Friday, September 24, 2010

Silence... will fall....

Blog silence to continue until I get my dissertation draft done and sent off to the committee. (Which will hopefully be this weekend.) Apologies, but there's only so much writing and thinking I can do in a week, and the dissertation is the last step in a seven-year process. So, it takes priority.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Weekend metal-blogging (and a note)

In honour of both the Libs and the Cons: Fear Factory, "Fear Campaign"

NB: Because my teaching schedule starts up again next week, I'll be moving to an every other week update on both blogs. The idea is to alternate between them, so there will be new content every week on at least one.

Friday, September 03, 2010

On things that aren't like the long gun registry.

[My original thoughts on the long gun registry, dated in November 2009, are here. I have seen nothing in the past few months that changes my mind one iota.]

The Press Release

There was a press release making the rounds yesterday, allegedly released by the Liberal Party of Canada. I'm not sure if it was legitimate or not; the link I had expired, and it doesn't appear to be on the web anywhere. Here's a screengrab I got (click the image to view it larger; sorry it's so small, but Blogger keeps reducing it):

In any event, let's assume it's legitimate -- it seems to be -- and work with it.

[Edit: 3:06pm EST: It's legit. See here for the version on the LPC website. Interestingly, the part of the original release which came after the list of things you have to register has been chopped. Wonder why.]

The main argument of the release is that anti-long gun registry arguments don't work when targeted against other things that you register. This is a really, really stupid argument. Logically, it's an attempt at an argument by analogy: the long gun registry is like the (fill in the blank) registry; argument X doesn't work against the (fill in the blank) registry; hence, argument X doesn't work against the long gun registry. That kind of reasoning can work, but it hinges on a lack of relevant disanalogies -- and, unfortunately, the examples given are rife with disanalogies.

The truly funny part is that the release acknowledges that there are disanalogies here, in the following paragraph:
Do the Conservatives and the NDP also think that we shouldn't register dogs and cats to keep strays from roaming the streets? Should we no longer register cars to help us enforce our motor vehicle laws? Perhaps Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton think that people should be able to receive government funding without having to register for it. Would they be comfortable receiving professional services from a doctor or a lawyer who has not registered with their professional association?
In other words, according to the LPC, there are various different reasons why all these things are registered. So, why they think their analogy is going to fly is just beyond me. This is why I despise the Conservatives and have contempt for the Liberals (while respectfully disagreeing with conservatism and liberalism). The Liberals clearly think we're too stupid too see through their bullshit.

Here's the complete list:
  1. Owning livestock
  2. Driving an ATV
  3. Owning dogs and cats
  4. Owning and driving motor vehicles
  5. Getting married
  6. Having a baby
  7. Going fishing
  8. Going boating
  9. Owning a corporation
  10. Owning land
  11. Being a lobbyist
  12. Providing professional services as a lawyer, doctor, engineer, architect and accountant
  13. Owning copyright and intellectual property
  14. Being a member of the Conservative Party of Canada
  15. Having a healthcare card
  16. Voting
  17. Qualifying for Old Age Security
  18. Qualifying for the Canada Pension Plan
  19. Qualifying for the Canada Child Tax Credit and Universal Child Care Benefit
  20. Having a Registered Retirement Savings Plan
  21. Having a Registered Education Savings Plan
  22. Having a Tax Free Savings Account
  23. Getting a Permanent Resident Card
  24. Qualifying for Employment Insurance
And here's the arguments that are supposed to be analogous:
  • Criminals won't register their dogs anyway, so what's the point?
  • The government wants you to get a fishing license so they can seize all of your fishing poles!
  • The car registration scheme in this country costs millions a year and does nothing to prevent road accidents!
  • You already have to pass a driver's test to be able to drive a car, so what's the point of having to register your car?
  • There was a boating accident last week, and the boating registration scheme did nothing to prevent that from happening!
Debunking the List

Most of the listed items can be dismissed entirely as utterly irrelevant to the point at hand.

For example, some are cases where the registration is done for tax purposes. Can't tax something (or not tax something) unless there's a record. So, that deals with 5, 9-10, 17-23 and 24. I don't believe there's a tax benefit to registering guns.

Some are done for what we could call "purely legal" reasons. 6, for example, is done to create a person's legal identity. Consider the other legal documents you couldn't get without a legal birth certificate. The same applies to 9, which creates the corporation's legal identity. And to 12, which demonstrates that one has the professional skills and training necessary to work in certain occupations. (I note that not all professions that are important actually require registration. Anyone can be a contractor, for example.) And to 13, which serves as proof that some intellectual creation was yours rather than someone else's. And to 15, which demonstrates that one is entitled to government health insurance. And to 16, which demonstrates that one is entitled to the franchise. And to 23, which demonstrates that one has fulfilled all the various legal requirements (and they are legion) for permanent residence. In other words, these cases are all cases where registration is done to prove that one has passed certain requirements in order to have a certain legal status. If there is an analogy here, it's to licensing firearm owners, not to registering guns.

2, 4, and 8 all relate to motor vehicles. I don't know the rules for ATVs or boats. I do know that this misrepresents the rules for motor vehicles. You don't need to register a motor vehicle if you aren't operating it on a public roadway. If that vehicle is never driven, or stays entirely on private property, you never need to register it. The reason is that vehicle licensing fees exist to offset (partially) the cost to the government of maintaining the roads. If that cost is yours, then you should not pay a fee to anyone but yourself. The same could clearly apply to ATVs and boats -- if you're using them on public land, such as in parks or woods or in a public lake or river (respectively, obviously), then they should be registered to offset the costs of maintaining those public spaces. However, if the laws for ATVs and boats require you to register them regardless, then that, to me, looks entirely unjustified. Since long guns are being registered regardless of how one uses them -- even if they just hang on the wall -- this clearly isn't relevant.

Note, by the way, that 4 combines owning and driving motor vehicles. The long gun registry is just about the guns; there's a separate licensing process for being able to own them in the first place. When it comes to being licensed to drive, that's analogous to being licensed to own guns at all. That seems justified to me. If you're going to drive, you are putting other people at risk, so you need to show that you are competent. Similarly, you should have to demonstrate that you are competent to own a firearm. But, as said, this is irrelevant to the point: no one is talking about removing the system for licensing firearm owners.

I also note that the system of licensing pilots and registering planes isn't considered here. I suspect this is probably because it would be very obvious that the second is about the costs of monitoring air traffic, while the first is about public safety. (The air is a public resource, after all, and thus private use of the resources needs to be tracked.)

7 seems justified on a similar basis as 2, 4, and 8. If you're fishing in a public waterway, you should be licensed to offset the costs, and also to be able to monitor what you're doing with regards to the publicly-owned wildlife. So, it's a maintenance fee, to make sure that you're using the resource responsibly. I'm surprised, by the way, that hunting licenses aren't on the list; the justification is the same. Perhaps the LPC was worried that this would expose how distinct this is from registering a long gun: hunting licenses relate to particular seasons (bow season vs. rifle season, buck season vs. doe season), and are clearly about wildlife management. Which has no parallel to registering a long gun.

13 is actually optional. I have copyright over anything I create. Registering copyright just creates a legal trail. It's not necessary, although it may be a good idea. I'm not sure that this is the kind of thing that the LPC wants to be comparing the long gun registry to. IP law more generally is more complex, and there may be some aspects -- such as patents -- where you must register in order to hold them. But then we get back to the "legal status" point raised earlier, which is more relevant to licensing gun owners than registering guns.

14 is similarly optional. (No, really. You don't have to join the CPC.) The CPC is a private organization, like the LPC or the NDP or the Greens or the Boy Scouts. They have decided that, if you want to belong, they want to know who you are. Lots of organizations are like this -- even the public library. Gun owners are hardly a formal organization, however, so this is irrelevant.

What's left, then, are 1, owning livestock; 3, owning dogs and cats; and 11, being a lobbyist. I'm not sure why livestock have to be registered. I suppose it might be a management of public safety kind of thing -- the livestock has to be registered in order to check for and track disease in the food supply. If so, then it seems justified. If it's just any old livestock, even if it's just my pet cow, then I don't see the reason for it. So, the only possible analogy here is to public safety, but no one has proven that registering guns -- rather than licensing gun owners -- has any significant impact on public safety. Indeed, it would be surprising if there were any impact. If you've managed to get yourself a firearms license, then there's hardly going to be more insurmountable barriers to registering any guns you purchase. Furthermore, you're unlikely to not purchase guns after you've got the license -- I mean, really, why get the license otherwise? So, it seems clear to me that the licensing of gun owners is the only factor that could possibly contribute to public safety. And, again, no one's talking about doing away with that.

