Wednesday, January 15, 2020

My choice for Conservative Leader is...

As we move further into 2020, attention among Conservatives in Canada will turn to selecting the individual who will replace Andrew Scheer as party leader.

Although it is early days for declarations, candidates are starting to declare.

Without getting into the names and personalities of those rumoured – or likely - to run, I have to confess that my own choice will be driven chiefly by three factors. While nobody is perfect, my support will go to the one who comes closest to the mark:

  1. CANZUK, or Commonwealth Trade

I first wrote a book on this back in 2005, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that a great deal of time and attention in the intervening years has been spent on the topic.

From the 1500’s to 1759, we were a colony of France. From then on until 1867, we were a colony of Britain. From Confederation to the end of the second world war, we evolved into a senior member of what can only be described as a British sphere of influence. After 1945, we became part of the American sphere. In other words, for all of our modern history, we have been an adjunct of a larger power. While that may have meant compromising what we might have chosen to do on certain occasions (or joining military efforts), it also meant the security and protection that comes with being allied with something greater than ourselves.

The western liberal international order is now undergoing a transformation. Illiberal regimes such as Russia and China are on the rise, while the US and Europe are becoming increasingly inward looking – and this presents major challenges for Canada. To be blunt, what do we do in a world where we cannot depend upon the kindness of others, and where power is increasingly gravitating toward those who have fundamental disagreements with our conception of democracy and human rights?

CANZUK is a modest insurance policy among middle powers of a common orientation and can provide Canada some protection in an uncertain world. Not perfect, but a damn sight better than the non-existent alternatives currently on offer from the chattering classes.

The Conservative Party of Canada endorsed CANZUK Free Trade and Freedom of Movement and included it in the 2019 Election Manifesto. I don’t expect any of the candidates to ditch the policy. On the other hand, I would not support one who doesn’t fully commit to it.

2. China

Whether or not there is an appreciation of it, the actions of the Communist regime in Beijing represent the single biggest challenge to the post-World War II global consensus. From the abrogation of its treaty with Britain over the treatment of Hong Kong, to the treatment of ethnic Uighur and Tibetan minorities,  to the bully boy tactics toward Canada and other western nations, to its increasingly aggressive stance on territorial waters, and general disrespect for any other authority in the world save for itself, the next two decades (or more) will be defined by what the regime does.

The regime’s leadership has worrying traits and seems to be as disrespectful of the international community as it is of their own people. Canadians are detained in China on the flimsiest of pretenses. At the same time, a nation that strenuously asserts its own right to sovereignty and to be free of foreign interference uses its Consulates to organize demonstrations and protests on Canadian soil. Moreover, a nation that jealously guards what it maintains to be its own territory has now declared itself a ‘near Arctic power’ as a pretext toward gaining influence in our northern frontier.

If a candidate is weak on China, I will be weak on them.

And the biggest one…

3.      Class mobility

If you go on YouTube, you can find a clip of Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland talking about class mobility. It was recorded when she was first running for office, and in the context of her book “Plutocrats.” In the clip, she remarks that it is becoming increasingly the case that the biggest determinant of what you will do for a living is what your father (or mother) did. No one is na├»ve enough to believe that some degree of nepotism and pedigree plays a role in who gets what, but her point was that it was getting worse. The fact that she was sitting on a stage with Justin Trudeau when she said that is deliciously ironic.

Far too often, when you look at the biography of some up-and-coming politician, business scion, academic, or esteemed pundit, you learn that they are the second or third generation to enjoy the status.

Class mobility has been one of the main defining features of our society – the idea that through hard work, intelligence, talent and dedication you could better your lot in life. Poor people could aspire to a more secure middle-class existence, while those in the middle-class could break through into the upper levels.

The increasing number of stories of hard-working people not being able to break through combined with the all too familiar presence of underwhelming leaders with a pedigree and little else makes me cynical – and downright angry. High profile examples include the college admission scandal in the US, and the infamous case of Elizabeth Holmes, (whose father is a former Enron executive, and mother was a Congressional staffer) who traded on family connections among America’s elite to found Theranos – a company that destroyed $9 billion of wealth predicated upon the adage to “fake it till you make it.”

I am among those who sincerely believe that an average and uninspired person whose parents are among the elite has a significantly better chance at advancement than the intelligent, hard-working and conscientious child of regular working-class people. To an extent, it has always been the case, but the phenomenon has gotten worse – not better. It is as though those who have gotten to the top of the ladder have quickly shoved it out, lest they be forced to compete for their continued sinecure.

This is what drives populism – the election of Trump, the passage of Brexit, and what Tom Nichols bemoans as the “death of expertise.” The choice will either be a radical leftist purge of the moneyed class, or a rational conservative approach that allows for the aspirational a legitimate shot at success. In the absence of a fair chance, people turn to the 'politics of revenge' as a consolation prize.

Speaking from the experience of a modest background, the poor do not want to destroy the rich – they simply want a piece of what the rich take for granted and are willing to compete for it. Left-leaning politicians believe that its handouts the poor want, because such programs are enthusiastically received. What they fail to understand is that people in the midst of financial desperation will always gratefully receive such support, much like a drowning man would gratefully accept a rope or a life preserver. What poor people would really prefer is to not be so desperate as to require a government cheque to keep the wolves at bay.

