Thursday, July 29, 2010

Anti-usury regulation hits snag

The Manitoba government has introduced legislation to limit the interest rates charged by payday lenders. Naturally the moneylenders aren't taking this lying down:

Manitoba's crackdown on payday loan shops has hit another snag: A quick-cash company has asked a federal judge to quash new provincial caps on fees and interest rates.

The Edmonton-based Cash Store argues Manitoba's fee cap is "unreasonably low," well below what other provinces allow and so low it will cause irreparable harm to payday lenders.

From the Free Press. And what are those "unreasonably low" rates?
Manitoba's new rules cap interest and fees at $17 for every $100 loaned -- the lowest fees in the country. To protect people from a spiralling cycle of debt, a loan can only be made for 30 per cent of a person's next paycheque. A host of other regulations protect the poor by ensuring all fees are explained in plain English and lenders can't use rewards or incentives to woo borrowers.
My goodness. Those poor moneychangers will have a hard time finding two platinum Maple Leafs to rub together under those rules...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Water resolution passes at UN

So the resolution to declare water and sanitation to be basic human rights passed at the UN General Assembly. But guess who sat out the vote:
Although the motion passed with 124 countries voting in favour of the resolution drafted by Bolivia, Canada was among the 41 nations to abstain on the issue.
Hmm. And why did John McNee (Canada's ambassador to the UN) abstain? Don't know; perhaps it was a compromise between him and the government.

One thing that bothers me about the resolution, though, is this:
The final resolution "Calls upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, through international assistance and co-operation, in particular to developing countries, in order to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all."
All of that is very good. Safe, clean, accessible, and affordable drinking water and sanitation should be available to all. But in that list I'd like to have seen the word sustainable.

WikiLeaks and the Harper government

Buried in James Travers' latest column in the Star is this fascinating tidbit (h/t skdadl in a comment to this post at pogge):

More subtle is the potential impact on the prisoner abuse controversy Stephen Harper has fought long and hard to contain. Exposed to closer scrutiny are the targeted assassinations that military and other informed observers believe are among the ugly truths this government is determined to hide.

Flowing from the leaks are reports that U.S. elite army and navy units use capture-or-kill lists neutralizing or eliminating enemy leaders. Canada’s elite JTF2 special forces work seamlessly with U.S. counterparts in Afghanistan, reporting through a unique chain of command directly to the Chief of Defence Staff, the country’s top soldier.

Special forces operations are so secret that even defence ministers are excluded from the information loop. But earlier this year a source familiar with JTF2 told the Star the unit works side-by-side with American counterparts to “pick up or pick off” high-value Taliban and Al Qaeda targets.

So perhaps the truth about this will see the light of day after all.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Word of the day: Hysteresis

Those with a scientific background might recall this term from their high school physics classes. In that context, it refers to a property of ferromagnetic materials (like iron, steel, nickel, etc). If you wind coils of wire around a piece of steel and run electricity through it, the device becomes attractive to other magnetic materials. When the power is cut, the magnetism drops considerably... but not to zero. The tendency for the magnetism to not drop to the old baseline but a new, higher one is known as hysteresis.

What some folks, like Paul Krugman (h/t Eschaton), are saying is that something like this applies to other things, such as unemployment rates:
Right now, I’m reading Larry Ball on hysteresis in unemployment (pdf) — the tendency of high unemployment to become permanent. Ball provides compelling evidence that weak policy responses to high unemployment tend to raise the level of structural unemployment, so that inflation tends to rise at much higher unemployment rates than before. And the kind of unemployment we’re experiencing now, with many workers jobless for very long periods, is precisely the kind of unemployment likely to leave workers permanently unemployable.
And this is precisely what is happening in the US. Check out this graph of the median duration of unemployment in that country:

There seems to be a sort of "ratchet effect", where even after the recessions (shown in grey) have ended, the median duration of unemployment increases. And what's happened in the last couple of years is something else again. The effect of this on a society cannot be good...

Speaking of water...

