Thursday, February 25, 2016

Worth Reading - February 25, 2016

Members of the Downtown Brampton business community are concerned with the strong presence of Council on the new Business Improvement Area committee. Frankly, I think this is an outmoded way of looking at neighbourhood development, but I appreciate that efforts are being made to do something.

Chantal Hebert has written an odd little piece examining what it might look like if Tom Mulcair, not Justin Trudeau, just marked his first 100 days in office

Ruth Ellen Brosseau, one of the NDP MPs elected in the Orange Wave, has one of the most fascinating stories in Canadian politics. Jane Taber wrote a profile on the unusual MP here

Copenhagen is one of the greenest cities in the world. In this piece from the Brookings Institute its success may have far more to do with governing powers than policy decisions. 

I like Star Trek, but I love Deep Space Nine. Max Temkin, one of the founders of Cards Against Humanity, wrote this guide to watching for the uninitiated and argues the strengths of the series. 

Tumblr... it's WEIRD

After Bernie Sanders' win in New Hampshire I tried to do a little digging on his support. Whoever is running his ad campaign is brilliant. Below is an ad where he receives an endorsement from Eric Gardner's daughter, the man who was killed by New York City police. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book Review: The End of the Suburbs by Leigh Gallagher

In The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving by Leigh Gallagher makes the argument that the suburban mode of development reached its peak in the 1990s and 2000s and we it has begun its decline as the monolithic form of the built environment. As Gallagher makes clear in her conclusion, the suburbs aren't really over. With millions of homes built in the suburban style and millions of Americans still enamoured with the vision of a big house on a piece of land it will likely always remain. However, the author argues, alternative modes of living are becoming more dominant and reflect a sea change. 

Many of the economic and social factors that created the suburbs are in decline or in reverse. It's probably fair to say that we are in the third (maybe fourth?) generation  of the suburbs. The logic that created the first few versions of the suburbs have broken down. The initial suburbs were directly alongside the central city. The inner ring of suburbs that developed next were often serviced with public transit and were dense and walkable. However for the second, third, and fourth generation of suburbs prospective homebuyers were driven further into former agricultural areas along freeways. It seems though that the suburban experiment in the 1990s began to reach a point of diminishing returns. Commutes got longer and longer and prices kept climbing. Gallagher writes that many point to the mortgage crisis and high gas prices for killing suburbs, but the truth is that urban property values began to climb again (after decades of decline) in the 1980s.

The cars that promised liberty were transforming into prisons as millions of North Americans trapped themselves for hours a day grinding their ways between work and home. The demographic explosion that justified the suburbs, the Baby Boom, is much diminished. Birth rates have cratered. There is far less need for properties for kids to play in with many bedrooms when fewer people are coupling and having children.

The End of the Suburbs reads like a very long article as it is written in an accessible, casual way, which makes sense given that the author is a journalist. The author conducts interviews that demonstrate many of the failings of suburban life, and contrasts them with people proposing, building or living alternatives. A number of big developers appear in the book, which gives a clear example of how the market is transforming on the demand and supply sides.

There is a slim undercurrent in the book that suggests what is emerging is suburban-like cities and city-like suburbs. I had similar thinking looking at some of the 'new hip' neighbourhoods of Toronto, like Liberty Village. All the chains and wealth of the suburbs have been poured into condominiums and boutiques offering faux-authentic brick even though it's the same chain from the strip mall in the 'burbs.

I think Gallagher does a convincing job laying out the case that the unending sprawl is going to slow down, if not come to an end. But, what will take its place isn't the past but some hybrid of urban and suburban living. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in the future of the suburbs and the housing market. It is entirely accessible to a lay audience but sophisticated enough for people well versed in the subject.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Worth Reading - February 18, 2016

A bit of a shorter list, but some very juicy items in here. 

According to Oliver Moore's reporting Toronto will need the Smart Track plan and the Downtown Relief Line to prevent the system from overloading in 30 years

Related, planners in Toronto want feedback on a string of projects on the drawing board. The map is certainly exciting to look at, and I am compelled to wonder if any of it will ever come to pass.

