Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Response to Tony Clement

I received a direct message on twitter from Minister Clement, but no matter how I try I can't respond via DM because Tony doesn't follow me (which hurts me deeply). I would have preferred not to send this publicly, but I see no other way. At least nobody actually reads this blog anyway. Since the coherence of the response would have been lost in twitter I've decided to post it here.

Minister Clement,

I am not a partisan, I've voted for both the PCs and Liberals in the past and I'm not committed to either. I became active (even if only tweeting anonymously) after the census issue began to blow up. I don't really care about what questions are asked and how many answer them. However, I am worried about a pattern of anti-intellectualism emerging out of the populist resurgence we're experience. I am not accusing you or the government of anti-intellectualism. However, I do expect you as part of the establishment to guard against it and defend the principles of evidence-based policy.

Instead, I heard you disregarding and even misrepresenting expert advice. I'm not concerned about the think-tankers and usual partisan suspects, you've seemingly made mainstream academia your enemy. Despite the jokes academia is a tough world and I respect those who rise to the top. It worries me when the government is dismissing men like Stephen Gordon as a part of some amorphous liberal elite with an axe to grind. I'm a regular reader of his Worthwhile Canadian Initiative blog and the only contentious arguments I remember him writing are crticisms of the minimum wage, hardly a Liberal talking point. I know the line between opinion and fact can be ambiguous, but I expect my government to defer to a preponderence of genuine expert advice.

As I said above, I've voted PC before and I'd like to be able to again. However, I need a platform that's been developed to pragmatically pursue important policy outcomes. Unfortunately, all I'm seeing this summer are cynical tactics aimed to exploit specific demographics. I remember a time when the greatest complaint about Canadian politics was that in practice all the parties were the same and governed from the center. Was there really something wrong with that?

I'm sorry if my tweets have been vicious, I'm just venting steam. Take comfort that I'm just a little guy who's tweets nobody cares about.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Issues I Care About

With election speculation on the upswing I thought it would be fun to go over what issues I think the election should (but probably won't) be fought over.

Issues I think are important:

1. The Census: Yes, we all know that the census is perhaps the most boring, unsexy issue known to man. However, it's directly related to two of the most pressing questions Canada faces: Can Canada tolerate ideological based policy making as a substitute for evidence-based policy? And Can Canada adapt was the world economy continues to change.

The first part is straight forward and has been covered elsewhere in detail. The second has been discussed briefly, but I think is equally important. My exposure to census data (admittedly it was mostly US census data) has been principly tied to market research. If I have just gotten myself a shiny new provisional patent for a new niche technology I need to know how many units I can expect to sell before I can really begin to pursue venture capital investment. Depending on what I'm developing I may need to know about things like the housing stock which is either directly, or indirectly measured by the long form census.

The key point is: in this scenario I'm just an ordinary scientist/engineer with some seed funding, a few colleagues/students helping out and maybe some support from a University commercialization department. I don't have a lot of expertise or access to expensive market research operations. However, I do need basic, but reliable estimates on the potential markets to secure further funding. IMPORTANTLY: It's that further funding part that has been a chronic problem for Canadian start-ups. We just don't do it very well here and nobody really knows why. Denying start-ups the data they need from StatsCan is only going to make the problem worse.

2. Copyright: Again, this issue seems boring, but it should be salient to many voters if the parties get their communications right. Right now C-32 isn't a horrible bill, or at least it wouldn't be if the digital lock provisions didn't trivialize all of the consumer protections contained therein. Everyone owns and iPhone, or a DVR, or uses digital media in some form in their daily lives. This is an issue I think the apathetic majority could get behind. It can also faciliate dialogue on what the real policy goal of our IP regime is (hint: it should be encouraging technological innovation, not creating a market for cheesy pop songs-Justin Bieber, that means you).

3. Afghanistan: We went in because there was an attack on a NATO ally. The debate isn't about whether we should have participated, it needs to be about why we continue to participate. It would be a laudable achievement were Afghanistan to become a stable democracy, but is that really something we can achieve. We need to be wary of a trap similar to "American Exceptionalism" and begin discussing what the limits of our capabilities are and where they should be used.

