The articles on this blog also appear on rabble.ca
Michael is currently running for City Council in Toronto's Ward 6. His election website can be found at electmichaellaxer2014.blogspot.ca

Monday, April 21, 2014

Free transit: Three reasons it is an idea whose time has come

On January 1, 2013, Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, became the largest city in the world to make mass transit free for its residents. While the effects of having done this are, of course, specific to the context of the city itself, it has shown that a major city can do it and that it is has been widely popular with its residents. It has also focused attention on a growing international movement of groups, activists and parties who feel that free mass transit in major urban areas is an important social and environmental goal to be worked towards in the near future.

In a culture such as ours, where cars are very deeply entwined with notions of personal identity and freedom, and where the right has convinced people (falsely) that government can afford to do nothing of any significance, free transit seems at first, no doubt, like utopian nonsense to many. But given the enormous amount government invests in subsidizing the infrastructure and gas that cars rely on, and given the environmental and social equality issues involved, this is not the case at all.

Free transit is an idea whose time has come and there are three truly significant reasons it needs to be front and centre as an ultimate objective in any left municipal agenda in Canada.

1) The environment and fighting car culture

It is impossible to overstate the devastating and ongoing effects that cars and fossil fuels have on the environment. A United Nations report released on March 31, 2014, painted a dire picture of the predicament we have gotten ourselves into globally and without immediate and drastic action it is only going to get worse.

Even setting future climate change aside for a moment, air pollution caused by cars is killing people in very large numbers right now. A University of British Columbia study in October, 2013 showed that car pollution causes the premature deaths of 21,000 Canadians annually; nine times as many as are killed in car accidents.

Writing yesterday in The Guardian, Desmond Tutu went so far as to call for an Apartheid-style boycott of the companies responsible for climate change and of the fossil fuel industry. He directly called for the ending of the massive government subsidies of fossil fuels that occur globally.

In Canada these subsidies to gas and energy consumption amount to $26 billion annually, which means that 4 per cent of all government revenues were spent on them. This is a staggering fact. It also clearly shows that claims that government lacks the money to finance expanded, adequate and free transit in major urban centres are simply not true.

When one factors in possible dedicated revenue streams like tolls, gas taxes or taxes on luxury vehicles, or the possibility of a dedicated income tax increase on people with incomes over a certain level, there is absolutely no reason that free transit is not a quickly achievable goal.

Our governments and parties lack the political will and have prioritized energy consumption, including fossil fuel consumption, as well as catering to the perceived needs of car driving voters, ahead of transit.

Car culture, admittedly, is deeply engrained in Canada. It is also clear that steps have to be taken now to change that. Free transit would play a direct and obvious role in getting people out of cars and onto transit and in changing our collective perceptions of how to get to work, schools, the grocery store and recreation.

2) Social inclusion

Since Tallinn introduced its experiment in free transit one of the most pronounced benefits of the first year has been a large increase in ridership in an outlying neighbourhood with high population density and poverty rates.

This makes sense. Free transit would be an obvious way to incorporate neighbourhoods with high poverty rates or population densities that are detached from the overall economic and cultural life of the city into the fabric of city life as a whole.

Museums, art galleries, cultural or political events, parks and waterfronts and so many other essential parts of the urban experience would be there to visit at no cost in fares. Fares can add up. A family of two parents with three kids in Toronto, for example, wanting to go to its iconic High Park on a weeknight or to the Art Gallery of Ontario (which unlike the park is not free) would pay $16.80 for the round trip by TTC. That is a substantial addition to any outing.

For workers whose incomes are already stretched to the breaking point by substandard and poverty level minimum wages, these kinds of fare levels are directly and demonstrably a contributing factor in social exclusion.

Beyond opening up the city to neighbourhoods excluded from full participation in it, the reverse is also true. It would open up neighbourhoods that few visit to new possibilities to host cultural or artistic events and to become destinations. This has profound potential economic benefits.

This is especially true when free transit is made a central component of transit expansion overall so that not only are fares free, but the routes are there to make the free fares effective and worthwhile.

3) Income inequality and economic justice

Free transit has a real role to play in issues of economic justice and income inequality.

As we have already seen, our government spends vast sums of money to subsidize fossil fuels and car usage. This does not even include the money that must be spent by municipalities and governments on the infrastructure cars require.

These subsidies are made at the expense of those on lower incomes and those living in poverty. Directly. They use government funds that could be utilized by transit and any number of other programs to fund and facilitate a lifestyle choice that is of far greater benefit to the middle class, the upper middle class and the wealthy. In this sense they represent a redistribution of government revenue from those of lower incomes to those of higher ones.

Even the International Monetary Fund noted that "subsidies were expensive for governments, and that, instead of helping consumers, they detracted from increased investment  in infrastructure, education and health care, which would help the poor  more directly."

One way that those on lower incomes and living in poverty can be more directly helped is free transit!

As one Tallinn resident put it, "I live on a tight budget since I don't have too much work right now. I need to save money wherever I can, so I'm very happy with the free public transit scheme. This is a good thing for the common person."

Transit fares, for those who have work, cut into these often substandard, poverty wages themselves in the daily commute to work. Free transit would facilitate the search for better jobs (or a job at all) outside of local neighbourhoods and would allow all of those using public transit to keep more of their income by choosing free public transit as opposed to driving or having to pay daily or monthly fares. It would be especially beneficial for those on fixed incomes or relying on social assistance.

