Sunday, November 11, 2018

Reasons To Dismantle The Current Party System

I've never been a big fan of the political party system.  Partly because it's rare that party even remotely resembles the kind of perspective in government that I think we need, partly because I believe the party system has become a fundamental problem in our political discourse.  

The current party system has its roots in the UK parliamentary tradition, where (at first) MPs would form natural alliances in the House of Commons.  Eventually that formalized into the current format of parties that exist across time and governments.  

How has this become problematic? 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Let's Stop Conflating Transgender and Toxic Masculinity

I ran across an essay that was trying to argue that somehow transgender activism was "peak male entitlement".

It's quite lengthy, but more or less it boils down to a rehash of a number of classic stereotypes that Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) have dreamed up to attack trans women in particular.  

Basically it boils down to the following combination: 

If you are trans, you're supposed to transition and then blend in with society perfectly afterwards. Nobody should ever know that you were ever trans.  

If you have transitioned, and are somehow recognizable as being trans, you're a failure and somehow reflective of "male privilege in women's spaces".  

Lastly, if a trans woman should ever lash out at a critic, well, that too is just male privilege.  After all women aren't supposed to get mad - like ever.  

If you note one thing about all this, you should notice that the entire structure is a double bind meant to silence trans women using many of the same tools and techniques that have historically been used to silence women.  I suppose it comes as little or no real surprise that TERFs would basically weaponize the same tools against trans women.  

Apparently, trans activists are now an objective threat to "real women"(tm), simply for existing.  Making crazy demands like wanting to use bathrooms and suchlike is apparently a danger to all women.  God forbid that any should have an opinion that implies that trans women aren't being treated equitably in our society.  

The author then, somehow, tries to twist this into being a form of violence against women.  As if a woman is metaphorically being assaulted simply by being in the same room as someone with a penis (and goodness knows, a trans woman who hasn't had surgery is just a sex crime looking for a place to happen, right?).  No - it doesn't really work that way.  

What the author of this piece is missing is this little fact:  the very existence of transsexuals - both MtF and FtM - calls into question the rigid delineation of "has penis = man, has vagina = woman".  The reality is that "man" and "woman" need to be understood primarily in the context of the social, not the biological.  The biological informs the social to a point, but there are always outliers and that is what trans people are - the outliers. It's only been relatively recently that there has been enough of a body of trans people that the logical problems with the old assumptions have become inescapable.  

There is a light being shone on one of our society's oldest assumptions right now, and it is the trans community that is pointing out the problems.  I get it - the idea of a girl with a penis is unsettling to some - especially in the lesbian community.  But guess what?  It isn't unsettling to all in that community either - there are some lesbians who are perfectly happy with a transgender partner.  

Having a penis doesn't make someone dangerous to women. We really need to drop this entire line of reasoning - it's stupid. So, instead of trying to characterize trans women as somehow "doing violence" to women, how about we recognize that violence against women (trans and not) happens, and as a society we need to do something about it?

Thursday, September 06, 2018

No, 2008 Wasn't A Failure Of Socialism

In the Financial Post today, we have Terence Corcoran yammering on trying to claim that the 2008 Subprime Mortgage Crisis was the result of the evils of "socialism".
That the collapse of Lehman Brothers was the final explosive device that rocked the world financial system is beyond dispute. But why and how Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail is another story told with new insight in the latest book, The Fed and Lehman Brothers: Setting the Record Straight on a Financial Disaster, by Johns Hopkins University economist Laurence Ball. In Ball’s view, Lehman did not have to fail and was instead executed by agencies of the U.S. government.
While intervention by US regulatory authorities was no doubt the key moment when the entire house of cards that had built up around the 'housing bubble' began to collapse.  Any rational person who had looked at the kind of loan terms that were being offered under the rubric of "subprime mortgage" could see how predatory they really were. There was no expectation that these loans would be paid back, and banks were expecting to repossess the property itself in lieu of payment - making their money on the ever escalating property values.  The emergence of so-called "NINJA Loans" (No Income, No Job or Assets) which were solely predicated on the idea that unpaid loan amount would be recouped via the escalating property value is pretty much prima facie proof that the banks making such loans had shed any semblance of ethical business practices for naked greed.
Massive national institutional resources — government and private — were ultimately corralled and coerced into government-mandated programs that were ultimately designed to provide mortgages to people who had no money to make down payments and insufficient income to carry a mortgage. Between 1995 and 2007, trillions of dollars flowed into housing people could not afford.
The error in Corcoran's logic here is that he supposes the entire failure is a result of government regulation intervening in the market.  I disagree.  First, Mr. Corcoran misunderstands the idea of socialism, confusing it with regulation.  While I realize that many in the more "libertarian" wings of the political right believe that the "invisible hand" will correct the excesses that unregulated markets a prone to, the objective evidence is far clearer: without regulation, unregulated markets inevitably collapse to the detriment of all.  Whether that is the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the Enron Collapse, or the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, all of them point to situations where weaknesses in the markets were being exploited for greater gain by the most avaricious.

