Planners versus riders: Metro Vancouver transit after the referendum.

So the results are in from Metro Vancouver’s recent mail-in transit referendum. (Technically a plebiscite, but I’m fuzzy on the distinction.)

The issue on the ballot was a proposed 0.5% sales tax hike to help pay for the so-called Mayors’ Plan, a raft of regional transportation improvements. Specifically:

  1. A tunneled extension of the Skytrain rapid rail line through the busiest stretch of Vancouver’s Broadway corridor;
  2. Two new LRT lines in the fast-growing suburb of Surrey;
  3. A replacement for the past-its-expected-lifespan Patullo bridge between New Westminster and Surrey;
  4. 11 new “B-Line” high-frequency express bus routes;
  5. More trains for Skytrain, more sailings for the Seabus to North Vancouver, more buses, more late-night service – just more transit in general;
  6. Improvements to cycle and walking paths throughout the region.
metro vancouver transit map mayors plan

The Mayors’ Plan.

To the surprise of approximately no-one, the Mayors’ Plan was roundly rejected, by majorities ranging from about 51-49% in Vancouver proper up to 75% in the more distant exurbs.

I voted Yes, as the proposal would have benefited me personally: I take transit regularly, and spend very little, so I would have enjoyed the improved service while barely feeling the pain of higher taxes. However, I sympathize with No voters who objected to that extra fraction on their sales tax on top of the already staggering cost of living in the Lower Mainland.

Since voting ended, the federal government has announced a substantial new fund to support large transit infrastructure projects, and both Surrey and Vancouver have pledged to look into this and other means of achieving their respective rail ambitions. Which means a very possible outcome is that in a decade or so we’ll end up with items 1, 2, and 3 from the list above, but none of the small-beer improvements that would actually have made getting around the region more efficient in the short term.

metro vancouver mayors plan rail proposals

The Mayors’ Plan, big-beer version.

This is a little annoying to me, because although the Broadway subway and Surrey LRT are worthy projects, and the new bridge is probably a necessity, they’re going to suck up all the funds we could have used to make less flashy but far more useful upgrades.

Problem: Rapid transit doesn’t take you to places you want to go.

Transit serves two very different purposes, and it’s easy to forget that those reasons are actually in conflict. The first purpose, the one riders prioritize, is to take you to places you want to go. To your home, your job, your school, a bar, a doctor.

The second purpose is to shape growth – to redirect investment and development to underdeveloped areas – to remake the city. Which is why cities are constantly building rail lines to precisely the places riders don’t want to go. Where there are no homes, no jobs, no schools, no bars, no doctors. Not yet, anyway.

Ideally there should be a balance between serving the first purpose and the second; between the short-term needs of riders, and the long-term goals of city planners. But the planners tend to win out, because they have a pretty strong argument on their side: It’s expensive to build where stuff already is. It’s cheap to build where there’s nothing.

So you wind up with a project like the Skytrain’s Millennium Line, which at the time of its opening in 2002 connected a string of down-at-heels suburban malls and light-industrial zones.

Meanwhile, over a decade later, riders wanting to go to the University of British Columbia, or Stanley Park, or Granville Island, still have to ride the bus.

The two big-ticket transit items in the Mayors’ Plan are a decent balance of short-term and long-term. The Surrey LRT would stop at many a weed-choked lot, but the communities at the extremities of its three arms – Newton, Guildford, and Langley – are already busy, built-up suburban centres. And Vancouver’s Broadway corridor is a thriving business district abutting a dense residential population heavy on renters and students.

The ultimate objective is for the Broadway subway to extend all the way to UBC. Maybe I’ll get to see that before I die, though I wouldn’t bet on it. In the meantime, the plan has the line terminating at Arbutus Street, or not quite halfway.

metro vancouver mayors plan broadway subway

Millennium line subway down Broadway.

Which means that, barring other improvements, taking transit to school from the middle part of the corridor – say, the intersection of Broadway and Oak – will actually be slightly less convenient than it is at present. Instead of boarding an overcrowded express bus that takes you all the way to UBC, you’ll have to travel a couple subway stops and then transfer to an overcrowded express bus. Much of the time you save from having bypassed a few dozen blocks of traffic will be eaten up in transferring and waiting.

Let’s forget about the rail proposals for a second and consider only the express bus routes – the B-Lines – laid out in the Mayors’ Plan.

Metro Vancouver transit map - Mayors' Plan - proposed B-Lines

The Mayors’ Plan, small-beer only.

Absent the subway, the existing Broadway B-Line would remain in operation, but be supplemented by another one along 41st Avenue, creating a more direct route to UBC for students coming from the south and southeast, and alleviating the ridiculous congestion on Broadway.

Two new routes would head east out of downtown Vancouver, helping to relieve the overcrowded Expo/Millennium Line. Another would lead up through the West End and Stanley Park to the North Shore.

What’s missing is an all-day express route directly linking downtown and UBC via the Burrard Bridge and 4th Avenue West, to take further pressure off the Broadway B-Line. [1]

metro vancouver mayors plan b-lines

Proposed B-Lines – with my suggestion (green).

