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Friday, October 29, 2010

Year of Our Ford

I wrote this post in late September, back when polls showed Rob Ford with a healthy lead in the Toronto mayoral race and certain other candidates had not yet dropped out. But I shelved it. I shelved it because I didn’t want to give my readers the wrong idea about what I was (or wasn’t) advocating in it. There was (is) a lot of hysteria in the air around the election. My personal experience during this election campaign has been that, in the circles I run in, unless you toe the “progressive” line, you might very well end up being loathed and excoriated by people you thought were your friends. To even be (mis)perceived as supporting Rob Ford is a kind of social death.

So I censored myself out of fear. Quite literally. I am now ashamed of myself for my cowardice. “Progressives” claim to advocate “diversity”. I believe that this diversity should mean more than just having a variety of national cuisines to eat or music festivals to attend. It should also consist of a diversity of opinions, including the ones we don’t like. Despite what they seem to think, “progressives” might still have a thing or two to learn about “progressivism”.

It is in that spirit that I belatedly post the essay below, while acknowledging that it resorts to some obvious overgeneralizations. My “progressive” friends will not like much of what I have to say. To them I would reply that, since I’ve patiently allowed them to shovel their half-baked “progressive” swill into my unwelcoming maw for the last several months, it’s only fair that they now open wide so that I can return the favour.

I ask that you leave the hating until after you’ve read it through and thought it over for awhile.

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The city I live in, Toronto, is going through what is proving to be a very interesting mayoral race. This week a poll came out showing that candidate Rob Ford is leading by a wide margin.

Just a little background for those not from Toronto: left-leaning mayor David Miller announced last year his intention not to seek re-election. The putative frontrunner to replace him is supposedly George Smitherman, a former provincial Minister of Parliament who quit his cabinet post to run for mayor. Smitherman has the money. He has the backing. He has the name recognition. Therefore, he is well-placed to win, at least on paper. Unfortunately, he also comes with a lot of political baggage (too much of it to inspect here). How much this baggage will weigh him down remains to be seen.

Carrying the torch for the outgoing mayor’s “progressive” legacy is Joe Pantalone, the only candidate besides Ford to have improved his standing in the polls. He seems a decent chap, if lacking in charisma. However, he will likely lose, if for no other reason than that to much of the electorate he represents a status quo they can’t jettison quickly enough.

There are some other candidates who are, frankly, also-rans at this point.

And then there is Rob Ford. He is regarded by many as a fat, wife-beating, drunk-driving, racist buffoon. There is considerable warrant for this characterization. He is running on a platform of cutting spending (and certain much-loathed taxes) at city hall, and ending such corrupt practices as sole-source contracting. His other policies are not so clear or plausible, but luckily for him, getting a grip on out-of-control city spending is the only policy that seems to matter with those who say they’ll vote for him. Judging from the poll numbers, barring some unforeseen change — and this race has been full of surprises — Ford will win, possibly by a landslide, but more likely by a fairly narrow margin, especially if other candidates back out.

When this week’s poll came out, many of my left-leaning friends seemed beside themselves, at least if their Facebook activity is any indication. I would say that a few are even panicking. They simply can’t understand how a man like Ford could possibly be the people’s choice in a supposedly “progressive” place like Toronto.

I’m going to attempt to explain Ford’s appeal. In order to do this, I feel I should first declare my personal leanings with regard to this election: I AM AMONG THE 25% OF RESPONDENTS WHO ARE UNDECIDED. In fact, I’m so undecided and so nonplussed by the candidates in general that I’m contemplating the violation of my long-cherished philosophical principle of always exercising my democratic rights. In short, I’m considering not voting at all. Thus, what follows should not be regarded as an endorsement of Rob Ford’s candidacy, a man about whom I have very grave reservations.

Rather, I’d like this to be read as a piece of advice on how my “progressive” or “left-leaning” friends might need to change a few attitudes if they wish to work to defeat Ford in the five short weeks remaining to do so. Indeed, there are lessons to be applied to “progressive” political action more generally.

Some Lessons for “Progressives”

There have been many attempts to explain Rob Ford’s appeal. For a while now, many commentators have framed it in terms of an urban-suburban divide. Ford’s following is supposedly mostly in the suburbs, or the city’s old boroughs (i.e. Etobicoke, Scarborough, East York), whereas most of the supposedly sane voters are concentrated in the city’s urban core. Others have seen in the phenomenon an expression of the angry, white (male) vote — people who, again, mostly live in the suburbs.