Where the US government erred was in failing to have in place an appropriate regulatory regime for the housing market in the first place.  A lack of clear standards on who qualified for a mortgage, what the criteria for mortgage terms would be, and a host of other factors created an environment where it became possible to turn what used to be a "second mortgage" or a "line of credit" secured against a home suddenly being structured into what would become a "subprime" mortgage.  At the time, the ethos in the US government was very much "don't intervene in the markets".  Canada's comparatively successful weathering of the 2008 recession is clear evidence that appropriate regulation of the markets is in fact an important aspect of ensuring that our own financial institutions weathered the storm.  By the time the US government intervened in an overheated housing market, they were trying to stop the bleeding, rather than cure the problem - free market fundamentalists in Congress would have screamed blue murder had the government taken the correct actions of intervening in the market before a "natural correction" collapsed everything.
The crisis of 2008 was not a product of capitalism or markets or the inherent greed of bankers. It grew out of populist political posturing and manipulation of the market economy to attain social objectives. It was a colossal failure of socialism for the poor.
In his conclusions, Mr. Corcoran returns to what appears to be an almost libertarian perspective.  More or less, "if you aren't among the hallowed wealthy, screw you".  To be honest, the analysis in Mr. Corcoran's article is so flimsy and devoid of context, that it leaves one wondering why he wrote it.  The assumptions he makes are so transparently libertarian in their tone that I wonder if he is positioning himself to become a cheerleader for Maxime Bernier.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Conservatives in the Social Sciences

This was inspired by some of my own thoughts while listening to a CBC Ideas program on the lack of "conservative" academics in the Social Sciences.  For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to stick to the broader, "small-c" conservative, "small-l" liberal concepts rather than the very specific partisan conceptualizations that dominate political discourse these days.

The general gist of the article was that a lack of "conservative" voices is detrimental to the general form of discourse in the domain of the Social Sciences. My first thought on this is that proper discourse is not about coming at it from a "conservative", "liberal" or "libertarian" perspective but rather from a perspective of critical analysis.

For example, one doesn't have to approach Littman's paper from any particular perspective to identify the methodological problems that exist in that paper.  A little bit of critical analysis identifies a number of flaws which more than call into question the validity of the conclusions derived from it.

The problem that many "conservative" thinkers face is twofold.  First, within the disciplines generally held under the label of "Social Sciences", the body of evidence tends fly in the face of a lot of conservative thought. As that body of evidence started to flourish in the 1980s, it became increasingly difficult for many traditionally conservative lines of reasoning to be sustainable. For example, analysis of the systems which exist around poverty has been shown to sustain the state of poverty in multiple ways, quite effectively dismantling the often-held "you just aren't working hard enough" argument.

A second dimension is that many conservatives argue that they don't like constructs such as social justice or intersectionality. However, besides objecting to these frameworks on general principles, we don't see anyone actually providing reasons that these frameworks are invalid. Uncomfortable, or difficult for various reasons, but beyond expressing their dislike for the construct, conservatives haven't presented a meaningful alternative or evidence that supports their contention that it's invalid.

There seems to be a mentality among conservatives that everything is "open for debate" (or should be), and yet instead of identifying new and meaningful, they merely complain about "emerging orthodoxy" (ignoring that over time, science itself tends form "orthodoxy" in the form of dominant theories and known facts. Moaning about the emergence of dominant approaches in a discipline is just showing that the discipline is maturing. We don't question fundamentals in science like the heliocentric solar system ... because they work and there is no compelling evidence which contradicts them.

What isn't helpful for conservatives is the fact that people who have adopted the conservative banner have become people like Jordan Peterson.  People like him create an enormous problem for conservative thinkers because much of the time the positions they put forth are mostly nonsense and trivially disproven (e.g.  Peterson's theory on social hierarchies).  The second problem is that these same people attract neo-nazis and other people who manipulate those positions to justify their own awful (and destructive) beliefs.

For conservative thinkers in the Social Sciences domains, the challenge is to develop some evidence-based constructs to support their positions.  Show your peers why the constructs being used are flawed, and provide alternatives.  That's a long road at this point. Being conservative shouldn't mean being what my grandmother used to call a "stick in the mud" about things - it should be thoughtful and intelligent.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Whither NAFTA Negotiations Now?

After yesterday's revelation that Trump is not negotiating with Canada in good faith, where do NAFTA negotiations go from here?

