Thursday, March 31, 2016

Worth Reading - March 31, 2016

The Republican presidential primaries have sucked up a lot of attention. I must admit that I haven't paid a lot of attention to the competition to the Democrats, largely because I bought into the narrative that Clinton was the inevitable nominee. There is growing evidence that that isn't the case. In this article there is a clip from Morning Joe discussing why the perspective is tilted that way and whether or not Bernie is now favoured to win

The Guardian lays out the difficult path for Sanders to win the Democratic nomination

I included this in my Tuesday post, but just in case you missed it, the Ontario Liberals are squeezing business and unions for donations for access

Here's a second story on the same topic, if this doesn't feel like corruption on some level, or a perversion of democratic politics than I don't know what is. 

Dale Smith wrote about the lost collegiality between politicians

The Toronto Star lays out some of the options for the Downtown Relief line

Columbus Ohio has opted to give out transit passes rather than build a new costly parking structure. 

Sometimes building a crosswalk isn't what pedestrians need

Susan Delacourt discusses the role of the party conventions as all three major federal parties are poised to hold critical gatherings. It isn't a nice picture, in my opinion. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Failures of Leadership and Stagnation in Ontario

This afternoon I was reading on the Toronto Star website trying to get ideas on what I might want to write about for today. I think it is fair to say that I have been feeling disappointed in politics over the last few months. Since the federal election there has been little to be too excited about from my point of view. While I lean more towards the policy and ideas side of politics I still want to be inspired and like my political leaders, and I feel a distinct absence of that.

I've spent nearly all of my life in the province of Ontario. It is my home, it a place I love, but at the same time if feels more and more like a place that is failing. I think it is more than fair to say that the provincial political system is broken. The Toronto Star recently reported on what can only be seen as corruption, or dangerous blurring between politicians and big donors. Cabinet ministers in Ontario's government have been given fundraising targets and must appeal to big corporate donors in areas they are responsible for to achieve their goals. This stinks. The Liberals held a fundraiser and raised $3 million in one night. I am naturally very suspicious of money in politics, I think it has a corrupting influence and distorts the principles of our system.

Premier Kathleen Wynne (OLP - Don Valley West) had promise in my eyes when she was elected. A left-of-centre Liberal, I thought she had the approach to clean up the McGuinty years and change Queen's Park for the better. The longer her term in office goes it seems like the rot may be going even deeper. Billions of dollars are added to the deficit and Ontarians have little to show for it. Indeed, our public services remain strong, but infrastructure investment continues to lack behind.

The alternatives offer little hope in my eyes. Patrick Brown, the new Progressive Conservative leader comes from a more right-wing section of the Conservative Party. He speaks like a moderate and has made gestures towards the middle, but I have to wonder if the young leader promises anything else other than budget cuts, fee increases and public strife were he elected. Does he offer any meaningful change to reform the problems in Queen's Park? I have my doubts.

I am a New Democrat, with the membership card and everything, yet I have been left very cold by Andrea Horwath's (ONDP - Hamilton Centre) leadership. The zag to the populist right in the 2014 election campaign and the NDP strategy during the minority years did not greatly inspire me. Nor for a bunch of internal party reasons am I particularly enamoured with the central leadership at this time. Nor do I  see the NDP making clear policy choices to fix the problems in this province.

I'm sure this is clearer to Ontarians elsewhere, but it feels more and more that this province is stuck in the muck. The old industrial economy has essentially vanished and nothing has really filled its place. If it wasn't for the public sector and the Toronto economic engine I wonder if the place wouldn't have already fallen off the proverbial cliff. How much of our economy is being driven by a housing bubble, which while creating jobs gobbles up farm land and puts housing out of reach of the poor and the young?

Sometimes this is when looking to mayors would offer more hope. I didn't vote for my current mayor and I was unsure of her. I remain mixed on Brampton mayor Linda Jeffrey, I have real questions about her policy directions, but mostly it is the rest of council's positions on transparency, city management, development and transit that has me grinding my teeth. In an odd way John Tory might be the Ontario politician I have the most faith in, but it isn't motivated by any excitement, more of a basic competence. Even that opinion is given pause when I consider issues like Smart Track and the Scarborough Subway.

In a recent conversation with a friend I launched into a tirade about the status quo. There are so many things wrong in Canada, Ontario, and the GTA that are perpetuated mostly by a fear of change and acceptance of the status quo. Things could be so much better. The lack of inspiration I feel about our current political class may reflect more of my own cynicism than their actual capabilities. Given the sea change on the federal scene perhaps there are some MPs out there who could make a difference. I'd like to be proven wrong. Who is out there to believe in?

