Friday, October 26, 2007

Think MMP could have won? Think again.

Daniel Rubenson and I cooked up the following op-ed. It didn't get picked up, so I've posted it here.

Advocates of electoral reform suffered a great blow with the defeat of a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system in the Ontario referendum earlier this month. Recommended by a non-partisan Citizens’ Assembly, this new system was endorsed by prominent Canadians of every partisan stripe. It was, they claimed, a more democratic electoral system. Yet the reform still lost, almost two-to-one.

Like an athlete after losing the season’s last match, advocates of MMP look to place blame. They argue that the proposal was little understood, and Elections Ontario’s education efforts fell short of the mark. They assert that holding the referendum during an election drowned out any real debate on the reform. Had the referendum stood alone, Ontarians would have paid attention to the issue and understood the proposal. Under those conditions they surely would have voted for reform.

They argue, in essence, that the result did not accurately reflect the public will.

These claims are probably impossible to prove. They are also likely wrong.

Reformers wag an accusatory finger at Elections Ontario, claiming that the organization did not educate or inform voters enough. They say: The campaign was too neutral and failed to communicate the values supporting MMP.

We say: Casting aside the questionable idea that a neutral government agency should play a role in promoting some democratic values over others, their objection still rings hollow. Why? Because voters don’t need to know the details of a policy to know whether or not they should throw their support behind it.

In-depth knowledge of electoral systems may thrill many-a-political scientist. And many of them think this knowledge is crucial to being a good citizen.

But this view is both elitist and wrong.

Modern political science demonstrates that voters effectively use a number of short cuts, or heuristics, to make the same decisions they would make if fully informed. They talk to their neighbours and friends. They look to their political leaders. They even look to the opinion pages of newspapers.

Citizens find these shortcuts in countless places. And with even a minimal amount of information, voters make choices consistent with the decisions they would make under different conditions.

What if the referendum wasn’t held during an election? Would it have had a better chance? If voters were more exposed to the arguments for electoral reform, would they be more likely to give it their support?

In short: Were the arguments for electoral reform winning arguments?

As scholars of public opinion, we wanted to know which side had the most convincing arguments in the electoral reform debate. We conducted an experiment during the last week of the referendum campaign using the Innovative Research Group’s online survey panel.

We presented participants with one of six arguments for MMP and one of six for the status quo. For example, “A first past the post system is better because it creates strong majority governments that can implement their policies” vs “A mixed member proportional system is better because parties should get the same share of seats as their share of the vote.” We had participants in the survey choose between them.

Our results are clear. The argument that every Member of Provincial Parliament should be locally elected overpowers every argument for MMP. In head-to-head match-ups, no argument from advocates of MMP convinces a sufficient number of voters to prefer the new system.

The arguments do not favour MMP. Even if voters paid sustained attention to the referendum, it is not clear that they would have been convinced by what they heard.

Even though the MMP loss was a blow to electoral reformers, it was not a blow for democracy. “Losers’ consent” is among the most important features of a proper democracy, where those on the short end of an outcome accept it as fair.

No doubt, this is difficult. But the idea of electoral reform has its own persuasive force and will not die with this loss. However, it's crucial that those who claim to be great democrats begin to act less like sore losers looking for someone to blame, and more like a team determined to do better next time around.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Into the Wild

On Friday, I headed to the Parc with three great friends to see Into the Wild. The film is everything the critics have claimed: beautifully shot, elegantly and sparsely scored by Eddie Vedder, and terribly well-written. This is much to Sean Penn's credit, however great the original accounts by John Krakauer.

For those who don’t know the story, the movie recounts the real life journey of Chris McCandless, a young, idealistic, ram-rod righteous, and driven man. A fresh graduate of Emory University, he gives away his remaining college fund to Oxfam, intentionally ends contact with his family, and decides to tramp across America. After two years, he makes his way to Alaska, heading alone into the bush in April. He soon finds an abandoned-bus-turned-hunt camp. He is terribly unprepared, carrying a meagre 10 lb bag of rice, a rifle, a pad and sleeping bag, and other sundries, including a guide to local flaura and fauna. He has no proper map, and thus no firm knowledge of the topography of his surroundings.

