Crawl Across the Ocean

Thursday, December 29, 2005

How to Deal

I am a longtime fan of pretty much any kind of game you can imagine and that holds true for game shows on television as well. So I know what I'm talking about when I say that 'Deal or No Deal' has to count as one of the stupidest, most mindless game shows ever invented.

Luckily, the Canadian Cynic is not impressed either and links to a couple of reviews, one of which provides the following summary of the game: "Here's how 'Deal works. The contestant faces 26 exotic models, each of them holding a closed briefcase containing preset incremental amounts, from a penny to $1, $100, $100,000, and $1 million. The player picks one briefcase, which remains unopened and will be his or her prize. Then, he or she chooses other briefcases to be opened, and by a process of elimination tries to guess how much is in his or her own briefcase. Meanwhile, a 'banker' hidden in the shadows of the show's garish set, phones [the host] with low-money offers, hoping the contestant will take the offer instead of what's inside the briefcase."

Presumably the next step is a game where the contestant repeatedly flips a coin and we anxiously await the outcome. Couldn't they have at least found a way to work in putting or whammies, or something?

I'll give the final word to Barry Garron, writing in the Hollywood Reporter, "That [Deal or No Deal] has been a hit in 35 nations, as NBC claims in a press release, reveals that there are more international threats than terrorism and global warming"

P.S. And I didn't even mention the host, Howie Mandel. Grim stuff.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Local Politics

The closest I've come to politics in the last week was almost running into Stephen Harper (he's more agile than he looks!) at a campaign stop in Byron (outside London), so I don't have anything too topical to say about the election.

Now back in Peterborough for the holidays, my only thought is that this will be a tough riding to predict the outcome in. The next door neighbours were ignored when they went car shopping at the dealership of the Conservative candidate so it looks like Conservative votes could be thin on the ground in our particular neighbourhood, but with popular long time incumbent Peter Adams retiring and the Liberal candidate relatively unknown, it should be a tight race unless there is a big shift in the polls in the next few weeks.

Anyway that's enough politics for Christmas Eve, Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Blocking the Box

So I made it back from being in New York (pictured above) on business, but tomorrow it's time to head to Ontario for some Christmas holidays. So this month is going to be pretty much a write-off when it comes to blogging, I might get some in over the holidays, but I'm not making many promises.

Coming back after missing a week, it doesn't seem like too much has happened. If I get a chance I'd like to respond to Ian's comments on proportional representation. Also, I have a post on child care that needs finishing.

But for now, something occurred to me while reading Paul Wells' criticism of the post-leader's debate coverage. Says Wells,
"What nobody in Canada said last night:

"Gee, now that I've watched four men for two hours discussing the future of a country that spans a continent, I sure hope the reporters in Vancouver can interrogate them about the debate format."


Folks, King Kong opened on Wednesday night. Peter Jackson spent $200 million and took two years to produce an unprecedented spectacle of thrills and chills for the whole family. I've got this nutty idea that just about everyone who is obsessed with spectacle was out watching King Kong last night. I suspect very few people said, "Y'know, I'm going to stay home and watch the leaders' debate. I think that's gonna be waaay more of a thrill-ride. I just hope they let Paul Martin interrupt Jack Layton! My night will be ruined if the debate format is boring!"

Now I certainly agree with the sentiment that it would be nice if reporters focussed more on the issues and less on trivialities like the format of the debate, but I think that Wells is missing the bigger picture, which is that inane post-debate questions by journalists are just the icing on an entire cake of superficiality and style over substance.

I could mock (as Wells does in an earlier post) the endless quest for the knockout punch, the concern over who sounds or looks Prime Ministerial, the worries over whose makeup was poorly done or who sounds like a nagging schoolteacher or a used car salesman, or angry or defensive or whatever, but this is one lost cause I don't feel like fighting.

It's been years since Marshall McLuhan explained to us the basic concepts here about how what matters is less what is said but more how the message is delivered, and years also since Neil Postman helped explain what kind of message television sends, regardless of what channel you are on, and I think we've all seen enough television ourselves to know instinctively that it's not just some fluke that people refer to television as the 'boob tube' or the 'idiot box'.

Television provides passive entertainment - that's all it does. It doesn't matter what questions the journalists ask, or whether they ask questions at all. Further, it doesn't matter what the leader's say. I've heard lots of people say that you can read how a debate is going better with the sound off and I think that this is probably true.

To the extent that someone decides who to vote for based on a debate, they are likely falling into what Malcolm Gladwell describes in 'Blink' as the 'Warren Harding' error. Harding was an unremarkable man who, in Gladwell's retelling, became President almost solely based on the fact that he looked like a President - with historians now classifying him as one of the worst presidents ever.

Of course Harding was president before the era of television, but the point is that people's instincts can fail them if they make decisions based on appearance and my point is that in the world of television, appearances are all that matter.

Later on in Blink, Gladwell talks about auditions for symphony positions and how they are now done using 'blind' auditions where the selecting judges can't see the person auditioning. It is only since the advent of this method that women have started to be hired by symphonies. And this historical inequality was not purely down to conscious prejudice, it turns out that the combination of seeing a woman playing, combined with a subconscious judgement about the relative merits of male vs. female players actually made the female players sound worse to the judges, even in a case where the woman auditioning had already played in the symphony as a temporary fill-in in the past.

So my point is that, if we accept that we should have televised leaders debates and that we should allow television advertising for political parties, then we have already accepted that voting decisions should be based on sound-bites and appearances and trivialities (footballs, hairnets, screams, etc.) Worrying at this point about whether the journalists are asking stupid questions is akin to the proverbial worrying about poorly arranged deck chairs on the titanic.

