Category Archives: One Voice

New Directions, New Projects, Maybe Even the Occasional New Idea

Leslie and I completed, on September 20th, our 15th and final summer season of Country Supper Storytelling Concerts. In all we performed 573 of these, served and entertained 3,917 people along the way, many of whom became good friends. This whole experience was an almost unalloyed pleasure, the only alloy being occasional exhaustion. As such episodes grew in number and intensity with our advancing age, we decided we should find something new, preferably something where we could do a lot of the work sitting down.

We have always been interested in touring, especially in forms of touring that involved community participation. The Chautauqua model intrigued us, and we experimented with it one year, but it proved too big and too conflictual with our other activities. Now these are reduced, and we are about to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday with our Stephen Leacock’s “My Discovery of the West” Re-Tour 2017 — from 15th to 150th in one fell swoop, or swell foop. Our ports of call will be: Orillia (for a Launch at the Leacock Museum), Thunder Bay (Port Arthur and Fort William in Leacock’s day), Sioux Lookout (Leacock didn’t go there but the train does now), Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Medicine Hat, Vancouver, and Victoria. We will launch on October 20th 2017 and end November 28th. We will tell that story, if you would like to follow it, as it evolves on: www.voyageurstorytelling.ca & https://mariposabyconway.wordpress.com/

We are also becoming the home of a Leacock Database in which we will catalogue every piece that he wrote and every public speech that he spoke to the extent that we can locate them and with as much detail as we can find. The extent is considerable thanks to the bibliographical prowess of Carl Spadoni and his predecessors. Details are bounteous in some cases, sparse in others. We will complete the first round of that project in another month. Right now the database has about 2,400 records, including 1,300 pieces and about 800 speeches. When it came to verbiage, Stephen Leacock was a prolific man.

When that project settles in for the long pull, looking for details, we will start a database for the Canadian writers of magazine articles from Confederation to World War II. This grew out of our efforts to gather Leacock articles from Canadian literary magazines like the magnificently named The Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science, Art and Literature (1893 to 1938) and Maclean’s Magazine (1896 to the present). We started asking ourselves who these people were, many of them obviously amateurs, who wrote for these magazines with such dedication and spirit. Where did they live? How did they live? What are their stories? We are going to find out. We have seen enough already to know that their stories are enchanting, diverse, often up-lifting, occasionally tragic, invariably interesting. Stay tuned.

Then there is politics. This blog began out of my interest in writing about political matters. Other projects have interfered with the flow, but my interest persists. In particular, I am concerned about what I believe to be immaturity and sloppiness in our political discourse, particularly as reported in our beloved news media, but also in the pronouncements of both government and opposition. At the top of my list of immaturities is their, and our, perpetual carping negativity in discussion of public affairs. The political oppositions whom we hire to find fault with our governments seem to find it very difficult to get their eyes up out of the mud, after the manner of worms, in which course they are followed with mindless glee by the news media. A close second is both of their, and our, addiction to sensational anecdotes without any regard for the context or relative frequency of these episodes. Thirdly, I have a particular grief with the news media for their lust for reporting predictions without regard for the quality of the data behind them, the rigour of the analysis, or the often highly self-interested perspective of the person making them. And fourthly, I believe that maturity requires us to stop thinking of the stated intentions of our governments as “promises” and cultivate a more sophisticated understanding of what politicians are saying to us when they campaign.

And what of our governments? What share do they deserve of the obloquy? Well, obviously, they deserve all they get when they “spin” at our perceptions for the purpose of making themselves look good or make mistakes out of incompetence or dishonesty. I believe also, however, that the business of government is extraordinarily complicated and difficult, often because we the people make it so, and that a mature and sophisticated understanding requires recognition that things will often go wrong for reasons other than incompetence or dishonesty. In a huge multitude of instances they also go right, or at least well enough, and we need to celebrate from time to time all the people who make it so, at all levels, elected and hired, federally, provincially and municipally. These hard-working people are our employees, at least indirectly, and we collectively carry an employer’s responsibility, which does not consist in ignoring them when they do well, defecating on them from a great height when things go wrong, and generally thinking of them in the worst and most simplistic way we can find.

