Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

No Post Intended

An important question that occurred to me today: Why do writers deem it necessary to clarify that puns which occur naturally in their writing are unintentional?

Also, given that writers have full control over the words they use, and that the English language is flexible enough to allow pretty much any thought to be expressed without the use of a pun, does an assertion that a pun was unintended really make any sense? I mean, if it wasn't intended, why leave it in?

And what about puns which have no such disclaimer attached - how can a reader tell which ones were intentional and which ones were simply overlooked by the author? Given this uncertainty, wouldn't it make more sense for writers to specify which puns are intentional?

And what is so special about puns anyway? Is there any other similar construct which attracts the same treatment? Have you ever seen an author string together a few words starting with the same letter and then write '(no alliteration intended)'?

So many questions, yet I reap very few answers.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Fixed Elections

Er, Fixed Election Dates, that is. You know you've been blogging too long when, before you write about something, you have to google your own archives because you can't remember if you've written about this topic before and you don't want to contradict yourself (or at least, you want to acknowledge it if you do).

Anyway, I am pretty indifferent to the whole idea, and I don't have much to add to this excellent and clearly written essay by Don Desserud from the University of New Brunswick (via Vues D'ici).

Basically, it is easy to fix things so that a governing party can't stay in power past a certain point. For example, our constitution already specifies a 5 year limit.

It is more difficult, however, to keep the government from having an election before that point. If the government gets defeated on a confidence vote then you need to have a new election, because you can't have a government that lacks confidence (not in our system of responsible government, anyway). And if a party doesn't want to govern, you can't really make them. The best a law can do is make it clear that, barring something important happening, the government really should stick it out until their term is up. It's really more of a moral suasion kind of deal than anything fixed in stone.

In practical terms, we will likely trade endless speculation about when the PM will call an election for a longer period of election buildup - at least that's what will happen if we ever have a majority government in Ottawa again. A minority government seems like a strange time to introduce fixed election dates, at least from a policy perspective. From a political perspective, I guess, it makes perfect sense. Either way, it doesn't seem very important.

One thing I dug up in my archives while trying to avoid self-contradiction was this old CBC article from when Harper was made leader of the Conservative party. Under the heading 'Tories abandon Alliance planks', "Delegates also abandoned party platform planks that called for:
* Referendums on constitutional amendments and on issues of national importance.
* The creation of a citizens assembly to adopt proportional representation.
* Holding elections on fixed dates.
* Allowing members of Parliament to be recalled.

I wonder if they are going to backtrack on their backtracking on any of those other points.

The same article also noted that, "Delegates voted three-to-one on Saturday in favour of a policy that would see a Conservative government introduce legislation to enshrine the traditional definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman." I guess a year is a long time in Conservative policy-making.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Some Ado About Not Much

The title to this post being a warning that you may not find the subject matter very interesting.

Anyway, a while back I wrote a review of the book 'The Rebel Sell', co-authored by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. While generally favourable I did have a few criticisms, including this one of the author's contention that, "the desire for organic is a straightforward bit of yuppie competitive consumption,"

"The primary weakness of the consumption example (to me) is that, clearly not all 'counter-cultural' purchases are made in pursuit of distinction or status. Lots of people buy organic produce, not to feel morally superior or just to be different, but because they're willing to pay more to avoid the negative externalities caused by pesticides. If everyone started buying organic food and it started being sold by Kraft or whoever, most of the current organic food advocates would see this as a good thing - not as a sign that organic was no longer cool and that it was time to buy something else."

So when Andrew Potter, who has a blog, wrote a post the other day on this particular topic, I was curious to read it.

It doesn't start off very promisingly, with the following passage being somewhat puzzling:
"But when I've argued with journalists, interviewers and other critics, the one point they reluctantly accept is that organic produce is very expensive, and they need some way of either justifying it or mitigating it, in a way that is not so obviously offensive to the working classes. To my mind, the most obvious answer would be to propose organic food subsidies for the poor. No one has ever suggested this to me, for an obvious reason: If we start subsidizing organic food for the poor, organic produce will lose its capacity to create an invidious contrast with the masses. That is, it will no longer serve as a marker of status."

As anyone who knows me is aware, I like cheese. As anyone who has bought cheese knows, it is expensive. Even buying big blocks of mild cheddar, you can meet your caloric intake a lot cheaper with most other foods.

So imagine this passage:
"But when I've argued with journalists, interviewers and other critics, the one point they reluctantly accept is that cheese is very expensive, and they need some way of either justifying it or mitigating it, in a way that is not so obviously offensive to the working classes. To my mind, the most obvious answer would be to propose cheese subsidies for the poor. No one has ever suggested this to me, for an obvious reason: If we start subsidizing cheese for the poor, cheese will lose its capacity to create an invidious contrast with the masses. That is, it will no longer serve as a marker of status."

Now, you might say, that's totally different, if you like cheese, you have to buy cheese, but organic food is just like normal food only more expensive - but then we're begging the question aren't we.

More substantively, Potter returns to his main point, that organic purchases are purely status driven, by quoting a NY Times editorial:

"Even a couple of years ago, the thought of Wal-Mart selling organic food would have seemed unimaginable. The only question is whether it would have seemed unimaginably good or unimaginably bad. That question has now been thrust upon us by Wal-Mart's recent decision to start offering organic food at just 10 percent over the cost of conventional food.

There is no chance that Wal-Mart will be buying from small, local organic farmers. Instead, its market influence will speed up the rate at which organic farming comes to resemble conventional farming in scale, mechanization, processing and transportation. For many people, this is the very antithesis of what organic should be.

People who think seriously about food have come to realize that "local" is at least as important a word as "organic."

Potter takes this as conclusive proof that organic purchases are status driven, concluding his post with,
"Right. Which is just another way of saying that, for people who think seriously about consumerism, 'status' is as important a word as 'justice'."

But let's think about this, the NY Times piece introduces two new pieces of evidence to the question under consideration.

On the one hand, an editorialist for the NY Times doesn't want to buy organic food from Wal-Mart. On the other hand, the people who make product selection decisions for Wal-Mart, one of the world's most successful retailers, think that enough people will buy organic produce from them that it makes sense to stock organic food.

Who is right? I guess we will see, but my money's on Wal-Mart. At any rate it hardly seems like a definitive answer to the question.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that nobody will buy organic produce at Wal-Mart and the product launch will fail miserably (somewhat putting the lie to my assertion in my review that most organic buyers would be just as happy to buy Kraft Organic food at a low price as they are to buy organic food from some obscure label at a high price.

Potter assumes that people are either lying or mistaken about their motivation for buying organic produce because when Wal-Mart starts selling organic produce made by giant agri-business operations, organic food buyers now stipulate that buying local produce is important as well. In other words, he assumes they are lying in Case A because he assumes they are lying in Case B.

Under some circumstances, this can be a reasonable inference. For example, say I claimed that the reason I eat a lot of cheese is because I think calcium is an important part of the diet. And then when it was found (hypothetically) that you can't absorb calcium from cheese I stated that I eat a lot of cheese because it has a lot of Vitamin D - that would be pretty fishy.

On the other hand suppose that I stated that I watch hockey on CBC with the sound off because I find Jim Hughson annoying. Then, when they replaced Jim Hughson with Bob Cole, I changed my reason for watching hockey with the sound down to the fact that I found Bob Cole incoherent and incompetent. Nobody who watches hockey on CBC could doubt that this is a pretty plausible change in rationale.

So the question is, really, is how plausible is it that those who eat organic food because (to take just one reason) they are against pesticide use, also prefer to get their food from small scale local farms rather than giant agri-business companies? It seems pretty plausible to me, so the fact some people might not want to buy organic produce from giant agri-business firms provides very little evidence on the question of whether people eat organic food simply for the status it provides or for other reasons.