When it comes to owning dogs and cats, I don't think this is at all justified. The only basis I can see for it is if the animal is let outside, in which case there may be costs associated with its being in the neighbourhood. (That would address the release's expressed concerns with strays.) But that doesn't get us to total registration, only registration for outdoor animals (which would seem to exclude most cats, at the very least). As is, it looks like a pure cash grab by municipalities. If that's the analogy the LPC wants, then good-bye registry.

When it comes to registering as a lobbyist, I've never been able to follow the arguments here. Most of the arguments are financial, and that sort of reasoning always puts me to sleep. It's not that I can't do the math -- I'm fairly good with math -- it's rather that I just don't care. Money's a fiction, and I find it hard to take it terribly seriously. I can see lots of ways this could be justified, though. It might be for tax reasons. It might be because lobbyists have some special legal status. It might be that lobbyists have professional standards which they have to live up to. (Okay, maybe not the last one.) It's certainly not for public safety, though, nor is it for consumption of a public resource. So, this one is unclear to me. I don't see how it could be analogous to registering a long gun, though.

So, here's what we have in terms of possible bases for registering something:
  • Tax reasons, wherein the tax authority needs a record of something to provide a benefit or assess a tax
  • Legal reasons, wherein the registrant does so in order to obtain some special legal status, which has fixed and important requirements
  • The consumption or use of public resources, wherein the registration fee is used to offset the costs of managing the resource or the costs to the resource
  • Public safety, wherein registration is done to ensure that registrants are capableof behaving in a manner that does not endanger the public
  • Optional registration
  • Unjustified or unclearly justified registration
The only one which might be relevant in terms of justifying the long gun registray is the public safety point. And, I repeat, no one has shown that there is any more gain to public safety from registering long guns as opposed to licensing firearm owners. If that could be shown, then there would be a pro-registry argument I could respect. But as of right now, it looks like this works better as an argument for licensing gun owners -- just as we license drivers on the same basis -- not for registering their guns.

Debunking the Arguments

Let's go back to those arguments the LPC offers as supposedly analogous to anti-long gun registry arguments, in an attempt to show that they are ridiculous. What's shown, in my view, is that the LPC thinks we're all stupid.

Criminals won't register their dogs anyway, so what's the point?

In my view, there is no point to registering dogs, unless the dogs are let outside. Furthermore, even this could only be justified on the basis of use of public resources. No public resources are used in owning a firearm.

The government wants you to get a fishing license so they can seize all of your fishing poles!

The government wants you to get a fishing license because fish are a public resource, and have to be shared amongst us when we take them for private use. Firearms are entirely private property. My owning a long gun makes no difference to your ability to do the same; my fishing in a river or lake could seriously inhibit your ability to do it.

The car registration scheme in this country costs millions a year and does nothing to prevent road accidents!

The car registration scheme has little to do with preventing road accidents. (Indeed, it's hard to see how it could do anything for it.) Instead, it's to do with managing the public roads, particularly with funding the same. Licensing drivers seems to be justified on the basis of public safety. But, obviously, licensing drivers is not analogous to registering long guns but to licensing firearm owners. And, as said, there is no public resource consumed when I own a long gun, so the justification used for registering cars is simply irrelevant.

You already have to pass a driver's test to be able to drive a car, so what's the point of having to register your car?

As said, these are separate issues, just as licensing a firearms owner is separate from registering a long gun.

There was a boating accident last week, and the boating registration scheme did nothing to prevent that from happening!

Once again, it wasn't supposed to. The best justification I can see for registering boats is for the costs of maintaining the public waterways. Once more, the analogy here is entirely irrelevant.

Other Points

"Supporting Police"

The release also comments that the long gun registry is necessary in order to ensure that the police "know who owns lethal weapons, which helps them to protect public safety". And it refers to the "Harper-Layton anti-cop coalition" who don't "care about what the police need to do their job."

It is, frankly, an even stupider argument than the one dismantled above.

First, licensing firearm owners already tells you who owns firearms. Registering guns adds no new information.

Second, there are many more lethal items in the average household than just firearms, and we don't have to register most of them. (Knives are an obvious example, as are chainsaws, axes, picks, sickles, scythes, crowbars, various toxic and caustic substances, and the components of explosives.)

Third, casting this as a pro- vs. anti-cop argument is a very bad idea in light of police abuses during the G20 and the Dziekanski tasering. If the choices are pro-cop or anti-cop, then, given their recent conduct, I'm anti-cop. Nice to know that the LPC supports police no matter how badly they abuse their authority and power.

Fourth, the police could probably do their job with more ease if we had a CCTV network like they do in the UK. Is the LPC proposing this as a new policy? (Which would be funny because, like the gun registry, there is zero evidence it actually helps deter or solve crimes.)

Fifth, if police are stupid enough to walk into a potentially dangerous situation -- such as serving an arrest warrant -- and they aren't already suspicious of the possibly presence of firearms, then they need much better training. It doesn't take much to realize that, in a country with as many privately-owned firearms as Canada, any police action on a private residence could end in a shootout. (This is particularly true given that both firearms licenses and long gun registrations are tied to physical addresses. Without some sort of GPS tracking system, police have no way of knowing who's in the building.)

Sixth, if police tend to get shot at, I don't see how this isn't partly their fault. Again, consider the G20. Policing is becoming more and more militaristic in this country. But that simply doesn't work as a police tactic. Police are outnumbered massively in any given city. The Toronto Police Service, for example, has 5710 sworn members and 2500 unsworn, for a total force of 8210. The city itself has a population of about 2.5 million. That means that every cop is outnumbered 304 to 1. You can't win that kind of fight. So, police need to rely on the respect of the populace. If that's failing because of police abuses -- and thus police are being attacked with greater frequency -- then there need to be better efforts to ensure that the public respect their police force. I don't see how giving police yet another crutch -- in addition to their tasers, which are already used to that effect -- is going to help.

"Layton and the NDP"

There's also a slide in the release from talking about the Conservatives and NDP, to talking about Harper and Layton. Harper is, we're told, whipping the Conservative vote (he probably doesn't have to). The NDP vote is not whipped. And Jack Layton has said he will vote to retain the registry.

So, trying to hang this on Layton in the same sense as it hangs on Harper is just bizarre. Layton has clearly decided -- and correctly, in my view -- that it's more important to allow caucus to vote their consciences on an issue on which the party has no official position than it is to defend a policy that he himself agrees with. It's worth noting that the Liberals used to believe in this, too, and didn't whip the vote on same-sex marriage. One wonders what has changed; I suspect it's just the leader.

And that's the final point that needs to be made here. The structure of the NDP is such that the leader is not that central. He or she doesn't have nearly as much authority over the party as the leader of the LPC or of the CPC. And that's deliberate -- the NDP is supposed to be a more democratic organization, driven more by the grassroots than the party brass. Thus, disagreement with the leader is entirely permissable. What follows, then, is that the LPC's press release has inadvertently revealed something fundamental about their political culture, something Liberals probably don't even realize is present. The Ignatieff Liberals are much more like the Harper Conservatives than the NDP -- which is probably why the former have kept the latter afloat for so long. Disagreement with the leader is simply not allowed.

But why either thinks this is a good thing is beyond my understanding.

Friday, August 27, 2010

On Rob Ford.


I'm not worried about Rob Ford becoming mayor of Toronto. And you shouldn't be either. Given what he's presented right now as part of his platform, over at his website, the man seems to be well on his way to becoming another Mel Lastman. Embarrassing, incompetent, but incapable of serious long-term damage. Note that I'm not appealing to anything about justice or fairness or the like. This is purely a consideration of whether Rob Ford could be damaging enough that we should worry about his possibly being elected.

I'll revise this if/when Ford releases a more detailed platform and I feel there's something more that needs to be said about how pathetic (but entertaining) he'd prove to be as mayor.

(1) The structure of city council is a serious barrier

First: There are 45 members of city council (the mayor counts as a member, plus 44 councillors). So, to get anything passed requires support by 23 members of council. Currently, Ford and other right-leaning councillors are outnumbered. I don't know by exactly how much; given that there are no parties in Toronto municipal politics, alliances are somewhat fluid. But what this means is that right-leaning councillors can only get what they want passed either by horse-trading or by moderating. I don't think that would be Ford's style as mayor; he seems like a no-compromise kind of guy.

So, his option has to be to get Ford-friendly councillors elected. I'm not sure how likely that is -- polling data isn't available this early in the game -- but incumbents generally have a huge advantage in municipal elections. 8 incumbents aren't running, so that's 8 seats up for grabs. (That is, 8 seats that Ford wouldn't immediately find almost impossible to take.) Of those, arguably half are "Ford unfriendly" councillors, and half are "Ford friendly" (counting Ford himself, who is giving up his council seat to run for mayor). So, Ford needs to retain four seats with friendlies, and earn four more seats. That's a minimum, in order to make the balance on council more receptive to his agenda. If he can't even get those eight seats, then, as far as I can see, all his policies are up in the air. Furthermore, even if he can, that only puts him up four seats from where he currently stands. It's not clear to me that this gets him up to 23 -- which means that, really, once the dust settles, Mayor Ford's platform may end up going nowhere fast.

