Archive for : March, 2016

UBER

The City of Ottawa will make recommendations about taxi licensing and UBER within the next few days.  We have all read of the tensions, unpleasantness and occasional violence between licensed taxi drivers and UBER contractor drivers.  While it would be good to see a peaceful settlement between licensed and contract drivers, if the settlement is to the detriment of those who wish to hire taxicabs – the consumers – then the settlement is not really viable.

 

UBER would not be anywhere near as attractive to consumers if Ottawa citizens were happy with licensed taxi service in the city.  Sure there are many licensed drivers who provide good, even excellent, service.  But we have all had rides in dirty, poor maintained licensed cabs.  We have all had to tolerate slovenly and ill-tempered drivers who talk on their phones while driving.  We all have had long waits for a driver to show up.  And some of us have complained about the service, only to hear nothing back and see nothing change.

 

UBER offers a faster, cleaner and more courteous ride.  A complaint about an UBER driver is taken very seriously.  UBER is often less costly than a licensed cab, but that is only a part of the reason for the popularity of the service.

 

However, the UBER service comes with a social cost.  Licensed cab companies and employee drivers pay into social programs such as employment insurance, pensions and health care. Their cars are also fully insured for carriage of passengers. The holders of taxi licenses have paid in good faith substantial amounts to gain and exploit their licenses; this cannot be dismissed.  UBER drivers are contractors who operate without a social safety net, and are not insured as commercial drivers. The UBER system places no floor on rates and earnings for contractors; indeed, there is a downward trend so significant that some UBER contractors are attempting to unionize.  The UBER Corporation does not contribute to social programs because it has no employees.  Neither the UBER Corporation nor its contractors pay for licenses to operate taxi services in the city.

 

UBER just arrives in a city; it seeks no government approval to provide services; it operates outside the municipal laws on taxi services.  It can be argued that the UBER Corporation is engaging in ‘corporate nullification’, where a private company simply ignores government rules – relying on popular support for legitimacy.  The Apple Corporation wants to do this as well, seeking to exempt its products from lawful search warrants.

 

In my view, UBER damages the social fabric and corrodes the role and legitimacy of government.  As such, I would tend to support municipal sanctions against it.  However, if the alternative to UBER is the continuation of the current level of ‘service’ provided by the licensed taxi industry in Ottawa, then there is a problem.  The current licensing system also corrodes the legitimacy of government, by licensing poor service.

 

I doubt if there is a win-win solution.  Some messy progress might be possible if current UBER contractors were sold one-year licenses under circumstances where insurance is normalized and contractors have some protections.  During that time it would be incumbent upon taxi license holders to upgrade the services of their industry.  Failing that, then the market should be opened.

Rails and Trails

Let’s start with some, I hope, basic facts upon which we all can agree.  There is a railway corridor running from Gatineau, through Chelsea, to Wakefield.  In Chelsea, the corridor is owned by the municipality: it is public land.  Following collapse of part of the railway road bed, the former tourist steam train cannot run on the railway line.  Many Chelsea houses have frontage on the railway line; many can access the waterfront by crossing the rail line; the waterfront property is normally not owned by the residents; in most cases it is owned by Hydro Québec.

 

What to do with the Chelsea railway corridor?  There are four main options:

 

  1. Maintain the status quo: do nothing. Leave the corridor the way it has been since the train stopped running.  Residents with frontage on the rail line can access it for their own use, as well as gain access to the river.  This option would include continued public use of the corridor for winter activities, such as skiing.
  2. Sell or transfer the corridor to residents along the river. This would extend the residents property to the water’s edge in many cases.  Public access would be lost.
  3. Restore the rail line for tourist or commuter use. Residents would still have access when the trains are not running.  Resident and public access would be limited, due to the trains and the rail bed.
  4. Convert the rail line to an all season trail for cyclists and hikers. Residents would still have access to the trails and to the waterfront.  Cyclists and hikers would have access to the tails and to the waterfront not owned by the residents.

 

Here are my thoughts on each of the options.

Status quo.  This option is by far the most favourable to the residents living along the rail line.  At no cost to them, they have primary access to the corridor and the waterfront.  They have near exclusive use of public land.  The public winter ski access is a small inconvenience.  If the status quo becomes the long term situation accepted by the municipality, property values would rise.