The latest poll has shot both of these theories down. Ford’s appeal seems to have spread to the old city of Toronto proper. And new Canadians like him too.

By far the most common — and condescending — approach taken by media pundits is that Fordites are somehow uninformed or just plain stupid. A good example of this is a recent Globe and Mail article that, while trying to “explain” Rob Ford’s popularity to the city’s elites, ironically ends up simply repeating the tired old line that Fordites are ignoramuses.

Based on this, here are some helpful observations and recommendations that I’d like to make to all those who would like to see Ford defeated.

1. Toronto consists of more than just the Five Boroughs. The “Five Boroughs” are my facetious name for Rosedale, Forest Hill, Riverdale, High Park, and the Beach(es). I suppose we could also call them the “Hills and Dales”. This is where “progressive” Toronto is most easily to be found. For the most part, the unprogressive can’t afford to live in these places. Instead, they live in those “benighted” areas that “progressives” sneeringly call “the suburbs”. This sneering should stop. My Toronto includes Scarborough, East York, Downsview, and Etobicoke. Whatever you think of amalgamation, it’s here now, and it’s not going anywhere. So suck it up, and let’s pull together.

I am personally less than impressed when I read in the Toronto Star that because I live in East York I am poorly educated, ignorant, and therefore more likely to vote for Rob Ford. I am not a poorly educated “knuckle dragger” (as one writer charmingly described East Yorkers), and I am no more ignorant than the average Torontonian in the Five Boroughs. To a great extent, the much-touted division between city and suburbs is exacerbated by the smug and ignorant attitude of the “progressive” media. If I have had any temptation at all to vote for Ford, it is precisely because of reading such insulting rubbish. I used to live in the Five Boroughs; I didn’t suddenly drop thirty or forty IQ points the moment I moved to East York.

2. New Canadians do not necessarily share the “progressive” agenda. Residents of the Five Boroughs are likely to be white, and are more likely to be old Canadians. They are also likely to be wealthier than the average. Thus, it is ironic when people claim that Rob Ford appeals mainly to angry, middle class whites, as if Ford is the poster boy for WASP privilege.

Despite what the punditocracy would have you believe, anecdotally speaking, I see no evidence on the ground that new Canadians view Ford as a privileged white candidate to whom they can’t relate. But I suppose we’ll have to wait for the election results to confirm or disconfirm this hunch of mine. What I will go out on a limb and say is that there is no obvious reason why new Canadians would share the “progressive” agenda. So perhaps “progressives” do their own cause a disservice with their “diversity”- and “multiculturalism”-mongering. They may be hitching their wagon to the wrong horse.

I suspect that a sizeable proportion of new Canadians have fairly conservative values imported from their home countries, countries where government is either corrupt, inept, or just plain vicious, and where people learn to rely on family and personal relationships rather than official agencies. They also tend to be people who struggle to make ends meet. It should therefore come as no surprise that they would find much to approve in an agenda of smaller government and respectful stewarding of their hard-earned dollars. Call it a simplistic agenda, but it resonates, and I predict that this will show in the election results. I also predict that it will continue to factor into future election results in places with large immigrant populations.

3. Torontonians do not like being called stupid. Oliver Cromwell once said to a Calvinist General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, convinced of their own righteousness, and considering themselves among God’s elect, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” In that spirit, if a Torontonian refuses to accept your “progressive” vision, I beseech you to think it possible that your views may be mistaken. I beseech you to not call the dissenter stupid. Many parts of the “progressive” agenda I find dangerous, poorly thought out, unjust, and the very opposite of progressive. Believe it or not, I have reasons for these beliefs. They are not simply a product of my stupidity. I have thought them through. If I am mistaken in some parts of these beliefs, it may be because I am human and therefore fallible. The same fallibility afflicts holders of “progressive” beliefs.

Conservatives are often rightly accused of intolerance, but that is no reason to fall into the same sin. Indeed, it is even less excusable in a “progressive”, because of his putative commitment to that very value of tolerance. If you cannot summon the humility to entertain the bare notion that you could be wrong, at least look at it from a pragmatic angle: your shrill denunciation of all who disagree with you will not make converts of them. It’s off-putting, to say the least. It only stiffens your enemy in his resolve.

