Articles

New and previously published articles from magazines and newspapers around the world.

The Solution to Inequality is Spelled: V-A-T

Early in the Canadian Occupy protests in October, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney described the movement as "constructive" - the understandable product of worsening income inequality. He was partly right. He should have said the protests were potentially constructive, but only if parties on both sides of the barricades open their minds about taxes, specifically the superior redistributive potential of consumption and value-added taxes (VAT) over income taxes. If you're interested in closing the gap between rich and poor and you believe that only higher income taxes on corporations and the rich will do it, you're defeating your own cause.

Let’s start with the complaint: income disparity. Both Carney and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty agree it’s getting worse in Canada. In an op-ed article published in several newspapers the day after the protests began, Mike Moffatt, an economist with the Richard Ivey School of Business, noted that Canada has fallen far down the ranks of developed countries by measures of income equality and that the gap between rich and poor here is widening faster than it is in the United States.

Serious problems require serious solutions, of course. That would exclude flaky ideas like “Smash Capitalism” and “End Ownership” (both suggested on protestors’ signs in Vancouver). Instead, Moffatt pointed out that countries with the least disparity of income tend to have moderate corporate taxes and high VATs. In Denmark, Sweden and Finland, where income disparity is low, the VAT rate averages 25%.

VATs such as Canada’s GST and the combined federal-provincial HST (in the provinces where it applies) are charged on the difference between the cost of inputs and the selling price at each stage in the manufacture and distribution of a product or service. VATs and sales taxes tend to be more efficient and harder to avoid than income taxes. Moffatt cited research by Stephen Gordon of Université Laval, which projects that a hefty increase in income taxes on the rich—say, 10 percentage points more on incomes higher than $500,000—would generate far less revenue than even a one-percentage-point HST increase. Despite the advantages of the HST touted by economists and governments, British Columbians voted to abolish their 12% HST in a referendum in August, although this will simply mean bringing back the province’s old sales tax and the federal GST.

Why are VATs and sales taxes so unpopular? One common critique is that they are regressive. On average, poor families spend a higher proportion of their income on consumption than rich families, who generally have surplus earnings to save. But if you measure a VAT or sales tax relative to total spending by individuals—the rich generally spend a lot more than the poor—those taxes actually look progressive.

VATs can also be tailored to soften or reverse any regressive impact. You can exempt or charge low rates on products such as groceries, and tax luxury goods more heavily. Political leaders can also direct VAT revenues to programs targeted at low-income groups.

In the end, however, it will probably be a lack of options that drives us to embrace VATs. This might happen if the fiscal crisis deepens. As Bruce Bartlett wrote in an article in Forbes late last year: “A VAT is never going to be seriously considered unless the need is overwhelming.” Perhaps it’s that sense of need that underscores the so-called 9-9-9 plan touted by Republican U.S. presidential candidate Herman Cain, in which he proposes to slash federal personal and corporate income tax rates to 9%, and make up for lost revenue with a 9% national sales tax.

Whatever we think of Cain’s plan, we probably won’t seize the VAT solution until deficits start driving inflation and interest rates higher, and income disparities get worse. It would be better to act now, rather than later. But that would take movement on both sides of the barricade.

Posted: Monday, Nov. 28, 2011 10:56am

Chaos and Planning

This article ran first in Vancouver Review. Sadly, I have to report that the Red Gate did finally lose its battle with the city and has been evicted.
CHAOS AND PLANNING: A tour of Vancouver's public art
ONE: THE RED GATE
By the time you read this article, an interesting but little-known Vancouver public-art institution will either have dodged a bullet or bit the dust. I’m talking about the Red Gate. And because of the timing here, I don’t know if I’m talking about it in celebratory or funereal tones.
Sometimes referred to as the “Rainbow Art Institute,” the Red Gate is (was?) a non-profit art and music space run by Jim Carrico in the 100 block of West Hastings Street in a rapidly developing part of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). In the spring of 2011, Carrico—who describes the ramshackle space as a “cultural wildlife refuge”—received eviction papers from the city. And with that, a drama of survival that had played out over the Red Gate’s entire history reached its pivot point.
Why was the City acting, all at once? The 30-day notice to vacate cited building-code violations and fire-risk issues, deficiencies that might not surprise a casual visitor to the building. It’s old and obviously in need of some repair. Still, many people were outraged at the eviction notice, since the building has been in that condition for many years. The decision to evict seemed unfair, and worse, it seemed counter to the city’s insistence that DTES development would follow a “mixed-use” as opposed to “gentrification” model.
Posted: Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011 8:53am
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Man Standing