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Worth Reading - March 24, 2016

New Zealand clearly made the wrong choice in the flag referendum

The Washington Post shared its entire transcript of its sit down with Donald Trump. Whew...

Speaking of Trump, here is a piece about the rise of authoritarianism in American politics from Vox. 

Sean Marshall has a great piece about passenger rail in Canada here

Jim Hillyer, a Conservative Member of Parliament for Alberta, passed away suddenly in his office at a very young age. All the party leaders offered touching condolences and remarks about the man in the House.  

Former mayor Rob Ford passed away this week. From Now here is a piece that talks about Ford's important contribution to the divides in Toronto, though he was hardly a competent mayor. 

Another piece on Rob Ford's tenure as mayor by Edward Keenan. 

With Rob Ford's passing City Council must decide what to do with his seat, likely leading to a by-election

There is a new book out about the revival of a post-industrial Australian city, it may contain lessons for citizens in Canada's rust belt. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed 7 new, admittedly impressive, independent senators

In the Globe and Mail William Thorsell panics over the appearance of independent senators 

This author is very excited for the strategy video game Stellaris, and I am too. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Silencing the Opposition or the Odious

There is a certain tactic in play in the modern protest movement or in contemporary politics that I find troubling, and frustrating. In the lead up to a speech by Donald Trump in Arizona protesters blocked a highway to prevent people from attending the event. I have major problems with this from a philosophical point of view. Anyone who reads my blog or my Twitterfeed no doubt has a good sense of my ideological issues with Trump. I think he is a horrendous candidate, but at the same time I am not going to condone people from preventing people from seeing the man speak.

Far too often it seems to be the objective of groups to silence those they don't agree with. Trump is not the outlier, though he may inspire a level of passion we do not normally see. Last year an infamous men's rights activist (and shameless troll/self-promoter) was scheduled to make speeches in a few Canadian cities. Mayors publicly stated he was not welcome and several people called on the federal government to ban him from entering the country. The mayors' interventions are fine, they are politicians expressing their opinions. However, barring a person from entering the country based on their political views is... troubling.

To be clear, it isn't just people on the right. Leftists also have been targeted. Former British Member of Parliament, George Galloway, for his positions on the Middle East and associations was targeted by critics who claimed a person of his views was not welcome in Canada. Anita Sarkeesian, culture critic who largely focuses on video games, has had to cancel events due to threats of violence.

When speakers do get to hold their events it is not uncommon for protestors to heckle, disrupt and shout down the controversial figure. There is a long list of speakers who have had this fate. On university campuses bioethicists and pro-life speakers are particularly vulnerable, as are controversial political figures or politicians.

My idealistic streak tells me that silencing ideas is not the way to win arguments or make change. Debates are won and minds are changed through the exchange of ideas. The level of comfort people have with silencing people rather than countering them is disturbing. We'd rather live in artificially peaceful consensus than contentious ideological and social strife. Censorship is a troubling thing and while the state has largely removed itself from curtailing our speech and assembly private interests seem very willing to create social censorship and declare persons and topics non grata. Some progressives would say that the messages these speakers share are actively harmful and promote existing power structures and oppression. However, ending debate through disruption does not move the needle on broader society, if anything it creates sympathies for the target. More could be done by counter programming, protest, judicious questioning, letters to the editor, and social media responses. In an era where it is easier than ever to speak out it is odd how much effort is put into shutting people up. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Worth Reading - March 17, 2016

Chatter about Americans fleeing Trump's America has Andray Domise saying those people can stay home

CBC reported on a student's complaint of sexual assault against a Brock University professor and the failure of the university administration to act effectively. I am outraged for the victim, I am heartbroken for my department and disappointed in my alma mater.

Rare in incidents such as these, the woman at the centre of this released a statement. I would hope this statement is widely read because it gives a view from the perspective of someone in the middle of this kind of situation and the difficulties of the system and culture around it.

Several dozen faculty at Brock has signed an open letter calling for changes to university policy to make things like this impossible from happening again. 

Divyesh Mistry wrote a piece about NIMBYism in the GTA

Martin Regg Cohn asks whether or not Patrick Brown, leader of the Progressive Party of Ontario, can revive the Big Blue Machine in light of the floundering Liberals. 

