Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Politics: Rank Order Voting

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Last Sunday on CBC Radio One's "Cross Country Checkup", Liberal leader Stéphane Dion made a case for the Rank-Order Voting System [about 35 minutes into the program]. While noting that it was his personal view and not an official position of the Liberal party, Dion's stated support of the "Rank-Order System" (also known as "Instant Run-Off Voting") meant that the system may have a future in Canadian politics, as at least three parties (the Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens) have had one or more of their leaders speak favorably about the system.

Most agree that Canada's electoral system needs some reform. The "First-Past-the-Post" system means that in most ridings, with three or more major parties running, the elected Member of Parliament gets less than 50% of the vote, winning a seat with just a plurality of the vote. In some sense, more than half of the voters feel that their wishes are ignored. At the national scale, the picture looks even worse. Despite polling at 10% or higher across the country, it is entirely possible that the Green Party will not have a single seat and hence no voice in parliament, as that 10% is approximately evenly distributed across the country, meaning they are nowhere near a plurality in most ridings.

One way to solve this problem would be a "Proportional Representation" system, used in other parliamentary systems including the European Parliament and most of the individual countries of northern Europe, that would have the parties put up national or provincial lists of candidates, divide the number of seats based on the national votes, and then the list from each party is seated down to the number of seats that they gained. Personally, I have few issues with such a system, but as a pragmatic observer, I don't see how it would ever be implemented in Canada with opposition from the major parties and a tradition of strong identification of representatives with their local riding (though the latter would be addressed by a German-style mixed member proportional system, which would likely be the proposal in Canada and is favored by the NDP).

Dion has now stated his support for another system that would represent a significant improvement, "Rank Order Voting". Voters would rank the candidates in their order of preference. If no candidate achieved a majority on the basis of each voter's first choice, then the candidate who received the fewest votes would be eliminated, and the second choice of that candidate's voters would then receive that candidate's votes. That process would be repeated, down to two candidates if necessary, until one candidate did have a majority of votes.

To contrive an example based on current national polls in Canada, assume that 100,000 votes are counted in a riding. The Conservative receives 35,000 votes, the Liberal receives 25,000 votes, the NDP candidate receives 18,000 votes, the Bloc Quebecois candidate receives 12,000 votes, and the Green Party candidate receives 10,000 votes. In the existing system, the Conservative wins the election with just 35% of the vote and gets the seat.

In an instant run-off system, 50,0001 votes would be required to win the election. No candidate received that in our example, so the candidate with the fewest number of votes, the Green candidate, is eliminated, and the second choices of the people that voted for the Green would then be considered. We don't know those preferences--that's a problem with the polls--so let's guess that 4,000 chose the Conservative as a second choice, 3,000 chose the Liberal, 2,000 chose the NDP, and 1,000 chose the Bloc. The totals then become: Conservative, 39,000; Liberal, 28,000; NDP, 20,000; Bloc, 13,000. It doesn't appear that much had changed. But, still no candidate has gotten a majority, so the last-place candidate (the Bloc candidate) is eliminated, and the second choices of those voters are considered (the third choice in the case of the 1,000 voters that had originally preferred the Green).

Perhaps that results in 6,000 more Conservative votes, 5,000 more NDP votes, and 2,000 more Liberal votes. That places the Conservatives with 45,000 votes, the Liberals with 30,000 votes, and the NDP with 25,000 votes. Still, no candidate has a majority, so another candidate (in this case the NDP candidate) is dropped. The next choice on each NDP voter's list is considered; let's say that's 21,000 votes for the Liberals and 4,000 for the Conservatives. In that scenario, the Liberals win with 51,000 votes.

Most readers will probably object that in this specific example, it is not likely that the NDP vote would go so strongly for the Liberals and that the Conservatives would likely win anyway. Perhaps, but if that were the case, at least it would be known that Conservatives were really preferred by the voters over the Liberals in a two-way race, which is what it would have become.

Furthermore, that's where the other point raised by Dion about the "rank order system" comes into play. It's less about changing the result of the election than it is about changing the style of the election. If the second and third choice (and in this example, even the fourth choice) of voters matters, then candidates will seek to show how they share values and policies with other parties to attract a higher ranking from voters that prefer rivals. Playing to the broader electorate becomes more important than playing to smaller interest groups for all candidates. The smaller parties (read: the NDP and the Greens) would be more likely to have their interests addressed by the larger parties.

This centrist tendency would seem to favor centrist parties (read, Dion's Liberals), and indeed the 2008 NDP platform calls instead for a mixed-member proportional system. Yet, it strikes me that the NDP will out-poll the Liberals in many ridings in the 2008, meaning that the Liberal candidate would be eliminated before the NDP candidate in an instant run-off system. I have a hard timing believing that the NDP would actually vote against a "Rank Order," "Instant Run-Off" proposal if it came to vote in parliament.

In fact, voters would likely feel more free to vote for the NDP or the Greens or other smaller parties if the argument often made by the Liberals that voters needed to vote Liberal "to stop the Conservatives" was taken away. Conceivably, Liberals might suddenly become a second or third choice to many voters, instead of their singular choice.

It would seem that parties representing a majority of Canadians seem to view the system favorably, and that's why I feel that the "Rank Order System" may be the best chance at immediate electoral reform in Canada.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Media: Thumbs Down on "The Point"

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The radio industry already has quite a few "point"s. On public radio in the US, there's the "On Point" talk show with Tom Ashbrook from WBUR in Boston, the news show "To The Point" with Warren Olney out of KCRW in Santa Monica, and more locally "The Point" regional affairs show with Mindy Todd on WCAI/WNAN in Massachusetts' Cape and Islands, all of which I can attest are quality programs. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has a "Points North" regional afternoon program in northern Ontario out of Sudbury. A little searching also revealed the Australia Broadcasting Corporation's "Talking Point" portion of its morning show, a whole network of Adult Album Alternative music stations known as "The Point" in Vermont, and a smattering of other music stations (usually Adult Album Alternative in format) called "The Point" all over the United States.

So, calling a program "The Point" hardly seems original. Unfortunately, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's new afternoon public affairs program that debuted today, "The Point", is indeed hardly original itself.

While "The Point" is taking the afternoon slot "after your local noon show" (which means 2 pm just about everywhere except Newfoundland, where it airs at 2:30 pm, and Winnipeg, where it airs at 1 pm), it isn't really replacing the former occupant of that slot "Q", the arts, entertainment, and culture program. Itself a relatively new program not much more than a year old, "Q" has moved to the mornings, taking the place of the variety show "Sounds Like Canada". In a very real sense, "The Point" is actually replacing "Sounds Like Canada".

In one sense, the CBC made a good decision by making that time move. The mornings were once the radio home of Peter Gzowski's legendary "Morningside" show from 1982 to 1997. "Sounds Like Canada" host Shelagh Rogers had played a significant role on "Morningside" and her show could never get away from a comparison between the two in which it would inevitably suffer. "Morningside" had a different charter than "Sounds Like Canada" as there was no lead-in from "The Current" with hard news. "Sounds Like Canada" couldn't win. "Q" is such a drastically different show that I expect few to get worked up by comparisons with the past.

"The Point" would seem to have a chance in a fresh time slot. Public affairs programs in the afternoon can work well, witness National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" (which airs in the afternoon in most of the country) and KUOW's "The Conversation".

Yet, if the first show is indicative of what is to come on "The Point," I won't be listening. The production values and fast pacing were somewhat reminiscent of "Spark" or even the now-defunct "Fair Game", indicating an attempt to attracting a younger-leaning audience. Most of the first hour involved host Aamer Haleem talking to "Point People" or one-day guests with something to say on current affairs ("great Canadian conversationalists" according to the show's web site). At least today, Haleem and "Point People" Tasha Khereiddin and Naheed Nenshi didn't offer any insight that couldn't be found on run-of-the-mill commercial talk radio. I kept waiting for them to offer something I hadn't thought of before, and it never came.

Oddly, the show still includes music, which won't win over the talking heads-crowd, but not enough of it to bring back the old "Freestyle" listeners. It also includes various side conversations, the most notable of which on this day was "Search Engine" podcast host Jesse Brown describing a substantially off-the-radar but interesting happening in the video game realm.

My number one criteria for deciding whether to listen to a given show is "Did I learn something?" I can't think of a single thing that I did learn, except during Jesse Brown's segment (which I could have gotten more efficiently from the "Search Engine" podcast). So, I don't anticipate making this show a part of my regular listening habits. There's too much worthwhile programming out there on the Internet, including from the CBC itself.

It's possible that the final half-hour of the show offered something worthwhile, but it didn't air in Toronto, where local programming takes over at 3 pm, and based on the first hour, I have little reason to seek it out on-line to find out.

Don't expect "The Point" to be appearing in my radio picks section in the future. As the show itself might ask: What is "the point" of listening?

Radio Pick: Jon Keller on the Debates

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I don't often agree with WBZ commentator Jon Keller. Keller, whose two-minute "At Large" commentaries air just before 08:00 on WBZ Newsradio 1030 in Boston and have been available for some time as a podcast, often comes from an extreme libertarian perspective. However, it's often a worthwhile perspective to hear, and today he did the best job of summarizing Friday's presidential debate that I've heard to date.

