Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar: A Critical Assessment

As you may have noticed, I did not include a rating for Avatar. This is not because I have no opinion about the film, or that it has no aesthetic value. The reason that I did not rate the film is that I could not in good conscious give a single star to the most offensive movie of the decade.

Going into Avatar, I knew almost nothing about the plot. I had heard that it was an anti-war allegory about the invasion of Iraq. While this didn't bother me (in no small part since I did not support the invasion of Iraq), I expected a heavy handed political message. Unsurprisingly, we find out early in the movie that a corporation, which most certainly represents the American military industrial complex, has invaded a foreign planet in order to obtain unobtainium, a precious metal. At this point I half expected a flashing disclaimer on the screen reminding us that "It's a metaphor." So that was it, I thought. An allegory about the Iraq war. Nothing remarkable. However, it soon became obvious that the allegory was not simply about the Iraq War.

The colonized Na'vi are clearly patterned after indigenous North Americans. Had this been a movie about some of the atrocities that occurred during the colonization of North America, I could have sympathised. What makes Avatar truly insidious is it's ahistorical nature. Rather than portraying a specific instance in a Western society had wronged an indigenous population, the film created an embodiment of every Western stereotype imaginable. The futuristic corporation was a staffed by soldiers that represented the American military industrial complex, who were engaging in colonialism to exploit resources with the zeal of SS operatives. There is not one human character that elicits the least bit of sympathy without entirely rejecting Western civilization. By creating a melange of all these stereotypes, the film erased the notion of Western moral progress. Unlike Dances With Wolves, which focuses on a particular historical event, Avatar creates the impression that colonialism is endemic to Western culture. It paints Western cultures as universally rapacious, insensitive, and dependant on soul destroying technology.

The irony, of course, is that the movie was released by 20th Century Fox, and consumed between $300-500 million dollars, spent mostly on the most lavish display of technological prowess in the history of Western cinema. Using this technology, the film glorifies pseudoscience and a rejection of materialism. Many critics who dislike the message of the film were willing to overlook this since they see Avatar as an important advance in motion picture technology. In this respect, the critics are correct. But surely these same critics should be alarmed that a film that contains a full scale rejection of Western civilization could be so universally praised. Perhaps what insulates Avatar from criticism is that it is not offensive to any specific group. Many critics were offended by the Passion, since it was considered offensive to Jewish people. Of course, it is easy for critics to stand up for marginalized groups. It seems that they are willing to put up with all manners of intolerance, but only when equally applied. Only universal Western self-loathing will do.

*This was orignially posted on my film blog, which can be found here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Eglington LRT Dillema: Expropriations, or Major Cost Overruns (Or Both)

The Ambitious Transit City Plan that Metrolinx has designed for the GTA is now getting beyond big picture planning, and into the actual nuts and bolts. To this point, there have been few real costs estimates for the project. Perhaps worse is that no one seemed to alert the public to the possibility of eminent domain use in order to expropriate inconveniently placed homes and businesses. At a recent community meeting, York South Weston Councillor Frances Nunziata revealed that 100 properties would be directly affected by the Eglington light rail line. In order to avoid expropriation, some residents are calling on the government to build the relevant sections of the line underground. Before rushing into a project of this magnitude, someone should have a look at the numbers. Here are some quick facts:

The proposed line is 33 kilometers long (just over 20 miles). The cheapest light rail line built in the last decade cost $31.1 million USD/mile ($33 million Canadian). This was a short rail line along an interstate in Charlotte, North Carolina. Obviously, construction costs will be much higher in Toronto, even if it is entirely above ground. A more likely comparison is the Pittsburgh North Shore extension, a portion of which is underground. That project came in at $243.7 million US ($260 Canadian) per mile. That would bring the cost of the Eglington line to $5.33 billion Canadian Dollars. I should stress that these numbers are taken directly from a pro-light rail organization's website, so it is unlikely that the numbers are exaggerated. The project is projected to cost $4.6 billion dollars. If they increase the proportion of the line that runs underground, my $5.3 billion dollar estimate could look conservative. This also fails to take into account the fact that the average North American light rail line has run 35.8% over budget.

To reiterate: the city plans to spend at least $4.6 billion dollars to replace the current bus routes on Eglington. That is enough to purchase 10,000 of the most expensive transit buses ever constructed (hybrid, of course). This will have little effect on congestion. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that in Portland, the poster child for light rail, the massive investments in light rail only took 1300 cars off of the road during rush hour. That amounts to $225 USD per car every day. At that cost, it would actually be more cost efficient for the provincial government to pay corporations to incentivize telecommuting. $5.3 billion dollars could convince a lot of people not to drive through rush hour traffic. I'm not suggesting the government actually spend this money, but at least it would actually reduce congestion.

One more thing I neglected to mention: the Eglington line only accounts for 33 of the 125 kilometers of rail the city plans to build. Don't be surprised if the total budget for the initiative approaches $20 billion.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The 40th Anniversary of the Altamont Tragedy

The sixties were a tumultuous political era, wrought with intergenerational conflicts, and major civil strife. This fact has been obfuscated by the romanticization of several major events in the decade. The most obvious examples were a pair of music festivals, the Monterey Pop Festival, and Woodstock. The Monterey Festival was a fairly small event in 1967, with a peak attendance of around 10,000. Though it does not have the iconic status of Woodstock, it was the first major rock festival, and was seen as one of the catalysing events of the 'Summer of Love. The festival was considered an unmitigated success.

Unlike the Monterey Festival, Woodstock was far from an organizational success. Several major problems, such as a late change of venue, and the loss of several key acts, threatened to undermine the event's success. Moreover, despite the fact that the concert was supposed to be a profit making enterprise, it was overwhelmed by over 100,000 ticketless fans. The total attendance was around 300,000, despite the fact that the municipality had been informed to expect no more than 50,000. This prompted the local township to declare a state of emergency. Despite the potential chaos, there were only two fatalities at the event. One was from a heroin overdose, and the other a tractor accident. Though the event was marred by horrible traffic and sanitation problems, it was considered successful.

Though the 40th anniversary of Woodstock was met with fanfare earlier this year, the anniversary of it's much neglected cousin, Altamont, has been relatively muted. The infamous Altamont free concert was billed as the West Coast version of Woodstock. The only major difference was that it was going to be free of charge. Like Woodstock, there was a late change of venue, and the peak attendance was estimated at around 300,000. While Woodstock has become a symbol for love and peace, Altamont has become a symbol for the opposite. The festival was headlined by the Rolling Stones, who made the unfortunate decision to ask the Hell's Angels to provide security for the event. For those who were unfamiliar with Hunter Thompson's expose of the Angels, this may not have seemed like such a bad decision. In hindsight, it was.

The concert was punctuated by random acts of violence throughout the day. The two most notable being the beating of a fan by Hell's Angels, curiously armed with pool cues, and the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane receiving a knockout blow to the head. Despite the carnage, the Stones took the stage. By the time the Stones began their third song, Sympathy for the Devil, fights began to erupt. The documentary Gimme Shelter, which followed the entire concert, captured the entire scuffle. Mick Jagger attempted to calm down the crowd, joking how every time they played the ominous song, weird things happened. As they continued, so did the scuffle. At this point, the crowd was beyond control. In the documentary, the camera man is standing behind Jagger, who is flanked by Angels, as the crowd gradually enveloped the stage. This chaotic scene culminated in the death of 18 year old Meredith Hunter, who was stabbed to death by the Hell's Angels after drawing a firearm. It is for this moment that Altamont will forever be remembered.

Though it is conventional wisdom that the chaos at Altamont was entirely the fault of the Hell's Angels, this is a poor interpretation of what happened. Altamont was a tragic experiment in anarchy. Though the Angels aggravated the crowd, they had no real choice. Unlike Woodstock, which did have a significant police presence, Altamont did not. Though most of the victimless crimes were not punished at Woodstock, there were still authority figures to prevent the chaos from erupting. Without that legitimate authority, Altamont was doomed from the start. Even if they had employed a security force other than the Hell's Angels, the situation would still have been unmanageable. With no ability to detain rowdy fans, they were put in a situation where they were often engaging in self defense, rather than policing. This is the lesson that we should all take away from Altamont. Flower children or not, in the absence of a legitimate authority, there is little to prevent minor conflicts from escalating into tragedy. Altamont is to anarchism what the fall of the Soviet Union is to socialism. Though it is not definitive proof that anarchy would be chaotic, it does not bode well. Perhaps in the future, someone will reinterpret these events and prove me wrong. I sincerely doubt this will happen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Toronto Congestion Costs $3.3 Billion Annually: OECD

A recent report by the OECD found that congestion in Toronto costs $3.3 billion dollars in lost productivity every year. This problem is not unique to Toronto. The Texas Transportation Institute found that congestion costs each American commuter $750 in lost productivity and wasted fuel per year, and added nearly the equivalent of a full week of sitting in traffic every year. While the OECD recommends increased public transit funding as one part of the solution, they are also recommending the two main policy measures that free market economists tend to encourage for reducing congestion: tolling, and congestion pricing.

Toll roads are obviously familiar to Torontonians, as the city is home to one of the most successful toll roads on earth. The sale of Highway 407 generated $3.1 billion dollars for the Ontario government, and has saved taxpayers over $2 billion dollars in operating costs since 1999. Moreover, the private sectors has shelled out over $1 billion in lane extensions, lane expansions, and interchanges.

While the 407 is widely regarded as a financial success, it is easy to overlook the positive impact it has had both on reducing commute times, and on reducing carbon emissions. An independant study in York region found that using the 407 saves the average commuter 33 minutes for a 42 kilometer commute. Furthermore, the average 407 commuter emits 5 tons of c02 per year, compared with 9 tons for the average Highway 7 commuter.

Toronto has not yet attempted congestion pricing on city streets, though there are plenty of jurisdictions that the city can learn from. The most famous example is in London, where congestion pricing was introduced to downtown in February of 2003. Congestion has since decreased by 30%, and c02 emissions have decreased by 20%.

Tolling and congestion pricing are issues that could create consensus between fiscal conservatives, conservationists, and commuters. Surprisingly, and to his credit, David Miller seems to support toll roads, though Metrolinx (the regional transit agency) appears to be standing in the way of any potential expansion of toll roads. If an openly socialist mayor is willing to support toll roads, there is no reason why fiscal conservatives should demand anything less from whomever they support in the 2010 municipal election.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pirate Radio and Censorship

Richard Curtis is an average screenwriter. In many respects, Curtis represents everything that is wrong with Hollywood. Know for such deeply mediocre films as Brigit Jones Diary, and Love Actually, it is no wonder film critics were ready to pan Pirate Radio. As a film critic, I will acknowledge that Pirate Radio was no masterpiece. Chris Knight of the National Post derided the plot as "33% teen-virgin comedy, 33% '60s greatest hits and 33% Screw The Man!" This is a fairly accurate assessment. Moreover, the characters were little more than a motley collection of cliched stereotypes of the 60s. Pirate Radio is pretty average from a cinematic point of view.

While I do not typically endorse generic Hollywood movies, I actually feel compelled to do so in this case. The value of the film lays not in it's style (or lack thereof), but in it's substance. Though the story is far from true, it serves as a timely reminder of just how tumultuous the struggle for free speech has been. While the British government didn't actually ban rock music, it certainly was not beyond the realm of possibility. Recall that in 1965 the BBC refused to play the song My Generation by The Who. They went on to ban many Beatles songs in the next few years.

Though we have come a long way from banning the Beatles, music censorship is far from dead. As recently as 1990, twenty-one U.S. states introduced bills that prohibit the sale of records containing "lyrics that are violent, sexually explicit or perverse". Following the Columbine shootings in 1999, several Marilyn Manson concerts were cancelled, since he was seen as an influence on the perpetrators. Censorship is a constant threat to the music industry.

What makes Pirate Radio more important than other anti-censorship movies is that Curtis seems to acknowledge the pervasiveness of the censorship threat. It is pretty standard for such films to adopt a very triumphantalist spirit, assuming that the battle has been won. In short, they are period pieces. Pirate Radio eshewed this tendency, and consciously created a bridge to modern music with it's touching montage to the last 40 years of rock music at the end (no, this does not count as a spoiler). The stock villain of the film reminds us that if the government doesn't like something, they can make it illegal. This is as true today as it was in 1966.

While the film eshewed shades of grey in favour of the conventional good vs. evil motif, it was entirely justifiable. Every now and than it is healthy to reflect on just how fragile individual liberty is. Governments have no incentive to guard individual liberty. It is only through vigilance that we are able to guard our freedoms from over zealous legislators. It is refreshing to see a movie that unabashedly reminds us of this.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Taxis as Public Transit?

Bentonville, Arkansas, home of Walmart, has come up with an innovative strategy to solve mobility problems for low income citizens. As a town of less than 34,000, it would make little sense to invest heavily in public transit infrastructure. Instead, State Senator Kim Hendren successfully lobbied to reinstate a program that subsidizes taxi cabs. The program provides 25 $2 coupons to low income individuals to lower the cost of taxi rides. The program costs a mere $25,000. This is the kind of innovative program that small municipal governments should experiment with, rather than automatically opting for expensive conventional public transit options.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Do Edmontonians Support Light Rail Transit?

