Friday, October 31, 2008

Politics: John McCain and Type

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - Over the course of the campaign, his opponents have attempted to paint John McCain as an unstable individual. From a personality theory perspective, most of the ammunition has come from the apparent reality that John McCain comes from a different "world" than that of generic US culture, which is in the "emotional" world. John McCain appears to be a "physical" type, more specifically a "heart" type, and that seems to explain much of his behavior.

"Physical"-world types in general are known for having a duality between love and anger--more often than not, they will be exhibiting one or the other emotion. Obviously, in a contest, love for one's opponent would not be preferred, so too often anger rises to the surface. Many observers felt that McCain seemed angry throughout the campaign, especially during the first two debates. This would not be surprising for someone from the physical world.

The grace of the specific "heart" type of John McCain is that they flip between love and anger quite easily, at a rate that can seem disconcerting to other types. This would explain why McCain could go between condemning Obama to cautioning his audience that Obama is a respectable man during the same speech, and why he can bounce back from intense exchanges with a smile on his face.

Many consider the selection of a vice-presidential running mate to be the first real insight gained into how a candidate will make decisions. By making a last-minute decision in favor of Sarah Palin, McCain demonstrated a classic trait of the "physical" world, that of living in the present as opposed to the past or the future. As often happens when "physcials" make such decisions, this decision proves to have been great for the moment when he needed to energize the base, but not so great for the long-term future, in which Palin has come to be regarded as a drag on the ticket.

The next big decision for which McCain has been questioned was the suspension of his campaign during the financial crisis. Again, this can be explained by the perspective of the "physical" world. The physical world is fundamentally about power and control, so while the most extreme control freaks are at the other end of the world amongst the "lung" types, even the "hearts" like to demonstrate that they can exert control over the situation. Unfortunately for McCain, the "emotional"-type electorate was more interested in how they felt about the situation than whether McCain seemed in control, so the tactic instead fed the stereotype of instability.

Interestingly, though, McCain has not succumbed to the classic flaw of a "heart" type--the flip-flop. Because they can change their emotions so rapidly, they can change their political positions quite rapidly as well. In contrast, McCain has stuck to his positions more than his opponent, who is not a "heart" type.

The "heart" personality is generally regarded as the "classic politician" personality for that same reason. Healthy hearts are willing to adjust their positions to match the position of majority of the population more easily than other types and in that sense best represent the public. However, if John McCain is defeated next Tuesday, he would become the second straight "heart" to lose a presidential election--John Kerry was a heart as well.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Politics: Enough with Initiatives

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - Change happens quickly in California. One day nothing more than dial-up Internet access was available in Fremont, seemingly the next the city was wired for what we would now call primitive cable modems, and almost the next day that system was obsolete. In no realm does change happen faster than in politics. One day Gray Davis was the governor, and seemingly the next he had been recalled and Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the office. This year, some of the twelve propositions on the ballot may lead to yet more whiplash.

Citizens' Initiatives, originally designed to give the citizenry recourse in the face of elected government unwilling to take action on important issues, have in recent years instead served to make it almost impossible for government to function. The best example of this trend is probably not California, but instead Washington state.

There, a man named Tim Eyman has actually made his living from initiatives. His first major effort, Initiative 200 in 1997, was similar in purpose to California's Proposition 209, banning affirmative action. With notable help from conservative talk show host John Carlson, who later ran for governor, the measure not only collected enough signatures to get on the ballot but also passed.

Eyman really made a name for himself in 1999 with Initiative 695. An earlier attempt to repeal the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax in 1998 had failed, but Initiative 695 not only replaced the tax with a flat $30 fee per vehicle, but also required voter approval for any tax increase so that government could not make up the loss of revenue by imposing alternative taxes. It passed, and state government went into a crisis, particularly the Department of Transportation.

When the smoke cleared, Initiative 695 had been declared unconstitutional for addressing more than one topic (the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax and voter approval of new taxes), but the legislature had passed similar legislation because of the clear voter opinion that had been expressed. Major highway projects across the state were delayed, and some needed enhancements, including the rebuilding of certain aging Washington State Ferries, were canceled entirely, setting the stage for the current vessel shortage today.

After his effective victory with Initiative 695, Eyman founded a political committee called Permanent Offense and began working on more conservative initiatives. As a private committee, it did not have to report on its finances to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission. Eventually, it came out that the group used paid signature gathers--a practice upheld as protected by the right to free speech. Even more controversially, in 2002 it came out that Eyman paid himself, contrary to earlier statements that implied he was working for free.

Meanwhile, the trail of initiatives rolled on. Between 2000 and 2007, Eyman has been involved in 13 initiatives and referendums. Of these, five failed to qualify for the ballot, two were defeated by voters, two were passed but declared unconstitutional, and four have taken law and been upheld. An organization called "Permanent Defense" formed to counter "Permanent Offense". Perhaps most amusingly, David Goldstein started an initiative to declare Eyman a horse's ass, which has since turned into one of Washington's premier liberal blogs.

It has gotten to the point where the legislature can't count on measures being enacted for long as they could be changed through the initiative process. A long-term idea that has short-term unpopularity almost can't be enacted for fear of repeal. While proponents say Eyman gives conservatives a voice that otherwise isn't heard in Washington, critics say he legislates through initiatives in an unaccountable manner. I would say that if conservatives don't have a voice, it's because they haven't won enough elections to gain that voice.

This year, Eyman is behind Initiative 685, a measure which purportedly would reduce traffic congestion. However, even for an Eyman initiative, it seems to have bizarre aspects, including diverting funding to traffic light synchronization even in counties that do not require it. In an appearance on the Dave Ross Show on 21-October-2008, Eyman seemed to be out-debated by neighborhood activist Andrea O'Comsky and transportation secretary Doug MacDonald.

My great aunt's advice applies on Eyman-backed and all other initiatives--the default position should be to let lawmakers govern, and if you don't like what they're doing, vote them out instead of micromanaging them through the initiative process.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Politics: California Initiatives

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - A few days ago, I noted the lack of John McCain signs in downtown Los Angeles. There's no such shortage in El Dorado County here around Placerville. Deep blue McCain/Palin signs dominate the landscape, along with the signs of local Republican candidates. Of course, it's hard to tell that they are all Republican signs as there is no consistency in design or coloration. For a Canadian used to blue signs meaning Conservative, red signs meaning Liberal, orange signs meaning NDP, green signs meaning the Green Party, and light blue meaning the Bloc Quebecois, the lack of uniformity is a bit disconcerting.

There are other signs along the highways and byways here, those about the state-wide propositions. California has twelve of them on the statewide ballot. Some started as proposals in the state legislature, some started as citizens' initiatives. Of the latter, some are amendments to the state constitution. Each requires just a simple majority to become law.

The mix of topics amongst the propositions is quite a potpourri. Proposition 1A would allow the selling of bonds to fund a high-speed rail system between the state's major population centers. Proposition 2 deals with animal rights, Proposition 3 deals with funding children's hospitals, Proposition 4 deals with parental notification about abortion, Propositions 5, 6, and 9 deal with criminal justice, Propositions 7 and 10 deal with renewable energy, Proposition 11 deals with redistricting, and Proposition 12 addresses funding for Veterans' Home Loans.

Clearly, the most attention is being paid to Proposition 8, with lawn signs in favor of the measure prominent even in urban areas. According to the "Easy Voter Guide" mailed to registered California voters, Proposition 8 "would change the State Constitution to say that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. This would mean that same-sex couples do not have a right to marry." Money is not in short supply on either side of this proposition with constant commercials on television. The "pro" forces seem to be more interested in restricting education about gay relationships than marriage based on their spots, and the "anti" spots feature Senator Diane Feinstein emphasizing that the measure is fundamentally about discrimination.

The measure is more meaningful in California than in other places where such a citizens' initiative has been on the ballot. Gay marriage has been legal in California since June 2007, following a May 2007 state Supreme Court decision that had overturned a 1977 law and earlier Proposition 22 that had defined marriage as being between one man and one woman. If passed, Proposition 8 would effectively nullify thousands of same-sex marriages.

It wouldn't be the first time that the seemingly-progressive state of California would appear to move in a regressive political direction. Who could forget 1994's Proposition 187 denying illegal immigrants public services including public education, or 1996's Proposition 209 to prohibit public institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity. The effect of each was ultimately mitigated by other government actions, but if nothing else they required a tremendous amount of energy to address their fundamental issues.

My great aunt commented that she generally just votes "no" on all propositions unless she's quite certain that a "yes" vote is really warranted. Her operating assumption is that the state assembly and governor can adequately govern the state without needing help from the citizenry--after all, that's what we elect them to do. If everyone followed that strategy, gay marriage and other rights would be safe in California.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Politics: From Limbaugh Territory

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - Okay, so maybe his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri is the real Rush Limbaugh territory. However, every time I drive by the "Rio Linda Next Exit" sign on Interstate 80 just east of Sacramento--particularly if I am listening to him live on KFBK 1530 AM--I think I'm in Limbaugh territory. "For you people in Rio Linda..." he likes to say before launching in to an explanation that he considers obvious. Sacramento's KFBK had been where Limbaugh honed much of his talk radio skills in the late 1980's before going national in 1988.

