Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ironic that Florida looks like a gun

Does anyone else find it ironic that the state of Florida looks like a handgun?

While economic and political uncertainty is sweeping across the United States like a swift Santa Ana wind, Americans are seemingly finding certainty in their guns. According to a recent Vancouver Sun article, firearms and ammunition sales are up 10 percent in the US this year. Many are attributing the increase to two factors—concerns about the economy and a fear that President Barack Obama will join with his Democrat colleagues to enact new gun controls.

Apparently, in the "best "country in the world, a worsening economy fuels fear of crime and civil disorder. And when fear strikes might as well grab a gun. Seems easier than trying to rationalize the fear.

One customer at a gun shop in Virginia sees the world this way: “People are preparing for catastrophe right now…it’s [guns] insurance. With the stock market crash and people out of work, and the illegal aliens, the probability of civil disorder is very high.”

This guy probably didn’t hear about the recent study that concluded that when people are unable to deal with uncertainty and chaos in their lives they start developing conspiracy theories.

A gun shop owner in Hagerstown, (now that sounds like tough town) Maryland said of the political and economic situation: “It’s common sense. People are scared.”

In 2005, more than 30,000 Americans died from fire-arm related deaths. That’s 10 times more than died in the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, and in just two years that number would eclipse the total number of Americans that died in the entire 11 year Vietnam War. And they have memorials for those two significant events in American history, and yet there isn’t a memorial for the tens of thousands of Americans killed each year unnecessarily by guns. While 30,000 Americans will meet their fate at the end of gun barrel, more than 70,000 will be injured because of firearms. And Americans are seemingly okay with this.

More than 3,000 children are killed each year by gunfire. It may not sound like a lot, but imagine for a moment if that was your child. It’s probably not surprising then that in the same section of paper that highlighted increased gun sales, there was an equally disturbing article about an eight year old boy, who died after accidentally shooting himself in the head with an Uzi submachine gun, while at a gun show, and apparently under adult supervision. An eight year old boy belongs at the park, not at a gun show.

The logic, or illogic, is that one carries a gun for protection. I suppose if you whip yourself into a frenzied state of fear, then you anything will seem logical, but I remember Dear Abby writing a column once that suggested that if a criminal wants to use a gun to commit a crime they will use the element of surprise. This means that you will have no time to reach into your purse or glove box, or bedside table for your gun. In fact, you’re more likely to kill some kid going door to door looking for treats as happened to one young boy in Texas on Halloween a few years back.

The notion that it is an American right to carry a gun is utter nonsense. The founders of the United States would be horrified to see what has become of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. One former Chief Justice calls it one of the misinterpretation one the biggest frauds in America. Others have called gun violence in the United States a shameful epidemic.

And while there are many gun control advocates, little will change because guns and firearms have become ingrained in the national psyche of Americans. Not unlike the health care debate in Canada. It’s tough to have objective dialogue about an issue when it becomes wrapped up in one's national identity. A shame really, because more people will continue to lose their lives needlessly.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Nickel and Dimed by the airline industry

I took my first flight on June 30, 1984. I remember it like it was, well, 24 years ago. I was 14 years old and had never been to an airport before. I was a tad anxious, yet excited when I saw that 'big orange' CP-Air DC-10, which would fly me away to Amsterdam.

The fare for that flight was $998 and the tax was a whopping $12.50. This was before the days of airport improvement fees, security fees, fuel surcharges, wheelchair levies, insurance surcharges, administration fees, late-booking fees, credit-card booking charges, and bag fees.

Now let's put this into perspective. Today, that same flight at the same time of year, would cost $1,700, plus $131 in taxes and fees (and you would have to fly the Dutch airlines KLM, as CP-Air, and its successor brand is no longer in business).

Using a cost of living calculator today's base fare is comparatively the same as it was in 1984; however, the tax has increased from 1% of the fare in 1984 to 7% today. While KLM doesn't list the taxes and fees when making a booking query, I don't think many travellers today would begrudge paying an extra $131 on top of the fare. What people don't like is being teased with a fare and then learning that it will really be hundreds of dollars more.

Take for example a recent $49 fare (one-way, of course) from Vancouver to London. Turns out the return fare is $149 plus $513 in taxes and fees, none of which are listed. Oh, and you'll also have to pay a $15 late-booking fee. What nonsense. If you want to charge me $15, add it to the fare. Don't nickel and dime the consumer when they book. It's that kind of behaviour that incenses the public.

While flying on Air Canada, at the same time, doubles the cost of this particular flight, they are at least more transparent about the taxes and fees.

$526 - base fare
$420 - fuel surcharge
$23 - Airport Improvement Fee
$17 - Canadian Air Traveller Security Fee
$39.96 - UK Passenger Service Charge
$1.15 - GST
$81.14 - UK Air Passenger Duty

Total taxes and fees - $585.25 (or 111% of the fare)

This past weekend, Air Transat and Flight Centre both offered a tantalizing $99 fare to London, but with $512.50 in "secretive" taxes and fees, the cost soars to more than $600. Still a good deal, but why the lack of transparency. There's something wrong when more than 80% of the total fare is made up of "taxes and fees". A clever, yet annoying marketing tool I suppose.

My only wish is that there is some accountability for some of the fees and taxes collected. Take for instance the Canadian Air Travel Security Charge (ATSC), which was instituted in 2002. Initially, the government charged $24 for any flight outside Canada and the US. The fee has since been lowered, but when introduced it was the highest security charge in the world.

Further, because there is no direct mechanism that links the ATSC to the security expenditures, there is a concern the fee, which is meant to be used for air security is going into general revenue, and being used for other purposes.

