Friday, August 27, 2010

On Rob Ford.


I'm not worried about Rob Ford becoming mayor of Toronto. And you shouldn't be either. Given what he's presented right now as part of his platform, over at his website, the man seems to be well on his way to becoming another Mel Lastman. Embarrassing, incompetent, but incapable of serious long-term damage. Note that I'm not appealing to anything about justice or fairness or the like. This is purely a consideration of whether Rob Ford could be damaging enough that we should worry about his possibly being elected.

I'll revise this if/when Ford releases a more detailed platform and I feel there's something more that needs to be said about how pathetic (but entertaining) he'd prove to be as mayor.

(1) The structure of city council is a serious barrier

First: There are 45 members of city council (the mayor counts as a member, plus 44 councillors). So, to get anything passed requires support by 23 members of council. Currently, Ford and other right-leaning councillors are outnumbered. I don't know by exactly how much; given that there are no parties in Toronto municipal politics, alliances are somewhat fluid. But what this means is that right-leaning councillors can only get what they want passed either by horse-trading or by moderating. I don't think that would be Ford's style as mayor; he seems like a no-compromise kind of guy.

So, his option has to be to get Ford-friendly councillors elected. I'm not sure how likely that is -- polling data isn't available this early in the game -- but incumbents generally have a huge advantage in municipal elections. 8 incumbents aren't running, so that's 8 seats up for grabs. (That is, 8 seats that Ford wouldn't immediately find almost impossible to take.) Of those, arguably half are "Ford unfriendly" councillors, and half are "Ford friendly" (counting Ford himself, who is giving up his council seat to run for mayor). So, Ford needs to retain four seats with friendlies, and earn four more seats. That's a minimum, in order to make the balance on council more receptive to his agenda. If he can't even get those eight seats, then, as far as I can see, all his policies are up in the air. Furthermore, even if he can, that only puts him up four seats from where he currently stands. It's not clear to me that this gets him up to 23 -- which means that, really, once the dust settles, Mayor Ford's platform may end up going nowhere fast.

Second: Ford wants to cut the number of councillors in half. I don't think the mayor actually has the power to do this. I've read over Bill 53 (here (PDF)), which revised the City of Toronto Act and contains an explanation of the powers of the mayor and of council. Here's the relevant chunks:
Part IV

129. (1) Electors in the City may present a petition to city council asking the council to pass a by-law dividing or redividing the City into wards or dissolving the existing wards.
Number of electors required
(2) The petition requires the signatures of 500 of the electors in the City.
(3) In this section,


"elector" means a person whose name appears on the voters’ list, as amended up until the close of voting on voting day, for the last regular election preceding a petition being presented to council under subsection (1).



Coming into force
(4) A by-law changing the composition of city council does not come into force until the day the new council is organized,
(a) after the first regular election following the passing of the by-law; or
(b) if the by-law is passed in the year of a regular election before voting day, after the second regular election following the passing of the by-law.
Got all that? The gist is that only electors (i.e., voters) in the city can ask for wards to be dissolved or redistributed. (There's also language which says that council must pass the by-law as requested in the petition, or it goes to the Municipal Board. Given that only 500 electors have to sign, and given that Ford wants to cut half of all council positions, I can't see council going along with any such proposal without being compelled to.) And, even if electors do this, the by-law doesn't come into force until the new council meets after an election. So, it wouldn't take effect until the next election anyway.

Now, here's the mayor's powers:
Role of the mayor as head of council
133. (1) It is the role of the mayor of the City, as the head of council,
(a) to act as chief executive officer of the City;
(b) to preside over meetings of council so that its busi-
ness can be carried out efficiently and effectively;
(c) to provide leadership to council;
(d) to represent the City at official functions; and
(e) to carry out the duties of the head of council under this or any other Act.

(2) Without limiting clause (1) (c), the mayor’s role includes providing information and making recommendations to council with respect to council’s role unde r clauses 131 (d) and (e).

Role of the mayor as chief executive officer
134. As chief executive officer of the City, the mayor shall,
(a) uphold and promote the purposes of the City;
(b) promote public involvement in the City’s activi-
(c) act as the representative of the City both within and outside the City, and promote the City locally, nationally and internationally; and
(d) participate in and foster activities that enhance the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of the City and its residents.
Got all that? Essentially, the mayor's powers aren't substantially greater than those of a council member. (There are some exceptions, but they're not relevant to the policy Ford wants.)

So, in order to cut the number of councillors down, Ford will need to get 500 electors to submit a petition to council, let this go to the Municipal Board, and the Board may -- but doesn't need to -- choose to go along with the petition. Even if they do, there's a section in the Bill which indicates that the Board's order becomes a municipal by-law once ordered. So, council could just amend or repeal it and bring us back to square one.

