Why countries are more likely to break up than to merge

Tomorrow, Scottish voters will go to the polls to answer a simple and direct question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

When the campaign began last November, it was widely believed that the result might be similar to the outcome of the 1980 sovereignty referendum in Quebec, in which 60 percent voted against cutting the province’s ties with the rest of Canada.

But a vigorous “Yes” campaign led by Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, and a lacklustre “No” campaign led by Alistair Darling, Britain’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer, has dramatically closed the gap. As of this evening, a comparison to the too-close-to-call 1995 Quebec referendum might be in order, as the final polls suggest a slight “No” lead.

Despite our own experiences with Quebec nationalism, many Canadians still wonder why about one-half of Scots would want to separate from a relatively large and successful country of 64 million people to become a small country of just over five million people.

Isn’t bigger supposed to be better? Indeed, why don’t countries that share the same language merge to get rid of this wasteful duplication of governments and to increase their power on the world stage: Austria with Germany, New Zealand with Australia, Uruguay with Argentina, Ireland back into the United Kingdom . . . and Canada with the United States?

Alas, global might seldom translates into domestic bliss. Last January, this blog noted that when citizens of OECD countries were asked to rate their overall life satisfaction on a zero-to-10 scale, the countries at the top of the list read like a who’s who of small countries with little global influence: Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark.

Further analysis suggested that satisfaction with life was closely tied to having a job and a steady income, feeling healthy, living in decent housing, and having a good personal social support network.

Credit Suisse, a Zurich-based bank and financial services company, also noticed that small countries tended to do better than their larger neighbours in securing a good life for their citizens, and conducted their own study, called “The Success of Small Countries”, to understand why.

Not only did Credit Suisse find a negative relationship between a country’s size and its per capita GDP, but they also found that smaller countries tended to do better in education, health, equality and other aspects of human development — even noting that Scotland has a higher level of human development than the U.K. as a whole, while Catalonia does better than Spain, the country many Catalans hope to separate from in the years ahead.

Smallness might also lead to pragmatism. The Credit Suisse report noted that smaller countries have opened themselves more to international trade than their larger neighbours, and have been more enthusiastic about globalization and technology. Their governments also tend to be less wasteful, in part because they don’t have to please as many parochial constituencies, as the report notes:

The larger the country, the more the need for local and regional governments to manage some of the key social services like education or police services.

Decentralization also gives rise to transfers from the central government to the poorer regions or states to allow for a more balanced growth and relative wealth across the country. Transfers — a political tool to keep a country together — add complexity and may lead to distortions and inefficiencies if not allocated properly . . .

The USA and the European Union provide a valuable illustration of this dynamic. In the USA, Federalism has added costs as each state has its own government infrastructure and ability to issue legislation. The result of this ‘government’ structure is often overspending and higher deficits at the regional or local level.

The same could be said about the European Union and the component states: 40% of the legislative acts of the EU concern agricultural policies, while agriculture represents less than 5% of European GDP.

A final factor that smaller countries seem to have on their side: higher levels of urbanization. The report notes that “cities are the most efficient form of human settlement” and are a “massive driver of growth and of wealth”. Urban societies are said to be “more practical and less ideological”, are better at producing higher-income jobs, and have citizens who are more comfortable dealing with cultural differences.

Thus, the Credit Suisse report might hold some of the clues to the appeal of Scottish nationalism. An independent Scotland would be under less pressure than the British government in London has long been to please far-flung constituencies, could focus its energies on building a healthier and better-educated population — which it needs in troubled areas such as Glasgow — and would have little choice but to be open to globalization. It would also be a highly urbanized country, with about 70 percent of its population living in the regions surrounding Edinburgh and Glasgow, and about 80 percent officially living in urban areas.

Yet this should not be taken as an endorsement of the “Yes” camp in tomorrow’s referendum. The Economist, always a source of sensible advice, points out in its call for Scots to vote “No” tomorrow that the nationalists’ optimism about oil revenues and the possibility of keeping the British pound as the Scottish currency are contestable. They also point out that, horrified by the close call with national breakup, the British government is likely to give the existing Scottish legislature so many additional powers within the U.K. that independence would be hardly worth seeking.

