Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Leaders Debate - Kitchener Residents Unmoved/Uninterested By Dramatic Narratives

Out of the ten Kitchener Centre voters I asked on the #8 University/Westmount bus this morning, only three had watched any of last night's leaders debate. Of those three, none had significantly changed their opinion of the leaders or their vote intention on Oct 6. Of the other seven, five had answered "maybe/yes" on whether they intended to cast a ballot and four out of five answered yes on whether they definitely knew who they intended to cast it for.

Sure, I'm no pollster, and ten voters certainly don't make up a poll, but these people here in town corresponded with the public mood I've noticed in this election campaign, which is a mix of uncertainty and ambivalence. The complete opposite of the confident and fired-up leaders we watched on TV last night. And maybe the word on the street in Ontario today in response to last night's broadcast is "Turn down the bombast, turn up the substance".

Much of the media reports today are focused on the leaders' performances. Hudak kept his calm, Horwath kept her poise, McGuinty demonstrated passion and excitement to convince those who think he might be spent after eight years that he's got gas in the tank. This is unfortunate. It's really great that the leaders got their delivery and emotions under control but they're not auditioning for roles in a film. The first questions were about specific issues affecting specific demographics: graduate and youth unemployment, seniors being able to afford to keep their homes, students struggling with bills and debt. Predictably, every response amounted to what people wanted to hear: You're getting the shaft, we know this, and we'll actually imporove things for people in your situation if you vote for us. We'll spend more here, give you a tax credit there, and relieve some charges here. McGuinty as an incumbent had some awkward dancing to do here, as his two opponents mocked him for suddenly deciding to create programs and initiatives for an election campaign when many of these issues have been festering for years.

But when Mike from Toronto directly asked the leaders the question so many Ontarians who know about our enormous fiscal challenges are asking: "What sacrifices are you going to require?", they avoided it entirely. A question that for once didn't frame our society as a bunch of dependent children with our hands out asking "What are you going to give/do for us?", but as mature adults asking "What will we have to do, since we are informed enough to see sacrifices will be required?", ultimately went unanswered. I understand the calculation that goes into this - leaders don't want to be on the hook for a statement that they are going to cut something and pay an electoral price so close to the finish line - but it saddens me that we have such a dearth of real leadership.

The rest of the evening revolved around McGuinty engaging in the same kind of rah-rah hubris Canadians used to mock America for: about how we have the best schools, the best jobs, we're creating thousands of jobs, and we're ahead on the curve on Green Energy. In other words, trying to explain to Ontarians why they live in the best darn place on earth. Some may want this from a leader, but others (like me) find it overbearing and embarassing. Hudak, meanwhile, castigated the government's record and seemed to suggest that if we opt for another McGuinty term, we might as well all buy our one-way tickets to Bangladesh right now, because we'd be better off there. He reminded us that sticking with his party would guarantee us all the ultimate cheeze-whiz slogan on record in recent memory, a "Ticket to the middle class", to "buy a home and raise a family." All aboard the Hudak express, with your middle class tickets!

Horwath stuck to what she does best, railing against the two corporate yes-men in suits who have given away billions to corporations in tax cuts and are out of touch with regular people. She related stories of women she talked to across the province feeling the pinch and struggling in 2011. You might choose her if you're disillusioned, or you might think long and hard about what you're being offered in general here.

Because the truth is we're not living in McGuinty's whiz-bang, bullet train, electric cars, "exciting" (his favourite adjective last night) clean energy revolution yet. The roads are clogged with traffic, hospital ERs are backed up into the street, and meaningful employment remains hard to come by for no less than 16.9% of people under age 29. At the same time, Hudak's narrative of dire straits and crushing tax burdens is slightly overstated. All across the GTA, Southern Ontario, and here in Waterloo Region, new developments of townhouses, big box, and McMansions continue to mushroom around the highways and outskirts. Within these, there are usually two fairly new vehicles in every driveway. I think less people need places on his middle class train than he thinks.

Why can't leaders celebrate what we've accomplished as a society, such as nobody starving to death or being turned away for medical care (even if they have to wait hours, weeks, or months) instead of endlessly promising that we'll be bigger and better? And why not admit that the status quo is not working for certain people and explain how to productively address those gaps, instead of pretending the whole population is hurting so bad that it's ripe to storm the legislature tomorrow. I wish the debate featured less exaggeration and hyperbole. If it did, I suspect more Ontarians, and Kitchener residents, might have tuned in.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs – Repetition Doesn’t Equal Competence

If there’s anything the Ontario Liberals, PCs, and NDP agree on, it’s that too many people are unemployed (550,000 men and women). And what they’re all currently doing is trying to convince voters that electing their party will singlehandedly improve the situation overnight.

"We need to put more money back into peoples' pockets" thundered Tim Hudak on a tele-town hall with voters in Kitchener Centre on Sunday. "We're gonna drain the swamp of red tape so businesses can get back to what is important to our economy: Creating Jobs"

Such was the theme echoed, in some way or another, in most of Mr. Hudak's responses to voters here in Kitchener Centre. Local candidate Dave MacDonald only spoke twice during the call.

There is a lot of anxiety about the job market, and the jobs issue has dominated this campaign as it has all other recent campaigns in North America. Politicians are eager to capitalize on the issue and portray themselves as most able to redress it. Mr. Hudak went as far as to blame Mr. McGuinty for the "part-time, low-wage jobs" he says will disappear under him, in favour of "high paying, full-time, private sector" jobs, which will allow people to "buy a home and start a family". It’s hard to believe a heavily-indebted government like Ontario’s could make such a promise a reality.

This line of logic may seem effective in appealing to elusive "suburban, middle class" voters politicians of all stripes are convinced are the bread and butter they need to earn to win elections. However, a counterintuitive approach toward this demographic may be in order. This voter has already achieved what he’s being told to aspire for. And does he a) find things so bad that he wants a sea change in public policy or b) want the government to focus on enabling millions more to have an easier time acquiring what he did? The PCs may find on October 6th that relentlessly focusing on the suburbs trying to foment unease and anxiety about their rivals may backfire on them. Because although the Liberals' talk of stable management and laying the foundation for tomorrow's economy may also be vague, unverifiable chatter, on decision day it will come down to which party's rhetoric the voter finds less odious

The leaders’ announcements about jobs, the middle class, growth and prosperity are deceptive chimeras. We are seeing the ugly head of the global economy being reared, from migration of cheap labour to new markets, to automation and technology reducing corporate head counts and increasing productivity, to sustained anemic/negative growth, as tapped-out governments and citizens grapple with sky-high and rising debt loads (also, Ontario manufacturing relied on cheap currency to boost exports for too long). The tinkering a Canadian provincial government can do with credentialing immigrants, or its tax structure, or business regulation amounts to just that: tinkering.

Lowering the corporate tax rate by another 1.5% and further subsidizing electricity, the two economic initiatives the Hudak Conservatives are proposing, will not fire the cylinders of Canada’s “economic engine” into a GDP-growth roar. But equally doubtful are the Liberals' "green energy of tomorrow plans". Green energy is still a costly and unproven project at this point, providing a small token amount of energy, and McGuinty's wish that "1 in 20 vehicles be electric by 2020" ignores the inconvenient fact that 10% of cars being electric would bring down the whole grid.

When local Liberal M.P.P. John Milloy told me in reference to Green Energy: “The fact is we need to kick-start this that there's a market for it. People are going to start to invest and we need to incent development”, I couldn't help but admire the nobility of the objective that aimed to replace the manufacturing economy of old, while cringing at the thought of the Obama administration's disastrous implementing of similar policies.

Local NDP Candidate Cameron Dearlove, who is an employment counselor by trade, stressed to me the importance of “targeted initiatives” to help people find work, as these were what he found most effective in his experience. He critiqued the Liberals’ 2nd career program, which he said “basically funneled a bunch of money into private career colleges with no strings attached and no follow up” and stressed that NDP would be very focused on getting people back to work. And Mark Vercourteren stressed the need for healthy local food production, and healthy local small business communities which he views as inextricably linked.

Meanwhile, the business world, the economic world, and the market will continue to roll on unpredictably, no matter what some Ontario would-be politicians think. This article, about middle-aged unemployment, and this one, about the near-impossibility of future growth, should make everyone cognizant of the new reality: that everyone is a free-agent, highly transient worker in this 21st century society, who has to save as many dollars as possible if they’re lucky enough to be earning them, or make themselves useful in as unique a way possible if they’re not. Otherwise they’re going to pass a lot of rough days and nights hoping the hollow promises of candidates to inherit a terribly large deficit will come true.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Green Energy in Ontario – Cutting Through the Convoluted Smog of Political Promises

If "our families" found out what this was costing, this is what a 2011 version of calvary hill would look like

Kitchener is not Shelburne or Essex, where the clash between citizens and the Liberal government over green energy is visible to all on roadside signs. But as an Ontario community, it figures into the same plan the Liberal government has made a central plank: The Green Energy Act. Sure, one will not encounter any “Stop The Wind Turbines” signs here. And the City of Kitchener website touts the town's green credentials by showcasing the new Kitchener Operations Facility and its 600 kW photovoltaic rooftop solar installation, the largest in Canada. People who have lived here long enough also remember that the city spawned the first ever blue box recycling program, in 1981. But is “being green” as simple as accepting the Liberal government's legislation and plans at face value?

If you haven't driven through the countryside of Southern Ontario this summer to see the places this is making waves for yourself, a “wind turbines Ontario” Google search will reveal an animated conversation surrounding this issue. There are alarming anecdotes of billions of dollars wasted. Studies ignored. Barely 30% of the power getting used, and New York State being paid to take it off of our hands. Multinational corporations being paid 80 cents a kilowatt hour, when the market rate is 6 to 9.5 cents on your hydro bill in Southern Ontario. How do we navigate and verify this information? What is it about green energy which inspires passion for some, while most of us haven't a clue what's at stake?

Green energy comes from wind turbines and solar panel installations, both large ones built with public-private partnerships and small ones built on peoples' properties. Once they are up and running, the government pays an incentive (a fee) to compensate the property owner or enterprise whose land they are on. This is called the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) program. So we pay 6 to 9.5 cents per Kilowatt hour, for regular electricity generated by coal, hydro, or uranium (nuclear), and “green electricity” is subsidized by the government so the producers of it earn up to 80 cents per kilowatt hour.

Now here's the crazy part. Someone with a windmill or solar panels could be generating their own electricity for themselves. But to qualify for that subsidy, the power has to go back (be fed in) to the grid. And more often than not, it doesn't get used. Only 30% of the electricity generated by wind actually gets used in Ontario. Technology to store and move the energy around as is done now with hydro, coal and uranium is not off the ground.

So why are we doing this?

The government will tell you why in a heartbeat: creating jobs, reducing our dependence on “dirty” energy, and being a world leader in a new industry. Win, win, win. But a lot of people find their hydro bills suddenly high, and it appears the opposition parties sense their electoral fortunes will greatly improve if they can demonstrate that it's due to these policies. They'd be right and they'd be, well, oversimplifying. Despite the complexity of this Green Energy program and the public's general disengagement from it, there are some concrete problems it's trying to address. Coal-related pollution is said to cause hundreds, if not thousands of deaths each year in Ontario. And the upgrades just to meet existing demand and maintain our nuclear fleet as is are in the tens of billions, not counting increased future demand. What do you believe, and who do you believe? Clearly, there are issues with our current energy system, so at the very least government should get points for effort for trying to address it. But I'm not going to leave it there and take their word for it.

When I started researching, I only understood green energy in vague terms. Going out to talk to some Kitchener Centre residents, I found out it was the same for them. While they may have been supportive of environmentalism and “clean” energy in general, they could not explain how this program actually works, and whether or not the energy is being used. That's a concern in a city and province three weeks away from an election in which this issue is a main one. Energy is already more expensive, everywhere, all the time, and Ontarians are not world-renowned for their conservation habits. Nobody should take for granted that green energy will solve all this; on the contrary, the current arrangement deserves scrutiny so voters can understand what it's all about. It's their money, their energy, and their future. So I hit the streets of Kitchener Centre to find out more about what people thought about green energy.

Local resident Connie said “Green energy's important because the environment it self’s only got so many resources to work with.”

Is she supportive of it right now under the current regime?

“It's a start. I don't know if its actually where we need to be, but its a start.”

I asked if she had a good understanding of how it fits in with “conventional” sources of energy.

“Not completely – I know we're trying to be environmentally conscious” She didn't know if all the “clean” or “renewable” energy gets used.

I then asked Jordan, another voter, if he was supportive of green energy. “A little bit...I'd like to be more, but I don't know if there's enough of it out there.” I asked him if he was supportive of the current green energy policy. He said hesitantly said “yes”, and when I asked him if he thought it all got used, he said he didn't know.

The voter has to assume that the intention is for future clean energy to make up a significant proportion of energy consumed in this province, rather than the token amount it currently provides. It's hard not to favour using already-blowing wind to power turbines to generate electricity over, say, enriching uranium or burning coal, if only the choice were that simple. But what to do with this inconvenient truth (and one of the main arguments of Wind Concerns Ontario and other anti-wind activists) that only about a third of the power generated can be used because the technology does not exist to store and transport it?

I asked Liberal Cabinet Minister John Milloy, who is running for re-election in Kitchener Centre, if the government planned to improve this low conversion rate. He didn't comment directly on wind, but told me: “Technologies are developing. The solar (industry) is working on new ways to (move the panels around to) allow more of the energy to be captured.” He jokingly referred to himself as an “old guy, who remembers when a calculator was a major purchase for a household, and when laptop computers cost 5 or $10,000” In other words, the laptop computer I am writing this article on is much more powerful than a million dollar computer the size of this room from thirty years ago. The government is taking a gamble that the same trend will materialise in the green energy industry, and hopes it will pay off in the form of jobs and more environmentally friendly electricity. A big risk which could pay off, but could just as easily prove costly because of its size – big. I gathered as much when he said “The fact is we need to kick-start this that there's a market for it. People are going to start to invest and we need to incent development”

I then asked Mr. Milloy what the government's long term plan was for subsidising rates and when we could expect it to end, or basically have green energy available to be purchased at current market rates.

He explained to me that to produce this energy, “(We) negotiate iron clad contracts with individuals and companies. The first group in (right now) is paid at high rates. Every few years, rates are reviewed and the curve will start to go down.” He stated to me that “future contracts will not be as generous, because as costs go down, competition goes up. Of course the government wants to reduce the prices, he said, but the first priority is "to incent the activity...And to be crystal clear,” he concluded, “if you've signed a contract, you're guaranteed that rate.”

Through these subsidies, the government provided an attractive environment to operate in and convinced farmers or rural dwellers or companies that green energy projects were a worthwhile investment. The subsidies may seem extreme and possibly wasteful; coupling them with the problem executing green energy projects because we lack the ability to absorb energy that generates in unpredictable amounts and at erratic intervals leaves me wondering how supportive a fully aware electorate would be.

With that, I sought responses from the opposition candidates hoping to succeed Mr. Milloy on what needed to change with current green energy policy, starting with Kitchener Centre NDP candidate Cameron Dearlove:

“I think the main difference in our policy is that we believe we could build it ourselves and do so in a more cost-effective way. So I think if you look at the Green Energy Act, we really like it, especially for small scale producers, farmers, people that want to put solar panels on their property...we're all for that. The problem that we see is when we provide rates that are so high to large-scale producers who don't give as much local control to people as we would like. Also we have to consider that if its so lucrative for these companies who are coming in here and doing this...we could do it ourselves. Build it ourselves, for a lower price, and actually then build more...using the same amount of money.”

It seemed like he was supportive of the concept but questioned the opacity and the top-down directive nature of the government's dealings. There is also the multibillion dollar, no-bid contract that was granted to Samsung behind closed doors that is indirectly addressed in his comment. All the opposition parties are jumping on because of its terrible optics. I also asked Green Party Candidate Mark Vercourteren what he thought about all this unused power that was (pardon the pun) blowin' in the wind. He told me:

“There's a plan to make a smart grid where the idea is the energy would go to the closest place and then go farther and away. Places like Northern Ontario...get their energy from down here and then has to travel all the way up there. Energy generated locally would be used in the closest place first.”

I thought it sounded like a good theory, but it became abstract when I tried to visualise it, for the same reason of the unproven and undeveloped technology it would require.

Progressive Conservative candidate Dave MacDonald could not be reached for this article. Emails, phone calls and tweets to him all went unanswered. I did, however, listen in on a “tele-town-hall” with him and Tim Hudak yesterday (that I was solicited for as a voter; it had nothing to do with Speak Your Mind.) and Messrs. Hudak and MacDonald did not address green energy or the Green Energy Act specifically during the talk; only reiterated the points from Changebook, which are that they would scrap Smart Meters, HST on Hydro and Heat, and the Debt Retirement Charge on hydro bills. They also stated the need to focus on “reliable energy which is essential to our economy” and ending “expensive experiments”, but did not provide examples on what this meant or how they would make it happen.

I know that everybody likes clean, renewable energy, or should, but the Liberals seem to view any critique of the way they've rolled it out as a direct criticism of the idea itself. The PC platform, meanwhile, seems to have the best slogans, about “not making seniors wake up at six in the morning to do laundry”, but this is more of a grab bag of crowd-pleasers than substantive talk about what's wrong and where we need to go. The NDP and Greens have some concrete policies to address some of my concerns that came up as I learned more about Green Energy, but it is difficult to imagine them being legislated or put into practice.

I'm afraid I'm not much further than where I started. Its sad that when you go to vote, on this issue, you'll not be asking yourself “Which party's policy on Green Energy do I like best” but “Which party's incomplete and contradictory narrative on Green Energy do I like best.” Coming up next: The eternal “jobs” question, and the disillusionment surrounding it.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Welcome to my media nightmare - Halloween comes six weeks early for the Fords

We're gonna be a very prosperous city. Soon, all work will be videoconferenced from the insides of an eternel, never ending traffic jam. And we'll get the CRTC to only renew CFRBs licence

There's a pretty silent snarly pumpkin on the Ford's doorstep right now answering all the bait in the media calling them out for their ridiculous charade of a municipal government. Except the outlets knocking on their door ditched the "trick or treat" and went straight to the "F--- YOU!" Ford's talking about selling off the zoo, but people are only supportive because they think he's referring to city hall. Welcome to the new Toronto: cheap, dumb, arrogant, short-sighted. Where all official policies are so misguided that not even a contest-winning costume could make them look reasonable.

Look at the papers. Look at the blogs. Look at the comment boards. The emporer Ford has been stripped of his clothes, and this time by a much wider range of publications than NOW magazine. The man who mortified progressives, liberals, and what Chantal Hebert calls "the chattering classes" for mostly abstract reasons is now mortifying well, just about anybody who looks at him for some quite concrete reasons.

After deliberately depriving the city of hundreds of millions of dollars due to a reckless property tax freeze and ending of the vehicle registration tax, and spending new money on such vital expenditures as salary increases for already overpaid cops and firefighters and the removal of bike lanes, the chickens have come home to roost. Ford and his tough talkin' brother's threats to gut transit, librairies, and parks have Torontonians now going "Huh?" This was the man, after all, elected on the untenable and unrealistic premise to "stop the gravy train" while not making a single cut to services.

Alas, the electorate was made victim to an elaborate PR exercise orchestrated by a man named Nick Kouvalis, who I feel comfortable calling the "Karl Rove of Canadian Municipal Politics". Rove, of course, was the close confidant and strategist to former U.S. President George W. Bush, so tight with him that he has been referred to at times as his "brain". He was also the man who convinced U.S. voters that the Ivy League educated, Conneticut-raised son of a former President who had an unlimited supply of contacts, money, and expertise to burn through whenever he failed at something in life was actually a tough-talkin, hard-workin, truck-drivin' maverick Texas Ranch hand. It was not surprising that Bush proceeded to pile on trillions to the U.S. debt through unfunded wars and tax cuts.

Fast-forward to October 2010. Kouvalis's PR brilliance allowed the relatively obscure son of a Member of Provincial Parliament (Douglas Ford Sr.) who had toiled in a city council office for 11 years to suddenly become "the best man for the job", a "political outsider" whose support was burgeoning like wildfire. Suddenly the hand-picked employee of the printing business that Douglas Ford Sr. established and built is a "small business owner" with "private sector experience" who "understands how to make payroll and control costs". And this knowledge of a man who has never had to apply for a real job on his own merits in his life (the Fords are well established politically in Etobicoke, again thanks to the father, so getting a seat in low-turnout municipal elections was probably easy enough with the last name alone) allowed him to get elected to "take the power back for taxpayers". Its amazing how this narrative was swallowed with such little scrutiny by the electorate.

But keys to a Corvette do nothing to prevent a car wreck, and keys to the city clearly do not preclude a (gravy) train wreck. Torontonians today are shocked to learn that they are stuck with not one but two Fords, as the mayor has made his brother Doug Jr., with a whopping 11 months of city council experience, his chief policy advisor and spokesperson. Torontonians now have a banana republic governance structure similar to that of certain African nations Mel Lastman was scared to travel to because of their "boiling" practices. The media talks more to Doug now than they do to Rob. And the bros vision of the city - highways, byways, mega-malls subdivisions,and nobody on the street - is scaring the hell out of a lot of people.

Ford disappointed a lot of people when he announced that he would be seeking to spend 4 times the cost of planned above ground transit track on 4 times as little underground track. The grade three math missed in that announcement should have indicated that the mayor is a few loaves short of a baker's dozen. But him describing his own whims and those of the people calling his office as the opinions of "taxpayers" - "Getting rid of the plastic bag tax, taxpayers can't stand it. Getting rid of bike lanes, taxpayers can't stand them." - hinges on delusional. And Doug Ford's courageous vision for the Mega-Mall at Waterfront, inspired by the social issue that's keeping him up all night: Canadians not having access to the retail square footage space per capita as Americans ("I don't know about you, but I got four women at home who love to shop, nyuk nyuk nyuk"). This quote shows how, I'm sorry, pathetic and lame his thinking is. And his "business savvy" that was acquired, again, within the cozy confines of his dad's business, is also lacking, since the millions of empty retail square feet in perpetually slumping America shows just how much mega-malls "stimulate the economy", the other supposed altruistic goal of his vision.

They are free to pursue that vision within the confines of the democratic mandate that has been granted to them by the residents of the city. What we know now that we didn't (but should have) going in is how, like two spoiled children, they now refuse to listen to any dissent or compromise. Why this is scary is it will test the limits of Mayoral Power and the Executive Committee. Rob has already informed the city's largest paper that he doesn't talk to it anymore. With the 2nd largest now publishing stories of his plummeting support and feckless governing, they are no doubt next in line to join his media blacklist. This can all be dismissed as "noise". Crucial council votes and allies, that are starting to waver and break rank because they're uneasy that the disciplined accountability platform they ran on is starting to resemble the boardroom of a company going bust, cannot. Somebody should have informed these guys that politics involves making yourself likable and knowing when to stand firm and when to compromise. Their response to anything that stands in their way is threats, insults, intimidation and ignoring it. Because they are so convinced that 347,000 votes were not mostly protests of the city's infrastructure stagnation and rising cost of living, but personal devotions to him (them) and his (their) ridiculous "Ford Nation" cult. With councillors allied to the Fords speaking out and dissenting in rising numbers and the Waterfront dispute starting to look more like "Waterloo", I'd be surprised if CFRB and the Toronto Sun would even be cool with belonging to Ford Nation by Oct 2014.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Victims of the Modern Age

Thank you for reading Lacking Credentials. Today, I am totally off topic from the Ontario Provincial Election that I am supposed to be covering for the Star, but I can assure you that I will be on track very shortly this week. You will be able to read all those postings here on Lacking Credentials as well as on the Speak Your Mind site, but today I've been hit out of the blue by a bolt of divine inspiration. It happens. I want to talk about one of the very powerful ideas of our time that I think is oversimplified and flawed. The idea of global, computer-driven Interconnectedness.

In this month's Walrus, I read an otherwise thoughtful and introspective piece by a gentleman named Adam Sternbergh in which he reflected on Sept 11, 2011, which happened 10 years ago yesterday. I appreciated everything the author had to say, except for one comment he made. I don't know if his comment is related to the change in his place of residence (he mentioned he was living in Toronto at the time and in New York now), which may have increased his uptake of the New York Times and the Thomas Friedman columns in it. But I heard the same thing from this Canadian guy that I've been hearing from Friedman ad nauseum for years: Technology has made the world “flat”, “hyperconnected”, an “even playing field”, a “village” à la McLuhan, or whatever adjective you want to use (the Walrus guy who set me off on this used the term “hard wired”) and this is related to everything you see unfolding around you. Radical, rapid, accelerating change has occurred in the world due to internet, email, social media, search engines, and cellphones or smartphones.

My response to people making this statement is on the one hand, “Yes, of course”, but on the other hand, “Really?” As much as I agree with you gents that I am “hyperconnected” in theory to some 21 year old guy in Qianching, China, I wish to argue that I am not, because why the hell in a million years would we ever want or need to speak to each other? All that bucket of stuff that makes it easier for me to get in touch with a guy it never would have occurred to me to think of 100 years ago still does not change the fact that me and him have no reason to get in touch with each other. This is a basic point that people pointing to this inescapable reality of hyperconnectedness seem to miss. It means an intellectual laziness is creeping in which is making us start to take this idea for granted as being totally true without thinking about how it plays out in real life.

It is, in substance, the same thing I have wanted to write about Facebook for many months, but the damn thing changes so fast that criticizing its awfulness (which most people are now unanimous in noticing) gets hard because there is a new thing to dislike every day. This time four years ago, I couldn't talk to any of my friends without it becoming the principle topic of conversation. My friends have moved on but their profiles are, for the most part still there,. The site may be useful for other things, like promoting your blog. But whenever you get used to the latest 1200.0 setup, they change it and send you these really airhead sounding messages with a creepy Brave New World aura about them (you can just hear the writer repeating “Everybody belongs to everybody” whispers to him or herself) about how the latest changes are the greatest thing ever. My current disgust with the site is mostly due to the growing number of middle-aged people on it who have fecklessly neglected their networks and friends for years and now creep their old acquaintances for a rush of schadenfraude upon observing their body types (overweight) or marital statuses (divorced). Who knows where it will all end up? I would have got rid of it but I actually needed it for my first unpaid writing gig, which may make you think this is just sour grapes, but its not. I'm not on there because I personally need to be on there. I'm on there because everyone thinks everyone else has to be on there, including the people who launched the forum I'm blogging on for the Ontario election. But humans survived for 42,007 years without Facebook. And they will survive again.

My beef is not with Facebook or Twitter or Linked in or mobile apps. It is with the idea that they have changed the world by making us all one. I say they have added another thing to the world and they exist in it now just like everything else. Of course they are useful and have all kinds of possibilities to help you, and that is why I intend to continue using them. But opportunities have always existed for the humans willing to create them for themselves, and these technologies do not, by virtue of existing, create new opportunities for every single person on earth. There are two reasons for this. Lack of usage, and lack of time.

Lack of usage.

This one is a simple fact that I think everyone knows. Not everyone has a Facebook profile, not everyone has a twitter feed. Believe it or not, millions of people still function with no email address. But, the “hyperconnected” say, television and telephone were once new technologies, and ended up in every home. Yes they did, and now they are on their way out. People are cancelling their cable packages and land lines in droves. I know as many people my age with tv as without. Its taken 50 years but a growing number of people realize there are better things to do.

It does not necessarily follow that technologies are adapted worldwide once implemented. I think the fact that there are more cellphones in the world right now than toilets (proven technology for 150 years) sums that up better than anything I could say.

And within the population that does use these technologies, there is a big chunk, maybe even a majority, of zombie or passive users. Tell me honestly, do you have a relative or friend to whom it is just pointless to send an email? Day after day, crickets chirping, sun rising, no response. You write it off. But then six months later you're standing beside him in someone else's living room drinking beer, talking and you say “Yeah, I actually emailed you about that but I guess you don't check it” to which they answer, almost indignantly “No, I got that. What are you talking about?” People read their emails but have no interest in responding to them, even when it behooves them to do so Now survey the wreckage of abandoned blogs, never-checked Facebooks, and one tweet twitter feeds online. That's all those people who never got past the two-way nature of email.

Why? Because they have no time. The question nobody asks about the lightning fast grid of social media that allows one end of humanity to know when the other has some pointless and idiotic thing to say is what is the next step. When humans reach an unprecedented level of success, they only know how to ask “more” “next” “bigger” “faster” or “crazier”. The brain is not designed to accept the idea of “less”. Examples include agricultural yields with the latest and greatest biotechnology that are now flatlining, Hollywood's original and watchable output that has dwindled to the smallest trickle of watchable films, and the amount of social media vehicles competing for people's time have reached the (excuse the fake guru expression) tipping point. There is this thing they call diminishing returns once something gets too “big”. Let's pretend that the average forty-something, median income suburb dweller in North America with nothing to say decides to fire up his various social media profiles because he's tired of feeling irrelevant and out of touch. It takes him at least three days to get on Facebook, create a twitter, make a linked in profile, and link them all together. That was a waste of a whole weekend, right? No big deal. It's worth it to be hyperconnected.

Except that all the things that once occupied his normal daily life now want to spend time with him on facebook and twitter. He has to “like” subway restaurants, “follow” his favourite politicians, rock stars, and athletes, “connect” with people he may know but really has nothing to do with and who aren't going to be able to help him improve his career prospects, and that's not including invitations, invites, messages and solicitations (“Make $5000 a week at home! Support my run for toenail cancer!”) from his “real” family and friends. Man! Keeping up with this social media is a lot of hard work, but he manages. Barely. Now you're telling me he's connected to people in Romania, India, and the Central African Republic...he's got to add the CEO of a Swedish furniture firm on twitter and check out the facebook page of the most popular columnist at China Daily?...remember that song “He's got the whole his hands”. Well, look at your iphone. It's true now. Except nobody's giving themselves a nervous breakdown actually acting on it, like my fictional friend here is doing and Tom Friedman would have us believe everyone does. Why? Probably because its not human nature to torture ourselves.

Memo to social media CEOs. Things aren't “must have” anymore when everybody has them. And sites aren't “hot” or “social” when Exxonmobil and Shoppers Drug Mart are using them for cynical marketing plugs People will never have the physical time to keep up with every bloody company, musician, brand, country, news headline, and author they have ever had a passing affiliation with in addition to the comings and goings of every single person they've ever known. We're not “hard-wired” that way. It's a simple question of time. On a wine tour yesterday, I listened to two girls behind me (I guessed they were about 18-20) talk non-stop for 5 hours of highway driving time about their blackberries, and the blackberries' capabilities and apps. They were smart and self-aware and even they seemed to find it absurd that they should spend so much time dwelling over this little device and frustrated with how needlessly complicated it was and their lives were for revolving around it. But, for them it has become an indispensable social appendage and thus a fact of life. Until they realize at what point upgrading to and figuring out “the new facebook” app on it is wasting a whole bunch of their time for no other reason than to tune into rants, silliness and drama coming from people they know whoa are struggling to fill the real gaps (relationships, activities) in their lives.

TV us not dead. Great TV shows still come along even though more and more people realize that most of the time, they've got better things to do. So don't get my critique of social media wrong; social media success stories will be abound for years to come as well, and let me restate that for certain things I find it incredibly useful. But its appeal will where off, not because people have better things to do, but because it demands them to do so many things they never had time for to begin with.

*PS - the title may seem appropriate but its really just a plug for Arjen Anthony Lucassen's latest album. I've already ordered my autographed copy. Hey, may as well support your favourite geniuses on your blog

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Kitchener Centre – Changing Political Winds

This is my first post for Speak Your Mind, pending

An introduction and some background seems appropriate before we dive into the issues of this campaign.  My name is Christopher Lackey and I work as a group benefits administrator, freelance fiction writer and blogger.. Originally from Toronto, I have been a regular visitor to Kitchener since 2007 and a full time resident since 2009.  I live downtown, an area which has attracted attention from all 3 levels of government as it has sought to improve its image over the past few years. 
The district feels to be in the midst of much change. which is exciting from an electoral perspective.  The local government spent $9.3 million dollars improving the main area of King Street between Victoria and Frederick.  Many of the boarded up storefronts that made the area unattractive when I first came here are gone.  A giant, $30 million courthouse is under construction, as well as a $25 million expansion of the main Branch of the Kitchener Public Library.  An $818 Light Rail Transit project was just approved by the regional council.  These projects are not wild expensive pipe dreams – the political culture here is prudent, and they have been undertaken just to ensure that services will somewhat keep pace with a growing number of residents.
Some challenges unique to local circumstances have to do with the municipal structure.  The Region of Waterloo is home to 554,000 people. This sounds like a medium-sized urban centre on paper, but in reality it lacks the feel of one that size.  This is because those people are divided amongst three cities (Kitchener, Waterloo, and Cambridge) and dozens of surrounding towns and burgs. These entities do not always take each others sensibilities and priorities into account.  The Light Rail Project was contentious locally because this is still a car-oriented town and traffic is not bad enough to make people demand it.  On the economic front, the region likes to highlight its unemployment rate which is below the national average.  Some changes are occurring there.  Historically, the region leaned heavily on manufacturing and two of the largest auto-sector employers (Budd and BF Goodrich) have left or gone under.  Today, a fair bit of manufacturing remains as well as a lot of service sector employment, but the region leans heavily on RIM and the insurance industry for well-paid, private sector jobs.  When the region sometimes calls itself “The Technology Triangle", ambitions of becoming "Silicon Valley North" are revealed. But with the pace of change in the tech sector, and its non-labour intensive nature (even successful start ups rarely have more than few dozen employees), it is unlikely that this will materialize on the level politicians would like it to.

