatic asylum is this? What kind of an idiot is running the Justice Department and the FBI? What kind of a nation tolerates this kind of hysterical persecution?

A nation that executes children. A nation that subsidizes millionaire athletes. A nation that rewards graduating high school seniors with breast implants. A nation that enters a war with the expectation that it will withdraw with the first casualty.

Update, February 2003:

I just discovered that Bill Clinton pardoned Cisneros in January 1999. One of the few pardons that makes sense..

Update January 2006: The Republicans want to reanimate the Cisneros scandal after a disclosure that– apparently– someone came to their senses and decided that $9 million was quite enough to spend on investigating a well-known divorce. Cover-up, Cover up!

Are most Republican supporters so whacko that they will be sufficiently aroused by Robert Novak to simply buy this story without actually checking into any of the details? Write me if you are a Republican and you actually did some independent research on the Cisneros stories before buying the “cover-up” spin. Please.

Your Hard Drive is Your Property

Did you ever consider that your computer is private property? You bought it. You paid for it. It’s yours. The hard drive, the motherboard, the CD, the RAM— it’s all your property, just like your couch, your stereo, and your house. If someone came into your house and tried to remove your computer without your permission, you could have that person arrested. If the same person tried to steal your computer three times, in California, he could go to jail for 25 years! Think about that. Our government is so concerned about your private property that is willing to spend millions of dollars to punish anybody who tries to take it without your permission.

The hard drive is your property too. That’s where the programs and data go. The hard drive is like a gigantic cathedral with thousands and thousands of rooms. And you own it! All of it! And like any owner, you can put stuff in your rooms.

Wait a minute! Somebody’s living in your cathedral! Some complete stranger just walked right in and made himself at home without asking for your permission. Not only that, but he’s brought hundreds of his friends. By golly, they are taking up a whole wing of your cathedral!

Why, it’s Bill Gates. He’s living in your house! How about that!

How did he get there? Well, first of all, on the day you bought your computer, Bill Gates and a large number of his friends moved right in. And guess what? Not only does he get to live in your hard drive without paying you any rent, but he gets to make YOU pay rent, even though you might never have invited him in. Yes, you pay the Microsoft Tax every time you buy a computer, whether you want Bill Gates to live on your hard drive or not. If you don’t believe me, go to a computer store and tell the guy that you want to buy a computer but you don’t want Windows on it.

Ever look through your Windows directory? There’s about a hundred subdirectories! That’s where all of Bill Gates’ parasitical friends live. You’ll find his best friend, MSN there, along with IE, and AOL, and Genie, and lots of other weirdos that you didn’t invite in. These guys are taking up space in your house! And they didn’t ask to come in!

Look, maybe you asked Bill Gates in, because you needed to use his Windows software. And maybe you don’t mind that he added a few freebies to your Windows, like CD Player and DeFragger. But after winning your good will with those freebies that don’t really annoy you, he has suddenly pulled up at your front door with two eighteen-wheelers. “Hi there? You don’t mind if I bring all this stuff in, do you?” And there he is loading up your hard drive with all kinds of bizarre little applications.

But this is like inviting an electrician in to come and fix your main electrical panel, and then finding out that he brought about a hundred of his buddies with and they’re all setting up hot-tubs and pool tables and beer kegs and partying down on your hard drive and smoking and blowing your fuses and leaving blood stains on your drapes and so on. Think about this next time your Windows 98 crashes. Why did it crash? Because it’s so hard to write a good computer program nowadays? Or because of all the other crap that got loaded onto your system along with Windows 98?

So you go– what’s wrong with that? Okay. You like hot tubs? So you decide to get into your hot tub. The hot tub manager says, hold it: you have to pay me $300 to use the hot tub. You say, that’s too much. I won’t use the hot tub. Do you think the hot tub is going to go away? No, it’s not. It’s going to stay there, steaming away, corroding your pipes, leaking into tour basement for ever. Every time you walk by, the guy goes, “hey, wanna use a hot tub?”

