Saturday, December 11, 2010

Suddenly it all makes sense

So that's why there's a significant backlash against even trying to measure happiness as a positive outcome - as at least Andrew Jackson's quick chart suggests that it correlates nicely with low inequality. But let's take the comparison a step further by also considering the provincial ranks for GDP per capita. Among the interesting connections between the three factors:

- Prince Edward Island ranks #1 for both lowest inequality and most satisfaction. And the fact that the province ranks #10 in GDP per capita doesn't seem to have affected the high degree of provincial happiness.
- Conversely, British Columbia, Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan all rank in the top 5 for GDP per capita, while also ranking as the four provinces notably higher than the others in inequality. And all have a happiness ranking significantly below their GDP ranking (5 and 9, 4 and 10, 1 and 5, and 2 and 4 respectively).
- And for those wondering whether there's an inevitable conflict between reducing inequality and the level of GDP per capita, Newfoundland and Labrador looks to serve as a strong counterexample - ranking #3 in per-capita GDP, tied for #3 in lowest inequality, and #2 in satisfaction.

Of course, the above is only an extremely rough look based on a crude ranking which doesn't take into account the level of difference between provinces. But on the surface, there looks to be enough of a disconnect between GDP and citizen satisfaction to suggest that any attempt to actually determine what people want - rather than simply assuming that it correlates with and is measured by wealth - may well lead to some serious questions about our current policy direction.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading...

- I haven't yet commented on the latest effort to tie Canada's regulatory and structures to the U.S., and will plan to get there shortly. But for now, go read Alison on the inevitability that the Security and Prosperity Partnership would emerge in a new form, and Thomas Walkom on the futility of selling out sovereignty for supposed border convenience that's never going to come.

- I'll agree with Andrew Coyne that we could do wonders to improve the balance between party leaders and other elected representatives by eliminating the requirement that leaders sign off on all nominations.

But while I do think elected MLAs and MPs should have a greater role in being able to represent their constituencies, I do have to ask: since when are they the be-all and end-all of party preferences? And what rationale can there possibly be for deliberately excluding all ridings which don't have an elected member - but who may be crucial to the party's cause in seeking to form government - from a decision as to who's going to serve as the top figure within the party?

- Jeffrey Simpson rightly points out that while John Baird is providing his usual supply of hot air for domestic consumption, there's no reason for anybody at the Cancun climate negotiations to listen to a word he has to say:
Even before his departure, Mr. Baird began blaming China, India, Brazil and others for not doing nearly enough to bring down greenhouse-gas emissions. It was largely the fault of developing countries such as these that the Kyoto Protocol failed, he claimed, and why a new climate-change agreement wouldn’t work.

Canada is right to urge big developing countries to do better and more than what they’ve thus far proposed. Canada also would be right to do something serious itself before lecturing others, since Canada has the worst record in the advanced industrialized world.

Mr. Baird’s aggressive message – a classic instance of throwing stones at glass houses – was designed entirely for Canadian consumption, since Canada long ago lost any shred of credibility on the world stage for climate change.
The world understands this. It knows Canada is deeply hypocritical when it criticizes others, because Canada, as one of the world’s largest per capita emitters, attends every climate-change meeting with dirty hands, empty rhetoric and inadequate policies. It knows the Harper government doesn’t like the climate-change file, wants desperately to protect the oil and gas industries, and doesn’t believe there’s a single vote in climate-change action.

No one at Cancun would pay serious attention to Mr. Baird. His bluster was intended for domestic consumption, to reassure those Canadians – many of whom are lodged in the Conservative Party and the media’s right-wing elements – who want no action taken against climate change.
- And finally, the Star nicely comments on the need for a serious push to deal with inequality in both power and money between the corporate sector and mere citizens:
For generations, people have come to this country to find a better life for themselves and their families. They have helped build a prosperous nation, where most people had access to a decent job and reasonable income.

Governments created laws that struck a balance between the power of corporations and the rights of working people. Most of us were able to find respect for our skills and knowledge, and to be paid accordingly.

In recent years, however, much has changed. The immense greed that fed the global financial markets has seeped into the core values of Canadian business.

Nowadays companies are only happy if there are tax cuts, subsidized profits and a pliable workforce. The same powerful actors who nearly wrecked the world economy are now shamelessly demanding that governments and workers do their bidding — or suffer the consequences.

There’s no doubt that a lot of these guys wear quality timepieces worth more than the rest of us earn in a year. The gap between rich and poor in this country has grown tremendously in recent times.

And unless something happens, it will only grow wider as mid-level incomes disappear from the reality of many families.

On new destinations

It's fair enough to note - as Susan Delacourt does - that Stephen Harper and other opposition leaders have often been unpopular with the general public before forming government. But it's worth highlighting the fact that even based on the example she uses, there's one aspect of Michael Ignatieff's level of unpopularity that sets him apart from past examples who have managed to turn around their political fortunes.

