Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Myths vs. Reality in the Transit Debate..

with 3 comments

“I heard it so often, it must be true.”

I went to this City Conversation at SFU yesterday lunchtime. The presenters were Daphne Branham and Gordon Price. I also put together a Storify.

Daphne wrote a very well considered opinion piece on this topic in Vancouver Sun

DB

She wants to be a citizen rather than a taxpayer, though she also noted when politicians use that term it is always qualified “ordinary citizen”. The No side has been able to frame the debate, and they have done as the end game of the movement that began with Reagan and Thatcher, and has been continuously sustained rhetoric of the right. Don’t trust government to spend your money wisely, it will not be used well. At the same time there has been a decline in voting, and a growing gap between rich and poor. It lead to the HST referendum, which was called by a citizens’ initiative and rejected merging provincial sales tax with the federal GST.   The elites who for a long time have been appealing to our self interest to cut taxes and let the public sector assets and services erode. This is apparent not just in transportation but schools and universities, ferries, hospitals. Citizens are now being asked to vote in a plebiscite to increase sales tax to pay for transit expansion and other transportation improvements but it is too late. This is now a watershed moment. It is time for a change. We must take back the word citizen and to do that we need to vote.

Gordon Price agreed but said he was here to add context, and set the plebiscite within a larger frame. He has been reading Gutstein’s “Harperism”. The rise of neoliberalism is not due to a conspiracy. It started with a very small number of people – a “thought collective in the marketplace of ideas” – and that phrase in itself is an indicator of their success. Their views have become so accepted that we are like fish trying to describe the ocean. Frederick Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” was written to change the climate of ideas at a time when Keynesianism and planning were widely accepted as economic strategies. The political term “liberal” has now become meaningless, but “neo-liberal” is defined by its program of a balanced budget, free trade, and tax cuts. In the 1980’s politicians could talk of “starving the beast” – denying funds to government so that its power would be diminished. The torch has been picked up by Grover Norquist and Milton Friedman. A network of funders has been established for “think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation and the Fraser Institute – there are now over a thousand of these “dealerships in secondhand ideas” who produce things like the Economic Freedom Index and the TTI Congestion Index, and fund transit critics like Wendell Cox.

While the CTF may not publish its sources of funds if you Google its board members you will find people who also sit on the boards of these same think tanks and foundations. They share board members with the Canadian Constitution Foundation, World Taxpayers, Canadian Labour Watch. All share the same program aims: to reduce the size of government and persuade people to vote against government programs. He predicted that Translink will become “collateral damage” if No wins and that will lead to privatization. The point of the plebiscite is to deny government access to taxes. At the same time as it was launched, the BC budget enacted the sunset clause on the two year old tax increase on the richest 2% of the BC population. A tax rebate of about the same order as the funds sought by the sales tax increase ~$250m.

I was the first commenter, mainly because Daphne Bramham had not mentioned HandyDART in her opening presentation. I had actually come armed with facts and figures – as I thought that we were going to be talking about alleged waste at Translink.

“Is Translink a bloated, inefficient and wasteful public agency providing terrible public transit? Probably no. But facts don’t matter, emotions do. “

Well I tried an emotional appeal for HandyDART users. I am not sure it persuaded anyone.

The next speaker said that the problem with the Mayor’s plan is that it did not recognize how rapidly the world is changing due to new technologies which will make it possible for more people to live and work in the same place. 3D printers are changing the way that we will be acquiring things in the future. If there is less need to travel, or to transport goods, why are we spending more money on increasing mobility?

Gordon Price said “You are not going to get a vote about that.” A vote for NO is a vote for the default.

“Aren’t we here to talk about transportation?”

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 10.28.57 AMThis was followed by a gentleman who stated that he was “an irritated soul”. He spoke of an extractive industry whose agenda feeds a broken system. “I am not seeing my interests served: my needs are not being met.”

Daphne Bramham said “I don’t know how to vote. We should not have a plebiscite at all” [APPLAUSE]

Gordon Price: It is now the turn of local government to have the neo-liberal cap forced on it. “No” means NO.  Government must live within its means which must be no more than 30% of the economy.

Responding to the point about technology change – which is inevitable and irresistible – the next speaker preferred to move into that future with better transportation options. Transit that is attractive and affordable is a political question. If the NO campaign succeeds we move into a future dominated by cars and trucks.

At this point in my notes I have “GP talks too much. There is not enough time for a conversation as he challenges most speakers.” Afterwards I canvassed the point of view of those around me and they all agreed.

Daphne Branham pointed to the new tenants of the Pacific Centre building (that used to be Sears). These include employers like Sony who need to be at the centre of the transit service.