Getting back to reality, it seems quite obvious to me, just by doing a mental inventory of all the people I've known, that there is a mix of motivations for buying organic produce. In my experience there is certainly some element of status seeking in some cases, but this is small in comparison to those who prefer to buy from smaller local companies, and those concerned about agri-business farming methods in general, and those concerned about pesticide use. The majority I've known makes the decision based on taste, buying organic produce when the improved taste is enough to offset the increased price, and not buying when it doesn't.

Take this article for example, someone writes in complaining about the high cost of organic food. The columnist writes back explaining the lamentable fact that organic food is highly priced relative to non-organic food for a number of reasons. Do you suspect that the columnist is in reality only eating organic food because it's high price prevents people like the reader who wrote the question from being able to afford it?

I am puzzled why Potter remains so convinced that organic produce is pure status seeking, maybe he just happens to know a bunch of really shallow people? I mean, I certainly agree that many purchases involve status considerations, to varying degrees with different products (wine, is a particularly statusy example) and that there is a (small) element of this in organic food purchases. I just don't see the need to oversell this element, to the point of denying the existence of other motivations.

Potter starts his post by saying, "Of all the responses to the various arguments in The Rebel Sell, the most hysterical was the reaction to the short - and frankly, quite mild - comments we made regarding organic produce."

He then assumes that the motivation for the hysterical response is that, "There are a lot of people who have a vested interest in redescribing their status goods as virtuous." As far as I can tell, it has yet to occur to him that the reason for the 'hysterical' response is simply that he is wrong on this particular point and the intensity of people's reaction is proportional to their certainty on that point.

But hey, I'm just saying that because [insert assumption about my motivation here].

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Apparently (albeit unsurprisingly) this blog is a jinx, as the Petes reeled off 3 straight losses after I expressed my support. For the record, I have no comment or opinion on the Jays.

Less is More

Two recent examples (that less is more):

1) CalgaryGrit takes the measure of Ralph Klein's threat to 'pull out of equalization'.

Note: If you don't get the CalgaryGrit's joke, read this equalization primer from Vues d'ici

2. Robert sums up recent complaints about media bias.

Note: If you don't get Robert's joke, read this Wikipedia article.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Media Bias Stole My Lunch Money

As I noted back in this post, the McGill Observatory on Media and Public Policy has analyzed the newspaper coverage of the last two federal elections and, on both occasions, has found that the media has been most hostile towards the Liberals and most favourable towards the Conservatives.

Meanwhile, the most important event since the election of the Conservative government in January has been the budget. Here is how Warren Kinsella describes the media coverage of the budget in his column entitled, "Eating from Flaherty's hand"

"...a budget is a winner when a government's desired headlines match, exactly, with the media's actual headlines. In this case, they do. Big time."

Days before the budget's House of Commons debut, two really, really, really senior Conservatives -- not Stephen Harper, mind you, but that's the only hint you'll be getting -- were asked what they wanted to see in the media.

Said senior Conservative: "At the end of the day, we want the budget [headlines] to say: 'Tories deliver for the middle class,' or something like that."

And: "A focus on tax cuts. Focused spending. And an acknowledgement ... that the budget remains balanced, with debt pay-down."

That's what they wanted. And that, almost eerily, is what they got.


On balance, the Canadian media's uncritical reliance upon desired Conservative headlines -- to wit, "middle class," "tax cuts," "focused spending" and so on -- was widespread. While the budget may be fiscally unsound, or unpopular in the long term, it was -- without any doubt -- a massive media home run."

All of which brings us to today's headline: "Harper says he'll avoid national media because they're biased against him"

"The prime minister says the parliamentary press gallery seems to have decided to become the opposition to his Conservative administration. He told a London, Ont., TV station on Wednesday that he is having problems with reporters in the capital that a Liberal prime minister would never face. So Harper says he will take his message out on the road and deal with the less hostile local media."

First of all, the media as a whole is not, in fact, biased against the Conservatives.

Second of all, even if the media was biased against the Conservatives, that might seem logical given that the Harper government has gone out of its way to antagonize the media, going so far as to keep the time and location of meetings secret to make it impossible for the media to report on them, and demanding that the government be allowed to decide which reporters are allowed to ask questions.

Finally, even if the media was biased against the Conservatives - waaaaah! Grow up and take it like a man, don't run off and hide in some regional market.

I guess the real question is whether Harper is truly paranoid or whether this is some sort of political tactic. The other day Paul Wells dug up some old quotes showing how battles between the government and the media in Ottawa are nothing new. I wonder if he has anything along the lines of this latest outburst. In case not, Dave, over at The Galloping Beaver, provides a recent example, courtesy of George Bush, who made pretty much the same statement back in 2003. Hopefully the Conservatives will break away from the Bush media-handling playbook some time before he reaches the stage of threatening to imprison journalists who publish stories harmful to the administration. Err, I mean hopefully those sentiments will at least stay limited to Conservative backbenchers.

Anyway, Harper may be paranoid/playing games with his whining about media bias but that's not to say that the media is doing a good job. Once again I defer to Paul Wells who reprints some remarks he made a couple of years ago in which he laments the media's descent into covering trivial, rather than important matters. Not much has changed since then. Of course, some might say this post is guilty of the same thing. To which I reply, uh, good point, time to move on from this idiocy.

Climate Change Reading

A couple of articles on global warming that I found interesting. Gregg Easterbrook makes the case for why it makes sense for former skeptics to join the call for action.

And here is a post on Real Climate discussing the scientific accuracy of Al Gore's new move on climate change, 'An Inconvenient Truth'. As usual on Real Climate, there is lots of interesting stuff in the comments section as well.

Links via Andrew Sullivan


Via Azerbic, I hear that the National Post ran a prominent retraction and apology today.

Says Antonia,
"it's fair to say that the paper acted as swiftly as it could to rectify what was a serious error, one with potentially catastrophic consequences. It did much better than did the New York Times did, say, with its Judith Miller/WMDs horsedip."

Good for them. With luck (and vigilance), this story will end up having a different effect than those who promoted it initially hoped for. Rather than promoting a rush to war, it will cause us to look more skeptically at news reports which lead us down that path.

Also, What He Said

In case you hadn't heard, Andrew Coyne's on again-off again blog is on-again, for the moment at least. This column on Kyoto is a good example of why it's worth keeping an eye out for when his blog is being updated and reading what he has to say. Nobody in Canada makes the case for conservative policies more honestly, consistently, logically or forcefully than Coyne.

Hat-tip to Greg at Sinister Thoughts

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Getting Climate Change Appeasers to Eat Their Vegetables

Right wing folks often like to complain that they are living in a 'nanny-state'. So in order to get through to the right-wingers on the climate change issue, I thought I would take some of the arguments against the 'nanny-state' intrusion of government action to reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and frame them in the form of a nanny-child discourse (with the right-wingers taking their natural nanny-opposing role as children, of course). So the format for each point is: english version of argument, nanny-child version of argument and then english rebuttal of argument.

"Canada is such a small country, what we do doesn't make any difference."

"Don't litter Jimmy"
"What difference does it make, it's just one little piece of litter in a big park"
"Oh, good point, I hadn't thought of that, litter away!'

If you would react like the nanny in this example, then I guess you are logically consistent if you buy this argument.

It's worth noting that when it comes to GHG emissions, Canada is among the world leaders, not just on a per capita basis, but on a total volume basis. But more basically, I am just sad that I hear this kind of talk from the Minister of the Environment.

