Thursday, May 30, 2013

Rain Rain Rain

Yesterday I was caught in what can only be described as hosing rain on my way home, on my bicycle. My raingear proved of little use as I navigated my way through foot-deep puddles and was treated to several free showers by passing vehicles.

I had time to contemplate the vocabularly of rain. Remember that legend, that says the Inuit have 40 words for snow? Well,  I posit that here on the west coast, we have an equally large stable of terms for "rain".

In order of intensity, here is my list of verbs that I've heard used to describe our weather in all its grey and damp glory:

misting, drizzling, spitting, sprinkling, showering, raining, pissing, pouring, hosing 

A few more terms can be used as adverbs (but haven't been graduated to full rain-verb status yet):

pattering, pelting, hammering

Am I missing any? I get the feeling that the middle ground is a bit thin. I think we could use some expansion here. Any creative souls out there looking for linguistic fame? Here's your chance!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"What If" Fantasies...

Just after the election, my local twittersphere was lit up with tweets like "if we'd've had STV, the NDP would be running the province". Other dreamers uttered statements like "NDP/Green coalition with Andrew Weaver as Environment Minister". No backup data provided; that's hard to to in 140 characters. 

But still, I wondered if this were true.

Analysis by my favourite electoral reform organization shows that this would likely not have been the case.

Thoughtful number-crunching, using the electoral boundaries that would have been in place, as well as making some very reasonable assumptions about voting patterns results in the conclusion that under STV (which is a pretty proportional system), BC would still have elected a Liberal majority government.

The Greens would've got maybe one more seat; the NDP three more and the Liberals 4 less. No Conservative seats.

Perhaps the voters in this province really do prefer a center-right government.

Another interesting point of analysis by the same group: less than 50% of eligible voters turned out to vote. That's down from the last election. Counting another way: 52% of registered voters turned out - again, less than the last election. (Not all eligible voters are registered). Voter participation continues to drop.

And then, FVBC does a nice analysis of how many voters actually have an MLA they voted for (51.1% - a very typical number under our current electoral system)...and how many voters it would take to swing the election the other way (<0.5% of the votes, in a few key swing ridings). That last number, especially, really illustrates how crappy our system is. If you don't live in one of those few swing ridings, your vote really, really doesn't matter at all.

Ah well. I only wish more people took an interest in this problem.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Carbon Bubble

Here's a fascinating report...authored by Nicholas Stern (London School of Economics and author of The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change) and institutions like HSBC, Citi, Standard and Poor's and the International Energy Agency as well as the Bank of England. I'll summarize for you:

The share price of oil, gas, and coal companies (quite a few of which are nationalized - owned by governments, that is) depends to a large extent on their stated reserves. Governments make money off of the companies (royalties) and use it to fund public services. Companies traded on the stock markets form part of many people's RRSPs and pension funds, especially here in Canada. We are all heavily financially dependent on these stated reserves. Now, the important point is that whether or not those reserves can actually be extracted is apparently not part of their valuation.

What would happen if these reserves could not actually be used, and this were somehow to be captured in the financial statements of the companies? This is what the report explores. These assets would then be "stranded", and companies would take a huge hit to their share values - the report finds the total amount is somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 trillion dollars. This is an alarmingly large number. Such a bursting bubble would have a huge - and negative - effect on economies all around the world. Think the current financial crisis is bad? You ain't seen nothin' yet.

But why worry? Why wouldn't we dig up and burn all this carbon? Well, it turns out that if you add up all the stated coal, gas, and oil reserves of all the companies that trade publicly (and hence make such figures available), you wind up with a figure that is far, far larger than would be allowed if we were to limit ourselves to the 2C temperature rise that scientists deem prudent, and that most governments have pledged to stay below.

The maximum amount of carbon that can be allowed into the atmosphere while keeping below this temperature increase is about 1000 Gigatonnes. The total declared reserves of carbon (currently safely sequestered)? 2860 Gigatonnes.

So, clearly there is something amiss. Someone is not connecting the dots. Companies and governments alike appear to be betting that climate policies will fail, and that their stated reserves can and will be developed, so that the current market valuation is correct and that their financial planning is hunky-dory. The corollary is, of course, that the global climate is basically screwed.

Of course, this is not what any government or energy company says, publicly. All claim to be green, and the big oil companies say they are using "carbon pricing" to help make investment decisions. But the market is very clearly not pricing carbon assets in this way.

The bottom line is this:
  • either we burn up all the reserves we've got (and some of us get stinkin' rich in the process!), signing the planet up for a trip back to the Eoceneor
  • the valuation of these reserves gets adjusted through a combination of government action (ie. declaring that nationalized firms will leave the assets in the ground, rendering them valueless) and regulation (ie. forcing independent publicly traded firms to disclose the amount of carbon in their reserves and instituting some kind of carbon-limit-driven pricing scheme), which will lead to the bursting of a financial bubble of gargantuan proportions. Your Canadian RRSPs? Provincial resource royalties? Kiss them goodbye.
Either way, this is looking really, really ugly.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Party Views on Reforming Politics

I like to keep my finger in the pie on electoral reform. I am involved with Fair Voting BC, the organization which represented the "YES" side on the 2009 referendum on STV. That referendum was lost, but the organization still exists and has several campaigns active at any one time, all with the theme of improving our democracy.

