Friday, September 16, 2005

Alternate Economics and SE2

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about alternate economics, and I’ve been meaning to write a bit about Georgism, which is one of those fascinating neither-right-nor-left ideas that appear up from time to time.

And then a few days ago an e-mail popped into my home in box that really reminded me of my favourite form of Georgism, the environmental kind. The e-mail was from my two-jobs-ago life as a reporter for the (sadly departed) Sterling News Service. It was from a city councillor in Abbotsford, reminding me that Sumas Energy 2 was about to appeal the ruling of a National Energy Board panel, and...

I can see you’re going to sleep out here, so let’s speed up. Sumas Energy 2 (aka SE2, aka the fucking thug polluters) wanted to build a big, natural gas fired power plant just south of Abbotsford, in Sumas, Washington State. It would pump out smoke, most of which would have drifted north across the line, and aggravated an already smoggy little atmospheric bowl, full of crap that drifted east from Vancouver.

Now, the SE2 fellows are wily capitalist running dogs. They bought cheap land that was too far north to connect easily to high tension wires anywhere in Washington State. But there were wires just a few klicks over the border. They’d run a power line across and connect to a B.C. Hydro substation, no problem. Hell, Abbotsford’s a real conservative town, full of free enterprise, gun loving Christians (and some Sikhs and assorted others). Surely they’d welcome a power plant!

Ummmm... it turns out that the thing conservatives are most conservative about is the health of their children. This was the result. (Note: I didn’t write that story for the National Post. I wrote it for Sterling, which supplied copy to CanWest, which owns the Post. Yay, convergence. And this was back when it was just a right wing rag, not a shitty right wing rag with no sense of shame or decency.)

So, in the saga of SE2, the intervenors finally won the day. The NEB decided that the costs of the project (smog, asthma, lots and lots of angry people screaming for their blood) somehow outweighed the benefits (a tiny number of jobs to build the power line, a trickle of tax revenue). Until the appeal started. At the Supreme Court.

What the hell, those of you who have stuck in this long are asking, does this have to do with Georgism?

Georgism (quick, possibly error-filled summary follows) is a single-tax idea created by the 19th Century newspaper editor Henry George. He noticed that when land was cheap for the taking, around San Francisco, there was a rough equality of wealth. When land became expensive, and was bought up by speculators, some became rich and others poor.

George decided that land was fundamentally different from other real property. As Georgists say, they aren’t making any more of it. You can own a building, an iPod, or a car outright because it is the product of human labour. But according to Georgists, the outright ownership of land is immoral. Land belongs to the community, and to future generations. The products of human labour belong to those who made them.

George therefore proposed that land be the only thing taxed, based on its value. Land could still be occupied and no one would be tossed out of their house or business, but anyone who hogged land would be penalized for it, financially. The proposal was aimed at penalizing anyone who tried to speculate in land, and at allowing the poor, with their apartments and small lots, to pay less tax and keep more of their income. In theory, it could largely side-step the rent-seeking nature of capital, and avoid Adam Smith’s dictum that rent extracts the maximum amount of profit from its tennants.

George’s books were a publishing phenomenon in the late 19th Century, and his ideas were incorporated, in a watered down form, into legislation in a few countries.

Over the years, Georgism has been expanded into other aspects of the world’s natural resources, everything from mineral rights to the radio spectrum. BC’s stumpage and logging tenure rights system was re-written during the Dave Barrett government of the 1970s by a left-leaning Georgist, and it reflects the principles reasonably well.

So why can’t we apply Georgism to, at the very least, environmental law? SE2 is an example of why it would be a great idea.

Currently, most countries impose limits on emissions of various compounds, such as sulpher dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter. You can spew as much as you want, as long as it’s below X amount. And a lot of firms, accidentally or by deliberate negligence, release more in the certainty that the fines will be less than the cost of upgrading or fixing the problems.

These compounds are not good to breathe, period. Imagine if we taxed industry based in large part on what kind of crap, and how much, they were dumping into the atmosphere and water? Two companies, side by side, each with the same number of workers and the same wages, could be taxed very differently. If one of them has smokestacks, it pays for the scientifically estimated costs of the lung diseases, asthma, emergency room visits and damage to the ecosystem it will cause. The other, zero-emission business pays nothing in environmental taxes, and is only taxed on the amount of land and water it uses.

With the taxes indexed down to the dollar based on emissions, there is no getting out of paying, no minimum level of pollutants. Stop polluting, you pay less, period.

A large part of the taxation system should be moved into the Georgist domain, to provide a spur to efficiency and green business. We’d all pay some of our Georgist fees for driving CO2 spewing cars, too. Switch from eight cylinders to four, pay less.

