Crawl Across the Ocean

Sunday, April 30, 2006


So I spent more time spring cleaning, watching the NHL playoffs and enjoying the sunshine than I did blogging this weekend.

The big news next week (as far as Federal politics goes) will be the Conservatives first budget on Tuesday.

As far as budgeting priorities go, I'd like to see Robert's plan to eliminate the debt in 15 years implemented.

The Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has also released it's Alternative Budget. Alas, they are still debt-friendly. Somehow, they take the fact that we have a big surplus due to reduced interest payments on our debt as evidence that we should stop paying it down, rather than the opposite:

"The federal government currently enjoys a fiscal situation of unparalleled prosperity and flexibility. The government has ample fiscal room (in the form of status-quo surpluses of $15 billion per year or more) to fund a range of important initiatives to enhance the quality and security of Canadians lives."

The unwillingness of many (although fewer each year) voices on the left to see that debt repayment is not sacrificing social spending for some abstract concept, but rather is sacrificing spending now for the sake of spending more later, is part of why a left-wing government would make me slightly nervous.

If I have more time at some point (long time readers with good memories will have figured out by now, that when I say this, it is pretty much a guarantee that I won't follow up) I'll go into the CCPA's alternabudget in more detail. For now I'll just say that it is a mix of sensible spending plans (increasing the child tax benefit) and not so sensible spending plans (increasing the Guaranteed Income Supplement for Seniors). Also, I wish they had taken the problems of global warming and high oil prices more seriously in their proposals.

The part that I found most interesting was the section on the Conservative's financial plans:
"Thus the total fiscal room required for the Conservative platform is $112.7 billion between 2006-07 and 2010-11. How will the Conservatives fit a $112.7 billion platform - including the surpluses to which they are committed - into $74.8 billion in fiscal room? There is a $37.9 billion gap that must be made up by spending cuts.

In order to find the $37.9 billion over five years required in their electoral platform,the Conservatives build in both explicit and implicit spending cuts. Two avenues through which the Conservatives plan to realize savings on the expenditure side were acknowledged in their platform: saving $44 8 billion over five years.

The Conservative platform indicates that $6.8 billion over five years will be
reallocated. They promised to terminate the National Child Care Plan, hereby saving $44 8 billion over five years. They also promised to take $2 billion from the Climate Change Fund,


The Conservative platform also promises to 'moderate spending,' thereby saving $22.5 billion over five years. A Recent report by the TD Bank's Don Drummond has confirmed suspicions that this is a very ambitious target for spending restraint.

These avenues free up $29.3 billion in fiscal room, but they are still $8.6 billion short of generating the full $37.9 billion of fiscal room they require."

This all reminds me of the typical right wing pattern. Start with tax cuts, while making statements that enough money will be saved by spending cuts to maintain balanced books. Then when the time comes to actually make the cuts, back down in the face of political opposition. Then downplay the fact that we are not running surplusses any more.

Perhaps economic growth will continue to beat expectations and the economy will grow enough to cover the Conservatives tax cut agenda, but as the CCPA report shows. If you were to spin the wheel of adjectives to come up with a descriptor for this plan, 'conservative' shouldn't be one of the options on the wheel. Which reminds me that the refusal of right-wing governing parties to act fiscally conservative is one of the reasons I am reluctant to see a right wing party in power.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Deal or No Deal

I don't really have much to say about the proposed softwood lumber deal other than that I don't like giving in to bullies and that rushing negotiations to suit political purposes weakens your bargaining position.

Paul Willcocks has a good summary of the concessions made by the Canadian side in order to reach a deal.

The one thing that surprises me is that everyone seems to be analyzing the pros and cons of the proposed deal under the assumption that the U.S. will abide by it. Given that we wouldn't be in this situation if they were abiding by the last agreement we signed, I don't see any basis for this belief - unless it is because people think this is enough of a sweetheart deal for the Americans that they won't want to break it.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

This and That

I've written lots about child care but if I had to boil it down to what's relevant at the moment, it's that there are two flaws with what the Conservatives are proposing.

The first is that their proposal is not means-tested, and in fact will provide less support to poor dual income families (those who need help the most with child care) than it will to many wealthier families - especially those which can afford to have one parent stay home.

From today's Globe:
"The [Caledon] institute has calculated that the families who will benefit most from the child-care allowance, after taxes and clawbacks, are those making $200,000 a year or more with one parent at home. They will keep $1,076 of the $1,200 annually.

Families with two working parents and a combined income of $30,000, by contrast, will keep just $199 annually of the new payments."

The big gap is due to the family allowance subsidy being taxable in the hands of the lower income earner. The fact that it is taxable at all means that lower income families lose much of the benefit in reductions to other means tested benefits (this is why the Liberals consolidated all the different benefits into one). And the fact that it is taxable in the hands of the lower income earner means that it favours families where one person can afford to stay home (those which contain one person with a reasonably high income, one presumes).

There is an easy solution to this problem which is to increase the Child Tax Benefit (as proposed by the NDP) rather than giving $1,200 in taxable income to every family.

The second problem is that much of the money disbursed by the program will not actually be spent on child care, making it inefficient. This problem is mitigated somewhat by the desire to treat all families equally and the practical difficulties in ensuring that money given to a family which doesn't pay for child care is used for child care, but it is still a serious program weakness, nonetheless.

There is lots more to say, but that is the basics at the moment.

This article by Terry Glavin on the damage being done to B.C.'s forests and aboriginal communities by the pine beetle and by global warming, is interesting.

Are you kidding me? Further proof that so-called serious publications need some sort of statistical style guide to go along with writing style guides. This story somehow feels it is useful to tell us how much the price of some things have gone up since 1961 - without adjusting for inflation, and it also contains lots more attempts to deceive rather than inform.

If the Fraser Institute wants to try and gets its way by creating false impressions with statistical games, that is their right, but I don't see why the Globe and Mail would facilitate it.

The CEO Post has yet another big front page story keeping us up to date with what CEO's want. Personally, I fail to see how it is news that CEO's want taxes cut (although I like their use of the word 'must'), any more than it is news that the sun rose in the East this morning. A key part of the word 'news' is 'new' I always figured.

I thought this paragraph was particularly wtf?,
"They recommend that federal departments identify savings each year equivalent to 5% of their operating budgets, much as households regularly do to deal with unexpected costs."

Aren't you glad you weren't raised in a CEO household? I'm sorry son, you can only attend 19 of your soccer team's 20 games this year because we are cutting 5% out of our operating budget to deal with unexpected costs. Just tell your teammates that you are, uh, sick that week.

Personally I would be fine with cutting corporate taxes - if we simultaneously increased the marginal rate for the highest tax bracket to make up the lost income.

