Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Reflections on Wikileaks

I would like to begin by thanking my readers for supporting me. In recent weeks I’ve received a lot of positive comments about my blog. As part of my mission to be responsive to my readers, I have been asked to write about my thoughts about Wikileaks, and Private Bradley Manning.

I’m not sure I see the value of Wikileaks. I feel that Wikileaks has almost instantly transcended into the realm of symbolism. Wikileaks is now famous (or infamous) for its information dumps. Wikileaks uncovers masses of classified documents and releases them without commentary. They censor information at a bare minimum, only where they believe someone would directly end up in harm’s way.

Before I lay out my thoughts on this organization I’d like to say that Julien Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, problems with the law bare no impact on how I view them. Assange has been accused of sexual harassment and assault. I’ll leave that for the courts to settle.

Assange’s worldview, in my opinion, could be said to be Anarcho-Information. There are some people that are absolutists about the freedom of speech, that people should have the absolute ability to say whatever they want, no matter what. Nothing is off the table. Wikileaks’ philosophy is that nothing is secret. Perhaps another way to say it is that nothing is sacred. That all information should be public is an idea that I fundamentally cannot understand, nor empathize with. The philosophy of Wikileaks seems to be that they have the right to this information. I do not find this to be the case.

The problem is as follows, in my mind: the only people who “deserve” to know about American foreign activity is American policymakers. The trouble there? In a democracy, all American citizens have a voice in foreign policy. The conduct of foreign relations and diplomacy requires the ability to play your cards close to your chest. If your opponents, or rivals, know your moves, then you are severely weakened.

I also am concerned with Wikileaks’ target – the United States. Are there really any other nations we would rather see as the world’s key superpower? Russia? China? India? I frankly would love to see China’s dirty laundry aired. Having the U.S. dominant has a lot of benefits. They are not the devil, even if they can be misguided. As a Canadian, I don’t feel I have the right to know what the Americans are doing. Simultaneously, I feel like our government should be permitted to do a certain amount of leeway to design policy. I hope, in our advanced democracy, that our elected leaders hold our government accountable, and the media responsibly investigate.

Now to Bradley Manning, the private who leaked the information to Wikileaks. It is well within the rights of the Army to try him, especially because he is a member of the military. He can be held to the military standard of justice, and he has betrayed his oath, and revealed state secrets. Given how openly Manning violated his duty, I could reasonably expect him to face charges of treason, or espionage. If Manning was a private citizen I would be less comfortable with that kind of charge, but he isn’t, so I don’t have to concern myself with the ethics of that.

The Bush era (2001-2009) has left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, but I think it is important to keep things in perspective. America isn’t perfect, but a superpower cannot be. What right do we have to demand that the United States be perfect? What are human rights? In a world where many countries spit on our ideals, how can we uphold them? Where do we come off expecting America to protect and police the world, and then complain about their methods?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Student Success, Provincial Failure

This may not be my wisest blog posting as it could impede my ability to be hired in this province, but I feel like making my objections about Student Success and the impact it is having in classrooms and on our province is necessary.

The fundamental problem in the Ontario educational system is a misunderstanding of what is wrong with the public system. Earlier in the previous decade it was determined that the low rate of student graduation was a fundamental concern. This is a false diagnosis. The thinking of the McGuinty government was that the post-modern economy requires a more educated workforce. The days of dropping out of high school and getting a well-paying job in manufacturing are over, at least for now.

The government reasoned that most jobs would require a high school diploma in the new economy, at a minimum. This was intended to put Ontario on track for success. On the contrary the programs in place will hurt Ontario in the long run.

The assumption that a more educated workforce is needed is probably valid, but that is not the goal of the government. The goal of the government is to increase the level of accreditation, not education. These are fundamentally unconnected ideas.

With the goal of increasing the number of diplomas in Ontario requires reducing the standards that we demand to award a diploma. The population is not different one year to the next. Some are brilliant, some are below average and there is the vast squishy middle. Before these initiatives about 68% of students graduated, which seems about right. The stated goal is 85%. That means promoting the 17% that would previously fail. The government wants immediate results.

A true reform program would begin at the kindergarten and primary level and we would see real improvements after several years. The quicker solution is to fudge the numbers. Credit Recovery, literacy courses to substitute the written test and other components of the Student Success are programs which allow students to achieve the same results as their peers by doing less work, and being less accountable.

Ontario has succeeded in graduating more students, but they have largely done this by lowering standards rather than raising student achievement. Let’s be clear, if Ontario was graduating 85% of its students under similar programs and expectations as those in 2000, I would be ecstatic. This is not the case.

Ontario has selected quantity education over quality education. Sacrificing quality for quantity is a frightening choice. The main devalues the worth of an Ontario Secondary School Diploma, and likewise, the Honours List. Reduced standards mean that a lower quality of student can enter and “succeed” in applied and college level courses. This forces those who were in the previous upper levels of applied/college into academic/university. To keep everyone moving through the system at high rates teacher expectations must drop. Employers, colleges and universities can have trouble distinguishing the comparative value of one diploma to another. Therefore marring the standards negatively affects all graduates.

Ironically, the stated goals and ambitions of the Ontario government are being directly undermined by its programs. Rather than graduating more under one banner, the province would be better off streaming. Streaming is a process were students are separated by ability and skills. If we must graduate everyone (or 85% of the student population) distinguish between their relative success in their diploma.

