Category: Money

No success like failure — feedback

In response to last night’s post about the surprising drugs-and-arms bust on Boularderie, John Percy, leader of the Green Party of Nova Scotia, writes:

[T]he war on drugs… is perpetuated by the Drug Prevention Industry. Thousands of jobs and billions of budget dollars are at stake here and must be protected at all costs. It’s a “jobs and the economy” outlook toward a social and health issue affecting real human lives, who are perceived as collateral damage.

Both of the main players in this game, drug cartels and the prevention industry, share a symbiotic relationship. It is so important to the success of drug cartels to keep drugs illegal that they fund, through shell corporations, political campaigns of law and order candidates. Thus both sides in this war have a common purpose and share a mutually beneficial outcome.

There’s no success like failure, Inspector Ryan

As you have no doubt heard, police busted a house at Southside Boularderie Island yesterday, just a few miles down the road from Contrarian HQ. They found an eyebrow-raising array of firearms, along with cocaine, ecstasy, steroids, and my personal favorite, pot.

An RCMP news release cataloged the seized items in a handy bulleted list. The release also included this statement from Inspector John Ryan:

Yesterday’s seizure reinforces the clear link between drugs and violence.

Wrong. Yesterday’s seizure reinforces the clear link between prohibition and violence. Eliminate the prohibition on drugs, and you’ll eliminate the artificial prices that enrich and encourage gun-toting thugs. Overnight.

Al Capone taught our grandparents this lesson 90 years ago, but we’re apparently slower learners than they were. As Will Rogers put it:

Instead of giving money to fund colleges to promote learning, why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as good as the Prohibition one did, why, in five years we would have the smartest race of people on earth.

Mind you, ending prohibition would also eliminate thousands of jobs in police departments, courts, prisons, and sanctimonious political parties. We should bear that in mind whenever the people holding these jobs trumpet another bogus “victory” in the senseless,  self-perpetuating failure known as the War on Drugs. They are the main cause of the problem they pretend to combat.

Further reading for curious students here, here, here, here, and here.

The poorest president in the world?

[Video link] The presidential limo is a 1987 VW Bug. The presidential pooch has only three functioning legs. The presidential laundry hangs on the line, washed in water hauled from a well in the yard.

The president himself, Jose Mujica, who won a landslide victory in Uraguay’s 2009 election, carries six bullet wounds in his body, a legacy of his time with the Tupamaros guerrillas in the ’60s and ’70s. He also spent 14 years in a military prison, including two confined to the bottom of a well.

Mujica donates 90 percent of his $144,000 annual salary to charity, bringing his effective income down close to the Uruguayan average.

“No, I am not the poor president,” he told the BBC. “The poor people are those who always want more and more, those who never have enough of everything. Those are the poor because they are in a never-ending cycle and they will never have enough time in their lives.”

“I choose this lifestyle,” he added. “I choose not to have too many belongings so I can live how I want to live.”

Mujica recently signed a law legalizing abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and he is pushing a bill to legalize marijuana and give the state a monopoly over its production and sale.

Uruguayan voters appear to have a mixed reaction to Mujica’s ostentatious absence of material wealth. In recent polling, his personal popularity fell below 50 percent for the first time.

He needn’t worry though. When the 2015 elections roll around, he’ll be 79, too old to seek re-election under Uruguayan law.


The dumbest idea from the CBRM mayoralty campaign – updated

The award for the stupidest idea to emerge in the hotly contested CBRM mayoralty campaign goes to Rankin MacSween. At a debate sponsored by the Cape Breton University Student Union, candidates were asked how, if elected, they will improve student prospects for living and working in Cape Breton after graduation.

Here’s the Cape Breton Post’s description of candidate MacSween’s response:

MacSween talked about creating a community investment fund that would allow the municipality to invest in small businesses each year.

“We’re talking about a minimum of five to 10 investments in small businesses a year,” he said.

CBRM is $96 million in debt* by it’s own reckoning. It has the some of the highest tax rates in Nova Scotia. It faces a massive infrastructure deficit, with hundreds of millions needed to meet forthcoming federal water and sewage regulations.

