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A Wall Street Journal article derisively titled “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” has been making rounds of the blogosphere lately, with its premise that, based on a 2008 survey of economic knowledge, the left wing would flunk Economics 101. Supposedly, the left fumbles the most basic economic concepts.

Well, I am a Chomsky-reading, bleeding-heart leftist, and an economics major. I’ve never received a grade lower than an A in any economics course. So I feel I’m in a unique position to offer criticism from the left.

Firstly–and this is a criticism I have for economics in general–I disagree with the notion of breaking complex political issues down to simple cost-benefit calculations. Any policy assessment should be considered in the context of our values as a society. For example: it’s true that taxation is distortionary and may create disincentives toward work. For Chicago school economists, this in itself is a crime. However, in a broader social context, our society has chosen to value a more even wealth distribution and greater social services. We have made a trade-off, valuing social equality slightly more than economic efficiency.

So, it upsets me when survey respondents are deemed “unenlightened” for not playing along with the cost-benefit analysis of complex issues presented in a single sentence. The answer format of “strongly agree/agree/unsure/disagree/strongly disagree” is extremely shallow for those that see a more human element in those issues, who would prefer to answer, “Yes, but…” In other words, the bleeding-heart liberals.

Daniel Klein kindly supplies all eight of the questions that were asked in his survey and his idea of what constitutes an “unenlightened” answer; all the better to provide all the “Yes, but…” responses that I, if I had been a participant, would have liked to respond with.

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

It’s true. If urban areas aren’t allowed to sprawl forever, housing will be more scarce and thus more expensive. This concept is extremely well understood in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada, where height and sprawl limits have made Vancouver the most “severely unaffordable” housing market in Anglophone countries, according to a recent study by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg.

However, Vancouver is also a darling of international urban design circles for its sustainable and varied infrastructure. It is consistently ranked among the top five most liveable cities in the world, partly for its preservation of green spaces in the city at the expense of housing development. The survey statement is a very loaded question. The answer is yes, restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable, but I feel that it’s unfair to leave it at that.

Yes, but, restrictions on housing development have consequences beyond housing prices, like the nurturing of a more pleasant and sustainable urban infrastructure and a greater quality of life for a city’s residents. To end simply with the assertion that it makes housing less affordable is to leave out the real story.

2. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

Yes, it does. But it also increases the quality and reliability of professional services, and any good economist should know that a good and reliable service is more valuable than a mediocre or uncertain level of service. One can receive a lower quality service at a lower price, or a higher quality service at a higher price; they move together. Furthermore, it is well-established in economics that consumers prefer certainty over uncertainty, and that customers will pay a premium to make an uncertain situation less risky; this is the basis for the insurance industry. By forcing professionals to obtain licenses, it reduces the risk to consumers of hiring someone substandard.

This question is misleading and poorly phrased from an economic point of view. Consumers are not paying higher prices for the same services; consumers are paying higher prices for higher-quality services with an increased assurance of hiring someone competent. It is not the same product.

3. Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

This one I will give to the authors; in general, standards of living around the world have risen in the last 30 years. There are a few arguments to the contrary with some countries (Chad, Sudan, etc) facing deep civil war and others that have been particularly exploited, but overall it’s hard to deny that living standards have risen.

4. Rent control leads to housing shortages (unenlightened answer: disagree).

Yes. Every economics textbook and its mother points to rent control in New York City to demonstrate the effects of a price ceiling on supply. The argument is that at a lower-than-market price, more units of housing will be demanded than supplied, mutually-beneficial transactions will be prevented, and there will be a housing shortage. People who want housing will not be able to find it.

While the above is true, I think that it understates the alternative: the equilibrium rental rate pricing many potential consumers out of the market entirely. This is another serious problem facing my local housing market here in Vancouver, where the market price leaves many on the streets. Rent control or not, many people will find themselves outside the housing market. The question is whether we would prefer to cheap but high-in-demand housing, inefficient by economic standards, or expensive and efficient housing. Either way, some potential consumers are left out.

5. A company with the largest market share is a monopoly. (unenlightened answer: agree)

This question is very fuzzy in terms of its accuracy; either answer has legitimate justifications. A monopoly is usually thought of as a firm that occupies an entire market–in other words, they are the only producer supplying a particular good. The strictest economic definition characterizes it as such. In practice, what we refer to as “monopolies” in the real world are very rarely absolute. More liberal (pun intended) and just as legitimate definitions within economics characterize a monopoly market as a market in which one particular firm holds significant market power to set higher prices, arising in markets with little substantial competition. In economic theory, only a company that is the sole supplier of a good can be a monopoly; in practice, one particular firm with substantial market power can form an effective monopoly.

6. Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited. (unenlightened answer: agree)

I’m not sure what definition of “exploited” the survey authors are using, but I find this assertion just shocking in its lack of empathy. Supporters of sweatshops argue that child labour is unavoidable in countries with populations so poor that children must work or their families will starve; that they are popular in poor communities because they offer higher wages than other options; that we can’t expect the labour standards of industrialized countries to apply to poorer countries quite yet.

I have many concerns about the ethics of paying a child $0.15 cents an hour to produce t-shirts that sell for $30 in developed countries. Surely there is room for a higher wage in that mark-up, at least enough to reduce a working day from 12 to 6 or 8 hours, or for investment in humanitarian aid and social programs that help families avoid depending on their childrens’ wages.

How is it not exploitation to not only expect long hours at low pay, but without the freedom to form unions, in ill-ventilated factories, and without access to clean water at work? Or with chained fire exits that have already led to several deaths? Or workers that are physically abused by their superiors? Or being forced to work mandatory 19-hour shifts?

Anyone who seriously argues that overseas workers for American factories are not being exploited is either ignorant or in denial, or has a serious flaw in their definition of exploitation.

7. Free trade leads to unemployment. (unenlightened answer: agree)

Economists will argue to death that free trade will lead to the loss of jobs that weren’t efficient anyway and will be more than redeemed by the creation of newer, better (more efficient) jobs in other industries. I am extremely skeptical.

NAFTA, for instance, has been devastating for poor Mexican farmers, who find their products priced out of the market by a flood of cheap imports from the heavily subsidized agricultural industry in the United States. Furthermore, many of the jobs in heavy industry created to balance the loss in agriculture have since been lost to China, where wages and production costs are even lower. Furthermore, some evidence points to a lowering of real wages and greater income inequality in Mexico since NAFTA. Overall, job creation estimates were exaggerated and job loss estimates were understated.

8. Minimum wage laws raise unemployment. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

Yes. In contrast to the issue of rent control, which forms a price ceiling, economists argue that the minimum wage forms a price floor, at which there will be a surplus of labour. More people will want to work at minimum wage than employers are willing to hire, and as the cost of hiring a worker increases (minimum wage goes up), employers will hire even less. It sounds very reasonable in theory.

Real-world measurements of this effect are split. Some studies show a minor effect of a decrease in employment with an increase in the minimum wage. Others argue that the overall effect of a substantial increase in the minimum wage forms a net force that is overwhelmingly positive. Recently, there has been strong consensus by many economists that a higher minimum wage does more good than harm for lower-income workers.

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If I had been given this survey, I don’t know what I would have scored. I am familiar with the economic concepts behind all of these questions and how they work; working from what is technically correct at the conceptual level, I suspect that I would have correctly answered every question except numbers six and seven, on which I refuse to relent.

Yes, it’s true, most of the answers that the author gives to those questions are “correct” in the economic sense. But I, like many on the left, have difficulty circling “Agree” to an assertion that housing restrictions raise prices and leaving it at that. We are too busy thinking about everything else: “I agree that the statement is technically accurate, but I feel that it misrepresents the issue by reducing it to efficiency and there is so much more to the case at hand.” As an economics major and a leftist, I understand these concepts and how they work, and I have made a value judgement, a trade-off–that social equality means more to me than efficiency.

Is that unenlightened?

