Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

The Wrong Right0

Posted by JJ in Hats Off, Gentlemen, Golden Tacks, Crossroads of Culture (Tuesday October 3, 2006 at 8:22 pm)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others’ calls for the restaging of Idomeneo by the Berlin German Opera Company are absolutely right. The edition to be staged, including a scene with the severed heads of several religious leaders, was cancelled over fears of violence from Muslim extremists (despite the fact that a previous staging in 2003 resulted in no such incidents). But by focusing on the threat to free expression, those fighting for liberal rights have ignored the legitimate foundation of Muslims’ complaint, and revealed that the real problem in this case and others isn’t expression — it’s conscience.

Of course there are some in the Muslim world exploiting these issues to sow fear of aWestern plot against Islam, those threats belong, with others, in the “to be ignored” pile. Blackmail begets blackmail, and as Chancellor Merkel and others have rightly observed, succumbing to the threat of violence is the surest way to magnify that threat.

The legitimate concern is harder to dismiss. For many Muslims, it is wrong to depict the prophet Mohammed. Hence, in some paintings and illustrations of Koranic tales, Mohammed is veiled (of course, the practice isn’t universal). Those Muslims who object to such depiction may genuinely be offended by such works as this version of Idomeneo.

The first response is the right one — liberal society doesn’t protect anyone from mere offence. Still, appeals to religious tolerance may demand forebearance.

Those are wrong in the most fundamental sense. The essence of religious tolerance in Western society stems from State persecution aimed at enforcing uniform behaviour. Faith became a major contention when Protestants broke from the Catholic Church; and rulers across Europe were often brutal in their efforts to impose the “right” choice on their subjects.

Queen Elizabeth’s response was typical of her clarity of insight:

I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.

In ten words, the crux of that most cherished of liberal values: the freedom of the conscience. We may be required to do many things, and punished for many others, but the State cannot justify either command or condemnation by the need to control what we believe. It is from this fundamental principle that the right to religious belief, tolerance, and worship are born.

And this is the problem with calls for non-Muslims to respect Muslim practice. Religious tolerance means allowing those with beliefs to hold them, not requiring non-believers to do the same or, what is worse, act only in conformity with others’ beliefs.

This is the real threat to rights — not that to expression, which is always bounded by considerations of balance and propriety. It is the threat to freedom of conscience posed by allowing religious belief and practice to be imposed on nonbelievers for the sake of believers.

There remains the problem of offensiveness. When you know something will be offensive, there must surely be extra consideration. Common courtesy demands that we not allow ourselves to recklessly or cheaply offend others. But that is no matter for government, as those who attacked Danish embassies did not understand. Policing morals no more befits a state than threats of violence do deep religious feeling.

There may be no more fundamental right than this: the right to a conscience free to find its own way. We check our expressions daily, biting our tongues over harsh words, letting others take the spotlight, refraining from merely adding our agreement to a chorus, or ending a discussion with discretion. But our minds are not so easily checked, and often run on once our words run dry.

We can therefore tolerate the occasional attack on what we say, all in the name of sociability. But our freedom to believe — no matter how casually threatened — is too precious to yield.

Shockingly Routine0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Monday September 25, 2006 at 2:28 pm)

Some saw Liberal leadership candidate Joe Volpe’s latest scandal as evidence of his campaign’s lack of ethics and his personal unsuitability for leadership. Those folks just haven’t been paying attention. These conclusions have been hard to question since early June.

What the emergence of details of “phoney” memberships attributed to Volpe in Quebec and the subsequent allegations of similar abuses by the Ignatieff campaign in Toronto prove is how meaningless the party’s earlier pledges to clamp down on the abuses which characterized previous races were.

If the system were working (or even capable of doing so), it wouldn’t take complaints by those improperly enrolled to draw the party’s attention. It’s simply implausible to suggest that the party can ensure payments come from the private individuals alleged without contacting them directly and personally through impartial party staff.

There are just two problems with such a scheme. There’s no reason why those contacted couldn’t lie, especially if they’re drawn from the large group of potential members who don’t care about the party but have a load of fun at the sponsored drinking events. Enrolling the dead might be more problematic, but a fake contact could always claim the missing member was “out of the country”. Without a serious tracking effort, these meagre efforts would stymie any attempt to validate memberships.

And those attempts are the other problem. Most impartial party officials, like unicorns, were drowned in the Biblical flood. If you don’t believe in the Bible, what makes you believe in impartial political officials? Most full-time operators get their posts by being connected with power brokers in the party. Many are elected in circumstances similar to the leadership process (and often connected with it). That’s just one reason to doubt Quebec riding officials’ claims that abuses were limited to a single candidate’s campaign.

Simply put, it’s no surprise that rules are being broken. The party has become experienced at thundering speech, signifying nothing. And that’s just what’s been done to deal with underlying problems. Even if those problems could be solved, the system encourages a “race to the bottom”, where the advantage to be gained by breaking the rules means that no serious candidate can risk not doing so.

All of which goes to show why another purported violation is about as meaningful as the word “impartial” to the leadership race. Polls of members and membership lists don’t much matter when the members really don’t have control. Masses of undead voters and disinterested, easily-bought instant members can do that. The fact that Ignatieff is tied for first place among “members” doesn’t mean he can’t still produce a share of elected delegates wildly disproportionate from that of his top competitor.

The party’s claim that it must protect members’ privacy rings hollow for similar reasons. The distribution of that information through the party is too broad to reasonably believe that any degree of privacy can be maintained. Volunteers and hired call centres alike will have access to name and contact information — and neither is scrutinized heavily by the party. Merely making leadership candidates responsible for leaks isn’t going to stop them from relying on either; and it’s hard to believe that, in such circumstances, they will realy be in a position to control abuses.

The real reason why the release of lists is such a serious violation is that it might compromise the party itself. What might the media discover, given the means to verify the party’s alleged memberships and the guts to unveil the abuses that the party’s purportedly democratic process allow to violate its essential quality?

But would the public care? Probably not. Unethical behaviour in politics is something they consider routine; and it is, despairingly, to them that it falls to demand more.

Prologue — Bases Unloaded0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Thursday September 21, 2006 at 10:57 pm)

With the first real signs of the result of the Liberal Party of Canada’s Leadership campaign imminent, there’s good reason to revisit what’s at stake. For Liberals warming to the idea that they might retake Parliament sooner than expected, it’s important to think about how to do just that; and that task demands that they know where they stand.

Electoral support comes in two flavours: base and bonus. Base supporters are groups who feel so deep a connection with a party that their support tends to follow the party from election to election. Bonus supporters are attracted to a party by the position they assume by siding with it in a given election, whether because they identify with policies or want to distinguish themselves from other parties. Elections focus on both groups, but in different ways.

It’s virtually impossible to change your base during a campaign, but it is possible to motivate them. If you can get them excited enough about your chances, they become more likely to vote and encourage others on your behalf. If you alienate them, they’re likely to sit out.

Bonus voters are where there’s an opportunity to make real gains in support during a campaign. A masterful riposte during a debate, a well-chosen policy, or serious gaffes can turn these voters quickly; and without loyal starting positions, they may shift alleigances many times before the race is run.

Obviously, it’s easier to win with a large base than with lots of bonus voters. What isn’t so easy is building a base large enough to make it that much easier. The more people you add to your supporters, the harder it becomes to reconcile some differences and put off making choices between competing groups on others. Building a base means careful work over time, both in government and out. That’s why being in “campaign mode” while in government may or may not be a valid criticism. Campaigning to motivate the base isn’t very useful in office. But campaigning to fold other groups into your base is the most politically useful thing you can do. The problem is that it’s not the same kind of campaign you fight to win them over, come election time.

But enough of the obvious. Why all the fuss? It’s crucial to understanding where the Liberals now stand. So is looking back a bit.

In two elections against Brian Mulroney, the Liberal Party took around 30% of the popular vote. In 1993, the Liberals began the election polled at around 37%, not far from either the Tory total or their performance in the previous election (31%). Most interestingly, while Tory support dwindled in polls from 35% to 16%, Liberal suport rose only to 41%. While 4% of difference, concentrated in Eastern Canada, was enough to assure them of a commanding 177 seats in the 295 seat House of Commons, the Bloc Quebecois nearly doubled and the Reform Party more than doubled that theft of support, rising by 6% and 9% respectively.

