Oct 10, 2015

The nicab during citizenship debate is missing one major element

Many of us have been disgusted the way that the election campaign's hottest issue has been whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear the niqab during a citizenship ceremony (note that this is not for identification, they remove it for that in front of a female prior to the ceremony).

The issue is simultaneously unimportant and important. It is unimportant in the sense that of all the numerous impactful issues that face us as a nation, the issue of whether a handful of Muslim women who would like to join the country and wear the nicab during the citizenship ceremony is simply nowhere near the top. It is a minor cultural issue and it sickens me that Harper managed to get a boost in the polls by prioritizing this, particularly in Quebec where it really harmed the NDP. We should be talking about something else.

However, I am going to join in on talking about this issue because while it shouldn't be deciding elections, it is nonetheless important, and because there is a major element to the debate that has been entirely missing. Canada does, and ought to, stand for the basic set of freedoms codified in the Charter and endorsed throughout society. We may not like the nicab. I don't like the nicab, although I will recognize that many who wear it don't fit the kinds of caricatures often portrayed. But that doesn't mean freedom of religion goes away! It doesn't mean that the government - an ostensibly freedom loving conservative government no less - has the right to tell a woman how they should dress, that religious identification is all fine except for this particular few inches of cloth.

While Zunera Ishaq, the woman at the centre of the controversy who recently became a citizen after the court ordered the ceremony proceed with her wearing the veil, doesn't show any signs of this, let me assume, for the sake of argument, the worst caricatures of the opposing narrative. Suppose in a case the nicab is not a symbol of religious devotion, but a symbol of male oppression, forced on women against there will and preventing them from engaging in a pluralistic society. Assume everything bad you can imagine. How, exactly, is this desired ban helping that? Don't we want these woman to be able to leave their homes and engage with society? Don't we want to be welcoming and accepting of these woman as they are so they can feel comfortable to learn about our society, and make their own choices? Perhaps this isn't a slippery slope where the citizenship ceremonies is just the first place such bans occur (Harper has already speculated on bans in public service; Europe is moving steadily in this direction), but is making it so women don't feel able  - or aren't allowed, under these assumptions - to leave the house actually helping anyone? Outside of making us feel self righteous (as we violate our core principles of freedom of religion), I don't see the point.

The missing issue:
Versions of the above have been said by many much more eloquently than me. Let me raise a different question: why are we required to swear oaths at all? There are those who want to become citizens but don't feel comfortable with the oath new Canadians are required to say. I am not comfortable with it, although I didn't have to say it as a natural born Canadian. One of my professors is not comfortable with it either, and has led an unsuccessful legal battle to be able to become a citizen without this oath. I think Canada should be a republic, and think it is repulsive that we should swear fealty to a monarch who happens to be the head of a religion.

Much like Zunera Ishaq, Dror Bar-Natan and his fellow litigants have had various court cases and even got a few news stories. However, their story has not animated the public discourse to anywhere near the same level as Zunera Ishaq who has become, arguably, the single biggest issue in the election campaign. In both cases we have a purely symbolic ceremony that can't be done in a particular way because someone wants to become a citizen but has religious or political objections to how exactly that is to be done. For those that agree with me that the nicab should not disqualify one from becoming Canadian, is it not a small leap to agree with me that swearing fealty to an unelected monarch ought also not be a disqualifier?

I have long argued on this blog that Canada should be a republic, that the Monarchy while only symbolic and lacking de facto power nonetheless symbolizes many bad things we should reject and doesn't symbolize the many good things (such as, ironically, freedom of religion) that we might wish to symbolize as a country. This is view is entirely legal for me to type, and indeed would be a gross violation of freedom of expression for there to be any law against me expressing it. Why, then, would we demand and citizenship be conferred only to those willing to swear an oath that fundamentally violates this view? And why on earth would we care what people wore when they said it. Or, ideally, didn't say it.

