Monthly Archives: February 2012

Jonathan Kay and Toronto Life: What’s the point?

I have no idea what point Jonathan Kay and the editors of Toronto Life were trying to make with their “almost rich” feature.

The package takes a look at what it’s like to live as a member of the one per cent—meaning an income of around $196,000—and combines a short essay by Kay with profiles of five such households. Kay’s essay especially has drawn heated criticism online, the most notable example being a masterful Gawker rant. The author of that post, Hamilton Nolan, seems to believe Kay’s main intent was to argue that those who make $196,000 a year aren’t really that rich, because the cost of living in Toronto is so high.

And Kay does make some arguments to that effect. He writes that “for many Torontonians, that $10,400 [the after-tax, monthly income of someone making $196,000 a year] disappears fast.” By way of example, he points out that living in a $1.5 million house, spending $1000 on a stroller, renovating a kitchen to add granite counters and “spending a fortune on artisanal cheeses” to host a “casual” weekend gathering is really expensive. (“No shit,” replies Nolan.)

But the profiles that follow, like Kay’s examples, don’t support this argument at all. Instead we’re introduced to one man who spends $800 a month on wine in addition to his $1,000 a month on clothes. We meet a retired couple who buy a new Mercedes every three years using cash. One family of four owns a Toronto house, a cottage and two cars including a BMW while still managing to put away $20,000 a year in savings and go on an annual $7,000 vacation to an all-inclusive resort. Another family’s reported monthly expenses only came to $5,780, presumably leaving them with a $4,000 a month surplus.

Most people would agree those sound like pretty rich lifestyles, as Nolan ruthlessly and convincingly asserts, so if the point of this feature is to argue that $196,000 isn’t that rich, these are very strange examples to hold up.

But then, even Kay doesn’t argue that point in his subsequent reply to Nolan. The “admittedly witty” take down, Kay says, “doesn’t change the fact that the growing debt phenomenon among the upper classes I describe is very real.”

Ok, so now we’re talking about debt, I guess. And in Kay’s original essay we can find examples of concern about debt: “the average GTA household is now carrying almost $40,000 in debt on top of a mortgage,” he says, and “the ratio of the average single-family Toronto home price to the income of its occupants” has risen to 5.5 from its historical average of 3.5. But the key word in both of those statistics is, of course, average. These claims that debt is a problem in general for an average household then get juxtaposed with the family putting away $20,000 a year in savings.

So I don’t see how “the growing debt phenomenon among the upper classes” can be the point either. Other than that, I’m at a loss. Is his thesis that “the city [has become] more and more the exclusive domain of the One Per Cent?” That “the era of the ‘mixed’ neighbourhood… is falling away?” That “urban life is unaffordable unless both partners are bringing in serious money?” That previous generations “did not waste a single moment worrying about replacing [their] laminate kitchen counters?”

I don’t know. And I suspect, based on the wounded “can’t we just move on from this” tone of his Nolan reply (he quotes Homer Simpson, “I like it better when they’re making fun of people who aren’t me”), Kay might not know either. Toronto Life has a knack for getting writers to produce bewildering content that’s out of character and lacking in focus. I wonder what kind of direction he was given, and how much he knew about how the family interviews (conducted by Maggie Gilmour and Jasmine Budak) would be framed.

What I do know is that the whole thing is a missed opportunity. Lifestyle inflation is a real thing, and would have made for an interesting exploration in a Toronto context. The increasing cost of housing and debt are serious problems as well, though certainly not limited to the one per cent. And the fact that pretty much everyone seems to think of themselves as “average” continues to be fascinating. It would be great if another publication did a reboot of the Toronto Life feature, this time using a more economically diverse collection of households and exploring the actual cost of living most Torontonians encounter. Maybe someone will yet take that on.

Maybe we should have let Ford win

As the 2014 Toronto municipal election campaign wound down to a close, opponents of the mayor wondered what went wrong. Once again they had underestimated Rob Ford, the big guy from Etobicoke, and failed to grasp the appeal of his message. The simplistic sloganeering strategy of 2010—“Respect for taxpayers! Stop the gravy train!”—had been iterated upon but not fundamentally changed. In 2014 it was all “Stay the course! Don’t change your horse!

A campaign based on incumbency was both predictable and predicted. What Ford’s opponents also should have predicted, but didn’t, was the degree to which he would use his record to his favour rather than run from it like the embarrassment they assumed it was. Beginning in late 2011 and escalating in 2012 and 2013, the mayor had lost many key council votes and failed to follow through on his election commitments. It seemed at the time that this was the momentum progressives needed to take the city back.

But throughout the 2014 campaign Ford and his supporters repeated the mantra that they needed to “finish the job” they’d been blocked from doing by a “left-wing, NDP, union-friendly council.” If not for an elitist, out-of-touch council, Toronto would be full of subways by now. Our taxes would be lower. Our debt would be wiped out. The Weapons of Mass Gravy would have been found and eliminated.

Instead, Ford’s team had persuasively argued, Toronto was held back because City Hall was still too full of Millerites. Now, Torontonians were looking set not just to reelect the mayor, but also—tired of the embarrassing and paralyzing in-fighting of the past four years—to send a new slate of like-minded councillors to the clamshell with him.

The most dangerous thing about Rob Ford has never been his political ideology or his vision for Toronto. The most dangerous thing about him is his extraordinary incompetence. If Ford could blanket Toronto with a comprehensive network of funded subways, if he could find efficiencies and reduce spending without harming Toronto’s most vulnerable, if he could personally return every phone call and be a champion for every resident, who would stand in his way? The biggest problem with Ford’s first term was not his choice of objectives, it was that he was completely incapable of achieving them.

If council hadn’t worked against him—or, more definitively, if they’d done what they could to try to support him and achieve his vision—he’d be exposed. There would be no Sheppard subway in the works for 2015 as promised, or maybe at all. Toronto would be spending an extra $2 billion to bury an LRT where it doesn’t need to be buried, serving as a big flashing “hey isn’t this the kind of gravy we thought we were voting against” sign. Above all, Toronto would be a meaner, poorer place, with less child care, social services, community programs, recreational activities, environmental protection and potential for economic development. And he’d have no one to blame but himself.

It’s a horrible thing to contemplate, though. Once implemented, Ford’s plans not only become exposed as wrongheaded or completely unworkable, they also become exposed as genuinely harmful to real people. How could any reasonable councillor of good conscience knowingly vote in a way that would negativity affect so many of their constituents and the city itself, just to make a political point in aid of positioning for a future campaign?

No, fighting back was the only thing they could have done. Still, as October 27th, 2014 drew ever more near and the prospect of another four years of Ford became more and more likely, this time with a more supportive council, it was an inescapable thought. Maybe we’d be better off if we had allowed him to win. And, by doing so, allowed him to fail.