Simon Fraser University, Capilano University, and BCIT would all enjoy all-day express service under the plan. So would Burnaby Heights, Kerrisdale, Hastings Park, Park Royal, White Rock…all places people either already live or might actually want to go.

The initial capital cost for all eleven proposed B-Lines would be a shade under $100 million. On top of that the plan proposes $193 million in “transit priority” upgrades – things like queue-jumper lanes and traffic signal priority for buses. That’s $300 million, total – or about 1/6th of the cost of the Broadway subway.

And unlike the subway, we could be enjoying at least some of these improvements immediately.

Problem: Buses are the worst.

It’s strange, but some folks out in the suburbs aren’t too keen on getting around by bus. Why could this be?

  1. Waiting like a schmuck in the rain or in the sun.
  2. Time listed in the schedule is only an approximation. Did I miss it? Should I just start walking?
  3. Inscrutable notice tacked to bus stop seems to be saying on certain days I have to wait at a different stop two blocks away.
  4. Not sure how to use unfamiliar payment system, driver vaguely hostile when I make a mistake.
  5. Nowhere to sit. Packed shoulder to shoulder with the plebes, swinging from a strap, broiling in summer heat.
  6. Bus stuck in rush hour traffic along with all the idiots in their cars. At least those idiots have air conditioning.
  7. Never been on this route before, not sure when to pull the cord.
  8. Shouldn’t we be turning here? Am I even on the right bus? [2]

Some of these drawbacks are shared by trains. You’re as likely taking a train to be confused at first by the payment system. You’re as likely to be wedged in between a wheelchair and a sweaty hiker’s backpack (although at least on a train the aisle is wider and the ride smoother). There’s still a chance of getting on the wrong train, though the maps conveniently placed above the doors, and the big signs on the wall when you pull into a station, make it easier to recognize when you’ve made a mistake.

It seems to me the main advantages of taking the train are that your waiting area is sheltered from the elements, your route will be clearly mapped and easy to follow, and – of course – the speed and frequency of service.

City planners, with their emphasis on long-term goals over short-term needs, will say: People hate to take the bus. Let’s build new rail lines and attract those people.

Whereas an emphasis on currently existing riders would say: People hate to take the bus. Let’s make the bus-taking experience better.

Let’s build clearly-marked, well-lit, fully-covered platforms instead of rinkydink shelters. Let’s have an electronic timer counting down the minutes till the next departure. Let’s put the payment system at the entrance to the platform so they can board the bus itself more smoothly. Let’s have dedicated bus lanes so that citizens who elect to leave their cars at home actually enjoy a time advantage over drivers of single occupant vehicles. Most importantly, let’s have more and more frequent buses.

The best thing about this strategy is that the cost-savings advantage swings from planners to riders.

If we tripled the $300 million B-Line investments described in the Mayor’s Plan, we could make getting around by bus almost as attractive as taking the train. And it would still cost only half as much as a new rail line. [3]

Specific suggestions for Metro Vancouver in the wake of the plebiscite’s defeat.

I’m not saying let’s not build rail lines. I love rail lines. They’re fast, they move a lot of people, and yes – they attract a lot of new riders to the system. Rail is worth building – when you can afford it.

But if we have to pick and choose which improvements we can afford to make right now, maybe let’s put a little more emphasis on the needs of existing transit riders than the needs of the possible future riders of 2040.

If there are federal infrastructure funds available, instead of blowing them on a couple big rail projects, use them to build platforms and dedicated lanes for express buses. [4] They’re not very glamourous but they’ll get people moving.

Start with the B-Lines proposed in the Mayors’ Plan. Maybe we don’t do all of them right away – I’m not sure we need two separate express buses trundling along Marine Drive in North Vancouver, as the plan proposes. Maybe for now we focus on the most congested corridors.

If there’s a little money left over, get to work on extending the Millennium Line as far as the new Emily Carr University campus scheduled to open in 2017. Then, stop.

Pause to think about whether it’s worthwhile to continue tunneling on down Broadway. Maybe it would make more sense, and be less expensive, to close the gap between the Millennium and Canada Lines by building along 1st Avenue, the old rail corridor, to Olympic Village Station.

Vancouver Skytrain - Millennium Line extension options

Millennium Line extension options.

Maybe a system of east-west express buses down, say, 4th, Broadway, and 41st could do the job of keeping students flowing to and from UBC while relieving congestion on Broadway.

If we choose trains over express buses, I can live with that too. I’m sure I’ll enjoy riding the Broadway subway in 2025 or so. On my not-too-frequent trips out to Guildford, I’ll happily take the LRT.

But when I go to Stanley Park? I’ll drive.


1. My proposed 4th Avenue B-Line would be a slight augmentation of the existing 44 express, which already runs every 10 minutes at peak times on weekdays.

2. Recent technological improvements have made the bus-taking experience significantly better. TransLink has a website that will tell you based on GPS tracking data when your next bus is due to arrive. Smartphones allow you to follow your progress on a map to make sure you’re going where you think you’re going. And the little digital display at the front of the bus showing the next stop makes riding an unfamiliar route much less stressful.

