Sunday, July 17, 2011

Democrats, Republicans, Rob Ford and Idiots

Rob Ford became mayor of Toronto, in part, by promising to end the "gravy train." His election represented a bit of a populist grass roots revolt against what was seen as overpaid out of touch municipal civil servants and -- for some -- unions. I even think Rob Ford believed what he was saying: that the problems with municipal finances were the result of a relatively small number of fat cats who were using tax dollars as their gravy train. There are -- to be sure -- some serious problems with "fat cats" and "gravy." I'll address those in another post. Right now, what I would like to point out is that what is evident is that Toronto is in a financial mess and that that mess cannot be solved by cutting back on a few people who are doing things in an untoward way. Instead, it will involve deep cuts to services for seniors, to daycare spots, the layoff of up to one third of the firefighters in the city and cuts to the police department as well. In other words, essential services will need to be cut to balance the books. Or, if not essential services, then services the merits of which are not in doubt (no one, to the best of my knowledge, believes seniors or children should be without proper care).

Now, it might be easy to gloat at Ford, particularly in the wake of his failure to appear at Pride events. He is still saying that labour costs are "four time too high", but one might notice that that begs questions: four times too high as compared to what? Does that mean workers in Toronto are paid 400% the national average? (So, if the national average for a civil servant were $50 000, according to Ford, Toronto bureaucrats make $200 000.) Or, that Toronto has 400% more workers then other cities the same size? Who determined the wage rate anyway? Ford is willing to argue that wages are 400% too high but he will not show his math. I suspect even a lot of those people who supported him are starting to think that this is a figure he pulled out of the air with little or nothing to substantiate it.

What should we learn from this? Should we learn that Rob Ford is an idiot. There are people -- particular some people who support Pride -- who seem to feel this way and fair enough. The quick math I just did above suggests that Ford must have failed grade six math. But, this is not the lesson that is important to learn. There are those who will believe what Ford says because they want to believe. They want to believe that municipal finances are in mess because of a small group of lazy gravy trainers. Heck, I want to believe this. If it were true, it would mean that we could solve our financial problems relatively easily. We could solve those problems without losing fire and police protection. We could solve our problems while ensuring that children had safe care and seniors weren't left to their own devices in run-down flats. What we need to learn from Rob Ford's financial problems are that this is not true and we need to learn it soon. We need to learn that solving our financial problems will require a mature approach. We need to learn that there will always be Rob Fords: people who will rail against unions and wage rates and gravy trains but we then need to ask them to "show their math" rather than voting for them.

Is this -- my comment -- biased? No, not in the least. This is not an anti-right wing statement. Everyone should be asked to show their math. The fact that Rob Ford was not and the fact that he is not will only create serious human problems for Toronto. I lived in Ontario during the Mike Harris cuts. I saw the legacies of homelessness, violence against women, health problems, loss of municipal services, conflicts with Original Peoples, and the like that went on. That is what we need to avoid and we can avoid it only by asking to see the math and behaving in a mature way.

In politics, there will always be those who say "vote for me, the answer is easy." Or, "vote for me and you'll be rich." Rob Ford is one of those. He said "vote for me because some fat cats on the gravy train are costing you money." Instead of believing him we need to be responsible and mature and use our own minds.  What is a mature approach? Two things strike me as important:

First, we need to investigate issues so that we can make informed decisions. It is possible that some fat cat gravy trainers are ruining the system. In Toronto, of course, this turned out not to be the case. If voters had investigated this before hand, they would have found this out. Just like those who look into his claims about labour costs and municipal government will have serious questions about his math.

Second, we need to consider what taxes are used for. There is a long-standing anti-tax position in our society that has gotten worse over the years but … taxes are not all bad. Indeed, and perhaps I will post on this later, they can serve very useful purposes. Until we come to grip with this point -- taxes are not just empty -- we will not be able to have serious and meaningful discussion of this issue.
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