Does Toronto Need a More Powerful Mayor?

In today’s Globe and Mail, Richard Florida makes the argument for strengthening the position of Mayor for the city of Toronto.

There are many ways to make this case, but I’m not really convinced by Florida’s arguments and analysis in this op-ed. Continue reading

Among other things, he writes:

"This might sound ironic, considering all the damage Mr. Ford 
was able to do in just two years, but what Toronto needs is a 
more powerful mayor, not a less powerful one. Cities have become 
the key economic, political and social organizing units of our 
time. It’s vital that their leadership be appropriately 

Fair enough, but the rising importance of cities as “the key economic, political and social organizing units of our time” does not necessarily mean we need strong mayors.  Indeed, strong mayors can actually produce the opposite effects that Florida so badly wants to see.  A large body of scholarship (see here and here, for instance) has taught us the importance of dispersing power, rather than concentrating it, in democratic (and other!) systems..

Immediately after this paragraph, he writes:

Unlike the nations they’re located in, whose governments are as 
often as not paralyzed by ideological gridlock, many of our 
great global cities are becoming virtual laboratories of 
democracy, developing pragmatic, non-ideological policy 
approaches to everything from crime and education to 
infrastructure development and job creation.

First, I would argue that municipal governments like Toronto’s are just as polarized along ideological lines as national governments.  Besides the daily news reports about the left-right divide on city council, my colleague, Dr. Chris Cochrane at the University of Toronto, is working on a book that empirically shows a clear left-right clustering on Toronto city council on a variety of issues over time, confirming and extending common assumptions about the ideological divide that exists in Toronto city council.

Second, even if it’s true that “many of our great global cities are becoming virtual laboratories of democracy, developing pragmatic, non-ideological policy approaches to everything…”, I find it hard to believe that strong mayors are necessary or even helpful for facilitating this type of democratic governance.

I’m not a municipal politics scholar by any means, and so I will leave it to others, like my more learned colleague, Loren King, to comment on the rest of the arguments in the op-ed.  But I’m not convinced that strong mayors are necessary for the types of outcomes that Florida wants to generate.

Israel flourishes despite onerous obstacles

Published Nov. 29, 2012, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Sixty-five years ago today, on Nov. 29, 1947, the then recently created United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 181, which was to partition the former British mandate in Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish.

This two-state formula was not a radically new idea. –Keep Reading–



Is Justin Trudeau the real deal?

Published Nov. 26, 2012 in The Waterloo Region Record

Is Justin Trudeau the real deal?

That’s a question many Liberals are asking as the contestants in the race for the top in the party – without a permanent leader since the debacle of the 2011 election – straggle to the starting line for the race that will end in Ottawa on April 14.

Trudeau declared on Oct. 2. Constitutional lawyer Deborah Coyne, his father’s last paramour, had already announced her candidacy. Martha Hall Findlay, a former Toronto MP, who had just finished paying off her debts from six years ago (when she ran unsuccessfully to succeed Paul Martin), joined the new race two weeks ago. Continue reading

Joyce Murray, a Vancouver MP and former provincial cabinet minister in British Columbia, is poised to enter today, while Marc Garneau, the former astronaut and MP from Montreal since 2008, plans to declare on Wednesday.

The entry deadline is Jan. 13, and there are bound to be others willing to post the $75,000 fee. If you have enough money, it’s a cheap thrill to tell the grandkids you once ran for leader of a national party.

There are really two races. Justin Trudeau, Marc Garneau and Martha Hall Findlay are running for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. The others will be running for publicity, ego or future considerations.

More realistically, Trudeau is running for the leadership of the party. Garneau and Hall Findlay are running for second place in the hope of picking up the pieces if Justin stumbles – or is devoured by savage Albertans who still regard his late father Pierre as the Eastern Devil who came to steal their oil.

But back to the question. Is Justin the real deal? University students and others in the cohort of young voters certainly think so. Thomas Mulcair isn’t bad, but Justin is the only federal political figure who can ignite student audiences. Their parents are not so sure. They – the moms especially – remember getting swept up in the Trudeaumania in the late 1960s, and they also remember the letdown they experienced when it was over.

