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It is so incredibly easy to drop a couple of weeks without writing, when you are constantly creating original material for a blog. Gentle readers, please accept my apology. I really hadn’t intended the absence to be so long!

Aside from the joys of work (and, yes, there are joys), dealing with a master logic board replacement in my laptop (fortunately still under warranty, and quickly turned around, but, still, five days away from the keyboard), and the normal bits and pieces of everyday life, the key reason I’ve been away from this blog has been that I’ve been involved in a very deep set of email exchanges covering a number of topics, with several long messages passing back and forth each day.

This, in turn, was emphasized this morning to me while commuting, as I listened to last Friday’s A Point of View on my iPod. Lisa Jardine, in this BBC radio programme, talked about letter writing, its conventions over time, and the sense of confidence (or the expectation of its violation) that was a part of “polite society” from time to time.

So, while I shall, over the next few weeks, share some of the results of the email exchanges, I shan’t be doing anything that exposes my written interlocutors!

But Jardine also made me think, this morning, about the whole question of writing in public. Why do writers do it? Why do thinkers do it?

In particular, why do I do it?

Robert Anson Heinlein, in both his essays and his later fiction, made his reason quite clear. Having started to write for money, he discovered, once he no longer needed to “churn out the words” to keep his nose above financial sea level, that he could no longer set writing aside. It had become a monkey on his back, demanding its daily dose of words. Activity could set it aside for a short while (Heinlein’s favourite in this regard being the erecting of mortarless stone walls) but the pressure to hit the typewriter would grow and grow, just as the “minimum acceptable amount to scratch the itch” grew, year by year.

If you are reading this posting on the blog’s website, as opposed to in a feed reader, you are no doubt aware that not a shred of advertising appears here, nor are you asked for donations, nor did you have to pay to access this content. That was a personal decision of mine, to write for my sake as opposed to for financial reasons. The comments that my posts have attracted have been exceedingly rewarding, and that was the payment sought for my efforts.

The failure to write for several days would normally put the same “monkey pressure” on me that Heinlein described. Writing several long pieces a day in email, however, more than satisfied the monkey. As a result, two weeks (more or less) slipped by, with no words here.

Now why tell you all this? This is how we are, all of us, day by day. Even those who maintain lists of to-dos, organize their time, and tick the items off day by day, miss noticing what they’re not doing in the rush of doing.

You can tell, of course, the blogger who has a to-do list of topics to be written about today. Their quality can often be uneven: ticking off the list takes priority. (Some writers, and I am not one of them, are sufficiently gifted that even their mediocre efforts are far above the average. Still, a keen eye reveals the pattern.) Others merely have the to-do to write, and their content varies from the essential and satisfying to merely a near random commentary on the stimulus they themselves received today.

This is not a complaint. It is merely an observed “true fact” about the intersubjective human realm.

It is up to each of us to set our priorities for the time we have available. Enough said.

I was disappointed, but unsurprised, to hear news yesterday that yet another of my friends is having trouble finding work, either in terms of a permanent position or in terms of clients to sustain him in self-employment. After a good natter bemoaning the state of the world today, the shape of the economy and so on, we zeroed in on the real underlying issue:

Everyone in authority is afraid.

Considering that this is the ninth conversation of this sort since New Year’s Day 2010, a pattern is forming. (I would — had I a business need — hire any of the people I’ve talked to in a heartbeat: they would be competent, bring us strength, and happily share who they are and what they know in the course of it, making my organization better.)

That the book on my desk is The Hour of Decision exemplifies this: the author of that 1933 work, Oswald Spengler, was certain that his words would fall upon a people capable of judgement, decision and action. (Despite the description of this work on Amazon’s website, the book is not a call to Nazi racial theory: it is a call to all of Western Civilization to again become serious about their culture and disciplined in working toward the future, rather than simply voting themselves bread and circuses and good times, drifting into a future where others will ultimately topple us. The book was banned by the Nazis almost immediately as Spengler’s call for a return to Bismarckian values was as much an indictment of Hitler’s programme as of life in France, Britain and America.)

Today, decision and action are seldom found. Instead, organizations are rife with people who live in fear of suddenly being ejected from them. Such decisions as most of them take are negative in character: to “study this further”, or “to look at this again in the future”, and such action as is found is mostly in the form of sitting through (and calling) meetings to use up the hours, and spending inordinate amounts of time on email communiqués, being “seen” to “be busy”.

Lest you may, at this juncture, think me unduly harsh, I would refer you to David Bolchover’s The Living Dead: Switched Off, Zoned Out—The Shocking Truth about Office Life (2005), with its description of how organizations acquire lethargic staff, and how indecision increases with organizational size.

Abernäturlich, there are always exceptions. Organizations where individuals are primary contributors contra the management structure, as with partners in consulting and legal firms, university faculty, and the like (Charles Handy’s “Dionysian organizations”, from his Gods of Management), can be hellishly political places to be if you are in a supporting role (Managing Partner, the firm’s IT Head, or the Dean of a Faculty come to mind as exemplars), for each contributor has the power of “no”, and “yes” is negotiated. Those who are good at this process of winning support — I recall a retail situation where each outlet was individually owned and operated, the “brand” merely providing central buying, marketing and back-end services, where well over a thousand independent entrepreneurs had to be won over to a major technology investment and change — achieve great things. Few enough are: they are, however, decisive.

Handy’s “Zeusian” individuals — those who network heavily, constantly looking for deals to make — also are decisive and very much action oriented. Working the phones and the corridors, they ferret out information, take steps, initiate action. They are prepared for loss — and the inevitable apologies it entails! — and set this against a track record of wins. Found often driving their firm forward into new markets, working on innovations, or the like, these sort also can, and do, decide and act.

But neither Dionysians nor Zeusians rule in most organizations. Instead, much of the work is organized around the other two types: the “Apollonian”, or process-oriented order, and the “Athenian”, or project-oriented order.

We can see why this is so by looking at the Cynefin Framework created by Dave Snowden and carried into the market via the Cognitive Edge network. (Disclosure: I am an accredited Cognitive Edge practitioner.) Apollonian and Athenian work generally fall on the right hand side, both well-ordered realms (the simple and complicated domains). In both of these types of work hierarchy is in place, practices are well-codified, there is structure well-established. Compare this to the Zeusian and Dionysian, who tend to cope well with the left-hand side which is relatively unordered (the domains of the chaotic, and the complex). While innovations moving from the Chaotic through the Complex to become ordered often use Athenians to experiment alongside their Dionysian counterparts, and while the act of providing order often leans on the experience of Apollonians being led by a Zeus figure, the Athenians and Apollonians on their own tend to fall back on their expectations about order early in their thinking, whereas a Zeus or Dionysian is often comfortable with their expectation that order may be weak, creating a field of opportunity.

The great resistance being seen in practice to adopting a more ad hoc, bottom-up or middle-out leadership style — endemic to the realm of the complex and essential to closure in the realm of the complicated — is a result of an existential fear of a lack of order on the part of Athenian or Apollonian managers. The kind of future Jon Husband describes on his Wirearchy blog is stalled, certainly, because of excesses of simple order (financial delegations of authority that allow no action within one’s budget, human resources systems that insist on clear lines of command, and Sarbanes-Oxley- or Freedom of Information- or “Question in the House”-scarred senior executives demanding that all decisions be taken “at the top” are examples). But it is also stalled because Athenian and Apollonian individuals generally fear the release of order required for change and therefore (at best) resist taking action, or (at worst) deny that any change is needful (as Virginia Satir described in her change process model now transferred from family therapy to organizational change management).

Fifteen years ago, I could talk intelligibly with managers and executives about where and how all four of Handy’s types “fit into” their organizations — and relate it to the regional cultures found in their domains of operation (to answer the question “where best to put a function”). Many of those I spoke to were Zeusian-biased, leading Athenians and Apollonians with a deliberate placement of Dionysian contributors within the firm: in other words, they could take people, the bulk of whose work was ordered, and consciously develop change by shifting bits through the less ordered realms in a deliberate effort to deal with new circumstances.

Few of these are found now! In a 2006 research study I took part in, I discovered that the world Bolchover described now ruled: in almost all mid-sized (750+ employees) and large-scale organizations, the management cadre was now Apollonian or Athenian, reporting to similar styles as executives. Almost all their in-house Dionysians had been replaced by consultants or contractors whose work — and presence — could be quickly disowned.

