Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Promise of Canada by Charlotte Gray – A review

November 7, 2016

I would strongly recommend this book to all diplomats posted to Canada, as well as to all Canadians posted abroad who need to understand the history of their country. In fact, the same is true for all Canadians who, if like me, may think they know how Canada evolved but would be pushed to identify all the relevant factors. Charlotte Gray has done this in a brilliantly researched and written way.

I came to Canada from the UK over sixty years ago and have lived here ever since, except for a period of study at the London School of Economics. Two years after arrival I became a landed immigrant and after a further thirteen a citizen. My children and grandchildren are all Canadian by birth.

Charlotte Gray arrived in 1979 and has become a superb chronicler of the evolution of Canada over the past two centuries. In my time here, I have not fully appreciated what was going on around me, but now I do, as she has skillfully authored an account of the country’s evolution from the time of politician Sir George-Etienne Cartier (1814-1873) to rapper Shad (1982- who is new to me).

It requires an enormous amount of skilled research (using both secondary sources and interviews) to develop these materials, and still more to integrate them into an intelligent portrait of a country which has grown in both size and numerous other ways.

Canadian literary blue-bloods have rightly given the book outstanding reviews. Rather than add to these, I will try to outline several things I have learned or have come to appreciate about Canada.

  1. One starting point to understanding Canada is geography, both its relation to other parts of the world, and what goes on inside. As for the latter, there are very few people in Canada in terms of population density or persons per square km. In 1961, the figure was 2/sq km and in 2015 4/sq km. Comparable figures for other countries are Russia 7 and 9; US 20 and 35; China 70 and 146; Singapore 2541 and 7829. Canada is largely empty.
  2. By far the majority of Canadians live in urban areas,18 million (about 60 %) in the ten largest metropolitan areas as of 2011. A light map of the country shows most of these people living close to the US border, while large swathes of the country are drenched in darkness.
  3. The rural population expects preferred treatment and often has difficulty in making its voice heard. The continuation of such measures as supply management for dairy products shows that in some instances this occurs.
  4. The diverse regions in which Canadians live include the Maritimes, Central Canada, the Prairies, British Columbia and the North. The economic, cultural and social character of each has meant that it is often difficult to get agreement on things that affect the whole country, and explains why parts, especially French Canada, from time to time toy with separation. Holding the parts together is a continuing challenge for federal politicians.
  5. All Canadians are immigrants who have arrived at different times. The original settlers came out of Africa about 60,000 to 100,000 years ago, travelling up to and through today’s Russia, across the land bridge to Alaska and down into North and South America. Later settlers, the ones most often covered in history books, came from Europe, especially the French, English, Dutch and Spanish. The arrival of each changes the lives of those already there, and does so for migrants arriving today.

It is how Canada has and continues to respond to these geographic and demographic factors which has influenced how the country has and may evolve in the future. Charlotte Gray’s detailed portraits of nine Canadians from different walks of life, politician, policeman, artist, academic, lawyer, and vignettes of five others (journalist, business, mayor, rapper and pop artist) provides the reader with an outstanding introduction to understanding Canada today and how we got here from there.

Rule or Cruel Britannia

October 5, 2016

Tears of the Rajahs (Simon and Schuster, 2015) by Ferdinand Mount, describes how the British East India Company dealt with the local populations on the Indian subcontinent from around 1600. It was often not a pretty picture and provides more ammunition to British Empire bashers.

I am aware of the list of documented atrocities and Mount helps to confirm them. But there is another side to the story, at least regarding the state of India and the countries which were once part of the Empire. Like most major happenings, there is a good and bad news story to recount. This one links to what is discussed under the rubric of globalization and suggests a good news outcome.

There are several stages and meanings to the idea and process of globalization. A world map for 1905 (I have one on my wall) shows countries of the British Empire coloured red. They include the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, parts of Africa, the Indian subcontinent (today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar), and numerous places like Malaysia, Singapore and a series of rocks and islands. Until 1776, the thirteen American colonies would also have had a reddish hue, and in many ways still do.

From around 1600, and from a geographic viewpoint, the process of globalization lead to Britain becoming the world’s main superpower. On the way it had to compete with Holland, Spain and France in North and South America, in Africa and in parts of Asia. Naval superiority aided by piracy helped to establish British footprints around the world.