All this should keep me busy enough to hold boredom at bay. As for the inevitable decay of mind, well, maybe it will slow that down too.

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Toward the Heart of Lightness, Step by Step

January 4, 2016

2016 ho! Here we go! Whither this blog?

The Detroit writer Anna Clark (http://annaclark.net/blog/) has proposed that the purpose of blogging should be “to practise the public art of writing and reflection”. That makes good sense to me, as long as it means that the writing and the reflection go hand in hand in mutually reinforcing support.

While retaining my freedom to tack hither and yon as circumstances suggest, I would like, in this spirit, to explore these themes in the months ahead:

  1. What does it mean to “do politics differently”? Who should do it? The present government says it wants to do it. What if it tries, but everybody else—opposition parties; journalists; voters—carries on in the old accustomed way? What happens to that good intention then? (We, in our old accustomed way, would not call it an “intention”, rather a “promise” with all the weight that word carries.)  I predicted last year, before the election, that we would be governed by the “mind-set” of the government, not by the platform or the “promises” or any such ephemera. We certainly were with the last lot. We will learn much more about the new mind-set in the months and years ahead.
  2. As I read more and more political journalism, I think I am noticing some common themes in the mind-set there, and despite all the undeniably good work, I too often see examples of what I think is poor practice: over-simplification of complex public affairs, particularly economic ones; careless use of terminology; an unhealthy appetite for the making and reporting of predictions, coupled with an uncritical attitude; a primitive notion of what “balanced reporting” means, particularly when coupled with a somewhat confused notion of what it means to “hold the government to account”; a naive attachment to the idea that journalists are, or should be “storytellers”. We rely on journalists to report on and interpret what is happening, which they assume, quite rightly, to be an important public role.
  3. During the election campaign one expression on many lips was “the economy”. Good grief, that it has come to this! Down, I say, with the prevailing hideous over-simplification, ill-informed misconception, weak understanding, unsupportable prognostication, and slipshod interpretation on all sides. If “the economy” is so important, then why do we tolerate such persistent misinformation and vacuity of conversation, from governments, journalists, and commentators of all kinds, and in our own minds and ways of speaking? Enough!
  4. One particular issue on which I intend to say much, and in as many directions as I can find, has to do with electoral reform. But not here. This post is getting long enough as it is.
  5. Another has to do with the policy outwash from the recent climate conference in Paris, and the apparent international resolve to stop dumping our garbage into the air. Would that we could come up with the same wide resolve concerning water and land, but one step at a time, I guess. We will have to find new ways of producing and consuming, which means new cultures. This would be easier if we could discover new and appropriate ways of thinking and believing or, even more richly, new ways of being. We have made these kinds of transitions before, and we can do it again.
  6. I intend to explore the idea of “multiculturalism” (a good idea, as far as it goes, but a terrible word) which I believe to be not the same thing as pluralism, which is the higher ideal.
  7. All these themes, and any more that may emerge from events, have to do with my advocacy for Comprehensive Justice, by which I mean Social Justice, Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, and other forms, with their inter-relationships intact. Both “comprehensive” and “justice” are packed words that need to be unpacked in practical ways. We’re not talking philosophy here, we’re talking politics.
  8. As did, interestingly enough, Stephen Leacock, which takes us over into the other blog: https://mariposabyconway.wordpress.com/

All this should keep me busy enough.

A good year to all!

A Prism on Isms

Holy smoke! Was my most recent post on this thing really over five weeks ago? My most abject apologies to my legion of followers. Not that I have any reason to believe you will have missed my opinions, however. I think most lives tick along very nicely without those. Just ask Leslie. Hers most certainly would, but alas, poor girl, she has to put up with them. But you, by the merest flick of the mouse or sweep of the finger, can dismiss me instantly.

I have been pondering on “isms”, stimulated by our prime minister’s insistence on the evils of “militant jihadism”. He uses the phrase in the same style, and for much the same purpose, as a previous generation of politicians used “communism”. The style is propaganda; the purpose is to fabricate and convince us to fear an enemy without, in order to distract us from the enemy within, which is him, his brand of politics, and the interests he is determined to serve.

