Saturday, February 28, 2009

Flaherty Doesn't Want To Talk To Himself

All of a sudden our "this market is a buying opportunity" Conservative government is in an awful rush to spend money. See, Jim Flaherty wants to circumvent the normal process for the spending of government money. Now, traditionally budgets are screened and approved by the Treasury Board. It is possible that the President of the Treasury Board, Vic Toews, has a secret plan to prevent any of this stimulus money from getting out but I doubt it. I really doubt that the Treasury Board is that scary to Mr. Flaherty after all, he's a member. Yes, folks, Jim Flaherty doesn't want the stimulus to be delayed by Jim Flaherty. Who could blame him.

Side Note: The NDP's new source for all their ideas: the United States. Barack Obama is putting up a website to track the stimulus cash. The NDP want one too. I'm not saying it's a bad idea, I'm just saying the Obama-envy is getting a little nauseating even for an Obama fan like myself.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Jim Stanford's Economic Fantasies

The thing about the NDP is that most of the time their wacky left-wing arguments don't get much press time. We don't see them, so we forget how ill-conceived they are. Thankfully, the Globe gives writing space to socialist economist Jim Stanford. Here's the link to today's delusion. Let's start with the premise. Most serious economist that I've heard don't claim that protectionism made the great depression a depression, they claim that it made it great. In other words, they argue that the closing of borders FOLLOWING the crash of 1929 made it nearly impossible for the global economy to recover. That's why most economists are scared half to death about new protectionist measures coming forth in today's recovery plans. Straw men while convenient are a sure sign of fallacious argumentation. Let's move on. Did free trade cause this global meltdown? Well, no or at least not the free trade most union hacks oppose. The trade of goods and services free from tariffs did not cause this problem. What caused this problem was the simultaneous adoption of subprime mortgages with and the securitization of the relevant credit paper. While this was freely traded which in turn has caused problems (like socialist darling Sweden praying that collapsing banks in the Baltics don't crush Swedish banks), that really is a function of banking regulations not trade policy.

Canadian trade relative to GDP fluctuating in between two years when there was free trade is an irrelevant statistic. I don't know the numbers. But, if Mr. Stanford wanted to make this argument he should have made it between 1985 (before the FTA) and today. Of course at least some of the decline in the period Mr. Stanford marks can be attributed to declining trade within the North American auto industry. When a piece of a car can cross the border numerous times in a production process it has a disproportionate impact on trade statistics. When fewer car parts and cars are crossing the border, the number is going to drop. As Mr. Stanford himself points out auto exports have dropped 40%. Frankly, the decline of the American car giants started in the 1980's or earlier. The residual effects depressing trade stats is not a good argument against free trade. Nor is the loss of the American saving instinct. Why Americans kept borrowing and spending amidst economic decline is a complicated question but I don't know how Mr. Stanford can tie that back to trade. There's no clear cause and effect relationship here. Finally, Stanford argues trade deals with Asia killed the big three. Let's separate fact from fiction. What most people in the North American car industry complain about is the lack of FREE access to Asian markets. The problem with the trade deals isn't that they're too free but that they are not free enough. The argument that the Big Three usually give is that if they could sell cars without tariffs in Japan, South Korea, Europe etc. they'd be just fine. I don't think that's the only problem the Big Three has but I wouldn't oppose making our trade relationships in Asia more free.

It's a sign of great arrogance that Mr. Stanford believes Canadians should only be able to buy cars made by American car manufacturers. This argument is a tad perplexing. In point of fact, the North American auto industry is now much larger than just the big three. Japanese auto manufacturers provide good paying manufacturing jobs to Canadians and Americans alike. I have never seen a reason for Canadians to favour a company based in Detroit over one based in Tokyo. They are both companies based in foreign countries with large economies which are friendly to Canada. The should be treated equally. Mr. Stanford is biased and sees the union shops as domestic industry. They're not. Toyota and GM are equally Canadian in that they fundamentally aren't Canadian. GM Canada is as Canadian as Toyota Canada. In both cases, Canada is not the home base for these companies and will not receive preferential treatment in either expansion or contraction. Magna, which is Canadian, provides parts to many car manufacturers from various countries and they perhaps deserve our consideration in terms of government support. What's good for Magna is good for Canada. What's good for GM is still only good for America.

