Doing the BORF: The new world of vacationing Torontonians meeting Americans

I recently went on a vacation cruise to the western Caribbean as the itinerary included Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Grand Cayman – four places I had never visited and wanted to experience.

Truth in advertising: this was a luxury cruise with a high concentration of prosperous looking white people and a preponderance of Americans. But I had no idea that I was going to BORF so I started to keep notes on the experience.

The qualifications for a BORF  are unique to people who travel from Toronto to another location outside of Canada and who have the chance of running into Americans. A cruise in this sense is ideal.

I should also say from the outset that I had no idea I was going to BORF and I can freely tell you that I have never BORFed before. I certainly had no idea that I would BORF eight times.

My first experience was on the back deck of the ship enjoying the sunset. A tall gentleman from North Carolina joined us on a large couch as there were no other seats available. After a brief exchange, he began by asking the secret question that initializes the BORF.

He asked: “Where are you folks from?”

I answered: “Toronto….Canada”

He broke into a broad grin, shook his head a bit and replied:

“My condolences!”

OK – I knew immediately what he meant but I was still surprised that someone would offer a reply that acknowledged our mayor’s very public persona and exploits in the first two words of a travelers’ common  first time conversation.

He then asked what I came to understand as the standard second question that comprises the ritual BORF:

“You folks think he can get in again?”

I answered that under the right calculus of entrants and campaigns, it remains a possibility. He could get in again. This was received by the American with a mix of incredulity and rueful understanding.

The American then smiled painfully and said:

“Hey, y’all know that we got a President that got himself elected twice despite the damage he is doing to our country so I can understand you completely. These guys can get back in. The real problem is the voter. They don’t understand what they are doing”

At this point, I was completely dumbfounded. I had no idea that Barack Obama was held in such low esteem by some Americans[1] to the point that this view had become – in at least some circles – the conventional wisdom.

The American then looked up and started to laugh and asked:

“Hey, you folks want to make a trade?

Just at that moment, a spectacular full moon in a light yellow orange colour I had not seen before distracted us from conversation.   I had just BORFed for the first time and had seven more to go.

I had thought of this first conversation as a curious one-off . Yet it just repeated itself over and over – at dinner – in the pool – in the hot tub – on excursions – in buses – everywhere.

By now you know that BORF stands for ‘Barack Obama Rob Ford’.

BORF experiences can vary – one fellow noted emphatically that he was not a racist – but it is the sameness that is arresting, especially as several ingredients have to be baked in to make the conversation intelligible.

The first is that both Americans and Torontonians are assumed to know the names of the parties. In the classic BORF, neither the name of Toronto’s mayor nor The US president is ever mentioned.

The second is the assumption by the American that Toronto’s mayor defines Toronto and does so in a negative way. In my third BORF, when I said I was from Toronto, the gentleman just began laughing and asked: “How did he get in?”[2]

The third ingredient is that it will be taken as an article of faith that Obama is not only performing poorly but that he is an embarrassment to his country and that a Torontonian would presumably know that.

The fourth and perhaps most important ingredient for the BORF  is that it is an occasion for humour. For the Torontonian, it is just assumed that you will share in anything from an exchange of smiles to a knee-slapper of a guffaw about the Obama-Ford nexus.

After my fourth BORF, I began to realize that the BORF exchange would characterize most if not all initial exchanges with Americans on the cruise. Only once (the proverbial exception that proves the rule) did I not BORF in an inaugural conversation with an American. But in her case, she had been to Toronto last year and wanted to go on about how clean it was.

John Kenneth Galbraith defined the concept of the conventional wisdom as having four components. Conventional wisdom is simple, comfortable, structures an understandable frame and it gives you self-esteem.

The BORF is an example of conventional wisdom at work. The two men that symbolize the BORF exchange have accessible personas and foibles. The values many of us share give us permission to comfortably criticize them in a public space. Their actions and our reactions are understandable. And it makes us feel good that their transgressions are more public and more egregious than our own.

I have also come to understand for the first time the extent to which Mr. Ford’s persona has completely eclipsed and remade the concept and reality of Toronto.

So, a word to Torontonians heading south this summer:

On your mark – get set – BORF!

John Stapleton

March 30, 2014


[2] Note to self: Is saying that you are from Toronto really a signal for someone to start laughing?

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Hoping for genuine efforts to address self-identified needs: Guest Blog from Pat Capponi

What if the archetype of the mad, the lonely dishevelled man screaming and scaring passersby on big city street corners could be transformed into a contributing citizen, not through the efforts of those institutions  which claim to change lives, but through genuine efforts to address the self-identified needs of the ‘ chronic patient’: decent supportive housing that enables tenants to practise autonomy, integrated staffing that reflects the value of lived experience instead of coercing, controlling and crushing independence, role models who can address self-defeating behaviours learned on hospital wards and back alleys, and earned income that relieves soul-crushing poverty

When people first learn of their diagnosis, they aren’t thinking of those advertising campaigns that portray mental illness as seated in the clear-complexioned, well-dressed, gainfully employed condo dwellers, no, they think of that man on the corner, how he is shunned and avoided, and therein lies the roots of prejudice, our word for stigma.  And the public, potential employers, police, educators, even those self-described champions of mental wellness, that is the image they have: that man, tormented by voices, angry at the world, dangerous and strange.

