Wednesday, July 28, 2010

the Wikipedia agenda

A point of pride for "the encyclopedia that anyone can edit" is its declared "neutral point of view".

Just what is neutral, however, seems to depend on one's point of view.

In October 2006 Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee ruled unanimously that
- A website that engages in the practice of publishing private information concerning the identities of Wikipedia participants will be regarded as an attack site whose pages should not be linked to from Wikipedia pages under any circumstances.
and that
- Links to attack sites may be removed by any user; such removals are exempt from 3RR. Deliberately linking to an attack site may be grounds for blocking.

In November 2008, Wikileaks, an organization founded and directed by Julian Assange, published "[t]he names, addresses and telephone numbers of more than 10,000 current and former members" of the British National Party, including persons who asked for "discretion." This disclosure occurred in an environment where persons perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be sympathetic to the BNP were often receiving death threats. As it was, at least one person was fired from his job as a direct result of Wikileaks' posting.

Would Wikipedia extend the same principles that its "ArbCom" said applied to its own "participants" to everyone, by calling Wikileaks an "attack site" in the wake of its leaking of the BNP membership list?

Evidently not, since not only to does the Wikipedia article "Afghan War Diary" (a title drawn from Wikileaks chosen name for what other media dubbed the Afghanistan "War Logs") link to Wikileaks' website, it provides a mirror as well. If Wikipedia didn't helpfully link to a mirror, Wikileaks' servers might be overwhelmed, and given that foundations that support innovative free press initatives have declined to fund Wikileaks, Wikileaks might otherwise be forced to spend money on more server capacity.

Meanwhile, the New York Times makes a point of stating that "[w]e have not linked to the archives of raw material. " A prudent position, it would appear, given that
In just two hours of searching the WikiLeaks archive, The Times found the names of dozens of Afghans credited with providing detailed intelligence to US forces. Their villages are given for identification and also, in many cases, their fathers’ names.

What does Wikileaks director Julian Assange have to say about the the possibility that these informants may be harmed? Assange suggests that they may have it coming to them anyway, by arguing that many informers were “acting in a criminal way” by sharing false information with NATO authorities. Assange also blames the White House by saying the White House could have and should have helped Wikilinks vet that data and declaring that "[t]he United States appears to have given every UN soldier and contractor access to the names of many of its confidential sources without proper protection."

"The most dangerous men" says Assange, "are those who are in charge of war. And they need to be stopped." According to the Wikileaks director, the files he leaked suggest "thousands" of "war crimes" have committed. "I enjoy crushing bastards. So it is enjoyable work" was his comment to Der Spiegel.

Wikipedia's editing community has no problem with linking to Assange's website when Assange deems NATO's informants collateral damage in his battle against American "bastards" or when Wikileaks exposes members of a right wing British political party to hostility, but go on to Wikipedia and link to a site that reveals the mere name of a Wikipedian and you're banned? if people behave so much better on the web when they are anonymous.

A Times editorial argues that "[n]o established news organisation in the world would have published these leaks in full, nor should they." For all the talk on Wikipedia about the need for "consensus", whatever the external consensus is is secondary to the consensus of the internal collection of left-libertarian Wikipedians. Such it is that general "social or religious norms" are declared to be of no concern, despite the fact that the declaration itself creates an internal norm by marginalizing Wikipedians who want to take a more responsible stand on, say, the issue of censorship.

What Wikipedia - and Wikileaks, for that matter - don't seem to appreciate is that they are undermining their avowed missions of bringing knowledge to the world when they play the role of activist because lose that intangible and increasingly rare (on the internet) attribute called authority. Pornographic images and videos (parental advisory re those two links) are on Wikipedia, supposedly to "educate", but how is the education mission really being served when schools will have little choice but to block Wikipedia if it continues down this road?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

the hazards of populism

Last week I blogged about how the Harper Tories have alienated authoritative voices for conservative economics, namely the Economist and Andrew Coyne. Although the example I chose for Coyne's views dated from a year ago, I could have also directed readers to his March 29, 2010 blogpost, in which Coyne barely conceals his contempt.

With some stretching, I could extend "authoritative voices for conservative economics" to the Globe and Mail editorial board, and trot out as an example of the G&M's right lean on fiscal matters the paper's July 20 editorial, which noted that "[t]rimming growth in the public-sector pay bill is necessary to address provincial fiscal woes" and called on public sector unions to make "concessions in their next collective agreement..."

When James Travers complains that "Harper encouraged loyalists to ignore experts and go with their gut" on the matter of crime and punishment, Travers can be dismissed as a typical Toronto Star pundit, notwithstanding the fact that the Economist has also taken issue with the government's crime and punishment stance. The decision to change the conduct of the census, however, is off-side with too many "experts", from too many fields, and the Tory attempts to stoke passions about intrusive and coercive government were, this time, too nakedly an Ottawa initiative to ignite the righteous fury of the grassroots. This week, the G&M editorial board dubbed the census move "folly" and Colby Cosh, another economic conservative pundit (on the rare occasion when he writes on that topic), largely agreed. If it just stopped there, with the pundit class, the matter would have nonetheless blown over, but this time the concern stretched deep into the public policy establishment, culminating in the resignation of the country's Chief Statistician.