Border Security: Norway’s front line against illicit butter and contraband chicken

Busted: The driver of this Passat tried to convince Norwegian Customs that the 800 containers of yogurt shown here were for his personal consumption. They didn't believe him. (Click for source.)

Busted: The driver of this Passat tried to convince Norwegian Customs that the 800 containers of yogurt shown here were for his personal consumption. They didn’t believe him. (Click for source.)

On Monday, Norwegian Customs officers were on duty along the Swedish border when they pulled over a suspicious looking vehicle bearing Swedish licence plates.

Their suspicions were confirmed when they quickly discovered that the unfortunate Swede was indeed a smuggler — and that it wasn’t the first time he had been busted by Norwegian authorities.

The Customs officers ended up seizing no less than five hundred kilograms (or 1,100 lbs.) of the dastardly Swede’s goods before they could end up on the streets of Oslo, Bergen or wherever in Norway he was destined.

Five hundred kilograms of what? Marijuana? Cocaine? Heroin? No; none of these.

“Inside his getaway vehicle – a Volvo car,” a Norwegian news site reported later that same day,”was 500 kilogrammes of raw, frozen chicken.”

“The Norwegian customs team was not particularly surprised by the Swede’s haul, however, as he has been caught doing the exact same chicken run eight times before,” TheLocal.no noted in its report.

The incident came days after a Danish visitor was stopped by Customs with 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lbs.) of meat crammed into his car.

He claimed that he was on his way to attend a football game in Trondheim, and that he planned to take the undeclared meat back out of the country with him.

This might seem absurd in Canada, where chicken is one of the cheapest of meats. But in expensive Norway, where groceries are about 50 percent more expensive than in Canada and restaurant prices are more than double what we would pay, cheap food has become a lucrative black-market commodity.

One reason for the high price of Norwegian food: the protectionist policies that Norway maintains to shield its agricultural sector, despite years of complaints from other countries throughout Europe.

Under these policies, imported frozen chicken is subject to tariffs of up to $18 Cdn. per kilogram.

Contraband chicken has consequently been a problem in Norway for years. Back in 2006, Norwegian Customs — which does not screen 100 percent of travelers arriving from low-risk countries, but instead relies upon the honour system and spot checks to ensure compliance — seized a total of 25 tons of meat of various kinds, rising to 39 tons the following year.

In addition to tariff evasion, contraband meat is considered a concern because it is “virtually never refrigerated and conditions of smuggling cars are unhygienic,” a Norwegian news site reported in 2008.

“The cars are filled with meat on the floor and in the seats,” a customs official told the reporter.

It’s not just meat that traffickers stand to make money from in Norway. Norwegian Customs’s 2011 annual report tells the tale of two inept Swedes who tried to offload 250 kilograms of illicit butter to passersby in a small town north of Oslo for 500 kr. ($89 Cdn.) per kilogram.

“That they were attempting to sell the butter outside the Prix supermarket in Beistad indicates a real lack of market analysis,” the report sardonically noted. “Supermarket customers notified the police, who in turn notified Customs and Excise.”

“The two smugglers admitted having brought the butter in via Storlien the night before. If the sales had been better, the smugglers would have pocketed NOK 125,000 [$22,180 Cdn.] for the whole consignment.”

The “butter bust” happened as Norway’s heavily protected dairy industry suffered a bad year. The barriers intended to protect the industry left Norway without a backup source to make up for the domestic industry’s poor output, resulting in empty shelves during what both bloggers and the business press called the Norwegian Butter Crisis.

As the Christmas season approached — and demand for butter for Christmas baking soared — reports began to appear of people offering hundreds of dollars online to anyone who could hook them up with some butter.

Yogurt has become another heavily trafficked item in Norway’s expensive, protected dairy market. A 2013 Swedish news report explained how one man had been caught multiple times by Norwegian Customs trying to sneak a total of 720 kilograms (1,590 lbs.) of yogurt in from Sweden.