John Ibbitson has his best column in a while and is right on the money in today's globe (subscription only)

After discussing how the Conservatives' desire to pile tax cuts/rebates on top of the Liberals pre-election tax cuts and spending announcements puts the surplus in jeopardy, Ibbitson concludes:
"But we are in dangerous waters. There are people in high school now who have never been through a recession. Kids, you have no idea what one is like. Factories shut down, people are laid off, tax revenues dry up, even as demand for welfare and other economic assistance skyrockets.

Governments go into deficit, increasing the interest payment on the debt, which causes the bond rating services to lower credit worthiness, which means even higher interest on the debt, leading to even higher deficits. It's called a vicious circle, and it's hell.

That is why, at a time when current finances are sound but long-term demographic projections are worrisome, a prudent finance minister would hold spending increases to inflation plus population growth, while throwing every available dollar at the debt, even if it requires a bit of political chicanery.

But the Liberals gradually gave up on fiscal discipline, and the Tories don't seem the least interested in returning to it."

Finally, via the blogging of the president, this article (pdf file) by two economists is somewhat slanted, but is nonetheless a good antidote to all the bleating by the armchair experts on the French economy who figured that France was doomed because it didn't introduce a new law to make it easier to fire young people.

As it turns out, there is little net difference between youth unemployment in France and in the United States.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

One of a Kind

"I am convinced we need continual but informal democratic explorations on the part of people who must thread their ways through governmental, business or volunteer and grass-roots policies, or must wrestle with the moral conflicts and ethical puzzles that sprout up unbidden in all manner of occupations"

That's a quote from Jane Jacobs, from the preface to 'Systems of Survival'. Jacobs died yesterday, and both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail have good reflections on her life.

If this blog aspires to anything, in its better moments at least, it is to take the same inquisitive, non-ideological approach to trying to figure out what works and what doesn't that Jacobs was so good at - and to try and make the informal democratic explorations that Jacobs describes in the preface. I can think of no better inspiration for this effort than the example Jacobs set in her 89 years.

Monday, April 24, 2006


This blog, by Coby Beck, contains concise and clearly written rebuttals to many of the arguments used by climate change skeptics. Worth reading, if you are interested in the topic.

IMF? Who Needs It.

Some good news today. An interesting article in the Economist (via Colby Cosh) on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and how the IMF is losing money because it is running short on customers.

This is good news because IMF customers are countries which have suffered some sort of financial crisis and are in need of emergency financial assistance. Doubly good news because the IMF has a long track record of imposing harsh punitive conditions (of dubious utility) on recipient governments. The excellent book "Globalization and its Discontents" by former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz does a good job detailing the IMF's many flaws.

Even the Economist takes the opportunity to make a cheap shot against the IMF, saying,
"By its own projections, the IMF will live beyond its means by almost $300m in 2009-10. The belt-tightening this implies has not gone down well with staff, who show little taste for the austerity they are notorious for prescribing to others."

The Economist then wanders into territory normally occupied by 'anti-globalization' protestors, asking,
"If the IMF were to wither away - its money untapped, its advice unheeded - should anyone care?"

Unsurprisingly, the Economist is unwilling to write off the IMF quite yet. Discussing how some countries (particularly in East Asia) have built up their own financial reserves so that they don't need the IMF's help in case of crisis, the Economist notes,

"Alas, their self-reliance is expensive and inefficient - as if every home had its own fire-engine. Emerging economies are, in effect, lending to foreigners (by piling up treasury bonds paying miserable rates of interest) in order to underwrite borrowing from them (at higher rates of interest). According to Dani Rodrik, of Harvard University, the developing world's reserves carry an opportunity cost of nearly 1% of GDP."

Of course inefficiency is often in the eye of the beholder. If the local fire station is unreliable, and after responding to a fire at your home, takes over your life at a cost of great suffering in order to prevent another fire, the extra expense of having your own firefighting equipment may not seem so inefficient.

"Larry Summers, Harvard's departing president and a former treasury secretary, thinks the IMF could offer its services as an international fund manager, pooling official reserves in a more rewarding portfolio of assets. But this idea may mistake the origins of the problem. The build-up in reserves reflects a lasting anxiety about financial markets, but also a lingering distrust of the IMF. Mr Summers assumes that countries will be willing to entrust their dollars to the IMF. But if they had that much confidence in the fund, they might not feel the need to accumulate quite so many reserves in the first place."

The big question going forward is whether the crisis-free nature of the last few years will be the new norm, or whether we are just in calm between storms. I haven't really heard any explanation of why we might have put financial crises behind us (if you know any good ones, comment away), plus I'm a pessimist (realist?) about these things so I'd bet its just a calm between storms - and it seems like the Economist agrees,
"If China slows, America starts saving again or interest rates spike, indebted or illiquid economies will struggle once again. Firemen with no blazes to put out are easily bored. Sadly, the fund's morale will not be this low for ever."

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Got a Spare $462,000?

Via the comments at the Vancouver Housing Blog, I think I'd be a motivated seller too, if I was trying to sell this.

The Politics of Exclusion

I remember back when I was young (when life was hard, and 64K was a lot of memory, blah blah blah), playing a certain simple video game. Basically, the screen was a big empty rectangle with a ball bouncing from wall to wall inside it. The object of the game was to start from the edge of the rectangle and draw lines to form smaller rectangles inside the big one. Once you had covered a certain percentage of the screen with rectangles you could move on to the next level. But if your cursor was hit by the bouncing ball while in the middle of drawing a box you lost a life, so you had to tradeoff building big boxes to save time versus building small boxes to minimize the chance of getting hit.

In a way, this game reminds me of a certain style of politics. In this style, a party views the electorate as a series of discrete groups and tailors its policies to appeal to as many groups as necessary to win election. So, for example, you might try to win the seniors vote (a big box) with increases to public pension plans. Or you might try to win over voters in a certain area by announcing spending projects in that region. Once you win over enough groups (build enough boxes) you cover a large enough percentage of the population and you win the election.

This form of politics is generally regarded with a bit of disdain. Terms like 'special-interest group,' 'single issue voter,' 'pork barrel politics,' and 'vote buying,' all carry a perjorative tone.

In 'The Unconscious Civilization', John Ralston Saul explains why we denigrate this 'aggregation of interests' type of politics,
"For the moment, I would like to expand on the particularity of gods, kings and groups. They cannot function happily within a real democracy - that is, within a society of individuals. They are systems devoid of what I call disinterest. Their actions are based entirely on the idea of interest. They are self-destructive because they cannot take seriously the long-term or the wider view, both of which are dependent on a measure of disinterest, which could also be called the public good or the common weal."

But for all that we criticize attempts to win power by appealing to a collection of group interests, there are worse methods. One approach which has recurred throughout history is to invert this process. Instead of identifying groups and appealing to their interest directly, identify unpopular groups to oppose, thereby winning over enough of the remaining population to win election / maintain support.

