Monday, June 29, 2009

Obama vs Honduras

In Monday's news were two notable developments which suggest Obama may be more left than he was generally perceived last year.

The first is Obama's backing of ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya. Although it was an army move that sent Zelaya into exile (on board a plane provided by Hugo Chavez), the judiciary and the legislature - arms of government that act as checks on the power of the executive in democratic states - had called for Zelaya's ouster. After an independent electoral tribunal had ordered the (made in Venezuela) ballots Zelaya intended to distribute (as part of his hopes to change the constitution) to be confiscated, Zelaya himself led a group of supporters to an airforce base where they carted off the ballots. Zelaya's apparent unwillingness to accept the term limit mandated by the constitution was thus the proximate cause of his overthrow. As noted by a Washington Post writer,
Public sentiment in Latin American is running strong against tinkering with constitutions to give presidents more time in office.... A one-term limit is commonplace in Latin America. It is meant as a legal check to ensure that the region's rich tradition of public corruption and political patronage could only last so long in some of these nations.

The Honduran Congress swore in its speaker, Roberto Micheletti, as the new interim president. Micheletti promises to step down after general elections in November. People that are familiar with Honduras (check the comments boards on the Economist and elsewhere for input from people actually in Central America right now) add that Zelaya has furthermore lost a great deal of support within his own party and has a poor record on dealing with the country's corruption problems.

One would think that the international community would accept the developments in Honduras contingent upon there indeed being free and transparent elections in November, not least because backing Zelaya at this point promotes further instability and, more importantly, plays into Chavez' hands. The US State Department's even-handed statement on Friday could have been left standing without Obama declaring his support for a Chavez ally. Meanwhile, he is leaving Columbian president Uribe, who has made great strides in bringing prosperity and, more importantly, security to his country out in the cold by denying him the free trade agreement he is seeking.

Stelmach approval ratings steady

A Leger survey of 900 Albertans has found that 40% disapprove of Ed Stelmach's performance, unchanged from February 2008. In Calgary disapproval has actually dropped, from 50% to 46%.

The bottom line is that for all the criticism being directed his way by the chattering classes, the Premier is not looking much more endangered politically than when he won almost 90% of the legislature's seats.

This is not to say that there are not some warning signs. Only 5% of Albertans say their opinion of Stelmach's performance has improved, and among those who say their opinion has worsened, more university grads say that than college or institute grads, who are in turn more likely to say that their opinion has worsened than persons with only a high school diploma. But given that Stelmach's voting appeal was badly underestimated by the commentariat in February and March of 2008, I would be hesitant to conclude that he's in much trouble now.

That doesn't necessarily mean the opposition should give up, however. When I worked at Finance Canada Paul Martin's office was just a floor above the Financial Market Division's offices and my immediate supervisor had considerable personal experience dealing with him in the back and forth over writing his speeches. It followed that several of us at Finance had a pretty good idea of Paul Martin's failings, which were #1 an obsession with optics, #2 a temper, and #3 an unclear idea of what he wanted besides becoming Prime Minister. We knew that his sterling reputation for fiscal management had more to do with the senior civil servants than with Martin and his political people. Yet the speed with which this skeptical insiders perception bled out into the general public was remarkable. The catalyst seemed to be the calling of the election campaign (or perhaps the anticipation of an imminent election campaign) . Come next election, more Albertans will be paying attention, and so it is that Stelmach has reason to be concerned about the current displeasure of those who are paying attention.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

move ahead Manitoba

Danielle Smith has been twittering away on the Fraser Institute's ranking of investment climates for oil and gas. As she should. The Institute's latest Global Petroleum Survey surveyed 577 energy executives from around the world and found that Manitoba, with a NDP government, is considered a more attractive place to invest than Alberta. Internationally, Alberta clocks in at #92 out of 141.

So what do Alberta bloggers have to say about this? After a couple of days of opportunity to respond, CalgaryGrit, Daveberta, Ken Chapman, Enlightened Savage, TinyPerfectBlog, StraightOuttaEdmonton and more have all apparently felt this news either unworthy of note or in need of being buried. Evidently the throw-away remarks of MLAs or the parental opt-out clause of Bill 44 are of greater consquence to this province. re Bill 44, as I've said before, if parents pulling their kids out of the public school system entirely isn't news, since when would the (at this stage entirely hypothetical) pulling them out of a handful of classes be news?