Separated at Birth?

Alleged Fraudster Allen Stanford and Comic Legend John Cleese

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Indecision 2009: Oy Gevalt Edition

When I said in my last post that I loved Israeli elections, I wasn't being completely disingenuous in spite of the context. They are absolutely fascinating theater. Being a Jewish-Canadian, I probably follow Israeli politics a little more closely than some other countries but I challenge you to find an election with a wider variety of compelling narratives. Here is a country at war holding free and fair elections. It is a country where Jewish-Israelis and Arab-Israelis vote and hold office. But beyond the general, there are some really fascinating story lines which have resonance beyond the ever-present military issues. You have the possible election of a female Prime Minister, Tzipi Livni, in an election defined by military issues. There are a lot of people who would say that this would be an amazing feat in most countries, it's barely an issue in Israel. You have the resurrection of the political career of a man, Benjamin Netanyahu, who last held office ten years ago. Not a lot of leaders can claim to have come back from the political dead after that long out of power. There is also the collapse of the party that used to be Israel's "Natural Governing Party", Labour. Labour couldn't even win in their traditional and spiritual (spiritual, not religious) base of support: the kibbutzim. Kadima matched their support there. The story of a collapsing NGP is not uncommon. Also not uncommon is the rise of a quasi-racist party to prominence. From Denmark to the Netherlands to Switzerland we've seen these nationalist parties gain in support and the third place finish of Mr. Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu is further confirmation of this trend. Finally, the continued power of the religious right is an issue which transcends oceans. In Jerusalem, religious parties finished second and third behind Likud. The secular left, Labour, and right, Yisrael Beitenu, finished in a tie for sixth in Jerusalem. Truly fascinating and a political scientist's wet dream.

How to Elect A Government Under PR

Step 1: Vote
Step 2: Count
Step 3: Six weeks of backroom deals.

I love Israeli elections.

Monday, February 09, 2009

STV Debate: Some Basics

The debate over electoral systems is an interesting one. It is also a frustrating debate to engage in, principally because of some logical leaps made by proponents of various forms of change. I believe I've made this argument before, but it bears repeating. When discussing an electoral system it is useful to measure it on what it promises to do and the reasons for its introduction. In the case of First Past The Post, the system is designed to provide a means of finding the most popular candidate in a given area to represent those people in a legislature. That's it. Parties and national vote totals are not a consideration. So when people complain about the popular vote not being reflected in parliament or in a provincial legislature, there's a good reason for that: the popular vote is not a determinant in electing MP's or MPP's or MLA's as the case may be. In fact, the province-wide or national popular vote is as relevant as voter turnout in determining the shape of the legislature. FPTP is a system of bringing people from various areas together in a congress (if you'll excuse the term) to make decisions. In Canada, this was a salient system in a country blessed with great amounts of land and few people. That's why we have FPTP in Canada. It is organic. Usually, electoral systems are devised with a certain goal in mind based on the existing political system. Generally, they are introduced to fix some problem.

In BC, the problem that the Campbell government originally wanted fixed was the lopsided 2001 provincial election where the government won a overwhelming majority, leaving little in the way of an opposition. Also, the 1996 election where the NDP retained power in spite of garnering fewer votes than the Liberal opposition. If that is the problem that needs fixing, the obvious answer is some system where there is province-wide proportionality guaranteed to political parties namely the Liberals, NDP and Greens. As I understand it, the Citizens' Assembly in BC rejected PR systems like the one recently defeated in Ontario and PEI because they disliked with the idea of party lists. Instead they proposed STV. The only problem is that STV doesn't remedy the problem that was at the crux of the matter. STV is designed to provide a voice to minorities (e.g. Protestants in Ireland). Thus, while it is nearly impossible to generate the results seen in the 2001 election under STV, there is no guarantee of proportionality. Furthermore, the 1996 BC Election which got Premier Campbell on the electoral reform path in the first place, could easily happen under STV. I'd argue it's not even that much less likely to happen under STV than FPTP. If the goal was to eliminate the possibility of a repeat of the 1996 BC Election, this is not the system to fulfill that goal. This is the problem with STV that I've never heard explained away. If BCers want an electoral system which will ensure that party preference is reflected in the legislature, they should reject STV and look at PR. If the idea of a party list is as repulsive to them as it was to voters in Ontario and PEI, than they should stick with the system they have.

