Saturday, April 30, 2011

NDP for Canada

For what it's worth, while opponents of the Harper government should still vote tactically in ridings where the NDP are a distant third and show no sign of being able to win, Jack Layton and the NDP must now be the default selection for your vote. 

I have not been shy in my fears that Layton's rise could lead to awkward left vote splitting, particularly in a substantial number of seats in Ontario that puts Harper over the top to a majority, but now the NDP has been in the polling lead over the Liberals and Bloc across nearly every region (Three Hundred Eight still shows the Liberals narrowly leading in the Atlantic and Ontario, but the trend in Ontario is clearly in the NDP's favour).   What finally starts to reassure me is that the NDP have been projected to win a small number of currently held Conservative seats, and projected to hold a couple that the Conservatives were earlier projected to win.

Voters in Ontario should be most sensitive to the need to vote tactically Liberal, particularly in the 905 belt, plus a few other ridings like York Centre, Kingston and the Islands, London, Guelph and a number of others where the NDP are not very likely to close the gap in time.  Sorry NDP, the memory of Premier Bob Rae is still hurting you in the province, fairly or not. I'm not sure why the NDP don't have more traction in the Atlantic, so again tactical voting may apply.

Michael Ignatieff has run on a more liberal platform than I would have expected from him, and in the traditional way campaigns are run and assessed, I think he has done a fair job.  His debate performance wasn't terrible, no major gaffes, takes media questions well and he stick handled a few Liberal candidate problems well enough that they didn't become major issues.  His personal approval ratings have gone up through the campaign.  But he started from such a disadvantage for avoidable reasons such as that he should never have become leader of the Liberal party after the majority of the party's base united behind a dark horse candidate (Dion) to keep him out of that job in 2006.  I was one of them.  When Ignatieff became leader under strained circumstances in 2009, it's true there wasn't a party revolt, but almost no one was thrilled.  Ignatieff started out without the home team cheering section a party leader needs to build a positive image with the population.  Harper and Layton both have this. When Harper's inevitable attack ads came screetching in, Ignatieff did not have people to stick up for him in coffee shops and by office water coolers.  

Further, much like Hillary Clinton, Ignatieff cannot escape the serious baggage that is his support for the invasion of Iraq while still in America.  Both Paul Martin and Stephane Dion were able to make up some ground in 2004, 2006 and 2008 by pointing out Harper's support for that war, while reminding voters it was a Liberal government that kept Canada out of it, and in fact even denied George W. Bush Canada's moral support for the endeavour.  It should be remembered as a particularly high point in the Liberal party's history. Ignatieff cannot use this.  Meanwhile, Layton and Duceppe can and have used it against him.  I'm not opposed to Ignatieff as Liberal leader because he's an intellectual, I'm opposed to him because he's a crappy intellectual who gets important things very wrong.  Additionally between Ignatieff and Rae they have denied the Liberals any distinction with the conservatives over Afghanistan and again it is no surprise that the Liberals are bleeding support in a country that is tired of this war.  Quebec particularly so and look where the NDP wave started.

Finally there is Jack Layton himself.  I have my qualms about him.  I never warmed to his personna the way others seem to have, but that alone cannot really be decisive.  Layton strikes me a bit like a used car salesman.  That perception may be unfair, but it is what it is.  That said, I did enjoy Ian Welsh's story about Layton and am willing to revise my views on Layton as events dictate.   I don't think he is above cynically exploiting issues for partisan advantage, and I worry that he wants to beat the Liberals much more than he wants to beat the Conservatives.  Maybe that's how it has to be for a smaller party hoping to overtake a traditional big-tent party's place.  It doesn't happen very often so there aren't a lot of models to compare against.  For NDP supporters I hope they can keep a small part of their brains aware that Layton is a politician and a human and he is not immune to the failings of those classes. Layton can and has put the Party's interests over the interests of Canada.  He does it less often than the Liberals, but it does happen.  I worry about Layton's ability to hold to the NDP's progressive core while trying to navigate a massively enlarged coalition.  He has not persuaded me that his promises to Quebec come from sincere progressive convictions about how Canada should accomodate our two solitudes, so I sense opportunism.  I am giving Layton a chance to prove my fears wrong.  Nothing in his record is as odious as Ignatieff's writings on torture or in support of a pointless, illegal and unjustified war against Iraq.  Certainly he will be a better Prime Minister than Harper because he doesn't believe in all the bad ideas Harper does.  Conservatism doesn't work, and remains a destructive force of inequity, dishonesty and division upon the modern world.  The differences between Layton and Ignatieff are important, but next to Harper both are vastly preferable for the simple reason that they are at least open to doing the right things for Canada.

At the start of this election, my read was that the best that could come out of it would be another Tory minority which led to changes of leadership potentially in all four parties.  Now at least Layton's rise has given me something more to hope for.  We might actually be able to get Harper out of 24 Sussex and the NDP might get a chance to show Canadians how well progressive government can work for them, and for Canada.  There's a lot of obstacles still even if Layton does become Official Opposition leader, but something has finally changed from our 5 years of political stalemate.  The overwhelming need is to remove Richard Nixon North from office and I'm prepared to support the best available option to do so.  The NDP are now that best option for most places in the country and deserve a chance to prove the skeptics wrong.


Friday, April 29, 2011

Will the NDP boom increase the chances of electoral reform?