Here's the full text of the "Majority wants Harper replaced" article referred to in her post. And what does it have to say about Harper's standing within his own party?
Although Mr. Harper's leadership has not been widely questioned internally, the poll found unease among Canadians generally. It also found that 37 per cent of those who consider themselves Conservative voters believe there should be a change at the top.
In other words, even at his apparent worst, Harper still didn't have to worry about more than about a third of his base thinking they were better off with another leader. Which makes for a significant contrast with Ignatieff's situation, in which somewhere between a plurality and an outright majority of his own party's supporters want him gone.

In contrast, Harper has apparently managed to consolidate his control over the Cons since then, even as he's gone out of his way to alienate a significant majority of voters outside his own party.

So the big difference for Ignatieff isn't so much antipathy among the general public (which is at a fairly similar level as that for Harper and Martin in the polls being discussed) as the fact that his failure to stand for much of anything has left him lacking for defenders even within his own party. And that means that unlike his predecessors, he figures to face a serious lack of advocates when it's time to start changing minds in the next election campaign.

[Edit: added labels.]

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ferry Corsten feat. Shelley Harland - Holding On

Friday Afternoon Links

Assorted reading to end your week...

- Kevin Page points out the obvious as part of his effort to get the Cons to stop hiding information from him:
Page, dispatched by MPs on the government operations committee in October to help them get a handle on the impact of the operating freeze, came back empty-handed. The government won't tell him details and has refused his requests for any information citing cabinet secrecy.

Page said the government's secrecy and blanket refusal to release basic documents is blocking the work of Parliament and, if left unchecked, poses all kinds of risks, including the temptation to hide mistakes.

He argues the blocking of information is getting so out of hand that someone should be monitoring what's being refused to ensure they really are cabinet confidences.
- And Aaron Wherry provides a timely example of what happens when a forum like question period is seen as not being intended to convey actual information. And indeed it's hard to see who's supposed to be better off waiting for new set of revelations before anything approaching the truth starts to trickle out when there was a chance to start having a meaningful conversation months ago.

- Warren Kinsella comments on the seemingly inevitable result when corporate and state resources are marshalled against the likes of Wikileaks:
Getting big companies like PayPal and Amazon and Visa to hit WikiLeaks in the pocketbook is as idiotic as it is predictable. So, too, threatening Assange with untold prosecutions on trumped-up charges – and even now prosecuting him in a case that looks, to many of us, highly coincidental and therefore suspect. To me, what I see in the papers this morning are the institutions that people truly hate these days – banks, and huge corporations, and bellicose governments – doing what they always do: reacting stupidly, corporately, and way too late. They should all send a bunch of “secret” cables to each other about their plans. They do that a lot, apparently.

I tried to think of a metaphor that fits, to make my point. I settled on a fight between a big, slow, dumb dinosaur – being besieged by an army of fast, smart, tiny mammals with really sharp teeth.

And we all know what happened to those big, slow and dumb dinosaurs, don’t we?
- And finally, it's always nice to see some new discussion about why the Cons' choice to gut the census figures to have damaging side effects. But while less accurate information is surely a problem for those actually interested in solving problems, I'm not sure the Cons can be expected to see this precise form of inaccuracy as anything but a plus for them:
Ms. Nakamura noted that simply changing the weights could lead to CPI under-estimating actual inflation. That could help government budgets achieve politically preferred results.

On the revenue side, if personal incomes rise faster than measured CPI, more people get bumped into higher tax brackets. (Tax brackets are indexed to CPI.) That amounts to a tax increase without any discussion in Parliament.

On the expenditure side, CPP and other inflation-adjusted transfers grow more slowly, as do public sector wages and benefits. This holds down government spending below what it would otherwise be.

Lower-than-actual values for CPI would be valuable to the Harper government in other ways too. It would make Canada look good to both foreign and domestic investors who value price stability. It also puts less pressure on the Bank of Canada to raise interest rates.

More contrasting priorities

A few days ago, I noted that after five years and hundreds of millions of dollars, the Cons are still nowhere close to convincing voters to prioritize crime and tax slashing over health care, the environment and other social issues. And today, a BBC poll suggests that the Cons haven't been any more effective in shaping Canadians' priorities on the global stage:
(C)limate change remains the most talked-about global issue in the country. According to the 26-nation poll by GlobeScan, nearly one in three of us have discussed climate change over the past month.

Moreover, the number of Canadians who say they've discussed it is significantly higher than the 20-per-cent global average.
After climate change, the most discussed global issues among Canadians are the state of the global economy, environmental problems, extreme poverty/hunger and terrorism, the poll says.

According to the poll, Canadians see extreme poverty as the most serious global problem. Seventy-two per cent describe it as very serious, slightly more than the global average.

Other global issues Canadians identify as very serious include environmental problems (65 per cent), armed conflicts (64 per cent) and corruption and human-rights abuses, both at 54 per cent.

