Wednesday, 27 July 2016

My street - a film location - great! But.

Yesterday we received a notice that a TV commercial will be filmed on our street.  Tomorrow.  So don't even think about parking on our street on Thursday.

Well, I'm generally just fine with the fact that Vancouver is a frequent movie set. Dressing Vancouver up as though it was somewhere else provides all kinds of "I see Vancouver moments" when we're watching movies or TV.  Those downtown commutes that are disrupted by all the big white vans are a relatively small inconvenience, even though sometimes they are actually a six block, ten minute detour, with police cars, roadblocks and all the accoutrements of major security incidents.

I'm sure that the revenues from all this activity are a big boost to someone, especially, of course, all the people who work in the industry.

But less than 48 hours notice of the fact that access to our home will be seriously disrupted feels more like an imposition than a benefit.

Luckily for us, it won't be that much of an imposition.  We have no plans for Thursday.  But what if, say, we had been planning a wake for a deceased relative?  Or a wedding reception party, planned months and months ago, where dozens and dozens of people driving here from everywhere were expecting to show up at our door, maybe dropping grandma off just in front of the house and parking elsewhere?  Or maybe we were planning to move a lot of furniture? And, I have to say this, because ours is a narrow street, will there be room for an ambulance if one is called?

I hate to be grumpy.  Really I do.  Mine is actually a sunny disposition. But this notice presumes that we are doing nothing in our lives, that we simply wait at home desperately hoping for the opportunity to put our neighbourhood at someone else's service.  At 48 hours notice.

One of my near neighbours is probably pretty happy, given the daily rates these companies pay to film in your living room.

For the rest of us, we get the chance to hope that someday we'll see ourselves on TV.

Am I saying all this should stop?  No.  But 48 hours notice is nothing short of arrogant and rude.  And something more tangible than a notice left on our doorstep would make a big difference.  How about, say, a nice plate of chocolate chip cookies?  I can forgive almost anything if it comes with a nice place of chocolate chip cookies.


Monday, 25 July 2016

Fun factoid from Jane Mayer's "Dark Money"

Sitting here tonight watching the first night of the Democratic National Convention I am moved to remind myself of this little gem from Jane Mayer's book, Dark Money, which, as the subtitle says, is "The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right."

It's about the Kochs, especially, two brothers who have spent untold millions trying to influence American politics in so many ways because they are so opposed to government full stop.

Folks of the hard right are always singing the doom song.  Any more government from those dreaded liberals - those people who think that government is actually capable of some good - and we will all go to hell in a hand basket.

Except.

Except.

Here's the factoid.

from pp 377-78:

"Despite their predictions that Obama would prove catastrophic to the American economy, Charles's and David"s [Koch's] personal fortunes ... nearly tripled during his presidency, from $14 billion apiece in March 2009 to $41.6 billion each in March 2015, according to Forbes."

Those poor Kochs!  Those poor conservatives!  Those poor Republicans!  Barely getting by.  Having trouble making the mortgage payments.  Probably on the brink of impoverishment.  Eating second rate caviar.  Having a hard time even breathing because of the heavy weight of government on their necks.  So thoroughly strangled and held back by the oppressive weight of a Democratic president.  Except.  Not.

It's always like that.  The rich always figure out how to get by.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The vacancy tax that won't work