His efforts are in part successful with me: he strikes fear in my heart, all right, but not for “militant jihadism,” whatever it may be. I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of the history is patchy, but it occurs to me that the current phenomenon in Iraq and Syria is nothing new, seeming quite similar to the efforts of the Mahdi in the Sudan and Mohammed Abdulla Hassan in Somalia not a large number of decades ago. It seems possible to me that all these movements were fed, and perhaps caused, by the clumsy machinations of western imperial powers pursing their own selfish interests in lands that didn’t belong to them. A little knowledge of and respect for the well-grounded fears and resentments of those people might help to put ours to rest.

As for barbarism, I deplore the beheading of innocent people as any humane person must, but I am not sure it is more barbaric than, for example, bombing homes from the air. Killing is killing, no matter how it’s done.

But that’s not what I am writing about today. Isms. I am wondering about the value and possibility of a generally accepted hierarchy of isms, that would help us keep our heads clear and our compass lenses unfogged amidst the multifarious forces that batter us. I think that I would put “Humanism” at the top, at least by the second definition in my dictionary (the Canadian Oxford): “a belief or outlook emphasizing common human needs, seeking solely rational ways of solving human problems, and being concerned with humanity as responsible and progressive intellectual beings”, to which I would add something about sympathy and understanding as foundational attitudes. Obviously the idea is too big for few-word definitions.

I think that numbers of my friends would put “Naturism” up there too, by which I do not mean nudism, but rather the belief that Nature should be viewed like Humanity, as something whose well-being should be pursued as a highest good, for its own sake and not merely for its utility. I am not sure that I can go whole hog on that one, but the idea is attractive. If we say that we should not destroy Nature lest we destroy ourselves, which is no doubt true, then we are making Nature subordinate to Humanity. If we cultivate Nature for our good, then we are doing the same thing. On the whole I think that a properly conceived Humanism will allow us to care properly for Nature too, and that if we keep things in that order we’ll be less confused.

The same goes for Individualism, Commonism, Producerism, Consumerism to mention others I would put high up the list. Maybe others, but I can’t think of them today. I hope that not too many others turn up in the top echelon, because it’s confusing enough already. Even as it is, I would have to put Balancism up there too, à la Stephen Leacock and Henry Mintzberg (cf. www.mintzberg.org), both of McGill University.

Of one thing I am sure: Militarism, Powerism and Exploitism show up on an entirely different list.

I think that for a time in the post-WWII period Canadian Liberalism, Conservatism (Progressive Conservatism it was then), and Social Democratism all were making quite reasonable stabs at Balancism, with some differences of emphasis of course. These are allowed, Balance in a complex world being what it must be.

I think the Conservatives have lost that voice and have taken on another that is not balanced at all. I read a lot from the Progressive side of the political debate, which is where I think the NDP would like to be if they dared to go there. I see too much simple anti-Conservatism there, which I find agreeable and entertaining, but not constructive, and not Balanced. I think the Liberals may be, or were, trying to achieve Balance by taking all the pans off the scale. They are re-building; we need to see their full platform before we can reasonably form a judgement. I believe that traditional Liberalism was quite Balanced, within reasonable tolerances, which is why it did so well electorally for so many  years.

I find Elizabeth May the most Balanced politician in the country right now, at least in her writings if not her sound bites, which lean towards anti-Conservative stridency. I wish the Green Party as a whole, federally and provincially, were more like her.

Balance is a practical goal, achieved through the day-to-day slog of research and practical politics.

Humanism at the top, supported by carefully cultivated Naturism, Individualism, Commonism, Producerism and Consumerism, all in Balance. That’s where I stand. I think a lot of people stand there too, or would like to stand there if they could find the words to say where it is. If we had a real Balance Party with the rhetorical skill to bring itself to life, then I think it would win at a walk.

But of course, as we all see every day, there’s a lot more money in Powerism, Corporatism, Militarism, Exploitism and Fearism. Money talks. Violence talks.

Chatter talks too. Oh, how it talks! On and on and on and on! Rampant Cacophonism! Rampant Sensationalism! There’s no Balance to be found in that.

Ideas and Ideals can talk too, but only through human voices, people with the right words and the right flair. Where can we find them? How can we support and encourage them? How can we prevent them from being dragged into the world where Money and Violence talk, where Cacophony rules? That, as I see it, is the substance of the practical political problem for us, the people.