Manitoba provincial politics is real complicated at the moment. Much like British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell, Premier Selinger of the NDP introduced a sales tax without properly campaigning on it and caused much strife in the NDP. The opposition Conservatives and Liberals may reap the benefits of the internal divisions

Shutting out critics is no way to win friends. Premier Notley's office in Alberta tried to ban the Rebel, a conservative media enterprise. 

In the Toronto Star, an open letter calling on New Democrats to support Tom Mulcair as leader of the NDP. 

About a week ago I purchased the video game The Witness and it is fair to say that I am a bit obsessed. Here is one of the artists from the project sharing the work behind it. It is a beautiful game. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Antonin Scalia and the Death of Controversial Figures

I learned about Antonin Scalia's death on Twitter, either the first or second piece about it that I saw was from The Onion with the headline "Justice Scalia Dead Following 30-year Battle With Social Progress" And this roughly sums up my feelings about Scalia.

For those who don't know Antonin Scalia was a United States Supreme Court justice appointed by Ronald Reagan. During the Renquist Court he was the second most conservative justice and he is credited as one of the intellectual fathers for the originalist interpretation of the constitution. Scalia was quick witted, boisterous, confrontational, passionate and at times very funny. I watched a number of speeches he gave years ago because I found him a compelling speaker. Intellectually his ideas have great appeal on the surface, the Supreme Court should interpret the constitution as it is written and not impose conditions, clauses or rulings that do not stem from the Founders' original vision.

However, for as appealing as the originalist interpretation of the American constitution is it has incredibly negative social impacts on the United States which is why Scalia was so deserving of The Onion's headline. It would not be wrong to say that the votes Scalia cast and opinions he wrote had a tangible negative impact on the lives millions of Americans. The litany of cases ranging from civil rights, affirmative action, gay rights, the power of the state, regulating business and finance generally gave more power to the powerful.

There tends to be a pattern when a major figure like Scalia dies. First there is genuine surprise and perfunctory well wishes, this is followed by that person's critics dancing on that person's grave, then the backlash to that criticism, often summed up by "have some respect," and then long combative essays are written as the body is laid to rest debating the man or woman's legacy. As much as you may believe that you'd always be respectful there is probably some public figure that rubs you the wrong way enough that you would take some satisfaction from their passing. When Jim Flaherty passed away I had mixed feelings. Like most people he lived somewhere in the gray, he had very troubling positions on a number of social issues and his role in the Harper years left much to be desired (to put it briefly), but I was not at all comfortable cheering the man's demise. I think that was at least partially driven by the fact that he had left public life.

In the United States the justices of the Supreme Court sit for life. Some choose to retire but many die on the bench. Openings on the Supreme Court are so rare that presidents may only get a chance to fill one or two vacancies. At the start of the Roberts Court the United States Supreme Court lurched radically to the right. Many of the controversial decisions handed down from the court have come from this period where there were four very conservative judges, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Roberts and Anthony Kennedy often siding with them. This is how you ended up with cases like Citizens United which basically made it possible to spend unlimited money on campaigns.

Therefore Scalia's death under a progressive president is to tremendous benefit to the United States to the eyes of many. Even supporters of Scalia recognize this as they argue his replacement should not be selected until after the election, hoping a Republican can name a Scalia acolyte to the court.

Obviously it is unseemly to be happy at the passing of a fellow human being. I'm sure if Scalia retired two years ago and passed away there would be a much more sympathetic tone to his legacy. There is a simple truth that someone's hero is often someone else's villain. When Vladimir Putin dies there will be great sadness in parts of Russia I'm sure, and others will clink their glasses. Sadly the same is true of Barack Obama, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, but the public vote on these figures and can remove them, that is not the case with a despot like Putin or a judge. It would seem wise to me for opponents of the recent deceased to contain their glee, but at the same time just because a public figure passes does not mean a whitewashing for their cannonization needs to begin either.  

