Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Two Thoughts About the Late Jack Layton

I don't have a whole lot to add to what has already been said about Jack Layton, a man who regrettably I never met. There are two things, however, that deserve greater mention.

First,  I would like to commend Ed Broadbent for putting Jack Layton's name forward as leader to succeed Alexa McDonough.  Broadbent saw with remarkable clarity and prescience what kind of a leader Jack Layton would become. Specifically, Mr. Broadbent said that (1) Layton would bring a new energy to the leadership that would revitalize the party; and (2) Mr. Layton's background in civic and local politics would stand him in good stead in negotiating and forging compromises across party lines--a distinct virtue that made him the linchpin of the  three minority parliaments between 2004 and 2011.

Second, part of Layton's legacy is a paradox of political style.  He had been accused of being "plastic" a "gladhanding politician" and  a hog for the camera and microphone.  Yet  he struck many Canadians as being unusually authentic and sincere in standing up for the little guy--"Bon jack" as they say in Quebec. The explanation: it may be allright to be a "politician" if you're honest about it, good at  it, embrace the political life with gusto, and are genuinely sincere about the cause you are fighting for.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

...Then There's the Regional List Idea

A similar  proposal  that I had in mind would go back to having 50-60 single member constituencies in BC , like we had when I was in high school. The remaining members could be allocated to 6 different regional districts of 3-6 members each. The beauty of this system is that as the population shifts, there would not be a need to repeatedly increase the size of northern ridings; instead, one would just add members to the fastest growing regions. Having separate regional nominations for party lists would mean that the lists couldn't be controlled from party central or be dominated by a single region (e.g. metropolitan Vancouver).  As an additional feature, the regional lists could be "open lists" in which voters could rank the candidates offered by their favoured party. Again, the proportionality gains would be modest, as with STV-lite; but I think that we want them to be modest.  Proportionality and voter choice would be improved, without any serious sacrifice in terms of  the quality of local representation.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A Brief Commercial for "STV-Lite"---and for a More Deliberative Democracy

A recent posting by Rafe Mair at The Tyee on Parliamentary Reform reminds me of some of my own recommendations in light of the failed referendum on electoral reform in British Columbia.  If you believe that British Columbia suffers from excessive polarization, and are frustrated by the fact that outcomes are determined more by how one's opponent's votes are "wasted" or"split" than by the will of the people, then there is still something to be said for preferential voting.

I see the problem of the Citizens Assembly as one of deliberation in isolation, without a broader deliberative context. The track record of citizens' juries getting validated by the wider electorate is dismal because the wider electorate is not engaged in much deliberation at all.

Imagine if BC-STV had had the status of a legislative intiative that would have to be voted upon by the Legislative Assembly. Then each MLA would have to defend their position to the public. IF the Legislature could agree to an amendment to propose to the Citizens Assembly , the Citizens Assembly could then either accept the amendment or go to the people with the referendum. (For example, if I had been an MLA I would have proposed the "STV -lite" that I described above; if I were a member of the Citizens' Assembly, I would have accepted that as a "step in the right direction" with respect to the 3 criteria of proportionality, effective local representation, and voter equality.)

A process of this kind was totally missing in BC when virtually every member of the political elite avoided discussion of the referendum, killing it with silence. A better process would have been one which --like the Oregon health care reforms--would have kept legislators in the deliberative hotseat.
The result of STV-lite would not be highly proportional, but it would be majoritarian in the northern ridings without having to create monster ridings; and it would be mildly more proportional in the southern ridings without having to create monster ballots. There would be a more level playing field, with the elimination of most "safe seats" and the creation of constituencies that more closely resemble real communities like Richmond, Surrey, and Cariboo. While it is possible that few Greens and Independents would actually get elected, they would nonetheless be certain to become more influential as the candidates of the larger parties battled for the second preferences of voters. Something close to a true majority of voters would be reflected in the calculations of the government--even if it remained a two-party legislature! And the artificial exacerbation of political polarization by the electoral system would usually be greatly diminished.

While few educated people would regard this as an ideal system, few would deny that it would be an improvement over the status quo.

Monday, August 01, 2011

How Should I Vote on the HST? A Very Good Question

Back in the day when I was still a teenager, I came across works by economist Albert Hirschman and philosopher John Rawls recommending expenditure taxes as a way of reducing the trade-offs between equity and efficiency by encouraging savings and investment. An inveterate policy wonk, I then studied the issue and began advocating a VAT for Canada--about 5 years before Brian Mulroney proposed the GST. The fact that France and Sweden had two of the more egalitarian societies on Earth while collecting nearly half of their revenue from the VAT suggested that the "regressivity" of expenditure taxes (i.e. the fact that they hurt low incomes relatively more than high incomes, since the former must spend more of their income) was not dispositive. Exemptions for basic food clothing and shelter were all that was needed to preserve a measure of social justice. The promotion of saving and investment by all income groups would be good for jobs.

Accordingly, supporting the latest version of the expenditure tax for British Columbia should be a no-brainer. A single lower tax rate of 10% over a broader range of goods is more efficient administratively as well as economically. It is easier for everyone to have a single simple tax that is easily calculated in our heads. The inherent regressivity of expenditure taxes can be offset by the improved economic trade-offs and ameliorated by exemptions on basic food, clothing, and shelter.

The problem has been the BC government's amazing ability to turn a good idea into a bad one. This stemmed from the Campbell Liberals' basic attitude: that it was important to listen carefully to big business, but everyone else's opinion was to be "managed". The successful infliction of pain in the 2001-2003 "New Era" cutbacks --which meant that voters could be made to forget in time for the next election--clearly taught Gordon to go early with the plan and to count on peoples' short memories. The successful selling of the carbon tax--a revenue neutral exercise that swapped carbon taxes for income tax cuts-- had enabled the Liberals to get away with a risky policy that no one else in North America had dared to try.  These two precedents clearly guided Campbell's reasoning about the substance and timing of the HST, which turned out to be disastrously ill-conceived,  ill-timed and poorly explained. No doubt he was also panicked by the need to remedy his embarrassingly large budget deficit, at least 3 times as big as he had maintained during the 2009 election.

The difficulty lay in Campbell's obliviousness and/or indifference to other features of the political context that made his version of the HST politically suicidal:

First, by using it initially as a revenue grab by extending the 12% (5% GST plus 7% PST) tax to a wider range of goods and services. 

Second, by using that revenue to pay for corporate tax cuts--making the sales tax even more regressive, instead of less regressive; albeit under the cover of pseudo-justice  rhetoric about "revenue neutrality".

Third, by not revealing any interest in the concept during the 2009 election campaign, and then bringing the HST in suspiciously soon afterwards.

Fourth, by introducing this regressive tax shift ($1.8 billion worth) just as the province was sliding into the worst recession in 75 years. (Deep recessions are normally the best  time to reduce the tax burdens of lower income groups, not to raise them.)

Fifth, by persisting with an Orwellian referendum question in which yes to The HST means voting "no" and saying no means "yes".

Sixth, after a huge political cock-up caused by the government's inability to trust the voters, and after gouging small businesses for over a  year, and forcing small businesses to change their accounting and computing systems twice,  the government is now asking the voters to trust it to bring in the lower 10% rate in three years , after the next election.

SO, should you hold your nose and vote "No" for the 10% HST on the grounds that that was always the best policy? Or "Yes" on the grounds that the government has obviously not earned your trust, and that to do otherwise is to reinforce and validate bad behaviour?

Let's just say that I am glad to be in Edmonton, sitting this one out.