Posts Tagged ‘Ireland

The Dickeys of Toronto: A Family Saga Spanning Centuries And Continents — Part 1

- July 16th, 2014

Toronto-waterfront-1873

A bird’s eye view of Toronto from over the lake, 1873. Click on the image to enlarge it.

 

This started out as a short, simple, straight-forward story about a city, a house and a man.

Then, like most things in my life, it got complicated.

The house I’m referring to is the High Victorian mansion Sir John A. Macdonald owned in Toronto from 1876 to 1886 and which was his family’s principal residence for the first two years of that decade of ownership.

The house is located at 63 St. George Street on the University of Toronto campus. It  is surprisingly unknown despite being an important landmark — one of the very few still existing — of the deep and important relationship between this city and Canada’s first, best and greatest (perhaps “grandest” would be a better word) prime minister.

63-St-George-front

The building is still in relatively good shape — but has been treated by its current owners (U of T) with what might charitably be described as benign neglect and with what must truthfully be described as utter disrespect over the past century.

I recently wrote an entire blog post on that situation, which you can find here.

Here’s the historical plaque beside the house at 63 St. George Street. (It still rankles me that it’s called the “Macdonald-Mowat House” and not just “Sir John A. Macdonald’s Toronto House” … but never mind. And I definitely wouldn’t call the eclectic building style “French Second Empire” … but never mind about that either.)

Macdonald-plaque

One thing that intrigued me about the plaque was the reference to its builder, “Nathaniel Dickey, a Toronto iron founder.”

When seen properly the house really is quite beautiful — interesting, anyway, sort of like Gérard Depardieu’s face — and was situated in what would have been a magnificent setting at the time. It is large and certainly would have cost a fortune to build.

So why, I wondered, would Nathaniel Dickey — an obviously established and prosperous businessman — build his dream house in 1872 only to turn around just a few years later and sell it to Sir John A.? Was it the result of a personal tragedy or a business collapse or a simple change of heart? Perhaps the house — on the northwestern outskirts of the city when it was built — was just too far away from Nathaniel Dickey’s place of business and he got tired of the daily commute.

I would love to show you a photo of Nathaniel Dickey right now … but I can’t. I’ve worn out my eyes and my fingers and heart looking for any kind of pictorial representation of Mr. Dickey. With no success. BUT I know a picture of Nathaniel Dickey exists somewhere and I’m bound and determined to find it and show it to you. Why do I know it exists for certain? Because Nathaniel Dickey was a member of Toronto City Council for most of the 1860s, and local politicians were camera hogs back then just as much as they are now. So somewhere there’s a sepia-tone image of Nathaniel Dickey scrunching closer to Mayor Bowes or Mayor Medcalf or Mayor Smith at the official ribbon-cutting for a public horse trough or the opening of a new brewery. I know it’s there and I’ll find it. Someday. I promise.

So I looked into Nathaniel Dickey. I had an itch to know the background to his story and — the most important thing, from my point of view at the time — the story of the house that Nathaniel Dickey built.

It was actually fairly easy to get an early quick-fix on Nathaniel Dickey. Which was good, because I saw the Dickey connection as merely a footnote to the much more important Macdonald story.

But one thing led to another, one bit of information raised questions which led to another door, which opened into a hallway with half a dozen more doors (some just closed, others locked tight). And those new doors led to still more doors and still more questions. And behind many of those doors was completely contradictory information. You get the picture.

Thus my short, simple, straight-forward story turned into “a family saga spanning centuries and continents.” And only “Part 1″ to boot. Lordy.

I doubt that many people will continue with me on this whole journey, but I welcome those who do and wish us all good luck. This thing will evolve over time as new facts and perspectives come to light, so I will add updates as seems appropriate.

But right now I have to start writing something; it’s better to make changes later than to wait until I think I know everything about the subject, a day that will never come. Besides, I don’t want to make the story of one family with which I have absolutely no connection (apart from curiosity) my life’s work. I still have Rob Ford and Steve Harper and Vlad Putin to deal with.

So let’s start with my entry point into the story of Nathaniel Dickey, iron founder, and his family. That would be this biographical sketch on Nathaniel’s brother James from Volume II of the 1885 History of Toronto and County of York published by C. Blackett Robinson.

1885-bio-James-1

1885-bio-james-2

It all seems straight-forward enough, doesn’t it? The two immigrant Dickey brothers “retired” in 1876, the same year Nathaniel sold his house to Macdonald, and turned over the successful business to their brother-in-law and partner, John Neil (or Neill — it goes back and forth all over the place).

Keep moving, folks, nothing to look at here. Except …

Except when you do keep looking, so much of that brief entry turns out to be coverup or disputed or just plain wrong.

For starters, both of the Dickey brothers were just in their early 40s at the time — in the prime of life, career-wise, and certainly nowhere near an age any entrepreneur with gumption would retire either then or now. And neither of those Dickey boys was what you would call “retiring” in a commercial, social, political, legal or militant sense either.

So let’s go back, as best we can, to the beginning of the Dickey saga and see where it takes us.

The Dickey family was what used to be known as “Scotch Irish” — poor Scottish Protestant farmers and labourers recruited by the English (and Scottish) King James I in the first two decades of the 17th Century to colonize Ireland and subdue the rebellious Catholic natives.