To begin with, how can we take seriously an argument that whether or not we should do something about climate change depends on where lines happen to be drawn on a map. Does it really make sense that the people of Washington State should address climate change but the people of B.C. shouldn't - because the people in Washington state happen to belong to a larger national entity than the people in B.C.?

Or what if, instead of the current distribution, the world was divided into 40 equally sized countries which all had the same GHG emissions. Would we still argue that Canada shouldn't do anything because it is too small? After all, that would be an argument that nobody should do anything. So in essence, this argument is making one of two claims: Either 1) Nobody should do anything about climate change or 2) The question of whether or not Canada should do anything depends on how the lines on the map outside of Canada are drawn. If they are drawn so that there are a bunch of equally sized countries we need to act, but if they are drawn so that a few countries have large populations we should just sit back and let those countries carry the ball.

What if the U.S. decided that dealing with climate change was a matter for individual states to deal with. Given that there are 50 states, each one is so small that it wouldn't be worth (by this logic) any of them doing anything about climate change.

This is the same argument that would justify stealing because a retailer won't miss one little piece of jewelry. It's not an argument an ethical person would make.

"Canada can't afford to do anything unless the U.S. does something too."

"But, Zora's parents don't give her a curfew. I'll never get a boyfriend with all your stupid rules."
"Oh, well in that case, come home whenever you like"

If I was a Republican, I would accuse people who make this argument of wanting to give a foreign country a veto over our national policy - but I'm not, so let's leave that aside. I do see a few flaws with this argument. One is that there is no way to know for certain that reducing our emissions will be an economic negative over the long term. It may be that by switching to renewable sources of energy and making more efficient use of energy putting money into research and development that our economy actually comes out stronger.

Another point is that much of Canada's emissions increases are related to production in the tar sands which is being undertaken largely to serve the U.S. market So to the extent that greater emission controls drive up the price of this fuel, it may actually benefit Canada at the expense of the U.S., much as the recent years increases in the price of oil have done.

But even if you were able to do all the calculations and came up with some economic disadvantage to Canada vs. the U.S. from taking action, I would still argue that we should go ahead. Because this issue has a moral dimension, and not just an economic one. The moral being that screwing up the climate is unethical. I wouldn't want to tell my grandchildren that the reason Canada took no action was because the U.S. took no action and we didn't want to fall a couple of points of GDP behind those free-loaders.

"Kyoto won't cut emissions enough to make a big difference so we should just do nothing instead."

"I'm going to fail this test no matter what I do, so why should I study?"
"Good point, let's watch Oprah"

If you failed out of college because you fooled yourself into thinking that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with sitting on your ass, rather than with a single step, you are being logically consistent by employing this argument. Expect the same results this time around. (If you failed out for some other reason, never mind)

Some other comments on this are that A) A little difference is better than no difference. B) Developed countries need to take action to bring the rest of the world on board, which will make a bigger difference and most of all C) Kyoto is just a beginning, but taking the first steps to reducing emissions will help us learn what works and what doesn't and provide a spur to the development of new products and processes which could lead to greater reductions down the road.

"It's not fair that developed countries didn't make any reduction commitments in the first round of Kyoto.

"How come I have to go to bed now but Billy can stay up later"
"Your brother is 5 years older than you are"
(pouting) "So?, I'm not going and you can't make me" (stamps foot)

Average per capita CO2 emissions in Canada are over 15 tons per capita. The global average in 2002 was about 4. So how can we say it is fair to fix this difference in stone because this is the way things happened to be when we realized the threat from climate change. It would seem that an equally, if not more, logically and morally valid approach would be to set one per capita limit for the whole globe and force the developed nations to drastically slash their emissions to get under it. While more fair, this is not really practical or optimal since the world will need the technological leadership and know-how of the developed countries to figure out ways to generate a high standard of living without increasing GHG emissions in the climate. Plus, given how many of us are too selfish to do anything at all, we need to start with something more realistic.

"If climate change is about saving the planet there is no room for any concerns about fairness" (aka: screw the poor countries of the world, I'm not giving up my SUV!)"

"How come I don't have to go to church when I'm sick, but it is so important that I go when I'm healthy? Either it is important that I go, or it isn't. I've gotcha there, Nanny!"

As we grow older, we generally realize that decisions often involve balancing off two or more things. While it may be important to go to church, it isn't so important that it is worth making an illness worse and spreading it to other people. Similarly, in the case of global climate change treaties, the two most important things to balance are the impacts of climate change themselves and fairness between countries which currently have very high GHG emission per capita and those with low emissions per capita. Attempting to freeze into place a system where people in the developed world can use 20 times as much energy as those in the poor world just isn't going to work and is a bad idea.

Logically, the goal would be for the world to gradually converge to a state where all people get (roughly, we could adjust for climate and the like) the same ability to emit GHG. Claims that, if we care about the climate, we can't care about equity or vice-versa are simply false dichotomies.

Then there are the partisan arguments:

"The Liberals did nothing and that was bad, therefore it is good the Conservatives are doing nothing."

"Mom, I want to shave the cat"
"But Lindsay did it"
"And we grounded her for that, didn't we?"
"So? That just proves that Lindsay is bad, I'm not like that"
"Good point, here's the razor"

Again, parents who follow the above part are allowed to use this argument. I don't really know what else to say about this one. How Conservatives manage to simultaneously claim that the Liberals were the font of all that is unholy and then day in and day out defend their policies by saying that the Liberals did the same thing is beyond me.

"Emissions went up while the Liberals were in power so none of their programs worked so we should cancel them all"

"Mom, I don't think the central heating is working"
"Why not"
"Well, I turned it on hours ago and it's still not as hot as it was back in the summer"
"Huh, I'll go check the furnace"

It is possible to take an action, have that action be effective but still have results not go your way because of other factors. Surely people can grasp that if other factors were driving up our emissions (oil sands, anyone), it is possible that some programs were reducing our emissions and that the increase would have been higher without them?

Imagine a company that brings in a number of new measures to increase sales only to find that overall sales dropped. Should this company just assume that all of its plans were not working, or should they investigate to see which areas/departments were responsible for the drop in sales and investigate the effectiveness of each program designed to increase sales? If you said the former and are in a position of responsibility at a public company, please advise me by email. I may need to sell a stock or two.

Next up, a personal favourite.

I support reducing emissions, I just don't like the Kyoto Accord"

"Mommy, I support eating vegetables, it's just these ones on my plate I wont eat"
"Did you have some other vegetable in mind that I could serve and you would eat?"

I've said it before, but I might as well say it again. The Kyoto Accord only mandates that we reduce emissions. It doesn't tell us how. That is, the whole idea of the Kyoto Accord is that we need to make a plan, here in Canada, to reduce emissions. At all costs, do not confuse this with "coming up with a 'Made-in-Canada' plan to deal with climate change". That is totally different. What are you, an idiot?

OK one last argument,

Instead of mandatory emissions targets, we should consider voluntary targets as an alternative.

"Eat those vegetables kiddo!"
"But I don't wanna!"
"Well, you have to, unless you have a better idea"
"I know, how about instead of you making me eat my vegetables, you set a target for how many vegetables you want me to eat"
"And then?"
"And then I ignore your target and do whatever I feel like. It will be a system of voluntary vegetable consumption targets"
"OK, kiddo, sounds good. I set a target of 10 carrots for you to eat"
"That's seems like a reasonable target, nanny, but I don't feel like it today. Can I go out and play now?"
"OK kiddo, but put some sunscreen on, it's hot out there!".

If you have suggestions for more points, feel free to chime in in the comments.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Vancouver Soccer Stadium, Tactical Information

As Bill commented on a previous post, Vancouver City Council is currently scheduled to vote on whether the proposed soccer stadium should proceed to a formal rezoning application on June 15.

