Does Canada really need fighter jets?

Published June 30, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

“Canada does not need fighter aircraft! Buying them would waste upward of $45-billion.” – C.R. (Buzz) Nixon, former deputy minister of national defence, letter to the Globe and Mail, June 27, 2014.

Someone in the addled world of Ottawa should pay heed to Buzz Nixon. He knows whereof he speaks, having been the deputy defence minister the last time the government went shopping for fighter aircraft. It was on Nixon’s watch that the government of the day (Trudeau Liberal) decided in 1977 that it had to replace Canada’s aging war planes — the single-engine CF-104 Starfighter, based in Europe with NATO (and known among pilots, unfondly, as “The Widowmaker”) and the twin-engine CF-101 Voodoo, based in Canada and assigned to continental defence under the NORAD umbrella.

The policy-makers of Nixon’s day wanted several things. They wanted one aircraft to replace both the Starfighter and the Voodoo; that would help to keep the price and operating costs down. They wanted an off-the-shelf model with proven capability. They wanted an aircraft with two engines for the sake of reliability and pilot safety on long-distance patrols across the North and over the oceans off our coasts.
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With a budget of roughly $2.4 billion, Nixon’s people went shopping for 130 to 150 new fighters. They organized a competition. Six aircraft makers from the United States and Europe made pitches, offering a total of seven models. By 1978 (things moved more quickly in those days), the government had a short list of three aircraft from which it selected the McDonnell Douglas Hornet, which became the CF-18. It ended up buying 138 of them for $4 billion (prices in the military sector have a quicksilver quality); that works out to about $9 billion in today’s dollars.

Fast forward a generation. The CF-18, which proved to be an excellent choice, is nearing the end of its service life. Since it came to office in 2006, the Harper government has been stewing over a replacement.

It doesn’t know what it wants. Not having a thought-out defence policy, it doesn’t know what sort of military aircraft Canada may need for the future. It doesn’t even know, as Buzz Nixon suggests, whether Canada needs fighter aircraft at all.

Common sense suggests that the policy come first, then a determination of the need — if any — for fighter aircraft, then a competition be held to select the aircraft that would best serve the policy objectives. Not knowing their own mind, the Harper Conservatives listened to all the vested interests who whispered (or shouted) into their ear that Canada not only needed new fighter aircraft, but it needed the most sophisticated and expensive warplane in history.

That would be the F-35 Lightning, a single-engine stealth fighter by Lockheed Martin in the United States. It was the choice of the U.S. administration and of what former president Dwight Eisenhower once denounced as the powerful “military-industrial complex” in that in country, which also operates as a potent lobby in Canada.

The Harper government listened and agreed to buy 65 F-35s for a price that it told Canadians would be $16 billion. There were two problems. At the time, the F-35 did not yet exist; the evolution from artist’s concept to fighting machine would be fraught with delays, production problems, performance issues — and wild price inflation (to $45 billion in Buzz Nixon’s informed estimate).

Two years ago, the Tories ordered a review of its F-35 commitment. That review apparently led right back to the F-35, without any competition to confirm the wisdom of the choice. It was reported last week, however, that the prime minister has removed the fighter aircraft decision from the cabinet agenda in order to give ministers more time to digest information and to think about it.

Theirs could be a watershed decision for the country, especially if they address two fundamental questions. First, does Canada really need fighter aircraft? Second, aren’t there much better uses for $45 billion?

The Supreme Court of Canada’s Recent Decision on Aboriginal Title: A Victory for Aboriginal Citizens?

The Supreme Court of Canada released a new ruling on Aboriginal title today.  I am not a legal scholar and so I will leave it to my more learned colleagues to talk about the legal implications and to correct my legal interpretations, but here are some thoughts!

Overall, the decision is important and significant because it advances a number of important legal principles relating to Aboriginal title (the SCC ruling gives a nice summary of the jurisprudence beginning with the Calder decision).

