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.

Friday, August 10, 2018

On Pride and Inclusiveness

So, according to the bright lights on the Calgary Herald's editorial board, Pride needs to become about including everyone, including those who have a track record of oppressing the LGBT community.
Harrison Fleming, Alberta co-ordinator of LGBTory, an LGBTQ conservative organization, calls organizers’ position short-sighted and characterizes their decision to deny the party’s participation as a political statement, which it is. 
“It limits the message of inclusion that we ought to be telling the next generation — all these young kids coming up right now,” says Fleming.
Let's take this to task, since the UCP (and other "big-C" conservatives) seems hell-bent on making it out that it is they who are the oppressed party here.   I find it interesting that the Herald trots out LGBTory as if this is supposed to convince us that Canada's conservative parties "really are inclusive".  Except, LGBTory has been shockingly unwilling to engage with LGBT Canadians who are skeptical of their motives - often blocking them on social media for questioning them.

Their silence on Bill C-16 was disappointing, only speaking on the matter as the bill passed to the Senate.  Strangely, they were completely silent while Conservative Senators like Don Plett, among others, spouted utter nonsense about the bill and its implications.

Presenting LGBTory (a group whose very name implicitly erases Transgender from its scope) really doesn't do a great deal to convince Canadians that conservative parties are inclusive isn't overly persuasive.  Make no mistake - I am fully aware that there are LGBT Canadians who honestly do support conservative parties.  I sincerely hope that those people are under no illusions about the degree to which those parties actually support the legitimate civil rights.

What tremendous wisdom Fleming possesses. Calgarians are stronger when we stand together. The organizers of the pride parade, while clearly well intentioned, would do well to heed his message. Let’s have fewer fences and more conversations, more embracing of hands.
Perhaps Mr. Fleming is quietly forgetting how UCP Leader Jason Kenney voted against LGBTQ rights at every turn while he was a parliamentarian.




As if that isn't enough, shortly after forming the UCP, Kenney's entire caucus voted against Bill 24, which clarified the legislation around GSAs to explicitly protect student privacy, and at their founding convention passed resolutions that were blatantly homophobic.   Kenney tried to walk it back a bit by claiming that as leader, he had final say on what the policy would be going into the next election.  On top of that, Mr. Kenney has been frustratingly unwilling to speak plainly on the subject(s) at hand - preferring to dodge with statements like "we won't legislate on divisive social issues" (which is hardly reassuring for an LGBT community that remembers all too well the decade long fight that Delwin Vriend took to the SCC, only to have an equally reluctant Klein shelve the court's ruling.

Maybe a "dyed-in-the-wool" conservative like Mr. Harrison Fleming can overlook Mr. Kenney's history, as well as the behaviour of MLAs under his direction, or the party membership's votes on matters.  Others look at this record, and wonder "in what universe could you imagine a party led by Jason Kenney being an ally of LGBT people?".

At its roots, Pride is about inclusion.  Its roots are in overturning the oppression that LGBT people lived under in both Canada and the United States through much of the 20th century and before that.  The core of it is in fact protesting oppression - oppression which still continues today, even with legal recognition of our existence. Mr. Fleming might wish to acquaint himself with the difficulties faced by Transgender Albertans who are seeking work in this province, or for that matter the very social conditions which have made GSAs desperately needed in our schools.  The struggle for inclusion is far from over, no matter what legislative changes have been made.

We should not mistake excluding a group with a suspect record from Pride with oppression itself. Organizers of Pride parades in both Calgary and Edmonton are clear about marching groups being able to show themselves as active allies of the LGBT community. A group that has so clearly not been an ally has no right to march in the parade.  It is not oppressive to be intolerant of another's intolerance.



As others have correctly pointed out, the UCP and its members are invited to attend, just not to march in the parade itself. 

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

On Ending Political Tribalism

Political Tribalism is the idea of belonging to a particular political "tribe" (in Canada, that's often expressed as a party) to the point of being utterly unwilling to consider ideas from outside of the dictates of whatever power structure exists within that tribe.

Federally, the long standing feud between Martin and Chretien supporters in the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) was perhaps our first introduction to this rigid mindset.  Anyone not in "your tribe" was automatically the rival to be defeated at all costs.  Once Harper formed the current day Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), he took things several steps further.

Under Harper, not only did the CPC become a very closed bubble, it was abundantly clear that the CPC was unwilling to engage in discourse with other parties. If you didn't agree with the CPC, you needed to shut down or removed entirely from the picture. Personal attacks replaced policy centred discourse in the House of Commons. Attack ads and character assassination became standard fare for defeating an opponent.  In short, our politics became warfare between tribes, instead of a competition of "who has the better ideas for the country".

Today, we see it unfolding yet again in both Ontario and Alberta.  In Ontario, Doug Ford is quickly falling into line with Harper's model of doing things - autocratic, mean-spirited, and utterly unwilling to consider anyone else's point of view.  In Alberta, we have Jason Kenney running about making statements like the NDP being "an accidental government", or that the "NDP just have really bad ideas" (of course, Kenney has been very unwilling to tell us what he would do as Premier, just that it "wouldn't be what the NDP has done".

This post isn't about a critique of the various positions of the political parties.  I'm basically at the point now where I no longer believe that any party is going to be able to effectively work to better Canada.  It's simply not going to happen.  The concept of "we're right, and all the other guys are wrong" has become too central a tenet of partisan politics.

Fixing this is not simple.  Even shifting to a Proportional Representation model would be barely a bandaid on a gaping wound in my opinion.  (and I have been a proponent of that particular model for a long time - I'd still support it today) We need to be even more radical in addressing political tribalism. In this regard, I take a page from Alberta's civic politics, where councillors are specifically non-partisan (yes, it's clear that some are from a particular political affiliation, but the working approach is collaborative rather than adversarial.  So, how do we make things change?

