Jun 27, 2014

Peter MacKay's wife doesn't help his - or our - cause

The latest flap over sexist comments from Justice Minister Peter Mackay came about when a Mother's Day and Father's Day emails from Peter Mackay to his staff were leaked to the media. The comparison isn't pretty: put side by side it makes it seems like mothers should be applauded for doing housework like changing diapers and making dinners while fathers are praised for moulding, guiding and influencing their children. Sigh.

That the comparison is clearly sexist shouldn't exactly be controversial to most readers of this blog, but the blame game is a little less straight forward. Let's get a few things out of the way first before I get into why I am not impressed with Nazanin Afshin-Jam MacKay's - Peter Mackay's wife - spirited defence of him.

I don't actually blame Peter Mackay that much for approving these messages, and I don't blame the apparently female staffer who originally wrote them. If someone showed either of them to me in isolation - or together but a month apart - I might not have noticed either. In isolation, the Mother's day message is a perfectly fine applause line for managing the tricky work-life balance that being a parent can demand. Maybe Peter Mackay is a huge sexist, I don't know, but not noticing it in these emails hardly proves it.

What they do demonstrate quite poignantly, however, is just how pervasive our societal views of gender roles, particularly with respect to parenting, really are. The association between mothers changing diapers and making dinners - and fathers with building character and positive influences - is very strong. There is both a descriptive asymmetry - women do indeed do a higher share of the housework on average - and a normative one - society tacitly promotes these gendered roles.

The fact that I feel I - a self styled progressive feminist male - could have easily written these letters is a problem. One sits down to think of some laudable traits of mothers and because it is so latent within society, it is natural to immediately jump to changing diapers and making dinners. When it is pointed out it is easy to see the problem, but because the problem is so embedded in our societal views, it doesn't stand out. I once read a study on academic reference letters that showed how when giving references for male students, professors would speak to their academic qualities like intelligence and work ethic, but for female students would speak instead more towards their social qualities such as being a friendly person. Nobody is actively trying to be a sexist, but these prevailing societal attitudes filter into our actions. I don't for a moment think you or I - and certainly not Peter Mackay - are immune to this.

Where I am going to bring criticism on Peter Mackay - and his wife in her open letter - is not in the action, but in the response. Or, more correctly, in the failure to seize the opportunity and say something positive and instead pushing the issue - for it is, truly, an issue - under the rug as part of an overblown media controversy. While I think the prevalence of these attitudes is so strong in society that people can be forgiven for repeating societal memes without thinking, when we are called to think on them because of such a controversy, the opportunity should be taken to identify, condemn, and attempt to rectify these same societal attitudes.

Nazanin's main point is that Peter Mackay isn't a sexist, and is actually a stand up guy and that the criticisms of him are either made up or overblown. She starts to lose me a bit with the "anti-Conservative media" big, but by and large it is a well written defence of her main point. However, what it doesn't bother to do - as Peter Mackay himself didn't do - is take this opportunity which is sticking out like a sore thumb to speak to our perceptions of gender roles, of how they pervade society and find themselves trickling into, say, Mother's and Father's day emails. Neither lays out the case for why the emails are indeed problematic, and the underlying problems in society that they symbolize.

Had either of them done that, then we wouldn't be having a debate over whether Peter Mackay is or is not a sexist. We would be applauding him for tackling a difficult and important subject.
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Jun 20, 2014

Canada and the US moving in opposite directions in online spying

The juxtaposition of these two stories on top of each other in my news feed yesterday was priceless:

It is kind of amazing that it is the US whose democratic process is working towards curbing the status quo in online spying while in Canada the Conservatives are pushing forward despite the public outrage. 

Ever since the Snowden NSA links, light has been shed on the previous opaque status of what our governments are doing with our digital data. The leaks have sparked a genuine and sorely needed conversation about the appropriate role of the government in using our private information from the internet, ostensibly for crime and terrorism reduction. For most people, the conclusion is that both governments have been significantly overstepping reasonable bounds.

