Getting past the ‘War on the Car’ | #TOpoli #ClimateChange

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(This grew out of a Facebook discussion with the divine Septembre Anderson, so it’ll be a little abrupt. Indulge me. Tips of the chapeau are also due to Rosalind Robertson, Breeyn McCarney, and Daniel Cowans.)

A lot of this is boilerplate, and it’s already been tackled by folks like Daren Foster and Ed Keenan, but what the hey. I’d also recommend a necessary and illuminating piece by the indispensible Steve Munro, who’s forgotten more about transit than I’ll ever know.

The context was a juxtaposition of revenue from city recreational programs, and a proposal that those programs should be free, and the loss of municipal revenue from the Vehicle Registration Tax, regularly caricatured as part of the Leftie Downtown Elitist War on the Car. This isn’t really intended to get into the specifics of that; it’s more of a step back, let’s look at the big picture and try and see this in historical context (oh Christ, there he goes again — ed.) kind of thing.

Anyway, someone on Septembre’s FB feed was talking about the way we “penalize” car owners whenever the city needs revenue. I jumped on it, perhaps a little more intemperately than I might have:

The idea that you’re being “penalized” by having to pay a tax is where the debunking begins. I’d suggest a review of Alex Himelfarb‘s Tax is Not a Four Letter Word for starters. And if you do something as fundamentally self-centred, anti-social and environmentally destructive as driving a private automobile on a regular basis, then quite frankly I don’t have a problem with you being required to pony up more …

I’ve never met a group of people more obsessed with their own privilege — and less willing to acknowledge it — than motorists. Their sense of entitlement to absolute primacy on the roads is boundless. I don’t care about other users, and why do I have to stop for that goddamn streetcar, and get the fuck out of my way cyclists because I just wanna go wherever the fuck I want as fast as I can. And it’s my god-given right to park my private car directly in front of my destination, as opposed to actually having to walk a block or two from a bus stop or something. Angry, aggressive, impatient, and selfish. Ford is just an extreme and grotesque example.

Bluntly, I’m out of patience. Don’t like gridlock? Don’t like road tolls? Don’t like scrambling for parking spots (which are also heavily subsidized, BTW)? Get out of your fucking car and take transit. Or ride a bike. Honestly, just stop whining and grow up.

The discussion continued, with the same participant arguing, not without justification, that he couldn’t rely on public transit to get where he needed to go in a timely manner. He also complained, again with some reason, about the wasted time and lost productivity due to service interruptions, overcrowding, poor service, and all the other problems besetting public transit in Toronto. (I’m paraphrasing, and in truth, it would be fairer for me to allow him to speak for himself, so in that regard, if he wants to respond here, I’ll commit to publishing whatever he wants to say, unedited, at as much length as he wants.)

At any rate, that prompted this additional outburst of sanctimonious wankery:

… if you find public transit inefficient, perhaps you should work to improve it, and support public initiatives that will do the same. (Ruinously wasteful subways that will never justify themselves in terms of ridership might be a good place to start.) Honestly, where is it written that public transit has to be slow, inefficient, dirty, overcrowded, poorly maintained and unreliable? It doesn’t have to be that way at all. There are jurisdictions all over the globe where a well-maintained and functional public transit system is recognized as the Public Good that it is, and in fact it’s the preferred method of getting around. Private cars are well down the list.

Now, I’ll grant you that it’s not necessarily the best or fastest way to get around in the GTA. It’s no secret that our current urban form has been built around private automobiles: large highways, single-family homes on large lots, huge malls with large parking lots, low population density have all combined to make public transit very difficult to operate efficiently. And we’ve structured our lives and jobs and communities accordingly. You drive to work, you drive the kids to school or daycare, you drive to the mall to get groceries, you shlep all your stuff around in a car. It’s just the way it is.

Problem being, that’s simply not sustainable. I don’t need to get into greenhouse gases or climate change or emissions control; suffice it to say that our addiction to private automobiles is one of the biggest sources of smog and air pollution in North America, so there’s the impact on health and productivity to consider, never mind the environmental impact. Factor in the advent of peak oil and it becomes clear: we simply can’t structure our cities and our lives around cheap gasoline and abundant energy and inefficient land use any more. Sadly, we’re stuck with infrastructure and urban form that’s built around that, so it makes efficient and low-impact transit that much harder to achieve. But that also makes it that much more imperative. It’s not a question of cars being evil so much as a recognition that reliance on them as the primary means of getting around simply doesn’t work any more. And part of fixing that includes getting motorists to assume a greater share of the costs they’ve been offloading onto the rest of us. Whether you want to admit it or not, private automobiles are subsidized up the yingyang. As those subsidies are phased out, more and more people will make the rational economic choice of opting for other ways of getting around.

