Monday, October 17, 2011

No wonder Rush Limbaugh loved Palin

Many better writers than me have already covered the monstrosity of Rush Limbaugh reflexively supporting the Lord's Resistance Army because they are "Christians" and Obama is against them, but looking past that, what's actually slightly surprising about this is how literally ignorant Limbaugh actually is about the world.  He'd really never heard of the LRA:
Is that right? The Lord's Resistance Army is being accused of really bad stuff? Child kidnapping, torture, murder, that kind of stuff? Well, we just found out about this today. We're gonna do, of course, our due diligence research on it. But nevertheless we got a hundred troops being sent over there to fight these guys -- and they claim to be Christians. 
I think we usually assume that people like Limbaugh are worldly, knowledgable and extremely cynical, so, say, when Limbaugh is trying to rationalize Sarah Palin's serial of geopolitical ignorances, we figure he's well informed, but simply doesn't care.  This is too much credit.

Not knowing who the LRA are is not quite on the level of many of Palin's exposed ignorances, but for a middle aged man who does politics for a living, it's a remarkable testament to the self-imposed insularity of conservatives that he's really never heard of them.  I don't doubt if you did a poll, far less than a majority of the general public would have heard of them, but those people don't have internationally syndicated radio shows.  The LRA are not obscure, they've been at this for decades and as someone who doesn't pay particular attention to Africa or Uganda, I have heard of them multiple times over my years (and I'm much younger than Limbaugh).  Probably because they are just so extraordinarily awful, they get media coverage.  See this Google News query from 1 Jan 2008 to 30 Sept 2011 (before Obama's troop deployment).  The LRA are at the level of that old cliché that if you wrote a fictional book about a group like them, no one would believe it.

I'd like to see Katie Couric ask Rush what newspapers he reads or what the Bush doctrine was.  I'm beginning to doubt he would do much better under the glare than Palin did.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Conservatives to downtrodden: Let them eat jobs

I remember learning about the French Revolution in high school, and my history teacher scoffed at the idea that Marie Antoinette had really ever said "let them eat cake" ("Qu'ils mangent de la brioche") upon being informed that the peasants had no bread.  Wikipedia's writers on this subject evidently agree, and it seems unlikely that Antoinette herself actually uttered the words.  Some think it was invented by revolutionary radicals of the day as a propaganda tool against the monarchy.  After all, it is a pretty outrageous thing to say.  Either the speaker is hopelessly deluded about how the poor live, or is simply malicious in their scorn for the suffering of others.  Could anyone have really said it?

Having observed the collective conservative/top 1% response to the Occupy movement, and to the economically downtrodden in general over these past few years, I have to say I am quite certain that someone in the French nobility said it, or something very like it.  Things just as bad are said routinely today.  One can start with the dreary "get a job, hippies!" jabs at any and all protests, to this vile litany, and this, and of course, let's throw in Rick Santelli's Tea Party inspiring rant:
Why don't you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers' mortgages; or would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people that might have a chance to actually prosper down the road, and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water?
Really, being shocked that some rich twit in the 1700s might have actually thought that the poor could just switch to cake when bread was unavailable, or was so unconcerned with their hunger as to derisively mock it is just a luxury of the post WWII societal consensus that has now broken down.  It was nice to think that we all basically want a society where everyone has enough to survive, but just differ on how to bring that about, but it just isn't so.  Many people don't believe this is possible, or actually don't want it to happen even if it could.

Versailles never really shut down.  It lives on in the hearts of many of the privileged.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Conservative Distaste For Democracy

I'm watching the twitter feed for the #occupyToronto protest and one of the people in the thick of it (perhaps even an organizer, I don't know) says, to my complete unsurprise:
Dan Speerin
Thanks to all those on twitter who have suggested we here at should get jobs...I'll bring it up at general assembly
This is a timeless conservative response to protests. At least, protests they view as left wing.  Like most if not all conservative "humour" it relies on mocking the weak for being weak, as bullying is about the only thing conservatives are able to generate humour from.  It's also deeply and disturbingly undemocratic.

The basic notion underlying the sentiment is that those without jobs aren't entitled to complain about anything in society.  Let's leave aside the rank stupidity of hurling "get a job" at people who are in large part protesting because of the rotten economic conditions (and yes, conditions are rotten in Canada, less rotten than the US, but still quite bad) that leave many of them unemployed or underemployed, it really is an open admission that you think society should only be run by those with money. They used to be a lot more open about this:
Those who own the country ought to govern it. - John Jay (a US Founding Father)

I don't think conservatives get called out for their distaste of democracy often enough, but if you read between the lines of many of the things they say, it's right there. It's important to understand why they're often not even interested in engaging with the substance of protester complaints, as they don't accept their fundmental right to complain.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

CBC: It's time to fire Kevin O'Leary

Tonight on CBC News Network's Lang and O'Leary Exchange, conservative host Kevin O'Leary needlessly insulted the American award winning journalist and social activist Chris Hedges who had been invited to the show to offer analysis on the Occupy Wall Street protests.  The exchange (about 5 minutes) can be watched here.

Here's my transcript, starting after a brief exchange where O'Leary was merely generally snide and rude, but not specifically offensive to Hedges, the guest host (Amanda Lang was off) asks Hedges what the protestors want:
Host:  What is the sense you have of what this movmement would like to see happen?
Hedges:  They know precisely what they want, they want to reverse the corporate coup that's taken place in the United States and rendered the citizenry impotent, and they won't stop until that happens.  Frankly if we don't break the back of corporations we're all finished anyways since they're rapidly trashing the ecosystem on which the human species depends for life.  This is literally a fight for life, it's that grave it's that serious.  Corporations, unfettered capitalism as Karl Marx understood, is a revolutionary force.  It commodifies everything; human beings, the natural world, which it exploits for profit until exhaustion or collapse.  The bottom line is that we don't have much time left.  We're on the cusp of perhaps another major banking crisis in Europe, defaults in Greece, followed by Spain, Portugal.  There's been no restrictions, no regulations of Wall Street, they've looted the US treasury, they've played all the games that they were playing before and we're all about to pay for it all over again.
O'Leary:  Listen, don't take this the wrong way, but you sound like a left wing nutbar.  if you want to shut down every corporation and every bank, where are you going to get a job?  Where's the economy going to go?
It really must have been Hedges mentioning Marx that set him off and like Pavlov's dog, O'Leary just can't help but go for crude insults (and what is the "right" way to take a comment like that?).  Hedges manages to keep his cool in the small exchange the follows (which I didn't transcribe) until the guest host interjects to refer back to O'Leary's offensive comment, and starting with Hedges, they get back into it:

CH:  I don't usually go on shows where people descend to character assassination, if you want to discuss issues, that's fine, but this sounds like Fox News, and I don't go on Fox News.  I mean, either you discuss the issues, and look, you have had eloquent writers, people like John Ralston Saul in Canada, who have laid this out with incredible lucidity, and to somehow attack this critique by calling someone a nutcase, engages in the kind of trash talk that has polluted the corporate airwaves.