The same man had been previously stopped trying to smuggle hundreds of kilograms of cheese into Norway in the trunk of his car.

In another case last year, police were notified of an overloaded Volkswagen Passat arriving on a ferry from Sweden. The vehicle turned out to be loaded up with 800 containers of yogurt, along with large quantities of chicken and powdered milk.

Despite the driver’s pleas that he had purchased all 800 containers of yogurt for his personal consumption, his purchases — valued at more than $3,500 Cdn. — were confiscated and destroyed by customs officers.

Those Danish tourists, and why ultra-cheap airfares don’t work in Canada

Aug. 10, 2014 screenshot showing promotional deals advertised on EasyJet's web site. (Click for source.)

Aug. 10, 2014 screenshot showing promotional deals advertised on EasyJet’s web site. (Click for source.)

“My girlfriend and I (Danish) were tourists in your country for 5 weeks this summer. We had the most incredible adventure and met the most wonderful Canadians, who welcomed us warmly into their homes,” wrote Holly Chabowski, a U.K.-born Danish visitor, recently in “an open letter to the people who hold power and responsibility in Canada,” which was subsequently published in the Ottawa Citizen and elsewhere.

So far, so good. But there was more.

“Before arriving in Canada we had a genuine impression of a clean, healthy and sustainable first world country. Upon arrival in Toronto we were horrified to see great oceans of car parks deserting the landscape and 12 lane high ways, rammed packed with huge SUVs, with people going no where,” Chabowski continued.

“A greater shock came when we discovered that this kind of infrastructure is not reserved just for the sprawl surrounding towns and cities but that highways actually run through city centres too. As humans trying to enjoy Canada’s major cities (Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa and Halifax) we were treated like second class citizens compared to cars. The air was dirty, and the constant noise from horns and engines was unpleasant.”

Oh boy. Imagine if they came to the Prairies!

To no one’s surprise, Chabowski’s comments stirred Canadians up.

“We live in a culture that looks at cars as a means to get around. I’m sorry that bothers you. We could do better, absolutely. But acting so disappointed about it… well, that smacks of a certain degree of arrogance…”, wrote one commentator on the Ottawa Citizen web site.

“Instead of getting so defensive maybe we should start pushing our city to build infrastructure that supports walking and biking,” wrote a more sympathetic reader.

Yet, in addition to stirring people up, Chabowski might have inadvertently answered a question that has long bothered Canadians: why — in addition to the taxes and add-on fees — are the cheap airfares that Europeans enjoy so rarely found in Canada?

Part of the answer can be found in the differences between European and North American cities.

European cities are not just walkable, but wanderable. Whether you are in a larger, cosmopolitan city like London, or a smaller, more provincial one like Copenhagen, one can easily kill a couple of hours of spare time wandering aimlessly, following one’s nose and seeing what’s around the next corner, without getting bored.

Try doing that in many North American cities, aside from a few exceptions like New York City, Chicago, Montreal or San Francisco. It won’t be easy.

Because European cities take much of the effort out of having fun — one can just show up and have an enjoyable time without much advance planning — it is easy to stimulate consumer demand for travel.

That is exactly what European discount carriers like EasyJet and Ryanair have done, knowing that European cities are so visitor-friendly that many people will jump at the opportunity to pack a small bag and head off from Amsterdam to Rome for a three-day weekend for 193 Euros ($284 Cdn.), taxes and mandatory surcharges included.*

It’s an economic concept called price elasticity of demand. Because they are so wanderable, cutting the price of visiting European cities strongly increases the number of people willing to pay to do so. (It doesn’t hurt that passport ownership is high and that Europeans — like Australians, another travel-loving lot — have four weeks annual holiday by law to play with.)

Apart from the exceptions already noted, North American cities are largely dull and even unsafe places to aimlessly wander. As noted by our Danish guests, many cities are essentially car-dependent central business districts surrounded by miles of single-use industrial or residential neighbourhoods, as dull and featureless as the prairie or the desert.

North American cities are clones of every other city of similar size within several hundred miles’ distance — and they require any tourist intrepid enough to end up there to put a lot of work into being a tourist. Without places to wander and explore, visitors have to put infinitely more effort into figuring out what to do with their days.

