Thursday, March 19, 2009

No Experience Required

H2H makes an interesting point in the comments section, surrounding Goodyear's qualifications as Science Minister:

First, your view of cabinet ministers is essentially wrong. Few cabinet ministers are experts on the areas they govern. They don't need to be, because their departments are staffed with experts. Their role is to make tradeoffs between different values, something they have some understanding of as politicians.

Incidentally, knowledge of the economics of R&D is probably more relevant than whether or not somebody is a scientist.

But are the best ministers specialists in their fields?

Harper's best minister is Jim Prentice. He is currently minister of the environment and was minister of industry, despite not having a background in environmental science or economics.

Chretien's best ministers were Paul Martin and John Manley. Martin was a lawyer by training, and later a businessman, but had no economics background. Despite that we was a good finance minister. John Manley was a lawyer, who also had no real econ background or IR background, yet was widely praised as industry and foreign minister.

Mulroney's best minister was Joe Clark. Joe Clark had no background in foreign policy, yet was a great external affairs minister. Where Clark did much worse was as constitutional affairs minister (although it was closer to his expertise as a lawyer).

Trudeau's best minister was Allan MacEachen. He served in almost every major role, and only had a background in economics, suitable to his finance gig.

At the provincial level, Gerard Kennedy was a popular education minister, even though he never graduated from university.

Expertise is not really a good predictor of who will be a successful cabinet minister. Indeed, often the experts have a lot invested in particular ways of doing things, and so are more dismissive of their staff.

Gordon O'Connor was a Brigadier-General, but a lousy minister of national defence. Gerry Ritz is a farmer, but has been a poor minister of agriculture.

Alfonso Gagliano's skills as an accountant came in handy when he was minister of public works, but for the wrong reasons.

Bottom line: being a government minister has more to do with reading the public and doing your homework than it does with having any sort of expertise on a given file.

Interesting point. So, I'll ask the open question - is it beneficial for Cabinet Ministers to have a background in, or knowledge of, their portfolio before taking it on?

Personally, I don't think it's essential, although I do think having an interest or fascination with the subject should be a requirement. I can't say that Veterans Affairs is really a passion of mine, so I suspect I'd be a pretty lousy minister in that portfolio. If the Minister doesn't enjoy what he or she is doing, and doesn't feel strongly about it, do you really think they'll do a good job?

There also needs to be a basic understanding of some key issues. If your foreign minister doesn't know a thing about Afghanistan or your environment minister doesn't understand the basic principles of global warming...well, that's going to be a problem.

No, I don't think understanding evolution is a prerequisite for being the Minister of Science. My only worry with Goodyear is that he may be skeptical of scientists, and may not fully appreciate the many positive benefits scientific advances can bring about. It's hard to imagine how someone like that could be an effective Cabinet Minister.

But I don't want to put words in his mouth or pre-judge him. The man may be a science camp alumni who sees just how important investments in this field are for Canada's long term success and competitiveness. There's little to indicate otherwise.



  • While your commenter does raise an interesting issue, it would seem to be a deflection that has nothing at all to do with the Goodyear issue. No one thinks the science minister needs to be a scientist, that's not what this debate is about at all.

    You don't need to be a scientist, but you should have a grade-school knowledge of, and at least accept the validity of, basic scientific theories, such as those dealing with gravity, evolution and the like.

    By Blogger Jeff, at 8:30 a.m.  

  • Similar to BCer, something beyond basic understanding is obviously a requirement, but in this case it goes beyond that.

    I think perhaps the issue here is whether the Minister holds antithetical views to the portfolio he has been assigned. To put it in context; what if the finance minister decided supply and demand didn't matter? Or based on Mr. Goodyear's comments, perhaps not understand what supply and demand actually is would be a more appropriate analogy...

    I quipped to a friend--- next up: total pacifist defence minister; a health minister who believes only in prayer as treatment; a unilateralist as minister of international cooperation; a uni-lingual official language minister; a status of women minister who believes women belong in the home and have no right to choose; and a racist as minister for citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:10 a.m.  

