Friday, February 27, 2015

Who is Wildrose Jim Prentice Listening To?

Lets ask a simple question. When the Wildrose Premier of Alberta says “he is listening to Albertan’s” who is he actually listening to?

We don't really know But we can guess. Given that he has ruled out all of the solid recommendations of  all of the leading economists, including the very smart people associated with the Premiers Council on Economic Strategy, we know he is not listening to those who have studied the problem.

We also know that he is not listening to those who have day to day direct contact with those Albertan’s most in need. That would be social workers, health workers, teachers, community development workers, foster care parents, mental health workers, First Nations outreach workers. The fact that he says that many of these are overpaid (he never says the same about bankers, oil and gas executives, engineers, and corporate executives) tells us he is not talking to them.

Nor is he listening to the growing number of poor people in Alberta. Nor is it possible that he is really listening to single parent mothers, the growing number of working poor or those who struggle with three jobs to pay rent, put food on the table. He is not listening to Public Interest Alberta or the Parkland Institute who champions the issues faced by these people.

So who is left? Well his own caucus members feel “left out”, at least according to some. He is not sitting down with the NDP, whoever remains in the Liberal Party or the Alberta party and asking “what can we agree to do which will really transform our economic position and end our dependency on oil and gas revenue?”.

So I am left with the working assumption that he is listening to a select group of oil and gas executives (and their bankers) who are telling him to keep their taxes low, to keep royalties crazy  low, not to introduce any new taxes on sales and to argue that all of this is in the name of “competitiveness”. I also think he spends his evenings in an echo chamber listening to himself.

This is why we have the broken Ralph Klein message and really poor thinking. This is why we are going to see conflict between those with power and those without. This is why he will take on the public intellectuals who challenge him and the bloggers who will be key to laying out an alternative narrative, given that our political opposition seems “dead in the water”.

No doubt a response to this will be that we are surveying Albertans. Really. Look at the questions NOT ASKED in that survey and, more significantly, read the last statement on the survey which makes it a political statement.  Also, ask what difference these surveys will make to the policies which come out of the echo chamber.

As one of my respondents has suggested, we are past the time of trying to help the Wildrose Government and Premier hear us, we need to start using street politics to get them to understand just in how many ways they are misunderstanding Alberta.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Wildrose Prentice Governments Austerity Strategy - What's Wrong with That?

What is the problem with the Jim Prentice Wildrose Government narrative about the financial situation in Alberta?

First, it is based on the “big denial”. It is based on the fact that our revenue base is over-reliant on oil and gas royalties which, though they favour the oil and gas companies, have enabled the Government not to have to face up to a real revenue problem – we don't have the right mix of taxes, user fees and corporate revenues. We need to develop a progressive income tax regime which taxes those earning over $150,000 higher than those earning $50,000. We need to develop a harmonized sales tax which generates significant revenue. We need to rethink royalties so that we manage to secure an appropriate return for all Albertans from their resources (we own the oil and gas, Total, Conoco, Shell are leasing from you and me). The “big denial” is that we cant do these things.

Second, its based on the idea that the problem is the public service and their costs. The reality is that this is not the case. While efficiencies can be found, 9% cuts across the board for the public sector is the cowards way of dealing with the artificial problem created by the Wildrose Prentice Government. Reducing the depth and range of service harms the poor and vulnerable. The rich can still do what they have always do – pay for alternatives.

Third, the strategy the Wildrose Prentice government will be aimed at encouraging a mild form of austerity. We know from other places that this lowers tax revenues, increases unemployment, increases demands on social services and health care and damaged the long term sustainability of social institutions, including schools, colleges and universities. This is of little concern to Wildrose Prentice – he wants to further de-professionalize these organizations and lower their cost, effectiveness and resilience.

All of this is ideologically driven. What Alberta needs is an alternative narrative, set of propositions and new leadership. Sadly, we don't have it. While I have a lot of time for Rachel Notley (NDP), the NDP carry a lot of baggage – not helped by the decision of Brian Mason to seek another term as an MLA (he carries some of the bags). The Liberal Party of Alberta – say no more. Killed off by Raj Sherman, the PC who crossed the floor in the most opportunistic way. The Wildrose is now the Tame Daffodil and impotent. The Alberta Party is a party in name only. Prentice will win a snap election, though it is likely the last election the PC Party will win.