The world has increasingly become a place where working poor and middle-class parents could very easily take their children aside and tell them to take a good look around them, because what they see is going to be their future for the next 50 to 60 years – that their current situation is “as good as it’s ever going to get.”

I will vote for the candidate who understands that nepotism and cronyism are a cancer on the body politic, and that we need to cultivate and encourage talent from every demographic and socioeconomic grouping – and not skew the competition more heavily in favour of those already at the top.

The three “C’s” – CANZUK, China, and Class mobility. Answer these challenges to my satisfaction, and you will have a loyal supporter on June 27th

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Polls are for Dogs?

There is a saying attributed to former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. When asked about polls, he employed the homonym of the word and declared that they were for dogs as they were the only ones who knew how to properly use them. 

Polls do get a bad name - sometimes deservedly so, and many times not. Sometimes they capture the essence of a race and pick up the trend, and other times they are wildly off. In any given race, you will get different polls that say very different things.

Whether it is the prospects of Boris Johnson’s Premiership, or the current election here in Canada, people follow the polls and have very animated opinions about what they mean, or not.

I have had some limited and passing experience with polling, so I am sympathetic to the companies and do feel that, by and large, they endeavor to do solid work. And why wouldn’t they? Bad data makes you look unprofessional and incompetent – hardly a winning business model.

Every player in the industry wants to do their best work, and they go through a great deal of methodological review to be as accurate as possible. The problem is that they need to rely on subjects that can be as changeable as the weather.

A poll is a snapshot of a body in motion. Like a still photo of a race at the mid-point, it gives you the relative position of each ‘runner’, inferring the action up to that point, and mildly predictive of what comes next. It can’t show you that within ten yards a runner may stumble, or another gets their second wind. All it can do is tell you that on a given moment in time, that is where they all are. Blink, and it can change.

It could be that our expectation of wanting to know the future makes us project more meaning on individual polls than we should.

Polls have a function, and a value, but not in predicting outcomes. That is more for those who like the excitement of a race, using them as a short-hand to keep score. For me, they are a means of testing hypotheses – of figuring out whether or not one’s gut intuition is reliable. On that score, the polls are doing their job – and I respectfully disagree with them.

Right now, they show a tight horserace between the Tories and Liberals, with the alternating leads falling within the margin of error. When extrapolated into seat counts, the Liberals get on average 10-15 more, owing chiefly to what the political scientists call a ‘more efficient vote’. It is code for the Liberals getting growth in competitive ‘ridings’ (Canuck slang for constituencies) while Tory increases come in areas that they were going to win big in anyway.

While there is still almost a month left, and anything can happen, I am going to boldly (and maybe foolishly) predict that the polls are off and that we are looking at a Tory minority (‘hung’) parliament, with a seat count in the range of 163-168. That is at wide variance with what is currently being estimated, but I think it is possible. If it happens, it would be a seat-for-seat reversal for the Liberals and Conservatives based on what is being estimated.

This is why I think this could happen.

When building a model for a voting population, one has to rely on statistical data on hand – measurable and verifiable. That means building a sample that reflects the demographics of the country. In rough terms, if men aged 18-34 are 25% of eligible voting population, they have to be 25% of your sample, and so on. That doesn’t mean they are actual voters – only that they are legally permitted to show up on polling day and mark an X on a ballot. They are ‘potential’ voters.

In 2011, Stephen Harper won a majority government, and in 2015 lost it to Mr. Trudeau, who grabbed enough to secure a majority of his own. Conventional wisdom says that the Conservative vote collapsed, and yet the difference in total national popular vote for the Tories dropped by about 219,000 votes – a 7.7 percent decline that cost the party 60 seats. By contrast, the NDP lost fewer seats (51) despite having a drop in popular vote that was well over 1 million.

The Trudeau Liberals vaulted from 3rd place to majority status on the strength of an increase in their vote in the range of 4.2 million more voters than in 2011. Of course, if you’re doing the math, you know that if the Liberals took every lost Tory and NDP vote, that still leaves a gap of a little over 2.9 million extra votes unaccounted for.

So, where did all those people come from?

The number to bear in mind is 17.4. This number was key to making Mr. Trudeau Prime Minister, and any decrease to that number changes the math dramatically. It’s a percentage and represents the change in voter turnout from 2011 to 2015, but not for the entire electorate. It applies specifically to one demographic – the 18-34-year olds – millennials. (Graph below)

Those aged 18 to 34 turned out in numbers that were wholly out of keeping with past elections. While many other demographics were up, such as over 65’s who were up about 7%, it was the millennial vote that took off like a rocket. As younger voters generally skew Liberal, this increase had a powerful impact on both the popular vote and the seat count. In short, he was exceedingly effective in converting potential voters into actual voters.

But it’s a double-edged sword.

The 18 to 34-year old demographic views politics differently, but not in the way you think. We get so used to pin pointing stances on individual issues that we commit the error of 'not seeing the forest for the trees.'

