The Naked Untruth

I’m not going to lie to you, folks. It’s really and truly getting damn near impossible to come up with new and exciting ways to have this discussion. Concerns over kicking a dead horse, jumping the shark and all that. The trouble is, it just needs to keep being said. Over and over again in the hopes that finally somebody clicks and gets a big, bright idea. The proverbial lightbulb. A sudden gush of much needed and long awaited wisdom.

It always starts with the same question.

What is it with fucking right wingers and their refusal to deal with the truth? I’m not necessarily talking about outright lies although that plays an integral part of their everyday discourse. It’s the half truths and distortions of facts and figures that really do the trick. Dissembling, prevarication, misdirection and misleading statements. Their reliance on what Stephen Colbert dubbed ‘truthiness’. If it looks like the truth and quacks like the truth etc., etc.

Witness the Twitter exchange for the last couple days over the plan to remove bike lanes on Jarvis Street. On one side are those against the move. The other comes from Mayor Ford’s side of the fence offered up by Mark Towhey, the mayor’s director of policy and strategic planning.

From Towhey’s twitter feed (@towhey):

  • Actually, wrong. Staff report shows travel times are up by 1/3, ie 130% on average #justthefacts
  • Wrong, actually. Report says 2-3 mins is average over 8 hour survey period. Peak delay is much, much higher #justthefacts
  • But your argument was about environmental impact, not social activism. Even the lefties say you’re, in a word: wrong #sosad
  • Pembina Institute says Ford plan reduces more GHG and takes more cars off road compared to Transit City #topoli
  • When did TEA stop being about the environment and start being an NDP front group? Was it always?
  •  #justthefacts 94% of Jarvis commuters use cars not bikes. Commute times for cars have increased; 33% Gridlock costs T.O. $billions each year

It’s hard to know where to start. There are so many distortions, cherry picking of facts and misuse of statistics at work here that it reads like a lesson plan on How to Win an Unwinnable Argument. Mr. Towhey obviously isn’t interested in having a debate but, instead, wants to print off bumper sticker slogans.

The Pembina Institute report he makes reference to does indeed suggest that the mayor’s transit ‘plan’ would take more cars off the road and reduce more greenhouse gas emissions than Transit City. That is, once the Sheppard subway is built. You know, the mystical, magical subway that the mayor believes will appear if he claps hard enough. Otherwise, the plan such as it is now is simply Transit City with more of the Eglinton LRT buried underground minus the Sheppard and Finch LRTs which, according to the Pembina Institute will take fewer cars off the road and won’t reduce more greenhouse gas emissions than Transit City (not to mention serve less riders.)

Towhey also attempts to conflate the very real problem of congestion in the GTA with the bike lines on Jarvis. He does this by taking reports that traffic times along Jarvis Street during peak rush times have risen by 1 or 2 minutes since the bike lanes were installed and blowing them up to eye-popping but meaningless numbers. 33%! 130%!! The power of Big Numbers and False Analogies. Congestion is costing us money. Jarvis bike lanes are causing congestion. Therefore, bike lanes equal money lost.

He does all this with such condescending assuredness (“Wrong, actually.” “Actually, wrong.”), utilizing dismissive Twitter hashtags like #justthefacts, #wrongwayonJarvis and #neverwasaplan that any reasonable person would conclude that he couldn’t possibly be bullshitting. Only someone absolutely certain would state things so emphatically. But remember what the master of modern propaganda told us. It would never come into their heads [the people] to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.

For the Twitter uninitiated, you might be thinking that serious debate cannot occur in 140 characters. That’s true, but imagine Twitter as a delivery system for abstracts. Here’s a thought. Here’s a link. Let’s have a discussion.

Note how in none of Towhey’s tweets does he link to any of the data he’s citing. It’s all about flooding the social media with empty talking points that supporters can run with. Unlike someone like, say, Matt Elliott at Ford For Toronto. He tweets and links to reports and articles that explore issues fully, thereby making a deeper discussion possible. Read through just a couple of his takes on the Jarvis bike lane issues (here and here) and then let the debate begin.

