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Is Canadian Democracy Getting Weaker?

photograph of Justin Trudeau in front of row of Canadian Flags

Last week Prime Minister Trudeau criticized Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki for democratic backsliding. This might seem a bit rich from someone who is mired in controversy over whether his government failed to act to stop foreign interference in elections when that interference aimed to hurt his rivals. There is no hard proof of this, but Trudeau has resisted calling a public inquiry into election interference, prompting accusations of a cover-up. Trudeau’s bizarre attempt to avoid an inquiry by appointing a “special rapporteur” recently ended, but it is far from clear whether any democratic checks to hold the Trudeau government accountable on this issue will prevail. Two years ago, I asked whether the U.S. is becoming less democratic. Given this issue in Canada, along with various other issues recently, perhaps this raises questions about the robustness of Canadian democracy and whether we are engaging in democratic backsliding of our own?

Canadian media reported that China attempted to interfere in the 2019 and 2021 Canadian elections, including threatening Canadian politicians. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had advised the government that China had attempted to deploy disinformation and secure funding for preferred candidates to help the Liberal Party of Canada secure a minority government. Sources have claimed that Trudeau and his cabinet ignored these warnings. It has also been reported that China had targeted MPs like Michael Chong and that the government did not warn him. The government initially tried to claim that they weren’t briefed on this, but it was later revealed that they were aware of these efforts.

This has the potential to undermine democratic trust in Canadian elections, both because it makes it more difficult to accept the results as valid (Conservatives estimate, for example, that Chinese interference may have cost them 9 seats), but also because of the possibility that the government was either complicit or incompetent in the face of it. Thus, the public wanted a public inquiry into the issue. Yet, despite near universal calls for such an inquiry from every opposition party, only the Prime Minister can decide if a public inquiry should be called. Trudeau decided to make up an entirely new and ad hoc process to decide if an inquiry should be called by appointing a “Special Rapporteur” in the form of former Governor General David Johnston to investigate matters and on the basis of his good name alone, ask that Canadians trust Johnston to decide if an inquiry was necessary.

There were already suspicions of a conflict of interest which were only magnified when Johnston’s report announced that there would be no judicial inquiry as it would be difficult dealing with classified materials in a public inquiry. Instead, he suggested leading hearings about the experiences of diaspora communities in Canada. Canadians were not happy with this. Only 27% of Canadians polled believed that Johnston was impartial. The House of Commons passed a motion requesting his resignation and for an inquiry to be held. At first, Johnston resisted, saying he respected the right of the House to “express its opinion” but that his mandate was to the Prime Minister himself.

Does this offer evidence of democratic backsliding? Certainly such an unprecedented and improvised process raises eyebrows. The prime minister handpicked the investigator tasked with determining whether he or his government is potentially undermining Canadian elections. The investigation was conducted in private with no opportunity for cross examination of witnesses, no one testified under oath, and evidence was only provided voluntarily by the cabinet. In other words, the methods used were potentially unreliable and accountable, prompting criticism from Conservatives.

Johnston, who despite enjoying respect and admiration for his time as Governor General, has numerous ties to the Prime Minister. He was a member of the Trudeau Foundation, which had accepted donations from Chinese sources, and whose entire board recently resigned. He was also a long known acquaintance of the Prime Minister and his family, having known Trudeau as a student at McGill University and from a family friendship “rooted only in the five or six times” their families skied together years ago.

Given that Trudeau has a minority government and depends on the opposition, their governing partners in the NDP could have insisted Trudeau and Johnston, acting on their own motion. But, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh refused to back out of his informal gentleman’s agreement to support the Liberals, citing the fact he didn’t want an election to be called while there were still doubts about election integrity. This eliminated the only realistic democratic check to keep Trudeau accountable on this issue. Until Johnston finally agreed to step down this week. Now the Liberals have even signaled that they are open to a full inquiry.

Defenders of the process have argued that Johnston is an honorable gentleman being treated unfairly – he was simply a public servant working in good faith who fell victim to partisanship. Johnston was known as a person of honor and enjoyed great respect for his nonpartisan role as Governor General. He also privately asked a retired Supreme Court Justice for his opinion on the matter and that judge said he didn’t believe there was a problem. Others have argued that anyone chosen for the job would have had the same fate; criticism was inevitable. Besides, since Johnston ultimately resigned and an inquiry looks more and more likely, perhaps the system ultimately “worked.”

On the other hand, problems with the process remain. For example, the justice who signed off on Johnston also was associated with the Trudeau Foundation at one point, and Johnston’s legal council consisted exclusively of Liberal advisors. Ultimately, the complaints highlight a trend with Trudeau’s government which has had so many conflict of interest problems. It’s gotten so bad that the Ethics Commissioner recently called for basic training for all cabinet ministers.