The Globe and Mail published this piece I wrote in their Monday July 25 edition.
British Columbia’s MLAs are returning to Victoria on Monday for a mid-summer legislative session to deal with changes to the Vancouver Charter intended to allow the city to impose a special “empty housing” tax.
I was struck by a comment made a few days ago by West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith, who thinks a better approach to the issue would be to levy an additional tax on non-resident owners. He’s quoted as saying, “I pay a non-resident tax rate in Hawaii because I own a house there. It’s a much more logical way to go than a vacancy tax because, first of all, how do you enforce it and everyone has a different definition of vacant.”
For anyone that repressed a grin thinking that only a mayor of West Vancouver would be happy talking about his house in Hawaii, there’s a much more serious point that his observation completely misses. It’s a point invariably avoided by nearly everyone who discusses housing issues.
In Hawaii, as in the rest of the United States, there is no principal residence exemption for capital gains on the sale of your house. Everyone, resident and non-resident alike, pays capital gains taxes on the increase in value in their house when it is sold. Creating a two-tier system of taxes thus becomes a way of providing at least some comparative tax advantage to resident homeowners.
In Canada, of course, you pay no capital gains tax on your house, provided it is your principal residence. If you own property here but don’t live in it, you are taxable on the full amount of the increase in its value when you sell it. That’s true even if you live in it part-time, as long, of course, as you have a principal residence somewhere else.
This is a massive tax benefit for resident homeowners. In some parts of Vancouver, houses are being sold for literally 10 times what they were purchased for decades ago. All of that gain is tax-free if the house is your principal residence. But if you have purchased the property for an investment, if you’ve flipped it, or if you are planning to subdivide it and sell it off, it’s all taxable.
In other words, we already have a very significant two-tier taxation system for residential property.
Indeed, there is another such scheme, the Home Owner Grant, which reduces the amount of property taxes you pay each year on your principal residence. Admittedly, the grant doesn’t offer much value any more in Vancouver because the ceiling on eligibility has not kept up with the rising values of real estate in Vancouver.
But in other parts of the province, the grant is a very efficient way of distinguishing between houses that are lived in by their owners and houses that are owned by investors.
So there are at least two mechanisms already in place for distinguishing between resident homeowners and property investors. Do we need a third?
The proposed tax on vacant houses is partly about the apparent growth in non-resident investor-owners, and also about the shortage of rental property in the city. Rarely, in the long history of housing policy, has a tool been conceived that is more poorly designed to increase the stock of rental accommodation than the vacancy tax.
There are at least two fundamental problems with it. One, the definition of vacancy, whatever it is, will be arbitrary. How long does a property have to be uninhabited to be “vacant”? A week, a month, a year? No matter where you draw the line, it will be arbitrary.
In fact, there are lots of reasons why a house might be empty for many months, and many of them will have nothing to do with investors sitting on capital assets. What about the family that bought a house intending to move here because of a job transfer, but the transfer has been put on hold and the family decides to hang on to the house for a while to see if things change? It’s not hard to imagine dozens of such scenarios: Mom’s just been put in a care home, but there’s some chance she might recover and wouldn’t it be great if we could make arrangements to care for her in her house? And in such a situation, why would it make any sense at all to force the family to rent her house?
Of course, some properties are being left vacant because that is a rational investment decision by their owners. I’m not for a moment pretending that’s not happening. But I can tell you this from long experience overseeing public-policy administration: Every exemption proposed to try to limit or narrow the focus of the tax in a way that targets the “pure” investor will turn into a loophole and magnify problems of enforcement.
The second fundamental problem is that it will be an exercise in impossible magicianship to determine the right amount of the extra tax. Why? Because if it’s not high enough, it won’t deter vacancy or produce any significant revenue, and so will do nothing to help Vancouver achieve its goal of funding additional affordable housing. And if it’s too high, it will simply – and instantly – give an incentive for avoidance. Experts will spring up overnight to advise you on how to make it appear that your house is being lived in.
If I were an MLA, I’d be more than a little grumpy about taking time away from the summer barbecue circuit to debate a tax that is neither necessary nor enforceable, and will do nothing to address the problem it is intended to solve.

Monday, 11 July 2016

I'm Right and You're (Not) an Idiot - a review of James Hoggan's wonderful new book


Jim Hoggan’s new book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot is a tonic for our times.

Increasingly, our public debates are dominated by a superabundance of invective.  Sometimes it seems that ad hominem attacks have all but completely taken the place of reasoned discourse.  This is of course most evident in that part of our communicating world called “social” media – where, all too often, the “communication” is profoundly anti-social.  On rare occasions when I have been privileged to participate in the discussion of public issues, I always tell everyone I know to, “please read my essay but for god’s sake don’t read the comments”. There be dragons.  But of course, I’m not just talking about Internet trolls: witness, most dramatically, the preferred form of discourse of the presumptive Republican nominee for US President, whose stock in trade is not his mastery of the issues, but his seemingly infinite capacity for personal insult.

