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Monday, November 26, 2012

Rob Ford's downfall.

Rob Ford is no longer the mayor of Toronto.

In a decision that, I think one can fairly say, has stunned and shocked many, not least myself, Justice Charles Hackland has removed Ford from office for breaching provincial conflict of interest law. Justice Hackland has allowed 14 days for Ford to vacate the office or to appeal, and there can be little doubt that Ford will appeal. It may be, therefore, that Ford will be granted an appeal and a stay of the judgement, and he may remain in office for many more months or even end up serving his full term.

But there can be little doubt anymore that Ford is politically finished after what is, at least in recent memory, an unprecedented legal decision and after the farcical soap opera of the last two years that wearied even many of those who swept Ford into office on a wave of populist backlash to the perceived haughtiness of, and disappointments in Mayor David Miller's administration. That wave created a brief "coalition"  of voters between Ford's core block of suburban middle-class whites and broader sections of Toronto's very diverse electorate.

This coalition, already coming apart, can be safely said to be over.

Many of his core supporters will no doubt stay with him no matter what happens. There is a constituency on the hard right that basically sees the courts as being a fundamental part of a liberal and socialist "conspiracy" against men, tradition, Canada, Christianity, etc. To them this was a political and not a legal decision.

Ford reflected this in his first, and very brief response to his ouster outside of his office today when he said "This comes down to left-wing politics. The left-wing wants me out of here".

This was a predictable response, as Ford has never, in his personal life or politcal career, really accepted responsiblity for any of his actions and nor has he been made to. Until now.

As Clayton Ruby, the lawyer who tried the case on behalf of the citizen complainant Paul Magder, said “Rob Ford did this to Rob Ford.”

Judge Hackland's ruling, once it has had time to sink in and be digested over the coming days, is truly damning. In his judgement, which centered around Ford's participation in a vote at Toronto City Council where the mayor and his allies overturned a decision by the city's Integrity Commissioner that Ford should pay back money he solicited on city letterhead for his football "charity", the judge demolishes Ford's legal arguments.

While acknowledging that "the circumstances of this case demonstrate that there was absolutely no issue of corruption or pecuniary gain on the respondent’s part" the judge goes on to dismantle Ford's claims of innocent ignorance stating that Ford's "conduct in speaking and voting on the matter involving his repayment obligation did not occur through inadvertence. Inadvertence involves oversight, inattention or carelessness. On the contrary, the respondent’s participation was a deliberate choice. He testified in this proceeding that he appreciated that the resolution before Council impacted him financially..." and further that Ford "admitted that he sought no advice, legal or otherwise, as to whether he should be involved in the debate."

In response to Ford's repeated claims that this was no more than an "error in judgement", after stating that "In one sense, every contravention of a statute based on deliberate action can be said to involve an error in judgment" Hackland goes on to state that "In my opinion, the respondent’s [Ford's] actions were characterized by ignorance of the law and a lack of diligence in securing professional advice, amounting to wilful blindness. As such, I find his actions are incompatible with an error in judgment."

Any reasonable person, after reading the ruling, will plainly see that this was a decision based in law, not politics, and that it was the result of Ford's own colossal sense of arrogance and entitlement.

Whether it was managing to get out of drunk driving, pot possession or two assault charges (including one for assaulting his own wife), or  whether it was never being held to account for first being a part-time councillor and then a part-time mayor who skipped out on work to coach football and who collected a full-time salary from his family business while being paid by the "taxpayer", or whether it was not having to face any consequences for numerous dubious actions like having city road repairs in front of his business sped up or having public buses diverted to pick up his football team (throwing hard working commuters out into the rain during rush hour) there had been no consequences.

He was seemingly invincible.

But like all those who think, and whose popularity and power often oddly depends upon the fact that they are somehow above the rules, once this bubble has been burst, once it has been shown that the emperor indeed has no clothes, there is no going back. His allies on council were already abandoning him. I suspect this trickle of distancing and doubts will become a stampede.

Ford will now join a long line of populist demagogues whose fall from grace will be as rapid as their rise.

