22 November 2004
Premier Ralph Klein dispensed nuggets of journalistic wisdom at Mount Royal College while campaigning in his constituency last Friday. The television reporter turned politician’s best gem of wisdom: "If you ever lose your objectivity … get out of the business and find something else. That’s what happened to me."
Bias, it seems, tripped up Klein’s journalism career. So he tossed his hat in the electoral ring in 1980, saying to his then skeptical news director before a morning story meeting, "We’ve got Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum and I think I’m going to run." Klein unseated the incumbent Calgary mayor, ushering in his colourful and controversial political era.
Looking lively and wearing an olive-tone jacket, crisp white shirt and oddly matched chartreuse tie, the premier addressed a group of hastily assembled students while touring the new Centre for Communications Studies facilities.
"How things have changed," he remarked incessantly during his brief, off-the-cuff speech. Avoiding overt politicking, he commended the students for their career choices in communications and recounted tales of working with ancient technology during his reporting days. Klein spins a good yarn. With a folksy, aw-shucks style that has endeared him to so many Albertans, he spoke of the arduous task of splicing film, cutting and pasting tape and recording an "actuality" (now known as a voice clip).
In Klein’s day, few journalism schools existed. An elocution teacher suggested he smoke Buckingham cigarettes and sing in the shower to improve the resonance of his voice. "That was the essence of my broadcasting education," he said, laughing.
Despite his lack of formal schooling, Klein probably understands the media better than most politicians and forces journalists to know their material before posing a question. Decades after his elocution lessons, he enrolled in Mount Royal’s public relations program, but couldn’t find enough time to put his "rump in a seat," so he transferred to Athabasca University. Journalist Don Martin gives a different account of this story in King Ralph, his biography on the Alberta premier. He notes that a poor grade in Klein’s directed field study project may have prompted the switch. The project’s title: "How does one run a successful election campaign?" It critiqued his successful 2001 re-election bid. He received a C.
Martin's book also details how Klein practiced public relations and reported on city hall in the 1970s. By all accounts, he plied his crafts well, but moved into activist journalism towards the end of his reporting career. Apparently, Klein made a documentary that was critical of a proposed downtown redevelopment. The changes would have radically altered an area he held a "sentimental attachment" to and flattened many of the future mayor's "favorite watering holes." The piece fomented enough opposition to force a plebiscite on the issue.
During last Friday's visit, Klein said nothing on the touchy subject of drinking - one of journalism's most notorious vices. However, in a Reader’s Digest interview late last year, he blamed his past problems with alcohol on – you guessed it – journalism.
After his remarks, the Premier left without a question and answer session. Moments later, a few intrepid students cornered him in a hallway for a brief media scrum, which one of his handlers ended after a few minutes by saying, "All right kids, that's enough." Like his entire campaign, his visit highlighted nothing of pressing importance and probably left the young audience wondering why he ever showed up or called an election in the first place.
Originally published in the Reflector.
16 September 2004
Adbusters, famous for its anti-consumption magazine and harsh criticism of athletic shoe companies, launched the Blackspot Sneaker earlier this month. In the process, it thrust a new anti-brand into the marketplace with the goal of snagging sales away from Nike, the Beaverton, Ore.-based shoe giant, often vilified for its labour practices and marketing techniques.
Drawing on the style of a vintage low-cut Chuck Taylor model, the Blackspot Sneaker features a black upper, woven from organic hemp grown in Romania, stitched to a white biodegradable rubber sole. Factory workers in Portugal hand paint the white Blackspot logo to each shoe and place a distinctive red tip on the toe for "kicking" (Nike co-founder) Phil Knight. "This Blackspot is really an attempt to create more diversity in the sneaker industry," says Kalle Lasn, editor-in-chief of Adbusters magazine.
"It’s about kicking Phil Knight in the ass for all the dirty deeds he’s done in the Third World." Besides occupying a place in the shoe market, Lasn anticipates like-minded entrepreneurs will brand a music label and restaurants with the Blackspot logo. "Our Blackspot stands for real empowerment," the Estonian-born founder of Adbusters says. "We want it to be a symbol of a fight for a better kind of business culture."
With each purchase, customers will receive one share in the new Blackspot Anti-Corporation, an entity established under the Adbusters Media Foundation. Shareholders will dictate how any profits get spent, but Lasn expects the money will go towards promoting causes like Buy Nothing Day.