Post Script: One piece of advice I've seen a few times with regards to writing fiction is 'Resist the urge to explain' and I try to follow that rule on the blog as well, but I'm going to break it here, just cause I feel like it.

The title to the post refers literally to the picture at the top of the post where the white van is stuck on the cross-hatched part of the intersection (the box) directly underneath one of New York's ubiquitous 'Don't Block the Box!' signs.

Applying the same words to a different concept, the post title is also referring to the idea that we should block television (the box) from being a factor in politics by keeping politics off TV as much as possible.

And applying the same concept to different words, the post title also refers to how my 'traffic' of work trips and vacations is blocking 'traffic' in the other direction such as writing blog posts.

Anyway, I figured that was all cryptic enough that it might be worth explaining.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

On the Road

I will be out of town this week, so it's pretty unlikely that I'll post anything before Friday. I feel relatively comfortable that there won't be any big moves in the polls while I'm gone:

Election 2004:

Liberals 37
Conservatives 30
NDP 16
Bloc 12
Green 4

Last poll (SES, December 9):

Liberals 39 (+2)
Conservatives 30 (no change)
NDP 15 (-1)
Bloc 11 (-1)
Green 4 (no change)

(via nodice)

Just the 3.2% margin of error alone would almost make you expect the results to be more different from the 2004 election - even if the poll had been randomly sampled from actual votes in the 2004 election!

See you in a week.

The $40 Billion Child Care Plan

(continued from this post, and this one)

After discussing the Conservative "child care plan", the last post left off with the question: If we accept, for the sake of argument, that we want the federal government to have a child care program, what form should it take and how large a financial commitment should it be?

First of all, I don't think anyone is recommending that the Federal
government get into the business of building child care centres or running child care programs itself. And if they are, they're crazy, so let's rule that out.

So that leaves us with the question of whether funding should be given directly to parents or given to the provinces.

My personal preference would be to approach this the same way we approach other social services delivered by the provinces but partially funded by the federal government. That is, the federal government would take a look at spending levels across the country, commit to providing funding equivalent to, say, 25% of what the average province spends, create a targeted Child Care transfer, and then perhaps attach a few conditions to this transfer.

One condition for sure would be to make sure that provinces aren't just taking the federal child care money and then cutting back what they spend on child care and using the money freed up for tax cuts, or the health system or whatever. The other conditions could set certain standards that provinces would have to maintain in order to keep their funding.

The one advantage of giving money to parents directly would be that there is no risk of the provinces 'clawing back' the money the federal government is trying to direct towards child care but, given the lack of federal expertise in child care, I don't think it wise for them to do an 'end-run' around the provinces to fund child care directly1.

As I understand it (and details are hard to come by), the Liberals $40 billion child care plan involves giving money to the provinces with some strings attached. What? You haven't heard about the $40 billion plan? Well initially, it was $5 billion for 5 years, with the annual amount rising each year until it hit $1.2 billion / year but when the Conservatives announced a (not really) child care plan worth $10.9 billion over 5 years the Liberals got $$$ envy and upped their offer to $11B over 10 years adding 5 more years at $1.2 billion each. So, to avoid looking foolish in case the plan is extended further, I have simply assumed a Liberal plan of $1.2B/year, and carried it forward to infinity, discounting it 3% every year to adjust for inflation. When you do the math, the net present value of the plan works out to $40 Billion. So the $40 billion plan it is. But I digress.

With Paul Martin's characteristic (and unwise in my opinion) asymmetrical federalism approach, the Liberals are crafting individual deals with each province to give them money for Child Care. Here's a quote from a summary of the agreement in principle between Ontario and the Federal government back in May:

"Martin, Federal Social Development Minister Ken Dryden and Ontario Children and Youth Services Minister Marie Bountrogianni were at a Hamilton day care on Friday to present the $1.9-billion agreement.

"Today is a day that shows why politics matter," Dryden said.

The deal follows similar agreements with Saskatchewan and Manitoba last week.

Among the remaining provinces, Quebec and Alberta have so far opted out of the new day-care scheme, saying they don't want the federal government to dictate to them how to spend the money. But Martin said that the agreement moved the country "significantly closer to fulfilling a shared vision for early learning and child care."

Under Friday's deal, the federal government would transfer an additional $272 million to Ontario in 2005, $253 million in 2006 and about $450 million annually for the following three years.

Bountrogianni said the money would make a huge difference in day-care spending for Ontario.

Bountrogianni said the federal funds would be spent on phase one of the province's Best Start Program.

That initiative would subsidize before- and after-school care for junior and senior kindergarten students.

So it seems like the Liberals are trying at least somewhat to dictate how the money is spent (based on the reactions from Alberta and Quebec), but I don't see any details on what it is they might be dictating, so it's hard to comment one way or another, other than to note that the plan is lacking a lot in the transparency department.

So besides trying to ensure that the provinces don't just take the money and spend it on something else entirely (like tax cuts or health care) what conditions might the Federal government be placing on the money given to the provinces. What conditions, if any, should they place on the money?

This question is a reminder that, through all I've written on child care so far, I haven't really addressed the question of what a good government child care program would look like. Mostly, I've just been talking generally about the concept of federal involvement in an area of provincial jurisdiction. So the time has come to look at specifics of child care programs, using the existing provincial programs as examples to see what makes sense and what doesn't.

Next post, that is.

To be continued...

1I realize that this isn't a exactly a watertight argument, but regardless of whether the Feds are giving money to parents directly or giving money to the provinces with conditions, they will face the same questions about what kind of system they are trying to create with that money, so it is not really a crucial point anyway.