It’s not only Microsoft that is guilty of this invasion of your private property. Most computer vendors dump all kinds of technotrash all over your computer before delivering it.

I recently bought a Compaq notebook. I needed a lot of disk space, so I paid extra for a 6.3 gig hard drive. Well, Bill Gates had already taken up about half the house there, and then I found out that Compaq had stolen an additional 1.6 GIG of space on another drive. This is called “system-save”. Compaq sets it aside as a backup of the system so that when Windows goes bad, as it inevitably does, you can simply delete all your work and start over again with a fresh install. Great solution, eh? Compaq assumes you are a total idiot who wouldn’t actually decide to customize your software. Well, my attitude is: get the hell off my property! If I want to pay twice as much for a house so I can have a whole wing devoted to backup toilets and appliances, I’ll buy it from somebody else who gives me a choice, thank you.

Even worse– most of that 1.6 gig is not taken up with essential files for running your computer– it’s taken up with all the crap that you didn’t want in the first place and won’t buy! Compaq insists you keep that crap right in front of you because sooner or later…

Bill Gates is getting pushier and pushier too now. You get your new computer—it’s already got a directory called “My Documents”. What kind of idiot is going to create a directory called “My Documents”? An idiot who is going to create all of about five documents in his entire life and wants to keep them all in one folder so he never loses them, maybe. And then there is “program files”. You can’t get to the program files directory by typing “CD \PROGRAM FILES” like you should be able to. You have to type “CD\PROGRA~1” for some bizarre reason! You can’t get rid of these folders either. Why not? If that electrician who fixed your electrical panel decided to leave a bathtub in the middle of your living room, you could get rid of it. But Windows says you can’t delete certain folders, including the idiotic “My Documents”. And when you browse to the Windows directory with Windows Explorer, you don’t see the files that are in there. Instead, you are warned not to tamper with anything.

Microsoft’s mission in life, of course, is to sell as much software as possible. Because there are a lot more dingbats in the world than power users, Microsoft keeps aiming Windows at the idiot-user. Don’t know how to organize your files? No problem—Windows will put them all in one directory. Don’t plan to ever customize your applications or edit their configuration files? You’ll never even know where they are. Can’t figure out how to configure dial-up networking so you can go on the Internet? Hey—Microsoft will do it all for you, and log you into their web servers, and demand your credit card number, of course.

In other words, most people are going: “Hey—I hired a plumber to fix the toilet and you know what he did? He put in a hot tub and a Jacuzzi and a sauna too! And I didn’t even ask him!” Oh, but how much did it cost? “It was free. It came with the computer.” Free, of course, except for the Microsoft tax on every new computer sold by mainstream vendors. Free, at the price of freedom and individuality and choice. Free, except for the fact that the primary objective of Microsoft is to turn the Internet into television: 67 channels and nothing on.

The software companies never tire of trumpeting their rights all over the place. It’s about time the computer user started standing up for his own rights. You own your hard drive. You have a right to demand that software companies and internet servers stop dumping their advertising on your hard drive. It’s time to demand that Microsoft install only the application that you asked for on your hard disk.

I Went to See the Doctor

I went to see my doctor today. She has an office downtown in one of those little medical buildings, which she shares with several other doctors and a pharmacy. That tells you something about medicine right away. Not feeling well? Here—take a controlled substance.

The waiting rooms in doctor’s offices always seem to be full of women and children. You don’t see many men there. If you do, they are usually old. This is a well-known fact: women go to see the doctor way more often than men do. Why? Are they sick more often? Maybe it’s because the parts of the human body that are responsible for giving birth are unnecessarily complicated and need a lot of maintenance. The corresponding male organ seems highly resilient and durable. Or maybe men just never bother to get it fixed. Which is the truth? I don’t know.

My doctor is a female. This made me nervous when I made my first visit. But she put me at ease almost immediately by inviting me to undress and lay on the table while she strapped on a disposable glove. Then she invited the nurse in to watch, just to be sure I was feeling safe and comfortable. Hell, invite everybody in.