Quebec is not yet convinced that Trudeau redux is the way to go. Ontario would sort of like to be seduced (again), but is in a risk-adverse mood these days. Older voters in the West would cheer for the Toronto Maple Leafs before they would vote for a Trudeau (“a bigoted closet separatist,” as one reader described Justin to Sun Media).

And yet – there is a glimmer of hope in the polls. Nanos Research reported a 5.5-point “bounce” in Liberal popular support after Justin entered the race in October. That moved the Liberals into second place, a bit ahead of the NDP and not far behind the leading Conservatives, who have lost significant ground since the 2011 election.

In the past, as public opinion analyst Eric Grenier notes, the Liberals did not get a bounce like that when their last two leaders, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, declared their candidacies. Nor did it happen for the NDP when Mulcair announced his leadership candidacy following the death of Jack Layton.

With the next federal election not due for nearly three years, it would be foolish to draw any conclusions from current polls. It is interesting, however, that the October bounce was still there in Nanos’ November polling; the Liberals’ remained in second place, within hailing distance of the Conservatives.

Although Liberals and others don’t know yet whether Justin is the real deal, they do know he is not his father. He is a kinder, warmer person, in some ways more like his mother Margaret than his father. He is still light on policy, but what leadership candidate isn’t?

Ironically, the Trudeau name, which may well win him the leadership when Liberals vote in April, could be a millstone when the whole electorate gets to pass judgment at election time. He would have to win despite his parentage, not because of it. It’s not so easy being a Trudeau.

The Truimph of Property Rights, in China?!

According to the Toronto Star:

“In the middle of an eastern Chinese city’s new main road, rising incongruously from a huge circle in the freshly laid pavement, is a five-storey row house with ragged edges. This is the home of the duck farmer who said “no.”

Luo Baogen and his wife are the lone holdouts from a neighbourhood that was demolished to make way for the main thoroughfare heading to a newly built railway station on the outskirts of the city of Wenling in Zhejiang province.

Dramatic images of Luo’s home have circulated widely online in China this week, becoming the latest symbol of resistance in the frequent standoffs between Chinese homeowners and local officials accused of offering too little compensation to vacate neighbourhoods for major redevelopment projects.”

How long before the Chinese government violates the rule of law and finds a way to evict this couple from their home?

Marriage and Parenting Predicts Politics

From Tyler Cowan’s blog, Marginal Revolution:

“Stunningly, the postponement of marriage and parenting — the factors that shrink the birth rate — is the very best predictor of a person’s politics in the United States, over even income and education levels, a Belgian demographer named Ron Lesthaeghe has discovered. Larger family size in America correlates to early marriage and childbirth, lower women’s employment, and opposition to gay rights — all social factors that lead voters to see red.”

The entire paper is here.

Poor Harper: So successful, so under-appreciated

Published Nov. 19, 2012, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Pity Stephen Harper. The poor man doesn’t get much respect.

Here he is, the most successful politician on the Canadian stage. He’s fought four general elections in eight years as leader of his party and won three of them. Come February he will have been prime minister for seven years. Continue reading

He’s already passed R.B. Bennett, Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker in years of service at the top. By the time the next general election rolls around in October 2015, he will have passed Robert Borden, Louis St. Laurent and Brian Mulroney, all of whom served for nine years. Next up: Jean Chrétien (10 years).

At that point, Harper will move into more exalted company: Pierre Trudeau and Wilfrid Laurier (both 15 years) and John A. Macdonald (19 years in two stints). Only if he lasts until the end of 2027, however, will he be able to wrest the championship belt from the all-time leader, Mackenzie King, who lasted for 21-plus years.

Harper’s longevity is remarkable for a couple of reasons. First, political leaders are subject to constant exposure or over-exposure in this age of television, the 24-hour news cycle, internet and social media. Modern media can create celebrities, including political ones, virtually overnight – and they make the public weary of them almost as rapidly.