Cartoons Can Be Deceiving

Back on the anti-STV trail. Because I'm feeling generous I'll let my opponents define their system as they would see fit. Here's the vid:

Think the video has all the answers? Pop Quiz!

1. In the beginning of the video, it states that a person may choose to vote for only one candidate, in that case what happens when that vote needs to be redistributed?

2. How does BC-STV guarantee proportionality, province wide?

3. The video says every vote counts, how does the 4th place candidate (whose votes are never redistributed) have his votes counted any more than they would under FPTP?

4. What is the formula to determine the transfer value for votes transferred a second time?

5. How many times was a vote for the first place candidate counted? How many times was the votes for the 4th place candidate counted?

6. Should voting be this complicated?

Don't have the answers? Maybe switching voting systems isn't child's play after all.

We learned this fall that Canadians don't understand their parliamentary system as well as we'd all like. If you are going to vote in the upcoming referendum in BC, get informed, know what you are voting for.

Answers to Pop Quiz:

1. They don't get redistributed, because that's not possible. As I understand it, ballots that can no longer be counted are discarded and the threshold is recalculated excluding those ballots. So let's say 10,000 people vote in a riding with 3 MLA's the original threshold would be:


Let's say that after the first candidate is elected/dropped there are 200 ballots with no further preferences, the threshold would be recalculated as


In other words, the bar is constantly moving.

2. It doesn't. This is damn close to an out and out lie. In Ireland, where this system is used, results are nowhere near proportional. In the last election Fianna Fáil lost seats while increasing their share of the popular vote, something that shouldn't happen in a proportional system.

3. It's exactly the same as FPTP the votes are, in Fair Vote lingo, "wasted".

4. Well the original transfer value is calculated at

Transfer Value 1 = (Total Votes-Threshold)/Total votes

so the new value would be as follows:

Transfer Value 2 = TV1*((Total Votes for second candiate-threshold)/total votes for second candidate)

5. To avoid another formula with no values in it. Let's put it this way. The first candidate's voters got to have their opinion heard three times (albeit at different values), the fourth place candidate's voters got their opinion heard once.

6. No.

Friday, February 06, 2009

It's A Hiring Opportunity, Right Mr. Harper?

129,000 jobs. More people lost their jobs in January than live in the city of Kingston, Ontario. 9.09% more Canadians are looking for work now then they were on New Year's Eve as the unemployment rate jumped from 6.6% to 7.2%. Mr. Harper you have failed this country. I agree that you cannot let a bad job reports stand in the way of an economic recovery program. However, Mr. Prime Minister you don't have one. We need a plan for Canada's economy today and tomorrow, you provide yesterday's answers. There is enough steak amid the sizzle of the budget to make it impossible for reasonable people to reject. We could not afford to wait for an election and a new budget process. You have thus been granted a lease on power, use it well. The country needs you to be the intelligent man you are capable of being. The country needs you to lead, sir. If you don't, there is an eminently qualified gentlemen at Stornoway who is ready to lead and has a team of bright men and women ready to govern. History will record your actions in the coming weeks, Prime Minister. Do yourself and your country proud.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Budget Voting

I'm a little surprised by the uproar in certain quarters over the dissent by the Liberal Newfoundland and Labrador caucus on the budget. I think that when the outcome of a vote is not in doubt, there is no reason an MP shouldn't be able to vote their conscience or their constituents will as the case may be. You can't advocate for more power for backbench MP's and then cry foul when MP's exercise their power. At the end of the day these people are accountable to their electorate first and their party second. It isn't the first time that regional dissent has occurred within a party's caucus, it won't be the last. People called Stephen Harper a control-freak when he kicked Bill Casey out of caucus for a similar decision. I think the reaction to this has as much to do with Danny Williams as anything else. I am a strong federalist. I don't like the way Williams has used his popularity to blackmail the federal government into giving up their constitutionally mandated powers. However, I don't think it matters why this budget was toxic to the MP's from Newfoundland and Labrador. What matters is that it was, and for that reason they voted against their party. They should be applauded for their courage and principle not condemned as threats to national unity. There are plenty of problems associated with the Williams government in St. John's, but to heap blame upon the Newfoundland caucus for the political situation that they find themselves in is inappropriate. It is frankly refreshing to see any part of the country paying enough attention to their national politics so that a single vote in parliament becomes an electability issue back home. There are plenty of cases in our history where parliamentarians have voted against their constituents best interest and not been punished for failing to do their job as representatives of said constituents. The provinces may be getting too powerful but this vote is not the forum for that debate.

