The Big Idea that The Grid DOESN’T WANT YOU TO SEE

I’m honoured to have been included in The Grid’s 34 Big Ideas To Make Toronto Better issue. However, the big idea I originally submitted to them was just TOO CONTROVERSIAL for noted censor David Topping and his consensus media crony Katie Underwood. Either that or it was TOO SCATTERED and UNFOCUSED to fit into the feature they were putting together, so they reasonably helped me adapt it. I can’t be sure either way, though, so I choose to assume they were motivated by corporate censorship, likely dictated by their Torstar overlords.

Anyhoo, here’s what I originally submitted:

The Idea: Go Rogue

Many of the important things Toronto needs to do require provincial approval even though they should, by any reasonable analysis, fall within the domain of the city. We could implement congestion fees in the successful model of London, England in order to get traffic moving and fund much-needed transit expansion. We could introduce Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing, a tried-and-tested way of paying for home energy retrofits through investment bonds. We could require inclusionary zoning for new developments in order to alleviate our massive deficit of affordable housing.

We could do all of that and more with provincial approval that’s currently expected to arrive sometime between too-late and never. It’s time to take a page from the Richard Daley school of municipal governance and do it anyway. Mayor Daley famously bulldozed Chicago’s downtown airport in the dark of night without notifying the state or the FCC as he was legally required to do. (The city was forced to pay a fine, but in the long run is better off.) Nothing I’m proposing for Toronto is nearly as reckless as that action, which stranded planes and disregarded fire department helicopters that used the airport. Either way, Toronto, the sixth largest government in Canada, can no longer wait for the official sanction of a disinterested provincial government to get aggressive on congestion, renovate our inefficient building stock and rapidly build affordable housing.

Rob Ford’s behavior does matter, and it diminishes us all

When Rob Ford was accused of being drunk and belligerent at a Leafs game and asking a stranger if he wanted his wife to “get raped and shot,” he lied and said he wasn’t even at the game. When he was asked by the Toronto Sun if U.S. police had charged him with possession of marijuana, he lied by forcefully and repeatedly denying it. When the CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes made an admittedly-offside attempt to interview him in his driveway, he lied multiple times, saying it was dark out, his daughter was with him, and that the team from the CBC ran at him yelling “we’ve got you Rob Ford, we got you,” none of which is true according to video evidence.

We have not yet seen video evidence of Ford’s encounter with Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale (some security footage is apparently being reviewed UPDATE: Doug Ford says the video will not be released), so for now we’re left only with their two very different versions of events. Ford’s long history of dishonesty, combined with the fact that Dale is an award-winning journalist whose very profession is to document and tell the truth, has lead many to conclude with a reasonable amount of confidence that Dale’s version of events—in which the reporter never left public property nor came close to entering the mayor’s backyard when Ford ran at him, shouting with his fist cocked, and forced him to drop his phone and voice recorder—is the more accurate one. (Add to this that Ford appears to corroborate significant pieces of Dale’s account, but does not provide an explanation for why Dale would yell for help and drop his phone if he didn’t fear for his safety.)

The mayor then waited two hours before contacting a friendly media outlet (I use this phrase confidently, since Newstalk 1010 provides him with a weekly show) to claim that he had caught a Toronto Star reporter trespassing on his property and taking photos of his family. (There is no evidence that’s true, and Ford now admits he never saw Dale come closer than “maybe five meters” from his fence.) That delay, meaning that television cameras didn’t arrive until after dark (no doubt everyone watching the evening news pictured Dale lurking in the backyard after sundown, when in fact he was on public land while it was still light out) is seen by some as a deliberate attempt to distort the truth in a way that undermines the credibility of the Star.

Once Dale’s version of events was published to the Star’s website, even those who believed Dale started to criticize and mock him. Suggesting he had no right to be doing his job (reporting on a story that Ford wants to buy a piece of public land he alternatively says is required either to enhance his home’s security or build a larger play area for his children) on public property in daylight is only upstaged in offensiveness by the pack of people, most of them men and many of them journalists, questioning Dale’s manliness for being frightened when physically threatened and robbed by an agitated man twice his size.

Now, on World Press Freedom day, the mayor is threatening a complete media boycott unless Daniel Dale is fired from his job of reporting on city hall.

There is a temptation to lament that this is what we’re talking about instead of “real issues,” including the “real” story that the mayor is trying to buy a piece of a public park to increase the size of his property. But there’s often more than one issue simultaneously worthy of our attention, and the issue of the mayor’s character is significant and increasingly problematic. How can anyone achieve “journalistic balance” and report on the mayor when a history of blatant and intentional deceit is compounded with threats of physical violence (I am not prepared to define a cocked fist as anything else) towards a reporter?

Years ago, when asked why he didn’t tell the truth about being at the Leafs game, Ford said it was because he was “embarrassed.” He should be deeply embarrassed by last night’s events and his reaction to them as well, but it goes beyond that. We elect leaders to represent the best of us. When Rob Ford charged Daniel Dale, he did so as our mayor. We’re all diminished when this is the kind of leadership we have to look to, and we deserve better.

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.