(2) He's made illegal promises

First: Ford wants to contract out garbage collection. The current collective agreement, which will IIRC expire in 2012, prohibits this. So, he'll either have to break the CA -- and get sued and lose -- or wait until 2012 and try to get it out during bargaining. As posed, though, it's illegal. The only way I know of to break a collective agreement is to declare bankruptcy. I'm not sure, honestly, if a city can declare bankruptcy. Even if it can, I'm not sure that's the kind of thing that Ford would be well-advised to do, just to contract out garbage collection.

Second: Ford wants the unions to bid on garbage collection like private contractors. If they could do so, they wouldn't be unions. Unions exist to represent the workers in a particular workplace, performing a particular set of functions. They aren't a separate business or incorporated entity which can offer bids on work.

Here's where things get very dicey for Ford's big plans for the city unions. If the garbage collection is, somehow, successfully contract out, that leaves the city with a lot of equipment it doesn't need -- garbage trucks and so on. The city would probably either sell or lease this equipment to the new provider. Given that the same work using the same equipment is being performed for the city, the union could go to court and argue that, rather than contracting out, this constitutes a sale of business. And in a sale of business, employment contracts get sold, too. Which would mean the same union collective agreement would immediately bind the contractor.

In cases where things like garbage collection are successfully contracted out, it's done piecemeal, I believe. The entire service doesn't get moved out tout court; instead, some is retained in house, so the unionized workforce can be mostly terminated, and so the union can't argue this constitutes a sale of business.

Of course, IANAL. But this is all speculative anyway, given that Ford can't, legally, break the provisions in the collective agreement which prohibit contracting out.

(3) He's made at least one promise outside the power of municipal government

Ford wants to make the TTC an essential service. This is a provincial power, not a municipal power. He could ask the province to do it, but I'm not sure McGuinty would be receptive. He seems to want to avoid strong interventions in union issues; he also seems to be disinterested in making major regulatory revisions, such as those that would be required to bring the TTC within the definition of "essential service".

Tim Hudak might do it. But, right now, the best Hudak could hope for would be a plurality -- not a majority. Admittedly, a lot can change between now and the provincial election in 2011, but there's no reason to think that Hudak will do particularly well, considering he'd be fighting his first general as PC leader. The same applies to NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, which really screws up the math. If she messes up, that might drive left-leaning votes to shore up the Liberal vote, while if Hudak screws up, that might drive right-leaning votes to shore up the Liberal vote. By "shore up" I mean either directly voting for the Liberals or abstaining from voting/voting for candidates from minor parties, thus decreasing the votes Liberal candidates need in order to obtain a plurality.

So, a whole lot would have to go right for Ford to get the TTC declared an essential service.

(4) He's made promises that are either impossible or unworkable

First: The TTC again. Ford seems to want to declare the TTC an essential service to stop strikes from happening. That's implausible. The TTC basically works like an essential service anyway, considering that they get legislated back fairly quickly when they strike. Furthermore, and probably more importantly, declaring the TTC an essential service would put all issues that can't be resolved in bargaining to binding arbitration. Arbitrators don't tend to like taking sides, so, like as not, an arbitrator would just split the difference. Which means that it'd be much, much harder for the city to negotiate a contract in a way that would, say, constrain compensation. It's likely, then -- and I think that the data on jurisdictions where transit is an essential service back me up -- that this policy would increase the city's costs.

Second: The garbage collection issue again. Suppose that Ford is serious about trying to get garbage collection contracted out. He has to, first, wait out the current collective agreement. I believe that it expires in 2012. So, come 2011, the union will ask the city to start negotiating for a new collective agreement. Given that Ford is generally not union-friendly, these negotiations will be very tough, if they even go anywhere at all; with the contracting out issue looming overhead, they will be tougher still. So, we will have another municipal strike, when the agreement expires in 2012.

This strike will likely end with back to work legislation, unless whatever council support Ford has managed to drum up collapses underneath him. This legislation will likely remand outstanding issues to an arbitrator. What arguments is Ford going to give the arbitrator to try to persuade him (possibly her, but usually him) to gut the anti-contracting out language that is currently in the agreement? Particularly given that one major stumbling-block in the negotiations will have been his insistence on being able to contract out the work. I can't see an arbitrator going for this without some extremely persuasive maneuvering on the part of the city or the province.

Even supposing Ford manages to pull that one off, I don't expect the transition to be smooth. Wildcat strikes are, by definition, unpreventable, and workers generally don't appreciate it when people try to take their work away from them. So, not only will 2011 be tense, 2012 will involve a strike, and 2012/2013 will involve ongoing political protest action by the union and likely other members of the labour movement.