Second: Ford wants to cut the number of councillors in half. I don't think the mayor actually has the power to do this. I've read over Bill 53 (here (PDF)), which revised the City of Toronto Act and contains an explanation of the powers of the mayor and of council. Here's the relevant chunks:
Part IV

129. (1) Electors in the City may present a petition to city council asking the council to pass a by-law dividing or redividing the City into wards or dissolving the existing wards.
Number of electors required
(2) The petition requires the signatures of 500 of the electors in the City.
(3) In this section,


"elector" means a person whose name appears on the voters’ list, as amended up until the close of voting on voting day, for the last regular election preceding a petition being presented to council under subsection (1).



Coming into force
(4) A by-law changing the composition of city council does not come into force until the day the new council is organized,
(a) after the first regular election following the passing of the by-law; or
(b) if the by-law is passed in the year of a regular election before voting day, after the second regular election following the passing of the by-law.
Got all that? The gist is that only electors (i.e., voters) in the city can ask for wards to be dissolved or redistributed. (There's also language which says that council must pass the by-law as requested in the petition, or it goes to the Municipal Board. Given that only 500 electors have to sign, and given that Ford wants to cut half of all council positions, I can't see council going along with any such proposal without being compelled to.) And, even if electors do this, the by-law doesn't come into force until the new council meets after an election. So, it wouldn't take effect until the next election anyway.

Now, here's the mayor's powers:
Role of the mayor as head of council
133. (1) It is the role of the mayor of the City, as the head of council,
(a) to act as chief executive officer of the City;
(b) to preside over meetings of council so that its busi-
ness can be carried out efficiently and effectively;
(c) to provide leadership to council;
(d) to represent the City at official functions; and
(e) to carry out the duties of the head of council under this or any other Act.

(2) Without limiting clause (1) (c), the mayor’s role includes providing information and making recommendations to council with respect to council’s role unde r clauses 131 (d) and (e).

Role of the mayor as chief executive officer
134. As chief executive officer of the City, the mayor shall,
(a) uphold and promote the purposes of the City;
(b) promote public involvement in the City’s activi-
(c) act as the representative of the City both within and outside the City, and promote the City locally, nationally and internationally; and
(d) participate in and foster activities that enhance the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of the City and its residents.
Got all that? Essentially, the mayor's powers aren't substantially greater than those of a council member. (There are some exceptions, but they're not relevant to the policy Ford wants.)

So, in order to cut the number of councillors down, Ford will need to get 500 electors to submit a petition to council, let this go to the Municipal Board, and the Board may -- but doesn't need to -- choose to go along with the petition. Even if they do, there's a section in the Bill which indicates that the Board's order becomes a municipal by-law once ordered. So, council could just amend or repeal it and bring us back to square one.

(2) He's made illegal promises

First: Ford wants to contract out garbage collection. The current collective agreement, which will IIRC expire in 2012, prohibits this. So, he'll either have to break the CA -- and get sued and lose -- or wait until 2012 and try to get it out during bargaining. As posed, though, it's illegal. The only way I know of to break a collective agreement is to declare bankruptcy. I'm not sure, honestly, if a city can declare bankruptcy. Even if it can, I'm not sure that's the kind of thing that Ford would be well-advised to do, just to contract out garbage collection.

Second: Ford wants the unions to bid on garbage collection like private contractors. If they could do so, they wouldn't be unions. Unions exist to represent the workers in a particular workplace, performing a particular set of functions. They aren't a separate business or incorporated entity which can offer bids on work.

Here's where things get very dicey for Ford's big plans for the city unions. If the garbage collection is, somehow, successfully contract out, that leaves the city with a lot of equipment it doesn't need -- garbage trucks and so on. The city would probably either sell or lease this equipment to the new provider. Given that the same work using the same equipment is being performed for the city, the union could go to court and argue that, rather than contracting out, this constitutes a sale of business. And in a sale of business, employment contracts get sold, too. Which would mean the same union collective agreement would immediately bind the contractor.

In cases where things like garbage collection are successfully contracted out, it's done piecemeal, I believe. The entire service doesn't get moved out tout court; instead, some is retained in house, so the unionized workforce can be mostly terminated, and so the union can't argue this constitutes a sale of business.

Of course, IANAL. But this is all speculative anyway, given that Ford can't, legally, break the provisions in the collective agreement which prohibit contracting out.

(3) He's made at least one promise outside the power of municipal government

Ford wants to make the TTC an essential service. This is a provincial power, not a municipal power. He could ask the province to do it, but I'm not sure McGuinty would be receptive. He seems to want to avoid strong interventions in union issues; he also seems to be disinterested in making major regulatory revisions, such as those that would be required to bring the TTC within the definition of "essential service".

Tim Hudak might do it. But, right now, the best Hudak could hope for would be a plurality -- not a majority. Admittedly, a lot can change between now and the provincial election in 2011, but there's no reason to think that Hudak will do particularly well, considering he'd be fighting his first general as PC leader. The same applies to NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, which really screws up the math. If she messes up, that might drive left-leaning votes to shore up the Liberal vote, while if Hudak screws up, that might drive right-leaning votes to shore up the Liberal vote. By "shore up" I mean either directly voting for the Liberals or abstaining from voting/voting for candidates from minor parties, thus decreasing the votes Liberal candidates need in order to obtain a plurality.

So, a whole lot would have to go right for Ford to get the TTC declared an essential service.

(4) He's made promises that are either impossible or unworkable

First: The TTC again. Ford seems to want to declare the TTC an essential service to stop strikes from happening. That's implausible. The TTC basically works like an essential service anyway, considering that they get legislated back fairly quickly when they strike. Furthermore, and probably more importantly, declaring the TTC an essential service would put all issues that can't be resolved in bargaining to binding arbitration. Arbitrators don't tend to like taking sides, so, like as not, an arbitrator would just split the difference. Which means that it'd be much, much harder for the city to negotiate a contract in a way that would, say, constrain compensation. It's likely, then -- and I think that the data on jurisdictions where transit is an essential service back me up -- that this policy would increase the city's costs.

Second: The garbage collection issue again. Suppose that Ford is serious about trying to get garbage collection contracted out. He has to, first, wait out the current collective agreement. I believe that it expires in 2012. So, come 2011, the union will ask the city to start negotiating for a new collective agreement. Given that Ford is generally not union-friendly, these negotiations will be very tough, if they even go anywhere at all; with the contracting out issue looming overhead, they will be tougher still. So, we will have another municipal strike, when the agreement expires in 2012.

This strike will likely end with back to work legislation, unless whatever council support Ford has managed to drum up collapses underneath him. This legislation will likely remand outstanding issues to an arbitrator. What arguments is Ford going to give the arbitrator to try to persuade him (possibly her, but usually him) to gut the anti-contracting out language that is currently in the agreement? Particularly given that one major stumbling-block in the negotiations will have been his insistence on being able to contract out the work. I can't see an arbitrator going for this without some extremely persuasive maneuvering on the part of the city or the province.

Even supposing Ford manages to pull that one off, I don't expect the transition to be smooth. Wildcat strikes are, by definition, unpreventable, and workers generally don't appreciate it when people try to take their work away from them. So, not only will 2011 be tense, 2012 will involve a strike, and 2012/2013 will involve ongoing political protest action by the union and likely other members of the labour movement.

Good times for Toronto, eh?

Third: The whole "saving money" angle. The cutting councillors thing is supposed to do this. He claims this would save about $15M a year. But he also wants to move this $15M to increasing cops involvement in targetting gangs and guns and violence. So, there's no savings here, just redirection.

Similarly, Ford wants to cut expense accounts, to save $1M a year, and he wants to cut the mayor's office budget, saving ~$.5M a year. That's a big $1.5M annually in a (operating) budget of $9.2B. That's a "B", not an "M" there. So, about 0.02% of the budget.

However, Ford also wants to cut the vehicle registration tax. This is $60 per vehicle per year. And he wants to cut the land transfer tax. I can't find information on how much cutting the land transfer tax will claw out of the budget, but I can at least ballpark how much would be lost from the vehicle registration tax. 2.5M people, assume 1 in 4 have a private vehicle (which is a number from nowhere, but it works to give a frame), works out to 625K vehicles. Multiply by $60 per vehicle per year, and that's about $160K in revenue. It is, clearly, a drop in the bucket, so there doesn't appear to be any pressing reason not to cut it. Then again, given that Toronto has serious budget problems, does it make sense to be removing a revenue stream without a clear plan for replacing it?