Trust Me...

...when I say that over at Stageleft, Balbulican has an interesting post on different types of trust and why the Liberals have more of one and the Consevatives have more of another.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Child Care and Bingo Subsidies

In an earlier post, I explained why I thought the best thing for the
federal government to do on the child care front was to leave it in the hands of the provinces to deal with. So I have to say that I appreciate the Conservative commitment to not having a federal child care program.

However, I should mention that, while the Conservative party has no child care plan, they do have an economic incentive program which they are calling a child care program (somewhat brazenly, given that it is no more a child care program than increasing the Old Age Security payment would be a bingo industry subsidy program).

I'm no econometrician, but I'm guessing that if you walked up to any family on the street and gave them $1,200, the percentage of that $1,200 they spent on child care would be pretty small (probably in line with child care spending as a percent of total spending for families, whatever that is (if I had to guess I'd say 10-15%).

But since the Conservatives are calling it a child care plan, and since some credulous people are treating it as if it is one, I might as well talk a bit about their economic incentive program. Alas, it is not nearly as well thought out as their (nonexistant) child-care plan. Anyway, the plan is to provide families with an incentive to have children (in particular, young children). They will do this by giving families $1,200 ever year for every child under 6 that they have, a plan which is estimated to cost just shy of $2 billion / year.

Because the $1,200 will be taxed at the rate of the lower income earner in couples, there is an additional incentive for families to have one parent (likely the mother, in most cases) stay home with the kids. For example, a family with one person earning $120,000 and one person earning $0 will get $1,200 while a family with two people earning $60,000 will probably get around $750 or so (consult a tax economist for exact details).

Alert readers who have been exposed to lots of right-wing arguments might protest that 'I thought Conservatives hated this kind of blatant social engineering?' but they should be assured that while conservatives are indeed opposed to social engineering, social reverse-engineering is AOK.

I guess if you are concerned about who is going to pay for your retirement or you are one of those Conservatives who lays awake at night worrying about how the Western world is losing the demographic battle vs. the unwashed hordes and is doomed then a baby bonus could be considered a logical idea, but calling it a child care plan seems a little phony. If you think we should have a baby bonus call it a baby bonus and defend the need for it. Personally, given Canada's continued poor record on child poverty and growing inequality, I'd rather see the money go to an increased Child Tax Benefit which would do more to help the children who really need it.

But enough about the Conservatives, the other major parties have all committed to an actual child care plan which provides money specifically for providing care for children1. So if we accept, for the sake of argument, that we want the federal government to have a child care program, what form should it take and how large a financial commitment should it be?

To Be Continued2...

1 To be fair, the Conservatives do have an actual child care component to their policy: a plan to give a $10,000 tax credit to any organization creating a new child care position, up to a maximum of $250 million / year.

The Conservatives claim that "This program will create 25,000 new spaces per year" proving that they know how to a) divide and b) exaggerate. Presumably some people will have been planning to create spaces anyway, but, greedy buggers that they are, will claim the $10,000 credit anyway. So not all the new spaces will be created by the tax credit plan. Plus, my gut tells me that creating new child care spaces costs a fair bit more than $10,000 so really they should only claim credit for the portion of the new spaces they fund. Plus, the language of creating new spaces may be interpreted by some people as implying a commitment to ongoing funding of those spaces (for example, if the province says it is creating a new medical school, they generally don't just mean they are providing a tax credit to someone willing to put up a building to house a medical school, it means there will be a program which will be funded year in and year out) - but the Conservative plan is just a one-time deal. Finally, it's entirely possible that there won't be enough new spaces to use up the full $250 million.

Still, it is money targeted towards organized, out of the home child care facilities, which just goes to show that either this refund plan is an unfair subsidy of people who don't take care of their own kids and involves the government denying choice to people, or, more likely, that even the Conservatives don't buy their own rhetoric about how child care programs which provide more funding to people who put their kids in day care vs. those who take care of their own kids (i.e. just about all the child care programs in existence) are discriminatory and deny parents choices and mean that government is telling people how to raise their kids.

2I'm always hearing that my posts are too long - so this is what you get - bloggus interruptus.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Federal Issue List: Revised Version

This is just the revised (based on comments) version of the list of Federal issues from this post:

