Schools in Ontario could benefit from some competition—any competition

As our children approach schooling age my partner and I have begun to research the options available to us for educating them.  We are skeptical of the efficacy of conventional public schools here in Ontario and we would like to learn more about these schools so that we may be better informed when it comes time to make that important decision: do we take the cheap-and-easy option and send our kids to public school, or do we make the expensive-and-time-consuming choice for an alternative such as private school or home-schooling?

N.A. MacEachern refuses to offer any useful information

To this end my partner contacted our local public school, N.A. MacEachern, to book an appointment to view a class in session and/or speak with a teacher at the school—pretty basic stuff, really.  It’s the kind of thing one might expect any responsible parent to ask of the place to which they are expected to send their children for 35 hours each week, year after year.

To our surprise, the school’s principal, Ms. Raymond, denied us on both counts.  We cannot view a class in session because such a viewing is a violation of privacy.  We cannot talk to a teacher because, as Ms. Raymond says, “we don’t want our teachers to feel like they’re being interviewed.”

Keenly aware of the danger of making a nuisance of ourselves to the school’s administration, my partner tactfully asked the principal for suggestions as to how we might learn more about the school, given that she shot down both our ideas.  To assuage our concerns about the quality of education at N.A. MacEachern, Ms. Raymond suggests that we view the province-wide elementary school curriculum and judge for ourselves.  She also suggests that we adopt an ex post facto approach to the decision: put our children in public school, then pull them out if we discover that we are not satisfied.

Want to learn about the quality of one of our schools? No need to visit or talk to us—just look at the provincial curriculum.

Attacking a straw man

Clearly, Ms. Raymond has thrown us a straw man.  It is now my solemn duty to demolish it in public.

First of all, referring us to the province-wide curriculum is incredibly insulting.  To put this suggestion into perspective, suppose you want to buy a house and imagine a seller telling you, “You don’t need to see the house or talk to me.  You can learn everything you need to know about this house just by looking at the Building Code of Ontario.”

Second, Ms. Raymond’s advocacy of ex post facto decision making is ridiculous.  It is terribly disruptive to a child to put her into a new school only to yank her out again.  Moreover, private schools will not hold a place for the child just in case the public system doesn’t work out (unless her parents are willing to pay tuition to keep the place open).  Clearly, it’s much better for all parties if the parents can do their research ahead of time and avoid these pitfalls.  Given that these facts are obvious to everyone, how could Ms. Raymond possibly have offered her suggestion to us with a straight face?

Public schools have cornered the market

How can N.A. MacEachern expect to win our business if the school offers us no way to evaluate its product?  Oh, wait.  They don’t need to win our business—they already have it by force of law.

Our tax dollars are used to pay our children’s tuition at a public school regardless of whether we actually send them to one.  This subsidy gives public schools a grossly unfair advantage in the competition against alternatives.  Faced with a decision between paying once for a crappy education and paying twice for a good one, cash-strapped parents will opt for the crap.  We all suffer for it.

Even worse, in Waterloo (as in many other places in North America) the school to which a child is sent is dictated by the postal address of that child’s parents.  This lack of choice fosters an attitude of belligerence and entitlement in the administrators of our public schools.  Don’t like what we have to offer?  Too bad!  I guess you’ll have to shell out for a private school, or quit your job and home-school your children.  Good luck, sucker!  Thanks for your tax dollars.

In Saskatoon, public schools actually compete

I happen to know that in Saskatoon parents are free to send their children to any public school they wish and that public schools are funded on a per-student basis.  As a result, public schools in that city fall all over themselves to attract students, and that means engaging with parents.

It’s amazing how quickly concerns over privacy disappear when schools must compete to win students: every last public school in Saskatoon is happy to arrange viewings of in-session classes for prospective parents.  Similarly, if there are any teachers in Saskatoon who don’t like the feeling of being “interviewed” by parents, they’ve learned to suck it up for the sake of their schools.

The comparison between Saskatoon and Waterloo is very stark.  It’s amazing what a little competition can do to improve the the availability of information about a given public school.  As a bonus, parents in Saskatoon have greater freedom to choose the best education for their children.  Why won’t Waterloo do the same for its children?