This profile of Inuit film-making legend Zacharias Kunuk was originally published in Canadian Art
Edited by Richard Rhodes
***
Final descent into Igloolik and I’m feeling the cold already. It’s seeping into the plane, into the soles of my feet, stiffening my knuckles and knees. It seems to be reaching out toward me, and I find myself thinking about the story a man told me an hour ago in Iqaluit, just prior to departure. Joseph Palluq was sitting beside me on the shuttle from the terminal to the plane. He turned to me, spotting a first-time visitor to the Arctic, and decided I needed to hear his story about hypothermia.
Perfect timing. I’d just been telling him I was up there with the photographer Donald Weber to visit the Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk. “You guys know Zach?” Palluq asked. I said no, but that we were interviewing him about his new film, Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change.
“Huh,” Palluq said, impressed. It meant something that two “southerners” would travel all that way to talk to a man he’s known since grade school, a man who may now be Nunavut’s most famous citizen. Then, apropos of climate change, along came the story about hypothermia.
Palluq had been a teenager when it happened. The weather had been mild that day, so he’d dressed only in a light jacket when he went out with the dog team. A few hours later, far off on the land, the weather radically worsened. The wind picked up. The snow started. The dogs lay down in the mounting drifts and refused to move. He was stranded. And by the time 12 hours had gone by, he knew what was happening to him. He knew the symptoms: first you shiver, then you start stumbling. Pretty soon you can’t walk.
Palluq scratched late-day silver stubble, reaching this point in the story. He lives in Ottawa now, he‘d told me. He was going back to Igloolik for his father’s funeral. I wondered if this sad journey had reminded him that the man he was about to bury once saved his life.
“Then, they found me,” Palluq said.
“Where?” I asked. “How far from Igloolik had you wandered?”
Palluq tried to explain. He said, “You know the ridge above town? You know the rock outcropping past that? You know…” He stopped, looking at me again. “But you’ve never been to Igloolik before.”
“No. I haven’t.”
He shrugged. He smiled. “Ah, well.” Then he drifted away.
I’m thinking about this last comment as the landing gear drops, as the ground nears in a blur of white and blue, as we thump down to the tarmac, as the Igloolik Airport hurtles by in a rainbow spray of ice crystals. I’m minutes from finding out my luggage is still in Iqaluit—a separate matter. Looking out of the window, I’m thinking about what Joseph Palluq told me, and I think I know what he meant. He wasn’t being dismissive. He was only saying: if you’ve never been to Igloolik, if you don’t know the ridges and the outcroppings, the line of the shore and the way the tongue drifts form in the winter season, how could I possibly explain where exactly I was when my father found me, half-dead and about to slip permanently into the very heart of this cold?
 
Posted: Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 11:06am
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Are student loans the next financial bubble?

My regular Big Ideas column for the Globe and Mail Report on Business Magazine is this month about a looming potential problem that everybody seems to know about already. It was interesting to learn, researching this piece, just how widely the problem is already being discussed while nothing is really happening at higher levels to forestall a disaster. You have to wonder whether President Obama calling for every American to pursue a year or more of college education is, in fact, ramping up demand for an asset class that is not providing a return on the investment people are making. If that analysis is valid, then Americans could be in a very similar position in education to where they were in real estate circa 2007.
***
Seems like everyone can agree what the next big economic bubble will be. For those who haven’t seen the alarming study released by Moody’s Analytics last month, that would be student loans. There are 1 trillion dollars now outstanding in American student loans and Canadians aren’t in much better shape with a total of 22 billion and counting outstanding in August.
Posted: Monday, Oct. 3, 2011 8:26am

Save the Red Gate

I’m mid-way through a piece for Vancouver Review on the topic of public art. As a result, I wouldn’t normally write and post anything on the topic because it might end up stealing from work to-be-published. But, with apologies to my kind and forbearing editors at VR, I’m going to make an exception here because we have an unusual and troubling art situation going down here in Vancouver: the City has threatened to shut down the Red Gate.

