Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Priorities, Part 2

Blogging could be light for the next few days. No, I'm not going on a trip. And no I'm not super-busy at work (no more than usual, anyway). And it's definitely not (god forbid!) that I have to spend more time with my kids. No, the next few days will be extra busy as I prepare for the annual hockey pool auction which goes this Sunday (if you have any inside tips, email them to me instead of commenting just in case other pool members are reading my blog).

Who's going to play the point on the Wild power play? Kuba, Zyuzin?
The pool magazines all say Iginla's going to get 100+ points but the last two NHL seasons he got 73 and 67. How many will he really get?
Is Crawford finally going to give the Sedins more ice time?
Is St. Louis (the team, not the player) as bad as they look on paper?
Who will get more points, Crosby or Bochenski?

These are the sorts of questions I must try and answer between now and 10 a.m. (delicate eastern time-zoners don't want to be up late on a school night!) on Sunday.

We Hate Ourselves for our Freedoms

Via Flash Point Canada, a look into our police state future.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Definitions, Priorities

Had a 'continuity planning' (i.e. emergency preparation) meeting at work the other day. In a perhaps unguarded moment, the instructor described how,
"an 'incident' is something that can be contained in a day or two without a significant impact, whereas a 'disaster' is something more serious, something which would affect the bottom line. For example, a war, a terrorist attack, or, god forbid, a liquidity crunch."

Nobody else laughed, so I didn't either.

Sunday, September 25, 2005


I don't know a lot about immigration. What little I know is that there seems to be two big problems with immigration these days.

1) The wait times for all the various procedures in immigrating are very long and seem to be getting longer. I've known lots of people forced to quit their jobs, many of whom eventually left the country, because they couldn't wait any longer for their permanent residency status or work visa to come through. I also know employers who have become reluctant / unwilling to hire anyone who isn't already a permanent resident because of the disruptions caused by these delays.

2) Recent immigrants are doing poorly from an economic perspective. According to Statscan, both Toronto and Vancouver would have seen declines in the poverty level if not for the influx of immigrants who have failed to get jobs with reasonable pay. By any measure, today's immigrants are faring signifcantly worse compared to either resident Canadians or the immigrants of the past.

Given these two problems, the recent announcement that the government was planning to dramatically increase the number of immigrants seems a little puzzling. Especially coming, as it did, without any statement that the government understood what was causing the existing problems or had any plan to deal with them, prior to aggravating them by increasing immigration.

I have no ideological opposition to increased immigration but, from a management perspective, if I had a factory which was unable to keep up with it's current production schedule and whose products were getting a poor and deteriorating response from customers, my bold initiative wouldn't be to announce that I was planning to send lots more raw materials to that factory.

Let's stop the cart, untie the horse, walk it around in front of the cart, retie the horse and then continue from there, shall we?

Friday, September 23, 2005

About that Inequality Thing...

After the B.C. mini-budget that came out last week, I commented, "I'm not sure the biggest priorities in B.C. right now are corporations (especially with corporate profits as a % of GDP at record highs - see page 8) and seniors. I would've been more inclined to devote the money to child care and education, but that's just me, I guess."

Recently, I ran across a StatsCan study which provides some statistical backup for why spending on children should take priority over more money for seniors.

If you look at the chart on page 10, you'll see the following statistics on low income rates (where low income is defined as being less than half the median income, a relative measure):

U.S.: % of families with children (one parent) with low income: 41.4%
% of families with children (two parents) with low income: 13.1%
% of seniors with low income: 28.4%

U.K.: % of families with children (one parent) with low income: 31.3%
% of families with children (two parents) with low income: 8.9%
% of seniors with low income: 24.6%

Sweden: % of families with children (one parent) with low income: 11.3%
% of families with children (two parents) with low income: 2.1%
% of seniors with low income: 8.2%

Now look at the (1997) figures for Canada, they are quite different:

Canada: % of families with children (one parent) with low income: 38.9%
% of families with children (two parents) with low income: 9.5%
% of seniors with low income: 5.2%

Now, I realize that old people vote and children don't, but when the low income rate for single parent families is over 7 times that for seniors, that's why I say that instead of extra money for seniors we should be finding extra money for families and children.

A final note, for those who are skeptical of the power of government to effect change, consider the following paragraph,
"The Canadian decline in the overall rate [of people with low income] is accounted for by two offsetting trends. While rates for children were somewhat higher by the late nineties, the decline in low-income rates among elderly households from 35 to just over 5 percent was dramatic, the single largest change of any reported in Table 5 [which compared trends in low income rates in 8 countries]. Until the late seventies, low-income rates among the Canadian elderly were higher than in most affluent democracies, including the United States. Yet by the 1990s, low income rates among Canadian seniors were among the lowest observed anywhere. As has been shown elsewhere (Myles 2000), it was during the 1980s that Canadian pension reforms of the 1960s began to exert their full effect. Specifically, by the late 1970s, more and more retirees had qualified for benefits under the Canada and Quebec Pension plans, the result of legislation introduced in 1965, and this has greatly hastened the change in low-income rates of the elderly."

