Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Shutting down Parliament

Will the Prime Minister prorogue Parliament today? Inside opinion suggests that he will, though the Star is taking an inquisitive approach in its reporting.

The wiki provides a nice summary of what is prorogation. If you click through, you'll note that prorogation normally occurs at the end of a legislative session. In other words, governments normally prorogue when they've ended their legislative agenda but there is still sitting time left on the calendar. Not in Canada, apparently. Instead, we have a prime minister (potentially) asking the GG to prorogue Parliament for a second time in a year, despite a full legislative calendar and apparently very important unfinished legislative initiatives (i.e. their crime package).

The government will also avoid questions on Afghan detainee transfers, which are currently being examined in committee.

I tend not to get too worked up over constitutional conventions. I think they are guidelines until they're not, and I think they rarely describe actual political behaviour with much precision. On the contrary, I take a rather liberal view of democracy in which voters decide what is appropriate at election time. But this is getting ridiculous. The government has twice in a year stated that they are uninterested in trying to govern in our elected house. I am sorry if it's an inconvenience, but it's where the business of our democracy occurs. Coyne goes a few steps farther and more provocative than me, but not that many. He's worth reading here.

Update/Question: Does Stephen Taylor even know what a prorogation is for? It's not to allow committees to be reset. I think that's his justification, though he doesn't say it all that clearly. It's for a PM to end a legislative session early after its business has been finished. Second, perhaps Stephen Taylor could spend a day in an Afghan jail before he makes fun of the treatment innocent people there may have faced.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Flying to the US just got worse. Again.

Thanks to a failed terrorist attack, flying to America just got a lot worse. Apparently, one has to arrive three hours before a flight. You'll no longer be allowed to access your carry-on baggage for the last hour of the flight, or to leave your seat. More, you won't be able to hold anything in your lap for that last hour. I presume that extends to dangerous items like pens and paper. Oh, one more thing, someone is going to comb through your bag at the gate. After they've done it at the first clearance area. This is a terrible policy for many reasons.

First, what is so special about the last hour of a flight? Why won't a terrorist then initiate an attack with 70 minutes to go? Second, if you've already looked through my bag then what can I hold in my lap that is a threat? Third, and this is the most important thing, do you think that having bags checked twice makes it more likely to find contraband? You may think yes, but there's a good reason to think it will make us less safe.

If you are a security official looking through a bag and you know that someone else is going to look through the bag again, do you think you will be more or less thorough? At first blush, you're likely more thorough, but imagine that you are facing a large line of passengers and your superiors have encouraged you to get people through the line quickly. In this likely circumstance, you may trust that the other individual checking bags will find any contraband. But what if they assume the same thing and they do a less than thorough job? Do you think we're more or less safe in this circumstance.

Flying is not dangerous. Hijackings are extremely rare. It's time to accept the risk.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Are Canadian philosophy PhDs discriminated against?

This article won't tell you.

This is incredibly simple and shoddy inference. Groarke and Fenske note that seven-in-ten faculty in (English) Canadian philosophy departments have PhDs from outside of Canada. Of the third that have Canadian PhDs, half are from the UofT. They find that this holds more or less across the country.

From these findings, they infer that there is discrimination against Canadian PhDs. Their inference is unsupported by their data.
Suppose I conducted a study, and I told you the following:

A recent study of hiring by the federal government across all departments for all positions outside of the capital region found that only .1% of hires had a degree from University XYZ. Clearly, this points towards discrimination against graduates of University XYZ. In the words of Groarke and Fenske, they're "educationally handicapped."

Now, what if I told you that University XYZ was the University of Prince Edward Island or Université de Ste-Anne? Given that these universities probably account for .1% of graduates, you'd rightly infer that I was making poor inferences. And you'd be correct.

Groarke and Fenske are doing exactly the same thing. They don't know or do not present data on what percentage of philosophy PhDs are produced by Canadian schools each year. Despite not knowing this, they provide explanations, proffer advice to other philosophers on matters of morality, and make policy recommendations. And they do so without the simplest of convincing evidence. Let's be clear: Groarke and Fenske accuse their colleagues of discrimination and malfeasance without the simplest of credible evidence.