If you’re not familiar with it, the Red Gate is a non-profit space at 152 West Hastings Street opposite the Woodwards redevelopment. Run by Jim Carrico, it’s a kind of pure creative space (he calls it a Cultural Wildlife Refuge) where musicians and artists (street artists and others) hang out, create, and showcase their work. About three weeks ago the City gave Carrico 30 days to vacate. After a flood of protest, the City granted a 60 day extension. But the axe still hangs meaning the time has arrived for people to make themselves heard on the topic of why this closure should not happen and why Vancouverites should really care about the preservation of the Red Gate and institutions like it.

What’s driving this situation is development in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). As most Vancouverites know, the 100 block of West Hastings Street has already transformed with the completion of the new Woodward’s complex. And speaking as a 15 year tenant of the Dominion Building, at the corner of Hastings and Cambie half a block from the Red Gate, I feel qualified advancing the opinion that the Woodward’s development was sorely needed. 100 block West Hastings was never the worst block in the DTES, but when I moved my office into the area it was getting steadily worse. I saw crack use and drug sales almost every day, all the way up Hastings and into Victory Square. I remember bringing my kid to the office one weekend and having to jump in and stop him from picking up a hypodermic needle lying next to the cenotaph.

Having said that improvement was needed, it’s important to note that DTES “gentrification” was never the plan. I wrote an article last year about Army&Navy owner Jacqui Cohen and interviewed numerous prominent people about development of the DTES. Every one of them - including Larry Beezley, Jim Green, Bob Rennie and Cohen herself - stressed that "gentrification" was not the right approach. For the downtown, these powerful people seemed to agree, the "mixed use" model was better.

Why did they express this view? Because while "mixed use" plans try to preserve what's best about a neighborhood through diversity, “gentrification” is what happens when you do development wrong. It means allowing lower income groups and artists to be displaced and, in the process, chasing out the established culture of a given area.

And make no mistake: there has been a distinct DTES culture. It’s about affordability, certainly. But it’s also about the sheer presence in numbers of artists, gallerists, filmmakers, writers, publishers, theater troupes, as well as a whole range of independent business people in technology, architecture, the law. What I’m describing is the kind of neighborhood on which every city vitally depends, those urban zones and spaces where small-scale creativity is expected, celebrated, and where it can thrive.

The Red Gate has been a critical part of that scene in the DTES and should be part of the neighborhood's continued "mixed use". I can give a personal example. I wrote a book recently, a novel called The Blue Light Project. Why? In large part due to the inspiration I found myself drawing from the DTES flourishing ecology of street art. I wasn’t a street artist. I was a total outsider. But I started my investigation at the Red Gate, where Jim Carrico arranged for me to meet the legendary Vancouver graff writer and street art historian Take5. Take was my window in, and through various introductions that followed, my own creative process was informed and stimulated. When I follow the causal chain, in other words, it goes back from my finished book through all of the people I met, through Take5 and the Red Gate, to the DTES itself.

And it seems to me that’s exactly how creativity is supposed to work in these most crucial urban zones. People are supposed to be positively infected by what’s going on around them, to be forced into an intellectual and aesthetic jostling together. Because it’s in those cultural mosh pits – at times anarchic, sure, but generating hugely productive creative energies – that new ideas are born.

New ideas. We want those. So we don’t want to stomp all over the places where they are cultivated. And that’s why people who care about this city, like those named above, may support mixed use development of the DTES, but not “gentrification” where you drive everybody out who isn't a upmarket condo owner. That’s why, I’d reason, Gregor Robertson has reportedly said that he wants the Red Gate to stay open. Because people who care about the city recognize that gentrification is not just unfair, it kills a particular kind of urban creativity. And to do that would kill something essential to the entire city.

Let’s not let that happen. I encourage anyone who reads this post and agrees to write a letter of support to redgate@at.org. It's not going to be easy. First thing Jim needs is an agreement from the building's owner regarding long term occupancy, without which the building won't qualify for the City's Cultural Infrastructure Grant. But if enough noise is made, perhaps the pressure can be constructively applied in this case.

Timothy Taylor

 

Posted: Wednesday, Jul. 6, 2011 7:04pm

Igloolik Dubai

My third novel The Blue Light Project was published in March/April and book business, touring etc, consumed most of those two months.

In May I had to get back to work. That means magazine work. And that means travel. I still very much enjoy this aspect of my freelance life. This time around in particular, I had an unusual schedule that took me to Igloolik, in Nunuvut, which is in Canada's arctic...

