Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Blues Brothers vs. Ghostbusters vs. Rob Ford

A week ago Rob Ford went out to support a fundraiser for a great cause, Famous People Player's that had Canada's second favourite Ghostbuster and Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd hosting. It was another odd Ford pairing and sparked a brief conversation on Twitter about whether the administration was more like Blues Brothers or Ghostbusters (or My Girl, but not really). 

Since this important question has been bugging me since I've tried to solve it scientifically*. With a table and jazz. 
*May not be scientific

I've judged how well the Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters match up to the reality and wishes of the Fords based on arbitrary categories. Place your bets now!

And winning 5-4 is Ghostbusters! Congratulations Ivan Reitman, your vision of Toronto doesn't stop at the Bell Lightbox building!

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Tip of the Hat to Mike Del Grande, John Parker and Peter Milczyn?

So I was going to make a post about Rob Ford taking questions on Jack Layton. The video is a revealing and sensitive portrait of Ford as he is genuinely saddened by the news and shares memories of the NDP leader who used to be his seatmate in Toronto City Council. But Cityslickr over at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke did a nice write up first and anything I put into it is just duplication of his fine effort. 

To add just a few small words, it's nice that we're able to transcend partisanship in the spirit of honouring an individual who was passionate about policies, people and connecting the two. 

Speaking of bypassing partisanship, there was a budget meeting on Tuesday notable for its contradiction of a June decision. Back in June, Ford surprisingly opposed a provincially-funded offer of two public nurses over a concern the money would not be there on an ongoing basis and that there were enough health workers already. Rather than attaching a motion stating that if funding was pulled so too would the nurse positions, Ford deferred it indefinitely at the Executive Committee.

He was opposed at committee by Council veterans and Ford allies Norm Kelly, Mike Del Grande, Denzil Minnan-Wong and Peter Milczyn. At the time Minnan-Wong said, "The province is paying for two nurses full-time. Why would you say no to additional public health nurses to help out? Why would you say no?” 

When the issue was brought to a council vote to re-open it (2/3rds majority needed), Kelly, Del Grande, Minnan-Wong and Milczyn fell in line and supported the Fords and the funding didn't go through. 

This sets up the context for Tuesday's budget meeting where there was a debate about whether to accept the province's offer of three public nurses dedicated to helping combat bedbug issues. Doug Ford asked some questions about the value of nurses ("shouldn't we just hire more exterminators, since they get rid of the bugs?") and worried that the Toronto Star would make the city look bad if the funding was cancelled and the nurses were released. But there was a pushback. John Parker, Mike Del Grande and Peter Milzczyn, among others, strongly pushed back and argued for the need for more health support in fighting bedbugs. A- wait for it- compromise was reached, with Doug Ford putting forward a motion stating that the nurse positions will be tied to ongoing provincial funding. The motion passed. As Doug quickly ducked out from press questions, Mike Del Grande spoke for a couple of minutes, saying that he was inundated with 3000 emails on the issue and adding:
I think if one is politically astute, when one is asking maybe for other things in the future, that you'd want to be on more friendly terms with the province
This quotation is as scathing an indictment of the administration's tactics as you'll find within the inner circle. The situation provides a few useful lessons too. 
An about face on nurses.

1. Ford allies are willing to admit mistakes. 
This is clearly a strong reversal from the Council vote in July and demonstrates that some individuals are willing to point the mayor in the right direction on these issues. While it may seem like a no-brainer, it's not always politically easy and should be commended when it happens. 

2. Ford allies can listen to public engagement.
Not always of course, but to receive 3000 emails on a relatively small (although illustrative) issue like the two nixed nurses is massive. Del Grande took that overwhelming support into account when he voted. So this gives room for optimism; engagement can make a difference. 

3. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. 
Ordinarily an issue like the public nurses would gain little public attention. (Granted, ordinarily there would be a 44-1 vote to approve them).This is a case where the access to information and attention paid to City Hall proved enormously successful in ensuring sensible policies are adopted. The crowd had left from the Jarvis Bike Lanes Debate when this was originally debated in Council but thanks to the follow-up from various journalists and bloggers (the Toronto Star's Daniel Dale did a great job on this one) the issue rightly didn't fade away. 

So kudos to Ford allies for standing up for what was right and hopefully with diligent attention paid to them this can be often enough to not be exceptional.  

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Ford Allies: Choose Your Archetype

"Politics is a matter of choices, and a man doesn't set up the choices himself. And there is always a price to make a choice. You know that. You've made a choice, and you know how much it cost you. There is always a price."

-Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men

Choices make or break politicians. Those decisions can be purely based on policies, politics or a mix of the two. For Ford allies at City Hall their choices are becoming more clear and stark, and we may soon arrive at a juncture with the upcoming budget.

