Sunday, November 30, 2008

No Shame

"A spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office said there was nothing unethical about covertly listening in to the private NDP deliberations, taping those discussions and releasing them to the media." - NDP considers legal action after Tories tape private meeting (Globe & Mail)

Maybe it wasn't illegal, but it damn well was unethical.


Unfit to Rule

I don't feel any pleasure that the government has lost the confidence of the House. It is a sad day, particularly in this time of economic vulnerability. Nonetheless, it happened. Every opposition party, despite their differences, realizes that the government must be replaced and is ready to stand together to take on the difficult task of attempting it. They see their responsibility and they are up to it.

When I sat down on Thursday to watch the Finance Minister deliver his economic update, I expected it would be bad: after all, a lot of it had been leaked beforehand. But I had no idea how bad. I thought Flaherty was going to say that he needed time to prepare a stimulus package. That was disappointing, as we need stimulus now, but what he said was far worse. He announced $4.3B in cutbacks in 2009. He projected modest surpluses in 2008 and 2009 that were based on no stimulus being provided in the next 13 months. (His figures also assumed no recession, which is totally unrealistic as economists estimate the recession could create a $50B deficit if left unattended.)

Some media outlets (like the Globe) are now saying that Flaherty only meant he'd consider a stimulus package in a few months. But Flaherty explicitly stated that the government provided as much stimulus as is needed in 2006, that it has met the 2% of GDP suggested by the IMF, and that nothing more is needed. (...which is untrue: the 2006 policies are doing very little to stimulate Canada's economy now; most of them - such as the GST cuts - didn't do much of anything then; in addition, we need something more than tax cuts.)

Flaherty's economic update showed a government that is unfit to manage the economy in this time of crisis. Harper adheres to a right-wing ideology that flies against the recommendations of every economist in the country, and almost every economist in the world. As Flaherty made crystal clear, the Number One priority of the government is to not be seen to run a deficit. Helping Canadians is not on the agenda.

The meat of the economic update, and the reason it was presented, was to tell the country that the government would not provide fiscal stimulus. But then Flaherty threw in a whole whack of other announcements. Some, like minor short-term help for pensioners, were meant to bring the public onside. Others were mean-spirited but economically insignifcant policies meant to goad unions and opposition parties and deflect the conversation from the main point: no fiscal stimulus. He announced the government would cut subsidies to political parties. He announced a ban on civil service strikes (for a period in which no strikes are expected). He slammed pay equity agreements and announced an end to them.

In the face of a united and effective opposition, Harper has backtracked and said he will remove the abolition of political subsidies from the economic update. Note that he didn't say he wouldn't introduce the idea again, just that it would be taken off the table for this particular vote.

I'm still reeling from what the government did in the economic update. It was so outrageous, so egregious, that I can't see how Harper can ever regain the confidence of MPs. He has gone back and forth on abolishing political subsidies all week and nobody has any confidence that he isn't planning to introduce it again at the first opportunity. His extreme unwillingness to provide fiscal stimulus and his craven politicking over the economy expose a leader who is not interested in citizens after they vote.

However difficult it will be for the opposition parties to form a coalition, they have to try. Even if they fail, there's no going back to the old spirit of cooperation. Some of us have said for years that Harper has a hidden agenda that will frighten Canadians. We got a glimpse of it this week.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Political Update the way, now's a good time to contact your MP to express your opinion about the government refusing to provide fiscal stimulus, the potential coalition government, and related matters. I wrote my MP and cc'ed the president of the federal Conservative Party, Don Plett ( Here is contact info for all MPs.

You might also want to sign the petition for a progressive coalition.

Bloggers on Liblogs are really stepping up with some excellent commentary on the situation. Here are a couple of interesting things I found today (biased towards my leadership pick, as you can see):

* James Curran linked to a video of Rae talking about the Liberal-NDP coalition he brokered with David Peterson in 1985.

* WomanAtMile0 has a video of Rae talking this week about our current political crisis.


Erratic and Incompetent Economic Policy

Economists are predicting the recession to cause a $50B deficit. That's if the government doesn't take measures to keep the recession from getting too severe. Inaction could prove to be much more expensive than action.

Chief economists at the Conference Board of Canada and Royal Bank are both urging a stimulus package, along with the IMF, OECD, APEC, G7, G20, and just about every economist, policy maker and commentator in the world.

The government's frantic flipflopping on the economy reveals that they are torn between economic reality and right-wing ideology. Flaherty-Harper recently said they would bring in an "unprecedented" fiscal stimulus; then they said they will not enact any fiscal stimulus (and have even proposed $4.3B in cutbacks for next year). They said that deficits may be necessary; then they said that they will under no circumstances run a deficit. Maybe their strategy is to float ideas and then retreat from them when they get pushback from their base.

The lack of coherent economic policy is just the opposite of what we need. Far from inspiring confidence, this erratic and incompetent government is causing markets and consumers to be very, very worried.

What's the likely next step? Harper's arrogance led him to overplay his hand, putting the Conservatives on the verge of political ostracization. The Conservative caucus and leadership is no doubt having severe second thoughts about the right-wing ideologue who took over their party. To avert disaster, they need to change direction in a way Harper does not want to go: using federal funds to help Canadians. Can they do it without replacing their leader, or at least usurping his power? Wherever the pressure comes from, my expectation is that the Conservatives will switch their policy (again) on fiscal stimulus before the confidence vote occurs.

A final note: As I have argued many times, Stephen Harper is not an economist, despite his attempts to paint himself as one. He has an MA in Economics. I have an MA in Economics, and so I'm very qualified to say that such a degree does not make one an economist. It takes not only more advanced education, but also experience. Harper is a right-wing ideologue, and that is what colors his economic policy. He continues to insist that a GST cut would stimulate the economy, even though every economist in the country told him that is not so, and even though his last GST cuts did not stimulate the economy. Ideologues are not swayed by evidence, no matter how undeniable it is.


Friday, November 28, 2008

This Just In

A somber Prime Minister addressed the nation Friday evening. Abandoning his usual sing-song delivery style, Stephen Harper spoke in a near monotone, his voice quavering at times. His bloodshot eyes, rimmed with red, suggested a recent tantrum. The Canadian leader presented the image of a man so frustrated he was at the edge of madness.

Television commentators interpeted the PM's demeanor as panic. Canada's leader is known as a devious politician, they said, but he overplayed his hand and now was seeing his plans for national domination crumbling.

The set of events that unfolded on Thursday and Friday are as complicated as they are controversial. Under intense national and international pressure to provide a fiscal stimulus to address the global economic crisis, the right-wing ideologue was apparently unable to bring himself to create a budgetary deficit or to increase the social safety net.

Pressured by the IMF, OECD, APEC, G7 and G20, among others, to join the rest of the world's wealthy countries in addressing the economic meltdown, and facing increasing domestic pressure to ease the recession, the PM attempted a risky ploy: an economic statement that combined a refusal to create a stimulus package with an unrelated announcement that he was cutting all funding to the country's political parties, thus bankrupting every party but his own.

