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 (http://www.yimbytoronto.org/) 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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what changes under proportional representation?

The short answers are nothing and everything. Or to be more precise, very little and a lot. It all depends on your perspective and on the system being considered.

Elections:

Let’s start with election campaigns themselves. They won’t change dramatically but there will be subtle but important differences.

Central Campaign:

The central party campaign will still be important, as will the role of the party leader. They will continue to be the focus of media attention.

However parties will no longer be able to tell voters they need to vote tactically to prevent a horrible result. In fact such a tactic would likely backfire since, for example, a centrist party could form a coalition with either a leftist or rightist party. Voters worried about a rightist government would do better to elect more leftists than centrists.

Of course most people will just vote for whoever they believe best represents them. True centrists would be ambivalent to whether a coalition was left of centre or right.

That’s a small change but it is very important. Voters would be under no pressure to vote tactically. They could always vote sincerely.

Parties central campaigns would continue to be tactical as they present their stand on the issues they think will get them the most votes. Leftist parties will continue to campaign just to the left of the centrist party and rightist parties will campaign just to the right.

However it’s also possible that the left and right could each split into moderate and extreme groups, so that voters on all sides have choices. NDP too centrist for you? Vote for the Socialist Party instead. Conservatives too extreme, vote for the Progressive Conservatives. This will allow voters to be much more expressive in their voting choices.

Local Campaigns:

Outside of central campaign, there will be some minor changes in the local campaigns. The nature of these are partially dictated by the voting system. For example, under a pure list system or STV, parties will run regional candidates only. However no candidate can reasonably cover an entire region.

Instead candidates with regional visibility, such as popular incumbents and former media personalities, might devote most of their time to high profile events while less public figures will engage in ground campaigns targeting voters in their homes.

Of course, there will be fewer candidates in a region. While the Liberals were able to take all 25 Toronto seats in the 2015 federal election, they won’t do that under any proportional system. No party will run candidates that they know cannot win. So instead of 25 Liberal candidates, you may see anywhere from 12 to 20.

STV would probably see parties nominating the most candidates since they would need to have one or two more than they expect to be able to elect in a region. With STV requiring smaller regions, there will be more “also ran” candidates.

The converse is also true. STV may have smaller parties nominating fewer candidates than other systems. For example, when electing a single candidate would be a breakthrough for a party, they would need to nominate one per region. However if the system is MMP, the party may need to nominate candidates for each local seat to gain the ability to elect regional MPs.

Either way, from the point of view of a voter, the election campaign will look quite familiar. They’ll possibly see a local candidate from each party and will be bombarded with media coverage about other candidates from the same party.

Candidates will see a change in how they campaign. Well known candidates will concentrate more on big events while locally known candidates will focus more on their ground campaign.

Voting:

This is were the big difference will be seen. The big difference of course being the bigger ballot. While under our current system, voters are faced with only candidate from each party, under any proportional system they will have a choice of many.

This doesn’t mean that voters have to know each candidate in order to make a choice any more that it does in the current system. What it does mean is that voters don’t have to vote for the party hack their favourite party dropped into their riding. If they like the party, they just need to find one of its candidates they feel is worth voting for.

Of course the choices vary by voting system. In an Open List system, you could just mark an X beside the name of your favourite candidate from a list from each party. In MMP you could face the same choice as our current system for the local candidate but the same choice as for Open List for the regional candidate. In either case tactical voting never enters into the decision process.

Under STV voters face a more complicate task. Being able to rank multiple candidates from each party is not an easy task even for a tuned-in voter. To make the task more manageable, parties resort to drone cards which provides a suggested ranking. In Australia’s senate races, almost every voter simply checks off a party’s rankings rather than risk spoiling their ballot.

Or voters may simply choose to not fully rank the candidate, listing only a few that they may have opinions on. This risks their ballot being “exhausted” (no more ranked candidates) before all the candidates in the region have been elected.

Either way the myth of the exquisitely informed voter ranking all the candidates in a region to get the most say in the election doesn’t really hold up. Practicalities get in the way.

Government:

Forming the government:

Again nothing changes but everything changes. After an election, the Prime Minister will still have the choice of trying to continue to govern or step down. Since most governments will be coalitions now, the Prime Minister’s decision won’t be so cut and dried as it currently is.

For example, when Paul Martin led the Liberals to defeat in 2006, they were facing a minority Conservative government. The Liberals + NDP + Bloc still controlled the most seats. Even if Paul Martin resigned as party leader over his handling of the election, a centre-left coalition could still have retained power.
Or the Liberals and Conservatives could have formed a Grand Coalition in the style of Germany’s Social Democrats and Christian Democrats.

Of course the same could have happened in Canada in 2006 even under our current system. However our current system is not kind to minority governments. Any of the coalition partners could trigger an election the moment they believe they can win a phony majority. That’s what Martin did in 2005, a decision that ended his political career.

