Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Flaws of Anti-Elite Rhetoric

A particular part of political rhetoric has been sticking in my craw lately, and that is knee-jerk anti-elitism and anti-establishment commentary and criticism. It's not as though I do not see the criticisms of the status quo of several advanced democracies. There are plenty who could easily look at Canada's two ruling parties (Liberals and Conservatives) and feel great dissatisfaction, especially given their similarities. In America the decades of conflict between Democrats and Republicans may be nauseating to their citizens, but that hardly means that Donald Trump is the answer. Donald Trump is never the answer.

Here's what I find baffling about this anti-elite, anti-establishment rhetoric: those who use it almost always mean replace one set of the establishment with another.

Elites tend to exist for a reason. Sometimes, believe it or not, it is based upon merit. It more often is tied to wealth/class, prestige, family, and entrenched socio-cultural attitudes. People tend to mingle within their own class. When I went to events in Toronto it would not be uncommon to see journalists (off the clock), politicians, and academics comfortably rubbing shoulders with each other. Oftentimes there are familial, friendship and marriage connections between similar individuals. These, unfortunately, create connections that allow these people to become more firmly rooted and ease the path for their patronage network/families.

My egalitarian streak rankles at this sort of pattern. However, the NDP in recent years has been afflicted with these sorts of cozy connections. The party president was Rebecca Blaikie, daughter of long-time NDP MP Bill Blaikie. His son is now a member of parliament. Jack Layton's son is a sitting city councillor in Toronto, and his daughter, if memory serves, is a key figure in the Broadbent Institute, an NDP-friendly organization. I'm not saying these individuals do not deserve the positions they hold, but I think it would be naive to assume that part of their success is not tied to the links they have.

I have a certain level of empathy for anger at the elites who govern our society, but more often than not those who are angry are co-opted by other elites to displace them. Perhaps the most paradoxical representation of this is Donald Trump, a wealthy conman/business mogul who has rubbed shoulders with the elite class for decades. Though we can look further back quite comfortably. George W. Bush was held up as a 'regular guy' despite the fact that he was Yale-educated and the son of a president and from a political dynasty. I'm willing to engage in a conversation about class warfare, but if it's just the Orwellian story of various factions of elites warring against each other and using popular support to further their aims I have a hard time taking the critique seriously.

We will never divorce ourselves from these so-called elites. Once the revolutionaries take the palace it isn't long before they become the new elites themselves. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. This doesn't mean that change is impossible, it just means making peace with the fact that being aligned with people who have high levels of education or experience is inherently positive, not negative. Throwing the bums out is a great in theory, but then we have to actually manage our affairs in the wake of the toss.

Ultimately I suppose I'm annoyed by this lazy criticism and its ineffectiveness to articulate any kind of positive message. If you don't like the actions of the politicians/government, write them, join a party, sign a petition, participate in a protest, stand for election. Pretending you are justified in destroying the system rather than responsible for trying to fix it is just getting old.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Worth Reading - May 18, 2017

I've written about how our places could use more public art. Strong Towns is talking about that this week. One article shows how we each can be more active in making public art. Gracen Johnson writes about public art's return on investment

Strong Towns also has put out a piece about how people who want to make changes in their cities can get started

A London city councillor gave an interview to Steve Paikin on their decision to move to ranked ballots

As the next provincial election nears there are complaints within the Progressive Conservative Party about how candidates are being selected

Ontario New Democrat, Jagmeet Singh, has jumped into the federal NDP leadership contest

Jarrett Walker takes aim at Toronto's acceptance of cars sharing their routes with cars. 

Ten reasons why improving bike infrastructure is good for non-cyclists

From TVO's blog, the power of disruptive protest

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Confronting Drug Policy

Two stark drug stories are currently dominating headlines in Canada. The first is the proposed legalization of marijuana and the subsequent complications. The legalization of cannabis is accepted in the media as a fait accompli despite some reticence among Canadians, the medical community and provincial governments. It is a near certainty that as of next July Canada will have legal cannabis for sale in all the territories and provinces to most Canadians.

Some of the news around marijuana legalization has been those eager to get a toehold in the industry and skirt the existing laws. I saw this in person when I passed at least three dispensaries during my weekend visit to Toronto in clear violation of current laws. Attitudes seem to be basically celebratory towards this policy change.

The second, and more important drug headline is the ongoing fentanyl crisis. I will admit off the top that despite hearing about this topic for months I fear I remain hopelessly ignorant. Fentanyl is an opioid that has begun appearing in large numbers in North America. It is an incredibly powerful drug and apparently even a small intake can cause a drug overdose. A CBC story posted in December 2016 states that about 500 Canadians died that year alone. During a recent town hall-style gathering VICE held on drug liberalization Justin Trudeau was confronted by a frontline health worker who furiously challenged the Prime Minister for the government's failure and cited the daily death toll the drug was having in Toronto and Vancouver. 

Many of the deaths are exactly the type of people you assume. People with drug addiction problems, or other dependency problems. However, the fatalities are increasingly hitting casual drug users as fentanyl spreads.

I think it's important here to start talking about my own position here, and how I believe I am starting to recognize how wrong I am. I have a somewhat atypical relationship with drugs. I assume (or know) that many of my friends enjoy cannabis recreationally and when the prohibition ends their lives will improve. I don't smoke, so the appeal to legalization was often lost on me. At best I was apathetic and at worst I was uncomfortable with the concept of the state sanctioning the use of a drug. I say this as an utter hypocrite. I enjoy alcohol and find it an important part of my socializing behaviour, and I recognize the harm done to society from alcohol is far more pervasive than that done by cannabis.

