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The Top 10 Pat Cliches of Civic Boosterism

Planning to run for city council? Then you need the verbal building blocks for vapid growthist discourse--- standard phrases prefabricated for easy insertion into empty rhetoric. Here are the top ten pat clichés that constitute the filler of civic speech-making, falsehoods that by mere repetition become conventional wisdom because they are never challenged.

1. “People are our greatest resource.” Alternatively, “Our greatest resource are the people who have chosen to make this wonderful city their home.”
2. “Children are our future.” Or try, “We must ensure that our community continues to be a wonderful place for our children to grow up in.”
3. “We must build a vibrant community.”
4. “We must attract talent and investment to this city to ensure its prosperity”.
5. “We must grow our tax base to offer taxpayers a level of services which they deserve.”
6. “We can grow sustainably in such a way that we can protect our natural treasures while continuing to enjoy a high quality of life.”
7. “We need immigrants to revitalize our city and support our aged population with the services they need.”
8. “Diversity is our strength”.
9. “We are a nation of immigrants.”

And now for the biggest lie of them all. The one that cannot be told often enough. The staple of nearly every successful bid for civic office:
10. “We need growth to reduce unemployment in this region.”

Now for the facts:

1. If people are our greatest resource then too many people can be our greatest albatross. There is an optimal population level for any locality. Beyond a certain point, the economies of scale become diseconomies of scale. A community can become too large and complex to govern, and a growing tax base cannot catch up with growing costs, growing crime, growing traffic congestion. Then the city becomes unattractive to the people who make it run. Qualified people with important skills find greener pastures and capital follows them.

2. “Children are our future.” Now that is a novel insight. Gee, and I thought that each generation was immortal. The little known fact is , however, those people under 25 actually impose higher costs in child care, education, medical services etc than those over 65. Just as too many retirees can place a burden on taxpayers, too many children can as well. Early retirement, not an aging population, is our major challenge. Older folks are healthier and more fit than ever before, and their knowledge and experience needs to be exploited much more than it has.

3. We must build a vibrant community. What other kind of community is there? Communities must consist of living people, and if people are alive, they are, by definition, “vibrant” (refer to the Latin roots of the word). ‘Vibrant’ is code language for “The locals here are too boring. This town is too dead. We need action, man.” Well, many towns have got their wish. Along with the vibrant entrepreneurs and vibrant job-seekers they have vibrant youth gangs, vibrant drug-dealers, vibrant crime rates , vibrant traffic problems and vibrant affordable housing shortages.

4. “We must attract talent and investment to this city to ensure our continued prosperity”. Like I just said, along with the sunshine comes a lot of rain.

5. “We must grow our tax base to offer taxpayers a level of services that they deserve.” Problem is, the cost of providing infrastructure to new subdivisions and business parks is higher than the tax revenues they provide. Rarely does urban growth pay for itself. Development requires water, sewage treatment, road maintenance , police and fire protection, garbage pickup, and these new costs are not offset by the bounty of new tax revenues that are supposed to cove r them. As a rule, the larger your city gets, the higher the taxes you must pay.

6. Ah yes, “sustainable” growth. What’s next, “sustainable” extinctions, vegan carnivores, virgin births? On a planet of finite resources growth cannot be sustained, no more than bacteria in a Petri dish can sustain its growth indefinitely. Planets, nations, provinces, states and cities have limits. And those limits are about to close in on us---rather dramatically. The loss of affordable oil, natural gas, phosphorous and the minerals vital to an industrial economy will see to that. In a post-carbon Canada, cities will need to be much, much smaller.

7. “We need immigrants to revitalize our city and support our aged population with the services they need.” And who then will support those newcomers when they get old? An even larger base of newcomers, ad infinitum? At some point this pyramid scam would collapse, with most of us holding the bag while those who made their profit from selling more real estate and employing cheaper labour are foot loose and fancy free to set themselves up in sunnier climes. The truth is, immigrants are on average, not much younger than the native-born population, whose potential is still very much untapped. The money needed to service newcomers can be more effectively spent on training locals to perform local jobs.

8. “Diversity is our strength. Unity in diversity”. In actuality, several academic studies would suggest otherwise. Irenaus Eibi-Eibesfeldt, Pierre van den Berghe and Harvard’s Robert Putnam have correlated growing diversity to declining trust, making a formerly homogeneous population less willing to vote for redistributive social programs that benefit those not like them. Bob Birrell of Monash University also found that the more culturally diverse a community is, the lower the rate of civic volunteerism becomes. It is therefore apparent that there are both benefits and costs of diversity. Variety may be the spice of life, but too much spice may give a society ethnic indigestion. Cultural cohesion is every bit as important as cultural pluralism. “Diversity” must be taken for what it is---a neutral term without either a positive or negative connotation. I have a diverse number of insects and pests that inhabit my home. I am afflicted with a diverse range of medical ailments. And I have a diverse number of creditors on my back, and it isn’t shrinking my total debt one bit. Personally, I could do with a little less diversity in my life.

9. “We are a nation of immigrants”. In point of fact, even in countries that receive the highest per capita immigrant intakes, the vast majority of the population was born there. Thus, eighty per cent of Canadians and seventy-eight per cent of Australians were born in the country they call home. Of course, our ancestors were immigrants. But that is true of every nation on earth. Even the ancestors of Canada’s “First Nations” came across the Bering Strait. And many tribes who lay claim to their “ancestral lands” at some point displaced a tribe formerly resident there by ethnic cleansing or warfare. Chalk up this statement as one of the most meaningless of all pat clichés.

10. “We need growth to reduce unemployment in this region”. Growth can indeed reduce unemployment in the local region, but seldom does it reduce the unemployment rate. Job opportunities attract outsiders seeking employment. A great many of the new jobs that are created are taken up by these applicants, so that while the population has increased by the influx, so have the number of those looking for work. The sum total of added economic activity is offset by the drain on social and income support services from added unemployment. Growing the economy to mop up unemployment is much like a dog chasing its own tail. The Holy Grail of full employment and affordable housing for all is an elusive target, and at the end of the chase, taxpayers are left exhausted and developers and cheap labour employers are left richer. Bigger is not better. Cities and nations cannot grow their way out of inequity or grow their way out of biodiversity loss. We can grow up or grow out, but in the end, few profit and most pay. It is difficult to imagine any problem that has been solved by more growth, as Dr. Albert Bartlett of the University of Colorado has famously observed. FYI, check this out:

Tim Murray
June 23, 2010

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