What makes a city great? Toward a hierarchy of urban needs

April 3, 2014

A few years ago I created a conceptual model of national needs, shown below, based on Maslow’s hierarchy of (personal) needs. It has become one of the most read posts on this blog, indicating that our identification with both nations and Maslow’s framework both continue to resonate today, decades after their creation.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Some context: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, for individuals

Of course, it is difficult to map the idea of progressive needs of an individual cleanly to a political entity. Nations, like people, continue to evolve, and the role of nations in the world is changing too. Nonetheless, the idea of a hierarchy, in which basic needs must be satisfied before one can progress to a higher level of actualization and fulfilling one’s whole potential, can be applied to countries in various stages of development.

Since writing my National Needs post in 2010, a new country was created in South Sudan. It is still struggling (as indeed are many other nations) with the lowest level of securing territorial integrity and peaceful borders, and this remains its primary focus. The struggle for survival must come before feelings of security, esteem and morality.

Exon's Hierarchy of National Needs (Click for a larger version)

Exon [Smith]’s Hierarchy of National Needs, c. 2010 (Click for a larger version)

Yet there are other geographical entities with which we commonly identify, and which are becoming more and more important as centres of culture and economy as a greater percentage of the world’s population moves into them: cities. It is estimated that for the first time in human history, more people live in urban areas than outside of them, and cities are becoming important political players in their own right.

Since moving to California in late 2013 (and spending a lot of time on the Atlantic Cities channel), I have been thinking about how fundamentally important cities are. What makes them truly great? What makes them “cities” at all, in a sense apart from the obvious population requirements? For example, I live in San Jose, which is the third largest city in California, ahead of San Francisco in both population and area, and yet its own inhabitants curiously refer to San Francisco as “the city.” Why? What has to happen for a place to transform into a world-class city from a mere urban area?

So, as I am wont to do, I created a new model to explore the needs of a city, also along the lines of Maslow. I’m calling it the “Hierarchy of Urban Needs.” Note that I am assuming that this city exists within the context of a nation that ensures the rights and privileges of, as well as general governance over, its citizens.  Some discussion of the stages is below.


Exon Smith’s hierarchy of urban needs (Click for a larger version)

Basic services 

At the most fundamental level, cities need key services delivered in an efficient and cost-effective way. (This is true even if such services aren’t necessarily paid for by the cities themselves, as is the case with, say, healthcare in Canadian cities.) This includes fire, police, and ambulance services; waste management; housing inspections to ensure both safety and affordability of housing; water treatment, and the like. For many cities, this means being able to control the tax base and be able to levy taxes on the population as necessary.

World-class cities will also have exceptional healthcare options and a focus on sustainability woven through even these fundamentals, such as extensive recycling and compost programs. San Francisco, for example, deploys teams to examine what its residents recycle properly and what they don’t so the city can mount better educational campaigns.

Of course, the basic running of the city must be free of corruption, and be able to pay its bills so it avoids a Detroit-like bankruptcy claim, or the succession of mayors Montreal has recently had.


Historically, cities developed around major ports and, later, railway depots. Even today, no major cities exist without some kind of harbour, airport, train station or freeway linking them with the outside world. Inter-city transportation, undergirded by solid infrastructure, is a critical component of economic progress.

Cities with poor transit are at a huge disadvantage. Jakarta, a city of nearly ten million people, and the largest city of its size with no metro of any kind, has notoriously been working on an underground transit network for 20 years. Traffic congestion is thought to cost the city $1 billion a year. In another cautionary tale, it can take 12 hours to travel 40 miles in Lagos, Nigeria, and the way is fraught with crime and other dangers, a threat to legitimate trade.

Intra-city transportation is also a key factor, and how best to support the movement of people within a city is a subject of almost universal debate. Subways vs. light rail, bike lanes vs. car lanes, pedestrian-only roads and congestion pricing – these are major issues for all cities, and the thinking on public transportation keeps evolving.

This is one area in which San Jose currently struggles but has big plans for the future. My theory is that older cities, built before car use was predominant, have an easier time planning for pedestrian and bike access. Those (like San Jose) that were built after the advent of freeways and a Cadillac for every nuclear family tend to struggle to retrofit density in the downtown core when its points of interest are already quite far-flung.

And yet. San Jose is a critical location for high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as a hub for transportation around the San Francisco Bay (linking to San Francisco and Oakland), and has reserved space downtown for new transit links. It is planning for increased density to accompany the new transportation. Hopefully use of public transportation within city limits will also increase, because at the moment the city is hugely dependent on the car. Inefficient public transit routes poorly serve the population, resulting in, for example, 78% (!) of San Jose commuters travelling to work in single-occupancy vehicles.

Central Park

Infrastructure also includes sewers and other large-scale public works, including parks and other green space. More and more research indicates that green spaces make for happier communities, and many major cities can be identified by their parks alone (e.g. Central Park, Golden Gate Park, Bois du Boulogne, Sanjay Gandhi National Park). As I’ve said before, I love sewers, water mains and bridges, personally, and think more campaigns should be fought around securing funding for them. The recent, tragic gas explosion in Harlem only underlines the need to think the way the Victorians did about how cities really run and how we can leave a legacy for the future that is perhaps not glamourous, but that is critically important. One of Toronto’s great strengths, as is the case in many other cities, is the numerous cranes on the skyline building new architectural wonders (as well as a few duds). Would that we could focus on what lies beneath the soil as well.

