“350 pounds of fun”

I’ve avoided writing about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford until now, in part because I’m ashamed and didn’t want to acknowledge it, in part because I assumed it would all end soon (“soon” never happened, obviously), and in part because there’s a disgusting abundance of material out there about him already. Not that I haven’t wanted to write about it, mind you; writing helps me make sense of senseless things, and I’ve been baffled since the day the man became mayor.

I won’t get into the long litany of offenses and outrages committed by His Worship (the standard honorific for the mayor of Toronto) — they’re listed here in a Google Doc. Well, up to November 20th, at least. Certainly mayors and other politicians have resigned for less: Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay resigned amid corruption rumours. Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress because he got caught tweeting a picture of his clothed junk. And so on.

The immediate push-back from those who still support Ford (more on that later) ran along the lines of, “Who cares what he does in his spare time, he does a good job and tries hard and saves me money.” Forget the national, and international reputation of Toronto being dragged through the mud, so long as he’s saving the taxpayers money, right? So commentators began discrediting his most common talking points: that he has saved the city a billion dollars, that he’s a fiscal conservative, that he’ll stop needless city spending, and that he’s a blue-collar everyman. These, the biggest planks in his political platform, are bullshit. They always have been, but Ford’s supporters no longer had these narratives to fall back on.

And yet this dismantling of his more egregious lies hasn’t changed the minds of Ford Nation: as of three weeks ago his approval rating stood at 42%. This, again, was baffling to me. His behaviour as the city’s ambassador has been embarrassing (believe me, Ford was a prominent news story on CNN International, the BBC, and Al Jazeera while we traveled around southern Africa) and on top of that his actual job performance is a fabrication. How, then, to explain his base of support? It’s undeniable that Mayor Ford (and his brother Doug) are popular in their neighbourhood. Doug handing out $20 bills at a community housing complex doesn’t hurt, but that can’t account for such a large number. And even the most tinfoil-hatted can’t believe this is all a media conspiracy, and rally behind their guy: when the Star, Globe, Post, and Sun all agree that the mayor needs to step down, there’s no media spin left.

Equally wacky, in my opinion, is the theory that suburbanites will support anyone they see as sticking it to the downtown elite latte-sipping liberals. I don’t buy that. I don’t think those 42% are diabolical or scheming, or wish particular harm on everyone south of Bloor. In fact, I don’t think they give much thought to anyone outside their own household. And therein, I believe, lies the problem.

“We have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that wealth is wisdom.”

The constant refrain from those who still support Ford is that they believe he will reduce, or has reduced, their taxes, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. The reduction of burdensome taxes seems to be their primary concern. I can understand this, particularly for low-income families. But low-income families don’t account for that 42% who still support Ford (besides, anyone who’s paid attention knows Rob Ford’s tendency over the years has been to cut city services used by the working poor), so it’s not just low-income families. In fact, I have plenty of personal, anecdotal evidence of affluent acquaintances who support Ford solely because they want him to cut their taxes. They acknowledge that he is a buffoon, an embarrassment to the city, and an erstwhile racist and homophobe not reflective of the city’s values, but are willing to overlook all that for the possibility of paying less tax next year. I’m not alone in hearing this either.

Again, this baffled me. These are not idiots who’ve said these things to me, but rather educated and intelligent people. While I knew the basic premise of fiscal conservatism was to reign in government spending, I underestimated the degree to which a) fiscal conservatism has been oversimplified into “taxes are bad, full stop”, and b) people will overlook bad behaviour if a tax break is involved. I couldn’t articulate it until I read a piece in the Guardian last month in which Harry Leslie Smith summed it up perfectly:

“By far the worst error we have made as a people is to think ourselves as taxpayers first and citizens second.”

Suddenly, the lights came on. I got it now. I understood. It’s simplistic, to be sure, but no less reductive than this tax-break-or-else mentality. Some people have made this leap, this assumption, that the primary function of government, trumping all other functions, is to limit itself. This manifests as people referring to themselves as taxpayers, as if that’s all they are. I still believe the primary function of a government is to care for the citizens who elect it. Fiscal responsibility, just like household responsibility, is one of the ways in which it ensures and sustains that care…but not the only way.