What can happen now is that public intellectuals should speak out loudly and call what they see directly, bluntly and clearly. As we watch our carefully built world class education system – the leading English speaking system in the world – being stripped of its capabilities and attacked in very direct ways, we need to speak out. As we watch our health care system staff being challenged, we need to speak out. As we watch the rich benefit from all of this and the poor getting poorer, we need to speak out. Its time for straight talk.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Alberta- The Non Budget Crisis...

Does Alberta have a financial crisis? No.
There is a complex answer to this question. It begins with a set of assumptions being made by Government and ends with a question of the competence of one of the longest serving Governments in the world.

Let’s start at the beginning. Alberta is anticipating a budget shortfall because the Government misunderstands the nature of the problem. As the Premiers Council on Economic Strategy made clear, the dependency on oil revenue for funding a great many Government operations represents a predictable problem: it is not a sustainable way of funding Government operations (see pages 95-100).

The so-called $7 billion “shortfall” is actually a myth. The real shortfall is in producing an intelligent response to the current conditions. Such a response looks to replace oil and gas revenues as a basis for operational spending with progressive income tax, sales taxes and revised corporate taxation and oil and gas revenues. This will take some time, but right now is the time to start. Alberta is ready.

The current government seems to have rejected these options on the grounds that it may affect Alberta’s competitive position. Yet our competitive position is more about the attractiveness of Alberta as a place to invest, live, work and play – the quality of education, social care, social services, health care and recreational services – than it is about taxes. No one likes paying taxes – we do what we can legally to avoid doing so – but we pay them because we value what they provide. As one of the wealthiest places on the planet (our GDP per capita is higher than anywhere else in North America), there is plenty of room for more taxes. Ideology gets in the way of collecting them.

The Government also espouses a narrative that says we should balance the books. This is another non-sense idea. We can chose not to without it impacting our credit rating, especially if the debt relates to needed infrastructure and investments for our future. With interest rates at a very low level and our credit rating high, it is a really good time to invest in our future. A reasonable debt to GDP ratio (between 25% and 30%) makes sense for a petro-state like Alberta.The Taxpayers Federation is not the conscience of Alberta (who elected them?) - our publicly elected officials are. Just listen to the Mayors and Councils or school trustees to realize we can do better. 

Of course we should make sure that all of our spending is efficient and effective, which is why results based budgeting and management makes sense. We should also systematically rethink how government does it work – do we really need over 650+ people working in Alberta Education, for example? Wouldn’t we make more progress on implementing new policies and practices aligned with Inspiring Education if we had just 150 people in this Ministry? After all, its at the level of the school that real change occurs. So we should look at all expenditure and question them. Taking a 9% axe doesn’t really do this, it just leads to bad decision making: why use a hammer when what we need is a sniper?

So when we hear “there is no alternative” to the strategy this Government wishes to pursue, know that there is. It is one which is not liberal, conservative or progressive, just sensible. It is called rethinking government. Do it now – it is a fantastic moment for new thinking. 

Does it look like this will happen? No. We have a Government that is stuck in a paradigm that is no longer fit for purpose. This is the competence issue. At the exact moment when we need inspired leadership, we do not seem to have it. After what seems like a Government in power for ever it has run out of imaginative ideas, despite a new leader. What we need now are public figures demanding change in how we approach this terrific opportunity to do the right thing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Alberta Version of Democracy - DIctatorship?

Parliament or a Legislative Assembly is an important place. Here Government presents its budgets and commitments and the House (all sides) are supposed to hold them to account. The opposition – for those parliaments fortunate to have them – also are expected to challenge the assumptions and strategy of government. The backbenchers of the ruling party are supposed to hold the feet  of the government to the fire with respect to their commitments.

MLA’s or MP’s are expected to have a degree of independence. The whips office can issue 1,2 and 3 line whips to require support for the party, but the more often the whips use the lash the less creative MPS’s/ MLA’s are and the less likely we are to attract the brightest and the best.

Committees of the House are just that – committees of THE HOUSE. Not the governing party. Their job is very clear: to hold the Government of the day to account. For example, if the Government says it has a financial crisis and they have systematically looked at all options and have developed a response plan and a budget to deal with it, the relevant Committee should ask some deep and challenging questions: (a) how seriously did they look at all of the options – e.g. a sales tax, progressive income tax, changes to corporate taxes, new fees and charges, new royalty regimes for natural resources, new options for death cuties, new options for stamp duty on financial transactions, targeted fiscal constraints, new investments in infrastructure to generate jobs and tax revenues; (b) does their budget make sense; and (c) are the claims about the budget – e.g. a 9% cut in every area of Government “will have no direct impact on the most vulnerable” – supported by the evidence. The job is to be critical and challenging, offering support only when it is due and supported by evidence.

