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 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.