Not Damned Lies, Just Lifeless Truths

Consider a thought experiment about some two dozen Quebec voters in the recent election, a group of bilingual Quebec anglos living in a rural area, found to include three or four surprising PQ voters, but with the rest voting for the provincial Liberals. Suppose further that this is how they are composed: ‘John Smith’, son of a poor Scots-Canadian millworker, has made a substantial fortune, first in a local pulp and paper business, then shifting all his capital into other and distant fields. He has an annual income of $2 million. Through three consecutive unhappy and expensive marriages to now deceased wives, he has produced a brood of over a dozen children, all of them hopeless wastrels, drunks, drug addicts, and militant animal liberationists, all incapable of making a living on their own, sometimes drifting away, but mostly living on the Smith rural estate. Little fond of any of them, the Smith paterfamilias has provided each with separate trust funds permanently outside their control, paying each $30,000 a year, adjustable only for inflation. He has also prepared a challenge-proof will that will maintain the trust funds only if they are not touched. He wills all his major assets to his distant company employees, household servants, and favourite charities.

Further assume that some current political party spin doctor, doing an election post-mortem by using provincial demographic and tax data, has found that the total incomes of the little region come to $2,500,000. This is actually made up of $2 million from Smith, a quarter of a million from the trust-funded wastrel Smith offspring, and another quarter of a million from the household staff. The spin doctor, dividing the $2,500,000 between a total of 25 individuals, concludes that these individuals have an ‘average’ income of $100,000, indicating that it is composed of voters who are members of the affluent part of the middle class. He therefore manages to be completely wrong about every single one of them.

A political operative of a half century ago would be even more likely than the current one to make so crude a simple statistical error; howlers of that kind were much more common fifty years ago, especially by journalists. On the other hand, he would also take for granted that, even with more tedious labour required, he would need to learn more about the Smith village. The current investigator, perhaps unlikely to be as wildly misled as the hypothetical tale suggests, would nonetheless be more likely to depend on his numerical data alone, even if more skilfully manipulated. Nowadays, political science or journalism graduates are likely at a minimum to have yawned their way through a course in ‘Quantitative Methods’, or may have acquired some quicker wisdom from the old Darrell Huff classic, How To Lie With Statistics. Most would immediately recognize the fallacy of using an arithmetic mean to describe the motley individual fortunes of the Smiths and the servant staff. But they might not realize that even a more sophisticated use of a weighted mean or mode would still not entirely capture the Smith saga.

They are, after all, living in a world in which, often without realizing it, they would now be far more likely to be really familiar only with some statistical version of the Smiths, or the Joneses, or the Tremblays, Gagnons, or Goldbergs, than with any extended personal contact, or with the detailed histories and biographies of any of them For decades now, they will have found themselves surrounded and intellectually seduced, sometimes almost unconsciously, by now omnivorous statistical information and explanation.

In some ways, this has been just a particular variation of the great transformation of all thought in the last half of the 20th century, as it grew more university-monopolized, professionalized, specialized, and exponentially expanded. But the particular advance of statistics has also been a kind of unnoticed revolution in its own right; a readable historical account of how this happened can be found in The Lady Tasting Tea, by David Salsburg, himself a distinguished statistician. Statistical data, sampling, and theory, are now far more than useful tools; they have become dominant components in political policy studies, bureaucratic position papers, corporate marketing plans, research reports in the natural sciences, theses in the social sciences, and journalistic expositions.

Only men and women well over sixty are likely to be fully aware how recent and remarkable this change has been. Many people may have been misled by recalling the old jibe about ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’, attributed to both Disraeli and Mark Twain, and hence suggesting that annoyed familiarity goes back at least to the 19th century. But it is less often realized that, however annoying, the ‘statistics’ bemoaned by Disraeli or Twain still just meant ‘state information’, that could include things like geological survey maps. Even as it came to be applied to exclusively numerical data, until well into the 20th century, the data was largely ‘raw’. As late as the early 1930s, it still most commonly consisted of overall government-tabulated demographic numbers, like births and deaths or employed and unemployed, until late in the decade making no use of sampling and sample comparisons.

Quantitative reasoning about probability and statistics was already being developed in the 17th century by thinkers like William Petty and Blaise Pascal, and gradually advanced over the next two centuries. But most of the major contributors to the mathematical statistics used today lived in the first half of the 20th century; the single most important one, Sir Ronald Fisher, died in 1962. The textbooks that university ‘Q.M.’ students are now required to buy are mostly just glosses of a 1935 book by Fisher, The Design of Experiments. But even as late as the time of his death, statistics was still something of an academic orphan, usually represented by a single course given in the mathematics departments, where it was often regarded with dislike by the pure mathematicians, who thought of it as a backwater for mediocrities.

