Partnering for Successful Aboriginal Economic Development: Lessons Learned and Best Practices

Last week, I was in Sydney, Nova Scotia, at a conference called, “Partnering for Successful Economic Development: Lessons Learned and Best Practices.”  The primary goal of this conference was to “profile best practices in Cape Breton, such as the Unama’ki Model for collaborative economic development and Eskasoni Cultural Journeys, and provide a forum to discuss issues related to the creation and maintenance of successful development partnerships. “ Participants were mainly practitioners and Aboriginal students, with a small number of academics invited to provide a national or international perspective on the various issues raised.

The conference was really interesting in a number of respects.  Continue reading

First, the students who attended were very involved in the formal and informal discussions, and were keen to seek advice on how to be successful in starting their own businesses and creating political change in their home communities.  So, unlike the typical academic conference, there was a general feeling that perhaps some of the ideas at this conference might have a small, but significant impact in the real world and wider community.

Second, we got to hear and see first hand some of the great things happening at Membertou First Nation, a very innovative and exciting First Nation in terms of economic development.  Driving onto the reserve was a real eye opener in terms of the variety of successful economic development initiatives they have pursued successfully, and the quality of life on the community.  According to conference participants, the keys to their success were many of the same factors indentified in the academic literature, including:

(a) building internal and external credibility with band members, federal/provincial/municipal governments, and non-Aboriginal businesses through initiatives like posting information publicly, achieving ISO 9000 designation, and getting rid of long-lingering debt;

(b) establishing an internal economy and infrastructure even if some infrastructure was unlikely to be profitable for a long time. In the case of Membertou, building a convention centre helped them to attract partners and investments to build a hotel, gas station, entertainment centre, and heritage centre, among other things;

(c) building capacity by identifying the various strengths that existing band members in the community had and involving them in economic development planning and other activities, and;

d) framing economic development projects in terms of how they benefit both Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals, which was crucial for attracting financial support and partnerships with non-Aboriginal governments and businesses.

Lots of other interesting ideas were discussed at the conference.  Although there was some debate, the conference participants were in general agreement that partnerships with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples were crucial for facilitating economic development on-reserves.  The key is to make sure economic development is grounded in community goals and strengths, and to work with partners who want to achieve outcomes that benefit both communities.

Overall, I think the ideas at this conference will be useful for Aboriginal communities that are located close to cities and towns.  To what extent these ideas can help remote communities, however, is far less clear.

Nonetheless, an interesting conference.

A nasty election, devoid of substance

Published on Oct. 29, 2012, in The Waterloo Record.

This United States presidential election has been dominated by two emotions, both of them negative.

One is disappointment in Barack Obama. The other is discomfort with Mitt Romney.

It’s been a nasty election, one singularly devoid of intelligent substance. So perhaps it is appropriate that disappointment and discomfort should be determining factors. Continue reading

These emotions are not likely to sway core supporters of either party, although they may cause some of them to stay at home on election day. The effect is felt primarily among “independent” voters, those who do not identify with either party.

In 2008, Obama and Joe Biden won the national popular vote by 7.2 percentage points over Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin. That hefty margin was built on an eight-point edge among independent voters. That advantage is long gone. Today, according to the Gallup organization, Romney and his running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, lead Obama/Biden by 10.6 points among independents.

This does not necessarily point to a Republican victory next week (there are still more registered Democrats than Republicans), but it does presage a desperately close election.  As of Sunday, Real Clear Politics, a website that aggregates the major national polls, had Romney marginally ahead in the national popular vote – 47.9 per cent to 47.0 per cent.  But it also had Obama slightly ahead in the struggle to get to 270 Electoral College votes, the magic number needed to win the White House. RCP gave Obama 201 electoral votes to 191 for Romney with 146 votes parked in states that were deemed too close to call.