Thus, there is little point in offering EasyJet-style airfares between many cities in North America. Even if you could take a $284 weekend round-trip from Winnipeg to St. Louis, from Halifax to Hamilton, or from Calgary to Salt Lake City — all distances comparable to the Amsterdam-Rome trip noted earlier — why would you?

Hence it makes much more sense for the airlines to carefully keep supply in line with demand, knowing that just about anyone traveling between those North American cities must have a compelling reason to want to do so, and that they will therefore quite willingly pay the $600 Cdn. fares currently listed for Aug. 29-Sept. 1 roundtrips.

Lowering those prices would mean charging people less than they are willing to pay for that trip, while attracting few (if any) new customers.

If places like Winnipeg, St. Louis, Hamilton, Calgary (outside of Stampede Season) or Salt Lake City were easily wandered, fun-with-no-advance-planning-required cities to visit, then it would make more sense to offer much lower fares to appeal to peoples’ sense of fun and adventure.

Alas, there is little we can do about the layout of our cities in the short term, and will have to accept our cities’ weak tourist appeal as a fact of life. But at least we will now know why we can’t jet off to our continent’s many other cities at the same relatively low fares and with the same adventurous spirit as our European friends do.


* – Based on fare shown on EasyJet’s web site on the afternoon of Sun., Aug. 10, departing Amsterdam for Rome on the evening of Friday, Aug. 29 and returning on the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 1.

Abstinence-only programs based more on wishful thinking than on research

School board elections are seldom paid much attention to in Manitoba; least of all in early August when many Manitobans are trying to make the most of the short summer ahead of the invariably long, dark winter. Yet one previously obscure school board candidate did the seemingly impossible by making a much-ignored suburban school board race into a hot topic of conversation on the most unlikely of days: the Tuesday after the August long weekend.

Candace Maxymowich, a 20-year-old candidate for trustee on the Louis Riel School Division board in southeast Winnipeg, pulled off this feat starting with an early morning Twitter session.

“Personally, I do not support sex education other than abstinence,” she tweeted to Winnipeg residents Zach Fleisher and Ben Brisebois, who sought further details about an earlier Maxymowich tweet in which she referred to “parental rights & the moral integrity of children” as campaign issues.

The tweets that set a sleepy school board campaign on fire.

The tweets that set a sleepy school board campaign on fire.

Less than an hour later, Maxymowich tweeted that “[t]here is research that argues abstinence education is effective.”

By the afternoon, the issue had not only drawn comments from across the Winnipeg Twitter community, but had also become a leading story in the local news, despite Maxymowich’s mid-morning claim that abstinence-only sex education was “not something I’m campaigning on.”

But what exactly does the best available research say about abstinence-only sex education, which, as described by the Guttmacher Institute, “treats abstinence as the only option outside of marriage, with discussion of contraception either prohibited entirely or limited to its ineffectiveness in preventing pregnancy and disease.”

“While sexual abstinence—at least until one is old enough and mature enough to engage in healthy sexual relationships—might be advisable, there is little evidence that the abstinence-only approach is effective,” said a 2002 article in The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, which also criticized the approach as “one of the best examples of ideology impeding sound public-health policy.”

“It is understandable why so many groups, in particular conservative religious groups, wish to promote values that they feel are under assault in modern society,” the article continued.

“But the origins of [out-of-wedlock pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, etc.] and other problems of society are much more complex, and denying young people full and accurate information about sex, contraception, and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases not only puts them at needless risk, but also threatens to undermine their trust and respect of some of society’s most important institutions: its schools, health system, and government officials.”