% of Canadian seniors with low income in the late seventies: 34.7%
% of Canadian seniors with low income in the mid eighties: 10.8%%
% of Canadian seniors with low income in the mid nineties: 4.9%
% of Canadian seniors with low income in the most recent data: 5.4%

The study is primarily about inequality, so if you are interested in that topic it is worth a read. The writing is clear, to the point, and backed up by lots of relevant figures and data.

In general, inequality in Canada has been fairly steady, but it has begun rising somewhat in the last 10 years or so. Inequality is commonly measured using the Gini index (which varies from 0 if everyone has the same income to 1 if one person has all the income). Canada's Gini index has varied from 0.29 in the late seventies, down to 0.28 in the mid-eighties and mid-nineties and back up to 0.29 by the end of the nineties.

The study notes the reason for the Gini index turning upwards in the nineties,
"Census data suggest little change in family incomes among lower income
families between 1990 and 2000, while higher-income families saw increases between
7% and 16%."

Overall, Canada has done a reasonably good job of preventing inequality from rising (which it has been doing in almost all developed countries in the last 15 years) but there are signs that the efforts to fight the deficit (and the cutting of welfare programs in many provinces, including Ontario) which started around the mid-nineties have had a measurable impact of increased inequality.

Anyway, this post is getting long enough, but the study is definitely worth reading. One final thing I'll mention is the troubling gap which has opened up between low income rates for those born in Canada and immigrants.

In 1980 immigrants who had been in the country 6-10 years had almost the exact same likelihood of being low income as non-immigrants. Those who had only been here 0-5 years were 50% more likely to be low income.

In 2000, immigrants who had been in the country 6-10 years had *double* the likelihood of being low income as non-immigrants. Those had been here 0-5 years were 2 1/2 times as likely to be low income as non-immigrants (the chart I took this from is on page 20 in the study). As the study notes, this has a particular impact on places like Toronto and Vancouver where most immigrants settle. Figuring out why this is happening and how to turn it around should be a high priority for the federal government.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Déjà Lu

Jeffrey Simpson was talking about proportional representation today in the Globe and Mail (subscription required - you may be able to find the article by searching google news). Those of you with a good memory might want to skip this post because he wrote the same column (and I wrote pretty much the same response) back in November.

The column re-run was prompted by the recent elections in Germany and New Zealand, both of which have led to very evenly balanced governments in which neither side holds a commanding edge.

Much of Simpson's column is made up by caveats and on-the-other-hands, but in the end, what it comes down to is Simpson telling us that,
"PR's great in good times when tough decisions can be avoided; it's lousy when hard decisions must be made, as in Germany today."

I thought he put it more directly and slightly more eloquently back in November when he wrote,
"PR systems can make hard decisions if they absolutely have to, as in a crisis. But they don't instinctively put a premium on long-term thinking or provide the smack of strong government."

Unsurprisingly, Greg at Sinister Thoughts also wasn't overly impressed by this column. I'm going to reproduce some of what I wrote in a comment over at Greg's place, mainly because I am lazy, but also because I think it is a point worth making here.


Simpson is a pretty careful writer, which I appreciate, and his columns on PR tend to be better than a lot of what you see in the fearful media (admittedly, this isn't saying much).

But by the time he's allowed for how our system produced a similar result, how PR is a better representation of what people want, how voter turnout is higher under PR, etc. etc., pretty much all he's got left is (like you say) an argument for authoritarianism, coded as 'effective government'.

Primarily, I don't buy an end-justifies-the-means argument that we should randomly modify the voting results to ensure that one party gets a majority government.

But even if we accept that it is worth sacrificing the idea of 'one person, one vote' to get slightly better government, I'm not sure that there is a connection between one party (one person) rule and better government.

Simpson talks about government unwilling to make the hard decisions, but is there a better example of a government unwilling to make hard decisions than the U.S. government?

Guns, butter, pork and ponies for everyone, no sacrifices. And this is a government where one party has control of all branches.

In fact, the conventional wisdom in the U.S. (which seems to be borne out by events) is that it is having all branches of the government in one party's hands (what Simpson would consider an effective government) which is dangerous. Also worth noting is that it was under a divided government in the 90's that the U.S. deficit was turned into a surplus.

In general, I think the ability to make hard decisions rests with the population's willingness to accept hard decisions, which in turn is a function of education and the media and the strength of civil society. I'm not sure the electoral system really makes a difference (to the ability of government to make hard decisions) in the long run. What I am sure of, is that a system that provides us with representatives who are an accurate representation of who we voted for is better than one that doesn't.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Globe and Mail Headline if they Wrote a Story about it being Friday Afternoon: "Another 5 Day Work Week Looms"

Sometimes, when I see a particularly bad commercial or movie, I like to amuse myself by considering the creative process which came up with it. This review of the Dukes of Hazzard provides an excellent example of this literary form.


Statscan put out an update on our national balance sheet today:

Here are some highlights:

"The stronger performance of the economy in the second quarter was reflected in the acceleration in the growth of national wealth (+1.5%)."

