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Some (historical) perspective, please…

What I try to offer in this blog is a political scientific perspective on current political events… but every so often I am given to invective.  This is one of those times.  The catalyst for my rant is Jeffrey Simpson’s column in the Globe ( (Gawd, Simpson’s game has really declined these past 10 years.) Simpson asks “How many changes to and assaults on democratic institutions and practices under the Harper Conservatives might outlive their time in office?”

My problem with this (loaded) question is that it implies that the “assault on [Canada’s] democratic institutions and practices” began with Harper. It did not – and Simpson as a columnist who has actually read (and written) some Canadian political history – damned well knows that.  Simpson tut-tuts about Harper’s cynical reliance on omnibus bills that undercut parliamentary scrutiny.  Well, a neat paper by Louis Massicotte in the Canadian Parliamentary Review ( tells us that the first omnibus bills introduced in the House of Commons were introduced by…. Pierre Eliott Trudeau.

As to the demise of parliamentary scrutiny, well, that went the way of the dodo bird when in 1968 the House stopped debating the financial resolution, i.e., stopped going through the estimates line by line ( The House (to quote the commentary on the SOs) found this detailed analysis of the budget to be ““time‑consuming, repetitive and archaic” (  I read a column a few months back that decried the fact that nobody in Parliament nowadays really knows what the government spends where and how, including the government… can’t find the link tho.

OK, I am wandering a bit now, but my broad point is that virtually every low parliamentary trick the Conservatives have engaged in has a precedent in Canadian political history:

  • Did you think that closing off debate on C-51 was high-handed?  Well, remember CD Howe and the Pipeline debate?
  • Were you outraged when Harper prorogued the House to prevent the Liberal-NDP coalition from displacing him?  Well, John A. requested a prorogation from Dufferin to escape the fallout from the CPR scandal (which was, recall, about kickbacks to fund electioneering.)
  • How cynical was it for Harper to ask for a dissolution in 2008 despite having introduced fixed-election date legislation? No more cynical than King’s request for a dissolution from Byng to try escape from the consequences of the Custom House scandal. (And, boy, if you think Harper is dislikeable, you should read Allan Levine’s 2012 bio of WLMK – King was a weird, self-righteous weasel! I mean, this was a PM who reputedly threatened to sack his housekeeper for giving a cup of tea to a homeless guy in the middle of an Ottawa winter night…)
  • Upset about the Duffy affair… Certainly, tawdry, but no more so than a certain former PM’s relationship with a certain German-Canadian arms dealer.
  • Picking unseemly fights with unelected officials? Hmmm… the Coyne Affair.

It would be all to easy to add a dozen more examples. Folks, Harper is not the origin of the decline of our democracy.  Rather, it could be argued that he & his style of government are a consequence of a long series of “assaults on our democratic institutions.”

And to close my post on historical perspective, let me comment on Kathleen Wynn’s jab at Harper:  “I’ve said that if Stephen Harper had been the Prime Minister instead of Sir John A. Macdonald and B.C. had said ‘well we need a railway,’ he would have said ‘well, you know, we’re not going to help you with that, build it yourself,“’ Wynne said (

The unintended historical irony in Wynn’s comment is that it pretty much sums up Edward Blake’s position on the CPR.  And who was Edward Blake?  The second leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.




Election thoughts

Well, the writ was dropped a few days ago.  I am going to try write regularly about the election and related political issues through the course of the campaign.  Here are some of the things on my mind; I’ll write extensively on these topics over the next few weeks:

