There is a difference between incompetence and uncompetence. Incompetence is when people make bad decisions. Uncompetence is when people start to suspect that competence is something the elites do, and think to themselves, “I should perhaps do something else.”
Welcome, everyone, to Toronto.
Here in Toronto, the citizenry are being treated to a three-ring circus of municipal upheaval, in which the self-professed guardians of taxpayer dollars are busy throwing said dollars away for reasons that seem to range from ideology to spite, which really isn’t that far of a walk.
The howling today is over the misbegotten Jarvis bike lanes, who received their death sentence today, as did already-completed bike lanes in Scarborough and putative lanes elsewhere.
Theirs, admittedly, was never a considered life. They were slapped onto the road without a proper process in the first place, at a cost of about $70,000. Once there, though, cyclists loved them. But the lanes quickly became an irritant for drivers who used the road, some of whom swore up and down that it was derailing their lives. Well-to-do Moore Park residents were incensed. In the mayoral election, Rocco Rossi was the first to scream blue murder about them, vowing their removal. Just today, councilor Karen Stintz told council a story about a mother who said the bike lanes were keeping her from family dinners. City staff had reported that the bike lanes had increased travel time on Jarvis by an average of about 4 minutes. Maybe they were a Swanson’s family.
That said, the lanes are there, and they’re being used by 900 cyclists a day—a number that would have surely grown. (It takes time for people to adjust their daily habits, after all.) The traffic slowdowns, meanwhile, were on their way to being addressed with some left-hand turn jiggery-pokery. There was never a clear case that they were a detriment to the city, as opposed to a political opportunity.
No matter. It takes a certain bloody-mindedness to de-accomplish a fait accompli at enormous expense and rebuild it one street over. Turning Jarvis back into a car-crammed five-lane arterial throws out years of planning work around making it friendlier. It will cost at least $200,000 to remove the brand-new bike lanes, and even more to build a new bikeway exactly one street over. It was incompetent to build a bike lane without proper consultation. It is uncompetent—deliberately, opportunistically misguided—to tear it up, waste the money, alienate the neighbourhood, radicalize an important community, and end up with a lousy, crammed road to show for it.
Meanwhile, in the next circus ring over, the consultants the Fords hired at great expense to hunt down all the waste in the city’s budget are reporting back this week. The results are being dribbled out day by day. So far, we’re on day three.
The surprising results are not surprising at all: The gravy is a lie. While the reports from the consultants at KPMG suggest nips and tucks, the fact remains that the city has to deliver a lot of services that are required by the province, and it’s already running a fairly tight operation. Cuts will be tough.
The week may yet turn up a surprise—the discovery, say, of a spare fire department that the city put in the closet and completely forgot it splurged for on eBay, or the realization that the planning division spends $150 million a year to Febreze the carpets—but so far, juicy targets are few and far between.
KPMG tells us we could defund the Economic Development department, which brings new business to town. Or, we could cut all arts funding. Or recycle less. Or we could stop cleaning the streets so much. (Oh, come on. It’s not like you were eating dinner off them anyway.) The mayor may have been hoping to discover piles of fru-fru to heroically cut, but so far KPMG is turning up cost-saving opportunities like this: “Funds to help Elderly and Disabled Torontonians Purchase Critical Medical Supplies.”
Incompetence is mismanaging city departments and letting costs get out of hand in the first place. Uncompetence is running on a bogus platform. Uncompetence is cutting taxes in a budget crisis, mandating deep service cuts. Uncompetence is having a better option to fix the situation, but ignoring it because it’s not your style.
(Uncompetence is distinct from hypocrisy, though they do go great together: Uncompetence is creating a consultation process that will give bogus or skewed data, and trying to stack it with your supporters. Hypocrisy is later claiming the results are invalid because they’re skewed towards your opponents, as Denzil Minnan-Wong did this week.)
And in the third, adjoining ring, the city has announced a plan to reduce staffing by offering buyouts to 17,000 employees. The ranks of the city’s 50,000-odd employees are about to get thinned in a blowout “Everyone Must Go!” sale. Ford feels that the city employs too many people, though, with regards to his civic priorities, he pronounced that “we have more than enough staff, no matter how many staff leave the city, to remove graffiti.”
Is a mass-buyout a good idea? It’s hard enough for the public sector to attract top talent in the first place, let alone at a time when the municipality is in decline, the politicians are hostile to the bureaucracy, and the leadership determined to dismantle work that so many civil servants have spent years on. The enterprising, ambitious and talented will be the first to go.
It’s a bad idea by design. That’s the nature of uncompetence: It’s a form of studied callousness employed by people who want—on some level—to dismantle the thing they govern. In the case of Rob Ford, that represents the institution of the municipality, which, he believes, shouldn’t do the bulk of the work it does.
Uncompetence holds a studied disregard for planning, for process, for advice, for consultation. Uncompetence says that if you steer from the gut and set a direction, the beast of government will moan and roar but eventually come to heel. Incompetence is the mistakes that people make while building. Uncompetence is a willful abandon, the decision that competence is really someone else’s bag of tricks. And uncompetence is useful—more useful than anything—when you’re busy trying to tear something down.