3. To be fair, the ongoing operating costs for the B-Lines would be quite a bit higher. Operating the 11 new proposed routes would cost about $50 million a year, twice as much as the completed Broadway subway.

4. We’ll also need to put aside some money for new off-street parking lots. This is to appease local business owners when we start taking away street parking for bus lanes.

Bertrand Russell and the conquest of narrowness.

I’ve been reading Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, which discusses eight common causes of unhappiness and why we so often succumb to them, and six sources of happiness and how we can attain them. As a person prone to most of the types of unhappiness he explores, I’m finding it a useful and thought-provoking little book.

It was written in 1930, and is therefore a bit dated in its examination of the outward or socially-imposed causes of unhappiness. For instance, I doubt too many men or women nowadays are afflicted with the particular sexual hang-ups Russell identifies as major sources of human misery; we’ve evolved a brand-new set of sexual dysfunctions to be immiserated by. Another cause of unhappiness that has changed somewhat since Russell’s day is what he calls fear of public opinion. Essentially, and commonsensically, he argues that the cure for this fear is to seek out a social milieu where you feel comfortable expressing yourself freely, and in your dealings with hostile outsiders to cultivate a cheerful indifference to their opprobrium. He explains how moderate non-conformity with society’s expectations can improve our collective happiness:

[A] society composed of men and women who do not bow too much to the conventions is a far more interesting society than one in which all behave alike. Where each person’s character is developed individually, differences of type are preserved, and it is worth while to meet new people, because they are not mere replicas of those whom one has met already.

As Russell describes it, the most common threat to individuality comes from small-town prudes and ignoramuses enforcing their prejudices on the young:

A person born, let us say, in some small country town finds himself from early youth surrounded by hostility to everything that is necessary for mental excellence.

Fortunately, he says, big cities provide concentrations of enlightened folk among whom oppressed country youngsters can feel at home, while even in more rural areas, swift modern transportation allows them to range further in their search for sympathetic souls:

The idea that one should know one’s immediate neighbors has died out in large centers of population, but still lingers in small towns and in the country. It has become a foolish idea, since there is no need to be dependent upon immediate neighbors for society. More and more it becomes possible to choose our companions on account of congeniality rather than on account of mere propinquity. Happiness is promoted by associations of persons with similar tastes and similar opinions. Social intercourse may be expected to develop more and more along these lines, and it may be hoped that by these means the loneliness that now afflicts so many unconventional people will be gradually diminished almost to vanishing point. This will undoubtedly increase their happiness … for it is essential to happiness that our way of living should spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbors, or even our relations.

Prophetically, he concedes that escaping their narrow-minded neighbours won’t always protect freethinkers from the scorn of the majority:

[T]here is a new kind of fear, namely, the fear of what newspapers may say. This is quite as terrifying as anything connected with medieval witch hunts. When the newspaper chooses to make a scapegoat of some perhaps quite harmless person, the results may be very terrible. Fortunately, as yet this is a fate which most people escape through their obscurity; but as publicity gets more and more perfect in its methods, there will be an increasing danger in this novel form of social persecution.

What Russell would have made of social media, one can only guess. He predicts vaguely that libel laws may someday have to be extended to forbid any commentary “that makes life intolerable for innocent individuals”, though he is happy to leave it to the jurists of the future to define what is intolerable and who is innocent. He concludes:

The only ultimate cure for this evil is, however, an increase of toleration on the part of the public. The best way to increase toleration is to multiply the number of individuals who enjoy real happiness and do not therefore find their chief pleasure in the infliction of pain upon their fellow men.

My sense is that while the modern ease of forming “associations of persons with similar tastes and similar opinions” may have increased happiness by allowing isolated people to escape their loneliness, it has done very little to increase toleration. In fact, while we’re undoubtedly more “tolerant” in the modern sense – tolerant of ethnic minorities and sexual experimenters of various types – we’re as likely as ever to anathematize and despise those whose opinions are slightly different from ours. Why make uneasy friendships with our neighbours when we can make easy friendships with people whose beliefs we already know we share? – and if there’s any doubt, we can check their Twitter feed to confirm their beliefs as the correct ones. The modern tendency is to segregate ourselves into ever more exclusive castes based on education and political alignment, so there’s little risk of being forced into an awkward conversation with someone whose ideas might make us uncomfortable. I believe this point has been discussed at book length already by Bill Bishop and Charles Murray, so I won’t belabor it here.

Russell’s comments about the supposed narrowness of small-town life reminded me of a 1905 essay by G.K. Chesterton (reprinted in the 1958 Penguin collection of his Essays and Poems) called “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family”:

It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the willfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.

Unlike Chesterton, Bertrand Russell can only imagine the compromises of right-thinkers oppressed by wrong-thinkers: the young person whose parents “believe the doctrine of evolution to be wicked”, for example, or the aspiring actor stifled by the convention that a career on the stage is “socially inferior”. If Chesterton’s “solitary and sensitive individual” has to flee to the big city to escape the influence of clods like these, what’s the downside? Russell doesn’t consider the possibility that the young person might leave behind his narrow provincial background only to take up with a new, even narrower pack of clods.