Another poll aggregator, FiveThirtyEight (named after the total number of Electoral College votes), was a bit kinder to Obama. It gave him the edge in popular support (50.3 per cent to 48.7). It projected Obama/Biden would win a narrow victory in the Electoral College with 295.5 to 242.5 for Romney/Ryan.

The outcome will be determined by what the backroom pros call their “ground game” – their ability to identify and target their own sympathizers and to get them to the polls.

The ground game is doubly important this year because of the way the campaign has unfolded. Romney did not exactly burst out of the Republican primaries on the crest of a wave of public enthusiasm. He won the nomination because he was the least disreputable of a motley collection of libertarians, clowns and wingnuts. (Do you recall Rick Perry, the Texas governor who couldn’t remember which federal agencies he wanted to abolish, or Newt Gingrich, who thought it would be a neat idea to attack Iran?)

Romney won the nomination by pandering to the extreme right and disowning his own moderately progressive (for a Republican) record as governor of Massachusetts. Since then, he has crawled back toward the centre, more or less – leaving voters confused or uncertain about his true intentions.

Is he a moderate or a closet ideologue? Can this rich man relate to middle-class Americans? He tries to look presidential, but somehow he falls short. He looks more on edge than authoritative. Can ordinary voters feel comfortable with a man who seems uncomfortable in his own skin? Can they picture him in the Oval Office? His momentum after the first debate it has dissipated.

As for Obama, when he blew the first debate, he lost his lead and any momentum he might have had. He’s been playing catch-up ever since, and not very successfully. He badly underestimated the economic distress that ordinary families are feeling and the extent to which they blame him and his policies. Their disappointment is palpable every time an interviewer asks a citizen, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” The answer is always “No.”

Obama won four years ago with a message of hope: “This election is our chance to give the American people a reason to believe again. … Don’t tell me we can’t change. Yes, we can. …  Yes, we can heal this nation.”

Americans don’t believe him anymore, which is why Obama is in peril of losing to a mediocrity like Mitt Romney.

Assorted Links: Prorogation, Professors, Online Education, and Publishing

1. Peter Loewen’s excellent analysis of McGuinty’s decision to prorogue the Ontario Legislature.

And here’s an excellent defence of prorogation.

2. Emmett Macfarlene corrects a number of fundamental myths about what professors do.

3. A new online university education model?

4. “I’m pleased to announce that Mathgen has had its first randomly-generated paper accepted by a reputable journal!”

5. “Just had your paper rejected? Don’t worry — that might boost its ultimate citation tally.”

LISPOP Associate comments on Dalton McGuinty’s resignation

LISPOP Associate Barry Kay interviewed on Oct. 16, 2012 on CTV News.

“I predicted that Dalton McGuinty would not be on the next ballot, when on the last provincial election he failed to get a majority. There have been opportunities since too, as he had a shot in the by-election in Kitchener-Waterloo.”

Watch Full Interview

McGuinty makes a very messy exit

Published on Oct. 22, 2012, in The Waterloo Record.

Looking back, it seems clear that Dalton McGuinty would be carrying on as premier of Ontario if only his Liberals had won that darned byelection in Kitchener-Waterloo last month. Continue reading

He would have his majority back. He be able to deal with the opposition parties from a position of recovered strength. He would be able to get his budgets passed without having to cut a deal with the NDP or Conservatives. He would have been able to jam his controversial public sector wage freeze legislation through the Legislature without fear that it would bring down his government. He would have been able to get the explosive hydro plant scandal off the agenda by appointing a judicial inquiry and burying the scandal there for a couple of years (as Stephen Harper did with the Airbus scandal).

He would have been back in the catbird seat, if not master of all he surveyed, at least master of enough to see his government through for another year or two. Perhaps long enough to enable the Grits to find their way again – and for McGuinty either to call an election on his own timing or, more likely, to retire from public life on his own terms.