Listen to Jon Keller's commentary on the debates

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Photos: Summer in Toronto

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's photo update on my photo site presents some final photos from the summer of 2008 in Toronto, Ontario. The Labour Day Parade, a visit to Dave Wetherald's model railroad, work at the John Street Roundhouse, and sewer reconstruction in Etobicoke in September 2008 highlight the update.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Radio Pick: FSRN Reach Out and Smear Someone

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Free Speech Radio News often covers stories that other organizations don't bother to address. In the past week, news items have run on the ecological impact of a proposed dam in Patagonia, changes to San Francisco's sanctuary laws, and Hindus attacking Christians in India. In a politically focused week, they ran Ralph Nader's take on the debate commission, a story on potential voter suppression in Wisconsin, and the pick of the week, a feature on Push Polling that I heard nowhere else.

Listen to MP3 of Free Speech Radio News "Reach Out and Smear Someone"

Politics: Margin Notes on the Debate and More

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Early in the primary process I actually went on the record as stating that a presidential race between John McCain and Barack Obama would likely be best for the United States, as both were positive, forward-looking individuals who didn't hate each other and offered clearly contrasting visions for the future of the United States that the voters would be able to choose between without the race having to focus on personal attacks. Of course, despite getting that pair of candidates, the race hasn't turned out as I had hoped and there has been more focus on personality and lipstick than substantive issues.

The debate last night, though, reminded me why I had made that statement nearly a year ago. The event was civil, focused on issues, and the contrasts in economic and foreign policy were clearly delineated. Neither candidate overwhelmed the other, and neither damaged himself with a consequential mistake. Voters leaning toward one candidate did not likely change their minds as a result of the debate. Undecided voters looking for guidance should understand their choice clearly now, and that's good for democracy.

* * * * *

Surprisingly, I think the loser of the debate was moderator Jim Lehrer of the Public Broadcasting Service's News Hour with Jim Lehrer, a show that I listen to regularly. In the past, I have always been impressed with Lehrer, but I thought his attempts to try to get the candidates to engage one another early in the debate were unconstructive. If the candidates want to speak just to the audience with substance, it is not necessary to force them to challenge one another. The best way to handle that kind of situation is to have the moderator follow-up on each candidate's responses. Lehrer did some of that, and made his points rather subtly, but I really longed for the late Tim Russert, whose style would have been perfect for the circumstances.

* * * * *

It is well known that the #1 song on John McCain's iPod is ABBA's "Dancing Queen". However, after the unconventional behavior McCain engaged in last week, suspending his campaign and saying he wouldn't show up for the debate until a bailout package was completed, then participating in the debate even though no agreement had been reached, it would seem the more appropriate ABBA song is "Take a Chance on Me" (just #3 on McCain's top 10).

* * * * *

On the "Week in the News" hour from NPR's On Point this week, Jack Beatty speculated that the strange moves by McCain were designed to distract attention from Sarah Palin's poor performance in an interview with CBS News' Katie Couric. After watching that interview, and without any official explanation from the McCain campaign, it is hard to discount that possibility.

* * * * *

Think an electoral college tie is unlikely? It actually seems possible to me. If John McCain wins the same states as George W. Bush did in 2004, and Barack Obama wins the same states as John Kerry EXCEPT that Obama wins in Colorado, New Mexico, and Iowa (each of which is likely at present) and McCain wins in New Hampshire (where he led in the polls earlier this week), that would result in a 269-269 tie. Of course, in 2008, it appears that a tie goes to the Democrats, as the race would go to the House of Representatives, where the Democrats will almost certainly be in control.

* * * * *

People in my riding of Parkdale-High Park in Toronto are sometimes confused between their Member of Parliament and Member of Provincial Parliament. Both are relatively recently-elected, female, and from their respective New Democratic Parties (the provincial and federal parties are technically different organizations). Yet, the reason for the confusion never really hit home until I saw this picture of MP Peggy Nash and MPP Cheri DiNovo together in this picture from a Nash campaign flier:

In case you're confused, Nash is on the left and DiNovo is on the right.

If the NDP was cloning candidates in the late Baby Boom, I'd like to see them run more of the clones in additional ridings around here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Politics: Contrasting Strategies on the Right

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Globe and Mail columnist John Duffy has made the case that the first North American election is taking place in the United States and Canada. Duffy believes that that rural voters (represented by the Republicans and the Conservatives) are being pitted against urban voters (represented by the Democrats and the other parties in Canada). While challenges to that thesis could take several forms, perhaps the most interesting divide may be that between the tactics used by the Republican Party of John McCain and the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper.

In Canada, Stephen Harper has positioned his Conservative Party as the beacon of stability and competent economic stewardship. He has called the other parties "too risky for Canada" especially in rough economic times, and has tried to emphasize that risk. Indeed, polls indicate that Harper is viewed by Canadians as the best leader to handle the economy. The deeper the economic problems in the United States prove to be and larger their impact on Canada appears, the more Harper would seem to benefit.

In contrast, John McCain has been trying to establish himself as more anti-establishment than the candidate of the party that actually is out of power in the White House. Building on his long-standing reputation as a "maverick," McCain picked as his vice-presidential nominee someone else who could claim populist credentials in Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Since picking Palin, McCain has rarely talked about his advantage in experience over rival Barack Obama, instead emphasizing what his ticket would do to change the nation's capitol. He paints himself as a man of action, who takes on his own party and forces change in ways that benefit the country, even if that means doing things in an unconventional manner and hurting his own political prospects.

(As a side note, the etymology of the word "maverick" is somewhat amusing, traditionally meaning an unbranded ranch animal, named after a Texas rancher who refused to brand his cattle. This was essentially an unethical practice by Samuel Maverick, allowing him to claim ANY unbranded cattle whether it was actually his or not, subverting the branding system to his personal advantage. Does a politician really want to be associated with a word of that etymology?)

The "maverick," "country-first" strategy reached a new apex this week when McCain announced he was suspending his campaign to return to Washington to lead the effort to pass economic bail-out legislation, and that furthermore he would not attend the scheduled Presidential debate scheduled for this evening. While McCain tried to make a case for demonstrating self-sacrificing leadership through this action, in many ways he made Obama look like the competent statesman who was taking a measured approach and understood that the personal contribution of either candidate to the legislation was likely to be minimal. Obama's statements that "presidents have to do more than one thing at a time" and that "injecting presidential politics into this process may not be helpful" sound like things that Stephen Harper might say. Far from calling the other candidate too risky, McCain is opening the door to appearing too risky himself.

A case could be made, in fact, that the personality expressed by McCain in his campaign does not most closely resemble Stephen Harper, but that of Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe. Interestingly, it is indeed the Bloc that may effectively compete for rural votes in Quebec if for no other reason than its nationalist stance. While generally regarded as a left-leaning party, the Bloc currently holds most of the rural seats from Quebec and may retain a number of them considering the current backlash against perceived Conservative insensitivity to Québécois culture.

The rise of the action démocratique Québec (ADQ) at the provincial level in Quebec, as well as the election of a New Democratic Party member of parliament in urban Montreal, may indicate that Duffy's rural-urban thesis is coming to that province. However, since there is still competition for rural voters in Quebec and the current divide in tactics between the Republicans and Conservatives exists, the first North American election still probably lies in the future.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Politics: Politicians To Blame {Sigh}

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I don't like letting people who behave irresponsibly with money off the hook. In fact, I define "irresponsibly" more broadly than most, claiming that decision-makers (from individual investors to CEO's) should be thinking about the impact of their decisions on the society as a whole, and thinking more about it the larger the decision being made. If the potential consequences to society were not considered, then an irresponsible decision was likely made. Yet, the attempt by many people, most notably politicians, to find someone to blame for the current financial crisis in the United States has led to an inescapable conclusion--those most to blame were the politicians themselves.

The focus of many people, from talk show hosts to senators, has been on finding someone who committed a fraud or other crime that led, directly or indirectly, to the need for a $700 billion bailout plan. Unlike in some other major financial scandals in history (say, Enron), just about everything appears to have been legal. There many have been pockets of illegal activity, but the basic flawed concepts were legal. There was nothing illegal about selling houses with no money down. There was nothing illegal about NINJA loans, or loans to people with "No Income, No Job, and no Assets". There was nothing illegal about "naked short selling," or the practice of selling a stock that one doesn't own under the assumption that it could be bought back later at a lower price (generic short selling) without checking that there was actually stock that could be borrowed for that purpose (the "naked" part).

So, if there was nothing illegal going on, who could be to blame but the people that made the laws? In other words, some of the very people trying to investigate what happened, the politicians, were discovering that the very de-regulation laws that they may have championed in the past generation were actually at the root of the issue. Had regulations been in place, either many of the risky activities would never have taken place, or they would have been illegal, and there would be someone to put in jail for the present situation. It's been stated many times, but Canada has not de-regulated to nearly the degree that the United States has, and indeed, Canada does not have nearly the financial crisis going on that the United States is experiencing.