The Zeusians, Dionysians and some portion of the Athenians (with a few temperamentally open Apollonians) now work for themselves, or in entrepreneurial organizations. As always, the failure rate is high: primarily, this is due to the fact that even the smallest organization — an employee base of one — still requires its fair share of all four work styles (there is no escaping the Apollonian nature of accountancy; even if the actual work is outsourced, the responsibility cannot be, and thus must be dealt with on its own terms) and few amongst us are so nimble as to be able to pay full engaged attention to all that needs doing, yet remain decisive and action-oriented in realms we have to consciously engage with. (Most start up organizations fail from a lack of order when it’s needed, although the results of that self-inflicted wound may take several years to become visible.)

Athenians live to a plan: it is the essence of project cultures. When slack existed, projects could be completed in the face of new events by utilizing the slack resources (which were more often cash than people). But the 2000s have not been a period of slack: the core Athenian tool to take a decision and act on it has generally been wrenched away, converting the Athenian manager into a pseudo-Apollonian managing a process (in this case, budgets and schedules without leeway or negotiating room). Desperate to retain any freedom of action, they give up resources to new hires or outsiders infrequently — and generally (especially when working for Apollonians at the top, as many with a Finance, Retailing or Manufacturing background now are) will not proceed without concurrence from above.

Meanwhile, the Apollonian managers tend to simply deny the need for change, since they are at the cutting edge of increasing order temperamentally and in their work. Without a decision that change is required, however, the consultant’s engagement or new hire’s employment simply doesn’t happen. (This is different from “replacing open positions”, where juniors can be engaged.)

The outcome of this is that the typical manager today reinforces their fears by worrying incessantly about their own perch on the greasy pole of management, since they are expected to anticipate every occurrence, achieve results regardless, and be an active participant in the undercutting of their own authority.

Meanwhile, the sad history of many former comrades who, resisting this long-term change, ultimately left to go elsewhere is something all of them know, if only from the occasional contact they have with them, and in a world where pensions evaporate and existing guarantees and benefits from seniority are not able to be easily (if at all) replicated, “protecting myself to retirement” nails the final board into place on being decisive.

This is how so many brilliant people around the world do so poorly in an economy where almost all change is sourced rather than done in house, where outside circumstances are forcing change into organizations whether they like it or not, and where technology appears to create ever-more opportunities. Meanwhile, this is why so many obviously inept roadblocks within organizations manage to hold — even expand — their positions, while the ones who actually accomplish something risk everything anytime they act.

As long as organizations value adherence above all, we shall continue to leave so much talent “on the shelf” and so many ideas latent. Too many will avoid notice and management precisely because they do not want to risk the greasy pole position. This deliberate undercutting of individual, group and organizational performance means that our society will continue to slip, regardless of the latest technology and its latent promises.

With municipal elections coming on 25 October 2010 here in Toronto, I’m starting to get — over coffee, in corridors — questions about my views of the various declared candidates.

No, I won’t bore you with that. Having only moved to Toronto near the end of last year, I can’t honestly say that I know anything useful about any of them, yet! Instead, I’d like today to talk about why municipal issues matter — goodness knows, with an average turnout on election days of around 30% there’s no shortage of evidence that municipal issues don’t matter to the majority! — and what kind of questions we might want to ask the candidates, and ourselves, before making choices.

Municipal Funding

Most of us hear the annual whinge from the Mayors of the country’s various cities about funding issues. Whereas provinces are their own masters when it comes to raising funds, just as is the Federal Government, Canadian municipalities are creations of the provinces. Their ability to raise funds is limited, and rather than being a part of the constitutional structure of the country can be granted and removed by Order in Council alone at the provincial legislature.

Meanwhile there’s no shortage of mandates imposed with minimal or missing funding, and no shortage of investments that may be required for which funds are an issue.

Let’s be clear: our cities, towns and villages all need to take the steps that they need, in their situation, to deal with their challenges. There are also no shortage of studies, proposals and promises out there.

The key question, then, is: how will this be paid for?

As an example, Toronto has put forward a transit plan — Transit City — which will require billions to be achieved. (There are many with specific criticisms of elements of this plan. I cite it instead to use it as an example: the “greening” of cities, the reduction in automobile congestion, etc. often cites extensive rapid transit development as a necessary step.)

How will this be paid for? (We needn’t ask a stupid question such as “who will pay?”, for whether it’s “federal money”, “provincial money”, “regional agency money” or “municipal money” that’s involved it’s all “taxpayer money” — and there is only one taxpayer. Those who answer “how it will be paid” with “the province will…” or “the feds will…” are not answering the question and should be discarded from consideration.)

“How” involves three different factors:

  • Capital costs, plus the operating expenses to handle all the mandates of planning, assessment, etc. — and as those of us who lived through the chaos unleashed in Vancouver through the Public-Private Partnership that built the Canada Line (with the private partner’s changes from original specification in the RFP) know, it’s both the money sources and the means we’ll have to ensure our objectives are met.
  • Operating costs once this is built. The TTC, for instance, has been crippled ever since the Sheppard Subway was opened for business: as underground heavy rail, it is a line to nowhere in terms of the cost to run it annually. An honest assessment here talks about the impact on operating costs, shifts in the percentage to be handled through the fare box, and what might be done if these estimates, or estimates for growth, are wrong.
  • Dependency costs. Every new line that is built — from busway, through light rail (preserved right of way trams/streetcars or like Calgary’s system), through medium rail (RT technology like SkyTrain in Vancouver or the Scarborough RT), to heavy rail technology like the existing subways all change patterns which, in turn, lead to demand changes. Extending lines may, on a fiscal basis, make more sense with a lower level of technology, yet the dependency costs of forcing change of vehicles into the network can affect ridership.

These aren’t sound-bite answers, but neither are they answers from studies, or professionals at the transit system. Anyone seeking political office — and the person who seeks to be Mayor of Toronto is the individual in this country who is directly elected by the greatest number of people — ought to be prepared to say “I stand here” on these three questions.

Now, if one expresses a preference for public-private partnerships, while another says “we only move forward when the province and feds step up”, while a third says “we’ll just finance it and get it started”, the voter can start to sort out who they think has the issue right. The one who goes on and deals with the cost of having the solution offered is adding important reasons to vote for/against them.

This sort of dialogue with voters is what is needed, not the tactics of spinmeisters. Voters are not stupid: the candidate that levels with them may not sound attractive, but they will have a mandate to proceed if elected.

Fixing Emergent Problems

The other main issue in municipal affairs is how existing issues are to be fixed. Prior labour negotiations, for instance, may have too much of the current spending tied up in salaries and benefits to make a portfolio of new actions possible. (This is certainly an outcome in BC municipalities of the “regional negotiation model” favoured by the province, and underlies the immobilization of its school boards, health authorities and cities.) Prior planning approvals may have destroyed the fabric of neighbourhoods by virtue of what is being built there. Business may be moving out due to special charges, or the city may have become unaffordable, or shifts in immigration may have created broken civic services based on a different model, serving a different number or types of communities.

Every candidate ought to be prepared to disclose what they think the problems of the day actually are, and to prioritize them. It is this second point that is key: political capital is not unlimited, and in office it can be expended quickly. Focus, and public reasons for that focus, will be required to wield that power (City Councils are far more like the “what’s in it for me and mine” of the US Congress, where party loyalty must often be purchased, than like Canadian Legislatures or Parliament, where party discipline rules the day).

At the same time, certain issues are so large, so difficult to tackle, that they can only be taken on periodically. A candidate might truly believe that outsourcing is the answer and that the municipal workers’ unions must be broken. If this battle last occurred only a few years earlier, the timing — despite any justifications to be found — may not be right. Again, citizens may not agree, but there is respect for a candidate who levels and treats them as responsible.

Also, again, this is not sound-bite country. I can recall, in 1971 in Québec City, seeing a public debate between Québec politicians not unlike our all-candidates meetings. (This was a simple debate: it was not an election period.) Long chains of logic and example, designed to persuade the thinking listener, may well have stretched my command of French, but I appreciated the intention to treat the listeners as responsible and capable. Political consultants, managers, operatives and advisors have counselled against this in today’s media climate. No wonder politics has become about pretty faces, fast quips and shouting!

Why Municipal Affairs Matter

What lies ahead for us is the Great Unravelling of large scale structures. As it does, life will become more local, and the locus of government that matters will be the municipality first, with declining relevance to upper levels. The “centre will not hold”, despite the many attempts that will be made to hold onto it: peak energy, fiscal collapse and other factors like this are the reason for us to see localization coming, whether by design or as an outcome of the attempt to resist it.

