Wednesday, March 31, 2010

An alternative for funding transit

Toronto needs the transit city development plan. While legitimate debate may exist about where we should build subways and where we should rely on street rail, we need a transportation development plan for the next century. And we cannot simply keep putting it off.

Now the province has weaseled out of paying what they promised for construction, we have to raise the money ourselves. Sarah Thompson, to her credit, has proposed road tolls on the Gardiner and DVP. Tolls raise money, but they have a problem: they don't offer drivers anything. If you institute tolls on the Gardiner, the motorists who don't find another route will throw their two twonies and a loonie in the basket, and then drive on along the same overcrowded roads.

Imagine a system which offered drivers something in return: a chance to drive on roads free of traffic congestion. Drivers would pay, but in return they would get a reasonably smooth drive to their destination. We have only so much road space, and more people want to drive than the roads can accommodate. Normally, when we have a commodity where demand outruns supply, we have some form of an auction. Essentially, it works like this. You tell (via a kiosk or website) a central computer you want to drive to a destination, when you want to get there, and the maximum amount you will agree to pay for the privilege. The computer then matches the number of people who want to drive in a given area at a given time. If more people want to drive than the roads will accommodate, the computer block those who offered to pay the least from driving in that area at that time. Then if more people still want to drive than the roads will hold, the computer repeats the process. The system bills everyone who drives in a particular area at a particular time the minimum accepted price; in other words, if you bid twenty dollars to drive downtown at nine am, but the system accepted bids for fifteen, then you pay fifteen dollars for your drive.

Auction-based congestion pricing involves significant technical problems,and it would require a significant investment. However, the city would probably recover money equal to a significant proportion of what we currently waste on traffic congestion, and according to the OECD, we currently waste over two billion dollars. If the city could recover even half of those losses, we could fund transit expansion easily.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Just... wow

(via Greenwald)

At the height of the cold war, the USSR tested a single thermonuclear weapon with a yield equal to fifty million tons of TNT. In 1985, as the number of nuclear weapons peaked, a total of 65,000 existed at various levels of readiness.

In this context, the following statement from this essay occupies a special place among the polemical statements I have had the pleasure of reading:
The cyber-war mirrors the nuclear challenge in terms of the potential economic and psychological effects.
When I read that, I had to wonder who spiked the author's water supply with LSD. As a computer professional, I have no doubt that a significant cyber attack would have unsettling effects. Getting money from a bank would prove difficult. The attack would affect infrastructure, from the water supply to roads, in unpredictable ways. In economic life, a cyber attack would have a dire effect;. it would diminish business confidence and could easily trigger a recession. At worst, cyber attacks on industrial process control systems could lead to serious spills of toxic or even radioactive waste. We should not take these risks lightly.

But the worst imaginable cyber attack would lead to a major disaster, not one beyond comprehension; we have experienced disasters on this scale before. It took just one nuclear weapon to end one hundred thousand lives at Hiroshima. Unleashing forty to sixty thousand of them would have created a catastrophe such as humanity has no memory of in all our recorded history. Equating these two possible events, at any level, completely ignores reality.

Glenn Greenwald rightly objects to the shadow-government agenda this kind of hyperbole aims to promote. I expect plenty of civil society organizations will stand up to defend freedom in cyberspace. Even if it does not succeed, however, exaggeration of this kind does harm by subtly eroding our sense of proportion. Accepting that political argument has no necessary relationship to reality makes it harder to perform the essential task of a democracy: governing ourselves.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Suffer the children (II)

In the 1970s, St. George's Anglican Cathedral in Kingston hired John Gallienne, as organist and master of choristers. Over the next fifteen years, he compiled one of the worst records of sexual abuse against children in the Canadian Anglican Church outside First Nations Residential Schools.

My family belonged to that cathedral. I left the cathedral in 1978 as a university student mainly because, without knowing the cause, I had grown aware that Gallienne's manipulations of choir parents had a corrosive effect, making the cathedral a place I no longer wanted to worship. I came back in 1990, shortly after the record of abuse came to light. For the next four years, my family and I lived our church lives inside a storm of recrimination.

As a result of this experience, I perceive sexual abuse as primarily an abuse of authority. The abuse almost always comes from a trusted figure in the child's life, often from a trusted figure in the community at large. If we hope to reduce the incidence of child rape in our institutions, we have to address the difficult question of authority, and how it functions in our church institutions. 