On chosen goals

Susan Riley nicely points out why progressive Canadians have every reason to be frustrated with the continued ineffectiveness of the Libs:
(F)or many voters on the liberal-left, the situation is urgent. They watch Harper's various assaults on democracy, his secrecy, his benign neglect of the environment and health care and his hyper-partisan personality with mounting dismay. For them, the prospect of a Conservative majority -- constructed of scattered "clusters" of right-leaning voters -- heralds not a period of stable management in Ottawa, but a much diminished country.

Yet, when they look to the Liberals, too often they see Ignatieff nodding in agreement with Harper (on the Afghan extension, the budget, the primacy of the oilsands), or hectoring on lesser matters. This isn't a complete picture, but poll after poll suggests Ignatieff hasn't caught fire with voters, and, at worst, has been a crashing disappointment.
But let's not think that the Libs aren't focused on accomplishing at least something. After all, Chantal Hebert notes that the Libs are quite happy to play up their perceived success in achieving goals that don't actually involve doing anything to stop the Harper government:
(I)n the aftermath of the by-elections, polls show that the Winnipeg victory has had no impact on Liberal fortunes nationally while the Conservatives, on the other hand, have consolidated their lead, in particular in Ontario.

But then Liberal spin doctors may also be making the most of the smaller blessing of having continued to hold the NDP at bay in 2010.

At year end, the Liberals make up a more constructive official opposition than 12 months ago and — in case it is any comfort to them — the polls show that the second-place position in the House is very much theirs to lose in the next election.
Of course, the flip side to Hebert's point is that it's a real possibility that the Libs might well manage to lose the second-place position that they've all too often seemed to value more highly than the prospect of doing anything to change the Harper Cons' direction for the country. And that's all the more likely if voters happen to notice that the Libs' message about presenting an alternative to Harper isn't backed up by any meaningful action.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A glimmer of hope

Since the NDP's Climate Change Accountability Act was unceremoniously shredded by the Cons' unelected and unaccountable senators, there's been reason to wonder whether any opposition bill will see the light of day as long as Stephen Harper remains in power. But the voting on Bill Siksay's transgender rights legislation signals that all hope may not be lost for at least some good to come out of the current session of Parliament:
Want to know who are the most socially liberal MPs within the Conservative caucus? A vote Wednesday provided some clues.

By our count, five Conservative MPs—Heritage Minister James Moore, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, and parliamentary secretaries Shelly Glover, Sylvie Boucher and Gerald Keddy--voted in favour of an NDP-sponsored bill that would enhance the rights of transsexuals and transgender individuals.
Now, it's far from clear whether any Cons in the Senate are supportive of the bill. But the mere fact that the Cons didn't whip the vote in the House of Commons would seem to suggest that they're not dead-set against seeing C-389 passed - meaning that it figures to at least stand a better chance of surviving than most opposition private members' bills.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday.

- I'd think it's worth questioning whether we should be so quick to radically change our basic social assumptions based on a declaration of "war" at all. But Dan Gardner nicely points out the problem with using "war" language to deal with issues which obviously aren't subject to resolution through a one-time conflict:
(H)yperbole about terrorism isn’t mere nonsense. It’s what the terrorists want. And that may be the least of the damage done by framing the response to terrorism as a “war.”

The enemy in this “war” is not a nation. He has no armies to defeat in the field, no capital to occupy, no supreme commander who can agree to end hostilities. There can be no V-E Day. If this is war, get used to it. It’s permanent.

Dick Cheney was explicit about that. He warned of “decades” of fighting ahead. So did neo-conservative strategist Richard Perle and former Bush speech writer David Frum in their book An End To Evil. And Norman Podhoretz, the dean of the neo-cons, topped them all in his book World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism. In Podhoretz’s view, the Cold War was a 42-year-long world war, which makes “war on terror” the World War IV. Expect it to “go on for a very long time,” Podhoretz wrote.

The implication is as obvious as it is frightening. Peace is not the normal state of affairs in this mindset. Wars are not occasional and brief interruptions. Instead, war is the norm, and peace is but a brief interlude between conflicts.

But as we are constantly told, war is an emergency. It’s an existential struggle. To the extent that civil liberties and standards of civilized conduct get in the way of victory, they must be suspended. And since war is endless, the suspension is permanent — which is why, as James Madison observed long ago, “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

To be blunt, any politician or journalist who demands liberty and civility be curtailed because “we are at war” is a bigger threat to liberal democracy and western civilization than any terrorist.
- It's well and good for the Libs to point out a few prominent examples of how the Cons are wasting public money. But it's worth taking some time as well to go beyond the last two weeks' worth of headlines - and the Cons' longstanding commitment to throwing money at public-private partnerships wouldn't be a bad place to start.

- Not that I much disagree with Haroon Siddiqui. But can anybody explain why there would be any need for him to start his column on the Cons flat out making up "facts" with the qualifier "(w)hen cornered"?

- Finally, a shorter Eric Duhaime: We must fight the requests of mere undeserving artists at every turn, and instead take pity on their poor, helpless corporate distributors.