Light rail transit is becoming an increasingly popular transportation option for mid sized North American cities. There are currently more than 30 North American cities that have LRTs, and that number could easily double within the next decade. Many experts have expressed concerns over the cost and efficacy of light rail trains, though new lines have typically met very little public resistance. At the moment, the only city where opposition seems to be forming is Edmonton. A public meeting on Monday regarding a proposed light rail extension was dominated by anti-light rail sentiment. It is estimated that 47 of the 69 registered speakers at the meeting oppose the extension. One of the speakers had collected 1300 signatures on a petition against the $2 billion dollar proposal. Though it is difficult to gauge public opinion based on a single public meeting, this is the first good news for opponents of light rail in quite some time.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Toronto Sprawls: A History

Opposition to urban sprawl has traditionally been associated with the political left, and is often ridiculed by conservatives. There are several mundane demographic reasons for this. First of all, conservativism is much more prominent in rural areas. Second, conservatives tend to be older, and have more children than liberals. These people often move to the suburbs because they view them as good places to raise their families. Additionally, there are certainly some conservatives who prefer to occupy a more 'traditional' North American milieu, and therefore do not hold cities in high esteem.

Despite the fact that most of the opposition to urban sprawl is from the left, there have been a number of authors in the last half of the decade who have made fiscally conservative arguments against urban sprawl. Lawrence Solomon, founder of the Energy Probe Research Foundation, is one such critic. In his recent book Toronto Sprawls, Solomon argued that the primary cause of urban sprawl in Toronto has not been laissez-faire urban planning, but that sprawl has actively been encouraged by government programs. A prime example of this was the Veterans Land Act, which was consciously designed to ensure that troops returning from the war would settle outside of major cities. This helped fuel a massive expansion of Suburban Toronto, which grew by 94% between 1945-1953. During the same period, the city of Toronto shrank by 2%. This resettling effort lead to massive budgetary shortfalls in suburban municipalities. At the time, the city of Toronto was providing services efficiently, while the private Toronto Transit Commission was a profitable enterprise. The Yonge subway line from Union to Eglington was a model of efficiency. By 1954, the lousy quality of suburban services, and their financial unsustainability lead to the creation of Metropolitan Toronto. This was, in effect a partial amalgamation. The city of Toronto has been a financial basketcase ever since.

In addition to the fact that the suburbs are perceived as an attractive place to raise children, Soloman argues that the driving force behind suburbanization has been a more general moralistic crusade. Moral reformers in the post-war era were concerned that urbanization would lead to moral chaos. They noted that the largest demographic moving into cities were single women, who would no doubt fall prey to promiscuity and shirk their traditional gender roles. Additionally, they were concerned that urbanization would bolster the communist movement, since cities facilitate large gatherings.

While conscious efforts to prevent urban sprawl are typically inadvisable, fiscal conservatives need to weigh the costs and benefits of encouraging urban sprawl. Sprawl comes with large infrastructure costs, and renders mass transportation and other municipal services horribly inefficient. Unless suburbanites are willing to pay the full cost of sprawl, say through tolls and increased utility fees, Toronto will continue to be a fiscal train wreck.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Ottawa Light Rail Now Estimated at $6.6 Billion

The Ottawa Citizen reported yesterday that the cost of the new light rail train system in the Nation's Capitol will reach a staggering cost of $6.6 billion dollars. The original estimate of $5 billion has been eclipsed in part thanks to a decision to include a tunnel through downtown, and part due to a 50% increase in the estimated cost of one particular line. The city is counting on $3.2 billion dollars of Federal and Provincial money for this project, and plan to incur a billion dollar debt. The project is slated to take two decades to complete.

While the $6.6 billion dollar estimate is troubling, it will only get worse. According to an exhaustive report from Bent Flyvbjerg at the Department of Development and Planning at Aalborg University in Denmark, the average LRT project in North America incurs a cost overrun of 35.8%. Note that this figure refers to the cost from the moment that the project breaks ground. In other words, the city should expect the project to run closer to $9 billion dollars. That is, unless it is one of the 25% of projects with a cost overrun of 60% or more.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are: Appropriate for Children?

Tell [children] anything you want, as long as it’s true.”