  • We don't live in a meritocracy (either fortunately or unfortunately - that's a different argument).

    I made a similar point as you, CG. It doesn't matter what Goodyear's personal beliefs are as long as they don't interfere with his judgment as a minister.

    If he is dismissing credible advice from a field of experts, and by all appearances he is and the government is, then he is allowing his personal beliefs to creep into his duties and that's what makes him unfit.

    To make the grand point of all, Stephen Harper is an economist and he couldn't see a recession coming (wink wink).

    By Blogger Jim (Progressive Right), at 9:17 a.m.  

  • A Minister does not need to be an expert in the field.
    A Minister should appreciate the field.

    Evolutionary theory is intrinsic to nearly all biological/medical science. Creationist beliefs are incompatible with most of that science.

    A creationist Minister of Science is like...

    An anarchist Minister of Justice.
    A communist Minister of Finance.
    A pacifist Minister of Defence.
    An isolationist Minister of International Cooperation.

    There's nothing wrong with being a creationist, anarchist, communist, pacifist or isolationist. Having those beliefs does not disqualify someone from public service. But those beliefs are incompatible with some portfolios.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:27 a.m.  

  • All Cabinet ministers should believe in evolution, scientist or not. Harper's most effective minister was actually Emerson who had industry and academic background. Prentice gets the best press because -- well, he's not Harper.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:29 a.m.  

  • Hi Dan, great topic! :D

    First off, I don't like the idea of MPs forming Cabinet, period. Why should my MP be the Minister of Defence or Health while my friend's MP is a backbencher? I shouldn't have a more powerful representative than he does.

    And how much attention is my more-powerful MP giving our riding while shooting missiles or curing cancer?

    It's all problematic to me, and I think we could consider the possibility of voting for these positions on Election Day.

    (Also, we should be able to vote for our leader. PEOPLE should select their leader, not the winning party.)

    Still, it's the system we have.

    I have a different view than the above commenters -- many times I've heard prominent, even Nobel-winning, scientists on CBC's Ideas or with Michael Enright, discussing their ideas of God and their personal belief in such a divine entity. Scientists CAN believe in some type of 'creationism' and still be scientists.

    I do agree with your first point -- an interest in or fascination with the portfolio is an excellent, probably required, attribute. I believe that only a fool would hire a computer nerd to sell running shoes for minimum wage, so how big a fool must you be to entrust major responsibility to someone without a real passion for the job?

    And yet, I do wonder if doctors should really be Health Ministers -- would that bring too much personal bias to a job that requires objectivity? (I suppose it depends on the person)

    I share your same concern about Goodyear -- a potential skepticism of scientists. It's vital to have a healthy skepticism, scientists can be wrong, or wrongly passioned, as much as you or I. Goodyear's reluctance to be open about his views troubles me. His thoughts and beliefs are his own, but he's in public service in a high-level position of authority and responsibility, and I support his right to believe in a creationism that acknowledges the obvious fact of evolution, but his silence leaves us all wondering.

    By Blogger Ashley_Wilkes-Booth, at 9:45 a.m.  

  • I'm in agreement that Goodyear's views on evolution are completely irrelevant to his role as minister. There has been no evidence to suggest it's impacted any funding decisions.

    I think you've been sucked into a media perpetrated witch hunt. Goodyear is clearly not a popular guy with the media...Kady O'Malley has been merciless with him w.r.t. his committee participation, and I tend to believe she follows the herd.

    I think the media saw their chance to go after a guy they don't like, based on a very flimsy premise, and they took it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:36 a.m.  

  • I guess the real issue is whether or not believing in evolution is part of the "basic understanding" of the portfolio needed to do an adequate job. Like someone said above "supply and demand" for Industry, "global warming" for environment...those basic requirements.

    I tend to think the science portfolio has little to do with evolution. the decisions are so much more high level that I don't see this as a big deal.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:14 a.m.  

  • Just more bigotry from the LPC, as usual. But that's what the party is about, especially with the war room being run by someone who thinks that women should be baking cookies and not participating in politics.