"Government debt-to-GDP at 20-year low
Government net debt (total liabilities less total financial assets) edged down as the government sector registered another surplus in the second quarter. Net government debt as a percentage of GDP declined further, reaching a 20-year low. The net debt now corresponds to roughly half of GDP."

Corporate debt-to-equity edges down
Since 2000, corporations have generated more funds from internal operations than they required to finance their non-financial capital acquisition. As a result of this profit-driven string of surpluses, the corporate sector has been a net lender to the rest of the economy and has also used these funds to restructure their balance sheets, largely through paying down debt.

"Canadians' net indebtedness to non-residents (the amounts owing to non-residents less the assets held by Canadians abroad) fell in the second quarter"

Personal Net Worth:
"household net worth continued to advance (+1.8%) at a stronger pace than in the previous quarter.

Gains in the market value of residential real estate and of equities contributed almost equally to the change in household net worth. Stock market advances boosted the value of personal sector share holdings and the sustained housing boom added to the value of household residential real estate."

Personal Debt:
"Supported by sustained low interest rates, the growth in total household debt continued to outpace that of personal disposable income. This resulted in a debt-to-income ratio of 107.8% in the second quarter, up from 107.1% in the first quarter. Canadian households carry about $1.08 in debt for every dollar of their disposable income."

So you can probably guess the Globe headline right? "Household Debt Mushrooms"

The Globe is concerned that "Canadian households carried about $1.08 in debt for every dollar of their disposable income", but this measure doesn't even really make a lot of sense. If you try to get a loan from a bank, they will not be concerned with the ratio of your debt to your income, but rather with the ratio of your debt *payments* to your income. With low interest rates you can afford a lot more debt.

Accounting aside: It makes sense to compare money coming in (income) with money going out (interest payments) - this is what goes on a cash flow or an income statement. And it makes sense to compare total assets with total debt since these are both measures of your position at one point in time - and hence they both go on the balance sheet. Comparing a measure from the income statement to one from the balance sheet is an iffy business and should be done with care (i.e. not done by the media).

The thing is, I *am* worried about debt levels in our society. Via Timmy (posting at Pogge), I came across this interesting blog which had a post about what is driving our personal savings rate into negative territory, and that topic is probably worth a post of my own as well, but for the Globe to take that Statscan release and headline it 'Debt Mushrooms' is to take a generally positive report and put a very negative spin on it.


I can see the discussion in the Globe staffroom.

"So, the new numbers from Statscan came out"
"Yeah they look pretty good, government debt is down, corporate debt is down, people's net worth is up, we owe less to foreigners"
"You're killing me. There must be something negative we can use for a story"
"Well, debt levels are up?"
"Yeah, that's good, are they way up"
"Statscan says they edged up"
"Edged?, that's no good. They don't use the word ballooned?"
"How about exploded?"
"Ah screw it, we'll have to make something up, could you hand me that copy of the Globe hyperbole style guide?'
"No problem, here you go"
"OK, let's see, ... burgeoned? What kind of a word is burgeoned? How about debt levels blast off?"
"No, we already have blast in a headline today"
"How about, 'Debt Crisis Looms'? I love that word. It's kind of ominous you know, makes people scared. Looms."
"Nah, we already got two 'looms' today, 'Strike Looms at GM'", and 'Conflict looms over Alberta's oil wealth'
"Was one of those Simpson? He's always stealing my hyperbole"
"No, it wasn't Simpson. You know that columnists don't get to write their own headlines, only bloggers are allowed to do that"
"Those know nothing punks, don't get me started..." [returns to looking at hyperbole style guide] "Here's one - mushrooms! Household Debt Literally Mushrooms!"
"That's too long, it will stretch over two columns"
"OK, OK, 'Household Debt Mushrooms', That's gonna sell some papers for sure."

As an aside, I'm all for Google having a 'search all blogs' feature added to the blogger toolbar at the top of the screen, but it would be nice if, when I clicked on 'search *this* blog', it searched, you know, this blog. Just this blog. I'm just saying.

Update: Problem fixed, good to know the people who run blogger read CAtO.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Half-Finished Bottles of Inspiration Lie Like Ghosts in my Draft Folder

Blah. Do you ever have one of those weeks where everything you turn your hand to seems pointless and uninspired? It's because of weeks like this that, for every post I actually publish, there is another one sitting in draft form: some barely started, some just a collection of links, some half done and some fully completed but pretty much worthless.

Take this post I wrote yesterday for example:

I don't know if Gary Mason (subscription required but you're not missing anything) in the Globe is living in the same city I am. Sure people here like the Canucks, but,
"And I would dare say the Canucks now mean more to their city than the Leafs do to Toronto"?
C'mon. I've lived in both cities and this is just silly. Hockey is just not as big in B.C. as it is in Ontario, a fact of life.

Also from the Globe comes this comment on the 'mini-budget' brought down by the Liberals yesterday,
"To keep the debt from rising too quickly the government will use 100 per cent of its surplus to fund some of its borrowing costs."

And this comment,
"B.C.'s surplus is forecast to hit $1.3-billion in the coming year's budget. It's forecast for $600-million in 2006/07 and $400-million in 2007/08.