A Bold Proposal

This is, metaphorically, putting a stick of dynamite under the current system, so please bear with me.  

First, let's put the entire concept of political parties aside.  If people want to form organizations to advocate for a particular political philosophy, that's fine.  Being affiliated with one of those organizations should not be a problem - nor should it be allowed to dominate how someone works as a legislator.  

To accomplish the first goal of dismantling the apparatus of party politics, I propose the following:  

Let's treat being a legislator in a manner similar to how we deal with jury selection.  Using a randomized process, a pool of names is selected from the electoral rolls in each riding.  Each person on the list is then notified that they are a candidate to represent the riding in the next election.  People who are for one reason or another unable to do so, will be permitted to step aside.  This continues until there are 10-15 candidates who agree to be on the ballot.  

This means that each election cycle, chances are you have 10-15 candidates who are new.  The idea of a "political career" disappears. No one person is likely to appear more than once or twice in their lifetime.  The second point here is that we shift from "governing as a career choice" (what we really have today) to "governing as a civic duty".  In other words, each person has a responsibility to participate in the governance of the country - not merely as a voter, but potentially as a legislator as well.  

How Would This Affect The Structure of Government?

The first, and obvious point, is that it will create all sorts of chaos.  Who will lead the government?  Who sits in cabinet?, etc.  Today, voters have relatively little say in who leads the government - it's basically chosen by the party anyhow.  So, having the newly elected parliament select the PM and cabinet posts by some kind of vote (perhaps similar to the selection of Speaker today) seems perfectly reasonable.  

What about opposition? Frankly, that needs to shift and flux from issue to issue.  All members who sit in the house should have the right to challenge the legislation from the "front bench" (the PM and cabinet).  Having MPs acting as paid cheerleaders for the government in order to get legislation passed has long done a disservice to the concept of democracy in Canada. It should require actual work for the government to get legislation through.  (Not the kind of tit-for-tat crap we see in the US Congress, either)  Instead, we need robust debate and discussion of issues.  

One big issue is that of long term, complex matters of governance.  How do we enable a new batch of legislators every few years to provide reasonable continuity, as well as the needed knowledge to pick up from where their predecessors left off?  I see this as needing multiple lines of change to make it work:  

1)  Four year election cycles might be too short.  If most new MPs take at least the first year to come up to speed, let's look at 6 year election cycles.  
2)  To facilitate hand-off, each MP's term is 7 years in duration, with the last year spent acting as a mentor to their replacement. A much lower profile role, but one where the outgoing MP continues to be actively engaged, and providing guidance to their replacement.  
3)  The current bureaucracy which assists MPs with everything from learning parliamentary procedure to drafting legislation needs to be made much more robust.  An MP should not have to be an expert in law to draft meaningful and constitutionally valid legislation.  They should be able to draw on a body of expertise knowledgeable in both writing law as well as creating policy that is reasonable.  

How do we manage the structure of government - especially the bureaucracy?  Our politicians today have no special knowledge in this regard.  Often, these decisions are made in a seemingly arbitrary manner anyhow.  Again, this needs to be managed reasonably between the politicians (especially the front bench ministers), and the bureaucracy.  Major changes, such as merging departments or forming new ones, should become matters voted on in the House of Commons.  

Conclusion

This is a proposal - an idea.  As with any such structure, it can be undermined eventually.  It will doubtless have times where it becomes completely addled by the combination of personalities elected (although at 318+ seats, it seems fairly likely that most parliaments would be able to achieve reasonable consensus.  

Could tribalism emerge in this structure?  Probably. We should remember that it has taken 150 years of Canada's existence for us to reach a place where tribalism became a problem rather than a somewhat useful feature.  I'm arguing that whatever problems this would create, they are apt to be much less problematic than the current environment.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

On Trump and the G7 Meeting

The meta messages coming from Trump over the G7 conference are interesting.  It's not the actual messages themselves, but the the framework that they imply.

On one hand, we have Trump spouting a bunch of trade war rhetoric on Twitter.  Taken on its own, you might simply interpret that as part of Trump's usual ham-fisted approach to negotiations.  However, when you take it as part of a larger gestalt picture, the focus starts to shift.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Tying A Few Things Together

I have written a few posts recently which criticize quite strongly the recent spate of conservative "we must cut everything" hysteria over Alberta's budget:


All of these posts revolve around the basic theme of how ridiculous a narrow focus on money really is when we are talking about government. Fundamentally, these arguments all boil down to money - how we're spending too much, the cost of repaying the debt, and so on. This is "banker speak".  Bankers think in these terms, because that is their framework of understanding. A banker doesn't bother to look at how the monies are being used, the policies that they are supporting, how the public benefits from it. No, they only look at the money and their ability to make further profits from it.

Then, as if to underscore my point, we get this "study" out of Goldman Sachs which basically says "curing disease is bad business".
"The potential to deliver 'one shot cures' is one of the most attractive aspects of gene therapy, genetically-engineered cell therapy and gene editing. However, such treatments offer a very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies," analyst Salveen Richter wrote in the note to clients Tuesday. "While this proposition carries tremendous value for patients and society, it could represent a challenge for genome medicine developers looking for sustained cash flow."
 I have long believed that the corporate business mentality which places profits ahead of "doing the right thing".  Medicine has never been about making huge piles of money - it has been about helping people. Talk to anyone going into medicine, and you will rapidly find that money isn't the top of their list of motivations (yes, doctors are well paid, but few who go into the field do so primarily for the money they can make).  Doctors like Jonas Salk created vitally important cures for diseases like Polio  - and gave them away because they understood that the benefit to the world vastly exceeded any short term pecuniary interest.

