Muckraking and Making Better

We have some fabulous muckrakers working in Vancouver journalism. For instance, this story about luxury resort living and tax loopholes on Agricultural Reserve Land is really important stuff. Kathy Tomlinson, Ian Young, and a host of other local journalists in the muckraker tradition are doing really great work exposing some of the corrupting practices we see – especially those concerning local real estate. The role of good muckraking journalism is especially important for holding politicians accountable and insuring we get regulations that work and are properly enforced.

At the same time, there’s a danger that only doing and paying attention to muckraking moves us toward cynicism. That we think everything is getting worse. Even more maddening: that we can’t do much to make it better. That everyone is corrupt. That all processes are poisoned. That the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

Lest we forget: this is basically the narrative that propelled Donald Trump’s campaign and rise to power in the USA.  And here’s the thing: it’s false.

By and large, the world has gotten better for people. It’s still getting better for most people, a little bit every day. That doesn’t make the news, but it’s what we see in the data. Here’s Hans Rosling, a big data guy, making the case. As a bonus, it’s in Swedish (my dissertation was on Sweden – I miss the sound of Swedish being spoken – but don’t worry, there are English subtitles!):

Other Hans Rosling videos, with more of the data visualizations he’s rightly famous for, can be found here, here and here.

To be sure, there are still problems (e.g., Global Warming, Social Inequality, etc.). But we should take heart in how much humanity has accomplished, and move forward in the spirit of doing even better. In many respects, I suppose that makes me a progressive.But it’s more than just a belief. It’s what’s in the data.

Progress is definitely the big story we see in terms of things like life expectancy. For most people, life has been getting longer and better. We shouldn’t lose sight of this. Watch Hans Rosling, or play around with publicly accessible population reference bureau data if you want big picture stuff.

How does this matter in Vancouver? I see the same general pattern whereby for most residents things are getting better. (For example, BC has the longest life expectancy in Canada. Rents aren’t terrible.[**] Though stubborn, Core Housing Need is down from the 1990s. And millennials are not fleeing the city or metro area in droves). To be sure, we still have problems, and muckraking helps expose these problems. But there’s a danger that if we only get muckraking, we start to think Vancouver is a terrible place to live and it will never get better. We see some evidence of this kind of negative storyline inflecting discussions with young people in Vancouver. This is why it’s important that even as we acknowledge the important role of muckraking, we also need to celebrate Vancouver’s many victories and everyday pleasantries and push back against the idea that it’s a hellhole.

Because it’s not. It’s a pretty nice place to live.

And we can keep making it better. For everyone.*

*This was more or less the theme of my talk on “What we see in the media and what we see in the data” at the BC Non-profit Housing Association meetings in Richmond today.

[** – UPDATE – though wouldn’t you know it, the latest CMHC report on rents hit the media four days after I posted, demonstrating a big, 6.4% jump in rents in the past year. Rats! On the bright side, there are lots of new rental starts, so more units should be on the way. Definitely worth a look at the report.]

“Ride This Out” and Housing Summit Slides

In my last post, I combined a Leonard Cohen theme (“You Want it Darker“) with somewhat cathartic musings about the US election, in which the nation seems to have declared 2016 the Year of the Scary Clown. The next day, I found out Leonard Cohen had died.  Technically, he appears to have died before I wrote the post, which is important because I don’t want to risk causing the deaths of any other beloved musicians. On that note, here’s a bit more of a rousing theme about riding out the election results and getting back to work (please don’t die, Imaginary Cities!):

Also, the slides from my talk for the Vancouver Re:Address Summit on Housing and the Future of City Building have now been posted.* The background image is from a photo I took of a lovely mural over on Vancouver’s East Side, where the row of houses just doesn’t quite fit into the urban scene. Funny that.

*For some reason, I think whoever posted the slides thought my first name was “Michael”

You want it darker…

So America’s taken a turn for the dark, and a page out of the songbook of Leonard Cohen.