Industry Minister Tony Clement says "The government took this decision because we do not believe Canadians should be forced, under threat of fines, jail, or both, to divulge extensive private and personal information." One can imagine how this rationale could be perceived around the cabinet table as a powerful one-liner in the heat of an election campaign dominated by sound bites (not that this was really a cabinet decision as opposed to a Harper decision). They likely imagined that the worst case scenario was that the chattering classes would natter on about how it was Harper Tories 1 Nuance 0 for the zillionth time, a complaint that has been around for a long time now without finding much political traction. The resignation of Statistics Canada's top civil servant wasn't anticipated, however. Why? Because
1) the special nature of the Statistics group was not considered, and
2) Harper has a general contempt for the opinions of the civil service

re (1), Norman Spector perspicaciously zeroed in on this one when he called attention to a letter to the editor by a UBC economist, who wrote
Decades ago, we established that the Bank of Canada needs to operate at arm’s length from political interference. The same should be true of the national statistical agency. If statistical collection changes with the ideological whims of the government, the very basis of government decision-making, transparency and trust is shattered.
Keep in mind here that the people inside Finance Canada were unanimously opposed to the Harper/Flaherty decision to cut the GST because of its opportunity cost. But had the Deputy Minister of Finance resigned, it would have offended many Canadians' belief that elected officials are in charge at the end of the day and it is the job of civil servants, however expert they may be, to follow orders. While I think there should be more transparency surrounding the incidents where the advice of the Department of Finance is rejected so the electorate is more informed, I would certainly grant that Finance cannot be at full arm's length to the government. There is no good reason why the national statistical agency cannot be at arm's length, however.

re (2), during my time in Ottawa working at Finance I became aware of some of Harper's margin notes in the memos he was receiving from the PCO. "Bullsh*t" was his view of one claim by a civil servant. "Justice doesn't know what the **** they are talking about" was his view of another, which summarized the view of the Justice Department on a particular matter.

The Tories could feed their bloggers like Stephen Taylor information in an attempt to discredit the resigning Munir Sheikh as a political partisan, or some such thing, but how convincing, really, is the tenet that the Chief Statistician is part of a conniving cabal of elites out to deprive Canadians of their civil liberties, as opposed to someone who just takes his job seriously? How would the fact that Munir Sheikh's predecessor agrees with him be explained away? The "elites" have finally scored a blow that I expect will be more than glancing against Team Harper, partially because it involves a matter that is of interest to more than just those who follow politics closely, and mostly because there are just too many "elites" this time, and from too broad a field to be pigeon-holed as Toronto liberals. Stephan Taylor is soldiering on on behalf of what he calls "ordinary citizens", but I don't think his argument, which appears to be that obscuring the stats would be a laudable step towards dealing "a huge blow to the welfare state", is going to fly when the opposition here includes Chambers of Commerce.

At 12:05 today a commentator in the Globe and Mail's "Cover It Live" session suggested that citizens take this opportunity to "review the state of policy-making..." "is there a typical development path for new policies originating from a governing political party vs. the civil service?" asked the commentator. Indeed. In the case of Alberta's Wildrose party, the party does not appear to anticipate any role for the the civil service beyond carrying out the wishes of the "grassroots". Is there any doubt that if the following resolution were made at a Wildrose policy convention, that it would pass?
A Wildrose government would not require Albertans to provide Statistics Canada with the number of bedrooms in their home, or what time of the day they leave for work, or how long it takes them to get there. A Wildrose government would not force Albertans to divulge detailed personal information under threat of prosecution.
Note that this would be taken almost verbatim from what Clement has said about his government's census decision. If the matter is really so simple as this statement suggests it is, why is this census change even controversial?

Canada has developed an international reputation for evidence-based decision-making. The alarming thing about this story is that the Harper government seems to prefer decision-based evidence-making.
- Armine Yalnizyan

The U.S. Census Bureau tested out the idea of making a mandatory national survey voluntary ... but quickly discarded the idea because it produced what was deemed unreliable data at an exorbitant price.
- Montreal Gazette

Saturday, July 17, 2010

shifting the spectrum

My last post noted Andrew Coyne's contention that "All [the Conservatives] have done is shift the spectrum further and further to the left."

With this in mind let's revisit the successful move to kill the Wildrose policy plank that called for "restor[ing] education as an essential service under the Labour Code ensuring no child's right to an education is denied by school strikes or lockouts."

During the 2001 British Columbia election campaign, the BC Liberals promised to restore education as an "essential service" in order to "prevent immediate and serious disruption to the provision of educational programs." On May 16 of that year Liberal candidates captured 77 out of 79 seats in the provincial legislature. The new Gordon Campbell government then acted on this promise and made other changes to the Labour Code to the applause of the province's business community.

During the 2007 Saskatchewan election campaign, Brad Wall's Sask Party promised to bring in "essential services" legislation. On November 7 of that year, Wall and his party won a clear majority of the seats and a majority of the popular vote. Moreover, a poll in early 2008 found that "two-thirds of Saskatchewan people support the government's proposed essential services legislation." While this legislation did not deal with teachers per se or ban strikes outright, it applied to "government, Crown Corporations, universities and SIAST, health employers and municipalities." The president of the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union (SGEU) deplored what he considered to be “definitely the worst essential services legislation in Canada."

