Thursday, 10 April 2014

Anglicisation in Montreal - An Issue for Paranoid Non-Residents






The election autopsy of the massive heart attack the Parti Quebecois suffered on Monday has been duly performed by national and provincial media outlets in Quebec, Canada, and I will refer the reader to these rather than repeat all the reasons the most incoherent, bizarre, ridiculous campaign a modern North American incumbent government has ever run caused it to implode. This obviously gave someone like me great pleasure to witness, and you only need to read my last entry to find out why. But just before...just before the door hits the PQ's arse on its way out, I would like to remind it of one glaring, gaping hole in its...vision, if I may call it that, for the future of the province. One that it has not been taken to task on by said media outlets. It has to do with the city I live in, Montreal.

The PQ and its sympathizers and sycophants across Quebec media often issue stern warnings of the “problem” in Montreal. That there is an “anglicisation” of the island, that job postings in North America's twentieth-largest city and the only French-speaking one of these often require bilingualism, that some retail and shop employees in the downtown have taken to an annoying greeting habit of saying “Bonjour-Hi” and that drastic measures must be taken to halt these tendencies at all costs. Never mind the fact that the Liberal party of Dr. Philippe Couillard, who outgoing Premier Pauline Marois accused of “refusing to defend our language and culture”, took 21 out of 28 seats on the island and the several of the ones on the Western half by upwards of 75-80% of the vote – the actual residents of this island cannot assess the hazards of the situation and need the munificent PQ to do it for them.

But even if I do find the “Bonjour-Hi” thing a little annoying personally, it's not something that is going to change my day one way or another. I do, however, take offense to a government being paid with our tax dollars using its resources and energy to try and regulate or legislate around this. Defeated Montreal-area PQ cabinet minister Diane De Courcy intended to do just that when she referred to this situation as being “inacceptable” and that it was necessary to take measures. No need to mention facts like that Montreal has lost hundreds of thousands of its native English speakers to other North American cities over the years, that the drop in French speaking households is not due to French people giving up speaking French but rather their decamping to the surrounding suburbs, many of whose populations have doubled, tripled, quadrupled and are almost entirely French speaking, and that most abstract yet most damning truth – a language that has to be forced upon and legislated into a milieu has by that point equal or lesser chances of surviving than if you just left it alone and didn't make people associate it with restrictions and bureaucrats. In other words, if people in government offices and tax dollars are keeping a language alive, (“Hello, Gaelic!”) it's already too late.

The PQ supporters and the people who leave comments on the online version of Le Devoir are mistaken in their belief that downtown Montreal represents some kind of English beachhead (cancer) that will spread to the entire province. I have been in many parts of Quebec and nothing could be further from the truth. In any case it is futile to try and convince this crowd; they will label me as the angry resident English speaker and just accuse me of playing to type, and I will leave that role to the Gazette who so reliably fulfills it. I will instead attempt frame this in a broader, more global context to give the Bonjour-Hi in downtown Montreal English fearers some perspective.

Montreal's weaknesses are numerous and on display for all its residents to see, but it's strengths – educated workforce, cosmopolitan destination, diverse human capital, low cost of living - lead to achievements that the PQ is only too anxious to appropriate as its own. Witness Mme Marois rushing with her local MNAs (all high profile cabinet ministers) to hand out subsidies and tax breaks so they can do photo-op announcements with local high-tech knowledge industry players like Ubisoft, or boast about attracting a large investment for a plant and hiring commitment in high-end manufacturing from a massive multinational like Siemens. This is because she prioritizes, in her words, “secteurs de pointe”, or cutting edge industries: those high-value, high-paying jobs that every politician wants to attract for obvious reasons. High-profile Montreal minister Jean-Francois Lisee, meanwhile, gushed effusively on his blog about traveling in India and China and seeing the great work “nos entrepreneurs” as in, Quebec businesspeople, were doing over there. It was nice of him to point that out, but I don't even want to know what it cost the taxpayer for him to be able to do that.

The point is that it is now clear that PQ was talking out of both sides of its mouth: dumping on English, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs in the rural areas to score votes while presenting itself as an innovative, leading-edge, clean-tech superstar in Montreal. Obviously it was a huge miscalculation in that the people the latter appeals to would be too disgusted by the former to swallow it. And even several areas “en region” (Quebec parlance for “outside Montreal”) surprised the media, which unfairly paints it as being a uniformly white, insular, french, racist bloc, by kicking out PQ incumbents, showing that tolerance for stupidity is at comfortably low levels all across this beautiful province. More importantly, it shows a clear mismatch between “values” the PQ espouses on behalf of the population and one of its ambitions.

The ambition is for Montreal to be the North American equivalent of Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm. These are medium-sized cities with non-English speaking majorities, value-added sectors, and an undeniable cool factor, which is so prevelant in residents that they are kind of intimidating, at least to go live in. Montreal would love to be considered in the same class as these cities; if it is, the PQ no doubt considers itself the chief architect of that fact. The parallels with Berlin in particular – long periods of decline, economic stratification between east and west, low rents that persist up until today, vibrant arts sector (although Berlin, the epicentre of Europe and ground zero of World War II and the third biggest economy in the world's split, is obviously much more hardcore and heavyweight in all of these respects) – are striking. Yet do German politicians fret about the creative types flocking to Berlin from all over the worlds' inability to speak German? Do they dream up schemes to force non-German speaking individuals to run their two-employee tech startup in German, then make them apply for an exception through a byzantine bureaucracy to be able to put up a job posting requiring English fluency? How about a cafe owner being allowed to fire his minimum-wage, immigrant employee for not taking a turban or hijab off?

