Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Links to Some Good Posts

Rather than coming up with a clever title, I decided to go with the 'realist' school of post-title-writing this time around.

Anyway, it's always nice when someone who generally seems to know what they're talking about writes a column which supports one of your long held positions. In this case it's Paul Wells, writing in Maclean's who hunts down the provinces 'fiscal imbalance' whinesrationalizations like the herd of stray sickly cattle that they are and mercilessly puts them out of their misery.

Meanwhile, over at 'How to Save the World', Dave Pollard talks about how people will believe what they want to hear (and disbelieve what they don't want to hear) and links to yet another in what seems to be becoming a long string of almost humourous (if you like black comedy) investigations into the methodology of global warming 'skeptics'.

Finally, it's a good thing that the Blank Out Times is an online site rather than being published on real paper because otherwise the 100 acre woods would probably be down to about 85 acres by now in order to supply the pulp mill which would be required for the voluminous writings of the forest dwellers. This post on maps and wishes really puts the question of Native Reserves in Canada into an interesting context (in my opinion), and this post , after suggesting that the U.S. might invade Iran (which I doubt), then goes into long thorough detail on all the reasons why that would be a truly insane decision to make - I guess we just differ on the willingness of the U.S. to make an insane foreign policy decision.

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Monday, May 30, 2005

No Laughing Matter

So I was in the store buying a birthday card just recently, unconsciously ignoring the 30% or so of all birthday cards which contain age jokes, when the part of my brain which I generally try to keep quiet roused itself and wondered, 'who buys all these age joke birthday cards anyway?1'.

Now I appreciate that there are times when you feel you should get a card but you also feel like you need some humour to keep an appropriate emotional distance, and I also appreciate that birthday card writers don't have much to go on other than the fact that someone is obviously having a birthday, which is a marker for tracking age, but still: Surely the volume of age joke related cards on the shelves is way out of proportion to the number of people who walk into a card store thinking, 'I know, I'll get a card that makes a joke about so and so getting old, it will be witty and I'm sure they'll appreciate it - plus it's so original!'?

I mean, even if the age-joke card had a trendy run once where they were avant-garde or fresh or whatever, surely by now the level of desire people have to receive/give age joke cards must have fallen well below 30% of all birthday cards - or maybe I'm just out of touch. Maybe people like age jokes more than I think. Maybe the alternatives are just so limited that age jokes are the best bet. Or maybe age jokes are just the kind of humour that never gets old.

1 And for those of you thinking, 'Just give it a few years buddy and you'll find out first hand who buys those age joke cards', I say a) ha ha and b) I'm not so sure; Even as I get old, I don't expect to receive many age joke cards from either friends or family. Therein lies the mystery. Either the greeting card companies are suffering a severe failure of market understanding or (more likely) some poor saps get huge numbers of these cards.

Afterthought: I wonder how much analysis greeting card companies do to determine what cards to put on the shelves. I assume they track each card individually, but what about categories of cards? Are there big bar graphs in some corner office somewhere showing the steady march of age-jokes to occupy a full third of the birthday card pie-chart? What are the sales trends of sympathetic vs. mocking cards over the last few decades I wonder. Are we getting more sarcastic/critical/honest as a society over time?

After-Afterthought: It may not be a total fluke that I ended up in a job analyzing data for a living.

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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Paint it True

"Paint it True, paint it true - to miss or mister
if you don't we wont get the picture
lies and deception is a terrible mixture
when you speak from the heart it'll uplift ya"1

So I've been trying to avoid writing too many dissections of media articles since that seems to lack a certain style or originality but, to tell the truth, part of my motivation for blogging in the first place was to no longer bottle up the irritation I feel when I encounter the worst of the media so let's have at it...

Tommy Steele, (from Canadian Steele) has a good post up on what it means to be non-partisan. All I'll add right now is that to me non-partisan means a) what Tommy said and b) the opposite of an article in the Tyee today by Mitchell Anderson, entitled 'Let's Keep Vote Reform Alive'.

The article is a pro-MMP piece which attempts to show that the 'message' sent by the referendum was that the people of B.C. want to see an MMP system brought in. Which is fair enough for an objective, it's just the implementation that went awry. Let's do a line by line critique...

"The referendum question on BC-STV needed 60 percent support to succeed. It got 57 percent.

There are two lessons that we should take from this result. The first is that BC-STV is a dud. A poll by Ipsos-Reid in late April showed that 64 percent of British Columbians knew "nothing" or "very little" about BC-STV. A second poll by Nordic Research Group poll on the eve of the referendum showed that only 37 percent of respondents could even name STV."

So here's my question, how can the reason that (43% of) people voted against STV be because it is a dud if they couldn't even name the system being voted on? How could people be expected to prefer MMP, if they're not going to bother to even learn the name of what they are voting on? Will people be more likely to learn the acronym MMP than the acronym STV because the system which the MMP acronym corresponds to is a little bit simpler than the one which STV corresponds to?

If people don't even know the name of the proposed system, that doesn't indicate that it's a dud, it indicates the people are a dud because they have no interest in how they are governed and/or that the process for educating people was a dud. It says nothing about MMP being better than STV (or vice-versa).

"British Columbians were voting for change. They were not voting for BC-STV."

It's nice that the author believes he knows the motivations of all the people of B.C. who voted, but I for one voted for STV and I think a lot of other people did as well. It seems like pretty hard spin to suggest that people who answered 'yes' to a question, 'do you want to adopt STV as the new electoral system' weren't voting for STV. Maybe not all of them, but enough to make the 57-43 split in favour? definitely.

"While BC-STV has now failed, electoral reform continues to move forward. Just one day after the election, both Gordon Campbell and Carole James have stated that improving the voting system is a priority that should be revisited before the next election.

This is stunning rebuke to the cynical argument made prior to May 17th that while voters might not like or even understand BC-STV, they had better vote for it or electoral reform in BC will be set back for years."

And I guess if Campbell comes out tomorrow and says the Liberals want to help out the poor, that will be a stunning rebuke to those who said that voting NDP would be better for the poor than voting Liberal. When it comes to politics, action speaks a lot louder than words. If we end up getting a new electoral system some time in the next, say 6 years, *that* will be a rebuke to those who thought a 'No' vote would set back electoral reform. And besides, the only reason electoral reform still has the momentum it does is because so many people voted 'Yes'.

Furthermore, I would challenge the author to point out where 'Yes' supporters are on the record as saying that people who don't understand STV should vote 'Yes'. It was the 'Yes' side which did by far the lion's share of the work to get people to know about and understand STV. The 'No' side seemed reasonably content to rely on simplistic (and often misleading) fear-mongering rather than try and educate people.

"Carole James has also revealed that she does not favour STV -- a sentiment shared in the vast majority of the public submissions of the now defunct Citizens Assembly.

In fact, fully 80 percent of the public submissions to the Citizens Assembly process were in favour of some form of "mixed-member proportional" (MMP) system, used in some variety by most established democracies around the world. Unlike STV, MMP has a solid record of delivering proportional results and achieving gender equity of elected officials."

This is the real heart of where the article goes awry. First off, as is well known by now, the Green Party stacked the submissions to the Assembly, by lining up speaker after speaker to support MMP without any other system having such organized support behind it. So the quoting of statistics which the author must surely (by now) know to be misleading is quite disingenuous.

Speaking of which, the statement that MMP is used in some variety by most established democracies around the world is simply a falsehood. As far as I know, out of the 30 or so countries which make up the OECD (a group of the world's wealthiest / most advanced nations) only Germany, New Zealand, Mexico, the U.K. (for some regional elections) and Italy (lower house) use MMP. That's hardly *most*. In fact, it's only 2 more than use STV (Ireland, Australia (upper house), and U.K. (again regional elections). And maybe this would be a good time to mention that New Zealand is only using MMP because it won a referendum - with a 54% yes vote, 3% less than voted for STV in B.C.