Nevil Shute’s multiple vote: Would it do any good?

Last month Noah Millman linked to Damian Linker’s overblown argument that the modern Republican Party is actively plotting to disenfranchise the poor. To Linker, a liberal, it goes without saying that this supposed plot, if successful, would have monstrous results. Millman, judicious as always, took a moment to analyze what those monstrous results would actually be.

Millman summarizes two “Randite arguments” he claims to hear on the right for excluding non-taxpayers from the franchise – both of which he goes on to dismiss as “transparently absurd”.

The first argument, as he puts it, is “that it’s unfair for one’s representation to be less than proportional to one’s contribution (therefore people who don’t pay income taxes should not be allowed to vote).”

The second is “that it’s dangerous to give power to the unpropertied (because they don’t have a sufficient stake in stable property rights that promote productive enterprise).”

Having done a bit of browsing on the kind of websites where such sentiments are current, I suspect Millman has phrased these specimens of the “two most common forms” of right-wing anti-democratic thinking in a manner that makes them easier for him to undermine. Even so, I’m not sure he quite does the job.

Taking the points out of order, Millman’s criticism of Randite argument #2 is that we should “read [our] Livy”, and “take a look at the history of Latin America”, to see what chaos can result from entrenching the division between rich and poor. I’m sure Millman knows far more about both those subjects than I do, but in any case it seems obvious that there are a lot of intermediate steps between 21st century America and, say, the late Roman Republic; to argue that we may have extended voting rights a shade too far is not to say they must be rolled back to the days of the Gracchi. We might wish to go only as far as that notorious Randite John Stuart Mill, who conceded in an 1861 treatise in favour of universal suffrage that:

It is important, that the assembly which votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected exclusively by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed. Those who pay no taxes, disposing by their votes of other people’s money, have every motive to be lavish and none to economize. [1]

On these grounds the compassionate anti-democrat might argue that, even if contracting the franchise does inevitably lead to some social instability, it will compensate by helping ensure the solvency of our institutions; the poor would be better off under a stingier but sounder government than they would be scrabbling in the ruins of a failed republic. (Obviously your receptivity to this argument depends on how much faith you have in the sustainability of the welfare state.)

As for Randite argument #1, the “transparently absurd” notion that representation should be “proportional to one’s contributions” to the state, all Millman really tries to prove is that such a change would be difficult to implement. Apart from taxpayers, any number of interest groups could argue that their non-monetary contributions gave them a moral claim to a greater say in government; Millman identifies soldiers, mothers, and the descendents of slaves as citizens who, whatever their contribution to the treasury, might justly make such a case. And on what principle would we adjudicate these competing interests?

But to say it would be difficult isn’t to say either that it’s impossible or that it shouldn’t be done. We’ve already demonstrated our ability to democratically negotiate various deviations from the ideal of one-person-one-vote. In both the United States and Canada, residents of rural and more remote districts usually have greater weight apportioned to their votes than those who live in urban or more central areas. For instance, the 170,000 residents of the riding of Brampton West, in suburban Toronto, elect as many Members of Parliament – one – as the 26,000 residents of Labrador, making the Labradorian vote roughly six and a half times as weighty as the West Bramptonian. Regardless of whether you think this is fair, few would argue that a parliament elected under such rules was illegitimate, much less that it was incapable of debating whether Labradorian and West Bramptonian votes should be made either more equal or still less so.

In short, there’s no reason a legislative body elected under existing voting rules couldn’t debate and vote on the merits of changing the rules to favour certain voters in subsequent elections. This is in fact what Nevil Shute imagined in his 1953 novel In The Wet.

The novel is set in the then-near future of the early 1980s, mainly in a post-World War III England that is exhausted, impoverished, and stifled by rationing and central planning – not unlike the post-WWII England with which Shute and his contemporary readers were familiar. The hero is an Australian pilot who lands the plum job of captaining the Queen’s personal airplane. In contrast to the mother country, Australia is vibrant, prosperous, and growing, conditions which the author attributes to its adoption some years earlier of a system of “multiple voting”. Citizens can acquire up to seven votes, in any combination, according to the following criteria:

  • The first vote is given to every citizen on reaching the age of 21.
  • The second vote is for university graduates and commissioned military officers.
  • The third vote is earned after living and working abroad for at least two years.
  • The fourth vote is for raising two children to the age of fourteen without divorcing.
  • The fifth vote is for earning at least £5000 in the year before the election. (This is a pretty elite-level income. A newly-built three-bedroom house, we are told, costs four or five thousand Australian pounds.)
  • The sixth vote is for officials in any of the recognized Christian churches.
  • The seventh vote is given only at the discretion of the monarch. (At the novel’s climax our hero, a “three-vote man”, saves the Queen’s life, earning the rare and prestigious seventh vote.)

