Lives #12: A Star

[This is the twelfth in a series of stories about interesting people I’ve known, called “Lives”.  I don’t know whether you would call it non-fiction, or fiction.  I’ve changed the names, and some of the details, so that the individuals are not identifiable.  However, I think I’ve stayed true to the essence of what really happened.  The point is what can be drawn from the story, and at least that part is 100% true.]

Dao is a Thai nickname that means “star”.  Not star like a celebrity, but star like a light twinkling in the sky.  Dao does my laundry while I’m in Bangkok, but that’s only a tiny part of her story, as I’ve recently found out.   In her case, maybe both meanings of “star” should apply.

Star Laundry – a completely suitable name – is actually a hole in the wall shop on the ground floor of a ten story apartment building near Lumpini Park (in central Bangkok).  There is no sign.  There is a price list out front, in English, but then you have to go down a dark hallway, much like in a tenement, to get to her back room business.

Once you get there, you enter a room about eight feet by twelve, in which the back wall is all washers and dryers.  The ceiling is no more than six and a half feet high.  There is no counter.  You enter her work area, and she is there working.  She counts your laundry on her folding table, fills out a form with a carbon insert, and lets you know when it will be ready.  All very business-like.  Usually, there are two or three cats of various hues lounging about, supervising the transaction.

The first time you go into this shop, you don’t notice any of that.

Dao was, when I first met her, a tall, attractive, dark-skinned Thai woman in her early thirties, dressed for business: elegant skirt, blouse, heels, makeup, jewelry.  Nine years later, she hasn’t really changed.  A new customer will think, as I did, that she’s another customer, or maybe the owner of the business, or maybe the sales person, because clearly this is not the person actually doing your laundry.

Funny how we all have stereotypes.  Dao tells me that one time a new Japanese customer came in, took one look at her, and walked right out.  When he came back an hour later, and saw she was still there, he angrily demanded to know when there would be someone there to clean his clothes, because he wasn’t about to wait forever.

But it is Dao who washes the clothes.  She just doesn’t see any reason why she has to dress “like a poor person” when she goes to her job in Bangkok.  She has always loved fashion, even as a kid, and she tells me that coming to her business every morning looking good makes her feel good about herself.

This makes her already memorable, but there is more to it.  Dao’s story does not include ever working in a bar.  In this way, she might be seen to be atypical, but she’s not.

To understand why this is important, you have to know that Dao is from Isaan, the region to the north east of Bangkok.  Many Bangkok tourists labour under the assumption that all attractive young women from Isaan work in the bars and other establishments where sex is sold.

That stereotype is quite consistent.  Young girl grows up in a poor family in Korat or Khon Kaen.  She starts working on the family farm when she is ten or twelve to help out, and soon drops out of school, never to get to high school.  She learns how to work hard, but doesn’t have much formal education.

By the time she is fifteen or sixteen, she has started to show her good looks.  That creates both a problem and an opportunity.

The problem is that the local boys come calling, and that is likely to lead to more poor kids.

Or, she can go to work in Bangkok, sending money back home every month to look after her family.  That is the opportunity.

The core of this story is an Isaan culture (also common elsewhere in Thailand, and other countries) rooted in duty to family.   A young person growing up in Isaan often sees looking after her family as the most important role in her life, and her parents and siblings (and neighbours and friends) reinforce that point of view.

The foreigner has an issue of “blind man and elephant”, so for him (or her) “working” in Bangkok means working in a bar, selling sex.  That is the “opportunity” that draws young girls from Isaan to Bangkok.  Hundreds, maybe thousands, of books have been written about the Thai bar girl, and she is always the poor girl from Isaan with a duty to provide for her family, and a desire to escape from poverty.  (Do a Google search:  it will blow you away.)

Thais, by the way, don’t make that assumption at all.  They know better, and their paradigm of the young girl from Isaan, trying to make a go of it in Bangkok, is quite different.  It is much more like Dao.

Which brings us back to Dao.  At the age of fourteen, a very pretty young girl, she was the middle child in a family in a small village outside of Nong Bua Lamphu (a small city in Isaan).  Most days they didn’t have enough to eat.  She knew – as did everyone else around her – that someone had to go to Bangkok to work.  Her older brother was needed on the farm, and didn’t really like to work very hard anyway.  Her younger sister was still too young to leave home (and not really very pretty).

All eyes turned to Dao.  And, more than either of her siblings, Dao felt the weight of her duty to her family.

So what about Dao? She had already left school (technically still a student, but not really), and for two years had worked to look after the chickens and cow and fields.  In her spare time, she dreamed of being a model.  She had the fine face for it, and she loved fashion.  In Nong Bua Lamphu, though, she was never going to be a model.  Ridiculous, and she knew it.

On the other hand, she was too young to work in a Bangkok bar, and in any case she was very resistant to the idea.  She was willing to help her family.  But sell sex?  Not what she wanted in her life.

A cousin of Dao’s worked as a maid in Bangkok, and that family – an extended Thai Chinese family with a lot of money – needed another assistant maid to work and live in.   Dao was willing, and twenty-seven years ago she left her home at age fourteen to work and live in Bangkok.

The job as a maid lasted a year and a half.  It had the advantage that she lived in, and worked essentially around the clock.   Because she was always on duty, she couldn’t spend her salary.  She could send money – sometimes 3,000 baht (about $120) – back home every month.  It made a big difference to her family.

The disadvantage was the same as the advantage:  always on duty.  Only a farm girl could work that hard, but it was still very hard.

On her sixteenth birthday, Dao moved out of that live-in placement and found a job working in a men’s store in a suburban mall.  The salary was a little more, and the hours were less, but she had to pay for rent and food, and she still spent twelve hours a day, six days a week, on her feet.  For that, still only 3,000 baht a month went back home.

Once I asked Dao why, at that point, she didn’t consider working in a bar.  She had the looks, and she had the energy.  She could have worked less, and earned more.

She told me she has been asked that question many times (always by foreigners), so she has given it some thought.

“If there was no other choice,” she told me, with a long sigh, “then I guess I would do that.  I’m not comfortable with it, though.  I’m not comfortable with sex with no love.  That was always a problem for me.

“So, I made sure I had other choices.”

Dao was not quite nineteen when she heard about the laundry job.  It was not really a laundry job.  The absentee owner of an apartment building wanted someone there all the time to look after the building – like a superintendent – and when the person was not busy they would work in the laundry that was already renting space on the ground floor.  It was two jobs, so it was a lot of work.  But, also more money.  Dao took it.

It was hard work, but it was made easier a year later when one of the apartments became vacant, and she was allowed to live there as part of her salary.  She was still able to send money back home. But now her older brother was in Bangkok, and he sometimes needed money.  She started looking after him too.

Pause for a second.

Dao was nineteen, alone in Bangkok for five years, and dedicated to looking after her family.  She worked almost all the time.  Once a week, she went out with her friends, and tried to enjoy her life.  It is difficult when you’re tired, and you have no money.

She stuck at it, but when Dao turned thirty, she realized that she was not getting anywhere.  She worked hard every day.  She sent most of her money to her family.  Her dream of being a model was dying.  What was her future?

She went to the owner of the apartment building with a proposition.  She would take over the laundry premises as the new owner, and continue to take care of his building.  He would stop paying her salary, but give her a free apartment and free laundry premises.  She would look after herself.

Otherwise, she would have to leave, because she had no future there.  It was a gutsy ultimatum.  Typical of Dao.

The owner said yes.  The laundry tenants left, and Dao took over.  The name of the laundry was changed to Star Laundry, and Dao was there every day, running it.  Doing everything.

When I first met Dao, she had owned the business for a little less than two years, and she was already making good money.  Today, nine years later, she is a successful businesswoman, with loyal customers and a healthy income.

But what is her life?

Dao is an intelligent and attractive woman with a successful business where she is meeting people every day.  She even speaks excellent English.  The first question for a Thai woman in this situation is where is the man in her life? She is a heterosexual with normal desires, and she has tried to find the right man.  When I asked her what is the biggest change she would like to see in her life, she told me she wanted a man she could grow old with.

Even working as hard as she does, she should have been much in demand.

As she describes it, she has been “unlucky” with men.  Many of her customers are foreigners, either ones who live in Bangkok full time or ones who travel there regularly.  She says that they don’t understand her responsibility to her business.  Also, she says, by now she is too old for many of them.  (Sad.)

If you drop into her shop, and you take one look at her, you can only conclude that she gets approached by men once a week, maybe more.  Not all of them can be pigs.  (No, really.)  She has just never found the right one.

Despite not having a partner in her life (she hasn’t given up), and now being at the point where she probably will not have children, Dao has fashioned a pretty happy life.   But it’s not what you expect.

She wakes up at 5 AM, kisses her two cats, washes her face, and goes for a 5K run in Lumpini Park.  By 6:30, she is in the gym, weight training.  She has done both the running and the weight training every morning, seven days a week, for the last ten years.  By the time she is finished, and has dressed (well) for work, she is able to arrive (with the cats) about 8 AM to open the shop.