Sell the corridor.  In practical terms, the sales would need to be compulsory (perhaps with payments over many years).  Residents would need to come up with sizable chunks of cash, but in return they would get exclusive use of the corridor and exclusive access to the waterfront.  There would be no public access to the corridor or, for practical purposes, to the waterfront.  The municipality would gain substantial revenues from the sales.

Restore rail.  At least two uses are possible: a restored tourist train and/or a commuter line.  Either use would require rebuilding the damaged rail bed, as well as long-neglected maintenance on the whole line.  Depending on the extent of proposed use, residents and the public could make some use of the corridor, although it would be limited by trains rolling on the line.  Residents would continue to have near exclusive use of the waterfront.  The Municipality of Chelsea has expressed no interest in this option.  A private sector consortium has expressed interest in the commuter idea, and has threatened legal action to prevent conversion of the rail bed.  However, the consortium has no provided any specific plans.

Rails to trails.  The rail bed would be taken up and the surface covered by pounded gravel, creating a surface suitable for bicyclists and walkers.  The railway corridor and the waterfront areas would be open to the public.  Proponents see the idea as a community facility and a tourist attraction.  There is little documentation about the impact on tourism, but the experience has been positive for other jurisdictions which have done this.  Opponents see the immediate impacts of tourism or their quiet enjoyment of their property: traffic and parking on their roads, ill-equipped for the influx; hikers and cyclists passing by their properties, perhaps stepping onto them; as well, the public could access waterfront in front of the homes, since they have the same rights as the residents; there would be increased noise, perhaps partying, perhaps vandalism, certainly garbage.  Conversion of the rail bed to a trail will cost money, probably paid by taxpayers since it is a public good being created.

 

Considerations.

The railway corridor is now public land. It has never been the property of residents along the route (save, perhaps, for those whose land was expropriated for the line many, many decades ago).  The residents along the route have no right of primary, let alone exclusive, use of the land.  Nor do they have primary, let alone exclusive, rights to the waterfront along the rail line, unless they have title to the land.

The railway corridor could still be used for railway operations, until it is de-commissioned by the appropriate authorities (e.g., Transport Canada). The (im)practicality of tourist or commuter rail use is not an issue.  The Municipality of Chelsea may find legal constraints in conversion of the corridor.

For the municipality, cost/benefit questions need to be addressed. It will not be cheap to prepare the rail bed for tourist traffic.  The benefits to Chelsea of tourism along the trails needs to be assessed.  Will these hikers and cyclists purchase local products and services while in the area?  Will the presence of the trail make Chelsea a more attractive tourist destination?

Residents along the corridor have legitimate concerns about such matters as parking, traffic, trespass, noise, garbage and vandalism. Such concerns are not uncommon when a public facility is created.  Were the municipality to proceed with the projects, its plans should include measures to mitigate the negative effects of public usage on local residents.

However, the concerns of local residents do not take precedence over the rights of all the citizens of Chelsea to determine the best use of public property.

Conclusions.

Provided that the Municipality of Chelsea can:

  1. make the financial case for the rails to trails conversion
  2. resolve legal issues pertaining to conversion of the rail bed
  3. mitigate many of the negative effects of opening the rail corridor to public use

rails to trails should go ahead.

Why are churches a tax tree zone?

We start from the principle that owners of property should be expected to pay taxes to their local government. In part the taxes are charged to fund municipal services, regardless whether those services are provided or consumed.  Individual home owners pay taxes, as do business owners. Charitable organization and non-profits pay taxes at a reduced rate, presumably on the rationale that they are providing services which are needed by citizens.  Churches do not pay municipal taxes. Why is this? After all, they consume municipal services. Were individuals or business on the same footprint of land, they would pay taxes. So churches have special status.

There may be a partial answer in history. Churches have been exempt from at least some forms of taxation for, quite literally, millennia. An exemption for religion is mentioned in the Book of Genesis. In converting to Christianity, the Emperor Constantine transferred tax exemptions from the old Roman temples to Christian churches. Since then, most churches have been tax exempt, with some well-known exceptions (such as the confiscation of church property by Henry VIII).  Centuries ago, churches were almost a form of government in themselves. They had their own judicial system, and a form of taxation as well (tithing and absolutions). They provided community services (marriages, funerals, sanctuary, education, sometimes charity). They have been known to field, or at least hire, armies. And, of course, clergy were often part of the civil government, sitting on municipal councils and in the House of Lords.  Centuries ago, and as recently as decades ago, almost the whole of a community was a member of one church or another. Tax exemption for churches need not have been considered as an exemption for a specific group, but an exemption for all (or almost all) members of the community.