Putting the Propaganda Cart before the Foreign Policy Horse

A Letter to Larry Miller, MP for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound

Good morning MP Larry,

I am writing to protest about the public face that the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, is putting on Canadian foreign policy in four distinct areas: Ukraine-Russia, Iran, Iraq-Syria (“ISIS”), and Israel-Palestine. I am prepared to find that the actual policy is more complex than than the public face, but the public face is what we are allowed to see.

I am particularly concerned that the propaganda forming much of the public face has started to drive the policy, rather than the other way around.

Let me explain how I think this works. I am assuming that the affairs of most countries, and our relationship with them, admits of very substantial and important patches of grey, that such matters are very seldom black and white. I can believe that most competent governments start by working intelligently with the grey. I believe, however, that for reasons that it thought sufficient, the present Canadian government began to tilt towards a more black-white world view. In order to sell that approach to the Canadian public, it began to paint the view somewhat more black and white than it could possibly be. At some point, in this process, it crossed the line between explanation of policy, which is legitimate, and propaganda, which is not. That was the first mistake. Then the second was to start believing its own propaganda, and tailoring the policy to conform to it.

In one case—Iraq-Syria (ISIS), we are now tailoring domestic policy in order to match the propaganda driving our foreign policy. I refer to the recent proposal to expand the powers of our security agencies, who operate under entirely inadequate parliamentary oversight—and please don’t try to tell me that non-parliamentary oversight is just as good, because it is not, for obvious democratic reasons. The truth, in fact, appears to be that our security forces are doing very well with the powers they have now. I do not believe that the kind of attacks we have experienced can be prevented by expanding the powers of security agencies. They were not the right kind of attack for that. They were carried out by disturbed individuals acting alone, and the answer to that, to the extent that there is one, lies in improvements to our mental health system, not in more vigilant policing. And preventive policing is a very dubious concept indeed, under our constitution, in any circumstances.

But I am straying from my  main point, which is the Government, with the enthusiastic encouragement of Mr. Harper and Mr. Baird, has tipped over the propaganda cliff and is falling faster and faster into the black-white void where intelligent understanding of complex situations and careful diplomacy are no longer allowed to operate. Let me be specific:

Ukraine-Russia: Here we have a small country and nascent democracy whose history with its much larger neighbour is long and troubled, and having its own difficult ethnic divide between west and east, and where every nuance of the situation is washed in grey, and we have decided that for our purposes the previous elected government was black; that the demonstrators and their armed assistants who overthrew that government were white; that the pro-Russian people in the east and the south are not entitled to their point of view and that the Russian government is very black indeed for supporting them; that Russia is not entitled to express any strategic interest in its neighbouring country; and that the only just solution to the problem is the one that happens to serve the strategic interests of the United States, at least as aging and emerging Cold Warriors might choose to define them.

Do we think that the United States has no valid strategic interest in us, or in Mexico? I bet we do not think that, and I am sure the United States does not think so either. Small countries who live beside big ones and who also want to reach out into the wider world must balance their policies carefully, as we have learned to do in 150 years. We have also learned much, starting even further back, about the sensible conduct of a country with an ethnic divide. Ukraine is a new democracy. Surely our contribution to them should be to pass on what we have learned and to support them in a balanced policy. Climbing on the black-white bandwagon does not do that.

Iran: I am not sure what is driving our policy towards Iran. It cannot be our own strategic interests, or any principle except possibly nuclear non-proliferation, a principle about which we have shown considerable flexibility in the past. Certainly it shows little knowledge of or regard for the history of that country, its strategic interests, or its complex relationships with its neighbours. I think perhaps that the Government thinks it is showing support for Israel. Israel has nothing to fear from healthy bilateral relations between its friends and Iran, and much to fear, in the long term, from its own unhealthy bilateral relations with that influential country. A more sophisticated policy on our part could do much to serve the interests of the whole Middle East, and the rest of the world.

