Thursday, January 28, 2016

Worth Reading - January 28, 2016

Very brief list this week, I've been spending most of my reading fiction and a pile of articles about urban issues and urban revitalization. I've also spent the week burning through the backlog I've built up on the Granola Shotgun blog

The Toronto Star has an article on a condo speculation in Waterloo in the wake of Google opening operations there. The piece feels a bit sleazy to me, but interesting nonetheless.

Paul Wells offers his view on the first 100 days of the Trudeau government, which is vaguely shocking that it has been that long. 

Reported in the Brampton Guardian, Mayor Jeffrey continues to lose control over the Council and Council is considering a rule change that will make it harder to revive contentious issues.

Royson James has some tough questions about Toronto's leadership regarding its transit policies

Edward Keenan says Mayor John Tory is disappointing voters on the left and right, just as he promised.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Film Review: Cartel Land

This is the first film review I have done on the blog. Though I have watched many documentaries with compelling narratives appropriate for this blog this is the first one that grabbed me so powerfully that I feel compelled to share it.

Cartel Land is a simple story showing how two different groups are responding to the growing power of the Mexican cartels. The first is a group of Minutemen patrolling a stretch of the Arizona border going by the name of Arizona Border Recon. The area they patrol is well used by coyotes to get migrants across the border. Tim "Nailer" Foley, the leader of Arizona Border Recon, shares his worldview throughout the film. I will admit that at first he comes across as a paranoid anti-government nut, but as the feel progresses and he is able to present evidence that the area is used by human smugglers then his narrative becomes more compelling. Nailer is a man who sees the world in black and white, and some of his compatriots are exactly the type of militia racists you expect. The documentarians capture his outrage often through Nailer's consumption of media. Oftentimes right-wing cable news talking heads are the lead in to whatever conversation he has with the film crew.  

Most of the story focuses on the struggle within Mexico itself in the state of Michoacan. In Michoacan local leaders come together to form the Autodefensas, a civilian self-defence force with the stated mission of driving out the cartels from the communities since the government will not act. The documentarians spent a great deal of time with members of the Autodefensas, but principally with its spokesperson, Dr. Jose Mireles.

In the case of the Mexican response to cartel violence I do not want to go into very much detail. I found the arc of their story the most fascinating part of the documentary. Every ten minutes presents a new reveal that casts the entire experiment into a different light and the fact that the documentarians caught it all on film is astounding. Sufficing to say, at the opening of the film the Autodefensas is remarkably successful. A collection of volunteers carrying horrifying amounts of weaponry successful drive out the cartels from a handful of communities. They story of the Autodefenses goes on from there. Speaking with a friend of mine more familiar with Latin American history and politics, he shared with me that what the documentary portrays is familiar to Mexican history and politics.

The scene that stuck out to me the most was early on in the film when the Autodefensas liberate a town from the cartels. Shortly afterward the military shows up and demands that the unauthorized civilian militia disarm themselves and leave. What happens next sent a chill up my neck. Called upon by the leaders of Autodefensas, civilians pour out of their homes and defend them, badgering, insulting and resisting the army. What makes the scene so compelling to me is that as a historian I felt like I was watching the seeds of a revolution. I imagine similar scenes played out across the Arab world during the Arab Spring or in Russia on the eve of its revolutions. There was something so tangible about the anger of the crowd that the potential for violence and active rebellion was just a misstep away.

How do we perceive vigilantes? It is very easy in the start of this film to support Mireles and his followers in their attempts to 'take their country back', but at the same time we view Americans who espouse the same rhetoric as a dangerous fringe. In both the United States and Mexico there comes into question the real power of the state. If the state's duty is to protect its citizens, uphold the rule of law and apply justice fairly it is hard to say that that is occurring on either side of the border.

The pervasive corruption of institutions is also a major theme in the documentary. Is it possible to have a fresh start, or does the corrosive environment doom any reform? This needn't be applied only to the vigilantes, but to political leaders as well. Ultimately this comes down to the distortions of the drug war. Cartel Land offers a different take from many documentaries I have seen on this topic. Drugs feature very little in the documentary in a sense, but in the background is the fact that American demand for narcotics is what is driving the chaos, violence and instability in Mexico.