{As a side note, I always found it amusing that Limbaugh chose as his theme music the Pretenders' "Back to Ohio." While the lyrics are not played, the song is not exactly an ode to the free-market economics espoused by his show. A key lyric: " pretty countryside had been paved down the middle by a government that had no pride..." would seem to be the description of a pro-growth Republican administration, not an environmentally-sensitive Democratic one.}

The influence of talk radio, in particular conservative talk radio, has been a topic of discussion since the end of the Fairness Doctrine that required individual radio stations to present both sides of all political topics in 1987. Most think the first real influence of Limbaugh and other political talkers came in the 1992 race--which interestingly led to the election of Bill Clinton, not incumbent Republican George H. W. Bush, who Limbaugh was well-known to criticize for not being conservative enough, nor independent Ross Perot, who may have been closer to the timbre of conservative talk radio than any other candidate.

The subsequent Clinton administration provided Limbaugh and others with ample topics for the ensuing ten years as talk radio soared to its ratings peaks. While on the surface, many of the things about the electorate that Limbaugh claimed during that period seemed to prove true in the 2000 race in which George W. Bush was elected, a deeper look really made that less than clear. The contention that it was necessary to move to the right during a general election might explain why the Republicans eventually won in 2000 and 2004, but why did the last-minute undecideds break substantially for Gore in many states in 2000? It would really seem that the economy was a better indicator of that voter behavior. That Democrats were perceived as some kind of elite might explain an aversion to Al Gore or John Kerry, but that didn't explain the dynamic in many Congressional races. Tax policy positions seemed a better explanation.

When Rush Limbaugh stated during the 2000 race that "a Clinton will be the last Democratic president," there seemed to be reason to believe him. The assumed reference to the possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidency was rather a joke at the time, but the dynamics seemed so against the Democrats, with even Bill Clinton being quite moderate, that it seemed entirely possible that the Republicans could become a permanent majority party. Indeed, they probably could have--had the Bush administration not governed so ideologically that it turned many centrist voters against the Republicans. Now, with the Democrats again having a clear registration advantage, Limbaugh's statement seems absurd.

The irony is that Limbaugh himself is partially to blame. While in eastern Washington state in June, I listened to his show rather frequently for a week and found him to be sadly much closer to the parodies of him done by Harry Shearer and others than the forceful, genuinely funny broadcaster of his prime. On the other hand, I happened to be listening from Toronto during the time around the nomination of Sarah Palin, and suddenly the old Limbaugh energy was back. Yet, while Limbaugh is far from a Christian evangelist, his alliance with the far right of the Republican party seems to be bolstering the same force that is making John McCain unelectable. The fundamental disconnect is that what makes for good talk radio--extreme positions--does not make for good politics.

For those concerned that this might be the last chance to listen to Rush Limbaugh before an election because of a re-imposition of the Fairness Doctrine, I would relax. The media industry needs to make money, and as long as political talk radio continues to make money, they'll lobby to keep their ability to do so. The real competition for radio is no longer other radio stations, but the "new media" like podcasts and YouTube. I can't imagine even an Obama administration and Democrat-controlled Congress trying to re-impose a Fairness Doctrine on radio in the present media landscape. If there's one thing Obama understands, it's the influence of new media, considering how he has used it in his campaign.

I suspect "Back to Ohio" will still be playing at 12:06 Eastern time on many radio stations across the United States in four years.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Politics: Evangelicals Defeat McCain--Twice?

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - A lesser-known fact about me is that the first politician I ever gave money to was John McCain. In the early 1990's, McCain was the foremost advocate of campaign finance reform in the US Senate, and those efforts made him a RossPAC recipient. Seattle talk show host Dave Ross of KIRO would find recipients that he felt were worthy and then request that his listeners each send the designee $1. If enough people sent in $1, the politician would notice as much as if a major donor had made a contribution. I didn't normally participate in the RossPAC, but at the time I felt strongly enough about campaign finance reform that I did send McCain $1. In the ensuing years, McCain easily spent ten times that sending me Christmas cards and campaign literature.

In 2000 (well, 1999 and 2000), when McCain first ran for president, I seriously considered supporting him. Besides his history of leadership on campaign finance reform, he had a general record of being willing to stand up to his own Republican party on issues where he disagreed, and I felt that matters on which I clearly disagreed with him, mostly so-called "social" issues like abortion and gay marriage, were not important to him and hence things he was unlikely to do much about if he became president. I actually found the Keating Five scandal from McCain's past to be a net positive, as he had clearly learned from the incident.

Of course, McCain would not become the Republican nominee in 2000. The turning point came in the North Carolina primary, in which McCain was soundly defeated after a variety of questionable tactics by the George W. Bush campaign, from push polling to old-fashioned rumor spreading that McCain's adopted daughter from Bangladesh was actually his own love child and that McCain had been mentally damaged by his prisoner of war experience in Vietnam. These tactics worked largely because the wing of the Republican party consisting of evangelical Christians didn't trust McCain in the first place, and this gave them additional excuses not to vote for him. In a very real sense, it was the evangelicals who prevented McCain from riding a wave of support from independent-leaning voters to the Republican nomination and quite likely the presidency.

John McCain may have managed to gain the Republican nomination in 2008, but evangelicals seem to have again placed him on a path to defeat in the general election. In an atmosphere in which voters appear to be still believe in conservative economic principles, yet do not believe that the Republican party is credible, McCain should have been the perfect antidote. Thanks to his history of taking on other Republicans on everything from tax policy to the conduct of a war, McCain had considerable credibility as someone different than the normal Republican. With the "Republican brand" so damaged by the George W. Bush administration, this would seem like the perfect recipe--all McCain had to do was run against the Bush administration, just like the Democratic nominee would do, and take advantage of his broad appeal with independents to ride to a clear victory.

However, McCain hadn't run against Bush particularly aggressively until just recently. His responses to the constant refrain from the Barack Obama campaign that McCain voted with Bush's position 90% of the time were tepid, and accusation started to stick. While the concept of being a "maverick" was emphasized by McCain, voters somehow didn't find these ideas mutually exclusive. McCain seems to be regarded as a "maverick" associated with the Republican Bush administration.

Why hadn't McCain more forcefully responded to those charges? The evangelical wing of the Republican party still likes George W. Bush, and he was advised--accurately, it seems--that the "get out the vote" efforts that propelled Bush to the White House twice required evangelicals to be active. McCain, especially after his experiences in 2000, could not afford to distance himself too strongly from the Bush adminstration for fear of making the evangelicals even more tepid in their support than they already were.

Yet, the volunteers and energy were simply not there in the Republican campaign until the nomination of Sarah Palin as vice-president. Palin is popular with evangelicals for her fundamentalist Christian beliefs, and her selection seemed to finally convince them that McCain was worth electing--something that even his answers at the Rick Warren forum earlier in the campaign had not achieved. While evangelicals clearly preferred McCain's simple, clear answers at that forum to Obama's "above my pay grade" approach, it hadn't been enough to get volunteers out.

While Palin has clearly gotten the Republican base energized, her inclusion on the ticket--issues of competence aside--also served to associate the McCain campaign with the same sort of right-wing social agenda that the Bush administration had pursued, and effectively associated McCain further with Bush to independent voters--exactly what he didn't need.

So, in the end, it would appear that evangelicals may be on the verge of engineering John McCain's defeat for the second time. They defeated him in 2000, and their influence appears to be leading to his defeat in 2008.

Photos: Milwaukee Road #261

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - This week's update to my photo site completes coverage of my September trip to Minnesota.

On 13-September-2008, former Milwaukee Road steam locomotive #261 ran from Minneapolis to La Crescent, Minnesota and returned on a special excursion that I followed to take pictures. Then, on 14-September-2008, I rode the "Circle Trip" from Minneapolis to La Crosse, Wisconsin and return. Also included in the album are scenes around Minneapolis on 15-September-2008 including Prospect Hill Tower and Minnehaha Falls Park.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Margin Notes: Los Angeles, Transit, Socialism

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - This will be my third straight visit to Los Angeles utilizing only public transit. Yes, you read that correctly. This is my third visit to Los Angeles in a row without renting an automobile, even if all of them have been short trips. On previous visits in May and June, I used the Flyaway bus to get to Union Station from Los Angeles International Airport for only $4, and the subway to go between Union Station and a hotel in Hollywood. I also explored the light rail system to get to the airport. This time, a Flyaway bus trip would be all that I would need.