The UN General Assembly is expected to vote shortly on a resolution declaring water to be a basic human right. Sounds like a good idea, no? However, the usual suspects would disagree:

Barlow, former senior adviser on water at the UN and chair of the Council of Canadians citizens group, is optimistic the resolution will pass by majority vote.

However, it appears powerful nations — including Canada — either will not support it or will push for a version that Barlow says would continue to allow water to be bought and sold as a commodity.

“My fear is that the world is going to be divided into North and South — developed and developing nations — and that’s a disaster for the United Nations and for the world,” said Barlow. She was referring to apparent behind-the-scenes opposition by the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Britain and other European countries, as well as Canada.

Now why would this be? Dunno; perhaps some people fear it would limit their ability to sell stuff like this?

Another water war brewing?

A couple of months ago I mentioned the dispute between Egypt and its upstream neighbours over the waters of the Nile. Well, that's far from the only place on the planet where trouble is brewing over this essential resource:

The last time water issues pushed India and Pakistan to the brink of armed conflict was half a century ago, when Bashir Ahmad Malik was an engineering student. His government asked him to drop his graduate studies and join a team of experts urgently negotiating a way to share water between the rival countries.

“Both sides were threatening war,” he said. “India was shutting the canals, starving or flooding us.”

The Indus Water Treaty averted disaster when it was signed in 1960. Even when India and Pakistan did eventually go to war over different issues in the following decades, they continued to respect the water treaty.

But the agreement now seems to be unravelling. Dispute-resolution mechanisms, never invoked in the first four decades of the treaty, have been triggered twice in recent years. The latest round of talks broke down earlier this month, as the two sides failed to agree on a neutral umpire to settle a quarrel over India’s plans for the Kishanganga hydroelectric project in northern Kashmir.

Even the veteran water expert who assisted with the original negotiations now feels that the treaty was inadequate.

“At the time, we felt it would be all right,” Mr. Malik said. “But now, I don't think it was a good treaty for Pakistan.”

Loss of faith in the Indus Water Treaty comes at a time when water disputes between the nuclear-armed neighbours have reached unprecedented levels of bombast.

From the Globe. Scary times we live in...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Wikileaks sheds more light on Afghan war

This one looks big:

A huge cache of secret US military files today provides a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared and Nato commanders fear neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the insurgency.

The disclosures come from more than 90,000 records of incidents and intelligence reports about the conflict obtained by the whistleblowers' website Wikileaks in one of the biggest leaks in US military history. The files, which were made available to the Guardian, the New York Times and the German weekly Der Spiegel, give a blow-by-blow account of the fighting over the last six years, which has so far cost the lives of more than 320 British and more than 1,000 US troops.

From the Guardian. Of course the Americans aren't happy:
The White House also criticised the publication of the files by Wikileaks: "We strongly condemn the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organisations, which puts the lives of the US and partner service members at risk and threatens our national security. Wikileaks made no effort to contact the US government about these documents, which may contain information that endanger the lives of Americans, our partners, and local populations who co-operate with us."
Jay Rosen at New York University's journalism school has this to say about the official reaction:
  • This leak will harm national security. (As if those words still had some kind of magical power, after all the abuse they have been party to.)
  • There's nothing new here. (Then how could the release harm national security?)
  • Wikileaks is irresponsible; they didn't even try to contact us! (Hold on: you're hunting the guy down and you're outraged that he didn't contact you?)
  • Wikileaks is against the war in Afghanistan; they're not an objective news source. (So does that mean the documents they published are fake?)
  • "The period of time covered in these documents … is before the president announced his new strategy. Some of the disconcerting things reported are exactly why the president ordered a three month policy review and a change in strategy." (Okay, so now that we too know the basis for the President's decision, that's a bad thing?)
Originally from here (that server seems to be down at the moment, but the comments are mirrored here).

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Canadians support long-form census -- poll

Take that, Steve:

In fact, according to the poll (margin of error 3.1 points), 52 per cent of Canadians think the government should reverse its decision and keep the mandatory long form census. Only 27 per cent support the decision to replace it with a voluntary form (24 per cent of Canadians think the long form is overly intrusive).