One advantage of this approach, the politics of exclusion, is that, unlike in the first approach where you actually have to repeatedly give people something in their interest to win them over, with the politics of exclusion you don't have to give people anything - all you have to do is punish the unpopular groups. This means that the government can implement both approaches at the same time. Win votes by punishing an unpopular group, and still have money left over to buy the votes of other groups.

Historically, popular choices for groups to punish have been ethnic and religious minorities - especially those which were more successful economically than the majority. Of course the Jews fit all those categories and the history there doesn't need me to retell it. In many parts of Asia, successful Chinese business communities have faced persecution, and here in Canada, the internment of the Japanese during WWII followed a similar pattern.

Fortunately, the second half of the 20th century saw the most obvious and odious of these tactics fall into disrepute, and while there are still politicians who look to punish ethnic groups for political gain, they generally have not had much success with this approach recently.

But tactics have moved on, and there are new groups to demonize. It has become a truism of American politics that if it is an even numbered year (i.e. one with an election) you can expect to hear Republican politicians talking about the threat posed by the gay community. Here in Canada, the Conservative government has adopted the same tactic but, recognizing that Canadian society is more tolerant of gays than
America, they have focussed their anti-gay rhetoric on immigrant communities, reckoning that since people in these communities have immigrated from socially conservative countries, they will be receptive to this message (thankfully, immigrants, to their credit, largely did not fall for this tactic).

One hazard of the politics of exclusion is that you lose the votes of the people you exclude, as voting patterns among gay people and Blacks in the United States demonstrates. This problem can be avoided by going after groups which can't or don't vote. Under don't vote, think the poor, especially welfare recipients. Under can't vote, think non-citizens (both legal and illegal immigrants) and foreigners.

Back in the U.S., the Republican party recently ran into trouble when it attempted to make political hay by promising to punish Latino immigrants. But when huge demonstrations erupted, the Republicans realized that they had, to go back to my game metaphor, tried to build too big a box and taken a hit. Soon they were backpedalling and trying to spread lies to blame the whole thing on the Democrats.

As for foreigners, there are any number of examples to choose from, the most recent one being Iran, already described as part of an 'Axis of Evil', and now cast as an ever more dangerous threat by administration talking points as the U.S. leads up to an election in the fall.

The last excluded group I want to talk about is 'the elite'. I put 'elite' in quotation marks because the so-called elite in question is not the extremely wealthy and well-connected families who own almost all of our media and wield extraordinary influence over our society (what I would normally consider the elite) but rather an abstract group of people constructed by an ongoing rhetorical campaign.

You'll see what I mean if I list some of the words used to describe this 'elite': 'Latte-drinking', 'Starbucks', 'effete', 'volvo-driving', 'academic', you get the picture. In the U.S., this abstract elite has been conflated with a particular word used to describe members of this elite - 'liberals'.

The ever helpful Wikipedia even has an entry on the liberal elite:
"An ad by the supply-side organization Club for Growth sums up many of the stereotypes: "Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs."

The fact that this hypothetical 'liberal elite' is being constructed as group to be punished for political gain is pretty obvious.

Consider this quote from Time magazine covergirl Ann Coulter,
"When contemplating college liberals, you really regret once again that John Walker is not getting the death penalty. We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors."

Or maybe buy this book by Jonah Goldberg, "Liberal Fascism : The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton" and while you're at the bookstore, get something for your kids as well, 'Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed!'.

Back in Canada, there is not, as yet, an equivalent to the American usage of 'liberal elite', perhaps impeded by the word Liberal already being occupied. But if you're wondering what prompted this post, it was me wondering why something Stephen Harper said the other day bothered me so much.

"The Prime Minister concluded, 'ordinary parents - people who work hard, pay their taxes and play by the rules - do not have a taxpayer-funded lobby group. They don't have the time to hold demonstrations, or make regular trips to Ottawa for news conferences. But they do support our plan.'"

The implication is that those who oppose Harper are not ordinary, don't work hard, don't pay their taxes, don't play by the rules, and are just taxpayer funded lobby groups. I was immediately reminded of something Warren Kinsella said about the recent federal election,
"It wasn't about Left versus Right. It wasn't about Urban versus Rural. It wasn't about East versus West. It wasn't about French versus English.

It was about us (the people at hockey rinks, holding cups from Tim's or Coffee Time) versus the elites (the ones who have never been on public transit, and who read the Sunday Times at Starbucks)."

Sound familiar to the stereotypes listed in the Wikipedia entry?

Reading the above quote from Harper I could just imagine he wished he had some Canadian equivalent of 'liberal elite' which he could use to demonize those who oppose his government.

History tells us that while the politics of aggregating group interests is not ideal, the politics of exclusion is even worse. So many of the things we look back on with regret originally stemmed from a plan to win votes by appealing to the majority's dislike or hatred of some unpopular minority, and I think that is why the quote from Harper bothered me so much. It clearly signalled that Harper planned to sell his policies not on their merits for the public good, and not (solely) by an appeal to the self-interest of certain groups within society - but by demonizing those who oppose his policy. Or in other words, by resorting to the politics of exclusion.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Economic Update

I'm no economist, but if "Canada's home prices remain superheated", and 'frothy' commodity markets are sending the stock market to record levels, what does it mean to say that, "Inflation Remains Tame"?

It seems like all the easy money generated by an expansionist monetary policy is driving up asset prices rather than goods prices, but I'm not sure that this means there is no reason to worry as the papers seem to suggest.

Not a CAtO Reader, Apparently

I see from the globe that Toronto Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn is blaming the team's woes on the salary cap,
"Here you have the teams with no [payroll] come along picking all the good ones [in the National Hockey League entry draft] because they finished out of the playoffs. Now they had cap money to go out and buy some good free agents.

We had a tough job to build on the group we had."

The column by Wharnsby is a good one (as these things go), and brings up Detroit as an example of a team with a high payroll which did fine despite the cap, but Detroit is not an isolated case. As I pointed out in this post, it is Toronto which is the outlier for suffering under the cap regime, not the other way around.

But maybe the team ownership reads my blog, as Quinn was fired today. Let the endless speculation on a replacement begin.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Better Part of Valour

Kevin has a good post on the Conservatives proposed legislation with respect to the Criminal Code.

I think that we always need to be cautious any time we want to reduce the element of human discretion in a complicated situation (by getting rid of conditional sentences, or increasing the number or length of maximum sentences, for example).

I compare it to the NHL where most decisions are left to the discretion of the referee. Some attempts to remove discretion have been successful (automatic penalty for high sticking) but many have proven failures (no tolerance for players in the crease) or will likely be dismissed as failures in the near term (automatic penalty for defense putting the puck over the glass).

