Isolating in style

As the super-rich continue to rake in the pandemic bucks (billionaires in the U.S. have seen their wealth grow by over 44% during the COVID-19 crisis) they have gone on a buying spree of superyachts. According to a VesselsValue report there were a record 887 superyachts sold last year, which is up 77% from 2020. One of the newest has been built for Jeff Bezos (whose wealth increased by $24 billion just in the past two years) and it’s been in the news recently because it will apparently require the temporary dismantling of a historic bridge in Rotterdam to get it out into open water.

What caught my eye reading one report about the growth of the superyacht industry was a quote from Sam Tucker (of VesselsValue) who said that the spike in sales can be attributed to “the increased need for privacy and private isolation” that superyachts provide.

Really? This is a need? Billionaires can’t safely self-isolate within their gated estates? Small armies of security details can’t ensure privacy anywhere but on a yacht? How much privacy are we talking about? How much isolation?

This sounds like camouflage for what is basically just more conspicuous consumption by the ultra-rich. As long ago as April 2020 CNN ran a story on the practicality of riding the pandemic out on a yacht:

Rumble Romagnoli, CEO of Relevance, a luxury digital marketing company headquartered in iconic yachting destination Monaco, is skeptical of the notion, pointing out that the practicalities involved make it an unfeasible choice for most.

“I think it’s a bit unrealistic to think people are going to swan off, get on board a yacht and just sit in the middle of the sea,” he says.

He also stresses that being stuck in the middle of the sea for weeks on end would prove tedious for most, even if they have lavish amenities at their disposal — “Rising Sun” has a wine cellar and a basketball court onboard.

“These billionaires and multi-millionaires don’t just stay on a yacht for two to three months. It’s not that pleasurable,” he adds.

“They fly over, get on a yacht, go to a restaurant, get off the yacht for lunch, go to a nightclub, get a helicopter somewhere else.

“It’s not like a villa. It can be quite claustrophobic.”

Also, with a full crew on board, as well as passengers, the risk of possible infection cannot be ignored.

The CNN story came out partially as a response to the Instagram post by David Geffen, where the billionaire mogul captioned a picture of his superyacht with the message “Isolated in the Grenadines.” That didn’t go down well (the post was later deleted), and it adds to my suspicion that what the billionaires really want to isolate from is bad press. But how do you quarantine from that? Can a media bubble be blown big enough to go around the world?

Tilt! Tilt!

Erin O’Toole is out as leader of the Conservative Party.

This came as a bit of a surprise, if only because I wasn’t aware they were even having a vote to remove him. In the event, 73 out of 118 MPs voted for his ouster, which is pretty emphatic.

O’Toole was not an inspiring leader, though the Conservatives did win the popular vote in the 2021 federal election (as they did in 2019). Apparently the main complaint against him was that he was too much of a centrist on issues like abortion, a carbon tax, balancing the budget, and firearms. In the way they speak of these things, this made him more of a Red than a Blue Tory.

What his removal seems to signal is a tilting of the Conservatives toward right-wing populism. Personally, I think there is some sense in dumping O’Toole if only for his lack of charisma and inability to be the party’s standard-bearer. But I don’t see how running further to the right, even if only on culture-war issues, is going to help the Tories. And if the switch was driven by an unhappiness among the grass-roots about mask mandates and cancel culture, we may be entering into a period of deeply unserious politics. This is too bad, because I think Justin Trudeau has shown himself to be a corrupt and ineffective prime minister. The country can do better, but I’m afraid better is not going to be a choice moving forward.

Pandemic lite

Rolling, rolling, rolling. (CP – David Lipnowski)

A convoy of truckers, dubbed by some the Freedom Rally, is driving to Ottawa to protest vaccine mandates. Thousands of protesters and counter-protesters are expected to welcome them this weekend.

Commentators often express surprise at how the COVID-19 pandemic became so political. I think it’s been a combination of two things. In the first place, the various lockdowns have had a huge negative impact on a lot of people’s lives. As I’ve said before, the fallout from this is going to be profound, and will be felt for years.

