Quick thoughts on Vancouver’s transit referendum “No”

Here are a few quick, initial thoughts on Vancouver’s transit referendum, where new transit funding paid for by a regional sales tax was rejected roughly 60% to 40%. You might want to read on even if you’re not from Vancouver: after all, it isn’t the only property-value-driven urban “utopia” where public services, public spaces and people themselves are being pushed out by elites.

(1) The result is unhappy, but not unexpected. The process was designed to fail and it has succeeded at that task with flying colours: the provincial government took an area of long-standing funding responsibility, turned its expansion into a vote on new taxation, and then abdicated all responsibility for an effective campaign. (This rather than getting money for transit out of general revenues and sparking debate over how to fund services and which ones.) If and when Christie Clark gets her pink slip, someone should stick a gold star on it for this one.

(2) On one hand, the result confirms the ideological victory of the right on the level of a very concrete, local example. New taxes and expanded public services are easy to pick apart in an age where cutting both is a hard-won default position in political debate. On the other hand, it will be easy to interpret these results in a way that further strains any remaining bonds of social solidarity. There is self-satisfaction from the ideologues of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation; however, alongside it it’s already easy to see complaints about “stupid suburban voters” from those in favour of more transit on social media. (more…)

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Minimum wage workers not the only ones getting screwed

I have a populist piece in The Tyee this morning on how last week’s paltry $0.20 minimum wage increase in British Columbia actually reflects stagnant wages across the economy and why the Fight for 15 is everyone’s fight. Here it is in full.

Last week, the B.C. government reacted to the increasing push for a higher minimum wage… by giving minimum wage workers a 20 cent raise. Even Business in Vancouver magazine quoted UBC labour economist David Green calling the new higher wage “laughably low.” What perhaps hasn’t received enough attention is that the two-dime bump in the minimum wage — the first in three years — is not that far out of line with stagnant wages across the economy. For instance, the average wage in British Columbia grew by 14 cents in 2014! While 20 cents over three years doesn’t even allow minimum wage earners to account for inflation, the fact is most of us have been barely keeping up with price increases. Real wages, those adjusted for inflation, have been mostly stagnant.

While Canada-wide statistics paint a picture of modest wage growth since the end of the last recession in June 2009, much of this growth is due to the three oil boom provinces, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, for the more than 80 per cent of workers outside the oil boom provinces, average real wages have grown just two per cent since that period. Median wages, which are not dragged upwards by the disproportionately large increases in wages for the wealthy, have seen just 0.4 per cent growth outside the oil provinces. This is stagnation loud and clear (see this earlier post for a closer look at the numbers). (more…)

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No to pipelines, yes to Site C?

Here’s a piece I wrote for Ricochet after getting riled up by *some* of the arguments against Site C. The full piece is here.

As the movement against pipelines rapidly grows, more and more often you can hear the question, “We know what you’re against. What are you for?” The debate over the future of power generation in British Columbia offers some lessons for how to answer this question and not fall victim to a privatized green vision.

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Tuesday the B.C. government decided to give the long-delayed Site C dam the green light. The dam would be the third on the Peace River in northeastern B.C. It will produce enough electricity to power nearly half a million homes (or one or two liquefied natural gas plants), flood around 50 square kilometres of land and cost almost $9 billion.

The decision has reinforced the polarized tenor of debate over Site C in B.C. On one side are local groups, First Nations, and environmentalists; the governing B.C. Liberals and business organizations stand opposite.

At first glance, Site C is what the left has been going on about for a while: major, green, public infrastructure. Not only does Site C fit this billing, but it could power further green initiatives like a mass electrification of transportation. It would also be very efficient: relatively little land would be flooded given the power generated, because the Peace River is already twice dammed.

Of course, the picture is not so simple. First, the proposed dam has not seen a transparent and independent review process; in fact, it has been exempted from the standard BC Utilities Commission review process. Second, the territory to be impacted is First Nations treaty land and hosts farming communities. Not only would construction of Site C inhibit farming, hunting, fishing and other uses of the land, but Canadian courts have recently confirmed the necessity of respecting and accommodating Aboriginal title. Finally, Site C has been so beloved by the Liberals and the business community because it could eventually supply cheap power to planned liquefied natural gas and mining industries — clean power for dirty industry.