While there is plenty of blame to go around for the present crisis in both major political parties in the United States, the Republicans obviously have more to lose, as they have been the leading advocates of de-regulation and smaller government. Suddenly, that ideology doesn't resonate with the present reality.

Yet, the fundamental core of the conservative message, that pure markets are the most efficient economic mechanism, has not been repudiated by this crisis. The fundamental problem was that financial instruments became so abstract that market forces were no longer acting directly on the fundamental transaction in real estate, transfer of a home from a seller to a buyer. If they had been, nobody would have been offered a NINJA loan, and people would not have been moving into homes that they could not objectively afford. It may be the ultimate irony that the ideology of de-regulation intended to allow markets to function in pure form actually did the opposite, and distorted the pure market forces. The reality is that there is no such thing as a pure anything when human beings are involved. In the highest-level analysis, that's why we have organized into societies that have laws.

It will take a group of politicians from either or both parties who understand both the fundamentals of capitalist economics and the appropriate role of regulation in maintaining those fundamentals to pass workable laws to keep this kind of crisis from happening again. Considering that the Savings and Loan collapse happened less than a generation ago (remember--John McCain himself was a member of the Keating five during that crisis), there seems to be little hope that it won't happen again.

Of course, saying that the politicians are to blame is tantamount to saying that the common person is to blame, as the electorate is supposed to hold politicians accountable for their decisions. There's a chance to do that in November, and those upset about the situation (as most should be) should think seriously about how to send a message with their ballots.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Politics: Nixonian Stephen Harper

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Earlier this month, columnist Paul Krugman received considerable attention in the United States for a piece in the New York Times, echoing historian Rick Perlstein's book “Nixonland,” claiming that Republican politics in the United States had been exploiting the resentments and fears of voters toward various other Americans ever since Richard Nixon came onto the scene. George W. Bush's anti-intellectual, anti-elitist, anti-government campaigns, so effective against both Al Gore and John Kerry, could be directly traced to Nixon's establishment of the "Orthogonians" at Whittier College to counter the Franklin Society that had rejected him.

Any doubt that Conservative Party of Canada leader Stephen Harper had learned from the Republican tactic should have been dispelled this week. Yesterday, Harper defended his controversial recent cut of $45 million in arts funding by saying that "ordinary Canadians" did not appreciate people attending "rich galas" (Harper felt the need to repeat the word "rich" throughout the speech) complaining about the loss of subsidies. He also stated that "cultural funding" had increased under his government.

On that final point, Harper is technically correct. Government spending on "culture" has increased under his administration. The problem with the statement is that "culture" is quite broadly defined in official terms. It includes institutions such as the CBC and other government funding of the media, and sports funding. Most Canadians would probably agree that hockey and curling count as culture. However, the increases in "culture" funding have mostly been directed at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, in the realm of sports, and into "new media" ventures in the media. Funding for items that would be considered "arts" has gone down modestly, though even the CBC has had trouble pinning down the exact amount.

Skepticism of the Conservative government on arts spending has been largely driven by a provision of Bill C-10 from the recent parliament, which gave the Heritage Minister the right to refuse tax credits for a project deemed "offensive or not in the public interest"--after the completion of the project. C-10 was expected to lead to considerable self-censorship amongst artists out of fear of losing the tax credit. The passage of C-10 in the House of Commons led many artists to turn against the Harper government, and Harper's recent comments seem to reinforce the impression that the Conservatives are not interested in maintaining the current arts atmosphere in Canada.

Backlash against C-10 and Harper's recent comments seems to building, especially in Quebec. A popular and hilarious You Tube video (the linked version has English subtitles) paints the Conservative government as hopelessly unable to understand Quebecois culture. If any resentment is incited in Quebec, it may be against the Conservatives.

The use of resentment seems to have become a real theme of the Conservative campaign. About two weeks ago, I received campaign mail that stated "Why should thugs, drug dealers, and sexual offenders serve their sentences at home watching TV, playing video games, and surfing...the Internet? They shouldn't. The Conservative Government Supports Ending House Arrest for Serious Offences." Yesterday, Harper himself started making this case in his speeches, apparently an attempt to make people resent certain criminals for having an easy lifestyle. It turns out that only 11,000 people nationwide are in house arrest, most of them in transition to release after having served much of their sentences in jail. Putting all of them in jail would not be likely to have any actual impact in the discouragement of crime. Thus, the point of the campaign is clearly more symbolic. At some level, building resentment against criminals may be preferable to inciting fear in the electorate. In this case, the campaign tactic chosen to sell the policy seems to be more revealing of the candidate than the substance of the policy.

Harper's Nixonian tactics have not been limited to the incitement of resentment. Nixon was well-known for using coarse language, especially in private, and Harper has taken to using surprisingly coarse language during this campaign. Referring to the Liberals' "Green Shift" environmental proposal, he has talked about the "Green Shaft" and stated that it will "screw everybody across the country." Whether intended as a sexual or carpentry reference, that's quite colloquial and graphic language to be using in a Canadian political campaign, and he's repeated it often enough that it can't be passed off as an off-the-cuff remark. That's the language Harper apparently wants associated with his campaign.

While a case could be made that there has been a shade of anti-elitism in American politics ever since the Declaration of Independence, Nixon and Republican strategists right through to George W. Bush's Karl Rove have taken it to new levels, creating a division in the electorate that has resulted in the deep "blue and red America" divide that has made centrist politics almost impossible to practice in the United States. In contrast, Canada has no such long-standing tradition, and the two largest political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, have traditionally tried to claim--and govern from--the political center. Canadians from all political stripes still talk to one another and seem to prefer centrist policies.

Many Canadians have found Stephen Harper to be a competent and centrist Prime Minister, as reflected in his positive leadership poll numbers. There seems to be far more to question in his campaign tactics than in his actual policies. The channeling of Richard Nixon by Harper should be closely examined by everyone in Canada, starting with Stephen Harper. One look down south should show where it could be taking Canada, and I don't believe that even Stephen Harper wants to end up with the divisions that exist in the US electorate.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Politics: Who's the Best Storyteller?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - CBC Television's The National last night ran a nice piece about how Americans care about the personal lives of their candidates and Canadians do not. The focus on personal details fits right in with the emphasis on image expected of an "emotional"-type culture, as discussed previously.

During the CBC piece, the idea that American candidates required a compelling personal narrative was raised. However, it runs deeper than just having a story about one's life. Michael Dukakis, the son of immigrants, had a quintessentially American story to tell in 1988 and lost in an effective landslide. John Kerry arguably had a much more interesting life story to tell in 2004 than did George Bush, including his military service and how that shaped his political views. The missing element for Dukakis and Kerry was that they did not tell their stories well and defend them against their opponents. It is story-telling that is critical to US electoral success.

Ira Glass, the host of the Public Radio International radio show This American Life, should know a thing or two about story-telling. His weekly hour-long show does nothing but present stories straight out of the lives of average--and not so average--Americans. When he goes on tour, he talks about how to tell a good story at length. Inevitably, as I observed in Boston in 2005 and in Seattle in 2006, he is asked about how this applies to politics.

Glass happens to be quite left-leaning and the fact that Democrats have failed miserably at story-telling since Bill Clinton, while Republicans have been masters, drives him crazy. "I want to ask them, 'Do you need help?'" he stated at the Boston event. Glass gets quite worked up over the apparent focus of Democrats of having facts on their side and letting those facts tell the story. "People don't want to go to school; they want to go to the movies," he has stated. That the principles of story-telling are widely-known makes the Democrats' failure all the more inexcusable.

Glass also points out that this has been true throughout American history. Historians note that Paul Revere was actually captured by the British on his ride to Concord. Dr. Samuel Prescott was the one that delivered the message that the British were coming. Yet, between the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem on the "Midnight Ride" and a long list of descendants that wanted to defend the myth, nobody has heard of Prescott and every American learns about Paul Revere. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin, while unquestionably an important figure who contributed invaluably to US history, apparently made up stories to add to his fame. In an episode of This American Life, Glass and Jack Hitt discussed how even the famous story about discovering electricity by flying a kite during a thunderstorm is almost certainly untrue.

In 2008, it seemed that the Democrats were finally learning something about story-telling. Barack Obama, who not only personified what many believe is the multi-racial future of the United States but also understood how to tell his story eloquently, became the nominee of the Democratic Party, out-flanking a more experienced candidate with her own uplifting American story (but not nearly the oratory skill) in Hillary Clinton.

Yet, this was apparently the victory of story-telling within the Democratic Party and not a sign that the Democrats have learned their lesson. Besides the personal narrative, the candidate has to have a story to tell about where they are taking the country. Obama seemed to be heading toward such a vision during the primaries, but since gaining the nomination, this element has been sorely lacking. I can't re-count what the Obama vision for the future of America is right now since he hasn't been talking about it. "Change you can believe in" is a slogan, not a story.

Meanwhile, the Republicans chose as their nominee the candidate in their ranks with the best life story, war hero John McCain. Then, he chose as his running mate a woman with another great personal narrative in Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a role model for conservative, modern women. The combined effect was to create a very clear story about where the Republicans were going to take the country. Never mind the Bush administration, John McCain will chart a maverick course to reform Washington DC. This may not be a vision consistent with the Republican ticket's background, but it is a story that resonates, and the bump in the polls after the Republican convention showed just how powerfully it resonated.