A report written two years later by Advocates for Youth, a U.S. not-for-profit organization that favours sex education, examined evaluations that had been done on abstinence-only programs in 11 states, and found that few of them could claim much success in producing the results their proponents had hoped for:

Evaluation of these 11 programs showed few short-term benefits and no lasting, positive impact. A few programs showed mild success at improving attitudes and intentions to abstain. No program was able to demonstrate a positive impact on sexual behavior over time. (Page 2)

A study published in 2010 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, meanwhile found some positive effects in a study of more than 600 African-American students in Grades 6 and 7, noting that those who received an abstinence-only “intervention” were less likely to report having had sex in the following three and 24 months than did those in the control group. But the study also observed that there was little knowledge about the intervention’s impact in later years, and that the results “do not mean that abstinence-only intervention is the best approach or that other approaches should be abandoned”.

A research article written by two University of Georgia academics and published in 2011 by PLoS ONE examined the track record of 48 U.S. states. They found that states that pushed abstinence more strongly tended to have higher teenage pregnancy rates, leading them to conclude that “abstinence-only education as a state policy is ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancy and may actually be contributing to the high teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S.”

Finally, a study published in the Pediatrics journal in 2009 looked back at National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health data on the 289 adolescents who had taken a “virginity pledge” in 1996, and compared them to 645 who did not take the pledge. When researchers followed up five years later, “82% of pledgers denied having ever pledged”. Despite their protestations, the so-called pledgers did not differ much from non-pledgers in their reported pre-marital sexual behaviour, but were “less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease before marriage”.

It’s a good thing that abstinence-only sex education is not something that Maxymowich plans to pursue strongly if she is elected to the Louis Riel School Division board in this October’s municipal elections. The findings from elsewhere suggest an abstinence-only policy would largely be a waste of time and effort, expose Winnipeg to widespread ridicule, and represent a triumph of wishful thinking over prudent research in making public policy.

Related: World Bank/United Nations data on adolescent fertility rates by country (births per 1,000 women, aged 15-19). In 2012, there were 14 births for every thousand Canadian women aged 15-19 years. Affluent countries boasting less than half the Canadian rate included Switzerland, South Korea, Germany, Italy, Austria, Denmark, Japan, France, Singapore — and the famously socially liberal Netherlands.

Among English-speaking countries, Ireland did significantly better than Canada (8 per 1,000), and Australia was roughly on par with us (12 per 1,000). New Zealand (25 per 1,000), the U.K. (26 per 1,000) and the U.S. (31 per 1,000) were significantly worse off.

Time to make Winnipeg’s walking tours more visitor-friendly

Winnipeg might not be known for being one of North America’s leading or even Top 50 mass-market holiday destinations, but this city does attract some tourism nevertheless through several narrow but lucrative feeds:

Business and convention traffic: Though busy during the day, many of these visitors are looking for something to do after 6 p.m. rather than spending the evening watching TV in their hotel rooms.

Rural and small-town visitors: If you live in small-town Manitoba or northwestern Ontario, or even parts of North Dakota and Minnesota, Winnipeg is the closest largish city to go to for the weekend for something a little more diverse than the limited small-town shopping and entertainment options. For many Manitobans, Winnipeg is also the nearest place to go to for appointments with professionals and specialists.

People in transit: Winnipeg’s position on the Trans-Canada Highway, on VIA Rail’s transcontinental rail route and as the transfer point for hunters, anglers and whale/polar bear-watchers heading north allows it to sell some of its attractions as ways to fill the time during stopovers.

People visiting friends and relatives: As the city’s immigrant communities continue to grow by leaps and bounds, this will continue to generate tourist traffic in the form of friends and relatives coming to visit.

One activity that tends to sell well to all of these groups, as well as to locals, is the urban walking tour. As those who have been on walking tours in other cities might attest, a well-done tour not only gives a city a little more character, but is also a good way for visitors to meet other travelers from around the country and the world; some can even take on a flirty edge. (“What happens in Vegas…” doesn’t necessarily have to apply to only Vegas.)

Too bad, then, that Winnipeg’s walking tour scene leaves much to be desired. While there is an array of walking tours offered, it’s a rather scattershot affair.

The West Exchange District tour sounds good if you’re interested in architecture or in hearing more about the stories behind this funky central Winnipeg neighbourhood. But when does it run? The tour’s web site notes that the “first” tour leaves 133 Albert St. at 9 a.m., and the “last” departs at 4:30 p.m. But what about the tours in between? Since it’s a 90-minute tour, do they depart at 90-minute intervals? Who knows? (And if this sounds like a good thing to do on a Sunday, sorry: the tours only run Monday to Saturday.)