One contribution of this legal decision is that it clarifies and greatly expands how Aboriginal title is to be established and recognized in Canadian law.  Rather than “small, individual settlements” or “fishing rocks”, the SCC’s decision actually allows for the recognition of broad swaths of connected lands as belonging to Aboriginal people! This is a major victory for groups without treaties and gives them significantly more leverage in comprehensive land claims negotiations.  That in of itself, will be interesting to see especially in terms of how that will play out in B.C. (sounds like a topic for a future academic paper! Who’s game?!)
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It also clarifies the nature of ownership that Aboriginal title entails. Briefly, according to this new SCC ruling, Aboriginal title confers upon its owner something akin to fee simple ownership. The main difference, however, is that Aboriginal title is a collective right, not an individual one. As well, due to its collective nature, Aboriginal title means that those lands cannot be used in a manner that renders such lands as unusable by future generations.

This is a significant legal clarification, I think, because it somewhat restricts the ability of Aboriginal governments to provide their consent to massive economic development projects that could do serious harm to community lands.  Basically, this legal decision empowers Aboriginal citizens to check their Aboriginal governments should those governments give their consent to projects that could potentially and significantly harm their lands for future generations.  A significant legal development indeed!

Other than that, the decision also provides stricter guidelines regarding the duty to consult and accommodate, specifying two paths for doing so: acquire Aboriginal consent (subject to the constraints I mention above) or ignore Aboriginal consent if the Crown can show that it has a compelling and substantial political purpose that does not violate its fiduciary duty to Indigenous people.

Anyway, a very interesting decision from the SCC.  For me, the most surprising and unexpected implication of this ruling is the potential empowerment of Indigenous individuals and citizens to hold Aboriginal AND Canadian governments accountable for their decisions involving lands held under Aboriginal title.

Iraq could be headed toward a three-way partition

Published June 26, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Probably the only positive implication of the rapid expansion of Sunni Jihadist territorial gains in western Iraq is that it provides an opportunity for everyone to be correct in casting responsibility for the mess on somebody else.

In truth, everyone is to blame, from the English and French governments that drafted the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916; to the tyrannical Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein; to the George W. Bush administration that overthrew him; to the Barack Obama administration that removed U.S. troops; to the current government of Nouri al-Maliki that has cut out non-Shia involvement; to the Iranians, Saudis and Qataris who have poured in resources to support their co-religionists at the expense of others; to the Europeans who happily ignored the problem and blamed others.

Just as there is nobody free of blame, there is no correct policy to pursue. Whatever strategy is followed is fraught with peril, will likely be unsuccessful, and will undoubtedly further antagonize various of the combatants.

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“I studied so hard for your exam and I still only got a (insert low grade here). What should I do?”

I’m sure many of us teaching at the university level have had this conversation at least once per semester!

Below are some helpful tips on what to say, based on existing research on study habits. I’ve directly quoted an excerpt of the article below (none of the advice is mine!). Continue reading

I also ordered a new book called “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” which draws more on cognitive psychology to reveal successful strategies for teaching and learning.  Some good summer reading, hopefully!  Here’s a Chronicle of Higher Ed article on this new book.  It looks promising!

Teaching Tips

1. Find Out How the Student Has Been Studying. Possible questions include:

Did you read the assigned chapters before the test? Did you read them before you came to class, after, or just before the exam? How much time did you devote to studying for the test? Did you read these chapters once, or more than once? (This question provides a chance to review the old Law of Frequency, and to describe how repetition influences memory formation and recall.)

2. Check Attendance and Note Taking Practices. Assuming that the student attends class regularly, you might ask the following: Do you take good notes? Do you review your notes after class to correct obvious errors? Do you compare your notes with those of other students? Where do you sit in the classroom? You may also want to look at the quality of the student’s notes and suggest changes (e.g., leaving more space, use of topic headings, writing down of examples used by the instructor).

3. Suggest Healthy Behaviors. Ask how much sleep the student gets, how much they got the night before the exam, and if they are getting any exercise and eating properly. (This might provide an opportunity to review the effects of sleep on memory formation.)

4. Recommend Tutoring. If tutors are available, encourage their use. If not, ask if the student has tried studying with other students.

5. Discuss Recognition Versus Knowing. Describe the difference between going over material enough that one can “recognize” the material as very familiar and prematurely conclude that it is known and understood, and really knowing and understanding it. (You might even mention Ebbinghaus and the benefits of overlearning, or work on the “curse of knowledge” showing that students often think they know the material if the material is right there in front of them.)

