Development and Underdevelopment–the Commanding Heights

We addressed the topic of development and underdevelopment in POLI 1100 this week. Amongst the many issues covered, we started to explore some of the alleged causes of economic growth and development. Why is there still such disparity in income and economic growth around the world, not only between countries, but within? Why have countries in the global “South” lagged behind, for the most part, their counterparts in the global “North”? There are various answers to this question and we addressed a couple of them in class. I showed clips from a fantastic documentary series put together by PBS, called (and based on the book of the same name) The Commanding Heights. All the information you’ll need is at the PBS website. Fortunately, each of the three 2-hour episodes has also been uploaded (in its entirety) to the Internet. From the narration at the beginning of the first episode, we learn that

This is the story of how the new global economy was born. A century-long battle as to which would control the commanding heights of the world’s economies–governments or markets.

I encourage you to watch all three episodes.



Has Poverty in India Really Dropped?

In POLI 1100 yesterday, we analyzed the topic of development and underdevelopment and noted that, according to some estimates, the world has become less unequal (more equal) over the last 10 years or so, primarily (we noted) as the result of the economic rise of China and India. Given that these two countries contain more than 1/3 of the world’s total population, what happens to them (and their citizens) has dramatic global impact. So, if incomes (and wealth) in India and China are rising, then it’s not surprising that the world is becoming a wealthier (and more equal) place. Take a look at the chart below. You’ll notice differences in the two trend lines, which can be accounted for by the rise in income in China and India.

While there have been rumours for many years that official Chinese economic statistics may not be the most reliable, a recent story in the New York Times asks the somewhat surprising question “Has Poverty Really Dropped in India?” It turns out that the answer is most likely yes, though it appears, on the surface, that some of sleight was at work. However, in the end the drop in poverty seems legitimate:

Remember when the public was outraged at the idea that the poverty line should be 32 rupees, or 63 cents, a day in urban areas?

We’ve now learned it should really be 29 rupees. And believe it or not, this is no sleight of hand to show a drop in poverty.

The Planning Commission’s latest poverty estimates, [click on this link for the statistics, which are grouped by caste, religion, and other demographic indicators] released Monday evening, show a 7 percentage-point drop in India’s poor, the largest fall since the figure was first calculated in 1962.

Some critics say the Planning Commission has reduced an already controversially low poverty line even further, using the new thresholds to create the appearance of a large drop in absolute numbers.

By the way, how much is 29 rupees–the poverty threshold in urban areas? About 57 Canadian cents, at today’s exchange rates! So according, to the Indian government, an Indian living in an urban area can earn only 58% of the one dollar/day threshold and still not be considered as officially living in poverty!! Yikes!

Global Debt Crisis and Relief

The issue of the global debt crisis–and particularly the onerous debt levels of developing world (“Southern”) countries–was a topic that we covered in POLI 1100 today. It will allow me to combine two class topics–issues pertaining development and underdevelopment, and interest groups (NGOs)–into one blog post. The interest group, Global Issues, is dedicated to analyzing “social, political, economic, and environmental issues that affect us all” and has a section on debt relief for the developing world. Here are some facts and figures related to the scale of the debt crisis in the developing world:

Consider the following:

  • In 1970, the world’s poorest countries (roughly 60 countries classified as low-income by the World Bank), owed $25 billion in debt.
  • By 2002, this was $523 billion
  • For Africa,
    • In 1970, it was just under $11 billion
    • By 2002, that was over half, to $295 billion
  • Debts owed to the multilateral institutions such as the IMF and World Bank is currently around $153 billion
  • For the poorest countries debts to multilateral institutions is around $70 billion.

$550 billion has been paid in both principal and interest over the last three decades, on $540bn of loans, and yet there is still a $523 billion dollar debt burden.

Here are some remarks by Professor Susan George on how to tackle the debt crisis. Money quote:

…there is no level of human suffering, which in and of itself, is going to change policy. The only way policy changes is because people demand it, and in this case, it has to be the people of the North, because the people of the South have very little political clout.

More on Representation and Electoral Systems

Prompted by a comment on a previous post regarding how voter representation would be different if Canada had a proportional representation system, I decided to do some reading on the Fair Vote website and stumbled upon some interesting facts. The first is an illuminating quote regarding the difference between decision-making (rule) and representation by somebody named Ernest Haville:

 “In a democratic government, the right of decision belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all.”

