Sunday, August 11, 2019

Plagiarism, or I did not know I was cheating ....

I began teaching at university over two decades ago and in that time one (well, more than one but this is the one about which I am blogging right now) discourse has remained constant: I am frequently told that students inadvertently plagiarize because they don't know that it is wrong. A recent Voice of America article on the subject suggested that international students may be particularly susceptible to what one web site (from UOIT) has called "accidental plagiarism." Here is a quote from that site:

Accidental Plagiarism might occur when you do not really understand how to properly paraphrase, quote and cite your research. Not knowing the proper method of documentation can result in students misattributing someone else's words or ideas as their own. In other words, if you have paraphrased research from a book or an article or a website, but you do not include an in-text citation, the reader will assume that the idea and/or words are yours, not someone else's.

This kind of logic is often combined when dealing with international students by something that strikes me as shockingly close to racialization pretending to be an open progressive effort to understand difference. I have been told that "they" (international students) don't know that plagiarism is wrong because in "their" culture, it is acceptable.

To be clear about my perspective: I don't believe it. OK, sure, it is possible that there is a student or two "out there" who does not know that cheating is wrong.  I think it is a convenient story we tell ourselves in order to try to explain cheating away as inadvertent. I don't see why we need to. This perspective runs the risk of making me sound like a conservative curmudgeon, but remember, I've already said that the vast majority (well over 9 out of 10 in my experience) of students are 100% honest. When we talk about cheaters, then, we are talking about a small group and I see no reason to not have a frank discussion about what motivates that small group. In fact it might help us.

Honesty and Dishonesty 

The first thing you might notice is that there is a general aversion to calling cheating, cheating. We use a series of other words and those words are, in the end, likely more accurate and ... so ... good ...  we use them. But, they also run the risk of making cheating sound not quite so bad. This was not cheating ... it was an "infringement of policies related to academic dishonesty."  In my experience, students are well aware of what cheating is. They had had this explained to them in high school (often over and over again) and in university (often over and over again). Indeed, I would hazard a guess that a student going into, say, the Winter semester of their first year has been warned against plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty at least a half dozen times (if we include orientation) and likely five times (if they take five courses per semester), in writing. In other words, the average first year student getting to the Winter semester of their first year has had written and oral discussions and warnings about academic dishonesty and its importance and consequences close to a dozen times in university *alone,* not counting high school or from friends or family.

Moreover, we need to remember that universities teach adults. Yes, I know, "emerging adults" or some other similar term (we used to talk about the "cultural extension of childhood" when I was in grad school a generation ago) is in use that means that students attending university are not as old, as it were, as they used to be in terms of maturity but, frankly, they are not kids either and should not be treated as such. To the best of my knowledge, they don't want to be treated as such. It strains my imagination to believe that an adult cannot tell the difference between honesty and dishonesty, between cheating and not cheating.

Here is a thought exercise. Imagine you own a TV (I know I used this example in my last post) and someone comes in and takes it. Have they stolen it from you? Another one: imagine that you go to the store to buy, say, bread. The bread costs $2 and you pass the clerk a fiver. She rings it in but does not give you your change and instead puts it in her pocket. Has she robbed you?

In my experience, students have no difficulty telling right from wrong and know precisely what cheating is. In fact, students often spend part of their time when they meet with me, telling me what is right and what is wrong (the university should ... faculty should ...). They know there is a difference between honesty and dishonesty (in an exercise I do in class to illustrate this point, I ask the class how many want a dishonest roommate?). So, if this is the case, why do students still cheat, even if it is a small percentage. Is it that there are just so many bad apples "out there" and that is the way it is?

Cheaters! 

Yes ... in part. There are simply dishonest people out there. The problem for instructors is that I don't think we ever really catch those people at least no regularly. The professional cheaters -- the dishonest people -- I have long suspected don't get caught. They are just too good (and likely have enough resources) and so generally manage to avoid getting nabbed.

The more common scenario we run into, I think, is twofold: (a) the amateur cheater, and (b) the cheater who skirts the edges of honesty.

The amateur cheater is a student who makes bad choices. In most of the rest of their lives and in their studies, they are honest but, for one reason or another, they decide to step over the line on a particular paper or assignment. Some assignments, in fact, might be easier to cheat on then others. From what I can tell, students make this decision for a variety of reasons. They have waited too long to start a paper, their grades were much worse than they had hoped, the reality of a failing semester starts to sink in, and the like.  When a student makes this decision (the decision to cheat), I actually don't think they see themselves as being dishonest or cheating. In fact, most students that I've talked to after flagging their work vehemently deny that they are cheaters (even if they avoid discussing the specific work, say, a paper, we are discussing).  Their self image is not that of a dishonest person and, moreover, I gain a sense that they are also genuinely upset at the choices they made that got them to that point. Some students are, in fact, overly emotional at the entire situation.

This is where I think the issue of international students comes into play. I reject the idea that dishonesty is acceptable in specific cultures. I'm going to make a broader point that applies to contemporary Canadian culture in a minute about the supposed legitimacy of deception, but I think it also applies more generally. That does not mean that dishonesty and cheating are simply accepted. Nor, for instance, should we assume that because Country X has a bad government (perhaps where there is a higher degree of, say, bribery than in Canada) that we should, ipso facto, assume a general level of graft in the culture. I have encountered people from a broad range of countries who are hard-working, thoroughly honest, interested in learning, and proud of their accomplishments (that is, not wanting to take short cuts).  It might, for instance, be true that the Russian government and sports ministry, as examples, has problems with honesty but that does not mean that Russian culture is mired in a belief that corruption is OK.

This takes on a racialized dynamic when applied to students from developing economies. When we say that "cheating is OK in India" (as an example), we are making a seriously negative, big, and generalized statement about Indian culture. I've met dishonest Indians, to be sure, in the same way that I have met dishonest Canadians and dishonest whonever, but I've met far far more honest Indian (and Canadian and whomever) students over the years.

When VOA reports on the problems of academic dishonesty with regard to foreign students in the US, I would be far happier with a multi-factor analysis that takes issues of the context in which decisions are made into account than making a general blanket statement about a culture.

The Boundaries of Honesty

Complicating this factor are other issues related to the way in which we (in this case, as Canadians) think about rules and reward "success." Social historians (I think it was Edward Thompson who I first read on this point as an undergraduate) have long pointed out that, in effect, not all rules are created equal. Some have general popular support and others, for a variety of reasons, do not. For example, we all tend to agree that robbery is not good and should be a crime. But, what about speeding?  I've not looked up the research on this (I know, I should) but I'd guess about half the people I know speed. In doing so, they are breaking the law but I doubt very much they consider themselves to be a criminal (yet, by breaking the law, this is actually what they are). What about taxes ... taking a bit of pay under the table? Or, paying for something in cash and ... shucks ... tax was not charged? Trying to avoid taxes are one of those things that so many people do and yet it takes us into a black market economy where we are breaking the law. I knew a person who would have been shocked if anyone had suggested he was not anything but a law and order kind of person. Yet, he broke the law not regularly but repeatedly with regard to taxes. If I had called him a criminal, he would have shown me the door.