Fortunately, the MSM has latched onto this survey of energy executives, with the national Globe and Mail, Financial Post, and CBC picking up the story, in addition to the reliable Calgary Herald and AM 660.

A glance at the comment threads attached to these media articles, however, goes a long way to explaining why Alberta is free-falling down the chart. The most recommended (by readers) comment on the CBC story contends that a Fraser Institute report has "no credibility". Why? Because the Institute is "sponsored by US evangical groups" [sic]. Why a US evangelical group would sponsor a think tank that calls for the legalization of marijuana I don't know, yet this gets 116 thumbs up and just 28 thumbs down. Another commentator declares that "Quoting a "study" by these propagandists only dampens the credibility of the media outlet which publishes it." This is why we hear a deafening silence from Alberta-based bloggers I suppose: they are protecting their credibility!

This whole "credibility" line of attack might pack more punch if it did not have to be wielded against all the other think tanks that have criticized this government. Are the government's own fiscal responsibility commissions, which have called on it to get its savings policy in order (calls which have been repeatedly ignored), also short on credibility? This Fraser report is all too consistent with reports like that of Jack Mintz, who has noted that Alberta's business tax environment is worse than average out of an 80 country sample. Jack Mintz is considered by most public policy experts to be the most authoritative academic in the country with respect to tax policy (call any senior professional economist working at Finance Canada for confirmation). Mintz has also noted that provincial taxes are on track to rise from 8% to 11.2% of the economy by 2020. That is a bigger proportional growth in the size of government than even the worst case scenarios for Obama and the government of the United States. The Americans are at least having a debate about the policies of someone the Germans have dubbed "the Debt President." My fellow Albertans seem to be standing around in stunned silence.

I returned from Ottawa before the last provincial election to run for the Wildrose Alliance party because I was convinced it did not have to be this way. The province has a relatively educated electorate. Unfortunately, advocating for business interests is received about as well by the general public as trying to defend lawyers. Can the situation be changed? The number of cases where a libertarian or pro-business party has formed a government in a western democracy are few. Looking at Germany's FDP, for example, its best chance at influencing government is in coalition with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. But sooner or later the public will have had enough, and that point will come when the flight of investment adds up to a lower standard of living. That decline can be masked by deficit spending, but only for a while. I can only hope the damage is still reversible at that point.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

media matters

According to Barack Obama, "I've got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration."

The White House's grievances with the media do not end there, however. Last month, Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, attacked the UK Telegraph and then generalized his concern to all of Fleet Street, opining that re "the British media" in general "If I was looking for something that bordered on truthful news, I'm not entirely sure it would be the first stack of clips I picked up.... you're not going to find many of these newspapers and truth within, say, 25 words of each other."

UPDATE June 20:
Meanwhile, Iran's supreme leader Khamenei declared Britain to be "the most evil" of foreign powers, reportedly because of the British media broadcasting BBC Persian into Iran.

In light of this concern, the White House may be relieved that many US newspapers are in financial trouble and, at least according to John Ibbitison's information, "network newscasts are also in terrible shape."

A decline in the influence of the MSM would be positive for political extremists. As Barney Frank (D-MA) has observed, "the right listens to talk radio, the left’s on the Internet and they just reinforce one another." Unabashedly partisan left wing news sites like DailyKos and the Huffington Post are already outstandingly popular: DailyKos averages 29 million pageviews per month and HuffPo 206 million. Almost 13 million people visit HuffPo monthly, making it the most popular online "newspaper" in the USA; this despite the fact conservative news aggregators were established earlier. The utterly crackpot has 600 000 people visiting it each month. It is fair to say that the amount of material on infowars that would be published by the MSM is pretty much nil. The collapse of the MSM's gatekeeper role, however, means all the conspiracy theories will get more play. That's good news for the left, generally, since many people are prepared to believed that the planet is more or less governed by a grand corporate conspiracy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

expect hard caps re emissions, not "intensity based"

Apparently the Alberta Tories are taking issue with their "Conservative" brethren in Ottawa. Amongst other things, they complain of not being informed about the possibility intensity-based targets for reducing emissions may be scrapped.