That is the image we must address- not hide from- if we are to be effective at fighting ignorance and fear. Those of us who carry the chronic label, who have been consigned to poverty, poverty much more enervating and all- encompassing than a simple a lack of money, find it very difficult to believe in ourselves  when everywhere we go, agencies, drop-ins, social assistance offices, we are still treated like back ward mental patients.  Since the early days of unplanned and unfunded de-institutionalization, we’ve been the object of other people’s decisions, and borne the brunt of the consequences and lack of awareness of our potential, this plays out too often in our being consigned to  beds in distressed housing or shelters, in the hands of teams that bang on the door to deliver each day’s medication, drop-ins that keep us out of public view and neighbourhoods that reflect our own impoverished existence.

We die 25 years earlier that the general population: stress, malnutrition, hopelessness, depression, isolation, and the inability to affect anything in our environment.  The reality is, many die without ever living, without having any respite from poverty, resulting in too much lost potential, lost contributions

We don’t understand that people need to feel valued, they need purpose, they need to be seen as individuals first, we allow poverty and labelling to camouflage worth, we see only the ‘madness’, the inabilities, the brokenness, and act on the assumption that that’s all there is to the person.

We have had to go it alone for decades, we’ve had to show ourselves what we are made of, we’ve manufactured hope and inspiration where before there was none, created opportunities for engaging with community and social enterprises, reached out to other marginalized groups to better see and understand that not all we feel is related to our diagnosis, which has helped some get out from under the weight of their label.

We know that stigma has a safe home in those staff and systems that make up our world, where we experience the soft tyranny of low expectations that keep us from achieving, keep us from breaking out of poverty and illness towards a life that matters. We compound this tyranny each time we meet without representatives from this population, each time we speak for, act on, avoid, or assume what is needed.

We keep those with mental illness apart, streamed into services ‘just for them’, and that exacerbates the belief that its all about the symptoms –we need to tear down the silos, and funding pockets to bring those on the margins together, like we do at Voices, where   those with mental illness, those with addictions, stressed out newcomers, abused women, meet and learn public speaking, leadership, causation, responsibility and how to shed institutional behaviour.  We have high expectations of participants, which they live up to, often grateful, enjoying learning from one another and about themselves.

There are other bright spots, where we’ve been welcomed, even sought after, to teach, to participate, to guide. Dr. Reva Gerstein was the first, when she endorsed the concept that all else being equal, those with lived experience would get the jobs at the Gerstein Centre, moreover, recognizing that many have not had the opportunity to complete their education, she instituted crisis worker training program geared for new comers and lived experience. At government tables, we are not seen as mental patients, our lived experience and advice is valued, on the Toronto Police Board mental health sub-committee, which I co-chair with Alok Mukerjee, we are valued, and have made significant contributions to furthering understanding and improving training. Deputy Chief Mike Federico is another who has utilized our abilities, even when we do not always agree.

Men and Women from Voices and the Empowerment Council participated in a video created by the police college when they talked about what it’s like when the police come to your door, what escalates situations, what it feels like to be dragged from your home into a police car, handcuffed and afraid. Nothing is more powerful than hearing from those directly affected.

We have looked at the training offered, we have made strong suggestions, and continue to do so.  We know that the first time a police officer meets and confronts a psychiatric patient shouldn’t be in crisis situations, we know that a simple demand that those who wish to become officers, who take college courses to prepare, need to spend a few months working in neighbourhoods where we congregate. So that strangeness is erased, panic quelled, relationships formed.  Our graduates help train medical students and social service workers, nurses and lawyers.

I vividly remember the day, seven years ago now, when two first year psychiatric residents from the U of T met with me in a coffee shop, they had heard one of our speakers in grand rounds, and felt they were not hearing any of our experience in their courses.  As a result, we’ve been meeting once a month in each other’s homes- with first to fifth year residents, to discuss their learning and our take on it, and we are building a cadre of psychiatrists who will have a better understanding of who this chronic patient community is composed off.

Dr. Sacha Agrawal approached me to work with him to create consumer advisors who meet with fourth year residents during their chronic rotation to ensure that those residents see us when we’re off the ward, in our minds, with our hopes and ambitions and struggles.

To combat the early and unnecessary deaths, we send our graduates into drop-ins, to talk about the toll taken by living rough, and family doctors join us to encourage people to sign up for a primary physician.

We should be celebrating and elevating to the public consciousness the extraordinary accomplishments and contributions that have come from our beleaguered segment of society.  Profiling those who have survived extraordinary challenges, from SMI, toxic families, addictions and  street existence, and kept their humanity, compassion and empathy would move the hardest heart.  I tell our group members, this is our Phd, this makes up our credentials.