Soon after 1905, the British Empire started to decline, and within fifty years of the end of WW1 it was over in a political, economic and military sense, but not, I would suggest, in a cultural and political sense. Its political institutions had become established in North America, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. No formal empire existed, but in its place the British Commonwealth, now the Commonwealth, was formed, reinforcing British views on many issues. English has become established as the common language for international interactions. Even the EU is reported to be considering retaining English as its working language after Brexit.

Another stage of globalization began after 1945, when the US became the main superpower challenged only by the Soviet Union and its satellites. By 1990, the Soviet Union had dissolved and Russian influence diminished globally and especially in central and eastern Europe. Meanwhile China was on the rise following the death of Mao and the reign of Li Peng. While China has become a global economic player, its neighbor Japan has receded somewhat from the global economic scene.

The foregoing is a ridiculously brief summary of how globalization has evolved geographically and politically over the past 120 years, but it does suggest quite a change over a reasonably short period of time. Few if any forecast these changes five years before they occurred. The same is true today and those who make even short term forecasts, say 2-3 years, are usually wrong.

Another dimension of globalization is more economic and technology related. Steam engines, railroads, cars and planes were technological changes stemming from the 19th century. The past several decades have seen the spread of computer-communications technology affecting different areas of economic, political and social activity. Enormous changes have taken place in numerous areas of our lives. These have been rapid and difficult to predict, but entrepreneurs are active around the world, as are criminals who have created a whole field of cyber-security.

In sum, the globalization initiated by the British Empire, although faded in some ways, is still very much present associated with the spread of democracy, certain human values, the English language and many types of sporting activity. How it got there was not always a pretty picture, but in the long run the results have not been too bad. Large parts of the world today still have a reddish hue. Rule rather than cruel Britannia is probably a better summary of many aspects of globalization today.

Brexit and all that (2)

July 6, 2016

What would the reaction have been if the UK vote had been 52/48 in favour of staying in the EU? Almost half the UK population would still have wanted to leave and would have continued to lobby for such an outcome. The message seems to be that there is extensive dissatisfaction with the status quo, as there is in the US for different but related reasons. But the historical and geographical circumstances differ.

Think back to 1945 and the end of WW2. For at least the next 35 years there was a period of global prosperity with rising per capita income reasonably distributed in developed, and in an increasing number of developing countries, as well as in countries ravaged during the war. This postwar fiscal stimulus prevented a return to the dirty thirties.

Politically, the postwar period contained a number of regional wars, Algeria, Korea, Malaya and Vietnam being examples, while colonies gained independence in Africa and Asia. The Soviet and Chinese empires remained mired in their communist molds, each of which was broken but with differing outcomes. China has since experienced rapid economic growth with an economy promoting exports of manufactured goods, while Russia has depended on export earnings from energy and other natural resources. The politics of the two communist systems differ.

The next 35 years, say since 1980, saw major technological change especially  the introduction of computers and the internet affecting many industries such as communications, transportation and manufacturing as well as resource based industries. Around 2008 there was a global recession with the slowdown affecting countries, industries and occupations differently. While Gross Domestic Product grew in most countries, it did so unevenly,  in that some citizens  made a great deal of money, while many saw their real incomes either stagnate or shrink, leading to dissatisfaction and the general malaise found in both Europe and North America. Supporters of Trump and Sanders in the US, and those unhappy with the EU are a reflection of these events. Immigration and the crossborder flow of refugees and displaced persons are other factors affecting both areas in ways peculiar to their locations.

Brexit has understandably forced attention on conditions in Western Europe. Meanwhile the rest of the world has not stood still. Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and parts of Africa, Chinese naval actions in the South China Sea, Russian moves in eastern Europe, and the nuclear factor in countries like North Korea, Iran and Pakistan are also cause for concern. The list of political/economic factors could easily be lengthened, one of which is cyber-terrorism (for a future posing)..

A summary of these issues illustrates the context within which Brexit is taking place in a domestic and international setting. If the vote had been no, the context would have changed very little, with the same set of dissatisfactions remaining. For a fuller listing of these see the web report by Maudlin Economic, posting for July 2nd, 2016.