A brief interlude on mayors…

Thinking about these lower levels of needs, it strikes me that the level of a city’s discourse (and thus position on this hierarchy) can often be seen through the lens of its mayoral elections. Toronto’s 2010 (as most likely will its 2014) election centered on the issues of transportation and waste in providing city services, leaving little room for discussion of higher-order issues (such as, ahem, drug use among elected officials). New York’s 2013 election, in which Bill de Blasio won almost three quarters of the votes, turned largely on issues of income inequality and pre-kindergarden education, the next level in my hierarchy. And the major issues of London’s 2012 election, won by incumbent Boris Johnson and his hair, were the economy, tackling crime, public transportation, and affordable housing.

Boris, Campaigning on Transit

Boris: Campaigning on Transit

It makes sense that the basics need to be taken care of, and continually improved upon, before a successful cultural scene can take root, in the same way that humans must be fed and watered, feel physically and emotionally safe, and feel a sense of belonging before they can achieve self-actualization.

…and then back to the hierarchy: Educational and research institutions

A strong educational foundation at every level is critical, and a well-educated population requires relative equality in the quality of schools. This is one of the main reasons cities should not fund their schools through neighbourhood taxes (and thus subject schools to the vagaries of house prices), as many cities in the United States do.  A well-educated citizenry contributes more to the economy than a poorly-educated one.

The presence of leading research and teaching institutions draws in talent and sows the seeds of innovation, which is why “cluster economies” such as Silicon Valley are the next big thing, because they focus research and development into localities with populations educated enough to feed them with employees. Every one of the world’s greatest cities has a leading university at its heart, without exception – this cannot be a coincidence.

Diversity is the key here. Cities built around just one industry are like monocultures: potentially dominant for a short while, but vulnerable to disastrous decline. Take any of the grand old cities in the Rust Belt: Buffalo, for example, was one of America’s greatest cities one hundred years ago, built on a strong grain-milling and shipping/railroad industry. After almost a century of decline, it is, well, no longer great – but it has managed to slow the decline by diversifying into the education and medical fields. Glasgow, once the premier city of Scotland, faced a similar decline due to its emphasis on a resource-based economy and de-emphasis on education.

Robust arts, sports and cultural scene

This stage is where the jump occurs from a merely livable city to one that is great. A safe, well-run, working city is lovely, but a city with a thriving cultural scene is one to fall in love with. In fact, social offerings, a broad category encompassing art, music, sport, religion and other community activities, are among the most significant contributing factors to residents’ feelings of attachment to their community. This is even above security or the state of the economy.

This stage of course includes both major municipal institutions such as museums, symphonies and ballets, but also spontaneous or smaller-scale, citizen-led activities. Being able to participate in a Sing-A-Long Messiah or see an independent movie at a film festival is as important as having the Bolshoi nearby, and also makes the arts more accessible to a wider population. Having Old Trafford around the corner is great, but so is the local curling league.

Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art


An arts and culture scene, moreover, is a key driver of tourism, which in turn feeds the economy on general feeling of being in a place worth being. (Just imagine Paris without the Louvre, or New York without the Empire State Building.) Older cities naturally have an advantage here because of the in-built history in ancient cathedrals, palaces or public art, but some newer cities have benefited by investing heavily in creating an arts scene. Doha, once little more than an oily afterthought, is planning for the time when its resources run out by creating a strong film industry and thriving place for modern art. It is also newly host to a major international economic forum, and will host the 2022 World Cup. (Probably.)

Openness to influence; becoming a symbolic beacon

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free !

These words adorn the base of the Statue of Liberty  and represent what I have spoken of before, being a city of the imagination. These cities are the subject of books, films, Broadway musicals, and countless daydreams, and have a romance and level of impact that serves to draw people to them, for a visit or for good.

These cities, in turn, receive their tourists and immigrants in a more or less accommodating way, taking from them the best of their cultures and using that to strengthen and further diversify the metropolis. Cuzco, Islamic Seville, and the Florence of the Medici were all historical examples of the power of such “mixing bowls” of culture: out of their cultural milieu came the starting point for a massive empire, the Golden Age of exploration, and the Uffizi Gallery. Modern equivalents spring to mind precisely because they have this pull on our hearts and minds.

The last two levels of the hierarchy are quite iterative: the greater the cultural scene and economy, the greater draw a city has for immigrants, who then enrich the culture further. It is difficult to find a world-class city without a large percentage of immigrants, who bring with them new traditions, great ideas, ambition, and excellent food. It is in fact difficult to overestimate the importance – both historically and in the present day – of immigrants to cities’ successes, which is why openness to influence and disruption may be the most important trait a city can have.


So there’s the model. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Scandal, Scandal! Lisez Plus Ici…or Not

June 7, 2011

What is it with the French?

Despite the puritanical Anglo-American attitude toward sex that supposedly stifles our expression of sexual content in North America, the French press is muzzled to a far greater extent than our own. Titillating details of adultery, hypocrisy and intrigue remain untold. As one weekly puts it, “News always stops at the bedroom door.”

There has been a wave of self-examination on the part of the French media in response to the recent scandal involving former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a hotel maid, and a rape charge. In response, Matthew Fraser, formerly editor of the National Post and now an academic in France, wrote a thought-provoking explanation of why the French media clam up just when politicians’ private sins and indiscretions could be selling millions of papers. He describes modern France as a guilt-free land of entitlement where power essentially allows the ruling elites – historically monarchs, but now politicians and top-level bureaucrats – to do whatever they want without fear of it being reported. And even if it is reported, they respond with a Gallic shrug as if to say, “And?”