What I’ve impatiently characterized as selfishness and entitlement on the part of motorists, in that context, has to be seen for what it is: privileged distress. When you have a group of people who’ve enjoyed preferential treatment for so long that they’ve come to see it as the natural order of things, they’re going to see any revisiting of the arrangement as an attack on themselves. Suddenly they’ve become victims. It’s like MRAs who see feminism as a giant conspiracy to attack men, or bigots who whine about Political Correctness. It’s where you get idiotic memes like the “War On The Car.”

And so on. Again, nothing that hasn’t already been said, previously and more eloquently, by better people than me, but given the way things are likely to be framed over the next twelve months, worth emphasizing.

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Maturity, citizenship, @jerryagar1010 and more on the "all taxes are evil" theme | #onpoli

At first glance, this might seem at odds with my resolve not to engage with trolls. But in fairness, I haven’t really paid that much attention to him, so it’s not really fair to assume that this guy’s a troll. Benefit of the doubt and all that.

So, first principles, Jerry. Let’s unpack some of your assumptions. Please — explain to us exactly what’s wrong with using “taxes and tolls in order to pay for government,” and how embracing the idea demonstrates a lack of creativity? And just what is it “not an answer” to?

Y’see, I’ve always viewed community and society as a means for people to pool their resources and work together to do things they can’t do individually. That’s how we manage to have nice things like roads, hospitals, fire departments, libraries, schools, police services, water treatment, public sanitation, electricity, public health, recreation centres, transit systems, and public spaces. Maybe you think of it as the “nanny state.” I’ve always thought of it as “infrastructure.” (I dunno, maybe it just sounds better.)

And maybe I’m just naive, but isn’t that supposed to be the natural function of government? It raises revenues and gathers resources via various forms of taxation, and then it allocates those resources in accordance with publicly determined priorities. We get a say in that determination by voting and by talking to our democratically elected representatives and public officials. Am I missing something here? You make it sound as if there’s something inherently wrong with that.

Now, not to dump all this on Jerry, but isn’t that the problem at the heart of all the “tax-and-spend” rhetoric? And in a larger sense, with a one-dimensional viewpoint that sees people only as “taxpayers” rather than as “citizens?” Isn’t there something a little suspect about a worldview which reduces our relationship with society (and by extension, with each other) to robbery? If you consistently view government as an inefficient and malevolent force that just steals your hard-earned money, then aren’t you just setting yourself up for a lifetime of resentment and victimization?

It’s OK, you don’t have to answer right away. Let’s move on. You were talking about creativity, I think. So tell me, since you don’t like taxes and tolls, what’s your creative solution to paying for public infrastructure?

Lotteries?

Casinos?

Private investors?

PPPs?

Geez, I’m ready to smack myself in the forehead. How come nobody’s ever thought of those things before?

Back to the “adult conversation” theme. I’m all for creative solutions, and reasonable discussions about what government should be doing, and how it should go about it. But simplistic repetition of slogans like “taxing us to death” and “nanny state” and “government monopolies” strikes me as … childish.

(h/t @cityslikr, @kvonbling, @trishhennessy and @VassB)

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@Cityslikr, @NickKouvalis, and more on controlling the narrative: the runup to 2014 | #TOpoli

Li-ford-car

Well, another week, another messy and avoidable scandal in Ford’s Toronto. 

The whole reading-while-driving thing is getting tired by now, of course. Yeah, it was fun (in the way that only reckless endangerment of others can be fun), but it was also predictable, and while it’s pretty easy to follow the arc these things take, way things are going, there’s sure to be another embarrassment before long. 

I’ve been meaning to set this out for several days, ever since an impromptu late-night beer with Daren prompted a couple of synaptic twitches. A couple of events have brought things into what passes for sharper focus among guys our age in the interim, so … a few observations on the state of politics in Toronto, circa late summer 2012.