This means arguments about the recent scandals in the Church of Rome that ascribe the crimes of some clergy to a failure to assert authority strike me as absurd. Once strict church oversight faltered with Vatican II, some clergy engaged in unauthorized experiments with liturgy and even doctrine. But does anyone believe that having missed an unorthodox prayer or homily, the church could do nothing about child abuse? Consider what Jesus said: the gospels leave no room for doubt about the importance of caring for children and cherishing their faith.

If the gospels call for us to cut off offending limbs and take out evil eyes, what should we expect the Creator to ask of us when the forms authority takes in our churches shows itself so ripe for abuse? At the very least, I suggest we need to look hard at the way the structures of our churches work, at the people we trust and expect our children to trust.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Suffer the children (I)

The book Shepherd's Granddaughter tells the story of the life of a Palestinian girl near Hebron confronted by Israeli settlers. According to this account, "two Jewish groups accuse it of being one-sided".

The book tells a fictional story based on a harsh reality. Israeli settlers in the West Bank constitute a small minority of Jewish Israelis. That small minority includes an even smaller group of extremists, whose behaviour towards their Palestinian neighbours I can only describe as slow motion ethnic cleansing.
International observers have documented the struggles of Palestinians living near the settlements to continue their lives, from going to school to grazing sheep.

Children live this reality every day. They have the same right any child living in a struggling community has, from African American children living through the Montgomery bus boycott to First Nations children in isolated and neglected communities in Canada: to have their story told and heard.

No Canadian who reads stories like these should ever think our country better than Israel. Too many First Nations people in Canada face choices as bleak as those faced by Palestinians in the West Bank of Gaza. Those people who teach this story should also emphasize that most Israelis reject the agenda of the extremist settlers. When we tell these stories, we ought to remember the harsh words Israel's premier Yitzhak Rabin spoke to the extremists after Baruch Goldstein's mass murder of Muslims at prayer at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994:
You are not part of the community of Israel... and many of the people despise you. You are not partners in the Zionist enterprise. You are a foreign implant. You are an errant weed. Sensible Judaism spits you out. You placed yourself outside the wall of Jewish law.
Handfuls of intolerant extremists do not represent the people of Israel. But they exist, they cause real suffering, and those they cause to suffer deserve to have their story heard.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Who, me?

(via Daily dish) In an attack on David Frum following his departure from the American Enterprise Institute, Charles Murray writes:
AEI has a culture, the scholars are fiercely proud of that culture, and at its heart is total intellectual freedom.
Let's follow the implications of that. Any group of people have the right to come together and call themselves scholars, to title themselves an institute. But the American Enterprise Institute does more. It pays salaries. It offers a health insurance plan. To do that, it has to participate in the economic world. In short, its participants have to offer something the world wants to buy. Think tanks, like editorial pages, make their money by producing opinions. That constrains them to to produce the opinions and research donors will buy. The market has the final word, which means that whatever their institutional culture told them, the members of the American Enterprise Institute do not have, did not have, and logically could not have "total intellectual freedom".

Nobody has defended those strictures at a more fundamental level than Charles Murray; he has specifically argued that having to rely on a menial job, if necessary, to provide for dependents does the soul good. If we apply Charles Murray's rules to American Enterprise Scholars, we should reject on principle the idea of anyone having a sanctuary in which they can produce whatever they please and have a guarantee the market will accept it. If you write, you have two choices: write things some market will accept, or else write for nothing. The management AEI appears to have given David Frum exactly that choice. I would expect Charles Murray to say, approvingly, that so they should.

Instead, he gets very angry indeed with the idea that anyone in the management of the American Enterprise Institute responded to the choices of the people who pay the bills. He does not call this making the kind of compromise that gives meaning to life, embracing hard realities in order to live life well. Instead, he refers to Frum's allegations as an attack on "the core of the Institute’s integrity". As I read his arguments, it appears the idea that economic rules which he passionately defends apply to people like himself makes Charles Murray incandescent with rage. He has disavowed his former friendship with David Frum on that basis. But what does that say about conservative principles, and the devotion to the free market avowed by conservative scholars?

Friday, March 26, 2010

...a picture of a death spiral

Politics has one basic rule: it exists to govern. This rule has a corollary: governing takes real work, and politicians drift away from governing.

