Wednesday, March 22, 2017

On Information Resources For GSAs

On Twitter's #abed / #ableg feeds yesterday, we were treated to a rather public meltdown by opponents of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) over content on C.H.E.W. Project's website.


Apparently, the "issue" is that they object to one particular resource - a set of information cards which is an "A-Z" of sexual terminology commonly used in LGBT circles (although I should point out that with only a few exceptions, most of the practices are also engaged in by heterosexuals as well).



I decided to go have a closer look at the content on C.H.E.W. Project's resources page.  I'll come back to the overall content.  One document in particular seems to have got the ire of parents:  "Sex From A-Z Cards: Information For Young Gay and Bisexual Men".  Each card consists of a graphic and an obverse which is the meaning for the letter, as shown below. 


Each term is given a brief definition, as well as how to mitigate the risks associated with STI and Hepatitis transmission associated with it.  I'll grant that if you're not "into" these practices yourself, some of them can sound pretty off-putting, but remember that everyone's sexuality is unique.  What gets you going is going to be seen as "ewww" for someone else.   

A brief perusal of the rest of the C.H.E.W. Project's resources page is clearly some excellent documents filled with relevant information and web resource links that anyone should be happy to have access to.  Knowing that information is available to youth who are coming into their sexuality today is a relief.  It might be unsettling to a few, but most parents I know would be happy to see their teens able to access that kind of quality information (objective, well researched, etc).  A heck of a lot better than the "schoolyard wisdom" I remember, and much easier for parents who are often uncomfortable talking about sex and sexuality with their children - all the more so if their children are not straight.  

The argument that this is "grooming" is ridiculous hyperbole.  It goes back to the old myth that LGBT adults are some kind of predator always on the lookout for vulnerable youth to "recruit" into their "licentious lifestyle".  We know today that this is at best hyperbole, at worst a gross mischaracterization of the sexual minorities as a whole.  

Frankly, parents who are "worried" about their children being exposed to this material would do a damn sight better to pay attention to the kind of material routinely available on hangouts like 4chan and 8chan.  The material routinely accessible through such sites makes anything they are getting upset about look positively tame.  By the time most kids are 12 or 13, they've probably seen stuff on the internet that would horrify their parents ... if they knew.  


Monday, March 20, 2017

Good-bye PC Party

On Saturday, March 18 2017, the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta (PCAA) voted to self immolate.  They chose Jason Kenney as their next leader.

Long time readers here will have long understood that I have been no fan of the PCs for a long time.  In my opinion, they lost their way under Ralph Klein and never have recovered the Lougheed era instinct for doing the best for Alberta.  Instead, they had degenerated into a party so desperate to maintain its grip on power that all that mattered was jingoism and following the demands of a shrinking base of support.

After Peter Lougheed, we were visited upon by Don Getty - a man who wasn't even a shadow of Lougheed - he started the party on the path of knee-jerk reactionary politics.  Then we got Ralph Klein.  Everybody in Alberta seems to revere Klein for "balancing the budget", but what he really did was turn the party on the path of jingoism and sound bite politics.

Klein's success depended on two things: his ability to read the political winds in the province and high resource prices for either oil or natural gas.  Building on George H. W. Bush's "read my lips, no new taxes" moment, Klein would float trial balloons around topics and see how the public responded before actually implementing it.  Numerous times, the Klein government floated trial balloons that would have resulted in dismantling our public healthcare system.  The public outrage that followed was always just enough to get him to back down.  Realistically, Klein's legacy turned out to be a balanced budget at the cost of crumbling infrastructure and a government so dependent on resource revenues that an economic downturn quickly becomes a crippling disaster.

Between Klein and Kenney, the party lurched from leader to leader.  Selecting the mediocre Stelmach who couldn't figure out how to balance the demands of the religious base and the rest of Alberta to maintain electability.  Then choosing Redford who turned out to be a puppet to the demands of the party insiders, and lacked judgment in how she presented things to the public.  The choice of Jim Prentice in 2014 turned out to be fatal.  Prentice was a smart man, but utterly lacking in any ability to read the mood of the public.  The 2015 election turned out to be a series of bungled, arrogant sounding moments which the NDP was able to capitalize on.