But it was not to be. McGuinty miscalculated, grossly. He misread the mood of the KW electorate. The Liberals ran a woeful third in a seat they could have won. The jig was up. With blood in the water at Queen’s Park, the sharks closed in.

It would be hard to imagine any political leader essaying a messier exit than McGuinty. He has resigned as Liberal leader, but will continue as lame-duck leader of a lame-duck government until his successor is chosen early next year. In the meantime, the Legislature is padlocked. Stealing a page from that artful dodger, the prime minister, McGuinty has prorogued the Legislature for an indefinite period.

The stated reason is to create a cooling-off period while he negotiates a resolution to the public service impasse. The real reason is to deny opposition members an amplifier with which to yammer away about the hydro scandal while the Ontario Liberals hunt for someone brave (or foolhardy) enough to take over this battered and now discredited party.

So is McGuinty going to seek the vacant leadership of the federal Liberal party? Hah! Not a chance.

Why would the nine-year premier of Canada’s largest province want to lead the third party in Ottawa? Besides, he couldn’t win. The Liberals, who have never chosen a provincial premier as their leader in Ottawa, need a new face with new ideas, not an old face with tons of old baggage.

A personal note. Lincoln Alexander, who died last week at age 90, was one of the good guys of Canadian politics. He was a trail-blazer: the son of a railway porter and hotel maid, he braved considerable racial prejudice en route to becoming the first black member of Parliament, first black federal cabinet minister, first black lieutenant governor in Canada, and the long-serving chancellor of the University of Guelph.

I got to know Linc in his days as an MP. He was invariably good natured, outgoing, utterly without pretense, and enthusiastic about whatever he was doing that day. I hadn’t seen him for a few years until one evening when the Globe and Mail was giving a black-tie dinner in Toronto to mark some forgotten (and forgettable) occasion. As managing editor, I was posted in the lobby of the King Eddy to welcome head table guests.

Linc was lieutenant governor then. This large black figure burst into the hotel lobby, peeled away from his uniformed escorts, rushed past the startled VIPs in tuxedos, grabbed my hand, beamed, and demanded, loudly enough to be heard in Hamilton: “Geoff, you old S.O.B.! Why the hell have they got you dressed up like a penguin?”

For once, I was at a loss for words. That was Linc, and I will miss him.

Prorogation Protests?

Like this author, I too am waiting for the same media and other commentators who slammed Harper’s prorogations in 2008 and 2009 to do the same to McGuinty’s recent decision.  I look forward to receiving the letter that must be circulating among academics as we speak, condemning McGuinty’s decision to prorogue the Ontario legislative assembly.

Are you ready for “President Romney?”

Published on Oct. 15, 2012, in The Waterloo Record and The Guelph Mercury.

Anyone who had predicted even a few weeks ago that Mitt Romney would be president of the United States after November would have been laughed out of the Venerable Guild of Pundits, Pollsters and Political Hangers-On.

They are not laughing today. Continue reading

A Romney victory is becoming a distinct possibility. Barack Obama’s once-comfortable lead is gone. It began to evaporate with his leaden performance in the first debate two weeks ago. One week ago, Real Clear Politics, a website that aggregates the major national polls, showed Obama reduced to a wafer-thin one percentage point lead.

The strong showing by Joe Biden in the vice-presidential debate – I thought he was better informed and more passionate than Paul Ryan – may have slowed the movement to the Republicans, but it did not arrest it. By the start of this week (Sunday), Real Clear Politics had Obama/Biden trailing Romney/Ryan by 1.4 points.

(For comparison, at very same point in the 2008 election campaign, aggregated polls had Obama and Biden 7.6 points ahead of Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin.)

Projections of Electoral College votes must have Democrats tearing their hair. A week ago, Real Clear Politics projected that, despite his post-debate loss of momentum, Obama would take 251 Electoral College votes – just 19 shy of the 270 needed to win – compared to 181 for Romney while states with 106 votes were rated too close to call.