Against that background, would-be Mayor Rankin MacSween wants the municipality to take on the role of banker? Borrowing money to establish a fund that will invest in five to 10 small businesses each year? Picking winners and losers among Cape Breton’s anemic small business community?

It’s a further sad illustration of how the strain of Cape Breton xenophobia nurtured by MacSween and outgoing Mayor John Morgan has led their acolytes to live in a world of fantasy.

[Update & disclosure] A representative of the MacSween campaign points out, correctly, that I should have noted my own peripheral involvement in Cecil Clarke’s campaign. From time to time, I have offered the candidate and his staff advice, some taken, some not. I certainly support Cecil, and have been dismayed to see how brazenly Rankin has pandered to negativity and xenophobia.

[Update II] In an exchange on Facebook, another representative of MacSween’s campaign contends that the “investment fund” proposal would not involve municipal funds, merely staff and mayoral time. CBRM would organize and operate a Community Economic Development Investment Fund (CEDIF) whose funds would come from elsewhere. MacSween did not make that clear at CBU. His platform, which you can download here, clearly contemplates a CEDIF that would create “a local pool of capital,” but is silent as to the source of the funds.

– – –

* The figure doesn’t include $6 million squandered on the insane,  job-killing, Greenfield purchase engineered by MacSween.

Cities made of government glass shouldn’t cast stones

Like many Cape Bretoners, I cringe when fellow islanders, egged on by CBRM’s outgoing mayor, blame all our problems on Halifax. It’s unbecoming, it’s untrue, and it’s a lazy excuse for avoiding the hard work of re-imagining Cape Breton’s economy.

Just for the moment, however, I’m more annoyed by the volley of stones hurled these last 24 hours from the glass mansions of our capital city at the Dexter Government’s on-again, off-again, on-again rescue of the paper mill in Point Tupper, Richmond County.

There’s no question Dexter made a huge gamble on this bailout.* It’s natural for taxpayers to be nervous. No doubt Dexter himself harbours private doubts. How it all turns out only time will tell.

But the kneejerk assumption that any economic development spending outside HRM is by its nature a boondoggle, and the snide, supercillious tone of the spearchuckers—well, it’s beyond galling.

Forgive us for reminding you that Halifax swims in government cash. It is home to the head offices of every provincial department and most provincial agencies; to the Canadian military; to the regional headquarters of countless federal departments; to the province’s major hospitals; to a fistful of tax-supported universities. Government teats hang from every lamppost on the peninsula.

So why is it reckless and foolhardy to spend $125 million preserving the 1,600 jobs that depend on one of the most advanced paper machines in the world, but an act of statesmanlike foresight to spend $25 billion on warships for a country that hasn’t fought a naval battle in 67 years?

That’s $40 on Halifax ships for every one dollar to preserve a paper mill four counties depend on.

Last October, I didn’t hear a single resident of Antigonish, Guysborough, Richmond, or Inverness Counties complain about the use of their tax dollars to build those Halifax ships. Maybe the good burghers of HRM (where I reside part time) could have the grace to attenuate their pieholes for a brief interlude.

* Disclosure: I played a small, peripheral role in the paper mill saga, helping Richmond County communicate its position on municipal taxes over the last few weeks. The views expressed here are mine.

Hard-pressed parents beget lavish tooth fairies

Visa has released a new iPhone app that uses survey data to help parents calculate the going rate for tooth fairy emoluments, based on a parents’ gender, age, income, location, and educational attainment. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal played with the app for a while and came up with in interesting discovery that doesn’t really surprise me much:

The smaller the amount I put in for household income, the greater the size of the average tooth fairy’s gift. In fact, I was only able to get calculator to output $5 by setting my household income to $20k per year and selecting that my highest level of educational attainment was high school. Grad school degree holders making more than $150,000 per year gave their kids an average of $1 per tooth.

An abuse of government procurement standards

“One of this government’s least admirable traits,” said a friend who admires much the Dexter Government has done, “is its refusal to ever admit it made a mistake.”

The impulse to stay an obviously incorrect course is common enough in government, and it commonly leads to even greater error.