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Since my cousin moved back to Vancouver from Manhattan, I’ve noticed that she has a strange, urban serendipity about her: every time she walks to a street corner, the light instantly changes in her favor. I’m not kidding about this; every time I walk with her downtown, she never has to wait for the ‘Walk’ signal. It comes on the second she approaches the curb, and with no conscious effort whatsoever on her part. And, since I first noted this in my cousin, I’ve been seeing the same crazy luck in both my aunt and her boyfriend – who, like my cousin, are self-proclaimed urbanites living in a very trendy part of downtown.

It was all a strange coincidence – until it started to happen to me, too. Whenever I approach a street corner downtown (this does not work in the suburbs), the light just seems to change in my favor, regardless of my intent to catch it. I used to have the worst luck with my timing downtown, always just missing the light I wanted. Now… well, I don’t think I’ve had to wait for a light to change in weeks. Even my friends are pointing out to me that I have the greatest luck with these things.

I have a theory about this urban serendipity. Cities really do have a pulse. That pulse becomes the pace of the whole city… and that pace is the speed at which each traffic light turns after the other. I think that people who spend a lot of time in the city, like my urbanite family members and now myself, start to fall “in tune” with the pace of the city. Over time, we just develop the perfect pace of walking that gets us between streets right as the lights turn, because it’s such a consistent rhythm.

(This kind of pulse isn’t something I see much of in the suburbs, but I think that it has to do with the lack of traffic and the length of suburban blocks. Suburban streets are more likely to be empty, so we tend to jaywalk more often. And, at least in my neighborhood, the blocks are much larger than those in the city, so it takes a long time to walk from one street to the other – long enough to distract someone from developing the rhythm a city would have.)

With or without the logical explanation for it, the idea of being “in tune” with a city – belonging to a city – is so romantic to me. There’s comfort in knowing and loving a city inside out so much that everything between the limits feels like home. My favorite expression of belonging and comfort in a city are the opening lyrics of “Under the Bridge” (1991), the most successful and best-known song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers:

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner
Sometimes I feel like my only friend
Is the city I live in, the City of Angel
Lonely as I am, together we cry

“I drive on her streets ’cause she’s my companion
I walk through her hills ’cause she knows who I am
She sees my good deeds and she kisses me windy
I never worry, now that is a lie”

Then, later on in the song, is my favorite verse of music:

“It’s hard to believe that there’s nobody out there
It’s hard to believe that I’m all alone
At least I have her love, the city, she loves me
Lonely as I am, together we cry”

Lead singer and frontman of the Chili Peppers, Anthony Kiedis, actually wrote the song about his former heroin addiction – and the full lyrics strongly hint but not explicitly confirm this (though Kiedis himself has). This song once almost lost the potential to become the hit it did because Kiedis had hid the lyrics due to their personal nature. I thought this was odd because Kiedis has sung some pretty wicked-crazy stuff over the years. And those are just the lyrics I don’t feel guilty linking to; some are so explicit I wouldn’t even dare – and some of the above are still pretty graphic. Point is, this is not a guy who’s afraid to put it out there. (Much too literally sometimes.)

Many other musical artists and writers have similarly paid tribute in some way to the cities they love. The cities that seem to get the most love are New York City and pretty much anything in California. Wikipedia has lists (linked in the previous sentence) of hundreds of songs dedicated to NYC, the state of California, cities in California, and even individual streets in California. New Yorkers and Californians really love their homes.

Yet there are hardly any songs (I found two, neither are known widely enough to have lyrics posted anywhere online) dedicated to my city of Vancouver, even though we’re ranked third internationally for quality of life. Canadian cities just don’t get the love they deserve.

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I usually try to save my links until Saturday, but holy crap.

BOSTON – An adjunct professor was fired after leading a classroom discussion about the Virginia Tech shootings in which he pointed a marker at some students and said “pow.” (Yahoo! News)

This just came to my attention via Digg. Listed in the page comments was the video of the professor defending himself (it’s actually part 1 of 4) on YouTube. I’ve only watched a small bit, but it’s there if you’d like to see it.

Here are a couple of things that just irk me:

“During the demonstration, Winset pretended to shoot some students. Then one student pretended to shoot Winset to illustrate his point that the gunman might have been stopped had another student or faculty member been armed.”