I’ve heard great things about the Hermetic Code tour at the Manitoba Legislature. Sounds like an interesting weekend thing to do for locals and visitors alike. The weekend, you say? Sorry, it’s a once-a-week tour, starting on Wednesdays at 6 p.m. Weekend visitors and many locals are out of luck.

The Old St. Boniface Tour seems like a good way of exploring the history of Winnipeg’s French-speaking community. It runs twice a day, seven days a week, which is good (though it’s curious that Tourisme Riel, which runs the tour, doesn’t seem to promote it on their own web site). Instead of starting the tour from the Old St. Boniface City Hall on Provencher Boulevard, however, it might make more sense to start from The Forks: this is where one will find the city’s highest concentration of tourists, and that would make it easier to sell the tour as an “impulse purchase” to people with time to kill. Just a suggestion.

And why is the West End BIZ’s Mural Walking Tour alternately shown as departing from 581 Portage Avenue and from Bannatyne Ave., many blocks away? (And the requirement that participants in the Food Tour book “no less than two days prior to the day of the tour” would quite frankly turn me off as a tourist as being annoyingly bureaucratic.)

Aside from a listing on the Tourism Winnipeg web site, many of Winnipeg’s walking tours are otherwise organized and marketed individually. This is a tourism activity, though, which could benefit from common branding.

For example, many of New York’s best walking tours are under the Big Onion Walking Tours umbrella. In London, London Walks offers one-stop shopping for walking tours. In Berlin, the market is split between Original Berlin Walks and New Berlin Tours.

The benefit of having a city’s walking tours organized and marketed under one or two organizations as opposed to Winnipeg’s scattershot arrangement is that many of the tours end up feeding customers into one another: all of the information is in one place, and people who are satisfied with one tour are tempted to try another one of the company’s tours. Getting this aspect of the local tourism industry into better shape would go far to giving visitors a better experience in this city.

Love him or hate him, London mayor Boris Johnson always entertains

London mayor Boris Johnson is always good for a quote, and often a picture as well. (Click for source.)

London mayor Boris Johnson is always good for a quote, and often a picture as well. (Click for source.)

He has expanded his city’s public transport system to include a rented bicycle scheme, and has suggested building an elevated network of bike freeways to make it easier for cyclists to navigate the British capital.

He has even proposed relieving London’s severe lack of affordable housing by creating a “floating village” in the River Thames, and a £65 billion ($118 billion Cdn.) super-airport east of London, so as to close the venerable, overstretched Heathrow, which would be replaced with up to 100,000 new homes.

Criticize him, and you might be criticized back as a “great supine protoplasmic invertebrate jelly”, accused of having your “tits in the wringer” or of engaging in “boss-eyed, foam-flecked hysteria”.

Though he is a member of Britain’s Conservative party — a former Member of Parliament, in fact — there is little that is small-c conservative about the American-born and Belgian-educated London mayor, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

Or, as Londoners know him, Boris. (No need to include the surname.)

In a profession that produces a lot of smooth talkers and tedious hyper-partisan attack dogs, Johnson is a rarity: an orator who can keep an audience engaged for hours.

He did just that for 90 minutes earlier today, appearing on stage with broadcaster Nick Ferrari to discuss the state of the city and to take questions from the audience.

Being Londoners — i.e., often irreverent — the audience laughed, groaned, cat-called, kidded and even yelled at their mayor in ways that might seem rambunctious to Winnipeggers. It made for fun listening to anyone who happened to be tuned in to the live stream from London’s LBC 97.3 radio earlier today, and makes for great viewing now that the event has also been uploaded to YouTube. One could only wish that Winnipeg could have a mayoral forum quite like this:

What’s next for Boris Johnson? There are rumours that the 50-year-old has his hopes set on being Prime Minister — speculation that he has, typically, dismissed as “as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive”.