Governing means taking ideas, imperatives, limit, and crafting them into structures both legal and customary. These structures form the framework of our public lives: rules of commerce, employment, and personal conduct. The shared principles we live by, if they work well, keep us at peace with one another, and foster sustainable and just interactions between people, communities and nations. It takes very hard work. Sometimes, it lays intolerable burdens on people.

Particularly when a political movement reaches maturity, when it has either achieved all it set out to do or else decisively failed, a sclerosis sets in. This syndrome has appeared in enough situations that we can describe it fairly well. Where a governance aims at specific ends, whether justice or freedom or prosperity, a declining government or movement focuses on power and structures as an end. Then the focus on power shifts to a focus on strategy, and then on tactics as ends in themselves.

The Left fell into this trap at the end of the 1960s, when the rush of doing an action, getting media coverage, and daring the police to react with violence on national TV replaced a coherent way forward to a more just society. We see it now in the American right. Ann Coulter has shaped a minor incident in Ottawa. Her supporters hope, as her detractors fear, that donations will pour in. Clubs will form, offices will open, and then what? Without a coherent end, or an effective path to reach that end, what do Ms. Coulter's admirers hope to achieve? Ms. Coulter and her fellow conservative ideologues, of course, can expect to make a lot of money out of all this. But without any real ideas for governing, they can't accomplish much more. The danger exists that all of the energy poured into movement tactics comes at the expense of a serious effort to formulate and promote ideas useful in actual governance. This has one good effect: a focus on tactics will leave the formulation of new ideas, and the future, to the Left. It also has one bad effect: the absence of a real, viable, and thoughtful challenge from conservatives will leave the solutions implemented by the Left less rich, less effective, than we could otherwise have made them.

A tangled web...

I really only know one thing about the Ann Coulter speech that turned into a debacle in Ottawa: I don't care what Ms. Coulter thinks of me or my country. For that matter, I don't pretend to know what she thinks at all. As many people before me have pointed out, people like Coulter and Limbaugh make their money as entertainers. Making extreme statements to an aging audience may bring in the money, but it shows a basic lack of seriousness about actually getting candidates who might support their positions elected, or getting an actual political platform enacted.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

When words fall over each other

The American Scene web log allows comments. Their blogging software has a feature which only accepts comments after the writers have reviewed what they have written.

For those, like myself, who often find errors in our comments only after we have posted them, this feature provides a distinct advantage. I find that as I type, my thinking often outruns the signals going to my fingers, so I often find a word with the last letter of the word I had intended to type before it attached. Also, when I go back and change a sentence, I often leave a word that no longer belongs. Previewing my work beforehand sometimes saves me from looking foolish.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Big nanny

Not too long after I started riding my bicycle in Toronto, I had the seat and the handlebars sprung. Toronto has some of the worst road surfaces I can remember riding a bicycle on, and I don't like coming home after riding with a headache. And since I have no hope that Toronto will maintain the streets, I spring my bicycle and grit my teeth.

But the same city that claims to balance its budget by the proverbial shaved hair every year, the same city that regularly proposes to raid its assets to meet current needs, the same city that scrimps on repairs to infrastructure, the city with some of the highest transit fares on the continent, can somehow afford to pay "inspectors" to prowl the streets looking for front yards that offend their esthetic sensibilities, and write up orders for the property owners to conform.

Cities can and should provide mechanisms to resolve disputes about people's decorating or design choices when informal neighbourhood dispute resolution fails. Cities can and should provide encouragement to homeowners who want to plant trees, as the City of Toronto does. But imposing a citywide standard on the appearance of houses, particularly ones the neighbours don't object to, merely wastes money.

In the same paper, we read another story, also about an individual's less than happy encounter with government. The story contains a paragraph which could, by itself, define the psychological contours of the nanny state:
But one of the agencies involved maintains the rules were applied fairly and equally, and Wilson must follow them like everyone else.
Yes, the government must apply the rules fairly and equally, but that doesn't suffice: the rules also have to make sense, and their application has to make sense in each individual case. Maybe in this case they do; not every business or home owner who complains of unfair treatment has a good case. But I would suggest the following rule: if an issue concerns aesthetics or "quality of life", governments should restrict their role to mediation rather than attempting to impose rules.

Meanwhile, could we focus on important things and fix the potholes, please?