Now, we can get into the reasons for this another time, but you see the point: in Canada, we have rules that we stick to and rules that we don't. We have some violations of the law that enjoy some measure of social acceptance and some that do not.

Cheating, say, plagiarism, does not fall into this category but other forms of academic dishonesty seem to. Students who are honest and would be upset at anyone saying their behaviour was dishonest will skirt the rules, even while they don't directly fracture them.  You can all think of instances where this is the case: claims of computer problems, illness, omitting reasons (I am sorry I missed class, without explaining why), and the like. One that I encountered at Mt A a few years about was what I call the "around about" citation. The citation might not be exact (the page number might be off, or the precise reference not exact) but I met students who considered that basically OK because they had provided a citation and it was "close enough."

We complicate the boundaries of honesty still further by prizing success without asking too often where that success comes from. Success is assumed to be its own marker. Thus, we are always running into athletes who take PEDs but we fall for it again and again and again because of that discourse of success. As long as the athlete is performing, exactly why they are performing that way does not come under a great deal of scrutiny. What about politics? Complaining about exactly how the other party won is often cast as sour grapes. Robocalls, in-and-out financing, scripted comments that admit a great deal of ambiguity but which pass for talking points .... If you raise concerns about these, the response will often be "everyone does it" as if that were an excuse (imagine if we used that line as a legitimate ground to not convict someone, yes, admittedly my client robbed the store, your honour, but everyone does it; not guilty!).

I have gone on way too long here but you see the point. In addition to the ambiguities we construct around rules (some are legitimate; others permeable), the disjunctures we accept with regard to personal identity (I am not a criminal even if I break the law), and the way in which we prize success and ignore process (PEDs, electoral silliness), it is not difficult to figure out that bad decisions have some back up. Every time a student goes to make a decision -- to cut and paste, say -- I suspect these things or something like them runs through their minds: its not that bad, everyone's doing it, it is just one time, it is a really small infraction, I need to succeed (or, "do whatever it takes").

Cheating, its not just for cheaters

The good news is that even with all of this going on, the students I encounter are a good bunch who stick to the straight and narrow, by and large want to learn, are interested in their subjects, and avoid academic dishonesty as best they can. One of the reasons I reject the "accidental cheating" hypothesis is that it disguises other processes that I think we should engage. The decision to step over the line is made after repeated warnings, but also made in a specific context. It is that context that we need to draw up, draw to light, and engage. If we do, I suspect the small amount of dishonest actions that we have in the PSE environment will shrink even further.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Plagiarism Rears its Ugly Head

A spate of plagiarism cases in popular culture have been in the news. You can find some coverage here about Nora Roberts and her suit, here about self-publication and fan fiction, and here about Katy Perry and her "Dark Horse" song. Plagiarism pops into the news, I could be wrong on this it but it seems to me it is about once per year, whether it is Robin Thicke and Parnell William's  "Blurred Lines." Or, Margaret Wente's column. Or, the mass cheating case nearly twenty years ago now in the US at the University of Virginia.  In higher education, plagiarism is a matter of on-going concern and so I thought I'd take the time to sketch out a few thoughts as to why it is important and some of the misconceptions I hear about it, particularly those that have circulated (on and off) in the school where I work, Mount Allison University.

Misconceptions about Academic Dishonesty 

There are three things I hear repeated regularly in discussions about plagiarism, all of which I think are wrong.

They are:
  • Students don't know what plagiarism is and so inadvertently cheat
  • International students come from cultures where plagiarism is allowed and so make mistakes in American and Canadian universities that are really not there fault. Cheating, I have been told, is part of "their culture." 
And, on the artistic side of things:
  • Plagiarism is not plagiarism, but inspiration. Artists have always played off each other and if we make them accountable to, say, the law of copyright, it will harm the creative process.
I'm going to address this last point in a separate blog because it is a special and separate case. In this one I want to start with a more general discussion of what plagiarism is, why it is important, and the sanctions that often follow from it. 

Plagiarism, Cheating, Research and Scholarship

What is plagiarism and why is it important? If you are reading this blog I suspect you already know but to lay out my argument: plagiarism is a form of academic dishonesty (in more prosaic terms I often describe it as "cheating") in which an author (or, potentially a group of authors) claims credit for words, ideas, or information developed by someone else. Plagiarism occurs when one (let's assume a single authored text) does not give due credit for the sources of one's words, ideas, or information. The most common example that I run into at a primarily undergraduate institution like Mount Allison is the old "cut and paste" from the internet to a paper. But, it need not be limited to cut and paste. If you get an idea (say, an interpretation) from someone else and pretend that you made it up or you take data from someone else and pretend you did the research, these too are examples of plagiarism. 

Plagiarism is, of course, easy -- painfully easy! -- to avoid. One simply cites one's sources. I've done that in this blog with hyperlinks but parentheses (like this) and footnotes or endnotes are also common. I haven't checked this out but I'd wager that all modern word processes will automatically space and format footnotes and endnotes for you and have for some time. 

I should also say that the vast majority of students I encounter are 100% honest. That is, they may do good work or they may do bad work but they make a sincere effort to cite sources and credit the authors and researchers from whom they have taken words, ideas, or information. To be sure: they may not do this perfectly (a statistically significant minority of my students, for instance, will often mis-format citations or use more than one citation format in the same paper), but the effort is clearly there. In discussions of academic dishonesty, we need to be accurate and not allow our discourse to spin out of control. We are dealing with a very small number of students, a very small number indeed. 

Two final pre-notes that also tend to contradict each other:
  • Plagiarism (like any offence) needs to be intentional. There is a category of legal offences called "negligence" whereby one becomes guilty if one does not take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of other people and, one could argue that ensuring one does not cheat might fall into this category but, by and large, offences require an action: an intent to deceive. 
  • Plagiarism is often, however, "reverse onus": that is, faculty (or, in the case of Perry's song, it seems, lawyers) do not have to prove intent, which is amazingly difficult to prove. Instead, they have to prove commission. The reality of commission -- that I can find instances of, say, copying -- is taken to prove intent. 
Is this fair? Should plagiarism be reverse onus? This does seem unfair because few offences are reverse onus in Canada. We allow for mistakes and accidents which might, say, under the law be horrible and tragic but are not crimes. For example, if I accidentally gave someone the wrong medicine and it was an honest accident and they had further health problem that is a horrible mistake but I am not liable for it. Should not the same thing be the case with plagiarism? 

Perhaps in theory but in practice the issue is not simply the difficulty in proving intent. I'll address this matter below. After all, I don't think we should make it easier to find people guilty just because it might otherwise be hard. That would be a pretty shocking precedent that people might like until they were found guilty of some crime they did not commit just because of an easy lower bar had been set (for instance, imagine if you did not have to prove that someone robbed a store to find them guilty of robbery. If we did not have to have evidence of a robbery, say, money found on their person or a video recording of the robbery), it would get really easy to find just about anyone guilty whether they did the crime or not. 