To be fair, the sheer size and scope of the US programs dwarf that of Canada's. However, if nothing else, at least in the US the elected representatives - Democrat and Republican alike - are coming together in a major bipartisan supermajority to restrict some of the more egregious aspects of these programs. That is how democracy is supposed to work. When new revelations come to light of things that the people broadly abhor, the representatives of those people work to change the status quo. 

Unfortunately, in Canada, despite repeated and considerable public opposition, the Conservatives are doing everything they can to further entrench these online spying policies. Amazingly, we are moving in the wrong direction while the US is moving in the right one. 

Canadian's do have one saving grace: the Supreme Court. Like much of the Harper agenda that has been thwarted by the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court has recently ruled against telecom companies handing over private data to the government without a warrant, precisely the kind of thing included in Bill C-13. 

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Jun 13, 2014

I can't blame the NDP for the election call

Despite being a nonpartisan lefty, during the campaign I wasn't particularly kind to the NDP. I derided the choice to call an election as a gamble that risked either a fairly horrible outcome (Hudak forming government), or a relatively small loss (slightly less influence within a majority Liberal government) for a relatively small gain (slightly more influence within a minority Liberal government). I wasn't impressed with their "small" platform. And I wasn't impressed with their strategy.

However, despite this negativity from me, at the end of the day I can't really blame the NDP for calling an election, even if I would have substantially changed their strategy. To see this, let's first ask why the NDP actually called an election.

There is almost no reason to take at face value Andrew Horwath's claim that the election was a "referendum on corruption" given that if the gas plants cancellation boondoggle was really an election worthy revelation, what changed over the last three years while the NDP supported them despite knowing about the gas plants? The older expensive boondoggles like Ornge and eHealth that get tosses around under the corruption banner were before that. This was part of the strategy and messaging, but not their actual reasons for calling an election.

I believe the animus around the election was that the NDP, in some ways legitimately, felt that the Liberals were ignoring them and governing as if they really had the extra couple seats to make it a majority. The limited compromises they got into the previous budget were not living up to the promise, and they wanted more influence than this.

NDP polling was distinctly third party and steadily so. There can have been no illusions that the NDP had a real shot to win, or that this particular moment they chose was particularly conducive to giving them a shot to win. Instead, the hope, I suspect, was that the Liberals would be reelected, but with fewer seats and with the NDP getting more of the balance of power. Maybe they could even become official opposition somehow. With that, they would be respected and heeded more, allowing their voice to make its way into government policy.

I don't necessarily think this is even bad. The NDP was going to have to face a new election soon enough when the Liberal mandate ran out regardless. There wasn't any real reason to suspect that their opportunities would get better in the future, and while it is far from the smoking gun they might wish it to be, the police investigation into the deleted emails gives a time sensitive tarnish to the Liberals. Yes, I stand behind my post that the election call was an awful risk, but the next election was going to have substantial downside risk and little upside potential for the NDP no matter when it was called.

Besides, parties are designed and built and sustained around running elections, it is in their DNA. So parties call elections even if the stars aren't perfectly aligned, it is just what they do.

What I object to is the strategy they undertook. The choices they made in establishing their platform and the choices they made in how to run their campaign, were both bad. They managed the dual effect of minimizing the potential upshot of the election, while maximizing the risk in the election. But I can't blame them for trying.
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Jun 9, 2014

The effect on strategic voting of Wynne ruling out a coalition

Unfortunately, for those of us who think that some form of Liberal-NDP election deal or coalition would be vastly superior to the PCs forming a government with the largest minority, Kathleen Wynne has said that she won't form a coalition with the NDP. Unsurprisingly, as this move changes the possible outcomes, it also has an effect on strategic voting.

For most ridings, this has little effect. Either the riding is "safe"  with the outcome largely determined. In this situation one can vote for any number of different reasons but doing it explicitly to strategically prevent the PCs from winning need not be among that list. Or, in the closer races between the PCs and the OLP, there is still pressure to vote OLP strategically to prevent the PCs.

The main effect this has is on ridings that are close between the NDP and the Liberals. If a coalition was possible, flipping a seat from OLP to NDP wouldn't matter too much. If the PCs got a majority, it wouldn't change things one way or the other. Even if that was the key seat that meant the PCs moved to the largest minority because of it, if the OLP and NDP were going to work together in minority situations anyways it wouldn't make much of a difference. If it was one of the key seats (such as it was in 2011) that just prevented the OLP from making a majority, the relative similarities between the current OLP and NDP plans would mean this wasn't too significant.

