Saturday, February 27, 2010

Who could have guessed...

that the moral hazards of an international legal regime that forbids war would include fecklessness on matters of war and military policy?

A couple of weeks ago, our junior foreign minister announced that “an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on Canada.” Years ago, before the UN charter forbade war, we used to call a declaration like that a security guarantee. Governments thought before they made such guarantees, because they might have to back them up. When Franklin Roosevelt came to Queen's University and announced in 1938 that the United States would not "stand idly by" if a foreign power threatened Canada, he understood, and the Canadian government understood, that he pledged American lives and treasure. Everyone in the American and Canadian governments understood the seriousness of his statements.

Fast forward to the present. The UN charter renounces the use of force, Israel needs no help with conventional defence, and Canada has little meaningful help to offer with the dilemmas which really cloud Israel's future. Why should a junior minister not throw a little "red meat" to the "Christian Zionists" and other supporters of current Israeli policy, whose support his government has zealously courted? In a dangerous world, governments should retain a sense of responsibility about the statements they make. Perhaps this one statement will not lead directly to any bad results, but it does not do to get into the habit of making statements about serious matters without evidence of serious thought.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A bad law...

and one more reason to repeal it.

While a minority of irresponsible dog owners pose a serious danger to both the public and to their own pets, that does not make the dog owner's liability act of 2005 anything other than an unconscionably vague, disruptive, expensive and harmful law. The government could, and should, have addressed this issue with laws punishing the behaviour and aggressive propensities of dangerous dogs.

Not everyone understands the bond that families develop with their pets; if you do not, please take my word for it that losing a pet can devastate a child, a senior, and in many cases an adolescent or an adult. The power to take away a dog implies the power to inflict significant trauma on a family, and it does not do to confer that power lightly. Clauses in the Animals for Research Act that allow a pound to transfer or sell dogs seized under this section to research facilities have the potential to compound this problem: how would you like to explain to a six year old that the municipal authorities have seized her pet for animal research?

Therefore, a pit bull ban which, like Ontario's, includes the phrase
A dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics substantially similar to any of those dogs [pit bull terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, American pit bull terrier]
places more trust in the capabilities and probity of the enforcers of the law than any statute or regulation ought to. So far, where this law has inflicted trauma on families, the problem appears to arise out of nothing more sinister than misguided zeal on the part of animal control officials. But a law this vague lends itself to horrendous misuse. A politician guilty of serious malfeasance could tell critics or anyone else he or she wanted to manipulate, that if they did not shut up and/or cooperate, their pets will start looking very like pit bulls to municipal staff. Any law that vaguely and casually grants significant powers with wide discretion lends itself to abuse, and a corollary to Murphy's Law states that if a thing lends itself to abuse, someone will sooner or later abuse it.

The time has come to repeal or significantly narrow this law before it does any more harm.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

An important statement

John Tory, the man not running for mayor and currently head of the Toronto City Summit, made an important point: the cities and towns of the greater Toronto area need to think of themselves as part of an interconnected region. That needed saying, and the city councils and officials we elect next November need to act on it, if we hope to prosper in an increasingly competitive world.

Unfortunately, saying it also pointed up one of the current mayor's greatest failings: in 2006, he admitted at a public meeting that he could not get the other governments in the GTA to sit down and work out a transportation policy. A press officer for Mr. Miller tried to address this with a textbook non-denying denial:
"Talk radio hosts are obviously entitled to their opinion."
Well, yes. Actually, you don't need a radio show to have a right to your opinion. But neither the initial comment nor the indignant clarification from the press office involved answered the important question: do the cities and town of the GTA need a regional vision for planning, has the current mayor succeeded in fostering such a vision, and if he has failed, does he plan to take any steps to try and remedy the problem before he leaves office? I don't need a talk radio show to see the importance of regional planning, and if the current mayor has come up short, it makes sense for him to try to fix the problem.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

...and illustrating another classic dud argument

Terence Corcoran's piece on George Smitherman and Rocco Rossi also provides the fodder for another in my series on classic dud arguments. Mr Corcoran the proposal by Mr. Rossi to "review" the transit improvements proposed for Toronto and the GTA:
Mr. Rossi wants to reform city financial planning and has called for a full review of the monumental Transit City plans for billion-dollar streetcar runs.
Here Mr. Corcoran provides an excellent example of the fallacy of hidden costs. Just because doing something has a price tag you can see, it does not follow that doing nothing has no cost either. The OECD has estimated that traffic congestion costs the economy of the Toronto area a billion dollars every four months. To focus on the "monumental" cost of building better transit while ignoring the steady hemorrhaging of time, money, resources and quality of life in an unending traffic jam fits the classic phrase "penny wise and pound foolish" perfectly.

Accepting a large cost in opportunity and time to avoid a much smaller cost in actual money: example number two in the series on of a dud arguments.