I’m not sure this makes it easier to convince Ford Nation, but at least I understand the issue now. I think. Thanks, Mr. Smith.

Photo by swirlspice, used under Creative Commons license

Oh, Nevada.

Last week I read about a trend in the results from the latest US election on Joey DeVilla’s blog (via HappyPlace, via Fox News, all ultimately via the US Census). Basically, the ten most educated states (in terms of percentage of college grads) voted Democrat, while nine of the ten least educated states voted Republican.

Pretty stark, no?

Anyway, the census data also provided average annual income, and I like to see these sorts of thing in visual formats, so I plotted all fifty states, plus DC:


Looks like a trend to me. And there’s clearly a correlation between education level and income, so the fact that the bottom end of the trend is virtually all Republican while the top end is virtually all Democrats runs counter to the Republican insinuation that Democrat policies are geared to welfare moochers.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering about those outliers, the especially-highly-educated Democrats are in Delaware, and the very-highly-paid Republicans are in Alaska.


Photo by swirlspice, used under Creative Commons license

"No drums! No drums! Jack Black said no drums!"

Being sick and having little energy usually results in me watching a lot of movies. To wit:

  • I actually watched Margin Call (imdb | rotten tomatoes) on the flight to New Orleans, pre-sickness. It tells the story of a thinly-veiled amalgam of a few financial institutions (especially Lehman) involved in the 2008 meltdown. Where I found Too Big To Fail interesting because it’s what was actually happening at the highest levels of government, Margin Call was interesting because it portrayed a single company’s take on it. From a low-level analyst to the Chairman, and every position in between, all the maneuvering taking place once people realize their ass is on the line, and the frustration of those who just don’t want to play the game. Judging by the box office numbers this film was heartily ignored, but I’d say the acting talent involved makes it profoundly overlooked.
  • The Muppets (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was, admittedly, something Nellie wanted to watch more than me. OK, OK, I get it already…you have a crush on Jason Segel. Anyway, the movie seemed sweet and well-paced and funny in parts, but I suspect there was more than a little nostalgia at work for it to have a 96% rating.
  • The Descendants (imdb | rotten tomatoes) is another one for which I didn’t quite understand the rating. It was good and all, but…89%? Really? George Clooney seemed woefully underused to me, not the kind of classic character and performance that we saw in other Alexander Payne films like Sideways or About Schmidt. Maybe Payne deliberately toned it down, or maybe it was that he offset the bitter or moving with something saccharine once too often. Like I said, good film…but I think I was a victim of inflated expectations on this one, given all the Oscar buzz.
  • Game Change (imdb) was made for TV, so no RT rating, but I give it a Dickinson thumbs-up. It’s hard to know whether this behind-the-scenes-of-power look at how Sarah Palin entered the public consciousness in 2008 is accurate, but it’s certainly damning to Sarah Palin. Watch it for yourself, and Marvel at Julianne Moore, and decide whether you think it felt slanted or not. To me, the most interesting undercurrent in the film is the notion that only a celebrity can win an American presidential election now…whether it’s Palin’s camera appeal resurrecting McCain’s campaign (at first, anyway) or Obama leading from post to post because of his popularity and media savvy. I find the idea depressing, but impossible to refute. Also, there’s a great moment where we watch Julianne Moore pretending to be Sarah Palin watching Tina Fey pretending to be Sarah Palin. I was picturing the real Sarah Palin watching that scene at home and wondering if somewhere there was another Sarah Palin watching her.

"The last chance for progressive politics for an awfully long time"

“It is time to stop listening to the voices who plead for calm moderation and for a cotton-candy centrism that melts at the first sign of resistance. It is time for politicians on the other side to be as fervent in their calls for economic justice as Newt Gingrich is in his calls for kiddie janitors and adolescent wage-slavery. It is time for someone — anyone — to step to a very big microphone and say that the problem with Americans is not that they are lazy, or coddled, or anesthetized by 70 years of the welfare state, or morally unmoored (Thanks, David Brooks!), but that the problem with Americans is that a bunch of expensive suits stole all their money, looted their pensions, made a mockery of their hard work, and labored for decades to develop dozens of ways to swindle them, all the while fashioning a politics that told them that the ultimate freedom was the freedom to have your pockets picked.”