While I’m not sure I agree that a culturally Catholic country can be devoid of guilt (!), or that French journalists are mostly unconcerned with facts (another argument Fraser makes), I am intrigued by his remarks on privacy. In France, privacy trumps freedom of speech. In Canada, the US, and especially Britain, it is just the opposite. Britain doesn’t even have a formal privacy law; thus, newspapers tend to print first and ask questions (or defend against a libel claim) later. Case in point: my favourite footballer is currently embroiled in an adultery scandal that he (unsuccessfully) attempted to quash before publication with a full court superinjuction. The matter even came up in Parliament.

Going to such lengths to stop the presses seems ridiculous, but on the other hand, once a story is out, and has been seized upon and exaggerated beyond recognition by numerous blogs, tweets, and other retellings, the damage is done – even if the content is inaccurate. Such lengths are standard in France. The French legal system, in order to treat all citizens as equals before the law, grants everyone the same level of privacy. For famous people, this amounts to establishing legal walls which severely limit the stories that can be told by the official press. There are cultural walls too, which results in a lot of open secrets in France that are never officially acknowledged.

The Public Face and the Tipping Point

Do we really need to know all the gory details? Perhaps we Anglo-American types have baser instincts for needing juicy gossip, because I suspect that if the French public were really clamouring for a story, the media would give it to them, particularly in an age when newspapers are going bankrupt on a weekly basis. But it is difficult to argue that salicious tales of seduction by the ruling elites are really essential information for the public at large.

Unless, that is, they reflect poorly on a leader’s judgment or character. Does personal biography matter? So asked the New York Times recently, in an interesting series of short opinion pieces that explored how much we really need to know about our elected officials. Should they be considered differently because they are famous? The general consensus is no. Should they be considered differently because they are powerful? Absolutely. Hypocrisy and corruptibility are certainly unattractive characteristics in figures of authority, and even I will admit to a healthy sense of schadenfreude when an undeserving hero is brought down by an enterprising journalist. The trouble arises when determining what information the public needs to judge a public figure’s accountability. What is the line between a public role and the private person? Are both real? Are both fair game for reporting?

An important duty of the media is to hold public figures to account for their actions. Sometimes they don’t go far enough. Fraser writes that in France:

…there a legal barrier between private and public lives — though when Mitterrand installed his parallel family in a state residence at taxpayers expense, the French media still observed obedient silence.

Then-President Mitterand’s tacit second family may not have been newsworthy, but there is evidently a tipping point, and one that has been reached recently: with the explosion of the DSK scandal in all its gory detail, particularly the charge of rape, a line was crossed and the media floodgates opened. Several prominent French women have since opened up about the sexual harassment they faced from politicians, colleagues, and others. It’s a dialogue that needs to be had, certainly, in order to advance women’s rights in France and break down one more barrier that prevents women from speaking up.

It is the job of the media to advance that debate, and perhaps they can do so most persuasively by bringing in anecdotal evidence of famous persons and their misdeeds. The joy and curse of leadership is the opportunity to set an example for others. Those in the public eye are often leaders, by virtue of their skills, hard work, or simply that others look to them for guidance. As such, they are not mere private citizens, and their actions – all of them – deserve scrutiny. Scandals show that leaders are human too, for better or worse, and knowing about them helps the public evaluate which leaders should stand and which should fall.

Coffee vs. Alcohol: A better brew?

February 28, 2011

Almost everyone enjoys a good brew, but some brews are more acceptable than others, it seems. Around the world, coffee consumption has far outstripped that of alcoholic beverages, with around 2.9 pounds (or around 30 litres) of coffee consumed per person, on average, in one year. Compared with an average consumption of 5 litres per person, per year of alcohol worldwide, it seems we are much more inclined to be hitting a Starbucks than a bar on an average day.

Global average alcohol consumption

Global average alcohol consumption

Coffee is also a critically important trading commodity, second only to oil in terms of dollar value globally. I won’t get into the cultural influence of Starbucks, Tim Hortons and the like, but the impact on consumers and on the business world has been significant – much more so than any individual brand of alcohol in recent history.

Coffee is a relatively modern beverage. There is no Greek god of coffee, like there is of wine (though if there were, no doubt he would be a very spirited half-child of Zeus who enjoyed bold flavours, waking up early, and being chipper). The first evidence of coffee drinking as we know it today is generally placed in the fifteenth-century Middle East. Evidence of wine and beer consumption, in contrast, dates to 6000 BC and 9500 BC, respectively, or even earlier. Yet for such a young contender, coffee’s rise in popularity has been impressive.

No doubt in part this rise in Europe related to the appeal of the exotic, like the chocolate and other goods that originated in Turkey or other Arab countries. It is also likely that, like sugar, coffee was just tasty and appealing in its own right, and those who tried it liked it and wanted more. And certainly there is the social aspect, the rise of coffeehouse culture across France and Britain in the eighteenth century, which brought together politics, business and social interaction in a public forum as never before. The purported offspring of the coffeehouses, such as the stock market, French Enlightenment ideals, and even democracy, were significant. In a TED talk I watched recently, author Steven Johnson slyly remarked that the English Renaissance was curiously closely tied to the changeover from imbibing large amounts of depressants to large amounts of stimulants with the rise of the coffeehouse (go figure).

The best part of waking up?

