Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Federal Government Implements Ignorance is Bliss

The Federal government decided to scrap the mandatory long form of the census in favour of a mandatory short form and a voluntary long form. Of course, as any statistician will tell you a voluntary survey is largely useless due to the problems that come with selection error. That is, it is likely to be those who are specially motivated who will fill out the form and send it in while the ordinary Joe or Jane is likely going to to put off adding an extra piece of work to their life. Even if by some miracle a perfect selection-free sample was obtained there is no way to know this and so the results will always be open to being accused of being biased. Say, for example, the voluntary survey showed 35% of Canadians were atheists (or born agains) then the church (or secular humanist) leadership would point out selection error as the explanation whenever anyone wanted to act on these numbers.

Why this change you ask -- well here is the explanation given by the Globe and Mail and a spokesman for the government:
The move is a response to protests from some Canadians who resented the personal questions in the long form. Similar opposition has been raised in the United States by some Republicans opposed to Washington collecting and analyzing data.

“Our feeling was that the change was to make a reasonable limit on what most Canadians felt was an intrusion into their personal privacy in terms of answering the longer form,” Erik Waddell, spokesman for Industry Minister Tony Clement, said Tuesday.

Given that this information is locked away in the bowels of the archives and annonymously aggregated for analysis it is hard to see what the real priovacy concern is here. Furthermore, sometimes minimal intrusions into privacy should give way to the idea that decisions should be based on knowledge and understanding rather than ignorance and prejudice. Of course, this government has largely been dedicated to the idea of decision making on a data-free basis (see management of the prisons and crime file for this purpose) so why should anyone be surprised?

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

No Way to Do a Gun Control Debate

There is no topic after the abortion issue that gets tempers through the roof so quickly as the issue of gun control. In Canada we have had a lively and vociferous debate over the long gun registry for a few years now and I expect that there are more debates to come. In the United States the Supreme Court recently ruled that the Second Amendment applied to state and local laws thereby severely constraining the ability of these governments to limit or restrict gun ownership. I will provide a link to the judgment here but tell you to not bother reading it unless you are incredibly interested in the intricacies of American constitutional history. Reaction of course is polarized with the Tea Party and NRA crowd hailing the decision as a vindication of constitutional rights while the liberal pansies (as I suspect the NRA hooligans would call them) of the New York Times condemns the decision as a distortion of the history of the Republic.

Both sides of the debate seem crazy to me as they largely focus on a few obscure sentences written as amendment to the American Constitution in the circumstances of the 1790's and the 1860's. The debate is largely over which group of judges got American history right and properly understood what the connection between the right to bear arms and a well regulated militia might be. While this is of course necessarily of interest to the judiciary it should be of no interest whatsoever to sensible human beings living in this day and age. Instead, it seems to me, the real debate should focus on the question of whether it makes sense to entrench gun ownership and the ability to raise militias in the Constitution at all. That is, maybe the time has come in the United States to have a debate about whether or not to amend or expunge the Second Amendment. It is hard to see that debate ever happening however given the climate of the United States on larger issues.

What this makes me think however is the danger that comes with having an unamendable constitution. In the United States this hardening of the Constitutional arteries comes from the worship of the Founders and the acceptance as religion of American exceptionalism. We in Canada though have the same problem for a different reason -- namely the stark regional/ethnic divide in constitutional visions brought to light by Charlottetown and Meech which make it impossible to adjust the Constitution (except on highly local matters like the Newfoundland school system or changing the name of Newfoundland to Newfoundland and Labrador). While our 1982 Constitution is not that old and some of the problems are just starting to show, our 1867 constitution is definitely getting creaky (Senate reform anyone). However, we cannot have a healthy debate about these kinds of issues from first principles but instead -- like the United States with the Second Amendment -- have to turn it into a legal debate about the meaning of ancient legislation.

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