We should not underestimate the impact that this can have on the daily lives of millions of people.

It is also an issue of basic fairness. For many decades urban residents who could not afford to or who chose not to commute by car have been subsidizing those who did. They have been made to pay higher and higher fares on in many cases inadequate and overcrowded transit infrastructure while the priority has been given to cars, even in spite of the environmental repercussions of this. Most Canadian governments and municipalities have shied away from the use of tolls or the imposition of car pooling lanes, essentially facilitating the singularly destructive act of driving wherever one wants, whenever one wants, on one's own.

This has to change.

There are other reasons free transit makes sense. It would end the need to police fares and the daily confrontations between transit workers doing their jobs and some transit riders. It would signal a shift in our society's priorities. It would also, like free health care, be inspiring and transformative of how many look at the role of government and it would be very hard for even reactionaries to fully reverse once put in place in major cities.

Very recently the Coalition of Progressive Electors in Vancouver, one the country's largest municipal political formations, voted at a policy conference to make free transit a plank of their upcoming municipal campaigns. By doing so they have taken an important idea out of the "fringes" and put it into the civic discourse of the country's third largest city.

Hopefully this indicates a shift in thinking that will ripple through left-wing and progressive parties and municipal candidates from Calgary to Toronto to Montreal and to Halifax. A shift that will help to begin to make free transit the priority for our movements that it needs to be.

Gratuité du transport en commun : trois raisons qui en font une idée dont l’heure est venue

Gratuité du transport en commun : trois raisons qui en font une idée dont l’heure est venue

This translation is courtesy of Réseau pour un transport en commun gratuit - RTCGratuit a Qubec City Free Transit Group. The website can be found at: http://www.rtcgratuit.ca/

Par Michael Laxer
(Rabble.ca)

Le 1er Janvier 2013, Tallinn, la capitale de l'Estonie, est devenue la plus grande ville du monde à rendre le transport en commun gratuit.  Bien que les effets de cette mesure soient, bien sûr, spécifique au contexte local,  cela démontre qu'une grande ville peut le faire et que c’est très populaire (1) .  Ça a également attiré l'attention sur un mouvement international grandissant de groupes, de militant-e-s et de partis qui estiment que la gratuité du transport en commun dans les grandes zones urbaines est un objectif social et environnemental important sur lequel travailler à court terme.

Dans une culture comme la nôtre, où la voiture est étroitement liée aux notions d'identité personnelle et de liberté, et où la droite a convaincu les gens (à tort) que le gouvernement n’a pas les moyens de faire quoi que ce soit de significatif, la gratuité du transport en commun semble être à première vue, sans doute, une aberration utopique pour plusieurs.  Mais, étant donné les sommes énormes que le gouvernement investit pour subventionner les infrastructures et le pétrole dont ont besoin les voitures et, compte tenu des enjeux d'égalité sociale et environnementale en cause, ce n'est pas du tout le cas.

La gratuité du transport en commun est une idée dont l’heure est venue et il y a trois raisons vraiment importantes qui font qu’elle devrait être mise de l’avant comme objectif ultime de tout programme municipal de gauche au Canada.
 
1) L'environnement et la lutte contre la culture de l'automobile
Il est impossible de surestimer les effets dévastateurs que les voitures et les combustibles fossiles ont sur l'environnement.  Un rapport des Nations Unies(2), publié le 31 Mars 2014, a peint un tableau inquiétant de la situation dans laquelle nous nous sommes globalement mis et, sans action immédiate et drastique, ça ne va qu'empirer.

Même en mettant de côté les changements climatiques pour un moment, la pollution de l'air causée par les voitures tue déjà des gens en très grand nombre.  Une étude de l'Université de la Colombie-Britannique (3) publiée en octobre 2013 démontre que la pollution automobile provoque le décès prématuré de 21 000 Canadien-ne-s chaque année;  neuf fois plus que le nombre tué dans des accidents de voiture.

Dans une tribune(4) publiée dans The Guardian le 10 avril dernier, Desmond Tutu est allé jusqu'à appeler à un boycott des entreprises responsables des changements climatiques et de l'industrie des combustibles fossiles comme celui qu’il y avait eu contre l'apartheid.  Il a directement appelé à la fin des subventions gouvernementales massives aux combustibles fossiles qui se existent un peu partout.

Au Canada, ces subventions au pétrole et à la consommation d'énergie totalisent 26 milliards de dollars par année(5) , ce qui signifie que 4 pour cent de toutes les recettes du gouvernement y ont été consacrées.  C'est un fait stupéfiant.  Ça démontre aussi clairement que les prétentions à l’effet que le gouvernement n'a pas l'argent pour financer un transport en commun gratuit et de qualité dans les grands centres urbains ne sont tout simplement pas vraies.

Lorsque l'on tient compte d'éventuelles sources de revenus dédiées comme l’instauration de péages, de taxes sur l'essence, de taxes sur les véhicules de luxe ou la possibilité d'une augmentation de l'impôt des personnes dont le revenu dépasse un certain niveau, il n'y a absolument aucune raison pour que la gratuité du transport en commun ne soient pas un objectif rapidement atteignable.
Nos gouvernements et partis n'ont pas la volonté politique et ont privilégié la consommation d'énergie, y compris la consommation de combustibles fossiles, ainsi que la satisfaction des besoins présumés des électeurs automobilistes, plutôt que le transport en commun.

