Category Archives: book review

(1195) Basic Income: and How We Can Make It Happen [Book review]

Basic Income: and How We Can Make It Happen
Guy Standing, 2017
Penguin Random House UK
374 pages
$18.99 CAN paperback
Chapter four of this treatise on the social policy mechanism of universal basic income is the sweetest.  There lies the magic of it all.  We know poverty is expensive.  A properly executed basic income would cut the cost of poverty and in so doing liberate a good portion of the fiscal resources needed to pay for itself.  By no means is this the only way to afford a social dividend for all citizens as chapter seven attests.  And afford it we must: this world is changing.
Guy Standing has been an intellectual point man for basic income on a global stage for many years now.  He gives us the rationale and the ‘how to’ in his newest book.  In the age of President 45, Boris Johnson, Rob Ford, Martin Skreli and other ineffective, uncaring and unhinged elite leaders Professor Standing has the contrasting voice of a grown adult.  He has taken on the work of comprehending and advocating something in detail.  At times things are technical, plodding even.  But to do any difficult thing, as an individual academic or as a society, makes the demand for seriousness.  It can also involve reward and rates respect.  So it is with this book.
Other parts of this manual refer to the expected benefits of basic income and clarify it from other approaches to social welfare including historical ones.  Somewhat new to our consideration of basic income was a potential contribution to environmental protection.  More familiar are sections of the book describing the improvement in the quality of economic relationships and personal well being associated with a fully realized and well-executed basic income.
An important chapter is number six.  Entitled The Standard Objections, it is designed to empower supporters of basic income.  Enthusiasm on the part of those already converted is not going to be the determinant of whether or not we get the goodies.  Not in an era of still lethal neoliberalism.  Other voters, taxpayers, citizens, policy makers will have to be won over.  A piece of work.
Chapter twelve displays its merits in this direction.  Professor Standing tells us  that ‘…the primary block to implementation of a basic income system is political, not economic or philosophical.’  Absolutely, this is true.  We also must understand that as never before there is an opportunity, a window, for basic income.  This last chapter is the one we will be reading over again as soon as possible.  This is where we go from lively possibility to reality via public pressure.  Here, anti-basic income emotionalism about worker dropout and a costly, unrealistic or even fully immoral ”something for nothing” pipe dream is addressed.
We do recommend this book.  How could we not, really?

(1103) Frontier City [Book Review]

Frontier City. Toronto on the Verge of Greatness
Shawn Micallef, 2016
Signal $29.95 hard cover
272 pages
Frontier City is about political events in Toronto mid decade and its author’s mission to understand his massive city.
By political events, of course we mean Rob Ford and his train wreck of a mayoralty.
Micallef is a writer, academic and walker.  He’s a believer in seeing for himself. Starting with a Ford Nation barbecue (where lots of people were apparently perfectly nice!) he then goes off into the Los Angeles-scaled sprawl from where Ford drew so much of his resentful strength. It took a couple of years of this direct experience, getting around to the far flung wards of Toronto and walking them in the company of twelve political underdogs from the 2014 election, to get the job done. A worthy effort, indeed. If you want the real thing as to how political and social reality work together in the super-sprawl of the GTA nowadays you won’t do better than Frontier CIty.
Of course, this blog would like life to be simpler than Micalleff’s findings. We admit our emotions would be more satisfied by a deeper hatred of Big Rich Rob and his whack job performance as ‘mayor’.  Frontier City is why we have (and need) public intellectuals. Bloggers can do only so much of the heavy lifting.  Micallef sorts through a huge number of things within the realms of history, planning, economics to create a picture of where Toronto is at.
The picture is disturbing and tough to balance. After decades of looking to the future many of us can be forgiven for wondering why the present is so crap.
Consider the 3-billion dollar single-stop subway for Scarborough. That’s just one self-inflicted thing driving us crazy and showing us our faults as we try to realize our potential. Things ought to be so good here that electing a fucked up slob like Rob Ford ought to have been the last thing on anybody’s mind. That guy cancelled Transit City at the cost of $65m dollars. And his thing, apparently, was saving money? We really may be on the edge of a dark age and a vast nobody-to-blame-but-ourselves wastage.
Public transit issues appear again and again in Frontier City. All the really cheerful things that trades in are found, too, from bed bugs to tower blocks.  Anyone looking into the recent history of Canada’s biggest community will find this book a worthy read. I would have liked an index, maybe a further reading list as well and a map.  These handy things don’t cost much and they up the value and relevance of hardcover books – objects that typically now cost several hours pay at minimum wage.
Even more, I’d have liked at least one chapter on solutions going forward.  A more direct consideration of neoliberalism, the grand grinding ideology of our inequitable times might have helped as well.  The passage about infrastructure and storytelling was great, powerful and could be a book someone ought to write.
Frontier CIty isn’t quite angry enough for us but we really liked this one and think you will, too.
See also:
(808) The New Urban Agenda [Book review]
(664) Brunch is the new crystal meth [Book review]

