Saturday, September 17, 2016

Improving politics: less money, more representation

Less than four months ago, I wrote about ways our election systems were improving. Back then, progress at both provincial and federal fronts was good, but I noted some key drawbacks. Amazingly enough, over the course of an exciting summer, both of those problems were addressed and we are now on an even stronger track to improvement.
At the provincial level, reforms to election finance have leapt beyond what was first floated. The current super-high contribution limits exceed $15,000 per party per donor, double that in an election year. $30,000 can buy a lot of political influence! Reforms floated in the spring would have cut that down to $7,750, still too much. But a recently-announced amendment has cut that in half, and further proposes banning MPPs, candidates, and party leaders from political fundraising events. It also includes per-vote funding for parties and for local riding associations, one of the fairest ways to replace our current wealth-based fundraising model. This new funding is set to diminish and be re-evaluated after 5 years, but I expect it will be maintained and even increased, as people see the benefit of politics funded by votes instead of by big cheques from deep-pocked donors.
At the federal level, things are also progressing well. Rather than wait late into their mandate to act on their “last election under first-past-the-post” promise (an error the McGuinty government made a decade ago, dooming Ontario’s electoral reform hopes), the Liberal government has set things in motion rapidly. The last time I wrote on this issue, I was critical of them for addressing our distorted election results by creating a distorted electoral reform committee, with a Liberal majority that could outvote all the other participants, even though Canadian voters gave over 60% of their support to other parties. But a month after I wrote, the government saw the error of their ways and organized the committee to reflect the preferences expressed by your votes last fall, still with more Liberals but with no single party holding a majority. This means whatever the committee recommends will have to pass muster with at least two of the parties in the House, and hopefully have the support of most or all of them. This radically lessens the chance that the Liberals will try to force through a ranked ballot or instant runoff system, a fairly minor tweak that would give them a major advantage in future elections.
After spending the summer consulting with experts on all aspects of voting systems, the committee has entered a phase of wider public consultation with Canadian citizens. Several town halls have been or are being held in our area to discuss electoral reform, with results forwarded to the committee for consideration. You can also make your views known online at the ERRE website. By the end of November the House will receive their report and start drafting a bill to present next year, in time to make changes before the next election in 2019. As democracies around the world have been moving to more proportional systems, and since the significant failings identified in our own system lie largely with results not proportionally reflecting voter preference, it is fairly likely that some kind of proportionality will be added to our current system of local representation.  
All in all, 2016 may well go down in history as the summer when Canada’s and Ontario’s electoral and political finance systems made great strides toward fairness and better representation. After more than a decade of pushing for these kinds of improvements, I couldn’t be happier to see them finally coming to be.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Electoral system improving"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins serves on the boards of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Still time to add The Sassafras Crossing to your summer reading list

