Thursday, February 28, 2013

A big A+ for literacy at Big B Comics

Did you enjoy comic books as a kid? An early and voracious bookworm, I also greatly enjoyed comics. Not only did they feed my love of reading and expand my vocabulary, they instilled important values, like a love of diversity and the classic axiom “with great power comes great responsibility”. Bereft of alien heritage or mutant abilities, I nonetheless appreciate the great power the average citizen of a rich, modern first-world nation wields, taking that responsibility very seriously, within my own community, in supporting people in need around the globe such as my Haitian foster children, and in how I treat the Earth itself.
So naturally I encourage my own children to explore the world of comics. Yet that could get expensive! I recall when comics cost 15 cents, then went to 25 and later 35 cents. In later years, my occasional forays into a comic shop to check up on a favourite character shocked me as prices climbed past two or three dollars. Granted, the quality of print and stories has vastly improved, but still!
Yet thanks to the comic industry, kids can now get into comics for free. One way is Free Comic Book Day. On the first Saturday of May each year, many comic stores offer free products to anyone who visits. Special new issues are printed to freely distribute, while some stores give away back titles. In the Barrie area, Big B Comics on Essa and Rebel Comics on the west end of Innisfil Beach Road both enthusiastically participate.
Free Comic Book Day also features special activities. One year Big B hosted Ed the Sock and Liana K; my 3-year-old daughter and I made and brought our own sock puppets to meet them. Another year the kids posed with costumed Superman, Batman, and Imperial Storm Troopers. Some years have sketch artists on hand drawing custom images of your favourite heroes; my daughter had herself drawn as her Kryptonian idol. Last year at the Niagara Big B I met Captain Canuck creator Richard Comely, who signed all my C.C. comics and the poster gracing our wall.
A special initiative Big B has pioneered is “Comics for As”, on now until the end of March Break. Children can bring in their official school report card and receive a free comic from the entire back catalogue for each A grade they earned. What a great reward for diligent school work!
This past Halloween we bought stacks of special discount mini-comics at Big B to distribute to trick-or-treaters instead of sugar candies; kids’ eyes lit up when those when into their loot bags!
Having watched comic book prices climb all my life, now I’m really encouraged by these various literacy-promoting free comic initiatives you can access. As Mary Jane said to Peter Parker, “Face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!”
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Free Comic Book Day a fun way to promote literacy"
Erich the Green’s secret identities include father, writer, editor, politician, and volunteer.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Living Green pays you to save

In the past I've described ways you can make money through energy conservation, above and beyond money you save buying less gas, oil, or electricity. And now I'm pleased to announce a new way: Living Green is offering a $100 restaurant voucher for the family who reduces their electricity use the most each month!
It’s easy to enter. Just send us a copy of your electric bill, we’ll calculate the reduction, and if you saved more than any other entrants that month, we’ll be treating you to a nice dinner!
Get your PowerStream bill and look at the box on the bottom left, under the heading “Hydro Consumption History”. It lists your most recent kWh/day usage, and that for previous periods going back a year. To keep it fair to different sizes of house and household, we’ll use the percent reduction rather than the nominal change.
On my own bill for January 2013, we used a modest 35 kWh/day, down from 43 in January 2012. That means we've reduced our usage almost 20%, which is pretty good, since we were diligent conservers already. But if you did better than that, you have a good chance of winning a prize, so send in your bill!
Prizes, you ask? Yes, to make it worth your while to save electricity and enter, each month we’ll award a $100 gift certificate to a different Barrie restaurant. The first four restaurant sponsors are the Crock & Block, St. Louis Bar &Grill, The North Restaurant and Spice Indian Cuisine. If you own a restaurant and would like to take part, please contact us. (Or if you like a particular restaurant and want them to sponsor this, please show them this article and have them get in touch). This contest is made possible by the generous sponsorships of local restaurants who share Living Green’s vision of sustainability by lowering our energy waste.
Of course, even if you don’t win, you still win, because by saving energy, you save money. And you can keep lowering your usage and enter again another month (although you can only win the prize once per year). If you’ve made a significant change in your energy usage, you’ll have 5-6 billing periods that reflect it.
To enter the contest, all you need do is send a scan (PDF or JPEG) of your bill to, or mail a copy to Living Green at P.O. Box 21071, Barrie ON, L4M 6J1. Each month we’ll announce the winner on our website, You can also read articles we have suggesting ways you can conserve energy.
If you’d like to be a prize sponsor, please contact and we’ll gladly add you to this wonderful local community program.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Saving energy could result in a very nice meal".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lower property taxes to the ground to save cities & nature

