Thursday, January 30, 2014

Worth Reading – January 30, 2014

I went all over the place in this week’s Worth Reading.

First, five projects that Toronto never completed but would change the city completely. It’s an amazing set of ideas. The first is the most impressive, which sought to build Paris-like boulevards through Toronto named after World War I battles.

Justin Trudeau made news this week by booting out Liberal Senators from the Liberal caucus. This piece from the Canadian Press gives a good outline of the events. 

Emmett MacFarlane, a political science professor, wrote an analysis of Trudeau’s Senate gambit in regards to its constitutionality. There has been some interesting criticism in regards to whether or not Trudeau overrode his party’s constitution. I think there are some issues, like is Trudeau no longer the leader of the Liberals in the Senate? They kept their name. Is this merely a political calculation to distance him from future spending irregularities?

Northern news: Thomas Berger, highly respected jurist, is helping First Nations fight the Yukon government on development in the Peel watershed. 

I really like this piece in the Rust Wire as it challenges our lazy thinking about development and job creation, which the author calls The Job Trap

Great piece in the St. Catharines Standard injects mental health into the Niagara Falls by-election

Are Stephen Harper’s fortunes tied directly to oil prices? The author makes the argument that with the economy so connected to energy development Harper’s re-election can be put at risk with a price slump.

Steve Paikin of TVO says that, despite polling and popular support, Olivia Chow (NDP – Trinity-Spadina, ON) is the underdog in the race for Mayor of Toronto. I agree.

The Liberal Party of Ontario has built its reputation in the province by keeping peace in the classroom and generally seeming to have improved standards. However, new numbers show declining numbers in mathematics. Martin Regg Cohn suggests this will have political consequences for Premier Kathleen Wynne

Toronto Star reports that John Tory is preparing to enter the race of Mayor of Toronto. 

Worth Watching

Laci Green discusses sexual objectification. 

Rick Mercer's rant about a fake jobs program. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Rise of the Anti-Hero and Decline of Politics

It should come as very little surprise that shows such as House of Cards (BBC and Netflix) and Game of Thrones, and its antecedent novels are very popular among political junkies. If one looks at the most celebrated television shows in the last few years, especially those that offer interpretations of politics one gets a pretty disturbing trend. A question arises at some point if art is imitating life, or if life is mirroring art.

Frank Underwood (House of Cards), Enoch Thompson (Boardwalk Empire), Tom Kane (Boss), Rick and the Governor (The Walking Dead), Tyrion Lannister (along with most of the other cast) (Game of Thrones) are among some of the few immensely popular anti-heroes who populate popular culture in the realm of politics. The darker, or grayer, media of the present demands flawed protagonists. Some argue that is more realistic, that politicians are people and perhaps their desire for power makes them more flawed than most.

There are many more examples which demonstrate the sort of insidious nature of politics. The Wire, also a HBO program, revels in the deeply corrupt world of Baltimore politics, and the extent to which politics is broken and is unfixable. Borgen a Danish property creates a vipers’ nest out of their politics. Best Laid Plans, an adaptation of the novel of the same name, satires Canadian politics as an unprincipled farce unworthy of decent people. In fact, the premise of the story is that a decent person can only win accidentally.

The modern culture seems enamoured with the anti-hero: Don Draper, Tywin Lannister, Tony Soprano, Walter White, among others, are our cultural icons. All of these horrendous figures, in their own way, illustrate a key message about power and politics. The implicit message of many of these shows is that honest, moral people are weak and ultimately fail, those who will lie, cheat and steal will ultimately win over the honourable. To a certain extent I believe we have internalized this belief. Any politician is immediately suspect and assumed to be corrupt, which is validated in virtually all media.

Television programs, such as The West Wing, whose antagonists let alone protagonists were rarely immoral would probably be laughed at as ridiculously optimistic portrayals, or perhaps more scathingly, unrealistic today. That being the case there are very few “good” figures in contemporary fiction that can be lauded. Parks and Recreation and its main character Leslie Knope are clear idealists, but the show is based around the ineffectiveness, petty corruption, and farce of local politics. As much as Parks and Rec may inspire, it equally damns.

If as a culture we romanticize our anti-heroes, accept and love their flaws and presume that is the normal order of things it should come as no surprise when allegations of corruption or personal weakness come to the surface and that these revelations would have little tangible impact on his/her support. It is commonly said that politicians are held to a higher standard, but I am not certain that is true anymore. If the most prominent figures in popular culture are adulterers, drug dealers, and criminals is it surprising that people are willing to overlook the trespasses of their real-life leaders?