La culture de l’automobile(6) est, certes, profondément ancrée au Canada.  Il est également évident que des mesures doivent être prises dès maintenant pour changer cela. La gratuité du transport en commun pourrait jouer un rôle direct et évident pour sortir les gens de leur voiture et les amener dans le transport en commun et changer nos perceptions collectives de la façon de se rendre au travail, à l’école, à l'épicerie et à nos loisirs.
 
2) L'inclusion sociale

Depuis que Tallinn a commencé son expérience de gratuité du transport en commun, l'un des avantages les plus marqués de la première année a été une forte augmentation de l'achalandage dans un quartier périphérique pauvre à forte densité de population.

C’est logique. La gratuité du transport en commun est un moyen évident d'intégrer les quartiers avec des taux de pauvreté ou des densités de population élevés, qui sont détachés de la vie économique et culturelle globale de la ville, dans le tissu de la vie urbaine dans son ensemble.

Les musées, les galeries d'art, les événements culturels ou politiques, les parcs et les secteurs riverains et tant d'autres éléments essentiels de l'expérience urbaine deviennent accessible, à visiter sans billet d’autobus à payer.  Mine de rien, les tarifs font monter une facture.  Une famille de deux parents ayant trois enfants à Toronto, par exemple, qui veut aller à High Park un soir de semaine ou à la Art Gallery of Ontario (qui, contrairement au parc n'est pas gratuite) paierait 16,80 $ pour le voyage aller-retour en transport en commun.  C'est un ajout important au coût de toute sortie.

Pour les travailleurs et les travailleuses dont les revenus sont déjà étiré jusqu'au point de rupture par un salaire minimum sous le seuil de pauvreté, ce genre de tarif de transport en commun est directement et manifestement un facteur contribuant à l'exclusion sociale.

Outre l'ouverture à une pleine participation à la vie de la ville pour les quartiers exclus, l'inverse est également vrai.  La gratuité du transport en commun ouvrirait de nouvelles possibilités d'accueillir des manifestations culturelles ou artistiques à des quartiers que peu de gens visitent et qui pourraient ainsi devenir des destinations.  Cela a des avantages économiques potentiels profonds.

C‘est particulièrement vrai quand on fait de la gratuité du transport en commun un élément central de l’amélioration globale du transport, de sorte que non seulement l’absence de tarif, mais aussi les trajets sont là pour rendre la gratuité efficace et utile.
 
3) Inégalité de revenus et justice économique

La gratuité du transport en commun a un véritable rôle à jouer dans les enjeux de justice économique et d'inégalité de revenus.

Comme nous l'avons déjà vu, notre gouvernement dépense d'énormes sommes d'argent pour subventionner les combustibles fossiles et l'utilisation de la voiture.  Cela ne comprend même pas l'argent qui doit être dépensé par les municipalités et les gouvernements sur l'infrastructure qu’exige l’automobile.

Ces subventions sont accordées au détriment des personnes à faible revenu et des personnes vivant dans la pauvreté.  Directement.  Elles utilisent des fonds publics qui pourraient être utilisés pour le transport en commun et un certain nombre d'autres programmes pour financer et  faciliter un style de vie qui profite beaucoup plus à la classe moyenne et aux nantis.  En ce sens, elles représentent une redistribution des revenus gouvernementaux de bas en haut.

Même le Fonds monétaire international(7) a noté que «les subventions sont coûteuses pour les gouvernements, et que, au lieu d'aider les consommateurs, elles nuisent à l'augmentation des investissements dans les infrastructures, l'éducation et les soins de santé, ce qui aiderait les pauvres plus directement».

Une façon d’aider plus directement les personnes à faible revenu et vivant dans la pauvreté est la gratuité du transport en commun!

Comme un résident de Tallinn(8) l’a dit : «je vis avec un budget serré puisque je n'ai pas trop de travail en ce moment. J'ai besoin d'économiser de l'argent partout où je peux, donc je suis très heureux avec le système de transport en commun gratuit. C'est une bonne chose pour le commun des mortels».

Les tarifs de transport en commun viennent souvent réduire, par des déplacements quotidiens pour aller au travail, des salaires sous le seuil de la pauvreté.  La gratuité du transport en commun faciliterait la recherche de meilleurs emplois (ou la recherche d’emploi tout court) à l'extérieur de son quartier et permettrait à ceux et celles qui utilisent le transport en commun de conserver une plus grande part de leur revenu en choisissant le transport en commun gratuit au lieu de conduire ou d'avoir à payer des tarifs tous les jours ou une passe mensuelle.  Ce serait particulièrement bénéfique pour les personnes à revenus fixes ou en s'appuyant sur l'aide sociale.

Nous ne devrions pas sous-estimer l'impact que cela peut avoir sur la vie quotidienne de millions de personnes.