Dao tells me that when she first started the morning routine, she often didn’t want to do it.  Now, she says, she can’t stop herself.  When she gets to work, she is smiling and happy and ready to face the day.  Her morning routine does something to her, something good.

Star Laundry is open twelve hours a day, seven days a week.  Dao is always there, except when she has to be elsewhere in the building, dealing with tradesmen, tenant issues (the tenants are mostly workers from Myanmar and Cambodia), etc.  When there is nothing to do, she reads fashion magazines and tries to keep the cats from sleeping in the dryers.

Every day, she calls her mom in Nong Bua Lamphu and talks with her for twenty minutes.  She has done this for twenty-five years, and she expects to do it for the rest of her life.  For her mother, who went blind from glaucoma ten years ago, it is the highlight of her day.  For Dao, her day would not be complete without talking to her mom.  It makes her feel good.

If you ask her whether she is happy, she will say yes.  Not every day.  Not all of the time.  But most days, and most of the time, she is happy.

If you step back and think about her life, it might not seem that great.  She works constantly.   She has never had the opportunity to have her own family.  She closes her store for two weeks a year, one week to go home to see her parents, and the second week to lie on a beach in Koh Samet.  Even when she goes out with her friends, she is tired, and she has to be home by 10 to get up the next morning.

But life is all about perspective.  Dao, and many others in a similar situation, would have no hesitation in saying that she has a good life.

Dao has internalized her duty to her family, and she delivers on that duty.  Her parents (and her brother, her sister, and their kids) all depend on her successful business.  Her hard work is the embodiment of her purpose in life – looking after her family.

In an unguarded moment, she tells me:  “Some people don’t know why they are alive.  I see them every day… sad, sad, sad.  I know why I’m here.  Maybe that’s why I’m happy.”

Dao could have been a bar girl, for all the same reasons.  She made a smart choice, and now in her forties she is still able to look after her family.  And still happy.

What Dao is doing is not really different from what many Isaan natives are doing in Bangkok (or many rural natives are doing in cities all over the world).  They are working hard to look after their families back home.  It is their duty: the central reason that they are on this earth at all.  Sure, a few of them are bar girls.  Most of them, though, are housekeepers, and office workers, and retail salespeople, and factory employees, and other things, including business owners.

All of them are people who work hard and, like Dao, meet their family duty.

  –  Jay Shepherd, August 22, 2017


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Who Knew Freedom of Speech Would be So Complicated?

This article originally started with the sentence “I can’t remember the last time I agreed with Jeffrey Lord.”  That may no longer be true.

It’s true that his conservative views are about as far away from my more liberal approach to public policy, and current events, as one could imagine.  While his arguments sometimes make me think (more so, for example, than other conservative spokespeople like Kellyanne Conway and Sean Hannity), in the end I generally see the flaws in those arguments, and I reject them.  Our disagreements reach the greatest heights when it comes to Lord’s good buddy, Donald Trump, about whom I have been known to provide the odd jab (here and here).

But if Jeffrey Lord was indeed fired by CNN simply for tweeting “Seig Heil”, that was wrong.  People on both the left and the right should be outraged.

Free speech only exists if we defend the freedom to express themselves of those with whom we disagree just as strongly as we defend the speech of our allies.

Here’s what happened.

A liberal group, Media Matters, was organizing a campaign targeting the advertisers on conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s show.  Their express goal was to silence Hannity, whom they characterized as a “propagandist” for the Trump administration.

Just as conservatives attack liberal commentators and media personalities, so too some liberal groups attack the conservative voices.  This Media Matters campaign was going a step further, trying to get Hannity off the air because, in their view, he doesn’t tell the truth.

Lord, who has been writing articles (polemics, really) defending free speech for years, came to Hannity’s defence in a series of articles attacking the Media Matters campaign.  One of the most recent, on August 9th, characterizes the Media Matters campaign as a fascist attack on the first amendment of the US Constitution.

Other commentators have correctly pointed out – disagreeing with Lord – that fascism is about government limiting freedoms, and the first amendment is also about what governments can and cannot do.   Lord’s thesis appears to be that, in this day of a broader and more divergent flow of information, it is possible for groups within society to limit free speech without the intervention of government.  That, in his view, is also wrong, and is in any case a step down the slippery slope towards government censorship.

Whether you call it political correctness, or you call it an attack on freedom of speech, (or you call it some people being right, and others being idiots) this is obviously a live subject for debate in today’s society.

I don’t entirely agree with Lord’s attempt to equate private campaigns with government censorship and fascism.  Private campaigns are also a type of free speech, so you have to be careful in making this connection.  I do agree, however, that stating your views is something different from trying to prevent others from stating their views.

Lord comes down firmly on the “attack on free speech” side of this issue.  His conclusion in this article elicits the perils of fascism, by saying:

“Make no mistake. Hannity today, someone else tomorrow. The time to fight back against the Media Matters Fascists is now.  But let them speak for themselves — always. Whether the Media Matters Fascists like it or not, this is still America. And there must be no intention of silencing them either.”

During the course of his analysis in the article, Lord presents (for effect) his version of how Media Matters would revise the first amendment to the US Constitution.  He characterizes what they want, ultimately, as a first amendment in which the government decides what anyone can say.  Tying this to Mussolini and other fascist regimes, he quips:

“The American Spectator [where Lord’s article was published] has been unable to confirm reports that the original draft of this Media Matters revision ended with the words: “Seig Heil!””

In short, Lord’s point was that Media Matters was promoting fascist positions.  The “Seig Heil” was a tongue in cheek way of emphasizing that.

Later on the 9th, Lord and Angelo Carusone, the head of Media Matters, engaged in a Twitter battle, with no clear winner emerging.  (I found it petty, more than anything else. Twitter can be like that.)

Lord then did a followup column on the 10th, reiterating his view that the campaign against Hannity (and previous Media Matters campaigns against other conservative commentators) was at its root fascist.  He stated his central point thus:  “This is America, Angelo. Not Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.”  By implication, America is one place in which the right to free speech is sacrosanct.

Carusone responded angrily on Twitter, and Lord responded with the tweet “Seig Heil”, an obvious reference to the prior story.

Within hours, Lord was fired by CNN.  In their statement, CNN said:  “Nazi salutes are indefensible …Jeffrey Lord is no longer with the network.”

Lord was no more doing a Nazi salute than dancing a jig.  He was calling a liberal organization fascist.

Was he wrong in his conclusion?  Well, that is open for debate – legitimate debate, in which there are two sides to the story.

Was he wrong to use the Nazi term, even as a way of emphasizing his point?  That again is open for debate.  For some people, Seig Heil is a highly charged, even painful, phrase.  For others, it is old news, no longer the lightning rod it once was.

In either case, if he was wrong was it enough to be fired?  The answer is:  clearly not.  The worst he could be accused of is seeking an interesting (but perhaps in poor taste) way of making a point that others don’t agree with.

Sounds like why he was on CNN in the first place.

Lord’s response after being fired could be fairly characterized as “bemused”.  Or, if I can paraphrase his subsequent comments:  “You fired me for this?!”  Lord did note that his contract is up at the end of the year, implying that it was not certain he would be back anyway.  Thus, I conclude that it is at least possible that CNN simply seized on this errant tweet as an excuse to end a relationship that they no longer found useful.

On the other hand, if we take CNN at their word that it was the tweet that engaged their wrath, they would seem to be in the wrong here.  They shut down Lord for no other reason than he was exercising his right of free speech.  How is that morally acceptable, or consistent with their own values?

In my view, both liberals and conservatives should stand up and object to Lord’s firing, and both for the same reason:  free speech must be be defended.

Ironically, what Jeffrey Lord is entitled to (from liberals) is the same defence that he himself gave, freely, to liberal TV host Bill Maher just a few weeks ago.  In a June 14th article entitled “In Defense of Bill Maher’s Free Speech”, Lord (who probably agrees with Maher about as often as I agree with Lord) weighed in on the controversy surrounding Maher’s use of the term “house nigger” to describe himself.

Lord’s interesting take on the Maher firestorm was that a mistake – crossing a line – should not be enough to undermine Maher’s right to freedom of speech.  The term “nigger”, said Lord, is a word that causes pain, and Maher should not have said it.  On the other hand, Maher immediately admitted his mistake, and immediately had a show where his critics were given the opportunity to punish him for that mistake.

Should there be further consequences?

Many said that Maher should be fired by NBC for his use of the verboten word.  Lord’s conclusion was the opposite:

“Is it a good thing Bill Maher apologized? Yes. He made a mistake. And as his guests on his follow-up show made clear, it was a serious mistake. But not for a minute should he have lost his job. Free speech, among other things, implies the freedom to make mistakes. And move on.”

Lord has also been vocal in defence of Anderson Cooper, when the latter used a crude phrase to challenge Lord on air.  Lord’s message:  “Lighten up”.

