Taxis, Uber, and how NOT to make decisions | #TOpoli

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So I had a chance to observe City Council this morning, consumed as it was by the Uber/taxi debate and the attendant seas of yellow and blue T-shirts.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m not taking sides on this. I haven’t followed it closely enough to craft an informed opinion, and I’m not particularly invested in either side, except to the extent that I want whatever emerges from the process to advance the public good. (For a particularly trenchant viewpoint, however, I’d recommend following Karen Geier on the Tweeter.)

That the Uber/taxi debate is controversial and complex isn’t news. It’s not going to be resolved here, or elsewhere on this site, or over the course of this council meeting. No, what I took away from this morning’s deliberations was more general: the importance of acknowledging and engaging with complexity.

Easier said than done, of course. The council chamber was filled to capacity (particularly notable were the yellow-shirted taxi partisans), and there was a sizeable overflow crowd in the city hall foyer. Every few minutes, a remark from the council floor would trigger a roar audible from downstairs. In a situation like that, it’s easy to just play to the galleries.

I don’t like clichés, but calling it a charged atmosphere seems fair. (As long as we’re talking about clichés, though, I’m told some smartypants suggested that we take a drink every time someone said “level playing field.” I thought I also heard someone say “skin in the game.”) It was particularly hard not to sympathize with Municipal Licensing/Standards Executive Director Tracey Cook, whose report on the city’s taxi industry formed part of the background for the deliberations. At one point, she responded to Frank DiGiorgio with a wry suggestion that if she’d had the crystal ball he was apparently demanding that she consult, she might have thought twice about taking the job. It wasn’t the only eyeroll-prompting question she had to field.

Indeed, one has to respect the demands public servants are required to meet. They have to balance impartiality with their professional obligation to deliver the best possible advice in helping their political masters make good decisions. When that has to take place in an atmosphere of hyper-partisanship and demagoguery … well, remember Gary Webster?

The complexities of the Uber/taxi debate need more room than I’ve got here, but among the factors councillors need to consider are:

  • insurance coverage
  • training (at one point, someone compared the 17-day training regime for taxis with Uber’s supposed requirement that prospective drivers watch a video)
  • distribution of income within the industry
  • ridership numbers
  • public safety
  • amounts of money involved
  • identification of stakeholders: drivers, operators, owners, brokers, passengers, other users of the roads and transit system
  • how best to enforce regulations
  • how to foster a workable business model in an industry badly in need of updating

And I’m not pretending for one second that this is a comprehensive list. The task for city council, with the assistance of Ms. Cook and her staff, is to find a balance among these competing interests, and craft a revised regulatory structure that achieves the greatest good for the greatest number. 

As an aside, it’s worth noting that while sound decisions should be based on the best possible information, that’s a particular challenge in this case. How much can we rely on data collection, and who collects the data? I drove a taxi in Toronto a couple of centuries ago, and while I’m sure technology has evolved, it’s hard to imagine how drivers are supposed to record, categorize and analyze data on top of everything else they’re doing.

Now contrast the insistence on hard data with more reliance on anecdotal, non-quantifiable, lived experience. It’s no less important, but it raises its own set of questions around whose experience gets taken into account and how much weight it’s given.

Again: I’m not taking sides on the Uber/taxi debate. But pretending they’re exactly the same thing, as was evident in one exchange between the current Chief Magistrate and his predecessor, displays a rather limited grasp of the complications inherent in making policy – and of one’s own responsibilities as an elected official.

Ultimately, things turn on your approach to governance. You can’t reduce things to wishful thinking, unsupported assumptions, or misleading comparisons, and you can’t just repeat slogans. Maybe it’s trite to repeat this, but: Public Policy Is Not Simple. Pretending otherwise does no one any favours.

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Taking notes 48: America’s new brutalism: the death of Sandra Bland

I’ve got nothing to add. #BlackLivesMatter

Philosophers for Change

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by Henry A. Giroux

On July 9, soon after Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman, moved to Texas from Naperville, Illinois to take a new job as a college outreach officer at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M, she was pulled over by the police for failing to signal while making a lane change. What followed has become all too common and illustrates the ever increasing rise in domestic terrorism in the United States. She was pulled out of the car by a police officer for allegedly becoming combative and pinned to the ground by two officers. A video obtained by ABC 7 of Bland’s arrest “doesn’t appear to show Bland being combative with officers but does show two officers on top of Bland.”[1]

In a second video released by the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas state trooper Brian Encinia becomes increasingly hostile toward Bland and very shortly the…

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Bloody well right, we need to tax and spend | #TOpoli #ThePublicGood

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“You’re bloody well right, we need to tax and spend. We’re living with the results of decades of NOT taxing and spending, and what have we got? Buses that don’t arrive. Chunks of the Gardiner falling on our heads. Crumbling infrastructure. Poisonous inequality. Epidemic levels of child poverty. It’s way past time we fixed this, instead of embracing the failed policies advanced by the austerity advocates and other mouthpieces for the far right.”