KO:  Excuse me, let's debate the issues then.

CH:  Well you were the one who started it.

KO:  I didn't call you a nutcase, I called you a nutbar.

CH:  You said [I] sounded like a "left wing nutcase."

KO:  Yes--"bar."

CH:  Well, that's an insult.

KO:  (interrupts) Hey, are you left wing leaning at least?  Would you say?

CH:  No, I would say...

KO:  (interrupts) You're a centrist?

CH:  Can I finish?

KO:  Please.

CH:  I would say that those who are protesting the rise of the corporate state are the true conservatives because they're calling for the restoration of the rule of law.  The radicals have seized power and they have trashed all regulations and legal impediments to a reconfiguration of American society into a form of neofeudalism.
What exactly is the importance of the difference between calling someone a "nutcase" and a "nutbar"?  Notice too how he again tries to derail the discussion into a comfortable venue where he can just write off Hedges as a "left wing extremist" and thus ignore his commentary.  I don't necessarily like talk of "true conservatives" but it is a nice way of turning O'Leary's attack on him by pointing out the very reasonable and non-radical goals of the protests, in terms comfortable to conservatives, the rule of law.

But here's how the interview ends:
Host: (upbeat) Well thanks so much for joining us...

CH:  Well, it will be the last time. (removes earpiece with expression of disgust)
This interview was disgusting and a travesty of CBC programming.  I'm barely able to tolerate O'Leary's Gordon Gekko meets Jim Cramer meets Rick Santelli routine on the best of days, but when he succeeds in getting an imporant and insightful commentator like Chris Hedges to swear off appearing on the CBC (and most likely depriving Canadians of his voice) I really have to draw a line.  CBC, fire this asshole.  I'm sick of this him polluting the airwaves and it's time for him to be shown the door.  He's not entertaining, insightful and the only value the show ever has are the moments where the normal co-host, journalist Amanda Lang amusingly bats down his radical right wing nonsense, are definitely not worth the price of having this guy. 

There's no excuse for treating an invited guest to the show like that, particularly one who has no particular reason to come on Canadian TV and has no particular agenda in Canada.  There was no reason for an openly hostile line of questioning and badgering, trying to make the issue about Hedges rather than the behaviour of the Wall Street elites.  I think the CBC's attempt to placate Canadian conservative complaints about the network's supposed liberal bias by having a guy like O'Leary "balanced" by a mostly straight journalist in Lang is pointless and counterproductive (it pisses off people who like the network while doing nothing to persuade critics who will call for its defunding no matter what) but fine, if you insist on having a conservative, find a better one who at least doesn't drive off useful and interesting guests from coming back.

A more worthwhile right wing host might have asked Hedges a useful line of skeptical questioning about the statement quoted above, what does Hedges mean by "breaking the backs" of corporations?  O'Leary jumps to the conclusion that it means "shutting them down" but it isn't clear what Hedges meant exactly, what did Hedges mean by "unfettered capitalism" and did that mean he thinks some form of "fettered" capitalism would be viable?  I think I know the answers to these questions since I'm fairly familiar with Hedges' work, but CBC's audience was denied any useful clarification by O'Leary's boorish attempt to caricaturize Hedges rather than explore his position.

It should be said too that the guest host was useless, where I think normally Lang might have intervened to some extent, but still the primary fault is O'Leary's.

There's also the serious issue that O'Leary runs an investment fund company while holding a major media platform with which to talk up and down stocks that his funds may hold or want to buy.  It's a huge conflict of interest and I have never once seen O'Leary swear off buying or selling any of the companies discussed on the air.  At least let's get an analyst who isn't also an active player in the game.

CBC, it's time to end Kevin O'Leary's run.  In his own harsh view of the business world, an employee is either an asset or a liability, and O'Leary is not an asset.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

I'll start by saying I'm supportive of what is happening in New York.  I am particularly unconcerned with the lack of a concrete set of demands by the protestors as some sort of mark of a "legitimate" protest.  It might be nice if they had a unified goal or set of goals, but it doesn't preclude them being an effective force for change that they don't have this (yet, at least).  It's enough for me to see some brave souls coming together to at least say the status quo isn't working.  I'm very glad to see them protesting at the real seat of power in the world, the financial districts rather than political centres.

It also strikes me that the elite obsession with understanding the demands of the protesters (like this AP piece in the WaPo) actually somewhat reminds me of the media and Republican demands that the Democrats present their own plan to dismantle Social Security back when Bush was pushing his end of SS plan in 2005.  Forcing the protestors to coalesce around a set of demands could easily divide and destroy them.

It also strikes me that in no real way did the Tea Party have any such concrete set of demands, and they still don't, and no "smaller government" is not a meaningful or specific demand.  I suppose opposition to death panels was specific enough, except there never were any death panels so it was a demand that something be ended that never existed.  Still, it's not surprising that the DFH's get a different set of standards for their protest movement than did right wingers, but it's still worth exploring how these differences manifest.

Lastly I think the media demands for a list of demands is reflective of the elite discomfort at seeing this movement form in front of them, where their models and PR says they shouldn't.   It was one thing to see these sorts of movements start in Egypt or Syria, but this one is in the United States.  They simply don't understand it, and that makes them more afraid of a few thousand hippies than they were of the millions who marched in direct opposition to the Iraq War in 2003 (which of course had a specific demand, that was easily ignored).  In that sense, it might even be a mistake for the protestors to articulate a specific list of demands.

P.S.  I really really love this:
There are twice-daily meetings called general assemblies, where anyone can make a brief announcement. The assemblies draw everyone together in a tight huddle. To avoid violating a ban on bullhorns, the crowd obediently repeats in unison every phrase uttered by the main speaker, to ensure everyone hears.
I actually heard them doing this on the live feed, and didn't understand what it was about until I read that.  "This is what democracy looks like" indeed.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A question for conservatives

Imagine that you or someone you love have been charged with a serious crime. You (or they) didn't do it, but don't have a bulletproof alabi or other means of proving that.

