Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Back 'East'

I just thought I'd warn people that posting may or may not be light over the next week since I am back in Ontario for the week to, among other things, try to draft (auction) a good enough team to improve on last year's 7th place (out of 12) baseball pool finish.

Right now the plan is to draft a more durable outfield than last year's ill-fated crew which included M. Ordonez, P. Wilson, S. Stewart and A. Kearns. Any good advice/tips should be emailed to me directly and not posted in a comment as it could be intercepted by other team owners. Bad advice / misleading tips should be sent here or here.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Canadian Government and the Three Bears

So I was thinking to myself that one of the most controversial aspects of government in Canada (and in most places), is whether government here is too big (papa bear gov't), too small (mama bear gov't) or just right (baby bear gov't) - but I don't really have a good sense of just how big the government of Canada is - especially in comparison with other countries.

Luckily, google was able to bring the relevant information to my fingertips within seconds via this UN site which is a collection of statistics compiled by people trying to compare the size of government across countries. Seriously, how did we ever find out anything 10 years ago?

Anyway, there's a lot of interesting data there and perhaps later in the week, if I get time, I'll try putting some of it in chart form, but for now, I'll pick out some of the highlights, from a Canadian perspective.

There are a few things we need to be careful of (actually there's a ton of things as you'll see if you read this summary of the UN's findings but I'm going to hit the high points):

1. Comparisons which look at central government spending will understate the size of Canadian government because we have a relatively large non-central (Provincial + Local) government segment (more on this later).

2. There are different measures used. Government consumption typically doesn't include cash transfers whereas Government Expenditure does. Government Expenditure is roughly equivalent to Total Tax Revenue, except total Tax Revenue tends to be lower since governments have other sources of income besides taxes (resource royalties for example). Revenue will also be lower than expenditure if the government is running a deficit (I know I'm stating the obvious here, but it's relevant later on).

3. When comparing rich and poor countries it is advisable to adjust for the fact that services tend to be much more expensive relative to goods in rich countries. Or to put it another way, labour is cheap in poor countries. Because government expenditures tend to be service-oriented/labour intensive, government spending - all else being equal - will appear lower in poor countries (because they're not paying their teachers and doctors and civil servants and policeman and soldiers very much).


OK, enough caveats, what do the numbers tell us?

Looking at consumption (which excludes government transfers) as at 2002, Canada had the 11th highest government spending out of a list of 24 'developed' countries. i.e. we were right in the middle, along with the U.S.

The lowest country was Ireland at 13.3% of GDP devoted to government consumption (perhaps reflecting the efficiency of having just one level of government?) followed by Switzerland at 15.2% and Greece at 15.8%

At the high end are Sweden (28%), Denmark (26.1%) and Iceland (25.1%).

Canada came in at 19%, while the U.S. was at 18.9%.

Interestingly, the UN researchers built a statistical regression model to look at the data they collected and determine what factors influence the size of government. What they found was that government consumption tended to be lower (as a % of gdp) in countries with large populations and higher in countries with large geographical areas. This makes sense if you figure there are economies of scale in many government services and that many services (such as road building for example) are more expensive per capita in sparsely populated countries.

Note that both of these factors work in favour of a relatively large government sector in Canada. As the report says:
"Thus, from the raw statistics, Canada appears, relative to its population, to have larger government than the United States. Taking into account the diseconomies of serving a small population dispersed over a wide area, Canada actually has a rather small government compared to that of the United States!"

note: they must have thought this was noteworthy since it merited one of only 2 exclamation points used in their entire 17 page report

Interestingly the results were different when they looked at total government expenditure (which includes transfer payments - i.e. pension plans, child benefits etc.). Here they found that the strongest predictor of government expenditure was how 'open' the economy was, where 'openness' indicated a 'globalized' country which was heavily integrated onto the world economy (low trade barriers, large number of exports/imports as a % of gdp etc.). As the report says,
"on average, governments of open economies spend a significantly larger portion of GDP and collect the additional taxes needed for this task."

The figures for government expenditure were only given for central governments (since they are not collected for many local governments) so I'll look at total tax revenue instead. I found two sources for this data (the UN, and the OECD), and while they were quite similar, they didn't line up exactly. I'll go with the OECD figures since they have cover a greater range of dates.

The Canadian government collected 31.9% of GDP in taxes in 1975. Looking at the data every five years, this figure climbed to a peak of 35.9% in 1990 before levelling off and gradually starting to decline to 33.9% as of 2002.

By way of comparison, the lowest figures in the OECD (2002) are Mexico (18.1%), S. Korea (24.4%), the United States (25.4%) and Japan (25.8%).

At the high end are Sweden (50.2%), Denmark (48.9%) and Belgium (46.4%).

Canada is similar to other countries with British roots with Australia at 31.5%, New Zealand at 34.9% and the U.K. at 35.8%.

Of course one thing we need to consider is the different deficits in different countries. For example Canada's revenue (33.9%) is 8.1% higher than Japan's (25.8). But as we can see here (scroll down), Canada was running a 0.6% of GDP surplus in 2002 while Japan was running nearly an 8%(!) of GDP deficit. So the truth is we were spending around the same, just that we were collecting the tax to cover it and they weren't. Similarly, when you factor in the deficits that most other OECD countries are running, you can see that Canada's spending is lower than the revenue figures make it look (of course factoring in resource royalties may have the opposite effect but I couldn't really find any figures on how big this effect is).

This also means that if Canada's tax take is lower as a % of GDP now than it was in 1990, plus we have turned a deficit of 3.4% (1989) into a surplus, then government expenditure has come down fairly significantly as a % of GDP in the last 25 years.

Now I know what you're thinking, how much of this reduction was reduced program spending and how much was reduced interest payments on our debt? According to the Fraser Institute (source OECD), government debt interest payments were 5.3% of GDP in 1990, and were down to 4.9% in 2000. They've probably fallen more between 2000 and 2002 (maybe to 4.5%?) but it still suggests that most of the change has come from reduced spending as a % of GDP.

The one final number I wanted to look at was the ratio of non-central government spending to central government spending. i.e. How big is the local/state/provincial government sector relative to the national one. As you can see from this chart, Canada leads the world in this category as one of 3 countries (China and the Netherlands Antilles being the other 2) where local/regional government actually outspends the central government. I guess it doesn't tell us much that we didn't already know - Canada is a very decentralized country. But at any rate, it's something to keep in mind next time you hear about the 'fiscal imbalance'.

But wait, you say, the provinces may spend money but the federal government collects the taxes and transfers them to the provinces so even though the provinces spend a lot they don't have control over their spending. So we really need to look at tax revenue collected by local/provincial governments vs. the central government. OK, here's the figures based on tax revenue. It's true that the ratio of local/provincial taxes to federal ones is lower than the ratio for expenditures but (with the exception of China) this is true everywhere - and even if you look at tax revenues Canada remains a world leader (now #2 behind China) in decentralization.


So, tons of numbers (which I really should put into some charts) but what does it all mean? Looking at the historical record, government spending is lower as a % of GDP now than it was 25 years ago. Also, just looking at the raw numbers, the size of Canadian government doesn't look out of place in any international comparisons. When you factor in Canada's dispersed population, its open economy and the fact that it's running a surplus instead of a deficit (not to mention the public pension system being adequately funded) Canada's government appears to be one of the smaller ones among developed countries. Given that it also has one of the world's most decentralized systems of government, our federal government can be seen to be one of the smallest in the developed world.

Or to put it another way, Andrew Coyne ended this lament on our high spending (written in 1994) by saying, "Switzerland and Japan can run a welfare state on a third of GDP or less. Why can't we?". So he should be happy to know that as of 2002 there is very little difference in total government expenditure between Canada and Japan and Switzerland and that government expenditure as a % of GDP in Canada is running right around 1/3 of GDP.

Or to put it another way, most signs seems to suggest that, in contrast to those who would suggest that a) Canada's government is an ever growing monster that is threatening to swallow us all, or b) Canada's government is getting ever-stingier and is callously dooming poor people to a life of poverty, the size of our government seems both stable and reasonable.

Or to put it another way, Goldilocks went to Sweden but the taxes were too high. 'This government is too big', she whined. So Goldilocks went to Mexico but her car broke down on the bumpy roads, her tires were stolen and the air was thick with smog. 'This government is too small', she whined. So Goldilocks went to Canada. "Ah, this government is just right", she sighed.

So how does the story end? I'm guessing some people will end it with:

Goldilocks fell asleep in the land of good government and while she was sleeping the left wing Papa Bear returned and ate her, dooming her to a life of ever larger government, stifling her incentives, curtailing innovation, trampling on her freedoms, spreading inefficiency and turning the country into Sweden. The End.

