The City as a Condo

Once upon a time, a condominium was built.

The first residents to purchase units eagerly elected a board. It was the board’s responsibility to plan for longterm capital and infrastructure expenses. They calculated when the roof would need to be replaced and when the parking lot would need likely need to be repaved. They estimated the cost of landscaping, elevator repairs, and planned for some additional security system enhancements. Then, fiscal plan in place, they set the condo fee at a specified level for the first year.

How long before the condo fees would need to increased? Likely the rates will be increased in the second fiscal year. Why? Simply, nothing about the condominium becomes cheaper to maintain in the second year. Parking lots do not become a bargain to repair the longer they are exposed to the elements. Elevators do not cost less to fix as they get older. Utility lines and built infrastructure are not self-repairing. The cheapest year to live in the condominium is the year it was built. Condo fees must inflate with the inflated cost of the building itself: the capital fund to replace the roof in twenty years must raise more money than it costs to replace the roof today.

The condominium board must anticipate this year-by-year increase in operating expenses. By planning for small, longterm, incremental increases of a few percentage points each year, they gradually increase the annual fees to pace with inflation.

Now imagine that the residents elect a condominium board on the promise that they are going to stop raising the condo fees each year. If condo fees are frozen, they argue, more people will want to move in. And if more people move in, their condo fees will cover the shortfall from not raising current fees. More residents, richer residents, everyone wins!

Except that nobody wanted to move into a crumbling, shoddy condominium. And by adding more residents, the wear and tear on the infrastructure only increased instead of magically paying for itself. When new washing machines and dryers had to be installed to handle the greater demand, they were no less susceptible to inflationary maintenance costs than the old ones.

The entropy of bricks and mortar has no respect for one fiscal policy over another.

A city is like a big condominium.

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My Political Campaign Platform

Press conference questions and answers

If elected, how will you address issues relating to the economy, racism, the environment, poverty, corruption, unemployment, immigration, foreign policy, and the deficit?

I don’t know the answer to this question. These issues are far too multifaceted, nuanced, and entangled for me to develop an effective course of action on my own. I would be living a lie if I pretended to have solutions: I do not possess expert, superhuman knowledge about every aspect of society. If elected to office I am duty bound to consult and learn from those who have have devoted themselves to understanding these issues from every possible angle, and even moreso those whose lives have been directly affected by them. And, furthermore, I will seek out the strongest arguments from every opposing side, which means that I will likely never feel absolutely confident about my decisions, even after I have made them.

Hey, that’s not an answer at all. Don’t you need a mandate from the electorate? You need to give us some clues as to what you want to do. How will you vote when policy is introduced to tackle these issues?

You tell me. You are not electing an automaton to vote on every tabled motion for the next four years like a mindless robot. If representative democracy means anything more than just casting a ballot once a year, then you are electing your interface with the government, not a readymade list of prefabricated decisions. If I knew, right now, how I was going to vote on every issue, then you would essentially be electing me on the promise to not think for four years.

Damn, this is frustrating! Ok, let’s try this question instead: do you politically align more with the left or the right?

I am a pragmatist, not a partyist. I care about decisions in light of their consequences, rather than their adherence to arbitrary, make-believe categories of ideology. Therefore, I align with people who do their best to weigh both sides of every argument, and who are brutally and critically accepting of the fact they are easily blinded by their own biases. These people are my ‘party’, regardless of what colours they wear or which side of room they sit on.

So, basically you want us to elect you into office even though you have no answers, make no promises, and claim no affiliation?

Politics is relational. Ultimately, you are not electing a campaign, an ideal, or a platform here — you are electing a person. Campaigns, ideals, and platforms do not sit behind desks or raise their hands to vote, people do. I cannot see the future: I cannot tell you what issues we will face as a community, nor how we will address them when they arise. Right now the question is not, What are we going to do in the next four years? but more importantly, How are we going to make decisions in the next four years? I will do my best to represent my constituency by listening and learning, and then listening and learning over and over again. My intent is to be open to all sides, continually examining new evidence, and always willing to hear counterarguments. If democracy literally implies that the masses have a voice, then we must all keep talking along the way.