And yet we find we have a long waiting list of people who wish to be peer workers, because there is resistance from some unions and some professionals who feel that their credentials would somehow be tarnished if they had to work alongside us.

Our presence in the work force would effectively address the roots of prejudice, and the cause of fear-based responses to people in distress,  it would also go a long way to eliminate the resistance to treatment, now seen as a feature of the illness rather than a strong awareness of the social consequences of being labelled.

We need to re-think our approach to the ‘chronic’ population now.

Pat Capponi

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Doing social policy: The 10 elements

Making a case to the public- John Stapleton Here is  a PDF of the ten elements of social policy advocacy that will connect with the public. It is a simple checklist based on John Kenneth Galbraith’s 4 part concept of the conventional wisdom and Jonathan Haidt’s 6 elements of the moral palette. Only Gandhi and Mandela have promoted movements that touch on all ten.

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The rise and fall of welfare analysis in Canada

As a lifelong student of social assistance caseloads in Canada, I looked forward to The Rise and Fall of Social Assistance Use in Canada, 1969-2012 by Ron Kneebone and Katherine White. My interest became even more avid when I read that the authors had cited some my data to come to their conclusions.

The report is reasonably fair in its approach even if it does not mention or analyse the most important reasons why welfare caseloads have risen and fallen in Canada.

But that was before I read the news release supporting the report which comes to remarkably different conclusions than the report itself. Its chiding tone and speculative welfare baiting made me wonder if the real news release supporting the report was somehow mislaid or ‘separated at birth’.

I wondered if the drafters of the news release rolled the dice and bet that the media would cover the release and not the report itself. If they did, they guessed right.

The release insinuates that Ontario’s programs are more generous than other provinces especially in comparison to those in Quebec and speculates that policy missteps played a role in encouraging more people to go on welfare in Ontario. It goes on to highlight that Ontario’s caseloads are among the highest in the country.

So let’s start with the first question: are Ontario’s caseloads actually higher than in every other province? With almost 40% of Canada’s population, of course they are. Ontario is by far Canada’s largest province. Ontario also has the most children, the most seniors, the most cars, the most houses, malls and mailboxes. So what?

Simple arithmetic from the report takes us straight to the answer if we are prepared to compare apples to apples.  We just have to keep in mind that Ontario’s population is 66% higher than Quebec’s. Ontario has 13.6 million residents. Quebec has 8.15 million.[1]

Ontario’s social assistance caseload, (according to Table 2 of the report) shows that Ontario has exactly 66% more welfare recipients than Quebec (550,441 vs. 330,707). This means, on the face of things that Ontario’s rate of social assistance recipiency is the same as Quebec’s, not higher.

But that’s not the whole story. We need to remember that Employment Insurance is a large social insurance program that keeps those who have lost their jobs from going on welfare.   EI rules in Quebec are less stringent than in Ontario.For example, Ontario has almost exactly the same number of EI recipients (152,000 in Ontario vs. 150,000 in Quebec)[2].  On a per capita basis, Quebec has more than a 60% higher rate of reliance on EI.

What this means is that Quebec’s overall rate of reliance on basic income security programs for the jobless is actually higher than in Ontario. So much for Ontario’s supposed plight in comparison to Quebec.

Looking further eastward, the news release reserves special congratulation for the Atlantic Provinces  where it notes: “…social assistance usage is only half what it was just 15 years ago and currently sits below any level observed in those provinces since 1970.  Kneebone and Wright are quoted as saying “Remarkably, the rate of social assistance use in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI is currently below that in Ontario”.

This is the point where I start to ask the question: What planet are we on? Is it not extremely well known that EI is a completely different program in Atlantic Canada and that Ontario is saddled with the toughest EI rules (both entry and duration in benefits) in Canada?

Hold on to your hats! The (per capita) percentage amounts by which EI active claims exceed Ontario’s in each of the four Atlantic Provinces are as follows: Newfoundland and Labrador: 447%; PEI: 348%; New Brunswick: 281%; and Nova Scotia: 166%.

I can only agree with Kneebone and Wright that it is remarkable that the rate of social assistance use is higher in Ontario than the Atlantic Provinces. Ontario would look like 1970 too if its residents had access to Atlantic EI benefits.

And that’s a cautionary tale respecting further cuts to EI in the provinces that have the more generous EI rules.  Make Atlantic Canada live on a diet of Ontario’s EI rules and watch what happens. It won’t be pretty.

But there are other interesting things going on. It’s not just about ‘denominator neglect’ and different EI rules.

Children receiving social assistance are also an important part of this story.  Delving deeper into the numbers, I became puzzled by the number of children in families that receive social assistance, especially in Ontario and Quebec.

Heading to government websites, I discovered that in December 2012, Quebec reported 103,000 children in families receiving social assistance.  Interestingly Ontario reported 250,000 children[3] in social assistance families. This (almost) 150% difference is way out of whack with the population differences between the two provinces.