The ploy was evidently intended to tie the hands of Canada's other political parties by making opposition seem self-interested.

Counting on the Official Opposition to be ineffective until they select a new leader, expected in May of 2009, the Prime Minister underestimated the will of all opposition parties to stand up to him.

It can now be seen that the PM made a grave tactical error. Canadians are already suffering from the recession, still in its first quarter, and quickly turned on a government that refuses to lift a hand to help them. The opposition speaks for all its constituents when it says that the government must fall and a coalition must take its place. The man who staged a successful hostile takeover of one of Canada's founding parties, a man long known as one of Canada's craftiest politicos, is poised to be toppled.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Ideology, Politics Are Breeding Inaction

I'm watching Finance Minister Jim Flaherty give his budget update as I write. I'm extremely disappointed by his lack of action on doing something to counter the recession. Harper just told APEC that he would enact a fiscal stimulus. The OECD, IMF and other organizations have urged Canada to join the rest of the world in providing a large, effective fiscal stimulus.

Flaherty makes it very clear that his main concern, and Harper's main concern, is to not be seen to fall into deficit. Flaherty even projects a surplus for next year, based on over $4B in cutbacks next year (cutbacks!), no fiscal stimulus, and no recession. This is just politicking, and it's hurting the country.

It's disastrous economic management, but it's bad politics, too, because if Harper-Flaherty screw up our economy, as they seem to be doing, they're toast in the next election. If they wanted to wait in order to harmonize with Obama, that's one thing, but they're letting politics and ideology run the country.


Cutting Government Funding to Political Parties

All the media is crowing that the Harper move to cut funding to political parties is going to hurt other parties more than it will hurt the Conservatives. I want to hear more analysis of this, but I have two initial thoughts:

* The $1.95 per vote was an impediment to strategic voting. If you voted with your heart rather than strategically, you might not have a chance of voting for the winner, but you at least ensured that your party got $1.95/year because of your vote. Harper is removing that impediment, which will help the Liberals enormously because the Liberals are usually the benefactors of strategic voting.

* Some people seem to be complaining that it's not fair because other parties aren't as good at fundraising as the Conservatives. Well, get better at it! There is absolutely no reason that the Liberals can't raise as much as the Conservatives. I have heard the argument that it's easier to get donations out of polarized ideological citizens than centrist ones, but I find that hard to believe: surely there are more people who want responsible government than who want far-out policies.

I can't believe the talk about bringing down the government over this. Public backlash could be enormous to such a craven move. The only upside I see to the idea is that it would provide a fiscal stimulus, which the government seems loath to do.

Update: Great column by Adam Radwanski, says in part: ...what the Tories are proposing is fundamentally undemocratic. To scrap public funding without lifting the ban on corporate and union donations (and raising the cap on personal ones) means there's simply not enough money in this country for a multi-party system. The governing party might be able to cobble together enough to spend the limit during a campaign, but nobody else will.

What We As Canadians Can Do

This recession will change the face of our country. Many, many businesses will go bankrupt. Heritage buildings will be foreclosed and become in danger of being torn down. Community initiatives, no matter how successful, will be threatened.

There are things we can do and now is the time to take them seriously. The short form is: Shop locally.

If you like your downtown core and/or your shopping mall, spend your dollars there. Otherwise a year from now you might be left with boarded up stores and newspapers blowing on empty pavement.

Put away the US catalogs. Unbookmark your US retail web sites (including Stay away from Wal-Mart.

Shop at your local independent bookstore, hardware store, cheese shop, clothing store - anywhere you would be sad to see go bankrupt. If their prices are too high for you now, give a voucher at Christmas that you'll buy the item in the after-Christmas sales.

Buy a ticket to your local theater, music or dance group. Ballet BC has shown how fast the recession can bankrupt an arts group.

Book your winter travel to British Columbia (if you want to get away from the snow) or Quebec (if you want to ski). You can still take a Caribbean cruise: just wait till after the recession. Make a commitment that for one year (2009), you will do all your travel within Canada.

I'm not just preaching as I write this: I realize that these are things I must do as well.

More ideas? Please weigh in!

Stimulus Package Part 1

The IMF is advising countries to implement stimulus packages that are 2% of GDP. Canada's GDP is now $1.3 trillion, so by IMF standards the stimulus package should be $26B. Some estimate 2% at $32B. Others favor a smaller package, with a floor of about $10B.

There are many forms the stimulus could take, and it should probably be multifaceted.

"New Deal" Projects
Ideas like infrastructure projects and renewable energy development are good, but they will be slow. It could be two years till the money enters the economy that way, while we need stimulus now. It's not even clear we will need stimulus then. These can be part of the plan, but not the whole plan.

Into people's pockets
Sending cheques to citizens is a quick, effective way to boost the economy. Critics counter that consumers might use the money to pay off debt or put in savings, thus negating the stimulus effect. I challenge the conclusion that saving the money reduces the stimulus effect. Consumer confidence will be bolstered by putting more money in the hands of citizens, no matter what they do with it directly. If they save it or use it to pay off debt today, they will feel less financially vulnerable next week. The stimulus effect is still faster than most other options, even if it takes months instead of days to see a boost in consumer confidence. This option is a red flag issue for ideological non-productive responses to the crisis: some on the right will oppose all direct help to people and want to make all support go to corporations. Some form of direct consumer stimulus should be included in the package, whether it's a cheque, tax break, or whatever.

Corporate Handouts
Giving tax breaks, subsidies or other forms of wealth transfer to companies may help retain jobs, but it's risky in that the agenda of the decision-makers may not match the agenda of the government: they could spend the money on management bonuses, foreign travel, saving, send it to the US head office, whatever. A broad-based payroll-tax break might be good, but there's no way to regulate or even oversee how the money is spent. This may be a good area to pursue, but if so, I favor a plan that regulates how the money is spent.

Social Safety Net
Automatic stabilizers, as I've said before, are the most effective form of stimulus, particularly unemployment insurance, so it may make sense to increase UI. (The Globe recently quoted Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's, as saying that each dollar spent on UI in the US has been shown to generate $1.63 in the economy.) The current top UI payment is $2,000/month per person, and it's not clear that that needs to be raised. But making UI available to more people is an option, or increasing the lower levels of payment. Increasing money for UI training programs is also a good idea, as is providing more government money to help people relocate for work, and giving grants to groups like food banks and shelters.

Retooling Society for Sustainability
This crisis is an opportunity to make some changes that otherwise would not find political will. We are a car-based country. Increasingly we waste huge proportions of our school budgets busing kids all over the place. We build far-flung subdivisions that can't support public transit and then we run empty buses to them. We build big box stores on the outskirts of town. We let developers plan our cities. When the economy hits bottom and people can't afford to drive their cars, we should have policies in place to work in a more efficient, less polluting, more sustainable way.
That's a start. I imagine (and hope) that in the next few weeks we will all learn a lot more about fiscal stimulus packages. We need to learn more. If the stimulus is 2% of GDP, each Canadian will pay an average of about $1,000 on this stimulus package. For a family of four, that's $4,000. If the stimulus doesn't work, millions of us will lose our jobs. We definitely all have skin in this game.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Liberals Need to Provide Leadership in Economic Crisis

There's too much controversy over Canada running a deficit, and not enough discussion of what form the fiscal stimulus will take. The deficit discussion was appropriate during the election, when the Harper Conservatives were claiming they wouldn't run one. Now that the election is over and the economic crash has hit, we need a big stimulus and it's going to result in a deficit. There is nothing controversial about it. The OECD is reporting that nearly every western country is already in a severe recession, including Canada, and it is calling on countries to implement stimulus packages. Britain, Europe, Japan and China have already announced them.