So clearly the students weren’t disturbed, and in fact were actively participating in the discussion. This wasn’t a professor just trying to freak out his students (if it ever was). In further support of that:

“Student Junny Lee, 19, told The Boston Globe that most students didn’t appear to find Winset’s demonstration offensive.”

I can’t imagine who would.

Also:

“He said administrators had asked the faculty to engage students on the issue. But on Friday, he got a letter saying he was fired and ordering him to stay off campus.”

Isn’t that just funny? If the whole thing wasn’t so pathetically horrifying, it would be.

In personal news, I get to teach my Social Studies class tomorrow morning – at least, for a little while. Today we were given a chart of the political spectrum, and if you recall from an earlier post of mine, I know my political spectrum. This chart that they gave us, I kid you not, was literally right-wing propaganda. Listed on the left side were traits of communism, and there was clear distaste for it (“Unjust conditions exist because power and wealth are not shared fairly”? That does not sound like an unbiased point). On the right side of the chart, however, the author did their best to represent rightism as the land of the free and righteous. I thought McCarthyism had for the most part ended (this is Canada, for God’s sake), but the chart we were given as a reference still seems to think that left = commies and right = freedom.

I approached my teacher about it and she agreed that the chart had a very unfair bias, but that it had come to her from another teacher and she wasn’t responsible. So, I told her, “Just give me ten minutes at the board, and I can give a better explanation,” and she offered to reserve time for me at the start of the next class. I’m also planning to highlight the difference between socialism and communism, since my classmates often use the terms synonymously, and the question has come up several times before.

Later on the same day, I get to give a speech in favor of a (Canadian) political party of my choice as part of a class project. I love these rare occasions when school and my interests blend!

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Some thoughts

Earlier this week, I was writing a post for my blog that should have gone up a while ago.  Unfortunately, the time at which I was writing it was at the start of my lunch period on Monday, April 14.  Blogs (the writing and visiting of) are strictly forbidden at my school, so I finished my post in Google Documents and planned to publish it when I got home.  The first thing I did after booting up my laptop was, like every day, to check my RSS feeds in Google Reader.  The number of items I had to read had tripled from the average… and for the first few items, I thought, What’s all this about a university in Virginia…?

Suddenly what I had to say felt entirely irrelevant.  Who can go about things as usual after that?

I followed the aftermath very closely in the news until I realized that it was become all about the murderer, Cho Seung-Hui, instead of the victims or even the incident itself.  In all the major newspapers, I’ve seen maybe one of two stories about the victims, but lately it’s just become feature articles and columns about the killer’s pre-massacre behavior and mental illness and shyness, etc etc.

Imagine my discomfort when, one morning, the front page of every newspaper in my relatively peaceful Canadian city was covered with a picture of Seung-Hui pointing a gun menacingly at his audience.  His name and face are omnipresent in the news right now.  At this point, it’s just getting on my nerves.  The news of a gun massacre on an innocent and unsuspecting college is sad and sobering; humoring the rants of an attention-craving and very disturbed young man is not.  Seriously.

If you’ve seen the video and images, it’s clear that this guy was very disturbed and saw himself as a martyr (at one point he compares himself to Jesus Christ as having liberated people into taking action).  Is it just me or does it look and sound like he’s reading from a script?  According to many news sources, he was an English major, and wrote disturbing and just plain bad plays that are nothing more than violence and an exercise in using the word “fuck”.  And the pictures he sent aiming various weapons at himself and the camera?  Just plain narcissistic.  He wanted nothing more than attention, and the press is giving it to him.  I think the best way to pay tribute to the victims’ families and classmates is to stop indulging the posthumous wishes of the murderer.

A couple of days after the local newspapers all sported images of Seung-Hui on their overs, I was happy to see that they were full of angry editorials from others who felt the same way and demanded the papers to stop indulging this lunatic.