Recently a friend handed me a copy of his recently-published first novel, and I promised to review it here. But as I started reading it, I realized my promise might be harder to keep than I first expected. You see, I have reviewed several books in this column in the past, but all of them were non-fiction. I like to read about history, politics, science, and social movements. When I read fiction, I usually head for the genres, what many might consider escapism. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, action/suspense, political satire, comedy, mystery, even alternate history share my bookshelf. But what my friend wrote doesn’t fall into any of these genres; as far as I can tell, it’s just fiction. So I didn’t know how to approach it.
Lindrith (Lindy) Davies usually writes about economic justice and the fairer, more sustainable society we could have if we funded government with land and resource rents, instead of taxing our wages and productivity. He also teaches courses on the topic and edits the related Georgist Journal. But this is his first foray into writing fiction, as much as it was mine into reading it.
At first, I couldn’t immediately relate to characters who were just regular people, or understand where the narrative was heading. But as pages turned and I dug into the story, I grew truly curious about how or if they would connect or come into conflict. The novel, The Sassafras Crossing, covers about a year in the lives of several young people who are somewhat adrift, post-college but pre-career, trying to find their place in the world. With their unexpressed ambitions and reluctance to dive into the corporate rat race, their semi-dependence on parents while working minimum wage service jobs, they evoke the so-called “millennials” many love to mock today. But this realistic tale set in the early 1980s clearly demonstrates that this so-called new phenomenon of an indeterminate or even shiftless period in the lives of young adults is nothing new. What really matters is the opportunities for fulfillment society ultimately offers.
Another compelling side to this story is the struggle of some of the characters to find their place in a world where their sexuality is not recognized or condoned. While this is still often a challenge today, it was even more so 30 years ago, yet people then were just as likely as now to find themselves not fitting into society’s heterosexual norms. How this plays out for various characters, or even that it is an issue for them, is something that is only gradually exposed and explored through the story.
The lift bridge whose action provides the title is itself a character in the story. This antique yet still-functioning engineering feat facing replacement by a more convenient, newer-style span is both a setting for much of the story and a metaphor for the ways our world is a constant weaving of old into new. In the intersection of road and river, the cars that drive across whose movement is interrupted to allow pleasure craft to navigate the channel below, the need for expert human operators to mediate these conflicting uses, we find metaphors for many of the life changes and decisions negotiated by human characters.
Meanwhile, the story also weaves in a mix of musical styles and cultures, attitudes about work and family, the tug-of-war between succeeding in the rat race or chasing your personal dreams, and the way these decisions may be re-evaluated and reconfigured at later stages in life.
If you enjoy reading fiction, I expect you will enjoy this novel, while if, like me, you aren’t usually a fiction reader, this is an excellent place to start.

Published as my Root Issued column in the Barrie Examiner as "A Foray into Fiction".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Still time to add The Sassafras Crossing to your summer reading list

Recently a friend handed me a copy of his recently-published first novel, and I promised to review it here. But as I started reading it, I realized my promise might be harder to keep than I first expected. You see, I have reviewed several books in this column in the past, but all of them were non-fiction. I like to read about history, politics, science, and social movements. When I read fiction, I usually head for the genres, what many might consider escapism. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, action/suspense, political satire, comedy, mystery, even alternate history share my bookshelf. But what my friend wrote doesn’t fall into any of these genres; as far as I can tell, it’s just fiction. So I didn’t know how to approach it.
Lindrith (Lindy) Davies usually writes about economic justice and the fairer, more sustainable society we could have if we funded government with land and resource rents, instead of taxing our wages and productivity. He also teaches courses on the topic and edits the related Georgist Journal. But this is his first foray into writing fiction, as much as it was mine into reading it.
At first, I couldn’t immediately relate to characters who were just regular people, or understand where the narrative was heading. But as pages turned and I dug into the story, I grew truly curious about how or if they would connect or come into conflict. The novel, The Sassafras Crossing, covers about a year in the lives of several young people who are somewhat adrift, post-college but pre-career, trying to find their place in the world. With their unexpressed ambitions and reluctance to dive into the corporate rat race, their semi-dependence on parents while working minimum wage service jobs, they evoke the so-called “millennials” many love to mock today. But this realistic tale set in the early 1980s clearly demonstrates that this so-called new phenomenon of an indeterminate or even shiftless period in the lives of young adults is nothing new. What really matters is the opportunities for fulfillment society ultimately offers.
Another compelling side to this story is the struggle of some of the characters to find their place in a world where their sexuality is not recognized or condoned. While this is still often a challenge today, it was even more so 30 years ago, yet people then were just as likely as now to find themselves not fitting into society’s heterosexual norms. How this plays out for various characters, or even that it is an issue for them, is something that is only gradually exposed and explored through the story.
The lift bridge whose action provides the title is itself a character in the story. This antique yet still-functioning engineering feat facing replacement by a more convenient, newer-style span is both a setting for much of the story and a metaphor for the ways our world is a constant weaving of old into new. In the intersection of road and river, the cars that drive across whose movement is interrupted to allow pleasure craft to navigate the channel below, the need for expert human operators to mediate these conflicting uses, we find metaphors for many of the life changes and decisions negotiated by human characters.
Meanwhile, the story also weaves in a mix of musical styles and cultures, attitudes about work and family, the tug-of-war between succeeding in the rat race or chasing your personal dreams, and the way these decisions may be re-evaluated and reconfigured at later stages in life.
If you enjoy reading fiction, I expect you will enjoy this novel, while if, like me, you aren’t usually a fiction reader, this is an excellent place to start.