What I’d love to hear from progressive candidates, not just in the municipal arena, but almost any other context. Stop letting the flimflam artists of the Right use “tax and spend” as a smear. Things cost money. Taxes pay for things. Socialist, left-wing, progressive, whatever. Morans and poo-flingers can call it whatever names they want. A fella can dream.

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Top Ten Moments in Labour Relations (h/t @Buzzfeed)

Winnipeg General Strike, 1919

Winnipeg General Strike, 1919

Yeah, OK. So sometimes I go for the cheap clicks. Sue me. Who am I to argue with a successful formula?

Ben Hur – Row well, and live

Jack Hawkins susses out Chuck Heston in less than a minute — and then lays down the law. As the uppity employee, Chuck gets a quick lesson in shop-floor culture, and how to maintain his focus.

Ten Commandments – Blood makes poor mortar

Chuck had the chops. Here, as a manager, he displays a pragmatic approach to workplace conflict, and finds a way to combine compassionate leadership with efficient use of resources.

Blazing Saddles – Give us a song

It’s not clear whether this is a union shop, but as a de facto leader, Cleavon Little finds a way to motivate his comrades and keep up morale in the face of unenlightened and clueless managers.

On the Waterfront – John Friendly, come out of there

In spite of it all, I’ll allow that unions, even though they’re democratic institutions, can occasionally become unresponsive or fail to advance their members’ interests. Here, Marlon Brando and Lee J. Cobb demonstrate the proper way to hold union leadership to account.

Game of Thrones – It is done

Sooner or later, any workplace will have to adjust to new ownership and / or new management. Some adjustments are more successful than others; the key, always, is attitude and open-mindedness.

Mutiny on the Bounty – He’s been drinking sea water, sir

As this exchange between Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard illustrates, conflicts aren’t necessarily limited to management versus staff. Sometimes, the lines of communication between middle managers and executives become strained. While this may be an extreme example, it can happen in any workplace. (Also, judging from Trevor Howard’s smile, this company didn’t have much of a dental plan.)

Swimming with Sharks – You. Have. No. Brain.

As Kevin Spacey shows, effective managers take the time to ensure that new employees are properly oriented and understand their roles, and that the expectations of them are clearly spelled out.

A Christmas Carol – You’ll want the whole day off tomorrow, I suppose

Sometimes managers can be decent and compassionate of their own accord, but wouldn’t you rather not have to gamble on it? If it’s a choice between an organized workforce or visits from spirits, well, I know which way I’d go.

Glengarry Glen Ross – Third prize is you’re fired

Bullying. Intimidation. Unhealthy competition. Unrealistic performance expectations. A toxic work environment. Alec Baldwin may believe he’s got the key to motivating the staff here, but really, would you want this guy for a boss? Guy needs to dance with Bucky Dornster.

WKRP in Cincinnati – I’ll join the union if you can tell me where Jimmy Hoffa is

OK, I got nothing here. Les Nessman was always the intellectual heart of the show, and goddamnit, he’s got a point here.

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That time I went to the bike store | #BikeTO

Thanks, all, for your RTs and messages of support and commiseration.

This puts me in mind of the time I went to Urbane Cyclist a few years ago looking for a messenger bag. I was drooling over some of the brand new bikes and asked one of the staff about them, and he asked me what I was riding at the time.

I took him outside and showed him my Univega, and he asked me how long I’d had it. I can’t remember exactly, but it had been a few years.

“Is it working for you?” he asks.

Ya, sez I.

Bike store guy: “So keep it. It’s getting you around, it’s a nice ride, you’ve had it x number of years, and it doesn’t scream ‘steal me’ to thieves … ”

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Wikileaks welcomes the CIA to the Tweeter

Possibly the most epic burn ever.