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The area around Los Angeles Union Station may be one of the best in the world to grab lunch between connecting trains. Within walking distance of the station are a variety of Mexican restaurants for whatever budget along Olvera Street, the famous French Dip sandwiches of Philippe's on Aladema, and of course, a plethora of restaurants in Chinatown. It's hard to choose, and hard to go wrong.

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Philippe's as it appeared on 25-October-2008

For lunch, I decided on Philippe's, which celebrated its 100th anniversary on Alameda
Street some months ago with $0.10 sandwiches. They were back to their present $5.85 price today, a bargain especially considering that a side of macaroni or potato salad was barely over a dollar and lemonade costs just $0.70. Philippe's has French Dip without au jus--the sandwiches are pre-dipped, and ever so good. It seems like they have plenty of seats, but they were full every time I walked by today--it's not hard to figure out why. Just as icing on the cake for railfans, model trains are on display in several of the dining rooms.

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Yes, that's a Chihuahua on Los Angeles' Olvera Street on 25-October-2008

For dinner, I met with the friend that had originally introduced me to La Golondrina and Olvera Street in general. While awaiting his arrival, a stereotypical scene unfolded, as mariachis sang "La Bamba" and a young boy walked a Chihuahua past the shops. One wonders what I would have seen had I been here a week later, on El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

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I did not realize until reading the historical markers now posted throughout the neighborhood that the original Chinatown had been destroyed to build Union Station in the 1920's. The current Chinatown was "New Chinatown" during the Depression--its very construction made difficult by laws preventing the "temporary" Chinese immigrants from owning property. How much has changed in 80 years in that regard should give some hope for further progress in the United States.

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As I watched an elderly man feeding pigeons in the Central Plaza of Los Angeles' Chinatown today, I was reminded of the fact that pigeons had once been held in high esteem by city dwellers, being more closely associated with carrier pigeons that had helped the war effort in World War I than their current image of flying rats. Could it be that this man was actually old enough to remember that earlier era?

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California is far from a battleground state in the presidential race, but there is a much tighter race going on. Proposition 8 would ban gay marriage, taking away a right that currently exists in the California constitution. Currently, most polls show it likely to pass, and indeed I saw more campaign signs (without exception in front of churches) supporting the proposition than I did Obama signs. (Notably, I haven't seen a McCain sign in this state yet.) Do I need to remind Californians what happens when the majority gets to decide on the rights of minorities?

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One of the most absurd moments in the campaign this week came when Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said, "This is not the time to experiment with socialism." Apparently someone forgot to the tell the Bush administration, in the process of effectively nationalizing (if temporarily and partially) major banking and other financial institutions.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Radio Pick: Dave Ross on Economics

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - This week's radio pick comes from the Dave Ross Show on KIRO-FM in Seattle.

As liberals (or should we say socialists?) seem to be on the ascendancy in the United States, there are surprisingly few voices that can construct a logical liberal policy argument. Dave Ross, of KIRO-FM (they seem to be phasing out 710 AM in favor of 97.3 FM) in Seattle is one of those rare individuals. In this 38-minute "hour", pay special attention to his handling of a caller named John about twenty minutes into the broadcast--it was one of the best justifications for a progressive tax structure I've heard in a long time.

Listen to streaming MP3 of the Dave Ross Show "Liberal Common Sense"

Politics: Democrats Not Trusted, But...

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - Back around Labor Day, during heady times for the Republican Party when presidential nominee John McCain actually had a lead in the polls, New York Times columnist David Brooks, speaking on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, predicted it wouldn't last. The country's mood was too anti-Republican, he stated. "The Republicans are like a football team with a weak offensive line," Brooks said. "They've done a few trick plays to keep it close, but pretty soon that offensive line will crack and they'll fall behind."

Indeed, the presidential race, at least based on recent polling, now looks much like the rest of the political landscape in the United States, greatly favoring Democrats. Their nominee, Barack Obama, has at least a seven point advantage nationwide in the polls and an even greater edge in the electoral college. It is now conceivable that Obama will win in a landslide, which political scientists normally define as gaining 375 electoral votes. 270 of 538 are required to win.

Yet, Democrats need to understand that this hasn't happened because they have earned the trust of voters. Quite to the contrary, the current party registration advantages that the Democrats are racking up in many states, reflected in Obama's margins, have mostly to do with the Republicans losing the trust of voters.

One need look no farther than the discourse of the campaign itself to see how little the Democrats are trusted. Even talk shows on National Public Radio, which tend to have a very favorable demographic for Democrats, callers complain about impending socialism and repeat the argument, seemingly only accepted in the United States, that times of economic weakness are not the time to raise taxes as it is perceived to kill economic growth. Even amongst people voting for Obama, there is a widespread belief that he will raise taxes since he is a Democrat. While the whole "Joe the Plumber" scenario in the campaign has become a convoluted mess, one clear thing that has come out of that discussion is that US citizens still believe that they have a chance to become rich, and don't believe they should be taxed more when they do--they don't believe in "spreading the wealth" even as they don't seem to understand what that phrase means. Callers to the moderate Dave Ross Show on KIRO in Seattle, a stronghold for the Democrats, complain that they don't want the government giving money to people that don't work as hard as they do. There is a clear feeling that if someone is poor, it is because of choices that they have made. All of these are ideas that have been touted by Republicans against the Democratic ideas for decades. In fact, a report on NPR's All Things Considered this week revealed that the most effective negative campaign language this year has been "congressional liberals." Last I checked, there weren't many liberal Republicans left. Some would say there are none in elected office.

So if voters do not appear to believe in the principles that Democrats believe in--and Barack Obama for the most part still purports to believe in--why are those same voters intending to vote for Barack Obama and Democrats down-ticket? The last eight years of the Bush administration have led them to trust Republicans even less than the Democrats. The public feels like it was lied to about the war in Iraq. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and no significant connection between deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the terrorist group Al Queda has been demonstrated.

Far more importantly, the recent financial collapse has soured the public on supply-side, free-market economics. As they watched their savings invested in the stock market be decimated and worried about their own jobs in a floundering economy, they blamed the Republicans. The ultimate moment came this week when Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Bank chairman and poster boy of free market economics, admitted that the principles he had believed in his entire adult life had been proven untrue. Apparently there is a place for at some, unspecified government involvement, even in Greenspan's mind.

In this backdrop, Barack Obama's calm response to the financial crisis while John McCain seemed to be running around like a chicken with his head cut off sealed the deal for voters. They may not fully trust Obama, but they know they don't trust the Republicans, and John McCain, whether he likes it or not, is a Republican.

Of course, just because they have had their current advantage handed to them by their opponents instead of earning it the hard way doesn't mean that the Democrats cannot capitalize on the opportunity. If, as it appears today, Barack Obama becomes the President and the Democrats control both houses of congress, they will have the opportunity to prove to the population of the US that they can govern better than the Republicans. They could leverage the position they find themselves in to great advantage. On the flip side, if they don't do a good job, they will not be able to blame the Republicans--there will no be excuses.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Transport: New Flyer Memories

TTC New Flyer D40-89 #6457 worked the 55 Warren Park service on Dundas Street in Toronto on 23-October-2008

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I did a double-take during the afternoon rush hour yesterday. Traveling down Jane Street was TTC bus #6457--a New Flyer D40-89. The coach was running on the 55 Warren Park service, which runs from the Jane subway station to the old Lambton Mills neighborhood, mostly via Jane Street and Dundas Street, and requires only a single bus to handle the run.

It had been months since I had seen a New Flyer in this service. As of April, there were about 40 such New Flyers in operation (of a fleet of nearly 100 that existed when I moved here in 2006), and the fleet has clearly declined further since then as more of the modern Orion VII hybrids enter service. It was clear that this might be the last time I see one in my neighborhood.

The New Flyer D40-88's and D40-89's (which is to say, a 40-foot, diesel-powered bus built by New Flyer in either 1988 or 1989 as described on the Transit Toronto web site) had been in the 112 West Mall service when I first started commuting to work in Toronto, along with the similar Orion V's. It was the New Flyers that captivated me, though, because they reminded me of the first transit buses that I remember riding.

The connection I made wasn't crazy. In 1979 and 1980, Metro Transit (which at the time ran essentially all bus service in King County around Seattle) purchased 224 Flyer D10240C's, a predecessor of the New Flyers that the TTC acquired a decade later. Numbered 1600-1823, these 40-foot coaches took over the 226 route between Bellevue and Seattle. It would be these buses, later also operating on the 235 route that ran right by my house, that would provide my earliest memories of taking the bus into Seattle, and would dominate all transit service that I took during high school on the Eastside of Lake Washington. Flyer D10240C's played a significant transportation role in my life. They were retired in 1996 and 1997, after I had left the region, as documented on Busdude's web site. One, the 1675, was preserved by the Metro Employees Historical Vehicle Association.