    The funniest thing is that we have a Conservative being pilloried for NOT talking about religion. I thought we were supposed to be these evil evangelicals forcing religion down people's throats? Now we're evil because we won't discuss religion or specific elements of theology and calling it a private matter.

    Very sad to see CG fall into the vicious bigotry and hate-mongering of Warren Kinsella. Hopefully we're not going to see you taking out hits on specific Parliamentary staffers or making racist comments that cause international incidents.

    By Blogger Hey, at 1:22 p.m.  

  • One of the toughest parts about being a professional in any field is the ability to reconcile ones personal beliefs with their obligations to their respective organizations.

    I don’t think we have ever had reason to believe the Minister Goodyear ignores his responsibilities based upon his beliefs, whatever they may be.

    Until such a time as that seems apparent I think it is rather disingenuous to use them as a form of attack or criticism as it doesn't reflect on the job he has done, one way or another.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:36 p.m.  

  • I can't help but wonder what would have been the outcome if the media had harangue a Member of Parliament of say, the Muslim religion instead of Christian? Methinks the fur would have been flying and not in a good way...ciao

    By Blogger Rositta, at 7:49 p.m.  

  • Conservatives would like the question to be what proof is there that Goodyear's lack of understanding has impacted on any of his decisions as minister. They want us to ignore the fact that his comments already have had an impact on the Ministry itself and more generally on Canada's international reputation. A minister must not only be competent; people must be confident that he competent. This is especially so in this post Bush world. Even the slightest inclination that we going down the same round as Bush took America with regard to science will hurt us.

    There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. Goodyear has become the answer to many jokes. We do not want his profilo to also be.

    By Blogger Koby, at 9:33 p.m.  

  • It warms me to think that this is what foreign professors are saying about Goodyear's claim that he means by evolution.

    "I'll tell you what it means: it doesn't matter whether he believes in any kind of evolution (and trust me, that explanation doesn't touch the subject), because we can tell right away that the man is an incompetent moron who is going to flush Canadian science down the tube."

    By Blogger Koby, at 9:51 p.m.  

  • Rosita, you didn't get the memo. Christians are evil. Jesus probably killed himself and blamed it all on the Romans just to cause the crusades, which was part of an intricate plot to enable himself to later take away a woman's right to choose and destroy science.

    Seriously though, it looks like my argument hasn't really changed the conversation beyond the usual partisan dynamic. We should be addressing a general question - what qualifies somebody to be a cabinet minister.

    I will try to frame my argument in a way that partisans on the other side will like it. Stephen Harper's training as an economist has little bearing on his ability to address the economic crisis. *jangles keys*

    Yes, I believe that to be true. Why? Well remember a few weeks ago when Harper got good press by talking to Americans and looking all smart? Harper did sound well-informed, but that wasn't economist talk.

    In undergrad I did a joint BA in econ and int'l relations, and in grad school I have a minor in business economics. I am not "an economist" but I am pretty familiar with what people learn in econ.

    A comparative perspective of banking systems is not one such thing. The economics of derivative trading is another issue that is very unlikely to come up. Indeed, Harper's own thesis argued that stimulus programs are ineffective.

    So the Harper of a month ago wasn't Harper the amazing economist, it was Harper the guy who read the folder ministry of Finance sent him (something he probably didn't do as diligently during the election because of time constraints and the rapidity of change in the state of the economy).

    Okay, Tory party hacks, I'm sorry for bailing on the big guy. I'll throw you some red meat. What are the issues where phd-having Michael Ignatieff has pulled his biggest boners?

    The answer is... international relations. He supported the Iraq war. He saw some war-crimes, but wasn't losing sleep over them. He dislikes the nasal whine of cossack instruments. Oh and he wrote a tortuous article disavowing torture in such unclear terms that half of its readers skipped the conclusion and decided (incorrectly) Ignatieff's idea of fun on a Saturday night is to wear leather and round up Middle Eastern looking folks.