I agree.

So, it turns out that I do in fact agree with Jeffrey Lord.  Free speech has value, and we have to fight for everyone’s right to free speech – not just those who agree with us.  I thus agree with his overall (and forceful) support of free speech, and I agree with his take on the Maher controversy, and his somewhat different defence of Anderson Cooper.

And, while I don’t agree with Lord that the Media Matters campaign against Hannity is fundamentally fascist, I do agree – and this is the central point – with Lord’s absolute right to his opinion on that, and with his right to express it, even using emotionally charged language.

The necessary result is that his firing by CNN, if indeed driven by the Seig Heil tweet, is just as wrong as Maher’s proposed firing by NBC would have been.  At worst, Lord should have been asked to explain himself publicly, and apologize for using “colourful” language that caused pain.

But firing?  That appears to be just political correctness.  Or worse.  It could be people just not wanting to listen to points of view divergent from their own.

Of course, that’s exactly why we have free speech:  so that all points of view can be expressed, not just the ones we support.  As Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously said (describing the views of Voltaire and in the process defining the essence of free speech):

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

          –  Jay Shepherd, August 11, 2017

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Energy #18 – How Bad is the OEB, Anyway?

The other day I was having a discussion with someone about a possible speaking engagement, and he said “You can always be relied on to give the OEB a few well-aimed kicks.”

That gave me a little pause.

There was, of course, a “regime change” at the Ontario Energy Board in 2011 with the ascension to the OEB throne of Rosemarie Leclair as Chair.  Regime change is, at its heart, about change, and there’s little doubt that many people in the industry – myself included – have had some resistance to that change.

Human nature.  Not always good, but quite normal.

So yes, I have been known to be a tad critical of some of the actions of the OEB in recent years.  Sometimes I’ve even been right.  Not always, but sometimes.  (Resistance to some change is justified, when the change is unwise.)

In September Chair Leclair is scheduled to speak to the Ontario Energy Association, and deliver what you might call a mid-term review just over six years through her ten year appointment as head of the OEB.  Now may therefore be an appropriate time to talk about some of the things the OEB is getting right.

Oh, never fear.  This writer has not given up on whacking the OEB.  Wait until you read about the relationship between the Fair Hydro Plan and OEB regulatory performance.

But I digress.

Since 2011 there are a number of things at the OEB that are more worthy of applause than approbation.

Staff Renewal

The last six years have a seen a steady stream of retirements from the OEB, as older more experienced hands are being replaced with younger, fresher professional staff.

The strategy is referred to internally by OEB management as “clearing out the deadwood”, and in fairness some of the staff who have now retired were in fact past their “best before” date.  Many of these were people who had made valuable contributions over the years, but were bringing less energy and originality and creative drive to their jobs in recent days than perhaps was optimal.

So the Board lost some institutional memory.  And, some of the people who felt the pressure to retire were in fact not the ones you want to lose, whatever their age.

Not only that, but the same management techniques that put pressure on some employees to retire also created a situation in which many valuable employees had their resumes on the street.  That has declined somewhat over the last few months.  (I don’t know why.)  However, there remains a surprising number of OEB staff who are quietly but actively looking for somewhere else to work.

Still, every organization needs new blood.  The OEB is no different, and as a result of the renewal that has been going on, with older employees retiring and newer people coming on, there is a new energy (no pun intended) at the OEB that should be welcomed.

Now, some will argue that the newer staff are, just naturally, less feisty and more “party line” than their predecessors.  In fairness, that is probably a little bit true, given the more top-down corporate culture at the OEB today.  On the other hand, it is fair to say that people usually take some time to find their voice in an organization.  Many of the recent hires at the OEB are smart, capable professionals.  After a period of feeling their way, they are likely to have an increasingly important influence over the policies and actions of the OEB.  Patience.  Just give it some time.

Overall, though, it is clear that the strategy of renewing and upgrading the OEB’s staffing resources has been a success, and will form a foundation for a stronger OEB in the future.

Board Members

The Board went aggressively in the direction of more part-time members and less full-time members, a move that was widely criticized (including by this writer).

Shifting to part-time members was not completely stupid.  It is, for example, the method used by 90% of tribunals federally and provincially to staff their adjudicative teams.  It delivers maximum flexibility and diversity, and provides a productive role for experienced people who no longer want to work full-time, but still are willing and able to make a meaningful contribution.

It didn’t work at the OEB, largely because the role of Board members is more than just as adjudicators of cases.  They provided, and continue to provide, a worthwhile function in policy development, management, and staff guidance.  That’s pretty difficult to do if you’re only at the OEB offices on a sporadic basis.

Happily, the OEB has decided to move back to reliance on more full-time Board members.  A couple of new appointments have indirectly announced this change.  Behind the scenes, it is more extensive.  The existing part-time members will likely not be renewed, and  there are probably one or two more full-time additions to come.

What’s the phrase?  “Something’s lost, and something’s gained…”

Pivoting back to full-time members means there is probably no room at the OEB for even the best of the part-timers, people like Emad Elsayed and Peter Thompson.   In choosing part-time members, the OEB and its Chair have in a number of cases made inspired choices.  That success may be lost.

On the other hand, the addition of new full-time members like Mike Janigan and Lynne Anderson can be expected to add strength to the regulatory roster.

The most interesting point here, though, is that the OEB listened, and shifted its approach in response to what it heard.  Largely as a result of input from its own staff (and not primarily because of external commentators, I might add), the OEB is solidifying and stabilizing its Board members in a sensible and thoughtful manner.

Gas Demand Side Management

For a decade stakeholder involvement in the evaluation and supervision of conservation plans delivered by the gas distributors was the driving force behind changes and improvements in those programs.  Then, in 2015, the OEB announced that, in conjunction with a substantial increase in gas conservation funding, it would take on a central role in evaluating and monitoring gas DSM.

This move was widely criticized, and I will admit I was one of the most vocal critics.  The OEB will not be able, we said, to hold the utilities’ feet to the fire, as customer groups can.  It is simply not in their DNA.

Well, it is still early days, but the initial returns are in.

They were right.  We were wrong.

Supervision of gas conservation programs by the OEB is still new, and some of the criticisms were well-founded.  It is costing a lot more money, and in some respects (although not all) it is taking considerably longer.

On the other hand, the early results show that the new evaluation and monitoring appears to be more thorough, and more independent.  A good evaluation contractor was selected by OEB staff.  The approach has been more hard-nosed and empirical than anyone could have expected.  While there is still probably more secret, behind the scenes guidance of their evaluation work than is appropriate, the guidance is now from OEB staff, not the utilities.  That is likely to get better over time.  The Evaluation Advisory Committee is providing solid input to the process.  Key concerns are being identified and addressed.  OEB staff have demonstrated they are willing to listen.

As well, the incessant yapping about arcane issues has been brought under control.  There is still lots of talk, but with OEB staff pushing for debates to be constructive, and constantly demanding resolution of discussions, the kind of open-ended babbling that had been characteristic of some aspects of the process in the past has largely dissipated.

When things work well, it is often mostly because of the people involved, and this is no exception.  That having been said, the OEB had confidence in its people, and set up a structure that appears to be working.  Even if it is still early, kudos are in order for making this work well so far.

Renewed Regulatory Framework


Before you get your knickers in a knot, yes I am very, very aware that not everything in the RRFE is working well.  Yes, I have not forgotten that the RRFE is indirectly promoting the “big build”.   Yes, I can see how rates are rising much too quickly for many regulated entities.  Yes, a lot of money is being wasted on additional paperwork.  Yes, there is some potential that the RRFE will continue to be biased in favour of the larger, wealthier utilities.

But step back and look at the RRFE as an evolution of regulatory philosophy.   Two things should stand out.   First, there is an emphasis on outcomes.  Second, expectations on utilities have been ramped up.

When the RRFE was first introduced, there was much mocking of the term “outcomes”.   Many in the industry thought it was simply a meaningless buzzword, promoted by the OEB because it was the latest craze, or maybe simply to mollify the OEB’s political masters.  It was like a running gag, in which over a few beers between energy sector people you could be sure that at least one joke would come up with the punch line “outcomes”.

Was it really just a vapid, meaningless word at the outset?  Or, did the OEB intend it to have real importance, but just fail to communicate it well?  Was it the ultimate statement of the “market proxy” concept from the get-go, or was it a nothing that became something through use?

We’ll probably never know the answer to that, but we can see how the meaning and importance of outcomes has solidified in the last few years.   After a series of decisions on individual cases,  the meaning of “outcomes” is starting to become clear.   In competitive markets, customers will pay for something they value.  If a company wants a higher price, it has to deliver higher value.  Results (outcomes) matter.  All the other BS, not so much.

A regulated monopoly is no different.  Customers are willing to pay more to get more.  The OEB’s role – wearing its market proxy hat – is to set rates that reflect the additional value or positive outcomes utilities are delivering to their customers.

