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Thursday, June 16, 2011

@thekeenanwire, #TOpoli and that whole 'deserve' thing, redux

Go and read this piece from Ed Keenan in The Grid.

He's right of course, and you don't need a master's degree in public administration to know that public services cost money. And you don't need cheap childish gimmicks, either.

The troublesome part is that something so blindingly self-evident seemed to elude a majority of Toronto voters last fall. They were all too willing to buy into Rob Ford's bullshit about mountains of wasted cash and municipal inefficiencies and gravy trains, and worst of all, the idea that under David Miller, things were just so irredeemably awful that the only thing to do was to blow everything up.

No reflection. No maturity. No willingness to assume the responsibilities inherent in citizenship. Just keep repeating "two legs good, four legs bad" – er, sorry, "respect for taxpayers" and "greedy unions" and "wasteful spending," and don't bother to think things through or anything. No recognition that making policy on the basis of someone's vague notion of the public's "gut feeling" might not be such a great idea.

Well, we're seeing the results of that now. Mayor Stupid isn't talking about wasteful spending any more, he's talking about how we need revenue. And his budget chief, when he's not looking for his little plastic friend, is talking about holding on to the land-transfer tax for a while, because – wait for it – the city needs the revenue.

Wow. Who knew? Cities need money to operate. Suddenly the light bulb is going on. As Ed argues:

Just about the only unhelpful approach to the problem so far has been denial—pretending we could get more for less money. Which is the approach City Hall has taken over the last six months. Throughout history, “something for nothing” has always been a suckers’ pitch. Those foolish enough to buy that line have always found they risked losing a great deal. That’s where Toronto stands today. We ought to change strategy immediately, rather than doubling down on a delusion.

No great insight there, but is there any evidence that the voters of Ford Nation are rediscovering whatever maturity they might once have had? And maybe recognizing that there are consequences to this kind of stupidity, self-delusion and short-sightedness?

Public services cost money. That's what you pay taxes for. Anyone who tells you you can have more for less is either an idiot or a liar. And buying into it makes you even dumber.

Are you getting it yet? Could we please, at long last, retire the whole notion of the Pissed-off Taxpayer, and stop pretending it's an idea worthy of respect or deference?

But back to that whole "deserve" thing: There are plenty of voters who did not buy into that bullshit. There are plenty of people who recognize that you can't get something for nothing, and that if you want decent public services, public infrastructure, a civil society and nice things, you have to pay your taxes and quit complaining. Do we really deserve to suffer while the city falls apart and our civic leaders aim lower and lower because other voters were stupid? Or couldn't even be bothered to show up?

And this is where I start having trouble with the internal contradictions, and with the implications for the whole notion of community, and standing by your neighbour, and with the idea that we're all in this together. Having argued that once you've had your say, you don't get to take your ball and go home just because you don't get the result you wanted, can I really turn around and imply that if you were smart enough not to vote for Rob Ford (or Stephen Harper, or Tim Hudak ... ), you're somehow exempt from having to deal with the damage he's going to cause? Wouldn't that make me a hypocrite?

(And while I'm opening myself up to accusations of hypocrisy, haven't I just spent several weeks arguing that we can't keep writing off Ford / Harper supporters as idiots? I really am cutting across the blue line with my head down, aren't I.)

There are some troubling implications if we pursue this all the way to its logical conclusion, and I'll allow that I haven't thought this all the way through just yet. Here's where I'm stuck: two fundamental principles, which ought not to be at odds, but I don't know how to reconcile them.

  • When you're part of a democratic community, you're bound by the decisions that community makes, and you don't get to withdraw and slough off the obligations of community membership just because you don't like those decisions.
  • The obligations of community membership include thoughtful reflection, civic engagement, and a dedication to the principles of stewardship. When you make stupid short-sighted decisions, either in your public life or in the voting booth, you're not just hurting yourself – you're harming the community and your fellow citizens.

I'm sure I'm leaving myself wide open here. Comments welcome.

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  1. I agree with the article and I have to admit that I was shocked at the choice that Torontonians made last fall. No more though than the one made this spring on a larger scale. The crisis confronting Toronto is grim but I don't think "moderate tax increase and user fees" are the answer. A moderate tax on top of a previous moderate tax is no longer moderate. In the immortal words of H. Menken, "people get the government they derserve and they deserve to get it good and hard".

  2. Ford's election highlighted a number of problems with Canada's political culture.

    In the first place,his main opponent was a sleazy, incompetent Liberal insider who was offering very much the same thing, just with less blatantly stupid rhetoric.

    The one sane candidate, Joe Pantalone was not treated with the seriousness that his platform deserved.

    Then, there's the problem that the Toronto Sun is a big influence. This is a paper run by brain-dead bigots and fools. The power and influence of this sort of quasi-fascist stupidity is highly unsettling.

    The Sun papers pushed Ford all the way and they continue to celebrate him despite the fact that main platform plank (of massive corruption costing hundreds of billions of dollars) turned out to be a total mirage.

    Now, he's sticking it to the pampered, unionized, public sector workers and cutting needless, wasteful programs.

    This sells to a major part of the voting population. The more people who are fucked-over by capitalism, and find themselves working shit-jobs for $10-13 hour, the more people there are who look at unionized public sector workers, whose incomes come in some vague way from them, as thieves.

    (Since people working at $13 jobs don't pay a lot of the relative share of the city's revenue, these public sector workers are actually not taking all that much from these sorts of taxpayers.)

    The viciousness of late-capitalism divides the working class against itself.

    What to do?

    You'll notice that I've never claimed that because Ford's voters were all ignorant dupes, that he's illegitimate.

    No, he's the mayor. But he can be protested. And, for groups like OCAP who defend the homeless and the starving, things like decorum and rules must necessarily go by the wayside, as Ford oversees the brutality caused by his own, and McGuinty's and harper's policies.

    If you're going to be hurt by an uncaring government, fight back. It's your right.