The reality is that cannabis prohibition hurts and helps exactly the wrong people. Case study after cases study shows that legalization is effective and has an overwhelmingly positive impact on jurisdictions that try it.

So, what about opioids?

A number of years ago Portugal embarked on a radical policy. They legalized all drugs and fundamentally redressed their narcotic/addictions policy. From everything I have ever heard it was a wild success. Canada stands poised to legalize a substance that largely appeals to a certain segment of the Canadian populace, but has barely addressed the crisis unfolding among opioid users. The same logic that says legalizing cannabis is a net positive can be applied to other, harder drugs. Drugs that are currently creating much greater harm. The sad truth is that while I intellectually understand that my cultural biases against these drugs makes the concept of legalizing them not a little bit abhorrent, but frankly, I have to get over it. So should the rest of the country.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Worth Reading - May 11, 2017

Tuesday was a dramatic date in the history of British Columbia politics. At the moment neither the Liberals nor the NDP won a majority of seats and the Green Party holds the balance of power. The Province compares the Liberals, NDP and Greens on 20 policy areas to suggest what sort of deal may be made/demanded. 

Here are the results of the BC election. Please note that the headline is incorrect. It is a hung legislature, the Liberals will have to test to see if they can maintain their government.

Food is one of those things that bond people and communities together. From Strong Towns, how restaurants create great neighbourhoods

Rumour has it that the Ontario NDP's Jagmeet Singh (ONDP - Bramalea-Gore-Malton) will enter the federal leadership race next week. 

HBO is rumoured to be working on up to four spin-offs of Game of Thrones. The Washington Post writes that the series should not just explore the universe, but also explore big ideas.

Rogers TV has closed its Peel-based operation. This leads to questions about local media and broadcasting city council meetings

Malls are dying across North America. It is a fact of life cities are going to have to come to terms with.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

France and Interpreting Elections

First, best of luck to the voters of British Columbia who are voting in their provincial election today. I eagerly await the results! Make good choices.

As important as the British Columbia provincial election is it is not the election that garnered the most attention recently. The presidential election in France garnered much attention, especially leading into the second round when far-right Marine Le Pen faced off against moderate Emmanuel Macron. While analysts suggested that Le Pen's popularity was disturbing that put her chances at winning as quite remote.

Thankfully, prognosticators were correct and on Sunday Macron defeated Le Pen in the second round. Macron garnered about two-thirds of the vote to Le Pen's one third. However, that means Le Pen was able to gain support from her initial 21% base.

From here I want to briefly take a moment to discuss how we talk about elections. Journalists, pundits and observers have been quick to cast this election in familiar ways. The most obvious one is that Le Pen is a stand-in for Donald Trump and will France make the same error that the United States did. This is a sloppy and poor way to interpret any election. If you talk to any voter they will have complicated reasons for choosing the candidates they do. Moreover, voters perhaps cannot articulate their less apparent motivations. Trying to conceive of elections in our own terms, ignoring context, is a quick way to make incorrect caricatures. When Trump was elected I pointed out how he may be an American manifestation of the far-right resurgence we have seen in Europe, but I sincerely doubt Trump and his advisors saw him as part of the Front National, and British National Party, etc.

Le Pen was, and is no Trump. She, her party, and her family have been part of the French political scene for decades. She was definitely excluded from the French mainstream, but still a well-known personality in political life. Likewise, casting Macron as the defender of the status quo also misses the point. Macron formed his own political party (approximately a liberal or centrist party) to win the presidency. Despite the fact that he is a former cabinet member, from what I can tell he was a relative minor figure in France before he made the push for the executive. At 39 he is the youngest person to win the presidency.

The two main political parties/factions that have governed France and been the challengers in elections were kicked out of the final round: the Socialists and their right-wing opposite, presently Republicans. Macron and Le Pen, from my point of view, were both outsiders. They represented a general dissatisfaction with the status quo. Macron's victory seems in equal parts a rejection of Le Pen's brand of extremism, and continued commitment to the centre/status quo. France is not yet ready for radical alternatives, but are dissatisfied with the standard responses. France's political history has often dealt with centrists trying to deal with extreme left and extreme right challengers. Perhaps Macrons En Marche party will unify the centre of the political spectrum to try to lead France into the future, but none can say for certain. France is holding legislative elections next month which will definitely give us a sense of where France is heading for the next few years.

The French presidential election is a warning about France in specific and perhaps the world in general. The extreme right is becoming an accepted part of many countries' political discourse. Voters in many countries are frustrated by the  status quo and seeking unusual alternatives. Macron will, hopefully, be an ally for the remaining 'liberal' world leaders like Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau.

So best of luck to France as they move forward, and thanks for clearly picking the lesser of evils.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Worth Reading - May 4, 2017

J. J. McCullough wrote a fierce criticism of Canadian democracy, comparing it to the authoritarian reforms approved of recently in a Turkish referendum. 

David Moscorp offers a forceful rebuttal of McCollough's piece

News from the Nerd Economy, Kotaku is reporting that YouTube filters are hitting Call of Duty streamers and destroying their business model

Strong Towns asks who are the invisible bike riders in your community? 