Equally telling in 1993, though, was the decline in voter turnout from previous campaigns. From 1957 onward, only two elections drew less than three quarters of voters: Trudeau’s 1974 and 1980 Liberal majority governments, both of which came within two years of the previous election. Voter turnout dropped from 75.3% in 1988 to 70.9% in 1993. Had voter turnout remained roughly constant, the Tory base should have grown by 450,000 voters. That number, 3.2% of the total votes cast, couldn’t have defeated the Liberals (even if it remained loyal), but is so close to the growth in Liberal support during the campaign that it should illustrate the significance of demotivating your base, assuming that these were mostly alienated Tory voters.

1997 saw a further 3.9% decline in voter turnout, leading to nearly 700,000 fewer votes being cast than during the previous election — nearly the precise total lost by the Liberals in going from 5,647,952 to 4,994,277. The Liberals stood pat in British Columbia (six), Prince Edward Island (four), and the Northwest Territories (two), gained six seats in Quebec, and lost seats in every other province save one. While the Liberal total increased by three seats in Ontario, that province gained four seats in that election, meaning that proportionately, the party took fewer seats than in 1993.

The 1997 losses were largely ascribed to the public outcry over the Liberals’ failure to remove the hated Goods and Services Tax — widely regarded as the most important of their 1993 campaign promises. The correlation between the decline in turnout and in Liberal support would tend to support that conclusion. Moreso when you consider that the Liberal total would have been within about 5% of the same total vote had their supporters increased in line with the general population from 1988 to 1997.

Most of the Liberals’ gains retained in 1997 could therefore be attributed to natural growth of their base, and most of their loss to the loss of bonus voters gained in 1993, attracted to a position opposing the Tories and the GST alike. This is especially likely considering that the GST question was more an incidental policy than a central aspect of the party. But notice two things. The expected growth in the base accounted for almost all of the Liberals’ retained voters from 1993, suggesting that the Liberals either took little advantage of the opportunity to expand their base, or did, and alienated part of their existing base in the process. More importantly, though, there was no indication that the 5% of voters who failed to show in 1993 had returned.

The 2000 election provided the Liberals with an excellent opportunity to regain ground. They were faced with a clownish and unskilled opposition leader, who provided significant political fodder even for non-partisan observers. The Liberal vote grew, but only by 250,000 votes or so to 5,252,031. That growth is more significant when considering that turnout declined once more, falling by 2.9%.

But capturing a larger share of a smaller pie when confronted with lackluster opposition doesn’t inspire much confidence. The Liberals gained only eleven seats from party standings just prior to the election, of which eight came from recovery of seats in the Maritimes. Only three provinces posted real seat gains — one apiece in Saskatchewan and the Yukon (not technically a province, true) and the remainder in Quebec.

Most importantly, more voters had been alienated, though not only by Liberals, and those voters frightened into voting Liberal by the prospect of a Creationist Prime Minister might just have come from the New Democrats’ stock of bonus voters. That party lost roughly 300,000 votes between elections, largely in the Maritimes, where the Liberals picked up most seats, while the combined totals of the Alliance and rump Progressive Conservatives lost 170,000.

In short, the Liberals relied on bonus voters again in 2000, showing no evidence of real growth in their base constituency over the previous twelve years. This lack of growth becomes all the more important when considering that the total number of eligible voters grew by 1.6 Million between 1997 and 2000.

And now, the interesting parts.

In 2004, voter turnout dropped to the lowest ebb in Canadian history, to 60.9%. Nevertheless, the total number of voters rose, due to the continuing growth of the electorate.

In those circumstances, and faced with the fallout of the sponsorship scandal in Quebec, the Liberals lost 33 seats and majority status, but lost only about as many votes (300,000) as they’d gained in 2000. What happened? Had the turnout been as low in 2000, 570,000 fewer votes would have been cast. Consider that the PC party was merged with the Alliance to create the new Tory party.

The PCs polled 1.6 Million votes in 2000, and the Alliance 3.2 Million. In 2004, the “combined” total came to 3.9 Million — a gain of 720,000. Combine that with the fact that the Green party gained 480,000 votes, and the possibility of alienated PC and Liberal voters sitting the campaign out helps to explain the drop in turnout. Once again, Liberal electoral support didn’t drift very far from earlier results.

Everything changed in 2006. Voter turnout rose by four percent — this was the first election to meet and exceed the number of votes cast in 1993 (by roughly 1 Million votes — exactly the growth in the Tory vote over their take in 2004), despite over a decade of population growth in the intervening three elections. And the Liberal vote total declined by nearly half a million.

It’s almost certain that the Liberals picked up few additional bonus voters in 2006 — their polls showed declining support; but more significantly, the numbers suggest little growth in the base. The voting population grew by 29.5% between 1988 and 2006. Had the Liberal numbers grown at a comparable rate, they would have taken 5.4 Million votes in 2006, a much more competitive result.

Stop for a moment and think about that. In 1988, the Liberals trailed badly and lost. Had they been only as popular among the general voting population in 2006 as they had been in 1988 (that is — losers), they would have done better by nearly a million votes. That’s not good. The increase in votes cast roughly matched the Tory gains. The rebound in voter turnout did nothing for the Liberals.

All of which is not to suggest that all 4.2 Million Liberal voters in 1988 were base support — they were, of course, a combination of base and bonus voters. The point is that the Liberals were the only party with a degree of continuity over that time, which could have been an opportunity to work on their base.

Impossible? Certainly not — Mackenzie King began an era of Liberal government in 1921 that was interrupted only twice — by a two-month Conservative government in 1926 and a narrow loss at the outset of the depression in 1930 — until it ended in 1957 — a span of 36 years over which the growth in Liberal votes regularly outperformed the growth in overall voting population.

Twice the length of time? True. But 1988-2006 was both a long enough stretch and a large enough change in the number of voters (+30%) to expect more growth in Liberal numbers than 10% or so from a fundamentally worse performance in 1988 (83 seats of 295 in 1988 versus 103 seats of 308 in 2006). The degree of stability over the 36-year span was comparable to that over the 18-year span. There is no evidence of growth in the Liberal base, and much evidence of relying on poor opposition and demonised opponents to swing bonus voters to their position. Short term, that can be a successful strategy. Long-term it’s a recipe for a drawn-out and gradual death.

And that’s what the Liberals have to worry about. The idea that drooping poll numbers for the Tories will translate into a Liberal chance at forming government will dangerously distract party members from the hard question: what should we do to grow our base?

Leadership contests aren’t good opportunities for that kind of discussion because they’re so highly focused on an appeal to the existing base. Moving from that to a snap election won’t help things any. As Liberals move towards choosing the delegates who will vote for their next leader, they need to consider how to grow the party, not simply how to attract a few bonus voters in 2007 or 2008.

Working on building the base could ultimately lead the party back to the easier dominance it had in its glory days, rather than into another sequence of lurching and desperate elections. The first question for Liberals, then, should not be changed to “how do we win the next election” in the light of favorable short-term polling. It must still be “how do we grow our base again,” if they’re serious about political power.

Watch Out, Falling Pie!0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Vague Check, Golden Tacks (Wednesday September 13, 2006 at 5:49 pm)

It’s been a rough ride for Canadian education in the last little while.

A survey of Canadian researchers by the Council of Canadian Academies just found that 2 in 5 believe that Canada is falling behind the rest of the world in research. And anecdotal evidence supported by a minority opinion is about as close as you come to the truth these days. But the proof’s in the pudding — if Canadian science wasn’t fallling behind, more of those surveyed might be smart enough to see what was going on. In fact, the more vigorously Canadian scientists protest the suggestion, the more likely it is to be true, so watch for denials over the next few days.

And just how did Canada get into this mess? Probably because the country is falling behind in education. Despite the fact that 53% of Canadians between the ages of 25 and 34 have either a post-secondary degree or diploma (well above the OECD average of 31%), that percentage has grown by only 1% since 1995! Clearly, the country is in dire straits.

Which might explain why Canada is so keen on attracting university-educated immigrants. There’s clearly a dearth of qualified individuals in the upcoming generation. And of course, these facts point to only one conclusion: the Brain Drain is back!

It’s not an overreaction. Consider: Canada’s “laser physicists” are so useless for laser physics research that they’re being sent into space to do mechanical work. Which, it curiously turns out, they’re not very good at either:

Mission Control later reported that another bolt, similar to the one that went missing during Tuesday’s spacewalk, was lost Wednesday.

MacLean told Mission Control that he was removing a cover on the rotary joint when one of the four bolts he needed disappeared.

“I did not see it go,” MacLean said. “I’m looking to see if anything is floating.”

MacLean ran into another small problem a short time later when an extension on his pistol-grip power tool broke while he was trying to remove a restraint on the rotary joint.

“Son of a gun,” he muttered, then gathered the pieces in a trash bag so they wouldn’t float away and went to a toolbox to retrieve another.

