Why we have no time for politics

Edward Hicks, c. 1824, “Peaceable Kingdom”, National Gallery of Art, Wikipedia Commons.

Samara recently published yet another study showing that Canadians, especially young Canadians, are profoundly disengaged from formal politics.  Not only are citizens voting less and participating less in political parties, they are not writing, reading or even talking with friends about party politics. While many are still donating money and time to causes, they don’t have much use for politics.

Of course this is not the first such study. With every passing year, we get more evidence that trust in politicians, government and our democratic institutions is in sharp decline. Every election seems to bring a new low in voter turnout and, inevitably, a flurry of opinion on what needs to be done – elevate politics, renew democratic institutions, strengthen accountability and transparency, motivate disengaged citizens. And yes, these are all worthy goals but despite the studies, despite all the talk, nothing much changes, things just seem to get worse. Maybe we’re missing something.

Social trust

A growing body of international research, most notably by Sweden’s Bo Rothstein and, in the US, Jong-Sung You, points us to what may be the underlying factor we’ll need to address if we are to turn things around: the decline of social trust.

By “social trust” is meant something more than whether we trust our neighbour or others in our community or in similar circumstance. It is rather the generalized belief that most people in a society can be trusted, including those quite different from ourselves.

Social trust is not the same as political trust, but where it is high people are readier to trust their democracy, more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to government when something goes wrong, and less likely to see the latest scandal as indicative of the entire class of politicians. Even when governments perform so badly as to make political trust impossible, where social trust is high, citizens still participate, still try to make things better. Because they trust the future and their ability to influence it, they are still capable of outrage rather than the indifference or fatalism of the jaded.

High social trust implies solidarity, the sense that the members of a society share a common fate and mutual responsibility and this is reflected in greater commitment to helping others. Individuals take responsibility not only for themselves and those in their social milieu, but also for the stranger, and for the direction of their society.

Contrary to the Margaret Thatcher view of the world, we are or at least can be more than isolated, atomized individuals fiercely pursuing our self-interest. We live in relationships with others, we live in society, and the strength of those relationships and our fellow-feeling matters profoundly. High trust societies work; they have less crime and corruption, more effective governments, and stronger economies.

Trust and Inequality

According to the research, the most important factor in determining the degree of social trust in a society seems to be its level of equality, both economic equality and equality of opportunity. In highly unequal societies rich and poor live such fundamentally different lives that it’s impossible to develop the mutual empathy essential to building trust and a sense of shared fate. When this is coupled with lack of opportunity for economic progress we get conflict, politics as a zero-sum game and a downward spiral of distrust. Highly unequal societies are also characterized by widespread corruption, which undermines all manner of trust.

Equality, it seems, not civic participation, not the efficiency of government, not diversity, is the key determinant of social trust. You’s work shows that where equality is high solidarity more easily coexists with cultural and ethnic differences, debunking the notion that equality is only possible in homogeneous societies.

Public policy matters

The research also shows that how governments design and deliver social and labour programs is key to achieving both greater trust and greater equality. In this age of austerity and tax cuts, many governments are doing exactly the wrong things, exacerbating inequality by undermining wages and weakening the programs that reduce inequality and alleviate its consequences, moving from universal to narrowly targeted approaches or starving the programs that the research shows make the biggest difference. What Rothstein’s work demonstrates is that universal programs – universal healthcare, childcare, education, income security, and access to justice, are the most effective by far in promoting equality and social trust. They are inclusive and not subject to arbitrary income cut offs and often degrading means-testing where officials decide who’s in and who’s out. They bring people together across income and cultural differences. Because they belong to everyone, everyone has a stake in their quality.

I can hear the howls of protest. Unaffordable. Unsustainable. Impossible. Many of these programs, while demonstrably efficient and effective, do require significant public funds and that means higher and more progressive taxes, obviously an increasingly hard sell. Not surprisingly the countries with the highest social trust are also those with the highest taxes – for example, the Scandinavian countries. They also have strong economies and impressive productivity, a reminder that we do indeed have choices even in the hyper-competitive global economy.