I have no idea what will happen. There are too many factors at play. It easier to forecast the result of a World Cup soccer game, a Wimbledon tennis match, the Tour de France, or even a chess game than it is to assess how world events will evolve.

In the UK, I will watch how the political parties and parts of the country respond, and how other European countries react to the British vote and what follows. It already seems that the EU Council of Ministers, if not the EU Commission made up of officials, recognize that something needs to be done. The fallout from the US November election is even more difficult to forecast.

Brexit or 2016 and all that

June 29, 2016

“Every might at six o’clock Alvar Liddell brought us news of fresh disasters. ….Never you mind the thousands of dead, I said, you put on the kettle and we’ll have a nice cup of tea.” (Beyond The Fringe skit).

What will happen next? The most accurate answer is that no one knows. We are pretty good at reporting what has happened and fairly hopeless at what will happen after some major event. In order to have forecast today’s global economic circumstances, investment advisor John Maudlin writes as follows (from his website for June 25, 2016).

“If I had come on to this stage four years ago and told you … that we were going to have 40% of the world’s governmental debt at negative interest rates, $10 trillion on central bank balance sheets, and $10 trillion worth of dollar-denominated emerging-market debt, and that global GDP growth would average only 2%, unemployment would be below 5%, and interest rates would be negative in much of the world and less than 50 basis points in the US, you would have laughed me out of the room. You would have all hit the unsubscribe button. Today’s world was unthinkable a mere four to five years ago.”

Maudlin causes pause for consideration for those who think that anyone has a good grasp of what is likely to happen in the political-economy sphere over the next five even two years. Economic and political forecasting is far less reliable than weather forecasting and that’s not saying much. The forces of globalization perhaps sums up what is happening, but that overused term needs interpretation and refinement in today’s world.

What appears to be happening?

The Brexit vote is described by some as a tectonic shift in world events. I have my doubts. In the past 110 years there have been two world wars, many smaller ones, as well as a great depression and numerous recessions. Another source of disruption is technological change. It has affected a wide range of activities with the introduction of the steam engine, trains, planes, ships, cars and more recently computers and communications technology. Schumpeterian “creative destruction” took place. Economies were shocked by these technologies, but adapted, sometimes more quickly than others, and life went on. Some people were affected more than others, but in general the standard of living in the world improved. There were winners and losers.

Coinciding with these developments world population was increasing, so that whereas median world income rose there would be more people in the lowest quartile of incomes. It’s a good or a bad news story depending how you spin the statistics. If your income is below the mean today, you are worse off than those above it, but you may be significantly better off than those below the mean twenty or fifty years ago.

With many more people, the current world economy also has more international trade and investment, and more crossborder movement of people as migrants, workers, tourists, criminals and refugees. Developments in communications technology allow people in different countries to have immediate information about conditions around the world, including through the use of social media. In this sense, the world has shrunk, not physically but in the ability of people to be informed about what is happening elsewhere, and in being able to visit and trade with each other. Just listing and mapping trade and investment agreements between countries produces a spider’s web of people and firms connecting around the world.

A similar set of linkages can be mapped by listing the supply chains of firms manufacturing goods and services. The inputs of items like cars come from many countries where part of the value-added is undertaken before shipping to another location in the same or another country. A Japanese car sold in North America may have been made there with few actual Japanese inputs.

Along comes an event like Brexit. Some view it as an unraveling of the movement towards economic and political union in Europe since 1945, and a return to nationalism and the antagonisms between nation states, especially if other countries decide either to leave the EU or weaken their ties to it. Others see it as a restoration of state sovereignty and the desire of countries to shape the social and economic environment within their borders. For reasons similar to why clubs are formed, people want to live beside other like-minded persons, as they do in neighborhoods, clubs and religious communities. Concerns are raised because state sovereignty can lead to nasty nationalism, but this is something that the promotion of human values tries to ameliorate, not always that well as the record of conflict shows.

My take is that things will settle down as people and firms view their options and make adjustments. These will occur in trade agreements, defense alliances, the way industries are structured and organized, .and the ability of people to move between countries.

What is the alternative?