But perhaps the fact that a nation of highly educated workers lags monkeys in elementary tool use is the only unsurprising point to be found in this recent news.

39:1 Take 2 In P-10: Senate Reform0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Friday September 8, 2006 at 9:24 pm)

And so it begins.

Senate reform could be a near-perfect issue for the government. So in addition to the popular and half-baked government proposal to shorten Senate terms, the government is pledging to introduce legislation to allow for the election of Senators.

What’s so great about that?

Constitutionally speaking, truncating Senatorial terms might require a formal, multi-provincial amendment, though that remains to be proven. Electing them almost certainly will, even if the government proceeds by setting up elections to provide the candidates to be appointed. So long as elections for Senate posts have no official federal sanction, it’s likely that the Governor-General can appoint them under the legal fiction of choosing to do so. If that’s the case, then the process is still technically the same.

Legislation requiring that Senators be drawn from a pool of elected candidates would likely be seen as binding the Governor-General’s choice. Which means that it would qualify as a change to the “method of selecting Senators” and fall under section 42(1)(b) of the Constitution Act, 1982, requiring an amendment approved by at least 7 provinces having at least 50% of the population.

So what would the government gain from introducing such legislation? The benefit stems from Canadians’ expectations. The Mulroney government’s obsession with constitutional wrangling was concerned with repositioning Quebec within the federation. That led to a complex series of negotiations which drew in a large number of associated issues. Provinces saw an opportunity to advance other claims as their price for what they saw as concessions to Quebec. The result was a series of tense and opaque negotiations, ranging over a wide variety of issues and many months, and given focus only by fears of separatism. When they think of changing the constitution, this is the process Canadians usually think of.

But that complex intergovernmental negotiation isn’t a prerequisite of the amendment process — it was complex mostly because of the complexity of the issues. An amendment only requires the following:

  • Parliament passes a bill containing the relevant amendments
  • Seven provincial legislatures which provinces comprise at least 50% of the population pass bills containing the same amendments

There’s no reason why one has to happen before the other, nor is there any rule about coordinating things in advance. There’s also no rule requiring hushed backroom meetings, single-file press statements, or lengthy debate.

Which means that the Prime Minister can introduce a bill on a narrow issue — electing Senators — without dragging in questions of regional representation. Given the popularity of that narrow change, it would be hard to explain (and justify) provincial opposition. Even if provinces want redistribution of Senate seats, why should the price of such changes be an unnecessary delay of democratic advances? Given that no province really opposes such a change, it’s hard to see what leverage a province stands to gain by insisting on a linkage between an elected Senate and other issues (as things stand).

So the plan ideally unfolds thus:

  • Introduce legislation to hold provincial elections upon Senate vacancies
  • Challenge provinces to pass similar legislation
  • Impress Canadians with a glimpse of how easy it could be to make popular changes to the Constitution
  • Make Canadians wonder why other governments couldn’t follow this route instead of convening investigative commissions and undertaking lengthy discussions
  • Government looks effective and competent
  • Opposition looks like anti-democratic stonewallers

A nice piece of work, if you can pull it off. And as an extra-special benefit, there’s the potential for a real showdown with the Liberal-dominated upper house. With 65 sitting Liberal Senators, even filling the eight current vacancies and replicating Mulroney’s feat of appointing a further eight wouldn’t suffice to ensure passage of government bills. If an appointed Liberal majority in the Senate decides to block a measure that appears both unusually direct and highly popular, it has the potential to be a major beating-stick for the government to wield come election time.

But there is a wild card in the mix, and that’s a little something known provisionally as the Murray-Austin Amendment. In addition to the government’s bill to fix Senators’ terms at eight years (let’s call that S-4), the two eponymous sponsors of this Amendment have proposed three changes:

  • Establishing a new “region” consisting solely of British Columbia and represented by 12 Senators
  • Redistributing the existing 24 regional Senators for Western Canada between Alberta (10) Saskatchewan (7) and Manitoba (7)
  • Increasing the number of “contingency Senators” who can be appointed to between five and ten from between four and eight

The amendment is a wildcard for a few reasons. While it might be popular, it will be bound to raise the hackles of Ontario and Quebec, who are unlikely to want their role in the Senate diluted; and, like it or not, if the Prime Minister wants his own amendments passed, he’ll need either Quebec or Ontario to meet the 50% population target (hence the first glimmers of talks on the subject three weeks ago). Quebec’s price could be the defeat of this amendment (or at least its delay pending broader discussion of redistribution); and if the amendment has, as it has been suggested, the support of the majority of Liberal Senators, the Liberals could block the Prime Minister’s move by undertaking a politically popular move of their own. If that happens, Harper will gain little or nothing for his effort. Hardly surprising, then, that the amendment is co-sponsored by a rump Ontario Progressive Conservative and a British Columbia Liberal.

On the other hand, if the measure passes, the Liberals will have less room to manoeuver in the Senate. At present, the Liberals hold 65 of a total possible 113 Senate seats. If Murray and Austin have their way, the total number of possible seats will grow to 127, potentially putting the Liberals in the position of holding a slender, two-vote majority. Considering that it can often be difficult to marshall older Senators, the amendment could jeopardize the Liberal party’s leverage in the upper chamber. Is a draw with the Conservatives over the issue of Senate reform really worth weakening the party’s most significant advantage in Parliament?

So very much to consider. No wonder it’s a house of second thought.

In His Own Words0

Posted by JJ in Hats Off, Gentlemen, Golden Tacks, Gaia (Wednesday September 6, 2006 at 5:20 pm)

So let’s get this straight: Liberal Leadership Candidate Stephan Dion’s environmental platform was partly copied from the proposals of a globally acclaimed environmentalist and Companion of the Order of Canada.

Is anyone wondering why this is a problem? Is it because of lack of attribution? Has one of his rivals attributed his carbon tax proposal? It’s not like others haven’t previously offered up the same idea.

Perhaps it’s copyright that everyone’s worried about; and they’ve got a point there. After all, if M. Dion is willing to lift the text of significant study by this group of experts, might he not do the same thing to other experts? The Suzuki Foundation does copyright their reports.

So that must be it. By copying out portions of David Suzuki’s proposal and not attributing it properly, Dion’s campaign used copyrighted material, which is a serious problem if the copyright holder doesn’t give permission for the use. Of course, that’s not the case here:

Pierre Sadik, senior policy adviser for the David Suzuki Foundation, acknowledged there were several similarities between the Dion Web site and the foundation’s paper but said that’s a “non-issue” for him.

“We’re delighted any time a politician picks up our proposed solutions to Canada’s environmental problems.”

Which is just good sense.

So, no foul? Not legally, no. But there are some who might be troubled. The proliferation and increased sophistication of lobby groups has raised suspicion among some that these groups positions are designed, from the start, for negotiating purposes. If so, then the proposals they advance shouldn’t be adopted wholesale. Will those individuals be angry with a politician who unhesitatingly accepts the claims of activists?

It’s a difficult line to draw; but the Suzuki Foundation, unlike groups like Greenpeace, isn’t known for taking absolute or potentially violent stands on environmental issues. It has consistently emphasised a science-based, rational approach to the assessment and development of policy and peaceful implementation of new policy.. It is precisely the kind of organisation with the kind of expertise that should be encouraged.

And if this plagiarism encourages the Foundation as it claims, kudos to M. Dion’s team. If only they had the guts to admit their mistake. How far would guts like that take them?

Simply Useless0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Sunday August 27, 2006 at 7:43 pm)

It’s been a tough ride, of late, for the scientific community. A resurgent backlash surrounding evolution, alleged hush campaigns against climatologists, and now, a stirring conflict over the celestial status of Pluto, a thousand-kilometre-wide ball several billions of kilometres away.

It’s enough to make some think that science (which, if you remember your pop culture right involves lots of big words, scanning things, and illuminated glassware) is losing some kind of battle. And they’re right. The problem is that they don’t seem to understand why they’re losing; and the reason is: they’re not very good at translation.

The key phrase in the rise and apparent weakening of science in society is a Latin extract from a 14th-century discussion of God:

Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate

Also put as:

Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora

Which most people know as the logical principle of Occam’s razor. But what does it actually mean?

One site aimed at scientists offers the following:

Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily

Which is pretty close. The principle harkens to simplicity, and does little more than point out the fact that where you can explain something equally well using fewer concepts, arguments, or variables, you should stick with the smallest possible number. Or, as the site puts it:

The most useful statement of the principle for scientists is,

“when you have two competing theories which make exactly the same predictions, the one that is simpler is the better.”

Which gets at the heart of the principle: its utility. Simpler explanations are better. How? Because they’re more useful. They’re easier to work with, easier to deploy, and easier to explain.