On the face of it, Ontario’s number of children per social assistance recipient is 0.45 children per case and Quebec’s number is 0.31. Only two answers can account for the data discrepancy: either Ontario’s social assistance recipients have 46% more children than Quebec’s or Quebec has removed many more children from its statistics through its separate child benefit program. Maybe the difference is a result of universal child care. May be it’s Quebec’s low birth rate

Who knows? The one thing that we do know is that Quebec does not have far fewer children in receipt of social assistance due to policy missteps or greater generosity in Ontario.

All in all, Kneebone and White’s paper is still a useful addition to the literature on current and historical social assistance caseloads.  It begins a new discussion that I have tried to start a hundred times.

But whoever wrote the news release appears to have little interest in this discussion or the facts. Their purpose is to peddle shopworn bromides about Ontario’s welfare program while using Kneebone and Wright as a foil.

I can’t say that it won’t work as welfare bashing is a potent force in this country and doesn’t like being confused by facts, analysis or arithmetic.

Still, we can hope that we are better than this.

John Stapleton

February 22, 2014

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A Train They Call the ‘District Of Scarborough’

(To be sung to the tune: City of New Orleans)

Riding on the ‘District of Scarborough’
Union Station, Monday morning rail
Thirteen cars, two thousand restless riders
Two Conductors; we don’t carry mail
All along the southbound odyssey – the train pulls out of Kennedy
Rolls past malls and condos made of steel
Tanker cars that have no name, freight yards back to work again
And megalots of high-end automobiles

Good morning, Toronto, how are you?
Say, don’t you know me? I’m your native son
I’m the train they call the ‘District of Scarborough’
I’ll be done 10 circuit trips when the day is done

Dealing transit plans with Toronto City Council
None agree – ain’t no one keeping score
As the paper war that freezes movin’ forward
Feels the wheels grinding ‘neath the floor
And daughters of long-time residents, sons of the ‘newly here’

Ride our fathers’ carpets made of steel
And mothers with their babes asleep rocking to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

Good morning, Ontario, how are you?
Say, don’t you know me? I’m your native son
I’m the train they call the ‘District of Scarborough’
I’ll be done 10 circuit trips when the day is done

Sunset on the ‘District of Scarborough’
Changing trains again at Kennedy
Almost home –  repeat again tomorrow

Through Rouge Hill’s darkness, there’s no guarantee
As Guildwood station closure seems – to fade into a bad dream
And Government still ain’t heard the news
Birchmount bike lanes gone again – the voters will please refrain
This borough’s got the ‘growing poverty blues’

Good night, Canada, how are you?
Say, don’t you know me? I’m your native son
I’m the train they call the ‘District of Scarborough’
I’ll be done 10 circuit trips when the day is done

With apologies to Steve Goodman, composer of the ‘City of New Orleans’ whose song is, as John Prine once noted – and I paraphrase here -the “best damned railroad song I ever heard”.

Perhaps the best version of the song was performed by Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody Guthrie.  

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The Sad State of Social Services – Guest Blog from Pat Capponi

One of the most instructive exercises we do with group members at Voices From the Street is to ask  what would have helped them  avoid the life path they’ve been on, lives mostly filled with pain and challenges and want, decades spent on the streets, in shelters or housing that is barely safer than a park bench.

This is after we’ve stressed the importance of each person taking responsibility for bad decisions, and/or bad actions; without that acknowledgement it’s difficult to move forward constructively, it’s part of being an adult to own up to mistakes.

Sometime later, we pose the important question of what society’s responsibility is: those teachers, ministers, police, parents,  and agencies that are supposed to protect the innocent and vulnerable, where were they, what were they doing, at the critical time when lives were being broken, twisted, and stunted.  We ask this not to excuse the individual, but to show that we are part of a system that has failed too many, and needs, though it doesn’t want, our direct input to do right.

The answers come with tears, rarely anger, mourning a life that could have been, should have been easier, rescues that might have happened, if our social services, our education system, our children’s aid offices were functioning as funders and the general public expect them to.

It is heartbreaking, children left to fathers, ‘uncles’ or step-fathers who beat or sexually abused them, going to schools where these earliest experiences leave them vulnerable to bullying by their peers and to predatory behavior from those who thrive on breaking trust, who pick up the scent of hurt and damage and salivate as if they were sitting down to a feast, a feast provided by those who turned away, who blamed the victim, who failed their duty to protect and defend the defenceless.

Gay children, children of color, poor children, children in the first throws of mental illness, doomed by prejudice, laziness, massive systems failure, those children blame themselves, of course they do, how could they not, when everyone they looked to, before giving up entirely, seems to blame them. They must be bad, deserving of each beating or failure or loss.