There is still time in this election, with four debates forthcoming, for Obama and vice presidential nominee Joe Biden to start telling a cohesive storyline about their future vision, and it is clear that Obama can tell a story. Perhaps the dynamics are so stacked against the Republicans that the Democrats don't even need story-telling to win this election. However, those wondering why Obama isn't riding the favorable political climate to a landslide shouldn't be looking to race, gender, or accusations about his religious background. The reason Obama has not run away with this election is that he isn't telling an adequately compelling story.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Politics: Fear Has No Place in Politics

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In an interview with Peter Mansbridge on CBC Television's The National last Wednesday, New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jack Layton was asked whether he "feared" a Conservative majority in the House of Commons. To his credit, Layton wouldn't give in to the concept of fear, saying that fear was "not a term I tend to use," though he viewed a Conservative majority as something that "I'm doing everything I can to prevent." Mansbridge followed up, asking him again whether he specifically "feared" a Conservative majority, and Layton expounded on his original response, saying that a Conservative majority was "fundamentally wrong for the planet."

Of course, Layton likely didn't make this statement on principle. Historically, when voters "feared" a Conservative majority, or a Liberal majority, they have run away from the smaller parties and voted for one of the two traditionally-larger parties in hopes that they would be more likely to contain the other party. So, had Layton said that he feared the Conservatives, it would have been interpreted as a tacit endorsement of the Liberals by many voters.

Yet, Layton happened to be correct on principle--voters should never vote on the basis of fear. His statement that "I tend to say we have a better alternative. We've got a future that can be filled with hope and real change" is a much more future-looking, positive statement than telling the voter to fear not voting for his party.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that fear has no place in modern life except in circumstances of actual, immediate physical danger from a violent or potentially violent criminal. Fear evolved as an emotion to make human beings take extremely conservative (in the literal sense of that word) decisions when there was a threat to their family. Before civilization, there were many threats that could result in the deaths of the entire family if humans did not heed noises in the night or encounters with previously-unknown things in the environment, from new plant species to people from other places.

When fear is invoked, freedom of action is inhibited. The external threat intimidates the person feeling fear. The fearful person no longer cares about their own personal wishes, they simply give in to the intimidation for survival's sake. In some cases, the fearful person may instead react violently, taking overly-aggressive action in attempt to stomp out the threat instead of giving in to it. In neither case does the person act in a rational way.

Today, those reading this message live in a very different environment, a complicated society that protects its members from external threats. It may occasionally fail in these protections, usually because of political incompetence. A properly-functioning government keeps crime under control, for example, and warns its residents about impending natural disasters, then helps them recover afterward.

In this kind of society, there is really no place for fear. There is no reason to be intimidated into acting against one's personal interests, and there is no reason to lash out at a threat that is better addressed by the society as a whole. The only exception is an interpersonal criminal situation in which one's person or family is threatened by a criminal temporarily outside of the reach of the society.

Politicians do not need to invoke fear. By trying to incite fear, they are either trying to intimidate the voter away from acting in their best interest, or to cause them to lash out irrationally. Thus, any voter that sees a candidate trying to incite fear should not succumb to that fear. They should instead ask why that politician is trying to intimidate them and question their motivations.

More politicians should make statements like Jack Layton made to Peter Mansbridge last week, refusing to give in to fear and instead offering a positive alternate vision. If voters follow the positive visions, politicians will eventually stop the fear tactics, and that should be the outcome we all desire.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Photos: Canadian National Exhibition

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The latest update to my photo page features the Canadian National Exhibition.

Highlights of a visit to "The Ex" on 30-31-August-2008 included the Canadian International Air Show, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride, the Farm, the new TTC subway car mockup, and the History of the Toilet.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Radio Pick: Truth Telling in the Media

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick will already be familiar to regular readers of this blog.

Minnesota Public Radio often airs excellent forums that have occurred at the University of Minnesota, and this week the Midday show played an important one from the Humphrey Institute. Representatives of PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org talked about their efforts to categorize political speech, and what they have found in the McCain and Obama presidential campaigns in this 54-minute program. Their comments about the impact of their sites on the media in general and the campaigns themselves were especially interesting.

Listen to streaming Windows Media of Midday "Truth Telling in the Media"

Friday, September 19, 2008

Politics: Americans Don't Care About the Truth

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Democrats for most of my adult life have tried to win elections by taking what they believe to be more logical positions on the issues of the day, and then (with the exceptions of Carter and Clinton), watching as they lost to what they considered to be illogical and misleading campaigns run by Republicans. They have accused Republicans of not telling the truth. The Democrats don't seem to have learned that American culture doesn't care about truth; it cares far more about appearances and what makes people feel good.

One way to understand this culture is to look at it from the perspective of personality theory. Much like people, nations have characteristic traits. Not every individual of a given "type" exhibits all the characteristics of that type strongly, but put a group of people of a given type together and on average those traits will stand out prominently. People of all personality types exist in any society, but certain traits dominate and create a culture that, on average, closely resembles a personality type or types.

The personality theory I find most useful, popularized by Olympic athlete trainer Bob Cooley amongst others, divides personality types into four "worlds" with similar traits. While there are different types within each "world," they share certain aspects of their "world view," and hence create meaningful groupings. The four worlds are usually referred to as "physical," "thinking," "emotional," and "spiritual."

The "Physical" types tend to live in the present, often express love and anger, see the world in terms of power and control, and tend to be in constant motion. The "Thinking" types tend to look to the future, often make connections between ideas that are not readily apparent to other types, and enjoy thorough exploration of issues. The "Emotional" types tend to find the past important, base their decisions on their feelings and how things appear to others, focus strongly on money, and are often the best artists and performers. The "Spiritual" types tend to have a timeless perspective, operate on the basis of logic, and often have an innate resistance to change.

It should be clear from those description that the "Emotional" world predominates in the United States. There are some elements of the other worlds and some regional variation in exact type, but when push comes to shove, the "cultural overlay" of an American is clearly "Emotional".

Don't believe me? Look at what becomes successful in the marketplace in the United States. Betamax was a technically superior (attractive to the "thinking" and "spiritual" worlds) format for videocassettes, but the VHS format won in large part because of superior marketing--people felt better about it and felt others would use it, so Betamax disappeared. Microsoft Windows won a similar battle with Apple's Macintosh--and Apple eventually responded by making its own products that emphasized form and were well-marketed in the iPod and iPhone, when other devices in those market segments offered better value and feature sets.

Republicans understand this. Their campaigns appeal to people's feelings, especially their patriotic feelings, and claim that the Democrats don't feel good about the country whenever the Democrats call for change. They focus on deconstructing the image of their opponents and bolstering the image of their own candidates, successfully convincing the electorate that they'd rather have a beer with George W. Bush than Al Gore or John Kerry.

Fundamentally, in the "Emotional" world, truth and logic don't matter nearly as much as feelings and image. Thus, a claim about the Democrats that matches the image that has entered the public lexicon, such as that they will raise taxes, doesn't have to be true in a specific instance, and in fact may even be false. If it "feels" true, it will resonate. Comedy Channel host Stephen Colbert may call this "truthiness," but it's how the average American views the world.

This is also why calls by some Democrats for their candidates to start "lying" about the Republicans the same way they "lie" about the Democrats wouldn't work. Unless the "lie" matches the voter's pre-conceived notion of the Republican candidate--and the Democrats have been so ineffective at negatively shaping the image of Republicans that this is unlikely--it will not be accepted and will be viewed for what it is, a lie. Meanwhile, since it matches their image, the Republicans can continue to claim they refused pork barrel projects and opposed earmarks, since they have cultivated such an image, regardless of whether an individual candidate actually did so.

Sometimes, the lack of logic that results from this reality can be appalling, especially to spiritual types (who live on logic) and most physical types (who are attracted to logic). A classic example came up on the Dave Ross Show from KIRO-AM in Seattle on Tuesday. About twenty minutes into the hour, a caller claimed that the current financial crisis was causing him to vote for McCain because government regulation was the problem, all the while stating that things had been better when there had been more government regulation. Ross tried in vain to get the caller to see the logical disconnect. (Of course, pointing out that Canada maintained its regulations and doesn't have a financial crisis might have helped.)

So, if this is true, how did Bill Clinton ever become president as a Democrat? Clinton was a deep "emotional" type, "feeling the pain" of American citizens. Clinton lived and breathed ("emotional" types are known for their breathing) "emotional" culture and thus the culture had an easy time relating to him. In the end, though, his inattention to image would be the downfall of his administration.