It really should, no matter the outcome, two scenarios:
  1. My fears are realized, the NDP increase splits enough previously Liberal seats to give Harper a majority.  Certainly Harper would have no interest in pursuing electoral reform, but the prospect of millions of Canadians giving the NDP a chance and seeing it a Conservative majority government as the result would create a lot of anger and lead to a groundswell for voting system reform.
  2. The NDP win enough seats to deny Harper a majority.  Whether they end up as official opposition, remain behind the Liberals in seat count or actually win government in their own right, having a lot more NDP MPs in a minority parliament, with a very likely NDP/Liberal coalition government forming would present the NDP a historic chance to reform the electoral system, as they have long supported proportional representation.
The second scenario has some quite contemporary precedent, in that it is precisely one of the concessions that the Liberal-Democrats got from the UK Conservatives in agreeing to form a coalition government with them.  Unfortunately, polling shows like so many electoral system reform referenda, the proposed alternative voting (AV) system is likely going to fail.  Click through to that Crooked Timber piece for a great discussion in the comments on the merits and drawbacks of various alternatives to First Past The Post (FPTP).  This is a topic progressive activists should refresh on since I don't think the road to PR (the usual preferred system of the left) is going to be very easy, and we should all consider what alternatives would be better than the status quo and have a better chance of success than PR. 

Also given the defeats of voting system referenda in BC, Ontario and now probably the UK, it would be well to study the politics of those to avoid the same mistakes.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Globe and Mail embraces the necessity for suffering

Via POGG, Eh?, we have this odious Globe and Mail editorial endorsing Harper's Conservatives for Canada's next government.  Pogge catches the Globe in an absurd rewrite of history, crediting Harper for the 2009 Canadian stimulus plan, which the Globe somehow forgets was only done because the opposition parties ganged up and were prepared to form a coalition government or see an election after the Finance Minister's November 2008 "fiscal update" made no mention of the need for stimulus (and eliminated public financing for political parties).  This was the original "prorogation crisis" where the Governor General had to save Harper's job.  That's dumb enough.   I think the thesis is really the second last paragraph:
Even more determination will be needed to confront the sustainability of publicly funded health care in an aging society. Health care is suffering from chronic spending disease. If left unchecked, it could swallow as much as 31 cents of each new dollar in wealth created in Canada in the next 20 years. In spite of some unwise commitments he has made on subsidy increases to the provinces, Mr. Harper has the toughness and reformist instincts to push the provinces toward greater experimentation (in private delivery, for instance) and change. 
Seconds after praising Harper for his non-doctrinaire conservativism, the Globe is endorsing him because they're hoping he will cut and privatize our cherished universal single payer health care system.  For American readers, this should all sound sickeningly familiar - the population is aging, so social safety net services that help the elderly will cost more, so naturally we should embrace failed privatization schemes and impose austerity on the non-wealthy. 

I don't actually know what "swallow as much as 31 cents of each new dollar in wealth created in Canada" means either - health care spending could rise to 31% of GDP?   The Globe doesn't cite a source, but it's probably about this report released recently (of course during an election) by the right wing C.D. Howe Institute hacks.   But even that report only manages to fear-monger our health care spending up from 12% of GDP to 18% of GDP by 2031.  Where does the Globe contrive this 31% figure?

We live directly north of the world's largest and longest ongoing experiment in the private delivery of health care services.  Whatever claimed benefits that system could have in terms of maybe producing more innovative drugs, or better top-end care (for the very few who can afford it), being cheaper is not and has never been one of those benefits.  The US spends by far the most on health care of any country in the world, both per-capita and in absolute terms while leaving tens of millions uncovered.  Even the US experiment with private delivery within their universal elderly health care system, "Medicare Advantage" was a failure from any cost-effectiveness perspective, costing far more per patient than plain old government run Medicare.

In any case, how sly of the Globe to sneak this near the bottom when it really is the only thing that could explain why they would endorse Harper after praising Ignatieff for his high road campaign and hard work, while criticizing Harper for his dictatorial style and abuse of parliament.  They praise, then dismiss Ignatieff with an argument that boils down to "we can't endorse him because he isn't winning" which kind of defeats the point of endorsement as opposed to prediction.  Their dismissal of Layton is unsurprising for them, but given their own stated reasons, absent their desire to privatizing and cut health care, picking Harper otherwise doesn't make sense.  Given that Harper actually promised very clearly not to cut health care funding in the leaders debate, it makes even less sense, but the Globe just writes that off because they're hoping he was lying about that.

Inexplable austerity from the self appointed Serious People, it isn't just for America.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Prediction is Difficult, Especially About the Future

With apologies to Niels Bohr, I just wanted to take a moment and point out that the art or science of predicting Canadian election outcomes is actually far less advanced and accurate than American readers might be used to.  I have written of my fear that the NDP boom could lead to the obscene outcome of a Conservative majority on a scant 37-38% of the national popular vote, but I could easily be quite wrong, and I really hope I am.

Partly that is because the situation is still developing and if the NDP "orange crush" continues to grow until election day itself, then it will quite likely go past the second tipping point I discussed, where the NDP actually wins significant numbers of currently Liberal, BQ and (most importantly) Conservative seats where they up until now are not believed to lead, rather than just splitting the non-conservative vote and letting the Conservatives win a number of normally Liberal or BQ ridings without increasing their actual support.

The problem for the NDP is that they started so far behind the Liberals and Conservatives that even a historic 5-10% increase in national support doesn't necessarily make them competitive in nearly enough ridings to guarantee a Tory minority.  I don't rule out the possibility of a super-duper history changing increase in support of 15% or more that actually puts the NDP into real competition with the Conservatives to form the government.  After all, this actually happened in Ontario in 1990, which shocked the nation (and the NDP) by delivering an NDP majority government to Canada's most populous province.