The vote suggests a turn toward a darker vision of America as it currently exists, painting a bleak picture of a rigged system put in place by a self-interested elite living side-by-side with a misled multicultural mob in the hellish cityscapes along the coasts.

I don’t recognize this vision. And I’m not sure how many others do. The polls failed us, suggesting somewhere between a 71% to 99%+ likelihood of a Clinton win (credit where it’s due, Nate Silver at least got the uncertainty right! I long suspected and hoped that Sam Wang was closer). We seem to have ushered in a new, dark age in polling, long feared, but until recently mostly postponed, at least in US politics.  Here, too, we’ve taken a turn for the dark.

And of course, we have no idea what Trump will do as president.He’s promised to “Make America Great Again,” suggesting a return to a glorious, and largely imaginary past. It’s true, income inequality during and after WWII, under FDR, hit all-time lows, according to Picketty and Saez, only to take off again in the 1980s under Reagan.

picketty-saez-incomeinequality

To be sure, much of the decline in income inequality seemed connected to a broadly prosperous working class and large manufacturing base. But I have a hard time seeing a Republican government successfully bring this back, especially given widespread antagonism to the unions that often made this work. I have a much easier time seeing Republicans attempting to “make American great again” by curtailing the rights of women and minorities. This, of course, is the vision of where the alt-right wants to take us, and it’s squarely in-line with the Trump campaign.  Here, too, America has taken a turn for the dark. Possibly very, very dark.

A Republican government will own the next two years (at least) and possibly longer. The (in my view likely) failure of this government to enact policies that will make anything better for either the vast majority of people who voted for them, or for those who didn’t may move us toward a political re-alignment in the long term, favoring some set of Democrats and responsible Republicans. But the temptation will be there for Republicans to instead pin the blame for their (likely) failures on imaginary internal and external foes. This temptation has basically been Trump’s entire campaign. It’s too easy to imagine it taking hold in a wider form, even if I hadn’t just read through Philip Roth’s excellent The Plot Against America this past year.  You want it darker?  It doesn’t get much darker than the macho victimhood of fascism.

If there’s an even darker lining to all of this darkness, it’s that Trump seems to be a liar, a con-man, and a narcissist. He hasn’t played well with his fellow Republicans. Who knows what he’ll do in power?  Maybe he’ll just use his position to enrich himself and sell more stuff. I fear he will try to make good on his promises, but I take some small, weird measure of comfort from his failure to do so in the past and the fact that I remain so thoroughly in the dark about how things will turn out.

You want it darker? We kill the flame.

Media Coverage of My Book

The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City (winner of the John Porter Tradition of Excellence Book Award from the CSA) has now been covered by:

PRINT/ON-LINE (as of June 1st, 2017)

TV/RADIO/PODCAST (as of Apr 29th, 2016)

  • Science for the People (podcast, Apr 28, 2017) – Interview with Rachelle Saunders
  • Metropolis (Metro podcast, Nov 28, 2016) – Interview with Luke Simcoe & Matt Elliott
  • Arts on Air (CiTR 101.9, UBC Arts podcast, Nov 28, 2016) – Interview with Rachel Sanders & Brittany Duggan
  • C-FAX Radio (1070 AM, Victoria, Nov 7, 2016) – Interview with Adam Stirling
  • CBC Radio (The 180, Oct 30, 2016) – Interview with Jim Brown
  • Global TV (Global News at Noon BC, Oct 21, 2016) – interview with Sophie Lui (re-posted Jan 19, 2017, in support of piece on home prices)
  • Business News Network TV (Oct 14, 2016) – interview
  • CKNW/Omni Radio (The Jon McComb Show, Oct. 12, 2016) – interview with Jon McComb
  • Vancouver Real Estate Podcast (Oct 5, 2016) – interview with Matt and Adam Scalena
  • CBC Radio (On the Coast, Aug 11, 2016) – interview with Stephen Quinn [listen to just my clip here]