Tuesday, March 3, 2015

With Ian Jessop, CFAX1070, Mar 3

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Spending billions without evidence?

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Who is being served by TransLink?

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Monday, March 2, 2015

Everything is awesome - UPDATED

Few students in BC graduate from post-secondary schooling laden with debt, according to Andrew Wilkinson, Minister of Advanced Education in British Columbia. Wilkinson asserts there is no student debt problem. He claimed (wrongly):
70 per cent of students go through their higher education with no debt whatsoever.
From the minister's vantage point, everything is awesome. Wilkinson, a guy with a west-side home worth 7-figures who has long enjoyed large 6-figure incomes, can afford to hang in spiffy places. Even so, when he moves around the province, taxpayers pay the bill for him and the entourage.

For his supposed brilliance, Wilkinson get facts wrong when he talks about student debt and he ignores the reality that high achieving students from poor families cannot afford post-secondary education. According to economist and researcher Iglika Ivanova:
In Western Canada, youth living in families with an annual income over $100,000 are still more than twice as likely to attend university than youth with family income under $25,000.
It is obvious that few members of the Arbutus Club are saddled with significant consumer debt. The near $100,000 needed to join and spend a year at the posh club is an effective barrier that keeps out the impecunious. Similarly, high cost, particularly for students who would follow long learning paths, keeps many capable students from advanced education. People without money must avoid that which they cannot afford.

The minister acknowledges that many students rely on family supports to cover school costs. That situation results in a large difference in participation rates among rich and poor. The Wall Street Journal reported:
College completion rates for wealthy students have soared in 40 years but barely budged for low-income students, leading to a yawning gap in educational attainment between rich and poor that could have long-lasting implications for the socioeconomic divide.

In 2013, 77% of adults from families in the top income quartile earned at least bachelor’s degrees by the time they turned 24, up from 40% in 1970, according to a new report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy and the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. But 9% of people from the lowest income bracket did the same in 2013, up from 6% in 1970...
Statistics Canada publishes little on student debt but does report (Table 477-0069) that in 2010, 49% of people graduating with a Bachelor degree had an average of $30,000 in educational debt. Projecting trends provides an estimate for 2015:

Reporting on a publication by the Pew Charitable Trusts on Economic Mobility Across Generations, the Washington Post stated the paradox:
Being poor is a big impediment to getting the education that lifts you out of poverty.
You can be sure that Wilkinson and his Liberal colleagues know that education is fundamental to addressing income inequality. It's just that they are comfortable with disparities that separate the rich from the rest of us.


On CBC, the doctor fails to spin


Sean Holman's Unknowable Country, When Journalists Get Angry, March 2, 2015
...if the public doesn’t know what their government is actually doing, it can continue doing things the public wouldn’t want it to do...

Opacity is winning the war against transparency. And if Canadian journalists want to turn the tide, they must do more in the fight against that secrecy...

...journalists should let our audiences know when spin doctors don’t respond to our questions, provide non-answers or interfere with attempts to interview public officials.

...Last week, CBC Daybreak South succeeded in getting Andrew Wilkinson, the minister responsible for British Columbia’s spin doctors, to address complaints about the state of government communications (including my open letter).

Provincial flacks “initially declined” to respond to those complaints. But Wilkinson made an appearance on Daybreak South after the program tried contacting “each and every MLA” in its listening area about that issue.

You can listen to the interview for yourself on Soundcloud. But suffice it say Wilkinson, somewhat appropriately, appeared to have his own talking points for that conversation. So, just as appropriately, I’ve filed freedom of information requests to obtain them.

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Political football - winners and losers

Senior governments download responsibility for delivering services but seldom include taxing authorities to match spending demands. The download trend is demonstrated in a report by The Columbia Institute:

British Columbia's government prefers to raise revenues from individuals through consumption taxes and user fees rather than by progressive income taxes, natural resource proceeds and levies on corporations. That serves the interests of Liberal Party shareholders but it has the potential of creating disquiet among voters, the people asked to fund government operations.

Downloading serves political purposes by shifting both responsibility and accountability. The current transportation funding debate illustrates the issue. Having spent or committed almost $10 billion on Highway 1 improvements, the Sea To Sky Highway, South Fraser Perimeter Road and the Massey Tunnel replacement, the province is not anxious to take a lead on transit improvements in the lower mainland. One reason is that an effective transit system serves a different constituency. Visions of ordinary workers toting lunchbags onto a bus do not excite Liberals like contributions from wealthy exploiters of natural resources.

So, the Clark government tossed the transit ball to municipal politicians. Those ambitious folks took the bait, created a wishlist costed by spin doctors and invited citizens to vote for imposition of a new sales tax. It is a levy that does not begin to fund the projects but voters are told, "Don't worry, accept the tax and worry about the rest of the money later."

That's a prescription for a local disaster. What happens if the provincial and federal governments contribute less than the billions needed? What if they contribute nothing? That half-point regional sales tax will suddenly grow and the wish list will contract.