4. Many Torontonians are precarious homeowners. It is no secret that real estate in Toronto is absurdly expensive. There are some for whom this is not a problem. I posit that if you can afford to own a home in the Five Boroughs, you may be one of these. For such people, an annual rise in their property tax of 3% is not a big worry. If it is felt at all, some simple economizations, some cutting back on luxuries, will offset the expense.

(For context, I should point out that property taxes in Toronto have risen every year for the last ten years. Last year’s increase, the smallest of them, was 2.9%, still well above the general inflation rate of just under 2%. That means that assuming a very conservative average property tax increase of 3% per year, a person who paid $2000 ten years ago, must now pay around $2700. And of course, let us not forget the magic of compounding: next year’s increase will be 3% of $2700, not of the original $2000. And if you think a percent or two on either side won’t make much difference, if we assume a rate of 5%, our original $2000 becomes $3260.)

There are also people in the Five Boroughs who rent. Although they too pay absurdly high rents, and are rather less well off than their home-owning counterparts, they are less likely to feel an increase of 3% in property taxes for the simple reason that they do not pay property taxes at all, at least not in the short run. There are two reasons for this. First, their landlords have a market-based incentive to keep rents from rising too much, too quickly. If rents are too high, condos start to look like a good deal. Second, there is legislation limiting how much landlords can raise rents. Of course, eventually the market will work itself pure: either rents must rise, or some quantity of rental housing will leave the market. Either way, renters suffer. But the key difference is that there is a lag effect between a rise in property taxes and the point at which it begins to pinch the renter. Ironically, when renters do finally feel the pinch, it will probably be blamed on greedy landlords rather than on inept politicians ambitious to do good works with other people’s money.

I believe these phenomena go a long way towards explaining why my “progressive” friends in the Five Boroughs see no real problems with City Hall’s current spending habits. Outside the Five Boroughs, things are a bit different. We moved to East York because it was literally the last place in Toronto we could afford to buy a house. And we did buy one, barely. Given the property tax trajectory outlined above, some point will be reached at which we’ll have to sell and either move further out from the city, or go back to renting. Unless, of course, we come into some sudden windfall or receive a pay increase far enough above the rate of inflation that it will offset some of the tax increases. And Lord help me if I become unemployed, or sick, or have to take a pay cut, which is the reality for many.

So you’ll have to excuse me if I get annoyed that Joe Pantalone’s progressive “vision” for the city will involve another 2.5% property tax hike next year. First of all, how is it “visionary” to do that which has been done every year for at least the past decade? Second, I see nothing “progressive” about bankrupting future Torontonians to pay for politicians’ visions in the sky, while core services continue to deteriorate and the rent-seeking city unions continue to mug us.

Whoever wins the election, they’ll have their work cut out for them. This city is fast becoming ungovernable. I suppose “progressives” can take heart in the near certainty that, should Rob Ford win, he’ll eventually be brought down by strikes. That is a constant in this city, no matter who happens to be mayor.

* * * *

UPDATE: I did end up voting for someone in the election. If you’re curious to know for whom, e-mail me privately and I will tell you.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hamilton's Choice

This is a mere jeu d’esprit to get myself back into the habit of writing.

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I was bred a scholar, and a scholar’s habits die hard. Among these is my habit of becoming interested in a subject and reading compulsively about it until I have satisfied myself that I have become a lay expert. And of course, since it is also a scholarly habit to distrust other scholars, such reading will preferably consist of primary sources.

My latest intellectual compulsion is the political history of the American Founding and early Republic. I recently finished working my way through the writings of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, despite his many flaws of character, is one of my favourite Founding Fathers. He is also among the least well-known of the major figures. The average American probably knows that it his face which adorns the US ten dollar bill, and perhaps they might even know that he was the one killed in that duel with Aaron Burr (whoever he was). And that is probably about all they know.

This is a shame, since Hamilton has probably left a deeper stamp on the institutions of the United States than any other of the Founders. He was leader of the Federalists, one of the two parties that emerged during Washington’s presidency — the other being the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson (no relation to the existing party of the same name). The Federalists had a strong political program, which was mostly the brainchild of Hamilton. Foremost, they believed in an energetic federal government which they hoped would in time supplant the individual state governments in the consciousness and allegiance of Americans.

