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


Stephen Taylor said...

I would only criticize Munir Sheikh if he were a partisan. He doesn't appear to be one.

Further, Chambers of Commerce are against the census change because the alternative is buying unsubsidized market-rate data elsewhere.

Also, you should not quote the Economist so heavily to illustrate the Tories being out of step when on the census, the Economist agrees with the Conservative position:

Brian Dell said...

The Economist article on the decreasing use of the census in Europe arguably supports the position of Ivan Fellegi, Sheikh's predecessor, as much as anything since Felligi has said,
"It would have been a heck of a lot better if this long-form census was cancelled because at least we would have saved $100 million — that would have had a rationale"

The facts are that instead of just cancelling the long form (never mind the short form), the govt is undertaking a change that StatsCan says will cost $30 million more than the status quo.

Stephen Taylor said...

Goodness, imagine the riots if the Tories didn't replace the mandatory with voluntary and instead scrapped the long-form completely!

Blog Admin said...

Hi there. I would argue Simpson, like the media on the left, have got it wrong about Harper's census decision. It's not ideological. Harper doesn't want it widely disclosed that the middle class has suffered huge setbacks post-recession and that the divide between the rich and poor has grown exponentially under his governance. The census data is the only reliable public data that could be used to prove the broad demographic changes in wealth that have occurred in the last decade. I'm surprised that so many pundits and journalists don't bring this out.