At the same time, the Wall government amended the Trade Union Act to require a "Mandatory secret ballot certification or decertification vote." The Wildrose policy platform similarly says that
a Wildrose government will extend to workers the democratic right to a secret ballot vote on labour organization certification under the Labour Code and ensure that the same rule apply for de-certification as for certification
However, at last month's Wildrose AGM, of the 450 votes counted at that meeting, just 56% of (presumably committed, since most of them traveled to Red Deer) card carrying Wildrosers supported keeping this plank. This while 67% of polled Saskatchewan citizens of all political affiliation supported the Sask Party's labour policy. Premier Brad Wall continues to bask in popular support.

What the Wildrose caucus, which led the charge on these union coddling moves, has managed to do is render labour policy that is government policy in both of Alberta's neighbours fringe policy in Alberta. Premier Ed calls quashing teachers' right to strike "draconian" and Wildrose agrees, never mind that Wildrose was polling ahead of the premier's party at the time he leveled the charge.

Given this, how is one to argue with Ted Morton, whose party has presided over the erosion of Alberta's competitiveness relative to its neighbours, when he claims that Wildrose is in basic agreement with his party as far as policy goes ("We all believe in the same thing and want the same results")?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Harper Conservatives show their teeth on everything but fiscal policy

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's appearance at the annual Calgary Stampede BBQ has prompted some commentary. Alberta Finance Minister Ted Norton used the opportunity to make the interesting declaration that, with respect to his provincial party and the Wildrose, "We all believe in the same thing and want the same results." I'll nonetheless leave that claim aside for now and instead opine on Vancouver-based Adrian MacNair's lament that
the current Conservatives have adopted the kind of woolly-headed, socialist, nanny-state ideals that would make any Liberal feel quite at home.
While all too regrettably true, what's galling is that despite these policies, small l and big L liberals still feel anything but at home in Harper's party. This primarily because the party's culture represents everything that is offensive to small L liberal sensibilities.

The authoritative Economist has not been shy about exhibiting its distaste for the Harper regime this year. St Albert pundit David Climenhaga has fingered the British weekly as a "venerable" but "pretentious newsmagazine" (perhaps alluding to one of its advertising lines "[i]t's lonely at the top, but at least there's something to read") that provides "wistful right-wing drivel" "for credulous capitalists around the globe" and describes its upscale readership as "people who wish they were rich." The Observer (a unit of the UK's left leaning Guardian) has tut-tutted that the Economist's "writers rarely see a political or economic problem that cannot be solved by the trusted three-card trick of privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation." Yet what John Ralston Saul has further described as "the Bible of the corporate executive" mocked Harper's rationale for pro-roguing Parliament in January and charged, "Never mind what his spin doctors say: Mr Harper’s move looks like naked self-interest." The prime minister has a "ruthless streak" in the Economist's view which suggests that he is the same man who threw away a chance at 24 Sussex in 2004 by claiming that then-Prime Minister Paul Martin approved of child pornography. As a columnist observed at the time, Harper "showed his teeth."

In December the Economist observed that
A third of the 63 bills introduced in the House of Commons in the past year have dealt with some aspect of criminal justice, and more are on their way. Despite complaints that a similar, purely punitive approach has not worked in the United States, and that piecemeal change will clog up the justice system and leave taxpayers with a larger bill, the government has not deviated.
Never mind that the association representing Crown prosecutors appeared before the much maligned Senate to plead for a more evidence-based approach. Fiscal conservatives have to concede, yet again, as the prisoner population increases, costing taxpayers $93 000 per year per prisoner.

The Economist is hardly a lone voice here. Andrew Coyne's observations of a year ago on the federal Conservatives, which Mike Brock posted to Youtube, should be must see viewing for Wildrose party supporters in Alberta who believe Harper, who cannot find the political support for an agenda that is not even as fiscally conservative as that of the politically dominant Liberals in the mid-1990s, has really shown the way.
On policy after policy, they have not simply watered down or moved incrementally, they have abandoned their convictions...
It is too easy to just say that politics is the art of the possible, and leave it at that, because it allows other people to define what is possible... a truer statement is that politics is the art of enlarging the possible. Politics is not just a matter of giving people what they want, it is a matter of making them want what you want them to want. It is not just a matter of moving to the middle... it is a matter of moving the middle to you. ...
All [the Conservatives] have done is shift the spectrum further and further to the left. The right wing of Canadian politics is now defined by 35 billion dollar deficits [and] by record high levels of spending...
- Andrew Coyne
If one is going to sell-out, at least sell-out for something. Not that getting into the good graces of the Economist and Andrew Coyne would constitute a stooping that self-described conservatives should ever be ashamed of anyway. Label them "liberal " and it doesn't change the dynamic: these are the sorts of liberals who need to be onside if a conservative movement is going to have the support of the majority. Pundits warning conservative movements against going down the Tea Party road late last year have been silenced this year as the electorate has shifted to the right, but the unthinking populism of the Tea Party still represents a political dead end.