Metro Vancouver mayors, with Burnaby's sage Derek Corrigan a notable exception, played into the hands of Liberal strategists. Although the business of TransLink is critical to millions of people - more than half BC's population - Christy Clark's government left the stage. They don't want to spend money from other sources, for the reasons noted above, but they will accept a sales tax increase, as long they don't have to wear it directly.

This is a template they will use elsewhere in the province. If Southern Vancouver Island wants transit or infrastructure improvements, invoke a regional sales tax. If the Gulf Island and Sunshine Coast want improved roads or ferries, how about a regional sales tax? I'm not aware of another local sales tax in Canada but it has been discussed at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. In the USA, many local areas impose a sales tax, with rates typically between 2% and 4% added to state sales taxes. If you think the lower mainland transit tax will remain at 0.5%, then I've got a multimillion dollar bridge to sell you.

The key to understanding the actions of the BC Liberal government is to understand the interest groups they aim to serve.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Setting priorities

I've written about politics influenced by a captured and compliant press. This is from a Canadian Press article that Liberals found helpful, published by Macleans Magazine weeks before the last BC election:
...A Liberal government would dedicate all revenues from liquefied natural gas and a proposed oil refinery in Kitimat to debt reduction until all provincial debt is eliminated, said Clark. She pointed out that the New Democrats have said they will increase taxes on the LNG industry.

B.C. would be debt-free in 15 years under her stewardship, she said, and the Liberals would tie government spending increases to the rate of nominal GDP...
It is worth noting that when Premier Clark made the 2013 promise to be debt free within 15 years, debt and contractual obligations were $55 billion and $100 billion. Liberals forecast total provincial debt will be $70 billion in Mar 2018 but don't report on the larger contract obligations total. By then, one-third of Clark's 15 year time frame would have passed and BC would have no material LNG revenues. Nevertheless, LNG skepticism is rare within the pro-media. It still occupies government attention and hundreds of millions in annual ministry spending.

The linked Maclean's article read like an advertisement but it was not marked as such, nor is it so marked today at their site. No reservations or alternative voices were included for even a pretense of balance. The incomplete piece would earn a failing grade in a first year journalism course.

That such fantastical claims were made and sustained so easily explains why British Columbia's government remains focused on natural gas as a supposed economic driver. It is simply electoral politics and pro-media has done a full buy-in.

LNG was the magician's rabbit in 2013 and Liberals calculate that it can be the same in 2017. That natural gas is such a tiny industry in this province matters not; it offers so many political advantages. This graph is drawn from information assembled and published by BC Stats. It needs no further commentary to emphasize my points.

Government preoccupation with the fossil fuel industry hurt BC's export and tourism industries. Observers know that billions of dollars spent by the Chinese government to acquire Canadian resource companies contributed to a dollar that went above parity with the US. We've suffered from "Dutch Disease." In BC, there has been an accelerated increase in low paying McJobs and lower employment in manufacturing and other non-extractive industries. As a result, this province has joined Ontario and Quebec at the bottom in measurement of recent wage growth. This is unsurprising since Central and Upper Canada have had similar experiences with Dutch Disease.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Agenda journalism

Black Press political reporter Tom Fletcher, whose wife is a Public Affairs Officer for the BC Liberal Government, occasionally recalls the nineties:
The dark decade, the dismal decade, the decade of destruction ...when investment, jobs and people packed up and headed for the B.C. border in response to the NDP governments of Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark...
That is Fletcher's memory and he reminds community newspaper readers throughout British Columbia whenever convenient. Many of us remember differently. BC Stats, a division of the provincial government, provides information to test Fletcher's accuracy. First, we can determine if people were departing in unusual numbers. Here are the population numbers:
  • 1991: 3,404,049
  • 2001: 4,049,297
  • 2014: 4,657,947
The average annual population growth during the NDP era was twice what it's been under the Liberals:

All-industries job counts provided by BC Stats show:
  • 1991: 1,577,500
  • 2001: 1,920,900 - Average annual job growth: 34,340. Jobs per 1,000 population: 10.4
  • 2014: 2,278,400 - Average annual job growth: 27,500. Jobs per 1,000 population: 5.8

Unfortunately, the situation is worse than it seems since many of the jobs created in recent years are McJobs: low-paying, low-prestige positions that require minimal skills. In the last generation, new service jobs are more than double the number of new goods-producing jobs. The following graphs show the number of positions in wealth creating industries at two particular points in time.

Obviously this information is contrary to the bill of goods being sold by Tom Fletcher. He's not alone though. Gary Mason has referred to the BCNDP era as the "dismal decade" and various media members echo the concept. The late Ian Reid wrote that the Vancouver Sun had joined the BC Liberal militia and become "kind of their advance shock troops." They do this mostly by controlling the opinions expressed in editorials and news pages.

BC Liberals have courted the media assiduously and they use financial and other rewards to ensure loyalties. In addition, they employ paid staff and volunteers to troll social media to advance Liberal talking points and denigrate opponents.