Second, deep down, Canadians don’t like Harper very much. He hasn’t grown on the country at all in his eight-plus years as leader of the Conservative party. Why do Canadians keep electing a leader they evidently hold in low esteem? It must be a perception that the Conservatives are competent, if not loveable, while their opponents don’t seem ready for prime time.

In search of answers, I turned to a report published last week by Toronto-based Environics Institute of a survey of public attitudes in 26 Western Hemisphere countries toward their governments and leaders and their satisfaction with life in general. A total of 41,000 people in the 26 countries were surveyed for the report, titled AmericasBarometer.

For Canada, the report is a mixed bag. Generally, Canadians expressed a lot of confidence in the armed forces (53 per cent of those surveyed expressed confidence) while the RCMP came in at 36 per cent, the Supreme Court of Canada at 34 per cent and the justice system as a whole at 26 per cent. While less than dazzling, those numbers were among the most positive in the hemisphere.

It was a different story when Canadians were asked about their level of trust in Parliament and the prime minister. Only one person in six said they had a lot of trust in Parliament (17 per cent) or the PM (16 per cent). These numbers put Canada in the lowest tier in the hemisphere, marginally better than Panama and Honduras. In the United States, interestingly, trust in the president was 26 per cent, 10 points higher than Canadians’ trust in their prime minister.

Asked to assess Stephen Harper’s job performance, Canadian respondents gave him a rating that put him in 19th place among the 26 leaders, well below the heads of Ecuador, Nicaragua, Brazil and Argentina.

If there is good news for Harper in all this, it is that Canadians think more highly of him than they do of their political parties or the mass media. Only 10 per cent express strong trust in the media and 6 per cent in political parties. Sobering though those numbers are, they are better than those for the U.S. – 4 per cent for the media and just 2 per cent for political parties. (It’s worth noting in passing that seven in 10 Canadians support the notion of coalition governments.)

To end on a bright note: 72 per cent of Canadians express strong pride in their country; outside Quebec, the figure is 77 per cent, That 72 per cent puts Canadians a bit above the United States in the patriotism game, although a bit below Mexico.

Pragmatism, minimizing extremist image critical for Republicans’ future

Published Nov. 13, 2012, in The Waterloo Record.
President Barack Obama was eminently beatable in last Tuesday’s American election. He was vulnerable on the economy, and there was plenty of enthusiasm and money on the Republican side to defeat him. Moreover that party was coming off spectacular success in the 2010 midterm vote. However Obama’s opponents had blinded themselves to both political and demographic realities. Apart from ignoring and indeed antagonizing minorities, they have consistently moved toward the ideological fringes. Worse still, they have been totally inflexible on what they define as core principles, to the point of jeopardizing the US credit rating in order to pressure their political opponents.

Knowing when leaders approach their best-before date

Published Nov. 12, 2012, in The Waterloo Region Record.

There’s a hypothesis among people who dabble in politics that the average political leader has a half-life of about six years – “half-life” being a term borrowed from science to describe a process of gradual or exponential decay.

Applied to politics, the half-life hypothesis means leaders have six years to make their mark and reach (or not) their goals. At the six-year mark, they need to start tidying up their files and worry about their legacy, while their supporters plot succession scenarios.

Continue reading

In North America, where four-year terms are the norm, this means a leader has one full term and the first part of a second to accomplish the heavy lifting. After that, they should prepare an exit strategy before their party or the electorate does it for them.

Barack Obama, having won a second term, has a couple of years to go before he needs to hire a biographer/historian. Under adverse economic circumstances and gridlock in Congress, he accomplished a great deal in his first term.

His Affordable Health Care Act (aka Obamacare) is now law and will go into full effect in 2014. He took on the big financial institutions and reformed Wall Street. He saved the American auto industry (from itself, largely). He ended George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and initiated an end to the one in Afghanistan.