In this tradition, Parliamentary Committees chaired by Government back-benchers with a majority of Government back-bench members will often draw attention to the stupidity of their own Ministers and will often send back legislation, budget strategies or regulations as not meeting the commitments made or for being, well, just stupid.

But in Alberta, the Committees are now creatures of Government. They are grotesque creatures which the Premier wants to order about. For example, when the appropriate committee restored financing to the Auditor Generals office to support investigative work, the Premier asked the committee to rescind its vote. A sensible committee would have politely told the Premier where to put his request and also reminded him that they are a Committee of the House, not of Government. If the Premier wants to control these committees he would be better off not having them. Disbanding them would save money.

Given the situation in Alberta, there is a good test for our parliamentary system. If the committee meets and does as the Premier asks, then we know they are wasting all of our time. If the Committee meets and reaffirms its original position, then we have something worth keeping. If they do as they are told and don't immediately then all resign we know a lot about the intention of the Government back-benchers – they want a Ministerial position. We also know that they are not good parliamentarians. Its a cunning test of democracy - the Premier is saying "shall we have a democracy" or something else?

You cant have a democracy which looks like a dictatorship. Get used to it.

Friday, February 13, 2015

9% Cuts, Educational Performance and the Future - Time to Start Shouting Loudly!

David Berliner is a retired Professor of Education from the University of Arizona, a distinguished and respected scholar and a gentleman. He was in Alberta this week speaking at teacher conventions. His point was simple: teachers make a huge difference to the lives and minds of their students, but have no significant impact on standardized test scores. The most significant impact on such scores – Provincial Achievement Tests, PISA scores, etc. – are the social and economic conditions of the families of students. Poor families do not do as well as rich families on standardized tests. More to the point, teachers and schools can not compensate for poverty. He backed all of this up with significant data.

One example of this significant data is the table below. This table, which uses Australian data from PISA, looks at the socio economic status of the students coming into the school (these are the rows on this column) and the social composition of the school (the columns). So row 1, column 1 are poor kids in schools full of poor kids and row 5 column 5 is rich kids in schools full of other rich kids. The three digit numbers in each cell are the scores of these students in that cell on the PISA assessments.

There is a lot of difference between scores of 455 and scores of 607 (1.5 standard deviations). What is more, the chances of a child in square 1/1 achieving the same kind of score as a child in square 5/5 are very low – around 6% - 8% do (it is around 8% in Canada). Given that we live in a knowledge economy where knowledge provides the basis for income and social mobility, this is a very important table.

Remember, teachers have very little influence over these scores. In fact, the OECD itself (which collects the PISA data) observes that some 46% of the variance in scores on its PISA tests of mathematics, science and reading competence were related to social factors, especially poverty (Ash, 2014; OECD 2013)[1]. This all fits with David Berliner’s earlier analysis of this same issue: socioeconomic conditions account for some sixty percent of the variance in student performance in the US, with a further twenty percent due to schools and half of that due to teacher practice (Berliner, 2009)[2].

So what has this to do with Alberta? First, remember that Alberta is the leader in schooling in the English speaking world. We are excellent at what we do. But if we want to remain excellent, we need to work at some things to make sure we stay at the forefront of educational quality performance. Given these findings, key to this is the reduction of poverty and income inequality. Here the signs are not good. Here is the most recent data from Public Interest Alberta relevant to this issue:

       143,200 Albertan children lived in poverty – this is the wealthiest Province (measured by GDP per capita) in Canada
       Most low income families  - families in poverty – are working poor
       Most Albertans working for low wages are older adults, many with family responsibilities.
       There is also a significant gender disparity when it comes to low wage work. Over two-thirds of low wage workers (68.8%) 25 years or older are women
       While Alberta has almost full employment, youth unemployment is high (8.9%) and growing.
       Unemployment amongst First Nations youth is also high (8.3%)
       Single parents are especially vulnerable (especially female single parents) as are recent immigrants
       Over the past 30 years, income inequality in Alberta has increased at a rate exceeding national trends: the top 1% of taxfilers saw a 65% increase in their real after-tax incomes compared to only a 5.5% gain for the bottom 99% of taxfilers over the period from 1982 to 2011.
       But it gets worse: the top 0.1% of taxfilers experienced a 136% increase in their real incomes, compared to only a 3.4% increase in the real incomes of the bottom 50% of taxfilers

So on indicators of equity, we are going in the wrong direction. This will have an impact on educational outcomes.