Intensity-based targets will have to be scrapped in favour of absolute targets if the strategy is to go with cap and trade, and it looks like Obama wants to go cap and trade (any cap and trade system would have to be continent-wide lest caps be evaded by emitters hopping borders). I looked at the dynamics of developing a carbon market while at Finance Canada and, in a meeting with TSX people from Toronto and Montreal, heard those potential market-platform-providers clearly tell Mark Carney (who happened to be at Finance at the time) that they could not and would not support intensity-based targets. The reason why is straightforward enough: it becomes next to impossible to price credits without hard caps. It is going to be difficult enough to get a market going when the caps are decided by politicians. But if they are furthermore intensity-based, the level of uncertainty is going to enormous. An academic might think it nonetheless doable, but few in industry would think that. If you thought the tranches of a mortgage-backed-security were difficult to price, just try an emissions credit that derives its value from an intensity-based cap.

A cap and trade system with hard caps would, of course, be a vastly greater cost to Alberta than other jurisdictions because of the presence of large emitters here. Had the Stelmach government understood the situation, they would have gotten ahead of this by signing on to a national carbon tax (something I've long advocated, as readers of this blog would know). A carbon tax would be bourne by Canadians in proportion to consumption, and therefore far more regionally equitable than by production. As an aside to those who believe climate change is a hoax, support for a carbon tax does not necessarily mean support for the idea that climate change requires fiscal action. We have to get taxes from somewhere, right? Why not get it by taxing consumption like on sales of SUVs instead of taxing everyone's personal income? We should be taxing consumption instead of income and investment anyway. Whenever I say I support a carbon tax I mean a revenue-neutral tax.

Instead of trying to head off a cap and trade system, Stelmach has tried to impress environmentalists by throwing billions of Alberta taxpayer dollars at the boondoggle of carbon capture. Needless to say, no one has been much impressed since there isn't a fully operational working example of successful carbon capture anywhere on the planet, and Alberta's own energy executives have said carbon capture will be extremely expensive on a per barrel basis (hence BIG subsidies would be required to implement it!).

Guess which province's citizens have the highest level of discontent with their govt's economic management?

Q: How would you rate the performance of your provincial government when it comes to managing the economy?

poor 43%
neither 28%
good 29%
(sample size 149, MOE +/-8)

This is the worst score in the country.

Given that the Stelmach government is studiously ignoring what both business and academics (e.g. Jack Mintz) have to say, this should not be entirely surprising.

Monday, June 8, 2009

European Parliament shifts right

In Germany, Angela Merkel's centre-right CDU held its own while the pro-business FDP made surprising gains at the expense of the social democrats (SPD).

The SPD had attacked the libertarian party, claiming that "finance sharks would vote for FDP" with the byline of "for a Europe with clear rules for all", which prompted the FDP to claim that "the bankrupt would vote SPD", with the byline of "for a sound budget policy".

The FDP clearly won the political battle, with the business-friendly party almost doubling its vote share from 5 years ago to 11%, and the SPD taking 20.8% of the vote, its worst election showing in post-war German history. Chancellor Merkel is likely feeling optimistic about her chances of being able to ditch her current "Grand Coalition" with the SPD in favour of a coalition with the FDP after the German federal election scheduled for the end of September.

The success of the far right in the weekend's elections for the European Parliament is understandable; tough times are prime times for xenophobic nationalists. But the failure of the social democrats across Europe (it was not just in Germany) "to take advantage of a financial crisis that might have been tailor-made for critics of free market excesses" (as the Economist put it) and make gains at the expense of parties like Germany's FDP is remarkable, all the more so given the contrasting state of retreat of the political right in America.

The only explanation I can think of is that the FDP's campaign slogan "for a sound budget policy" spoke to a constituency that has not had a meaningful presence in the USA for a while now. In any case, the declining influence of the social democrats in Europe seems serious:
It is not the threat from the extreme right that is the most striking characteristic of these elections, though clearly there is a shift to the right, and centre-right governments are likely to make more concessions to the far right. The real story is the crisis of the left.