While others might end it with:

Goldilocks fell asleep in the land of good government and while she was sleeping the right wing Mama Bear returned and ate her, dooming her to a life of tax cuts for the wealthy, corporate oligarchy, environmental degradation and disregard for the suffering of the poor and unfortunate, turning her country into Mexico (with a stop in the U.S. along the way). The End.

For me, I agree that we can't afford to fall asleep, but I think we need to make friends with the baby bear. After all a mama or papa bear wouldn't eat one of its kid's friends would it?

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Thursday, March 24, 2005

Academic Freedom is on the March

Or something like that. Anyone know what the opposite of 'enlightenment' is? If anyone out there wonders why I don't want to see our country become more like the U.S., it's not because I'm anti-American - it's because stuff like this scares me.

(Via Cathie (from Canada))

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Shut it Down

"You say you'll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it's the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead"1

I hate to disagree with Paul and John, and I've been to the building that houses the Senate and it's quite nice, so burning it down seems a tad excessive, but the appointment of a bunch of new senators seems like a good time to point out that the Senate really should be shut down. The truth is, I don't really care who is appointed to it.

If anyone disagrees, please let me know what the Senate has accomplished in the last 10 years besides thwarting the public (and the government's) desire to update our 113 year old (and counting) animal cruelty legislation. The whole, absurd, story can be found here. And if it was accomplishing more, would that be a good thing, given its undemocratic nature?

Seriously, do we really need to spend millions of dollars a year just so we can have a chamber of sober second special interest pleading? Is the governance of the provinces suffering in some way due to the absence of provincial Senates?

I appreciate that it's a whole can of worms to try and modify the constitution but is that the only reason the Senate is still standing - or are there people who think it's a good idea? - Or people who'd like to see an elected Senate? I'm just wondering (I'll have to figure out how to post a poll one of these days).

Update (mere hours later): You know how once you're looking for something you suddenly see it everywhere?

From today's globe,
"Environment Canada estimates that, on average, a minimum of 300,000 seabirds are killed every year in Atlantic Canada waters as a result of ship operators illegally dumping bilge oil. This number of deaths is greater than that caused by the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989.

Bill C-15 provides an opportunity to eliminate an unnecessary activity practised by irresponsible companies and individuals whose actions make the entire industry look bad. Newfoundlanders who have had to walk along beaches filled with dead and dying oiled sea birds - indeed, all Canadians who treasure Canada's coastal environment - will be pleased to see this abhorrent activity dramatically curtailed, if not entirely stopped. Without the swift passage of Bill C-15, this environmental disaster - first reported nearly 45 years ago - will continue."

C-15 has already passed the House of Commons but,
"Unfortunately, in the past few weeks, representatives of Canada's shipping industry have been working hard to scuttle this proposed law either by having the Senate defeat it, or by making amendments that will weaken the bill and cause it to go back to the House of Commons."

Sober second special interest pleading indeed.

1 From 'Revolution' by the Beatles, on the off chance that my pool of readers is large enough to contain someone who doesn't recognize it.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

What He Said

James Bow has up a two-part series of posts, the first on why we need to disengage from the middle-east (we're not helping) and the second on how (use less oil).

Needless to say, his posts are a lot more illuminating than my 3 word summaries so I recommend you read them for yourself if you haven't already done so.


If you have any interest in reading a personal story which documents some of the changes in the newspaper business in B.C. over the last couple of decades, I recommend this post from View From Seymour.


Finally, for a humourous but disturbing comparison of David Horowitz's 'Students for Academic Freedom' organization with a previous campaign for academic freedom, see Billmon's post on the topic (via Voice in the Wilderness).

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Empathy Gone Wild

So they changed the locks at my apartment building. But I still have my old key. Left with no purpose in life, a key without a keyhole, the same key it always was, but forever doomed to irrelevance; I sympathize and find it hard to just throw it away. But of course, as my girlfriend helpfully pointed out when I raised this dilemma, 'It's just a lump of metal'.

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Monday, March 21, 2005

Deconstructing the 'Vote No to STV' arguments

Note: I wrote this post for my 'Vote Yes to STV' blog which recommends that B.C. voters vote in favour of changing the provincial electoral system to STV on May 17, but it ended up being so long that I figured I'd post it here too, in the hopes of increasing the probability that at least one person makes it through to the end (you've been warned).


A website has been setup for a Vote No campaign against STV. The url and the title on the site read 'Know STV'. I guess 'know' is the obvious pun to go with for a vote no campaign, but I find it a bit odd since, in my opinion, the biggest hope of 'no' supporters is that people won't 'know' much about STV.

Consider what happens when people 'know' a lot: The members of the Citizens Assembly studied electoral systems for over a year and at the end, they voted 146-7 that STV is better than the current system. The Law Commission of Canada did a study and concluded that just about anything was better than First Past the Post (the current system) including STV (they recommended MMP as the best choice).

The truth is that pretty much any time any group has seriously studied electoral systems they have concluded that both STV and MMP are better than First Past the Post.

So maybe it's not surprising that, on a site whose avowed mission is to help people 'know' about STV, there is no section which actually explains what STV is, nor is there a link to any of the many animations which are probably the best online resource for understanding how STV works (I like the Australian one the best) - but they do have almost 1000 words in their section on the biographies of the Know STV backers. Seems like they want you to know 'know STV' more than they want you to know STV, if you know what I mean.

Now, it's true, the site does have a long Q&A section but this is more of a forum for them to give answers to softball questions than it is a place to get clear answers to help you 'know' what STV is.

For example, the first question is, "What is the Single-Transferable Vote (STV) proposed by the Citizens Assembly as BC's new electoral system?" - which sounds promising right?

But the answer given is, "The Single-Transferable Vote (STV) is an alternative to the First Past The Post electoral system"

Wow, that really clears it up, thanks! The rest of the answer is devoted to a comparison of the usage rates of STV and First Past the Post around the world which is interesting, but not what was asked (I always find it annoying when someone is asked something and they hijack the question - but when it's their own friggin' question you really have to wonder).

They do go into more detail about how STV works in their next question, "How does the Single-Transferable Vote (STV) differ from our current electoral system?" but rather than explain it clearly they make a few misleading statements and send the reader off to the Citizen's Assembly website for a full explanation.

Since I brought it up, here are some of the misleading statements:

"BC currently has 79 different constituencies but under STV there could be as few as18 constituencies or less. Each larger constituency would have from two or three members in rural areas to as many as seven MLAs in larger urban areas."

Aside from the confusing, bad writing, ('as few as18 or less'?) this paragraph could give the impression that there will be fewer MLA's elected under STV when in fact the number of MLA's elected (79) will remain the same.

The next line is, "Voters would rank all candidates in that larger constituency by their personal preference" which is simply not true. Voters could rank just one candidate or they could rank as many as they want. There is little point for most voters in ranking more than a few candidates and it is highly likely that the number of voters who decide to rank *all* the candidates would be extremely small. I know I have no plans to.

At any rate, I invite anyone to spend some time here on my blog and try to learn more about STV, (hint: click on the 'What the heck is STV' link) and then go to the Know STV site and see which one helps you learn more about how STV works.


All right, enough about how the Know STV folks don't really want you to know all that much about STV or electoral systems in general, let's take a more detailed look at their Q&A and correct some of the areas where it lacks a little in the 'fair and balanced' department.

First question: "What is the Single-Transferable Vote (STV) proposed by the Citizens Assembly as BC's new electoral system?"

I already talked about how they don't answer the question, but let's look at the question they did answer which is, "Which jurisdictions use STV and which ones use First Past the Post?"

Their answer, which is that first past the post is used in a lot more places than STV, is accurate but it misses an important aspect which is the trend. And the trend is that countries are abandoning our First Past the Post system in favour of more proportional systems. In New Zealand, they adopted the Mixed Member Proportional System. In Australia, we are seeing the gradual spread of STV (most recently adopted in the State of Victoria.

The European parliament has members elected from countries all across Europe. If you take a look at the linked map, you can see that while only 2 European countries use STV to elect their members, that is greater than the number (0) which use First Past the Post. Even England, the country which spread First Past the Post to so much of the world, no longer uses it for the European Parliament elections. Similarly, none of the recently set-up parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland use First Past the Post (Scotland and Wales use MMP and Northern Ireland uses STV).

The fact that so many more countries use First Past the Post than STV is more of a historical artifact than a ringing endorsement of First Past the Post.

