The impact of electoral systems on terrorism

One thing I will note is that nations that use winner-take-all elections are the main targets of these nutbars. When people feel their votes don’t count (a feature of winner-take-all elections), they feel a greater legitimacy to using violence.

Another reason is that some politicians use the attacks to promote their own xenophobic agendas, which makes the nation an even more appealing target to those whose message is “the West hates us”.

A third reason is that these nations generally have poorer social programs than nations using proportional representation. More people are likely to feel left out of the economic life of the nation.

The U.K. and France are the main targets in Europe. The U.K uses first past the post while France uses a two-round system. While terrorism occurs in other European nations, these two seem to bear the brunt. Indeed, one of the exceptions, Norway, spawned a terrorist who claimed to be trying to preserve his nation against immigrants who threatened it.

In the U.K., May is also pushing the Brexit agenda on the backs of refugees. In France, La Pen’s poisonous message was amplified when she made it to the second round of the Presidential election.

And of course I don’t need to remind anyone of what just happened in the U.S. thanks to their double winner-take-all Presidential race. Not only do they elect a powerful President but they do so using a series of winner-take-all state by state races where, save for a few states, the candidate with the most votes in that state gets all of their electoral college votes. The electoral college then hold the actual winner-take-all presidential election.

Electoral systems are far from being the only determinant of a nation’s vulnerability but they do seem, on the surface, to play a role. When you divide the voters into opposing camps the way winner-take-all elections do, anger is almost inevitable.

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when rocks hit people.

I was curling today and ran into an issue of sportsmanship – something that curling is associated with (it’s considered essential). It happened in the first end of a game where I skipped one team but my second throws 4th stones so I was in the house for the final shot.

The shot missed its target but raised another stone into the rings after it deflected off another stone. It didn’t have a lot of momentum but was heading into the 8-foot ring when it was stopped by the opposing vice’s foot.

In this instance the rule is clear that the non-offending team gets to place the rock where they believe it would have ended up had it not been interfered with. It is expected that this will be done in good faith.

Now clearly she didn’t see the rock or she would have avoided it. However she did feel it when it touched her shoe which was half in the 8 foot ring. I did see it and was moving to sweep it but didn’t get the chance.

In my judgment the rock would have moved fully into the 8 foot ring – a distance of 12 – 15″ from the point of impact – but not much further. This led to acrimony from the opposing vice who, despite not seeing the rock when it was moving, believed it would have traveled only a couple of inches.

The difference was significant as they had one stone partially in the 8 foot and another just fully in. They also had a rock midway in the 8 foot. The distance the rock would have traveled would make the difference between them scoring 1, 2 or 3. In fact, if the rock slid 6 inches further than I thought it would, we would have scored 1.

Anyone whose watched rocks slide in the house knows that sometimes rocks slide and sometimes they dig in. It’s not easy to predict. And that’s watching the stone move. We have even less experience feeling stones bump our feet – it just doesn’t happen that often.

As a side point, I will note that the force required to move a stone is actually larger than the force required to stop a stone. That’s because the static friction between two objects is larger than the sliding friction. To move a stone, you have to overcome the static friction. That’s why curlers never start their slide with a stone at rest. However when curlers move rocks with their feet, they are usually at rest so they may mistake the force required to move a stone for the lesser force required to stop one.

I placed the rock where I thought it would have stopped then looked around to see how many points we gave up. It turned out to be 1.

That should have been the end of the discussion. Unfortunately it wasn’t. Because I don’t throw 4th stones, I was in the house and not my vice. The other vice tried to suggest that my vice should have made the call, even though she was not in the house at the time the incident occurred.

The rule actually doesn’t specify that. Anyone on the non-offending team who feels competent in placing the rock can do it. This would be someone who observed the incident. The vices merely agree on the score after each end.

It’s unfortunate that sometimes players do get in the way of rocks and we don’t have instant playback to document the incident. It’s also unfortunate that these incidents typically occur when players are busy in the house and distracted.  However these incidents are generally resolved with no hard feelings and no accusations of malfeasance.

That’s one of the great things about curling.

BTW: the game ended in a tie.

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Why do people fall for obvious fallacies?

I keep having the same discussions with different people about the same topics. People don’t seem to use their critical reasoning faculties very often. Instead they simply accept whatever shallow lie is presented by someone who seems to know what they are talking about.

I don’t expect people to be experts in all subjects but we all should at least base our beliefs on things that are reasonable. OK, so that lets out religion, but that’s never going to be rational anyway…

Recently I’ve been having yet another “discussion” with a person who believes fiercely that proportional representation (PR) is all about giving more power to the party leader, letting them pick candidates with no one outside of the party executive having a say in the matter. This is obviously so completely ridiculous that I have difficulty understanding what thought processes could lead someone to that conclusion.