In Alberta, I doubt that some of the "moderation" efforts that have been initiated by influential players in Alberta's Wildrose Alliance are going to produce nearly as many votes as hoped for, not least because it is the party's image and communications that needs to have its edges sanded off as opposed to the policy platform. Show one's teeth on the budget, and one's smile on everything else (the exact opposite of the Harper approach, in other words). Turning over communications from Shawn Howard to a shrill caucus is not going to help on this count.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

constructive criticism?

Rudy de Haas, Wildrose's most prominent organizer in Lethbridge, says he has quit the party. He was a constituency association president and was on the party's policy committee.

Reviewing Rudy's complaints I find it difficult to see things Rudy's way. But why is that when I have also described myself as "disillusioned" with the party?

The first reason may be that an alternative to quitting is stepping back and seeing how the future plays out. In my own case I have taken myself "out of the loop" (not that I was ever that much of an insider) in recent months but I am still a party member. After all, things can change.

More important in my view is the rationale for taking issue with the party in front of a large audience. Rudy seems to be very upset with the procedures which led to what was voted on at the AGM. But how do the procedures really matter in the end if the policy that is generated in the end is acceptable? Nobody outside the party cares much about how the party came up with the policy planks it did.

Even more critically, what ends up in the party policy book is not that important anyway. How much of what contemporary western governments do follows from what is in the policy platforms of their governing political parties? I know Wildrose aspires to be different on that count, but if the party was really serious about holding its elected MLAs accountable it would ensure that the policy planks were written in such a way that a MLA couldn't possibly weasel out of what they called for. The current reality is that the Wildrose policy platform has oodles of wet noodles that couldn't nail down an ordinary person never mind a politician who has made a profession out evasive maneuvers. The other parties are even worse when it comes to taking a clear stand on what's controversial but that fact alone doesn't excuse anything.

But if professed policy (from a source that is unlikely to ever become a minister) is irrelevant, and procedure even more so, what does matter?


Which people? The caucus. The biggest change in the party between now and December is that it has 3 new caucus members and these people have had enormous influence over the party's communications. It is the party's people in the legislature who will ultimately decide the province's direction if the party forms government. I have issues with all four of the ones currently there. Lorne Gunter writes:
So where do I get off saying they’ve stalled?

Let’s start with the acquisition of Mr. Boutillier.

Gunter then proceeds to outline concerns that should be taken seriously. I am not quite so inclined to put the party in the gunsights as Gunter because I hold out hope that it is not, in fact, true that "getting him to cross over from the Independent seats will have come at the price of a post in any future Alliance cabinet." (Memo to Lorne: it is rival parties interested in tying the party to its Randy "referenda on abortion and gay marriage!" Thorsteinson days that describe it as "Alliance" alone) Given the sensitivity that was exhibited towards the floor crossers' personal interests in January, however, I don't hold out hope with much confidence.

Both Boutilier and Rob Anderson have politician written all over them. That isn't entirely a bad thing because it means they have people skills, skills I am quite jealous of. But I prefer the style of, say, Heather Forsyth who together with Danielle makes a good argument for getting more women into politics. While my differences with Rob are more or less summed up by the Canadian Press wire story that quotes me (twice, actually, since I believe I'm also the "one delegate" who objected to "wishy washy" resolutions), my problem with Heather is that she is just too far to the left fiscally. The Economist that went to press today had an article titled "an unavoidable clash" that said "[the public sector] unions may mobilise against the [British] government’s plans to curb public pay and pensions. But they are defending the indefensible." I cannot see Heather taking up the gauntlet on behalf of taxpayers despite the nobility and urgency of a showdown with the union lobby. Never mind the fact that every dollar that goes into a union member's pension is one less dollar for a school, a hospital bed, a library, etc. Heather has been a great champion for children's interests (named Reader's Digest' Canadian Hero for the year 2002) but had little of note to say about the neglect of the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund (and saving in general) despite chairing the Standing Committee for that fund when revenues were rolling in. As for Paul Hinman, I still have great respect for him. He is conscientious and a genuine conservative. But I'm afraid Paul's obsession with Legislature matters may have led to the party into becoming too interested in picking up floor-crossers. Wildrose may not be treated well by the governing party on the Leg grounds but as far as most Albertans are considered these scraps are inside baseball.

The final test for whether criticism is constructive is whether the damage complained of has already been done such that the problem can't be fixed anyway. The AGM cannot be done over again. But what we could and should yet see is the caucus leaving the limelight to the leader. The caucus cannot win over voters to anything like the extent the leader can but caucus (and this includes future candidates) can very much lose votes for the party. So... No issuing news releases that have not been thoroughly vetted by the leader, by party communications, and by some sort of policy committee or expert(s). No back room deals for floor crossers, or for caucus members lobbying for special interests, or the appearance of such. No more fawning over caucus members by party spokespeople. Continue to pay little heed to the Ken Chapmans and David Climenhagas who will not be shaken from the view that Wildrose is but a front for the oil lobby and intolerant extremists but do pay heed to observers like Lorne Gunter and the Alberta Altruist (on that note, somebody should ask Rob Anderson what happened to AA since he lives in Anderson's riding).

Saturday, July 3, 2010

the short version

I realize that most readers are not going to read my last post because it is just too long, never mind all five of my posts in the last week.