Ever since the 2015 election, there has been an ongoing temper tantrum among Alberta's political right.  They cannot believe that they lost an election, much less an election to a dreaded "socialist" party.  Jason Kenney decided that there was political opportunity for him in "uniting" the "divided" right.  He has spent the last six months orchestrating what amounts to a "hostile takeover"  of the PCs.  Reaching out to his base of socially conservative voters, he brought in new members (many of whom are understood to also hold membership in the WildRose party).  Having dangled the prospect of an immediate return to power, many within the existing PC party ranks fell in line behind him, and a majority of party delegates voted for him on Saturday.

Whatever happens next, be it a mass crossing to the WildRose, or a whole new party emerging, the PCs are no longer a force on the Alberta political scene.  Philosophically, Jason Kenney is much more at home in the WildRose tent than in what was the supposed PC tent.  He's a staunch social conservative.  I don't think you can call him a fiscal conservative either. He may talk about "balanced budgets" and "lower taxes", but that only goes as far as its ability to get him votes.

The party that emerges from this will be far more "WildRose" (possibly more extreme, actually) than it will be PC.  The dominant forces in the WildRose party have been intrinsically rooted in the rural social conservative base for ages, and more progressive elements have bene systematically squeezed out.  I fully expect to see the same thing happen in the PCs with this merger.  Kenney has never been one to engage with people who don't see the world through his lens.  I don't expect him to be willing to engage with his critics directly.

There have been attempts to moderate the WRP platform over the years, and "grand success" in that area has been declarations not to talk about social issues.  Real progressive - "shhh...we don't talk about things like that any more" - sounds like a grandmother in the 1950s talking about the cousin or uncle who was a "confirmed bachelor" (code phrase for homosexual at one time).   Kenney's response to challenges of his voting record in Parliament have been similar in tone.

I see it as very unlikely that this "new" party of Kenney's will be much more than a rehash of the Alberta Alliance / WildRose Party.  Fiscal austerity and socially backwards will be their watchwords. If you care about social justice, human rights, or even something as fundamental as access to health care, this won't be your political home. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

On Budgets and Deficits In Alberta

Today was budget day in Alberta.  More or less, the NDP government brought in the budget that had been expected.  Continued spending on big ticket items that have been put off for years, if not decades.

Predictably both the PC and WildRose opposition parties are crying foul.  The argument is largely that "running up the debt" is a bad thing.  I'd agree ... but for a few small details that both parties are ignoring.  Decades of PC unwillingness to put money into infrastructure has left Alberta's infrastructure years behind where it needs to be.  Edmonton's Misericordia Hospital is apparently in horrible shape; The Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary has been past capacity for years.  The SW Ring Road in Calgary is desperately needed, and there is a laundry list of infrastructure needed throughout the province.

But, the cry from Alberta's right wing politicians is "don't spend during a downturn!".  Let's look at for a minute.

In the short term, this is an ideal time for the government to invest in infrastructure.  Interest rates are still at record lows, material costs are down in some areas, and labour costs will be down compared to what they were at the height of the last boom.  From an investment standpoint, this fits the "low" part of the "buy low, sell high" maxim.  Let's face it, infrastructure is never cheap - it's an investment.

In particular, the Tom Baker replacement has been on the books since sometime in the mid-2000s, and successive PC governments have deferred it time and again on the basis that "now wasn't the time", or "we can't afford it".  This kind of parsimonious thinking pretty much means that anything bigger than a cartful of groceries gets turned into a political football.

The next argument from the political right is that by accruing debt, we are saddling our children with these costs.  This is a more debatable point.  While I certainly have objections to operational deficits (and the NDP deficit includes operational deficit as well as capital spending deficit), it is foolish in the extreme to look at government debt so simplistically.

First, we need to distinguish between operating deficit and capital expenditure related deficit.  Rutherford tried to structure the books to make this distinction, but the brain trust in the WildRose squawked about it as "deceitful", instead of understanding the difference.