That leads to the second philosophical driver of the RRFE:  expectations.  This is inexorably linked to that much-disparaged term, customer engagement.

When customer engagement was first promoted, virtually everyone in the industry thought it meant “selling” the customers on the merits of the utility’s cost and rate increases.  Millions of dollars were spent on focus groups, and phony surveys, all designed to ensure that utilities could prove to the OEB that customers “approved” of their proposed rate increases.

Hence the criticism.

Turns out, the point of customer engagement was not a sales job.  We all got it wrong.  As has become increasingly clear in decisions, and in (sometimes quite blunt) presentations by the Chair and others, customer engagement is about listening to the customers.  It is part of a broader paradigm, i.e. increasing expectations on the utility to take responsibility for their own business.

The intended message appears to be:  Utilities, you are not municipal departments any more.  You have obligations to your customers, like any other business selling a product or service.  We expect you to understand your customers – just as a competitive company must if they want to survive – and provide your customers with the service they want at a price they accept.

As one OEB insider said to me recently,  “Regulation reaches its pinnacle of success when we can say ‘You’re doing exactly what your customers want and need’.  Whenever we as regulators have to tell a utility to do things differently, that is a failure on both their part, and ours.”

We’re not there yet, of course.  But, sending a forceful message to utilities reminding them that they have the primary responsibility for their business, and for serving their customers, is undoubtedly a positive and constructive step.

There are lots of things wrong with the RRFE in terms of its real world implementation.  The underlying regulatory philosophy – a reinvigorated market proxy approach – is the right direction.

The Future of Gas Regulation

Without much fanfare, the OEB appears to be ushering in a new era of gas distribution in Ontario.  The most obvious example of that is the Community Expansion generic decision, but that is not the only example.

Gas distribution has been regulated by the OEB for so long now that it has become stylized, like a Japanese Noh play, with its own set of rules and procedures just as tightly codified as the iemoto system in Noh.  And, just like that art form, it has become largely incomprehensible to everyone but the cognoscenti.

Now, pretty much at the limit of their cost-effective service territories,  there is little left to change for the gas utilities, at least from a regulatory point of view.  Same old, same old, as they say.

The world, however, is changing.  There are new entrants that want to serve Ontario customers, and those customers want to be connected.  Carbon pricing will change the economics of natural gas and energy generally, probably permanently.  Changes in the sources of natural gas are fundamentally altering how natural gas gets to market.  The gas utilities, and others, are going to respond to those changes.  The regulator will be faced with new issues, some of them biggies.

The OEB is not totally on top of all this stuff, by any means.  However, what they have done is take a proactive approach, seeking to learn more about the changes as they occur, and showing a willingness to think outside of the box when needed.

If you had asked me two years ago whether I worried about the long term impacts of these changes on Ontario’s gas infrastructure, I would have said yes.  I’m still worried, because there is still lots to worry about.  However, everyone in the industry can have just a little more confidence, because it is clear that the regulator has these important issues on its radar, and is apparently not going to wait until it’s too late to do something about it.


There’s lots more to like about what the OEB has done over the last few years.  These are only some highlights.

Now, before you sigh with disappointment, there is also lots to criticize.  If my readers remain interested, I may from time to time have something to say.  It will, I suspect, sometimes continue to include the pointy end of the stick.

But with that caveat, it is useful to remember that the OEB is not the evil empire. Good things are happening.  Just as we jump all over the bad, it is appropriate once in a while to celebrate the good.

Not too often, of course….

   –  Jay Shepherd, July 16, 2017

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The “Lives” Series – Every Person is Interesting

The other day I was talking to someone about a recent article in my Lives series.  She is a person I know pretty well in a business context, yet she expressed surprise – in a somewhat backhanded but complimentary way – that I had the sensitivity to portray the real feelings of the people in the article.

“You come across so aggressive and hard-nosed in the energy world.  It’s refreshing to see the empathy you show in your writing.”

Literally the same day – I am not making any of this up – another person, also discussing an article in that series, said “This is really fiction, right?  I mean, how does one person know so many interesting people?  Not just interesting, but different.  They can’t all be real people.  You must be making them up.”

He was not really intending to be insulting, just pragmatic.  He really didn’t understand how one person can end up meeting a broadly diverse group of people with interesting stories.

My initial response to him was defensive.  Of course the people are real.  The only “fiction” is changes to some of the facts to prevent the people from being identified.  Their fundamental stories are not changed.

The real response to both of them, though, is more basic than that.

People are interesting.

To the first person, shocked that I might actually have empathy, I said “Look around this room [a hearing room full of 50 people].  We both know these people.  For most of them, though, we know little about them except the narrow persona they show in this room.

“In virtually every case, their lives are more complicated and subtle than that.  Everyone has a backstory.  That backstory is usually interesting.”

The truth is that we see people as caricatures – “weird”, “bully”, “nice”, “smart”, etc. – but rarely get beyond that and see them as real people.  In doing so, we miss a lot.

What we do is put people in boxes.  This middle-aged man is a little short, and a little aggressive.  Let’s label him as Napoleonic.  This woman is very good-looking, and works in a bar.  Sounds like a typical “cocktail waitress” type, probably not very smart.  This young man sells marijuana to his friends for a living.  He must be lazy, and maybe a bit of a gang-banger.  This guy has muscles on his muscles, so he must be a dumb jock.

These are all shortcuts, and they are rarely the real truth.

When I started to write this article, I looked at the list of “Lives” articles I want to write in the future: dozens of individuals on my “to write list”, a very diverse group.  Every single one of them is a person who is more complex, more nuanced, more interesting than anyone around them thinks.

Some of them are people I know well, so I know the real truth about their lives.

Some of them, on the other hand, are casual acquaintances.  I only suspect their truths are more than first appear, but I don’t actually know yet.  It is just intuitive on my part, which then makes me want to know more.  I want to see behind the caricature.

One day I will write a story about Mac, a middle manager at a utility.  He has spent his whole life depressed, from as far back as he remembers.  As a kid, even.  His relationships with his ex-wife, and with his kids, are essentially non-existent.  He lives alone.  No-one wants to be his friend.

And yet Mac has a hobby at which he is one of the best in the world.

No-one around him knows this.

In the rarified world of his hobby, his name is one everyone knows.  They talk about him, sometimes in awe.  To those outside that world, he is nothing.  Within that world, Mac is a star.

He is still depressed.  Despite his success within his hobby world, and his solid, respectable job, he has no life.

At some point I’m going to write the story of a good friend of mine, Barry, who for many years ran a successful business on behalf of its absentee owners.  The business is completely mundane, one of those jobs that “someone has to do”, but interesting to no-one outside of his industry.  The job, however, was still important, and Barry did it well.  Everyone respected him.

Barry’s life has been focused on his career in some respects, but deep down he never really gave a shit.  Barry was the cool kid in high school, and he married the cool girl.  They have built a good life, but about what?

What Barry always cared about – aside from the cool girl by his side for the last 40 years –  is rock music, and fast cars.  Most of the people who knew Barry over the last few decades would not have associated him with a drum set, or with a GTO.  They missed the central parts of his personality, the things he cared about.  Barry and his “cool girl” are in fact still all about the same things as in 1973.  They are still those same cool kids.  Just older.

Also on my “Lives” list is a woman I first met when she worked as a secretary for an insurance company that briefly employed my legal services.

Marilyn has been in the same job for twenty years.  Everyone sees her as a cog in the machine, who trudges through her workday, then goes home to her husband and two teenagers, and is entirely unremarkable.  She is Eleanor Rigby with a family.

Then her office-mates saw her raise money in the office for a charity by running a marathon, which raised some eyebrows, but they still don’t know the whole story, and they haven’t tried to find out.

If you dig deeper, you find her history:  high school and university athletics at an elite level, cut short when she got pregnant and “had to get married”.

She and her husband made a happy life of it anyway, but the richness of her life, and the strength of personality that she offers to her kids, is often lost on the people around her.  They simply don’t know.

One more: Alex.  Alex is now almost 60.  If he were a young person today, he would have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, relatively serious in severity, and would have been given support and treatment.  When he was growing up, that wasn’t the norm, and he was expected to conform and find a way to live within society as a “weird person”.

Alex works for the federal government, where there is more tolerance for “weirdness” than would be the case at the average employer.  They value him for his asocial but highly focused attention to the details of issues.

But I know two things about Alex that are not generally known.

First, when the federal government was about to implement a major policy change in the Middle East several years ago, it was Alex who insisted – in his very understated but stubborn, autistic way – that they were making a mistake.  He was persistent, to the point of being extremely annoying.

He was right, and they eventually realized it.  Had they proceeded unchecked, people would have died.

Second, when a colleague of his at work had to go through several rounds of chemotherapy, and ultimately died from cancer, it was Alex who was there every day for more than two years, helping, supporting, and empathizing.  Alex, who had literally no social skills whatsoever (as everyone knew), was the person who cared enough to be there from start to finish.