I found it a little strange. Equality gone amok? The nurse was in there to make sure that nothing “inappropriate” happened, or, at least, nothing inappropriate without a witness. This puzzled me. There were three possible inappropriate things that could happen. Firstly, the doctor might have assaulted me. Secondly, I might have assaulted the doctor. Thirdly, we might have had an argument—maybe about my high cholesterol—and assaulted each other.

We don’t usually worry about a female doctor assaulting a male patient. But we do worry about male doctors assaulting female patients. But it would be unfair to require a nurse to be present whenever a male doctor examines a female patient and not require a nurse to come in when a female doctor examines a male patient– everybody has to be equal– so the nurse comes in for everybody.

On the other hand, the nurse was also a female. Would it be considered appropriate for a male doctor to summon a male nurse to make sure nothing inappropriate happened while he examined a female patient? I don’t think so. What we have here is a conflict between two cultural ideals: equality and protection.

I wondered whether the nurse was in the room to protect me or the doctor. I wanted to tell my doctor that if it was for my sake, I’d just as soon take my chances and not have a spectator. But I couldn’t think of a diplomatic way to say so. So the nurse sat there on a chair. She couldn’t actually read or anything like that. She had to watch. But everybody in the room knew that it would be embarrassing for her to watch too closely, so she just kind of looked in our general direction without actually seeming to see anything.

I think every doctor should be required to be a “patient” for one hour a week. They don’t always seem very sensitive to the patient. I’m always nervous as a patient. When I was a child, the only time we saw a doctor was to get a needle. If doctors are smart, they will change this. They will invite children to come in and play with some toys and watch the doctor do surgery or something. Make it festive and fun. Nowadays I’m not worried about needles, but I get nervous when the doctor tells me to undress and lie on a table and then she goes out of the room for fifteen minutes and comes back in with a nurse, “to watch”.

Back to my visit– after sitting in the waiting room for five minutes, a nurse came and fetched me and led me to one of the examination rooms. There was not much in this room. A few chairs, a desk, and a counter with a sink. There was a box of rubber gloves and a tube of petroleum jelly on the counter. And the examining table, a rather mechanical piece of furniture with a black vinyl cushion on it. The room was painted pink. The nurse left the door open and I was able to hear a woman in another room explaining her symptoms to the doctor. I think she must have just started talking about it without waiting for an official examination to begin, because the first thing the doctor did when she came into my examining room was close the door. Maybe the patient didn’t think anybody else could hear. I often act that way myself at work, talking on the phone in my cubicle. You get a false sense of security because you can’t see anybody else nearby, and you can’t hear them, of course, unless they are talking on the phone.

My doctor must have gone to some kind of conference on patient-doctor relationships. At my first visit, she was very “traditional”. I want you to do this and that and then I’ll have a look here and tell you what we’re going to do. At my more recent visits, it was more like “what would you like me to do? I recommend this, but it’s up to you. You tell me when if you want this or that checked.” She has a poster on the wall stating that she does not casually prescribe antibiotics, because over-prescribing antibiotics has led to some strains of viruses becoming resistant.

Generally, I enjoy visiting the doctor. I used to think that anybody being paid to care for you didn’t really care for you. Now I think that just because someone is being paid doesn’t mean they don’t want to do a good job. It’s all where you draw the line.

Alternative Medicine

How many have you tried? I’ll bet you’ve tried a few. Almost everyone gets sick or injured on a semi-regular basis. Almost everyone feels lousy now and then. Almost everyone wants to feel better than they do. How many people ever say, “boy, I feel great” almost every day? Not as many as we wish.

There are almost as many alternative therapies around today as there were theories of psychology in the 1960’s. But what is unusual about the state of health care today is the way it has become a kind of smorgasbord, from which people pick and choose as they please, without regard for the theoretical, religious, or cultural foundations of each therapy.