C'est aussi une question d'équité fondamentale.  Pendant plusieurs décennies, les citadin-e-s qui n'avaient pas les moyens ou qui choisissaient de ne pas se déplacer en voiture ont subventionné ceux et celles qui le faisaient.  On leur a fait payer des tarifs de plus en plus élevés pour, dans de nombreux cas, une infrastructure de transport inadéquate et surpeuplée alors que la voiture avait la priorité, en dépit des répercussions environnementales.  La plupart des gouvernements et des municipalités canadiennes ont hésité à utiliser le péages ou l'imposition de voies de covoiturage, ce qui facilite essentiellement l'acte singulièrement destructeur de conduire où l'on veut, quand on veut, seul.

Cela doit changer.

Il y a d'autres raisons qui rendent la gratuité du transport en commun logique.  Elle mettrait fin à la nécessité de contrôler les tarifs et aux affrontements quotidiens entre les travailleurs et les travailleurs des transports qui font leur travail et certains usagers qui ne veulent ou ne peuvent pas payer.  Elle serait le signe d'un changement dans les priorités de notre société.  Elle serait également, comme les soins de santé gratuits, une source d'inspiration et transformerait la vision de plusieurs du rôle du gouvernement et il serait très difficile pour les réactionnaires d’inverser totalement la tendance une fois la gratuité du transport en commun mise en place dans les grandes villes.

Très récemment, la Coalition of Progressive Electors à Vancouver, une des plus grandes formations politiques municipale du pays, a voté en congrès(9) de faire de la gratuité du transport en commun un des thèmes de leurs campagnes municipales à venir.  Ce faisant, ils ont sorti une idée importante de la marginalité pour la mettre dans le discours civique de la troisième plus grande ville du pays.
Espérons que cela indique un changement de mentalité qui se répandra à travers les partis progressistes ou de gauche et les candidats municipaux de Calgary à Toronto et de Montréal à Halifax.  Un changement qui permettra de commencer à faire de la gratuité du transport en commun la priorité qu’elle doit être pour nos mouvements.
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Michael Laxer vit à Toronto où il dirige une librairie avec sa partenaire Natalie.  Michael a un diplôme en histoire du Collège Glendon de l'Université York.  C’est un militant politique, il a été candidat à deux reprise et organisateur électoral pour le NPD, c’était un candidat socialiste aux élections municipales de Toronto en 2010 (il se présente de nouveau) et il est membre de l'exécutif du Parti socialiste nouvellement formé de l'Ontario.

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Publié à l’origine le 11 avril 2014 sur le portail d’information de gauche canadien rabble.ca. Traduction : Nicolas Phébus pour RTCGratuit.ca

Texte original : http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/michael-laxer/2014/04/free-transit-three-reasons-it-idea-whose-time-has-come
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Notes :
(1) http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2014/01/largest-free-transit-experiment-world/8231/
(2) http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/31/climate-change-threat-food-security-humankind
(3) http://www.vancouversun.com/health/pollution+nine+times+deadlier+than+crashes+study+finds/9061897/story.html
(4) http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/10/divest-fossil-fuels-climate-change-keystone-xl
(5) http://www.desmog.ca/2013/05/10/just-how-much-exactly-are-you-paying-subsidize-fossil-fuels
(6) http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/michael-laxer/2013/10/it-time-war-on-car
(7) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/28/business/imf-calls-for-curbing-fuel-subsidies.html?_r=1&
(8) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/04/estonias-capital-introduces-free-public-transportation_n_3014589.html
(9) http://www.vancouversun.com/news/COPE+puts+free+transit+tenant+protection+platform/9679373/story.html

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Left behind: Ontario's politicians are abandoning minimum-wage workers and people living in poverty

Ontario is on the verge of indexing minimum-wage workers into perpetual poverty.

This is a political choice being made by politicians in the province. The Liberal party is calling for an $11-an-hour minimum wage indexed to inflation. The ONDP is calling for a $12-an-hour minimum wage two years from now also indexed to inflation. The Tories would simply leave workers exactly where they are.

Poor.

Both of the Liberal and ONDP proposals start well below the poverty line and this directly means that minimum wage workers will be, by any reasonable standard, indexed to stay below the poverty line forever. If it is pegged to a below poverty rate to begin with and then tied to "inflation" it makes it so that the minimum-wage workers can never, by definition, climb out of poverty.

This is why many business groups support this idea. Why wouldn't they? It allows them to pay poverty wages in perpetuity by law!

Meanwhile, social assistance rates remain at levels that are incomprehensibly sadistic and wrong.

Given this willingness to index poverty into law and to ignore the vicious reality of where social assistance is at, it seems worth noting that the inequality that exists between those in office making these decisions and those they are condemning it to is truly profound and obvious.

Even assuming that one can get full-time work, a worker working a full-time job at the new minimum-wage proposal of the Liberals would make a pre-tax income of $22,880 a year. A worker under the ONDP proposal would make $24,960 a year in 2016, even, again, assuming they got full-time work.

These are astonishingly low wages that are impossible to live on in Ontario, especially in a major city like Toronto.

A $15-an-hour minimum wage allows for a full-time income of $31,200 a year. A dramatic improvement that would have a clear and obvious impact on the lives of workers. Especially given that now the pre-tax income of a full-time minimum-wage worker is at most $22,360.

Meanwhile, a single person on welfare in Ontario receives, $7,512 a year.

Seriously. $7,512 a year.

Who is making these decisions about the minimum wage and welfare? Given that it is a minority parliament that has allowed this to continue for three years, all the parties have made this decision.