There are two different paths for Ford allies, embodied by Giorgio Mammoliti and Karen Stintz.

Giorgio Mammoliti
Mammoliti is the id of the Ford administration. To use Freud’s definition, he is a chaotic cauldron of seething excitations filled with instinctual energy but has no organization, produces no collective will and contrary impulses exist side by side without cancelling each other out.

There’s no shortage of examples to choose from to illustrate this (including red-baiting, dyke march video-taping and proposing a brothel on the island and North America’s largest flagpole as a tourist attraction). Mammoliti is so ridiculous that some people I respect suggest it’s counter-productive to focus attention on him. After all, energy expended on him is energy that could be focused on Ford’s agenda or persuading the mushy middle. I follow the ‘don’t feed the troll’ logic; after all no  one is going to shame Mammoliti into changing his position, criticism of him has the unfortunate side effect of legitimizing his authority and attention is exactly what he wants.

I think that would be a fine response if he was a fringe councillor but he's not. He is Ford’s voice (and thumb), given full license to articulate positions and policies and the leadership of various reports. He is a principal spokesperson for the administration not due to his nuanced understanding of policies and challenges but because he is fiercely loyal to Team Ford.

As a chosen proxy for the administration, Mammoliti represents who they are. In that way, Mammoliti provides a useful shorthand for the distempered desires of Team Ford. He is worth focusing on if it is to link his messages and style as a distillation of the administration at large. Councillors should question whether they want to support his antics by extension or follow a different route.

Karen Stintz 
That different route is embodied by TTC chair Karen Stintz. Stintz, a competent conservative elected in a ward that overwhelmingly went for George Smitherman, is in a difficult spot (read this Marcus Gee piece for more).
Stintz has strong reservations about the viability and wisdom of Ford’s promised Sheppard extension. Since the beginning of the project, Stintz has insisted she has nothing to do with it and is seldom in contact with Rob Ford (in contrast to Mammoliti with Ford or then-TTC Chair Adam Giambrone with David Miller).

Doug Ford in particular has a cold relationship with Stintz to the extent that he has explored a wholesale change at the TTC to oust her and TTC General Manager Gary Webster in one fell swoop. Stintz has publicly declared her support for Webster, a 30-year TTC veteran who also opposes the Sheppard subway plan.  

Stintz is widely seen as competent, thoughtful and capable- the ego to Mammoliti’s id. Unfortunately, it’s precisely these qualities that have got in the way of expressing the loyalty that Team Ford values so highly. Her opposition to the foolish Sheppard subway line, grounded in a belief that it does not make sense from a fiscal or transit building perspective highlights that Stintz is willing to value policy decisions over politics.     

Defined by Choices 
But this is punished. While Mammoliti is given more rope by Team Ford—he was assigned a host of different reports to deliver to Council (on homelessness, childcare, ice rinks), Stintz is frozen out. It sends a clear message to other Ford allies to not argue against priorities and to support the talking points.

But these Ford allies should ask what kind of councillor they want to be. Do they want to be like Mammoliti, whose unconditional loyalty and silly antics are rewarded with power from Ford? Or are they willing to be like Karen Stintz, a thoughtful and competent councillor willing to question ideas and policies when she feels it’s necessary?

As cracks within the Ford administration appear councillors will have to choose whether they are more like Mammoliti or Stintz. Hopefully more people like Stintz are willing to stand up for what they think is right  despite the Mammolitiesque rhetoric and cold shoulder from Ford that they will receive.  

Friday, 19 August 2011

Responding to Sol Chrom and How to Use the Word 'Elitist'

My friends call me out for being pedantic sometimes when talking about politics and policies. Frankly, it’s a fair assessment. I’m OK with it for the most part because words and nuance matter when it comes to politics. In fact, I’d say that’s where the real meaning is found-- that by forming arguments with detail, clarity and honesty we can more ably discuss solutions to the complicated and layered problems we encounter.

While words are powerful tools to illuminate the best and worst thoughts and ideas of our discourse, they can also obfuscate. Successful politicians have long been masters of this technique. Forming arguments, terms and divisions that appeal to our emotional thinking has long been an easier and more effective manner of winning broad support.

The Power of Words
Professional Evil Word Alchemist Frank Luntz opined that 80% of political arguments are emotional, 20% intellectual. It’s from this grounding that he coined the phrase ‘Death Tax’ as opposed to ‘Estate Tax’ and ‘Government takeover of healthcare’ for Obama’s healthcare plan. Luntz has made a career on condensing more accurate, official terms into popular, official and not-quite-as-accurate terms.