Municipal, political, irrational

The former American house speaker, "Tip" O'Neill, famously remarked that "all politics is local". Mr. O'Neill understood that in politics, the services provided at the local level, not the grand sweeps of political rhetoric, make or break political ideas and political careers. Someone should explain this to the National Post's Terrence Corcoran. Mr. Corcoran wrote in praise of Rocco Rossi for what he calls "solid non-leftist ideas", which apparently include:
undoing the city's bizarre 5¢ plastic bag tax, limiting bike lanes to roads that are non-arterial, and privatizing Toronto Hydro.
Notice how Mr. Corcoran glossed over any question of the wisdom or workability of Mr. Rossi's ideas with the neologism "non-leftist". When the public makes their final evaluation of a policy, and rewards or rejects the policy makers, the division between left and right counts for far less than the division between wise and foolish.

But Mr. Corcoran's description of the policy of "limiting" bicycle lanes makes even less sense than this suggests. To make the superficial point, limiting bicycle lanes in the sense Mr. Rossi proposes really means not having bicycle lanes, because literally all of the through roads in the city core have a designation of "arterial". Aside from the logical problems with Mr. Rossi's statements on cycling, it does not do to pretend they have any meaningful connection with the right, or even with that more nebulous entity, the "non-left". No conservative principle I know of speaks against provision for bicycles, and cycling policies, along with many other matters of urban policy, must stand or fall on their own merits.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Let's stop talking about Adam Giambrone

David Miller would prefer it if the media didn't talk about Adam Giambrone and his sex life. I agree. This city has more important things to talk about than Mr. Miller's former successor.

We could start by talking about the nature of political campaigns in this city. We can talk about all of the competent, intelligent, and personable men and women of colour who contribute to political life. We can talk about why, with so many such people around, our extravagantly white mayor gets to anoint a successor of almost the same complexion as himself, and why so many (supposedly) progressive insiders go along with this. We can talk about who gets ballots dropped in boxes for them, and who gets police contact cards filled out, and why. We can talk about why the supposed progressives in this city have so much to say about streetcars and rights of way, and so very little about justice, and fair treatment, and human dignity.

We can talk about the press description of Downsview and Jane-Finch as places where the jets descending to Pearson fly past the windows of tower blocks where the police regularly stop young men, and we can talk about the calls to shut down Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport based on the status of the downtown waterfront as a "premium" residential area. And we can talk about how the media reports these things but never quite draws the connections between the people viewed as worthy of deference and political office, and the people who urgently need their whereabouts recorded by the police at all possible opportunities.

These things go on, in part at least, precisely because nobody talks about them. So let's talk about them.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


The Toronto Environment Alliance has released its six priorities for this municipal election. All six make a great deal of sense, from the promotion of public and active transportation to reductions in toxic chemical use in industry.

I would only add one thing to their list: both transit and active transportation promotion strategies benefit tremendously from integration. A transit system that does not accommodate bicycles, or that attempts to serve an area designed exclusively for car dependence must deliver each rider right to their destination. Since riders will always have destinations off a transit route, such a transit system will lose many potential riders. Likewise, the ability take transit for part of a route makes cycling much more practical.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Cell phones and bike lanes

On a ride downtown today, I encountered two vehicles stopped in bike lanes. One belonged to a driver making a short pick-up who promised not to do it again. The other belonged to a driver on a cell phone, who presumably thought of stopping in a bike lane as a way to dodge the new distracted driving law. I have bad news for any driver who thinks that:
78.1  (1)  No person shall drive a motor vehicle on a highway while holding or using a hand-held wireless communication device or other prescribed device that is capable of receiving or transmitting telephone communications, electronic data, mail or text messages. 2009, c. 4, s. 2....
(6)  Subsections (1) and (2) do not apply if all of the following conditions are met:
1. The motor vehicle is off the roadway or is lawfully parked on the roadway.
2. The motor vehicle is not in motion.
3. The motor vehicle is not impeding traffic. 2009, c. 4, s. 2.
Parking or stopping in a bike lane impedes traffic; even if you get a sympathetic police officer who does not think of me and my two wheels as "real" traffic,  stopping in a bike lane leaves your car sticking out into the high carbon emission vehicle lanes. If you want to make a receive calls that badly, pull into a real parking spot. Alternatively, take the bus or get a cab.

Monday, February 08, 2010

To my friends at the TTC

I use crosswalks on Jane just above Bloor a lot. On a brief errand down to Bloor one day a few weeks ago, as I pressed the button, a southbound bus slowed quickly to let me cross. I felt the driver had gone beyond the call in showing respect for pedestrian safety, so I went into the station to thank him. His warm response made my day. I give TTC employees respect, and most of them give it back with a bonus. They do a boring but exacting job and do it well. I cannot even begin to compare the level of simple decency most of us get from TTC employees with the rude, incompetent, and sometimes deadly driving that most of encounter in our cars. As a group, the workers of the TTC have nothing to apologize for.