Most of these therapies have links to the far East. Acupuncture drew some attention back in 1971 when American journalist, James Reston, had his appendix removed while traveling with President Nixon’s entourage on a visit to China. The Chinese surgeons claimed to use acupuncture instead of general anesthesia during the surgery to remove the damaged appendix. Reston wrote favourably about the experience in the New York Times.

The trouble with most of these remedies, in the view of many members of the Medical establishment, is that, by normal standards of scientific investigation, they don’t really work, and they are based on utterly fantastical theories about how the human body works. Acupuncture, for example, identifies “meridians” that extend along the body from head to toe, and are somehow related to certain medical conditions. By inserting very thin needles into points along these meridians, various ailments can be cured or pain alleviated. Western science has never found empirical proof of the existence of these meridians or any relationship they might have with, say, back pain, or hemorrhoids, or allergies. The acupuncturist argues, well, they must exist because acupuncture works.

There is, in fact, a good deal of anecdotal evidence that acupuncture can be effective in treating certain conditions. On the other hand, you can find anecdotal evidence to prove just about anything, and “scientific” experiments have been inconclusive, at best. It is unclear whether it has a placebo effect—it works because people think it works—or really works in some way unknown to medical science.

Some alternative remedies offer maddeningly mystical explanations of how they work. Therapeutic touch claims to modulate the patient’s energy field, detect imbalances, and then redirect the energy to locations in the body requiring healing. Oddly enough, practitioners claim that there is “scientific” evidence that it works. Reiki claims to draw the body’s own healing power back into itself, through the channeling of the reiki therapist. Massage Therapists claim that stern manipulation of muscles and skin releases toxins (presumably into the bloodstream where they are safely disposed of by the liver and kidneys). Chiropractors claim that manipulating the spine to eliminate points of “subluxation” frees up blockages in the nervous system, though scientists insist that nerves are not like water hoses, that can be “pinched” and choked off—they are more like electrical circuits, which can only be “on” or “off”. Iridologists claim to detect symptoms in the patterns of the iris. A bit like reading your palm, and about as convincing, to the scientific establishment.

Most people don’t care about the theoretical underpinnings of alternative medicines. They might not buy the explanation entirely, but it isn’t hard to believe that western science doesn’t completely understand the human body. Customers of alternative therapists are typically dissatisfied with traditional medicine. It hasn’t worked for them. They are willing to try anything in the hope that it will work. For cases of back pain or depression, acupuncture or massage can be a harmless diversion. For cancer or more serious problems, alternative medicine offers hope where none existed before. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is so ill-defined and nebulous that almost any remedy can be advertised as a sure-fire cure.

It seems to me that there are three possible conclusions to be drawn. 1) all alternative remedies are, by and large, a sham, and the success stories are not representative of the actual experiences of most users. 2) at least some alternative remedies work, even if we don’t understand how or why just yet, and 3) alternative remedies work because they are based on a holistic view of life that takes into account spiritual and psychological dimensions that western science ignores.

After experimenting with a number of different alternative therapies, and reading as much as I could about the others, I’m not really very convinced about the effectiveness of the remedies themselves. However, some of the therapists are very nice people. They pay attention when you tell them your problems. They express concern and compassion to you, and they might even touch you with their hands. Most people respond to a kindly word or touch. Most people feel better after a session with a masseuse or reiki practitioner because, hey, it might be the only kindness they’ve experienced that week in their lives.

But the truth is that most traditional medical remedies are tested fairly thoroughly by the scientific community and most of the methods they use are sound. Does a new drug cure certain types of cancer? Get a group of 500 patients and give it to half of them and give a placebo to the other half. After five years, is there a difference? Sure drug companies try to cheat, and sure doctors over-prescribe and do too much surgery. The difference is that the medical community, by and large, believes in open, systematic testing and authentication of therapeutic drugs and practices. Any two-bit medical student can get approval to challenge any long-held scientific assumption, as long as he can marshal some evidence in support of his position.