Today, it seems that coffee has generally been linked to a host of other caffeinated beverages that are considered “good” (such as tea and cola) and alcohol has been linked with commodities that are “bad” and “unhealthy” (such as drugs and cigarettes). Why? Perhaps it is because colas, tea and coffee are unregulated, entirely legal, and (to a point) even considered safe for children, while the opposite can be said of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes.

Is the association fair? Hardly. While the dangers of addiction may be greater for the latter group, and public drunkenness more severely chastised than public hyperactivity, coffee and sugary colas (as fantastic as they are) are hardly the healthiest choices of beverages.

I suspect it is something else, something in the inherent nature or promotion of coffee that makes it seem less threatening than alcohol. Coffee suffers from none of the religious ordinances forbidding its consumption the way alcohol does (though, interestingly, coffee was also banned in several Islamic countries in its early years). Is has also never endured the smug wrath of teetotalers or wholesale prohibition.

Alcohol is generally placed into the realms of evenings and night-times, bars, and sexy movies, while coffee is the drink of busy weekday mornings, weekends with the paper, and businesspeople. Both are oriented toward adults, but coffee is in some ways more socially acceptable. Consider the difference between remarking that you just can’t get started in the morning without your coffee versus saying the same about your morning shot of whiskey. Similarly, asking someone out for a drink connotes much more serious intentions than asking someone for a coffee. And vendors are catching on: in Britain, many pubs are weathering the downturn in business caused by the recession and changing attitudes by tapping into the morning market of coffee drinkers.

Worldwide annual average coffee consumption (courtesy of ChartsBin)

Worldwide annual average coffee consumption (graphic courtesy of ChartsBin)

I wonder if the trend toward increased coffee consumption is in place of alcohol. I also wonder if it mirrors the general cultural shift toward an American orientation. The global dominance of Starbucks and other coffee shops seem to me to be supplanting the role of the local pub or licensed hang outs of the old world with a chirpy kind of Americanism and a whole new roster of bastardized European terms and ideas like “caramelo” and “frappuccino.” The New York Times backs up the idea of American dominance, noting that the U.S. makes up 25% of global coffee consumption and was a primary instigator of the takeover of coffee shop chains. Yet coffee is also extremely popular in Europe (especially in Scandinavia, as fans of Stieg Larsson would be unsurprised to discover) and even Japan.

Is this another case of American cultural colonialism, whereby traditions from Europe are adopted, commercialized, and re-sold to captive populations who want to tap into small piece of American corporate and social culture? Or is the global interest in coffee indifferent to American opinion?

Reading the tea leaves (coffee grinds?) to tell the future of consumption

Will coffee culture continue to increase in popularity, eventually supplanting the role of alcohol in social meetings? Two factors are worth considering here. The first is that while demand for alcoholic beverages in the developed world is shrinking, there is a growing interest in all kinds of alcohol (and especially wine) in emerging markets. Take, for instance, the rise of wine as a drink of choice and status symbol in China and Hong Kong as expendable incomes have grown. A similarly proportioned increase in coffee consumption there could be monumental – will it occur?

The second factor is the great cost of producing coffee. Putting aside the fact that most coffee is produced in comparatively poorer countries than those that refine, sell, and consume the finished product, the environmental cost is staggering. Waterfootprint asserts that for every 1 cup of coffee, 141 litres of water are required (mostly at the growing stage). Compare this figure with 75 litres for one similarly sized glass of beer and 120 litres for the average glass of wine and it would seem that a rise in coffee culture at the expense of alcohol could be disastrous for the environment.

Do the above statistics figure largely in the minds of those who drink any of the above beverages? Likely not. But all might – and likely will – in time affect production, and the economics of supply and demand will come into play, changing the equation once more and making it even harder to determine which is the better brew.

Mendoza: Two Tickets to Paradise

January 4, 2011

(Yes, I think every blog needs an obligatory ’70s music reference at some point or another. Consider it a nod to all the fantastic classic rock they play here.)

There are certain assumptions we make about Paradise, depending on our own tastes and inclinations. Perhaps it is warm, maybe even hot enough that anything but sleep is uncalled for between the hours of noon and 5. Perhaps it abounds with flowers and leafy trees to shade weary travellers as they wander its sun-dappled streets. Certainly, it is comfortable, a place with king-size beds, faucets that shower water of even temperature and pressure, and pleasant aromas inside and out.

Public parks and palms abound

So it is with Mendoza. I will admit to having had lingering concerns about how I would find Argentina and its people, bourne from some unfortunate incidents in ’82 and ’86, but, unsurprisingly, they proved unfounded, as everyone was both incredibly friendly and easily understood (another concern). An enormous fresh fruit salad appeared minutes after our arrival at our delightful B&B at noon on Christmas Day, courtesy of the friendly proprietor who had interrupted a several-hour-long lunch with friends to let us in. And what a B&Bit was: an ultra-modern oasis of polished concrete floors, air conditioning, and soothing tribal music playing at low volume in a common area I would immediately move into as my own condo if given the opportunity. And the stylish surroundings were no match for the people, who all appeared to have walked out of a fashion magazine. Even the taxi drivers wore collared shirts, and women everywhere were in sparkly sandals and dresses with plunging necklines.

A finca in Mendoza - what more could anyone want?

If Chile is North American, Mondoza is European enough to serve as the setting for the Italian parts of a Godfather movie. Outside the city, row upon row if grape vines stretch into the distance, broken up only by the occasional olive tree marking the boundary line of one finca from another. Restaurants augment their fabulous meals of stuffed pasta and gigantic steaks with house-made preserves, wines, and olive oils, the latter often stored in large barrels behind the bar. I’ve not been to Italy or to Paradise, but I imagine they look, feel, and taste a lot like this.