There's an old saw about conservatives:  "Conservatives know the cost of everything, and the value of nothing".  Bankers are in so many ways the "original conservatives" - the only thing they have ever paid attention to is money, and making money using money. Borrow to buy a house? Cool. But never make the mistake of thinking that the bank will be there to help you out if you fall on hard times.

The analysis of the investment bankers at Goldman Sachs echoes criticisms made about Alberta's 2018 budget.  The 2018 budget has been criticized for not laying out a clear plan to achieve a balanced budget, how it's "racking up the debt" and so on.  Like the Goldman Sachs commentary on gene therapies, this is a very narrow focus. We should also be asking where the money is going, what are the benefits to society, and so on.  Just as good medicine isn't necessarily "good business", good government isn't good investment.  We should never lose track of that reality. 

Sunday, April 08, 2018

About Hospitals ... and Ian Brodie

So, this week Albertans were treated to a column from Ian Brodie on the subject of building hospitals. Mr. Brodie is a former Harper advisor, so we shouldn't be too surprised that he doesn't especially like the idea of spending public money on projects that he or his companions can't directly profit from.

However, a lot of Mr. Brodie's comments aren't merely rooted in the long standing right-wing desire to privatize everything in sight.  No, they are rooted in some the most malicious ignorance I've ever seen on display - and considering that this blog has been running for fourteen years, now, that's saying quite a lot.

Friday, April 06, 2018

About Carpay's Bill 24 Lawsuit

So, apparently John Carpay has managed to persuade a bunch of fear-filled people to participate in an attempt to quash GSAs in Alberta schools.

Carpay runs a Canadian version of the American ADF under the guise of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF). Although the JCCF bills itself as "defending constitutional rights", it has a long history of taking up what are fundamentally defending religiously driven discrimination (which mysteriously overwhelmingly seems to affect Canada's LGBTQ citizens).

So, let's take a bit of a deeper look at the statement of claim the JCCF just filed in the Medicine Hat Court of Queens Bench, shall we?

Part 1:  The Applicants

Applicants As of April 6, 2018

There is a small handful of individuals, identified only by their initials, and a great long list of obviously religious organizations.  Overwhelmingly they appear to represent "Christian" schools.  This is not particularly surprising, since the loudest opposition to anything which involves LGBTQ issues is inevitably religious in its origins.  

Part 2: The Allegations

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Of Patterns and Puppetry

I've noticed a few patterns in this country's right wing politics that make me deeply suspicious.

Consider the following:

1)  Andrew Scheer flies to London to "prepare a trade deal with post-Brexit UK"

2)  Jason Kenney travels to BC to "sell pipelines"  (Facebook only)

3)  3 Conservative Senators Travel To Washington DC to discuss the "consequences" of marijuana legalization. (with "conservative" US senators ...)

4)  Jason Kenney writes a letter to Ottawa demanding that our next senator be one of the names from the last "senatorial election" held in Alberta.

5)  Rob Ford "dumps" the media bus for his upcoming provincial election campaign.

There's more - a lot more I could draw from, but let's talk about the patterns lying just below the surface of this:

First of all, items 1-4 all have something in common:  They have conservative politicians trying to be seen to "be doing things".  They are part of a campaign to give the appearance of being serious.

On what basis does Scheer think he has any standing to represent Canada in discussions about free trade with the UK?  Those discussions have rightly already been framed by the government of the day, long before the Scheer's trip.  On this basis alone, I think we can dismiss Scheer's trip as little more than political theatrics.  Theatre intended primarily to "impress" an audience at home that has been cool to Scheer as a leader of the CPC, at least in part on the basis of suspicions that he represents a takeover of the party by socially conservative elements who were kept "under thumb" during Harper's tenure.

Likewise, Kenney's foray into BC to "sell" is more political theatre. Kenney is not the Premier of Alberta - he's the Leader of the Opposition.  Further, given his pugilistic comments regarding BC's opposition to the TMX pipeline project, any speech in BC he might give is undermined by the two-facedness of his presentation.  However, the speech I linked to above wasn't a "public speech" - it was a closed door event for conservatives.  (Note CPC flag in the background)  I was unable to find a copy of the video anywhere except Kenney's own Facebook account.  (Oddly, not even on Rebel Media's website - but we'll come back to that).  Kenney, to my knowledge, has never met with BC Premier Horgan, or face to face with any of the opponents of the pipeline ... at least not willingly.

Similarly, Canadian Senators seldom travel abroad to represent the government.  There is good reason for this - that's what we hire diplomats to do.  So, the three senators who travelled to Washington this week were doing this for partisan political reasons. It is important to note that Senator Batters has been one of the most vocal Harper-appointed senators, especially with regards to the legalization of marijuana. Again, this can have no official standing with respect to the position of the Canadian government, so all that we can surmise is that this is yet another attempt to show the conservatives in Canada as having "political gravitas".

Then there are the items related to media access.  Kenney has been good at this for years.  It is rare to find full media of his events, even more rare that you would find them anywhere except under his very careful control.  There are reasons for this.  He never wants to be caught out for what he says.  Mass media is rarely allowed in the room when he holds the microphone - a few trusted allies is all.  When he does face the public, it's always scripted within an inch of its life, and designed with a purpose.  So, when Kenney travels to BC, or when he "appears" on talk radio, it's always done in a context where he won't have to face awkward questions, or any missteps will be quickly edited out.  (Talk radio on the whole is notoriously oriented towards the right-wing outrage machine, making it an ideal place for Kenney).

