Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Break out the champagne! (100ml anyway)

Just a little fento-post here to celebrate the site reaching triple-digits in total visitors (of which I only made up about half). Next stop, 1000.


Monday, November 29, 2004

Can a Big Spender Change His Ways?

Cross-posted to Blogs Canada e-group

With George Bush soon to arrive on Canadian shores, I thought I’d use my first post here at the e-group to follow up on Don’s earlier question about what Bush would have to do for his second term to be considered a success. There’s a lot of ground to cover here, so I chose to focus on the pragmatic point of view in this post and save the moral issues for another day.

First, it’s pretty clear that the U.S.A. is a nation with incredible resources: military resources, financial resources, natural resources as well as ‘human’ resources (e.g. a strong work ethic, respect for democracy and liberty, willingness to take risks etc.), institutional resources, diplomatic resources and ideological resources (worldwide respect for the American way of life and ‘American’ values).

Second, looking to the future, the retirement of the baby boomers, the growing ecological threats (global warming, soil erosion, water table depletion, depletion of energy resources, loss of bio-diversity), rising interest rates (sooner or later), and the inevitable spread and technological improvement of various weapons of mass destruction (nuclear weapons, biological weapons, digital weapons, etc., etc.) all suggest that the U.S.A., like other nations, will need ever more resources at its disposal to meet the coming challenges.

Third, by the end of Bush’s first term, the military was almost fully deployed and arguably overstretched. Financially, the capacity for taking on new debt had been greatly used up (both at a governmental and at a consumer level), the downward pressure on the currency had grown immense (and possibly dangerous), and the role of the American dollar as de facto global currency was looking less certain by the day. Internally, the population was working harder than ever, while their levels of respect for their political opposition, the political process and their own government were still dropping. Natural resources had been depleted, destabilized and destroyed much faster than they were replenished. Diplomatic relations were strained at best and hostile at worst, even with longtime allies. Finally, levels of respect for Americans, and for their role in world affairs were lower than at anytime in recent memory, despite the outpouring of sympathy after 9/11.

Not all of this can be laid at Bush’s feet and some of these trends date back to well before his time, but they all represent areas where his policies were an aggravating, rather than a compensating factor. In short, Bush has shown that he can spend America’s resources, but he has yet to show that he can build them. In order to be judged a success, his second term will have to leave America, and the rest of the world, better able to deal with the coming challenges, not less.


OK, that was pretty general. If you want specifics, I think Bush needs to balance the budget (as Russil said a while back), stabilize transfer programs (i.e. social security), achieve a soft landing for the currency, restore taxation of the wealthy/corporations to historical (postwar) levels, take much more drastic action on climate change (signing Kyoto would be a start), get the army out of Iraq (and not invade anyone else), reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels in general, and ones from the Middle East in particular, make an effort to reach out to other countries via diplomacy rather than through threats and intimidation (his visit here being a decent start), and perhaps most of all, stop shooting (firing) the messenger when people tell him something he doesn’t want to hear.

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The Complexity of Progress

Dave Pollard has an interesting post up at How to Save the World about moving beyond the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). Like they say in business, what gets measured gets done and with GDP, what gets measured is (roughly) the sum total of all goods and services purchased: without regard for whether what has been purchased is good for us or not and without regard for those transactions which weren't done for money.

The problem with attempting to replace GDP as the primary indicator of our success as a society is that the GDP is based on an economic framework in which everything is reduced to a common denominator of dollars in order to allow everything to be numerically combined. So far, to my knowledge, we have not developed any alternate 'currency' or set of units which we can use to measure ourselves and our society.

So if you want to construct a 'Progress Index' you need to arbitrarily choose what gets measured, arbitrarily choose how to measure it (in what units), and then arbitrarily choose how to translate it into a standard unit of measure.

For example, when the United Nations wants to measure progress based on more than just GDP, they add in life expectancy (measured in years), along with literacy rates (measured in percentage of adults) and school enrollments (measured in percentage of children). Then they calculate a life expectancy index (out of 100), an education index (out of 100) and a GDP index (out of 100). Then they take the average of those 3 scores to get a final number.

An alternate strategy, used by the GPI, is to accept the premise that money is the best unit to use for comparisons and to try and convert all the non-monetary factors (such as the value of housework, or biodiversity) into dollars. But what value do you place on being able to see a blue sky (instead of smog) during the summer, or on knowing that polar bears still exist outside of a zoo? Again we are reduced to making subjective judgments.