Politicians should not be viewed as perfect, but there is something worrying if the standard slips so low that we are merely choosing between various corrupt snake-oil salesmen. More worrying is the relationship this creates between the public and those who aspire to politics. Anyone who declared an interest to their family and friends to run would be met with concern. What if your values align itself with a party in disgrace, like the federal Conservatives, or Ontario’s Liberals, or any party in Quebec, really? When I have expressed an interest in running one day my mother has said she will support me but, “please don’t become corrupt. Try to do some good.”

Politics has never been less corrupt than the present. The level of financial disclosure, reporting, and regulation has never been higher yet we are more convinced than ever that every politician is out to line his/her own pockets. We possess a remarkably cynical view of politics today and it should be no wonder that few people want to volunteer their time or stand for election in the formal political arena.

As good as our anti-heroes are, maybe they are bad for us overall.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Worth Reading – January 23, 2014

The Bank of Canada is changing policy and the improving American economy has caused a slump in the loonie. The Globe and Mail reports on the risk of disinflation and where the Canadian economy may be headed

Chris Hall of CBC reflects on Stephen Harper’s Prime Ministership and his ability to survive and persevere despite opposition

Jonathan Kay writes about the motivations behind the Conservative’s push for Jewish voters and the tour of Israel. It is a fascinating explanation of how microtargeting and politics affects foreign policy.

There is a bloody standoff in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev. The images coming out of the Ukraine are stunning as citizens revolt against their government.

Eric Grenier of 308 blog discusses the first national poll of 2014. The Liberals have passed the Conservatives and the NDP have settled back into the mid-20s, where they were before the 2011 election.

The Globe and Mail has been running an interesting series about the Canadian North. This piece is about whether or not we should spend public money on the North. You can find the rest of the articles in the series here.

Reform or abolish, these are the choices Preston Manning says we have in regards to the Canadian Senate. Manning’s website suggests that there are six options: abolition, status quo, or four forms of reform. They are seeking public input.

Richard Florida in the Atlantic Cities talks about the persistenceof slums in the growing urban centers in the developing world. 

A journalist outlines the struggle of female reportersand the brutal sexism and misogyny they face. In some ways it seems we are moving backwards.

Mayor Susan Fennell, according to a Forum poll, would lose the next election against Councillor John Sanderson, who has been rumoured to be considering a run.  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Smoothing out the Rough Edges of History and Heroes

Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. While I have respect for the civil rights leader I do not usually pay much attention to it as it is an American holiday and I do not feel the need to appropriate him as a Canadian. However, I was surprised at some of the commentary I read about Martin Luther King on my Twitter feed that day.

Some of the commentary I read suggested that the celebration of Dr. King was worship at a false idol, and the imagery built around him bears little resemblance to the man. King is accepted as a conciliator between the conflicting races as embodied in his famous “I have a dream” speech. 

King’s other remarks fit far less with the consensus ruling modern America. As a sample, here is a post I read on Laci Green’s tumblr account. In today’s terminology King would be a hard-left-wing activist. His type of rhetoric is rarely heard on the national stage. As a leader King was not merely interested in legal equality, but social and economic equality. This has been lost in the decades since his death.

Joan Walsh in Salon contrasts the “sanitization” of Martin Luther King to that of Nelson Mandela. Walsh argues they share a common ideological strain, but their core values are ignored in preference for simple legal equality. Walsh decries the forgotten legacy of King and trumpets it in her piece.

History and heroes are fascinating creatures. History is an incredibly powerful tool. Strip people of their history and they can be left culturally impotent and listless. However, history is different than fact and heroes are different from the men and women they purport to be. They shape who we are, how we see the world, what we deem is right and what we dream is possible. If history is misremembered it cripples us, or can be shaped to inspire. When events are adopted into the public history or consciousness the rough edges are smoothed and the less pleasant details are put aside. There is certainly a self-interest purpose, but it is fascinating how much reviled villains become heroes and forgotten chapters or events become critical touchstones, or how once critical stories slip from collective memory.