An operational deficit is something you might tolerate for a brief period of time - a year or two perhaps before making changes to operations to change cost structures.  Businesses deal with this all the time using revolving lines of credit.  Most individuals do this in their daily lives using credit cards.  When times are hard, we do whatever we have to in order to finance the basics of life - food, clothing, and shelter in particular.  If we're between jobs, or working a job which isn't quite carrying us, we put money on our credit card, or borrow against our homes as a short term measure.  We know it's not great, but we do it.  Alberta has been in the teeth of a downturn which has only just started to show signs of having reached its bottom.  An operational deficit at this time isn't great, but it's not the end of the world either.

Capital expenditures are usually much larger, and need to be dealt with differently.  Buildings, roads, vehicles are all examples of capital expenditures.  Individually, we make these expenditures by borrowing to fund them, and we repay that loan over time.  Few of us have the luxury of being able to plunk down $500,000 to purchase a house, or even $25,000 to purchase a car.  We take out loans to finance this.  On the scale that governments operate, hospitals cost billions of dollars (The new cancer centre in Calgary is expected to cost $1,500,000,000 - a somewhat larger number than your average house purchase), as do the roadways in our cities and towns.  Water treatment systems cost millions, the networks of pipes to our homes are worth billions.  It is not unreasonable for the government to borrow funds for these kinds of expenditures.

In the post-WWII era, our parents and grandparents invested willingly and heavily in one of the biggest infrastructure projects in human history.  New roads were built, cities grew, hospitals were added, water and wastewater infrastructure grew enormously.  They willingly paid taxes to help build this infrastructure, and to operate it.  Even here in conservative Alberta, we undertook these projects. Governments funded them by borrowing - often using bond funds and other investment vehicles as well as loans (anybody else remember the Canada Savings Bond? - that was effectively the government borrowing from its citizens).  We didn't build those roads using money that was at hand - we borrowed to do it then.  We need to borrow to do the same thing now.

Successive PC governments were already running deficits in the years leading up to 2014 (peak boom I will point out).  That was the first clue that we have a revenue problem in the government.  When oil prices tanked, and with it government royalty revenues (which are tied to market prices), it became abundantly clear that the tax revenues available to the government were inadequate.  In response, the NDP government has taken steps to correct this, including introducing a carbon tax (I would have argued for a sales tax in preference, but in this province, that's going to take a level of political will that I don't think even the NDP has).

On the drive home this evening, I heard the PCs going on about how government tax revenues were "drying up because nobody is working", and "the tax regime is so burdensome that companies are fleeing Alberta".  Yes, the investment landscape is changing, and capital is drifting away from the oil sands.  But, it is debatable how much that has to do with taxation.  Tax rates overall are much lower than they were during holy days of Ralph Klein.  Companies don't "flee" because of relatively minor changes in the tax regime.  Companies like Shell, Exxon-Mobil and others have operations in regions where the tax burden is considerably higher than it is in Canada, so this argument doesn't make a lot of sense.  The PC argument was basically "we're going to cut all the taxes and restore our tax advantage" - an advantage which simply was illusory at best.  Employment won't magically happen - the issues aren't simply one of giving energy companies a tax holiday.

We also have to acknowledge that the Permian Basin discovery in Texas is going to attract a lot of development dollars that Alberta is competing for.  It is a much less expensive to exploit find than Alberta's oil sands.  Given the recent "buy American" stance of the newly minted Trump administration, one can imagine that the American based companies will be very interested in focusing their energies there.  This is a political reality which the government of Alberta has little or no influence over.  Practically speaking, it means that oil sands _expansion_ will be at a standstill for the time being.  However, given that we charge next to nothing for the production from an expansion project, I don't see this as a bad thing.

The WildRose and PCAA arguments on this front are ludicrous.  Alberta's population is now the 4th largest in Canada.  We can't operate as if we are a wealthy family living on a trust fund any more.  It's time for Alberta to grow up, and face the fiscal realities directly.  It is ironic that it has taken an NDP government to actually face that reality.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Senator Plett Reprises His Complaints on Bill C-16

Whether we are talking about Bill C-16, Bill C-279 or Bill C-389, there has been one consistent thing in the Senate - the voice of Senator Plett droning on about how terrible this legislation is.  This week, second reading of Bill C-16 happened in the Senate, and sure enough Senator Plett had to stick his oar into the waters (audio here ... if you can stomach it).

I'm not going to dwell overly much on the whining note that Senator Plett starts off with: