Wednesday 24 April 2013

This is where it all went wrong.

So .... how about that weather?

Something went terribly wrong this spring. That is clear. But what?

I've looked up the numbers and pin-pointed exactly where it went wrong: Saturday, March 9.

The following is a graph that shows the daily high temps this year, the same from last year, and the historical mean high temp for the day:

As you can see, beginning March 9 there is not a single day where this year was warmer than last year, or where we exceeded the normal historical high for that day. In fact for the most part we were a good 5-10 degrees below the normal temperature for that time of year.

That's a pretty spectacular run of below-normal temps!

The tricky question is: why did it happen? What happened on March 9 to cause our thermometers to plummet?

Well, I looked into that too and I've found the answer: On March 9 an asteroid the size of a city block buzzed by earth. It is apparent that the gravitational pull or cosmic wake from this asteroid caused a short term alteration in Earth's weather patterns such that winter was extended by a month and a half on the prairies.

That is your explanation folks. If you are skeptical then that means you don't trust science.

Friday 19 April 2013

MB Budget 2013: Five Lies

Lies ... So many lies ... It makes me sad.

I am not happy about the PST hike -- few people are -- but for me the worst aspect of this week's budget announcement wasn't the tax increase itself but all of the lies that accompanied it. I appreciate honesty. I may not like what you're doing, but if you're honest about why you're doing it and have a good reason for doing so, I will not resent your actions.

But that is not the case here. There is a tremendous arrogance in how the government delivered this budget that I'm finding hard to articulate, so let's just get on with the show ... here some of the more grievous lies from this week's budget announcement:

LIE: The tax hike is required for flood infrastructure. Direct quote: "this revenue will help protect Manitobans against flooding." There are 13 consecutive paragraphs in the budget speech about flooding, leading up to the tax increase announcement.
FACT: Spending on water-related infrastructure is actually decreasing $11 million from last year -- from $59m to $48m. This amount also represents a very small fraction of the revenue that will be generated from the tax increase.

LIE. Holding a referendum on the tax increase would make us miss construction season. Direct quote: "We have to get on with it now. The construction season is in front of us."
FACT: This has got to be one of the worst excuses I have ever heard from a politician. I don't even know where to start. How exactly is this supposed to make sense?  You see .. much like pizza at New York's famed Grimaldi's Pizzaria, you can only pay for flood infrastructure in cash, and we ... um ... don't seem to have any cash on us. Do you have any cash Greg? No? Ya, neither do I. Gosh, where are we going to find all that money so we can protect Manitoba families from flooding? This really is quite the conundrum. I think the only solution is to instantaneously raise $48 million on July 1 with a PST hike so that we can get those construction crews working!
As already mentioned, flood infrastructure spending is going down from last year, and in any case these projects can be financed. A referendum has absolutely no bearing on whether a dike gets built this summer.

LIE: Our sales tax rate is still 3rd lowest in Canada. Direct quote: "Our PST will remain third lowest in the country."
FACT: We aren't even the 3rd lowest in Western Canada.
Alberta: 0%
Saskatchewan: 5%
BC: 7%
Manitoba: 8%  4th lowest
Or .. you could look at it this way: we are 4th highest in Canada, lower than only Quebec, PEI and Nova Scotia.
FUN FACT: Two other provinces are decreasing their sales tax, including Nova Scotia. By July 2015 we will be tied for the 3rd highest sales tax rate in Canada.

LIE: The global economy is to blame. Direct quote: "But the economic outlook remains uncertain. The source of that uncertainty lies outside our borders."
FACT: As I've progressed through life I have learned that there are certain phrases that you never want to hear. Phrases like:
"We regret to inform you.."
"I just got my results back.."
"While we have weathered the recession better than most provinces, the global economy remains uncertain.."
If you have the opportunity to pour yourself a scotch before hearing the remainder of any of those sentences I highly recommend it. Anyhow, on with the facts .... revenues for the year that just passed came in at only $200k less than what was budgeted for 2012/13, and those revenues were 3% more than the year before. In other words, the government's revenues are pretty much exactly as anticipated when the Premier said "Ridiculous idea that we're going to raise the sales tax. That's total nonsense, everybody knows that."