Yet our municipalities are poorly equipped to carry this load. Nor are they prepared for even deeper localization, a real restructuring to be living communities (neighbourhoods) that make a municipality into a regional service set.

Those who would seek office should be expected to have some vision of the future, and of the challenge of transition involved. Again, the candidate may not agree with my view of where we’re going, but I expect him or her to have a well-developed sense of the whole and an ability to relate their promises and plans to it. In other words, their agenda is (a) out in the open, (b) thought through and (c) integrated to a vision of the future.

We are highly unlikely to see this sort of honesty at provincial or federal levels: provinces and countries are too big, with too few electeds, to risk the truth in dealing with citizens. Municipalities, on the other hand, are of a mostly manageable size — and can be known well enough by those who run, and those who vote.

The reform of our politics to make “the system work” will begin close to home. That, at the end of the day, is why municipal matters matter.

Let’s see who — if anyone — steps up to the challenge.

Today my email went “ping” to reveal a message from within the Faculty, calling for submissions that outlined a request, for the upcoming Ontario Library Association SuperConference, for us to volunteer “the book that turned you on to reading”.

As always, my first reaction to this was “but there wasn’t just one”. There are many kinds of reading. Many of us turn on to one form of book and would never look for one from another genre.

In any event, the request has done its job: it got me thinking.

First Books: Usually, they’re read to you

The love of reading generally starts, not with reading, but with being read to. For some of us that’s also where it ends: happily hearing the words, but with zero desire to actually pick the book up and read it for ourselves. Most children, however, at some point start to puzzle out a familiar and much-loved book for themselves. We will — if we are able — hang on to that early book, mangled and scribbled in.

For me, that book was one that’s almost impossible to find these days, Little Black Sambo. (Today it’s considered politically incorrect, although how a story that obviously takes place in the tropical zone that involves churning a tiger — by getting him to chase you round-and-round — into butter is a challenge isn’t immediately obvious to me. Still, American segregation led us to the over-correction that the terms used to describe the people in this story are now verboten in public, and so the book is gone.

I still have my copy from 1958, not that I read it much any longer (nor did I read it to my children: they had their own early favourites which I also found enjoyable). Nor, despite much racking of memories, can I pull up any others from my own picture book era. I know my siblings used the same books I had had in my time, but others were also added, and I just can’t recall any longer which were mine.

Several years later — when I was about nine — this book led me to devour Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and Second Jungle Book. Mowgli and Shere Khan was to me just an advanced and more detailed tale of living in a world unlike my own, one where we weren’t secure from being prey. Most recently, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt once again tapped into this vein, with the return of one of the characters from the bardo as a tiger who is, in turn, hunted. I often pull this book up even today, zeroing in on those few chapters: the bonds of memory are strong.

Children’s Literature

Reading picture books is one thing, but the next transition is to a book without pictures. I certainly recall my first and second books of this type: Freddy the Detective, and Charlotte’s Web. Two other books, however, that came home somewhere in the first few stacks taken from the public library, were Freedom at York, a tale of a boy fighting against the American invaders of the Town of York during the War of 1812, and Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo, which began a life-long love of science and speculative fiction.

Freedom at York isn’t a story I’d care much about today: frankly, it wasn’t that good. What I have noted is that I’ve had a life-long suspicion of the United States and its leadership that probably was rooted in having read this tale of my own city being attacked and captured. Even two years living south of the border, and having made many friends in America, hasn’t changed that undercurrent. I’m less likely (I hope) to say something stupid arising out of it now that I have been in the past — goodness knows anti-Americanism is well rooted in Ontario culture!, the part of Canada I’ve spent most of my life in — but it’s a constant battle, especially since (as with any government) there’s never a shortage of decisions to take issue with.

Of course, eruptions do occur. One of my dearest of friends in the UK first came across me in 1995, when we both worked at the same firm (I had gone to Connecticut to work for the company). Part of my job was to criticize the research notes others had written. His first effort was heavily marked up. When he came to work the next morning, he wanted to know “what f–king American thought he could mark up my note like that!”. Colleagues told him that “yes, it’s harsh, but he’ll make you a far better writer and researcher” and “don’t ever call him an American, even though he works at headquarters; he’s Canadian and he’ll bite your head off if you do”. The failed attempt to save Fort York was still weaving its magic … also the hope at the end when the invaders are sent packing.

As for Heinlein, I devoured all the rest of his juvenile science fiction. Then the stories of Arthur C. Clarke, then of Isaac Asmiov, then of Ray Bradbury, and so it went. When I ran out of ones in the children’s section, I simply went to the adult stacks and kept going. These were my transition into adult level reading, about when I was ten.

It took a while to figure out that for both Asimov and Heinlein many of their works connected into a grand imagined “history of the future”. (For Asimov, there were two: the worlds of the Robots, and the worlds of the Foundation; for Heinlein, many of his stories written in the 1940s were not tightly-fitted, but some were, and as we came forward to his latest publications all of them were part of one grand vision, with the exception of Starship Troopers, the first “adult” Heinlein I devoured.

Around the same time, my sketches (believe me, I am no artist!) started to become imagined cities and regions — community and urban design remain amateur passions — and the drawing of futuristic craft of many types. Down the road, in the 1970s, when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published the original “white box” Dungeon and Dragons, these skills led me not only into role-playing, but into Game Mastering, something I have done ever since. (One of my designs was even published, in 1980, by the D&D magazine “The Dragon”.)

Meaningful Books

When I was thirteen, two signal book events happened. In Grade 6 J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was one of the works of literature we studied. That summer of 1965 was when the Ballantyne paperback set of Lord of the Rings began to appear — one book a year! My copy of The Fellowship of the Rings was worn out two years later by the time The Return of the King finally made it to the stores! Still, “Fellowship” was the first book I purchased, starting another life-long habit of book buying.

In the winter of 1967-68, I went to buy another book, without knowing what I wanted to buy when I went to “The Book Cellar”. What I bought was Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Frankly, this was beyond me at the time, but I kept at it over my high school years, trying to figure out what this man was saying (philosophers — even the die-hard Kantians — generally all agree that Kant was an abysmal writer). From this work was born my interest in philosophy.

The spring of 1968 saw me with one leg in a cast. Amongst the many books brought from the library was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Kant was non-fiction; Rand was philosophy wrapped in the form of a novel. I bathed in that book. Even today, although I don’t call myself an Objectivist, many of the ideas she brought forward have their place in my own natural faith about the world.

Ever since these two books, it is the non-fiction stacks that I tend to haunt. I’ve certainly read no shortage of novels since, although both by virtue of buying many paperbacks just before the gate will close at the airport and by my own likes and dislikes, I tend toward the political, the judicial or the science fiction. (Aside from Tolkien, fantasy is not something I generally favour.) I suppose a Yann Martel, were I the Prime Minister, would be sending me a bi-weekly book to read, too, because the Booker, Giller, etc. prize winners seldom find their way to me.

The Great Passion of Philosophy of History

As an inveterate used bookstore prowler, I came across the Atkinson translation of Spengler’s The Decline of the West and the Somerville abridgement of Toynbee’s A Study of History within days of each other when I was first on campus in 1972. Both were dramatic turning points then, and remain so now (although I have now read and use the full unabridged twelve volume set of Toynbee rather than the abridgement).

The sheer hubris involved in trying to pull the complete story together, not (as with Heinlein and Asimov) from a pre-determined plot-theme, but from the shards and fragments of reality has consumed my mind ever since. It is the source of my skill, such as it is, that saw me employed for years as an research analyst, and that animates this blog today. Along the way I have also delighted in many works of speculative, or alternative, history: works that say “what would have happened if this event had gone another way”, opening worlds where the American Revolution never happens, or where the Stuarts are not dethroned in Great Britain, or where the French Revolution does not degenerate into Jacobin violence requiring a “man on horseback” (Napoléon) to end the destruction, or the like. Then, too, people with daring looks at the world, whether grounded well in fact (e.g. 1421, the story of the Chinese fleet and its explorations), or in well-constructed speculation around archaeological evidence (e.g. the exploration of drowned communities off coastlines around the world, as in Hancock’s Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization), or those who look for parallels, such as in Jared Diamond’s works, always reach out and grab me.

Today’s Reading

I’m not a scientist, but I do try to keep up with works written for the layman in physics, astronomy, ecology, environment and geology. I’m always reading history and philosophy. I read a fair bit of cultural study work, and some psychology and architecture.

As with most people, I still have blind spots. I seldom think, for instance, to drift down to the shelves filled with poetry, plays, analysis of literature, or (oddly, at least to my mind) biography: I’ll read biography of someone in a space I’m already interested in, but don’t read much simply to explore someone’s life. My loss, I am certain, but my time (as with everyone’s) is limited.