"We have a promise not to let our debt grow faster than our economy," Ms. Taylor said. "I'm concerned. I'm taking action."

B.C.'s debt is forecast to hit $35.9-billion this year."

I get the feeling that the government and the media are using a different definition of the word 'surplus' than the one I use. To me, a surplus is only a surplus if you're not going deeper into debt. As in, I wouldn't say to my girlfriend, "I had a surplus of $20,000 this year, but I'm using $10,000 to pay down that $50,000 loan I took out."

The mini-budget itself doesn't spend much money (which is good - especially considering the uncertain debt situation!) but I'm not sure the biggest priorities in B.C. right now are corporations (especially with corporate profits as a % of GDP at record highs (see page 8) and seniors. I would've been more inclined to devote the money to child care and education, but that's just me, I guess.

Meanwhile the Globe's webpoll, which is usually relatively sensible in a world of dumb media poll questions with dumber possible answers (yes, I'm looking at you, Macleans) serves up this: "According to pollsters, the North American infidelity rate is roughly 25 per cent. Have you ever cheated on your significant other?"

What, they just felt left out because other people had done polls and they hadn't? Surely they could have left out the first sentence - what purpose does it serve except to bias the result in some impossible to determine manner?

...As you can see, it's clearly not a very good post. But at the same time, it seems unfair to call it bad; A post which aspires to so little can hardly be said to have failed. Maybe next week will be better.

The title to this post is adapted from 'Till I am Myself Again', which is one of Blue Rodeo's best songs (which is saying something) and also happens to suit my mood this week.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Coming (not so) Soon to a Ballot Box Near You: STV 2: Judgement Day

So Gordon Campbell and the B.C. Liberals didn't waste any time announcing a plan to deal with the lingering question of electoral reform:

Highlights of the Plan:

- Appointing an Electoral Boundaries Commission, as required during this session of the legislature, to review constituency boundaries. An amendment will be introduced to allow the commission to provide for up to 85 members under the current electoral system.
- Asking the Electoral Boundaries Commission to identify the best and fairest way to configure B.C.s electoral districts under a Single Transferable Vote (STV) model.
- Holding a binding provincewide referendum in November 2008 on the electoral system, with a clear understanding of how electoral boundaries would be applied under the STV model.

Basically, they are using the fact that the electoral boundaries hadn't been fully spelled out for the last referendum as a fig leaf to provide cover for re-running the referendum to get a clearer result. What I don't get is that the plan is to use the same 'pass/fail' conditions (60% overall support) as the last referendum. If those conditions had been set properly in the first place, we wouldn't even be having this discussion. The fact that the vote came short of the specified threshold but that it was still so high that it couldn't be ignored or considered as a rejection suggests that the threshold wasn't set right in the first place.

I guess that Gordon Campbell is hoping that one of three things happens:
1) The 'yes' vote increases by 2.3% to cross 60% and STV goes forward and Campbell doesn't have to deal with it anymore.
2) The 'no' vote increases by 7.7% to cross 50% and STV is rejected by the electorate and Campbell doesn't have to deal with it anymore.
3) Neither 1) nor 2) happens and the situation is still not satisfactorily resolved but by now it's 2008 and Campbell is going to leave provincial politics so he doesn't have to deal with it anymore.


In case you're interested, here is the full text (relating to STV) from the throne speech:

"The issue of electoral reform remains following the results of the
referendum put before the public in May.

Nearly 58 per cent of all citizens who cast a ballot in the recent referendum on electoral reform supported the proposed STV electoral system.

A solid majority supported STV in all but two of B.C.'s 79 constituencies.

And yet that was not enough to pass, according to the rules this Legislature unanimously established.

Your government has been clear that it does not intend to rewrite those rules after the fact, or pretend that the vote for STV succeeded when it did not.

Nor can it ignore the size of the double majority that voted to change our current electoral system to the STV model.

There have been many interpretations of the electoral reform referendum's result.

Whatever the analysis, a troubling question remains: why did so many people vote so strongly to change the current system?

The Citizens' Assembly considered the question of electoral reform for over a year.

They, too, concluded that our current system of electing MLAs was lacking and that a better system could be found in the single transferable vote model.

They came to that conclusion after intensive investigation, public consultation, and consideration of academic advice.

Your government does not accept that the solution to a majority vote that failed to pass is to essentially ignore it and impose yet another electoral system.

It does not accept that the answer to the minority's rejection of the Citizens' Assembly's proposal is to redo its work.

It does not accept that the 79 members of this assembly are any better qualified than the 161 members of the Citizens' Assembly were to choose the best electoral model.

In any event, your government believes that the widely acknowledged success of the Citizens' Assembly flowed directly from its independence from traditional political interference.

The Citizens' Assembly had no political master and no partisan axes to grind.

It was not a body of elected politicians who were perceived to be guided by self-interest.

It was exactly what this Legislature intended a citizen-centered, dedicated, and independent.

One task that was never assigned to the Citizens' Assembly was to show precisely how its proposed STV model might apply on an electoral map.