Establish Class A, B, C, D, and F Diplomas, or whatever naming scheme or number is deemed appropriate. Reduce the standards for the lower diplomas and increase for the others. Class A and B will go on to university, B, C, and D to college and D and F to the workforce. Let’s not sacrifice what the O.S.S.D. means for the sake of greater numbers. Let’s look at education and society as it is, not as some fantasy.

More is not better. Reducing quality for the sake of quantity is a risky venture. The Liberal government under McGuinty will use these statistics of improved graduation rates to claim he has improved education in the coming election this year. There are elements of Student Success that has merits, especially those that better serve students directly entering the workforce or college, but there are worrying impacts of other components. We must understand where these policies are taking us, and what preferable options are out there.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Bigger Piece of the PEI

I would like to bring your attention to the issues in our modern politics as represented by the province of Prince Edward Island. The island province is the smallest in Confederation, with under 150,000 residents. In fact the population of Prince Edward Island is roughly the same of the city of St. Catharines, Ontario. I’ve personally been to P.E.I. several times in my life. It is really quite an amazing place.

That being said, Prince Edward Islands represents a lot of the foibles in the Canadian political system. As I’ve mentioned in a previous posting the principle of any democracy is that each citizen gets one vote. Prince Edward Island has four Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. Each MP in PEI represents about 34,000 people. The national average is that each MP represents over 100,000. Therefore, right from the start voters in Prince Edward Island have three times the electoral voice over the national average. The province with the greatest disparity is Alberta. Alberta’s 28 MPs represent 3.7 million Canadians, which is over 133,000 per representative.

Each Member of Parliament is meant to represent Canadians, based on equal representation on a geographic basis. Clearly, not all Canadians are being represented equally. The next closest province to Prince Edward Island is Saskatchewan, which has about 70,000 Canadians per MP, double PEI’s. Four provinces, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, have over 100,000 people per MP. Fair and balanced, our system is not.

The Senate is even worse, believe it or not. Prince Edward Island has four senators, and so the ratio of senators to population is the same as the MPs. British Columbia, population of 4.5 million has 6 senators. Each British Columbian senator represents nearly 700,000 people! The Senate is rife with problems, but Prince Edward Island remains the outlier in this system again.

Since the end of World War II P.E.I. has been the 10th fastest growing province in Canada. It lags behind. It is an aging province. The population is getting older. A massive percentage of their provincial budget is spent on healthcare, and the province is highly reliant on federal transfers to maintain its quality of life.

It’s difficult to “fix” the “problem” of P.E.I. Mainly because not everyone will agree there is an issue here. Can we really allow this pattern to continue as Prince Edward Island continues to become more disproportionately powerful in comparison to its more massive peers. The key is simple political reform, however, I wonder if in the long term will it make sense for P.E.I. to remain a province on par with British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Vanishing Urban Middle

A little while ago I read an article from the Globe and Mail about trends in urban demographics in Toronto. You can read the article for yourself here. The gist of the article is as follows: Toronto is increasingly being separated into two distinct groups – the very wealthy and the poor. As the article puts it, Toronto is becoming a place of extremes.

Toronto is actually late to this particular party. It is a pattern that is occurring in virtually every major city in the world, and for all I know there are no examples of where it is not occurring. Cities were once a place where a comfortable middle class could exist. Changes in the global economy has led to a greater polarization in the population. The mega-rich, or even extravagantly wealthy, are encroaching in on more and more neighbourhoods. Part of the reason for this is population pressures, and policy.

First, Toronto has reached its boundaries. There are no great stretches of undeveloped city left. The only solution, logically, for Toronto is to increase densities. More people are competing for the same resource – space. Housing is largely left to the free market which results in rising prices as supply is relatively fixed while demand increases. It takes time to build new apartment buildings and skyscrapers and to convert suburbs into more urban environments.

The result is that a typical middle income Canadian family cannot afford to buy a home, or similar accommodation in Toronto. The house I live in is worth about $200,000 in St. Catharines. The same house in Brampton, in the neighbourhood I grew up in would be worth probably about $350,000. I can assume that a home like this would cost something like double that in inner Toronto. Therefore, middle class people move out of the cities and into the suburbs, where schools are better, crime is lower, traffic is better and there is more space for less cost. I should also add that taxes are lower and regulations are less for the more conservative reader.

That explains why the cities are becoming richer in some neighbourhoods, but why is Toronto becoming poorer in others. The people with lower incomes cannot afford to leave the city. In the city they are provided with a great deal of government subsidization in the forms of public transit, rent controls, and plentiful services. Social housing projects and programs allow these people access to the shelter they need. It also puts them nearby sources of work, since, after all, they may not be wealthy enough to commute in other forms.

The political, economic and social impacts of these trends on our cities are difficult to understand. A city is only as healthy as its populace, and I have a hard time understanding how having a city divided into two starkly different groups, with radically different interests and socio-economic statuses is beneficial. Increasingly businesses, individuals, property owners will be taxed harder and harder to fend off poverty and provide services. Simultaneously the inner core will be dedicated to the luxury and pleasure of the upper echelons of society.

I believe cities need a vibrant middle class to succeed. I do not know what kind of policies can be put in place to maintain the middle class in the core of cities, not just Toronto. In the future I will talk about social housing policy, which is probably the only feasible way to confront this issue.