Federalists advocated the creation of a national debt, which to modern ears does not sound like a particularly praiseworthy objective. However, the United States was a new country, and its credit was not established on the world stage (nor indeed with its own citizens). As with consumers, so with nations: if you want to borrow money, you’d better have a credit history. But how is such a history to be established? Hamilton, as the first Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington, proposed the assumption by the newly-formed federal government of the debts incurred by the individual state governments during and after the Revolutionary war. He also proposed a national bank. Through these two schemes it was hoped that citizens would be more closely tied to the federal government. Through the former, citizens would become the creditors of the government, and through the latter they would become its debtors. Along with a national paper currency, the national bank and debt would ensure that the federal government’s reach would extend into the homes, minds and hearts of the citizenry of the new nation. All of these initiatives were pushed through and survived despite much opposition.

Another hallmark of Federalist thought was a deep distrust of direct democracy. It is somewhat difficult now for us to imagine, but in the eighteenth century the term “democracy” was more likely to be used pejoratively. The system of checks and balances for which the US Constitution is so well-known, were largely of Federalist construction. Republicans, especially Jefferson, were viewed by them as irresponsible demagogues and supporters of mob rule who, if allowed, would bring upon the infant Republic all the evils of the French Revolution with its anarchy and Terror. Back then, if you wished to use a term to denote a political system where government derived its powers from the consent of the governed, the accepted term was “republic”, as it connoted the rule of laws and not of men. “Democracy” on the other hand tended to signify the arbitrary rule of unreflective mob passions. (This, incidentally, is the way I still prefer to use these terms, but I’m the first to admit how out of step I am with the political idols of this age.)

Federalists were also advocates of a strong federal judiciary and Supreme Court. Indeed, it was through the federal legal institutions that the Federalists maintained any influence at all in the new Republic, as by 1800 they had lost control of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the presidency to their Republican rivals. In fact, there was only ever one Federalist president of the United States, John Adams, and he only served a single term. (Washington was not officially allied to either party, although his policies tended to favour the Federalists. His cabinet was deeply divided, his Secretary of State being Thomas Jefferson, bitter rival of his Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton.) Although they lost their brief grip on power, the US Constitution would be interpreted throughout the early formative decades by a largely Federalist Supreme Court, led by John Marshall, an Adams appointee.

Hamilton could be a brutally ruthless political tactician. To put this in context, Talleyrand considered him to be the foremost politician of the age, and Talleyrand was about as unscrupulous as they come. Hamilton twice ran backroom campaigns to undermine his own party’s putative presidential nominee, Adams. The first time, in 1796, he was unsuccessful, but he managed to engineer Adams’ defeat in 1800. He did this for the simple reason that he thought Adams — with his vanity, perceived aristocratic bias, and uncontrolled temper — unsuitable presidential material.

However, if you think about it, rather than an example of “moral flexibility”, might not Hamilton’s Machiavellian maneuverings be indicative of moral scruple? After all, he wasn’t vying for the presidency himself, and I’m not really sure he even considered Adams a rival in any sense. He did seem to dislike Adams in that way that you can dislike someone disinterestedly. At least in 1796, Adams had not really done anything to hurt Hamilton’s interests, so Hamilton’s dislike was not personal in that way. It was simply based on an objective assessment of Adams’ character.

I believe that Hamilton put a lot of stock in moral character (even though the details of his own private life were rather sordid and not a model of uprightness). I also believe it is perfectly possible that he simply didn’t want the wrong candidate, of whatever party, to do irreparable damage to the office of the presidency itself. This is an especially pertinent consideration in a nation whose institutions were quite new and relatively fragile. Both of these motivations, regard for character and concern for the integrity of office, are evident in his actions during the contested election of 1800.

Without getting into the complicated details, after successfully thwarting Adams’ re-election bid, Hamilton’s Federalists found themselves faced with a dilemma. Two Republican candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, were tied in Electoral College votes. Repeated run-off balloting could not break the impasse. Of the two candidates, Burr had a reputation for self-serving ambition and was the least committed to the Republican cause, and therefore would be most susceptible to the blandishments of Federalists in return for their support. In other words, the Federalists were in the position of being possible kingmakers, and Burr was the most probable candidate with whom they could do a deal.