The pragmatist in me says, so what, we should just construct the best index we can and go with it - it's bound to be way better than the one-dimensional GDP figure.

But the theorist in me can't help wondering if there is some alternate currency we could use (based on energy and entropy perhaps), or at least some sensible framework for deciding what to include in the index and how important it is (besides dollars), or if maybe even the question we're asking (how do we measure our progress?) is ill-formed and we need to take a step back and re-evaluate why we are trying to progress or what the concept of progress even means.

I'm leaning more towards my pragmatic side on this one. At any rate, next time you hear that the GDP went up 3%, it's worth wondering how much of that increase was depletion of non-renewable resources, how much came at the expense of other sectors (like volunteer work) that we don't measure, how much was due to people working longer hours, how much was spent cleaning up pollution, how much depended on increased debt for consumers, how much was spent in fighting crime, depression, traffic jams, and on and on and on.

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Saturday, November 27, 2004

Not Getting Their Money's Worth?

Do you suppose that the sponsors whose names come up on a yahoo search for 'Buy Nothing Day' feel like they shouldn't have to pay for those hits?


The Trillion Pound Gorilla

So I was on the bus the other day, and it was pretty crowded and I got to thinking:

'I wonder just how much the entire human race weighs?'

It turned out to be harder to answer than I thought, but it seems that the world population is around 6.4 billion, with an average weight of a human being around 130 pounds or so (a rough estimate based on this site and this site).

So the total mass of humanity is in the neighbourhood of 832 billion pounds. But with both average weight and total population rising, it looks like most of us will live to see the day when the total weight of humanity crosses one trillion pounds (pop. of 7 billion with an average weight of 143 pounds would do it), as that day should occur in about 10 years or so based on current trends.

If today is 'Buy Nothing Day' then I recommend in advance that the day we cross the one trillion pound mark should be 'Eat Nothing Day'.

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Friday, November 26, 2004

Partisan madness, Onionized version

So, I re-read my last column, and I still think I have a good point, but the post itself is way too long, goes off on a number of digressions and lacks both a proper introduction and a decent structure. In my defense, it was just a stream-of-consciousness ramble that took about 15 minutes to type out, but still.

So, I was thinking about posting a revised version, but that seemed kind of dull, so in an effort to make it more entertaining while still getting the point across, I decided to Onionize** it as follows:

But Who’s Counting?

Citing homeland security concerns, White house officials announced today that they will no longer be making federal budget figures publicly available.

“Given the number of people who would like to use these figures as a means to financially attack the U.S., it is no longer prudent for this sensitive information to be distributed to such a wide audience,” said White house spokesman, Bill Frobisher.

Reaction to the proposal on Capitol Hill was mixed. “It’s about time the White House showed some leadership on this issue,” said Republican Senator Carol Hedberg, “allowing this information to fall into the hands of foreign traders is like giving them a veto over U.S. government policy.”

Meanwhile, with one unnamed Democratic source quoted as calling the proposed changes, ‘stupid’, George Lakoff called on Democrats to turn away from name-calling and instead try to frame the issue in terms of progressive American values such as accountability and responsibility.

Pundits were also split on the issue with Conservative commentators suggesting that the move would help Bush shore up support with his base since they were clearly motivated more by security issues than by economic ones. On the other hand, Liberal talking-heads suggested that it could widen the rift in the Republican Party between so called ‘Fiscal Conservatives’ and ‘Social Conservatives’.

The discussion got heated throughout the Blogosphere with hundreds of left-wing readers reassuring themselves that the proposal was indeed stupid at DailyKos, while an equal number of readers vied to outdo each other in explaining why it was a good idea at pro-Republican blogs.

Understandably, some citizens were left a little bewildered by the conflicting reactions:

“Both sides just want to try to sell you their side of the story,” said Danny Black, 55, of Michigan, “I just tune out anything that has to do with politics.”

Maria Cox, 44, from Georgia takes a different approach, “The way I figure,” she said, “If two people have extreme views on something, the right answer is likely about halfway in between, maybe there’s some sort of compromise that everyone could agree to on keeping the budget numbers secret.”

Xavier Madsen, 22 of Oregon had the strongest reaction, “Man,” he said, “they need to change that Republican symbol from an elephant to an ostrich. That’s their reaction to any kind of problem, just pretend it doesn’t exist and hope for the best. If Bush keeps doing stuff like this for the next four years, I’m totally going to have to think about maybe going out and voting in the next election.”

** Onionize v. To take an extreme example which demonstrates your point and write a deadpan story which presents your extreme example in a factual ‘news-report’ style.

