Monday, March 31, 2008

Give 'em the boot

Due to the pure genius of a law professor at the University of Ottawa, Michael Geist, you can now get rid of some of those pesky telemarketers. Mr. Geist got sick of waiting for the politicians to finalize the do-not-call legislation on the table in Ottawa so decided to setup You see, even when the legislation is complete, numerous organizations will be exempt from it. This website allows you to prevent these exempted organizations from contacting you in the future. All you do is register with the website, provide some basic information like e-mail address and phone number, and then create your own personal do-not-call list. The website then sends a request to the organizations on your behalf that they no longer contact you. And apparently, by law, if you request that they no longer contact you, they must abide by your wishes. Every time a new organization is added to the lists, the site will e-mail you to review the organization and choose if you would like to block them. Or you can ask it to automatically block all new organizations. Genius. No more phone calls from CIBC asking if I would like another credit card.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Retire in peace

I am a self-professed personal finance nerd. The majority of blogs I read have personal finance as their focal point. I read books about personal finance for fun. I subscribe to MoneySense magazine and do retirement calculations and financial spreadsheets for shits and giggles. I could not be happier that I have been vindicated for my unending commitment to this part of my life. Allow me to explain.

In the last issue of aforementioned magazine, there was an excellent article on why we should not spend so much time worrying about whether we will have enough money for retirement. It adds some common sense and facts into an issue too often dominated by fear and marketing tactics employed by the financial services industry. Unfortunately the article did not walk readers through example calculations to map out their retirement more concretely. Leave it to Chris at Canadian Dream to pick up the slack.

He wrote a series of five genius posts that I now consider essential reading (along with the above mentioned article, Personal Finance for Canadians for Dummies, and The Wealthy Barber). Chris takes you through a series of calculations you can easily do to arrive at an estimate of what you should need to live on in retirement. He then helps you determine whether your current savings plan will give you enough to provide what you need. Believe me when I tell you that you will be pleasantly surprised by how little you'll need, and how much of that will come from CPP and OAS.

When I plugged my own projections in, given the financial plan we have mapped out, which for now is completely feasible, we will have more than enough to live comfortably in retirement, even if returns on the stock market are a measly 4-5% over the next 65 years.

This is a far cry from the fear mongers at Fidelity who warned recently that the majority of Canadians will not be adequately prepared for retirement. The announcement helped them draw awareness to their Snapshot Calculator, which will inevitably tell you you're screwed and to hurry on into your financial advisor to purchase as many Fidelity mutual funds as possible. For example, they tell me I need $3.5 million at retirement to live only a modest retirement (60% of pre-tax pre-retirement income). Yet over at, I'll be living the high life if I reach $3.5 million (which I do not plan to). Even at paltry interest rates of 4%, I would have to draw $200 000 a year from my retirement fund to drain it over 30 years. Bah.

Do yourself a favor and listen to those with no vested interest in you saving more money for retirement.


As a follow-up to my previous post, I would like to pronounce victory. When all was said and done, it looks like I may be moderately competent after all. The water beast is slain. I did it. Hooray! I did it. Hooray! (Watching Thomas & Friends too many times will do strange things to a man.)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Home away from home

With our house going on the market this month, we had a pre-sale inspection to identify any potential concerns that may come up in a buyer's inspection. One thing that came I already knew about. There is a very small amount of water finding its way into our utility room via the back wall, coming from under the deck. I, however, was uncertain of the cause. The inspector said it must be the placement of the furnace exhaust vent.

You see, when initially built, the exhaust vent was placed correctly. However, when the previous owner built a deck himself, he built around the exhaust vent, so the termination of the exhaust came out level with the deck. In a city like Timmins, where the average snow accumulation level is 50-100cm, and the owner of the house is too lazy to keep the deck clear of snow, that snow builds up around the exhaust, melts, dribbles along the foundation, freezes at the ground, and then when the weather warms up, it melts slowly, leaking down along the foundation and eventually finding its way into the house.

The mission: fix the exhaust pipe. First step: use intuition. Result: BAD IDEA. After making about 10 round trips to Home Depot and spending upwards of $200, I came to my senses and realized that extending the exhaust pipe under the deck and out 12 feet was a bad idea, due to the fact that the exhaust would condense along its passage and then freeze, causing ice buildup in the exhaust vent and possibly blockage of the vent. Again, bad idea. So I returned all the materials except one piece for a net expenditure of $1.50.