After a 6-hour bus ride through the Andes, with switchback after switchback, we spent two days dozing intermittently and exploring the city’s massive pubic park and many public plazas (named after important friends, founders and neighbours like Chile, Italia, Peru and San Martín). On day 3 we explored three ultra-modern wineries in the nearby Uco Valley – with 6 other tourists and a guide company, as numerous private security firms and local custom prevent Napa Valley-style exploration by individuals or couples on their own, whether by car or bike. Each bodega was less than 10 years old, and each was owned by wealthy foreigner who had invested significant cash to turn what was essentially desert into microclimates suitable for many varieties of grape. The wineries themselves were towering concrete monuments to efficiency of production and the power of modern science in vinticulture – all sterilized labs and no romance here. It seems that Mendoza is quickly becoming a hotspot for wine tourism, and its winery guides, fluent in English and with pleasant (if slightly indifferent) hospitality, show that the people know it. Being by far the least experienced wine tasters in our half-American, half-Canadian group, we drank our 12 (!) tasting glasses with increasing delight but little in the way of critique.

Ultra-modern wineries also function as lodges and restaurants, and even concert venues and art galleries

Our best evening was spent at a small finca (the term for the kind of property on which grapes and other Mediterranean-type crops are grown here) at a cooking class with a lovely young chef who had returned to Mendoza to raise her two daughters after a stint in one of Santiago’s chic restaurants. Sitting outside, under a walnut tree and a sky full of stars, drinking the finca‘s own red wine (made exclusively for guests of the attached lodge and cooking class participants), we had our best meal to date in South America. It consisted of empanadas (folded meat pies) in the local style, grilled vegetables, a giant steak (of course; this is Argentina), fruit cooked in a clay oven, and – best of all – chimichurri sauce made from fresh herbs and oil. Finally, spice! I’ll admit that even my tastebuds, so inclined toward bland meat-and-potatoes types of foods, were crying out for some kind of flavour (even pepper, which South Americans don’t seem to believe in). It was heaven itself, for despite all the talk of ubiquitous, 21-ounce steaks (and it was not exaggerated), we have found that many places serve cuts inferior to what we’d find at home, and many are fried instead of grilled. They seem to value quantity over quality in many places. And bread and fries seem to be the only accompaniments worth getting, as the salads are vegetables are all quite sad looking.

Our first Andes crossing had been beautiful, comfortable and easy, and we had arrived in a kind of paradise that could be similarly described. We left Mendoza thinking it couldn’t possibly get better than this. And looking back a week later…well, I’ll save that for my next post. (Foreshadowing! Dun dun dun!)

Post-Imperial Football Guilt

June 23, 2010

For those among you who don’t follow sports, or news, or the stricken faces of football fans of varying teams, the French football team imploded yesterday in front of millions of viewers, in its last group stage match at the South African World Cup. Their opponents, South Africa, managed to net two goals but will still not be continuing in the tournament because of previous losses. Had it not been for a second-half French goal, the host nation’s team might have continued a fairy tale run with the hopes of a whole continent on its shoulders.

For this is supposed to be Africa’s World Cup, despite the fact that only six of the 32 teams are African, and they are all among the lowest-ranked. This is the first time the tournament’s been held on the continent, and pundits the world over are hoping for a victory for the perennial underdogs, because it seems fitting. Even Shakira is getting in on the action, with her official tournament song, subtitled “This Time For Africa,” which shows delightful snippets of the world’s best players touching their hearts and wearing t-shirts with the African continent on them, all while traditional African dancing (led by Shakira, of course) goes on in the background.

All this, and that nasty French team had to go and ruin it all by scoring a goal – one goal, when they were likely going home anyway! – to stop the momentum and dash the hopes of so many. Surely they are the villains of the piece (certainly they are to the Irish), for all the “neutral” viewers are behind South Africa and its continental brothers.

But why? Why should the immense pressure under which the French team (and many others as well) succumbed be so delightful, so seemingly just? In part, it is because we love the story. Which former world champion, awash in cash and world-class talent, won’t even get out of the group stage this time? It is a kind of ironic pathos that those in other nations (especially those who have fallen by the wayside along the way) can revel in.

It is perhaps also in part because we want to compensate, in some way, for a history in which Africans were underdogs in more significant ways than in football rankings. The big teams, with a few notable exceptions in South America, are all former colonial powers: wealthy, powerful, and Western. England, Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands – all countries that did and still do impact the fates of African nations in important ways. A victory for Ghana, or Côte d’Ivoire would be, in a word, revolutionary, an upset to the old order.

For football, like economics and militarism, can also be imperialistic. A fascinating post I read recently talks about how the World Cup is only reinforcing football imperialism: the most talented African stars leave their home countries to play in the big European leagues, leaving behind weaker players who lack the same experience and have little hope of getting it in impoverished African leagues and a generally weakened sporting culture. They are then re-imported to be the stars of their teams, all the while implicitly reinforcing the idea that European/Western is better, and that the place where African talent should migrate to be “discovered” is Europe. Even in countries that are seeking to bolster their footballing hopes for the future, the reflexive bent toward playing for European teams being the apex of a career is evident. In Nigeria, for example, a former national star has set up a school to find the most promising children and train them in football – but also in English and accounting, to prepare them for “making it big.” It aims to perpetuate its success by selling the best graduates to rich European teams.