So, if you want to ensure that the project clears this particular hurdle, I recommend contacting one of the 10 councillors or the Mayor himself. Bill has a pro-stadium advocacy website, which helpfully lists contact information for the councillors and some suggested writing points for any emails. As always, when contacting politicians, especially in support of something, I strongly suspect that you catch more flies with honey - i.e it pays to be polite, not to mention well-informed and to the point.

I think it is useful for the silent majority to make itself heard in order for the public interest to be served, so if you do support the stadium I recommend passing your thoughts on to at least one of our councillors sometime before June 15.

While I'm on the topic of soccer, congratulations to the national U-20 team for beating Brazil in a friendly the other day, Canada's first victory over Brazil in men's soccer at any age level.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Supermajorities and Gray Areas

This is an interesting article on the upcoming (May 21) independence referendum in Montenegro (my brief earlier on the referendum is here).

More specifically it talks about the implications of the supermajority 55% threshold which the EU set in order for the independence vote to be considered passed.

"While only a very decisive result either way is likely to settle the matter of Montenegro's status, though perhaps not once and for all, such a result looks unlikely. In fact, a result falling into what is now often called the 'gray zone' - showing a pro-independence majority, but one short of the required 55 percent - looks rather more likely, according to polls.

"The pro-union camp and their supporters in Belgrade argue that such a result would simply close the matter and ensure the survival of the state union, even though it is blatantly obvious that a union rejected by a majority, no matter how tiny, will stand a very slim chance of becoming stable and meaningful.

Officials of Montenegro's pro-independence government have suggested that a victory short of the required 55 percent would still be a victory for their cause, even though the terms of the special law under which the referendum is taking place clearly state that this would be a defeat, and one which the pro-union bloc would certainly seize upon.

The EU, which more or less imposed that law on the government, seems also focused on the gray zone, even though the union's special envoy for Montenegro's referendum, Miroslav Lajcak, has repeatedly stressed the law makes no reference to such an outcome. Lajcak has also said, though, that a majority for independence short of 55 percent would mean fresh negotiations between Podgorica and Belgrade on redefining the current state union."

"once it had to accept that a referendum would be held in Montenegro as well, it was unclear what Brussels wanted to achieve by raising the bar to 55 percent. If the goal was to furnish the new state with a clear democratic legitimacy, the EU may find next week that it raised the bar just a bit too high. If it wanted to preserve the state union by bending the rules to suit the pro-unionists, it may yet find out that it has, in fact, only created an official proof that most Montenegrins are against the current state union."

It is an interesting question of what it means when a majority votes for something, but the minority is declared the victor. In theory, it seems logical that a need for a supermajority would be consistent with the level of volatility in support for a particular proposition. This starts from the assumption that the only reason to require a supermajority is to prevent a significant change being made when, most of the time, the population is against that change. For example, a pro-independence movement could hold votes at odd intervals over an indefinite timespan hoping that at some point and under some circumstance, their vote total will exceed 50%.

If, on the other hand, we were to assume that support for some proposition was going to remain the same for the rest of time, I don't see much of a case for denying the majority view. For example, if we know that 53% of Quebecers will support independence for the rest of time, it seem undemocratic to me to insist that this majority must cede to a combination of a minority and historical circumstance.

Small 'c' conservatives might argue that the risk implicit in any kind of change requires a supermajority, but this doesn't really make sense to me. For one thing, what can be changed by referendum can be changed back by referendum. For another, it is inconsistent with small 'c' conservative support for an electoral system which a) transforms minority popular support for parties into a majority of seats and b) magnifies changes in popular opinion - but of these traits working against the preservation of the status quo. But more than anything, I just think that there is a distrust of the popular will implicit in denying the consistent will of the majority due to a belief that the majority does not understand the negative impact of the change it is voting for.

One of the reasons often given for a supermajority requirement, and indeed cited in the article I linked to, is that, "It would indeed look quite bad and would possibly be destabilizing if Montenegro's future status was decided by just a handful of votes." But of course, regardless of the threshold set, there will be a threshold and it will be possible for the vote to end up a few votes either side of that threshold.

For example, you may have noted that May 21 was this Sunday, so the vote in Montenegro is not actually upcoming, it is just past. Early reports
"An unofficial count of all ballots by a referendum monitoring group gave Yes forces 55.5 per cent of the vote - slightly above the 55 per cent minimum set by the European Union for the sovereignty vote to be recognized."


"But tensions rose when Predrag Bulatovic, leader of the anti-independence faction, said the rejoicing was premature and accused sovereignists of "tredding a very dangerous path."

"The result is only final when every vote has been counted," Bulatovic told a news conference, adding that a partial count conducted by his supporters put the Yes vote at 54 per cent and the No at 46 per cent."

Ironically, if the EU had set a 50% threshold, the outcome would not be in any doubt tonight. Anyway, I wish the people of Montenegro luck, no matter what happens.

Fruits and Votes has some commentary on the referendum as well.

Update: It appears to be confirmed that the independence vote has carried the day.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Hometown Blogging

Go Petes Go!

More Vancouver Soccer Stadium Information

Just a quick follow up to my previous post, to note that Darren Barefoot provides some interesting links regarding the proposed soccer stadium for the Vancouver waterfront.

As Darren mentions (and links to), this article at Beyond Robson does a good job deconstructing the arguments against the Stadium.

Some of those arguments which are deconstructed can be found in this article by Kevin Potvin which starts with the unpromising headline that the plan to build a soccer stadium above the railway tracks, "spells ethnic cleansing."

National Post is a Disgrace

Update (May 24): Follow-up post to this one is here.

As you may have heard, the National Post ran a front page cover story today on how Iran had introduced a law requiring religious minorities to wear coloured badges identifying their religious status. This is a very provocative claim, as such an action would be very reminiscent of Nazi Germany's actions towards the Jews and we all know where that led.

I'd link to the online version of the story, but the National Post has removed it from their website (for now you can see a copy of it here) Instead, they have this story, which basically admits that their first story was all lies, without actually apologizing at all.

As longtime readers know, I'm no fan of the National Post. But while I have come to expect slanted coverage from them, I never expected, and am in fact shocked, that they have declined to this level of unethical behavior and incompetence. Given the current political climate, the National Post knows that a story of this nature could make (at least make part of) the difference between war and peace, and as a result, life and death for many people. With so much on the line, with the huge prominence given the story on the front page of the paper, and with the point of fact in question being so (relatively) easy to verify, these lies from the National Post rank, in my view, as about as big a breach of trust and violation of the public interest as it is possible for a newspaper to make.

Frankly, I am disgusted.

And I'm not very impressed by Stephen Harper either:
"Prime Minister Stephen Harper was quick to condemn Iran on Friday for an anti-Semitic law that appears not to exist.

Harper seized on a newspaper report that said Iran's hardline government would require Jews and Christians to wear coloured labels in public.

The prime minister couldn't vouch for the accuracy of the newspaper report, but he added that Iran was capable of such actions and compared them to Nazi practices.

"Unfortunately, we've seen enough already from the Iranian regime to suggest that it is very capable of this kind of action," Harper said.

"We've seen a number of things from the Iranian regime that are along these lines . . .

"It boggles the mind that any regime on the face of the Earth would want to do anything that could remind people of Nazi Germany."

Maybe it's just me, but I'd prefer to have a national leader who doesn't go spouting off about how awful foreign countries are based on rumours. I know how I'd feel if some foreign newspaper ran a false story like that about Canada, and that country's leader said he didn't know whether it was true or not but it was the kind of Nazi-esque thing that Canada had shown itself capable of, and his mind was boggled that Canadians would want to act like a bunch of Nazis. And I'd damn well expect an apology once the story had been shown to be false.