But that’s the nub of the matter. Right wingers don’t won’t a serious debate. Why? My instinct tells me that, again citing Stephen Colbert, ‘reality has a liberal bias’. They can’t win on facts and figures. Their politics are based purely on ideology not reason or logic. So they must do what they do best. Fudge facts. Disfigure figures. Misstate. Misrepresent. Dissemble. Prevaricate.

So we charge into next weeks’ city council debate on the fate of the Jarvis Street bikelanes. An item that arose in stealth near the end of the last Public Works and Infrastructure Committee meeting when another lackey of the mayor’s, Councillor John Parker, sandbagged his colleague, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam whose ward the bike lanes are in, with the removal motion after the deputations about the wider bike plan had finished. No debate. No discussion. No transparency.

Mayor Ford said on the campaign trail last year, “It would be a waste of money to remove it if it’s already there, that is unless there was a huge public outcry in the area.” So, where’s the ‘huge public outcry’? Funny you should ask. Just this week the mayor stated that 70% of the phone calls he’s received have been in favour of removing the bike lanes. But as HiMY SYeD tweeted today, when he called to register his pro-bike lane view a staffer for the mayor informed him they weren’t keeping track of who called or their position on the matter. Where’s the mayor’s information coming from then?

Bringing us back full circle here. How do fight a phantom? If the old saying is true that ‘a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes’ (and that was pre-internet), how do we rein it back in? Do we start hitting back below the belt, fight fire with fire, and heap on layers and layers of bullshit? It seems counter-productive and, more disheartening, takes us further and further from the truth.

After all, that is what we’re trying to achieve, isn’t it. Arriving at the truth. At least, that’s what I was raised to believe.

reasonably submitted by Cityslikr

It Couldn’tve Worked Out Any Better

If he were alive today, think of what a proud papa Mike Harris would be of the municipal government in Toronto that he sired. Maybe he’s smiling down beatifically from Heaven upon his progeny and all the conservative goodness he helped wrought… Mike Harris is dead, right?

(Sorry. Can never passed up the opportunity to pilfer that bit from Stephen Colbert. A few years back, he joked about something that would have ‘Lou Dobbs rolling over in his grave.’ He then turned to ask his crew, ‘Dobbs is dead, right’?)

I was thinking of this as I read through an article Ben Bergen linked to from 1998. Megacity: Globalization and Governance in Toronto by Graham Todd in Studies in Political Economy. Of the many reasons the Harris Tories rammed through Bill 103 in the face of widespread opposition to it throughout the entire 6 cities facing amalgamation, one was particularly nefarious if highly speculative and largely restricted to the old city of Toronto and the borough of East York. It suggested that the neo-conservative Harris was looking to smother the more liberal downtown tendencies under a stuffed suburban pillow that was more closely aligned to his politics. Such thinking gained a degree of legitimacy when the mayor of North York, Mel Lastman, defeated Barbara Hall, Toronto’s final mayor, in the first election of the new megacity.

Now a third administration in and it’s interesting to note that the mayor and his most trusted advisor, Councillor Doug, are from Etobicoke. The Deputy Mayor is one Doug Holyday, the last mayor of pre-amalgamated Etobicoke. The Council Speaker is Frances Nunziata, the last mayor of pre-amalgamated York. The Executive Committee is made up entirely of suburban councillors save Cesar Palacio whose downtown ward butts up against suburban York. A certain pattern emerges regardless of how intentional.

Of course, if we want to dwell on the damage inflicted upon this city, both downtown and suburban, by the ill-thought out amalgamation, there would be worse examples than those currently at the helm. Not a whole lot worse, mind you. But most definitely worse.