Of these three, the liquefied natural gas industry looks to be on increasingly shaky ground. Critics point to concerns about what will be done with the power generated by Site C given much lower demand outlooks without LNG. Yet while mass electrification of transportation is not on the horizon, projects like Site C are built for decades. The major issue is lack of First Nations accommodation and due process. Without a transparent and democratic process, it is small wonder that the proposed dam has been a flashpoint of anger and protest.

Taking a wider view, Site C is emblematic of something much broader that has relevance across Canada: how do we support genuine green alternatives? This question is about much more than how we generate electricity; it’s about the narrowing of choices and a necessary response that reaffirms the public sphere.

(more…)

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No thanks Uber, I’m not signing your petition

So the ride-sharing app Uber is urging Vancouverites to sign a petition on its site to put pressure on the City to allow Uber to operate. An ad for the petition invaded my Twitter feed and I decided to take a closer look. Here’s the petition with my commentary. Spoiler: no, I’m not signing.

Uber begins by laying out “the situation”:

British Columbia and Vancouver are home to the quintessential winter playground, shining examples of liveable cities, and a launching pad for countless innovators and trailblazers across many industries.

That’s why so many residents are disappointed by Vancouver’s limited transportation options. To make matters worse, the Province of British Columbia, at the behest of the taxi industry, isn’t putting consumers first or thinking about how new innovations can create better transit solutions for all.

The ridesharing industry is a very new one, but cities all over the world are embracing it as a way to address the shortcomings of mass transit, reduce congestion and emissions, connect previously isolated neighborhoods, and overall bring cities together in a way never before imagined. These are benefits that people are experiencing right now in more than 220 cities around the world — but Vancouver isn’t among them.

Why thanks, we are quintessential innovators…wait a minute. Once we get past the sweet talk, Uber here points to a real problem, but offers a false solution. Transit shortcomings? Better transit is a worthy goal, only the natural solution would be more buses, lower fares and better service rather than deregulated taxis. The context for transit shortfalls is the systemic offloading of costs from the province government onto cities and an unwillingness to cover increased demand by taxes — at the same time as road infrastructure is rapidly expanded.

Isolated neighbourhoods? Granted, but again this is more a failure of urban planning than something that be solved by an app that helps people catch a cab. This is a perfect illustration of the hubris of Silicon Valley: the gap between pressing problems and technological quasi-fixes that enrich the Valley’s venture capitalists. The environmental benefits too may be overblown: ridesharing is certainly better than single-passenger driving but there is evidence that as Uber cuts prices, drivers have to spend more time driving looking for passengers. A car will always be much less environmentally-friendly than a bus or a subway and any system based on more cars will naturally push for more road infrastructure. Vancouver’s history at least has shown this can come at the cost of transit improvements.wpid-wp-1417653452329.jpeg

Uber isn’t interested in better transit or better public infrastructure: it’s interested in getting market share for its app. Its rationale for entering a city makes even more sense when other options are bad: the shittier the transit, the worse the regulated taxi industry, the better. And all the talk about a taxi lobby that has politicians in its back pocket is a bit rich for a company that hired its own prominent lobbyists in BC, likely only the beginning. In short, Uber is fighting a public funding shortfall with privatization, public policy failures with undersize techno-fixes, lobbying fire with lobbying fire.

(more…)

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Climate deals and pipeline steals

Today’s episode is focused on the economics and politics of climate change: my two guests look at climate negotiations in light of the recent US-China climate deal and the corporate history and dodgy tax practices of Kinder Morgan, looking to expand its tar sands pipeline into Vancouver.

To get a global perspective on the state of climate negotiations and the recent US-China climate deal, I speak with Leigh Phillips, a science writer and journalist who has written for Nature, the EU Observer and many other publications. His article on the China-US climate deal is here and he also has a book coming out early in 2015 so be on the lookout for that.

My second guest is economist and former head of ICBC Robyn Allan who updates us on oil pipelines here in Canada. She describes the cost-benefit analysis that somehow always comes out in favour of the interests of large oil companies as well as her investigative work into the corporate structure of Kinder Morgan. Kinder Morgan, of course, is looking to greatly expand the existing Transmountain pipeline from the tar sands to Vancouver and its work site on Burnaby Mountain is currently subject to daily protest and civil disobedience.

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, following this link.