(1068) Subdivided. City Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity [Book review]

Subdivided. City Building In An Age of Hyper-Diversity
Jay Pitter & John Lorinc, editors
2016. Coach House Books, Toronto
279 pages. $20.95 CAN
This collection of essays was much tougher reading than we expected.  After nearly six years blogging about social difficulty in the suburbs we don’t expect to be unnerved by our topic.  Subdivided unnerved us.
The good old days of multiculturalism, in which eastern and southern Europeans (and maybe a few other groups), found Toronto adjusting to, and eventually welcoming, them are long gone.  In its place, we now see an ever bigger and richer Toronto home to newcomers in a living arrangement of hyper-diversity.  This infinitely more complex Toronto is by turns depressing, ugly, unjust and unequal despite recurrent commentary about its peacefulness, high socio-cultural potential and general awesomeness.
Subdivided delivers unto us many a less-than-comfortable truth.  There’s too many people here in isolated lives centred on a combination of shit jobs and lacklustre housing.  Reading Subdivided made us feel like Toronto’s diversity is the stuff of an Adam Curtis documentary, another nightmarish expression of the global economic machine and its operating system, neoliberalism.
Toughness of presentation is what makes this collection of essays so amazing, …so real.  It’s hard to think of any other such wellspring of direct, sustained observation of what it is really like to live here.  A chapter on Brampton, for example, brings forth a wave of nausea faster than a jar of expired mayonnaise.  ‘Browntown’ is next door to’s backyard, we can attest to the truth of what is said about Brampton.  Same for another entry on Mississauga, which is literally our backyard.  You’d almost wonder why Canada bothers attracting new residents to its Sprawlvilles.  Except perhaps as a cynical ploy to increase domestic markets and the tax base and to fulfill some corporate/ideological role in the global economy.
What to do?  Good transit, a strong social safety net, higher wages, police reform, and affordable housing would help us toward a healthy, cross-connected society according to the essays in Subdivided.  None of these things will be achieved quickly or cheaply, though.
We better get busy before something really awful comes of the present lame and indifferent regime of city building in greater Toronto.  Stress is not good for the indivdual or the community.  Stress and reaction brought us Rob Ford, the scale model mock up of Donald Trump.  Who knows what the stresses of race and class we are leaving in place will inflict on us?  We aren’t Milwaukee yet but how much longer will we sleepwalk into this?
We suggest future editions of Subdivided include a stamped, pre-addressed thank you note readers can mail to the one percent.
Buy Subdivided for your unnerved community affairs shelf.

(944) Under the Affluence [Book review]

under the affluenceUnder the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America by Tim Wise
City Lights Books Open Media Series
360 pages
San Francisco, CA
CAN$23.50 paperback
Writing about poverty isn’t the easiest task.  We know from our own modest efforts around here that the topic can leave you feeling wound up and put down at the same time.  Scale that to the level of social difficulty in the United States right now and you get an idea of the challenge before Tim Wise when he set out to produce Under the Affluence.
What this book unpacks is a layered and ridiculously well entrenched set of social conditions.  A damaging racialization of US poverty is one of several really nasty things emanating from a set of mainstream social values that serve to uphold a very troubling level of inequality described and analyzed in detail.  Much of the book is about the beat down job done on the behaviour of poor Americans and the adoration bestowed on the winners in the world’s largest economy for their behaviour.
Yes, the so-called one percent and their privileges appear early and often in Under the Affluence. So does the so-called culture of poverty which has given so much mileage to right-wing economics from the late seventies right through to the crash of 2008.  It is nothing less than crazy, the levels of righteousness, resentment and sheer magic thinking that accompany that new class of super elites shaping our neighbour’s life.  Wise looks for the reality and documents his positions like a scholar. Wise’s book is a lucid and commendable piece of work on the topic of social conditions and social attitudes.  It’s powerful, as good a work as any reader in this area could wish for or humble blogger like ourselves hope to emulate.
Like we say when we find quality of thought and effort in a piece of writing on poverty and social difficulty: buy this book!

