Thursday, December 12, 2013

Margaret Wente on facts, figures and The Toronto Star

It would be nice if Margaret Wente did what she's obliged to do – that is, inform readers of the source of statistics used to reach her conclusions.   It seems particularly relevant to uphold accepted standards when you’re slagging other media outlets (like the Toronto Star) for claims “not supported by the facts”.

What facts support Ms. Wente when she writes, Since 1981, Canadians’ real personal disposable income, per capita, has gone up nearly 50 per cent”?

In contrast, The Living Standards Report of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (2011) states:

“Between 1981 and 2010… real personal disposable income per capita rose 31.4 per cent”.  

Any growth has been unequally shared.  “Median market income per household declined 7.6 per cent, while median total income saw a moderate increase of 1.7 per cent…”

The report adds, “Since 1981, many dimensions of living standards have not improved, in spite of a 52.6 % surge in gross domestic product per capita….”

And since Ms. Wente’s overall argument is that compassion and income equality are doing well specifically under Mr. Harper’s watch, it would make more sense to look at figures since he came to office – rather than since 1981.   Table 9B here shows real disposable income in 1981 at $19,421.  In 2006, when the Conservatives formed a minority government, the number already stood at $24,006, so most of that increase occurred under previous administrations.  The figures stop at 2010, before the majority Conservative government began implementing expansive changes in legislation. 

What does appear to have risen since Conservatives achieved majority is household debt.  Given the barrage of reports (noting, for example, that Canadians owe just over $1.63 for every $1 in disposable income they earn in a year”), it seems a bit unlikely that Canadians’ disposable income has increased as radically as Ms. Wente states - especially recently.  Even for one cherry-picked marker, 30 percent would be nowhere near the 50 at which she pegs it (and little to no increase would seem to be attributable to Mr. Harper’s “compassionate” governance)  Perhaps Ms. Wente has a different source of statistics for her "nearly 50 per cent" claim.  A polite request for supporting figures was sent to The Globe.  No response so far.

Update:  I’m glad to see that The Globe has now updated the claim with a link in the online version (though no source in the print version) to a graph by Stephen Gordon, showing figures to 2013 (though it doesn’t indicate the source of the original data).  Better, though questions remain.

In any case, it should be noted that a woman who, among other things, falsely  turned an unsuspecting student loan recipient (borrowed, without acknowledging her source, from an American blogger) into the “face” of the Occupy protests, presumes to lecture other media outlets about proper ethical practices.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Margaret Wente’s errors and omissions: “grandstanders” Greyson and Loubani

And another Margaret Wente correction – the latest of many such Editor’s Notes - now appears at the bottom of a column about John Greyson and Tarek Loubani, a column that bears striking similarities to an earlier one by Ezra Levant (no link to that place here).

Below are a few other problems with a slag heap which, given their uncertain status in Egypt, could put the two Canadians at continued risk.  Here’s Wente dissing the doctor:

Loubani, 32, is an emergency-room doctor in London, Ont. Recently, at a public meeting, he noisily denounced a federal cabinet minister for reducing health care for refugees. He calls himself a Palestinian refugee, although he was born in Kuwait. (He immigrated to Canada when he was 10.)

In this passage, Wente connects Loubani’s activism to what she suggests is an invented Palestinian persona - omitting that he is indeed of Palestinian parentage.  Whatever one’s view of that particular diaspora, it’s simply a fact that thousands of Palestinians are born in refugee camps across the Middle East.  Hey, even Wente herself is a sort of transnational.  She identifies as both American and as an “Accidental Canadian” – one whose provocative contrarianism might easily be confused with the kind of 'look at me' grandstanding she attributes to the two men.

She also omits important context to Loubani’s protest against federal health care cuts to refugees.  Yes, the video link she provides was bold.  But at the time, many unprecedented ‘noisy denunciations’ (as well as individual actions of exactly the sort Loubani engaged in) were carried out by demonstrating doctors and nurses all across the country, supported by their professional associations.  Here’s just one of many like Loubani’s.  They were joined by a broad cross-section of Canadians, and prominent Jewish Nobel Laureates like Elie Wiesel – “radical grandstanders” all (or maybe just the one with the funny name).

Granted, health care for refugees and immigrants likely wouldn’t be high on Wente’s priority list.  (Writing about how she got to the head of the line for her artificial hips  -“At first, I felt uncomfortable pulling strings, but I got over it”- she seemed unconcerned that her Portuguese cleaning lady, who barely speaks English, has arthritis too. There's no chance she will ever get the access and the state-of-the-art treatment that I did”).

