Beware The Man Bearing Bad Analogies

November 8, 2011

While we’re on the subject of specious budget debate claims… and as a matter of fact, we were. Just yesterday. What do you mean, you weren’t following along. I’m not in this to hear myself write, folks. What I’m doing I do for you. So please, if you wouldn’t mind…

Last week, the Toronto Star’s Royson James penned a little ditty about the boneheadedness of contemplating selling off a 10% piece of the Toronto Hydro pie. I’ll let him do the explaining his reasons in the article but something that caught my attention was a quote from the deputy mayor, ol’ trusty for a crazy quote, Councillor Doug Holyday. “If you’re going to lose your house, you have to sell your cottage.”

Ohhh, how I love tattered and broken down analogies that sound so full of homey wisdom and common sensical matter-of-factness at first blush yet disintegrate like old school vampires when a ray of reasoned sunlight shines upon them. Governments need to balance their books just like every household does. You see, taxes are like revenue, like when you get paid for a service you provide. Expenditures are like, well, expenditures. What you pay out for a service which has been provided to you. At the end of the month, these revenues must match expenditures, otherwise—

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Right wing, neoconservative, small government types who populate Mayor Ford’s administration love this trope. It’s so easy to understand. It’s the very definition of straight forward simplicity which should be the first sign that it’s also fundamentally, categorically wrong.

In June, over at Ford For Toronto, Matt Elliott took Budget Chief Del Grande to task for spouting similarly inane platitudes. “We are no different than any family in Toronto who spends more than we earn,” the budget chief told the National Post. “We need to get a second job. We would love to send our kids to camp, but it may not be the most nice camp. Or maybe the kids don’t go to camp at all.”

See, at a budgetary level, government is most definitely different from a family. A family is finite, let’s call it. Its budget plan must include a point of time in the distant future when the main revenue source dwindles. Known as retirement. Hopefully, there’s been enough savings done to bridge the gap between then and when the sweet embrace of death comes.

Governments, on the other hand, aren’t as terminal if one’s lucky enough to live in a relatively stable democratic tradition. Revenue and expenditure ebbs and flows but doesn’t end when one government is ‘retired’ through, say, electoral misfortune. So government budgeting is, in fact, quite different from household budgeting.

But even that comparison is superficial and not complete. As Mr. Elliott suggested, these analogies often only go part of the way. Budget Chief Del Grande suggests the city needs ‘to get a second job’. To which Elliott responds, “But last year the city did have a part-time job. It paid more than $60 million per year. [The VRT if you’re having trouble following along.] The city quit that job.”

The same line of reasoning goes with the deputy mayor’s selling the cottage analogy. What if the cottage is a revenue generating rental property? Instead of selling it off, you decide not to spend the summer at it and rent it out. The money you make can then be ploughed back into the payments you need in order to save the house.

Only if you were in absolutely desperate straits, and needed cash money right now to stave off foreclosure would you sell the cottage. Which is what Team Ford wants us to believe is the state of affairs in Toronto currently. There’s also a hint of entitlement, privilege and living beyond your means in the cottage reference. Bit off a little more than you could chew, irresponsible homeowner? Maybe you’re not up to owning two properties. You should try summer camp for the kids. But not too nice a summer camp, mind.

They hide behind these tired analogies to mask their real intentions. To sell off the city piece by piece and cut the government down to a more fitting size. Nothing more than keeping the streets clean and safe. Anything beyond that is simply gravy, an unaffordable second home that is well beyond our means.

It shifts responsibility from small-minded, self-serving meagreness of spirit onto supposed profligacy. Tough medicine meted out by sober, mature adults after a wild party thrown by teenagers. A claim that is so shop worn that it sullies the word ‘cliché’. It needs to be ignored at all costs.

tired and hackneyedly submitted by Cityslikr


Breakdown of An Executive Committee Breakdown

March 27, 2011

(In case you missed it earlier this week, we posted a piece over at Torontoist. Out of sheer laziness, we’re re-posting a truncated version of it here today. If you’re feeling equally as lazy, this one’s for you.)