On the other hand, when popular opinion or the correctness brigades insist a book should not be read, you are likely to see me with it. My high school attempted to suspend me for having Ayn Rand “in my possession” (not for being caught reading in class, simply for having it with me). Later in life, while digesting Mein Kampf on midnight shift, I made the error of leaving it at my place in the coffee room while I ran to fix something that had broken down — and came close to being fired for “reading that book”. So, too, with Das Kapital.

My favourite philosophers to read remain Aristotle, Nietzsche, Heidegger, George Grant, Eric Voegelin and Tom Langan. These days as much time goes into re-reading as new reading. I must be slowing down.

In the meantime, as this recollection has shown, some of the earliest works have informed my life, for good or ill, throughout — and since my greatest fear is to be blind and cut off from easy reading, I would say the whole experience has been formative, too.

But one book? Pah! It’s never one.

There comes a moment in the lives of most of us (thankfully, we almost all live long enough to experience this) when we discover that “it’s not just my kid that thinks of the events of my life as ancient history, it’s a whole lot of those folks out there!” When I think about the millennial generation (Net Generation, Gen Y, etc.), whose leading wave has seen its feet come ashore on the beach of “never trust anyone over thirty”, I reflect on the fact that between them and the trailing edge of Gen X about half the people on the street don’t share the experiences that I, as a boomer, found as formative. Considering, in turn, that the experiences of the 1930s and 1940s are as alien to me as those of the late 1960s and 1970s are to them, I can only conclude that Santayana’s aphorism about history and its repetition is about to be lived out again.

History as taught in schools has tended to fall into two main camps;

  • Categorization via the periods of war, the reigns of rulers or some other means of treating the clock and calendar as a line punctuated by reference marks. This is not only generally a method that bores 90%+ of the class into intellectual sleep; anyone who turns an active mind to it immediately sees that broad historical strokes don’t nicely align with centuries and decades, the throne-spans of rulers, or the like (this is the problem in the philosophy of history, of periodization, and an underlying reason why Henry Ford claimed “History is Bunk”).
  • The modern anti-historical method of taking an ideological stance (be it Marxist analysis, primacy of a nation-state, feminist theory, or many other forms) and “reading it back” into historical periods in order to establish clearly that they have nothing to teach us. This leaves the student with the clear notion that there is nothing history can contribute and thus a purely functional approach to current issues is defaulted to.

In history, there are significant events that warp the course of peoples. Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States on 11 September 2001, for instance, is one such. All the analysis and attempts to predict in the world did not and could not predict the exact timing, the exact form of the attack and the form the reaction would take. (Who, amongst us, would have predicted that a pioneering nation proud of its primacy would have turned its over 300 million citizens into people willing to give up their hard-won freedoms in a quavering desire for “security”? There are many others on this planet that that would have been a reasonable prediction for: the American people weren’t likely candidates. Yet others — including those who have also suffered attacks — have kept calm and carried on far better.

Yet winding through history as well are long-term processes that unfold. Most of these, unfortunately, are processes of positive feedback: in other words, they produce imbalances that intensify over time. These are the processes that end in a “tipping point”, one where there is a jump into the chaotic from a domain of apparent simple and comprehensible order. While societal innovation — what Toynbee in his A Study of History called the reaction of a creative minority who separate themselves from the conditions at hand to reinvent the process (in the realm of growth, this is Quigley’s [The Evolution of Civilizations] “creation of a new economic engine”) — is one response to the breakdown of order at a tipping point, the far more common one has been the emergence of “The Man on Horseback”, the “Leader” who takes charge and establishes a new order.

We are rife with metaphors for this moment of tipping: the collapse of the camel when one more strand of straw is added to his load; the avalanche that starts when one more snowflake is added to the snow pack on a mountain side; the collapse of a dune when one more grain of sand or small pebble is blown onto it. We remember those who step up to seize control after the collapse as well. Most signal a second slide (think of the Roman Empire once Augustus seized control and became Imperator, of the French Revolution when Napoléon seized control, of the seizing of power in Russia by Lenin and his faction, or the election of Hitler in Weimar Germany): what appears to go well at first decays into terminal collapse.

All of our policies have been designed to add, gram by gram, to the weight the system carries. Positive feedback processes about social welfare, life extension, correcting “injuries of the past” and many others have been wound around our society. For those who have taken on the responsibility of maintaining order in the world (originally the French, then the British, now the Americans) each in turn has reached a point where they are trapped, unable to abandon any outpost of power without opening up another point of weakness and yet unable to afford the cost of maintaining those outposts — and meanwhile, as none have achieved global order (despite global presence) new weak points constantly get added to the mix. (What else is a Somali coast or South China Sea pirate?, to name but one class of case.)

But there are limits to everything. I do not know (and neither does anyone else, despite their claims to the contrary) where the tipping points are. We can at best know two types of things: taken this far previously, this happened; and by experience, the process in its field of conditions is about “here”. That “field of conditions” is relevant: the shift from money as metal to money as a symbol of metal to money as a symbol, tout court, to money as the velocity of debt that unfolded throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first century is what has allowed us to be where we are today. At what point will the accumulated debt “grains of sand” collapse the dune and force the economy to reset at a much lower level of potential? We don’t know.

But we do know (by pattern recognition) that toward the end of a positive feedback process, just before it snaps (either under its own weight or via an external event) it grows rapidly — the exponential curve’s famous “hockey stick” moment.

Having destroyed much of the available investment capital in our society in the technology bubble (itself a creature of the transition to “money as velocity of debt”), and then followed that with attempts to continue to increase debt velocity in the face of the destruction of growth to pay off prior debts that led to the housing bubble (still unfolding, with a second US, UK and EU wave to come and a first major Canadian and Australian wave later this year?), we have now moved to the notion of government as the “spender of last resort”. But global demand for capital to buy the Treasury notes and bonds that, in turn, finance these deficits exceeds the available monies.

Will we see a series of dominos fall? (The domino theory, to return to the starting point of this little essay through history, was the rationale for Vietnam and Cambodia — as defining for the late 1960s and early 1970s as Iraq, Afghanistan [and likely Iran and Pakistan to come] are now — for years.) Or will there be a sudden collapse due to an external event that suddenly seizes all the debt markets and immobilizes them (as was Al Qaeda’s intention in 2001)?

Again, we don’t know — but we rest on the edge of a knife.

Meanwhile, the politics of our countries is rife with proposals for ever more deficit spending, ever more engineering of methods and results, and ever more ways to “set money aside” for a retirement no longer a part of employment (except for a select few) and thus dependent on highly liquid markets to extract wealth trapped in real estate or stocks, and the endless pumping up of growth. I would not be surprised that the next wave of change will either wipe out the tax status of retirement funds, or mandate that they be invested in the debt ponzi scheme now offered by our central banks and Treasuries worldwide, or both. Meanwhile our analogy to the hyperinflation of Weimar or the wiping out of assets in the transition from Czarist to Bolshevik Russia will be the traps that our mortgages, lines of credit and credit cards have become — all recourse instruments, and with escalating rates of interest to shield their rentier owners from a diminution in revenues — while taxes and fees accelerate upward, both to offset the overspending, and to pay for the “final programs” now being discussed by politicians anxious to buy one more vote.

We are, I fear, past the point of soft landings. A crash is coming, one it will be hard to rise from again. Governments will end up falling; much more of the world — including parts of it we consider “developed” — will become failed states or rigid dictatorships.

If this worries you, the time to act is now. Not next week, but now. We are but a few grains of sand away from the crisis.

The New York Times offered up a very interesting article, “Is There an Ecological Unconscious?”, in its 31/01/2010 edition. This led me to an afternoon of reflection on what I have seen on the streets of the cities I have lived in within the last decade (Vancouver and Toronto), and, from it, I’d say that there is certainly a growing dis-ease with “things as they are developing” taking root (although an environmentalist or ecologist might not see it as any sort of “ecological unconscious” coming to the fore).