Now imagine that for some reason, you and your defence lawyer are able to significantly control the number of conservatives on your jury.  Perhaps you have some ability to have the trial held in a very conservative county, or a relatively moderate county.

Which would you choose?  All else being equal about the jurors, and your lawyer is still going to ask the typical kinds of questions to filter out jurors that might have it out for you, but would you rather a jury that was mostly conservatives or one where they are only a minority on the jury?

I ask because in the wake of Troy Davis' execution, I remembered this research on the so-called 'death qualification' whereby potential jurors who admit to have moral objections to capital punishment are routinely excluded from juries on capital cases.  If you read the article, you'll find it isn't just hard core death penalty opponents like myself, but just about anyone who expresses any doubt or hesitation about the prospect of someone being put to death on their verdict.  It turns out that "death qualified" juries are significantly biased against defendants as a general rule, and significantly more likely to convict them:
The product is more than a dozen reported investigations which, in the overwhelming consensus of commentators, have confirmed three empirical hypotheses: (1) jurors excluded because of their inability to impose the death penalty are more attitudinally disposed to favor the accused than are non-excluded jurors; (2) excluded jurors are more likely to be black or female than non-excluded jurors; and (3) excluded jurors are more likely to actually acquit the accused than non-excluded jurors."
While naturally there are some liberals who support capital punishment, and some conservatives who oppose it, research is pretty clear that there's a significant difference in attitude that is strongly correlated with ideology:

That's from the US General Social Survey, using only 2008 data (though the longitudinal data looks similiar).  That graph doesn't show though that even liberals who might say they "favor" the death penalty for murder would more often have a series of caveats and hesitations; "only in the most serious cases", "only where guilt is absolutely certain", and so on.  Conservatives, in my experience tend not to have such hesitations.  Here's another disturbing study on "death qualified" jurors, and the propensity for many of them to fail at their job as jurors in that they refuse to consider mitigating factors that might lead to a lesser sentence than death, they simply equate the crime (murder) with the death penalty, no matter that the law may require them to take mitigating factors (say like being a minor, being mentally challenged or a difficult childhood):
The data presented here suggest that previous capital jurors, people who by definition were death qualified and sat through an entire trial to reach the difficult sentencing decision, still are often not able to perform rhe duties required of a juror in accordance with their instructions and their oath.
The result is that a more nuanced question about this would probably find a much greater disparity in the views of liberals and conservatives on capital punishment.  Even as it is, there's every reason that the "death qualification" serves to favour conservatives serving on juries.  I'll say unapologetically I would not want to be tried by a jury of conservatives, and would have no qualms about being tried by jury of liberals (even assuming the jury will know nothing about my political beliefs either way).

And if the trial was against someone who was accused of hurting or killing a loved one of mine, I'll say the same thing.  I would prefer the jury not be conservatives and would be comfortable with liberals (or moderates).

If you're conservative, can you say the same?  You've seen how your peers think about criminal justice.  Many conservatives really believe that if the police say you did something, that's enough.  The bias of our judicial system is supposed to be that a person is presumed innocent until the state proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt, but is there anyone really willing to claim that is the mentality most conservatives apply to criminal justice?  Maybe some of this is unfair on my part, after all, what someone spouts off in the comments section of a news article is not necessarily a good indicator of how they would approach the case if they were actually on the jury, with someone's fate in their hands.  I certainly hope conservatives who serve on juries tend to take it seriously and correctly view the state's case with skepticism until persuaded it is correct beyond a reasonable doubt.  But the anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests they too often do not.

And while it might be appealing to think a conservative biased jury hearing the trial of somone accused of harming you or a loved one will "get the bastard" by returning a conviction, I want the right person to be convicted of that crime, not just whomever the police happened to bring in for it because they want to pad their arrest stats or a conviction looks good on the department's record.  After all, if the wrong person is convicted, then the guilty party goes free to hurt others.   I'm not worried some soft-on-crime jury of liberals will acquit, if they do, then either the state didn't catch the right person, or they just didn't do their job in building a case.  

It's an important question, and a real one, since "death qualification" really serves as an ideological filter on juries.  Would you really want to be judged by a jury of your peers? 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Even Rick Perry's record on capital punishment doesn't really stand up

As I write this, people of conscience around the United States await the likely wrongful execution of Troy Davis for a crime that there is most certainly reasonable doubt that he committed. It got me thinking back to the Tea Partiers openly cheering for the death penalty, when the moderator questioned Rick Perry during that recent Republican Presidential primary debate:
WILLIAMS: Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you…

There's a lot wrong with this, even aside from the supposed "pro-life" crowd cheering for death, it turns out that Perry has very little to do with Texas' rate of executions, and it's even quite arguable that Texas does not lead the nation in the pace of executions; Oklahoma has a strong claim to that title.

Now I am a straight up, unapologetic opponent of all capital punishment for any reason and under any circumstances. This diary is not for that debate, but if you want my reasoning, here you go. You may also want to read this which discusses a real case in Virginia that highlights how the mere existence of the death penalty perverts the normal function of justice and coerces false confessions.

What I really want to do here is note that the progressive line on Texas as being governed by sociopaths like Bush and Perry as an explanation for its high rate of executions is flawed. Bush and Perry are of course very likely sociopaths (or "high social dominators" if you like Bob Altemeyer's work), but it turns out that Texas Governors have surprisingly little power in this process. You may have heard sometimes that Texas is a "weak Governor" state, and that is a fair description of the Governor's powers vis-a-vis executions (for a general primer on Texas' weak Chief Executives, try here).

My own facile vision of the typical US execution involves the Governor signing a "death warrant" or some other legal document that sends a condemned prisoner to the death chamber. In the movies, there's always a moment where everyone wonders if that special phone in the chamber is going to ring, indicating a reprieve of some sort by the Governor. The implication is that the Governor really has the power over life and death, both directing the specific executions of those so-sentenced by the Judicial system, and being the last line of defence in halting an execution.

