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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From @alexhimelfarb on Harper’s omnibus crime bill / #C10 #cdnpoli

This legislation is transformative as it puts punishment and prison at the centre of our criminal justice system.

This has never been the Canadian approach; our balanced justice policies have always focused on safety and justice – and the best evidence of what works.  Such a change  in direction should never happen without a vigorous debate – a good fight.

That’s all the more important because as we have seen in the U.S., this punitive approach leads to more of the same. It feeds our fears and, when we see that we are no more safe, rather than reverse course we opt for even more imprisonment, even tougher sentences.  This beast, the more you feed it the hungrier it gets.

In the U.S., state after state is trying to reverse course but that is no easy task once you have built and filled all those prisons, once you have created a permanent underclass on the one hand and gated communities on the other.  We do not want to go that way.

A comment on Alex Himelfarb’s blog, which should be required reading for students of public policy and anyone concerned about the direction we’re taking on crime and punishment.

Nasty, stupid, counterproductive, divisive, cynical, and very, very dangerous. But then we already knew that.

Harper’s been quite open about his intent to rewrite Canada’s entire narrative. It’s baffling and more than a little disheartening to watch the way we let him get away with it. Here we are, faced with what amounts to an existential threat to the kind of country we are, and we can’t even muster the energy for even the most minimal civic engagement?

It can’t be just the lingering after-effects of tear gas, truncheons and pepper spray. And it’s been clear since last May that the battle’s going to have to be fought through extraparliamentary channels.

And that’s where I start looking for plans that go beyond the hill-by-hill, street-by-street model. While we’re doing that, this bunch is effectively reshaping the very ground on which we’re standing. I’m all for fighting the good fight for the right reasons, but it seems to be that we’ve been doing that — and without much success. If anyone’s got any ideas about how to counter this guy, not just tactically but strategically, I’m all ears.

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The Sixth Estate on who pays for Canada’s right-wing think tanks | #cdnpoli

… where think tanks and the like are concerned, is that most of these groups routinely put themselves into a conflict of interest when they advocate policies which benefit their large donors (mainly foundations owned by large corporations and billionaires who own large corporations), and compound that conflict of interest by not disclosing it. This position isn’t about accounting transparency; it’s about basic public ethics.

Finding out where think tanks get their money from is exceedingly difficult in Canada because they are not required to disclose who funds them, and the Canada Revenue Agency does not list all recipients of grants from a charitable foundation (unlike in America, where this information can and is retrieved by organizations like MediaMatters. Still, I want to make use of some of the limited available material we do have to make some observations about how the Canadian think tank sector works.

If you haven’t bookmarked this site, do it now.

Amid all the sound and fury generated by the Quebecor / Sun News jihad against the CBC (and we’ll save the inherent hypocrisy of that for another time), it’s worth asking who funds outlets such as the Fraser Institute and the like. And then wondering why that information is so much more difficult to get.

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@Cityslikr, @NickKouvalis, and the need for civility in public discourse | #TOpoli #TeamFord

Ah, nuance.

What a thing it is to contemplate. It’s so bracing. Complication. Reflection. Complexity. It’s what puts the real in real life.

My friend @cityslikr, who on his worst days is ten times more eloquent and compelling than I will ever be, was involved in one of those Twitter conversations the other night. Initially it was with some tabloid scribbler, but as the evening went on, he was joined by Nick Kouvalis.

Mr. Kouvalis, you may recall, was widely credited as the brains behind Rob Ford’s election victory. And full marks to him for that; a lot of people, including me, never thought it would be possible for a guy like Rob Ford to win the mayor’s chair. Regardless of what we may think of it, Mr. Kouvalis ran an effective and successful campaign. Whatever’s happened in the ensuing year can’t change that.

But watching that exchange and reviewing the duelling tweets prompted a couple of related observations: perhaps not especially original, but no less relevant for that, especially given the state in which Toronto now finds itself. The first concerns the difference between electioneering and governing; the second, perhaps more subtle but no less important, concerns the importance of framing (for which I’m also indebted to Trish Hennessy. If you haven’t bookmarked her blog, do it now).

Back to @cityslikr and Mr. Kouvalis. Rather than put words in their mouths, I’ll let them speak for themselves (guys, if I’ve left anything out, or if you feel I’m taking your words out of context, please feel free to write. I’ll publish your comments as you submit them).

To the extent that you can have a compelling policy debate via 140-character bursts, that’s what appears to be going on. And I can’t help but contrast that with the themes that dominated last year’s mayoral contest, thanks in large part to Mr. Kouvalis: Gravy Train. Respect for Taxpayers. Wasteful spending. We don’t have a revenue problem. War on the Car. Those of you bored or desperate enough to read my stuff regularly know what I think of those memes, but that twitter exchange illustrated, beautifully, the gulf between electioneering and governing.

Admittedly, this isn’t a new lesson, but it’s no less worthwhile for the repetition. Democratic governance, whether it’s at the local, provincial, or federal level, is a complex, multifaceted exercise. It involves balancing of multiple interests, looking at issues from both a long-term and short-term perspective, analyzing costs and benefits, identifying opportunities and stakeholders, allocating resources in accordance with needs, recognizing that community is evaluated not just in fiscal terms, but also in terms of aesthetics, cohesion, and sense of common purpose, and above all, trying to fashion public policy in a way that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. Ideally, it’s informed by devotion to things like citizenship and stewardship, a resolve to enhance the public good and leave the public sphere just a little better than we found it. In sum, it’s complicated. It’s not something that can be reduced to sound bites, lapel buttons and bumper stickers.