The same rhetorical techniques propelled Rob Ford into office. Like Luntz, he and his team captured the zeitgeist with some simple, emotional language that crafted a powerful if inaccurate portrait of Toronto (for more, read this excellent piece on storytelling and persuasion from the Toronto Star).

By creating the most powerful story and the touchstone terms of the campaign (gravy train, respect for taxpayers, downtown elites etc…) Team Ford defined the debate. They moved the intellectual and emotional goalposts to their comfort zone by winning the most important turf- the words that define our discourse.

Words Used to Sow Discord 
This political win by Team Ford was largely enabled through sowing emotional class war divisions between the ‘everyman’ and ‘intellectuals’. I bring this up due to an excellent piece by Sol Chrom on his blog from yesterday. In it, he argues that the anti-intellectual discourse which dismisses well-reasoned, expert ‘elite’ arguments is contrived backlash to feed manufactured narratives as a way to pose as the ally of the little guy. Thus the Fords, become the everyman through their love of football and BBQs despite their inherited wealth and the accompanying ideology which privileges fellow travelers.   

This stance is enabled and furthered by the likes of the Toronto Sun, a ‘populist’ newspaper. In it, columnists regularly deride alternative opinions and experts groups through epithets that are similar to what political and cultural critic Thomas Frank termed ‘latte libel’. In defining individuals and groups by right wing terms, such as ‘helmethead’ cyclists, ‘Poverty Pimp’ social justice programs and ‘La Poodle’ Margaret Atwood, the likes of Sue-Ann Levy dismiss and insubstantiate their opponents through reductive rhetoric.

This emotionally evocative and shallow language creates what Frank calls a “mutant strain of class war” where cyclists, the underprivileged and library users are coupled with ‘elitists’. This dismisses their goals and aims as outside of the mainstream, as mere social engineering experiments from which to test bizarre intellectual theories or ‘suck from the public teat’ financially.  

These are not accurate descriptions of the people who oppose Rob Ford and his enablers on council. There has been a concerted attempt by the likes of The Brothers Ford, Giorgio Mammoliti, and Doug Holyday to assert that the individuals at the Citizen’s Filibuster were organized labour or the unemployed, somehow an inauthentic and inaccurate voice for Toronto. But that stretches credulity when you look at the video of 14-year-old Anika Tabovaradanby, the articulate and impassioned animal rescue volunteer Laura Heslin Piper or senior citizens highlighting the importance of their crossing guard jobs for which they are paid $12 an hour.

Chrom's Solutions
Chrom’s solution to the inaccurate framing of the issues is twofold. One, don’t be ashamed about making intelligent, well-reasoned arguments. I agree with him here. Sophisticated and nuanced ideas should be celebrated; they shape the political terrain for the better and guard against being drowned out by the emotionally-charged and juvenile nonsense that flows from Levy and others.

Chrom also suggests a need to reclaim terms and own them. I partially agree here. Some terms should rightly be reclaimed. An activist is someone who engages the political sphere with community concerns motivated by a sense of civic virtue, not an ideologically lecherous sponge. Liberalism promotes liberty, opportunity, equal rights and inclusion and is not an ideology designed to dispossess individuals or groups of those rights.

Chrom concludes by looking at the word ‘elitist’, that term favoured by people such as Levy, Christie Blatchford, Don Cherry and the Fords. Chrom suggests that this word be reclaimed to in an effort to promote the idea that ‘the elite’- educated, informed and intelligent people- make important decisions that balance interests and deal with complexities.

Reclamation Not The Only Strategy
I would caution against this by putting on my Frank Luntz hat (ew, gross). The term ‘elitist’ conjures up a separation from the mainstream and is not so easy to reclaim. Even if the arguments are sophisticated or ‘elite’ the people they’re supporting are mostly marginalized or underrepresented. Instead, the people who Chrom cites in his post (@cityslikr, myself!, Matt Elliott, Mike Smith, Dave Meslin, Tim Falconer, Ivor Tossell, Hamutal Dotan, Andrea Houston, Jonathan Goldsbie, R. Jeanette Martin, Justin Stayshn, Justin Beach, Ed Keenan, Tabatha Southey, John Lorinc), are far from elitist. To the contrary, these individuals are driven by a concern with promoting the quality of life for the average citizen and the city as a whole.

Instead of reclaiming the word ‘elitist’, it’s more effective to turn it around to highlight the false consciousness sowed by Fordian rhetoric. What’s more elitist: supporting public libraries or suggesting they close down? People can buy their own books, damnit. What’s more elitist: wanting a bridge to connect communities or wanting to throw the land over to developers? What’s more elitist: connecting with a vibrant and diverse LGBTQ community or avoiding it to spend time at the cottage? What’s more elitist: fostering community growth through small and energetic organizations, or opposing all grant funding and suggesting they can find private donors? What’s more elitist: opposing cuts to bus routes or supporting tax break entitlements for drivers?