Well, if you read the details on Texas, very little of that applies. Let's recap some key features on how someone goes from arrest to lethal injection:

  • Texas criminal trials are conducted in district courts under Judges who face local partisan elections (so the Governor doesn't appoint them)
  • Prosecutors are similarly locally elected (so neither the Governor nor Attorney General has control of what cases they pursue and whether they seek the death penalty, and for that matter the Attorney General is a seperately elected office anyway)
  • Juries have the final say on whether a convicted murderer gets the death penalty, if the prosecutor has requested it
  • Judges, not the Governor actually schedule executions (after requisite review and appeals have taken place)
Now a person has gone from arrest to the very doors of the death chamber, and the Governor has had no formal influence over the process. But the Governor does have a role at this point, however, it is fairly limited even there (from the above link):
At the same time that the defense is exhausting its legal appeals, it may file a petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The members of the parole board are appointed by the governor. The board has the power to recommend everything from a 120-day reprieve, to a commuted sentence, to a full, unconditional pardon. The board does not meet as a body; rather, each member considers the case and faxes his or her vote to the governor. The governor may also request that the board members issue a certain ruling, but they do not have to comply. The parole board's vote is almost always taken the day of the execution. Decisions are rendered by majority vote. A favorable recommendation must then receive the governor's approval in order to take effect. If the governor rejects the board's recommendation to grant clemency, it is not granted.

Without a court ruling or parole board recommendation, there is only one person that can stop the execution, and that is the governor, who has the unilateral authority to grant a 30-day stay. This power may be used only once per prisoner. Even if the execution ends up being delayed for years, when it is ultimately reset, the governor (or his/her successor) may not issue another stay for that prisoner. Because of this, the governor always waits until every other last resort has failed, which means that if a stay is issued, it will be within hours or even minutes of the execution time.
The Governor cannot commute a death sentence without a majority vote recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. He does appoint members to that board (subject to State Senate approval) but cannot fire them so (s)he really has very little ability to direct their votes. At most, on their own Texas governors can grant a 30-day stay. While that's not nothing, and may be enough to save a life in the event that some convict really has some shot of persuading a court to act, in practice most convicts face some very steep legal barriers to do more than delay their executions and even if you elected a Governor who promised to stop every execution he or she could, I doubt they could stop more than a small percentage of the executions. If you remember Illinois Governor Ryan's famous 2003 mass commutation of all death row inmates, it's useful to know that the Governor of Texas could not do such a thing.

Perry knows this of course. If we go back to that Republican debate, after the cheers here's the exchange between Williams and Perry:
[Williams:] Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?

PERRY: No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which — when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required.

But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.
Notice Perry takes no personal credit for the executions. He describes it in terms of an automated process. If you do X, Y will result. Nothing really to do with him.

When I read through the Texas system, instead what I see is a system that is set up to widely distribute responsibility for death sentences so each actor in the play only has a moderate part: The prosecutor only decides whether or not to "seek" it, each member of the Jury is only 1 of 12 and has the psychological cover of group dynamics, the sentencing Judge actually has no discretion, and everyone up to this point knows there will be an automatic review by another court. Yet another Judge actually does the scheduling of the sentence. As for the Governor, (s)he really needs a positive recommendation from another group in order to actually prevent the sentence happening, otherwise it is automatic, and the governor never has to sign off on anything for the sentence to be carried out. When Perry says he doesn't lose any sleep over the number of Executions in Texas, it's fairly easy to see why even someone ambivalent about capital punishment in his job might feel the same: It's not really their doing. Like so many great travesties, it is the collective actions of many that lead to this result, so no individual really needs to feel particularly responsible for the outcome. It's a neat trick (and sheer collective cowardice in my view), and I think this, much more than the personal characteristics of the more recent Texas Governors explains why Texas kills so many people. For a state so inured in the ideology of conservativism, which demands "personal responsibility," ironically Texas' judicial system kills people without any.

But Does Texas really fry the most?

This one is a little more debatable, but for my money, the real metric that matters most is the per-capita rate of executions, rather than the raw numbers (it is somewhat similar to people who use the raw numbers of America's finances to make it sound scarier, rather than discussing things like debt as percentage of GDP). Texas is a very big state, and so it is easy for such a place to execute relatively few convicts and still beat out in absolute terms much smaller states that execute even 100% of the people they convict of capital crimes. Fortunately, no state actually executes 100% of its death row inmates, but Oklahoma actually comes closest.

It turns out that Oklahoma has more people on death row per capita, and executes more people per capita than Texas. Texas 12.73 inmates on death row per million residents, and has executed 18.8 people per million since 1976. Oklahoma has 20.67 per million on death row, and has executed 25.78 per million in the same period, which is by far the leader among US states. Texas is still pretty high on the relative rankings, but if Oklahoma was the same population as Texas, by my quick calculation it would have executed over 640 people since 1976, versus Texas' 474.

So by my reckoning, this is another hollow Texas governor whose record even on one of the right's most cherished subjects is as phony as George Bush's brush ranch. More importantly, we who oppose capital punishment have been letting Oklahoma off the hook while distracted to some extent by the sheer raw numbers in Texas. Progressives in these states, or others with capital punishment who want to at least reduce the number of executions should consider the various points in the system that lead to such vast differences from state to state at every step in the process, from the number of times the prosecution seeks death, the number of times the sentence is granted, through to how often the state actually goes through with executions. While banning capital punishment is of course preferable, there are plenty of significant legal reforms that can take place to vastly reduce the actual number of executions that take place while leaving the death sentence legally in place. It would be interesting to see what would happen if Democrats in some red state merely demanded that the law be changed so that the State's governor accept personal final responsibility for whether each death sentence took place, and had to sign his name on a document authorizing the execution the very day of the act. I think most people who support the death penalty support it being done by other people. Anyway, something to think about.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ontario's election is kind of a big deal

October 6th, 2011 will be election day in Ontario's 40th general election.  This is a big deal for Ontario obviously, but for Canada as a whole.

The point isn't made very often but Ontario is simply enormous in comparison to the rest of Canada.  Ontario is 39% of Canada's population.  In US terms, if there was a state that combined California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois (the five biggest states) it still wouldn't be proportionally as big as Ontario is to Canada (you'd still only be about 36% of the US population by my quick math). 

Obviously this isn't a popular point to raise in the rest of Canada.  There's a long and bitter history over the real or perceived ways in which Ontario dominates the political scene.   I get at least some of where this resentment comes from, but I really don't see how you can avoid it, short of somehow levelling the population between the provinces.  There's a thing called "Western Alienation" that refers to the feeling amoung many in the four western provinces that they're "left out" of the important decisions in Canada, but whatever truth may be behind this, the four western provinces combined are about 32% of the population (and this is up significantly in the past decade, the disparity used to be even larger) so there's really no way to give them equal say with the significantly larger group of people who live in Ontario. 

For Americans or any other non-Canadian trying to understand us, it's important to realize too that Canadian provinces are much more powerful within Canada than States are within the US.  In the US, the total spending of the Federal government dwarfs the 50 states, while in Canada, the provinces actually spend a bit more overall than Ottawa.  So, not only is Ontario far bigger within Canada than any state within the US, but also it has a more prominent and powerful role by virtue of our system.  You cannot adequately study Canada without looking at the provinces, and in particular there, Ontario. 

