Tag Archives: Rob Ford

How liberal dogma is eroding the left

I’ve said it before: from a certain angle, progressives are the real  conservatives. At least, we’re supposed to be. Resource and worker exploitation, rampant consumerism, overspending by an elite bureaucracy – these practices may increase the GDP, but they’re wrong. And part of why they’re wrong is that we end up paying for them in disproportionate and messy ways. Of course, it’s never the people who make the decisions that end up dealing with the repercussions, and it’s precisely this sense of injustice, this lack of social accountability, that is supposed to propel the left.

Progressives aren’t perfect. We’re not cohesive. We don’t have a monopoly on wanting things to be better for everyone. And we’re not immune to dogma and rhetoric. I hate to say it, but in the case of Ontario, many lefties seem to be having a tough time reconciling what it means to be accountable when it comes to how governments handle public money. Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath has this to say on the subject:

I believe that there is a lot of waste in government right now and I believe that the people of Ontario want to see that waste eliminated, and I don’t think we eliminate it without the hard decisions.

How many Ontarians would disagree with this statement? Does anyone really doubt that the provincial bureaucratic machine is not wasteful, after all of the scandals, and that we wouldn’t benefit by figuring out how we might do things more efficiently? If you’ve been reading the comments on Horwath’s Facebook page and other social media sites, for many self-proclaimed NDP supporters (past or current), the answer, oddly, is yes.

I’m really struggling to see the problem here. Since when is tackling waste the exclusive domain of the right?

You’d think the left, which makes a big fuss over the evils of austerity (for good reason) would be able to distinguish that from efficiency. What’s crucial here is who’s proposing the policy and why, what does it really entail, and what is its context within the overall platform? Why should talking seriously about fiscal responsibility be off limits? Is it necessarily the case that progressive candidates who do so are only trying to conquer new territory?

This knee-jerk reaction justifies and perpetuates the stereotype that progressive governments only ever pursue a ‘tax and spend’ agenda, that they’re inherently financially inept, wasteful behemoths. A lot of people who end up voting Conservative don’t do so because they like the idea of seeing social supports slashed; they do it because they’re sick of seeing their money being pissed away by people who don’t share their priorities or understand their challenges. Many on the left completely fail to understand this, to the detriment of us all.

Traditionally left-wing media purveyors such as Rabble and the Toronto Star have been steadily pumping out articles about the NDP that are both reflexive and peppered with conjecture. Case in point:

“The NDP will never win with policies that adhere to Conservative definitions of what counts as fiscal responsibility. Not ever. Fiscal responsibility is not spending your time looking under couch cushions for extra change. Fiscal responsibility is spending money on programs that help regular people and not the rich or corporations. All else is a Conservative smoke screen…”

And there you have it, folks – it’s not just a tired leftie stereotype: as per Michael Stewart, spending – and only spending – is an acceptable form of fiscal responsibility. What’s more, this lazy argument exposes an unfortunate liberal dogma. How is it that a concept as central as this can be defined in such a narrow way, without being widely challenged, and without having to demonstrate a holistic understanding of what it means to manage money? And how is it fair to declare that the NDP is adhering to Conservative ideology just because they’re pointing out a problem that pretty much every single Ontarian would admit exists? The NDP plan doesn’t come anywhere close to resembling a Mike Harris-type platform. Or a Tim Hudak platform. Or a Liberal platform, for that matter. It needs to be said that the progressive ideas put forth by the Liberals have been either borrowed (I’m being generous here) from the NDP or grudgingly adopted from them.

In The Ottawa Citizen, David Reevely criticizes this newest NDP initiative by writing that “what prevents mismanagement is competent ministers.” Sure, that’s true, but that’s not the only way a government can prevent mismanagement – not by a long shot.

A good friend of mine used to work for the Ontario Power Authority. She would go on and on about the fancy catered lunches her manager ordered. They simply had to have their San Pellegrino, and gourmet, organic selection of fine foods. The genre of requests from and accommodations for executives reflected a disturbing sense of entitlement. Does this qualify as the sort of program spending that Stewart was talking about? No, because it’s everyday practices like this that aggregately soak up revenue, in addition to other things, including truly excessive salaries and redundancies (both of which the NDP are targeting).