Germany was the birthplace of nazism, and no doubt continues to count adherents to extreme-right wing fascist ideology among its population today. Such movements exist as well in the other cities I mentioned, Stockholm and Amsterdam, as well as all over Europe; in Greece and Hungary – poorer, less developed economies - they are gaining dangerous amounts of traction. Yet in none of these places are these groups, which would support such proposals as I described above, anywhere close to the levers of power. Here in Quebec, these were ideas put forth by various members of the PQ government that was in power up until three days ago. This is, I suspect, one of the factors precisely preventing the ambition of Quebec's economic capital, Montreal, becoming a global, innovative, creative, plus-value city, from being realized.

I do not want to give the impression that PQ has been a neo-nazi party from the get-go or anything. But the party of national legends like Rene Levesque and Lucien Bouchard – erudite, logical, intellectually forceful men – has fallen hard and has fallen far to be recruiting crackpot candidates who write about kosher and halal food as secret tax conspiracies to line the pockets of rabbis and imams, or trots out 89 year old former celebrities to talk about fantasies of muslim men and McGill students forming cabals to take over her apartment building's swimming pool. In the newspapers, pequistes are defending themselves saying they have been unjustly compared to putin, stalin, hitler, et al. I will grant them that those comparisons are unfair, if anybody indeed made them. They are clearly, however, at least as loopy as some of the talking heads on Fox News.

If pequistes were serious about wanting a country that would include this jewel of an economic capital, maybe they can make a case based on economics, governance, or efficiencies. If they think they will continue to dream about it on the pillars of language, culture and identity, their decline will only be further cemented. And no place in Quebec is more illustrative of this gap than that dynamic, edgy, modern city the PQ wish they swept and instead got almost shut out of, Montreal.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Quebec Separation Debate - Deal or No Deal


"...DE SON GOUVERNEMENT INCOMPÉTENT!"


We have entered a period in the last two months where the political climate in Quebec has become polarized.  It is unfortunate because you read the National Post and the Globe and Mail and then go read Le Devoir and it becomes clear that the two camps which Pauline and company have been so generous to re-divide Quebec and Canadian society into profoundly misunderstand each other and do not trust or respect one another.  To English Canadian and Quebec federalists, separatism is an irrational, ridiculous, and needless destructive pursuit, driven by anxiety about identity that amounts to tribalism.  To francophone Quebec separatists, English Canada is an entity that doesn't care about them, doesn't know anything about them, doesn't care to know anything about their society, language and culture except to retain jurisdiction over these domains and, eventually, impose its English language on them and assimilate them.  I used to sympathize with these folks a lot more until I came and actually lived here.

The following truths I have noted are not to rub dirt in the face of Quebec nationalists if they lose their bid to form a country (which I hope they do) but to add my bit of resistance as a Quebec resident to what I see as an illegitimate attempt by the Parti Québécois to usurp the province's identity in its entirety and monopolize the meaning and the direction of that identity.  To put it bluntly, I live here, raise my kids here, and pay taxes here and I am not a fucking guest of the PQ.  They are not keepers of the holy see, some inner sanctum heart of hearts of sacred Quebec nationalist ideology, which is what they reveal to perceive themselves as when they say they need a majority for a charter, a third referendum, independence etc.  Of course they don't like to talk about these last two subjects during campaign, and have been trying to change the channel for the past weeks, because this subject reveals them for the extraordinary hypocrites that they are. But that's the risk you take when you add a celebrity billionaire candidate like Pierre Karl Péladeau to your roster to bolster your economic credentials.  CEOs aren't used to the scripts and filters which rob the political discourse of its substance, and he spoke with none on that fateful Sunday when he announced his candidacy.

Because I will be accused of English Canadian bias (because being an English Canadian makes me have zero credibility as far as the Mahatma high priests of Quebec culture are concerned), I will argue reasons I have against separation, (and therefore against a PQ government, as the election of one will create uncertainty and anxiety on that subject, if not advance it) as coldly and rationally as possible, without provoking the emotion and anger that almost always poisons this debate.

#1 - Numbers.  I can understand if you are a francophone Quebecer and speaking English has never really been your thing or, you can speak English perfectly but for some obtuse ideological reasons prefer not to, why you would want to form your own country to not be restrained by the Canadian constitution in linguistic rights, legislation banning hijabs, etc, in other words, things which mean nothing to you that you are forced to respect.  It would feel unfair and limiting to have alien or foreign forces dictating what you can and cannot do, preventing you from emulating France, that declining bankrupt country that doesn't give a shit about you  (This is an over-generalization of the PQ electroate - I estimate we can further break it down to be about 1/3rd urban, educated bien-pensants like I just described, led by the opinionated minister Jean-Francois Lisée, and 2/3rds rural/blue-collar/welfare, led by Péladeau's trash tabloids and trash TV).