Social Traps

Which brings us to the final conclusion one can draw from the research. In countries where social trust is low and inequality high, it is awfully hard to reverse direction. Even when people know what’s needed, there’s not enough trust to get it done. This is the classic social trap. Absent trust, people are not willing to pay the necessary taxes; each worries that they’re being ripped off by the other, those at the top effectively secede from society and those at the bottom withdraw believing that the game is rigged. It is almost impossible in those cases to imagine big new social programs or even strengthening existing ones. And so inequality and distrust grow; solutions seem increasingly out of reach.

Where’s Canada?

Over much of the post-war period, with some exceptions, most notably our shameful treatment of Aboriginal people, Canada did pretty well in both social trust and equality, tucked in just behind the Scandinavian countries and Netherlands. The last couple of decades, however, have seen a sharp decline in social trust and an accelerating increase in income inequality, and while mobility is still pretty high it won’t stay that way if income inequality continues to grow. We are in better shape than many but are moving in the wrong direction.

Canadians are rightly proud of our universal medicare but we are allowing it to erode. Public funding for education is in decline so more of the burden and related debt fall to students and their families. Wages are under assault – witness the attacks on collective bargaining and the abuse of the foreign workers program. Fewer than forty per cent of unemployed Canadians have access to employment insurance. Our income support system is fragmented and inadequate – and too often demeaning.  Huge gaps – childcare, civil legal aid, pharma- and home-care – exacerbate inequality.   Old fault lines are deepening and new ones are emerging, particularly with respect to constrained opportunities for young Canadians. We are squandering the Canadian advantage.

The problem of disengagement, then, is not simply one of governance or style, however important these are, it is in the substance of our public policies, in the fallacy that we can focus on the economy as if it were disembodied from human relations and nature. Nothing will work to engage the disengaged, no reforms however worthy will make the difference, unless and until we reverse growing inequality and the loss of trust this yields. Only by bringing humanity back into public policy will we bring people back into politics.

This first appeared on July 17 2013 in The Toronto Star.

58 Responses to “Why we have no time for politics”
  1. Bill Evans says:

    Another worthwhile post but I just want to quickly point out what I think is an error in the section called Social Traps. The following sentence seems to end prematurely.

    Absent trust, people are not willing to pay the necessary taxes; each worries that theyre being ripped off by the other, those at the top effectively secede from society and those at the bottom withdraw believing that the game.

    Perhaps you meant to append [is rigged].



  2. MoS says:

    You’re quite right but with the compression of Canada’s political spectrum, who speaks any longer about issues that resonate with the public, that address their concerns and welfare? Trudeau? No. Mulcair? Not really. They all want to govern but none wants to lead.

    We’re easy meat for the next charismatic leader but they only come in two flavours and malevolent is by far the most common.


    • himelfarb says:

      That was chilling. But for sure it would be very energizing and more to have a clearly articulated progressive policy alternative. That might be more likely if more people outside the conventional political institutions spoke out and made room – ie made it easier – for political leaders to talk about tough issues like taxes and balanced, evidence-based criminal justice. So thanks for your comments.


  3. Beijing York says:

    Nice to see you back (I believe I spied this article in today’s Star offerings).

    A measure of mobility is the ability for the next generation to best their parents’ achievement. I don’t see that happening as much as I did when I came of age in the late 70s-early 80s.

    It’s so much tougher to get a leg up in the job market and employers are taking advantage of that. When my sibling decided to switch careers in the early 90s, I was shocked that he was willing to forgo pay for an internship (this was especially odd since the IT section was booming at that time). Now it seems the norm for so many career paths that its shocking and a sad reflection on the current status of the worker. Add to that, only those candidates who may have a nest egg (as my sibling did at the time) or affluent enough parents to support them through their internship need apply.

    The situation with Employment Insurance and pensions is a travesty. So many of the new employment figures are for low wage jobs with little or no benefits, part-time employment or self-employment (which can run the gamut of lucratively paid consultant to struggling graphic artist to party/home sales representative for what more often than not are pyramid schemes).

    In the meantime, I’m trying to get plenty of vitamins, healthy meals and sound rest so that I can execute my Freedom 85 plan 🙂


    • himelfarb says:

      So nice to reconnect. Freedom 85 – a light at the end of the tunnel. There’s an “austerity joke” making the rounds that because of restraint the light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off. But I think you’re right on a global time bomb – youth unemployment and underemployment and an unshakable sense of decline.