Iraq-Syria (ISIS): Here we see the Government’s propaganda machine in full cry these days, with the Prime Minister’s minatory warnings about “violent jihadism”. That kind of language is pure propaganda, and it bothers me to hear our Prime Minister using it. I agree that ISIS shows no sign of being the kind of government that we like to see, but the same could be said for Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and a host of other governments, including all the autocratic ones. Iraq and Syria were blatantly the creations of oil-seeking imperialism in 1919, and have proved themselves ungovernable except by brutal repression. I think that an indigenous effort to create a new state out of the mess should at least be studied carefully before it is judged, and in judging we should use the same standards as we apply to other autocratic Islamic states. And we should avoid taking sides in any Sunni-Shia conflicts. The legacy of western imperialism in the Middle East is a tangled one, which must be sorted out locally.

Israel-Palestine: I have written to you before with my concerns about the one-sidedness of our policy towards this conflict. Of course Mr. Baird was correct to say that the matter can be solved only by negotiation, which is obviously in the best interests of both sides. The problem is that the two parties are so grotesquely out of balance in their military and economic strengths that any suggestion of fair negotiation is absurd. The Israelis are unenthusiastic about negotiation because they think they can go along very well without it. And the Palestinians are unenthusiastic because they know that under the present imbalance they are going to be on the losing end. I think that our diplomacy therefore has to be extremely sensitive in the pursuit of what is in our interest, and everybody’s interest, which is a balanced negotiating environment leading to a settlement.

It cannot be in Israel’s long-term or even medium-term interest to be so thoroughly hated by its neighbours. How can the country survive forever, which is what we would want it to do, in the face of that hatred?

In conclusion, I think that the departure of the belligerent Mr. Baird gives us an opportunity for a thorough review of our foreign policy, in pursuit of a balanced approach in all parts of the world, an approach that is not driven by our own or other people’s propaganda, and which does not have to be sold by means of propaganda. Our population is well educated and could, with proper presentation, become complexly informed. The present propaganda-driven approach can thrive only if the Canadian people are deliberately kept uninformed and worked upon. Surely that would be bad policy in any field.

No black hats, no white hats, just grey hats, a humane understanding of people’s circumstances and difficulties, and a lot of diplomatic skill and patience.

Sorry this is so long, and thank you for your attention. I hope that you are wintering well, and in good health.

Warm regards,

Excursing in the Public Realm

This morning I set forth to the village of Lion’s Head, to run some errands and spend the fruits of my pensions, provided (old age pension), administered (Canada Pension Plan), or enabled (RRSP) by the people of Canada, through their government. Before I even left the house, therefore, my journey was already anchored in public services.

I turned out of my driveway onto the road, ploughed, also constructed and maintained, by the Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula, in which I reside. I paused to check for mail, brought to me through the efforts of a chain of public servants employed by a Crown Corporation, Canada Post, delivered to my rural box by the last links in the chain, who are also a couple of my neighbours.

At the end of my road I turned onto a highway constructed, recently re-paved and maintained by contractors hired by the Province of Ontario, and then onto a road similarly provided by the County of Bruce. Along the way I passed an ambulance, speeding to some emergency, and a member of the Ontario Provincial Police, on patrol for malefactors, hazards to public security, or people in need, both these vehicles and their personnel being provided by a collaborative arrangement among levels of government the exact details of which escape me.

When I got to Ferndale I stopped at the recycling depot, another municipal service, and then on to the Lion’s Head Public Library, a service of the County. The bank where I went for some cash is a public company, sternly regulated by the Government of Canada to ensure it remains solvent for my benefit and reasonably honest in its dealings. The local grocery store is a private enterprise, of course, but I was aware that I could read lists of ingredients on labels, and rest reasonably assured that my groceries were bug-free, not only because my grocer runs a clean operation, but also due to the efforts of regulators and inspectors perhaps both federal and provincial, and had been washed in clean water from the new water treatment plant operated by the Municipality and paid for by three levels of government.

Passing the school, of the kind that served me and my children so well in the past and continues to serve my hopes for the future, I stopped at the hospital where I left a sample of blood, skillfully drawn in a public hospital by a public person, in response to the prescription of a doctor working in a public medical system. I visited the drug store to collect some pills and left without paying a dime, thanks to the Provincial pill-paying provision for people my age, topped up by my own medical insurance.

My last errand took me to the Liquor Store, a service of the Government of Ontario, perhaps not essential but certainly convenient and lucrative.