Think in terms of 'abstract' versus 'practical'. The abstract group views issues largely in terms of theoretical constructs. That is, they are more ideological. While not partisan, they do subscribe to labels like 'liberal' and 'conservative' in a more holistic fashion. It's a way of life, a lens through which one views the world.

Practical voters are not necessarily partisan either, but they view the world in terms of immediate concerns. There may be a 'unified general theory of society' running in the background, but if their political GPS is going to direct them into a farmer's field, they will drive on instinct and ignore the gadget on their dashboard.

Young voters are abstract, while older voters are practical. One worries about whether they will be able to survive twenty years from now, while the other worries whether they will be able to survive until their next pay day.

Abstract voters are naturally driven by big ideas, and big personalities. Justin Trudeau is, admittedly, the perfect avatar for abstract voters. It is less about policies and more about lifestyle, a kind of culture. It is about the 'brand'. This is not to suggest that abstract voters are not serious people – they are – but they are more about the ‘macro-ideology.’

Practical voters have some affinity for this, but they are more concerned with the fine print and the price. They've spent years dealing with how to make pay cheques cover housing, transportation, food and raising children. Life has made them cynical, as it does all of us at some point. They are ‘micro-ideological’. They will join on the journey to the New Jerusalem so long as there is a job and a place to live when they get there.

The polls reflect two things – ‘eligible’ voters (share of the general population), and ‘likely’ voters (those who are predicted to actually show up). Census data can give you the first number, but for the second one, you have to rely on the past, and that includes the last election where one demographic saw a huge spike.

If you look at historical data, for the 18-34 age group, you find that since 1965 there were only two times that their turnout was high - the last election under Justin Trudeau (first graph above), and the period between 1972 and 1980, under his father. The 1984 election which brought Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives in with the largest majority in Canadian history saw the participation rate for that group drop off a cliff, while the group of voters aged 55 and older saw a respectable increase (Graph below).[i]

Trudeau Senior kept his brand intact, but it was the consequence of economic decline, massive deficits and a decade of power (notwithstanding the Joe Clark interregnum) that tipped the scale. Trudeau Junior does not have a dramatically bad economy, but it is bad in key areas - and he has the deficits.

The real question is whether or not he still has the brand.

If he does, and the abstract ‘meta-ideology / world view’ holds, then 18 to 34-year olds will come out in similar numbers. But the Trudeau brand has to contend with at least three instances of brownface / blackface, the SNC Lavalin controversy, the treatment of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, as well as former Ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott. And the 18 to 34-year old voting demographic is the most volatile, being the most reactionary to negative campaigning and ‘inauthentic’ behaviour.

In short, as quickly as that group turned out for him in 2015, they can also turn away just as fast. And if that demographic is disillusioned enough to shift to the NDP or Greens – or just stay home – seat counts shift wildly.

This says nothing of the older demographic that may feel that the combination of virtue-signaling, lack of probity and declining economic prospects incentivizes coming out in good numbers.
Do not think that the parties do not understand this. Look at how each of them has framed their narratives and you can tell that they are trying to firm up their ground. Trudeau is campaigning on the macro-message (the awkwardly constructed “Choose Forward”) while the Tories are playing the micro-message (“It’s time for you to get ahead”). The NDP may very well have the perfect message, even if their policies are not great – “In it for you”. It is the perfect marriage of the macro and micro. Big picture enough for the idealistic, but immediate enough to answer individual concerns.

It won’t be enough to make Jagmeet Singh Prime Minister, but it’s enough to give Justin Trudeau issues. This says nothing of the far more substantive reputation of the Green Party when it comes to the climate change issue. The Prime Minister can try to ‘out green’ the Greens, but it is a strategy that would have very limited success.

In terms of the main contest for government, when the Liberals talk of cuts by provincial Conservative governments, they are trying to undermine the Tory message with ‘practical’ voters. When the Tories talk about scandals and instances of implied hypocrisy, it’s aimed squarely at shaking the ‘abstracts’. 

The best that the Liberals can hope for is some peripheral pickup of Conservative support or convince older voters to stay home. For the Tories, the options are greater, as they can simply nudge Liberal supporters to either the NDP or Greens, in addition to sitting this one out. A more volatile demographic with a low tolerance for negative campaigning and hypocritical actions, and with more options and alternatives to voting for the Liberals – this is the dynamic that doesn’t get captured fully in the polls – or at least the ones you can read for free on a news site.

And so, my unscientific gut feeling is that the people who want to punish Trudeau have more incentive - and alternatives - than those who want to keep him. I believe that millennial voter turnout will drop to more traditional levels and that older voters will come out at the rate they’ve been coming for years.

A quarter of the Canadian House of Commons will likely be decided on marginal votes, so if this scenario happens, the polls could be very wrong. Of course, 2019 could be a repeat of 2015 and this whole article would have been a waste of your time and mine.

October 22nd will reveal which is true.

[i] Source: "Youth Voter Turnout in Canada," Library of Parliament, 13 October 2016, https://bdp.parl.ca/sites/PublicWebsite/default/en_CA/ResearchPublications/2016104E#a5