Hoggan, a highly regarded public relations consultant, has decades of experience in helping clients navigate the public sphere; he’s also personally contributed to our community through his service and leadership for organizations as diverse as the David Suzuki Foundation and the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education.  This book is another - invaluable - contribution to the welfare of our community.  As the issues we confront grow steadily more complex, we are going to have to find a way to stop shouting at each other if we have are to have any hope of successfully addressing those issues.  Hoggan’s book is a much-needed guidebook for how to repair our public square.

I’m Right and You’re an Idiot is Hoggan’s response to a question once asked of him by David Suzuki, who was having trouble understanding why, faced with overwhelming evidence of human-caused climate change, the public seemed hardly to be paying attention, let alone demanding action.  Hoggan decided that the best way to answer that question was to interview a range of experts – people as diversely qualified as Jonathan Haidt, Peter Senge, and Karen Armstrong.  The main part of this book is a tour through those conversations, and the various insights of everyone with whom he talked.  It’s quite a collection of conversations – too many to summarize fairly here, but it culminates, finally, in Jim’s own insights, in particular, the conclusions he draws in a section entitled “From the Heart”, where the essence of the book is compressed into one marvelous statement by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh: “Speak the truth but not to punish.”  Or, to use another term Hoggan offers in his concluding observations, what’s needed is the responsibility to “learn to use speech for its highest purpose – moral discourse.”

For my part, the book’s best passages are those where Hoggan personalizes his own response to what he has learned through dialogue with his interviewees.  It’s not easy to distill the essence of the thinking of such scholars as George Lakoff and Marshall Ganz into a report of a single meeting or interview; in many cases, Hoggan’s report of the conversation serves best as an invitation to dig more deeply into those writers’ work.  But there’s a continuing, over-arching theme that links his discussions, and Hoggan’s own insights are rich and thought-provoking, in the best sense of that term.  The first step in fixing any problem is to understand it.  Our task now that Hoggan has so expertly diagnosed our “polluted public square” is to find a way to put his marvelous insights into action.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