The advent of private waste collection west of Yonge Street earlier this month brought one of Daren’s typically trenchant and well-written observations: in short, he argues that Rob Ford’s political future depends, in large part, on garbage. Amid much smirking and triumphalist chicken-dancing from some of Ford Nation’s er, “brighter lights,” Team Ford has delivered a giant FU to the city unions, following through on one of the currents of resentment it tapped in its successful election campaign in the fall of 2010. Take that, lazy overpaid socialist union thugs! End of the line for this gravy train!

While this provides an undeniable emotional jones for the union-haters, the jury’s still out on whether it’ll amount to more effective and efficient delivery of service, and in a larger sense, whether it will play out in terms of better overall municipal governance. That the private operator’s had some settling-in difficulties is a matter of record; Daren argues, quite reasonably, that while it’s only fair to cut GFL a little slack, Team Ford’s success will be judged, in large part, on whether the contracting out actually saves millions of dollars without any reductions in service. This is what Rob Ford ran on, after all. 

We’ve been told, guaranteed actually, that the contracting out of waste collection to Green For Life will save us $11 million annually with no reduction in the service provided. That is the benchmark privatizing proponents gave us. That is the goal that must be met. I will argue that the mayor’s ‘mandate’ depends on it.

The Tweetr (that is what the young folk are calling it these days, yes?) being what it is, it wasn’t long before a lively discussion ensued. A full and frank exchange of views, I think they call it. My respect for the people involved is also a matter of record, but part of what prompted the segue from that to this was the participation of our friend Nick Kouvalis.

Full disclosure here: notwithstanding the way he’s regarded in some circles at City Hall, my thinking is pretty similar to Daren’s when it comes to Nick. As Daren puts it:

Although I’ve never actually met Nick Kouvalis and, in all likelihood, oppose almost everything he purports to stand for in terms of governance, I think I just might admire like fear… what’s the word, I’m looking for here?… respect? Hmmm. Grudgingly respect him? OK. He’s a guy I’d like to sit down and have a beer and shoot the shit with. What’s the word for that?

What Daren said. Dude passes my beer test too. The guy’s good at what he does, if you define success in terms of electoral results (more on that in a minute). We don’t have to like or agree with what he does, but he’s got insights we can learn from, and I’ll say this for him: on the occasions I’ve engaged with him, he’s answered directly and candidly. Whatever else I may think of him, I have to acknowledge the straight answer instead of the bullshit smokescreen. 

Again: disagree with the man, but respect his effectiveness and don’t let the disagreement turn into scorched-earth hatred. (That may say more about my bourgeois naiveté — er, my lingering nostalgia for civility and old-style conservatism — than it does about anything else, but let’s leave that be for now.)

And as we all know, Nick ran an effective and successful 2010 campaign for Team Ford. I’ve argued, however, that the municipal election of 2010 marked one of the lowest points in the history of Toronto politics, in large part because of Team Ford’s success in establishing a dominant narrative of resentment, pessimism, shallow thinking and belligerent divisiveness. The city’s falling apart. Lazy unionized workers with their culture of entitlement and jobs for life. Waste, inefficiency and gravy trains. Downtown elitists sneering at the hardworking suburban taxpayers. War on the Car. Time to blow up City Hall and start over.

I said a couple of sentences ago that Nick’s good at what he does. What he’s done, unfortunately, has diminished us as a city and as a community. The ascendancy of Team Ford has lowered the tone of public conversation, poured sand in the mechanisms of governance and devalued the currency of citizenship. We’ve been paying the price ever since, in both the regular mayoral embarrassments and the continuing day-to-day fraying of the social fabric. I’ve never tried to hide my thinking on that

One of the fundamental themes here, both in the context of this essay and a larger overarching analysis of Team Ford’s tenure, is the difference between campaigning and governing. Once again, campaigning isn’t about nuance, but about framing your message, delivering it effectively, and mobilizing the vote in the run-up to election day. And there’s no denying the impact of simple, emotionally resonant messaging; a lot of people thought the idea of Mayor Rob Ford was a joke, but here we are.

When it comes to governance, however, simplicity and catchphrases have to give way to reflection, analysis, and critical thinking. Interests have to be balanced, stakeholders identified, objectives defined, and resources allocated in a way that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s complicated. It’s not as easy as repeating bumper-sticker slogans like “Respect for Taxpayers.”