Q: "So how does our current First Past the Post electoral system work by comparison?"

A: "Under First Past the Post, each voter chooses one candidate to represent their constituency and the candidate who wins more votes than any other is elected.

Each FPTP constituency has one MLA who is personally accountable to those voters and the constituencies are much smaller both geographically and in terms of the number of voters in each one."

So after reading this answer would you get the impression that there is exactly the same number of voters per MLA under STV as there is under the current system? If not, then you've been misled. Another good question to ask voters might be how personally accountable they feel their MLA is currently. Especially when in many cases over half the voters voted against that MLA (which wouldn't be the case under STV). And when most of the people who did vote for the MLA were probably voting for the Party the MLA represented and if they wanted to support their party they only had one choice of who to vote for (unlike under STV).

OK, next question.

Q: "Isn't STV a lot more complicated than FPTP?"

AKA, 'How often does STV beat its wife?'

A: "Yes. One of FPTP's biggest advantages is the simplicity and ease of understanding it brings to all voters. In recent New Zealand local elections using STV for the first time 11% of all votes were disqualified, more than 14 times the number rejected in the previous election."

Of course, if they had done their homework, they may have run across this quote from the Citizen's Assembly website:

"Does changing the voting system lead to more spoiled ballots?
A change in voting system or ballot form does not have a large impact on spoiled ballots. For example, when elections for the parliament of Tasmania switched from First Past The Post (FPTP - our current electoral system) to STV (the recommended system) the rate of spoiled ballots was 1.2% in 1906 (under FPTP) and 2.9% in 1909 (under STV). Another example of this marginal impact is when the House of Representatives in Australia went from marking crosses on the ballot to listing numbers, the rate of spoiled ballots changed 1.2%.

You may have heard that New Zealand had a problem with counting STV votes in its Fall 2004 municipal elections. That was a problem with its computers, not with the STV system. The Assembly has designed BC-STV so the count can be done either by hand or by computer."


Anyway, the answer continues:

"Voters may also be faced with a very large ballot and dozens of candidates in larger ridings, making it hard to rank the candidates knowledgeably."

OK, imagine someone said this to you,

"Shoppers may be faced with a lot of different cereals making it hard to choose a cereal knowledgeably"

Let's face it, any trip to the store involves choosing between a multitude of various models of just about everything, and I think if people can manage this they can manage to pick out their favourite candidate (or someone from their favourite party) out of a long list. And if the success of big-box stores is any guide people prefer more choices not fewer. Shocking, I know.

The answer gets better,

"Voters will also be confused by a mathematical quota called the Weighted Inclusive Gregory System which determines how and where exactly their vote will be 'transferred' to, by having to rank a large number of candidates in each constituency and by the need to trust computers to get the results right."

You hear that voters, you *will* be confused (whether you like it or not!). Of course, if you let the 'know STV' folks get to you with their scary sounding mathematical formula I guess it's possible. But someone who really wanted you to 'know' STV might take this opportunity to explain just how your vote will be transferred (it's not that scary):

If the person you put #1 gets more votes than what they need to get elected, part of your vote gets transferred to your #2. How big a part? Well if your #1 got so many votes he/she only needed half of them to get elected, then they only get half your vote and the other half is transferred to #2. If they got so many votes they only needed 1/3 of their votes than they only get 1/3 of your vote and 2/3 is transferred to your #2 choice.

The other way your vote can get transferred is if nobody has enough votes to get elected, in which case they eliminate the poor sap who has the fewest #1 votes. If that poor sap was your #1 choice, then your vote (rather than being wasted like under the current system) is transferred to your #2 choice.

The same rules apply to your #2 choice as well so it's possible part or all of your vote could end up getting transferred to your #3 choice as well. (e.g. You vote for an independent with your #1, but they get eliminated and your vote is transferred to your #2 who is from the Green Party, but they get eliminated as well, so your vote is transferred to your #3 choice, and helps an NDP candidate edge out a Liberal candidate.)

OK, where was I, right, next question:

Q: "Will STV increase or reduce local representation and accountability?"

Before I get to the answer, I should mention the extensive section of (7!) links that the 'know STV' site has. One of these 7 lucky links is the "The Single Transferable Vote in practice", a report undertaken on behalf of the Scottish government (before they adopted STV for use in local elections).

Here's a quote from criticisms of how STV works in practice in Ireland:
"the heavy emphasis on constituency casework, faction-fighting between candidates from the same party, a focus on constituency, localist matters in election campaigns and parliamentary work, 'friends and neighbours' voting, are all seen as resulting - at least in large part - from the candidate-centred, preference voting of STV"

Yes, a frequent criticism of STV is that because candidates have to compete with members of their own party for seats, they focus too much on local issues and local representation at the expense of 'big-picture' thinking.

The Scottish report eventually concludes that it is hard to tell whether the intense focus on local issues is a function of the electoral system or just some quirk of the Irish in general (or possibly due to the fact that they only have national government with no provincial or local governments).

Anyway, what do the 'Know STV' folks say about STV and local representation?

"There will be less local representation and accountability because STV will mean much larger constituencies and MLAs will be representing far more people over a wider geographic area."

Once again, may I point out that the number of voters per MLA will be the same under STV as it is now. So MLA's will be representing the same number of people as before. It's just that instead of having (for example) 4 ridings each with it's own MLA, you would now have them combined into one riding with 4 MLA's. So maybe the MLA's will have to figure out how to divide up the riding between them - an insurmountable challenge? I doubt it. Personally I'd rather have four MLA's to potentially go to with a problem - including one that I voted for, vs. having only one choice and that being someone I voted against because I couldn't stand them, but that's just me.

They continue, "In large rural constituencies that contain a major town, it’s possible that all MLAs elected will come from that town because that’s where the most voters are, reducing accountability for other parts of the constituency."

Let me see if I can explain this. If an area was large enough to be a riding under the current system, then that means it has enough population to elect someone to represent them that is from their area - if that's what they want (and if they make the effort to get off the couch and go vote). This might be a good time to point out how under the current system parties can bring in candidates who don't even live in the riding at all (the recent election of John Tory in a by-election in Ontario is a good example of this) and people have no choice if they want to support their party. Under STV people could choose the representative from their party from their local area. Here's another quote from the Scottish report:

"Moreover studies of Irish voting patterns also indicate that candidates from a local area will receive more votes from that part of the constituency in which they live (Farrell 2001). Accordingly Irish political parties have developed sophisticated vote management and election strategies. These tend to involve ensuring that:
candidates are picked from different corners of the constituency and voters in each locale are actively encouraged to vary the ordering of their preferences so as to maximize the efficiency of the party vote. The basic idea is that the more equal the spread of first preferences across the different party candidates, the greater chance that more will be elected (Farrell 2001, p.146)."

But wait, Ireland and B.C. aren't the same, next question:

Q: "STV supporters say local representation is very good in Ireland under STV. What's the difference with BC?"

A: "BC and Ireland are quite different geographically, with BC many times larger. However Ireland's population is very close to BC's 4 million people and they have 166 representatives in their parliament, called the Dail, while in BC we have just 79 MLAs in the B.C. Legislature."

This is of course true, but it's just as true under our current system as it would be under STV. If we need more MLA's to represent us, we should have more MLA's. If we're short on MLA's that doesn't have much bearing on a comparison between two systems, both of which have the same number of MLA's.

They continue,

"Inevitably with huge ridings and few MLAs parts of BC would likely lose local representation. In some areas it is possible that no local candidate would be elected as an MLA, removing local representation completely."

'huge ridings and few MLAs?' Did I mention that there will be the same number of MLA's under STV, yeah I think I did.

Let's face it, this whole long list of concerns about local representation comes down to a worry that MLA's may be distributed slightly more unevenly around the province than they are now. Even though this will be left pretty much entirely in the hands of voters to decide for themselves. And there is no mention of how the fact that MLA's will have to worry about being defeated by members of their own party will force them to be more attentive to local needs. Or how the absence of safe Liberal or NDP seats like under the current system will mean that people will have to get elected based on their personal reputation for getting things done vs. which party they are running for.

OK, next question.

Q: "Does STV give proportional results? That is, if a party gets 10% of the popular vote in B.C. would it win 10% of the seats?

A: "No. STV supporters say it is more proportional than FPTP but there is no guarantee that seats won will correspond with popular vote. Proportional representation electoral systems such as List PR are designed to ensure such proportionality, not STV.

If a party got 10% of the vote under STV it would be unlikely to win a seat in any constituency in BC. Look again at the example of a constituency of 100,000 voters electing three members: the number of votes needed to win is 25,001, which means that a party would need at least 25% support to win one seat of the three."