By ruling out the coalitions, however, there is a much greater chance that this will be relevant. Flipping a seat from OLP to NDP now reduces by one the number of seats Hudak has to win. If it were the key vote that took the PCs up to the largest minority, that loss of an OLP seat would meant Hudak would win government.

Personally, I am not willing to take that risk. Hudak's plan is far to far to the right to risk him winning out of hopes that the small benefits of the NDP plan over the OLP plan (such as the 1% corporate tax cut or tuition freeze) get increased influence by having one extra NDP member elected. I actually would probably prefer it if the OLP only won a minority and had to work with the NDP. But it is simply too risky, as was this entire election for the NDP.

Why does Wynne does this?
Ruling out coalitions is an appeal to centre-right voters. Many voters still have the false view that the NDP are crazed far left socialists, opposed to the much more modern, pragmatist centre-left moderates they now are. These voters could conceivably vote for the Liberals, but would abhor the possibility of a dreaded Liberal-NDP coalition, much how there was backlash when this happened at the federal level.

It is a huge gamble for Wynne, however. The hope is that you can pick up a few percentage point of people because of this. Maybe she can. But she does it at the risk that the dreaded situation of the PCs getting the largest minority actually happens. Then the promise - uttered for small electoral gain - translates into flipping from a much more desirable Liberal-NDP government to the PCs. 

Parkdale-Highpark riding:
My riding - Parkdale-Highpark - is a very left wing riding. It has flipped, both provincially and federally, between the NDP and the Liberals over the last decade and currently has NDP incumbents at both levels. The races between the NDP and the Liberals are often close and the Conservative/PC choices don't have any real shot.

That is, it is exactly the type of riding where this has an effect for strategic voting.  I definitely support my local MPP - Cheri DiNovo - who is on the left flank of the NDP and has done great work with things like Toby's law and advocacy for electric trains, and the like. She is a great person to have in parliament. I voted for her in 2011. However, I can't vote for her this time round. The risk of the PCs is just too big. 
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Jun 7, 2014

The NDP email on "strategic voting" is largely nonsense

The NDP has sent several emails to supporters before and during the campaign premised on the idea that the best way to stop the Conservatives is to vote for the NDP. Here is the latest:
"This election, there is one simple trick you can use to stop a Conservative majority: vote strategically. 
We’ve heard about strategic voting before – casting your ballot to stop a conservative government. 
This election, strategic voting is important. Stopping Tim Hudak’s plan to kill 100,000 middle class jobs is critical. 
Here in Brampton-Springdale, there’s no doubt: the strategic vote is NDP.
In ridings all over Ontario – from Brampton to Kenora, Toronto to Kitchener – voting NDP is the best thing we can all do to stop a Tory majority."
In my previous post, I endorsed the idea of having the strategic goal to stop the Conservatives, at least in close ridings in this close election (otherwise, there are many other reasonable strategic goals to have). However the idea that voting the NDP is the best way to do that doesn't hold water.

Consider this riding specific seat projection from www.threehundredeight.com. In it there are only eight ridings in Ontario where the Liberals are in third place, four with the NDP first and four with the PCs first. Most are not particularly close elections. In particular, the Brampton-Springdale riding mentioned in the email is not one of those close elections. The Liberals are projected leading with 44% of the vote to the NDPs 15%.

With the exception of a couple very specific ridings that have the quirk of both being somewhat close and the Liberals relegated to third party status, voting for the NDP makes it strategically easier for the PCs to win that seat.

This shouldn't be surprising. Since the Liberals are, almost by definition, in the middle of the NDP and the PCs, most close races are either the Liberals and the PCs, or the Liberals and the NDP, occasionally all three. The NDP can reasonably hope to win Liberal leaning seats. But they can't reasonably hope to win PCs leaning seats, except on rare occasions.