4. Drug Policy: Let me be clear, drugs are bad. Experimenting with them is among the stupidest things you can do. I've never touched them, not even pot, not even cigarettes. I'm not pot activist. However, we need to step back and look at the problem with less emotion. Pot has a negative effect on you, it can lead to impaired driving, but the effects appear to be temporary. It's a lot like alcohol. Our anti-tobacco policies have been very successful in reducing smoking rates, why not start applying it to other undesirable substances. The real problem with drugs is the criminal enterprises that surround it. Why not just replace it with a regulated industry. Nobody will ever describe Phillip Morris as a saintly organization, but I'd rather live with it than street gangs.

Issues that aren't important and should be left alone:

1. F-35: The furour comes down to whether there was adequate competition. Having worked in the public sector, I, along with everyone else, can say that the governments' bidding processes don't necessarily lead to the best purchasing decisions. We can all think of times when the lowest bidder was just a lousy contracter and everyone knew it. The JSF program was rigorous and Canada should be trying to standardize with the US. Finally, if we're going to maintain a fighter capability that's one area where we really do need the best. If it ever comes to the point where we need to use it an obsolete aircraft is no better than no aircraft at all.

2. Gun Registry: People with guns hate this program viscerally. Activists love it. The rest of us just don't care. Without some kind of solid evidence that it's reducing gun crime or achieving some other valuable goal I think it's time to just let it die.

3. Abortion: I have a view on this, but I'm not going to state it because after I do any responses will degenerate into a vicious flame war. No matter what anyone says or does the status quo will prevail, let's just leave it alone.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Copyright Reform Meets the Census Fiasco

Copyright reform is a boring, unsexy, but important issue. Just like the long form census.

Today they intersected. The government has censored the notice of Munir Sheikh's noisy exit (as seen above, posted by Statistics Canada at and replaced it with a brief not that they will not comment on the issue.

I can post a copy of the original because I'm protected by the principles of fair dealing. However, if bill C-32 is passed intact the government can prevent us all from doing so by hiding embarassing news releases like the above by some form of digital lock. That would be bad for democracy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Michael Ignatieff and the Long Form Census

Since he entered the Canadian political fray Michael Ignatieff's image has always been that of an academic. His opponent's have used that image to paint him as a foreigner, as somebody who isn't passionate about the Canadian nation. The Liberal party has chosen to fight this message on their opponents terms, driving through rural Canada on a bus tour. My problem with the Liberal strategy is that it implicitly concedes that there's a stigma to being an academic.

The truth is that there's nothing wrong with being an academic. Populists use elite as a slur, but it truly refers to these people who have excelled in their specific field. There is nothing dishonourable about research, there's nothing dishonourable teaching and there's nothing dishonourable about expressing expert opinion. Ironically, those commentators who hold meritocracy as a core belief are the ones impugning people who have objectively proven themselves as Canada's best and brightest.

Michael Ignatieff is one of them. He is undoubtedly a part of the elite. He has dedicated a significant portion of his career to scholarship. Nobody could get through the many tedious years of research and writing to achieve his position if they did not have strong belief in the value of their work. Michael Ignatieff must value the work of researchers in all fields, he must have a personal connection to them.

The academy is under attack. Without consultation the government has crippled a key data source for a wide array of social science and business researchers. Even if Michael Ignatieff is the distant visitor some paint him as he must empathize with the Canadian academics hurt by this assault. He was one of them.

At a time when people are calling him disingenuous now is the opportunity to express his feelings from the heart. This is the chance to show Canada who the real Michael Ignatieff is. This is the chance to sincerely express the fundamental principles on which an Ignatieff government would operate. The census debate is his opportunity, it's time to exploit it.

As I write this there's a dog-eared copy of Blood and Belonging sitting on my desk. It's a work exploring serious issues where opponents hold strong opinions. However, the author doesn't pontificate; he doesn't try to slip someone up with some rhetorical trick. He travels to witness the reality of the problem first hand. He investigates the motives and actions on both sides before forming any conclusions.

In a Canada where key policy decisions are made unilaterally by political operatives; in a Canada where policy is being made based upon ideology instead of evidence we need a leader like the author of Blood and Belonging. We need an academic who offers conclusions only after careful deliberation and consideration of the evidence. We need the real Michael Ignatieff.

Michael: step out of that bus, embrace your identity and stand up for yourself and for Canada.