This view of statistics has the same irony as found in almost all social science. In all of them, founding fathers like Adam Smith and Max Weber were undoubtedly intelligent, but they fathered disciplines that eventually became natural homes for narrow and gullible intellectual mediocrity. Fisher, and William Sealy Gosset [who had to write his major statistical papers under the pseudonym ‘Student’, as he was employed as a brewmaster at Guinness, statistical thinking long vital in the creation of good beer], were intellectual giants in their own right, entirely in the same class as ‘paradigmatic’ titans of physics and chemistry. On the other hand, just as very few of the now giant armies of social scientists, perhaps none, would be intellectual matches for Weber or Keynes, even when provided with advanced statistical techniques and computers on which to apply them, many current professors of statistics itself are intellectually mediocre, ill-educated and unimaginative, just as the pure mathematicians had long complained.

Many intimidatingly technical statistical publications in all fields, although now seldom showing elementary howlers like using the wrong choice of an unweighted mean, are still not very good. Many of them should have the the ghosts of Fisher and Gosset regularly tearing their hair, since, like most real geniuses in every field of thought, their greatest intellectual achievements came in understanding the fundamental limitations of their methods. But beyond that, undeniably indispensable as many modern statistical analyses in every field have become, there is still something ‘wrong’ about even the better ones, especially in politics and economics. It is that we are now living in a culture, at the scholarly level as well as the mass media one, in which it is regularly forgotten that the original purpose of converting information about human beings into numerical samples and quantified conclusions was to provide quick, roughly accurate, and practically useful insights about those human beings, not to replace altogether the kind of human understanding only possible through a combination of direct human experience and at least some knowledge of history, biography, literature, and philosophy.

Fisher and Gosset themselves understood that much of their work did not stand on entirely secure and consensually accepted philosophical premises. In fact, different founding premises yield different kinds of statistics, ‘frequentist’ versus ‘Bayesian’. Fundamental primises contend much as they do in non-quantitative politics and economics. But many eyes glaze over at the sight of algebraic formulae, inducing a mistaken sense of mathematical infallibility, rather than just another way of murdering to dissect. For anyone who really wants to understand society and politics, in Quebec or anywhere, they need to meet, or at least read about, lots of real Smiths, Tremblays, and Goldbergs, ‘biased sample’, or not. Otherwise, they may get the habit of giving statistical abstractions more life and purpose than real human beings in their minds, which is just a modern kind of superstition.

Hydro Quebec and Henry Adams

Pauline Marois included in her almost Stephen-Harper-like determination to fulfil election promises, the immediate closing of the ageing nuclear power facility at Gentilly. While nuclear power has become unfashionable again since the Fukushima disaster, this final writeoff in Quebec is still an ironic reversal for the PQ, compared to how its leaders once sounded. Especially as long as conventional hydroelectric expansion was associated with Robert Bourassa, the Pe’quistes once smiled warmly on nuclear power. They were oddly allied with several Canadian federal governments; Atomic Energy Canada had pressed for large-scale nuclear development ever since the days of Lester Pearson. Jacques Parizeau, some years before he became Premier, once told Le Devoir that “We don’t have to dam every single river just because they’re French Canadian and Catholic”.

Nonetheless, in power the PQ let the dams continue to multiply, Bernard Landry’s government signing another agreement with waterlogged northern natives in 2002. The Charest Liberals took the same route. The one example of a slightly less rosy view of has been Francoise Legault’s claim that it is overstaffed, and that he could get rid of several thousand expensive employees.

He has a case; Hydro has one of the lowest numbers of clients served per employee of any power-generating enterprise, in all of North America. It can claim with some justification that the location of the generating plants, unusually remote from their main Quebec and New England markets, and imposing harsh climatic conditions on workers, explain this. But it is no mere ordinary state monopoly.

I always found it a fascinating one. When I was an Equality Party Member of the Quebec legislature in 1989-1994, I served on the committee then considering the future of the James Bay project, and was the usual critic on Hydro issues in Question Period. I learned a fair amount about the economics of hydroelectricity in general, especially by making detailed comparisons of Hydro’s annual reports with those of B. C. and New Brunswick. Quebec was far more secretive than they were,, always pleading the need to keep ‘competitive’ information confidential., Sometimes I found this comic. In one Question Period, I asked why ‘our’ utility could not provide us with the same kind of output breakdowns readily available in the case of B. C. Electric. Jacques Parizeau slapped his desk and bellowed, in English, “Damned good question!” Even more memorable was a comment made to me in the hallway later by Lise Bacon, then the Liberal Minister responsible for Hydro. “That was a good question,” she agreed, “but you know, they’re not the easiest people to get information from… “

It was my colleague and EP Leader, Robert Libman, however, who enjoyed a moment in the sun in April of 1991, becoming a hero for a while for the general francophone public, who repeatedly congratulated us on the streets of Quebec City. A useful contact in the U. S. had passed on to us information being openly debated in an American Congressional committee, but which Hydro had tried, with a court order, to keep out of Canadian newspapers and TV news. Robert, using his parliamentary immunity, broadcast in Question Period the embarrassing news that Hydro was secretly selling electricity to selected customers at 40 per cent below cost.