Never mind for a moment that the Green party got 12% of the vote in the last election under First Past the Post, got 0 seats, and in all likelihood *would* have elected members under STV, instead how about we ask a different question:

Q: Is STV far more proportional than our current system and has this been clearly proven time after time in elections around the world and is the proportionality of STV much closer to being perfectly proportional than it is to matching our current system?

A: Yes. OK, let's move on.

Q: "Are MLAs elected with equal levels of support under STV?"

A: "No. Proponents say because STV it is more proportional "overall" if is a fairer system. But a candidate in a two-member riding in northern BC can get elected with 33% public support while a Vancouver or other large urban centre candidate can get elected with just 13% of the votes cast.

This means some MLAs have had to win far more support than others to be elected to the BC Legislature."

OK, Time for a math lesson. The candidate in the rural riding is getting a larger percentage of a riding with fewer voters. The candidate in the urban riding is getting a smaller percentage of votes in a riding with more voters. Can we see how these factors balance each other out so the two candidates need roughly the same number of total votes to get elected.

Now it's true that there is a slight difference. Say we assume 10,000 voters per riding then in a 2 member rural riding, a candidate would need 1/3 of 20,000 (10,000 each for the 2 members) votes = 6,700 votes to get elected. In a 7 member urban riding, a candidate would need, 1/8 of 70,000 = 8,750 votes. Of course a quick look at the last election results will show that the riding of Victoria-Hillside was won with 7,878 votes while the riding of Fort Langley Aldergrove was won with 16,527 votes. And this kind of disparity, far larger than the biggest possible difference under STV, is par for the course for First Past the Post (sorry about the mixed sporting metaphors).

I'm not even really sure what this question is getting at, but if MLA's getting elected with an equal number of voters actually is important, than we should point out that STV is far superior to our current system once again in this area.

Are you starting to notice a pattern yet? When the Know-STV folks feel that First-Past-the-Post has an advantage, they go for a direct comparison of the two systems. But when they think ('know') that STV is superior, they compare STV to some ideal standard like perfect proportionality or MLA's being elected with exactly the same number of votes each. Also note how rarely they are willing to take on a direct comparison - what does that tell you?

OK, next question.

Q: "Does STV allow independent candidates to win seats?"

A: "Not necessarily. Malta has used STV since 1921 but since 1950 not a single independent candidate has been elected. Any candidate requires significant funding to win election and with STV the constituencies will be much bigger, forcing candidates to raise even more money. In a seven-member constituency as proposed for Vancouver, major parties will likely spend $1 million or more in that constituency campaign alone — an amount no independent candidate could possibly raise."

First off, this answer is simply factually inaccurate. Yes, STV *necessarily* *allows* independent candidates to win seats. Even our old First Past the Post system *allows* independents to win seats. More substantively, the Know-STV folks yet again seem to be confused about STV. A 7 member constituency would indeed be much bigger, but there are 7 seats, so an independent only needs to get 1/7 of the votes (technically 1/8th since only 7 people can get more than 1/8 of a total). The parties aren't going to spend any more money *per MLA* than they do right now and an independent won't have to either.

Let me explain why STV is better for independents, something which pretty much everybody (even most STV opponents acknowledge) but which the 'Know-STV' people apparently don't want you to, you know, know.

Under the old system, the only way for an independent candidate to get elected is to win a plurality (get more votes than anyone else) in a specific riding. Under STV, an independent candidate who gets that many votes in one riding will still (with a very high probability) get elected. But in addition, an independent candidate can get a smaller level of support, spread over a wider area. For example, an independent candidate who gets an average of 15% support across one of the big Vancouver ridings would be able to get elected under STV, but would have been shut out under the old system (much like the Green Party was in the last election).

Furthermore, under the old system, many people don't vote for independents because they know the independent has no chance of being elected so they are wasting their vote (or worse by not strategically voting for their favourite party, they may help that party's opponent to get elected). But under STV, voters can vote for an independent knowing that if that candidate gets eliminated, then their vote will be transferred to their second choice, so they don't have to worry about wasted votes and strategic votes.

Next question.

Q: "Would smaller third parties be elected under an STV system?"

A: "Not necessarily. In Malta, which has had STV since 1921, there are only two parties with elected officials. In recent elections the largest third party has won less than 2% of the vote and no seats. In Ireland small parties have won seats but so have smaller parties in BC under First Past The Post, as recently as in 1996."

OK, this is getting tiresome. How about:

Q: Are smaller parties far more likely to be elected under STV than under our current system? A: Yes.

Seriously, if these folks really want you to make an informed choice why are they trying to deny even facts which are blindingly obvious to anyone who takes some time to think about how the two systems work (not to mention clearly documented by almost 100 years of electoral history). First Past the Post is so hostile to small parties that political scientists have formed a 'law', (Duvergers Law) which postulates that First Past the Post naturally leads to a two-party system.

It's simple, STV is more proportional so you need a smaller percentage of the vote to get elected plus it eliminates strategic voting - thus more small parties can be elected and this has been shown pretty clearly in practice. It's true that in Malta small parties don't get elected - because people don't vote for them - and this is a problem because?? OK, moving on.

Q: "Are women elected in larger numbers under STV?"

A: "No. In Malta women make up just 9.2% of the country's legislators, with only 6 women elected out of 65 representatives. In Ireland just 13.3% of elected officials are women."

I've already discuss this at length here, so I won't belabour it any further, but I'll just ask one more time, why, if the 'Know-STV' people want you to truly know STV, would they fail to mention that in the STV-using jurisdiction most similar to Canada (Australia), more women are elected than in B.C. Wouldn't that information be helpful to someone trying to make an informed decision?

Q: "Does STV mean an end to so-called 'wasted votes'"

All right, I'm just warning you, the 'Know-STV' folks really jumped the shark on this one, so this may get lengthy.

A: "If no vote were to be 'wasted' that would mean every voter's candidate of choice would have to win election - it's not possible or sensible."

Actually, it is entirely sensible and possible - in fact that's what proportional representation means. According to the Citizen's Assembly site:
"STV virtually eliminates 'wasted' votes. For example, in a three seat riding, even if a voter's #1 preferred candidate is not elected, there is a good chance her ballot will help her #2 and #3 preferred candidates win a seat. About 16% of ballots don't contribute to electing a candidate."

So STV doesn't eliminate wasted votes entirely like a pure proportional system would, but it reduces the % of wasted votes (from around 40-50% in a typical First Past the Post election) down to 16% - which is pretty good since it means one in four voters who would have someone in the legislature that they voted for under STV where they would have had noone under First-Past-the-Post.

They continue: "Elections are to select which candidate in each constituency has the most support"
Actually that's a definition of the First-Past-the-Post system not 'elections', but it's instructive to see that the Know-STV people think that the First-Past-the-Post method is equivalent to 'elections'.

"...and then which parties across the province have enough support from elected members to form a government.

STV supporters say that by ranking your choice of candidates, the odds are one of your choices will win a seat. But that's a little like saying if you bet on every horse in a horserace, one of your picks will be a winner."

Actually, it's not like that at all. Voters are expressing a preference between who they want to help win the race vs. who they want to lose, not trying to profit from every possible outcome - that's why the ranking is crucial. If you really want an analogy, it's more like saying that if your friends vote down your choice of a pizza with anchovies, egg and corn, you can still have a say in the decision between the vegetarian option and the pepperoni pizza rather than being shut out of the crucial decision because you wanted to be able to express your true preference first.

"And because of the complicated transfer system, you will never know where your vote actually went in electing the MLAs for your constituency."

Wrong again. If your first choice didn't get elected, it's a good bet that your vote got transferred to your second choice, unless the person you voted for was the last one to get eliminated. If your person was the last to get eliminated then your vote didn't get transferred at all. That's tough but console yourself by remembering that if we still used FPTP your vote would *never* get transferred.

Now, if your first choice did get elected, either they were the last one elected in your riding (in which case they got all of your vote and none was transferred) or they weren't the last one elected and they got part of your vote (enough to get elected) and the rest was transferred to your next choice. You can check the result to see how many votes your candidate got compared to how many they needed. The same calculation as before applies. If your candidate got twice as many votes as they needed then they got half your vote and half was transferred to your #2.

So the truth is, if you care to know, it will be easy enough to track where your vote went. It takes a bit more effort than under the current system where - unless you voted for the person who won - you might as well have put your ballot in the trash can as in the voting box, for all the effect it had on the election.

"Under First Past The Post, your vote goes to one candidate and is counted clearly. Regardless of your choice, that's not a wasted vote."