...and then to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, 9000 kilometers away in one of the hottest desert areas known to man.

The experience generated plenty of stark contrasts, as you might imagine. -40 C versus +40 C is perhaps the most obvious. Ditto the landscapes of frozen snow and hot sand. But there's also the area of wealth and development, where Dubai's skyline seems to grow while you watch it and Igloolik is a clutch of low buildings along a remote stretch of beach in the Canadian high arctic. An international hub in the middle east versus an isolated hamlet in the frozen north. What two places could be more different?

And yet a couple of things struck me powerfully as being shared by these places. Both the Emiratis and the Inuit are ancient people, whose entrance into post-modernity has been relatively sudden. And in both places I was there to interview people whose lives are crucially connected to the project of staying in touch with ancient ways.

In the north, that person was Zacharius Kunuk, the legendary Inuit filmmaker who brought us the films The Fast Runner and The Journals of Knud Rassmussen.

Kunuk is a fascinating individual, whose committment to Inuit tradition comes paired with a fully post-modern engagement with technology and global thinking. I look forward to writing a profile of him and his work for an upcoming issue of Canadian Art.

In the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, I was there to write several pieces that will run in Spafax Canada publications. But one of those assignments allowed me to meet Peter Bergh, one of the best known falconers in the world.

Falconry is a 2500 year old tradition in the middle east, and in a culture that isn't easy to penetrate for western outsiders, it offers a fascinating window into the history of the region. I'll be writing about Peter and the experience of working with his birds in an upcoming issue of Fairmont Magazine.

 

Posted: Tuesday, May. 24, 2011 10:10am

Too Big to Fail?

Originally published in The Globe and Mail Report on Business Magazine:

Newt Gingrich is back and doing what he's done so often: igniting controversy. The architect of the Republican congressional revolution of the 1990s has created a firestorm by proposing a U.S. federal law that would allow states to go bankrupt. At present, only cities can do that, and it's been rare. But the debate escalated in January and February, as dozens of states and cities said they would have to make brutal spending cuts to slash massive budget deficits. The crisis is already so advanced that star Wall Street analyst Meredith Whitney told 60 Minutes that she expects 50 cities to declare bankruptcy in 2011.

Gingrich's plan is basically a free-market solution to deficits-the bond market will exercise the discipline that politicians cannot. Manhattan Institute scholar Nicole Gelinas explained the logic in a Boston Globe op-ed piece in January: "If bondholders worry that states won't repay their debt, then they'll jack up interest rates, or just stop lending money." That's how the market punishes underperforming companies. And legal bankruptcy, or even the threat of it, is often a powerful tool used by executives or regulators to force unions, management and other stakeholders to get real-either moderate your demands, or we'll close the doors and sell off everything for whatever we can get.

Not surprisingly, U.S. tax reformers and proponents of limited government like Gingrich's idea. It gives Washington another option for troubled states besides bailouts. The feds could just say "No." The states could then squeeze public-sector unions. Given a choice between taking their lumps at the negotiating table or possibly having their contracts swept away in bankruptcy, sane union leaders would likely take the first one.

Opponents of Gingrich's plan are vitriolic-"stupid," "horrid" and "disaster" are typical responses. You'd expect that from unions under siege. But the proposal could also backfire on Washington by rattling already wobbly markets for municipal and state bonds, and pushing local and state political problems upstream into federal courts.

Then there's the question of what happens after governments hit the wall. Unlike bankrupt companies, states and cities can't simply be shut down and auctioned off. Someone will still have to provide some services. And as Gelinas noted, the spectre of bankruptcy may not result in the deep spending cuts that Gingrich and his crowd would like to see. "If you're a bondholder, you often prefer tax increases to spending cuts," Gelinas said.

Bankruptcy also wouldn't eliminate the states' biggest financial obligations by far: unfunded pension liabilities. Reuters Money & Politics columnist James Pethokoukis says that states face a total unfunded pension shortfall-the value of future obligations already incurred minus the current value of investment assets-of $3.2 trillion (U.S.). That makes the $250 billion in budget deficits forecast for the next two years look like a blip.