Nearly three in five Canadians think the long form yields data that is important in the formulation of public policy (53 per cent of Conservative supporters).

From the Globe. Will this be enough to turn things around? Hard to say. The Jurist at Accidental Deliberations seems to think the Cons were in retreat already, while pogge seems to think they've gone too far to back down without losing face. We'll have to see.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Parliamentary committee kills tar sands report

Kudos to the good folks at First Perspective who found this:
Meeting No. 25

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development met in camera at 3:29 p.m. this day, in Room 209, West Block, the Chair, James Bezan, presiding.

Members of the Committee present: Scott Armstrong, James Bezan, Bernard Bigras, Blaine Calkins, Linda Duncan, David J. McGuinty, Christian Ouellet, Francis Scarpaleggia, Justin Trudeau, Mark Warawa, Jeff Watson and Stephen Woodworth.

Acting Members present: Alan Tonks for Justin Trudeau.

In attendance: Library of Parliament: Penny Becklumb, Analyst; Tim Williams, Analyst.

Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the Committee on Tuesday, March 16, 2010, the Committee resumed its study of the oil sands and Canada's water resources.

It was agreed, — That the Committee cease its study of the oil sands and Canada's water resources.

It was agreed, — That all circulated copies of the confidential draft report be returned to the Clerk of the Committee and destroyed (paper and electronic version).

It was agreed, — That any member of the Environment Committee be authorized to consult the one original copy of the draft report kept in the Committee Clerk's office.

At 4:59 p.m., the Committee adjourned to the call of the Chair.
Since it was an in camera meeting, there's no info on why, or how individual MPs voted on the decision, but it's not too hard to guess.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Katz drops the ball on the mosquito issue

Our illustrious mayor has been doing his darnedest to make political hay out of this issue. The city loves to point to the province's licencing requirements as the reason for the controversial buffer zones around properties whose owners don't want to be fogged with malathion. With all that in mind, you'd think Katz would love a win-win solution, one which would control mosquitoes without the use of malathion (and hence the need for buffer zones). Not so:

A plan to fill in low-lying areas of Winnipeg to reduce mosquito-larvae habitat was axed last year during a round of job cuts designed to help the city maintain a balanced budget.

In 2009, the city laid off 41 professionals and middle managers and trimmed 42 other full-time equivalent positions from its 8,300-member workforce as part of chief administrative officer Glen Laubenstein's effort to find $11.5 million worth of "efficiencies" in the public service.

At the time, Mayor Sam Katz lauded the cuts as part of an effort to balance the city's $785-million operating budget without raising property taxes.

One of the jobs, however, was the vacant position of "source-reduction" engineer -- a full-time staffer responsible for identifying low-lying areas of Winnipeg where mosquito larvae develop and then filling them in to reduce the amount of standing water during rainy periods.

The job was proposed in 2005 as part of a mosquito-fighting strategy council approved during Katz's rookie term as mayor. Money was placed in the budget for the job in 2007, but the position was never filled, according to city budget documents and departmental business plans.

From the Free Press. Considering the controversy around fogging, the expense, and the fact that at best it only provides a few days' relief, you 'd think preventative measures would be a no-brainer. Seemingly not, though; presumably fogging is the preferred method because it's visible. Fogging is a way of being seen to be dealing with the mosquito problem; filling in low-lying areas is a way of actually dealing with the problem, but doesn't get the publicity (and hence, Katz no doubt figures, the votes).

Bringing positive thinking down to earth

The "power of positive thinking" is a hugely influential notion in our society, and Barbara Ehrenreich is concerned about this:

The problem with positive thinking is not so much that it’s positive as that it is merely thinking. As The Secret explains: “Everything that’s coming into your life you are attracting into your life… It’s what you are thinking.” The “secret” is the law of attraction, supposedly a cosmic, sempiternal law. It promulgates a view of a universe in which you can have whatever you want as long as you want it badly enough. Even God can be pressed into service in order for you to achieve your desires. As televangelist Joyce Meyer put it: “I believe God wants to give us nice things” (3). For positive thinkers, the universe resembles a big mail-order department. Submit your order clearly, and it’ll be fulfilled.