  4. MoS says:

    B.Y. raises an important point about internships. I was exposed to this when I lived in London in the late 60s and hung around with a fairly eclectic crowd. Some were embarking on careers in banking or accountancy or other fields that required lengthy internships at no or very nominal wages. It was explained to me that this ensured that only those whose parents were sufficiently affluent to support them for a year or two would be able to fill those positions. It was a vehicle to keep the lower classes out, plain and simple. It undermines the greatest inequality – inequality of opportunity, the force that fueled the youth unrest component of the Arab Spring.


  5. MoS says:

    My daughter, who received a degree in photo-journalism from Columbia, began her working career in Vancouver with two internships. Both were seemingly progressive, cutting edge firms where she thought she would be using her photographic skills. One boss had her collecting her kids from preschool. The other would have her walk his dog that he would bring to the office. She stayed at both just long enough to find a way to get the hell out. It’s not just right wingers who are unprincipled and exploitative these days.


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  8. Margaret Hollis says:

    A specific instance of trust between the federal government and First Nations is detailed at http://www.nunatsiaqonline.ca/stories/article/65674ottawa_must_consult_indigenous_people_on_changes_to_species_at_risk_ac/ It’s the story of the Species at Risk Act, which became law in 2002. “It takes political courage to be inclusive.”


    • Ian says:

      Songwriters: MARLEY, BOB / TOSH, PETER

      Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
      Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
      Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
      Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!

      Preacher man, don’t tell me,
      Heaven is under the earth.
      I know you don’t know
      What life is really worth.
      It’s not all that glitters is gold;
      ‘Alf the story has never been told:
      So now you see the light, eh!
      Stand up for your rights. come on!

      Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
      Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!
      Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
      Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!

      Most people think,
      Great god will come from the skies,
      Take away everything
      And make everybody feel high.
      But if you know what life is worth,
      You will look for yours on earth:
      And now you see the light,
      You stand up for your rights. jah!

      Get up, stand up! (jah, jah! )
      Stand up for your rights! (oh-hoo! )
      Get up, stand up! (get up, stand up! )
      Don’t give up the fight! (life is your right! )
      Get up, stand up! (so we can’t give up the fight! )
      Stand up for your rights! (lord, lord! )
      Get up, stand up! (keep on struggling on! )
      Don’t give up the fight! (yeah! )

      We sick an’ tired of-a your ism-skism game –
      Dyin’ ‘n’ goin’ to heaven in-a Jesus’ name, lord.
      We know when we understand:
      Almighty god is a living man.
      You can fool some people sometimes,
      But you can’t fool all the people all the time.
      So now we see the light (what you gonna do?),
      We gonna stand up for our rights! (yeah, yeah, yeah! )

      So you better:
      Get up, stand up! (in the morning! git it up! )
      Stand up for your rights! (stand up for our rights! )
      Get up, stand up!
      Don’t give up the fight! (don’t give it up, don’t give it up! )
      Get up, stand up! (get up, stand up! )
      Stand up for your rights! (get up, stand up! )
      Get up, stand up! (… )
      Don’t give up the fight! (get up, stand up! )
      Get up, stand up! (… )
      Stand up for your rights!
      Get up, stand up!
      Don’t give up the fight!

      Get Up, Stand Up lyrics © Chrysalis One Music, BMG RIGHTS MANAGEMENT US, LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group


  9. Mark Hammer says:

    The other day, after we both heard a news item on the radio, my 17 year-old asked me why people could be so indifferent to the environment, and unwilling to engage in the sorts of behaviours and commitments that we feel confident could take us in a better direction. In response, I had to resort to my training in behaviour analysis and Skinnerian psychology. It all boils down to perceived instrumentality and the degree of perceived connection between effort and outcome. Make the relationship between a keypress or barpress and some desired outcome evident to a pigeon or rat, and it is child’s play to elicit the behavioural patterns and priorities you want from them. Make those connections difficult to detect, and you’ll be stuck at the starting gate forever. And sadly, the connections between individual efforts and global environmental outcomes are difficult for many to see. They may state that environmental concerns are a top priority for them, but that doesn’t stop them from driving when they don’t need to, or doing a broad range of things that one might classify as inhospitable to the global environment. They/we don’t see our actions as connected to either desirable or undesirable outcomes…with the possible exception of consumer behavours.