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Aug 2, 2015

Mulcair fails Media Relations 101

Today was election campaign launch day in Canada. Well I suppose that really happened a year or so ago, but today was the official launch, when the official rules kick in, at any rate. All the parties want one main thing out of these launches, to say a few positive things in their opening declaration that gets picked up by the media and gives them a round of free, positive advertising.

Mulcair, however, fumbled badly. He gave his speech, the media was there, but his mistake was that he pissed the media off by not answering any questions. This result in the media mainly writing stories about how he didn't answer questions, and completely ignore what he actually said:

CBC: Tom Mulcair takes heat online for not taking questions at first campaign event
Torstar: NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair takes no questions at campaign launch
Huffpo: Mulcair Takes Zero Questions From Reporters At Campaign Launch

And so forth. What they wanted was glowing articles covering their policy framing, like Trudeau got.

The lesson to be learned here is a simple one: don't piss off the media. None of them want to be out there on the sunday of a long weekend, but they are there because they have to cover your speech. So don't piss them off. Mulcair most likely didn't want to take questions because he wanted to be the person who got to frame the issues, not the media questions. What he got was the "Mulcair doesn't answer questions" frame.

The irony is that Harper is absolutely horrible at media access and has been for a long time. Mulcair is far, far better at this. And denying the media here doesn't represent some affront to democracy the way Harper's continued actions do. But because he pissed the media off, it wasn't presented this way.

Thankfully, it is a long campaign. A ridiculous long campaign designed to help the Conservatives and their larger war chest. Mulcair gets to try again on tuesday.

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Jul 31, 2015

GMO labeling shows that "states' rights" is just a convenient lie for the GOP

Imagine that the Democrats wanted to pass a federal law requiring food companies to label their products if they contained genetically modified organisms. What would be the Republican response? Undoubtedly a big piece of their argument would be the appeal to states' rights. That is, the federal government shouldn't be going around impose their will and view on the states, and that it would be horribly wrong for the federla Democrats to impose their view on GMO labelling on the states.

Except, the US House did this exactly backwards. The Republicans (with some Democratic support) have passed a GMO labelling bill that prevents any state from passing any law that labels food as GMO. Where did the states' rights argument suddenly go?

The main reason for this is that Big Agriculture hates these kinds of bills. Much of the US agricultural system is based around a couple of GMO crops. And not just GMO crops, but crops that are heavily subsidized by the US government through various farm subsidies. The subsidies have been around since the 20s, and have created a food system that asymmetrically depends on these crops and does little to help any of the subsidies putative goals. This industry is one of the most firmly entrenched in political culture. For instance, the first state for presidential candidates is Iowa, a heavy agricultural states. Politicians are forced to praise the continuation of this system as a condition of having a chance to become president.

For years, the standard line for Republicans on gay marriage was that it should be left to the states. This was why the Supreme Court was wrong, this is why they couldn't consider it federally, because it would be grossly wrong to impose something nation wide against the sanctity of individual states. For the most part, this is nothing more than an attempt to mask their real desire - to keep gay marriage banned - under a convenient sounding jurisdictional argument. But let us pretend that their view here was sincere. This GMO labelling business shows just how quickly this states' rights nonsense was dispelled. Minutia about how to label food is sufficiently important to make the federal government step in, but ensuring equal legal opportunities regardless of sexual orientation was not.

Hopefully this is the last time we have to pretend their is any shred of sincerity or standards to when the states rights line gets brought up. No standard, that is, except this: we agree with states' rights when the federal situation is something we don't like, and conveniently forget about it when it is something we do. Or more correctly, forget about it when

Finally, I should not that I am not anti-GMO. I think there is great potential in using science to develop crops that are most efficient, healthier, safer, and cheaper. I think some of that potential has already been realized, while recognizing that we need to strictly test and identify any health, environmental or social consequences. As a member of the left, I often find myself railing against others on the left who are far more generically anti-GMO. And I recognize that food labelling is probably going to lend more towards the kind of knee jerk anti-GMO that we have seen with the increased prevalence of gluten labeling (which is absolutely important for those with Celiacs, even if it has sparked an unnecessary food craze in a huge number of others). However, to categorically ban any state from experimenting or moving in this direction is ridiculous, even if it wasn't blatantly consistent with the GOPs self claimed states' rights ideals.
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Jun 27, 2015

"We're better than news, we're truthful"

So says Kory Teneycke, the former VP of the new defunct Sun News Network and now Director of Communications for the PMO. 