Colonization is alive and well in the realm of indigenous land claims

Brampton plans to completely overhaul its downtown

Perhaps one of the most interesting questions in the Strong Towns' Strength Test is 'if there was a revolution in your town, would people know where to go to take part?' This article examines that idea. 

Andrew Coyne takes aim at the package of parliamentary reforms the Liberals intend to push through. 

London, Ontario will be replacing first-past-the-post with a ranked ballot for their next election

From Maclean's, How the Alt-Right Weaponized Free Speech

Schools, school boards and educators have been struggling to deal with a show I have recommended, 13 Reasons Why. For the record, I think the show should be watched by a mature audience or with parental discretion and presence. Netflix offered a response to the Peel District School Board's letter warning parents. PS Don't watch the trailer, it hurts the reveals of the show. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Unclear BC Election

I admit that I don't follow British Columbia politics very closely. What I do hear often disturbs me. British Columbia, for those who may not have heard, is in the midst of a provincial election. The final vote is scheduled for May 9th.

Christie Clark is a defending a Liberal government that has been in power since 2001. Clark became premier after her predecessor, Gordon Campbell, was shown the door in 2011 after a controversy regarding the introduction of a harmonized sales tax. Clark looked poised to lose in 2013. She was deeply unpopular and polls said the Liberals were marching to defeat. Then in a massive upset the polls were wrong and Clark led her party to a majority.

A good primer for the election is a recent episode of Canadaland Short Cuts. In the past year or so there has been a great deal of criticism of the BC Liberals' fundraising practices. British Columbia has no limits to the amount that can be donated, nor any restrictions on corporate donations. Subsequently there has been significant criticism that the Liberals are little more than shills for the fossil fuel industry. There seems to be a significant revolving door between industry, government and media.

Polling at moment shows that the NDP have lost their lead over the Liberals. Eric Grenier's poll analysis suggests that the NDP and Liberals will win a similar number of seats, a virtual tie. The real surprise at the moment is the strength of the Green Party. At points they have polled above 20%. Green support is concentrated on Vancouver Island, which may eat into the NDP seat totals.

I think it is important here to restate that polling should be taken with a grain a salt. I obviously have my sympathies for the BC NDP, especially given the long-in-the-tooth Clark government with their questionable ethics. That said, I'd like to see the Green Party make some gains as well. Perhaps we will end up in an interesting position where we will have a minority government with the Greens holding the balance of power.

British Columbia has faced a number of concerning issues over the last few years: housing affordability, resource development, First Nations' rights, and sustainable development. These issues do not have simple solutions, but I hope that their leaders are at least speaking to this problems. Best of luck to the voters of British Columbia next week, make good choices!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Worth Reading - April 27, 2017

France held the first round of their presidential election earlier in this week. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is through to the second round. Paul Wells offers his take

The United Kingdom is headed to the polls in a few weeks in a snap election. The Washington Post sets the stage

Kevin O'Leary in a shocking, yet not at all surprising, move he quit the leadership race despite the fact he is the nominal frontrunner. The Conservative Party was played for fools on this one.

Eric Grenier writes about the state of the race of the British Columbia provincial election

The ONDP's pharmacare plan may be a vote-getter

Strong Towns writes about why urbanists need to pay more attention to Amazon

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Is it Time for Phamacare?

I was surprised when the Ontario New Democratic Party's leader, Andrea Horwath, announced a policy for pharmacare. It's the single boldest policy position the Ontario NDP has taken in decades. 

The reasoning is simple: one in four people in Ontario aren't taking the medication they need because they cannot afford it. The province will begin by covering the most commonly prescribed essential medications. The estimated cost of the plan would be $475 million per year. That number sounds onerous, but in a provincial budget of $133 billion it will make a small impact. Horwath, during the announcement, suggested that this could find savings for the overall budget as patients who can better manage their care are less likely to end up in hospital or with worse chronic conditions.

I was at first concerned about this policy. It seemed like a bloated social program that would doom the NDP from winning any support from centrist Ontarians. The initial price tag gave me some comfort, to be sure. I'm sure the price of a universal system would be staggering, but the ONDP isn't talking about that at this stage.

The policy started to make a great deal of sense to me when I framed it within my family. My father retired a few weeks ago and medical expenses are something he's thinking about. My grandmother and uncles are on limited income and have significant health complications. If the burden of some of their life-saving medicines was removed it would surely improve their situation.

As our economy undergoes a transformation to a less stable, less predictable, and less secure I think that the state is going to have to provide the supports to keep our society functioning and skim from the productivity of the low-labour economy. I look forward to seeing what this program's details, but I think it might be the next logical step as we face an aging population and a precarious economy. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Worth Reading - April 20, 2017

Sorry for missing my Tuesday post. It was a crazy busy day and my birthday so I opted to skip it. I hope these articles will help fill in the gap.

13 Reasons Why has gotten significant criticism. I still remain an advocate for the show and I find much of the criticism foolishly simplistic or lacking in nuance. A friend referenced this article from Vox. While I can pick apart the points the author makes I at least think they raise the issues in interesting ways.

Jason Roberts at the recent Strong Towns Summit gave a really incredible talk about small organizations making big changes. His organization is called The Better Block.

Brampton has brought in an urban planner from Vancouver to consult on plans... I cannot say that this seems like a worthy investment. 

Steve Paikin questions whether or not Kathleen Wynne's unpopularity is tied to her sexuality and gender

From the Huffington Post, an academic explores the idea of whether or not Justin Trudeau is the friendly face of fascism. The is idea is to examine the use of lies and political power.