The New Flyer D40's in the TTC fleet were strongly reminiscent of Metro Flyers in a variety of details, from the style of grating used on the heaters to the shape of the panel behind the driver. Sure, the TTC buses had different seats (the TTC standard) and the rear doors opened when one stepped on them which the doors in the Metro buses never did, but my commute on the 112C West Mall bus was somewhat like re-living my youth every time a New Flyer appeared. Besides the nostalgia value, I also found that the New Flyers rattled a lot less than the Orion V's, which I came to dread.

One of the few remaining GM/MCI "Classics", TTC #6272, dead-headed down St. Clair Avenue on 6-October-2008

By the time my job on the 112C route ended, Orion VII's were already starting to encroach on the New Flyers, and they will probably all be gone by end of this year. The new hybrid Orion VII's buses are leading to retirement of all pre-1990 buses except the rebuilt "Fishbowls"; I was pleasantly surprised to catch a MCI classic running down St. Clair earlier this month as they will soon be gone as well.

With the New Flyers disappearing, a piece of my childhood is disappearing, and for that reason it was nice to catch one last coach in service.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Media: The Death of DX'ing

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It was October 21st, after all. On Tuesday, it actually snowed in Toronto. It didn't stick. Frankly, I was rather glad that there were flakes falling onto my jacket instead of cold rain; I've always said I prefer zero degrees and snowing to five degrees and raining. But, it was an unwelcome reminder that fall in Ontario is almost over, and the time to go into winter mode is not far away.

The signs were all there. I hadn't run the air conditioner in my apartment since my trip to Minnesota in mid-September, though I considered it a few nights in late September. I stopped storing chocolate in the refrigerator a couple weeks ago, confident that it would not melt in the cabinet. I haven't felt compelled to purchase green bananas for a month now, ending my summer worries that they would become inedible before I would get a chance to eat them. After walking through the light snowfall, I finally decided to turn on the heat in my apartment. I had been hoping not to do that until November. I had taken my last picture of the year of Canadian Pacific's evening "Obico B" local train on September 2nd--it now leaves the yard in the dark.

When I was a child, I actually looked forward to the winter, especially the shortening days. The lack of sunlight meant that AM radio stations from faraway places would be available to listen to at additional hours. Listening to distant AM stations, a specific form of the practice of DX'ing, or listening to distant radio stations, was once a significant hobby in the United States.

I had really never done any DX'ing until the summer of 1989, when I was spending time with my grandparents in eastern Washington state and wanted to listen to Charles Osgood's commentaries in the morning. While Osgood was not on a local station in the Tri-Cities at the time, he was on KREW 1210 AM out of Sunnyside, which came in just fine there--no DX'ing required. One morning, I was adjusting my analog radio to find 1210 AM and listen to Osgood when I heard his voice and stopped. However, after the commentary was over, I soon discovered that I had stopped on KSL 1160 AM out of Salt Lake City, not KREW!

After my parents bought me a new, digital radio for Christmas in 1989, I started doing a lot of DX'ing. From Seattle, I found that I could tune in KXL 750 AM out of Portland (which would soon convert from a NBC to CBS affiliate, a process I enjoyed listening to), KNBR "The Giant 68" out of San Francisco, and even KNX 1070 AM out of Los Angeles. While traveling, I would look forward to being away from Seattle's local stations so that I could pick up KOA 850 AM out of Denver, KFI 640 AM out of Los Angeles, or KDWN 720 AM out of Las Vegas.

I'll never forget the day--20 December 1990--when I managed in the Seattle area to hear Dan Rather Reporting, a three-minute commentary, as it aired at 3:35 in the afternoon on KCBS 740 AM out of San Francisco. KCBS--as the premier newsradio station on the west coast, as it still remains today--was often my favorite station to pick up. 740 AM was actually pre-set #10 (the last one, easy to find) on the radio that I used throughout high school. Ironically considering my current tastes, I was most disappointed when I heard CBX, the CBC Radio One station in Edmonton, Alberta, instead of KCBS on that frequency--that probably only happened twice, and now I wish I had recorded it.

It is not exaggerating to state that my time in Seattle spent listening to San Francisco stations KCBS and KGO 810 AM--the premier newstalk station on the west coast, to this day--were a major factor in my deciding to attend Stanford University. My level of comfort about living in the Bay Area was significantly higher because I already knew what made the news there and what kind of people called talk shows there.

DX'ing wasn't just a way to listen to the rest of the world when I became bored with Seattle radio. While traveling, it was also a way to get in touch with Seattle. I remember one night scanning the dial in Las Vegas, Nevada and having the seek function on the radio stop on 1000 AM as if it were a local station. I didn't believe it until I heard news at the top of the hour--it was KOMO AM 1000 out of Seattle, booming in like a local station. Indeed, tuning in KOMO for local Seattle news would be a regular nighttime activity for me while in college in California. While in Europe in the summer of 1998, DX'ing the US Armed Forces network on 873 AM out of Frankfurt was a way to keep in touch with the United States.

Listening to distant stations could even add to the effect of a radio program. The first time I ever heard the War of the Worlds, I was listening in Seattle to KNX 1070 AM out of Los Angeles, which used to run a drama hour every day at 9 pm. On 31 October 1990, they chose to re-run the 1938 version of the War of the Worlds. The fading in and out of the station a thousand miles away just made the experience seem more like the original broadcast would have been.

My practice of DX'ing started to fade after I moved to Boston in 1997. After first moving there, I was delighted to scan the radio dial and find out what was there, with WCBS 880 AM out of New York and WGY 810 AM out of Albany becoming a part of my radio listening routines as a result of finding them while DX'ing. Probably my favorite DX'ing experience was waking up to WBBM 780 AM out of Chicago during the winter. However, the Internet was starting to take over my non-local audio listening. The CBC Radio One stream out of Toronto suddenly became a popular choice for me on the weekends. I stayed in touch with Seattle and San Francisco through the KGO and KIRO web streams.

Today, DX'ing just isn't as interesting as it used to be. A wide variety of radio stations are readily available on the Internet, including streams of KCBS and various CBC affiliates. I've never sat down at night and scanned the AM dial here in Toronto, just to find out what was there. It took me almost two years to discover that WNED 970 AM out of Buffalo, a public radio affiliate, can be heard in Toronto. Podcasts have ended the practice of just missing programs--now one can listen later, reducing the time to explore.

So, the shortening day no longer excites me like it did when I was a kid. I'm not dreaming of what radio stations I'll be able to listen to on the winter solstice in December, the shortest day of the year. Instead, I'm looking at a backlog of podcasts in iTunes and wondering if things weren't better the way things used to be.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Politics: Serious Catholic Voting

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When I visited the Cathedral of St. Paul in September, I picked up a pamphlet entitled "Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics." This document is available on-line and makes an interesting read.

There's some really good advice in this pamphlet, especially in the "How Not to Vote" section. Take these items, and if you prefer, insert your favorite identity instead of "Catholic" and "Christian":
(1) Do not just vote based on your political party affiliation, your earlier voting habits, or your family's voting tradition... You need to look at the stands each candidate takes. This means that you may end up casting votes from more than one party.
(2) Do not cast your vote based on candidates' appearance, personality, or "media savvy." Some attractive, engaging, and "sound-bite-capable" candidates endorse intrinsic evils, while other candidates, who may be plain-looking, uninspiring, and ill at ease in front of cameras, endorse legislation in accord with basic Christian principles.
(3) Do not vote for candidates just because they declare themselves Catholic. Unfortunately, many self-described Catholic candidates reject basic Catholic teaching.
(4) Do not choose among candidates based on "What's in it for me?" Make your decision based on which candidates seem most likely to promote the common good even if you will not benefit directly or immediately form the legislation they propose.

The Catholic Church is telling voters to actually look carefully at what the candidates' actual positions are and evaluate them not on what is best for the voter, but for society. If only every voter actually did this!

However, I started to diverge from the advice on the fifth item:
(5) Do not vote for candidates who are right on lesser issues but who will vote wrongly on key moral issues.

Prioritization is fair enough. But what does the guide prioritize? It identifies five non-negotiable issues, actions "that are intrinsically evil and must never be promoted by the law." These are abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and homosexual "marriage". The guide advises determining which candidates have a "real--even if unlikely" chance of winning, evaluating which has a stand most consistent with avoiding the above five actions, and voting for that candidate.

I found it quite interesting that none of these five issues are in the ten commandments. Furthermore, four of the five aren't really contemplated in the Bible at all in any sort of direct way. I think Jesus only touched on the one exception, that being homosexuality, and the concept of homosexual marriage was so far beyond anything being contemplated in that era that it would really be stretching things to say that Jesus said anything about homosexual marriage. All that means is that these issues are modern, and there's nothing inherently wrong with any group deciding where they stand on modern issues.

Where did these issues come from? The explanation comes in the appendix:
These were selected because they involve principles that never admit of exceptions and because they are currently being debated in U.S. politics.

But what about war? What about the death penalty?
Though the Church urges caution regarding both of these issues, it acknowledges that the state has the right to employ them in some circumstances.