Regardless of any further legal decisions,  it is impossible to see how this decision is not Rob Ford's final political downfall.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Rob Ford as metaphor: The real culture of entitlement.

What to make, just past its second anniversary, of the circus act that is Rob Ford's administration in Toronto? A perpetual sideshow and distraction where the primary attraction, the mayor himself, seems anxious to outdo himself in terms of buffoonery and apparent stupidity.

Many Torontonians, including some, I suspect, who voted for him, wring their hands in angst at each new development in the train wreck that his administration has become. Facing two court challenges and having to take the stand in both while in office, seeing no hypocrisy in talking about "gravy trains" while skipping out on the job that he was elected and is paid to do to coach high school football (including failing to attend the Big City Mayor's Conference in Ottawa to do so), using his influence to get actually working citizens kicked off of public buses during rush hour in bad weather so that his football team could get picked up (and it is obvious this happened, despite absurd claims by the police to the contrary, given that the police had not made such a request of the TTC since a factory explosion four years prior in 2008), having city road crews rush a job in front of his family's business just in time for an anniversary project, etc.

It is hard for many to believe that Ford is mayor of the largest, most diverse and what is perceived as the most liberal city in the country, if not in North America.

Ford won, as we all know, despite many seeming missteps prior to his election. His comments and actions before becoming mayor made it abundantly clear that he was homophobic, had a stereotyped view of many of the city's ethnic communities, had almost no understanding of how city governance worked, and so on. He was embraced by many, especially suburban whites and males, as a populist hero who was "one of them" in spite of the well established reality that he was a rich kid, who had never had to work a real job, had treated his job as city councillor accordingly and had made it a part-time one, had collected a second six figure salary from his family's business while being paid by the public, and had clearly lead a silver spoon life.

He won despite it being revealed that he had somehow got out of DUI and pot charges in Florida that would have sent many of the state's African-American citizens to jail for a very long time. It was also known that he had been charged with assault twice, including as recently in 2008 against his wife.
In the end he won by a larger margin as a first time mayor than either Mel Lastman or David Miller had when they were first elected.

Two years later it is worth reexamining this. It is worth also reexamining whether or not Ford won "despite" these things at all.

It is easy to believe that many of the wealthy pseudo-populist standard bearers of the right in North America, or their sycophantic followers in segments of the media and the political class are morons. They often make pronouncements or comments that defy reality.

While humorous, what can one make of a candidate for the presidency of the most powerful country in the world bemoaning the lack of opening windows in jet planes! (He later claimed it was a "joke" but...)Mitt Romney is actually not stupid, so why would he make such an idiotic comment? Far more significantly, how could he actually think, among other things, as he clearly does that 47 per cent of the American population are government dependents who pay no income tax?

And how, despite his eastern seaboard capitalist pedigree, and the clear reality that he had gold plated diapers that made sure he never faced any kind of  financial adversity in his life, did he still manage to carry a large majority of the votes of whites and males in the USA as a whole and in some of the poorest parts of the USA in particular?

The first point, I think, is that wealthy politicians like Ford or Romney, or the delusional ranter Donald Trump, are not stupid, they simply have no clue. They are utterly detached from reality as a result of extreme privilege. Ford is not being disingenuous; this is his reality. Romney wonders why he cannot open jet plane windows because his wealth has opened everything else. If he had the wherewithal he probably could be made to believe he was Bruce Wayne. Why not? Shouldn't all rich white guys be able to kick ass with privileges paid for by their corporations?

The more interesting question, is why does anyone follow them and vote for them? While Romney lost the election, he won the white vote and he only lost by 2.8 per cent. Ford won a landslide by any estimation among a supposedly more enlightened electorate.

It would be comforting to say, as so many do, that it was the result of "monied interests" or the "right-wing" media (the same media that the right says is a "left-wing" media), but that simply does not withstand a critical look. And these were clearly free and fair elections in a way that would matter to the outcome. As to notions that money "buys" elections, that is historically false, and in the Canadian context is rendered absurd by a variety of restrictions. Ford did not win because of money, he won because of anger. Not the anger of the 1 per cent, but the anger of a generation of white males who feel that women, non-whites and the poor are robbing them of their other historic and empowering privilege: the privilege of being a white male.

