Monday, 18 July 2011

Rob Ford's John Oakley Interview: A Play-By-Play

At what point does a person lose credibility? During the mayoral campaign, I was continually shocked at how the so-called Ford Nation did not call their mayoral hopeful out on some flimsy numbers and promises. His platform of cutting taxes and the deficit while maintaining services with no cuts was the stuff of fantasy. But now that policies must be implemented and results (or the lack thereof) will be seen, it will be interesting to see when his opinion polls go down as rhetoric meets reality. 
On Friday, Ford did a a softball-filled interview on the John Oakley Morning Show which was filled with talk of the city's finances. With answering questions with misinformation and half-truths, Ford shows himself to be once again either not as familiar with the city's finances as he professes to be or not telling the truth in order to fulfill his rhetoric. It was a miserable performance in a friendly environment, bad enough that the Globe and Mail's Marcus Gee (who was sympathetic to Ford in the campaign) wrote a scathing article critiquing the numbers.

Oakley starts out with a football metaphor, so I thought it would be a good idea to do a play-by-play of Ford's performance as he likes hard-hitting sports so much. 

Speaking about the KPMG recommendations:
(7:25) ...Contracting out garbage, we've done half of that already, they say we should do it for the whole city. 
First of all, due to collective bargaining there are a certain number of 'jobs for life' that are secured. This is why the city could only contract out half of the garbage jobs (west of Yonge) in May. KPMG suggests that contracting out further is an option although the bargaining agreements will get in the way, but nowhere do they say to completely contract out garbage collection (see pages 12-14 of the report).
(6:49) When [labour] makes up 80% of your budget, there's a lot of gravy there. There's a lot of people, unfortunately there's just not enough work to go around.
The problem with this statement, as has been rightly reported in the media, is that it's dramatically untrue. A February staff report on the operating budget said that city labour costs account for 'nearly 48%' of the gross operating budget (see the bottom of page 8).  It seems he just made the number up, or confused it for another number. Either way, it's pretty egregious and it's not the first time he has taken significant liberties with figures. For instance, during the mayoral debates he misrepresented the cost of the Jarvis bike lanes, saying they cost $6,000,000 as opposed to $59,000. But we'll get to Ford Math later. 
(6:24) In business the first thing you look at is your labour. Your labour should be making up maximum 20%, not what we're at, 80%. It's unheard of. 
As pointed out over at, this reasoning is pretty weak. Not only does he get the 80% number wrong, but the idea that labour costs in government should be 20% is fairly ridiculous. Ford isn't running a label company or a manufacturing company (unless you count manufacturing outrage) where raw materials account for most of the cost and profit is the main motive. Government exists precisely to fill in the voids that private business is unwilling to or is unsuited for. 

It's important to differentiate the needs and desired outcomes of business and government. Government attempts to provide societal order while business is motivated by wealth creation. Sometimes these goals can be complementary, but not always. Ford's inability to adapt to seeing how models are dependent on context is another sign that his supposed business acumen is non-existent. 
(5:40) We inherited this mess of $750M, we're trying to clean up a mess that was left behind...
As the Toronto Star reports today, this $750M figure, or $774M as it's alternately reported, is higher than the actual deficit that is being worked with (around $443M) as revenue sources have been identified by city staff. The rationale behind this could be to manufacture the perception of a greater crisis than actually exists in order to push through unpopular service costs despite campaign promises to the contrary

In this quotation he also tries to pin the structural deficit on the Miller administration despite the fact that Miller left Ford with a $350M surplus. Ford then applied this money to the cancellation of the vehicle registration tax ($60M/year) and a property tax freeze. While there is a consistent structural deficit to pin the responsibility of that on Miller instead of the provincial-municipal relationship of the imprudence of Ford's tax cuts is disingenuous. 
(5:29) People were irate [about bike lanes] that lived in the Jarvis area and they said 'Rob, we want these things out, it's causing worse traffic congestion. So we got those things out.
Ford claimed that 70% of phone calls to his cell phone were in favour of removing the Jarvis bike lanes, but you really have to wonder if you can trust his numbers. After all, barring a freedom of information request, you can't disprove that number. But HiMY SYeD tweeted that he asked a Ford staffer three separate ways whether they were tracking phone calls both pro and con, and she said no each time. 