But when it comes to manipulating the economy, the devil is in the details. Look at the Paulson bank bailout, now known as TARP. Originally Paulson proposed that the entire $700B be spent buying up toxic assets. Lots of economists pointed out that that wouldn't work and Paulson gradually changed his plan until last week, when he announced that none of the money would be spent on toxic assets.

Originally Paulson and senior Republicans said they would absolutely not allow any bailout money to go to the citizens whose mortgages were defaulting. After weeks of argument and pressure, Paulson recently announced another $800B (if I read the story right) for just that purpose.

The original Paulson bailout was a giant giveaway to Republican friends. I don't think that Harper-Flaherty are corrupt like Bush-Paulson, but I do expect that their proposed stimulus package will be influenced by their right-wing ideology. The opposition needs to scrutinize everything they propose and be prepared to provide pressure to change it. Wasting time on senseless partisan griping is exactly what Canadians don't need. The Liberals should have (if they don't already) a team prepared to provide that scrutiny and pressure. Ideally, Ignatieff and Rae will be a part of it. Ideally, they are ready to marshall economists and other influential thinkers to ensure that an effective package is designed.

A lot of money is on the line, and it's all coming out of taxpayers' pockets. A lot of personal prosperity and well-being depends on how well the stimulus and bailout money is spent. If we work together, we can achieve the best outcome. This is as serious as a war. I'm afraid that many politicians, media commentators, bloggers and others have their heads up their butts and think this is all about who wins the next by-election. Meanwhile, the OECD has predicted that hundreds of thousands of Canadian jobs will be lost. People will end up living in cardboard boxes. Children will have to live in shelters. It's not politics-as-usual.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Smartypants Writes a Book

A while back I heard two journalists on CBC radio talking about book reviews. They said a book review should inform the reader whether the book is worth its purchase price. From the perspective of the reader, this is totally the wrong approach. When I crack the Saturday paper and open the sections full of non-news articles, I am interested in information second, writing first. I'm not reading Consumer Reports looking for appliance suggestions. I'm sprawled on the couch in a pool of sunshine goofing off.

I read the New York Review of Books to learn things. A typical NYR article will take three books on the same topic and talk about the topic with reference to the perspectives of the three authors. They may mention strengths and weaknesses of the books in passing. They may not.

One of the best Saturday book reviews I ever read was a few months ago in the Globe & Mail books section. Some hapless NYU psychology prof had written a book about the evolution of the human brain, and the Globe reviewer didn't like it. I mean, he really didn't like it. And apparently the headline writer agreed. The review was called "Smartypants writes a book." It ripped the book to shreds, but it wasn't that I enjoyed so much as the fact that the review was outrageous, free, original - and really good writing. (Even had the review been favorable, chances are slim that I would ever have read the book.)

That was the glory of the old Joanne Kates restaurant reviews. She evoked the esthetic experience, and whether the food was good or bad, reading her was always delicious.

Writing is delightful when it's honest. That's the secret of David Sedaris, I think. He once wrote that his favorite place to eat in his adopted home town of Paris, France is a tourist food court - which is wonderful not because it's an outrageous statement, but because it's honest and courageous and suggests something meaningful... about living in a foreign culture, and feeling alone and in need of comfort, and about having secret preferences.

Back in her heyday, before she became nasty and bitter, Maureen Dowd could turn a phrase like nobody else. Her most famous line is, of course, "the triumph of feminism would last a nanosecond while the backlash lasted 40 years." But my favorite, from 2002, is "I've downed enough Pringles to shingle Versailles." That's journalism as poetry.

Too much investigative journalism is full of meaningless detail. You know the style - every page has a couple of digressions like, "The meeting was to be held in Williamsboro. Williamsboro, a picturesque town of 40,000, was established in 1788 by Methodist refugees from the west coast of Scotland. Its main industry is rhutabaga waxing." And then Williamsboro is never mentioned again. Every inconsequential character is introduced with a paragraph or two describing their parents, their spouse, their education and their job. This endless irrelevant detail seems designed to prove that the writer investigated everything thoroughly, as well as to pad out the piece. It ends up boring the reader.

I write opera reviews on this blog with a lot of trepidation. I don't have any musical training so I'm not equipped to write a real review. But I'm interested in how the experience of an opera affects the audience and what the opera means, so I write about that. I like to think that as I soldier away at my opera reviews, I'm getting better, but the process has given me a lot of respect for the art and skill of literary journalism.


Some Thoughts on Economics

I recently heard a behavioral economist talking about a study of consumer preference. Researchers gave consumers a choice of two items. The items varied - sometimes two scarves that were different shapes and colors, sometimes two pairs of socks that were just different colors, other sorts of things. They asked the subjects which they preferred and why. What they found was that, in a significant number of cases, the subjects chose the item on the right. And they found that the subject's stated reason for their preference was never the location of the item; subjects always thought they had another reason, like preferring the color or texture.

In part, this is one of those "gee wiz" findings that doesn't bear closer examination. The finding that consumers pick the item on the right is not a universal law of consumer behavior. They might tend to pick the item on the right in some cases, but they don't always do it. If they did, shopkeepers would have to be constantly scurrying around refilling the right side of display tables. Plus, consumers have certain criteria that they can't ignore, like clothing size. It is unlikely that the phenomenon pertains to car purchases. It might, in fact, only exist in test subjects who aren't really buying anything and are presented with two nearly identical items – economic studies.

This finding (if sufficiently significant) may be of interest to marketers. For economists, it has some broader and more troubling implications. If consumer decisions are irrational (in the sense that you can't predict them based on economic criteria like price and quantity) then the theory of supply and demand doesn’t hold up.

But anyway, we all already know instinctively that microeconomics is hooey. You can use mathematical modeling and game theory to argue what people should do, but that does not justify claims that they describe what people do do. It is clear that a lot of economic theories are backwards-modeled: an economist observes a behavior and finds a way to model it, rather than uncovering behavior through a model. The modeling is at best window dressing and at worst a disingenuous justification for an ideological position.

(This reminds me a bit of a problem I've always had with psychology: if schizophrenia is a chemical imbalance, why are schizophrenics made to do psychotherapy delving into childhood problems and so forth? Why not just rely on medication and therapy to help the schizophrenic cope? Everyone has childhood problems they could dredge up; is the benefit of doing so simply to achieve catharsis? Couldn't the doctor help patients more by creating a catharsis that didn't involve causing conflict with the main support group for the patient (their families)? Perhaps they could induce catharsis with fictional means, such as books or movies? Since psychologists don’t rely solely on drugs, it seems that they don’t solely believe their theory of chemical imbalance.)

So much of social science is a construct of models that seek to explain human behavior, and so much of it seems to be wrong-headed. The science breaks down both in its premises and its proof. The premises are too simplistic to make sense, and most statistics that we use to prove our models in fact prove nothing, because correlation cannot prove causation.

When you study economics, much of the coursework is simple indoctrination. You are taught that competition is efficient, and if you want to earn an A you repeat it on your tests. A lot of smart people have trouble with Econ 101 because it doesn't make sense. Both micro and macroeconomics are taught in every year of college, and the classes tend to become increasingly mathematical, but not to progress in sophistication. First comes the indoctrination, and then the mathematical complexity that creates its own world. Instead of training students to have greater levels of insight, in most cases it seems to destroy common sense and replace it with very muddled thinking.

Not Sideswiped

Lately I hear a common lament: How did we all not see that this financial crisis was coming? The discipline of economics is under attack for its inability to foresee such a massive collapse. The field of risk management is in turmoil as experts try to find better statistics that can cope with black swans. Outside of particular sectors like real estate, the hedge fund industry - that group of analysts who were supposed to be able to create wealth out of adversity - are rapidly going extinct, literally shutting up shop, one after another.

But it wasn't just Paul Krugman who warned of the US housing bubble: the Economist magazine wrote about it frequently several years ago. Back in 2003 or 2004 I saw a US network news magazine documentary about the new subprime mortgage; it predicted exactly when the defaults would start to occur and how devastating they would be. I attended lectures about the coming financial meltdown and wrote about them in blog posts like The unsustainable world economy (April 2007) and A big mess is brewing (May 2007). I quoted Thomas Palley as saying there would be a worldwide economic crash, and soon. I quoted Marcello De Cecco's ominous prediction that a big mess was brewing. I wrote not only about the coming collapse, but about proposed solutions.

So why didn't we act? There are a variety of reasons.

Ideology and greed in the Bush government
The Bush people believe that the free market is the optimum mechanism for economic activity. Arguments that the free market was not working properly were taken as attacks on their beliefs. (And yes of course this makes no sense: there is no free market, especially in the highly regulated financial sector.)

This ideological viewpoint also reduced the ability to tinker with the economy. It has been my impression that Bill Clinton and Paul Martin were tinkerers, keeping everything humming along, watching indicators, taking action when there were problems. The Bush government had a different approach: if it ain't broke, don't fix it; and the only indicator that matters is the growth of wealth. Fed chair Alan Greenspan seemed to view monetary policy as a way to rev up the economy indefinitely, rather than a tool to keep the economy healthy.

The short term, populist nature of our worldview
We were in a bubble. People were getting richer and richer. People may pity the hedge fund firms that have shut down, putting people out of work, but the hedge fund managers who made the fateful decisions got rich by riding the wave as long as they could. They get paid a percentage of their profits, and pay only 15% income tax; they made out like bandits. When their funds tanked, they didn't lose any of their previous income.

While our mutual funds were humming along, we little guys were happy too. Any government action to dampen the boom would not have been well received by voters.

The "blind eye" effect
People on the left have been warning about the rapid change in wealth distribution. This was not just esoteric critism: it was widely discussed. In 1980, CEOs made on average 13 times the minimum wage. By the 2000s, they are making 1,000 times the minimum wage. The percentage of wealth held by the top 1% has skyrocketed. The problem wasn't that policy makers didn't know about this; the problem was that it was framed as a moral issue, rather than an economic one. Now we see that this change has made the entire economy more vulnerable - that the stabilizing force of the middle class is diminished.

International dominance of the US
Without the US, the rest of the world was unable to act. Like it or not, the US is G1. We can't replace Bretton-Woods without US involvement. There were things that individual countries could do (Iceland's decision to deregulate its banks in 2001, which led to the collapse of its entire economy, is Iceland's fault alone) but a broad international movement to avoid the crisis was not possible. And most of the changes to regulation cannot be done unless they're done by international agreement. Otherwise, countries that increase regulation will just see an outflow of capital to countries that don't regulate.

Lack of built-in anti-cyclical economic stabilizers
Many of our financial regulations are actually pro-cyclical. We need to accept that business cycles happen and plan for them, rather than ride the bubbles in vain hope they'll never end.

We need to re-evaluate how we value assets, as mark-to-market valuation appears to be a contributor to the growing intensity of business cycles. In addition, we need to do some things to dampen booms and prepare for busts, like change bank leverage requirements depending on market conditions (tightening them in booms and loosening them in busts). We also should prepare for busts by collecting bailout money from financial institutions during booms (we can start, after this crisis, by recouping our current bailout costs). We should increase the social safety net significantly, so that when people lose their jobs they get decent unemployment insurance; this is an automatic fiscal stimulator that kicks in at just the right moment and in the most effective way.

Wealth is like water. It finds every crack and seeps through. It creates floods that wash away everything in its way. The economic system is like plumbing in a house. It must be leak-proof and flood-proof. It must regulate the flow of something that will try its darnedest to break through.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hunk to Dork

I have hesitated to mention this, but am I the only one who has noticed that Galen Weston Junior has been dorkified by the Loblaws marketing department?

The man who inherited the top job at Loblaws was a perfect spokesman for the grocery store chain. He was cute in a way that appealed to well, everyone. He was not just intelligent sounding and sexy; he was cool. When he flogged the President's Choice brand he followed in a tradition provided by the original President's Choice flogger, Dave Nichol. We've been waiting a long time for someone to fill Dave Nichol's shoes.

But just recently Galen has appeared in a new set of holiday ads and he's, well, a dork. They gave him a dorky haircut. He's wearing the kind of dorky sweater that people only wear to please the elderly female relative who gave it to them.

Could this be the revenge of a marketing department that was devastated in Galen-mandated cutbacks? Revenge of the Little Guy? Perhaps this should inspire a whole new movement of social activism. Ho, ho indeed.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Salome (review)

The Metropolitan Opera's production of Salome, shown in cinemas under the Met HD program, had - for the most part - great singing and orchestration. And yet it didn't work. It failed on casting, lighting, direction, costumes, set design and above all, film direction. The result was a performance that lacked emotional punch. And emotional punch is what Salome is all about.

The story goes like this: Princess Salome lives in Judea at the time of Christ. Her mother the Queen is a famous decadent. Her mother's current husband, Salome's stepfather, lusts after Salome. One night during a party Salome wanders outside and discovers the pit where the prophet John the Baptist is being held a prisoner. She has him brought up and falls in love with him, but he is repelled by her. She has him returned to his pit. Salome's stepfather comes by and asks Salome to do an erotic dance for him. She says she will, but only if he swears to give her anything she asks. He agrees, and she strips for him. She then demands the head of John the Baptist. Horrified, he finally has to agree, and the last 20 minutes of the opera is Salome with the severed head - she kisses it, sings to it, and generally descends into full-blown madness, until her stepfather orders her killed.