Today, we have Doug Ford deciding to eliminate the "media bus".  Ever since his election as leader of the Ontario PCs, I've noticed that Doug Ford has become increasingly scripted.  If he doesn't have to say anything, he won't; and if he does, it's carefully engineered.  Clearly the party is worried about a "loose cannon" moment jeopardizing their chances of ousting Kathleen Wynne this spring.  The decision to make it more difficult for the media to keep up with his campaign during the election is interesting.  It echoes Harper's distaste for the media, and it erodes the ability of that media to actually cover his campaign - leaving him somewhat freer to pander to the "Ford Nation" base.

While I make no secret of my own distaste for the degree of direct control that media owners have come to exert of late, access to our politicians is an important dimension of our democracy.  Attempts by our politicians to hide from the media, or to restrict their visibility to "friendly" outlets is a dangerous trend that does a disservice to Canadians.

Okay, so what we have here is political theatre.  In terms of the governance of the nation, it's relatively minor, right?  Or is it?  All of this starts unfolding a month after the Manning Centre Networking Conference in Ottawa, which ran in early February.


So what?  Well - all of the major players mentioned in this post were also "featured speakers" at this year's conference.  It would be stunning if there weren't a significant number of backroom strategy sessions happening as the country heads into two or three years of back to back elections at provincial and federal elections. 

The similarities in strategies being executed is profoundly disturbing. I believe we are witnessing something unprecedented in Canadian politics:  a full court press by a political faction using the same strategies at all levels across Canada - and right in the middle of it all, you find a secretive non-profit that appears to be organizing the shots.  I have no problem with organizing politically, but the idea of a group of puppet masters pulling the strings from behind a curtain of secrecy is not only wrong, it's so wrong that it stands to damage our electoral processes and the credibility of any government.  

If you don't want Canada to follow in the footsteps of the United States, this is important. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Junk Science: Universe As Simulation Theory

On CBC Radio's "The Current" this morning, there was a long segment about the bogus hypothesis that the universe we live in is really just a giant computer simulation. I've heard this concept before - it's rattled about in computer science circles since I was an undergraduate student in the 1980s.

Superficially, this is little more than the philosophy "Brain in a Vat" thought experiment.  It has some interesting uses for those interested in the subject of ontology, but it makes for awful science.

At its most fundamental level, it's bad science because it is unfalsifiable. A little like the question of "does God exist?", testing it requires the ability to inspect our universe from outside.  So far, we have no means of even describing how that might happen, much less making it actually occur.  This is one of the reasons that any hypothesis that ends with "and therefore God" (or some variation thereof) is fundamentally not science.  The minute you can invoke an unknowable external entity which has no meaningful description, you are simply not engaging in science.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

On Alberta's Budget 2018

The Alberta Government released its 2018/19 Fiscal Year Budget this past week, and many people are talking about what it does, or does not address.   Yesterday, noted Alberta economist Trevor Tombe released his thoughts on the budget in the form of an editorial piece on CBC.

Normally, Dr. Tombe is someone who sheds more light than shadow on things, but his opinion piece on CBC is not one of those times.  Instead, we are treated to a piece where there are several key assumptions underlying it that I think do a disservice to the discourse in Alberta around public finances and budgets.

CBC kindly puts the following line as a subtitle to the article, so I'll start there:
'What global credit agencies are looking for, this budget doesn’t offer’
My first thought on this is a fairly blunt "who cares?".  More seriously, does anyone believe that these credit agencies have the interests of Albertans at heart?  These entities are, at the end of the day, driven by financial investor interests. They are part of the banking system, and in many ways live in the world of making the banks happy.

From this writer's point of view, by allowing these agencies to "rate" different governments based on their "financial behaviour", we have given them unwarranted political clout - effectively turning them into financial equivalents of lobby organizations like the Fraser Institute.  Instead of "whispering in politicians' ears", they use their "credit rating" lever as a way to influence - and punish - governments.

We have seen several instances where the credit ratings agencies have gone after the NDP government in Alberta - "downgrading" our credit rating for one reason or another.  Yet, their approach has seemed almost partisan.  Did we see a downgrading of our credit rating when ostensibly "conservative" governments went into deficit?  No. We did not.  Yet, the minute it is a "left wing" (and I put that in quotes because the Alberta NDP has been governing from what I would consider a political centre position) party in power, suddenly every time there is a minute change in our fiscal position, we get these rumblings from the credit agencies.  Forgive me for being skeptical, but this starts to look distinctly like it is a partisan issue where the agencies don't like the stripe of the government that was elected, and I am reluctant to ascribe a great deal of significance to the opinions of such organizations.

Of the budget itself, Dr. Tombe seems to feel it is long on aspirations, and short on specifics:
The budget did contain hints of a potential path to a balanced budget.

It described the total revenues, royalties and spending that the NDP government needs to balance by 2023.
But this does not constitute a plan. It lacks any credible detail. It's an aspiration (barely).

It's one thing to know where we have to go, but it's quite another to map out how to get there. Without that detail, fiscal uncertainty remains.

The government projects spending levels of $65.5 billion by 2023/24. But in what ministries or on which programs is not known.

How much for health, how much for education, how much for community services, and so on? And what of the compassionate cuts the government repeatedly referenced? Your guess is as good as mine.
Anyone with a modicum of experience knows that forecasts which reach beyond the current fiscal year are about as reliable as Scrying when it comes to predicting the future.  Rough revenue/expenditure forecasts are as far as I expect such projections to go.  There may be more detailed analyses lurking about in various departmental budget files, but frankly they are irrelevant to the overall forecasts.  Past governments have often put "detailed" plans into their budgets, giving a false sense of detail to them.  Inevitably, reality tends to come along and swat those detailed prior year plans with a baseball bat.  Political, and fiscal, realities tend to shift and change dramatically with time, and to argue that such forecasting provides the credit rating types with "certainty" is at best a polite fiction, at worst, it becomes an attempt for today's politicians to hamstring tomorrow's with expectations and constraints that will have little to do with the realities seen in the moment.