But even worse is the statement that 'unlike STV, MMP has a solid record of delivering proportional results' - another outright falsehood, since by pretty much any measure STV has a solid record of delivering proportional results as well.

As for achieving gender equity, I've been over this ground many times. I don't think allowing party leaders to basically appoint women to MLA positions is the solution to the gender gap nor do I think that differences between countries in the number of women elected can be attributed with any degree of reliability to the electoral system.

"The main advantage of MMP is that it preserves local representation while also ensuring that elected seats accurately reflect the popular vote. Under MMP, minority and coalition governments rather than simple majorities are far more likely.

Because different parties know that they may one day have to work together, the public debate tends to be more respectful than the embarrassing spectacles seen regularly in Victoria or Ottawa. Coalitions also mean that governments are much more accountable to the people between elections - not just on voting day."

Sorry, how is this any different from STV? (and this is the 'main' advantage of MMP -over what? - oh I see, we're doing the old shifting comparison game, comparing MMP vs. FPTP when it suits us and vs. STV when that suits us).

"Countries that use MMP also have better representation from women - up to 42 percent in Sweden. This system has also been shown to significantly increase voter participation - over 80 percent in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and the Belgium."

Which would be more convincing if a) Those countries actually used MMP and b) Those countries didn't have a long stories historical track record of equitable treatment of women extending across almost all facets of their society. But I'm sure more female MP's is down solely to the electoral system. Imagine how many women would be elected in the Middle East if only they used MMP! note: sarcasm

"There is little doubt that if BC voters had been given the chance to choose the much more popular system of MMP, the results of the referendum would have been very different."

Obviously there's no doubt since MMP is much more popular - the author says so! Less sarcastically, I say 'huh'? Maybe the results would have been different but I'd say there's lots of doubt. Keep in mind that STV's 57% support in B.C. was 3% higher than what MMP got when it was put to the test in New Zealand. And of the pro-STV blogs I listed on my STV-blog, I got the feeling that there were a fair number which supported STV but wouldn't have supported MMP.

"For reasons that remain unclear, the Citizens Assembly instead chose to disregard the vast majority of public input and recommend BC-STV"
The reasons are not unclear, they were spelled out (clearly) on the Assembly website and if the author had contacted any of the assembly members for an explanation I'm sure they would have answered at length as they did when the question came up at the public forum I went to.

Of course the reasons were the disadvantages that come with MMP (different classes of MLA's, the need to add more MLA's to the legislature, too much power in the hands of party leaders being the main ones) but maybe the author would rather cast vague aspersions against the integrity of the Assembly members than deal with the cognitive dissonance of how dedicated intelligent people studying the problem for a year might not think his favoured system is the best.

"As for the die-hard boosters of BC-STV, the rules of the referendum are clear and though they came close, they lost. They should now graciously admit defeat, and either pitch in on the new struggle for a more palatable system of electoral reform, or clear out of the way.

Some BC-STV zealots have now suggested that the referendum threshold of the 60 percent should now be lowered retroactively to allow their preference to succeed. Can you image the outrage if the threshold was retroactively raised had BC-STV had achieved 63 percent support?"

The rules were clear, but perhaps not clear enough for the author to understand them properly. The mandate for the referendum only stated that the government would be required to bring in STV if it got 60% support, NOT that it would be forbidden to do so without that support. So the author's comparison is a false and misleading one. In fact, the vast majority of all changes in electoral systems have been made with less public support than the 57% who voted in favour of STV. Even having a referendum at all set a higher bar than is often used (PEI is planning a referendum with a 50% threshold, and last I heard Quebec was planning electoral reform without a referendum).

On a more personal level, I find it irritating to have someone suggest I clear out of the way in one paragraph and accuse STV-supporters of being zealots in the very next paragraph.

Stepping back a bit, I should note that I have nothing against MMP. I think it's a perfectly good system (far better than our current one) and I think B.C. voters should have the chance to vote on it. What I don't like are articles which contain multiple falsehoods, articles which try to exploit statistics the author knows (or should know) are misleading, articles which prefer to cast aspersions on upstanding citizens rather than acknowledge the weakness in their case and articles which resort to name calling instead of making logical arguments (STV is referred to in the article in various places as 'obscure', 'arcane', 'baffling', a 'pig in a poke', a 'dud', and an 'unfortunate artifact', and its supporters are called 'die-hards' and 'zealots').

If your argument makes sense then you should have the courage to make it honestly and not resort to a host of cheap debating tricks to try and fool the reader into supporting your point rather than making an informed decision for themselves.

1 From 'Sketch' off the album 'Connected' by the Stereo MC's.

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Hey Mister, did you pay for that candy-bar?

How the mighty (in some people's minds anyway) have fallen.

And yes, maybe it's poor form to pile on somebody when they're down, but it's hard to resist when they get caught taking boxes of documents without permission from their old company. In the words of Hollinger's current chairman, Gordon Walker,
"This is stranger than fiction ... I'm quite appalled. I would think this is not a clever move to be doing such a thing. It is ludicrous."

Yes I would think this is not a clever move to be doing such a thing as well.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Writer's Blogk

Random mental wanderings for when politics gets too boring to write about - Note: I titled this post to reflect the fact that I had nothing to say and yet this post is kind of long - take that as you will, but it could certainly be construed as a warning

When I got home from soccer tonight my girlfriend had on Rob and Amber's wedding. It's probably a sign that I have politics too much on the brain, but as I watched all the ceremony and the dress and the bachelor party and how happy everybody in both families was (or at least seemed to be), I couldn't help reflecting on how nuts it seems to me that people would go to such great lengths to prevent gay couples from being able to hold this kind of ceremony.

And yet, this time (early 21st century) and this place (Western world), is probably one of the only (or few anyway) instances of a culture where my opinion wouldn't be in a very small minority (at least that's my understanding of history - I'm open to correction if others know a different story). I don't really know what it means, but I feel like we can have tolerance without license, and be accepting without society degenerating into some kind of anarchic no-holds-barred free for all.


I was on the bus heading home from work and we passed by a church with an (I thought) odd sign out front reading, "True courage is the ability to step into the unknown" (or to leave your comfort zone, or something like that, I don't recall exactly). My first thought was that *true* courage, for me anyway, has been going back and facing the things I know all too well - there's worse things in life then the unknown.

Of course as church signs go, that was pretty coherent. I remember when I lived in Waterloo, there was a church on King St. (near Waterloo Town Square), which used to have the oddest, most incomprehensible sayings out front. I used to wonder if maybe the priest responsible had lost his faith years ago, and the sign was his silent cry for help. Or maybe the local students were into high-brow acts of deviance and just liked to rearrange the letters on the sign as a test of their anagramming skills. It was a long time ago so I don't remember any specific instances, alas, but if I had to make up something reminiscent it would be along the lines of, "God's raincoat can be worn even on sunny days" or something like that.

I bet a nice long driving tour around North America (preferably with side trips to Fenway, Camden Yards, Yankee Stadium, Comerica, etc.) would yield enough church sign gems to make a good toilet side paperback novel. (sort of like Bushisms only Churchisms), but I'm probably being too hard on churches. After all, anything they write is more entertaining than the 99 million variations on 'buy this' which litter the urban (and suburban and rural to a large extent, but especially urban) landscape. I remember the park/zoo by where I grew up generally limited itself to notices of upcoming events, an occasionally invasive exhortation to smile or be cheerful and, in the spring, warnings to drive slow to avoid running over the baby ducks. I've learned over the years that you could do a lot worse as a sign writer.

Speaking of invasive exhortations, I pity the people who drive the 401 regularly and have to put up with the sign-nanny constantly nagging them about wearing a seat-belt, not using the cell-phone, allowing space while following, signaling, checking blind spots, not drinking and driving, thinking positive thoughts, and generally reminding them that everything they need to know they learned in kindergarten.

If I was put in charge of the signs, the messages would be more like, "Drive Clean, No Celine" (accompanied by a stick figure with a line through it), or "It's 8 A.M., how fast do you think it's moving beyond the next transfer?", and the word "Express" would generally be surrounded with ironic single quotes. I wonder what the impact on traffic fatalities would be?


My vast legions of hyper-observant cyber-stalkers will have noticed that I switched internet providers from Telus to Shaw recently. Looking at it rationally, there were 5 reasons for the switch. 1) Telus stinks 2) Telus' customer service is terrible 3) It took 11 days from when the phone was disconnected at our old place for them to get it (and the internet) working at our new one. 4) While on hold (which always started with the song 'Smooth' by Santana - and I'm sure it's not just people who've (somewhat) recently taken Cha-Cha lessons who think this song is already seriously overplayed) for 50 minutes on one occasion, I was repeatedly advised to get faster service by going to their website. Despite the fact I was on hold after telling the Telus robot that I was calling about Internet connection troubleshooting - possibly a good hint that their website wasn't really an option at that moment. 5) The bill I got from Telus the other day was pretty incomprehensible (and part of my work is writing computer generated reports, so generally I'm fairly good at reading them) 6) We were given wrong information on a number of occasions. Such as being told (on a Saturday) that a person could come tomorrow (and then when nobody came being told that of course nobody would come on a Sunday). 6) When I asked for the issue to be escalated to a manager I was informed that they would then (by telus guidelines) have to respond within 24 hours. And they did, calling us 23 hours and 55 minutes later. 7) As far as I can tell (remember what I said about the bill) they don't seem to be planning to charge us for the phone line for the 11 days it was out - but they *are* going to charge us for the internet during that time. Did I say 5 reasons? You're lucky I'm stopping at 7!

I should mention that so far Shaw has been excellent in all respects (not to mention cheaper). If you get your internet from Telus I highly recommend switching (unless you like aggravation).

Anyway, I'm thinking about switching my local line to Sprint but am a little worried about the idea of them being bought by Rogers, the only rival Telus has for bad service in my experience (except for Jetsgo, but they didn't have a monopoly so they went bankrupt). I guess we'll see - it probably won't be long before Telus provokes me into switching.


OK, you've made it this far, let's talk politics. The Liberals are clinging to power with three fingernails instead of two after winning today's Labrador byelection.


Sorry fell asleep with my finger on the j key there, good thing it starts to beep once the buffer fills up. Where was I, oh yeah, I was talking about my first *real* (cubicle) job, doing some routine computer stuff. I've never been much of a morning person so the whole concept of getting up 5 days a week at 7 am was even more foreign to me then than it is now. People passing in the hall could only see me from behind so I tried to position my hands on the keyboard so as to look like I was typing (or at least in the middle of a thought) and zone out. Of course I always fell asleep and was woken by the beeping of the keyboard.1

So, politics. OK, I went to the Globe and Mail's website for inspiration and there was nothing. Even worse, John Doyle is caught up in the media failure two-step, devoting an entire column to the idea that there is too much talk about Donald Trump in the media. First line,
"One of the most depressing developments of the last 12 months has been the ubiquitous presence of Donald Trump.

You just can't get away from this Trump guy"

I get that there is some Trump movie or other and John is reviewing it, but a lot of TV airs in a week - if there's too much talk about Trump, maybe he could have found something else to talk about. I think a column about the Alias finale might have been interesting. OK, it would have been dull if it was just the usual, "the lighting was good, the acting was uneven, the writing was good but the dialogue was stunted, the stunts were spectacular, it wasn't quite a thrill ride more of a 'ghoster coaster' blah blah blah, typical media review, but what if it delved into the question of why they decided to make the credits all Sydney (Jennifer Garner) in the same year she faded into the cast and only played a minor role in many episodes.

Or maybe compare the Alias Rambaldi2 storyline to the unfolding of the Iraq war to see which one makes U.S. intelligence services seem more incompetent. But no, it's 'I want to talk about why people shouldn't talk about Trump time', sigh.

OK, maybe the Star is better. Indeed it is, with some commentary from resident genius Jane Jacobs on Toronto's horrible planning process. True, I know nothing of how Toronto's planning process works but I feel free to condemn it because I lived there and - while there are certainly many examples of things done right - there are so many examples of things done wrong that it makes you shake your head and wonder what might have been (and we're not just talking waterfront here, the downtown is littered with disasters). And it's not just a case of 'well, that's how things go', because I've lived in Montreal and I live in Vancouver and both do a vastly better job of ensuring that the built environment (a little phrase I like to use instead of 'buildings' so that I sound all architectury) actually makes sense and adds to the pedestrian experience rather than just obstructing views and throwing up barriers, blank facades and wind tunnels. Of course, neither Montreal or Vancouver are burdened with a developer friendly provincial planning board and I know that Vancouver for one, has planners prettty heavily integrated into the development process (and holding some real clout). It really does make a big difference.

What, you're still reading this? You need a hobby. This is your hobby? You're doomed.

That's it, no more (OK there's footnotes, but you'll have them read in no time).


1 I should mention that those days are long ago and I am now a highly motivated, consistently productive worker.

2 Kudos to the google's oh so polite, did you mean? function which correctly figured out that I meant Rambaldi despite my egregious misspelling of it. I wonder how many years until you can customize that aspect and get it to say stuff like, "Learn to type you idiot - I'm assuming you really meant 'whatever and have modified your search accordingly. Of course if you really meant that first thing, then I'm sorry, but you know I've seen people make that mistake a hundred times. There was this guy, in Ohio the other day, he was searching for.... etc. etc.

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Saturday, May 21, 2005

STV Referendum Post (not-so) Mortem

Where do we go from here?
The battle's done,
And we kind of won
So we sound our victory cheer

Where do we go from here?
Why is the path unclear?1

After thinking it over for a couple of days, I have to say I'm pretty positive about the outcome of the referendum on Tuesday. True, STV getting 60% and passing would have been ideal, but I think when you consider that 60% is a pretty high bar to begin with, it was always going to be tough to reach that level, especially when trying to explain a complicated system like STV to the entire population - especially with no real budget for educating the voters and in competition with an election going on simultaneously.

Another complicating factor was that the process was designed so that elections BC would design the electoral boundaries only after the referendum. This allowed people to rightfully ask how they could vote on an electoral system when they wouldn't even know how it would affect the riding they would vote in.

A final factor was that, undeniably, some of the people who argued and voted against STV did so not because they preferred the current system to STV but because they wanted to have a chance to vote for a third system, the Mixed Member Proportional system, which was the second choice of the Citizen's Assembly. One of the reasons the Citizen's Assembly did not choose STV was that they were constrained by their mandate to not increase the number of MLA's elected in B.C., an arbitrary and unnecessary restriction.

So the real question now is, what next? The rule of 60%, while I think it is overly high2 was set before hand so it would not be right for the government to take the 57.39% Yes vote and treat it as close enough and go ahead with STV. But on the other hand, given the 57-43 vote in favour, as well as the fact that a majority voted in favour of STV in 77 of the province's 79 ridings, clearly the population of B.C. has an interest in reforming the electoral system.

Under the circumstances, the course I recommend to the B.C. government would be as follows.

1) The Assembly should be reconvened, freed from the no new MLA's restriction and allowed to present two complete systems.
2) Elections BC should be directed to draw up suitable electoral boundaries and voting rules for each of the proposed systems so that voters would know exactly what they are voting on.
3) There should be a second referendum which would allow voters a choice between the 2 systems recommended.
4) This referendum should be held on its own without being linked to another election going on simultaneously.
5) Funding should be provided to mount a campaign for both options presented as well as a 'No' campaign.
6) The ballot should ask voters two questions: The first would be: 'Which of the two electoral options presented do you prefer?' ('Neither' would be an option here). The second would be 'Do you believe B.C. should change it's electoral system to whichever of the options in question 1 gets the most votes? Possible answers would be, "No", "Yes", "Yes, but only if the preferred system is option 1", and "Yes but only if the preferred system is option 2"

Then whichever system got more votes in question 1 would have to get 50% Yes (or at most 55%) on question 2 (adding up the unconditional 'yes' votes and the 'yes' votes conditional on that system being chosen).

There's probably a simpler way to accomplish this (I'm no political scientist), but you get my point. Given the expressed desire for change among B.C. voters, they should be given a second chance to vote for electoral change, in a properly funded referendum, one which gives citizens a choice between the two systems which have a strong base of support in the province.

Note: Rafe Mair articulately makes some similar points to mine over at the Tyee.

1 From the song "Where Do We Go From Here", from the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Season 6, Episode 7).

2 See Wikipedia for some interesting history on referendums. Following from there to the article on Canadian referendums it seems we've only ever had 3 (at the federal level): One on prohibition, one on conscription and one for the Charlottetown Accord. So in the history of the federal government only 3 questions have been deemed to be of enough significance to warrant having a referendum at all. And *no* question was ever been deemed important enough to require a super-majority from a referendum vote, not even the government forcing the nation's youth to fight and possibly die in a foreign country or changing the nation's constitution.

Similar commentary from a "Yes" campaign press release:

- No other province, or country we know of requires such a high threshold for approving a referendum on electoral reform.

- PEI's referendum on electoral reform requires a simple majority.

- New Zealand's referendum on electoral reform passed with 54%.

- The two Irish referendums to replace STV with First Past the Post used a simple majority

- The BC Referendum Act stipulates a simple majority for any other referendum.

- The recent BC Referendums on Aboriginal Issues, and on Initiative and Recall all passed based on a simple majority of votes

- No former BC referendum has ever required more than a simple majority.

- The two referendums on Quebec separation required a simple majority

- The Charlottetown Accord referendum concerned very significant constitutional issues, yet required no more than a simple majority.

- Nearly all governments in British Columbia are themselves elected with considerably less than 50% support.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

B.C. Election / Referendum

Well, I wasn't too optimistic about my predictions for the B.C. election and that lack of optimism turned out to be well justified. There's still some close ridings but it looks like the NDP will win 30+ seats (out of 79), a far cry from the 22 I predicted. I remember when I first moved to B.C. it was in the summer of 2001, a couple of months after the last election and to hear people talk, they were never going to vote NDP again. I think in some ways B.C. voters have shorter memories than the Ontario voters I am more used to (or less inertia perhaps).

At any rate, my prediction for the popular vote for the Liberals (predicted 47, so far 46), and Other (predicted 4, so far 4) were pretty good, but what I missed was how the left-wing vote would consolidate in order to try and elect some NDP members to balance out the legislature. Where I predicted 38% for the NDP and 11% Green, the results so far are 41% NDP, and 9% Green. These don't seem like big differences but they make for a big change in the seat distribution with the left wing vote not splitting enough to allow the Liberals to sneak through in a number of ridings. I guess in some ways this is just our old First-Past-the-Post electoral system at work, pushing us towards a polarized two party system since a third party inevitably splits the vote on either the left or the right.

The result in terms of seats will be a big improvement over the previous government (which was 77 Liberals, 2 NDP), but I still think the nearly 1 in 10 voters who supported the Green Party deserve some representation as do NDP supporters in predominantly Liberal areas (and vice-versa).

Speaking of the electoral system, so far (as at 11:20 pdt) the referendum on STV (Single Transferable Vote) is 56% Yes and 44% No. It may not end up meeting the threshold of 60% set by the Liberals, but it is far *far* from an endorsement of the status quo. I guess if STV doesn't make it up to 60%, it will be up to the people of B.C. to keep the issue of electoral reform alive. Given that a majority of the province expressed their lack of satisfaction with the current system tonight, it is the only thing to do.

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There Has to be a Logical Explanation...

for this.

It's not that Stronach would be a bad fit with the Liberal party, but, notwithstanding the offer of a cabinet position, the timing of the move just seems really strange and poor (from her perspective). Maybe I underestimate the level of tolerance in political circles for people who switch parties or maybe I underestimate the fatigue of voters with the Liberal party, but it doesn't seem like a smart move to me.

Applying one part random guesswork, two parts vague memories of the movie 'Trading Spaces' and 0 parts Occam's Razor here is what I think is really going on.


Cut to three years ago, the scene is a windswept turret in a fairytale castle nestled somewhere in the Austrian alps. A father and daughter are having breakfast.

DAUGHTER: "You know what, I'm tired of business, I think I'll become a cabinet minister"

FATHER: "Just like that?"

DAUGHTER: "Sure, I'm rich, attractive and moderate - how hard can it be?"

FATHER: "Well, it *would* make lobbying the government even easier than it is now, but you've never been involved in anything remotely related to politics - it's not as easy as it looks, you know"

DAUGHTER: "I don't have to be good, I just have to have connections."

FATHER: "Point taken. But still, it will take time, do you really want to devote ten or more years of your life to such a thankless task?"

DAUGHTER: "I'm pretty sure I can be a Cabinet Minister in three years"

FATHER: "No Way"


FATHER: "Wanna Bet?"

DAUGHTER: "You're on. $5 million to the winner"

FATHER: "Sounds good - just do me one favour, run for the Conservatives all right? This castle has some serious upkeep, so the more business friendly the government we have in power, the better.

DAUGHTER (smiling): "We'll see".

Hey, it could have happened that way...

Update: On second thought, the scene I described is pretty implausible. There's no way Frank would have minded Belinda joining the Liberals from the very beginning.

Note: There's lots more (serious) commentary all around the wonderful world of Canadian blogs: For example, Andrew and Timmy both have some commentary and roundup.

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Monday, May 16, 2005

Decision Time

Andrew Spicer had a good post up a few days ago talking about some of the different possible motivations for voting and coming up with a list of possible strategies:

"I could vote for the local representative...

1. ...of the party that I feel would do the best job if they form the government
2. ...of the party that I feel would do the best job if they form the government, but limited to those parties likely to the form the government
3. ...of the party that I feel has the best policy platform
4. ...of the party that I feel has presented a policy platform that best points the direction we should be moving (in order to send a message)
5. ...of the party that I feel has presented a policy that best addresses a very important single issue / set of issues (in order to send a message)
6. ...of the party that I feel is led by the best* potential Prime Minister
7. ...who I think is the best* among the candidates in my riding
8. ...who is most likely to beat the local representative of the party I want to prevent from forming the government

(* - I can think of many ways of defining "best" in this context, but the list is long enough already. Note that the numbers in the list are for reference only.)"

It's a pretty thorough list but the one thing I would add is the concept of looking beyond just the riding you live in and thinking about the results in the province (jurisdiction) as a whole.

For instance, here in B.C. I feel that the Liberal party is too far to the right in a number of areas but I still like the fact they generally want to make things work and get things done which can be important, especially when even clearly beneficial ideas face strong 'Not-in-my-backyard' challenges. Meanwhile I trust the NDP to do a better job making sure the laws aren't tilted too far in favour of corporations, ensuring public services are adequately funded and taking care of the poor and more vulnerable - but I don't trust them to keep spending growth to moderate levels, to make smart business decisions, to have the political will to make important projects happen or to avoid creating a lot of counter-productive unnecessarily complex regulation. Finally the Green Party has a lot of great ideas and makes for a nice break from the business vs. labour divide which plagues B.C. - but they also have a lot of really poor ideas which show that they haven't thought through all their policies (i.e. reducing tuition to 0).