Then there’s the problem, if I can call it that, of COVID not being deadly enough. Make no mistake: we were lucky, given the poor response countries around the world had to its outbreak, that it was so mild. If you are under the age of 65 with no underlying medical conditions the infection fatality rate is 0.5% or less. The last time I checked, two-thirds of Canada’s deaths due to COVID were of people over the age of 80. The average life expectancy of a Canadian male is 80.

But it’s because the disease itself has been so mild that people have been given license not to take it seriously and turn it into political theatre (or just plain theatre). When Trump got back from his hospital stay after contracting COVID he originally wanted to stand outside the White House and take his jacket off to reveal a Superman shirt. That’s not being serious. Boris Johnson having parties in violation of his own restrictions on such gatherings is not being serious.

But why should we be serious when COVID was no big deal? Professional athletes like Novak Djokovic and Aaron Rodgers could afford to blow off any rules and regulations on reporting their status and condition both because they’re fabulously wealthy and because even after testing positive for COVID they were still able to physically perform at the highest level.

Look, if COVID had been a particularly lethal disease none of this would be happening. Everyone would be getting vaccinated. But because the stats are what they are people don’t feel personally at risk. Sure they might get sick for a few days, but otherwise what are the consequences?

And there’s the rub. A year ago I said that one of the good things to come out of the pandemic would be what we learned from the experience. Unfortunately, that can cut both ways. We’re lucky that COVID-19 turned out to be so (relatively) harmless. It wasn’t the Black Death, the Spanish Flu of 1918, or even SARS 2003. But given how mild it was I’m afraid that the next time, and there will be a next time, when we may have to deal with something a lot more serious, our immediate response is going to be influenced by our experience with COVID-19 and our skepticism of how the government handled it. A resistance to vaccines will be dug in. This may turn out to be one of the most damaging results of the pandemic.

When condos go bad

Fascinating story reported by the CBC today about a derelict condo building in one of Toronto’s less fashionable neighbourhoods.

As much as $9 million of debt plus a rapidly deteriorating structure have caught up to York Condominium Corporation No. 82, which runs the 321-unit building in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood. And last week, an Ontario Superior Court judge cited an engineering report that found repairs needed in the 10-storey building over the next year would cost more than $14 million.

Like all condominium corporations, this one is overseen by a small group of owners elected to a board of directors. They have the power under Ontario’s Condominium Act to require all owners to pay for common expenses, no matter the price tag.

So that’s what they did.

On Sept. 2, the corporation sent letters to all owners informing them they had 15 days to pay a special assessment ranging from $30,000 to $42,500 per unit depending on its size — on top of monthly maintenance fees of about $800.

The total $11.2 million raised would be used to repay loans and chip away at a list of 70 repairs ranging from replacing plumbing to upgrading elevators to restoring the party room that’s been shuttered for the past 15 years, the letter said.

Apparently the total bill for repairs will be over $14 million. It’s a story that made me think of the collapse of the condo building in Surfside, Florida last year. It doesn’t sound like there’s any solution to a problem this large. What really shocked me though is that the resident they interviewed was paying a whopping $900 a month in condo fees to live in a “dangerous and dilapidated” building. This is insane, and highlights how poor people in bad situations can’t get ahead.

Meanwhile, residents, many of them seniors, are protesting the special assessment. But as at Surfside, this is pretty much their only option. You can blame lots of people for letting things get to this point, but they’ve made their bed and are going to have to lie, or die, in it.

One night in Dubai

Not going anywhere for a while.

Magnus Carlsen has defeated Ian Nepomniachtchi at the World Chess Championship, held this year in Dubai. This is Carlsen’s fifth championship and gives him some claim to be the greatest chess player of all time.

I followed the match intermittently, mostly through recaps. I didn’t have the patience, or the understanding, to watch any of the games live. The sixth game, which was the turning point in this contest, was the longest in the history of the WCC, clocking in at nearly 8 hours (136 moves). A great game, but hard to follow for the casual fan.

To my inexpert eye the early games were kind of interesting. They were all draws, and indeed Game 3 was rated the most accurate game ever played, as judged by the computer engines. Of course it was a draw. At the highest levels chess is sort of like a staring match. At one of the early press conferences Nepomniachtchi remarked that the only way to have decisions was if someone made a mistake. In the later games he would prove himself correct by making a number of bad ones. After Game 6 he really didn’t seem that interested any more. So not a great event, and one that just seemed kind of sad at the end.