Adbusters first floated the idea for an "ethical" sneaker on the back page of its anti-consumption magazine last September in the place of its usual spoof advertisement. An instant hit, readers pre-ordered over 10,000 pairs via the Internet. An estimated 250 independent stores will also retail the sneaker, which is priced at $47.50 per pair. Adbusters also launched a $250,000 advertising blitz earlier this week in support of its new brand.
"This is the best idea since Marxism," gushes one missive in the Ass-kickers’ forum on the Blackspot Sneaker’s website. "I'm glad to see Adbusters turn constructive. To watch you transform yourselves from producing gloom-and doom observations (albeit fascinating and informative ones) to a well-thought-out activist plan for the future is so cool," reads another.
While some rushed to buy the new sneaker, others in the anti-corporate movement disparage the concept, including author and columnist Naomi Klein. Without directly mentioning Adbusters, she told The Globe and Mail last fall, "Publications that analyze the commercialization of our lives have a responsibility to work to protect spaces where we aren't constantly being pitched to."
Lasn rebuffs the criticism, arguing it’s time to work for change within the capitalist system, which he acknowledges "isn’t about to disappear anytime soon.
"I think that those old lefties like Naomi Klein are afraid to think outside of their old lefty box. What have they done for the past 10 years? All they’ve done is complain and whine … they haven’t made a tad of difference. The Nike brand is still as cool as ever."
To differentiate the Blackspot Sneaker from its conventionally-produced counterparts, Adbusters out sources its manufacturing to a unionized-factory in rural Portugal. The factory owners pay their top workers $1,100 per month, provide free medical consultations on site and give 25 paid-vacation days per year. Working overtime is not compulsory. Adbusters produces and imports each pair of sneakers for $41. By contrast, producing a non-organic version of the sneaker in Asia would cost only $5.75.
North American unions pressured Adbusters to produce the shoe domestically, but Lasn insists the shoe be manufactured abroad to "spread the worker’s rights movement worldwide." The concept of an "ethical" sneaker fails to impress Johan Norberg, a Stockholm-based critic of the anti-corporate movement, who says Adbusters is "trying to come to terms with a problem that doesn’t really exist."
He points out in his book, In Defense of Global Capitalism, that multi-national companies like Nike and its ilk pay higher wages and obey the law more frequently in the Third World than their domestic counterparts.
"The best working conditions and the best wages are in those multi-national corporations in poor countries so that’s what we want more of if we want those countries to develop."
This article originally appeared in the Reflector.
15 April 2004
When Juacabo Bacilio Loza casts his net into Mexico’s Lake Chapala, he catches fewer and smaller fish than he did 10 years ago. Heavy metals now contaminate his reduced haul and he no longer captures whitefish, once the lake’s prized catch. “I’ve been fishing since I can remember,” the 42-year-old Loza said as he prepared for the peak fishing season. “That’s what my father did and I like to do it too.”
He and his fishing co-operative colleagues each catch an average of 35 kilograms of carp and mojara each day — half the amount captured in the past. They usually harvest immature fish and sometimes charales, a finger-sized species that thrives in the lake’s warm, high-nutrient waters. A father of six himself, Loza’s eldest son saw no future in the lake and decided against fishing.
Located 40 km south of Guadalajara in western Mexico, the massive lake, referred to as Mexico’s inland sea, once supported a thriving fishery. Lake Chapala had receded over the past two decades to a mere 12 per cent of its original volume by 2003. Water management squabbles, poor agricultural practices and rapid population growth starved the lake of its inflow and withdrew much of what remained. Industrial waste, agricultural runoff and sewage contaminates the trickle of water that reaches Lake Chapala from its primary tributary, the Lerma River. Due to an unusually rainy season last year, the lake swelled to 40 per cent capacity, but it still remains imperiled and highly polluted.
With few barriers to entry, no system of licensing and weak property rights, fishers from 60 co-operatives pursue a dwindling supply of fish in Lake Chapala. The Mexican environment ministry (SEMARNAT) estimated the Lake Chapala catch decreased by 50 per cent during the 1990s.
“(It’s a) tragedy of the commons,” said Brian Murphy, a biologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., who studies lakes and fisheries around the globe, referring to a theory that inherent common property will be abused by the worst elements of a community. “In virtually all of the developing world, inland lakes like [Chapala] are over-fished.”