The irony here is simply too much. He is at least half right. Sun News Network was premised on just about anything but the truth. It was highly partisan and served precisely to better right wing interests. Truth was irrelevant, and it was why I so often opposed what they were doing. So he is not wrong to think that when he was in the news, he was not truthful.

I was highly critical of Harper's choice of spokesman, for precisely this reason. Communication Directors are always going to be partisans; it is basically their job description to spin things in favour of Harper. Yet even among possible Communication Directors, Teneycke was a horrible choice, confirming the Harper had no interest in trying to advance a meaningful dialogue, and baseless partisanship would be the name of the game. Being truthful, of course, just isn't relevant.

This quote is the ultimate example of projection. He lied when he was in the news. He lies now. And he the ones he accuses of lying? The rest of the media that actually does the thing he was - and is - supposed to do: tell the truth. 
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May 6, 2015

Alberta NDP would have won 26 seats if PC and Wildrose merged

The question for the federal scene coming out of the historic NDP wave election in Alberta that saw them jump from four seats to 53, a solid majority, is whether anything close to this is reproducible on the federal scene. The major difference between the two is that federally only the Conservatives represent the right wing (shhh dear Liberal bashers) while in Alberta there is the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Party.

One crude estimate is to see what would have happened if the PCs and the Wildrose had indeed joined into a single party. Assuming the votes work out the same way in this new scenario (a big if!), it is easy enough to compute how things would have turned out: the Alberta NDP would have one 26 out of 87 seats against a powerful Conservative majority. (email me if you want the spreadsheet)

This result is fairly stable if you relax the assumption. For instance, suppose the NDP gets a 10% boost (not 10 point) because of, say, people so disgusted by the amalgamation that they vote NDP. That only gives him 28 seats.

Of course, at the federal level, Alberta doesn't give 87 seats. Under the new redistricting (which makes this kind of math very hard this year), Alberta only generates 34 seats. If we assume the result is proportional, that means the NDP gets 10 seats federally. Not bad. Not great, either. In 2011 (when only 28 seats were up for play before the redistricting), the Conservatives swept 27 of 28 seats, with the NDP second in 23 of those 27.

Incidentally, the Liberals might appear to be the big losers here, but they aren't. They are a dead party in Alberta, capturing only 4% of the vote (most Liberal supporters undoubtedly ended up voting NDP so it doesn't necessarily mean people dislike them as much as 4% implies). But the key point here is that normally when the NDP does well it hurts the Liberals and helps the Conservatives. Here the NDP doing well reduces the number of Conservative seats but doesn't change the number of Liberal seats (they get zero either way), so it makes it easier for the Liberals federally.

There are about a million caveats to this very crude analysis. It only works under a tonne of assumptions that are almost impossible to remain true. Either way, there is hope for a modest but not enormous jump for the NDP federally. 
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May 4, 2015

Justin Trudeau's tax plan is good policy and great politics

Going as far back as Justin Trudeau's leadership election, he has consistently kept his major campaign planks close to the vest. Little tidbits, like the policy on marijuana, come out in carefully crafted morsels, but for the most part we are left guessing at what his first federal election campaign platform will be based on the vague rhetorical positioning his team has let out over the last year. 

Finally, however, we have some clarity. Trudeau has announced a big series of changes to tax policy. They do a couple things. Firstly, they reverse the two much criticized regressive new tax policies from Harper: income splitting and doubling the TFSA contribution limit. Secondly, he is going to increase taxes on income over $200k from 29% to 33%. All of this new (or at least new relative to Harper's plan) money coming largely from higher up the income ladder gets moved downwards either through a 1.5%  tax decrease in the 44k to 89k tax brackets, as well as pumping a lot more money into children benefits, crucially tying these into income as well. 