Second step: read the manual. Ahh. Eureka! A very simple solution. Extend the pipe upwards by 12 inches and make sure to keep deck clear of snow in the future. In the meantime, I also discovered that the combustion air inlet pipe was installed incorrectly and was buried inside a five foot high snowbank. How my furnace was actually obtaining oxygen with which to do its job is beyond me. So I fixed that too. Done!

Now, in all of this, along with other little fixes I've done around the house to spice it up for potential buyers, Home Depot has become a home away from home. But apparently I am not the only man out there with questionable handyman skills. (Actually, they are beyond questionable, but let's not cloud the issue with facts.)

My wife's uncle is apparently similarly unhandy. One day he was doing a lot of work around the house and making multiple trips to Home Depot as well. He came home and was feeling a bit better about himself because when he was in the store, a bunch of people were coming up to him to ask him questions. He felt confident and intelligent. It all ended when his wife kindly informed him that it was likely due to his choice of outfit for doing handiwork: he was wearing a Home Depot apron.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


There is a lot to be said about Wal-Mart and its practices, and there are those out there who devote a great deal of time to do just that. However, lately I have seen a brighter side to their company.

I first developed an appreciation for the widespread consequences, both good and bad, of Wal-Mart's decisions, when the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD battle was decided. How was the battle won by Blu-Ray? Wal-Mart announced they would only carry Blu-Ray products. Toshiba immediately announced they would halt production of HD-DVD products. But do such decisions have other outcomes?

Since 1998, the use of growth hormones in cattle in Canada has been banned. Not so in the US. So ever since the new natural/organic/local food craze gained popularity, the demand for non-hormone milk has likewise increased. Finally, the tipping point has arrived. Wal-Mart decided on Thursday that they would no longer carry milk that came from hormone treated cows. And since Wal-Mart is the biggest grocer in the US, that decision put the nail in the growth hormone coffin.

This is another in a long line of recent initiatives Wal-Mart has introduced to polish their corporate image, specifically with regards to environmentalism. Their distribution system is considered the largest trucking company in America, so their decision to improve the fuel efficiency on their trucks by 25% over three years will have a massive impact. They are also forcing suppliers to cut their packaging size significantly. Research contracted by Wal-Mart showed that by reducing packaging on just one of their toy lines would save 3 800 trees and a million barrels of oil. They have pushed to sell 100 million compact fluorescent bulbs annually. They even pulled together 250 of the biggest retail CEOs and warned them that companies that scored low on their new sustainability scorecard would be denied space on their shelves. They even dumped their 19-year slogan "Always Low Prices, Always" and introduced "Save Money Live Better".

But do any serious environmentalists buy any of this? An article in the March 15 Globe and Mail tells the story of Adam Werbach, the youngest ever president of the Sierra Club. (The article is now locked, but was written by Chris Turner, author of Geography of Hope.) He was an uber-activist, one of the environmental movement's up and comers. What is he doing now? He works as a sustainability consultant for Wal-Mart. He helps guide their Personal Sustainability Project that sees the company attempt to have each employee make one simple change in their life that will improve sustainability. And since Wal-Mart is America's largest employer, that could go a long way to making sustainable living more commonplace.

Certainly there would be those who would brush all of this off as a way to gain more customers and increase their stock price. But if the world's largest corporation makes wide ranging decisions to appear more sustainable just to attract more customers, is that not testament to the power of the consumer to change corporate behavior? And since 49 of the top 100 economies in the world are now corporations and not countries, it could be argued that their decisions are equally if not more important than those of politicians.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


I take great pride in my visceral hatred for advertising. Aside from direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical marketing, there is no form of advertising I hate more than the kind that warps science in order to sell products. The latest fad my wife and I have noticed is particularly ubiquitous, almost to the point of being humorous.