Our Heredity Does Play a Role

Modern man — homo sapiens sapiens — is a species that came to be in grasslands, with trees “in the picture”, but not a forested land. We retain, to this day, a general species preference (obviously individuals can and do “buck” this, and populations that grow up in other settings — the treeless tundra, on mountainsides, in bayous, etc. — do take these as “normal” and “preferred”). Even within these other settings, there are preferences shown for alpine meadows (surrounded by the mountains), small clearings (surrounded by the swamps), and the like, and this is common even when the meadows and clearings would be locales where it would be likely to pasture animals or grow crops for food — Wyoming, for instance, has often seen the animals on a ranch quartered at over 100 miles from the ranch itself, and it takes years to be an outsider and see the subtle differences between “good pastureland” and “a good place to live”. We do, as Joel Garreau noted in passing in his The Nine Nations of North America, find a part of this vast continent as “home” even decades after moving from it (the sky is the right colour, the air has the right humidity, the horizon is the right distance away, etc.) and so the “desired amount” of open space varies. (A friend of mine, born in North Dakota but assigned to a parish in an Adirondack valley since the early 1970s, still finds his region “confining”, where I, who grew up in ravine-cut Toronto, don’t notice anything “wrong” with the number of trees and the shape of the horizon at all — likewise, I find the generally treeless prairies somewhat disconcerting, whereas a twenty mile horizon with just a tree or grain elevator punctuating the horizon is comforting to him. Both of us, in turn, appreciate the beauty of the mountains reaching the sea, but find it uncomfortable as a place to live, no matter how widely the river’s flood plain stretches between the ranges. Perhaps a native of his current home in upstate New York would find the lower Fraser Valley to their liking, too…)

In any event, as Evan Eisenberg noted in The Ecology of Eden, our yards and gardens in our little private residences are often attempts to recreate the savannah, with sweeping lawns of green replacing the tall grasses, and with trees at the property’s edge to frame it. From the tiny gardens of homes in “0207” London (the inner urban area) to the two acre zoning of Fairfield County, CT, this motif is replicated. It is even found in desert climes (e.g. Las Vegas, Phoenix, Alice Springs), until, at least, water restrictions start to create some desire for xerography.

So, if we are so able to recreate our own little patches of comforting savannah, why would there be dis-ease?

Climbing a Wall of Worry

Part, too, of modern life is its very urbanism: we are at the cross over where more of humanity lives in large urban areas than in villages and on the land. Then, too, the sprawl of cities has its effect not only on the land around them, but on patterns that emerge within the towns and villages that fall into their orbit.

Consider, for instance, what a small town or village traditionally was. It was a community. Its inhabitants lived there, worked there, bought and sold to each other. It had a variety of community organizations to provide for activities and entertainment. As the railways started to spread outward in the 1830s and after, more of these locations started to “have a way” for people to go elsewhere — but it was not until just short of the twentieth century (as noted by James Howard Kunstler in The Geography of Nowhere) that the notion of the “commuter” community first started to spread.

Not for nothing is Philadelphia’s “Main Line” known by that name: along the four track main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad commuter stations creating “commuting communities” in and amongst the older villages and towns. Half a mile from each station, though, rural and contained village life continued. Similar structures ringed most cities: the great exception being Los Angeles, where the Pacific Electric and its predecessors built a network of lines that promoted what we recognize today as suburban living well in advance of the automobile’s prevalence on the streets.

There is a qualitative difference between a place which is a dormitory community and one which has a beating, local heart — just as there is between a community that manufactures for its local needs vs one that imports its needs from elsewhere (or one that exports to others what it builds vs one that only handles its own requirements: see Jane Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations). One sign of a place that has a beating, local heart, is found in the shops on its main (high) street: is it filled with local business or chains, and is it filled with businesses for the local population (cleaners, barber, vegetables, etc.) or items for travellers (tourist items, soaps, etc.)? Are these shops, if local, well maintained, or do they appear drab and dying? Have the buildings kept their façades, or have they been forced into a curtainwall and plate-glass regularity required by corporate branding?

Whether you live in a small town or village, or whether you live in a great urban area and call a neighbourhood home, it is this sense of locality, of “being somewhere specific and known”, that is a connection through you to the community’s past and future. Corporate mergers wiping out the local bank or shop, a lease being acquired by a chain “with outlets from coast to coast”, buildings being torn down (the sort that were 2-3 storeys high, with offices or apartments (flats) above a small retailer or light manufacturer) and being replaced by a parking lot with a “corporate box” in its centre (e.g. a McDonald’s) are signs that the community is losing its heart and soul.

Lose enough — enough of the local sports fields and teams, of the community theatre, of the neighbours who are also merchants, the local banker and the like — and the heart of the community slows and stops. Repairs aren’t made as frequently and a run-down demeanour presents itself to the street. Residents start to look for work elsewhere, and their primary loyalty shifts from where they live to where they work. The “working class” locales see a closing of facilities (e.g. Bridgeport, CT) and as many leave as are able to do so; or the street changes character to a mix of barely-surviving shops and “community service” storefronts funded by taxpayers (Schuylerville, NY, or along Danforth Avenue in Toronto between Donlands and Victoria Park Avenues). The loss of “permanence” weighs on the soul. Others — say Vancouver’s West Fourth Avenue through Kitsilano or Toronto’s Yonge St. north from Eglinton Avenue — see an increasing number of international chains displace local merchants, until the street could be anywhere, and the true community assets aren’t worth maintaining (as, for instance, Duthie Books is closed in Kitsilano, as the family simply “gave up” operating a very good independent bookstore in the face of a neighbourhood changed too far and [I suspect] whose chains raised local rents to the point where their vision of the store could not be maintained profitably).

It is these changes, and the suburban ones: the endless widening of the arterial roads that never relieves the traffic, the ripping out of what undeveloped land exists to put up yet another condo complex, townhouse development or community of homes named for the trees, creeks or vistas no longer there (and that were the attraction to earlier newcomers to the community), and the inability to find anything for daily needs on the village high street (such as in Windsor, Berkshire, in the UK) thanks to tourism taking over, that sparks a subtle and pervasive dread. This is a psychological disorder, whether DSM-IV (the index of “approved” mental illnesses) yet recognizes it or not. Add to it the doubling of time it takes to reach open country now that perhaps it did thirty years ago — the Boston commuter-shed now reaches halfway across Massachusetts, and into New Hampshire, southwestern Maine and into Rhode Island, or Toronto sees regular commuters now from the 519, 705 and (just beginning) 613 area codes, well outside the 905/289 considered to be the “Greater Toronto Area”, or the 416/647 that is “the city” (2/3 of which was considered “suburban” only twelve years ago).

Now Add General Uneasiness

All of this is bad enough, but there is also a present sense that things are going wrong generally. More people than ever have résumés filled with company names that no longer exist, whether through merger or bankruptcy. The notion of “finding a good company and working there to get your pension” is lost to almost everyone except the broader public sector workers. More people than ever cannot and do not live close to their children: their children cannot afford their neighbourhood. Meanwhile, the passion for scale in our economy has concentrated opportunity in fewer locales: there are very few companies, for instance, that see the point of the German Mittelständ these days, where global markets do not mean outsourcing or concentrating plants and the primary moral duty is to the health of the community that hosts the firm in its midst.

So, yes, the people you meet feel this. Some of that shows up as a passion for ecological redemption. Some of that also shows up as a sense that “society must be changed”. Others take it as a need for resistance, both as “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone” or “not in my backyard” and as a “turn the clock back” type of pseudo-conservativism that is fundamentally radical at its core.

Until we again return our lives and places in which we live them to a scale that we as humans can take comfort in, this dis-ease will continue to spread and likely turn sociopathic toward the end. Fortunately, doing so is also ecological, and sustainable.

Rex Murphy, in his Thursday night editorial on CBC’s The National, called it fairly and squarely: the weeks-long uproar over Parliament not being in session this week would be a great deal more persuasive if the people on all sides of the aisle actually had some respect for Parliament.

But, of course, they don’t, neither on the Government benches nor on the Opposition ones. (Evidence of same, in the event that the video of Rex’s piece is unavailable, can be found with any day’s “Question Period” for, say, anywhere in the past forty years.)

The incessant, endless screaming that passes these days for “debate” is ludicrous in the extreme. Almost every moment is staged, planned for the cameras and scripted by back room “thinkers” looking for a tenth-of-a-point shift in public opinion. Those who actually dare to ask a question — a real question, one where a real answer to that question is expected, and where the question is expressed simply and with respect — are so rare as to almost never appear, for they do not serve their party’s ambition to saturate the media with the “line of the day” by being reasonable. Those who are called to answer a question — a real question, preferably expressed respectably but even if done “on the attack” nevertheless are called to provide an informative answer — in turn almost never appear, for those called to answer are chosen for their willingness to be irresponsible (in the sense of the demands of responsible government certainly, and, often, in the sense of being a decent human being).