Chrom rightly argues for language’s significance and importance in politics. After all, to move the discourse, terms must be co-opted and shaped. But to change the discourse beyond City Hall’s bubble requires connecting sophisticated arguments to mainstream audiences and highlighting the substantive vacuity of Ford's language. This is a challenging task, and using a word like ‘elitist’ makes it more difficult (other words make more sense to co-opt). But through a detournement (elitist word!) of words such as elitist, the inadequate parallel of rhetoric and reality in Ford’s universe can be highlighted. Ford’s policies can be subverted by the very thing that brought him popular support-- language.     

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Pasternak Foolishly Supports Ford's Sheppard Folly

Most sensible people can agree that in the face of overwhelming evidence, it’s OK- perhaps even admirable- to change your mind. When the critics are proved right and you’re forced to alter your plans or argument, it’s time to look at the value of the original idea rather than doubling down and trying to plow through.

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the Sheppard subway extension is not the right idea. Current TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster opposes the idea, transit expert and former TTC Chief General Manager David Gunn has called it ‘a joke’ and even Ford ally and current TTC Chair Karen Stintz has expressed reservations about the plan and the idea for Webster’s ouster.

The Toronto Environmental Alliance- not a pro-Ford source mind you- provides this handy map to quantify the impact of cancelling Transit City in favour of the underground Eglinton LRT and Sheppard subway extension:

Not only would Transit City serve more people overall (subways don’t serve ten times as many people as Ford claims), it would also connect more communities. Importantly, this would also mean the property values of these neighbourhoods  and overall business activity would increase, thus improving the city’s tax base. Transit City may not have been perfect, but it would serve more people for a better value.

In contrast, Sheppard lacks the density to support a subway extension. According to the Pembina Institute, subways require a density of 115-140 people per hectare to make them economically feasible. Sheppard currently has 68, slightly more than half of the minimum needed (LRTs require a density of 70 per hectare). Granted, this is expected to grow to 102 by 2031, but that’s still not meeting the requirement 20 years from now. It would mean 20 years of massive ongoing subsidies to a subway line that would bleed money from the rest of the system. Ridership on Sheppard is projected by Gunn as being 5,000 riders per hour and he claims 20,000 are needed as a starting base (other numbers suggest 10,000). Those missing 15,000 fares per hour would have to be subsidized by poorer service and overcrowding elsewhere.

Team Ford is a big fan of the free hand of the market giving the thumbs up or down to the value of ideas and products. So far, the Sheppard line has been a big thumbs-down. Ford went cap-in-hand to see Premier Dalton McGuinty today to ask for $650M allocated for the Eglinton LRT (a reserve for cost overruns) to be shifted to Sheppard. Of course, this is partially due to difficulties in attracting private partners for Sheppard. The idea here is to indicate to other partners such as the Federal government and private industry that the start-up capital is there to make it happen. After all, no one wants to take the first risk, particularly if they think it’s a bad idea and don’t have a safety net. So far, the market has responded, and it’s a deafening no to the Sheppard extension.

But that hasn’t stopped Team Ford. The Sheppard extension- which has had no public consultation (in contrast to campaign rhetoric)  and no council vote yet (despite what seemed to be a promise to Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne)- remains a priority. It is a foolish and wrong-headed priority, support for which normally wishy-washy uber-mushy councillor Josh Matlow has called ‘intellectually dishonest’

While it’s unsurprising that this hasn’t stopped Rob and Doug, a tweet from James Pasternak today stood out for its nonsense:

Pasternak is seen as a thoughtful conservative, as seen in his critique of the city’s buyout packages. But this statement is pathetic politicking and pandering of the first degree.

Pasternak prioritizes his own ward, which is to be expected and can be understood to an extent. But to do so in a way that completely ignores the volume of the distressed downtown Yonge-University-Spadina line (720,000 daily weekday passengers) and claims that the Sheppard Line, (47,000 daily weekday passengers) being connected is somehow more vital? That’s not thoughtful at all.

In fact, it’s stupid. It's exactly this kind of talk from reasonable councillors that shouldn't be tolerated and should be called out. There’s all sorts of other more vital priorities that could be done in more cost-effective ways. Additionally, as August Murphy-King points out, Transit City would have taken care of the Downsview to Yonge St. link too.

Pasternak won his ward with only 19% of the vote, largely on the name recognition of being a local school trustee. He could carve out a respectable role as a thoughtful and reasonable conservative on council, willing to consider and discuss the merits of various plans based on real numbers and expert advice. But in this moment, Pasternak has chosen the Fordian route.  His thought and consideration here- like Ford’s idea for the Sheppard extension- is dense.