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Thursday, November 25, 2004

Partisanity = Part-insanity

I followed a link from View From Seymour, to George Lakoff's writing on the topic of framing discussions to highlight the values you want to highlight.

Despite the protestations of being non-partisan, the page read (to me) as follows:

1. Conservatives are using framing to get their message out and it is proving to be an effective weapon in the battle for American hearts and minds

2. Liberals need to adopt use of this weapon as well.

3. Here's an example of how to do it.

Leaving aside the (interesting in its own right) theory of framing discussions, I was struck most by yet another example of the incredibly partisan nature of discourse in the U.S.

It seems that when writing about something with potential bearing on U.S. politics, no study or source can be quoted without either: a) defending the non-partisan nature of the study/source, b) admitting that the study/source is a partisan for your side but arguing that what they say is still at least somewhat valid or, best of all, c) noting that the study/source is actually from the opposing team.

The underlying assumption (by Democrats) is that Republican supporters will twist the facts (and make things up), to the extent that what they say is not even worth listening to (unless it supports a Democrat point) and the same is true in reverse.

At some point, I wonder if the concept of objective truth gets lost. Consider a random voter, Mr. X, who is faced with a referendum on a flat tax proposal. Mr. X could try to figure out whether a flat tax will be good for him and the country or not, but if everything he has available to read is just pro-tax or anti-tax spin and is probably just lies, what's the point? If all Republicans are going to support it whether they think it's a good idea or not and all Democrats are likewise going to oppose it, then he will be unable to get any sense of a general consensus of opinion on the topic. In the end, Mr. X will just vote for whoever best framed the issue in terms of his values, or better yet, just vote for whoever seems the most trustworthy (i.e. vote for the person with the most symmetrical face).

Even on something as clear and straightforward as global warming, the 'teach the controversy' approach can create an appearance of two sides with equally valid but different points of view, both of which are just trying to 'spin' the issue to their benefit. And then the reaction is to say, 'who knows who is really telling the truth?' Living inside this us-against-them, all-spin, U.S. prism, even otherwise intelligent people like Andrew Sullivan can get drawn into just offering their readers two opposing opinions on global warming and saying that they should decide, as if this is representative of the current state of thought on this issue (among those who know what they are talking about).

The media in the U.S. reinforces this trend. It avoids taking positions on anything the least bit potentially controversial and when opinions are needed it goes to a talking head format in which an equal number of partisan representatives do their best to frame/spin the issue in their favour.

The end result is that on any issue, regardless of the weight of the actual evidence, the testimony of those involved, the informed judgment of serious, knoweldgeable analysts, the rational arguments or the impact of similar policies enacted elsewhere, either side in the U.S. (Republican/Democrat) can take any position they like and it will be treated as a valid option to be weighted with equal consideration with whatever position the other party takes.

Supporters of both parties will look to their own partisan media outlets to reinforce their viewpoint and tell them why the other guys are wrong. The 'non-partisan' media will treat both options equally and will allow roughly equal time for both sides to make their case (and if they don't they will be accused of bias).

Obviously there are limits to this kind of thing. A party which supported a draft for example would have a hard time framing it well enough not to take a hit. More generally, the more close to home a policy hits, the more people will see through the spin to figure out how a policy affects them and vote accordingly. But to the extent that this paradigm does hold, a party in the U.S. can both propose and do pretty much whatever it wants - the only thing that will matter in the end is which party frames it's message better, and of course who seems more trustworthy (symmetrical).

OK, this was a long rambling post (silly me thinking that blogging would teach me to be more concise), but even if you didn't like it, I feel like writing it has brought me closer to understanding how Bush could be re-elected, so I still think it was worthwhile.

In a later post, I'll look at Canada and talk about why we are in a somewhat better position than the U.S. on this issue.

Update Jan 24, 2005: Some time after I wrote this post, I noticed that Paul Krugman has said the same thing much more concisely:

"The media are desperately afraid of being accused of bias. And that's partly because there's a whole machine out there, an organized attempt to accuse them of bias whenever they say anything that the Right doesn't like. So rather than really try to report things objectively, they settle for being even-handed, which is not the same thing. One of my lines in a column -- in which a number of people thought I was insulting them personally -- was that if Bush said the Earth was flat, the mainstream media would have stories with the headline: 'Shape of Earth--Views Differ.' Then they'd quote some Democrats saying that it was round."