I trust that this kind of inference isn't representative of Canadian philosophers, but if it is then any problems in hiring aren't due to discrimination.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Rain King Returns

Michael Schumacher is returning to F1 Racing. The return of the Loewen men to Montreal is now all but assured.

I've said it before and I expect this season to prove it true: Michael Schumacher might be the greatest individual sportsman in history.

I shall be taking bets on his return to the end-of-season top spot.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lee Sigelman

Lee Sigelman, one of political science's great citizens, has died. Sigelman's career was, from my standpoint, most impressive.

Sigelman edited various journals in his career, most notably our discipline's flagship, the American Political Science Review.

More recently, he started the Monkey Cage with colleagues at George Washington University. It's a daily stop for me and it's enriched my life.

Finally, Sigelman was an incredibly productive and eclectic scholar. John Sides makes this clear in this latest post.

This is a real loss for our discipline. For those who are confronted most starkly by his loss -- his friends and his family -- take consolation in the admiration of those who know only his work.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Mounties, tasers, and the truth

Paul Kennedy has released his report on the death of Robert Dziekanski. As Andrew Potter puts it, he found that the Mounties lied. Repeatedly. But this should not be surprising. As individuals and as an institution, the RCMP has lied on matters great and small for years. To quote Potter:

And why wouldn’t they? The RCMP lies about everything. They lied about APEC. They lied about the name a six-year-old gave to a puppy in a contest. And they lied over and over again to Paul Kennedy.

Remember this: our national police force is one that, if you you were in a state of delirium and confusion in a foreign land, would presume the first thing to do is electrocute you. Not tase you, to use that awful non-verb. They would run current through your body before they tried to calm you, before they tried to ascertain the nature of your problem, and before they considered whether you were really a threat. Our national police force is scared of staplers.

And remember this: after killing you, they'd do the disservice of traveling to your home country to sniff around to see if you have a criminal past. Apparently, RCMP officers can smell a criminal. No need for due process here.

Remember this also: if one of the same ran you down in his car drunk he'd make up a story about leaving the scene of the accident to have two shots of vodka before returning. And he'd get away with it, save for a charge of obstructing justice.

This is too much for a civilized society to take. This is not about whether you know a police officer who is a good person and a kind father. You likely do, as I certainly do. It's not about whether police officers are good most of the time. It's about whether it's appropriate for them to behave as they have when they are at their worst. They ought not. Gary Mason is right. It's time to put an end to this.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Dear United Airlines

When you make me pay for the internet in the SFO lounge, I feel like you don't value me as a customer. When you try to get me to pay for it in SAN where there's free internet throughout the airport it makes me think you think I am stupid. Please stop being soulless schmucks. Ok, thanks.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I'm still here

Here's a little video from my friend Ben Rusch that I am really enjoying lately.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Human Nature Group

Just a quick note that I'll be cross-posting a lot of stuff at the Human Nature Group blog going forward. It's a cool group Fowler started at UCSD for researchers interested in political science work that leverages tools from the natural sciences. It would be great to get something similar started at Toronto. Check it out.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hey Good Lookin: Does facial competence actually matter for election outcomes?

Are politicians successful when they are better looking? Todorov and colleagues (here and here) created a stir by demonstrating that election outcomes can be predicted based on very quick evaluations of the “competency” of candidates' faces. Could it be that voters are so superficial that a great share of them are merely persuaded by the attractiveness of candidates?

A recent article in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science takes on this question with a clever study. Atkinson et al. note that previous studies have not accounted for the possibility that candidate selection depends on the competitiveness of a race. They in fact show that challenging parties tend to run better-looking candidates when they have a greater chance of winning.
They demonstrate this in two-steps. First, they develop a survey instrument to estimate the competency of candidates’ faces. The method is clever. They show subjects a randomly drawn pair of papers and ask them to indicate which candidate looks more competent. They then derive a competency score that assumes some transitivity on competence, assumes it is probabilistic and not determinative, and assumes some continuum of competence. They develop their own estimator to score candidates (though using the existing Bradley-Terry method would have been easier!).