  1. Duverger’s Law in Action:  As I see it, the Liberals are in tough.  They look every part a third-place party in an increasingly two-party system.  I have not looked at the Vote Compass yet, but my sense is that the decline of Quebec separatism has meant that we are operating in a mainly unidimensional political system.  That plus FPTP means big trouble for the Liberals.  I doubt they have either the leader or the $ to withstand the force of the electoral system.
  2. Money and the length of the campaign:  There were several editorials expressing outrage that Harper called the election so as to drag out the campaign. This is widely seen as a ploy to maximize the Conservatives’ financial advantage over their rivals.  Firstly, I am shocked – shocked and dismayed, I tell you – that a sitting PM would sink to such manipulation…. I mean, it’s almost like he’s trying to win the election, and no, no Canadian PM before Harper has ever done anything remotely self-interested; they were all practically saints (especially the Liberal ones) before that Nixonian charlatan stole the premiership from that nice Mr. Martin.  Secondly, and more seriously, I think its worth exploring i) what political science tells us about the impact of campaign spending on election outcomes, and ii) exactly how the Tories have altered campaign finance rules in the last few years. That may be a bit dry – but it’s important – and the regular press won’t do it… they are too busy being shocked and outraged by Harper.
  3. The parties’ records:  I find it interesting to think about how the parties have and are trying to position themselves.  What’s Harper’s record left him with?  Is the Liberals’ decision to support C-51 going to dog them? What about the Liberals’ choice to run to the left of the NDP? How many times can Mulcair say that the NDP will not soak the rich under his watch before the rank and file spit the dummy? I’ll try be dispassionate…but frankly with this crew it’s very difficult not to slide into despair and cynicism.

Wow, it’s been a long time since I posted anything!  What have I been doing?  Work-wise, I have been busy helping my Ph.D. student, Clare McGovern defend her dissertation.  Yay! you’re done Dr. Clare!!  I have been busy writing papers … Continue reading

Of Monsters & Priors

Wow! Long time since I blogged; all caught up travelling and entering data. (Little known fact from said data entry: more tax was collected in Derby than in cities several times its size in the 1850s & 60s — and this was solely due to the great wealth & extensive holdings of two of the city’s inhabitants: The Duke of Devonshire & the brewer, Michael T Bass!)

Anyway, on with the blog post, the subject of which is the relationship between our prior beliefs and the evidence we confront (or, as it happens, avoid confronting). This was provoked by a conversation that I had with Hadrian (my 5-year old son) as we walked home from school yesterday.

“Dad, there was a monster in the school today.”

“Really? Did you see it?”

“No, but there was a funny fishy smell in the bathroom. In the girls’ bathrooms too! Oh, we [i.e. Shea (H’s best friend) & Hadrian] didn’t go in the girls’ bathroom… boys aren’t allowed to, but we sent Stella in to smell and it was fishy there too. It was the giant fish monster, for sure!”

“It was probably just a backed up pipe…There are no giant fish monsters in your school bathroom. It couldn’t fit for one thing.”

“No, it was a fish monster… one that could mutate and change size, obviously” (Hadrian really does say “obviously” … mostly when he’s explaining things to one of his dear but oh so dim parents, as in “Oh, Daddy[sigh], obviously…”)

“There are no monster, no mutant fish monsters, and not in your school bathroom… and the fishy smell could have been a lot of things, a backed up pipe, smelly garbage cans… Let me ask you, what do you think the chances of just running into a monster are?”

“About 50-50.”

“What about in closets or under beds?”

“Closets, about a lot, almost a thousand! Under beds about 50-50. And outside there a lot too.”

“Well we have very different priors: I think there’s zero chance of running into a monster, and I think a lot of stuff could cause the fishy smell, so I’m pretty sure there was no giant fish monster in your school bathroom.”

Small silence…..

“It was a mutant fish monster, I said.”

Now, I can’t claim to be a Bayesian statistician and I’m not much of a philosopher, but what I found interesting about this conversation was relationship between priors and evidence.  As funny/cute/odd/fantastic as Hadrian’s priors of running into monsters are, they are not the real problem with his reasoning.  Certainly, the strength of Hadrian’s priors strongly effect his conclusions:  if you start out believing that it’s a virtual certainly — about 1000, no less! — that there are monsters in closets, you’re likely to conclude that ther IS and monster in THAT closet.  The real problem with H’s reasoning is that he takes virtually all evidence as confirming his priors – hence his ex post certainty about a monster in the school bathroom after encountering the “fishy smell.” (Well, to be fair to Hadrian, Stella did provide independent confirmation of the smell.) This got me thinking about how often  social scientists (including me too often) operate similarly:  we have in mind a particular causal explanation and then seize on any piece of evidence that’s consistent with that explanation as confirming our pet explanation.  But unless the evidence we encounter is particularly well identified, i.e., it could only be caused in one particular way (and we are aware that it could only be caused in that way), confirmatory evidence is pretty useless.  ….Then again, it could have been a fish monster….of the mutant sort, of course – even dads know a giant one couldn’t fit!