Six Sigma and the Quest for Rob Ford's Opposable Mind

There have been limited rumblings of the six sigma management strategy being implemented at Ford's City Hall, but they haven't yet reached a roar. Part of this is likely intentional. The term six sigma suggests cool, distant and abstract scientific precision. It's not the colourful language of Fordian Populism and you wouldn't expect them to openly tout the concrete concept. Instead they and their team use more understandable and vague substitutes such as 'efficiencies', 'leaning out government' and 'eliminating waste'. But the underlying mission of six sigma- reducing operational defects to 3.4 per million- is a certainly a key goal of the Ford administration.

Six Sigma

First developed by Motorola (now Motoroogle I guess) in 1986, six sigma tries to eliminate process steps that might increase the likelihood of error, time, or cost. It does this by removing any variation in a particular process to be as uniform as possible. From there, metrics have to be applied to each step to ensure measurable, quantifiable data from which to judge the success of the process. Slogans encapsulate the six sigma ethic like 'variability is the enemy' and 'in God we trust, for all others, it's data'. It's a modern form of Taylorism with more detailed statistics and has been used in some form by most of the world's largest companies (as well as the Fords' Deco Labels). Six Sigma magazine glowed in January 2007 that the strategy had saved US companies $427B in the past 20 years, an impressive number although it seems difficult to quantify.

Despite all of this, six sigma's success has been mixed.

General Electric CEO Jack Welch was an early adopter of six sigma and evangelically promoted it. While GE did this successfully- claiming to save $12B in five years- other companies struggle with implementation and the drawbacks that come with it. 

What To Avoid

Often companies undergo half-measures when implementing six sigma, running pilot projects and other small-scale ways of introducing it. Employees are often fearful of six sigma (it's frequently a sign of imminent layoffs to lean out an organization) and in the absence of a Welchian effort, it's often seen as easier to gradually change the culture.

Even when the operations culture is successfully changed, as in the case of Home Depot, the net result isn't always a positive. When GE alumnus Robert Nardelli took over Home Depot as CEO, he quickly implemented six sigma strategies to squeeze every ounce of profit out of the organization. Turning the organization from a decentralized one into a militaristic and by the letters approach made Home Depot's profits soar initially.

But as profits went up employee morale sunk to record lows. Several senior executives left the organization. Where there was once some autonomy in each store, uniformity took over and malaise set in amongst front-line workers. It showed in customer satisfaction; three years into Nardelli's tenure customer service- once a strong point- was ranked dead last among major American retailers. Critics such as former Home Depot Senior Vice President Steve Mahurin argue that while six sigma can create real and impressive operational efficiencies, it can be harmful when it comes to intangibles like customer service. While operations may have been improved, the single minded focus came at the expense of the company culture which was directly noticed by customers. 

Balancing 'Customer Service' and Efficiencies 

One of the principal aims of Rob Ford's mayoralty is to reform 'customer service' at City Hall. "Improving customer service is my number one priority", he said in a statement on the City Hall website as the Vehicle Registration Tax rebate cheques were mailed out early. He built up an urban mythology about his customer service as councillor for Ward Two, going to great lengths to answer each individual phone call and bypassing established city procedures to address their concerns (often in other councillor's wards).

He's continued this to a certain extent at City Hall as this Globe and Mail article details, dedicating a number of staffers to deal with complaints (they have a separate file for Doug Ford complaints) and following up with ten calls personally at the end of the day. The determination is commendable, but it's also antithetical to six sigma.

After all, six sigma is all about following process and procedure to the letter to ensure that uniformity and structure minimizes variability and cost. Ford's complaint call center (which does not track volume) is essentially a duplication of the 311 service instituted under David Miller which was expressly designed to streamline, categorize and measure citizens' complaints and needs. 

Team Ford has the dual task of trying to create efficiencies and leaning out the organization while also improving customer service, a feat which has proved difficult in organizations like Home Depot. Roger Martin from the Rotman School of Management espouses 'integrative thinking' in his 2007 book The Opposable Mind. The Rotman website describes this philosophy as: 

"...the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each." 

Success in...Fort Wayne?

The Rotman model sounds appealing for Toronto's situation in that processes could be improved while the creative solutions, new ideas and customization that enriches local politics is retained. It's a spirit that was captured in Fort Wayne, Indiana where mayor Graham Richard, a businessman and Democrat, first instituted six sigma in an American political structure in 2000 (Erie County, NY and Spokane, WA followed suit).

The success was impressive. The time it took to fill in potholes decreased from 48 hours to four and to obtain permits from 48 days to ten. Notably, Richard quickly sought union support for his goals and included them in discussions to send a message that the goal was to achieve better processes and not reduce headcount. He encouraged city staff to identify problems they were passionate about fixing- like missed garbage collection or improved traffic process- and that they could offer solutions. All 42 projects were then listed on the city website to track progress.