Barack Obama had done a great job of building his personal image, and sure enough, he got the nomination of the Democratic Party. Yet, his general election campaign seems to be falling victim to the old pattern of trying to win with more logical arguments, just in a slightly more eloquent wrapper. Until the Democrats make an effort to understand the "Emotional" aspect of United States culture and understand how to use it, they will continue to lose elections.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Politics: McCain and Palin Tell the Truth Less

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A quick look at the PolitiFact.com Truth-O-Meter shows Republican presidential nominee John McCain as having made six statements that were so egregiously untrue that they resulted in a "pants-on-fire" rating. The Democrats' nominee, Barack Obama, has made none. In the false category, John McCain is cited for twenty-three statements. Obama is cited for eighteen, but most were about Hillary Clinton, not McCain. Of 116 statements from McCain that were evaluated, just twenty-five were unquestionably true, or 22%. Of 116 statements from Obama that were evaluated, just forty were unquestionably true, but at 43%, that's almost double McCain's number. It is clear that McCain tells the truth less often than Obama.

Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden has been cited for two "pants on fire" statements earlier in the campaign. One could not possibly be taken seriously, when he stated in 2007 that President Bush "is brain dead," and the other was an accusation that Rudy Giuliani was unqualified to be president, which is not exactly relevant to the current campaign. Neither was an accusation about the McCain campaign, in contrast with most of McCain's false statements actually being about the Obama campaign.

Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin looks clean until one realizes that how misleading some of her statements have been. The "Truth-O-Meter" doesn't properly indict spin, statements that are technically true but are grossly misleading. Sarah Palin gets a "half-true" for her famous statement that "I told the Congress 'thanks, but no thanks,' on that Bridge to Nowhere," despite the fact that she supported the project until Congress had already killed it, then opposed it--but since she did oppose it in the end, it doesn't count as a lie. A similar situation applies with respect to earmarks; Palin does oppose them now and should be commended for that, but it is clear that she solicited them as mayor of Wasilla by hiring a lobbyist. Palin also gets a "half-true" for stating that "Barack Obama supports plans to raise 'income taxes ... payroll taxes.'" That's only true for people with incomes over $200,000, less than 5% of the electorate. For 95% of people, that statement is not true. It may not qualify as a lie under the "Truth-O-Meter," but it would qualify for my favorite term, "inappropriate discourse."

Yet, despite the fact that income and payroll taxes would go down for at least 90% of the electorate under the Obama proposal, a Gallup poll indicates that 53% of Americans believe that their taxes would go up if Obama is elected. Clearly, the "inappropriate discourse" from the Republicans is effective.

Two of McCain's "true" statements strike me as completely irrelevant. I find the sales of "Mamma Mia!" and tales about his grandfather to have no bearing on the campaign. Similarly, I don't care about Obama's claim about "Wild Bill" Hickok either, but one statement in forty looks a lot less distracting than two of twenty-five.

Not only does the Obama campaign make fewer certified false claims, it tends to correct the false claims that it does make. This topic was discussed at length during a forum at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute aired on Minnesota Public Radio's midday show on Monday. For example, during the Democratic convention when Joe Biden claimed that John McCain had voted with President Bush's position 95% of the time, the fact-checking organizations determined that the real number was 90%. When Barack Obama spoke at the end of the convention, he used the correct number, and the campaign has been using it ever since. Similarly, an Obama claim that he "worked his way through college" was dropped after the fact-checking organizations demonstrated that this was a half-truth. Obama now more accurately claims to have gotten through college with scholarships and summer jobs.

In contrast, the fact-checkers could cite few examples of the McCain campaign backing off of false positions, and none were central to the campaign. McCain's blatantly false claims about the Obama tax plan and Sarah Palin's gross misrepresentations of her position on earmarks continue to be in their stump speeches to this day.

Of course, none of this actually matters to the electorate. McCain and Palin will get away with blatantly false statements right up until the election. The only thing that matters is the voter's perception of the truth, the topic of a future post.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Politics: Flip-Flops Are Not Important

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Voters in the United States have a nice resource for vetting claims made by the presidential candidates. FactCheck.org, run by my old favorite Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and PolitiFact.com, run by the Congressional Quarterly and the St. Petersburg Times, both provide non-partisan evaluations of statements made by the candidates themselves and other other things (including chain e-mails and even condom packaging) containing political messages. These sites provide an invaluable way to independently judge whether a given claim or overall campaign is trustworthy without having to rely on either not especially challenging or (in some cases) increasingly partisan sources in the mainstream media.

(As an aside, the Annenberg Public Policy Center used the term "inappropriate discourse" to describe negative ads and other false claims made by candidates in the 2006 elections. It was much to my disappointment that the terms "inappropriate discourse" and "appropriate discourse" did not stick in the political lexicon, though it is fairly obvious why they did not. I had to quit using them, as nobody understood what I meant.)

One disappointing thing I have found about PolitiFact, though, is its devoting an entire tab to a "Flip-O-Meter." I have never understood why the so-called "Flip-Flop," when it occurs during a campaign, should be viewed as a negative thing.

A distinction needs to be made between a "flip-flop" and a "broken promise." A "flip-flop" means a change in position from something the candidate has stated or supported during a previous term or campaign. A "broken promise" means actually doing something different in office than was promised during a campaign. The broken promise strikes me as a much more serious matter. The voters may have made their decision based on that promise, and they have every right to evaluate whether that betrayal might cause them to never vote for the candidate again, or perhaps the voter might conclude that circumstances had changed and it was a good decision to break the promise.

That latter point is exactly why I don't have problems with "flip-flops" during the campaign. Circumstances change. People grow and become more mature in their thoughts. I would much rather have a candidate decide that their past view was wrong and change it than continue to campaign on something that they had concluded was no longer correct. To me, this demonstrates that the candidate is still thinking about the issues, which should be what we all want them to do.

A key point is that the "flip-flop" occur during the campaign (and sufficiently early in the campaign). The candidate has a chance to explain their change in position, and the voter has the opportunity to decide whether or not he or she wants to vote for that politician based on their new position.

In the 2004 campaign, John Kerry was consistently called a "flip-flopper" and his statement about being "before it before I was against it" with respect to the war in Iraq has become so famous that even Barack Obama has brought it up, referring to Sarah Palin's position on the "Bridge to Nowhere" as also being "before it before she was against it." Yet, John Kerry's flip-flops were substantially to positions that the country supported. As Ira Glass put it when speaking with voter James Hackett in Act One of Episode 276 of This American Life, Kerry "was sucking up to YOU," the American voter. That's exactly what politicians should be doing, assuming voters want something that is actually good for them.

There are even cases in which a broken promise might be the right thing to do. President George H.W. Bush famously promised no new taxes in the 1988 campaign, but the tax increases he negotiated with a Democrat-controlled Congress are now widely viewed as setting the stage for the prosperity in the 1990's under the Clinton administration. That broken promise took courage by Bush, but history seems to have vindicated him.

So, I don't care about flip-flops and believe that PolitiFact should drop the "Flip-O-Meter" category entirely in favor of focusing on the "Truth-O-Meter."

In contrast, the fact checking organizations do a great service in evaluating political claims for their accuracy. In this election, it is almost impossible to not conclude that the Obama campaign is substantially more truthful than the McCain campaign. On at least six occasions, John McCain has personally earned PolitiFact's "Pants On Fire" rating. Obama has never earned this rating.

Furthermore, the difference in honesty between the two campaigns runs deeper, as will be explored in tomorrow's post.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Transport: Chatsworth Collision

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A number of people have asked me questions about the collision between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train in the Los Angeles basin on Friday, killing at least 25 people. I generally do not find it constructive to comment on such events until all the facts come out, but some ideas do transcend the details so I will present them here.

Some facts have come out and are clear, gleaned from discussions on the trainorders.com web site and from looking at the latest Altamont Press California Region Railfan Timetable. Westbound Metrolink train #111, the first afternoon run out of Los Angeles on the Ventura County Line, was bound for Moorpark, California when it made its station stop at Chatsworth, California on Friday, 12-September-2008 at about 16:15. It was running locomotive-first, with three passenger cars, and carried about 350 people. From an audio recording of radio conversations, the engineer had seen an "advanced approach" or flashing yellow signal at CP (Control Point) Bernsen, two signals before the station, had called this out on the radio, and the conductor had acknowledged the signal on the radio. An intermediate signal near Lassen Street in Chatsworth, before the station, was not acknowledged on the radio but likely displayed an "approach" or solid yellow signal. Both these signals would be consistent with the next signal at CP Topanga, about a mile beyond the Chatsworth station, being a "stop" or red signal, indicating that the train should stop.

The line is dispatched out of Los Angeles by the Metrolink Valley Dispatcher, and his intention on this day was that the Metrolink train would wait at CP Topanga for the eastbound Union Pacific Leesdale Local (LOF65), returning to the Van Nuys yard after its day's work at industries as far west as Oxnard. The Leesdale Local had two state-of-the-art freight locomotives and at least twenty freight cars. The line has two tracks between CP Bernsen and CP Topanga through the Chatsworth station, but is single track on either side of those locations, so meets in this section of track are common. There is even a YouTube video of the very same trains, Metrolink #111 and the Leesdale Local, meeting at this location posted back on 30-April-2008.