This week, the projected Obama total is down to 201. Romney is up marginally, to 191, while states that seemed probable for Obama are now considered toss-ups, bringing the too-close-to-call category to 146.

Eleven “battleground” states will determine the outcome. They are (with electoral votes in parenthesis): Colorado (9); Florida (29); Iowa (6); Michigan (16); Nevada (6); New Hampshire (4); North Carolina (15); Ohio (18); Pennsylvania (20); Virginia (13); Wisconsin (10)Obama needs a minimum of 69 electoral votes out of this collection to make it to 270 and a second term in the White House. The calculations shift daily with the polls, but the savants of the afore-mentioned Venerable Guild of Pundits, Etc., Etc., reckon that Obama still has a better chance than Romney of reaching the magic 270.Most eyes this week are on Ohio with its 18 electoral votes – the theory being that if the Democrats can win rust-belt Ohio, they can also take Michigan and Pennsylvania. Like Michigan, Ohio benefited enormously from Obama’s bailout of the auto industry.

But gratitude only goes so far. In the 2008 election, Obama/Biden took Ohio by a margin of 4.6 percentage points. It looks like a closer call this time. Real Clear Politics has Obama/Biden leading in Ohio by just 1.7 points – 48 per cent to 46.3. Too close to call!

That first debate has had a greater influence than any previous leaders’ debate in U.S. politics. But there is more to it than that. Thanks in part to Romney’s debate performance, Republicans (and some swing voters) are looking at their candidate through new eyes. He doesn’t seem as wimpish as he did in the primaries. He seems more assured of himself and expresses himself more articulately. Those Republicans who feared he was too liberal, have been reassured by the performance of Ryan, a Tea Party darling, as his running mate.

Democrats don’t know what to make of Obama. Did he simply have a bad night in the first debate? Or is there less to him than his supporters had believed? Did they make a mistake four years ago? Is he up to another four years in the White House?

We’ll have a better idea in the next seven or eight days. The second presidential debate is scheduled for Tuesday this week at Hofstra University on Long Island and third and final one will be the following Monday in crucial Florida.

The situations are reversed now. All Romney has to do to preserve momentum is hold his own. Obama has to win. He can’t afford to lose again if he wants to win in November.

Why do Governments Advertise?

I ask this question because a federal government advertising campaign is underway touting the federal government’s Economic Action Plan (see here).
Jonathan Rose had quite a few reasons in his book Making Pictures In Our Heads. From memory, a few he listed were administrative reasons, policy reasons and political reasons. The first is almost never controversial; if anything, governments get into trouble when they don’t engage in this kind of advertising. Under this category are things like notices of regulatory hearings and job advertisements. The second can become controversial depending on how and when it’s done, but, changing citizen behaviour via persuasion is a perfectly legitimate – even efficient – policy tool. Policy mechanisms such as regulation and taxation are other tools, but have their own disadvantages. An example here is the constant government advertising campaigns to remind you to get your flu shot or to stop smoking.

Continue reading

Then there are the political reasons. What I mean here by “political” is roughly synonymous with “electoral;” in these cases, governments advertise to try to improve their standings in public opinion and their chances at the next election. These kinds of advertising campaigns are curious beasts for many reasons. First, no government ever openly says that they are advertising politically: rather they cloak their justifications by saying that the advertising campaigns belong in one of the first two categories, or they often talk about “engaging” citizens in a form of “dialogue.” They are also curious beasts because often, even when governments engage in perfectly legitimate advertising campaigns of the first two types, members of the opposition and the media often simply deny that’s the case and argue that the real motivation for the advertising campaign is political. Whether an advertising campaign properly belongs in the “political” category or in the more acceptable policy or regulatory category is effectively a political question (and here I’m using the term in a sense that is much broader than just electoral). In effect, an advertising campaign becomes political if the media, the opposition and citizens succeed in making it political.