Seriously, why are they even bothering with this nonsense? If my vote had 0 impact on who get elected, it's a wasted vote, end of story. True, you could argue that no vote is wasted because it's important on principle to vote, but the 'know-stv' folks know as well as you and I do that that isn't what we're talking about when we talk about wasted votes. Sheesh.

Q: "What would happen to nominating meetings under an STV system?"

A: "Because STV combines the smaller single member constituencies of our current system into large multi-member constituencies, the likelihood is that special interest groups would dominate the nomination process of political parties even more than today."

Umm, why is that exactly - I'm not following. Wouldn't bigger ridings make it harder for special interests to dominate a nomination meeting. Isn't that logical - the smaller something is, the easier it is for a special interest to dominate it? I'm just asking.

OK, almost finished, I promise:

Q: "What is the short version of what's wrong with STV? Why should I vote no?"

A: "STV is complicated, confusing, prone to errors and delay, it reduces local accountability, increases the size of ridings, allows MLAs to avoid direct accountability for their decisions, increases party control and allows special interests to dominate party nominations."

So here's the big finish. STV is too complicated and confusing (translation BC voters aren't as smart as voters in Malta and Ireland and Tasmania who have been using STV since before the invention of commercial air travel, the automobile or television.)

It's prone to errors and delay (translation: Elections BC is incompetent and can't manage elections as well as the Irish or the Maltans)

It reduces local accountability (never mind that one of the most common criticisms of STV is that it makes MLA's focus too much on local concerns)

It increases the size of ridings (but not the number of voters per MLA - if this is such a big concern we could always just add more MLA's anyway)

It allows MLA's to avoid direct accountability for their decisions (how exactly? - and don't you think that MLA's are more accountable when voters know they can dump the MLA without voting for a different party?)

It increases party control (Actually, no. How much control parties want to have over their MLA's is up to the parties. - If anything, MLA's who go against the party have a better chance of surviving as independents under STV than they would under the old system).

and it allows special interests to dominate nomination meetings (not that there is any evidence of this ever happening anywhere, but the 'know STV' crew have decided that it's true so there you go. Personally I think logic suggests that larger meetings will be less corrupt but that's just me.)

So that's it. It's quite a long list of questions, but somehow they missed the obvious ones. Which system is more proportional? Which system doesn't require strategic voting? What % of Citizen's Assembly members thought STV was superior to First Past the Post? What happened in the two referendums where Irish voters were asked if they wanted to switch away from STV? Which system gives voters more choice? Yeah, I wonder why they didn't ask any of those questions.

Maybe because they didn't want you to 'know' the answers.

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Corporate Profits

Back on January 20, I analyzed a TD Economics study which was complaining that, despite significant increases in GDP/capita, Canadian's after-tax income hadn't increased much in the last 25 years.

I figured that the GDP growth had to be going somewhere and wrote:

"Anyway, the next question is what about the difference between 25.5% growth in GDP/capita and 9.3% growth in after-tax income. Since GDP is a measure of total income for the country, any growth that didn't go to people would have to either go to corporations or to the government. While the study notes this, it doesn't say anything further about the change in corporate income over this period - which seems pretty odd. Maybe corporations caused some of this gap and maybe they didn't, but if figuring out the source of the gap is the point of your study, wouldn't you want to look into it?"

At the time, I didn't really have any data on corporate profits so I left it at that, but I recently ran across the Feb 12-Feb 18 issue of the Economist which had a couple of articles (subscribers only) on corporate profits as a % of GDP. Here are the relevant quotes:

"UBS, a Swiss Bank, estimates that in the G7 economies as a whole, the share of profits in national income has never been higher. The flip side is that labour's share of the cake has never been lower."


"Over the past three years American corporate profits have risen by 60%, wage income by only 10%."

not to mention,

"there is another factor that might have raised the return on capital relative to labour in a lasting way, namely the integration of China and India into the world economy, along with their vast supply of cheap labour. To the extent that this increases the global ratio of labour to capital, it will lift the relative return to capital."

Now to be clear, I have no problem with corporations making profits or even much of a problem with corporate profits increasing as a % of national income (the one drawback being that given the unequal distribution of share ownership, this leads to greater inequality), I'm just putting this out there for the record so when you hear right wing folks blaming high taxes for the low dollar, the high dollar, the lousy weather, the breakdown in family values, the poor quality of television programming and the fact that after tax income hasn't grown at the same rate as GDP growth, you can point out that - at least for that last one - there's more going on than high taxes, and that corporate profits taking a bigger piece of the pie is a big reason why wage growth has been slow in recent years.

As a long term goal going forward, it would be ideal for all members of society to earn income from a mix of wages and share ownership so we could end the artificial divide between owners and workers but that's probably a long way off.

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Sunday, March 20, 2005

Power vs. Principles

note: cross-posted at the e-group

Our electoral system has many problems. I won't go into all of them here, but one of the most fundamental ones is that it gives parties majority control over our government when less than a majority of voters have supported them. Of course, the power to change this problem lies in the hands of the very people who were elected to a majority because of it. As a result, it takes a government of unusual integrity to introduce the possibility of reform in our electoral system. The B.C. Liberal party, four years after seeing the NDP win a majority government in an election (1996) in which the Liberals got more votes than they did, showed this integrity by setting up a Citizen's Assembly to study electoral reform.

Similarly, governments in P.E.I., New Brunswick and Quebec have all been moving down the path towards electoral reform and away from our archaic First Past the Post system. Ontario is the latest province to look at electoral reform, having introduced legislation which would create a 'Citizen's Assembly', based on the B.C. model, to study possible new electoral methods and make recommendations.

In this context of this general progress, it was disappointing to see that the federal Conservative party has abandoned the old Alliance policy of convening a citizen's assembly to study reform. I guess the Conservatives got too close to the bright lights of unfettered majority rule and their populist principles got left by the wayside. Not too surprising, but sad nonetheless.

Still, whether we look at New Zealand or Australia or Scotland or England or just about anywhere really, the trend around the world remains away from First Past the Post and towards better, fairer voting systems which combine local representation with proportional results. In fact, within the OECD club of the 30 most developed nations in the world, only Canada and the U.S. still use First Past the Post for all elections.

And the U.S. kind of makes sense since they have a pretty strict two-party system (First Past the Post is particularly poor in multi-party systems) and because they are so resistant to change of any kind (still use the Imperial system, still use a dollar bill, unwilling to set up independent organization to run elections, etc. etc.). But Canada has no such reasons for being stuck in the past and it's sad to see that the Conservatives have allowed their desire for absolute power to take precedence over giving Canadian voters the option to choose one of the better electoral systems which voters in so many other countries have chosen.

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Saturday, March 19, 2005

What's the Difference?

Imagine for a moment that you are down on your luck financially. You have bills to pay and people depending on you and you just don't have the financial resources to do the things you wish you could. You've been to the banks but they've seen people like you before and they want nothing to do with you. So a friend tells you about a guy they know who deals in special cases. Lends when nobody else will. The catch is that borrowing from this guy isn't like borrowing from a bank. For one thing, if you can't make your payments you can't just declare bankruptcy to make him go away. And for another, if you're having trouble paying this guy back he's likely to come and make some friendly 'suggestions' for how you could do things differently and maybe sell off some of the stuff you own to make your payments. And these suggestions will be backed up by the unspoken threat of the harm which may come to the people who depend on you if you don't follow them.

So here's my question, is the scenario I'm talking about just some guy with a family who doesn't have a job and ends up going to the local loan shark and getting himself in even deeper, or is the scenario really about a poor 'developing' nation that gets lured into borrowing billions of dollars from the World Bank and gets forced into structural adjustments, financial crises or interest payments which exceed their health and education budgets when the loans don't generate the necessary return to repay them.

Which brings me to my second question - is there a difference?

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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Contempt for Science

Jonathan does a good job showing how Margaret Wente got suckered by the global warming skeptics (specifically, mining consultant Steve McIntyre) in today's Globe (available online to ripoff victimssubscribers only).

I just wanted to add a couple of notes of my own to reflect the clear contempt for scientists which the article displays.

Wente suggests that McIntyre can be trusted to be honest because,
"Unlike almost everyone else in the highly charged climate-change debate, Mr. McIntyre has nothing personal at stake. He doesn't need to advance his career or get research grants."

(note to anyone who currently takes any medication: it's probably a bad idea since the scientists who came up with it were probably just trying to advance their career or get research grants).

Perhaps the most absurd comment is from McIntyre when he says, "he is astonished that climate science isn't subject to the same audits and due diligence that are carried out in any ordinary business."