-Maurice Sendak

Where The Wild Things Are
was one of the most anticipated children's movies of the last few years--or was it? The film adaptation of the 1963 classic picture book by Maurice Sendak features a stellar cast, and was directed by one of the most accomplished young directors in Hollywood. The film topped the box office on it's opening weekend, bringing in $32.5 million dollars. While the impressive box office numbers demonstrate that it was obviously a highly anticipated film, they also demonstrate that it was not a particularly anticipated children's movie. On opening weekend, parents with children accounted for only 27% of tickets sold. This likely puts the number of children viewers at somewhere between 10-15%. Given that the film was based on a beloved picture book, these numbers seem curious.

There are many potential reasons why the viewership numbers amongst children was so low. The most obvious reason is that it is not a convention children's movie. The film was directed by Spike Jonze, who is know primarily for his masterful collaborations with experimental screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. No one who has seen Being John Malkovich, or Adaptation would have expected anything conventional from him. Jonze himself noted that the movie was meant primarily to be a film about childhood, rather than a conventional children's movie. Combine this with the fact that the popularity of the book likely peaked decades ago, and you have some very plausible reasons why the film was so popular among adults relative to children.

While the first explanation likely explains some of the discrepancy, there is another major reason why many parents shied away from the film. Despite the fact that the book is recommended for children between the ages of 4-8, the MPAA decided to slap the film with a PG rating. They cited adult language, and adult situations to justify the rating. I do not recall any inappropriate language, though one blogger pointed out that the word 'hell' was used twice, and the word 'damn' was used at least once. I have no idea what the MPAA thinks constitutes an adult situation in the film. Perhaps the implication that the child's mother is divorced, or the fact that he talks back to his mother? There may have been some other detail I missed, but these minor details should not be enough to punish the film with a PG rating. The same type of problem emerged in the publishing of the book. The publishers insisted that Sendak replace the word 'hot' with 'warm' when describing the child's dinner. In the end, sanity prevailed, and Sendak's original wording was maintained. Sendak even had a hard time getting librarians to stock the book, since many deemed it inappropriate for children

In addition to the MPAA issue, the movie also suffered from the musings of the author of the book. Maurice Sendak, who worked closely with Spike Jones and David Eggers on the screenplay, has been outspoken on the issue of whether the film would be appropriate for children. In a Newsweek interview, Sendak was asked what he would tell parents who were concerned that the movie would be too frightening for their children. His response was that he would tell them to go to hell. Needless to say, the media jumped all over that quote. To be fair, it was a rude response. Given that he's been plagued by well intentioned sensors for his whole career, it is hard to blame him for his curtness.

Though the MPAA and Maurice Sendak both likely damaged the prospects of the film, the film fell prey to a much more troubling problem. As Sendak was trying to get across in the Newsweek interview, many parents coddle their children far too much. He pointed out that he "saw the most horrendous movies that were unfit for child's eyes. So what? I managed to survive." He added that "grown-ups are afraid for children. It's not children who are afraid." This seems to be the crux of the problem. Many parents have viewed horrible things in their lifetimes, and they want to prevent the same from happening to their children. The trouble is that shielding children entirely from the realities of life leaves them unprepared for when life gets difficult. This attitude may well be partially responsible for the high self reported rates of depression amongst young people.

Contrary to several anti-intellectual reviewers, Where The Wild Things Are is not "movie made by, and for, members of a generation who feel it's unfair to have to grow up." The film is at once a reflection on the joys and sorrows of childhood, and an appropriate modern fairy tale. It is ironic that most people alive today grew up in generations where children's stories consisted of dark cautionary tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin. They seemed to turn out alright. Rather than painting an unnecessarily bleak picture of life, the film had several important messages. One such theme is the danger of hierarchies. The Utopian world that Max tries to create inevitably crumbles. He can't keep the sadness out. In an interview with PBS, Sendak said that children "have to know it's possible things are bad, but they are surrounded by people who love them and will protect them." If that's not a child appropriate theme, I don't know what is.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Nobel Idea

The announcement that President Barack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize came as a shock to everyone--or nearly everyone. The only person who seems to have had any inkling that he was a contender was a world renowned sports handicapper who claimed he was a "reasonable long shot at 14-1." The decision was controversial, to say the least. Most pundits seem to feel that the award was premature, pointing out that he has been in office for less than a year. In fact, the nominations for the prize closed 12 days after he was sworn in as President. Even the President didn't seem to feel he deserved the prize. In his own words, "I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize."