The film is bookended by drugs, as if the director, Matthew Heineman, wanted to say that this is actually what this is all about. Everything that transpires in the intervening 90 minutes can be captures by these Mexican cooks.

 The United States has much to answer for for what is going on in Mexico, but I would add that Canadians have a responsibility to move past their blind ignorance as well. Mexico is more than sunny beaches and tequila. As fellow North Americans it should be incumbent upon us to try to support our friends in Mexico from this brutal cycle of violence. I highly recommend this documentary and as of this post it is available for free with your Netflix Canada subscription. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Worth Reading - January 21, 2016

I love the work of Strong Towns. This recent post about good bones of some cities that are currently seen as laggards follows my own line of thinking recently. A place like Scranton, PA has a lot going for it because of its strong roots

This is a bit of an odd one. I fell down a rabbit hole of reading about transit this week. Jarrett Walker offers a very simple explanation of how to build ridership in any community

Granola Shotgun is one of my favourite blogs at the moment. I highly recommend it. Here the author looks at traditionally-built cities of Middle America

The Saga of the Scarborough Subway continues with a headache-inducing compromise

Speaking of Toronto's baffling transit future, Jon Lorinc attempts to guide his readers with an update to Mayor Tory's Smart Track

Steve Paikin writes on the desperate need to revisit Ontario's political fundraising laws

Sarah Palin endorsed Donald Trump. Of course. The Atlantic has a piece describing how Palin laid the foundation for Trump's campaign. 

Michael Den Tandt calls out New Democrats and members of the press looking to turf Thomas Mulcair as leader of the NDP. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The 2016 Presidential Contest Begins

America's perpetual election cycle is preparing to take another pause for actual voting. Obama is in his last full year as President of the United States and so the contest to replace him will soon officially get underway. Of course candidates have been jockeying and competing with one another for well over a year but the actual voting does not begin until February 1, the date of the Iowa Caucus. For those of you who may not have followed an American presidential contest before, it can be a complicated process. Each American state/territory holds a caucus or primary to select delegates for the national convention that chooses the presidential candidate.

The Democratic contest has been rather sedate. Hillary Clinton is by far the front runner. She leads in every poll, and most state polls that I have seen. Her challenger is Bernie Sanders, Senator for Vermont. Sanders has been the progressive conscience of the congress for many years and is a self-declared socialist. Sanders only hope is if the anti-Clinton vote manifests again, but that seems unlikely given his firm left-wing positions.

Most of the excitement, it is fair to say, has been in the Republican contest. Donald Trump leads in all the early primary states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida). However his lead has been slipping, mostly to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. I shared an article by David Brooks last week in Worth Reading. Despite the legitimacy conveyed by his title Cruz remains a harsh ideologue. This should not be interpreted as a sensible move towards the establishment by Republican primary voters.

More moderate, sensible Republican choices such as Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Carly Fiorina are nowhere in this race. Bush leads this group and he's polling at 5% in Iowa and 8% in New Hampshire. Despite an open shot at the White House Republicans seem poised to select what can only be described as a fringe candidate. Donald Trump's right-wing populism and success of other outsider candidates like Ben Carson, has pushed the more 'normal' candidates into extreme ground.

I'd like to dismiss the possibility that Donald Trump might become the Republican candidate for president, but looking at the polls it is hard to shake. It seems pretty clear that his support has been slipping over the last couple of weeks, but Cruz has been the primary beneficiary.

Years ago I listened to Republican and Democratic strategists repeat the basic theory that if the Republican Party remains the party of White Men then it is doomed. America is becoming increasingly diverse. Having candidates that openly alienate entire segments of the population, i.e. Latinos is a recipe for irrelevance.

I stopped following American politics closely around 2009, but the prospect of these primaries has awoken my morbid sense of curiosity. I haven't been paying close enough attention to make any predictions as this stage, but with a tight Republican contest I will definitely cast my eye southwards from time to time. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Worth Reading - January 14, 2016

Andrew Coyne has begun a series of columns dedicated to the topic of electoral reform. The first makes clear that we need common understandings of the challenges facing Canadians.  The second, so far, looks at the peculiar problems of first-past-the-post

From the Toronto Star, an editorial in support of democratic reform, rather than simply just electoral reform. 