So I direct those interested in the short version of my concern to this story by the left-leaning (for the USA) New York Times, Labor’s New Critics: Old Allies in Elected Office. The fiscal chickens are coming home to roost to such an extent across the US that even ex-labour leaders turned public office holders are finally standing up to the public sector unions.

Yet here in Alberta there doesn't seem to be a politician anywhere on the political spectrum willing to talk tough while the fiscal chickens are still in the air, so to speak. The eventual result of this is going to be the fiscal crises we are seeing elsewhere coming to Alberta and when that happens, the new teachers, nurses, and public employees of that time will likely be scapegoated in an over-reaction because there was a severe under-reaction earlier that allowed today's public union pensioners to get away with unsustainable or unjustly enriched agreements.

Wildrose AGM review Part 5 - caucus proposals

The "caucus" submitted several policy proposals to the membership, and most of them sought to soften policies that were perceived as "harsh".

The first caucus proposal to come up for a vote sought to delete the plank calling for a striking of section 3. Presumably (there was little explanation here) what concerned caucus here is that prohibitions against discrimination would be weakened should the section simply be struck (there is language to the effect of "indicates discrimination or an intention to discriminate" in the section). The question for me, however, was why there was any need to finesse this policy plank when even the Sheldon Chumir Foundation, which draws its name from a former Liberal MLA, thinks a simple repeal of section 3 acceptable.

Of greater concern to me, however, were the caucus calls to compromise the party's commitment to economic freedom. The caucus called for a deletion of the clause allowing individual workers to freely choose their membership in labour organizations and deletion of the clause protecting workers' "democratic right to a secret ballot vote" (card check, here we come!). These clauses were to be replaced with
A Wildrose Government will review labour laws to ensure fairness for all workers whether employed in union or non-union settings.
Readers of this blog may recall that before the AGM I objected to the "fairness" language, but the edition of the Economist that came out during the week after the AGM expresses the objection to "fairness" much more clearly and convincingly:
the fact that everybody believes in fairness is a clue to what’s wrong with the notion. Like that other warm-blanket word, “community”, it signals limp thinking. What exactly is “fair” about restricting trade, for instance? Or “unfair” about letting successful people in business or other fields enjoy the fruits of their enterprise without punitive taxes? ...
To one lot of people, fairness means establishing the same rules for everybody, playing by them, and letting the best man win and the winner take all. To another, it means making sure that everybody gets equal shares.
Those two meanings are not just different: they are opposite. They represent a choice that has to be made between freedom and equality. Yet so slippery—and thus convenient to politicians—is the English language that a single word encompasses both, and in doing so loses any claim to meaning.
Fairness is fudge. This newspaper will have none of it. We reject the wide, woolly notion of fairness in favour of sharper, narrower words that mean what they say, like just or cruel.

The Economist "will have none of it". But the Wildrose caucus evidently can't get enough of it, because they wanted yet another clause in the Labour section deleted and replaced with "fairly" (albeit this time with only union members being identified as those who needed to be "treated fairly"!). When the membership agreed with the caucus on that second proposal the party leader said that the vote illustrated the party's "sophistication." Thus did the Wildrose Alliance give the Economist a lesson in subtle and urbane thinking!

If the caucus had just argued that Premier Stelmach was right when he claimed that denying a right to strike is "draconian", even when a strike would deny children their right to an education, that would have been one thing, but Rob Anderson called on the membership to "trust the caucus", as if only a Leg grounds insider could really understand. Both Anderson and Heather Forsyth also wanted to turn several other policy planks that teachers' unions don't like into uncontroversial platitudes, and instead of arguing that, for example, the social science evidence indicates that "'school choice' legislation" is a bad idea, Anderson insisted that "anything that suggests 'vouchers' is a red flag." Just why a showdown in the bull ring must be avoided was not explained. As it was, I agreed with caucus and voted for some measures that watered down demands for things like testing because I have come across conflicting research on the topic. I agreed with Heather Forsyth that the party should be cognizant of the fact that eliminating the policy of social promotion denies parents a right. We should only have planks on matters on which we have done extensive research. But expert opinion did not seem to be of as much interest to caucus as the opinion of powerful lobbies. Anderson called on the membership to heed various "stakeholders" and, if I recall correctly, Forsyth opposed every measure that would hold teachers accountable for performance.

The problem with this "stakeholders" talk is that it means that when it comes to the budget, should the party try to take away a chair before the music stops from those who are making claims on taxpayer resources, the civil service unions will not be the ones left standing. Given Danielle Smith's assertion that raising royalties was the "single worst decision any premier of our province has ever made", it's fair to expect that the oil patch won't be left standing when the music stops either. There isn't a political party in Canada for which healthcare spending is not a sacred cow. So who will get the short straw, or will no one get it, such that the government spending just rolls on as it did when PC finance minister Iris Evans responded to questions about ballooning spending by asking "where would you cut?" Maybe all the Wildrose words about fiscal conservatism will convert themselves into million dollar bills so that a "stakeholder"-pleasing budget surplus can be painlessly generated?

