Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Scandals are Non-Partisan

If the Duffy/Wright/Senate controversy has proven one thing, it’s that scandals are a non-partisan affair.

This news might shock many Conservative Party partisans who were certain that greed and arrogance were traits that formed part of the Liberal Party's DNA.

Indeed, Conservative Party dogma was that only Tories, free as they were of Liberal taint, could provide honest and accountable government.

Well, the Duffy affair has blown that theory to smithereens.

And that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

To paraphrase Friedrich Hayek, honesty and integrity in government are not a function of which party is in power but of the power over economic decisions possessed
by those in government.

In other words the Liberals had corruption problems while in power, not because they were Liberals but because they succumbed to the corrupting influence of government.

That same influence has now infected the Conservatives.

My point is, when it comes to corruption, the real bad guy is government, or rather the power of government.

As long as government has the power to influence and direct our economy, corruption will be inevitable.

It doesn’t matter who is in power.

That’s why Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s stern warning in response to the Duffy controversy, that “anyone who wishes to use and have public office for their own benefit should change their plans or better yet, leave this room” is simply empty rhetoric.

Decrees and rules and regulations won’t halt those in government from wrong doing.

The only true way to bring about cleaner government is to reduce its scope and its power.

The less influence government has over our lives, the less temptation there will be to do wrong.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

In Defence of (internal) Polls

Canada’s political pollsters got it spectacularly wrong in British Columbia and in Alberta.

And so now many pundits and media types are questioning the credibility of the polling industry.

But before anybody relegates the science of polling to the same category as astrology, it should be pointed out that there’s a huge difference between the free public domain polls the media likes to cite and internal, private polling.

The fact is, the public polls we read about in newspapers usually only tell a superficial and partial story; they reflect what people are saying, but not necessarily what they are thinking.

I know that sounds odd, so to illustrate my point consider this imaginary dialogue between a pollster and a Mr. Smith:

Pollster: Do TV ads have any influence on your buying behavior?

Mr. Smith: No. TV ads do not influence me in anyway.

Pollster: What brand of toothpaste do you buy?

Mr. Smith: I always buy Colgate toothpaste.

Pollster: Why?

Mr. Smith: Because everybody knows it’s the number one toothpaste recommended by dentists.

So Mr. Smith says ads don’t influence him, but clearly they do.

Yes, this is a made up example, but it demonstrates the problem pollsters face: people often hold contradictory or confusing attitudes, especially when it comes to politics.

This is because the vast majority of voters don’t follow the political scene all that closely, hence their political views are often tentative and subject to change.

For instance, back in 1988 when I was working for the National Citizens Coalition, we commissioned a poll which showed that a significant number of Canadians supported then NDP leader Ed Broadbent, enough support that he could actually get elected Prime Minister.

Voters, the poll told us, liked Broadbent because they saw him as more “honest” than the other leaders.

To us -- the NCC is a pro-free market group -- this was bad news.

Of course, this is the kind of information you get in a public poll.

However, our internal poll also revealed Broadbent’s potential Achilles heel: many of the respondents who said they supported Broadbent, also opposed the NDP’s socialist policies.

In other words there was a disconnect; voters liked Broadbent, but they didn’t like his platform; they didn’t even know his platform.

Thanks to our poll, we were able to craft a strategy to undermine Broadbent’s support.

We simply pointed out to Canadians that while Broadbent might be a nice guy, he’s also promoting a dangerous and “scary” left-wing agenda.

By the way, that’s exactly the same strategy the BC Liberals used to successfully degrade the BC NDP, which had been riding high in the polls.

And I’m sure, like us, the BC Liberals adopted this strategy based on internal polling data.

My point is, understanding and analyzing a political poll is a complicated business. It’s more than just asking Canadians who they think will make the best Prime Minister.

To adequately study a single poll means investigating how respondents answered 30 questions or more, which means going over hundreds of pages of cross tabs.

And this is where pollsters earn their money; they wade through a morass of data to find that issue or attitude their clients can successfully exploit.

In short, despite its bad rap, the statistical science which underpins opinion polling works, which is why political parties will continue to rely on their own internal polls.

Public opinion polls, on the other hand, should be taken with a grain of salt.