There are two big problems with our property taxes: they are too high, and too low.
How can that be? Well, it’s because in Ontario, as across Canada, property tax is actually two taxes: a tax on land, and a tax on buildings.
Taxing land value is fair, because a site’s value stems from the community around it; land rent is higher in the middle of a bustling city than in a quiet village, and higher in a town than in a remote wilderness. When realtors say the three most important things are location, location, and location they are right; the value of a site comes from what you can do there, determined by what is around it. Roads, services, and customers are all vital links for a business, so even though remote land is cheaper than land near a city, smart businesspeople pay more to be where they can easily access inputs and markets.
On the other hand, taxing the value of buildings is harmful, penalizing those who maintain or improve their properties while rewarding those who let them run down. Install new elevators in your apartment building and your taxes go up, but let the balconies rust and your taxes go down. It’s a perverse incentive.
Even worse, property taxes subsidize speculators who hold valuable land vacant. With no building, they get a tax break for as long as they want, waiting for a big payoff when someone else finally pays the inflated price to build. In the meantime, those willing to contribute to the local economy now are driven to the green spaces at the edge of the city, creating sprawl. Sprawl not only destroys natural habitat, it worsens traffic and costs more to service, so we all must pay higher taxes.
There’s an easy solution to these twin problems: split-rate taxation. Under this approach, buildings are taxed at a lower rate, land at a higher rate. The total tax stays the same, but how it is applied changes incentives for landowners. Those using land appropriately pay less, as their buildings get a break. Speculators pay more tax, encouraging them to either do something with the land or sell it to someone who will.
Under split rates, long-vacant downtown lots will come back on the market at reasonable prices, reducing the pressure to sprawl past the city’s edges. Downtown becomes a place to do business, not a place to gamble on land values. With urban land no longer held vacant and wasted, green spaces need not be paved over.
But does this really work, or is it just fantasy? Luckily, this approach has been tried in many places, and it works every time. Split-rate property tax leads to more building permits, more affordable housing, less sprawl, a higher rate of home ownership, and improved urban economies. It’s time for Ontario to allow cities to implement this tax reform to, at no cost to us, improve our local economies.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Tax reform badly needed in communities"

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Oil execs to Harper: Price our carbon, already!

Canada has been slipping in world rankings in some key areas: environmental protection, of course, but also competitiveness and innovation. The only thing propping up our competitive business environment is over a decade of corporate tax cuts, making us one of the lowest corporate-tax regimes in the developed world, but feeding our massive deficit and growing national debt.
Are there other ways we could become more competitive, spur innovation, create jobs and (dare to dream) even address environmental issues at the same time? Amazingly, a single measure would accomplish all three, recommended by the OECD, the NRTEE, environmentalists, economists, oil companies, and now even tar sands developers. In fact, only one person stands in the way of this miracle measure: Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
That measure? A carbon price. By putting a fee on carbon emissions, or imposing a cap and auctioning permits, all actors in our economy (businesses, individuals, institutions) would be encouraged to innovate in providing goods and services at a lower energy cost. One thing that hurts our competitiveness is that we are among the worst energy-wasters in the world! While energy consumption can drive a higher lifestyle, wasting energy helps no-one.
By refunding all the revenue through a dividend or tax cuts, a carbon price puts no overall burden on us. That’s why the $30 per tonne carbon tax shift in BC hasn’t done any harm to their economy. In fact, while a carbon price squeezes margins for the worst polluters, it rewards any company that gets more efficient, and puts money in the pocket of citizens who avoid waste. Globally, the effective price of carbon already shows that we have a long way to go in raising our carbon price before we would become uncompetitive as an energy exporter.
Beyond how a carbon price creates jobs and saves resources within Canada, it’s also going to be a key element of our international trade strategy. Other nations are already looking askance at our tar sands product, even before we build massive new pipelines to export it. Major campaigns are under way to exclude this carbon-intensive fuel (even leading to bizarre reactionary PR campaigns trying to spin dirty bitumen as “ethical oil”).
Putting a price on carbon will bring transparency and legitimacy to our energy industry and head off potential trade barriers, as has been noted by fossil energy companies around the world, including in Canada. As our own national Chamber of Commerce notes, it will also improve the efficiency of our tax system and enhance our competitiveness.
Furthermore, with the federal government signalling long term infrastructure spending grants in the spring budget, we need a carbon price to ensure that this long-lasting infrastructure is built to the highest energy-efficiency standards to extend those savings over coming decades, and not lock in wasteful technologies or approaches.
Even Mr. Harper has been consistent, saying as early as 2007 and as recently as this week that he supports the “polluter pay” principle. So enough hot air, just do it!
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Time for us to start pushing polluter pay principle"

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation