Wednesday, 27 July 2016

My street - a film location - great! But.

Yesterday we received a notice that a TV commercial will be filmed on our street.  Tomorrow.  So don't even think about parking on our street on Thursday.

Well, I'm generally just fine with the fact that Vancouver is a frequent movie set. Dressing Vancouver up as though it was somewhere else provides all kinds of "I see Vancouver moments" when we're watching movies or TV.  Those downtown commutes that are disrupted by all the big white vans are a relatively small inconvenience, even though sometimes they are actually a six block, ten minute detour, with police cars, roadblocks and all the accoutrements of major security incidents.

I'm sure that the revenues from all this activity are a big boost to someone, especially, of course, all the people who work in the industry.

But less than 48 hours notice of the fact that access to our home will be seriously disrupted feels more like an imposition than a benefit.

Luckily for us, it won't be that much of an imposition.  We have no plans for Thursday.  But what if, say, we had been planning a wake for a deceased relative?  Or a wedding reception party, planned months and months ago, where dozens and dozens of people driving here from everywhere were expecting to show up at our door, maybe dropping grandma off just in front of the house and parking elsewhere?  Or maybe we were planning to move a lot of furniture? And, I have to say this, because ours is a narrow street, will there be room for an ambulance if one is called?

I hate to be grumpy.  Really I do.  Mine is actually a sunny disposition. But this notice presumes that we are doing nothing in our lives, that we simply wait at home desperately hoping for the opportunity to put our neighbourhood at someone else's service.  At 48 hours notice.

One of my near neighbours is probably pretty happy, given the daily rates these companies pay to film in your living room.

For the rest of us, we get the chance to hope that someday we'll see ourselves on TV.

Am I saying all this should stop?  No.  But 48 hours notice is nothing short of arrogant and rude.  And something more tangible than a notice left on our doorstep would make a big difference.  How about, say, a nice plate of chocolate chip cookies?  I can forgive almost anything if it comes with a nice place of chocolate chip cookies.


Monday, 25 July 2016

Fun factoid from Jane Mayer's "Dark Money"

Sitting here tonight watching the first night of the Democratic National Convention I am moved to remind myself of this little gem from Jane Mayer's book, Dark Money, which, as the subtitle says, is "The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right."

It's about the Kochs, especially, two brothers who have spent untold millions trying to influence American politics in so many ways because they are so opposed to government full stop.

Folks of the hard right are always singing the doom song.  Any more government from those dreaded liberals - those people who think that government is actually capable of some good - and we will all go to hell in a hand basket.

Except.

Except.

Here's the factoid.

from pp 377-78:

"Despite their predictions that Obama would prove catastrophic to the American economy, Charles's and David"s [Koch's] personal fortunes ... nearly tripled during his presidency, from $14 billion apiece in March 2009 to $41.6 billion each in March 2015, according to Forbes."

Those poor Kochs!  Those poor conservatives!  Those poor Republicans!  Barely getting by.  Having trouble making the mortgage payments.  Probably on the brink of impoverishment.  Eating second rate caviar.  Having a hard time even breathing because of the heavy weight of government on their necks.  So thoroughly strangled and held back by the oppressive weight of a Democratic president.  Except.  Not.

It's always like that.  The rich always figure out how to get by.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The vacancy tax that won't work