In the case of plagiarism, however, faculty rarely make an accusation of plagiarism after a single instance. Said differently, all the faculty I know (and I know a lot because this is my job) don't jump on the first instance of, say, quote marks being missed. We note it (usually right on a student's paper) and issue what we hope will be a stern warning with a description of the penalties that will follow if the same thing occurs again. Most faculty I know are even willing to forgive a second instance of what might seem like plagiarism, particularly if it occurs in the same assignment. It is less likely that a student forget quote marks twice but faculty, by and large, do not want to rush to judgement. When we get a third instance, however, or even more, then there is a pattern. 

I'll not give specific examples because those involve real individuals and I want to respect their right to privacy. I've been head of Canadian Studies at Mount A for going on two decades now, however, and in one way or another most instances of academic dishonesty that occur in the program pass my desk, either because the faculty member has come to talk to me or, equally likely, a student has come to plead their case. In all instances, every single one, the cases involved multiple instances of plagiarism, sometimes across several courses. 

Now, we can acknowledge that there are problems with reverse onus offences but I am sure you can see the point  that I am making: because it is reverse onus, faculty are amazingly reluctant to act until they are sure that something has gone on. This involves something that is also problematic: potentially giving a cheater a break or not following the rules of one's institution (which might require faculty to report instances of academic dishonesty). But it seems to me that this is the right balance. There is nothing wrong with being sure of an accusation before you make it, particularly if it carries heavy penalties (which at most Canadian schools is actually not the case). One might be willing to accept that a student made a mistake and forgot to cite their sources or forgot their quotation marks once or twice but many times -- say, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times? -- across more than one class? The chances that this was a mistake look pretty remote now, don't they? 

You are still OK

Even after a student has been reported for academic dishonesty (say, plagiarism), they are still not in bad shape. There are repercussions, to be sure. But, most institutions in Canada -- and the one I work for as an example -- will strive for an educative solution. In other words, if a student cheats and is caught, there will be a sanction. That sanction usually involves some combination of the following: 
  • A grade sanction, whereby the student loses points or even fails the course 
  • A requirement to take some sort of workshop on proper citation
  • A student might be placed on probation (indicating that if they were caught again a suspension can follow) 
  • Some sort of note is often included on a student's transcript: place on probation for disciplinary reasons (or words to that effect) but that notation can often have a sunset clause; that is: it automatically disappears after a number of years. 
I've never seen a student suspended for a single incidence of plagiarism. It happens in the US at honour code schools (with the difference that those sanctions are imposed by the students on themselves), but not to the best of my knowledge in Canada. 

What this amounts to is this: to be "convicted" of plagiarism, a student needs to have committed incidences that are plagiarism on multiple occasions. This will result is grade loss and an educative sanction but not suspension. To be suspended, the student would require at least a second -- but more likely a third -- allegation often across more than one semester involving multiple courses. And, the same proviso are in place. Because faculty do not know if a student has ever been accused of plagiarism or found to have plagiarized (or, committed some other act of academic dishonesty), they assume (rightly) that the student has done nothing wrong and so again they will wait and see if they can find multiple instances of plagiarism before acting. 

Its just school ...? 

Even with this, someone might say ... gee ... its just school, what is the big problem? So, a student copied their essay, why should we be concerned about it? Bretag (2013), puts the nature of the concern like this: 

"Plagiarism is one of the most vehemently derided breaches of academic integrity because it undermines the premise that scholarly work will make an original and honest contribution to an existing body of knowledge."

And, this is a good starting point that succinctly captures the nature of concern. Plagiarism "undermines" the fundamental premises and work of the university. We assume that the research done by the chemist into, say, new medicines is honest and original and needed to advance cures for various diseases. We assume that research in biology is honest and original because it might help us address global warming or pollution. We assume that the political scientist's study of an election is their own and helps us advance the cause of democracy ... and so on down the line.

Plagiarism is a form of dishonesty. This is important for a range of reasons.  If the chemist or political scientist or literary critic plagiarizes (the professor, I am talking about), they are, in effect, not doing the job for which they were paid. We pay the literary critic to assess and interpret literature; the sociologist to study society, the physicist to study the stars, or whathaveyou. If they cheat and plagiarize, they are in effect, getting paid for *not* doing their work but instead claiming (falsely) that simply cutting and pasting from someone else is good enough for them to be paid. Would we accept that in any other occupation? I expect my plumber to fix my pipes, and not print off a copy of a fixed pipe form the internet and show it to me.

For students, it is important to note that plagiarism is theft. I get that for some students it does not seem like that (and, I suspect that is one reasons why a very small number of people do cheat). But, it is it. If someone takes, say, my words and pretends they wrote them (which is what happens if you don't give me credit), it is similar to going into my house and taking my TV. If someone came to my house when I was not home, took my TV, and put it in their house ... it is still my TV. It does not become theirs because it is in their house. Likewise, my words do not become someone else's because someone pastes them into a paper.

If we accepted cheating -- be it plagiarism or some other form of academic dishonesty -- most of the rest of what we do becomes irrelevant.  How does one determine what is good work (and, say, worthy of support) from what is not? How does one determine good research -- that might help people solve problems or which will enrich cultural and intellectual life -- from that which is just, in effect, a print off or something someone else said or did?

There are, to be sure, all kinds of problems with the competitive admissions standards of North American universities. From what I understand they are biased in favour of groups with power and influence. Does anyone think that marginalized social groups will benefit from a situation that permits cheating as a standard of success? Or, does anyone want to say to school kids: don't work hard, don't learn things. You will be assessed in school not by your knowledge of math or literature or music but by your ability to print off someone else's work. Does anyone think that legalized cheating will teach kids math or poetry or biochemistry? I'd argue that opposite: like Bretag, I believe it would undermine the educational process and make it, in effect, irrelevant.

I don't think this will create a scholarly extinction level events because, as I said, most people -- the vast majority -- are honest. After all, that is why plagiarism is not allowed: most people think it is wrong. But, letting people cheat will not solve problems and will not help anyone learn. And, this was something I thought everyone knew and so its periodic emergence in the public sphere and its period occurrence in university confuse me.  More on that in the next blog ...

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Second Guessing Free Agency, or yet more on the Jays

In my last post, I tried to argue that signing big name free agents may be a good idea or it may be a bad idea, but for the Jays signing the big name free agents who were available last year was not a good idea. In other words, the specific case is important. I argued that, at least so far, neither Machado nor Harper would have helped much; that the turn around the Phillies is not due simply to Harper and so assuming that something similar would have gone on with the Jays is misplaced thinking, and that the Jays, in fact, have no place to play Machado if they are serious about rebuilding. Not only, in this case, would have signing Machado not helped much, but it might actually have set back the process by taking at bats away from developing players who should be getting them.  What I would like to do here is touch on a series of other consideration.