That doesn’t happen in proportional representation. The voters wouldn’t have needed an inept Liberal campaign to punish the Liberals for triggering an unnecessary election, and Martin wouldn’t have had the lure of a phony majority to entice him to call one.

However 2006 did have an election and Martin’s party came in second. If he couldn’t or wouldn’t continue as Prime Minister, Harper would have been offered the chance to form one. Again this is exactly what happened.

However a Harper minority would need the support of another party or parties. It’s an open question whether the 2008 election would have happened under a proportional system. While Harper may still have asked for one, the Governor General could also have offered the Liberals a chance to form a government.

When one tries to form a coalition under PR, there are a lot of items up for discussion. There are specific issues of platform and also cabinet posts. Even the coalition leader, the Prime Minister, could be negotiated. This gives the coalition partners not just a say but also a stake in making the coalition work.

It also prevents parties from forgetting their election promises. Every point on a government’s agenda will discussed with their coalition partners and will be passed by representatives of the majority of voters. Parties cannot abandon their platforms without the voters abandoning them.

Being the government:

The aftermath of the 2011 election would have been much different. Harper’s Conservatives would not have had control of parliament. None of their omnibus bills would have seen the light of day since no party would have supported them. Instead of land mines buried in mountains of paper, Parliament would have demanded clear bills and proper debate.

Parliamentary committees would be fairly composed of members from all parties. Their work would include measures presented by those parties and would be properly debated on its merits.

Any coalition would have more than one party in the cabinet so pool of potential cabinet ministers is larger and the chance of getting a good one improve. The power of the Prime Minister is also diminished since cabinet decisions are just that – cabinet decisions. With the Prime Minister losing absolute control over cabinet, it becomes more democratic.

With more parties being privileged to government discussions, corruption is harder to cover up.

Because previous legislation had been passed by representatives of the majority of voters, the new government is also less likely to have to waste effort repealing ideologically driven legislation or overturning appointments to key posts.

In short, government is more likely work for the people. But if it doesn’t, the voters can turf the bums out in the next election knowing that their votes actually count.

Wrapping up:

The changes proportional representation brings aren’t big and obvious. Instead they are mostly subtle yet profound. The gridlock we see in the U.S. doesn’t happen in nations that elect parliaments using proportional representation.

Also gone is the spectre of demagogues getting the nuclear codes. Even Hitler never won anywhere near a majority of the seats in the Reichstags. He needed the help of compliant industrialists to circumvent their constitution in order to take control.

Once implemented however, proportional representation has proved remarkably resilient against campaigns to remove it. The voters like being in control and are loath to give that up.

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Left versus right

Been noticing something that really seems to distinguish the left from the right in politics these days. The left is all about doing the right things while the right is all about winning.

Some 20 years ago a Director where I used to work categorized it as the difference between being process oriented versus results oriented but it’s not really that. Processes can be changed as can goals. What doesn’t seem to change is that some people don’t care about the damage they do so long as they win while others don’t see “winning” as being that important. It’s the left that values getting the right results while the right values processes that lead to victory.

If you watched HBO’s docu-dramas on the 2000 U.S. presidential race and more recently the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings where Anita Hill was dragged through the mud, you’ll understand what I mean. In both cases the Democrats wanted the truth to prevail no matter what it was while the Republicans wanted to make sure their guy won even he shouldn’t have.

In the former film, it was about finding out how the votes actually tallied, with the Republicans doing their best to stop a proper count. In the latter case it was wanting to get witnesses heard while the Republicans tried to discredit them and/or prevent them from testifying and/or using the news cycles to manipulate public perception.

Few children like to play with those who need to win at any cost. However when it comes to adult life where we don’t have to deal with them directly, our standards appear to be looser. Lots of people supported Rob Ford’s bullying and support Trump’s the same way.

Canada’s Liberals revealed the truth about their basic political orientation recently when they turned out in droves to support their Prime Minister’s bullying attempt to ram through the assisted dying bill.

My background is science and mathematics. They have changed the world more than all the conquerors and great leaders in history. They’ve been able to do this not by winning but by a dedication to getting the right results, no matter what they are.

Outside the ivory towers and research labs, it’s not always easy to figure out what the right results are. However we all should be aware that when something involves promoting hatred, bullying, lying, cheating or taking advantage of others then we shouldn’t be doing it.

Most of the big issues are not all that difficult to sort out if we all start with the simple premise that my group isn’t more important than your group. Unfortunately we get back to the original problem that some people just want to win. Their group will always be more important.

The way U.S. politics is going, we may soon have a megalomaniac with his finger on the nuclear trigger and the weight of the U.S. economy and military ready to ensure that “we’ll have so much winning, you’ll get bored with winning”. Half of America is cheering that premise.

That quite frankly scares the crap out of me.

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