Tim Wise on America’s Culture of Cruelty – Interview on KGNU, Boulder – 2016


(808) The New Urban Agenda [Book review]

nuaThe New Urban Agenda: The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area
Bill Freeman
$21.99 trade paperback
Dundurn Press: 2015.  240 pages

Have you been thinking that a post-Rob Ford Toronto is ready for sane voices in dialogue on the difficult issues of the day?  Voices for reform?

We certainly have been. That made our discovery of The New Urban Agenda: The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area such a nice thing we knew we had to share it. Bill Freeman is looking to construct a reasonable vision of a well-managed city moving forward with democratic, humane, reasonable responses to popular needs. Freeman is a sociologist with a long record of publishing on urban and other issues. The voice of a calm and rational adult considering complex socio-economic and socio-political issues of place without resort to a crack pipe, and from a bicycle or bus rather than a Cadillac Escalade, ought to be the preferred manner of discussion. So much is at stake for Toronto in an unbalanced world that the failure to be grown up about our city is to ask for disaster.

For obvious reasons, went ahead to the second chapter, devoted to inequality. Chapter seven came next, the one dealing with Toronto’s affordability, or rather its big-and-increasing lack thereof. The GTHA cannot continue to let things slide on either file. The author fully recognizes suburban poverty as one of the GTHA’s issues, distinguishing between the older inner suburbs and the sprawling outer suburbs. Transit, politics, the environment, and the planning process make up the rest of the book’s content. Freeman mixes solutions and positive examples into his descriptions of problematic situations. All of it is well handled.

Freeman obviously cares. He made his way to the company of a series of experts for insight when writing the book. More in the way of maps and infographics would have been nice. These things lend themselves so well to the topics at hand, even if they add to the cost of the book, that they are really obligatory. The jacket on this book, with its map that chops off part of Hamilton is kinda ugly, giving zero encouragement to bookstore browsers to think there might be a topic of enormous material importance between its covers.

Millions are directly affected by the problems and potentialities described in The New Urban Agenda. After the twisted and depressing Ford years with their lies, anger and general sickness there is a big need for Freeman’s brand of brainy yet warmhearted good sense. Professionals, elected officials, journalists and interested citizens as well as teachers and students in this broad area can journey into this book and find many things of interest. Hopefully that will happen to good effect for Canada’s biggest urban area.

As we say when we like one: “buy this book.”

(689) Hand to Mouth: Living In Bootstrap America [Book Review]


Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America
Linda Tirado
Putnam, New York: 2014
195 pages
ISBN: 978-0-399-17198-7

“I took my damn teeth out on YouTube.”

Working and being poor in Linda Tirado’s world is not pretty.  Unless you consider stress and bullshit pretty, that is.  Pay is crap.  Hours are brutal.  Personal decision-making gets goofed up by layers of expediency.  Self-esteem heads south.  And that’s just at your first job, the one you go to before your evening job that you fit in after taking classes, raising kids, fighting the welfare bureaucracy and maybe relating to someone.

A Canadian probably wants to read this f-word-laced firecracker of a book about American life with a couple of things in mind. First, that lots of people live this way here. We are a little luckier than Americans in a number of ways but there is more reason for caution than indifference. Second, have some imagination for what living like Ms. Tirado would be like without a public health-care system. Hand to Mouth wasn’t written as a favour to the upper half of this continent, that is simply a nice extra benefit of Ms. Tirado’s effort to share what it means to be among the working poor in post-2008 America. Her book serves as a warning to wise Canadians they best guard their blessings.