I think that point should be made a little more often when analyzing Canada's economic performance through the Lesser Depression.  Many conservatives up here of course like to attribute Canada's relatively better economic situation (unemployment peaked south of 9% in 2009 and is now at 7.2% nationally) to the Harper Conservatives, but I really don't think you can tell the story of Canada's economy without reference to the provinces, and in particular, Ontario. 

Paul Krugman regularly makes the point that the US stimulus bill really didn't end up providing very much net fiscal stimulus because it really ended up just barely managing to counteract the automatic fiscal contraction that the 49 State governments undertook in service to their ridiculous constitutional budget balancing clauses (and Vermont, the smart hold out is doing pretty well last I heard).  In Canada, our Federal government had to be forced under threat of a Coalition government to undertake fiscal stimulus back at the beginning of 2009, but they did eventually implement a modest stimulus package sized at 2.8% of 2008 GDP. 

What didn't happen in Canada is that the provinces did not implement austerity budgets, and some, like Ontario, implemented their own fiscal stimulus packages.  Even conservative Alberta started running deficits with its 2009 budget rather than cut back during weak economic times. 

Those wishing to tell a partisan story about Canada's success in so-far weathering the Lesser Depression have a difficult slog.   The Federal Conservatives did pass a stimulus, but had to be pushed by the opposition, who held a parliamentary majority.  Liberal governments in Ontario, BC, Quebec and a Progressive Conservative government in Alberta (comprising the four biggest provinces) did at least no harm, and some attempt at good through the period.  The net result has been, well, not great, 7.2% unemployment really isn't much to brag about, but certainly less terrible than it could have been. 

So the fate of political power in Canada's largest province is worth watching.  For Ontarians, it is worth voting over.  The debate over the effectiveness of stimulus in the US is clouded, but in Canada the case is far clearer that it worked, while governments in Europe are busy proving unambiguously how counterproductive "austerity" is, it is important for Canada that Ontario not elect a government prone to breaking out the tight belt while conditions are still quite dicey. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Emptiness of Conservativism

Often, when criticizing conservativism, we focus on its many glaring real world policy failures.  After all, we are living in a prolonged real world experiment in deregulation, rigged trade, lower and flatter taxation, privatization and well, just leaving everything to the market to solve itself.   The result has been a disaster, not just in America, but in the rest of the industrialized/rich world, and how bad it has been lines up quite well to how completely each country has implemented the modern conservative agenda (basically neoliberalism).

Today I came across PZ Myers linking to a good article talking about Finland's great success in education, a success found in doing basically nothing the neoliberals say will fix education in America.  Pieces like this are not hard to find.  In the heath care debate, liberals point at places like Canada, France, Japan and Australia as having health systems that deliver better results for less money than America's.  On taxation or general matters of equality, we point to, say, Sweden or maybe Japan.  Here in Canada, where we are allowing the tar sands oil reserves to suck us into the resource trap by killing off other sections of the economy, I could easily point to Norway as an example of an oil rich country that manages not to let the oil warp and pervert their entire system and where everyone benefits from the natural bounty left in the ground by sheer providence.

What can conservatives point to?  Where are their great success stories?  Where are the nations living well using conservative policies?  Aside from the Pinochet period in Chile and pre-2008 Ireland, generally the only nation conservatives could point to as containing both success and heavily conservative policy was America itself.  Now, they are reduced to pointing at a place like Texas, which by virtue of creating a higher absolute number of jobs in the past couple years than other US states becomes the metric of "success."

Which really highlights the abject failure that is conservativism.  Texas is your success?  Because it had a slightly less terrible job creation record?  Really, is that the heights of conservative vision?  I think it is.  A world of minimum wage earners bowing and scraping to their betters for fear of being excluded from the job market in an "at-will" and "right to work" labour market, and hoping against hope to defy the odds and be one of the few called to some higher strata of the economy.  A world of hard knocks and a constant awareness that no one will help you up if you fall.  What do we all get in exchange for this?  Even if we take their economic claims at face value, we supposedly get higher aggregate economic growth and maybe a wider variety of consumer goods.  On the one hand you might be laid off any day for any reason without warning or compensation.  On the other hand, you'll have lots of shiny gadgets to play with while you're unemployed.  If you can afford them.

This is something I think could be a fruitful line of attack on conservativism, if any prominent liberals were inclined to actually attack it.  Conservatives can and do debate whether liberal ideas work in reality, but at our best, our vision is just head and shoulders better than theirs.  We propose a world free from deprivation and desperation, free from fear, and most of all a world of dignity for all.  It isn't utopia by any stretch, someone still needs to clean the toilets and take out the trash.  But the people who do that in the liberal vision are treated with respect, like everyone else is.  And if you want to claim that our economic system of high marginal taxes and judicious regulation limits economic growth and reduces consumer choice, that really doesn't seem like so much to give up in exchange. 

Most humans seem to agree.  Every social insurance scheme that I know of, from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the US, to their various counterparts in the rest of the rich world are very popular with their populations.  Even America's heavily corporate and right wing media, cut loose from the fairness doctrine for decades now has been unable to convince the public that these programs are bad for them.  At best, they're sometimes able to convince a majority that the programs are unaffordable.   These claims are nonsense, but the tactic highlights the enduring popularity of safety over the vaunted "choice."  People don't really want to make choices where "abject poverty" or "death" are distinct possibilities for choosing wrong.  This is what conservatives offer:  "Come, gamble on your retirement at the Wall Street casino.  You may just strike it rich!  Or you can die in a gutter if you bet wrong."  In fact, we generally treat people willing to gamble at stakes this high as mentally ill.  Despite a population with north of 40% of people calling themselves "conservative" and another 40% who are "moderate" US conservative leaders cannot manage to get majorities on board with the propositions involved in gambling on your healthcare or retirement.

The conservative vision stinks and people know it intuitively.  Even if their ideas worked as they claim, the result would be generally terrible for almost everyone who wasn't filthy rich.  It's time to make this point regularly.  