The power was being sold to big aluminum and magnesium smelting firms, which use huge amounts of electricity to extract metal from ore, Norsk Hydro had been identified as a typical example, paying 1.5 cents a kilowatt hour, a lot less than the 2.4 cents it cost to produce, and much less than the 4.2 cents then being paid by ordinary Quebec residents. Then as now, electricity was still very cheap here, costing less in Montreal than any cities in North America but Winnipeg and Seattle. But the public had not much previously realized that low electricity bills were more than counterbalanced in taxes.

The characteristically arrogant attempt to muzzle the Canadian media had become ludicrous several days before Robert belled the cat, since Washinton was openly discussing the exact size of the subsidies. Pressed to respond, Hydro’s VP of industrial marketing admitted that 13 big industries, those for which electricity made up 30 per cent or more of their costs, benefited from what Hydro liked to call ‘risk and profit sharing contracts’, but which everyone else called subsidies. Supposedly, the lowered rates would be provided for the initial stages of poor profits, then raised when the company started making money, with the price ‘evening out’ over the life of the contract. This claim was met with scepticism by several economists, one estimating that Quebecers were paying well over $100,000 for each job actually being created by the policy.

Everyone really interested in Hydro knew that Hydro made its real money in two quite different ways. First of all, to the fury of Newfoundlanders, unable to break a disastrously long-term contract going back to 1949, Hydro was getting several thousand Megawatts from the shared project at the Little Churchill, for which they had to pay only a quarter of a cent per kilowatt hour, conveniently mixed in with the much higher James Bay costs. Secondly, they were exporting power to the northeastern U.S., charging New York State, for example, 6.5 cents a kilowatt hour, 5 cents more than what it was charging the favoured 13 companies, 2 cents more than Quebec consumers paid. These comparisons enraged American and Canadian environmentalist groups, not only objecting to all the flooding in northern Quebec, but seeing the cheap power as a disincentive to conservation measures in both Quebec and New England.

I met the top executives of Hydro in their presentations before the legislative committee, all highly articulate. Robert and I had also flown up to James Bay, talking to the Cree leader, Chief Bill Diamond, but also touring one of the giant facilities. I couldn’t help but be impressed by its grandeur, and the engineering talent that had gone into the construction. The James Bay project alone, costing well over $20 billion to build, and spread over an area as large as New York State, is one of the largest electricity generating systems in the world. It produces 16,000 megawatts, three times more than all the plants at Niagara Falls, and eight times the power of the colossal American Hoover Dam.

Nonetheless, I was not at all overwhelmed by the economic claims for the monopoly. Hydro appeared to me as having an opaque and imperial magnificence, not so much a sacred cow as a giant sacred cattle ranch. From the 1980s on, a few free-market economists were already making heretical sounds about the disadvantages of state monopoly ownership, and by 2009, Claude Garcia, writing for the conservative Montreal Economic Institute, even provided a detailed plan showing how a gradual privatization could take place, offering some calculations that this could bring several billion dollars of real increase in wealth for the people of Quebec. I did not have comparable detail available to me two decades ago, but what I could see led me to think then, as I still do, that privatization would serve the public interest, not just private industry developers.

I must admit, however, that I suspect that only a great general crisis in Quebec finances could lead to effective political thinking about the unthinkable. All the fuss I observed in the 1990s did have some consequences: Matthew Coon Come, the young lawyer who had become the new Grand Chief of the Cree, successfully blocked the Great Whale project. But overall, the great sacred cattle ranch grazed on unchanged, as it still does. Outside the pur et dur IEM libertarian economists, there is litle talk of privatization, or even some small steps like raising domestic rates to correspond to real costs. The worldwide drive to privatization and market discipline that began in the mid-1970s lost much of its force with the 2008 Crash, even in far less ‘collectivist’ milieux than this one. Watching the world of Hydro close up, I was strangely reminded of Lenin, who was himself so intoxicated by technological dreaming that he once wrote that ‘soviets plus electrification = Communism!” Slightly more modestly, those linked visionaries, Rene’ Le’vesque and Robert Bourassa, created our own local variant: ‘State monopoly + electrification = Le project collectif. Jacques Parizeau, as usual better at amusing utterance than government, had it right. Hardly anyone remembers any more how much the whole vast creation started as the work of that tough anglo engineer, Sir Herbert Holt, and every new river dam remains one more expression of nationalist public identity. Henry Adams would be stunned: the Virgin has married the Dynamo.