North Americans either side of the border retain a set of unfortunate generalizations about the nature of employment and prosperity.  Much of Tirado’s pain comes from this philosophy impeding the understanding of what it means to work and remain poor.  Sure, academics study poverty, bloggers blog about it and journalists immerse themselves in it for a stretch and report back.  Barbara Ehrenreich wrote the introduction to Hand to Mouth which stands strongly beside that writer’s own direct experience of working class life.

Tirado’s essay is relentless, adhering to a singular and difficult reality shared by millions. Luckily, it’s funny, too. Anyone who tells you there is no comedy in poverty is a liar. What choice do the poor have but to use everything they can to survive including the ability to see a desperate humour in life? The wryness and dry wit of Hand to Mouth is one of its strongest features, remarked on almost universally by readers.

Constant making do in endless shit jobs with multiple chains of nasty events all around show Tirado and her people are resourceful, they are trying hard. Not once in this powerful book does a union come anywhere near. Management? Forget it. They are just as likely to grab your ass or make some stupid demand as the public is half the time. Even toilet breaks are policed Gestapo-style in American working life.

Yup, the workers are pretty much on their own in Hand to Mouth. Headache after headache reels by. The migraines associated with cars came on as soon as began reading. Readers know the “getting around” file is a big one for us. That’s because when a gassed-up motor vehicle with good tires and insurance is available it’s an important tool for the working poor. Anything goes wrong, however, like a bad dental injury at the hands of an uninsured drunk driver, or there’s a costly repair to keep a shitbox moving, and that useful tool becomes a millstone, a part of the disaster.

And yet, the working poor are almost totally dependant on cars to stitch together jobs and other obligations. Again and again in this book automobile-inflicted pain and stress is never far. Cars soak up pay in these unpredictable, obligatory ways that almost seem purposely designed to cement in place the margin of difficulty in low income lives.

Hand to Mouth began first as an extended comment on to an item on the Huffington Post. In her comment, Tirado tried to share a reality-based explanation for some of the imponderables of poverty. She was pushing back at the shallow philosophy of so many which is based on judging the character of the poor. She admits the poor can act in self-defeating ways. In exchange for this honesty and self-criticism she asks only that the enormous energy extracted from the working poor by basic survival be recognized as the debilitating factor, not character. On the part of the better off it seems to require major effort to blame something other than the defective character of the poor for the shortcomings of an increasingly dysfunctional system. Tirado is telling us we are, well, fucking up on that one.

The Huffington Post published the comment as a stand-alone essay after the hits started to climb vertically.  From that, Hand-to-Mouth was born. We think this says something great about the truthfulness and the value of the book. Some further references might have been nice at the end, just to cross reference and further place the reality.  We hope to hear from Linda Tirado about specific solutions to poverty in her future work.

We read this one straight through, almost in one sitting. Powerful testimony delivered with humour. What we say when we like a book is “buy this book!” We don’t have any higher praise.

Hand to Mouth review – Linda Tirado’s howl of protest about plight of the poor. Poverty means bad jobs, bad credit and bad housing – but even worse is the assumption you aren’t trying hard enough, as Tirado’s angry, coruscating memoir proves

(664) The Trouble With Brunch [Book review]

BrZWE3tCUAAzBZyThe Trouble With Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure
Shawn Micalleff
Paperback and e-book, 112 pages
Coach House Press: Toronto, 2014

Brunch is a problem. Sorry, but it’s true. When you are done with Shawn Micallef’s hundred-page manifesto on that meal you may still like to eat it but will hopefully see that plate in a little wider a frame. Grease, dairy products, carbs and caffeine – sometimes with alcohol – served up in a renovated storefront with exposed brick is not just a meal but an expression of cultural programming.

Micalleff first knew brunch as a once-practical expression of a pretty reasonable Canadian prosperity. Now an intellectual labourer in Toronto, he grew up in Windsor, Ontario when it was a serious place of industry, a car building town. Apparently, brunch has evolved into a component of a less satisfying, weirder, more complicated and much less certain global economy. In short, brunch is dangerously delusional.