If Brexit had not occurred something else would have to relieve the pressures caused by a combination of the crossborder movement of persons whether as refugees, illegal migrants or others, the debt situation outlined in the Maudlin quote, and the environmental movement.

The last does not seem part of the Brexit debate. It takes place in other circles but will likely become part of the dialogue. My take on this is that there are obvious visible signs of environmental problems such as air pollution in Asian cities, and water pollution in rivers, lakes and oceans. The plastic junk pictured in the Pacific and other oceans is a visible cause of concern with viable alternatives available to address the situation. The link between human activity and global warming is, in my mind, an interesting hypothesis but not one where the facts collected so far confirm the linkage, but that is for another day.

As far as Brexit is concerned, it will cause adjustments to be made. If the vote had gone the other way, the pressure for change would still have been there and would have become manifest in other ways. The pressure for change exists in continental European countries for reasons similar to that in the UK. In the current US presidential campaign, the desire for change is manifest by the widespread support of Trump on one side and Sanders on the other, together with a visceral dislike for Clinton by some. But for now as the opening quote said about the WW2 bombing of Britain,

“Never you mind……you put on the kettle and we’ll have a nice cup of tea.”

A Rehearsal for WW2 – The Spanish Civil War

May 17, 2016


I use to think that the interwar years were those of peace between two world wars. My mistake, which a reading of Adam Hochschild, Spain In Our Hearts, Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) makes clear. It illustrates the state of the global political economy, especially in Europe, North America and the Soviet Union at that time.

Economically, these were the depression years in North America, illustrated in prose by Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and later in a movie. In the Soviet Union there were ghastly experiments taking place especially in agriculture, which led to many deaths through starvation. And in Europe the political choice for the future was seen by many to be between Fascism and Communism, with the prospects for capitalism and liberal democracy considered by many to be non-existent.

And yet the last survived in North America and Europe, and to various degrees in countries such as Japan and India, although not in many parts of the former Soviet Union, where elements of liberal democracy are a rare find.

The opponents in the Spanish Civil War were right-wing Spanish Nationalists and left-wing Spanish Republicans. When the war started, Spain was ruled by the Republicans who, having disposed of the monarchy, were to be overthrown by  Francisco Franco. He ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. From 1978 to the present, the country has operated as a constitutional monarchy which was not something Franco had planned for.

At home, Franco was backed by parts of the military, the Catholic Church and the wealthier classes especially the landowners. Abroad, he was supported by Hitler and Mussolini, as well as by certain interests in North America and Europe. Germany provided aircraft and pilots, using the occasion to prepare for warfare that was to follow in Europe after 1939. Texaco supplied fuel for Franco’s planes and tanks.

Some of the Spanish armed forces remained loyal to the official Spanish government run by the Republicans, but they were supplemented with foreign fighters from an estimated 50 countries, including the Soviet Union, France, the UK, US and Canada. These international brigades, organized by the Communist International, contained about 60,000 people overall, principally male, of which about 20,000 were active at any one time. A memorial to over 1500 Canadians who served in the Mackenzie-Papineau brigade during the civil war was unveiled in Ottawa in 2001. It is situated on Green Island off Sussex Drive.

Hochschild’s account of the war is based on interviews, correspondence and writings of those present at the time such as George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia) and Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls). It is likely that there are no living veterans, but their descendants are still around. A book about the Canadian participants is Michael Petrou, Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, UBC Press, 2008; and there are numerous titles (book and magazine) about other aspects of the war.

A link between the world wars

The threads that bind 1918, the end of WW1, to 1939 and the start of WW2, include the global economic conditions, especially the burden of reparations imposed by the victors on Germany at the end of the war. Keynes accurately portrayed in Economic Consequences of the Peace the damage to future world order that these payments would create. They lead to the rise of Hitler and the demise of democratic institutions in that country.  At the same time, Mussolini, in cooperation with the Pope and Vatican, established a Fascist dictatorship in Italy. Both Hitler and Mussolini had supporters in the US, UK and other parts of Western Europe who were prepared to make a deal with the dictators.