The net effect is to make our government system a few percent more progressive than it was before. On this blog I have long claimed that income inequality is a major problem we face, ultimately deriving from the numerous regressive forces in society that make it easier for the rich to get rich, and keep the poor being poor. Government is, first and foremost, a massive wealth redistribution engine that through a progressive taxation and spending scheme helps offset these recessive forces in society. Despite this, we still face significant inequality. This policy would be a tweak in the right direction. 

It isn't just good policy, it is great politics. The majority of the electorate is in that middle class category that is going to benefit (although seniors won't like the TFSA not doubling and don't benefit from the child benefits). Myself, as a PhD student hoping to get a job and have kids in the future, I'm very likely to be smack dab in the demographic that benefits. But even if I wasn't, it is the right thing to do and is undoubtedly going to popular. 

The Conservatives, of course, will demagogue the tax increases. Any deficit neutral tax change by definition will have some increases and some decreases. The National Post editorial team has already slammed it as "class envy".  We have seen this kind of demagoguery on the idea of making the tax code more progressive before. My guess is that it is a losing political position, that the sense among the public that our society is too unequal is too strong. 

The 30,000 foot view
Taking a 30,000 foot view of a political landscape with three dominant parties, the party on the right generally wants to decrease the size of government, the party on the left wants to increase it, and the party in the center wants to leave it somewhere close to where it is. The problem for all centrist parties is that it is hard to advocate compelling changes that people vote for when your big picture position is not to keep things roughly where they are. 

That said, over time the political landscape tends to change and what often happens is that all parties move simultaneously over the course of, say, a decade. On lots of social issues, for instance, the left moves quickly, the right moves barely at all, and the center moves slowly. One of the biggest changes, as I've noted before, is that the amount of political space between the Conservatives and the NDP (and indeed in other countries a similar pattern holds) has shrunk considerably which leaves less and less unique space for the Liberals to carry out their own identity. 

Given the above dual problems of being positioned in the "keep government spending roughly the same" category with less and less distance between them and the Conservatives or NDP, changing the tax code to be more progressive is the perfect policy. It keeps the basic constraint of a similar amount of government funding, but makes a meaningful improvement by changing the level of progressiveness in the system. 

Not everyone is going to love the Liberals for this plan. Many fellow progressive bloggers are going to want more net taxation to pay for various policies they think are good. I often join them. But if we restrict ourselves to keeping net taxation relatively constant, this is a good plan. 

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Apr 24, 2015

Tech on the Side: Skeumorphism and round smartwatches

It appears as if Samsung's next smartwatch is going to follow the Moto 360 in having a round face. This is an examples of short term thinking and skeumorphism gone horribly wrong.

The concept of skeumorphism in technology refers to using designs that were needed in older technology, but are no longer relevant today. The first several generations of iOS were full of skeumorphism, from faux leather and yellow legal pad style notes to 3D drop shadows and mechanical dials. None of these design elements made anything more functional, but there was a sense in which they were familiar to actual note pads and actual 3D buttons. Arguably it made it easier for people to effortlessly embrace the touch screen centric world we now live in.

In Windows 8, in iOS 7, and in Material Design on Android (and most of the rest of Google's portfolio), skeumorphism has largely been dropped. Everyone is completely familiar with touch screens now, and we hardly need these old visual cues. So modern designs don't pretend to be anything beyond the two dimensions they live in and have clean and often brightly coloured designs far from their pre-mobile predecessors.

Why a round watch?
For mechanical watches, the fact that they are round follows from the geometry of a hand going around in a circle. A rectangular watch is just going to have wasted space in the corners and would be pointless for mechanical watches.

For smartwatches, round faces make little functional sense. Anything that displays text (such as messages, emails, etc) is going to be best displayed on a rectangular display. The only real application that makes sense for a round display is for showing legacy watch faces. But even then, this is only going to be a small portion of use (otherwise why by a smartwatch?), and besides, wasted space on one app is a far smaller problem then not enough space on everything else.