So here’s one of the fundamental themes for 2014: The Difference Between Campaigning and Governing.

And here, too, is one of the yardsticks whereby Team Ford’s performance will be judged come Campaign 2014. Have they delivered effective governance? Have they managed a coherent and co-ordinated operation of public institutions? Have they demonstrated the ability to work the system efficiently and collegially? This is where Nick’s record, and his own words, become particularly relevant.

Another question that will define Campaign 2014, then: Effective Governance.

Whether the current municipal structures are designed for optimal delivery of services is a larger question than we have room for here. (In that regard, though, it’s worth revisiting a couple of compelling arguments from J.M. McGrath and Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler.) We needn’t resolve that question, however, to observe that a large part of effective governance, within the current context, is the ability to build coalitions, to bring people on board your team, and to work collaboratively. In short, it’s about negotiating, persuading folks to buy in, building support, and Getting Along With People.

Well then. Anyone want to try charting Team Ford’s record in that regard over the last couple of years? Anyone want to lay odds on the mayor’s chances of success in advancing his agenda over the next couple of years? You can look at big things like transit or little things like plastic bags, but the pattern’s pretty clear; Team Ford’s control of city council is tenuous to non-existent. And if you’re going to claim operational competency in municipal governance, you need to be able to work with council. It’s part of the job. 

Whatever you may think of them, it’s something both David Miller and Mel Lastman were able to do. Contrast that with Team Ford’s performance. Once again, back to Nick:

To Nick’s credit, he doesn’t try to dissemble or hide this. In it to win. Take no prisoners. I’m here to get things done, not make friends. No substitute for victory. From there it’s not that far to the end justifies the means. Maybe there are aspects of this I’m not seeing, but it’s hard to reconcile an approach like this with effective team-building. In effect, it’s almost guaranteed to kneecap the mayor’s ability to build coalitions — never one of Rob Ford’s strong points to begin with

Another overarching theme for 2014, then: Working With Council.

Team Ford’s strategy in that regard, predictably, hasn’t been that encouraging. In fairness, this isn’t about Nick; I’ve listened to enough iterations of the #FoBroSho on Sunday afternoons to recognize one of their consistent memes. Every week, it seems, Rob and Doug go on about getting different councillors in 2014, setting up a lame excuse for their own inability to bring people onside. “Sorry folks, we know we haven’t gotten any subways built, but it’s not our fault. Those people on council won’t work with us!” You can see the same impulse at work when Doug Holyday tells us not to send any more activists, unionists, or cyclists to City Hall.

I hate to get all Donald Rumsfeld here, but you work with the council you’ve got, not the council you wish you had. If you can’t do that, you’re not a successful mayor. It’s part of the job. Building consensus, putting together a team, fashioning a majority to help you implement as much of your agenda as you can. Miller did it. Mel did it. You don’t get to alienate everyone, spend the next two and a half years sulking on your radio show, and then campaign on the basis of divisiveness, resentment, and “just send me a bunch of different councillors.”

From a pragmatic point of view, folks like Daren and Adam and Hamutal Dotan are right: if you can cobble together a coalition of 23 councillors, then the mayor doesn’t matter. As the events of the past year have shown, the councillors we’ve got are quite capable of controlling the agenda and governing around the mayor if they have to. It’s not ideal, and as John points out, it raises questions about competing mandates, but it is workable. 

On the other hand, Ed Keenan’s argued, persuasively, that the mayor’s record of gaffes has consumed far too much energy, focus and attention. In the wake of the Danzig shootings, for instance, Ed wrote:

With his customary bravado, the mayor proclaimed on Monday, “I’m taking a very simplistic approach.” That is the problem, I’d suggest. And so instead of discussing these very complicated issues, we’re spending time discussing the mayor’s inadequacy. What a load of BS.

Much as we might wish it were different, Ed’s got a point. Instead of chuckling about Rob Ford being in over his head or toying with the bright lights of Ford Nation on Twitter, we could be doing something constructive. Are we enhancing civic life? Are we strengthening the bonds of community? Or are we arguing about stupid shit?

So there’s one more possible storyline in the run-up to 2014: The Focus of Public Conversation.

By any of these criteria, Team Ford’s record ought to be instructive. But once again, friends: narratives. Framing. Messaging. 

Buckle up. 

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Update: Now playing over at Toronto Citizens.