Sunday, August 7, 2011

QOTD: HTML Mencken

The thing about the great internet satirists/comedians like Roy Edroso, Tbogg, and the Sadlynaughts is that to be a funny satirist you must first and foremost be an insightful and perceptive analyst in addition to whatever je ne sais quois makes one additionally hilarious.  So I was quite pleased to see HTML Mencken reappear at Sadly, No! a few days ago after a long absence, and it is no surprise to me that the author of one of the all-time great political posts (seriously, read and bookmark that thing if you've never seen it) is back with another great observation worth more notice (bold text added):
But it is Obama’s fault that he’s functioned as a de facto wingnut Trojan horse, and it’s his fanatic supporters’ fault that there is not a consensus on the left accepting of the reality that Barack Obama, a Democrat, has won victories for wingnuttery that Republican Presidents could never win — or dare to even try. One hears “Only Nixon could go to China” a lot these days in reference to Obama’s behavior, the point, I think, being that Obama is performing a superficially self-reversing maneuver in order to substantively further his and his party’s goals, for the good of all — which is what Nixon more or less did. Nixon’s tilt toward the Chicoms did not sabotage what he thought was the most important goal in his party’s foreign policy, which was the containment of the Soviet Union; in the context of conservatism, Nixon was unorthodox but “meant well.” In contrast, in making it safe to destroy social security and medicare, Obama does not “mean well” by liberalism; he does mean to sabotage the most important plank in his party’s philosophy, which is equality through a social safety net. Nixon was using liberal means to further conservative aims; Obama is putting a liberal face on conservative means to achieve conservative ends.
 That is a fantastic insight.  Nixon saved a major conservative goal from conservative short term stupidity in being unwilling to even talk to China when it would be clearly advantageous to the larger goal of containing the Soviet Union to do so.  Obama is not serving some larger liberal aim by cutting Medicare or Social Security.  The most generous interpretation is that he believes the neoliberalism triumphant TINA ("There is no alternative") hypothesis that says the demise of these programs is inevitable and at best he can only delay their demise (this is what I've read explains Tony Blair).   He is not even plausibly aiding his party's long term prospects.  Nixon going to China did not hurt average Americans at all.  He pissed off the extreme anti-communists but otherwise nothing bad happened to America as a result.  Obama is removing the floor that keeps the poorest Americans from falling into the basement when they get sick or old.  Lots of real people will be hurt by this, and they know it (or will be told of it by cynical Republicans happy to exploit a Democrat stepping on the third rail voluntarily).  They will vote accordingly.

The rest of the post is excellent and worth a look.  He makes reference to other events that are perhaps more comparable to what Obama is doing - Andrew Johnson siding against the reconstruction Republicans after Lincoln's death and John Tyler governing as a 19th century Democrat even though he was elected as a Whig under the deceased Harrison. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

All economic discussions need to drop absolute dollar figures

The use of absolute dollar figures in economic discussions drives me crazy.  Given the realites of inflation and population growth, the absolute dollar figures for everything will nearly always be the highest in history.  In non-political terms, the one that bugs me most is the list of top grossing movies.  Compare that list (which doesn't have a movie made before 1993 in the top 20) to this list adjusted for inflation.  One can still quibble about these things, after all in the era of Gone With the Wind there wasn't things like television, TiVo and movie piracy, and clearly these things drove increased ticket sales.  Still, the point should be obvious that you cannot measure the "top grossing" movies in unadjusted dollars and expect to get any kind of fair comparison. 

In politics, this sort of thing is far worse.  Today's example from the Politico:
The White House anticipates unemployment at 8.25 percent, and Goldman Sachs and others warn the number could be higher — close to 9 percent, which would mean no net job growth after the biggest stimulus package in the history of the world. No president has won reelection when unemployment was higher than 7.2 percent in 50 years.
I don't doubt this is true in absolute dollar figures.  But "the history of the world" is a big claim.  Was the ARRA really bigger than the construction of the Great Wall of China?  Bigger than World War II?  Bigger than the Great Pyramids?   Only a comparison using relative economic indicators (such as ratio to GDP, or some kind of inflation adjusted metric) could possibly tell you this.  Anyone who has more than glanced Krugman's direction over the past several years will know the serious economic objections to this claim anyway:  1) ARRA was far too laden with poorly stimulative tax cuts and 2) It really only counteracted the precipitous decline in State government spending so that there was no net government stimulus. In fact, once you adopt a metric that compares to the size of the economy, it's clear the US stimulus program wasn't even the biggest one in the world in 2009 - Saudi Arabia's program was bigger as a percentage of GDP. 

Leaving aside the ancient examples, it's pretty clear to me that WWII remains the biggest stimulus program ever in any meaningful sense worth discussing.  That WWII wasn't explicitly designed as a stimulus program doesn't matter, as the theory driving stimulus only requires that a) the economy be under utilized and b) that government spend a lot of money, which clearly fits the bill c1939-1942. 

I think this can be fixed.  The general public understands a surprising number of abstract and relative metrics.  We typically measure unemployment as a percentage, and not in absolute terms.  People have some sense of what "GDP" is (though I doubt many could tell you how it is calculated).  It's sloppy journalism (unsurprising from the Politico) and it opens the door to various dishonest demagogues with agendas to push. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Heroes We Don't Honour Enough

(Otto Wels, 1873-1939)

I'm sure I'm not the only person to watch the US Debt Ceiling battle and general thrust of its recent politics who has had their thoughts drawn toward the fall of the German Weimar Republic in 1933.  No, Republicans aren't Nazis, or even close to them, but the situation still has similarities worth exploring. 

The German elections of 1933 were in no way free and fair.  The NSDAP had attained power at the beginning of the year, and between the state levers at their disposal, and the Party's SA enforcement arm(y), a variety of voter and opposition intimidation and obstruction means were used.  Still, Hitler fell short of the parliamentary majority he wanted, with his strongest opponents, the Social Democrats and the Communists coming in second and third.  Coming on the heels of the Reichstag Fire, Hitler immediately moved to pass the Enabling Act, which (among other major changes) allowed him to pass laws without needing parliamentary action or approval.   Hitler would have no trouble reaching a majority, combining NSDAP's 288 seats with the German National People's Party's (DNVP) 52 to beat the half way mark of the 647 seat Reichstag.  However the Enabling act was actually a constitutional change, which required asset of two-thirds of legislators with two-thirds attendance.  To get there, Hitler used powers given to him in the Reichstag Fire Decree to arrest all the Communist deputies, but with the Social Democrats, and their 120 deputies against the bill, Hitler needed the support of the fourth party, the Centre party, and their 74 seats to attain the necessary supermajority.