Given the variety of circumstances which can all lead to the same verdict, one size fits all punishments can easily lead to decisions which are less equitable, not more.

Speaking more generally, in discussions on crime that I read, a lot of people seem to come from a perspective which assumes that everyone who is ever convicted must be guilty. I could be wrong, but DNA evidence certainly seems to be telling us that innocent people get convicted fairly regularly, and I think that if more people were to imagine themselves wrongfully convicted of a crime it might change their attitude somewhat.

What's most sad is when people take a complex topic and try to reduce it to a macho sound-bite, with everyone competing to be seen as 'tough on crime' and nobody wanting to be 'soft on crime', as if the state determining the course of people's lives was such a simple matter.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Paying Attention

That's the title of Paul Willcocks' blog1, and it's a good one. One thing I've learned from blogging is that paying attention isn't easy. Even when I think I'm paying attention, I often find I end up looking the wrong way only to have events end up pulling a quarter out of my ear when I could have sworn it was in the other hand.

For example, I spent a lot of time following and trying to influence the outcome of the referendum held in B.C. on electoral reform last year. But in the end, the deciding factors behind the fact that we are still stuck with the inferior first-past-the-post system (for now, anyway) is down to decisions which were made very early in the whole process - before I was really paying attention. Those decisions were the ones to require an abnormally high (60%) vote in favour in order for the vote to be binding and to not provide any funding for an education campaign. So I was paying attention to the wrong things or maybe to the right things but at the wrong time.

Back in the present, this post by Chris Lawson put into words something I had been thinking but hadn't put into words yet,
"They [the Conservatives] know their days are numbered, so in Parliament, they're all hugs and working together. But at the ministerial level they're all axes and firing squads.

I'm sure, in addition to ordering his minions to stick to the five "feel good" planks of accountability, tax cuts, and money in your pocket, Harper likely said: "anything you can do to dismantle the state that doesn't require a vote in the house, do it. Just don't write a press release."


"They're yapping on in Parliament about laws which may or may not get passed, may or may not be implemented or enforced (the Accountability Act) meanwhile real change (for the worse) is happening over at Environment Canada that will get not a mention in Hansard"

My natural inclination in an election campaign is to examine all the available platforms and make a decision weighing the pros and cons of all the policies within, including an assessment of how likely they are to be carried out (e.g. anyone promising to cut taxes, raise spending, and pay down the debt always makes me nervous). Based on this rational analysis, and considering the quality of my local candidates, I make a decision.

I never thought much of the idea of voting for a party because the leader seemed trustworthy (I usually take this to mean that they are tall and have a symmetrical face), but over the years I've come to realize that simply basing a vote on the platform presented is a naive way to do things.

I'm still not much for the idea of basing a vote on how someone looked during a debate, but the question of trust does play a significant role. People talked a lot about the Conservative government's 'secret agenda' in the last few election campaigns. And while the phrase is meant by some to indicate a big legislative agenda that is planned but not admitted to in the platform, I think there is a more fundamental sense in which every party's agenda is largely secret. As Chris notes above, so much of what a government does falls outside the scope of the House of Commons and legislation and party platforms.

Take the Kyoto Accord, for example. If the Conservatives wanted to pass a bill directly aimed at reducing action taken by the government towards solving global warming, they would likely face opposition from all parties and face defeat over the issue. But there is no need for them to do this.

The government is still young and already we see that there are plans to cut funding for climate change programs at Environment Canada by 80%. On top of that the Ministry has taken action to prevent an Environment Canada scientist from speaking publicly about his novel on climate change. When columnist Terry Glavin contacted the Canadian Climate Impacts and Adaptation and Research Network (C-CIARN - a federal agency), this is the response he got, "I'm not supposed to talk to you." Furthermore, the government has announced that Canada will not meet its emissions targets under Kyoto, calling them unrealistic.

None of this, as Chris pointed out, will get recorded in Hansard and none of it was mentioned in the Conservative platform.

So what's my point? A couple of things. Generally, we (I) need to take care to pay attention to what is really important and not get distracted by the magician's patter and waving hands. Specifically, the Conservative Party (like all parties) does have a hidden agenda and anyone who doesn't trust them (which should be everybody in a healthy democracy with a new party in power) needs to pay attention to what is going on and hold them accountable not just for those things they do that everyone notices, but also for all the things they do that are intended to pass without notice, and perhaps even more importantly for the things about which they do nothing, hoping that nobody will notice...

The climate is getting hotter, Canadian children are still being born and raised in poverty despite our collective wealth, we still owe, through our governments and personally as well, billions upon billions of dollars, living conditions for many First Nations remain an embarrassment and that is just a few of our most pressing concerns. While the legislative agenda is important we can't get caught up focussing entirely on some arbitrary list of 5 policies which don't address the country's most important issues (or on the Liberal leadership race). Simply put, even though it is difficult, we need to pay attention.

1 Willcocks is a fairly well known columnist in B.C. His Vancouver Sun bio is here. I added the blog to the bottom of the Canadian political blogroll for easy reference.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Lowering the Tone

A while back I mocked the Globe's lack of courage in printing a column
about how bloggers were lowering the tone (and demeaning the discourse)
but refusing to allow comments on the column on their website.

But the truth is, I didn't really address the substance of the charge
that bloggers are lowering the tone because it's a complicated topic and
I wasn't in the mood to write a long post about it. Luckily for me, procrastination has paid off again, and Glenn Greenwald has written a masterful post on this very topic. Glenn's jumping off point is a Washington Post article about 'the angry left' but it doesn't take much imagination to see how his analysis applies to the Globe article by Russell Smith as well and to almost all of the media articles about blogs that seem to keep popping up with increasing frequency these days.

Says Glenn,
"Any time old, crusted, failing, dying institutions launch attacks on new and innovative competitors, it is an unmistakable sign that the attacking dinosaur feels threatened and feels its power slipping away. That dynamic, more than any ideological goal, is what is motivating the steadily increasing appearance of these types of hostile blogosphere caricatures masquerading as news articles. The reality is that the blogosphere need not be a hostile competitor of journalists, but can be a uniquely valuable research and analysis tool to supplement the governmental adversary role which journalists are supposed to perform.

But until they realize that, and as long as they continue to perceive that their stranglehold on conventional wisdom is being abolished as a result of the irreverent and increasingly substantive blogosphere, these types of "articles," devoted to the destruction of the blogosphere's credibility, are going to become more and more common - and more and more desperate."

He has lots more to say and it's all a great read.

Scale of Economies

I'm not going to cover any new ground in this post, but I just wanted to put a couple of things in perspective, based on a comment Stephen Harper recently made.

Item #1: The Conservative government introduced their 'Accountability Act' last week. The Accountability Act is the Roy Halladay of the Conservatives' 5 policy starting rotation (i.e. the ace) and should get lots of run support in the House of Commons.