I’ll tell you which Dickey made that crossing of the North Channel soon enough, but we can trace the family line back five generations before that to one Scottish landowner named Robert Dik who was born in 1463 in the reign of the fifth Scottish Stewart king and who sired eight children before he died at the ripe old age (for that time) of 75 in 1538 in the reign of the seventh Stewart sovereign, father of the notable (and beheaded) Mary.

(NOTE: The name is spelled both Stewart and Stuart but since it comes from a man known as “Robert the Steward” I think the “Stewart” spelling is probably more faithful to the origin.)

Before Robert Dik died, the family surname had become Dickey and, with eight children to carry on the line, a huge number of people now named Dickey — perhaps all of them, for all I know — can count Robert Dik as their ancestor.

We move ahead half a century and move from the fields and farms of rural lowland Scotland to the shops and houses of urban Glasgow where John Dickey III was born in 1584 (about 20 years after Shakespeare was born, although neither John Dickey III, his children nor his children’s children would have ever heard the name Shakespeare). John had the misfortune to lose his parents in his early teens but at least his father had been a  successful small merchant and left the boy with some property and what appeared to be a modestly comfortable future.

Until disaster struck in the form of Glasgow’s Great Fire of 1601. Everything the 17-year-old owned was burned to the ground and he was left penniless.

So poor and without prospects in his native land, John Dickey III was a prime candidate to join the flotilla of Scottish Protestant colonizers sent across the narrow sea of the North Channel to conquer Ireland a few years later by James I, King of Great Britain, as he styled himself.

ScottishU-landlords

At this point, the English had been trying to subdue Ireland for centuries — since at least the Norman period — with varying degrees of success. And the Gaelic Irish had been resisting — with varying degrees of success — for centuries.

This latest attempt at subjugation was focused on the northern part of Ireland known as Ulster not so much because it was closest to Scotland, but because Irish resistance had been strongest in Ulster and the English wanted to replace the most rebellious Irish Catholics with loyal and dependable Scottish Protestant subjects.

So John Dickey III was one of those who came in and drove off the Irish, built fortified towns and established what was known as the Ulster plantation.

At almost exactly the same time as the English were planting themselves in colonies on the inhospitable shores of wild America, the Scots were planting themselves in colonies on the green but equally hostile terrain of wild Ireland.

John Dickey III died in Ballymenas, Antrim, in 1641, having fathered three children and established the Dickey family in Ireland.

What followed is known as the Ascendancy, the establishment of a minority Protestant elite ruling over a disenfranchised Catholic majority, with its high point being Protestant William of Orange’s defeat of Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Now not all the Protestant “Scotch Irish” made it into this ascendant elite. A lot of them were relatively poor tenant farmers and tradesmen — but all of them were better off than the impoverished Gaelic Catholic masses, received at least a smattering of education, had more opportunities for advancement and had more rights and privileges. And they fought to hold on to those advantages.

irish-rebellion

The Dickey family weaved through all this turmoil, surviving and growing and staying mostly grounded in Antrim.

By the early 1700s “Nathaniel” was an established name in the Dickey family. And by the time our Nathaniel Dickey emigrated to Canada with his brother James in 1847, he was the sixth generation of his family in direct succession to be named “Nathaniel.” (Our Nathaniel for some reason didn’t name any of his children Nathaniel, although one — born W. Arthur Dickey in Toronto in 1869 — appears to have later changed his name by deed poll to Nathaniel Adam Dickey as an adult in the U.S.)

One of those earlier Nathaniels was quite famous as a leader of Methodists in Ulster who broke with the parent church in 1798 over the right of the people to choose their own ministers. I don’t want to get caught up in the intricacies of Methodism’s schism any more than I wanted to step into the whole Irish Catholic-Protestant quagmire. Suffice it to say, the Dickeys’ standing rose within the lower ranges of Scotch-Irish Ulster society but still did not elevate them into the elite.

The family had moved to Lisburn  (still in Antrim) just south of Belfast by the time our Nathaniel’s grandfather (also named Nathaniel, of course) died there at age 71 in 1828.

(If you’re a Dickey genealogist, you may have come across some information saying this Nathaniel was our Nathaniel’s father, not grandfather. Couldn’t be: Our Nathaniel was born in 1829 — not 1826 as is often erroneously reported — the year after that Nathaniel died, and several of our Nathaniel’s siblings were born even later. The plethora of “Nathaniel Dickey” namesakes probably led to the confusion. It was our Nathaniel’s brother James, by the way, who was born in 1826. In the 1881 Canadian census, James lists his age as 55 and Nathaniel lists his age as 52, ages which coincide with the 1826 and 1829 birth years.)

Now one thing that’s interesting here is that our Nathaniel’s grandfather was married to a “Quakeress” (name unknown — which indicates the information on the gravestone was supplied much later and with sketchy authority) so the family was obviously not dogmatically rigid at this time.

Anyway … our Nathaniel Dickey was born in Lisburn, as were siblings James, John, Thomas, William, Robert, Adam, Samuel and Sarah. Quite a crowd. Too many to be supported by one family farm.

Fortunately for the Dickeys, the Industrial Revolution came along just in time to provide factory work for some of the increasing number of farm folk headed for the cities and towns.

old-belfast

And also fortunately for the Dickeys, they were Protestant Scotch-Irish with a basic education, so they were considered employable by the other Protestant Scotch-Irish who owned the factories.