Does this mean that Canadian democracy is weakening? For many years, critics have expressed worry about the government depending far too much on the executive and the Prime Minister’s Office. Calls are getting louder to reign in that power. There have also been concerns regarding the government’s recent attempt to regulate speech on the internet, laws which have made Canada an outlier. Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act to stop a protest he helped inflame, and the use of state power to seize bank accounts serve as additional signals of the weakening of democratic guardrails. This was only further underscored by the fact that the Commissioner who investigated the use of the Emergencies Act and controversially concluded that that the threshold for its invocation had been met, had (you guessed it) a history with the Liberal Party of Canada.

The increasing polarization in the country is making it easier for politicians to try to justify some fairly sketchy policies. A significant base is all too willing to jump to their defense, purely for the purpose of partisanship. This only makes the potential for the abuse of power easier. While some might argue that Canada’s democratic system of accountability ended up working in this particular case, an inquiry is not certain and even if it comes to pass it will only be by luck and public pressure. Johnston asked Canadians to trust him and now Singh is asking Canadians to trust him to judge when Canadian elections are free from interference. But any investigation will still depend on the goodwill of Trudeau and his league of extraordinary gentlemen.

Incentive, Risk, and Oversight in the Pork Industry

photograph of butcher instruction manual with images of different cuts of meat of pig

On September 17th, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced an updated rule set for pork industry regulators; in addition to removing restrictions on production line speed limits, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will soon allow swine slaughterhouses to hire their own process control inspectors to maintain food safety and humane handling standards instead of relying on monitors. Critics argue that this move is an unconstitutional abuse of power that will likely lead to less secure operations, thereby increasing the risk to animals, workers, and consumers.

Under the current system, hog slaughterhouses are allowed to slaughter a maximum of 1,106 animals per hour (1 pig roughly every 3.5 seconds) and must operate under the watch of multiple FSIS employees. These inspectors review each animal at several points in the killing and disassembly process, ensuring their proper handling, and removing creatures or carcasses from the line that appear to be sickly or otherwise problematic. Notably, these monitors have the authority to both slow down and stop the production line in the interest of preserving sanitary conditions.

But under the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS), the limit on per-hour animal slaughter will be removed and pork producers will be allowed to hire employees of their own to replace FSIS inspectors, thereby allowing the FSIS to reassign its monitors elsewhere. Proponents of the move suggest that this deregulation will promote efficiency without increasing overall risk. As Casey Gallimore, a director with the North American Meat Institute (a trade organization supporting pork and other meat producers) explains, the industry’s new hires will be highly trained and FSIS inspectors will still have a presence inside farming operations; whereas a plant might have once had seven government monitors on its production line, “There’s still going to be three on-line [FSIS] inspectors there all of the time.”

Overall, industry groups estimate that, under these new rules, as much as 40% of the federal workforce dedicated to watching over the pork industry will be replaced by pork industry employees. Given that a 2013 audit of FSIS policies indicated that their current implementation was already failing to meet expectations for worker safety and food sanitation, it is unclear how reducing the number of FSIS employees will improve this poor record.

For critics, removing speed limits drastically increases the risk to slaughterhouse employees and introducing corporate loyalty into the monitoring equation further threatens to dilute the effectiveness of already-flimsy federal regulations on slaughterhouse management. Because industry employees will remain beholden to their corporate bosses (at the very least, to the degree that those bosses sign their paychecks), they will have fewer incentives to make decisions that could feasibly impact profitability – particularly slowing or stopping the production line. 

According to Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (which represents at least 30,000 employees of the pork industry), “Increasing pork-plant line speeds is a reckless corporate giveaway that would put thousands of workers in harm’s way as they are forced to meet impossible demands.” The FSIS argues that available public data suggests that faster line speeds don’t threaten worker safety; currently, though, there is no national database specifically designed to track packing house injuries and accidents.

It might be the case that industry officials will be able to consistently promote the safety and security of the employees under their care, but a concern reflected by Socrates gives us cause to be skeptical. In Book III of The Republic, Plato has Socrates discuss the nature of the ruling guardian class in his idealized city; often called “philosopher-kings,” Socrates insists that, because the guardians are both naturally inclined to be virtuous individuals, and because they have been carefully trained within a structured society designed to promote their inborn goodness, then the guardians do not, themselves, need guardians of their own – indeed, one of Socrates’ interlocutors even jokes “that a guardian should require another guardian to take care of him is ridiculous indeed.” Centuries before Juvenal asked “But who is to guard the guards themselves?,” Plato argued that the best guards would not actually need guarding at all.

Later philosophers would lack Plato’s optimism; ethicists would construct normative systems with plenty of rules to advise the less virtuous, constitution writers would build layers of checks and balances into divided branches of government, and policy makers would indeed insist on impartiality as a necessary condition for truly effective monitoring. Unless the pork industry can provide us some reason to think that the NSIS inspectors they’ll soon be hiring have been “framed differently by God…in the composition of these [God] has mingled gold” (who have, furthermore, cultivated that virtue over a lifetime of study and practice), we have good reason to be skeptical that they do not, themselves, need watching.