By pointing this out, I’m not badmouthing public workers or unions. It means I don’t think we should be spending other people’s money on things we don’t really need. There’s absolutely no reason why this isn’t or shouldn’t be a core progressive policy. Now, is this is the sort of waste that the proposed Minister of Savings and Accountability would address? Would we really save about $600 million annually? How would the NDP achieve the goal of 0.5% savings in the budget every year? That remains to be seen. But the sad fact is that many progressives don’t even want to entertain the idea that perhaps we should take a look at how we’re spending money. The claim by Reevely and others that the NDP is veering from their traditional policy of sticking up for the little guy is simply unqualified and nonsensical. Sometimes I actually get a glimmer of understanding as to why conservatives think the whole lot of us lefties are idiots.

If we’re going to question Horwath for promising too much, as Martin Regg Cohn has done (and reasonably so), we should also be ceaselessly pointing out the Liberals’ proven track record of having done so – and failed spectacularly. Cohn has inexplicably described the NDP campaign as “Ford-style populism”, but there’s a huge difference between a politician whose entire platform consists of cutting and saying no to everything and one who vows to go after waste we know exists, and as part of a broader platform that does actually include funding programs that will directly benefit the average Ontarian. While I honestly think it would be foolish to expect the NDP’s entire platform to check out economically, Cohn’s comparison of Horwath’s politics to Rob Ford’s was shamefully gratuitous. Rob Ford? Come on.

I get it – we’re sick and tired of neoliberal policies. We’re paying higher taxes and getting less in return. Services are cut while deficits grow. The solution to this, then, is to think creatively. This includes examining the budget and bureaucracy so we can make sure that where we are spending money, we’re not doing so needlessly. We literally can’t afford to pretend that raising taxes on big corporations and wealthy individuals will give us the kind of float we need to put things back into balance. This would be a good start – but not a solution. Why do so many within the left seem determined to sabotage any attempt at forming a platform that Ontarians can actually get behind?

More to the point, the question that continues to haunt me, now more than ever, is:

Can we not be progressive and responsible at the same time?

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Whose economy? How privilege shapes economic discourse

A man who might become Canada’s next Prime Minister was mocked last week for his reaction when confronted with the claim that the middle class is doing quite well, contrary to his assertions.

There’s no point in arguing about whether Justin Trudeau is competent when all he could squeeze out of his brain was a regurgitation of campaign talking points: “We’re talking about people here in a way that is giving them the capacity to be part of strong and vibrant communities.”

What does that even mean?

The New York Times report in question has limited value where this issue is concerned because its findings are relative, not absolute. It doesn’t actually establish that the Canadian middle class is doing well; it just says that for the first time ever, our middle class is doing better than that of our American counterparts. Which isn’t terribly exciting considering how much of a beating they’ve taken.

There are a lot of factors to take into account when judging how well a certain income group – or any group – is doing. Are they making progressively more money to compensate for inflation? Are they getting more for the taxes they pay? Are they in a better position to secure adequate housing? Are they able to save more money, or are they taking on more debt? Has the group shrunk or expanded? Do they have equitable and sufficient access to quality healthcare, or education? Are they struggling to pay utilities? Can they afford to eat healthy food? What about exposure to toxins and pollution? Crime and incarceration rates?

Most importantly, when we talk about class it’s not a simple question of economic difference; we’re talking about human beings and all the social, cultural, and political realities they face. Class isn’t just about how much money you make. In many cases, class is the colour of your skin or the neighbourhood you live in.

What we really need to consider is whether we can base our understanding of the state of our economy on the state of the middle class. Defining the middle class is no easy task to begin with (MSN Money suggests these 9 ways to tell if you’re middle class). According to the results of this Gallup poll, it appears that Americans are most likely to self-identify as middle class (Republicans even more so), although the Pew Research Center has reported that this number has dropped sharply in recent years. Meanwhile, rich people don’t even think they’re rich.

There it is again.

Middle class, middle class, MIDDLE CLASS!

It’s true that middle class incomes have stagnated. Even Statistics Canada has confirmed it. But it’s not an accident that the experiences and interests of the middle class dominate our political and economic discourse. If we ever needed proof that Canada is a stratified society shaped by the privileged, it’s made abundantly clear by the frequent mention of the middle class, especially in the run-up to elections. And Trudeau really wants us to know that he cares about the middle class:

“Liberals in Quebec and across the country are focused on jobs, the economy, and growing the middle class.”

One question keeps popping into my mind: What’s wrong with talking about, say, the working class? What’s wrong with being working class? Believe it or not, there was a time when being a member of the proletariat was a source of pride and dignity, and still is to many Canadians – only you wouldn’t guess it by listening to the talking heads.

If we really want to know how “the economy” is doing, we have to talk about how everyone is doing. Mainstream discourse would have us believe that the middle class is the ultimate barometer of economic prosperity and stability; as long as the middle class is doing okay, apparently we have nothing to worry about.