Fiscal management - Fiscal Balance / Debt Reduction
Global Issues - Peak Oil
Environment - Global Warming / Climate Change
Global Issues - Debt Relief
Global Issues - Use of Military
Social Issues - Health Care (enforcement of Canada Health Act, Size of Health Transfer)
Domestic Security (War on Terror)
Global Issues - Aids
Economic Issues - Inequality (poverty, gini coefficient, social mobility, etc.)
Crime - War on Drugs vs. Harm Reduction
Global Issues - Amount/Nature of Foreign Aid
Aboriginal Affairs - Social Issues
Fiscal management - Taxation Policy (not how much taxation, what kinds of taxation)
Bilateral Issues - Trade: NAFTA, Chapter 11, Softwood Lumber Dispute, Border Crossing Infrastructure, etc.
Aboriginal Affairs - Governance Issues
Environment - Air/Water Pollution
Environment - Other (sustainability, genetically modified food, dumping of oil in shipping lanes, etc.)
Aboriginal Affairs - Spending Issues
Bilateral Issues - Security (Coordination, Rendition, Passport Requirements, etc.)
Democratic Reform - Electoral Reform
Crime - White Collar (national securities regulator, money laundering, tax shelters etc.)
Social Issues - Child Care
Democratic Reform - General (anti-corruption policies, whistleblower legislation etc.)
Intergovernmental Relations - Equalization
Social Issues - Gay marriage
Environment - Toxic Site Cleanup
Global Issues - International Organization(s)
Spending Programs - Granting Councils
Global Issues - Trade Agreements
Spending Programs - EI
Crime - Violent (mandatory sentences, etc.)
Cultural Issues - Communication (CRTC, media concentration, etc.)
Spending Programs - Infrastructure
Economic Issues - Size of Government
Environment - Health Issues (trans-fats, recreation, food supply safety, etc.)
National Unity
Intergovernmental Relations - Division of Powers, Federal vs. Provincial
Spending Programs - OAS
Spending Programs - CPP
Intergovernmental Issues - Municipal Affairs
Economic Issues - Corporate Subsidies
Cultural Issues - CBC
Education - Postsecondary
Social Issues - Animal Rights / Cruelty to Animals
Economic Issues - Intellectual Property
Social Issues - Abortion
Spending Programs - Regional Development Programs
Economic Issues - Housing Policy (affordable housing, role of CMHC, etc.)
Economic Issues - Fisheries
Economic Issues - Productivity
Economic Issues - Labour Relations
Democratic Reform - Senate
Education - Elementary and Secondary

In Case You Haven't Seen This Yet

This poll tracking site is pretty cool.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Green Party Debate - Rationale For Inclusion

As promised, this is a follow-up to this call for action to let your media know what you think of the Green Party being excluded from the debate.

In that post I didn't explain why I thought the Green Party should be included so I'll do that here.

To begin with, we have to ask, what is the point of having a televised debate? Seems obvious enough, the point is for voters to get more information about their options so they can make an informed choice.1

So the goal, or optimal result of a debate would be to expose the greatest number of people to the greatest number of potential voting options, over the long term.

This leads to a tension between two things. On the one hand, the more party leaders present in the debate, the more viewpoints a viewer will be exposed to. On the other hand, as the number of leaders present increases, each leader gets less time, so it is possible that including leaders of parties that few people are considering voting for, at the expense of giving less time to leaders of parties that most voters are going to consider voting for, could be sub-optimal.

Furthermore, a debate which includes many different people, or which includes people that a voter is not considering voting for may reduce their willingness to watch the debate, also producing a sub-optimal outcome.

The media has never come out and clearly stated what their criteria for including a party in the debate is, which seems like a huge oversight. Given how much scrutiny is given to election advertising generally, the allocation of what amounts to by far the most valuable advertising in the entire election is left in the unaccountable hands of a few unelected people who make a selection based on - well, who knows, really.

Assuming that we are unwilling to just say that it should be left up to the subjective judgement of the broadcasters to decide who's in and who's out, without requiring any rational justification for their decision whatsoever (a position so weak, I see no need to spend time refuting it) it seems reasonable to point out that the only remotely logical, consistent position left to the broadcasters is that they only include parties if they hold a seat in parliament (ignoring that this rule has not been consistently applied at the provincial level).

As an aside, it's worth noting that, given how our electoral system works, such a policy would be tantamount to an official policy on the part of our broadcasters to only support the development of regional protest parties, not national ones - and we wonder why national unity is an issue!

Anyway, as much as it would be nice if our broadcasters could reinforce national unity, rather than implicitly supporting the breakup of the country, the point of the debate is not to promote national unity, it is to educate voters. So does a policy of only including parties with a seat in the House of Commons serve this purpose? Well, it is better than no rule at all, since it generally does differentiate between parties with more (have a seat in the house) and less (don't) support. But it is clearly not an optimal rule to use because the goal is to represent parties which are considered by a large number of voters and representation in the House of Commons is not the best measure of this.

To make it painfully clear why having a seat is not the best proxy for being considered by a large number of voters, consider an example. Say the Green party ran candidates in every riding, received 1,000,000 votes in the next election and failed to win a seat, but the Alberta Separation Party were to win a seat in a 2006 byelection. Would we then include the Alberta Separation party in the 2008 election debate and exclude the Greens? Even if they were only running a handful of candidates in rural Alberta? The 'must have a seat in the house to be in the debate' rule will backfire in this case by excluding a party likely to be considered by many, and including a party likely to be considered by few.

A better rule for the networks to use would be to set a threshold based on the number of votes received in the election. The most logical threshold would seem to be the same one used by Elections Canada to determine whether or not a party receives public funding:
"The party must garner either 5% of the vote in the electoral districts in which it has confirmed candidates, or an overall 2% of the national vote."

If a higher threshold is desired, then perhaps 5% of the total vote could be used, since 5% is, to my knowledge, the highest threshold used anywhere in the world for parties to qualify to receive seats under proportional electoral systems. Anything beyond 5% seems likely to produce a sub-optimal debate by excluding a party considered by many voters.

Which is a reminder that while considering the actual vote total (rather than the seat total) is an improvement, we are still just approximating what we are really trying to measure, which is how many people are planning to seriously consider voting for a certain party (or would if exposed to their views in a debate).

It sounds obvious, but one of the most important factors a voter must consider in deciding who to vote for, is which parties are running candidates in their riding. If a party is not running in a voter's riding, we can expect the impact of that party's platform on the voter's decision to be greatly diminished.

By this logic, it might seem like a reasonable criteria would be to include in the debate any party which is running a candidate in every riding since it is those parties which are worth considering by every single voter in the country.