I note that, as predicted by Maclean's a while back, the government has separated out some of the increased Access to Information which it had promised into a separate act. An act which, if you could bet on whether bills will get passed or not, would likely pay much higher odds than the primary Accountability Act, bill C-2.

Also, it seems like there are some fairly big loopholes in some of the lobbying provisions, but in the end, none of this concerns me a whole lot. As I recall, the motive behind this accountability act was the sponsorship scandal. For example, from the Conservative party website, John Baird, the Minister who introduced the act says, "Today is about putting the legacy of political scandal behind us and restoring Canadians' trust in government."

From the CBC in-depth coverage here, we see that a high-end estimate of the money lost via the sponsorship scandal was $100 million dollars. Or, given that the Liberals were in power for 12 years, roughly $8.5 million/year was lost to this example of corruption that the Accountability Act is intended to put behind us.

Item #2, Laura Turner, from Liberalism Without Cynicism, picks up on the following passage in the Globe, referring to an address Stephen Harper made to the Board of Trade in St. John's last Wednesday,
"Mr. Harper also accused the previous government of racking up massive surpluses on the backs of Canadians.

'Billions upon billions were taken from Canadians,' he said. 'Talk about surpluses. They were taken from Canadians through over-taxation.

Nothing more, nothing less.'

It seems fair to assume that, if this is how Harper feels about surplusses, he wouldn't have run any if he had been Prime Minister instead of Chretien/Martin. According to the Annual Financial Report (2004-2005), the Liberals reduced the debt by $63 billion from it's peak ($562.9 billion). The annual report also tells us that the government paid 2.6% of GDP in debt service costs on a debt which was 38.7% of GDP. This suggests that the government is paying an average rate of 6.7% on the federal debt. If we conservatively just use 6%, then 6% of $63 billion is $3.78 billion.

So what's my point? Well, with great fanfare we have changed governments in order to clean up government and their first Act is a bill to improve accountability. All in response to a scandal which cost us roughly $8.5 million / year.

Meanwhile, Harper is telling us that the previous Liberal policy of running surplusses was all wrong. But that policy now saves us $3.78 billion / year - 445 times more than what the Accountability Act will save us, even if (which seems unlikely to me) it brings a complete end to government scandals.

So, sure, bring us accountability and create employment in Ottawa by hiring a hundred auditors or a thousand auditors or whatever, most of what is proposed in the Accountability Act seems reasonable to me and the rest will likely die in committee or just lead to bureaucratic workarounds, and I like clean government as much as the next person, but let's keep our eye on the scale of things. And the scale of savings from fiscally responsible government dwarfs the amounts to be saved by tinkering with the procedural rules on parliament hill. And when Harper starts spouting what Laura rightly calls tax-populism, I get nervous.

Of course cutting all funding for climate change programs might help balance the budget, but that is just trading one deficit for another, and is a topic for another post.

The Weather Makers

Here's a better use for your time than reading blogs: read 'The Weather Makers' by Tim Flannery instead. I see that it is 4th on Chapters' listing of best-selling books, so maybe some of you already have.

Dave Pollard has an excellent review, and Terry Glavin has a front-page story on Flannery in the Georgia Straight in case you are looking for more details.

I note that both Pollard and Glavin use the phrase 'tour-de-force' to describe 'The Weather Makers' and it's an apt description. Whether you are already deeply concerned about the impacts of global warming or whether you are still skeptical that global warming even exists (or that it is caused by human activity - or that it will have a big impact - or that it will cost too much to do anything about it) you will benefit by reading it.

Flannery methodically covers the entire spectrum of issues surrounding global warming, starting with a clear and entertaining description of how climate works and the history of the climate, moving on to a description of some of the impacts global warming is having, a section on the science of prediction, what conclusions scientists have reached and how they reached them, a section on the politics surrounding the issue, in particular the Kyoto Accord, and finally a section on possible solutions.

The real value of the book comes from Flannery bringing everything together in one volume, and from Flannery's writing. He manages to make very complicated topics easily understandable, and the fact that he writes like a scientist - not making wild claims, evaluating all the evidence dispassionately, acknowledging what limited benefits which will accrue from global warming - makes the book that much more credible, and in turn, that much more disturbing.

For it is a very disturbing book. I like to think that I am fairly informed already on this issue, at least for a layman, but I still found myself at times angry and at times depressed while reading, a reaction I suspect most people will have.

At the end of the book, Flannery pushes the idea that we all need to try and cut 70% from our own emissions, while at the same time pushing for more political action. By changing our own spending patterns towards greener products (green power, solar panels, solar water heaters, more energy efficient cars, transit systems), these products will gain economies of scale, making them cheaper and creating a positive feedback loop.

His list of things you can do is here. Personally, it's a frustrating list since there's not much there for someone who owns neither a vehicle nor a house, but perhaps others are in a better position to reduce their emissions.

I could write more about the book itself, but you are better off reading Dave Pollard's excellent summary. After all, my conclusion is the same,
"In summary, this is an important book, a work of true science, and a must read for anyone who cares about future generations or the health and sustainability of our planet. But rather than instilling new hope and galvanizing billions into action to deal with this huge challenge, I suspect Flannery's book may well be, a century from now, the final epitaph for our civilization."

I guess time will tell. John at Dymaxion World does a good job digging up news from the new sustainable technology front, this latest post being just one example. In the end, I think it will not be a question of whether we are capable of sustaining our civilization without cooking the planet and ourselves with it, but rather a question of whether we are collectively willing to do so.

There's a fine line between those two concepts, especially for someone like me who doesn't believe in free will, but I think it is a meaningful distinction all the same. What it suggests to me is that fighting through the smokescreen of skepticism to get as many people as informed as possible about what is happening will be just as important as taking action to reduce our own emissions. So beg, borrow or buy a copy of 'The Weather Makers', and then once you've read it, lend it or give it to someone else to read.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Hindsight - Keeping Score

The world of current events, almost by definition, precludes much reflection on what has been said in the past by people and how it ended up looking once more information was available.

The most obvious example that comes to mind of where this sort of reflection is useful is the Iraq war. Anyone who supported it has taken a pretty serious hit to their credibility on any foreign affairs issues and their opinions should be discounted somewhat on any similar issues which arise in future.

But there are lots more examples going on around us all the time where we can compare what was said at the time to what became clear later on. Consider David Dingwall. From a cbc report today.
"David Dingwall was doing a good job running the Royal Canadian Mint when lingering hostility within the federal Liberal party forced him to resign, according to an independent report released Wednesday.

The report by arbitrator George Adams upheld a $417,780 severance payment the former Liberal cabinet minister received in February, along with a $42,010 annual pension.