James for sure and almost certainly Nathaniel and possibly one or two other younger brothers were engaged as apprentice machinists in the MacAdam Brothers’ Soho Foundries in Belfast.

Like many iron foundries around the world, the Belfast Soho operation was named in honour of the original Soho Foundry in Birmingham, where James Watt developed the first truly efficient steam engines, thus making the Industrial Revolution possible. Steam engines and turbines and boilers were the cutting edge of technology in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, so calling your iron foundry Soho was a little like independent computer designers today calling their operations “Apple” — the difference being that people could get away with it 200 years ago. And it was, after all, a mark of respect and homage. Keep that in mind when the name Soho Foundry comes up later.

Anyway, several of the young Dickeys got their grounding in mechanical engineering and iron foundering with the MacAdams. The Belfast Soho Foundries built steam engines and turbines (as well as spinning machines) for mills throughout Britain and even exported some of their engines as far away as Egypt.

So the Dickeys are now gathering in Belfast in the mid-1840s. And this is where we will pause.

The Great Famine of 1845-50 is about to descend on Ireland and blow the entire Dickey family (in several waves) across the Atlantic to Canada. But we’ll get to that in a few days. I’m still opening doors and poking in the Dickey family closets. I am, after all, Nosey Parker.

See you soon.

 

 

 

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REWIND: History Keeps Repeating Itself in Europe

- June 25th, 2012

I wrote this piece in November 2011. It is a dark, pessimistic look at how the European Union and the Euro Zone were both built on fatally flawed designs that allowed massive widespread abuse and lying and cheating without penalty  and how  both structures have no built-in realistic and effective measures for dealing with the type of overwhelming  financial crisis that abuse, lying and cheating inevitably led to.

It is now almost eight months later. I would love to be able to say the Europeans have gotten their act together in that time and are now on the long, slow, hard road to recovery. I can’t. They’re still dithering and denying and backstabbing  and lying and cheating and dancing a frantic, pointless jig as the continent burns around them. Some of the players have changed, but the story is still the same.

I am, if anything, more pessimistic now about Europe’s future than I was eight months ago. The fire is spreading.

Probably the only thing I see differently now is that I believe Greece will choose to leave the Euro Zone, not be kicked out of it. But the timetable is still the same: I said 18 months in November 2011 and that makes it about 10 months from today. Next spring, in other words.

One other aspect that is apparent now (but largely unspoken in the public debate, as far as I can see) is that the contagion has spread so far and is so deeply rooted now that Germany — seen, with increasingly less confidence, as the bailout saviour of  EU members on the edge — is worried about its own future. The DNA-embedded fear of the scourge of hyper-inflation that devastated the German economy and society in the 1920s is rising to the surface now in Deutschland. Every time Angela Merkel says “No” is another tightening of the life vest.

I fear for the future of Europe and I feel deep sorrow and pity for the anguish the European peoples will be put through soon. The hard times now are nothing compared to the hard times ahead. It doesn’t take away any of the hurt and pain to say the Europeans brought it on themselves by confidently, arrogantly placing their well-being in the maws of such obviously, intrinsically, fatally flawed and criminally useless institutions as the European Union and the Euro common currency.

I would weep but I have no more tears. Here’s what I had to say in November 2011: 

 

BreakingNews

I always used to wonder how Europe — the mother of “Western” civilization — could watch itself helplessly descend into one 20th Century cataclysm after another without putting on the brakes (or at least downgearing enough to counter the slo-mo slide to disaster).

You know the litany of Europe’s avoidable 20th Century debacles:

Sub-regional rivalries and intrigue coupled with arrogance, stupidity and petty personal jealousies and hubris leading to the firestorm of World War I; then the crushing burden of massive post-war reparations heaped on Germany by the victorious allies, leading to the crippling of the German economy and hyperinflation, exacerbated  by the impact of Wall Street’s 2008-like fraud-based 1929-30 meltdown, which in turn caused the global devastation of the Great Depression; all of which led, in turn, to the collapse of hope and social structure that created the opportunity for ruthlessly opportunistic predators like Adolf Hitler to seize power; which in turn led to the willfully blind, criminally negligent appeasement policies of Britain and France through the 1930s, which in turn led to the even greater cataclysm of World War II and the Holocaust. (The tyranny, terror and mass murder of Soviet Stalinist Russia falls into this daisy-chain of avoidable disasters somewhere too, as does the nuclear Cold War which mutated European life for the last half of the 20th Century.)

war-refugees

I used to look back at that history of created chaos, self-inflicted misery, lost opportunities, and toxically craven “leaders” and wonder how, step by step, Europe could knowingly, deliberately tear itself apart time after time after time.

I don’t wonder anymore. Now I see it unfolding on a daily basis and I know what it would have been like to watch the European tragedy unfold in 1913 or 1923 or 1933 or 1943 or 1953.

Dumb and stupid and self-created and so unnecessary — but so inevitable in its slow, ponderous, irreversible course. It’s like watching lava flow to the sea or an imploded skyscraper collapsing in hang-time.

building-collapse

The political, administrative and regulatory house of cards that is the European Union and its layer cake of unaccountable  “commissioners,” mandarins, bureaucrats and parasitic dependents is incapable of slowing — let alone reversing — the course of Europe’s current slo-mo disaster.

The European Union, as an institution,  is as useless, self-serving, mendacious and malignantly hollow as the League of Nations (basically a European forum) was in dealing with the real economic, social and political cancers of the 1920s and ’30s.