Up to this point, I have chosen to be quiet about the NAFTA negotiations because I really don't believe they will go anywhere.  If an agreement is reached, Trump's track record in business strongly suggests it won't be honoured; and far more likely is that Trump will sabotage any negotiations to suit his own ends.

I will start off by saying that I think Trudeau and Freeland have done an excellent job of managing what amounts to a no-win situation. Trump has engaged in a lot of goading, attempting to get an emotional response out of Trudeau only to find that met with nothing.  This isn't a bad thing.  It speaks to Trudeau being more than capable of recognizing what Trump is doing, and not dignifying it with a response. Give a guy like Trump the emotional response he's looking for (anger, impulsive "hitting back", etc.), and he sees "a win" - a situation where he can manipulate more because he's got the other party reacting emotionally to his provocations.

Reaching back to my experiences in grade school, the first comment I have is that you never give a bully what they want - EVER.  In this regard, Canada's government has (so far) done the most appropriate things it can.

Right now, the NAFTA talks have turned into a game of "chicken".  Trump is hoping that Canada will blink and sign whatever this deal with Mexico is before Mexico's government changes over in September.  Canada continues to approach this as normal negotiations.  This isn't a bad thing at all, as it both moves Canada's interests forward, while not granting Trump the emotional reaction he's looking for.

From Canada's point of view, if NAFTA is going to die, forcing Trump to kill it is advantageous.  If Canada walks away, then Trump (and Canada's conservatives) will be able to blame the Trudeau government for not "being able to negotiate".  If Canada persists (and we're good at that) in negotiating until Trump loses patience and kills the talks off, then Trudeau can legitimately say "we did all we could, and the other side wasn't willing to play ball".

There are a couple of angles on this discussion that I think need further consideration.  First is the sudden rush with Mexico. From the G&M article above (possibly behind a paywall):
Cesar Rojas, global economist, Citigroup: 
“The current Mexican administration remains hopeful that Canada will join the agreement, but some officials have stated that Mexico would move forward with a bilateral deal if Canada does not join. We note, however, that the incoming Mexican administration highlighted that Canada is key for the NAFTA renegotiation … If the final negotiations extend further and the agreement is to be signed by the incoming Mexican administration, then there is a risk that an agreement is delayed as the new Mexican negotiation team (which has been an observer over the last few weeks) could review other issues.”
This is important.  The current Mexican government is on its way out after an election in June.  From Canada's point of view, this points to potential weaknesses in the deal that a new administration in Mexico may not be willing to support.  Things could get very sticky if the Mexican government suddenly becomes unwilling to ratify the proposed bilateral agreement.  The current Mexican government may well have negotiated an agreement for future political advantage for their allies rather than the nation's interests. (Note:  this is entirely speculative, as I have little to no familiarity with the currents of Mexican politics)
David Rosenberg, chief economist at Gluskin Sheff + Associates: 
“My hope is that Canada does not cave in to a bully with a gun against our head (the threat of 25-per-cent auto tariffs) and realizes that nothing is going to get approved in Congress without the ‘true north strong and free’ being involved. This seems to be an area where the legislative branch is starting to show some backbone, at least verbally, and I do sense that the president has underestimated where most of Congress stands on this issue of Canada being excluded from any agreement.”
JPMorgan Chase analysts: 
“The U.S. Congress could be a major hurdle, as it could disapprove of the administration trying to shoehorn a separate bilateral deal using the existing Trade Promotion (aka ‘fast track’) Authority initiated in May 2017 covering the tripartite NAFTA inclusive of Canada. In the event the bilateral U.S.-Mexico agreement cannot be fast-tracked, the White House would need to restart the trade negotiation notification and consultation process for bilateral deal(s). Such a process would require new Congressional TPA notification and consultation and would almost certainly extend the potential timeline by 10 months or more, and beyond the Nov. 30 agreement signing window U.S. and Mexican negotiators are trying to achieve.”
These two analyst comments point out that Congress may well be less than willing to roll over on a trade deal for Trump.  Now, that has to be contrasted with the fact that the current US Congress has been seemingly far too willing to be compliant with Trump's demands.  Only time will tell. Trump and his advisors have been remarkably adept at exploiting gaps in the constraints in place to check on the abuse of executive power. Whether they have enough leverage to convince Congress (a majority of whom are from states who will be adversely affected by a "NAFTA 2" that doesn't include Canada) to vote against their own state level interests is unknown.

So far, most of Trump's abuses of power have not affected state level economies and powers. American politics often protects the powers and interests of local states rather jealously.  The levers Trump has been using to this point may not be adequate for this fight.

