The news is not about information (or, why everyone hates the media)

When I became managing editor of the Ottawa Citizen in 2011 (then Editor in 2013) I started to have a lot of contact with readers — emails, phone calls, and a surprising number of handwritten letters. It was through this contact that I began to get a sense of what our readers really cared about, and what they valued in their subscription. Two things stuck out:

The first was that, by and large, what readers cared about were things like comics and puzzles, the daily weather map, the TV listings. Somedays it seemed like we could have put a picture on A1 of the prime minister consorting alien space prostitutes, but if we also printed the Sudoku upside down or got the “On this date in weather history” wrong, that is all I would hear about.

The second was that readers would often call, angry, because we had downplayed (or ignored, or missed) a story they knew all about from another media outlet.… Continue reading

Why are carbon taxes so low?

The recent announcement by Canada’s Minister of the Environment, Catherine McKenna, that there will be a national carbon price by the end of the year, is extremely welcome news. As someone who has spent a great deal of time trying to articulate to the public the basic rationale for carbon pricing (here, here, here and here), this is about as close to a “win” as anyone could reasonably expect. Let’s hope it happens.

Most of the time that I spent writing about it, I was trying to explain very basic features of the policy (what a collective action problem is, how the price system works, why it’s not a “tax on everything,” etc.) This was aimed primarily at a right-wing audience, of people who were inclined to do nothing about climate change. I have spent comparatively less time addressing a left-wing, or environmentalist audience, explaining why pricing is an appropriate policy measure in this case (although there was this and this).… Continue reading

Misunderstanding public pensions, vol. 2

Andrew Coyne’s column in the National Post today is an unusually clear example of a mistake that people on the right always make when talking about public pensions. The headline in fact says it all: Turning the CPP into 18 million RRSPs. Here’s the basic problem with Coyne’s analysis. A public pension, like CPP, is providing an insurance product to Canadian citizens, in the same way that the health care system provides an insurance product to Canadians. Having insurance is not equivalent to having a pile of money in a savings account. And yet people on the right – merely because they don’t like government – are constantly suggesting that we abolish these insurance schemes, and replace them with individual savings – effectively forcing individuals to self-insure. So people like David Gratzer want to get rid of public health insurance, and replace it with individual savings accounts. And now Coyne wants to phase out public retirement insurance and replace it with individual savings accounts.… Continue reading

America needs a Parliament

Joe thinks America needs electoral reform. I’ve long thought that there was nothing wrong with American politics that a quick switch to a Westminster-style form of government couldn’t fix. Forget about the usual complaints about campaign finance or gerrymandering. I’m talking the big-picture stuff. For example:

1.The dynastic trend that has given us (or will have given us) a Clinton or a Bush for most of the past thirty years is, to a large extent, an artifact of the term limits on presidents. A move to a confidence-based system would allow popular presidents to burn themselves and their supporters out with a tired third term, while reducing the incentive for former presidents to build an independent power base and install an heir (or spouse) in his or her place.

2. The Supreme Court problem. Scalia died four months ago, and the GOP is straightforwardly refusing to to confirm Mark Garland.… Continue reading

Is Brexit a crisis for the Parliamentary system?

Everyone knows American democracy is a gong show. As Joe Heath argues a few posts below, it’s so bad that Americans have given up even thinking about how to reform their institutions. Francis Fukuyama says the country is suffering remorseless institutional decay. And surely Trumpism is the final proof, if any is needed, of how messed up things are down south.

Then there’s Tyler Cowen, who had this thought about Brexit (I bolded a few things worth emphasizing)

4. More generally, might the Parliamentary system be worse than many people think?  I’ve seen it praised so many times in the blogosphere for its clean, swift, up or down properties.  But when there is a leadership void, it hits the legislative and executive branches together, and either before or after the void it is possible to shift very badly off course very rapidly.  There are fewer intermediate institutions or checks and balances to set things right, and as Martin Wolf noted: “36 per cent of eligible voters have been allowed to decide “without any appropriate checks and balances””. 

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What should be done about the state of the news media?

