Wednesday, December 7, 2016

(No. 300) Trump & the Black Swan election


Donald Trump and the Black Swan Election

by

Alastair Rickard

I wrote my previous column ("Donald Trump: media consensus & the echo chamber", No. 299) a few days before the U.S. presidential election; this one a few weeks after.

While I did not opine (unlike most of the American and Canadian media's chattering class) that a Trump victory was impossible, I did say I thought it was "unlikely". His victory should be regarded as something of a black swan, that is something that seemed (to nearly all pundits and pollsters) impossible but turned out to be real.

I was unsympathetic to Trump in my column but sceptical about the quality of the media's coverage and commentary pre-election. I am a Canadian who, had I possessed a vote in the American election, would have cast it reluctantly for Hillary Clinton. Like many of the Americans who did vote for her I did not regard her as a superior candidate but one to be preferred to Mr. Trump.

Since the election I have read and heard more unconvincing and emotional media commentary about the Trump victory than I would have thought possible. It becomes more extensive by the day without becoming more coherent.

Much of it seems to have been written in a passion of anti-Trump exasperation, the sort which leaves no straw man standing. In terms of thoughtful analysis a great deal of the opinion is as substantial as the smile of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire cat.

There have been exceptions of course, including here in Canada. Although the Globe and Mail and the Star (both of Toronto) have been examples to rival the most ardent anti-Trump organs in the U.S. occasionally a columnist has offered perceptive pre-and-post-election comments; for example John Doyle in the Globe and Thomas Walkom in the Star.

In terms of the absence -- both pre-and post-election -- of almost any favourable comment about Trump in the Canadian media a rare exception to be noted is Conrad Black whose words have appeared in RickardsRead. In his National Post column and as a guest on the electronic media, he has been an articulate and steadfast Trump supporter.

The mainstream media's patronizing and unrelenting negative coverage of Trump and his campaign utterances (and he provided lots of ammunition) was actually a major factor in promoting voter support for him as well as helping to solidify support that already existed; this is a factor for which following the election many anti-Trump pundits now seem too modest to claim some credit.

Unlike many in the media punditry in the wake of Trump's surprising victory I won't attempt to offer an explanation of 'the factors' -- real and imagined -- that produced his victory. I will offer a few observations, in no particular order:

*** After Nov. 8 some of the liberal pro-Clinton pundits have conceded that perhaps not all of the more than 62 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump were racist, anti-semitic, misogynistic xenophobes. They may even come around to admitting that half of his supporters do not belong (as Clinton asserted during the campaign) in "a basket of deplorables".

Given the very low regard in which polls show a majority of Americans hold the news media it was that sort of elitist slant on Trump and his supporters energetically embraced by so much of the media commentariat (and echoed so consistently by American late night talk show hosts) that made a major contribution to driving up Trump support during the campaign.

*** Before the election and right up to Nov.8 anyone who followed the media punditry during the campaign will have noticed ( as part of the news media's system of mutual quotation) the repeated offering of several universally agreed upon 'political truths', ones that turned out to be as erroneous as both the polls and the punditry's understanding of American voters residing between the coastal states.. For example:

It was widely and confidently predicted that Trump would lose the election if only because the votes of Hispanics, women and the better educated would go to Hillary and thus combine to guarantee a Clinton victory. She had a lock on most of the votes of those groups. In fact Trump received 29% of the Hispanic vote, 53% of white women and 45% of college graduates. So much for political predictions tied to seriously flawed identity politics.

*** I suspect that too many Canadians look at the Nov. 8 presidential election result with some degree of smugness because Clinton won more of the popular vote than Trump ( 2+ million more but still less than 50% of votes cast) but Trump became president because he won through the U.S. electoral college system, one viewed today by many Americans  as being outdated.

It would take a constitutional amendment to remove the electoral college from presidential elections. Clinton's win of the popular vote but loss of the election is not the first time this has happened; she was the 6th presidential candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election.

In any case Canadians do not have a political platform of their own sufficiently high from which they can look down their noses at the Nov. 8 results of the American electoral system. Our 2015 election produced a 'majority' Liberal government which has since repeated ad nauseam that it received "a mandate from Canadians". That majority 'mandate' is based on having received less than 40% of the votes cast (39.5%), even less than the Conservatives' share in 2011 (39.6%).