And it’s because empirical nominalist science was useful that it overcame objections, time and time again. It didn’t much matter what kind of fuss other interested parties might kick up — if you can deliver the goods in the form of better weapons, better health, and better living, you’ve got the job.

At its post-war peak (where science didn’t seem to have to have any particular purpose), books like Can Science Save Us? proposed putting the scientific method in charge of deciding everything (though it wasn’t really a new idea). There’s an echo of that blue-sky optimism in every voice that asserts researchers will find us a way out of our self-induced and other social problems.

That ironic blind faith in science continues to this day is revealed by what is glibly considered a “stronger” version of Occam’s Razor:

The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct

This “translation” is often cited. But of course, it’s not a version of Occam’s razor at all. It adds the quality of truthfulness to the explanation — something the original doesn’t claim or even consider. That’s a serious mistake.

Steinberg, in common with many anti-anti-evolutionists, points out the evidence in support of evolutionary theory as a surefire weapon against creationist forces. But evidence of that kind constitutes a claim of truthfulness; and science didn’t get to where it is by pontificating about truth — that’s what its opponents did. Science succeeded by making things work. The real problem, therefore, is that evolution doesn’t seem sufficiently useful as a scientific theory. As fascinating as it may be to piece together the heritage of lifeforms, that alone won’t beat a path to the laboratory door.

The defenders of science appear to be waking up to the fact that they need to become more politically active if they’re going to ensure a strong role for the sciences in modern Western society; but to do that effectively, they also need to confront those segments of the community who identify abstract science with big-T Truth. Arguments about whether Pluto is a planet, dwarf planet, or wonkworld* reveal what’s really going on: scientists seem to be introducing social interests to decisions that should be made on grounds of utility. The members of the International Astronomical Union actually seem to be concerned with public sentiment towards Pluto’s status, which only bolsters the argument that science should be partly based on public opinion. Small wonder, then, that the general population thinks it can micromanage biology and that private opinion is part of scientific truth.

Truth is a great thing; but it has a tendency to be passed over in favor of other things, among which utility reins supreme. An effective strategy is one that recognizes the nature of the conflict. Truth tends to be on God’s side when you’re talking with believers; and chances are it’s best left there. Do you really need truth to operate a computer? Where science needs to focus attention is on its successes. It hasn’t brought us any closer to truth, but it has brought us a lot of things we don’t sound quite so pretentious in admiring: good health, more leisure, and new opportunities. That’s not just an argument that might win out in the end — it’s an argument that would make William of Occam happy. After all, it’s a simpler explanation than why truth is important.

*Why not?

Misdiagnosis: Health Care0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Friday August 25, 2006 at 3:27 pm)

Sometimes people make mistakes because of wishful thinking. Sometimes, it’s because they just don’t know what’s going on. Sometimes, though, it’s an out-and-out lie.

In the face of continuing lengthy wait times, a shortage of practitioners, and soaring costs, it’s hard to deny that the Canadian health care system is in serious need of healing. Which is why the Canadian Medical Association’s policy conference was of interest.

The delegates, deeply divided over both the question of privatization and the public impression endorsement of it might give, produced three “motions”, more noteworthy for their inertness than their movement:

Today, delegates to the Canadian Medical Association policy conference in Charlottetown, said creating a parallel private system should remain an option but, minutes later, they voted down the idea of opening the door to private insurance that would allow a parallel system to exist.

They also adopted a motion calling on the CMA to “acknowledge the strengths of Canada’s publicly-funded healthcare system” and identify reforms to improve it.

Further, delegates said governments should lift the long-standing prohibition on doctors practicing in both the private and public system and said all doctors should have the right to opt-out of the public system, though not en masse.

Which the outgoing CMA President interpreted as meaning:

But what delegates did say is that they don’t want to close the door on any potential solution to improve access to our patients.

Not exactly, Dr. Collins-Nakai. What the delegates did say is twofold:

  • They won’t take an actual stand on systemic change for fear of being painted as “greedy” by patients.
  • They’d rather someone else comes up with ideas.

Which is really more passing the buck than passing a motion; but what did you expect from a policy conference? Policy? It’s plainly an attempt to maintain their position as heroes of the health care system at the potential cost of worse care for patients (unless, of course, they really don’t have any idea of what to do). Besides which, putting the profession’s public image above public concerns must be part of the hippocratic oath:

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

Or maybe not. Still, if you’re keen on physicians who won’t stand behind their convictions and prefer not to take hard decisions, it seems Canada has enough, at least, to fill a convention hall.

A Little Means a Lot0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Thursday August 24, 2006 at 11:38 am)

A recent spate of anti-Ignatieff messages targeted at members has the Liberal Leadership candidate’s team somewhat upset. Sure, it’s nothing new, Ignatieff’s opposition has been attacking him since the Winnepeg debate in June. But there’s something new in that response, particularly given Ignatieff’s attempts to avoid fighting with the other candidates, and it’s in a senior strategist’s response:

“. . . there are people in the Liberal Party and, make no mistake this is coming from inside the Liberal Party, who are not interested in renewal of the party,” Mr. Davey said. “. . . the fact that this kind of stuff goes on, that we have people who haven’t got the courage to put their name on something and hide behind anonymity and yet have access to memberships lists, and new memberships lists, these are the membership lists that have come out in the last 30 days, so this is coming from inside the Liberal Party.

The courage issue sure is interesting, but it’s that part at the beginning that’s curious. Is an Ignatieff strategist really suggesting that those campaigning against him are against the renewal of the party? It’s a throwaway remark, you say? Strange. . .those are usually the most telling. What it shows is a remarkable kind of arrogance in Ignatieff’s team — and one that fits in with other aspects of their campaign.

Let’s not be mistaken, Michael Ignatieff has a number of good qualities, chief among which, as one blogger pointed out long ago, is the fact that his positions seem grounded in something other than political expedience.

But, of course, one might demand at least a little bit of expedience from a would-be leader.

Instead, there seems to be an arrogant detachment. Consider:

Early remarks about esoteric management principles in response to a request for comments on a convention
Proper Response: Anything about the people, rather than about how you go about controlling them. Oh, and literary references should be limited either to current bestsellers (Bible excluded) or classics available in comic-book form
Avoiding taking shots at competing candidates while they attack him
Proper Response: If you’re really that confident as a frontrunner, you don’t go negative, true. But you do go clever. Trudeau was supremely confident on many occasions, which never stopped him from getting in a good jab when things got rough. Getting in there and brawling doesn’t just make you look less like the condescending Dean from a frathouse comedy, it shows that you can attack your real political opponents without looking like a whining baby; and that’s important, too.
Fundamentally stupid remarks on the conflict in Lebanon
Proper Response: If the Chilly Wonk knew that, he’d be over there right now working on it. But this much is for sure: it’s not an off-the-cuff demonstration of professional appreciation of military necessity coupled with personal indifference to human life.

In the light of which, it’s conceivable that the man and his team consider themselves the renewal of the party. But surely that’s nonsense. Besides which, why the renewal of the party would be stopped by negative internal attacks is hard to gauge — there’s unlikely ever to be a leadership race without such things; and if their complaint is with the use of membership lists, they’d do well to remember that more restrictive control of membership lists is not the best strategy for strengthening parties.

But above all, why respond to the same kind of negative campaigning you’ve faced all along with a farcically broad, silly, and arrogant smear of your opponents?

Before the Fall0

Posted by JJ in The Other America, Golden Tacks (Sunday August 13, 2006 at 8:19 am)

An elegant tribute, released in today’s Star, draws the eye to a confounding problem: the leadership of great men.

Alexandre Trudeau points, quite rightly, to Fidel Castro’s genius, energy, and drive — those things, which, with his lengthy grip on power, mark him as a leader in the “great man” cast.

The leadership of great men is often admired. We think in awe on the giants of the past — our Alexanders, Napoleons, and our Kennedys. Trudeau prefers the term “patriarch”, which comes as no surprise to those whose memories of his father make the term more resonant. But there is a haunting danger behind that term, as there is behind the leadership of great men. It is a danger of confusion.

True, one can hardly act as a society without, at times, resorting to entrust the helm to a single man. Republican Rome had its dictators, the Iroquoi their war chiefs, and the Long Parlliament John Pym. But in the elevation of a single person to act for all the rest lies a terrible danger: that someone will confuse the one with the other.

When is the mission that of the great man and when is it that of society? When refugees flee Castro’s Cuba, do we turn them back and point to the genius of their leader? Is the educated cigar-roller Trudeau points to too bound up by Castro’s vision of society to use his knowledge to forge his own life? Whatever the moral outrage we feel at the United States for its treatment of Cuba, at what point is the pride of a nation worth its poverty and dissatisfaction? Isn’t “we can’t let them win” an equally foolish and prideful statement of self-destruction regardless of moral overtones? Is there something to be learned from Michael Jackson?

