The Problem with Power in Politics

There is a catch-22 in politics that is difficult for even the most transparent and beloved leaders to shake. As the American Presidential election hits the homestretch, it’s all too easy to forget that just about one year ago, Canada had its very own set of relatively historic elections.

In 2015, left-leaning voters from the New Democrat and Liberal parties sought to remove the Conservative party from power, after a few too many undesirable decisions and a call for change. Among the grand ideals presented by the Liberal Party last year was the call for electoral reform, changes to the system that chooses our government.

The ‘first-past-the-post’ system Canada currently uses doesn’t leave government representative of the true nature of voter distribution, and Liberals rightly called for an overhaul of the election process to make things more fair. Voters were generally moved by this motion, and the Liberal party ended up taking a majority of the seats in the house of Parliament. Having a majority will generally make it much easier to pass legislation to change the electoral laws, and this was a major piece of the Liberal platform.

The Liberals said that they would be introducing legislation seeking to change the electoral process within 18 months of getting into office, one of over 200 promises they have vowed to keep. Now, in many cases, for a number of reasons, it’s nearly impossible to keep ALL the promises you make once a government is actually in power. For instance, the Liberals have been forced to walk back plans to balance our nation’s budget, in large part because Conservatives who were on the way out weren’t particularly honest about the state of the budget for the last few years.

However, electoral reform was a tent-pole feature of the Liberal platform, and walking it back now once you’re in power is a very damaging thing to do. Nobody WANTS to change the system that made them successful, but in this case it is absolutely necessary. I agree with a lot of the policy changes the Liberal government has made over the last year, but this is a big mis-step.

The Liberals took a majority (184/338 = 54 percent) of the seats in Parliament in the last election, but they only received 39.5 percent of the vote across Canada. This isn’t the least representative election that has even taken place, but it’s not exactly something to brag about. The NDP lost a lot of ground from the previous election because many NDP voters were more disenfranchised with the Conservatives than they were motivated by the Liberals, but didn’t want to split the vote and lose, as they did in 2011.

The NDP and Liberals are relatively close in ideology in a number of important ways, but the NDP have policy plans with lots of support too. However, with a system that often relies on strategic voting with more than two parties, the lesser of two similar parties are often stifled politically, to the detriment of the whole system.

Now, I’m not claiming to know what the best electoral process for Canada and Canadians would be. I’m not suggesting the government listen to me and I’m not prescribing any system for Canada. But changing your mind about following through on the promise that ‘2015 be the last federal election held under the first-past-the-post voting system‘ is a terrible idea.

I like a lot of what the Liberals have done for Canada in the last year, and a big part of that is that the government has been relatively transparent about their goals and necessary changes to those goals. But walking back this important piece of policy simply because it might mean that you lose political power when it comes to re-election is simply not a good excuse.

Canada was thirsty for change in 2015 and you rode that wave straight into office, and for the most part, we love how you’ve shown the world so much of what makes Canada great. Just because we’re now a year into the cycle and the reform talk has died down doesn’t mean we aren’t still thirsty for this change.

First-past-the-post is a broken system that doesn’t work that well with multiple parties. Give us ranked ballots, some form of proportional representation, mandatory voting, or take your (hopefully pluripartisan) ‘Parliamentary committee’ and come up with something totally different to ensure Canadians of all colours feel their voices and ideals are heard. All we’re asking is that you find something better than this clearly broken, unrepresentative system. Keep doing that, and fulfilling your other promises like you have been, and we will undoubtedly keep voting for you.

Weaving Social Fabric (Society is Changing, Part 1)

In a world where tensions are high, stability is a luxury, and critical aspects of decent society seem to be crumbling before our eyes, it’s easy to rush to angry judgment. The people of the world are becoming more polarized than ever, and this trend shows no sign of slowing.

Humans are flawed. We are good at spotting patterns (even when none exist), and adapting to change when necessary, but we mostly suck at everything else. One big example of this is large numbers. Humans are astonishingly bad at thinking about numbers larger than a few hundred.

Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, suggested in the 90s a correlation between primate brain size and the number of social linkages maintained by an average member of the species, now called Dunbar’s Number. In humans, that number of relationships comes out to around 150. Robin relates this number to the typical maximum size of a social circle most people can maintain.

In addition, this figure of 150 is only for groups under survival pressure, and would require substantial ‘social grooming’ to maintain. That being said, the principles that give rise to Dunbar’s Number likely extend even further than this.

At least in North America, over 80 percent of the population lives in urban environments. This kind of lifestyle lends itself to a larger range of connections than rural living can, and our social connections bear that out. While a typical city block varies broadly in size and density, consider a block downtown littered with apartment buildings. At any point, one of these blocks could house hundreds of people, all living within minutes of each other on foot. There is no way that any individual person could have time to know and maintain relationships with even a fraction of their neighbours in this kind of living situation.

Now, take the opposite situation. There are small towns in North America that are populated by members of one or two extended families, where even dating prospects are limited to the one other family, or your own relatively close cousins. In these instances, where your average day might only include interactions with the same 100 or so individuals, it would be easier to keep in touch and follow the lives of almost everyone you see on a regular basis.

There was a time not too long ago when most people lived in this second situation, and a new person coming to town would be a cause of great interest, because people’s social ‘dance card’ was actually relatively empty. Of course, if somebody new moved to your urban city today (which almost certainly did happen), if you even knew about it, it would not be news, or even interesting to anyone.

Social relationships are complicated these days, at least in part because our social biology hasn’t yet caught up to the realities of modern life. The horrific act of violence, natural disaster, or political scandal du jour is broadcast all over the internet, through traditional news media outlets, and is the topic of conversation at water coolers and street corners across the country.

This visibility of news has a way of polarizing those who read it, especially when so much of the media isn’t reporting on news and events so much as running them through a filter. This is a problem in left-leaning media as much as it is in right-leaning media, and since the market for objective, rational media coverage is effectively non-existent, the whole thing is entirely self-sustaining. Pew has done some great research on polarization, and how huge the divide between political ideologies is these days.

Taking a step back, consider the following: no news isn’t good news anymore. Look no further for evidence of this than in scientific research. Scientists are faced with tightening budgets, increasing accountability for funding, and losing credibility without publishing their work. However, an increasing number of journals are choosing not to publish negative results or confirmation studies.

This means that research which fits a hypothesis is published, while subsequent studies following up on that research aren’t done, and further research that doesn’t turn up more or better evidence is shelved or thrown out. Anybody with an ounce of sense and a few minutes to think about it can see that this leads to a system that pumps out misleading or error-prone research, and suppresses the error correction that makes the scientific method so appealing.

The same thing is true in the news media. A sensational story with little fact or evidence will make its way around the world several times before any thought is given to its validity. Later, the story is clarified, parts are retracted or modified, and the much less interesting truth never really filters through major news channels like the original ‘story’.

Put another way, if there is an interesting angle to a potential news story, nothing else matters. Whether the resulting press coverage of an issue is true or false, whether people’s lives or careers are ruined, none of this matters because everyone is looking for the next scoop already. And when it’s uncovered that a story isn’t as interesting as originally advertised, i.e. there’s no news, there’s no money in correcting that error.

All of this brings us to an interesting point about the human race as it exists today. At any moment, I could, in theory, get into direct written (or possibly visual) contact with almost anybody on the planet. I would estimate that for at least 9 out of every 10 people, that conversation could begin within seconds. We’ve all become intertwined with social fabric that something happening to a few people on the other side of the world can be the most interesting and relevant thing we hear about on a given day.

Our ‘family’, in the small-town sense of the word, has grown so quickly that many of us, especially in younger generations, now consider celebrities and people in popular culture worthy of being included in the <150 people we hold in our tightest social circles. That leads directly to the rise of vlogging and podcasting as mediums of growing popularity, because these forms of media draw in their fans so they feel they’re included in the narrative.

At the moment, I’m not saying whether this revolution of sorts is good or bad for society. I think in general, time will tell and everything will mostly just work itself out. However, since we currently have access to the largest potential number of personal social connections than at any other time in history, we naturally tend to filter our social groups down more and more into the people we have the most in common with.

The ‘filter bubble’ is a well-known phenomenon caused by algorithms giving you only the news or opinion you want to hear, but there’s a real world version of that as well. Before the Internet, if you met somebody who had a different opinion from you, social norms meant you talked and learned each others’ points of view, and perhaps even changed your mind on something. Increasingly, as social groups become more reliant on communication at a distance, these encounters with different opinions are becoming more rare, and in many instances can be avoided completely.

As a result, groups of people spending time together tend to all like and think a lot of the same things, and anybody who doesn’t share these views or ways of thinking may increasingly start to be seen as more different, and may perhaps even be scary.

As for what this means, well…it’s not good.

Part 2

Editor’s Note: When I started this piece almost two months ago, I actually wanted to make a totally different set of points, but when I started writing, here’s what came out. While I think this piece stands on its own just fine, I am already planning a follow-up wherein I address how the changes described above have made us all less empathetic, and what could be done to address that.

10 Things You Should Try Right Now (In 50 Words or Less)

Photo by Britt Selvitelle (Flickr:

I first published this on my personal blog two years ago today. Most good advice is eternal and these ten things you can do certainly all still apply.

1. Listen to a podcast
Everybody has quiet times during the day when you might listen to music. Do yourself a favour and have a look through the catalogues at There are so many great podcasts to enjoy, and they don’t have to take you away from driving, cooking, or your favourite online activities.

2. Drink a glass of water
Honestly, no beverage holds a candle to simple, clean water. In addition to keeping your joints and blood vessels properly hydrated, drinking water regularly reduces feelings of hunger, goes a long way towards preventing kidney stones, and even though it doesn’t have sugar or caffeine, it tastes amazing!

3. Get and use Twitter
Listen, I know you’ve heard Twitter‘s elevator pitch. But what I’m trying to tell you now is that even if you think you won’t use it, you should make an account and at least see what it’s like. You can follow celebrities, sports icons, news outlets, friends, acquaintances, there is never any shortage of reasons to try it.

4. Go for a walk
Seriously, walks are the easiest physical activity you can do, and they’ve been scientifically proven to increase creativity, reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, and give you the chance to get some much needed Vitamin D. You’ll thank me.

5. Share something
Humans are very community oriented by nature, something that we tend to forget when we are online a lot of the time. Take some time during your day to share something you’ve enjoyed online. It’s also been shown that giving somebody something makes you feel better than getting something you want from them, or for yourself.

6. Allow people to follow you on Facebook
I don’t think I’ve ever written about something as much as I’ve written about allowing people to follow your public updates on Facebook. Going to this link and letting “Everybody” follow you won’t make anything you do on Facebook more public, it just gives you more social clout. And that’s all anybody wants…

7. Have sex
You seriously want me to explain this one? Sex has been shown to boost your immune system, floods your body with painkilling endorphins, and has been Earth’s most popular leisure activity for billions of years. Go have sex right now and then come back and tell me it wasn’t awesome…I rest my case.

8. Talk to somebody
I spend a lot of my day working at a computer alone, speaking to nobody. Humans are social creatures who were not made to do that, so go and strike up a conversation with that friendly looking fellow/lady you see every day, you probably have something in common and didn’t even realize it.

9. Cry it out
There is very little that can make me feel better when I’m down than having a good cry. Aside from the fact that it’s not seen as the manliest of activities, it’s a great way to let out a lot of stress we all build up in our increasingly complicated lives. You did your best, now go have a cry.

10. Dance
I don’t care if you dance like nobody is watching, or if you are very conservative and shy about it. Dancing is great exercise and it’s so easy to find good music these days, it’s usually only a click or button press away. The best thing you can do on any given day is sing and/or dance!