Dramatically, the opera has two major scenes: Salome's dance and Salome's time with the head. They take about the same amount of time. Both leave the audience uneasy. It's creepy to watch a daughter dance erotically for her father, and watching an opera singer get naked seems voyeuristic and inappropriate. At the same time, the dance and the music of the dance is beautiful. The combination of attraction and repellence create a dissonance in the watcher and before we recover from it, we're hit with the gross, shocking appearance of the severed head and are then drawn into a long, insane scene of Salome with the head. It's brilliant emotional manipulation. The opera is one act and barely an hour and a half long, but it's a draining experience to sit through.

Or it should be. In this year's Met production, Salome is played by Karita Mattila, who is pushing 50 and looks like an older, heavier version of Nurse Ratched. In addition, Juha Uusitalo, who plays John the Baptist, is very fat; when Salome sang "I love your body" people around me laughed nervously as if they weren't sure if it was a joke. Salome's white dress emphasized the thickness of Mattila's waist and there was something wrong with the halter top: she kept trying to adjust it while she was singing. The camera work was relentlessly close-up, emphasizing every flaw and negating any poignancy that the set might have provided. The lighting had one setting (bright) and gave the production a cheapo, made-for-TV quality.

The striptease was just plain awful. Any choreography in it was reminiscent of a really low class strip club, and Matilla did two lap dances during it. It made me wince, and I don't think that's the reaction that composer Richard Strauss was looking for.

The set wasn't all bad, but it didn't make any sense. It looked like a 1970s disco with a glass floor and spiral staircases, but the libretto makes it clear they're supposed to be outside the palace ("Let's go inside" and "The wind is chill" and so on).

Mattila and Uusitalo have wonderful voices. The Salome role has a huge range and Mattila was perfection moving from soaring romantic vocals to harsh ugly sounds and avante garde bleakness. Uusitalo was especially effective when singing in the pit, and the echoy, off-stage effect worked surprisingly well in the cinema.

The reason I felt compelled to write about this performance (since I only review about one in fifty operas I see) is that the badness of the production helped clarify for me what a successful production would do. Salome needs to develop from vulnerable to damaged to beyond repair. The events in the opera unfold in real time, so we need to see how someone could lose their mind in an hour and a half. In the beginning the young girl is teetering between the decadent power of her parents and the innocent goodness that causes her to love a holy man. Stripping for her stepfather breaks something in Salome, but her essential goodness causes her descent to decadence to drive her mad.

This opera, like most operas, is all about scoring emotional hits - it's visceral, archetypal. The opera deals with innocence vs experience and spiritual longing vs forbidden lust. It raises the possibility of redemption: in the middle of a decadent party, Salome stumbles on a man of great holiness. It's about breaking taboos: along with incest, the most shocking aspect of the opera is that Christ's prophet is murdered. (Even Salome's stepfather is horrified by that.)

All the aspects of the production must work together so that the music and story and visuals all move the audience to understand something about human possibility and the range of our own souls. Done properly, we will all feel that we are Salome, losing our innocence but, in a way, finding redemption in being unable to remain sane without our natural goodness. Like all great tragic opera, Salome should be a cathartic experience.

The casting of an older woman as Salome was a disaster not because Matilla couldn't appear believable as an object of lust, but because she couldn't bring us, the audience, into the journey from innocence to depravity.

Friday, November 14, 2008


I went to see Ralph Nader talk at the University of Waterloo last night. Holy smokes, he is a great man. He is on a mission to energize democracy with greater public participation, and he works tirelessly and effectively to pursue it.

I was not at all his target demographic. I'm 51, and he was talking to the students who made up the majority of the audience. Even so, and even though I'm already pretty political, he inspired me to be more politically aware, more politically active, and less accepting of corporate power.

Nader's last trip to UW was 35 years ago when he was urging students across the continent to start public interest research groups. The result of that visit was the formation of WPIRG. There are now PIRGs at campuses across the US and Canada. His mission in Canada now is to inspire the formation of a national PIRG (which the US already has), financed by student PIRGs but acting as a national lobby group. He is also urging students to demand that the university offer a course in civic skills. He urged students to use their university opportunities to pursue their ideals, choosing essay or thesis topics that further the public good. And he mentioned a few dozen worthy causes to help inspire us to be more active.

Like many, I was angry with Nader after the 2000 election when it seemed that he had doomed Gore's chances by running as a third party candidate. Later I heard arguments that the people who voted for Nader probably wouldn't have voted had he not been in the race. More importantly, I came to see that many Americans feel they have no voice in the two party system and cannot support the relatively right wing politics of the Democrats. This table comparing policy stances in 2008 really says it all: Nader was the only presidential candidate standing up for important issues like single-payer national health care, military budget cuts, aggressive crackdown on corporate crime and corporate welfare, and on and on.

Here are a few random nuggets of what he said:

* FDR said too much control by corporations is fascism.
* To see what one person can do, check out Democracy Watch. A young Canadian named Duff Conacher has started an organization that is helping to make Canada more democratic.
* We have a "civic motivation problem." All young people should attend court as a spectator, attend a city council meeting, spend more time developing civic knowledge and skills.
* "Pollution is a cumulative form of violence."
* The Unitarian motto is "One world at a time."
* "To know and not to do is not to know."
* Cicero said freedom is participation in power. That is civic freedom.
* "Let yourself be daily provoked or you will fall into a lifetime of serfdom."
* Look up Essential Information, Taming the Giant Corporation, and the Center for Progressive Reform.
* Nothing will improve unless we raise the expectation level of citizens.
* In elections, money nullifies votes.
* "Without persons nothing is possible and without institutions nothing is enduring."
* Nurture the fire in your belly.
* The 1979 Chrysler bailout was well-managed by Jimmy Carter. It saved the company and it turned a profit for the government. It was done by getting stock warrants from the company in return for loans.
* Commercial interests seek to individuate people in order to lessen their power.
* Democracy needs rights, remedies, and facilities.
* In 1993 Nader and his organization released a book called "Canada First" that listed the many things that Canada is first in.
* Consider making voting mandatory.

Tory Trolls

Online articles about the leadership race have interesting comments sections. The first two or three comments tend to be aggressively anti-Rae. A case in point today: The first two comments are "Give it up Bob. Save us the grief." and "Nothing illustrates how out of touch Bob Rae is than his own self image."

These nimble fingered anti-Bobbites who seem always poised to complain about him as soon as an article is published, who are they? There are some common characteristics: they get their comments at the top (the Globe shows earliest comments first), often within a few minutes of publication. They write very brief comments; you might almost call them sound bites. And they generally do not directly relate to the article (for example, nothing in the article had to do with Bob Rae being in touch or having an ego).

I think it's reasonable to assume that they're paid Conservative operatives, working to (1) interfere with our leadership selection process and (2) begin the process of undermining the next leader. It is really unfortunate that the current Conservative party has no scruples and no respect for democracy. They seem to have adopted the Nixon playbook of Dirty Tricks. The MP boasting (below) about keeping Bob Rae from becoming our leader in the last leadership race is now Minister of Canadian Heritage & Official Languages.

