Saturday, October 31, 2009

if I run for office I never wrote this

Your plucky pundit was laid low this past week by an unkind flu virus. Was it H1N1? I don't know, although it fit the symptoms. I'd recommend that everyone get the shot, if only to avoid doing something imprudent when at the height of the fever, like blogging about a dangerous topic.

I had been thinking about commenting on Ian Robinson's Calgary Sun column "Right wing women rock", which exhorts the discerning political analyst to "look at the shoes", but thought better of it, since I already got myself into trouble over @ daveberta by making the sexist insinuation that if the Calgary Board of Education of a decade ago weren't all female, we might have been deprived of the drama of board members writing "nasty notes" to each other regarding the hairdos and outfits of their fellow Trustees.
In my defence I insisted that I was refraining from judgement, since, after all, I wasn't there to assess whether the crime against fashion was on the level of mere misdemeanor or was rather grievous felony such that an appropriately snarky response or two might have been entirely called for. What was it that Edmund Burke said, "all it takes for bad taste to triumph is for good [wo?]men to say nothing," or something like that? So I'll just stop right there. Well, OK, maybe I won't; - I have to question Robinson's conclusion:
We've got Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
Might this wrongly imply that there is just one trump card in the deck? Although Mrs Hasselbeck does a redoubtable job of sporting a McCain T (above left), perhaps Meghan McCain (right), who occasionally subs for Hasselbeck on the View, would also be up to the task? I'll certainly grant she may be altogether too libertarian, but how can Twittering under "-ette" not be seen as righteously defiant femininity?
@McCainBlogette: I love being a woman. I love being a Republican. I am incredibly in touch with both of these things. Neither is going to change
If that isn't unchange you can believe in, what is? Ms McCain tells us what we all want to know:
@McCainBlogette: my shoes are steve madden, my nail polish is essie punchy pink for those that asked
Given her use of the plural here ("those") I wasn't alone in my inquiries!

Too girly-girl? How about geeky-girl? Consider everyone's favourite fox on FOX, Marina Orlova (left). Someone might object that just because she appears on Bill O'Reilly's show that doesn't mean she's a right winger, but I'd point out that she's a Russian philologist, and do you know of a Russian philologist who leans left? Checkmate.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

conservative fiscal policy and meaning it

While the greatest dangers of the financial crisis may no longer be acute, chronic fiscal challenges remain for most western democracies. Demographic change in particular means that higher levels of saving and investment, both publicly and privately, are necessary if standards of living are going to continue to improve.

What are the options for ensuring this?

The #1 priority in my view is continuing with tax reforms which have been occurring in most jurisdictions (Alberta not being one of them) that encourage the shifting of income from consumption to savings and investment. Even if governments were to start diverting massive amounts of their tax revenue away from consumption by holding the line on services and building up financial and physical assets, tax revenue is only a fraction of a jurisdiction's total public and private income and the private sector's contribution, or lack thereof, to the capital stock, whether it be financial or be physical (property, planet, and equipment) has more impact.

But leaving aside further discussion of these tax reforms for another day and restricting our analysis to the income going to government, how can concerned citizens ensure that their governments are going to be genuinely conservative with the resources allotted to them? Although balanced budget legislation is a possibility and is the first proposal I will review, it is but one of many.

Balanced budget legislation

The two basic drawbacks to "no deficits" legislation are the same two problems we will encounter with a lot of proposals, and that is that 1) the policy deals with a flow instead of a stock and 2) governments can and do ignore such legislation. re point (1), a balanced budget requirement can help in that it sets a target minimum contribution to the stock of capital over a period, namely that it be non-negative (zero or higher). But there is nothing inherently problematic with a negative contribution (withdrawal) from the capital stock over some short period since that does not necessarily mean that the total contributions to and growth of the capital stock over the long term will not be superior to some other jurisdiction which makes a null or a positive contribution over every period. Nonetheless, even if the red/black distinction is ultimately an arbitrary accounting measure, it is still an occasional target, and as the Nudge book I mentioned in an earlier post points out, targets have value. The book's authors note how public urination facilities became a lot less messy when users where given something to aim for. Indeed, one could note that Alberta's current fiscal mess started when government revenues cycled upward and former Alberta premier Ralph Klein lost his target.

Legislation that limits government spending to inflation plus population growth

Again, this would set a target for a periodic flow instead of for the stock that actually matters, but it is a superior target to the balanced budget target since it does not mandate cuts at the worse possible time (during a recession) and mandates less spending proportionate to the economy at the best possible time (when the economy is growing quickly). In an interview with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in September, then Wildrose Alliance leadership candidate Danielle Smith supported this target but added a proviso that spending also not exceed GDP growth. While this response had the virtues of garnering an A+ grade from the CTF and ensuring that the size of government shrinks relative to the economy not only when real GDP per capita is growing but also when it it shrinking, most economists would consider this additional restriction a mistake. The proviso ultimately undoes the advantage over the balanced budget target by being pro-cyclical: forcing government spending cuts when the economy is shrinking. While left leaning economists like Paul Krugman were demanding massive stimulus spending earlier this year, centrist organizations like the OECD were also urging national governments to pass large stimulus packages, and conservative economists like Greg Mankiw were not opposing the stimulus spending per se but rather acting as the voice for skepticism about how effective the particular proposed stimulus expenditures would be. It was generally recognized that "inaction on sound stimulus is indeed harmful." In almost no case was any prominent economist calling for prompt cuts to government spending. As another writer for the Economist notes, "Faced with growing demands on unemployment assistance, [when] states are forced to cut spending elsewhere... this is procyclical behaviour, which may act to increase unemployment further, forcing additional budget cuts, and so on." When one sets aside ideology for evidence based policy, the evidence from the Great Depression suggests that cutting back government expenditure at the same time that consumer expenditure is in decline creates the grave risk of an economic death spiral. Adding the GDP proviso is unnecessary, because when real GDP per capita growth (GDP growth less inflation and population growth) is negative that is by definition temporary (if real GDP per capita is in permanent decline the whole point of economics would be defeated). In other words, the size of government is also a stock, such that whether it is shrunk in every accounting time period is not ultimately germane to the real objective. Real GDP per capita will increase over the long term, meaning that over the long term the size of government relative to the economy will be reduced without adding a further constraining proviso to the inflation + population growth limit. I would also argue that the GDP deflator should be used in the place of "inflation" (I've equated the two in my discussion here) but that's a technical objection.

Legislation that requires a proportion of revenues (often a subset such as supposedly "non-core" revenues, e.g. natural resource royalties) be saved or invested

This target is part way between the above two targets, since while it shares with the inflation + population growth limit the advantage of not requiring cuts during a recession, under this target both spending and saving would grow in lockstep during boom times without an upper limit such that spending growth could still be very high. Again, when at economy is peaking an expansionary fiscal policy just encourages increased prices, and the increase in government purchases shifts resources away the private sector, a phenomenon known as "crowding out."