These are not the people profiled on agency or government websites, to show how well programs are doing.  It would be instructive if they were.  “Here is Jane Doe, who we might have helped if we’d been more responsive, more timely, more dedicated to our profession, she wouldn’t have been abandoned to bad men, addiction, prostitution, mental illness or prison. We failed Jane Doe, and we own that failure, and will ensure we correct our mistakes through revised policies, placing people with lived experience on our boards and staff, and most importantly through removing front line workers and executive directors who’ve grown too jaded or self-important to do their jobs.  Honoring Jane Doe, all the Jane and John Doe’s, means accepting that they deserve better from us.”

We only catch a glimpse of culpability when the victim dies and an inquest results, nothing requires us to respond to the barely living. Our system routinely fails those most in need, and blames the failure on those they neglected.

Governments, unions, accrediting bodies, those who work in the systems that are so dysfunctional, all conspire to maintain the illusion that we have a strong social safety net, none of these sectors want tackle the bloated, inefficient, ineffective systems that serve only themselves, and those who are least damaged. No wonder ‘the poor will always be with us.’

Pat Capponi

 

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Meanwhile back in Toronto – More Fords to come?

Take a long look at the political structure of Toronto.

The reality is that the framework of the city where the mayor gets one vote of 44 will continue to spawn and nurture the Rob Fords of the world.

Ford wasn’t the first – Mayor Mel who brought in the army for the snow and welcomed the Hell’s Angels to the city was the first  - and Ford won’t be the last.

Mayor Miller in his second term was a very angry man. Remember his one penny campaign to get a slice of the GST – the fist pounding and the explosive exhortations?

The problem is that the only type of candidate who appears able to get in now is someone who purports not to go to work for City Hall but  to clean it up. I hope I am wrong

Under the structure of the City as set out in Provincial law, voting factions are hard to form  and political parties are not allowed. Therefore, the nation’s largest city is constantly in a clinch where not much of anything important seems to get done. Transit, roads, the waterfront, the Island and its airport- you name it – simply flounder in a stew of profound directionlessness. While other cities get on with the job, digging traffic tunnels and cleaning their lakefronts, proposals and plans in Toronto seem forever to sit atop an ever changing House of Cards floating on a porridge of quicksand.

The angry crusader who states the obvious to cranky voters gets much publicity but with many entrants and splintered factions, the angriest of the lot obtains the needed notice to get elected as did Ford, Miller and Mayor Mel Lastman, the latter whose  private sector  nom de plume continues to be the “Bad Boy”.

(Now that ought to tell you something.)

On the other side of the equation, the angry crusader mentality in human form – the guy or gal  who is going to mop things up or stop gravy trains – has to have absolute zero skills in getting along with fellow councillors – all with their own single vote – and need not have any idea as to how to form or maintain alliances.  Negotiation skills, the people skills or any of the other soft skills you’d like to see in a mayor are neither required nor considered desirable.

With one vote out of 44, the public expectations of the position are then way out of line with the reality of what he or she can actually accomplish. That sends the crusader off on a course where he goes back to what he does best – ranting disruptively with the explosive and angry tirades that he feels got him to be mayor in the first place. After all, isn’t that what catapulted Ford into power in the first instance? The answer is yes.

Until the ‘powers that be’ can figure this out, I am afraid we are going to have many more angry, utterly independent and crusading outsiders winning the largest directly elected seat of government  in Canada.

The Harris government put this structure in place in the late 1990’s and it was christened the ‘megacity’ which at the time, we all pronounced as one would pronounce the word ‘mendacity’.

It has not worked from the beginning and it won’t work in the future. So we all need to get used to it.

As I said, I hope I am wrong.

But just in case, reserve a slot on US late night TV for whomever gets the mayor’s chair in this city – Ford  could just be the beginning!

 

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Conrad Black and the Order of Canada – Be careful what you wish for……

I wrote the following short essay in October 2012 during one of the many media dustups concerning Conrad Black and his Order of Canada. Now he is out. This was the wrong thing to do. In October 2012, I thought the main problem was that other more sympathetic Order holders would get booted out.  The main problem now is that many who should be invested in the Order will not be.  Only time will prove me right or wrong but I really worry that the disinvestiture of Lord Black will be the bellwether that changes the criteria for the Order and for all the wrong reasons.  I realize that this post will not win me many friends…. but read on and see what you think:

 

After following the debate closely, I do not believe that Conrad Black should be divested of the Order of Canada.

The temptation to remove from him from the Order is palpable. He is a convicted felon in the US. He renounced his Canadian citizenship. And now, he has written yet another tome where his self-serving weaknesses are bared for all to inspect. (This refers to his book: A matter of principle)

He is not a very likeable fellow when viewed from afar. His personal history reads like the prayer book in the church of bombast. His language is circumlocutory and tortuous. While the rest of us move from the dining room to the parlour, Mr. Black “repairs”. He is not the same as you and I.

Worse, he appears to think that he is better than us. This is clearly no plan to win a test of popularity.

Barry Switzer famously noted that “some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple”. Lord Black was born on home plate and can show you a trophy room that celebrates his home runs.

But for all his many faults, his fall from grace and troubled past, should the Governor General be seduced into following the opinion of the moment and remove his signature award? The answer is no.