To lay the blame for our current fiscal crisis solely on the profligacy of the Miller administration, to spuriously point to the big budgetary numbers that grew during his 7 years in office as even the moderate councillor, Josh Matlow, did on Newstalk 1010 last Sunday, as proof positive of waste and gravy at City Hall, is to suggest that only what happens in the last two years or so matter. It denies history, really, or at least, your grasp of it. Or it suggests you’re just an ideologue.

The provincial Tory view of the reduction of costs through an increase in efficiency with amalgamation was suspect to many from the very beginning of the exercise. (Enid Slack, current Director of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, wrote back in the early days of amalgamation: “It is highly unlikely, however, that the amalgamation will lead to cost savings. On the contrary, it is more likely that costs will increase.”) Most studies since have backed that view up.

In fact, how the Tories went about amalgamating flew in the face of the neo-liberal world view they were espousing. “Flexible forms of governance,” Todd writes, “it is thought, are more consistent with the reality of and necessity for competitive, export-oriented, knowledge-based, whiz-bang approaches to economic development.” So the Harris government replaced 6 smaller municipalities with 1 big, lumbering behemoth and claimed that it would be somehow more efficient? More cost effective? They seemed to have mistaken having fewer local governments for flexibility.

Or maybe they were just using a different definition of the word ‘flexible’. Todd suggests in the paper that unlike previous municipal governance reforms that had intended “…to consolidate the role of local government and the public sector in regulating development…”, the 1998 amalgamation was intended to do just the opposite. It was never about dollars and cents. That was simply a red herring to make the process more palatable. There was still going to be the same number of people demanding the same level of services whether they came from 6 governments or one. At some point of time, economies of scale simply don’t work.

It was all about control of how the city functioned. One government over a wider area was politically more pliable, flexible if you will, and easier to deal with than six. There were more differences of opinions, a wider area of dissension to exploit. Imaginary savings were offered up in exchange for the keys to City Halls. By the time we realized that, what were we going to do, de-amalgamate?

Add to this loss of local control and inevitable rise in costs of running a bigger city, there was that whole downloading/offloading of services onto Ontario municipalities by the provincial government. Cities told to cough up portions “… of provincially mandated social services such as social assistance, public health care, child care, homes for the aged, social housing, disability and drug benefits”. Some, I repeat some, of which have been uploaded back to the provincial government, slowly and on their time line. A $3.3 billion gap according to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario estimated back in 2007.

Of course let’s not forget the de-funding of their half of the TTC annual operating budget that the Harris Government undertook and that has never been reassumed by Dalton McGuinty. Call it $200 million/year that Toronto property taxes must come up with. Add to that the hundreds of millions of dollars foregone by Mel Lastman during his property tax freeze during his first term. A brilliant fiscal move copied by our new mayor on his first budget cycle, along with eliminating the vehicle registration tax and any other form of revenue generation the province had given the city with the City of Toronto Act. No, no. We don’t want that on our hands. We didn’t ask for that responsibility.

Instead, we’ll blame the last administration for our financial woes. We’ll blame the lazy unions and other special interest groups that are looking for handouts. The Gravy Train has stopped, haven’t you heard. The time has come to privatize anything that isn’t nailed down. Sell off lucrative assets too if we have to. Maybe even if we don’t. Everything is on the table.

Yeah, it’s hard not to view our new mayor as the inevitable outcome of decisions made nearly 15 years ago. The offspring, the love child of our former premier. Too bad Mr. Harris didn’t live long enough to see the success his political son had become.

condolencely submitted by Cityslikr

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. James

Or a tale of two Roysons.

Over the course of 12 days, the Toronto Star columnist wrote two pieces so diametrically dissimilar (with another one of surprisingly readable quality between them) that it’s almost as if there is at least two of him. If that’s the case, would the reasonable Royson James keep writing while the insufferable one… well frankly, I don’t care what he does as long as he stops contributing to the paper.

It was the best of James and the worst of James.