I wonder if an element of our support for the African teams, however unconscious, comes from feelings of “white guilt,” the uneasy emotion that blogs like Stuff White People Like play upon. A thought-provoking post I read recently goes into more detail about white guilt in films from Dances With Wolves to Avatar, but the same concepts can be applied to football: white people feel that they are, in some ways, contributors to the continuing debasement of ex-colonial (footballing) culture, so to assuage their guilt they go against their traditional allegiances and support the “other,”  the underdog.

Am I extrapolating too much? Perhaps. But the fact remains that it will never be “Time for Africa” until a lot of cash and a thriving sporting – and general political – culture combine with the requisite amount of luck and natural skill involved in winning a World Cup. In the meantime, the answer is not to cheer for France’s demise – unless, of course, you are Irish.

MARGINALIA: In a stroke of marketing genius, Pizza Hut in Ireland gave out 350 free pizzas every time a team scored on France at this year’s World Cup. The “Handball Campaign” continued with more free pizza to celebrate France’s ouster yesterday.  I guess they don’t feel the need to grow market share in France.

The Educated Class and Its Discontents

April 13, 2010

In a Special Report on Germany in the Economist recently, the traditional German system of education, while excellent at producing great engineers and skilled trade workers, came under criticism for its rigidity and unfairness. In Germany, ten-year-olds are marked out for either a career of manual labour (skilled or otherwise), white-collar work, or the bureaucratic/professional work that comes after university, and sent to separate schools accordingly. Ten is too young, its critics argue, to give a child a direction for life, which will become difficult to change later on with guild-like labour markets that prohibit entry into professions without the right qualifications. And many complain that Germany does not have equality of opportunity. Family background is more likely to determine test scores and social status in life in Germany than it is in any other country.

With any talk of equality of opportunity, it comes up again, that old aspirational myth of moving between classes, the Horatio Alger or perhaps Will Hunting story of a genius saved from poverty by good education, mentoring or his own perseverance to rise to a different class. Because it is about class. Germans (and the writers of the Economist) are not concerned as much about eventual income distribution, which is quite fair, as they are about having the opportunity to do something else: move up the social ladder.

Focusing on class seems to be a very Old Europe thing. Only in Europe do we see that holdover of a very, very privileged elite (or aristocracy) that has old family wealth, and a poor or working class that never really seems to shrink outside of meddling with statistics, and isn’t going to because those within it have a sense of pride in being working class. A recent article on class and politics in Britian in the Economist seems to describe the six established statistical class divisions as essentially fixed. David Cameron must appeal to the same middle-class voters as Margaret Thatcher, who appreciated their aspirations to “improve their homes and their lives; to get gradually better cars, washing machines and televisions; to go on holiday in Spain rather than Bournemouth.” Hardly a rapid rise to the upper echelons of power – really just a desire to keep up with what is expected from being “middle class.”

In fact, it seems the most common way of achieving a material increase in living standards is immigration. The quality of life is much higher in “New World” countries like Canada and Australia because the basic cost of living is less, while health care and education are still available at the same high standard, or higher. It’s hard not to notice that eight out of 10 cities ranked “most liveable” by the Economist last year were in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

And there is more opportunity for movement between classes in the New World (a term I’ll keep using despite the fact that it makes me sound like Columbus, because I can’t think of a better one), not least because there is less emphasis on “class” in general as something that matters, at least explicitly. The class system of North America has less of a focus on income and history and more on the combination of these with other factors, such as education. My theory is that because New World societies were formed based on merit, and evolved with much less distinction based on income or family wealth (since most everyone was a poor immigrant upon arrival), education and occupation became the primary means of separating out the kind of people with whom one should associate.

The North American system is thus designed to provide more equality of opportunity. In theory, all have the same access to education, even, in some ways, up to the university level. It is a noble goal, and higher education is certainly more accessible in Commonwealth and countries and the US than in continental Europe, as this 2005 study ranking university enrollment in developed countries shows.

But the result of our comparatively open and well-attended university system has been a generation or two of liberal arts or natural science graduates who spend ten years flailing around the entry-level job market before eventually settling into corporate middle management in a completely unrelated field somewhere, making essentially they same money they would have had they been pre-classified at age ten as they do in Germany. Most look back fondly on the days they spent at university, but more for the social connections they made than the time spent reading Cicero. And we, as a society, have trouble finding enough people to sell us mortgages or build our houses, because there aren’t really university programs that teach those skills. Universities have become training grounds for the “middle class” as a whole – including the low end of white collar work – instead of training grounds for occupations where they actually provide valuable preparation, that is, the “upper middle class” work of medicine, law, academia and the like.

If nothing else, we North Americans are certainly losing efficiency with all of this finding ourselves that comes after attaining our university qualifications. We’ve also created a society in which having a B.A. means you’re under-qualified for many jobs – either in experience, or because everyone else applying also has an M.A. or the college-level diploma which is all that’s really required to do the job. It isn’t going to change, though, because we value two things too highly: our “right” to attend school (especially university) for as long as we want to, and the class position that doing so will get us.

True, recently there has been a real push by the government and colleges to recognize skilled labour and professional work as viable career options for high school graduates to consider, and one often hears flippant comments about the world needing more plumbers and electricians, who “actually make a fair bit of money.” (Reality check: this website puts a plumber’s average hourly wage at $24 in Toronto, which over a year works out to about $47 000. This is around what your average white collar worker earns, at least at first, and a plumber doesn’t carry the same student loan debt.)