The second major issue that appears in this segment is Tombe's apparent expectation that any "responsible" fiscal plan must include some kind of cuts to the apparatus of government.  I take a great deal of exception to this.  At no time has anyone shown that such cuts are necessary.  In fact, I would go so far as to argue that cuts may in fact be quite undesirable in the face of other options which remain unexplored in this province.  Alberta is a province which has repeatedly refused to even begin to fully exercise its full fiscal capacity in terms of revenues.  We have cut personal and corporate taxes to levels unheard of outside of the United States, we have no sales tax, and a variety of royalty giveaways, subsidies, etc. to various resource industries have all cut into our ability to weather the inevitable fiscal storms that accompany having an economy dependent upon the sale of raw extraction resources whose price is driven by "world markets".

There seems to be a pervasive assumption that the moment there is a downturn in the economy that we must immediately start hacking up the apparatus of government in order to meet this ephemeral goal of a balanced budget.  I do not agree that this is reasonable.

Mr. Tombe's argument ignores a key reality:  just because the economy has dropped does not mean that the business of government has suddenly shrunk in proportion.  The number of people requiring health care, students in our schools and so on does not magically drop when the oil patch suddenly lays of tens of thousands of workers. If anything, it is at such times that it is most important to sustain those government services. Not only will demand on them be higher than it once was, but it will likely remain so until the shock waves of the downturn have subsided to the point that we have sustained positive growth.
For starters, Albertans have now seen five deficit budgets in a row.

Low oil prices made this unavoidable. But with economic recovery underway, we must turn to balancing the books without relying on royalties. If not now, when?

Credit rating agencies are also a factor.
 
Alberta has seen many downgrades in recent years, but not because we're drowning in debt as some suggest. Alberta has the strongest balance sheet in the country, now and for the foreseeable future. From such a position of strength, Alberta's government can make far more careful, nuanced, and longer-term fiscal decisions. But they aren't. 
To this, I must ask of Dr. Tombe the same thing that I ask of politicians who go on and on about how the government must "tighten its belt" (*cough* Jason Kenney *cough*):

What are your specific suggestions here?

It is one thing to criticize the sitting government on such matters, but quite another to simply argue that "better decisions" could be made.  If you wish to argue for significant cuts in the government's spending, we need to do far better than simply saying "axe 20% of the budget".  We lived through that little bit of political theatrics with Klein - and we're still paying the freight for it in terms of major infrastructure projects which have been kicked down the road so far that the cost of those projects has been hit by inflation to such an extent that they are many times what they would have been had we been more active in getting on top of it.  We often hear about Klein's "moment" of announcing that our debt had been paid off, but we seldom hear about how that fiscal debt was eliminated by shovelling most of it into deferred infrastructure costs.  Needed hospitals did not get built, roads we need did not get funding, class sizes in our schools grew, and maintenance on public infrastructure was deferred for so long that buildings which were viable, but deteriorating, a dozen years ago now must be closed because the cost of repairing them has exceeded the value of the building itself.
We're as reliant on royalties as ever. Despite government claims to the contrary.

In Budget 2018, we need $12.6 billion in resource revenues to balance — an amount Alberta has only seen once before (in 2005/06). To shrink our reliance, we need to shrink the deficit without relying on royalties. And we aren't.

Between now and 2023-24, royalty growth delivers three-quarters of what the government is counting on to balance.
 Alberta's dependence on resource royalties is not news to anybody.  It became a structural part of our government's finances back in the 1980s when Don Getty first decided to "raid the piggy bank" to reduce the government deficit, and stopped putting money into the Heritage Savings Trust Fund (HSTF).  In the subsequent years, a succession of governments has repeatedly poisoned the political well related to any form of increase in government revenues - whether that is increasing personal tax rates or instituting a Provincial Sales Tax (PST).  This has created a political atmosphere in the province which makes it very difficult for a government of any stripe to do anything reasonable with revenues.  We have been told that "taxes are bad" (they aren't), that we don't need a PST because we have so much oil revenue (which has repeatedly proven to be an unreliable stream of revenue).  This means that getting Alberta off the dependency on resource royalties to meet its fiscal needs is not a five year project, but rather it is a process which will take decades.

So, while the 2018 budget from the Alberta NDP may not be everything that various parties would like to see, perhaps we need to put a bit of a reality check on exactly what we are expecting.  Mr. Tombe's argument rests on some troubling assumptions that deserve more discussion in Alberta's political sphere:

1.  The role and influence of credit rating agencies. Do they have unwarranted power and influence?
2.  The assumption that "fiscal responsibility" means "cuts to government programs" - does it, and should it ?
3.  The political realities created by decades of governments poisoning the political well around ensuring adequate fiscal resources for normal operations.
4.  The often hidden costs of balancing the fiscal books at the expense of other aspects of the government's responsibilities.



Saturday, March 24, 2018

On Using Straw Man Arguments To Support "Conversion Therapy"

If you have been living under a rock for some time, you may not have noticed the uproar over so-called "conversion therapy" techniques.  They have been declared unethical by the major mental health associations, outright banned in a number of states, and so on.  However, that doesn't stop their advocates from promoting an intellectually dishonest, coercive approach to things.

This week, I found the following paper lurking on Academia.edu:
Earp, B. D., & Vierra, A. (in press). Sexual orientation minority rights and high-tech conversion therapy. In D. Boonin (Ed.), Handbook on Philosophy and Public Policy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Available online ahead of print at https://www.academia.edu/36145698/Sexual_orientation_minority_rights_and_high- tech_conversion_therapy  
Now, I'm going to give the authors a little more latitude than I might had they been psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers who might actually work with the affected population.  They aren't - they are philosophers, and they are trying to make an argument for a public policy stance.