As we noted in class earlier today, many of the votes cast in our elections are wasted as a result of our first-past-the-post system. Below is a screenshot from the website, which shows that in the 2008 federal election in Gatineau, QC, fully 70% of the voters were not represented. This is because the Bloc Quebecois candidate, Richard Nadeau, won a tight four-way battle, garnering a plurality of the vote at 29.2%.

This is just the most egregious example of wasted votes (and, thereby, of non-representation), but every Canadian election and electoral district sees wasted votes. Indeed, the folks at have calculated that of the more than 14 million votes cast during Canada’s last federal election (2011) only slightly more than half (50.4%) were effective, while 49.6% were wasted.

Why is this bad for democracy? Well, here is another excerpt from

Does Canada actually have representative democracy? In the 2008 federal election:

  • 940,000 voters supporting the Green Party elected no one, while fewer Conservative voters in Alberta alone elected 27 Conservative MPs.
  • In the prairie provinces, Conservatives received roughly twice the votes of the Liberals and NDP combined, but took seven times as many seats.
  • Similar to the last election, a quarter-million Conservative voters in Toronto elected no one and neither did Conservative voters in Montreal.
  • New Democrats: The NDP attracted 1.1 million more votes than the Bloc, but the voting system gave the Bloc 49 seats, the NDP 37.

What about majority rule? Canadians are usually ruled by majority governments that the majority voted against. In some provincial elections, parties coming in second in the popular vote have won majority control of the legislature.

In class, we noted the irony of the part above that is in bold font! The 1988 federal election was fought primarily on the basis of a pending free trade agreement amongst Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In Canada, the Progressive Conservatives (led by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney) were in favour of (what would become) NAFTA, while the NDP and the Liberal Party were against. In the end, a majority of Canadians voted for parties that were against NAFTA, yet the PCs won a majority of seats in parliament, enabling them to push through the necessary legislation.

Why do Young Canadians Vote Less than Others?

In POLI 1100 today, we looked at a table (from Dyck–Studying Politics) that demonstrated low (relative to other age groups) levels of political interest and politics are amongst young Canadians. We explored (that is, I asked students to conjecture about) some of the potential reasons for this in class.

A recent report by Marion Menard of the Social Affairs Division of the Canadian Library of Parliament explores a few potential causes of low voter turnout amongst Canadian youth. She lists four:

1 No Issues of Interest to Young People?

The explanation most often provided is that the issues that are important to young people are not part of the political parties’ election platforms. However, this hypothesis is challenged by political scientists who conducted a study for Elections Canada following the federal election in 2004. According to Elizabeth Gidengil and her fellow researchers, for instance, health was cited as a key issue for all survey respondents, regardless of age:

Issues that concern many young people are on the political agenda, and the political parties are taking positions on these issues. The problem seems to be that too often these messages are just not registering with a significant proportion of younger Canadians

2 Lack of Political Knowledge?

The authors of the Gidengil study asserted that there were “striking” gaps in young Canadians’ knowledge of politics.6 There is also consensus in the academic community that a significant number of young voters go to the polls without the necessary tools to make an informed decision.7 According to researchers, young people know little or nothing about the politicians and have no idea how the political institutions that run the country function. In a study conducted for the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IPRP), Henry Milner established a cause and effect relationship between the level of political knowledge and youth electoral participation.

3 Lack of Trust in the System?

According to Brenda O’Neill of the University of Manitoba, beyond limited knowledge about the political system, voters both young and old show a lack of interest in public affairs. She says that many voters doubt that voting every four years can truly influencethe decision-making process, and as a result, people stay away from the polls, which can lead to distrust and even cynicism over time

4 Media Influence?

When the issue of cynicism is raised, the media are often singled out as the culprits. Television is mentioned in particular since it tends to focus on the conflicts in politics.10

Yet media use reportedly has a positive impact overall on the acquisition of political knowledge, although its efficacy depends on the medium used. Reading newspapers and news websites has a strong positive impact on the electoral participation of young Canadians, while watching television and listening to the radio do not have as marked an effect.

Which of these do you think is the most important? If so, what is a potential remedy (assuming you share the view that youth political participation should be increased)?

The History of the Recall in BC Provincial Politics

As we noted in POLI 1100 earlier today, the recall mechanism is one of the tools of direct democracy that citizens can use to influence the political process. A student asked whether any provincial politician (in BC) had ever been recalled. The answer is that since the passage of The Recall and Initiative Act (1996), of 24 attempts at recall, not a single one of them proved successful. (Of course, we witnessed the successful recall effort last year of the HST legislation brought in by the Campbell government.) In 23 of these efforts not enough valid signatures were collected, while in one effort the MLA–Paul Reitsma (Lib–Parskville-Qualicum)–resigned prior to the process reaching its conclusion.

Here is an overview of the recall process, from Elections BC:

Recall is a process that allows registered voters to petition for the removal of a Member of the Legislative Assembly between elections.

Any registered voter can apply to have a petition issued for the recall of their MLA (the elected Member representing their electoral district in the Legislative Assembly). A registered voter who wants to start a recall petition must obtain an application form from the Chief Electoral Officer. The completed application form must be submitted to the Chief Electoral Officer with a non-refundable processing fee of $50 and include a statement of 200 words or less of why, in the opinion of the applicant, the Member should be recalled. A Member cannot be recalled during the first 18 months after their election.

If the application is complete and meets the requirements of the Recall and Initiative Act, a petition is issued to the applicant (called a “proponent”) within seven days. The proponent then has 60 days to collect signatures from more than 40% of the voters who were registered to vote in the Member’s electoral district in the last election, and who are currently registered as voters in B.C. The proponent may be helped by volunteers when canvassing for signatures.

When all the signed petition sheets are submitted, the Chief Electoral Officer has 42 days to verify that enough eligible individuals have signed the petition. If enough valid signatures are on the petition, and the financing rules have been met by the proponent, the Member ceases to hold office and a by-election must be called within 90 days. A recalled Member can run as a candidate in the by-election.



Proportional Representation versus First-Past-the-Post

As we learned in POLI 1100 today, Canada is one of small number of countries that continues to have a first-past-the-post system for national elections. What this means is that we divide the country up into 308 single-member districts (divided principally on the basis of the “representation by population” principle), from each of which exactly one individual is elected to represent that district in the House of Commons in Ottawa. In our case, a winner only has to have a plurality of the vote in that district to be elected the winner. What this does is it tends to give larger parties overrepresentation in parliament based on their actual electoral strength. It also gives regionally-concentrated parties (like the Bloc Quebecois) overrepresentation in parliament vis-a-vis parties whose electoral support is more diffuse geographically.

As we can see from the 2008 federal election results, the Green Party received almost 7% of the total national vote, yet because the vote was dispersed across the whole of the country, did not receive a single mandate in the House of Commons. The Bloc Quebecois, meanwhile, gained 50 seats in parliament with a slightly larger percentage of the vote than the Greens! Why? Because the BQ’s votes were geographically concentrated within a minority of ridings in the province of Quebec.

Turning now to the 2011 federal election, in which Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won a majority in the House of Commons with 166 seats (and 39.6% of the vote). See the results below.

What if, on the other hand, Canada had a proportional representation system in which each province was its own electoral district and seats for the House of Commons were apportioned on the basis of the relative proportion of votes won by each party in each province? What would the results look like? With the help of my students, we were able to calculate the hypothesized makeup of the House of Commons were Canada to have such an electoral system.

Notice that the total number of MPs for the Conservative Party has dropped considerably such that the party no longer has a majority in the House of Commons. In fact, no single party has a majority! In order to form a relatively stable government, the Conservatives would have to find willing coalition partners. Unfortunately for them, however, other than the BQ, there is no immediately suitable coalition partner, given the respective ideological stances of the parties in parliament. Even with the BQ, the Conservatives could not get a governing majority, coming up 15 seats short. An NDP/Liberal?Green coalition, on the other hand, would work both ideologically and in terms of numbers (166 seats, exactly the same number as the Conservatives have today).

Note also how much a proportional representation system would help the Green Party–from only 1 seat in the House to 11 seats!

Which system would you prefer? Do you think that we should maintain the status quo? Should we change to PR? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each?