Basically, his fiscal proposals come off as pennywise, but pound foolish. He really has no conception of how to make a multi-billion dollar budget work, so he's counting paperclips and bitching about retirement parties. If the budget problem is really a problem, then it has to be attacked from both sides, aggressively: increase revenue, and decrease spending. The increases in revenue will have to be significant -- a few extra taxes or fees won't work -- and the decreases in spending will similarly have to be drastic -- cutting expense accounts is nothing compared to, say, cutting the entire fire service (which would only take $300M off the budget, BTW, or about 3%).

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Weekend grind-blogging.

Brutal Truth, "Get a Therapist...Spare the World"

Friday, August 20, 2010

On cooperatives and housing.

I'll get back to my electoral series eventually, I swear. But I had this weird idea today and I wanted to spell it out. It's not an argument; more just thinking out loud. (Well, so to speak. "Speak".)

We don't have enough housing going to the people who need it. The people who have housing often can't keep it (especially now). Housing often becomes a liquidity trap when owned. When rented, it becomes potentially destablizing/undignified.

So, why not have a regulated cooperative system for housing?

I'm not a fan of the private market for housing as it's failing pretty badly. Some folks have all their wealth tied up in it, and, because the asset is illiquid, that wealth is very volatile and difficult to protect. Some folks just can't generate enough wealth to get housing in the first place. (Some can't even generate enough to get access to rental housing.) Basically, it's a system where those rich enough to last through short-term losses make a killing, those in the middle tend to lose, and those at the bottom can't even participate. It's like what a private market in health insurance/services is, really.

I'm also not inclined to think that a public system would work well here. It would be difficult to manage, for one. A market system always has the advantage of efficiency over a system that's centrally planned. and we're talking here about trying to keep the rich from making a killing, keep the middle from getting soaked, and make the poor competitive. That's a hell of a balancing act for anything; when it comes to something like housing, I'm not sure that any government or similar central agency has the ability. Or the interest.

For two, it would turn housing into another thing the government owns, and thus something that no one really has pride in. It's an Aristotelian point (in reply to Plato's communism about property for the guardian class): people tend to value things when they have some personal stake in them. People tend to not value things when they're general or "just there" or some such. If you want people to take care of their homes, you've got to give them some control over them.

For three, there's good libertarian reasons to be leery of too much mucking about with economic transactions. The view that one shouldn't muck about unless one absolutely has to is a very extreme sort of libertarianism. But there is a reasonable suspicion of the consequences of (modifying Nozick's phrase) interfering in capitalist acts between consenting adults.

So, my suggestion is to split the difference. Let's have a system of cooperatives: all housing will be owned collectively, at the level of neighbourhoods or lower. (So, these are technically communes.) But, let's have that system be regulated, pretty heavily. To be a commune would require certification, a licensed manager plus accountant etc., and regular investigations to make sure that it's in compliance with anti-discrimination laws, including a set of regulations regarding class. (So, the proportion of poor in the commune must be close to that in the region.) Transitioning to this system could be done by brute force legislation, but would probably be best done by adjusting the tax and other incentives to encourage forming communes, and discourage private ownership of housing. (And, once a critical mass is reached, anyone who sticks to private housing will find themselves in a steadily-shrinking market.)

I'm not persuaded by the suggestion that property rights are somehow inalienable, particularly when it comes to the provision of the necessities of life. General or broad private property rights can't be justified without running into acquisition problems. So, we have to look systemically anyway. and, as said, this is a necessities of life issue. your right to keep your food ends when I'm starving. Any libertarianism that privileges the right to property over the right to continued existence is really a form of oligarchy.

I'm also not persuaded by the suggestion that fully public housing actually works wonderfully. Council housing in the UK, for example, did work -- initially. But, later, it start to fail. Problems have included such obvious flaws as government cutting corners on the construction (leading to housing collapsing, in some cases), as well as problems associated with urban decay. (And there's the whole crime/ASBO problem, which gets into the paternalism underlying government involvement in this sort of thing.) I suspect the ultimate source of the problem is how unflexibile the system is, given that government has an incentive to spend as little as possible, while simultaneously refusing to admit when they've screwed up.

When it comes to putting this into practice, there are obvious issues. Whether this would actually be better than the fully private or fully public options, for example. I've given reasons to think it might be, but they might turn out to be incorrect. And the details of getting the communes up and running, as well as of the pertinent regulatory framework. But, it seems that our current system isn't working so well. So, why not try something else?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Nothing this week.

Sorry. Dissertation editing is kicking my ass right now. Nothing major in terms of changes, but I really have to tighten up some portions of the argument and it's draining most of my energy. Next week for sure, though.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

On the new feudalism.

I was going to blog something about the CMA’s recent report on Canadian healthcare. But there’s really not much there that anyone could reasonably disagree with. More access to prescription drugs, more access to long-term care for those who need it, and so on. However, here’s the bit I find really worrying:
If, however, there is no political appetite or public support for increasing public revenues for health on the basis of universality and risk pooling then we will be faced with options for raising funds from private sources. These could include co-payments for publicly insured services, private insurance or out-of-pocket payment for uninsured/deinsured services, and deductibles linked to utilization.
In other words, the CMA is acknowledging what we all already know: our public infrastructure is failing sufficiently badly that we may be forced to privatize it in order to provide a reasonable and decent level of service. And this is largely because, as they put it, of a lack of "political appetite" and "public support" for a level of taxation necessary to keep these public services running.

This applies to the university sector as well, for example. In Ontario, our beloved Finance Minister, in his infinite wisdom, has decided he wants to make his budget numbers work by introducing a real-dollar wage cut to everyone who works in the public service. (He calls it a "wage freeze", but given that prices and inflation continue to increase, it's a real-dollar wage cut. If he were honest, he'd admit that. And probably not a McGuinty cabinet minister. Still, onward.) For some reason, this includes people who work for universities, even though the province, when convenient, claims that universities are autonomous institutions. (Such as when the University of Toronto imposes a user fee on anyone who wants to access their library. This was later reduced to a user fee for anyone who wants to take anything out.) This therefore includes graduate students who are providing their services in the form of teaching assistance and marking and contract lecturers, such as myself, who are working on a per-course basis. This is not sustainable. It is normal, in US universities, to provide graduate students with full tuition stipends and living stipends -- that is, in effect, graduate students pay no tuition and are paid enough to live on. If Canadian provincial governments continue to nickel and dime graduate students, then the best graduate students will head south, and our own graduate students will be unprepared to compete for university places. Furthermore, if Canadian provincial governments continue to throttle spending on the university sector, then we will be unable to attract top-level faculty and we will be forced to rely more and more on part-time, short-term, tenuous contract workers. That is, the jobs that used to be stepping-stone or emergency positions are soon becoming the norm for academic employment.

Privatization is a solution, though. The private sector is a source of money to increase full-time academic positions -- tenure (the only real "full-time" academic position that exists) in the US is fast becoming a benefit that only exists in private universities, as well as some of the largest public ones. The private sector is a source of money to increase stiends for graduate students. It is also a source of money to fund undergraduate tuition and fees, as well as to improve university infrastructure.

I accept this sort of reasoning, when it's applied to healthcare, education (university or otherwise), roads, utilities, what have you. All places where this argument could be repeated easily, by the way. I agree with it and see the logic of it. But I'm infuriated at the unwillingness and inability of our political leaders, and of the general public, to see that it only makes sense because of a blatant false dichotomy. The choice is not limited public money vs. unlimited private money. Public money exists because it comes from private money. Private money is unlimited -- at least in comparison to public money -- because we have chosen to let it be so. The obvious way to pull some of that money into funding public services is to increase taxes. But, as the CMA imply, there doesn't seem to be either political appetite or public support for this.

I wonder if there's political appetite or public support for doing anything bold any more. Or if we're just supposed to accept that every service we currently receive from and control through our government will ultimately be owned by someone and doled out to us as the new serfs.

I don't have any solutions or real arguments about this -- obviously. But it still seems to me that we're heading towards a new feudalism. And no one's really interested in stopping it.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Weekend metal-blogging

Soilwork, "20 More Miles"

On secrecy and Wikileaks.


So, as everyone and their brother's roommate knows, Wikileaks managed to get their hands on another chunk of material that the powers-that-be would rather the rest of us never saw. This time, of course, it was a collection of documents related to the war in Afghanistan. This has raised a number of issues which, oddly, didn't come up when Wikileaks released the CRU emails or the draft of the ACTA treaty.