The man himself has suggested that having been a short-lived management consultant (“I could not look at an overhead projection of a growth-profit matrix and stay conscious”), a newspaper reporter and editor once fired for fabricating a quote (“I mildly sandpapered something somebody said”), and now a politician, he might try his hand next at writing romantic fiction.

But if he does eventually replace prime minister David Cameron at Number 10 Downing Street, Johnson has already thought up the perfect reason why voters should support his Conservative Party:

“Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3.”



In the mood for more political entertainment? Check out the work of Rik Mayall, the British actor who died suddenly on June 9. Mayall is best remembered for playing the devilish Alan B’Stard, MP in The New Statesman, a clever political comedy (albeit R-rated by stricter North American standards) that aired on U.K. television from 1987 to 1992. After 25 years, the humour in the Season 2 episode Live from Westminster, like the many other episodes now circulating on YouTube, has lost none of its relevance.

Baby-Face Blues

Departing Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak: In addition to campaign gaffes, did having a "baby face" create doubts about competence, as some academic research suggests?

Departing Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak: In addition to campaign gaffes, did having a “baby face” create doubts about competence, as some academic research suggests?

Whether we the public like it or not, imagery can make or break a political career. The image of U.S. vice-president Richard Nixon sweating during the 1960 presidential debate helped seal his fate in one of the closest campaigns in that country’s history. Twenty-eight years later, the somewhat absurd image of another presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, grinning while riding around in a tank similarly sank his presidential campaign.

Others were helped by their cultivated images: Canada’s Brian Mulroney and Australia’s Bob Hawke rapidly ascended to the prime ministership of their respective countries, despite neither having had any prior cabinet experience, in no small part because they both fit the image of a prime minister.

In addition to a lacklustre campaign that bounced from controversy to controversy, could Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak’s campaign to become Premier of Ontario — which ended in defeat Thursday as Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals were re-elected to a fourth term with an unexpectedly large majority — been hindered by Hudak’s image?

While Hudak made no visual gaffes akin to federal Tory leader Bob Stanfield fumbling a football during the 1974 campaign or Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day’s ill-advised decision to arrive at a news conference by jet-ski during the 2000 campaign, the 46-year-old Hudak (pictured above) was one of the most noticeably “baby-faced” Canadian politicians to lead a high-profile campaign in recent times.

As three Duke University academics noted in a 2010 U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, having a “baby face” — characterized by a high forehead, relatively large eyes and small nose and a round face and chin — is not always an asset for someone trying to reach the top:

“…[The perception of a person being competent] is negatively and significantly correlated with baby-facedness, with a correlation of 25.3%, which is significant at a 1% level. Essentially, the subjects are classifying CEOs with mature-faced attributes as competent . . . Our results are concerning particularly in the light of our findings that there is no relationship between competent looks of the CEO and firm performance.”

This finding came five years after an article by Leslie Zebrowitz of Brandeis University and Joann Montepare of Emerson College was published in Science magazine, with very similar conclusions:

“Babyfaced individuals within various demographic groups are perceived as less competent, whether by their own or another group. Its impact can be seen even for famous politicians: When images of former U.S. presidents Reagan and Kennedy were morphed to increase babyfacedness, their perceived dominance, strength and cunning decreased significantly.”

There is, alas, good news for the baby-faced people of the world: although often associated at first glance with the baby-like qualities of being “submissive, naive and weak”, as Zebrowitz and Montepare note, having a baby-face can be an asset when the ability to convey warmth and honesty is critical. They also draw attention to other research by Princeton University’s Alexander Todorov, showing that “more babyfaced men tend to be slightly more intelligent . . . more highly educated, contrary to impressions of their naïveté, and more assertive and more likely to earn military awards, contrary to impressions of their submissiveness and weakness.”

When things go from bad to worse, there are even indications that baby-faced defendants in court are better at defending themselves against charges of intentional wrongdoing — but more likely to suffer a judge’s wrath when accused of negligence.

None of this is a defence of or an excuse for a lousy campaign; but the tendency for a more mature face to be favoured when competence is a campaign issue is something to be kept in mind by all political observers and news junkies.


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