But putting aside the dynamic nature of the situation very much still in motion, just in general Canadian elections are harder to predict so you should discount significantly anyone's predictions (including mine):
  • 308 elections versus 51.  First up, predicting the outcome of a US presidential election is easier because there are a lot less constituent parts that decide the outcome. 
  • Less polling.  There's plenty of national and regional polls, but these are really of rather limited value in predicting the individual riding outcomes which actually determine the real outcome.   We're a smaller country, a smaller media market, there's just a lot less overall money flowing in the system to pay for the level of polling we see in the US, and polling a state is just much easier for pollsters than any 1 riding (hard to find 1000 adults willing to pick up the phone living within a much smaller geography).
  • More competitive races.  The US Presidential is 51 seperate elections, but really only a relative handful of these are truly competitive.  I haven't crunched the numbers in any meaningful way, but Canada's riding boundaries are not really gerrymandered.  The term doesn't even get used up here.  There are certainly safe seats for each party, but compared to the US congress, a far higher proportion of MPs in Parliament actually have to compete for re-election.  Aside from the lack of gerrymandering, the stronger party system here means that things like the incumbentcy factor and name recognition matter much less.  If your party is out of favour, you're in trouble.  In 1993, the ruling Progressive Conservatives lost all but 2 seats.  
  • More competitive parties.   Even at their peak in 2000 under Nader, the US Greens were not even a threat to win a state or take a seat in Congress.  Sure there was Perot but in general, it's almost always a 2 candidate race.  Canada has five parties that could win seats in Parliament.  Plus a couple independents.  There are a significant number of competitive 3 way races for ridings, particularly in BC and Quebec, and even a four-way race or two.   It's just damn difficult to predict the winner in these ridings and even if you are lucky enough to get a riding poll, it's hard to predict how events will affect the support as the poll ages.  
  • First past the post.  Americans have the same system, but it's worth calling this out to avoid confusion say with proportional representation based European multi-party systems, where a 5% increase in support for some smaller party means they get 5% more seats. 
As an empirical sign of all this, one of the election prognostication sites, still has 60 seats listed as "too close."  Their track record in the past 3 Federal elections (2008, 2006, 2004) has been a respectable near-90% right call average, and less than a week from this one they don't want to call 20% of the seats.  Harper only needs to gain 12 for a majority, and they have 5 times that many as toss-ups.  So yeah, I'm worried.

Still, I can't fault the NDP die hards for their enthusiasm.  I know they've been hoping for (and, ahem, repeatedly predicting) a break through like this for a very long time.   My negativity is just my read on the likely outcome, not some cynical attempt to deflate them.  I was against Ignatieff becoming Liberal leader and now he might well preside over the death of the Liberal party as the governing alternative or maybe even as a party at all.  Given the choice between another Harper term and some kind of Layton/Ignatieff coalition I will of course hope that Layton can complete this budding miracle.   Eric at 308 is skeptical that the NDP can go from fourth to government and offers some solid reasoning why, and I find that more intellectually persuasive than anything I am hearing from the hopeful Orange crowd.  But there is a very real chance we're just off the map as far as empirical based models go, and into a realm where polling and past experience offer very little predictive value.

That said, I'm very glad for our non-partisan and rock solid voting system.  Because the realm of possible outcomes is quite wide so it's nice to know in advance I can have strong confidence that whatever result we get is real.  If it is Jack, I will eat my orange crow with some gusto.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Vines of Wrath Still Yield Fruit

I recently buckled down to read a book I have meant to since I saw (and loved) the movie a few years ago, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.  I'm about two thirds through it, and keep coming over passage after passage that still applies every bit as much today, and so many things he saw and pointed out that we only recently rediscovered as problems with laissez-faire capitalism.  I've been flagging those pages so I think it worth expending a few posts to highlight some of them.  On the one hand I sort of regret that I never got to read this in high school or something, but on the other I'm glad I can really appreciate the things he's talking about. 

Paul Krugman recently pointed out in the NY Mag profile of him that he thinks the basic divide in comtemporary US politics is whether you like the social welfare state and I think that's basically true as far as where the fight actually lies.  If we can't save the New Deal, it could be another 100 or 200 years before liberalism gets another chance.  Living in the shadow of the Great Recession, in which we were all saved from it being another Great Depression because of the fruits of the New Deal and its cousins around the world, I think it worth reminding ourselves what the Depression really meant for the people who lived through it.  The Yellow Dog Democrats are almost all gone, so books like Steinbeck's can carry the narrative of the horrors of that day in our collective memory.  That Steinbeck actually toned down his retelling of the horror in order to preempt the backlash he expected only makes the story so much more valuable as a learning tool.  The real Joads of the day suffered worse than our beloved Tom, Ma, Ruthie and the rest.

I picked this first one to riff off another great point of Krugman's, in his righteous objection to treating health care as a mere consumer transaction.  Among the great failures of uber-capitalism is the presumption that everything can be valued and measured and turned into a financial number.  In some grand philisophical sense of the ultimate nature of reality that might be true, but in our practical imperfect world we almost never actually have enough information to turn the most intricate and important features of our lives into raw financial worth in a useful way.  The intangibles pile up and it is always the ones you don't notice that you end up missing once you've tried to boil something into dollars.  Einstein is said to have had a sign over his desk that read "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."  Steinbeck brings us some of this as applied to what happens when the agribusinesses of the day started gobbling up all the small farms:

[The farmers] arose in the dark no more to hear the sleepy birds' first chittering, and the morning wind around the house while they waited for the first light to go out to the dear acres. These things were lost, and crops were reckoned in dollars and land was valued by principal plus interest, and crops were bought and sold before they were planted. Then crop failure, drought, and flood were no longer little deaths within life, but simple losses of money. And all their love was thinned with money, and all their fierceness dribbled away in interest until they were no longer farmers at all, but little shop-keepers of crops, little manufacturers who must sell before they can make. Then those farmers who were not good shopkeepers lost their land to good shopkeepers. No matter how clever, how loving a man might be earth and growing things, he could not survive if he were not also a good shopkeeper. And as time went on, the business men had the farms, and the farms grew larger, but there were fewer of them.