The reality is that much of the white, male working and middle-class voted for Ford because they liked what he said and did. They liked his views of gays and women, and they liked his total unwillingness to try to understand the points-of-view of those outside of his narrow reality. They liked that his narrative was simple, claimed to be on the "outside", and was old-fashioned and angry, as that is how they perceive themselves. They liked that he presented himself as a bulwark against modernity and inclusion because these voters do not like modernity and inclusion.

Modernity and inclusion, regardless of class, does not really work out for the group who has historically benefited, no matter what their class, educational or income background, from knowing that they had a predominance socially due to the simple fact that they were born white or male. And this predominance is not ancient history; it still exists.

Historically in the Canadian context there is no question this is true. We like, as Canadians, to pat ourselves on the back  and feel good about how much "better" we are than Americans, though often this difference seems to come down to some pride in health care reforms that happened a generation ago or the fact that we apparently play hockey well.

We chose to forget, and are not reminded, that our history, with a few small exceptions, is every bit as racist and assimilationist as the history of the United States. Canada also has a long history of appalling exclusionist immigration policies (including policies that helped to lead Jews into Nazi gas chambers), systemic racism against Asians and people of colour and a basically genocidal attitude toward the Aboriginal and First Nations peoples. On the issues of the rights of women, our policies and histories are different from the US in only incidental ways. And, given our federal government, these become more incidental as you read this article.

Whites generally, and white men more specifically, benefited from this way of doing things, and are largely in denial of the fact that they did. For the entirety of our history, and until very recently, the overwhelming bulk of our business, political, media and even union leaders were male and white, as were those in every industrial or other profession that made a real income. This is a demonstrable and historic fact.

And this was not true due to any effort on their part. It was due to the simple fact that they were white and male. They had to do nothing else to have a greater social status than those who were not. Equality of opportunity, in so far as it existed, existed only within this context. It existed only for white men.

This has, of course, finally begun to change. And nowhere, nominally, more than in Toronto. But these very changes have led whites and men to vote as a block, even when these votes run counter to their own apparent class interests. While it is true that many non-whites and women also voted for Ford, or for Romney or Harper, they did not do so as a block.

White males, of all classes, in both Canada and the United States do increasingly vote as a block. And they vote for reaction. They are the ultimate special interest group. They have a special interest in preserving the centuries of power that they have been granted.

This, if you are wondering, is why the comment pages of the Sun and National Post, as well as the internet at large, are so full of seething white male anger and hate. They see the possibility of eclipse on the horizon, of actually having to fend for themselves on equal footing for the first time in Canadian history, and they are terrified.

That is fundamentally why Rob Ford won, and may yet win again, despite his obvious failure as a mayor.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sky fall: The collapse of the Toronto condo market and the new non-productive economy

Pity the poor Toronto Mr. Christie's workers.

A factory in business from just after the Second World War, producing baked goods in a west-end Toronto community since 1948, that is now due to be closed. Over 500 well-paying jobs to be lost.

While the closure has been extensively reported on, the fact that it is occurring after a Mitt Romney/ Bain Capital-like takeover has been less discussed.

"Mondelez Canada, who became owners of the factory after the North American split of Kraft Foods Inc. operations earlier this month, made the closure announcement Thursday afternoon to workers."
Mondelez has stated that:
"As previously announced, Kraft Foods Inc. plans to spin-off its North American grocery business, to be named Kraft Foods Group, Inc., at 5 p.m. EDT on Oct. 1, 2012.  Following the spin-off, Kraft Foods Inc. will be renamed Mondelez International, Inc. As our results show, we've significantly changed the trajectory of our business to deliver sustainable, profitable growth."
Given that they owned it for such a short period, it is hard not to think that Mondelez Capital took over the property with the intent to shut it down and to, as they have now openly stated, attempt to sell the property to developers who hope to build condominiums there.