Actually, if anything, this event has reassured me of human sensibility.  Sure, there have been a few big scares over copycat threats (the most notable being the recent one in Northern California when 36 schools were shut down after a man threatened to “make Virginia Tech look mild.”), but I’m seeing a lot of common sense up here in Canada.  A recent poll was taken across the country, and while a majority of Canadians are worried about another mass shooting here (we just had one last September at Dawson College in Quebec), another majority also believes that if someone wants to commit that sort of mass murder, it’s “beyond the scope of anybody to do anything about it, regardless of what preventative measures are in place” – which is very true.  One of the issues was giving guns to campus security, which was not supported by the majority, but this is Canada, and we don’t really like guns up here.

In any case, it’s so nice to hear that even though horrible things like this happen, people can still be sensible enough to deal with it.

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As part of my (Canadian) high school’s Social Studies (read: history and government) curriculum, everything we study has a distinctly Canadian bias. This means that, while we cover major events of the twentieth century like World Wars I and II and the Depression, they’re all from a purely Canadian perspective, and certain events that didn’t involve Canada aren’t covered at all (ie, the Bolshevik Revolution or rise of communism in China).

It’s understandable that history classes in any country would have a bias towards the events that have had major impacts on said country… but it can go too far, as it has done in my class.

For instance, the local textbook that we use in class has a single chapter on World War II, and Winston Churchill is mentioned once within. This is the quotation: “British Prime Minister Winston Churchill recognized the importance of this outcome.” This is in relation to the Battle of the Atlantic, and it’s the only sentence about Churchill in the textbook. Nothing about fighting on the beaches, no finest hour, no blood, toil, tears and sweat… Churchill is just one name among many mentioned in passing. How can we spend two weeks covering WWII and exclude Winston Churchill?

It’s probably the same phenomenon that would explain why we don’t get a single sentence about Pearl Harbor, and the two atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are given a quick paragraph at the end of the chapter as a sort of afterthought. By the way, the most devastating bombs ever used in warfare were dropped on Japan afterwards, but let’s move on to Canada’s post-war economy because that’s much more important than the devastation and cultural impact it had on Japan. The fact that the uranium used in the bombs was mined in Canada was given two lengthy paragraphs about the owners of the mine and the process of mining, but the actual dropping of the bombs and its impact on Japan were squashed into one small paragraph at the end. Hmmmmm.

I think if Winston Churchill and Hiroshima get only a few sentences between them in a whole unit dedicated to World War II while Canadian miners get two paragraphs about the mining of uranium, we’re somehow missing the point.

EDIT 03/18/07: Well, I had the final exam for the World War II unit.  Silly me studied battles, the sequence of events, important figures, technological advances, and cultural impacts.  An impressive zero questions on the exam asked about any of these things (or anything else pertaining to the actual WWII).  The exam thought it was more important that I leave with the knowledge of who the Canadian Minister of Munitions and Supplies was at the time and why the Liberals had a difficult time staying in office.  To each country their own, I suppose.

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In light of current events, I’ve decided to briefly postpone my focus on the topics I mentioned earlier to address Friday’s big announcement. By this I mean, of course, the “Climate Change 2007″ release from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that states that human emissions are definitely, beyond reasonable doubt, causing global warming. Not much of a surprise, given the amount of media attention that global warming has been receiving in the last couple of years, but from the looks of things, this has been a real wake-up call for a lot of people (and governments).

This release is going to be very hard to ignore, and I say that because I’m looking at a two-page spread in my local paper, The Vancouver Sun, that screams “DOOMSDAY”. Behold the fatalistic headlines: “[Prime Minister Stephen] Harper changes tune on climate change, says ‘science is clear’,” “Canadians face ethical dilemma,” “Emissions tax is the only solution, energy expert says,” and “B.C. can expect floods and drought,” accompanied by a list of similarly fatalistic quotes from world leaders down the side of the left page and impressive diagrams.

Now, there’s something I find very upsetting on this two-page spread, and it isn’t the fact that Canada’s Prime Minister had gone from calling Kyoto a “socialist scheme” to throwing in his full support towards the protocol. What really upset me was the article titled, “Canadians face ethical dilemma.” The content of the article was absolutely ludicrous. It started out with this: “As scientists forecast a hotter future of storms, droughts and rising oceans, the only climate questions left are moral: have Canadians [and Americans] the moral right to drive a car to work? To keep homes toasty in January? To trim lawns with power machinery?”