But before those questions can be answered, a more important one must lead: is it the pride of the nation that creates such stubbornness, or is it the pride of its leader? Was it the difference between Quebec and the Federal government which so strained relations between Rene Levesque and Pierre Trudeau, or was it the difference between the men? Is it Cuba and the United States that cannot bear to reconcile, or is it Castro and Congress?

Genius does not make it more difficult to work for another’s interest — not of itself. But focusing on that genius and the men and women who exemplify it to us blinds us to the fact that however alluring it is, genius is no more a gift than beauty of any other kind. Put to good use, it becomes worthy of our gratitude in addition to our praise; put to bad use, our praise can be drowned in howls of agony.

And the tragedy is that the good purposes of such genius are no different from those of any other human serving her society — the careful quest for the public good instead of the insistent imposition of personal bias. Basking in the glory of genius, we far too easily assume its agenda for ourselves. The charismatic leader, wittingly or not, makes his cause tempting by association; and it is hard to leave the side of a woman you admire. We are too often blinded by the sparkle of brilliance to properly question its use. And the genius is no less needful of such questioning than any other man. Neither, tragically, is he any less immune to the dangers of flattery.

It is hard to imagine how history could be rewritten — how our lives would change and whether we might be better off had things been otherwise. But there is good cause to wonder whether we should end by praising leaders who leave society so badly off for having the very qualities that might have made it better.

A cult of genius is the seed of tyranny; and we should remember how little help it was when, amid the thunderous applause of society’s strength, only a single voice was heard to whisper: “Remember you are nothing but a man.”

Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Saturday July 29, 2006 at 10:19 pm)

Sound like a square dance? That makes sense, because this particular problem is the joint product of noted square, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and note-worthy (sorry, puns run hot even for the Frozen Wonk) country star K.D. Lang.

Mr. Harper recently snubbed the outgames, an olympics-like event for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual (LGBT) athletes, by refusing to attend their inaugural running in Montreal (already underway). K.D. Lang, interviewed because of her status as Canadian, lesbian, and frontlining performer at the games, condemned the Prime Minister’s response:

“It’s a sad statement that the national leader of a country that’s one of the most progressive countries in the world chooses to support intolerance,” she told a news conference at the Olympic Stadium.

“They [the federal Conservative government] will probably make it (homosexuality) a political issues,” she said. “It’s not a political issue. It’s a human rights issue.”

Which explains why the Prime Minister, the political leader of the country, rather than the Governor-General, the head of the country, should attend. There’s no question that acceptance of LGBT lifestyles is grounded in a human rights argument, but saying that it’s not political is a transparent ploy. Recognising sexual preference and sexuality as a human right is highly political — it’s a core area of identity politics. And trying to skip the first step — recognition of the right — in order to claim that politics isn’t involved is not just misleading — it’s self-defeating.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, achieving recognition of certain rights in the courts doesn’t elminate the importance of working to gain public acceptance, because enforcing rights against the public’s grain tends to result in greater tension; and no one wants to have to run back to the courts every time rights are violated simply because the political groundwork was neglected in the euphoria of a favorable judicial decision.

But the foolish things entertainers say have been appropriately lampooned by others far more qualified. This is a place to lampoon dumb politics. And Mr. Harper’s reeks. Why?

Attending an event of this kind could resolve a major challenge for his party: the urgent need to prove themselves to the citified folk. Sure, the counter-argument exists: that spending time with LGBT groups could ruin their rep with core constituencies (anti-gay crusaders who haven’t worked their way up to being anti-bisexual/transexual yet); but it seems unlikely that anyone else stands to take that constituency from them. Given the chance that a few might be so committed to that particular issue to stay home rather than vote for a party that’s abandoned their principle, mightn’t it be mighty dangerous for Harper to give up the bad fight?

Not if you consider the possible trade-off. As part of a coordinated makeover strategy, it could sway enough old-school Tories back to a party they thought was captured by Reform. Moreover, if it makes enough of an impression to swing a few more urban seats, the loss of one or two in rural Ontario doesn’t seem so bad. It’s a gamble, no question; but it’s the kind of gamble (though not the only one) that Harper needs to take to transform his party from an acceptable alternative to a sought-after commodity.

His cowardly reaction can only lead to more of the same.

But the idea of an “Outgames” itself smacks of stagnation. Separate but equal was the hallmark of racism’s survival in the United States in the face of human rights (the 14th Amendment). And the idea of a separate set of Olympics for LGBT athletes falls right into that segregationist premise.

It makes two mistakes: it believes that self-segregation somehow improves awareness; and that having one’s own things doesn’t hurt becoming part of an integrated community. Neither is true. What Mark Tewksbury’s sexual orientation had to do with his Olympic medals is obscure at best; and the games’ claim to “overcoming difference” through sport seems spurious if it’s designed to only include those who are differentiated from society’s norms. It emphasises the difference and suggests that they need to be separate — quite the opposite of the point intended.

So while the ability to organise and host the Outgames must be a great boost to a community which has long had to deny its identity; the objectives the games profess to seek can’t be achieved by this action — they can only be obstructed.

Which, perhaps, offers some hope for the two parties to this issue — they have something in common than they may not have supposed: a penchant for rallying to self-defeating positions.

The First Rule of Peacekeeping Club0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, By other means. . ., Golden Tacks, Crossroads of Culture (Friday July 28, 2006 at 3:22 pm)

It’s an excellent club for politicians. They get to make peace instead of making war, and the public at home isn’t usually sure whether you or the United Nations is in charge. That makes it the best of all possible worlds for a government, which can:

  • mobilize a military response, satisfying those moderates with just a touch of warmongering bloodlust but a mortal fear of the actual sight of blood
  • work with the United Nations, satisfying those moderates keen on multilateralism but reluctant to surrender sovereign control
  • help people (people who need help!), satisfying those moderates eager do good but vaguely uncomfortable with the “hippie” politics of some NGOs and utterly ignorant of the Red Cross Society

Which can, in many countries, be a winning coalition. It’s just good politics.

Which is what, one must assume, was the point of Bill Graham’s rebuke to Stephen Harper’s musings on the UN mission in Lebanon: UNTSO. After the Israeli bombing of one UNTSO position left Canadian Major Paeta Hess-von Krudener missing and presumed dead, the Prime Minister questioned the fact that the UN observers had not been withdrawn from the area, given the severity of the conflict.

This prompted the Leader of the Opposition to call the Prime Minister’s comment “completely unacceptable”, as reported in this article:

Graham says Harper seems to have forgotten that Canada has been part of UN missions for several decades.

That seems unlikely. The Prime Minister would be somewhat less likely to ask such questions if he thought Canada had little involvement. In point of fact, questioning the effective deployment of UN forces should really be the least the government does to ensure the safety of Canadians who serve in them, as at least one former observer pointed out.

Then why object so strenuously to the Prime Minister’s reaction? Should there have been greater condemnation of the Israeli army? The Liberals’ own statement on the subject does nothing of the kind, so that seems unlikely. It can only be an attempt to stand up for peacekeeping against those who would oppose it — a conclusion supported by Graham’s complaint that support for the Israeli position undermines Canada’s reputation as a peacekeeping nation.

But criticism isn’t always destructive or wrong-headed, any more than peacekeeping is always flawed. What the Liberal Leader is really trying to do is make the connection that, by criticising the conduct of a peacekeeping mission, the Prime Minister proves himself to be against peacekeeping. It’s a variant of the “hidden agenda” argument that’s become so popular in Canada of late.

Hidden agenda theories are popular because of the recent plague of ideological arrogance that has left much of the population, like zombies, aggressive, infectious, and sorely in need of brains. The ideologue can’t comprehend that another position could be valid (or that his could be better) — things are merely right or wrong (a point which all hues of the political spectra cry foolishly). It’s simply too hard to take the fact that an issue is arguable, or that multiple answers could be right, depending on perspective.

The result of admitting no argument is that criticism and counterpoints must be invalid by definition. If so, then they can only be explained in one of two ways. Either the speaker is too stupid to understand that he can’t be right, or she’s making the point for an unknown strategic reason. That unknown reason must be the real agenda, and is divined much as the unknown reason for lightning (a panoply of powerful pushers). Of course, many people who believe in hidden agendas don’t believe that Thor makes thunder; but it might just take a bolt out of the blue for them to make the connection.