First, some folks (see my last post for the citation) argue that the failure to spend money on free agents is cheapness guided by profit motive. That might be true. In fact, I would not argue against it. But, there are also reasons for wanting to control salary growth, particularly when talking about high priced free agents. What are those reasons? The key reason is that one is committing a lot of money over a long time.  While one my say, legitimately, "gee the Jays are being cheap" this year, no one would argue that they were cheap in the past. The doled out big contracts to Martin, Bautista, Tulo, and others with the effect of weighing their team down with a lot of money that was being given to players who, well, were not really that good any more or, in the case of Tulo, have barely played in the last couple of years and are now on the IL for another team.

Such long-term obligations can limit a team's freedom to maneuver, that is: to sign other players to long term contracts because one has so much money on the table, as it were, already. Some teams (the Dodgers, the Yankees, the Red Sox, eg.) don't have to worry about making money because they are money machines. Other teams do. I am sure the Jays are making money but there is a point where they don't. You cannot, in other words, spend forever and, unless you are the Sox or Yankees or Dodgers (and perhaps a couple of other teams), all teams need to limit their longer-term financial outlay mistakes.

What do I mean by this? If the Sox sign someone to a boat load of money and they turn out not to be all that good (think most of their starters right now) ... it doesn't matter. The Sox can almost print their own money. If they go over the MLB soft cap and have to pay a luxury tax ... it doesn't matter.

For just about everyone else, it does.

Why does it matter for the Jays? Big name free agents want long term contracts. Harper has 13 years; Machado has 10. That is a lot of cheddar for a long time. Even if I am wrong and they are better than I am allowing ... will they be that good for that long? They are young for free agents of this quality. There is no doubt about that. But where will they be in 10 or 13 years. Harper will be 39, well past the prime of just about every ball player ever. Yet, if you sign him, you will still have him. What about that injury history? Well, it could cut his playing career short and dramatically so. Even the shorter period of 10 years for Machado puts him into 36, again if we think that the average player is in decline by 32 or 33, this means that you are on the hook for several years of salary where a player might, in effect, be doing nothing.

A counter to this is: you could trade him.  To whom? The Jays traded Tulo, right? Why not some other under-performing high priced vet? Well, the Jays did not trade Tulo. They gave him away and agreed to pick up the tab for his cost. They are picking up virtually his entire salary this year, which is 19.5$ million this year. They pay him another 14$ million next year and 4$ million the year after that. Put together that is 37.5$ million the Jays are paying Tulo to *not* play for them. That is a lot of money that, in my view, could have been better directed.

So, you see the problem for a trade. How do you trade a player no one wants? The Jays would have to make the deal worthwhile by shipping salary with the player and that salary doesn't clear the books. The longer-run financial obligations are still there: paying a player who is no longer on your team with money that could have been used to pay players or your team or to sign some other free agent is not, in my view, a road map to success -- teamwise or otherwise.

Financial flexibility might be a bit of a dodge for greedy owners. It really might be. But, there is also a good reason -- regardless of owners' greed -- if I were running a team that I would not want to load my team down with salaries for players that I no longer have on the team or who are preforming at such a sub-par level, they are hurting the team. Right now, in fact, the Jays are paying out over 49$ million to players that are not playing for them. You can find the data here.

That reason, as implied above, is that it limits the choices you have as team. And, those choices are particularly important in a period of rebuilding. You may want to lock of good young players with longer-term contracts of your own; you may want to add that missing piece after you are moving into contention -- say, like the  Phillies. You may not want to price your tickets out of the market of a lot of fans (although this is a complicated calculation in which we will not engage here). You may want to redirect money internally to international scouting and player development or winter ball. There are all kind of things you may want to do rather than paying players who are not contributing to your  team.

This is why most teams don't sign high priced free agents when they are rebuilding.  They might be chap and they might be profit driven. But, they might also be looking to build a good ball team and signing players who really will not make a great difference to the hear and now in order to mortgage the future just does not strike me as a good plan.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Second Guessing a Losing Season: Or, Second Guessing a Second Guess

Second guessing decisions is part of the fun of baseball.  Fans do it all the time. We wonder about why Player X wasn't drafted before Player Y, did our team get enough back after we decided we were playing out the string and sent some of our veterans packing, should the execs have been more aggressive in bidding for Japanese players? It is part of the fun of the game and is a staple of baseball journalism. Jonah Keri engages in this type of second guessing in this story andI like it that he calls it a second guess. The problem with his guess, is that he's not right.

Keri's argument has a number of points and it would be silly to go through a point-by-point refutation he has good things to say and the piece is worth reading His argument, in bullet form, is this:
  • There is no reason why the Jays should not have bid on the name brand free agents (Machado and Harper) because they could have gotten players that would be good for the next decade. 
  • The distinction between rebuilding when you don't sign free agents and contending when you do is artificial and there is no good reason not to sign a high priced free agent as part of the rebuilding process. Even if you don't "win now" (my quote), you have the player for years and because baseball is so unpredictable ... why would management not do whatever it is they could do to increase the chances of winning both now and over the next decade? 
Keri sees the not signing high priced free agents as so much financially motivated BS shovelled up by owners to increase profit margins. Here is a quote: 
"But the biggest reason to call BS on not signing impactful free agents during a rebuild is that the entire concept of rebuilding is at its core just an elaborate cover that sports owners can use to pocket tens of millions of dollars in savings when they choose not to spend real money on salaries. If a team opts not to spend money while rebuilding, it’s not as though all that money saved is going to suddenly get spent two or three or five years from now; it’s simply going to end up in some rich guy’s bank account, or as a tiny speck of cash in a mega corporation’s balance sheet.
Fans should hold owners’ feet to the fire and demand that owners spend money every year, regardless of what the projection systems say. There’s no valour in being intentionally terrible."

Thus, to put a fine point on it, not signing a high priced free agent like, say, Harper is an effort to be intentionally bad.

This is a good argument. It is much better than other arguments about free agency that I've tried to assess in other posts. And, it has the merits of recognizing (although not correctly) the economics of sport that play a central role in signing free agents.

Let's even say I accept this argument on a general level, but it runs into problems when we start to look at the players involved and at the specifics. Let's address a few points.

First, we are not talking about nameless free agents who are really really good and will catapult a team to victory by themselves. We are talking about specific players with strengths and weaknesses. Because of this, there are a range of reasons (other than cheapness) that one might or might not want a specific player on your team. One might, for instance, judge a player to be a "head case" and that might run against the grain of the type of team one is trying to build. Both Harper and Machado might fall into the category. (I honestly don't know but both seem to have had their share of run-ins). One could, then, legitimacy decide that the media circus and locker room politics are not what one wants on a particular team and take a pass. That strikes me as more than fair. Why would one sign a free agent if it might end up blowing up in your face (or, you had good reason to think it might)?

Second, one might not want a player because there is a young player that you want to play at that position. It is difficult to know precisely how a player will pan out, but let's think about Machado. He plays either short or third. The Jays don't want a third baseman, really at any price, because ... well ... Vladdie. What about short ...? Bichette will arrive sometime this season or early next year. Well, OK, let's move him or someone else over top 2B? Biggio is playing there so you can't move either Bichette or a hypothetical Machado there.