We have been here before, in the 1930s when the net effect of the Depression was to strengthen the right and nullify the left - Labour was reduced to 50 MPs in 1931. The left rose again, but I am not optimistic about it being able to do so this time. Social democratic parties across Europe are in decline. That decline is not as dramatic as the communists a generation ago, but it is still marked. The European left relied on a working class that no longer exists in its old form, and in order to recover it will need to find a new constituency. That may be hard.

The left is in trouble everywhere: Labour in the UK, the French socialists, the Italian democrats. The Spanish socialists, one of the few leftwing parties to gain in recent years, have also slipped. The SPD in Germany are not doing as badly as expected, but they are down to around 20%, and these losses are not compensated by the votes for the New Left party. We have seen the demoralisation of the French left and a degree of disintegration of the left in Germany. Social democrats will need a new vision as well as a new constituency.
- Eric Hobsbawm

Sunday, June 7, 2009

WIldrose Alliance AGM - part IV

In the policy voting session on Saturday, the first major issue (other than the motion to strike out "unified Canada", which was not really an issue in my view since it was voted down by something like a 6 to 1 margin) was whether to require policy proposals to go through constituency associations. By a close vote it was decided to stick to the existing system of just requiring 5 members to submit a proposal. I had a strong opinion on this, not least because the policy booklet itself contained 50 proposals from the same 5 people. Having these go through a constituency association first would have provided another level of vetting without centralizing the vetting in the party exec. I could then only roll my eyes when, in the afternoon, an almost unanimous vote threw the 50 proposals to the executive for vetting! Looking at what happened now, it is not so contradictory as it seems. The constituency association thing was perhaps rightly voted down because it would have empowered southerners at the expense of Edmonton area members. There are few constitutency associations in the Edmonton area meaning that members there would have to send proposals to some other association, say in Calgary, and that should rather obviously be problematic (how would "we propose increased funding for the [Edmonton based] University of Alberta" go over?). In any case, the fact the 5 who submitted the 50 proposals saw them fail to get considered for a vote (hopefully) sent a lesson to everyone there that if you want serious consideration of your proposals, get them trimmed down and vetted in advance.

A policy that was struck out by a narrow vote would have allowed "deeded landowners to receive up to 1% of the provincial royalty income generated on their land". It is worth a little background on this issue. Until about the 1880s, gold and precious minerals were not routinely reserved from Crown land grants and it wasn't until after the turn of the century that oil and gas were also reserved to the Crown. This means a greater percentage of oil and gas in Alberta (about 80%) is owned by the province than, say, the oil and gas in Manitoba, because Alberta was generally settled later. There are nonetheless many private landowners who own both the surface and the sub-surface rights. When driving through the countryside if you see an oil pump on a farmer's land, you might be inclined to think the farmer has struck it rich but usually that is not the case. It is the owner of the subsurface that is legally entitled to a royalty, not the owner of the surface. If anything, the oil pump is an inconvenience to the farmer. However, he or she is compensated, and the Alberta Surface Rights Board has authority here. I spoke up on this question to argue that the 1% policy should be struck. It creates a legal right out of thin air (ok, perhaps that is not the best metaphor here, but you know what I mean). In my view, it was therefore not consistent with the party's policy calling for property rights to be added to the Alberta Bill of Rights and the party's "principle" that individuals should have "the freedom to own, enjoy, and exchange private property in a free market". That the property right would be taken from the government and given to a private surface owner misses the point, because given that the policy rationale is to help out the surface owner, what about the case where the surface is owned by one private party and the sub-surface by another private party? Are you going to help out that surface owner? No? Then how is the policy really fair? One speaker shared my view describing the measure as providing a "windfall". The proper way to deal with this, of course, is to adjust the mandate of the Surface Rights Board, not just send a slice of the province's royalty wealth to a sub-set of landowners. Figure out a way to enlarge the cheque already being received for having to put up with a pump on the land, in other words, instead of introducing a second cheque, the size of which would be totally unrelated to any work or capital contribution by the surface owner.

WIldrose Alliance AGM - part III

During his presentation on Friday night, Dave Yager observed that Stelmach was dividing the province, pitting Edmonton against Calgary. When Tony Vandermeer took my Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview riding last year, he told a TV reporter on election night that Stelmach got him at least 1000 votes. This when his margin of victory was just over 300. So it is certainly effective politics on Stelmach's part, since it means his only serious threat is from Calgary and the rural areas, and that means no threat at all so long as David "Kyoto" Swann is leading the Liberals and the Wildrose Alliance faces a "first past the post" electoral system without fixed election dates etc. But should the party be contending that Calgary is getting the shaft? The Fraser Institute guy up on the platform behind Dave piped up to say pretty much exactly that. Given that the venue was Calgary, this was red meat.