Round smartwatches are thus an almost quintessential examples of skeumorphism. It is using a design that made a lot of sense in the legacy technology being replaced (mechanical watches) in the modern technology (smartwatches) where it is functionally unnecessary.

At least in the iOS examples of skeumorphism there wasn't much of a loss. We didn't need fake binder coils on our notebook, but they didn't hurt much either. There was, at worst, a fairly small percentage of wasted space compared to modern designs. With round smartwatches, the functionality of the smartwatches is worse than rectangular designs, in particular for the displaying of text.

Why then does the Moto 360, the presumed new Samsung, and others use round displays if they are, as I suggest, obviously inferior? My arguments were about functionality. Theirs are likely more about familiarity.

 Smartwatches are a largely untested product category and it isn't clear that people will either find them useful enough relative to smartphones to bother, and the degree to which people will find it fashionable or unfashionable to have them. Watches are always on display as part of our wardrobe, so this matters to an even greater degree than smartphones. The hope, presumably, is that by having a device that looks like a watch - something many people wear currently - that it will make people more familiar with the product and more likely to buy it.

Maybe so, but I somewhat doubt it. If early estimates are correct, it would appear Apple has sold more smartwatches in their opening weekend then the entirety of Android (or Samsung's own OS) based watches have in a year. Apple, of course, is a unique entity, and it isn't as if most of those rectangular Android smartwatches have sold much either. However, for long term success, I think trying to get a few more people from the door early with familiar but functionally inferior designs isn't going to be a winning strategy.

This blog is primarily about political and social commentary. But it is also my personal space to blog about, well, whatever else it is that I'm interested in. These posts get labels "______ on the side", such as my Tech on the Side series. 
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Apr 7, 2015

Seniors are not a good reason for doubling TFSA limit

After years of being promised whenever the federal books got balanced, it looks like the next Harper budget is indeed going to double the contribution for Tax Free Savings Accounts. This policy has long been criticized - including by me - for being a policy that disproportionately provides advantages for the rich. Indeed, the number of people capable of putting aside over $10k in savings per year while working are fairly limited.

Today in parliament, Finance Minister Joe Oliver has hit back against these criticisms, effectively pointing out that there is another big group of people who are already maxing out their contributions: seniors. 71% who max out are over 55 and 46% are seniors. 

The reason for this is fairly simply: most seniors live entirely off their savings. It is very likely that a good chunk of these will max our their contributions when it is doubled, too. As they are saving already, whatever savings plan is introduced will undoubtedly be used extensively be them. So fair enough, the point that it isn't just rich people using it is well taken, clearly there is this big group that takes advantage of it.

However, this doesn't fit as neatly in with the objectives of the TFSA in the first place. The main point of a government backed savings program is to encourage savings in the population. The argument is that a population with a higher savings rate is thus going to experience less dramatic recessions (since they can spend their savings during a recession) which will be better for all of us. I'm totally in favour of savings plans in general, just not this one in specific, as I will get in to.

Seniors, however, are not encouraged to save based on increasing these contributions. Seniors are already not working and thus living primarily off savings and can not save more. They will use this policy and benefit from this policy but they won't be contributing to the primarily goal of the policy: increasing net savings in our society. What is happening here is something of a wealth distribution towards seniors.  That's okay. I think there are solid reasons to distribute wealth towards seniors who often suffer, but it comes back again to whether this savings method is a good way to do that.

The fundamental problem with a savings incentive system based on tax breaks is that it is inherently regressive (as it undoes a tax code that is inherently progressive taxing higher earning people more). Someone earning very little pays a low tax rate and so doesn't benefit from the same dollar value in savings as someone who is richer. It isn't just that it exacerbates systemic inequality, it also undoes the putative goal of a government saving plan: to encourage savings to dampen recessions. This is because the poorer people are those most sensitive to the pressures of recessions and thus in most need of savings to be able to continue spending through the recession which keeps the economy good for all of us.

Even if we just restrict to seniors, this helps richer seniors who have high investment income more than it helps poorer seniors, those who we might care to distribute wealth to in the first place. If the goal is to help at risk seniors, this is the worst way to do that. So while it certainly doesn't help the main objective of the plan - increasing net savings -it is also a poor way to implement this sort of secondary objective. And everything it does, to seniors and working age people alike, is done in a highly regressive way.