The National Post needs to run a front page retraction and apology in the same font that they ran their initial story. Anything less will confirm that they place their right-wing pro-war agenda ahead of the truth and ahead of any semblance of journalistic ethics.

Credit to the Canadian Cynic (here and here), POGGE, and Liberal Catnip for following this story and providing links. My post title is also pretty much the same as Liberal Catnip's, but honestly, it is the only title that is appropriate in this situation.

Update: Antonia does a good job pulling all the pieces together on her blog here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Indirect Blogging

OK, It's been a slow week posting wise, mainly because I am lazy, but also partly because I've been writing lots of comments on other blogs rather than on my own.

In particular, Laura had an interesting post about overblown fears of the U.S. 'turning into Sweden' if it raises taxes at all, and mentioned in passing the idea of a tradeoff between equity and efficiency in an economy and how to measure it. And that passing mention, for some reason, provoked me into writing a long rambling comment about equity-efficiency tradeoffs in reply.

note: above paragraph modified from the original to be clearer
Meanwhile, in current events, can anyone explain this to me?

"Prime Minister Stephen Harper is scrapping the idea of a new public appointments commission after opposition MPs rejected his nominee to chair it.

"So what that tells us is that we won't be able to clean up the process in this minority Parliament. We'll obviously need a majority government to do that in the future," Harper said Tuesday."

So the commission would have been a good idea if Conservative partisan Gwyn Morgan had been the chair, but it is a bad idea if anyone else (that at least one of the opposition parties can agree to) is the chair? I mean, I'm not too concerned about the existence of the commission one way or the other, it's just the process I don't get. How does this make any sense?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Dismissed as Coincidence

Pogge digs up some hackery of the day which is so bad, you really should read it, just for a laugh - courtesy of an Edmonton Sun editorial.

Quote for the Day

Kevin, at Odd Thoughts:
"I could care less about adhereing to the Kyoto protocol. I only care about making real tangible reductions in CO2 emissions ( which oddly enough is the same thing )."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Green Party Leadership Race

As you may or may not have heard, the federal Green Party is having a leadership contest, which will coincide with their national convention on August 24-27 in Ottawa. The current leader, Jim Harris who has presided over a rapid expansion in the party's popular vote totals (from 0.8% in 2000 to 4.5% in 2006), is not running for-reelection.

Since I like to root for an underdog, think environmental concerns are not taken seriously enough at the federal level and like to provide a counter-weight to what I see as unbalanced coverage in the mainstream media (Liberal voters outnumbered Green voters roughly 6-1 in the last election - do you think media coverage of the leadership campaigns will reflect that ratio?), I thought I'd talk a little it about the Green campaign.

As of this moment there are two candidates: Elizabeth May, and David Chernushenko.

May's candidacy website is here, and the page on her bio is here.

Via the Trudeau foundation, here is a (somewhat) more succinct summary of her background:

Elizabeth May is an environmentalist, writer, activist and lawyer. She is a graduate of Dalhousie Law School and was admitted to the Bar in both Nova Scotia and Ontario. She has held the position of Associate General Council for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, representing consumer, poverty and environment groups in her work. In 1986, Elizabeth became Senior Policy Advisor to then federal Environment Minister, Tom McMillan.

Ms. May is the author of four books, Budworm Battles (1982), Paradise Won: The Struggle to Save South Moresby (1990), At the Cutting Edge: The Crisis in Canada's Forests (Key Porter Books, 1998) and, co-authored with Maude Barlow, Frederick Street; Life and Death on Canada's Love Canal (Harper Collins, 2000). Recipient of many awards and honours, she became in 1998 the first chair-holder of the 'Elizabeth May Chair in Women's Health and Environment' at Dalhousie University. She holds honourary doctorates from Mount Saint Vincent University and the University of New Brunswick.

Currently the Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada, Ms. May is a member of the board of directors of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, and a member of the advisory board to the Environmental Commissioner, Office of the Auditor General of Canada.

For more background, on May, try reading a blog she kept for a few weeks during the run-up to the last election and during the Climate Change Conference which took place late last year in Montreal.

Also try reading this guide on how to be an activist, written by May.

And of course, there is always Wikipedia.

The second candidate is David Chernushenko. Chernushenko's candidate website is here, and the bio is here.

From his bio:

"David Chernushenko is a Green Party Deputy Leader and recent federal candidate in the 2004 and 2006 elections. As Deputy Leader, he has given many speeches and media interviews on Green policies. David is the Climate Change Critic for the Green Party, and was a key contributor to the party's detailed platform documents on energy and climate change and on the topics of health promotion, fitness, and sport.

As a Green candidate, David ran groundbreaking campaigns in 2004 and 2006 in the hotly-contested riding of Ottawa Centre. In 2006, David received over 10% of the vote, won more votes than any other Green candidate, and received the endorsement of the Ottawa Citizen editorial board. He has developed a working relationship with many local and national public policymakers, and continues to build links between the Green Party and others producing detailed and practical policy prescriptions to make Canadians, our communities, and our economy truly healthy.

David's motto, "Live Lightly", is a goal that influences all aspects of his life. As the owner of Green & Gold Inc., David has advised public, private, and non-profit organizations on adopting more sustainable and socially responsible practices. He is a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Accredited Professional and an associate of Arborus Consulting, a green building and energy efficiency consultancy. David is a founder and former president of Clean Air Champions, a national clean air and active lifestyle advocacy group. He served on the International Olympic Committee's advisory Commission on Sport and the Environment from 1998-2005.

Fluently bilingual, David has published two books on sustainable development and is a frequent speaker locally, nationally, and internationally on how to promote healthier and more vibrant"
(link to vote totals added)

There is less information on Chernushenko available on the web, but for more background, try reading the Ottawa Citizen's endorsement of Chernushenko for the Ottawa Centre riding, this brief bit of correspondence might give some insight into Chernushenko's style, and again, there is Wikipedia.

As for my own opinion, I was asked recently what my thoughts were on the leadership race and, since I'm a lazy blogger, I figured I would just reproduce (in slightly edited form) my response to that question.

To be honest, I'm not really sure what to think - even though I've been thinking about the leadership race and the future of the Green Party and doing some background reading for a few days now.

It seems clear that both May and Chernushenko would make good candidates. I expect May to win the race, but that's an uneducated, non-insider opinion. It's hard to assess their positions on policy questions since we don't really know what those are at the moment.

I guess the question for voters in the next election (as always) is why should they vote Green rather than any other party. The two biggest camps are likely those who want a centrist option which is greener than the Liberals or Conservatives and those who want a more left wing version of the NDP. Nuclear power is an example of an issue that might fall along those fault lines, with 'hardcore' greens having zero tolerance for nuclear, while some people see it is a way to generate power without contributing to climate change. The same is true for large hydro projects.

Complicating matters, many people won't vote Green simply because the Greens are not on their radar screen, so raising the profile of the party will win votes as well.

Another reason people don't vote Green is because the local candidate is not as 'good' or as high profile as the other partys' candidates so being able to inspire and recruit strong candidates is another concern.

I guess, in a nutshell, there are 2 main concerns: party-building (higher profile, better candidates, solid finances, etc.) and policy-crafting - with the most pressing concern on this front being the age old question of how much the party is willing to compromise principles in order to seek more votes in the centre.

So yeah, I don't really have anything insightful to say. The real question is which candidate is most likely to do the best job on both fronts simultaneously which is really a question of personal judgement (which in turn is why leadership campaigns are so much about people as opposed to policy, which in turn is why I don't talk about them much - I'm not a people person!).