John Lorinc writes that Liberal policy is driving Toronto housing madness

I love Stellaris and will advocate for that game until I am blue in my face. However, here is an interesting piece that critiques the narrative style of the game

The Washington Post writes that racism played a major role in the election of Donald Trump, above authoritarianism. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Worth Reading - April 13, 2017

Kurzgesagt has released another video, this one asks if the European Union is worth it, or should be disbanded. 

Divyesh Mistry created a fantasy map for Brampton Transit. 

Ontario is the second toughest economy for young people. Yaaaaay... 

Andrew Coyne writes that the government's attempt to control debate delegitimizes itself

Matt Elliot writes about why Torontonians should give up on the dream of a detached home

Groups in Memphis, Tennessee have used tactical urbanism to implement change in their city

Chuck Marohn writes about what the cascading failure of an airline can teach us about our cities

At a work event several of my colleagues were talking about the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Over the course of a few days I consumed the entire series. I find myself obsessed with it. The themes, tone, style and performances have stuck with me. I am debating writing a full review. The show will likely look like a typical CW teen drama, but I assure you it is something else. It reminded me of films like Perks of Being a Wallflower, or Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. It is far darker and emotionally distressing than most of the other entries into this genre. The show explores the mystery behind a high school girl's suicide.  

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Nerd Economy Bubble

This blog post is going to be a bit strange. It had its origins as a response to a response to a I asked question, but then I thought it started getting long and convoluted so instead I decided to try something a little longer format.

I am a patron of a new podcast called The Mixed Six. The premise is really straightforward, two friends (and their producer) sit down to have a conversation on six different topics with six beers. What makes it special is that the hosts, in my opinion, are a wonderfully intelligent, sharp, funny, critical, and nerdy. I believe in one episode they switched from discussing comic book properties to a Marxist critique of gift cards. As a patron I can submit questions so I asked them if they thought the nerd economy was a bubble. I will do my best to summarize my question and their answers, but you can feel free to listen yourself at 52:15. If you choose to listen you can skip the next four paragraphs.

My question I posed was this (roughly), are we in the midst of a nerd economy bubble? All over the internet there are people trying to make money on YouTube, Twitch, Kickstarter, Patreon, etc. and I question the ability of the market to sustain them. There is also the aspect that young naive creators rush headlong into an industry that ruthlessly exploits them for little in return.  

Caleb Stokes admitted that he has feared there is a bubble. Producer Ross Payton made the point that this not a nerd specific phenomenon, ex. make-up tutorials and compared it to the shift from radio to TV, or sheet music to radio. How we consume media. He admitted that there is a lot of exploitation. However, he didn't believe it was a bubble, but a seismic shift. Patreon is a tool that empowers the creators (somewhat).

Caleb argued that if there was a bubble that popped it would be on the supply side. Most people who do these projects do them as a side project. A crash would hurt the platforms. While there are huge earners most people are scrapping by for a little extra money. If it goes away it will be because of how platforms treat their users/creators. Quality control is an issue.

Spencer added it does feel like a bubble because there is so much content for people even willing to pay a small amount. However, there is a quality question and a lot of what's out there is bad, so quality and content is the measure. Caleb said that the only other crash he can foresee is that if these things start supporting people's lives as a career and then they begin chasing the money, perhaps from dubious sources. But, the thing with a bubble... no one can see it.

Now my response to their response. Yes, I realize already that this is ridiculous.

First, Ross is absolutely right. It's not a nerd economy, though I think traditional nerdy areas are a significant portion of it. Consider that Twitch is a huge component of this new economy and almost exclusively, until recently, catered to video game streamers. Comedy channels, beauty channels, news, music, and other entertainment are a significant portion of the market out there.

Two things, I think, prompted me to ask this question. The first is the number of people/groups that have held out a tin cup and asked for me to chip in. At first it was semi-professional outfits so I could appreciate them seeking some financial compensation. However, a growing number of amateurs beginning with a Patreon page was a tad galling to me. Perhaps that is because I was introduced to it as a tool for fans to supplement income and not as a third-party subscription service. There does seem to be a growing number that feel this can be their meal ticket, and that concerns me from a rational and pragmatic point of view. Caleb is right, if you want a little spending money, great, but this isn't grounds for a career.

Decades past young people would dream of becoming actors or athletes. Now they want to be "YouTube famous." A surprising number of my students have their own YouTube channels. They talk to me about building their audiences and their subscriber counts. As most of us know various platforms offer only a pittance for advertising. I am also concerned about the pressures they might feel to gain eyeballs and the wisdom of the decisions chasing those metrics. In short, I worry about exploitation. Platforms like Twitch, YouTube, and Instagram make incredible profits off of naive, young creators. The low barrier to entry is both a blessing and a curse. We have so much content, but it does look like "anyone can do it" which ignores the economic and personal costs in chasing these dreams. Sometimes it feels like creators are chasing the lowest common denominator in order to gain any kind of attention, which hardly seems healthy. 

Another aspect of this that I wonder about is the exploitation of a small amount of productive people by 'critics.' Whenever a television series becomes even modestly popular it spawns a bevy of podcasts, video casts and reviews. It starts to feel like an entirely false economy based on the machine of whatever movie sequel Disney pumps out. How many review channels/podcasts can the market sustain? 