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Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Last Word

Turns out my suspicion was justified, loopy was intended as a synonym for whacko. Furthermore, my verdict was appealed to the supreme court of word-cases, the Canadian Oxford which apparently lists crazy as a synonym for both whacko and loopy. So if we assume that transitivity applies to synonymity (if a is a synonym of b, and b is a synonym of c, then a and c are synonyms) then he appears to have a case.

Final (tongue-in-cheek) verdict, Ian Urquhart may not know anything about electoral reform, but he definitely has a good sense of humour.

Tomorrow, I plan to turn my attention to something new for a while, assuming my back pain doesn't cause my brain to shrink too much (subscription required, if you absolutely must read the rest of the article) in the meantime. Boy, they're really struggling for news over at the National Post these days. But I guess the concerns of places like the Ukraine pale in comparison to such startling stories as violence in video games, mailmen afraid of big violent dogs, and banks making record profits. All of which are on the post website as I write this.

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Monday, November 22, 2004


Oh, I also wanted to publicly note that I did receive a (somewhat terse) reply to my letter to Ian Urquhart so I just wanted to express my appreciation publicly (well, on this blog anyway).

Perhaps I can take at least some credit for his evolution from considering STV 'whacko' in a column a few days ago, to considering it 'loopy' in his latest one.

I'd say that's progress - right? What's that you say, he probably just typed 'whacko' into his thesaurus? Not so

Synonyms for 'whacko' apparently include:

"ape, barmy, batty, berserk, bonkers, cracked, crazed, cuckoo, daft, delirious, demented, deranged, dingy, dippy, erratic, flaky, flipped, flipped out, freaked out, fruity, haywire, idiotic, insane, kooky, lunatic, mad, maniacal, mental, moonstruck, nuts, nutty, potty, psycho, screw loose, screwball, screwy, silly, touched, unbalanced, unglued, unhinged, unzipped, wacky"

Not a loopy in sight! What's that you say, Except me?

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OK, back to PR

First of all, even though I disagree with his conclusions I have to say that in his article, STV will be very very bad for Canada Jeffrey Simpson from the Globe shows himself to be a cut above the other fearful columnists who are so scared of changing the electoral system.

He makes pretty much the strongest case you can against electoral reform, avoids (mostly) the deceptive arguments and misrepresentations of many of the other columnists, makes reference to actual experience with other systems and even manages a few valid points (valid points being defined as those I agree with).

Nonetheless, there is lots I disagree with and I could do the same point by point rebuttal I did with the last couple of articles, but I saw the way my girlfriend's eyes glazed over when she saw the length of those posts, so I'm going to try something a little different this time, and focus on a more theoretical discussion of electoral reform.

(I know what you're thinking, sounds exciting)

As I see it, before choosing an electoral system we have to answer a fundamental question: is the electoral system solely a means to an end, or is it actually an end in itself?

Put another way, if we were assured (by some verifiably omnipotent being, say) that we would receive better government under a dictatorship than under a democracy, would we switch, or would we stick with the democracy.

If one system is more democratic than another but less effective, how do we trade these two things off against each other?

Take, for example, the last Federal election. At a rough estimate, I'd say that the average MP elected received about 50% of the vote (probably less), meaning that about half of all voters have someone in parliament representing them.

Under a Single-Transferrable-Vote system, that number would likely rise to at least 80%. Now say, (only for the sake of argument), that STV would lead to poorer decisions (for whatever reason). Does that mean we should stick to the current system which is 50% democratic, vs. one which is 80% democratic? If yes, then what if we had an option in which only 25% of the votes counted, but we figured it would provide even better government? 10%, 5%? Is there a line somewhere?

So where do our columnists stand in this debate? Murray Campbell quotes Churchill as saying,
"the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."
in his argument that we don't want the system to be too democratic. Simpson, in his argument that we don't want the system to be too democratic, says that,
"PR systems can make hard decisions if they absolutely have to, as in a crisis. But they don't instinctively put a premium on long-term thinking or provide the smack of strong government."

Ian Urquhart, in his argument that we don't want the system to be too democratic, says that,
"If we end up with the B.C. model [STV], that delay [in implementing it] will be a blessing"

From what I've seen, the only major columnist who has put the principle of democracy ahead of the goal of good (strong in their view) government is Andrew Coyne, for which I give him credit.

(Note: Richard Gwyn didn't really seem to take a side, he was focussed on his odd digression into the urban/rural split).

Darn it, every time I talk about PR it turns into another long post, I think my next one will simply say,
"PR is better - go study it for yourself, and don't believe everything you read in the paper."