This was arguably a design flaw in its terms of reference that in retrospect may have impacted how people voted in the referendum.

Your government believes that establishing STV constituency boundaries may provide the public with a critical piece of information that was missing at the time of the referendum. The government will recommend that shortcoming be rectified.

The Legislature is obliged to appoint an Electoral Boundaries Commission this session.

Your government will use that opportunity to take the challenge of electoral reform to its ultimate conclusion.

Legislation will be introduced to enable that requirement.

The new Electoral Boundaries Commission will be given two tasks.

First, to redraft the provincial electoral map as is currently required.

The government will introduce an amendment that it hopes will protect northern representation in the Legislature.

The amendment will allow the commission to provide for up to 85 members under the current electoral system.

And having decided on the most appropriate number of MLAs within that cap to protect northern residents, it will set its sights on STV.

The commission will also be asked to identify the best and fairest way to configure British Columbia's electoral districts under the STV model.

In view of the double difficulty of this assignment and a new census not expected to be completed until 2007, the time frame for the commission to complete its work will be extended from the time prescribed in the current legislation.

The commission will be asked to submit its final report on electoral
redistribution under both electoral systems by the spring of 2008.

That information will be put before the public as part of an extensive
effort to better inform British Columbians about the two electoral
options: the current system and STV.

Equal funding will be provided to support active information campaigns for supporters and detractors of each model.

The two models will be put to a province-wide vote, along with the applicable electoral boundaries, in a referendum that will be held in tandem with the November 2008 municipal elections.

That question will be crafted by the government and will be debated and voted upon in this Legislature.

All members, including cabinet ministers, will be free to speak to it and vote as they wish.

In establishing electoral boundaries, it has been the practice that all members are invited to make representations to the Electoral Boundaries Commission.

All members will be encouraged to also use that opportunity to comment on the relative merits of both electoral models under the boundaries proposed.

No one is obliged to support STV or remain silent if they have concerns.

The Premier will remain neutral, but all government members will be free to support or oppose either model.

In the final analysis, the people will again decide - not the politicians -— which electoral model and boundaries suit them best.

The people will have their final say on STV.

The same rules and thresholds that applied for passing STV in the recent referendum will apply in the November 2008 referendum.

Whichever model succeeds is the model that will be employed to elect the next parliament, on May 12th, 2009.

The government intends to launch a province-wide enumeration prior to that date to ensure that the British Columbia voters list is both up to date and accurate."

and you thought *I* had trouble getting to the point...

I Have Climbed Highest Mountains / I Have Run Through the Fields

I know, I know, there's nothing more annoying than when a blogger posts about the strange searches people use to get to their site, but today's results left me wondering whether I should be more flattered that someone got here looking for "Logical explanation" (#9) or "Cauliflower Monster" (#5).


At least the person looking for the Cauliflower Monster might have found what they were looking for.

Title to this post makes no sense? Click here.

Who? Oh Him, Yeah, He Was That Guy? Yeah I Remember, Sort of.

I imagine that if there is anything the lowly Canadian common folk could do to upset Brian Mulroney, it would be to forget about him entirely. I had, and I will again soon.

Update: Haven't forgotten quite yet - soon - meanwhile the Looney Canuck has more comments and asks a relevant hypothetical question, "What if there was actually such a thing as "humble pie"?"

Offerred Without Comment

Two different views on Vancouver, Canada, the U.S. and disaster relief:

Door #1

Door #2

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Decision Time

Summer's over (or pretty close anyway) so it's time for teachers and politicians to get back to their day jobs, which means, among other things, that B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell will soon have to decide what's next for the Single Transferable Vote.

As you may recall, 57.7% of voters, including a simple majority in 77 of 79 ridings, voted in favour of switching the electoral system to the Single Transferable Vote system in the referendum last April.

Which is all just a lead-in to mention this event taking place on Tuesday in Victoria:
"Six electoral activists and experts will address the media on Tuesday, September 13th on the front lawn of the B.C. Legislature from noon to 1:30 p.m.

Each speaker will briefly present their concerns regarding electoral reform in British Columbia, then will field questions from the media.


Diana Byford and Wendy Bergerud are alumni from the Citizens' Assembly for Electoral Reform;

Bruce Hallsor is President of Fair Voting BC, former co-chair of the Yes to STV campaign, and co-chair of the BC Conservative campaign;

Alastair Murdoch is president of Fair Vote Canada, Greater Victoria Chapter, a chartered accountant, and B.C. Liberal Riding Association executive;

Catherine Schulmann was active with the Yes to BC-STV campaign, is a director of Fair Voting BC, and a technical and freelance writer;

Brenda Guiled has independently written material and organized events to educate the public about BC-STV, is a technical illustrator, and an editorial-page columnist.

Two rules currently apply regarding electoral reform in British Columbia. First is Premier Gordon Campbell's 60:60 threshold binding his government to adopt BC-STV for the 2009 election. The referendum results fell 2.31 per cent short of the required overall approval, but a hefty 37.49 per cent over the required approval by a simple majority in every riding. The second rule is that any B.C. government can enact whatever electoral reform it chooses without consulting the electorate at all.