Where this becomes even more important is when we consider who is telling (or retelling) the story and to what ends. Given the power history has to shape so much of the culture and political life there are clear vested interests. Frankly, I prefer the rough edges, and history that cuts when you handle it. The truth is messy and unpleasant and rarely fits into comfortable narratives.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Worth Reading – January 16, 2014

Welcome to Worth Reading. Here are a few articles that caught my attention this week.

Justin Ling wrote in his blog about the current state of the federal parties. It is a dim assessment. Perhaps the most entertaining is his dissection of the government as being deep in Governing Derangement Syndrome

This was mentioned in Ling’s piece, a Conservative MP is raising money for the Conservative Party by campaigning against a policy her government passed. There’s outrageous and then there’s outrageous.

This is a great piece in the Globe and Mail about Tom Mulcair and sets up the year nicely as one where he must prove himself if he wants to form government. The article highlights the challenges he is facing and his personal backstory.

Eric Grenier of 308 Blog wrote a piece about what the current House of Commons might look like if the right never united. Interesting think-piece. 

Martin Regg Cohn writing in the Toronto Star discusses the two by-elections in Thornhill and Niagara Falls and their possible implications for the next provincial election

TVO’s The Agenda has been running a bit of a series on term limits. Rad Dockery originally had this guest piece in favour of the idea. After reading and commenting on the piece I was invited by a producer to write a response, which is available here. The next day a post from Professor Andrew Sancton went up, which I think is the best of the three. I’ll admit to being a little jealous.

Andrew Coyne in the National Post points out that we have come to expect pathetically little from our politicians. Pfft. No duh.

China is building a high-speed train to Singapore. Assuming the country doesn’t blow up, I presume China will bestride Asia like the United States did Latin America.  

The Canadian Supreme Court is tied in knots over acontroversial appointment by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. 

CBC explores the topic of suicide in small First Nationscommunities and the lasting impact it has. It is a heartbreaking story.

Worth Watching

Game designer Jonathan Blow is a bit of a controversial figure. His assessment of the funding models of video games in this video and what it means to the future of the medium is dead-on, in my opinion.

The Agenda discussed the importance of history and why we are failing to teach it properly. It was a great program and I think it highlighted some real shortcomings of current historiography and the difficulty it creates in teaching history. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Promising Jobs: Foolishness versus Economic Gardening

Leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party, Tim Hudak (PCPO – Niagara West-Glanbrook), announced laughably bad policy this week. I will leave the details out because it is not the details that matter, but the nature of the promise. Hudak promised the people of Ontario that his government (were he and his party elected) would create one million new jobs.

This is the chronically bad math that plagues our current politics. Anyone who believes that Rob Ford saved the city of Toronto a billion dollars may join the cohort of believers in the one million jobs while the rest stay on the side of reality.

Aside from being misleading the policy announcement is ridiculous. A so-called conservative should know that governments do not (generally) create jobs. If you want to start infrastructure programs, hire more government workers, etc. those are examples of the government creating jobs. Businesses hiring employees may have something to do with government policy, but they are more likely responding to the supply and demand of their market.

Mr. Hudak’s commitment reveals a chronically dumb approach shared by governments the world over and at all levels. Politicians love ground-breaking ceremonies. They are flashy and, in the mind of many, clear demonstrations of investment and job creation. Any careful thought about the number of jobs created by a single box store, or head office or factory are overshadowed by those routinely produced by small businesses. However, governments spend exorbitant amounts of money in loans and tax holidays to invite established businesses with deep pockets for the perception of job creation. Not to harp on the PCs alone, this was a preferred tactic of the previous Liberal government under Mr. McGuinty.

For the last few weeks I have been following the work of Chuck Marohn and an organization called Strong Towns.  Their policy work has caused me to shift how I look at cities, or provide buttressing to some of my existing notions. One of the concepts Mr. Marohn discussed on a podcast from last fall was “economic gardening.” During the podcast Marohn and his guest Chris Gibbons discuss the folly of trying to capture big fish. Gibbons, and other economic gardeners, argues that much more good could be done by the economic development coordinators of cities and towns everywhere if instead of trying to attract one big company they helped small businesses find out how to add one or two employees, or grow their businesses.

Economic gardening takes its name from the painstaking art/science of biological gardening; weeding, pruning and careful maintenance of plants to produce a bounty. The metaphor is apt. However, politicians cannot use this strategy to take credit for a business coming to town, but must instead by satisfied with the careful cultivation of healthier businesses, stronger neighbourhoods and higher employment.