If you want to hold the Liberals to a minority by you can do this by voting NDP in the NDP vs Liberal ridings, but it will make it easier for the Conservatives to win the largest minority (even if it doesn't change majority computations). I can even see many argument for voting NDP in a Liberal vs PC that don't have to do with "stopping the Conservatives". But if the goal is to stop the Conservatives - as the NDP claims their goal is - then voting NDP in these ridings doesn't make a lick of sense.
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Riding by riding strategic voting in the 2014 Ontario Election

I've always advocated for strategic voting on this blog where we vote based on promoting certain goals given the constraints of both our local riding and the broader election. This can take many forms; for instance, in "safe" ridings where the outcome is all but determined I often advocate voting for third parties that help to push the relative importance of particular issues. In contrast,  in closer, contested ridings, I am often going to stick closer to making sure the better of the two likely winners has the better shot. Or perhaps we have a particularly powerful local candidate who would be a good advocate for particular issues, or have broader multi-election goals, and so on. 

We thus have three main things to consider when deciding how to vote:
1) How is our specific riding likely to vote?
2) What is the larger jurisdiction wide picture; in this case, what are the likely outcomes of the vote Ontario wide?
3) What are our goals given these constraints?

Riding specific constraints: 
The poll aggregation blog www.threehundredeight.com/ gives a riding specific breakdown of probabilities in specific ridings here. For a quick check to see if your riding is one of the most contested swing ridings, click here. For past election results click here. Take some caution, however, as riding projections are quite a bit more variable than the already rather uncertain provincial wide picture due to limited data. 

Ontario wide constraints: 
This point is the same for all of us: In this election it is a pretty close race - certainly within uncertainty - between the Liberals and the Conservatives, with the NDP a distant third. A majority for either isn't out of the question, based on polling, but a minority situation seems like the most likely.

It is also worth briefly comparing the respective platforms. The Liberals and the NDP are very close, in relative terms, while the PCs budget is vastly further to the right. I've written here before how the Liberals took a step to the left with their budget while the NDP has made small tweaks and used a lot of more centrist or right leaning rhetoric. It isn't that there isn't any difference, but it is worth noting that we would have a much smaller shift if the Liberals were replace with some form of Liberal/NDP deal or coalition or even the unlikely NDP win, than if the Liberals were replaced by the PCs. If, perhaps, you have a different view than this paragraph presents it may change your subsequent election goals, but the importance of understanding the Ontario wide constraints remains. 

Election Goals: 
This is the trickiest of the three because what our goals are dependent on the riding specific and Ontario wide constraints. For instance, if there is a 0% chance of the Greens being elected and a rather small chance of the NDP being elected, it is pointless to have our goal be "I want the Greens/NDP to be elected". We could instead, however, have goals such as "I want to increase the prominence of the Greens/NDP so that the elected party will push policy closer to the NDP's" or "I want to build NDP support long term by electing strong members despite not winning a plurality".  

Our goals are also very sensitive to the riding specific information. In a safe riding - a riding where the outcome is all but determined - I still claim that voting is very important. It allows us to signal our preferences and the relative prominence of particular parties influences the kind of policies that end up being implemented - the green vote in Ontario from 2007-2011 was an excellent case in point of this. We are in a sense freed to vote for third parties, for issue specific reasons, for long term party building reasons, and so on. 

In this election, there is a very real risk of a very bad PC government forming. Voting strategically for a party you don't particularly love (such as the Liberals) for the strategic goal of preventing an even worse party (such as the PCs) isn't always palpable for people. The logic, however, applies most when it is both a close election Ontario wide and a close election in your specific riding between (usually) the Liberals and the PCs. If you don't live in a close riding, or if the election wasn't close, I think there are many laudable reasons to vote for the NDP or the Greens. But if you do live in such a riding in our close election, you should vote Liberal. 
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Jun 4, 2014

Game theory and corporate tax rates: the Ontario Liberals are almost certainly wrong

I don't know what the optimal corporate tax rate is. I suspect neither does anyone. I believe there is reasonable evidence out there that given the kinds of goals and values we likely share, that a somewhat higher corporate tax rate is preferred, but what exactly that rate is - what the Game Theoretically Optimal or GTO rate is, I don't know.