    But Ignatieff is a widely cited well-informed person when it comes to IR? Yeah, that's the problem. He has strongly held beliefs on the matter, and is not likely to allow a staffer to correct him ("Warren, with all due respect, I was skeet shooting with an AK-47 when you were still playing punk band in your mother's basement. Warren, are you really sure you want to sue me for that?")

    Expertise is a pretty lousy basis for deciding who would make a good party leader or cabinet minister. What I would like from you guys are some suggestions, because this is a completely testable matter.

    I am willing to put together a dataset including a large number of cabinet ministers from the Liberal and Conservative party. I am willing to see if I can get data on various measurable deliverables by which we can measure how well their department performed (I won't be able to do this for every department with enough time points, but hopefully I can get at least some).

    What variables do you think matter?
    Jimtan would probably like us to consider party membership, since Conservatives stupid and evil.

    Some people seem to have suggested education matters (or education pertinent to the field in question).

    Experience might be another one.

    I am willing to throw in religious beliefs too.

    I am perfectly willing to eat crow if I am wrong, too.

    By Blogger french wedding cat, at 11:59 p.m.  

  • "Jimtan would probably like us to consider party membership, since Conservatives stupid and evil."

    If the shoe fits, wear it!

    By Blogger JimTan, at 1:52 a.m.  

  • So I went ahead and ran the regression last night. I started with finance ministers, and looked to see whether expertise, experience or education predicted higher rates of economic growth. I included a number of controls as well.

    Expertise and education were statistically insignificant. Cabinet experience was statistically significant and negative (growth was lower the more experienced the minister of finance).

    Economic growth was higher when the Liberals were in power (though that result wasn't super-robust), when the US economy was doing well. Oil prices and interest rates, my other controls, had no impact.

    (you can see a much fuller treatment of my methodology on my blog. Let me stress that I really loathe linking to my own blog here. However, I have charts there that I can't post here. I really am not trying to steal CG's viewership - I am a lousy writer and don't update my blog regularly at all).

    By Blogger french wedding cat, at 6:40 a.m.  

  • Why is everyone forgetting the fact that Goodyear actually has a scientific background? He's even taught courses in the field, for crying out loud.

    And before you make fun of the chiropractic profession, remember that Goodyear isn't pretentious enough to tell people to call him Dr. Goodyear (which Liberal MP *Dr.* Ruby Dalla makes sure to do -- she of the same profession).

    His actions as minister for science and technology as well as his knowledge of the profile have shown he is overwhelmingly competent - this is a classic case of a gotcha question and the media running away with the non-story.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:45 a.m.  

  • If some think it is ok to criticize the Conservatives for having a Christian in cabinet, fine. And is will certainly be fair in the next election to attack the Liberals for having a former mob employee and a man involved with the criminal sexual exploitation of an underage prostitute in Liberal cabinets. It will be up to the voters to decide which is more offensive.

    By Blogger nuna d. above, at 1:27 p.m.  

  • Fascinating H2H, hopping over right away. I'm curious.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:21 p.m.  

  • Nuna, who do you feel is criticizing the CPC for having a Christian in cabinet?

    As far as I'm aware, all the parties have Christians ready to take portfolios if forming goverment.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:23 p.m.  

  • CG, the misconceptions regarding how ministers are chosen by "expertise" rather than "regional/constituent" considerations are similar to many other misconceptions that people have about how politics works in Canada.

    For example, the notion that citizens, rather than party members, vote for Prime Ministers. Or that Parliament's main decision-making event is Question Period("The Show"), rather than committee room work.

    You might want to consider running a survey or contest to determine the top ten misconceptions....

    By Blogger Party of One, at 11:07 a.m.  

  • Let the message be very clear - the Liberals have no tolerance in their Party, no room in their country, for people of faith.

    Let the witch hunt start by purging all Liberal MPs, then their supporters, who believe in Special Creation. Who attend church at least once a year.

    If the LPC believe that such beliefs disqualify a Member from being a Minister of the Crown, surely they have to be consistent in their treatment of such honourable Canadians.

    By Blogger Paul, at 11:59 a.m.  

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