It’s been instructive, watching the direction the conversation’s been taking, most notably with the recent comparisons likening Toronto’s municipal finances to the impending cataclysm in Greece. Do we really have to go there? We’re not Greece. Greece itself isn’t Greece, at least not in the apocalyptic way the tabloid brayers have been portraying it. But that’s the problem with caricature, hyperbole and simplistic thinking. It may play well on the campaign trail or in tabloid columns written by or aimed at people with limited attention spans and cognitive faculties, but it rarely translates into effective and responsible governance.

Simplistic narratives depend on fudging the truth, on omission of nuance, on leaving out and glossing over anything that complicates things or gets in the way of delivery of an easily digested and manipulative message, like … oh, like “public-sector workers are lazy overpaid unionized thugs. Unions are to blame for the mess. David Miller left the city on the verge of bankruptcy because he was their puppet. Who the hell are these greedy bastards?” It plays right into prevailing attitudes of envy and intellectual laziness. Why bother to think things through? Certainly, it’s easier to be a disengaged dullard who gets information from tabloid headlines and Don Cherry’s yargle-bargle, if that’s the extent of your civic engagement.

Which brings us to the source for most of those simplistic narratives: the city workers’ strike of 2009.

It’s no great secret that Ford’s strategy was to tie it to Miller. (Indeed, he wasn’t the only one.) It’s also not much of a revelation to suggest that much of Ford’s mayoralty is predicated on payback for that, most apparent in the drive to privatize or contract out waste collection. Once again: Respect for Taxpayers. Stop the gravy train. Greedy unions. An easily digested, simplistic message which may be short on facts but resonates emotionally with the target audience. Truth and reality are just a bit more complex than that, but you won’t read about that in the tabloid press. It’s much easier, and a more effective means of manipulating people, to keep recycling spite, hatred, misdirection and disinformation.

Good for campaigning, no doubt, which may be why the tabloid press seems to be in permanent campaign mode. Not so good for citizenship or governance.

It’s all in how you frame things, really. Not to take anything away from Nick. Guy ran a successful campaign, based largely on his ability to frame things. Can’t argue with it. He won. His boy’s the Chief Magistrate now, ably backed by the drooling cheering section in the tabloid press. But at what cost? I’d argue that it’s been at the cost of reasonable intelligent discourse, and of effective and responsible governance. The very tone of public conversation has been debased by the constant flow of bullshit and sloganeering. To the extent that we can, it’s worth considering the way issues are framed nowadays, because that’s how the stage is set for public discourse.

This isn’t about elitist sneering at coarse, loutish, vulgar behaviour any more. At the end of the day that’s a matter of personal taste, and that’s not what this is about.

Public conversation and civil discourse are the currency of citizenship. They are the means whereby we conduct public business and ourselves as citizens. Maintaining standards for them is in everyone’s interest, regardless of whether we’re left or right or liberal or conservative or socialist or whatever. Allowing them to degenerate to the level currently practiced by the Ford administration and enabled by the tabloid press (half-truths, distortion, misdirection, name-calling, screeds) makes it that much harder to have civil conversations with one another. Our ability to talk to each other like sane, intelligent and reasonable human beings is undermined.

Effective, responsible governance has suffered as well. (No point in rehashing the campaign-trail guarantee of no service cuts, except to contrast it with current fiscal discussions, dominated as they are by the song of the chainsaw.) The Port Lands clusterfuck may be the most high-profile example, but it’s not an isolated one. When you consider the underhanded, sandbagging way that Team Ford does things, it’s hard to see how things are better than they were under the previous administration.

Again: framing. It isn’t even about whether Rob Ford can grow into the job any longer. If we allow tabloid screed-writers and astroturfing operatives to set the terms of the discussion, we’re screwed. We’ll waste God knows how much time and energy distracted by Shiny Objects and manufactured controversies (polar bear versus beaver, anyone?) instead of having the conversations we really need to have.

Let’s move beyond slogans.

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CRTC is peddling broadband Kool-Aid, @peternowak writes

http://wordsbynowak.com/2011/08/02/crtc-broadband-communications-internet/

In short, Canada’s upload speeds are an embarrassment. Not a good thing if you’re trying to foster innovation and creativity.

Once again, the Sex Bombs and Burgers guy shows why he’s a must-read.

Sent from my BlackBerry

Over at @SixthEstate, an important contribution to the health-care debate

The author of this blog has launched something he calls the Doctors Project.

In it, he’s attempting to provide a counterpoint to the narrative, pushed by institutions like the Fraser Institute and the like, that says Canada’s public health care system is out of control and unaffordable, and that the only solutions lie in privatization, cuts, and “adult conversations” about the “demographic time bomb.”

BBC News – Global war on drugs ‘has failed’ say former leaders

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13624303

It’s a BBC story, but the dynamics are very much reminiscent of all the “tough on crime” rhetoric we’re hearing in the context of Canadian politics these days.

It’s not as if expensive and ineffective policies are anything new. Other than providing short-term political boosts, one wonders what good they accomplish.

Indeed, the facts seem to indicate that they do more harm than good. This raises the question, of course, of why they’re pursued at all, and why governments continue to embrace them in the face of all the evidence that suggests that they don’t work … 

(h/t Alex Himelfarb)