His second-term challenge  to use his election momentum to cow the Republicans long enough to revive the economy and create millions of needed jobs. He has only until the fall of 2014, when the congressional mid-term elections will signal the start of a new political cycle – the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. At that point, his political influence dissipates as he fades into a lame duckland.

In Canada, Stephen Harper, after six years in 24 Sussex, has reached his political half-life. Although he may not acknowledge it, his productive political years are behind him. His iron control of cabinet and caucus may enable him to delay the inevitable for another year or so, but the beginning of the end is in sight.

Ambitious Conservatives are restive, especially those on right. Some are starting to gravitate to Jason Kenny, the social conservative and minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism; if Canada had a Tea Party, Kenny would probably be its flag bearer.

After Harper, the Conservative party could descend into the fratricidal combat that cost the Republicans the election when they nominated Mitt Romney, who tried to stand for everything and ended up standing for nothing.

In Ontario, Dalton McGuinty failed to appreciate that he had a half-life as premier. He was first elected in 2003 and re-elected in 2007. His problems mounted in his second term, as scandals began to outweigh accomplishments. He should have retired instead of seeking a third term. If he had resigned in late 2010 or early 2011, the Liberals could have chosen a new leader to lead them into the election of October 2011. Had they chosen wisely (though there is no guarantee of that), they would, I suspect, have won another majority.

Instead, McGuinty stayed well beyond his best-before date and left the party barely clinging to power. Now the Ontario Liberals seem to be heading on the same trajectory as their federal brethren: too long in power; too many scandals; a surfeit of arrogance; out of touch with the populace; reduced to a minority; then out of office; and, finally, third-party status.

Given that trajectory, it’s no wonder none of the powerful figures of the McGuinty administration, having witnessed decline from within, want the leadership, leaving the contest to second-tier candidates. The leading one at the moment is Sandra Pupatello, a former minister, who revealed her respect for parliamentary democracy when she said she would keep the Legislature prorogued after she becomes leader – and would not let it sit again until she wins a by-election (whenever that might be).

Perhaps she stole pages from Stephen Harper’s playbook.

LISPOP Associate Barry Kay dissects U.S. Election results

Published Nov. 8, 2012, in The Waterloo Record.

How did this happen, in a country where the pre-election debate seemed to be dominated by extreme right-wing candidates?

Part of the answer, says Barry Kay, Wilfrid Laurier University professor of political science, and an expert in dissecting American and Canadian elections, lies in demographic changes. The loopy right-wing rhetoric we heard in the headlines was out of touch with the belief of today’s Americans.

“There’s an inevitability to this,” he said. “America’s changing. Younger people’s values on these issues (such as gay marriage) are so different” from that of older people.

–Continue Reading–

Polls and Punditry in the U.S. Presidential Race

If, like me, you have some geek in you, then you will be heartened by a trend in recent coverage of the U.S. presidential campaign, which pits the statistical prowess of folks like Nate Silver, Sam Wang, Drew Linzer, and Richard Gott and Wesley Colley, on the one hand, against an increasingly defensive tribe of established pundits, on the other (joined recently by the Globe and Mail‘s very own Margaret Wente, who doesn’t let ignorance temper confidence, to judge by this bit of fluff).

Enough has been said about this spat to lead sensible folks to side with the geeks, but a late entry from the pundit camp takes a somewhat novel approach. Michael Gerson of the Washington Post offers some of the usual complaints about the statisticians, and about political science in general (“physics envy!” “subjective values!”), but he also opines thus … Continue reading

The main problem with this approach to politics is not that it is pseudo-scientific but that it is trivial. An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community. In a democracy, the convictions of the public ultimately depend on persuasion, which resists quantification.

The irony of a former speech-writer for George W. Bush, once labouring in the shadow of Karl Rove, now channelling Rousseau on the general will, should not be lost on the astute reader. As Bush’s campaign strategist, and then White House insider, Rove did far more damage to America’s democracy than any number-crunching academic ever could. Gerson is a part of that sad legacy.