What’s worse, given the reality of its existence and the immediacy of threats, debate over the validity of peacekeeping may not be as important as debate over its execution. There are real lives engaged in the activity, and an important way to safeguard them is ensuring that they are properly commanded. It’s not like the mandate for the operation is hard to find (the group in question is presently attached to UNIFIL):

  • Confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon
  • Restore international peace and security
  • Assist the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area

Which raises the question: what part of the mandate was the group expected to undertake at the time? The UN’s subsequent reorganization of the mission as much as admits the truth of the Prime Minister’s complaint. It’s nothing to suggest that the situation become unsafe following the bombing — it was already unsafe at the time of the bombing, it’s just that either:

  • Command hadn’t realised it
  • or

  • Command hadn’t acted on it

Which of the two is acceptable?

Whether the attack was intentional or not is an argument for another site — the Chilly Wonk just doesn’t know; but it’s not the same issue as a real and important question about the work being done by Canadian soldiers abroad: are the UN missions being properly managed?

The question transcends troop safety and demands to know why the mission has failed at achieving objective 2, despite its frequent reports and demands to both sides? That, too, is an important question.

Asking important questions about the conduct of peacekeeping missions doesn’t go against peacekeeping, doesn’t go against the UN, and doesn’t go against Canada. It just goes against the first rule of political choices: never make the hard argument when the facile one will do.

Diplomatic Chemistry0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Golden Tacks, Crossroads of Culture (Thursday July 20, 2006 at 1:16 pm)

There’s a paean of sorts here to what might be called the Canadian way in the world: “scrupulous neutrality.” The importance of this tradition is clear:

For half a century Canada has taken some considerable satisfaction in its credibility as an international good fellow on matters relating to the Middle East. That status flowed directly from Lester Pearson’s volunteering of Canada for a peacekeeping role after the disastrous 1956 Suez invasion.

Canada’s role then and since then has depended on a scrupulous neutrality in an area where neutrality was almost impossible to sustain. Neither side could point to Canada and say its neutrality had been compromised, so Canada could serve as mediator or peacekeeper. No more.

It’s gloriously self-satisfying to know that Canada could have served as a mediator or peacekeeper. It might have been noble to think that it actually had; but what did Canada accomplish with fourty years of that reputation? Did it broker the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement? Was it the pivot on which the Oslo Accords swung? Or is it, perhaps, responsible for the current state of peaceful resolution?

The nobility of Canada’s position is of a different kind. Perhaps, like blue-bloodedness, it’s a mark of inaction. Or, like the noble gases, not much happens when Canada gets together with others.

Either way, and whatever the virtue or vice of the Prime Minister’s remarks, Canada’s history in this area isn’t anything to take pride in.

Hiding in Cowardice0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Golden Tacks (Wednesday July 19, 2006 at 1:03 pm)

While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, art is more than just one man’s opinion. After all, it takes two to tango. But ask two grown people anything and you’re likely as not to have differing opinions on the matter. Moreso if you wait a few decades.

That’s why you won’t see any golliwogs in shop windows these days; but sometimes time isn’t the source of controversy.

Consider, for example, this mural. Entitled “Dangers of the Mail”, it shows native americans scalping and killing whites, some male, others naked and female.

The debate over whether the work has any artistic merit is one thing. The argument over whether such pieces should be preserved for historical reasons is another. And then there’s this:

“It portrays Indians as cowardly. It’s an insult,” said Mooney.

It may well be an insult, but cowardly? Really? Those figures riding bucking horses, powerfully dominating victims, and confidently exulting in bloodshed seem cowardly?

What’s racist about the piece is clear: it depicts native americans delighting in acts of violence designed to threaten and destroy order (delivery of the mail). Depicting the female victims as naked adds a dimension of innocence and possible sexual tension, brutalising and severing the violence from any valid purpose.

What’s historically accurate is also clear: native americans engaged in scalping, whether of their own initiative or otherwise; and there were some attacks on those moving across the West, but these were few and primarily responses to desecrations of sacred lands and unwanted and hostile incursions into native regions.

So the real problem is that it portrays certain historical practices, cultural and real responses to invasion and hostile acts, as unprovoked and brutal acts of violence and domination.

What’s missing, then, is the context of the history, which would serve to explain both of these things and disconnect the accurate parts of the depiction from the racist parts. That would allow what is most badly needed: an honest and self-conscious appreciation of that part of American culture which sought to justify the treatment of native americans by depicting them as barbaric aggressors.

But again, cowardly? There are certainly plenty of native american stereotypes out there, but those uses of the native as sports mascot or food spokeswoman point to the same characterization as the native’s TV incarnations: strong, plain-spoken, and spiritually connected with nature. Doesn’t anyone remember this environmental message or this lovingly-rendered European cast of aboriginal tradition?

Whether these attributes are desirable, dangerous, or stupid stereotypes may be questionable; but cowardice isn’t one of them. Should we care?

Yes. Allegations of offense need to be properly explained, not to set bars to reparation, but to make it effective. The nature of an offense clarifies where it comes from and why, lets us understand the needs that bring it into existence and attack the problem at its root. Otherwise, we allow ridiculous allegations to masquerade as genuine concerns and don’t know quite how to counteract them (this one’s easy folks, the man’s a well-known professional fiddler and player of jigs — it’s an ad hominem suggesting that he’s a frivolous musician rather than a serious leader, so if anyone’s insulted, it should be musicians of every culture).

So suggesting that a presentation of cowardice is a problem is a double insult: it’s an insult to the Muses for mistaking the confident, powerful figures that fill the mural for cowards; and it’s an insult to their father, Apollo, for shedding darkness on an inquiry that should make us better people.

Wedding Bells (and Whistles)0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Sunday July 2, 2006 at 7:06 pm)

Marriage has always borne with pretentious addresses. Hardly a ceremony goes by without them. But it should give thanks for its extension to same-sex couples for two reasons. First, for its reengagement with romantics; and second for its divisiveness, no less sharply wielded on the communities where it is proposed than on understanding the institution itself.

However bedecked and glamorous, marriage has, at its heart, a simple quality and singular purpose. Some might point to the forging of alliances among kingdoms; but really, Greeks and Romans got married, too. Forging alliances between families? Yes and no. There’s a common element at work here; and the alliances are superficial phenomena which stem from what marriage really does: define inheritance.

The crucial characteristic that makes marriage enduring (not a marriage) is precisely this. By fixing a public announcement of union and erecting laws not only to ban extraneous sex but also inheritance by its fruits, the question of who gets to take over property, titles, and work from whom becomes far easier to answer. Whether oppressive to women or to men really isn’t the important thing to note here. Rather, it’s the stability of a social order where transitions between generations can be undertaken in an orderly way. Once society marries a couple, it expects to believe that only children born of that woman are lawful heirs of both her and her spouse. With enough midwives, attendants, friends, and what have you, the system works pretty well.

But of course, how well it works or not depends on how well you sell it, which is why it is laden so with mystical significance, costly rites, and pomp, pomp, pomp. It’s an old, established rule (see Plato’s Laws — by no means the oldest possible source) that nothing butresses social norms like impressive public rituals; and that’s the romantic hook. Don’t mistake a Frosty Wonk for a Chill Spectre — it’s no hoodwink. It’s just that everyone wants valuable things and nothing looks as valuable as something that everyone else values. So public ritual has a multiplying effect: the more you add, the more important marriage becomes, the more desirable it becomes to have all that attention lavished on a young couple, and so on until infinity.

But the pomp itself has nothing to do with the institution. Christians may call on God to bless their marriages, but can’t possibly suggest that the Church came up with the idea. It’s just one of the more recent forms of ritual to bolster this ancient custom.

And that’s what’s so surprising about the Court rulings on gay marriage in Canada. Not that they support it, but why: finding that marriage serves an important social purpose.

Through this institution, society publicly recognizes expressions of love and commitment between individuals, granting them respect and legitimacy as a couple. This public recognition and sanction of marital relationships reflect society’s approbation of the personal hopes, desires and aspirations that underlie loving, committed conjugal relationships. This can only enhance an individual’s sense of self-worth and dignity.

Surely so much money, attention to things like bigamy, polygamy, adultery, and bastardry could only stem from society’s desire to recognise expressions of love and commitment. Or maybe society just gets really angry if it bets on the wrong horse (or brace thereof). But this is no piece for cynics. Having seen Parliament’s attempt at romanticism, it’s nice to know that at least one Canadian institution is filled with daydream believers and homecoming queens — even if they’re always in mourning.

