The Wrecking Crew

January 11, 2011

My apologies for borrowing the title of this post from Thomas Frank’s book from a couple years ago, but I use it consciously as I think it bears repeating. Why? Because of the pathological danse macabre we insist on performing regularly with our neo-conservative partners and the corresponding amnesia that accompanies it which renders us oblivious to the resulting ugly outcome.

How’s the step go again, you ask forgetfully?

Decrying the state of affairs, politically, economically and/or socially, brought on by overweening and ineffectual (not to mention, elitist) liberal rule, conservatives roll into power on a magic carpet of faux-populism, complete with an easy to remember and entirely meaningless slogan or two. Once there, they proceed to trash the joint, politically, economically and/or socially before the citizens fully comprehend what’s happening and chase them from office. They then “retire” to the private sector (which in all likelihood they’ve helped to enrich) where they lick their wounds, change their outfits and, sooner or later, head back to the political ball for another twirl around the floor.

There was Reagan’s Morning in America where he enticed a weary populace to join him in a foxtrot. Twelve years later, victorious in the Cold War but already mired into increased conflict in the Middle East, the country was eye-deep in debt and much of the FDR New Deal/LBJ Great Society accomplishments, gutted and left for dead, and the political environment toxic. Enter centrist Democrat Bill Clinton who managed to wrestle the burgeoning deficit bomb into a more manageable shape (largely on the back of his most vulnerable base) while, if not fully restoring social programs directed at the most vulnerable of his base, got them back onto life support. A semblance of order restored, give way to George W. Bush, neocon sweetheart, and 8 years later, Iraq, Afghanistan, surpluses ballooned into huge deficits, tax cuts galore and everybody for themselves. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Up here, a very similar pattern. Early-90s, Conservative debts and deficits reign (although to some eyes, strangely, it’s all because of Pierre Trudeau despite 9 years of PC majority rule), the country faces a constitutional crisis. Liberals are elected in a landslide and over the course of the next decade+, they bring the fiscal unruliness to heel (largely on the back of their most vulnerable base) and establish a semblance of political and social order. Hello neocons and… you know where this is going, right? Unnecessary tax cuts, financial crisis hits, here we are again, back in the red and the public sector’s going to have to tighten its belt and prepared to make do with less. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Ditto in Ontario with a slight variation. Left of centre government hit with a nasty recession seeks to spread the pain around (some of it on the back of their base) and is summarily drummed from office, crushed under the pleasingly simply Common Sense Revolution. These fiscally prudent Conservatives (some key members who go on to lay waste to Ottawa) don’t really clean up the economic mess they claimed to have found. They just sort of move it around a little, cut taxes (natch) and eviscerate provincial and municipal infrastructure for good measure. As usual, they’re chased from office two terms later having inflicted maximum public damage. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Now comes Rob Ford to Toronto. A career politician who never saw a tax increase he couldn’t rail about or a government expenditure that didn’t taste like gravy, he bellowed for months on the campaign trail about waste and fiscal mismanagement at City Hall. (Sound familiar?) Citing big numbers with little context and oodles of anecdotal evidence of ‘corruption’, he got himself elected on a vow to Stop the Gravy Train and to usher in an era of Respect for Taxpayers. Meaning? Cutting and/or freezing taxes. ‘Trimming the fat’ and uncovering ‘inefficiencies’ in the system. No more nickel and diming taxpayers to death.

But an altogether predictable thing happened on his way to his first budget proposal. The supposed fiscal ineptitude of his predecessor left Mayor Ford with a shit load of money in which to fill the cavernous gaps left exposed by all the tax freezes and cuts riddling the budget document. So much money, in fact, that any major slashing and burning of services could wait a year. Only a year, mind you. There would be a serious reckoning. You’d be foolhardy to think otherwise.

We know how this story plays out, people. We’ve seen it enough. The ending’s never happy and expecting this time it’ll be different, well, you’ve just defined ‘crazy’. Neoconservative politicians are incapable of leaving a place looking better than when they found it. It’s not in their nature. In fact, they can’t help doing the exact opposite of good stewardship. They are terrible tenants. So let’s stop expecting them to be anything but.

It’s almost as if we’re trapped in some lurid abusive relationship with neo-conservatism. It constantly lies to us, takes our money and spends it on its rich girlfriends. Whenever we speak up and complain, it smacks us around some to keep us in our place and issues threats about how good we have it. You think you got it bad, huh? How’d you like to be living somewhere in Africa instead? Huh?