Mussolini came to power in Italy in the 1920s about a decade before Hitler. God’s Bankers by Gerald Posner provides a good account of the Vatican’s cooperation with Hitler (reviewed in this blog March 28, 2016):

…Pope Pius XI signing the Reichskonkordat with ­Hitler, which, in return for winning a measure of freedom for German Catholics ­under the Nazis, assured silence from the Holy See over the forced sterilization of 400,000 people and then only the faintest of ­objections to the Holocaust. 

Another interwar thread was made up of the hyper-inflationary conditions in Germany, the economic depression in the US and elsewhere, and the pressure for political independence by a number of countries associated with European empires. Independence was to come in the postwar period. Today there are about 200 sovereign countries, although sovereignty often does not come with much political or economic independence, as Scotland may soon find out.

Adam Hochschild’s first rate treatment of the Spanish Civil War fits neatly into this inter world war period, describing a time of localised economic and military conflict, while the major combatants prepared for the main action which was to start in 1939 in Europe and the Far East.

The events described are based on the author’s personal interviews with survivors, and materials which participants recorded, often in letters, about their combat experiences. The war pit Spaniard against Spaniard, leaving tensions which remain, including issues of Basque and Catalan sovereignty. Today we can read about it but also view the war in a television documentary made a few years ago by Granada TV.

What do Trump and wildfires have in common?

May 9, 2016

A short answer is that both thrive when suitable fuel is available. In the case of wildfires, it is super dry forests and underbrush fanned by winds, some of which are created by the fire; in the case of Trump, the spark is lit by a demagogue, and the fuel is the mass of workers and their families displaced by jobs due to technology, while the top one percent make enormous financial gains.

Nine months ago, few if any thought that Trump could win the Republican nomination, and if he did that he could win the election. Now he has done the first, and some pundits, not wishing to be so wrong again, suggest that he could win the presidency. Not only is there a core of Republican primary voters that fuel his support, but there are Democratic backers of Bernie Sanders who feel disadvantaged in many of the same ways as Trump’s supporters. Could some of these defect and support Trump? Could the anti-Trump Republicans just not vote?

What will happen is anyone’s guess, depending also on who controls the Senate and House, and who gets to be the Supreme Court appointee(s). It was less than a hundred years ago that Mussolini and Hitler came to power through a democratic process and then assumed dictatorial powers. Stalin and Mao took control using a slightly different route. There is no shortage of demagogues seizing power when the conditions are right, and no shortage of forest fires when the fuel is available. It would be a mistake today to focus on the person and not the conditions that allow the person to attract supporters.

The Third Wave by Steve Case – Review

May 1, 2016

When historians come to write about the birth of the internet and globalization, they will research what the entrepreneurs did and what they thought. Steve Case will be one of those sources, and his book, The Third Wave, An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future (Simon and Schuster, 2016) will an important read. Walter Isaacson, who provides the book’s forward, will be another source. Among his publications, Isaacson has written The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon and Schuster, 2014). Both authors assess where we have come from and where we may be going.

Case’s title stems from Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave published in 1980, and described by its publisher’s blurb as:
Sweeping across history and the future, this stunning portrait of a new civilization springing up across the globe…. It reveals the hidden connections among today’s changes – in business, family life, technology, markets, politics and personal life.

Toffler’s Third Wave, a follow-up to his Future Shock published in 1970, describes events following the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Case, on the other hand, examines the third wave of the internet revolution…..or a third wave of what Toffler was describing as his third wave.

In 1980, Toffler could only imagine how economies and societies might develop. Thirty-six years later, Steve Case, provides an update and leads the reader into an idea of what the future of the internet might bring. It is written by someone who has played a major role in this ongoing revolution both as an entrepreneur, and as a person who has known other entrepreneurs and their companies. He is described as follows on the US Presidential “Jobs and Competitiveness” website”:

Steve Case is one of America’s best-known and most accomplished entrepreneurs and philanthropists, and a pioneer in making the Internet part of everyday life.    Steve co-founded America Online (AOL) in 1985, when the Internet was in its infancy.  Under Steve’s leadership as Chairman and CEO, AOL became the world’s largest and most valuable Internet company.  AOL helped drive the worldwide adoption of a medium that has transformed business and society.  AOL’s early focus on ease of use and social media set the stage for its rapid growth, and at its peak nearly half of Internet users in the United States used AOL. In 1992, AOL became the first Internet company to go public, and was the best performing stock of the 1990s, with a 11,616% return.   At the peak of the Internet boom, Steve negotiated what remains the largest merger in business history, bringing together AOL and Time Warner in a transaction that gave AOL shareholders a majority stake in the combined company.   To facilitate the merger, Steve agreed to step down as CEO when the merger closed in 2001.  He served as Chairman of the Board of the combined company (then known as AOL Time Warner) until 2003.

