The expected firing of Gary Webster is part of a disturbing trend among so-called conservatives to shun facts.
There are a whole lot of reasons to be angry about what’s scheduled to take place this afternoon. In case you were enjoying your Family Day weekend in a blissful Toronto-news vacuum: There’s a meeting beginning at 2 p.m. at which five Ford-loyalist members of the TTC are expected to fire TTC General Manager Gary Webster.
As others have pointed out (the Toronto Star‘s Royson James and Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan are both worth reading on this), the spiteful attack on Webster for the high sin of doing his job and presenting the facts on transit options has all kinds of implications: the further politicization of the public service (as feared by Toronto Ombudsman Fiona Crean); the difficulty of attracting new talent to the job when it’s been made clear the candidate must be a toady; the loss of institutional knowledge to the TTC; the wasting of $500,000 or more in severance fees; the further deterioration of any sensible prospect of intelligent discussion or compromise on council; and, not least, the ending of a good man’s career for a ridiculous reason.
But there’s a big meta-story here, too, that is in its way even more troubling. And Frank Di Giorgio, one of the five councillors who are expected to sleaze Webster out of a job today, pointed to it in his candid explanation to the Toronto Star:
One of five city councillors behind the expected firing of the city’s transit chief suggested Sunday that more senior transit managers may lose their jobs for not “respecting the office of the mayor.” [...] Di Giorgio said the responsibility of the city’s bureaucracy is to follow the will of the mayor and achieve the objectives set out by his mandate, which TTC managers have failed to do. “We’re trying to eliminate some of the problems that surfaced over the last month that should not have surfaced and need not have surfaced.”
Just to clarify: The problem that surfaced is that Webster stood up when called on at Toronto City Council and told the truth about how the option of building subways compares to building LRTs, and how the option of tunnelling the LRT underground in Scarborough compares to the option of running it above-ground there. He has refused, as some have put it, to “build a business case” for Ford’s plan.
But, as Webster told council, and as an army of academic transit and planning experts said in their own recent letter to council, and as anyone reading Ford’s own subway pointman Gordon Chong’s recent report closely would conclude, there is no business case to build subways or tunnel the Eglinton LRT underground. Doing so will cost a mint, in the short term and in the long term—an unnecessary waste of money that is orders of magnitude higher than other recent “scandals” at City Hall such as the MFP contract or the St. Clair streetcar Right-of-Way construction. If there’s a case to be made for subways, it has nothing to do with business or cost-benefit analysis and everything to do with a gut feeling about wanting to spend extravagantly on premium service for its own sake. It’s not good policy; in other words, it’s populist politics.
That has nothing to do with Gary Webster’s job. If politicians order him to build subways because that’s what they want, evidence be damned, then it is his job to build subways. But it is not his job to fake up evidence and conceal facts in order to make that look like anything other than the whimsical spend-thriftism that it is. However, failing to craft a body of evidence that justifies Rob Ford’s pre-selected solution is now, apparently, a firing offense.
This open disdain for evidence is a trend among politicians who call themselves conservatives, and a troubling one. The federal government of Stephen Harper has trod well down this fact-averse road:
• They discontinued the long-form census on patently ridiculous civil-liberties grounds, a decision that means we will now have no reliable information on which to base public policy. Because of this, the head of Statistics Canada resigned.
• Explaining why the government was unveiling a tough new crime policy even when all evidence showed crime falling, Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson repeatedly said, “we don’t govern by statistics.”
• They apparently feel the police should not use evidence to do their jobs either, since they will destroy all the gun-registry data in addition to ending the registry itself. (Any lingering suspicion they were motivated by a genuine libertarianism was dispelled by their internet-spying-on-everyone/Vic-Toews-thinks-you’re-a-child-pornographer episode.)
• Harper has been accused of “muzzling” his science advisors, presumably because their sciency facts might get in the way of his political message.
This is not confined to Toronto City Hall and to Ottawa, of course. The apostate conservative writer and former Bush staffer David Frum (a Canadian) recently summed up the situation among US Republicans in an essay for New York magazine:
We used to say “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” Now we are all entitled to our own facts, and conservative media use this right to immerse their audience in a total environment of pseudo-facts and pretend information.
One assumes that, throughout history, politicians have been in the business of spinning facts in such a way that they shed a positive light on the opinions on which they have campaigned. And history books are full of stories of politicians cynically ignoring inconvenient facts to push forward their political goals. But the outright openness of the contempt for the evidence seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon—to the point where cabinet ministers openly declare that they don’t care what the evidence says and city councillors think it’s okay to discuss how they’re going to fire a 35-year civil servant because the inconvenient fact-based analysis he provided didn’t show “respect” for the mayor’s office.
I’ve written in the past at how this absolute disregard for the truth from Team Ford distresses me (and quoted the same Frum passage when I did). But when taken to this extreme—actually firing civil servants for providing research and honest analysis that does not conform to their gut feelings about the way reality should be and, in the case of the federal government, destroying the statistical basis of any reliable analysis—we’re entering very dangerous territory. Because while we may differ on how to address certain public policy issues, we should be able to rely on the same basic body of information to guide us. If we start allowing the evidence to be tarted up to make our opening assumptions look flattering—or insisting that they must be—we are completely lost.
This isn’t a matter of ideological complaint, at least not as it relates to the traditional ideological spectrum. I don’t know why it is suddenly those who call themselves conservative who are waging a war on the evidence provided by objective reality. There are plenty of intelligent conservatives and libertarians, just as there are plenty of intelligent liberals and socialists. And those conservatives should be—as David Frum clearly is—appalled by this open genuflection before truthiness as the highest form of evidence.
Gary Webster tried to tell the truth, based on his careful observation of the available research. When that becomes a firing offense, only the ignorant and the dishonest will have jobs. For a certain class of ignorant and cynical politicians, that situation appears to be a condition of victory. Even if it means we all lose in the long run.