Canadians should pay close attention, because fiscal problems are swelling here, too. The federal budget deficit totalled $56 billion in the 2009-'10 fiscal year. The Harper government has vowed to eliminate that by 2015-'16. But Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page says that a $10-billion deficit will likely remain. "We do not have sustainable fiscal structure," he said, ominously. Ottawa also has a shortfall of $208 billion in its pension plans for federal employees, according to a recent C.D. Howe Institute paper.

Entire countries have gone bust and repudiated debts in the past, of course. But the fundamental problem with Gingrich's idea in a democracy is that it's asking the market to do a job the electorate should be doing: punishing politicians who spend too much money.

So why do politicians keep overspending? Often it's a timing issue-spending decisions are made long before bills come due, or by politicians who don't have to implement them. We have a great example of this in Vancouver, where I live. The B.C. Teachers' Federation has a contract with the provincial Ministry of Education that calls for improved wages and benefits for this school year, yet the ministry failed to increase the provincial education budget enough to cover it. The Vancouver School Board had to work with the collective agreement it had been handed. The board's solution: cut programs and school days.

Which politicians, if any, will Vancouver voters choose to punish? The trouble with the electorate, of course, is that our personal finances are as bad as those of governments. A recent Vanier Institute of the Family study noted that the average Canadian family's debt-to-income ratio has soared to 150% over the past 20 years, while the savings rate has plummeted. We've all been borrowing and spending irresponsibly for a long time. No wonder it's so hard to stop politicians from doing the same thing.

Posted: Tuesday, May. 24, 2011 8:57am

Hiring: Gut Feel or Hard Numbers?

Originally published in The Globe and Mail Report on Business Magazine:

Mike Brydon and Peter Tingling are decision theory specialists at Simon Fraser University's Faculty of Business, and they have a question they like to ask when giving presentations to senior management groups, especially to human resources managers. "How many here have taken golf lessons to improve their game?" A lot of hands go up. Then they ask: "How many have had instruction to improve their decision making?" No one raises a hand because, as Brydon and Tingling have discovered, all managers, but especially those in HR, consider themselves to be expert decision makers already.

We all tend to judge others intuitively, having "evolved to take the measure of people quickly," Brydon says. But in recruiting, it can be a costly practice, as anyone knows who's hired someone they liked after a few interviews, only to find that person couldn't do the job.

This happens because of the many biases that affect our decisions about people. We are instinctive pattern matchers, for example, judging character by a person's shoes or tattoos. This tendency affects even companies like General Electric (long a bastion of analytic management), whose outgoing CEO Jack Welch wrote that his successor, Jeffery Immelt, met with his approval because the man seemed "comfortable in his own skin." Was that a job requirement? In which case, did Welch really know what it meant or how to measure it?

Equally common are selection process biases. Brydon and Tingling cite "first-date interviews," where banal questions elicit no useful information. Or the study-proven phenomenon that applicants who let their interviewers do most of the talking tend to earn higher rankings. Likewise similarity, such as coming from the same school as your interviewer, is known to create what's called an "association" bias.

Do politeness and alma mater-overlap correlate in any way with likely future performance? Probably not. But plenty of people get hired because of them.

Information asymmetries are an even bigger issue in hiring, Tingling says. If you don't have a rigorous way of measuring candidates against job-relevant attributes-such as leadership skills or analytical abilities, market profile or sales results in the previous quarter-then there are all kinds of ways applicants can game the system. They can pump up their resumés. They can hide jobs from which they were fired. They can train themselves to give a great interview using guides available on the Internet. These tactics make candidates more attractive and articulate to the boss who goes with the gut, but this doesn't mean that the person will be any good at the job.

The question for the HR manager, then, is how to make the selection process more analytical. To help, Brydon and Tingling have developed a sophisticated decision-making software called Amadeus SRA. They refer to it as "Moneyball for the rest of us," a nod to Michael Lewis's book about the 2002 Oakland A's under manager Billy Beane. That team won its division with a payroll of $41 million (U.S.), a third of what the New York Yankees shelled out in the same year. The A's success hinged on Beane's radically non-traditional recruiting practices. He set aside the standard measures of a player's offensive success-stolen bases, RBIs and batting average-in favour of on-base percentage and slugging average. Beane was convinced that those two statistics, while undervalued in the marketplace, were more indicative of a player's potential.