For the sake of balance, here is an article by a person who supports first-past-the-post. Note, the writer is English, not Canadian.

Kady O'Malley proposes to improve democracy in the House of Commons members should be allow more private/secret votes. While an intriguing notion it does interfere with the ability of the public to hold their representatives to account.

David Brooks has some unkind words for the potential Republican presidential candidate, Ted Cruz. The description of Cruz's rhetoric reminds me of the earlier conversation of Trump's flirtation with the far-right.

The Agenda is one of the best current affairs programs out there, and I shame myself by not watching it nearly as often as I should. They have a new look and format to appeal to the modern audience. 

Laura Payton in Maclean's discusses the issues confronting gender parity in Ottawa

An interesting piece from Strong Towns about the global middle class

Finally, Deborah Drever, the NDP MLA who was kicked out of her party shortly after the election for comments on social media offers an interview to the Calgary Herald on her experiences. There definitely seems more to this story than initially reported. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Moving Towards Electoral Reform

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (LPC - Papineau, QC) has repeatedly stated that 2015 will be the last election fought under the first-past-the-post model. Some version of electoral reform is on its way, that much seems very likely. I was tempted to say inevitable but there is a caveat that I will address soon.

The electoral reform will be selected by an parliamentary committee that will study this question, provide and recommendation and the government will move forward from there. Of course any parliamentary committee will be composed of Members of Parliament who are members of political parties with distinct interests in the electoral reform question.

The Greens and NDP are aligned on the electoral reform debate. They favour a proportional system. In such a system the number of seats a party wins in the House of Commons would approximately match the number of votes that party received. So, in the last election the Liberals received about 39% of the vote and would therefore be allocated 39% of the seats. The Greens and NDP favour this position for two reasons. The first explanation is rooted in equity. In a proportional system every vote is equal, there are no geographic distortions and minority desires are not shut out. The second reason is, of course, political. Smaller parties prefer proportional representation because their popularity often exceeds their ability to elect members. Both the NDP and Greens have concentrated support in certain areas but also receive votes across the country that do not add up enough to elect members. Proportional representation reflects that support in the House of Commons. Proportional representation is the standard in the democratic world. Germany, Japan, New Zealand, the vast majority of Europe and Latin America all use it.

The Conservatives oppose all forms of electoral reform. This is because the only system that allows them to form government in the current political dynamic is the first-past-the-post model. The Conservative Party is, at the moment, Canada's only right-wing party. The rest of the political spectrum is filled with centre/centre-left/left-wing parties. It is fair to say that in any given election that about 25-40% of the public may vote Conservative, which means they are very unlikely to form a government under proportional representation. Proportional systems encourage coalition governments and the Conservatives would have a much more difficult time finding willing partners. Their closest allies would be the Liberal Party, their chief rival. The Conservative Party has a vested interest in seeing electoral reform fail.

The Liberals are in a different place entirely. While I can recall Liberals advocating for proportional representation Justin Trudeau has expressed that the preferential ballot is more to his liking. Unsurprisingly the preferential ballot would likely disproportionately benefit the Liberal Party. In a preferential ballot voters rank their choices (1, 2, 3, 4). The candidate with the fewest votes is bumped off and those votes are redistributed to their second choice. This continues until one candidates has a majority of the votes. This reform would have the least dramatic implementation while still reshaping our politics. The impact would be particularly pronounced in Quebec now that many races are four-way contests.

Given the composition of the House of Commons I expect that this committee will recommend a preferential ballot. The question is whether or not the committee will impose a poison pill - a referendum. Referenda on electoral reforms have failed consistently in Canada. The status quo simply bears too much weight and the fear of change is pervasive. In any referendum the Conservatives would campaign hard and at least some percentage of the chattering classes will be dissatisfied that their preferred system wasn't chosen. In moments of deep cynicism I would not be surprised if the Liberals attached a referendum if proportional is selected to see that it fail.