After making the station stop at Chatsworth, the Metrolink train would have been under "delayed in block" rules that require the train to be prepared to stop at the next signal regardless of previous signal indications until the next signal is visible and indicates that the train may proceed. The signal at CP Topanga is readily visible from Chatsworth station, so if the engineer saw a "proceed" or green signal, the "delayed in block" rules would have been irrelevant and the train could have accelerated to track speed, which is 70 miles per hour for passenger trains until the curve that starts just west of CP Topanga, on which all trains are restricted to 40 mph.

Whether the engineer ignored a red signal or the signal was actually green, the bottom is line that the Metrolink train ran through a switch apparently lined against it (which is not necessarily perceptible) at CP Topanga and entered the single track after the Leesdale Local had already entered the same block of track. The dispatcher actually noticed this on his display board and immediately got on the radio to contact the Metrolink train, but it was too late. The conductor responded on the radio that a collision had already occurred.

Most of the impact of the collision was taken by the first passenger car on the Metrolink train and the second locomotive and first freight car on the freight train. That passenger car ended up on top of the passenger locomotive, and was where most of the fatalities occurred.

While the collision took place in a bad location, on a six degree curve such that neither engineer would have had a chance to see the other train until way too late, it could have been worse. Less than a mile west of this location is the 537-foot long tunnel #28.

Many people have asked if it is really possible that an engineer can run past a red signal without anything happening before a collision. Unfortunately, on the vast majority of the trackage in North America, this is the case. While systems that would stop a train after passing a red signal exist (most notably the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System or ACSES used on the Northeast Corridor), some primitive ones for nearly one hundred years, they have been deemed cost-prohibitive on a rail system that is dominated by freight traffic. Passenger service, especially urban commuter rail systems, has been an after-thought since the 1950's.

While basic systems such as Automatic Train Stop (which, ironically, is in use on Metrolink's Oceanside Line) would not have prevented the collision completely, they would have at least slowed the passenger train. Even the implementation of a full Positive Train Control (PTC) system such as ACSES on the passenger train would have similarly at best stopped the passenger train and not slowed the freight train. The only way to actually prevent such tragedies is a full implementation of a PTC system everywhere that passenger trains run, and this would mean not only adding to the wayside signaling system but adding such safety equipment to at least the majority of freight locomotives. The prospect is so dead-on-arrival in the United States, costing in the billions, that nobody appears to have even done a full cost estimate.

In fact, the whole strategy in the United States has not been to prevent collisions, but make the collisions survivable. Crash standards for passenger railroad equipment in the United States are far more stringent than in the rest of the world, such that off-the-shelf high speed equipment from other nations cannot be used without significant re-design. Europe, where freight traffic is generally secondary to passenger service, has taken the opposite approach, trying to prevent collisions and requiring less of its equipment. Perhaps this crash, in which passenger equipment that met Federal Railroad Association requirements still failed to protect passengers, will cause a re-thinking of that strategy.

When the remainder of the facts come out, perhaps there will be more to say.

Radio Pick: Search Engine on Canadian Politics

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Jesse Brown is back with Search Engine, the CBC's podcast (no longer a radio show) on the impact of the Internet on the world.

In his return, Jesse excoriates all Canadian parties for having pathetic web sites, using the Conservative's "Pooping Puffin" as a launching-off point. He goes so far as to conclude "Canada is Retarded".

The meat starts about ten minutes into the twenty-minute podcast, so feel free to skip ahead.

Listen to streaming MP3 of Search Engine "Canada Is Retarded"

Monday, September 15, 2008

Margin Notes: More on Minnesota

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA - Today, I present some final thoughts from Minnesota.

One of the United States Senate races to watch appears to be the one in Minnesota. The latest poll shows Republican incumbent Norm Coleman leading Democrat Al Franken, but most significantly Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley surging to 13% support, seemingly taking away votes from each of the major party candidates, both of whom lost support since the last poll. If yard signs mean anything, Franken appears poised to sweep the Twin Cities while in the rural areas I saw almost no Franken signs and not that many Coleman signs. Nowhere did I see a Barkley sign. In a state that once elected Jesse Ventura governor (I saw his portrait in the state capitol), though, Barkley may indeed have a significant impact on the race.

The I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River is set to re-open at 05:00 on Thursday. The bridge collapsed in June 2007, so the fact that it has been replaced in not much more than a year, well ahead of the original schedule, is quite a feat. The bridge collapsed about a week after my last visit to the Twin Cities, so one wonders what will happen the next time I visit.

In contrast, and returning to my theme of not understanding the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the speed limit on I-35E through much of St. Paul is 45 miles per hour. There must be an engineering reason for this low limit, but I couldn't discern it. I also find it strange that this main artery is only two lanes in each direction north of the Mississippi. Needless to say, it was stop-and-go at rush hour, but I was surprised to find that rush hour seemed to end about 18:30 on Friday, and I didn't encounter any significant traffic driving around at mid-day on Monday. Most US and Canadian cities would be envious.

An interesting feature of parks in the Twin Cities seems to be facilities for canines. While walking around St. Paul on Friday, I noted that next to each drinking fountain for humans was a bowl at ground level for dogs. In some cases, it was integrated into the human unit by the city while in others it was just a plastic dish seemingly put there by local residents. I thought maybe this was a function of walking through relatively affluent neighborhoods, but I saw the same thing at Minnehaha Falls Park today, so it appears to be more universal.

The idea that AM radio is dying, that its listeners are at least 45 years old and that the new Portable People Meter device used by Arbitron is making the trend more obvious, is a topic I will likely return to in the future. For now, suffice to say WCCO in Minneapolis may exemplify the trend. I found it refreshing to find Mondale and Jones on 830 AM when I landed on Friday, but was surprised to find their bumper music was all songs from the 1960's and 1970's. I thought maybe the old music was specific to that show, but tuning in later in the day found the same trend. Is WCCO actually trying to attract an older demographic? I was certainly left to wonder. Meanwhile, syndicated conservative talkers like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck were on 100.3 FM, KTLK (K-Talk)--it was rather nice to hear Rush in FM clarity.

The reason for my trip to Minnesota was to chase and ride behind the last runs of former Milwaukee Road steam locomotive #261 before it goes out of service for what is expected to be at least a year for a 15-year boiler overhaul. While there are other large steam locomotives operating occasionally on this continent, including former Santa Fe #3751 between Los Angeles and San Diego next weekend, the 261 is the only coal burner in the group--former Southern Pacific #4449, former Spokane, Portland and Seattle #700, and Union Pacific #844 and #3985, for example, all burn oil. I intentionally stood on a highway overpass above the tracks near La Crescent on Saturday just to experience the exhaust filled with coal cinders pouring up toward me, and spent significant time in the vestibules on Sunday, where one did not even need to stick one's head out the window to experience the joys of coal cinders. Sure, it's dirty (I had to wash my hair thoroughly and even noticed when blowing my nose) and one shouldn't wear nice clothes, but where else can one experience that on a mainline railroad today? It's something everyone should do at least once. I will certainly be looking forward to the 261's return to the mainlines.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Media: Reporter Transitions

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA - The world (foremost the blogosphere) has lost three major media resources of late.

It came to my attention that former Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll has decided to become a firefighter in Fairfax County, Virginia. I missed this news when it first came out, but it was referred to incidentally in a recent World Edition of the monitor. One thing we can say about Carroll, who was held hostage for nearly three months in Iraq in 2006, is that she must be attracted to all kinds of danger.

Those in the Pacific Northwest and interested in politics have by now heard that David Postman is leaving the Seattle Times for Paul Allen's Vulcan, Inc. to do media relations. Postman had become the single most reliable source for political stories in the Seattle area, appearing on everything from TV-W to filling in on talk radio stations, and was an early blogger. His move leaves a gigantic hole in the northwest. Postman himself had effectively become more important after the recent departure of Robert Mak from KING-5 in Seattle.

A reporter of a different kind has disappeared from the web. Tod Maffin has ensured that both internal Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) employees and the world at large have gotten insight into the workings of the CBC through editing the Inside the CBC Blog. However, Maffin is now moving on to other things and it is not at all clear what will happen with the blog.

Wise bloggers understand that most of their content ultimately comes from traditional reporters out doing classic investigative work. Now, not only are we losing those journalistic foot soldiers like Carroll and Postman, we are even losing the gatekeepers trying to keep the information flow going like Maffin.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Radio Pick: Birds Singing Beethoven's Fifth

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA - My radio pick of the week this week was CBC Radio One's Quirks and Quarks.

A bird that knows Beethoven's fifth symphony? Or did Beethoven copy the bird? Probably not the latter, since the Rufous-and-white Wren lives in Costa Rica as described in the season premiere of Quirks and Quarks. This 53-minute program also included a good description of the Higgs Boson, but that short audio clip of a bird sounding like Beethoven about 32 minutes into the show was worth the whole experience.

Listen to a streaming MP3 of Quirks and Quarks "A Bird That Knows Beethoven"

Margin Notes: St. Paul and Minnesota

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA - On occasion, I will issue sets of short observations called Margin Notes. Here's the first installation:

* The final signs of the Republican convention were being removed from the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Friday.

* I can understand the complaints about food around the convention. St. Paul is not overflowing with restaurants downtown.