Monday, February 02, 2009

On the OYL

I wasn't in Ottawa this weekend. I had personal reasons for skipping the AGM unrelated to the Liberal Party or the OYL. I will not comment on the current incident generating such controversy at the moment because I don't have any information to provide. I don't know what happened. I think that is true of 99% of the OYL. Hopefully, the details will come out in the coming weeks and this too shall pass. I will say briefly that I have known Jason Easton and Denise Brundson to be persons of incredible integrity and honesty. They are two of the hardest working, most dedicated Liberals I know in a party filled with hard working, dedicated people.

What I want to focus on is the culture of the OYL. In particular, the culture that has made it possible for anyone in the organization to even contemplate the type of shenanigans that are alleged to have taken place this weekend. We have in the Ontario Young Liberals a deeply divided commission. A large percentage of OYLers came to the party during Liberal leadership races (2003, 2006, 2009 (abortive)). When you consider that no one in this organization is over 25, you realize that they have spent most of their time in the party either in the middle of a leadership or some sort of election. These are battle weary veterans of hard fought and divisive campaigns. It should not be surprising that they have brought the dirty tactics they have seen at nomination battles and leadership races to the Young Liberals. I don't mean to paint my fellow OYLers as impressionable juveniles. I only mean to say that they know what it means to win at all costs and they aren't afraid to use the full arsenal at the OYL. This doesn't excuse cheating. Nothing excuses cheating, ever. However, in campaigns with no discernable spending limits, with perilously few rules in general, it is not entirely surprising to see things get out of hand.

The great irony of this weekend was that it was supposed to be an exercise in party unity. With the call of the leadership convention in the fall, it is my understanding that the decision was made to have a unity slate to bring together the warring factions that fought in Hamilton. It was designed to keep leadership politics out of the OYL as much as humanly possible. The election of two independent candidates this weekend puts those who would lead the OYL in a difficult spot. After the chaos of Hamilton, a lot of people viewed a unity slate as a godsend. With none of the sitting management board seeking election, there was a real possibility that we could have a celebration in Ottawa instead of internal fighting. However, any slate dreamt up in private will leave people feeling excluded. It will leave good candidates off for trivial reasons or because the people making up the slate didn't know they wanted to run. This is the negative side of slate politics. Refreshingly, two candidates took it upon themselves to challenge the slate. Unexpectedly for many in the OYL, they were both successful. (In the interest of full disclosure, I endorsed Alex Crombie's opponent in the race for VP Federal, Andrea Micieli. I did so because I thought she would be an excellent choice for that job having had the opportunity to campaign with her on a few different campaigns over the past couple years. I don't know Alex personally, but I am sure that he will do a good job as well.) We ended up with the worst of both worlds: a terribly divisive and even possibly ruinous AGM and acclaimed candidates for most of the important positions. It may prove necessary to rethink the way we run elections in the OYL. The OYL Constitution is an abysmal document on most counts and the conduct of internal elections is no exception. It leaves far too much to interpretation, simply to be made up as we go along, or just never thought about. We will not heal the OYL overnight, nor will we end the culture of division. However, it is time to start thinking about major revisions to the OYL Constitution to try to improve what has become an annual embarassment. A low spending limit would be a good first step. A rule regarding slates and their conduct during an election may be something to debate as well. I think that Jon Tsao who was acclaimed as Executive VP last weekend should assemble a constitutional ASAP so that the commission as a whole can figure out how to solve this problem, if it is solvable. At very least, we can get a better Constitution than the one we have now. While responsibility should be taken for any wrongdoing this weekend, it is more important for the OYL to look forward to try to stop this from happening on a yearly basis.
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