Constitutional Ghosts

Halloween, apparently now lasting for weeks, is supposed to recognize a brief rising of the dead from their graves. This year, some of us are bound to hear the moaning and rattling of chains of two particularly gruesome corpses: the Meech Lake Accord, proclaimed a quarter of a century ago in 1987, and its more quickly extinguished successor, the proposed Charlottetown Accord, slain by a failed national referendum, held exactly twenty years before this October 26. Both creatures owed their brief lives to Brian Mulroney, manufactured during his two Conservative majority governments from 1984 to 1992. Sickly at best, each took fatal blows from the opposition of Pierre Trudeau, who demonstrated that, with no remaining political office at all, he retained as much clout on constitutional issues as Mulroney did as sitting Prime Minister. The decaying remains continue to haunt us still.

The constitutional upheavals of 1982-95 came about mainly because of the large political changes in Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s, especially the winning of a majority provincial government by the Parti Que’be’cois in 1976, and its own failed ‘sovereignty-association’ 1980 referendum. The conduct of the provincial Liberals, returned to power from 1985 to 1994, was also an important factor. But the whole story was shaped above all by the personal character and ambitious of Trudeau and Mulroney. By the 1980s, Trudeau was already something of a Canadian national institution, even to those who were not fond of him or his policies. He had been in power uninterruptedly from 1968 to 1979, those years including his use of the War Measures Act to deal with the 1970 FLQ crisis. The Joe-Clark-led Conservatives had defeated him in 1979, but had won only a minority government, which soon fell and brought back Trudeau from 1980 to 1984. He began those final years with his successful fight against the 1980 Quebec referendum, in which he had included a vague promise that he would soon provide a new Canadian constitution. He also turned sharply to the left, but the nationalist economic policies he introduced crashed badly on the double-digit interest rates of the early 1980s.

That brought Mulroney, newly chosen by the Conservatives to replace the ineffectual Joe Clark, to majority power in 1984. His most powerful argument at the 1983 Conservative leadership convention was that he was the man who could remedy the longtime weakness of his party in Quebec. By that time, Trudeau had carried out the ‘patriation’ of the constitution from the last powers held by the British Privy Council, combining that with the federal-provincial negotiations that led to the Constitutional Act of 1982. Trudeau gained the support of nine of the provinces, but the Act and its attended Charter of Rights and Freedoms was rejected by Rene’ Le’vesque, and also by the Quebec Liberals. However, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that neither Quebec nor any other province had the power to veto the patriation, or to claim that they were not bound by the new constitution.

In his 1984 landslide election victory, Mulroney indeed ‘delivered’ Quebec, filling its seats with conservative nationalists, including his then close friend and adviser, Lucien Bouchard. But few Canadians in other provinces, who voted largely against the Liberal economic record, had much idea what Mulroney had meant in his promise of constitutional ‘reconciliation’. Trudeau’s own 1980 promise to Quebec had actually led, in the 1982 Act, to a reduction of previous provincial powers; Mulroney was aiming at some kind of undoing of Trudeau’s handiwork. Three years later, Mulroney used all his considerable negotiating skills to gain the temporary agreement of all ten provinces, including Bourassa’s Quebec, and even the now John-Turner-led opposition Liberals, to his 1987 Meech Lake Accord, ambiguously recognizing Quebec as a ‘distinct society’.

New provincial Liberal governments in New Brunswick and Newfoundland soon showed that they did not with to preserve this fragile harmony, Manitoba was also discontented. Anglo Quebec, fearing its fate as part of the ‘distinct society’ also rebelled; while the 1989 provincial election gave another term to the Bourassa Liberals, four predominantly anglo seats abandoned them for the upstart Equality Party. Mulroney tried, sometimes in crude and bullying fashion, to steamroller over all these disparate problems. But when Trudeau subjected the agreement to an elegant and merciless assault in both the French and English press, that gave heart to the Newfoundland Liberal premier, Clyde Wells, and to an unbending native member of the Manitoba legislature, Elijah Harper, and they killed Meech Lake dead in June of 1990..