Ultimately I hope 2015 is the last election with the first-past-the-post system. My preference is for a mixed-member proportional system, as they use in Germany. Given my opposition to FPTP I would even consider preferential as a more desirable option than the current model. If carried through this will be a major component of Trudeau's legacy, but it will be a very difficult task.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Worth Reading - January 7, 2016

City Planners in Vaughan are tackling the monumental task of building a downtown from suburban roots. Transit is the backbone of this project.

Here is an article talking about how communities can invest in themselves without gentrifying

A writer in Forbes asks, should we abandon struggling cities

I referenced this article in my Tuesday post. In it the author explores the sad reality that being a creative person on the internet hardly pays the bills, even if quite successful. He have a history of 'starving artists' but perhaps this is something new given the accessibility and mass use of 'art'.

Before the end of the year Paul Wells wrote a piece on the troubles of electoral reform

Here is Susan Delacourt's year-article. Her take away, politicians and parties need to remain humble

I like this article about Canada's generosity towards the Syrian refugee crisis. I think there has been a lot of backpatting, and perspective is badly needed.

The Brampton Guardian put together its top 10 stories of 2015. It has been a hell of a year. 

The Toronto Star's San Grewal checks in with Mississauga's city government as we move into 2016. 

Finally, does Tom Mulcair play Call of Duty

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Trapped in the Marginal Economy

Yesterday I had an interview. It was a largely positive experience (aside from driving on the freeway to get there and the nerves). The conversation I had with my interviewer jogged my thinking and had me pondering over topics that have been nagging at my mind for a while. While I have no doubt that the experience of my peers and my own experiences are shaping my impression of the economy it is hard to imagine from my perspective that we are not in some downward spiral where the availability of work does not nearly align with those seeking work. Yet at the same time, 'opportunity' (in a broad sense) has never been greater.

One of the biggest contributors to this conundrum has to be the predominance of liberal arts/humanities-educated young people. The simple fact is that there are not nearly enough jobs in teaching, academia, journalism, criticism, etc. that could possibly sop up this talent pool. Perhaps in generations time we will reflect on the university system as the greatest misallocation of human resources in the century. While the economy was hungry for skilled tradespeople many in my cohort went off and studied sociology, English literature, history, and popular culture. To be fair to the Millennials  we were told at the time that whatever degree you get will guarantee success.

The greatest disparity in this marginal economy is most obvious in the creative fields. I think it is natural with so many people living in relative comfort to want to turn towards the arts and other productive pursuits. In some ways it has never been easier to take a grassroots approach and get started. I am perfectly representative of this trend. I write this blog with no financial compensation, I don't even have advertisements activated. I have written for other outlets without formal compensation. I have appeared on two podcasts and on television without any payment, just for fun. I have also plied my hand at writing fiction, though since completing my novella about a year ago I have written very little. I am just one person, but there are thousands, tens of thousands like me, but they seek to make these activities into a profession that they get paid for.

Our marginal economy is very cruel to those hoping to have a creative career. The profit structure of all creative industries tend to look like a very spiky pyramid. At the top are a tiny number of people making a vast majority of the money, and as you slide down the pyramid you are swarmed by individuals desperate to break through, and worse for those people, individuals who just do it as a fun hobby. YouTube is this model. I recently read a somewhat tragic piece about the 'modestly' successful channels that don't come close to paying their hosts enough.

While acting, singing, comedy, etc. have always been exceptionally difficult careers to break into I fear that the narrow opportunities in the workforce overall has produced a similar environment, especially for jobs within media (who isn't a social media expert now?), law, government and education.

The marginal economy has other troubling facets namely the growth of contract work and part-time work. Finding any full-time position is becoming increasingly difficult. This is sometimes called precarious work. Some people are trapped going job to job with no security and little compensation. As an individual I sit at a very privileged part of the wedge. Still, I think the move towards the digital, post-industrial economy is having a severe impact on the employment life of our citizenry. It's easy to overlook if you are in a secure position, but incredibly daunting for those without.