Now farming became industry, and the owners followed Rome, although they did not know it. They imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos. They live on rice and beans, the business men said. They don't need much. They wouldn't know what to do with good wagers. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny—deport them.
 It is probably unrealistic to think we could return to a world of micro-farmers feeding the world on a series of 50 acre plots, and one could accuse Steinbeck of romaticizing the brutal labour involved in sharecropping a plot of Oklahoma land in the 1930s without machinery, but given what happened to many of these farmers once they were evicted in the fallout of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, I'm fairly sure many of them did prefer the hard grind.  No, I'm not against economies of scale or mechinization of farms, but the farmers paid a real price in the rapid transition from micro-farm to agribusiness and many important things were lost in going from many small farmers planting and harvesting their own crops to the unending acres of monoculture that agribusiness preferred.  This was among the problems that the New Deal had to address and part of that response still survives today in a little heralded part of the Department of Agriculture now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  Does anyone think the NRCS would survive Paul Ryan's $6 trillion dollar knife?  Apparently it wouldn't (and little thanks to the lacklustre defence from its own Democratic Secretary of Agriculture).

Digby and many of the other big voices will do a fine job fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare, as rightly they should, but the New Deal is much bigger than that and it all needs to be protected against the barbarians at the gate.  Meanwhile there's plenty more Steinbeck worth quoting to come.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Galts gone Wild: Trains back in fashion with the uber-rich

 Lookie here:
Bill Gates now biggest CN shareholder

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is the largest shareholder in Montreal-based Canadian National Railway, according to disclosures released ahead of the company’s annual meeting on Wednesday.

The world's second-richest man owned or control 10.04 per cent of its shares, worth $3.2 billion as of Feb. 25.
Also this graf:
Gates' friend Warren Buffett, through his holding company Berkshire Hathaway Inc., acquired full control of U.S. rail company Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. early last year.

    Obviously nothing to do with a crappy movie being made about a cult book, but given how much the various Republican governors hate rail, even to the point of shooting themselves in the foot turning down free federal money and jobs for rail infrastructure projects, I thought it kind of funny to see some actual smart investing rich people seeing rail as a good bet.  Maybe just a coincidence that these two rail companies happen to be good investments for reasons particular to them, or maybe Gates and Buffet think the high gas prices are here to stay, and higher to come, which will make rail transport a lot more economical than transporting goods via 18 wheelers across the continent, as happens very often today.  Aside from middle eastern unrest and increasing demand for oil in the former "Third World", the eventual need to respond to climate change will hae to make road transport less attractive so there are reasons to believe rail will have a brighter future.

    That said, if the latter has anything to do with Gates and Buffet's reasoning in this, it does piss me off that they're quietly positioning themselves to best profit from the response to the climate crisis, rather than using their rather large microphones and positions of influence to get something politically done about it.   Climate change will kill a lot more poor people than malaria in the next 100 years.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Some numbers around the cost of an NDP boom

To put a bit more substance on the post below, I analyzed the riding-level numbers that Three Hundred and Eight calculates using his model.  Under the scenario of 5% of voters leaving the Liberals for the NDP, applied uniformly accross all 308 ridings here's what I found:

The Liberals lose 18 seats they're currently projected to win (10 go CPC, 4 go NDP, 4 go BQ)
The NDP hold 2 seats the Conservatives are currently projected to win
The NDP takes 1 seat the BQ is projected to win

Net result:
CPC +8
LPC -18
NDP +7
BQ +3

And the new seat totals would be:
CPC 158
LPC 58
NDP 43
BQ 48
Ind 2

I realize this is a very unrealistic scenario in that many voters are aware in their riding whether the NDP is competitive and probably would still vote strategically for the Liberal even if they decide they prefer the NDP, but the point was more to illustrate my claim about there being multiple tipping points.  A 5 point gain for the NDP at cost to the Liberals would result in a safe Conservative majority, the Liberals would still be official opposition and the NDP would still be the fourth party, only managing to tie Ed Broadbent's historical top result (which was done in a smaller parliament).

In that result, could the NDP hold on to those voters?  Many of them would regard this as simply a disaster and it would be hard to predict how loyal they would remain.

I think it is all or nothing in this game.  The NDP have to overtake the Liberals and become the official opposition in order to solidify their gains.  I don't know how they do that given that there are relatively few ridings outside the ones they're already winning where they are in second or a close enough third to actually win, absent a real tidal wave/landslide shift in support (like 10% instead of 5%).

Real Danger in the NDP rise of a Tory majority

Three Hundred and Eight has the Liberals down 4 seats, the NDP up 1, and the Conservatives up 3 from his last projection, and says:
There are 15 seats in the projection where the NDP is within 10 points of the leader. Two of those seats are held by the Bloc Québécois, five by the Liberals, and eight by the Conservatives. So the NDP could be a bit of an equal opportunity spoiler. But in a lot of close Conservative-Liberal seats, the NDP's increase in support could turn more than a few ridings over to Stephen Harper.
 This is the very real danger Liberals traditionally warn about in voters turning to the NDP.  This is often written off as partisan "fear mongering" which tends to imply an irrational or overblown fear being exploited, and maybe in other times and places that has been the case, but given that the Tories go into this election sitting at 143 seats, just 12 shy of a parliamentary majority of 155, and that Canada has a first past the post system, it is a very real threat.

Before I'm accused of making the usual sort of "hold your nose and vote Liberal anyway" type argument, that really isn't my intent.  For one thing I don't exactly have a mass audience, so even if I want to engage in mass voter persuasion it isn't really an option.  No, I'm interested in the potential fall out here.  I should say that of course the situation is very fluid.  This sort of thing could easily, on its own, turn a big pile of soft NDP supporters back to the Liberals if the media starts saying "Tory majority likely..."  But let's assume this happens, what will it mean for the other parties?

The NDP is trying to walk a very difficult tight-rope in order to supplant the Liberals as the alternative party of Canada.  I doubt any of their leaders seriously expect to actually come in first in this election, and maybe they don't even expect to actually come in second.  But beating the Liberals in Quebec and BC would be a huge win for them, setting the stage for the next election to try and do so in Ontario and the Atlantic.

The real challenge will be in keeping these voters, particularly if the additional NDP support does not translate into many more seats, or even a number that seems close to the Liberal number of seats.  The system isn't linear, an extra 5% of the vote doesn't translate into 5% more seats, and there are tipping points - the first tipping point is the one which has the NDP and Liberals split the vote in a lot of Ontario ridings leaving the Conservatives to win the seat with a high 30 or low 40 percent of the popular vote.  If the NDP reach that one, but not the next one, where they win some of those Liberal ridings, we get a Tory majority much bigger than Conservative polling support would suggest, and a potentially huge blow to NDP voter morale.

Will these voters stay with Jack if they decide that supporting him ushered in a Harper majority?

Layton is clearly in it to win it, and committed to this game, so I don't expect anything anyone like me writes about the dangers of this strategy will have any appreciable impact on it, but this is now shaping up to be the most likely outcome.  If you could have told me in 2006 that the NDP were on a 5-10 year plan to replace the Liberals and it would mean some Conservative governments in the interim, but in the end we would have a more progressive alternative governing party I would not have been enthusiastic, but if you could guarantee it would work, I might go along thinking it would be worth it in the long term.

However what if that 10 year strategy doesn't actually work?  What if the NDP reach a historic high level of popular vote support, but the demoralizing result of a Tory majority sees it all fade and the new voters go back where they came from?  Then it will have all been for nothing and no progressive upside.

It's a very real possibility.

Things are about to get ugly, I expect Ignatieff and Duceppe are going to turn some serious fire on Layton now, to try and dampen his personal popularity.  Expect to hear about the Gun Registry free vote, and all the times Layton propped up Harper's government.  Expect to hear about that 2004 letter Layton signed with Harper.  What was Jack thinking progressive Canadians could really get out of a Conservative coalition government that they couldn't wrest from the Martin Liberal minority? 

Meanwhile Harper will chuckle watching his enemies expend precious advertising resources on each other instead of him.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bravo, The Onion

Like all their best pieces, the headline is the funniest part:

Mitt Romney Haunted By Past Of Trying To Help Uninsured Sick People
BELMONT, MA—Though Mitt Romney is considered to be a frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, the national spotlight has forced him to repeatedly confront a major skeleton in his political closet: that as governor of Massachusetts he once tried to help poor, uninsured sick people.
Hahaha.  Another decent line about half way through the piece:
"The major strike against Mitt Romney is that he not only tried to help people get medical care, he actually did help people get medical care," conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg said. "No other Republican in the field has that type of baggage. And in the end, in order to defeat President Obama, the GOP needs someone who has a track record of never wanting to help sick people."
Amazingly, it was actually better for the GOP when they couldn't bring themselves to nominate Romney out of religious bigotry, making a Governor run away from something he did that actually did help some people get health care tells you all you should need to understand about their institutional disregard for humanity.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Power Corrupts corollary

The wise aphorism about power has of course become a cliché.  The less discussed corollary is that power attracts the corrupt, and the corruptible.  

Sometimes you do hear the saying "those who most want power are usually least deserving of it" which is somewhat similar, but I think that saying is normally understood only in reference to people seeking the very top jobs.  What I'm getting at here has more to do with the commonly observed rot that seeps into any political system that sees the same group in power for too long.  This is where you often get scandals that often don't originate at the top, where you may not have a Nixon type charater purposely running a kleptocracy, but instead you have just a seething mass of opportunists and schemers, coupled with lots of careerists who won't stick their neck out to stop the corruption around them, even if they usually don't initiate it.  What often explains this to me, is that the type of people who are already amoral and corrupt, or who have a weak sense of ethics and plenty of ambition are the type of people who are actually fairly non-ideological and will just pursue the path of least resistance to be at or near power.  This isn't just the politicians themselves, but the consultants, aides and other background types who may not have the particular attributes needed to succeed in office directly, but can still reap benefits of influential less visible roles.

In a stable political system dominated by some particular faction, the obvious way to attain power is to just join that faction.  After all, why join the hopeless Rebels when you can more easily join the Empire?  Even if you privately have beliefs more in accord with those out of power, you'd probably rather jump on the existing gravy train while the getting is good.  This sort of thing goes a long way to explaining the phenomena of Democratic big city machines, which just aren't really ever able to clean house, since voters will reliably return Democrats to office far too often, despite obvious signs of infestation.

This isn't an ideologically specific problem though.  I do think right wing parties are more amenable to corruption if only because right wing ideology is of course most compatible with sociopathy to begin with (though their penchant for strict discipline and harsh top-down control may provide some counterweight).  If you're already a sociopath, and current best estimates say about 1% of any given population is, and you could join a group dedicated to bringing about a more equal world, or a group dedicated to letting the powerful accumulate as much as they possibly can, which would you naturally gravitate to?  In which would be easier to hide your true nature?  Anecdotally (and of course we will have no prospect of real data on this since it's hard enough to study sociopaths in normal circumstances, never mind powerful and famous ones) it isn't  difficult to find the obvious sociopaths in the ranks of the right, from Gingrich divorcing his wife while she was in hospital for cancer, Rove's brand of anything-to-win ratfucking, Ailes' shameless propagandizing to the various now infamous grifters and liars like Delay, Abrhamoff, Nixon, North, and Norquist.

This ties into the oft-noted non-equivalence where there simply is no left wing version of Hannity, Coulter, Palin, Beck, etc etc.  As Jon Stewart once said, liberal hacks aren't nearly as effective as their conservative counterparts, because you can tell they feel shame when spinning some awkward or indefensible position. 

But still, no left of centre party or movement is immune to drawing in various corrupt and corruptible individuals once they actually attain and maintain power.  Certainly no one thinks the various big city Democratic machines are clean operations.  It's a real problem for those concerned with the very systems and structures of politics.  No answers necessarily but awareness is still of some value.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Could the NDP and Liberals get along?

Between the post below, and some questions I have about the long term viability of destroying the Liberal party to bring about progressive governance in Canada that I raised over at Merge-Left, I need to post the following table to ensure some of the claims I have made (explicit or implicit) have some backing:

Pollster Ekos does some great "second choice" polling:

First Choice

Second choice Overall 2nd CPC LPC NDP GPC BQ Other
CPC 8.9 - 16.0 13.4 14.4 11.1 9.8
LPC 16.1 17.8 - 40.5 16.5 17.6 6.9
NDP 23.8 21.1 43.2 - 26.8 37.1 11.7
GPC 11.2 11.0 15.9 12.4 - 10.7 12.9
BQ 4.2 2.3 4.1 10.9 3.4 - 12.9
Other 3 2.9 1.6 4.2 3.3 0.0 -
No Second 32.7 45.0 19.1 18.5 35.6 23.6 45.9

If it isn't clear, the way to read this table:  First column is the overall percentage of voters who pick the parties on the left side as their "second" choice.  Then there is a column per party showing what each party's supporters pick as their second choice.  So 16% of current Liberal party supporters say the Conservative party is their second choice, 13.4% of NDP voters say the same and so on.

Here's what I take from this table:

  • Yes, the vast majority of Liberal voters are left-of-centre.  Only 16% would go Conservative, while nearly three times as many would vote NDP.  Almost as many as would vote Conservative would instead go to a minor left-wing party in the Greens.  In a world where the NDP and Liberals were somehow one entity (either because of a merger or because the Liberals collapse) I'm fairly sure most of those 16% saying they'd vote Green could be brought to vote for the combined entity.  
  • More people pick the Greens than Conservatives for second choice.  This is just good news in terms of identifying the real ceiling of the Conservative vote.  In 1984, the Conservatives actually crested 50% of the popular vote, even assuming they won every current voter they have today, plus all the people who pick them as their second choice, they're still below that.
  • Conservatives are least likely to have a second choice.  This is the bad news about the conservative floor.  Almost half their support would not vote for anyone but a right wing party.  
  • The NDP have the best chance of picking up votes from the BQ and Greens.  Given the increasing NDP support in Quebec and less remarkably (but still important) in BC, this is important.  
  • The NDP and Liberals are each other's top second picks.  In fact they're the top 2 numbers on the whole chart. This last is perhaps most important when discussing the possibility of some kind of alliance, merger, coalition, agreement, accord or whatever other poll tested word the leaders call it when and if they come to it.  Throw in the large blocs of Green and BQ voters who would pick the Liberals or NDP second and it's pretty likely a good chunk of them would come over if it meant keeping the Conservatives out of 24 Sussex.
  • The NDP and Liberals are least likely not to have a second choice.  This is related, but still important to note.  Any potential merger of any two parties anywhere will lose some number of die-hard purists who cannot support the merged entity, but NDP and Liberal supporters already appear most open to supporting whatever party will support the goals they believe in.  
I don't know what Layton, Igantieff and Duceppe might have in mind for the post-election scramble, and whether they could pull together somehow to form a government, but if they don't the case for a higher level of formal coordination only gets stronger.  Since compiling this table, Ekos released another poll, whose 2nd choice results (scroll down a few pages) validate nearly everything above (in fact, in the latest poll, more Liberals would choose Green over Conservative).

We can't keep having >60% of Canadians voting for a left-of-centre government election after election and ending up with Richard Nixon North.  Something has to give.

The Canadian Election

Apologies for the dearth of posting, and in particular my dereliction in writing about the situation in Canada since we're in the midst of a federal election.

It's actually shaping up to be potentially a highly consequential election that will likely return a parliament of almost identical composition to the last one.   The link goes to Three Hundred and Eight, a Canadian version of Nate Silver (our House of Commons currently has 308 seats), which currently has the prediction for each party within 4 seats of their totals at dissolution, and with the Conservatives as the plurality winner and by long convention sitting Prime Minister Harper given the first right to form a government.

But beneath that top line results, here are some trends to watch that could mean big long term changes in Canada's politics:

  • NDP gains in Quebec.  Last election the NDP won a single seat in Quebec, which was a fairly big deal as I'm not aware the party had ever won a seat there.  This time their popular support is now competitve with the other non-BQ parties as progressive Quebecois who are at least neutral on sovereignty for the province appear to be leaving the BQ (and possibly the Liberals).  Jack Layton is personally especially popular in the province and that certainly can't hurt though there's reason to think this is about more than him as most NDP leaders tend to be well regarded.  The NDP may have crossed a threshold with Quebecois in convincing them that they are electable, a very important factor in our plurality system.
  • Ignatieff broaches the idea of defeating the Conservative government again.  At least that is my read.  Today in an interview on CBC, Ignatieff (who has categorically ruled out forming a coalition government with the NDP or BQ) discussed the possibility that a returned Conservative minority government would be unable to win the confidence of the House, would fall, and then he (as leader of the Official opposition) would attempt to form a non-coalition government supported by some combination of the remaining parties.   There's lots of wiggle room here, but in principle, Ignatieff is setting the stage for a situation similar to the aborted coalition attempt under his predecessor Stephane Dion at the end of 20078, which collapsed at least partly because Harper successfully demagogued the issue partly on the grounds that the parties in the coalition had not explicitly campaigned on that idea.  Ignatieff is still ruling out a formal coalition, but at least has shown increasing awareness that the Liberals are not likely to vault back into their pre-2006 levels of support needed to form governments under their own right.   
  • Potential for multiple leadership changes.  If Harper doesn't win a majority, the CW here is that his party will get impatient and push him out hoping someone else can get it done.  Ignatieff may be in trouble if he does not substantially improve on Dion's 2008 result.  Jack Layton's health is in some doubt.  Gilles Duceppe has been leader of the BQ for a long time, and there have been complaints about his low key campaign this time around.  Not to forget the Greens, if they don't win a seat, as appears likely, Elizabeth May could also get pushed out.  A Conservative majority is most likely to bring about leadership changes in the other parties, but any of them could go under a renewed minority.
The first two are in my mind potentially good news for progressive/liberal Canadians.   The current spate of Conservative wins is really the result of the way the rest of the vote has been divided, as the support for right wing parties has hovered at 37% in every election since 1997 except 2004, where it dropped to 30% probably because a lot of red Tories were still scared of the newly merged single Conservative party.  By 2006, they had come home and with the Tories sitting at just over 38% in polling, it's really difficult to avoid the question of the best long term arrangement of the non-conservative vote in Canada.  Do the NDP and Liberals merge?  Will the NDP overtake the Liberals as the governing alternative?  Should they along with the BQ re-open the formal coalition subject and try and dampen the public distaste for it?  What of the Greens, can they be brought into either fold or at least a good chunk of their possible 10% support?

Harper is where he is because he was the architect of the merger of two right wing parties.  There was very significant opposition to merging from die-hard Progressive Conservatives who saw the merger as a takeover by the hard-right western Alliance/Reform party (they were largely right).  Some of the old guard Reformers also didn't like it as they feared it would inevitably shift the party toward the centre (which is why they split from the PCs and formed the Reform party to begin with).  Point being, it was not a simple and trivial undertaking, and I think any signs that the Liberals and NDP may find some way to allow the 60%+ supermajority of Canadians to have a government that better represents their views is to be encouraged.

In 2004 and 2006, the Liberals lost a great deal of support, the NDP, BQ and Greens all gained some.  However since none have the critical mass needed to form a government under their own right (putting aside the problems with the BQ in any such arrangement), we're stuck with Conservative governments unless and until they somehow figure a way to get together.  It looked like we were going that way in late 2007 2008, but upon Ignatieff taking over from Dion as Liberal leader, he pulled the Liberals back from any such arrangement.  I presume he did this at the behest of the Liberal old guard, who probably thought that voters would eventually come home to Canada's "natural governing party" if they just put in a competent leader who can run a half decent campaign.  Well, credit to Ignatieff, he has proven a decent tactical party leader, and a respectable campaigner, but the flood of returning voters is not materializing.  So in this sense, the rise of the NDP, particularly in Quebec (where I think the Liberals may have most hoped they could restore the brand) may be forcing them to take the NDP seriously a long term presence and even a real threat to replace the Liberals as the alternative governing party.

This as well has likely been pulling Ignatieff to the left, as I have been pleasantly surprised by his campaign promises and much of the type of criticism he levels at Harper.  Sure there is the question of how much you should trust that he would govern this way if he ever attains power, but this is still preferable to say, if Ignatieff thought he could rebuild the party by siphoning votes from the Conservatives or rebuilding the party in Alberta (he did make a brief attempt, but it wasn't working) and was campaigning to the right.

So I take Ignatieff's comments today as a sign that the Liberal elite is beginning to accept the reality that the party's problems go deeper than Dion's unpopularity or ad-scam.   The NDP aren't going away and are making the prospect of a Liberal Ontario-Quebec based government quite unlikely.

On May 3rd, the Conservatives will have the most seats yet again, but it doesn't look like that will be the end of the story.  In his quest to destroy Canada's status as a "northern European weflare state" Harper may yet succeed at importing Northern Europe style coalition politics to Canada.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Speaking of Heritage...

Canada, of course, has its own set of mendacious right wing think tanks ready on call to provide a veneer of quasi-academic sophistry in support of whatever Canada's owners are trying to jam through.  Currently, the cause is corporate tax cuts.  It's a real mark of how much they want this that the Conservatives are willing to take the hit of supporting such an unpopular measure even in the midst of an election where they could get their coveted majority mandate (they're within a couple seats says our version of Nate Silver).   From the CBC background piece on the "debate", it opens unfortunately with some "views differ on the shape of the earth" undeserved even-handedness:
But, as is true with many questions one thinks have already been answered, sane economists also divide markedly about the effectiveness of cutting corporate levies.  [...]
Some like the notion of chopping what firms pay.
"The recent and planned general corporate rate reductions are good for the economy with a minimal impact on government revenues," Jack Mintz, Palmer Chair of Public Policy, School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, wrote in a recent opinion piece in the National Post.
Others not so much.
"Corporate tax cuts may not reduce the costs of doing business but may, instead, contribute to rising business costs, falling profits, slower growth and job declines," said Robert Lynch, chairman of the economics department of Maryland-based Washington College and an expert of U.S. corporate taxes.
The article isn't all bad, but it does give far too much credence to Mintz and his sort of reality debunked claptrap.  It's worth going through this because of how familiar it should be to US readers, but also because Canadian corporate tax law makes these arguments uniquely absurd:
"To increase after-tax cash flow — leave more money in the hands of business to invest," noted Jeff Brownlee, vice-president of public affairs and partnerships for the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, an Ottawa-based business group.
This is just outrageously false.  See, in Canada, like the US, corporate taxes are formally levied on "revenue" however Canada exempts pretty much all operating and capital investment costs so effectively our corporate taxation is really a tax on profits rather than revenue. 

So if a corporation wants to invest money in new equipment, new hires, new products and so on, that money is deducted from the taxable portion of revenues.  Lowering taxes on the taxable chunk has no impact on capital investment.   The calculations corporations in Canada make when deciding whether or not the Return on Investment or similar metric justify investment in increased capacity is not affected by taxes at all.  Pretty much the only thing impacted by corporate taxes are dividends. 

Dividends of course get paid to shareholders who are either a) not Canadian and thus pay no Canadian taxes on these or b) Canadian, in which case only 50% of capital gains are subject to income tax.  Can you begin to imagine why wealthy right wing interests might want corporate taxes cut?  