Shute is a little fuzzy on how this cockeyed scheme managed to get implemented. Apparently it began in the state of Western Australia, which, the protagonist explains, “was always pretty Liberal” (in the Australian and European sense of pro-free-market). As to what happened next:

“Aw, look,” said David. “West Australia was walking away with everything. We got a totally different sort of politician when we got the multiple vote. Before that, when it was one man one vote, the politicians were all tub-thumping nonentities and union bosses. Sensible people didn’t stand for parliament, and if they stood they didn’t get in. When we got multiple voting we got a better class of politician altogether, people who got elected by sensible voters.” He paused. “Before that when a man got elected to the Legislative Assembly, he was an engine driver or a dock labourer, maybe. He got made a Minister and top man of a Government department. Well, he couldn’t do a thing. The civil servants had him all wrapped up, because he didn’t know anything.”

“And after the multiple voting came in, was it different?”

“My word,” said the Australian. “We got some real men in charge. Did the Civil Service catch a cold! Half of them were out on their ear within a year, and then West Australia started getting all the coal and all the industry away from New South Wales and Victoria. And then these chaps who had been running West Australia started to get into Canberra. In 1973, when the multiple vote came in for the whole country, sixty per cent of the Federal Cabinet were West Australians. It got so they were running every bloody thing.”

“Because they were better people?” asked the captain.

“That’s right.”

I’m not going to try defending this as a piece of writing. Much of In The Wet concerns the boring romance of the pilot and his English girlfriend. There’s a lot of long-distance flying. I think we’re supposed to be awed by descriptions of the futuristic aircraft in which the Queen travels from Canada to Australia with just one refueling stop on Christmas Island, but in this respect Shute was too prophetic for his own good; what once seemed fantastical is now mundane. The voting scheme is by default the most interesting thing about the novel. Luckily, it’s fairly central to the plot. At the end of the book, the Queen essentially blackmails the UK into adopting the multiple vote by threatening to relocate permanently to Australia.

I am, to put it mildly, unconvinced A) that Shute’s scheme would ever pass in the first place, and B) if it somehow did, that it would have anything like such a dramatic effect on the quality of our legislators. Shute, like most political commentators, believes that if “sensible” voters were in charge, they’d elect the kind of governments he happens to favour – in his case, pragmatic, pro-monarchist, moderately right-wing ones. Just like Thomas Frank, who is convinced that the Matter With Kansas is that its citizens don’t share his left-of-centre outlook, and Bryan Caplan, who believes the properly informed Rational Voter must necessarily adopt libertarian views like his, Shute assumes that where he  has convictions, his political foes have only prejudices; where he reasons dispassionately, they are swayed by cheap emotionalism; where he considers the common good, they selfishly pursue their own trivial fancies. [2]

I don’t hold a much higher opinion of the electorate than Frank or Caplan or Shute. But I can’t help noticing that intelligent, thoughtful, idealistic people (like, for instance, Frank and Caplan and Shute) manage to hold widely divergent opinions on every imaginable topic of contention. John Derbyshire in an article somewhere made the point that if in the 1930s or ’40s the franchise had been restricted to university professors, the United States would probably have wound up with a Communist dictatorship. His point being that highly intelligent people often support stupid ideas. Why? For the same reasons stupid people do. Because those stupid ideas become fashionable. Because they’re emotionally appealing. Because they flatter our sense of self-importance. Because it’s not obvious how stupid they are until you see them put into practice.

So if you’re going to extend or limit the franchise, it’s not enough to say you’ll favour “sensible” voters. You need to work backwards from what kind of government you want to create. Shute desires a certain set of policies; he knows that wealthy people, parents of teenage children, military officers, and clergymen tend to support those same policies; so he gives their votes extra weight. In his day, no doubt, it also seemed reasonable to gamble on the conservative instincts of university graduates and those who’d worked abroad. The resulting electorate might not usher in an age of philosopher-princes, but it would probably stick up for Queen, country, and low taxes.

On the other hand, if you want more liberal policies, it helps to spread the franchise as far and wide as you can. Here in Canada there is occasional talk about lowering the voting age to sixteen; it won’t surprise you to learn that the New Democrats, Canada’s most left-wing mainstream party, have been the most enthusiastic proponents of this change. In the States, the Democratic Party is fighting to extend citizenship to a few million illegal immigrants who, by a funny coincidence, are highly likely, once enfranchised, to vote for Democratic candidates. This isn’t to say the NDP or Dems are cynically supporting these policies solely with an eye to their vote share. Like conservatives in the US and Canada who are pushing to tighten ID requirements to vote, on the probably spurious grounds that voter fraud is a widespread problem, they fully believe their own rhetoric, and get sincerely indignant when you challenge it. They believe they’re acting disinterestedly in the name of justice. You’d think intelligent people would be quicker than others to notice when they’re deceiving themselves, but their facility for self-deception is correspondingly more nimble.