*** I did find interesting the repeated post-election comments from President Obama, Hillary Clinton as well as from members of the American chattering class who refer in a self-congratulatory way to the "peaceful transition of power" in the U.S. after an election as being a hallmark of American democracy, as if somehow this is a special or even a peculiar virtue of the American democratic system.

In my years of following politics in Canada I do not recall ever hearing a Canadian politician even mention much less laud the peaceful hand over from one government to its successor following an election in this country. It would not be said here by politicians since it is taken for granted by the Canadian polity as an unremarkable part of British parliamentary democracy, our system in Canada since Confederation.

I may add to these observations in a future column.

*********************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns & blog archive:
to access previous columns and this blog's archive, the links to which
are listed chronologically in the margin of each column
as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website, go to
any column and follow the links

to set a "Google alert" for RickardsRead columns
in order to receive notice automatically of new columns
as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
www.Google.com/alert

*************************************

Monday, November 7, 2016

(No. 299) Donald Trump: media consensus & the echo chamber


"Donald Trump: media consensus and the echo chamber

OR

offering tinned goods as fresh produce"

by

Alastair Rickard




As I write this column the American presidential election is just a few days away. As a longtime follower of American politics as well as those of Canada and several other countries I have never seen  so much extreme rhetoric in a campaign (coming from both the Trump and Clinton sides) nor so much repetitive 'group think' comment by television talking heads and other members of the media. Much of the latter has been so ideological and determinedly politically correct as to render it next to useless as analysis.

The late English writer Christopher Hitchens, asked why he wanted to become a journalist, replied so that he wouldn't have to rely on the press for information. I can relate.

I have yet to read or hear a specific reference to what might well be the worst possible Nov. 8 election result in terms of increasing to even greater heights the pre-election toxicity, divisiveness and polarization in the American body politic:  an election result which sees Hillary Clinton win based on securing 270 or more electoral college votes while Donald Trump (who will almost certainly declare ANY result other than a victory for himself the result of a "rigged election") actually receives a higher total of the popular vote than does Clinton. This anomaly of the U.S. electoral system has showed up before and as recently as Al Gore's loss to George Bush in 2000.

If/when he loses, Trump's tens of millions of supporters, doubtless egged on by widespread  inflammatory post-Nov. 8 rhetoric, will generate ongoing popular unrest in American politics going forward the like of which has not been seen since the 19th century. Trump himself will doubtless carry on as a celebrity and a prime example of the arrogance of the self-assured.

The liberal media in the U.S. (as in Canada) have and will continue to stir the pot of political division by deprecating, inter alia, the intelligence of those who support(ed) Trump's candidacy. This widespread elitism among the chattering classes (it can be summed up  as 'we know what is best') is just the sort of irritating and patronizing sermon that contributed so materially to the surprise this same gang suffered in the U.K.'s pro-Brexit vote.

In Canada the editorial approach of the Globe and Mail, self-styled as Canada's national newspaper, aping the New York Times and Washington Post has for months featured an ongoing, repetitive and increasingly tedious competition among its columnists and op-ed writers to determine who can express most emphatically and preciously how shocked and appalled they are by Donald Trump, his bullying demeanor and insulting statements and tweets, etc. etc., all the while offering readers tinned goods as if they were fresh produce.

All well and good to benefit certain media egos but nothing has changed materially involving Trump except for the quantity of examples since even before he declared his candidacy for president in June of last year. He was then clearly an inappropriate person to be president and his antics and declarations since have merely provided devotees of political correctness enhanced opportunities to declare their fear, shock, upset etc. (pick one).

What has changed as we near American election day?

 Really only that for months and months after Trump launched his bid for the Republican nomination he was dismissed by the supposedly wise and best informed members of the media elite as a clownish reality TV celebrity;  he had no chance of securing the Republican nomination much less the presidency.

While Clinton is likely to win next Tuesday, if only because of the curious American electoral college system, Trump has succeeded in demonstrating that the best and the brightest among the American media's talking heads have now lost even more credibility as political soothsayers.