And not one of them is claiming to want to do anything differently in this regard.

So the people making the decisions are Kathleen Wynne who made $198,521.29. Tim Hudak who made $180,885.60. Andrea Horwath who made $158,157.96.

Rosario Marchese who made $129,720.00. Ted McMeekin who made $165,851.04. Peter Shurman who made $116,550.00.

Every single person making the choice, and it is a choice, to continue to legislate poverty for those on social assistance and working for the minimum wage made in excess of $100,000 a year. Every single MPP.

The contrast is very stark and very clear.

The question, in the end, is how many people in Ontario have to be working for the poverty wages that are less than $15 an hour or "living" off of cruel social assistance rates before any political party or MPP making over $100,000 a year cares?

What is the perceived electoral risk versus big salary for themselves ratio that is required before any MPP in Ontario will actually do something to prevent the indexing of poverty wages into law or before they will stand up for meaningful increases in what human beings on social assistance are forced to subside on?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Less than zero: Living in the 'real world' of the Left's retreat.

In Ontario another election season is at hand. A provincial election seems likely and municipal elections are occurring province wide. We have a bizarre situation where the Liberals are forcing the NDP to shift "left" on a number of issues like the minimum wage and now possible taxes, where "left wing" candidates for mayor in Toronto feel the need to couch policies in fundamentally reactionary anti-tax rhetoric, and where even what would a generation ago have been perceived as mildly social democratic notions like living wages, the idea of direct government intervention in the economy, new universal social programs or a comprehensive tax program to fund critically socially significant initiatives like transit, are now seen as incredibly "radical" and as hurting the "left's" chances of "winning."

But winning what, exactly?

After 25 years of constant retreat one might imagine that the left might think a new strategy is in order. Despite all the concessions to "reality" or doing what it supposedly takes to get elected, where are we? Does anyone seriously believe that we are better off than when we had an actual socialist political force in the country that advocated for demonstrably interventionist and meaningful social and economic policies?

We are in a society where poverty and inequality are at levels unparalleled in decades and where any possible or obvious solutions to deal with this are deemed to be fanciful or unrealistic. Often they are presented as if they are simply intellectual exercises that are encumbrances to supposedly "realistic" agendas aimed at making "practical change." Agendas floated by very well compensated elected politicians who, it would seem, equate what is beneficial to their careers with what is socially progressive or with what constitutes a "progressive" agenda.

The very idea of socialism has been framed as some kind of intellectual exercise that "academics" indulge in while the elected "realists" are out there getting results that never really seem to happen. "Radical" ideas are portrayed as little more than hopeless ideals that we know would be positive, but that we don't really think there is anything we can do about.

Often leftists are told in condescending ways that we have to live in the "real world."

But here is the thing. Making this political choice to get elected, and it is a choice, does have real world consequences.

When we toss aside our commitment to the idea of a society based on equality and social justice, when we abandon calling for an end to capitalism, it is not just abandoning an intellectual construct.

There are direct results that are not in anyway an abstraction.

Real people in the real world are suffering, living in or living on the edge of poverty, and facing grotesque exploitation directly due to corporations and the capitulation of the liberal left to the basic ideas of the right.

The new universal mantras of "tax relief" and "fiscal conservatism" or "responsibility" embraced by "progressives" have real world consequences that are not slogans, not ideological, but fact.

The fact is that poverty kills people and renders the idea of equality of opportunity a joke.

The fact is that millions of people are forced to work for wages that they cannot live on without assistance.

The fact is that social assistance rates are not just inadequate they are cruel.

The fact is that the minimum wage now is a poverty wage and we are about to index people into poverty under provincial plans.

The fact is that climate change may yet kill us all and we are doing next to nothing to combat the suicidal consumptive consumerism and car culture causing it.

The fact is that ideas like free education and transit will allow for far greater social inclusion and for a clearly better society.

The fact is that possible programs like Pharmacare or free dental care would make life demonstrably better for millions of people in very direct ways.

The list could go on and on.

But what it comes down to is that if we are not fighting for these things, if we are not standing up front and centre for them, they will not happen.

All the time we hear that talking about socialism and being "radical" is somehow quaint and silly while these appalling oppressions, as well as oppressions like patriarchy, colonialism, racism and homophobia endure, and while the insanity that is austerity and environmental catastrophe continue unabated.

These vicious real world cruelties and injustices happen every single day. The lack of new and serious social programs impacts the lives of real people every single day.

This is exactly why socialist ideas and leftist campaigns matter. Why they are not an intellectual exercise.

They matter because if they do not happen, these actual, real, demonstrable cruelties, injustices and oppressions that impact real people in the real world will simply continue.

It is the guaranteed outcome of not fighting for "radical" change.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A letter to Andrea Horwath

Dear Ms. Horwath;

Thank you for your letter to the Premier of Ontario asking her to make life in the province "more affordable, not more expensive".


It has, indeed, come to the attention of many that life for millions of people in Ontario is not affordable.

They do not make enough to make ends meet because they are not paid a living wage, the kind of living wage that would come from being paid a $14 or $15 an hour minimum wage. It is sad that no one in parliament advocates for this.

They are suffering due to inadequate social assi...stance rates across the board; rates barely raised for twenty years now while extremely well compensated politicians ignore the people made to endure nearly impossible hardship on them.