I was seated next to Graham Sproule, a 20-something guy who has been eagerly involved with the Wildrose Alliance scene in Edmonton, for much of the conference and I think he was a bit uneasy about the direction this could be taking as well. I had been demoralized enough by how Stelmach's identification with north-central Alberta had crushed my party in the Edmonton area; we don't need to hear from Wildrose Alliance people that Stelmach is pro-Edmonton because I, of course, don't believe his government serves the interests of Edmontonians well and it just furthers the meme that means the WA has no chance at all to get off the ground in the centre of the province.

Now I can understand the argument for having the party advance the thesis that the south isn't getting its fair share. The thesis is self-evidently true in that an anti-corporate, anti-oil (other than the oil sands) government is going to be more negative for the south than for Edmonton just given the head offices in Calgary. I've seen first hand the political power of the P"C"'s implied message to Edmontonians that our guy is going to stand up for you against them. If the WA wins a seat, it will be in Calgary or south (although there is some chance in the Peace country). But it is going to demoralize the WA people in Edmonton and make it realistically impossible to organize genuine constituency organizations there. I was unable to mail out brochures to all the homes in my riding last election because I did not have the money, this while head office was pouring money (relatively) into Link Byfield's and Paul Hinman's ridings. In the final analysis, the $1000 I did get from head office should have gone into Hinman's riding (Hinman lost 4328 to 4367) . But there has to be a balance between going for the wins and leaving everybody who does not live in those targeted ridings out on a limb.

On Friday night it did not turn into a session of southern grievances, which I believed a good thing, because it would have left northerners sitting there as mute observers who might just drift away from the party in the future. When it comes to campaign resources, yes, money beyond, say, $2000 per each riding should be sent to ridings where there is the best chance to win. But when it comes to communications, playing up the idea that Stelmach is partial to the Edmonton area just plays into exactly the message Stelmach wanted to get out last election.

WIldrose Alliance AGM - part II

In the previous post, I anonymized names of the few people I took issue with because the point is not to turn anyone's opinion against anyone else but to make a point in the abstract about how we should deal with each other.

Do I think Danielle Smith is the dream candidate? In fairness, she was a bit wooden. And she doesn't seem to have that extremely extroverted personality that many successful politicians have whereby they don't leave a room without having, unobtrusively of course, gotten and remembered everyone's name, and more importantly had everyone there feel they had connected with her. But the overwhelmingly majority of the time these people have little else to offer. When one considers that she is something of a policy wonk, she gives a great speech. Bottom line is that the substance is there and, as a bonus, the substance is camera friendly. She referred to the New Royalty Framework as "rent", which of course delighted me because it was a "dog whistle", intended or not, that people that have worked as professional economists would recognize. She quoted Jack Mintz! She defended a rationale of having spending growth limited to inflation and population growth.

Will it sell politically? Probably not, to be honest. But the media will be working overtime to try and get her views inserted into policy debates that the Stelmach crew will be dumbing down.

People are not ideological. Why did government expand so much between the 1930s and the 70s? In large part because the Great Depression suggested capitalism alone simply did not work. And it was the stagflation of the 70s the launched the conservative renaissance of the 80s. The Crisis of 2008 was another turning point. The significance of this is that people will turn against whomever or whatever was in the driving seat when the car hits the ditch. It doesn't matter what Stelmach's philosophy is, if he drives the economy into the ditch (and he seems to be on his way) the electorate will go with something else. It's pretty hard to do in Alberta, given its resource income, but it is still possible.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

WIldrose Alliance AGM - part I

I'm quite pleased at recent developments with the party. Jeff Callaway of Canaccord Capital is party President, and Darren Hopkins, an investment banker who joined the party after his first hand experience of the dry-up in capital market financing for junior E&Ps, was elected to the party executive as well. With Hopkins as Treasurer and Blaine Maller P.Eng, as VP Fundraising the party has its fiscal situation well in order. Even more important is the professional demeanor of people like Hopkins, who spoke briefly and with whom I chatted with a bit. These are people who would be very attractive hires in the corporate sector and the fact that Wildrose has them on a volunteer basis bodes very well in terms of how professionally the party can present itself.