But the advertising campaigns are curious for a third reason, namely, they tend not to work. Federal government expenditures on advertising are listed on the chart below.

Advertising and public opinion

From a high in 2002-2003, advertising dropped dramatically, in large part because of the reaction generated by the sponsorship scandal (which was, you will recall, primarily about corruption in the field of government advertising). The federal government at that time reduced and then put a temporary moratorium on government advertising. With that moratorium lifted, the federal Conservatives started to increase spending on advertising fairly quickly. The Conservatives attribute the increase in 2009-2010 to an ad campaign about the H1N1 virus and the recession and the accompanying stimulus package (the Economic Action Plan). Are those legitimate? That’s just a political question. I take no position on the matter.

But it’s curious to note the second line on the chart, which charts public satisfaction with the federal government in the Environics Focus Canada series. Specifically, it’s the proportion of respondents who were either “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with the federal government in the quarter immediately following the fiscal year in which the expenditures occurred. The idea here is to see if one fiscal year’s expenditures is correlated with public sentiment following that fiscal year.

It looks to me like there really isn’t any kind of correlation. The Liberals slashed government spending between 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 with no corresponding drop in sentiment the following year. The Conservatives increased spending in their first year in office (2006-2007) but their popularity went down – sharply – the following year. Then, between 2007 and 2009, government advertising moderated a little bit, but there was a sharp rebound in sentiment toward the Conservative government.

This is really rough data. It would be better to include all the quarterly data from the question, but the point is, I think a solid one. Government advertising in one year doesn’t guarantee improved public sentiment in the quarter following that fiscal year. There are lots of reasons for this. One of them is the newspaper story I linked to at the top, i.e. launching government advertising campaigns when they lack public support creates their own opposition that probably drowns out any gain a government might make in convincing citizens that they’re “doing a great job!” There are other reasons as well and I stumbled across five of them in a very interesting report in the Provincial Archives of Alberta during my dissertation research. It was written by Frank Calder, then the head of the Alberta’s government public affairs agency and it was meant for incoming premier Don Getty in 1985. He was warning the new premier not to heed advice by people within his own government that the party’s dwindling public support in the wake of Lougheed’s resignation could be improved by more aggressive government advertising. Calder argued this wouldn’t work because:

  1. There was a raw limit to the number of government programmes that could be promoted
  2. people don’t actually care all that much about what the government is doing
  3. It’s better to have programs in place that helps citizens get the information they want, when they want it, rather than hitting them with advertising campaigns
  4. that money for promotion is tight in situations when governments are tightening their belts
  5. and that the best way to “sell” something is to not look like you’re “selling” it at all.

Calder is an interesting guy. He was one of Peter Lougheed’s long-time advisors and a senior civil servant in the Alberta government. Today, he heads a leading Alberta advertising agency, Calder Bateman. And the advice he gave Don Getty in 1985 was sage; advice that the federal Conservatives would do well to follow.

I started this post with a question: Why do governments advertise? There are lots of prosaic reasons why they do, political reasons are among them. But the question is also a rhetorical one, not meant to be answered, given evidence that government advertising has a limited capacity to sway people to your political position. In that sense, I really wonder: why do governments advertise?

Romney makes a race to the centre

Published on Oct. 10, 2012, in The Waterloo Record.

One can sympathize with the dilemma that had befallen Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

He is a political candidate who has been on virtually every side of every significant American issue: abortion, gun control, gay rights, global warming, illegal immigration, and most notably the individual mandate-based health care system that the former Massachusetts governor introduced in his state but now opposes nationally.

As the Republican party moved ever rightward under the pressure of the tea party and conservative evangelical Christians, a moderate Republican governor from the liberal state of Massachusetts couldn’t be nominated without abandoning wholesale the positions he had taken to get him elected there in the first place. Read more…

The Flipped Classroom: Can First Year Students Learn and Apply Rational Choice and Game Theory?

As I’ve blogged about here previously, several weeks ago I used the flipped classroom technique to teach my first year seminar students about the “state of nature” and its utility (or lack thereof) for analyzing politics.  The results were exciting and astounding!

The following two weeks, however, were going to be different because I would be introducing my first year students to rational choice and game theory.  In my experience, and even at the graduate level, students tend to have a hard time grasping the basic concepts contained in these theoretical approaches so I figured these weeks would be a good test of the pedagogy.

So what happened? Continue reading

In the first week, I asked the students to read a chapter from Tom Flanagan’s Game Theory and Canadian Politics, and a short excerpt on social cooperation and the Prisoner’s Dilemma from an introductory textbook. Then they completed an online quiz before class that asked them to: a) provide an example, either from the news or from your own personal experiences, that illustrates and supports any TWO of the following rational choice assumptions: methodological individualism; ordinal vs. cardinal utility; self-interest; and perfect information); b) provide an example, either from the news or from your own personal experiences, that illustrates the prisoner’s dilemma; and c) What did you find most confusing about the readings this week? Using their answers, I wrote two short, mini-lectures on rational choice and game theory, spending most of my time going over the concepts with which the students had trouble.

After delivering the rational choice lecture in class, I divided the students into groups of two or three and asked them to apply the tools of rational choice to explain a number of scenarios.  For instance, they had to craft rational choice explanations of teenage pregnancy, immigration policy; white collar vs. blue collar crime, and an instance of collective action involving community and university actors.  We then took up their answers as a group.

In the first few scenarios, students had trouble developing rational choice explanations for these situations.  What became clear to me very quickly, however, was that they needed some guidance about HOW to apply the theory to the various scenarios.  After some brief explanations about how they might do this, the quality of the group work improved quickly.

After a short break, I began the class with a mini lecture on game theory, again emphasizing the concepts that the students seem to have trouble with in their quiz answers.  After the lecture, I divided the class into groups of three and asked them to solve a particular game theory puzzle.  We plotted their answers on the board and then discussed their answers and what rational choice and game theory would predict.  We then watched the opening bank robbery scene from The Dark Knight, which was similar to the puzzle they had just solved, and I asked the students in their groups to use rational choice and game theory to make sense of what happened to each of the robbers.  We then took up their answers with the larger group.

Finally, we divided up into pairs to play the ultimatum game, first by dividing $10, and then dividing $100.  After plotting their results on the board, I summarized the main experimental findings in the economics literature, before facilitating a discussion about the significance of the results. I then dismissed the class.

A week later, we watched the movie, Return to Paradise, in class.  The movie is in essence, a prisoner’s dilemma.  Midway through the movie, I stopped the film and sketched out, in normal form, the game being played out in the movie.  Before restarting the movie, the class and I worked through the various solutions to the game, varying our assumptions about the players’ preferences and preference structures.  The point here was to show how rational actors should behave, given the scenario presented in the movie. We then watched the rest of the movie.

At the end of the movie, we discussed the following questions: Does rational choice and game theory explain what happened in the movie? Or does this movie provide strong evidence that these theories are not useful when applied to real life situations?

The ensuing discussion was amazing!  The students debated the questions using the language of rational choice and game theory.  They debated whether the rat choice/game theory assumptions about utility maximization, transitive and intransitive preference, and expected vs. actual utility, were successful in accounting for the behaviour of the various characters in the movie. The result was an intelligent and vigorous debate in which students showed that they understood the theories, how they could be applied to various situations, and what some of the strengths and weaknesses were of these approaches.  One student even commented about how rational choice is a post-hoc theory, which is criticism of rational choice and game theory that my students in other classes rarely ever find on their own.

Bottom line: this flipped classroom approach works. Students learn and can apply that learning to various situations and to critical debates.  Next week we tackle, structure and agency, and the role of institutions. Stay tuned.