The Globe and Mail published this piece I wrote in their Monday July 25 edition.
British Columbia’s MLAs are returning to Victoria on Monday for a mid-summer legislative session to deal with changes to the Vancouver Charter intended to allow the city to impose a special “empty housing” tax.
I was struck by a comment made a few days ago by West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith, who thinks a better approach to the issue would be to levy an additional tax on non-resident owners. He’s quoted as saying, “I pay a non-resident tax rate in Hawaii because I own a house there. It’s a much more logical way to go than a vacancy tax because, first of all, how do you enforce it and everyone has a different definition of vacant.”
For anyone that repressed a grin thinking that only a mayor of West Vancouver would be happy talking about his house in Hawaii, there’s a much more serious point that his observation completely misses. It’s a point invariably avoided by nearly everyone who discusses housing issues.
In Hawaii, as in the rest of the United States, there is no principal residence exemption for capital gains on the sale of your house. Everyone, resident and non-resident alike, pays capital gains taxes on the increase in value in their house when it is sold. Creating a two-tier system of taxes thus becomes a way of providing at least some comparative tax advantage to resident homeowners.
In Canada, of course, you pay no capital gains tax on your house, provided it is your principal residence. If you own property here but don’t live in it, you are taxable on the full amount of the increase in its value when you sell it. That’s true even if you live in it part-time, as long, of course, as you have a principal residence somewhere else.
This is a massive tax benefit for resident homeowners. In some parts of Vancouver, houses are being sold for literally 10 times what they were purchased for decades ago. All of that gain is tax-free if the house is your principal residence. But if you have purchased the property for an investment, if you’ve flipped it, or if you are planning to subdivide it and sell it off, it’s all taxable.
In other words, we already have a very significant two-tier taxation system for residential property.
Indeed, there is another such scheme, the Home Owner Grant, which reduces the amount of property taxes you pay each year on your principal residence. Admittedly, the grant doesn’t offer much value any more in Vancouver because the ceiling on eligibility has not kept up with the rising values of real estate in Vancouver.
But in other parts of the province, the grant is a very efficient way of distinguishing between houses that are lived in by their owners and houses that are owned by investors.
So there are at least two mechanisms already in place for distinguishing between resident homeowners and property investors. Do we need a third?
The proposed tax on vacant houses is partly about the apparent growth in non-resident investor-owners, and also about the shortage of rental property in the city. Rarely, in the long history of housing policy, has a tool been conceived that is more poorly designed to increase the stock of rental accommodation than the vacancy tax.
There are at least two fundamental problems with it. One, the definition of vacancy, whatever it is, will be arbitrary. How long does a property have to be uninhabited to be “vacant”? A week, a month, a year? No matter where you draw the line, it will be arbitrary.
In fact, there are lots of reasons why a house might be empty for many months, and many of them will have nothing to do with investors sitting on capital assets. What about the family that bought a house intending to move here because of a job transfer, but the transfer has been put on hold and the family decides to hang on to the house for a while to see if things change? It’s not hard to imagine dozens of such scenarios: Mom’s just been put in a care home, but there’s some chance she might recover and wouldn’t it be great if we could make arrangements to care for her in her house? And in such a situation, why would it make any sense at all to force the family to rent her house?
Of course, some properties are being left vacant because that is a rational investment decision by their owners. I’m not for a moment pretending that’s not happening. But I can tell you this from long experience overseeing public-policy administration: Every exemption proposed to try to limit or narrow the focus of the tax in a way that targets the “pure” investor will turn into a loophole and magnify problems of enforcement.
The second fundamental problem is that it will be an exercise in impossible magicianship to determine the right amount of the extra tax. Why? Because if it’s not high enough, it won’t deter vacancy or produce any significant revenue, and so will do nothing to help Vancouver achieve its goal of funding additional affordable housing. And if it’s too high, it will simply – and instantly – give an incentive for avoidance. Experts will spring up overnight to advise you on how to make it appear that your house is being lived in.
If I were an MLA, I’d be more than a little grumpy about taking time away from the summer barbecue circuit to debate a tax that is neither necessary nor enforceable, and will do nothing to address the problem it is intended to solve.

Monday, 11 July 2016

I'm Right and You're (Not) an Idiot - a review of James Hoggan's wonderful new book


Jim Hoggan’s new book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot is a tonic for our times.

Increasingly, our public debates are dominated by a superabundance of invective.  Sometimes it seems that ad hominem attacks have all but completely taken the place of reasoned discourse.  This is of course most evident in that part of our communicating world called “social” media – where, all too often, the “communication” is profoundly anti-social.  On rare occasions when I have been privileged to participate in the discussion of public issues, I always tell everyone I know to, “please read my essay but for god’s sake don’t read the comments”. There be dragons.  But of course, I’m not just talking about Internet trolls: witness, most dramatically, the preferred form of discourse of the presumptive Republican nominee for US President, whose stock in trade is not his mastery of the issues, but his seemingly infinite capacity for personal insult.

Hoggan, a highly regarded public relations consultant, has decades of experience in helping clients navigate the public sphere; he’s also personally contributed to our community through his service and leadership for organizations as diverse as the David Suzuki Foundation and the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education.  This book is another - invaluable - contribution to the welfare of our community.  As the issues we confront grow steadily more complex, we are going to have to find a way to stop shouting at each other if we have are to have any hope of successfully addressing those issues.  Hoggan’s book is a much-needed guidebook for how to repair our public square.

I’m Right and You’re an Idiot is Hoggan’s response to a question once asked of him by David Suzuki, who was having trouble understanding why, faced with overwhelming evidence of human-caused climate change, the public seemed hardly to be paying attention, let alone demanding action.  Hoggan decided that the best way to answer that question was to interview a range of experts – people as diversely qualified as Jonathan Haidt, Peter Senge, and Karen Armstrong.  The main part of this book is a tour through those conversations, and the various insights of everyone with whom he talked.  It’s quite a collection of conversations – too many to summarize fairly here, but it culminates, finally, in Jim’s own insights, in particular, the conclusions he draws in a section entitled “From the Heart”, where the essence of the book is compressed into one marvelous statement by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh: “Speak the truth but not to punish.”  Or, to use another term Hoggan offers in his concluding observations, what’s needed is the responsibility to “learn to use speech for its highest purpose – moral discourse.”

For my part, the book’s best passages are those where Hoggan personalizes his own response to what he has learned through dialogue with his interviewees.  It’s not easy to distill the essence of the thinking of such scholars as George Lakoff and Marshall Ganz into a report of a single meeting or interview; in many cases, Hoggan’s report of the conversation serves best as an invitation to dig more deeply into those writers’ work.  But there’s a continuing, over-arching theme that links his discussions, and Hoggan’s own insights are rich and thought-provoking, in the best sense of that term.  The first step in fixing any problem is to understand it.  Our task now that Hoggan has so expertly diagnosed our “polluted public square” is to find a way to put his marvelous insights into action.