Saturday, September 25, 2010

A better way to elect a mayor

Today, let's take a hard look at the system we use to elect our Mayors, who will become the leader of our municipal government for the next three years.

The Mayor is elected in a poorly named first past the post system, prevalent in most countries with heavy British colonial influence. There is no 'post'. It's just a question of who gets the most votes. No nuance, just mark the candidate you hope to have win.

With two candidates, it's just that simple. With more than two, however, making your selection gets complicated. If you think your candidate has a good chance of winning, you can still vote for her, but if you think she's unlikely to win, you might be better off voting dishonestly.

For example, assume you really want candidate Asparagus to win but would be satisfied with candidate Bagel. You can't stand candidate Doughnut. If Bagel and Doughnut are neck and neck in the polls, votes for Asparagus would be wasted. Bagel might need that vote to beat Doughnut, and by voting for your favourite candidate, you would end up electing someone you like even less.

Asparagus would be a spoiler in this type of election.

In the US, the Democratic party points to Ralph Nader's participation in the Presidential Election as spoiling the election for Al Gore, particularly in Florida and handing the election to George W. Bush instead. Exit polls showed twice as many Nader supporters preferred Gore to Bush, but by voting for Nader, they elected a candidate further from what they wanted.

'Alternative Vote' is more complicated, but avoids this spoiler problem. Electors would rank the candidates in order of preference. The number of first place votes would be counted. If there's no majority winner, the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated, and instead are counted for their second preference.

This continues until one candidate has an absolute majority of support and is declared elected.

In this system, everyone is encouraged to vote for their true preferences, rather than playing a guessing game around who others might vote for.

The First Past the Post system wastes a tremendous number of votes, and voters have learned that their vote is unlikely to matter, and therefore it's easy to justify staying home on election day.

The Alternative Vote solves this problem by making each vote matter more, and should elect a candidate more broadly acceptable to the majority of the public.

Admittedly, the Alternative Vote strategy requires an understanding of the system, but with a broadly educated and literate public like we have in Canada, that shouldn't be a problem.

This isn't going to change for this election though. For now, unless your mayor is acclaimed, you're stuck with the First Past the Post guessing game.

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Conservation Marketing

Save big! (by not spending money)

Conservation needs better marketing because it doesn't show up on the balance sheet. There's no easy way to count 'money you didn't spend' or 'energy you didn't waste', but it all goes straight to the bottom line.

You did want more money on the bottom line, right? Whether you run a small business, a big corporation, or just a household, conserving your resources is a way of hanging on to more of your money.

Let's be clear. "Save 50% on blue widgets" doesn't actually save you anything, it encourages you to spend more. If you needed them anyway and you buy them on sale you spend less, but that's not savings until you put the money you would have spent but didn't into the bank. Save 100% by not buying it.

For the cost of several tanks of gas you could own a bicycle that could keep you from burning the gasoline in the first place. That sort of savings can endure if you keep riding the bike.

If you gave up the vehicle completely, you could also eliminate the fixed costs like insurance, registration and car payments that don't care whether you drive the car or not. Maybe it would be cheaper to rent a car when you need it, rather than owning it outright. That's savings, but you can't really add it up because it's just money you didn't spend.

Another potential big win for conservation has to do with the potential interconnections that might not be obvious at first.

Take the example of a swimming pool and a skating rink. You need to heat the pool and cool the rink. If these buildings were separate you would have to heat and cool them separately.

By designing them together, you can take the heat you sucked out of the skating rink and use that to heat the pool, saving lots of energy. If you can pair up with someone who can use your energy or your waste products it will be good for both of you.

This takes thinking ahead, but by thinking ahead you can save money and energy for the life of the project.

If you didn't think ahead and want to achieve the savings then you're looking at retrofitting, and that means spending money to change something that's already working. That makes it much tougher to justify economically. Better to do it right the first time.

Want to really save money? Pay off your debt. Put money into savings. You won't see that advertised though, because nobody makes money when you hang on to your cash.

Having said that, nobody is going to unplug from the economy either, so take this to heart: When you spend money, spend it at local businesses. The value to your community of a thriving local economy far outweighs the buck or two you might save elsewhere.

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Local Government? Why on earth would you want that job?

Running for local office is a huge undertaking and a big responsibility, but the people who run are pillars of our community, whether they win or not.

Governing takes up lots of time: getting ready for meetings, spending time at the meetings, attending events. Who has that kind of time?

You also make yourself available available as a public figure. That opens your life up to media scrutiny. Any decision you made is available to pulled out of the past and used to ridicule you in public. Who wants to be ridiculed like that?

If you do something well, it's likely to go unnoticed and unappreciated, but if something goes poorly they know exactly who to tar and feather. Why would anyone put themselves at that sort of risk?

In three years, if you want to keep your job, you'll have to plead for it again. Who wants that kind of job 'security'?

Candidates certainly aren't in it for the money. There are easier ways to make the amount of money that working in Municipal Government can bring you.

Normal people would avoid this sort of risk and scrutiny that comes with running for elected office.

What does that say about the people who put themselves out there?

They're either crazy for wanting to do this, or they're heroes for being generous enough to step up in spite of the time commitment and the public scrutiny.

Everyone you see running for office is worthy of your respect. Whether you like their platform or not, they have stepped up. They're trying to make their community a better place. They're offering us a choice. That's something we need to thank them for.

Pay attention to the issues. Vote for the candidates who you think would represent you the best. The system isn't perfect, but it's the one we have.

These people are courageous citizens, practically volunteering their time and expertise to make things better.

Candidates care deeply about the community they live in, and want to make a difference. They may care about it in very different ways than you do.

Whether you agree with the candidate knocking on your door or not, thank her for running. It's people like that, people who stand up for what they believe in who make our communities what they are.

They run because that's how they can make a difference.

Whether we pay attention and get involved or not, we get the government we deserve. Let's get a government we can be proud of.

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Inertia vs. smart money: Can financing make people change a light bulb?

Financial structures exist that allow lighting retrofits to pay for themselves with the energy savings. Amazingly, potential customers aren't biting.

Imagine this conversation:

If you could change your light bulbs to energy efficient ones, without without spending any more money than you are now, would you do it?


But when the lightbulbs are paid off with the energy savings, you'll spend less money each month on your energy bill.


Look. Your warehouse uses those lights 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In a few years, after the energy saved pays for the lights, you could be paying half as much to power those lights. That means free money in your pocket. Will you sign up?

-Not interested. Bye.

This is roughly the sales situation lighting retrofitters are describing. The lights can be paid for using the energy savings and leased from the company until they're owned outright. It should be an easy sell.

Let's see. Divert some money from utility companies to pay for the lights over time. Spend no extra money. In several years, realize free savings on more efficient lights.

You can't get that kind of guaranteed return in the stock market, but people invest lots of money there.

It's certainly not very exciting, but conserving energy is a practical way to save money. Moreover, thanks to some financial structures, sometimes you can do it without even spending any money.

Maybe there are other problems with the lighting, but if you get the lights for free (paid for by energy savings over time) and then you save the money forever, it's worth a serious look.

Strangely enough this is a hard sell. Inertia is hard to overcome, even when there's money on the table.

But not for you. You're sharp. You can see the payoff a few years out. You want it. Go get that money.

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