If you want to learn more about the Supreme Court you might want to check out Jeffrey Toobin's book, The Nine, my review is here

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Worth Reading - February 11, 2016

The city of Houston redesigned its entire bus system to fix declining ridership. I imagine there are a lot of cities that could do with a rethink of its system.

Apparently Aragorn's claimto the throne of Gondor is baseless. HE IS NOT THE TRUE KING!

From the New Republic, Bernie Sanders may represent the future of the Democratic Party as more of its membership identifies with more liberal values. 

Andrew Coyne satirizes Prime Minister Trudeau's remarks on the ISIS mission

Are the Liberals using consultations to avoid making decisions? It is a common tactic of Ontario Liberals.

The NDP's post-election reflection continues. I have to say that I agree with the opening paragraph here pretty strongly. 

Representatives from Brampton's business community say that disunity on Council is impeding progress. Duh.

The Union-Pearson Express may be converted into a commuter train... which would seem to defeat its purpose a bit, no? 

Today Ontario voters in Whitby-Oshawa will be voting in a by-election for the provincial seat. 

Charles M. Blow in the New York Times wrote this piece title, "White America's 'Broken Heart' discussing whether or not the presidential election boils down to America making sense of its demographic transformation

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Learning the Wrong Lesson from Elections

One of the most common errors political parties and politicians make is over-learning the lessons of the previous election and applying them to the current one. This idea has been rolling into my head since the 2015 federal election. As I have mentioned in posts preceding this one, the NDP fell into this trap. They are hardly the first party to fall victim to it, and they definitely won't be the last.

Here's how it goes. In the wake of election the defeated party or parties are forced to reflect on the outcome. Voters, for their indescribable reasons, chose Party A over Party B. In order to correct the problems advocates within the party push to move the party to resemble the victorious party in whatever way was deemed the reason for victory. I've seen this many times in American politics. When the Democrats are defeated there are calls to move towards the centre to recapture voters. When the Republicans are vanquished and appear to be in the wilderness their critics suggest a move to the left and a more open party would ensure them victory.

Sometimes this is successful. The 2006 victory of the Democrats was partially brought about by recruiting ore conservative candidates that could win in redder states and districts. More often than not though this idea has a habit of breaking down.

Voters, it seems to me, want alternatives, not pale imitations. Parties that simply copy their opponents risk making themselves irrelevant. They are unlikely to woo the base of the other party and alienate their own supporters and voters hoping to real change. In election strategy jargon they call this contrasts, ways you can demonstrate favourable differences with your opponents. Each political party has core brands or associated values, trying to borrow someone else's will, at best, feel inauthentic.

The 2015 election offers an interesting case study in this regard. In the wake of the 2011 election both the Liberals and New Democrats had to decide how to approach the coming election, and both, for different reasons, needed to find a new leader. The NDP's membership made a choice to follow Jack Layton's model as a centre-left party, remain on the left on social issues, continue to advocate for key groups, but present a 'friendlier' fiscal and rhetorical framework. This is afterall part of the way Stephen Harper had managed to build his majority, his perceived stewardship of the economy and public purse. The Liberal Party, often thin on ideology, selected a new leader to try to win them the election, the charismatic Justin Trudeau. Trudeau is not the man you would pick if you thought you had to run a campaign similar to Harper to win an election. Someone like Ralph Goodale would fit much more in that model.

Leaving aside the platforms one can look at the campaign to see how the parties differentiated themselves. For four years the Conservatives banked on another election built on economic concerns, and so did the NDP. The election actually turned on Stephen Harper and essentially became a referendum on him. Justin Trudeau offered the stronger contrast with the Prime Minister.