The demographic I just described, three thirds combined, God Bless their secular charter, numbers by my estimate approximately 25-30%  of the Quebec population.  That is too big of a number to write off, which is why we are still dealing with this bullshit as a country thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred and fifty years later (Quebec nationalism can be traced back to, well, all the way back to 1763 when French and English soldiers were at war over the territory.  Thing is, it's also been part of Canada for the same amount of time).  There is another 8-10% of the population which feels little or no attachment to Canada as well, while perhaps not being as overtly hostile toward it; as such, sovereignty consistently polls in the 40% range.  Not bad, but sure nothing to make a country with.  And for those who think the 1995 referendum was stolen I ask, how do you propose to unite a society on such a divisive issue?  Is 51% an acceptable majority to create a new country?  Practical reality tells me its not.

And if francophones were an oppressed majority (80% of the population), yet 60% of the population favours staying in Canada, do the math.  That's right. Even half the francophones do not want to leave.  This places the sovereigntist forces in a very tenuous position as far as creating a country is concerned.  They don't have, and have never had, the numbers.  But mythology is more powerful than facts.  Their cries of "fifty plus one" which is the magic number that is all they think they need to get their "country", ignores what happens to the millions of Quebecers rights and freedoms guaranteed by their Canadian citizenship that they choose not to revoke.  It is also very arrogant and parochial of them to claim to speak for all francophones, and shows an enormous sense of entitlement.  Can 8 million people really be forced into something only 3.2 million want on a good day and none of whom out of that can even explain coherently how it would work? (Listen to the leader's stumbling about no borders, Canadian dollar, Canadian passports.  Why the hell do you want a country then?).

#2 - Distribution

The four biggest cities in Quebec are Montreal (1.8 million), Quebec City (760,000), Laval (400,000) and Gatineau (315,000), making up approximately 41% of the province's entire population and generating (by my estimate) at least 65-70% of its GDP.  Probably more.  The Parti Québécois would have zero chance of convincing majorities to vote for independence in any of these cities.

Why not?  All except Quebec city include sizeable anglophone communities, but at an official 8% of the province's population, this should hardly matter.  Quebec City remains a primarily French and deeply conservative city, but as the seat of the provincial government, counts tens if not hundreds of thousands of active and retiree provincial civil servants amongst its population.  Yet even this city struggles to embrace the PQ.  Although PQ supporters are spread across the province, including within these centres, it is worth considering why they are unable to obtain a plurality of votes within a first past the post electoral system.

I believe it is partly due to the nature of the voters and partly to the nature of these communities.  Montreal and Laval, are home to hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, and are receiving the vast majority of the 55,000 immigrants who arrive in Quebec each year.  They are also home to hundreds of multinational companies, corporate head offices, and nationally (as in Canada) important public institutions and infrastructures which put together obviously employ a great deal of the population.  As much as this must exasperate the PQ, economic and livelihood considerations (job security, real estate values, state of local infrastructures) are likely to trump language and culture in these centres, as well as the desire to remain the choice international destinations for capital, tourism, and cosmopolitan lifestyles in North America's most underrated country, Canada.  Of course the PQ believes that this situation is all their doing and they therefore are entitled to monopolize it for their own ends but go ahead, try again with your charter and referendum and get embarrassed even worse than you were last time.   Cities populated by "citizens of the world" do not vote for paranoiacs who think they are going to save their culture by legislating discrimination against linguistic and religious minorities.

Why can't the PQ get a toehold in Quebec's industrial/technological/franco heartland that stretches from Quebec City's southern suburbs to the Beauce region and Thetford Mines? Beats me.  These are the only areas of the province where the federal conservatives have deputies.  Small business, low taxes, and individual freedoms are popular political themes among residents, if you listen to the local talk radio or read Maxime Bernier's blog.  To its credit, this province is diverse and is not in its entirety the eco-socialist nightmare its detractors in Western Canada think it is.  And that's a good thing for those of who live here and shudder at the thought of Bernard Drainville trying to impose his "values" on us for a second term.

#3 - Hypocrisy

Speaking of Mr Drainville, maybe he can tell us where he'd be getting a paycheque in his new republic of Quebec if (we can only pray to Allah, his nemesis) he ever loses his seat in the National Assembly.  Oh, I guess it would be a pension from CBC where he used to work which is a federal crown corporation and...deposited into his bank account at a Canadian financial institution (Sorry Bernard, even the Caisse Populaire's holdings in the rest of Canada are vast and growing).  I think most Quebeckers and Canadians can only dream of railing against a country's existence while collecting a fat-ass paycheque from it.  And there are several people at ICI Radio-Canada in a similar situation.  Which leads us to ask, how many honest to god Quebec entrepreneurs, captains of industry, job creators, and owners of companies that actually pay people (not government subsidized cultural industries) have made passionate sorties in favour of separatism other than the Peladeau family.  Right.  Zero.  I know it's cool to attack the rich here and nobody wants to thank business for this economy whose fruits we all enjoy but seriously.  I want all the social democrats to remember that their cultural heroes all live on the public dime to the tunes of multiple six figures and yes, that public dime comes from all of Canada's environmentally unsustainable, resource-based, capitalist economy.   Not saying that like it's a good thing but it's a true thing that should lead to some soul-searching for quite a few people. 