You know that successfully elected candidates usually have pithy little slogans that relate to prospective voters, like ‘Stop the gravy train!’, ‘Zero percent tax increases!’, ‘Change’, or ‘Better Together’. Is there a way you could describe your campaign in a way that makes sense to people who like concise and simple goals?

No. Because the issues and challenges that politics must address are not simple problems. Just watch the news: these challenges are more complicated than any single candidate, political party, or even government can solve all by themselves… so the solutions are probably beyond anything a single marketing department can develop!

Do you seriously think anyone will vote for you on this, um, ‘platform’? You do not seem to know what you are doing.

Do you think anyone knows what they are doing? Do you believe that magical, silver-bullet solutions exist? And if so, do you believe that political candidates are the ones who just happen to be walking around with the answers miraculously buried inside their heads? Do you think that candidates running for office are demigods? Do not vote for me because you think I have the answers — vote for me because you trust me, as another human being, to humbly and tenaciously collaborate with you for the next four years as we do our best to forge a way forward.

Without an explicit campaign platform — and without actually saying anything concrete about the issues at hand — it seems impossible to imagine that anyone could trust you enough to vote for you.

Obviously people should only vote for me if they trust me. But I’m not going to stand here and lie, pretending that I have omniscient understanding of the issues or special divination of the future. In fact, if people don’t vote for me, I’ll be quite relieved. The pressure of a term in office seems overwhelming; the scale of the task before us is daunting and exhausting. The truth of the matter is that I am often aggravated by committee work, I loathe public appearances, I could not care less about photo ops, and I’m chronically uncomfortable speaking with the press and media. Oh, and what does shaking hands like a celebrity and swooning over babies for publicity have to do with anything, anyway? Why does all this sound like a celebrity contest? Come to think of it, there are not many aspects of this prospective appointment that I am actually looking forward to. (And besides, after four years of trying my best to listen to all sides, how do you think this will likely end? I will probably be unable to adequately appease any single ‘voting bloc’ enough to be reelected again, which means this whole thing is probably going to land me in a fairly lonely, alienated place, politically speaking.)

This is absolutely ridiculous. Nobody is ever going to vote for you! You don’t sound like a leader at all. We aren’t electing a workshop facilitator in this election, you know.

But is our current model and expectation of political leadership effective? If the status quo of leadership — as manifested by the rhetoric-charged partisanship around us — is our working definition, then I propose that it is high time to reconsider our narrative and mythology of ‘leadership’ itself. Our current expectation of leadership does not appear to be helping us get beyond gridlock anyway, so let’s revisit the very concept. I am happy to run not as a ‘leader’, but as a facilitator.

Well, good luck on your, er, ‘campaign’ of listening and facilitation. What a joke. I’m guessing this will be your last press conference! You’ve promised nothing to the people.

You do, in truth, have one very explicit promise from me: I promise to do my best. That is all I can promise. The question is not, Do all politicians lie? but rather, Can a politician be elected without lying? Can a person run for office without pretending to be something they are not… or have we created an electoral system and governance model that systematically requires us to jettison our integrity in order to play an increasingly irrelevant political game?

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The Witchcraft of Job Creation

When did we collectively come to believe that it is the responsibility of our government to create jobs and spur innovation?

This thought has been stuck in the back of my head for a couple weeks now. It was provoked again on Tuesday when Mike Moffatt posted:

I’d love to have a clip of every poll that claims the government created X thousand jobs. I’d put them all together then underneath have the subtitle ‘Governments don’t create jobs, entrepreneurs do.’ It’d be mind exploding. (via @MikePMoffatt, tweet 1, tweet 2; edited for style and cohesion. See links for original wording.)

Although Moffatt’s original thoughts referred to the political right’s propensity to declare “job creation” as a political victory, it seems to be an increasingly common mantra from all political stripes and colours. Apparently governments see themselves as the genesis, architects, and guardians of… private sector jobs?