But who’s we? And whose economy are we talking about? There can be no doubt that Canada’s income gap has been growing at an alarming rate. Wealth inequality is a serious problem here as in other so-called developed nations. It does affect the middle class, but it affects the poor and working class even more. Yet somehow, we’re not allowed to talk about this. We’re not given the license to focus our attention on the people who need it most.

There are several factors involved in this process, including disillusionment and apathy, which result in lower voter turnout and less worker organizing (is it any surprise that the Harper government targeted the perceived threat of a more motivated electorate through the Fair Elections Act?). The privileged classes, in no small part due to their control of the corporate media, have effectively brainwashed Canadians as a whole to demonize the very groups that have fought for the rights of not only working people but all Canadians. Namely, workers’ collectives, cooperatives and unions – you know, those pesky good-for-nothings who brought us better wages, higher labour standards, universal healthcare, and basically everything else that government and the private sector would never voluntarily let us have. But when it comes to the working class, the poor, and people of colour voting against their own self-interest, Ford Nation is the perfect example: this “man of the people” consistently votes against initiatives that seek to alleviate hardship experienced by children, low income earners, the homeless, the LGBT community, women, immigrants, etc.

Then of course, there’s the privileged themselves – people of means who are economically insulated from these concerns. Some seek to keep more for themselves, either consciously or subconsciously. But more than that, the simple fact is that the privileged can afford to live in blissful ignorance (or willful ignorance, depending on how you see it). That’s what it means to be privileged. Those who have the least to worry about, who shoulder the least amount of risk and impact, are narrowing the discussion so that we don’t even have to consider that perhaps we should do something about the disproportionate burden we place on the working poor, including that of taxation. We should be additionally worried that Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the only left-ish political party with opposition potential, thinks that the idea of taxing people fairly (i.e. raising tax rates on even some income brackets) is out of the question. Canada’s historically labour-aligned party, afraid to talk about progressive taxation? That’s scary.

I’m not Barack Obama’s biggest fan, but this is the kind of discourse we desperately need to encourage:

Until it becomes painfully clear that too many people are rich while too many are poor for no good reason (which I think is already the case, but obviously not enough people are willing to admit it yet), it looks like we’ll be stuck with politicians who want to keep us hooked on amorphous concepts like the economy, prosperity, and growth. Trudeau, for one, has made it clear that what he’s really worried about is the possibility that “the middle class will stop supporting a growth agenda”.  Now why, one wonders, would they do that? Maybe because they’re slowly questioning neoliberal and conservative rhetoric and opening their minds to new ideas – ideas that are transparent and meaningful?

“The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all… The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands – the ownership and control of their livelihoods – are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.”
― Helen Keller in Rebel Lives: Helen Keller

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The hypocrisy of grief

Nelson_MandelaOne of the greatest visionaries and leaders of our time has passed away. Judging by all of the outpouring of sadness I’m hearing and seeing, pretty much everyone is sad. And they should be.

My personal feeling is that most people have shown genuine respect and admiration for everything that Nelson Mandela accomplished and represented, even if they wasted no time in hopping on to their social media accounts to log their grief. The reactions seem to suggest that we’re all staunch supporters of freedom and justice.

It’s easy to love Nelson Mandela. It’s easy to appreciate the ideals of love, integrity, peace and justice. Most people do on principle. But not everyone. And because they know that they would be vilified and shunned if they admitted who they really are, every politician – whether a true devotee of Mandela or not – is tripping over themselves to make sure that we know that they’re sad he’s gone.

Primer Minister Stephen Harper:

“He showed how people can shape better tomorrows and do so in their own time. Nelson Mandela’s long march to freedom, his grace and humility throughout that walk, and the bridge to the future he built for his people as he proceeded along it ensures that his remarkable example will inform others for generations.”

This, from a man who has categorically denied Canada’s colonial history and completely ignores sweeping protests for human rights by First Nations. What did he have to say about the group of brave young people who trekked over 1,600 km through the harsh North earlier this year in the name of freedom and solidarity? Not a word. I guess that wasn’t worth the brownie points.  (I wrote about this at length here).

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford:

“We join the people of South Africa in mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, a true leader and advocate for freedom and democracy. Mandela dedicated his life to social justice in South Africa and around the world. As President of South Africa, he introduced a new constitution and launched numerous reforms and policies for the benefit of all South African people.”