He has, apparently, little knowledge of the local wildlife, either. In June, McCandless' journal records the shooting of a large moose, which Krakauer claims was a large caribou. These are not similar animals. If Krakauer’s account is correct, and if Penn’s portrayal is wrong, then this suggests the McCandless was quite distinctly unprepared for his adventure.

Despite this unpreparedness, McCandless survives until July. He decides then that he has proven his point, tested his resilience, and that the time has come either for an end to adventures or for a new one. But as he leaves his camp and makes his trek back to the road, he finds that the waist deep finger of a river he crossed on his way out is now a chest-deep and raging arm of water. Writing "DISASTER" in his journal that night, he is left to again scratch out an existence from the abandoned bus. What the movie does not reveal is that the river could be easily crossed just a few miles upstream. With no map, McCandless could not know this. He is instead left again to his devices.

McCandless eventually starves to death, probably because he was eating a poisonous root, misidentified in his field guide, which prevented his body from absorbing any nutrients. His body is found some weeks later, alone in a blue sleeping bag his mother had knit for him many years earlier.

The scene of McCandless’ death, if the metaphor is not too crude, is simply breathtaking. It is some strange mix of horror and stoicism. It is also likely wrong. If Krakauer is to be believed, McCandless’ death was not welcome. Rather, those who found his body first found the following note on the outside of his bus:

"S.O.S I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you. Chris McCandless. August ?”

This was no welcomed death. There was no evidence of courage. There were no signs of a stoic passing. Instead, there were just signs that a young man’s luck had finally run out, that his righteousness had gotten him no where, and that he knew it.

There is no question: this is a breathtaking movie. And it is angering. There is no undue compassion invoked for McCandless. But, still, I cannot understand why Penn does not go the extra step and tell the story with extreme accuracy. Why does he omit, for example, that McCandless was an afternoon’s walk up the river from safety? Why does he not reveal McCandless’ ignorance of ungulates? And why, even at the end, does he omit the trip of his half-brother, one of six-half siblings of which Penn only reveals one, to retrieve his ashes? Why does he say it was only his sister who made the journey?

This is a breathtaking movie because it tells a true story and tells it well. But it was a story which needed no embellishment, and it’s for shame that Penn chose to ignore some fundamental truths.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Team Player

Denis Coderre has turned down Stephane Dion's offer to make him Quebec lieutenant. I guess he should quit now. He does have an MBA, after all. He could open a restaurant called Team Player.

A Personal Note

I just had the most positive customer service experience of my life with Bell Mobility. Not just with Bell Mobility either. And I am not being sarcastic. Honestly.

Magna and the CAW

I worked for Frank Stronach and Magna Int. for two summers. Watching the executive operations of a company was one of the luckier opportunities in my life. The highlight of both of these summers was occassionally bumping into Stronach, or listening to him wax to summer students in the boardroom, or watching him at the head of an employee meeting in a plant. He is strangely charismatic and so consistently unpredictable. This "Frank Factor" has, at times, probably discounted the stock of Magna. But it's hard to imagine what Magna would be without him. So, when this was announced today, I was greatly suprised. But I wouldn't bet against its long-term success.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

On the MMP Referendum

There is a lot of grumbling in the media today about the failure of MMP to win the referendum. A lot of it is coming from academics. Here's a nice example.

I don't have much to add to this debate, save the following three points:

i) There is absolutely no evidence right now that the Elections Ontario education campaign was ineffective. There are some rather esoteric statistical reasons for why this can be said with confidence, but it's true.
ii) There is little evidence that I know of which suggests that the arguments for MMP are more convincing than those for FPTP, when they are pitted head-to-head.
iii) We don't know if the YES side's campaign was effective or not. Indeed, their materials may very well have turned voters off electoral reform.