"Politics as a 'blood sport' may explain [the federal government's] ... conduct but cannot justify its treatment of Dingwall," wrote Adams, a retired Ontario judge."

Now consider this post and subsequent comments over at Bound By Gravity.

How did Andrew and the multitude of commenters fare, as viewed with 20/20 hindsight?

Two CAtO Hindsight points for the anonymous 'Observer' who commented,
"The most obvious scenario, he resigned before being fired, is something that a judge can easily deem have occurred and thus to be worthy of severance.

You and the CPC can yammer all about letter of the law all you want but it's pretty easy for both a judge and the "common" man to discern what went on here.

Also, on these kinds of issues the CPC almost always looks petty. Penny-wise but pound foolish as they say."

and also,
"In the normal case, when someone is forced to leave or quits because of "management conflicts" a severance is expected.

The "entitlement" theme of this is just another of the CPCs pointless rants based on an almost intentional refusal to look at the facts except through CPC talking points. It's only "entitlement" if you ignore what Robert was getting at and you ignore what happens on an almost daily basis by some poorly managed companies trying to screw out of favour employees."

One CAtO Hindsight point for Robert, who commented,
Herein lies your problem. There is voluntarily quitting, where you just decide it's time to pack it in and then there is "voluntarily" quiting, where you and your employer decide it's time for you to pack it in. Dingwall did the latter and now you rubes are clinging to nothing more than semantics to make your case."

One CAtO Hindsight point for KevinG who initially argued with Observer but ended up commenting,
"OK, I checked with an employment lawyer.

1. If you get fired for cause there's no severance.
2. In practice it's almost impossible to get fired for cause because it's hard to prove(apparently you'd have to be screwing a german shepard at a board meeting or something).
3. If you do get fired but not for cause you could probably get 2 years pay out of a law suit.
4. Everyone knows this so they just pay the CEO a severance package.

So, it may be common practice to pay CEO's two years salary when they have committed offenses which could get them fired. I'm left to wonder whether common practice lends legitimacy to something that in most peoples minds, is quite clearly wrong."

0 CAtO Hindsight points for Balbulican, Occam's Carbuncle, Mike, DCardno, JohnG, JM, ebt, Reg, Eliza, D.C. Macdonald, Choo Choo Man, Dalton, and anyone else I might have missed. Luckily for some on this list, these are only hindsight points, and what counts is whether one was right or wrong - there are no extra points taken off for being obnoxiously smug about how right one is while being wrong. Reading the whole long thread, I have to give credit to Observer for standing his or her ground unruffled in the face of quite an onslaught.

-1 CAtO Hindsight point for M.K. Braaten for writing,
"Could it be that David Dingwall may know details about the sponsorship program that Mr Martin does not want the public to know? Or perhaps he knows something about the allegations of how the Martin linked Earnscliff consulting funded Paul Martin’s leadership campaign with money earned through government contracts? Would this explain why the Liberals are so insistent that Dingwall get paid? To keep his mouth shut?

Although I am just speculating, it does cause one to wonder."

The negative is not for being wrong in the first case, but for piling further incorrect partisan speculation on top of the initial error.

And finally -1 CAtO Hindsight point for Andrew for quoting M.K. approvingly.

And if anyone wants to dig through the archive here to find some stuff I've been wrong on, I welcome the effort (although my non-committal writing style may cause trouble). We're all about accountability here at CAtO.

Reading Material

Some scattered stuff today.

First, Edward Leamer writes a fascinating essay on recent and future economic history and the role geography plays in economic development. The essay is disguised as a review of Tom Friedman's book 'The World is Flat', and gets in lots of amusing shots at Friedman while covering a ton of ground (so to speak).

He descends into economese at a few points, but for the most part it is quite readable and very interesting, with lots of good analogies, such as the following:

"I like to raise some doubts by posing the rhetorical question; "Is a computer more like a forklift or more like a microphone?" It doesn't matter much who drives the forklift, but it matters a lot who sings into the microphone. Think about the forklift first. You might be a lot stronger than I, but with a little bit of training, I can operate a forklift and lift just as much as you or any other forklift operator. Thus the forklift is a force for income equality, eliminating your
strength advantage over me. That is decidedly not the case for a microphone. We cannot all operate a microphone with anywhere near the same level of proficiency.
Indeed, I venture the guess that I would have to pay you to listen to me sing, not the other way round. And I seriously doubt that a lifetime of training would allow me to compete with Springsteen, or Pavarotti."

In the end Leamer concludes that, "Physically, culturally, and economically the world is not flat. Never has been, never will be. There may be vast flat plains inhabited by indistinguishable hoi polloi doing mundane tasks, but there will also be hills and mountains from which the favored will look down on the masses. Our most important gifts to our offspring are firm footholds on those hills and mountains, far from the flat part of the competitive landscape."

In essence the idea is that, to succeed, our economy will need to cultivate enough Springsteen's and Pavarotti's in enough different fields that their massive earnings bring up the average and enough wealth trickles down for everyone else to make a decent living as well. Reading it certainly gives some urgency to ensuring that Canada has things like widespread and affordable broadband and wireless internet infrastructure as well as a high quality child care and education system. Even if you disagree with the conclusions, this 'review' is the kind of piece where the journey matters as much or more than the destination.

Hat-tip to Marginal Revolution for the link.

Second, a while back I googled across this paper on the ethics of copyright by Mark Alfino. The first section of the paper provide some really interesting background on the legal history of copyright and the section section has an interesting discussion of some philosophical approaches to the question.

From the first section,
"Copyright began as a royal prerogative granted to the main publishing guild, the Stationers Company. The granting of a license to control copy was originally motivated by the crown's desire to control the spread of potentially threatening religious or political ideas.(3)

Until the first modern copyright statute, the 1709 Statute of Anne, the Stationers Company enjoyed an unlimited monopoly over copy, including at times, the right to search buildings and seize copy.(4)

Modern copyright laws, which recognize, as a matter of moral principle, a limit to the monopoly which control of copy entails, begin with the Statute of Anne in 1709, subtitled, "An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times herein mentioned." The act first gave legal expression to the idea that the social value of disseminating information and culture was great enough to justify limiting the property interests of publishers. The act also prepared the way for an author's copyright.

The Stationers argued for and received extensions to the statutory limits of copyright in the act. They continued to charge exorbitant prices for classics of English literature and editions of the Bible, to which they owned the copyright. The "Battle of the Books" took place during the first three quarters of the 18th century(5) as independent publishers, in sympathy with the "Society for the Encouragement of Learning," challenged copyright holders by producing unauthorized editions of popular English literature. In the celebrated case of Donaldson v. Beckett (1774), a lasting precedent against perpetual copyright was established."