Resolving this issue is THE most pressing business facing the present government. The electorate has spoken loudly and clearly, but is quiet now, waiting to see how Premier Campbell's initiative plays out. These speakers will address the importance and urgency of enacting BC-STV electoral reform in British Columbia in time for the next election."

More Blog Stuff

A couple more things.

First, the folks at Stageleft have created a Blog-O-Pedia, sort of like Wikipedia except for Blogs. I have added a brief entry for Crawl Across the Ocean, and may add to it when I feel more inspired. If you have a blog, consider adding it - if nothing else it will make you think about what your blog is all about, anyway.

Secondly, it seems as though the spammers have started to find out about this blog, so I am adding word verification for comments. Basically you just have to enter a word in a box before you enter your comment. I know, it's added hassle, but I'm not big on spam comments. It's kind of reminiscent of the movie The Matrix. In 'The Matrix', the one defense the humans had against the machines was the electro-magnetic pulse weapon which would fry their circuits (or something like that). In the online reality, our defense against the machines is our superior ability to read script.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Blog Blogger Bloggity Blog Blog

Some random blog notes:

Robert, over at His (new) Blahg, is taking suggestions for how to run this year's Blog awards (which categories to include, how long voting should go for, etc.)

On other news, you may notice a new link (in small print) at the bottom of each post which says 'View Related Posts'. If the post has already been added to CanConv, then clicking this link will allow you to view recent posts in the same category on CanConv. Otherwise it brings you to a screen which allows you to add the post to CanConv.

Speaking of CanConv, Andrew has added a 'Blog Listing' tab which lets you see how many posts different bloggers have on CanConv. I'm sure if it was sorted by word count rather than post count, CAtO would rank a little higher!

Update: I forgot one more blog related item I was going to mention. Via Bound By Gravity and M.K. Braaten,
"Aaron, author of, is doing his Master’s theis on the economic side of blogging. In order to write his thesis he needs to collect imperical data so that he can reach a conclusion. Therefore, he has created an online survey that asks various questions in order to accumulate data so he can validate his assertions. These questions include your political stripe, your income bracket, whether you maintain a blog, or your reasons for reading/maintaining a blog.

Obviously he needs to obtain data from bloggers of every partisan stripe or association in order to maximize the breadth of his data. In order to do that, his survey needs to be reachable to a great amount of Canadian bloggers. So help out Aaron and partcipate in the survey so he can conduct his survey."

The survey is here.
It doesn't take long (less than 5 minutes).

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Some Belated Thoughts

It may be somewhat inappropriate, given the magnitude of what has happened in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast, but the way my mind works, it has been thinking about the hurricane in the context of a couple of movies.

The first is 'Die Hard'. In Die Hard, a band of terrorists take over an office building to break into a vault and steal some money. The part I'm thinking about is how the local and federal agencies which respond to the situation are portrayed in the movie. The locals are portrayed somewhat sympathetically, especially the lower level 'grunts'. But the further up the chain of command you go, the more arrogant and incompetent the police become. After the FBI unwittingly helps the terrorists get access to the safe, the terrorist leader Hans tells a team member who thought the last seal was unbreakable, "You asked for miracles, I give you the FBI".

The other movie on my mind is "The Fugitive". Here, after a bus carrying death row convicts crashes, the local police investigate, but they're not very thorough. Then the U.S. Federal Marshall arrives (played by Tommy Lee Jones) and soon his team has discovered that some of the convicts have escaped. The federal officials are still somewhat arrogant and a little obnoxious in this movie, but they are very competent. Staffed by intelligent people and with lots of resources to draw on, the federal agencies are portrayed as being very good at their job.

Two different views of the federal government's response to a crisis. And while the 'Die Hard' scenario plays into the lone wolf plot where our hero (played by Bruce Willis) is one man against the world, I think that 'The Fugitive' is a more accurate portrayal of what most Americans expect from their federal government when the chips are down. America is a country which is rightly proud of its huge, well equipped and highly efficient military, a country which sees itself as an example for the world, as the people you turn to in a crisis, the ones who can mount a huge humanitarian operation better than anyone, the ones who could build enough tanks and airplanes and ships to turn the tide of World War II. And it's also a country which isn't big on making excuses, a country where people aren't inclined to let someone off because they did their best, a country where you have to win a gold medal, not silver or bronze before you get any media attention.

And I think this is why, while some Canadians I've seen have suggested that it is too early to be critical of the relief effort or emphasized the logistical difficulties of dealing with such a massive crisis, I've seen very few Americans, even those who wish to defend the Bush administration, take this tack. For American citizens to be stranded in their own waste and filth and left with little or no food or water for days while the sick, the very young and the elderly die is simply unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances.

Karl Rove and the rest of the Republicans understand this, which is why they are working so hard to shift blame to the local (Democratic) authorities, or to the people of New Orleans themselves for not getting out of the city or not being civilized (white?) enough.