Much sound and fury followed for the next five years. The mercurial Lucien Bouchard, given major input in crafting Meech Lake, greeted its failure by resigning from the Conservative Party, taking with him a group of followers to form the Bloc Que’be’cois. Bourassa created the huge Be’langer-Campeau Committee, which included Jacques Parizeau and other PQ Members, Bouchard, and representatives of muncipalities, unions, and other groups. This mouutain laboured for a year and brought forth two mice: a smaller ‘Expert Committee to Consider the Implications of Sovereignty’, and another less lively one to consider new constitutional offers. Not much came of either. Mulroney, by then so personally unpopular that he pushed Joe Clark to the fore for new negotiations, cobbled together another accord at Charlottetown. But this time ratification depended on a national referendum, which not only failed in Quebec itself, but also in most other Canadian provinces. In the 1993 federal election, the Conservatives, now led by Kim Campbell, were almost annihilated, replaced by the Bloc in Quebec and the new Reform Party in Western Canada. The PQ under Jacques Parizeau won the 1994 Quebec election, and Parizeau tried yet another provincial ‘sovereignty’ referendum, but again narrowly failed to win a majority, despite drawing on the assistance of the much more personally popular Lucien Bouchard, who then replaced Parizeau as PQ Premier.

Both Trudeau and Mulroney were dealing with a singularly difficult province at a singularly difficult time, but they did a lot themselves to make both the time difficult. They are bound to be regarded as men who made a desert we now call peace. Both put the country at risk with ambitious gambles. Trudeau advanced his own centralist vision with so contemptuous a disregard for provincial nationalist emotions as to help revive quasi-separatist politics he once claimed to have vanquished. But Mulroney managed to be worse, using bungling attempts to use the separatist threat as a club to batter both recalcitrant provincial Canadian politicians and the wider public into accepting first Meech and then Charlottetown out of simple fear.

Mulroney simply could not demonstrate the supreme intellectual self-confidence and clarity of purpose that Pierre Trudeau could. Rather than successfully making the case for the traditionally more decentralized Conservative vision of Canada, he sounded more like a hired Quebec advocate than a Canadian Prime Minister. Trudeau was respected even by many Canadians who were not fond of him personally and did not at all like his political ideas. Mulroney was nearly the exact opposite, much better-liked by his own political rank and file, and much better at maintaining amiable relations with professional politicians generally than Trudeau. But overestimating the value of the professionals’ concord.

Much closer to the business world in which he had served as an executive, Mulroney was highly effective in leading the fight for the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., winning his second majority government with that fight in 1988. But even his political supporters never saw him as an intellectually commanding small-c conservative alternative to Trudeau’s small-l left-liberalism. Worse, he did not seem to realize this, never seeing that a lawyer’s negotiating triumph with the politicians was an inadequate basis on which to redefine a nation. Trudeau, lofty authoritarianism and all, had an instinctive grasp of mass politics in the mass media age, which he continued to exploit without elected office. He could always provide at least the illusion that he commanded events; Mulroney never gave a similar impression, looking more like a man who had tried to set up a conjuring trick, only to have his stage apparatus collapse, with rabbits and doves fleeing in all directions. In the process, he had done more than any Quebec provincial politician to persuade the Quebec public that they had some large legitimate grievance against Canada, and he had helped demolish the once large reservoir of goodwill in the rest of the country toward this province. Now that the federal Liberals appear to be putting their hopes in Justin Trudeau, he may be tempted to propose another grand national reconstruction in the manner of his father, and it is conceivable that some successor to Stephen Harper will respond with a revived version of what Mulroney failed to do. Bad idea. Better to allow the ghosts out only on Halloween.

A Lincoln at the End of his Tether

Abraham Lincoln is for Americans, something like a demigod. One or two other Presidents have achieved their own mythic status, but never anything like that of Lincoln. From his own time to the present, he has been an incarnation of the the American Union, a new and singular Founding Father, four score and seven years after the earlier ones. For the America that is as much a religion as a nation, he is a Christ-like figure, full of courage, wisdom, and humour; a suffering penitent who took on his shoulders the Original Sin of slavery, entrenched in the country’s founding document, and redeemed the nation from it; a writer and orator who captured the meaning of the moral struggle and bloody conflict of his time in poetic and Biblical language; at the Civil War’s end, the assassinated martyr. His Presidential years alone, coinciding exactly with the 1861-65 War, could scarcely be fitted into anything like a conventional cinematic biography.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln tries to cope with this challenge with a compressed character portrait covering only the last four months in Lincoln’s life, and the intimate and sometimes squalid details of his last political struggle. This was his fight to achieve a broader and more enduring fulfilment of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, to be accomplished by ramming through the House of Representatives the 13th Amendment to the Bill of Rights, permanently abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the United States. While the North had clearly won the war by then, Lincoln saw the task as both urgent and difficult. A Confederate delegation was approaching Washington with a peace offer. They might be unwilling to negotiate if finding slavery permanently outlawed, while if Congress became fully aware that a peace offer was at hand, its unpredictable mixture of conservative and Radical Republicans with wavering War Democrats might refuse to pass the Amendment. So Lincoln, portrayed brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis, had to engage in a certain amount of manipulation and subterfuge to carry out his grand design.