Try again

Barbara Yaffe is apparently having trouble finding policy areas where the NDP and the Libs are in disagreement. So let's see how hard it is to track down a few that she seems to have missed.

How about the NDP's push this fall to reduce taxes on home heating - which was supported by a major national advertising campaign? Apparently Yaffe either hasn't heard of it, or lumps it in under the HST.

The strong disagreement on whether to strengthen the Canada Pension Plan or hope that there are vast pools of money just waiting to be put into individual-level saving? Apparently it doesn't exist.

The question of whether to prioritize tar sands development at all costs over any concerns about sustainability? Doesn't rate a mention.

Of course, there are plenty of issues where the parties are in relative agreement - which is only natural when a far-right government is largely driving the political conversation with its policy choices. But Yaffe's omission of even the NDP's most visible campaign of the fall looks to reflect little more than the usual media tendency to ignore any issues that hasn't actually been taken up as a major point of discussion by one of the Libs or the Cons. And there's no basis to blame the NDP if commentators can't be bothered to notice even the obvious points where it's drawing strong distinctions.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


It's always easy to assume that an individual even remotely identified with a particular ideology will be utterly unwilling to be convinced by opposing positions. But Jonathan Kay's remarkably positive review of Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks' The Trouble With Billionaires should serve as Exhibit A that a sufficiently compelling argument can indeed have a powerful effect on somebody on the opposite side of the political spectrum - and should serve as motivation to make sure the case to deal with inequality gets heard in circles which may have shut it out for far too long.

On tarnished brands

Eric rightly notes that the Liberal brand in Canada has been facing a serious downturn in fortunes over the last decade or so. But it's worth putting that decline in a wider context that looks even more dire.

After all, whatever problems they're having with their general brand, the Libs are in even worse shape in the other areas that would figure to drive voter preferences. When it comes to issue preferences, even their best showings are no better than their general voting support, while areas like health care and government services see them trailing the NDP. And to the extent leadership preferences are normally seen as a leading indicator for future voting intentions, the Libs particularly don't have much reason for optimism.

If anything, the Libs' brand looks to have stayed fairly strong in light of those failings on the federal level. But a brand can only hold up for so long when people don't associate it with much of anything positive - and in the Libs' case, there's reason to wonder whether it's already been damaged beyond repair.

Wednesday Morning Links

Assorted content for your consumption.

- For those who haven't yet read Susan Delacourt and Don Lenihan's article on the consumer model of politics (warning: PDF), now would be the time to change that.

But it's worth noting that part of the proposed solution seems to have already been tried and found wanting. After all, is there any better model for "collaboration across organization boundaries" as a uniting political principle than the Obama administration? And can anybody plausibly claim that its efforts to be seen including all kinds of different stakeholders (including political opponents) haven't often led to disastrous results when some of those stakeholders are themselves dedicated to a policy's failure?

- Meanwhile, Chantal Hebert reads Rob Ford's victory and other recent developments more as evidence of old-fashioned populism than a new retail model of politics. And that would seem to leave far more room for any developing energy to be shifted toward more positive ends.

- Have you hugged your lobbyist today? Because apparently some people figure it's worth prime commentary space to salute those who help those who can help themselves.

- Speaking of whom, the Wikileaks revelations about how Norway was pushed to buy F-35s don't seem to reflect all that well on any of the bidders who exercised political pressure to push for their model of plane. But the US' choice to withhold a radar system from a competitor to make the F-35s look better in comparison looks like a particularly damning example of how the purchasers' best interests are almost entirely excluded from the process.

- Finally, Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan points out some inconvenient truths. But Canada's lack of leadership on climate change (or more to the point, leadership in exactly the wrong direction) doesn't figure to change anytime soon.

Con values at work

Really, why should Canada waste time on elite concepts like reading, math and science anyway? As long as our Tim Horton's consumption doesn't start dropping, we have nothing to worry about.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cats with stuffed friends.

So much to look forward to

In case anybody thought any substantial lessons had been learned from the big-money, zero-rights G20 debacle in Toronto, the McGuinty government's response to a scathing ombudsman's report about says it all:
In his report, Mr. Marin finds the province shouldn't have passed the regulation in the first place - that it was, in his opinion, illegal and unconstitutional to do so. But he adds that even had it been valid, “the government should have handled its passage better. ... It gave police powers that are unfamiliar in a free and democratic society. Steps should have been taken to ensure that the Toronto Police Service understood what they were getting.

“More importantly, the passage of the regulation should have been aggressively publicized.”

Premier Dalton McGuinty declined to comment on the report Tuesday, saying he hasn't yet read it. In a letter, Community Safety Minister Jim Bradley said he appreciates the concerns Mr. Marin identified.

“The ministry could have, and should have, handled the enactment of Regulation 233/10 better,” he wrote. “In future, we will take greater care to ensure that the Ontario public is given more adequate notice of regulation changes of this nature.”
So the McGuinty government has interpreted the issue to be solely one of publicity - not one of whether massive civil rights violations were justified in the first place. Which presumably means that we can look forward to a nice, glossy Rabble Suppression Action Plan (TM) next time Canada is supposedly showcased to the world.