Let me make my response to this “ethical dilemma” very clear: THAT IS NOT THE ETHICAL DILEMMA.

…if the governments of both countries do things right.

Consider the much-loved SUV. Consider also that the typical SUV driver is a relatively wealthy urban- or suburban-dweller, and that 98% of SUV owners have not and will never drive offroad. SUVs are criticised – fairly so – for fuel inefficiency. Being classified as a light truck, SUVs are held to less restrictive efficiency standards than regular cars. To answer the first question raised by the article, do Canadians (and Americans) have the right to drive to work? Absolutely. Do they have the right to drive to work in a gas-guzzling, offroad “light truck” that they are statistically likely to never drive offroad? Absolutely NOT. Owning an SUV for safety reasons? Over at the Freakonomics blog, authors Levitt and Dubner state (among other things) that people drive more carefully when they are more at risk, and more recklessly when they perceive a lesser risk. It’s basic risk psychology. So, if SUV drivers are feeling more protected, they are theoretically driving more recklessly; it does not necessarily lower their risk of getting in an accident. And unintentionally reckless SUV drivers presents another huge risk: the people in smaller, more fuel efficient cars that would never survive an impact with such a vehicle. Malcolm Gladwell has a spectacular essay on other false factors of the perceived “safety” of SUVs on his website.

What should be done about this? Well, since ~98% of SUV owners will never use them for their intended purpose, maybe the government should support more disincentives toward selling or owning one. SUVs are not needed in urban environments (and are more dangerous there to other drivers), and that provides a starting point; there should be a strict and strictly enforced limit on SUV sales within a certain radius of urban and suburban areas. SUVs may be extremely popular, but the sales can be greatly altered by a number of small things: how many are displayed at lots, the price of the vehicle and cost of maintaining it, the persuasion of salesmen, etc. Collect escalating tax penalties from car companies that produce SUVs as a disincentive to making them in the first place. There are so many things that can be done in that one area.

Also on the subject of cars, bringing back those sleek, electric ones would be a pretty good idea about now. I can’t stress this enough: good electric cars exist. Lots of them. There was an amazing movie called “Who Killed the Electric Car?” about this very fact, and it continues to stand against criticism. It’s been a few months since I saw it, but I believe that the agreed-upon statistic was that the car would satisfy the daily transportation demands of about 95% of American drivers. The drivers who had managed to obtain electric cars loved them. Unfortunately, for a number of unethical reasons (among them the projected $2 trillion of oil still to be mined), the electric car projects were scrapped and the cars were recalled and crushed.

Now, there‘s your ethical dilemma. Car companies can still make billions off of gas-guzzling SUVs, and oil companies still have an estimated $2 trillion dollars of oil to mine. SUVs are not needed by 98% of their owners, and we have the technology necessary to make fossil fuel-dependent cars a thing of the past altogether. Here’s the ethical dilemma: should oil and car companies give up more than $2 trillion in profits to bring us to zero vehicle emissions total?

Ethically speaking, yes. Economically speaking… no, but possibly not for much longer. Oil and gas-dependent car sales are a huge chunk of the economy. Replacing all of our current technology with alternative fuels will cost a lot of money, and generate a lot of waste (unwanted cars don’t just go away). It will cost us, and it will cost us big. But again, if the government does things right, we shouldn’t have to go broke. Cuts in the right places, and the right allocation of tax dollars should start right away. I happen to know that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s fancy jet costs $9,000 an hour to fly – and that comes out of the taxpayer’s wallet. I don’t know how much per hour it costs to run Air Force One, but I expect that it’s a similar (if not greater) figure. Here’s a good financial plan for the government: cut back on the frills, and we might do fine.

Or maybe the $1.2 trillion going towards the war in Iraq could be going somewhere more useful. Just a suggestion.