Parties are poised to make a similar error again. Already the Conservatives are making noises that they need a "Sunny Ways" leader to take them into the future. Likewise in the NDP there are concerns that the Liberals flank to the left is what doomed them, so a shift leftward with a new leader is the answer to their problems. If Canadians decide to kick Justin Trudeau and the Liberals out of power in 2019 it will be if they find an alternative the like, not if each party presents their version of Liberal-Light or Trudeau-Light. Parties, generally, need to be true to themselves and offer an option, not play the "Me Too!" game. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Worth Reading - February 4, 2016

Becoming a Canadian Senator has become slightly more open. The advisory panel will be accepting applications from everyday citizen

This post on Granola Shotgun highlights a concrete example of regulation stifling innovation

From City Lab, how colleges impact the local economy. However, this is hardly a solution for struggling towns.

I spend a lot of time thinking about and learning about video games (and very little time playing video games...). Video games have come a long way and are now considered by many to be a legitimate art form. However, this author says that we are too quick to praise and parse now

Good news, people who harass people on Twitter can now be held to criminal harassment charges

Aaron Wherry writes about the slight improvement of the decorum in the House of Commons. 

One of the hottest issues I dealt with while in the Northwest Territories, junior kindergarten, is back in the news. 

Scott Reid in the Ottawa Citizen asks Why does the NDP need to exist

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Future of Tom Mulcair and the NDP

In the wake of the election the defeated parties are forced into moments of introspection and scrutiny. The reaction can be predictable. Some group within the party who felt maligned and pushed out by the current leadership will declare that they are right all along. "If only they had listened to us!" And then there are those who will instead blame the public for not embracing the party of their choice. The NDP is currently in this position and is questioning its future, its ideology and its leader.

Since the leadership of Jack Layton the NDP has moved towards the centre of the political spectrum. Following the tremendous electoral gains and death of Jack Layton the NDP was left with a political conundrum, would they press forward to try to win power or remain the conscience of the parliament? The battle for the future of the party was embodied in the leadership contest.

In the final, fourth ballot Tom Mulcair defeated Brian Topp 57.2% to 42.8%. But looking at the candidates who ran it is clear that most hailed from the centre-left, not the hard left. In 2011 the NDP was in a different position and ready to be the government-in-waiting. The moderation of the NDP federally was not an aberration. The federal party in many ways was mirroring what its successful peers provincially had done across the country.

Despite many successes and solid poll numbers under Tom Mulcair's leadership the election slipped through the NDP's fingers. I haven't written about this on this blog but the NDP did not lose the election because of Tom Mulcair. I think he had troubles in his first election as leader, but he was building real support across the country. Ultimately it might be the flawed appeal to Quebec that sunk the NDP. I think the campaign assumed Quebec would be in the bank and no part of the platform appealed to voters in that province. One of the most prominent parts of the platform, $15/day daycare, was superfluous in Quebec given that they have $7/day daycare. Then factor in the niqab debate and NDP's hopes for the province eroded dramatically. As the national numbers declined anti-Harper voters fled to the Liberals.

Mulcair holds responsibility for the election, but should he resign as leader?

This isn't a simple yes/no question. If you believe Mulcair should stay on then fine, but if you believe he should leave then you have to suggest an alternative leader. Despite the beating the NDP experienced in 2015 it has a strong presence in Quebec. Who do you propose who can speak French fluently to lead the NDP? Will the left-wing of the party call in Brian Topp to lead them? He currently works in Premier Rachel Notley's office, not as an elected politician. Can the Trudeau Liberals continue to hold onto their gains in Quebec? If the NDP are not there as an active opposition they may revert back to the Bloc.

Surveying the NDP landscape I have a hard time seeing a better candidate to lead the party than Tom Mulcair. He is fluent in French and English, a tremendous performer in the House of Commons, and with real political experience. The real problem is the political position of the NDP. The Liberals were able to capitalize on a popular leader and collapsing Conservative support. The NDP should probably move back to the left slightly to hold the Liberals to account, but frankly they have moved to the left themselves on many issues. Holding the Liberals to their promises should be enough to drive up NDP support, but without a credible, effective leader these benefits will accrue to the Conservatives. Party members will have a chance to express themselves this April in Edmonton. Hopefully they have the ability to look past their anger and ideology and make the right choice.