(The difficulty, of course, is in calculating the tax level. We would have to use the best science available, but it will no doubt be somewhat inaccurate. Companies and communities will need the right to appeal the taxation levels. But we also have to beware of junk science and paranoia. And should the money go the feds, the provinces, the cities, directly to the citizens or to a mixture of several?)

Switching to a Georgist system overnight would be an incredibly hard sell, but when you tie environmental costs directly to the taxation system, I think it would win easy acceptance from Canadians from both the left and right of the spectrum. It would certainly appeal to the conservative, free-market citizens of Abbotsford.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Shape of Things to Come (Undone)

A few predictions for the future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the coming weeks, months and years. I expect to get fewer than half of these right, but I'm sure it will be the most cynical half I hit bang on.

1. Contracting scandals. These have almost started already, with more Iraq-style no-competition, guaranteed profit contracts handed out to the usual suspects, Bechtel and Halliburton. (The beauty of the Bush administration is that there is no longer a need for direct bribes to sway the government toward a particular course of action. The government and the kleptocrats are one and the same; they are two wheels of the same train, locked in parallel by greed and self-righteous ideology.)

2. A lack of mainstream reporting on the worst abuses. CNN and especially Fox News will ignore or downplay many aspects of the disaster. These strange stories - about people prevented from leaving New Orleans by armed police, about white British tourists being spirited out of the Superdome at night, about armed guards preventing the poor from "looting" food and water - will mostly appear, uncorroborated, on blogs and marginal internet news sites. There they will fester and become indistinguishable from the conspiracy theories and myths that have already arisen. The public will slip ever further into mistrust, paranoia and magical thinking. Eventually, some major American newspaper will confirm many of these tales in a serious investigative piece; it will win a Pulitzer and will be read by less than one tenth of the people who believe the dikes were blown up to kill blacks.

3. Americans will be completely unable to talk about the issue of class, using the word race instead. The word "poor" will almost always be followed by the word "black" in commentary on why there was no proper evacuation plan. There will be no discussion about how to amelitorate poverty, or about what this strange lack says about the American psyche.

4. There will be no serious attempt to clean up the environmental mess left behind during the current administration by either the state or federal government, unless it seems necessary for the convenience of developers.

5. Money to compensate those who lost their homes will be logjammed so thoroughly by the bureacracy that many people will sell their compensation rights to private corporations at pennies on the dollar. The speculators will reap a massive windfall when the feds pay up.

6. Most of the land in the poorer sections of New Orleans will be declared uninhabitable. The remnants of houses will be bulldozed and a massive, government sponsored effort to clean up the site will be made. After hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, along with billions more on improved flood control, the land will be sold for a fraction of its value to politically connected developers. New Orleans will, as Billmon has predicted, become a Disney version of itself, designed to suck in tourists. This time, the poor will have to live outside the city proper, on land that is not so well protected from flooding.

7. Refugees, especially the poor, will be treated as though they are idiotic, criminal children. The camps they have been dumped in will include curfews, lockdowns, searches and as many petty, humiliating procedures as possible to remind the inmates it is their fault they were in the path of a hurricane.

8. No one will be prosecuted for malfeasance. The worst offenders won't even lose their jobs.

I really, really hope I'm wrong.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Evil Monsters Savaging the Poor, Again

I just read, via Lenin's Tomb, this first person account by a woman who made it out of New Orleans after being trapped there for several days. She was airlifted after armed police refused to let her and several hundred others walk out of New Orleans.

All week, I've been wondering why people simply didn't walk down that highway that leads past the Superdome. Doesn't that go out of town? Does it dip under water somewhere? The news anchors didn't even speculate. Apparently, the roads out were blocked off by the cops, who didn't want to deal with poor, black refugees in neighbouring counties.

If this is true - and there are enough similar stories showing up on BoingBoing and other sites for me to give it a lot of credibility - then the authorities have actually caused almost every problem since the levies broke. The crime, looting, starvation, dehydration, abysmal living conditions, the strange new refugee relief centres that are run like POW camps, all seem to have been made worse or actually caused by a desire for total control, at gunpoint, of the disaster.

Why on earth did any New Orleans cops, under the mayor's fucktard orders or not, stop saving people to shoot at looters? The city was fucking destroyed, is preventing someone from swiping ten pairs of Levis really going to make up for that? Here's the thing: private property does not trump human life, ever. Property is a damned illusion, saving the living is all that matters.