People who put their faith in modern democracy make two assertions that strike me as debatable. The first is that the existing system is fairer than a system that would limit the franchise to those deemed, by whatever inevitably imperfect method, to be the most responsible citizens. Whether or not it’s fairer, it’s certainly easier to say “To heck with it – votes for everyone!” than embark on the awkward task of telling some of us we’re less qualified to bear the burden of governing. The second dodgy assertion is that our system is more effective at producing good government. This assertion of course depends on everyone agreeing beforehand on what constitutes good government, which it’s not in our nature ever to do; that’s why we resort to democracy in the first place. We can probably agree that avoiding outbreaks of anarchy is a good, objective measure of effectiveness; by which metric, universal suffrage has so far performed pretty well. But the experiment is less than a hundred years old. There’s no guarantee that fairness and effectiveness, in the end, must go together.


PS. I might be the only person you’ll ever hear arguing against universal suffrage who doesn’t believe under a “better” system he’d enjoy a couple well-deserved extra votes. Under Nevil Shute’s rules I’m a one-vote man, and almost certainly always will be.

1. That John Stuart Mill passage is from Chapter 8 of Reflections on Representative Government, which advocates extending votes to “the very lowest ranks of the people”:

[I]t is a personal injustice to withhold from any one, unless for the prevention of greater evils, the ordinary privilege of having his voice reckoned in the disposal of affairs in which he has the same interest as other people.

However, “the prevention of greater evils” permits – in fact, requires, “by first principles”, Mill says –  the disenfranchising of tax evaders and parish relief recipients, as well as the uneducated: he advocates a “simple test” for voters in the presence of the registrar to determine literacy and numeracy. This reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s scheme, half-jokingly proposed in his 1980 collection Expanded Universe:

[S]tep into the polling booth and find that the computer has generated a new quadratic equation just for you. Solve it, the computer unlocks the voting machine, you vote. But get a wrong answer and the voting machine fails to unlock, a loud bell sounds, a red light goes on over that booth – and you slink out, face red, you having just proved yourself too stupid and/or ignorant to take part in the decisions of the grownups. Better luck next election! No lower age limit in this system – smart 12-yr-old girls vote every election while some of their mothers – and fathers – decline to be humiliated twice.

In the same essay Heinlein recommends Mark Twain’s The Curious Republic of Gondour, which outlines a voting scheme very much like the one in In The Wet.

2. Full disclosure: I haven’t read Thomas Frank or Bryan Caplan’s books. Maybe they’re not as simplistic as their back-cover copy makes them sound.


Jim Jarmusch: Rock-n-roll vampires are just like you and me!

The rock-n-roll vampires of Only Lovers Left Alive are among the most explicit audience wish-fulfilment surrogates in the history of fantasy filmmaking. Usually we have to exercise our imagination to vault ourselves into the exalted realm of our superhuman heroes. In our self-flattering daydreams we are always the mutants of the X-Men, the aliens of Avatar, the wizards of the Harry Potter world, never the ordinary clods who misunderstand and persecute them. It’s the fantastic element that prevents our identification with these demigods from becoming embarrassing. We feel a bit sorry for people who take their hero-worship so far as to actually learn Na’vi or participate in real-life Quidditch matches.

But Adam and Eve are exactly the sardonic, sexy misfits that the kind of people who go to Jim Jarmusch movies imagine themselves already to be. They make a fetish of old audio equipment and accoutre themselves in fabulous thrift-store chic. They’re saddened by pollution and they sneer at the anti-intellectualism of common rubes. They’re totally cool with gays. I’m pretty sure given more time with these characters we would eventually hear them endorse open-source software, the 100-mile diet, and public funding of the arts. Somehow these immortals have lived for at least half a millennium without accumulating any wisdom, or on the other hand carrying forward a single prejudice, that would challenge the belief system of the modern-day indie moviegoer. Isn’t that kind of boring? In the food court outside the theatre I could’ve found a dozen real people more fascinatingly estranged from the modern world than these ostensible relics of Elizabethan England.

In one of the latter, lesser-read chapters of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver finds himself in the land of Luggnagg, where he is told of the existence of certain people called Struldbrugs. These citizens, born now and then to ordinary mothers, have marks on their faces that indicate they will never die. Gulliver exclaims that these Struldbrugs must be the happiest people alive. When asked by his surprised hosts to elaborate, Gulliver paints a picture of wise and temperate sages passing their eternities in philosophical conversation with their fellows and freely offering the King the benefit of their accumulated knowledge. This discourse provokes much laughter. He learns that in fact the birth of a Struldbrug is regarded as a terrible omen. That these unfortunates age and suffer from disease just as we do, only they persist forever in their decrepit state, resenting and envying their countrymen who can look forward to the relief of death. The Struldbrugs are “opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship and dead to all natural affection”. After the age of eighty or so they lose interest in the world and stop learning new things, and eventually, as the language mutates and they fail to keep up, they find themselves unable to communicate even with their fellow citizens, let alone Struldbrugs born in earlier ages.

Jonathan Swift’s insight here was that even in the course of an ordinary lifespan, the world changes so much that a senior citizen finds himself feeling like a stranger in his own country. The vampires of Only Lovers Left Alive are no more alienated than the average struggling art student, but they wear their wisp of outsiderdom like a burqa. This happens to be one of the behaviours that old people find most irritating in young people. Am I incriminating the movie, then, or myself, when I say its immortals strike me as rather callow?


Nevil Shute’s bad language.