They cannot afford daycare or medications because we have cut personal taxes so much (and not just, as you imply, on the upper classes) that we have no hope of building universal Pharmacare or daycare programs. This leaves many citizens and residents of Ontario with nothing but lint in their pockets. Sadly, again, no one is advocating for universal Pharmacare or daycare.

While some advocate boutique tax cuts for "small" business and middle class homeowners, many find life unaffordable due to woefully inadequate public transit that keeps people in expensive and destructive automobiles and keeps fares too high for those without cars.

Free public transit would certainly make life more affordable. At the very least greatly expanded transit would make the lives of millions far better. It might help save the planet as well.

Strict rent controls and a public housing strategy would make life more affordable.

Lower and ultimately free tuition fees would make life more affordable. They would also greatly enhance equality of opportunity, which these days is mostly a myth.

Socializing the ownership of multinationals trying to move their factories out of the province and thereby preserving good jobs would obviously make life more affordable for the workers and communities devastated by corporate immorality and greed.

I can think of many other things that might make life more "affordable". And more just and fair. Like free summer and after school programs for kids, free educational and recreational programs for adults, stricter labour laws to prevent employer abuse of workers, laws to actually facilitate unionization or worker co-operatives and so many more.

Programs, increases and steps that, even a couple of which, would actually, truly, honestly, clearly make life more "affordable" for citizens and residents in Ontario. As well as making our society a better and far more just place to live in.

Maybe it is time to talk about a few of these ideas. To force the leaders of what we have always assumed were the parties of business, the Liberals and Conservatives, to listen and take notice. To force them to hear what a real People's Agenda would be about.

I would hope you would consider using your power to seek some of these concessions in the minority parliament and in office should you win the next election.

They would make life far more "affordable". They might even surprise you in how they could inspire the people of the province. They would also have the virtue of being the right thing to do.

All the best and In Solidarity.

Woody Allen and the persistent myths of rape culture

This article was originally published on Feminist Current.
 
By now the outline detailing the facts of the terrible story that Dylan Farrow tells of her sexual assault as a child by her father Woody Allen are well known.

After he was honoured at the Golden Globes for his work in film, Mia Farrow and Allen’s son Ronan Farrow tweeted comments that essentially called the Golden Globes and other celebrities out for having done this in spite of Woody Allen’s history of sexual assault, and his entirely and obviously inappropriate behaviour towards Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter whom he had known since the age of eight and began to have a sexual relationship with as soon as he was legally able to do so.

This led to a defence of Allen by Robert Weide in The Daily Beast on January 27th. Weide’s article was followed by a firestorm of criticism as well as by Dylan Farrow herself, after many years of silence, forcefully and powerfully speaking out about the abuse she had suffered.

In the days since, basically every point that Weide made in Allen’s defence has been completely demolished in one forum or another. Feminist Current’s Meghan Murphy called out Weide for his victim blaming and trying to make it all about Mia Farrow (a tactic Allen defenders consistently use) as opposed to about Dylan Farrow. Vanity Fair’s Maureen Orth responded to all the “articles containing incorrect and irresponsible claims” in defence of Allen by outlining the “10 Undeniable Facts About the Woody Allen Sexual-Abuse Allegation”. Legal analyst Lisa Bloom wrote of the “Six Reasons Why Dylan Farrow is Highly Credible”.  Slate’s Jessica Winter wrote about “just the facts” and how Weide had none on his side. There are many other examples, including the rather damning release of the actual custody judgement.

When Allen issued a statement in the New York Times, reiterating his long held contention that it was all “implanted” in Dylan Farrow’s mind by Mia Farrow, Dylan responded powerfully again by noting that “I have never wavered in describing what he did to me.”

Yet in spite of this overwhelming evidence legions of Woody Allen’s online defenders, (the majority of whom seem to be men, based on what I’ve seen in many online discussion threads), continue to insist that Dylan Farrow is the unwitting dupe of a plot by her vengeful mother. This despite the fact that many of them are also supposedly the educated, enlightened, liberal types who I think are broadly believed to be Woody Allen’s fan base.

Predictably, of course, some conservative journalists like the National Post’s Jonathon Kay got in on the act penning articles repeating many of Weide’s already discredited claims, while seeking to use ”personal experience” to imply that false sexual assault accusations are widespread or that one needs to be wary of similar accusations of child abuse. This is an old tactic, as, of course, undocumented and entirely one-sided “personal experiences” can be used to try to undermine the actually well-established facts about rape and child sexual abuse, facts to which we will shortly return.

This is due, no doubt, to the sad reality of the reflexive need of many to blindly defend their heroes, whether cultural, political, sporting or what have you. While they would obviously not see it this way, there is in practice little difference between the supposedly boorish defenders of any number of sports figures accused of sexual assault and rape or the allegedly bookish defenders of Allen other than, perhaps, the type of language they use. Sexism and rape apologism presented in more rarified form is not, however, any better, more excusable or less misogynist.

But is also due directly to rape culture and its persistent mythology as well as to the continuing and ongoing lies — and they are lies — about how common, widespread and prevalent false accusations are. It should come as absolutely no surprise that so many fall back on what are proven rape myths when convenient and are unwilling to acknowledge how deeply embedded rape culture is, as doing so forces one to ask many uncomfortable questions about sexual violence and the extremely gendered nature of it. It ultimately forces one to confront the widespread and extremely violent nature of Patriarchy and male behaviour found across cultures and countries; behaviour that men engage in across lines of class, race, education and other factors.