The cynical view is that Obama was awarded the prize simply for not being George W. Bush. There is certainly reason to believe this, especially given that Al Gore has also recently won the prize. A more likely view--the view propounded by defenders of the decision--is that the award was meant as collateral. In short, the award was given to the President to remind him of his promises, and to encourage him to see them through. This seems to me to be the correct reasoning. After all, his campaign was largely fought on issues such as ending the Iraq War, and closing Guantanamo Bay. Neither has been accomplished. In fact, rather than bringing troops home, the President is sending more troops to Afghanistan. While I am not judging any of these decisions, it does seem to me that liberal internationalists have reasons to be anxious. Hence the Nobel.

While the goal of reducing international conflict is noble, the Nobel Peace Prize was not meant to be bequeathed for good intentions. Neither was it meant to be awarded as a token of encouragement. The award was intended for those who have "done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." While the literal words of Alfred Nobel seem to suggest that the prize would be reserved for political contributions, some of the recent prize winners have shown that fraternity between nations can be promoted in very indirect ways. The best example of this was the 2006 prize, which was awarded to economist Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank. Mr.Yunus founded the bank in 1983 in Bangladesh. He founded the bank on the principles that "that attacking poverty is essential to peace, and that private enterprise is essential to attacking poverty." The bank makes tiny loans, as low as $20, to people who would otherwise have difficultly obtaining loans. Most of it's customers have been destitute women. To date, the bank has lent out nearly $6 billion dollars. While the issue of poverty in Bangladesh has not yet been solved, the Grameen Bank has made a significant contribution.

While the Grameen Bank is a major innovation, there are some limitations. The Bank relies on major contributions from a variety of foundations and major contributors. Though these sources of funding are extremely important, the bank is missing out on a potentially massive source of funding: the average citizen. Recognizing this limitation, Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley founded, a website that allows for individuals to make interest free loans to third world entrepreneurs. Kiva has received endorsements from such diverse sources as Zambian Economist Dambisa Moyo, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Clinton. Clinton also wrote about in his recent book Giving. To date, over $95 million dollars have been lent out by more than a half a million people. The repayment rate is an impressive 98.42%.

Many people are skeptical of making donations to alleviate third world poverty. The third world seems to be a sinkhole where money either disappears, or is stolen. This type of skepticism is likely what lead New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to follow up on a loan that he made to a baker in Afghanistan. Kristof was able to track down the man, and had the opportunity to sample the bread that his loan helped to bake. The loan consisted of $425 from seven different families and individuals from across America. By spending less than 10 minutes on the website, and donating as little as $25, these seven donors were able to help lift an aged baker out of poverty. If that doesn't count as encouraging fraternity between nations, I don't know does. It is for this reason that I believe Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley deserve to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

On a personal note, I have been lending through ever since I heard about the site 2 years ago. Every single loan I have made has been repaid promptly, and in full. I encourage everyone to go to to make a loan. As little as $25 can help to lift a struggling entrepreneur out of poverty. It will also make you feel good knowing that you've helped to make a difference.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Government Tourism Advertising Campaigns and New Media

There are few better examples of zero sum games than can be found in the field of government tourism advertising. When multiple jurisdictions spend money to promote tourism, they do not increase the total number of tourists. That is pure common sense. People only have so much vacation time. This is not to say that there is no justification whatsoever to have a modest tourism department to give potential tourists basic information that may be helpful. Beyond that, it just gets silly. No matter how many ads the province of Saskatchewan places on the Toronto subway, or how often I see a commercial that begs me to come to Newfoundland, I will not be any more likely to visit either (though I may have done so anyways.) The wasted effort wouldn't bother me so much if these forms of advertising weren't so expensive. The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador spends $12 million dollars annually to attract tourists. That's $24 dollars for every man, woman, and child in the province. Even if it was possible to measure the effect this money has, I doubt it would justify the cost.

Though I object to large scale tourism advertising, I have to say that I have been impressed by the efforts of one jurisdiction to use new media to promote tourism. The State of Pennsylvania has a beautiful, interactive website that focuses on displaying the natural beauty of rural Pennsylvania. It has everything from detailed road trip suggestions, to an online booking service for bed and breakfasts, cabins, and campgrounds. What's more is that the road trip suggestions actually seem really cool. The last time I was in Erie I was literally counting the minutes until my connection came. Now I actually want to go to back so I can stop at Russ' Dinor (sic)! The website probably won't bring in thousands of tourists, but it also doesn't cost $12 million per year.