* The funding credits for Minnesota Public Radio are voiced by the same person that does them for Marketplace, so I kept thinking that Marketplace was about to be aired on KNOW 91.1 throughout the day. This is not surprising, since Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media (the producer of Marketplace) are housed in the same building in downtown St. Paul that I observed on Friday. And no, I didn't run into John Moe.

* Refreshing for a relatively sizable state, there is no obtrusive security at the Minnesota State Capitol. I apparently just missed seeing vice presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty walk in to the governor's office.

* I am not impressed with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Highway 61 was being re-paved in the rain today south of Frontenac, and they were reducing traffic to one lane of alternating direction. I had to wait 18 minutes southbound and more than 20 minutes northbound to be flagged through--not a good thing when chasing a steam train. I counted 85 vehicles waiting to get through southbound when I finally got through northbound. A long service stop (since the train was early) at Winona saved me southbound, but northbound I didn't catch up to the train until it arrived at its home shop in Minneapolis.

* James J. Hill, the driving force behind the Great Northern Railway, was actually a Canadian, born in Guelph, Ontario, as I learned at his mansion on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, now run by the Minnesota Historical Association. So, in some sense I was re-tracing his steps by traveling here from Toronto.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Politics: Elizabeth May and Sarah Palin

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA - Last night on CBC Television's "The National", commentator Rex Murphy stated that to the relief of the other Federal leadership candidates, "Elizabeth May is no Sarah Palin." Palin, of course, is the Republican nominee for vice-president in the United States.

My first thought upon hearing this statement was that it was a very good thing that the leader of the Green Party of Canada was not a half-term governor of a deeply corrupt state dominated by oil revenue who doesn't believe in climate change, evolution, birth control, or a woman's right to choose who at best misleads (if not outright lies) about her history on earmarks and the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere", has barely ever traveled outside the United States, admitted that she didn't understand the very job which she had been nominated to when first nominated, and is apparently such an intellectual light-weight that the campaign has allowed only a single one-on-one interview with the press and says there won't be any more except with journalists who are "properly deferential." I daresay even most Conservatives in Canada are indeed relieved about all that.

Of course, that isn't what Rex Murphy meant. He meant that Elizabeth May had not had the dramatic impact on the campaign that Sarah Palin has had. Say whatever you want about her, but Palin has transformed the US presidential race. The conservative base of the Republican party, previously lukewarm at best about presidential nominee John McCain, has been energized probably even more than they had been energized by George W. Bush. Because of Palin's carrying to term of a Down syndrome baby, the so-called "culture wars" issues, previously not a part of the campaign, have returned. The dynamic of the race, in which Barack Obama had been considered by some to be a light on experience "rock star" has been radically changed by the inclusion of a person of similar lower experience and charismatic properties in Palin. It almost seems like it's now a race between Obama and Palin, with McCain and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden just along for the ride, nearly irrelevant.

Yet, I'm not so certain that Rex Murphy is correct. Elizabeth May may not have transformed the Canadian election in the same way that Sarah Palin has changed the US election, but her impact may indeed prove profound. Her exclusion from the leadership debates caused outrage across the country, and people that previously may have completely ignored the Canadian contest suddenly paid at least enough attention to find out what all the fuss was about. Thus, like Sarah Palin, she may have energized voters who previously had not been engaged.

Furthermore, she may be having an impact on the dynamic of the Canadian race as well. Whereas before last weekend, the Conservatives may have intended to mostly criticize Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, there is now a significant distraction. Conservative talk radio in Canada is finding Elizabeth May a much more intersting target than Dion. This morning I heard Bill Carroll on Toronto's CFRB going off about May's apparent gaffe yesterday when she appeared to agree with a statement that the Canadian people are "stupid," mis-forming her sentence such that her "and I agree with that assessment" sure appeared to refer to the stupid part. All this negative attention aimed at May likely would otherwise have been aimed at Stéphane Dion. Of course, her inclusion in the debates may similarly change the dynamic of those events.

Indeed, Elizabeth May has little in common politically or personally with Sarah Palin. But, the the coming weeks will show whether she might actually have an impact on the race in Canada nearly as profound as Palin's effect in the United States.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Radio Pick: Dave Ross on Lipstick

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This may not be my official pick of the week, but I will say nothing about the "lipstick issue" in the US presidential campaign and instead will defer to Dave Ross of KIRO in Seattle and CBS. His last line referring to Dick Cheney in this two-minute commentary is classic.

Listen to the Dave Ross commentary on lipstick.

Politics: Whither the "Bradley Effect"?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - As the world learned in the year 2000, the popular vote does not determine the United States Presidential election. Instead, the electoral college, in which each state gets a number of electors equal to its Congressional delegation (and the District of Columbia gets 3 electors), decides the race. In essence, there are 51 separate elections, instead of one big one. With 538 electors available, a candidate must earn 270 to win.

For today, I will avoid any comment on the merit of the electoral college system, or its quirks like some states not being winner-take-all and the fact that electors are not actually legally bound to vote for a given candidate. Let us assume that the system works and will indicate an uncontroversial winner on November 4th.

For the first time in this race, the polls indicate today that John McCain would win the electoral college. The post-convention bounces for McCain in Florida, Nevada, North Dakota, and Virginia by most accounts have shifted those states from favoring Obama to favoring McCain, for a total of 270 electoral votes. Most consider Colorado, with 9 electoral votes, to be slightly favoring McCain as well.

In general, post-convention bounces tend to disappear, and nearly two months remain before the election, so this shift does not necessarily represent a major problem for Obama's candidacy. However, there is a deeper problem--all of the polls may be wrong, and in fact over-estimating the vote Obama will receive on election day.

The reason is the so-called "Bradley effect," or the tendency of polls to over-estimate votes for African-American (and perhaps other minority) candidates. In 1982, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, who happened to be African-American, had been leading in the polls in the California governor's race over George Deukmejian, who happened to be white. Exit polls showed a small but clear Bradley victory. Yet, when the votes were counted, it was Deukmejian that actually had more votes.

There have been numerous similar occurances over the years, not all of them involving a candidate losing an election he or she was predicted to win, but often with a much smaller margin of victory, the most notable probably being the New York mayor's and the Virginia governor's elections in 1989.

What is it all about? Some claim the "Bradley effect" occurs because white voters tell pollsters that they will vote for a minority candidate but really do not actually do so. Others claim that pollsters simply underestimate conservative votes, since most minority candidates that appear to have suffered from the effect have been liberal. The bottom line is that nobody knows for certain.

How big is the "Bradley effect"? In some contests, it may have been as high as 10%, so that is probably the upper limit, and far higher than is likely to be observed in a presidential race. A University of Washington study of the 2008 primaries implied that polls may have over-estimated Obama in states with an African-American population below 8%, correctly gauged his support in states with 10-20% African-American population, and under-estimated him in states with a larger African-American population. The applicability of that seemingly-relevant study may be limited, though, since the pool of voters in a Democratic primary and a general election is not the same.

Let us just postulate for a moment that Obama's support is over-estimated by 4%. Right now, besides the states already cited as recently falling into the McCain column, that would mean that Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New Mexico and even (by some polls) Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin would also go for McCain. Even ignoring those last four (which strike me as absurd), that still gets McCain to 325. That would be daunting to overcome.

It is important to state that all this does not mean that Obama cannot win. Voters go to the polls and cast votes on election day, and there is nothing stopping Obama's campaign from winning by a landslide in November. He won the nomination of the Democratic Party. It simply means that one must be cautious in evaluating polling data, which is a good idea in general.

Some think the "Bradley effect" may not exist anymore. Indian-American candidate for Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal may have suffered from such an effect in 2003, but not in 2007, when his election was by nearly an identical number as predicted by polls. Some pollsters claim they have ways to account for the "Bradley effect." The bottom line is that nobody knows for certain. So, short of the race shifting toward a McCain or Obama landslide, don't expect to know the results of the US presidential race until the morning of November 5th at the earliest--exit polls could have a "Bradley effect" as well.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Politics: A Healthier Canadian Democracy

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Today, the media consortium organizing the Leadership Debates in Canada reversed its position and decided to allow Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party, to participate in the debate. The strong public reaction to May's exclusion clearly had an impact. By mid-day today, both Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP leader Jack Layton had backtracked and stated that they would show up for the debate as long as Conservative leader Stephen Harper was there, whether May was there or not. Duceppe had some credibility in stating that this was his position all along, while Layton had clearly tired of the distraction and backed off his previous stance. Standing alone, the Conservatives issued a statement--not speaking publically--that they had dropped their threat to not attend if May was invited. With the path cleared, the consortium issued May an invitation.

Public opinion had won out in a matter of about two days. May issued a statement that "democracy and free speech" remained safe in Canada.

Hyperbole perhaps, but it is clear that a similar series of events could never have taken place in the United States. Ross Perot and running mate James Stockdale (of "Who Am I? Why am I here?" fame) may have been allowed at the 1992 debates, but after seeing that an independent candidate might actually impact the election, the Republicans and Democrats closed ranks and there was no possibility of Perot appearing in the 1996 debates, even though his poll numbers and potential impact on state elections looked about the same pre-debate in 1996 as they had in 1992. Sure enough, instead of capturing 18.9% of the national vote as he had in 1992, Perot dropped to 8.8% in 1996 and then faded out of sight. After the close 2000 election in which many Democrats blamed third-party candidate Ralph Nader for their loss, the door was slammed shut even tighter. There was no serious discussion of allowing Libertarian candidate Bob Barr, who currently polls as high as 10% in some southeastern states, in the 2008 debates.