Given how little emphasis the party has placed on corporate taxation since the time when I was a candidate in 2008, I suspect that businesses not directly involved in energy extraction will get little relief from a Wildrose government. The Wildrose leader has already complained that "big corporations" are getting too much from the current PC government (albeit within a specific context where I agree). At the AGM the party membership voted to water down a clause that "a Wildrose Government will increase research and development", a move that I saw as penny wise and pound foolish since R&D and post-secondary education are broadly recognized by economists as representing the biggest positive externalities, i.e. the areas with the best argument for receiving taxpayer support. A growing economy means growing tax revenues, and economic growth is driven by innovation and investment. Who invests in property, plant, and equipment? Corporations. Unions, in contrast, consume, and not only do the incomes, benefits, and pensions they draw represent consumption but they represent a share of provincial income that was acquired by means of anti-competitive practices. Just because they are applied to the supply of labour doesn't make it any less the application of monopoly power.

Am I out of step with the mainstream in my views here? Absolutely. It is the prevailing wisdom of the mainstream, the accept norm of recent years, that is off track. Peoples' preference for living for today and securing their own benefits and/or exemptions from taxpaying responsibilities at the expense of the public purse is creating a steep bill for the next generation. Bear with me while I quote at length from the Economist again:
Rising government debt is a Ponzi scheme that requires an ever-growing population to assume the burden—unless some deus ex machina, such as a technological breakthrough, can boost growth. As Roland Nash, head of research at Renaissance Capital, an investment bank, puts it: 'Can the West, with its regulated industry, uncompetitive labour and large government, afford its borrowing-funded living standards and increasingly expensive public sectors?' ...
In the past 100 years the moral battle has moved in favour of the debtors. Bankruptcy is no longer stigmatised but simply regarded as bad luck. When consumers borrow beyond their means, the blame is laid on lax lending practices rather than irresponsible borrowing. ...
Clearly a society built on consumption will have to pay more attention to saving. ... The battle between borrowers and creditors may be the defining struggle of the next generation.
On the rare occasions when I disagree with the opinion of the Economist, it is because the magazine has gotten too close to idealistic libertarianism and too far from realistic conservativism. When the publication takes such a conservative approach as to reference the long term "moral battle," you can be assured I am 110% in agreement. The #1 candidate for austerity ought to be the public sector, yet our politicians seem to insist on the necessity of further indulging a section of society that has sailed through the recent financial crisis/recession while the private sector has suffered. Even California is starting to appreciate that something has to be done; as the NY Times reports
For the last few years, California stood more or less unchallenged as a symbol of the fiscal collapse of states during the recession. Now Illinois has shouldered to the fore, as its dysfunctional political class refuses to pay the state’s bills and refuses to take the painful steps — cuts and tax increases — to close a deficit of at least $12 billion, equal to nearly half the state’s budget. ...
The state pension system is a money sinkhole...

This is the crisis of our age. If the music has not yet stopped, it is going to, and not just one chair but several have to be taken away.

I would more inclined to give Rob Anderson the "trust" he asked for if he had not spent the last provincial campaign trying to further expand the legislative presence of a government that had been increasing spending at double digit rates. Back in January of this year I expressed some concern about the floor crossings, not because I was fundamentally opposed in principle but because there appeared to be too much accommodation of the crossers. Liza Yuzda quoted Danielle Smith as saying holding by-elections would mean the new caucus members could "be without an income for six months." Now I could sarcastically say "cry me a river" but I wanted to take, shall we say, a "sophisticated" stance on the issue at that time. When Rob Anderson took to the platform last Saturday to complain about his expected remuneration after Link Byfield had just presented the conclusions of his "MLA pay and perks" task force, my opinion on the terms of the floor crossings, or the absence thereof, became a lot less sophisticated and a lot more simple. Link had essentially put some of his political capital on the line at the beginning of this year when he indicated that he believed the floor crossings came about for reasons he had no problem supporting, yet here Anderson follows up Link's one appearance on the AGM platform to conspicuously fail to support Link's work.

The capstone to my disillusionment was set when, near the end of the AGM, someone involved in operations told a reporter that every constituency has a membership count of 140 or more. I don't have the latest numbers and am not at liberty to disclose them but I do know that this claim is certainly false. As far as I was concerned, Edmonton Journal reporter Archie McLean was being deliberately misled, and even if the Journal's editorial page hasn't been exceedingly fair with us, Archie certainly has been. The fact that Archie wasn't actually asking for that information is beside the point. Given that it is also the case that constituency organizers have quit because of conflicts with this person, were I in charge I would have deemed giving inaccurate information to the media grounds for firing. Given that the daughter of an Edmonton Decore organizer was fired from staff for no grounds or explanation at all (according to my information), it's not like the party can't do it. Recall that the party's office manager, Heather McMullen, was let go for allegedly "speaking out of turn" at the time of the floor crossings.

I was advised by a Wildroser after the AGM that it isn't the same party that I put time and money into in 2008. Of course. But going from the fringe to the mainstream need not entail getting offside with sound policy like that articulated by the Economist, or Jack Mintz, or the economic consensus which has little time for monopolies generally and unions specifically. We do not need every vote. Once the party starts thinking it does, it is hardly different from the P"C" party. When I talked to the new VP Policy last weekend before he was elected about a policy I thought fairly straightforward and a powerful political tool for maintaining fiscal conservatism (by reducing the revenue windfalls that seem to inevitably strengthen the bargaining power of interest groups wanting taxpayer money), namely hedging, I was advised that the hedging concept, or at least its implementation, was likely too abstract. My experience of the AGM suggested that even if sound policy was passed, the caucus is likely to want to water it down if powerful lobbies oppose it with the end result being that caucus' discretion is preserved. Where the party policy book is silent, such as on whether to support a national securities regulator, the caucus does not seem to have felt a need to be less than strident in taking a position in its press releases.