European_Union

As Benito Mussolini said in 1936: “The League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out.” The same could easily be said today of the EU.

So here comes a new century of European debacles.

The rest of the world isn’t much better (Wall Street, especially, has a habit of endlessly repeating itself — inflate financial balloon, reap unconscionable profits by rubbing said balloon, cry tears of self-pity when balloon inevitably bursts while ignoring the real-life casualties, raid the cookie jar for comfort compensation, inflate new balloon — all done with the enabling connivance of an American political establishment larded with bought-and-paid-for lackeys.)

DollarCrash&Burn

But Wall Street’s crimes have a rather direct thuggery to them — take the money and run. By contrast, the Europeans have turned self-immolation into an art form, a ghastly spectacle impossible to take your eyes off, not beautiful but mesmerizing.

EuroFlames

I sense a deep level of here-we-go-again fatalism in the disconnect between the general public in much of Europe and their governments, both at the national and larger (what they call “supranational”) EU levels.

This is, in part, because the European Union was the creation of economic and political elites that told the common people, “This is an important, necessary thing that is far too complicated and intricate for your little mind to comprehend. Just fasten your seatbelt and do what you’re told.”

The cross-over of responsibilities, powers and interests between national government and the EU infrastructure is mind-boggling (purposefully confusing, really) in a Byzantine, constantly morphing labyrinth for which no one has a map — although the governing nabobs pretend they do, much like the Wizard of Oz.

As Wikipedia puts it, “The EU operates through a hybrid system of supranational independent institutions and intergovernmentally made decisions negotiated by the member states.”

Individual Europeans get to vote for members of the European Parliament as well as for their own national governments, but the degree of general apathy felt toward the European Parliament bears a direct relationship to the uselessness and powerlessness of that body.

Because the European Parliament is really the lowest rung on an organizational ladder that is controlled more by non-elected functionaries than by democratically chosen representatives.

The principal executive body of the EU is the “European Council,” made up of the heads of government of the (current) 27 EU member states plus the (unelected) president of the European Commission (more about that body later). This group gets together a few times a year, but mainly to set vague policy goals and rubber-stamp the policy plans of the unelected mandarins.

sarkozy-merkel

Not to be confused with the European Council of government leaders is  the “Council of the European Union,”  a loosey-goosey label for gatherings of specific cabinet ministers from the different member states configured to work out policies and deals on specific areas of interest like agriculture and telecommunications and so on. There are 10 different “configurations” involving about 350 ministers for this non-elected group, which is in turn overseen by a “General Affairs Council” made up of most senior national ministers, usually the foreign minister of each member country.

The “Council of the European Union” votes on EU legislation which is then passed on to the pretty-much-useless (but elected) European Parliament for debate and (usually) rubber-stamping.

Now here’s an important point: The “Council of the European Union” can constitutionally only legislate on the basis of (to quote the council itself) “proposals submitted to it by the European Commission.”

What, you may ask, is the “European Commission?”

Good question because the European Commission is the most important, most powerful body in the EU galaxy apart from the head-of-government “European Council.”

The “European Commission” is again made up of representatives from each of the 27 EU member states plus the president of the commission. Each member of the commission is appointed by his or her national government and each is responsible for one or more areas of trans-European policy making.

Although they hold the greatest degree of direct power in the entire European Union command structure, these commissioners are not elected by the people of Europe as a whole or even by the electorate of the member nations from which they come.

They are “designated” by the governments of their own countries and “confirmed” for five years terms by the European Parliament. And then they are pretty much like the gods of Greek mythology sitting on Mount Olympus — or, to put a more modern spin on it, like members of the Olympic International Organizing Committee.

Most of the commission members are hack politicians who have served their time in government in their home countries and done stints in the European Parliament (to get their pan-European stripes), who know how to accommodate and negotiate and blow hot and cold, and live off the fat of the land.

JoseManuelBarroso

At their head is the President of the European Commission, usually a veteran of the commission who has proven himself adept at serving the needs of the people who put him in office — which is NOT the general populace of Europe, since — once again — the president is selected,. not elected.

And way, way down there at the bottom of the pile is the only part of this whole complex mess that is actually elected by the people — the European Parliament, made up of 736 members elected for five-year terms by the people in their home countries.

Of course, as the only directly elected participants in the EU governmental/legislative/administrative system, the members of the European Parliament have the least input of the hundreds, nay thousands, of mandarins, peacocks and cheeseburgers who run the European Union.

They only get to discuss and approve legislation that has been handed down to them by the appointed Council of the European Union, which has in turn approved policies and legislation based exclusively on proposals put forward by the appointed European Commission.

The individual members of the European Parliament have far less power than a member of Toronto Council — if only because there are only 45 councillors, which is almost 700 fewer individual voices — and votes — than the clamouring, fractured, powerless horde of window-dressers in Brussels.

So that’s your basic European Union.

No wonder the whole place is sliding down a very slippery slope with no functioning handbrakes. Everybody involved in the process has been too busy for too long looking after special interests and cutting deals with other special interests to grease the process.

And nobody is accountable. It’s always somebody else’s fault, some other governing body’s responsibility, or some individual country’s jurisdiction.