These are all people we put in boxes, carefully labelled and “completely understood” by way of those labels.  In one sense, we should be ashamed of ourselves.  We put blinders on, and as a result we don’t see people as they really are.

And frankly, it’s worse than that.  We don’t just put people in boxes.  Then we “judge” them.  We decide that Alex can’t have empathy, or indeed any feelings for other people.  We decide that Marilyn is boring, because what we see of her life is so relentlessly normal.    We make decisions about who should be our friends, and who is worthy of our respect, all based on these judgments, and the labels that generated them.

Should we be ashamed?

The answer is probably that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves.  We label people because each of us has only so much mindshare that we can invest in engaging with other people.  We would like to engage more, and really understand the people around us.  When we do, we really enjoy the emotional connections we can make.

But we have many human interactions, and each one requires an investment of our persona and our heart and our brain.  We invest the most in family, and close friends.  We would like to do the same with everyone else.

We can’t.

Of the hundred people you know right this minute, can you invest the same amount of your soul in all of them as you invest in trying to understand your spouse, or your children, or your best friend?   Clearly not.

So we create shortcuts.  We generalize people into boxes, and label those boxes in ways that, for the most part, allow us to deal with them without a huge personal investment.

In days past, people labelled using racial or ethnic or religious identifiers, but our society rightly made those shortcuts unacceptable.  It was a simplified way to deal with the people around us.  It was wrong.

That doesn’t change the problem, though.  We still have to put people in boxes, because we simply can’t handle all of the complexities of all of the individual human beings around us.  So, we have developed new and more “reasonable” boxes and labels.

Those new boxes and labels are still not the truth, of course, a fact we often forget.

Here’s an interesting twist, though.  If you want to be a writer, you have to understand people at a “non-label” level.  If you have characters that are just the generalizations that support the boxes, those characters are not believable, and your writing – no matter how well you put the words together – is not good enough.  I learned that the hard way 45 years ago, when I had the technical skill, but I didn’t yet understand enough about the richness in peoples’ characters.

The “Lives” series started – or so I thought – as a bit of an exercise for me, stretching my writing muscles and seeing if I could do today what I couldn’t do so long ago.  Have I learned enough about people over half a century to actually be a writer?

In truth, though, its real goal is more than that.  The central point of the “Lives” series is to expose the real people behind the boxes and labels we use so often in our lives.  All of us should be looking for those real people more than we do.

It is hard.  We can’t really do it all the time.

We can, however, be sensitized to it.

Each time we see the bureaucrat – or lawyer, or customer service representative, or engineer, or plumber, or economist, or secretary – sitting across the table from us, it is worthwhile to pause just for a minute and remember that we don’t know their whole story.

Even if we will never be able to learn who they really are, just reminding ourselves that the boxes and labels are not really the truth is a step in the right direction.

  –  Jay Shepherd, July 4, 2017

Posted in Life Lessons, Lives | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Energy #17 – Death Spiral

Ontario Power Generation is going to go bankrupt.

No, I am not speaking metaphorically.  Just as its predecessor Ontario Hydro did in 1999, so too OPG will reach the point of insolvency when it is no longer a viable commercial entity – i.e. bankruptcy – and it will have to be saved.

Rivers of Thought Coming Together

I came upon this stunningly obvious revelation through – as is so often the case – a confluence of events.

On Sunday, my colleague and I completed our final argument in OPG’s five year rate case;  fifty thousand words of scintillating, edge-of-the-seat prose that will certainly change the world.

There were lots of interesting tidbits that came up, but two stand out.

First, nuclear power, currently about 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, is forecast to go to more than 16¢/kwh over the next ten years, and that is understated by not including all of the cost components.  If rate riders are included, it will be more than 20¢/kwh.  And that’s without any cost overruns.

Second, the Darlington Refurbishment Project, which was absolutely guaranteed not to cost more than $12.8 billion (at a 90% probability), is already over budget by 14% ($14.55 billion), and that is not even including many cost overruns that are known, but don’t have final numbers yet.

They just started the project.  It takes serious skill to be able to go over budget right out of the starting blocks.

So, then, on Monday, the Mowat Centre, a public policy think tank affiliated with University of Toronto, had an all-day session on how distributed energy resources (DER) will affect wires companies.  To my surprise, the many utilities there seemed, for the most part, to be largely unconcerned that these significant changes in the electricity market will prompt a “death spiral” for wires companies, as some have predicted.

At the Mowat event, I shared a conversation I had with the manager of energy for a medium-sized electricity customer.  He said that, in the next ten years, the delivered price of centrally-generated electricity will be more than 30¢/kwh (about a 65% increase).  With that forecast in mind, his primary job is to reduce his employer’s exposure to grid-supplied electricity, preferably to the point where they can exit the grid.

Finally, on Tuesday I attended a public forum at the Energy Probe-owned Green Beanery in Toronto.  Energy critic and blogger Parker Gallant was speaking on his favourite subjects, increasing electricity prices and the evils of renewable energy projects.  A fun time was had by all.

Amidst all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about wind turbines, and extolling the virtues of burning fossil fuels instead (more on that later), Parker made an interesting side comment.  In part tongue in cheek, but in part serious, he said that one solution to our rocketing electricity prices is to use more electricity.

This is not as crazy as it seems.

How Can a Death Spiral Happen?

Sit back and look at these three events, and think of the concept of the “death spiral”.

Start with accepting the fact that large nuclear projects always go massively over budget, and OPG has proved to be a master at achieving that goal.  It even exported that skill to hydroelectric, going more than 60% over budget on the Niagara Tunnel.

In the case of nuclear, OPG is just following the pack.  Recently, Westinghouse (yes, THAT Westinghouse), the world’s biggest supplier of nuclear generating facilities, went bankrupt from constant problems with cost control.  Its Vogtle project, for the Southern Company, is delayed and over budget, with the U.S. federal government on the hook for the problems that result.  The Westinghouse problems may even undermine the strength of its parent company, Toshiba, although that is still speculative at this point.

So how much will the Darlington Refurbishment Project actually cost?  Assume it is only $25 billion, i.e. better cost control than any previous OPG nuclear project.  If the eventual cost of Darlington is $25 billion, the cost of that power is at least 35¢/kwh, and the delivered cost of that electricity is about 50¢/kwh.  Plus inflation in operating costs.

Add to that the recently announced Fair Hydro plan.  Basically, certain customers will pay less today, but that money will be treated as a debt to be paid in the future.  We will be paying part of our electricity bills on the credit card, effectively.  What will actually happen under the Fair Hydro Act is that OPG will bundle those future customer debts together and sell them as investment instruments to financiers.  In effect, OPG will become a factoring agent for receivables from customers down the line.  (They don’t have enough to do?)

And what happens when those future debts have to be repaid.  Ah.  The price of electricity goes up even more.

Now let’s look at the situation from a customer’s point of view.  For any business customer, there is an ongoing build-or-buy decision for each of its costs.  Call centre?  Is it cheaper to outsource, or to hire, manage and house your own people?  Legal department?  How much does Bay Street have to charge before it is better to have your lawyers in-house, on salary?  Do you build your own factory, or do you lease premises from someone else?  Every aspect of your costs has to be optimized, and in many cases the question is, do I outsource, or do I do this myself?

At the top price today, about 18¢/kwh., it is already cheaper for many of the largest customers to generate and consume their own electricity, and some are doing just that.  While few have gone completely off the grid, their load is declining.  Eventually, as prices rise further, some or all will exit entirely (or leave the province, which is even worse).

If you move the cost up to 30¢/kwh., suddenly there are a whole lot more electricity customers who would save money by moving energy production in-house.  Certainly at that price, fossil fuel production in house will be cheaper than grid delivery.  There is a risk of the impact of carbon pricing, which will limit that, but the savings are substantial enough to at least take a look.

But now move the cost from the grid up to 50¢/kwh.  At that price, even a local homeowner can save money by combining solar and storage, perhaps with a small fossil fuel backup generator.  That is especially true if the homeowner can flatten their load, for example by shifting their space and water heating from gas to geothermal, and by using an electric car.  The more your load is constant, day and night, winter and summer, the cheaper it is to self-generate.

The point here is not the individual prices;  it is the conceptual progression.  As the delivered price of centrally-generated electricity goes up, the number of customers who would save money by reducing their use of that electricity, whether through conservation or through self-generation, increases.

Move back to the utility point of view.  If more and more customers are reducing their electricity consumption from the grid, what does that mean for the utility?  Most utility costs are fixed.  If there are fewer customers to serve, the price each remaining customer pays must increase to cover the fixed costs.

This is not rocket science.

For a wires company, some protection can be achieved by moving to a single monthly charge for each customer.  That doesn’t help you with the customers who just disconnect, but it does help with those who reduce their load, without eliminating it.  Everyone pays $150 a month, whether you use 1 kwh or 1000.   Prices will still have to go up, though, particularly since the big customers, who pay most of your bills, will have the greatest incentive to disconnect.

