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Sunday, October 3, 2010

The slow leak of Marcus Gee's drip-drip narrative

The Globe's ideologically reliable urban-affairs curmudgeon thinks he has the secret to Rob Ford's success.

Not surprisingly, it's a variation on the Mike-from-Canmore theme, except this time it's Peter Robinson, cheesed-off ordinary guy.

Take note of how carefully Marcus sets Peter Robinson up: he's no raving reactionary. In fact, he voted for David Miller! Quelle horreur! And why is he cheesed off? Well, take a guess: he's exasperated with the drip-drip-drip of steadily rising taxes and fees. It seems like every time he turns around, he's paying more money. Which is why Rob Ford's idiotic "stop the city hall gravy train" slogan is resonating with him:
"Maybe there needs to be four years of chaos and cost-cutting to restore a balance. Maybe, for all his faults, if he cuts and cuts we will somehow get started again."
Marcus then sets out all manner of things that Peter Robinson is now paying more for: his tax bill, the fees at his local hockey rink, his car registration fee, swimming lessons for his kids, etc. And the last straw, of course, is the bitter aftertaste from last summer's municipal garbage strike.

Well, yeah buddy, we know. It's tougher all over. But, according to Marcus's storyline, ordinary reasonable people like Peter Robinson are prepared to allow four years of service-slashing scorched-earth policies from government – while simultaneously convincing themselves that their taxes aren't going to go up. Short memories folks have, doncha think?

But that's just the beginning. Peter Robinson's complaints are set up as something we can all relate to. In other words, they're the context for Marcus's narrative, and that's what needs to be challenged.

So:

Yo, Marcus? Show me something that hasn't gotten more expensive over the past several years. Now, let's contrast that with what Peter Robinson's been taking home over the same period. Anyone want to bet that the rate of increase for the first set of figures won't be somewhat higher than that for the second? And naturally, the drain on the second is going to be higher because of user fees, cost-recovery imperatives, and the like.

Again, my friends: context. Sorry to go all academic on you, but the capitalist imperative of short-term profit maximization and the demands of investors, shareholders and executive-compensation packages make that inevitable. Of course when organized labour tries to do the same thing by negotiating the best possible contracts for its members, it's all "lazy union thugs" and "outsource" and "contract out services" and "privatize" and "protect the poor taxpayer."

What's most insidious about this narrative – and Marcus is far from being the only one propagating it – is the way it's constantly dressed up as "common sense," as if it's something any reasonable person can understand. Again, another manufactured narrative, and in truth it's far from reasonable, because it's constructed so as to avoid making obvious comparisons and asking reasonable follow-up questions.

Everybody whines when taxes go up, for example. But at least those resources are used in accordance with public policy, in which every citizen has a say. The revenues that government raises through taxation go to things that contribute to the common good.

Contrast that with the spectre of rising bank rates. I don't know how much Peter Robinson spends on his mortgage, and I'd be willing to bet that wasn't part of his conversation with Marcus Gee, but the rising cost of borrowing money means he has to spend more on interest when he renews his mortgage, doesn't it? Anyone think that hasn't been rising steadily? And where does that money go? Does it pay for municipal services? Does it fix potholes in the road? Does it help maintain public-transit infrastructure? Does it help to defray the cost of his kids' swimming lessons?

No. It feeds bank profits. Somewhere there are executives winning bonuses for meeting their profit targets, and does anyone want to bet that that's not where the extra mortgage money goes? That bonus is paying for some suit's Albany Club membership. Which he then gets to write off. So in effect, guys like Peter (and you and I, for that matter) are subsidizing it twice. Just a hunch, but I doubt we'll see Marcus asking questions about that any time soon.

It may be too late to derail the Ford train wreck, and even if Smitherman or Pantalone manage to pull this one out of the fire, the dominant storyline for this election's been set. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep pressing the alternative.

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