This is oversimplifying, however. While it is true that if the Communist Party (or the Marxist-Leninst party) were to run a candidate in every riding then every Canadian could potentially vote for them, that doesn't make it true that every voter actually *will* consider voting for them. For the major parties, we can assume that a large majority of the population is willing to consider what they have to say and would be interested in hearing their platform explained/defended. For smaller parties, this is more difficult to assess. For example, given that roughly 4% of the population voted for the Green Party in the last election with next to no media coverage whatsoever, what percentage of the population is likely to want to hear the Green Party leader speak in a debate so they can hear what he has to say because they are at least willing to consider voting green in the next election? Perhaps this could be estimated by polling, but it seems reasonable to think that it has to be at least 10% of the population, and probably closer to 20 or 30%.

One other thing we know is that, given that there will be two debates in English and two in French, it is unlikely that a person would watch (or listen to) a debate which is not in their preferred language. So let us consider the proposed English language debate which will include 4 parties: The Liberals, The Conservatives, The NDP and the Bloc Quebecois. Given that the goal of the debate is to expose voters to parties they may want to vote for, does it make sense to include the Bloc Quebecois and exclude the Green Party?

# of Seats Held

Bloc Quebecois 54
Green Party 0

# of Votes Received Last Election

Bloc Quebecois 1,680,109
Green Party 582,247

# of Voters Who Have a Party Candidate in Their Riding

Bloc Quebecois 3,507,100
Green Party 13,683,570

# of English Speaking Voters Who Have a Candidate in Their Riding1

Bloc Quebecois 526,605
Green Party 9,667,647

# of English Speaking Voters Willing to Consider Voting for the Candidate in Their Riding

Bloc Quebecois = 263,032 (50% of English speakers in Quebec)
Green Party = 966,764 (10% of English speakers across the country)

Given that the purpose of the debate is to inform voters who might consider voting for a particular party, it seems clear that the choice of including the Bloc Quebecois and excluding the Green Party is sub-optimal, or more bluntly, undemocratic. A more optimal plan would be to include the Green party in both debates, or to include the Green party in one of the two English debates or to include the Green Party in one debate and the Bloc Quebecois in the other.

So to sum up a few pages of carefully constructed argument, why, why on earth do I get an English debate taking place in Vancouver with no Green Party representation but including the Bloc Quebecois when their nearest candidate is over 1,000 miles away!

Update: I thought I would clarify that I do think the Bloc should be included in the debate, I'm just pointing out that there is little or no logical reason to include them if you are going to exclude the Green Party.

Setting aside everything I have said in this post, an alternate methodology would be to start from the assumption that the debate is a service provided to viewers and simply poll the viewers on which parties they feel should be represented in the debates. This might raise some questions of the proper polling methodology to employ to get an unbiased result, but I feel these issues could be dealt with by a competent independent polling company hired to do the survey work - it would certainly be an improvement over the backroom dealing we have now. Of course, based on what polls have been taken, it seems likely this method would also lead to the Green Party being included in the debate, so maybe this is a moot point, from a theoretical perspective.

Ainge has more on this topic.

1 There are other possible goals for the debate (to provide ratings for the networks, to reinforce the hegemony of the existing parties, etc.), but I can't think of any which have any legitimacy. I mean, if the purpose is just to boost ratings, why not have a hockey game involving the leaders, or have them face off in some sort of fear-factor style series of competitions.

2 Estimated assuming 15% of Quebecers speak English as a first language, and 95% of the rest of Canada does.

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Monday, December 05, 2005

Rorschach Watch: Episode 2

Note: Previous posts in this series here, here, and here.

Just to show that the Rorschach watch is a non-partisan affair, today's guest on Rorschach Watch is labour economist and occasional Globe and Mail columnist Jim Stanford:

Roll the tape:
"Productivity: This big-picture economic challenge has attracted wads of expert prognostications over the past couple of years. But it won't resonate in an election campaign: The issue is too abstract, and has been interpreted (so far) as just another call for more business tax cuts. That will never get popular traction. Since 2001, business taxes have already been cut deeply, yet Canada's productivity growth has stalled entirely. Despite that, the Liberals promise more corporate tax cuts, and the Conservatives egg them on. To their credit, the Liberals have taken other measures that will more meaningfully boost productivity growth -- substantially expanding public R&D, and leveraging high-tech private-sector investments."

Full marks to Jim for observing that if corporate tax cuts were the key to productivity, our record should have been better the last few years, and bonus points for noticing that the Liberals and Conservatives haven't let reality prick their productivity bubble even a little bit.

But then, Jim stares at the inkblot and sees the true road to productivity gains - expanding public R&D and leveraging high-tech private-sector investments. Only problem is, Canada has already significantly ramped up its public R&D spending (I can't comment on leveraging high-tech private sector investments because I have no idea what that means - throwing money at RIM, Ballard Power and Bombardier?) in the last decade as well, only to see it's productivity flatline.

The fact that only one paragraph earlier Jim was applying the test of reality to productivity solutions and now he is blithely making his own recommendations which fail the exact same test is kind of sad.

But wait, there's more. No, not from Jim, he's done, but elsewhere in the Globe we find the headline: Blame Canadians: More evidence of Canadian unproductiveness landed Monday in a report from Statistics Canada.

This little piece says so much about the spread of information in Canada.

First, Statscan does a study (summary here) on productivity which comes to the common sense conclusion that multinational companies drive more productivity growth than purely domestic ones. I say common-sense because, setting aside any economies of scale (which are probably significant in their own right) it is only logical that it is the well-run, efficient, innovative companies that get big and rich enough to become multinationals. For example, last time I was in Mexico I noticed lots of Wal-Marts, but few Zellers.