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On the hunt for good jobs

There’s lots of talk about “good jobs” these days. At the same time, the expectations for what makes work not only “good” but even a “job” keep falling. It’s hard to fight for better (and less) work in light of decades of defeat for workers as an organized force, years of lingering post-crisis fallout and constant reminders that neighbours, robots, migrants…everyone is coming for whatever job you may have left (I have an article about this last bit in the upcoming issue of Briarpatch).

In a world of part-timers, permatemps, temporary migrants, contractors, sub-contractors, Uber “partners”, Taskrabbits and many others unemployed, the good job means something different than it did several decades ago. The white and male world of the “Golden Age” job is not yet gone but continues to be aggressively dismantled. We should be wary of misplaced nostalgia for the past or magic policy bullets that elide transformations.

Despite this, struggles over how work is organized remain central to how social life is organized. So even as the engine of job crapification makes its way through the world of work, we should be ready to demand more when the conditions are ripe. Progress in making jobs worse has been accompanied by continued technological change that could be making work shorter, easier, better-rewarded at the very least – at best, building conditions to transform social relations.

These scribblings are occasioned by a request to submit a micro (100 to 200-word) proposal for a local conference on the topic of creating good jobs in British Columbia. In truth we need thousands of words to assess our weaknesses, our strengths, our tactics and our strategies; in short, how to organize. I cannot pretend to know concrete demands that energies can coalesce around, whether locally or broadly. Demands are born out of organization. (more…)

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Actually making the carbon tax revenue neutral could fund a fair education settlement

As the teachers’ strike continues, the BC Liberals have turned to an old stand-by: fear-mongering that they will have to raise taxes if they are to fund a settlement that includes key demands like class size and composition limits. Ignore the fact that the government has shown itself consistently unwilling to even consider any such settlement; ignore also that there is nothing inherently evil about taxes. Even taking the government seriously here, there’s one source of education funding that the BC Liberals aren’t talking about, the carbon tax.

While debate rages about whether BC’s carbon tax is regressive or progressive, there is another aspect of the tax that has not received enough attention: the carbon tax has been used to actually justify cutting taxes by stealth. Indeed, the additional tax cuts being made under the cover of the carbon tax are estimated to amount to an average of $293 million per year for the next three budgets, according to the government’s own projections. That’s more than enough to fund the projected annual cost of class size and composition limits, projected to be $225 million per year.

The BC Liberals have pushed the carbon tax as a revenue-neutral measure. This means that all the tax collected in the form of the carbon tax is supposed to be offset by tax cuts elsewhere. Whatever our opinion of the carbon tax itself, the government has consistently overshot how much it cuts taxes to make up for collecting carbon tax revenue – and this overshooting has consistently been in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, or 10 to 20 percent of carbon tax revenues. Not learning from the past, the government is budgeting overshooting to continue into the future. (more…)

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BC teachers and First Nations on the frontlines

My guests today help take a fresh look at two issues where British Columbia is on the front lines of bigger social conflicts: that over the future of public education and that over resource development on First Nations lands.

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After Mount Polley disaster, time to question business as usual

There are many frames that can be used to try to understand the disaster that unravelled last week at the Mount Polley mine in central British Columbia when a dam holding in a tailings pond burst and spilled millions of litres of toxic sludge into creeks and lakes. My aim here is to make such an attempt using the metaphor of embedded, concentric circles that draw on broader and broader contexts of the spill.

At the centre is the mine. The very first reports and company statements claimed that the dam holding the tailings pond at Mount Polley mine was functioning correctly – that it was business as usual, interrupted by a freak accident. It has, however, quickly become clear that there is a history of significant negligence at the mine, specifically to do with the dam. Engineers, workers, a former foreman and government inspectors had all warned about small failures and violations that could easily lead to disaster. This week proved to be the proverbial last straw.

(more…)

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On talking about priorities: Oil spills and teachers strikes

On the same day one week ago, teachers in British Columbia began a full strike and the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline was approved by the Canadian government. With such telling coincidences, it is hard not to juxtapose the two broad social conflicts in which BC has become a flashpoint: that over the quality of public education and that over the expansion of fossil fuel development.

This juxtaposition is made across the board. Writing in support of additional education spending financed by higher taxes, SFU economist Krishna Pendakur closes with this point:

B.C. must be one of very few places in the world where “invest in our future” means “invest in liquefied natural gas” and not “invest in the education of our children.”

(more…)

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