I grew up, like most of us, in a free media environment. Television, radio, newspapers, and the internet was largely free on the basis that advertising would pay for the content. The audience wasn't the customer, it was the product. Trends seems to indicate that the audience will have to pay for anything resembling quality content with subscriptions. This is a seismic mental shift for many people; it certainly is for me. I feel vaguely guilty about the media that I enjoy that I don't support (ex. Canadaland). Still, if I donated to the 30+ podcasts I listen to and the dozen or so YouTube channels I watch on a semi-regular basis, plus Netflix, and on and on, we are talking about a pretty expensive media diet. As I'm economically limited it would mean a big change to my habits.

I wish that I could easily accept the position that this is a beautiful time. A thousand flowers bloom and creators can receive financial support for their work. It's a grand meritocracy! Except it isn't. A handful of giant corporations (Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon) control a huge stake in this developing industry. A few start ups and independents have significant sway, but if you look at the top YouTube channels that are increasingly dominated by corporate media. I've thought about starting my own YouTube channel, or podcast to reflect my interests, and I have been on podcasts in the past, so I understand the impulse to participate in this low risk, low cost field. Creators should be paid for their efforts, but I'm uncertain of our current arrangement. So the question is whether or not this is a permanent change or a bubble. I'm not sure I know which side I want to win out.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Worth Reading - April 6, 2017

 The YouTube channel Kurzgesagt put out a video on genetically modified organisms

Should we try to repair sprawl

Stephen King uses fictional characters to try to understand Trump voters

I have a lot of issues with this piece, but I found it interesting. Terence Corcoran in the National Post suggests that regulation of the hot housing market would just make things worse. 

A high school newspaper successfully investigated their new principal, resulting in her resignation

Justin Trudeau's messaging around immigration is misleading to migrants around the world

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Is Sprawl Worth Repairing?

Last week I read an article and watched a talk by Kevin Klinkenberg. Klinkenberg is an urban designer from Savannah, Georgia. He shared some of his analysis that the efforts by some to "repair" sprawl into more walkable, productive environments is a poor investment. In essence he is looking at our municipal dollars and performing triage, trying to get the most for our investment. You can read the piece on this topic here

Klinkenberg does make the distinction that not all sprawl is created equal. Ex-urban rural sprawl cannot be rehabilitated by his assessment, but residential neighbourhoods built before 1950 can often be easily integrated into a more productive urban fabric. His central thesis is fairly straightforward: with limited resources we cannot possibly repair all the sprawl in our cities, given that the best places to invest our money is traditional urban-style neighbourhoods. To be clear he isn't exclusively talking about big cities. The town downtown of a small town or smaller city is the safest investment by his metric.

I find that Klinkenberg has a certain rationale that is inescapable. Say the city of Brampton has $1 million to spend on a local project. Does it make sense for them to add sidewalks to a new suburb out by Mayfield Road, or to add better pedestrian features or bike infrastructure to the Downtown?  Simply by the number of people it would serve I think the answer is pretty clear. Analysis done by Strong Towns and its allies also suggests the tangible return on investment would be greater and more tangible in more traditional/urban parts of the city.

The one part I might differ with Klinkenberg is that I think there is a certain point where municipalities are throwing good money after bad. I think it is easier to do that in suburbia, but I can see it happening in urban districts as well. Using Brampton as an example again, there is only so much the city could invest in the Downtown before it addresses broader policy issues. Eventually the easy things will be all done and then it will be necessary for a more radical rethink. Brampton's Downtown is undersized, so the government should look at expanding its boundaries to allow it grow its mixed-use development. How does this align with transit and transportation policy? What role to bicycles have in the Downtown area? How do we redevelop the low-rise properties Downtown to more productive uses? These questions aren't tackled by adding better street decorations, gardens, or share-rows.

This is partially why I suspect suburban or sprawl retrofit is so popular. The easy fixes are obvious and do not usually cost a great deal of money. As an urban district grows and becomes more complicated it becomes harder to tinker with it, while we have hundreds of suburban streets we could add sidewalks to, or bike infrastructure, or improve pedestrian access. Still, I think Klinkenberg is generally correct and as we look more to fixing or salvaging cities we will have to take this approach.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Worth Reading - March 30, 2017

Samara Canada has released their most recent study on Canadian democracy

Kellie Leitch is distancing herself after she met with members of Rise Canada, an anti-Muslim organization with extreme rhetoric

CBC is reporting that the federal Liberals have left 80% of appointments open. The Conservative opposition is charging that the delay is because the head of appointments is running to be a MP.

Toronto City Council ignores facts in an effort to push through the Scarborough subway

Edward Keenan writes about Toronto Council's debate on the Scarborough subway

Perhaps the biggest news of the week, Prime Minister Theresa May signed the letter to initiate the 'Brexit' process

Andrew Coyne writes on the Liberals' attempts to restrict the opposition and change how the House of Commons operates

Jon Ivison, on these so-called reforms, argues that they will never pass

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Political Parties Shifting Gears: Opposition and Government

A strange phenomenon occurs in our system of government after elections. If an opposition party manages to unseat the government they have to switch sides. Our parliamentary tradition is purposefully antagonistic. Opposition parties are expected to criticize the government and challenge its policies. This structure results in some very unusual moments when the newly displaced governing party can begin to criticize policies they only weeks/months before they were responsible for.