Right, that's what I always hear: those silly scientists with their researched papers and their peer review process and their international panels and conferences. When will they learn to apply the same rigour that business does in coming to conclusions? Seriously, what planet is this guy on (oh right, the one with no global warming).

Later on, we get this:
"But wait. Don't most scientists still believe in the perils of man-made global warming? "Sure," says Mr. McIntyre. "And most stockbrokers believed in Enron."

I'm not really sure what to say here, but if we're comparing the work of scientists studying nature to stockbrokers studying a company which was actively doing it's best to deceive them, well, let's be kind and say it's not the best analogy I've seen lately. (perhaps I should go into more detail explaining why scientists may be a bit more reliable than stockbrokers, but if it's really come to that, I'm probably wasting my time trying to stem the tide of anti-science attitudes).

Finally, another quote from McIntyre,
"He says that most scientists haven't analyzed the data, and that scientists, like everyone else, are subject to peer pressure and groupthink. "Just because everybody thinks something's true doesn't make it true."

'Just because everybody thinks something's true doesn't make it true' - what a great argument. Could someone please point out something, anything which you couldn't use that line to argue against? "Baseball fans, like everyone else are subject to peer pressure and groupthink. Just because everybody thinks that Bonds is a good hitter doesn't mean he is." Give me a break.

Putting it together, Wente is creating the impression of the little guy from the margins taking on the establishment of all these scientists who are just pretending that global warming is serious or believe it only because they haven't taken the time to think about like McIntyre has. And the reason so many scientists have abandoned their principles of seeking the truth and supporting dissent is because they are just saying what they think people want to hear so that they get money for their grants or advance their career.

If I was a scientist of any kind, I'd be pretty offended by this attitude. And that's even without considering the track record of McIntyre which, to put it politely, isn't too convincing. Go read Jonathan's post, follow the links and see for yourself.

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Academic Standards

Just in case you needed (yet) another reason not to believe anything you read from the right wing nuts in the U.S., check out this story of how David Horowitz, known for his fight to avoid (anti-conservative) bias in Academia, just made stuff up to support his case and it was repeated faithfully by lots of media outlets. Horowitz admitted that one of his more powerful stories,
"appears to be wrong," and that "our presentation of this case appears now to have had several faults." Horowitz made the concession in an article posted on, his online magazine, on March 15, under the headline, "Correction: Some of Our Facts Were Wrong, But Our Point Was Right."

Actually David, I think maybe you're missing the point.

Update: Timmy at Voice in the Wilderness goes into more detail on this topic, and does well to link to the extensive writings of the Canadian Cynic on Horowitz and co. which can be found: here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

And people say I'm cynical!

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The Institutionalized Centre for International and Canadian Studies of Public Policy Development

"I was walking down the street
When I thought I heard this voice say
Say, ain't we walking down the same street together
On the very same day
I said hey senorita that's astute
I said why don't we get together
And call ourselves an institute"

Observant readers will have noticed that I have added a second dropdown box to the sidebar, this one listing a number of Canadian think-tanks. To honour the occasion (and to add to my extremely meagre store of knowledge on the subject) I decided to take a brief look at think-tanks in Canada.

I probably had think-tanks on my mind after reading Tim's post at 'Pints of Drivel', on a 'This Magazine' story that compared the total annual funding for some 'progressive' and 'conservative' tanks:

c - conservative, p - progressive

Fraser Institute - c- $6.4
Public Policy Forum - c - $3
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) - p - $2.87
Institute for Research on Public Policy - p - $2.83
Canadian Policy Research Networks - p - $2.7
C.D. Howe Institute - c - $2.4
The North-South Institute - p - $2.2
Canada West Foundation - c - $1.9
Caledon Institute of Social Policy - p - $1.1
Montreal Economic Institute - c - $0.825

Looking at the list you can see that the Fraser Institute dwarfs the others in funding with more than double the funding of the CCPA, the highest funded progressive Tank. But reading through a report on Think Tanks from the Institute on Governance (IOG) (itself a think tank) I came across this quote,
"In Canada, according to recent estimates, there are something in the order of 50 organizations that could qualify as think tanks, with a collective budget of roughly 77 million. These range in size from Conference Board of Canada, whose $23 million annual budget and 118-member staff put it in a league of its own, to the tiny Pearson-Shoyama Institute with a mere $150,000 to spend."

Now that report was written in 2001, and since then the annual revenue for the Conference Board has risen to $29 million (according to their annual report) and who knows how many more think tanks have been founded. I've only linked to what seemed to be the more prominent ones in my dropdown box, but a more complete list can be found at

In case you're wondering about this Conference Board which seems to account for over a quarter of all think tank revenue in Canada, it was founded in 1954 as a branch plant of the New York - based National Industrial Conference Board and became a separate Canadian entity in 1980. It's mission is to
"build leadership capacity for a better Canada by creating and sharing insights on economic trends, public policy and organizational performance."
(Aside: You can tell they're serious by the fact that they have correctly made use of both a vision statement and a mission statement). Plus, if you're looking to jump into the tank, they seem to be doing a lot of hiring (or maybe they just don't update their job list too often - I hate it when companies do that).

At any rate, there's lots of think tanks in Canada, and if you visit some of their websites, you quickly realize that they are all fairly similar. Some hold conferences, many have some sort of regular publication, they almost all have mailing lists you can subscribe to, they all would like you to contribute money to them and they all regularly produce lots of reports (publications as they like to call them).


So we've identified some of the bigger players in the Canadian think tank game, but let's step back a moment, and think about what a think tank actually is and why it exists.

Broadly speaking, it's seems as though think-tanks have one (or both) of two main goals:

1) To make money by selling research/conference policy expertise and
2) To influence public policy decisions

The overlap and potential conflict between these two goals seems to be an issue that think-tanks take seriously as most of them make strong claims to be non-partisan and independent and not beholden to those who pay the bills so that they just write/say what their financial backers want people to hear. For example, the first three points that the Conference Board makes in its self-portrait is that:

"We are:

* We are (sic) a not-for-profit Canadian organization that takes a business-like approach to its operations.
* Objective and non-partisan. We do not lobby for specific interests.
* Funded exclusively through the fees we charge for services to the private and public sectors."

Still with the broad-speak, think tanks generally seem to take two approaches to meeting their goals:

1) Targeting business and political leaders directly
2) Targeting the general population via the media

According to the IOG report,
"One academic interviewed said in all seriousness that some institutes measure their success by the number of mentions they get in the Globe and Mail"

The biggest concern I have with think tanks, and I'm guessing I'm not alone here, is that on the one hand, the think tank can be seen to be just providing a service to a market of people who have an interest in getting an expert opinion on policy issues. But on the other hand, think tanks often seem to be funded based on donations and foundations for the purpose of furthering the policy objectives of the people doing the funding. Which is fine, and not particularly different from how political parties are funded in many jurisdictions, but it does raise the prospect of policy being, to an extent, auctioned off to the group which contributes the most money to hire the most experts to write the most reports to feed to the most media to influence the most people to influence the most politicians.

Which, depending on the civic-mindedness of the wealthy members of society, could lead to a skew in favour of policies which favour the wealthy who have more money to buy policy with. Obviously there's nothing new to what I'm saying, I'm just pointing out that think tanks are one more area where we need to work to preserve a balanced market of ideas, and one more reason why democracy doesn't function well alongside huge disparities in wealth.

On a lighter note, I was somewhat surprised to find out that think tanks qualify as registered charities2. Apparently offering opinions on public policy issues is charitable work, so I've been doing more charitable work lately than I thought. Which brings me to my next section: If a think tank is just a bunch of people who write down their ideas about politics on a website, how does it differ from a blog?

Blog vs. Think Tank

Clearly there are some obvious differences in terms of total revenue, number of people on staff and the average level of prestige of 'tankers' vs. 'bloggers' but what I'm more interested in here is the differences in approach towards analysis of public policy between think tanks and political blogs.


This is the one area where political blogs and think tanks are similar in that they both have influencing policy as a primary goal. In addition they both focus on the media as a tool for getting their message across. One difference is that, while both groups share the goal (mostly) of generating revenue, this is more of a realistic goal at present for most think tanks whereas for the vast majority of blogs generating revenue is a pretty remote possibility which doesn't really influence their approach in any way.

Policy / Politics:

Most (all?) think tanks draw a pretty strict line between policy and politics and try to refrain from crossing over into talking about partisan politics. A cynic might suggest that this is just because they want to be able to sell their services to as many parties as possible but it's more likely due to the fact that much of the value of a think tank's work is ostensibly derived from its objectivity, so to meddle in politics would call into question the value of every report and piece of advice the tank produces.