[Edit: corrected Marin's title.]


Having dealt somewhat with the theory behind leader/caucus relations yesterday, I won't spend too much more time discussing Carole James' resignation as an unfortunate example from both the leadership and MLA standpoints.

But it's certainly unfortunate that a B.C. NDP which looked set to win a commanding victory in the next provincial election as recently as a couple of months ago is now being judged as vulnerable to a snap election call. And while recent events should offer compelling evidence that a party's fortunes can always turn around in a hurry (especially when it's fighting internally as well as against its outside foes), it's hard to see what anybody within the NDP stands to gain from James' removal - including the MLAs who will now face a far more difficult re-election battle for having challenged her leadership.

We're #24 (and sinking!)

But I suppose we shouldn't worry about trifling matters like infant mortality rates until we know whether they materially affect our GDP.

Your money, their offices

It's well worth noting that several federal ministerial offices are spending far beyond their budgeted allotment of money. But the bigger story looks to be exactly how they're getting away with it:
Flaherty breached Treasury Board guidelines by overspending by more than $430,000 last year, according to government documents.

Flaherty spent $2,868,222 on his ministerial office in 2009-10, while Treasury Board rules cap spending for ministers with extra regional responsibility and a parliamentary secretary at $2,437,370.
Flaherty's spokeswoman, Annette Robertson, said the minister did not overspend.

Flaherty was granted additional funds to design and co-ordinate the federal government's Economic Action Plan, Robertson said, refusing to say how much he received.

"We neither breached nor overspent our budget, in light of the additional resources granted by (the Treasury Board). We did not exceed the additional amount," she said.
Ministers of State Lynn Yelich, Steven Fletcher and Gary Goodyear also spent between $21,993 and $25,311 over their budget limits.

Staff for Yelich and Goodyear, however, said their ministers were in compliance with Treasury Board allotments.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney appeared to have also overspent, but spokesman Alykhan Velshi said his office received $401,680 in additional funds to support the minister’s multiculturalism portfolio.

"We came more than $300,000 under budget," he said, of the $2,592,046 Kenny spent last year.
Jay Denney, spokesman for Treasury Board President Stockwell Day, said occasionally, the Treasury Board cabinet committee grants ministers extra funds, but he would not confirm which ministers had received additional payments.
Yes, that would be the same Treasury Board which has been engaged in regular attacks on the civil service in a supposed effort to rein in spending.

But when it comes to Con ministerial offices seeking free money, any interest in restraint apparently disappears. And when that willingness to provide handouts is combined with the Treasury Board's refusal to name the recipients of its largesse, it becomes glaringly clear that Day and the Cons see themselves as entitled to hand out publicly-funded goodies in secret - which looks like a far more serious danger than the type of mere mismanagement we've come to expect from Harper's government.

Monday, December 06, 2010

On priority lists

For the most part, the latest Nanos polling looks to fall more under the category of "drift within the usual party positioning" rather than "radical change in course". But perhaps the most interesting part of the poll is the fact that even in a relatively good sample for the Cons in terms of vote share, Harper and company look to face some serious problems with the issues considered important by voters:
The Nanos poll looked, too, at the top issues concerning Canadians. It found that voters continue to be worried about jobs, the economy and health care.

“What is interesting is the potential forward impact these issues will have on the public mind,” Mr. Nanos said. “As the Conservatives wind down their stimulus program, it will be more difficult for them to portray themselves as being pro-active on the economic front.”

The Prime Minister announced last week he would extend stimulus the deadline for infrastructure projects to be completed by another seven months. Until that point, the program had been intended to wind up in March.

The Nanos survey found that 22.3 per cent of respondents were concerned about jobs and the economy compared to 20.7 per cent who were worried about health care. The environment was the third issue of most concern although only 8 per cent of respondents mentioned it; high taxes came in fourth with 4.4 per cent of respondents saying they were worried about it.
Of course, the economy has been seen as a Con-friendly issue to date. But as Nanos notes, there's reason to think that message is evaporating as any pretense of an "action plan" winds down, to be replaced by declarations that the Cons are focused on the economy in place of any discernible action.

And yet, that's the least of the Cons' worries in the issues still at the top of mind for Canadians.

After all, the available evidence suggests that five years of "tough on crime" messaging has done absolutely nothing to convince Canadians that there's any serious issue to be dealt with. Instead, the #2 and #3 policy priorities are areas where only regular acting lessons and/or aversion therapy can allow the Cons to pretend to be remotely engaged without bursting into laughter. And while the Cons are presumably glad to see high taxes make the list, they can't draw much reassurance from the fact that they're seen as a top priority for under 5% of respondents.

So while the Cons may be riding high for now, that looks to be based more on their success in decoupling policy priorities from voting intentions than any reason to believe that they've managed to bring Canadians around to their way of thinking. And that gap offers an obvious opportunity for the opposition parties to start shifting votes by claiming the top issues for themselves.