It doesn't end there. Dave Yager, CEO of HSE Integrated, Canada's largest national industrial safety services company, gave a presentation on Stelmach versus the oil patch on Friday night that was not just highly persuasive in terms of the data it presented, but was enormously entertaining. Dave received a well-deserved standing ovation. G&M opinion columnist Jeffrey Simpson believes that a "Conservative leader needs to be avuncular" and Dave Yager is very much avuncular. Another highly valuable human asset for the Wildrose Alliance. During his presentation Dave referred to the fact that the Department of Finance in Ottawa has regularly sent people to Bay Street to inform themselves of the industry impact of proposed policies yet the Stelmach government has taken no interest at all in this sort of consultation. Speaking to Dave later, I alluded to the fact that I had been tasked on industry consultations while working at Finance Canada on a regular basis and Dave must be connected to be aware of this practice. "Yeah, well I can tell you that here in Alberta, the backchannels that were used under Klein clamped shut when Stelmach took over," Dave noted. I had long suspected this but did not realize it was so bad. I can only hope that Albertans catch on to the fact that Stelmach is more hostile to private business then the federal Liberal party. It is one thing to be undisposed to consider the interests of business and yet another to shape and enforce policy in ignorance of the interests of business.

As hard as this is to believe, the David Swann Liberals have been even more hostile to the oilpatch, complaining of "corporate giveaways". Instead of focusing on the economic disaster at hand, on June 2 David Swann choose to brag about convincing the government to extend coverage for (the great numbers of people, surely!) undergoing gender reassignment. Exacting more spending while the government is in deficit, in other words.

But the most positive development of all in my view is Danielle Smith's candidacy for the party leadership. As Former Director of Provincial Affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business she understands the needs of entrepreneurs and investors. Small town guys like Todd Loewen up in the Peace Country respect her in part because they know her from when they ran local businesses that were CFIB members. Now a lot of people who have been policy wonks simply are not cut out for politics, but Danielle demonstrated that she is anything but politically tone deaf with her speech to the party today. She has media experience and will present very well on television. She will be very difficult to caricature as "right wing fringe", primarily because she exhibits that, how would I describe it, woman's sense of bearing and judgment. She comes across as an urban, professional woman.

When I learned that Dennis Young, leader of the Libertarian Party of Canada had enthusiastically endorsed her I could only grin at what seemed to be developing here in Alberta. Conservative intellectuals across the Anglosphere, from Perth to Glasgow, have lamented the limited political traction libertarianism has gotten time and again, yet here in Alberta it was actually coming together: a pro-business party combined with evidence-based social policy. I should think the Economist would be proud.

Of course, nothing has been proved yet. But the fact is that the Wildrose Alliance could get likely 10% of the vote without even running a campaign when most libertarian parties would garner 3%.

Now, predictably, there has been a backlash. At the AGM I had an amiable enough chat with a candidate who intends to run against Danielle for the leadership but after I came home I read his letter to the Party and he accused Danielle of having defended "a woman's right to terminate" 11 years ago and of not being 100% opposed to gay marriage. This after I had been going around defending an attempt that this person supported to strike "support a unified Canada" from the party Principles saying "Just vote it down without trying to purge these people." "But they are separatists," was a typical response to me. "Well, they say they are not necessarily separatists and in any case I think[so-and-so] should not have tried to demonize them by suggesting they are somehow the 'usual suspects' by calling attention to another dubious amendment they had sponsored," I replied. My point being that we should exhibit more sensitivity to everyone's right to express themselves by framing a defence of not striking "unified Canada" in terms of how attacks on the party will be precluded by not striking. Use a "including this advances our common interests" argument, in other words. Yet after saying let's not apply litmus tests such that we run around with a spotlight to expose the heretics, there's this gentleman applying a litmus test in the most flagrant way to another Wildroser, in a letter to all members. I've often taken issue with leftist activists who initiate attacks by raising social issues that the victim of the attack has not raised. But any such attack against this guy would of course be after he had insisted on making an issue out of it in the first place.