The severity of Lake Chapala’s problems with over-fishing, water quality and quantity emphasize Murphy’s opinion when compared to other troubled bodies of water. “SEMARNAT isn’t even monitoring the system completely, much less enforcing regulations,” he added. “I don’t know another [lake] that has all three [problems],” he remarked.
The water level is the most important issue for Lake Chapala, said Manuel Guzman, a water expert at the University of Guadalajara. More water evaporates off Chapala, a naturally shallow lake, than it currently receives in inflows. The low water levels have concentrated pollutants in the lake and increased its temperature and evaporation. Sediment created by development and deforestation have also decreased the lake’s depth and destroyed fish habitat.
Besides harming the fishery, the low water level and pollution have hurt the local tourism industry and diminished property values. The tourism business and property values near Lake Chapala fluctuate with the water level, which crests just shy of Chapala’s pier. Until recently, boat operators bussed passengers almost two kilometers across the dry lakebed from the pier to shoreline. Business roared back after last fall’s rainy season, jumping 400 per cent, according to government statistics. “The tourists stop coming when the lake dries up,” said Arturo Gutierrez, the mayor of Chapala, the largest community on Lake Chapala’s northern shore. “Thanks to the lake, we have one of the best climates in the world.”
A popular day trip from Guadalajara, the lake’s perpetual spring-like climate and spectacular scenery have long attracted an eclectic collection of artists, tourists and villains including former Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz and writer D.H. Lawrence. A colony of 12,000 American and Canadian retirees populates Chapala and Ajijic, the north shore’s two biggest cities.
Besides harming the local area, the shrinking lake also threatens the water supply of nearby Guadalajara, which obtains 65 per cent of its water from Lake Chapala. The Jalisco capital has mushroomed over the last 25 years to a population of five million. Its waterworks loses approximately 40 per cent of the water through leaky pipes. An Organisation for Economic C0-operation and Development report found municipalities across Mexico waste 44 per cent of their drinking water.
Clandestine pipes also illegally siphon off some of the water extracted from Lake Chapala. Thieves extract treated water through illicit connections to irrigate crops, gardens and ranches. The Informador newspaper reported in 2001 that one pipe alone withdrew 1,200 litres of water per second.
Across Mexico, governments of all levels subsidize municipal water. It costs SIAPA, the local water supplier in Guadalajara, 4.77 pesos to treat and deliver one cubic meter of water (1,000 litres), but it charges an average of 1.50 pesos per cubic meter. Chapala charges each household a mere 300 pesos per year for water. Water users in Jalisco use 270 litres per day, 80 per cent more than the French average and double the amount used in Israel.
Furthermore, SIAPA recently forgave 75 per cent of its overdue water bills, worsening its revenue problem. Mexican politicians routinely promise cheap water during election campaigns and nationwide only 60 percent of water bills get paid.
Mexico City, Agauscalientes and Cancun recently privatized portions of their water systems to reduce waste and attract infrastructure investment. The four private companies hired in Mexico City recently installed meters to encourage conservation and set about fixing pipes to stem financial losses. While Guadalajara’s needs put stress on Lake Chapala, Mayor Gutierrez points upstream towards the dry highlands of Central Mexico to the source of the Lerma River, which feeds Lake Chapala.
The Lerma River originates just west of Mexico City in Mexico state. It flows for 750 km through five states and the nation’s industrial and agricultural heartland before emptying into Lake Chapala. Although home to 75 per cent of the Mexican population and 70 per cent of its irrigated land and industrial output, central Mexico receives just 25 per cent of the nation’s rainfall.
Near Lerma River’s source, Mexico City pumps water from the river back over the continental divide for two million of its residents. As the river descends from its source, many large and small cities dump raw sewage into the river and industrial users, including chemical plants and a Pemex refinery, discharge untreated waste water into the river.
The Mexican constitution guarantees access to water and forbids private ownership of the resource. New laws enacted in 1992 introduced water rights, irrigation councils and an improved National Water Commission (CNA) to oversee water use issues and limited private sector involvement in municipal water systems. The CNA still charges little for concessions to the Lerma River and provides few incentives to conserve water.
Concessions to the Lerma River sell for as little as $30 per year per hectare. Small farmers inefficiently flood their land and cheap prices dissuade large farmers from improving irrigation techniques. An OECD study found poor methods waste 54 per cent of irrigation water. Large farms in the basin grow water-intensive crops such as strawberries for export to the United States, but pay the same fee as tiny ejidos (collective farms frequently created from expropriated haciendas).