Anyway, given her track record, I suspect May will be the best leader for building the party. My only concern is whether she will be pragmatic/pro (or at least not-anti) business enough not to alienate centrist green types like myself, although it is a good sign that she gets along with Clinton.

From a purely strategic point of view, having a female leader will help the Green party differentiate itself from the 'old-boys club' which is the impression one gets seeing Layton, Duceppe, Harper & 50+ year old white male Liberal leader together.

Policy-wise, one way to unite the various Green factions might be for the party to focus on the long term rather than the short term across the board. With regard to environmental issues, this is the standard sustainability focus. On health issues, this mindset leads to a focus on prevention and healthy lifestyles. On fiscal issues it leads to debt repayment to ensure our future finances are healthier. It supports the notion of child care spending as an 'investment' in the future.
But it is still pretty early on in the race, so those opinions are even more subject to change than my opinions normally are.

For more early coverage of the race, try this in-depth article from View Magazine by Sarah Veale (found via 'Don't Leave Without Me') or try James Bow's post, or this post from 'I Didn't Get Where I am Today'.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What a Difference a Year Makes

May 10, 2006:

"The minority Conservative government has won approval in principle for its first budget in the House of Commons, with a helping hand from the separatist Bloc Quebecois. In a key confidence test today, the budget passed handily by a vote of 175 to 113. The Bloc support, announced before Finance Minister Jim Flaherty had even finished his budget speech last week, was more than enough to outweigh opposition from the Liberals and NDP."

June 28, 2005:

"Conservative Leader Stephen Harper says the government's same-sex legislation will make it through the House of Commons only because of support from the Bloc Quebecois, and that, says Harper, means the legislation "lacks legitimacy."

Monday, May 08, 2006

Lamest NIMBYism Ever

Update (May 22): Followup posts to this one are here and here.

Admittedly I'm biased because I'm a big soccer fan. But check out the arguments of the critics in this article on the proposed new soccer stadium down on the Waterfront in Vancouver:

"They say the stadium will ruin the heritage image of Gastown, and don't believe the project will benefit their community.

"This is a neighbourhood. We know one another, we meet one another," said Carol Sill of the Gastown Residents Association.

"A stadium like this, planned as it is, looks like it was just photo-shopped in. It doesn't relate to the area in any way."

John Stovell of the Gastown Neighbourhood Coalition said two other large sports facilities - B.C. Place and General Motors Place - are close by, and and have done little to boost local business.

"These stadiums have had very little positive impact. People tend to come to the stadium in a car, go into the stadium, buy a $75-hamburger, leave the stadium and go home."

Let me just clarify that the stadium is only mildly adjacent to, rather than in, Gastown, and that it will be built above the existing railway tracks. Apparently the air above the tracks is part of the heritage character of the neighbourhood. Once this heritage air is ruined, people in the neighbourhood will no longer know each other or talk to each other, even though it is also true that the stadium should be opposed because it will have no impact on the neighbourhood.

Most of all, the proposed stadium doesn't relate to the area at all - whatever that means. Maybe the CBC just did a poor job of articulating people's concerns, but people who oppose any change of any kind for any reason get on my nerves sometimes.

I'm not very organized but I'll have to see what kind of contribution I can make to conveying to the city that there are people in Vancouver (such as those in this online forum, which digresses into some history on the LA Dodgers) who think the stadium is a great idea.

Of course given that according to city plans... "After the Initial Review is complete, staff will report to City Council who will decide whether to proceed further with the planning for the project. If so, the proposal would be folded into the anticipated Waterfront Lands/Hub Structure Plan Study, followed by an Official Development Plan process and/or Rezoning process, as normal for such a major project." might be tricky to know exactly when public input is most effective.

I guess I missed the open houses but I'm pretty sure they're still taking public input of one kind of another for a good while before any shovels hit the ground or get packed away.


I'm getting really tired of having to enter in one of those 'word verification' things with the curly letters every time I try to do anything on the web. There must be some way I can get the computer to figure those out for me automatically...

Movin' On Up?

As Canadians, we sometimes take it for granted that on most 'quality of life' international comparisons, Canada ranks near the top.

But here (pdf - via Andrew Sullivan) is a ranking where we are mediocre at best. But don't worry, the Conservatives are on the case.

First we'll catch the former Communist states, then the repressive Central American & Caribbean regimes, then the Russians, and finally we will take on the king of jailers, the land of the free itself.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


I can't remember, but I'm pretty sure that at some point on this blog I commented on how one of the things which I find annoying about the 'right-wing' these days in North America, is an inability to distinguish being things which should be partisan, and things which shouldn't.

Something I haven't mentioned (at least as far as I can recall) is that analysis of the influence of blogs in the U.S. has often suggested that blogs generally only have an impact in alliance with other institutions, most notably, the media (newspapers, TV). On their own, blogs are unlikely to actually have much impact on the world, beyond, perhaps, influencing what/how people know and think about the issues.

Which brings me to something which James Koole, and a number of other bloggers, mentioned a while back, the politicization of the Government of Canada webpage, which, since the election, has become an extension of the Conservative Party site. Perhaps now that the Globe and Mail has picked up on this story, with a well-written article by Ivor Tossell, the Conservatives will be shamed into making the taxpayer funded website less of a marketing tool for one particular party.

A couple of other comments on the Globe article. Tossell is critical of how the old government of Canada site looked, but I kind of liked it. It had a consistent interface, it loaded quickly and it got to the point. On the plus side, the Tossell article actually contains links to (some of) the websites it discusses. Are we witnessing a breakthrough in online newspaperism - the apparently massive cultural shift to actually linking to things which are discussed in the online version of the paper?

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Celebrity-Industrial Complex

Here's a sad little story for late on a rainy Saturday. Quiet desperation indeed.

Via the Political Theory Daily Review.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Rhyme and Punishment

Apparently, the Conservatives have a new plan to ensure that, "serious crime will mean serious time."

That's a direct quote from our Justice Minister, Vic Toews - seriously.

I guess I hadn't realized we were being governed by rhyming catchphrase. But it's does help to make sense of things these days.

I expect Human Resources Minister Diane Finley to explain that the family allowance plan is not means tested because if you're "rich and with child - here's some money, go wild."

Environment Minister Rona Ambrose will soon tell us that there's, "No need to take care, no need to prepare, no need to be fair, it's all just hot air"

And Vic Toews will be back to announce a crackdown on marijuana use by noting that, "if you're stoned, you're boned."

This post is pretty superficial, but I've already explained that I don't think taking discretion away from judges will lead to better decisions so I don't see any need to comment further on the proposed increases to mandatory sentencing. I just think it's reflective of the balance between critical thought and populist posturing that has gone into this measure when the Minister responsible for it is explaining it in rhyme.

Well, At Least She Recycles

Let's play a game of quote comparison.

A: "The polar bear has become this year's most popular symbol of climate change. Like the panda, it's what's known as a charismatic megafauna -- a large, photogenic animal that people can relate to."

B: "The polar bear has become the new poster animal for environmentalists, and I can understand why. When it comes to "charismatic megafauna" - the term used by marketing experts at conservation groups - the bear is a giant improvement over the giant panda."


A: "The polar bear population has rebounded since the early 1990s, when -- thanks to the environmental movement -- tight new restrictions were imposed on hunting."

B: "In Canada, home to most of the world's polar bears, the population has risen by more than 20 percent in the past decade.

The chief reason for the rise is probably restrictions on hunting (for which conservationists deserve credit)."


A: "In Hudson Bay, for example, the polar ice pack failed to consolidate for the second year in a row. The bear population in western Hudson Bay has been declining."

B: "Although the bears seem to be hurting in some places, like the Hudson Bay region south of here..."