Secrecy and the Government

I think it's important to get away from the idea that the government has some absolute right to keep secrets. It does not. In fact, its right to keep secrets is really quite limited. Exactly what the right is depends on the governmental structure. (I know, of course, that the actual functioning of government really deviates from these ideals. But, insofar as it does, the government is asserting rights it doesn't actually have. If the citizenry don't or can't contain this, that's a separate issue.) In the US, it's reasonable to say that the government has to always be able to justify its secrecy -- and, when it doesn't, it can't keep secrets. This seems to flow from the checks-and-balances idea, but also from the idea that only limited powers are delegated to either the federal or state governments. That is, in the US, anything the government doesn't explicitly have the authority to do, it lacks the right to do. There is no explicit authority to keep secrets of all kinds from the populace. When it comes to Canada, the government can keep secrets only insofar as it does so responsibly -- that is, on our behalf and with awareness of a real and pressing need to keep information secret. The idea here is responsible government. Government is entrusted with massive power, but is expected not ot use this capriciously or for its own benefit. On Afghanistan, the Canadian government has clearly failed in this regard. Keeping deaths of civilians secret clearly has more to do with protecting the government than with anything that benefits the people of Canada.

Secrecy and War

It's also important to note that there is no special right to keep secrets during war. (I'm assuming that it can be truthfully said we are at war in Afghanistan. There's certainly an armed conflict. But is it war? Not every armed conflict -- such as between street gangs -- is therefore a war. I tend to think wars can only be fought between state actors, and there's a legitimate question as to whether Afghanistan currently exists as a state and, if so, whether it's in a condition of war with anyone else.) If there were, it would be an instance of a general right to keep secrets. But there is no such general right; at best, there's a limited right, when keeping secrets is either justified to the populace (the US) or in the best interests of the populace (Canada). So, "it's war" is never good enough to justify secret-keeping by the government. There has to be more than this. "National security" or "troop safety" are no better -- these are formulas, not sincere justifications. As yet, no sincere justification is available for keeping as much secrecy around Afghanistan as there is.

Redacting Names

Redacting names is a tricky issue. It seems to make sense to keep names secret if it puts people at risk for unnecessary harm. After all, to want to keep people from unnecessary harm, especially people who are already exposed to a certain amount of risk, seems like a bad thing -- so, making the risk or the harm greater seems wrong. But, there are two issues that need to be established here. First, is the harm or the risk of harm increased? If the names were already known to people who might put them at risk, then Wikileaks has only confirmed the names. That's a pretty small increase in harm or risk of harm, at worst. Second, even if there is an increase in harm or risk of harm, then this has to be evaluated against any increase in benefit or chance of benefit. That is, the approach in play here suggests that the harm must be weighed, which raises the possibility that the harm or risk of harm is counter-balanced by some greater increase in benefit or chance of benefit. (This is the problem with consequentialist thinking: if you're going to say that putting people at risk is too much harm, then you have to allow that this could be outweighed by even more Benefit.) Arguably, given how much our governments have been keeping from us, this is actually the case. Certainly, it's not clear that the increased risk -- no one's died yet as a result, after all -- in comparison to our benefit in terms of knowledge gained is such that Wikileaks is not justified in naming names.

One might suggest that there's a kind of absolute right to having one's identity concealed in these sorts of situations. That only makes sense if the government -- the agent who had the information -- has an absolute right to keep secrets. So, the right to have one's identity concealed has to be contingent and limited, if it exists at all. Again, then, the names should only have been redacted if there were demonstrable harm caused by not redacting -- not proven, and unlikely, given the high level of danger already present -- and if that harm were not outweighed by the benefits -- tricky, as all consequentialist calculations are.

Furthermore, there's an issue here about responsibility. If I'm wrong above, then Wikileaks is required to try to figure out which people would be at risk if named. According to them, and not denied by anyone else, they tried to contact the White House to have them review the documents and indicate which names should be removed, and got no response. (Which is quite stupid on the White House's part; they didn't even need to read the documents, only claim they had and say all the names should be redacted.) That seems to discharge their responsibility: the choice then is either to name no one, or name everyone (of those they aren't sure about, that is). I don't think the first option is at all reasonable, as then the government can just name something as secret by refusing to explain. So, the second option was the only reasonable choice. It would be a different matter if Wikileaks had just named everyone, without showing any concern, but trying to contact the White House seems to demonstrate a reasonable level of interest in the problem.

And, we can't ignore two other points. First, the Taliban has already been targetting suspected informants, so Wikileaks may actually be saving innocent people, namely those who would have been targetted as informants and now will not be, because they aren't really informants and the documents prove it. And, second, no one would be targetted if the military weren't there. Let's not let governments off the hook here; responsibility doesn't just accrue to the proximal cause of a harm, but also to the cause of the harmful situation.

If, on the other hand, you're the type who thinks that any harm is bad, then you're basically screwed in this case. There's harm no matter what Wikileaks did (what the literature calls a "tragic dilemma"): civilians have been killed (as now proven), civilians would continue to be killed, soldiers would continue to be killed, etc. So, if that's your view, it follows that there's nothing right to be done, so Wikileaks may as well have flipped a coin. In other words, this kind of position is not respectable in this situation, as it yields no guidance on how to proceed. The counting harms approach is the only reasonable one, and, when counting harms and benefits, it has to be done honestly: that is, one has to take the broad view, not just pick out the harms that one personally find outrageous and ignore the rest.

Assange and wikileaks and the MSM

Some have suggested Wikileaks and Assange are not the right sort of organization to release this kind of information. I'm not sure what the right sort of organization means, except as a kind of off-hand smear of Wikileaks because they're weird and not nice and safe like, say, the New York Times. Filthy hippies or something, I suppose.

It's necessary to remember that the NYT et al have sat on important information before. To my recollection, the New York Times has yet to do any serious investigation of whether George W. Bush ever showed up for his alleged military service -- which one would think was at least worth looking into. The MSM, particularly in the US, have been big ol' cheerleaders for war, and suppressed the views of those who raise legitimate concerns about it. (Do I need to remind everyone of what the run-up to Iraq and Afghanistan was like?) Generally, they've fallen down on their job of keeping the government accountable, by telling us the things the government would rather we didn't know, but really has no business keeping secret. The same does apply to Canada as well, unfortunately. Given that situation, where the government is keeping secrets they shouldn't, and the MSM are failing to make it clear, what else was going to happen? Wikileaks was inevitable.

It's like Napster, really. (Seriously.) The record industry wasn't letting people get their music electronically in a convenient fashion, as they wanted. So, Napster came along and forced the issue. Now, more or less, you can get music electronically in a convenient fashion. (Still not perfect, but we do have BitTorrent.) The same is going to apply here. If you aren't providing what people want -- in this case, clear and accurate information about what's going on in Afghanistan -- someone on the internet will, sooner or later, step up and give it to you. The demand exists and some organization will fill it. If you don't like the way Wikileaks does it, you have a few choices. One, try to suppress them legally. (Go ask the recording industry how that's working out.) Or, two, outcompete them. Wikileaks has very few resources, certainly in comparison to mainstream news organizations. If the MSM wanted to, they could do wikileaks' job better than wikileaks, and confine them to the status of a fringe organization. There isn't a good track record when it comes to out-competing web-based competitors, but I suppose journalism might figure it out. (Think, over in entertainment, how often we hear about TMZ scooping the MSM.)

But, instead, Wikileaks keeps scooping the MSM. The CRU emails, the ACTA draft, the BNP (British National Party) membership lists, Afghanistan. The mighty MSM keeps getting shown up by some hacker and his buddies. The documents Wikileaks finds are obviously in the public interest: even when the resulting scandal is bullshit, like the CRU emails, the documents themselves are something people should know about and be able to see. (When it comes to the CRU emails, I would suggest that the MSM was the real problem: they didn't bother to carefully read through them, which would have shown that there was no scandal there, and they didn't bother to push back against the developing right-wing talking-points, due to some misguided notion of neutrality on an issue of science.)

Frankly, we need Wikileaks, given that no one else is willing to tell us the things we may not want to know, or may have been told we shouldn't know, but really do need to know. We need to know that civilians have been targetted and killed by the military. That's an important piece of information in deciding if we still want to be in Afghanistan. We need more Wikileaks, really. For example, can someone get their hands on anything showing the discussions in the government regarding the census decision? We know it's Harper's idea, and Clement and Flaherty hate it, but imagine if we could prove it? Or, could someone get their hands on internal Canadian government documents regarding the billions they've blown on fighter jets. It'd be nice to know whether anyone in the government thought this might be a problem. But, the MSM is unable or unwilling to help us out here. Besides Wikileaks, what resource do we have to help us figure out what we need to know?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Weekend metal-blogging

Heaven Shall Burn, "Combat"

Friday, July 23, 2010

On proportional representation (2): the case against


Last week, I argued for the claim that proportional representation (PR) is preferable to single-member plurality (SMP) as a system of electing representatives to a democratic assembly. The central reason for this conclusion was that PR is the default system of elections, given that it is the system which ensures a strong connection between the expressed preferences of the voters and the representatives in the assembly (calling this the "strong connection" thesis in what follows). In this post, I consider nine objections to this conclusion, all of which try to identify important principles which PR allegedly cannot accommodate, but SMP can. What I'm looking for here is whether these principles are sufficiently important to outweigh the principle which supports the conclusion that PR is preferable to SMP.