Chess played online has enjoyed an explosion of popularity in the last couple of years, with many of the top players and Internet personalities becoming stars. But there’s also a trend toward faster formats like Rapid and Blitz that will likely continue, while classical chess will remain more of a prestige event. What I do like about all of this is the fact that even though computers are better at chess than humans now, we still want to watch humans compete.

Jury duty

Elizabeth Holmes, looking for a jury of her peers. (CNBC)

Elizabeth Holmes is the founder of Theranos who got charged with various counts of wire fraud. I haven’t been following her trial much at all, but I was struck by a news item about it this week.

What happened is that a juror was dismissed for playing Sudoku while the trial was going on. This led to her being called out by the judge:

“I do have Sudoku, but it doesn’t interfere with me listening,” the juror said. “I’m very fidgety, so I need to do something with my hands. So at home I’ll crochet while I’m watching or listening to T.V.”

In chambers, [Judge Edward] Davila asked the juror: “So has this distracted you from listening?”

“No,” the juror said.

“Have you been able to follow and retain everything that is going on in the courtroom?” Davila asked. “Oh, yeah, definitely,” the juror said.

I guess the judge wasn’t buying it because the juror was dismissed. This seems a bit harsh. A lot of what happens in any trial doesn’t take one’s full attention to follow. I don’t see anything wrong, at least to the point of disqualification, with doing a puzzle. It’s not much worse than doodling.

As part of the same story there was another item that caught my eye. Apparently this is the third juror to have been dismissed, as “a second juror was removed two weeks ago after revealing that, due to her Buddhist beliefs, she could not in good conscious [sic} return a verdict that may send Holmes to prison.”

This surprised me as well. Buddhists can’t send people to prison? I could see them being against the death penalty, but they’re against all incarceration? That seems like a pretty strict sort of Buddhism. I wonder if this was just an excuse the juror was using so they could go home. But then why did they take so long to notify the judge about their having an issue with the penalty? And shouldn’t this have come up during the jury selection process? This trial is a pretty big deal, after all.

Anyway, there you have it. You can’t play Sudoku in the jury box and if you’re a Buddhist . . . I guess you can’t be on a jury at all, at least if there’s any jail time involved.

Half-mast

The Canadian flag flying from the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill has been at half-mast since May 30. That’s quite a long time. It was lowered in remembrance of the victims of residential schools. It’s unclear when it will be raised again. Prime Minister Trudeau has expressed the point of view that he has no authority to raise it, and that this can only be done after consultation with Indigenous leaders.

If we can’t say exactly when it will be raised again, I think it’s a safe bet that it will be up by November 11, when it is lowered in remembrance of fallen soldiers. That this is so indicates, I think, what a transparently political stunt it is. Yes, it’s more virtue signaling of the most blatant kind by our terminally woke prime minister.

Most of the criticism directed at the lowered flag has come from conservative commentators. They see it as disrespectful and expressing national self-loathing. I don’t care about any of that. What bothers me is its emptiness. This past week also saw the government of New Brunswick ask its employees to stop making land acknowledgments in reference to what may be Indigenous lands, as First Nations groups have begun a court case claiming ownership and title to over 60% of the province.

I’ve never liked the land acknowledgments. Like the lowered flag they are merely gestures, bankrupt of meaning. The lowered flag, however, is mostly harmless. The land acknowledgments are more invidious. But you can hardly blame Indigenous groups for wanting to take them at face value, and demanding courts do the same. I remember a few years ago hearing one Indigenous band member claiming restitution from a single, not-very-affluent Ontario municipality, in the trillions of dollars. That’s not a typo.

Another example of the same sort of thing — an expression of some moral principle never meant to be taken literally — can be seen in the diversity and equity movement. If you truly believe that your job is the result of your white privilege, shouldn’t you act on that by resigning so that a BIPOC person can have it?