Published as my Root Issued column in the Barrie Examiner as "A Foray into Fiction".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The real reason the Tigers roared

Michael Den Tandt recently opined that Canada’s government should heed the example of Taiwan and the other Asian Tigers’ rapid economic growth, by freeing up trade and pushing through new pipelines.
In some respects, he is right, we should copy some of the economic policies the Four Tigers rode to success. But he misconstrues what those policies really were.
Of course, one key aspect to their early growth was authoritarian governments, run by generals or former generals who engineered their election as “president”. As he noted in another column the same week, Taiwan only began holding free elections in 1996; I add Korea elected its first non-general President around the same time, while Hong Kong has never known truly free elections, and Singapore has been dominated by the same party for the past 57 years, with the same President for 31. Various studies have concluded authoritarian governance played a key role in accelerating economic growth. I expect most Canadians would not rush to give up our democratic freedoms for a few more dollars or jobs, and one consequence of this democracy is that major projects like pipelines must earn their social license by proving their environmental and other bona fides before approval.
Asian "tigers" grew due to land value taxation
Besides that, though, Den Tandt praises the merits of “capitalism” and thus seems to believe the secret to their success is a pro-economic, laissez-faire, low-tax approach. However, this is a bit of a mis-read. It is true these economies mostly had low tax rates on income, profit, and sales. However, they all balanced that with a higher tax on land, as well as instituting land reforms to discourage or break up the large land holdings of rich families and make affordable parcels of land available to farmers or homeowners. It is this key approach that sets the Asian Tigers apart from most Western economies.
You see, the founders of the Republic of China, Sun Yat Sen and General Chiang Kai-shek, understood that a fair and just economy is based on using value created by nature and the community to fund government. They did this by fully taxing the value of land and any increase in land value. Nature creates land, and the presence of a growing community gives it value; this value is either returned to the community, or else pocketed by private land owners who managed to call “dibs” on it. If the community collects that rent to fund government services, then confiscatory taxes on wages, income, profit or trade aren’t necessary. But if private owners keep the benefit of land values, then government has no choice but to seek other revenue sources: you and your business.
The benefits of land value taxation are many. It is fair, because it only taxes what people take or use for themselves, instead of taxing what they produce for the community. Instead of a value-added tax that punishes enterprise, it serves as a “value-subtracted tax” discouraging waste, hoarding, or living off land and resource rents. People are free to keep what they make for themselves, while passing back to government the wealth created by nature or the community. In this way, land stays in private hands for optimal use, while land values are shared fairly by all.
So yes, Canada could learn about successful economic growth from the Asian Tigers; not through authoritarianism or low taxes, but by replacing unfair taxes on wages or added value with fair taxes on land, resources, government-granted privileges and monopolies. With the dead weight of poor taxation removed, our economy would be free to grow in a fair, efficient and ecologically-sound direction.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Poor taxation needs to be removed in order to let economy grow".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins serves on the boards of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Monday, July 18, 2016