There have been very few of these types of rigorous studies performed on alternative remedies. For one thing, most practitioners seems to instinctively shy away from any kind of systematic testing of their remedies. Chiropractors in particular seem shifty and evasive about what the term “subluxation” means, and how it is detected on an x-ray. Investigative news programs love going “undercover” to expose inconsistencies in the way they diagnose ailments. While it is true that some of these investigative programs—20/20 comes to mind—are sensationalistic and manipulative, the chiropractors don’t make much of a case for themselves.

Just how many alternative remedies are there?

Cranial Sacral Therapy
Touch Therapy
Energy Balancing
Needle-less acupuncture (acupuncture lite?)
Ear candling
Tai Chen
Shiatsu Massage
Colon Therapy

Unreported Crime

The chairman of the police services Board in Toronto doesn’t believe her own eyes.

New reports show that the crime rate in Toronto has declined by a hefty 8% in the past year. Some types of crime have decreased by 15% or more.

Every single time the statistics show that crime has gone up, the Chairman of the Police Services Board has climbed onto her gold-plated pedestal and proclaimed that the taxpayers better fork over some more money for police services.

The Chairman never says: Oh oh. We’re doing a lousy job. Instead of reducing crime, we’re making it go up! Nor does she ever say, “Oh, those statistics are due to changing demographics—we’re doing just fine, really. Put that money into shelters for the homeless instead.” And she never says, “Those statistics are not true. I don’t believe them.” Not when the statistics say that crime is on the increase.

But when these statistics come out and show that the amount of crime in the city of Toronto has gone down, she says, “I don’t believe those numbers. All of my friends say crime is going up. They are all more afraid of crime now than they used to be.”

This is about as stupid a thing as a responsible person in an official position can say. She is saying, I don’t care about proof or facts or truth. I don’t care about the fact that my personal experience is a completely meaningless measure of how widespread crime in a city of 2 million people is. She is saying, it doesn’t matter what the reality is: we are going to ask for more and more money every single time the budget comes up for negotiation.

I think we should give her the increase. Give her another 10, 20, 30 million dollars. Why not? And the next time the statistics come out and show that crime is going up, we’ll tell her: We don’t believe those statistics. We feel that the crime rate is going down. No soup for you.



According to the Utne Reader, the 500 richest people in the world control more wealth than the 3 billion poorest. Think about that. We’re all born with nothing. We live on this big blue ball. We have to find some way of living our lives out with whatever resources we have available. This goes on for about 10 million years. We end up with 500 people owning half the planet. If you believe the ideological priests of capitalism, this is great. Those 500 people worked so hard and were so smart that they deserve half of all the wealth on the planet.

Capitalism isn’t a bad system. Communism sounds great in the abstract, but nobody’s succeeded in making it work in practice. There are two big things wrong with it. First of all, it requires a high degree of government control over everybody’s lives. Secondly, it reduces the incentives for people to work hard and produce things of value. It’s unfortunate, but human beings don’t have a great deal of self-discipline. Without a good reason to work hard, we won’t.

Now, all government control is not bad, and people shouldn’t live their lives just to work hard, but I like life in the wealthy west, and I wish more people in the world would have access to good health care, adequate food and shelter, and decent clothing like we do. But it is a myth to believe that capitalism provided these things. Capitalism provided an engine of economic growth, but the widespread distribution of wealth among large numbers of peoples was caused by political and social action, not by economic forces. Governments created minimum wages, social security, unemployment insurance, and pension plans. If it had been up to the fathers of capitalism, most of us would be making 50 cents a day, living in dirty hovels in dark, unlit streets, and working twelve hours a day. The funny thing is, the fathers of capitalism wouldn’t have been so rich either.

Why did governments interfere with the economy? Because socialists and communists convinced many people that workers were also entitled to some of the benefits of economic growth. Because workers joined unions to fight for a share of the pie. Because social activists created organizations and movements determined to make improvements in the lives of the working poor.

Ironically, these improvements in the living conditions of the average worker benefited the very rich as well: without a large market of affluent middle class citizens, where would corporations that sell expensive cars, gadgets, clothing, and furniture, get their customers?