E-Textbooks

The Globe and Mail reports:

“The California senator is the author of a bill that promises to make required textbooks free online to thousands of students. His bill, which was signed by the governor and becomes law in January, asks the state and private sponsors to finance 50 digital textbooks that first- and second-year students generally use. …. “We always think of new technology being more expensive. But in the case of college textbooks, the highest cost is actually attached to the centuries-old technology of a printed book,” he said.”

In principle, this is a great idea.  But there are all sorts of potential problems with this particular scheme, mainly because its a top-down approach to digitizing textbooks.  Instead, what needs to happen is for university professors to start writing open source, e-textbooks, which are cost-effective, easy to update, and open to students and the general public.   That way, you avoid a variety of problems that stem from the top-down approach, such as how to choose which textbooks to fund, and to avoid the kind of rent-seeking that is common to these types of bills.

Capitalism, Genocide, and Genocide Denial: The Case of Pol Pot

According to Israel Shamir in Counterpunch,

“New Cambodia (or Kampuchea, as it was called) under Pol Pot and his comrades was a nightmare for the privileged, for the wealthy and for their retainers; but poor people had enough food and were taught to read and write. As for the mass killings, these are just horror stories, averred my Cambodian interlocutors.  Surely the victorious peasants shot marauders and spies, but many more died of American-planted mines and during the subsequent Vietnamese takeover, they said.”

Rather than taking on this post myself, I asked my colleague, Dr. Howard-Hassman, Canada Research Chair and our country’s top expert on genocide and international human rights, to respond, and she does so here. Among many of her great counter, counter-punches, she writes:

“I have a question for the editors of Counterpunch. There’s plenty to criticize about capitalism and globalization …. But why also publish genocide denial? Even if every person who was murdered, tortured to death, or died of starvation or dehydration in Cambodia from 1975 to79 had been a blood-sucking capitalist, it would still be genocide. You’re not allowed to engage in the mass murder of any social group.”

Amen.

Momentum is shifting to Mitt Romney

Published Oct. 9, 2012, in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

In every political race, there are two key elements: expectations and momentum. Both are at play in the United States in the wake of last week’s surprising debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Continue reading

Prior to the debate, two-thirds of Americans (according to pollsters) expected President Obama to make mincemeat of his Republican challenger. It didn’t happen. Obama not only lost the debate by any objective measure, more importantly he fell far short of the public’s expectations. Meanwhile, Romney, who had been widely regarded pre-debate as a rich but naïve klutz, vastly exceeded low expectations.

As a result, momentum shifted. Obama, who had been gaining strength until last week (ahead by four to six points in several polls), lost his momentum. Polls taken within 24 hours of the debate showed Romney had narrowed the gap to about two points. By yesterday, other polls were showing the two candidates in a dead heat.

There’s a new perception that the United States is in for an extremely close election, perhaps a cliff-hanger on Nov. 6. Real Clear Politics, a poll aggregator, puts Obama in the lead nationally, but by just one percentage point. Gallup tracking calls it a tie –47 per cent apiece – while Rasmussen Reports has Romney two points ahead, 49-47.

In the U.S. system, the winner is determined by Electoral College votes, awarded state-by-state, rather by than by national popular vote – hence the importance of the dozen or so “battleground” states. It is entirely possible to win the election while losing the popular vote.

There are 538 Electoral College votes. As of Saturday, an appropriately named poll aggregator called “270 to Win” was projecting 265 Electoral College votes for Obama to 191 for Romney, but 82 votes were deemed a “toss –up.”

Real Clear Politics, in a new projection yesterday, made it Obama: 251; Romney: 181; toss-up: 106.

Jeffrey Jones of the Gallup organization calculates that the debate caused a five percentage point shift in voting intention, from Obama to Romney. A movement of five points is rare in an American election; for it to be driven by a single campaign event – the debate – is remarkable.