    And in many respects, that is the position many segments of society are in when it comes to trust in public institutions. I won’t deny what you’ve written in your piece, but I will extend it (…in my own direction, of course). A number of writers distinguish several dimensions of trust. First is my trust in your intentions, and whether they align with my own goals and priorities. When I feel you will spontaneously and independently act in a way that serves or aligns with my own interests, I trust you. Second is my trust in your competence. I can place high faith in your good intentions, but little in your competence. (“Nice guy, but inept.”) Conversely, I can perceive you as malevolent and *very* competent in pursuing all the wrong things.

    To this I would add a third dimension of trust, and that goes beyond mere intent and competence, to include instrumentality. So, I may have faith that you are pursuing my best interests and all I hold dear, and that you are smart, nimble, knowledgeable, and skilled, but little faith that anything can really come of it, given what you are up against or simply “how things work”. Much like the rat or pigeon who may have experienced some sort of causal connection between effort and reward in past, but fails to discern any sort of dependable pattern at the moment or anymore, I may simply give up on any sense of potential instrumentality provided by placing my faith in you, or in persons who ostensibly ought to have the sort of leverage to get things done.

    When doing X leads to Y, I can decide to engage in X or withhold it, and develop a sense of instrumentality. X may consist of voting for a person or party or stance in a referendum, or perhaps voting against it. Heck, I may even be able to handle X leads to Y which eventually, and dependably, leads to Z. But once we get into A *might* lead to X, perhaps Y, and eventually Z, if B, C, D, et al., can be lined up and bright on side, my sense of instrumentality and trust in either the action of personally engaging in A, or in supporting or encouraging those who pursue A, will fizzle out.

    I will still assert, as I’ve done here in past, that some small portion of seeming public political disengagement stems from the “portfolio diversification” of ways that citizens feel they might have a shot at being instrumental beyond the mere ballot box or town-hall meeting. But to that I will add that the ever-increasing complexity of public policy (which will also include use of confusing and unfocussed “omnibus bills”), the bafflegab it includes, and the manner in which unseen loopholes and compromises can be included to yield to various interests, can all lead to citizens feeling like their best efforts, and their confidence in others, ultimately won’t lead to anything or anywhere discernibly “better”.

    As an example, this Brookings essay, on what has happened with gun control legislation in the USA,
    http://www.brookings.edu/research/essays/2013/sandy-hook-promise-gun-safety, can leave obne with a sense of “Why bother?” when you realize how many ways and times what people THOUGHT would provide some measure of progress contained a loophole that gutted something touted as “real progress”.

    At the same time, *reactive* government and social policy, that flinches in response to every high-profile bit of current events, is generally not thoughtful. Ultimately, the citizenry needs to have a modicum of patience and maturity, to address the big problems in effective ways, but expecting a lifetime of waiting is not going to incur trust, for all the reasons stated.


    • himelfarb says:

      I don’t know Mark, we are not pigeons or Skinnerian rats responding to stimuli nor are we some version of an instrumental calculating machine. Altruism and loyalty are every bit as part of us as self-interest and there are countless stories where people – collectively – take a chance even when the prospects are dim or where their individual behavior is only relevant as part of a larger whole. Social trust is a very different concept from particular or personal trust and the evidence is consistent that its source is structural – people make judgments about “most people” and “that person” very differently. Thanks for your contribution.


      • Mark Hammer says:

        I wholeheartedly believe in the importance of trust in human psychology. Heck, the urge to trust is likely the biggest threat to public security. Those who take advantage of our deep-seated need to feel trust are the ones who breach security. You are correct that altruism and loyalty are fundamentals of human nature, but they (altruism, loyalty, trust) do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they sustained by it. Eventually, they run out of steam if not fueled. And they are fueled by consequences. As one of my profs informed us some 40 years ago, there are not many things that could be described as “laws” in psychology and behaviour, but the “law of effect” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_effect ) meets the criteria. Whether the instrumental objectives are self-serving or unabashedly altruistic, effort and interest declines when there is the expectation of little or no consequence. Indeed, this is the very basis of burnout; when individuals can muster no affect and interest towards an avocation they have devoted themselves to previously. I might also add that even the most prototypic A.D.D.-diagnosed individual will have their attention and effort captured by videogames for hours on end, precisely *because* it offers immediate consequence for effort and attention expended.