However, their argument is fundamentally a straw man.  They ask the reader to imagine a future where some combination of technologies allows for an "effective" sexual orientation conversion therapy to take place.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Danielle Smith: We Should Defund Public Schools

So, according to Danielle Smith, our public schools aren't teaching the right kind of critical thinking skills.  Apparently in her world, this is an excuse to defund the public schools entirely and turn the whole thing over to private schools.  Given that Smith is a libertarian, this latter leap of logic isn't entirely surprising - libertarian politics tends to overlook the common good entirely.

However, let's take a closer look at her argument, shall we?

Sunday, March 04, 2018

On Government Finances and Debt

In Alberta Views this month, we have a debate column pair about government debt written by economist Trevor Tombe, and former PC finance minister Ted Morton.

There are a number of respects in which I find Morton's arguments are profoundly flawed, and I would like to take some time to address them in more depth than the relative brevity that the magazine format allows for.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

On Media Piracy and "FairPlay Canada"

This is a new development to me, but then I haven't been following the issue of piracy all that closely for some time.  The upshot is that a group of commercial interests are lobbying the CRTC to set up an anti-piracy panel.
The submissions started flowing in after the coalition of more than 30 members — including media companies, unions and creative industry associations — submitted their request to the CRTC on Jan. 28. 
They propose that the CRTC create an independent agency to identify blatant piracy websites that internet providers would then be required to block their customers from accessing. 
The coalition, which calls itself FairPlay, says Canada needs to take action to stop the scourge of piracy sites that are threatening the country's cultural industries.
It took a bit of digging (FairPlay Canada's website doesn't even register in Google's search results - in part because of the commercial brand FairPlay.  I did, however, find quite a number of articles which give some clues as to who and what is behind FairPlay Canada.


At a glance, this is not a surprising lineup of participants.  Basically you have the major media corporations and the organized guilds of performers lining up to protect their commercial interests. 

When you go through the "harms caused by piracy" section of the FairPlay submission to the CRTC,  as posted on the ACTRA website, we find a few things of interest.  A lot of it comes down to the usual assortment of complaints about copyright violation, control over the work and so on (I'll come back to this later).  The real crux of the argument boils down to complaints about the amount of "money lost to piracy".  Inevitably, these arguments come back around to how those monies could be used to augment cultural efforts in Canada and so on.  

Digital piracy has been a fact of life ever since the personal computer emerged in the 1970s and companies have been trying to overcome piracy in one form or another for just as long.  At first, it was so-called "copy protection" schemes which tried to make it harder to copy raw media (inevitably, every one of these schemes fell to some clever person's tinkering).  By the late 1980s, it was trivial to copy pretty much anything from floppy disks to ROM cartridges, and more sophisticated attempts to curtail theft such as hardware dongles were routinely overcome with relatively trivial bits of software modification.  

In the 1990s, with the advent of the Internet, we saw the rise of modern digital piracy, where entire websites were dedicated to carrying bootleg media ranging from music to movies and software.  (anybody else remember Napster?).  In the late 1990s, the United States attempted to address these issues with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).  Whether or not they succeeded in this endeavour is open to debate.  I personally have never been impressed by the DMCA because it was so clearly written as a give-away to huge corporate interests (e.g. the ability to transfer copyright ownership from a person who created a work to an arbitrary corporation, which can then extend copyright indefinitely.)  However, the DMCA only created a legal environment within which so-called "copyright theft" (piracy) could be prosecuted.  It did not create a mechanism for addressing piracy itself.  

On the surface, if the FairPlay Canada proposal were to be enacted, it doesn't sound entirely unreasonable.  Monitor and block piracy websites.  Okay ... not entirely an unreasonable demand from a certain perspective.  I can even agree that within certain parameters there is a validity to it.

However, one can also imagine that it would rapidly become very difficult to identify a given site as specifically being a piracy driven site.  For example, the website Mega is touted as a file storage archive / sharing site, but has been accused by various sources of being primarily a piracy site.  Yet, in function it is similar to facilities like DropBox, Google Drive or Microsoft's OneDrive which are understood to be cloud storage services.   So, one has to imagine that establishing criteria upon which such a determination could be made is going to be very difficult indeed. 

As the persistence of websites like The Pirate Bay has shown, tracking down and limiting the activities of piracy is pretty much the equivalent of a giant game of whack-a-mole.  Shut down a piracy source in one place, and it will inevitably spring up somewhere else.  We should not ignore the existence of alternate traffic routing services as a way to hide piracy sites as well.  Tools like TOR, i2P and others essentially create a second web that is very difficult to trace.  Telling ISPs to block specific sites is fairly easily undermined using tools like these.  Talk to anyone who lives in a country like Egypt where the government routinely blocks access to various services on the Internet - there's always a workaround - don't imagine many countries are willing to invest the kind of resources that China has in their "Golden Shield Project", which is what would ultimately be necessary to rigorously enforce this proposal.  

At this point, I want to circle back to the claim of financial harms done by piracy.  Often we see claims of millions of dollars in "lost revenue" from the anti-piracy lobby.  Usually, this is computed by estimating the number of bootleg copies of a given item or service and then multiplying it by their standard rate for that product.  If you take the view that piracy is the same as shoplifting, this almost seems like a reasonable approach.  