And, young players need playing time. If Bichette is going to be good for the Jays (or, Biggio), they are going to need to play and not back up someone else. Since these are the guys you have cast your lot with for the future of the team -- spent years in some cases developing them -- it makes little sense (sunk cost fallacy aside) to sit them. And, you have Tellez at 1B so no room there. So, you'd sign Machado to be, in effect, a DH. Would he go for that? Would he play the outfield (which is not as jammed but with Gurriel playing left and a longer term contract to Grichuk, there is less room room there than one might think).

In this way, signing Machado might make your team better but that comes not at just a financial cost. It comes at a player development cost that, ironically, could limit the growth of the very players one might be counting on to make the Jays good in the near future. Thus, to be better in the near future, signing Machado (just as an example) might actually have the odd reverse effect.

But, third, would signing Machado make the Jays better now? The short answer is yes, but not as much as you might think, at least on the basis of the evidence we have. Even allowing for the unpredictability of baseball, signing Machado would not have made the jays into a contender and, so far this year at least, would not have even gotten them close to the .500 mark. The truth of the matter is that neither Machado (nor Harper) have been setting the world on fire.

They are good! I did not say they aren't so don't hear what I am not saying. The issue is not just is a player good. The issue is do you have a place to play that player? Do they, for any number of reasons, fit into the team you are building for the future?

The more important question is: how good are they? I commented on this before with regard to Harper. I argued that he was a really good player and that part of this really good-ness involved his age. He was particularly young for a free agent of his quality. But, and this is a big but, I argued that to date, the evidence did not demonstrate that Harper was as good as people were saying he was; he was not as good as the money he was asking nor the length of contract.  On a good team, he really helped. But, I argued, he had not been the best player on his own team over the last several years. He defensive metrics were shaky, he had an injury record, and his offensive numbers were really good but inconsistent and not superstar level.

What is going on this year? Well, for Harper, same thing so far this year. He has a negative dWAR (which means he is slightly worse than a replacement level player) and an overall WAR (wins above replacement, a measure of how much better a player is that the person who would have replaced them), is less that 1. Of the players on his own  team, Realmuto, McCutcheon, Hernandez, and Hoskins are having better years (so far) in terms of WAR. (Note, I didn't include pitchers in this list but if I did, we would add another name to it).

Now, I am not arguing any of these players will be better over the next five years than Harper or that they are, by some sort of measure, better than Harper; or that I would trade any one of them for Harper (although, btw, I think Hoskins is really good). 

What I am trying to say is that we cannot say that Harper is the reason for the Phillies dramatic improvement and assume that he would bump the Jays up in the same way.  It is important to note that the Phillies were not a really bad team last year. They were middle of the pack, mediocre, whereas the Jays were bad. The Phillies finished 2 games under .500; the Jays finished 16. Said differently, not only is Harper not doing it by himself but the Phillies had much less distance to go to contend because they were virtually contenders last year.

The Padres, on the other hand, were truly horrible, much worse than the Jays (30 games below .500) and they had not been a good team for, it seems, ages.  They are currently playing .500, mediocre. Almost in contention, where the Phillies were at the end of last year.

Machado is contributing to his team (and, btw, I have not argued Harper wasn't contributing, I just argued it was not as much as people thought it was nor as much as other players on his team). Machado's WAR is 1.2, third best for position players on his team. And, a good hunk of that is dWAR (his defensive value viz a replacement) so he is making a contribution both at the plate and in the field. Even allowing that he does not have an evident position on the Jays, one can see a bit more value here. Except ... who would he replace? Right now, perhaps Galvis (.3 WAR, most of which is defensive -- 0.7). So what this means is that we would be adding offence if he played short but taking away defence. Might be a good trade but the overall difference to this point in the season is less that 1 win. Here is the math:

Machado 1.2 WAR - Galvis 0.3 WAR = Difference 0.9 WAR

Thus, to add Machado to the Jays instead of Galvis would amount to a total improvement of less than one win. The Jays would go from 23-38 to 24-37. That is, at least, how I am reading it. What if he played 3rd? Well, Vladdie would be sitting down and I cannot think of anyone who would argue that that is a good idea. But, if the Jays followed the sign the free agent now logic and had signed Machado, the difference would be 0.6 (as Vladdie's WAR is 0.6, with a break even dWAR).

The numbers might be slightly higher for Harper because the Jays outfield has been a problem -- to which they seem to be limping toward an answer -- but you see the issue. The issue for the Jays may have been saving money. I don't know but I'll write another blog on that. And, there are intangibles to weigh. But, you see the point. Even if we include intangibles, it is difficult to argue that the these two free agents would have made a significant difference this year. They would have taken playing time (in the case of Machado) away from the next generation and we cannot find the evidence to show how they would have brought significantly more wins to the Jays. (Cody Bellinger, by contrast has a WAR of 5.5; Mike Trout has 4.2, neither Machado nor Harper and in the top ten).

In the abstract, Keri makes a good argument. He is a thoughtful commentator and I am glad he made. For the Jays, however, the argument simply did not make sense last year.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Blue Jay Blues: Injuries and Starting Pitching

There are a couple of matters with the Jays that merit some comment. First, as I noted before, this is what a rebuild looks like. Rebuilding teams are often wildly inconsistent. Players play well one game and really bad the next. A pitcher (think Thornton) looks lights out one start, cannot get an out to save their soul the next one. A batter (think Vladdie) gets on base four time one game, but can't seem to figure out a change up the next.  You see where I am going ... those people and commentators who react as if the Jays were (a) contending and (b) not rebuilding are focused on short terms solutions. We hear this with the "bring up Vladdie. He will save us." And, now the corresponding "send Vladdie back down, he is not ready, he has not saved us" comments. These come from people who really don't know much if anything about baseball, team development and player development. I've noticed some people have already started asking where is Biggio and, even worse, where is Pearson (who was just promoted to AA and so will ... well ... at best a September call up). So, yes, the Blue Jays are not playing well, but this is (a) predictable because (b) this is what a rebuild looks like.

There is, however, a bit more that could be said. The second thing to note is the spate of injuries that have hampered the Jays starting rotation. Clay Buckholz, Matt Shoemaker, Ryan Borucki, David Phelps, and Clayton Richard are all on the IL, prompting a trade for Edwin Jackson to get some more rotation depth. Injuries have long been a Jays bug-a-bear and it has prompted Buck and Pat to periodically -- usually about once per game but sometimes more often -- to say "you can never have enough starting pitching."  They say this as if these injuries were not predictable and therefore come as a surprise so we need to have a storehouse of starters in reserve.

This goes along with another old saw "you can't predict injuries." Well ... actually you can and the Jays may have needed a storehouse of starters to get through the season but the number of pitchers the Jays have on the sideline is completely predictable. In fact, if you had bet against it at the start of the season I would have told you that you were going to lose your money.