When someone asked me to sign the nomination form for yet another competitor to Danielle on Friday evening (so far it appears there will be 3 candidates for leader) I later asked why he was here supporting this candidate in a nutshell and he replied that he was a social conservative. The question I have is what is the party supposed to do on the other 364 days of the year if abortion and gay marriage are banned on day 1 of forming the government? You've got to bring more to the table whatever your opinion is.

I do not believe either side here should be trying to purge the other (as it is I thought there was rather too much purging of environmentalists). An amendment came up that referred to the "conscience rights" of healthcare professionals. A girl at an adjacent table asked me what it meant. I said it was a "dog whistle" since everyone who is deeply concerned about abortion and/or birth control knows that that was what that one's about. I considered going up to the microphone and saying, look, let's not have hidden agendas here, let's be explicit about what this is about, regardless of one's views for or against. But I felt that that would be the "smoking out" that I felt should be avoided if we are going to work as a team so I stayed seated. In the end, further evidence that there was confusion was implied by the fact an amendment on "government employees" that was explicitly identified at the microphone as a gay marriage dog whistle was rejected while the unexplicitly identified amendment passed. This when gay marriage has considerably more skeptics in Alberta than abortion prohibitions.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

what he said

Duke law professor John Hasnas in the WSJ makes the argument I wished to make about the "unseen" but provides a series of examples that drive the point home more convincely and then states the conclusion more succintly:
The law consists of abstract rules because we know that, as human beings, judges are unable to foresee all of the long-term consequences of their decisions and may be unduly influenced by the immediate, visible effects of these decisions. The rules of law are designed in part to strike the proper balance between the interests of those who are seen and those who are not seen. The purpose of the rules is to enable judges to resist the emotionally engaging temptation to relieve the plight of those they can see and empathize with, even when doing so would be unfair to those they cannot see.
Calling on judges to be compassionate or empathetic is in effect to ask them to undo this balance and favor the seen over the unseen.

I would apologize for my inferior writing skills but I seem to be in good company... "Sotomayor ... nearly flunked out of her first year at Princeton because her writing skills were so poor..."

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

David Brooks and the pantheon of pundits

David Brooks has e-mailed Greg Mankiw noting that "many of [the] best sources on the crisis teach at B schools, not Econ Departments. I've also found that a rising number of people I learn from also teach at B-Schools." I was about to post a note about how this does not surprise me at all, and not just because my experience as a MBA student and my working with MA Econ graduates in the Finance Department (although the economists at Finance Canada are more practical than those at the Bank of Canada, the working level experience in the central bank being pretty close to that of a pure research lab).

But I couldn't resist making an aside about Brooks that should probably be separate for length and readability, and that is that David Brooks is probably my favorite pundit these days (Andrew Coyne is always good but has not been updated in more than a year). Pat Buchanan? I've already discussed at length what I called the "necessary enigma of Pat Buchanan". Charles Krauthammer is probably the best arguer out there, and if you really need someone to bash a left wing argument to pieces, Krauthammer is the go-to guy. But Krauthammer has that oppositional, pugilistic style that is more suited to down-market "on the left, we have some poor sap, and on the right, Charles Krauthammer!" talk shows than, say, a deliberative PBS forum (which, not coincidentally, is where Brooks can be found Friday nights). The memo to Krauthammer on dialing down the stridency should be CCed to the entire gang at the National Review. What about David Frum over at Paleo-con Jerry Pournelle calls him "the egregious Frum", which presumptively puts Frum on the wrong side of the neo-/non-neo conservative divide. Having acknowledged that, Frum has done yeoman's work in advocating for consumption taxation in lieu of taxes that stifle investment and free enterprise in his latest book. Mark Steyn, of course, is the wittiest pundit out there but in many respects he is a postmodern culture critic. Unlike Brooks, Steyn doesn't get me thinking so much as laughing. My old high school classmate and fellow Albertan Colby Cosh is also a bemused observer of life but is even more detached than Steyn. George F. Will? Solid. His indictment of denim, in which he works in quotes from Edmund Burke, is typically quality work. Fareed Zakeria? Always good for a good sense editorial, and his latest is a must read. But neither Will nor Zakeria have Brooks' philosophical temperament. Note in particular Brooks' reference to whom he is learning from in his e-mail to Mankiw. This is someone who has the humility and self-doubt befitting an examiner of life.