None of the people responsible for this idiocy will ever really be brought to justice. This is one of the days when it sucks to be an atheist. I can't even relish the thought of Bush, Cheney, the FEMA Horse-Twit, et al, burning in Hell.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Iron Man of Words!

Woo hoo! I did it! I finished a substantial, coherent manuscript for the 3-Day Novel Contest! It's 37,500 words! It doesn't suck! I'm awesome!

I signed up just in time, weeks after actually printing and filling out the application form (those who know me, especially my wise and beautiful girlfriend, will not be surprised by this). Then on the day before the contest, I got more and more anxious. I couldn't possibly finish a novel. I could, but it would suck. It would suck and I'd be so tired I'd sleep for 24 hours after it was finished.

I was sitting at the computer, almost bouncing up and down in my chair for the last five minutes before midnight Friday, staring at the blank MS Word file. The my watch alarm went off and my fingers dove for the keys like starved weasels darting for scraps of rancid jerky.

For those who don't know it, the 3-Day Novel Contest has been around since 1977, and is therefore a year older than I am. It is based on the honour system, and anyone can enter, from anywhere in the world. The rules are simple: write a novel, on any subject, during the three days starting at 12:01 a.m. the Saturday before Labour Day, finish at 12:00 a.m. the following Monday. Outlines are allowed, and notes, and research, but every phrase in the novel has to be crafted during those three days.

I've so far only published two stories, but I knew I was capable of writing fairly clean first-draft copy, and of writing it fast. Speed, indeed, is one of my main talents, and I sometimes wish I had been born during the golden age of the pulps, when it was an asset that trumped style and characterization nine times out of ten. My outline was simple, just four sheets of paper on which I had scribbled the outlines of my main characters and a sketch of the first few chapters (and I lost the piece with the chapter outline before I started).

Still, it went amazingly well. The first morning, after 12 a.m., I wrote until about 4:30 a.m. and then staggered off to bed to sleep. I woke up at 10:30, started filling myself with tea and mini-Cokes and using caffeine to stave off the next collapse. That turned out to be a bad idea. The headache started around noon and faded in and out all day. By about 8 p.m. I'd fallen into an extended break from the writing that lasted until 11 p.m. I finally decided I just needed more sleep, or the writing wouldn't start again, or wouldn't be any good when it did. I set an alarm for 8 a.m. the next morning and slept almost nine hours.

I woke up, sans headache, and feeling a hell of a lot better. I kept myself to about half the caffeine ration of the day before, made myself some tortellini and vegetable soup around 2 p.m. and generally tried to act like it was a normal working day. My productivity was as good as when I had been panicked on day one, and I was able to look at my own work with a much cooler eye. By the end of the day, when I stopped writing at about 10 p.m., I had more than 20,000 words saved. Another night of decent sleep, up at 7 a.m. the next day, and another productive, pain free day.

From the middle of the afternoon on the last day, I knew I would finish with time to spare. The climactic chapter was finished by 2:30 or so, and I stopped writing for three hours. Then from 5:30 to 10:40, I finished the 1500 word epilogue and tackled the task of editing the whole thing, making sure there were no glaring errors or dropped plot threads. I also punched up the language and characterization where possible. This added about 1,500 words to the manuscript. I didn't get up during the last stretch except to go to the bathroom, and when I was done, my brain felt like mush. But it was triumphant mush!

In general, I have to say that the contest was not nearly as hard as I had expected. And it was a hell of a lot of fun. I love writing, and a long uninterupted stretch during which no one would bother me, call me or drop by to do nothing but write was like a blessing from the gods.

Now what? Well, it goes into the mail today or tomorrow to the judges. I apparently won't hear back from them until about December. (But I need feedback now!) The winning prize is a publishing contract, second is $500 Canadian cash.

I'm not going to get either. Let's be clear, by Tuesday afternoon (which I took off work) I was already thinking of all the things I could/should have done in the novel. But even if I had worked myself harder, had forsaken sleep, had jammed caffeine pills in my mouth, I don't think I'd have written a winning book.

The thing is, I'm a genre SF and fantasy writer. I don't write stereotypical stuff, I hate ordinary military space opera and elf-quests alike, but my work is strongly plotted stuff. I've tried to develop a strong style and to build up great characters, but what got me going on this book, as on any story, was a really cool central idea, one only possible in fantasy.

So, as I told my girlfriend (who is both wise and beautiful) I don't think it will get selected by a panel of non-SFnal judges. It's like bringing a zebra to a horse show. It may be the finest damn zebra there is, but that's not what they're looking for. There's never been a straight up SF or fantasy winner of the contest.

Of course, if by some miracle they do choose me, I'll be happy to eat crow.