It is also the case that conditions of practice – class size, the investment in special needs education, school food programs, health care for school age students – all need to be improved if we are to stop the trend of poverty and inequality.

Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons 2.0 and a Visiting Professor at Harvard, suggested that there were five things we should look at to ensure we retain our global position as a leader in educational quality and equity:

  1.             Focus on our resource strategy for schools and community development – what do we need to do to create the conditions of practice in schools to enable teachers to be outstanding? What else do we need to invest in for students  - school meals, health and dental care, inclusion, special needs supports, First Nations outreach sports and clubs, safe school environments – for schools to be able to focus on education.
  2.             Early Childhood Care and Learning – universal access to child care offered by highly skilled, professional child educators.
  3.            Investments in child health and wellbeing. Whether these are in terms of community programs, support for parents in providing nutrition, community dental programs (the largest single reason for school absenteeism in the City of New York is dental care and dental emergency) or other health supports, these need to be there and maintained.
  4. .         Clear and focused strategies and appropriate supports for special education (students who need differentiated help to be successful) and inclusion of students with disabilities.
  5. .        Balanced curriculum which gives just as much emphasis to the arts, music, dance and design as it does to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 60% of the students in Grade 1 right now will apply for jobs on leaving school which do not yet exist and many of these jobs will not be in STEM occupations (where there is also growing unemployment).

So what is Alberta doing? It intends to reduce expenditure across the board by between 9% and 12% (depending on the rate of population growth and inflation) while hoping that this does not affect “front line” services. Will these enable Sahlberg’s five action areas to be areas for investment, development or improvement? No. Will these have an impact on the educational performance of our schools? Yes. Will the “cuts” impact our economic future?  Absolutely? Is this smart? No.

[1] Ash, P.BZ. 2014 OECD – Poverty Explains 46% of PISA Scores. Education Week, March 28th Retrieved from  (Accessed July 10th 2014).

[2] Berliner, D. (2009) Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Washington: National Education Policy Center – Research Brief. Available at

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Whatever Happened to Our Understanding of Science?

20% of adult Canadians think that the measles vaccine causes autism. This according to a survey of some 3,000 people conducted by Mainstreet Technologies.. They are wrong. There is not a shred of scientifically credible evidence to support this view, but it persists. So does the belief that homeopathic medicine is effective in treating specific problems or that Big Foot is alive and well or that organic food is better for you than non-organic food.

This kind of “lets make stuff up” science is worrying. It tells us that real science – the systematic, methodologically rigorous pursuit of truth – is not understood either in terms of process (how science gets done) or in terms of outcome (what we know from science). We have failed to help people understand how to examine a proposition – e.g. “is it a good idea for my son or daughter to have the measles vaccine?” – in a rigorous, science based way.

One reason for this is that the media loves non-scientific ideas, especially when they come from scientists or science advocates. For example “…major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a ‘Siberian’ climate by 2020” screamed The Guardian in February 2004. They based this on a “secret” (sic) Pentagon report from a scientist and a business writer who in turn based this claim on their very limited understanding of climate models.

Al Gore once predicted that the Arctic would be “ice free” each summer by 2013, based on his review of a range of scientific studies – a view supported by his own scientific advisors. In fact, by 2013, Arctic sea ice had grown 50% since satellite records began in 1979.

In a typical day, a person who listens to the radio, watches television and reads newspapers will be faced with up to one hundred “quasi” science claims. These will range from “scientists have developed gluten free yeast” (yeast is already gluten free – yeast is a fungus and gluten is a plant protein – they are as related as a cow and a grape) to “coconut oil can increase your calorie-burning power by up to 50%” (well-known studies have shown that saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease).

We need to do a much better job of helping citizens develop the ability to review, question, explore and check scientific claims. Measles can kill – it's a deadly disease. For every 1,000 children who get measles, two will die. Vaccination is an established and safe way of protecting the community. Our communities and each of us is threatened by ignorance and the spread of pseudoscience. It needs to change.