When schools compete, children win

At a bare minimum, Ontario should follow Saskatoon’s lead and offer parents more than one public school option.  Given that competition works so well to improve parents’ access to information, I can’t help but wonder what miracles might evolve if schools were free to compete along other dimensions, too.  For example, I can’t even imagine the possibilities that would open up if government would only stop dictating curriculum.  And why does government stack the deck against alternatives to public school? Our choices are severely limited, and needlessly so.  Schools ought to compete with one another in as many dimensions as possible.

[Thanks to Greta James for proofreading an earlier draft and for suggesting the clever comparison to the Ontario Building Code.]

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If you’re going to be monarchist then at least be logically consistent about it

John Matheson, the person who designed Canada’s distinctive maple leaf flag in 1964, died last week.  Stephen Harper, Canada’s current prime minister, marked the occasion by honouring Matheson in an official Twitter post: “Canada has lost a great public servant today.”

These are strange words coming from a prime minister whose government has made a theme of promoting the British monarchy in Canada.  Like most British colonies, Canada’s flag before 1964 prominently sported the Union Jack.  Matheson’s design replaced that symbol of British colonialism with the maple leaf.  (By contrast, the Australians still fly the Union Jack to this day.)

Canada’s flag prior to 1965. Note the symbol of British colonialism in the upper left corner.

One would think that a loyal monarchist would view Canada’s ditching the Union Jack as a flagrant act of treason against the beloved British crown.  By definition, Harper must view Matheson as a traitor, not a “great public servant.”  To do otherwise is to defy logical consistency.  If today’s Harper were active in 1964 then it seems only natural that he would oppose any Canadian flag design that does not include the Union Jack.  Yet here he is today celebrating Matheson’s snub against the motherland.

Of course, politics is never about logical consistency.  Harper’s hypocritical homage to Matheson is little more than another attempt by a slimy politician to score some cheap political points with flag-loving proles.  Case closed. 

Why do Conservatives support the British crown?

The question that interests me is: Why on earth have the Conservatives chosen to make the promotion of the British crown an ongoing theme of their government?

The answer, presumably, is shrewd political strategy, for which the Conservative Party of Canada is renown.  Yet I cannot see from inside my own bubble how this choice could possibly win the Conservatives more supporters than it loses.

My intuition is that any supporter of the monarchy is probably already a Conservative sympathizer who needs no further wooing.  On the other hand, I feel that there must be a gaggle of liberty and free-market types out there who might vote Conservative except that they’ve been soured by the Party’s frivolous support of a symbol of subordination (to say nothing of the Party’s freedom-crushing stances on other, more important issues such as the legalization of marijuana or intellectual property law).

Presumably, Conservative strategists have a better idea than I do of how elections are won.  Accordingly, it must be the case that, despite my intuition, Canadians really and truly like the British monarchy.  The question then becomes: Why on earth do Canadians like the British monarchy?

Why does anyone support the British crown?

The case against a hereditary monarchy such as Britain’s practically makes itself.  The very idea that an unelected ruler should gain legal authority over others for no other reason than having been born into the right family is ridiculous.  Monarchy and democracy are mutually exclusive—to support one is to oppose the other.  Take your pick, Harper.

Thankfully, Britain’s monarchy has long since lost any semblance of real power—a necessary step on that nation’s long historical path to its current status as a relatively free and just society.  (Disturbingly though, Britain’s House of Lords still has a small surviving bastion of actual inherited power.)

Toothless monarchies such as Britain’s are often euphemistically called “constitutional” monarchies—a polite way of acknowledging that the only duties of modern royalty are ceremonial and that their real job nowadays is to provide gossip for tabloids.  (Indeed, even otherwise serious newspapers such as The Globe and Mail can’t resist the lure of Kate Middleton’s mysteriously disappearing grey hair.)

Bejeweled parasites

Why the British, let alone Canadians, choose to fund the Royal farce is beyond me.  Canada spends $50 million taxpayer dollars per year supporting the monarchy.  Even the Conservative-friendly Maclean’s magazine admits that we pay more per person to support the British crown than the Brits do.  On top of that, the Harper government spent an extra $7.5 million in 2012 to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s meaningless ascension to the British throne.

What have we to show for our money?  Why does a Conservative government, which prides itself on fiscal discipline, continue to waste our money supporting the reputation of an incredibly wealthy family of tabloid celebrities on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean?

The flag of logical consistency

If our prime minister were truly serious about his support of the British crown, he would relinquish his own hard-won political power to the House of Windsor.  A good place to start would be restoring the Union Jack in Matheson’s treacherous banner.

Flag_of_Canada-Union_Jack

If Harper loves the monarchy so much then he ought to relinquish the British territory upon which Matheson has infringed.

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Schelling points and immigration

I just read A positive account of rights, which is a draft of a new chapter by David Friedman for the upcoming third edition of his book, The machinery of freedom.

In this chapter, Friedman offers an explanation as to how a peaceful, civil society might arise absent a government that backs its law with a credible threat of enforcement.  His explanation is that any given society will have its own Schelling points—ways of allocating rights that somehow appear unique or special to the preponderance of society—and that members of the society can credibly commit themselves to bearing an excessive cost in order to defend those points.

To me, this argument is just a fancy way of saying that a society establishes its law by progressing on a path of least resistance from its current state toward a Nash equilibrium: when in Rome, do as the Romans.  The fanciness comes from the following observations:

  1. The “path of least resistance” might include incurring an excessively large cost to oppose deviations from Schelling points.
  2. Schelling points offer an account of rights that does not necessarily depend upon the existence of law or shared morality.

Presumably, Friedman-the-anarchist would like us to conclude that if society is in a stable state of peace, order, and common understanding of the rules then there’s no reason to believe that peace and order could not persist without a government.

[Correction from Friedman: Contrary to my previous statement, Friedman's real purpose in A positive account of rights is "to help make sense of human societies, including both ones with and without states" and to clarify some ideas from the first edition of Machinery.]

In this post I propose a plausible scenario in which government might improve upon anarchy: as an arbiter of Schelling points in case of conflict.

Immigrants ruin everything

Friedman’s new book chapter got me to thinking that a society (especially an anarchist society) stands or falls upon the strength of its Schelling points.  I count myself among the enlightened who believe that immigration to rich countries such as mine is a potent source of prosperity in those countries, yet I can’t help but wonder what would happen in a society (especially an anarchist society!) whose Schelling points are called into question by a sudden influx of people from a culture vastly different from our own.

For example, Waterloo currently has a Schelling point at which ownership of land includes the right to force one’s neighbours to maintain a well-kept lawn on their land.  And woe be to he who attempts to put his lawn to good use by using it to raise chickens.

I happen to find this particular Schelling point offensive and idiotic.  But my entire society is against me, so I keep no chickens and I mow my lawn often enough to keep my neighbours from calling the cops.

Now suppose that Canada allows a sudden influx of Orientals to immigrate, and—at risk of a gross stereotype—suppose for the sake of argument that Orientals are accustomed to raising chickens and that they expect to be able to keep chickens on the land that they own.

As I’ve said before, one can imagine these immigrants’ shock to find that a free country such as Canada would dare to forbid them from practicing their sacred cultural ritual of keeping chickens loose in the yard.  One can imagine their puzzlement at why these Canadians would force people to toil needlessly on their frivolous patches of grass.

As immigrant numbers continue to swell, one can imagine ever bolder challenges to the manicured-lawn Schelling point.  Perhaps a nasty conflict would erupt, with vast resources squandered by each side in the battle over whether chickens should be allowed on private land.

The cost we bear to get our way

In an anarchist society, it’s hard to predict just how bad the conflict might get and how many resources might be squandered.  In theory, there’s nothing to stop a violent conflict from erupting over this silly issue.  (Our grandkids might talk of The Chicken War of 2025.)

By contrast, a dictatorship would keep the peace by threat of insurmountable force against the cranky immigrants.  No point wasting resources on a conflict because the dictator always wins.  Perhaps a benevolent dictator might take into account the shifting tides of popular opinion and issue a dictum that changes the law at an instant, without a drop of blood shed or a dime spent by anyone.

Our current democracy lies somewhere between these two extremes.  One side, if it thinks it has a shot at changing the status quo, could divert lots of resources toward convincing the other side to change its mind, or (more likely) toward the lobbying of politicians.  But if the law is perceived as immutable then no one will bother to try.

The chicken example is a toy example.  But one can replace it with real examples such as abortion, gun control, legalization of drugs, or even murder.  (Friedman likes to tell an amusing story about medieval Icelandic society in which petty theft was considered worse than murder in some situations.  That’s quite an interesting Schelling point!)