But, is piracy the same as shoplifting?  I would argue that it is a quite different phenomenon, and one that needs to be explored more thoroughly.  Where shoplifting may have a variety of causes, ranging from poverty to mental health issues, piracy does not have the same motivations associated with it.  In my personal experience, piracy tends to be driven by a few different motivations:  the "because I can" mentality; curiosity or test-driving a product; simple economics - it's cheaper. 

The "because I can" crowd you can pretty much write off as sales you will never make.  These are the people who pirate stuff because it's possible for them to do so, and possibly because they get a thrill out of doing something borderline illegal.  Fundamentally, it doesn't matter how hard you try to lock things down, these people will never pay for your product.  If you will, It's quite relevant to understand that these people are doing it for "the thrill".  You might be able to threaten them with various legal consequences, but that's about as far you will ever get.  

The last two groups are part of the market that is available to you as a vendor. They aren't your problem customer though. As a business, you haven't made them a customer yet. You need to figure out how to do that.  Does that mean getting into bed with the pirate sites?  Possibly. It might also mean coming up with a new way to market your product. 

Microsoft figured this out with their Office product, and switched to their "Office 365" subscription service.  Suddenly, where a full featured copy of office used to be close to $700 CAD, it became ~$100 / year, and you get the updates as part of the bargain.  I can't prove that this has reduced the number of bootleg installations of Office out there, but I do know quite a few people who switched to it when they realized that they could justify the annual subscription fee in their minds. 

What does this mean for streaming services, and their bootleg counterparts? Many of the bootleg streams charge a subscription fee too. It's pretty easy to extrapolate from there that these people are willing to pay something for the service, but perhaps find the current fees to be too expensive.  Business is all about finding their market and engaging it.  As much as you might want "all of the pie" in a particular domain, it's not going to happen.  In digital media, it's the world of the bootlegger, in fashion, it's the knockoff maker, and on it goes.  

Recognizing that the industry in question is asking for some kind of remedy for their perceived woes, I will argue that the proposed remedy is both impractical, and intractable.  It cannot work in any meaningful way, and will not work in the short term or long term.  The commercial interests need to find a way to engage with the "commercial pirate" and come to a solution that works.  There is no chance that a non-commercial pirate can be brought to heel - forget them - it's not worth the constant game of escalation. 

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The "But Communism Was Bad" Argument

Lately, when debating matters of economics, people that I will broadly call "small government advocates" (usually hardline fiscal hawk conservatives and libertarians) will inevitably start throwing about the argument that "communism is a failed ideology" when they are challenged directly about the specifics of what they would cut from government, or on the flaws in their understandings.  In the last week, I ran into one of these arguments when discussing (or trying to) several implicit assumptions in a libertarian's argument that governments have no right to levy taxes.

The Arguments

Argument 1

The first form that these arguments often take is a consumer argument.  More or less, it boils down to "if you looked in a Soviet era grocery store, there was very little product available.  Therefore, the system was a failure.

For example:


What he's referring to are pictures like this from the late 1970s / early 1980s Soviet countries:  

... and yes, by the late 1970s, the consumer side of the Soviet economy was clearly in deep trouble.  

Argument 2

The second argument basically involves pointing to Venezuela, a country which is currently in the midst of economic collapse.  Of course, as the linked article points out, Venezuela's economic collapse is much more than a simple matter of having a "socialist" government (I'll come back to this in a little while).  Not unlike Alberta, Venezuela has relied for far too long almost exclusively on resource revenues.  When that sector tanks, so does their economy.  

Argument 3

The third argument is basically "communists have killed way more people than capitalists".  Yes, it's certainly true that Stalin in the USSR murdered millions, Pol Pot in Cambodia oversaw the so-called killing fields, and so on.  I don't think anyone can defend the actions of these dictators in any reasonable way, nor do I intend to.  However, the argument that this shows that communism is fundamentally a bad way to run a country's finances is also problematic.  

In Canada, we have seen the federal conservatives use this as a propaganda tool, often to rail against any kind of social policy.  (Government anything = socialism = communism, more or less).  

This argument is particularly annoying because it is fundamentally an emotional argument to start with, and one which is based on a resurrection of McCarthy era "red scare" propaganda.  

What's Wrong With These Arguments?

Communist Dictatorships

I'm going to go through these in almost reverse order.  First, let's start off with the basic assumption that "communism is bad".  The examples cited for why communism is bad are almost all better understood as totalitarian dictatorships.  Whether we talk about Stalin, Pol Pot or even Cuba's Fidel Castro, is that they were all fundamentally totalitarian dictators.  Dictators, regardless of their political stripe are prone to being deeply destructive as they struggle to hold on to personal power.  Whether we are talking about dictators the US supported for years like Panama's Manuel Noriega, or the monarchy in Iran, there were many abuses of power, both human rights, and greed focused.  

One only has to look at the history of American political interventions in Central and South America throughout the Cold War era, or in the Middle East since WWII to recognize that political expediency has ruled the day, with the government supporting governments that are ideologically aligned with them, even when that government is engaged in horrendous actions against its own people.  The history of "capitalism" when it comes to human rights is just as dark as the communist dictators, the only significant difference is that it was largely done through proxy states.

Communism = Socialism

This is a perplexing equivalence.  Anybody who has been through Canada's grade school system in the last fifty years would have gotten a pretty good dose of the different political "isms" that have been predominant since WWII.  As economic theories, Capitalism and Communism are often held up as being diametrically opposed to each other, and Socialism is often portrayed as many variations in between.  In Western countries, Capitalism is broadly understood in the context of greater individual liberty, where Communism is associated with high level economic planning being done by the central government.  