Good times for Toronto, eh?

Third: The whole "saving money" angle. The cutting councillors thing is supposed to do this. He claims this would save about $15M a year. But he also wants to move this $15M to increasing cops involvement in targetting gangs and guns and violence. So, there's no savings here, just redirection.

Similarly, Ford wants to cut expense accounts, to save $1M a year, and he wants to cut the mayor's office budget, saving ~$.5M a year. That's a big $1.5M annually in a (operating) budget of $9.2B. That's a "B", not an "M" there. So, about 0.02% of the budget.

However, Ford also wants to cut the vehicle registration tax. This is $60 per vehicle per year. And he wants to cut the land transfer tax. I can't find information on how much cutting the land transfer tax will claw out of the budget, but I can at least ballpark how much would be lost from the vehicle registration tax. 2.5M people, assume 1 in 4 have a private vehicle (which is a number from nowhere, but it works to give a frame), works out to 625K vehicles. Multiply by $60 per vehicle per year, and that's about $160K in revenue. It is, clearly, a drop in the bucket, so there doesn't appear to be any pressing reason not to cut it. Then again, given that Toronto has serious budget problems, does it make sense to be removing a revenue stream without a clear plan for replacing it?

Basically, his fiscal proposals come off as pennywise, but pound foolish. He really has no conception of how to make a multi-billion dollar budget work, so he's counting paperclips and bitching about retirement parties. If the budget problem is really a problem, then it has to be attacked from both sides, aggressively: increase revenue, and decrease spending. The increases in revenue will have to be significant -- a few extra taxes or fees won't work -- and the decreases in spending will similarly have to be drastic -- cutting expense accounts is nothing compared to, say, cutting the entire fire service (which would only take $300M off the budget, BTW, or about 3%).

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Weekend grind-blogging.

Brutal Truth, "Get a Therapist...Spare the World"

Friday, August 20, 2010

On cooperatives and housing.

I'll get back to my electoral series eventually, I swear. But I had this weird idea today and I wanted to spell it out. It's not an argument; more just thinking out loud. (Well, so to speak. "Speak".)

We don't have enough housing going to the people who need it. The people who have housing often can't keep it (especially now). Housing often becomes a liquidity trap when owned. When rented, it becomes potentially destablizing/undignified.

So, why not have a regulated cooperative system for housing?

I'm not a fan of the private market for housing as it's failing pretty badly. Some folks have all their wealth tied up in it, and, because the asset is illiquid, that wealth is very volatile and difficult to protect. Some folks just can't generate enough wealth to get housing in the first place. (Some can't even generate enough to get access to rental housing.) Basically, it's a system where those rich enough to last through short-term losses make a killing, those in the middle tend to lose, and those at the bottom can't even participate. It's like what a private market in health insurance/services is, really.

I'm also not inclined to think that a public system would work well here. It would be difficult to manage, for one. A market system always has the advantage of efficiency over a system that's centrally planned. and we're talking here about trying to keep the rich from making a killing, keep the middle from getting soaked, and make the poor competitive. That's a hell of a balancing act for anything; when it comes to something like housing, I'm not sure that any government or similar central agency has the ability. Or the interest.

For two, it would turn housing into another thing the government owns, and thus something that no one really has pride in. It's an Aristotelian point (in reply to Plato's communism about property for the guardian class): people tend to value things when they have some personal stake in them. People tend to not value things when they're general or "just there" or some such. If you want people to take care of their homes, you've got to give them some control over them.

For three, there's good libertarian reasons to be leery of too much mucking about with economic transactions. The view that one shouldn't muck about unless one absolutely has to is a very extreme sort of libertarianism. But there is a reasonable suspicion of the consequences of (modifying Nozick's phrase) interfering in capitalist acts between consenting adults.

So, my suggestion is to split the difference. Let's have a system of cooperatives: all housing will be owned collectively, at the level of neighbourhoods or lower. (So, these are technically communes.) But, let's have that system be regulated, pretty heavily. To be a commune would require certification, a licensed manager plus accountant etc., and regular investigations to make sure that it's in compliance with anti-discrimination laws, including a set of regulations regarding class. (So, the proportion of poor in the commune must be close to that in the region.) Transitioning to this system could be done by brute force legislation, but would probably be best done by adjusting the tax and other incentives to encourage forming communes, and discourage private ownership of housing. (And, once a critical mass is reached, anyone who sticks to private housing will find themselves in a steadily-shrinking market.)

I'm not persuaded by the suggestion that property rights are somehow inalienable, particularly when it comes to the provision of the necessities of life. General or broad private property rights can't be justified without running into acquisition problems. So, we have to look systemically anyway. and, as said, this is a necessities of life issue. your right to keep your food ends when I'm starving. Any libertarianism that privileges the right to property over the right to continued existence is really a form of oligarchy.