All this may seem like no more than harmless self-deluded nonsense, but implicit political assumptions underlie the positive thinking creed. If your thoughts determine your fortunes, then it follows that those who find themselves in poverty are simply not trying hard enough. Positive people get jobs. Negative people get fired. In the words of one motivational speaker, “Negative People SUCK!” Positive thinking is an expression of the most strident individualism and wants no truck with the common good or collective endeavour. If bad things happen to you, too bad – it’s your own fault.

Perhaps the most eye-opening chapter in Ehrenreich’s book is the one in which she reveals how positive thinking gained a foothold in the corporate world. She charts the shift from management as a dull, quasi-scientific discipline to the new messianic, anti-rational brand of leadership, in which business leaders are pumped up with confidence in their own ability to take the right decision based on hunches and intuitions. She quotes business guru Tom Peters in the 1990s: “Things are moving too fast for us to sort out logically what’s going on.” And in that atmosphere of ebullient self-confidence, Ehrenreich argues, were sown the seeds of the financial meltdown. Anyone who was critical or unable to “get with the plan”, was got rid of, until there were no canaries left in the mine.

From Le Monde Diplomatique (h/t Badger in this iTulip thread).

Monday, July 19, 2010

A bit of good news on the stem rust front

Remember Ug99, the scary-as-heck fungus that threatens the world's wheat crops? Well, Indian scientists appear to have found strains of wheat that are resistant:
A wheat-killing fungal disease, which is being called ‘agriculture’s polio’, is racing like swine flu towards Asia from Africa, crippling food baskets in seven countries. India, also at risk, has got a global breakthrough with its first line of defence — 20 varieties that can fight an attack.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the Ug99 fungus is on a “wind-borne trip around the globe” and poses a “genuine risk” to global food security and could push millions into hunger.

Indian farm scientists have confirmed locating “genetic sources” that can potentially resist Ug99. These varieties, internationally endorsed, will allow a coalition of at-risk countries to fight the disease better.

“This is an internationally-accepted breakthrough.” Swapan K Dutta, head of crop sciences at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research told HT.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

US optimistic about Venezuela's oil reserves

They've considerably upped their estimates of Venezuela's reserves:
A new US assessment of Venezuela's oil reserves could give the country double the supplies of Saudi Arabia.

Scientists working for the US Geological Survey say Venezuela's Orinoco belt region holds twice as much petroleum as previously thought.
From the Beeb (h/t c1ue at iTulip). Now this wouldn't be a big deal, except for this little tidbit:

However, Venezuelan oil geologist and former PDVSA board member Gustavo Coronel was sceptical.

"I doubt the recovery factor could go much higher than 25% and much of that oil would not be economic to produce", he told Associated Press news agency.

Funny thing that. So is the US overestimating the reserves, or is Venezuela under-reporting them? And why? Don't know, but here's a few possibilities:
  1. One or both countries has simply made a mistake somewhere in their estimation process.
  2. Venezuela fears, rightly or wrongly, that the US will eventually go after them for their oil, and is thus talking down the amount of oil they have to reduce US interest.
  3. Venezuela and other countries want to talk down the amount of worldwide oil reserves so it will command a higher price.
  4. The US is itching to invade, and is talking up Venezuela's reserves to strengthen the case for such an action.
I'll leave it to the reader to decide which of these, if any, is the most plausible.

Soft landing for Iggy?

Depends who you believe. There are whispers of a job for him at the U of T:

It’s not a scheduled stop on this summer’s gruelling bus tour but the University of Toronto is looming as the Liberal leader’s final destination. Michael Ignatieff is being touted as an eventual successor to Janice Gross Stein at the university’s prestigious Munk School of Global Affairs.