6. Urge Self-Assessment. One easy strategy is to give your students access to an established and free study behavior measure (e.g., ASSIST) and have them use it to get a sense of what they are not doing (Entwistle, 2009). The ASSIST provides a profile of scores on strategies and alerts students to possible problems in their existing ways of studying (available at http://www.etl.tla.ed.ac.uk/publications.html).

7. Discuss Winning Strategies. Hattie (2009) synthesized research from over 800 meta-analyses relating to educational achievement. He then derived the effect sizes for different interventions. Intervening to improve study behaviors was a significant factor with an effect size of .59. This meta-analysis and other works on study techniques (Gurung, 2004, 2005) show that the following specific strategies are empirically proven to work and hence useful to pass on to students:

  • Schedule daily studying and homework time
  • Make lists of things to accomplish during studying
  • Put off pleasurable events until work is completed
  • Read the textbook (!!)
  • Review the class textbook/assignments before going to class
  • Create mnemonics and vivid mental images to aid learning
  • Memorize the material through repetition
  • Generate examples to apply the material
  • Record information relating to study tasks (e.g., keeping a study log)
  • Self-verbalize the steps to complete a given task
  • Use chapter review questions to self test
  • Use a study partner
  • Review the items missed on the exam, including items guessed at
  • Make an outline before writing a paper
  • Check work before handing in an assignment

8. Advise Students on what NOT to do. Previous research suggests that students take some “dangerous detours”: study techniques that may not be beneficial involving more study time at the expense of other techniques (Gurung, 2004, p. 164). Sadly, such detours could represent behaviors used by academically weaker students. Whereas the academically stronger students may not take time on behaviors such as going over chapters right after a lecture in lieu of doing so right before an exam, the weaker students may go over the chapters at both times. In support of this point, Landrum, Turrisi, and Brandel (2006) found that A and B students tended to increase their frequency of studying as the semester progressed, but they decreased the actual time spent studying per study event (p. 681). (Another testimony to the benefits of distributed vs. massed practice.) Students who are doing poorly may try to improve by doing more of the unsuccessful types of studying they have been doing, rather than trying other techniques. Key behaviors students should avoid are:

  • Spending too much time on key terms or summaries to the extent of paying less attention to other pedagogical aids (e.g., review questions)
  • Highlighting too much text (i.e., not knowing what the important information really is), thus increasing study load
  • Using chapter review questions (and their answers) as more content to study versus using them to test their own knowledge
  • “Studying with a friend” where this does not involve testing each other, taking review questions, creating examples, or reviewing notes
  • Listening to music, watching television, text messaging, or surfing the Internet while studying

9. Assess Your Own Students’ Study Behaviors. Correlate the behaviors with exam scores and identify what behaviors are associated with better scores. Share this with the students to help them modify their study behavior. For example the first author created a 35-item Study Behavior Checklist based on previous research and student interviews (Gurung et al., in press). The items assessed students’ organizational behaviors (e.g., writing down when exams, assignments, and quizzes are due, setting up a study schedule), applicationbehaviors (e.g., creating questions about the material), elaboration behaviors (e.g., paraphrasing the material, explaining it to another person), metacognitive behaviors (e.g., using the book and/or Web site for quizzes), andresource use behaviors (e.g., asking a fellow classmate to explain the material) on a scale ranging from 1 (Not at all like me) to 5 (Exactly like me). Higher exam scores were associated with:

  • Attending class, r(114) = .23, p < .05
  • Answering all questions on the study guide, r(114) = .23, p < .05.
  • Using practice exams to study, r(114) = .24, p < .05.
  • Ability to explain problems using the material, r(114) = .28, p < .01.

10. Do not expect a silver bullet. It is important to bear in mind that there are no strategies that work all of the time, for all students, in all classes. Different exams call for different strategies. It is possible that introductory psychology multiple choice exams require only basic study behaviors, whereas an upper-level essay exam will need different behaviors.