There were some bizarre moments in the wake of the 2015 federal election where sharp critiques came from the Conservative opposition. The Conservative Party were a dangerous opponent to the inexperienced Liberal government because in many cases the critic knew more about the ministry than the minister answering.

Parties have to undergo significant transformations to make the transition successful. The internal culture, language and structures of a party are quite different between government and opposition. Oftentimes what makes a party succeed at one would cripple it in the other. The Conservatives have succeeded in their criticism in part because they have managed to hold on to the discipline the maintained in government. Outside of the House the party shreds itself over the leadership race, but interim leader Rona Ambrose seems to be doing a good job holding feet to the fire.

I think politicians and partisans must do a certain amount of double-think to pull this off. Somehow the issue they didn't voice any concern over years in power are a scandal on the opposition side. The move from government to opposition can reveal factions within the party that had been muzzled for the sake of party unity. Stephen Harper ran massive budget deficits during his tenure, but budget hawks kept quiet. Now they can release their bile on the Trudeau deficits. Unmanaged these factions can tear a party apart. However, the leadership race that accompanies this sort of switch is often a battle of the soul and who is best posed to challenge the new government.

As a New Democrat I am used to my party being on the opposition benches. There is a strange thing that happens with that party as well. As the target changes so does the rhetoric. The NDP can have a more difficult time finding a way to criticize centrist Liberals than right-wing Conservatives. The Harper government could be a crisis of democracy but Trudeau, well... This issue is particularly noticeable for Liberals if they have to switch from criticize the NDP to the Conservatives, or vice versa, as has happened in the provinces.

Much has been made of how the Trudeau Liberals and Harper Conservatives are increasingly resembling each other, especially as the Liberals move to curtail debate. Ultimately there seems to be patterns in our politics that often transcends party. These changes in position force a rethink of party positions and posturing. For the NDP, does the party make another bid for government? Do they aim to recapture Official Opposition status first? Or, does it return to being the permanent third (fourth/fifth) party? How they choose to challenge the Liberals and select as a leader will determine that result to a great extent. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Worth Reading - March 23, 2017

The Strongest Town contest is in its final phase. Guelph, Ontario has made it to the final round against Traverse City, Michigan. 

Headline from the Toronto Star: Housing prices may jump 25% this year

The death of malls is an increasingly well documented phenomenon. Strong Towns explores the topic

I wonder if we will see another "Back to the Land" movement in the 21st century. Here is a story of a PhD who is gone to become a first-generation farmer

Paul Wells writes a great piece questioning the federal Liberals' innovation agenda

An article questioning the social cohesion of Quebec caused a big stir this week. Here is the original article.

An interesting interview discussing Americans celebration of ignorance

The American Republicans are forced between love of party and love of country

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Assessing the GTHA's Housing Market

Four days a week I try to go for a walk in the morning. My route takes me around my neighbourhood and sometimes into nearby neighbourhoods and downtown. I am always surprised to see the number of houses for sale and the rapidity with which they are sold. Recently in Worth Reading I've shared a couple of articles about the housing market, including the banks' roles in inflating prices.

As much as it would nice to blame our hot housing market on the banks I think it is a far more complex picture with many contributing factors. Housing prices in the Greater Toronto Area, and perhaps the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area have been on a steady increase now for decades. Things are hardly uniform across this vast region. Housing prices in Thorold are not growing at the same pace of inner Toronto, but they are all related.

I first started to notice the housing prices spiking around the time of the American financial crisis in 2007-2008. With the global economy in a tailspin Canada became a safe investment spot. As a safe harbour money poured into the Canadian economy, especially in the real estate sector. Foreign investors, like Canadians, are eager to pitch their savings into real estate investments. This ranges from maintaining and fixing up a house to improve its worth, or buying the house in the first place, or speculating in the market. For a huge proportion of Canadians use their homes as their retirement funds and nest eggs. Distortions in the housing market therefore has a tremendous impact on our economy and lives.

I've spent a lot of time wondering if we are in a housing bubble. Lately I have come to the conclusion that we are not in a bubble, but a hot market under a lot of pressure. Some of this comes natural supply and demand issues. The GTHA adds, if I recall correctly, 200000 new residents every year. That's a new Brampton every three years, a new Toronto every ten. This creates a tremendous amount of demand on the market. There are thousands of people across the GTHA interested in acquiring a home and coupled with the investment opportunity real estate presents in this region the demand remains high.

On the other side is supply. Much of the cheap land has already been gobbled up by real estate development. In the next couple of years Brampton will build its last house, Mississauga is essentially fully developed at this stage. York Region is straining to keep pace with the development. Legislation such as the Green Belt and development restrictions is hindering growth in other places but the simple truth is the GTHA is likely falling well short of the demand in housing, especially where it is demanded. The city of Toronto must extensively rezone the city to encourage mixed medium development, but encounters significant resistance. It is a time consuming process. Add in the time for planning, financing and construction and it is easy to see why supply is constrained.

Supply is also constrained due to the foolish decisions made by suburban governments decades previous. Some areas of the GTHA are difficult to redevelop and increase density, even if zoning permitted it. The street grid and neighbourhood configuration would have to be completely changed to accommodate medium or high density.

Then there are more social causes for the rising prices and other issues. Homeowners reasonably expect a good return on investment for their properties. As long as they are not financially compelled to sell they can patiently wait for the higher price. The house down the street sold for $350000, perhaps I can sell mine for $400000. Ten years late the number is creeping up to $600000. Retirees or families need to get a return on their properties so they can afford a new property somewhere else.