So what does this have to do with voting? Well, just looking at my riding, I might be tempted to vote Liberal. But looking at the (expected) results for the province as a whole, I think that the Liberals are already likely to be overly represented in the legislature vs. how much I support their policies. So I am likely to vote for balance - that is, I will use my vote like a counter-weight, trying to move the overall result in the right direction, rather than simply voting for exactly what I support.

That still leaves the question of NDP vs. Green1. Right now I'm thinking Green. Partly because they seem more like a forward thinking party, but also because I believe a multi-party system is healthier than one with two big parties squaring off against each other since that can lead to the kind of polarization we've seen in the United States in recent years. But maybe I just like to vote for the underdog and would be better off voting for a party with a better chance of winning my riding (since it appears it may be close). I probably won't make a final decision until I'm in the booth.

1I should note that I also considered the Democratic Reform party as well, but they seemed a little too unsettled for me. Beyond platitudes and pragmatism, I wasn't really sure what they stood for. Of course as far as I know they have no candidate in my riding anyway, so that part is easy.

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B.C. Election Prediction

So, despite not having had a chance to pay proper attention and this being my first B.C. election (as a resident), I figured I'd take a crack at predicting the outcome.

Before I get started, here are some useful sites if you're into prognostication:

The Tyee's Battleground BC
Election prediction project
UBC Election Stock Market

I know Sacha at Double Blind said he was going to make predictions as well, but I don't want to look at his site until after I've made my own predictions so no link for now. Update (an hour later): OK, here's the link - predictions promised for 11 pm...

All right, on with my likely-to-be-way-off guesswork. The general outcome seems clear, a majority government for the Liberals, although I guess stranger things have happened than an upset tomorrow. Still, with commodity prices up across the board and the real estate market in good shape it would be a surprise to see any incumbent government get defeated. Time will tell if Campbell follows the Mulroney/Harris 'two right-wing terms and then toast' approach or of they are able to build something longer lasting in their second term.

For popular vote I'll say 11% for the Greens, 38% for the NDP and 47% for the Liberals (leaving 4% other).

I'm not going to try and predict the outcome of the STV referendum (can't even maintain a pretense of objectivity there - vote yes!) so all that leaves is predicting the individual seats. I'm not (alas) predicting any victories for anyone except the NDP or Liberals so I'll keep my typing to a minimum and just list the ridings I expect to go NDP:

(Note: the total comes to 57 for the Liberals and 22 for the NDP)

Burnaby North
Comox Valley
Malahat-Juan De Fuca
New Westminster
North Coast
Port-Coquitlam/Burke Mountain
Powell River-Sunshine Coast
Surrey-Green Timbers
Vancouver Kensington
Vancouver Kingsway
Vancouver Mount Pleasant
Victoria Beacon Hill
Victoria Hillside
West Kootenay-Boundary

My own riding (Vancouver-Fairview) was actually one of my toughest decisions, but I'll give it to Virginia Greene by a nose. Surrey Newton should be an interesting race as well. It will also be interesting to see how Tom Merino does on the Malahat. Of course, now that I've made my prediction I have to decide how I should vote...

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'Sports' on Cable

I was thinking, it would be nice to have a sports channel that doesn't show any actual events but just has highlights all the time. I mean, if we can have a channel that seems to show nothing but horse racing, poker and wrestling 24/7 surely there's room for a highlight channel as well?

(stupid CRTC)

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Friday, May 13, 2005

Out of Town

This is just a light/no blogging warning since I'll be out of town for the weekend. Should be nice to take my mind off the circus our federal parliament has become and may also give me some time to think about who to vote for in the provincial election. Or maybe I just won't think about politics at all for a couple of days.

Anyway, have a good weekend all, if you live in B.C. or know someone who does, remind them to vote yes on Tuesday - or better yet, get out and vote 'yes' in the advance polls which are open noon until 9 pm today (Friday) and Saturday.

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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Analysis You Just Won't Find in the Mainstream Media

For you city dwellers trying to decide which of three newly launched free daily papers (Metro, Dose, 24 Hours) to take for your next transit trip (personally I figure accepting a paper just encourages the people handing them out, but that's one man's opinion), see here for a *very* thorough comparison. If I ever do give in and accept a free daily at least I'll be making an informed choice (and going with Metro - unless I'm in a mood for trivia in which case Dose is apparently the way to go).

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And I Thought Danny Williams was Childish...

The Conservatives joining up with the Bloc to shut down parliament because they aren't willing to wait one week for a non-confidence vote on the budget is bad enough*. But this:
"the Conservatives will continue to attend at least one Commons committee: the one debating same-sex marriage, to which they are adamantly opposed."

is really nuts. The one thing more important in their mind than ensuring that parliament does nothing between now and next Thursday is making every last possible effort to prevent gay people from getting married?

I guess it all makes sense when you consider the Conservative Party slogan for the next election: "Vote for a Conservative Government - We Dare You".

Side note: Danny Williams is still childish.

* For the record, I think Martin should have held the vote on the budget this week. But I think it would have been wiser and more impressive for the opposition to let the public be the judge of his decision to wait, not trying to sit in judgment themselves.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Corporate Taxes

The topic of corporate tax rates has come up a lot here lately so I thought I'd take a look at corporate taxes from a (somewhat) theoretical perspective. Specifically, I want to look at what happens to taxation as a whole when corporate tax rates are cut and think about whether we need corporate taxes at all.

Right now in Canada, the (federal) corporate tax rate is 21% (down from 28% a few years ago). So if a company made a profit of $100 million (and didn't have any previous losses stored up1) it would owe $21 million in federal taxes. Now, say the tax rate was 15% instead. That would mean a tax bill of $15 million, a savings of $6 million for the company.

What would happen to this $6 million? I see three possibilities: 1) The money could be distributed to shareholders in the form of a dividend, 2) The money could be invested/saved by the company, increasing the value of the company accordingly or 3) the money could be 'wasted' on items like massive stock option grants to senior management, travel costs for corporate meetings in the Bahamas, ego-stroking diversification/expansion plans and so on. I'm not taking the time to do serious research here, so I have no idea what the exact breakdown would be, but for reference, this paper (which is excellent and deserves a post of its own) suggests that about 20% of total corporate profits goes to dividends in Canada (if you know the exact figure, please let me know, I looked for it but couldn't find it).

Money given out in dividends would be taxed at the dividend rate which has been constructed to roughly approximate personal tax rates (that is, when you combine the corporate tax with the tax on dividends the effect is the same as if the money had just been personal income to begin with - for an idea of the theory of how this works, see here).

If we assume that the government wants to maintain this 'neutral' taxation of dividends, then a cut in the corporate tax rate would be matched by an increase in the dividend tax rate so to the extent that lower corporate taxes leads to more dividends, there would be no impact on the federal tax take or it's distribution (progressiveness). Of course if the government cut corporate tax rates and didn't increase the dividend tax rate then the tax rate for dividends would fall below taxes for personal income and the government would suffer a loss in tax revenue.

Money kept by the corporation would, on average, be recovered as a capital gain by shareholders and eventually taxed at 1/2 the personal rate of tax (since income from capital gains is taxed at a 50% of the normal personal income rate).

Money wasted on various bad ideas would go all over the place but seems likely to generally end up in the hands of management and friends.