Among the Ontario parties, the Liberals want to keep the tax rate fixed at the new 11.5% level they have introduced since being in power. The PCs want a 30% (3.5 percentage points) further reduction. The NDP wants to kick the rate up 8.5% (one percentage point).

Which of these is best? I don't know, but we can say one thing for sure: the Liberals are almost certainly wrong. The chance that 11.5% is really the optimal level is exceedingly unlikely. Outside of a huge coincidence, it should either be higher or lower than this. The evidence points, I think, to the idea that it should be somewhat higher, probably quite a bit more than the timid one percentage point increase the NDP proposes as well.

Most people, when trying to decide, aren't going to pour into the economic analysis here. They are going to do what Andrew Coyne regrettably did: reduce this economic point to a gut feeling about whether taxes, as a whole, should go up or down. If you are going to do that, well fine, but know this: where they are right now is almost certainly not correct.

A poker analogy:
There is a fun little poker analogy here. In tournaments, and to a lesser degree cash games, there is some debate as to what the optimal preflop bet sizing should be. Should we open raise 2x the big blind from the button? 2.5x? 3x? Shove all in? The state of game theory for poker is such that nobody is currently capable of computing what the optimal preflop bet sizing is, much in the same way we don't really know what the optimal corporate tax rate is. But we can say for sure that if the answer is the small multiple of the big blind, by far the most likely is that the answer is the minimum possible bet, 2x. As in, if smaller bet sizes were allowed we would have all the options from 1.1x up to our entire stack. And if we have reason to think the very large options are "obviously" bad, then the answer is in some range from just above 1 to, say, 4x the big blind. Raising the minimum 2x, thus "covers" a solid chunk of that range. Raising something silly like 2.1 or 2.2x the big blind is very unlikely to be correct except by complete coincidence. If the answer is higher than 2x, which it may well be, the chance of it being that 2.1x is exceedingly low just in terms of a percentage of the allowable values.
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May 28, 2014

Andrew Coyne assures us "Hudak's bogus plan is no reason not to vote for him"

The media reaction to Hudak's 8 fold screwup in his Million 75,000 Jobs Plan has been almost as ridiculous as the mistake in the plan itself. I already wrote about what the CBC's frontpage was doing in the interest of "balance" and "nonpartisanship". But what about the media op-eds?

The latest from Andrew Coyne at the National Post exemplifies much of what is wrong with politics. We are assured in the title that "Tim Hudak’s bogus Million Jobs plan is no reason not to vote for him".

The article lists several points why we already knew the Million Jobs Plan was made up (fair enough) and that anybody who was voting based on a number of claims was, to quote his word choice, "a moron" (also fair enough). He compares the errors to economists like Thomas Picketty and Ken Rogoff (hardly a fair comparison). And he argues that "most political argument" are, well, arguable (which doesn't seem to help Hudak's case an iota).

Be all that as it may. It is the conclusion I really object to:
"What strikes me as the relevant consideration in thinking about the Tory plan is this: the Tories would borrow less, spend less and tax less than their rivals, at a time when less of all three would seem to be in order. You may disagree. You may not think these are the policies Ontario needs. Or perhaps you agree, but think the Tories would push things too far — or, improbably, that they would not go as far as the other parties. Fine. But notice that neither of us has said a word about a million jobs."
Consider what politics has been reduced to: Do you think there should be less taxation and spending? That's it. No details needed, no economic analysis required, no comparison between different ideas, just the simplest question: are taxes and spending being cut? The where and what and why and the how of these tax and spending cuts - you know, what a plan might give- doesn't matter. All the details - like an 8 fold mistake in the number of jobs Hudak's plan creates - doesn't matter, it just matters if they are going up or down. You can either agree with that or you can disagree.

Coyne is actually uttering precisely what so many people think, and giving the arguments so many people will give. Our society doesn't pay much attention to politics but in our millions we will vote for conservatives for the singular reason that they claim they will cut taxes and spending. If that is all you care about - the claim to cut taxes and spending - then sure, Hudak having a bonus plan probably doesn't matter. But it is a sad statement about society that this elementary view is as persistent as it is. A columnist should argue for our better virtues, not endorse the worst of them.