Given a bit of focus, brunch becomes an enormously instructive object in regard to where we are at socio-economically. Brunch is eaten the world over in gentrified, design-ey environments. Think mason jars for vases on little tables. Brunch would seem to be something well off people, a leisure class or at least a middle class, would eat to express their sheer joy. Not quite. Brunch is eaten by an increasingly precarious pseudo middle class.

Brunch is an ersatz token of aspiration, not a marker of reality, according to Micalleff. This is most intensively true for members of the so-called creative class. A class that often finds itself deep in debt, precariously employed and by way of income and other verifiable measures can be considered a good bit worse off than its parents.

Brunch is a compensation. Micalleff warns us not to fall for its appearances. Whatever we think we are getting in terms of atmosphere as we tuck into our eggs benny is a poor substitute for the substantive material gains organized labour, and the overseers thereof, realized after the Second World War. The job descriptions may have been simpler in Windsor in the sixties and seventies but they were attached to real prosperity. Today’s university-educated digital workers? Well, maybe not so much.

Creative class toilers, battered by the cost of urban housing and student loans, can barely afford their overpriced brunches. Thanks to digital technology they also appear to have less free time available to burn lining up for elaborate meals, but they do anyway. Brunchers seem brutally unaware of their predicament. Where spare time and public consumption once signified wealth brunch now seems to say, “I’m a loser and don’t even know it.”

The Trouble With Brunch could be misunderstood as a not very nice attack on people expressing consumer choice in an open market.’s editorial team, unfortunately, felt some of this pain. Having all lived in Parkdale in the 1990s we were at Toronto’s brunch Ground Zero. We just can’t let go, even twenty years later, of our warm memories: internet dates, friendship shared and carbs ingested. On hungover Sundays in the winter in particular brunch helped make up for our crap jobs and low wages, made us feel better (than we now know we were!).

Alas, we’re only human. When Easy first opened, years before it went to shit, we were there. We remember the Mockingbird, long gone, and Mitzy’s Sister, now called The Sister. And The Swan, oh The Swan. If only we’d known the meaning of the self-esteem disaster we were participating in, we’d have probably stayed in our apartment and eaten Captain Crunch or fled back to the sprawl that much earlier.  Brunch is the new crystal meth.

Still, we cannot deny Micalleff is onto something very important. Brunch speaks to the character of Canadian society. While reading The Trouble With Brunch we kept thinking of the statistics-laden battleship of Thomas Piketty’s which has been such a best seller: Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The latter takes a different path to the same place: inequality and social difficulty. There’s a lot to be said for both works but we’ll give Micalleff extra points for accessibility and for putting much of himself before readers. His book is well written, lively. Certainly both books contain tough findings and they deserve to be read.

This blog places inequality alongside climate change as the most important two issues of this era. We’d like to have seen some content about oppression-by-commodity and brunch. All the fruit, vegetables, coffee, cocoa, spices and such going into breakfast for class confused Canadians is produced in the global south. Workers there have a lot more to worry about than lining up on Sundays at an overpriced urban eatery. What of all that?

It’s certainly a little frightening to ask where will the brunching class be in twenty-five years. We’ll have to put our forks down for a bit.  At least long enough to read this important and welcome book.  You’ll have to do a little work on yourself during and after the reading of The Trouble With Brunch, but you’ll be better off for it.

Brunch is dead, long live brunch.

Shawn Micalleff on Twitter
The Trouble With Brunch | Coach House Press

See also: (299) The Housing Monster [Book review]

image: courtesy of author

(463) The American Way of Poverty [Book review]

American Way of PovertyThe American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives
Sasha Abramsky, Nation Books, 2013
368 pages

If poverty in the USA is a machine then we now have the requisite manual for understanding how that machine works. And what a devilish device American poverty is in 2013: one in six Americans is below established poverty lines.

The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives witnesses the catastrophe in its first part. To read it is to follow a visceral route through the deindustrialized zones, crapped out suburbs, food pantries, homeless shelters, trailer parks and other depressing sights of poor America. Wages are shit, benefits few. Government programs are weak. Morale and health is stalling out for millions.