A: "Since then, they've survived both warmer times and colder times than these. As Dr. Taylor says, "They've been through this before." It's even possible that Arctic warming might benefit some bears by increasing their food supply."

B: "But the increase [in population] might also be related to the recent warming, which could be helping bears in some places. After all, the bears have thrived in warmer climates than today's. In the 1930's, the Arctic was as warm as it is now, and in the distant past it was even warmer."


The 'A' quotes are from Margaret Wente's May 4, 2006 column in the Globe and Mail. The 'B' quotes are from John Tierney's August 6, 2005 op-ed in the NY Times.

The nice thing about Canadian columnists recycling American columns is that Canadian bloggers can simply recycle American debunking of said columns. So reading this Media Matters critique of Tierney's column ('Tierney wrong on Arctic climate change and polar bears') should cover off Wente's column as well.

While I'm writing, Malcolm Gladwell had an interesting post on his blog the other day about the fine line between plagiarism and the common practice of re-using other people's ideas (with a followup a couple of days later).

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Budget 2006

So another year, another budget. The budget documents can be found here. The Star has decent coverage here. The detailed budget (big pdf) is here.

Note: all page references in this post are to the pdf of the full budget.

First some basic grounding: Canada's GDP this time last year was $1,369 billion. It is estimated that the GDP is currently $1,451 billion, a 6% increase, of which 3% percent was expanded economic activity, 2.9% was inflation and 0.1% was rounding error (figures from page 37).

So 1% of current GDP is roughly $14.5 billion.

Total federal tax revenue for this year is estimated at $221 billion, about 16.1% of GDP.

The federal debt is estimated at $486 billion, with interest payments on the debt costing roughly $34 billion/year at present.

Program spending is estimated at $179 billion, with almost half of that ($88 billion) being direct program expenses, and the rest made up of transfers to people ($53 billion) and transfers to other levels of government ($37 billion).

The next stage in setting-up the budget is the most painful for me. On page 156 there is a table showing what the status quo would look like (i.e. if we didn't have today's budget). Taking no action to cut taxes or increase spending, we would be looking at a surplus of $17.8 billion on 2006-7 and $19.4 billion the year after that.

Think about that for a second. Just by doing nothing for a couple of years, we could reduce the federal debt by $18 billion and then $19 billion. Recall that each $20 billion or so we remove from the debt saves us at least $1 billion each year in interest costs.

The actual budget is projecting surplusses of $3 billion for 2006-7 and the year after. So, in a nutshell, we know that the budget contains a combination of tax cuts and new spending which adds up to roughly $15 billion / year.

Unfortunately, relatively little of this $15 billion was directed to what I consider our highest priorities - in particular child poverty and global warming. Where is the money going?

Spending Summary for Significant Items
(Sorted in decreasing order of magnitude (item / cost in 2006-07 / cost in 2007-08):

Reduce GST to 6% / $3.5 / $5.2
Family Allowance ($1200/year for each kid under 7) / $1.6 / $2.3
Personal Income Tax Rate Lower Bracket Change1 / $1.7 / $1.3
Money for Farmers / $1.5 / $0.5
Basic Personal Amount Increase (reduction)1 / $1.1 / $0.5
Canada Employment Credit2 / $0.9 / $1.8
Infrastructure Spending / $0.4 / $0.9
Defense3 / $0.4 / $0.7
Federal Capital Tax3 / $0.8 / $0.2
Pension Income Credit / $0.4 / $0.4
Large Corporation Dividends / $0.4 / $0.3
Aboriginal Communities4 / $0.2 / $0.4
Immigration Fee Reduction & Increased Settlement Funds / $0.3 / $0.3
Pandemic Preparation / $0.2 / $0.3
Crimefighting / More Jails / $0.2 / $0.3
Transit Pass Deduction / $0.2 / $0.2
Border Security / $0.2 / $0.2
Apprenticeship Tax Credit / $0.2 / $0.2

1 The Liberals reduced the lowest tax bracket form 16% to 15% for 2006 in their November 2005 economic update in November 2005. The Conservatives have increased the rate back to 15.5%, starting at the midpoint of 2006. So it is a tax increase yet a cost in comparison to last year when the rate was 16%. It is a similar story with the basic personal exemption amount.

2The Canada Employment Credit, as far as I can tell, is pretty much equivalent to raising the basic personal exemption by $500 this year and $500 more the next year - the only (very slight) difference being that income which isn't from employment won't be eligible for the credit.

3 Not sure if the government is just considering possible purchases of new equipment as 'off-budget' because military equipment is a capital asset or if this means they aren't planning any equipment purchases for two years - anyone with more insight is welcome to comment.

4Not exactly the Kelowna Accord

There were a few other spending commitments mentioned (additional funding of up to $3.3 billion for provinces, contingent on the size of the 2005-06 surplus, up to $0.3 billion to fight disease in the developing world, up to $0.8 billion for affordable housing) but they sounded wishy-washy and I didn't see where they fit on the financial summary on page 23 so they're not on the list.

Speaking of lists, page 202 has a full list of taxation measures and their estimated cost. In addition to the above there is also the Jewellery tax reduction, tax breaks for small scale alcohol producers, tax breaks for fishing families handing down assets (like boats), extension of the mineral exploration tax credit (because mining companies really need a boost right now), tradespeople tool tax credit expansion, scholarship income tax exemption extension, swimming lessons for little Johnny (children's fitness) tax credit, less means testing and a slight expansion of the child disability benefit, increase to the refundable medical expense supplement, tax breaks for donations of securities or ecologically sensitive land to charity, removal of the corporate surtax, lower tax rate for small business and expansion of the definition of small business, reduction in the minimum tax on financial institutions, increases to the capital cost allowance for tools, and accelerated capital cost allowance for forestry bioenergy (a tax break for pulp and paper mills - one of two environmental measures in the budget, along with the transit tax deduction).

Needless to say, I was heartbroken when the tax credit for people named Declan was pulled out of the budget at the last minute, but you should check the fine print to see if any tax credits for having your name made it in.

One expense which isn't spelled out (ostensibly because it was included in the last budget, although it was never implemented) is the cost of reducing the corporate tax rate from 21% to 19%.

Also, the budget doesn't highlight where they have reduced spending, most notably by not renewing the child care agreements made by the Liberals withthe provinces and by cancelling programs related to combating climate change.

I have three main concerns with the budget:

1) The Conservatives are not taking global warming at all seriously. There is more money for compensating for one of the earliest impacts of global warming (for the Pine Beetle infestation in B.C.) than there is for any research, infrastructure, support for alternative fuels or anything really that could make a significant impact on our emissions. In fact, one of the few areas where spending was cut was the existing programs put in place by the Liberals. Those programs may or may not have been having an impact, but I'm guessing they were better than nothing. Like I said before, Polar Bears were overrated anyway, although they are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

2) The lost opportunity for significant debt reduction. It is simple, the status quo would have made a huge dent in our debt but instead the Conservatives chose big tax breaks which will probably most benefit the people who helped get us into this mess and should be solving most of it before they depart from the workforce for good.

3) Income inequality. The Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives had a good paper (pdf) a couple of weeks back which showed who benefited most from the Conservative's proposed tax cuts. Not surprisingly, the wealthy benefit most, both because they pay the most taxes (for example, the 5.3% of Canadians who make more than $150,000 year get 18.3% of the benefits from the reduced GST) and because many of the tax cuts are targetted more towards the wealthy (for example, the 5.4% of Canadians who make more than $150,000 get 64.4% of the gains from reducing the taxation of dividends).

On the flip side, the universal child care payment in which my tax dollars provide millionaire couples with $100/month to increase their 'choice' in child care is a case where money could have been targetted to those who need it most, but wasn't.