The few times TTC workers have done a bad job in my presence, I have remembered it. I have bought over twelve transit passes since the transferable pass came out, but I remember the one time I went to buy a pass and a collector treated me like a nuisance, rather than a customer, telling me how to count out my bills and throwing back the extra bill I passed him. A tourism consultant once told me that people tell more of their friends about their bad experiences than their good ones. Certainly, I never took a picture of the driver who went out of his way to respect my safety at the Jane Street crosswalk, and the Sun will never publish such a picture. If we don't tell the stories about the good workers at the TTC, we will never get a true picture of the service.

However good the service, it can always stand improvement. That means respecting the customers who pay the costs of the TTC and want service and courtesy. It means that some workers need to improve their skills, or their habits, or both. Apart from anything else, if the minority of workers who deliver bad service clean up their act, the atmosphere at the TTC should improve for the good workers. That makes the recent news, that some workers at the TTC want to force the public to appreciate them by holding a job action, very hard to understand. The union cannot solve the problem. In fact, part of the public irritation, fair or not, with the few bad workers at the TTC stems from the conviction that the union will protect its members no matter how far below the mark they fall. The transit worker's union could not make a worse mistake than to take action against the rider, mostly fellow workers of theirs, who want decent service. Some TTC workers need to change. The service, while excellent, can use improvement. The union can play an important part in that process. If it does not, then it will simply increase the sense of frustration felt by many of us who have witnessed or experienced bouts of bad service.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Go Sarah Green

Latest in the seal hunt controversy: the anti-seal hunt forces want to ban Sarah Green, Miss Newfoundland, from the Miss Canada pageant. Apparently they didn't like her wearing a seal fur coat. And instead of apologizing, she then actually stood up for the traditions of her province.

I don't often pay attention to the Miss Canada pageant, but I have one thing to say to them: don't even think about banning Sarah Green. I suspect that most of the people she's offended live lives that do far more harm to the biosphere then most outport Newfoundlanders ever will. Those fake fur and polyester coats, for example, come from oil, the same stuff that Exxon Valdex and her many sisters regularly coat marine life with.

I could say a lot more on the general topic, but I'll let it wait. As a Canadian blogger, and a sailor I'll give my support to someone who's stood up for a Canadian maritime tradition, and leave it at that.

Dreams of Achievement, Nightmares of Domination

David Brooks, in writing about the developing Israeli high-tech economy, made a comment that Jeffrey Goldberg liked:
Israel’s technological success is the fruition of the Zionist dream. The country was not founded so stray settlers could sit among thousands of angry Palestinians in Hebron. It was founded so Jews would have a safe place to come together and create things for the world.
I disagree with two minor points here: Jewish people have a right to "a safe place", whether they "create things for the world" or not. All people have that right, including, of course, the Palestinians. And when Brooks speaks of "stray" settler's "sitting", he glosses over an ugly fact: while most West Bank settlers almost certainly did "stray" into the settlements, drawn by promises of inexpensive real estate and government subsidies, a hard core of ideological settlers, including some in Hebron and the Hebron Hills, most certainly did not "stray"; they came with the purpose of claiming the land. And claiming the land, in this instance, means ethnic cleansing.

But Mr. Brooks and Mr. Goldberg have expressed a very important truth: the Israelis who dream of creating new knowledge and new products best embody the hopes of Zionists and of everyone who wishes Israel well. The handfuls of ideological settlers in Hebron and similar on the other hand, contribute little more to the world than the nightmare of sectarian conflict and slow-motion ethnic cleansing.

Speaking of an even deeper division and a greater evil in American life, Abraham Lincoln said "a house divided against itself cannot stand". The way of looking at life, and of living it, that drives the settlements in Hebron conflicts with the way of life in the Tel Aviv high-tech cluster in a fundamental way. These ideals cannot both define life in Israel; one of them will have to yield.

I have already made it pretty clear that I prefer the world view of the high-tech cluster in Tel Aviv. Aside from my own belief in the value of knowledge, and aside from the ugly violence the ideological settlers inflict on their neighbors, including children, I fundamentally disbelieve the idea behind many of the settlements: that the establishment of a Jewish state covering all the territory ascribed to it in the Bible will bring about some basic change in the human condition. I regard this as magical thinking, something at odds with not only the scientific world view behind Israeli technological achievements, but also at odds with most Christian and Jewish traditions. The idea that establishing dominance by force will somehow clear the way for the Creator to act in history, as some Jewish millennialists appear to believe, and as many "Christian Zionists" claim, makes human action, violent human action, a precondition for the divine response.

In other words, this ideology imposes human choice in a place which above all calls for humility. A magic spell or a computer program can embody the phrase "my will be done", but in appealing to the Creator, a prayer must ultimately say "Thy will be done".