The key point in the Donaldson case was that the court ruled that copyright was a creation of the law rather than an absolute right (like the right to possess physical property).

As Alfino notes,
"If copyright is a form of limited monopoly granted through statute, based on policy considerations, and not an absolute common law right, the ethical burden of proof shifts to copyright holders to show that their property interests are more important than the public good of having access to information."

Something to remember next time you run across industry propaganda which equates intellectual property, with physical property. And also something to keep in mind when the Conservative government introduces its new copyright legislation.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Life Imitates (Bad) Art

I was walking to work this morning and I actually saw two construction workers carrying a large plate glass window across a busy downtown street.

I looked around for the film crews, but apparently it was just actual construction work and they crossed without incident. Seemed a little anti-climactic, somehow.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

No Experience Necessary?

I think the Ignatieff campaign for Liberal leader made a smart move in giving the Calgary Grit a chance to do a one-on-one interview with Ignatieff. It's smart because it helps Ignatieff get the word out and also because it shows that he is willing to embrace new ideas. But one question in particular caught my attention.

CG asks,
"Question 6: You have next to zero experience in politics and yet you are running to be Prime Minister? What is it about politics that makes a lack of experience no big deal for an individual trying to reach the top?"

So how would you expect Ignatieff to answer this question? If there's one thing people commonly say about Ignatieff, it's that he may be a good intellectual but that doesn't mean he will be a good politician.

An intellectual with no political angle to play would (in my opinion) probably take CG's question as an academic one and attempt to answer it in those terms. One line of response might be to note that politics does not require industry specific skills the way that medicine or professional baseball does. Rather, the skills required for politics (wise decision making, strong work ethic, good memory, charisma, public speaking etc.) are skills which are useful - and which can be acquired and honed - in many different lines of work. I'm sure there are many other possible academic responses to this question.

So that's the intellectual response. Now if you consider CG's question from a purely political point of view, you could paraphrase it as, "Given that a more experienced politician is a better politician, why should we vote for an inexperienced politician like you?"

Considering that many of Ignatieff's likely rivals, Gerard Kennedy, Stèphane Dion, Ken Dryden, have all held Ministerial jobs up until just recently, that Ignatieff has less political experience than his rivals is inarguable. In order for Ignatieff to make political hay from this question, he needs to attack the premise.

Ignatieff needs to turn what is a weakness in CG's formulation (lack of experience), into a strength. This is not particularly hard. He could mention how Paul Martin was involved in politics from the time he reached up to his father's knees, and how did he turn out as PM? Or the same type of argument could be used against Joe Clark or Brian Mulroney. Or he could take a shot at Bob Rae suggesting that sometimes a blank slate is better than a bad experience. Even tired Conservative rhetoric about how the 'average' Canadian has had enough of career politicians would be reasonably effective.

So how did Ignatieff answer this question?

"Ignatieff replied that he had plenty of experience, being a delegate at the 1968 leadership convention thus making him the "only candidate with experience at a brokered convention" [Note: That seems like a bit of a stretch to me. I mean, just because I've eaten a Big Mac, doesn't mean I'm qualified to be CEO of McDonald's]. He also commented on his international experience, having been to Afghanistan and around the world.

He then acknowledged that no one has a perfect resume in this race and he's aware that he's "not Superman". All the candidates have limitations, but he feels he can overcome his."

By accepting CG's premise, Ignatieff legitimized the notion that an inexperienced politician is a bad politician. And his argument in favour of his experience, as CG himself notes, is weak. This is not a good political answer. It is also not a good intellectual answer. Ironically, this poor response is a great example of the potential hazards facing a party that elects an inexperienced politician as their leader.

So the evidence is mixed. On the one hand, Ignatieff showed a common touch and a willingness to innovate by agreeing to be interviewed on a blog. On the other hand, maybe there is something to these worries about inexperienced politician, after all.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Random Thought For the Day

I find it remarkable how so many right wing bloggers in Canada know what's best for France better than the French themselves do.

Harper Doesn't Support Our Troops

If you think this post has a stupid title, I couldn't agree more.

So here's a quote from Stephen Harper prior to tonight's debate on Canada's role in Afghanistan,
"The Canadian government supports our troops," he said. "I know the governing party does. I believe the official opposition, other members of this House and Canadians do, and I would urge the NDP to get behind our troops in Afghanistan."

Anyone who follows U.S. politics at all will instantly recognize this as a well-known Republican tactic of trying to stifle debate on military matters by suggesting that anyone who disagree with government policy 'doesn't support the troops'.

It's immature, divisive, and the kind of phony debating tactic I'd rather see left in the U.S.

As far as debating and having a vote on our role in Afghanistan is concerned, I am reminded of Vancouver's Olympic bid. Mayor Larry Campbell and the (at the time) ruling COPE party took a lot of criticism for going ahead with a referendum to determine whether the residents of Vancouver supported the bid or not.

But once the vote was held and the vote was strongly in favour, the criticism faded away, and in a very close IOC vote, I suspect that the people of Vancouver having publicly expressed their support for the bid may have been a deciding factor in Vancouver's favour. Besides that, the fact that Olympic opponents know that they were given a chance to get their vote out and have their say, does a lot to smooth the way forward, while still allowing criticism of the implementation of Olympic preparations.

I'm glossing over lots of details in that recap, but the basic point is that rather than hampering the Olympic bid as many feared, the referendum ended up consolidating support. I'm not suggesting that we hold a referendum on our mission in Afghanistan, but I do think that it would strengthen support for the mission, rather than weakening it, if parliament was to hold a vote on the issue. People who have been given a fair chance to have their say are typically much less implacable and effective foes, in my opinion.

As for the mission itself, I find little to disagree with in this post by Dave at the Galloping Beaver which argues that our military presence in Afghanistan is fully justified.

But at the same time, I am fairly skeptical about our ability to bring about long term change in the country. Which is not to say that there is no value in providing short term benefits, as I'm sure our troops are doing. But no occupation lasts forever - there are declining returns the longer one stays in a country. So I wonder how we will know when the time has come for our troops to return home.

I also wonder about the nature of what we are trying to accomplish. Perhaps I am just ill-informed but it isn't clear to me whether our mission is purely strategic (install a regime that won't attack us or disrupt the region), humanitarian (end the oppression of women, provide food, shelter and schools, ensure freedom of religion) or some combination.

Where do we stand with regard to opium production? Indifferent? War on Drugs? How does this square with domestic policy on drugs?

Lots of questions, but what it comes down to for me is my (uninformed) feeling that our best course of action would be to try and get into power the best (according to whatever mix of strategic and humanitarian interests we are pursuing) people who can retain that power and prevent the country falling into civil war or anarchy, and then depart within a relatively short timeframe (under 5 years).