For a short period of time—about the end of the Depression to the 1980’s—the life of the average worker improved steadily. He got better wages, better health care, better social benefits. Then, with the triumph of Reaganomics and the conservative backlash against the sixties, the rich started to take it all back. It started with tax cuts—which primarily benefit the rich—and with the deficits that seemed to justify massive cuts in social spending (but never, of course, in military spending). Since then, there has been a steady erosion of government programs that benefit the poor and the middle class, and a steady increase in the proportion of wealth in this country that is held by a small percentage of the very rich. Maybe you used to make $34 thousand a year. Now you make $36 and a half. A top executive at a large corporation used to make $250,000.00. Now he makes $100 million. I am not exaggerating. Lawyers win huge settlements and take in millions for themselves. Athletes have steadily increased their income by 10% or more every year since 1972. It seems very odd that the president of the United States still makes a paltry $250,000. Why? Because voters believe it would be outrageous to pay the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet more than Albert Belle?

It’s time for the pendulum to swing back towards the middle. Increase the minimum wage, strengthen the unions, cut military spending, put more money into the schools, reduce tuition costs for colleges and universities, and put some money into redevelopment of inner city cores, state and provincial high ways, and urban greenbelts.


Bush League

In a speech at a conference at McGill University recently, former U.S. President George Bush responded to charges that former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had been too cozy to the U.S. President, selling out Canada’s needs and aspirations in order to cozy up to those big American mega-corporations. “However close our relationship was, the prime minister always had Canada’s best interests at heart.” Spoken like a true tart. He sounds like Dracula praising a woman for her lovely, long neck.

Brian Mulroney himself later proclaimed that where-ever he travels in Canada, “I am just about received in triumph”. It’s a very telling phrase: just about. I picture two old ladies with pom-poms asking if it’s true that Joe Clark is making an appearance. Just about.

Somehow this doesn’t jive with the reports of Conservative campaign workers who found, in the election following Mulroney’s resignation, that doors were slammed in their faces as soon as they identified themselves as representatives of Mulroney’s party. Doesn’t jive, either, with the election results: the Progressive Conservatives under hapless successor Kim Campbell were pretty well wiped right off the map. No one seriously believed this was a vote on Kim Campbell. The Conservatives still haven’t recovered. Mulroney claims that the media made him look bad. The media and about 10 million voters.

Well, when Bush wasn’t busy singing Mulroney’s praises, he lavished a few compliments on former Mexican President Carlos Salinas. Mexico certainly hasn’t lost it’s desire to see Mr. Salinas– he is hiding out in Ireland right now avoiding extradition on charges of pilfering the state treasury. Mr. Mulroney must have blushed with delight at having risen to such lofty heights– to be praised in the same breath with a corrupt former Mexican dictator!

What is so offensive about Mr. Mulroney’s attempts to rehabilitate his “image” is his cold conviction that he really was a great as he thinks he was, and it is only a matter of sufficient determination and persistence on his part for the rest of us to be so enlightened. One gets the impression that he thinks that the people of Canada were tricked into believing he was a creep, and they can be tricked back into believing he was a genius.

The problem with that is that if Canadian public opinion was really so wishy-washy, who would want the blessings of its favour?

Bush has the same problem in the U.S. He is generally regarded as a light-weight president, a man who led his country into the most one-sided and hollow military victory of this century, and, for all that, couldn’t manage to get himself re-elected while running against a shifty womanizing chameleon from Arkansas.

Cutting Taxes

I just read that there is an election in Texas, and all the
candidates are promising to reduce the size of government
and cut taxes.

Here in Ontario, Mike Harris, of the Progressive Conservatives (wouldn’t that name sit nicely on some of those Neanderthal Texans!), is also promising to cut taxes.

This puzzles me. It seems to me that we’ve been cutting
taxes and reducing the size of government since the Lyndon Johnson Administration. The Viet Nam War was the most expensive undertaking by the U.S. government at that time. I can’t remember the last time I heard a candidate promise to “increase taxes and make the government bigger”. But if everybody has been cutting taxes and reducing the size of government, it seems to me that there shouldn’t be very much of either left by now. Just two guys in a rented office in Washington, and a driver’s license bureau in Peoria.

Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter in 1979, promising to cut taxes. He criticized the Democrats as irresponsible “tax and spend” liberals. In 1979, the U.S. had a national budget deficit of about $45 Billion. Reagan won and cut taxes. He cut spending on a few things but increased spending on the military. When he left office in 1988, the U.S. national deficit was $500 Billion.

That’s the trouble with conservatives. When the deficits in most western countries were really high, they argued that governments could no longer afford to spend a lot of money on social programs and education and health care. People would have to make sacrifices for the good of the country. Workers would have to settle for smaller wages and less benefits. But then they went right out and squandered an unbelievable fortune on idiotic, ill-conceived, outrageously over-priced military hardware like the B-2 Stealth Bomber. (Remember– these are the companies that charged the Pentagon almost $1000 for a common pair of pliers, and $700 for a hammer). And the richest business and corporate leaders continued to give themselves mammoth increases in pay and benefits, while demanding that the government dump single mothers off welfare.

Is it really so surprising that “liberals” like Bill Clinton and Jean Chretien are finally eliminating those horrendous deficits? But even Clinton tends to give in to the military, which, in spite of the fact that America doesn’t have a single powerful enemy in the world, continues to spend money in the most wasteful way imaginable: on military technologies that are obsolete before they even hit production.

Think about this– the U.S. military budget reached a size that could truly be termed “colossal” at a time when most Americans believed that the Soviet Bloc was ten times as large and powerful as it is now. As it turns out, the Soviet Bloc was never anything near the military threat the Pentagon said it was. Yet the U.S. continues to spend even more today on the military than it did in the 60’s, 70’s, or 80’s. A lot of thoughtful people think that this whole Yugoslavian adventure is primarily a desperate attempt by the military to justify sustained expenditures on new toys.

One last thing about tax cuts. Conservatives like Mike Harris love to rave about how they are giving the same tax cut to everybody, rich or poor, white or black, male or female, gay or heterosexual. That’s right. Let’s see. Let’s say it’s a 4% tax reduction.

If you make $50,000 a year and pay $8,000 in taxes, Mike Harris is going to give you a hefty $320 back! Whoooeee! Don’t spend it all at once! You may want to save it for appointments with your acupuncturist!

Now, if you make $500,000 a year, and pay $100,000 in taxes, then your tax break amounts to…. hold on to your hat! $4000! That’s right. Even though you make way more money than the poor schmuck making $50,000, the province of Ontario is going to give you ten times as much money back! Sort of Robin Hood in reverse. Especially when you consider that to get that $4000, Mike Harris had to borrow $24 billion, which is now added to the province’s dept. Actually, he also got some of the money by reducing services at hospitals and schools, that benefit everybody regardless of income.

Lest you think I’m just another of those “tax and spend” liberals, let me assure you that I hate paying taxes as much as the next guy. It just peeves me off when the government borrows money from all of us to give a big tax break to a few. Let’s at least eliminate the deficit before giving out any big fat tax breaks, and lets make sure we have adequate housing, medical care, and social services too.

Do you like walking past the panhandlers in downtown Toronto? Me neither. Harris’ solution is to truck them out of down. My solution is to rearrange priorities. Second BMW for a wealthy Ontario family? Second. Affordable housing for poor people in Toronto? First. Done.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it to my dying day: even the rich benefit from a stable, safe society, and you can only have a stable, safe society if you ensure that wealth is distributed fairly among as many people as possible.


Heinz recently held a bit of a pageant. They were looking for a new advertising agency. They already hold about 46% of the ketchup market, but they wanted more.

Maybe they saw the khaki ads for The Gap on TV and thought, “Hey! They’re cool! They’re hip! We want to be cool and hip. Are we cool and hip? I don’t think so. Let’s find someone to help us be cool and hip.”