* * *

If you’ve spent any time lately at city council and found yourself uninspired by the lack of substantive debate and partisan chest-beating (or bleating, depending on your view), may I suggest you take a pass on attending any Executive Committee meetings. At least watching the entire council at work in the chambers, Team Ford is diluted somewhat, usually triumphant in the end but at least put through its paces, challenged on almost equal footing by the opposition. But in committee room #1? The Executive is let off the leash, barely touched by ‘visiting’ councillors or deputants who hope to make any sort of impression upon them.

Made up of the mayor’s handpicked standing committee chairs, the executive committee acts as the official brain trust of an administration; the public face of Mayor Ford’s unofficial brain trust consisting of his councillor brother and staff. The Executive Committee basically preps the mayor’s agenda that will be presented at and bludgeoned through the next city council meeting. At Executive Committee motions are gussied up, some lipstick and rouge slapped on them in the form of minor amendments to make them look all pur-dy. Or sometimes, motions go there to die, killed by an indefinite referral.

This isn’t entirely surprising since the Executive Committee is essentially chosen by the mayor as his on field team. No one expects serious splits, divisions or close votes. That’s for council. This is how the mayor marshals his forces to try and advance his agenda.

But I don’t think I have seen a less incurious, less thoughtful or less intellectually rigorous group outside of a church. No one cared about input from those who took the time to attend the meeting and express their views. This administration seems to believe that the “people” spoke last October 25th and all this is now just an annoying distraction from the work that has to be done. They couldn’t even muster the pretense of listening. Twice as the meeting wound down, they had to stop after it was pointed out there wasn’t a quorum – 7 committee members – present. Once, during a discussion about how they were going to proceed with their Core Service Review! The nuts and bolts of governing. You know, the very essence of what a municipal government does.

Which should come as little surprise since the driving force of Mayor Ford’s Executive Committee seems to be the dismantling of the activist government of their immediate predecessor. A fancy way of saying, Stop the Gravy Train.

There are two reasons for that, I believe. One is pure ideology. Like the mayor himself, the active members of the Executive Committee, the ones who contribute more than simply casting a vote when they’re told, are hard core, tried and true, anti-government neo-conservatives. Barely 10 minutes would pass during the meeting when somebody wasn’t yammering on with trite bromides like ‘learning to live within our means’, ‘governments are just like households’ and respect for the taxpayer.

The second and equally applicable reason for the Ford administration’s anti-Miller sentiment is much more personal. It’s pure, bitter resentment at having been excluded and sidelined for the past 8 years or so. When various members of the Executive Committee aren’t talking of finding efficiencies and waste, they let it be known how badly they were treated by the Millerites, excluded or kicked off that board, ignored or ridiculed at that committee meeting. It’s like revenge of the nerds but in real life.

If true, I’m sure some of it was along partisan lines. Councillor David Shiner pointed out that he’d been turfed from the board of Toronto Hydro because he wasn’t supportive enough of green initiatives. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that.

But I’d also suggest that, with the possible exception of Councillors Shiner and Michael Thompson, the more I see of the Executive Committee, the more I’m convinced that most of them along with the chair of the committee, Mayor Ford, are lightweights. They bring very little to the table in terms of original ideas or well-developed thoughts. Those that do bother to express an opinion, rarely do so in any sort of rational or compelling manner. They’re too busy checking off the list of grievances at previous slights.

None embody this bubbling cauldron of spiteful, inchoate animosity better than the Budget Chief, Mike Del Grande. Hectoring and disagreeable, the councillor from Scarborough is equal parts know-it-all and I-told-you-so. He lectures rather than asks questions. Berates not debates. He re-configures his opponents’ arguments into ones better suited for him to deride and dismiss. At one point of time during Monday’s meetiong, the councillor told a skin-crawlingly personal story of paying the way for his university aged daughter and how under his roof it was his rules and he who holds the purse strings… Oh my god, the poor woman!

The truly galling aspect of this, though, is Councillor Del Grande’s temerity to lecture others about the value of money. Here’s a guy, always boasting of his chartered accountant credentials and how he understands that you can’t spend more than you have, revenues must match expenditures, and yet he was all onboard cutting the VRT and freezing property taxes thereby denying the city millions and millions of dollars? With a straight face he demands our respect for him as a sound fiscal manager?