The water table in Guanajuato sinks an average of 1.8 to 3.3 metres per year and 70 per cent of its aquifers are over-exploited. While agriculture uses 70 per cent of the Lerma River’s water, it contributes much less to the national economy than other industries. Victor Lichtinger, a former advisor to President Vicente Fox, advocated the government cut its irrigation subsidies in 2001, but acknowledged such a move would be unpopular. The family of President Fox prospered by ranching and cultivating winter vegetables in Guanajuato.
By the time the Lerma reaches Lake Chapala, only a trickle remains. The small amount that enters the lake is loaded with pesticides, sewage and heavy metals. The nitrogen-rich water spawns vegetation in the lake, which clogs its shallow waters.
With the lake declining, politicians have proposed constructing a massive dam on the Santiago River, which empties Lake Chapala, to supply Guadalajara with drinking water. The scheme would dam the river in a canyon north of the city slightly downstream from the convergence point of the Green River, which originates to the north.
“The Santiago River is highly contaminated,” said Rosier Omar Rodriguez, a water expert at the University of Guadalajara who opposes the dam. The dam would trap dirty water, contaminated with Chapala’s filth and untreated sewage from Guadalajara. Planned for a site lower than the city, the hydroelectricity the dam generates would be used for pumping the water uphill to purification plants.
Rodriguez instead proposed a series of dams for the Green River, which he said flows three times faster and is cleaner. Local politicians rejected it out of hand. He also pointed out the dam would bridge the canyon and thus quicken development plans for the side opposite Guadalajara possible - thus enriching the project's proponents even further.
Despite continued threats to the lake, Justus Hauser, a member of Amigos de Lago and nine-year Chapala-area resident, feels more optimistic than ever about the lake’s recovery prospect. The World Fund for Nature recognized Chapala as a lake in peril and Hauser said the increased international attention will put pressure on politicians to give the lake its fair share of water. For the first time in years, water filled the Chapala in 2003 as the excess spillover from the upstream dams filled the lake instead of being hoarded.
This story appeared in The Reflector.
16 March 2004
It's time to legalize sports wagering
By David Agren
The NCAA basketball tournament dubbed “March Madness” tips off this week, but the real action plays out in office pools across the continent.
A bettors dream, the event crams 61 single elimination games into a three-week frenzy. It spawns thousands of unsanctioned betting pools, which seduce its participants to gamble on the outcomes of a sport they know nothing about.
The pools attract so many participants, an office consulting firm calculated the businesses lose $1.4 billion in productivity during the event.
The FBI estimated bettors wager a staggering $2.5 billion annually on March Madness – 95 per cent of it illegally. Only Super Bowl generates more illegal betting. The U.S. Department of Justice estimated Americans illegally bet $80 billion on sports in 1997.
A legal and socially accepted diversion in the United Kingdom, sports bettors wager on anything and everything (U.K. bookmakers offer 66-1 odds the son of soccer star David Beckham and Posh Spice will play in Premier League). Yet sports wagering remains under tight control in North America – Pandora’s box no jurisdiction except Nevada has dared to open completely.
In Canada, the criminal code prohibits head-to-head wagering, but permits parlays (multiple event bets), which Canadians may place through Sports Select, which attracted wagers worth $343 million in 1997.
Sports Select players must correctly select the outcome of two or more games to claim a prize. The game provides limited gambling options, offers notoriously low odds and returns a meager 63 per cent of wagered money to bettors.
Bill Thompson, a professor of Public Administration and gaming expert at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said Nevada bookmakers offer payouts of 95 per cent.
“In Canada, the player is getting screwed,” he remarked.
No wonder betters seek out alternatives. The Globe and Mail reported a bookmaking syndicate in Quebec and Ontario attracted $20 million in wagers in just five months. They thrived on a thin five to eight per cent profit margin, almost thirty percentage points better than Sports Select.
Police busted the operation and a judge leveled a $300,000 fine against the operators to send a message.
Although perceived as the domain of organized crime, Mark Haller, a history professor at Temple University in Philadelphia who studies the history of urban crime and illegal activities, said his research has never demonstrated a link between organized crime and bookmaking.
He described the average bookmaker as an independent operator who likes what he is doing and sees himself as an honest businessman who must protect his reputation with his clientele.
“When they (the bookmakers) lose, they pay. When the customer loses, they don’t pay,” he said.
Bookmakers thrive by offering what the state sanctioned games lack: better odds, better selection and better customer service.