It is a fundamentally flawed process, but it is difficult to buy into the doomsday scenario. The Yes vote is endorsing what? The No vote is at least saying “I’m not playing this game”. All aspects of infrastructure have declined: will we be asked to vote on them too if this works?

There is a general level of apathy on the part of the public  – and there will be a City Conversation on that topic soon

If there were a 100% No vote it would be much clearer as a rejection of the process. The Mayors have done everything the province asked for.

Daphne Bramham spoke about a charity she works with which gets constant requests for bus tickets

Gordon Price – the base plan is funded. But there is nothing for growth. That means as more people arrive the level of service per capita will decline. By 2020 we will be back to 2003 levels of service.

Translink is run well when compared to other North American systems

DB People can no longer afford the house they want. The anger is real: they want to say No because over everything else they feel they have no control. The plebiscite has unleashed a basketful of resentments.

GP If this works, it will be used again. “Kill the green dragon in its own den. Get ready to fight the freeway battle 2.0”

People are mad for legitimate reasons but at the wrong things

Landlords cannot rent the space they have in office parks because employers need to be where transit it. Translink is like democracy. It’s terrible –  just that everything else is worse.

REACTION

It seems to me that there must have been more from participants, but at this conversation there was not a lot of listening. I had expected to need my notes on how well Translink is operating its transit system – since the waste is located elsewhere. I think too that what needed to be said is that the referendum was designed to be lost from the start. Christy Clark was badly burned by the HST decision. But she is also well aware that when transit funding initiatives have succeeded in the US (nowhere else in the world uses them) they have had much longer campaigns when they suceeded. She has been determined to push this through as fast as possible. At the same time she has launched a Moving BC plan which does not require any approval process – and that is mostly about highway expansions across the province.

The other thing that did not get said is that the neoliberal policy nostrums do not work. They have failed miserably everywhere – even on their own terms. There was much less economic growth, not more. Free Trade was good for corporations looking to cut costs and avoid regulations that protected workers – and the environment. It was terrible for everyone else except the few who have been stuffing their increasing wealth into tax havens. Revenues did not increase when taxes were cut. Wealth did not trickle down. Market forces do not protect the environment nor do they ensure good quality products that meet consumers needs. We are being buried in our own waste, poisoned by our own activities, denied access to everything of value that does not have a price. Privatisation did not make any enterprise more efficient or successful. It has produced worse service at higher cost. Employers were forced by law to stop employing children. They were required to provide safe workplaces. Their activities were monitored – and they were required by law to clean up the mess they made. Deregulation has increased worker exploitation, reduced human health and happiness, damaged the environment to the point where not just human life on earth is threatened but all life forms. Well maybe not water bears, you can’t seem to kill those little buggers.

The right wing “think tanks” do not think at all. They recycle damaged ideas, broken promises, failed experiments. They cheat and they lie. They do not let their “research” be subject to peer review – and when it is a whole raft of legitimate objections are exposed. Faulty reasoning and flawed data are hallmarks of these bodies.

trickle

They talk about Freedom, but freedom everywhere – and especially in the US and Canada – is under assault as never before.  More people are imprisoned in the United States as a percentage of population than anywhere else. Only in the US can a law enforcement official take your money or other possessions and devote them to his own use – with no fear of legal repercussions. The US constitutional protection from illegal search and seizure has no force now. The government spies on everyone all the time, with almost complete impunity. Anyone involved in that activity who dares speak the truth is subject to cruel and unusual punishment without due process of law. Bill C51 in Canada has a similar intent – based on the fear spread by the Prime Minister playing on the activities of a solitary individual labouring under delusions. Vulnerable people have been lured into heinous crimes by agents provocateurs – police officers  who entrap those who would be incapable of causing any harm without police assistance.

In 1984 George Orwell introduced a new language – doublespeak. There was a Ministry of Plenty concerned only with shortages. A Ministry of Truth concerned only with lies. A Ministry of Love concerned only with hate. We are living now in the world that Orwell described. If you want to understand the output of the right wing “think tanks” just simply reverse everything that they say.

This went into the mail yesterday

Written by Stephen Rees

March 20, 2015 at 11:34 am

3 Responses

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  1. The thing that people seem to be missing is that the government is us. So, a “No” vote is a vote against their own interests. Same goes, of course, for voting for tax cuts in general. Underfunded transit, education, healthcare…All because people have bought the Neo-liberal nonsense.

    Stephen

    March 20, 2015 at 4:17 pm

  2. “DB People can no longer afford the house they want. The anger is real: they want to say No because over everything else they feel they have no control. The plebiscite has unleashed a basketful of resentments.”

    Rob Ford in Toronto played to the same resentments and got himself elected Mayor.

    FRJ

    March 22, 2015 at 2:53 pm


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