Next, they marry these scores to exit poll surveys to estimate the effect of competence on different types of voters, i.e. independents and partisans. They show that there is no competence effect for House races, but small effects in Senate races. These effects are larger for independent voters than for partisans. Finally, they use these estimates to test whether facial competence could have been pivotal in any Senate races. They find it was not.

A few thoughts on this paper and the facial competence literature more generally. First, I quite like that Atkinson et al have noted the selection effects which undermine the bold claims made by earlier papers. There is a general lesson in this: we can elicit large effects in laboratories. We should search for these effects, but we should be sure to test their external validity as close to actual vote choice as possible. What is more, they develop a nice instrument for replicating these findings in other countries. I should hope we could do something similar in Canada and other democracies, though I think a Bradley-Terry estimation could just as easily be used. Second, I don’t quite understand why such studies don’t also test for the effects of whether voters find some faces more “attractive” than others. Or, why not ask voters “Which person looks like they would understand your needs better?” There are any number of qualities we can infer from faces and I see no reason why competence should be the only one, or even chief among them.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Five notes on a Monday morning

1.) George Smitherman has resigned from cabinet and intends to run for mayor of Toronto. He'll most certainly be a formidable candidate. However, he has said he won't resign his seat in the provincial legislature until March. This is almost certainly a bad move. How will Smitherman gain traction criticizing current councillors for accepting pay raises when he wants to hold onto a job which he has said he no longer wants? He can obviously be an effective MPP for this period, especially given great stores of energy and political ability, which he has more of than 99% of politicians. But, he's inviting serious criticism. He should resign and head this off at the pass.
2.) I am participating in a conference on private members' business (i.e. the legislative initiatives of backbench MPs) in Toronto this week. Royce Koop and I have drafted a short paper on the determinants of legislation type in the last two parliaments. It's here if you're interested in reading it. Comments are, of course, welcome.
3.) This is an extremely interesting paper showing how affiliative cues change the behaviour of very young children. In other words, even with 18 month olds, reminders of connections between people lead them to engage in helping behaviour. It's terribly interesting.
4.) Mount Allison has named Peter Mansbridge its Chancellor. It was also ranked #1 in Maclean's last week, for the thirteenth time. It's terribly easy to be a proud alum of Mount A.
5.) The Berlin Wall fell twenty years ago today. Nothing above matters one epsilon as much as this.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

On Tomorrow's Byelections

Four byelections will be contest tomorrow: one in suburban Vancouver, another near Riviere-de-Loup, a third in Montreal, and a fourth in the Nova Scotia riding of Conservative-turned-independent Bill Casey.

This article by Joan Bryden tips the NDP to win one, the Bloc to win two, and the Cons to regain the NS riding. But it also goes on to outline how party strategists are claiming that these elections are a test of the health of official opposition. Is such a claim credible? Do by-elections act as a test of the popularity of the government and other parties?

Fred Bastien and I have an article forthcoming in the Canadian journal which tests this proposition, among others. You can read it here. We find that while the success of government parties in byelections was linked to the government's national popularity (as measured in national vote intentions) until 1993, there is little evidence that it is anymore. We don't have a strong explanation for this, except that the period since 1993 was characterized by a very fragmented opposition, strong regional variation in support for parties, and the lack of a credible national alternative. Accordingly, we are inclined to think that these elections were more likely to turn on local issues. Now, much has changed in our federal politics in the last five years, so this may no longer be the case. But for the meantime, view with caution any self-serving explanations that these byelections provide some measure of the vitality of parties nationally.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Deep partisanship

I spend a good bit of my academic life thinking about partisanship. What does it mean to be a partisan? How do partisans differ from other partisans and from non-partisans? What are the behavioural consequences of partisanship?

Our understanding of partisanship has changed over time. Beginning in the 1960s, academics understood partisanship to be a deep attachment to a party formed early in life which subsequently acted as a perceptual screen on the political world. Think of it as similar to religious affiliation. Individuals may stray from their familial religious affiliations, but for the most part these act as an anchor throughout the lifecycle and serve to influence how we experience and perceive the world.

This understanding of partisanship was later challenged by a 'running tally' perception in which partisanship was taken to be an active evaluation of the parties on offer, where an individual 'updated' their partisanship as new events unfolded and changed it as their affection for one party increased over another.