For OPG, though, the problem is more dire.  What do you do when the cost to produce your product, nuclear energy, is so high that no-one wants to buy it?  What do you do when that high cost creates ripple effects in the industry, driving up the unit costs of transmission and delivery and so making customers even less likely to want to buy your product?  What do you do when, as a result of lack of interest in your product, you have too much of it, but you have already spent the high capital costs to produce it?

Luckily for OPG, they have experience with this.  In the 90s, again because of Darlington cost overruns (you know what they say, “fool me once….”, well, you know the rest), they faced capital costs that were too high to include in the cost of electricity.  Seeing the writing on the wall, they went to their friendly neighbourhood provincial government, who were only too happy to oblige with a bailout.  Don’t you worry your pretty little heads over this $20 billion of debt, they told Ontario Hydro.  Just hand it over to us, and we’ll find a place to hide it.

Now, OPG will go bankrupt again.  Cost overruns at Darlington, even small ones, will be sufficient to make their product too expensive for people to buy.  Customers will vote with their feet, and OPG will be left with debt, and insufficient revenues to cover that debt.

Here’s the kicker.  They could bring the rest of the sector down with them.  Under the current system, customers can’t decide to buy power from someone else.  If you are connected to the grid, you have to buy a certain percentage of your electricity from OPG (via the global adjustment).  As that cost goes up, your need to avoid it also goes up, but your only option to avoid the GA is to exit the grid.

The “death spiral”, indeed.

Are We All Just Screwed?

The answer is, probably not, but let’s be really clear.  We can’t solve this problem ten or twenty years from now.  When the exodus begins, it is already too late.  We have to act now.

Fat chance, of course, but let’s just pretend.  Treat it as a hypothetical.

There are basically four policy steps that could, in theory, reduce the risk of the death spiral:

Conserve, conserve, conserve. The environmental groups have been saying this for years, and they’ve been right for years.  Using energy more efficiently is the cheapest and most immediate way to reduce energy costs.  Not only does it reduce your own bill, as an individual customer (the “I’m all right, Jack” response to the problem), but in the long run it reduces the need to build new, more expensive generation.

The government can make us all more successful at increasing efficiency by reducing the “handouts” approach to conservation planning.  Instead, increase the role of regulations, technical standards, building codes, and the like.  Or, just wait for the price to go up more, forcing people to take action to conserve in self-defence.

Electrification.  As Parker Gallant correctly noted yesterday, using more electricity could help us with electricity costs. We have to be smart about it, though.  Using more electricity doesn’t mean using it less efficiently.  What it means is that some energy needs that are currently served by fossil fuels can be shifted to electric, and the whole electricity system can work better.

Space and water heating, as well as transportation, are the key sectors that rely heavily on fossil fuel burning, but can be served by electricity from a decarbonized grid, or by local generation.  In the case of space heating, this would balance the load between winter and summer.  With geothermal as the delivery mechanism, it would reduce air conditioning load in the summer, and increase load for heating in the winter.  In the case of transportation, electric vehicles can be designed to charge when other loads on the system are lightest, thus balancing loads between times of the day or days of the week.  This allows greater use of the inflexible generation from nuclear, most hydroelectric, wind, and solar.

Betting on the Winners. The cost to generate electricity from nuclear is only going to go up, and at a rapid rate.  The cost to generate electricity from fossil fuels is only going to go up, because of the cost of carbon.  (It doesn’t matter whether you believe in climate change or not.  Carbon is going to be priced, around the world.  That is inevitable.)

On the other side, the cost of wind, and the cost of solar, and even the cost of newer renewable technologies, is going down.  Existing contracts are fixed, and the cost risk has been offloaded to the developers/owners.  Technology improvements are reducing the cost for new projects.  Further, when the contracts expire, the assets are still generally useful, but they are fully paid for.  Once you’ve paid off the mortgage on the house, how much does it cost to live there?  The same is true for solar and wind.

So, what is the best bet for the future:  nuclear and fossil fuels, whose costs are rising; or, wind and solar, whose costs are falling?   Seems like a no-brainer.

Storage.  Many of our cost increases are driven by the inherent inflexibility of most of our current generating technologies.  While electrification will reduce that, the near term solution is to develop greater ability to store the electricity we don’t need right this minute, so that we can use it when we do need it tomorrow morning, or next week.

This is nothing more than a problem of technology.  We know how to push technologies towards commercial viability.  Time to do that.

Problem Solved, Right?

Well, you know better than that.  Just because we know what we should do, doesn’t mean we’ll do it.

We’ll continue throwing good money after bad on nuclear power, if for no other reason than – as everyone in the energy sector knows – the Power Workers’ Union is more powerful than the Ontario Energy Board and the provincial government combined.  We will be tentative about electrification, and about storage.  We will hope that, as time unfolds, more solutions will emerge.

In fact, all that will happen is that it will more and more be too late to do anything about it.

All of which goes to show that I should stop thinking about this, and go play golf.

      –  Jay Shepherd, May 31, 2017

Posted in Energy, Technology | Tagged | Leave a comment

Trump Redux: Us Against the Swamp

Here it comes, the triumph of good over evil.  Trump will fall.  There is unrestrained glee throughout the land (well, until they get a little more of Mike Pence, perhaps).

So that’s it, right?

Not so fast, you liberal tree-huggers.

Yes, it’s true that Trump has been revealed as shallow, and narcissistic, and maybe even evil (in a “child holding a gun” kind of way).  Yes, the appointment of a special counsel – and one with ironclad integrity and intellect credentials – means that the facts will likely come out, and it seems clear that they will not be pretty.  Yes, members of both houses of Congress are going to start to fear for their political futures.  You can already see the softening of their support for the President.

Is the end of this inevitable?  Not really.  Oh, no question the good guys are winning right now.  If you can accept a basketball analogy, it’s 72-44 at half-time.

But as Yogi Berra famously said, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over”.

We know what the Washington bureaucracy has done to respond to the excesses and missteps of this presidency.  No surprise that they responded carefully, by keeping their eye on the constitutional ball.  The U.S. system is one of checks and balances.  So far, those checks and balances appear to be working, or at least going in that direction.

The other side of the game, though, is:  What will Trump do?

Of course, he could become a hero by a smashing success in his upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, and NATO.  He could convince Bibi Netanyahu to “let my people go”, i.e. the Palestinians.  There is a deal there to be had, and certainly Trump supporters would be happy to trade New York City for Middle East peace.  (Good riddance, perhaps.)

Or, maybe the Donald finds he has a lot in common with the Saudi princes: just another rich kid who treats women as chattels.

And as for Pope Francis?  Imagine what Trump could convince the Pope to do.

Best of all, there is the possibility that Trump will deliver a boatload of money or troops to NATO to beef up defences against Russian aggression in eastern Europe.

(Spoiler alert:  I thought the interesting thing here was going to be the Trump vs. Putin matchup, but that appears to be all but over.  Putin is already winning the tactical battle with the US.  Just ask yourself whether anyone in the Ukraine – or Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania – still thinks that the US is going to have their back against Russian expansion.)

But, in the alternative (as lawyers say), what is Trump’s strategy if he doesn’t return from Europe to Washington as a conquering hero?  Further, just to make it interesting, let’s just assume that Trump is smart.  (It’s a hypothetical.)

If you’re being dragged down into the narrative of the “Washington establishment”, what do you do?  The obvious answer is, you get ahead of that narrative by creating your own.

Remember the Trump voter base, who just very recently elected him to be the one person in Washington who would understand their needs, and get shit done.  They haven’t changed their view that someone needs to drain the swamp, and they haven’t changed their view that Donald Trump is the only person they really think can achieve that.

If you’re Trump, you stop trying to play the Washington game, which is a game in which the other players are professionals, and you are a complete amateur.  If your game is badminton, get off the football field.  It may not be the best place for you.

On the other hand, there is a game in which you have recently demonstrated some expertise.  It doesn’t have a name, but you can call it “demagoguery” for short.  Catchy, eh?

The obvious Trump strategy is, get out of Washington, and organize the biggest rallies you can in places around the country where you still have strong support.  Go back to talk to the people who elected you, and are still dying to lock someone up.  Not just one rally.  A couple of times a week.  Tens of thousands of people.  Make the presidency an election campaign.

And your pitch?  “I told you draining the swamp was not going to be easy.  Those guys in Washington, they’re very good at protecting their own interests.  They have now again shown that they’ll do anything – lie, cheat, even hang all you guys out to dry – to prevent real change from happening.”

He needs to get his base riled up.  He needs to get them upset once more over Washington insiders.

To what end, you say?

The immediate thought is that he wants them energized for the mid-term elections, protecting the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

Ah, but that would be to underestimate President Trump.  He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about Congress, or Republicans generally.  He’s made that abundantly clear.  They are, in fact, part of the swamp, and they need a bit of draining too.