So to sum up, there are three potential sources of lost tax revenue for the government: dividend tax rates falling below personal income rates, more money going to capital gains which are only taxed at 50% the rate of personal income (likely to be lower than the 21% charged against corporations) and money wasted which never shows up as income at all.

Given that the vast majority of shares are owned by wealthy individuals and that the wealthy would likely be the beneficiaries of most wasteful corporate spending as well, it seems clear that the change would be regressive in that the poor would see very little benefit from this reduction in taxes.


OK, let's look at this from another angle. Consider the following from the 1997 Canadian federal budget:

"A key element of a fair tax system is that corporations should pay their fair share of tax. Some have argued that corporations should not pay taxes at all since, sooner or later, corporate income ends up in the hands of individuals and is taxed under personal income tax. This view is inaccurate and corporations should pay tax for three key reasons. First, businesses benefit from public services in many of the same ways that individuals do. Second, in the absence of tax on corporations, it would be possible for individuals to postpone tax on income or capital gains indefinitely by placing income-producing assets in a corporation and thereby having the income or gains accrue within the corporation. Corporate income tax addresses this problem by imposing a tax on profits and capital gains prior to their distribution to individuals in the form of dividends. Third, corporate taxes allow the taxation of income accruing to foreigners and ensure that foreign-based corporations operating in Canada pay tax on income earned in Canada."

Now, the first reason doesn't make a lot of sense to me. OK, businesses benefit from public services, but to the extent that they benefit, this is reflected in the gains made by the owners of the corporation. I don't see how this refutes the argument that we should just tax profits as personal income when they end up in the hands of the owners.

The second reason, avoiding an indefinite delay of taxes, makes more sense to me, although if the owners never get any profit out of the corporation, one wonders why they invest in it.

The third reason, lost government revenue from taxing foreigner's investments in Canada is valid as well, but more of a technical concern which could probably be worked around.

Personally, I have a different concern, which is that by delaying tax until shares change hands or a dividend is paid, the corporation will have more money on hand with which to exert an influence on society. Ideally, any profits a corporation makes would either be invested if deemed necessary by the shareholders (represented by management) or returned to the shareholders. But in reality, corporate profits might well be spent frivolously and, more perniciously, used to lobby the public / government to change the social/legislative framework in their favour.

In this view, corporations are a danger to society which need strong oversight in order to be kept to their beneficial role of providing goods and services efficiently without overstepping into trying to buy legislation/influence to create artificial monopolies, exclude competitors from the market, get subsidies for their operations, etc. etc.

Clearly, taxation of corporations is not a substitute for regulation and citizen vigilance in trying to keep corporations out of politics but it's something to consider when thinking about big changes to corporate taxes.


Putting the pieces together, the logical solution, which I personally first saw recommended in David Korten's brilliant, "When Corporations Rule the World2", is to reduce the corporate tax rate to 0, but mandate automatic 100% dividends on all profits.

This would address our earlier concerns about lost tax revenue in that dividends would now be taxed exactly the same as personal income (a nice side effect of this change is the simplification of the tax code) so we don't have to worry about a discrepancy between dividend tax rates and personal tax rates. Furthermore, profits will be taxed as personal income not as capital gains which would only be taxed at half the personal rate. Finally, companies would have to make a case for needing money for investment and being able to spend it wisely to entice shareholders to reinvest their (post-tax) dividends back in the company.

Similarly, this addresses the budget's concern about people indefinitely postponing their taxes by leaving the profits in a corporation. As for foreigners, I'm sure the government could withhold an equivalent amount of taxes to foreign countries as those countries withhold on money which would go to Canadian shareholders.

Another benefit is that this change would remove the perverse incentives which are often created when corporations pursue specific strategies because they are tax-optimal rather than market-optimal. Furthermore, it would shift the balance of power from management to shareholders by leaving the decision of how much of the profit should remain with the organization in the hands of shareholders. This change would also serve to delegitimize corporate interference in our legislatures. Right now, given that they pay tax, it is logical for the corporations to feel they have a right to influence government. Taxing people instead of corporations would be a reminder of where legitimacy and power should reside. It would also act as a brake the growth of corporations where the shareholders themselves don't support that growth explicitly. Finally, the income, now taxed as personal income, would be subject to the same progressive rates of taxation as all other income.

I should note that this change would probably be much less radical in it's impact on corporate finances than you might think at first glance. For one thing it's not that different from the income trust3 model which has spread rapidly in Canada over the last few years. For another, I imagine that most shareholders would sign up with plans to have their post-tax share of the corporate income automatically re-invested in the company.

Anyway, I make no claims to have thought this through fully and there are likely any number of technical details which would be tough to work out - even if there aren't any big theoretical obstacles. I'm really just thinking out loud (so to speaktype) and inviting thoughts from anyone who may see flaws in my thinking. I ran it by a friend who's a tax accountant and we basically had a philosophical difference. He felt that the decision of whether profits should be reinvested or given out as dividends should be left in the hands of management since it was part of managing. I felt that this is an important enough decision that it, like the election of the board of directors, should be left in the hands of the shareholders directly. What do you think?

1 The big difference between corporate taxes and personal taxes is that corporations are taxed on profit (net income) whereas people are taxed on revenue (i.e. your tax bill is unaffected by your expenses - except specific expenses which generate tax credits like tuition). So when corporations suffer net losses they can save those losses to offset against a profit made in a future year.

2 Don't let the title fool you into thinking this is just some mindless anti-corporate rant. The author lays out his extensive conservative credentials in the prologue and the book is a very fair and well reasoned look at what corporations are and the reasons why and manner in which their influence has grown in our society. It's a good read.

3 For an introduction to income trusts, see here (or here) In a nutshell, an income trust is an extra layer on top of an existing company which focusses on extracting wealth from the company and distributing it to the trust's owners (unitholders). The primary purpose is to avoid corporate taxes and just pay personal income taxes on the received income.

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What Now?

What's the difference between China and Canada? China keeps its currency down vs. the American dollar by legislative fiat, while Canada does it by making the markets nervous with endless political shenanigans.

More seriously, in the aftermath of yesterday's dress rehearsal for a vote of non-confidence in the House of Commons, I thought the clearest commentary came from Chantal Hebert in the Star who wrote,

"This morning, more than ever, Canadians are presented with two competing narratives.

The first, put forward by the Liberals, depicts the Conservatives as a power-hungry, opportunistic opposition willing to make a pact with the devil - in this case the sovereignist Bloc Québécois - to precipitate a premature election before all the facts on the sponsorship scandals are in.

The second, put forward by the Tories and the Bloc, features a Prime Minister so desperate to cling to power and escape the wrath of voters that he is willing to milk the public treasury and subvert the democratic will of Parliament to do so."

It seems pretty clear to me that both narratives are true, which doesn't speak too well of any of the major political parties.

I guess the question now is, what's next? Prime Minister Paul Martin has committed to having a vote on the budget next Thursday (the 19th), no doubt out of a desire to let the B.C. election get completed before the Federal government steal the spotlight.

So one of two things will happen:

1) If the vote on the budget is defeated then we'll have an election this summer. This would be good for political junkies like me, and (hopefully) also for the Green Party which should benefit simply by virtue of not being a part of the current parliament, but I'm not sure it would lead to a government any less dysfunctional than the current one.

2) If the budget passes then it's not so clear what happens next. Will the Conservatives/Bloc admit defeat and stop trying to bring down the government, or will they continue to try to topple the government at every opportunity hoping to sway the one or two MP's whose support they need to get a vote of non-confidence passed? It seems as though, even if the Liberals get the budget passed, the government is not likely to make it too much further or accomplish too much between now and the fall (when Martin has already promised to hold an election after the Gomery Inquiry wraps up), but I'm no political insider so your guess is probably better than mine.

