The war on the car continues (but how?)

Until recently, residents and visitors to Toronto have been able to observe a strange phenomenon. Right downtown, just behind the provincial legislature (here), there is a very beautiful park (called Queen’s Park). The surprising thing about this park was that, on a typical weekday during the summer, even during lunch hour, you could walk through this park and find practically nobody in it – no students from the University of Toronto, despite the fact that it is almost part of the campus, and no workers from the nearby government buildings eating lunch.

There was a simple reason for this. It all came down to urban planning – in this case, bad urban planning. Until recently, Queen’s Park was a typical example of what I tend to think of as “1960’s urban planning” — the time before people really figured out how cars work (or the way that cars affect the dynamic of pedestrian flow).… Continue reading

How do we feel about a national daycare program?

Those who use simple heuristics to make up their minds about policy questions (e.g. “government good, markets bad”) will undoubtedly already know how they feel about the federal NDP’s recent announcement of a bold new plan for a national daycare system. The headline feature of the system is that it will be subsidized, so that the cost to parents should come in at about $15 per day.

There has of course been a sense of welcome relief that the NDP has stopped doing small-bore, pseudo-populist politicking, and is actually coming forward with a genuine proposal to expand the Canadian welfare state, moving it away from the American toward the Scandinavian model. But if you look at the issue from first principles, or from a social justice perspective, public involvement in the daycare sector is not an easy issue to assess. In this respect, it is not like the other two “big fish” out there in the policy space – carbon pricing and national pharmacare – which are no-brainers by comparison.… Continue reading

Waldron, Sunstein, and nudge paternalism

It is not my policy to comment on articles published in the New York Review of Books, but Jeremy Waldron had a piece a little while back – a discussion of Cass Sunstein’s book, Why Nudge? – that I feel impelled to respond to. That’s because the view Waldron puts forward, in criticizing Sunstein, is a precise articulation of exactly the view that I think we need to be getting away from. One of the major objectives of my own recent book, Enlightenment 2.0, was to explain why we need to stop thinking this way. (That’s actually the reason for the “2.0” in the book title. What Waldron is urging upon us is what I like to think of as the “Enlightenment 1.0” position.) And Sunstein’s response, in the most recent issue, is too tepid by far.

Sunstein, it may be recalled, is a proponent of “nudge” paternalism, based on the observation that the way choices are presented to people, although seemingly neutral from the standpoint of economic rationality, often actually favour one option over some other.… Continue reading

Doug Ford has a policy idea, and it’s a bad one

For those who haven’t been following these things, our current Toronto mayor Rob Ford has dropped his bid for re-election and his brother Doug has taken over for him. How much of a difference this makes remains to be seen. One might be tempted to say that there’s no real difference between the two, just six of one, a half-dozen of the other. That’s not entirely accurate, it’s more like schlemiel, schlemazel.

Anyhow, Doug Ford (aka “schlemiel”) has been sticking fairly closely to the “post-truth” playbook, essentially saying whatever sounds best, in a way that shows total disregard for the norm of truth. Yesterday though he announced a genuine policy commitment, which is to reduce Toronto’s land transfer tax by 15% per year for 4 years. Reducing this tax is something that his brother Rob (aka “schlemazel”) campaigned on four years ago, and failed to gather enough support on council to implement.… Continue reading

Why you have no right to bear arms

The leaves are starting to change colour, the morning air is becoming crisp. When fall arrives, a man’s thoughts naturally turn toward… hunting. Myself, being of a wonkier frame of mind, I tend to think less about hunting and more about gun control.

Unlike Americans, we Canadians are not burdened by the straightjacket of a centuries-old constitution, and so there is no entrenched right of gun ownership in our society. Furthermore, neither politicians nor the courts have seen fit to create one. Indeed, the Supreme Court Reference re Firearms Act was a pretty unambiguous smack-down to any sort of “rights” talk. The current federal government is about as gun-friendly as any we are ever likely to see.

Some people, however, seem to have missed the memo (he says, casting his eyes westward). For those who did miss it, I want to explain in simple terms why you do not have, and ought not have, any “right” to own a gun.… Continue reading

The hard truth about hard power

I have a long form piece in the Ottawa Citizen, about the tendency certain people have to overestimate the effectiveness of physical force, when it comes to achieving social order. It starts with a little conversation:

(For purists, let me just acknowledge that this scene is not in the book, and there’s good reason for that, since Baelish’s end of the conversation is out of character.)

In any case, the point is not to discuss Game of Thrones, but to provide me with an opportunity to revisit some of the amazingly foolish things that were said in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and how they reveal real misunderstanding of some basic facts about how social order is maintained.

 … Continue reading

Those ubiquitous libertarians

Paul Krugman asks a question about the influence of the Koch Brothers in academia. It’s something that I’ve been wondering about as well. After all, given how incredibly expensive American politics has become, investing in academia is ridiculously cheap. I know from experience that philosophers will fall over themselves trying to get donations in the $50,000 range, which is of course peanuts by the standards of political donations.

Anyhow, I got to thinking about this earlier in the year, when I had an “I’m so naive” moment of kicking myself. I was invited to give a talk at an American university, in a series of lectures aimed at engaging both academics and the general public. When I got the list of speakers that they had planned, I was surprised to see that more than half were libertarians. When I was there giving the talk, I casually asked someone, “What’s up with all the libertarians?” “Oh,” I was told, “we got a call from the Koch Foundation.… Continue reading

How to close down a discussion (before it starts)

I must say, I had been looking forward to the release of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything. Not so much because I expect to agree with that much of it – if she hasn’t changed her mind about anything since her article in The Nation a while back, then I know that I disagree with much of what she has to say on the topic of climate change. But I’ve been mentally pencilling into my schedule time to read it, and then write something in response to it.

The reason I find it worthwhile to engage with Klein’s work is that the views she articulates are often widely shared on the left, but are usually the sort of thing that you hear people say – like things I hear from my students – but that you don’t often find written down anywhere. So whenever she puts these ideas down on paper, it offers a good opportunity for discussion and debate (and for me, an opportunity to point out what I think is wrong with a lot of conventional wisdom of the left).… Continue reading

It’s that time of year

The goldenrod is blooming. Many people associate this with going back to school. And it is indeed that time of year.


Personally, whenever I see goldenrod I think of Thorstein Veblen. Specifically, The Theory of the Leisure Class, where he makes the following, fantastic observation:

By further habituation to an appreciative perception of the marks of expensiveness in goods, and by habitually identifying beauty with reputability, it comes about that a beautiful article which is not expensive is accounted not beautiful. In this way it has happened, for instance, that some beautiful flowers pass conventionally for offensive weeds; others that can be cultivated with relative ease are accepted and admired by the lower middle class, who can afford no more expensive luxuries of this kind; but these varieties are rejected as vulgar by those people who are better able to pay for expensive flowers and who are educated to a higher schedule of pecuniary beauty in the florist’s products; while still other flowers, of no greater intrinsic beauty than these, are cultivated at great cost and call out much admiration from flower-lovers whose tastes have been matured under the critical guidance of a polite environment.

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