Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama and a new world

I was 15 when the photo appeared, in Life magazine, I think. Barack Obama was six.
It was a black and white shot of a Mississippi sheriff named Lawrence Rainey. He was beefy, bald guy in uniform, something between a grin and smirk over his long chin. Black cowboy boots, with short socks, so you saw a patch of white hairy shin, as he sprawled with one leg crossed over the other, his right hand dipping into a pouch of Red Man tobacco, a chaw in his cheek.
He was sitting in a courtroom. Around him were grinning co-defendants, all charged in the murder of three young civil rights workers.
The picture showed the men believed they had done nothing wrong. And that they would get away with murder.
And the two sheriffs and gang of Ku Klux Klansmen who killed the three men were almost right.
The state wouldn't charge them. It took three years for the federal government to bring charges of violating the dead men's civil rights, by killing them.
Only seven of 18 men charged were convicted. No one served more than six years in jail.
The photo was one of those defining images - of hate and power and a place where the most basic rule of law was unknown. Where you could be killed by the police for talking about human rights.
That was 1967, not long ago really.
And now Americans have elected a black president.
It's remarkable. The United States has carried a stain since its birth, because the founding fathers accepted the continued slavery of blacks, many of them with shame. The country fought a bloody Civil War over the issue, but never really dealt with racism and an apartheid-like segregation. (Not that Canada does not have its own ghosts.)
The civil rights movement was one of those rare, morally pure causes. And it attracted people willing to die for the cause, like James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, the murdered civil rights workers.
And yet within Obama's lifetime, America has changed, beyond what I ever expected.
"Change" was the Obama campaign theme. That's encouraging too.
The United States has always had its dark side. American exceptionalism - the belief that the U.S. is unlike any country in the world, better in a profound way - has justified some terrible intrusions into other countries.
But in the last eight years, it has truly lost its way. A war based on lies, huge tax cuts for the already rich, indifference to survivors of a devastating hurricane. A financial free-for-all that brought riches to a handful before its collapse cost average Americans billions and plunged the world economy into recession. Prison camps with no rules, and torture.
Change seems like a good thing.
Who knows how much change Obama will be able to deliver. As I'm writing, it looks like there will be enough Republican senators to block any major initiatives that they oppose.
And his options are going to be limited. The U.S. is a financial mess and running ridiculous deficits. The government will have little money to spend on new programs.
What does it mean for Canada? Obama talked about opening the North American Free Trade Agreement, but his quarrel is with Mexico, not Canada.
He'll launch a major escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Canada would then face pressure to continue to fight beyond 2011.
And Alberta's tarsands might be in trouble. Obama has pledged to reject "dirty" energy sources, one that require excessive greenhouse gases.
Obama's focus is going to be largely internal. Canada's challenge will be getting any attention.
But who cares?
Obama represents, in some ways, the triumph of a vision. The civil rights movement was a dangerous, uncertain struggle. The election of an African American, despite all the prejudices and racism that are part of life in the U.S., and Canada, is remarkable.
Footnote: It's 8:01 and CNN has just declared Obama the new president. The election does raise some interesting questions about what voters today are looking for in political candidates. Obama's calm, consensus-based approach to politics, his ability to build a broad base of support, united in hope, changes politics.

Assessment freeze, tax deferral useful stopgaps

How bad is it going to get in British Columbia?
And who is going to take the brunt of the beating as the economy reels from the collapse of a global financial system that proved as sturdy as a house of cards built by a distracted five-year-old?
Premier Gordon Campbell's newest proposals suggest things could get considerably worse, although that might also be a tactic. The Liberals appear to be road testing a campaign strategy based on convincing people that times are scary, and the New Democrats are too risky to put in power.
Campbell unveiled the latest plans to deal with the economic crisis at the party's convention in Whistler. They make sense, although Campbell's speech might also have raised some false hopes about the government's intentions.
The government decided to abandon the annual property assessment reviews this year. The July 2007 assessments will be used when municipalities and the province decide how much property and school taxes individual owners should pay.
That means some wasted work. The B.C. Assessment Authority was taken by surprise by the announcement. It had been reviewing property values across the province to come up with this year's revised assessments.
But the change offers some advantages. Given the big clouds over real estate markets, many owners would likely have challenged assessments that were based on values before the market dropped.
That would have meant a lot of appeal hearings and problems for municipalities, which would have had to set mill rates while assessment roles were uncertain.
Some people have interpreted the plan as a freeze on property taxes. It's not. The assessment freeze means each homeowner's share of property taxes won't change.
But towns and cities will still set a mill rate that provides the revenue they end.
And in every municipality, that will be higher than last year's rate. Assessments won't change, but taxes will go up.
Campbell also promised legislation that would allow many owners to defer their property taxes in each of the next two years.
People with at least 15-per-cent equity in their homes - say not more than a $250,000 mortgage on a home assessed at $300,000 - can defer taxes.
They will have to sign a form saying that paying property taxes would be a hardship and agree to pay interest at prime, about four per cent this week. They can pay when they like or the province will collect the money when the property is sold. (People over 55 can already defer property taxes.)
It's a reasonable plan. The province will cover the lost revenues for municipalities. Taxpayers face some administration costs and perhaps a little interest, plus any bad debt risks.
And homeowners in a jam get a small reprieve for two years.
Forest Minister Pat Bell pitched the benefits to forest communities. People who had lost their jobs and couldn't pay their property taxes would get help in hanging on to their houses.
But then what? Are the forest jobs coming back? Or are people just going to be deeper in debt, with houses they can't sell and no prospects?
That part, especially given the current economic turmoil, is far from clear. And the government hasn't offered any specific vision for forest communities coping with weak markets and decades of limited logging to come because of the pine beetle disaster.
Campbell also tested a campaign slogan at the Whistler convention - "Keep B.C. Strong."
The idea is to portray the NDP as a reckless choice in difficult times. Campbell talked a lot about the incompetence of the NDP government in the 1990s.
And the Glen Clark government was hopeless. No plan, incompetent management, just dismal.
But that was 1999. Some 550,000 of today's voters were in high school. About 180,000 voters who were married then, aren't today.
Are they really remembering 1999, when Ricky Martin was living La Vida Loca?
Footnote: For political types, this is all fascinating. The Liberals should be in a strong position - times are mostly good - but next May's election result seems surprisingly uncertain. Voters are leery of Campbell, for vague reasons. That makes it very difficult for the Liberals to figure out how to build a successful campaign.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Are too aggressive Liberals helping James?