I think it's fair to say that the first view has better stood the test of time, both inside American and outside. Principal in the defense of this view is a great book by Green, Schickler, and Palmquist called Partisan Hearts and Minds.

My own work has examined the behavioural and material foundations of partisanship in Canada. For example, I've shown that revealed material concern for the well-being of other partisans explains much of the decision to vote in Canada. I've also shown that material concern for others varies with our own and others partisanship. Finally, I am working on a larger (though still very preliminary project) on whether behavioural differences characterize different partisans. My own contribution is very small.

The most important contribution in recent years, and this is the point of this post, has just been made by Alan Gerber and Gregory Huber in this paper. Here's the story: for a long time, we've had survey evidence that partisans have more positive economic expectations when their preferred party is in power in Washington. In other words, Republican partisans say they expect the economy to perform better when there is a Republican president than when there is a Democratic president. The same applies (in reverse) for Democrats. However, this could merely be an artefact of surveys. If partisanship really matters in a deep way, then what is needed is evidence that partisans behave differently when their preferred party is in office. Gerber and Huber provide evidence of this. They demonstrate that changes in the rate of expenditures at the county level following an election correlate with the partisanship of the county. So, more Democratic counties would increase their rate of spending more than Republican counties (or more accurately, decrease it less quickly, as spending is generally lower in the winter than in the fall) following the election of a Democratic President. The same applies for Republicans.

This is an extremely important finding as it shows that partisanship has deep behavioural consequences. It is not simply a tally of one's preferences, but instead an affiliation which influences how one approaches not only the political but also the commercial world.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Stephenson and Tanguay on electoral reform. Or why you need multiple methods.

Yesterday afternoon, Dan Rubenson forwarded on to me Laura Stephenson and Brian Tanguay's IRPP research paper on electoral reform in Canada. It's a nice piece in a lot of ways. It charts the path to electoral reform very comprehensively. It draws the link between the decline in turnout and calls for electoral reform (even though the latter will do next to nothing to change the former). And then it presents a series of results on why citizens of Ontario voted against reform 3 to 2.

This is where their piece goes off the rails a little bit.

S and T take a very conventional approach. They survey 1000 Ontarians on a battery of items, including attitudes on things they may have never thought about. In particular, they ask lots of questions about whether citizens value fairness and proportionality, and whether they feel that election results under the current FPTP system are unfair. This is fine as far as it goes. I don't have too much trouble with the idea that citizens can hold more or less sensible opinions on things about which they know nothing and have thought very little. The more damning objection is that they miss a central fact about electoral reform.

Here it is: electoral reform, especially away from a FPTP system, is not about being for proportionality or against proportionality. On principle, I can't imagine many people are against fairness. It's about trade-offs between two largely irreconcilable goals. In the case of PR, the goals are responsiveness and policy that reflects the preferences of as wide a swatch of the population as possible. For plurality systems, like FPTP, it's about effective governance and accountability. It's about being able to effectively identify the rascals and show them the door if you dislike their actions in the years prior. This argument has been made by people a lot smarter than me. Powell, for instance, makes this argument very clearly. Yet mention of him is entirely missing from this piece. Asking about only one aspect of electoral reform largely misses these contours. As a result, S and T's study sheds dim and incomplete light on why electoral reform failed. It doesn't make it wrong, just not as right as it could be.

Now, the shameless self-promotion. Daniel and I ran a couple of studies during the same referendum. We ran them a lot differently than most of our colleagues who rely solely on survey based methods and lots of post-hoc modelling assumptions and simulations. First, we conducted an actual field experiment in which we exposed voters to varying levels of campaign materials from either or both sides of the campaign. You can read a paper about it here. (Of course, you can also send comments). What do we find? So far, we've completed failed to find a persuasion effect. Neither side was much good at convincing voters that their system was better; those who received mail from either side did not hold opinions any different from those who received no mail at all. If you want an exogenous and uncorrupted measure of information, this is a lot better than a quiz on a survey. Second, we found a small mobilization effect, such that those who received more mail from either side were more likely to vote in the referendum. But the effect is very small. Those in the heaviest treatment condition only voted in rates about 1.4 percentage points higher (Table 4). These effects are much smaller than any that would be estimated according to some information coefficient in a regression model. It's just hard to believe that increased information in the referendum would have increased turnout or support for MMP.

Why is it hard to believe? In another paper with Arthur Spirling, Dan and I investigated the power of arguments for and against reform (the paper is under R and R, so it's not public. But I am happy to send it on request). By power, we mean the ability of an argument to illicit agreement with its preferred position in the face of an argument from the other side. To measure the power of arguments, we gave respondents in a survey experiment one of six arguments for FPTP and one of six for MMP. We then asked them which system they supported. We ignored all individual level aspects, and instead focussed on the charactersitics of arguments. Through something called a Bradley-Terry model, we are able to test which arguments are most powerful (or convincing) and why. The picture below demonstrates our key results.

Here's the main story: there is a lot that is convincing about MMP, namely that it provides for much greater proportionality. But, there are two things that hurt it. First, it weakens local representation.* Second, it gives a central role to political parties. Voters like proportionality, but they don't like the other two factors. Unfortunately, you can't argue for MMP without mentioning these other factors. Likewise, you can't invoke proportionality when arguing for FPTP.

The figure below shows the effects of an argument invoking some feature of electoral systems on its probability of winning an argument in our experiment. As can be seen, an argument that invokes fairness experiences an almost 14 point advantage. But as soon as political parties are mentioned, a hit of about 7 points is incurred, cutting the fairness advantage in half.

And what of FPTP? It's advantage came from a small built-in bias for the status quo. All FPTP arguments enjoy about a 7 point kick. And then arguments which invoke local control get a 9-10 point kick. So, FPTP has small but consistent advantages over MMP.

The real story is that both systems have elements which make them attractive but which also draw away from them. If you want to explain why a referendum issue falls, you should take a full account of the dimensions of the choice at hand. And one should think about more than just conducting a survey.

*I know, I can hear howls in some departments that it doesn't, but I think the consensus is that it does. I've got a clever experiment in the works to test this proposition.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Various and sundry, v N.

It's been some time since I have posted. To those of bated breath, you can now exhale. Here are three unrelated items:

i) I recently completed the first public draft of a paper with my great colleague, Chris Dawes. The paper is titled "The CHRNA6 Gene, Patience, and Voter Turnout." It's a straight-ahead behavioural genetics piece showing the relationship between a gene that regulates impulsivity and voter turnout. We rely on Fowler and Kam's clever observation that voting relies on patience, since you pay a cost today for benefits in the future. We then show that those who have versions of the CHRNA6 gene that are associated with lower impulsivity are more likely to vote. Comments are welcome, of course.

ii) This is not good news for Michael Ignatieff. But it's hardly the end of the world. Turning around the Liberal ship should take time, however talented a leader. Liberals need to focus on fighting an election a year from now and not tomorrow. By my lights, this means avoiding silly gimmicks, building up riding associations (especially the more amateur ones, on which my colleague Royce Koop is doing great academic work), and preparing very convincing post-recession policy. It's not the time for panic, for unnecessary bemoaning of a lack of strategic acumen, or for seemingly reflective interviews.

iii) I recently flew to India for a wedding. Indian weddings are long, and the flights seem longer. But they are, without question, worth every wasted jet-lagged day on return.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Dear Canada Post

Did you really mean it when you said my package would arrive the next day before noon? Or were you just telling me that? 'Cause it's Monday afternoon. And that was Thursday afternoon. That's more than twenty-four hours, no?

Ok. Thanks.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Tetlock and others are tracking whether public pundits are correct in their predictions. It's a brilliant idea. And I predict most predictions will be wrong. The site is here.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Blowing my horn and others'

A touch of self-promotion and some recognition of a couple of friends. First, Andre Blais and I recently converted some of our research into a report for Elections Canada on youth electoral engagement. At the end, we recommended that, among other things, Elections Canada experiment with online registration and voting in a by-election. They appear to be going forward with this advice. It's nice when one's work has some influence!