Over the past six or seven years, I’ve spent more nights than I care to count sitting in bars with fellow journalists bemoaning the relentless decline in the industry’s fortunes, while spitballing about alternative revenue models, content models, regulatory policies, or technologies that might save the business. In that time, I’ve held pretty much every position imaginable. Many of these positions I’ve argued for in private with colleagues, in public in columns, on panels, even as a paid speaker.

If there is one thing I’ve concluded, it is this: No one knows what the future of the news media looks like. I don’t, the people running the major news companies don’t, the people running the cool new digital shops don’t, and the consultants who continue to charge healthy fees giving advice certainly don’t. Yet the “legacy”, or traditional media, continue to decline, and the new media darlings, like Buzzfeed, Vice, and others, aren’t doing so well either.… Continue reading

In praise of status quo-ism, or, 10 theses arising from the Brexit fiasco

Stability:
1. Citizens of reasonably free and reasonably democratic societies tend to underweight the value of stability. This is particularly the case when that society has been stable for a couple of decades or more, and so memories of previous instability are either foggy or non-existent.

2. The leader of a reasonably free and democratic society should overweight the value of stability. That is, in the absence of an overwhelming or unavoidable reason to do otherwise, he or she should strive to maintain the status quo at almost all cost. Put a bit crudely: A prime minister’s prime directive should be to defend the constitution.

3. The leader of a reasonably free and democratic society should never confuse intramural instability for national instability. That is, just because there are deep and existentially threatening cleavages within a political party, it does not mean there are similar cleavages within the nation that need attending to.… Continue reading

Intergenerational dimension of Brexit

One of the most striking features of yesterday’s referendum in the UK to leave the European Union is the significant generational split, with young people strongly favouring remaining. (This chart seems to be poll-based, but suggests that the only voters over the age of 55 favored leaving. Other polls suggest as much as 75% of 18-24 year olds wanted to remain.) This is a case where people at different ages clearly are in different interest positions. The quid pro quo on accepting EU immigrants to the UK is that UK citizens, in turn, have the right to live and work in other EU countries. This is a benefit that young people are much more likely to take advantage of than old people. (In fact, old people drawing pensions can continue to live pretty much wherever they like in Europe, the way Canadians live in Florida. It is young people who will feel the mobility restriction, because they will be unable to work.)

One might think that this raises a significant issue of fairness.… Continue reading

Trump and electoral reform: connecting the dots

I did two media pieces this week, the first an article opposing electoral reform for Policy Options, the second a panel discussion on Donald Trump on TVO’s The Agenda. There is actually a connection between the two, but I didn’t have enough time on the TV show to explain it. And so let me do so here.

First, electoral reform. The point I’m always trying to make in this debate, which is very difficult to get across without being misinterpreted, is that there is a family of recognizably “democratic” voting systems, all of which have advantages and disadvantages, but none of which is more inherently democratic, or fair, than the others. This is why most academic experts, when they debate the merits of the various systems, tend to talk about extremely pragmatic and consequential considerations, not fundamental democratic principles. In other words, the type of discourse engaged in by Fairvote Canada is, in my view, rank demagoguery.… Continue reading

“Foreseeable Natural Death” in Bill C-14: An Unclear and Undue Restriction?

Guest post by Michael Nafi, Department of Humanities, Philosophy and Religion, John Abbott College 

Bill C-14 on Medical Assistance in Dying has given rise to much debate in the Canadian House of Commons, in the mainstream media and various blogs, with both consensus and dissension stretching across the French/English language divide. The tide is unlikely to subside as the Bill moves to the Senate. Furthermore, as the parliamentary session nears its end, speculations abound on the fate of the Bill after the Liberal majority government today missed the June 6th deadline for its required legislative response to the Supreme Court (SCC) ruling in Carter v. Canada.

Critics have pointed out a number of shortcomings of the Bill and called for a number of amendments. However, regardless of the final form the law might take, there can be little doubt that the issue of medical assistance in dying will be revisited in the future on at least two fronts: i) the exclusion of persons under the age of 18 from such medical assistance and ii) the rejection of the possibility for persons who anticipate a deterioration of their health to provide advance directives to end their life in the future.… Continue reading