Sunday, 28 September 2014


Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, the Power of Thinking Without Thinking is about the remarkable accuracy of intuition. He explains how the first 2 seconds of a meeting convey impressions and hunches that can be more reliable that careful studies and conscious strategies. 

Voters’ decisions in local politics are likely to be intuitive. Campaigns do not really get underway until a week before an election. Under an at large system, a week is not much time to know much about dozens of candidates.

Chapter 3 of Blink is entitled, The Warren Harding Error. It describes why intuition sometimes goes wrong, particularly in politics.

The first president to visit Vancouver was Warren Harding. There are no statues of Lincoln or Roosevelt here but there is a statue of Harding in Stanley Park. Harding has been considered by historians to be one of the worst presidents in US history. He died shortly after his visit to Vancouver. 

Harry Daugherty, a lawyer and lobbyist, was the classic behind the scenes fixer and a shrewd judge of political opportunity. He ran into the 35 year old Harding while he was having his shoes shined. Daugherty took one look and concluded that he could make him president.

Harding  had it all...well almost all.  He had charm, looks and a great speaking voice. Also he was not very bright. As he rose from one local political office to another he remained safely undistinguished. His speeches were described as an army of phrases searching for an idea. As he grew older, however, he became better and better looking. He could have played Julius Caesar on the stage. Although Harding was unburdened by accomplishments, Daugherty persuaded him to run for the White House, believing that he would make "a great looking president."

So Harding got the Republican nomination and was elected. He was the first president to use modern public relations techniques. Five thousand speakers were trained  and sent abroad to speak for Harding; 2,000 of these speakers were women. Telemarketers were used to make phone conferences with perfected dialogues to promote Harding.

Gladwell states, "Many people who looked at Warren Harding saw how extraordinarily handsome and distinguished looking he was and jumped to the immediate and entirely unwarranted conclusion that he was a man of courage, intelligence and integrity. The way he looked carried so many powerful connotations that it stopped the normal process of thinking dead in its tracks.

The Warren Harding error is at the root of a good deal of prejudice and discrimination. It is why picking the right candidate for a job is so difficult and why on more occasions than we may care to admit, utter mediocrities sometimes end up in positions of enormous responsibility

Harding was loyal to his friends even though they were bad news. Of them he said, “I have no trouble with my enemies, but my damn friends, they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!"


He appointed many of his pals and campaign contributors to prominent political positions in control of vast amounts of government money and resources. They were a corrupt gang. Operating in secrecy, they negotiated leases and took gifts. 

One of his friends was ultimately convicted of accepting bribes and illegal no-interest personal loans in exchange for the leasing of public oil fields to business associates. Albert Fall was the first cabinet member in U.S. history imprisoned for crimes committed while in office. Charles Forbes, one of his buddies appointed to the department of Veteran Affairs received traveling perks and alcohol kickbacks, took a $5,000 bribe in Chicago, and made a secret code to sneak through $17 million in government construction hospital contracts with corrupt contractors.

Harding died a month after his visit to Vancouver. Some claimed it was food poisoning, others said it was suicide but recent evidence is that he had a serious heart condition that was misdiagnosed.

The secrecy unraveled and scandals and corruption came to light after he died.


There is no substitute for learning everything one can about the full slate of candidates. 

Our forthcoming Vancouver election will be a challenge if we accept Gladwell's observations. All candidates - not just Mayor Robertson - are  good looking people. The Harding effect can turn the election into a beauty pageant where the candidates compete making vacuous promises to bring world peace, to repeal the internal combustion engine and to always look  good in swim suits.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014


Harry Rankin was the founder of the Committee of Progressive Electors (COPE). He ran 12 years in a row before finally getting elected  in 1966 as an independent. 

Over the next twenty years Rankin became the most popular alderman in the City. The NPA controlled the other seats but there was a reservoir of affection for Rankin. When election time rolled around the voters who worried about the 'Socialist Hordes at the gate' always "Saved one vote for Harry to keep 'em honest." 

In 1986 Harry ran for Mayor against the NPA's, Gordon Campbell. Harry lost.  In 1988 he regained his council seat. 

Why was he so popular?  He was very funny, highly intelligent and, although he did not suffer fools gladly, showed a streak of kindness to everyone including, on rare occasions, the opposition.

Paradoxically,  Rankin and COPE  for all their socialist rhetoric were extremely cautious.  COPE's acronym was parodied as “the Committee Against Practically Everything.” 