More importantly, a couple of friends are up to great things. My colleague at UCSD, Chris Dawes, was recently awarded the Peggy Quon Award for the PhD student most likely to contribute to the scientific study of politics. You'd never know that Dawes was a graduate student by looking at his publication record (e.g. Nature, PNAS, APSR, JOP, Economic Letters, QJE, PRQ) but it is true. He does wonderfully interesting research, so he's well deserving of the award. I should like to note that it's been won previously by very notable political scientists, including Jamie Druckman (the first winner) and my colleague Ben Nyblade

Second, my friend Ben Rusch is about to release an album. He wrote every song and played every instrument. He's incomprehensibly talented and creative. You can watch a first cut of the first video of his album here. It's shot in the wonderful Hampstead Heath near his home. 

Monday, July 06, 2009

Pearl versus Rubin on Causation

Andrew Gelman has a nice post here reviewing a Judea Pearl paper taking on Rubin's causal model. This stuff is probably too heavy before six coffees, but it's a nice and thoughtful review. And it's a nice reminder of how much I still need to learn about causation.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Dave Batters, depression, and the toll of politics

Dave Batters, a former MP not yet 40, committed suicide last week. Batters had been an honourable member from 2004 until last fall when he announced he would not run again on account of his deep and debilitating anxiety and depression. He was overcome by this last week. 

Stephen Harper gave a moving speech at his funeral yesterday. Bourrie presents it in full and speculates, quite reasonably, that Harper has probably struggled with the black dog as well. 

We ask a lot of our politicians. We expect them to work hard for us, to fawn over us when we meet them, to live lives free of foibles, and to do all of this under the ignobility of assumed dishonesty and selfishness. It is a terrible burden. We should not be surprised that those lacking self-awareness and not lacking in ego are perhaps overrepresented in our hallowed chambers. But it should also not surprise us that politics often destroys people's lives. 

I am not sure it did in the case of Batters, by the way. Quite the opposite, he is likely a testament to how individuals burdened with depression can still achieve greatness, and do so against obstacles more difficult than most can even begin to comprehend. It takes a special strength to struggle against the dark every morning and still make something of one's life. Batters' life, however short, is a testament to this. But also, quite sadly, to how far we have to go in understanding the pervasiveness of depression. Not to mention its treatment and the prevention of its more terrible ends. 

At times like this, one hopes more than anything that Batters' family is fully acquainted with the admiration others held for their husband, son and brother. 

Friday, July 03, 2009

Apparently, politics as usual...

...involves finishing jobs one was elected to do. It just keeps getting more silly in Wasilla

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Air Canada and Great Customer Service

A quick plug for Air Canada. I fly a fair amount, probably a little more than average. And I am rather forgetful. Indeed, I think I got into academia because it is the only profession that rewards this. Anyways, a few weeks ago I had a series of 6 am flights, meaning that I was bleary-eyed and rundown when I was on the plane. On the second of these flights I left my favourite headphones in the seat back. My parents had bought me a great a noise-canceling set for Christmas that immeasurably improved traveling. I immediately called Air Canada and reported them lost. They said they had nothing on record, which lead me to think another customer was probably now enjoying them. 

Today, I found the headphones in my mailbox. I note that Air Canada paid $11 postage to mail them to me express. This is great customer service. It is surpassed only by the time I left my iPod in the lounge at Pearson and someone at the desk searched for it, found it, and noted the next time I was flying. Boarding that flight, I was called over by someone at the desk to be reminded to pick it up when I landed in Toronto. 

Air Canada is a great airline. It's worth noting. 

Friday, May 15, 2009

How to Help the Poor

Gordon says well a lot of what I think.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Friday, April 24, 2009

Watching South Africa

South Africa had an election on Wednesday. We are less than a day away from receiving the final results. I've been following these with great interest, not for the least because this is a crucially important election for the country and the region. 

Three things make this election so important. First, the presidency is likely to go to a man who will wish to change the constitution to his own ends. And we should be concerned about those ends. It was perhaps inevitable that Mbeki would look like a man in an oversized suit, dressed up and playing pretend, after following Mandela. But what a greater decline is marked by the election of Jacob Zuma. Leave aside his rough ways, his polygamy, and his demagoguery. He is a deeply corrupted man. He may be given to the most unhealthy impulses politically. And he has a past that he has not completely squared against the account of history. It likely includes ordering the torture and summary execution of comrades when he was head of the intelligence for the ANC. This is Guantanamo stuff and more. It should disqualify any man from leadership of a great and democratic nation. 