Euro

One thing to keep in mind is the “Euro Zone” — the 17 countries using the Euro as their common currency — is not the same thing as the 27-member European Union. Some EU nations — Britain, the Scandinavians  — chose NOT to give up their individual national currencies , while others  — most of the former Soviet Bloc nations of Eastern Europe — have not yet established the capitalist credentials to qualify them for access to the Euro — and its supposed benefits.

The benefit for some members (read Southern Europe for the purposes of this discussion) was that it allowed them to piggyback on the platinum-card credit rating of other members (read Northern Europe). The benefit for Northern Europe was that the relative economic weakness of Southern Europe held the Euro down and kept in check inflationary pressure on some high-performance economies (read Germany and, to a substantially lesser extent, France).

Although the Euro isn’t synonymous with the European Union, it is still the creation of the European Union and is the responsibility of one of the EU’s financial creatures, the European Central Bank.

Now one thing you can say about the European Union is that it knows how to make rules and bureaucratic red tape. And another thing you can say is that those rules get changed or ignored or even actively thwarted when they are inconvenient to any member state that has the power, negotiating skill, blackmail material or criminal intelligence to do so.

Everyone — even the Greek government — admits now that Greece used cooked books, under-the-table, off-the-books loans from Wall Street (thank you Sachs Goldman) and bald-faced lies to candy-coat the state of the Greek economy and government spending to gain entry to the Euro Zone in 2001.

Greece was only one member of the Euro Zone — but the worst offender — to abuse the access to easier credit that was one of the privileges of membership.

It didn’t take long for all parties concerned to realize that it was a practical — if not perceptual, PR-wise — error giving Greece a free pass to the Euro gravy train, but by then it was too late.

It wouldn’t have been too late if everybody stuck to the rules. The problem was Germany and France found themselves in a bit of a cash-flow squeeze in the mid-’00s and they — Papa France and Mama Germany — would have had serious difficulty meeting the on-the-books requirements to maintain membership in good standing in the Euro club.

That wouldn’t do, of course. The Euro existed because of France and Germany.

So the rules were changed. Loosened. Actually everybody just agreed to ignore them in frilly language.

And so Greece — and some of the other less well-endowed Euro members — escaped the tightening noose of fiscal responsibility. Germany and (to a far lesser extent) France got their financial difficulties straightened out and didn’t need the fixed dice anymore. But (again mixing metaphors) it was too late to close the barn door. The fiscal-responsibility horse had already left the stable.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost (more lame, mixed-up — one might say half-baked —  metaphors) and the southern half of the Euro Zone is ablaze in a bonfire of over-extended indebtedness.

george-papandreou-greece-pm

Greece’s goose is cooked (metaphor), Portugal and Ireland are bouncing around like popcorn in a hot pot (I made this one up, I think), Spain is on thin ice (ice and fire, I guess, metaphor-wise), but Italy is the elephant in the room that everyone in the room is worried will crush them when it falls (I’m done with these stupid metaphors).

silvio-berlusconi

What’s going to happen next?

Well …

I don’t know.

If everyone played by the rules, I would have a pretty good shot at telling you.

But they don’t, so I can’t.

These Europeans (sorry to generalize, but that’s what happens when you join a Zone) are crazy and they defy — no, trample — logic. They’re fiddling while Rome burns. Literally — not a metaphor. Just wait for the riots in Rome when Italy catches fire.

So I can’t predict what’s going to happen — except that Greece is going down, kicked out of the Zone (within 18 months if not sooner), and in for some very tough times ahead. But maybe good times too, further down the road.

And — one way or another — Italy’s day of reckoning is coming, no matter how much shucking and jiving goes on in the short term. Italy’s sovereign debt load is unsupportable.

Look at this chart from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine (Here’s a link to the English-language website).

DerSpiegelGraphic

Here’s a simpler comparison from the Wall Street Journal:

WSJdebtgraf

It makes it fairly clear why Greece is in filch territory and Ireland should be (the British financial connection puts Ireland in a slightly different position), and why Italy is dancing on the razor’s edge.

Spain and Portugal are still in big trouble. Spain’s seemingly low sovereign debt ratio is misleading because it does not account for a huge amount of debt Spain’s cities and regional governments were allowed to run up independently of the national sovereign debt — to make up for financing Spain’s national government cut to put its own books in better light. It’s all still Spain’s debt.

Here’s a link to a very good analysis called After Eurogeddon by The Economist Intelligence Unit that spells out more clearly than I can what may happen in the coming days, months and years.

And here’s a bit of the Q&A that goes on in the Economist report:

5. Which countries would be most likely to stay in the euro, and which would be most likely to leave?

Firm predictions are tricky, but broadly a fracture between a strong northern “core” and the weaker “periphery” looks most likely. The process would, in our view, probably entail periphery countries breaking off individually to leave a “rump” of northern countries still within a currency union. Once one peripheral country (say, Greece) left, all the other vulnerable countries would probably follow. This means that Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain would leave the euro, although not necessarily immediately. Malta would probably leave, and Cyprus would have little choice but to exit as its banking system would be nearly wiped out by a Greek collapse. Up to ten countries could remain members of the euro: Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia and Estonia (the last three all being small, open economies like Malta and Cyprus, but with healthier fundamentals).

Look, all of the above sounds like I’m bashing Europe. Well … actually, I am.