Unlike David Ahenekew who made grotesque and impossibly misguided comments concerning Jewish people, Mr. Black’s only remaining criminal convictions concern obstruction of justice for carrying boxes out of his own office and a single conviction for fraud. While we snicker and all believe that he was up to something far more nefarious, we must depend on the public record for the facts on which he must ultimately be judged. Mr. Ahenekew’s transgressions were far more hurtful and embarrassing and his Order of Canada was only lost when he refused to recant his absurd accusations.

We are then faced with the foibles of Allan Eagleson who relentlessly raided the savings and pensions of the hockey players whose retirement protection he championed. Like Black, he revelled in the spotlight while allegedly fleecing those who held his trust. The comparisons are difficult to differentiate. If Eagleson lost his membership in the Order, then why should not Mr. Black?

The answer is that Mr. Eagleson was convicted of relentlessly and knowingly fleecing those who trusted him and Mr. Black was not.

But perhaps more importantly, Mr. Black continues to do good things. Since 2000, he has written three books (now four) and a number of thoughtful articles on the failures of the American and Canadian prison system. His arguments are persuasive and are a breath of fresh air from a man with his credentials.

He wrote one book and several articles following his convictions, some of which were written while behind bars. And more to the point, many of his accomplishments, unlike Ahenekew’s and Eagleson’s, were not summarily unwound by the transgressions that now form the case for his removal.

But with all that said, not one of these reasons number among the most compelling reasons why he should not be removed from the Order.

The most important reason is that Mr. Black’s removal would set an unacceptably low bar for dispensing others from the highest honour Canada can bestow.

Can we imagine far off convictions of Canadian heroes protesting human rights violations being reason enough to remove them from Canada’s highest honour? What if they had immigrated to another country after attaining the honour?

Many émigrés “renounce” their Canadian citizenship and Conrad Black only did so because of an antiquated 1919 request by the Borden government to the British government to refrain from giving awards to Canadian citizens – in other words, a technicality.

Should then other members whose only sins were to leave Canada and be judged guilty of a crime be automatic candidates for expulsion from the Order?

We can only hope not.

If contested criminal convictions and leaving Canada for another country are used as the deal breakers to remove Black’s award, there may be well regarded members who would be reviewed for a similar fate waiting in the wings both now and in the future.

The simple reality is that most of us are calling for Black’s removal not on the grounds that he is a convict and someone who has supposedly turned his back on Canada. Instead we want him out because we don’t like his persona, his aloofness, his litigious nature, his seeming arrogance and the un-Canadian sense we get that he believes that he is better than the rest of us.

This is not good enough reason to cashier him or anyone else from the Order of Canada.

John Stapleton

October 29, 2012

 

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A story of two poor seniors: Linda and Doris are the highest taxed people in Ontario

A woman I am helping by the name of Linda Chamberlain[1] will be turning 65 in July 2014. I am helping her fill out her Old Age Security (OAS), Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) applications. She has given me permission to talk about her situation.

Her income will go from about $700 a month from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) to about $1,400 a month from OAS, GIS and a little known program called the Guaranteed Annual Income System for the Aged (GAINS-A)[2]. That’s the good news.

Linda is eligible for $100 a month in CPP Retirement benefits but we did not apply for her CPP. Many community members have asked why we refrained from applying. My answer is that her CPP would be clawed back on a dollar for dollar basis and no one forces anyone to apply for CPP. She can wait until she is 70 if she wants.

Not many people realize that seniors with extremely low income have their CPP benefits clawed back at 100% if their CPP is less than $168 a month. The table that reveals this policy can be found on an obscure website provided by the Ontario Ministry of Finance[3]. The table shows that the GAINS-A clawback is 50 cents on the dollar. It also shows that the GIS clawback is 50 cents on the dollar.

Fifty plus fifty equals one hundred. If Linda applies for CPP, her net income will go up by exactly zero – so there is no reason to apply. However, if Linda waits until she is 70, her CPP entitlement would go up by 42% because you get more if you wait to apply. Sadly, unless Linda works, she will still lose every cent of her CPP to clawbacks because her entitlement at age 70 of $142 a month would still not reach the $168 threshold where the 100% clawback changes to 50 cents.

But this is a wakeup call to very low income seniors and their advisors who routinely apply for CPP at 65. Persons with CPP entitlements equal to the $168 threshold (for a single person) would be much better off to wait until they turn 70 because their CPP entitlement would rise to $239 a month and the extra $71 would be clawed back at 50% instead of 100%.

You might say: “All that for an extra $35.50 a month when you turn 70?” My answer is that $35.50 for the rest of your life is a whole lot better that zero extra for the rest of your life.

This got me thinking of what would happen to Linda if she did go back into the paid workforce on turning 65. I often see elderly looking women working in fast food places especially when I travel outside of Toronto. Are they as badly off as Linda with her 100% clawback on income?

It turns out that they are not quite as badly off as Linda but their effective rate of taxation on earnings above $3,500 a year is still the highest of anyone working in Canada. And it just grows as they work more hours and start to get near full time work. Now who knew that?