Likewise, Denzil Minnan-Wong dismissed the public consultation for the Toronto Service Review in which they did not receive the response the wanted because, "That’s not statistically valid...Those people self-selected….There are certain people that go to those meetings.” To solicit responses and then not pay attention to the ones you don't like is a poor model for policy-making and furthermore, dishonest. 
(4:15) When you hear people talking about raising [property] taxes 10 or 15%, that is not going to happen, no way.
I sense a straw man argument here. If anyone can point me to a public official or figure who has suggested raising property taxes 10 or 15%, please pass it on, but I can't find it. And if the mayor needs to engage in straw man arguments to further his agenda, then that's another indication that his ideas don't stand on their own. 

Asked whether he was still planning to scrap the land transfer tax in increments:

(4:00) Yeah, we're going to scrap a quarter this year, a quarter next year...
This despite the large structural deficit, the fact that the tax brings in $300M of revenue a year and that Ford's own budget point man, Mike del Grande, has said that they need to keep the revenue, at least for the time being. 

(3:46) Like I said, we've saved over $70M in the first six months, and so if we can find $70M I'm sure we can find $700M, that's for sure. 

This was the quotation that started the Twitter hashtag #FordMath (hat tip to Shawn Micallef for his first mini-meme) Sample from Ivor Tossell: 32 degrees out but feels like 320 #FordMath.

 The idea that it's easy to find $700M after doing one tenth of that is ridiculous; it becomes exponentially more difficult to find the last $70M than the first. 

But wait, where is this $70M figure coming from? Is it coming from the same nether regions of accounting hell as Ford's 80% or $6M figure? Why yes, it is. The only way that this figure makes sense is if he is counting the cancelled vehicle registration tax. It's true this saved $60M for car-owners, but it also means $60M less in revenue for the city. Which means that the administration is further from making up the shortfall due to the 2011 budget, not closer. 

What's most terrible about this, other than the cavalier disregard for the truth of any statement or the reality of the situation, is that most casual observers of city hall (and most people tune out when it's not election season) would not know to call Ford on this nonsense. People will realize in the long-run that he spouts nonsense as the consequences manifest themselves but a lot of damage will be done in the meantime until this aspect changes. 

(3:30 onwards) Ford goes on to be asked about selling off waterfront property and civic centres, which he enthusiastically supports and to say that we won't have to deal with this next year. This despite the fact that solving a structural deficit through one-time sales is a massive accounting failure (shortfalls should be covered by items on the same financial statement as Mike del Grande could tell you) and essentially assures that this will occur again.

John Campbell's rendering of Waterfront potential (2008)
Three themes stand out in this interview
  • Rob Ford is not a good businessman, and the good businessman= good politician pitch should not be bought into. 
From accounting facepalms to applying manufacturing business models erroneously to government, he lacks the fundamental skills and framework to make informed decision. Ford Nation not only failed to elect a visionary leader, they failed to elect a technocrat. 
  • Ford's arguments rely on misrepresentations, exaggerations and deceit. 
Sadly, this is not an earth-shattering observation and is obvious to anyone who is paying attention. But it's still worth mentioning as what made Ford so successful during the campaign was his ability to frame the discourse around his version of reality. Recognizing that Ford is not the straight-shooter that he positions himself as and does not fight fair (see Fort York Bridge, Jarvis Bike Lanes) is an important step to bring us to point number three...
  • Ford must be called out on his deceit clearly and regularly. 
This is the only way for the general public to realize what they have in Ford. Either he is a fool and doesn't know his stuff at all (entirely possible) or he is playing the public for fools (entirely possible). Either way, no one likes to be duped and Ford Nation (and a fair amount of moderates) bought into his rhetoric. 

Pointing out how and why he pulls the wool over the eyes of his followers more easily enables people to unpack and decipher the Ford mirage for themselves. The sooner this can be done the better, and the sooner we can get on with the business of good, honest governance.  

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