Here is what they admitted to doing last time:
Delighted Tories claim victory with Rae loss


Canadian Press

December 2, 2006 at 4:10 PM EST

MONTREAL — A gaggle of beaming Conservative operatives waited mere minutes after Bob Rae was knocked out of the Liberal leadership race before boasting about the role they played in the former Ontario premier's defeat.

Just seconds after Mr. Rae was knocked out, a prominent Tory MP wandering the convention floor pulled out a handful of buttons mocking Mr. Rae and winked mischievously.

“There's a reason we handed out so many of these,” said B.C. MP James Moore, pointing to buttons that ridiculed Mr. Rae's track record as Ontario premier.

“They (Liberals) don't know how to play poker. . . The NDP is also feeling happy right now.”

In recent months some leading Tories admitted privately that Mr. Rae was the Liberal candidate they feared the most.

Their admissions became public the instant Rae was eliminated from the race.

One Tory operative described how a handful of government supporters proliferated at Liberal parties throughout Montreal on Friday evening and handed out anti-Rae buttons.

“Make Bob the first NDP prime minister,” one button said.

Another button aimed at underlining Mr. Rae's tumultuous time in Ontario said: “Vote Bob. Who needs Ontario?”

The party made similar buttons for all the other candidates — but it was mainly for show. Rae was their main target, said a government official.

“There were hundreds of Liberals wearing those (Rae) buttons when they went to vote today,” he said.

“It was great to watch.”

One Conservative aide took pride in pointing out that his party fabricated an internal party memo suggesting their troops were most afraid of Michael Ignatieff — and most anxious to face Mr. Rae.

The ersatz memo was leaked to a pair of English- and French-language newspapers and ran under headlines that cast it as a behind-the-scenes peek at Tory strategy.

The name of Tory campaign chair Doug Finley, the supposed author of the memo, was stamped on the document as an afterthought.

The Tories then made arrangements to get the memo leaked through a third party to English and French newspapers, Tory sources said.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Uniting the Left

As a Liberal, I'm not comfortable with the discussion of uniting the left. We try to "unite the left" when we compete with the NDP, Greens and Bloc in elections. The "unite the left" movement seems like an undemocratic way to try to achieve the same thing.

I don't see evidence that the NDP wants to be "united" with the Liberals. Since the Liberals are by far the larger party, union would mean killing off the NDP. The NDP has a proud heritage and is the party that brought us many of the social programs that give us the most sense of pride as Canadians - such as universal health care - and if they survive, they will continue to be the party that pushes for progressive policies (as evidenced by their deal with Paul Martin that resulted in a national day care program, later killed by Harper).

Harper didn't unite the right: he staged a successful hostile takeover of the Progressive Conservative party and coopted their brand. People like to say that the coup rebounded on him because the moderate PCs have diluted some of the ideology of the Reform Alliance. That's not really true. Harper runs a tight, top-down, centralized party and his central core calls the shots. With just a minority government he has already made enormous changes to Canada that no real Tory would have made, like moving towards an American-style justice system that aims to incarcerate more youth and wants to create a false culture of fear.

But following along that argument, some would say that uniting the left would result in a greater progressive element in the Liberals. I question this. For one thing, the Liberals already have a very strong progressive bent, and when it is not realized that is because of prudent considerations such as (1) fiscal responsibility and (2) considering all Canadians, not just an ideological base. The prudent nature of the Liberal party is our greatest strength and what makes us stand apart. Some people may malign it as "political expediency" but it is actually what makes us the most effective, decent and responsible governing party, and it must remain our core.

In our recent election, the "left" got 61% of the vote and the Conservatives got 38% of the vote, yet the Conservatives formed the government. If we want to unite the non-Conservative parties, we should think of means that don't involve killing off parties: coalitions and special agreements. These can't be imposed from above, as Elizabeth May found when she suggested strategic voting during the election and disaffected large portions of her party. We need an open dialog. We could start small: greater coordination to achieve common goals during this minority government. Or don't run opposition against each other's leaders, thus freeing up the leaders to do a national campaign (I think there's historical precedent for this but am not sure). In addition, voters could engage in more effective strategic voting.

The problem with strategic voting is that voters need accurate polling information to make a useful strategic vote. Sites like Vote for Environment actually damage our ability to vote strategically because the data is so shoddy. The site claims that "This site offers comprehensive, up-to-date riding by riding information on how to defeat Harper and his anti-environment policies." That implies that they have riding-level polling data. However, in the small print they admit that their numbers are calculated by taking "the number of votes each party received in that riding in 2006 modified by each party's current standing in this week's cumulative polls." In other words, their information is garbage. And it had bad results. For example, Vote for Environment said that Kitchener-Waterloo was a safe Liberal seat and told voters to "vote with your heart." The Liberal lost by a small margin, and Vote for Environment could be considered the reason.

It is definitely unfortunate that the Conservatives were able to form the government with such a small percentage of support (21% of eligible voters) and it's natural to think that the fractured left is the culprit. However, a multi-party left is also a source of strength. It leads to a culture of ideas that the Conservative monolithic structure does not generate. While they are stagnating, we can enjoy a renaissance.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Year Ahead, Stateside

Robert Shiller is saying that things are still going downhill. Robert Pollin is just about as bleak. For example:

* The US economy is in a recession, based on shrinking GDP.
* Since January, the US economy has lost 760,000 jobs. Layoff announcements are occurring minute by minute.
* State governments are facing massive shortfalls, and since most have laws against running deficits, they are going to have to lay off state employees and cut back on everything.

The Bush administration attempts to fix things have been incredibly expensive and so far not successful:

* In April they tried a $150B stimulus package.
* The $700B Paulson bailout has already spent over $170B, but has not yet stabilized the markets.
* The Fed has committed an additional $540B for bailing out the money market.
* There seems to be no limit on the bailouts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and corporations like AIG that are "too big to fail."

Everything looks bad, yet the country is in a state of bliss over the election of Barack Obama - and that's where the solution may lie. Recessions are all about lack of confidence - consumer, investor, business, government. Obama could restore confidence just by appearing at this important moment. The picture on the cover of this week's New Yorker said it all: a tunnel with a light at the end.

In addition, Obama is marching in with a whole new crew of advisors with a fresh outlook and new ideas. The pundits have been saying that Bush has made health reform impossible by leaving such an enormous deficit and fiscal mess, but the pundits are also saying the US must have a stimulus package. Why not make universal health care the stimulus package? Likewise, there is no reason not to tie together the needs for infrastructure rebuilding, environmental technology, social safety net and economic recovery. Economic policy that goes beyond protecting large corporations will probably be more effective.

The big question is: How much more damage can Bush do in his remaining two and a half months? His father bombed Iraq until an hour before Clinton took the oath of office. Anything's possible.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Time for Progressives to Reassess

Politics is interesting. While exercising their democratic rights, people enter a spirit of public opinionating. They scrutinize and analyze and criticize. Sometimes, in their sense of entitlement to express every opinion, some pretty sordid prejudices are exposed.