Political theatre Parliament may be, but I daresay that almost never in your lifetime have you heard a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary respectfully submit an answer to Parliament as is required of them in our system of governance. This is an observed datum which has ascended, by virtue of statistical probabilities, to the realm of a truth that can be chiselled into stone and placed over the entranceway to a great public building, or on the pedestal of a great public monument, without fear of contradiction.

Indeed, for any rational man or woman seeking to serve their fellow citizens through elected office (or, given that there are Senatorial chairs to be filled from time to time, appointed office), the lintel above the double doors leading to the Green and Red Chambers, respectively, should steal from Dante’s Inferno and quote:

Lasciate ogni sperena voi Ch’entrate
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

Such an entrance would at least have the virtue of something missing from Canadian public life: common-sensical moral honesty.

So let me be absolutely clear, since I already know that I will receive tweets, or Facebook comments, or blog comments, or emails, telling me I’m “for” someone in this:

The BQ, Conservative, Independent, Liberal and NDP MPs are all horrid.

Not one of them deserves anything other than firing at the next election. This isn’t a matter of “my leader better than yours” or “my party better than yours”, because they’re all reprehensible moral reprobates, publicly displaying behaviour that parents discipline two-year-olds over so that they grow up to become at least tolerable people to have around you.

“Ah”, you might say, “but Stephen Harper caused this latest kerfluffle, and Michael Ignatieff (or Jack Layton, or Gilles Duceppe) have no choice but to act as they do.” It is (as a friend of mine notes to take the intersubjective into account when dealing with data) a true fact that Stephen Harper did prorogue Parliament, and not necessarily in an appropriate way. Still, if one child in the sandbox grabs the ball, must the others scream and have a tantrum? I think not when they’re two — and I certainly don’t when they purport not only to be adult, but statesmen!

When Rex Murphy’s piece showed up in my podcast library this morning and I viewed it, I wasn’t astonished at all to find that it merely crystallized something I have felt for a very long time now: the nonsense in the House, in the Senate, and in the political coverage in the media, is utterly irrelevant to my daily life. I don’t miss Question Period — there are no questions asked and answered worthy of my time — and I don’t find any of the pronouncements made by Harper (“let’s all save the world’s women and children”), Ignatieff (“let’s just arbitrarily screw up the Parliamentary system to score cheap points”), etc. worthy of any effort of thought.

  • Harper’s spending money we don’t have? Another bloody politician.
  • Ignatieff’s dealing in the trivial? Another bloody politician.
  • The Opposition parties want more spending? More bloody politicians!
  • The political programs are full of shouting talking heads? Turn it off!.
  • The polls are up/down/sideways? Who cares?.

As a country, we have serious issues that require serious political attention. The serious items are (a not-exhaustive list):

  • Deficits and how public finances are to be restored.
  • What should government do? What should it not do?
  • How will we fix equalization and transfers to the provinces to restore equity?
  • What would the acquis communautaire require in the way of change (an inevitable consequence of our current negotiations with the EU?
  • What, if anything, should be done on the environmental (pollution, ecosystem destruction) — climate change (México 2010 Conference pending) — mobility fronts?
  • What is our immigration policy and why, and how do we make sure immigrants “get on” in Canada?
  • What is the right balance in dealing with terrorism — other nations’ security worries — policing — sentencing — etc.?
  • What should the Federal Government do when provinces snipe at each other, if anything?
  • How do we get to free trade and labour mobility between Canadian provinces and territories?

as opposed to:

  • When did he prorogue and why did he prorogue it?
  • Why hasn’t Canada taken over the Afghan Government’s responsibilities to ensure no prisoner suffers anything, ever?
  • Why aren’t we bringing “our boys” home from Guantanamo or US prisons?
  • Can we have Karlheinz Schreiber back and exile John Gomery instead?
  • Was Chrétien — Martin — Mulroney — etc., a crook/loud-mouthed schook/fool of a Took?

or whatever the “gotcha” of the day is going to be (since dialogue is written and scripted, and Indignation Practice occurs just before Question Period, it can (and often is) invented — again, on all sides of the aisle.

I, for one, am sick to death of a politics and a political régime that can’t govern. This cancer starts in the civil service, with its caution, legendary bucking of intention, refusal to yield to Ministerial control and sloppiness in management and execution. It is aided and abetted by a media consumed with process and horse race outcomes and that expends not one minute of air time on actual investigation, analysis and exposition of issues. It is further aided by the media’s desire for “explosive” programming, and thus the daily holding of “Question Period II” on air, where the participants are chosen for their willingness to play their role as opposed to inform the public. Then there are the MPs and Senators, all bowing their necks and kissing the hem of the robes of their party grandees and the unelected officials in Leaders’ Offices and Party HQ.

As it is, Canada is not worth saving. Yet our problems will compound mightily if it dies or fades out. So we have little choice: we must work to save it.

So again, I say, fire the lot of them!

And keep the firings up — by voting incumbents out — until we get MPs that will be responsible, adult, human custodians of Parliament and tackle this country’s problems the way Parliament was intended: as a venture where, whatever competition there is, co-operation in the interest of the nation and its traditions of governance comes first and overrides sectarian, factional, party interest.

There will only be hope again in the Chambers of Parliament when we, the citizens of Canada, take it back.

This was originally published on 11/01/2009 on my former blog, Worth the Fee to Read It. As the jockeying leading up to a budget in March unfolds, I think these words are as relevant today (now that we’ve racked up a one year deficit of over $56 billion Federally, $24 billion in Ontario and a few billion in Toronto … and, on the global scale, all of this is chump change compared to the overspending in other countries.)

Conventional wisdom has it that governments must spend, spend and spend some more to dig the country — and the globe — out of the current downturn. (That having been done, the spending “cannot stop”.)

Conventional wisdom is dead wrong. All of this deficit spending will barely — if at all — make a difference in the near-term, and it will pile up problems not for the long-term, but for the medium-term: years in the middle of the next decade, at best.

A Little Bit Pregnant

First, let me say that I am not a deficit fanatic. I would like my government(s) to run balanced budgets: budgets that they expect to come in close to break even. Perhaps they have a good year and tax receipts are higher than expected? Then we have a surplus. Perhaps it was a tough year and receipts were lower? Then we have a slight deficit: exactly the same as the commissioned sales person or self-employed contractor who draws the same amount month after month for living expenses and could either end up with money left over as savings at year’s end, or has to dip into his savings to balance the books.

So a little red ink, from time to time, doesn’t worry me. In fact, it worries me far less than do massive surpluses because every line item, every department, every program has had contingency funds up the yin-yang. These are a recipe for bad decisions at the end of the fiscal year, otherwise known as utter waste, within the departments — and sloppy handouts, ill-thought-out programs and the like in the hands of politicians.

On the other hand, structural deficits — situations where the budget is planned to be in deficit annually (and where, as in the mess inherited from Trudeau and Turner by Mulroney, the deficit deepens annually as the interest pile up takes over everything) — are an incredibly stupid idea, on the same plane and of about the same moral quality as liar loans being written to create fees knowing they can’t be repaid.

Now, to be even-handed about this, none of our politicians are calling for a return to permanent structural deficit. No, all of them claim that we just have a crisis to solve now: we run up serious amounts of red ink for just a few years, and then we can return to fiscal prudence. So they say. (Already the promises have begun to spend money we don’t have — not to mention the whinges about attempts to cut, anywhere.)

But when was the last time a government program was terminated, its workers fired, its office leases broken, with not one penny more to be spent on that again, ever? I can’t recall one. I can recall occasional shrinkages — rare moments, those — but in general, once a department or Ministry has a mandate, it never gives it up, and it never stops funding it.

For every dollar of “stimulus”, some civil servant handles it. Someone else supervises them. Someone else manages them. Someone else develops policy for the effective use of the money — and they have supervisors, managers, directors, too. Someone else audits them, supports them technically, prepares their briefs to Treasury Board, procures their supplies. All of these have management chains, too. Every one of these increments becomes permanent, because pay grades are based on the number of people — and number of dollars under administration — associated with a job. So every new initiative does two things: it adds to the pile of spending that is “Ottawa”, “Victoria”, etc., never to be removed — and it siphons 20¢ of every dollar spent off the top to pay for itself (on average).

Now do you see why I believe any planned deficit is an almost automatic route to structural deficits? At the risk of offending people, the planned “stimulus” deficit is like getting pregnant. The plan is to abort the pregnancy. Instead everyone delays — there are so many reasons not to act — and the child comes to term.

You can’t be a little bit pregnant. You either are — or you’re not. When it comes to the dangers of structural deficits, “not” — don’t spend, by intention, beyond your means — is the best public policy course.