        In some respects, I’m arguing for “trust” as also being an *outcome*, rather than only a mediator of outcomes. It is certainly that, too. But even our most fundamental forms of trust – that mom and dad, or any other significant people in our lives, will be nice to us – are borne of predictable consequences. Maybe not immediate, and maybe not 100% dependable, but enough to fashion and sustain our trust. And when people don’t feel that same sort of connection between affiliation or effort and consequence, they lose that trust and accompanying motivation.

        I started my earlier post by noting my son’s confusion about “Well if people CARE so much about it, why don’t they seem willing to DO something about it?”. Exactly the sort of qwuestion you’d expect from a youth who still operates under the assumption that the trust they acquired from their early important relationships is a perfect reflection of the alignment between values, priorities, and actions in the real world “out there”. That valuable idealism has not yet been crumbled by the many features of the real world that gradually erase the perceived and expected connection between belief, action, and consequence, like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, until only the grin remains as a memento of what that set of expectations use to feel like.

        I’m not trying to be Mr. Downer, here. The challenge is to figure out how to keep the flame alive, by the way we design, comport, and convey our institutionsto every successive generation. I, for one, would like to keep that kid’s idealism burning brightly. It is the battery that the world needs to run off, and I don’t want it to fizzle out.

        It is kept alive BY consequence. So the question is one of identifying how our social and political institutions undermine the sense of consequence that citizens want to feel.


      • himelfarb says:

        A classic case of a sociologist and a psychologist talking past each other. Go figure. What Rothstein’s and You’s research (among others) shows is that in equal and inclusive societies social trust is higher – whatever the psychological processes – and where trust is high people’s optimism about their ability to shape the future is also high thus predisposing them to collective action – even actions whose consequences may not be felt for a generation of more, like planting trees or building infrastructure that will benefit our children. Where trust is low people have difficulty in engaging in collective action even when they believe it would be in their interest – social trap. In other words, the researchers think that they answered the questions you raise – pursue greater equality and inclusiveness. Of course they would agree that that is not ever the whole story but they pose the question “would anything work to make things better if these issues aren’t first addressed?”


      • Mark Hammer says:

        It’s not simply creating equality and inclusiveness that promotes trust. It is the way that equality and inclusiveness are created that leads to the trust.

        Take for example the seemingly perpetual Aboriginal file. The nation has pursued that set of challenges in a way that one might cynically describe as “throwing money at the problem” (though I know it is more thoughtful than that). More and more, what one hears from Aboriginal leaders is that they do not want handouts – equalization payments, free housing, etc. Indeed, I heard Derek Nepinak say in an interview the other day that he wants native leaders not to be “consulted” but to actually BE at the table when development initiatives are being planned. “Inclusiveness” *could* be interpreted as mere consultation, but it ought to be equal partnership. “Equality” *could* be simply having the same standard of living handed to you, but it ought to be the same opportunity to *create* that standard of living for oneself.

        Like I keep blathering on about,trust comes from the legitimate expectation of consequence, and the realization of that consequence. Maybe we’re engaged in a chicken/egg debate here, but I would maintain that social trust does not come from nowhere, and if it has diminished, then the only way to reconstitute or develop it is in engineering institutions to recapture that sense of consequence. That’s not an easy task, but it IS a necessary one.


      • himelfarb says:

        We are just talking past each other. Having parallel monologues. Of course it matters how we engage but Rothstein and co. are describing what they believe the social preconditions are for any of this to work. Putting relationships with Aboriginal people aside for the moment because they are a special case in many ways, what these researchers worry about is that what you describe won’t work in societies that have let inequality grow too extreme. They have substantial evidence to that effect and so they are warning countries like Canada not to let things get any worse. This is just a very different discussion. And your constant reference that trust doesn’t just come from nowhere kind of ignores that these researchers say it comes from equality and inclusive and fair programs – universal programs – and they are talking about social trust – essentially cohesion – and not interpersonal trust. They don’t dispute what you say – they are saying something different. They are at pains to differentiate between the particular trust you’re talking about and the generalized trust they measure. They worry that a focus on engagement without the right social conditions doesn’t work but of course given the right conditions such engagement is crucial.