Where churches were taxed, the practice could be seen as an attempt by the state to control or limit a religion. And where some religions were taxed and others not, the state could fairly be seen as favouring one religious practice over another.  The avoidance of favouritism can be seen as the objective behind the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Many early colonists were fleeing religious persecution and favouritism, hence a strong desire to avoid any government support for one religious sect or another.

This view of history sees the exemption of churches from taxation as having two roots: support for the state religion (or that held by most citizens); and the avoidance of favouritism among religions. The vast majority of citizens of the United Kingdom, France, the United States and Canada held religious beliefs and attended church. Churches were property of the community.

Decades ago, most Canadians attended church, more or less regularly. Today, more than 75% of Canadians do not attend church. Churches are not representative of the Canadian community. As well, their former roles have changed; they are not involved in civil governance, their community services (marriage, education etc.) can be obtained from the civil authority, their expression and adherence is protected by the Charter of Rights.

The reasons for granting churches tax exemptions no longer exist. In granting such exemptions, we are depriving government of potential revenues, thereby limiting the scope of government to spend or reduce taxes.  Some might argue that churches deserve special tax treatment for the community services they do provide. Such would be reasonable, if applied at the rates paid and for the allowable activities undertaken by non-religious charitable organizations.

The consequences of taxing churches would probably not be good for the churches. More would close. Some community services would perhaps cease, although there would always be the opportunity to establish a charitable organization providing such services. Former church property would then be used for other purposes, perhaps ones which generate municipal taxes, which could fund replacement community services.

Some might view the imposition of taxes as an attack on religion. This discussion takes the view that taxation of churches removes the favouritism towards churches over other charitable endeavours. Like other non-religious charitable organizations, donations to churches could still continue to be tax deductible. State support remains, just not at the unique level of the past.

Compulsory Social Housing

“Cities will soon be allowed to make developers

include “affordable” units in new developments

that need rezonings, the provincial government says”

Reeveley, Ottawa Citizen

 

http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/reevely-forcing-affordable-units-into-ottawa-condo-towers-wont-be-easy

 

One could hope for some positive social developments for low income earners in mandating mixed-income micro-neighbourhoods: better services and opportunities would possibly result, while the character and construction of the neighbourhood improves.  For higher income inhabitants, the advantages appear to be less clear, though there may be some satisfaction in contribution to housing availability.  How the developer would fare is an open question; too great an impact on the bottom line and the development will not happen, for good or bad.

 

But it needs to be understood that there is no ‘magic money’ is such regulations.  What is the financial impact of requiring that (say) 25% of condo units in a new building be priced for low income buyers?  It appears inevitable that condo units required to be priced for low income will cause someone else’s financial condition to be changed in relation to what would have happened if condos were priced according to market forces.  Perhaps construction quality will be lower, or services less, for those low income purchasers.  Or perhaps the higher income buyers will pay a little more to compensate for the developer’s loss of possible income.  Or perhaps the developer will accept a lower rate of return to get the project done.  One way or another, the money must be found.

 

In a way the city is trying to offload its social housing responsibilities onto condo developers and owners.  If the city can’t provide low income housing then perhaps developers and higher income condo purchasers should be made to do so.  In fairness, though, the city has an obligation to help lower income and homeless people.  If it is a condition of new development that private corporations and individuals ensure that that development is of some benefit to the less-advantaged, the city can shift social housing costs to the private sector.

 

Is it good governance to do so?  I fear not.  In the first place, adding social requirements to private activities is inefficient government regulation.  The regulation is intended to achieve government objectives through the private sector (companies and individuals), rather than directly through taxes and spending.  It is a disguised government program, in a way.  But in its disguise, it avoids the reporting requirements and assessment activities to which programs are (or should be) expected to conform; as well, there may be unintended affects since the requirement or program is not directly managed.  The offloading also removes accountability for the actions from the organization which required them.  A government program can evolve and improve, a condo requirement is pretty much in place for the life of the condo.

