QuickNews, Friday, Dec. 4.
THE HARPERS' EXCELLENT BEIJING ADVENTURE
Clockwise from top left: Stephen and Laureen Harper at the Great Wall of China at Badaling. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick, CP.) Harper and Premier Wen Jiaboa inspect honour guard in welcoming ceremony. (Jason Lee, Reuters) Harper greeted by President Hu Jintao prior to their bilateral meeting. (Liu Jin, Reuters) Bilateral meeting in the Great Hall of the People. (Liu Jin) Harper and Premier Wen exchange toasts. (Sean Kilpatrick)
CHINA PAYOFF | After a cool welcome, Chinese shower Harper with goodies. Among them, preferential status for Canada-bound Chinese tourists, a big boost for a major, lagging Canadian industry; and codified assurances of less bureaucratic hassles for Canadian firms doing business in the Middle Kingdom. Harper was initially chastised, publicly, by Premier Wen Jiaboa for taking so long to make his first visit, and says local papers are full of similar chastisement. This is amusing, since stories in the local papers are all written by employees of Premier Jiaboa. Of course Chinese are miffed at Harper's hard line on China's abysmal human-rights record. But they showed how vital Canada is to Chinese interests with full-court charm offensive, including meets with Premier Wen, China's most popular leader, and President Hu Jintao, top leader, whom Harper has met before at world summits. Obama was criticized for no "takeaways" from his recent Beijing visit - unfairly so, I believe, since basic fence-mending was the WH goal. Harper by contrast will have a very productive four-day visit before heading to Seoul, having bagged several important deals, including technology exchanges. Canadian tourism industry hails Beijing deal.
SCRAP CHALK RIVER, BUILD A NEW REACTOR | Expert panel urges new world-class isotope facility. Chalk River, which supplied one-third of global medical isotopes, has long been a black eye for Canada with series of shutdowns, the latest confirming its utter unreliability. Panel created by Harper recommends building new, robust facility at admittedly high cost but re-establishing Canada's reliability, retaining and creating tech jobs, and making Canada a stronger player in nuclear and related high-tech medicine.
PARLIAMENT GREENLIGHTS HST | Many MPs are conveniently absent for the unpopular vote. Tories, Grits and Bloc-heads vote yes, only NDP nyet. (Guess what Layton will be running on in election expected next year.) Ontario and B.C. now have formal permission to proceed with harmonization of provincial sales tax and federal GST effective July 1. Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador harmonized years ago, to cut administrative costs and lift bureaucratic burden from local business.
POLL FINDS AMERICANS WANT PUBLIC HEALTH INSURER | 60% support "public option." Dems heavily favour, majority of independents do, only one-third of Republicans do in Thomson Reuters poll. Regardless of party alliegance, most respondents doubt successful passage of reform bill will provide better care or will lower costs in the short term.
HIGH STAKES IN COPENHAGEN | Climate-change expert rebukes resurgent denialists. Physicist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, climate-change advisor to EU and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reminds Reuters that scientists are in agreement on the threat - no small feat in academe. The issue now is political will. "It's like we're on the Titanic," says Schellnhuber, albeit with better navigation equipment. But "the problem is there are 192 captains on the ship," he said, referring to the nations in the climate-change talks next week in the Danish capital. "And that is a fatal situation." Schellnhuber with 25 fellow experts warned last month that global warming is occurring at a more rapid pace than expected. They said ocean levels could rise by up to two meters (6-1/2 ft) by 2100, a threat to coastal cities worldwide. They urged action to cap rising greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 to avoid the worst impact of climate change. Meanwhile, India further deflates Copenhagen expectations with statement yesterday that the world's second-largest country will reject any legally binding emissions-reduction scheme.
HE FEELS THEIR PAIN | Obama, prior to "jobs summit," acknowledges "desperation" of jobless. “Michelle and I have family members who are out of work. It hasn’t been that long since I was in some of the neighborhoods that are going through these tough times,” Obama said yesterday in interview with Detroit Free Press and USA Today. “And we know the desperation and difficulty that people are feeling." Obama downplayed likelihood of the "Son of Stimulus" second round of pump-priming that was much speculated on over the summer. But at WH summit yesterday with business, labour and community leaders the president discussed ideas including tax credits for firms that hire new workers; federal incentives for community banks extending credit to small businesses; ensuring the existing stimulus funds go to preserving the jobs of teachers, police and firefighters rather than tax cuts and other measures "that makes the governor look good"; and tax breaks for homeowners who better insulate their homes to save on energy costs in a "cash for caulkers" program to get contractors working again, modelled on the successful "cash for clunkers" scheme earlier this year. (Photo: Obama lighting the National Christmas Tree, a tradition that dates to 1923. -AFP.)