Richard got city staff to buy-in by empowering them to seek creative solutions to problems they cared about and then sharing it with the community to earn their support. It's integrated Rotman-approved thinking as Richard recognized that a city, which should be equally focused on providing 'customer service' and efficient service needed a balanced approach to be successful.

The Ford Challenge

Thus far, Team Ford has not demonstrated that it can build coalitions or gain community and staff buy-in. There were many compromises to be had in engaging Pride Week, itself a place to reach out the community, but none were chosen. There have been opportunities to build a coalition with cyclists- Dave Meslin was totally available- but this was spurned in favour of no consultation and driving through an ideological position on Jarvis. There are rumours that city staff morale is at an all-time low as layoffs loom and senior staff leave. Even strong allies like Karen Stintz, James Pasternak and Paul Ainslie have had discouraging words about Ford's stubborn and unchanging support at times (with the Sheppard line, buy-out packages and Giorgio Mammoliti respectively).

The Mayor's challenges are great, but that's partially because his confrontational, uncompromising and single-minded approach amplifies them. While efficient services and improved 'customer service' are something everyone can agree on, the ideological predisposition, lack of transparency and lack of target goals are anathema to the success of six sigma in Toronto's situation. It's a posture that needs to change in order to come up with the buy-in and integrated solutions at City Hall, but right now the biggest obstacle is the administration's attitude defect.    

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Victims of Rob Ford's Democratic Deficit

Once in a while when my friends and I are bemoaning the state of city hall, some variation of the statement 'who could have voted for these guys' will be mentioned. Maybe even 'how could people be so stupid to vote for them'. Admittedly, I find it hard not to wonder this myself sometimes when I see the triumverate of Mammoliti and the Fords embarrassing themselves and the city on a regular basis. However, I think this anger points the finger at the wrong target.
Ignatieff, one of the world's leading experts on citizenship, probably doesn't like Rob Ford.

Ideally we should have a citizenry that is engaged, critical and thoughtful. That is, one that not only receives services but shows respect for other members of society, takes on responsibilities that are not legally required and shapes the discourse for what civic life means. But we don't live in that ideal. And that's OK, instead we get a diverse and inclusive civic environment where all votes are worth the same regardless of the level of civic involvement. 

The downside of this is that sometimes the person with the most developed or truthful ideas doesn't win. And in the 2010 mayoral campaign's race to the bottom it was Rob Ford who won in spite of his ideas, capitalizing on this information gap. I bring this up because of today's Toronto Star in which David Rider reports that Team Ford anticipates city hall layoffs in contrast to their campaign promise. Ford's campaign promises sounded pretty good and he was seen as a 'straight shooting man of the people' so it's easy to see how people bought into them. A quick look:

  • No service cuts
  • No layoffs
  • Improved 'customer service'
  • Accumulate 1.7 Billion surplus by end of term in office
  • Pay down debt by $850M
  • Build a subway line
  • End Vehicle Registration Tax
  • End Land Transfer Tax    

That all sounds pretty nice. Of course, it's absurd to think you can have all your current services, get a subway line, decrease city revenue and increase city reserve savings simultaneously. But most voters only pay limited attention to the news and follow politics through cursory headlines, which is how someone like Rob Ford can get away with blatant misinformation.

When each of these headlines are seen separately, they look great even though they are nonsensical and contradictory as a collective platform. Voters aren't stupid, they're disconnected from the overall conversation. And that makes sense as not everyone can go to the city hall website, follow the Rogers TV feed, be a pathological slave to Twitter information or put up with nonsense that politicians say.

When politicians are able to enact bad policies though, let's not blame voters but keep politicians accountable.

As citizens, we're the victims

We're the victims of a political discourse either cynically and manipulatively led by people who know the ideas are unfeasible or the victims of politicians who are completely incompetent except in their own self-promotion.

We're the victims of a democractic deficit as much as a structural one. 

This is the biggest inefficiency Team Ford has found at City Hall and requires fixing through engagement, illustrating how policies affect lives and holding politicians accountable for their choices. As much as Ford might be able to take advantage of this deficit, people can take it back and reclaim City Hall politics as their own site for engagement and discourse. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Mammoliti, Rob Ford Threat and Toronto's Idiocracy

Given the current political climate in Toronto, perhaps the most prescient movie of the past few years was Mike Judge's Idiocracy, where the everyman can excel in a dumbed down culture. 