Why? Because, for reasons of wanting to flip the team, the Jays upper management loaded up with low cost, injury prone pitchers until such a time (later this year? next year?) that the team's pitching prospects were ready for the majors. The aim this year, from what I could tell, was to try to sort out the pitchers a bit and figure out who went where for the future. To fill out their rotation they picked up pitchers at a low cost who were low cost because no one else really wanted them, in part because of their injury history.  This is the same strategy that the Jays followed (with regard to pitchers and others), more or less, last year. Gather up a bunch of spare parts (a sort of Kijiji of team development) that can have some short term value to the team and, ideally, someone else so you can trade them for more prospects. The Jays picked up Thornton and Pannone this way. I don't think anyone in the Jays front office thought they were going to get rich using this strategy but it put experienced pitchers on the mound to keep the games close and it was likely going to add another pitching prospective or two or three by the end of the season.

I am not slagging this strategy. It is more than possible that this is not the strategy I would have followed but I don't run a major league baseball team. I would have gone with the kids and seen how they performed over a season. IOW, I would have tried to get Pannone and Reid-Foley or Borucki into the starting rotation in addition to Sanchez, Stroman and Thornton to see how they held up. The Jays went in a different direction and it was really the only other option available to them. Once they (whomever they might be) had decided that Reid-Foley was on the farm and Borucki was on the IL and Pannone and Gaviglio were in the bullpen ... then the strategy the Jays followed was really the only other one available to them. There was no point in attempting to trade for or sign better pitchers because those would add appreciable costs to a team that is not competitive so trading or signing bigger name free agents (say, Keuchal) does nothing for you. It simply increases team costs at a time that you actually want to keep them down so as to maintain your flexibility for the future (and, the Jays, you will recall, recently has very little flexibility because of the big contracts that were weighing the team down -- this is not a critique but simply a statement of fact -- Tulo, Martin, Battista, Donaldson, Morales).  Without a lot of room to maneuver, the Jays were paying a lot for a team that was not very good. Why would anyone want to go back to that?

How does this relate to injuries? Well, injuries are the downside of the strategy on which the Jays fixed. If you are not going to spend a lot of money, what is available to you? Unless you somehow believe you are a manifestly better judge of talent than other people who are paid a tonne of money to judge talent (a shakey proposition), then what you have at the low cost end is pitchers no one else wants. In the case of the Jays, Buckholz, Shoemaker, Norris, Phelps, Richards, Hudson, Richard and now Jackson are all players with injuries histories ... some of whom have appreciable injury histories. And, all are on the + side of 30, making them older to old in baseball terms.

Leaving aside the specific injuries, you can see point: if you sign a bunch of relatively old pitchers who have a history of injury problems ... you should not be surprised that they become injured, should you? The issue is not that "you can't have enough starting pitching." The issue is that the pitchers the Jays signed were almost guaranteed to break down. Sanchez has missed only one start so far this year but after two injury plagued years, no one should be surprised if he has further injury issues.

The point is not to simply critique a way of looking at pitching; the point is to understand why the Jays are having the problems they are having and these are not random. What can/should the Jays do with their pitchers? Let's leave that off for another time. The point is that the Blue Jays Blues are part of the rebuilding process. They are what happens when you rebuild. It can be troubling. No one likes to see potentially career ending injuries. I don't. But, injuries are not random. They occur in specific demographics for specific reasons.

I am also not surprised that the Jays traded for Jackson. After all, they had committed themselves to this strategy and it is working, more or less, in that it is allowing them to separate out the pitchers that they want in the rotation from those who are bullpen bound. There was, at this point, no other real alternative; thus one might as well stick with it. I still think the future rotation will look a lot different than what we are seeing and that is the point.  And, that is not a bad thing. It will make for an exciting season as it goes along.

Monday, May 06, 2019

What a Rebuild Looks Like, reflections of a Jays fan

What do we think of the Jays after the first month of the season? There is a lot I'd do differently if I were running the team but I don't run the team! How have the Jays done so far? They are a work in progress but there is a lot to be excited about and part of what we can be excited about is the learning experience. For example, I don't expect Montoyo to be manager of the year. He makes mistakes and will continue to do so, but he is learning how to manage, establishing a style, learning from the errors of past Jays teams and all that is to the good. I think these good things will continue this year regardless of how well the Jays end up playing and remember, I thought they would lose 95 games.

The first good thing is that we are seeing a lot of the young and almost young talent. With Guerrero now up, sports commentators seem happy, but the decision to trade Morales (even if it meant eating a large hunk of his contract) had made regularly playing time for Tellez. Since I think Smoak is on the block, I think Tellez will get more and more time as the summer goes along. McKinney, Jansen, Drury, and Hernandez are also getting regular playing time. These are not all working out precisely the way one might want but we are getting to see what these players can do.

I also like the fact that Montoyo and the front office don't seem to react quickly to a bad game or outing or string of at bats. Jansen's offence has been sub-par; Drury's war is horrible, McKinney, Tellez and Thornton have been inconsistent but Jays keep trotting them out there. I don't know of Thornton is in a Jays future rotation but I'd like to find out and the only way that is going to happen is by giving him at least 20 straight starts.  Likewise, Gaviglio has done really good job in the pen and the Jays have left him there. Good. If you have already decided that he is not in your rotation of the future (which likely consists of  some combination of Thornton, Borucki, Reid-Foley, Pearson and Zuech or either Sanchez or Stroman, whomever survives this summer without being traded for yet more prospects), then let's see what value he can do in that role.

And to Montoyo's credit he has let Gaviglio establish himself in what is, right now, an unorthodox role: the long man. When I was a kid, all bullpens carried one. Usually, this was a young up and coming starter or former starter or failed starter. Their job was to go into games when a starter was knocked out early and pitch for a multiple innings to get to the more glamorous middle or short guys at the front end of the bullpen. It was an important role that was ditched with the move to one-inning max effort go in and throw really really hard for one inning bullpens.

I like Montoyo because he is not trying to replicate what was done in his former job with Tampa Bay. Toronto spent years trying to perfect the one inning per relief pitcher bullpen, largely to no avail. In effect, they tried to copy KC and Tampa Bay without knowing why other than those teams appeared (in the case of KC it was more than appearance) to be successful. The problem was that the Jays didn't have the talent to do that and so they spent the better part of most years looking for ways to bullet and idiot proof a bullpen with this plan: starter goes 6, following by reliever A, B, and C, pitching one inning each. Montoyo did not try to do this. Instead, he looked at this talent and said "what do I have that I can use?" Gaviglio can pitch several innings at a pop as a former starter.

You can see the merits of this, if it work. It allows you to carry fewer pitchers in your bullpen and, hence, more position players on the bench, which, in turn, gives that manager greater flexibility. At times last year, the Jays were carrying 13 pitchers (8 in the pen) and Buck and Tabby talked incessantly about the need for "fresh arms." A bullpen that included Gaviglio, Pannone, and Biagini (if he can get back on track) would give them a number of pitchers who could go in for 3 innings with Pannone doubling as a situational lefty. I like the idea of moving the pitching staff in a different direction that is based on the talent the Jays have and what they can do, rather than trying to find pitchers who can be put into a scheme created by another team with different talent.