This Executive Committee is the ugly manifestation of the Ford Nation. Like a jilted lover, it has seized control, determined to prove its worth. It brooks no dissent and counters any disagreement or outside opinion with vitriol and contempt. Retribution not reconciliation is its agenda. This is the heart of an administration that has more interest in getting even than it does in governing.

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr


More Thoughts On Presto

July 27, 2010

Just a follow up on yesterday’s post here re: the Presto smart card and the resulting pissing match between the province and city.

In our comments section, a reader pointed out that a Mr. Tony Gaffney sits on the board of directors of the Toronto Board of Trade whose press release last week precipitated an ensuing war of words between the Minister of Transportation, Kathleen Wynne, and TTC chair, Adam Giambrone. The province wants the TTC to cease shopping around for an alternative or complementary form of payment for transit use outside of the Presto card that is already in use throughout the GTA and several TTC subway stations. The above mentioned Tony Gaffney’s day job is Managing Partner at Accenture, the company behind the Presto smart card.

Now, we are not suggesting that there’s anything untoward in this set up. Given the make up of the BOT’s board of directors – from banking and financial services to telecommunications and computer technology – private sector/public sector overlap just comes with the territory. But the vigorousness with which the Board of Trade pushes a product that is operated by one of its board of directors should be treated as not entirely unbiased. Rather than a dispassionate, objective analysis, it is the opinion of a special interest group and needs to be viewed as such. One of many, opinionated points of view that get bandied about during policy making debates. The democratic process at work.

That mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi so wholeheartedly embraces the Board of Trade’s view on this issue and has been slavish in his praise of the Presto card is what’s truly disturbing and unsettling to us. Yes, yes. His campaign has been built almost exclusively on a platform of discrediting the Miller Administration and anyone involved in it to generate a groundswell of anti-incumbent feeling in the electorate. This contretemps between the province and the TTC is simply just another hammer to use in his arsenal. George Smitherman did likewise.

But for Rossi it’s also another display of what seems to us to be his corporatist agenda. (Lifted directly off  his website: “Rossi is the only candidate with an extensive career as an executive in large corporations…”.) From his desire to sell off whatever he can of Toronto Hydro to contracting out city services, Rossi seems all about putting business before people. Presto may in fact turn out to be the best system of automated fare payment for the TTC and the GTA. There just seems to be some serious questions about that and Rocco Rossi might be better served garnering some of his information on the issue from the likes of an outside observer like Steve Munro and not exclusively from those with vested interest in the outcome like Toronto’s Board of Trade.

Otherwise, it just looks like Rossi’s running to be CEO of Toronto rather than its mayor.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr


China Bound

May 9, 2010

We didn’t want to spring it on you like this but there just wasn’t a good time to tell you. If it wasn’t yet another boffo gaffe of Rob Ford’s to talk about or the province flipping us the bird again, there was always Rocco Rossi lurching around, making completely inane policy statements that inevitably ended with him selling Toronto Hydro. What exactly does the guy have against Toronto Hydro anyway that he wants to unload it so badly?

To cut to the chase, we’re off to China today.

I know, I know. It sounds exotic but in these days of air travel? We’re there, we’re back before you can say Chiang Kai-shek (although I do realize that’s a name we won’t be saying out loud while we’re there). It’s not like the old days when there was only a slow boat to China. Direct flight, 13 hours or so, Toronto-Shanghai.

Pure research, you understand. Officially entitled the Asian Urban Experience. We prefer the acronym, A. U. E. Sounds a little more weighty and less like some world beat musical group.

The downside of all this, however, is that only two of us are able to make the trip. Seems a certain someone had a Tibetan  incident and is now considered by the Chinese authorities to be persona non grata (unsure how that’s written in Mandarin. Or Cantonese for that matter. Or do they use the same script but different pronunciation? We really have to break out our Lonely Planet China guide sometime soon.) We’re leaving Acaphlegmic holding down the fort, is what we’re saying.

This fills us with as much dread as it does you, I imagine. Irresponsible doesn’t even begin to cover it! Who do you know that’s had a ‘Tibetan  incident’?