Next time you are watching commercials, take note of how many food, cosmetic, and cleaning product advertisements utilize the following term: micro. Everything is micro now and it apparently makes it better. Ultra scrubbing microspheres of dishwasher detergent leave your dishes sparkling clean. Microbristles in your mop clean your floor better. Soon enough we'll have "the detergent so micro, it's not even there". They'll have you so convinced that their detergent is better because it has micro attached to it, that you'll go out and buy their cardboard box full of air and then stand there flabbergasted when your dishes still have last night's supper stuck to them.

Another annoying pseudoscientific word utilized much too often is "probiotic". I implore you to find any advertised dairy products on the market today that does not shout out "we have probiotics" and the ensuing assumption that this will help you defecate more frequently. Oh, and apparently when your yogourt has probiotics in it it gives you rock hard abs and a halo of visible atoms around your midsection. And for the latest in yogourt science, check out the product that not only has probiotics, but the new and improved prebiotics! They are so dead, they are not even biotic yet! They are selling you yogourt with inanimate objects in it. My son could whip you up a batch of that for a lot cheaper. Although I can't promise it would help you shat.

No balls

So it's official: the Liberal party is an eunuch. Even though Stephen Harper currently leads a Conservative-heavy minority government in the Canadian House of Commons, it is only a minority government in name. In reality, Harper leads a comfortable majority due to the complete absence of intestinal fortitude in the Official Opposition. Just as I mused, the Harper government introduced a motion that would force the Liberals to either support the RESP bill put forth by one of their own and force an election, or to vote for the amendment motion and destroy a bill they had just unanimously supported only days ago. And just as I suspected, the gutless Dionites either supported the amendment or wasted our money and abstained.

Essentially, until Dion is out of the leader's chair and out of crushing debt, the Harperites will continue relentlessly pushing their agenda as though leading a majority government. And for all intents and purposes they are. With the Liberal party essentially a colossal waste of space and money, there are 208 MPs in the House. The Conservatives have 126 MPs and so effectively have a majority. The sad thing is that had the Liberals voted against the amendment and fought an election on this bill, they may have narrowly won and we could have rid ourselves of Harper. But instead, they ran like cowards into the hills and have now effectively eliminated any political goodwill they may have had remaining after the Chretien-Martin years. Good luck convincing Canadians to ever vote your sorry asses into office again.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

A tale of two bills

The recent past has seen the passage of two bills in the House of Commons, both dealing with tax credits and both creating a great deal of controversy. The subsequent response to the passage of the bills by the Harper Conservatives lays bare truths that could prevent them from ever obtaining the majority government they want so dearly.

The first bill, Bill C-10, has a covert piece of wording in it that would allow the Canadian government to withdraw tax credits from any film or television show they deem offensive. The revealing part about the passage of this bill is not only the lack of reaction by the Conservative government but also the background support for the amendment.

Charles McVety is an ultra-conservative, ultra-literalist Christian behind the Canada Family Action Coalition, a non-profit organization with a mission to "defend and promote Judeo-Christian principles in Canadian society". Among other things, the group endorses the notion that gays lobby to ultimately eliminate gender distinctions in our society, that sexual education in school INCREASES pregnancy and disease, that the Globe and Mail spreads hatred, and that child care is synonymous with the state raising children instead of parents. After Bill C-10 quietly passed through Parliament, McVety came forward and praised its passage, suggesting that he and his organization were crucial in solidifying support for the bill.

So this bill sailed through Parliament with the support of the Conservatives and the Canada Family Action Coalition and nary a peep came from Harper, nor from the opposition for that matter. But when McVety says that its passage only goes to show that Canadians are conservative and that is why we voted for a Conservative government, I, like Margaret Wente here, would challenge this assertion on both accounts. Canadians are by and large very centrist. And the Conservative government is only conservative in its social views, not its economic practices.

Dan McTeague, a Liberal MP, had the chance to put forth a private members bill recently. Normally, only 1-3% of these bills ever pass through Parliament, especially when coming from an opposition MP. But this bill makes sense, even to a conservative government. Harper has made it clear his goal is to limit the power of the federal government and return money into the hands of taxpayers. So when McTeague put forth a bill to amend the Income Tax Act to allow Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) contributions to be tax deductible just like those in Registered Retirement Savings Plans, I was sure Harper'd be on it like a fat kid on a Smartie. But him and his party actually unanimously rejected it. Luckily it is a minority government, so the opposition parties voted in favor and the bill passed. End of story, right?