We expect journalists to pose relevant questions. But there are no questions here – except the ones Ms. Wente answers herself.  Will the men be sufficiently grateful?  Hell, no, she assures us, before they’d had the chance to speak.

Greyson, according to Wente, is a ne’er do well gay, “spare time”, professor, and member of a “noxious” group, whose films are “flops”.  He and Loubani are “foolish, reckless, disagreeable” “troublemakers” with “a history of grandstanding”, who’ve “gotten a lot of mileage out of their incarceration”, and who “viscerally despise” the government (though the only vitriol on display seems to emanate from MW).

Cheap, easy characterizations are the stuff of most Wente columns.  (There’s no need to bother with real people when you can collage some handy fake into your story, as Wente did with her Occupy protester "John"). 

If we were to judge Ms. Wente soley by her own past actions (the astonishingly unethical “Johns”, the plagiarism), she doesn’t come out looking too good, though her employer was kind enough to give her the benefit of the doubt.   It would be nice if – once in a while - she could focus on issues, and extend the same courtesy to those with whom she might disagree, or whose looks she doesn’t like.

This kind of writing is sad, thin gruel, and a steady diet makes it less appetizing.

Addendum:  Here’s a little backgrounder to Loubani’s previous (apparently peaceful) protest activities.

Update:  Here's a statement from the Canadian Medical Association Journal decrying attacks by writers like Wente and Levant on Dr. Loubani’s character and motivations.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Margaret Wente on Ignatieff, power and Power

In one of the only bits of Margaret Wente’s column on Michael Ignatieff’s new book that doesn’t seem like a rehash of articles in the Toronto Star, the National Post and the Sun (there are 200 pages to choose from - why use the same quotes?), Wente describes Ignatieff's decision to enter politics like this:   “He wanted to stop being a spectator and be a player instead.  He longed to join the ranks of intellectuals like Vaclav Havel and Samantha Power, his Harvard pal who became Barack Obama’s ambassador to the UN…”.
The bit about Power is curious.  Ignatieff, (born 1947), was approached by Liberals to enter electoral politics in 2004.  By 2005, he'd made up his mind.
Samantha Power, born 1970, has never stood for elected office and was, like Ignatieff, a fellow writer/academic when Ignatieff decided to enter the fray and run for a seat and the Liberal leadership.  
While she later worked behind the scenes on Obama’s 2008 election campaign and served as a foreign policy advisor, Power was appointed UN ambassador in 2013, well after Ignatieff’s 2011 defeat and resignation.  How then, was Samantha Power an inspiration or model for Ignatieff’s decision to “stop being a spectator and be a player”
In fact, some people have argued that it went the other way:  “Power was influenced by the Canadian intellectual Michael Ignatieff”.  Given the age difference and timeline, this makes more sense.
Compared to the plagiarism problems last year, the fake Occupy protester and other similar issues, this head scratcher is no big deal, but it does speak to the value of Wente’s observations.  Rather than curious tossed off claims like these, it would have been nice to see that she’d read Ignatieff’s book and was able to pull out and discuss passages that hadn’t already been covered elsewhere - especially in a column dealing with hubris and over-rated public intellectuals.  

Update:   This also now appears at the end of the column:  

Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version which said Bob Rae threw his support behind St├ęphane Dion in the final leadership ballot in 2006.

Further Update on that puzzling Editor’s Note (perhaps an example of a grudging correction whose aim is not to set the record straight, but rather to limit the damage of the initial error). 
Wente originally said Rae threw his support behind Dion to prevent Ignatieff from winning the 2006 leadership.  Now the “corrected” version reads, “During the 2006 Liberal leadership convention he refused to release his delegates to his old friend, with the result that St├ęphane Dion, not Mr. Ignatieff, won the race.” 
Reports about the 2006 convention however, indicate clearly that Rae “released his delegates”.  This means, obviously, that he released his delegates to vote as they saw fit on the final ballot.  Had Rae “refused to release his delegates” as The Globe now claims, Rae would have been obliged to ask them to support a particular candidate (unless he said, “I release you to vote for anyone but Ignatieff,” something which is pretty well unheard of, and which, from what I can determine, he did not do). 
To be truthful then, that Editor’s Note requires correction.