How to help the news media

The centerpiece proposal from the Public Policy Forum’s report, The Shattered Mirror, is to change the tax code to charge companies who want to advertise in Google and Facebook a ten percent levy, and then funnel that money into a fund that will be used to pay for digital journalism, as dispensed by an arms-length federal body.

This is one of those ideas that is high-minded, well-intentioned, and looks worse and worse the more I think about it.

There are fairness issues: why target, and punish, Canadian companies who do international digital business, and need to advertise on Google or Facebook to reach those audiences? How is the failure of the news media their problem to solve?

There are accountability issues: It is one thing to use taxpayer dollars to fund arms length institutions like NSERC or the CBC. There is at least in these cases a chain of accountability from the taxpayer to a minister to whom the institution is responsible, and who is in turn responsible to parliament.… Continue reading

How Crazy is Trump? Part 1 (and counting…)

Yesterday, Andrew Coyne wrote the following:

Whether a country has a trade deficit or a trade surplus, that is — with the world in general, let alone with individual countries — does not make the slightest difference to its welfare. It is a primitive fallacy to think that it does…

Where did Trump (and others) get the idea that the purpose of trade was to run a surplus? Perhaps, as a businessman, he equates a country’s trade balance with a company’s profit and loss statement. More likely, it is a matter of mistaking accounting for economics. Every first-year economics student is taught that national income equals consumption plus investment plus government spending plus the difference between exports and imports: the trade balance.

I’ve found that being charitable, when it comes to assessing people’s understanding of basic economics, is a habit seldom rewarded.

This afternoon, President Trump’s spokesman announced that they may impose a 20% tariff on Mexican imports as a way of making Mexico “pay” for the border wall.… Continue reading

A question for PR supporters

If the next federal election were being held under a proportional representation system, would the Conservative Party care if their leader spoke French?

That’s the question. My answer is “no.” That is, of course, speculative, but here is my thinking.

Right now what the Conservative Party is aiming for is a majority government. If that is the objective, then you can’t afford not to compete for the 70-odd Quebec seats that have a francophone majority electorate. If there’s one thing everyone can agree upon, it’s that first-past-the-post electoral systems create enormous pressure to create very broad-based political parties, that appeal to the maximum number of voters. That is the precisely the pressure that the Conservative party is experiencing now.

Proportional representation (PR) takes majority government off the table, even with the current party configuration. PR would also generate new parties over time, further increasing the difficulty of obtaining a majority. So all political parties, including the Conservative, will be looking at forming coalition governments.… Continue reading

Three thoughts on Kevin O’Leary

The newspapers today are loaded with stories suggesting that Kevin O’Leary is now the front-runner for the Conservative party leadership. For all the reasons outlined by Andrew Coyne, I don’t think it will happen. Not because Canada is necessarily morally exceptional (something we’ll be debating here at MISC next month) but because the systemic barriers are bigger here. It’s just harder to take over the Conservatives than it was for Trump to take over the GOP.

But since you never know what might happen, I think it’s worth making a few points about his candidacy.

1. Bilingualism

Whether it was craftiness or cowardice , O’Leary’s decision to enter the race the morning after the french-language debate was clearly deliberately timed. And didn’t we all spend yesterday talking about him? Combined with Justin Trudeau’s brain cramp in Sherbrooke, it raised once again the question of official bilingualism and whether one “has” to be bilingual to lead a major political party in this country.… Continue reading

The Dion in Winter

Stephane Dion has left the federal cabinet and quit politics. It obviously wasn’t a voluntary departure, but he managed to give a gracious enough statement. He obviously still wants to be a public servant, and in public life. Where that will be remains to be seen — word is that he was offered some sort of ambassadorship, but is taking time to stew think it over.

His departure was inevitable. As Paul Wells reminds us, the antagonism between Dion and Trudeau goes back aways. He wasn’t a very good foreign affairs minister, and his attempt to formulate some sort of Weberian doctrine to justify the shit-eating that goes along with the job was pathetic.

And before that, Dion was the Liberal leader who led the party to its worst showing since 1867, until whatshisname who replaced him did even worse.

But before that, he was Stephane Dion, the scourge of Quebec sovereigntists, the architect of the Clarity Act, the federalist Sun Tzu who showed Ottawa how to take the fight to the separatists.… Continue reading

What makes someone a conspiracy theorist?

One thing that many people have noted about Donald Trump is that he seems particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories. It is seldom made clear in these discussions, however, exactly what a “conspiracy theory” is, or what particular mental habits make people vulnerable to them. I thought, therefore, that it might be an opportune time to republish a small excerpt from my Enlightenment 2.0 that attempts to explain this. Basically, a conspiracy theorist is someone who falls victim to confirmation bias. He or she sees a pattern in the world, develops an account of the pattern, but then fails systematically to consider, much less investigate, any evidence that would contradict this account. Instead, he or she simply observes more and more instances of the pattern, treating each one (fallaciously) as more “evidence” of the account.

Conspiracy theorists serve as an excellent example of the phenomenon that Keith Stanovich refers to as dysrationalia.… Continue reading

Kellie Leitch on Anti-Canadian Values

It has been interesting to observe the reaction to my local MP and Conservative Party leadership contender Kellie Lietch’s proposal to screen prospective immigrants to Canada for “anti-Canadian values.” Many people have expressed outrage at this proposal, although most are at pains to say exactly what is wrong with it.

There is, of course, a totally pragmatic objection, which is that in practice it is impossible to tell what people’s values are, and so the only way to implement such a program would be by discriminating against certain groups, or people from certain countries suspected of harboring anti-Canadian values (such as women who wear niqabs, etc.) After all, immigrants talk to one another, and so if there were to be a quiz administered, with questions such as “do you believe that men and women should be equal?” word would quickly get out about what the correct answer is. So really the only way to implement it would be by barring individuals suspected of harboring anti-Canadian values based on observable characteristics.… Continue reading

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

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””. 

Continue reading