Wrong. Although this bill would see more tax dollars returned to taxpayers, it was described as reckless spending of taxpayer money by Jim Flaherty, Minister of Finance. Huh? Furthermore, the Conservatives stated that the opposition had it all wrong and that this would cost the government up to $2 billion per year because of its likely popularity, a tough pill to swallow with the recent budget only projecting a slim surplus. So they vowed to fight it tooth and nail to prevent it from passing.

What is wrong with this? First off, a majority of ELECTED parliamentarians voted in favor of this bill, 156-122 to be exact. But the Conservatives, the party pushing for an elected, effective, and equal Senate, are imploring the UNELECTED senators to quash a bill just because they don't like it. Second, why would the Senate listen? As stated by Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette, the Conservatives have called senators "lazy, unelected, unaccountable, partisan hacks". I know I wouldn't be doing any somersaults for them if I was in the Red Chamber.

How about the financial aspect? First of all, if you want to talk about bonehead financial moves, look at the GST cut. Sure it feels good at the cash register, but economically, cutting consumption taxes like GST is stupid. It not only reduces government revenue, but it encourages spending and discourages saving. The 2% GST cut instituted by the Conservatives to get votes from the very soccer mom crowd they are now at risk of alienating shorts the feds $11 billion a year. That makes $2 billion look like child's play!

But beyond that, I believe Dan McTeague is on to something when he defended the bill by looking at the big picture and stating that in the long run, more educated children will eventually make more money, thus paying more income tax. The logic is sound as you will see and puts any concerns about the upfront costs of this program to rest.

Personal income tax accounts for 50% of government revenue. Having a postsecondary education certificate of any kind increases average income by about 40%, thus increasing income taxes, and therefore government revenue. Roughly 40% of parents are currently saving for education for their children through RESPs. The last time a big change was introduced to the RESP system, the Canada Education Savings Grant was implemented, whereby the government would put in a contribution equal to 20% of the value of each your contributions into your child's RESP. This encouraged more parents to save, evidenced by the 146% increase in RESP contracts over the next 3 years. This new system would increase the popularity of RESPS even more, but even if we considered it conservatively, it would mean that in 3 years, another 1.5 million RESP contracts would be taken out for Canadian children. If these 1.5 million children went on to postsecondary education, as they must to receive the money from the plan, they would see their average incomes rise by 40% to roughly $65000 per year. These 1.5 million children would, as adults, pay $6200 more in annual income taxes, roughly 70% of that going to the feds. This would add $6.5 billion per year to government revenue, essentially eliminating any concern about the cost of this program.

If Harper would have done the smart thing, and not the politically expedient one, we would have a healthy surplus this year due to larger revenue from GST. And then this bill would not be an issue. Except that it would because the true reason this bill is an issue is because it didn't come from within Harper's tightly woven circle of friends in which all federal power is concentrated. You can bet that if the bill was launched from the blue side that Harper would be head cheerleader. He runs this government like a majority, which it is not, and is abusing the will of the duly elected representatives of the Canadian people by doing all in his power to stop the passage into law of this excellent bill. The votes of the Bloq Quebecois, New Democrats, and Liberals represent the will of 60% of the Canadian population. The will of Stephen Harper represents that of one man. Who is he to stand against us?

Yay for us!

Almost a year ago now, pharmacists in Alberta were granted limited prescribing rights. The newest milestone was reached recently when 15 Alberta pharmacists were granted the right to prescribe initial therapy. This is when the pharmacist assesses a patient and can then start new medications, change existing medications, or adjust dosages. Of course this new privilege is extended only to those competent enough to exercise it responsibly, and so the procedure to obtain the right to prescribe in this fashion is arduous, as it should be. But still, it is a huge step forward. Check out the article from the Edmonton Journal to read more. The two pharmacists featured, Dr. Nese Yuksel and Dr. Christine Hughes were professors of mine in pharmacy school. They both have Pharm.D.'s, an advanced degree making them Doctors of Pharmacy. Dr. Yuksel specializes in women's health and Dr. Hughes in HIV/AIDS. They are by far two of the most brilliant and professional pharmacists I have had the pleasure to meet. And I was blessed enough to benefit from their remarkable teaching skills. Way to go!