      • himelfarb says:

        And I might add that they warn that when income inequality becomes too great then inequality of opportunity is also undermined. And the data on this is awfully consistent. I must say I don’t worry about handing things to people like handing them Medicare. I think the data show more and more that individual responsibility and initiative come not from deprivation but from dignity.


    • himelfarb says:

      None of that by the way to deny that governments can act in ways that undermine trust. They clearly do but what Rothstein and others show is that in trusting societies that more likely turns against the particular government rather that the idea of government itself. People continue to believe something better is possible. They get outraged, but do not despair.


      • Mark Hammer says:

        A rather late reply, but I listened to Cross-Country Checkup the other day, on the topic of declining youth vote. I was struck by how much my suggestion that the youth vote is partially declining because of “democratic portfolio diversification” was being echoed in the comments by many of the young callers and activists interviewed. Voting is simply not perceived by younger voters as their principal democratic tool. It’s important, but for a lot of young people, if one misses that particular bus, there’ll be a different one coming along any minute that takes one to the same destination. If they’re disinterested and disengaged politically, that’s one thing. But even if they ARE politically engaged, voting is not seen as crucial. I suppose the quandary this places us in is that civic engagement is much easier to gauge when one can reliably turn to voter turnout as the metric, and much harder to assess when that engagement is expressed in a myriad of ways. I certainly wouldn’t want to rely on polling; that’s for sure.

        All of the discussion here, of course, was held long before the introduction of the rather contentious (but apparently perfect…until it wasn’t) Bill C-23.

        So in the wake of: a) that radio discussion, b) the Bill C-23 fracas, and c) the commencement of the Michael Sona trial today, I look forward eagerly to having coffee tomorrow with one of the members of the Elections Canada Advisory Committee. Insomuch as a great deal of the discourse regarding C-23 revolved around potential voter disenfranchisement (particularly for Aboriginal voters and the elderly), and secondary to that, the role of Elections Canada in supporting broad public enthusiasm for voting as a crucial expression of democracy (though apparently the revised bill limits their in-school programs to K-12), one wonders where the tipping point is for younger voters, between feeling like it is still worth their while, and feeling like it’s too much bother for too little gained. Can Elections Canada play any sort of important role for those folks? One wonders.


      • himelfarb says:

        Not sure what I think of all this. Not voting, whatever the explanation, is saying that some differences between the parties that we are aware of don’t matter enough – think about the way we treat refugees, migrant workers, prisoners, for example. Whatever other forms of engagement are available, doesn’t not voting convey an indifference to these issues? Unless I suppose that you believe that the party you support has no chance of winning in your riding which is a good reason for electoral reform and one reason I hated to see the disappearance of the per vote public subsidy.


      • Mark Hammer says:

        You and I are of a generation that certainly feel that way. I’m just trying to explain why younger folks can be every bit as disturbed by what they see around them, but not be quite as moved to express that displeasure (or sense of values and direction) by voting.


      • himelfarb says:

        Of course you’re right and you hear that kind of thing from pretty bright folk like Russell Brand but of course that means that we leave the choice of government, always consequential, to others. I admire and applaud the alternative forms of political engagement but I think it’s hugely important to continue to find ways to urge young Canadians to vote – and to make voting easier for them. Even if the differences among the parties may seem small – and may be small in some cases – it becomes incumbent on us to explain the implications of those small differences. And, of course, sometimes the differences are pretty big. I might add that there are and always have been alternative means of expressing our democratic instincts – through local and international volunteerism, community action, social movements, and the like – so that can at best serve as only a partial explanation. What do you think of compulsory voting?


      • Mark Hammer says:

        What do I think of compulsory voting? Well, let me start with the diametric opposite. I am certainly *not* as persuaded as Linda Frum is by Nelson Wiseman’s suggestion that increasing voting rates is not a good idea in and of itself, and am not persuaded by David Moscrop’s op-eds regarding the need for each vote to be a thoughtful one, or else stay home, so that you don’t make a “mistake”. Certainly one would hope, and like to think, that every vote is a thoughtful one, but I double-dog dare anyone to point to the dividing line between a thoughtful and thoughtless vote. If we can’t even *find* the line, then we ought not to place our faith in those who live on one side of that hypothetical line. So, for me, every vote is, and ought to be, equal, whether thoughtful or thoughtless. I hasten to remind folks that the vote of a jingoistic shallow backbencher in the HoC counts just as much as a cabinet minister.