Sasha Abramsky’s newest book on hard times America grew from an ongoing project called Voices of Poverty. That was a gathering up of mini biographies of social difficulty intended as a counterweight to conservative narratives of poor people as responsible for their own misery and unworthy of meaningful public help. Starting with lived experience like this makes great sense when trying to understand the complexity and stubbornness of deprivation. Part two is about policy responses to this reality. Reportage attached to intellectual analysis makes The American Way of Poverty powerful and should help it be attractive to many types of readers.

Suburban poverty is not named as a specific ill. It needn’t be since it is simply a part of the furniture of the book. Underwater mortgages and pitifully low wages abound here.

What to do? Abramsky says Americans need a better social compact. While acknowledging the difficulty of the political moment in America he calls for a“fairness agenda.” His smart, hopeful ticket of repair tools includes:

  • better measurements for describing poverty
  • pension reform
  • a major funding mechanism for higher education
  • public works and regional development especially for high-unemployment areas
  • excess profit taxes particularly on energy and financial industries
  • estate and consumption tax increases
  • higher income taxes on the wealthiest Americans
  • more progressive tax policies for middle/low income earners
  • reform and innovation in government service delivery – including 211 systems & cross platform benefit applications
  • reductions in defence spending
  • a changed approach to drug addiction & mental health care
  • criminal justice system reform – especially sentencing reform
  • reduced rates of incarceration
  • Medicaid, SNAP, TANF reform – especially to access requirements

A mighty agenda this is, one requiring grass roots action and concerted federal effort. Many of the programs suggested will have high start up costs and require support from tax revenue. It’s fascinating to read what Abramsky has pulled together.  Common sense shines out of his book all the time easing the dark aspects of the subject.

Sadly, many good ideas have to be accompanied by passages describing how they can be spun, for lack of a better word, to make them more appealling in a polarized environment that includes deeply internalized neoconservative and neoliberal values. Poverty in twenty-first century America cannot just be approached with a view to its elimination by the best possible technical means. The possibility of a technocratic approach modelled on the 1960s War on Poverty or the space program is not possible in America right now. Abramsky has to belabour himself early on in three ways because of the condition the national psychology is in. First, just to establish that America’s poverty is real, large in scale and worthy of everybody’s attention. Secondly, that it is a scandal not a tragedy. And thirdly, that there are multiple incentives for carefully applying well thought out correctives to poverty that will benefit all of American society.

Readers might have expected more comparisons to Canada along the way. Cultural expectations in both countries are still comparable for many people. Touchy Americans usually respond with contempt or disinterest to comparisons between the United States and say Sweden or Iceland, no matter the content of the comparison.  Canada may have been a more useful object of comparison for the author.  Canadians can also still be thankful that their poverty is modified by publically funded health care – something Americans have yet to fully get around to and which Abramsky advocates.

North of the border this book makes for alarming reading. Is this Canada’s future?  Maybe our ailing neighbour will surprise us and the world. The country that was spending $5,000 a second at the height of the Iraq war might yet lift up its poor and discover it likes doing so along the way. What an example to the world that would be. In the meantime America’s poor can be thankful someone is out there recording their words and drawing together the best ideas on the topic of what is to be done.

Read this book.

Poor in the land of plenty: Sasha Abramsky’s ‘American Way of Poverty’
NYT review

The author is featured in this Democracy Now! segment:

(411) Happy City [Book review]

Happy CityHappy City. Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
by Charles Montgomery
2013: Doubleday Canada
$29.95CAN Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-385-66912-2

Surely no real city ever got built for the sake of happiness. No, the places we live in must be responses to much bigger and more important, less ephemeral things, aren’t they? They must be brought forth by great and willful people marshalling the forces of history, technology, capital? Then happiness comes along later, for a while, here and there and usually by accident, maybe.

What if we reversed this proposition? Can we take human happiness as our starting point when giving shape to community? What is wrong with us that we seem not to be doing so?