This hot housing market will only correct under a few conditions. One, supply increases. Somehow we get more housing on the market or socially change the way we view housing, i.e. include more roommates for long-term investments. Two, demand decreases, which is highly unlikely given basic population trends. However, I will say that as the Baby Boomers retire there could be significant disruption in the housing market if there isn't a smooth transition. Three, the price overshoots the ability for the market to bear. If a house goes up for sale and no one is willing to pay the price it will inevitably begin to fall down which, on a broad enough scale will begin to deflate prices.

Everyone is tied to the housing market in some way because we all need places to live. I think it will be increasingly important for residents of the GTHA to be aware of the shifts occurring in their area and across the region and be prepared to respond to them.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Worth Reading - March 16, 2017

I would encourage all my readers to read this long summary of the conflict and outrageous actions taken by the government during the Qalipu membership dispute

The Bramptonist takes a look at a couple of potential sites for a university.

From the Toronto Star, the accidental takedown of Tom Mulcair

Andrew Coyne writes on polls leading politics

Doug Saunders asks what if the European elections aren't about racist populism? 

CBC reports on the dismal state of millennial economic life

How have our banks inflated our housing market

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Government-Approved Identity: My First Nations Status

I wanted to write about something else, but this has occupied my mind lately.

Many years ago my family members began the process to join the Qalipu band and be recognized as Mi'kmaq. As I understand it a family member in Newfoundland saw a notice in the post office asking for people to submit if they were descended from recognized Mi'kmaq in the area. One of the names on the list was Webb. My great-grandfather was Mi'kmaq.

It took months for my family to submit all the paperwork and trace our lineage in documentation for approval. Sometime around 2008 we received notification that our application was approved.

While I've never thought of it to a great degree before now but the formal recognition caused a significant change in my personal identity. During most of my life my identity and that of my family was somewhat in question. Newfoundland family trees are notoriously unclear as birth records were kept by parishes for many years before the government. Once elders in your family pass away knowledge is easily loss of what your family tree is. The work in to clearly establishing our heritage answered questions and filled in missing pieces from our past.

I was in university at the time. As my family investigated our past I found myself increasingly drawn to Aboriginal history. While I would argue that learning Indigenous history is valuable in and of itself I felt it gave me greater historical perspective. In particular I found myself drawn time and time again to the relationship between the government and Aboriginal people. This culminated in pursuing a Master's degree in Aboriginal history. This later parlayed into my time in the Northwest Territories. The Dene and Mi'kmaq are not terribly similar cultures, but I did my best to engage with the local culture in a meaningful way.

My First Nations status has never been about benefits for me. I do not use it to avoid sales tax. I did not get free post-secondary education. I would reckon that my financial life has not substantially changed before and after my family and I were recognized. I enjoy it because I can take meaningful ownership of my heritage.

Last month my family and I received letters stating that the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs and  would be revoking our status. According to the letter my qualification was primarily being challenged because my family no longer lived in Newfoundland. Given the bizarre point system my father may be able to launch an appeal, but my sister and I are likely unable to be reconsidered.

This decision feels like a terrible betrayal. It is as though something is being stolen from me. I am aware that no government decision can take away my heritage, but it does remove the legitimacy especially when Indigenous Canadians have their heritage regulated by government edicts. I plan to write my Member of Parliament in protest, but regardless I am afraid that my status will be lost.

Edit: I wanted to add in a comment by my cousin that I think nicely summarizes those feelings of many in my family:
... since getting our letters in early February, that told us, after 8 years of having been approved to be a member of the Qualipu Band that we no longer "meet the criteria". Indeed, it feels like a betrayal. I was, effectively denied my heritage for the first 35 years of my life - due in part by a Government that didn't even know there were Indians in Newfoundland and a stigma so bad that my grandmother hid her Indian heritage. I will appeal, but I suspect, as does my cousin, that it will be in vain.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Worth Reading - March 9, 2017

Strong Towns is talking about how to apply their strength test to your own home town. Perhaps I'll apply this to Brampton.

As a person who needs quiet to think, the open office concept is troubling to me. This piece from the Washington Post challenges its growing hegemony

Robyn Doolittle's Unfounded series explores how sexual assaults are reported and (not) investigated in this country. 

Daniel Herriges writes how inner city freeways have repeatedly failed their communities

Brampton Transit will be experimenting with battery-electric buses

Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau caused a bit of a stir when her International Women's Day post on social media called on women to celebrate their male allies

The Huffington Post reports that Canada and China are sending warning signals about the economy.

A sad reality of my nerdy life

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Book Review: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

All the King's Men is an American classic. First published in 1946 the novel details the life of Jack Burden and his relationship with the meteoric politician, Willie Stark. Set in the 1930s American South the novel is a non-linear retelling of Burden's life, from his boyhood growing up in Burden's Landing to his first meeting with Stark and the conclusion of their relationship. While definitively a piece of political fiction the story, like most political stories, is about the personal relationships of the people at the heart of the drama. Warren's small cast are all connected to one another and their actions damage and ricochet ending in unexpected outcomes.

Given the non-linear nature of the story any sort of summary is difficult, but I will do my best. Jack Burden is a capable but idle man, born of privilege but without ambition. He has wiled away his youth and in college spent some time studying history and the law before dropping out. He worked odd jobs in journalism and politics finding not much satisfaction in either. A cynical, weary Burden meets Willie Stark, then a minor official from a poor, backcountry county.