Charles P. Pierce, on esquire.com

My apologies to Stella Liebeck

I’ll admit it: I was wrong. I believed the hype. I fell for the catchphrases I heard in the press instead of looking into it. I was part of the problem. I believed that the 1994 lawsuit, in which a woman sued McDonald’s for the temperature of their coffee, was a perfect example of a litigious American society run rampant. I was disgusted with the plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, without ever having met her or learning the particulars of her case. I even laughed along when Seinfeld mocked it.

So when I watched the HBO documentary Hot Coffee (imdb | rotten tomatoes) yesterday I was shocked. And a little ashamed. Really quickly, here are the key points that debunked everything we’d been told about this ‘frivolous lawsuit’:

  • Liebeck wasn’t driving when the coffee spilled on her. She was sitting in the passenger side of a parked car.
  • She suffered third-degree burns on 6% of her body and lesser burns over another 16%. You see the burns in the documentary; they’re horrifying. This 79-year-old woman was in the hospital for eight days getting skin grafts on her legs, groin and buttocks, and spent the next two years getting treatments.
  • She didn’t sue for millions. In fact, she offered to settle for enough to cover her medical bills and lost income (about $20,000) and only asked that McDonald’s keep their coffee at a slightly lower temperature so this wouldn’t happen to other people. McDonald’s refused. At trial, the jury awarded her $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2,700,000 in punitive damages. The punitive amount was reduced to $480,000 by the judge, and McDonald’s ultimately settled out of court for less than that.
  • McDonald’s had received literally hundreds of complaints about the temperature of their coffee before the trial. For some reason they kept it hotter than most restaurants.

From there, the documentary turns quickly to the major theme: that corporations and their lobbyists seized on this case and began to spin. Phrases like ‘frivolous lawsuit’, ‘lawsuit abuse’, ‘lawsuit lotto’ and ‘jackpot justice’ began to spring up to convince the public that the civil courts were being abused. This allowed them to enact laws which limited damages in civil suits (President Clinton vetoed this at the federal level, but lobbyists were often successful at the state level) as well as to insert clauses in contracts which forbade employees or contract holders from suing companies for personal damages.

It’s an incredibly frustrating documentary, but also a very important one. It’s still airing on HBO, and TMN here in Canada, so go watch it, and find out more on their site.

Sorry Mrs. Liebeck.

A tale told by an idiot, etc., etc.

I’m listening to both the US Congress and US Senate debate the deal to raise the debt ceiling, and shaking my head. What theatre. What grandstanding. What utter bullshit.

You don’t have to search long to find opinions condemning the entire exercise as political masturbation and a display of leverage by a vocal minority of the American body politic. CNN alone has posted two opinions on their front page in which a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton criticizes the entire situation, while David Frum — yes, that David Frum!! — slams the Republican party itself for letting itself become hijacked by an extremist arm.

Perhaps the best summary I’ve heard of the whole mess, and of the consequences likely to follow — is another CNN contributor: Fareed Zakaria.

“My basic point is that this is a crisis that we have manufactured out of whole cloth. We have created a circumstance in which the world doubts our credibility, rating agencies are thinking of downgrading our debt and the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency could be jeopardized.

Please understand that none of these things are happening because the United States is running deficits. There was no indication – by any metric – that the United States was having difficulty borrowing money one month ago. In fact, the world has been lending money to the United States more cheaply than ever before.

We face downgrades and investor panic not because of our deficits but because we are behaving like deadbeats, refusing to pay our bills, pouting while the bill collector waits at the door.”

I urge you to read (or listen to) the entire piece. It gives some indication of the potential consequences looming in the distance, still blurry and hard to hear what with the political cacophony going on in Washington. Not just for America, mind you; we shouldn’t be surprised if some of that sound and fury radiates out to the rest of the world.

Side note: if by chance you feel like throwing up your hands and completely disavowing any faith in humanity, I urge you to read the comment section of that — or nearly any — CNN article.