That mentality, Tingling and Brydon assert, is critical in non-sports management, too, and their software guides every aspect of the interviewing and hiring process. It sets the desired attributes and considers exactly what the successful applicant must bring to the table relative to company objectives. It provides interview and testing methods by which those attributes will be measured in each case, and compiles the input of however many interviewers are involved. It then produces rankings, and slices and dices the data in inventive (and patented) ways.

Compared with traditional blunt measures, this new rigour gives company directors a new way of assessing how well the HR department is doing its job.

As Tingling says: "I've never met an HR manager who didn't know his company's attrition rate. But I've never met one who knew his company's regrettable attrition rate." That latter stat is the one that matters, of course.

The Amadeus software is currently being tested by several educational institutions and is being considered by at least one unnamed security agency. Those employers who are attracted to the software, Tingling says, appreciate the words of W. Edwards Deming: "In God we trust. All others bring data."

Posted: Tuesday, May. 24, 2011 8:53am

"...the name Rene Girard may ring a bell..."

I'm outed as an admirer of Girard by Humber College Professor of Political Philosophy Kent Enns. He's writing about my new novel The Blue Light Project.

If you're interested in Girard and the urgency of his ideas, you might enjoy the novel. About a three day hostage crisis at the studio of a controversial reality television show, the book takes on terror, celebrity, and their disturbing points of overlap.

Here is Professor Enns' review of the book:

THE  BLUE LIGHT PROJECT AND THE URGENCY OF THE NOW

Under the persistent sway of pecuniary-minded editorship, the mainstream of Canadian literature has for the past several decades massaged the novel-buying Canadian public with heartfelt, achingly personal "local fictions," that are reassuring in their affirmations of love and domestic fortitude amidst Canada's natural, rural and coastal glories. These fictions might be classified the way art historians refer to the mannered domestically-oriented still-lives and portraits of 16th Century Flemish painting: miniaturist. When this vein in Canadian literary fiction seemed all but overworked, our readership was regaled with the same domestic miniaturism but this time the ghosts of Canada's history were set in motion along with the usual quotidian suspects. Of course, occasional exceptions peek above these re-iterations of the familiar (one thinks of Ondaatje, M. Richler, Atwood in her better books, and the crucial explorations of contemporary international experience, as Mistry has done). This now familiar miniaturism, it must be noted, has worked wonders for Canadian fiction on the international stage. Drawing on preconceptions of Canada as rural and morally righteous, our literary editorship has done much to bolster the Canada brand. 

The way we live now, however, is deeply embedded in and expressed through the modalities of technology and globalized economics, politics and culture. And for those of us who turn to literature as an art form that takes up and explores central meanings and implacable contradictions in contemporary experience, those previously mentioned re-iterations of the familiar, however finely wrought, cannot but fail to be somewhat beside the point. In this contrast between the familiar Canadian miniaturist brand and the urgency of the globalized now, Timothy Taylor's new novel, The Blue Light Project, takes its stand. As a writer who in his non-fiction has explored the vagaries of global fashions in travel, food, restaurant design, and popular culture, Taylor is an author with his finger on the pulse of contemporary taste and the pervasive economic and political forces that shape such sensibilities. Thus, subtly supporting this taut novel of confrontations between celebrity and politics, personal disgrace and the possibility of redemption, is an elaborate architecture of ideas. 

One of the main clues to this structure is a relatively minor character named Girard. For those who keep up with debates in literary and anthropological theory, as well as in evolutionary psychology and the contemporary significance of religion, the name Rene Girard may ring a bell. (Perhaps the best introduction to his thought is the outstanding five-part CBC Ideas radio documentary, "The Scapegoat".) Girard theorizes that archaic cultures have traditionally maintained their cohesiveness through sacrificial practices, where internal crises generate panic and contagious persecutorial fears and which find a release in the spontaneous killing of a scapegoat. Rituals and prohibitions found in every culture represent for Girard attempts to regulate crises and redeploy this beneficial outcome -- hence the evidence of human and/or animal sacrifice in virtually every culture of which we have record, let alone the startling similarities in many foundational myths from different cultures in which an outsider figure is depicted as a pollution or threat and the community itself as innocent. Working against this tendency in the history of the West and now on an increasingly global scale are insights first expounded, according to Girard, in Biblical narratives (Joseph and Jesus are obvious examples) in which the collective is depicted as culpable and the intended sacrificial victim as innocent. Thus our modern concern with victims, with the oppressed and the downtrodden. This leaves us moderns in a precarious position-- we crave, we may even need, the collective psychological satisfactions of sacrifice yet we also abhor and abjure the very production of victims that sacrifice (and perhaps even politics) requires. 