For example, in Canada the LPC leader has the power to appoint candidates in ridings. This is unique among major federal parties because it is so undemocratic. Riding associations rebel at having their decisions overruled, so even the most autocratic party leader rarely uses it.

Yet this person believes that is how parties would choose their candidates if we adopted some version of PR. Apparently party members would suddenly turn into sheep with a level of subservience to their leader that would have astonished even Hitler.

I also am astonished by people who believe that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by green energy firms in order to destroy the fossil fuel industry. Amazingly they believe that climate scientists are being bought en mass by the green energy lobby yet are somehow resistant to the lure of money from the far larger and more profitable fossil fuel industry.

Then there are the people who believe that millions of people vote illegally in the U.S. elections and that they do so almost entirely on behalf of the Democrats. They do this despite numerous studies showing that voter fraud is rare and despite the Republicans demonstrably being the party more willing to play dirty to get what they want.

Staying with American politics, it’s also instructive to note that the Republican states pursuit of small government has made them worse economic performers than Democrat states. The Republican solution has been to go even further in their pursuit of ideological purity despite its demonstrated failures.

Compared to this, anti-vaxxers almost seem reasonable. At least they have the coincidence of timing between early childhood vaccinations and developmental problems like autism. However that coincidence has been studied to death and been found to be just that – a coincidence. A lot happens in first half decade of a child’s life so there are lots of correlations to autism.

However the anti-vaxxers go further and suggest alternative treatments that are either ineffective or dangerous or both. At some point you have to say the “cure” is worse than the disease.

Finally (well at least for the sake of this article) there are the 9/11 truthers who are convinced that the World Trade Center was destroyed by controlled explosions rather than by the planes flying into them. This is so astonishingly absurd that it’s difficult to see how anyone could take it seriously.

If the buildings were destroyed by controlled explosions, why fly planes into them? Alternatively, why destroy the buildings when merely flying planes into them is enough of an atrocity to justify any war? Whatever justification either conspiracy might have vanishes when you ask people to believe that there are two redundant conspiracies in play.

It’s a complex world but we can make some sense of it when we stick to facts, evidence and reason. When asked to believe something, question first if there are obvious flaws in the argument for it. While the Nazis invented the “big lie”, they were hardly its last practitioners.

Posted in Economics, Education, Electoral Reform, Environment, Health & Healthcare, History, Labour, Politics, Religion, Science and Mathematics, social programs | Leave a comment

A clear and present danger

While Trump’s executive orders continue to face problems in the courts, to the delight of progressives everywhere, there is an underlying danger that Americans don’t seem to recognize. The Republicans control both the House and Senate which gives them the ability to modify laws that prevent Trump from keeping his promises.

To make matters worse, the Republicans control enough states that even amending the constitution is not beyond their reach should the judiciary continue to stand in their way. However, with Trump’s Supreme Court nominee likely to be confirmed within weeks or months, that extreme action may not be necessary. Right-wingers have a long history of bending to the will of money and power and Trump’s appointees already agree with him on most issues.

Of course, the Republicans may look at the train wreck that is the Trump presidency and decide to end it. However the line of succession leads directly to Pence, someone who largely agrees with Trump but has more political skills.

He will likely prove even harder to stop as he will do his homework before issuing similar executive orders. And he is a long-time Republican, so he will almost certainly enjoy carte blanch with Congress.

Under either person, American democracy is at extreme risk.

As a Canadian, I have great concerns that the American mess may migrate North. While we have over two years before our next election, Trudeau has demonstrated a lack of experience in dealing with hard issues. An American president with a different world view will likely eat him for breakfast.

And when the 2019 election rolls around, who’s to say the Canadian voters won’t elect O’Leary after our economy tanks thanks to the U.S. economy failing under Trump? After all, the American voters came out in large numbers for a “business person” despite their economy being in fairly good shape. O’Leary will have little trouble convincing the Canadian voters that Trudeau is to blame for a very real economic mess.

Trudeau could have inoculated our elections against such a happening by keeping his promise on electoral reform. That would have forced the Conservatives to win 50% of the vote to gain control of Parliament. Instead he killed the initiative (another sign that he is a political lightweight) which means that the Conservatives won’t even need 40% of the vote to get a phony majority.

O’Leary of course is as much a monster as Trump. The difference is Trump has shown how to win an election using anger and misdirection. O’Leary will have no trouble adapting it to our politics. After all, he too has mastered reality T.V..