Very little of this movement can be attributed to the content, such as it was, of the debate itself. Neither candidate impressed me or others who shared their impressions. I’d be surprised if very many viewers can remember anything significant that was said by either candidate (other, perhaps, than Romney’s bizarre invoking of “Big Bird”). There were no knockout punches, no killer lines, no takedowns of the sort that Brian Mulroney registered against John Turner over patronage (“You had an option, Sir”) in the 1984 Canadian federal election.

In fact, the Obama-Romney debate was so flat that it didn’t produce a single respectable sound bite for political commercials. One U.S. humour columnist reported that millions of Americans had fallen asleep from boredom just minutes into the debate.

What now? The election is Obama’s to lose – and if he performs as poorly as he did last week, he may manage to do that. The next debate is a town-hall format, where the audience questions the candidate. It’s a format that should suit Obama’s style better than last week’s sterile format where a moderator posed all the questions.

Obama needs to go on the attack, something he conspicuously failed to do last week. He’s already started, with a series of commercials attacking Romney’s fiscal plan and the damage the Democrats claim it would do to middle-class families.

Where will the American public set the bar for the rest of the campaign? Will voters’ expectations be as high for Obama and as low for Romney as they were for the first debate? Or will Obama benefit from reduced expectations? Will Romney have to struggle to meet higher expectations than he has encountered to date?

The answers will determine momentum, and the election will go the candidate who can generate it in the final weeks.

Diversity and Corporate Canada

In a recent opinion piece, Ottawa lawyer Catherine McKenna pretty much nails the big problem facing Canadian businesses that hope to compete on the global stage: too often they are led by relics of a bygone (very male, very white, very anglophone) age.

Most Canadian CEOs don’t seem to understand or be able to capitalize on our diverse population. In fact, if you look at the numbers, it’s just the opposite.

The piece is worth a read, and if you’re curious, Catherine is co-president of the Banff Forum, and co-founder of Canadian Lawyers Abroad, both of which try to practice what she preaches in this editorial.

But the editorial isn’t what I want to talk about. No, I want to talk about a particular (and admittedly obscure) response to Catherine’s eminently sensible call for sophisticated and genuine meritocracy in Canadian businesses. Continue reading

In a series of rambling and bizarrely insulting tweets in reply to Catherine’s piece, an Alberta commentator offers the following remark:

Diversity leads to significantly lower levels of trust in society and business, as per Bowling Alone.

Now, why reply to some obscure tweet that gets Robert Putnam wrong? Because I suspect this popularization of his view is widespread, and it does violence to an important and growing body of research here in Canada and elsewhere, on trust, diversity, immigration, and social welfare policies.

Putnam does find strong evidence that, at the community and neighbourhood level, racial diversity correlates with lower levels of self-reported trust and civic engagement (I add “self-reported” because you really have to trust survey research on public opinion to believe the findings. I do, but others are less enthusiastic).

There has been a lot of fruitful debate around Putnam’s ideas and findings in particular, but that aside, what Putnam pointedly does not find is that diversity undermines trust in structured organizations, like, say, the military and evangelical churches. Or firms.

That’s a different question, and here too there is much fascinating research. The findings to date defy easy summary, but an interested reader could do a lot worse than starting with Scott Page‘s recent book on the subject.

A very rough and sweeping gloss on a complex body of research:

  • several dimensions of diversity can be put to good use within organizations
  • diverse groups are often better at solving problems, but
  • the kinds of problems matter, and the kinds of diversity; indeed,
  • one kind of diversity (race, religion, sex) doesn’t necessarily imply others (problem-solving styles, socioeconomic class, moral beliefs), and unfortunately
  • people generally don’t like arguing across differences of class, or deep moral, political, and ideological differences, so if there are gains to be found from that sort of diversity, the road may be rough, even treacherous (but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t travel the path, if the benefits outweigh the risks).

But the takeaway lesson here? Catherine pretty much nails it in her editorial, and Robert Putnam’s work doesn’t suggest otherwise.