A while back I wrote about Nancy Mitford’s surprisingly liberal use of the word “whore”. Today I came across an anecdote in Nevil Shute’s memoir Slide Rule, about the author’s career as an engineer in the early days of aviation. In the early 1930s his aircraft design business is growing and the work is overwhelming the firm’s sole secretary, Miss Brunton. She suggests that her sister, an unsuccessful dog breeder, be taken on. This creates confusion:

Rightly or wrongly I decreed that the girls were not to be called by their Christian names in the office. The new girl was no problem to my staff of shareholders because from the first she was known as Dog-Brunton. An unfortunate extension followed, and the office heard cries of “Bitch! Where’s Bitch? Oh, Bitch, when you’ve done Mr. Norway’s letters I’ve got some for you.” Perhaps Ethel and Joan would have been better, after all.

Nowadays this would lead to a lawsuit, but the word “bitch” in England in the 1930s was still in everyday use for a female dog, and therefore only mildly scandalous. Meanwhile, when Shute submits his first novel for publication he is told,

“The House of Cassel does not print the word ‘bloody.'” So we changed them all into “ruddy.”

There is a tendency among modern readers to snicker at the hang-ups of those who came before us; Victorian ladies blushing at the word “pants”, for example. But we have hang-ups of our own, as my surprise at these casual uses of “bitch” and “whore” illustrates.

When I read Huckleberry Finn aloud to my girlfriend not long ago, her body resting against mine as we sat together in bed, I felt her tense up each time I came to the word “nigger”, which was necessarily often. I explained that neither Twain nor Huck meant any insult by it; in their milieu “nigger” was no more shocking than “pants” is to us; but it made no difference, her revulsion was automatic. I sympathized. I’d had to gird myself to speak the forbidden word aloud.

I don’t know how long that taboo will last. As I got off the train the other day a couple of white teenage girls were getting on. I winced as one playfully shouted “Shut up, nigger” at her friend. I’m sure other old-timers in the crowd winced too, but none of us said anything, and the train pulled away with the girls loudly and unabashedly trash-talking each other in language absorbed from hip hop culture.

Who knows what those girls will be offended by, as they yell “cunt” and “cocksucker” freely on the streets.


Marvel’s mannequins of SHIELD.

My girlfriend and I are five episodes into Agents of SHIELD. I would characterize our response so far as “grudging acceptance”. We want this show to be good, we hold out hope that it will someday be good, we keep telling ourselves that it exhibits signs of incipient goodness. The Whedon track record, and the affable presence of Clark Gregg, are enough to keep us watching for a while.

Living somewhere off to the side of the Facebook-Twitter-Tumblr axis, I have only the vaguest sense of what other people are saying about the show. I happened to check out the episode summaries on the AV Club today and was somewhat comforted to read this comment from reviewer Oliver Sava:

Chloe Bennett … doesn’t feel quite right as hacker/S.H.I.E.L.D. consultant/double agent Skye. The easy breezy make-up, the hip but still commercial wardrobe, the lustrous brown hair that falls over her shoulders like ribbons of finely shaved chocolate – how the hell does this girl look so good if she spends all day on a computer in her van? (Would it have hurt to throw some glasses on her to help sell the tech wiz image a tiny bit?)

I think “doesn’t feel quite right” understates the problem. This has been our complaint with the show from episode one – having conceived an eclectic group of characters with distinctive and often clashing personalities, the show’s creators elected to populate these roles with a lineup of generic Hollywood pretty people. Which perfectly-coiffed mannequin are we watching now, the high school dropout anarchist hacker, the eccentric scientific genius, or the icily competent ass-kicking secret agent? Hint: one of these characters is Asian, and one has an English accent. The other one is the other one.

When Liz first brought this up, at first I was inclined to pooh-pooh her observations as typical Beauty Myth-derived feminist grievance-mongering. Of course the girls are all pretty, I said: it’s Hollywood. This show, like all other TV shows, exists in an alternate reality where double-digit dress sizes don’t exist and women’s hairdos are constantly tended by invisible magic sprites. It’s not fair to blame the creators for a standard of female hotness that is imposed by studio execs, advertisers, and furtively masturbating internet fanboys.

But I was misunderstanding Liz’s complaint. The problem isn’t that they’re hot, she said, the problem is that they’re identically hot. The reason people love the assembling the team sequence in so many adventure movies is because we enjoy seeing diverse people brought together in a common cause. The hero, the bruiser, the stammering intellectual, the mysterious loner, the comic-relief foreigner, the hothead who’ll eventually betray the team, maybe an alien or an elf or something…whatever, mix and match. On the movie poster they all pose together with the bruiser looming in the background and the elf crouching ninja-style in front, and they look awesome because they’re all different.

Agents of SHIELD has the diverse group of characters, but has neglected to physically differentiate them in any way. Our imaginary poster consists of a hero, a slightly larger hero, a stammering intellectual, and three pretty girls (one of whom, luckily, is Asian).