I drove home thinking how irritated I would be when, sometime in June, some band of tunnel-visioned pin-heads would assure me that I should rejoice because we had arrived at “tax freedom day”.

I write this little travelogue not only to celebrate our wealth of public services, for which we must pay if we wish to maintain their quality and allow them their just measure of improvement, but to remind you that our “government” does not consist in the petty and partisan bickering of our legislators and their henchmen, followed so obsessively by our news media, but in the skilled work of legions of our neighbours and the thousands upon thousands of operations and transactions in which they engage every day for our benefit. And because we are a democracy we can be reasonably assured that they are working for our benefit, and not for the benefit of some authoritarian power. If we think they are not we can do something about it.

Such being the case, to speak and act as if our government as a burden which we are obliged to support whether we like it or not constitutes wilful self-deception. Tax freedom day forsooth! Of course we want our public services to be efficient and not wasteful. But most of all we want them to be there when we need them.

Stephen Leacock, the Turbid Crystal Ball, and the 1911 Canadian Election.

The Canadian election of 1911 was fought largely on the issue of “Reciprocity” (a mixed bag of free and inhibited trade) with the United States. It saw the defeat of the Liberals under Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in office since 1896, who favoured Reciprocity, and the victory of the Conservatives under Sir Robert Borden, who was to hold office until 1920, and opposed it.

Anyone who thinks it a recent phenomenon that corporate Canada can influence elections and policy by flooding campaigns with money and propaganda should study this election. Corporate Canada, largely centred in those days in Toronto and Montreal, was opposed to Reciprocity, having grown accustomed to the shelter of Sir John A. Macdonald’s “National Policy” and its protective tariffs. Money and propaganda flowed in buckets into the anti-reciprocity campaign.

Prominent among the opponents was none other than our crotchety friend Stephen Leacock. In his Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, written in 1912, he described the election in this way:

I only know that it was a huge election and that on it turned issues of the most tremendous importance, such as whether or not Mariposa should become part of the United States, and whether the flag that had waved over the school house at Tecumseh Township for ten centuries should be trampled under the hoof of an alien invader, and whether Britons should be slaves, and whether Canadians should be Britons, and whether the farming class would prove themselves Canadians, and tremendous questions of that kind.

That about sums it up. There are advantages to fighting elections based on predictions of how things are going to turn out. Prejudice, self-interest and imagination can be allowed free rein. Leacock captures this principle perfectly in his description of Josh Smith’s approach to trade statistics. He does not however tell us anything the following incident, described in Canada 1911: The Decisive Election that Shaped the Country, by Patrice Dutil and David MacKenzie (Dundurn, 2011), page 123:

Earlier in the night [Clifford] Sifton [described by the authors as the eminence grise of the anti-reciprocity movement] gave a speech at McGill University where he was frequently interrupted by a crowd of pro-reciprocity students. The plan was for Sifton then to be escorted to the nearby Windsor Hotel in a carriage pulled by some friendly students, followed by a band and torchlight demonstration. Accompanying Sifton was a fellow speaker for the night, Stephen Leacock, the McGill economist and a founding member of the Anti-Reciprocity League. Showing no respect for one of their university’s most respected faculty members (or for Clifford Sifton, for that matter), another group of McGill students attacked and overturned the carriage, forcing Sifton and Leacock out onto the muddy street. The carriage was filled with wood, torched, and then dragged as it burned through the streets of Montreal, while the students smashed store windows and broke into automobiles. The police arrived … [t]he student riot was quelled and a few arrests were made. … Sifton and Leacock, meanwhile, walked the rest of the way to the Windsor Hotel.

Stephen Leacock was basing his anti-reciprocity rhetoric not on economic analysis but on quite understandable pro-British prejudice. There is nothing wrong with that, unless he was pretending to be an economist while he was doing it. The profession of economics, when validly pursued, is of course based on the rational analysis of data, not the emotional articulation of prejudice. The art of prognostication is, of course, something else entirely.

As we now know, the much vaunted British tie turned out to be worth little in the long term, costing us much in lives and treasure, and we have “reciprocity” with the United States, which has not moved to annex us yet, at least not formally. The ghost of Sir Wilfred Laurier must have laughed at the 1988 election. For more, too many more, of my thoughts on on Stephen Leacock and Sunshine Sketches, see https://mariposabyconway.wordpress.com.