Paying politicians

My friend, Simon Hix (LSE) retweeted a column in the Economist about the recent Straw-Rifkind cash-for-lobbying scandal.  The Economist’s view was that these sorts of issues (broadly, MPs having to seek outside income) could be avoided by paying UK MPs more. I’ve actually been doing research on this topic, and I’ve read a fair number of academic papers on the topic.  Let me offer some off-the-cuff remarks on the basis of what I’ve found in my data and what I have read:

  • Paying politicians is a double-edged sword:  increases in pay theoretically attract “better” types into politics, but they also attract “bad” types who are motivated solely by the money.  The idea is that these bad types have very poor options in the outside economy, but if political pay is high, then the bad type might as well “buy a lottery ticket” as it were and run for office.  So say Caselli and Morelli (2001). It then becomes an empirical question whether good types outnumber bad types among candidates, and if elections are somewhat random you may end up electing more bad types.
  • It’s actually very hard to assess the impact of improved pay on legislators because in most legislatures all members receive the same pay.  This makes it hard to disentangle changes effected by the improved pay from those effected by, e.g., simultaneous changes in the outside economy. (Certainly, we pay ministers & such more, but ministers get all sorts of other perks & influence that we can’t tell whether it’s the pay or the other perks that make minister different from backbenchers.)  There are some exceptions to this rule:  MEPs used to be paid what their respective national MPs were paid.  This meant that, e.g., Bulgarian MEPs  made less than German or French MEPs.  This rule was then changed so that the MEPs from lower-paying countries secured a significant raise.  Fisman et. al. (2012) looked at how MEPs responded to this change:  the results were in line with the Caselli and Morrelli predictions:  the educational level of MEPs elected in the effected countries declined and the number of candidate running increased in line with home country corruption, i.e., bad types were increasingly attracted to office.
  • My own analysis of the impact of pay increases on Canadian MPs suggests to me that the returns to increased pay in countries like Canada will be small.  The reason is that Canadian MPs’ pay levels already put them into something like the top-3% of income earners in Canada.  So any pay increases are likely to produce very marginal changes in behaviour.  Also, given the long right tail that characterizes the income distribution (especially in a place like London), you have to think about how much you are going to have to increase MPs salaries to effect visible behavioural change, x 2, x 3 of the current rate? And per my point above, how would you know if this pay increase worked?  It is precisely because these effects operate at the margin that I think that papers showing real & positive changes from paying politicians in, e.g., Brazilian municipalities (see Ferraz and Finan 2008), are of limited relevance to national legislators in advanced industrial democracies.
  • My intuition is that a strategy-proof contract would pay politicians sufficiently to make them indifferent between entering politics or continuing to operate in the outside economy. So we’d pay a MD or a corporate lawyer a lot more to be an MP than a school teacher.  Now, you’d probably have to offer a bit more compensation given that MPs travel extensively and must maintain a 2nd residence. For example, you’d have to pay me a LOT to trek from Vancouver to Ottawa in February.  Ottawa… Ugh.  But, then, somebody from say, Hull or Sheffield (apologies) might pay to be able to live and work in London. I’m just saying.
  • I think we ought to worry about just two things when it comes to paying politicians:  1) do we pay them sufficiently to ensure that Parliament is representative, especially in an economic sense.  Recall that MPs were not paid prior to about 1910, and the House was at that time the preserve of plutocrats – not good.  2) Do we pay politicians sufficiently to ensure probity in office?  This was the Economist’s argument – and there’s something to it.  However, as I pointed out above, simply raising pay may not achieve this end – you could just attract more bad types to Parliament.  It may be more effective to offer a lucrative pension subject to good behaviour & contingent on staying out of lobbying etc. after leaving politics.  I’d love to hear from some micro-economists about that idea.