He frequently… OK… invariably blows past deadlines. We’re always editing… OK… writing his posts. Truth be told, we’re not even sure he knows how to turn on the computer. Yet, who else are we going to turn to to keep you apprised of all that is political in Toronto? We’ve asked… OK… begged, pleaded, supplicated ourselves at the feet of our superiors for them to fill in and post on our site only to be rebuffed by the cruelest cut of all. Do I know you?

So, it may be slim pickens from us here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke for the next 10 days or so. Oh, we’ll make sure that the regular Friday Meet A Mayoral Candidate post appears but aside from that, it’s tough to tell. There may be free and easy access to the outside world or maybe not. We tend to expect the worst and then we’re rarely ever disappointed and find ourselves very pleasantly surprised every now and then. I think that’s how Confucius instructed us on how to live our lives happily.

Whatever happens, things will be back to normal here around Victoria Day weekend. Regardless of the profound experience we may be undergoing in China, it’s not like they know how to party come May 2-4 weekend! After all, we reserved our spot at Wasaga Beach, like, back in January.

non-Occidentally submitted by Cityslikr


Rocco Rossi Goes Underground

May 5, 2010

So now Rocco Rossi’s going to build us subways. Two kilometers of track and one stop per year for the next ten years. Once we get that albatross Toronto Hydro from around our necks, the world will be our oyster! Get cheque. Go to the bank. Pay off debt. And the money will start rolling in.

Monetization of public assets. It’s so simple that it’s amazing no one else has ever thought of that before.

Oh, wait. They have. Margaret Thatcher. Ronald Reagan’s President’s Commission on Privatization in 1987. Our very own Mike Harris. Remember the 407? (Hey! There’s a snappy campaign catch phrase. Remember the 407! Reminiscent of the defiant battle cry, Remember the Alamo! It’s open for public use. Maybe you want to use it, Councillor Pantalone. A little bump to help you step up and get involved in the conversation.) How about the recent long term lease deal/debacle in Chicago where they outsourced the revenue for parking meters and lots into private hands?

What I’d like to know before we go all weak in the knees over Mr. Rossi’s plan to trade Toronto Hydro for subways is does it make an economic sense? With more than a few substantive examples of privatization plans gone awry, where are the positive illustrations of asset monetization? One? Any? I’m all ears here.

Even in the Fraser Institute’s call to privatization arms, the to-the-point article entitled Time to privatize, there’s talk of the tremendous benefits of “sweeping privatization” backed by overwhelming research in academic literature. The results have shown that privatized firms increased profitability, efficiency and dividends while reducing debt ratios. OK, but what about any benefits to the public purse? What does the public gain from monetizing assets?

Errr… well, a better run, more profitable company will help increase economic growth overall. More money, more tax revenue. So we’re counting on that old trickle down theory that conservative groups like the Fraser Institute love so much. There’s also the possibility of an increased amount of capital investment which would also stimulate overall economic growth, taking us back to trickle down again.

There seems to be a much more robust argument against privatization coming from people like Dexter Whitfield and the Municipal Services Project. Mr. Whitfield summarizes the crux of his recent book, Global Auction of Public Assets: Public Sector Alternatives to the Infrastructure Market and Public Private Partnerships, in a post at Truthout. His view seems to be that the public is better served by directly investing in infrastructure without relying on the private sector. Real life examples seem to back his argument up.

Examining Mr. Rossi’s plan specifically, things just don’t seem to add up. If I understand correctly, the city of Toronto garners more equity annually from it’s ownership of Toronto Hydro than it spends on servicing the debt. In selling Toronto Hydro, we pay down some of the debt thereby decreasing the amount of interest we pay per year. But after the one time payday, we get no further revenue from Toronto Hydro. So unless Mr. Rossi plans on paying off the debt entirely, we’re still in a negative cash flow situation as opposed to a slightly positive one if we keep revenue coming in from our ownership of Toronto Hydro.

And he plans to build 2 kilometres of subway track and one station per year at roughly $200-300 million a pop? How? Where’s the money going to come from?

Yet this announcement was made to great fanfare yesterday morning. What has Rocco Rossi done to earn himself such a free ride? Serious candidates should have serious plans not simply the hocus-pocus of you want subways? I’ll give you subways. Just don’t look behind the curtain.