In the past Friedman has defined government as an agent of legitimized coercion.  My example with the lawn thing illustrates that government could concievably prevent resources from being wasted on an expensive conflict to change a Schelling point by using its powers of legitimized coercion to pick a winner.

Of course, that power has potential for abuse, leading back to the case for anarchy.  But this post is long enough already.

For some reason that currently escapes me, WordPress won’t allow anyone to comment on this post.  Comments on this post should therefore be directed here.

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Books that opened my eyes: The machinery of freedom

I discovered David Friedman after stumbling across a free draft of his introductory economics text in my efforts to learn something about economics.  I soon discovered that Friedman is also a prominent libertarian and anarchist.  I was sufficiently impressed by Friedman’s writing in Price theory to invest some precious time learning what this anarchy nonsense is all about from his book The machinery of freedom, which is also freely available on his web site.  The book has opened my eyes.

I had never given anarchy much serious thought before I read machinery.  I had always assumed that it is a hopelessly dogmatic ideal advocated only by pin-headed intellectual purists or by misfits seeking license to pillage and rape.

To me, Friedman’s book is a proof-of-concept—a demonstration that anarchy is not completely insane and that it cannot be so easily eliminated from the list of contenders for The Way We Oughtta Do Things, a list that has recently included such familiar ideologies as communism, socialism, fascism, and capitalism.

Privatized law?  Are you crazy?

Anarchy means society without government.  In Friedman’s dream world of anarcho-capitalism, all services including health care, roads and transit, the fire department, and even police and law enforcement are provided by voluntary contract among private parties.  The most extreme form of this dream is no government whatsoever—even the law itself is dictated by the open market.  That’s the part of the book that opened my eyes, so that’s what I’ll discuss in this post.

I despise many of our current laws and I think that governments suck at making them.  But until now I had always taken it for granted that law-by-government is a necessary evil if we are to live in an orderly and free-ish society.  Machinery calls this fundamental assumption into question.

Most people find the idea of privatized law so alien at first glance that they don’t give it a fair shake.  After all, isn’t law supposed to be a reflection of some absolute moral code?  How could we possibly trust the market to tell us what’s right and wrong when the distinction between the two can be bought and sold?

It is not at all clear to me that law really ought to reflect absolute morality, but for the sake of argument let’s grant it as an axiom.  Machinery prompts me to ask: What makes you think that government is any better suited than the free market to codify morality into law?  Most people instinctively answer that a democratic government is accountable to the people and so will produce good laws in the interests of those people, whereas a market composed of individuals acting in their own selfish interests will produce barbaric laws that favour the rich.

I’ll dip my toes into these very deep waters with some off-the-cuff responses to that instinct:

  1. The argument that markets favour the rich while only government can do the right thing has been used (and debunked) in many other contexts besides lawmaking.  For example, one might have similar instincts about the distribution of food, yet we all owe much of our current prosperity to the efficiency of privatized food distribution.  (Can you imagine if the government ran all the grocery stores?)  Given how terrible a job the government does of virtually every task it attempts, isn’t it at least plausible that writing laws might better be handled by the market?
  2. Don’t delude yourself about the purity of law-by-government.  Lots of people readily acknowledge that many laws are already bought and sold by the rich even in most of today’s democracies.  Just think of the tireless lobbying of government by vested interests with deep pockets.
  3. Government laws are prone to a tyranny-of-the-majority problem whereby a majority of people can and do use government to foist their interpretation of morality upon others.  (Just think of all those anti-gay lunatics who fight tooth and nail against gay marriage.)  By contrast, markets provide the ultimate in proportional representation—check out the fascinating case study of legalized heroin below.

Of course, the argument does not end with this cartoon debate.  My real purpose here is to get you thinking twice about your fundamental assumption that law-by-government is the only viable option.

A whole new world of possibilities

Once you get over the initial shock of considering privatized law, it’s fascinating to ponder what could happen.  Friedman describes an excellent thought experiment about the legality of heroin and other drugs in 1970’s America (emphasis mine):

[M]arket demands are in dollars, not votes. The legality of heroin will be determined, not by how many are for or against but by how high a cost each side is willing to bear in order to get its way…

…Most of the population lives in areas where there are very few heroin addicts. For those people the cost of having heroin made illegal locally would be very small; there would be no one on the other side bidding to have it legal. …But people in those areas would have little to gain by paying a much higher price to have heroin illegal in New York as well.