Sotomayor: the issue in a nutshell

Last August I wrote:
the fact I'm a male of northern European heritage, for example, says a great deal about me, and it isn't a moral statement but rather an insight. It's an explanation for why I think what I think and do what I do, not a justification.
In a nutshell this is my problem with Sotomayor. She has called attention to the fact she is a female of Puerto Rican heritage not as an explanation for her conclusions but as a justification. Nothing prescriptive follows from my observation of myself; there is no ought implied by what is. The Sotomayor nomination, in contrast, is being presented against a background call for "empathy".

critics of Sotomayor nomination taking wrong approach

On his website, Newt Gingrich is taking back some of his earlier remarks saying the use of the word "racist should not have been applied to Judge Sotomayor as a person, even if her words themselves are unacceptable."

As he should. Now one can certainly argue that the difference between a racist and the words he or she uses is an excessively semantic distinction, such that if someone indeed claimed that she is "better" at deriving a "conclusion" because she is "Latina" as opposed to "a white male", that person is indeed subscribing to doctrines of superiority and Newt should not have surrendered the right to make a hostile but plausible point to the politically correct police so easily. But reifying his concern into opposition to a particular person, a person with whom a significant part of the population sympathesizes with immediately and the the rest will sympathesize with in short order given the prospect of seeing her and her emotional reactions when grilled by questioners, is a textbook example of why thinking conservatives fail to make political headway. It is like opposing a taxpayer funded social program for impersonal fiscal reasons and then attacking a particular beneficiary of the program in order to make the point. Reify the debate like that and people will look into the eyes of a particular person who would fail to benefit if you got your way and emotionally turn against you.

Again and again, we see dubious government spending because the public has a clear visual of and easy identification with the party standing to benefit and the loser is abstract and distant, like the anonymous taxpayer, or, even more remotely, the taxpaying corporation. Have you ever seen a corporation with tears in its eyes? And so it is that the political right is accused of hardheartedness, a charge that should only be germane to personal relationships, and the accusation carries political water.

The President is no political idiot: if the legitimacy of Obama's repeated calls for "empathy" are generally accepted, it is going to politically undermine conservative advocacy at a very fundamental level. I once heard the psychology behind the political left described as being, at its most basic, revulsion at the visual of pain. If it's true, then the political success of the left is inversely related to the debate's level of abstraction.

If the left should wish to deny this, then call them on why it was the political right that demanded a do-over on the Harriet Miers nomination in favour of a nominee in the Scalia mold, in contrast to Obama's approach which has been to repeatedly downplay the relevance of capacity for legal theorizing.

Instead of making the debate about Sotomayor the person, one could make it about one of the particular human losers of her decisions, namely the person Frank Ricci. Consideration of the fact that Frank Ricci has had to struggle in life too should expose the necessary irrelevance of "empathy". But the high road, the approach that makes the public debate more constructive, may be to make it about whether the judiciary should have a role distinct from the legislature. If politicians just appoint judges who are likely to support their vision of legislation, the judiciary just becomes an extension of the legislature. Make the case that the judiciary's job is to interpret the law, and not just interpretation that advances the "making of law" project of partisan politicians further down the field, but interpretation that reconciles conflicts and tries to bring coherency and predictability to the stream of unsystematic populist legislation emerging from the legislature. In the case of a trial judge, great powers of abstraction are not required; in fact, the "ivory tower" personality may fail to give due attention to the facts. But at the appeal level, facts are less of a focus; indeed, in theory one can only appeal a "question of law", not a "question of fact". And at the Supreme Court level, issues may be expected to get into the realm of philosophy.

"Grill" the nominee for comments on her views of Frederick Schauer, in addition to Ronald Dworkin, Richard Posner, and other prominent legal thinkers. It is these sorts of people who should be on the Supreme Court, in my opinion. One could even go further and appoint public intellectuals with political philosophy backgrounds as opposed to legal backgrounds for appointments at this level; eg. thinkers in the tradition of John Rawls or Robert Nozick. At a minimum, Supreme Court nominees who demonstrate an interest in and aptitude for understanding these thinkers should be favoured.