What about helping the poor? What about providing education, health care, and retirement security?
Catholics may legitimately take different approaches to these issues.

What about stopping genocide?
Unlike the five non-negotiables listed in the main part of this guide, Catholic voters generally do not have the ability to influence these issues through the lawmakers they elect because of the lack of debate among politicians.
Interestingly, contraception is listed in this same section along with stopping genocide.

So, basically, this guide is saying that issues that have clarity are automatically more important than all other issues. Never mind if there's an issue that might threaten the very existence of the society--say, terrorism, nuclear war, or climate change. If this guide is taken seriously, none of those issues are as important as making certain that no human cloning occurs!

That's stunning. According to this guide, it would be appropriate to vote for a politician who wants to involve one's country in a devastating and illegitimate war and who wants to execute all criminals, as long as he or she is against abortion and euthanasia. How is that consistent with concern for human life?

I do not question the Catholic Church's right (or the right of any other group, for that matter) to offer advice to voters in whatever form they feel is appropriate. Much of the advice in this Voter's Guide is quite useful, and would foster voters really engaging in the electoral process. However, I am quite disappointed with the reasoning behind the priorities chosen by the church for its voters, and am not even certain these priorities are consistent with core Catholic beliefs--at least as I learned about them in school.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Politics: Achieving Proportional Representation

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On Election Day in my riding, one of our water heater (there wasn't a water cooler, but we were next to a radiator) conversations was about the prospect of electoral reform. Even before we knew how low turnout would prove to be, the group of NDP scrutineers that I was hanging out with saw the only way to make serious progress on a progressive agenda was to achieve some kind of electoral reform so that things like voting swapping and strategic voting could be a thing of the past, and voters could simply vote their actual preference and have it mean something. The added clarity in voter intention would change the political landscape significantly, never mind if the actual result is as much progressive change as those of us around that table would suspect.

One of the interesting thoughts that came up was that a province would have to do it first and prove an alternate system worked, never mind that there are models for alternate systems everywhere from the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts to the European Parliament to, arguably most relevant to a British Commonwealth member, Australia. One colleague thought British Columbia would be the best candidate, as it would have to be a progressive province with at least three parties, or there would be no incentive for the parties to go along with the change.

The only problem with that thought is that the idea has already been passed over in British Columbia. In 2005, the province held a referendum on whether to adopt a Single-Transferable-Vote system for the provincial assembly. Granted, the vote was close. Required to carry both 60% of the popular vote and 60% of the 79 electoral districts, it passed with flying colors in the latter (77 of 79 districts in favor), but came up about 2.5% short in former (39,262 votes, in the popular vote). Perhaps a future referendum might actually pass there.

It certainly seems to be a better candidate than Ontario. In 2007, Ontario voters were asked to choose between the existing First-Past-The-Post system and a Mixed-Member-Proportional system. To result in a change, 60% of voters needed to vote for the measure, and it needed a majority in 50% of 107 electoral districts. It wasn't close. The measure was defeated by an almost 2:1 margin, garnering only 36.9% of the vote (granted, that's 1,579,684 people), and winning in only five ridings. Furthermore, electoral reform had received almost no media attention, no significant support from any provincial party except largely symbolic support from the NDP, and polls indicate that few voters even understood what it was all about. The results had to be classified as depressing to supporters of electoral reform.

So, if the provinces don't seem to be leading the way, is there a way to do it at the Federal level? As expressed previously, I thought there was at least an opening with Stéphane Dion as a Liberal leader talking about a Rank-Order-Voting system. Yesterday, however, Dion announced he would be resigning as party leader in the wake of the Liberals' terrible performance in the election. With the next Liberal leader likely to be more right-leaning than Dion, it would not seem likely that the Liberal Party will be supporting any sort of electoral reform. While it was conceivable that a Liberal-NDP move for electoral reform might pass a future parliament in which their combined vote totals could be a majority, there is essentially no way to achieve such a coalition without either the Liberals or the Conservatives, and the Conservatives certainly have no incentive to support it.

Electing pro-reform candidates to Parliament, then, doesn't seem a reasonable prospect. The only way seems to be pressuring the large parties into action, much the way that the public shamed the Conservatives and NDP into allowing Green Party leader Elizabeth May into the Leadership Debates. It's time to start making noise now with letters to our MP's and local media, and maybe some day there will be enough incentive for action to be taken.

In the meantime, it is not advisable to hold one's breath waiting for electoral reform. Vote swapping, anyone?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Margin Notes: Lefties, Radicals, and even Len

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The next President of the United States will be left-handed. I don't know how I managed to miss this until the final debate, but both Barack Obama and John McCain are left-handed. This seems to be a modern trend--Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton were all left-handed, whereas before the 38th president, only James Garfield, Herbert Hoover, and Harry Truman had been left-handed, the rate to that point being consistent with the percentage of left-handed people in the general population. What changed in the 1970's?

* * * * * * *

The best Freudian moment in the last week's Presidential debate in the United States had to be John McCain referring to Barack Obama as "Senator Government". I was almost disappointed Obama didn't return the favor by calling McCain "Senator Military."

* * * * * * *

In his weekly radio address this week, John McCain stated that "of Americans... more than 40 percent pay no income taxes right now." This seemed like an absurd statement to me, but none of the fact-checking sites seemed to have vetted it yet, so I tried to do some research on my own. I found nothing definitive, but economist Mark J. Perry states on his blog that 62 million people will not pay income taxes in 2008. That's 37% of an estimated 170 million taxpayers, though considering that the population of the US is about 300 million, I'm not certain 170 million is really the right total to be using. I am surprised at this number, even if it's not more than 40% and McCain is at best exaggerating. McCain's conceptual point that Obama's tax cut really amounts to a tax credit for a substantial number of people is true, though it misses the fact that non-income taxes (like Social Security and other payroll taxes) are paid by these individuals. Furthermore, he seems to be missing the point that 62 million Americans are so poor that they are not required to pay income taxes. Isn't their economic status the real problem, not the tax rate (or lack thereof) that they are paying?

* * * * * * *

While spending time as a scrutineer during the Canadian Federal Election last week, I noticed a surprising number of people walking out stating "I didn't realize there was a Radical Marijuana Party." I knew there was a Marijuana Party, but not a Radical Marijuana Party. It turns out some of their candidates didn't know this, either. According to the Abbotsford News, candidate Tim Fegler had not known of the name change until election day. Was he too busy smoking you-know-what?

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The best recent speech in my opinion did not come from a politician, but from John Walcott, the Washington bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers who accepted the I. F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence on 7-October. Read Walcott's speech, entitled "The Truth is Not Subjective," here.

* * * * * * *

The ongoing world financial crisis has brought out some previously-fringe ideas to the mainstream. One that hasn't gotten there is this thought from activist David C. Korten: "...capitalism's relationship to democracy and to the market economy is much the same as the relationship of a cancer to the body whose life energies it expropriates. Cancer is a pathology that occurs when otherwise healthy cells forget that they are part of the body and begin to pursue their own unlimited growth without regard to the consequences for the whole. The growth of the cancerous cells deprives the healthy cells of nourishment and ultimately kills both the body and itself. Capitalism is doing much the same to the societies that it infests." How does the body normally keep cells from forgetting they are part of a larger whole? Regulatory proteins and signaling pathways. Hmm.

* * * * * * *

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was recently quoted as saying "a person who believes is a person who hopes." (Note that he didn't say that religious belief was a prerequisite for hope.) Unfortunately, in many cases, I think he left out an adverb. A person who believes naively is a person who hopes naively.

* * * * * * *

In the unnoticed musical connection category, I heard "More, More, More" by Andrea True on the radio last week. This 1976 work had some remarkable musical similarities with "Steal My Sunshine" by Len, a 1999 minor hit. Listen to the beat in each song and it will be obvious.

* * * * * * *

Elizabeth May apparently has more influence on the Canadian economy than we thought. Less than a week after the Green Party leader did a variety of interviews calling for an exchange rate between the currencies of about 80 US cents per Canadian dollar, the Canadian dollar briefly collapsed to that level before stabilizing at about 85 US cents. The next time she makes a statement like that, look out!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Photos: St. Paul, Minnesota

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site focuses on St. Paul, Minnesota.

A walking tour around St. Paul, Minnesota on 12-September-2008 was highlighted by the Cathedral of St. Paul, the James J. Hill House, Summit Avenue, the Minnesota State Capitol Building, downtown, and the Mississippi River.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Radio Pick: The Great Schlep on Search Engine

TORONTO, ONTARIO - An election piece from the CBC has again stood out as my weekly radio pick.

One of the more interesting phenomena of the 2008 Presidential Campaign in the United States is the Great Schlep, an Internet-based movement to get young Jewish people to convince their elders in Florida to vote for Barack Obama. This is actually serious, as demonstrated by Jesse Brown in the Search Engine podcast, a piece also prepared for the broadcast Sunday Edition program.

Listen to streaming MP3 of Search Engine "The Great Schelp"

Media: Flying the Final Air Farce Flight

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Growing up around Seattle, Washington, my family could watch the Vancouver, British Columbia CBC affiliate on cable television. Mainly viewed during international events like the Olympics when US coverage became tiresome, my primary early impression of Canadian television was that the commercials had much drier humor.

During the 2006 Canadian Federal election, when I was again in Seattle, I discovered the long-running Royal Canadian Air Farce and This Hour Has 22 Minutes on Friday nights, and their portrayals of party leaders Stephen Harper, Paul Martin, Jack Layton, and Gilles Duceppe became more prominent in my conscience than actual footage. Along with The Rick Mercer Report, these shows represented what I felt was an amazingly biting slate of satire on a public network, and it could even be stated that they were part of the attraction of moving to Canada--I could get behind my tax dollars supporting such entertainment!

On April Fool's Day, it was announced that fall 2008 would be the final season for the Air Farce, which had been going by the name Air Farce Live since switching to a live taping format in 2007. It wasn't a joke, and the cast seemed to agree that it was appropriate for the show, which features both cultural and political satire, to end. A tradition that had started on the radio in 1973 and moved to television in 1993 (with the radio show ending in 1997) would be no more.

Dubbed the "Air Farce Final Flight," the final series was something I simply couldn't miss, and since it would be taped in Toronto on Thursday nights, I had no excuse. So, for the second show of the season, on 9-October-2008--not coincidentally in the middle of the election campaign--I headed down to CBC headquarters for the early, 6 pm taping.

I was surprised at the sheer number (more than 20) of "audience ambassadors," all wearing black Final Flight t-shirts, used by the show to guide us up to the 10th floor, back through hallways to Studio 42, and into the studio seating. Some were volunteers that simply wanted to see the show each week. The sets were lined up side-by-side in front of us, with a green screen able to be lowered to the left for outdoor or other scenes. Sound and lighting platforms were located behind and to the side of the audience.

Luba Goy, Penelope Corrin (both as bankers), and Don Ferguson (as Jack Layton) remained on stage after the Air Farce taping on 9-October-2008

Before long, the cast came on stage. Amazingly, Roger Abbott, Don Ferguson, and Luba Goy have been with the show since its start on the radio in 1973. Craig Lauzon and Alan Park had been added in 2004, and Penelope Corrin in 2007. Jessica Holmes, a 2003 addition, was on maternity leave during this taping.

As explained by stage manager Pat McDonald, the show is now filmed "as live as possible," meaning that they try not to stop filming, but will if anything goes sufficiently wrong--and, indeed, Ferguson would end up re-starting the Friday Night News skit. The episode opened with "Mr. Harper's Neighborhood", a sketch making fun of the control-freak nature of Prime Minister Stephen Harper--and his Fred Rodgers-like sweater.

Skits ranged from a unsuccessful attempt to rob Wachovia Bank ("You're kidding, right? We don't have any money. Try a Canadian bank!") to an analogy between vote swapping and spouse swapping. My favorites were a segment of "Murphy's Law," making fun of Rex Murphy's commentaries on "The National", and a fake commercial in which Ferguson as NDP leader Jack Layton and Park as an ING Direct spokesperson tried to share the color orange.

During what would be the commercial breaks, sets and cameras were moved around as needed, shots of the audience were taken, and a house band kept the audience occupied. When the show was over, we could wander slowly out through the set.

The audience rose upon completion of the Air Farce taping in studio 42 on 9-October-2008

More photographs from the evening will appear on my photo blog in the future.

Surprisingly, tickets are still available for a number of the remaining seven shows. See the show web site for details on how to experience the Final Flight.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Politics: The Emotional Campaign

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Presidential elections in the United States pretty much have looked the same for my entire lifetime.

Party A has a nominee with a story to tell, a charisma that connects with many common people--just not the hard-core supporters of the other party. Maybe that candidate didn't start out well-known in a first campaign, but the more voters found out about him (and it always has been a "him"), the more comfortable they became with him. Party B may have nominated a competent and likable individual--perhaps even an incumbent--but that person had a clear charisma deficit compared with the other candidate.

As a result of that charisma deficit, Party A was able to start painting the candidate of Party B with a caricature and stereotype that started to ring true. If Party B decided to ignore the attempt to appeal to emotions and just stick to facts and actions, the media would start speculating that maybe Party A was right about the caricature, and it would start to stick. If Party B actually fought back against the stereotype, they would over-do it and their candidate would start to look unnatural and uncomfortable, because even if their candidate was not well-described by the caricature, neither was their candidate well-described by the opposite.

By one of the debates in the campaign season, the candidate of Party B would say something or do something that was clearly in line with the caricature of them that had been built by Party A. It didn't matter if Party B's candidate substantively won the debate; the average voter just noticed that Party A seemed to have correctly described the Party B candidate, so they stopped listening to the substance being presented by Party B. The image became the reality, and little else mattered.

Party A had plenty of money to spend, and gained more as it became clearer to big business that Party A would win the election. They needed to be backing the party that would be in power, after all. Party B hasn't exactly been bankrupt, with notable rich and powerful donors behind them, but had a harder time making a case to smaller, more independent donors and felt like it couldn't be as free-spending, and found itself on the defensive in battleground states, and ultimately losing.

In 1980, the Republicans were Party A, with Ronald Reagan clearly more charismatic than Jimmy Carter. After spending a campaign painting Carter as out-of-touch, Reagan responded to a detailed, wonkish answer about health care by his famous line "There you go again." The same scenario took place in 1984--without the power of incumbency, the Democrats as Party B lost in a landslide with uncharismatic Walter Mondale as a nominee against Reagan. The famous line there was less about a Mondale stereotype than Mondale's failed attempt to stereotype Reagan when the president responded "I want you to know also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."

The Democrats might have had a chance to be Party A in 1988, but they nominated Michael Dukakis, and even George H. W. Bush looked charismatic in comparison. Some went so far as to call him a "dead fish" and his unemotional response when asked whether he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered, discussing the statistical ineffectiveness of capital punishment, confirmed that for voters.

In 1992, the Democrats finally turned the tables and became Party A in nominating Bill Clinton. The iconic moment came when George H. W. Bush looked at his watch during a debate, emphasizing the out-of-touch, tired stereotype. 1996 echoed 1984 as Bob Dole looked like a sacrificial lamb in a Republican Party B; this time, age was a factor and the memorable line came from Clinton: "It's the age of his ideas that I question."

The Republicans became Party A again in 2000 with George W. Bush, and Al Gore was taken so far out of his element in attempts to fight stereotypes that nobody was certain who he was--until the famous sighs during the debate that were interpreted as his being out of touch with the emotions of voters. And, who could forget how caricatured John Kerry became in 2004, doing himself the most damage in a debate with the infamous "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

In 2008, it appears we have observed the same old scenario, this time with the Democrats playing Party A with Obama as the clear leader in charisma. Early attempts to paint John McCain as angry and erratic didn't seem to be fully sticking--but it appears that attempts to paint him as negative did. Nate Silver on explained what happened in Wednesday's debate in detail--McCain accused Obama of going negative while trying to link Obama with John Lewis. Never mind the cognitive disconnect of the accusation--McCain was playing into the stereotype of being negative, and the audience seemed to turn against him. McCain had been making strong economic points to that point in the debate, but people seemed to stop listening to him at that point, and the snap polls after the debate strongly favored Obama.

2008 could have played out the other way. Republican attempts to paint Obama as inexperienced could have made them Party A if Obama had re-inforced them, and McCain had showed the charisma that he showed in the 2000 primaries. Instead, today voters aren't really sure if McCain is an independent maverick, or an angry old man.

Be watching for a very charismatic Republican to be nominated in 2012--otherwise, they may find themselves Party B two times in a row.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Politics: Time for Proportional Representation

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The biggest story coming out of the Canada's 40th Federal Election on Tuesday does not seem to have been the results obtained by any of the political parties or candidates, but low voter turnout. With more than 99% of the vote counted as of this morning, just 13,832,972 of 23,401,064 registered voters actually cast a ballot. That's only 59.1%, the lowest national participation rate ever in Canada. While there are a variety of reasons why people may not have turned out, the single thing that could be done that would help the most would be electoral reform to a Proportional Representation system.

Probably my most graphic memory of Election Day 2008 as an "outside scrutineer," reminding voters known to support my favored candidate to vote, occurred after dinner hours, as I did what would be one of my final passes through the neighborhood. Looking for a voter who turned out to be at the polls right at that time, I discovered her husband sitting on their porch, enjoying an ice cream bar. I asked him if he had voted yet. "No, I didn't do it this time." I reminded him that he still had an hour to go the polls. "No, I'm not interested." Why? "My vote never counts anyway. If you don't vote for the winner, it doesn't count for anything."