A woman I know – let’s call her Doris – works at a fast food chain. She gets 32  hours a week at minimum wage. After 12weeks of work – around the second week of March– Doris has grossed $3,500.

At this income threshold, two things happen. The first is that Doris starts to pay into CPP at a rate of 4.95%[4]. This new policy started on January 1, 2012. Before that, seniors taking on part time work after retirement did not have to pay into CPP. (Doris did not know that she could elect to stop paying into CPP by filling out a form: See: http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/E/pbg/tf/cpt30/cpt30-13e.pdf)

The second is that her GIS starts to be clawed back at 50 cents on the dollar[5]. The government of Canada website on this matter shows that the government has a sense of humour with the following headline:

“Government of Canada helping low-income seniors”

We are now at an effective tax rate of 54.95%. Now let’s add in Employment Insurance premiums for a type of insurance that she will likely never qualify.  This amount is 1.88% and when added to 54.95%, the new effective tax rate is 56.83%. But Doris gets to deduct her CPP contribution of  $671. and her EI contribution of $321. This brings her marginal effective  tax rate down to 53.42%.

Doris also gets the Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB) but the amount she receives is just $115.25 for the whole year  and Doris is in  the phase out zone of the WITB  which  is 15%. This brings her marginal effective tax rate to 68.42%

But we are not done yet. Doris lives in rent geared to income housing. When her income goes up, her rent goes up. Although her rent goes up by 30 cents on each dollar earned, her clawbacks are such that the net effect is a 15% hike bringing Doris’s effective tax rate to 83.42%. Doris takes home 16 cents on the dollar on her income after about $13,000. After transit and other work expenses, Doris has a real net take home pay of about $4,500 a year (her first $3,500 + $1,000 or so after work expenses).

And let’s remember that the highest marginal effective tax rate for the well to do and millionaires in Canada is 46%. I wonder if they understand that when they order their coffee from Doris that her effective tax rate is over 37 percentage points higher than theirs.

The two people that work beside Doris in the fast food outlet with her same hours of work have an effective tax rate of 27% because at 32 hours a week at minimum wage, they pay income tax[6].  Doris does not -but her clawbacks come from other places.

So there you have the answer to a question many Canadians ask:

 ‘Mirror mirror on the wall: who is the highest taxed of all?

Bet you didn’t know it was our poorest seniors.

js/January 21, 2014 – revised January 25, 2014 and February 2 and 4, 2014

 


[1] http://openpolicyontario.com/pictures/

[2] http://www.fin.gov.on.ca/en/credit/gains/

[3] http://www.fin.gov.on.ca/en/lists/gains/1934.html?tid=1

[4] http://www.benefitscanada.com/pensions/governance-law/maximum-pensionable-earnings-to-rise-in-2014-45702

[5] http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=409599

[6] http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/tx/ndvdls/tpcs/ncm-tx/rtrn/cmpltng/ddctns/lns300-350/300-eng.html

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Too big to jail and no penalty for ‘moneycide’: our economy after the Great Vaporization

 

When governments reflate an economy after a financial crisis, a market crash and a recession, we are supposed to get higher inflation and the values of reflated currencies are supposed to go down. Interest rates are supposed to go up. This is what many economists continue to tell us.

But none of this is happening – we are into the fifth year and still waiting. What’s happening?

I am going to try to provide a different answer to this question since economists don’t seem to be doing too good a job. They don’t seem to want to talk about money getting killed even though it is the missing piece of the puzzle. I don’t know why economists won’t talk about it but since I am not an economist, I am free to tell the story of how the murder of money got us to where we are today.

This is largely an American story. But it is in part a Canadian story because of the size and proximity of  Canada to the US, the fact that the US is our closest trading partner and the fact that the US currency is the world’s reserve currency.

The story starts in the first years of the new millennium. Three gangs who were trying to make money in new ways rode into the economy and murdered a lot of money.  They took an unbelievably large bag of money out behind the barn – amount unknown – shot it, set it ablaze and left it for dead. Five years later, it turns out that these gangs were not just too big to fail, they were also too big to jail. There seems to be no law protecting an economy from ‘moneycide’.

The way they did this is a matter of public record. The first gang sold mortgages to people they knew would not be able to pay them. The second created their own securities bundling these bad mortgages into something called collateralized debt obligations (CDO’s or funny money) and sold them for real money. A third gang insured this money through something called credit default swaps and tried to set fire to the CDO’s since that’s the only way they could collect on their insurance.

To make a long story short, when the whole thing blew up in 2008-09 causing what I call the ‘Great Vaporization’, there was a whole lot less money around. Why? Because no one would any longer use real money to buy funny money once they realized it was funny money, insurance policies wouldn’t pay off when arson was suspected and you can’t use a house as collateral to pay off a debt if the house is worth less than the money owed on it.

With that, there was no longer enough real money in town to run the economy. So the usual things happened: liquidity dried up, unemployment shot up, markets crashed, and GDP plummeted.