 

Municipal governments have accepted a moral obligation to provide social housing.   However, our municipal governments have come to the sad conclusion that taxpayers are unwilling to pay for the costs of adequate social housing.  So now they are trying to bamboozle specific taxpayers into paying for those costs through regulation.  Regulatory artifice is proposed to achieve an objective that most taxpayers do not share.

Apple’s Misdirection

Apple likes to say it’s protecting the privacy of its customers in refusing to unlock phones for US law enforcement. It’s an issue of principle, so we’re told. One might well be cautious when a multi-billion corporation invokes ‘principle’ in an argument.

Let’s consider the context. In Canada and the US, law enforcement – with judicial authorization – has up to now been able to access personal information on electronic devices. There are no issues of principle when a duly authorized search warrant allows the police to search your house, your car, your person and your electronic devices.

What has changed in this case is the technology preventing unauthorized access. Apple asserts that it would catastrophically undermine security of their new devices to allow *authorized* access: i.e., access approved by the judiciary, for cause, supported by evidence. Surely that is Apple’s problem, and no one else’s. Apple wishes to create what some have called a “warrant-free zone”, so that all – good people and bad people – could protect their privacy against intrusion from bad people and big government.

Suppose the technology created was not for a smart phone but for your house: your new high-tech lock and door could not be opened by anyone without the right code. By Apple’s rationale, law enforcement wouldn’t have the right to enter your house, even with a warrant, because decoding the lock could affect the personal privacy of all high-tech lock owners.

What Apple wants to do is to create ‘gated’ digital communities, where the holders of Apple products have protection from lawful searches by the state. Such would be a fundamental affront to democracy and human rights. It is a key principle of democracy that no one is above the law: not the Monarch, not the Chief Executive, not the Chief Justice, not the high priest, not the very rich man. If search warrants are justified for real property, physical goods and personal files, they are also justified for digital information. A technological accomplishment should not be allowed to nullify law and due process.

Will Québec Bring Back Canon Law?

My apologies for the provocative title. However, the Superior Court of Québec – the highest trial court in Québec – has made a rather extraordinary pronouncement. The Court has ruled that a member of the clergy of a church is not obliged to inform the civil authorities that a religious marriage has taken place. So religious marriages can exist independently (without any reference to) marriages authorized under Québec Civil Law.

The Court was persuaded to issue this ruling on the suggestion of the Attorney General of Québec, who had argued that “a member of the clergy can celebrate a religious marriage in conformity with (the person’s) faith, without the marriage necessarily having civil consequences. In that case, even if the spouses are married religiously, the civil authorities simply do not recognize their status as married people.” In other words it was her submission that, in the words of the Montreal Gazette, people can wed in a religious ceremony without committing to the legal obligations of marriage.

Low Down

I had some gentle fun with this in a letter to the local paper (see inset).  But it does raise the question – not just in Québec – of the relationship between religious marriage and civil marriage.  My understanding is that, at least until this ruling, religious marriage was subordinate to civil marriage.  The basis of my understanding had been the view that:

  • One can have a civil marriage without having a religious marriage; however,
  • Any religious marriage is required to be a civil marriage.

 

If indeed religious marriages could exist independently of civil ones, there are many interesting implications, some of which will be considered in a moment.

 

But first, for context, we might consider the historical relationship between religious and civil unions.  The idea and practice of marriage has probably existed as a matter of custom prior to religious or civil rules.   “Which rule set was first?” is a less potent question than “Which rule set has the ethical upper hand?”  My prejudice is for the civil, as it is based on human rights rather than divine rights or laws.

 

Regardless, each tradition is maintained through a process, which involves: authorization; legitimation; registration; and, if necessary and allowed, adjudication with possible annulment or dissolution.

 

So if the civil authority claims that there is a religious authority for the maintenance of the institution of marriage, then the religious authority can be expected to maintain processes for the authorisation and dissolution of marriage.  Even religions have laws; in the European tradition they are Canon Laws, and these have been used for more than millennium to maintain the tradition of marriage.  Although marriage was originally disdained by the early Christian Church (e.g., Paul), it has become a sacrament – one of only seven in the Catholic Church, the variety of religious observance most common in Québec.

 

So if the religious authority accepts its responsibility for the management of religious marriage, then there needs to be some system of review of claims under the religious rules.  Hence, we need some system of religious laws and adjudication to resolve marital disputes.  Good so far.