The two finalists were Leo Burnett Co. and TBWA Chiat/Day. Chiat/Day is famous for some weird new office concept they introduced a couple of years ago: nobody would have a desk or a computer or an office. Everyone would just wander around until he or she found a nice place to work. You could borrow a computer from the front desk. You could sit in a portable cubicle if you had a private meeting. You could haul your files around in a little red wagon. It didn’t work.

The Burnett Co. created the famous “Anticipation” ads for Heinz many years ago– you know– showing ketchup slowly dripping from the bottle while playing the Carly Simon song.

Anyway, the Leo Burnett Co. must have been watching those khaki ads too. They won the contract. How did they do it?

They met with teenagers at restaurants and tried to figure out what the “essence” of ketchup was to these kids. They asked, “if ketchup was a TV character, who would it be?” The answer: the Fonz.

Ah! Oh! Now we understand! Unfortunately, when asked if ketchup was important to them, most teenagers said, “nah”.

What! Ketchup is not important to you! Egad! Outrageous! How can we remedy this state of misguided culinary atrophy?

A Beavis and Butthead spoof? Passé.

The solution was to give ketchup “a personality”. To give it a hip, iconic personae, that can withstand the rigors of adolescent ironic detachment. “Even ketchup advertising can be edgy” chirps Newsweek.

Heinz wasn’t sure. They called in a consultant named Gary Stibel. “Yes, ketchup advertising can be edgy. Here’s my bill.”

Burnett won the contract. Their ads will “focus on teens’ desire for control by showing ketchup smothering fries ‘until they can’t breath’ and highlighting its ability to make food taste ‘ketchuppy’ “. The ads “avoid traditional product-touting or slogans, which might turn off media-savvy teens”.

Ketchup is a good product. I like it on my fries and hamburger. And Heinz makes the best ketchup– check out the number of restaurants that buy a cheaper brand and then pour it into Heinz bottles. Heinz thinks I should put ketchup on my pizza and grilled-cheese sandwiches. Right.

And they think they are pretty smart. They think they can manipulate teenagers by being iconic. They think they can fool us by deconstructing their own motivations: we are not here to sell you a product. We are here to sell you an image. You’re sitting there at a table in a restaurant with your friends. You’re worried about whether or not your friends like you. Do they find you sophisticated enough? Do they find you sufficiently ironic and detached? Are they convinced that you cannot be manipulated or deceived by adults?

You reach for the ketchup. You’re cool.

The Cost of Books

Why does a book cost about $25 nowadays? Why do even paperbacks cost $15? How much do you think the author gets?

Well, the author gets about a buck. That’s right: $1.00. The rest of that “reasonable” price is the cost of printing, formatting, shipping, and handling. It includes the cost of display shelves, store clerks, cash registers, and agents. It includes the cost of advertising, promotion, travel, office furniture, telephones, and postage.

What if you didn’t have any of those costs? What if you could buy the book directly from the publisher? What if the book could be shipped to you over a phone line, in about 10 seconds? What if the publisher didn’t have to pay for paper? How much should the book cost? About $2.00, right? All right– let’s be generous: $3.50.

Wrong. It would cost $15-20.00. It would cost more than the same book on sale, in paper, on a shelf, in a store, in front of a counter with a cash register and a clerk.

This makes no sense. But it’s true. Meet the “electronic book”. Meet greed.

This reminds me of when the CD first came out. It was priced about $10 more than a vinyl LP. Why? The record companies said it cost more to produce. Well, today the CD cost way less to produce than a vinyl record. When do the discounts start? When do they start to pay their artists?

Yes, the first “virtual” books are on the market: The Software Book and The Rocket. They cost about $500 – 600. They are about the size and weight of real books and consist mostly of computer components and monochrome screen. Yes, you can read in the toilet again.

And how about that: you can buy Shakespeare for your virtual book. I couldn’t find out the price, but I’m sure you won’t mind paying a royalty on it.

Should you buy one? If you’re the kind of person who buys lottery tickets for birthday presents, then yes, by all means.

For the rest of us— forget it.