Political Impunity and Corruption

Somewhere, lost in a desert waiting to be discovered, is a battered cuneiform tablet with an essay complaining about how corrupt the current leaders are compared with their predecessors. I think about this when reading about a politician resigning from the legislature after a series of remarkably self-serving abuses (there have been a few). Or while under investigation another blandly stating that entitlements are entitlements so there is nothing to apologize for to anyone. Or much closer to home, the continued obsession of Ontario to cover the rural landscape with wind turbines despite any evidence that their power can be utilized (last weekend was a $10 million/day loss to ratepayers) or even afforded. Or what I like to think of as the ‘X-files’ view of government as a front for a group quietly working on some other agenda that will someday be revealed to our collective detriment.

Problem is that laws and codes of conduct are what we agree they are — nothing more. If I hold a raw egg out the window over a sidewalk, say from the second or third story, and drop it… there will be a mess on the sidewalk a few seconds later pretty much every time. There are natural laws — acceleration due to gravity, material strength of the shell and so forth, that dictate the survival of the raw egg. Human behavior is subject to no such clear cut and easily testable laws. Instead, we have culture and laws. And courts to argue the difference.

There is a lot of titter in the press of late about G-20 movements to reduce and eliminate corruption globally. But I suspect that everyone involved all think that corrupt practices are what the other guys do — but what they do is ok. Canadians are sure, for example, that what the Russians or Chinese do is corrupt. That in China, for example, there are no real business contracts but things get done or not based on personal relationships and obligations. Reminds me of what it was like getting consulting work in the Toronto financial services community — without personal ties, forget it.

Over the last weeks there has been mention in the press that some execs in OPG also sit on the boards of some of their suppliers. Or that the old head of the Ontario Liberal party was also the head of a wind turbine company. Is there a relationship between these connections and the obsessiveness by the Ontario government to landscape rural areas with unwanted wind farms? One wonders. But apparently it is not illegal for government execs to favor companies where they have personal financial interests. Is this corruption? Some might think so — others think its just business as usual.

As a taxpayer with little stomach for the long term manipulations of politics (learning what to kiss and when I’m sure) nor the massive personal resources and connections to play the game I can look at this with horror. But the problem with government and politics is that this is how it is played. A line from the play and movie ‘A Man for All Seasons’ comments on Sir Thomas Moore — ‘the first politician since Plato who did not grow wealthy from the bribes and benefits of office’. It is everywhere, not just Zimbabwe.

I suspect that as long as politicians are allowed to make rules that benefit themselves this problem will be with us. The US tries by making folks put their assets in blind trusts while in office to reduce this problem. But with lobbyists and the prospects of where they go after office makes arms length, impartial decisions a fond wish but dubious reality. And I may be wrong but I don’t think Canada even bothers to play this game of pretend.

What makes it worse is that everyone knows this so there is a corresponding culture of impunity — they can do what they want and no one can nay say them. At the worse a few bad days in the Globe and Mail, then back to the trough. Oh, occasionally someone will get tossed under the bus for appearances sake but jail is not a concern it would seem. And for someone with the right connections even that is not much of a factor.

The real miracle, one suspects, is that anything works at all.

Statistical Evidence

The other day there was another medical announcement which indicated that perhaps fat wasn’t so bad after all — seems it is essential for brain development. My wife and I have almost stopped reading these things — whatever is bad for you this week will likely be determined to be good for you next week. We are continually amused by the foods that fall in and out of favour, almost worse than skirt lengths and hairstyles.

And following the recent US elections there has been a spate of columns arguing for or against political campaigns that were based on ‘big data’ — statistical analysis of voters, their preferences, sensitivities and associated variables. Should the candidate part their hair on the right? How many votes will this pick up or loose? Ad nausea.

And medicine argues that by associating numbers with anecdotes about patient conditions and treatment responses they have become ‘evidence-based’. And treatments based on statistics are more valid than the old anecdotal approach — even though the underlying physiological mechanisms are no more understood than before.

There are, of course, the endless streams of meta-analysis where someone has collected the results of a whole population of studies and by suitable manipulation and data filtering declared that the real results of those studies were different than previously claimed.

Recently those of us on Amherst Island were treated to another example of this approach. Health Canada, assisted by a number of wind industry folks and fellow travellers (love that phrase from the 1950’s that loosely suggests unindited co-conspirators). No peer review, no involvement in the process of the protest groups or people who were not disbelievers. The media trumpeted that there were no health issues found. The report was a bit more nuanced — they did not talk to anyone who abandoned their homes. Those who were still there having problems (which were called ‘annoyances’) and found to have elevated stress hormones were told that this was due to being annoyed. So we had a case where ‘A’ (wind turbine noise) => ‘B’ (being annoyed by it) was somehow divorced from ‘C’ (biological markers of stress) but they did find that the people who were having problems did have the biological markers. My head hurts.

The global problem with all of this is that various attributes about the real world are sampled and subject to some analytical massaging. Then the proponent announces that the samples collected allow them to declare that the world works in a certain way and based on their study they could be sure that if certain things were done there would be specific desirable results. But no biological mechanism. I guess in a way what is happening is that various markers for a path through the unknown wilderness have been identified and marked on a map. These markers are connected to form a map — then the map is declared to be the territory. And confusion results.

I guess it is just very human to look for shorthand frameworks for explaining a large and complicated world. But it troubles me that there is so little humility about the extent of our knowlege. It is as though the classic phrase ‘only fools are absolutely certain of their facts’ were a broad and general statement about humanity as a whole. I hope not but it is hard to ignore.