The other side of economic gardening is providing something like greenhouses so that entrepreneurs can get their start by offering low cost consulting and resources. This may be one of those issues where public policy and politics do not meet. In my estimation one is far more reasonable and plausible than the other, but far less saleable as a sound bite. The idealist in me would hope that the interests of the public would ultimately shift policy the way that does the most good, and it would helpful if our politicians were less destructive in that aim.

Special note, I have a guest post up on TVO’s The Agenda’s blog today arguing against term limits for politicians. I hope you’ll check it out.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Worth Reading - January 9, 2014

Worth Reading – January 9, 2014

Ever since I moved up to the Northwest Territories the future of the North is something that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. This question often revolves around natural resources, the environment and the place of indigenous peoples. The Northern Journal, based in Fort Smith, argued that this was the story of the year for 2013.

Rob Anders (CPC – Calgary West, AB) is one of the least liked Members of Parliament in the country. He has made famously outrageous comments and his behaviour is often upsetting to a vast majority of Canadians, including Conservatives within his own riding. Lawrence writes in this piece about how Anders has managed to stay in Calgary West and the role the Prime Minister has played.

Brampton, Ontario estimates the cost of cleanup after the ice storm at over $50 million. The damage is amazing and is overwhelming city services. Clean up is estimated to take 14-16 weeks.

Adam Radwanski writes about the fortunes of the Ontario Liberals in southwestern Ontario. Trends indicate the land may be salted for the Liberals there.

In 2013 I spent a lot of time investigating gender issues. The intersection between misogynism and modern technology is fascinating to me. This long article is about the place of women and treatment of women on the internet.

Andrew Coyne in the National Post has an interesting piece about prostitution and other morality laws in Canada

Richard Florida in the Toronto Star advocates for jets landing at Billy Bishop Airport on Toronto Island.  

More bad news for Brampton’s mayor. Mayor Fennell is under criticism for lavish travelling expenses.  

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Looking Forward to 2014

For most Canadian political junkies 2014 will be seen as setup for the 2015 federal election. While there is some suspicion that Prime Minister Harper (CPC – Calgary Southwest, AB) will call an election in 2014 there is not much evidence of that. Harper and the Conservatives seem content to let the damage of the international recession “heal itself” and take credit while simultaneously putting distance between itself and the various scandals that have plagued it. While I desperately hope it is not the case, it is entirely possible that by the time voters are summoned in the autumn of 2015 the Senate scandal will be a tired story and fresh concerns, unaffordable tax cuts or effective microtargeting will give the Conservatives the push they need.

Most of the provinces have had an election in the last two years, so things may be relatively quiet on that front. However, Canada’s two largest provinces, Ontario and Quebec will likely call an election this year. Minority governments, as both have, rarely survive longer two years. Ontario is moving towards its third and Quebec into its second. Many pundits are predicting an election in the spring of this year, which could yield any result. Quebec’s political landscape is not so dissimilar to Ontario’s with three strong parties. Any weakness will trigger an election by the opposition. New Brunswick also has an election this year, though I am less sure what the stakes are in the Maritime province.

Perhaps the election that will garner the most attention in 2014 for all the wrong reasons is the municipal elections in Ontario. A few months ago Alberta’s largest cities elected/re-elected energetic, ideas-driven mayors with real reform agendas. How I envy them. The antics of Rob Ford will draw national attention as he makes his bid to win re-election. Back in my hometown of Brampton, a series of bad stories has come out about the mayor, Susan Fennell and the city council. It seems like a strong challenger is likely in the wings in Peel. Mayor Hazel McCallion, the 92-year-old mayor of Mississauga, is retiring, leaving the spot in one of Canada’s largest cities open.

The end of 2013 felt like Canada was moving into a darker time in our politics. The public continued to lose faith with their elected officials and government seemed less able to function and provide the services the public demands. A severe competence deficit has opened up, and I think this will be compounded in the coming year. Take it with a grain of salt, I am feeling particularly cynical at the moment.

If one reflects on the insane events of 2013 it is so difficult to foresee any of them back a year ago. The outcome of municipal elections seem so petty measured against unthinkable natural disasters and the ongoing civil war in Syria. Perhaps, if we are lucky, 2014 will be a time when humanity is less desperate, more peaceful and less threatened. These changes do not happen on their own, which is why I idealistically keep following and participating in politics, with the hope that somehow it helps make a better world.