Manitoba is in the middle of its own election. The final vote is April 19th. I will gladly accept the late birthday gift of election drama.

Chantal Hebert writes that the Conservatives and NDP should reassess its approach to the Liberal government and Prime Minister Trudeau.  

President Barack Obama has made his selection to replace Antonin Scalia on the supreme court, one Merrick Garland

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Book Review: Irresponsible Government by Brent Rathgeber

Brent Rathgeber until the fall of 2015 was a Member of Parliament for Edmonton-St. Albert, and in the 2015 election he was an independent candidate for St. Albert-Edmonton. He partnered with Dundurn Press to share his impressions with the failings of the Canadian parliamentary system. This book, if nothing else, is a fascinating snapshot of the Canadian political landscape in 2013. It would be foolish  to dismiss this book as an anti-Harper book from a disgruntled former MP. Rathgeber offers a thoughtful deconstruction of Canadian governance from the perspective of an insider, a man with a particular ideology, and a person who believes in responsible government.

Rathgeber, for context, was an elected representative from 2008 to 2015. He was elected as a Conservative. He was a strong MP who sat on the backbenches. He began running afoul of the Prime Minister's Office over issues of substance early on. The breaking point came when his private member's bill to disclose the salaries and responsibilities of civil servants over a certain amount, similar to the sunshine list in Ontario, was gutted. On orders from the PMO the minimum was raised to over $300000, making it essentially useless. He resigned as a member of Conservative caucus and afterwards became a much more outspoken critic of the Stephen Harper government. That all said, this is not a partisan rant, or an excuse for Rathgeber to sharpen knifes and get back at old slights.

The title of the book is taken from the loss of responsible government, the system by which the executive is held to account by the elected representatives of the people. Rathgeber suggests that the government in Canada today hardly reflects this initial principle in our governance. The decline of Canada's parliament has taken decades to unfold and has been the responsibility of Liberal and (Progressive) Conservative Prime Ministers. If you're familiar with my blog you are well-versed in the long list of problems, and Rathgeber shares his take on them. While I cannot recall if Rathgeber labels his ideological stance, but libertarian or fiscal conservative would probably be the best fit. He suggests that the tremendous growth of the government and social welfare programs and bureaucracies make it incredibly challenging for Members of Parliaments to properly scrutinize spending and understand it. It's a rarely heard argument.

The book is divided into brief, comprehensive chapters tackling a specific aspect of the problem: cabinet as a bloated, ineffective institution; convoluted program spending; excessive party discipline; centralization of power in the Prime Minister's Office; the toxic partisan atmosphere of the PMO; the ineffectiveness of the media and broken access to information laws.

While much of Rathgeber's arguments will be familiar to those familiar with this debate he does offer something new. His take on a couple of topics is different from what I've read elsewhere and so I imagine those fascinated by this subject will gain something valuable. Rathgeber also tackles the topic of electoral reform and possible solutions to our irresponsible government. The author thinks the system's original structure is worth preserving and therefore is hesitant about a total overall proportional representation would suggest, but alternative vote seems to appeal to him. One of the bolder recommendations he made was that outside of the Prime Minister the cabinet should be drawn from outside of the Parliament so that MPs can focus on the business of governing rather than try to fulfill their ambitions. It is a radical solution, which at first I rejected, but I think it might have real merit in the provinces where legislatures are smaller.

The book has some issues. Having been published in 2014 the book is remarkably of that time. The Mike Duffy scandal is very much unfolding and the future of the Harper ministry is unclear. Still the snapshot is very informative and does not hinder it a great deal. And for those who think the election of the Liberal government in 2015 fixes these problems I would suggest they consider the institutional flaws discussed in this text. Finally, the editing of this book was sloppy in places. In one chapter it appears two versions of a paragraph appear one after the other. There are a few instances when I rolled my eyes at the errors of the editor. Aside from these flaws this is a valuable text from a wonderful former Member of Parliament with insight to the crisis at the heart of our political life. Even the ideological disagreements between myself and the author helped to illustrate other potential issues and causes worth pondering. If only all our MPs could have this as a guide we'd be well on our way to a better, more responsible government.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Worth Reading - March 10, 2016

Johnny Sanphillippo writes about the language around gentrification and white flight. He argues that this might belie a deeper conversation about poverty and poor people.

Suburban poverty is something I think about a lot. From Strong Towns, here is a piece about suburban decline in Florida

Jon Lorinc in Spacing writes that York Region and a lack of provincial leadership means more delays for the critical Downtown Relief Line. 