My point is this: we have both the technology and the funds (cleverly disguised in expensive wars and government frills) to solve our emissions problem. But we aren’t… yet. And that’s our ethical dilemma. The article in the Sun raised some “ethical” questions; here are mine. Should we take away the rights of every Canadian and American to drive to work, or take away the rights of urban- and suburban-dwellers to own an unnecessary SUV? Should we take away the rights of Canadians to drive and heat their homes during the winter, or ask Stephen Harper to give up his $9,000-an-hour jet? Should we start producing purely zero-emissions vehicles, or let oil companies collect their $2 trillion in profit? These are my ethical questions, and these are the ethical dilemmas we need to be worrying about.

But it all comes down to one question, the most important of all, which is: will we press our leaders to actually do these things?

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Urbanphobia

Is there a -phobia word for ‘fear of cities’ or ‘fear of urban environment’? I would find it hard to believe that we have a word for ‘fear of flutes’ (aulophobia) and ‘fear of objects to the right of the body’ (dextrophobia) but nothing for large cities. There’s even a phobia for ‘fear of teenagers’ (ephebiphobia–totally understandable, I admit) and different phobias for fears of flying, falling, gravity, and heights. I’m currently scanning a phobia list on the internet, and if I don’t find any kind of urbanphobia, I totally claim the rights to create such a term because I’m certain that the condition exists.

I live in the suburbs. A sad, sad fact of life. However, I live less than an hour from Vancouver by transit, so I spend my all my weekends and free days roaming the city streets. To be entirely honest, nothing happens in the suburbs. Really. It’s much more interesting to be in Vancouver, where everything is happening all at once, than in the suburbs, where the headline of the local newspaper is about a coyote attacking someone’s pet cat. Until about last April, I was content to live in the slow-paced, suburban life, and saw nothing particularly strange about my fellow suburbanites. And until about the same time, I never realized that myself and the other suburbanites all suffer from what I like to call (for lack of an official term) ‘urbanphobia’.

Urbanphobia is a strange thing. When I tell someone–anyone–in the suburbs that I spend every weekend and every day of the summer wandering the streets of downtown, they are, without exception, absolutely appalled. A fourteen year old girl wandering the streets nine-to-nine alone, without companion or cellphone? They would never dream of doing it themselves. How many times have I been mugged, have I ever been attacked or raped? What kind of awful, neglectful parents would allow their daughter to roam the city unprotected? What am I doing so far from home for so long each day? It never fails.

Last week, my English teacher remarked on the ‘scary’ panhandlers of downtown, how she would never walk the streets alone because people will hassle you for change. On a school trip to the Orpheum theatre downtown to see the dalai lama, we happened to drive down East Hastings, the worst street in Vancouver. All of the downtown east side is essentially forbidden territory for most Vancouverites, never mind suburbanites. And all the while we drove down this street, girls in the back of the bus whimpered about ‘scary downtown’ and how disgusting Vancouver was. I took great pleasure in telling them what I do with my spare time. Priceless.

What I pointed out to both my English teacher and the girls cowering in the back of the bus (and to anyone who expresses grief over my urban wanderings) is that, no, Vancouver is not a scary, dangerous place. Downtown east side, perhaps (my friend’s father drove down E Hastings with his two young daughters clearly visible in the back seat–nevertheless, two women asked him on seperate occasions at the intersection if he was looking for a ‘good time’), but only the truely foolish would walk through that part of town. The misconception that most suburbanites seem to share is that the entire city is one big East Hastings, and that the panhandlers are all muscular, drug-crazed men that will stab you if you don’t drop your wallet in their tin.

I always use my own case in my argument, because it tends to surprise a lot of suburbanites: that I, fourteen year old girl, wander downtown completely unattended from dawn to dusk, and have not even once been so much as approached by a panhandler. The depth of my encounters with them is this: they sit by the sidewalk, tin in front, maybe asking, “Spare change?”, but nothing more. After months of wandering the streets nine-to-nine as a lone teenage girl, that is the absolute extent of panhandling I have had to endure.

Just a thought, really, but also a note to all the urbanphobic suburbanites out there: cities aren’t the scary underworlds people like to think they are.

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