For its part, Canada will be best served by staying the course. The irony of Trump's recent statements is that they confirm what we have suspected for some time:  namely that Trump has not been negotiating in good faith. Now it is out there for all the world to see.  Trudeau is not being "weak" if he lets NAFTA 2 fail - he is, in fact acting in Canada's interests. A NAFTA which is hostile to Canada's interests is hegemony, not an agreement. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

On "Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria"

About a year or so ago, we started hearing about "Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria".  This has primarily been a result of a "poster study abstract" by Lisa Littman.  For the most part, the supposed phenomenon has been commented on at length by TERF blogs like "Fourth Wave Now", and "Transgender Trend" (no links provided - I'm not going to send traffic to those sites).

Now we have the full paper by Dr. Lisa Littman available on PLOSone: Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults: A study of parental reports.

This is a deeply flawed study that needs to be examined carefully.  What follows is inevitably going to be a lengthy post.  If you don't want to read all the gory details, skip to Conclusions.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

No, Maxime Bernier is not "Questioning An Orthodoxy"

So, CBC's Neil MacDonald published this screed defending Maxime Bernier's stream of tweets about "extreme multiculturalism" this week.

In an e-mail conversation about it, here's what I wrote, explaining why MacDonald is dead wrong:

I think more to the point, MacDonald is missing several aspects of the picture.

First of all, let’s consider the context in which Bernier’s tweets have been generated:

In early 2017, President Trump initiated some of the most draconian changes to US immigration (and in particular, refugee) policy that we have seen since the end of WWII. That created an environment where a lot of people who would have tried to settle in the US now found themselves endangered by that very prospect. This has resulted in an influx of irregular border crossings at various places in Canada (although hardly a large number overall), who immediately make an asylum claim (aside: Under both Canadian and International law, we are obliged to provide those people with safety while their claims are evaluated). Conservatives have been making noise about immigration ever since 2015 - and largely that has been built on the remnants of the Stephen Harper “Islam is evil” campaign in 2015 (remember the “barbaric cultural practices hotline”?), and in particular Trudeau’s decisive actions to bring in a large number of refugees from the Syrian civil war. While this has played well with the CPC “base” of supporters, most Canadians have largely ignored it (and well they should). We should also not ignore the fiddling that the CPC did to the immigration system as a whole, which had strongly racist overtones of assimilation.

Fast forward to earlier this year, and a few important events started to occur in (and around) Conservative propaganda streams:

  1. The was a marked increase in conservative controlled media talking about “illegal” immigration in Canada - this was clearly visible on both PostMedia and “The Rebel” (you get to guess which was more noxious)
  2. Conservative politicians have been increasingly seen in the company of known white supremacist organizations (especially Scheer, but also numerous other high profile idiots)
  3. On Twitter, there has been an enormous upswing in overtly Islamophobic “bots” spewing material about “we’re letting too many into the country” 

In this context, we have Maxime Bernier spout a bunch of nonsense about “Extreme Multiculturalism”. It is very difficult to see this as anything other than implicitly racist dog-whistling. I will further point out that Mr. Bernier is “Pur Lain Quebecois”, and that movement has long veered very close to the rhetoric of white nationalists - just with a uniquely Quebecois twist on the concepts of who should be “in control”.

Second, Mr. Bernier did not “challenge an orthodoxy”. Calling a pluralistic, multicultural vision of Canada “an orthodoxy” is ignoring the degree to which this country has changed since Pierre Trudeau’s government made multiculturalism a formal part of our cultural policies in the 1970s. As my partner points out, a multicultural Canada is not an “idea” in her experience, it is a fact. For her, the foundations of multiculturalism are baked into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and have always been the reality. Bernier’s arguments about “extreme multiculturalism” presume that something has changed under Justin Trudeau, and yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr. MacDonald echoes what he believes is Bernier’s call for a “unified identity” in this country. He misses the point - we already have a unified identity. That identity is subtle and distinct in its ability to make room for those around us from other cultures, and allow for the development of an overall culture that reflects elements of all the cultures around us. It’s scary for people like Bernier who seek an absolute anchor for their sense of cultural identity - it is difficult in such an environment to quantify our sense of culture or identity. We do not find it anchored in overtly nationalistic symbols like flags, rather it is a more deeply held recognition that all who come here become part of the larger picture of our cultural mosaic. We adopt, and adapt because there is room to do so. While many new Canadians will continue to use a hyphenated identity label for themselves, their descendants become ever more part of Canada - free to honour their past, but also willing to live within the broader fabric of our society.

In short, MacDonald has missed both the context of Bernier’s comments, as well as the reality that Canada’s identity is in fact multicultural.  Bernier's arguments do not "question an orthodoxy", they attack the fundamental notion of what it is to be Canadian.