Vox puerilis

A couple of weeks ago the CBC’s Neil Macdonald wrote a depressing (if unsurprising) editorial entitled “What America Isn’t Thinking” in which he used a Google Trends report as a proxy for the American span of attention.

Washington’s debt now equals the country’s entire annual economic output.

The debt in fact is mushrooming and, as America heads toward the debt wall, its political leaders are basically shouting foolishness at one another.

No one in a position of serious responsibility is saying what must be said and the vacuousness of the conversation is actually undermining global confidence in the dollar and hurting the American economy further. Yet it continues.

This country is a harsher, riskier place than the idealized version that still exists in the imagination.

So, back to the Google Trends.

On Tuesday, June 14, as all that dark news accumulated, the number one search item in America was “flag day.” (Tuesday was indeed flag day, a day on which Americans reflect about their flag.)

Search item number three was Fran Drescher, the nasally actress who played a nanny on some TV sitcom years ago. Number four was former KISS front man Gene Simmons, the guy with the really long tongue. Item 11 was heiress and reality TV star Tori Spelling. And so on.

Even for a man who the Washington political beat for a serious news organization, this couldn’t have been surprising. Magazine racks are predominantly entertainment news or celebrity gossip magazines. TV airwaves contain far more content about celebrity houses or gypsy weddings or cake bosses (whatever those are) than news. Hell, even most news channels aren’t really news broadcasts so much as they’re shrieking editorials. I assumed this was common knowledge, and that the general public is just easily distracted by bright shiny objects. Or NASCAR.

But Macdonald suggests something else, which I’d not really considered, but clearly should have: politicians like it that way, In fact, I would submit that no one in a position of power has any incentive to change this, because they all benefit. Obviously media companies are happy to have people consume their least complicated and most cheaply-made material. But Macdonald hypothesizes that the constant election cycle adds to the problem:

Can it be that the population of the richest, most powerful, most incredibly dynamic nation in history is actually that clueless? That unplugged from what is going on in their own world?

Yes, says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

It’s as though the American political rule has become: Tell the plebs what they want to believe, let them keep Googling Gene Simmons and kick the debt can down the road again. Somebody else can deal with it.

It’s what happens when a two-year election cycle guarantees a perpetual campaign. At least in a parliamentary democracy, a party that wins a majority has a year or two to do what actually has to be done.

So not only does no politician have to do anything substantial once elected, they needn’t even promise to do anything substantial to get elected…they simply have to spout whatever buzzwords and showy rhetoric gets them the most attention in the moment, all of which will quickly be forgotten once the new Survivor season starts. In fact, one could argue that, once elected, doing anything substantive works against a president’s midterm and re-election chances, since long-term change offers plenty of opportunity for short-term attack by one’s opponents.

Of course, it can’t be as simple as all that. Other factors surely come into play, like economic turmoil or plain old desire for change rather than the status quo (read: boredom) but I think Macdonald highlights a real problem.

By the way, lest anyone suspect that I would consider Canada immune from this, I don’t. We’re just as distracted by shiny objects. Maybe our much-maligned irregular elections may be of some benefit after all. Who knew?

Now, if you’ll all excuse me, Extreme Couponing is on.

"Here's to you, 1998 amalgamation!"

From Torontoist’s typically excellent visual summary of how Toronto voted for mayor, by ward:

Also, this more nuanced version:

You’ll notice that the actual city of Toronto voted Smitherman, while the suburbs of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough all voted Ford. You’ll also notice that the purple area in the first map pretty much overlays with the subway lines.

While it’s not really sensible to blame the election result entirely on amalgamation, it’s fun to try. The subject of this post, “Here’s to you, 1998 amalgamation” is taken from the comment section of the Torontoist article. It made me laugh and made me angry all at once.

Bloody hell

  • Rob Ford: 47.1%
  • George Smitherman: 35.6%
  • Joe Pantalone: 11.7%

This is also how I felt on the 8 Nov 2000. Rob Ford may be far less powerful than George Bush was, but he’s much closer to home.

Calgary had their election a week before Toronto. One of those cities elected a progressive young Muslim, the son of an immigrant, to be mayor. The other elected a fiscally & socially conservative white guy from the burbs. It’s like we got each other’s leaders.

Yankee swap anybody?!