Even when we break free of its grip for awhile, we’re eventually lured back in with its sweet song of contrition and promises of better behaviour in the future. I’ve learned my lesson, baby. Trust me. I won’t ever hurt you again.

We really have to break free of such a self-defeating and sadistic cycle before the damage inflicted becomes irreparable.

once more with feelingly submitted by Cityslikr


Not So Much Where You Live

November 16, 2010

Leisurely making my way through Jeb Brugmann’s Welcome to the Urban Revolution when the concept of “city consumers versus trained urban citizens” stopped me up. Three weeks after the election that made Rob Ford Toronto’s mayor-elect and with much chatter about the divide revealed by his win, here to me was an idea that transcended mere geography. Could this be an insight into the core political sensibilities of the two camps?

Anybody who’s been following along with the post-election analysis knows of the downtown core/inner suburb, old city of Toronto/other places that weren’t Toronto but are now divide. We examined Edward Keenan’s article about here last week. Marcus Gee did as well over the weekend in the Globe and Mail although he failed to cite Mr. Keenan as his primary source material. The general consensus is that there were enough exceptions to prove the rule that it was suburban Toronto alienation from City Hall over the past 7 years that led them to vote for Rob Ford in droves while downtowners thought anyone voting for Ford was an idiot.

Here’s another take on it. “City consumers versus trained urban citizens.” Rob Ford supporters, regardless of where they live, think of the city only as far as what it gives to them personally. A place to live and work. Getting between those two places easily and safely is of primary importance and should be the main thrust of what a municipal government does. Pave the roads. Fix the streetlights. Clean the streets of garbage, both literal and figurative. Do it as cheaply as you can especially in the short run. Almost anything beyond that is simply ‘The Gravy Train’.

Trained urban citizens, on the other hand, see the city not so much as a set place on a map (that’s GPS to you city consumers reading along) but more as an entity that morphs along with its residents. The city extends beyond our backyard or office lunchroom or driver’s seat. It is a collective organism living and dying by the actions of those who are a part of it. What makes a city truly livable is when a majority of decisions made, from the corridors of City Hall right down to even personal ones, have a net positive effect on a majority of its citizens. An impossible goal to achieve, perhaps, but a better one to aim for than simply an every man for himself free-for-all.

There are more than a handful of credible theories about the origins and development of cities. At the core of each of them, however, is the inherent social nature of the human species. Push comes to shove, we basically like to hang out with each other. Arguably, we need to hang out with each other. Not everybody, of course. There will always be that one neighbour in the apartment above you who cannot get enough of Bon Jovi at top volume. Or the couple across the street who don’t think they have to clean up after their dog that makes a habit of pooping on your front lawn. But overall, we thrive and prosper with positive interconnectivity at all levels of our lives, and that is made much more possible when more of us have the opportunity at that positive interconnectivity.

That’s why 53% of eligible voters in Toronto didn’t vote for Rob Ford. Cities seldom flourish with short term solutions. Rob Ford is all about short term solutions appealing to our least likeable and most anti-social trait. What’s in it for me?

So, the upcoming battles that will be waged at City Hall won’t be fought along where you live lines although, clearly, the maps suggest they will be. No, it’s going to be about the overlap between what some think is best for themselves and what others see as being best for the city. Streetcars versus buses? Green initiatives? More cops at the expense of social services cuts? No longer mere campaign slogans, these are now items that very well may be put on the table for debate. You know, the whole ‘Vision Thing’ that was raised and summarily dismissed during the election race. An approach to city building that goes beyond the end of our own laneways, neighbourhoods and even outside ward boundaries.

That is the difference between trained urban citizens and city consumers. It isn’t just about my house or my bike lane. It’s our community, our roadway. A vital difference in the general well-being of any city, and one that must be overcome if this whole notion of an amalgamated Toronto is to work for everyone who chooses to call it home.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr


Vision Quest III

October 1, 2010

Now I don’t know if this’ll work the same magic as it did last week when we wrote about Sarah Thomson’s candidacy and a few days later – voila – she dropped out of the race. But here’s hoping…

Vision Quest III. Up this week, Rob Ford!