First there was Giorgio Mammoliti going on about the communists in Toronto (kudos to the Toronto Star's young Daniel Dale) dominating City Hall deputations and how he created a Facebook page (sample here!) where they'll be kicked off if they espouse those views. But as Meg Campbell points out on Torontoist, isn't it problematic hosting a forum where only some people have access to it and undesirable viewpoints are deleted? Isn't that a bit undemocratic? Aren't the deputations supposed to be a formal forum to exercise this process, but that was duly ignored by Mammoliti?   
Mammoliti being super classy at City Hall in 1999. Toronto Star

And then the Toronto Sun continued to run with the idea of banning panhandlers from city streets. Columnist Joe Warmington covered the idea after reporter Don Peat included it in a list of things to improve the city (including licensing all cyclists over the age of 16). Of course, Sue-Ann Levy has covered the idea before too.  While Doug Holyday has spoken about this, it was Mammoliti's turn to get attention and so he happily said that he was in favour of a ban and that homeless people should be sent to hospitals and shelters should be decreased (Mammoliti is preparing a report on homelessness for September). I mean sure, hospitals are far more expensive and more poorly equipped to deal with the underlying issues, but it feels right to stock it to the 'poverty pimps', right? 

Getting rid of homelessness is a worthy goal, but not for the reason that it's a blight on a pristine sidewalk. Rather, the goal should be improving people's lives and acknowledging that communities need to look after their least fortunate members and seek opportunities for them. Framing the issue as something that impacts the middle class through being a nuisance after coming out of a theatrical play (as Levy's article is framed) misses the point that addressing homelessness is a complex health and social problem that should be driven by a moral imperative. 

But Mammoliti managed to be outdone by an even bigger idiot. Because no matter how dumb your arguments are, they're not deserving of a death threat. So the individual (the second one to be arrested) who threatened Rob Ford deserves the distinction of Idiot of the Day, a tall feat when Mammoliti is talking about social policy. No matter how much you may dislike Ford, attack his ideas- it's easy!- rather than resorting to violent threats. Unless you want to join the race to lead the Idiocracy, be the better person.  

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Rob Ford's Fiscal Illusion

In the 169 deputations at the recent Executive Committee all night, citations ranged from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Winston Churchill and… Naomi Klein. The latter was mentioned at least twice in reference to her ‘shock doctrine’ argument as deputants drew parallels between the budget process and the 2007 book. In it, Klein argues unpopular free-market Milton Friedman-type policies are implemented in third world countries through artificial crisis points. Other deputants echoed this sentiment, alleging that the KPMG report was an exercise in empowering private industry. While that may be a secondary benefit, the primary target seems to be an animosity towards the idea of government, as David Rider argues.

The strategy that best fits here isn’t the shock doctrine but the unfortunately named ‘starve the beast’ doctrine (I say unfortunately for the reasons this Shameless article rightfully points out). The doctrine, also supported by Milton Friedman, didn’t have the name applied to it until a 1985 Wall Street Journal Article but was first developed by Republicans in the late 1970s. The underlying idea is to reduce government revenues in order to force it to lower spending in turn. Or, as Ronald Reagan famously put it, “Well, you know, we can lecture our children about extravagance until we run out of voice and breath. Or we can cure their extravagance by simply reducing their allowance”. 
Starve the beast with cookie cutter ideologies
 The policy was enacted with Reagan’s historic 1981 tax cuts. Operative Grover Norquist made sure as many Republicans as possible signed a tax pledge to sustain the idea and threw under the bus those who did not. George W. Bush’s landmark tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 capped off the starve the beast idea. But during these times, deficits soared and government spending was unrestrained—in fact it grew to record levels. Even conservative Bruce Bartlett, an originator of the starve the beast argument when he was an aide for Republican Senator Jack Kemp disavowed it given its negative effects. 

And yet City Hall looks to continue failed ideological policies that are politically popular.  

It's not just the ideologues either. Recently on Twitter left-leaning Councillor Sarah Doucette criticized ultra-centrist Councillor Josh Matlow for voting to repeal the Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT), arguing that it was more prudent to wait until the next budget to do so. Matlow somewhat conceded this but also hedged that he had no regrets for his vote either (how Matlowvian!).

At the same time, a property tax freeze that was not a campaign promise was enacted and Mayor Ford has mused about phasing out the Land Transfer Tax over the next three years despite the hesitation from Budget Chief Mike del Grande. In other words, all of the principal sources of tax revenue have had attempts to be decreased as the city faces a large budget deficit.
Ideological illusions of progress
 But wait, it gets worse. Not only is there a failure to find evidence that decreasing taxes decreases the size of the government in parallel but there are also some findings that it actually increases spending. Berkeley economists Christina and David Romer published an overview of the starve the beast approach and explained the gap with two hypotheses, the first being the ‘fiscal illusion’. This illusion is caused when a tax cut without an associated spending cut weakens the psychological link between spending and taxes and voters demand greater spending. Its opposite is ‘shared fiscal irresponsibility’, where politicians who want higher spending, like those who want lower taxes, don’t pay attention to the deficit and lose control of it. That is, without taxes and spending being addressed in tandem budgets spiral out of control regardless of whether it is a spending increase or tax decrease.