#4 - Division

The PQ strategy is to be so elitist, so disconnected, so morally repugnant as individuals and as a party that non-Quebecois de souche will leave in anger and disgust as these idiots refuse to confront economic and demographic realities and bankrupt this place by creating new social programs when existing ones are not even solvent and pass laws as draconian as requiring businesses to request exceptions, special permits to advertise the need for bilingual employees.  You morons its 2014.  Why don't you go to a country of similar size like Hungary or Sweden and tell me if legislators waste their time on such pointless bullshit?  You will not divide us and make us flee - reasonable people - normal, honest, interesting Quebec people see your stupidity for what it is and will stand up to your bullying until it stops.  Because losing to you idiots would be the most pathetic thing in the world.  It would make us even bigger losers than you.


Saturday, 1 March 2014

Fear and Loathing at Canada Post


How does a nation protect a venerable ancient institution like its postal service?  How do you square the fact that the post still has an important role, albeit not one as central as it had in the past, in today's society, while recognizing that the service as it currently exists is not as relevant today and its lack of profitability creates a situation of taxpayer-subsidized busywork?  I don't have a specific answer to this question, but I do know that the party its answering falls to, the Canadian government, is making just about the worst job possible of it.  Through their actions, they are ensuring that the service Canadians expect steadily declines, which creates antipathy toward postal workers and Canada Post, and in turn gives the government licence to ignore postal workers and their concerns (who sends mail any more anyway? Ha ha ha), which then further demoralizes postal workers, which in turn lowers the service level even more.  This is the negative feedback loop dynamic Canada has been stuck in with its postal service for almost three years, and the radical changes coming into effect right now (30% stamp price increase, no more home delivery) is sure to add fuel to the raging junk mail fire.  This is not an issue the government has any interest in engaging with, for the simple reason that it contains no political benefit for them, and their formal position on the changes in the postal landscape so far has been callous dismissal.  The website of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, on the other hand, features plenty of ideas, petitions, demands, righteous indignation, and frustration, but Lisa Raitt (or whichever pylon minister is responsible for this file now) has been content so far to ignore any and all of this noise and just keep that back to work legislation at the ready.  How do we get a file that has been allowed to corrode to this point out of the ditch?

One thing is certain, things have not been the same since the strike.  The "essential service" or "minimum service" or whatever was in effect during the first year the fight dragged on between the government and the union was erratic, unreliable, and anything but punctual.  This may be anecdotal based on my experience, but it has mostly continued despite a "deal" being reached in June 2012.  The Post was a well-oiled machine before that strike.  Now the mail is often late, missing, or arriving in bunches after several days of nothing.  A birthday card I sent did not arrive on time because of a feud over the condition of the recipient's front steps.  A document my wife urgently needed (because the party who she needs to send it to needs an "original". Such parties are one of the roadblocks to society's universal conversion to PDFs.  More on that later) has arrived today 5 business days after its postmark.  So much for that 1-2 business days inter-provincial turnaround promised on mailboxes.  I don't blame the postal workers for this.  Nobody wants to work for an employer that clearly views them as an inconvenience, and despite the "arms-length" nature of Crown Corporations, there is little doubt in anybody's mind about where the buck stops with these hybrid entities - the Federal Government.  So when your employer tells you that they expect you to deliver mail to a million more addresses in five years, with 7,000 less employees, and find 5 billion dollars in profit to boot to plug that hole in your pension plan, how do you feel about your job?

Yes, the government deserves full marks for kicking Canada Post employees in the balls, and delivering mail not an easy or pleasant job by any stretch of the imagination.  But we must acknowledge that it is unnecessary in 2014 - if not outright absurd -  to send a document down a rabbit hole of complex journeys by truck, train, plane, and foot, through distribution centres, and to have complete trust in this system to deliver that document, with no mechanism to get that document back or to even know where it is, wait several days AND pay 63 cents PLUS your time to locate a mailbox to physically walk to and drop it in.  Or, I could scan said document right here where I'm sitting right now, email it, and have it to that other person instantly.  And if they claim they never got it, guess what? It's right here in my sent with date and time stamped to prove it.   Yes e-commerce is not "zero footprint" and servers eat up a ton of energy but being that one of CUPW's arguments against the abolishing of home delivery is an "increase in emissions", I think it stands to reason that the electronic process I described above is exponentially simpler, easier, more convenient and lower impact than the manual one.

These decisions are not made by Canadians following tortured reasoning and arguments, they are made on the basis of choice.  What is easier? And the answer can be found in mail volumes, which are declining precipitously every year.  And before I get called out as merciless, efficiency-seeking, ruthless modernizer, let me tell CUPW and its members that I am one of the deranged weirdos who still sends physical letters to his friends.  Yes, I am a purist who believes there is innate value in the medium of the letter which is lost in electronic communication.  But guess what?  Me and some other romanticists are not going to keep a multi-billion dollar postal operation afloat, so we need to look at our options here.  And the options are all unpleasant.  The post has to make some hard choices.

Back in the 1990s, when the Post was swimming in red ink like it is now, a less tough choice was made.  A network of brick and mortar post offices, where unionized employees were paid high salaries and benefits to essentially do retail/clerical work (sell stamps and envelopes, process money orders and money transfers, send packages) were shuttered.  Now your trip to the "post office" is likely to be to inside a grocery store, convenience store, or pharmacy, and where the "postal" employees work for that grocery store, convenience store, or pharmacy.  As such they receive the market wage for this kind of work, e.g., close to minimum wage, because if Shoppers or IGA or Deepak's Convenience pays $25 an hour to man a cash register, guess what happens to them? Out of business. 