We’ve known since Kennedy versus Nixon that television performance wins elections. Reagan used it to great effect despite numerous scandals to convince people to elect him state governor and president.

Canadian democracy may not be under as great a threat as the American. After all, the Prime Minister already has extraordinary powers thanks to the false majorities our electoral system regularly bestows. Someone wanting to rule as an autocrat already has all the tools they need.

However it is still a threat that we shouldn’t be facing. Trudeau could have ensured the continuation of our democracy by keeping his promise to make every vote count.

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Could it happen here?

Watching the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and catching glimpses of their other races when I tune in to a U.S. station whose signal hasn’t been replaced by a Canadian channel showing the same program, I am forced to confront the question often asked about the Holocaust: “could it happen here?”

While the results aren’t even being reported as I write this, most Canadians reportedly fear a Trump presidency as much as I do. Even if the election turns out to be a historic rout, it will still be too close for comfort.

The current U.S. elections highlight everything that is wrong with winner-take-all elections. The most obvious is the way that voters are forced into one of two camps. Choosing to vote for a third party is the same as not voting at all.

Analysis of why people support Trump for President shows that a very large share of his support comes from people who simply refuse to vote Democrat. Lifelong Republicans choose to vote for a candidate they loath over a party they despise. That explains why the race is as close as it is. Hitler, who was a far more disciplined and effective leader than Trump, never attracted more than about 1/3 of the votes because German voters had more choices than American voters.

Holding your nose while voting is familiar to Canadian voters but in our case the stakes aren’t as high. We can often elect a minority government, which keeps the Prime Minister in check. Moreover, because the Prime Minister is the leader of the largest party, it is almost always clear who gets the blame for legislation and whatever mess ensues.

In the U.S., their “checks and balances” serve to obscure whether the President or Congress are why things aren’t getting done because the President and Congress are at odds. The blame game becomes a national pastime.

The acrimony is exacerbated by the presence of big money in U.S. elections. This not only serves to keep out third parties but also to make attacks on the opposition more effective. With usually only two candidates able to raise the money to mount effective campaigns and with both of them being relentlessly attacked, it’s easy to see why Americans are disillusioned with their elections.

In Canada we usually have strict controls over campaign finances and special interest campaigns. This limits the impact of attack ads but they still have some effect.

The Americans also have a unique system of primaries where party nominations are opened to the public to decide. This leads to lengthy campaigns where the attacks begin before the nominees are chosen.

To stop this, the American Fair Vote campaign seems to have abandoned their promotion of proportional representation and instead focus on eliminating primaries by replacing elections with Instant Runoffs. This is a poorly thought out decision since that system precludes removing money from their electoral system (big money simply finances multiple cooperative campaigns).

In Canada the Liberals have consistently promoted Instant Runoffs, which they call Ranked Ballots or Preferential Voting. Should they actually bring in such a system, our elections would become more like the American ones, with money playing a larger role and smaller parties facing even greater barriers to winning seats.

Moreover, the French two-round system has already vaulted a neo-Nazi party into second place in their polls, possibly soon to be followed up in their parliament. Instant runoffs won’t change this possibility.

Conversely, if the Liberals keep their promise to “make every vote count”, which can only be accomplished by proportional representation, our elections will become more like the European ones, where voters get real choices and where extremist views are relegated to minor parties that are usually considered too toxic to include in coalitions.

We’re seeing in the Conservative leadership race that some candidates are attempting to emulate Trump by appealing to the same racism and xenophobia he tapped. In the U.K., Brexit proved that such feelings can hold sway. Indeed, the U.K. system is largely the same as ours and they were able to elect people like Thatcher.

While there are features in our electoral system that make electing a Trump less likely, the presence of significant 3rd and 4th parties also allow for a party led by a Trump-like figure to win a phony majority with even less than the 45+% it typically takes to elect the U.S. President.

Our best bet for preventing giving a demagogue control over our government is to fix the phony majorities our system allows. This requires moving to proportional representation. While there is no system that can prevent demagoguery, proportional representation offers the fewest possibilities of it happening.

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Electoral Reform at YIMBY

I was at the YIMBY festival ( yesterday at the Fair Vote Toronto table promoting electoral reform. Unfortunately there was another group there as well opposing real electoral reform. That’s the way YIMBY operates – they don’t judge, they just present a forum for groups.

The group opposing real electoral reform represents everything I oppose in public forums. It’s not that they are against electoral reform, although such a position cannot be supported by facts, evidence or reason, but rather that they don’t campaign honestly.