(1) PR leads to unstable governments/difficulty forming governments

The idea here seems to be that stability is an advantage in assemblies or in governments. It's not clear, though, what's supposed to be so good about stability. I presume it's something like predictability: if the assembly/government is stable, then we can make reasonably good predictions about what they're going to do in any given case. If that's right, then I don't see how this can override the importance of the strong connection thesis. The problem is that if stability is more important than the strong connection thesis, then the system of elections is fundamentally paternalistic. That is, if people make the "wrong" choice -- a choice which leads to instability -- then this choice should be "corrected" by the biases of the system itself. If, however, one has followed me to this point and accepted that the strong connection thesis is important, there is really no basis for the claim that a choice should be corrected in this fashion. This sort of paternalism is inconsistent with giving the strong connection thesis any importance beyond some minimal limit.

If stability is important, then it is less important than the strong connection thesis. So, if stability is to be achieved, it must be achieved by people choosing in such a way that a stable assembly/government results. Anything less would just demand stability -- and, if we're going to go down that road, why have elections at all?

(2) PR allows fringe elements to get elected

This criticism can come from the left, usually against racist or fascist parties, and from the right, usually against socialist or communist parties. The underlying principle seems to be that being mainstream is an advantage, and we want to preserve mainstream candidates and parties in the assembly.

What's good about being mainstream, though? Presumably, being mainstream means that lots of people agree with one's views or ideology. Else, one is fringe. But once we see that, it becomes obvious how wrong-headed this criticism really is. You can't know what's mainstream or fringe until you know what people prefer. It might turn out that a fascist party/candidate or a communist party/candidate has more supporters than had previously been believed. This shows that the mainstream isn't where one might have thought -- or hoped -- it would be.

So, if the judgement about what's mainstream and what's fringe has this content, it actually supports, rather than undermines, PR. PR allows us to see clearly, in the assembly, where the mainstream is and where the fringes are. The judgement might have a different content, though. It might by a covert attempt to privilege conforming to a certain set of attitudes or ideals. That is, the "mainstream" are those who agree with me, and the "fringe" are those who don't. Like (1), though, this is deeply inconsistent with giving the strong connection thesis any importance at all. If it's legitimate to sweep away some preferences because they aren't the "right" ones, then it's hard to see why we would respect any preferences at all.

(3) PR allows fringe elements to dominate governmental negotiations

If the underlying principle here is that negotiations being dominated by the mainstream is good, then this falls prey to the same objections as those raised above. Furthermore, it's obviously a rather silly principle -- it amounts to endorsing mob rule, where the biggest elements should get their way, and the smallest should get nothing.

But, more subtly, the underlying principle may be an expression of the idea that weight of voice in negotiations should be proportional to one's actual support in the legislature. If that's the idea, then this supports PR. It's not clear how we could ensure that voices in negotiations are proportional without first getting the members of the assembly to be proportional to the voices (i.e., expressed preferences) of the voters. If we don't do that, then we may as well follow the Athenians and choose an assembly by lot: the privileging of one set of ideas, through affording them seats not earned through earning votes, is basically arbitrary.

Even more subtly, however, the underlying principle may be an expression of concern that, since smaller parties have less to lose for digging in their heels and insisting on getting everything they want, and bigger parties have more to lose, then smaller parties will necessarily have more sway than is proportional to their size in the assembly. I'm inclined to deny that this is actually a problem, though, rather than a reactionary fear.

These people from the "small parties" have been elected, which means some voters out there prefer them. If bigger parties don't want to have to give in to these smaller parties, then what follows is not that we should gimmick the rules to make it possible for big parties to ignore the small ones, but to insist that the big parties should work their butts off to lure more voters to their side. The fact that smaller parties may be able to bargain hard shows only that the big parties didn't do a very good job in their campaigns. Why should the system protect big parties who can't get themselves enough support?

(4) PR governments deadlock

The underlying principle seems to be that making decisions quickly is a good thing. Well, I agree: it's true making decisions quickly is a good thing. But making the right decisions is better. And making decisions for the people that are actually for the people -- and not for the party, or for the next election, or for the post-political career -- is even better than that. "Getting things done" is not what we in philosophy call an "all things considered" good. That is, it's not a thing that's good, no matter what. It's only good in certain circumstances. For this particular thing -- making decisions quickly -- my sense is that it isn't good unless the decisions are ones that are made for the people, and are the right decisions. (If you don't quite agree with me: long-form census, changing the national anthem, and prorogation.) Besides, there's actually no guarantee that an SMP system doesn't deadlock; the US government is elected under SMP -- the House, the Senate and the President -- and they deadlock all the time. Efficiency isn't really something that's got anything to do with the way we select representatives, but with the powers that the representatives have, and they way they approach their dealings with each other.

(5) PR encourages fragmentation of big-tent parties

It's not at all clear what the objection here is. It might be osmething like community is a good thing. But one hardly needs a big formal system to compel someone to be in community with others -- what one needs is an attitude of openness, negotiation, etc. Big-tent parties tend to function by suppressing disagreements which really should be hashed out, in order to help people reach common ground. So, I'm not at all clear how doing away with big parties is a bad thing.

Furthermore, it's important to note that big parties are a relatively recent invention in at least the Canadian parliamentary tradition. The British parliamentary system, to which we are the heirs, didn't have "parties" in any sense we'd recognize until about the mid-19th century, when the Tories and Whigs coalesced into formal organizations rather than loose collectives. So, Parliament has worked without parties of any kind, never mind big ones -- why can't it work again?

(6) Look at (fill in the blank) -- Israel, Italy, etc.

These comparisons really aren't principled. They usually amount to dishonest drive-by smears. Drive-by because the actual problem with (fill in the blank) is often left unexplained -- we're just supposed to recoil from (fill in the blank) instinctively -- and dishonest because the problems with whatever fills in the blank usually have nothing to do with PR. Take Israel, for example. One odd thing elections to the Israeli Knesset do is set the threshold of votes you need to get to get elected very low -- only 2% of the votes cast. Hence, very small parties can get representatives in. Hence, the Knesset has 12 parties splitting 120 seats. Elections are also conducted such that one voters for a party, and not for an individual. I'm not suggesting either feature is necessarily bad, but they are both unusual. Given that, it's dishonest to pretend that any objection to Israel's system of elections must be because it's a PR system. It differs from the Canadian system in other ways, too.

The same could be said for another usual fill to the blank, Italy. Italy is notoriously corrupt and the bureaucracy is highly inefficient. Those are clearly bad things, but they have little to nothing to do with the system of voting, and don't apply to anything like the same extent in Canada.

(7) PR prevents voters from directly choosing their legislators

The underlying principle here seems to be that directly choosing representatives is a good thing. I do tend to agree; systems which elect members based on a list formulated by the party worry me. But directly choosing reprsentatives is not barred by PR, only by some forms -- namely, those which allot some seats in the assembly to representatives selected from a list compiled by the parties.

Even allowing that, there's still a sense in which such a system -- such as Mixed-Member Proportional, or MMP -- does allow for directly electing representatives. Non-list representatives are directly elected in the same way representatives are directly elected under MMP. And, list representatives are directly elected in the sense that votes were cast which do count towards their election. The only sense in which there is not a "direct election" of the representative is that the individual is not chosen by the voter -- the party chooses. But, let's be realistic here: the party always chooses who you can vote for. (Even in jurisdictions with a primary system, although those do seem to make it slightly more likely that someone outside the central party structure can stand for election.) Having representatives elected off a list just makes the process a little more transparent.

So, unless one is willing to advocate something very radical -- abolition and prohibition of political parties, say, such that all candidates standing for election have not been put there by any party structure -- candidates and thus representatives will always be partly chosen by the party. This holds under SMP just as it does under PR.

(8) The difficulty in removing an entrenched party from power quickly

The underlying principle seems to be that being able to quickly remove a party from power is a good thing. As a criticism, however, this is fatuous nonsense. If a party's support collapses precipitously, they can be removed under PR as easily as under SMP -- lost support still equals lost seats. Indeed, it's probably easier, as more votes make a difference under PR. Under SMP, support can drop hugely but, if the geography is favourable and the vote against the party in powersplits, that party can still hang on to lots of seats -- possibly even a majority in the assembly.