This, just a few days after this wealthy self-described defender of the poor and marginalized said, “I don’t believe in all this public-funded health care, we can’t afford it. If you want health care, you pay for it.” When responding to a proposal that councillors hold public meetings to consider establishing new homeless shelters, he asked, “Why don’t we have a public lynching?” (video link)

Oh, the hypocrisy.

As for the rest of us who so readily grieve the passing of this great man, can we say that our own values and actions truly align with his message? Or do we come up short when our attention returns to our own interests? In so-called Western democracies, although we hail figures like Mandela as beacons of courage and hope, we do so only to the extent that our own comfort – both physical and ideological – will allow. Let’s face it: while Nelson Mandela was always respectful and kind, he was an unapologetic radical who never compromised when it came to condemning systems, practices and regimes that place profit or self-interest above justice, peace, and equality. Hoarding huge amounts of wealth while millions starve? Unacceptable. Denying people healthcare and critical support because they can’t afford it? Unacceptable. Austerity programs that gut public education while subsidising billion-dollar corporations? Unacceptable. Military occupations, indefinite detention and secretive surveillance programs? Unacceptable! If we connect with the essence of Mandela’s goals, we can’t possibly allow these types of policies to continue.

To hear some people lament the passing of Mandela, one would think that all is lost. “They don’t make people like him anymore,” they say. And why exactly do they think they are so not “like him”? He deserves all of the praise he gets, and all of the mourning too. But we’re wrong if we think we can distance ourselves from our responsibilities by placing him on a pedestal. No one appointed Mandela the saviour of South Africa. He was not a privileged man, or a prodigy with special talents beyond the capabilities of each and every one of us.

Now is not the time to pay lip service to ideals. Let’s think of Mandela the next time we read the newspaper, see a protest or cast our vote, and not remain silent and complacent. Instead, let’s remember how just one person can transform the world when they transcend their own self-interest and identity to channel the spirit of the people. Let’s carry on his work – our work – with dignity, clarity, openness, honesty, and love. If nothing else, what Mandela proved was that it can be done. In his own words:

“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”

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Plastic snags

Rob Ford, Toronto’s new mayor, is trying his best to scrap our 5¢ plastic bag fee because the proceeds are going to retailers (as opposed to the government, which would apparently legitimize it in the public’s mind as a tax). So rather than make it exactly that and fund a very worthy cause, he’s just scrapping it. Period. Because that’s the kind of guy Rob Ford is.

Here’s my issue with people who are proud of him: Although I agree with Mr. Ford that companies shouldn’t be able to pocket the extra money, I never had a problem paying 5¢ in the first place. Firstly, I’ll openly admit that like most people, I buy things I don’t need. Out of all the things we should complain about spending money on, I’d hope it would be gratuitous coffees, cigarettes, overpriced movie tickets, booze, knick knacks, candy and other (arguably) pointless and potentially harmless things (more on this here). If you purchase any or all of these items, that’s all fine and dandy – but then what difference does a few cents make?

If I don’t like paying this small fee, I can do something very easy: carry a reusable tote around with me. It’s not complicated. Whether any given study suggests that paper, plastic or any other material is ideal, the goal should be to not buy or use so much stuff in the first place. I’ve read an article that indicated that reusable bags (e.g. canvas) carry far more pathogens, especially if people use them to carry groceries. I think it’s safe to say that as long as you don’t have leaky packages of perishable goods in there (in which you can wrap much thinner and sometimes biodegradable bags or simply wash), it shouldn’t be a concern. Some people say they use plastic bags as garbage bags. Boo hoo. I’m pretty sure almost everyone who says this can afford to purchase kitchen bags. The same goes for people who use them in their compost bins. If you’re taking the trouble to participate in compost programs, this tells me you care about the environment to some extent. Although some municipal waste collection programs allow disposal in plastic bags, they do this to encourage people to compost, at great expense. Separating organic waste from plastic bags is expensive (from a financial, energy and time perspective), the cost of which in some way may come out of your tax dollars anyway. Yes, plastic bags can be reused, but not as much as say canvas or cloth, and the real issue is the bulk that we produce in the first place (and the fact that they’re petroleum-based).

I don’t understand how some people don’t feel the fire of environmental catastrophe burning under their asses. It boggles my mind that we still have to pander to people by way of incentives. I would definitely allow that people who are below the poverty line or anywhere close to it can’t afford it, but people in any other category simply have no excuse. It’s a matter of priority. We all need to take personal responsibility for the materials we use and the waste we produce. Reusable shopping bags are just a small part of that. It’s the least we can do, and once you get into the habit, it takes no effort at all.

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