So fall back on the rape myths men (and some women) do. And again they must be confronted. The absolute and proven fact is that false allegations of rape or sexual assault are extremely rare, especially versus cases of sexual assault itself, and especially when compared to the legions of men who actually get away with sexual assault, which is sadly the vast majority of those committing it. Even those who write pathetic articles arguing that the tiny number of such cases should still somehow be regarded as a major social issue acknowledge that only 2-4% (at most) of all reported rape or assault allegations are false. Given that it is well established that the vast majority of sexual assaults, as many as 90 per cent, are never reported to the authorities, the actual, real occurrence (not all of those everyone knows from “personal experience”) of false allegations versus actual incidences are completely statistically and socially insignificant.

Does this mean they do not happen and are not devastating when they do? No. It does, however, mean that attempting to conflate them is simply a tactic and attempting to imply that their occurrence makes it more likely to be true than usual in any specific given case is inane. Allen’s defenders also completely ignore the reality that many of the terrible false convictions of people for actual rapes or for the insane wave of Christian conspiracy theories about “Satanic” sex rituals in the 80′s and early 90′s that they reference were due almost entirely to prosecutorial misconduct and are in no way analogous to the Allen situation. To say that claims made by women (or men) that are consistent over twenty years from childhood to adulthood, where they unequivocally can identify the person they are accusing, and that still turn out to be false and are proven to be so are rare, would be an enormous understatement. It strains belief to discredit someone on this basis.

But the realties of rape culture run much deeper than this. As men of any background can be the perpetrators of sexual violence, so can their victims. As Kirk Makin wrote in the Globe and Mail:

It’s a crime like no other. A violation of the self as well as the body — an assault on trust, on privacy, on control. It’s also an offence with an afterlife: a sense of bruising shame and guilt.
And it happens to women in Canada every 17 minutes.
Some of those women place calls to services such as the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter – about 1,400 of them last year alone.
“These are not just women who live in poverty or need,” says Summer-Rain Bentham, one of the counsellors who answers their calls. “These are women who are teachers, doctor or lawyers; women whose husbands may be police officers or judges.”
But if these women are hoping for more than support – if they are hoping for justice – the phones might as well keep ringing.
Less than half of complaints made to police result in criminal charges and, of those charges, only about one in four leads to a guilty verdict.
Sexual abuse and assault is a daily threat and actuality for all women. Men too are sexually assaulted both as children (and defenders of the Catholic Church initially attempted to use similar arguments to Allen’s defenders against emerging stories of the widespread assault of boys and girls when accusations were brought by the victims often decades later) and as adults. But what is in no doubt is who, regardless of the gender of the victim, the perpetrators of sexual violence and assault are.

They are men. Overwhelmingly men. As the latest statistics from Statistics Canada point out:
Regardless of the type of offence, males were consistently more likely than females to be the accused. Sexual offences showed the highest representation of males: 98% of all persons charged with sexual assault level 1, child pornography and sexual violations against children in 2011 were male.
In the end, one has to think that this gendered reality of rape and sexual assault and abuse, this indisputable fact that sexual violence is a male crime that flows from a society and a civilization founded on male supremacy and patriarchy, underlies much of the persistence of the defenses of the (too numerous to recount) cases of famous and powerful men accused of such crimes that many simply cannot believe are guilty. As well as of the literally countless similar defenses of the millions of not so famous perpetrators of these assaults who have never faced, and never will face, justice.
If we, as a society and as individuals, confront the reality of how prevalent, widespread and so often totally unpunished male sexual violence really is, then we also have to confront the reality of what patriarchy is — how it is an inextricable part of what allows men to continue to get away with so many terrible crimes against women and children. We have to confront the established fact that supposedly “good” men — priests, artists, intellectuals, activists, business people, “pillars of the community” — are just as likely to be sexual predators, pedophiles and violent towards women, boys and girls, as any other men.

It is easier to disregard and reject what women say or to imply that they are being emotional, irrational, petty or malicious. It easier to chose to think that it was all a vindictive lie by a scorned woman.

This is why so many do.

Where is the ONDP on a $14 an hour minimum wage in Ontario?

In an election year pledge that is both a woefully insufficient step in the "right" direction and an act of supreme political cynicism, Ontario's Premier Kathleen Wynne has promised an immediate hike of the minimum wage in Ontario to $11 an hour, after having frozen it since 2010.

It is a smart move. With the likelihood of the minority parliament falling in the coming months, it is a small, token gesture toward the large numbers of citizens worried about growing inequality. It also has the virtue, from a Liberal point of view, of being small. Other than putting up the usual resistance, very few, even in the business community, have gotten, or are likely to get, too worked up about it.

In part this is due to the ongoing effort by a coalition of labour groups and community activists to get the minimum wage raised to $14 an hour, a prospect that no doubt terrifies the business class, even though it really is the bare minimum needed to live above the poverty line in centres like Toronto. No doubt they realize that $11 an hour represents a victory of sorts.