As impressive as the website is in general, there was one thing that really stood out: a low budget show about a man with two first names. This weekend I was sitting around with a few friends when two of them made a joke about the man with two names. My blank stare must have convinced them to put it on. That, or the fact that they were laughing hysterically at the apparent inside joke. Peter Arthur Stories (PA Stories, get it?) is among the best G rated comedies I've ever seen. The show is much like the popular Flight of the Concords, though the episodes last less than 10 minutes each, and there are only 4 episodes thus far. Though I won't divulge plot details, it involves a young man who decides to take a road trip through the Pennsylvania countryside. Hilarity ensues. The show uses amateur Pennsylvania actors, and operates on a fairly low budget. The Peter Arthur campaign came with a bill of $1.3 million dollars. While that is a large sum, the bulk of the costs came from conventional media advertising, including a 30 second spot during American Idol, and a giveaway of 12 all inclusive Pennsylvania vacations. Given that a 30 second spot during American Idol runs around $750 thousand dollars, that doesn't leave much for the show and vacation packages. Had they relied solely on viral marketing, the price tag would have been substantially lower.

As in the case of the high budget advertising discussed earlier, this probably won't do much to increase tourism--but it might. Given the dearth of references to it on the internet, it doesn't seem that many people have seen the show yet. However, if it gains even a modest viewership, it would be safe to assume that some people would be interested in visiting some of the sights where memorable moments occur. Frankly, I never would have gone to rural Pennsylvania until I saw this. Now that it's an inside joke with my friends, there is no question that I will be heading to some of the random destinations in the show (and dragging at least one enthusiast with me). Rather than throwing money at major tourism programs, governments should learn to harness the power of new media. With a small, creative staff, and a modest budget, there is no reason why governments can't equal the modest success of large scale tourism campaigns for a fraction of the price. And while they're at it, maybe they can give us a few more laughs.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Greening The Government Fleet?

The Toronto Star ran an article last Friday in which they criticized the Canadian government for failing to comply with the Alternative Fuels Act of 1995. The bill requires that the 75% of the government vehicle fleet must operate on alternative fuels when it is "cost-effective and operationally feasible." Though they point out that these conditions have not existed since the legislation was passed, they are particularly critical of the current Conservative government for not having invested more in compliance. Between 2008-2009, the government purchased 1898 alternative fuel vehicles, which accounts for 41% their fleet acquisitions for the period. The most popular alternative fuel used is E10, a gasoline-ethanol blend, which accounts for 8% of fuel consumed by government vehicles.

The authors offer a strong criticism of E10 fuel. Though it has been supported by many environmentalists, it can cost up to $2/liter (over $7.50/gallon), and the fuel economy is noticeably worse. Add to this the fact that vehicles burning E10 are no better in emissions tests, and there is absolutely no justification for the government to purchase these vehicles.

Though the article was critical of flex fuel vehicles, it was much more sympathetic to gas/electric hybrids. While hybrids are extremely popular with eco-conscious drivers, the benefits are far less than advertised. In fact, Wired Magazine pointed out that Consumer Report estimated the fuel efficiency of the Honda Civic Hybrid at 26 MPG. Not only is the 14 miles per gallon less than reported by the US Department of Energy, but it is exactly the same fuel efficiency rating as the regular Honda Civic. On top of this, the premium for the hybrid model is more than $10,000. If the government fleet met the 75% quota by purchasing hybrids, the total price premium would be $238 million dollars. Before advocating such policies, environmentalists should weigh the costs and benefits. Purchasing hybrids is far from a cost-effective method of potentially reducing emissions.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Electric Vehicles, Tax Credits, and Subsidies

Over the summer I wrote a paper in which I examined the efficacy of subsidies and tax credits to electric vehicles. I must admit that I am actually quite bullish on the prospects of EVs. Tesla Motors has made tremendous strides towards making EVs economical, though battery manufacturers still have a long way to go before EVs can get the distance per charge that will be required for them to render the internal combustion engine obsolete.

Despite my optimism surrounding the technology, I am extremely skeptical of government subsidies. One only needs to think back to the hydrogen vehicle craze of the early part of the decade to see how bad governments are at picking winning technologies. After $1.2 billion dollars of subsidies, hydrogen vehicles have fallen by the wayside. Even if electric batteries are the fuel of the future, direct subsidies will not necessarily help their development. Subsidizing one battery company would impede the ability of other companies to compete. There is no reason to think that the Federal government will just happen to choose the right model.