The public doesn't begrudge airlines that strive to make a profit, but don't try to fool us with low fares. If it costs $600 to fly to London just say so. And the government, too needs to be more transparent about the money it collects.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

An undecided voter

In a previous post I wrote about the need to get rid of the one-cent coin. A seemingly small issue, yet one I think we should start taking more seriously. Sure it's not the biggest issue affecting the country, but let's look at it as progress and a small win. I also mentioned that I would write to the candidates in my riding asking where they stood on this issue.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, none of the candidates responded to my email (more on that later), although I did receive a read-response from the Liberal candidate. I’m not sure what is worse…reading a message and not responding, or not even reading it all. Not even my young Green candidate bothered replying. I guess he was too busy knocking on doors, or organizing children’s birthday parties.

Because this is the first election where I wasn’t driven by any particular issue, I was going to cast my vote based on the responses from my question. When I didn’t receive a response from any candidate, my first reaction was to not cast a vote for any of them. Instead, I was going to vote for a fringe candidate, such as a Libertarian, or a Communist, or maybe a Marxist-Leninist. Although the latter sounds kind of scary. Makes me think of a Siberian gulag.

My colleague thought that would be a waste of a vote. And she should know about wasted votes, what with her so-called “strategic” voting in previous elections. As it turned out, there were only four candidates in my riding.

I then thought I would vote based on colour. Blue is one of my favourite colours, but then so is red. I also like orange. And green too. So, that didn’t really work. In the end, I was handed a ballot. I felt like that person that gets on a roller coaster, but then at the last minute wants to get off, but it’s too late. I stood for a minute or two staring at the four names and their respective parties. I have never been in this position before, but I knew that I couldn’t stay behind the cardboard booth all night. My wife commented how long I took and then asked what game I played to pick the candidate.

There were no games. In the end I voted Green. While my Green candidate will finish last, I think we need to start taking a closer look at Green ideas, and maybe with more support their voice will be heard.

And if one of the other candidates loses by one vote, won’t they be sorry they didn’t respond to my email.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My Green candidate is a kid

So, I just dashed off a couple emails to the Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Green candidate in my riding, hoping to hear where they stand on ditching the penny. Surprising to some maybe, the NDP had the nicest looking website (I've always had a soft spot for orange, especially that delightful orange suit that my parents dressed me in when I was a kid), followed closely by the conservative candidate's site. The Liberal's website was the weakest, especially in that her email was listed, but I had to re-key it to send her a message. And the Green website, was, well green. In fact, Kermit the Frog would feel at home. Click here for the very green website

What surprised me is that Brian Newbold, the Green candidate, seems very green. Even his last name has the word NEW in it. I know I'm getting older, but he's looks like he's just a kid. In fact, he looks like he should be running for President of the High School Camera Club, rather than as a Member of Parliament. I do think, though, that Brian needs to get out a little more.

“I learned to ride a bike in Fleetwood-Port Kells, attended my first day of school in Fleetwood-Port Kells, graduated high school in Fleetwood-Port Kells, went on my first date in Fleetwood-Port Kells and this is my opportunity to speak out for Fleetwood- Port Kells.”

I don't make this stuff up. It's the first paragraph on his website. I am interested to know where in Fleetwood-Port Kells that he went on his first date.

I'm actually only half-kidding. I have all a lot of respect for everyone that stands for election. There are few jobs where someone must go through a very public, six week interview. Some won't get the job even though they may have been the best candidate.

Monday, October 6, 2008

It's time to ditch the Penny

It’s time to ditch the penny. For years I have wondered why Canada doesn’t retire the one-cent coin. Not surprising, it now costs more than a cent to produce a cent. So why do we keep producing them? Good question.

Every so often someone proposes getting rid of the penny, but nothing happens--probably because the people that could make them go away are too busy meeting and talking about the penny. In fact, The Penny Review Group, made up of representatives from the Bank of Canada, the Finance Department and the Royal Canadian Mint has met a few times since 2007, but has done little.

In 2006, more than one billion--for the more visually inclined that would be 1,000,000,000--pennies were minted in Canada. The reason so many pennies are made is because they are virtually worthless. People routinely toss them away or hoard them, not because of some inherent value, but rather because they are seen as a nuisance.

The latest person to campaign against the useless Cent is Pat Martin, a NDP MP from Winnipeg, who introduced a Private Members’ Bill earlier this year. A great start, but most Private Bills fail.

According to a recent Vancouver Sun article the Conservatives say they have no plans to do anything about the penny, which first came into circulation 100 years ago, the Liberals say more study is needed (like we need more of that), and the NDP is calling for its removal.

The only argument I have heard for keeping the penny, and at best it's irrational and conspiratorial, is that merchants will rip us off by rounding up. I imagine those same people to be the ones who casually toss their pennies away. There is little logic in keeping the one-cent coin.

Progressive countries such as the Netherlands and Finland have a law in which cash transactions are rounded to the nearest five cents to avoid using the two smallest coins. That means if your bill was $10.22, you would pay $10.20.

There are so few issues being discussed during this election campaign that I will gladly cast my vote to the person who publicly advocates ditching the penny. In fact, I am going to email every candidate in my riding to see where each stands on the issue. And I’ll share the responses with you.

A few facts about Canada’s one-cent coin

  • More than 31 billion of the tiny coins have been minted in Canada, the first in 1908

  • Up until 1996, the Penny was mostly made from copper. Today with high copper prices, the coins are made of steel, with a hint of copper-plated zinc

  • Between 1982 and 1996, the Penny was 12-sided (which I learned is a dodecagon)