Category Archives: Articles

The Yoga of Imprisonment

Between rocks and hard places, flexibility is desperately needed.

I taught yoga at the prison for five years. If you’ve ever taken yoga, you know it’s common in the first class for instructors to ask if anyone has had any major injuries or surgeries during their lives. It’s a safety protocol, so the instructor can provide extra guidance to vulnerable students. Typically, two people in 20 mention a car accident or appendectomy.

My first day teaching at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, though, was different.

“I broke my hand when I punched a guy a few weeks back,” explained one inmate. He followed that with an incredible childhood tale of an abusive father, run-down truck, and backyard scrap heap. “My feet were crushed.”

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Fighting for the Teacher’s Attention

Out of sight from parents and the general public, school teachers and administrators are waging an increasingly tense battle over children with special needs—and the outcome could influence the future of public education.

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“It’s discouraging. It’s depressing,” says Julia Christianson, a special education teacher at Cedar Hill Middle School. “I have many parents cry on my shoulder. And many times I ask myself, ‘What else can I do?’”

Now, like many teachers, Christianson is protesting publicly. And it’s not about pay, benefits, or holidays; it’s about “class size and composition.” Just a fuzzy phrase to outsiders, it’s gradually become a flashpoint for public education.

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The Health Care “Crisis” Con

While journalists help the Liberals drum up hysteria, health spending has actually remained relatively stable for decades.

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It was one of those articles that makes me think, “Wow, I’ve been so stupid.”

I love reading those.

We’ve all heard alarms about health care gobbling 40% of BC’s provincial budget. Our Liberal government asserts that, at current growth rates, health care will be mainlining 100% of BC’s budget by 2040. You can’t help but start screaming with the expanding mob, “More cuts! De-fund Viagra! Privatize! Unplug the elderly!”

But The Tyee‘s Will McMartin analyzed thirty years of BC health budgets and completely dispelled such claims. It’s worth the read (I checked the numbers); however, McMartin’s central point was simple: Don’t forget the BC Liberals have repeatedly cut taxes and the budgets of most other ministries. ­The end result in a quick analogy: While the government spent $2 on health care and $8 on other ministries decades ago, today government spends a bit over $2 on health, but barely more than $3 on all other ministries. That’s the primary way health care has gone from taking 20% of the budget to taking 40%.

McMartin contrasts this by calculating health care spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), a more common standard for comparing public expenditures across governments and decades. GDP represents the overall economic activity and tax base from which a government can draw for funding public services. Government data show BC’s health spending has fluctuated steadily around 5-7% of GDP since the mid-80s (See here, especially page 106, table A 3.5, and the GDP numbers here). Essentially, relative to our overall economic strength, health spending now is in line with where it’s always been. So, while we can still improve our health care system, clearly, we needn’t be acting as if we’re having a financial near-death experience.

This eye-opener made me wonder, ‘How is it I’ve read innumerable hysterical articles about BC’s health care budget, and have never heard this simple counterpoint?’ (According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, as a percentage of GDP, BC is actually at the lower end of spending nationally. See here and here for details.) Intrigued, I revisited how local media have handled the issue the past two years.

Most coverage was typified by Rob Shaw’s Victoria Times-Colonist news story: “Health care continues to devour money and accounts for 42 per cent of the entire $40-billion budget,” wrote Shaw. He quoted Premier Gordon Campbell: “[I]t’s really important for people to understand that the costs of our health-care system are staggering, frankly.”

No other point of view on health spending was quoted. While Shaw seemed guilty of simply lazy journalism, others seemed more manipulative—or manipulated.

T-C staffer Jack Knox wondered how much we’ll “shovel into the gaping maw” of health care’s “ever-growing, insatiable appetite”. Interestingly, he related health spending to GDP, but only in one specific context: “Health spending has been outstripping the economy for decades…” Knox wrote.

I soon spotted this imprecise but alarmist refrain reappearing ad nauseum like a Republican talking point on Fox TV. No articles cited BC’s low health spending relative to GDP; however, many roared menacingly about the high growth rate of BC’s health spending relative to GDP.