Deficits Avoid Decisions

Governments that say they’re making the hard decision to forgo all the hard work of sweating down the last structural deficit and to take action “as it’s needed now” miss the point. Choosing to run a deficit is avoiding the decisions that do need to be taken.

How many old programs — all those civil servants and their management trees, chasing ever smaller returns in their program areas — could be outright eliminated to find the funds required for your “stimulus”, if, indeed, it is needed. (That’s a separate question that has as much to do with vote buying as anything else. Another day, perhaps.) Yes, that’s the harder decision, for almost every one of those programs has some advocate in the country who will scream bloody murder if it’s touched in any way.

Nevertheless, MPs and MLAs are elected for the express purpose of making decisions. If you don’t want the job, resign. (Regardless of party, voting your party line likewise is avoiding a decision. Each MP has a personal moral responsibility to decide issues on their merits. The House and Senate need far more Chuck Cadmans and far fewer trained seals.)

It would have been nice if we’d had a cap in place on spending ages ago: something along the lines of “Federal spending is, by law, not to exceed $5,000 per capita”. Budget growth then becomes a function of population growth. Otherwise, to start something new, you have to wind up something old. Perhaps the people who point at Olympic Gold Medals and demand more spending on amateur sport would be upset if the whole Department of Amateur Sport & Fitness (or whatever bureaucratic monicker it is using today) was summarily axed, along with all its spending, because GM and Chrysler need the money. But a cap would have trained our politicians to cut, and to do so regularly. At the moment they don’t have the habit trained. So they reach for deficits. It’s easier.

Why This Deficit Matters More than Previous Ones

There are many opinions out there today about what the future holds, and I’m not going to chew through all of them now. Suffice it to say there are three things on the immediate horizon that make running deficits a bad idea now — as I think you see, I think Trudeau-era deficits were an equal problem, but we had the time to fix that problem, and at the moment it doesn’t look good for the “ability to fix” this one out in the 2010s or 2020s.

You might remember Canada was the only G7 country running surpluses, and the only one retiring its national debt. This — and the price to get there was higher than it needed to be because of so many previous bad decisions (and so many bad ones made in reversing our disastrous structural deficit course) — was a benefit that would have made the 2010s and 2020s truly “easy street” for Canadians relative to other parts of the world. (Having given this up — and we wiped out all the gains of the past fifteen years in one year’s orgy of “stimulus” — we’re going to dig the hole deeper just trying to scrabble our way back up to balance, then live with that hole eating a hole in our pockets for years to come just to undo the damage of 2009.)

The three worries I have for the future are:

Demographics
The demographic bulge of the Baby Boomer generation is coming to “retirement”, and even with them continuing to work that work is likely to be part-time, both for personal reasons and as employers seek to reduce labour costs and revitalise their workforces. This reduces income tax receipts and employment tax receipts at the same time as pension demands increase. In other words, this was why we were working so hard to reduce the debt, knowing we were about to have a hole knocked permanently in government revenues. (Everyone who will work and pay taxes in Canada in the next twenty years is already alive, and we are singularly inept at maximising the return on our investment in immigration, aka “doctors and engineers driving cabs for a minimal income”.)

Liveable Infrastructure
This refers to the complex effects of energy costs on transportation, delivery, work and schooling, effectiveness of the housing stock, etc. Our current city-sprawl and choice to have goods — such as food — shipped thousands of kilometres so that we can enjoy the same diet year round is a infrastructure for living that probably is unsustainable into the future. That, in turn, implies spending a great deal of money to retrofit our human environment to deal with issues of affordability and cost, for it would be even more expensive to abandon what we have and build anew. What will be needed isn’t altogether clear yet, nor is how much of this must be done privately, what must be public:private in partnership, and where government intervention might be helpful. That it will need doing, though, is at the same level of clarity as a long-range winter forecast for cold and snow just about everywhere in Canada.

Unsustainable Program Transitions
This last refers to the entitlement programs already in effect in Canada — some federal, some provincial — that are slowly but surely eating us out of house and home. The public medical system in Canada, for instance, is in decay in most provinces, while simultaneously chewing through one dollar in two of the provincial budget (or more). Eventually the combination of decay, delisting of procedures and reductions in service capability that have been the norm ever since the provinces restricted medical school enrolment coupled with Paul Martin’s balancing of the Federal budget by slashing transfers to the provinces in the 1990s will bring the system teetering to the point of collapse. Throwing more money at these systems is probably not the answer; figuring out how to restructure the entire system is — but the longer we wait to tackle these hard questions, the fewer options we’ll have and the more likely we’ll toss money we don’t have at the time at the problem. After all, the auto makers wouldn’t have “needed” a handout now if they’d tackled their problems a decade ago.

All three of these argue that at some point in the next few years the Government’s freedom of manoeuvre will be deeply curtailed. Balanced budgets en route to that point would ensure we continued to hold the line on interest expenditures (which, as with our own personal budgets — a $10.00 pizza bought on a credit card at 24% interest and paid off by minimum payments turns into an over $220.00 pizza by the time it is discharged — is a pure waste of money). Practice at real decision making rather than sloughing the problem off into deficit spending would prepare the way for much harder decisions to come.

Oh, and I haven’t yet noted that the next years are likely not to be growth years. Indeed, except for the twentieth century, the norm in economic life is a balance of inflationary (growth) and deflationary (consolidation) years. After a sixty year continuous inflation, we should reasonably expect at least a decade-long deflationary consolidation. Instead, central bankers and politicians around the world think just slopping cash around in as many forms as possible will allow us to escape back to the abnormal conditions from 1945 to 2008. Bad thinking, at least from this student of economic history’s point of view.

So there you have it. These are the arguments for not going into deficit. Such a move robs our future, impoverishes our children, and probably is like standing, in the grand tradition of Canute, in the way of the tide. But there are few moral thinkers in Parliament today. Instead, I expect the calculation of votes, the bribing of we citizens with our own money, the unrighteous indignation of most days in the Commons and the subordination of the strategic to the tactical to continue.

Remember all of this as you whinge. You are robbing your children and your grandchildren of their future. How you will face them depends a lot on whether you’re willing to make hard decisions now — and insist your MP and MLA do the same.

In a number of comments attached to the various posts thus far on this blog, issues of designing for a sustainable, or green, future have been raised. Today I shall try and dissect what this might mean if we were to start and apply this, not in “new towns” or “new neighbourhoods”, but in the fabric that already exists on the ground.

Principle #1: Deal in Health

A sustainable community begins life by being one that is built around the prospects for health for its residents. This begins, as far as I’m concerned, by removing the emphasis on the automobile. Walking is the foundation of good health.

10,000 steps/day is a maintenance level required, generally, to avoid many of the degenerative diseases, such as Type II Diabetes, Heart Disease, High “bad” Cholesterol, etc. Such is quite within reach when we remember that movement around the office or school, walking to and from lunch, etc. is part of this base.

Steps add up, however, when one walks to/from transit, or around one’s neighbourhood. A standard Manhattan city block, for instance, represents roughly 180 steps (with a step based on “from one foot, to the other foot, back to the first foot (L-R-L or R-L-R)” at around 1.5 m/5 ft each) in the long direction, and 52 steps in the shorter direction (blocks traditionally are rectangles). For a person living four “long” blocks from effective transit service — less than 10 minutes between pickups in either direction, and with an average speed of 25 km/h or better between stops including time spent at the stops — and two “long” blocks to a place of work/schooling at the other end of a daily journey, this basic commute introduces over 2,150 steps/day. Add another 2,000-3,000/day in movement around the office and/or to/from lunch. In other words, neighbourhood amenities need only create rational behaviour leading to another 5,000-6,000 steps to be designed for healthy living.

What, in this term, is “rational”? Consider the length of time it takes to get in a car, move it from its parking space, move it to the destination, find and secure parking at that end: a distance of 400 m, somewhere between three and four blocks, represents 12±2 minutes on foot. Oddly enough, this also represents a typical time of 12±2 minutes behind the wheel, in a neighbourhood with a high street for shopping. Beyond this time frame, the car begins to be “competitive” with the foot traveller, at least on paper.

(I picked these as this represents a pair of journeys I know well, from living in Vancouver: one block off Dunbar St. on W. 27th Ave., to a parking lot stretching back one “short” block at Dunbar St. and W. 30th Ave., also known as “from (then) home to Stong’s Market”. At my stride, this was typically only 10 minutes, including “red light” delays to cross Dunbar St., so 12±2 minutes is certainly favourable to people less mobile than a mid-fifties me. At the same time, traffic levels on the side streets made the delays in coming out of an on-street parking space roughly equivalent to having left a laneway garage.)