But that would mean taking any of this seriously. The rhetoric and symbolism of woke culture is the essence of virtue signaling, by which I mean it’s a call for other people to make sacrifices and restitution for your beliefs. This makes signalers feel better about themselves. Presumably there is also some political payoff, but I think that’s starting to go into reverse. These virtuous balloons will burst. It’s all beginning to seem like the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade in Catch-22. It may, and I hope it will, end just as quickly.

Pumping up

Mamdouh Elssbiay (left) and Brandon Curry (right).

The 2021 Mr. Olympia contest is in the books and Egypt’s Mamdouh Elssbiay (known as “Big Ramy”) has repeated as champion.

I used to follow bodybuilding a bit, but recently haven’t been paying as much attention. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been getting older and my only fitness goals now are directed toward downsizing and working on things like cardio. I’m also put off by the drug regimens these guys are on, all to build themselves up to a point that obviously isn’t healthy. Of course drug use isn’t new, but I keep looking at these guys now and thinking they’re going to drop dead on the stage one of these days.

Another point is that recent bodybuilding champions have been getting a lot of flak lately for looking less “conditioned.” They’ve even been called out by veterans of the sport.

What lack of conditioning mainly means is less definition generally and the swollen bellies often associated with HGH (Human Growth Hormone) use. To be sure, this latter condition — dubbed “HGH gut” — looks gross. It seems like at least some of the guys are avoiding it though (the belly, I mean, not the HGH).

I think these criticisms are on target. I actually didn’t think Big Ramy looked that good this year. I would have rated Brandon Curry (the 2019 Mr. Olympia and runner-up this year) higher. Curry most often gets picked on for his skinny calves, but I thought he looked better proportioned and more defined. Actually, I could say the same for some of the other contestants as well. Curry isn’t perfect, but I think he’s a cut above Ramy, who to my eye is just big. Then again, I remember them saying the same thing about Dorian Yates when he was on top, and he’s considered a legend now. Probably just as well I’m not judging these things.

Panama, Paradise, Pandora

There’s been another, even bigger data dump of the financial dealings of the rich, famous, and very well-connected. As the CBC reports:

Much like the Panama Papers leak in 2016 or the Paradise Papers the following year, the secret files provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how certain global elites — or in other cases, high-profile criminals — take advantage of financial wizardry or opaque corporate structures to either shield assets, wriggle out of their tax obligations, or hide wealth entirely.

I was surprised how angry this story made me. I mean, it’s really just more of the same. Even the Panama Papers were no revelation. We all know this is how the super-rich secretly arrange their affairs, and the real disgrace is that little of it is actually illegal. The perfect crime, as the saying goes, is the one that isn’t a crime.

What I think bugged me the most this time was reading all the stories about the people involved. They aren’t entrepreneurs (except some of the outright crooks) or people who have any socially-valuable skills. Instead, many are celebs, politicians who have presumably made fortunes out of their ability to work the levers of power, or else people who just happen to be very well placed. Apparently Vladmir Putin’s baby mama has been given tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars from Vlad, who many people suspect is actually the richest person in the world. And where did he get his money? You probably don’t want to know. King Abdullah II of Jordan is monarch of a very poor country, but it hasn’t stopped him amassing a large portfolio of luxury real estate. Tony Blair? Nobody knows how much he has, or quite where he got it, but there are reports that he’s piled up a personal fortune of over $100 million just since leaving office. Doing what? Giving talks?

This is the global elite: secretive, parasitical, and useless. Those in the political class have gotten rich on the back of the state they have served, and now return the favour by seeking to hide their wealth from that same state. Would it be so hard to shut these offshore tax havens down and try to regulate some of this financial legerdemain? It seems we really need to do something. Here is Oxfam’s statement:

This is another shocking exposé of the oceans of money sloshing around the darkness of the world’s tax havens that must prompt immediate action, as has long been promised.

Bravo to the whistleblowers and journalists for shining a light into this secret parallel system of capital, one open only to those with fat amounts of money and the greed to hoard it all untaxed, and those who facilitate it.

This is where our missing hospitals are. This is where the pay-packets sit of all the extra teachers and firefighters and public servants we need. Whenever a politician or business leader claims there is ‘no money’ to pay for climate damage and innovation, for more and better jobs, for a fair post-COVID recovery, for more overseas aid, they know where to look.