A Sunday summer day in Howe Sound


Sunday afternoon, the first weekend in June.  It’s a glorious day, more like summer than spring. We are paddling kayaks in Howe Sound, surrounded by ocean, mountains and islands, and counting seals and eagles.
We are not alone.  In the waters around us others are enjoying the beautiful blue sky day.  There are motor boats filled with families fishing, picnicking and water-skiing.  Off in the distance other boaters are travelling to and from their cottages.  Water scooters zoom noisily back and forth. From the mainland across from us, we hear the roar of traffic on the Sea to Sky highway – folks coming home from a weekend of hiking or mountain biking at Whistler, and motorcycle riders making the long day’s circle trip up the Duffy Lake Road.  High overhead, seaplanes filled with sightseers circle around the scenery.
It’s a busy day in Howe Sound.  Everyone’s finding their soul space, doing the things that give them pleasure, and enrich their lives.  It’s at the heart of why we love this province, and why we live here in coastal BC.  And it is all completely and utterly dependent upon fossil fuels.  
Without carbon products, the only sounds in Howe Sound would be waves lapping on rocky shores and the beat of seagull wings.
Strung out along the mountainside just across from where we are paddling is the community of Lions Bay.  It was once home to a few waterfront cottages.  Now it’s a community of over 1300 people.  Made possible by, and utterly dependent upon, our car culture.  As a place to live, it fails every walkability score ever devised.  Yes, there’s a community school, but it stops at grade 3.  There’s a village hall.  There’s a small general store that serves great cinnamon buns, and a real estate office, and a marina, but that’s about it.  Everyone who lives in Lions Bay does their shopping somewhere else, a bus ride or, far more likely, a car drive away.  They would all be helpless without carbon fuels.
The same is true for all of us who live or play in Howe Sound and its islands.  There’s Bowen Island, increasingly populated by folks who commute daily by ferry and water taxi to Vancouver.  There’s Gambier and Keats and Anvil Islands, with cottages and boat docks lining their shores.  It’s motor cars and motor boats that make it all possible.  And the chain saws that clear our views, and the generators that operate our water pumps, and the ferries and the water taxis that deliver us to our destinations.  And yes, of course, even the plastic kayaks in which we are paddling.
There’s a breath-taking gap between the promise we have made to reduce our carbon output and the reality of our lives.  
I feel this all the more acutely because I know that some of those boating or driving around on this lovely Sunday afternoon will spend their Sunday evening writing letters to the editor insisting that we keep the LNG vessels and oil tankers away from our precious waters.  LIke them, I believe that Howe Sound is a special place, and I am glad it is cleaner today than it was a generation or two ago.  I certainly don’t want to turn back that clock.  But I also don’t want to live in denial - to pretend - or even simply just ignore - the reality that without carbon none of us could live or play in these waters. 
But what about the orcas?  Yes, there are the orcas that, for the first time in my life, are swimming in Howe Sound.  Those orcas.  They are beautiful, majestic creatures.  I always know when there’s a sighting. That's because I can see the train of motor boats following behind and surrounding them. 
The problem, I think, is not that we aren’t superficially sincere in wanting a better, cleaner, sustainable environment.  It’s that we assume that all that heavy lifting is going to be done by someone else, somewhere else, some other day, while we continue to live and enjoy our carbon-dependent lives to their fullest.  As if, somehow, we will have done our part for the environment if we insist that the pipelines and tankers go somewhere else.  But please make sure I can still afford the gas I need for my boat or car!

Canada has signed on for ambitious carbon reduction targets.  As the Canada West Foundation recently pointed out, the amount of the reduction required by the year 2030 is equivalent to the elimination of all GHG emissions from Ontario, Atlantic Canada, Manitoba and the Territories. Completely shutting down the oil sands would only get us partway there.  The reductions in carbon activity required to achieve this target are nothing short of transformational.  Are we actually ready for that change?  As I look around at the busy waters of Howe Sound on this lovely day I don’t think we have even begun to turn our minds to the magnitude of the task.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Other Americas