I've got to admit, I didn't watch Carole James economic pitch on TV. I was watching David Copperfield make a '48 Lincoln appear out of nowhere at the local arena. I still have no idea how he did it.
There's an analogy there somewhere - maybe to the challenges James faces in next May's election, or the mysterious way Gordon Campbell has managed to make support disappear when his party should be riding high.
But having written about Campbell's 10-point plan, mostly approvingly, it seemed fair to look at the speech James gave, which is available on the NDP website.
It was not bad, really. Certainly better on one level than the stiff, distant and bureaucratic speech Campbell's staffers wrote for him.
James did a better job of talking to British Columbians about their concerns.
Basically, she said the measures Campbell had proposed made sense, but were inadequate. She supported the retroactive income tax cut, worth about $144 million this year as a one-time break.
But James also said she would remove the carbon tax. That means an extra $631 million in people's pockets next year. And, of course, $631 million less in government revenue.
It's a political winner, but bad policy. The carbon tax makes sense. It is offset by other tax cuts. The tax encourages people and companies to reduce their consumption of greenhouse-gas emitting fuels. It rewards innovation. It's a sensible tax shift. But, as Stephane Dion found, that can still be a tough sale.
The NDP knows some price on emissions is needed. But its position is playing well.
James, like Campbell, also supported moving ahead more quickly on some infrastructure projects to help the economy. He wouldn't say which projects would get priority; James promised faster seismic upgrading for schools, 2,400 more affordable housing units to deal with the homelessness crisis and accelerated transit spending.
And she proposed other measures the premier had rejected. Skills training and post-secondary education are important when times are tough, she said, so school budgets would be boosted, student grants restored and interest on student loans cut.
Raw log exports would be cut and more effort and money spent on economic measures aimed at helping forest communities. A
And James promised to attack waste and excess spending, pointing to the Vancouver convention centre, where cost overruns have cost provincial taxpayers $450 million. (Expect to hear much about that from New Democrats over the next six months.)
James released a costing for her tax cuts and spending. It looked sound for this year and next, but cut things too fine for 2010/11. There was the risk of a deficit then
All in all, it was a reasonable plan, but probably not likely to shift many voters.
There were grounds for concern about whether it would be affordable if times got tougher. And the Liberals could be expected to attack the details.
But then the Liberals got self-destructive, in a way that should worry supporters.
For weeks, caucus communications staff - publicly funded - have been running an attack campaign. It's been over the top, the kind of rhetoric that partisans love and uncommitted voters loathe. The team leapt into action after James' speech.
Finance Minister Colin Hansen went on Christy Clark's radio show and said, "We have seen the projections for provincial revenues collapse in the last six weeks, to the tune of billions of dollars."
Except a week earlier, Hansen had said things were difficult and volatile, but revenue projections were "still running ahead of what we were anticipating at the time of the budget."
His explanation was that revenues for this year were on budget, but not for the rest of the three-year plan period.
But if things are on track this year, yet revenues are to be down "billions" in the next two years, then the Liberals must be considering tax increases or significant cuts.
The next quarterly update, around the end of this month, will now be very closely watched.
Footnote: The revenue outlook is volatile. The budget, for example, calls for the government to take in $1.9 billion in property transfer tax on home sales in the next fiscal year. Recent projections of a big drop in sales could knock $400 million off the money available to spend.