That leaves 8 million New York nonaddicts bidding against 100,000 New York addicts, raising the cost to the nonaddicts of keeping heroin illegal in New York to over $100 a year per person. I predict that, if anarcho-capitalist institutions appeared in this country tomorrow, heroin would be legal in New York and illegal in most other places. Marijuana would be legal over most of the country.

I suppose a similar exercise could be carried out for homosexuality, prostitution, gambling, and any other victimless crime.  One could spend days thinking about the possibilities.

The book addresses much more than what I’ve mentioned thus far, including how privatized law enforcement might work and how different people might agree with one another to obey certain laws.  Friedman also touches on the problem of national defense and the administration of a military.  In this part of the book his tone seems to slip from advocacy to curiosity as he speculates on the possible ways in which these goals might be achieved.  Go read it yourself if you want to know more.  Friedman’s a good writer and it’s well worth the time.

No, I’m not an anarchist (yet)

I’m still not convinced that anarchy is a panacea.  For example, Friedman has not convinced me that anarchist America wouldn’t slide back into slavery, feudalism, or mafia rule.  To me, the breakthrough is not that it’s a convincing argument in favour of anarchy, but rather that it’s a convincing argument in favour of taking anarchy seriously.

Coincidentally, Friedman recently posted some new material for the upcoming third edition of machinery for free on his web page.  I haven’t read it yet and I’m curious to see whether he addresses the potential for slavery, feudalism, etc.

And finally, I can’t help but relate a story of my (hopefully) endearing naiveness.  I was aware of the writings of Milton Friedman before I discovered David Friedman, and at first I thought it a strange coincidence that there are two anti-government free-market crusaders out there with the last name Friedman… until I discovered that David is the son of Milton and Rose.  I wonder how my life might be different if my parents were economists.

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Waterloo on a witch hunt for renters and extra kitchens

As expected, the City of Waterloo is now engaged in an all-out witch hunt to root out homeowners who dare to construct a second kitchen and/or rent rooms in the houses they own without first having obtained a license from the city for the privilege.

Bureaucrats patrolling craigslist

A friend of mine who owns a condo on Albert St. just received a nasty letter from the City of Waterloo. It has come to the City’s attention that she has been renting her condo without a license; she must apply immediately for an $800 license or face a punitive fine.

My friend called the City and asked how her nefarious letting had come to their attention.  She was told that municipal bureaucrats are now trolling websites such as craigslist or kijiji looking for rental ads.  Your tax dollars at work.

(Fortunately, my friend is in the process of selling her condo, so there’s no need for her to purchase a license… assuming she can find a willing buyer in a town overrun by a 19th century lynch mob.)

The alarmingly high incidence of uncovered electrical boxes

The parents of another of my friends were unfortunate enough to move to Waterloo shortly after the rental licensing bylaw was passed by council.  They bought two houses — one to live in and another to rent.  Coming from Ottawa, they had no idea that Waterloo’s new bylaw completely changes the calculus of home ownership.

Upon hearing of the new law, these hapless, upstanding people made the mistake of willingly disclosing to the City that they intend to rent their house; they even proactively applied for a rental license.  (Yes, I can hear your hand slapping your forehead.)

These innocent baby-boomers were in for a nasty surprise.  The City came and inspected the property.  Everything was in working order except that a single electrical box was missing a cover plate.  Normally, such a breach would require the homeowner to schedule a second inspection at her expense after fixing the problem ($70 I think).  However, this particular inspector was feeling generous: he’d let this offense slide if they promise to cover the open box right away.

Your house is illegal if you have one of these.

I wonder: how many homes in Waterloo–rental or otherwise–would fail such an inspection?  I can think of at least one uncovered electrical box in my own house.  Can you imagine the uproar if every last NIMBYer suburbanite in Waterloo were forced to conform to the standards they’ve so casually foisted upon others?

Thou shalt not have two kitchens

Alas, my friend’s parents were not let off so easily.  For you see, the rental house they bought has a second kitchen in the basement.  That’s a big no-no here in Waterloo, and most newcomers are not aware of it.  These fresh new homeowners were shocked to discover that they would have to tear out the second kitchen as soon as possible, regardless of whether they chose to rent.  Naturally, they can only pass inspection and obtain a rental license after the kitchen is removed.