While Sid Ryan of the Ontario Federation of Labour called the Liberal proposal of tying the minimum wage in future to inflation "revolutionary in a way," this is a proposal also supported by many business groups (and had been in advance of it),  and is especially appealing in the present context of relatively low inflation and the very real possibility of future deflation. This "revolutionary" proposal may likely not lead to a $14 or $15 an hour minimum wage for a generation.

More difficult to understand, for some, is the ONDP's apparent reluctance to take a strong stand on this issue consistent with its alleged social activist and labour allies.

To date, while some of its caucus members have been slightly more outspoken, the leader driven party has not strayed from its message of boutique appeals to minor consumerist middle class issues and its pandering to the fiction of the small business "job creator." While it is true that small businesses create many jobs, it is also true, especially in the absence of an industrial or neo-industrial state job creation strategy, that the jobs they create are often not even worthy of the term "McJob." They are, overall, without any question the lowest paying jobs and rarely have any benefits of any meaning.

The ONDP also distorts what a "small business" is. When it calls for a reduction in the small business tax rate, as it does, it fails to mention that this applies only to incorporated "small" businesses, which are often not even the romanticised vision that some have of "Mom and Pop" businesspeople toiling away long hours for their "community." Many incorporated "small businesses" are professionals attempting to minimize taxes, small landlords, etc. It is a designation that is about liability and tax law; nothing else. Many, many, small retail business people, like corner store owners, small coffee shops, independent online retailers, etc., are not incorporated at all and function instead as self-employed sole proprietorships or partnerships under tax law.

Not only does the ONDP's proposed "small business" tax cut not cover them (not that they actually need a tax cut, given that round after round of personal tax cuts have them covered), the party disingenuously claims to represent them with this policy when it does not.

Never mind that despite holding the balance of power, the ONDP has done nothing to force the minimum wage issue. Horwath and the ONDP have also been working for many years, however, to distance themselves from being seen as a programmatically leftist party backing systemic changes of any meaning, and have instead focused on traditionally right wing ideas of placing emphasis on the "cost of living" in a consumerist sense as opposed to on the traditionally leftist notion of alleviating poverty and social inequality through comprehensive social programs.

An Ontario voter forwarded me a reply that he received, after emailing the office of NDP MPP Jagmeet Singh and asking him and the ONDP to support a $14 an hour minimum wage. His office wrote back:
In regards to your concerns about the minimum wage increase, we understand the frustrations of Ontarians. Families are getting squeezed, their bills are going up, fees are rising, hydro costs are skyrocketing, and families just can’t keep up. Responsible working families who work hard for forty hours a week, should not be living in poverty. Hard work and responsibility should be compensated with a fair and reasonable wage. The ONDP has a long history of working with the OFL and applaud their grass roots work to have the minimal wage increased. We look forward to seeing what they bring to the debate, as many of their previous campaigns have helped shape the growth and betterment of Ontario.
This is very telling. Among other things, it perpetuates that awful fiction of the "worthy" versus "unworthy" poor, directly implying in its language that those who are not working, for whatever reason, have been laid off, or cannot find full time work (and many workers are forced to work what are legally regarded as part-time jobs) are not "responsible." One might ask, should "irresponsible families," or, heaven forbid, people without "families," unable to find work "forty hours a week," be living in poverty?

Beyond that, in seeking to avoid answering the inquiry, which it tried very hard to do, the response focuses on "bills," "fees," "hydro costs," etc., completely disingenuously implying that these are the reasons that people are feeling the "pinch" as opposed to the fact that many in the working class, and even the middle class, are not making a living wage.

By focusing on the consumerist issues the ONDP avoid tackling the actual underpinnings of inequality and injustice; the downward pressures on wages and the lack of a forceful commitment by any political party to living wages. By implying there is a "debate" as to what the minimum wage should be, they are directly saying that business people who feel the minimum wage should be kept low have a position worthy of consideration.

All one has to do, frankly, is look at the shockingly reactionary by-election ad for ONDP candidate Wayne Gates. The video ad talks about how Tim Hudak did not do enough in the great struggle of  "rewarding job creators" and making sure slot machines stayed in race tracks! This is an interesting vision of social democracy.

Nowhere does it talk about higher wages or economic equality issues.

Horwath and the ONDP, however, has been actively courting the "905" area code suburban vote by seeking to jump on the perceived coattails of Rob Ford style right wing "pocket book" populism. Hence their fixation on consumerist issues like HST hydro cuts, auto insurance rates, opposing obviously environmentally beneficial "car taxes" and the like, while having no alternative funding visions for important social objectives like Toronto transit expansion other than vague promises about "corporations" somehow paying for it all. They will, of course, pay for nothing.

The calculation is obviously that Horwath thinks Ford still has an appeal among 905ers and that the NDP can somehow harness this. This calculation is very open for debate. What is not open for debate is that it leaves workers in low wage jobs, the Precariat, entirely out of the equation.

Minimum wage and non-"middle class" workers do not primarily need small cuts to hydro bills, auto insurance rates (if they even own a car), or to have the worst employers in the economy "rewarded" for creating bad jobs, they need higher wages, expanded and free transit, universal daycare, pharmacare, and the types of universal social programs "progressives" and social democrats once actually fought for. They need a wage and job strategy that is not centered around the economy's worst and least reliable employers, "small business."

They need active parliamentary political representation that will fight for living wages and economic justice.