My multi-part review of the AGM has become more critical as it went along over this past week and has reached a climax with this post, as I have pointed the finger at caucus (Hinman excepted) for being too accommodating of insider lobbies and/or their own political and financial interests to maintain my confidence in the party's real, as opposed to rhetorical, commitment to enforcing fiscal conservatism and, indirectly but in turn, at the leadership for being too accommodating of caucus. The accommodation started back in December, if not before, but would not have reached what I consider an intolerable level had events at the AGM not reinforced my suspicions about which way the wind was blowing.

The AGM was not hijacked by the NDP - don't get me wrong - but neither was the old Reform party hijacked by the NDP; it was rather compromised to the point that it led to a government more centrally controlled (prorogue, anyone?) and fiscally loose (anyone for some Andrew Coyne opinion?) than the Liberal government it replaced (the Harper government has yet to freeze public service wages like the Liberals did). I got off the Tory train several years ago, when it became clear what the direction was. The Wildrose party seems to think that Stephen Harper has shown the way, and indeed he has, but to government, not to principled fiscal conservatism or to the post-partisanship that would ease voter alienation. Ironically, the very hardball political tactics that got the federal Conservatives to a minority government are what is preventing them from ever getting a majority government. We need to play hardball, all right, but with the root causes of the fiscal crisis that looms for developed country governments, a key one of which is the demands of the public sector unions and assorted lobbyists.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Wildrose AGM review Part 4 - Alberta Constitution, financial regulation, gun rights

One of the first policy planks to come up for a vote called for an Alberta Constitution. A lawyer (or law student?) helpfully pointed out this could well end up playing a similar role to that of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As such, it would serve to limit the discretion of the elected legislature. The membership ended up voting for this measure, but later on voted for a philosophically opposite measure by deleting a clause that called for a referendum before invoking section 33 of the Charter (the Notwithstanding Clause), thereby handing discretion for whether to "opt out" of applying a provision of the Charter within Alberta back to the legislature. A sponsor of the measure to delete the requirement for a referendum when using s. 33 claimed that there would otherwise have to be a referendum every 5 years, but in fact that is only true under an unreasonable interpretation of the Wildrose policy clause. There is nothing in Canadian law which would preclude a provincial legislature from holding a referendum once, and the legislature interpreting that as supporting, say, a 50 year mandate instead of 5, and accordingly renewing sans referendum the use of s. 33 ten times over that 50 year period (every 5 years as is required by Canadian law).

I supported the use of section 33 without holding a referendum and voted against bringing in an Alberta Constitution primarily because I am a conservative as opposed to a libertarian. At the heart of our current problems is not too little reference to rights but too little reference to responsibilities. An Alberta Constitution, like all forms of legislation that are intended to be superior to the legislation produced by a legislature, would restrict the power of the majority (presumably) in the name of protecting the minority. The net result of this is provide a means of legal redress against the coercive power of norms. If the norm is to not engage in a certain behaviour, by enshrining a constitutional right to engage in the behaviour, deviants can sue to preserve their right to deviate. That's all well and good in theory, but in practice norms are what hold society together and minimize the development of anomie. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms only works in a liberal / libertarian direction opposed to conservatism because of its fundamental nature: it is not a "Charter of Responsibilities". While I grant that an Alberta Constitution could include rights that conservatives would normally support as part of an alliance with libertarians, like property rights, having experienced life in 80-odd countries and studied law and society for several years I am convinced that what ultimately protects a "right" is a society's norms, not what is written in its law books. Whatever a country's constitution might say, it is going to be interpreted in a way that is consistent with the prevailing culture of that country and the mentality of its people. North Korea is formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea but in reality it is one of the least democratic jurisdictions in the world. An Alberta Constitution could ultimately make it more difficult to take necessary collective actions like creating budget surpluses, since it could create negative rights to not be taxed, positive rights to government services, or both. You might believe that the less collective action the better, but note that collective action is not necessarily government action. Whatever one's opinion on gay rights, for example, it is difficult to deny that the primary objective for those who used the Charter to advance gay rights was the erosion of the social norm than found same sex relations deviant. Government's role was really just incidental, since there was nothing stopping same sex couples from solemnizing their relationships before friends, family, and/or clergy. "Official" government recognition was important not for the piece of paper it involved but the message that was sent to the general public. Acceptance by society, as opposed to some formal government institution, was the most important goal.