William Stark enters the story as a teetotaling, straight-edged minor figure. He seeks bond money to build a new school for the county and works hard to keep graft out of the process. He fails and the contract is awarded to a construction outfit with poor performance. The school collapses and Stark is hailed as a hero for warning the community of the problem. Years later Stark's notoriety is parlayed by the rival political machines to turn him into a dummy candidate to steal votes away from a rival. Burden reveals the nature of the scam to Stark, he gets roaring drunk and delivers a firebrand populist speech to the waiting crowd, far different from his normal dull, policy wonk lectures. Stark uses his leverage to sway the election to his opponent and when  he fails successfully runs for the governorship himself. Jack Burden is by his side for the journey.

Most associate Willie Stark as an interpretation of Huey Long and the unnamed state as Louisiana. Stark is a cynical populist with a left-wing agenda. Given Stark and Huey Long's reputation I expected to hate Willie when I began with the book, but I found myself incredibly sympathetic to his point of view. Perhaps that is the nature of the opposition to Stark. Warren doesn't criticize Stark through liberal characters, but instead those with a vested interests to maintain the status quo. Jack Burden is a man of privilege and his family and friends find Stark's rough demeanour and treatment of business and the upper-class deplorable. I cannot help but think that many modern leftist readers would end up feeling great sympathy for Stark who in my eyes transformed from assumed villain to tragic hero brought down by his own flaws.

Politics is about relationships and the dynamics between a small group of people. This is ultimately what destroys Willie and, to a lesser extent, Jack Burden. I appreciate that the novel showed how intimately all these people were connected to one another. Another aspect of the story is reconciling one's past. Burden's central mission in the first half of the novel is to investigate the past of a family friend and mentor, Judge Irwin. In the process he explores his own past, his mother's, and Stark's. The theme of the burden of the past is ever-present in the story. Secrets, betrayals and decisions haunt people on and on forever and return as ghosts to those it impacts indirectly.

Reading this novel in 2017 raised some interesting questions. It was a very different form of populism than we are currently used to. At the same time, Stark's strong-arm political methods are becoming increasingly familiar. In light of recent events it is perhaps worthwhile to explore this novel now if you have not already. Regardless it offers a fascinating snapshot into America's past and politics. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Worth Reading - March 2, 2017

A great story from the South Slave about grocery stores putting labels in local indigenous languages in the grocery stores

Kurzgesagt put out a video about artificial intelligence and robot rights

Shawn Micallef in the Toronto Star writes about Preston Manning and populism in Canadian politics

Kady O'Malley writes that there is little evidence of Trumpism in the Canadian conservative Manning Conference. 

Andrew Coyne takes the opposite point of view. He argues that the Manning Conference offered toxic options that would condemn the Conservatives

A brief CBC story on climate change in the Northwest Territories. 

Andrew Coyne offers a scathing criticism of Kevin O'Leary and the Conservative Party that has embraced him. 

Strong Towns' Strongest Town Contest is underway. It's open to international submissions this year. Someone nominated Brampton, and Guelph. Voting is open.

Speaking of Brampton, the Prime Minister made a whirlwind visit to the city this week

We are only about a year away from the next provincial election. Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP, recently shared her thoughts on improving life in Toronto in the Star. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Revolution on an Empty Stomach

Recently I was discussing Animal Farm with a student. He was preparing an essay outline and wanted to discuss how food is a metaphor for money in the novel. We discussed at length what kind of details he could pull from the novel to support his ideas. By the end of the hour though I had started to talk to him about the importance hunger has played in political revolutions. A colleague overheard me and we ended up discussing the connection between food and revolution so I thought it might be interesting to share some of these thoughts here.

Access to food might be one of the most important determinants of a regime's success. This was abundantly clear in the pre-modern era. In antiquity or the medieval period a bad harvest or drought could mean a peasant uprising was just around the corner. A history professor of the medieval period once told me that the tensest time in cities was the spring. Before the new crops were harvested and the winter stores were exhausted there was significant risk for violence within the cities.

In more recent history two revolutions seem to have been largely successful on the back of hunger: the French and Russian Revolutions. In both cases bread shortages collapsed support for the monarchy. Revolutionaries promised relief and bread if the people lent them support. Lenin famously rode the popular sentiment of "Peace, land and bread!" to power.

Modern transportation and international trade has eased the threat of famine and food shortages in many countries. Now if a crop failure occurs in Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas, Ukraine, Australia and elsewhere can pick up the slack. Though it should be remembered that modern governments are not immune to these issues. The 2011 Arab Spring, it may be recalled, began by the protests of a Tunisian grocer. Food prices had spiked in the months preceding the revolutions which but great strain on long-reigning dictators.

I recently finished reading a history of Napoleon III's Second French Empire. It is fascinating how many times the regime had to adjust or was nearly brought down by crop failures and food shortages. Liberals reforms were introduced, campaigns halted, and ministers fired all to deal with unrest.

Ultimately I feel that this pattern reveals a certain truth about politics. Many would hope that politics is moved by reasoning and idealism. Emotion and passion seems to be a far stronger factor, but other forces of biology are also important. I do not mean to suggest that all revolutions are merely about growling stomachs, but there is a trend. It is something to be mindful of if commodity prices rise or major crops fail. Violent political change often needs more than effective rhetoric and charismatic leaders to succeed.