The recent US election made many people feel that they could get away with some very nasty behavior. Most recently it was Sarah Palin who brought out the worst in people. There was plenty to criticize about the governor from Alaska, but the over-the-top elation with which some people piled on her went way beyond criticism. Now that she's lost, the sport of kicking the loser has begun. Not aimed at McCain - oh no, of course not: the theme of this 22-month electionathon was woman-bashing.

From the start many of the attacks on Palin were fictitious. She never tried to ban any books; her record on taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Alaska is actually quite good; her stance on polar bears is well-informed and responsible; her actions as governor to protect gay rights were actually quite good (not because of any conviction about human rights, but because she was determined to follow the constitution). She is not an Alaskan separatist. As governor, she really did reduce waste and corruption. There is no indication that she has tried to force her private religious views on her constituents. She is not as inexperienced as her detractors like to say and was the only one of the four in the race with executive experience (although her knowledge of facts and issues is poor).

Now the gossips are crowing, based on already-discredited third-hand accounts, that Palin doesn't know that the US free trade agreement includes Canada and Mexico and that she doesn't know Africa is a continent. It's not just that they pass on any preposterous bullshit about Palin as truth; it's the glee they take in bashing her.

The last time we encountered this phenomenon was just a few months ago, when the same crew was bashing Hillary Clinton. In fact, the ravenous dogs barely had time to catch their breath before U-turning to their next prey. With Hillary, the form of attack was different. They couldn't call her stupid, so they claimed she was a rich bitch, had a sense of entitlement, was hypocritical, nasty, mannish, a ball-breaker.

Do you see the pattern? In both cases we have a woman who is extremely competent, wildly successful, and powerful: almost at the top of two male-dominated heaps. One was a US senator, the other a governor. The caricatures of them go to the heart of society's dismissal of women as either inferior or evil.

The ferocity of the attacks border on sexual predation. They expose a need in some people to dominate women, belittle them, humiliate them, crush them - and then mock them. They expose a fear of powerful women, as well as a deep-seated belief that leaders must have traditional male, paternalistic, alpha dog characteristics.

I foresee the reactions of some readers. I've written a number of much milder posts about prejudice against female politicians and received comments that ranged from dismissive and condescending to angry. One older man said I was making a fool of myself by writing about feminist issues. Those comments just further expose the misogyny of their writers.

It's wonderful that Obama was able to break the race barrier and become the first black president. It's clear that the gender barrier is going to be a lot more difficult to bust. At this point, fielding a female candidate is an invitation to character assassination.

It's not just an American thing: think also of Sheila Copps and Belinda Stronach. And unfortunately, prejudice against women in politics has manifested itself mostly in the center and left. Canada and Britain have had female prime ministers, both Conservatives. But recently, it's American grassroots Democratics who have exhibited the most shameful behavior towards women in politics, in terms of savaging women who put themselves forward and attacking female politicians on the basis of their gender.


What the Government Should Do

Economist Stephen Gordon has some interesting charts showing that in Canada, stimulus packages may do the opposite of what they're intended to: they can actually cause the economy to contract.

Gordon favors a much simpler approach: broadening the social safety net so that, for example, more workers who lose their jobs are eligible for unemployment insurance. This ensures that the money gets into the right hands, both in terms of where it's needed and where it will do the most good for the economy. We already have the automatic stabilizer that taxes fall with income.

Gordon supports monetary policy, but argues that tax cuts and stimulus packages might not be effective in the short or long run.

He also has a wonderful suggestion for MPs concerned about unemployment in their riding: resign your seat to enforce a by-election and government money will rain down "like so much confetti."


The Economist said this week, "The economies of the rich world seem to have fallen off a cliff." Are we now in the false security of freefall - the "pre-splat" period?

My alma mater, the University of Waterloo, is nailing plywood over their windows and hoarding supplies. ...That is, they've instituted a hiring freeze and enacted an austerity program. It's a very well-managed place, and they don't want to be caught off-guard if enrolment plummets and foreign students start dropping out. In addition, the UW pension plan, which is so well invested that they've had to suspend contributions in some years, is down 15%.

That drove home to me, more than all the doom and gloom in the media, that while the sun is still shining, there may be a hurricane just over the horizon. But it still just doesn't seem real to me. There are so many reasons to be optimistic.

My province, Ontario, has been in crisis for a couple of years, ever since the Canadian dollar rose precipitously, because our manufacturing sector was mostly based on exports. Now that the dollar has fallen again, it feels like we should be on an upswing.

There are also conflicting reports. Last week everyone was talking about the danger of inflation; now they're talking about the danger of deflation. Everyone's saying that even though Canada has strong fundamentals, it will fall when the US falls, but Stephen Gordon points out here and here that that does not always happen. I have come to believe that the US will emerge from this crisis stronger than ever, and throughout the crisis I've seen contradictory economic indicators.

I have investments and they're down, but I don't have to sell them now so there's no loss to me - unless there are bankruptcies or they stay down for 10 years, in which case I'm in trouble. But I also work in the hedge fund industry and my pay cheque is late this month.

So what will it be... splat? Or no splat?


Monday, November 03, 2008

It May - gasp - Finally Be Over

Twenty-two months. Seven hundred and nine days (approximately). Non-stop coverage. Trivial nonsense blown into manufactured scandals to fill the airtime on too many 24/7 news stations. Vitally important trends ignored. Partisan bullshit spouted with a straight face. Billions spent, even though the majority of workers are unpaid volunteers. Careers skyrocketed into the stratosphere; careers destroyed forever. Smears, attacks, name calling. Rallies, town halls, televised debates, news conferences, scrums, over-the-shoulder ill-thought gaffe-ridden comments.

I was telling my dad today how relieved I was that it was finally going to end, and he said: What if there's a close vote and another court case?


Anatomy of a Defeat

The recount in Kitchener-Waterloo is complete, and the result is that long-time Liberal incumbent Andrew Telegdi lost to newcomer Conservative Peter Braid by 17 votes. For 15 years, Telegdi had served as the riding's MP and was widely respected for his work in the community. He won the riding by 9,000 votes just two years ago. Here is the history of voting in the riding (which was created in 1996), starting with the total number of votes in each election and then showing the percentage garnered by each party.

(Note: The population of the city of Waterloo grew 22% from 1997-2005, while the number of people who voted increased 15% from 1997-2008.)

So what happened? There seems to be a confluence of factors.

In the last election, the Conservatives ran a very weak candidate. At the all-candidates meeting he seemed to do little more than read the blurb on the back of the Conservative brochure. This time around they had a stronger candidate. He put me off at the all-candidates meeting, but I was impressed by the way he handled election night and the recount. Also, a Waterloo city councillor I have a lot of respect for (who I believe is a member of the NDP), was quoted in the paper after the election as saying the Conservative candidate is a "great guy." She also pointed out that as a young man with kids, he appealed to that demographic (and that is where his strength was, according to the analysis of voting data).