FruitShare program only scratching the surface

“The most natural food is fruit” – Anonymous.
You may not realize it, but our city is full of farmers, and you may be one of them! The number one urban crop is fruit, particularly apples, and you’d be amazed by the amount of apples that grow in our backyards. FruitShare has managed to pick as many as 5,000 pounds in a single season, and we’re just scratching the surface.
The ever-growing FruitShare team
is on the job!
The whole FruitShare team is so excited to be working with our amazing volunteers and tree owners this summer; we know from experience everyone will find it a rewarding experience. Though we are not picking a lot of fruit right now, we are working to get ready for what we anticipate will be a busy season. We want to keep you updated on our planning and preparation activities.
We need more fruit tree owners.
Several tree owners from last year have reported that their trees did not fare well this spring: very few blossoms if any and bleak possibilities of fruit on those trees. But every back yard is its own micro-climate and local ecology; in past years, while some trees did poorly, others thrived. Please consider whether you have friends, family, or neighbors with fruit trees that just need to know about our program so that they can get involved. The Barrie community has hundreds of trees that yet could be a valuable source of fresh, local, healthy food for those who need it. Registration for tree owners is simple and straight forward at our website www.FruitShareBarrie.ca. You can easily sell them on the benefits: we clean up all the fallen fruit, clear as much of the ripe fruit from the tree as we can reach, and have a special deal with a professional arborist who will provide free advice and discounted help improving their trees.
This harvest season, we are going to have 'designated pick days'. Our hope is that this will help to make our planning more efficient, and allow both tree owners and volunteer pickers the ability to anticipate when their efforts might be needed. For this summer/fall we are going to make Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays our pick days, and will plan tree harvests on these days. We always work to give as much notice as possible before the pick date for everyone’s convenience.
Volunteers can also register at www.FruitShareBarrie.ca and communicate what days they would prefer to pick on. From there, we will plan to have 'teams' of volunteers designated to these specific days.
If you like face-to-face contact, we invite you come meet us at the Barrie Farmers’ Market, this Saturday, July 16th! We are bringing a table display and bushel-baskets full of energy, and will be sharing information about the Barrie FruitShare program to the patrons there.
We wish to thank the community for all the support and work to make this program great. We could not do it without you! And with your help, we can “rescue” even more fruit this year. Our goal is to see not a single tree go unpicked, not a bushel of food wasted, and you can help us meet that goal.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins serves on the boards of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Northern Protocol makes a big bang on the local scene

These days news about the economy often seems pretty dreary. With companies offshoring many jobs to places with lower wages or standards, and those that remain being “rightsized” away, it feels like no-one can get a decent salary anymore. Yet some businesses overcome this trend, and demonstrate that innovation is truly the key to success and prosperity, and sometimes a local business leads the way.
Reaching the top of the computer service industry.
Photo: Mark Wanzel
Such is the case with Northern Protocol. Founded by Aaron Weston almost 20 years ago as a one-man jack-of-all-computer-trades outfit, since 2007 this Barrie operation has grown exponentially. That was the year Aaron decided to turn his part-time home-based occupation into a serious concern. A forward-looking landlord offered Weston 6-months rent-free in a vacant office space at Bayfield & Ferris and the gamble paid off, not only succeeding and paying rent but within 3 years upgrading to double the space. Now with fully-operational satellite offices in Stayner and Alliston, and a total payroll of over a dozen full-timers, Northern Protocol has vaulted past their competitors and is on the verge of possible franchising.
But what innovation led to this success? It isn’t some better way to remove viruses, maintain and clean up cloggy old systems, recover lost data, or backup and reload, all services available for PC or Mac at flat rates. It isn’t because NP’s employees have special technical skills other support firms don’t, although they certainly don’t lack talent. And it’s certainly not a colourfully-wrapped compact car with the cheeky promise of smart nerds attending your site. No, the innovation has been in the style and quality of service provided.
I discovered this quite by accident, feeling unsatisfied with the service from another local computer doctor. After paying to have my problem diagnosed, then paying again to fix it, my computer came home and within the week the original problem recurred, despite my depleted wallet. Then I encountered, either on the radio or their billboard, Northern Protocol’s trademarked promise “We fix it or it’s free”. It struck me like a beam from the heavens: that’s what I need, never again paying to “fix” my computer even if it wasn’t fixed. I got that, and more. My home-business laptop frozen, I was in quite a pickle, with work coming in on a 48-hour turnaround. I brought it to NP on a Saturday morning, then spent the rest of the day on family activities. Sleeping in Sunday morning, I was awoken by Weston himself, delivering my computer which he had fixed the night before, with no special delivery or rush charge! The problem was actually fixed and my work reputation was saved.
A new angle on computer repair.
Like many computer repair shops, you can bring in your machine or they can work at your location on an hourly basis. But the added value is free pick-up or drop-off from your home in the Barrie area, which gets you the lower in-shop rates without having to drag your equipment back and forth. You can also trust NP to recommend or sell you new equipment, off-the-shelf or customized to your specs, as they only carry or endorse quality brands you can rely on to do what you need. And with a responsive Facebook page, you can get helpful updates or have your own queries addressed by real people, not faceless bots.
This is a quintessentially Barrie tale. Our community is very supportive to small and growing businesses, and you may have read elsewhere of Aaron’s personal streets-to-entrepreneur story. It’s a love that’s returned, through NP’s support for the David Busby Street Centre, Salvation Army adopt-a-family, COPE Dogs and the Jazz & Blues festival. So next time economic news gets you down, think about thriving, innovative local businesses like Northern Protocol and take heart!