George Bernard Shaw acidly observed that the media can't distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization. Just so vis-a-vis Donald trump.

Nothing that qualifies Trump (and there is much) to be labeled a sexist, misogynist, racist, narcissist, et al has changed except by accumulation. But once the mainstream media had ridden Trump to months of increased ratings, ad revenue and circulation the time came to get serious about helping the  unpopular Clinton prevent a Trump presidency, an objective devoutly to be wished by a substantial majority of Canadians although (according to the latest U.S. opinion polls) apparently by somewhat less than half of Americans.

The fact of the matter is that, as the election nears,  Clinton's biggest advantage is the high negatives of her opponent among voters. Her own high negative ratings as consistently shown in the polls would preclude her election if Trump's negatives were not somewhat higher.

Any one of several among the sixteen Republican primary election candidates defeated by Trump could have beaten Clinton in this election. Whatever the result on Tuesday -- but particularly if Trump were to win (although that is unlikely) -- the nearer term future of American politics today looks dark, rocky and unhappy.

Nov. 5, 2016


**************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns & blog archive:
to access previous columns and this blog's archive, the links to which
are listed chronologically in the margin of each column
as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website, go to
any column and follow the links

to set a "Google alert" for RickardsRead columns
in order to receive notice automatically of new columns
as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
www.Google.com/alert

***************************** 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

(No.298) Justin Trudeau & electoral reform


"Justin Trudeau and Canadian electoral reform:

   spare us the 'sunny ways' "

by Alastair Rickard


I have written columns about the need for reform of Canada's 'first past the post' (FPTP) electoral system -- for example RickardsRead column no. 267.

During the Oct. 15, 2015 federal election campaign all of the parties except the Conservatives espoused the need for electoral reform. Liberal leader and now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that if a Liberal government was elected electoral reform would be in place within 18 months.

The Liberal winning of a majority of the seats in the House of Commons was widely greeted in the media, especially among the usual cable news talking heads and newspaper columnists as a 'great victory', even as a 'landslide'.

So anxious were certain media voices to welcome the arrival of Justin Trudeau's "sunny ways" government and the departure of the unfriendly (to the press) Harper government that hyperbole -- occasionally merely ghost milk -- was the journalistic order of the day.

Indeed the increase in the proportion of Canadian voters who turned out last October ( 68.3% in 2015 vs 61.1% in 2011) was widely characterized as evidence of the overwhelming desire of the electorate to replace the Harper government with Trudeau's Liberals.

Since taking office Prime Minsister Justin "sunny ways" Trudeau has habitually explained and defended his changes and policy initiatives, especially the reversal of Harper government legislation and policy, by declaring that 'Canadians' voted for Liberal change in the election.

A majority of Canadian voters did nothing of the sort. The Liberal majority of seats in the Commons was a result not reflective of the votes of a majority of Canadians -- thanks to FPTP. In terms of the Liberals' share of voter popularity being the voice of Canadians, that is Prime Minister Trudeau's self-constructed and self-serving political spin. It was the same spin the Tories also found politically useful.

A bit more than a third of Canadian voters supported the Trudeau Liberals. Indeed -- and I have seen this fact noted nowhere in the effusions of the media's chattering classes -- the Trudeau Liberals actually received a lower share (39.5%) of Canadians' votes in 2015 than the Harper government did in 2011 (39.6%). This rather less than impressive popular result was achieved notwithstanding the tsunami of 2.9 million more voters (supposedly pro-change) who came out in the last election.

Post-Oct 15 election analyses indicated that, had the Trudeau Liberals' preferred type of electoral reform been in place (i.e., ranked/preferred ballot), their 39.5% share of the actual votes cast in 2015 would have provided them with an even larger majority of the seats in the Commons. Another excellent illustration of the need for genuine proportional representation.

Many if not most of those (including me) who have supported meaningful electoral reform of the FPTP system advocate some form of proportional representation.