Anyway, this is what statisticians (and social scientists in general) tend to do when faced with mysterious questions, do studies that come to obvious conclusions.

What the media likes to do, on the other hand, is turn boring studies with uncontroversial, mildly interesting conclusions into startling and disturbing headlines (without ever linking to the actual study of course). So the innocuous Statscan study suddenly becomes: Blame Canadians, and the Globe (Tavia Grant) admonishes us:
"Canada's productivity, defined as output as a percentage of hours, has been a source of embarrassment in recent years. On average, Canada's productivity growth has hovered just above zero since 2000. The U.S., on the other hand, has seen productivity grow by an average of 3.8 per cent since the start of the decade.

'Foreign-controlled plants are more productive than domestic-controlled plants in general,' Statscan said. 'This is because foreign-controlled plants and firms are also more innovative, more technologically advanced, and more likely to perform research and development.'

A little later, the Globe admits that most of their article up to that point was misleading:
"Not all Canadian-controlled plants were less productive or less innovative, however. The study found there was little difference between foreign-controlled plants and domestic-controlled plants whose parent had an international orientation."

In fact, the summary of the Statscan report says,
"The study showed that domestic producers with foreign operations (referred to as domestic multinational enterprises) were equally productive and had a slightly better performance than foreign-controlled plants with respect to research and development and innovation."

Sorry, who are we blaming again - are we blaming domestic companies for not being multinational companies? Isn't any country going to have a mix of domestic and international business? Is there any evidence that something about our domestic industry is different from that in other countries? Apparently not - according to the study,
"A growing number of studies in other countries have also used micro-level data to compare the performance of foreign-controlled and domestic-controlled plants. Theses studies find that foreign-controlled plants are more productive."
So blame everybody?

All that's left now is for the readers to chime in in the comments section on the Globe website, and while I don't want to give the wrong impression - many of the comments are quite sharp and add some real insight - there are also a lot of people staring at the inkblot and before you know it, explanations abound:

"Again we see that Canadian companies tend to be short sighted when it comes to long-term internal investment. They want already trained staff to come to them instead of training the staff themselves. They want to buy or copy new technology from someone else rather than create it themselves. ... Government taxation contributes to part of this lack of long-term investment, but company managers need to take responsibility as well."

"We must wake up and create a takeover policy that stops this self-destructive madness"
[ed. the study generally points to the benefits foreign owned companies bring to Canada, in terms of their own efficiency and in the pressure to improve they put on domestic companies and in the imitation of their efficient practices by local companies]

"Canada will never be competitive with the current school curriculum. The current education system is pathetic, however, this will not change since decision makers are also educated in Canada and they do not know any better."
[ed. Actually on most tests our education system ranks pretty well]

"The perceived shortcomings of the educational system have nothing to do with national productivity (the US system is even worse in many ways) and everything to do with the impact of a decade of artificially-low currency exchange that restricted Canadian companies from importing productivity-enhancing technology"

"If the banking system were set up to help smaller companies develop, I think these numbers would change."

"The issue is risk aversion, on the part of Canadians in general and on the part of Canadian financial system in general. This is at the root of Canadian short-sightedness when it comes to long term investment."

"It is not surprising that multinational companies would be outperforming others. Canada prefers to put itself in a box by defining bilingualism as English/French."

"Maybe Canadian productivity is as high as it can be. When I look around me, that seems a likely possibility.
" [ed. this is original at least]

When it comes to productivity, everyone's an armchair quarterback. Yet we still don't seem to be marching down the field. Must be that darn 3-down Canadian game.

Green Party Won't Be Heard During the Debate - Unless You Make Yourself Heard Now

Chris at Murky View has issued a call to action for anyone who thinks that Jim Harris, Green Party leader should be included in the televised leader's debates.

Here is the Green Party petition on the matter, and here is a petition you can sign to express your displeasure.

And thanks to Chris, here are some people you can call and express your support for the Green Party's right to be heard:

The CBC:
Phone: 1-866-306-4636
Or web/email:

Radio-Canada Nouvelles (news):
Phone: 1-888-306-4636

Phone: (416) 332-5000 (Ontario)

Global (Corporate):
Phone: (204) 956-2025 (Manitoba)

Global National TV

Finally, the debate is accepting questions from 'the floor' so you could email the moderator at: suggesting that they ask the parties what it was about the Green Party that scared them so much they had to exclude them from the debate (or make up your own question on the topic - perhaps something less confrontational is more likely to be aired (e.g. Do you feel that the Green Party should have been included in this forum, why or why not)).

Oh, you're wondering why the Green Party should be included in the debate? I saved the actual argument for my next post, so those who are already on board could get on with it and start harassing people.

Note: post updated to include Green Party petition.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Federal Election Blogging: Issue List

Despite the overwhelming response to my first post in this series I still thought I would take the time to take a wild stab at identifying the most important issues involving our federal government.

To compose a list, I relied on my own judgement, this list of where the federal government spends its money, this extremely comprehensive roundup of Canadian social research links1 and the party issue lists / policy documents (most have not put out formal election platforms yet), including the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, Bloc and Greens (summary / detailed).