I'm not an ideologue on the size of government. I don't care about big or small government, I care about effective government, government that tackles specific problems when and only when their actions are optimal. As a technocrat, I want to see the detailed arguments for specific solutions. There are hundreds of different issues to be considered, and trying to reduce all of them into the simplest question of whether taxes and spending are going up or not glosses over everything that I think actually matters in politics. If Coyne really was right, I should shut this blog down and stop worrying over whether, say, removing the HST from Hydro is an effective policy. I keep at it because I hope that by talking about the issues, we can rise up from the lowest common denominator that Coyne is implicitly endorsing.

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Media stenography: The CBC can't bring itself to call Hudak's plan what it is

If you haven't heard, Hudak's so called Million Jobs plan is more like a 75,000 jobs plan, based on an obvious mistake that meant most of his numbers were multiplied by 8. That is the best case scenario, accepting all the numbers selectively pulled from a particular report, accepting the half million odd jobs that would be created anyways regardless of his plan, accepting the rosy predictions for economic growth, and accepting that his deep austerity cuts and layoffs don't destroy said rosy predictions.

The plan, in short, turned out to be utter nonsense. It was utter nonsense before the error was caught, but now that the error has been caught (and, to be clear, it appears to be accidental), there should be nothing holding the CBC and every other media out there from eviscerating the plan for the utter nonsense it is.

So what does the CBC do? They have to cover it, of course, and here is what they write:

Tim Hudak defends math used in PCs' million jobs planTim Hudak was forced to defend his "Million Jobs Plan" Wednesday as a growing number of economists questioned the math behind the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader's promise, which is the centrepiece of his election platform.
Despite being hammered repeatedly on the issue, Hudak was adamant that the PC figures were right.
"I stand behind our numbers," he said at a furnace-making facility in Niagara Falls, Ont. "I simply believe that permanent tax reductions on job creators, more affordable energy is going to create jobs."

Hudak has promised a PC government would bring a million jobs to Ontario over the next eight years, although about half of those would be created through normal economic growth, regardless of which party is in government.
First the Liberals, and then a number of prominent economists, including a former federal associate deputy minister of finance, have poked holes in Hudak's numbers. They focus, in particular, on the possibility that the Tories misinterpreted information from a Conference Board of Canada report commissioned by the PCs.
"A number of highly respected independent economists have gone through Tim Hudak's plan. They have said that it is riddled with errors," Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne said. "I think it's pretty clear that Tim Hudak and his team got it flat wrong."

That is the title and opening six paragraphs. To be fair, if you read beyond it, the CBC does quote an economist who explains the basic mistake. But if you were skimming the title and first portion of the article, what conclusion would you come to?

It gives a quote from Hudak saying the numbers are true, along with a quaint platitude about the economy. It gives a quote from Wynne saying the numbers are false. This isn't reporting, it is media stenography of the scripted partisan talking points. It isn't illuminating the truth about an important situation, it is letting the truth be buried behind platitudes that leaves the casual reader unlikely to be better informed about their decision. Two political leaders are disagreeing, nothing to see here!

Even when it comes to identifying the error in the latter half of the the article, it is done entirely from quotes by an economist. The CBC themselves can't call it out as nonsense, they can just quote an economist who does this, after making sure they get the obligatory responses from Hudak and Wynne out the door first.

The closest the CBC comes is saying there is "the possibility" that Hudak misrepresented the report. Isn't doing the investigating to determine whether the plan does or does not misrepresent the report precisely what we want our journalists to do, so that we don't have to? Can they really not say anything more definitive themselves than there there is a possibility of this egregious mistake?

The media in general, and the CBC doubly so in specific, try to act as if they are formerly nonpartisan, at least outside of their opinion pages. I think this is a good thing, and don't like the idea of a couple powerful news editors driving the political agenda.

However, there is a difference between nonpartisan, and this version of "balanced" political coverage where one quotes the one side, quotes the other side, and calls it a day. Nonpartisan means you explain the facts to the electorate, and if those facts help one side so be it. It doesn't mean you become a stenographer whose singular dedication is to equal quote length for all parties.
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