So, instead, we had the scene today of Republican Congressman Ron Paul, himself a one-time Libertarian presidential nominee who had been running for president as a Republican in the primaries, garnering considerable support in some states, hosting a forum for third-party candidates. Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin, Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney, independent candidate Ralph Nader, and Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr were scheduled to appear, but only Baldwin, McKinney, and Nader actually showed up. At the event, Ron Paul said he was endorsing all four candidates. Each had signed a pledge to balance the budget, bring US troops home, uphold personal liberties and investigate the Federal Reserve.

Paul is probably right when he states that those positions are supported by the vast majority of the American people and viewed as important by them, but not by the two major parties. But, except for political junkies, probably few people even noticed that the third-party event had occurred. It showed as at most a second-level headline on every source I looked at today and wasn't on even on some notable web sites like Newsweek and Fox News.

Perhaps making the point of just how broken the system is in the US, Bob Barr did eventually show up after the Ron Paul event. However, Barr stated that he wasn't interested in promoting third parties, but only his candidacy as a Libertarian for president. Granted, that would be consistent with Libertarian philosophy at some level, but doesn't he see that is the whole root of the problem?

Canadians seem to understand, and they have won a battle in forcing their leaders to see it the same way.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Politics: The Real Threat To Conservatives

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The current flare-up over the Leadership Debates in Canada is revealing that the real threat to the Conservatives in this election is the Green Party, not the Liberals.

I have found the behavior of the party leaders after the decision yesterday by the consortium of networks to exclude Green Party leader Elizabeth May from the Leadership Debates quite revealing. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the leader of the Conservative Party, cited the deal between May and Liberal leader Stéphane Dion to not run opposing candidates in their ridings, claiming May was actually the Liberal candidate in her riding of Central Nova. He went so far as to predict that May would endorse the Liberals before the election is held.

The concept of a party leader with 306 candidates running nationwide abandoning them to endorse another party is absurd, as May quickly pointed out. If the pool of voters that might vote for the Liberals and the Greens was really the same set of people, one would think that Harper would want to encourage the comparatively-small Greens to take votes away from the Liberals and make the task of creating a Conservative plurality easier. Since he isn't doing that, there must be some other motivation.

Could it be that Harper is actually worried about the Greens taking away votes from Conservatives? The only party leader that publicly called for May's participation in the debates, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, doesn't seem concerned. The Green Party's historic emphasis on the environment shouldn't appear especially attractive to a Liberal, as Dion has proposed the Green Shift carbon taxing scheme that moves in the same direction as desired by the Green Party, one of the reasons that Harper cited in claiming they were really the same party. Yet, why would a Liberal-leaning voter jump ship to the Greens on the basis of the environmental policies when the Liberals have a similar policy and would seem to be in a better position to actually be elected and implement the policy?

Similarly, a NDP-leaning voter would seem to have little reason to shift to the Greens. The NDP has a different perspective on the way to address climate change, calling for a cap-and-trade arrangement on carbon emissions instead of a carbon tax, but leader Jack Layton often speaks about prioritizing the environment and indeed spent most of Monday critizing the environmental condition of the province of Alberta. But, again, even if a NDP-leaning voter strongly preferred a carbon tax to cap-and-trade, why would that voter defect to the Greens and not the Liberals? Layton's opposition to having May in the debates seems to be much more likely rooted in keeping protest votes that are not environmentally motivated from going to the Greens, a position that is nearly indefensible for a party that itself often begs for attention.

Even the Bloc Quebecois speaks out enough on environmental issues, favoring the Kyoto Protocol and taxing non-renewable resources even if they favor the Hibernia project such that the idea of a voter abandoning the BQ over environmental issues seems absurd.

Yet, if one were a Conservative-leaning voter that had environmental concerns, there would be a reason to defect to the Greens. While Stephen Harper claims that the environment and the economy are at odds, Elizabeth May rejects that thesis and professes that sustainable economics and sustainable environmental policies go hand-in-hand. She has increasingly emphasized sustainable economics, including in a recent interview with CBC's "The Current". This provides a reason for Conservatives to consider the Greens--they can maintain their fiscal responsibility and not claim that it's impossible to do and keep the economy going. Furthermore, one look at the European economy seems to imply that May's vision might actually be achievable.

I have yet to personally meet a former Liberal or NDP supporter that has switched to the Greens. On the other hand, I know several former Conservatives, particularly former Progressive Conservatives, that are looking closely at the Greens or have started to look at them. I suspect that's the real reason Harper opposes and Dion supports Elizabeth May's inclusion in the Leadership debates.

The public reaction to the exclusion of Elizabeth May from the debates has been substantially negative. It should be. The real standard for inclusion in the debates should be electing a member of parliament from that party (by which indeed the Greens would not qualify on the basis of Blair Wilson's change of affiliation) OR by running candidates in at least (say) 90% of the ridings across the country (by which the party does qualify). If a party is organized enough to be running candidates across the entire nation, it has a voice that deserves to be heard at the Leadership debates. To my knowledge, this standard would only add the Greens to the present debates, not any of the other Federally-registered parties that at most have fielded a handful of candidates across the country, usually in regional or urban clusters.

If the policies of Conservatives, Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc are defensible, then they should be able to promote them in a debate, whether Elizabeth May is there promoting the Green Party or not. Harper, Layton, and the Bloc's Gilles Duceppe should be ashamed for causing her to be excluded from the national forum.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Politics: Canadian Election Expectations

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This post may read to some as advocacy of the NDP or the Greens, but I believe that misses the point. What I'm really talking about is rejecting expectations--usually set by rival parties--and actually looking at what a party may do in the future. Fundamentally, elections are supposed to be about the future, are they not?

Nothing frustrates me more than to hear someone say "the NDP will never form a government" or "the Greens will never form a government." The odds might be quite long, and perhaps there are good reasons to not want them to form a government, but dismissing the possibility of any party running candidates all across Canada taking power is not healthy thinking, in my opinion.

In a general election, every seat in the House of Commons is up for grabs. If a party is running candidates in each riding, they conceivably can form a government. Believing that they cannot just makes it more likely that they won't--and results in defeatist, US-style politics.

Canada doesn't suffer from nearly the incumbent inertia experienced in the United States. Canadians actually "throw the bums out" when desired, and there should be pride in this ability and tradition--and a recognition that this means anything can happen.

If the NDP didn't believe this, could they have recruited Thomas Mulcair to win in Outremont?

I am not saying that the history of a party does not matter. I hold my suspicions of the Liberals and the Conservatives based on their past governments (I'd cite other parties, but they haven't formed governments lately) just like everyone else. If you believe Stephen Harper lied egregiously in this past minority government, that Stéphane Dion broke a promise by proposing a carbon tax, that Jack Layton hasn't shown adequate leadership in parliament, or that Elizabeth May engaged in back-room dealing the the Liberals, then those might be good reasons not to vote for their parties. The past performance of individuals does matter, and the people that they bring with them does matter.

But, I don't understand why many Liberals didn't give Stéphane Dion a chance. Sure, he had some baggage, especially in Quebec. Yet, I listened to the candidate speeches during the 2006 Liberal Party convention, and I found that Dion--and, indeed, most of the Liberal candidates--articulated a cohesive, electable vision. Just the same, since he won that leadership race all we hear are complaints about him being too professorial, too weak, unable to win, and so on. The pre-conceived notions of Dion have dominated the media. Almost nobody has seemed to care about what he could do moving forward.

Yet, I look at the actual record and don't see the evidence. Many fault me for being too tolerant of pragmatic practicing of Machiavellian politics, but did it really make sense for Dion to show "strength" by bringing down the Conservatives in 2007 when the appetite for an election was even lower than it is now? Is an energy policy not all that different than what Al Gore wanted to propose in the early Clinton administration really too "professorial"?

Lest this seem like a defense of the left-wing parties, Stephen Harper has clearly been a victim of perception and expectations in the past. Who believed that he could govern the country from a minority position for more than two years? Even within the Conservative party, there seemed to be skepticism of his ability to be viewed as a leader. Now, every poll seems to show him regarded as the strongest leader. If all voters believed the nay-saying, would Harper have gotten the chance he has received to prove these expectations wrong?

Elections need to be about the future, not the past. I advocate throwing away the common perceptions and expectations, taking a careful look at what the candidates (and by that, I mean in a riding as well as at the party leadership level) are saying, evaluating their ability to deliver what they promise in the future, and then making a decision. It might not be the same decision made based on what "everyone" is saying.

If each Canadian actually did that, there might be a lot of expectations proved false and perceptions changed in Canada. Furthermore, I'm not so certain the beneficiaries would be the NDP and the Greens--it might well be the Liberals or even the Conservatives. After all, having expectations would be contrary to this post.