This isn’t solely a problem of branding. Liz’s particular beef is with the Skye character, the computer hacker with the finely shaved chocolate tresses. As written, Skye could be pretty interesting – a mistrustful outsider with a sketchy past and an Aspergery aptitude for computer mischief. Basically she’s Lisbeth Salander, and I wonder if they didn’t cast the generically gorgeous Chloe Bennett precisely because they didn’t want the resemblance to be too glaring. The result is that every time Skye talks about her life prior to joining SHIELD – her childhood being shuffled among foster parents, for instance – the viewer tries and fails to square this narrative of dysfunction with the apple-cheeked all-American girl delivering it, and momentarily checks out of the story. (In our case this checking out is audibly manifested in Liz’s dismissive guffaws.)

It’s too late to go back into the early episodes and give Skye some scruffier clothes and maybe a piercing or a tattoo or something. But it’s not too late to have Chloe Bennett start delivering her lines with something approximating the level of attitude a formerly homeless information-must-be-free ideologue might bring to her dealings with the world’s most intrusive supranational spy agency.


Defending metric.

**Note. I haven’t been updating. I’ve built up this self-defeating expectation that any time I post it must be a whole article – with its conclusions carefully reasoned out, and ideally supported by references. Rather than encouraging better blogging, this has only given me license to slack off. If each post requires a day and a half of work, it’s easier not to post. So I’m going to try editing myself a little less.**

Peter Hitchens today was grousing about the use of the metric system in Australia and New Zealand. He quoted George Orwell on metric:

[T]here is a strong case for keeping on the old measurements for use in everyday life. One reason is that the metric system does not possess, or has not succeeded in establishing, a large number of units that can be visualized. There is, for instance, effectively no unit between the metre, which is more than a yard, and the centimetre, which is less than half an inch. In English you can describe someone as being five feet three inches high, or five feet nine inches, or six feet one inch, and your hearer will know fairly accurately what you mean. But I have never heard a Frenchman say, “He is a hundred and forty-two centimetres high”; it would not convey any visual image. So also with the various other measurements. Rods and acres, pints, quarts and gallons, pounds, stones and hundredweights, are all of them units with which we are intimately familiar, and we should be slightly poorer without them. Actually, in countries where the metric system is in force a few of the old measurements tend to linger on for everyday purposes, although officially discouraged.

Orwell was right about the old measurements lingering. I grew up with the metric system, which we’ve had in Canada for almost forty years, and I still think in an ungainly hybrid of metric and imperial. Centimetres are fine for estimating the distance between my fingers, and kilometres are fine for the distance between towns, but for most everyday functions – the width of a room, the height of a doorway – feet and inches are much more useful. I know in the abstract that a metre is roughly a yard, so 185 cm must be a shade under six feet, but the difference between 175 and 185 cm is not readily comprehensible to me. The lack of intermediate measurements between centimetre and metre is likely a major obstacle to metric adoption.

On the other hand, I’ve never met a North American who understands what a stone is – we calculate weight in pounds. So the lack of an intermediate weight between tonne and kilogram can’t be the reason we cling to the old weights. I would say I can “feel” a kilogram about as easily as I can “feel” a pound, which is not terribly well in either case. I could probably adapt myself to metric weights pretty easily, as I already have to metric volumes – buying milk in metric portions quickly gives one a grasp of the litre, which is small enough for ready visualization. I doubt many Canadians my age have more than a vestigial grasp of pints, quarts, and gallons – it’s only through checking Wikipedia just now that I verified my vague impression that UK and US volumes are not the same thing. My generation doesn’t seem to miss Fahrenheit much, either. It’s no easier to “feel” a Fahrenheit degree than it is a Celsius degree, and the dead simplicity of reckoning in Celsius – water freezes at zero, boils at a hundred – makes the trade worthwhile.

Hitchens mentions that the kilometre is closely equivalent to the old Russian verst, which demonstrates that the kilometre is no more inherently hostile to human comprehension than a mile. Distances that great are pretty abstract in any case. The kilometre offers the unbeatable advantage, in the age of long-distance highway driving – something neither Orwell nor the stubbornly bicycle-dependent Hitchens can have had much experience of – that it can be more readily converted into driving time, at the rate of 100 km to the hour. If someone tells me Sydney is 2450 miles from Perth, I have to do some mental math, but I know in an instant that 3950 km equals about a 39-and-a-half hour drive. (Granted, few people driving that far would actually stick to a 100 km/hr speed limit, but at least it gives you a sense.) If in the future we get around by high-speed rail or hyperloop, this advantage will disappear, and the kilometre will have nothing particular to recommend it besides an extra three syllables, which for certain personality types will always be recommendation enough.

I’m sympathetic to duffers who recoil at the cold scientific precision of the metric system. I can’t argue with Hitchens’s or Orwell’s contention that the old measurements just sound better, homelier, more poetical. Perhaps metrication has subtly influenced our thought processes – made us more susceptible to technocratic tinkering by our know-it-all governing elite – but on the level of day-to-day usability, metric is no worse than the old system. Maybe we should view the kludgy Canadian mix of metric and imperial not as a sign of an unfinished changeover, but as a rough-and-ready accommodation of the best of both systems.



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