Montgomery wants us to be happy. Presumably we do to. How will we get there? Well, looks like building out North America’s suburban sprawl at the cost of many tens of billions of dollars a year since the 1980s is exactly not the way to go about it. This isn’t about personal taste or some generation-specific set of preferences. Sociological surveys, done at large scale and to good standards of accuracy, indicate that plowing vast tracts of land and our socioeconomic life into commuter and aesthetic hellaciousness is a disaster. Yeah, there’s an awful lot of anti-depressants in use in the most well off societies.

The author supports his views early on through the growing science of happiness. It is a very real and measurable thing, happiness. Your health and general quality of life soar when you have it, both crash when you don’t. The latter is whacking the United States and Canada and other places with a huge and growing bill. The numbers are in, pretty much. It’s in our best interest personally to design communities that enhance our well-being. Good thing, too. Sprawl as known in North America is unsustainable environmentally.

A felicific calculus of psychology and design favours places where we can moderate our social interactions and economic role to suit us best, transport our bodies with ease and safety, feel a certain level of connected equality with our fellow citizens and receive an aesthetic lift from our surroundings, especially by having nature in them. This scientifically verifiable prospect comes from a convergence of design practice and psychological state that literally gives us a reason to live.

It works, though happy cities are in critically short supply. Montgomery has built a fairly groovy career out of the happy city – along with others he is extending a body of thought traceable to Jane Jacobs in the early 1960s. She went up against the cars and the interstate highway builders like Robert Moses in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Montgomery, a native of Vancouver, starts us out in Bogota, Colombia.

Not long ago it was an obscure capital – with quality of life almost at rock bottom.  Things were so bad for so long there that something crazy, like embracing the happiness of the citizenry, was a dire necessity. Bogotans were facing much worse problems than North American super-commuters and other Edge City dwellers. The crime, poverty, crowding, pollution, automotive mayhem, noise and general sense of catastrophe and hopelessness had almost crushed civil society in Bogota.

Then happiness came along. The mayor who led the way is now a sought-after rock star who has made consultancy stops everywhere from Manila to Toronto, New York, Singapore, Los Angeles and Mexico City. Of course it isn’t perfect but perfection is not the point, happiness is.

Again, this happiness-by-design thing is not a quirky, hippy undertaking.  Nor is it based on some obligatory formula of streetcars, bike lanes and cafes. It isn’t about going back in time. Happiness-building design can be applied to traditional cities and brand new places belonging to pretty much any culture and climate and takes a variety of physical forms. It’s mainly about respecting how people best like to array themselves in their various roles and places of activity and finding ways of supporting that.

Just reading about what’s involved with the idea of a happy city makes you feel better, puts oxygen rich blood into your brain, releases oxytocin, lowers blood pressure and boosts the immune system.  Don’t fight it.

Happy City earns’s highest book review accolade possible which is when we go over to the window, open it up and say “read this book” to the world.

It’ll make you happy.


(336) Thieves of Bay Street [Book review]

TTOBSThieves of Bay Street: How Banks, Brokerages and the Wealthy Steal Billions from Canadians
Bruce Livesey
Vintage Canada, Toronto, 2012
313 pages
ISBN: 978-0-307-35964-3
$21.00 paperback

Dishonesty, mismanagement and mediocre regulation in the financial sector burns Canadians to the tune of twenty billion dollars a year.  So says investigative reporter Bruce Livesey in his book Thieves of Bay Street, recently made available in paperback.

Livesey’s critique reverses the rosy description of this country’s financial sector that appeared in the wake of the American meltdown.  In that description, Canada’s banks and brokerages are seen to have dodged the ruinous calamity and moral disaster of the mortgage crisis and too-big-to-fail bank bailouts through better regulation and less inclination to rapaciousness and greed, because they were a sensible reflection of the country’s best qualities.

Livesey swings hard at all that.  Less than ten pages in he describes Bay Street as a “…wealth destroyer, a parasitic reaper of money from the middle and working classes, transferring it to the very people who run the financial industry and Canada’s wealthiest citizens.”  He works from the evidence.  By the time Livesay is done, Canada’s financial players are only marginally distinguishable in terms of character and behaviour from those of the United States or Great Britain, or indeed, the Third World.