Now it is true that an Alberta Constitution could enshrine things like "a marriage consists of one husband and one wife" but enshrining norms in legislation that is superior to elected legislatures is an abuse of power. Enshrining (true) rights at least has a rationale revolving around limiting majoritarianism. Enshrining whatever happens to be supported by the majority at a particular point in time (as reflected by the opinion of an elected legislature) as unchangeable for future majorities is to engage in unjustified exceptionalism. What is so special about today's norms that some of them should receive constitutional status? There has to be some sort of timelessness argument, and it is because I believe very very little is truly timeless than I oppose charters and lengthy, wide-ranging constitutions. Actually, I should correct that saying that I believe there are a number of timeless transcendent values but I am not inclined to force others to accept them by accepting my view of a constitution over theirs. Leave it to democracy. Choose conservative humility about what constitutes social justice over liberal arrogance. Constitutions and Charters take power away from democracies and hand that power to the framers of constitutions and charters. If an Alberta Constitution took power away from the federal government, I would interested in supporting it but, of course, an Alberta Constitution could control only the Alberta Legislature, not the Canadian Parliament.

Three policy proposals that came up later arose in a sequence and I ended up approaching the microphone to speak to all three. Two concerned labour and one concerned securities regulation. I'll address the labour matters in a subsequent post since otherwise this blogpost will be absurdly long. I spoke out against the proposal titled "Securities Act" because it just added clutter to the policy book. The policy planks should bind elected MLAs (and the party executive / leadership?) and this proposal didn't limit discretion at all. Gut securities regulation? Arguably OK because the proposed clause said the party supports greater protection for sellers of securities (against whom if not the buyers of securities, who would only have a positive action against the sellers if the law gave them one?). Increase the level of securities regulation? Just as defensible because the clause also called for greater protection of buyers of securities. A speaker in favour of adopting the policy plank made reference to the financial crisis, but I would refer readers to what the Economist wrote about the financial crisis just within the last day: "Though the financial crisis was global, it originated in America’s uniquely fragmented financial system, overseen by a patchwork of federal and state regulators." If the USA has a "patchwork of federal and state regulators" what does Canada have? Yet continuing or even increasing the "patchiness" of regulation in Canada seems to be exactly what the Wildrose leadership / caucus has in mind when it so intensely opposes a single national regulator. The Alberta Securities Act and Regulations is something like 3 inches think. It was my fattest statute book when I was in law school. Now times that by 13 for 10 provinces and 3 territories and call me when you are done reading, because only then have you mastered securities regulation throughout Canada, which represents, at most, 3% of global capital markets.

Were the party to adopt a plank like,
The Wildrose Alliance will use Alberta's influence over a national securities regulator to attempt to ensure that only financial derivatives listed on public exchanges may be traded in Canada
one might actually have something that got at what caused the crisis and helped prevent a future one. As that same Economist article notes, "[under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act] Most derivatives that now trade dealer-to-dealer will be traded on public exchanges. That will lessen the risk that one dealer’s failure brings down others." Why is the risk reduced? For two main reasons. The first and most direct is that exchanged traded products are marked to market, usually daily, such that if one's counterparty defaults, the default is on just one day's worth of margin, whereas if the product were off-exchange, days, months, and perhaps even years' worth of a position going against the counterparty could have built up, leading to a massive credit overhang. The second is more structural, and goes to the transparency of the system. As the Globe and Mail reported on June 30 in a story titled, "Ignorance of derivatives spurred AIG fall",
As markets slid toward chaos, [AIG and Goldman Sachs] quarrelled bitterly over what obscure derivatives were worth, current and former executives testified Wednesday.
Their testimony casts light on what has long been one of the murkiest episodes in the broader meltdown.
Most Wildrosers support free markets primarily because they are free. As an economist, I primarily support free markets because it is generally the case that free markets make fundamental price values more transparent (government bureaucracy obscures the state of true demand and supply). But in the case of derivatives, which, as their name suggests, derive their prices from more fundamental prices, they make the fundamental economic signals more obscure. An off-exchange derivative is especially obscure because it is a tailored, non-standardized product requiring a unique valuation.

At the end of the day, neither of these policy planks, the Alberta Constitution nor this "Securities Act" plank, were especially consequential in and of themselves. With respect to the Constitution, what will matter is what is in it, not whether it exists or not. And the Securities Act plank didn't say anything. One could argue that the proposal to add a clause after "a Wildrose government will entrench individual property rights" stating "ownership of firearms is a form of property rights" would have been consequential (had it passed) but I don't think it would have been of great import in any case aside from optics (meaning voting just on one's view of the optics was entirely appropriate). It really just said what should be obvious: if one owns a gun one owns a gun. Governments violate individual property rights all the time by taxing individuals; it is just a question how much property the individual is left with after the tax man departs. What would matter was how the proposed policy plank was interpreted, and on that count I voted against it because the context seemed to be that of raising the right to own a gun to the level of, say, the right to due process, i.e. beyond mere property right. The debate on the subject helped turn votes against the proposal, I suspect, since the respected Link Byfield spoke out against and speakers in favour used implausible and/or extreme rhetoric, e.g. "a man without a gun is a slave (a man with a gun is a citizen)." As it was, a Firearms section which contained a lot of pro-firearms language was added to the policy book later, and the presumptive reason why that passed and this first proposal didn't was because the later proposal was in a context that was more appropriate to gun rights being on the level of presumptively respected but practically regulated property rights than on the level of inalienable and absolute personal rights.

So what did really matter, in my view? The provisions that were union-related, for reasons I will explain in my my next post.