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Monday, May 09, 2005

He'd Be My First Pick at the Playground*

Congratulations to Steve Nash on winning the NBA's most Valuable Player Award. See here for the hometown boy makes good take and see here for a premature but dead-on basketball take. On or off the court, Nash is the kind of guy who makes you proud to say, 'he's a Canadian'.

Update on May 11: I was remiss in not noting that the Canadian Cynic went into more details on why Steve Nash is a great role model off the court in this post from a few weeks back.

* Assuming we had a ref at the playground - otherwise I'd take Shaq :)

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Friday, May 06, 2005

Fear of a Green Planet

Note: Cross-posted to the e-group

It looks like some of the recent high poll results for the Green Party are setting off some mainstream alarm bells. Check out this article by Mary Janigan in Macleans.

On the one hand, the article does a good job showing how Green support has risen and tracing it to increased environmental awareness, disenchantment with the mainstream parties and most of all, the Green party moving to the political centre by eschewing the unnecessary divide between environmentalism and market-oriented economic policies.

But on the other hand the article is almost comical in its fear of a big green tidal wave swamping the country.

The increased support for the Greens is, "both remarkable and unsettling"

and also, "Canadians should be very sure that they are voting for the Greens' relatively radical platform" because "The stakes are high".

Voters should also remember that, "until we clean up the contract-tendering system itself, every party will eventually be suborned by power."

And a final warning to finish off with, "voters should be sure the Greens' evolving amalgam of the practical and the highly problematic is what they really want. Accidents do happen."

You hear that Green voters? - be careful or we'll accidentally elect a majority Green government - it's happened before! ok, it's never happened, but it could happen! Think twice before you destroy us all!

It's good to see smart policies being rewarded and Canadians having more options at the ballot box. I don't think there's really much 'risk' of us electing a Green government next election, but I am hoping to see the party continue to make strides and hopefully win a seat or two.

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Ringing Endorsement

I see that the Brits had an election yesterday. With most of the results in it looks like (roughly) 36 out of 100 voters voted for Tony Blair's incumbent Labour party, 33 voters out of 100 voted for the Conservatives, 22 out of 100 voted for the Liberal Democrats and 9 out of 100 voted for other parties / independents.

Naturally the logical outcome of such a vote is a Labour majority government (56% of the seats so far) with 64 voters out of 100 left completely powerless. Gotta love that First Past the Post electoral system.

Update: I forgot to mention that Greg at Sinister Thoughts was way ahead of me on this one.

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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Media Failure Two-Step

Writing this blog has made me pay more attention to the media than I used to and I've started to notice a pattern; a pattern which I call the media failure two-step. Don't worry, this dance is quite easy to pick up. As a general rule it goes something like this:

Step 1) Cause something (bad) to happen through your reporting.
Step 2) Report on this (bad) thing from the perspective of an innocent bystander.
And then you just repeat indefinitely.

Got it? Need an example? No problem, start with the basic step.

Step 1. Write 10 columns/posts about the latest poll results
Step 2. Write a column/post complaining about how the media has nothing but 'horserace' coverage

Now admittedly, this is a pretty simple dance, what makes it fun is coming up with variations and mixing them in. Try this one:

Step 1: Write a bunch of mindless partisan rants
Step 2: Complain about the low tone of debate

OK, that was another easy one, How about something a little trickier:

Step 1: Constantly criticize all politicians as selfish pigs
Step 2: Wonder why there are so few good people going into politics these days.

See, the possibilities are endless. Changing up the footwork slightly, there are a whole series of informational steps to explore, in which you pause on the first step and simply do nothing before proceeding straight to the second step. For a good example of this, see the two posts I read which triggered this post: these ones from moebiusstripper at Tall, Dark and Mysterious. While apparently not a fan of the dance, he identifies it clearly, quoting Angus Reid as saying about the proposed STV electoral system for B.C.,
"There hasn't been enough media coverage to create a buzz, and even people looking for information might not find enough to make an informed decision."

and noting,
"One wonders if the journalists who find these things out just nod sadly - hmm, not enough media coverage. Crying shame, that, but not much WE can do - and then ferret out another poll about how little the unwashed masses, with their lack of information and access to media coverage, know about stuff."

I invite readers to offer up their own suggestions for variations of the media failure two-step. Please avoid suggestions which involve three steps as these will be covered in a later post on the media failure waltz.*

* This is a joke, media-failure scenarios suited to other dances are more than welcome, although suggestions for the Tango will be ignored unless submitted twice.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

B.C. election televised debate

If, like me, you didn't watch the debate last night (I don't even have cable at the moment, plus I figure that TV and politics shouldn't mix - what's your excuse?), or you just want to see some commentary on what you saw, try here, here or here.

To me, televised debates always seem like a triumph of medium over message and the media coverage of them generally makes me feel sad for the state of our country so I tend to avoid them even when I do have cable. But at the same time I typically find all-candidates meetings to be fascinating and very worthwhile. I don't know if being there in person makes a difference or if it's just that the cautious, stick to the party line, try to get your opponent off their game approach which being on TV enforces makes leadership debates dull and irritating.

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Did Your Pay More Than Double Last Year?

If not, don't worry because your CEO's did.

The Globe's Report on Business figures that the 161 top executives in Canada received average total compensation of $5.5 million each last year, thanks mainly to cashing in some stock options.

So let's do some math. $5.5 million x 161 = $885.5 million. Over 5 years that adds up to a little over $4.4 billion dollars. Hmm, roughly $4.5 billion over 5 years, that rings some kind of bell...

Just to refresh your memory, here's some quotes from a Globe story last week:

"Business leaders roasted the minority Liberal government's decision to boost spending by $4.6-billion and cancel corporate tax cuts [worth $4.6 billion over 5 years] to buy NDP support for its beleaguered budget.

They warned it will cost Canada billions of dollars in lost investment, job gains and tax revenue, and erode the business-friendly reputations of Prime Minister Paul Martin and Finance Minister Ralph Goodale.

"I think it puts Mr. Martin's credibility in doubt and Mr. Goodale's credibility in doubt," said Nancy Hughes Anthony, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce."

and more,

"Thomas d'Aquino, president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, warned that rolling back corporate tax cuts will discourage the investment needed to generate the future tax revenue needed to "pay for the massive federal commitments to expanding social programs and equalization payments."

Jack Mintz, president of the C.D. Howe Institute, predicted Canada will lose "billions of dollars in investment" as a result of Liberal missteps on corporate taxes."

and my favourite,

"Perrin Beatty, head of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, said Liberals are turning their back on businesses. "The government put those tax cuts in the budget because they recognized that Canadian business faces unprecedented competition"

So forgoing a $4.6 billion future tax cut for Canadian business will cost us billions of dollars in investment, destroy the credibility of the government, make business unable to compete in a tough global environment and is enough to pay for massive federal commitments to social spending and equalization.

But the same amount (probably more if you consider the time value of money) paid to the CEO's of just 161 companies is no doubt a wise and necessary cost of doing business which will more than pay for itself by creating incentives for CEO's to try and do a good job - something which a salary of $700,000 (on average) apparently wouldn't be enough to encourage them to do thus requiring the incentive of cashing in stock options if the share price goes up.

Here are some quotes from the Globe article on executive compensation:

David Beatty, head of the influential Canadian Coalition for Good Governance (CCGG), agreed that some CEOs, such as Power Financial's Mr. Gratton, have created "tons of value" for their shareholders, but others "are just riding on the boat" that has been lifted by overall rising market levels. "They are giving away a lot of the company for nothing. There are other ways to reward people."

Bill Mackenzie, head of Institutional Shareholder Services Canada, formerly Fairvest, said it's hard to link huge option gains with individual performance. "It just means there were big grants. Whoever has options has beautiful leverage, and they are making a killing."