Reviving #ThePublicGood, part 6: Government is not a business | #TOpoli #onpoli #cdnpoli

adam smith

One of the most persistent memes in the project of governance is the suggestion that government should be run like a business. Market and private-sector fetishists are nothing new, of course, and they’ve got big bucks behind them. I’ve cited the Fraser Institute previously, of course, so no need to focus on them any longer than absolutely necessary, but they’re hardly alone. There’s the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, and a whole suppurating cesspool of yargle-barglers dedicated to advancing the decomposing meme about Letting the Market Decide. (You’ll note I’m not providing links. Let ’em get their own clicks.)

Once again, let’s go back to first principles. What is A Market? Pardon me for recycling my own wankery, but:

A market is one of the many varieties of systems, institutions, procedures, social relations and infrastructures whereby parties engage in exchange. While parties may exchange goods and services by barter, most markets rely on sellers offering their goods or services (including labor) in exchange for money from buyers. It can be said that a market is the process by which the prices of goods and services are established.

We’ll just set aside, for now, the artificiality of the market as a social construct, never mind the hypocrisy displayed by so many market fundamentalists, and just focus on — yes, that’s right — the public good.

Markets may be good at some things. But, it says here, they’re not so shit-hot at meeting human needs, ensuring living wages and decent benefits, or functioning as the underpinnings of healthy communities. This shouldn’t be a surprise, really, when you consider some of the underlying assumptions — specifically those about rational self-interest, maximizing one’s own benefit, etc. Not to mention the assumption that private actors indulging their greed will inevitably produce the greatest good for the greatest number.

Again, let’s make our own biases clear.

When people place self-interest above all, ignore the rules of civilized behaviour, and don’t give a shit about anyone else, we call them sociopathic. When international investment vehicles and corporations act that way, they’re just maximizing shareholder value and reacting to “The Market.”

Not enough time or space to list here all the dislocations, upheaval, damage, and human cost of our inexplicable decades of deference to “The Market,” so let’s move on and ask why it is that its adherents seem to have such a chubby for The Private Sector.

Perhaps it can start with one of my favourite piles of Zombie Bullshit: the private sector is inherently more efficient because of the profit motive. Forget about evidence for a moment; let’s just unpack some of the assumptions in here: what do the market fundamentalists mean by efficiency? Is it a question of generating greater returns with fewer inputs? Or does it perhaps mean arbitrarily devaluing some of those inputs for ideological reasons? Human labour, for example?

Sure, you can max out your profit margin if you can get away with paying people next to nothing and treating them like shit. Make union organizers disappear the way they’ve been doing in Colombia. Use the TFW program to create a permanent disadvantaged and terrified underclass of people too frightened to assert their rights or stand up for themselves, and then piss all over Canadian citizens for lacking a proper work ethic.

Let’s be clear: the continuing private-sector fetish makes it easier to rationalize the reduction of human beings to mere economic inputs, easier to throw away like used kleenex when they’re no longer useful or profitable. Not that that has anything to do with certain special-interest groups’ (cough, CFIB, cough) hard-on for temporary foreign workers and hatred for unions. Or the so-called Right to Work legislation that Tim Hudak may or may not introduce in Ontario, depending on the breaks. Or the decades-long race to the bottom via so-called “free trade” and the voluntary surrender of myriad policy tools for the sake of “investor confidence.” The agenda is obvious — progressive enfeeblement and eventual destruction of the public sector, and the public sphere as such.

Once again, let’s exercise our critical-thinking skills. Who benefits from this? Let’s just set aside, for the moment, all the market-fundamentalist, private-sector-fetishizing cant, and ask ourselves: who’s profiting from all this? The people whose jobs are disappearing? The public sphere that’s increasingly stripped of resources? The communities left without the means to see to the needs of their citizens? The public infrastructure that’s being privatized and/or left to fall apart?

What if, ultimately, meeting human and community needs isn’t profitable? Should they just be blown off?

Again, back to basics. The function of government is not to make a profit, but to Cultivate the Public Good. It is there precisely because doing so is not profitable.

And this, more than anything, is why we must get the language of the business school out of the project of governance — it’s perversion. Infection, even. Remember the lesson about discourse and winning back the words? When we allow others to force us to think and talk in their terms, when we let them define the discursive turf, we’ve allowed them to capture and colonize the whole public sphere. We’re working with their alien ideas, their values, and their assumptions. It’s no wonder we’re at a disadvantage.

Well, fuck that. This is not the private sector. The language of business is utterly inappropriate for governance. Government is there to provide for human and community needs, not to make a profit or enhance the brand or service customers or generate shareholder value. The requirement that public agencies and offices should have to have a fucking “business plan” is an obscenity. If you like the private sector so much, then go back there and leave government to people who understand and are committed to its role in advancing the public good.

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