On discourses, public transit, and wondering what the heck we know

If you currently reside in Metro Vancouver you’ve likely heard and read a lot about the current ongoing transit plebiscite (i.e. the plebiscite asking Metro Van residents whether or not they are willing to see a 0.5% sales tax added to the PST on goods and services sold in Metro Vancouver in order to pay for a major public transit upgrade). Whether you normally consider yourself political or not, it’s unlikely that you’ve been able to avoid taking a side and wading into the debate either in conversation or on social media.

Votin' yes.

Votin’ yes.

I myself have already voted “Yes” (and I urge you to do the same, for the sake of our city’s health and for the overall benefit of the planet), and have had my share of participation in a handful of these online debates, often squaring off against people whose opinion I usually respect and with whom I normally tend to agree (and sometimes against opinions I don’t respect as well). As I thought about perhaps writing a post advocating for the “Yes” side (as in “Yes, I want improved transit even if I’m not looking forward to paying more sales tax and I definitely hope Christy Clark isn’t our Premier after the next election because framing whether or not to improve transit as a ‘Do you want to pay more tax?’ question is completely disingenuous considering major road projects that benefit car-drivers are initiated without so much as a how-d’ye-do”), I started to become interested, and a little perturbed, by the sheer amount of information being thrown into the debate from both sides, and I started wondering how on earth we can possibly know the things we’re talking about.

On the No side, for example, the following arguments are fairly common:

  • “We already pay too many taxes” (this is sometimes accompanied by “The government should pay for transit improvements with the taxes they already collect” and sometimes “I don’t care about people who ride the bus; they can pay higher fares if they want better service.”)
  • “Voting No is not a vote against transit improvements” (i.e. a No vote sends a message to Translink and the provincial government that they need to do a better job at providing transit with the funds they have)
  • “Translink executives make too much money.”
  • “Translink is in cahoots with Christy Clark and the Mayor’s Council and they’ve launched a multi-million dollar campaign to promote the Yes vote”
  • “Translink is an inefficient disaster.”
  • “An increase in the PST in Metro Vancouver will hurt vulnerable families the most.”

Meanwhile, on the Yes side, the following arguments have been used:

  • “Metro Vancouver’s population is predicted to increase by 1 million over the next __ number of years. Without improved transit, this will mean hundreds of thousands of additional cars on the road and 26 (!) freeways will need to be built to tackle congestion.”
  • “Voting No is a vote against transit improvements” (i.e. a No vote will only send the provincial government the message that we don’t want transit and this will lead to cuts; it WON’T send the message to Translink that they need to do better)
  • “Executive/administrative pay is only 2% of Translink’s budget”
  • “Christy Clark is in cahoots with oil companies to discourage transit improvements and increase road infrastructure that supports more individual cars on the road.”
  • “Translink is one of the most efficient transit systems in for its size in the world.”
  • “Cuts to transit or an increase in transit fares will hurt vulnerable families the most.”

Since I’ve generally been paying more attention to the Yes side than the No side, I’ve also heard that the transit tax is supported by groups like the David Suzuki Foundation and paramedics and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and that a win for the Yes side is required to protect the environment and that without it at least 20 additional minutes will be added to the average commute EACH WAY (and also that most of the No rhetoric has been supplied through an intensive smear campaign initiated by the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation, who generally oppose any increase in tax no matter how small the increase or how noble the cause).

Now, in addition to just arguing on Facebook, I’m sure I’ve read all these arguments somewhere more “legitimate”. I’m sure I’ve read them in articles and op-eds and materials for the Yes side and materials for the No side. And yet, I can’t really remember why I KNOW any of them, and I suspect a lot of other people participating in the debate would have to say the same. And even if we KNOW that we read such-and-such in the newspaper, let’s say, how do we know why that journalist knows what they know? Before these facts/factoids make it into our arguments, they journey through several layers of discourse, and become further and further from being things that we can actually claim to KNOW.

Let’s take the claim that “executive pay is only 2% of Translink’s budget”. I have seen this number quoted in several articles, and considering public transit in Metro Vancouver is an absolutely MASSIVE operation and since the CEO of Translink makes less than half a million dollars per year, I feel pretty good assuming it is true. Even so, it’s important to remember that between me having this fact and the actual truth of the matter, there are quite a few layers of discourse operating.

To work backwards:

  • I am saying, in this blog post, that administrative pay is only 2% of Translink’s budget. This blog post is MY discourse.
  • I probably originally read the “2%” number in an article like this one, in the Vancouver Sun. This is the columnist’s discourse (which is part of the Vancouver Sun’s overall discourse on the transit tax issue). The columnist in turn may have taken this number from another article (i.e. another layer of media discourse), or directly from Translink. At any rate…
  • At some point, SOMEONE likely gleaned this “2%” number from Translink’s 2014 Business Plan, Operating and Capital Budget Summary or a similar document (if you sit down with a calculator and page 15, administration does indeed work out to just under 2% of the total expenses for the 2012 numbers, though it’s closer to 3% for the 2014 projections). This is a document compiled by Translink ostensibly for reading by the public. This is part of Translink’s public discourse.
  • Bear in mind this document is called a “summary”, meaning that it is in fact a clarification and summarization of what is likely a vast plethora of NON-public documents (like memos, spreadsheets, reports, etc.) that have somehow been transformed into to the neat and tidy PDF linked above. Each of these documents can also be thought of as discourses that contribute to the overall discourse of the corporation.
  • And where do these spreadsheets, reports, and memos come from? They come from studies, meetings, and consultations, the results and transcriptions of which are discourses as well.
  • Which eventually, after quite a lot of paper probably, brings us to the root idea that preceding all of these discourses (which, as Michel Foucault liked to point out, are really just language and are no more representational of the actual truth than anything else) can be found a reality in which the administrators of Translink cash paycheques that are equal to 2% of the corporation’s budget.

And this is just one, small, quantifiable fact that was easy to locate in a publicly-available budget report. How do we know the others? How many layers of discourse are involved in the formation of our opinions?

This is not to say that any of our opinions are wrong (though, of course, I tend to think in terms of the plebiscite the Yes side is more right than the No side), or that any of the facts we have used to defend our positions aren’t true. What I am saying, in my own discourse, is that every article or report we read, every discourse, about anything, is simply a representation–it’s not the thing itself. So it can be interesting to think about what you think you know, and why you think you know it, and be critical about the information we consume and share.

One thought on “On discourses, public transit, and wondering what the heck we know

  1. Lauren, your epistemological look at Vancouver’s transit tax make interesting reading even for someone 1 500 kilometers away. You unpacked the transit tax like a zen koan. I finished wondering how many little gems, opportunities for deep meditation,are in my life every day and how open I am to appreciating them. Today at least I’m looking for them. Thanks.

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