He was the Councillor who most carefully analysed  expenditures. He insisted that the City should only undertake  projects that free enterprise could not do. He was sceptical of most government initiatives because he feared City Hall's propensity to screw things up. When  Council created the position of "children’s advocate" Rankin suggested that for all the good  she was doing,  she might be a valuable source of protein for hungry kids in school.

He refused to attend Expo 86. He referred to the Federal Granville Island development as a "boondoggle". Ditto for Granville Mall. He was ice cold to the Vancouver Land Corporation, the purpose of which,  was to supply market rental housing on City owned land. He dismissed it as "state capitalism."

Rankin served on Council until 1993. He ultimately quit his party in disgust in 1996.  He considered that it had been hijacked by witless opportunists-the same ones who ultimately morphed COPE into VISION. 

When he died in 2002 there was a demand that the flag be lowered to half mast. The Council of the day declined ('if we did it for him we'd have to do it for everyone') but miraculously it lowered itself and stayed there for a week.

Tim Louis articled with Rankin. He and mayoral candidate, Meena Wong, seem to be trying to return COPE  to its roots. Their platform is left-wing and has some strange elements but don't sell COPE short. The party could regain the votes usurped by VISION when it abandoned Harry and lost its soul.

Sunday, 21 September 2014


The bitter laments of young developers at an Urban Development Institute panel discussion,  to the effect that old folks in walkers were giving them the miseries by failing to appreciate their good works, is astonishing.

*** the 34-year-old president and CEO of [ the company] spearheading the Trump Tower in Vancouver — said he almost wants to leave and open shop in another country because developers are rarely recognized locally for their good work.“We as developers are painted as bad people, that we are making windfall profits all the time,” he said.“We try our best to contribute back to the communities and neighbourhoods and shape our city, but we’re hated by everyone else.”

***“We have lawsuits filed by residents associations that are completely log-jamming legal services at the City of Vancouver,” he said.“The people who show up are literally in walkers and canes. ***

“*** I don’t have time to go and attend these planning sessions... and the people who do have the time aren’t going to be around to see the plan implemented.”

Before zoning, first introduced to North America in Euclid N.Y. in 1924,  land use was governed by private restrictive covenants.

Covenants controlled everything including the acceptable ethnicity of residents permitted to buy into  developments. 

The case of Fleischman v. British Pacific Properties Ltd. [1997] B.C.J. No. 2838 reveals how the system works to this day.

In 1984 Mr. Fleischman purchased a one and one-half acre property in West Vancouver. He wanted to subdivide the lot in order to construct a second, smaller, home.

The respondent in the case, British Pacific Properties Ltd. was incorporated in 1931. B.P. acquired a large tract of undeveloped land which it has developed and sold, one subdivision at a time. .There are 814 homes on 1500 acres.

Each subdivision is subject to a "Building Scheme" consisting of a number of restrictive covenants. 
Mr. Fleischman's filed an application to the Developer, B.P.  but the plan was refused by the Managing Director.

The first thing to note here is that this is a quarrel between a resident owner who wants to build a small second  house
 and the developer who wants to stop him. This is the reverse of what has been happening in Vancouver. The developer is the NIMBY or, more properly, NIYBY.

Why would the developer, BP do that?  Why would he choose to pick on the  homeowner and prevent him from building his second house?

If one were to accept the theory of the tadpoles at the Urban Development Institute it is probably that British Properties is run by demented nonagenarians scuttling about in walkers. They have nothing better to do than to torture young developers with their regulatory obsessions.

Another possibility is that the Developer wants the rules enforced because it it was and remains in his best interest to do so. 

Here is what the court said:

6.      The purpose of the restrictive covenants is to create and maintain a unique residential environment, which will maintain and enhance property values and ensure the continued desirability of the British Properties as a residential area.

The purpose of land use controls - both zoning and private building schemes - is to enable developers to sell their developments. Who will buy an apartment in a building for a million dollars if the rules on the lot next door will suddenly allow a building with Beijing densities to abut against it? 

There is no room for uncertainty in land use law.

If there were no zoning today, these same Developers would be forced to create their own private building schemes in which either the company continues to administer the system, or the covenants are reciprocally enforceable by homeowners.

The willingness of our Vancouver government to treat the established city as though it is raw land that is available for  redevelopment is contrary to the interests of everyone including developers. Of course, if their purpose is not to create housing but simply investment instruments that no one lives in, then the attitude makes more sense.