My natural inclination is to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially in a crisis situation, and I'm inclined to at least hear out the argument that the response we've seen is the best that could be done under the circumstances, but I've simply read too many stories of mismanagement by those involved, especially by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) - the people who are supposed to be the Tommy Lee Jones' of this situation - knowledgeable, experienced, in control and supplied with whatever resources it takes to get the job done.

When you look at the people who are in charge of FEMA, one would almost be surprised if they *were* able to do an effective job leading in a situation like this. The current chief, Michael Brown, was previously employed as the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, has little or no related experience to emergency management, and was forced out of his job as Arabian horse czar amid lawsuits and generally unflattering circumstances. Brown's main qualification seems to have been that he was a college roommate of the previous director. And Brown is not an isolated case. From the NY Daily News
:"The three top jobs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Bush went to political cronies with no apparent experience coping with catastrophes, the Daily News has learned.
Even if Bush were to fire embattled and suddenly invisible FEMA Director Michael Brown over his handling of Hurricane Katrina, the bureaucrat immediately below him is no disaster professional, either.

While Brown ran horse shows in his last private-sector job, FEMA's No. 2 man, deputy director and chief of staff Patrick Rhode, was an advance man for the Bush-Cheney campaign and White House. He also did short stints at the Commerce Department and Small Business Administration.

Rhode's biography posted on FEMA's Web site doesn't indicate he has any real experience in emergency response.

In addition, the agency's former third-ranking official, deputy chief of staff Scott Morris, was a PR expert who worked for Maverick Media, the Texas outfit that produced TV and radio spots for the Bush-Cheney campaign. In June, Morris moved to Florida to become FEMA's long-term recovery director."

and later,

"Government sources blame Bush's first FEMA director, Joe Allbaugh, with turning FEMA into a patronage shop.

He was chief of staff when Bush was Texas' governor and later headed the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign.

"He stacked the deck with political appointees," a knowledgeable source said of Allbaugh, who had a reputation for running an efficient FEMA operation until he left the job in March 2003."

Paul Krugman suggests that what is wrong is that you have a group of people (Bush and company) running the government who don't believe in the idea of government,
"I don't think this is a simple tale of incompetence. The reason the military wasn't rushed in to help along the Gulf Coast is, I believe, the same reason nothing was done to stop looting after the fall of Baghdad. Flood control was neglected for the same reason our troops in Iraq didn't get adequate armor.

At a fundamental level, I'd argue, our current leaders just aren't serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don't like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. And they never, ever ask for shared sacrifice."

Greg at Sinister Thoughts picks up the same theme saying,
"This is the same kind of anti-government governing so baldly on display during the Mike Harris years. If you don't believe that the organization you head has any business being in business, you can't provide effective leadership when the trouble starts."

But there is some disagreement that the Republicans have no interest in government. Says 'N', commenting in reply to Greg,
"In fact, I suspect Bush's desire for a bloated and corpulent federal government quite closely matches your own preferences. The only difference between Bush and you is that his religion (evangelical Christianity) and yours (Marxism) are spiritually incompatible. He thinks a massive federal government ought to stop Americans from smoking weed and buying porn. You think a massive federal government ought to stop Canadians from smoking cigarettes and buying health care."

The Canadian Cynic made a similar kind of point the other day, in reference to cuts to the budget of federal agencies which monitor the weather,
"But that's cool, since I'm assuming that all those soon-to-be homeless, impoverished, uninsured residents of the Gulf Coast can take solace in the fact that, no matter how bad off they are, gays still can't get married.

It's all good, then."

But I think that Billmon is more accurate when he corrects Krugman to say that it's not that the Republicans don't believe in government, and it's not that they believe in government as a moral enforcer, it's that they believe in government as a tool: a tool which they can use to further enrich themselves and find cushy well paying jobs for all their friends. A tool they can use to cut taxes and regulations on the companies they own stock in and serve on the boards of. Says Billmon,
"But after thinking about it, I realized Krugman got it wrong -- or at least partially wrong. This catastrophe isn't a product of the anti-government biases of the conservative true believers; it's a product of the uses to which government has been put by the Mayberry Machiavellis and their GOP ward heelers in Congress.

Even the legally blind can see the Rovians are serious about the essential functions of government. It's just that in their value system, funneling federal money to sympathetic interest groups while simultaneously redistributing the tax burden away from those same groups are the two essential functions of government.

Likewise, the Bush family is prepared to spend almost unlimited amounts of federal money on preventative measures -- that is, on efforts to prevent them from losing an election."

It would be a separate post in itself for me detail all the reasons why I agree with Billmon's assessment and why I see the current Republican party as governing purely for their own benefit and not for the average American, but for this post I'll just state that that is my opinion.

Now, corrupt, cronyist leaders who govern for themselves rather than for the people have a long and storied history, but they are typically backed up by military force which quells any dissent. In a democracy, you have to be a bit more creative. Things like covering up the corruption, coming down hard on whistle-blowers, trying to control what the media covers and how, sliming your opponents, preventing or at least controlling oversight all go without saying. When you've given up the primary moral reason for governing - to help the people - all the other morals fall quickly as well. But these tactics by themselves are not enough.