In general, instructors need to be cognizant of how much of the advice they give to students is empirically proven to work in an actual classroom rather than a controlled cognitive psychology laboratory study. Asking students to complete a study skill inventory after the first exam may provide instructors with a starting point to discussing study behaviors with students. Taking some class time to discuss the variety of study techniques,and then detailing what exactly is involved in each method, may be critical to helping students do better. We hope these suggestions prove helpful when the next student asks you how to study for your exams and that their performance improves as a result of your advice.

What does history teach us about politics?

Published June 23, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The deep thinkers who serve the various political parties in Ottawa have been scratching their heads over the same question: what does the election of Kathleen Wynne’s majority Liberal government in Ontario imply for the federal election, scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015?

The short, easy answer is, “probably not much.” The election is 16 months away. One week can be an eternity in politics; to travel 16 months into the political future requires a time machine rather than a calendar. Anything can happen in 16 months, and almost certainly will.

Who would have predicted 16 months before the June 1968 election that Lester Pearson would resign as Liberal leader and prime minister, that he would be succeeded by a new recruit, Pierre Trudeau, and that a strange phenomenon, dubbed Trudeaumania, would propel the Liberals to a majority government? Who would have predicted 16 months before the stunning October 1993 election that Canada would gain its first female PM and lose her almost immediately as the majority Progressive Conservative government disintegrated, retaining only two seats in the whole country as a separatist party became the official opposition, just a pair of seats ahead of a new protest party, Reform, which replaced the Tories as the voice of the West?
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Who would have predicted 16 months before the May 2011 election that an “orange wave” would sweep Jack Layton’s NDP into the position of official opposition, reduce the Liberals to third place and, in the process, hand Stephen Harper and his Conservatives a majority government? And, finally, who would have predicted 16 months ago, when Justin Trudeau was elected leader of the Liberals, that he would lead them to the top of the opinion polls and keep them there for 14 unbroken months, right up to the present?

If history teaches us nothing else about politics, it is that the only safe response when contemplating events many months in the future is: “I don’t know.” But political thinkers and practitioners, such as pollsters and pundits, hate those three little words. Have you ever heard Stephen Harper admit, “I don’t know?” I thought not. Doubt has no place when it comes to political forecasting.

That said, we all look for threads or clues to reveal the future. Some analysts probing the Ontario election results have noted the tendency of voters in the province to play a balancing game. When the Liberals are in power in Ottawa, they like to balance the scale with Conservatives at Queen’s Park. And vice versa. This balance-of-power theory suggests Wynne’s victory bodes well for Harper’s Tories, especially in the Greater Toronto Area, while it bodes ill for Trudeau’s Liberals.

Other analysts see in the Ontario vote a rejection of Tim Hudak’s right-wing agenda and an embrace of Wynne’s centre-left approach. If that sentiment carries over to the federal election, it would to play to Trudeau’s advantage and to Harper’s disadvantage in the province where national elections tend to be won and lost.

Having already admitted I don’t know, permit me to offer a couple of observations. First, there is growing arrogance in Harper’s Ottawa — a my-way-or-the-highway attitude — that I don’t think sits well with the sort of Ontarians who voted for Kathleen Wynne. Second, Wynne didn’t win just because she positioned her Liberals as the only choice on the progressive side of the ledger. I think she won because she projected an air of authenticity that neither of her opponents could rival. Hudak seemed driven by narrow political expediency, while Andrea Horwath, the NDP leader, tried to transition from social democracy to conservative populism. Neither worked.

By comparison, Wynne came across as the real goods. When she talked about equity, she did so with conviction and passion. She was believable. Voters are pretty good when it come to spotting the unbelievable. At least, they are in Ontario.

Will this have any bearing on the 2015 federal election? Perhaps not. Sixteen months is more than an eternity in political time.

Too many strings attached to aboriginal funding

Published June 21, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Among the cacophony of aboriginal voices demanding to be heard in this country, there seems to be at least two dominant and recurring themes.

First, if you are going to pursue an activity that directly affects aboriginal interests, then you need to engage in meaningful consultations with those communities. Second, if you want to fix the deplorable living conditions found on many native reserves, then you need to provide adequate funding.