I began my Sunday morning as a good citizen of the world, by deciding to catch up on the week in US presidential election.  Pretty soon, I was back in the slough of despond.  The thing is, there is an America that is not the grotesque caricature that is dominating its politics just now.  At times like this I just need to make a special effort to remind myself of it.  
So I jammed the earbuds in and went for a walk on the windy beach.  Richard Shindell began singing Wisteria: “The vine of my memory is blooming along those eaves.”  Soon enough, I felt a bit better.
***
It is a cold October night and my friend Sam Morse and I are camped on Tumbledown Mountain in Maine, which is not so much a mountain as a long ridge of ancient granite that looms over the miles of forests and farms of northern New England.  We have a campfire going, and we are working our way with some deliberateness through a bottle of Jack Daniels, solving the last few remaining puzzles in the mystery that is the universe.  It’s a dark starlit night. Just when I am starting to think it is time to crawl into the sleeping bag, a car pulls up, filled with teenage boys.  They ask if they are on the right road to Mexico.  I start to laugh.  Sam, who knows the backroads of Maine, asks, “Where are you boys from?”  They reply, “Paris”. I laugh again. Sam looks at me as though I am the completest idiot ever to set foot on earth.  He turns back to the boys in the car and says, “I’m afraid you’ve overshot Mexico.”  And then he proceeds to tell them how to get back to the right road.  It turns out there’s more than one way to get to Mexico from Paris, in Maine.  In that other America.
***
It is a summer afternoon in the early 1990s, and we are sitting in Fenway Park, in Boston, in a row of seats halfway up the stands behind home plate.  The Blue Jays are playing the Red Sox.  It’s a sunny, muggy day. We catch bags of peanuts from the vendor and make a mess of shells at our feet.  We watch as pitchers and batters duel, fielders make spectacular catches, and there is a collective intake of breath with every long ball that arcs towards the Green Monster.  We feel like we are sitting in the nave of a cathedral built to honour the soul of a nation. On the row beside us sit two men who have probably been watching Red Sox games at Fenway Park for over half a century.  They see an opportunity for education.  And so for the whole of that long, deliciously slow August afternoon, they generously regale us with stories of their team, its players and managers, its successes and heartbreaks.  They fill our heads with statistics of unsurpassing obscurity, which they disagree about vigorously. They tell us what to watch for with every batter, and call every pitch before it is thrown. All is said with what can only be described as wise-cracking reverence, as though there could be nothing more important in this world than to know every fact about the life and career of Carl Yastrzemski, the greatest Red Sox player of them all.
***
There’s a room in Washington D.C. in an art gallery called the Phillips Collection which holds four paintings by Mark Rothko.  We were there last December. Its mid-20th century construction marked the first time an entire room had been created specifically for Rothko’s work.  It’s not a large room; and it is dominated by the paintings, abstract expressionist works that are fields and bands of colour.  When you enter the room, you are literally immersed in Rothko’s vision.  It’s deceptively simple: colours and shapes on four canvases; purely abstract.  But if you take a slow breath, and let it wash over you, you start to realize that the paintings are somehow humming; as though they are alive. And then you realize that you are not just looking at something, you are feeling it. You’re buzzing, elevated by an emotion that’s almost impossible to explain.  It’s glorious to be in the presence of such achievement. 
***
There is a book by the American photographer Robert Adams called Prayers in an American Church.  It’s a small book, a collection of a dozen or so photographs, accompanied by meditative words from diverse sources.  The church in the title is not a building; it’s the natural world, whose beauty is honoured in the photographs.  Not the grandeur of mountains and canyons, but the simpler beauty of sun-dappled tree branches and leaves, and the peace of quiet places.  Robert Adams’ images are austere.  He captures the intersection of humans and the landscape of western America. It might be a treeless suburban housing tract on the outskirts of Denver.  Or a scarred clearcut hillside in Oregon. Or a woman pushing a shopping cart in a grocery store.  Or the line of the prairie horizon broken by a single tree.  Or a lonely road. He is determined to find beauty in all these places, and, against the odds, he does. 
***
When I want to think of that other America, I think of Dar Williams, whose early songs were, for a time, the soundtrack of our life as a family.  When I Was a Boy was a kind of anthem for our belief as parents that our children could grow up on their own terms, unconstrained by the limiting stereotypes of mass consumer culture.  The Christians and the Pagans is a generous and funny hymn to the possibility that we can get along, despite our differences, as long as we can find a way to eat together.  The Babysitter’s Here is a short story about love, growing up, and everything else, sung in about four perfect minutes.  She still makes amazing music. 
*** 
One summer a decade ago, we rented a car in Las Vegas and began a road trip by heading towards southern Utah and its breathtakingly beautiful red sandstone natural monuments. On our first night we stopped in a town called Springdale, which is on the doorstep of the majesty of Zion National Park.  We try to be respectful travellers.  We had read that Mormon traditions were strong in southern Utah.  We were prepared, then, for a few days of righteous, stoic, alcohol-free travel. But on our first night, we sat down at the table of our restaurant and read a menu that suggested we might like a glass of Polygamy Porter.  Why?  Because, as they said, “you can’t have just one.” It’s hard not to love a country that can make fun of itself.  And while I am at it, I think, too, of Las Vegas, all of it, because, as I said, it’s hard not to love a country that can make fun of itself.
***
When I think of America, I think of Aaron Copland, and that moment early in the first movement of Appalachian Spring when the orchestra comes alive and I always jump from my seat. And Bob Dylan, because, well, because everything.  Even if “it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” And Edward Hopper’s paintings.  And Emily Dickinson: "Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.”
And I think of lightbulbs, Linus Pauling, the Hardy Boys, Huckleberry Finn, Rosa Parks, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, Walter Cronkite, e e cummings, Rebecca Solnit, and that moment when, after screaming in terror all the way down the Matterhorn at Disneyland, our daughter turned to us and breathlessly said, “Can we do that again?” 