Rather than presenting the facts about what they want, they instead spin stories about how elections could work, with the implication that their proposal would do that.

Let’s start with the basics: there are two categories of electoral systems, winner-take-all and proportional representation.

Winner-take-all systems work by giving one group representation in each district and denying representation to all others. They are governed by Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem which dictates that there is no perfect way of electing MPs using winner-take-all elections. There are only different tradeoffs. Switching from one winner-take-all system to another is a distinction without a difference – a phony reform.

Proportional systems work by each voter choosing who they feel best represents them. Providing that enough other voters agree with them, that person is one of the MPs elected in the region. Multiple groups gain representation in each region, limited only by the number of MPs to be elected in that region.

While winner-take-all systems and proportional systems are each used by roughly half the world’s democracies, almost all industrial democracies use proportional representation while winner-take-all elections are mainly used by poorer nations and former British colonies.

The specific proposal the other group advocates is a system that is so unpopular that it is currently used only by one nation. The various other nations (including 3 Canadian provinces) that tried it have all dropped it.

So why is this other group advocating it? One needs only look at who they are to understand. They are a mixture of opponents of proportional representation and young people who, as young people are prone to do, have become convinced of the justness of their cause more by the flaws of the current system than by evidence that their position is any better.

Neither opponents of proportional representation nor young zealots can actually defend their positions based on facts, evidence and reason so instead they resort to the usual marketing / spin doctoring tactics that have served the tobacco and fossil fuel industries so well.

I keep hoping that YIMBY organizers will change their policies to actually look at what the various groups are advocating before we start seeing groups like the Clean Coal Coalition, Friends of Science and other ironically named groups showing up. I’m not going to hold my breath waiting.

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Lessons unlearned

Napoleon once said “The greatest general is he who makes the fewest mistakes.” More than perhaps anyone else, he knew how to conduct a campaign, sweeping aside European armies as he conquered.

He also said ‘The art of war consists in bringing to bear with an inferior army a superiority of force at the point at which one attacks or is attacked.’ The armies of Europe outnumbered his but he found ways to take his smaller numbers from victory to victory by keeping his enemies divided and his forces concentrated.

Finally he said ‘The art of war is an immense study, which encompasses all others.’ Lessons learned from wars can serve to inform other campaigns.

For example, we can look at the unsuccessful attempt by Bill Clinton to bring in universal health care during his presidency. At the time there was great interest in such a plan and the majority of both houses could almost certainly have been talked into supporting it.

However, despite the hope and momentum, nothing ever came of it. Napoleon could have predicted the outcome.

Rather than assembling the advocates of a universal system behind the notion of universality and dismissing the various competing systems as implementation details, Clinton’s campaign for universal health care resembled more Chairman Mao’s hundred flowers. Everyone and their brother pitched their own ideas about how to implement it, while arguing that there were fatal flaws in competing systems. This was heavily encouraged by opponents of universal health care who spent vast sums confusing the issues.

In the end, the whole enterprise disbanded in confusion, accomplishing nothing.

In Canada today, there is similar grand hopes that we might finally get a fair voting system. And like Clinton’s health care reform campaign, there is no real attempt to organize around the principle of proportionality. Instead we see a hundred different ideas of what a perfect system should be, with advocates promoting their favourite flavour and disparaging the systems they feel aren’t ideal.

Fair Vote Canada, which should be devoting all of its scant resources to promote proportionality is instead splitting its energies between explaining various systems and promoting a particular system that no one else has ever proposed for Canada.

The subtext of all this seems to be that proportional representation, like universal health care, is an immensely complicated undertaking that requires extensive study to ensure you don’t get it wrong.

This will of course astound anyone with experience in either proportional representation or universal health care. Both are widely used throughout the world with many different implementations. In actual use it seems that the exact model really is just an implementation detail that is secondary to the principles of universality/proportionality.

As Clinton found out in the 1990s, the opponents of reform have far more money to throw into the campaign than advocates of change. Advocates of change need to concentrate their resources on the key issues to win. Being right on the issue doesn’t ensure victory.

All that opponents of change have to do is prevent you from producing a clear and coherent message. They thrive on sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt. When advocates for change join them in confusing the issue, the campaign is lost.

Two centuries ago, Napoleon demonstrated how to win and how to lose campaigns. Two decades ago, Clinton demonstrated how to lose a campaign. It’s appalling that today’s advocates for electoral reform display such a shocking ignorance of history in conducting their campaigns.

Make no mistake, proportional representation is a safe choice. You really have to work at it to screw it up. Unfortunately you’d never know that from listening to many of its advocates.

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