Waterloo’s secret definitions of “kitchen” and “stove”

It is not uncommon for a homeowner in Waterloo to be blindsided by the sudden need to remove a kitchen from a home, and many more are sure to follow in the future.  Naturally, these homeowners wish to wreck as little of their homes as necessary in order to obey the law.  Thus, there is great interest in what exactly a “kitchen” is and how one might change it to a non-kitchen.

Despite this keen interest, it is not at all clear what constitutes a “kitchen” here in Waterloo.  Details are not easily forthcoming; getting a straight answer from the City is like trying to squeeze blood from a stone.  Over the years I have been able to glean only tiny snippets of Waterloo’s secret definition of the word “kitchen”.

Here’s what I know.  Surely, extra sinks, cabinets, and fridges are allowed–many NIMBYers have such amenities in their own houses!  What else goes in a kitchen?  A stove.  I’m told that the defining feature of a kitchen is a stove.

What exactly is a “stove”?  Does a toaster-oven count?  What about those tiny, one-burner hot plates that plug into a normal 120-volt receptacle?  I’m told that these appliances are okay.  The red line, apparently, is the 240-volt stove.

You are allowed to keep one of these outside your kitchen. It is not a stove.

So now the City needs to define what exactly is a “stove”.  Let’s assume for the moment that there is some universal essence of “stoveness” and that the City has somehow captured that essence in its bylaw, so there is a clear distinction between stoves and other 240-volt appliances.

You might think that you could evade the second-kitchen bylaw by simply unplugging your stove and hiding it in the shed while the inspector visits.  But the City isn’t so easily fooled: 240-volt receptacles are also banned outside the kitchen….

…unless they are intended for non-stove appliances, such as a clothes dryer.  We don’t want to prohibit clothes dryers, right?  (Indeed, some might still remember the days when the only way to dry your clothes legally in Waterloo was with a clothes dryer.  Remember the clothesline bans?)

How can we obey secret laws?

As you can see, it’s very difficult to formally separate the things that the NIMBYers wish to ban (two kitchens in one house) from the things that they themselves already have.  This is one possible explanation as to why the City is so tight-lipped about what exactly it considers to be a kitchen.  Newcomers who wish to obey the law while they renovate or rent are given the runaround by the City, and most are simply left confused in the dark.

My own piecemeal knowledge of Waterloo’s anti-kitchen bylaw is bound to be inaccurate. Unanswered questions remain.  For example:

  1. How exactly does one prove to the city that a given 240-volt receptacle is not intended for use with a stove?  Conversely, how does every NIMBYer in Waterloo prove that she won’t swap out her clothes dryer for a stove after the inspector leaves?
  2. There must be a minimal set of changes that one can make to a second kitchen so that it is no longer a “kitchen” in the eyes of the City.  What are those changes?  (And why won’t the City spell them out for us?) For example, can I turn a kitchen into a non-kitchen simply by removing the 240-volt receptacle from the wall?  (Naturally, a less scrupulous homeowner could replace the receptacle as soon as the inspector leaves.)
  3. The 240-volt red-line applies only to electric stoves.  What about gas stoves?  Gas appliances outside the kitchen are common (gas driers, fireplaces, furnace, water heater, etc.) so certainly it’s legal to have a gas line in your basement.  What’s to stop me from hooking up a gas stove after the inspector leaves?
  4. As mentioned previously, what exactly is a stove?  Is it a “stove” if it has burners but no oven?  Oven but no burners?  How big can burners or an oven be without being considered a “stove”?  What if someone invents some ingenious new way of heating food that is neither a burner nor an oven?  (Should the City really be in the business of defining stoves?)

Are gas stoves legal? What’s to stop me from plugging one in after the inspector leaves?

As far as I’m aware, there is no formal definition of the word “kitchen” in Waterloo.  (Or if there is, no one knows about it.)  How can we obey a law that the City refuses to tell us about?  How did Waterloo slip into this fishy, Russia-sytle practice of enforcing secret laws?

A sucker buys here every minute

My friend’s parents with the two-kitchen house are at their wits end.  After months of frustration and bureaucracy, they’re giving up.  They’ve decided to sell their rental home.