And one has to question the veracity of this comment: “This is a difficult decision, given the role this facility has played within our organization and in the community for 64 years,” said Alvaro Cuba, vice-president of operations for Mondelez Canada in a news release given that it is obviously not true.

Yet, they have made this cynical move just as the condominium market is collapsing in Toronto, and as the city is facing a very likely housing bubble burst. According to the Globe and Mail, "Sales of new condos fell to 3,317 in the latest quarter, the research firm said. In the first nine months of the year, sales slipped to 14,156, and are on track to close out the year with a 35-per-cent decline from last year’s record level of 28,190."

This makes them, in a sense, a metaphor for the final demise of Toronto's productive tradition, and its transformation into a highly polarized community of those who can actually afford to live here and the underclass that gets by serving them.

A generation ago South Etobicoke had several unionized factories that formed the basis of an industrial economy. There was the massive Goodyear Tire Factory, Crown Cork and Seal, and others that existed in New Toronto and Long Branch and that sustained self-contained communities as a result. I remember, as a young man, working security as they closed out Crown Cork and Seal. Going around the empty plant, seeing the empty train stalls and the deconstructed assembly lines. Row after row of empty lockers of the workers who had lost their jobs.

All of these, with a handful of exceptions, closed in the late '80s and early '90s. This had the predictable effect in that it totally destroyed the community that they had been employing people in. South Etobicoke went from a "union town" to a district infamous (to a degree unfairly) as a centre of street prostitution, drug abuse and abandoned storefronts.

Mondelez Capital moves in and yet more jobs are lost to facilitate the farce of the Toronto condo bubble.

Mondelez Capital will now seek to build condos on the graveyards of these jobs, even though the towers they build will likely stand empty for a very long time... if they ever get built.
There is a terrible sadness to this.

Hundreds of people will be thrown out of work, losing jobs that payed well above minimum wage, to see their factory raised to the ground in the hope of attracting yet more members of the lower middle-class to buy empty buckets of sky in a declining housing market.

While this is depressing, what is even more tragic is the realization that this transition is now an ideological and societal fact. And that, fundamentally, no one cares. We have created an ideological space where, somehow, we make believe that we can build real communities without the benefit of real jobs. An hegemony where everyone is middle-class... and where everyone succeeds if they try... despite the obvious reality that no one is actually succeeding.

They are subsisting off of debt.

The Christie's workers will enter into a job "market" where the most "left-wing" political party in the Ontario legislature is talking about "rewarding" the small business "job creators" who "create" the lowest paying non-union jobs in the province. They can hope for no help at all.

They are also almost certain to make less money when they do find jobs. As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives notes: "The average wage paid to Canadians has not kept up with inflation. Real average wages declined by 0.6 per cent between 2009 -- the trough of the recession -- and 2011, from $23.11 to $22.99. That may not sound like much, but that’s because the bottom half of the wage distribution losing ground faster than the top half."

That is assuming that they even find jobs. As the same report notes: "It is true that there are 820,000 more jobs now than in the middle of the Great Recession, but there are still 1.4 million people looking for work -- a number that is about 25 per cent higher than before the crisis started, and not steadily declining."

Here in the city of Toronto the dichotomy is very clear.

Toronto's declining industrial base has meant that the city is a study in contrast. There are many people who are very well off. But there are also a huge number that are just getting by in the retail or service sector, are poor, or are unwilling to admit they are poor due to the fact that they came to Toronto to "succeed."

There is also a stunningly large "middle-class" whose lives revolve around houses they bought that they likely could not afford.

The question ultimately becomes, who will buy these spaces of sky that are being built?

Now that the market is in free-fall, Toronto can expect a serious re-shift. This is an increasingly significant question as a very large number of people are employed in the highly government subsidized construction and real estate industries that have fueled Toronto's economy for a decade. If these jobs disappear, if the condo bubble continues to free fall, where does Toronto stand?

And yet new units are being built even as the market cools.

Can our communities look forward to a Blade Runner-like future of empty, half-finished, and half-completed monuments to our own folly?