For what it’s worth, Socrates also thought that the guardians should not be allowed to own private property, but that might really be asking too much of the pork industry.

The Persistent Problem of the Fair Algorithm

photograph of a keyboard and screen displaying code

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

At first glance, it might appear that the mechanical procedures we use to accomplish such mundane tasks as loan approval, medical triage, actuarial assessment, and employment screening are innocuous. Designing algorithms to process large chunks of data and transform various individual data points into a single output offers a great power in streamlining necessary but burdensome work. Algorithms advise us about how we should read the data and how we should respond. In some cases, they even decide the matter for us.

It isn’t simply that these automated processes are more efficient than humans at performing these computations (emphasizing the relevant data points, removing statistical outliers and anomalies, and weighing competing factors). Algorithms also hold the promise of removing human error from the equation. A recent study, for example, has identified a tendency for judges on parole boards to become less and less lenient in their sentencing as the day wears on. By removing extraneous elements like these from the decision-making process, an algorithm might be better positioned to deliver true justice.

Similarly, another study established the general superiority of mechanical prediction to clinical prediction in various settings from medicine to mental health to education. Humans were most notably outperformed when a one-on-one interview was conducted. These findings reinforce the position that algorithms should augment (or perhaps even replace) human decision-making, which is often plagued by prejudice and swayed by sentiment.

But despite their great promise, algorithms carry a number of concerns. Chief among these are problems of bias and transparency. Often seen as free from bias, algorithms stand as neutral arbiters, capable of combating long-standing inequalities such as the gender pay-gap or unequal sentencing for minority offenders. But automated tools can just as easily preserve and fortify existing inequalities when introduced to an already discriminatory system. Algorithms used in assigning bond amounts and sentencing underestimated the risk of white defendants while overestimating that of Black defendants. Popular image-recognition software reflects significant gender bias. Such processes mirror and thus reinforce extant social bias. The algorithm simply tracks, learns, and then reproduces the patterns that it sees.

Bias can be the result of a non-representative sample size that is too small or too homogenous. But bias can also be the consequence of the kind of data that the algorithm draws on to make its inferences. While discrimination laws are designed to restrict the use of protected categories like age, race, or sex, an algorithm might learn to use a proxy, like zip codes, that produces equally skewed outcomes.

Similarly, predictive policing — which uses algorithms to predict where a crime is likely to occur and determine how to best deploy police resources — has been criticized as “enabl[ing], or even justify[ing], a high-tech version of racial profiling.” Predictive policing creates risk profiles for individuals on the basis of age, employment history, and social affiliations, but it also creates risk profiles for locations. Feeding the algorithm information which is itself race- and class-based creates a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby continued investigation of Black citizens in urban areas leads to a disproportionate number of arrests. A related worry is that tying police patrol to areas with the highest incidence of reported crime grants less police protection to neighborhoods with large immigrant populations, as foreign-born citizens and non-US citizens are less likely to report crimes.

These concerns of discrimination and bias are further complicated by issues of transparency. The very function the algorithm was meant to serve — computing multiple variables in a way that surpasses human ability — inhibits oversight. It is the algorithm itself which determines how best to model the data and what weights to attach to which factors. The complexity of the computation as well as the use of unsupervised learning — where the algorithm processes data autonomously, as opposed to receiving labelled inputs from a designer — may mean that the human operator cannot parse the algorithm’s rationale and that it will always remain opaque. Given the impenetrable nature of the decision-mechanism, it will be difficult to determine when predictions objectionably rely on group affiliation to render verdicts and who should be accountable when they do.

Related to these concerns of oversight are questions of justification: What are we owed in terms of an explanation when we are denied bail, declined for a loan, refused admission to a university, or passed over for a job interview? How much should an algorithm’s owner need to be able to say to justify the algorithm’s decision and what do we have a right to know? One suggestion is that individuals are owed “counterfactual explanations” which highlight the relevant data points that led to the determination and offer ways in which one might change the decision. While this justification would offer recourse, it would not reveal the relative weights the algorithm places on the data nor would a justification be offered for which data points an algorithm considers relevant.

These problems concerning discrimination and transparency share a common root. At bottom, there is no mechanical procedure which would generate an objective standard of fairness. Invariably, the determination of that standard will require the deliberate assignation of different weights to competing moral values: What does it mean to treat like cases alike? To what extent should group membership determine one’s treatment? How should we balance public good and individual privacy? Public safety and discrimination? Utility and individual right?

In the end, our use of algorithms cannot sidestep the task of defining fairness. It cannot resolve these difficult questions, and is not a surrogate for public discourse and debate.