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This whole blogging thing is kind of strange. On the one hand, I feel like most of the people who have blogs seem to know so much about it - they would probably regard my combined sense of trepidation and wonder with amusement and perhaps fond memories of a distant time when they felt the same way - like teenagers whose grandparents are using a DVD player for the first time.

On the other hand, as I tell family and friends that I've started a blog, a lot of them say, 'What's a blog?'.

Well, I'm about a week in, have just added site meter to the err, site so it should be cool to get an email tomorrow showing three hits (me at home, me at work, and one from my girlfriend's computer when she volunteered to take a look at it and offer an opinion).

Have to say I am pretty amazed at the whole infrastructure that has built up around blogging - it's hard to imagine life with no internet.

For those imaginary readers who are concerned about the digression, don't worry, I'll be back to complaining about negative newspaper columns on PR before you know it.

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Slow news day

I see today's big story on the cover of the National Post is "CEO's Fear Reefer Madness", staring out from the golden newspaper boxes in 50 point font*

I guess if no news is good news, then that's good news. In the interests of fairness and balance, I'll let you know if I ever see a Post headline which reads, "Pot Users fear CEO intolerance" (or even "Citizens fear CEO corruption, arrogance, overpay, and use of financial clout and media connections to try and influence public policy for their own benefit" although likely they'd have to scale down the font a little on that one).

* This is just a wild guess, I am not a font expert

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Sunday, November 21, 2004

A post that isn't about electoral reform

So I was walking around downtown the other day and I kept noticing people wearing fitted (structured) jackets and pinstriped pants. And I thought to myself, "these people are watching too much 'What not to Wear'".

Of course you know what my next thought was... "I'm watching too much 'what not to Wear!"

Disclaimer: my girlfriend makes me watch it.

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Columnists and PR #2

OK, I hope the pace at which columnists write absurd stories about PR is going to slow down because otherwise it's going to be hard for me to keep up.

Today in the star it's Richard Gwyn's turn with an article about how the push for PR is really a secret plan by urbanites to steal power from rural areas.

First off, he argues that election finance reform has already achieved some of the aims of PR saying that:
we've already achieved many of the benefits of PR through our new system of election financing. In our last election, the Greens didn't elect a single MP, as is commonly the fate of small, widely dispersed parties under the existing, winner-take-all system. But the Greens will get a lot of public funding for their 4 per cent share of the vote, so their voice will be heard across the nation anyway.

It could be just me but I haven't been hearing the voice of the Green Party across the nation too much lately. And I have this funny feeling that when it comes time to decide which party leaders get to participate in the debate prior to the next election, the media will argue that the Greens shouldn't be there because they don't have a seat in parliament. So they don't need a seat because they can make their voice heard anyway. But they can't make their voice heard because they don't have a seat. OK, then.

"But none of its advocates have yet explained the most radical consequence of a switch to proportional representation. This is that PR will significantly increase the number of urban MPs in our legislatures, and decrease correspondingly the number of rural MPs."

There are two forms of PR which are likely to be recommended in a switch to PR: either the Single transferable Vote system (STV) or the Mixed-Member Proportional System (MMP).

Under STV (which was recommended in B.C. by the Citizen's Assembly) there would be no such transfer from rural to urban (unless it was explicitly designed into the system).

Under MMP, some percentage (probably around 60%) of the seats would be elected the same as now and the rest would be elected based on party-lists (most likely, anyway). Whether those 40% would be more urban or rural would be up to the parties themselves and not a product of the system per se.

So, I can conclude that, far from being 'the most radical consequence of a switch to PR' a change in the rural-urban distribution of seats would only be accomplished via a specific attempt to do so, not by stealth.

"our most glaring political imbalance is the overrepresentation of rural Canada and the underrepresentation of urban Canada."

Even if you were to even out all the ridings so that they had the same population, I doubt that it would cost rural areas more than about a dozen seats across the country. Meanwhile, the Bloc received 54 seats in the last election, even though they were only entitled to 38 based on their share of the popular vote. And that's just one party.

If you ask me, the most glaring political imbalance in our system is the overrepresentation of regionally concentrated interests (like Separatist/protest movements) and the underrepresentation of more dispersed interests (like the Green or Libertarian parties).

Further down, Gwyn writes:

"Involved here, as PR advocates take care not to admit, is a transfer of power from voters to party professionals. In advance of the election, each party would compile a list of its second-choicers, in descending order. Those most liked by the party insiders would head the list and most likely would make it to Parliament."