Monday Afternoon Links

Content goes here.

- Brian Topp muses about what lessons we can draw from the B.C. NDP's internal debates. But I have to wonder whether Topp's proposed solution of giving elected MLAs more ability to choose and dump leaders goes in exactly the wrong direction: can't we find more scope for representatives to act on behalf of their constituents (i.e. loosening the perceived top-down authority of the leader who's actually in place) without giving a small group of people the power to override the will of the broader party as to their choice of leader?

- Chantal Hebert is right to criticize the bite-size news model. And Chris Selley is equally right to encourage Hebert to take the lead in delivering more substantive commentary.

- In case the Cons' choice to gut Canada's census hadn't done enough damage already, it'll also bite into university budgets by forcing researchers to pay for information that was otherwise available as part of Statistics Canada's public service role:
Researchers say they will no longer be able to reliably use data from the long-form census once it becomes voluntary in 2011. As a result, they will need more money from the federal government to buy substitute data from private organizations.
Much of professors' funding comes from organizations like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Institute of Health Research — agencies funded by the federal government.

“A lot of our researchers are now going to have to use their federal grant money to purchase private data, so in a sense it is not really saving the federal government a lot of money that way, it's adding more costs to universities and colleges,” said David Robinson, the associate executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
Of course, for the Cons that end result is probably seen as a feature rather than a bug.

- Finally, a report on the federal Learning Bond program manages to figure out the blindingly obvious (at least assuming the goal is to offer opportunities to "children from low-income families" rather than merely "children from low-income families whose parents happen to speak the right language and be among the lucky few to hear about the program"):
Through the learning bond, Ottawa contributes a maximum of $2,000 to a low-income child’s tax-sheltered Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP).

As long as a family has an after-tax household income under $40,970 a year, it can open an RESP account for a child born in 2004 or after, apply and get the money, with no strings attached. Unclaimed money goes back to Ottawa’s coffers.

Yet as of 2009, more than 880,000 children, including 60,000 in Toronto, had not claimed the bond they were entitled to.

“The federal program is benefiting the high-income families, when the low-income families can benefit from it most,” said May Wong, Omega’s executive director and a report co-author. “The money can make a big difference in their children’s academic aspirations.”

According to a 2008 EKOS survey, 83 per cent of low-income families had heard of the RESP program, but only half knew what it was. Worse, only one in 10 said they had heard of the free learning bond.

The report attributes this gap, especially among immigrants, to the lack of multilingual information, and to the ignorance of community workers about the RESP. It says parents are often misinformed or misled.
The report recommends developing a simpler application process for RESPs and an automatic enrolment process for the Canada Learning Bond, as is done with a similar program in the United Kingdom.

Monday Morning 'Rider Blogging

In the 2009-2010 offseason for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, GM Brendan Taman's staffing strategy seemed to be based largely on flipping through old league guides looking for former head coaches who were out of work. "Doug Berry? He can run an offence, right?" "I've always thought Jim Daley was special." "We need a substitute Gainer. What's Don Matthews up to these days?"

That can have its downside when it means that opponents have seen a team's schemes before. But it also sets a franchise up nicely when it's time to pick a successor to its head coach - and with former CFL head coaches leading all three phases of the game for the 'Riders, there would seem to be ample opportunity to replace Ken Miller internally.

But for some reason, the strongest candidate of the bunch based on last season's results is apparently well back of two other choices, and is still being mentioned only as an afterthought.

So let's ask the question: why wouldn't Gary Etcheverry be at the top of the 'Riders' list of potential head coaches?

After all, Berry's offence stumbled regularly following a hot start last season. And by all accounts it's still considered a work in progress - which would seem to offer reason to leave Berry in the coordinator position if the 'Riders think that Darian Durant and his receiving corps can be substantially tuned up for seasons to come.

In contrast, Etcheverry's defence struggled out of the gate due to the 'Riders' two most devastating player losses. But by the end of the season, he'd completely rebuilt his pressure schemes around a new set of players - to the point where the defence managed to hold the CFL's top two offences to 21 points or less in the two most important games of the year.

So if the main selling point for a head coach is his recent track record in maximizing the results from the talent at his disposal, Etcheverry would easily seem to be the better internal candidate. And it's hard to see what two mediocre seasons in Edmonton would have done to make Richie Hall a better choice now than he was when he was passed over in favour of Miller.

Of course, there may be good reasons to think that while Etcheverry's scheming is ideal in designing a defence, the broader responsibilities of a head coach might not be the right fit for him. But after his success last season, I'd at least think he'd be at the front of the queue unless there was some overriding reason not to consider him head coaching material. Which makes it surprising that at least based on the press' coverage of the decision, he hardly seems to be in the conversation at all.

Deep thought

I'm pretty sure that the next time the Cons lose power after an election, that too will be spun as part of Six-Dimensional Chess Master Stephen Harper's Grand Master Plan (TM).

Sunday, December 05, 2010

On conflicting signals

Today's report on hospitality expenses approved personally by Stephen Harper doesn't say much in terms of the amounts actually authorized. But the more important story looks to me to lie in the Cons' seemingly pathological inability to accept that the same standards should be applied to them in government as to the Libs who they continue to criticize - to the point where they're firmly defending larger expense amounts than they're actively pointing to as evidence of abuse when spent by the Libs:
Asked at a news conference to provide an example of improper hospitality spending, Day cited the example of federal government reception that cost $31,500 for several hundred people. "We're saying ... that's not a good signal to be sending."

An aide later explained that Day was referring to a May 9, 2005, reception hosted by Statistics Canada — during the term of the previous Liberal government — that cost taxpayers $31,674 for about 400 people.

The Statistics Canada event, in fact, was similar in scale to the $47,158 budgeted by the Privy Council Office for the Sept. 13 town hall, intended for some 600 public servants.

A spokesman for the Privy Council Office said the town hall came in under budget, at $42,077, partly because hospitality costs amounted to only $6,520 for "coffee, tea, bottled juice and pastries."

Raymond Rivet was not immediately able to say how many public servants attended the event. But if all 600 showed up for the three-and-a-half hour session, total costs were about $70 for each participant — not far off from the $79 for each person who attended the 2005 Statistics Canada event that Stockwell Day said was "not a good signal to be sending."

Rivet said the Privy Council Office town hall "provides a venue for interactive discussion on the priorities and challenges for the upcoming year."
Now, any reasonable evaluation should suggest that the respective events of the Libs and Cons would be seen as fairly similar in scope, cost and justifiable outrage. But there's absolutely no rational basis for trying to label one as "improper" and the other as utterly above reproach - and the fact that the Cons are once again willing to go to such ridiculous lengths in trying to play opposition while holding the reins of power should provide yet more evidence that they're not up for the task of governing responsibly.

Sunday Afternoon Links

An assortment of content to close out your weekend...

- In case the example of climate change left any doubt that the Cons will never admit that they're choosing not to act on an issue even when it's glaringly obvious, their latest stalling tactics on gun labelling should serve as conclusive proof.

- Angelo Persichilli is thoroughly frustrated with the federal money and effort that's gone into not procuring helicopters over the last 25 years. But the most important cautionary tale looks to involve the cost of a rash decision as to requirements combined with the usual realities of cost escalation and delivery delays:
The procurement process for 28 Cyclone CH-148 helicopters started in 2004 and the helicopters were supposed to be delivered in 2005 for the initial price of $1.8 billion. Delivery was delayed to 2008 and now, again, to 2012. The price has gone from $1.8 billion to $5.7 billion!

The defence department also started the process to buy 15 Chinooks for $1.2 billion plus another $2.2 for maintenance, for a total of $3.4 billion. We are now already up to $4.9 billion and “the first fully capable helicopter is scheduled for delivery in 2013, five years later than planned,” writes Fraser.
Writes Fraser: “After lengthy delays and significant cost increases, National Defence still has not completely estimated what it will cost to operate these helicopters” and “National Defence underestimated and understated the complexity and developmental nature of the helicopters that it intended to buy.”

In each case, writes Fraser, “significant modifications were made to the basic models. For the maritime helicopter, this will result in an aircraft that never existed before.” Basically, they bought something that didn’t exist!

Is it possible that after 25 years, the defence department still doesn’t know what kind of helicopter it needs?
- Now, you can generate your own U.S. political action committee - or at least name it. And all without the millions of dollars that go into propping up the real thing!

- I won't say that Bernie Sanders' message on the priorities of the U.S. Senate is exactly on point, since it seems to get bogged down in numbers somewhat before getting to the more important realities as to whose interests are being served. But it's still well worth a view:

- And closer to home, LRT's first-ever podcast interview featuring Palliser NDP candidate Noah Evanchuk is well worth a watch as well.

On joyless positions

Most of the time, Colby Cosh stands out as one of the prominent Canadian commentators most willing to be skeptical of questionable conventional wisdom. But his post on new efforts to measure happiness reveals one obvious bit of unquestioning belief in a highly dubious assumption. And it's worth pointing out how that unduly narrow focus figures to lead to the wrong policy prescriptions.

Here's Cosh:
There is a great deal of excitement nowadays, among the gormless, about “happiness” research of this nature. I’ve mentioned before that I think “food miles”/”locavorism” represents one trendy, na├»ve attempt to create a modern-day alterna-Marxism and establish a quasi-religious standard of value not founded in economic exchange. “Gross national happiness”, which is popular with greens and Europeans looking for alternatives to odious “Anglo-Saxon” neoliberalism, is surely an analogous phenomenon. The correct public policies, you see, are really the ones that create the most net happiness, as opposed to necessarily being those that create GDP growth; so isn’t it the most natural thing in the world to just ask people how happy they are and use regression techniques to sniff out the underlying factors?
Money won’t make you happy, they say—but they’re not really referring to the whole package of benefits of having money; they’re talking about an artificially isolated, Unca-Scrooge’s-vault kind of enjoyment of money for its own sake. And guess what: money actually still turns out to be pretty damn good at making people happier, even when you do your best to reduce it to nothing but the sight of chains of zeroes in a bankbook or the ability to purchase a nice stereo.