The point should be belaboured. Here, in an article from The Times are some of the things which the Motsuenyane Commission claimed occurred under Zuma's watch. 

Detainees were made to crawl through colonies of red ants with pig fat rubbed into their skin. A prisoner had his lips burned by cigarettes and his testicles squeezed with pliers; a detainee was buried up to his neck before being suffocated with a plastic bag; a woman had a guard masturbate over her because she refused to have sex with security officials. A trainee tried to commit suicide after his girlfriend was “taken away”. People were locked up in goods containers, in suffocating conditions. And people simply disappeared.

This election is important because it risks putting the constitution into the hands of a man responsible for such acts. Good democrats and liberals everywhere should hope that his party falls short of a two-thirds majority. 

Second, the election is important because it marks the official arrival of COPE, a breakaway party from the ANC, and the confirmation of the Democratic Alliance as the largest opposition grouping in the country. The future of democratic politics in South Africa likely lies in a union between these two parties; between the moderate instincts of COPE and the principled and liberal positions of the DA. Such a coalition would also signal the triumph of non-racialized politics over the crude and unfortunately all-too-familiar chauvinism of the ANC under Zuma. 

Third, the DA has won the Western Cape outright and will be able to govern without coalition partners. This is a beauty of federalism: an opposition party will have a jurisdiction in which to prove itself worthy of government. South Africa needs an effective opposition, so we should all hope that Helen Zille, the head of the DA and likely the next premier of the Western Cape, is able to govern effectively. 

Saturday, March 07, 2009

You should wish for the days of Bob Rae

The Ontario NDP selected a new leader today. Andrea Horwath has been selected on the third ballot and after a speech in which she spoke out against "theives" and "scabs". I am not quite sure who these people are, but she is undoubtedly striking out a position on the left.

I don't know too many New Democrat activists, but I suspect most of them think that striking out a position on the left is the way forward. Indeed, I think Murray Campbell quite probably captures their thinking well when he notes that Howard Hampton "helped re-establish the party after its devastating defeat in the 1995 election." Of course, he did nothing of the sort.

I've posted a helpful graph. It shows the three-party seat share won by each provincial NDP leader in each election since WW2. It's instructive for two reasons. First, it shows how exceptional Rae's victory in 1995 was. The NDP should not be expecting that kind of performance any time soon. But, second, it also shows how exceptional Rae's average performance was, especially stacked against Hampton's. Contra Campbell and many others, Hampton would have done well to equal Rae's worst performance. And he never did. Horwath should hope for the same.

March 6

March 6th is among the most important days of any calendar year. This is a fact. Among the events of this day: 

  • In 1912, Roald Amusden returned from the South Pole to announce his successful expedition the prior December. 
  • Joseph Nicephore Niepce, the inventor of photography, was born in 1765. 
  • Townes Van Zandt, the great Texan songwriter -- listen to Colorado Girl if you wish to break your heart -- was born in 1944.
  • Thomas Aquinas died on this day in 1274. 
  • And, Paul-Emile Victor, the French explorer who traversed Greenland in 1934, died on this day in 1995.
But, most importantly, it was the day Luke Smilek, my third nephew, was brought, kicking, screaming, and solving second-year calculus problems, into the world. Congratulations to my sister and beau frere, and hello Luke. 

Last night I dreamt I was a music critic

By some measure, at least.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Various and Sundry, vN

Five random thoughts on a terribly nice day in San Diego:

1.) This is terrible news for Zimbabwe. Morgan Tsvangirai has endured imprisonment, beatings, deportation, and a constant threat to his life. He's done so bravely in the face of a thug. And now he has lost his wife. It's a terrible tragedy. Stack another one upon the pile and ask how much more has to happen in Zimbabwe before someone intervenes. 

2.) The voters actually are wrong sometimes. Just not this time. None of this is an indictment on John Tory's character. It's only to say that you only get so many chances in politics and his are up. So, what does Flaherty do? 