This funding must be comparable to what exists for non-aboriginal communities, and it must be provided with “no strings attached.”

For many Canadians, these demands may seem odd and unsettling. However, there are several good reasons why governments and societal actors should take them seriously.

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Cristopher Cochrane in the Globe and Mail: Ontario takes pride that gay premier’s win taken in stride

Published June 13, 2014, in the Globe and Mail.

Associate Christopher Cochrane was quoted in an article on the Globe and Mail which discusses the Ontario’s first elected openly gay premier, Kathleen Wynne. Full article available here.

Anna Esselment in the Record: 1,650 local voters declined ballots on June 12

Published June 20, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Associate Anna Esselment was interviewed in an article that discusses the extremely high number of voters who declined their ballots during the 2014 Ontario election. Full article is available here.

Anna Esselment in the Record: Voter turnout goes up in Ontario election

Published June 13, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Associate Anna Esselment is interviewed in an article that discusses the rise in voter turnout in Ontario for the 2014 general election. She suggests that this rise is nothing to cheer about. Full article can be found here.

Ontario election highlights challenges now facing pollsters

Published June 19, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Given the praise ringing out about the supposedly wonderful campaign run by the Liberals that resulted in last week’s Ontario election results, it might surprise some to note that the improvement in the popular vote for the victorious Liberals was no greater than for the also-ran New Democrats.

Both gained a bare one per cent compared to their 2011 performance. On the other hand, Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives declined by four per cent. These seemingly modest changes in support levels account for the seat shifts that cost the Conservatives nine members, and transformed the legislature into a majority for Kathleen Wynne.

It is natural for winning parties to make various self-serving claims in interpreting their triumph about how it was a mandate for this or that. However, there shouldn’t be any misunderstanding that this election was more Hudak’s loss than a victory for Wynne.

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Teaching Canadian Politics: Sharing Ideas. A guest post by Drs. Crandall and Lewis

At this year’s CPSA Conference, Drs. Erin Crandall and J.P. Lewis organized a roundtable on: “Practices, Objectives, and Innovations in Teaching Canadian Politics.”  I really wanted to attend this session but unfortunately, I was presenting a paper at the same time!  By all accounts, however, it was an interesting session and I was sorry to miss it.

Fortunately, Dr. Crandall and Dr. Lewis agreed to write the following guest post summarizing some of the ideas and discussions that happened at that session.  Enjoy!

Teaching Canadian Politics: Sharing Ideas
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By: Erin Crandall and J.P. Lewis

Academics have many ways and opportunities to share their research: conferences, articles, books, etc. While teaching conferences do exist in Canada – the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education is holding its 34th annual conference this spring at Queen’s – and political science in the United States has a tradition of dedicating journal and conference space to teaching issues, the Canadian political science community has never engaged in ongoing outreach, networking or collaboration in teaching Canadian politics.

At a time when technology makes it so easy to connect, it seems an opportunity lost that university professors teaching similar courses often don’t have an accessible network for sharing resources. We know, for example, that every year there are more than a hundred people teaching an introductory Canadian politics course at the university level. While many of the topics covered will be the same course to course, the materials used, and their method of deployment will vary by professor. Inevitably, some parts of these courses will work better than others, and it seems in everyone’s interest that we share both our successes and our failures. This seems especially true at a time when courses are increasingly taught by sessional instructors who may be teaching a course for the first time.

With these points in mind, last month we hosted a roundtable on teaching Canadian politics at the Canadian Political Science Association’s annual conference at Brock University. The objective of the roundtable was to provide a forum for Canadian politics professors to discuss practices, objectives, and innovations in teaching, and particularly to discuss the development of an online teaching resource to share materials.

Attendance for the roundtable exceeded our expectations. About twenty people – a mix of graduate students and senior and junior faculty – came together to talk about teaching Canadian politics. People described their courses (size, content, materials, and technologies used) and some of the challenges they face in teaching. It was, we think, a great chance to share and learn.

Moving forward, we’d like to continue this conversation. Those who attended the roundtable expressed interest in developing a network to share teaching ideas and resources. Over the next few months, our plan is to start making this idea a reality. We’ll be creating a listserv to facilitate discussion, as well as an online resource that will include Canadian politics syllabi, links to online resources, and PowerPoint presentations.