Liberal allies fund astroturfing initiatives. An example was Concerned Citizens for B.C., a creation of government supporters led by Jim Shepard for a year before the 2013 election. Here is an example of messaging from CCBC:
They [NDP] took us from having one of the richest provinces in the country, where we were one of the strongest economies, to the absolutely worst economy in the province... to the point where we were on welfare...
Of course, in politics today, negative advertising and controversial claims are standard procedure. It is unsettling though when journalists become partisans, shaping reports to favour one segment of the political spectrum. It is common for reporters to repeat statements made by politicians without concern for accuracy or balance. Lies go unchallenged as if they are truth. A particularly odious example was published in Kelowna's Daily Courier, a publication owned by an ex-convict who was jailed for fraud in the USA.

One must not underestimate the destructive potential of publications serving cities and towns outside the lower mainland. Properties owned by Black Press, Glacier Media and Continental Newspapers are seen by more citizens than the big city dailies and generally, their pages reflect the interests of three very wealthy men: David Black, Sam Grippo and David Radler. Because there are few alternatives available and populations are spread widely, stories that are biased or inaccurate are more likely to go unchallenged.

Columnist/reporters like Tom Fletcher find a happy home in their workplaces. They are willing to pervert lofty ideals of journalism to serve the owners' ideological purposes and to preserve their own places in the effort. Too often though, truth is the victim.

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Hey Tom Fletcher, whose energy policy is nonsense?

The work of Tom Fletcher is a subject today and the article about agenda-driven journalism is drawing large readership. The Black Press writer offered a defence to one reader today. In it, he claimed I was offering selective quotes. He didn't saying I was inventing, just selecting. A previous exchange may cast further light on our respective positions. The following was first published in July 2014.

In the article "Unparalleled, indeed," I quoted from an item written in 2011 by Black Press proselytizer Tom Fletcher. In it, he
"lauded Gordon Campbell's "long-term strategy to export hydroelectric power" and he called John Horgan the champion of doomsayers. Fletcher wrote of "evidence that current NDP energy policy is nonsense."
Reader Merv Adey drew Fletcher's attention to this quote with:
Demonstrating, at the very least, poor arithmetic skills, Fletcher responded:

However, his was not a convincing answer since the International Energy Agency and the financial media had been reporting on a natural gas glut since 2008, three years before Fletcher tapped out his words. Besides, oversupply of electricity in the Pacific Northwest is not explained so simply. Respected energy expert Robert McCullough produced a report last winter that paints a more complete picture. It is a picture that suggests the policy that led to $55 billion worth of BC Hydro commitments for high cost private power was true nonsense in a world where electricity has been available from our neighbours for a fraction of what BC pays independent producers.
"He found there is regularly so much electricity available in the Bonneville Power Administration network that it can't sell it all.

"In fact, McCullough found, in the past two years, the market has been so oversupplied that Bonneville regularly paid customers to take electricity off its hands.

"There are a few reasons why energy prices have fallen so low. Two consecutive rainy years have put plenty of water behind the dams. Energy companies continue rapid development of wind farms, which have become more competitive in the cost of power..."
I reminded Fletcher of another of his inaccuracies, one from 2012 that demonstrated his lack of competence to report on provincial energy policy. He wrote,
"Natural gas replaced forest products some years ago as B.C.’s top commodity revenue stream, helping to keep the lights on in B.C. schools and hospitals."

Again demonstrating discomfort with calendars, the response of David Black's favourite pundit was a non sequitur:
Actually, Tom, it was two years ago you composed that misinformation and you've not corrected it since. And, aren't you one of those writers who likes to claim that BC was in the political and economic dark ages before May 2001? Heck, that was more than ten years ago. By the way, natural gas is not BC's top commodity revenue stream and here are the gas royalty numbers, drawn from Ministry of Finance documents,

Remember too that oil and gas rights sales had gone softer than a leaking balloon before Fletcher made the claim that gas was keeping the lights on in schools and hospitals. Of course, if Fletcher had his preference, lights would not be needed in public schools, but that's another story.

I don't often read Fletcher's work but I have seen enough to know he is a right-wing ideologue. Apparently, he's one who doesn't let fact get in the way of strongly held opinions that he wants to share with readers. I closed the Twitter conversation with this:

In preparing this, I looked at a number of items written by Tom Fletcher. I had forgotten his role in newspaper publisher David Black's campaign against the Nisga'a Final Agreement, a treaty initialed in 1998 and given legal effect by Parliament in 2000. Black was opposed, strongly opposed, to recognizing aboriginal rights and he ordered his entire newspaper group to give that message to readers. Many people thought that put editors in a position of conflict, perhaps forgetting that Black suggested any editors who were opposed could submit a letter to the editor for consideration.

Fletcher did not have difficulties with an instruction from the boss. In a letter to the Vancouver Sun, he said,
"What other editors and I were forbidden to do was to spend the owner's money and space to counteract his initiative on the treaty by commissioning contrary viewpoints. I have no trouble accepting that."
Of course, this presents a karmic situation. Some years ago, Black and his minions hated the very idea of negotiating treaties with First Nations. Today, they are big supporters of building Northern Gateway and other pipelines to transport fossil fuels across the BC wilderness.

What stands in the way? The consent of First Nations who, in the absence of treaties, have Supreme Court affirmed rights to control development in unceded territories.

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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Poking through transit costs - UPDATED

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