In North America, the so-called "Red Scare" era of the 1950s in the United States (peak Cold War) laid out a cultural framework in which US politicians drew an increasingly frightening picture of communism as the absolute withdrawal of personal liberties, and an overt attack on everything good that American life stood for.  The McArthy era in the US built on the existing mistrust of government in general that is pervasive in American culture, and used broad accusations to attack anyone who had even remotely "left-leaning" political ideas.  We see modern day conservatives in both countries attempting to leverage the resulting fabric by equating any kind of government intervention in society (including social safety net programs) with the extremes of the totalitarian dictators who led certain communist governments.   

However, most people who advocate for things like single payer (socialized) health care, are not arguing for the government to take over control of the economy.  Their ideals are often inspired by the successful governments in Europe which are largely Social Democracies.  The argument that somehow this represents an unwarranted intrusion by the state into the lives of individuals is at best hyperbole, at worst it represents a classic example of the Slippery Slope fallacy by drawing Socialism as being far closer to Communism than it actually is.  

Failed Economies

The failed economy argument is a more complex one to address. Usually the argument goes something along the lines of "government cannot / should not borrow money because communist regimes suffered economic collapse".  Superficially, this almost seems reasonable. The collapse of the Soviet Union is fairly well documented, and the relative lack of consumer goods in Soviet Russia is pointed to as a primary example of how central planning failed.  

A failed economy is a disaster for the people who live in the country.  This is unquestionably true. One only has to look at the regional failures in North America to understand a "closer to home" example - the Rust Belt.  The decline of industrial production in North America gutted regional economies which had previously relied on local heavy industry to sustain them.  While this hasn't resulted in the outright collapse of the US economy, it has caused a major exodus of population, and at least one municipality has had to declare bankruptcy and abandon providing infrastructure services to major areas.  

Generally, a robust economy will survive one or two segments experiencing a downturn.  So, why did  the Soviet Union's economy collapse so thoroughly? The simplistic answer is to claim that central planning is an inherently flawed way to run an economy, and the bureaucrats simply couldn't see what was happening through their own fantasies.  However, such a claim is both overly simplistic, and it ignores a lot of context.  First, we cannot ignore that the Soviet Union had been largely isolated in many ways.  Much of its trade was within the confines of its allied countries and vassal states under its direct control. China was, at the time, not the industrial power it has become in the last few decades, and the Soviet Union found itself trapped in a cycle of competing demands which it could only meet some of.  In many respects, the Cold War became a proxy war for control over client states.  The US was able to force the Soviet Union to expend significant resources in that conflict while limiting the ability of the Soviet Union to acquire cash reserves needed to support their efforts in a world that was using the US dollar as a reserve currency.  In short, the Soviet Union's economy collapsed from a series of internal and external pressures which the US economy has never faced to date.  

External pressures like sanctions, or volatile resource prices play a significant role in the collapse of an economy.  Venezuela is one such example, where its dependence on oil prices at a time when other players in the oil market decided to increase production caused a major drop in government revenues.  Coupled with US economic sanctions and political upheaval in the wake of Chavez's death, the government has floundered with the economy.  Remove the sanctions and political uncertainty, and one might well see a substantially different outcome. 

Again, one might well look to how various states that are nominally allied with the US are doing in various regions of the world and ask whether those states have prospered under governments that the US has backed. The answer here is more mixed. Some, like South Korea, certainly have. Yet others, such as some Central American nations, have suffered under the yoke of brutal dictatorships.  Yeah - there's that dictator word again - it's important, isn't it?  

Consumer Economy Versus Other Models

It is also quite important to recognize that there are significant differences between a "consumer economy" such as the United States has fostered, and other models.  The consumer economy looks at everything through the lens of consumption.  Basically, the function of the economy is solely measured on the basis of product sales.  Nobody pays attention to other factors like whether the product is necessary, or if the price is fair (the magical "invisible hand" of the free market corrects this ... right?), or whether a given product or service needs to be universally accessible (e.g. healthcare).  So ... what does all this mean?  

The Soviet Union opted for a centrally controlled model which did not emphasize the consumer.  However, it's important to recognize that it did work reasonably well for the Soviet Union until the 1970s.  Further, in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, it has become much clearer that the Soviet Union cannot be seen as a simple economy. The ability of that country to create its own variations on many Western consumer goods (e.g. Russian versions of numerous western home computers from the 1980s) suggests that the centralized planning only went so far.  We who live in the western countries need to be cautiously skeptical about the picture that was painted for us in the latter years of the Soviet Union.  

Although China is a communist country, it is a much different conceptualization of communism, and one that has adopted a much different model of market economics in the last thirty years.  It is "neither fish nor fowl". It has a strong, often overbearing it seems, central government but this is contrasted with an economy that has adopted much of the principles of the western market economy (and often without the controlling regulations we have added).  It is perhaps the unique pragmatism of the Chinese approach that makes me skeptical about blithely condemning approaches to politics and economics in other countries.  Often, we only have a partial picture painted for us by those who sit in positions of power. 

However, there is a big difference between the command-and-control economy of the Soviet Union and the more market driven economies of democratic socialist countries like Norway or Sweden.  These are countries with comprehensive social programs for all of their people, and yet you cannot by any means argue that they are centrally planned.  They tend to have a greater emphasis on government delivery of key services like health care, and regulation of industry compared to the market fundamentalism that we have seen in the United States.  Does that make them bad countries?  Not at all - in fact they are stable nations which have relatively content populations.  To conflate government intervention in domains intended to protect the people of a nation with the centralized "command-and-control" model of the Soviet Union is at best a stretch, at worst a false analogy.  

Conclusions

For the most part, the "but, but ... Communism!" cry often heard from the libertarian influenced right is nonsense.  It is, at its heart, an attempt to resurrect the zombie of McArthyism.  McArthy was a terrible human being who used the politics of fear to forward his personal agenda for greater power.  We should fear those who would resurrect his politics far more.