Tag Archives: bc politics

David Beers on Vancouver Eating its Young

David Beers published a piece entitled “Why Does Vancouver Eat its Young?” in yesterday’s Globe and Mail. I agree with David’s sentiment, Vancouver does eat its young. Moreover, and many of his points are valid (e.g. the NPA’s closure of the Child and Youth Advocate office). But I chaffed at the partisan perspective of a news editor who founded a newspaper because he didn’t like the partisan perspective of other BC newspapers. I like the Tyee and even publish there, but its hard to not grow tired of its relentlessly partisan approach (Raif Mair, a balanced newspaper does not make) and its simplistic view of BC politics: Liberal=bad, NDP=good (or at least, not bad). While the investigative journalism is needed and deeply appreciated, I’m often left wondering if the Tyee is simply trying to become a left-wing version of “The Sun.”All the more so since it is funded by a silent, and secret, partner – rumored to be the BC Federation of Labour.

Take for example his op-ed. Both the provincial NDP and the BC Liberals have invested in social housing (the Liberals may be late to the game, but they’ve stumped up some serious cash). But neither has a track record of addressing affordable housing – the issue that could help Rachel, the op-ed’s protagonist.

In addition to the partisan swipes, the piece is premised on some highly problematic analysis and is factually wrong. Nowhere is this better illustrated than Beers choice of Montreal as a viable alternative to Vancouver. For an article whose theme is how Baby Boomers are shifting problems and costs on to young people, choosing Montreal as a positive counter example is, at best, questionable.

Montreal is a fun city to live in – I know, I’ve lived there. It has a vibrant arts scene and great nightlife. It is not however a utopia or sustainable policy alternative.

Montreal – and the province of Quebec – has the largest debt/per capita and deficit/per capita in the country (it ranks second highest in dept/gdp ratio) Despite having the highest tax rate in the country, Quebec is about to leave the next generation a whopping $117billion(!!!) debt, and a $2.1billon deficit (in 2005). If there is one place in the country that is mortgaging its young to satisfy the needs of Boomers, it is Montreal. Why? Because almost all this money goes into operational spending. Little is invested into infrastructure for the future. This is a city and province where, literally, bridges fall on citizens and universities place mesh nets around buildings to prevent crumbling cement from falling on students. Quebec’s tuitions may be low, but its universities are bankrupt.

Montreal is also not a homeowners’ paradise. It has one of the lowest rates of home ownership in Canada: only 50% percent of Montrealers own their home vs. 61% of Vancouverites. While public policy – such as the adoption of row houses – helps depress rents, one reason rental apartments remain easy to find is that an astonishing 200,000 people (11% of the population) left the city between 1971 and 1981. That loss still impacts the city today. It has yet to recapture it’s 1971 population peak of 1,960,000. Indeed, three and a half decades later it is still shy by 100,000. Not only has the city yet to recover demographically, it only recently climbed out of the referendum induced recession which saw jobs – for the young and old – dry up. This is a dramatic price to pay for affordability and it offers little in policy guidance to Vancouver’s city planners. (In contrast, Vancouver has grown by an astounding 35% since 1971)

Beers’ sentiment is right. Vancouver is not affordable. But is scoring cheap political points off the issue really the role for a newspaper editor? Especially one that is seeking to reframe the debate in British Columbia? There is a lot that can be done to tackle this issue… something I’ll dive into tomorrow while discussion the solution oriented speech Larry Beasley’s gave at the Imagine Vancouver conference this past weekend.

Citizen Assemblies: Overstating the wisdom of crowds

On numerous occasions over the past few months I’ve heard people refer to Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” when explaining why any group driven project is inherently good.

My favourite has been the explanation regarding how citizen’s assemblies – because they tend to be composed of 100 or more members – are inherently wise and therefor produce a good outcome. To begin with, I find it interesting that those who defend electoral reform rarely talk about the merits of the proposal and instead refer to the soundness of the decision making process used to reach them. Citizen assemblies, it must be said, are not some magical process that produce inherently good outcomes. Indeed, if those who invoke his book had actually read it, they’d realize the Surowiecki’s analysis not only fails to support their contention about the process, it may actually do the opposite.

Pause for a second, and think about the logic that says a solution is good simply because it was arrived at by a large group of people. It is actually quite frightening. Indeed, one of the first things Surowiecki points out is that not all crowds are wise. The statement hardly needs supporting, but Surowiecki nonetheless trots out numerous examples of unwise crowds – angry mobs, investors in a stock bubble, and the various branches of US intelligence services. It’s not simply the size of a crowd that makes it “wise” it is also the rules that guide its behaviour. To be specific Surowiecki cites four key elements (which I’ve cribbed from wikipedia):

Diversity of opinion: Crowds – even those whose members hold ill-informed or eccentric interpretation of the known facts – will be wiser then groups that possess identical data, similar perspectives, or interpret data in a similar fashion.