Combining a capital stock associated limit on spending (excluding infrastructure spending) with mandated revenue hedging

This proposal is my favourite since it has what I believe is an enormous advantage over the other proposals, namely, that governments will not be able to ignore the target because they simply will not have the money to violate the target. In the Alberta of 2007, for example, the government's positions in currency and energy futures would have been marked to market and the government thereby required to plow its windfall royalty income into international hedging markets. In 2009, we would see billions coming back to the province from these same markets. I would exclude infrastructure spending since this constitutes physical investment. While it is possible to invest poorly, and indeed the Alberta government has a consistent pattern of buying high and selling low by choosing to "buy" infrastructure assets when the market is at a top, it is still investment, and by mandating hedging the government's discretion to "buy high" will limited. Stock associated limits to spending could be akin to the covenants that bondholders demand from issuing corporations with respect to the health of their balance sheets as opposed to just their income sheets, or they could be the sort of constraints relatively sophisticated regulators apply to financial institutions (see Basel II), e.g. limits informed by Value at Risk modeling.

"Stock" associated limits to spending discretion may prove too complex to constitute a political campaign plank relative to a readily understandable limit like no more than inflation plus population growth, but hedging, while complex to explain in detail, is quite straightforward as a concept and the general idea that the citizens of Alberta are bondholders and shareholders in their government is also a fairly simple one. Should a politician's pay be tied to the size of the Heritage Fund à la a private sector executive's? The corporate analogy is worthy of consideration, not least because it could ensure more professional and competitiveness-oriented management.

I believe that this is THE challenge of our age. Do we leave something behind for the next generation or not? If we are serious we will not just talk about how we intend to start showing some willpower with respect to the cookie jar, we will explain how it will be placed outside of our reach.

UPDATE October 26:

The Wall St Journal notes that after posting a $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009, the US House of Representatives is now moving on spending bills that would grow domestic programs by a further 12.1% in 2010. The WSJ also observes that "real family incomes fell by 3.6% last year" and the point I wished to make about spending growth that is higher than GDP growth but no higher than inflation plus population growth is that this would or could maintain government services for consumers whose real incomes are falling. Although government would grow relative to the economy during this period of decline, there would no increase in real government services per person and the proportionate growth in government would be temporary. If government services are to be cut back as opposed to just kept from growing further, they should be cut back when real incomes are rising.

But I may have been imprudent to take issue with Danielle Smith in this context. As Don Martin observes in a revealing National Post column, "Ms. Smith was on an Ottawa talk show with me this week and, even though it was still pre-dawn darkness in Calgary, she batted every question out of the park..." The contrast with Sarah Palin being interviewed by Katie Couric (to take one of the most infamous episodes) could not be sharper. The takeaway fact with her is that she is one of the sharpest policy minds in politics, yet getting that most elementary of messages through the North American noise machine will be enough of a challenge without bothering with nuance. This morning Danielle ended up on the website of the Charleston (South Carolina) Daily Mail as "the Sarah Palin of Canada." How does this end up in the mainstream media? The Charleston Daily Mail writer uses the Canadian media as cover:
I figure the Canwest News Service knows something about Canada and the news service has declared Danielle Smith, the new leader of Alberta’s Wildrose Alliance, the Sarah Palin of Canada.
In fact the Vancouver Province writer who is cited here put a big question mark at the end of its "A Sarah Palin for Canada" headline, not a period. But with respect to which MSM outlet surrendered its gatekeeper role to the commercial appeal of another "Sarah Palin" headline that would indeed be Canwest since it was their writer who made a story out of a blogpost by 22 year old Colorado Springs blogger Adam Brickley. The meme was then picked up by Global TV Edmonton and the Examiner.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Nick Griffin, White House vs FOX, and the Overton window

If I am characterizing Joe Overton correctly, when someone comes along on a radical politician's political flank to promote even more radical ideas, it is plausible that the politician is encouraging this because it makes his or her ideas look less radical in comparison. It could be an effort to mainstream political deviance by repositioning the public's perception of deviance; i.e., "shift the window."

While I have a lot of time for ideas that place a lot of emphasis on how the range of "acceptable" opinion effectively limits political choices (I've argued that greater consciousness about the background "choice architecture" is more genuinely emancipatory than more formal choices - i.e. ballot casting - within the same constrained architecture), I'm skeptical of the thesis that the emergence of new radicals who are more extreme that the old typically helps the old radicals. Why? Because the dominating factor is polarization: if a political fight develops between the new radicals and their ideological opposites, ordinary people that are close to one side or the other will slide over that extra bit take up the fight for the "team", even though the prominent voice on the team is more extreme than their own.

Yesterday, British National Party leader Nick Griffin, who in June was elected to the European Parliament despite attracting less than 10% of the vote because of proportional representation, appeared on BBC's Question Time amidst an unsurprising uproar outside the studio. If one looks around the net for viewer reaction, the proportion of Britons exhibiting sympathy for Griffin is far in excess of 10%. The fact of the matter is that people like me, who are conservative but consider Griffin an extremist, find it difficult to not step into the debate to observe that, for example, with Peter Hain demanding that Griffin be barred from Question Time, you've got someone who today is as establishment as they come (Secretary of State for Wales) insisting that someone is being too radical to be heard when Hain made his own early career out of being radical (photo below is of Hain from 1969). Give me my own freedom of speech while denying it to someone else on the grounds that it isn't mainstream enough?

Could I point out that Hain was right in the thick of a campaign finance scandal this past year? Of course I could, but the reality is that I wouldn't be doing my reputation for judicious moderation (such as it is) any good by stepping in front of an attack on Griffin.

I believe this is what the Obama administration has in mind in its blasts at FOX News. It is difficult for many reasonable conservatives who find Glenn Beck etc over the top to resist the temptation to defend FOX with respect to the latest incident; indeed, Ken Rudin, who directs campaign coverage for NPR, described the White House's behaviour as "Nixonesque", a characterization he ended up apologizing for. If someone who's career depends upon preserving a neutral point of view couldn't resist the impulse to take a blast at FOX's attacker, how is anyone who is at all conservative supposed to refrain from similar comment? The situation is win-win for both the White House and FOX, since polarizing Americans will force those in the middle out into their respective camps. Everyone between them loses.

What is the latest incident? A month ago I wrote:
Obama has taken issue with FOX before, but this time the White House has further hinted that only "outlets" inclined to treat the administration uncritically will be granted access, meaning FOX would be a news gatherer who should not expect "participation any time soon."
That suggestion of mine that FOX will be frozen out in terms of participation has come true more thoroughly than I expected. As the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has observed: "the White House tried to exclude Fox News – alone among the five White House "pool" networks – from interviewing executive-pay czar Kenneth R. Feinberg on Thursday."

CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC (which all have reputations for being more or less centrist while NPR is considered left by conservatives and MSNBC is now considered left by almost everyone) all refused to play along with the administration's attempt to squeeze out FOX. The networks agreed that either FOX could interview as well or none of them would. The administration is now faced with the prospect of having to contend that CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC are biased against them or admit that forcing people to be "for us" or "against us" will backfire when the generally respected majority chooses the latter camp.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

more on Wildrose Alliance personnel appointments

I've been advised that Shawn Howard has been designated Director of Communications. Shawn is principal of Shawn Howard Communications and may be contacted at 403-850-0885. No one told me to tell the world this but I reckon y'all either should know or would figure it out eventually.

If I were the comms guy, my response to the video put together by the Alberta Liberals would perhaps be more nuanced than that of our party spokesman in that I would say that a challenge to be fiscally conservative in more than just name is entirely legitimate, but add that Danielle Smith has never shown the slightest inclination to waver in the face of such a challenge, in stark contrast to the P"C" Party's rule of this decade which has consisted of headlong retreat whenever forces staking claims on taxpayer resources are encountered. In the coming weeks you'll be finding me making the case here for policy moves which if adopted by the Wildrose Alliance would dispel doubts about the party's commitment to fiscal conservatism because they would create structural impediments to fiscal profligacy as opposed to just rhetorical.

In any case Shawn Howard is a current holder of public office, and accordingly knows how to win an election. This is the sort of candidate we need to run for the party provincially, especially in extremely winnable ridings like Airdrie - Chestermere. As part of his responsibilities on Airdrie City Council, Shawn has exhibited a concern for taxpayer value. He's also shown sensitivity for the interests of business, something that is well placed in the view of most economists but typically takes a lot of political courage since although the benefits of attracting business to a jurisdiction are very real, they typically benefit voters indirectly. Although I was a Mike Nickel supporter for Edmonton City Council, on occasion Mike's behavior did not whet one's appetite for more, something I don't believe can be readily said about Shawn's work for the City of Airdrie given his collaborative and judicious approach.

There may be some who say that the party has enough communications and media people at this point and that going forward we need more economists and business executives from fields other than energy lest the party end up more concerned about the sizzle than the steak or act as a Trojan Horse for a particular industry. OK, maybe just I am saying that. But like anything it is far more constructive to get active and move the party in the direction you want it to go than to complain about where people who are passionate enough to get involved are taking it.

We aren't going to be able to cover up the fact that the party's centre of gravity is currently closer to the south than the north and I don't think we want to. It's rather a manageable challenge and I'm sure Danielle is just as concerned about ensuring a balance as I am. Our problem in Edmonton is not discrimination but a shortage of volunteers in general and distinguished personnel in particular. We need to work together and perhaps start by electing someone like Shawn Howard in what will be the new Edmonton Ward 9 in a year's time. It currently appears that there will not be an incumbent running in this ward and it should be favourable territory for a candidate who is interested in ensuring Edmonton's taxpayers get value for their money. The new ward system puts Tony Caterina's re-election prospects into considerable doubt, which could create the situation whereby none of the 12 councilors would be known for being fiscally conservative. This neither serves the interests of Edmonton nor is it democratically representative. By getting involving in civic politics and by sounding out local business and community leaders for their possible involvement in the party we'll ensure that the capital region maintains its voice.

Stephen Carter chief of staff for Danielle Smith

In response to a query, Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith has confirmed to me that Stephen Carter will be her chief of staff. This is another step in the professionalization of our party leadership. In a party of 12000+ members, Danielle will not be able to spend her time leading if we are all clamoring over each other to demand her time and attention. For Albertans who have not had the opportunity to meet Danielle directly, in my opinion her spatial awareness has made significant progress since June such that if you should choose to attend an event involving Danielle and approach within a metre of her she will be aware of you and will be interested in meeting you face to face as soon as she can appropriately break away from her current conversation and make your personal acquaintance.

For those of us who have already had our one-on-one interaction, I would advise contacting Stephen who, as someone with Danielle's full faith and confidence, will manage access to our leader with an eye to our mutual interest in a dynamic and successful political party. I would accordingly encourage both media and party workers interested in contacting Danielle to get in touch with Stephen who will do his absolute best to ensure that you are fit into Danielle's schedule as appropriate to the priorities of the party whom Danielle was elected to serve, and Albertans in general.

Stephen is Executive Producer of event planner Carter McRae, and is a veteran spokesman for not only the federal Progressive Conservatives (subsequently the Conservative Party) but for the provincial PC party. The Alberta PC Association has to its credit a number of highly capable campaign workers, and the Wildrose Alliance extends a warm welcome to each and every one of these accomplished individuals who have decided to join the party of Alberta's future.

In the summer of 2007 I carried a sign-up sheet around with me to collect the necessary signatures to register a brand new Wildrose Party of Alberta. What do those people I approached at weddings, etc think when they see "Wildrose" in the headlines now?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"carbon capture projects are madness"

From Jeffrey Simpson's latest Globe and Mail column:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper makes so many spending announcements, flying like Mary Poppins on speed around the country to distribute billions of dollars, that the news media have given up analyzing any of them.
For the heck of it, let's look back to last week, when Mr. Harper dropped into Edmonton to announce $343-million of federal money for a coal-fired TransAlta Corp. carbon-capture and storage (CCS) project. Simultaneously, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach announced a contribution of $436-million, for a total investment of $774-million of taxpayers' cash.
That Harper-Stelmach announcement followed an earlier Ottawa-Alberta one for a coal-fired Shell carbon storage project. In that case, the combined federal and provincial contribution was $865-million. ...
Let's be generous and assume the two projects costing $1.6-billion do in fact bury 2.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, the most-prevalent gas contributing to global warming. Such a reduction would mean a per-tonne carbon-reduction cost of about $761 – staggeringly, wildly, mind-blowingly higher than any other conceivable measure designed to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. ...