There is a counter-argument to that perspective (one can't change the winner unless enough people vote for a desired alternative), but fundamentally he had a point. In Canada's first-past-the-post system, effectively all votes that do not go to the winning candidate in a riding might as well have gone to any other candidate. All the voters that I encouraged to vote in the poll I was assigned to on Tuesday might as well have voted for Radical Marijuana candidate Terry Parker--their presumed votes for second-place finisher Peggy Nash from the NDP made no difference in the makeup of parliament. Presumably, the man I encountered was a supporter of a small party, perhaps the Greens, perhaps Christian Heritage, in that riding perhaps even the Conservatives, who never come close to winning in the riding, and he was tired of making an effort only to be represented by someone he fundamentally disagreed with.

The effects of the first-past-the-post system get more perverse the more broadly the results are viewed. On the provincial level, in Saskatchewan, the NDP actually received 25% of the vote and received no seats in parliament, while the Liberals received only one from 15%, and the Conservatives won the rest of the seats (92.9%) from just 54% of the vote. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it was the Conservatives that were shut out despite earning 15% of the vote, with the NDP at least winning one seat from 33% of the vote and the Liberals winning the other six (85%) with just 47% of the popular vote. How well-represented can a NDP voter in Saskatechewan or a Conservative in Newfoundland feel?

Nationally, the picture looks even worse. The NDP earned almost half as many votes Canada-wide as the Conservatives (2.5 million versus 5.2 million), yet they have less than one-third as many seats, 37 versus 143. The NDP actually earned nearly double the votes of the Bloc Quebecois, at 2.5 million to 1.3 million. Yet, the NDP has fewer seats, 37 versus 50. And, of course, there's the biggest travesty of all--the Green Party's 940,747 voters, 6.8% of those that bothered to cast a ballot, have no representation in parliament, anywhere in the country.

In a proportional representation system, every vote would count in at least some way. There are different ways to set up the particulars in a system, but beyond the specific winners in geographically-defined ridings, there are floating members to ensure that all voters are represented. Every party above a threshold of votes, based on the number of seats available, would be represented. In Saskatchewan, the NDP would have ended up with at least a pair of seats. Nationwide, the Greens would have earned somewhere between ten and twenty.

One bizarre phenomenon that apparently had little or no impact on the elections, vote swapping, would not be necessary under Proportional Representation. Because every vote would count toward the proportional seats, the location where it was cast geographically would no longer be nearly as important. A NDP voter from Saskatechewan, a Green voter anywhere, or a Conservative from Toronto would help elect an at-large representative.

Furthermore, all of the current scare tactics, mostly by the more centrist parties, that voters who really support a less mainstream party need to vote for a more centrist party to stop another party from forming a government would be diminished. Voting for a lesser evil would no longer be necessary--and one would expect that the Green party would not be the only beneficiary of that change. The Progressive Canadian Party, for example, in trying to recreate the old Progressive Conservative perspective in contrast to the current Conservative Party, would be more likely to be considered by an anti-Liberal voter. Even the Conservatives and the Liberals could actually end up benefiting if they find ways to broaden their appeal by adopting the policies of (and making irrelevant) the smaller parties, much as they do today. The biggest winner in the short term from Proportional Representation--the NDP--might be the biggest long term loser if they bled votes to the Liberals and new smaller parties.

If the voters sent a national message on Tuesday, it was not about the policies of any of the parties. It was that they do not feel like it is worthwhile voting. To change that, we need proportional representation.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Politics: When I Knew It Was Lost

TORONTO, ONTARIO - From the earliest returns last night, it was clear that one of the few Liberal pickups in all of Canada was occurring in my home riding of Parkdale-High Park. Gerard Kennedy, longtime Member of Provincial Parliament from the riding, defeated incumbent New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Peggy Nash convincingly, 43% to 36%; it was not close, and got it entirely wrong, calling it for Nash. While some were surprised at this result, I didn't need to wait for the official count. By mid-afternoon, it becoming obvious that Kennedy would win the election.

Last week, there had actually been a rumor that the Liberals had pulled their campaign forces out of the riding. I have no idea where that rumor came from and never saw any evidence of it--by the end of the week, the Liberals were placing new signs all over the place before the holiday weekend, and apparently a DVD of Kennedy's message was distributed to registered voters on Saturday, but not being a citizen I was not treated to the technological campaigning.

Another rumor that was apparently mostly untrue was that many long-standing Liberal activists from the riding were not organizing for Kennedy, effectively sitting out of the contest. It is true that a number, though certainly not all, of the people canvassing the riding for Kennedy--and serving as scrutineers on Election Day--were from outside the riding.

In contrast, the Peggy Nash campaign was about as grass-roots as a well-organized campaign with a chance to win will ever be. I never met a Nash volunteer that did not live or work in the riding. While her role in opposing Stephen Harper's Conservatives in parliament was certainly recognized and appreciated by her supporters, their tendency was to talk about her local presence first.

The campaigns in some sense reflected this difference. Nash emphasized her accomplishments within the riding, things like keeping the Rennie Rink open and helping to save the Revue Cinema. Kennedy, despite a strong local record during his time with the Food Bank and as MPP, tended to emphasize the importance of stopping Stephen Harper and "preventing [him] from doing to Canada what Mike Harris did to Ontario." Local emphasis came second.

Tactically, the campaigns also diverged. Nash ran a classic, identify-your-supporters-and-make-sure-they-get-to-the-polls campaign. All of the emphasis on Election Day for the NDP was in making certain that their known supporters made it to the polls. The Liberals certainly did the same, but in addition to that, there was a tremendous outreach to undecided voters with campaign materials (the DVD being just an exceptional example) that swamped NDP efforts to do the same. The Liberals appeared to have more money to spend in the riding (it will be interesting to see in the ultimate filings how big the gap actually was), and they weren't afraid to spend it, mostly in the closing days of the campaign when people were actually making their decision.

So how did I, as a volunteer for the Nash campaign, know it was over? After spending the morning knocking on the doors of known Nash supporters in one of the 193 polls that make up the riding, I was resting outside the polling place, waiting for the latest update on which voters had actually arrived to vote. A taxi drove up, and a younger woman assisted an elderly woman to the polls. The NDP would have been prepared to do the same thing for its supporters, but what really struck me was that the Liberal volunteer assisting the woman was someone I hadn't seen before that morning and indeed would not see the rest of the day. The Liberals were clearly leveraging their entire party-wide organization, despite the rumors to the contrary. Whereas the NDP was well-organized and had people assigned to each poll, the Liberals had that, plus a substantial number of floating volunteers. The Liberal juggernaut had been released, and there really wasn't going to be any stopping it.

I kept working, and was substantially successful in my assigned task of getting about sixty Nash supporters to the polls, but I was not surprised to wake up this morning and find that Gerard Kennedy had 20,715 votes to Peggy Nash's 17,330 in a turnout that was rather anemic at 66%, but still better than the national figure of 59%.

One thing that Kennedy and the Liberals should be absolutely complimented on in this campaign is that it was clean. Unlike the last provincial contest, in which NDP candidate Cheri DiNovo was smeared by the provincial Liberals, Kennedy did not personally slam Nash. He simply argued his good points against Nash's, touted the Liberals above the NDP, leveraged his party's campaigning strengths, and won the election.

On CBC Radio One this morning, there was a report that the "Big, Red, Liberal Machine" had rolled through Toronto. Indeed, it did, and it rolled right over Peggy Nash.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Transport: Canadian Pacific Spirit Train

As the Spirit Train Band performed on the train stage in the background, Olympic mascots Sumi, Quatchi, and Miga danced in front of the crowd

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On Thanksgiving Day, the residents of Mississauga, Ontario had a little something extra to be thankful for as the Canadian Pacific Spirit Train visited town.

The CP Spirit Train was designed to promote awareness of the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, of which CP is a major sponsor (never mind that the tracks between Vancouver and the other major venue at Whistler are owned by rival Canadian National). As the train travels the nation, it stops for a day to provide a free, family-oriented event.

These CP Spirit Train stops really are great for families. Trains always draw children, and besides the full-size train that sits on the tracks nearby, there's a model of the environmentally-clean locomotive from General Electric powering the train. In addition to providing an introduction to the Winter Olympics and Canadian participation, the Village has lots of fun activities like the chance to start in a luge and test goalie skills. Olympic athletes tend to be on hand to meet toward the beginning of the event (I missed them), and there's also a nutrition display. Wandering the Village are people-sized versions of Olympic mascots Quatchi, Sumi and Miga.

The centerpiece of the event, though are the music performances on the train itself, in a boxcar that transforms into a stage. The Spirit Train Band provides a good show with Olympic-themed songs, but the real headliners are Sierra Noble and the Colin James Band. How often can one see those two acts for free?

Remember to bone up on Canadian Olympic trivia before the event, as prizes are awarded to audience members for their knowledge.

The Spirit Train Village took over the parking lot at the Streetsville GO station in Mississauga, Ontario on 13-October-2008

Throughout its trip across the country, the Spirit Train has periodically been delayed by protests from aboriginal groups upset about the Vancouver Olympics. One such protest in Woodbridge, Ontario delayed the train for several hours on Sunday, placing its arrival in the Greater Toronto Area on Sunday after dark.

The Spirit Train still has performances in Smith Falls, Ontario on Thursday and in Montreal on Saturday--and rumor has it that it may be on tour again next year. For more information, visit the official CP Spirit Train site.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Transport: Royal Canadian Pacific

The Royal Canadian Pacific passed through the Weston neighborhood of Toronto on 13-October-2008

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the delightful things about living near the Canadian Pacific Railway is the fleet of special trains that the company runs over its system for a variety of public relations purposes. Two of those trains were in the Toronto area today. The first, the Spirit Train to celebrate the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, went to Mississauga for its free event that will be covered later.

The other was the Royal Canadian Pacific. Normally running only in western Canada through the Fraser River Canyon and the Rocky Mountains, this classic train features streamlined diesel locomotives from the 1950's and heavyweight passenger cars mostly from the 1920's. It may be the most luxurious train in North America.

On some trips, the public can purchase a seat on the train--assuming a lot of disposable income. This rare trip into Toronto was a private charter being run for owners of Canadian Tire stores. So, there was little publicity and almost no word that the train was coming except for some obscure Internet lists.

The tip was that the train would arrive in Toronto at 14:30--but that didn't say where. One would assume Toronto Union Station, but assumptions are often quite dangerous on the railroad, and hanging out at Union Station would have meant seeing nothing if the train terminated at Agincourt Yard in eastern Toronto--or worse, my neighborhood Lambton Yard. Instead, I headed up to Weston, where the train would have to pass through no matter where it was going, and set up on the sidewalk of the Jane Street bridge over the Canadian Pacific Mactier Sub.

Even special trains are rarely on time, so I was not surprised that I heard nothing of the train until after 15:00, when a radio conversation indicated that it was out of Bolton. Just before 15:30, it came into sight in the distance, slowing for a meet with some locomotives running alone to Vaughn Yard that I had just photographed.

This was my first chance to see the Royal Canadian Pacific, and it lived up to expectations. The two locomotives and ten cars were nearly immaculate despite their trip from Calgary and certainly were an unusual sight in Ontario. Passengers on the rear platform were enjoying the warm fall day, waving to the lone photographer up on the bridge.

I still don't know where the train went in Toronto--rather than trying to follow it, I chose to head for Mississauga to see the Spirit Train.

The CN Tower loomed in the distance as the Royal Canadian Pacific approached Toronto on 13-October-2008

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Margin Notes: Goldilocks, Empathy, and Cavities

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the aftermath of this week's presidential debate in the United States, Republican strategist Dan Schnur noted on NPR's On Point that this has become a "Goldilocks" election--John McCain is "too hot" and seems angry, and Barack Obama is "too cold" and doesn't appear to have enough emotions. Unfortunately, with only two major parties, there is nobody that is "just right."

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After taking a lot of heat for referring to Obama as "that one" during the debate and leaving quickly afterward, John McCain deserves a lot of credit for telling his supporters that they do not need to fear Barack Obama. It is too bad that Sarah Palin doesn't seem to have gotten that memo.

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While the Democrats have been trying to tie John McCain to the Bush administration, a website called shows the similarities between the Bush administration and the Harper government in Canada. The site has been advertised on-line for some time, and I have noticed it much more widely advertised in Toronto in the past few days, including on the subway. What really surprised me is that the site and the advertising are being funded by the Liberals. It would seem to me that in Toronto, especially, their main task is not convincing people to oppose Harper, but convincing people that they represent a better opposition than the NDP. may end up helping the NDP in the ridings around me as much as it helps the Liberals.

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Normally, Canadians are very astute at perceiving symbolism in political campaigns, so I found it rather shocking that the Liberal party actually had Stéphane Dion visit a room with advanced life support equipment at an Ottawa hospital. After so many stories about their party being on life support in British Columbia, what in the world were they thinking?

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If the "At Issue" panelists on CBC Television's The National are correct that the mood in the electorate favors candidates displaying empathy, it really is hard to predict how voters will move in the final days of the campaign. None of the five major leaders have been great at displaying empathy in the past week--they've been sticking to their strategies. Interestingly, the same thing is happening in the United States--neither John McCain nor Barack Obama has a message that is resonating broadly about the economy, though Obama as the nominee of the party out of power in the White House gains from such a stand-off by default. Where is Bill Clinton to feel your pain when you need it?

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New Mexico governor Bill Richardson doesn't know where Bill Clinton is, either. Appearing on KUOW's The Conversation on Friday, Richardson noted that despite his endorsing Barack Obama, he speaks regularly with Senator Hillary Clinton and has hosted two fundraisers to help reduce her campaign debt. However, he hasn't spoken with Bill Clinton. "President Clinton is still upset, I'm sure."

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In the 14-July-2008 issue of Chemical and Engineering News that I have just gotten around to reading, correspondent Rachel Petkewich describes a future in which it will be possible to grow (if slowly) the crystals that make up apatite, a substance essential to both the inner dentin and surface enamel in teeth. When these efforts bear fruit, that means many dental fillings will no longer be required. Undoubtedly, many of us hope that research advances as quickly as possible.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Radio Pick: The Biology of Ideology

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's quality radio pick comes from CBC Radio One's Quirks and Quarks.

With elections looming in the United States and Canada, it was hard to avoid a political feature, but an unexpected one stood out. Dr. James Fowler, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California-San Diego, described how political thoughts and activities may have a genetic component, in this nine-minute segment.

Listen to streaming MP3 of Quirks and Quarks "The Biology of Ideology"

Friday, October 10, 2008

Politics: In Thinking-World Canada

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In a previous post, the impact of the "emotional" world culture of the United States on its politics was discussed, creating an atmosphere in which feelings and image matter more than facts or logic. Canada, while of course still showing great regional variation, has on average a "thinking" world perspective, and thus ideas and debate tend to be more important in political campaigns.

As the moniker implies, the "thinking" world operates mostly in the realm of ideas. Various specific types within the world like to combine ideas, debate them, become experts in them, and expand them. The debating strain is strongest in Canada--culturally, the tendency here is to get all the ideas out on the table here, whether appropriate or not, thoroughly understand them and discuss their merits, and then make a decision on how to proceed.

Note that this is not the same thing as applying logic. The "thinking" world likes to jump from one idea to another, seeing connections that may or may not actually exist. There's no need to go from "A" to "B" to "C" to "D"; the "thinking" world can jump from "A" to "D". It takes an analytical approach, as opposed to a logical approach.

The idea focus shows itself in the focus on party platforms. Whereas in the US, the charisma of the Party Leaders would likely be most important, here the focus of the campaigns tends to be on the party platforms, whether involving big ideas like the Liberals' "Green Shift" or NDP calls to ban private health care, or comparatively small ideas like arts budgets. The initial part of the campaign saw a lot of focus on gaffes by the candidates, but this did not attract much attention. Instead, it was arts funding in Quebec and the economy that started to get "thinking culture" people interested.

One of the defining characteristics of the "thinking" world is that it looks to the future (as opposed to the present or the past), generally with a vision. It's not a coincidence that Canada achieved universal health care in 1966, while the United States still hasn't achieved that. In the last half-century or so in Canada, the vision has been a multi-cultural one that has been solidified with immigration policy and cultural funding. The downside of all the forward-looking is that long-outstanding issues tend to be ignored. Quebec separatism is powerful enough that it periodically rises to be noticed, but it took until the current Harper government for even an apology to be issued for Indian Residential Schools and the Chinese Head Tax. The forward-looking even appears in the Liberal Green Shift proposal in the present campaign--it's more about long-term climate change and creating a long-term healthier economy, and does not address (in any direct way) the present economic crisis.

All this is not to say that image and feelings are unimportant in a Canadian campaign. The "thinking" world is attracted to the "emotional" world, so emotional trappings can garner attention and bring out the subconscious of the voters. But, they are also a foreign language of sorts, especially to the current crop of party leaders. In the current electoral environment, which pundits claim as being characterized by a desire for empathy, none of the candidates manage to do it. Andrew Coyne, on CBC Television's "The National", pointed out that Jack Layton's NDP message may resonate with the desire for empathy, but not because of any feeling or image created by Layton, but by the inherent platform of the party which has been in place for years.

So what does all this mean to Tuesday's election? All four parties have plenty of contrasting ideas. Despite nearly two years of a Conservative government and the current perceived economic crisis (perhaps tempered by news that Canadian banks have been listed as the most stable in the world and job numbers in September showing substantial part-time job growth), the polls would seem to indicate that Canadians pretty much identify with the same ideas they did in early 2006. It will be interesting to see if they vote that way on Tuesday.