And what has any of this to do with The Blue Light Project? In this finely executed novel, Timothy Taylor depicts the intersection of four lives, a burned out and disgraced journalist, a sporting celebrity, an unknown street artist, and a political terrorist whose motivations, in the end, expose themes central to this story. And undergirding a page-turner that will satisfy the most ardent of thrill seekers are two sacrificial structures that Taylor uncannily reveals to be at the core of contemporary experience: celebrity and Western expansionist politics. The hostage taking at the studios of a Canadian Idol-like program forces into our awareness the social usefulness and collective gratifications of a system that produces star after star and yet this same machinery repeatedly depicts the sacrificial downfall of our "polluted" idols -- Charlie Sheen, anyone? Lindsay Lohan? Mel Gibson? We experience collective elations not only at their rise but their fall conduces to even greater satisfactions. Running parallel to this, in Taylor's cultural-political economy, is a hidden system of sacrifice that bolsters modern expansionist democracies -- the torture chambers, extra-ordinary renditions and extraditions, and the quasi-legal gulag of off-shore detention facilities that covertly enforce Western ideals and protect our culture from further exposures of its core contradictions. 

By placing his novel at the centre not only of contemporary life but also in the flux of beliefs and morally contradictory practices that sustain globalized living in the West, Taylor relentlessly insists that the vocation of Canadian fiction is in the now, it is in the Twitter feeds and popular media, the international trends and the political machinations that churn endlessly at our lives. Taylor's response to the staid "local fictions" of much Canadian literature is to give us an unnamed city that is as "linked in" and connected as any on the planet. The Blue Light Project has a lot of balls in the air -- fame and celebrity, street art, politics and the secret service, Girard and sacrifice -- and Timothy Taylor masterfully balances these things. And many others. Miniaturist it is not. It is a genuinely moving novel, building to a great climax and with a denouement that provokes the kind of reflection on what has happened, on how it has been depicted, that only the best fiction can do. 

Kent Enns is Professor of Political Philosophy at Humber College in a city named Toronto.

Read more about The Blue Light Project, or even obtain a copy, at AMAZON.ca orAMAZON.com. It can also be downloaded as an EBOOK here.

Posted: Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2011 6:14am

Don Delillo

I'm hugely flattered by some recent and heavy praise for The Blue Light Project, a "thriller that makes you think" about a hostage crisis in a television studio.

In each of these reviews, I've been compared to Don Delillo, who is a serious hero of mine. That comparison leaves me speechless (almost) but grateful.

The book is now available. Please have a look:

1) on AMAZON.ca

2) on AMAZON.com

3) or as an EBOOK right here

Here are the amazing review quotes:

Best of all – and here is where the writer he most recalls is Don DeLillo – Taylor finds surprising angles into his material. A man holding lives in his hands, in a position to demand almost anything, wants only to talk to a small-time journalist. Why? The answer would be unfair to reveal in a review, but it can be said that when it is revealed, what’s offered is not a neat resolution but a whole new set of questions, their implications spreading in all directions. Ian McGillis, MONTREAL GAZETTE Read the full review

The best thing Timothy Taylor has written yet. He has DeLillo-like moments here, if DeLillo were to climb out of the limousine and hang out in the back alleys for a while. Taylor has DeLillo’s knack for seeing the ¬connections between seemingly unconnected things and assembling them into a portrait of our time. Call him a street artist of the page. Peter Darbyshire VANCOUVER PROVINCE Read the full review.

Timothy Taylor is Canada's DeLillo. The Blue Light Project really brings it into focus. Art, reality TV, celebrity - it's all here. The last 20 or so pages are unimaginably great, some of the best writing you will read. It's paced like a thriller, a taut thriller and in its own way, it's that as well. But it's also an extremely profound - and at time hilarious - meditation on our celebrity obsessed culture and our need for "reality" in entertainment. Highly recommended. Arjun Basu, Content Director, Spafax

The Blue Light Project is available now:

1) on AMAZON.ca

2) on AMAZON.com

3) and as an EBOOK

 

 

Posted: Friday, Mar. 25, 2011 9:32am
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