A local PoliSci prof said that this area has conservative leanings and has been waiting for the right candidate. I'm not sure I buy this (winning with 36% of the vote is hardly an enthusiastic endorsement), although it's true we've had a lot of Conservative representatives. Braid is thought to be a moderate.

In the first all-candidates meeting, which was televised, Telegdi made a slip of the tongue and said he looked forward to working with Elizabeth May to elect Stephen Harper. He didn't realize he said it until the Conservative candidate called him on it, at which point he clarified what he meant and I think to the people in the room the incident seemed like a funny but inconsequential event. However, the Conservatives put the original slip on YouTube and it got a lot of local media coverage. Unfortunately, Telegdi, although he's only 62, seemed a bit vague and bumbling at times that night (probably because he has English as a second language), and the gaffe could have fed into an impression that he isn't completely with it.

Complacency among voters
Many local people, myself included, thought Telegdi had it in the bag. This was supported by the available "data". Vote for Environment said it was a safe Liberal seat and told strategic voters not to worry about a Liberal win but to vote however they wanted. The Election Prediction Project predicted a Liberal win. DemocraticSpace predicted a Liberal win (they also said that Kitchener-Conestogo was too close to call, and the Conservative got twice as many votes as the Liberals). I don't think any of these sites uses actual polling data (at least one takes the results of the last election and applies the latest national polls, a very dodgy methodology). They may be hurting us a lot more than they're helping us.

Liberal Complacency
The Telegdi campaign had polls that showed they were way ahead, and they thought they had it in the bag. They even closed the campaign office for two days before the election, presumably to let everyone enjoy a break for Thanksgiving. Campaign chair Peter Cooke admits they didn't canvass as much as they could have. The polls where the Conservatives made the biggest inroads were in the suburbs, especially among residents who are new to the area and who don't, presumably, already know about Telegdi's reputation in the community as an excellent representative.

The complacency extended further than that. Liberals talk about revitalizing ridings where we haven't been in power for a long time, but another issue is "safe" seats where the party organization has ceased to feel a need to involve local party members. I have written about this before and don't want to kick these guys when they're down, but this riding has not been building its base.

Bad luck
The Liberal riding secretary's father died during the final week of the campaign, with a resulting loss of focus on the campaign.

Dissatisfaction with Liberal party
The anti-Liberal, anti-Dion trend swept southwestern Ontario and the 905 in this election, and while it was widely believed that Telegdi could stand against the trend, he was swept under as well. Our Liberal incumbent in Kitchener Centre, party whip Karen Redmond, also lost her seat in a close race.

Splitting the vote
The Waterloo Regional Record concludes from polling division results that the Green gain came mostly at the expense of the NDP. However, I have heard anecdotally about a lot of local Liberals who voted Green, and when the margin of victory is only 17 votes, that could do it.

Sources of information:
Divided loyalties
Parliament of Canada page on the riding
City of Waterloo Official Plan Review: Key Facts and Trends 2006.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Seamy Side of Blogging

I'm really disturbed by the recent public evisceration of a blogger. This mob/bully mentality could turn on any one of us, any time.

This time it was a guy with poor English who doesn't support Barack Obama. A bully-blogger got a big hate-on for the guy, and then teh bully-blogger's buddies backed him, demanding the guy's ouster from an aggregator, and after a barrage of attacks the blogger finally gave up and deleted his blog. (Of course it is cached. You can still find it here, with the whole sorry saga in posts and comments. Shortly before deleting his blog the guy changed his handle and the blog name, which might be a bit confusing.)

I started to explain the transgressions of each but was too sick at heart to continue with it. The short form is: everyone involved behaved very, very badly, and noone would back down.

If you want to see the seamiest, saddest side of the blogosphere, check out the link above. Some people say guys enjoy this sort of nastiness and women are appalled and repulsed. I don't know if that's true, but I'm a female blogger and this incident makes me sick. I have become mostly inured to the vicious, angry attacks I get regularly on my blog, but I haven't become so tough that I can easily accept character assassination.

I'm not accepting comments on this post.

Update: While the blog was apparently deleted an hour ago, it now appears to be back, but I'm not interested enough to follow what's going on.

Changing the Leadership Convention - Another Plea to Sign the Petition

If we don't find a way to choose a leader who the majority of Liberals can get behind, we're in big trouble. It all comes down to that. The last leadership race was dreadful for party morale - not because there was bitter fighting (there wasn't) or a Chretien-Martin style feud (there wasn't) - but because less than 10% of the party membership voted for delegates who supported Stephane Dion. And then, to make it worse, Dion did not do enough to bring us in. He didn't even bring the party membership around to his flagship policy. People can try to stay loyal, but after a certain point of feeling their membership doesn't count, they're just not going to be able to mark the X in the Liberal circle. On October 14, many Liberal supporters and even party members voted for other parties.

The reason we have to move to one member one vote for this leadership race is to ensure that the party membership doesn't suffer a further blow with another leader who a majority of them do not support. The only way to do that is to have a direct vote of party members, with a cutoff date for party membership and a virtual convention.

In the last leadership race I supported Bob Rae, but I convinced myself I had to support whoever won of Rae, Ignatieff and Dion. I thought the way Dion won was despicable and I was bitterly disappointed, but I tried my best to support the choice of the, er, not the majority - the young Kennedy loyalists who voted where they were directed, er - whatever. I wrote a number of pro-Dion posts on this blog, and a major reason for them was that I was trying to convince myself.

If this leadership race ends like the last one, with say Ignatieff winning with a tiny fraction of the membership vote, then I don't know if I can stay in the party - particularly if delegates are chosen by "instant Liberals" who delegate-wannabes sign up for a day. It's not that I'm anti-Ignatieff: I'm equally worried that Rae could win with a tiny fraction of the vote, driving out supporters of other candidates.

We have simply got to move to one party one vote. People say we can't do that because of our constitution. However, that's not necessarily true. Article 64 (3) says that the national executive can call an extraordinary convention and leaves the form and location of the convention open to interpretation, so why not a virtual leadership convention, say in February. Article 67 (1) gives the national executive the right to make bylaws to regulate the procedures of delegate selection. It also does not strictly define who a delegate is, so why not define every member who joined by October 14 as a delegate.

The counter argument is that one member one vote was voted on at the last convention and did not pass, while Article 27 (6) says "If a bylaw, an amendment or a repeal is rejected by the Council of Presidents or the Party, no subsequent resolution of the National Executive to make, amend or repeal a bylaw having substantially the same purpose or effect is effective until it is confirmed or amended by the Party."

The suggestion of holding a virtual, OMOV leadership convention is a one-off for this particular situation, not a change to the rules. There is precedent to bend the rules on occasion. It looks like the Council of Presidents might skip their constitutionally-mandated annual meeting this year. Our executive once cancelled a biennial in order to avoid a Chretien leadership review vote.

As Rich Clausi says, "A constitution is a living, breathing and dynamic document that should be interpreted in a way that facilitates problem-solving. doubt, there were rules against running on the decks of the Titanic."

So please, go read the petition to change the leadership convention at