As I see it, the Republican party retains power through the use of two (primary) strategies which go beyond the standard corruption toolkit. The first of these is what generally goes by the name of 'the culture war(s)' and is what both 'N' and the Canadian Cynic were referring to.

The culture war is best described by Thomas Frank's, "What's the Matter With Kansas". It's a fascinating book with a lot of interesting details about present day and historical Kansas, but the core argument of the book is very simple. Republicans have taken advantage of populist resentment against the elites of society and against the coarsening of American culture to garner votes by telling people that the Democrats are a bunch of Volvo driving, latte drinking *liberals* who you wouldn't want to have dinner with because they'd be looking down on you the whole time and who are in bed with the Hollywood elite which is destroying family values across America.

But what's left out of the populist vs. elitist Republican mythology is the idea of money and that the difference between the elite and the common man is not that one drinks a latte and one drinks black coffee, but rather that one is rich and makes a living from their portfolio while the other is poor and makes a living from their own labour. And what is driving the coarsening of the culture is not Hollywood moguls who hate America but rather unrestrained capitalism always searching for another dollar. By taking economics out of the populist vs elitist equation, the Republicans get the common man to vote Republican as a statement against those elitist Democrats and the common man doesn't mind (or notice) when the Republicans focus their governing efforts not on reigning in the excesses of the elite or the rotten culture or anything like that, but rather on making the rich richer, making corporations richer and creating an even more cutthroat dog-eat-dog market where the race to the cultural bottom just gets faster.

In Frank's words,
"The corporate world - for reasons having a great deal to do with its corporateness - blankets the nation with a cultural style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert: sassy teens in Skeechers flout the Man; bigoted churchgoing moms don't tolerate their daughters' cool liberated friends; hipsters dressed in T-shirts reading "FCUK" snicker at suits who just don't get it. It's meant to be offensive, and Kansas is duly offended. The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge. Kansas gloats when celebrities say stupid things; it cheers when movie stars go to jail. And when two female rock stars share a lascivious kiss on national TV, Kansas goes haywire. Kansas scream for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes running to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those rock stars' taxes"

From this perspective, we can make a distinction between the two comments I referenced earlier which tied the hurricane to the culture war. 'N's comment buys into the idea that the Republican government is a government which is primarily concerned with moral issues. The Canadian Cynic's comment on the other hand, sees this posture for what it is, something to distract the voters from the fact that the Republican party is taking actions which are not in their interest.

The second, related strategy is a branding exercise in which the Republican party is repeatedly claimed (and proclaimed) to be the party of competence, the party of serious people (men) who will do what has to be done when there is a crisis. The people you would turn to when you really want help and you're no longer concerned about effeminate issues like affirmative action or civil rights. While those elitist latte-drinking Democrats just pussyfoot around and try not to offend anyone, the Republicans will do what it takes to got the job done. Just think of your average truck commercial and you'll get the idea.

The Republicans have a huge communications machinery set up to implement these two strategies and to get their message out and it works pretty well, as can be seen by the re-election of George Bush despite a record that looked to the rest of the world like an unredeemed litany of failure. But the fundamental weakness of branding and messaging and culture war distractions and everything we call 'spin' is that it is only effective at changing how people think, it doesn't have any direct impact on the physical world. So it is in situations which are, by their nature, intensely physical that the weakness of these strategies is revealed.

The first example of this, is of course the Iraq war. No matter if a body count isn't kept and dead bodies aren't shown on TV and every advance is hailed in loud voices while every setback is downplayed, over time people start to notice that was said would happen hasn't happened and that by the initiators own measures of success, the war effort has been a failure.

With Katrina, the events are more familiar and that much closer to home for Americans and it takes a lot less time for people to get upset. The Republicans will do everything they can to pin blame on the state or the city or the local inhabitants but all the blame shifting in the world couldn't help to get food, water or busses to the stranded people of New Orleans any faster. And while there were undoubtedly screwups at the local and state level, the federal government is the one which people expect to have the resources and the authority to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.

These physical problems don't touch directly on the culture wars, but they do serve as a powerful reminder that some things are more important making a statement against gays or Hollywood or latte-drinkers: Simply put, government matters.

Confronted with the unspinnable reality of a bloody insurgency or a natural disaster, what is revealed about the Republican party and the Federal Government it leads is unforgivable. Not that the Republicans are ideological or that they are corrupt, or that they support big government or small government, or that they focus too much or too little on moral issues - these things could be forgiven, or at the very least buried under a pile of spin. What's unforgivable is that - thanks to a lack of leadership, thanks to partisan appointments and thanks to misplaced priorities - the Republican-led federal government has become the government portrayed in Die Hard. In a word, incompetent. And the price for that incompetence is being paid in American lives both abroad and at home.

Combine the one thing Americans can't accept (the suffering and death of their fellow citizens) and the one reason for something happening they can never accept (incompetence) and something has to give.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


The name of this blog is intended as a metaphor, but if you're looking for a literal interpretation, B.C. ferries is probably your best bet. Which is my lead in to mentioning that I'm heading to Vancouver Island for a mini-vacation so blogging will be light / non-existent until next week.