But while the logic of matching skills to actual jobs may have (almost) caught up, the overall effect on what class one will end up in has not. Doctors and lawyers are still far more likely to associate with white collar workers who have attended university than electricians who earn the same amount, because education and occupation are still important class signifiers.

What would it take to change these biases? And would changing the biases reverse the trend toward hiring managers requiring ever-more degrees when hiring someone to answer telephones and make photocopies? Is there a happy medium between the German and North American systems, where there is still mobility between classes, and still equality of opportunity, but more cultural acceptance that skilled trades and professional work is a respectable way to earn a living? I’m not sure – but for all that, I would still struggle to recommend that anybody give up learning about politics or history or biology and instead learn about practical data models in order to secure a job. We are fortunate to have the privilege of being able to buy those three or four (or more) years of time to learn. I would advise anybody who asked to enjoy it while it lasts, because there’s plenty of time for uninspiring desk work later, if they so choose.

Paris: The City of Light, Love, and Atrocious Service

February 18, 2010

In the BBC yesterday, columnist Emma Jane Kirby described the customer service experience in Paris – cab drivers refusing to take her (on crutches for breaking a leg skiing) because she was a “cripple,” vendors refusing to assist customers by selecting their produce, and restaurant waiters refusing to answer to anything other than “Monsieur.” It is a sorry picture indeed. “The customer is not always right,” she writes – as though this is acceptable behaviour among those seeking to earn money in a sinking economy.

What is the reason for this particularly French brand of incivility? Apparently, it dates back to the French Revolution. “The revolution of 1789,” Ms. Kirby writes, “Has burned the notion of equality deep into the French psyche and a proud Parisian finds it abhorrently degrading to act subserviently.” Americans in the service industry, on the other hand, use their first names and seek to “give us ‘good folks [i.e., patrons] a great time.’” Friendliness? Promptness? An enjoyable customer experience? Heaven forbid!

I wonder that the author of this article points to the French Revolution as the origin of French servers desiring equal status to their patrons, and yet contrasts their service with that in America. Didn’t the United States have a similar revolution, with similar aims and results? Indeed, I doubt that many countries exist with the idea of equality so firmly engrained in their culture as the United States, nor that of a strong work ethic. I have already posted about the fact that Americans work longer hours, are more productive, and make more money than Europeans. Granted, there are numerous problems that have resulted from the shift from an old, European artisan kind of work (like the article’s French grocer who carefully selects the right avocado for when the customer will use it, perhaps?) to the modern, Fordist division of labour in the American corporation. However, in the area of customer service, the Anglo-Saxon idea of the customer calling the shots clearly wins the day – in theory and in profits.

I suspect that the two countries have diverged in this way for very different reasons. In fact, I think the lingering resentment displayed by the French servers described in this article is more a holdover from the ancien régime than something created by its overthrow in 1789. It is a modern parallel to the old, chafing class consciousness, and reflects the old divisions of education, upbringing, and geography. French peasants – both urban and rural – were overtaxed and undervalued for most of French history. They felt as though they were ignored and treated as though their opinions meant nothing, particularly in Paris, where most of upper classes lived. This was the whole cause of the French Revolution. America, in contrast, began (ostensibly) as a society of equals, in which farmers and the urban working class had as much right to participate politically as the intellectual and social elites. There were – absolutely – de facto class divisions, but in a nation of immigrants, everybody had to start from close to nothing. In comparison to the old European system of birth determining all, the American system was, from the start, a meritocracy in which hard work was prized above all. 

And it’s no coincidence that the eminent management thinker, Peter Drucker (himself an immigrant to the US) was famous for arguing for both good, old-fashioned hard work and putting the customer first. They are closely related. I object to the idea of “Joe,” the American server in the article, who (the implication is) simpers his way obsequiously through the course of meal with no genuine pride in his work, solely seeking a fat tip. In North America, great customer service is a source of pride in itself. It is also a growing trend for companies to (re)focus on the customer. In the January-February 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Roger Martin describes this trend as a new, customer-focused stage of modern capitalism. Are the French so out of sync with modern management theory as to willingly slight their customers?

Quite frankly, I find the idea of French customers being mere “irritants” appalling. Does the service ethic not apply to everyone? Should Nicolas Sarkozy refuse to serve his country if we do not refer to him as “Monsieur”? Is he inferior because he ‘serves’ his voters? Is Thierry Henry inferior to his audience/ticket holders because he ‘serves’ them by bringing in goals (and controversial World Cup qualifying berths)? No. These are their jobs. Few can afford to serve none.

On a personal note, I have always found customer service in the United States to be exceptional, in every regard.  It’s a large contributor to the overall pleasant feeling I have when I’m there – and for tourists, that feeling is invaluable. Perhaps the Parisians have something to learn from the American tourists they dislike so much.

In the Game of Imperialism, Some Players Are Just Better Than Others

February 1, 2010

In the glory days of the old imperialism, when wearing jodhpurs and pith helmets was the aspiration of many a young British boy as he lay in bed at night, the rules of the game were simple: make commercial inroads into an unsuspecting and preferably defenceless territory; extrapolate vast amounts of natural resources, building supporting infrastructure such as roads, telecommunications, and maps along the way; train a local army to loyally defend your position; and hold on as long as possible. Lose a turn with every insurrection. Additional points for creating self-sustaining, democratic institutions such as a free press, universal adult suffrage, and, eventually, independence of the protégée from the mentoring imperial power.