But when any dissent is categorized by our Prime Minister as 'not supporting the troops' it not only stifles the debate which should be occurring, it also puts the government in a position where it is unable to change course without being hoist on the petard of it's own shrill rhetoric - which in turn introduces an unwelcome political element into future decisions about the mission.

And if there's one thing I feel with certainty on this topic, it's that our troops will be best served when the decisions about the mission are made strictly based on the merits of the mission, not based on partisan politics.

Let Me Clarify Something

Recently I wrote that I was waiting and watching to see what the Conservatives were planning on the Climate Change front. Via Sinister Thoughts, I see the following comments from our environment minister, Rona Ambrose,
"The Kyoto pact set short-term reduction targets through 2012. These are unrealistic for Canada, the minister said. Instead, Canadians need to talk about "action and solutions long term. We need solutions that are out by 50, 100 years, not two years, five years."

So let me just clarify that when I said I was waiting, I didn't mean for 100 years - I meant until budget time.

The March of Progress

The Canadian Cynic provides Steve Janke with a brief refresher course on recent history regarding the word 'progressive'.

Friday, April 07, 2006

If I Were Prime Minister, Episode 2

(note: first installment here)

Well, it's a (somewhat) sunny Friday in Vancouver. I'm looking at the calendar on the wall and it tells me that it has been 96 days since the last statutory holiday. I appreciate that not everybody gets holidays off, and that it is bad for GDP if we don't all work 24/7/52, but I still think that the simplest, most direct way for the Prime Minister to increase happiness in his or her domain would be to add an extra national holiday.

Timing-wise it would be logical to have it in February. Perhaps we could align with Alberta which has a holiday on the third Monday of the month. What to call it could certainly be a controversial topic, although as Prime Minister, I think I would just go with 'Snow Day'. True, there are parts of Canada, like the lower Mainland which are unlikely to have snow at this time of the year, but most of the country will have snow (for now, anyway) and even in B.C. many people can take the long weekend to go skiing.

No penny, and an extra holiday. So far I think my Prime Ministerial platform is looking pretty good. Next time I'll try to avoid going 15 months between installments in this series.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

What, No Throne Speech Post?

Ainge apologizes (sort of) for not posting about the Throne Speech. Which made me realize that I didn't post on the throne speech either!

Let me explain myself in taunt:

Bills and laws may break my paws
But words will never hurt me.

Clear enough?

Random Thought For the Day

I think that most people would agree with the statement that television (or radio, or newspapers) exists to provide content and uses advertising to cover the expenses of providing that content.

But I think it is more accurate to say that television (or radio, or newspapers) exists to sell products and uses content to get people to look at the advertisements for those products.

Perhaps this is just semantics, but I know it makes a difference to my own attitude if I think of it the second way, rather than the first way.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

And I Thought *I* Was Cynical

Shorter John Ibbitson, from the Globe,
"The Conservative platform is stupid, but because the middle class is stupid and selfish they will vote for it, so it is a political winner."

You think I'm exaggerating but I'm not. Let me demonstrate.

Says Ibbitson,
"The government will cut the GST because Liberal income-tax cuts, while more efficient, appear illusory"

"Toughening penalties on gun crimes may be counterproductive at a time when overall crime rates are in decline, but in the face of impotence on the part of politicians, judges and police to curb the rise in gang violence, any action looks better than no action at all"

"Banning corporate donations to political parties and slashing limits to personal contributions, while proscribing lobbying by former government employees, may well be inefficient and excessive"

"Finally, sending parents money for child care, while encouraging employers to create daycare spaces, will not lead to a coherent national daycare program"

"the experts may shake their heads at the impracticality or uselessness of what has been promised"

So I think that pretty much covers the 'Conservative policies are stupid' part of my summary.

The idea that middle class voters are stupid is pretty much implicit in the argument that they will support stupid policies but John spells it out, just to be clear,
"Bureaucrats, academics and analysts warn that these issues are complex, that these fears are generally unfounded, and that change must accommodate competing interests.

But that's not what middle-class voters want to hear."

Ibbitson suggests that policies which help the poor or address aboriginal issues are pointless (politically) because "the poor don't vote", and "there aren't that many middle-class, voting, aboriginal Canadians." The assumption that the middle class is unconcerned with issues which don't affect them directly or with the problems faced by minority groups is an assumption that they are selfish.

As for stupid policies aimed at middle-class fears being a political winner, Ibbitson makes this claim explicitly in the first paragraph,
"Stephen Harper has offered a Speech from the Throne that, barring the truly unforeseen, will lead to the re-election of the Conservative government in 2007, because he understands what his critics do not understand: the hidden fears of the middle class."

So, is John Ibbitson right? Is a platform of stupid policies (none of which will do anything to benefit the nation) targeted to address the fear and greed of a stupid and selfish middle class, the road to success in Canadian politics? I guess time will tell, but I sincerely hope not.

Game Plan

With the federal parliament getting underway, I figured this might be a good time to dig up the list of issues I compiled during the election campaign, so that we could have some benchmark to see what the government does to address/ameliorate these issues. Of course the list is just my own personal assessment (with some input from readers) of what is important, and it's open to change, but it's useful as a rough guide to what is, could, or should be on the federal government's plate.

Note: I have bolded the issues which correspond to the Conservatives 5 core priorities of giving money to parents, producing a 'wait-times guarantee', transferring consumption tax to income tax, increasing federal government accountability and introducing/increasing mandatory sentences for violent crime.

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

As parliament continues, the plan is to roughly track the introduction and progress of bills to see (and judge) what action the government is taking to deal with the issues I feel are important.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Waiting and Watching

The Globe and Mail suggests that the Conservative government is cutting funding to the one-tonne challenge. Meanwhile the Chronicle Herald in Halifax suggests that the government is still making up its mind, although at least one group (in Quebec) has been guaranteed continued funding.

Personally, I never liked the one-tonne challenge much myself. I'd rather see concrete measures such as expanded subsidies for renewable power, specific mandatory agreements with emitters, market-based initiatives like a carbon tax or an emissions trading program, or a reallocation of infrastructure spending from fossil fuel uses (highway widening, pipeline construction, etc.) to more constructive uses (transit spending, hydro infrastructure subsidies, etc.)

But it's worth noting that this is not a difference of intention between me and the Liberal policy, but rather one of tactics.

If the Conservatives do cut funding to Liberal climate change initiatives, because of a difference in tactics, and they come up with an alternative plan, than we can discuss that.

But if they cut funding to Liberal climate change initiatives because they don't believe the planet is warming or because they think the warming is not our fault, or because they don't think it is worth doing anything about it, or simply because it won't fly with their head-in-the-sand base, that will be a clear sign that the Conservatives have vacated the reality-based community and can't be trusted to run this country.

So for now it's just waiting and watching.

hat-tip to Sinister Thoughts