Sewell: sure, a casino in Toronto could create jobs, but at what cost?
By John Sewell
That a disaster is good for a local economy sounds counterintuitive, but an example shows how it works. When a section of Finch Avenue West was washed away by a flash flood in 2005, the city had to immediately rush in to bring the situation under control.
Earthmoving machines were needed to rechannel the water; the sewage that spilled into the watercourse and got into many basements had to be cleaned up; and there was the rethinking city infrastructure in light of weather change and climate change.
Once that was done, the city could get on with the expensive work of reconstruction as homeowners dealt with insurance companies for cleanup. It was a $600 million shot in the arm for the local economy.
So do we need more disasters in order to create more jobs? No. Instead, we should be wary of arguments about what kind of activity creates economic benefit.
Which brings me to the question of a sparkling new casino for Toronto, a question city council will be deciding on in the next five or six weeks.
The city manager argues that the city will receive a pot of gold (apparently worth several hundred million dollars) if council says yes. The gambling parlour proponents argue 10,000 jobs will appear. They argue gambling will create many hundreds of millions of dollars more for health care in Ontario.
These figures might be inflated or they might be accurate. I don’t know. Or, actually, I don’t care.
“A healthy city doesn’t depend on a lucky roll of the dice.”
I want councillors to make their decision about casinos on moral principles about what makes a good city. I use the same moral approach in deciding why I want to limit access to guns. I know that if we allowed more gun shops and reduced the restrictions on buying and owning guns and assault rifles, we would create a lot more jobs —not just in retail and manufacturing, but also in the medical field, as we deal with the impact of more shootings, and in the funeral business. I don’t want those economic benefits.
I prefer a society that limits access to guns even if there aren’t as many jobs.
It’s the same reason I oppose Prime Minister Harper’s program on jailing more criminals longer — it produces more jobs in jail construction and staffing as well as more police officers, since it actually creates more rather than less crime.
I wish more city decisions were made on the basis of values and the public good. Should we be approving condos because they create more jobs or because some developer thinks there’s a market for what is proposed? Those aren’t strong-enough arguments to say yes. What’s also needed is that more condos will help create a better city by providing good housing for families with children and will provide affordable housing for the many who are now experiencing financial difficulty.
One can argue this is idealistic, and I’d respond, “Thank goodness.” If we don’t talk about how to make a city that’s good for ordinary people to live in, how will we ever arrive there? It’s time to talk values and morals.
A healthy city doesn’t depend on a lucky roll of the dice. Casinos try to tell people they’ll have a good time looking for good luck and beating the odds. I don’t want to live in a city where people think they should arrange their lives that way. Those are not values to be encouraged.
Recently retired Dwight Duncan, Minister of Finance, said more casinos, more games of chance would help solve our problems. Bad values, I’d say.
If you are stuck on economics, a better way to strengthen our economy is to reduce the extraordinary inequality between the very wealthy and the bottom 40 per cent. Lots of studies show that a more equal society is more productive. That initiative has a strong moral basis and really does help create a good city.
In the next few weeks, I’ll be looking for our civic leaders to talk about casinos in a moral context, in terms of values and a good city. They’re the kinds of speeches I’ll be applauding.
Post City Magazines’ columnist John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto and the author of a number of urban planning books.