Garry Smith, a gambling research specialist at the Alberta Gaming Research Institute said sports wagering is less addictive than electronic forms of gambling takes a certain amount of skill to play.
“It’s one of the few forms of gambling where the player has a realistic chance to win,” he added.
The Alberta government installed ultra-addictive video lottery terminals – considered the crack cocaine of the gambling industry – in neighbourhood pubs ten years ago, but continues to outlaw sports bookmaking. Why the contradiction?
A version of this article originally appeared in the Mount Royal College Journal last April.
04 March 2004
The Fed's Advertising Scheme is a Joke
By David Agren
Big Brother is watching you. Actually, the rink boards and display ads in areas and stadiums across the country brandish the Government of Canada logo, but they might as well display the well-worn slogan from 1984, George Orwell’s chilling and prophetic vision penned over 50 years ago. The ads were placed throughout the country (mostly in Quebec) through the federal government’s mismanaged and recently suspended $250-million advertising program.
Auditor General Sheila Fraser recently rebuked the program in a tersely worded audit, saying the federal bureaucrats in charge “broke nearly every rule in the book,” and that the agencies hired to place the ads pocketed $100 million for work of dubious value.
Besides laundering taxpayers’ money through firms connected to the Liberal Party in Quebec, the advertising program stealthily subsidized professional sports — a practice Canadians rebelled against in 2000 when the federal government attempted to assist Canadian NHL teams.
The perpetually imperiled Canadian Football League collected almost $1 million to stick the maple leaf on its players’ helmets — similar to the tiny American flags its NFL counterparts voluntarily wear for patriotic reasons. A government-sponsored study found only six per cent of fans and one per cent of television viewers recalled seeing the government logo at CFL games while 25 per cent remembered the Molson ads. It also questioned the value of advertising in CFL stadiums when the league’s clubs fly the flag for free.
As with virtually all government spending decisions, the entire sponsorship program and process for placing ads became a political football. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien hatched the advertising scheme after Quebec voters narrowly rejected separation in 1995 to sell separatists on Canada’s value. Accordingly, most of the ads were placed in the province by Quebec-based ad agencies.
The minor-league Montreal Impact soccer club snagged $250,000 in ad revenue, while the bureaucrats rejected a request from the Edmonton Drillers, a soccer club that folded. Government ads blanketed the cavernous and often vacant Olympic Stadium, home to the Montreal Expos, even thought the team draws the majority of its fans from English-speaking parts of the city that voted overwhelmingly against separation. As far back as 1998, the Ottawa Citizen reported that Eastern NHL teams received more sponsorship money than their equally cash-strapped Western brethren.
Even worse, crown corporations like Via Rail and Canada Post and their provincial cousins regularly purchase advertising in sporting events despite having little reason to do so. Canada Post enjoys a monopoly on mail delivery, forcing Canadians to use its service. Chronic money-loser Via Rail still advertises in cities it abandoned.
The Liberals’ advertising fiasco drew in both crowns as they paid politically connected agencies outrageous fees for work that private corporations would balk at. While working for Via Rail in 2001, double Olympic gold-medallist Myriam Bédard questioned an inflated invoice sent by Groupaction — a firm mentioned in Fraser’s damning audit — and got fired for her trouble. Via Rail chairman Jean Pelletier, who was once chief of staff to Chrétien, disparaged the whistler blower in La Presse, calling her “a poor girl... a girl who doesn’t have a husband that I know of.” “She has the stress of a single mom who has economic responsibilities. Basically, I pity her,” he added.
But why does the federal government — and its provincial counterparts of all political stripes — advertise in the first place? Economists recognize that information is not free. Advertising simply imparts information to consumers, thus lowering their transaction costs. Political advertising drops the cost of voting — with the price measured in time, another economic good.
While corporations impart information to consumers to drive sales and swell profits, government ads strive to build political capital and concentrate power. The federal government’s ads frequently scold, nag and exhort Canadians to modify their lifestyles and behave in a patronizing fashion. Quit smoking, pay child support, register all your guns and don’t drink the water while hiking.
In the case of Quebec, placing ads at hockey rinks and other events reminds residents of where their prosperity supposedly flows from. It’s not Big Brother watching, but Big Mother, a benevolent entity responsible for their health, welfare, security and quality of life — even their recreation. It’s time for all governments to exit the advertising and sports sponsorship arenas.
This article originally appeared in The Reflector