Here's another howler:
Brownlee also points to comparative factors, such as the need for Canada's tax rates to mirror those in other countries. In that way, Ottawa can make sure domestic companies are not lured away to lower tax jurisdictions.
See, if we'll end up poor if we don't win the race to the bottom so let's dig faster.  Of course, our nominal and effective corporate tax rates are already quite low compared to our G7 peers, and in particular are lower than the US.  In fact, the article does note this in a handy table further down, which completely exposes hacks like Brownlee as the Heritage-class propagandists they are.
"Business taxes are borne directly or indirectly by people — workers through lower wages, consumers in the form of higher prices for goods and services, and shareholders through lower returns," said the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in a February paper.
Indeed, many fans of eliminating corporate taxes argue that employees could be the biggest victims of the type of levy.
"The burden of corporate income tax can fall on labour. When faced with higher production costs due to the corporate income tax, firms can pass the burden along by decreasing their wage payment," wrote Li Lui and Rosanne Altshuler, economics professors at Rutgers University in New Jersey, in a 2009 academic paper.
Now I'm going to give Li Lui and Rosanne Altshuler a pass here, not having read their paper I'm assuming it is either focused on the US (which does not, as far as I can see, exempt wage costs from corporate taxation) or from a generic point of view.  However the Canadian Chamber of Commerce knows damn well like I do that Canadian companies do not pay tax on money spent on employee wages.  The bit about shareholders is true enough, but no Canadian corporation is going to give out raises if their taxes on profits decrease which is what we're talking about.

One final gripe about this piece (which is atypically bad for the CBC in my experience):
Essentially, the gripes of the contrarians are more practical than theoretical in nature, namely that past corporate income tax cuts never generated much extra investment nor did they result in any new burst in hiring.
Oh, see, the "contrarians" with their "gripes" about the mere fact that corporate tax cuts have never actually resulted in the magic ponies that various right wing think tanks have promised when implemented in the past.  Just that silly empirical record stuff.  This is 20+ paragraphs in before we hear it mentioned that corporate tax cuts don't, you know, work

So if Paul Krugman manages to figure out how to have Heritage and its ilk drummed out of the public square, I hope the recipe can somehow be applied up here.   I'm not a specialist in the field, and it wasn't terribly difficult to expose these arguments as being utterly hollow, and yet I had to go look this stuff up, because it isn't mentioned even in an ostensible recap of the major arguments for and against the idea.  It shouldn't be given credence, but it somehow is.  Given how the election is going, they'll likely get their way too, and in a few years maybe Harper can move on to his bold voucher program for Canadian health care too.

Anyway, if you're wondering why Canada hasn't been able to turf its Mayberry Machievellis, this sort of thing is a good part of why.  

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Has Heritage's farcical 2.8% unemployment prediction hurt them?

In the Ryan plan fiasco, I had hoped some focus would go to the Heritage Foundation rather than all to Ryan. Ryan is just one lousy actor in the current iteration of a long series of terrible plays that comprise conservativism, while Heritage is a big ticket promoter, working to fill the seats in show after show.  The actors come and go, but thanks to groups like Heritage, the theatre never closes.  So I'm glad for Krugman's note today:
So, has Heritage declined and lost its way? Actually, no — it was always like this.

And one of the unexpected benefits of the whole budget fiasco might be that Washington conventional wisdom starts to realize that there’s not a lot of thinking going on at these tanks.
Of course, it's difficult to get a Village to understand something when their tax cuts and spectator wars depend on not understanding it, but one can hope this has some real impact, it really was far beyond the pale of defensible analysis, which I'm guessing is why Heritage tried to quietly hide the most laughably silly part of the whole thing. 

It's also encouraging to see the whole Vast Conspiracy foul up so obviously.  Predicting 2.8% unemployment was just blatantly ridiculous and the Ryan plan itself seems to be collapsing under its own weight as the attempt to redefine destroying Medicare as some cutesy buzz phrase falls dead flat.  I'm sure there are larger strategic views under which the scheme may not be a total loss, but I doubt the forces behind it were hoping that Heritage would have to run yelping away from their own preposterous modelling and Ryan's plan would go so quickly from "courageous" to something Republicans are already running away from.  They were hoping to shift the goal posts and maybe it still will somewhat, but at least it has cost them more than these ploys usually do.  Heritage is probably their most established and respected welfare institution, and Ryan just about the only federally elected Republican given any policy credibility and both have been bloodied by this. 

They're not omnicient and for the all the advantages they have; rivers of corporate cash, private sources of information and immediate access to major media platforms, they're still at heart a bunch of ideologues with a puerile world-view that just doesn't work and isn't broadly shared once you go beyond sound bites.  I would guess they believe their own spin about the public's level of concern with the deficit, and maybe think that the disapproval of the ACA somehow translates into disapproval of Medicare too, but whatever the cause, it's nice to see even just as a reminder that they can be beaten. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Medicare is the Message

Pelosi is one of the few federal Democratic leaders who keeps me from complete cynicism.  Chris Bowers:
Pelosi also talked of the strategy Democrats should use to win the public debate. She spoke of drawing a contrast with Republicans, and alluded to a tactic employed by Democrats in the 2005 Social Security fight. During that fight, she noted,  "We couldn't have our own proposal on Social Security," since presenting one would only lead to confusion and blur the differences between the parties. So instead, Democrats decided that "we have a proposal on the table—it's called Social Security."
Simple, effective, true.  In some alternate universe there is a Democratic counterpart to Paul Ryan promoting a liberal dream budget as a counter-point, and I won't complain if Sanders or someone like that wants to take a stab at it, but in this universe, the only "serious" proposal that Democrats could unite around is Medicare-as-is.  Anything else risks being whittled down in the Pre-Emptive Cave.