Returning to U of T where he has strong ties would provide a soft landing for Ignatieff if the next election doesn’t go well for the Liberal party and its leader. The Munk school begins an intense international search for Stein’s replacement this fall. Sources say the university would also welcome Ignatieff’s return if he chooses to fill the post it offered in 2005 to bring him back to Canada from Harvard.
From the Star. Iggy is denying it, of course, but we'll see if he's singing the same tune in a couple of months.

Think peak oil is scary?

It's nothing compared to peak phosphate:

Peak oil presents the world with an energy crisis once supplies start to dwindle any time from 2015. But another growing crisis is looming, with potentially devastating consequences for the world's food supply.

Phosphorous is an essential nutrient for plant growth, along with nitrogen and potassium. It is a key component in DNA and plays an essential role in plant energy metabolism. Without it, crops would fail, causing the human food chain to collapse.

Phosphate production is predicted to peak around 2030 as the global population expands to a predicted 9.1 billion people by 2050. And unlike oil, where there are renewable energy alternatives to fossil fuels, there is no substitute for phosphorus, according to the US Geological Survey.

As imported rock phosphate becomes more expensive and may one day run out, there could be a solution much closer to home, says Professor Brian Chambers, a leading UK soil scientist.

Professor Chambers is calling on the government to respond to the threat of peak phosphate by recovering nutrients from household compost, livestock and human manure and municipal waste.

Western Europe imports all of its phosphate for agricultural use, but Professor Chambers from environmental consultancy ADAS, believes that more than 50 per cent of the UK's total requirement could come from organic sources, saving the agricultural industry between £20m and £30m a year.

From the Guardian. Incidentally, I'm told that the biological nutrient removal recommended by the CEC for Winnipeg's wastewater is good for the recovery of phosphate as well as nitrogen. As we know, the city isn't keen to spend that kind of money, though, and they've been fighting the provincial government tooth and nail on the issue.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Interesting suggestion for online news sites

Ezra Klein (h/t PolicyFrog) points out a well-nigh universal failing of newspaper websites:
Reporters are endlessly interviewing newsmakers and then using, at most, a handful of lines out of thousands of words. The paper, of course, may not have room for thousands of words of interview transcripts, but the Web certainly does.

Nor does it make sense for the interviewee to give on-the-record interviews that are condensed into a handful of quotes: It's safer to have your full comments, and the questions that led to them, out in the open, rather than just the lines the author thought interesting enough to include in the article.

And for the institution itself, it's a no-brainer: You get a lot more inward links if you provide enough transcript that every niche media site can find something to point their readers toward. But no paper that I know of makes a habit of including transcripts of on-the-record interviews with major players.
Now one comment on PolicyFrog's blog does point out that this would require a lot of effort transcribing the interviews. However, most reporters use audio recording devices to do their interviews; surely these could be uploaded to the website in raw form.

Unfortunately, a lot of editors (or rather, nearly all editors) would balk at this, because it would provide a lot of ammunition for those who wish to point out journalistic bias (and let's face it, every news outlet has a bias of one sort or another). So don't expect it to happen any time soon.

The long-form census issue

Another piece of news that's been going around of late is the Cons' plan to scrap the long-form census that is mailed to many households, in favour of a voluntary one. Of course, this will lead to skewed data, since certain groups of people are less likely to fill out the forms than others. This, in turn, will handicap Statistics Canada's efforts to give an accurate picture of the Canadian populace. What does this matter you might ask? Well, Elections Canada and its provincial counterparts use this data to determine appropriate constituency boundaries, so as to ensure fairness in elections. Researchers use it to determine how well social programs are working (but hey, the Cons don't want real data on that anyway).

But what about privacy? Well, StatsCan's data is pretty well secured, and, more tellingly, the privacy commissioner was not consulted on this issue. Of course, if she had been it would have seriously weakened the case for scrapping the mandatory long-form:

The Harper government is blaming privacy fears for a controversial decision to scrap a mandatory long-form census questionnaire – but the country’s privacy watchdog has heard almost nothing from Canadians on the topic.

In fact, according to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, only three complaints were laid about any aspect of the census in the last decade: two in 2006 and one in 2001.