All told, the budget will work to increase inequality in the country, which is not an ideal outcome.

To be sure, there are things I like about the budget:

- I think that some tax relief was appropriate - just not that much and that scattered.
- Also, reverting to a two year budget plan (not 5 like last year) is a big improvement.
- Money for pandemic preparation is wise.
- There isn't too much new money for seniors, which is good policy at this point.
- Removal of the remaining 25% capital gain tax on donations of securities and ecologically sensitive land to charities makes a lot of sense.
- Increasing the taxes on alcohol and tobacco so that the total tax take is the same after the GST reduction makes sense as well.
- I was relieved to see that the planned spending reductions seem to have been trimmed to a more plausible figure
- And finally, there is no mention of the crazy promise in the Conservative platform to eliminate the capital gains tax on anything reinvested within 6 months.

There are probably other good ideas I've missed, after all, the budget is over 300 pages.

Some Random Comments:

- Those who worry about the high cost of frequent elections should take note of the following in page 158:
"Program expenses in 2005-06 are $1.5 billion lower relative to the November Update, primarily because a significant portion of planned spending that would normally have taken place under appropriation bills did not proceed this year due to the dissolution of Parliament in November."

- While the budget is always written to paint the current government in a flattering light, I found it was a little overly partisan at times this year, and somewhat lacking the disinterested profession tone of previous budgets. Furthermore, I noticed a number of Fraser Institute like ploys to try and mislead rather than inform with charts and tables. For example, the chart on page 171 comparing program expenses to GDP is carefully designed to start in 1999-2000 when program expenses were very low after being slashed dramatically in the 90's. That way the chart makes it look like there has been a big increase in spending when really spending levels are still lower than they were a little over a decade ago.

Or on page 12,
"This budget proposes comprehensive tax relief for individuals, valued at almost $20 billion over the next two years - more than the last four budgets combined."

Of course if you go back 5 budgets, that was a budget that brought in large multi-year tax cuts so this is some pretty transparent cherry-picking.

- I was surprised by the note on page 12 that any surplus beyond the planned $3 billion might be diverted to the CPP/QPP. Given that the CPP/QPP is considered actuarially sound (as noted by Dean and Bailey in the comments to my last post) I guess this would amount to current taxpayers paying extra to provide more benefits to later generations. Works for me, although I would think that just putting the money to the debt would accomplish the same thing more effectively.

- On page 14, "$1 billion to assist farmers in the transition to more effective
programming for farm income stabilization and disaster relief." Anyone know exactly what this means?

Final Thoughts:

There are some good ideas here, I appreciate that they kept things simple for the most part and there is little in the budget to cause serious offense, likely a reflection of the minority government situation and the relative ease of starting from projected $18 billion surplusses.

At root, the biggest problem I have with this budget is exemplified by a paragraph from page 12.
"As a result of these personal income tax and GST reductions, families earning between $15,000 and $30,000 a year will be better off by almost $300 in 2007. Families earning between $45,000 and $60,000 will save almost $650."

Two points - the first one is that they pointedly don't highlight how much a family making over $150,000 will save - probably because it is a figure which would dwarf the savings for lower income earners (although to be fair there is a more complete chart on page 67), reflecting the fact that this is a budget which will worsen inequality.

But more importantly, note the wording, "will be better off by almost $300."
In order to believe that someone will be better off by the entire amount that their tax bill has been reduced, one has to assume that taxes, once collected, simply disappear into thin air without providing any benefit to anyone. Maybe just a poor choice of words, but I think it goes deeper than that.

This Conservative budget, which lacks much imagination beyond simply taking the projected surplus and handing it back to Canadians via a huge uncoordinated stack of tax cuts, tax credits, tax exemptions and flat out handouts, perfectly reflects this Conservative belief that government can not be a force for good in this country.

Given that they have removed the margin for error that the Liberals typically built into the budget, I hope that the Conservatives have their economics correct. But beyond economics, they might want to brush up on their history as well. The history of this country has a lot of stories of Canada succeeding through collective action co-ordinated by government. But stories about how tax credits helped make the country great are a little harder to come up with.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Budget Day

So tomorrow (today for you 'Easterners') is budget day - it seems like just yesterday that the Liberals were laying out their 5 year plan. At the time I was worried that announcing 5 years worth of spending every year would lead to big spending increases over time, but the change of government short-circuited those concerns.

Before the budget is revealed, a reminder of the CAtO rules of budget analysis:

1) How much per year?
2) For how many years?
3) How much is new money?
4) Is the money allocated for sure or conditionally?

Anyone breathlessly referring to $X billion dollars for such and such - when the X billion is over 5 years and half the money was previously announced - will be mocked ruthlessly, or, in keeping with the gentle spirit here, with a small quantity of ruth.

You Probably Think This Post is About You, Don't You?

Roy MacGregor has a pretty funny column in the Globe and Mail today.

He starts by noting that there has been a lot of talk about the environment in the news and in magazines recently, and then speculates about why this may be,

"It may be facile and not exactly accurate, but it is a simple exercise1 to tie the political issues of the day to the dreaded baby boomer generation.

Families and suburbs, then protest and change; then came the 1970s and jobs, naturally, became the top issue of the day. The environment did rise in the later 1970s and into the 1980s, largely because of acid rain, but soon it receded again as this bull of a generation turned its attention to financial matters, from stocks to deficits. The boomers slid into their 50s and, no surprise, health care began its steady climb to the top of the issues chart, where it remains today.

That the environment might be coming back as a core issue could have many explanations. Some would be linked to health care. It may, however, have more to do with guilt, a generation finally starting to look back at what it has wrought.


If $70-a-barrel oil can make us think, finally, just imagine how much thinking we will be doing if it hits $100 a barrel.

It might finally be that the boomers are thinking less about "me, me, me" than usual."

Yes, the reason this latest trend is all about the boomers, our boomer columnist tells us, is because the boomers are not thinking only about themselves anymore. Hilarious.

Then MacGregor swiftly changes gears from subtle irony to black comedy:
"It is one thing for people to read that polar bears are not going to survive this weather shift, but quite another for ice fishermen on Lake Erie to find there was no ice to head out on this past winter."

First of all, doesn't this contradict the prior assertion that it's not just the usual me-me-me ism of the boomers at work?

But more importantly, who needs those overexposed bears anyway? - I won't miss them a bit. Their extinction won't affect any of my hobbies, so screw 'em.

Presumably Macgregor is right that some boomers are concerned about the environment for altruistic reasons. Presumably, he is also right that many people are motivated more by self-interest instead. But as the pending extinction of polar bears, lack of ice on Lake Erie and expensive gas are all mutely trying to get across to us, the reason the environment is an issue now is because we are facing big environmental problems.

MacGregor figures that this emerging concern for the environment may eventually make an impact:
"If the environment emerges as a top issue in the United States, it will re-emerge soon in Canada, as well.

And what this means for the Liberal leadership race is intriguing, for at the moment you can say only that the environment, as a core political issue, is rather asleep in this country.

It could, however, soon become the sleeper issue that, finally, forces the candidates to offer a vision that goes far, far beyond the December convention."

But then, (contrary to popular opinion), vision is rarely in short supply at leadership conventions. But where it is really needed is not so much in empty words, but in actual government legislation which makes a difference. So while MacGregor may be looking half a year in advance to the election of an opposition leader, I think for the moment I'll keep my focus on the current government and tomorrow's budget.

1 "It may be facile ... but it is a simple exercise"

Remedial French lessons for anyone who says that something is facile, but simple. 'She maintained her usual joie-de-vivre, but was feeling down and depressed. The morning dawned muggy, but cool, as the sun rose in the East - and West...'