While you, the Alberta taxpayer, pay C$761 per tonne of CO2 abatement, which is equivalent to 494 euros, the price per tonne in Europe has ranged between 10 and 30 euros year to date:

What has the reaction of the Stelmach government been to the Wildrose Alliance party, whose leader has denounced Stelmach's multibillion dollar carbon capture fund as a political boondoggle?
If they want to be relevant, they have to develop a long term policy strategy which speaks to a modern, compassionate, cosmopolitan Alberta and I don't think they do.
- Edmonton Whitemud MLA and Education Minister Dave Hancock
The P"C" party thus asks you to understand, dear Albertan, that you are spending billions on CO2 abatement that costs $761 a tonne because this is what "modern" and "cosmopolitan" jurisdictions do. In fact, if you looked up either word in the dictionary you would see the smiling faces of Premier Ed Stelmach, Finance Minister Iris Evans, and Energy Minister Mel Knight! Those euro types are a bunch of rubes who just fell off a turnip wagon compared to these public policy prodigies. And as for you young and unborn Albertans who will be coming of age in a jurisdiction that squandered the natural resource wealth it was once blessed with, well, that's how we, the Alberta P"C" Association, define "compassion." Now please take a seat while your august government gets back to the business of closing hospital beds and increasing class sizes!

Monday, October 19, 2009

"major policy announcement"?

I had to shudder a bit when the Calgary Herald reported this afternoon that newly minted Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith had indicated this morning that "she'll make a major policy announcement in the coming weeks..."

I had visions of a "stage[d] message event and photo op" for some "catchy, highly-visible, easy-to-communicate" gimmick that would be most distinguished by how far it was from a serious, technical policy plank like, to take a contrasting example, "a decrease in the marginal rate of the third bracket in personal income tax." Again, my concern followed from the fact that my raison d'être for getting more politically involved was to oppose the dumbing down of the policy debate and get more of the technical debates that were occurring in places like government central agencies, academia, and think tanks into the mass market arena, not less.

While I have 99% confidence in Danielle herself on policy (the remaining 1% being held back at present because her ties to Calgary and Edmonton are in the process of being balanced as opposed to starting out that way, and there isn't an urban wonk like Mike Percy from the capital city who has her ear to my knowledge) some of my concern was, I think, well founded given that all of the quotes in the above paragraph are by someone who not only was the keynote speaker at the last Wildrose Alliance AGM but someone who has been mentioned in association with the party leader in a number of media reports. Another person who may have influence with Danielle once asked me about policies that would appeal to rural voters. I provided some names of those who worked in the field of rural economy at the U of A, but didn't really have much to say about a specific idea of his that would have involved a claim on the taxpayer. I did my MBA with a guy on the inside of the Alberta Agriculture and I could only shake my head at some of the boondoggles going on. "The reality is that the government knows that it is elected by rural voters," my fellow student would explain. If a fellow Wildrose Alliance candidate should then ask me how to out-boondoggle the Tories when it comes to rural Alberta what was I supposed to say?

But looking at what Danielle actually said it appears that I was being paranoid that a provincial version of Harper surrounded by 5% GST stickers would be coming down the pipe, or that some less gimmicky but no less airy announcement was in the works like a declaration that a certain component of provincial revenues will be dedicated to the Heritage Fund, which would be an easy lay-up precisely because there would be no acknowledgement of who would be the losers from such a move; indeed, the provincial Tories have had this plank for decades but just changed it or ignored it whenever there might actually be a loser (which was, of course, every time it actually mattered!) and would stand in contrast to a tax reform that would truly force a diversion of income coming to the private and/or public sectors away from current consumption and into an accumulating capital stock (typically, the easier the win in politics, the less that is won). She in fact said that "we will making a major policy address in November." An "address" could mean something about the procedure of policy development. Indeed, a few media sources say that that is exactly what is involved here.

Bottom line is that my understanding as reflected in my last post seems to be the correct one: some sort of convention or consultative roundtables are going to be announced.

policy development and the "grassroots"

With Danielle Smith as leader of the Wildrose Alliance, I believe the time and effort spent on ensuring that the party adopts sound policy is likely to be rewarded with the party assuming the responsibilities of government at some point in the future.

In the coming months, I intend to advocate for the following policies:
1) cut the provincial corporate tax rate from 10% to 3% and income tax rate from 10% to 5%, making up the difference in revenue loss with a VAT that excludes all capital inputs. Empower an independent overseer to enforce the revenue neutrality of this reform.
2) adopt an innovation agenda that draws on endogenous growth theory
3) adopt a hedging program for natural resource related revenues

I had originally assumed that after consulting with economists and assorted experts with respect to details and the possibilities of securing their endorsements for these policies, I and like-minded entities would be lobbying the membership with calls, mailouts, and social media efforts prior to the next AGM at which time the policies would be voted on by the membership.
But according to my conversation with the VP Policy yesterday, one or more policy conferences are likely to be held. And from what Danielle said, it sounded like this would happen in both November and March.

This could either help or hinder in terms of my view of the party's direction. If Jack Mintz, who appears 9200 times on, were invited to speak at the policy conference to whatever reform he thinks ought to be highest priority, it could help (a lot). If Nadeem Ismail, who appears 407 times on, were invited to give his presentation about the need for more private healthcare to the party membership for the third time this year, well, no offence to Mr Ismail or his research, but given the opportunity cost of not hearing on another topic, it could hinder.

The reason we've heard from Mr Ismail repeatedly is obviously because one or more persons on the party executive is sympathetic to the idea of more private healthcare in Alberta. Which is, of course, an entirely permissible view. Mr Ismail's contention that Canada spends 22% more per capita on healthcare on a demographic adjusted basis than the OECD average and that Alberta spends a further 22% more than the Canadian average is a contention in need of dissemination, particularly in the context of negotiations with the unions. But who exactly is behind Mr Ismail's invitation? Nobody outside of the party's inner circle really knows (although I have my suspicions). If a widely cited university or government employed economist gave a presentation there needn't be any doubt that, whether Brian Dell had the power to make that happen or not, I liked the idea because of the sweet love I display here in the cybersphere for the scholarly (as a general rule, these people are much less likely to serve a special interest than someone from an organization calling for specific government interventions or spending, somewhat less likely to serve a special interest than a person representing industry exposed to general tax and regulatory constraints, and slightly less likely to serve a special interest than a think tank person).

My ax to grind, if you can call it that, had long been for transparency. My enthusiasm for secretive types in politics is most definitively limited. I'd rather have no vote in a state where the machinery of government and machinations of the decision makers were totally transparent than regular ballot opportunities in a state that was opaque. Why should China's leadership be so interested in censorship when the people can't vote them out anyway? Because it is the control of information, not ballot casting, that constitutes real power.