This is an admittedly very self-serving post. I have no horse in this race, but I am in the process of completing a study on the referendum with Daniel Rubenson. We are both pretty ambivalent about electoral reform, but we are curious about the reasons for the reform campaign's failure or success. To that end, during the election we conducted a series of experiments -- both in the field and in surveys -- to try to answer the questions above. And we now have a survey in the field which will also help to answer them. We'll have no quick answers, but they'll likely be alright and plausible when they do come out, and they certainly won't be as self-serving as those proferred up in the article cited above. It's time that advocates for electoral reform - those great democrats - at least acknowledge the possibility that other citizens may not share their views. Academics should be at the forefront of that.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The case for Dion forcing an election

This is almost certainly a mistake. Advisors to Stephane Dion, presumably the new ones which he has brought in, are counselling him to take on the Tories case by case after the Throne Speech, rather than opposing the speech and triggering an election.

By being outfoxed by Duceppe and Layton, Dion's strategic judgement could be called into question. That is, by allowing them to set their terms of negotiation, he was put against the wall and forced to either accept the government's agenda or call an election. Instead, he appears ready to take a third route, which is to oppose the government on legislation as it comes. This calls his strategic judgement - or that of his advisors - into even greater question. Here is why: this scenario only plays out in two ways. First, Harper gets all the legislation he wants. Second, Dion forces Harper's hand on some obscure piece of legislation and suddenly we're having an election over amendments to the wheat board, or minimum sentences for drug trafficking, or some other small issue. Dion will be seen to have forced the election, and Harper will be able to ask him why he would call Canadians back to the polls over such a small issue.

There is an alternative to this. It is to roll the dice. Oppose the speech from the throne in vigorous terms on the grounds that it is entirely contrary to the Liberal program. Then put it to the people. This is Dion's best course of action. Here's why. First, the opposition within his own party is not going to die down. If they get a clear signal that there will be no election for a year or 18 months they will continue to undermine him. So, the worst case scenario for Dion is that he is eventually forced to step down after a long, Fabian battle. Second, the best he can be in a year from now if he doesn't trigger an election is Leader of the Opposition with 90-some seats. However, if Dion triggers an election, the downside doesn't change. He could still get thrown overboard. But the upside is potentially larger: he could become prime minister if several things fall into place and Harper makes a few mistakes. It seems highly unlikely at this point, but it is not zero-probability. So the downside is the same, but the upside is higher. The only conditions under which waiting make sense are if Dion can force an election under more favourable terms. This seems highly unlikely. Instead, he will have to force it over some small issue, or wait until Harper has pushed through one or two more budgets. The stars are hardly aligned for Mr Dion - and it makes a lot of us honestly sad, because we've had high hopes - but the time to go is now.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that this whole case with Dion after the Throne Speech is a nice illustration of the struggle between leaders and local members. From Dion's perspective, he cares principally about his leadership and advancing his party (with him at the helm). He is as capable of backward induction as anyone else (that is, working backwards from likely outcomes to determine actions), and he certainly must have sensed that now was the time to go. But many media reports suggested the view was not shared by his MPs. This is fair enough: they do not want to lose their jobs either, and probably a third to half of them view themselves as being in marginal ridings. Dion likely doesn't care which MPs win, so long as he has the same number more or less after the election. But those losing MPs do, as their interests are put before those of the party. It's a thought for another post, perhaps.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Oral Roberts "University" scandal

I guess when God tells your father to build a university to God's glory but to name it after himself that something like this is the logical result.

UPDATE: Oral Roberts has assured the OR"U" community that the devil won't steal their university. I imagine the devil already checked the bank balance and figured it wasn't worth the effort. He may want to look into Richard Roberts' account, though. What's the phrase? Ah yes, Chaucerian fraud.

Hitchens Cut Open

Daniel sent me this article. It is Christopher Hitchens' account of finding out that a soldier who he inspired to enlist in the war in Iraq was killed by an IED. Hitchens goes on to meet the solider's family. It's a pretty amazing story of a man coming to terms with the consequences of his words, all the while not using that reckoning to make himself any bigger or proud.