Covering election races like wrestling or dogfights is probably one of the key forces contributing to voter disengagement (“In this corner...”). This is what this column was enlisted to lessen, so I will not be doing a one-person play-by-play of the battle. We will be talking about what is at stake, locally and provincially, and asking real people and candidates in Kitchener Centre what they think. But before talking to Kitchener Centre voters about issues being dealt with in the fall provincial election, we have to know what our choices are on voting day.

So lets get the electoral math out of the way. Is the election result a given here? Not at all. The seat in the legislature is definitely up for grabs. This electoral district has changed its traditional voting habits over the last two federal elections, and it will be interesting to see how things will shake out at the provincial level.

Liberal incumbent John Milloy won this riding by over 8,000 votes more than the PC runner up in fall 2007. The Liberals don't have the same polling numbers they did back then, and this time Milloy will have to stave off a challenge from Progressive Conservative and local CTV weatherman Dave MacDonald. This is a riding the Progressive Conservatives will be hoping to snag from the Liberals, because it was formerly stalwart Liberal at the federal level until it was won by the Conservatives by 346 votes in the 2008 Federal election. Federal M.P. Stephen Woodworth increased his sliver of the electorate to a big slice in May 2011, winning his re-election bid by over 4,000 votes. If the high visibility of their new candidate is any indication, the PCs view this as a winnable race.

NDP Candidate Cameron Dearlove could also be playing to win. The NDP got two thirds as many votes as the liberals in May (nearly 10000), although historically they have never been able overtake them here. Mark Vercouteren is running for the Greens, and I expect he too is running to win. Their platform could attract a lot of voters fatigued of the dynamic between the three major parties because it proposes some radically different policies. Green leader Mike Schreiner is running a visible and well-organized campaign this time.

It will be interesting to follow these candidates in their journey as they compete alongside their leaders. Indeed, campaigns are increasingly all about leaders. This doesn't interest the many people who vote for “their local candidate”, nor those who wish for a less top-down, whipped vote system. Unfortunately, party apparatuses know their time is better rewarded making electoral calculations then making good policies. The leader becomes a spokesman for the brand, and parties then attempt to predict voter behaviour strategically. “Bedrock”, “Fortress” and “Dyed-in-the-wool” areas can be avoided, while “swing” or “toss-up” ridings must be focused on and campaigned hard for, with star candidates, leader-high profile stops on the trails, etc. But they also have to make sure not to appear to take a riding for granted. This can turn a lot of voters off who will then see the contest as only about getting elected, not representing their best interests in the service of the public good. The good thing about this space on Speak Your Mind is it will concentrate on this specific riding and make the election about it.

It will be tough for the leaders of the three major parties to repeat what they've been saying for another month . The record and merits of the incumbent Liberals are up for debate, of course. How they defend them will be one major determinant on how this election plays out. The other will be how the public takes to the opponents on their two flanks, who are both placing their greatest hopes on voters sharing their anger and discontent toward the Liberals. I've read the PC “Changebook” and the NDP “Plan for Affordable Change” and the main proposition being put forth to voters both in Andrea Horwath and Tim Hudak's platforms seems to be “The cost of living is too high, taxes are too high, the cost of energy is too high, traffic is terrible and our finances are out of control, and its all Dalton McGuinty's fault. Vote for us and we will lower taxes and increase spending to improve the situation.” This message omits the fact that the province is in the hole big time and that all parties' predictions of the future revenues have been panned by experts as wildly optimistic. This is a critique at the same time of the incumbent government's platform. The current outlays and deficits under Liberal rule are financially unsustainable, so even though the Liberals' campaign message is perhaps less negative: “We know its been tough, we're on a rough ride but we're on the right track so stick with us, the reliable status quo”, it can be answered with the same rebuke as the PC and NDP campaigns: It doesn't add up. The opposition hasn't credibly explained how it would reduce the deficit by increasing spending and cutting taxes. Yet the incumbents do not seem to be serious about taking any meaningful action to correct the financial situation either. They must bear some responsibility for it occurring under their watch in the first place, but there is no mention in the Liberal campaign booklet on changing course.

The media and public will see that what is being proposed is electioneering. That's when you can expect accusations of hidden agendas, ramped up personal attacks, character assassinations and all of the other sideshow stuff. In other words, a descent into the gutter like we've seen so many times, which keeps much of the public tuned out of politics. I don't single out any Ontario politician or party specifically for this. It is a trend I have only seen become more prevalent in electoral politics across North America. Some people think social media is a force key to reversing the tide (and platforms such as Speak Your Mind want to engage it for this purpose) and making politics more accessible and democratic. Whether it will succeed remains to be seen. What I can tell you is everything posted here for the next month will have the objective to contribute to this effort. My modest goal is to keep it focused on real issues, keep it local, and keep it real. I look forward to it. Coming up this week: Green Energy in Kitchener and Ontario.