“The number of complaints coming to us about the census has dropped in recent years,” Privacy Commissioner spokeswoman Anne-Marie Hayden said.

The last time Canadians registered beefs on the census that were measured in the double digits was in 1996 – 14 years ago. And back then, the Privacy Commissioner’s office only received 16 complaints. In 1991, the watchdog heard 33 complaints.

Wow. A whole two complaints about the 2006 census. Doesn't seem like much cause for abolishing it, does it? But surely this will at least save taxpayers' money, right? Oh, wait.

For those who are interested in a bit of slacktivism, there's a Facebook group and an online petition to keep the long form in place. I've signed (just like I signed a petition against the Canada-US Free Trade agreement in 1988...) and I suggest you do too.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The budget passes

It seems all the Cons' fulminations about calling an election in the fall may have had some effect:
It took a long night and many words of despair from both Liberals and independents but the Senate passed a contentious omnibus budget bill Monday that contains measures its detractors say have little to do with the budget.

Bill C-9 is now law after opposition attempts to amend it were defeated by a vote of 48 to 44. It received royal assent late Monday night and the senators have been released to begin their summer vacations.

From the Globe. But wait -- I thought that the Cons didn't have a majority in the Senate yet, despite their best efforts to stack the deck. Oh, wait...
The Liberals say they tried to get enough of their members in their seats to stop the bill. Senator Terry Mercer of Nova Scotia, who has been laid up with a bad back and was not expected to make it to Ottawa for the vote, was in the chamber. But seven of his Liberal colleagues did not show up.
From the same Globe story, my bold. Funny thing that; there have been whispers of this in the freaking news media about this for a month and a half, yet somehow the Liberals weren't able to get their acts together to ensure everyone showed up for this vote. But then, we all know that the most important thing is for Iggy to keep the keys to Stornoway for as long as possible.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What the heck is Sam Katz doing?

Ever wonder why our illustrious mayor is suddenly big on light rail transit? Don't forget, one of the first things he did on assuming office was to cancel his predecessor's rapid transit plans, and then he grudgingly went ahead with BRT. Now, with BRT half-built, he wants to change gears again and move towards light rail. It seems the Free Press is confused by this too:

If city council endorses Mayor Sam Katz's bizarre insistence that it's light rail or nothing for Winnipeg, there will still be time and opportunity for everyone to come to their senses and reverse course. Unfortunately, however, there is no evidence the mayor and his inner circle are interested in listening to reason. It's damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead -- to where, nobody knows.

The mayor is hanging his hat on a consultant's report that claims light rail is not nearly as expensive as previously thought, and that it offers additional benefits in terms of the environment, community development and mobility. He also has faith the private sector will help finance the project, with aid from a special fund in Ottawa, but it's all just a hope and a prayer at this point.

If history teaches us anything, it's that cost projections for large projects in a faraway future are always wrong; but that's not really the point Mr. Katz and his crew are missing. The issue before council next week, when it votes on the mayor's program, is whether the city is needlessly and foolishly losing time and possibly money for a perfectly good plan for a southwest rapid transit corridor.
Source. Either Katz is a colossal idiot, or he's diabolically clever and is trying to sabotage rapid transit entirely so as to focus on stuff like this. I'll leave it to the reader to decide which.

For what it's worth, I'd love to see light rail transit here, but it seems a lot more realistic to build BRT first (especially since it's partially finished now) and use it as a stepping stone. It seems to be working well in similarly-sized Ottawa.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Saudi king orders halt to oil exploration: report

This is a bit odd, no?

RIYADH (Zawya Dow Jones)--Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has ordered a halt to oil exploration operations to save the hydrocarbon wealth in the world's top crude exporting nation for future generations, the official Saudi Press Agency, or SPA, reported late Saturday.

"I was heading a cabinet meeting and told them to pray to God the Almighty to give it a long life," King Abdullah told Saudi scholars studying in Washington, according to SPA.