Of course, this is the main reason why the Assembly in B.C. is recommending STV, a system which gives voters even more power (and parties even less) than they have in the current system. It's funny how, just a sentence after talking about how "there are innumerable forms of PR", Gwyn ignores the fact that for one of the most prominent ones, his next sentence just isn't true. Furthermore, an MMP system could be designed to reduce the influence of the parties on who gets elected, if that's what we want.

"These second-choice MPs won't be rooted in any riding. So star urban candidates would be natural choices, as well as representatives of ethnic and other minority groups, all of whom are concentrated in cities."

To his credit, Gwyn now gets around to defending his earlier assertion that MP's picked by parties under MMP are likely to be from urban areas. Still, it's not clear to me why there can't be star rural candidates and I would note that the biggest 'group' underrepresented in parliament is women - and last time I checked they weren't overly concentrated in cities.

"It's possible that the advocates of proportional representation don't realize this. It cannot be a coincidence, though, that almost all of them are urban types."

This is by far the most objectionable line in the article. First of all, it seems clear to me that, far from Richard Gwyn knowing so much more about PR then the people advocating it, the reverse is in fact true.

Secondly, the implication that the only reason people would support an electoral system is because it supports their urban/rural class is absurd. Is it so impossible to think that people are motivated to implement PR simply because it is a better system? Is it possible that the reason most of PR's advocates are urban dwellers is because (as Gwyn himself notes), most people in Canada live in cities? Does Gwyn really think that if I had never left the town I grew up in (an overrepresented rural area) I would be opposed to PR - and that the fact that I support it and believe that it is a better system is solely because I now live in a big city?

What is it about PR that leads columnists to write such absurd things? What are they afraid of?

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Columnists and PR - What's the problem?

Columnists like to write about electoral reform, but they don't seem to like studying or researching it.

Here's a copy of the letter I wrote to Ian Urquhart of the Toronto Star after he published this column filled with half-truths, quarter-truths and worse.


Dear Mr. Urquhart,

I am writing to you because I feel you have done your readers a disservice with your inaccurate portrayal of the Single-Transferable-Vote System (STV).

To begin with, your description of it as 'whacko' seems odd when you consider that it was originally promoted by the famed political scientist John Stuart Mill, is the recommended system for the group which has been studying electoral systems longer than anyone (Britain's Electoral Reform Society), has been successfully in use for over 50 years in stable democratic countries, and was overwhelmingly chosen by the Citizen's Assembly members in B.C. after long and careful consideration of all the alternatives.

Furthermore, you imply that STV is a rejection of compromise when in fact the opposite is true. Our current system has a large number of ridings with one person elected per riding. Party List PR has only one riding (the entire country) with a large number of people elected from it. STV compromises between these two extremes by having a smaller number of ridings than our current system (larger number than PR), with more people elected from each one (fewer people than PR). MMP compromises between the two extremes by effectively running the two systems in parallel, with some people elected under our current system and some under Party List PR.

By making this compromise, STV addresses your fear that "voters would lose their constituency-based representatives in the Legislature" by ensuring local representation. At the same time, it largely corrects the problems with proportionality, and strategic voting that plague the current system. Finally, it also avoids the problem of letting parties rather than voters decided who gets elected under a party list system like is used in much of Europe, while also being less prone to electing fringe/extremist parties than pure PR.

On this topic, your comment that "It seems tailor-made to elect extremist and fringe elements." is also untrue. Consider for a moment that the new assembly in Northern Ireland adopted STV for electing it's members and realize that you are suggesting we reject a system used in Northern Ireland, because it may elect extremists here in Canada! More to the point, even with 7 member ridings, a 'fringe' party would have to get at least 12.5% percent of the vote over a fairly large area (say the city of London, for example) in order to elect someone.

As an example, the Green Party, which received almost half a million votes in the last Federal election, likely wouldn't have won a single seat (or only a very few), even if 7 member ridings were used all across the country (they would have gotten more seats under MMP however - which makes your rejection of STV in favour of MMP on the basis of it favouring extremism a little odd as well).

The ranking of candidates from 1,2,3 etc. actually works against fringe candidates because all the members of the mainstream moderate parties are likely to choose other moderates as their second, third, fourth etc. choices. That is, not many people with a non-extremist first choice will make an extremist second (or third) choice.

"The B.C. assembly noted that the system is now in use in Ireland, Malta and Tasmania. Hmmmmm."

I imagine my parents, who immigrated here from Ireland back in the 60's, wouldn't be the only ones who wonder what you are implying with "Hmmmmm". Is Ireland not a successful, peaceful, democratic country? Have you checked to see whose GDP/capita is higher lately? Maybe you could clarify what it is about Ireland that is so different from us. Is everyone there whacko perhaps?