Which is what makes the push for same-sex marriage such a romantic gesture — it’s about the allure of the bells and whistles. But that brings serious problems. The Courts’ imposition of same-sex marriage did everything to attach the binding legal force of marriage without providing those entering it with the exempting savings of divorce — a right which in itself took long to establish (something about man being insufficient to put it asunder, but that couldn’t be right — wasn’t it man that put it together?) And these protections had still to be put into place. Which is why the Court’s judgement simply wasn’t enough to provide same-sex couples with equal rights. Legislation was needed; and the government obliged — when pressed by the opposition.

But let’s hope that those who fought for gay marriage with bells and whistles in their minds (and love in the hearts — don’t deny it) aren’t mislead by the same things when brandished by politicians. Those Liberals who will fight so bravely against Harper’s motion for a motion were too timid to proceed themselves without asking the Supreme Court for marching orders (that pesky fourth question), which the Court wisely took as an opportunity to tell them to get a pair:

12 Question 4 raises other concerns. While it possesses the requisite legal content to be justiciable, it raises considerations that render a response on this reference inappropriate, as discussed more fully below.

The government has clearly accepted the rulings of lower courts on this question and has adopted their position as its own. The common law definition of marriage in five provinces and one territory no longer imports an opposite-sex requirement.

68 There is no precedent for answering a reference question which mirrors issues already disposed of in lower courts where an appeal was available but not pursued.

Translation? “If you wanted to find out, you should have had the courage to appeal the lower-court decisions that got you into this situation, despite the fact that it would have meant arguing against same-sex marriage. Can’t try to look good that way then come before the Supreme Court and ask us to play the bad guys to keep your noses clean. Wusses. (or as close as you come in judicial parlance)”

Similarly, the Conservatives so brazenly suggesting that the work be undone offer up a vote to their supporters which they know they can’t win: a free vote where the NDP and BQ are against them, the bulk of the Liberals opposed, and a few of their own members unwilling to say yes.

Ignore the bells and whistles. What, for society, are precious reminders of the binding force of committment, are in these men’s hands cheap baubles with which they hope to lure unwary romantics of every stripe.

A Day for Canada0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Saturday July 1, 2006 at 4:44 pm)

While you’re relaxing today (or driving yourself around like a dervish to celebrate properly), take a moment to think about the history behind Canada.

After a complicated enough history, four of the remaining British colonies north of the United States were amalgamated in 1867. Almost immediately, regrets and reservations were voiced. Separatism and cries to justify the union of ten far-flung and disparate provinces have not ceased, even after 139 years of somtimes tentative cooperation.

Far too often, the response to these arguments comes from a nationalism as vacant and devoid of purpose as that imagined Americanism against which a Canadian identity is so very often established. There is an identity, Canadians are assured, and it rests in multiculturalism and how the world perceives Canada. To the first claim, little charitable can be said; to the second, nothing does it like “d’uh”. If it’s social programmes you’re thinking of, does that make Canadians Swedes without a shared history, language, or culture?

But this is no reason for discontent or for false bravado. 139 years may be, and likely is, far too little time to pass to expect a national identity with the strength of those born in revolution (United States) or those whose visible monuments mark their age in centuries (England) or millenia (Greece). It is no shame to be grappling still with the adolescent fantasy of perfection, no matter how Canada’s younger cousins fare (Barbados, Australia).

What must be done is not to seek out a unifying vision in things past, for history will be found always to already bind the present. Canadians must find a reason to move on together — a way to use the strengths of their diversity, geography, history, and humanity to good ends.

The answer to separatism of every kind is not to deny the validity of its criticisms, nor to terrify its adherents with visions of what might have otherwise been. It is, simply, to say and to show what this strength may yet produce. That would be something to be proud of, and a worthy task for another 139 years of Canadians and their country.

Fey Peddlars of Fay0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Saturday June 17, 2006 at 6:58 pm)

Some days you really have to wonder: does the press have no idea what it’s talking about, or are they really part of a grand conspiracy to keep the public clapping loudly?

The day this bit of trash appeared was such a day. Supposedly, the fact that a new limit of $1,000 per person for donations to political parties will mar the Liberals’ plans for their leadership contest.


Well, the fee to attend is $995. Since that total comes within $5 of the $1,000 limit, the theory goes, anyone who’s contributed more than $5 to the party will be unable, under the donation rules, to spend the necessary amount to attend. Therefore, the most active party members will be completely unable to attend the convention, throwing the whole thing into question.

Sound logic? Only if we assume a few things:

  • Those who donate money are those whom the party wants to attend.
  • The only way to attend is to be a paid delegate.
  • A leadership convention is a meeting of active party mmembers who choose leaders based on their deeply-held convictions.

The first two are nonsense. The third is true, but not the way you might imagine.

Let’s leave the first for a moment and consider how a convention works:

  • Delegates vote for candidates, round after round.
  • Candidates who receive too few votes in a given round are dropped from the ballot.
  • Some dropped candidates openly support other candidates, hoping to receive plum party positions for themselves and their prominent supporters.

Which tells us that the most desirable quality in a delegate is reliability. They should be relied on to vote in the expected way (i.e.-for a particular camp), and they should be relied on to vote for other candidates if their candidate tells them to.

Now, why would you expect those qualities to be found in a party activist? Aren’t these the people who already have a vision of the party, demand something specific from its future, and have their own plans? Leaving out those activists who join up with candidate’s camps, hoping for a little dose of patronage, why would you want independent-minded people to be delegates?

What you want in delegates are people who don’t care about anything but the fact that they’ve been given a chance to attend the convention. You want people eager to eat, drink, and be merry for two days, so long as they follow the would-be-leader, and vote as they’re supposed to. So low, in fact, is the level of respect for the opinions of delegates that delegates to the convention must run as delegates supporting a particular candidate (or as indpendent delegates) and receive a ballot on the first round already marked for their declared candidate. This is billed as a means for those voting for delegates at the association level to ensure that their voices are heard. It’s just a tremendous coincidence that it biases delegate selection against thought and for factional lines.

If we assume that donors tend to be activists with a sense of where and how the party is going, these are the last people a leadership candidate could want. What the candidate really wants from such people is volunteer effort; and there are plenty of opportunities to pitch in at a convention without actually being a delegate and paying the associated fee. Volunteers are needed to herd the delegates, pass on information, and just make the candidate look good, and their way is paid without fees.

If you’re keeping track, that’s why assumptions one and two are nonsense; and why number three is true — because those who care are involved as volunteers.

But if that wasn’t enough, consider this: the fee was set at $995. The Liberals must have been aware of the $1,000 limit, since Harper had introduced a draft version of the bill during the last election, well in advance of their knowing that there would be a leadership convention (unless they ignore what their opponents say). Considering that Liberal membership fees have been fixed at $5, it’s a remarkable coincidence that the combination of delegate fees and membership fees (a prerequisite for the former) comes to precisely the donation limit, isn’t it? It’s just a tremendous coincidence that such an arrangement is perfect for “instant members” — those noble souls signed up to represent a candidate, eat, drink, and do no thinking (let the activist volunteers do that for you).

And just how did the convention fees come out to the round figure of $995? The excellent (non-leadership) conventions in 1996 and 1998 cost a mere $400 per delegate. Considering that a leadership convention may attract more people (thus reducing the per-person cost) and has fewer events (such as policy break-out sessions and the like), should a leadership convention really cost two-and-a-half times as much? Even with that hefty dose of inflation since 1996? Is the media completely uninterested in such questions?

Sometimes politics is magical, isn’t it? After all, the Liberals couldn’t possibly be whining purely for political purposes, could they? And surely the press wouldn’t mirror a story presented on a partisan website without providing the necessary perspective, would they?

If the Frosty Wonk knew which was the more disgusting proposition, he’d tell you. For now, he’ll live with letting you make up your own mind: the vile pretence that delegate controls are democratic or the press’s lazy eagerness to sell you fairies.

Workers of the World, Unite!0

Posted by JJ in Hats Off, Gentlemen, Golden Tacks (Sunday June 4, 2006 at 1:17 pm)

Lest it be thought of this Frozen Wonk that he carries the same kind of hatred for unions that he does for, say, mindnumbingly pointless displays of hatred, things which fraudulently claim to be of “general interest”, and the ironically useless and tragically overused word “utilise”, be assured, it isn’t so. It’s simply that it’s often hard to find examples in the media of why unions matter.

But this week, this came along, as if to prove that much is still good and true in the world of organised labour.

A survey recently distributed by the Halifax Regional School Board asked teachers to identify their sexual orientation. The Board, which has just lost a case over the 2001 dismissal of a lesbian teacher, obviously suffers, at present, from a bad reputation in this area. While the survey was a poor decision on the Board’s part (you don’t need to know how many teachers are homosexual, because there’s no decision you can legally take which depends on that information), the real story here is the importance of the teachers’ union’s response.