The US Federal Reserve reacted by doing the usual things one step at a time. First they moved interest rates to near zero but this time that was not enough. Too much money had been murdered (vaporized, set ablaze, or shot).

It was at this point that Federal Reserve detective Ben Bernanke rode into town and quickly discovered that a lot of money had been murdered.  His biggest problem was that no one had done any accounting and he did not know how much had been killed off.

He reasoned that since hardly anyone had run away with the money[1] (however much it was) and the economy and the nation was still working, he wondered if maybe he could settle things by replacing some of the murdered money with replacement money.   What would be the problem with that?

Mr. Bernanke probably realized that it would create chaos if he simply printed money and rode it out into the streets in big wheelbarrows giving it out to people that happened to pass by. It was also politically difficult to simply send people checks (although the US did try that for a time).

So the US Federal Reserve made a decision to do something different and started to buy two trillion dollars in securities and paid for them

“…by crediting the bank accounts of the people who sold them to us (the fed). And those accounts at the banks showed up as reserves that the banks would hold with the Fed”[2]

This reflation of the US economy is known as Quantitative Easing and has come in tranches popularly known as QE1, QE2 and slowing it down has come to be known as tapering or ‘the taper’.

With all this new money, liquidity problems were solved, money started to flow and everything started to get back on track.

Yet two problems still dogged detective Bernanke. He still didn’t know how much murdered money he had to replace. Two trillion was a lot but still he hadn’t replaced it all. He knew that because there was no inflation to speak of and the US dollar had not gone down. If he had replaced too much, inflation would have gone up and the value of the dollar would have deteriorated.

‘Wow’ he must have thought…. Two trillion and we still haven’t replaced it all.

Then another thing didn’t go quite as planned. With the replacement money in place, what was supposed to happen in theory was that governments and businesses would spend and consumers would save to pay off their mortgage and other debts.

Trouble was, the exact opposite began to happen. Governments cut back and businesses started to treat the new money in the same way as the money that got murdered.

In Canada, Governor of the Bank of Canada for a time and also our chief money detective, Mark Carney, called the money that got offered to businesses ‘dead money’[3] once he realized that businesses were not investing. What he meant was that even though it was real money, it might as well be dead.

From the point of view of the businesses that got offered the money, they reasoned that if money could get murdered before and the murderers got away with it, then it could happen again. Maybe it would happen in Europe or somewhere else. From Mr. Carney’s point of view, he gave governments and businesses low interest rates making it cheap to borrow and put cash on their balance sheets. Their job was to spend and invest it.

But business couldn’t see anything worth buying so they started to buy themselves up (through share repurchases of their own publicly traded stocks). They reasoned that the purpose of any publicly traded business is to ‘increase shareholder value’ so if you buy your own shares, there are fewer of them, they become scarcer and the price of the shares go up. When this happens a lot, you get a stock market rally.  But the big problem with buying back one’s own shares as the best possible place to invest is that the practice is the equivalent of putting money under the company mattress.  It’s not very productive and eventually not a good way to save.

All of this also has the added effect of creating huge pay packets for the people that run the companies creating enormous inequality which in turn causes Tea Parties and Occupy movements.

Governments also hunkered down and stopped spending. They reasoned that they are like ordinary families that have to balance their books.   But families don’t create their own money nor do they issue bonds and if they tighten their belts, they don’t necessarily put a member of their family out of work.

But none of this mattered and the age of real austerity got going in earnest. The law of the instrument says that if a five year old boy is given a hammer, then everything he sees is a nail. Give some politicians and finance bureaucracies a pairs of scissors and everything they see is a cut.

But as luck would have it, just when the economy was set to back into recession again, the consumer came along and said “I’ll take that offer. I’ll borrow that money you’re offering and I will go out and spend it creating higher GDP and lower unemployment. And so they did and continue to do so.  And housing prices came back (and went up) easing the pressure on mortgages and insurance.

But the economy is still fragile because there will come a day when the consumer is no longer able to borrow and will no longer be able to spend. This great reckoning following the Great Vaporization is near at hand ‘coming to an economy near you’ in part because Canadian consumers owe a$1.60 for every dollar they make. It will also happen soon because the US is getting to the finish line as it relates to fully replacing the money that was murdered. And of course, this explains why our dollar is going down.

To sum it all up, the story ‘reads’ like a western with a twist. Instead of robbing the bank and taking the money, the robbers shot and burned it. Like other people, economists watch westerns and expect the bank robbers to either get away with it or get caught. When neither happens – just like everyone else – they get confused. With the story of the murder and the subsequent Great Vaporization now told, we might not like it but everything starts to make sense.

JS/January 8, 2014

 



[1]  Some early insurance policies were cashed in – John Paulson in the US redeemed a few.

[2] Ben Bernanke, (Outgoing) US Federal Reserve Chairman, The Federal Reserve and the Financial Crisis, Princeton University Press, 2013, p.105

 

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