CGP Grey made a wonderful video about the philosophy of Star Trek's transporters.  

Sigh. Disappointingly Premier Kathleen Wynne is supporting Ontario's dubious political donation system

A 14-year-old Winnipeg girl penned a letter to the mayor and police for if she went missing

Related to the Johnny Sanphillippo piece above, how do cities grow without alienating their poorer residents

Colbie Cash's piece on Donald Trump/Drumpf is a bit meandering, but it gets at an important point, that he represents a key part of the American political landscape

And speaking of which, SNL created a wonder little ad for Trump. Enjoy

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

TV Review: House of Cards (U.S.) Season 4

Warning: Below will contain spoilers for House of Cards (U.S.) for season four and references to preceding seasons.

There is a severe lack of political fiction on television, especially good political fiction. The first season of Netflix's House of Cards was a wonderful showcase of what a good political drama/thriller could be like. Borrowing heavily from the superb House of Cards of the United Kingdom, House of Cards brought us into a corrupt world of power, scheming and ambition.

As with many shows though House of Cards lost its way. Season two was convoluted with a plot that took a slide rule and red yarn to cipher out. At the conclusion of season three I was not sure House of Cards was worth watching any more. The plot did not go anywhere and the big political questions were ludicrous and predictable. More importantly what I, as a viewer, came to see in House of Cards was entirely absent. House of Cards was appealing in the first two seasons (and especially season one) because it was about Frank (Francis) Underwood's scheming to climb the greasy ladder of American politics inviting the viewer to play along by breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience. Season three on the other hand was watching Frank struggle and fail repeatedly and adding in that the season introduced a group of new characters who were not terribly interesting, including the seasons main antagonist. After my disappointment with season three I recorded a podcast with a friend on her website about our feelings on House of Cards in general and season three in particular, which you can find here.

Season four rights many of the wrongs that seasons two and three were burdened by. Frank Underwood is once again in the fight of his life, but one he seems well equipped to handle. The season is broken into two distinct halves. The first six episodes primarily deal with Underwood's conflict with his wife, Claire, a formidable figure in her own right. At the close of season three Claire walks out on Frank on the night of the Iowa caucus. When the series resumes Frank has an incredibly dangerous adversary, the one woman who can completely destroy him and has all the tools to accomplish it. Claire, frustrated at operating in Frank's shadow, looks to achieve her own elected office. This will be her primary motivation through the season. Frank has just as much power to undermine Claire's campaign. The two come to an understanding and bury the hatchet and come up with their own scheme. If they are to be partners in things, they should be partners in all things and Claire demands to be Frank's running mate.

A husband and wife ticket is ludicrous in the real world and strained credibility as I watched, as I'm sure it did for many. The writers on the show reinforce the idea by suggesting that Claire is immensely popular and is seen as an obvious asset. There are many precedents of a wife succeeding a husband, Eva Peron comes to mind. The Underwoods almost embody some form of monarchy, but even that doesn't feel right.

The battle for the Democratic nomination is going badly for Frank and he is barely holding on when tragedy strikes and he is gunned down by Lucas Goodwin, a former editor for the Washington Herald and a recurring character since season one. Frank is badly injured in the incident and is left incapacitated for several episodes. Into this vacuum Claire asserts her control over the executive government, largely through Acting-President Donald Blythe. Frank's hallucinations and dreams during his hospital stay are some of the most intriguing scenes of the season and combine imagery and characters from the show with a surreal, nightmare quality.

The second half of the season focuses in on the general election between Underwood and Governor William Conway of New York. The Conways may remind Canadian viewers a bit of our own recently elected Prime Minister, a young candidate with an attractive family and savvy social media presence. However, the writers of the show seem to be going for a contrast between Conway's Kennedy and Underwood's Nixon.

I will leave the rest of the plot aside to say that compared to season three and two season four manages to touch upon real issues in a realistic, light way. Some of the topics addressed in the season include: America's history and race relations, gun control, ISIS (through a proxy), domestic surveillance, data-driven campaigning, and end of life care. Morality questions are steeped through the season and offer difficult questions, perhaps the best of which being the conflict between Doug Stamper and the Surgeon General and the emotional fallout for Stamper.

I criticized House of Cards in the podcast I recorded with Bina (link above) by saying that many of the characters on the show felt incredibly thin. One of the best aspects of House of Cards season four is that so many of the characters from preceding seasons make an appearance and have real weight behind them. It reinforces the weight of what has come before in the show, that all the betrayals, slights and deeds of the Underwoods have consequences, even if they are delayed.

Two major cast additions in the season are Joel Kinnamon, who plays Governor Conway and Neve Campbell, who plays Leanne Masters a Democratic strategist. I have few criticisms of Campbell's performance. She arrives on the scene with force and offers a counterweight to Doug Stamper. Kinnamon on the other hand was a bit of a reach as Conway. His delivery felt a bit stiff and unnatural, though perhaps no more unnatural than Marco Rubio's.

Season four concludes on a decidedly dark note. It is unclear how much the showrunners intend to turn the Underwoods into malicious authoritarians instead of corrupt manipulators. The drama on the show is over the top, no doubt, the characters can waffle between profound and paper thing, but what I will say is that season four was fun to watch again. In my notes for the show under episode nine I wrote, "Love that 'What the hell is happening?!' feeling." House of Cards season four recaptures that sense of excitement because you're just half a step behind or something completely unpredictable happens that changes the game. I am not certain Beau Willimon and the rest of the creative team can pull it off for another season, but they certainly righted the sinking ship in my opinion. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Worth Reading - March 3, 2016

To my great frustration last night my PC updated and I lost all the notes I made for this week's worth reading. I am tempted to launch into a diatribe about how no update should be launched with open files, but I'll constrain myself. SIGH.

Strong Towns is a fantastic organization. One of their goals is to provide everyday people with the tools to advocate for the communities. This is a story of man using Strong Towns' materials to push for change in his community. 

From the Ottawa Citizen, Peter Loewen says that fears of democratic crisis belong more at our sad provincial scenes, not the federal level. 

Here are some reflections on city-building games and their innate assumptions. These are some of my favourite games, Cities: Skylines is fantastic.

An Italian writer warns Americans that Trump is slotting nicely into Berlusconi's model

Also from Strong Towns, one problem in the US is a shortage of traditional urban areas that people increasingly want. 

Not long ago I was a university student in the midst of binge drinking culture. CBC put out a documentary looking at the binge drinking culture of young women and some of the scary and dangerous consequences. I recommend it.

The Northern Journal looks to ending its run in Fort Smith. I worked a lot with the Northern Journal in my time in the North and was sad to see this news.

Here is the final editorial of the Northern Journal. Another sad statement on the place of newspapers.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Beware Infrastructure Spending

Often governments promise to revitalize a flagging economy through infrastructure spending. Listening to the recent news on how the federal government plans to spend infrastructure I think people should understand the difference between valuable and trivial infrastructure spending.

Years ago when the Conservatives launched their Economic Action Plan it included all sorts of projects, but one example that comes to mind is the construction of new hockey arenas for municipalities. This is a form of infrastructure, but it has almost no magnifying effect on the larger economy. After the centre is built it generally creates little, if any, employment and does nothing to benefit the regional economy. In fact, if might be a net negative given the ongoing expense to the municipality to support it and maintain it.

There are other forms of infrastructure that have a lasting impact and positive economic spin-offs. One of the most important things rulers did centuries and millennia ago did to build their countries was construct roads. Linking together the disparate parts of their kingdom or empire with a more reliable transportation network brought goods and people together and caused the expansion of trade and the growth of cities. As time has passed the mode has shifted. It went to canals and railways and public transit. To be clear, expanding a highway rarely counts as the sort of economic development I am talking about here.

The goal with stimulus infrastructure spending should be to make long-term investments that have tangible benefits to the economy. What would have more economic benefit, repairing the roofs on a thousand community centres or funding a project like the Downtown Relief Line in Toronto? New stations across the city would become new hubs for development. It is easy to imagine tens of millions of dollars of new construction following those projects.

When I lived in Fort Smith there were conversations that a permanent road should be built from Fort Smith to Fort Chipewyan and on to Fort McMurray. That construction would dramatically reduce the cost of development and business in that region of Alberta and costs in the Northwest Territories. It also would revive Fort Smith as a gateway community instead of one at the end of the road.

I generally view the economy as a Keynesian, but building rec centres and filling potholes should not be counted as the kind of infrastructure spending that will alleviate unemployment and be viewed as meaningful investments. Real infrastructure improvements to get the economy moving should be more than wish list promises and make-work schemes. Governments need to have the courage to stay that money in programs such as these are better spent on projects with strong long-term results and not be comforted by cutting a cheque for every little town in Canada.