This election, FVBC is running a survey, which it sent out to all the major parties, and also to all candidates (even independents - the ones we could easily find, that is!). The survey asked about 20 questions about a variety of topics, including
  • ideas for increasing voter participation
  • campaign finance reform
  • decreasing party discipline
  • increasing citizen participation in decsion-making
  • electoral reform for municipalities
  • establishing a legislative budget office (like we have Federally)
The questions are posted here.  You will see that they are not easy to answer, and assume a fair amount of knowledge about how our government currently works, and about recent task forces and legislation related to governance. You, personally, may not be informed enough on many of these issues to formulate answers to all the questions, but the point is that your elected representative, who will be paid in excess of $100k per year, should be very well informed on these topics. If they are clueless, then why should we elect them??

The results have been collected and are rather interesting. They're posted here in detail.

The Conservative party declined to respond to the survey. The Greens had the most to say, and covered practically every question. Individual Green candidates provided extensive answers as well. The NDP and Liberal parties gave generic answers; the Liberals quite disappointing.

Several independent candidates also gave answers.

Locally, in New Westminster, independent James Crosty and Green party candidate Terry Teather answered the survey and their responses are posted.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Election Thoughts

I dragged my hubby out to a movie last weekend: Whipped (the secret world of party discipline).

I'm sure he appreciated this romantic date.

Seriously though, the documentary is very interesting. It's an exploration of how party politics works here in BC. It goes like this:
  • Government decisions are made by the Premier and cabinet, in closed meetings with no minutes available.
  • The decisions are then given to the party caucus at caucus meetings, again behind closed doors with no publicly available minutes. 
  • The MLAs are told when to show up and how to vote. They essentially have zero input into the decision-making process. In some cases, they are not even given enough time to read the policy documents in question.
  • MLAs find it very, very difficult to oppose caucus decisions. Free votes are very rare, and only in rare circumstances are MLAs excused from voting (ie. allowed to abstain). In fact, in BC, the "most rebellious MLA" voted against his party a whopping 8% of the time (that was Blair Lekstrom). Pretty low. In the UK - which shares our system - it's about 25%, and MLAs (or rather, MPs - they don't have "provincial" politics in the UK) openly speak against their party's policies. Somehow, here in BC, a culture of extreme party discipline has evolved.
  • in a majority government, it doesn't matter at all what the opposition says or does. House debates are purely for show and the opposition has no influence on the direction of government. 
  • The only thing that can sway a majority government is public opinion. Get the public incensed enough and you can see some change. But this is rather difficult to achieve, requires a lot of organization, and requires the attention of the media.

A further point of control is that the Premier is chosen by the party (and not the voters - it is very, very rare that the Premier does not win his or her riding - and if this should happen, another MLA in a safe riding is expected to stand aside), and the Premier picks the cabinet from the pool of elected MLAs. None of this is up to the voters. Once a party has won the election, there is no further input from non-cabinet MLAs required.

In the movie, you see interviews with several MLAs (now ex-MLAs for the most part - they got kicked out of their party for rebellion) who express frustration with this system. We've also seen it recently on the Federal level, with members of the Conservative caucus expressing frustration with not being able to air the views of their constituents.  But these people get shut down pretty quickly.

The situation is a bit different for MLAs who are from very small parties or who are independents. They are responsible to themselves and their constituents to a much larger degree. In the movie, you see interviews with independents as well.

My conclusion from all of this is that if you vote for the NDP or the Liberals, you are voting for the party. It doesn't matter who your MLA is. You might as well elect a rake with a wig. Now, this is not a comment about the ability or motives of the individuals actually running - many of them are upright, hard-working and very sincere - but the truth is that unless they have a cabinet post, they will have no say in government policy and will not be able to vote against the party line.

Now, while this sounds rather dire, there is an upside to all of this. Our electoral system (first-past-the-post) is designed to produce majority governments, which, together with the system of extreme discipline just described, makes for very predictable results.

Voters see the party platform during the election and essentially pick a dictator. You know what you are going to get (that is, if the cabinet doesn't change their minds!). Most people appear fine with this. In fact many people think that coalitions and minority governments are undesireable, because this is perceived to mean back-room dealing, compromise, and gridlock in the Legislature.

Efforts to bring in proportional representation and moves to lessen party control have so far been futile; for the most part strenuously resisted by those with a vested interest in the current system (politicians as well as party workers and political pundits) and abetted by the desire for predictability by many voters.

On that cheery note, go forth and vote!