And my favourite sentence in the English language. “So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.”

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Happy Earth Day, British Columbia

The Globe and Mail published this piece online tonight.  I've read some of the comments, which, really, no one should do, who wants to maintain any faith in humanity.  But the hilarious thing is that no one (so far) seems to have read what I've actually written. They've read the headline and that's about it.  Maybe I shouldn't be surprised?  Anyway, here we go.  



Happy Earth Day. Earth Day can be a day to honour the precious gift that is our planet. Often, however, it is also an occasion to lament, or at least feel guilty about, the way we use it.

There’s reason enough to lament. But I would suggest there is another perspective, that there is also, sometimes, a reason to celebrate. In British Columbia today, we actually have an enviable environmental record to celebrate on Earth Day.

A recent report by Corporate Knights confirmed that no jurisdiction in Canada protects more land than British Columbia. There are 1,029 protected areas managed provincially. As of last June, over 15 per cent of British Columbia’s land base, or nearly 14.3 million hectares, was dedicated to protected area status. That’s 2.2 hectares per resident. It’s a remarkable achievement.

And the story gets better. Earlier this year, after years of conflict and negotiation, the Great Bear Rainforest on the central coast was fully and properly protected.

The agreement now in place permanently protects 85 per cent of the old-growth forested area in this enormous and remote part of British Columbia from industrial logging, while allowing restricted logging on the balance. That’s over 5.4 million hectares of additional protection, an area nearly the size of Nova Scotia.

For once, I don’t have to go out on a limb to agree with the Greenpeace spokesman who stated: “From conflict to collaboration, we now celebrate the protection of areas of cultural and ecological importance while ensuring economic opportunities for the communities exist long into the future.”

This achievement is especially important because our forestry, energy and mining resources will continue to drive the growth and stability of our economy.

The reality for our province – and for Canada – is that our prosperity is founded on resource development. That’s not to say we should not diversify our economy; we have done so and should continue to do so. But it’s resource development that built our province, and responsible, sustainable resource development will be a cornerstone of our economy for generations to come.

That makes it all the more important to find the right balance between land development and land protection.

That’s why for the past couple of years, I’ve been involved with a group in Vancouver that is sparking an informed conversation about these issues. Resource Works, a non-profit society with representation from all sectors and corners of the province, works to raise awareness of the importance of our resource economy to our standard of living in British Columbia.

Too often in this province, we hear a discourse that presumes we can somehow maintain our quality of life by leaping immediately to some postresource economy. It won’t happen. And it shouldn’t happen. For as long as we continue to drive cars, take buses or ride bicycles; use smartphones, tablets or computers; expect our streets to be safely lit at night; boil water for coffee or tea; expect our homes to be warm in winter; build and live in houses; catch fish; eat fruits and vegetables in winter – in short, for as long as we continue to do everything that is indispensable to our quality of life, we will make demands on the planet. It’s simply not credible to pretend or suggest otherwise.

Somehow, we need to hold two thoughts in our minds at the same time: the need for access to sufficient resources to sustain our quality of life and ensuring that we respect the planet. Neither side holds a monopoly on truth in this debate. There is no point or purpose in trying to out-shriek each other. The task, again, is to find the balance.

But I’m not suggesting it’s easy. I am suggesting it is fundamentally important that we embrace both sides of the question, and find a path forward that can both recall our duty to protect the planet and yet also find a way to continue to sustain ourselves from its amazing bounty.

Count all of the protected areas, wrap your mind around the millions of hectares of British Columbia that have been put outside the reach of resource development – the forests, mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, estuaries and marshlands that have been been protected. It’s been the labour of a generation to reach a point where our record of land protection is second to none. It’s Earth Day. Let’s celebrate that achievement.

And then ask the question: Is that enough?