Tax havens cost governments around the world $427 billion each year. That is the equivalent of a nurse’s yearly salary every second of every hour, every day. Ordinary taxpayers have to pick up the pieces. Developing countries are being hardest hit, proportionately. Corporations and the wealthiest individuals that use tax havens are outcompeting those who don’t. Tax havens also help crime and corruption to flourish.

Governments’ promises to end tax havens are still a long way from being realized. We cannot allow tax havens to continue to stretch global inequality to breaking point while the world experiences the largest increase in extreme poverty in decades.

That breaking point seems to keep coming closer every day.

Federal election 2021: After

Voting wasn’t a lot of fun this year, but I got out and did my civic duty.

The voting station I had to go to was divided into 12 different polling sections. Lucky me, I was in the section where all the university students were dumped. So I had to stand in a long line for half an hour to vote while at least six of the other sections didn’t have a single person vote the whole time I was waiting. One of my neighbours was working as an elections official and I remarked off-handedly to her that the planning was terrible. She insisted that it was actually working really well, the only problem was that all the students were in my voting section. I thought this sort of made my point. No one had planned for this? For one section having ten times as many voters as all the other sections combined? I wasn’t sure if she’d understood so I said again, “Well, that’s bad planning.” She dug in deeper, pointing to all the desks for the sections where no one was voting and where the officials were sitting back doing nothing and looking bored. “You see,” she said, “some of the sections aren’t busy at all.” At this point I was glad I had a mask covering my face so that she wouldn’t see my gawping. “Yes,” I tried again. “I can see that the other sections aren’t busy. But there’s a line with sixty people in it for this one. That’s poor planning.”

“No it’s not,” she said. “You’re only saying that because you’re in the line with all the people in it.”

Like I say, voting wasn’t a lot of fun.

I begin with this anecdote to make a couple of points. First: voting is still too big a hassle. One old fellow who came in while I was waiting in line got vocally angry and took it out on the officials, telling them it was a disgrace before stalking off without voting. The second point follows from the first: the lines were just another thing to piss people off. I thought calling an election was a stupid move. The Liberals clearly figured they were going to upgrade to a majority government, but I don’t see how that was ever in the cards. I’ve written before about how we’re living in an age of anger, and the pandemic has only made people angrier. Why would a party in power want to test an angry electorate? Poor planning!

Now on to the election results.

As expected (and I predicted) it was a tight race but Toronto and Montreal came through for the Liberals again. The new house will look almost exactly the same as the old house. The Liberals will again have a minority government.

I can only think of this as a Pyrrhic victory, as it doesn’t put them in any better position than the one they were in, underlines the pointlessness of the whole exercise (which cost upwards of $600 million), and I think sets the Liberals up for the kind of massive backlash the Tories experienced in 1993 after Mulroney won an improbable majority in ’88. They are less popular now than they were and are going to have to wear this. Trudeau immediately claimed a “clear mandate” but early results had the Conservatives actually receiving a larger percentage of the popular vote. That’s not a very clear mandate to my eye.

I think the Conservatives had the right idea in tacking to the left — however insincerely — though their “Secure the Future” campaign, with a logo that looked like a bunch of interlocking padlocks, seemed kind of threatening, especially given that I think the target demographic skewed older and more affluent. And securing their future means something different than securing a decent future for the rest of us.

Erin O’Toole was not an inspiring leader, but he played his cards the right way I believe. American-style, right-wing nuttery won’t work here, for various reasons. Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada didn’t have the regional base that the old Reform Party (now the Conservative Party) had, and in a first-past-the-post system it’s impossible to make any kind of dent on the two-party status quo.

Meaning that the NDP unsurprisingly failed to achieve any kind of breakthrough, again, while the Greens disappeared (with Annamie Paul finishing fourth in her own riding). I don’t know what the Greens should do at this point. Not only are they never going to have any kind of voice in FPTP, they aren’t even going to have any influence on shaping policy going forward. The environment as an issue simply isn’t a priority for any appreciable part of the electorate.

So there you have it. An election that nobody wanted ending with a result that will make nobody happy. Which will lead, I am sure, to more anger. A forecast of sunny days ahead.