To my eye, the objection seems to really be motivated by the desire to "throw the bums out" -- and to read the sentiment "throw the bums out" into the voters as a whole -- when, really, there's just a small tick in general support for the party. Under SMP, small ticks can make a huge difference. In the '93 election, Jean Chr├ętien gained 10% in support and 94 seats, amounting to a 113% increase in seats, while Kim Campbell's PCs lost 15% of the vote and 167 seats, amounting to a 98% drop in seats. That a 10% increase equals a 113% increase, and a 15% drop equals a 98% drop. There was no real "throw the bums out" sentiment -- more of a "we're not terribly pleased with these bums, overall, but would like to keep some of them around nonetheless". It just didn't exist. And yet, the results in terms of seats suggest otherwise.

If the bums deserve to be thrown out, they need to drastically decline in support. Just because you want the guys in your colour shirts to win is no reason to to allow the assembly's composition to swing around as madly as this.

By the way: wasn't one of the alleged advantages of SMP that it would produce stable assemblies...?

(9) Difficulties in understanding a more complex voting system

The underlying principle seems to be that it's better to have a system that's simpler, so that voters can understand it.

I'm not sure that it's true that voters can't understand a PR system. We are, after all, talking about people who can grasp the complexities of, say, FIFA's Laws of the Game, or complex statisical calculations regarding the likelihood of a hockey goalie's making a save. So, it's not that people can't grasp complex systems. It's more that they may not care to grasp the system of elections. But, to my eye, this suggests that the the problem isn't that PR is too complicated, but that SMP is discourages people from caring about voting as such. After all, if you know your vote might not make a damn bit of difference, why would you bother learning how the system works? So, I suspect that a system which made an individual vote more valuable would actually encourage people to know how the system works -- so they could use their now more valuable vote most effectively.

(10) SMP is old

People do actually make this argument. They usually refer to the grand British parliamentary tradition, or some such, but this is what it amounts to. Do I really need to explain the difference between being old and being good?

Oh, all right: creationism, vitalism, caloric fluid, and phlogiston. All old. All wrong.


Overall, I'm not persuaded that there is any goal sufficiently more important than matching the expressed preferences of voters which would justify retaining SMP over PR. If there is such a viable possibility, I don't know what it is. Certainly the ones I've canvassed here are pretty dismal failures, turning on either rejecting the value of voting as such, failing to actually show SMP is superior to PR, or being simply ridiculous.

Next week: Filling in some of the holes here. Why is PR better than a preferential system (e.g., instant run-off voting).

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Weekend metal-blogging

Children of Bodom, "Trashed, Lost & Strungout"

Friday, July 16, 2010

On proportional representation (1): the case for

This week and next I'll be writing a two-part series I've been intending to write for a while on proportional representation. This first part presents the case in favour of proportional representation, while the second part will present the case against.


Some background assumptions. Any theoretical project has some assumptions working in the background; I hope that the ones I'm making here are reasonable. If not, let me know in comments and I can back up a step and try to defend them.

I assume that some form of democracy is defensible. I'm reading "democracy" quite broadly, though, to include a broad spectrum ranging from a system where everyone has a say in determining the identity, nature, etc. of all state authority figures (to the extent that there may be no "state" in any recognizable sense), to a system where at least one person has a role in determining at least one feature of at least one state authority, and that person is not awarding that feature of that authority to him or herself. This is just a simplifying move.

I also assume that we're dealing exclusively with representative systems. So, I'm not trying to address the possibility that direct democracy might be preferable to proportional and non-proportional systems. I don't think it is. I think the practical difficulties are almost insurmountable, and I think there are strong reasons to favour assigning the complex task of government to someone other than the citizenry as a whole. But that's a different argument; here, I just assume my way around it.

I'm also not trying to address the possibility that a system of government based on an assembly of delegates would be prefereable to a system based on an assembly of representatives. Now, a delegate is assigned to act in one's stead, while a representative is assigned to act on one's behalf. So, a delegate is someone who carries entirely and only the authority that one does, while a representative carries his or her own authority. A delegate cannot go beyond what one has decided or would decide. In contrast, a representative can, through using his or her own judgement, experience, and so on. I think that rejecting the delegate theory is a difficult and involved task; certainly a task for another day. So, again, I'm just assuming my way around it.

So, what's being assumed here is that we want some system for electing people to some sort of assembly who act on behalf of, but not in the stead of, the citizenry. (Citizens rather than residents because citizens are those who are both responsible for and responsible to the state. Residents are only responsible to the state, not responsible for it.)

SMP vs. PR

I'm limiting my attention to SMP and PR for a few reasons. First, while I could spend some time considering them in detail, straight majoritarian or random selection methods strike me as deeply problematic, for obvious reasons, when applied to elections in complex multicultural societies. A small monoculture might work for simple majoritarianism; but, in such a society, would a representative system really be preferable to a form of direct democracy? As for random selection, it might make sense if there were no relevant differences between potential representatives, but I'm not sure how that could be determined to be the case in an actual electoral contest. Second, I probably should consider preferential systems in some depth. However, the reasons to reject preferential systems differ in kind from the reasons to reject SMP. I'll probably deal with that contrast in a later series.

So, what are the two systems under consideration? On the one hand, we have First Past The Post (FPTP) or Single-Member Plurality (SMP). I like the latter name better than the former, and will use it from here on. The salient reason, in my view, is that FPTP doesn't really identify where the "post" is -- it could be plurality, majority, or a very low threshold. SMP, by contrast, explicitly states that we're dealing with a system based on plurality. On the other hand, we have Proportional Representation (PR). There are, technically, many different forms of PR -- mixed member, transferrable vote, and so on -- but I think I can generalize over them, in a fruitful way, as follows.

What distinguishes SMP and PR, I think, are three features. SMP has:
  1. Single-member districts
  2. Winners determined by plurality
  3. No strong connection between expressed preferences of voting population and representatives
By contrast, PR has:
  1. Single- or more member districts
  2. Winners determined by threshold, plurality or majority
  3. A strong connection between expressed preferences of voting population and representatives
I'm deviating a little from standard accounts here, but not without reason.

With regard to (1), I don't think a PR system has to hold that districts need multiple members. Rather than electing multiple members in order to assure proportionality of representation to expressed preferences of votes, it would be possible to appoint each elected representative as the representative of a gerrymandered district containing just those who voted for that representative. This would be very impractical, of course, but impracticalities should be ruled out a posteriori not a priori. So, when it comes to (1), SMP and PR can be consistent.

With regard to (2), I don't think that PR has to commit itself to any particular stance on what proportion of the vote a candidate needs to achieve in order to be elected. Obviously, there has to be some rule. But that rule will be determined largely be practical considerations. In larger, more populous countries, fewer representatives is probably better, if for no other reason than to make it possible to get anything done. Requiring a majority would limit numbers most strongly, plurality less strongly, and a lesser threshold even less. So, again, this issue looks empirical. So, when it comes to (2), SMP and PR can be consistent.

Now, it might seem that (3) under PR entails the negation of (2) under SMP. This is false, though. We could try to track expressed preferences amongst the populace and elect as representatives those who achieve a plurality of expressed preferences -- as when voters can vote in, say, three rounds. This would be odd, but not impossible. (I'm not sure this exact example would wind up being proportional, but something like that seems possible to me.) So, objections to majoritarianism are not well-founded here, I think. There may be reasons to reject majoritarianism, but this is not where to have that debate.

What follows, then, is it's (3) that's really crucial for distinguishing SMP from PR.

Why does (3) refer to expressed preferences of voters? There's two parts which could be questioned here. Expressed preferences could be replaced by real preferences, or by idealized preferences (such as real preferences counterfactually modified by perfect information and perfect rationality). Similarly, voters could be replaced by citizens. (Preferences I'm not interested in replacing as any candidate replacement for the term -- say, needs -- would move us away from a democratic system, violating one of my assumptions.)

The reason, in both cases, is basically epistemic. I acknowledge that it'd be best, probably, to match the idealized preferences of citizens. This would be best possible form of PR as we'd be addressing everyone who was responsible for and responsible to the state, in terms of what they would want under reasonable and ideal conditions -- so, their aims, goals, purposes, etc., corrected for errors in knowledge, reasoning, etc. would serve as the grounds for selecting the governing representatives.

Unfortunately, it's not possible, from an epistemic standpoint, to work with anything other than expressed preferences of voters. Nothing else can readily be measured. That is, we can't know what the preferences of the citizens are except insofar as they tell us. This means that we have to rely on voters rather than the citizens as only voters have bothered to tell us what they prefer. (Relying on a non-electoral poll has the same problem. We'd have to only deal with the people who had bothered to answer the poll.)

Similarly, we have to rely on expressed preferences rather than real or idealized ones because, while real preferences would probably be better, and idealized preferences even better, we can't get either off the ground without some information. And the best information we have is what people tell us they prefer.