Given the way I have attacked populism in the past, readers are forgiven for concluding that I believe the secret of government is saving it from the daily mob. But I would like to suggest that there is a reasonable concern for authenticity here. "Output democracy" is basically how people vote in real life. It's why Premier Stelmach is in political trouble now instead of when he should have been in trouble, which was 2 years ago. While I was involved in the Wildrose Party, much was made of being more grassroots than the PC Party, when the real problem with the PC Party was a lack of the information sharing that would have facilitated wider participation. If decision makers like Dave Hancock were to, say, operate a real blog instead of a propaganda blog that provides no substantive information, the PC party membership could discuss policy in an informed fashion and know which personalities at the senior levels are the primary advocates for or obstacles to various policies. As it happened with the Wildrose Party, the party's first announcement on the royalties issue was made by the executive. When validation was then sought from the membership at the AGM, two experts were brought up from Calgary to advise the membership that the right move was to oppose a royalties increase. Not a few Edmontonians were skeptical and demanded to see the reports by financial analysts and other evidence that the experts were citing. The Party membership ultimately voted to endorse a policy of opposing a royalty increase, and, as far as I'm concerned, the party executive managed the situation quite rightly. But let's call it what it is, namely, representative democracy as opposed to what is normally assumed by "grassroots democracy." As for the Alberta Alliance, again, for all the talk about being grassroots, many of the important policy stands were effectively dictated by one person: Randy Thorsteinson.

Another way to think about this is to step back and think about how important the vote for the leader would be if the party was truly "grassroots." It ought to make next to no difference at all who the leader is in that case. After all, it is bottom-up, not top-down, right? Yet we know that the leader does matter.

So to all the Wildrosers who are feel a little uncomfortable about whether my blogging serves the interests of the party, my excuse is that what Albertans really want is transparency and the most ethical is not the one who insists on his own virtue the loudest but the one who conducts as much of his business as possible in the public eye. For my part, I am a little uncomfortable with idea that the "grassroots" concept is in the interests of the party. The idea of the self-determining, self-informing sovereign individual is not, in fact, a conservative concept since conservatives appreciate how the decisions of the conscious mind are influenced, framed, and constrained by the unconscious and by a whole slew of antecedents ranging from culture to the myriad connections that tie us not just to each other but to the very earth itself. What emancipates us is not the grant of an illusory choice, but consciousness of what constrains us. I am of the opinion that the conservative view of human nature is the most authentic, and if there is any one phrase that describes a conservative, it is a person who sees the world for what it is. Grassroots democracy strikes me as wishful thinking, while "output democracy" is the real thing, like it or not. In the end, we can both be right, since whether it is my disclosure or it is "grassroots" policy making, what matters is the details.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

back from the Wildrose Alliance convention

Before I begin, I should correct something from the previous post. I saluted Harper for heeding the advice of the civil service, when in fact I should restrict that to the central agencies. The line departments are, at risk of overgeneralizing, spenders, and are typically managed by empire builders. Indeed, while I was at Finance the people in the line departments were blasting us regularly for being too tight with the money.

At today's convention, Mark Dyrholm really distinguished himself with his concession speech. He knocked it out of the park, in fact. When he told Danielle supporters that this was "your victory" to celebrate, someone in the audience yelled "it's OUR victory" and without missing a beat Dyrholm declared that as part of a grassroots party he accepts the amendment from the floor. Not only was he extremely gracious, he had just the right cadence, tone, and confidence in his delivery to get the audience on its feet repeatedly. If Machiavelli is correct that it is better to be feared than loved, one could argue that the confidence of Dyrholm and some of those close to him ought to serve them well. With respect to Danielle, Nigel Hannaford wrote an op-ed for the Calgary Herald claiming that, "to know her is to love her." I believe that's true; she comes across as someone who prefers listening to dictating. Her voice is authoritative not because of her tone but because of the substance of what she says. She's someone who strikes me as both Canadian and female in style.

In a Oct 15 comment on CalgaryRants' blog, Dyrholm supporter Craig Chandler claimed that
Quite frankly, if Mark was not in the race and it was just Danielle the media attention would not have been there to the degree it has been.
This race has done great things for our party and both Danielle and Mark deserve some praise for that.
Chandler is correct here. A contested race facilitated a lot of membership sales. Say what you will about Chandler, but he is not politically blind. With Chandler, it's like trying to finesse an 18 wheeler through a slalom course; the driver knows that some pylons are going to go flying given the nature of his vehicle, but that doesn't mean he doesn't understand the course. When a political engagement starts to turn into a loser, he knows it.

Iris Evans: stop obstructing efficient securities regulation

Although my time with the Dept of Finance in Ottawa was relatively short, the Department was headed by no less than 4 different Ministers (3 Liberal and 1 Conservative). We (the civil service) noted to all of them in one form or another that something needs to be done about our balkanized system of securities regulation. "Balkanized" is an especially apropos adjective here since for a long time the only country with a system as fragmented and inefficient as ours was the Balkan country of Bosnia-Herzegovina; Bosnia has reportedly made some improvements in recent years.

I am not a fan of increasing federal power. Federal taxing power is far in excess of what it should be, since Ottawa collects significantly more tax revenue than it needs to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities. The feds transfer a portion of that back to the provinces, but this has fueled an ongoing political war between the central agencies and the provincial governments over how big each province's transfer should be. Securities regulation is an area which if left to the provinces creates unnecessary duplication, waste, and headaches for securities issuers both domestic and foreign. The reality is that capital markets have gone global and we need a securities regulatory system to match.

I had a reputation in Ottawa for being a stereotyped Albertan given the things I argued for around the watercooler. But when it came to fulfilling my obligation to provide non-partisan advice to the Minister, like the rest of the economists at Finance Canada what mattered was the evidence. There was a lot of consensus among us because despite the fact we had origins from all over the country almost everyone there who had input into the process of policy analysis believed that the process had to be, in a word, scientific. If academic argument and statistical data supported a particular policy, the question of whether the policy was left or right or central Canadian or western Canadian did not enter into the equation. Optics issues were for the Minister and his political people on the 21st floor to tangle with.

Except for those in Tax Legislation, few people at Finance had law degrees. It was mostly masters degrees in economics and some PhDs. There were some fellow MBAs in the Department but they were but a handful and to my knowledge exclusively in my Financial Policy Sector Branch. As someone who also had a LLB, I would advise anyone in my Division who was willing to listen that Justice ought to just draft legislation creating a national securities regulator because from my studies of constitutional law, the operating assumption that the matter was the preserve of the provinces was far from legally certain. Let the provinces led by populist politicians mount a challenge, and then dump all the evidence in the lap of the Supreme Court and expose the demagoguery for what it is. Just jawboning the provinces about working together was not working.

I am accordingly pleased to learn Friday that this is exactly what the federal government is doing. As John Ibbitson notes,
... whether it is harmonizing sales taxes or regulating the markets, this government is committed to reducing barriers to trade and investment.
Indeed, Harper has won back my vote this year because he has evidently decided to change his ways and support his Finance Minister in heeding the civil service's (often private think tank influenced) advice.