Independence: Crowd members opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.

Decentralization: People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.

Aggregation: A mechanism for turning private judgments into a collective decisions.

Violate one of these elements and your crowd risks becoming a mob. By my estimation, citizen assemblies run the risk of violating three.

First, the diversity of opinion is at risk. While citizen assemblies’ proponents would have you believe they are composed randomly, this is in fact, not the case. Firstly, there are a number of people who, for reasons of work or family, would not participate. But what really interests me is that people opposed to change (and possibly those who are simply indifferent) are less likely to participate. If you thought a proposition (such as electoral reform) was silly, would you spend a year debating it – or would you simply await your opportunity to vote against it at the end of the process? Participation in these assemblies is almost assuredly tilted toward those predisposed to favour change – e.g. the crowd is more likely to be homogeneous in its desire for change and its perception of the electoral system.

Second, citizen assemblies are less likely to be independent. If you enter into a process to change the voting system the pressure to support change, any change, must be intense. Imagine if you sat around for a year listening, debating and arguing, and came out of the process agreeing that the status quo was ultimately superior to any other option. What a frustrating outcome! Tax payers would question why the money was spent and your friends would ridicule you for “wasting your time.” Worst still, what if the assembly couldn’t agree? What would that say about its constituent members? The internally created pressure on assembly members to put forward something, anything(!) new, and to have a clear majority of assembly members support this proposal was likely intense. I’d wager that once momentum for one solution began to emerge, other members were willing to bandwagon along “for the sake of the process.” In short, assembly members allowed their opinions to be determined by the opinions of those around them. (except, of course for those who held out. The same people who – from first hand accounts – were invariable referred to as stick in the muds and ‘difficult’ people. “Think like the rest of us or we’ll socially ostracize you…” isn’t that a sign of a mob?)

Finally, citizen assemblies have poor mechanisms for aggregation. Although neither the BC nor the Ontario Citizen assemblies required it, both placed strong emphasis on reaching consensus – articulating it as an ideal. If there is one system of decision-making Surowiecki believes makes a crowd dumb, it is a consensus-based approach. In order to reach consensus crowd members sacrifice the previous three elements – diversity, independence and decentralization – in order to gravitate towards the group’s mean. In effect the group’s collective knowledge and diversity of analytical ability is lost. This is the antithesis of a wise crowd. It is a crowd that actually gets dumber with time because it has less data, less analysis and fewer perspectives with which to assess the problem. It isn’t that people agree – they simply censor themselves to prevent disagreement.

This isn’t to say the Citizen Assemblies came to a bad solution for electoral reform (although to confess, I think in both BC and Ontario they did) . Again, all I wish to convey is that the citizen assemblies are not some magical process that produce inherently good outcomes. These process are neither democratic, representative, nor inherently superior – so don’t let supporters of the ballot initiatives bully you with process arguments. Let’s assess these proposals based on their contents – and what they do to democracy in Canada (which, in Ontario’s case, strengthens the parties and the backroom boys).

Mike Harcourt – Canada’s Al Gore on Urban Sustainability?

Yesterday evening, at Vanessa T’s prompting, I headed down to the SFU downtown campus to catch Mike Harcourt (former Mayor of Vancouver and Premier of BC) and Ken Cameron (former regional planner) present on City Making in Paradise their upcoming book about the history of city planning in Vancouver.

Two things struck me about the presentation.

The first was how the successes of municipal planning in Vancouver have largely been made possible by a history of local governments thinking, organizing and acting in coordination at the regional level. As Harcourt pointed out, growth and development meant the political and organic borders of the city ceased to be aligned after the Second World War. The regions cooperative approach to this dilemma – which began in the 1970s and that continues today – makes for an interesting case study. In addition to being broadly successful, it appears to have preempted an effort at amalgamation that was so contentious in Quebec and Ontario.

I’ve known for a while that Harcourt is laser focused on urban sustainability and will work with anyone, regardless of political affiliation, who will help advance this goal. That said, I was nonetheless struck by the degree to which he’s transcended partisan politics. While outlining the 9 decisions that “saved Vancouver” Harcourt was happy to praise individuals who’d once been bitter rivals. Given the recent (unusual) trend of provincial parties racing for the centre maybe this is just a sign of the times. Or maybe Harcourt pragmatic, results focused tonic that BC politics so desperately needs. Maybe it’s both. Anyway, for a guy who was dragged through the provincial political ringer, it’s nice see him so motivated and positive.