Marlene_in_The_Blue_Angel-1

I’m a spendthrift who can squander money like a drunken European finance minister, so I shouldn’t be casting stones. And I love Europe — the quality of daily life is better there than in North America, in my opinion. But I may have to change my opinion when the effects of coming austerity programmes put the boot to European joie de vivre, culture, proximity and variety, great train system, wonderful cheap wine and fabulous, affordable food in neighbourhood bistros (and five, count ‘em five, different seas, no,  six, no, seven seas — but half of them are smaller than Georgian Bay).

Things will change in Europe — for better and worse.

But no matter how much things change, they will stay the same. Royally screwed up, for the foreseeable future.

I’ll be watching it unfold close up for a while, so I’ll let you know if the view is different from inside burning Europe than from outside.

Even Polar Bears Are Irish On St. Patrick’s Day

- March 17th, 2012

polar-bear

Actually, Canada’s polar bears have always had Irish ancestry. It’s just topical to talk about it on St. Patrick’s Day.

The Irish connection was made last year when a worldwide team of researchers realized that the modern polar bear’s mitochondrial DNA is closely related to DNA in the bones of brown bear skeletons found in eight cave sites around Ireland. The Irish brown bear became extinct about 3,000 years ago.

Ireland-bear

Previously the general consensus had been that polar bears were descended from brown bears on the Siberian side of the Arctic, not the Atlantic side, and the genetic digression took place about 100,000-150,000 years ago. But the most recent study has concluded that all existing polar bears can be genetically traced back to one Irish brown bear mama (the “Eve” of polar bears) and the lineage is much more recent than previously thought — only 20,000-50,000 years old.

The study was conducted by researchers from across Europe (including Scandinavia and Russia) and North America, with the the final connection being made by scientists in Ireland, Britain and the U.S. Here’s a link to the abstract of the group’s paper published in the scientific journal Current Biology in July 2011.

The conjecture is that multiple matings took place during the last ice age. Well, actually we’re still technically in the tail end of an ice age that started about 2.5 million years ago, so it would be more accurate to call it the “Würm glaciation period” that extended from about 110,000 to 15,000 years ago.

Guinness-polar-bear

At the height of that glaciation period (about 22,000 years ago) the whole northern part of the globe from Siberian Asia to Canada to Greenland to Scandinavia and Europe, including the islands of Britain and Ireland, was covered in giant ice sheets. Thus the movement of various polar species, including bears, was widespread and led to substantial interbreeding with more southerly species around the edges of the icesheets.

Guinness-brown-bear

That’s the thesis anyway and the explanation for why Canada’s polar bears can trace their ancestry back to a lady brown bear in Ireland.

What can’t be explained, however, is why the polar bears seen below are displaying behaviour more usually associated with the aftereffects of St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Go figure.

polar-bears

History Keeps Repeating Itself In Europe

- November 6th, 2011

BreakingNews

I always used to wonder how Europe — the mother of “Western” civilization — could watch itself helplessly descend into one 20th Century cataclysm after another without putting on the brakes (or at least downgearing enough to counter the slo-mo slide to disaster).

You know the litany of Europe’s avoidable 20th Century debacles:

Sub-regional rivalries and intrigue coupled with arrogance, stupidity and petty personal jealousies and hubris leading to the firestorm of World War I; then the crushing burden of massive post-war reparations heaped on Germany by the victorious allies, leading to the crippling of the German economy and hyperinflation, exacerbated  by the impact of Wall Street’s 2008-like fraud-based 1929-30 meltdown, which in turn caused the global devastation of the Great Depression; all of which led, in turn, to the collapse of hope and social structure that created the opportunity for ruthlessly opportunistic predators like Adolf Hitler to seize power; which in turn led to the willfully blind, criminally negligent appeasement policies of Britain and France through the 1930s, which in turn led to the even greater cataclysm of World War II and the Holocaust. (The tyranny, terror and mass murder of Soviet Stalinist Russia falls into this daisy-chain of avoidable disasters somewhere too, as does the nuclear Cold War which mutated European life for the last half of the 20th Century.)

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I used to look back at that history of created chaos, self-inflicted misery, lost opportunities, and toxically craven “leaders” and wonder how, step by step, Europe could knowingly, deliberately tear itself apart time after time after time.

I don’t wonder anymore. Now I see it unfolding on a daily basis and I know what it would have been like to watch the European tragedy unfold in 1913 or 1923 or 1933 or 1943 or 1953.

Dumb and stupid and self-created and so unnecessary — but so inevitable in its slow, ponderous, irreversible course. It’s like watching lava flow to the sea or an imploded skyscraper collapsing in hang-time.

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The political, administrative and regulatory house of cards that is the European Union and its layer cake of unaccountable  “commissioners,” mandarins, bureaucrats and parasitic dependents is incapable of slowing — let alone reversing — the course of Europe’s current slo-mo disaster.

The European Union, as an institution,  is as useless, self-serving, mendacious and malignantly hollow as the League of Nations (basically a European forum) was in dealing with the real economic, social and political cancers of the 1920s and ’30s.

European_Union

As Benito Mussolini said in 1936: “The League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out.” The same could easily be said today of the EU.

So here comes a new century of European debacles.

The rest of the world isn’t much better (Wall Street, especially, has a habit of endlessly repeating itself — inflate financial balloon, reap unconscionable profits by rubbing said balloon, cry tears of self-pity when balloon inevitably bursts while ignoring the real-life casualties, raid the cookie jar for comfort compensation, inflate new balloon — all done with the enabling connivance of an American political establishment larded with bought-and-paid-for lackeys.)