It is the fiscal illusion risk that is most pressing with Team Ford. By separating tax cuts from spending cuts, value from gross costs and rhetoric from reality, Team Ford presents an illusory image of fiscal Toronto. Like the smoke and mirrors of their campaign promises, there is not any planning or co-ordination. The motivation isn’t good policy, it’s strict adherence to resentment of government. Resentment alone isn’t enough to balance the budget as the failure of starve the beast as shown. Instead, the psychological ideology of Team Ford is imbalanced and so too will be the fiscal legacy of this administration. 

Friday, 5 August 2011

Behind the Scenes with Rob, Giorgio and Bill Blair

Rob Ford has said of his secrecy and press availability that you ‘can’t hide 300 pounds of fun’, but questions remain as to who he is meeting during his regular duties. David Miller released a basic meeting schedule to the media each week but so far Team Ford has not chosen to do so.

Yesterday Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale published the results of a Freedom of Information request for Rob Ford’s meeting schedule. It was predictable, with the majority of meetings being with allies and community supporters. A question remains though, what actually goes on in these meetings?

In the absence of more transparency than necessary, I’ve taken a wild guess as to what a meeting might look like by looking at the June 7 meeting between Rob Ford, Giorgio Mammoliti, and Police Chief Bill Blair. I also took the liberty to add in Ford’s guardian angel/spokeswoman Adrienne Batra.
Toronto Star
 FORD:               Hey guys, sorry I’m late. You know, caught in traffic.
BLAIR:               Good to see you Mr. Mayor.
MAMMOLITI:     Friggin’ traffic. It’s the worst. Where’d you get stuck?
FORD:               Jarvis and Gerrard. Some Prius was taking forever making a turn, but I flipped them off good—
BATRA:           --How about we start the meeting boys? You know, huddle around and talk strategy?
FORD:             I love it when you speak Football Adrienne. That’s why you’re the word person, haha.
BATRA:           Yeah, so the budget pressures…
BLAIR:             Thank you Adrienne. My team has prepared the materials you see on the table. I know they’re complicated and detailed but we’ll be happy to walk you through them.
MAMMOLITI:   You have everything you need in there?
BLAIR:             Yes, we feel this best balances the needs of—
FORD:             Aw, you’re good Billy. I know I can trust you with the details.
BLAIR:             Thank you Mr. Mayor, that means a lot to me.
MAMMOLITI:  Wait, something is missing.
FORD:             What’s that? Are you telling me there are no choppers in there?
MAMMOLITI:  Yeah, you wanted those, right?
FORD:            C’mon Bill, you don’t need to get modest with us.
BLAIR:            Well it’s not really a priority Mr. Mayor. We’re trying our best to only fill our needs.
FORD:            Will you look at this guy Georgie? What a team player.
MAMMOLITI:  Oh, he gets the thumbs up from me.
FORD:             I’ve seen The Wire Bill, and it’s obvious that we need choppers. We just can’t be taken seriously otherwise.
BLAIR:             I appreciate the concern Mr. Mayor and I’ll look into it.
FORD:             Do you see this guy Adrienne? That’s a good brush off, isn’t it?
BATRA:           Very good. Even Denzil could learn from him.
FORD:             That’s high praise Bill.
MAMMOLITI:   It is. But really, look into it. Think creatively—you could attach extra sound cannons to them!
BLAIR:             That’s an interesting idea. Say, you have quite the tan Giorgio, did you travel recently?
MAMMOLITI:  Yeah, I was in Halifax for a city conference thing. Oh man, the hot chicks there are amazing.
BATRA:          Ahem.
MAMMOLITI: Sorry. Broads? Anyway, I’ll have some great photos when they’re developed.
FORD:            He kept calling me during his trip and mentioning this, haha.
MAMMOLITI:  I mostly talked business! You would mention the Halifaxians too.
BATRA:          Haligonians.
FORD:            No, no no. Don’t misrepresent me here.
MAMMOLITI:  Haligonians?
FORD:            I’m a family man.
BLAIR:            I think I should get going.
MAMMOLITI: Haligonians? That’s a thing?
FORD:            I have kids. I respect women. Right Adrienne?
BATRA:          Yes sir.
FORD:            See Bill, I’m a good guy, despite what Georgie might say.
BLAIR:            I can see that Mr. Mayor.
BATRA:          Ok gentlemen, this meeting is over.