Poll-ee crap

I’m not sure how this happened, but apparently I’m the last person Frank Graves tweeted to before he left the building:

I had made an observation that EKOS was finding Green voter intentions to be much higher than the actual election result, while Nanos (among others) was closer. I believe this result comes, in part, because Nanos does not prompt poll respondents potential party choices in their question, which more accurately reflects what goes on in the voting booth (yes, the party names are on the ballot, but EKOS wasn’t prompting for the Rhinoceros Party or the Marxist-Leninists as well). These methodological differences can create substantial gaps in the results, especially for a small party like the Greens, where voter responses are driven just as much as how they want the Green Party to look in the polls as their actual voting intentions. The lack of actual observations to compare polls to elections makes it hard to make the case decisively, but I think EKOS does need to consider this factor.

I’m sure it’s merely a timing thing, but it’s weird nonetheless to feel like I’m holding the last correspondence someone sent before falling into the Witness Protection Program. This is, in all honesty, completely messed up. Public opinion polling is overwhelming an apolitical affair. Pollsters follow elections and run voter intention polls as a form of proving their art, as to demonstrate their methodology to commercial clients, the true cash cows of polling. They have little to no incentive to bugger up their political polls. While I do find the increased demand for pollsters to act as commentators to be unfortunate, the rationale for them filling that demand is the same: increased exposure for commercial clients. That anyone would harass a pollster for other people’s responses is, not only obviously criminal and heinous, but also idiotic and delusional.

Pots and kettles

Margaret Wente is obvious in her political bias, but her lessons are sound.

Take the so-called ethnic vote. When the Liberals courted new Canadians, it was smart. When the Conservatives do it, it’s sleazy. During the campaign, the CBC assembled countless panels of ethnic people to express their disgust at this condescending and divisive tactic. Amazingly, however, ethnic voters seemed glad to have important cabinet ministers show up in their ridings. They liked the focus on stability and a strong economy. Besides, the Liberals hadn’t been around for years.

As a “very ethnic” voter, the tone-deaf attacks on Conservative targetted campaigning were maddening. We are well aware that the Liberals and NDP spent just as long, if not longer, hobnobbing with visible minority community leaders to try to take their votes. The Tories were guilty, if anything, of being a bit too blunt in their approach.

Attacking them for that, though, yields no dividends. Either you are persuaded by this type of approach, and the ham-fisted style probably bought some brownie points: they’re not perfect, but they’re trying. Or you are indeed turned off by the divisiveness, and are just reminded that the attackers are hypocrites. If you’re running for office and you don’t like your opponent’s tactics, rather than the fact that they’re being applied to you, the first thing to do is to stop doing them yourself.

I work for an interesting department

I know this because every time I tweet about something interesting, I have to add another two tweets to cover my ass for possible conflicts of interest.

White elephants and brow height

Quebec Conservative MPs wear Quebec Nordique jerseys during a caucus meeting in Quebec City on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2010. The MPs wore the jerseys to support the construction of a new arena. A march will be held Oct. 2, 2010 in support for the return of the Nordiques.

They’re big, they cost an arm and a leg, and they pass out the same stuff. But apparently a white elephant’s value is determined in part by whether it’s fed arugula or ruffage:

If elected, a Liberal government would join the province and city in footing the building’s bill because it would be “a public space that promotes culture.” Similar funding would be available to public spaces in other regions of the country, he said.  A structure devoted to spreading the Roughrider culture in Regina, for example.

You can practically smell the sneering, can’t you? The obvious hierarchy that if it’s not a “museum, theatre or concert hall,” it’s not worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence as “culture.” We’ll just ignore the fact that one of this country’s most beloved piece of literature is about sports apparel, and the most compelling part of the Art Gallery of Ontario is its European collection.

And yet, what is the justification for funding a museum, arena, or whatever? In economics, we talk about “public goods,” which are generally defined as goods and services that are:

  • Non-excludable: there is no way for the good provider to select who may benefit from it. Nobody can stop me from breathing in the fresher air near a park.
  • Non-rival: one person’s consumption does not reduce any other person’s ability to consume the good. If I watch over-the-air television, it does not make it any harder for someone else to get an antenna and watch it too.
  • Jeff Ely would add non-avoidable. I can sail in Canadian waters without fear of pirates attacking (in part) because our navy patrols Canadian waters. Pirates would stay away even if I sign a waiver asking not to be rescued, because the navy would patrol for everyone else anyway.

When goods and services have these characteristics, the government can make the population better off by providing them. But on first inspection, sports and arts facilities don’t fit those criteria. ScotiaBank Place and the National Art Gallery do a good job making sure I have a ticket when I go inside, and once I’m on the other side, the building is certainly able to take in one less person. So the general argument moves on to things like less concrete spillovers, like that feel-good feeling one gets when Canada wins gold medals in the Olympics, even if one never pays a cent to supporting Canadian Olympic athletes.

Here is where the economics and the culture come together. A popular argument against funding arenas is that we take taxpayer money to pay for billionaires to build arenas where millionaires play sports. But, really, that shouldn’t matter at all, if there are still benefits to society that those billionaires and millionaires can’t find a way to capitalize upon (though my guess is, through their control of media distribution and merchandising, most of the gains from a sports team’s presence are internalized).

And what about that concert hall? Well, most of the benefits from having a symphony orchestra, or other “high-brow” art, go to those who directly patron the facility, who pay to go. Whatever good vibes the rest of us get, I would argue are felt by less of us than the vibes that we get from sports. Which means, I suppose, that advocates are saying that the public benefits that each beneficiary gets are somehow more, or better, than those from an arena. It’s not impossible: the art gallery and symphony orchestra may bring in the “creative class” that Richard Florida tells us is the future. But rest assured that it’s the kind of benefits felt by people who would roll their eyes at the “bread and circuses” culture of us unrefined folk.

Measure twice, Tweet once

As an Industry Canada employee, it’s a pretty obvious move to follow Minister Tony Clement. So when he tweets that he’ll be meeting Stephen Toope, president of my alma mater UBC, I fire off a post linking to a column on innovation that Toope co-wrote, which receives the following response:

Now, ministers are free to agree with whatever they want, and anyone can of course send a letter to the minister with their opinions, but as a public servant in the minister’s department, I think it’s wise to exercise some discretion. I was hired because, presumably, Industry Canada thinks I have something to offer: the last thing I want is pass on crappy ideas to influential people with my reputation on the line. I felt that Toope’s column is fairly general, there wasn’t much time to relay the information, and I posted it explicitly as someone else’s opinion. What I’m not in the business of doing is tweeting willy-nilly about Potash, TMX, or about Internet usage-based billing.

I also believe in basic accountability: I can always Direct Message or e-mail the Minister directly to send that column, but that would truly be going through the back door. If I’m going to take a shortcut, at the very least, everyone else should know about it.

The question of how government ministers should use Twitter is a (kind of) hot issue right now. Tweets may be short, but it doesn’t hurt to put some thought into what they mean.