Still, for political theorists, Gerson is singing in a familiar key. Many of us would readily agree that democracy should be more than a simple aggregation of preferences. As citizens we should, ideally, be persuaded by evidence and argument as we reflect on what is in the public interest, and we should vote in light of those judgements.

So, is Gerson offering his remark as an ideal of democracy? Is he suggesting, perhaps, that the number crunchers are pandering to partisan politics as it is, rather than imagining democracy as it might be?

No, he isn’t.

He surely must know that democracy, as we practice it in North America, is ridiculously far from the ideal picture he paints?

If he does, he offers no hint here, least of all when he offers up the following remarkable conceit:

If political punditry has any value in a democracy, it is in clarifying large policy issues and ethical debates …

… wow.

Tell you what, Mike: when you and your fellow partisan pundits — Republican and Democrat — demonstrate a modicum of scientific and philosophical sophistication, then I’ll happily endorse your vision of pundits as public intellectuals, tackling big issues and ethical quandaries, shaping public opinion with reason and evidence, rather than impressions and sound bites.

Until then? I want you and your fellow pundits to stay well away from innocent citizens!

We’ll know tomorrow (hopefully) whether or not (and which of) the number nerds are correct, but if folks like Gerson don’t like the fact that statisticians can now give a (better than) decent guess at election outcomes based on aggregated polling data, then maybe they should take a long hard look at how the United States — and, of course, the rest of us — implement our democratic ideals.

For his part, Gerson could start by apologizing for his involvement with a U.S. administration that never seemed especially friendly to the ideal of democracy as rooted in civil exchanges among informed citizens, seeking the public good together, across the political aisle.

If he did that, then maybe I’d take his high-minded rhetoric seriously.

Barry Kay comments on impact of U.S. election on Canada

Published Nov. 5, 2012, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Canadians across the country will be glued to the U.S. presidential election Tuesday, but one political observer is skeptical that it makes much difference to Canada who wins.

While the U.S. has both cultural and economic ties to Canada, Barry Kay, political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, doesn’t think the election of Democrat incumbent Barack Obama or his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, will change relations between the two countries.

Kay also wonders whether either candidate can bring much change.

Continue Reading

Close, but an edge to Obama – and maybe to Canada

Published Nov. 5, 2012, in The Waterloo Region Record.

If Canadians could participate in tomorrow’s U.S. presidential election, their votes would surely go overwhelmingly to Barack Obama.

This notwithstanding the fact that his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has closer ties to this country – both as a native of the border state of Michigan and as the leading member of a family that has vacationed for 60 years in a pretty white cottage on the Canadian side of Lake Huron. (It was to this cottage at Grand Bend, Ontario, that Mitt and his family were heading in 1984 when he strapped their Irish setter in a crate on the roof of the car – a travel option that does not sit well with dog lovers in either country.)

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Compared to Romney, Obama is relatively popular among Canadians, even though he has not done much in his four years to make Canadians enthusiastic about his administration. His relations with Stephen Harper are cordial but not warm. The two leaders are too different in personality, philosophy and approach to governing to enjoy more than an arm’s length relationship. But they work together when they need to – to bail out the auto industry, for example.

The two governments tend to be more in sync when their leaders hail from the same end of the political spectrum (witness Liberal Jean Chrétien and Democrat Bill Clinton or, earlier, those “Irish eyes” soul mates, Conservative Brian Mulroney and Republican Ronald Reagan). Relations can be distant, even testy, when the leaders come from different ends of the spectrum (Liberal Pierre Trudeau and Republican Richard Nixon, for example, or Chrétien and Republican George W. Bush, who resented Chrétien’s refusal to enlist in his war on Iraq).

Overall, the Canadian electorate tends to be more liberal (or moderate) than the American one, hence a preference for Democrats to Republicans – and for Obama rather than Romney. But I’m not convinced the outcome on Tuesday will make much difference here.

Romney takes a more muscular approach than to foreign policy and military issues than Canadians may be comfortable with, even if the “muscle” seems to be mostly rhetoric for campaign consumption. Romney’s abiding faith in private enterprise is touchingly quaint to Canadians who are accustomed to activist governments, while Obama’s interventionist approach to health care and direct government involvement in the economy are closer to the Canadian tradition than Romney’s strategy of federal disengagement from social programs.