Telling members not to complete the survey wasn’t, in this case, about the justification provided (the inability of the Board to safeguard the information) or about the spectre of unions bullying their members. It illustrates the crucial function of unions: to support workers whose relationship with the employer is otherwise one-on-one.

By telling members not to complete the survey, the union is reminding its members that there is a large, powerful body ready to stand behind them when they have to confront their employer with a justified grievance. That they are, in brief, not alone.

And in the case of a sometimes-disadvantaged minority, that’s a powerful statement indeed.

Independence Gets Held Up0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks, Chancellor's Footrule (Thursday June 1, 2006 at 5:21 pm)

Among the legislative victims of the last federal election in Canada was a short document known by the catchy title of C-51. It was one of those workhorse pieces of legislation that’s rarely celebrated by anyone but the few folks it’s meant to help. I won’t bore you with its long title — let’s just call him bill.

This bill had a singular purpose in life. You see, one of the things that Parliament does is set out just how much money everyone paid by the Crown gets. That includes MPs and Judges, and that’s where things get a bit tricky. Some folks tend to think that if a government were, say, to change what MPs and Judges earn, it would make them more inclined towards that government’s way of thinking. Bias is what those folks are getting at.

And that’s why for some time now, a group of independent thinkers gets appointed every three or four years: to figure out how much Judges should be paid. So long as the government goes ahead and does what that group says, no one gets upset and thinks the government is up to something.

So long as that’s what the government does.

But after poor little bill died on the Commons floor, we got a new government, with a different plan. They’ve decided not to do what that group said:

“Instead of the 10.8-per-cent increase, plus the cost of living, we have said 7.25 per cent, plus cost of living, is more appropriate,” said Toews.

In a statement on its website, the Justice Department said it made the change because of concerns “with the commission’s reliance on urban lawyers’ private practice salaries as a comparator, and the value placed on the judicial pension.”

Which has got some folks very upset:

NDP MP Joe Comartin is accusing the Conservatives of trying to pick a fight.

“What we have here is another reflection of the contempt this government holds towards our judiciary,” he said.

Now, the Chilly Wonk isn’t saying that Mr. Comartin’s right and he isn’t saying saying that he’s wrong. But the MP does miss the point.

It would be one thing for the government to say that there just wasn’t enough money around and that, given the circumstances, the Judges would be getting the same increase as everybody else. Or that they’d get what the group said less whatever percent the budget’s short by. But that’s not what they’ve done.

Instead, they’ve taken issue with the justification and said that something’s wrong with what the independent thinkers thought.

If Mr. Comartin’s missing the point, he’s not the only one.

If you’re going to change your mind based on what that independent group winds up saying, then there’s no real independence. It’s going to be what you decide and not what they decide. You can’t say that they were wrong to think about this or that when the whole point was to let them do the thinking in the first place.

Truth is most folks won’t likely be upset. They’re not that worried that the Judges will start thinking like a government that pays them less than they were planning on. Besides, most folks don’t likely think they’re underpaid and don’t think much of the idea that they can’t get good Judges for what they’re paying now. And maybe they’re right.

But that’s not the point. A government that doesn’t get or doesn’t care what independence really means is dangerous. Folks need to remember that independence has to be upheld, and not held up.

Scraping the Senate1

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Wednesday May 31, 2006 at 9:02 pm)

It was with the usual vacuous contempt (politicians lie!!! tell everyone!!!) that the National Post kicked off its treatment of the Canadian federal government’s new pro-democracy move:

Like a group of slumbering sloths about to be frozen into extinction by an advancing ice shield, Canada’s senators debated softwood lumber and the sale of public buildings yesterday even as the government tabled its initial foray into reforming the Red Chamber.

The outrage! Doing their jobs! And while any sensible privileged sloth would be busy making margaritas. . .

But let’s not get mown down by metaphor. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a plan, and it’s probably a vote-winner. Those perennial fatcats of the Canadian Senate are about to get theirs. Or. . .some of theirs. Well, truthfully, none of them is going to notice anything. But the Senators who aren’t Senators just might — and that’s what really counts! Isn’t it?

The proposal is simple: any Senator appointed from this point henceforth will be limited to an eight-year term, rather than being able to serve until the age of 75.

A “baby step” for democratic reform? Not really. Limiting terms has very little to do with democracy — you could now, in theory, reappoint the same senators as many times as you like (no age limit anymore). Why, with the right genes, a senator could try chasing down Strom’s old record.

Oh, but you say it would make a difference if they were elected? Too true, too true. But they’re not; and that’s not what’s being proposed. A step in the right direction? Limiting terms is no more a step towards establishing democratic control of the Senate any than term limits on Prime Ministers would be towards democratic control of the Cabinet.

Does this do anything “democratic”? Any greater degree of control by the people (or demos, for the classically inclined)? Not one bit; and if you think that having senators reviewed on a regular basis is a surefire way to keep them honest, take a gander at how long US senators can stay in office. Fifteen of the top 20 of all time were in office up until the 1970s. Seven lasted into the past decade. Four are still going strong after more than thirty-seven years in office.

But again, Canadian senators aren’t elected, no matter how long their term in office is. So what effect, if any is this change likely to have?

Two possibilities spring to mind:

First, by increasing the speed with which seats open up, you increase the number of vacancies Prime Ministers can fill; and that means more patronage! While that might keep senators honest, we know who they’ll be promising things to. That’s hardly a positive step.

Second, it means something of a reduction in the Senate’s quality.

Yes, quality. There’s one thing that the Senate does very well: legislative review. But it’s not because of some glib and overused nonsense like “sober second thought”. Bills are read three times in the House of Commons before they’re passed, and the bar in the Parliamentary dining room just isn’t big enough to keep over three hundred respectable (and mostly alcohol-consuming) MPs drunk for the necessary length of time.

The Senate’s advantages are real, simple, and easy to understand. Since senators don’t stand for election, they do far less political posturing than MPs. This fact lets the government make necessary amendments in the Senate without losing face by admitting its legislation was flawed. That means better legislation without fuss. Those who might prefer to see the government lose face may be disheartened, but the arguments take place anyways. The opposition routinely points out legislative flaws in open debate in the House of Commons (you know what that is — it’s that 90% of the time that isn’t Question Period). If people don’t pay attention to the process now, why would rehashing the same arguments in the Senate improve things?

Second, senators have longevity. While the average MP lasts something under two elections and serves on a multitude of committees in that time in addition to their constituency work, the average senator lasts at least a decade, tends to stay on few committees and has no further concerns. That extra time really is paid to their reduced committments, and results in greater familiarity with the subject matter, be it the military or the arts. In turn, that expertise translates into better quality of debate, better consultation with experts, and better recommendations on legislation. Like it or not, this is a major advantage to long-serving senators, and one that’s hard to replace.

The Senate has these advantages precisely because it isn’t elected and is long-lived. While anyone’s free to argue that a democratic body would be better, the Frosty Wonk’s quite happy to agree with Liberal leader Bill Graham in suggesting that a second body like the House of Commons won’t do much beside adding intercameral (no, not that) friction to the legislative process:

Anybody who watches relations in the Congress of the United States between the House of Representatives and the Senate will know it’s a totally different system when you have two Houses battling it out over turf and who is going to speak for the people on any given issue.

Well put. And given that we stand to lose the only things that make the Senate worthwhile, it’s a wonder that those who pride themselves on strong thinking about politics don’t advocate its abolition, instead of waxing poetic over a tepid reimagining of the Commons.

Isn’t the Senate useful as a body premised on regional representation? Of course it is, and that’s the main reason why it won’t be going anywhere. But provincial leaders eager to keep it should be careful. After all, they get to bully the federal government right now through First Ministers’ conferences. Will their voices really carry as much weight if the federal government has the voice of a legitimate, regionally-representative Senate to wield against them? Ah, to forge a backbiting sword.

And yes, the Conservatives stand to gain from this move, however pointless it might be. After all, they’re changing things, and after decades of people talking about changing things, it makes a refreshing. . .change. But make no mistake about the hollowness of the change, as the Prime Minister himself doesn’t:

while he realized some people might oppose electing senators, he didn’t anticipate any opposition to reducing their terms from a possible maximum of 45 years to eight

Did you ever hear of important political reform that wasn’t controversial?

But wait! Is the Chilly Wonk proving himself wrong? Not really. The Frosty Wonk isn’t opposed, he’s just hoping that no one will take this very little little for something — anything — of true significance.

Just remember what the National Post’s editors didn’t: glaciers don’t just eliminate the useless — they also scrape the ground bare.

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