Peter Lougheed brought down the Social Credit dynasty because the SoCreds were unable or unwilling to modernize. The world was going the other way and Alberta belonged in front, not behind. In 2009, Finance Minister Iris Evans has insisted that her province "will continue to oppose, through all available avenues, including legal action if necessary, any move toward establishing a single national regulator." These remarks are more revealing of a problematic hostility to contemporary thought than her comments about child rearing, since her talk about the latter was ultimately just that: talk unattached to an identifiable government policy. On the policy of financial market regulation, the Stelmach government has taken a clear stand, a stand that is also clearly wrong in the eyes of most capital market participants. The world is going the other way.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

return of Alberta Capital Bonds? Say it ain't so.

Watching the premier claim on YouTube tonight that "[o]ur savings during the good years were substantial," I felt indulgent: he's entitled to one lie. But when he went on to repeat the claim and insist that "we were well prepared going into this recession," I could only think where is Joe Wilson when you need him?

The biggest head shaker of in-the-red-Ed's teleprompted performance, however, was his declaration that "[t]his is a good time to bring back Alberta Capital Bonds." Persons interested in a second opinion may wish to contact my brother, Kevin Dell CFA, who manages the City of Edmonton's debt portfolio, or either the chief of the Domestic Debt Management Section of Finance Canada's Financial Markets Division or her highly capable boss, Wayne Foster, who is Division Director and who happens to be my former section chief. But given that these people are all current government employees, they may be uninclined to speak freely. So allow me to be frank: this is a taxpayer boondoggle. Yes, I know: you're shocked that such a thing could come from this government. Just take a deep breath!

In 2004 Cap Gemini Ernst and Young delivered its independent review of Canada's retail debt program to the Department of Finance. CGEY noted that between 1997 and 2003 the Canada Savings Bond program cost $1 billion, and concluded that, going forward, winding down the program would save Canadian taxpayers $650 million over 9 years. "This conclusion is supported by research and analysis that assessed franchise value, value to government, value to investors, environment, organization, and design."

The premier says that a relaunch of Alberta's retail bond program "will be a real way of showing your support for our communities and our faith in the future." How about showing your support for our private sector, Premier Ed, by not introducing a government product to crowd out the private sector's offerings and, most importantly, conserving taxpayer dollars by sticking with the lowest cost option for debt financing? Here's what your own Finance Department has to say:
In 1996, the name was changed from Alberta Capital Bonds to Alberta Savings Certificates. By 1997, ... we stopped selling the certificates because we developed even more cost-effective ways to raise money.

Federal Finance Minister Ralph Goodale rejected the independent recommendation to wind down the retail debt program because he was aware of polling that indicated that Canadians liked their CSBs. This dubious rationale has apparently now migrated to Alberta, and is especially galling for me since the primary reason I left Ottawa to return to Alberta is because I reckoned Albertans would be more open to the sort of sound, fiscally prudent, corporate friendly policy that the civil servants at Finance Canada wanted to pursue.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

will Saturday's vote in fact be an endorsement of any particular agenda?

Whereas the poll by Faron Ellis found the Wildrose Alliance and Liberals effectively tied at 18% in the province, a new poll by an outfit founded by Bruce Cameron finds the WAP 4 points clear of the Liberals at 22% of undecided voters. Although Cameron supported Lyle Oberg's failed bid for the P"C" Party leadership and may have a grudge against Stelmach, his poll is still an eyebrow raiser, since it has Stelmach's PCs just 8 points ahead of the WAP. If one factors out the 12% undecided, the breakdown is
PC 34%
WAP 25%
Liberal 20%
NDP 10%
Green 5%
Others 6%

If a poll were to be conducted immediately after Premier Ed's address to the province tomorrow night, I would expect something of a bump for the governing party, as I suspect Albertans would be reminded of what they like about the guy. As for the Wildrose Alliance, the party may be benefiting from Albertans projecting onto the party what they wish it to be. In my own case, while I've been savoring the prospect of a Fraser Institute alumnus becoming party leader, I've been becoming more aware of how I may have been imagining easy sledding for a think tank agenda post-October 17.

While I don't agree with everything the Fraser Institute has argued for, they are raising the level of the public policy debate. On Friday, October 23, for example, Jock Finlayson and and Niels Veldhuis will be giving a talk in Vancouver titled "Why the HST is good for BC." This is bold stuff: although I am a member of the Facebook group "YES BC HST," the fact of the matter is that there are currently just 412 of us while the "NO BC HST" group has more than 127 000 members.

One of the people whose name has appeared in media reports along with Danielle Smith has written dismissively of "wonkish ruminations." Should Danielle become premier and someone like this become a powerful chief of staff for her, unsolicited policy proposals from the wonks will get about as far as advice from the PCO gets with Harper, which is to say, not very. What would be solicited would be "policies" that would lend themselves to gimmicks like having the premier appear before the cameras holding an oversized novelty cheque made out to the political target group du jour.

Of course, in the Wildrose Alliance the leader does not dictate policy anyway. But if the leader were to be one of the 5 members to sponsor a policy proposal to be taken to the floor of the AGM for a membership vote (as provided by the party constitution), the proposal would be taken seriously by both the membership and the media. Since the leader is not going to jump into this policy process without consultation with some sort of inner circle (especially someone like Danielle Smith, who is a listener as opposed to a teller and someone who seems to like a collaborative approach), just who these advisors are is going to matter. What concerns me is that I am not aware of an anti-populist faction in the party while there are more than enough people who are inclined to take a page from Stephen Harper's playbook and make (supposed) political payback the decisive criterion for a policy move. Of particular concern is environmental policy; although the membership dealt with social conservative issues at the last AGM quite judiciously, it seemed to me that people like myself who stood at the microphone to argue for environmental measures, and people like Paul Hinman who demonstrated his political experience by showing sensitivity to environmental considerations in their microphone remarks, were facing a skeptical audience. If you can't sell a green tax credit that makes no presumptions about global warming one way or the other, then what can you sell?

This idea that the leader is not the only person who matters makes the argument for voting for Danielle Smith on Saturday stronger. Why? Because Danielle Smith is an outstanding communicator and is close to an ideal candidate for the face of not just this party but any party that isn't totally at odds with a conservative or libertarian perspective. As such, she would be an asset for all of the background movements in the party, whether libertarian, social conservative, populist, or "wonkish." This is to suggest that followers of each persuasion would better serve their own interests by voting for Danielle Smith and then trying to pass their preferred planks at annual general meetings or getting like minded individuals into positions in the party that would be high on influence and low on media prominence. Leave the limelight to the leader; this leader.