DollarCrash&Burn

But Wall Street’s crimes have a rather direct thuggery to them — take the money and run. By contrast, the Europeans have turned self-immolation into an art form, a ghastly spectacle impossible to take your eyes off, not beautiful but mesmerizing.

EuroFlames

I sense a deep level of here-we-go-again fatalism in the disconnect between the general public in much of Europe and their governments, both at the national and larger (what they call “supranational”) EU levels.

This is, in part, because the European Union was the creation of economic and political elites that told the common people, “This is an important, necessary thing that is far too complicated and intricate for your little mind to comprehend. Just fasten your seatbelt and do what you’re told.”

The cross-over of responsibilities, powers and interests between national government and the EU infrastructure is mind-boggling (purposefully confusing, really) in a Byzantine, constantly morphing labyrinth for which no one has a map — although the governing nabobs pretend they do, much like the Wizard of Oz.

As Wikipedia puts it, “The EU operates through a hybrid system of supranational independent institutions and intergovernmentally made decisions negotiated by the member states.”

Individual Europeans get to vote for members of the European Parliament as well as for their own national governments, but the degree of general apathy felt toward the European Parliament bears a direct relationship to the uselessness and powerlessness of that body.

Because the European Parliament is really the lowest rung on an organizational ladder that is controlled more by non-elected functionaries than by democratically chosen representatives.

The principal executive body of the EU is the “European Council,” made up of the heads of government of the (current) 27 EU member states plus the (unelected) president of the European Commission (more about that body later). This group gets together a few times a year, but mainly to set vague policy goals and rubber-stamp the policy plans of the unelected mandarins.

sarkozy-merkel

Not to be confused with the European Council of government leaders is  the “Council of the European Union,”  a loosey-goosey label for gatherings of specific cabinet ministers from the different member states configured to work out policies and deals on specific areas of interest like agriculture and telecommunications and so on. There are 10 different “configurations” involving about 350 ministers for this non-elected group, which is in turn overseen by a “General Affairs Council” made up of most senior national ministers, usually the foreign minister of each member country.

The “Council of the European Union” votes on EU legislation which is then passed on to the pretty-much-useless (but elected) European Parliament for debate and (usually) rubber-stamping.

Now here’s an important point: The “Council of the European Union” can constitutionally only legislate on the basis of (to quote the council itself) “proposals submitted to it by the European Commission.”

What, you may ask, is the “European Commission?”

Good question because the European Commission is the most important, most powerful body in the EU galaxy apart from the head-of-government “European Council.”

The “European Commission” is again made up of representatives from each of the 27 EU member states plus the president of the commission. Each member of the commission is appointed by his or her national government and each is responsible for one or more areas of trans-European policy making.

Although they hold the greatest degree of direct power in the entire European Union command structure, these commissioners are not elected by the people of Europe as a whole or even by the electorate of the member nations from which they come.

They are “designated” by the governments of their own countries and “confirmed” for five years terms by the European Parliament. And then they are pretty much like the gods of Greek mythology sitting on Mount Olympus — or, to put a more modern spin on it, like members of the Olympic International Organizing Committee.

Most of the commission members are hack politicians who have served their time in government in their home countries and done stints in the European Parliament (to get their pan-European stripes), who know how to accommodate and negotiate and blow hot and cold, and live off the fat of the land.

JoseManuelBarroso

At their head is the President of the European Commission, usually a veteran of the commission who has proven himself adept at serving the needs of the people who put him in office — which is NOT the general populace of Europe, since — once again — the president is selected,. not elected.

And way, way down there at the bottom of the pile is the only part of this whole complex mess that is actually elected by the people — the European Parliament, made up of 736 members elected for five-year terms by the people in their home countries.

Of course, as the only directly elected participants in the EU governmental/legislative/administrative system, the members of the European Parliament have the least input of the hundreds, nay thousands, of mandarins, peacocks and cheeseburgers who run the European Union.

They only get to discuss and approve legislation that has been handed down to them by the appointed Council of the European Union, which has in turn approved policies and legislation based exclusively on proposals put forward by the appointed European Commission.

The individual members of the European Parliament have far less power than a member of Toronto Council — if only because there are only 45 councillors, which is almost 700 fewer individual voices — and votes — than the clamouring, fractured, powerless horde of window-dressers in Brussels.

So that’s your basic European Union.

No wonder the whole place is sliding down a very slippery slope with no functioning handbrakes. Everybody involved in the process has been too busy for too long looking after special interests and cutting deals with other special interests to grease the process.

And nobody is accountable. It’s always somebody else’s fault, some other governing body’s responsibility, or some individual country’s jurisdiction.

Euro

One thing to keep in mind is the “Euro Zone” — the 17 countries using the Euro as their common currency — is not the same thing as the 27-member European Union. Some EU nations — Britain, the Scandinavians  — chose NOT to give up their individual national currencies , while others  — most of the former Soviet Bloc nations of Eastern Europe — have not yet established the capitalist credentials to qualify them for access to the Euro — and its supposed benefits.

The benefit for some members (read Southern Europe for the purposes of this discussion) was that it allowed them to piggyback on the platinum-card credit rating of other members (read Northern Europe). The benefit for Northern Europe was that the relative economic weakness of Southern Europe held the Euro down and kept in check inflationary pressure on some high-performance economies (read Germany and, to a substantially lesser extent, France).