3.) There is some talk of an election in Ottawa. This much is clear to me: the official opposition is within its rights and indeed its responsibilities to ask the federal government to account for all the stimulus money it spends, particularly the constituencies in which it is disbursed. For the government to force an election over this is to show contempt for parliamentary oversight. For the opposition to blink in the face of this is to show disregard for their duties. We all know how this should end. Let's hope it does, for once. Update: The jury is out.

4.) This is a wonderful blog post remembering a great man. 

5.) I have been listening to a lot of Leo Kottke lately and trying to play half as well. I particularly recommend Everybody Lies, Buckaroo, and Julie's House. You'll be wiser and wryer. 

Monday, March 02, 2009

David Myles...

...has won an ECMA for best folk recording for his album 'On the Line.' If you don't own it, you should. I've known David for a lot of years and among a really talented roster of friends he stands above the others. 

Personally, I am quite glad this album's been recognized as it will long be associated with a great time in my life. David played at a party Sam and I held just before we left for Africa. And everytime I listened to music on the bike, I started with his track "I Don't Wanna Know." Even today, I can remember listening to the album as we dipped down into a pasture in Ethiopia and then into a line of trees where the fog was so thick we had to pull over and make sure we were still on the way to Addis.

So, buy his album and listen to it during something special and it will stay with you for a long time. 

Thursday, February 19, 2009


I swam in the ocean. Today, I finally warmed up.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Death and All His Friends...

Couldn't make this better. Joe Satriani is going to serve Coldplay at the Grammys. And he plans to film it. This is quite a juvenile stunt but I guess it's his right given how clearly they lifted his tune.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Coldplay sans Chris Martin?

It's being reported that Coldplay are recording tracks without lead singer Chris Martin. This has to be a terrible idea. Without his lyrics -- e.g. "How long must I stand, with my head stuck under the sand? -- what are they besides just another Joe Satriani cover band?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

It Knocks On and On

The Monkey Cage pointed me to this great paper by Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon (who for my money is probably one of the most important political scientists in the world). Nunn and Wantchekon show how the effects of having family members extracted for the slave trade lingers on in people today in the form of lower trust in neighbours, family, and local government. This is a compelling and important argument. From the abstract: 

We investigate the historical origins of mistrust within Africa. Combining contemporary household survey data with historic data on slave shipments by ethnic group, we show that individuals whose ancestors were heavily threatened by the slave trade today exhibit less trust in neighbors, family co-ethnics, and their local government. We confirm that the relationship is causal by instrumenting the historic intensity of the slave trade by the historic distance from the coast of the respondent’s ancestors, controlling for the respondent’s current distance from the coast. We undertake a number of falsification exercises, all of which suggest that the necessary exclusion restrictions are likely satisfied. We then show that much of the relationship between the slave trade and an individual’s level of trust today cannot be explained by the slave trade’s effect on factors external to the individual, such as domestic institutions or the legal environment. Instead, the evidence shows that a significant portion of the effects of the slave trade work through vertically transmitted factors that are internal to the individual, such as cultural norms of behavior, beliefs and values.

You can read the whole paper here. It's a great example of good political science: it is empirically rigorous, takes the question of causation seriously, incorporates elements of culture, and is morally engaged. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Burning down the House

My old house in Sackville, NB burnt down Sunday. There is a video here. It was a grand old place. I had a room on the side one year and then the big room at the front for two years. We had great guys above us and even better ladies below. And now it's a big pile of ash, I guess. Things come, things go, but this one stings a little.

In other news, I am taking a faculty job at the UofT beginning January 1, 2010.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Basic Elements

My great friend, Maskull Lasserre, is a noisemaker in this week's Montreal Mirror. You can read about his work here. He is a sculptor who fashions pieces from the simplest elements. He calls them artifacts of some time and place. I've always thought of them as snapshots of, if not his mind, then at least his curiosity. His work is worth a good and long look. And if you're ever looking for a partner in adventure he can handle a canoe and a hatchet like no other

Working in between heartbeats

Willard Wigan thinks he may be the most patient man on earth. I agree. Wigan creates sculptures in the eye of a needle. It bears repeating: in the eye of a needle. His work is so small and delicate that he can only work between heartbeats, lest he pulse destroy a creation. You can read about him here and here. Or you can watch the great report here. His interview is absolutely touching.