A vote for Danielle on Saturday is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the party to be perceived as a viable government in waiting. She was to both win and have significant freedom of action. She isn't, and wouldn't be, my idea of perfect on policy; to take one example, I'd prefer to treat the royalties matter as a sub-point to the issue of general business taxation, as opposed to making an issue out of how one industry is faring. But it would still be a tremendous wasted opportunity if the party membership and/or the "party elders" managed to limit her to being the party's spokesperson. Saturday will hopefully see Danielle indisputably installed as the party's face, but it won't be enough if she is not also indisputably installed as the party's leader.

Friday, October 9, 2009

"Output" democracy and paternalistic libertarianism

The "Ideas" section of Wednesday's Edmonton Journal featured a piece by Dr Bob Ascah titled "Smoothing Out the Boom and Bust." Ascah is currently director of the Institute for Public Economics at the University of Alberta. He notes that in 1982 "resource revenue was nearly four times the take from personal income taxes." Furthermore, "[r]esource revenue represented 2½ times the cost of health care and twice education expenditures." According to Ascah, in 1982 Premier Lougheed diverted resource revenue that would have gone into the Heritage Fund into general spending, and
Had the investment income been retained by the fund, the size of the Heritage Fund today would be $80 billion, compared with its current value of $13.8 billion
Ascah then moves forward in time to the turn of the millennium and rapidly increasing resource revenue to consider the "staggering" opportunity cost of this decade's spending spree. Behind these observations is Ascah's thesis that the government's fiscal policy has been aggravating the cycle instead of dampening it. He notes that "As private investment peaks, public investment is also peaking causing a "crowding out" effect resulting in higher construction costs in both the private and public sector." This is another excellent point that I had hoped to raise in the context of the affordable housing issue during last year's election.

In a note to another Wildroser this week I raised the possibility of the party adopting as part of its platform a major tax reform that would tax privilege savings and investment over consumption. "It wouldn't pass a referendum," was a response.

Coughing up policy for referendum is certainly one approach. There is another approach, however, the first step of which involves throwing a policy plank out before the media. The media then takes it before some "expert", who gives it the thumbs up or thumbs down. The media subsequently reports this verdict, and if it was thumbs up, the public concludes that the party is not just a mob. Note that under this approach, the party actually has a need for policy wonks as opposed to just pollsters and focus group organizers. The wonks' job would be to develop policy that can carry a narrative and win arguments come campaign time. This is policy that is typically NOT initially popular.

Dirk Kurbjuweit, writing for Der Spiegel, notes that
The scoundrels in Brussels have sold the European people a lot of things: a single market, the euro, the lifting of many border controls and, most recently, a binding global climate policy. These have all been good things, and they have helped make Europe an eminently livable continent. Despite the many dull moments and emotions that have been negative at best, the end result has been laudable.
Most of these improvements would have been held up, if not outright prevented, by referendums.

Yesterday, the frontpage of the Edmonton Journal was "Wildrose Support Blooms." The story described how a survey by U of Lethbridge political scientist Faron Ellis found Wildrose Alliance support in the province to be comparable to or even higher than that of the Alberta Liberals. Had this come out prior to the Glenmore by-election, I would have thought it a bombshell, but post-Glenmore, I didn't think there was much news here apart from what was in the cross-tabs.

Some of the crosstabs surprised and concerned me, since they seemed to support Ellis' contention that "One of the problems this party’s going to have is, they’re going to go down the populist road."

After the Irish rejected the Lisbon Treaty last year, one member of the European Parliament described the "No" movement as "a toxic cocktail of anti-globalisers, neocons, the clergy and Trotskyists."

A toxic cocktail of another flavour is what the Wildrose Alliance will become if the party continues down this "road."

It doesn't have to be this way. As a number of European observers have noted, the classical model of democratic legitimization from the bottom up (from the citizen to the state) is an obstacle to modernization not an engine of it. Wolfgang Hoffmann-Riem's notion of "no longer securing legitimization solely through institutions and processes, but also through results" is an example of
the theory of so-called "output" democracy, in which more weight is placed on the persuasive power of results than legitimization through "input" from democratic opinion-shaping processes within the population.

Wildrose support bloomed in the late summer of 2009 in large part because a result of consuming our natural resource revenues instead of saving them was the fueling of a pro-cyclical fiscal policy that aggravated the province's recession. We are not going to unwind this dynamic by submitting the painful components of the necessary adjustment to the public in referenda. California has already attempted this with "epic fail" results. Am I opposed to the self-determination of individual citizens? To an extent, yes: I've long believed that libertarianism is an incomplete and possibly naive philosophy. As David Brooks has noted, we have a crisis of economic morality, and the solution will ultimately involve making men moral. At the root of our problems is collective self-indulgence on a mass scale at the expense of future generations (of not only humans but animals and plants).

Harvard Law professor and Obama advisor Cass Sunstein partnered with economist Richard Thaler to write Nudge, a book whose wisdom about the value of building a "choice architecture" will be lost if all everyone can see (and object to) is the paternalistic element in Sunstein and Thaler's notion of "paternalistic libertarianism."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Edmonton! meet Danielle Smith Thursday evening

Danielle has generated political momentum in Alberta like nobody since Preston Manning. If one took the number of Alberta Liberal party members and increased it by 50%, it would still be less than the number added to the Wildrose Alliance party membership rolls just this summer.

Meet the candidate for a speech and moderated Q and A at the Four Points Sheraton (7230 Argyll Road) at 7:30 pm this Thursday, October 8th.

Everyone welcome, both members and not-yet-members.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

National Affairs launched

In 1965 Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell founded The Public Interest, a higher brow public policy journal for the conservative American. In the 21st century, however, the magazine declined and finally stopped publishing in 2005. Fortunately, a successor has sprung up.

In 2008, Republican representatives in the House hailing from New England became extinct, and it's commonly thought that an intellectual revival would save the Republican party from being reduced to a Southern rump. But as this graph by Sean Trende shows, the GOP's decline is not just a recent (and therefore reversible) phenomenon:

Thursday, October 1, 2009

open letter to Alberta evangelicals

Perhaps you frequent one of Beulah Alliance's 3 weekend services in Edmonton's west end. Perhaps you travel even further west on Sunday mornings and are a member of West Meadows Baptist on 199 st. Maybe you head to 167 ave to worship with your Pentecostal brethren at North Pointe, Edmonton's newest suburban megachurch. Do you attend First Alliance in Calgary's southeast? Perhaps you are a Briercrest graduate like I am, or an alumnus of Ambrose in Calgary or one of its predecessors (Canadian Nazarene College or the C&MA affiliated Canadian Bible College). You might alternatively have a connection to Prairie in Three Hills, Canada's oldest bible institute, or Taylor in Edmonton.

You might be an evangelical! Some will say you might be a redneck as well, but if these critics attended a service at Beulah they would see the bright, welcoming faces of contemporary suburban Albertans.