On January 12th, James’s column, TTC choking on its own success came across as, if not sympathetic, let’s call it understanding of the role ‘underused’ bus routes play in ‘city-building’. He was all over Councillor Maria Augimeri’s assertion that “the city is not a business…Rather, transit service is social service.” It’s not always about money when it comes to running a city. Is that what you’re suggesting, Mr. James?

Less than two weeks later, Royson had clearly spent some time in the lab, knocked back a concoction or two, and was singing a different tune. “How many of those 48 bus routes really need to go because ridership levels are woefully low and will always be unsustainable?” Wait, what? Remember when you talked about public transit as a ‘social service’, Mr. James? Now, it’s all ‘woefully low’, eternally ‘unsustainable’ ‘ridership levels’? We’re not asking for brilliance from you, sir, and even mere adequacy may be out of the question but how about just a little consistency?

That wasn’t even the worst of it. In a piece that could’ve come straight from the mayor’s media team, James paints all those who are standing in opposition to the proposed budget as ‘lefties’ merely bleeding ‘over “minor” cuts.’ Minor cuts? Like those 48 unsustainable bus routes with woefully low ridership levels that will merely affect only about 250,000 people (just under 10% of the city’s population) according to the TTC GM, Gary Webster? Where’s the dividing line between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ in terms of cuts, Royson? If not affecting 10% of Torontonians, what’s the number? 15% A quarter?

Worse still, not only does James label all the mayor’s opponents lefties but, to his eyes, they are only motivated by politics. Don’t believe him? “Council Shelley Carroll admits the strategy is to force the new administration to face up to every proposed cut, however small.” Then he goes on to read between the lines of what he’s quoted Councillor Carroll of admitting. “The unspoken message is: “We’ll fight you to the death on what you see as small cuts; so imagine the uproar next year when the real big cuts arrive.”” Neat trick, James employs there, putting in quotes something he imagines Carroll thinking so that it actually looks like the councillor said that out loud.

Even worser than all that (as if it could get much worse but it does), James shrugs off the effects of the proposed service cuts (bus routes excluded) as not ‘calamitous’ since ‘the truth on these services is so elusive.’ I says what?! The vacuity of that claim is as monumental as its callousness. Adding dismissive insult to that injury, James claims “… the city voted for a mayor who promised cuts, so many citizens are hunkering down, expecting a guillotine and thanking their stars that the damage isn’t worse.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Imma stop right there, Royson. You watched as many of the mayoral debates as I did, probably more. You must’ve heard our mayor, upon being pilloried by his opponents for having a hidden agenda of service cuts to meet all the tax cutting, Gravy Train stopping pledges he was making, guarantee there’d be no cuts. Guaranteed, Mr. James.

So no, ‘the city’ did not vote ‘for a mayor who promised cuts’. In fact, he promised just the opposite which makes him a lying sack of shit and you’re now covering for him, picking up the narrative of No Cuts, Guaranteed now becoming No Major Cuts, and anyone who opposes them as ‘lefties merely bleeding over minor cuts’. This just days after writing a moderately thoughtful piece about politicians (not just the lefties) playing, well, politics with the different service needs in different parts of the city. (h/t to @goldsbie for drawing attention to all three articles)

Is it just simply an example of Royson James attempting to be some sort of objective reporter? Never taking one side without responding in kind from the other regardless of an issue’s merit? Or has he just grown tired of the city beat, unable to muster the enthusiasm anymore to mount a sustained argument? He gets up in the morning and flips a coin to see who he’s going to heap derision on in his next column. Nothing more than a whole lot of tit for tat and he said, she said, contributing only unhelpful clutter to the ongoing civic dialogue.

Paraphrasing Stephen Colbert from the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, maybe you should take some time, Royson, finish that novel you’ve always wanted to write. The one about that intrepid newspaper columnist, covering City Hall for the country’s largest newspaper, keeping politicians honest, speaking truth to power and standing up for the little guy.

You know, fiction.

— plagiarizingly submitted by Cityslikr