Based on the conversations we had at CPSA, we think there’s considerable interest in this type of collaboration and we’re excited to see how it will develop. If you weren’t able to attend the roundtable, but are interested in participating, please contact Erin Crandall and we’ll add you to our email list. This will be an ongoing project and all ideas and suggestions are welcome. J.P. Lewis will be co-chairing the Teaching and Research Skills Development session committee for next year’s CPSA conference so any teaching workshop suggestions are also encouraged.

On What Types Of Causes Should Political Scientists Focus?

Most positivist political scientists look for causal relationships inspired by Hume’s diction that we can only ever infer that A causes B to the extent that we observe A and B occurring together at the same time. So, as much as common parlance usually cautions against inferring causation from correlation, it’s actually a pretty important criteria in assessing causal relationships. Of course the difference between scientists and common parlance is that, when faced with a correlation, most scientists spend a lot of time clarifying that correlation before declaring it causal, i.e. they ensure that A in fact occurs before B temporally speaking and they try to determine whether there are any unobserved, third variables that make the correlation spurious. So, when scientists say a correlation is causal, it’s usually worth paying attention, much more so than when your astrologer notes that your birth was correlated with the ascendancy of Jupiter, or whatever.

I raise this because political scientist Salomon Orellana has published a new book on the relationship between parties, party systems and governance. One of his findings, outlined in a blog post at the Monkey Cage, is that there is a relationship between the number of parties in a party system and the incarceration rate in a country. In short, he finds that two-party systems tend to adopt more punitive, rather than rehabilitative, corrections policies. Continue reading

One of his graphs is here:

Relationship between legislative fractionalization and incarceration.

Clearly, there is a negative correlation there between the fractionalization (a measure of the number of parties in a party system) and the number of prisoners a country incarcerates. I have no reason to doubt Salomon’s evidence, modelling or reasoning about the possibility of unobserved control variables, so I’m fine to see that as a causal relationship.

But look at the United States! Orellana correctly identifies it as an extreme outlier, writing that: “although the American two-party system certainly does not explain everything about the U.S. incarceration rate, the country would nevertheless benefit from the presence of a “consistently heard” dissenter that can help break the vicious cycle of pandering.”

Later, Orellana concludes with this comment, calling for a reform to its electoral system.

Regardless of how reform might be implemented, the important point remains: the high rate of incarceration in the United States has roots in its electoral system. More political parties could ultimately mean fewer people behind bars.

I won’t dispute the second part of that statement – giving more access for third parties could reduce the incarceration rate – but I do dispute the first part of that sentence, that the high rate of incarceration has its roots in its electoral system. Here, Orellana is practicing good positivist social science, and it’s a great example of how good positivist social science can walk right into big problems. Namely, he is privileging the causal correlation that he has identified as the primary causeof his outcome of interest. One of the most important features of social life that complicates the positivist tendency to think about causation in correlational terms is that most outcomes are not determined by one single thing, but they can be determined by many different things.

A different way of assessing causal relations in empirical (note that I did not say positivist) social science is to look not for correlations but for the structures and mechanisms that underlie and create observed regularities. This is premised on a realist view of social science which has deep roots, but you can get a flavour of it by reading Daniel Little’s blog Understanding Society or by reading books like George and Bennett.

The thing that these scholars continually drive home is that correlations are usually only the starting point for empirical social science research. It’s more important to look under the hood of regularities and directly examine the structures and mechanisms (realists have those two words on auto-complete in their word processors) that create them. Doing this type of research is more loyal to the subject matter because human society is an open system where conditions at time 1 do not determine conditions at time 2. By contrast, Hume’s vision of causality, and the one that inspires most positivist social science, was developed very much with closed systems, such as the solar system, in mind.

Realist-inspired empirical research on this specific question would look at Orenella’s identified correlation, accept it as causal, and then looked at that glaring outlier and wondered about what structures and mechanisms caused such a deviation from the observed relationship.

I had the good fortune of taking a really amazing course on the contemporary political economy of the United States with Prof. Phil Wood at Queen’s University and his interest in the politics of prisons led me to some fascinating literature seeking to do what Orenella is *not* trying to do, namely, to explain the reason for the United States’ truly exceptional incarceration rate. Reading that literature gets you very quickly to the interaction between structures of racial inequality and the importance of the southern United States in shaping policy. A short version of this narrative speaks about the migration of African-American populations from the south to the north in the World War II era, leading to the creation of urban ghettos and difficult ethnic politics between non-white and black populations, and then the emergence of the New Right in the south and west of the United States amidst a backdrop of stagnating wages since the 1970s.

Orenella is probably right in his diagnosis: if there were a third party, or more attention to a third party paid, the incarceration rate would probably drop a little. But I think he is dead wrong when he states that the “primary root” of the American outlier is in its electoral system. He is only assigning it such an important role because, I suspect, as a solid positivist social scientist, he is thinking in terms of correlations, rather than structures and mechanisms.

I will close by simply saying that this is not just an arcane matter over which social scientists quibble. This matters for making good recommendations for policy-makers and for making our own choices as citizens. Orenella recommends modifying the party and electoral systems to give more attention to the margins. I recommend looking harder at the underlying structures of this problem, particularly the racial dynamics such as racist attitudes and institutional relationships between the US’ ethnic minorities? I wonder what is easier? There isn’t a clear answer to this, but I will note that the two-party duopoly has been more or less permanently for around 50 years. Since that time we have had massive transformations in people’s attitudes toward minorities, policies of managing ethnic diversity and the legal structure that governs ethnic relations. That might provide a hint as to what is actually easier to change.

Barry Kay on Global News: Breaking down the election results

Published June 13, 2014, in the Global News

Dr. Barry Kay meets with Global News on the Morning Show to discuss the results from the 2014 Ontario Election. The Liberal majority came as a surprise to most but Dr. Kay was prepared for a surprise as the polls were so scattered. The full video can be found here.

Good candidates do make a difference

Published June 16, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

How much difference do local candidates make in the outcome of an election?

If you ask the High Strategists who direct federal and provincial campaigns from Ottawa or Queen’s Park, the answer would be: not all that much difference. They tend to rank the most important factors as the party brand, the leader, the platform, the strength of their organization on the ground, and the amount of money they have to spend. Local candidates — good, bad or indifferent — tend to place near the bottom of the list.

They used to say that a little yellow dog could be elected in Saskatchewan if it were a Conservative or in Quebec if a Liberal. An exaggeration? Of course. But to the minds of many High Strategists, the candidate is worth only about 5 per cent of the vote or, perhaps, 10 per cent in exceptional situations.
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Well, I wonder. I have long felt that good candidates make a huge difference, especially in byelections, but in general elections as well. To prove my case, let’s look at three area races in last week’s Ontario election.

Kitchener-Waterloo. Catherine Fife became the MPP for K-W in a September 2012 byelection. A New Democrat in alien territory (the riding had been held by Conservative Elizabeth Witmer for the previous 22 years and the Liberals were assumed to be the only viable alternative to the Tories), Fife realized from the moment she won that she would face an uphill battle to hold the seat. Not knowing when the general election might happen, she just kept running.

Fife is one of those politicians who actually listens to people. She used her personal political skills and 21 months of hard work to put a lock on the riding. Although it was not a happy election for the NDP, Fife bucked the Liberal trend to win by 4,000 votes. She will be hard to dislodge.

Cambridge. This was a stunner. The Liberals hadn’t elected a provincial member in Cambridge (or Waterloo South, as it was then) since 1943, the year when Conservative George Drew became premier of Ontario (for trivia buffs, it was also the year that Oklahoma! opened on Broadway and Lassie Come Home took the movie box office by storm). Seventy-one years! It was that long ago.

Yet Liberal Kathryn McGarry, a nurse who had run and lost on two previous occasions, proved conclusively that hard work and perseverance pay off. She won on her third try, defeating first-term Tory MPP Rob Leone, a political-science professor. McGarry and her people outhustled Leone’s. Like Fife, she listened to voters’ concerns, including their uneasiness about Leone’s leader, Tim Hudak. She won handily, by 3,000 votes.