To put this in perspective, think back to when the internal combustion engine was first invented. Of the thousands of entrepreneurs in the market, hindsight tells us that Henry Ford had the best business model. Now, imagine that another company had received federal grants to commercialize their own automobile. Would automotive technology be where it is today? There is no way of telling. For all we know, none of us would know the name Henry Ford, and all of his innovations would have fallen by the wayside. It is only by allowing competition in the marketplace of ideas that we discover the best technologies. If electric vehicles are to become the dominant technology, as I believe they will, it will be made so by entrepreneurs, not bureaucrats.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Who Cares About Portland?

One thing that readers are bound to notice is that I have an unusually keen interest in the city of Portland. Aside from being the micro brewery capital of the world, Portland is also regarded as the public transit Mecca of America. No North American city has experimented as extensively as Portland with various forms of transit. Portland has an extensive fleet of buses, light rail trains, and streetcars. In addition to this, Portland has also constructed an aerial tram, which descends on a system of cables from the main campus of the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) main campus, to the south waterfront campus. This provides an excellent example of the mentality shared by modern urban planners.

The initial cost estimate for the 1 km tram was $15.5 million dollars. This estimate turned out to be unrealistic, and the cost ballooned to $57 million dollars. The operating cost estimate of $915,000 per year was also far off the mark, as the actual cost is $1.7 million dollars. Any impartial auditor would call this a massive failure. This is especially true when considering that there was already a 3.1 km bus route between the two campuses. Given that the capital cost of a bus is less than 1/100th of the cost of the tram, one would expect urban planners to conclude that the tram was an abysmal failure. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

William Fulton, primary author of the California Planning and Development report curiously labelled the tram a success. Despite the costs, he claims that the tram is responsible for keeping the largest employer, OHSU, in town. Fulton believes that "sometimes you just have to build stuff and see what happens." This is the kind of reckless urban planning that has lead to a decay of most American cities. The idea that money is never an obstacle has lead to a situation where no matter how much money municipalities receive, they are in a state of perpetual budget crisis. Portland, more than any other American city, exhibits this ethos. This is why Portland is important. Despite their reckless transportation policies, Portland has become the model that cities across North America (including Toronto) are attempting to emulate. Your city planners care about Portland, and so should you.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reflections on the G-20 Conference

I decided to go to Pittsburgh this week with a group of free marketers to protest against the protectionist measures that the Obama Administration has recently enacted. My ulterior motive was to check out the city of Pittsburgh, which has probably been the most successful rustbelt city since the decline of manufacturing in America.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in town on Tuesday was that most of the downtown was going to be shut down for the conference as a security precaution. At first blush, this seems rather extreme. After all, in post 9-11 America, there is legitimate concern over many of the security measures that have been enacted. However, while no one likes to see legions of riot police in their cities, conferences like this attract thousands of protesters, some of which engage in violence and vandalism. This leaves the authorities caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they can sit by passively and allow the protesters to take over the city. Given the demeanor of some of the protesters, such as one anarchist who attempted to spit at me because of my sign (though she missed), this seems untenable. On the other hand, the police can do as they did, and lock down the city. This is also unfortunate, especially when they are forced to gas protesters. When the police are forced to resort to crowd control tactics in an urban setting, there are bound to be innocent bystanders affected.

The problem isn't necessarily that the police are given too much power in these situations, but rather that they shouldn't allow these situations to develop in the first place. There is no good reason why conferences like the G-20 should be held in major cities. Global trade meetings invariably bring out militant protesters. The only way to mitigate the effects of the necessary security precautions is to hold these meetings in remote location, as is typically done for G-8 meetings. Not only would that reduce the possibility of violent confrontations, but it would also prevent local businesses from being forced to shut down, or even potentially fall prey to vandalism. This was the case with the Rite Aid down the street from my hotel. I visited it on Wednesday night, and it was subsequently smashed in by protesters on Thursday.

The unfortunate reality is politicians are not much concerned with the tangible and intangible costs of hosting such meetings. After all, the federal government is on the hook for security costs at the G-20. Meanwhile, local politicians get to feel good about showing the world just how lovely their city is. Luckily for the residents of Pittsburgh, the inconveniences they suffered pale in comparison to the anarchy that prevailed in Seattle during the WTO conference in 1999. While governments can't prevent unruly protesters, the least they could do is to refrain from luring them to major cities.