This month, the Dexter Government’s refusal to admit mistakes in its reprehensible treatment of a Cape Breton addiction recovery centre led to further error in the form of a dishonest procurement process.

On Friday, the Board of Directors of Talbot House announced it would not submit a tender to supply the addiction recovery services it had provided in Cape Breton for the last 53 years until a series of indefensible actions by the Department of Community Services (DCS) forced it to shut down six months ago.

It was the right decision. The DCS request for proposals (RFP) was manifestly stacked against Talbot. Officials responsible for Nova Scotia’s procurement process should never have allowed it to go forward. That they did not intervene marks a significant backward step in ethical government purchasing.

No one in government or politics believes DCS would have issued the RFP if it did not have a candidate lined up to respond. Rumor has it the likely upstart bidder is Crosbie House, a recovery centre in New Minas that has presumably been enticed to open a branch plant in Cape Breton, possibly with support from the Membertou First Nation.

The RFP issued August 1 was unusually complex. It ran to more than 50 pages, and contained a highly prescriptive outline of how such a treatment centre would run (surprising in light of the fact DCS has no statutory authority over addiction treatment centres). There were many trip-wires in the form of detailed requirements that, if not precisely met, could disqualify a bidder. In addition to the RFP’s unusual length and complexity, it came with an unusually short return time. Bidders had until August 28 to complete and submit their detailed responses.

It is no exaggeration to say Talbot’s 10-member volunteer board—almost all of whom are busy professionals—would have had to commit several hundred person-hours to meet its terms.

That burden, while onerous, would not have proven insurmountable had there been reason to believe a Talbot submission would be evaluated honestly and fairly. Unfortunately, there was compelling reason to conclude the opposite: it would be evaluated with extreme prejudice.

Tender evaluation teams traditionally have three or more members: a representative from the procurement office to advise on procedures, and two or more people knowledgeable in the subject area, in this case, addiction recovery services. Unusually, the DCS RFP had only two members: the traditional representative from procurement services, and Marika Lathem of DCS.

For anyone who has not been following the Talbot debacle, Lathem is the official who wrote the error-riddled report of her own biased “organizational review” of Talbot House, who laced that report with slanderous innuendo against Fr. Paul Abbass, and who then published the malicious report even though police had already cleared Abbass of the false charges she so enthusiastically promoted.

That an official with a track record this odious would be the only one to supply substantive evaluation of the proposals for addiction recovery is, on its face, an abuse of the tendering process.

Some of us are old enough to remember the days when Nova Scotia governments routinely corrupted the tendering process to reward friends and punish enemies. The development of rigorous, impartial tendering standards marks a signal achievement in the last generation of Nova Scotia government.

That the Dexter Government would be prepared to sweep those standards aside simply to avoid facing up to what DCS has done in this case is disheartening. That procurement officials would not stand up for the integrity of their system is dismaying.

Who gave how much to whom at what cost to taxpayers

Now that we have freed the 2011 election donations data from the deadening grasp of Elections Nova Scotia, there’s no end to the interesting things one can do with it. For example:

In 2011, 4130 Nova Scotians…

Donated $1,057,213.29…

Of which 90.18% (amounts up to $750 per person) could be used as a Nova Scotia provincial tax credit.

Economists call this a tax expenditure. If donors did not receive a credit against  taxes they owed, the province would have raised $953,451 more revenue.

Personally, I think that’s a small price to pay to get corporate, union, and large private donations out of the business of financing election campaigns.

At the federal level, the Harper Conservatives are taking the opposite approach, ending public election financing, a change that will increase the role wealthy individuals, corporations, and unions will play in future Canadian elections.

Money & politics: The map Elections NS didn’t want you to see

Here at last is Contrarian’s searchable map of 2011 political donations in Nova Scotia:

[Direct link to map] Each dot represents a donation. The dots are color-coded by party: orange (and brown) for NDP; red for Liberal; blue for PC; green for Green; and white for Atlantica. The larger dots stand for donations of $1,000 or more. Clicking on an individual dot reveals a pop-up table listing the name and address of the donor, the party to whom they donated, and the amount and type of donation. Use the + and – slider on the left side of the map to zoom in and out; click and drag the map to focus on a particular town or neighborhood.