Kitchener Centre was the third area riding to which I paid particular attendance. It was widely advertised as a provincial bellwether because of its reliable tendency to elect a candidate from the party that won the election. It did so again in 2011, returning John Milloy, a member of Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal cabinet, although by a mere 323 votes as the party was reduced to a minority government.

This time, Kitchener Centre was an open seat, Milloy having announced his retirement from politics. With its party running ahead in the polls, the Progressive Conservatives were confident they could take the riding along with the province. But the voters of Kitchener proved to be a more accurate barometer than the pollsters.

The Liberals nominated a local television personality, Daiene Vernile, from CTV in Kitchener. Media celebrities often flop as political candidates (voters don’t take them as seriously as they take themselves), but in Vernile’s case, profile, personal popularity and strenuous campaigning enabled the Liberals to widen their margin from 323 measly votes to nearly 7,000.

The point of all this is that good candidates are essential. They can win in difficult elections, even when the polls are sour — and even when seven decades of electoral frustration tells them not to bother.

Moderate Ontarians favoured Grits

Published June 14, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The voters of Ontario sent two clear messages on Thursday.

The first message, addressed to all political leaders and their parties: Ontarians are fed up with arguments about the errors and scandals of previous years and regimes. Forget those stupid gas plants. The people told the politicians they want to move on; they want them to address the challenges of the future, not the sins of the past.

Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne got the message; her opponents did not, which is one reason why she is still premier and they are not.
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The second message: when all is said and done, Ontario remains a province of moderates. Ontarians prefer the safety of the middle of the road to the risks of the extreme right or left. Most people like their province pretty much the way it is. They may wish it was better run and able to create more opportunities for themselves and their children, but they don’t want it to be changed radically.

Wynne and NDP leader Andrea Horwath heard that message, but Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak did not. He may be tone deaf. For some reason, he believed the conservative economic ideas he had solicited from U.S. Republicans and tea party sages would play in Ontario. They didn’t. His Millions Jobs Plan and proposal for deep corporate tax cuts cost him dearly.

Hudak’s party was a few points ahead of the Liberals in the polls in early May when he made the mistake of handing Wynne an issue with which to defeat him. As I wrote in a column on May 12, his PC predecessor, John Tory, had made the same mistake in the 2007 election with his promise of public funding for religious schools. This time, it was Hudak’s proposal to eliminate 100,000 jobs in the Ontario public sector.

It doomed his campaign. He was never able to explain — no one could — how cutting 100,000 jobs in the public sector would contribute to the creation of one million jobs in the private sector. It was “voodoo economics,” Ontario-style.

Hudak made it worse by presenting his cuts as the elimination of “positions,” glossing over the fact that positions are occupied by real people. Voters saw through that abstraction. They knew the 100,000 would include the breadwinner who lived next door, their kids’ teachers, emergency workers, inspectors who keep their water supplies and highways safe, or the single mom who depends on her part-time job in a government office. Unable to relate (and obsessed with reducing spending), the Tories seemed indifferent to the real needs of people.

Hudak announced his resignation Thursday night. He had no realistic alternative. He leaves, his departure unlamented even by his followers. Like John Tory seven years earlier, the election was his to lose — and he lost it with unpalatable policies and strategic errors. Andrea Horwath remains as NDP leader, pro tempore; after suffering two election defeats, the chances of a third chance are slim.

Just about all of the pollsters and pundits got it wrong on Thursday. The pollsters thought the outcome would be closer than it was: 39 per cent for the Liberals; 31 per cent for the Tories and 24 per cent for the NDP. But the Liberals were able to parlay their 39 per cent into a solid majority of 59 seats in the 107-seat Legislature.

Although it can be argued that Hudak lost the election, it can equally be said that Wynne won it. She understood the mood of the electorate; she offered policies that had broad appeal, and she relentlessly exploited the weaknesses of her opponents.

It was revealing that, as a CBC commentator noted on election night, her sexual orientation never became an issue.

The first and only openly gay government leader in Canada has just been handed a four-year mandate to run the largest province. There’s lots of room for everyone in the middle of the road.