That’s an interesting–and despicable–outcome.  I wonder how many now-unprofitable rental homes will appear on the real estate market, to be snapped up by unwitting out-of-towners who will be in for a nasty surprise when they discover all the petty little bylaws their new house is breaking.  These hapless victims will be forced into the difficult choice of either (a) taking a huge loss when they re-sell, or (b) trying to pass the problem on to some other unsuspecting victim.

Welcome to the world’s top intelligent community.  Please submit the form entitled, “Application for Non-Stove Use of a 240-volt Receptacle Outside of a Kitchen” for review by the City of Waterloo’s Bureau for Single-Stove Enforcement (BSSE).

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Building a community of tattlers

Yesterday I found in my mailbox a Noise By-law Notice of Inspection from the City of Waterloo regarding persistent barking from my dog.  No fine was issued; I’ve been asked to “mitigate noise from barking dog.”

Will you shut up!? You’re getting me into trouble!

noise-bylaw-notice-2013-03-15-blur

We are building a better community by prosecuting you.

The complaint is entirely legitimate.  I am aware that my dog barks a lot and I sometimes worry that she disturbs my neighbours. (Indeed, I spoke with one neighbour about it in the past — I invited him to talk to me if ever my dog bothers him.  The cheery fellow said not to worry and that everything’s fine.)

I’m not angry that someone was annoyed by our dog — that’s understandable.  Had the complainant bothered to discuss the matter with me she would have found a very cooperative neighbour who is sympathetic to her plight and eager to resolve the problem collegially.

What angers me is that the complainant did not bother to talk to me first.  Rather, she chose to force me into submission via by-law enforcement — a tool best used as a last resort, not a first line of defense.

Receiving an anonymous complaint from the City on behalf of a neighbour is an upsetting experience.  Essentially, a neighbour is telling me, “You are so beyond reason and compromise that I cannot deal with you directly, or even reveal myself to you for fear of retribution.  You are a parasite and you will be treated accordingly.  The only way to get you to behave is by force of law.”

In a bitter irony, the Notice I received from the City bears the tagline, “Building a better community.”  (What does the City hope to achieve with this tagline?  Am I supposed to view this Notice as a community-building experience?)  A better community is built when neighbours resolve their differences with friendly face-to-face discussion, sympathy, and understanding.

Conversely, the community degenerates into enmity and suspicion when a complainant sends goons from City by-law enforcement to do her dirty work while she hides behind a cloak of anonymity.  It’s hard to care for one’s neighbours when one is treated as an enemy by them.

It seems to me that anti-social behaviour such as this is disturbingly common in Waterloo.  But I suppose every suburb is the same.  Back in the 1950s, suburbia used to be about comradery (or so I gather).   These days it’s about forcing people to conform.

I don’t like living in a neighbourhood where my neighbours’ first instinct is to anonymously rat me out to the city, like a bratty child tattling to the teacher.  I prefer it when my neighbours are capable of meeting with me face-to-face, like a mature adult.  But neighbourliness such as that can no longer be found in suburban communities like Waterloo.  I really ought to move out to the country.

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Embarassing oversights in Canada’s new $20 bank note

The Bank of Canada recently issued a new $20 bank note sporting a leaf from a Norway maple — an invasive species brought to North America in the 18th century — rather than one of Canada’s ten native species of maple.  The Bank denies that the leaf is from a Norway maple, but botanists are adamant that there can be no mistaking it for one of our own.

The Bank and Government have taken some flack for this faux pas.  See, for example, this CBC News story and the 568 moronic comments from readers.  From their international perspective, bloggers at The Economist poke a bit of fun at Canadians for the incident.

Normally, such a petty and irrelevant piece of news is nothing to blog about.  I don’t really care what species of tree has its leaf on my bank notes.  I roll my eyes and chuckle at the mistake.  To me, the biggest tragedy of our bank notes is that they still exist in physical form.  But I can’t help wondering, amidst all the uproar over leaves, has anyone noticed the rather large portrait of a foreign monarch on that same bank note?!

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As with the leaf, I know it doesn’t really matter whose portrait is on my bank notes.  Even so, I confess to the teeniest bit of annoyance at seeing unelected foreign royalty displayed prominently in a country that’s otherwise proud of its democracy.  But if we’re going to quibble about bank notes, let’s at least get our priorities right.  (Pause for laughter.  Exit with a flourish.)

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