So anyway, here is what I came up with, if you think I missed anything important (which I'm sure I did) let me know. I tried to list them in descending order of importance (based on how many people they effect, how severely they effect people, how much money is involved, the potential for long term impact, the magnitude of impact the government can have on the issue, to what extent the issue falls under federal jurisdiction and whether the issue demands a response or could be left alone with minimal consequences) but it's a bit of a hopeless exercise since calling it apples and oranges would overstate the comparability of many of these items and it's pretty heavily in the eye of the beholder. Anyway:

Fiscal management - Fiscal Balance / Debt Reduction
Global Issues - Peak Oil
Environment - Global Warming / Climate Change
Global Issues - Debt Relief
Domestic Security (War on Terror)
Global Issues - Use of Military
Global Issues - Aids
Social Issues - Health Care (enforcement of Canada Health Act, Size of Health Transfer)
Crime - War on Drugs vs. Harm Reduction
Global Issues - Amount/Nature of Foreign Aid
Aboriginal Affairs / Spending: Indian and Northern Affairs
Fiscal management - Taxation Policy (not how much taxation, what kinds of taxation)
Environment - Air/Water Pollution
Bilateral Issues - Trade: NAFTA, Chapter 11, Softwood Lumber Dispute, etc.
Democratic Reform - Electoral Reform
Environment - Other (genetically modified food, dumping of oil in shipping lanes, etc.)
Crime - White Collar (national securities regulator, money laundering, tax shelters etc.)
Social Issues - Child Care
Democratic Reform - General (anti-corruption policies, whistleblower legislation etc.)
Environment - Toxic Site Cleanup
Social Issues - Gay marriage
Spending Programs - Equalization
Spending Programs - Granting Councils
Global Issues - Trade Agreements
Spending Programs - EI
Violent Crime (mandatory sentences, etc.)
Communications / Culture (CRTC, etc.)
Spending Programs - Infrastructure
Economic Issues - Size of Government
National Unity
Division of Powers, Federal vs. Provincial
Spending Programs - OAS
Spending Programs - CPP
Economic Issues - Corporate Subsidies
Communications/Culture - CBC
Social Issues - Animal Rights
Economic Issues - Intellectual Property
Social Issues - Abortion
Spending Programs - Regional Development Programs
Housing Policy (affordable housing, role of CMHC, etc.)
Economic Issues - Productivity
Democratic Reform - Senate

With luck most of these will come up naturally during the campaign. So far I have been relatively impressed with the focus on issues (but that could just be because the horse race / personality stuff doesn't make it past my personal filter). With more luck, other people will write excellent summaries of various issues that I can build on (more on this in a later post) but I guess we'll see how it goes.

1 Hat tip to One Damn Thing After Another for the link to the Social Research links.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Fairly Random

Inspired by Gilbert & Sullivan, Balbulican is making a list, and if you weren't missed, you won't be missed, if you catch my drift. Luckily, nothing he wrote about applies to me personally. BWA-HA-HA :)


The best 3 shows on television right now: House, Veronica Mars, and Lost


Here is a potential campaign slogan offerred free, first come first serve to either the NDP or the Conservatives:

Liberals have got to go
End this status quid pro quo

Guaranteed to help win swing votes in the crucial not-smart-enough-to-know-Latin-but-still-like to-quote-little-Latin-expressions-to-sound-smart demographic.


Revenge of the Albertans? Could a combination of peak oil and climate change leave the Eastern bastards freezing in the dark after all?

To be honest, if you follow the link, this is more sad/disturbing than funny, and it's a lot more important than much of what will pass for a campaign in the next couple of months.


I'm not a fan of Michael Ignatieff's politics (or how he 'won' the Liberal nomination), but like Kevin says, a lot of the controversy surrounding his entry into politics, especially people taking quotes out of context from his past work makes you think it might be just about impossible for anyone with a history of writing candidly to go into politics. Luckily, my Harry Potter fan-fiction has never been published on the Internet so my future political career is still safe.

Somebody Call Peter Kent!

Just a little humour for a Friday afternoon, over at Azerbic, Robert commented on the slant of CBC's blog report. So I took a look, and sure enough, so far the CBC has linked to 12 conservative bloggers, 2 Liberal bloggers (update: plus the official Liberal blog), 0 NDP supporting blogs, and 0 non-partisan blogs. Even better, the 2 Liberal blogs they linked to were Calgary Grit, quoted as saying, "I suspect this will work in Harper's favour" and Jason Cherniak, quoted as commending Harper on an excellent political move.

One of the 12 Conservatives they linked to was critical of the Conservative party website and, before you know it, the blogging tories are up in arms over the liberal media bias (I kid you not). Conservative Life dissects the criticism of the CPC website, saying, "the CBC, eager to print negative publicity about the Conservative Party..."

Ah those Blogging Tories crack me up sometimes. Seriously though, what is up with the CBC blogwatch? Even Fox News would be starting to feel the need for a little token left-wing representation by now.

Instant Update: I see Antonia thought this was worth a post of its own as well.

Update 2: I updated the body of the post to reflect that the CBC Blog report did link to the 'official' Liberal party blog, by Scott Feschuk - I guess I just sort of mentally classify 'official' blogs in some other category than citizen blogs, but maybe that is unfair (in this particular case) as Feschuk's blog hasn't sunk into the deep blandness of most official blogs so far.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Stupid Robert Bettman

Well, the results from the Canadian Blog Awards are in, and CAtO placed 8th1 in the 'Best Progressive Blog' category. Which means that we will be moving on to a best of 7 post vs. post playoff series between Vancouver based CAtO and Western Conference regular season leader Calgary Grit. While it looks like a mismatch on paper, with Calgary Grit piling up 142 points vs. CAtO's 28, fans are hoping for an exciting rematch of last season's nailbiting series between Calgary and Vancouver.

What, in the new blog awards only 5 teams makes the playoffs in each conference? Damn that new CBA.

On a more serious note, thanks to Robert for running things, thanks to everyone who voted for me - it's much appreciated, and good luck to all those who finished in the top 5 in their category and are going on to the final round of voting (which starts Saturday).