If you don’t think money really makes people happier, try offering five-dollar bills on the street, and see whether your wallet runs out before folks stop taking the cash. The gross-national-happiness proponents will be tempted to reply that the results of such an “experiment” may reflect a delusional, unhealthy, socially cultivated preoccupation with money; in other words, they’re willing to accept self-reports of people saying “I feel about a 2 today”, but totally unwilling to accept the gold standard of revealed preference.
As far as I can tell, Cosh's attempt to dismiss all measures other than GDP as a standard for policy outcomes gives rise to two major questions - and Cosh lands on the wrong side of both.

First, is money indeed the "gold standard of revealed preference"? And even if one takes GDP to be the current "gold standard", does that mean we should deliberately dismiss any attempt to develop better measures?

Since I understand Cosh to be somewhat of a hockey fan, let's consider both questions by analogy to a general manager who makes a comparable assumption in running a team.

Hockey is ultimately about scoring more goals than one's opponent. And while most other measures of player value are based on some element of subjective assessment which is tracked unevenly and only minimally traceable to the outcome of a particular game, information about who has scored the most goals is readily available to assess any particular player or team.

So why not bypass the uncertainty of scouting reports, player projections and advanced metrics, and simply run a team on the basis of the simplest measure which has some theoretical link to the desired outcome - i.e. acquiring players who have the best track record of scoring goals?

Of course, the answer is fairly obvious: the fact that goals are reliably tracked and have some link to winning doesn't make them the be-all and end-all in team development. A general manager would probably find willing trading partners if he decided to build a forward unit around Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexandre Burrows, Matt Moulson and Jussi Jokinen, with Marc-Andre Bergeron and Ian White as his key defencemen and Ron Hextall lured out of retirement to cover all the goal-scoring angles. But that effort might - and only might - succeed even on the one measure being considered. (After all, context does matter in developing a player's track record even for goal-scoring - and that's no less true in analyzing the factors underlying GDP changes than in figuring out why a hockey player has scored goals.)

But it's a virtual certainty that using goal-scoring as a proxy for overall player talent simply because it offers an easy way to evaluate players would result in utter disaster for the team's won-loss record. So any general manager who did decide to convert his team to a form of Borschevskevism wouldn't figure to last in the job for long.

Mind you, that's largely the case in hockey because there are obviously other factors which play a role in the game (i.e. goal prevention), and a broader indicator of success that's widely accepted in the form of wins and losses. But is it accurate to say that both aren't also present in the case of the GDP vs. "other measures of happiness" argument?

Well, let's go back to our first two questions. Does anybody honestly believe that wealth maximization is the goal of such a substantial proportion of human behaviour as to serve as a remotely reasonable substitute for "that which we seek in policy development"? There may not be any easy answer as to how to weight the relative priorities, but I don't see much room for dispute that family, friends, leisure time, positive impact on one's community, and other factors are all part of a balanced life which most people tend to seek.

And indeed, unless Cosh himself has put together a thorough economic analysis as to how he can expect to make the most possible money in his current job (and by his own account obtain more satisfaction by the "gold standard of revealed preference"), I'd be inclined to see his own choice of career paths - involving an apparent tradeoff of money for public influence as compared to, say, investment banking - as a counterargument to his view that wealth maximization should be seen as the lone and central priority for decision-making at either the individual or the societal level.

So it's fairly easy to demonstrate that judging policy based on its GDP impacts alone presents a distorted picture of our ultimate desired results, just like judging hockey players on their goal total alone. But that leaves the second question to be asked: could it be that we should still ignore other possible types of measurement based on the chosen indicator coming closer to the mark?

Here, there's somewhat of a divergence between the two scenarios since hockey involves a built-in greater end result, in the form of team wins and losses.

But I presume Cosh is aware that hockey, like other sports, has undergone more and more analysis in recent years which has given rise to new and better ways of evaluating players than traditional statistics. And a crucial part of finding better indicators is a willingness to research different ideas. Some of those may not prove more accurate than comfortable traditional statistics, but can still both add context to the existing numbers, and point in the right direction toward the development of new ways of evaluating outcomes which come far closer to the mark.

That means that in at least this one case, Cosh is the one making the absurd argument that we should deride and close our eyes to research which may - or may not - result in better ways of thinking about what we're actually seeking to accomplish in developing public policy, simply because he prefers focusing on the more easily-measured GDP instead. Which seems like a sure way to prioritize that measurable indicator over the results that people actually want - and to ensure that in the longer term, we fall far behind those who put some effort into figuring out how best to define and measure success.

(Edit: fixed typos.)