To do this, Hitler negotiated in bad faith with the Centre party's Chairman, Ludwig Kaas.  It was a testament to the perils of negotiating a seperate peace rather than standing in solidarity, as Kass told his party:
"On the one hand we must preserve our soul, but on the other hand a rejection of the Enabling Act would result in unpleasant consequences for fraction and party. What is left is only to guard us against the worst. Were a two-thirds majority not obtained, the government's plans would be carried through by other means. The President has acquiesced in the Enabling Act. From the DNVP no attempt of relieving the situation is to be expected."
In the end, Hitler made verbal guarantees around the status of religion and specifically the Catholic church in exchange for Centre's support of the act.  A letter that was to formalize these promises somehow never arrived, and yet Centre plunged ahead and voted for the act anyway (SA thugs surrounding the Reichstag certainly may have helped too).

In the end only the Social Democrats would vote against the act (the Communists certainly would have, had any been able to attend), all 94 members who had dared to attend that day.  Only their leader, Otto Wels spoke against the act from the floor:
"At this historic hour, we German Social Democrats pledge ourselves to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and Socialism. No Enabling Law can give you the power to destroy ideas which are eternal and indestructible ... From this new persecution too German Social Democracy can draw new strength. We send greetings to the persecuted and oppressed. We greet our friends in the Reich. Their steadfastness and loyalty deserve admiration. The courage with which they maintain their convictions and their unbroken confidence guarantee a brighter future." 
 Moreover, Wels looked directly at Hitler and said:
"You can take our lives and our freedom, but you cannot take our honour. We are defenseless but not honourless."
The act passed 444 to 94.  Elected opponents to Hitler paid a heavy price in the Nazi regime.  A memorial today honours 96 members of the Reichstag who would be murdered by the Nazis.  Otto Wels would flee Germany and die in exile in 1939 (especially tragic that he did not live to at least see the demise of Nazism).

The whole incident fairly reeks with lessons for contemporary politics.   Just read Krugman's recent (excellent) attack on centrism, and try and convince yourself that today's centrists would behave any differently than the craven Centre party did, even if they were faced with actual personified evil in the form of Nazism rather than the banal bottomless greed of modern conservativism.  Sure, the Republicans aren't Nazis but I hear echoes of Kaas' rationalization for surrender the-possible-is-the-limit almost daily in US politics.  The remnant of the sane, traditional right wing of German politics in the DNVP made exactly the same faustian bargain that today's moderate right wingers make in uniting with an irrational force on the assumption that they can control and benefit from it  (notably, the leader of the DNVP was a kind of former-day Berlusconi or Murdoch media baron of his day). 

Last, the courage of Wels and the other SPD deputies ought not to be forgotten.  In an era where charlatans try and rewrite history for contemporary political advantage, it is to spit on the graves of those 96 deputies to try and claim that liberals, social democrats or even communists are the true progenitors of fascism.  We don't need to hand wave theoreticals about this.  We have a legislative record.  When the chips were down, the centre-right, the business right, the nativist right and the cautious centre voted with the Nazis, and only the far left and centre-left stood against them. 

(See, also this excellent set of rebuttals to the notion that Hitler was a leftist, and Dave Neiwert's specific criticisms of Goldberg's book)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fine British Satire

I love The Onion fiercely, but the Daily Mash is more than matching its best stuff over the Newscorp scandal:

Murdochs know far less about News International than you do
YOU know considerably more about News International than Rupert Murdoch and his son James, it has been confirmed.

As the the two people who run News International on a daily basis appeared before MPs, it emerged that neither of them have ever spoken to anyone who has worked there and have no idea what the company does.

Asked when he knew that News International had paid people to keep schtum about the phone scandal thingy, Rupert Murdoch said: "Do they make those inflatable chairs with the built-in cup holders?"

After a 14-minute pause, he added: "I like those."

MPs 'may have been misled' by arse-covering lounge lizard
A PARLIAMENTARY committee may have been misled by an unctuous corporate sleaze-ball who was there for the sole reason of covering his sorry arse.

It has emerged that James Murdoch may actually have been aware of one thing about the company he runs and could now be forced to pay lawyers to come up with a skilfully modernised version of what he actually knew.
(click for the very well chosen picture of James Murdoch on this one)

Parents 'have right to know if News of the World pervert lives next door'
EVERY family in Britain lives no more than 50 miles from a predatory, News of the World phone beast, it has emerged.

The discovery has boosted the campaign for a new law that will force police to warn neighbourhoods if a News of the World employee is living nearby, how long they have known about it and how much they were paid to keep their mouths shut.

As it emerged the tabloid had been stalking murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, parents said it is vital they know where the dangerous perverts are living.
I'm going to read the Daily Mash more often.  Evidently those bad British libel laws aren't stifling them too badly.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Ratings Agencies should downgrade US debt

Not that I want it to happen, or think they will do this, but if the ratings agencies are really doing the job they claim, how can they not downgrade the rating on the debts of an organization that is currently engaging in an actual protracted, serious public debate about whether or not to continue honouring its debts?

If you went for a loan, and told the bank that you "might or might not" pay back interest on the loan, and despite having ample financial means to afford it, "would decide later," how likely are you to get the loan? 

Obviously the ratings agencies are trying to read the tea leaves and go along with the CW that "everyone knows the debt ceiling will be raised" but that isn't really their job.   There's really no way to read a fluid political situation like what we're watching and have any certainty about the outcome, and that's really the point, it is no longer certain that on August 3rd, the United States will honour all its debts and obligations on time.  Being too generous with the Triple-A ratings is an important part of how we got into this mess, and I really can't see on what basis the ratings agencies have now to sustain Triple A ratings on the US Federal Government given what it happening. 

Just another reminder that the ratings agency system needs reform. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

What is Canadian Senate Reform really about?

This week, Stephen Harper's government introduced its first post-majority stab at substantively reforming the Senate of Canada.  Going off media reports of the bill, it is an attempt to alter the nature of the Senate while not requiring a Constitutional amendment.  There is already talk of constitutional challenges to the bill by the Provinces, but putting that issue aside, I'd like to explore what the bill is supposed to do, and address what Harper hopes to get out of it.

The most important thing to understand about the Senate of Canada up to this point is that it is formally equal to the House of Commons in most aspects of its Constitutional powers, and yet lacks legitimacy to actually act like a real legislative body and has for most of its days acted as a rubber stamp to the initiatives of the government of the day.  This lack of legitimacy is attributed to the fact that Senators are appointed by the Governor-General on advice of the Prime Minister, and thus Senators have no independent mandate to actually defeat bills from the House of Commons, nor alter its legislation in any significant way.

By and large, this system has worked fairly well for Canada.  The only big complaint about it is that the Senate became largely a patronage reward system where party hacks and fundraisers could draw a pretty decent government salary and enjoy the trappings of being a Parliamentarian without having to do the whole messy "run for office" thing.  A number of Senators have become infamous in the media for lack of attendance and other misbehaviour, which has made reforming the Senate a popular issue for many.

So what does this bill do?  Two things:
  • Term limits.  Currently Senators are appointed and can stay in office until age 75.  This bill would set a 9 year, single term limit. 
  • Optional provincial elections.  The bill sets up a stronger legal mechanism for Provinces to voluntarily elect Senate candidates, who would be appointed by the PM when vacancies occur. 
While both ideas are pretty bad, it's the second one that's most dangerous.  Currently, only Alberta has held its own unrecognized Senate elections, and Harper actually did appoint one of Alberta's "elected" Senators.  A couple other provinces out west are considering holding elections too.  This is exactly what Harper is hoping for.  If even 3 or 4 provinces start electing Senators, that could be enough to fundamentally change the nature of the Senate as an institution.  Once you have a mass of "elected" Senators in the body, operating under term limits, they're going to start trying to legislate, amend bills and defeat bills.  They won't feel constrained by the chamber's lack of democratic legitimacy, because they'll claim they were elected.

What will the Senators who never won elections do?  Some will join in the crusades of the elected peers, and others will try and stand aside, but the result will be a mess.  What happens when the partially elected Senate defeats a House bill?  The public reaction will almost certainly be in favour of electing the rest of them.   However it plays out, the result will be to break the strong traditional prohibition on the Senate playing an activist role.  Once this gets going, there won't be any way to stop it. 

Now here's the question:  Why would Stephen Harper, and the Reform/Alliance western conservative base he represents want to empower the Senate?  One of the traditional complaints of Albertans is that they are "left out" and they claim "the West wants in" because of the purported underrepresentation of the West in Ottawa.  Let's take a look:

Province Pop % of pop House Seats % of House Senate Seats % of Senate Ratio to pop
ON 13210667 38.70% 106 34.40% 24 22.86% 0.59
QC 7907375 23.20% 75 24.40% 24 22.86% 0.99
BC 4530960 13.30% 36 11.70% 6 5.71% 0.43
AB 3720946 10.90% 28 9.10% 6 5.71% 0.52
MB 1235412 3.70% 14 4.50% 6 5.71% 1.54
SK 1045622 3.10% 14 4.50% 6 5.71% 1.84
NS 942506 2.80% 11 3.60% 10 9.52% 3.4
NB 751755 2.30% 10 3.20% 10 9.52% 4.14
NL 509739 1.50% 7 2.30% 6 5.71% 3.81
PE 142266 0.40% 4 1.30% 4 3.81% 9.52
NT 43759 0.10% 1 0.30% 1 0.95% 9.52
YT 34525 0.10% 1 0.30% 1 0.95% 9.52
NU 33220 0.10% 1 0.30% 1 0.95% 9.52
Canada 34108752 100.00% 308 100.00% 105 100.00% 1
(chart source: wikipedia with Senate columns added by me)

It is true that Alberta and BC are slightly underrepresented by population in the House of Commons.  But so is Ontario.  Quebec is slightly overrepresented, but hardly anything dramatic.

As the "West" includes Manitoba (MB) and Saskatchewan (SK) in the usual understanding of the term, overall the four western provinces have 31% of the population, and 29.8% of the House seats.  This is the grand "left out" claim?  The four provinces have less population than Ontario, and are proportionally better represented.  

Now look at the Senate.  Owing to some silly history, the breakdown of the Senate is particularly antiquated and the founders broke Canada into four regions, and gave each region 24 Senators.  So Ontario and Quebec got 24 each, the West got 24, and the maritimes got 24.  This has left the Senate in a particularly egregious state of misallocated represenation.  What doesn't make sense to me, is that the West is far more underrepresented in the Senate than in the House.  There the four western provinces have 22.86% of the seats.  In particular why Alberta would want to empower a body that almost cuts their influence in half versus the House is tres strange no?

It is true that the old Reform party mantra on the Senate would be to make it "triple-e" which is effective, elected and equal*.  Harper's bill could potentially achieve the first two (after a fashion) but has no provision for the third?  What's up with that? 

The only rationale that makes sense to me is one of pure ideology.  Senates, all else being equal tend to be biased toward conservative politics.  It's harder to get elected to the Senate, it's more prestigious, the terms are longer, and consequently Senators tend to be older, whiter, less female and richer.  All of which makes one more conservative.  Harper isn't trying to solve Alberta's federal under-represenation problem, he's trying to stack the deck of the Canadian system in a way that improves the outcomes for conservative ideologues.  If nothing else, adding an empowered Senate just adds a veto-point to government, which means that every bill is just that much harder to pass.  Every barrier you add, means some percentage of legislation will not make it into law, no matter how you compose that barrier.

I have written before of this basic asymmetry of interests that is too often ignored in simplistic analyses of "liberals versus conservatives" battling for the neutral levers of government.  Conservatives, at the end of the day, are usually far more happy to just have the government do nothing. They generally represent the interests of the rich, comfortable and powerful.  Such people don't need anything from government.  They'll take it if they can get it, but they don't need it to pursue their interests.  Such people are also by definition a minority and have much to fear from government interfering in their ability to draw undue rents from the less powerful.  Knowing nothing else about the issues or system, in this calculus Conservatives would prefer a government that is harder to operate than one that is easier to use to effect change. 

I know a lot of Canadians detest the idea of a bunch of pampered hacks drawing government salaries until 75 for no expectation of work.  This, I think, is the core of the popularity of electing the Senate.  But that's no reason to empower our Senate to interfere in the business of governing.  If you don't like the hacks, the solution is simple, abolish the senate like the NDP have been saying for years.  Canada hasn't needed the Senate for much up to now, what exactly is electing the Senate supposed to solve?  If you resent what they cost now, just wait until they feel democratically empowered to govern. 

It's important to understand this, because on the basis of the age-old western complaints, Harper's bill makes very little sense.  He may hope that a rebalancing of the Senators could come down the road, but that for sure would require a constitutional amendment.   The current allocation of Senators could end up being permanent.  PEI has 9 times the number of Senators their population would otherwise justify.  Think they're going to give up 3 Senators without a fight? 

* -I detest the idea of allocating identical Senate seats to each province "equal" - I see no reason to replicate the worst aspects of the American system, where the 500,000 people of Wyoming elect the same 2 Senators that the 37,000,000 people of Califnoria get to.  That's about as un-equal as you can get.