LIE. We are on track to balance the budget by 2016. Direct quote: "It will allow us to deliver a balanced budget by 2016."
FACT: The budget does indeed show Manitoba achieving a balanced budget in 2016/17. How? Through spending restraint unlike any we have seen from this government in the past. Spending growth projections are:
2014/15: 1.3%
2015/16: 2.1%
2016/17: 2.1%
For reference, the smallest increase the NDP has budgeted since it came into power in 1999 is 2.5%, and they have averaged spending increases of 4.6%. While it is technically possible for the government to keep this promise, they know very well that they will not.

Sunday 14 April 2013

The Manitoba Government subsidizes strippers

It's true. Just ask Finance Minister Stan Struthers.

Struthers has been the Government's point man in a very public battle with the Manitoba Jockey Club over the future of the Assiniboia Downs race track. The government intends to cut what it calls "subsidies" to the Jockey Club by "at least $5 million". To the jockey club, this could mean the end of horse-racing in Manitoba. To the government, this is just cost-cutting:

"We understand that the MJC is disappointed with the government's intentions, but we have a duty to spend public funds responsibly."
You see? The government is just being responsible in this time of austerity.

Except ... hang on to your seat ... that's not exactly true! I know .. I am sorry to have shattered your faith in our elected officials. I will make it up to you somehow.

More than one person has pointed out that what the government is calling "subsidies" or "funding" is actually the venue's share of VLT and other gaming revenue collected on-site. One of those people is Wayne Anderson:
"If these funds are grants, then so are the funds flowing to the hotels, legions, aboriginal casinos and the Jets from VLTs, slots, etc."
The places receiving this so-called funding includes strip clubs like Teasers, which in addition to featuring "Sleek & Sheek, Sexy, Exotic & Erotic, Applebottom babes, Big bang bootys, MilkJugs, Curvy, Mind Melting Hourglass figures, Long Legged Ladies, Big Bouncing boobs, Shocker Knockers & fun all the way around" also offers VLTs for your gaming pleasure. Each VLT could net Teasers up to $50,000 per year in revenue, thus the government is likely funding "nipple popping snow shows" to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Thank you, Stan!

The government's decision to cut revenues to the Manitoba Jockey Club is peculiar, given that the government had only just negotiated a new agreement with them less than two years ago. This agreement allows the MJC to retain a much larger share of their VLT revenues than most institutions. The actual percentage is hard to know without more information, but it's greater than 75% -- probably in the 85-90% range*

It is fair to question whether the MJC should get such a large cut of the revenues. The rationale (in the government's words) was to "strengthen the Assiniobia Downs as a key component of the Manitoba’s diverse tourism, agricultural and thoroughbred industries". The $5 million drop in revenue would essentially put Assiniboia Downs on the same footing as hotels and bars, which get to keep only 20% of the revenue that they generate from VLTs.

Why should the jockey club get a more generous deal? Well for one thing, they may not be able to survive without it. Indeed, the Jockey Club accuses the government of trying to bankrupt it with this move, paving the way for the Red River Exhibition to take over the property. I haven't figured out what vested interest the provincial government has in seeing the Ex control the Assiniboia Downs property, but that appears to be the goal.

Also, horse racing is a small but unique part of the entertainment fabric of this province, and as such it would be hypocritical of the province to not give them a special deal. After all, Manitoba Lotteries is building a dedicated casino, er ... gaming centre, to provide financial support to the Jets.

As an aside, Manitoba First Nations get to keep 90% of their gaming revenue -- everything less a 10% fee to cover administration costs. This increased amount is "provided as a contribution to promote sustainable social and economic benefits and opportunities with the First Nations communities" ... like a vacation to Rome for the Chief, the Chief's wife, and 5 friends. (The government's position in that particular case was that the band can spend the revenue however they wish, but I think most people would prefer that VLT revenues stay within the province to support local communities and institutions, like for example Teasers, where you can see "one of the wettest shows on stage, where the girls take hot steamy wet showers, bathe and washing every succulent curvy part of their sexy moist soft bodes.")

Where was I? Oh yes ... the Mantitoba Jockey Club.