Steve Case provides a rich menu of observations on the internet revolution and globalization. My choices derive from my tastes. Other diners should read the book to find what satisfies their appetites. In the interests of brevity, I will summarize mine, in no particular order, as follows.

  1. The road to entrepreneurial success is never smooth. Many projects never make it, and the ones that do proceed often face dead-ends and are forced to take new routes. Nothing new in this, but Case provides chapter and verse of how it worked for him. Many entrepreneurs are reluctant to document setbacks.
  2. Entrepreneurial success is often a case of getting the right team together to deal with different aspects of the project, where the members feel free to criticize (assess) each other. This is similar to what happened with a successful comedy team like Monty Python, where success resulted from a team effort by individuals who had to suppress their prima donna genes.
  3. Individuals who succeed in internet related endeavours need not have much or any post secondary education. They will often read in a wide range of subjects, play mind games like chess or solve a Rubik’s Cube, experiment with machines in their garage or basement, and have a sports related interest like basketball, fitness, running, yoga, or tai chi.
  4. Once a firm is set up and receives venture capital, it may carry on for a time losing money and having to depend on angel investors. Maintaining good relations with those supplying the money in the early stages is crucial, or the project will often die on the vine.
  5. Steve Case provides a clearly written case of what worked and what didn’t in his own case. He illustrates how success often depends on having the right team of players providing various inputs. Often one person is celebrated as the successful entrepreneur, but it is because he (or occasionally she) has a support group that makes it possible.
  6. Unlike many in the private sector, Case explains the importance of the role of government in nurturing new ventures, which are going to upset the way existing industries are organized. As technology affects industries, so governments will have to make policy changes to ensure that the economic and social benefits filter down.


  • Familiar internet related names include, Geoff Bezos, Sergey Brin, Steve Case, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Pierre Omidyar, Larry Page, Steve Wozniak, Mark Zuckerberg, and companies like Amazon, AOL, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft…try matching people with companies. These names are related largely to the first two waves of the internet. What Steve Case writes about is how these and other companies will affect individuals, industries and economic activities in the future.
  • For example, education and health care absorb a large share of resources in all countries. They are expensive to run and often have inefficiencies which can be reduced by the use of technology. Education is experimenting with online classes. At one time I thought they might replace many onsite classes, but what seems to be happening is that onsite lecturers are often providing online versions of their courses to accompany the lectures. Students have the option of attending the live lecture and an online version, or only the online version. If the live lecture is at 8.30am, it’s not difficult to imagine what the choice will often be. Another issue is to decide how to give a credential for taking an online course which is recognized by employers, a not unsolvable problem, especially if there is money to be made.
  • Healthcare is developing means to monitor and prescribe for patients at a distance which can revolutionize the way these services are delivered. The technology is involved with medicine in many other ways.
  • Airbnb in 2015 was valued at $25bn. It is the largest hospitality provider in the US and does not own a single hotel (Case 2158 on eBook edition)….a challenge to the hotel industry.
  • Uber has shaken up if not destroyed the traditional taxi industry. The company does not own a single car, but acts to provide the service. The next stage, driverless cars and more importantly driverless trucks will bring further radical change to the taxi and trucking industries. Watch out for protests by truck drivers.

Many more examples could be quoted about how traditional economic sectors will be affected, and there is much more to garner from this book. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in how entrepreneurship works, and how these evolving technologies will impact economies and societies. It is a must read for entrepreneurs, and for those of us with grandchildren who are going to live in this changed environment.