He does need to get Republicans onside, however, if he wants to actually be President.  To do that, he has to instill in the members of Congress not gratitude for his political support, but fear of the Trump voters, and therefore fear of Trump.  Much like true demagogues everywhere.  Govern by fear.

The Donald’s pitch to his rallies around the country, therefore, should be one of holding all members of Congress to account.  It should be one of seeking the support of the masses for his fight against the Establishment.

This has to become Us against Them.  The theme has to be “We’re taking back our country”, the same theme that won the election.  He has to appeal to his supporters to back him actively, to personally stand up to the evil politicians in their midst.

It has to have drama, too.  Trump thrives on drama, so this should be right in his wheelhouse.

Just take one example.  In Raleigh, North Carolina, Trump gets 15,000 supporters into a football stadium to hear him fulminate about Washington, and also about what’s going on right up the street in the North Carolina state legislature.  Open the concessions.  A little beer won’t hurt the mood.  He rails on about the new governor, who is doing all the wrong things.  As if spontaneously, he suggests to the crowd that they follow him to march on State House and demand that the politicians listen.  “Right here, right now, let’s do this.”  The video of 15,000 people, led by the President, marching on the North Carolina legislature, will be the biggest news in years.

Here’s another example.  Trump threatens to resign.  He tells the crowd “I am trying to fight the corrupt Washington insiders, but they are closing ranks, making up fake stories to discredit me.  I need your support to do this.  I need you to stand up and be counted.  Otherwise, I might as well resign and go back to being a successful businessman.”  (And you can hear the cries – “No, no, don’t go” – prompted by shills in the crowd.)

And what does he ask them to do?  Well, maybe he asks them to come to Washington, generate a huge rally that will show the politicians just who is standing up for change.  He goes for the crowd on the Mall that he says he got at the inauguration.

In short, his tactic, and perhaps the only one that can salvage a win out of his presidency, is to rile up his supporters.

The problem is that if you actually get enough people truly upset, this is not a situation anyone can control.

On the one hand, the USA has some fundamental divides, whether socio-economic, religious, racial, or geographical.   A demagogue is starting with fertile ground.  The Trump supporters will be susceptible to lighting the fire.

On the other hand, the Americans who lost the last election despite winning the popular vote are not going to roll over and say “tickle my tummy”.  Not this time.  They were too nice last time, and they lost.  They’re itching for a do-over, and this time, they’ll fight back.

Imagine Trump’s big rally in Washington, a million strong Trump supporters packing the Mall.  Now, imagine thousands of busloads of Trump opponents, from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, even California – also a million strong – showing up to oppose the destruction of their democracy.

In a previous article, I downplayed the possibility of civil unrest in the US as a result of the Trump presidency.  Maybe I was too hasty.  Maybe, in fact, Trump’s only viable strategy for winning his battle with the Washington establishment that has never liked him anyway is to risk a violent confrontation between Americans.

Trump is a narcissist because no-one likes him, so he has to like himself.  He has always been shunned by the very people he so desperately wants to impress, people in power who are in his subconscious mind just surrogates for his own father (who also apparently never liked him).

He can’t keep trying to play their game.  He’ll lose, and they still won’t like him.  He can’t walk away, because then he is admitting his own failings.  He has to fight, but it turns out the power of the office doesn’t give him enough strength to win that fight.  The only real weapon he has, in fact, is his support base.

There is a lot left to happen, much of it still pretty unpredictable.

Sadly, though, the possibility of violent conflict, pitting American against American, is more real than ever.

  –  Jay Shepherd, May 18, 2017

Posted in International Affairs, Politics | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Lives #11 – A Potemkin Marriage

[This is the eleventh in a series of stories about interesting people I’ve known, called “Lives”.  I don’t know whether you would call it non-fiction, or fiction.  I’ve changed the names, and some of the details, so that the individuals are not identifiable.  That is particularly true here, since I am revealing secrets hidden until now.  If you think you can guess who this is about, you are certainly wrong.  However, I think I’ve stayed true to the essence of what really happened.  The point is what can be drawn from the story, and at least that part is 100% true.]

I’ve known Peter and Judy for more than forty years.  I worked for Peter at a bank, before I went to law school.  Judy later gave me pointers on how to handle a colicky child.  I went to their wedding.

Twenty years ago, when their kids were in university, Peter and Judy realized that their marriage was dead.  They had to make a decision:  separation and divorce, vs. staying together for the kids.  But, it was more complicated for them, because at the same time Peter had to find a new job, and it turned out that new job was not in Toronto.

Their response was to create a fake marriage: a relationship that was entirely fictional, but was presented to the entire world, including their kids, as real.  They did it consciously, through a negotiation that reflected their quite unique personalities.

I call it a “Potemkin marriage”, after the Potemkin villages that were created in Crimea to fool Russian Empress Catherine II in the 18th Century.  Like those villages, which were literally fake constructs to be taken down after the Empress passed, Peter and Judy created a marriage that only existed for the rest of the world to see.  No part of it was rooted in reality.

Peter was a banker at a time when bankers didn’t make a lot of money.  Starting in the 60s, he progressed up the ladder slowly, and never reached a level higher than manager of a small local branch.  It was a solid middle class job; nothing more, nothing less.  Many people thought of him as a “plodder”, getting the job done but never surprising anyone with his brilliance or initiative.  He was not stupid.  He just wasn’t invested in his career.  It was a job, period.  He made sure he got the paperwork right.

Peter’s main interests were starting a family and coaching his kids’ hockey teams.  Perhaps because he grew up in a small town in Northern Ontario, Peter lived for hockey:  playing it, watching it, and later teaching it to his kids.

Judy was from the same small town, and was Peter’s girlfriend starting in Grade 10.  Unlike Peter, Judy was a real “go-getter”, as they used to say.  She was a cheerleader, and in the school band, and a prefect.  For a while, it looked like she might even be the class valedictorian.

She was also “an assertive young woman”.  If you had asked people to describe her back then, they would have said “Judy gets what she wants.”  Judy wanted Peter, the centre on the school’s hockey team, and a good-looking guy as well.  His down to earth approach to life, and his obvious love of family, made him, in her eyes, perfect for the future she wanted.

No-one was surprised when, right after their high school graduation, they announced that Peter had landed a job with a bank, so they were getting married and moving to Toronto.  The wedding was a big local event.  Then they were gone.  It all seemed pre-ordained.

The 70s unfolded exactly as expected for the young couple.  Judy got a job as a property manager for rental apartments.  She was in and out of the job, though, because they had four kids, literally one a year until they decided they had enough.  Each time, Judy would stay at home for six months, then go back to work for six months, then leave to have another child.   As if planned, they alternated boys and girls.

They were smart enough to buy a new house right at the far reaches of the city, in nearby Mississauga, scraping their money together for the down payment, living house poor as their family grew.  Peter – with Judy’s active help – spent every weekend improving their house, so that when it got too small for them, they were able to sell at a good price and buy a much bigger house further out of the city, in Oakville.   With a big backyard.

By the late 70s, they seemed set.  Their combined salaries were enough to cover their now-small mortgage.  Their kids were at various levels of elementary school, and went after school to daycare.  They got a dog, then a second, and then a third.  (No cats.  Judy didn’t like cats.)

Behind the scenes, they had slipped into rigid and largely predictable roles.  Judy was in charge.  She essentially made all of the decisions in the family, with little resistance from Peter.  He, on the other hand, was the family’s athletic director.  When his oldest was just three, he flooded a rink in the backyard, and taught her to skate.  By the time the youngest was three, they had a much bigger house, and skating in the backyard was a daily thing.  Kids from all around the neighbourhood learned to skate and play hockey at Peter’s house.

No surprise that each of their kids ended up on a hockey team by the time they were in Grade 2.  One of the boys never really took to it, but the other three kids played hockey every winter until they were teenagers.  Most of the time, Peter was one of their coaches.

And it wasn’t just hockey.  Summers were taken up initially with baseball, but later all four kids gravitated toward soccer, a growing sport in Canada.  Although they had varying skill levels, their hockey-based fitness made them all pretty good.  One of the daughters ended up on the local rep team, and travelled to tournaments all over North America.  Peter was always one of the parents that went with the team.

Aside from his responsibility for sports, Peter basically worked under Judy’s direction when he wasn’t at the office.  She provided an endless list of projects for Peter to do around the house.  Peter didn’t object.  He loved it.  As the kids got older, they got involved as well:  a deck, a dog run, a finished basement, a pool table (built from scratch), an extensive garden (that Peter built but Judy maintained).

To anyone looking on, this seemed to be the perfect life.  If you asked the kids, they would tell you their friends were jealous of their wonderful family.  Peter appeared to have endless energy.  Judy exhibited unlimited drive.  Everyone was always smiling at their house.  Happy, happy, happy.

All of that was true, none of it a lie.

But then, three things happened.