The Union hates this, of course.  They have a mandate to protect their workers' interest whatever the cost, and if that means saying that their workers have "expertise" at selling stamps in protest to the end of their retail monopoly, they will say it.  The example above illustrates why they act this way: when there is no threat of going out of business, in simple terms when you are allowed to keep operating even though your liabilities exceed your assets because you are owned by the government, you don't care about whether your service is profitable or whether people even use it.  All that matters is you make your workers appear like suffering victims as much as possible, like they couldn't have possibly been expected to save a dime of those great wages they earned yesterday.  They will need higher wages tomorrow regardless.  Even unionized private sector workers do not have this sense of entitlement - just ask workers at GM, Chrysler, and Loblaws, to name three, whose union leaders would ask for the moon with the routine belligerence until market conditions caused their members to actually accept pay cuts to keep their jobs.

I mention this because there are still a number of said non-retail "post offices" (real brick and mortar ones, like the 1950s), in rural areas.  These of course are the ones the CUPW is fighting tooth and nail to keep open on its website.

Of course, this is where the issue gets murky and we have once again problems stemming from a business being run by the government.  The government derives a lot of its support from rural areas, and is loathe to pose any gesture which might annoy them now.  People in such areas tend to look on big city folk and their ways with suspicion, and do not want any downtown urban custom like buying  stamps in a shoppers drug mart imposed upon them.

Another demographic it was widely believed the government courts heavily is seniors.  Apparently not, with the two opposition parties as well as provincial and municipal politicians rushing to the barricades to cast themselves as tireless defenders of seniors' right to home delivery.  But I think the government is shrewdly playing its cards here - they are taking the calculated risk that committed senior conservative voters will not ditch them over this.  And if a few do, well, that's the cost of doing business.  Just look at how they threw veterans (another supposed core constituency) under the bus.

All these battles over optics, fought in a climate of delay, denial, ignorance, and apathy do the post and the population it serves no favours.  There is a simple way to get it back on track.

-Urban delivery on its own, believe it or not, is still profitable.  It's the staggering distance, low density, and wide open space of rural routes that make them chronic money losers.

-The Urban operations should be spun off into a private entity with the option to look at options like banking and other services to diversify their revenues as letter inevitably decline further.  They can also expand on the already profitable and growing package delivery business.

-Meanwhile, sick banks, the pension liability and the money losing rural service need to be absorbed into the general government revenue as a huge, painful, one-time charge.  It's going to hurt but it's the right thing to do for everyone who's already been promised the moon.  Meanwhile, new hires need to be hired on a much more flexible, cost-effective compensation system.

Will we get that? Not with this government, who would rather brag about a fake surplus than deal with a real financial problem the country has.  They will ensure that postal workers' working conditions further deteriorate, that the use of the post declines further with its reliability, and the liability transferred to future taxpayers will be even greater for something they are ensuring will be much less significant in Canadian every day life.  The Post Office is a government mandated and provided service, which is something the current government fears and loathes.  Another term, and they will ensure that it is something most Canadians do, too.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Lifecycle of a Middle Class Voter


Let's see how the beaten, downtrodden, sorry-assed middle class canadian has been left for dead by Stephen Harper.

Average middle class Canadian is 41,4 years old, about the same as their champion Mr. Trudeau.  After 15 years and a few switches in jobs, they (husband and wife) are clinging to (insert redundant white collar admin or blue collar assembly line job here).  They have a company RRSP at work but they never read the brochure because they understood their paycheque would be lower and anyway, they don't like talking about that stuff.  They worry about their future and saving for their kids, aged 8 and 10, education.  They haven't put any money aside for this but do pay for cellphones for them.  Other than 15,000 invested in a tax free savings account earning 1%, they have no assets, but they do have two car loans, a line of credit at 30 grand, and they don't always manage to pay the credit card in full but some months they do which is better than some people they know.  Their house is in what was a treeless new development 50 km from the city 10 years ago but today is a community with a mall, they bought it for 195,000 and someone told their neighbour his is now worth almost 400k.  They are proud of this and of working hard and managing their debt, but things don't seem to be getting any easier.  Husband has had two layoffs in last 5 years and thankfully just got called back 9 months ago.  The youngest needed therapy which was expensive.  The family has it all you know big screen TVs, lawnmowers, snowblowers, sun wing vacations in the dominican every year but is still "struggling" and just can't seem to get ahead.

Welcome to the world of joe six-pack, the average Canadian voter assiduously courted by all three parties.  None however is more shamelessly pandering to this demographic than the new Liberals under Justin Trudeau. The Liberals and Conservatives (who will boast to you with a smile that their "big data" figured this all out - I could have saved them a lot of money and told them to just stand around any Canadian kitchen during a party, or drive around any major city, or read any newspaper any day of the week to see/hear/read live examples of where Canada's at) look at this demographic as a treasure trove of voters - an electoral gold mine.  Why? The strivers, the people who "play by the rules to get ahead" are the most profitable group to go after.  Old people, as much as they are portrayed as this captive audience, are not as dumb as we think they are.  Mostly they are set in their ways.  So they do vote, yes, but they do not swing very much and their political leanings are anything but monolithic.