Rossi’s announcement is the latest in a trend from our conservative candidates of shameless pandering that was best summed up in the Tweet-o-sphere yesterday by Graphic Matt. Look at me! I’m a right-wing candidate for Mayor of Toronto. Here is my proposal: subways! Here is how I will pay for them: magic!

— head scratchingly submitted by Cityslikr


Selling The Crown Jewels

March 11, 2010

What’s with our politicians lately and their hell bent determination to sell off the proverbial farm? Is it something in the water (publicly owned, for now) they’re drinking? First, mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi made divesting the city of Toronto Hydro a major plank in his campaign platform. His main rival, George Smitherman, has slowly come round to a similar way of thinking.

Now the provincial government has been pondering aloud thoughts of unloading such assets as Hydro One, OLG and the LCBO. While putting nothing on the table in the immediate future, the government has hired a couple investment banks including — wait for it, wait for it — Goldman Sachs to assess the worth of a proposed super Crown corporation, bits of which could be sold off to private hands in an attempt to “monetize public assets” and “unleash” an economic jolt to the economy. Colour me unimpressed because I smell a big steaming pile of panic in this approach.

Didn’t we just undergo about 18 months or so of near economic calamity followed by a present recovery that is robust only in its anemia? All but the most hardcore Milton Friedmaniacs should have no trouble with governments carrying a debt load as result of keeping the economy and vulnerable citizens afloat during such harsh economic times. And frankly, why anybody would be listening to anyone touting Milton Friedman tinged views after their healthy contribution to the recent financial fiasco is beyond me. The acolytes of Milton Friedman should still be silent with embarrassment.

Maybe if I could find a single unqualified example of a government being well served by a one time sale of a public asset, I’d be more open to the concept. Proponents hail the leasing last February of Chicago parking meters for the $1.2 billion dollars it netted the city. Yet within a month, problems arose with price hikes, bad maintenance and no public accountability (read all about at theexpiredmeter.com) and for the next 75 years, the money paid for parking at meters in Chicago will go directly into private hands instead of the public purse.

And this is cited as an example of a good deal by pro-privateers. Let’s not even bring up our provincial government’s 99 year “lease” agreement of the 407 toll road back in 1999. For me, a public sale of assets inevitably amounts to nothing short of a public fleecing.

I’m no economist but the selling of public assets just doesn’t make in any sense. If an asset is worth something and by that I mean it generates revenue, why sell it? If an asset doesn’t generate revenue, who wants to buy it? And if the asset in question is a public utility? Well that’s a non-starter. Society cannot be well served by placing public utilities into private hands.

Yet here we are once more with a government in power, facing a looming election and an ugly looking bottom line. Short term thinking holds sway. Hawk the public wares, pay down the debt and declare your fiscal prudence. Pay no attention to the revenue stream that ceases to flow into government coffers. The next time a crisis arises (and in the boom and bust economy we embrace, there will always be another crisis), we’ll just auction off another asset. That is, of course, if there’s anything left to sell.

But just for a moment, how be we try thinking outside the privatization box? What about instead of selling off, say, the LCBO for a single cash grab that we’ll never have access to again, we impose a twenty-five cent tax on every bottle of intoxicant purchased and dedicate it solely to lowering the debt? Drink Down the Deficit®™©, we’ll call it. When things are back under control, we rescind the tax?

Fuck that. If things are so dire that we’re actually contemplating the sheer stupidity of selling off money making enterprises, levy a buck a bottle at the LCOB and two bucks a square at the Beer Store. Yes, it’s regressive and we’re piling the debt load onto the backs of those who can least afford it but if we’re being truthful about the matter, we’re doing the same thing by selling off cash cow Crown corporations. It just simply delays the inevitable.

As an imbibing enthusiast, I will happily pay more for the privilege of the tipple knowing that the money is going toward deficit reduction rather than into the pockets of the vultures who are greedily circling the body politic. In fact, I will consider it my patriotic duty to up my consumption of alcoholic beverages and do my part in slaying the deficit dragon. Let us raise multiple glasses to the health of the commonweal.

Chin, chin.

soberly submitted by Cityslikr