It was a very serious situation. The nation’s Constitution was only a dozen years old and already seemed to be fatally flawed. There was talk of military intervention to decide the issue. Civil war loomed. And, as historian Bruce Ackerman has put it, there had already been more than a whiff of the banana republic surrounding this election.

For example, earlier, when there were minor irregularities in the return from Georgia, a quick-thinking President pro tempore of the Senate — the person responsible for overseeing the counting — allowed the return. This effectively eliminated all other candidates except Jefferson and Burr. It was unfortunate that the Constitution gave the role of President Pro-Tem of the Senate to the Vice President, since the Vice President in this case was Jefferson himself.

It should be noted that there was no doubt about the way Georgia electors intended to vote. It was merely a procedural irregularity in the form and sealing of the certification. Jefferson was not necessarily stuffing the ballot box. The point is, as Ackerman correctly notes, the Constitution should never have put him in that situation in the first place. If he had disallowed the return, besides hurting his own interests, he would clearly have been ignoring the will of the Georgia electors.

In any case, given that the new nation’s institutions were so weak and in danger of failure, it was understandable that Hamilton would worry about the moral qualities of whoever assumed the presidency, since this could decide whether the institution would have a future. A man unworthy of the office could ensure that he presided over the dissolution of the Republic.

There is no doubt that Hamilton considered Burr unworthy. For one thing, he had the reputation of being a panderer to the mob. As Hamilton put it in a letter of January 16, 1801 to James Bayard, a Federalist Representative from Delaware, “No man has trafficked more than he in the floating passions of the multitude.” Remember that the Federalists were not keen on democracy, and there seemed to be a touch of the demagogue about Burr.

There was also the fact that Burr seemed to have no fixed principles. It was the very fact that he was a man that the Federalists could do a deal with that made him unsuitable to do a deal with. As Hamilton put it,

The truth is that Burr is a man of a very subtile imagination, and a mind of this make is rarely free from ingenious whimsies. Yet I admit that he has no fixed theory & that his peculiar notions will easily give way to his interest. But is it a recommendation to have no theory? Can that man be a systematic or able statesman who has none? I believe not. No general principles will hardly work much better than erroneous ones.

Although Jefferson was Hamilton’s great party rival and ideological nemesis, there were reasons for preferring him over Burr. As he told Bayard, Jefferson was not “zealous enough to do anything in pursuance of his principles which will contravene his popularity, or his interest.” He might be too democratical for Federalist tastes, but at least he was not impulsive, and his interest in his own political reputation would keep him in line. In addition to this, “there is no fair reason to suppose him capable of being corrupted, which is a security that he will not go beyond certain limits.” The same could not be said about Burr.

Besides questions of character and the desire to leave the fragile Republic in capable hands, there were also more political, less high-minded, considerations in favour of supporting Jefferson. If he got the job and made a cock-up of it, no blame for the mess could be placed on the Federalists themselves. With a little patience, they could be positioned to resist bad policies and perhaps win the office next time around, with a proper candidate of their own choosing rather than with a cheap compromise one like Burr. The survival of the Republic might very well depend on a credible and effective opposition, and the Federalists would be less able to assume this role of they were seen to be implicated in the election of the government to which they were opposed:

If the Antifœderalists who prevailed in the election are left to take their own man [i.e. Jefferson], they remain responsible, and the Fœderalists remain free united and without stain, in a situation to resist with effect pernicious measures. If the Fœderalists substitute Burr, they adopt him and become answerable for him…. And if he acts ill, we must share in the blame and disgrace.

It seems that Hamilton’s argument had a persuasive effect on Bayard, because on February 17, 1801, on the thirty-sixth ballot, Bayard switched his vote from Burr to blank, thereby allowing Jefferson to win.

Burr did not take kindly to Hamilton’s meddling, nor to the imputation of lack of moral character. Three years later, in Weehawken, New Jersey, he killed Hamilton in that famous duel. That event, and the appearance of Hamilton’s face on the ten dollar bill, gave rise to that clever Saturday Night Live hip hop send-up: “You can call us Aaron Burr from the way we’re dropping Hamiltons.”