He needed the assistance of his friend, Secretary of State William Seward, well played by David Strathairn, and his critic but occasional collaborator, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the firebrand leader of the abolitionist Radical Republicans in Congress. He also needed the help of a sleazy Democratic Party backstairs fixer, William Bilbo (James Spader). At the same time, he had to deal with his private grief at the loss of a son to typhoid, and the nagging of his neurotic wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), both of them terrified of losing their oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to the war. The fast-moving narrative about these and a host of minor characters was taken by Spielberg from the 2005 bestseller book about the Lincoln cabinet by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, and Goodwin collaborated with the playwright Tony Kushner on the script. But it is the sheer virtuosity of Day-Lewis that brings the story to life.

Spielberg’s talent in filming spectacular action sequences is almost absent from Lincoln. The President is shown visiting the Union commanding general, Ulysses Grant (Jared Harris) at the battlefront, but only the film’s first few minutes, a grisly scene of soldiers dying in mud, brings home the savagery of the Civil War. That scene quickly gives way to a conversation between Lincoln and two black Union soldiers, and almost all of the rest of the film is rather stagey dialogue in darkly-lit rooms.

In those scenes in which Lincoln is not present, the dialogue is not always as impressive as it is clearly intended to be, with hints frequently provided by rising chords of background music. Sally Field is supposed to be irritating as Lincoln’s wife, and is only too successful. Tommy Lee Jones is also something of a mixed blessing. The real Thaddeus Stevens was dogged and humourless to the edge of fanaticism. But Jones pretty much plays the character he usually does, never quite able to conceal his amiable small-town Texas origins just below the surface of a gruff and scowling exterior. It is a little hard to see him as a blazing-eyed passionate Northern slavery abolitionist. Tommy Lee Thaddeus is, however, so much fun to watch that few will complain. In fact, all the acting is fine, only put in the shade by Day-Lewis, whose Lincoln is not a mythic icon, but a complex, clever, resourceful, fallible, and sometimes tormented man, splendidly achieved.

But Spielberg, who in recent years has clearly burned with an ambition not just to make fine entertainments, but to embrace ‘History’ with a capital H, tends to hit that large nail firmly on his thumb, and has done it again in Lincoln. It just might have been possible to convey the whole sense of Lincoln’s larger importance to his era within the narrow confines of Kushner’s script, but to do that would have required at least a bit more context, something more than a recapitulation of backstage political games. Because Spielberg and Kushner take for granted modern popular attitudes about the evil of slavery and the necessity of ending it, they show little interest in why not all Republicans were Radical ones, or why not all War Democrats were merely opportunist or timid. They take no interest at all in why Southerners were so confident of the justice of their own cause. By excluding all these considerations, studied by many of the best American historians for many years, they have helped give their story its rapid pace, but have robbed it of much of its tragic dimensions. Entirely successful in making an exciting story out of Lincoln’s ingenious politicking, they have removed any sense at all of why and how slavery had not only produced so complete a regional political division in one country, but eventually something like a clash between two rival civilizations, with the total defeat of one of them changing all of world history thereafter.

Lincoln is made to remark briefly at one point that the war cost 600, 000 lives, a figure he would be unlikely to know at the time, but permissible dramatic license. However, that horrendous figure is given little context. For example, for every six slaves freed, approximately one soldier was killed. For every ten white Southerners ultimately kept in the Union, one Union and one Confederate soldier died Furthermore, however appalling it now appears to think of human beings as property, emancipation with no compensation to slaveholders was one of the largest economic expropriations in the whole of human history, technically larger in scale than the expropriation carried out in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

The utter ruin of the South was not just felt by the slaveholders, but by the suddenly ‘freed’. propertyless, largely illiterate, and henceforth only uncertainly employed ex-slaves. Lincoln’s Vice-President and unhappy successor, the Tennessee War Democrat Andrew Johnson, is entirely absent from the Spielberg film, but his difficulties in trying to apply Lincoln’s relatively mild policies of “Presidential Reconstruction’, only weeks after Lincoln was killed, came partly because Stevens and Seward were breathing hotly down his neck, eventually producing the crisis of Johnson’s near-impeachment, and from 1869 a near-decade of harsher ‘Radical Reconstruction’: the South was occupied by Union troops and flooded with Northern carpetbaggers buying up everything in sight from bankrupt Southerners. Almost another century of racial subordination, segregation, and lawless violence followed. Even if the war itself was unavoidable, it remains conceivable that had Lincoln chosen an earlier, messier, but less absolute and devastating end, a more gradual ending of slavery would have been better, even for the slaves. Lincoln’s ‘new birth of freedom’ came at terrible cost, not hinted at by the film.