Claude Lamoureux, CEO of the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, argues that options do not always reward performance. "It is very random. You could do wonderful work and not be rewarded, and you could do crappy work and make a lot of money with your options."

Mr. Hugessen [from Mercer] expects investor groups will pressure boards to be more selective about when they hand out share units, rather than just making grants a given every year for anyone "who fogs a mirror."

"It begins to feel a little like a money machine. People are hankering on to this."

Citing the work of Harvard law professor Lucian Bebchuk, he [David Beatty] said many compensation decisions are based not on performance but on a desire for collegiality, a sense of loyalty to the CEO and conflict avoidance. The result, he said, has been "outrageous costs."

Just something to think about next time you hear dire warnings of doom and gloom from our CEO's when the government fails to cut corporate taxes quickly enough for them or when they talk about how we need to keep costs down in order to be competitive.

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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Blog - Undisciplined Thoughts on Just About Everything

Sometimes I feel as though my head is a giant tub filled with various thoughts about politics, the economy, society etc. and by starting this blog I have created an opening in the tub which allows some of those thoughts out. The problem is that the opening is tiny since, due to the effort required by choosing topics, finding links, organizing thoughts, constructing paragraphs, editing and so on, the amount of stuff which can actually be posted on is pretty small. And of course it doesn't help when your internet provider (Telus) leaves you disconnected for a week.

Besides this, spending a few days away from the internet made me want to have more variety in my posts. So I decided to do a little experiment and just type for a while on whatever topics have been on my mind lately with no discipline or real organization whatsoever.

Important! This last sentence was a warning that, even if you've made it this far into this self-indulgent post, you probably shouldn't really continue on. Proceed at your own risk of wasted time, keeping in mind that you're only young once.

So anyway, I've been thinking about the upcoming battle to (maybe) bring down the federal government. Is it just me or is it ridiculous that the health of some MP's could be a factor, since they may be too ill to get to the House of Commons? What century is this? I'm not keen on seeing the government fall since I'd like to at least see the legislation on Same Sex Marriage pass first, but I don't want to see it continue on because someone was too sick to vote.

Meanwhile, if this is true it's really sad - not to mention likely counter-productive. Bad enough when parties bribe their own members to keep them in line (did I mention we should shut down the Senate) - now they're bribing the opposition as well? Of course if it's not true, it's even more sad. I guess we'll see.

It seems like a bunch of people are re-considering voting Liberal under the sponsorship scandal circumstances but can't bring themselves to vote for the gays-are-separate-but-equal, made-in-Canada-solutions-to-Global-environmental-problems, cut-taxes-increase-spending-but-don't-worry-about-the-budget, ask-how-high-when-Americans-say-jump-and-tie-ourselves-ever-more-closely-to-their-dangerously-unstable-economy Conservatives or the surplusses-are-bad, fifty-point-government-plans-will-solve-every-problem, electoral-reform-is-was-will-be-our-#1-priority NDP party.

I'll probably explore my thoughts on the NDP in greater depth and more fairness in a later post (it's half written in draft already). For the Conservatives it seems like there is a disconnect between what voters want (a clone of the Liberals) and what the Conservatives want (a clone of the U.S.?). The time honoured approach would seem to be for the Conservatives to just pretend to be a clone of the Liberals for the purposes of getting elected and then do whatever they feel like once they are in charge. For now, while I welcome their move to the centre, I'll probably treat any Conservative promises on Child Care or Kyoto with a grain of salt or two.

Anyway, I invite people looking for alternatives to join me in voting Green in the next election. In moving to the Centre the Green party has positioned itself as being similar to the Liberal party but more innovative on the revenue/environmental side and more libertarian/easy-going/less-uptight/not-so-puritanical/call-it-what- you-will on social issues (such as marijuana legalization).

Moving on to provincial politics, B.C. votes in two weeks. The most important thing is for people to get out and vote 'Yes' to the referendum on switching the electoral system to the Single Transferable Vote. As a voter, I can't see why someone would favour a system which gives them very little choice over one which gives them a lot of choice. As a democrat I can't see why people would favour a system where there is a huge disconnect between the votes cast and the representatives elected over one where the distribution of seats in the legislature bears some resemblance to the votes cast.

Aside from the referendum, the 3 main parties contesting the election are the Liberals, NDP and the Greens. I've read all the platforms but need a couple of days to digest it all before posting in detail. A quick thought for now is that I wish (like always) that I could go for the 'make your own pasta' option where I get the Greenolini noodles with a creamy NDPfredo sauce and chunks of roasted Liberal on top.

On issues like RAV and the Olympics I favour the Liberal approach of supporting big projects that will make B.C. a better province long into the future. But then stuff like the ill-fated Coquihalla privatization plan shows how the Liberals get carried away with their ideology in the face of common sense.

Plus their attitude to the environment, the provincial park system, First Nations and Unions is way too extreme for me.

On Health Care everybody wants to spend more so there's not much to choose there. I do like the Green plan of shaping the tax system to lower taxes on stuff good for your health (i.e. sports equipment) and raise taxes on stuff bad for your health (like junk food). This will be a far more efficient approach to preventitive medicine than ad campaigns urging B.C. residents to eat their vegetables or whatever it is the NDP and Liberals seem to be planning on this front. The Green platform has a number of ideas I think are terrible (such as reducing university tuition to 0 eventually) but is also filled with a number of really good ideas (campaign finance reform being a standout).

Overall it's going to be a tough decision for me and may require some thought on various vote deciding methodologies (strategic voting, vote my conscience, marginal voting, flip a coin etc.). That's probably a topic for a post in itself as well.

Let's see, what else. This is kind of sad. The corporate battle to fence off information and charge people access to the info-petting zoo is continuing on all fronts. I'm guessing that public libraries will be the final victims of this trend. Rented a movie the other day (A Series of Unfortunate Events - great artwork on the credits but otherwise disappointing - Jim Carrey was especially irritating) and there was a big message at the beginning about how you wouldn't steal a TV so why would you download a pirated copy of a movie. Of course if my neighbour had a 60 inch TV and I could make a free copy for myself leaving his TV perfectly intact, I *would* do that. Any my neighbour wouldn't stop me. Talk about a lame analogy. Still, the whole copying=theft meme is the big media corporations' biggest weapon in trying to make people feel guilty about something they really shouldn't.

The NY Times had a long article last week about how TV makes you smarter (it's in the pay archive now). Basically the article took about 3,000 words to say that because years of intensive practice has made people better at watching TV (so now we like shows which are more complicated, have more storylines and explain things less than in the past) it must be making us smarter. No mention was made of how smart we could be if all those hours spent watching TV were spent reading. Or how much less fat people would be if they spent some of that time exercising. Or the implications of TV watching for consumerism, erasing the line between childhood and adulthood, levels of social capital, etc. etc. etc. If only Neil Postman was still alive he could have given that waste of space the smackdown it deserved.

Here's a question, does it seem logical that the person appointed by the U.S. to be ambassador to Canada should be someone who actually has some interest in the country? Is it better to have someone who knows nothing and thus comes in with no preconceptions? I think if I was appointing ambassadors I'd try to pick people with some knowledge of where they're going, especially for my country's closest neighbours. Maybe ambassadors are just irrelevant patronage appointments like Senators and I should just ignore them. Of course if I'm going to take this approach, I'd like our mainstream media to go along as well and not treat every pronouncement by the U.S. ambassador as front page news.

And finally, on a lighter note, some advice for all you blogging kids out there: don't walk between parked blogs, don't blog with your mouth full, wait at least an hour after eating before blogging, and never, never cover more than one topic in a single post.

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