If the government wanted to reduce the Club's share of the revenue for what appeared to be legitimate reasons, I wouldn't be writing this post. If, for example, the government felt that gambling at the Downs was cannibalizing gambling at venues where the government gets a bigger slice of the pie, and could therefore generate more revenue through this action. If that's what they have in mind they've done a poor job articulating it.

In actuality, the government has an interest in supporting gaming activity at Assiniboia Downs because there is money to be made there. Common sense tells you that VLTs are likely to do particularly well at a horse race track where the primary activity is synonymous with gambling.

The numbers support this: VLT revenues at hotels and bars, both inside the city and in small towns, has been on the decline since 2009; while gambling at the Downs has been increasing...

Whatever the government's intentions, it is not going to go as smoothly as they planned. If the Jockey Club is going down, they're going down swinging. This past weekend they printed a half page ad in the Winnipeg Free Press and have launched a lawsuit against the government. Never mess with a Jockey, my mother always told me.

Whether horse racing will survive when all is said and done, I don't know. I suspect it will, even if the Red River Exhibition takes over the race track. The government will ensure that there is some sort of funding through some means.

If not, we have other things in these parts to entertain us. Like strippers.

*MJC's take of VLT revenues in 2010 was $5.5m or 75% of $7.3m total revenues. The current agreement provides the MJC with up to $6.5m, which would be 89% of total revenues if total revenues were to remain steady. source.

Monday 8 April 2013

Maggie's War

I do not have a strong opinion one way or the other on Margaret Thatcher or her legacy. You probably know as much or more about her than I do, especially if you've seen the movie.

If I were playing word association, the first thing that would come to my mind when you say "Margaret Thatcher" is "Falkland Islands". I remember nothing of how Thatcher governed her nation but the Falklands War made a big impression on me.

It was the first war I remember, and it was very exciting. Every evening Knowlton Nash would host a special edition of The National on CBC and give an update on the progress of the war, with maps and footage and stats. I was allowed to stay up and watch this because, I guess, it was a unique opportunity.

It ended up being more unique than one might have predicted at the time. I cannot think of a war since that was fought with the same honour, if you will, or gamesmanship. Every war since, that I recall at least, has involved dirty tactics or massive civilian casualties -- snipers shooting people in the streets, terrorists planting mines and IEDs, car bombs, unmanned drones, mortars fired recklessly into a city or neighboring country, combatants disguised as civilians, genocidal slaughters, etc.

War is always a terrible thing, but modern war is absolutely appalling

I guess this is why I look back almost fondly at the Falklands war. I don't wish to glamourize it or romanticize it, but it was a classic war. A traditional battle between two countries duking it out over a hunk of land. No other countries got involved. Nobody else got hurt. There was Country A (Argentina) claiming a group of islands as its own, and Country B (the UK) defending it's claim of those islands. And ... there was a clear winner.

Britain, with its sizable navy, had a smaller but crafty opponent to contend with. Argentina had fighters armed with French-made Exocet missiles that, when dropped from a jet, would race just above the surface of the water and blast a hole in the hull of the ship, if the ship's defenses failed to blow it out of the air first. The Brits lost the HMS Sheffield in this way. I can't imagine the stress of being on a ship with one of those missiles heading towards me.

In all there were 907 casualties, of which only 3 were civilian. That is 3 too many, but that ratio beats the hell out of any recent war you've seen or read about.

Watching the war on TV, I was certainly aware that people were dying and understood what that meant, but the sacrifice and suffering didn't really register. That's certainly part of it too. For me it was more like a game or my evening entertainment. I am now much more cognizant of the impacts that war can have because I'm older, I know people who have been there, but also because technology has brought the impacts in front of my face in high definition. Any given day you can turn on BBC or Al Jezeera or even The National and see video of dead bodies and devastated families in Syria or elsewhere.

Margaret Thatcher spoke later of the wrenching decision to go to war with Argentina. It was a difficult decision for her, but if you're unwilling to defend your land, even small islands populated mostly by sheep, then you've lost much of your legitimacy as a nation. It's as good a reason to go to war as I can think.

But the world has changed and I don't think we'll see another war like that again. There will be plenty of wars .. just none as simple and noble. Unless .. perhaps .. Denmark decides to lay claim to Hans Island.

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