Canadians of the time were driven to their own Confederation by the revolutionary explosion to their south. The British Empire had abolished slavery three decades earlier, and Canadians for the most part disapproved of its continuation in the American South. However, in the Civil War years themselves, Montreal and Toronto, irritated by rude Yankees and charmed by well-mannered and free-spending Southerners, largely came to favour their cause in the War. We still look back to that decade through the eyes of the practical and cynical John A. Macdonald, rather than those of his prophetic contemporary. Less moral grandeur, but less agony; our usual option.

Prince Arthur Herald Christmas Song 2012

Investors watched their stocks with fright, as Greece more broke was found;
While Brits thanked God on island tight that they still had the pound.
The Queen drew lots of broad applause, in Diamond Jubilee;
Her stoic calm made adults pause, in common memory.

Republicans sent candidates, to primaries galore;
They left a pile of broken plates, and fratricidal gore;
Mitt Romney struggled with the fates, but stayed a pleasant bore.
Obama thus still rules the States, but not the Congress floor.

Petraeus is now daubed with mud, the stone man turned to jelly;
Biographer who’d found him stud, had threatened one Jill Kelley.
The Harper Tories spent the year in pushing to the right;
For CBC they shed no tear, while greens with rage turned white.

In Montreal, a student mass, resisted fee increase;
Pauline Marois adored their brass, Charest slipped on the grease;
Corruption in construction trades, is being now unveiled;
Police are making frequent raids, but no one yet is jailed.

The end of Tremblay’s failing grades: an anglo mayor is hailed;
Toronto’s mayor now somewhat fades; a court may have him nailed.
McGuinty too, just chose the door,
Out West, two women have the clout, where only men once trod.

The great and good all rise and fall, like stocks and interest rates;
But all end in the same bus haul, that goes to Pearly Gates.

– Merry Christmas & Happy New Year from Neil Cameron, December, 2012.

Davos and the Spectre of David Hume

This year’s just-completed World Economic Forum at Davos had as its theme ‘resilient dynamics’. According to its executive chairman, Klaus Schwob, ‘resiliency in the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and withstand sudden shocks,’ while ‘dynamism’ is required as well, to assure future growth through ‘bold vision and even bolder action.’ Don Tapscott, a Canadian economist and business guru, who has been a gratingly cheery booster of the Davos meetings for years, also brought the news to readers of the Globe & Mail that what began as only a series of meetings has now evolved into ‘a massive research organization’, a ‘do-tank’.

2,500 participants from over 100 countries came to Davos this January: government and corporate leaders, economists, and wealthy world-improving entertainers like Bono. Almost all of them were provided with a great deal of comfortable personal insulation from ‘sudden shocks’ of any kind, and many were also accustomed to being generously compensated for producing lots of bold visions; Paul Krugman provides one every month or two in his NY Times columns, and the megabankers can be counted on as often for clever new derivatives. Tapscott argued that Davos remained ‘the foremost creative force for engaging leaders in collaborative activities focused on shaping the global, regional, and industry agendas.’ This may very well be true, but over a decade after 9/11 and five years after the World Crash, the Davos assembly, which still observes the pious reverence for economic forecasting that existed two decades ago, resembles a conference of men’s hat makers, congratulating each other on their new plastic bowlers.

Of course, discussions and papers gave solemn attention to tottering banks and flowering sovereign debts, but nothing really much disturbed the equanimity of this new in-crowd as they inhaled the brisk Swiss mountain air. Since 2006 the Forum has released an annual ‘Global Risks Report’, examining 50 global risks in terms of ‘impact, likelihood, and the extent to which they are connected’, based on a survey of ‘more than 1000 experts from industry, government and academia’. And how could 1000 such experts be wrong? Indeed, a special report on ‘national resilience’ proposed that countries could be assigned a ‘resilience rating’, with annual reports of this kind of progress. There is also a year-round WEF working group, of which Tapscott proudly claims membership, ‘that includes many of the world’s leading thinkers about global governance’, excited by ‘new non-state networks of civil society’, addressing ‘every conceivable issue facing humanity’. The group is ‘trying to understand their potential for improving the state of the world’, which should keep them busily occupied for some time.