Young people and rich people also have a pretty good idea of who they want to vote for, especially if they are educated (and they majority of them are).  This also puts them at great risk for seeing politics for the waste of time and energy that it is and freeing up their minds to focus on more important, productive things.  So the prize, the low hanging fruit if you will, is our downtrodden, beseiged, "middle-class".

So when we look at the average middle class voter we see that he/she is 1)financially illiterate 2)in debt up to their eyeballs 3)dependent on an unstable livelihood 4)experiencing no material shortcomings despite all this.  Now, I would like someone to explain to me how this person is somebody I am supposed to feel sorry for, or how they are suffering by any stretch of the imagination. 

The middle class people like Trudeau lionize, either because they really know nothing about economics or they just want power or both, have nobody but themselves to blame for the consequences of their behaviour.  They are living beyond their means, make no sacrifices, are over-leveraged, and do not take advantage of GREAT GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS that ALREADY EXIST for the purpose of building wealth and are FREE like TFSAs, RRSPs, and RESPs, nevermind tax deductible leverage interest and dividends and capital gains tax rates.  Before one more idiot bores me to death about how the 1% stole all the money, I would like to remind him that there is no net worth requirement and no minimum amount to take advantage of all these things I just mentioned, but only rich people do it.  Plenty of average folk could be on their way to the 1% if they grew a pair and took some risk (no such thing as a free lunch), another concept that is just not understood at all by the masses, and plenty more average folk make six figure salaries but save jack squat, thereby placing themselves in the boat with the same economic mobility as minimum age earners.

I guess its more expedient politically to tell people how they got fucked over even if its a lie than give them some useful information on how they can improve their lot in life (Live within your means - save for tomorrow - shun mass consumerism - don't become beholden to one volatile source of income that owes you nothing beyond your next paycheque).  If you earn good money today save it because who knows if those skills will be in demand tomorrow.  The world changes fast now.  Just remember if the middle class is struggling its due to their own poor-decision making and ignorance and that it their fault, not Stephen Harper's.  Nice opening convention Trudeau you're a nice guy but still pretty much full of shit as far as your political ideas are concerned.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Keeping families in the city - The failure of command control politics


Richard Bergeron, frowner in chief of the Projet Montreal municipal political party, put some of his customary righteous indignation on display in reaction to new Montreal mayor Denis Coderre's first budget.  As he had to maximize the efficiency of the one sentence sound bite offered to him by the Metro commuter newspaper for comment, he said something to the effect of "same old, same old...nothing to keep families in Montreal."

You see, Mr Bergeron has a "cause-celebre" of keeping families in the city.  It appears that he loses sleep at night over the 20,000 people who decamp to the city's surrounding suburbs every year, although a large part of that number surely includes departures for Toronto and Alberta.  Sure enough, Projet Montreal was at it again this week, their chief complaint about the federal budget being the absence of measures to retain families on the island of Montreal.  What is this single-minded dogged obsession to force people to inhabit Canada's second most populous city? Since the amount of quote space afforded to an opposition municipal party in the media is bite-sized in the attention deficit-ridden era we live in, I looked on Projet Montreal's website to find out.

I will give the party credit.  In the total vision-free political landscape of Canada, where every party is eager to use "pocketbook populism" and a "consumer-friendly agenda" to seduce "hard-working middle class Canadian families", we have a substance-free political discourse that is a race to the bottom of the quality ideas barrel.  Our country owns the podium, all right - in pathetic political posturing.  This is giving us a political system that is totally useless for the purposes of advancement, development, innovation, and democracy (James Moore's baseless wireless rhetoric vs. Tom Mulcair's ATM fees cap vs. Andrea Horwath/Denis Coderre's steadfast inflexible opposition to road tolls - which shameless panderer do you like/trust the most?)  In Projet Montreal we have a party not the least bit scared to engage in substantive policy making - too bad it is based on wacky demagoguery and hare-brained logic.

Example one would be the party's flagship policy of building a streetcar to run through downtown.  Even though the metro in Montreal only covers the middle third of the island, leaving the eastern and western thirds car dependent and transit-starved, these people want to build through a streetcar in an area (the middle third) through which RIGHT NOW I can take two different subway lines and hundreds of different buses.  This will reduce traffic and car dependency, in their minds.  Installing an additional transit option in the 10km radius of the province that already has the most comprehensive transit coverage will make it harder to drive through than it already is, it will also waste billions and cause untold construction disturbance and irritation.  That will do a lot to reduce the perception of Projet Montreal as urban elitists in the eastern and western thirds of the islands who will remain transitless under their plan.

Even funnier is the suburban flight issue - the 3-5 billion increase in GDP on the North and South shores the last 20 years is treated as something that was "stolen" from Montreal, as if Montreal's economic activity has a lifetime, ironclad no movement clause.  Unlike the evil suburbs, conniving to steal jobs and families from Montreal, individual families who make the decision to leave the island are described more sympathetically on the site "quittant souvent a regret", meaning they are saying: "You know, I love the city so much but...I don't know.  This brand new house on a forty foot lot vs. my drafty 800 sq foot apartment beside an overpass in a hundred year old building...sigh...so long Montreal.  Thanks for the memories."  Cities vs. suburbs is a trade-off anywhere and families know, or should know, what they are signing up for: Long commutes, which place additional financial and emotional stress on them, higher taxes, boring, soulless cookie cutter developments (Hey kids! Want to go to Smartcentres this weekend?) and isolation.  Urban life has its own set of irritants and as adults we can be trusted to navigate these choices and make our own decisions.  There is obviously nothing you can do to force people to stay anywhere.