The 2011 map is more complete that the 2010 map [direct link], because it includes donations to riding associations and byelection candidates as well as to the provincial parties, which the 2010 map does not.

For those who have not followed the issue, Contrarian’s election map project began when Elections Nova Scotia degraded the usefulness of the annual donations report it is required by law to release. It did this with an unannounced switch from the standard, searchable, text-grabbable PDF files it had traditionally used, to a scanned PDF file consisting of images that cannot be searched or copied to a text file or spreadsheet.

When Contrarian complained about the change, then-Chief Elections Officer Christine McCulloch responded with a bracing declamation on the paramount importance of privacy, coupled with an admonition that election donation data is no longer all that important to voters, now that corporations and unions are barred from contributing, and individuals are limited to $5000.

This is an attitude as old as bureaucracy. Even in a democracy, functionaries like McCulloch and her successor, who has so far continued her practice of kneecapping the data, quickly form the impression that the information they gather and manage on our behalf belongs to them.

It does not. It belongs to us, particularly when  it concerns a matter so vital as the impact of money on elections.

With help from many readers, Contrarian responded by republishing the 2010 data in the searchable, text-grab-friendly format used in previous years’ reports, then as an Excel spreadsheet, and finally, after some delay, as a searchable map. We also produced examples of interesting ways you could view election donation data once it was geocoded.

This is a tedious process, with most of the tedium arising from the inept, citizen-unfriendly way Elections Nova Scotia publishes its reports. Deliberate degrading by the use of scanned PDFs is part of the problem, but only part. The commission also divides each spreadsheet into individual page-sized chunks, so the document ends up containing more than 100 separate tables.

This year, these problems were compounded by the Liberal Party’s discovery, after the initial election donations report was published, that it had made a mistake in its filing. The party promptly refiled the correct information. The commission responded, not as any rational organization would do, by publishing a revised and corrected report, but by republishing the original report, still containing the same, incorrect Liberal data, and appending the correct Liberal data in 19 separate tables at the end.

A spokesperson said the commission had handled the mistake in this way on the advice of its lawyer, who, it seems, comes from the firm Dumb, Dumber, and Dumbest.

[Placeholder: One of the most far-reaching and helpful reforms any government could implement would be to persuade bureaucrats they don’t always have to follow the advice of government lawyers, particularly when that advice is patently wrongheaded and flies in the face of common sense and the organization’s mission.]

DISCLAIMER: There are almost certainly some small errors in this map. Errors may arise from when the parties transcribe and report the numbers, when Elections NS assembles and publishes its report, during the optical character recognition (OCR) process required to liberate the data, and from the manual transfer of more than 100 separate tables published by the commission into a single spreadsheet.

One common error arises when a party lists both a donor’s civic address and their postal box. Sometimes these are in different communities, and Google cannot correctly geocode them. In one case, we found (and corrected will soon correct finally corrected) a donor from Fall River NS whom Google placed in Fall River, Massachusetts. In another, a postal code error moved a donor from Petit de Grat to a wilderness location deep in the Cape Breton Highlands.

Please report any errors you notice by email to comment [at]

Hearty thanks to Contrarian’s fusion table guru, WCR, without whom these maps would never have sprung to life. How about a nice lunch at Chicken Burger some respectful restaurant?

The Quebec precedent for energy transmission extortion

Former you-name-it Norman Spector (@nspector4) points out a glaring omission in my partial list of pundits who inveighed against BC Premier Christy Clark’s demand for a share of profits from the Northern Gateway pipeline, while mostly ignoring Quebec’s brazen extortion of Newfoundland hydro exports.

Stephen Maher, late of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, and now typing for the Postmedia chain, had a terrific column on the dispute last weekend, one that places the Quebec-Newfoundland precedent front-and-center. The nub:

History suggests… that Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ottawa and Enbridge would be wise to quietly work to give British Columbia what it wants, because while Ottawa theoretically could force the pipeline through, that is likely not practical.

The history Maher cites is fascinating. His whole piece is a rewarding read, a rare example of punditry in which a reader learns more than the writer’s opinion.


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