I still think that Shapiro intends to trade people. I think Buckholz, Richards, Hudson, one of Galvis and Sogard are on the block along, almost certainly, with Smoak. Richards and Phelps if they get healthy and Maille and Brito. I think the Jays would listen to offers for Giles, Sanchez, Mayza and Drury along with Brito but I also think that nothing is written in stone. Shapiro would prefer to trade players but he will wait to see if he can get the right deal and there are some I think he'd like to keep. For instance, I think Brito and Drury are auditioning for bench roles. They are the kinds of players -- like Pannone -- that you like to keep around because they add value to an already good team. They have multiple skills and are flexible. Galvis and Sogard, on the other hand, have increased their value and likely will be dealt because they are not the future of the Jays, however well they are playing. Their problem is that they are not really role players (although Sogard could be) and play positions that will be occupied by people named Bichette and Biggio, and maybe Gurriel or Urena by the end of this year.

This is the one area that the Jays need to work on: middle infield. They began this year with slew of middle infielders and complicated the matter by getting still more. Diaz was traded but instantly replaced by Galvis, Sogard, and  the now DFAed Hanson. Travis is on the IL, but you have to figure he is on the way out. I don't understand the decision to play AAA yo yo with Urena, particularly since he seemed to be playing well both offensively and defensively. He also has some flexibility and can play third as well as second and short. Likewise, the decision to move Gurriel full time to second is odd since that is not his best position and it is not clear that Bichette can play short and Biggio plays second as well. Thus, the Jays have three good young potential stars of the future stacked up at second base while short is being positioned by veterans who are on the plus side of 30. I read somewhere that Gurriel will start taking reps in the outfield at AAA, a rumour that was floated in spring training as well. I'll come back to this in a minute.

My best guess here is that the Jays front office does not see the need to make a middle infield decision *right now.* And, like the trades they might make, they see no need to potentially rush a decision. But, this is one area where I think they are wrong. I don't think anything is gained on the long term by playing Gurriel at 2nd and sending him to AAA or by keeping Urena in AAA but since the Jays don't appear to be in a hurry to address the middle infield log jam, I think we will see more of this at least until the all-star break.  It is also possible that the Jays will try to move one or more of their bevy of good young middle infielders to another position, say outfield where they lack the type of Grade A prospect they have around the infield.  Biggio looks like he will hit well enough to play, say, left field but with Gurriel now, potentially, moving to the outfield as well ....

Here is the problem I see with that. The problem is that an organization can mess up a good player by trying to get them to do multiple things. Some players (a blessed few actually) can play a range of positions well. Russell Martin, oddly, might have been one of those guys but Robin Yount, for the Brewers, ended up being one, as did Craig Biggio, for the Astros.  The defense that Sanzhez was publicly complaining about the other day is, in part, the product of playing players out of position. One's second baseman is rarely a good right fielder because, if they were, they'd be playing right field.  What this means is this: the best thing the Jays can do for Gurriel is put him in a position and let him play that position. If that is left field or right field, OK, but put him in and leave him there.  The fact that five years ago he played 30 games (or, whatever) in the Cuba league in the outfield is neither here nor there when thinking about what he will do at the major league level.  What the Jays should not do is tell him that they are (a) moving him to 2nd, then play him a game at 1st, then shift him back to 2nd, then drop him to AAA to learn how to play 2nd but put him at DH or in the outfield.

Who knows what will happen but this is what the Jays could look like in September:

1B: Tellez
2B: Biggio
3B: Guerrero
SS: Bichette
LF: Gurriel
CF: Grichuk
RF: McKinney
DH: Hernandez

INF: Drury
OF: Britto

C: Jansen
C: McGuire

SP: Thorton
SP: Stroman
SP: Borucki
SP: Reid-Foley
SP: ?

RP: Gaviglio
RP: Pannone
RP: Biagini
RP: etc.

With the exception of a 5th starter and the bullpen, this would, in effect, put in place the team that should be able to play some good and exciting ball next year.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Facing Enemies: BC, Alberta, and the Ethics of Moving Oil

In my last post, I argued that there were serious problems with disregarding the rule of law to build pipelines more rapidly.  I think there are other serious problems with the Kenney "turn off the taps" strategy. Let us be clear, this is a political strategy. It is just not a good one. Why? I'll get into that an another post.  What the turn of the taps strategy also does is raise a series of important issues of law and ethics that have been drastically simplified to the point where they lose their meaning and import. What are these issues?

Kenney and the UPC campaigned on a get Alberta back to work by "taking on" "our enemies." On one level, I argued in my last post, this discourse runs their government afoul of the rule of law and that is not a place that anyone should want to be. Whatever the failings of the rule of law in Canada -- and there have been more than a few -- what are the alternatives to it? But rhetoric is not reality and political strategy is precisely that. There are, to be sure, true believers among the UPC who view the courts in much the same way as Tea Party Republicans in the US: as so much political BS. But, there are others who don't and who recognize the problems of trying to use politics to influence the courts. They have, however, gambled that as political strategy this might work and so even while they are not true believers, they go along for the ride.

The same thing with turning off the taps (or artificially inducing an energy crisis in BC). This is a piece of rhetoric designed to get BC to reconsider its opposition to a pipeline that the government of Alberta says it needs. Yes, I expected Kenney to move quickly on this. I suspect he will try to force the issue because he wants to (a) confirm his position, (b) because he is a true believer, and (c) because this is the most effective way to ratchet up the heat, as it were, while actually not ratcheting up the heat. Right now, with summer coming on, the need for oil for things like heating is not pressing. So the political calculation is this: the Alberta government will, in effect, fire a warning shot across the bow of BC to see if they can convince the provincial government to blink.

Leaving aside, for now, the merits of this particular political strategy, let's think about the BC side of the equation. What is it that the BC government is asserting? Why? And what does the government of Alberta want?

The issue at hand is whether or not Alberta can run a pipeline across BC to see oil to Asian markets via supertankers loaded on the coast of BC. Alberta says "yes" and BC says "no." The Alberta position is that because they are a landlocked province they have something approximating a right to transport goods to market over other provinces (if need be) and that the federal government should enforce this right. To do otherwise would create an undue harm to Alberta, severely (in this case) damaging its economy, creating manifest material harm (layoffs, unpaid bills, family hardship, and the like).

This is an interesting argument and it is one that should not be lightly dismissed. The federal government has not agreed with it, but has instead taken a different approach. They are trying to get the government of BC to agree to an oil pipeline by assuring the population of BC that the pipeline can be made safe.

From the perspective of inter-provincial politics and federalism, the question is this: can the federal government force one province to accept something it does not want so that people in another province benefit? Could they, for instance, argue that a particular policy is in the national interest and so provinces may need to be forced into line.