"Sunny ways" Trudeau has decided that the type of reform of Canada's FPTP electoral system will be considered and chosen by a House of Commons committee, a majority of the members of which will be Liberals. Moreover such a de facto change to Canada's constitution will apparently not be submitted to Canadians for approval in a referendum.

If this Trudeau government approach to democracy is supposed to be an improvement on that of the Harper Tories, please spare me such sunny ways.

************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns & blog archive:
to access previous columns and this blog's archive, the links to which
are listed chronologically in the margin of each column
as it appears on the RickardsRead.com, go to
any column and follow the links

to set a "Google alert"for RickardsRead columns 
in order to receive notice automatically of new columns
as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
www.Google.com/alert

***************************




Sunday, January 10, 2016

(No.297) "Is RickardsRead going away?"


"Is RickardsRead going away?"

by Alastair Rickard

After the posting of my December column about Joseph Belth's "Memoir" I received the following email from a Canadian actuary and (apparently) a regular reader of RickardsRead:

"Many thanks for your blog RickardsRead and particularly your latest post about Joe Belth earlier this month. I was beginning to wonder whether you'd taken a "permanent holiday" given the dearth of posts since late summer. Very pleased to learn, however, that that's not the case.

"By way of a brief introduction, I am an actuary with ties to the Canadian life insurance distribution network via my father who sold life insurance and managed career agents over his 27-year career with the Canadian branch of a US company. So, the issues and concerns -- about product design and marketing practices -- perennially described in the pages of
The Insurance Forum frequently resonated with me too. You were quite correct in noting the clarity of Joe Belth's written exposition, especially when one considers how much smoke passes for insurance industry analysis and reporting.


"Know too that you are also writing in the tradition of Joe Belth with your blog and thereby fulfilling an important role. The mainstream media seems unable to properly cover Canadian insurance company bad acts (e.g. mismanagement of par funds, unhedged seg fund products). Enter RickardsRead." 


This correspondent was generous in his comments about RickardsRead -- and he's correct when he points out the gradual decline in the rate of posting of my columns.

It's not that I lack subjects to address which engage or irritate me about politics, culture and business. My portfolio of interests is not diminishing.

What I seem to lack as I approach the writing of my 300th column for RickardsRead is my erstwhile level of motivation to pick up a pen rather than, say, the latest novel by C.J. Sansom or Robert Harris or to plan a trip.

After I put on the shelf T
he Canadian Journal of LIfe Insurance (which, while employed by a life insurance company, I founded and edited more years ago than I care to recall) I suggested that I had said everything I ever wanted to say about the insurance business -- at least twice. 

Of course that was hyperbole but seemed apt nonetheless as was my recent response to a request for my attention to a certain insurance subject:  I am now declining any invitation that would tend to render my life even more fragmentary and futile. 

That latter phrase has stayed with me from a reply I received decades ago from the Canadian writer and critic George Woodcock (1912-1995).

My correspondent inadvertently touched on another reason why I started both CJLI and RickardsRead when he referred -- quite rightly -- to "how much smoke  passes for insurance industry analysis and reporting ....The mainstream media seems unable to properly cover Canadain insurance company bad acts...."

Indeed the pret-a-porter certainties spread about in the business media concerning insurance companies and their industry suggest that many 'analysts' appear to remain personally and confidently innocent of any meaningful encounter with the business.

Unfortunately it is a feature of the financial world and its media groupies (or as I have dubbed them the 'financial services paparazzi') that so many of its inhabitants would rather be wrong as a group than right on their own (q.v., the 2007-8 financial meltdown). 

It's as if they believe that the thin gruel of their analysis will be inspissated by drawing upon one another through that great system of mutual quotation that characterizes so much of what one reads. 

I am not quite ready to put RickardsRead on the internet shelf. At the least there are a number of updates I feel compelled to add to columns I have written on a range of subjects, from the demutualization of the Economical Mutual Insurance Company to Canadian electoral reform.

Until then ....

***************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns and blog archive:
to access previous columns and this blog's archive, the links to which
are listed chronologically in the margin beside each column 
as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website, go to
a recent column and use the links

to set a "Google alert" for RickardsRead columns
in order to receive notice automatically of new columns
as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
www.Google.com/alert

*****************************