The source of pain is the small, club-like financial elite operating the industry.  In turn, they are facilitated by fragmented, weak regulatory bodies whose decision-makers are usually drawn from the industry.  A constitutional weakness also renders Canada virtually unique among developed countries in that regulation of high finance is not a national responsibility. Instead, it is divided amongst thirteen subnational bodies.  Changing this has been on the radar of the present Tory government but is proving difficult and is seen to have encouraged international fraudsters of the worst kind to come to Canada and get busy.

Conrad Black starts the action in Thieves of Bay Street.  A household name and recently released from jail in America, Black’s issues revolve around fees and fraud.  Where once management handled money to advance a business and its investors they now maneuver millions while rationalizing a share for themselves at the expense of good governance and achievement through productive activity.  Corporations come and go quickly and vast sums are raked off by managers like Black regardless of outcome.  Notably, Black has chosen to litigate against Livesey, assuring the latter of valuable publicity.

Dozens of further examples of nasty behaviour towards corporate holdings, pensions, investors and employees unfold in this book.  Names like Hollinger, Nortel, Stelco, and YBM Magnex, Edward Jones are already familiar, others less so, all representing plenty of damage to Main Street.

The positive propaganda around Bay Street post-2008 really doesn’t survive a reading of this book, which is a bestseller and has been positively reviewed even in conservative newspapers like the National Post and the Globe & Mail.  Conrad Black was busted in Chicago, not Toronto.  Contrast even lifestyle entrepreneur Martha Stewart’s notoriety south of the border for an insider trading deal worth about $45,000 with the case of two Toronto financial sector lawyers described in chapter fourteen.  The pair scored about $10m in two quiet four-or-five year runs of insider trading, outed only after giving in to emotional instability and a series of sloppy moves described as “moronic”.

Fraud and greed on the part of individual players is one thing.  Livesey reserves some of his very strongest criticism for the regulators, underwriters, lawyers, analysts, and rating agencies.  This is the logistical tail of Bay Street and too frequently white collar criminals make handy use of this part of the industry.  “Sometimes, these ‘enablers’ consciously assist the criminals and are intricately involved in frauds; sometimes they simply turn a blind eye in order to make a lot of money; and sometimes they screw up. Either way, their behaviour is part and parcel of the investment world’s culture, one that suggests declining morals and dearth of concern for investors’ interests,” writes Livesey.

Canadian banks were party to the sub prime mortgage horror show in the United States and sold financial products to Canadians based on toxic real estate-related debt.  Not always with pretty results, either.  Livesey sees Canada’s banks and brokerages as extensively integrated to a global system that courts enormous risk and encourages a growing and destructive picture of inequality in wealth.  A system further seen to have extensive relationships to crime via a system of shadow banking.

Central to the positive image of the big Canadian banks after 2008 is the idea that they received nothing in the way of public-money bailouts as their American and British institutional cousins required to remain alive and not bring down their respective national economies along with themselves.  This myth has proved quite persistent.  Chapter eight, Bankers Behaving Badly, addresses it.  Indeed, Canada’s big banks have been “bailed in” since Victorian times you might say but have been privileged to the tune of  many tens of billions of dollars in response to recent global economic difficulty.  Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation helped the banks blur the impact of toxic assets.  Ordinary Canadian customers also pay very high fees to banks for their basic services.  The much trumpeted position of the banks is due as much to government help and ATM charges, not to mention public complacency, as fiscal prudence on the part of management.

Curiously, when we began reading this book with a review of it in mind for two bank-related developments entered the news stream.  The first that several big Canadian banks have been officially described as “systemically important” that is to say, too big to fail.  The other was a report from Bloomberg about bank CEO pay for North America.  Canadian bankers are among the top tier for compensation, and are also named for being overpaid in proportion to the size and performance of their banks.  This is barely a month after the furor over outsourcing jobs at RBC (and later HSBC) and so we are reminded again of the huge role of Bay Street in the life of Canada, like it or not.

The more realistic our view of this complex, lucrative industry the better.  After reading Livesey’s book and blog it’s hard not to be pessimistic.  If Canadians are to be richer or poorer people over the coming decades a lot will depend on the money business.  Recent government interest in making the reality of Bay Street as sound and sensible as the image is welcome, Livesey suggests it may be too late.

Either way, says “read this book!”