Meanwhile blogs happily mix policy and politics all the time with some blogs being overtly partisan while others will support whichever politician/party is taking what they consider to be the right approach on a particular issue. Either way, there are few bloggers who will hesitate to offer a positive or negative opinion of any party or politician.

Community / Linkages:

While the term blogosphere is an awkward one, there's no doubt that blogs form a community in some ways. Many of the commenters on blogs are people who have their own blogs, most blogs link to a number of other blogs, blog posts almost always provide links to whatever it is they are talking about, and many bloggers join together into blogging groups or clubs.

By contrast, think tanks are striking in their attempt to seemingly pretend that all the other think tanks do not exist. Whereas you can't spend 5 minutes reading a blog without being reminded of the existence of other blogs (either by a link or a reference or a comment or whatever), you could spend hours surfing the website of just about any think tank without ever being made aware that the particular tank whose site you're on is not the only one in existence. Not only that, but think tanks have also been quite slow to adopt the approach of providing links within their reports to the things they refer to.


Some think tanks have online forums on their site, and there is the odd poll, but I have yet to see one that allows comments on its reports or which asks readers for help with questions the 'tankers' might have. In short, blogs are a lot more interactive than think tanks.

Writing Style:

Think tanks tend to be written in a somewhat academic style whereas blogs are much less formal although of course this varies from blog to blog. In practice this means that when a think tank writer wants to refer to something they said before they write something like: 'Previous studies have shown that yada yada yada (author et al, 2004)' and when a blogger wants to do the same thing, they generally write something like: 'like I already said back in December', with a link to the original post.

Another difference is that think tanks tend to go in for thoroughly (or at least moderately) researched 'reports' of significant (5000 words plus) length while blog posts vary from reasonably long to brief summaries of issues to one sentence links to other items of interest and the level of research varies wildly both from blog to blog and from post to post within a given blog.

And of course, think tanks generally try to maintain a tone of objectivity (even when they're being anything but) while bloggers tend to wear their opinions and biases on their sleeves.

Topics Covered:

While they often cover a pretty wide range of topics, think tanks pretty consistently stay on topic, where the topic is public policy issues. Unlike in (generally) political blogs, you are unlikely to learn anything about think tank members jazz collections, sports team preferences, vacation plans etc. by following the think tank website. Of course some blogs try to hold the line, but even they find themselves slipping from time to time.

Product Range:

In addition to producing reports, many think tanks generate revenues by holding conferences and also perform work on contract for government and business. By comparison blogs are generally limited to their online writings in terms of products on offer.

Name Length:

After trying to squeeze all the think tank names into my sidebar I couldn't let this go. Blogs (even this one) generally have shorter names than think tanks. In addition, blog names are much less likely to include the words 'institute', 'policy', 'public', 'international', 'centre', or 'development'.

Actually, after comparing blogs and think tanks, I'm a bit surprised there isn't more interaction between them. Certainly the think tanks could learn from blogs in building a better community, making better use of links, allowing more interactivity, and writing shorter, less formal pieces which are more accessible to the general public rather than relying on friendly reporters to columnize their work. For their part, blogs could benefit from the expertise of think tanks, the research and statistical analysis they can perform, and the thoroughness with which they address a topic.


I realize I haven't gone into much detail on any of the Canadian think tanks but there's just so many that the prospect is a little daunting. I think an interesting way to compare the various tanks would be to take a fairly high profile issue that many of the tanks have addressed (e.g. Kyoto Accord, The Budget, Child Care, etc.) and compare their approach, what conclusions they reach and how they reached those conclusions. Another day perhaps.

>1 From 'Gumboots' on Paul Simon's 'Graceland' album.

2 Since most think tanks are charitable organizations, you can look them up here. (via Darren Barefoot).

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Sunday, March 13, 2005

Heavy Snow

No that's not a description of the weather here in Vancouver where the cherry trees are in full blossom and I haven't needed a jacket (never mind a toque) for weeks now. What I'm referring to is the feeling I get sometimes trying to write a blog while watching hundreds of interesting stories and any number of bad arguments in need of correction, as well an uncountable list of topics that could benefit from further investigation pass by every single day while I'm lucky if I can find the time/energy/insight/wit/etc. to comment on more than a couple a week. It puts me in the mind of someone trying to catch all the flakes in a heavy snowfall by running around with their tongue sticking out.


Jonathan over at No More Shall I Roam, has managed to catch a couple of good sized flakes recently, one being this post which provides the best summary/context surrounding the recent Mercer Consulting Report which ranked Canadian cities highly for their 'livability' that I've yet seen, whether in the papers or in blogs, and the other being this post from a week back (yeah, I'm slow) which provides a great look at some of the science behind global warming concerns and also explains why the earth is warmer than the moon (in case you were wondering).

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Dropdown Menus Are on the March

I've been wanting to add some more links to the site - specifically to some more sources of information such as the media, government, think tanks, statscan, etc, but my sidebar is already pretty lengthy so I decided to put them in dropdown boxes (but don't worry, I will still continue to spell blog 'b-l-o-g' and not 'b-l-a-h-g'). The reason I mention this is to invite anyone who has suggestions for information sources to either email me or post a comment somewhere.

For now, the first list I've added is one for the websites for the (national) political parties. In visiting all the party sites (in order to get the url's) I noticed that while all the parties from the Bloc & Greens on down seem fairly focussed on policy, the Liberal, Conservative and NDP sites all look more like leadership cults than political parties at first glance. Kind of disturbing.

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Friday, March 11, 2005

The New Spell Checking

So I was checking the referring url's to my site (i.e. the last page people were at before they came here) and I noticed a bunch of google searches for 'Jetsgo' which surprised me because my site doesn't rank too high on a search for 'Jetsgo'. I followed the link to the referring sites and realized that it was in fact a search for 'Jestgo' which was leading people to my site (I'm #2 on that one).

Apparently when I first posted about Jetsgo back in December, I misspelled it as 'Jestgo' and I'm not the only one who is prone to that mistake. I'm guessing that this isn't what people mean when they talk about the 'self-correcting blogosphere'.

At any rate, I'm always looking for ways to build traffic so perhaps this could be a workable strategy. Keep an eye out for lots of mentions of Bombradier, Notrel and Air Canaad in the near future.

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Thursday, March 10, 2005

Snake Eyes

Well, I rolled the dice a couple of weeks ago by booking a flight with Jetsgo to take advantage of the voucher they gave me after my last disastrous flight with them, and it looks like the dice came up with a pair of 1's as, Jetsgo has declared bankruptcy with all flights grounded immediately.

It's hardly a huge surprise, but I feel for the people who were supposed to be flying with Jetsgo today or tomorrow - that would be a real pain. For me, I just lose (I'm assuming - I'm not really too familiar with what happens when an airline declares bankruptcy and it's not one of the big airlines which just carries on like normal) have to try and get a refund from my credit card company for my reduced Jetsgo fare, and have to book a flight at normal prices. Still, it would have been nice if they could have hung in there for another month or two. Sigh.

You know if Canada 3000 hadn't gone and bought Royal Airlines a few years back, this never would have happened. Is there any industry with worse management than the airline industry - OK, besides the NHL?

Note: Updated to reflect the most likely route to getting my money back.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

OK, I lied

I know I said I wouldn't say anything else about the budget, but given that one of the last things I wrote was:
"Where I feared that the distant plans actually would be implemented, most [everybody else] derided the government for even making such unlikely to be implemented plans. I guess we'll see how things go over the next few years.",
I couldn't pass up mentioning Jeffrey Simpson's recent column (overpriced subscription only) in the Globe in which he says,
"Only a prime minister with a fierce will, or a sharply different ideology, could adjust, let alone shatter, the iron framework of spending set by the 2005 budget."

And while I think his conclusion that,
"Politics will be about debates at the margin of things, or about value-laden social issues that don't cost money, because the cupboard for years to come has already been stripped bare."
is a bit over the top, if the next few budgets keep adding on another 5 years worth of spending/tax cut increases each, he may not be too far off. Anyway, I was starting to doubt my own reaction after it turned out to be such a minority opinion so it's nice to see a similar opinion offerred up by someone who's been following this stuff way longer than I have.

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Monday, March 07, 2005

That's All Very Well, But What do the CEO's Think?

The National Post is in fine form today, getting in a front page headline from the leader of the opposition American ambassador and also getting in one of their favourite items: a poll of CEO's which just happens to suit their political agenda (of course, since their agenda is to convince you the reader to do what CEO's want, these are fairly easy to come by - longtime readers will remember when I mentioned the Post asking CEO's opinions about pot).