That 400 m each way represents another 560±30 steps, depending on my efficiency in the store.

We lived in a neighbourhood in The Hague (The Netherlands) where every 4 blocks or so there was a short shopping strip: a small grocery plus one or two specialty stores (e.g. bakery, deli, barber, dry cleaner, etc.). These neighbourhoods were built on the principles outlined here. 90% of all errands could be handled with a trip to no more than two of these strips. As this pattern was repeated regularly, a round trip of 800-1,000 m was sufficient to meet — on foot — almost all needs. Manhattan is laid out similarly. By regular personal experience, I can also say that in The Hague, Manhattan and in Vancouver, making two or three such trips a day (to handle all packages by hand while not overloading myself as a walker) fit comfortably within the same “time window” used for these errands while living in suburbs (Trumbull, CT and Coquitlam, BC), where using a car to handle the distances involved thanks to the zoning policies barring the mixing of retail and residences was required.

(Living now in Toronto, I live in a similar pattern: 700 m to the subway on foot, 350 m from the subway to the office, with a “90% of needs” shopping district accessible in an 1,000 m trip from a different subway station to home. In other words, in terms of paces and timing (even the shopping return after work fits into 15 mins.) I effectively live in a walking-scale community.)

Neighbourhoods can be constructed around these principles, using the existing street grid and fabric, simply by allowing mixed-use zoning. The construction of 3-4 storey blocks of flats with street-level retail along transit corridors provided needed density to promote frequent service; the retail, in turn, turns at least three long blocks on each side of the transit/retail street into “walking zone” residences. Ensuring the side streets are kept narrow helps hold down auto speeds, making the neighbourhood favourable to walking. On-street (not store lots!: storefronts should be built out to the sidewalks) parking insulates walkers from the cars on the street. (Merchants detest this at first, until they discover that their neighbours are their customers, and still coming: this is the Manhattan experience, where most stores also pickup if appropriate, and generally deliver to make walking and shopping a pleasant experience.)

What about bicycles, you might say? Keep them on the road. Sidewalks are for pedestrians, especially ones loaded with bags. Install, by all means, bicycle locking loops at the sidewalk’s edge.

Service vehicles and delivery vans should be relegated to the service lanes, or to the early morning hours if store front loading zones are to be in use.

Finally, the use of through street blocks — one way streets are not advised, as making a street one way encourages speeding! — periodically converts a neighbourhood full of cross streets into a neighbourhood full of “T”-junctions. These promote slower speeds.

Such simple techniques take us a long way to a more sustainable neighbourhood and to healthier people, at low cost. As you’ve seen, we haven’t yet reached (in this thought experiment) a 10,000 pace/day society. One would hope such a rich set of neighbourhoods would provide further reasons to walk: trips to small theatres, restaurants and the like, trips to the library or community centre, trips to walk the dog in the park. (This, too, is the experience of Manhattan, parts of Toronto and Vancouver, The Hague and other European centres.) It is generally not necessary to actually bar cars: simply making it more sensible to not use the car is enough. The important three points, though are:

  • Stop engineering streets for speedy auto traffic, and instead engineer them for walkers, bicycles and transit, with the residual space “left” for cars and trucks. Walkable streets are treed (for shade), have room for outdoor tables (for the pleasure of being there), interesting shops (a function of the density of stores), reasons to go to the neighbourhood (the special amenities that require “larger catchment areas” to make them viable) and have enough people living in them to make transit facilities financially viable on an operating basis.
  • Mixed-use zoning is essential: the more opportunities to walk (or cycle a short distance) to work, to shop, etc. the better. This implies the need to insert such facilities, as current single-use zoning systems create long “dead zones” where cars are essential (consider any typical suburb of your choice).
  • While focal points (e.g. “T”-junctions) are pleasing places to be and slow traffic, they are not currently “engineered in”. These must be created out of the existing fabric. Keep traffic two-way, but limit the number of lanes (e.g. today’s “six lane” road [four for traffic, two of parking] becomes a pair of parking lanes, a pair of bicycle/transit lanes and a pair of lanes for cars and trucks).

Rather than dream of carbon taxes, tax credits, incentives and regulations, or of massive urban re-engineering schemes, this is a model we know works, know how to move to, and can do inexpensively. What, pray tell, is holding us back?

There are a fair number of people I know who think social networks of various types are going to help us out with the challenges we face in the future. While I see their point — and am myself a participant in a number of these networks — I’m not quite as definitive.

Indeed, there are moments when I think these have been a bad move, not progress in any way, but a true regress.

My reason for saying this is that I look at the ethics surrounding social network members. Increasingly, people seem to accept “friendship” on a social network (a connection, if you will) not because this is someone they want to connect to as a person, but simply because the connection may be useful some day.

If this isn’t treating the other person as an object, I’m having trouble figuring out what is.

I’ve had people insist, for instance, on LinkedIn and Naymz, first that I connect with them and second that I write a “recommendation” of them. But the person, in this case, is not a former colleague, subordinate, superior or client. They’re someone who was at a company I was at, but years later, and half-way around the planet to boot. To say I don’t know them! is an understatement. Yet to refuse them is to get a follow-up message demanding that I “do them this favour”, typically from someone else who can act as a bridge to spread a little guilt about my not doing it. LinkedIn also comes with groups, messages requesting answers to questions and the like. If you’re (as I have been) paid for problem solving, these represent not only a time sink, but (and far more important) the expectation that I’ll “work for nothing” because the interrogator “has a need”.

Then there’s the people who’ve, on Twitter, decided to follow me for no better reason than to sell to me, or to retweet what I post along with their own message (that I don’t endorse). I spend more time these days blocking people like this than I do reading what those people I do know and care about (personally or professionally) put up online.

Facebook, of course, allows people who barely know you exist to plague you with requests to join causes (theirs, not mine), play games (their kind, not mine), etc. I tend to be a little more tolerant of this here, since I’m aware that this was Facebook’s original purpose — and that I, too, play group games on Facebook and thus have indicated, to my fellow players, some level of interest.

Facebook’s own incessant advertising sponsoring messages I don’t want to see (and can’t make go away, as I can “suggestions” from friends or even from Facebook itself — the “you haven’t talked to Jane Doe lately, send her a message” type) based on Facebook’s analysis of “what might interest me” indicates a different kind of plague, but then the service is free and must be paid for somehow. I may not understand why I get advertising for Montréal facilities (I haven’t been in Montréal in over a decade) and services, but then, there’s no click-through there, either. It can be lived with.

There has never been a communications mechanism that isn’t used in ways that betray respect for the individual person, or who treat the person as an object for manipulation rather than as another human being with their own subjective states. “Watson, come here, I need you” turned into dinner hour telemarketing calls bypassing the “do not call” registry because they come from organizations I already do business with claiming an implicit “prior approval to receive the call”. (That they do this after barraging me with the multiple question routine required by the Protection of Electronic Documents and Personal Information laws is utterly and completely ridiculous — about as ridiculous as all other attempts to stem the flow of communication have been.)

What is truly annoying, however, is that if I expend all the on-going effort to police these various channels and sites, weeding out the unwanted communiqués and requests to join, and the like, is that too many people who ought to pass muster as the types of connections, or “friends”, these services are created for, such as people you once worked with, people who were once clients, etc., are themselves “posing” in public rather than being themselves. (Or, perhaps, this really is who they became, in which case breaking the connection beckons!)

If social networks are ever to do what their proponents claim they can do to change our world, we’re going to have to seriously re-form (in the sense of reshaping the moral fibre of) their users.

The high quality of comments appearing on this blog — and I include all the ones I personally didn’t agree with when I say this — is indicative of what a social network promises, but doesn’t deliver. I know my interlocutors here don’t share all my moral convictions or ethical stances. They do remember that behind the words lies a person (as I try to, too, when reading their words). It makes for learning and growth potential to do so.

A few people doing that is far more powerful, in the long run, than any number of hundreds of thousands who join an electronic “fan page” or “group”, just as a well-thought out recommendation with a specific situation spoken of is far more helpful than having hundreds of the things collected that sum up to “arm twisted: ‘great’ guy!”.

Earlier in this post, I used the phrase “if social networks are ever to do …”, but, of course, software does nothing without the humans who put it to work. So, if social networks are ever to live up to their proponents’ vision of what they could accomplish in changing the world, it is up to each of us to use them with careful attention to appropriate ethical behaviour.