That’s the true lesson of British Columbia and Alberta.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Are Intellectuals at War with Reality?

Canadian left-wing intellectuals have a habit of saying the darndest things.

And most of the darndest things they say are associated with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government.

Some intellectuals, for instance, like to suggest Harper is on the verge of establishing a reactionary Star Wars-style military dictatorship, while others fear he will turn Canada into an Evangelical Theocracy, where citizens will be forced to worship an Alberta-spawned deity carved out of oil sands.

But that’s not the worst of it.

What really seems to get their collective academic knickers in a knot, is their growing belief that Harper is “anti-science.”

What’s the left wing intellectual proof for this charge?

Has Harper burned astronomers at the stake? Has he banned technology? Has he imprisoned Bill Nye “The Science Guy”?


It seems one of Harper’s main crimes against science is he has cut back funding to certain government-sponsored research projects.

Now before you lose any sleep over this, it should be pointed out that reducing government funding for “science” will not necessarily plunge Canada into a Dark Age of superstition and ignorance.

In fact, lots of scientific progress actually occurred on our planet before government funding for academics was even invented.

Important technological advances for civilization like the wheel, the telephone, the light bulb, the airplane, the steam engine and Playstation 3, were all created without government handouts.

That’s not to say government funded research isn’t important. After all, thanks to government money we were able to create a useful gadget that’s made the world a much better and happier place. It’s called the Atom Bomb.

Still many academics are concerned that Harper’s cutbacks will hurt the environment.

They pine for the days, I suppose, when the Jean Chretien Liberals poured unlimited amounts of money on scientists, while allowing them to dictate government policy.

Indeed, I’m sure it was Canada’s top scientists who came up with the brilliant idea for the Chretien government’s main environmental initiative known as the “One Tonne Challenge” program.

This program, which surely must have been based on “evidence-based” research and rigorous scientific analysis, concluded the best way to reduce Canada’s “greenhouse gas emissions” was to pay CBC comedian Rick Mercer lots of tax dollars to star in Kyoto Accord TV ads.

Anyway, in an effort to restore those glory days of scientific reason intellectuals are starting to emerge from their Ivory Towers to convince the unwashed masses (those who lack post-graduate degrees) that more taxes must be spent on science.

Just recently, in fact, close to one hundred intellectuals made their case in a letter to the editor to the Montreal Gazette.

And what a letter!

It paints a scary portrait of what a “dark” place Canada would become if the government doesn’t immediately divert tax dollars from things like health care and national defence so they can used to subsidize academic pursuits like history, literary criticism, philosophy, political science, anthropology, critical legal studies, political economy and feminist studies.

How dark would Canada become if these “sciences” are not properly funded?

Well get this: we would be unable, says the letter, to confirm things like Canada’s “long-standing colonialism in dealing with the First Nations” or the “patriarchal dividend” in employment or the “scapegoating of racialized immigrants.”

(Note: You probably have to be a government funded intellectual to understand what “patriarchal dividend” or “racialized immigrants”actually means.)

But wait there’s more. Harper’s war on science, the letter writers warn us, will also mean Canadians won’t have access to “data-based interpretations … that document elite, corporate, European and male abuse.”

Darn those elite corporate European males!

The letter also suggests the cutting of science funding will cause widespread “de-gendering”, which I must admit sounds awfully painful.

And finally, the letter writers bewail how the Harper government is embracing “reactionary commemorative practices, to militarize patriotic mythology.”

I’m not certain, but I think they are referring to all those War of 1812 events … you know the ones where middle aged guys in redcoats shoot muskets into the air.

At any rate, the bottom line for these intellectuals is that “in face of global capitalism’s mounting crisis, critical interrogation of social phenomena, causes and consequences is urgently needed.”

Translation: Only a massive influx of government cash will cure Canada’s drastically dangerous shortage of literary criticism

Clearly, a lot of superior intellectual brain-power went into writing this letter to the editor, yet I somehow doubt it will generate much public support for a social “science” crusade.

I suspect Canadians are more worried about how they will pay for their mortgages and about the price of groceries than they are about “patriarchal dividends”.

If anything, this letter might cause Canadians to demand these guys get even less money.

But then again, maybe I’m suffering from de-gendering at the hands of Canada’s elite, corporate, European males.