Also blurring, it seems, is an ideologically rooted sense of ‘right’ and ‘left’ in political dialogue. Yes, it would appear that rhetorical posturing is as vicious as it has ever been. However, my friend Glen Pearson recently posted an article bemoaning the collective slide to ‘the middle’ — that is to say: appealing to the centrist vote without disrupting the partisan alliances has become a primary political challenge of our time. To gain power, both sides end up diluting core values to find resonance with voters who are sitting on the spectrum gradients of ‘centre’. The result, posits Pearson, is that everyone lands in a wishy-washy middle ground; a place devoid of strong moral, ideological conviction either way. (See Glen Pearson, On Protest and Power, March 25, 2012)

Stir in a globalized and unstable ingredient called ‘economic uncertainty’ and what do you get? Perhaps a federal, provincial, and municipal obsession with job creation? Is the new ‘political centre’ is just an ideologically amoral void which leaves us with nothing but to treat our politicians like pseudo economists?

When political debate dissolves into banter and theorizations about job creation, we should be concerned: the global market is indeed an extremely complex system, but it is literally driven by fickle feelings, a grand swath of personal valuations, and very human motivations. If any government or politician tells you that they can peer into a crystal ball and manipulate this system to magically create jobs in your city, state, or country, you should ask them if witchcraft is actually their profession or just a personal hobby.

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The Technology of the State, and its Dissidents

Vancouver, British Columbia, June 15, 2011; and London, Ontario, March 17, 2012: Two riots in Canadian cities that shocked, enraged, and embarrassed communities. The following investigations into both instances of “civic disturbance” relied heavily on crowd-sourced digital and social media evidence to prosecute the perpetrators. Embedded in the archives of pictures, videos, and screen captures is a blatant message: consciously or not, we are indeed watching — and recording — one another. And we are increasingly happy to submit our mutual surveillance data to the state, at least as long as it used to reprimand hooligans.

The narrative that social media drove the Arab Spring builds our confidence that these digital mediums ultimately exist for some kind of ultimate, democratic good. When we see the same technology used to identify and incriminate delinquent rebel-rousers we are thrilled with its effectiveness. What we fail to see is how those last two sentences potentially stand in ironic contradiction to each other. Lurking behind these interpretations and uses of technology is a very particular social contract in mind — which, incidentally, assumes the majority will always land on the side of justice — and a subsequent moralization of technology as a tool either for/against the will of the state.

This stack of presuppositions deserves careful consideration. The greater likelihood is that information technology presents equal opportunity for some populations to rise against their governments and for some states to prosecute their citizens. There is possibly nothing inherently more liberating than quelling about the technology itself. It simply increases the potential efficiency, if not likelihood, of both activities. The morality of civic action vis-a-vis the state, and vice versa, that must remain the central focus of any debate about the impact of any technology in any society.

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Civics and Citizens

According to Etymology Online, the word engage comes from the Old French en gage, meaning to “make pledge.” The root word has been used for love and war — for engagement in marriage to engaging in battle — and also to “attract the attention of” a person or group (“he was a very engaging speaker”).

What then do we mean by the term civic engagement? I am hearing this phrase countless times this morning at the ChangeCamp event in my city, and it’s apparent that there is no universal working definition. Does citizen engagement mean commitment to the governance of your city? Does it mean getting the attention of decision-makers to influence change? Is it an execution of tactical lobbying? Is it a pledge to your neighborhood and community collectively seek a better way of living? Is civic engagement inherently political or is it grassroots in nature? Or both?

All these questions boil down to what is, I think, the primary question: what does it mean to be a citizen? I’m convinced that citizenship does indeed come in many shapes and sizes: “civic engagement” happens whenever my doing, thinking, and being is contributing to my neighborhood, city, county, province, state, region, country, and planet. Citizenship is my pledge to living and acting responsibly in this social ecosystem; the individuals and institutions that make up my world.

Citizenship is, simply, the opposite of selfishness. And I, for one, need to become a better citizen.

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