“[B]etween 2001 and 2005, public health expenditures have grown faster on average than total revenue…” wrote public administration professor emeritus Jim Cutt in an opinion article about the approaching “financial brick wall”.

T-C news columnist Les Leyne parroted the same idea being spun by BC’s previous Liberal health minister: “Abbott said health spending grows twice as fast as the GDP and has done so for 20 years…”

It does sound terrifying. And it’s terrifically misleading. That’s because the growth rate for health spending is relative to a much smaller dollar amount than the growth rate for GDP.

Why is that significant? Well, if I spend $5,000 on consumer goods this year, that’ll be 400% more than five years ago. In that same time, BC’s GDP increased by a measly 17%. So now ministers and journalists are crying, “Rob Wipond’s increases in frivolous spending have been outstripping the increases in productivity of BC’s entire industrial base thirty times over! Stop Rob Wipond before he consumes the whole province!”

Sound absurd? You bet. Rob Wipond’s consumption still represents just 0.0000025% of provincial GDP.

To abandon ludicrous comparisons, then, and examine the numbers: BC GDP was $79.35 billion in 1990 and $197.93 billion in 2008, an increase of 150%. Meanwhile, BC health spending was $4.4 billion in 1990 and $14 billion in 2008, an increase of 218%. And that slight (hardly “twice as fast”) difference in growth seems significant, until we calculate that it merely means health spending was 5.5% of GDP in 1990 and 7% in 2008—within its normal fluctuation range. Much of that recent rise isn’t due to health spending increases, anyway, but GDP drop-offs after Wall Street meltdowns.

Spinning the tale the other way, though, the BC Liberals make it sound like they’ve been dramatically increasing health care funding. And in the atmosphere of crisis, they can justify privatization—something they’ve shown a propensity towards with hospital and nursing home operations, facility ownership etc.

What’s staggering to me personally is how I fell for such bafflegab for several years. I console myself that, when I actually write about a topic or take a political stand, I do some research first. But now I’m disturbed about what other illusions I have yet to dispel.

Though I guess that makes us humble, and not quick to parrot what anyone tells us. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

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Originally published in Focus, August 2010.

Sorry, Computers are Not “Green”

Is the world becoming greener, or are some of us just becoming more prone to seeing it that way?

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You’ve heard of “green-washing”, where companies make their products sound more ecologically friendly than they are. Well, I keep seeing something more insidious: green-tinted glasses.

Green-washing is propaganda; it’s easy to spot and dispel. Like ads BP runs about its commitment to environmental responsibility, while the largest, most unprepared-for oil spill in North American history spreads from their Gulf of Mexico well.

But green-coloured glasses are a personal choice. And once you’ve put them on, you don’t see anything’s true colours anymore.

I got thinking about this when I received emails from a government employee and a university administrator with similar signatures: “Think about the environment before printing this email.”

It reminded me of several companies who’ve been bothering me to switch to electronic billing because it’s “green”.

And I thought, ‘Seriously?’ Continue reading

Reshaping Victoria’s Economy for a Sustainable Planet

An expert panel discusses how our municipal government could help build a more economically vital and ecologically resilient community

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There have long been gaps between the vision most of us have for a socially responsible, environmentally “green” Victoria, and the high-priced, unbridled growth towards which the dominant economic forces in this region steer us. This gap was identified in city staff’s own analysis of Victoria’s Official Community Plan (OCP), and grows wider daily through disagreements over everything from new condominium high-rises to mega-yacht marinas.

In sustainable governing parlance, such gaps can ideally be bridged by making all development decisions with equal consideration for economic, social and environmental impacts, or “triple bottom line” accounting. Unfortunately, in its current OCP consultation process covering issues like urban design, energy and emissions, local food sustainability, and economic development, the City inscrutably failed to request that its economic discussion paper provide any triple bottom line analyses (see “Visioning Our Future or Our Pipe Dream?” in May’s Focus). Yet, obviously, economic decisions frequently drive bulldozers right through the most beautiful of our food sustainability and urban design dreams.

So Focus and Transition Victoria recently brought together an expert panel to brainstorm how the municipal government could help transform Victoria’s economy and economic decisions to be more in line with the social and environmental values which our citizens have overwhelmingly given voice to over the years. Continue reading