Contrast this with, say, a savings plan that includes direct government contributions in a progressive way (ie government adds x% on first thousand saved, y% on the second thousand saved, etc). Perhaps combined with a separate wealth distribution to seniors if needed, also done in a progressive way. There are many ways to do this that can be debated. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to ever be a substantive debate on the best kind of savings policy in Canada. TFSAs are what we got, and we are about to double down on them, criticisms be damned.

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Apr 2, 2015

Ontario's brave new cap and trade program

The Globe and Mail just broke the story on what will likely be the defining component of Kathleen Wynne's legacy: The Ontario Liberals are introducing a big cap and trade plan. Details are sparse as yet, but it looks like they will be joining the Quebec/California regime. This is huge news, especially given Ontario's relative prominence in Canada's economy.

While BC (under the Liberals as well, incidentally) were moving forward with their carbon tax, Ontario Liberals had made big moves on the green energy file. With cap and trade, they are now tackling the greenhouse gas production side of the energy equation.

One of the trickiest problems of global warming is that it falls to tragedy of the commons problems.
Any individual jurisdiction has incentives to not act themselves (and thus not accrue any costs relative to others) and have everyone else take the costs while they just get the relative benefit of less climate change. To succeed we need to move beyond this kind of jurisdictional selfishness, and it takes people coming together and bravely willing to take bold actions, even when most of the provinces, the federal government, and, indeed, much of the planet are dragging their feet. There already was an argument based on the green energy file that Ontario was one of the most aggressive provincial or state level jurisdictions in North America for combating climate change. With the introduction of a cap and trade program, this will solidify that status.

Kathleen Wynne didn't have to do this. It was certainly not some key part of any election plan. At best it is politically risky. I have previously argued how dynamics regarding the Green party made a strong case for the McGuinty era Liberals to push hard on the green file, but I'm not convinced the same dynamics are as strong today after an election where anything to do with tackling climate change was very much on the fringe.  But she choose do to this, and now we have policy worth fighting for.

People debate the efficacy of cap-and-trade vs fee-and-dividend (ie carbon taxes) and any other plan we may come up with to tackle global warming. I've done so, for instance, here. Some will undoubtedly be disappointed by this particular plan to help combat global warming. Fair enough. However, given the dynamics of today where we have this pressing global problem and very little global action against it, I am going to take what I can get. Absolutely we should push for not just any solution, but the best solution, but I will do so by also giving full throated support for undoubtedly positive - even if not optimal - political action like this.

The political angle:
During the 2011 Ontario election, I wrote that the election to reelect McGuinty was, and must be, a referendum on the brave green energy plan (using feed-in-tarrifs) the Liberals had previously instituted. I have consistently lamented the NDP for not prioritizing climate change issues while the Liberals have been acting positively.

Now, however, there is hope for political agreement as the NDP has long supported cap and trade (while federal Liberals flirted with carbon taxes, particularly under Dion's "Green Shift" plan). Despite the Liberals having a majority, this a program that needs to be implemented and reinforced over decades to help its goals, and having political agreement is critical. The PCs, of course, will abhor it, and will be the advocates for those businesses who will lose under this proposal, but this can't be helped.

Regular readers will recall that I have never been a partisan between the Liberals and the NDP with a long documented history on this blog of sometimes supporting and criticizing and voting for both parties. The one issue that really forced my hand, in Ontario at least, was the green energy file with the big moves by the Liberals largely rejected by the NDP for (in my view) bad reasons. While the 2014 elections had very weird political framing, in 2011 by far the key issue was green energy for me. It is of great comfort to me that by keeping a party with a history of success on this file in office, we have been rewarded by further success on this file despite the numerous headwinds and little momentum that would seem to have been the case yesterday.

There are a lot of details to be worked out, and I'm sure we will be debating them in the time to come. But for now, at least, I'm happy we are moving in the right direction.

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