A Plea Against Simple-Mindedness

A conspiracy is abroad to convince us that cold is colder than it really is. I write this in January. In August I would say we are being told that warm is warmer than it really is. This trick is done by the use of calculated index numbers made to look like thermometer readings: “wind chill”, and “humidex”. The calculators always explain carefully that these are index numbers, and hence unit-less, that is, measuring in their own terms and not in degrees. News-readers are not always as careful to be correct, and even the professional weather reporters will sometimes slip.

To be clear, a “wind chill” reading of -30 is -30, not -30°C. The temperature that goes into the formula is measured in Celsius degrees, the wind speed in kilometres per hour. One could give the resulting index its own units (“chillies” or “hotties”, perhaps). The commentators fudge the numeracy by saying that the index tells us what temperature the weather “feels like”. This is an example of false quantification, casting an illusion of scientific accuracy by forcing the expression of qualitative judgements into numbers, which appear precise. We should be wary of such tricks.

Of course a given winter temperature feels colder if it comes with a brisk wind, and a given summer temperature feels warmer as the humidity rises. Whether these changes are accurately measured by the reported indices, however, is entirely a different matter.

This numerical obfuscation, while irritating to those of us with respect for numbers, would be harmless or even trivial were it not an example of a larger and much more dangerous expedient, which is the reduction of complex phenomena, usually economic, into simple numbers, often index numbers, stock market indices being the most prominent example. The misuse and over-reporting of these indices has become a disease that is catching politically, to the detriment of rational perception and action.

The most important idea that I learned from the study of econometrics, which I was fortunate enough to undertake at institutions of world renown, was that modern advanced economies are extraordinarily complicated organisms, packed with multi-dimensional, simultaneously determined relationships, churning away interactively at their multifarious tasks of production, consumption and investment. To reduce this to any simple set of numbers, especially numbers contrived by some hidden process of indexing, regardless of the felt need, is to engage in an act of deliberate deception. When we pay attention, we are deceiving ourselves.

And yet, every evening my news source, which is CBC radio, offers me the daily “business report”, which tells me inevitably about the stock markets, and perhaps about certain currencies and commodities if they are doing anything exciting that day. This is the entirety of “business”? This accurately represents the lives and livelihoods of millions upon millions of people and institutions making decisions about what to produce, consume and build for the future, making agreements out of their personal relationships to buy and sell in order to give substance to those decisions, and getting on with the job of producing, consuming and building? What is the stock market index to all that, or the relative value of the dollar, or the price of oil or gold? Well, I’ll tell you: it is an incomplete, blurred impression of a small footprint left by the multifarious beast in the soft, muddy shoreline of the river of time. Lazy reporters snap its picture at 5:40 in the afternoon and pretend they are showing us the beast itself. How irresponsible!

Who benefits from all this? Well, first of all the news-media organizations benefit, because they get away with reporting on the cheap. The stock marketeers and commodity traders benefit, because they are made to appear more important than they really are, and there’s money in that. Politicians benefit, because they become encouraged to present with simple-minded interpretations of reality, and there are votes in that, or they think they are. I like to think that voters, on the whole, are not fooled.

Do we benefit? No, we do not. To the extend that we depend on news media, politicians, and other self-appointed interpreters of our reality, we are kept uninformed, and often worried, which inhibits our capacity to make our own rational decisions about what to produce, consume, and build, and keeps us perpetually off balance. There’s no benefit in that, in wealth or enjoyment of life.

If you want to know what is happening in the economy, look around you, at what people, enterprises and institutions are doing. It’s harder work, and sometimes confusing, but at least you are looking at some portion of the beast itself and not at its footprints in the loose mud. Be skeptical of all generalizations and forecasts. Ask yourself who is making them and how much of their money or power is at stake. Be an engaged observer.

Similarly, if you want to know what the weather is like, look outside; read the temperature; check with Environment Canada or your own weather station (if you have one) for wind direction and speed, and relative humidity; consult your own constitution, experience and wardrobe. Then you will know how cold or warm you are going to feel when you step outside. You don’t need some contrived index.