Anyway, It's not like the list of countries using our system is so impressive either, and if you can find any place in the world which has switched to it in the last 100 years, let me know (lots have switched away from it).

"If we end up with the B.C. model, that delay will be a blessing."

I find it amazing that you can reach that conclusion when you haven't made any kind of comparison of the pros and cons of STV with our current system. Especially bearing in mind that pretty much anybody who ever has made a serious attempt at such a comparison has concluded that STV is better than our current system.

As a journalist, you have a great deal of influence in your ability to reach readers and you also have an incredible luxury in being able to analyze political topics as a full time job, while most of us who are interested in these things have to do them on top of a full time job.

Bearing this in mind, I feel that you also have a responsibility to actually research the topics you write about in order to provide information which will inform rather than mislead - something you have failed to do in this column.

If you ever plan on writing about this topic again, I urge you to please visit and read the following links before you do so.

The Electoral Reform society (the section on voting systems is quite good):

Dave Pollard's excellent post on the topic:

The Wikipedia entry on STV:

If you made it this far, I thank you for your patience and look forward to your next column on the topic (assuming that you agree with me by that time, of course).

Declan Dunne, Vancouver.

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Friday, November 19, 2004

Good news day

Some good news for a change in Canada today:

First off, as someone who consumes more than his share of pre-packaged, high-fat food, it's good to see the Canadian government moving to follow the lead of Denmark (and New York fries) and ban trans-fats (for the most part anyway).

There's a great, (albeit somewhat smug) quote from Dr. Steed Stender, the head of the Danish Nutrition Council on the CTV's website on the topic (note: this quote is from before today's decision, back when Canada was still planning mandatory labelling for trans-fats, but no other regulation).

As for the Canadian and U.S. governments' approach, Stender has strong words.

"As they say in North America: 'You can put poison in food, if you label it properly.' Here in Denmark, we remove the poison and people don't have to know anything about trans fatty acids," he says."

Let's just hope they follow through on this and it doesn't die in a cut-off minority session or get watered down by industry lobby groups in the Senate like the bill on animal cruelty.

Second on the good news front, the Ontario government seems to be following B.C.'s lead in appointing a 'citizen's assembly' to study electoral reform.

Let it be known I hereby predict that the assembly will propose a Mixed-Member Proportional system (in contrast to the one in B.C. which recommended STV (Single transferrable vote). Let it also be known that either STV or MMP would be a vast improvement over the current First-Past-the-Post system which was never designed to accommodate anything other than a 2 party system.

Finally, the last piece of good news "Canada will be champion of Kyoto, Dion vows":

Just words so far, but better words than we've heard on the topic in a long time from the Liberals. And coming from someone who just may have the smarts and guts to make it happen. I wish him all the luck in the world.

So that wraps up today's good news. OK, it's true, our civilization is still unlikely to make it to the end of the current century intact but that doesn't mean we shouldn't avoid unnecessary heart attacks, try to prevent the destabilization of the global environment and replace outdated electoral systems in the meantime.

Update (July 17, 2009): So the Federal government still has taken no action on trans-fat, but the B.C. government will limit them starting in September, 2009.

The Ontario citizen's assembly did recommend MMP as I predicted but it was defeated in the referendum. Stéphane Dion wasn't just all talk with his environmental rhetoric, but sadly was unable to form a government as Liberal leader to implement any of it - since 2004 Canada's record on the Kyoto/Climate Change file has been one of, if not the worst in the world.

So much for good news.

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Monday, November 15, 2004

Good news, maybe, someday

From the Globe today ( the good news:

"Preparations for major changes to Canada's electoral system are under way by the Liberal government, the deputy House Leader said Monday,..."

and the bad news...

"...but he would not commit to making a plan available before the next federal election."

If you've ever wanted to vote for a party but didn't like who they were running in your riding (or vice-versa) or if you ever faced the prospect where voting for your favourite party could potentially help elect your least favourite party (i.e. Nader/Perot supporters) or if you just thought it was strange that one party could get the most votes and another could form the (majority) government, then any progress (even the glacially slow progress typical of the federal liberals) on the electoral reform front is good news.

And I know that we're all cynical and nobody is supposed to care about what is best for the country, but I still think that this is at least a little unfair:
The NDP would be in favour of some of the reforms, such as proportional representation, because the party is small.
[emphasis added]

It's hard to imagine the Liberals permitting changes to a system that has served them so well over the years, but maybe now I'm the one who's being cynical. At any rate, it's good to see momentum building in the direction of positive change.