Comparative cases are slim. The Newfoundland/Quebec Churchill Falls squabble does not fit the bill because the issue is the contract Newfoundland signed to transport hydroelectricity across Quebec to the US and whether or not that contract should have legal force (in this case, Newfoundland says "no, it should be up for renegotiation" and Quebec says "yes." So far, the balance of arguments have gone to Quebec: contracts do have legal force even if one of the signatories ends up getting the short end of the stick). Quebec is not opposed to energy moving across Quebec to the US from Churchill Falls. Here he debate is about levels of compensation so it is not the same thing. Likewise, the NS/NB squabble over natural gas moving across NB to New England was again not a case of NB rejecting the gas. NB just wanted a cut rate on NS gas as the price of seeing it moved through NB. Again, the balance of arguments there is that NB was not entitled to a cut rate (and, to tell you the truth, because NS gas is so limited, this case has become largely irrelevant now anyway).

Other instances are equally difficult to use as precedents. The case of rail transport of grain out of prairie provinces was not an issue because no one was opposed to grain and all provinces benefited from the rail links. Indeed, all provinces could agree that the feds should subsidize rail transportation.

The one potential precedent I could think of follows from rail, however. Could one argue that moving oil is just another form of transportation? After all, oil is moved by truck and rail and that has not stopped. Could one argue that a pipeline is akin to transportation by other means and, hence, can indeed be regulated by the federal government.

The problem, of course, is that oil is not just another good that is being transported.  No one had any problems with grain because grain is, frankly, not a problem. It causes no pollution. It is easy to clean up if it spills; heck, you can just leave it lying around and it causes no harm. Oil is different in a number of senses: it is polarizing (its opponents are deeply opposed to it and to the oil sands in particular); it is dangerous (there are spills and leaks all the time and explosions that can and have killed scores of people). If it gets in waterways (from tankers) it causes serious pollution for fragile ecologies.  And, it creates pollution that is harming the planet at a record pace and on this there is no scientific debate.

So, now the question is different. From the BC perspective, the issue is does one province have the right transport dangerous materials across another province in a way that enriches the first province by sticking the second province with the problem if something goes wrong? What happens if, for example, there is a serious leak in the pipeline? The first answer is "there will not be" but that does not really answer the question, does it? In fact, it denies the legitimacy of the question by making it seem like it is just silly. But, if someone were going to transport something dangerous across ... well ... my province, don't I have the right to have my questions answered before the transportation begins?

Said differently, the question is not silly because the context in which it is asked is important. It would, for instance, be silly to worry about the potential harm from grain because there is none and creating an argument that there is would require a series of unusual acts of faith; whereas, there is a great deal of evidence that transporting oil via pipelines and other mechanisms have established dangers associated with them that seem to be unavoidable. That is: problems from oil transportation are not a fantasy. They occur regularly and can be shockingly serious when they occur (witness BP in the Gulf of Mexico, the train explosion in Quebec in Canada, the Exxon Valdez).

With this in mind, our question shifts a bit, and, in fact, becomes twofold:

  • Is it reasonable to be concerned about the transport of potentially dangerous materials across a given territory? 
  • Does the government of that territory have the right to take action to protect its environment and people? 
I am going to say yes to the first one and that is easy. In fact, we might wonder about someone who was not concerned. I suspect, even those people who say "it is safe" demonstrate their concern in some way.  For example, they would be upset if someone were moving something potentially dangerous across their kids' school ground or baseball field. 

To answer the second question, imagine a different situation. Imagine your neighbour wanted to move something across your lawn to sell to the neighbour on the other side. "Its cool," she tells you, but you have doubts. There have been problems with the transport of these goods in the past. If it gets lose it is harmful to the environment, dangerous to wildlife, really really expensive to clean up, and the taxpayers (aka, you) often have to foot at least part of the bill because the settling of accounts can take years and years and end up in the courts. Your neighbour's guarantee -- "there will be no problems" -- seems to ring a hollow because it is not at all clear that this is a fair trade. In fact, it is not clear that this is a trade at all. You seem to be bearing the risk for your neighbour's profit. Your neighbour assures you its safe and says she will help if a problem occurs, but what if she doesn't? What is she sells her house (metaphor: there is an election) and the new neighbour decides they don't want to help and don't feel they have to. In fact, your current neighbour has already shows a bit of disregard for the law (see previous post) ... so, what happens even if they are found legally responsible and just disregard what you have to say and the damage to your property? What happens if you disagree on the amount of damage to your property and she (or some future occupant of the house) low ball you? 

The point is that, even if you want to help your neighbour, there are a lot of unanswered questions and your neighbour has been quick with guarantees but slow on details.  Then another problem occurs. The town bylaw officer (yes, we have one of those in Sackville) shows up and tells you that your town has a law regulating the transport of dangerous goods and your neighbour has not completed the required assessment to ensure that the transport of her good is safe. The bylaw officer does not know whether it is safe to move this good or not. That is, he says, not his job. What he knows is that there is a list of things that need to be done before the good can be moved and your neighbour has not completed that list. 

In that situation ... who is right? Are you wrong to not only start to ask questions, but to say something like "heck, this is my property. You don't have a right to move potentially dangerous goods across it. We need to stop and think about this?" Now, after you do this, your neighbour has a fit.  She starts talking about taking revenge on you, calling you an "enemy," threatening you with harm. Is this going to win you over? Your neighbour thinks so but ... well ... let me as you folks? Would your concerns suddenly disappear because you asked reasonable questions and your neighbour started insulting and threatening you?  I would go in the opposite direction. If someone responded irrationally and aggressively to my reasonable questions, I'd start to wonder what they were up to. 

This is the issue we face in Canada and with regard to Alberta/BC relations. Does BC have the right to regulate the transportation of potentially dangerous goods across its territory? Provinces certainly already regulate the transport of goods so this is not a new power BC is claiming. The weigh scales you see by the side of the road for big trucks is an example and there are a host of other regulations as well. We could go one step further: does the state not have a responsibility to ensure the security of the person? There is not, in Canada, a constitutional protection for the environment. We can debate the merits of that another day but the fact is that this would be something new and would be a real stretch to argue that it is somehow implied under the analogous grounds principle. Security of the person, by contrast, is guaranteed (you can find it in Section 7 of the Charter). And, even if the province of BC does not have a constitutional obligation to protect the environment, they have the constitutional right to do so if they so choose. IOW, under the division of powers in Canadian federalism, provinces can regulate land within the province. 

This is complicated, to be sure, by federal jurisdiction over inter-provincial commerce but that complication does not, as far as I can tell, amount to a trump card.  Under Canadian federalism, federal jurisdiction is not superior to provincial jurisdictions. Both levels of government are sovereign in their own areas. 

Personally, I think it would be a mess of a court case if it actually went to court. But, my goal is not to look at that. It is to state the following: 
  • The government of BC is doing nothing wrong in attempting to regulate land and its use within BC
  • The government of BC's concerns are legitimate and should be answered. Playing power politics merely makes it seem like the UCP is trying to pass over the issue without addressing it; that is: that there is something they are hiding. 

Plagiarism, or I did not know I was cheating ....

I began teaching at university over two decades ago and in that time one (well, more than one but this is the one about which I am blogging ...