God’s Bankers by Gerald Posner

March 28, 2016

An institution with two thousand years of history like the Catholic Church is bound to have an interesting story to tell. It does


Think of medieval popes waging the Crusades — raising armies, sacking ­cities and conquering territory — in the name of Jesus Christ. Or prelates torturing apostates and heretics during the Inquisition. Or Pope Pius V expelling Jews from the Papal States in 1569. Or Pope Pius XI signing the Reichskonkordat with ­Hitler, which, in return for winning a measure of freedom for German Catholics ­under the Nazis, assured silence from the Holy See over the forced sterilization of 400,000 people and then only the faintest of ­objections to the Holocaust. Or more ­recently, bishops and other church officials concealing widespread and repeated child sexual abuse by priests.


The foregoing is an extract from a NYT review of Posner’s recent book. How the Vatican makes and spends money and operates its banking arrangements is central to the story. And the conclusion is that it has operated more like a mafia-type than what might be expected from a religious organization. While priests in the field undoubtedly continue to do good work, corruption has prevailed at head office. Its charitable works have come at a price. And while various popes have tried to clean things up, they have been sandbagged by the Cardinals and Vatican bureaucrats who been feathering their own nests.


Pope Francis appears to be making a valiant attempt to remedy things, but the odds are against him. Other Popes have tried and failed. Some made things worse. Partly this is due to the age at which they and the gang of Cardinals reach their positions. While undoubtedly learned in the doctrines of the church, they are often too old to have the energy to confront the entrenched bureaucracy.


Elected politicians are frequently corrupt, even in democratic societies, but regular elections provide some opportunity to clean house. In the Vatican’s case, the Pope is elected by the Cardinals, while the Cardinals are appointed for life, and once installed can carry on with little pressure for change. The bureaucrats beneath them often forestall change knowing that Popes are eventually replaced. With the majority of Catholics now in Central and South America, Africa and parts of Asia, there may be a slight possibility to clean house. But optimism is not high.


NYT Book Review at

Stop books becoming furniture

August 15, 2015

Why do our patterns of reading books, watching films and videos and listening to music differ? Homes are furnished with book shelves where often each book is often read only once, if that. Music is listened to frequently and films and videos perhaps more than once.

Each format contains information appreciated by the senses, although different ones. The question arose when I took from the bookcase Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. I had read it before, but when I reopened it I realized how little I recalled or even understood the content of a book, which offers an explanation of the evolution of human history over the past 13,000 years.

So many basic questions are discussed in the book, that like religious texts it could be studied for a lifetime, especially as new scientific information becomes available, which may alter some of the conclusions reached and raise new questions.

Instead of acquiring new books, there is often much to be gained by rereading older ones. New understanding can be acquired from the text which may have been missed in an original reading, and especially in the light of one’s own (hopefully) intellectual development. Jared Diamond offers that to me. A general conclusion is to apply to books the same treatment given to music and films….use them more than once.


Affirmative Action can be harmful

June 24, 2015

Canadian federal governments already exercise affirmative action (AA) when cabinets are formed to ensure regional representation, Anglophone and Francophone members, as well as those from racial minority groups. The proposal to require certain levels of gender representation in cabinets creates another dimension of AA. Once gender is added, other groups emerge to argue for similar representation.


This happened in university hiring for faculty members. First AA was instituted for the hiring of women, then other groups such as aboriginals and the physically disabled argued that they should be accorded preference. Earlier groups were not enthusiastic about those who came later, and questions were raised about how to establish priorities between the groups, and what this might do to the quality of the educational experience.


Consider another venue. What happens in so-called national soccer leagues?  The only thing English about some of the clubs in the English Premier Soccer League is the name of the team, with owners, coaches and players coming from abroad. In order to form the best teams, which provide the best entertainment for spectators, players are recruited from anywhere in the world. AA is not applied. In world cup competition AA does occur in that players have to be associated with their national team.


My point is that AA is present in all kinds of activity, but its presence means that it will affect the performance of the activity in ways which may not be beneficial to others. Once one group is given preference others will seek the similar treatment which will ultimately adversely affect the performance of the activity.


It may make sense to have AA re gender equality in the Canadian federal cabinet, but how do you achieve this when less than half the elected members of any party are of one gender, and when it merely entices other groups to argue for some form of preference. At some point the quality of decision making will suffer even further,