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie and Innisfil Examiners as "Some local businesses are very innovative"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins serves on the board of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Friday, July 8, 2016

Electoral reforms look promising

This is an exciting time for those who want to improve how we fund or vote for political parties. Both the federal and provincial governments are initiating processes for much-needed reforms.
On the national level, one of the Liberal government’s election promises was that 2015 would be the last federal election held under the antiquated “first-past-the-post” (FPP) system. They were joined in pledges for electoral reform by the NDP and Green Party, which together means that almost two-thirds of voters chose a party with electoral reform and ending FPP in the election platform. Therefore, so long as the proposed reforms meet the approval of the elected members from those three parties, the change will have sufficient legitimacy to be implemented in time for the 2019 election, without requiring a referendum or any other such impediment.
Which only makes sense; we’ve never before needed a referendum to make our electoral system more fair, in line with the evolving social and political conscience of Canadian society. We extended the vote to women, Canada’s indigenous peoples, and other ethnic groups who had not previously been allowed to vote (Catholics, Chinese, Japanese) without a referendum, and surely extending the vote from the minority of land-owning white Protestant men to all adult citizens was a far more wide-reaching reform. Voters clearly indicated last fall, in surveys and at the ballot box, that they felt our current system does not adequately grant a fair and equal vote, so it’s time to fix that, without undue delay.
Unfortunately, the governing Liberal party has created a committee to draft this legislation which has a majority of Liberal members, meaning they have the power to push through a reform which no other party supports. And in their promise to “make every vote count”, they have even taken the extreme step of having the Green Party and Bloc on the committee, but as non-voting members! The gall is almost breathtaking. *
However, I still hold out some hope that the consultation process will convince the government that only a proper reform to a system incorporating proportional representation, and having the support of parties representing the majority of voters, can fulfill their election pledge. Fingers crossed!
Meanwhile, at the provincial level, the reforms at hand relate to political funding. There has been widespread and totally justified complaint about the way it seems that individuals and corporations with deep pockets can buy enhanced access to our elected officials, including the Premier and her Cabinet, but also Opposition leaders and parties. Responding to this outcry, the Premier has pledged reforms to be in place before the next election.
In this process, the Premier isn’t forming an all-party committee but at least has been open to consultation and input from other party leaders, including the electorally mature but currently seatless Green Party. For what seem like petty partisan reasons, the NDP chose to forgo this opportunity, but since the Greens have the most developed electoral finance reform policy base, there was no vacuum of good advice.
Measures announced so far will bar corporate and union contributions altogether. Sadly, the proposed individual contribution limit of $7500 is still too high, and restrictions on party spending aren’t sufficient. But one key reform is to replace the forgone corporate/union money with per-vote funding. This system, already present in other jurisdictions like Nova Scotia and Quebec and formerly in place federally, is the fairest way to apportion spending money between political parties. It allows every voter an equal amount of subsidy to direct to the party of their preference, regardless of their personal finances and without direct cost to them. What’s best is that this per-vote subsidy will actually cost the taxpayer less than the existing tax rebates on the contributions being phased out.
So although we’ll have to pay careful attention to this process to make sure the results are fair to all, there is at least reason for optimism on the electoral reform front.

* This has changed since this column was originally published.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Feeling positive about electoral reform"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.