Although ‘resilience’ has now been around for a decade as an economists’ buzzword, it is just possible that this year’s Davos theme was a vague nod of sorts to the heretical arguments about statistics and forecasting made in recent years by gifted ‘outliers’ like Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Nate Silver. Neither of these are mere flavour-of-the month popular pundits in the manner of Malcolm Gladwell or the authors of Freakonomics. In fact, both are presenting their own kind of fresh versions of an old, powerful, and very alarming philosophical position.

Silver, who trumped all more conventional political pundits by accurately predicting, state-by-state, the results in both of the last two American Presidential elections, has already had an enthusiastic reception for his new book, The Signal and the Noise. He is not so much a grand theorist as an individual who understands how to analyze statistics with a special personal skill, this in itself casting great doubts on the validity of purely standardized statistical models.. Taleb is a great deal more egomaniacal and bombastic, but while he can sometimes be irritating, especially in his latest book, Antifragile, he has something important to say, as he did in his previous books, Fooled by Randomness (2001) and The Black Swan (2007). The latter book was a best-seller and a public sensation, at least in the business and financial worlds. He had already become a recognized financial guru; as a onetime options trader on Wall Street, he not only saw in advance the likelihood of the 2008 Crash, but placed, to use a favourite expression of his, ‘skin in the game’, shorting the collapsing real estate derivatives early enough to make himself some tens of millions of dollars. He has not repeated this success, but can now afford quite a few more modest plunges.

But then his whole argument against academic economists, statisticians and Wall Street rocket scientists is that neither he nor anyone else can predict the future at all, since stunningly unexpected ‘Black Swans’ are not just very rare exceptions, but frequent enough to ruin all persuasive-looking futurology. This is not a new idea; it was classically demonstrated by David Hume over two centuries ago, and Taleb also explicitly acknowledges his debt to two great Hume-influenced sceptical thinkers of the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper. But just as it used to be said that many of the purely philosophical arguments advanced by Nietzsche had been made earlier by Hume, Nietzsche differing mainly by yelling them at the top of his voice, Taleb has a similar method in his madness. Hume not only undermined traditional notions of causality, but was just as devastatingly sceptical about the limits of confining study to ‘relations’ instead, these including the statistical ones that have become more and more universal today. He turned his own empirical reasoning against even itself, so thoroughly that ambitious futurists have been averting their eyes from this terrifying Scot ever since.

Hume, Bertrand Russell, and Taleb are all fond of pointing out the flaw in the reasoning of an empiricist turkey. The turkey becomes accustomed to the daily appearance of the farmer with food, and hence experiences an unpleasant surprise one day when the farmer arrives with the sharp blade that will soon convert the turkey into someone’s dinner. Even a turkey who has observed another turkey’s misfortune can not predict when the blade will replace his own meal. Taleb’s own prescription for business, financial, and political action is, behind the bombast, a highly conservative one, recommending the cautious use of rules of thumb and a spirit of trial and error. Hence he is full of loathing for most academic economists, and for bankers inventing financial models whose failure does not affect them because they have ‘no skin in the game’. He suggests that it would have improved the body politic to behead a few such bankers on the pavement outside their ATMs, an idea unlikely to be well-received at Davos even as a joke.

In his new book, he insists on the utility, even the necessity, of his ‘antifragile’ neologism, which he argues, using several examples from a wide range of human activities, is not simply a synonym for ‘robust’ or ‘resilient’, but has a special and different meaning: a kind of thinking and action which can actually find benefits in turbulence and volatility. Not, of course, as an exact science; for Taleb, in all empirical experience, there is no exact science, certainly not in academic economics or the design of Wall Street investments. But he thinks there are sometimes real-life counterparts of the mythological Hydra, which sprouted two new heads every time one was cut off. The Hydra-like, in his view, include weightlifters, Mafiosi, entrepreneurs, street fighters, and the author of Antifragile. He likes bottom-up, diversified, and small enterprises, allowing uncatastrophic withdrawal when things go wrong.

Taleb is nonetheless willing to be grand enough in his own level of epistemological ambition. Arguing less about specifically statistical reasoning in his new book than in the previous two, he turns to the very founding arguments of Greek philosophy. In the 1930s. Karl Popper attacked ‘the spell of Plato’ as the first ancestor of the totalitarian thought and politics of his time. Taleb goes after Plato somewhat differently. Noting that The Republic opens with an attack on merchants and money lenders, Taleb takes the side of these moneymakers. But he remains like Popper in recognizing the permanent utopian attraction of a top-down rule of enlightened philosopher-king guardians. At least Plato’s were supposed to be schooled in wisdom, not just in knowledge, much less in data. Taleb is offering more insight to the world than it is likely to obtain from all 1000 of the Davos-selected ‘experts from industry, government, and academia’. The world may even come to prefer his shouted wisdom to the bland and optimistic annual groupthink counsel from Switzerland.