        But, on to the matter of compulsory voting…

        I think we might both agree that the ideal is for candidates to *earn* voter participation by broaching issues of relevence, in authentic, sage, and comprehensible fashion, making every attempt to pitch solutions to voters in a manner that allows them to select one with confidence. Admittedly, that’s a pretty high bar to reach in an era when parties “shop for votes”, to use Susan Delacourt’s expression, and market more than they campaign.

        But I think compulsory voting is one of those policies that only requires candidates and parties to aim for a C- in terms of the quality of their platform, and capacity to render thoughtful clear choices before voters. There is no incentive for being better, since the turnout will not wane and the mandate will always remain strong and persuasive for whoever wins. It accomplishes a small part of what we hope for in a democracy – representativeness – but I don’t see it as accomplishing the most important part: public urging and reward of *better* public policy in those who seek to create and exercise it.

        On a related note, I have it on good authority that the Chief Electoral Officer is still very much concerned with increasing the youth vote. It may well be a losing battle, for all the reasons previously noted, but he hasn’t given up. That’s heartening.


      • Lynn Smith says:

        Hi Alex and Mark,

        Once again I feel so privileged to ‘lurk’ and read your most recent exchange regarding civic participation through voting, especially by youth. I feel not too far from that ‘youth stage’ myself in that we have still young kids and are very much in our ‘financially-strapped-trying-to-establish-ourselves’ phase of life. Furthermore, I can relate to the feelings of apathy and frustration with choosing the best of some bad alternatives; voting someone out of office instead of casting a vote FOR someone.

        I am not a fan of ‘first past the post’, nor our narrow view of representation only by residence. I would like especially to see greater focus on women in politics – addressing the climate that exists currently that turns so many excellent candidates ‘off’ of political involvement.

        Coincidentally, another thread of this blog concerned innovation in Government, and an event last week had me thinking of precisely this topic. I attended my first ‘Policy Ignite’ evening last Wednesday, wherein several civil servants delivered 5 minute presentations that described a policy problem and proposed a potential innovative solution.

        What a wonderful opportunity to witness some terrific minds who already have chosen to dedicate their energies and efforts to our federal public service!

        One presentation really resonated with me. The next morning when I awoke I felt somewhat deflated actually. Modeled after the ‘X-prize’, the presenter suggested Government departments could develop a challenge with a reward to stimulate ideas that would best address a defined problem. The example used was the third killer of Canadians – saving lives through early medical attention to those who have suffered a stroke.

        I was reminded of being a little girl conversing with my best friend’s parents, microbiologists for the departments of Health and Defense, as they described the implications of Mulroney’s Conservatives cutting the science positions across Government. If memory serves, they stated that for every PhD position eliminated, there would be twenty other positions gone too.

        Once again we have a Conservative Government in power that has declared a war on science, eliminating positions across so many departments, and indeed changing the mandates of key agencies to be more ‘mercantile’ or ‘business oriented’.

        My thoughts are that we wouldn’t need to resort to a stop-gap ad hoc x-prize innovation type measures if we had maintained that capacity in house! Further, one could envision the quality of policy discussions and possibilities were these interdepartmental discussions informed by minds trained to think as researchers and scientists.

        My work presently in a Government department involves engagement with senior private sector executives. I am struck by how ideas coming from the outside are constantly being weighted more heavily than in many cases the same ideas that the bureaucracy generated months earlier. It’s as though our ideas and advice are often discounted because the source is from the public sector. Disheartening to say the least!

        I suspect that the civil servants working within the office of the Chief Electoral Officer have done much work to analyze the Canadian situation longitudinally, as well prepared international comparisons. Why can this work not inform public discussions of electoral change… Ugh!

        Thank you for indulging me 😉



      • himelfarb says:

        Terrific stuff Lynn. I totally agree with you on first past the post and the need for electoral reform. I was also intrigued by your comments on creativity and the public service. The public service no doubt needs to be renewed, brought into the Information Age, but that can only happen in an environment of trust and respect.


      • himelfarb says:

        Well I am convinced. That was an excellent “post”. I might add that electoral reform that makes voting more meaningful would also help. First-past-the-post is a big part of the problem.