Although the Euro isn’t synonymous with the European Union, it is still the creation of the European Union and is the responsibility of one of the EU’s financial creatures, the European Central Bank.

Now one thing you can say about the European Union is that it knows how to make rules and bureaucratic red tape. And another thing you can say is that those rules get changed or ignored or even actively thwarted when they are inconvenient to any member state that has the power, negotiating skill, blackmail material or criminal intelligence to do so.

Everyone — even the Greek government — admits now that Greece used cooked books, under-the-table, off-the-books loans from Wall Street (thank you Sachs Goldman) and bald-faced lies to candy-coat the state of the Greek economy and government spending to gain entry to the Euro Zone in 2001.

Greece was only one member of the Euro Zone — but the worst offender — to abuse the access to easier credit that was one of the privileges of membership.

It didn’t take long for all parties concerned to realize that it was a practical — if not perceptual, PR-wise — error giving Greece a free pass to the Euro gravy train, but by then it was too late.

It wouldn’t have been too late if everybody stuck to the rules. The problem was Germany and France found themselves in a bit of a cash-flow squeeze in the mid-’00s and they — Papa France and Mama Germany — would have had serious difficulty meeting the on-the-books requirements to maintain membership in good standing in the Euro club.

That wouldn’t do, of course. The Euro existed because of France and Germany.

So the rules were changed. Loosened. Actually everybody just agreed to ignore them in frilly language.

And so Greece — and some of the other less well-endowed Euro members — escaped the tightening noose of fiscal responsibility. Germany and (to a far lesser extent) France got their financial difficulties straightened out and didn’t need the fixed dice anymore. But (again mixing metaphors) it was too late to close the barn door. The Greek horse had already left the stable.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost (more lame, mixed-up — one might say half-baked —  metaphors) and the southern half of the Euro Zone is ablaze in a bonfire of over-extended indebtedness.

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Greece’s goose is cooked (metaphor), Portugal and Ireland are bouncing around like popcorn in a hot pot (I made this one up, I think), Spain is on thin ice (ice and fire, I guess, metaphor-wise), but Italy is the elephant in the room that everyone in the room is worried will crush them when it falls (I’m done with these stupid metaphors).

silvio-berlusconi

What’s going to happen next?

Well …

I don’t know.

If everyone played by the rules, I would have a pretty good shot at telling you.

But they don’t, so I can’t.

These Europeans (sorry to generalize, but that’s what happens when you join a Zone) are crazy and they defy — no, trample — logic. They’re fiddling while Rome burns. Literally — not a metaphor. Just wait for the riots in Rome when Italy catches fire.

So I can’t predict what’s going to happen — except that Greece is going down, kicked out of the Zone (within 18 months if not sooner), and in for some very tough times ahead. But maybe good times too, further down the road.

And — one way or another — Italy’s day of reckoning is coming, no matter how much shucking and jiving goes on in the short term. Italy’s sovereign debt load is unsupportable.

Look at this chart from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine (Here’s a link to the English-language website).

DerSpiegelGraphic

Here’s a simpler comparison from the Wall Street Journal:

WSJdebtgraf

It makes it fairly clear why Greece is in filch territory and Ireland should be (the British financial connection puts Ireland in a slightly different position), and why Italy is dancing on the razor’s edge.

Spain and Portugal are still in big trouble. Spain’s seemingly low sovereign debt ratio is misleading because it does not account for a huge amount of debt Spain’s cities and regional governments were allowed to run up independently of the national sovereign debt — to make up for financing Spain’s national government cut to put its own books in better light. It’s all still Spain’s debt.

Here’s a link to a very good analysis called After Eurogeddon by The Economist Intelligence Unit that spells out more clearly than I can what may happen in the coming days, months and years.

And here’s a bit of the Q&A that goes on in the Economist report:

5. Which countries would be most likely to stay in the euro, and which would be most likely to leave?

Firm predictions are tricky, but broadly a fracture between a strong northern “core” and the weaker “periphery” looks most likely. The process would, in our view, probably entail periphery countries breaking off individually to leave a “rump” of northern countries still within a currency union. Once one peripheral country (say, Greece) left, all the other vulnerable countries would probably follow. This means that Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain would leave the euro, although not necessarily immediately. Malta would probably leave, and Cyprus would have little choice but to exit as its banking system would be nearly wiped out by a Greek collapse. Up to ten countries could remain members of the euro: Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia and Estonia (the last three all being small, open economies like Malta and Cyprus, but with healthier fundamentals).

Look, all of the above sounds like I’m bashing Europe. Well … actually, I am.

Marlene_in_The_Blue_Angel-1

I’m a spendthrift who can squander money like a drunken European finance minister, so I shouldn’t be casting stones. And I love Europe — the quality of daily life is better there than in North America, in my opinion. But I may have to change my opinion when the effects of coming austerity programmes put the boot to European joie de vivre, culture, proximity and variety, great train system, wonderful cheap wine and fabulous, affordable food in neighbourhood bistros (and five, count ‘em five, different seas, no,  six, no, seven seas — but half of them are smaller than Georgian Bay).

Things will change in Europe — for better and worse.

But no matter how much things change, they will stay the same. Royally screwed up, for the foreseeable future.

I’ll be watching it unfold close up for a while, so I’ll let you know if the view is different from inside burning Europe than from outside.