There’s really not much more that can be said about Councillor Rob Ford and the race he’s run so far that hasn’t been said over and over and over again already. It’s all so improbable. It’s built on misguided anger and faulty numbers. It makes sense only to those who’ve pledged blind loyalty to the wacky internal logic at its molten core.

(Wacky internal logic, you ask? OK, how about this. Increase councillor responsiveness to their constituents by cutting the number of councillors in half. Wait, what? Won’t that just double their workload and make it that much harder to serve their constituents? On the face of it, sure, but since there’ll be fewer council seats, the competition to get elected will be fiercer and, as anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Free Market 101 can tell you, tougher competition means only the fittest will survive. So, fewer council seats equals better councillors, all who’ll work harder which, and I’m not even sure the hardest core of Ford’s hardcore supporters have thought this thing as far through as this, it will also increase council’s diversity. How, you ask, again? Well, as Rob Ford is on record saying, the Orientals work like dogs. Such hard workers will make them more fit to be councillors. Under a Mayor Rob Ford and his smaller council, the Orientals will take over council! Two birds with one stone.)

That, in a nutshell, is how our mayoralty campaign has gone since Ford entered the race back in March. As we’ve written here frequently, regardless of the outcome on October 25th, Rob Ford has already won. Or at least, his cause can be declared victorious. His ceaseless harping on City Hall as out of control – bloated, profligate, corrupt, onerous on the citizens – has essentially salted the grounds around Nathan Phillips Square (concrete and all) and created a poisoned environment where every politician and bureaucrat can now be painted with the same unforgiving brush. In it only for themselves with their grubby little hands always in taxpayers’ pockets, demanding more from us and giving less back in return.

That there’s but a sliver of truth to any of that is entirely beside the point. Perception is everything, and as in most talking points emanating from the small government, libertarian leaning sect, simply repeating the same message over and over again at higher and higher decibels passes as truth or fact. It sure beats having to take the time to work through a coherent policy platform.

And why would they, for godssakes? Since the beginning of his run, Ford’s been amply rewarded for the discipline he’s shown staying on message. His lead in the polls is, at least in part, credited to delivering an easy-to-remember brand. Stop the Gravy Train! Cut Wasteful Spending! A War on Cars! (Credit for that should really go to Rocco Rossi but Ford’s it made his own.) It makes for great headlines and editorial chatter.

But just how difficult is that, I have to ask. We used to demand that high school students memorize the fucking periodic table of elements. Now, we’re applauding a man who wants to be mayor for his amazing ability to string the same five or six words together over-and-over again regardless of context or much, if any, meaning? Perhaps an admirable trait to posses in the advertising and marketing businesses but something short of desirable when looking for someone to oversee the nuances of governing a large city.

That’s the rub, of course, for Rob Ford and his ardent supporters. There is no nuance to governing a city big or small. Just fill the potholes, fix the streetlights, rid the roads of crime, bikes, streetcars, the homeless (see crime), festivals and marathons, and respond to every single inquiry and demand from every single voter that makes one. Outside of that, leave it up to the private sector to take care of all our other needs. Easy-peazy.

Aside from Europeans and their apologists, who wouldn’t want life and governance to work out just like that? Just like it was back in … the imaginations of those who actually believe there was such a time when all our needs were met, our taxes low and when we could keep our doors unlocked because crime is what happened somewhere else. That is, in a 1950s sitcom.

There has been some recent pushback to these simple minded sentiments. Since Ford became the presumptive favourite, his candidacy has come under more intense scrutiny. The results have not been pretty. His transit plan (or something approximating that) is a mess. Budget numbers don’t add up, with his proposed tax cuts leaving a large whole that he can’t fill without service cuts he’s refusing to divulge. His track record in council suggests that he has very few allies at City Hall which might render him ineffectual as mayor if he does get elected. Continued personal gaffes evoke images of Mel Lastman bringing unwanted international attention on the city.

Even the Toronto Sun has questioned the viability of a Rob Ford mayoralty. Sue­-Ann Levy took a powder and hiked on over to the Rocco Rossi camp. If a radical right wing candidate can’t even maintain the support of a radical right wing rag, is there the critical mass in place to be elected? Plenty of people remain angry out there at what they perceive to be our local government’s vast shortcomings but are there enough of them who will ignore their better instincts and put their ‘champion’ in place so he can take back City Hall for them?

That will be the question between now and October 25th.

quizzically submitted by Cityslikr