Aside from pipelines and energy exports, bilateral Canada-U.S. issues have been almost entirely absent from in the presidential campaign. Everyone knows or assumes that, whoever wins, TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline will get built and oil and natural gas will continue to flow south in copious quantities.

It looks increasingly as though Obama, having survived a scare of his own making, will manage to hang on to his job. He can thank Hurricane Sandy for giving him a reason to return to the White House where he could be seen to be acting presidential in the face of a natural catastrophe.

Whatever the reason, his slow slide in the polls came to a halt last week.  A week ago, Real Clear Politics, a website that aggregates the major national polls, had Romney ahead by 47.9 to 47.0 per cent in the popular vote. As of yesterday, Obama had moved into a tiny lead – 47.5 to 47.3. The size of the lead matters less than the trend. In crucial Ohio, the trend is clearly to Obama where he now leads by nearly three points in the aggregated polls.

In Columbus, Ohio, the Dispatch newspaper published its final pre-election poll yesterday, showing Obama with a two-point lead. That was enough, in the newspaper’s view, to give Obama a precarious “firewall” to hold Romney off from victory in the Electoral College.

As for Canada, an Obama victory would enable the country to continue to fly below the Washington radar in a relationship that would remain close without being too close. There are worse outcomes than that.

A Guide for the U.S. Election

As the American election campaign draws to a close, it is rather trite to observe that the race is extremely close. It has been that way for many months, but especially so since the first debate on Oct. 3. What follows is not so much a prediction, but rather guidelines to look for if you are watching the results Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. If one focuses upon the nine swing states highlighted by the media as still in play, the most likely Obama wins are in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nevada. If Obama wins Ohio and Wisconsin, he need only take one of Iowa or Nevada to hit the magic 270 number in the electoral college.

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The website has had Obama leading by at least two percentage points  in these states for most of the campaign, including the present. Romney must take something in this group if he is to win. The next set of states are truly toss-ups. They include Hew Hampshire, Colorado and Virginia, and are virtually tied in the most recent reports. If Obama wins any of them, he will likely win the election given reasonable assumptions based upon past voting history. Romney is slightly ahead in Florida and more so in North Carolina. An Obama win in either of these, should mean it is over. In reality, Romney must win everything in the latter two groups as well as Ohio or something comparable from the first group to be elected president.

The Republicans have talked wistfully about expanding the battlefield to Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota, and a few polls have been close there, but Romney hasn’t visited there recently, and he would have if they were actually in play. Where the candidates are spending the last few days is the best test of which states are really crucial.

All of the above states are close however, and barring a late surge in one direction, it will be a much later night or probably morning before things are clear. The national popular vote isn’t particularly important in itself, although if one candidate has a margin exceeding two percentage points, historically that been a significant indicator of trends.

One uncertainty about all this is the possibility of differential turnout rates from 2008, especially among the young and minority voters which were critical groups in supporting Obama last time. One of the reasons for differing results from the pollsters, is the varying criteria they use in determining who is likely to vote.

The House of Representatives isn’t likely to produce a significantly different result from last time, but the Senate is important. Should Romney win, the ability of Democrats to control that chamber could block Republican attempts to eliminate Obamacare. Of 33 seats at stake there, 23 are currently held by Democrats, and the Republicans would have to gain a net of three in a Romney win, or four in an Obama win to organize the chamber.

To summarize, Ohio is still the most probable pivot, but if the state is really close, the ultimate decision could linger for days. The final count of absentee and contested ballots there isn’t until Nov. 16.


Electoral College Votes from Non-Swing States

Obama-      237
Romney-     191


Obama Leaning States
Ohio-           18
Wisconsin-    10
Iowa-             6
Nevada-        6


Tied States
Virginia-        13
Colorado-      9
New Hampshire-    4


Romney Leaning States
Florida-          29
Nor. Car-        15