1 Technically, tied for 6th.

Planning a Tax

So the Conservative party is proposing to reduce the GST from 7% to 5%. Paul Wells digs up an old Andrew Coyne column which makes the fairly standard economic argument that we are better off cutting taxes on income rather than on consumption. For a good, balanced look at the arguments on both sides, I recommend this (reasonably) short piece by Al Ehrbar.

The Coyne argument is generally that you want to encourage people to make more income, so tax it less, but you want to discourage people from consuming (conversely, encourage them to save) so tax it more. More precisely, taxing savings creates a bias in favour of current consumption and against future consumption.

Of course, as Coyne acknowledges (but hand-waves away) a huge portion of the savings of most Canadians is already tax free, thanks to the RRSP program. In 2003, Statscan noted that only 20% of Canadians maxed out their RRSP contribution room (aside: This article also has some scary calculations for anyone who puts off contributing to an RRSP to buy a house).

On top of this, what Coyne doesn't acknowledge is that if you don't tax savings, you have to make up the lost revenue by raising the general rate of taxation, which introduces it's own bias into the economy (in favour of leisure, and against working). Nobody really knows whether the increased bias towards saving from switching from income taxes to consumption taxes would be partially, completely or more than offset by the increased bias towards not working.

Finally, I am skeptical that many people are so rational that they make incremental decisions about whether to save or spend based on such marginal differences in tax policy.

For my (layman's) part, I think that the economic effects we are talking about aren't really significant or certain enough to be a guide to policy. I see three more significant concerns:

1) The impact on the progressivity of the tax regime. This depends on how you make up for the lost revenue from cutting the GST. If you raise income taxes then you might make the tax system more progressive, especially if you only raise the higher brackets. If on the other hand you were to lower the personal exemption amount, you'd probably make the system less progressive. If you cut spending to make up for the tax cut, then it depends on what is cut. Cutting support for post-secondary education or corporate subsidies might make the system more progressive. Cutting the child tax benefit would probably make it less progressive. Finally, if you simply go into deficit to fund the tax cut then all the same analysis applies, only in the future, with interest.

2) The future of taxation should (in my opinion) be taxes which are adjusted for individual items so that the price of these items more closely relates to the 'true price'. For example, the (untaxed) price of gas does not include any of the costs related to environmental damage, depletion of reserves and so on, that society must pay for consuming gasoline. Adding a tax to the price makes the market more efficient by sending a better pricing signal. Getting back to the issue at hand, a higher general consumption tax rate (GST) makes it easier to adjust relative prices by offering reduced/no taxes for those items which are considered beneficial to society. e.g. No GST on hybrid cars or transit passes has a bigger policy impact when the GST is higher. You could just raise taxes on things which have a lot of negative impacts on society, but this is more difficult to do politically.

3) If the GST is eventually reduced to 0% (replaced by increased income tax or some other tax, as necessary) then we could save on all the administrative costs of collecting, rebating, enforcing, adjusting, etc. the GST. I think this would be a pretty significant savings to government, and would also make life easier and reduce the paperwork for business, especially small business.

Taking it all into consideration, I support reducing the GST on a revenue neutral basis (i.e. making up the lost tax revenue somewhere else) with an eventual goal of getting it to 0. Since the Conservatives are unlikely to increase other taxes to compensate for the lost revenue, it raises the question of where they expect to cut government spending to cover the cost of reducing the GST. From the coverage I saw, no intrepid reporters asked this seemingly obvious question, and I suppose even if they did, Harper (like any politician) would just give some stupid answer about economic growth or cutting government waste. I guess we'll have to wait until they put out some sort of costed platform with economic projections to get the answer.

Off the topic of the actual policy, I found the following comments by Harper a little scary:
"I believe that all taxes are bad. It's always good to keep taxes down."

He noted that while the Liberals were in power, the amount of GST taken from Canadians has doubled, from $15.9 billion to $31.8 billion.

"Canadians have a right to ask where the doubled GST revenue is being spent," he said.

"The government has money to waste, the government has money to steal, the government has money to spend on benefits for a few .... It's time for benefits for mainstream Canadians, hard-working people who pay their taxes, who play by the rules."

Well, genius, the GST was 7% when the Liberals took power and it's 7% now, so if the take from it has doubled, then total spending must have doubled. There's nothing special about this that Canadians should be asking questions about, beyond the too-obvious-even-for-a-soundbite fact that obviously (hard-working) (mainstream) (taxpaying) (ordinary) (law-abiding) (etc.) Canadians always have the right to ask what the government is spending money on (although it's probably more efficient to just look it up!)

And 'money to steal'? - this guy should really try to sound more like a Prime Minister and less like some nutty opposition crank.

Update: I see the Amazing Wonderdog has a less wonkish, but generally similar take on this issue as well.

Update 2: Kyle at Random Noise asks the same question: tax cuts, sure, but where is the money going to come from?. Is it too much to ask that some of the people who earn a living asking people questions, ask this one. It wouldn't take up all that much space, just a simple, 'when asked how the government would pay for billions of tax cuts Harper said that without the Liberals in power, stealing billions of dollars from hard-working Canadians every single day, finding the money for tax cuts would be easy'... That's all I'm asking for.

Update 3: Mark at Section 15 has a good post on this as well, making a point I should have probably touched on as well: When it comes to tax policy, only the Green party has really endorsed tax shifting (more tax on things we don't want/are underpriced, less tax on things we want more of), while the CPC, Liberals and NDP are all still living in the past on this issue.