Projet doesn't say that.  What they do say is that the city should be giving people additional interest-free loans for 20 years to be able to afford apartments in the city.  Yes, let's put ourselves on the hook for hundreds of millions so that we can keep an optimal number of people in the city, which has been arbitrarily decided by these phd know-it-alls of the party.  The city is the city with its character and its shortcomings and no cash-strapped idealist municipal government is going to change that.  First of all, the cost of living is not that high here compared to North American cities of similar sizes.  Second, people leave because they are done with urban life - snow removal crews honking horns outside your window at 7 am, bums begging for change in the metro, hearing your neighbours fight/fuck under your slanted floor, driving around for 20 minutes looking for a parking spot, parking tickets.  People live the urban life because they consciously choose the urban life, and the same goes for suburban.  Nothing is lamer then seeing the politicians in this party frown all the time because they're so angry not everyone agrees that they know what's best for everyone.

By the time these idiots ever got their rent to own scheme off the ground, the tide will have turned on suburbia anyway.  In some ways, it already has.  Suburbs were unstoppable when developments were closer to the city and gas was 17 cents.  Now were getting to our third and fourth rings of sprawl.  Several generations into it, the appeal starts to wear off.  Yes the 249k townhomes may still sell like hotcakes but take away some jobs and the cheap money that fuels that and look at what happens to those places.  People have started to realize the enormous cost of commuting alone and families are moving back into the cities (which in many cases, alas, is driving prices up).

The way cities in North America have developed post-war has them essentially going two ways.  Either the city centers become choice living destinations and utterly unaffordable (see Vancouver, Toronto, New York, San Francisco), with rent and real estate prices serving as much more effective deterrents to the poor than any suburban ordinance that seeks to keep out "riff raff" ever could.  Poor people are literally banned from the city of Toronto now despite no law or policy ever having been promulgated to this effect.  On the flip side of the coin you have places like Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Memphis, and the South Side of Chicago whose downtowns are so burnt-out that you can often buy a nice sturdy four-bedroom middle class house for less than fifty grand.  These once prosperous urban areas suffered from the decline of manufacturing, white flight, and so many decades of crime and poverty that entrepreneurs are now willing to come into the city, buy up houses, and start businesses and projects.  Will it lead to full-scale revitalization? Probably not, and no Canadian city should aspire to go down the paths of these cities either.

The point is that a city's future is decided by the free market first, and a host of intangible uncontrollable factors second.  I lived in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, whose major employer basically changed every decade throughout the twentieth century.  Politicians became incensed when questioned about the future of Blackberry when I lived there - what a difference a year and a half makes.  It is in every politician's interest to talk to his or her district/city/region/province/country's residents as if they were the salt of the earth and every bit entitled and more to any economic well-being they are benefiting/have benefited from but reality is much more complex.  Projet seems to want to drill down into this complex reality and find solutions but they come up with a bunch of hokey, impractical, downtown-centred lameness.

It smacks of a phoenomenon I will term urban romanticism which Christopher Hume in the star is probably the foremost practitioner of: the city should be essentially treated like a museum.  Every old building should be refurbished and sparkling, shiny street cars should zip down the car-free, tree-lined streets, universities, hospitals, cultural institutions, and government offices, should be connected by a comprehensive grid of walkable trails, nature, and bullet trains.  Employment should only be in high-value, cutting edge sectors like non-profits, tech, and video game manufacturing.  Vulgarities like malls and fast food joints should be avoided at all costs.

This sterilized, phd vision of the city is as quixotic as it is humourless and uninspiring.  Montreal, with its low real estate prices and cheap rents from political instability, diversified street level commerces, and high concentration of educational facilities with quite a few big companies headquartered here, is a nice city whose nature has moderated the extreme impacts of desirability (making downtown impossible to afford) and radioactivity (making real estate in the city worth pennies on the dollar).  It's worth preserving this balancing act, despite the constant moroseness of local pundits and politicos.  Yes its not perfect and people will continue to leave for a variety of reasons - but do you want to live anywhere forever ? Projet needs to chill the fuck out and remember that people will choose to live in any number of places based on their circumstances, their life stage, where they are from, what they are looking for, and where the things that matter to them (work, family, interests) happen to be.  People are not cattle to be herded in pens.  You don't lure them into staying here or anywhere with idiotic pipedreams financed by their own tax dollars.