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Sunday, November 14, 2004

Flat Tax does not equal Simple Tax

With Americans once again getting excited about Bush's latest proposal to shift taxes from the rich to the poor/lower middle class (his latest tax reform musings), I am reminded once again of one of the strangest things in the world of taxes: the idea that a flat tax is equivalent to a simple tax:

The Canadian Income Tax Act is hundreds and hundreds of small print pages long. How much shorter would it be if we instituted a flat tax here?

Well, we'd have to take out the following section (from

"The tax payable under this Part by an individual on the individual's taxable income or taxable income earned in Canada, as the case may be, (in this subdivision referred to as the "amount taxable") for a taxation year is

(a) 16% of the amount taxable, if the amount taxable does not exceed $30,754;

(b) $4,921 plus 22% of the amount by which the amount taxable exceeds $30,754, if the amount taxable exceeds $30,754 and does not exceed $61,509;

(b.1) $11,687 plus 26% of the amount by which the amount taxable exceeds $61,509, if the amount taxable exceeds $61,509 and does not exceed $100,000; and

(c) $21,695 plus 29% of the amount by which the amount taxable exceeds $100,000, if the amount taxable exceeds $100,000."

I pasted it here in full just to show how short it is (and believe me, if you put it in the font they use for the tax act, it would look even shorter).

The simple fact is that things like the RRSP program, the Child Tax Benefit, the deductions for charitable donations and so on, create far more text in the act than the three tax brackets do.

So if people want to reduce taxes on the rich and raise them on the poor/lower middle class then they should advocate this. If they want to get rid of all the deductions in the tax act (including the child tax credit, RRSP program etc.) then they should advocate this instead.

The effort to hide the true nature of what a flat tax is suggests to me that proponents know that it is not supported by the majority of the population and that in order to get it passed they have to deceive and manipulate people.

If you think I'm wrong, I'd like to hear a counter-argument because I can't think of any.

The question of whether or not we should have progressive taxation (we should), I'll leave for another day, but when we talk about a flat tax, we should be clear that that is indeed the question we are discussing. Simplicity is an entirely different issue.

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Saturday, November 13, 2004

What to Expect?

Well, not 3 posts a day for starters!

I expect the topics covered to be mainly political (mostly Canadian with some U.S. and occasionally the rest of the world), with some personal life stuff, some pop. culture comments, some sports talk (I'll try to spare you from complaints about the bad luck of my pool teams) and maybe some technology stuff (but I tend to be a little behind the curve here, so don't expect anything cutting edge).

Another thing to expect is lots of little digressions in brackets (like this one).

In terms of politics, political compass ( puts me down as a strong libertarian, and pretty much in the middle on the left-right economic axis. The environment, electoral form and taxation are a few of the issues I care most about.

Still on the topic of politics, my aim will be to search for what is right and what is best for society rather than trying to push a particular ideological viewpoint. Things I will try (and likely fail, on occasion - let me know if you see instances) to avoid will include:

Ignoring events which don't support my point.
Quoting out of context.
Arguments which attempt to persuade rather than enlighten.
Flawed reasoning including: Straw man arguments, Ad Hominem attacks and any other bias which would serve to obscure rather than illumine the best solution.

I know, it sounds awfully dull, but I'll try to keep it interesting as well. I guess we'll see.

At any rate, it will be interesting (for me) to see how the Blog evolves in terms of writing style, topics covered, whether it ever actually attracts readers and/or comments etc.

Hopefully I'll post often enough to at least give it a chance. Good luck little Blog!

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Why is this Blog here?

Here is some speculation (you may think that I should know for certain, but I'm never really so sure I understand just why I do things):

1. I don't have enough friends who are willing to listen to me talk about this stuff so I am searching the globe for more listeners (victims).

2. Even if nobody's listening, maybe it will be cathartic (in the medical sense of the word:

3. Practice my writing.

4. I've found lots of Blogs to be useful/helpful/entertaining/enlightening/inspiring etc. and it would be cool to think I could do the same for others

5. I'm a big believer in peer-to-peer, no-filter, no middleman communications so I should put my fingers where my mind is (not in the medical sense, this time)

6. Deep down, I am drawn to a fantasy of becoming famous and powerful and some part of my sub-conscious thinks this is the way to do it (I don't really buy this one, but I had to put it in to keep Nietzsche happy).

7. Other


First Post

This is just a test.

And a really boring one at that.

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