(Although I would support doing away with birthright citizenship and only extending citizenship to those who demonstrated some threshold level of committment to and knowledge of their country. Which might get rid of the voters who sincerely express preferences that have nothing to do with their real preferences, and also bring real preferences closer to idealized preferences. But, again, that's a separate point. Starting to notice how quickly this discussion snowballs?)

The Default Position

The question of whether to favour SMP or PR thus becomes whether we should favour matching expressed preferences of voters in a strong sense, rather than in a weak sense. Under SMP, we do have some matching of preferences, in that those who vote for the eventual winner do have their preferences matched by a representative. It's not strong, though, as an SMP election can (and often does) result in the majority of expressed preferences being entirely dismissed. Votes above the threshold of plurality for the winner count for nothing, and votes for any candidate but the winner count for nothing. Under PR, by contrast, matching expressed preferences is part of the point of the system. After all, as I've been arguing, that's what makes PR interestingly different from SMP.

If you're with me to this point, then I think you should see why the strong connection is superior to the weak one. If matching expressed preferences matters, and it seems it does, then we should only favour the weak connection if the strong connection leads us into problems. If the connection matters, then we should aim for the best connection we can reasonably have. This means, though, that the argument in favour of PR rather than SMP is fundamentally very simple. PR is the default position that a representative system should adopt, at least in comparison to SMP. It's just a historical accident that we wound up with SMP first and would have to move from it to PR. The only way to block this conclusion is to identify some pressing and serious consequences of ensuring the strong connection.

So, stay tuned for Part 2 where I consider attempts to do just that.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Weekend metal-blogging.

Empyreon, "Beyond Perception"

Monday, June 28, 2010

Yeah...., general disdain and disgust with the actions of Toronto police, and the "go get 'em!" attitude of public and politicians, has killed motivation to blog today. Maybe Thursday.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

G20 weekend metal-blogging.

Sepultura, "Refuse/Resist"

Chaos A.D.
Tanks On The Streets
Confronting Police
Bleeding The Plebs
Raging Crowd
Burning Cars
Bloodshed Starts
Who'll Be Alive?!

Chaos A.D.
Army In Siege
Total Alarm
I'm Sick Of This
Inside The State
War Is Created
No Man's Land
What Is This Shit?!


Chaos A.D.
Disorder Unleashed
Starting To Burn
Starting To Lynch
Silence Means Death
Stand On Your Feet
Inner Fear
Your Worst Enemy


Friday, June 25, 2010

Last-minute travelling.

So, no blog today. I did get to see some cops while taking the bus out of Toronto, though. That was... surreal.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On the G8/G20.

Dissertation work ran overtime, so this will be quite short. Even by my standards. Basically, just a few thoughts that have occurred to me in light of the G8/G20 meetings that are about to royally fuck up my city for a few weeks. (Ick, I just called Toronto "my city".) It's also very off the cuff; so, apologies for that.

First is regarding the security aspect. I've never really understood the logic behind the way security is done these days. Anyone with a functioning brain and a basic set of social skills knows that the worst Way to ensure you don't wind up with a violent, hostile situation is by presuming a violent, hostile situation is inevitable. Locking down the city and filling it with thousands of police curtails the options for resistance to just two: don't resist, or resist aggressively. The middle ground of peaceful, but forceful, protest has been eliminated.

It's obviously foolish, but it happens again and again.

The sensible option is to treat the protestors like people -- ordinary, everyday people, who have opinions and want an opportunity to have those opinions heard. It's easy to justify fighting when it's against a faceless wall of uniformed police, but it's hard to justify when being engaged in conversation and discussion. I keep meaning to look up the details, but I recall hearing (I think it was in The Corporation?) about a CEO of, I believe, Shell who had a group of environmentalist protestors show up on his front lawn. Literally -- the front lawn of his home. He could have had police show up, called security, had them forcibly removed and filed lawsuits left and right -- which would have lead to confrontation, tremendous (negative) publicity, and so on.

Instead, he and his wife went outside and brought the protestors tea and sandwiches. And then sat down and talked to them. After eating and talking, the protestors left.

I remember during the York University strike of last year, a group of strikers and their supporters staged a sit-in outside the President's Office. They even invited the President to come and sit with them and have some pizza and talk. Not only did President Shoukri not show up, when some of the folks involved the sit-in ran into him -- in the hallway, I believe -- he literally ran. And then called security. Which turned what could have been a quick, human, productive interaction into a protracted, aggressive, impersonal confrontation.

I get the feeling the G8/G20 security thing is going in exactly the same way. Uniformed but unarmed cops, circulating in the crowds, interacting with the protestors in polite, friendly ways might actually do something to stop violence from happening. Standing behind security fences in full riot gear, with weapons at the ready, might just provoke it.

It's part, I think, of the foolish reliance of many in current society on rigid rules rather than careful judgement: the replacement of the ethical with the legal. Somehow, we've become so incapable of dealing with other people as people that we believe unyielding structures will prevent bad things from happening. It's stupid -- bad things happen; the trick is to minimize them by encouraging the people involved to take responsibility and exercise their own capacities to solve whatever problems that emerge.

(I'm not being original here, by the way. This is just Kant: the world according to pure reason -- the world of science -- consists of strict rules and principles, and the world of practical reason -- the world of ethics -- consists of judgement and careful cultivation of character/will. Both worlds are relevant, both worlds are necessary, and both worlds must be held together, in constant but necessary tension. And even Kant isn't being original: it's little more than Plato's old distinction between the perfect, abstract World of Being and the imperfect, variable World of Becoming.)

Second is regarding the economic aspect. Our beloved Prime Minister, responsible for creating ever more ways to ignore and delegitimize the federal government, is joining the chorus to reduce deficits and debts, despite the fact that the effects of the global recession are still being felt. There's a number of problems with this.

The first and most obvious is that governments are moronic when they panic about deficits and debts. Canada's current deficit is $56 billion. Sounds like a lot of money, right? Canada's yearly "income" -- its GDP -- is $1.5 trillion. Which makes the deficit to GDP ratio 4%. Canada's current debt is about $530 billion. Again, sounds like a lot. But the debt to GDP ratio is 35%. By way of comparison, a 4% deficit to income ratio, for an individual, would be like a person making $38,000 a year (the national poverty line) and spending an additional $1520, per year, on a credit card. Or, for the 35% debt ratio, it'd be like that same person carrying an accumulated $13,300 in debt -- which would be about the debt covered if our subject took out a car loan. Not only do people at poverty-line incomes easily bear deficit and debt levels equal to those that the national government currently holds, they often exceed them. Suppose our $38,000 income-earner buys a home. A cheap home in an inexpensive part of the country might cost, say, $50,000. Taking out that mortgage would leave our subject with a debt to income ratio of 132%.

Furthermore, if you look at Canada's debt-to-GDP and deficit-to-GDP ratios historically, they've been much higher than they are now. And we've not only failed to cut spending in order to deal with them, spending has actually increased with no negative (and some positive!) impact on Canada's economy. I'm not going to delve into the historical data to prove this point, but it's readily available, and anyone speaking to the issue should be at least vaguely familiar with it. (Hence ruling out Harper and Flaherty tout court.)

My point is that deficits and debts are financial instruments. They're tools. There's nothing inherently bad or good about any given level of deficit or debt. The sort of panic that attends "big" deficits like $56 billion is completely unwarranted -- we don't apply the same standard to personal debt and deficit, and we haven't freaked out this badly historically.

Moreover -- second problem -- the economy is still very weak. If you look to other economic indicators than GDP, unemployment is still high, exports haven't recovered, real estate is weak, personal savings are low, luxury/entertainment spending is down, and so on and so forth. Cutting now would just deepen the wounds that already eixst. We need to spend at the government level now so that we can curtail government spending -- cutting now will require even greater increases later, in order to solve the problems the cuts create on top of those created by the recession. Unless, of course, Flaherty follows his usual dispositions and protects his friends while screwing the rest of us over. That's another way out, but not one that's particularly praiseworthy.

So, we've got a group of very wealthy people gathering in Toronto and Huntsville, discussing how to keep their wealth to themselves, while leaving the rest of us to twist in the wind because of problems created by very wealthy people. And they're doing it either because they are genuinely callous and want to see us hurt, or because they really have no idea what they're doing.

(To be fair, the G20, at least, does have members that see that deficit/debt-fighting is stupid right now, particularly India. And Obama is at least indulging in pro-spending rhetoric -- but, as always with him, we'll have to see whether that gets realized in action.)

In short, governments need to figure out what kind of outcomes they're going to tolerate. Is the misery of the masses (and everything that follows from that) really a good outcome? Is deficit and debt something that can be handled later rather than now?

Once again, it seems that the basically unserious nature of our governing bodies is betraying our interests. And, as said earlier about security, they're doing everything they can to keep from having to deal with us and our problems honestly and humanely.