I'm also not persuaded by the suggestion that fully public housing actually works wonderfully. Council housing in the UK, for example, did work -- initially. But, later, it start to fail. Problems have included such obvious flaws as government cutting corners on the construction (leading to housing collapsing, in some cases), as well as problems associated with urban decay. (And there's the whole crime/ASBO problem, which gets into the paternalism underlying government involvement in this sort of thing.) I suspect the ultimate source of the problem is how unflexibile the system is, given that government has an incentive to spend as little as possible, while simultaneously refusing to admit when they've screwed up.

When it comes to putting this into practice, there are obvious issues. Whether this would actually be better than the fully private or fully public options, for example. I've given reasons to think it might be, but they might turn out to be incorrect. And the details of getting the communes up and running, as well as of the pertinent regulatory framework. But, it seems that our current system isn't working so well. So, why not try something else?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Nothing this week.

Sorry. Dissertation editing is kicking my ass right now. Nothing major in terms of changes, but I really have to tighten up some portions of the argument and it's draining most of my energy. Next week for sure, though.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

On the new feudalism.

I was going to blog something about the CMA’s recent report on Canadian healthcare. But there’s really not much there that anyone could reasonably disagree with. More access to prescription drugs, more access to long-term care for those who need it, and so on. However, here’s the bit I find really worrying:
If, however, there is no political appetite or public support for increasing public revenues for health on the basis of universality and risk pooling then we will be faced with options for raising funds from private sources. These could include co-payments for publicly insured services, private insurance or out-of-pocket payment for uninsured/deinsured services, and deductibles linked to utilization.
In other words, the CMA is acknowledging what we all already know: our public infrastructure is failing sufficiently badly that we may be forced to privatize it in order to provide a reasonable and decent level of service. And this is largely because, as they put it, of a lack of "political appetite" and "public support" for a level of taxation necessary to keep these public services running.

This applies to the university sector as well, for example. In Ontario, our beloved Finance Minister, in his infinite wisdom, has decided he wants to make his budget numbers work by introducing a real-dollar wage cut to everyone who works in the public service. (He calls it a "wage freeze", but given that prices and inflation continue to increase, it's a real-dollar wage cut. If he were honest, he'd admit that. And probably not a McGuinty cabinet minister. Still, onward.) For some reason, this includes people who work for universities, even though the province, when convenient, claims that universities are autonomous institutions. (Such as when the University of Toronto imposes a user fee on anyone who wants to access their library. This was later reduced to a user fee for anyone who wants to take anything out.) This therefore includes graduate students who are providing their services in the form of teaching assistance and marking and contract lecturers, such as myself, who are working on a per-course basis. This is not sustainable. It is normal, in US universities, to provide graduate students with full tuition stipends and living stipends -- that is, in effect, graduate students pay no tuition and are paid enough to live on. If Canadian provincial governments continue to nickel and dime graduate students, then the best graduate students will head south, and our own graduate students will be unprepared to compete for university places. Furthermore, if Canadian provincial governments continue to throttle spending on the university sector, then we will be unable to attract top-level faculty and we will be forced to rely more and more on part-time, short-term, tenuous contract workers. That is, the jobs that used to be stepping-stone or emergency positions are soon becoming the norm for academic employment.

Privatization is a solution, though. The private sector is a source of money to increase full-time academic positions -- tenure (the only real "full-time" academic position that exists) in the US is fast becoming a benefit that only exists in private universities, as well as some of the largest public ones. The private sector is a source of money to increase stiends for graduate students. It is also a source of money to fund undergraduate tuition and fees, as well as to improve university infrastructure.

I accept this sort of reasoning, when it's applied to healthcare, education (university or otherwise), roads, utilities, what have you. All places where this argument could be repeated easily, by the way. I agree with it and see the logic of it. But I'm infuriated at the unwillingness and inability of our political leaders, and of the general public, to see that it only makes sense because of a blatant false dichotomy. The choice is not limited public money vs. unlimited private money. Public money exists because it comes from private money. Private money is unlimited -- at least in comparison to public money -- because we have chosen to let it be so. The obvious way to pull some of that money into funding public services is to increase taxes. But, as the CMA imply, there doesn't seem to be either political appetite or public support for this.

I wonder if there's political appetite or public support for doing anything bold any more. Or if we're just supposed to accept that every service we currently receive from and control through our government will ultimately be owned by someone and doled out to us as the new serfs.

I don't have any solutions or real arguments about this -- obviously. But it still seems to me that we're heading towards a new feudalism. And no one's really interested in stopping it.