Tuesday, 21 January 2014

French Presidential Affairs - The Last Straw






"J'insiste que vous me preniez au serieux"


The phenomenon of society needing its most rich and powerful members to remind it that they are perverts, cheats, and deviants who possess the same earthly shortcomings as everyone else (the ability to throw caution and common sense to the wind and put their entire careers and livelihoods in peril to satisfy some short-term impulse to get their rocks off) is as old as the hills.  From JFK to Clinton and now Francois Hollande, there is no better way to sell papers than a scoop of the guy who is supposed to be leading the free world or rescuing the moribund economy or whatever grandiose phony action you like to ascribe to a head of state being caught taking the skin boat to tuna town.  This man who was elevated to the highest office in the land because of his great campaign or superior intellect or statesmanship or whatever is in fact...just a man, who like all other men has a mind strictly controlled by his sexual organ.  Ministerial briefings, phone calls with high-ranking members of the military, state dinners, economists droning on at the world economic forum - all this cool stuff you see on tv that real heads of state get to actually do - and this guy's daydreaming through all of that about his next extra-marital tryst.  Meanwhile if he was an average guy he could probably just get away with the damn affair, or at least have better chances of getting away with it, which is probably all he's wishing right now, that he was just that average guy, while sleepwalking through all this cool shit he gets to do that 99.99999999% of people will never get to do.  That is the great irony of this world.


And that brings me to my point.  Heads of State of the World, present and future, think of this as generational game-changing moment. Let's pretend I am addressing you all at the UN.  Let us remind ourselves once and for all that, as predictable as it is, this sorry spectacle we have to deal with each time a world leader gets caught with his pants down is not pleasant for anybody except the gossip magazine industry.  Let us acknowledge that men are weak, spineless, pathetic, degenerate creatures all, but that this behaviour is unbecoming of the presidential statuses we elevate them to.  Let us most of all exhort them to not carry on affairs, not because we judge them but because it is as inevitable as the sun rising tomorrow that the truth will be found out.  It is this irrefutable truth, that by nature affairs must be conducted when one is alone and a head of state is never, never alone, that makes this is outrageous.  How are the guys doing this and thinking they're not going to get caught? Such delusional, amateur reasoning is the real reason for outrage people, not some dumpy sourpuss getting lucky with women twenty years his junior.  It is on this basis that I propose to you today that presidential oaths henceforth contain a promise to go in the bathroom and wack it whenever necessary, by any means necessary, with whatever tools necessary, to avoid this sorry ass state of affairs.  This sacrifice is needed from our leaders - our society is already drowning in enough voyeurism and schadenefraude without their ridiculous escapades.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Five People You Meet in Annoying Heaven


Having earned 25 million dollars by 25, getting rich off the same boring, auto-tune schlock with original themes such as YOLO (You only live once...WOW), Drake has made it known he is just getting started.  From the rich part of town and already experienced as an actor on a cult series, the man oozes confidence and our vapid, degenerate society rewards him.  Cockiness and arrogance have led him to issue such proclamations as "I'm going for the $200 million play...whatever that is" and that "they (the City of Toronto) should put me on the payroll" for his role in attracting the NBA all star game and soccer players to the city - cockiness and arrogance which bring the city into disrepute, and which have been richly rewarded.  I for one wish he would limit his endeavours to his shitty music, instead of proclaiming himself spokesperson for my home town and complaining he's not getting money for it.  It would be nice if people who come from there could demonstrate they are able to think about things besides $$$ and themselves.

He couldn't just leave it at his decent acting performances in films like Milk and Pineapple Express.  Nope, being a decent actor who made it in Hollywood is just so pedestrian.  This guy's gotta host the oscars, write a novel, do a phd dissertation, star in a broadway play, direct a film, do a comedy central roast, be the world champion of selfies...DUDE WE GET IT OK? You are a superhuman, otherworldly intelligent genius who deserves our undivided and riveted attention at all times to witness your latest mind-blowing act of amazingness...except that you pretty much are horrible at doing everything I just described.  You are not that special James Franco - you are just an irritating guy who thinks he's smarter than everyone else and tries to show it by being so polyvalent.  Can you just get over yourself and be in some films? People who try too hard are really annoying...and more often than not, their efforts are not rewarded in kind

Excuse me? 300 lb Guy eating the 15 piece bucket driving a black escalade? You have had a negative effect on the last few years of my life.  Thank you for sinking our collective consciousness to a new low.  Thank you for destroying all societal conventions.  Thank you for populating the dark corners of our mind, making us OD on voyeurism and slowing-down-at-the-car-accident syndrome.  You make me think of Charlie Sheen in 2011, every day hitting a new low and with each new low getting in our faces even more until we just can't even believe this is still going on.  But it will happen - it happened to him, it happened to Paris Hilton in '05, I remember.  Fatigue will set in.  It always does.  One day nobody will care about this any more and this will all be a footnote.  That day cannot come soon enough.

Your stupid brother at least let his actions speak for themselves on many days of this saga.  On those days YOU were there, handing out straw man attacks to anyone who dared question him like you hand out $20 bills in the ghetto (Since your dumb ass probably doesn't know what a straw man is, its an arguing technique where you just attack someone's character or credibility instead of dealing with what is at issue).  You ensured that we were never given a moments peace from this whole sorry ass debacle.  You are your brother are those idiots everyone hates in high school: loud, boorish, uneducated jocks determined to be dumb because, who cares, they're rich?  I can't wait to see how nuclear you become for the provincial conservative leader now that you've blabbed to everybody what an awesome guy he thinks you are and that your his candidate

And finally, to my friend who through pride or in the name of love,  says mining companies don't pay enough taxes in the third world countries they operate in, people of earth must just think you're the sweetest thing sticking up for the downtrodden, you the $600 million dollar private equity guy and multi-national conglomerate rock star, my desire is that you move back to your own country, Ireland, and pay your own fookin taxes.