"I told them that I have ordered a halt to all oil explorations so part of this wealth is left for our sons and successors God willing," he said.

Source (h/t Mega at iTulip). Then the very next paragraph backtracks a bit:
A senior oil ministry official, who declined to be named, told Zawya Dow Jones the king's order wasn't an outright ban but rather meant future exploration activities should be carried out wisely.
So what does this mean? Has Saudi oil production peaked? What will be the political implications if it has? This could get interesting...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Wal-Mart taking a beating

Seems the American consumer's spending spree is slowing:

Wal-Mart Stores (WMT, news, msgs) has a problem: Its typical shopper appears to be tapped out.

The world's largest retailer reported $112.8 billion in worldwide revenue in its fiscal fourth quarter, up 4.6% from a year earlier. But Wal-Mart also said U.S. same-store sales fell 1.6% in the period and noted that traffic in U.S. stores fell slightly. Same-store sales are considered an important measure of a retailer's health.

Wal-Mart's financial results unnerved investors, outweighing plenty of good news in the Bentonville, Ark., company's quarterly report. Wal-Mart has been slashing expenses and inventory, and international sales growth remains strong. Earnings per share last quarter were $1.17, beating Wall Street's estimate of $1.12.

Still, Wal-Mart shares fell 1.1% after the quarterly results were announced on Feb. 18.

One explanation for sales weakness is deflation. The company said prices for groceries and consumer electronics continued to fall, causing customers to spend less on each shopping trip.

The tough economy and high U.S. unemployment are also playing a big role. U.S. consumers are still feeling squeezed, Wal-Mart Chief Financial Officer Tom Schoewe told reporters. "We see the influence of the paycheck cycle as pronounced now as it's been in the past," he said, according to Bloomberg News.

From here (h/t Mega at iTulip). The risk of a double dip is increasing, I think.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The oil industry hates scrutiny

Our first example comes from China:

An American geologist held and tortured by China's state security agents was sentenced to eight years in prison Monday for gathering data on the Chinese oil industry in a case that highlights the government's use of vague secrets laws to restrict business information.

In pronouncing Xue Feng guilty of spying and collecting state secrets, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court said his actions “endangered our country's national security.”

Its verdict said Mr. Xue received documents on geological conditions of onshore oil wells and a data base that gave the coordinates of more than 30,000 oil and gas wells belonging to China National Petroleum Corporation and listed subsidiary PetroChina Ltd. That information, it said, was sold to IHS Energy, the U.S. consultancy Mr. Xue worked for and now known as IHS Inc.

From the Globe and Mail. Not a huge surprise perhaps; China is not noted for its freedoms (except in comparison to the DPRK). But stuff like this would never happen in Western democracies, would it? Well, don't be so sure. Admittedly, not as draconian as China's law, but it raises more than a few red flags...

Friday, July 2, 2010

Credit where credit is due

I'm not particularly keen on the Cameron-Clegg coalition in the UK, but they're doing the right thing here:
In a bold if lonely environmental stand, Britain’s coalition government has set out to curb the growth of what has been called “binge flying” by refusing to build new runways around London to accommodate more planes.

Citing the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions from aviation, Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, abruptly canceled longstanding plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport in May, just days after his election; he said he would also refuse to approve new runways at Gatwick and Stansted, London’s second-string airports.

The government decided that enabling more flying was incompatible with Britain’s oft-stated goal of curbing emissions. Britons have become accustomed to easy, frequent flying — jetting off to weekend homes in Spain and bachelor parties in Prague — as England has become a hub for low-cost airlines. The country’s 2008 Climate Change Act requires it to reduce emissions by at least 34 percent by 2020 from levels reached in 1990.

From the New York Times. Conservatives around the world should take note -- even they can't continue to ignore environmental issues. How this will play out remains to be seen, but it could conceivably make it OK for conservatives to be environmentalists. And that can't be anything but a Good Thing, regardless of one's views on conservatism as a whole.

In fact, if you think about it, conservatives ought to be environmentalists. Few things are more destructive of traditional ways of living than famines and shortages.