First, their youngest graduated from high school in 1996, and was about to leave for University of British Columbia.  He would be the last to leave, and only Peter and Judy would be left in their big house in Oakville.

Second, Peter, in his late forties, lost his job.  It wasn’t anything he had done.  He was just getting a little older, and was part of the previous generation of bankers with no degree and little formal training.  The new breed – highly trained MBAs and economists – were taking over.  The existing paradigm was being pushed aside, and Peter along with it.  Perhaps if Peter had spent his evenings and weekends going to school, upgrading his qualifications, he would have survived the round of layoffs.  Coaching hockey teams was not going to save him, and it didn’t.

Third, Peter’s younger brother Carl, who also lived in the Toronto area, and also had a solid and happy middle class life, announced that he was getting a divorce.  He told Peter that he had never been happy, and now that his only son was grown and launched, it was time to start a new life.  He was 44.

Either of the first two events – a newly empty house, and no job – could have pushed Peter to a radical rethinking of his life.  However, if you ask him today, Peter will tell you that it was Carl’s announcement that made him ask the question “Am I really happy?”  He was so shocked that his brother – the “smart one” – was going to head off in a new direction in his life, that he looked inward at his own life, and his future.  Was he happy?  Peter’s answer, to his astonishment, was “No”.

The reasons for that were complicated.  Over the twenty-eight years of their marriage, Judy and Peter’s focus had moved from the excitement and intimacy of starting and raising a family, to a financial and practical relationship that had little excitement, and no intimacy.  The shift had been slow, and from Peter’s point of view it had been masked by the day to day pleasure of his relationships with his kids.  He didn’t really notice his relationship with Judy turning into the sterile and empty thing it had become.  He was busy with the other parts of his life.

It later came as a surprise to Peter, though, to find out that at the same time Judy was having doubts about her future with Peter.  Unlike Peter, she would never have actually considered splitting up.  She had built a successful family unit, and she wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that record of success.  On the other hand, she knew that, without the kids around, she could look forward to living in a big, silent house with an unhappy – and in her mind, somewhat boring – husband.

With little chance of changing any of that.

It took a fourth event, a few months later, to trigger the new life they decided to create.  Peter was able to land a job – a very good job – but it was in London.  As in, England.

They were driving back from University of Western Ontario, where their oldest daughter had just entered graduate school, when Peter got the call.  Judy’s response was immediate, and blunt:  “You can’t take it, Peter.  There is no way I’m moving to England.  No chance.  It isn’t going to happen.”

Judy could be abrupt when she knew what she wanted.

But to Peter, this was the most exciting thing that had happened to him in years.  A customer he worked for on foreign exchange transactions at the bank needed a Canadian banker in their forex unit in London.

They wanted him.

The job paid very well, even with the cost of living difference, and was a step up in responsibility and prestige.  No-one can afford to actually live in London, of course, but they could live in Essex or Surrey or Kent, and commute, like everyone else in the City.  He would be nominated to a good private club.  His colleagues would be bankers, like him, from all over the world.  He would travel, and attend conferences, and maybe even go to school to get the degree he had never even started.

Peter was not used to going against Judy’s wishes, so he stayed quiet for a week, stalling the prospective employer.  Judy asked him every day “Did you call them?  Did you turn down the job?”  He avoided the questions.

If you ask Peter today, he can tell you the time and place, describe the circumstances in detail.  They were on the back deck, the sun shining on a hot June day.  He had primed himself to talk.  It was like he was giving a speech, well prepared but a little nervous.  Predictably, as soon as he said that he had decided he wanted to take the job in England, Judy pounced.  She wasn’t going to move to England.  Period.  She was putting her foot down on this one.

There was no more than one minute of talk about moving to England, Peter says, before the whole discussion was about their life, and their marriage, and what went wrong.  They got a bottle of wine from the fridge, and then another one, and over the course of more than four hours they hammered away at the subject, alternately angry, hurt, and strangely rational.  In some respects, the discussion was a relief for both of them.

It took five minutes for Judy to understand that Peter was going to move to England.  It took another five minutes for Peter to understand that Judy wasn’t coming with him.  As the realization, and acceptance, kicked in, they were a bit stunned, but then they tried to understand why this was going to happen.

They had lost the ability to communicate with each other about their feelings, so it was tough going.  (Of course, that was part of the problem.)

Peter accepted the new job the next morning, with a start ninety days later. Faced with a deadline, Peter and Judy tried to figure out what was going to happen to their lives.  They were not going to be the same.  Their lives were going to be separate, one way or the other.  They had to make some decisions.  They talked to each other more in that three months than in the previous three years of marriage, but they were not really uplifting discussions.  Emotional, even constructive sometimes, but relentlessly sad.

Once they decided that their lives were going to be separate, they had to figure out how that would work.  The most obvious option was divorce.  The kids were grown.  They had a mortgage free house, and each of them had a good income.  Judy, though, was adamant that she would never get divorced.  Marriage is for life.  What kind of example is it to your kids if you show them that marriage is temporary?

Furthermore, since neither of them was really intending to start a new relationship, or a new family, there was no apparent reason to divorce.  They could live apart, and work out how to do it.  Divorce added nothing.  If things changed later, they could deal with that then.

The bigger problem was what to tell the world, including the kids.  Do you tell everyone that you are not really like a married couple anymore?  What will people think?  How will the kids adapt to that change?  Isn’t it just as bad as divorce in the message it sends to the kids?

On the other hand, if you decide that the details of your relationship are just between the two of you, and no-one else’s business, how do you keep the truth a secret?  Surely your kids, and your close friends, and even co-workers, will find out sooner or later.

Peter and Judy decided that they would remain a married couple, not just legally, but in the eyes of everyone else, and keep the real nature of their relationship a secret just between the two of them.

It was harder than they thought.

As they worked through the details, they realized slowly that they had to have a plan.  Not just ideas, but a real plan, with the specifics worked out for many aspects of the fictional relationship they were going to show to the world.  What about visiting back and forth?  Were they going to have two houses?  Would they own both jointly?  What about vacations?  Visits with grandchildren?  Family events?  Life insurance beneficiaries?


They even talked about what to say to their kids if they were asked about their sex life.  (“We haven’t had any sex life for ten years,” said Peter.  “Why would they suddenly ask now?”)  But, it turned out to be a good thing to get straight.  The kids did ask, and Judy, who was the one who got the initial question from her oldest daughter, had a pre-agreed answer.

Many times they wondered whether this octopus of a deception was worthwhile.  Or even morally acceptable.

By the time Peter had packed his belongings into a container for shipment to England, Peter and Judy had created a totally imaginary relationship, with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed.  Much of it was written out, some of it longhand, and some of it on Peter’s new computer.

The details?  Well, for the most part they don’t really matter.  Until she retired a few years ago, Judy got four weeks’ vacation from her employer, and if she wasn’t visiting her kids she would spend the time in Guildford, Surrey, where Peter lived.  Except, she didn’t actually go there.  She would often spend the time in Paris, or on a beach in Spain.  If she wanted to share photos, she claimed Peter was there with her.  He wasn’t.  Peter spent his vacations in Canada, mostly visiting his kids, but sometimes notionally with Judy in Oakville.  He didn’t actually spend much time in Oakville.

Christmas alternated between Guildford and Oakville for a few years, until one of the kids bought a house and became the de facto host of family gatherings.  Both Judy and Peter always attended.

Sometimes the kids, and then grandchildren, visited Peter in England, and sometimes Judy would join them.  She was able to hide the fact that Peter’s house was really quite unfamiliar to her.  (“Peter, you appear to have moved the wine glasses.  Where are they now?”)

For six months last year, Peter hosted one of his grandchildren who had a scholarship to attend University of London.  Judy visited for one day, but then suddenly had to be somewhere else.

Peter and Judy are now approaching seventy.  Judy has retired, and Peter is thinking about it.  Their lives have moved on from each other, and now they only share their children, and their Potemkin marriage.

Peter is not going to move back to Canada.  He is happy where he is, and will continue to be there even when his job doesn’t require it.  He will spend more time at the university, where he finally got his degree at age 64.

Judy has an active social life in Oakville, centred around her church and the local seniors’ centre, where she volunteers.  She is happy where she is, as well.

I don’t know Judy’s views about what has transpired over the last twenty years.  (She doesn’t like me much these days.)  Peter, on the other hand, has no doubt that what happened, and how they handled it, was the best thing for everyone.

He put it to me this way the other day.  “My youngest son just turned forty.  I think he knows Judy and I are not really married any more, and haven’t been for many years.  But I think he’s decided to let us have our “little secret”.  It hurts no-one.  As for the other three, they just think their parents’ lifestyle is weird.  That’s OK with me.  I probably am a little weird.”

It never ceases to amaze me how people can make the strangest, most improbable, decisions about how to live their lives.

And yet, still end up making it work.

   –   Jay Shepherd, April 22, 2017



Posted in Lives | Tagged | 2 Comments