  10. Dave Hughes says:

    Dr. Alex Himelfar,

    I have just read your latest blog entry and am again overwhelmed by your astute and enlightened
    insights into the political morass of our times. Obviously your analysis is being ignored by our current politicians. What can the aware citizen do to fight this apparent lack of public trust or do we have to wait for a candidate with your insights to somehow appeal to the public’s sense of survival? Your blog is very important. Thank You

    Dave Hughes


  11. anonymous says:

    Ah, what the hell. Another Cohen song. Who knew that the sisters came from an Edmonton restaurant.


  12. anonymous says:


  13. Ian says:

    A wonderful piece of music. But we really must find better music.


  14. MoS says:

    My own children are well-educated, 26 and 31 respectively. They are estranged from the political process. They seem to view it as a narrow stratum occupied by a political and economic class to which they don’t belong and in which they have no interest. They’re quite aware of the challenges that will confront them in just ten or twenty years but they have no illusions these will be remedied, much less addressed, by the ruling stratum. They don’t dwell on it but when I engage them on it they seem resigned to having to deal with whatever confronts them on their own.

    I believe they’re right about this stratum business although I suspect at least one of them eventually will take refuge within it albeit in a minimally participatory fashion.

    Jared Diamond posits this stratum, the elite, as the force that blocks the change that would have been necessary to prevent the collapse of the Greenland Norse, the Easter Islanders or the Mayans. As he puts it, they set themselves into a conflict of interest with the general population, pursuing short term benefits mindful of the adverse consequences inflicted on the masses but confident they will be able to buy their way out of those problems when they materialize. Diamond stops well short of suggesting we start hanging these people from lamp posts but he doesn’t suggest any other approach either. He does suggest we have a decade, two at the outside, to clear this blockage.

    As a disciple of “steady state” economics (Herman Daly et al) I wonder whether the next two generations will manage to forge a new politics based on genuinely sustainable, non-growth economics. As I look around at Harper, Trudeau and Mulcair, I’m not sure they can achieve the sort of governance they’ll need via the ballot box.


    • himelfarb says:

      Well Irwin, that was just too depressing to contemplate. We all worry about plutocracy and the victory of money and short-term ism over humanity and nature. But I do believe we see an energy – in Idle No More. Occupy, Montreal students, pipeline foes – that are all part of a growing “enough already” movement that will demand something better.


  15. Lynn says:

    Hi Alex,

    I just read a book review that adopts many of positions and observations that you have expressed in previous posts. I wanted to share in the case that you were not yet aware:


    I find particular affinity with the last line of the article:
    “The failure to recognise the role of the government in driving innovation may well be the greatest threat to rising prosperity.”



    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks for this Lynn. I too love the line and thrust. Will read the book with great interest.


    • Mark Hammer says:

      What a delightful set of precepts and observations! Going to Mazzucato’s website, it’s clear she is no shrinking violet or quietly-toiling academic about them, either. The lady gets around! Thanks for the heads-up, Lynn. This is a thinker I will keep an eye out for.

      It’s funny, you know. What some may choose to cast as lack of focus, or even disorganization, within the public sector, can be recast as an opportunity for serendipity. And serendipity is as much a driver of innovation as anything else.

      At the same time, it is also possible for the public sector to completely botch that role. For example, if a government chooses to focus its support for R&D in terms of what it considers to be key areas (e.g., specific industries or technologies), will that yield as much innovation, or will it constrain lateral thinking?

      I guess the punch line is that the public sector CAN drive innovation, but only insomuch as it acknowledges what facilitates innovation, and allows (nay, budgets) for that serendipity.


  16. Ian says:

    We all understand a little bit of Ludwig Van at this level.


  17. Ian says:

    Claude Vivier


  18. Ian says:

    Bruce Cockburn


  19. Mark Hammer says:

    Judging from this particular blog post, and the LinkedIn thread it refers to, this is not a distinctly Canadian, or even North American issue. Australia is feeling it too.




    • himelfarb says:

      Exactly, you might want to check out both Rothstein’s and You’s extensive international comparative research – which shows which countries do – and which do not – have this problem. We are certainly not alone.


  20. Ian says:

    A farewell fantasy. Hot pianist included. Batteries must be purchased separately.


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