The last goal seems counterintuitive, but in reality is the most beneficial outcome that can be expected to result from an imperial relationship. The formerly colonized power still bears the scars of imperialism, from fractious cultural, religious, and identity wars to aging rail networks that emphasize resource-to-port channels over internal city to city ones, but has all the benefits of improved infrastructure and democratic ideals. Moreover, it is a modern nation which can compete in the modern arenas of trade and statecraft, sometimes even besting its former rulers. The former imperial power, whose activities can no longer stand the charges of hypocrisy brought up by international scrutiny, benefits from favourable trade agreements, shared culture or history, and a former colony that contributes to an international political system that is stable and free.

The winners of the old game of imperialism were undoubtedly the British. Cases in point: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and, of course, the United States, to name but a few. (Extra bonus points if former colony becomes a “beneficent” imperial power in its own right.) The metrics I use to measure success in this case are from the Economist’s recent exploration of the declining global levels of liberty. It is hard not to notice that in all key indicators of liberty, and growth, former British colonies feature prominently, from innovation, to economy, to democracy. The majority of British colonies succeeded where the majority of colonies of other imperial powers did not because the justifications British imperialists gave of teaching their “wayward colonial children” the meaning of freedom and democracy were contested in kind by the very colonists they were oppressing. More importantly, the colonies had in place a culture of freedom (in many cases fledgling, but present nonetheless) that allowed for ideas of democracy to mature and eventually grow, leading the people to strike out against their imperial overlords.  In the case of Canada, the gospel of democracy took root so firmly that many Canadians were convinced that they demonstrated imperial ideals to a fuller extent than the British, imagining that the centre of the Empire would shift, and to a no more natural place than Canada. Where colonies adopted the autocratic tendencies of the colonists, or where democratic institutions did not take hold as firmly, independence was a story of oppression, violence, and corruption. The majority of French, Belgian, Dutch, German and Spanish colonies ended up this way, in large part due to the failings of the powers that ruled them.

However, somewhere around the last quarter of the twentieth century, the rules of the game of imperialism changed. International watchdogs like the United Nations made it difficult for any would-be imperial power to colonize territories with the sole purpose of resource extraction or other selfish motives; there had to at least be a veneer of altruism, or, at the very least, national or international security. The new rules read differently. (The first rule of the new game of imperialism is that you DO NOT talk about the game of imperialism.) Stage an invasion in the name of securing stability in the short term and democracy in the long term.  Train local armies and police forces and attempt to pay them more than they would receive in bribes to ensure loyalty. Place great emphasis on local culture, and winning “hearts and minds” with soft power like television shows and material goods. This time democracy is the goal, not merely a useful outcome. Bonus points for resource extraction, but only if covert or gained at a third-party-determined “fair market price.” Points deducted for acting without international sanction, for native uprisings, and for civil unrest at home. Failed missions result in the player being removed from the game.

There are no winners in the new game of imperialism. When powerful states do not intervene, failed states and all of the associated chaos of poverty, disease, and terrorism emerge.  When they do, they face constant criticism for not paying enough attention to domestic problems in their own countries. The effort of stabilizing the new “colonies” is compromised, and the mission is never truly successful.

The case of Haiti is instructive and timely. In what Peter Shawn Taylor describes in the Globe & Mail as an early example of the new imperialism, the United States intervened in Haiti in 1915 initially out of fear that another power, such as Germany, might enter to fill the power vacuum created by a violent and public massacre of political protesters and then-President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam.  In many ways, the Americans were successful, beneficent imperialists: according to the article, American intervention was responsible for all manner of improvements, from enhanced infrastructure to widespread medical treatments to the near-eradication of corruption in government ranks.  The only real failure was that they did not achieve that crucial last goal of creating self-sustaining democratic institutions before domestic pressure over foreign spending in the early stages of the Depression cased the Americans to withdraw in 1929. In their absence, Haiti fell into a century of violence, corruption, and disrepair.  Game over for America and for Haiti then, and game over today if the mission to create true democracy fails — again.

The alternative then, of course, might have been a German base in the Western Hemisphere from which a war that was often a far too closely matched contest between imperfect democracy and ruthless totalitarianism could have been won.  The alternative now is an unstable, underdeveloped nation prone to falling into a downward spiral of autocracy and economic decline. In other words, nobody wants to cheer for an imperial power, but in the global game of imperialism, there are no alternatives.

NB – I did some additional reading and stumbled across an article by the always-entertaining Niall Ferguson here on this very topic – how a power vacuum might occur in the next century, and what that might mean for the world. Preview: it isn’t pretty.

The Problem of Prorogation: A Uniquely Canadian Solution

January 13, 2010

I, for one, think this whole prorogation situation is great. In fact, I think we should extend it across the whole country and in the spirit of families, call it “Family Month.”

We could all, like our MPs, take an extended holiday in that most Canadian of months, February, when snow flies, ski hills are covered with powder, and snow shoe rentals rates reach remarkable highs. Who needs holidays in the warmth of summer when we can cheer on our Olympic athletes while sipping “Certified Cold” beers and wearing our Team Canada jerseys at our winterized cottages?

It will be, of course, the height of the winter tourist season, and visitors to our great white nation will marvel at how relaxed we all seem, and envy our carefree lifestyle. Perhaps they’ll write cook books about Canadian-style cooking (poutine in a Niagara ice wine reduction?) and diet books about how Canadian women always look so healthy and rouged from the cold, and so stylish in our matching parkas and UGG boots. Read the rest of this entry »