HOW NUANCED IS OBAMA'S AFGHAN STRATEGY? | Gen. McCrystal has to explain it to Afghans. The U.S. Afghan commander yesterday tells group of 11 top Afghan leaders the U.S. is not abandoning their nation, contrary to the notion they took away from Barack Obama's Tuesday evening speech on 30,000 additional troops for the Taliban fight. That's because Obama also said U.S. troops will start coming home in mid-2011, a concession to the war-weary home audience. But...Obama also said Tuesday that this departure goal is a flexible one, determined by success in subverting Taliban and political progress in corrupt Kabul. There will be more effective humanitarian assistance, Obama promised. But...it's also not an open-ended nation-building exercise, as Bush described Iraq. Confused yet? Punditocracy is. But actually it makes sense and is bluntly stated: We're here to serve U.S. interests only (killing off the last of al-Qaeda), with no grandiose ideas of "democratizing" your nation, among the justifications Bush used (and sort of meant, eventually) in Iraq. I still think the exercise is pointless. It turns on training an unreliable Afghan army and corrupt police who will use that training in civil wars and banditry after the U.S. and NATO depart. And Obama's just wrong that terrorism can't be fought at a distance. We're already doing so. The planning for 9/11 was largely done in Hamburg and at U.S. flight-training schools. Prior to Afghanistan, al-Qaeda called Sudan and then Yemen home. By now it has cells in about 60 nations. So "AfPak" is not the "central front in the war on terror." There isn't one. The central front is the coordinated effort by the world's intel agencies, national and community police to identify, monitor and, at the appropriate time, capture these murderous and not terribly bright "suiciders," as Bush called them. It's low-profile detective work, and it goes on now, at considerable expense. Why add to that cost with blood and treasure in the world's second-most lawless state, trailing only Somalia, according to the Brookings Institution? Having said all that, Obama on Tuesday cleverly laid out enough "exit strategies" to enable himself to declare "success" and quit Afghan at a time of his choosing. (Click on map to see the nation's crazy-quilt of ethnic groups.) My previous posts on quitting Afghanistan, here and here.
BUSINESS ROUND-UP | Judging from tepid "Black Friday" and November sales for leading retailers, from J.C. Penney to Abercrombie & Fitch, total 2009 holiday sales might be no improvement over dreadful 2008...Airbus's year-to-date sales eclipse those of Boeing...Leading U.S. luxury homebuilder Toll Brothers reports dismal 4Q...Toronto Dominion Bank and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce each report much higher earnings, beating analysts' estimates, with sound balance sheets to finance U.S. expansion should they go on bargain-hunting trip in U.S. next year... Bank of America raises stunning $19.3 billion (U.S.) to shore up its weak balance sheet, comes closer to being able to retire borrowings from Uncle Sam...Messy creditor fight over true value of amusement parks as Six Flags languishes in bankruptcy court...Economist argues Russia is so corruption-ridden and bureaucratically sclerotic it should be dropped from BRIC, since it's not a rapidly growing economic superpower like Brazil, India and China.
INGRATE BANK OF THE YEAR | My nominee: UBS AG. This is a coveted prize, as you know, fought over by many. But three weeks before year-end, I'm prepared to award it to Switzerland's largest bank, which also tops the cupidity ranks, having written off about $50 billion (U.S.) in toxic assets. UBS, Europe's biggest lender, would be dead save that Bern rescued it with Swiss taxpayer funds. Post-crisis, Swiss bank regulators now recognize the danger of the Swiss banking duopoly of UBS and Credit Suisse, which has assets several times larger than Switzerland's GDP. Which naturally has them fretting over the "Iceland syndrome," in which that nation's three hyperactive banks accumulated assets wildly in excess of Iceland's GDP, rendering the banks and Iceland itself insolvent when their toxic assets soured. UBS's response to Bern's understandable musing about reining in UBS and CS with stricter regulations - merely on par with those of the rest of the world - is a threat to relocate to another country. (Please God, not Canada). UBS also had to be threatened with lawsuits by Canada and the U.S. to surrender the names of tens of thousands of N.A. tax cheats. What spares UBS from the laughingstock/reckless-fatcat reputation of America's and Britain's most hapless big banks is only its comparatively remote location. But, trust me, if you think Citigroup and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) made every mistake in the book and are churlish about taking their medicine, they've got nothing on the chutzpah of UBS.
STAR TURNS IN GOOD CAUSES | McCartney, Wonder exhort us to see the bigger picture. Sir Paul, of course, is pushing "Meatless Mondays" - easily enough adopted by fellow Catholics who like McCartney went meatless on Fridays in childhood, he says. I think It's too easy to dismiss artists who step into the public arena, suspected of everything from naivete to reviving a faltering career with a dose of publicity. Besides, the vegan ex-Beatle has the facts on his side - that grazing is among the least efficient means of harvesting protein, and among the most environmentally harmful. Stevie Wonder, meanwhile, has been selected as the latest U.N. peace envoy, with a special mandate for raising awareness of issues affecting the estimated 650 million people with disabilities. "It is beyond my ability to fathom that 10% of the people of this world don't matter to the other 90% of the people in the world," Wonder said yesterday at the U.N. The Saginaw, Mich., native himself has been blind since early childhood. I hope this appointment brings more attention to Wonder's overlooked but brilliant mid-1990s album, Conversation Peace. Ban Ki-moon jokes he wants "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" as theme for next week's Copenhagen climate-change summit. Sorry, the song's been taken: It was the 2008 campaign theme selected by Wonder fan Michelle Obama. (Photo: Ban Ki-moon, U.S. secretary-general, and Stevie Wonder. Bebeto Matthews, AP)
QUOTE OF THE DAY | "I understand that the war is unpopular. It's a long way off, and there's the legacy of Iraq and Vietnam." -Richard Holbrooke, U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, at a conference yesterday on Obama's Afghan strategy. Taking no chances on lefties invoking Vietnam, the administration has co-opted them in using the "V" word itself at every opportunity - starting with Obama's Afghan speech Tuesday.
Courtesy, The New Yorker, Nov. 16 edition.
Please consider joining me as an elf this holiday season by participating in the Toronto Star's Santa Claus Fund, a century-old Toronto tradition. The Star uses donations to assemble and distribute gift boxes to thousands of less-financially advantaged children throughout the GTA. Each box contains a book, clothing and a toy. You can read all about it, including first-hand accounts of Toronto families in need, at http://www.thestar.com/santaclausfund. I'm counting on your kindness to help put smiles on thousands of young faces this December 25th! Many thanks, David