As I recall, the National Post is supposedly undergoing some sort of revamp and, while I'm skeptical that the ever-money-losing Post was ever vamped in the first place, I'm always willing to help. Given that the Post considers it important for us to get the CEO-take on the issue of the day, perhaps the Post should adopt an Onion-style, 'What Do You Think' segment which could sit above the table of contents on the front page, where the six people asked are all CEO's.

Or perhaps it would make more sense for the Post to take advantage of our CEO's varying areas of expertise and get personal commentary from them in their particular areas of interest. I was thinking that John Roth, former CEO of Nortel could talk about business ethics and personal responsibility.

Meanwhile Frank Stronach could talk about democracy.

And I'm sure we could dig up someone from the Aspers to talk about media concentration and freedom of speech.

Plus, I'm guessing that George Eaton should have some free time to offer up advice on business strategy.

And of course Ted Rogers can talk about the virtues of free market competition and how it helped build his cable empire.

Now that I might actually pay to read.

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Sunday, March 06, 2005

This and That

Over at Polspy, Sean asked the question, "Is it possible to be a Conservative and an environmentalist at the same time, or are the two mutually exclusive?" and got some interesting (and some silly) replies.

My favourite came from Ray who said,
"Of course it is possible to be conservative and an environmentalist, as easily is it is to be conservative and gay, though Scott Brison might disagree with me. ...

[big chunk omitted - go read his comment in full] ...

Grizzlies are in an endangered state, eagles are being butchered for cash, but the single most contentious issues in Ottawa are whether or not gays will be allowed to marry or whether Canada will support a program it is already in to help the Americans shoot rockets that don't fly to defend us against missiles that don't exist.

It's wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong."

My personal opinion, as I commented, is that if we're talking big C Conservative (i.e. the political party not the philosopy) then it is possible, but they sure aren't making it easy.


Meanwhile, at Crooked Timber, John Quiggin has a thoughtful post up on the general trend towards democracy over the last 50 years and how the invasion of Iraq may have impacted it.


And finally, something I was not only slow in posting about, I was even slow in linking to Pogge when he posted about, was a pair of columns in the Toronto Star by Thomas Walkom about the erosion of civil liberties and the privacy of our information in this post 9/11 security legislation environment. Both are worth a read, unless you prefer to remain in a good mood, in which case give them a pass.

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Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Conservative Media - Part 2

Since I'm on the topic of media bias, I thought I'd go back and take a look at the one good information source I know of regarding media bias in Canada: the Observatory on Media and Public Policy, based out of McGill University, which tracked reporting in 7 newspapers during last year's Federal election.

If you like going to the source, I recommend downloading the spreadsheet (link at the site) with the nuts and bolts of their analysis.

(Aside: If you'd prefer to read a really dull, myopic viewpoint of the election campaign as it unfolded, I recommend reading the discussion from their 'roundtable' of pundits.)

During the campaign there were 2,113 articles written about the election in the 5 English newspapers studied (The Calgary Herald, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, the Toronto Star and the Vancouver Sun).

Of those 2113, 1,711 (81%) mentioned the Liberal party. Out of those 1,711, there were 34 (2%) with positive mentions of the Liberal party and 342 (20%) with negative mentions of the Liberals, giving a 10 to 1 ratio of negative mentions to positive.

Meanwhile, for the Conservative Party, the figures were 1592 (75%) total articles, including 82 (5%) positive mentions and 159 (10%) negative mentions, for a roughly 2:1 ratio of negative to positive.

The NDP garnered (4%) positive mentions and 7% negative mentions, while the Bloc had the most favourable(!) coverage of any party from the English language papers at 4% positive, 5% negative (although they were only mentioned in 15% of stories).

Of course there may be any number of explanations for these results including the media rooting for the underdog, the media following poll shifts, a general unwillingness to praise the governing party, poorly/well run campaigns and so on. Still, it seems hard to say that media bias was anything but harmful to the Liberals.

It's interesting to look at the numbers by newspaper:

The Calgary Herald mentioned the Liberals in 76% of its election articles, with 0%(!) containing positive mentions, and 23% containing negative mentions (note: they did have one article with a positive mention, but it still rounded down to 0%).
Meanwhile they mentioned the Conservatives in 77% of their articles, of which 8% had positive mentions and 4% had negative mentions.

Globe and Mail: Mentioned Liberals (85%), positive 1%, negative 17%
Mentioned Conservatives (75%), positive 2%, negative 11%

National Post: Mentioned Liberals (81%), positive 1%, negative 35%(!)
Mentioned Conservatives (69%), positive 13%, negative 4%

Toronto Star: Mentioned Liberals (85%), positive 4%, negative 15%
Mentioned Conservatives (79%), positive 2%, negative 19%

Vancouver Sun: Mentioned Liberals (77%), positive 1%, negative 15%
Mentioned Conservatives (76%), positive 4%, negative 10%

Together, the Herald, Post, Sun and Globe combined to write 1305 articles about the Liberals with a grand total of 11 including positive mentions. Meanwhile the Post and Herald alone combined for 55 articles with positive mentions of the Conservatives.

So what does it all mean? - well, not a whole lot without having more elections to study, but next time you hear someone say how the media were out to get the Conservatives you may want to have a little chuckle. Also, you can see just how far out in bias land the Herald and the Post are while the Globe and Sun were closer to the Centre (although still anti-Liberal). Of all the papers, the Star was the closest to having equally negative coverage for both the Liberals and Conservatives, but it did have a slight pro-Liberal lean (vs. the Conservatives).

There's lots more info in the spreadsheet such as a breakdown by issue ('Accountability' got by far the most press, followed by Health Care, Social Issues, Tax Cuts and finally International Issues), a breakdown by type of coverage (52% horserace, 43% issues, 4% other - how sad is that?) and a daily tracking of all the articles (not to mention the raw data itself in case you feel like doing your own analysis.)

If only there were more of this kind of data available...

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Right Wing Media Bias, The Irony of it All

Great column (behind the subscriber wall) by Lawrence Martin in the Globe today.

He starts by contrasting the media reaction to the recent Missile Defense pullout to both the media reaction in the 1980's when Mulroney said no to Star Wars, and to popular opinion (which is against the Missile Defense plan).

"The media, to the tune of about 90 per cent, ripped the Martin government to pieces over its decision to reject Washington's missile-defence plan. The people went the other way; they favoured the decision in polls by a 20-per-cent margin, which, in political terms, is a landslide.

Flashback to the mid-1980s. Like today's Liberals, the Mulroney government said no to Ronald Reagan's Star Wars. The people applauded and, unlike today, there was no collective media hissy fit."

This leads him into a convincing argument that, while the Canadian population remains largely centre-left, our newsprint media has moved well to the right.

"The journalism culture underwent dramatic change in the mid-1990s when the country's biggest newspaper chain, centrist-leaning Southam, changed hands. The media empire is now owned by CanWest Global, which makes no secret of its pro-American, conservative tilt."


"Another big change from the days of liberal media came with the continuing expansion of the conservative tabloid Sun chain to become Canada's second-biggest newspaper group."


"National newspapers are major agenda-setters, both for print media and television. Canada has two. One, the National Post, is firmly on the right; the other, The Globe and Mail, is slenderly conservative.

The portsiders can always boast of having the Toronto Star. But even it pummelled the Martin government on missile defence, and some see the paper as moving to the centre. At Maclean's, a former editor of the National Post is now taking charge. At Policy Options, formerly a very liberal magazine, two former cronies of Mr. Mulroney run the show."

Martin really nails how the right-wing papers are out of touch with the population in their 'don't make dad angry or we'll all get grounded' coverage of Canada-U.S. affairs,

"On missile defence, the media tone was remarkably hostile. The issue was examined not so much on the basis of what Canadians think but on what the Bush administration would think. It was as if — after 138 years of existence — we were still strapped down to a client-state mentality wherein the driving imperative was approval from a higher authority."

So I'm wondering. Do people with centre-left views just prefer to read right wing papers? Or does a vastly higher percentage of right wing folks buy newspapers vs. centre-left folks?

Or maybe there's a market out there for more centre-left journalism (perhaps it's not so surprising the Star has the biggest circulation in the country) but the newspapers are willing to sacrifice the profits they could make by filling it because it doesn't suit their owner's agenda - which would be more than a little ironic since one of the main agendas they're pushing is that government shouldn't interfere in markets because pursuit of profit leads to the greatest good rather than pursuit of principle.

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