 

However, the religious system cannot claim jurisdiction over civil matters.  Canadian constitutional rulings support civil authority over marital matters such as authorization (before the state), dissolution, protection of children, and distribution of assets.   The civil judicial system is based on human rights, independent of any spiritual belief or status.  Were you to argue that there is a class of religious rights which are of greater value than civil rights, then it seems you are stating that there are some rights which are of greater value or prior to those which are specified in the Canadian Charter of Rights.  That is not a tenable position in Canada or indeed in any modern democracy.

 

What are the proper rights of a religious communion with respect to marriage?  Presumably all those matters which do not fall within the purview of civil law.  These might include: religious observance, family behaviour, child rearing practices – in themselves, these are quite enough to influence emotional development for good or bad.  Presumably both parties to a marriage could agree to have certain of their basic civil human rights restricted but such an agreement would have no force in civil law and could result in criminal charges (e.g., assault in the administration of a corporal punishment).

 

Let us return to the specific situation in Québec: religious marriage appears to be independent of civil marriage.  At the invitation of Stephanie Vallée, Justice Alary has plunged us into a constitutional quagmire.  Organized religion can slither its way out of this by giving their support to the Charter, while arguing that the Charter is based on their religious values.  Good luck with that.

Globe

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GMO Labeling

GMO debate

 

When you look at the label for this product, they proclaim it to be ”GMO-free”, along with other characteristics such as gluten free, raw, and high in fibre.

 

GMO foods don’t particularly worry me; I consume them all the time (in soy and corn products, for example).  In any case, I think there are far more serious safety issues in the North American food system (e.g., product contamination, antibiotics).  But I find the proclamation “GMO free” to be a provocative challenge, as it implies that other products were developed with GMOs.

 

I think consumers should be able to make a choice to consume food products with or without GMOs.  But in order to do that, foods would need to be labeled ‘Contains GMOs’ or ‘GMO-free’

 

We accept food labeling for trans-fats, MSG and added sugar, as well as for nutritional composition.  So what do some people find wrong with labelling for GMOs?  There seem to be two main arguments:

  1. Many people are afraid of GMOs, so telling them that their food contains GMOs could frighten people and make them demand GMO-free products. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that their fear has no strong basis in science.  So what? People make food product choices based on all sorts of claims, some scientifically or nutritionally valid and some not.  If the consumer is willing to pay a premium for a GMO-free product, it seems reasonable to allow them to do so, just as they pay a premium for food products created without pesticides and antibiotics.
  2. If we support labeling of GMO products, then we would probably support labelling of people’s race or religion as well in employment applications, as some people believe that race or religion is a valid basis for discrimination. I find this argument bizarre and pernicious.  In the first place, most modern democracies outlaw any discrimination on the basis of race or religion.  Those decisions were made in democracies, and are usually enshrined in national constitutions.  There has been no democratic decision to prevent discrimination between GMO and GMO-free foods.  Until the people decide otherwise, they have the right to discriminate.  Perhaps food producers and scientists might disagree, but as far as I know these groups do not have a privileged voice in our democracy.  What’s pernicious about the argument is that it tries to conflate actions to discriminate between foods with actions to discriminate against people.  Sorry, the racism card doesn’t work.

I think I will write my Member of Parliament (who is also Minister of the Environment and Climate change) asking that GMO foods be labelled as such.

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What is Bulls–t?

Perhaps you begin with the perception “What a bullshit topic!”  But this paper argues that the variety of types of bullshit are distinguishable morally, emotionally and spiritually. (more…)

Saudi Arms Sales; Letter sent to the Globe: 2016/02/26

Pierre Trudeau described Lester Pearson – the father of Canadian peacekeeping – as the “unfrocked prince of peace” for allowing American nuclear weapons to be stationed on Canadian soil. Now Justin Trudeau – promising to “renew Canada’s commitment to peacekeeping” – proposes to authorize the sale of weaponized armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a country which violates the human rights of its own citizens as well as those of civilians in neighbouring countries. What the frock, Justin? You’re no Prince of Peace either.

Bombardier; Letter printed in the Globe, 2016/02/20

Without gaining some ownership control of Bombardier, any federal or provincial financial contribution to the company represents a free gift to the Bombardier family – a multi-billion reward for its bad management.  Is this the message taxpayers want to give to the rich and inept?