Whatever your denomination background, evangelicals share something in common, and that's a belief in the power and necessity of personal regeneration. Why is regeneration necessary? Because we are born in the flesh, and the flesh isn't interested in what is noble, inspiring, and righteous. The flesh is interested in selfish indulgence. A lot of secular people reject this contention, maintaining that we are born tabula rasa. Society, according these secularists, need only educate the young in how to reason and they will flower into caring, responsible, industrious citizens. The experience of innumerable generations suggests otherwise. Remove the influence of the church, parents, and tradition from the raising of the next generation and one does not create some enduring vacuum which liberates the young to self-determine. The vacuum is instead filled with other influences, namely, peer pressure and pop culture. Social liberals like to think that every time they have undermined or destabilized a norm, some emancipatory effect follows, when in reality we become enslaved to our own baser instincts. This is why the "culture wars" matter. "Live and let live" isn't a call for a truce but a call to surrender to "entitlementia" and, ultimately, the social breakdown concomitant with anomie.

In fact, I've oversimplified with "live and let live": one not only can but should "live and let live" when it comes to matters of economy and administration. This, the legal world, is the arena in which the final authority of human reason is recognized by all parties. Where one cannot "live and let live" is in the "life world" - here, no one "lives and let lives" since every life has to be lived on the basis of some fundamental metaphysical assumptions. In this arena rational argument is of limited utility: Alvin Plantinga's notion of "foundational knowledge" is an argument of sorts, but in many respects it is an argument against argument. I could develop this approach further by borrowing from the postmodern critique of modernism but to express the point simply would be to note that in practice, most people come to a weltanschauung which appreciates concepts like sanctity through a transformation that is deeper than the mind: it goes to the soul (personal regeneration!). Trying to argue someone into faith on the micro level is unlikely to be productive, as is trying to use the political process to lobby people into adopting a Christian perspective. It is more effective to use the political process to create the public space that allows one to transform lives on the particular, private level. This is where living one's faith becomes the most effective tool for evangelism. Get political in order to be able to get unpolitical.

This idea of two worlds, one instrumental and governed by commonly recognized principles of rational efficiency, the other personal and subjective, is not original. Lest I misconstrue the sociologist Daniel Bell, I will defer to Jürgen Habermas' summary of Bell's views:
In his book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Bell argues that the crises of the developed societies of the West are to be traced back to a split between culture and society. Modernist culture has come to penetrate the values of everyday life; the life-world is infected by modernism. Because of the forces of modernism, the principle of unlimited self-realization, the demand for authentic self-experience and the subjectivism of a hyperstimulated sensity have come to be dominant. This temperament unleashes hedonistic motives irreconcilable with the discipline of professional life in society, Bell says. Moreover, modernist culture is altogether incompatible with the moral basis of a purposive rational conduct of life. In this manner, Bell places the burden of responsibility for the dissolution of the Protestant ethic (a phenomenon which has already disturbed Max Weber), on the "adversary culture." Culture, in its modern form, stirs up hatred against the conventions and virtues of an everyday life, which has become rationalized under the pressures of economic and administrative imperatives.

Lifestyle evangelism works. Political evangelism, however, often doesn't and when it does make a difference it can be for the worse.

James Dobson's Focus on the Family group has been a great service for both Canadian and American evangelicals. But Dr Dobson's Family Research Council, which is more explicitly designed to be a vehicle for political activism, has been a lightning rod for controversy. When President Bush nominated Harriet Miers for the United States Supreme Court, Dobson gave his stamp of approval (according to some reports, after Karl Rove gave him private assurances about Miers). What Dobson was missing, however, was allies. One could argue that he applied a litmus test without appreciating the fact that a candidate for high office requires much more. The libertarian intelligentsia within the conservative movement rebelled because of Miers' limited abilities in the realm of reasoned argument, and her nomination was withdrawn. To go back to the Habermas quote, what one might call "economic and administrative imperatives", or perhaps just the sound administration of justice and good government, demanded that Miers not stand for nomination. The fact that there was no necessary conflict between social conservatives and libertarians was demonstrated when the subsequent nomination of John Roberts got the process right.

Contrast this episode with Rick Warren's sure footedness on the national stage. Pastor Warren needs no introduction to evangelicals; The Purpose Driven Life is one of the best selling non-fiction books of all time, even if (too) much of unchurched community has never even heard of it. During last year's Presidential campaign Warren hosted John McCain and Barack Obama in a forum at the Saddleback Church he pastors. Warren didn't tell these men what he thought they should do, he rather asked them questions. After the event, a secular liberal pundit said
The one sure winner was Rick Warren, who overnight changed the face of evangelicals in this country from the cartoon caricature of rigid, right-wing fundamentalists to one of open-minded, intelligent, concerned citizens.

In Alberta, recent political events have created the opportunity to either reinforce that "cartoon caricature" or dispel it. The government of Ed Stelmach has made a show out of addressing the concerns of social conservatives, but has in fact aggravated the "adversary culture." Section 9 of Bill 44 does not push the state out of the church's sphere. It rather expands the state, and then makes a show out of leasing the state's new territory to the church. The powers of the human rights tribunals are broadened by this bill. If it is families 1, teachers 0 this game, it could easily be families 0 next game in a series the teachers didn't ask for. Most of the more prominent members of the Wildrose Alliance Party have not been caught up in the red herring of section 9 because they have focused on section 3 which authorizes the state to adjudicate the dialogue of the church (amongst others). If some speech should offend secular humanist sensibilities by, say, defending social norms and thereby implying that some identifiable group is deviant, the Stelmach government reserves the right to see the speaker investigated and censured.

As a party that understands the importance of separation between the church and the state, the Wildrose Alliance will create opportunities for evangelicals to get a fair hearing and accordingly be recognized as the "open-minded, intelligent, concerned citizens" evangelicals are. The party, which sent a shock wave through the provincial political establishment when it won a byelection on September 14, already has more members than any other opposition party. A leadership race is underway and there is a candidate in the race who can speak authoritatively to "economic and administrative" issues. She not only does not clash with "Modernist culture", she is fully in tune with it; but has firm convictions about the limits of its ambit. She would be no help to social conservatives encroaching on a minimal state, but would be an invaluable ally in defending against an encroaching state. If two roads, one involving the retreat of the state and the other involving the advance of the church, would both keep us moving in the direction of our destination, shouldn't we take the way that is passable? However much the metaphysics of secular humanism may inform Danielle Smith's personal "life world", she is not on a mission to bring Voltaire's godless Enlightenment to the "life world" of others, she's rather on a mission to bring enlightened government to government.

If you haven't yet become a member of the Wildrose Alliance, I would urge you to do so by visiting either today (October 1) or tomorrow, signing up, and then casting your vote for the same candidate that astute social conservatives like Link Byfield support: