Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Standing Up To Bullies

As part of their ongoing mission to destroy the Enlightenment, the right has latched onto a tweet by Lawyers, Guns and Money's Erik Loomis, a non-tenured academic at a Rhode Island university. 

They're of course trying to get him fired.  It's completely hypocritical, the substance of their complaint is preposterous and too often this shit works.  They stage a disingenuous freak out, some nervous school administrators over-react and someone's career is in tatters to the chortling glee of a bunch of sociopaths.

I have signed this open letter and emailed the University's mucky-mucks.  This post is to do my little bit to raise its profile.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Newtown: Another Expose on Conservative Ideological Bankruptcy

While liberals debate various forms of gun control, improvements to the psychiatric care system, and other actual measures to make slaughters like Newtown less likely, the abject bankruptcy of conservative thought is something to behold.

The Tea Party suggests more George Zimmermans are the answer.  Armed vigilante squads patrolling school zones.

Gun "academic" John Lott suggests abolishing even more gun laws, specifically gun-free school zones.

Libertarian law Professor Glenn Reynolds approvingly cites a pro-gun man who later shot and killed his wife in a botched (?) puerile gun stunt.

Supposed "reasonable" conservative Eugene Volokh says to arm the teachers.

Libertarian individualist Megan McArdle proposes a creative collectivist solution:  Train seven year olds to rush adult shooters and overpower them.

Is there anything one needs to say in response to such stupidity?  They can't honestly believe this egregious nonsense.  This is the utter and complete bankruptcy of conservativism and right wing thought in general.  It is incapable of responding to this, and thus can only provide risible self-satirizing ideas to cover its shame.

I wrote about this some time ago, and this is more of the same.  Conservativism has no useful answers to the problems of society.  They simply wish to leave problems to fester, where action would impose the least inconvenience or costs on themselves.  If some problem magically solves itself, they might be ok with that, but for anything else, we are simply left to endure what we must.   They simply don't really believe problems can be solved. 

There shouldn't be 40% of Americans (and 30% of Canadians) willing to call themselves "conservatives" in the face of this.  This is shameful, and frankly disgusting.  The Emperor has no clothes.  People with ideas this monstrous need to experience sustained criticism and even scorn for refusing to rethink such bad ideas in the face of their self-evident horrific failure.  Teach children to rush at mass murderers?  Encourage more vigilantism?  What has to go wrong in your life that you even could entertain these thoughts, never mind publish it to millions in evident seriousness?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Right To Work For Less Coming to Ontario

My operating assumption is that Tim Hudak's "Progressive" Conservative party of Ontario will win the next Ontario election and form the next government.  I hope I'm wrong, but it's certainly the safe bet after events drove McGuinty out of power and Horwath's NDP haven't managed yet to convince voters they're a plausible non-crazy alternative to the PCs.

One depressing certainty of a Hudak administration would be a war on organized labour.  If Republian Governor Snyder can take on Michigan, Hudak can certainly bring some variant of "right to work for less" to Ontario.  Indeed, he has already (months ago) indicated he wants to:
“In many cases union leaders have become so powerful that many employees in effect have two bosses — their actual employer and the people who run their union.”
To correct that, he would like union membership to no longer be mandatory and would outlaw the “forced paycheque contributions” unionized workers make to political causes.
The arguments will be the same anti-union stuff from the US, but also a dollop of one particular anti-union argument that I really want to see die, it's the one that goes like this:
Unions were important back in the days of the robber barons and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, but now we have all these fancy labour laws that protect workers, and unions have served their purpose.
I really did see someone say something almost exactly like that, including the Triangle Shirtwaist reference. 

The first thing to say here is that we never stopped having Triangle Shirtwaist fires, we just simply outsourced them to Bangladesh, and other unregulated labour countries where such events are depressingly common.

Naturally these facilities are almost never directly managed by brand name Western companies, but they all make clothing for them, and I guarantee those companies' representatives have visited.  We're talking about places built without fire stairs, smoke alarms, sprinklers and where "fire drill" is a meaningless phrase.  I realize companies probably don't send health and safety experts to assess these places, but it doesn't take a Fire Marshall to realize the damn building has no fire safety measures whatsoever.  They don't care. 

They never did.  The only thing that ever makes them treat workers like humans and take the necessary steps to protect their health and safety are laws.  These laws were almost to a one, brought about by unions.

What happens when organized labour is beaten?  These laws are repealed.  No right wing leader ever campaigns on repealing the building fire code, but they'll talk in general terms about "burdensome regulations" and invent convoluted arbitrary schemes to gut workplace regulations.  Like Hudak has already done.

I'm not in a union and I never was, but I know it is not white collar people like me who make sure my office has a first aid kid, fire extinguishers and we hold an annual fire escape drill.  These are all "burdensome" regulations on my employer and every other.  They also save lives.  The Westray Mine disaster was really not that long ago.  It can and will happen again the weaker these laws are made (along with a host of other labour abuse ills, long forgotten which reemerge the moment the laws prohibiting them are repealed).

It's cliche, but Hudak is shaping up to make Harris look like a moderate.  Past conservative ideologues always seem like moderates but it might actually be true here.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Dirty Tricks Politics Goes Local With Rob Ford Ouster

In the wake of an Ontario Judge ruling that Rob Ford violated the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and was subject to its mandatory penalty of being removed from office, I've been following the #TOpoli stream on Twitter (which behaves remarkably like the old usenet political debates used to).   So far I have seen two different "petition" sites for outraged Rob Ford supporters to sign.  Both are pretty dubious affairs and I think this deserves some notice, as a sign of the kind of dirty tricks politics that I think should be of concern to Torontonians as we face a likely by-election where Ford is almost certain to be the right's candidate.

Democracy Denied!

We the people of Toronto and friends in the rest of Canada who support Rob Ford for Mayor of Toronto.

Our voice was shutdown by an activists who brought Rob Ford to court on a technicality for using the wrong letterhead to raise money for underprivileged kids sports.

Those elitist Ford haters wanted to get Ford anyway they could.

Now it's time to fight back. Let's bring Rob Ford back into the mayor's office with an even BIGGER vote margin.

Sign the pledge.

First off, this: "an activists who brought Rob Ford to court on a technicality for using the wrong letterhead to raise money for underprivileged kids sports" is a straight out lie (and grammatically atrocious) - Ford was brought to court for voting to save himself from losing $3K out of his own pocket, the most direct and obvious kind of conflict-of-interest there could possibly be.  The reason for that $3K fine has to do with his fundraising for a sports related charity, but that underlying matter is absolutely irrelevant to why he was brought to court.  

The fine could have been for anything, Ford clearly abused his powers as a member of City Council by voting on a matter in which he had a direct financial stake.  If a City Council member voted to cancel all their personal parking tickets, we would all easily understand this was an improper use of their power to vote in Council.  Ford's action was no different.  

Some other features of note in this "petition":
  • You can't see who has signed it.  It lists a number of signers at the top right, but we must take the site's word for that.  In a democracy, petitioning is necessarily a public act, where citizens put their name to a particular sentiment for all to see.  That's the point.
  • No one is claiming credit for this site.  Who started this petition?  Who will deliver it, and to what authorities?  For what outcome?
  • If you sign it via Facebook, it appears to gather an amazing amount of information that the user probably does not intend to provide to the mystery owner of the site, from the source code of the site:user_about_me, user_activities, user_education_history, user_events,user_groups, user_hometown, user_interests,user_likes,user_location,user_notes, user_religion_politics, user_status, user_work_history, email,user_birthday, publish_stream, user_checkins, friends_about_me, friends_checkins, friends_education_history, friends_hometown, friends_interests, friends_likes, friends_location, friends_religion_politics, friends_status, friends_work_history, friends_birthday
    The above means that if you are friends with someone who signs this petition, your info will be provided too.  A better excuse to unfriend any "Ford nation" supporters I can't imagine.
  • The site appears to be created by "" which just screams "astroturf" - a service that creates fake "grass roots" sites for corporate interests.
  • Whois records for the domain reveal no individual owner, registered through a service 
On October 25, 2010, 383,501 Toronto citizens elected Mayor Rob Ford.

At a stroke, that election has been overturned. Why? A politically motivated technical objection over how he raised money for underprivileged kids.

Mayor Ford gained nothing. The City of Toronto lost nothing.

This is unfair, undemocratic, and unacceptable. We elected Mayor Ford to bring respect for taxpayers back to City Hall.

And he’s been doing just that in the face of strong opposition.

We stand with Mayor Ford. We support his appeal. And we support his re-election.

Please show your support for Mayor Ford by signing our petition.  
The similarity in the writing makes me pretty sure the same person or people are behind this too.  Again we have the outright lie about why Ford was in front of that Judge.  We have some fresh sophistry here about whether Ford "gained" anything or the city lost anything.  This isn't really a lie, because I think Ford and Ford supporters really have trouble understanding why Ford's fundraising letter being sent on City letterhead was improper.  Things don't have to require direct financial gains or losses to be a problem.  First of all, if I raise a big chunk of money for some charity, I do gain from that act, not financially, but in social capital.   Being able to say he raised X dollars for charity is good for Ford's political career.  As a public figure, he's likely to get some positive press over it.  He can put it on his campaign site (and he did).  Using the letterhead sends a message to the people who get the letter that Councillor Ford, a person who may be able to help you win some City contract someday, wants you to donate to his charity.  That's plenty of extra reason to give where you might otherwise have passed on this charity.  If Ford someday votes to give one of these donors some City contract, how can we be sure their generosity to his charity was not a factor in his decision?  How could it not be, councillors are human too, someone helps you or helps a cause you care about, you will be emotionally better disposed to them. 

This is all why it is better if public officials steer clear of this stuff.  Honestly, even if Ford didn't use his city letterhead, he is still a city councillor and his donors will know that.  If you got a letter from Stephen Harper asking for money for some charity he likes, how can you ignore the fact that he's the Prime Minister and that you'll gain in his esteem by being generous? 

Again, like the first:
  • No one is claiming credit for organizing this, and whois for the domain is a dead end
  • You can't see who has signed it, and there isn't even a counter to know how many have done so
  • The youtube video linked is a new youtube account with only that video.  Comments and rating are disabled.
  • I don't see a nefarious facebook scraping script here, but my HTML-fu is only mediocre.  There's a set of embedded .js scripts which I didn't pursue, so I don't know what happens when you "share" this page on the social media icons it advertises.
I've seen speculation that these "petitions" are just a good way of gathering Ford supporter info for his upcoming campaign.  This makes sense, but of course since no one is claiming ownership, it could be literally anyone.

This is something to watch.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Is Peter Kent Trying to Move Harper on Climate Change?

This starts with a tangent:  I've been trying to understand why the World Bank's climate report is big news.  It's just a rehash of long available science.  The World Bank is not my idea of some kind of recalcitrant climate denial shop, but obviously they have some reason to be concerned since the prospect of a global economic dark age is probably not part of their neoliberal dream.  Near as I can figure, the report is "news" because it might indicate the global elite are starting to take Climate Change seriously.  Up until now, I could only figure that the non-denialist global elites (say, like Bill Gates) were just ignoring climate change because they figured it was inevitable and they would likely be able to profit from it anyway, so they weren't much concerned with a couple hundred million people dying. 

But maybe they're realizing that climate change will be even worse than that.  Even they might actually suffer harmful effects.  So naturally I wondered if the World Bank report had anything to do with the timing of these surprisingly realistic remarks by Peter Kent, Canada's federal environment minister:
Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent thinks recent extreme weather events are forcing politicians in both Canada and the U.S. to focus on the issue of climate change, and that includes members of his Conservative government's cabinet.
"You don't have to convince me that climate change is a very real and present danger and we need to address it."
Ok, I'm not going to applaud simple admission of reality to the discourse, but it turns out Peter Kent may have been acting as something of a voice of sanity at Harper's cabinet and caucus tables:
A series of letters signed by Kent have revealed he has faced many questions from colleagues in recent months about whether Canada needs to take action to reduce consumption of fossil fuels such as coal and gasoline that produce heat-trapping pollution and other toxic emissions in the atmosphere.
But in each of the letters, released through access to information legislation, Kent defended scientific evidence, while dismissing myths such as a suggestion from one Conservative that volcanoes were a major contributor to global warming.
“Even major volcanic eruptions emit only a very small fraction of carbon dioxide compared to annual human emissions,” Kent wrote in a Sept. 6, 2011 letter to one colleague that noted volcanic ash can cause short-term cooling in the atmosphere, lasting up to three years.
Obviously I'm reading tea leaves here, and this is the Environment minister who pulled Canada out of Kyoto, but this is better than having the MP who asked the volcano question as Environment minister.  That piece also quotes Green Party leader and sole MP Elizabeth May who raises a pertinent issue:
 “The biggest worry I have is (regarding) the member of his caucus who doesn’t understand climate science [...] is [...] the prime minister. That’s the biggest worry I have, because I cannot find any evidence that the prime minister of Canada has ever had a briefing on climate science from any of the prominent climate scientists in Canada, in or outside of government.
Is Kent trying to move the system from within?  I doubt it will work, but who knows.  Conservatives seem to place primary value on the source of any information as a means of verifying whether it is true.  Having the Conservative Federal environment minister tell his colleagues that "no, volcanoes aren't causing it..." and so forth probably has better odds of at least persuading them.  They won't listen to the likes of egghead grant sucking climatologists, but they might listen to one of their own.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Census is not 100% Accurate

Judging by reading the #tcot twitter stream ("top conservatives on twitter") and sites like this one (claiming 50,000 hits in less than 2 days online), it appears rather than learning that reality > ideological fantasy, conservatives are intstead opting to double-down on ideological fantasy and are busy constructing an even more elaborate set of voter-fraud theories. 

The leading attempt to empiricize their claims revolves around locating counties which have more registered voters than the US census bureau indicates their population should be in its county level data set.

The first and most obvious thing to point out to conservatives is that the number of registered voters in a county is not the number of Obama votes or even the number of total votes recorded in that county as I doubt more than a tiny number of US counties see 100% turnout in any election.  Typical of the right wing noise machine, they appear to be deliberately conflating these things, such as this RedState headline "Colorado Counties Have More Voters Than People" - the article itself is discussing voter registration but the headline is pretty clearly mendacious, indicative that these counties had more actual votes cast than people living there.

Putting aside the sadly typical right wing disingenuity, the deeper flaw of all this is that they're basing the number of "people" in these counties on the US census, as if the US census was some kind of perfect count of population without any error, and completely accurate even 2 years after the actual 2010 census attempted to count everyone (something that no census actually achieves).  The Census is not 100% accurate even the year it is taken, and every year becomes less accurate.  It is simply insufficient to conclude that because a county has more registered voters than the census shows as population that this is indicative of anything untoward. 

The Census attempts to estimate population changes at State and County level over time between actual censuses, but of course these are estimates and subject to error.  According to research into past censuses, the average of these errors in small counties can be as high as 8.8% per year, and for all counties, averages 3.5% to 4.6% in error.  That smaller counties are more subject to drift over time may appear counter intuitive, as it should seem simplier to accurately count the number of people in a small county, but the drift is more significant because small events like a single factory opening or closing can have an outsized effect on small counties.  A county that includes a big city is going to "average out" events that cause people to leave the county with events that cause people to enter it.

Consider all the variables and sources of error:
  • Some people really don't want to be counted in the census.  This includes Michelle Bachman and the paranoid right, who were particularly concerned about the 2010 census seeing as it was being run under President Obama. 
  • People die, and while national death rates are easy to measure, there's no reason to assume people die evenly at the county level.  A county with lots of elderly people is going to have a lot more deaths than a young county.
  • People have babies, again unevenly.
  • People move internally, and the US census isn't notified
  • Legal immigration - numbers of immigrants can be measured, but what counties they settle in, not so much
  • The 2008 economic collapse and housing crisis has made for a much higher deal of internal migration and churn as a much larger than normal group of people were evicted and foreclosed, forced to move in with relatives and so forth. 
We can go on, but the point is that the census is only a tool.  It may be useful as a guide to compare its numbers against what various counties recorded for voter registration is suggestive but hardly conclusive.  In fact, it is highly likely that the county data is in some sense more accurate since it is gathered every year.

As an amusing coda, I looked into several of the counties that RedState fixated on in Colorado, and as predicted above, in every case, the counties were low population places (all below 10,000 by the 2010 Census), and in every case I checked, had 2012 results that closely matched the county's 2008 Presidential results as far as two-party breakdown:  San Juan 2008 (Obama 53, McCain 44), San Juan 2012 (Obama 52, Romney 42), Mineral 2008 (Obama 43 McCain 54), Mineral 2012 (Obama 45 Romney 45), Gilpin 2008 (Obama 59 McCain 38), Gilpin 2012 (Obama 57 Romney 40), Hinsdale 2008 (Obama 39 McCain 56), Hinsdale 2012 (Obama 38 Romney 59).  Some trail of fraud there!  Each county voted pretty much the same way it did in 2008, and in only 1 did Obama actually increase his vote share. Amusingly, RedState contacted local officials in these states and they all gave explanations for the disparity in their registration figures to the census that comport to what I said above - transient populations, vacation homes, students, errors in the census. 

Because I've already wasted more time on this than I care to admit, I will also point and laugh at this bit, which notes that Obama lost EVERY state that has a photo ID requirement.  Turns out there are a huge sample of four states with such requirements:  Kansas, Indiana, Georgia and Tennessee.  Lucky those voter ID laws were there to stop Obama from winning Kansas, a state that last voted for a Democrat in 1964.  Al Gore couldn't win Tennessee in 2000, but surely voter fraud would have given it to Obama.  Indiana and Georgia are a little more interesting, in that Indiana did vote for Obama (barely) in 2008, but per polling no one expected him to win it in 2012.  Georgia was also suprisingly close in 2008, only going for McCain by 5% but there was no reason to think it could possibly have voted for Obama this time around.  Really at best these voter ID laws cemented a foregone conclusion by disenfranchising enough potential Obama supporters to merely pad Romney's margin in these states (but were probably consequential at the House and State level races).  The whole argument presumes that voter photo ID laws only prevent fraud that is presumed to exist.  But if they also (and more substantially) disenfranchise voters without easy access to photo ID, then they also succeed at keeping teetering "red" states more solidly red than they might otherwise be. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Tim Hudak Proposes to End Overregulation with More Regulation

Ontario PC Leader, and most likely our next Premier Tim Hudak has released his predictable rehash of the Harris "common sense revolution."  Massive tax cuts are of course there, but it seems Mr. Hudak can't quite decide how best to shovel money at rich people, immediately under his top priority (groan) "Balance the Budget," which has absolutely no plan for doing that, we get "Tax Cuts Create Jobs":
Significantly reduce Ontario tax rates to attract investment, create jobs and expand the economy. Acknowledging Ontario’s debt crisis drastically reduces manoeuvring room to reduce taxes as much as we would like, use this Paths to Prosperity discussion paper to solicit the best advice from Ontario’s businesses, individuals, economists, think tanks and associations on which tax cut would have the most impact on job creation: the corporate income tax, the personal income tax or the provincial portion of the harmonized sales tax.
Why choose Mr. Hudak, you can cut all three!  After all, we are always on the right side of the Laffer curve and tax cuts always increase revenue.  I wonder if the orders of both groups to solicit opinions from (businesses first) and which taxes to cut (corporate taxes first) is a coincidence? 

Ok, I should be fair I'm quoting from the summary web page.  Perhaps the actual white paper PDF gets more heft and detail.  Let's see:
It’s time to be realistic. If you own an elephant and you only have enough rations to feed a horse, it’s time to ask, why do you need the elephant?
Well with logic like that, I'm convinced.   That's from the section on Balancing the Budget (p7), which reads like a high school essay written by an Objectivist.  I really like the random charts and stats which fail to account for relative size.  So PEI's $79M budget deficit looks soooo tiny compared to Ontario's $13B.  Ontario does have a larger deficit per capita, would it have been so hard to be at least minimally intellectually honest and present us some kind of per-capita figure?

 There's a few specific promises (like public sector wage cuts via a "freeze" which is a cut, and rigging arbitration to reliably side against unions) but mostly it is without numbers and the logic amounts to "we must cut government programs to avoid the future need to cut government programs."  

The chart on p8 actually states "Balanced budgets lead to economic growth" through some magic mechanism where the Producers can only create jobs and prosperty for us when they know government's balance sheet is black or something.  Why?  Do they fear eventual tax increases?  I guess that must be it, but I also know from conservatives that you can't raise taxes on the rich because they all just leave or hire super special accountants to get them out of it, so if that's true, why are they so stressed about future tax increases? 

Near the end we have the obligatory section on deregulation, and it's where the title comes from, we will solve over-regulation by regulation of regulations:
  • Reduce the regulatory burden in Ontario by a minimum of 33 per cent (128,750 regulations) over three years. Individual ministers’ cabinet pay would be tied to accomplishing these targets. To prevent future regulatory creep, require that for every new regulation, at least one other must be removed.
  • The Deputy Premier will be appointed the minister responsible for reducing Ontario’s over-regulation. All proposed regulations will be subject to the Deputy Premier’s approval. If the Deputy Premier believes a regulation is anti-competitive, he or she will be required to reject it.
  • All regulations – without exception – will be costed by the Ministry of Finance. This costing would be made public. Require all proposed regulations that the Ministry of Finance finds have a net cost to be subject to a vote in the Legislature.
Ok, this is nuts.  In order:
  • Where does this 33% target come from?  In three years?  This is what Republicans did in the Bush years, even staging press events where they cut up pages of regulation with chain saws.  The outcome was the New Depression of 2008-(not finished).  There is no way you can intelligently reduce regulatory burden this much this fast without unintended consequences.  
  • So if someone invents a new chemical that causes birth defects, we can't regulate its use without repealing the regulation on some other chemical that causes birth defects?  Or repealing the 40 hour work week, or maybe we could stop requiring fire exits?  So many Triangle Shirtwaist fires to create, so little time!  After all, if we've repealed 33% of regulations we must really be down to a list of pretty defensible regulations.  All the easy win clearly outdated regulations will already be gone. 
  • The Deputy Premier becomes the Czar of regulation?  And what does "anti-competitive" mean?  Paid vacation is anti-competitive in all sorts of ways, it doesn't mean Ontarians want to see it repealed.  I'm sure meat plants can pack a lot more meat without "anti-competitve" rules requiring hand washing and making sure the meat is stored at cold enough temperatures.  Every regulation is anti-competitive.  If they weren't, businesses wouldn't need laws to make them do these things.  Stopping the production line because someone lost a finger in the ground meat is anti-competitive, but I really want competition to stop at such times.   
  • Costing regulations is actually not a terrible idea, but having the completely political Ministry of Finance do it makes this a joke.  How many regulations is a conservative Ministry of Finance going to find have a "net" cost?  Think they'll consider lives saved from regulating pollution in their math?  Unlikely.  A non-partisan body reporting to the Legislature, not to the Premier should do this. 
Really, the "repeal one rule for each new one you create" is the stupidest thing in there.

Despite my railing about this, I won't be shocked if this party, rehashing Harris' failed ideas and importing some fresh bad ideas from the US Republicans, forms the next Ontario government.  This document is radical, and I think that's the point.   They sense their long awaited chance is coming.  Hopefully they'll overplay their hand on the crazy ideas and we'll get an NDP government instead.  But they've done so twice already, so they might have learned to stop letting the crazy spill all over the place.  Or the public will simply have too much fatigue with the current government and will vote them in anyway. 

I'm far from a big fan of the current Ontario government, but McGuinty doesn't get nearly enough credit for Canada's relatively better economic performance in the wake of the economic crisis.  Ontario didn't implement stupid austerity in the midst of a damn depression, and at roughly 40% of Canada's GDP, Ontario not laying off tens of thousands of civil servants (like teachers) or cutting the safety net has to have been a big part of Canada weathering the storm.  Stephen Harper certainly owes his 2011 victory to Dalton McGuinty's (general) rejection of austerity in 2009 and 2010. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Climate Change having "Natural Causes" is Far More Alarming

It strikes me that the set of climate deniers who say "yes the earth is warming, but it is natural causes not human behaviour" think somehow this is a sufficient and comforting explantion.  Actually it would be a far far more alarming explantion for the phenomena if one considers it rationally:
  • First off it means the world's collected climate experts know absolutely nothing about what could actually be causing this, since they have looked into every possible natural cause they can think of, and found no evidence to support any of them as driving the observed climate change.  No one should ever think smugly that science knows everything there is to know about something, but the idea that a major climate driver could elude human understanding means we are missing something huge, and it's hard to view that with any kind of aplomb.  This kind of scientific gap in our understanding of the world would almost certainly have to be much larger than climatology, it would likely be some form of physics or chemistry of which we have not even a theory to account for.  What mystery energy source could be injecting or retaining additional energy into the climate? 
  • Secondly and tied to the first, if we have no idea what is warming the planet, it means we have no possible way of knowing how bad this problem will get, how fast, and whether there is any possible way to stop it.  At least we know if we are causing global warming with our emissions, we can stop adding to the problem by reducing emissions, and maybe even solve the problem if we can find a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere (or in extremis, treat the more catastrophic symptoms through some kind of risky geoengineering scheme).  Will it warm 1 degree per decade?  10 degrees?  Maybe the Earth will actually end up like Venus, completely uninhabitable. Even geoengineer schemes, as suspect as they already are would be doubly dubious in an environment where we didn't actually understand the causes of climate change. 
  • Last, and I've made this point before, but a naturally warming planet is still something we need to deal with and prepare for.  Sea walls don't build themselves.  Coastal settlements still need to move inland.  Agricultural land suitable for growing food under new climate norms will still need to be located, and prepared for growing food, water supplies for areas destined to become especially arid must be located or those communities moved.  All of this is expensive, and you either invest up front and ameliorate some of the effects, or you pay through the nose to recover from various disasters. 
None of this should reflect any doubt on my part about the veracity of the science telling us that human greenhouse gas emissions are the overwhelming cause of global warming.  But it is more a statement on the irrationality of this particular (and in my experience, now most common) denialist position.  If you really do believe "natural causes" are the reason for warming you should be a major advocate for huge additional resources for science to get to the bottom of the actual causal mechanisms, and for money being spent to prepare for the predictable effects of such warming.

And no, you can't rely on some airy fairy idea of "natural cycles" - wheels turn until they break.  Mars was once warm enough to have liquid water on it.  Something about its climate cycle 'broke' and now it is far too cold for that (and its atmosphere too thin, as well).  The Earth was not always a place that life as we know it could survive.  It had vastly different atmospheric compositions, temperature ranges and so forth.  Think we could survive an atmosphere that was half as thick?  Or twice as thick?  Or with half the oxygen?  Or twice as much?  

You needn't be surprised that I have yet to see any climate change deniers of this sort make such calls.  Somehow the mystery source of knowledge they have (I believe they sit on it) also tells them that the warming will be modest and slow and adaptation is no problem.  But if you don't actually know what is causing the warming, you can't really have that assurance. The past 10,000 years or so have seen a climate pretty well suited to humans.  There is no reason to think that must continue.  A giant asteroid on course to hit earth would be "natural" too, but in no way would that obliviate any need to do anything about the problem.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Voter Fraud Dog Not Barking

In all the talk of voter fraud, there is one obvious absent sign of rampant voter fraud that we don't see much discussion of:  Voters complaining that someone else voted for them.  In particular when we are talking about in-person voter fraud, the kind that requiring photo ID could actually solve, if voter fraud was common, you should have voters complaining that they showed up to vote, and the polling worker informing them that someone using their name had already voted.  Similarly, if voter fraud was common, you should see lots of poll workers commenting that multiple people had showed up trying to vote using the names of people who had already voted.

The recent much-noted New Yorker piece eviscerating Hans Von Spakovsky touches on this topic:
Von Spakovsky offered me the names of two experts who, he said, would confirm that voter-impersonation fraud posed a significant peril: Robert Pastor, the director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management, at American University, and Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia. Pastor, von Spakovsky noted, had spoken to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about being a victim of election fraud: voting in Georgia, he discovered that someone else had already voted under his name.

When I reached Pastor, he clarified what had happened to him. “I think they just mistakenly checked my name when my son voted—it was just a mistake.” He added, “I don’t think that voter-impersonation fraud is a serious problem.”
If this was a serious problem, there should be many living voters arriving at the polls to discover someone else had stolen their votes.  In fact, even if absentee voting fraud was common, the same sort of thing should happen.  Now, you might claim that the reason this doesn't happen is because there are all sorts of dead and imaginary voters registered, so that there's no risk of a real honest human asking for their legitimate ballot and being denied because "Mickey Mouse" had already voted or whatever, but that's a voter registration problem, not a polling place problem. 

Anyway, I know no amount of rational examination of this issue is going to make it go away (Chris Hayes compared voter fraud believers to climate deniers this morning on his show, and I think the comparison is apt - both groups deny reams of evidence to continue believing in improbably large secret conspiracies to rig systems toward some desired outcome) but at least it's one more bullet to fire.  

Labour Organizing As Warfare

Matt Stoller tweeted a link to this excellent piece on recent changes to the US labour organizing strategic landscape.  In one of the most remarkably under-reported stories I've ever seen, Walmart workers across 12 cities in 9 states staged a series of wild-cat strikes in early October and unlike almost every other attempt by workers to organize against Walmart, came out ahead.  In the past at Open Left, I noted a couple Canadian Walmart stores that unionized, and Walmart's answer invarably was to suddenly declare the store "unprofitable" and close it down (only to open a new store shortly after in the same geographic area). 

At the current moment, the total impact of these actions has been small, involving a relative handful of workers, which perhaps justifies why this isn't getting more media attention, but the fact that such small labour actions suceeded should make anyone interested in labour power pay attention, because it looks like some labour groups have figured out a new way to fight back in the globalization era.  From the first link:
The Elwood facility, owned by the company RoadLink, processes a staggering 70 percent of Walmart’s domestic goods, and the strike there has radically altered the balance of power in the workplace. Mike Compton, a former striker who is now back at work in the warehouse told me about the new climate of the warehouse. “Managers are being overly nice,” he said.
This is where the post title comes from.  This is an application of war doctrine to the labour rights question.  There's a famous quote (attributed to several famous military leaders) that goes "amateurs study strategy, professionals study logistics."  Sun Tzu's line about armies marching on their stomachs also comes to mind.  Walmart has spent decades developing a lean, mean, "just-in-time" supply chain which means they deliberately keep as little stock in each store and warehouse as possible.  This makes them highly vulnerable to supply chain disruptions.  That the US rail system has particular nodes where high volumes of goods go through only makes Walmart more vulnerable to well organized pinpoint labour strikes (and the word strike here can be understood both as a labour disruption, and a military tactical attack).

This is turning the system of neoliberal globalization against itself.  Rather than relying on trying to reach critical mass of front line clerks sufficient to make Walmart unable to get by on scabs and store closures, find the vulnerable points in the system and organize just enough workers there to have an impact.

This logic can be extended to other organizations too.  Walmart's supply chain model has been highly influential on other retailers and even other industries.  I suspect the more globalized a company is, the more vulnerable they are to this. 

In another strain of finding a vulnerable point to strike, there is talk of a "Black Friday" strike.  This would hit Walmart on the biggest shopping day of the year (so named, I hear, because it is the day that many retailers actually become net profitable for the year, going from "red" ink to "black" in their books).  This strikes me as more likely to leave room for Walmart to simply fire any front line workers who walk off, but perhaps they'll settle very quickly rather than lose out on the single biggest shopping day, even if at only a handful of stores.  It's got a shot because a disruption to Black Friday profits has the possibility of hitting the Q4 results measurably.  It also will generate a lot of media attention in a way that some workers striking in a warehouse does not.  The media would love to air footage of people lined up for gate-crasher deals at some Walmart store and the store not opening because the workers had struck.  If Walmart is foolish enough to have the managers try and open the store themselves, we'll likely get footage of chaos, and if anyone is hurt (which already happens almost every year), all the more blowback against Walmart.

It might not work, but it has been several decades of slow decline for organized labour and it's encouraging to finally see some tactics employed that don't rely on past tactics which have now been rendered next-to-impossible via the legally slanted playing field. 

But do read this piece from up top.

Friday, October 5, 2012

PBS Must Be Killed Because It Shows Government Works

 PBS is by far the most trusted TV news source, NPR listeners show up as the best informed or the second-best informed, and a majority of Americans watch or listen to PBS or NPR on a weekly basis. Americans, as is their habit, dramatically overestimate the amount of money public broadcasting costs them and yet remarkably still want that funding maintained or increased. Most importantly, PBS is not just the most trusted source of news, it is by one reputable study, repeatedly the most trusted institution in America by a country mile. This is a phenomenal success story. PBS and NPR are educating the public (their mission), the public trusts them, and for pathetically little money in both absolute terms ($1.35 per American per year) and in comparison to their international peers (most of whom get at least 10 times the amount of per-citizen funding, and some far far more).

This is not a fluke. Public broadcasting is a great success story of modern governance. Not just in America, but the public broadcasters in Canada (CBC), Australia (ABC), Britain (BBC), Ireland (RTE), the Netherlands (NPO) and many other nations are popular, informative and even entertaining. They bring programming that for-profit broadcasters do not. Off the top of my meagre head, I can name Doctor Who (BBC), Degrassi High (CBC), Little Mosque on the Prarie (CBC), Nova (PBS), Top Gear (BBC), Frontline (PBS), The Fifth Estate (CBC), The Nature of Things (CBC), Four Corners (ABC), Panorama (BBC) and of course Sesame Street (PBS) as internationally renowned and popular programs brought to the world by public broadcasting. I listen to a lot of podcasts on my MP3 player in the car and the ABC and Radio New Zealand put out some fantastic informative programming. Public broadcasting works well basically everywhere I have ever paid attention to it (admittedly I'm mostly limited to English speaking countries). All of this serves to explain why Movement Conservatives want to kill PBS, and so far as I am aware, want to kill public broadcasters in every nation where they hold power.

Conservatives cannot abide this lasting testament to the competence and workability of public institutions. It belies all their ideological predictions. "State" broadcasters (as they pejoratively call them) are supposed to behave like the Soviet Union's Pravda or North Korean television. Propaganda and lies, dated production values and bland, uninspired presentation. If their ideas actually reflected reality, there would be no need for conservatives to make a point of killing PBS, public opinion would have long killed off the public broadcasters in every free society. It defies them that this hasn't happened. Decades after Thatcher declared "there is no alternative" and Reagan said "government is the problem" these institutions remain, weakened somewhat, but still valued.

If you imagine the world today in some alternate universe where there were no public broadcasters, and you arrived there from here, and suggested that someone set one up, you would be laughed out of the room by the conventional wisdom. Again and again we hear how government cannot work, government is inefficient, bureaucrats just sit on their butts unless they have some hard driving greedhead flogging the whip of quarterly results to keep them motivated. People in that alternate world wouldn't believe that government could successfully operate national television and radio networks that were informative, popular and entertaining. I suspect many people in this universe believe government cannot do so, and yet right under their noses, they are.

It's obvious that Romney's glib and by-the-way remark to Jim Lehrer has touched a nerve in America. People don't think about public broadcasting very often, but here is the Republican nominee for President officially promising to kill public funding for one of the last few things (along with Courts and the Military) that a majority of them (76% in PBS' case) actually trust. If you think about the recent polls on public broadcasting government funding, the fact that maintaining or increasing that funding remains far more popular than cutting it should be remarkable, as these surveys take place in very tough economic times. America is not alone in this regard, Ireland, who have suffered far worse than the US in the economic collapse still maintain RTE with almost as much public funding as America gives its broadcasters (over $200M in 2011).

Don't let them get away with it. There's very little reason to believe PBS and NPR could survive the loss of their public funding in any worthwhile or recognizable form (if at all). America already grossly underfunds these broadcasters which already significantly reduces their effectiveness. I get as annoyed as any other liberal at "nice polite republicans" and their frequent forays into beltway conventionalism and "both sides do it" false equivalencies. Yet I see this as a consequence of NPR's inadequate public funding. Having to rely on various wealthy donors to survive, is it any suprise that the editorial slant of NPR skews towards the views of that class of people? For all that NPR is still far and away better than anything else on the average American's radio dial. I even include most progressive talk radio stations in that too. Sirius Left and whatnot are better than listening to Limbaugh or some overly excited Top-40 formula station, but generally nowhere near as informative or sophisticated as NPR. Even if you really like listening to liberals call in to grouse about conservatives on the air to an appreciative host, that is qualitatively different from what NPR does with its airtime. It's not a fluke that for-profit broadcasters do not do programs like Wait Wait, Prarie Home companion, Dianne Rehm or even Car Talk. Public broadcasting fills a different niche, one that is not fulfilled by for-profit operators. Conservatives try and say that if liberals like PBS so much, we should fund it out of donations from our own pockets. This defeats the purpose of a public broadcaster. A charity network is a qualitatively different creature, even assuming such a thing could survive.

To play off something a twitter wag dubbed, it isn't surprising that a Fat Cat wants to eat the Big Bird. Don't let Wall Street consume Sesame Street.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Torture: Another Liberal Cassandra Moment

Cassandra, the Greek figure tragically doomed to be right about everything and have no one heed her warnings:
It seems likely that a President Mitt Romney would rescind the executive order issued by President Barack Obama outlawing torture. His own policy advisers have told him to do so, according to a memo obtained by the New York Times. (Mitt Romney’s advisers are doing everything they can to encourage the liberal debate over the morality of supporting Obama in the face of his miserable civil liberties record.)

The memo was drafted last year by the Romney campaign’s “national security law subcommittee,” which is made up of 18 lawyers, 15 of whom are George W. Bush administration veterans. The lawyers call on Romney to “rescind and replace” the executive order banning torture and once again allow “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The lawyers also recommend that Romney first make a show of ordering a “review” of torture policy to help make the candidate look “open-minded and empirically driven.” (Jesus Christ.)
Pareene (who is really excellent and under-appreciated) goes on to speculate that Romney may try to spring torture on Obama in the debates.  May all liberals take a "we told you so" stage call.  Torture is now completely just another partisan issue.  Vote Team R if you like tax cuts and making the bad guys suffer like they deserve!  Vote Team D if you like to "coddle" terrorists.  It will even be something Republican candidates feel proud in raising in debates with Democratic opponents.  It gets worse:
In an October 2007 Rasmussen poll, 27 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should torture prisoners captured in the fight against terrorism, while 53 percent said it should not. In my YouGov poll, 41 percent said they would be willing to use torture — a gain of 14 points — while 34 percent would not, a decline of 19 points.
Obama and Holder's refusal to prosecute the Bush administration war criminals should rightly haunt him.    Romney's likely going down in flames, so the people in Gitmo and Bagram are relatively safe from waterboarding, freezing rooms and prolonged stress position agony for another 4 years at least (not safe from being held without rights for absolutely no cause for those four years of course) but after that, President Christie can proudly announce the "adults" are back in charge as he cuts loose the CIA's best sadists to do what they love.  It's just one Executive Order away...

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ryan: "Torture" Statistics and They'll Confess

Hat tip to Digby who quoted this interview, I just wanted to highlight a particular section of the Chris Wallace/Paul Ryan Fox News Sunday morning interview:
WALLACE: You're the master of the budget, so briefly, let's go through the plan. The Obama camp says independent groups say if you cut those taxes rates for everybody, 20 percent, it costs $5 trillion over 10 years -- true? RYAN: Not in the least bit true. Look this just goes to show if you torture statistics enough, they'll confess to what you want them to confess to. That study has been so thoroughly discredited. It wasn't even a measurement of Mitt Romney's -- his policy.
Get that? If you torture statistics, they'll confess to anything. Does Ryan also believe when you torture humans they will do the same? Anyone want to bet against the idea that somewhere Ryan has spoken up in favour of "enhanced interrogation" and/or defended waterboarding for all the great "intelligence" inflicting suffering on a prisoner until he tells you things to stop the pain brings America?

This is an opening to inject some civil liberties talk into the election.  Since it's looking like it might be a rout, adding their Dark Ages mentality on torture to the list of things that caused this drubbing can only be helpful.

Echo The Atrocities

I think my favourite Atrios obsession is the deplorable selection of guests for the mainline Sunday morning political programs.  Whoever said DC is "wired" for Republican control cannot be argued with until lineups like this simply do not happen:


Face the Nation has an EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS CHRISTIE MUST CREDIT FACE THE NATION, Disgraced Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Marcia Blackburn.
 Tell us more about the "liberal" media oh conservatives.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Justin Trudeau

  • He appears to have won a tough nomination fight for the Montreal riding of Papineau back in 2007, and won the competitive seat held by a Bloc Quebecois incumbent (though historically a Liberal held seat) during a pretty bad election for Liberals in 2008, and subsequently survived the 2011 Liberal implosion.
  • He backed longshot Gerard Kennedy, a pretty decent liberal, in the 2006 Liberal leadership race rather than the "safe" frontrunners of either Ignatieff or Rae.
  • He has dual bachelors degrees from Canadian public Universities and has worked as a teacher, in both private and public schools.  
  • I understand he's fluently bilingual
  • It's not the biggest deal in the world, but facing down a stockier and younger opponent (and winning) shows some kind of mettle.
  • He's not the US/UK Ivy league educated and former Goldman Sachs profiteer technocratic saviour that the remaining Liberal elites seem to be desperately courting, Stephen Harper's pick for Bank of Canada Governor: Mark Carney.
  • I wouldn't put much stock in a flash poll finding that he'd win a federal election as Liberal leader, but it's of course good to start out as known brand that Harper's ad shop will have a difficult time defining negatively.
  • It's undeniable we would not be talking about him as Liberal leader seriously if he was not his father's son.  Yes he is charismatic and so on, but it's difficult to imagine people would be half as aware of his charisma if he didn't have a famous name.  There probably are back-bench MPs who are charismatic but don't have that leg-up to household name recognition.
  • What does he believe?  What kind of Liberal party would he lead?  What would his priorities be as Prime Minister?  His issues page is wafer thin.  He has my interest, and I take his support of Gerard Kennedy as a decent sign, but he has a ways to go to earn my support.
  • At this point, it might be best for Canada that the Liberals pick a forgettable leader who leads them to a predicable 3rd place finish in the 2015 election.  There's a real danger of a giant NDP/Liberal vote split that keeps the Conservatives in power thanks to our antiquated first past the post voting system.  If you're a loyal party Liberal, you of course want the party to have the strongest candidate.  If you're a small-l liberal first, you want a progressive party in power and the more experienced Mulcair has to remain the more credible person to do that at this point.
  • He conditionally endorsed the idea of a Liberal/NDP merger.  I'm disposed to be in favour of some kind of cooperation between these parties, and am glad he's at least open to it.  It also says something about his politics, as the Liberals who are against this tend to be the most conservative ones who still think liberalism is about repealing the Corn-Laws and letting invisible hands fix everything.  That said, I could be wrong, and it could be that a merged NDP-Liberal (NDP get top billing now as the bigger caucus) party pushes enough die hard NDP supporters Green, recent soft federalist Quebecois back to the BQ and blue Liberals to the Conservatives to still lose.  It has other potential downsides in the long term but I'm not going to give the topic a fuller treatment right now.
I'm going to need to read further on the Carney angle.  Right now my instinct is that keeping Canada out of the maw of the Vampire Squid is worth supporting a "legacy" pick who almost certainly cannot live up to his father's image and legacy (which are different from his father's actual record).  It could be an unfair impression but there are too many ugly signs on that book cover to ignore completely.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Economy as a Journey, Not a River

The always insightful Paul Rosenberg has an excellent piece up on linguist Anat Shenker-Osorio's new book "Don't Buy It:  The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy."  According to Rosenberg, she discusses empirical evidence of how the political metaphor used for the economy affects what sorts of policies voters support.  To conservatives, the economy is water, a river, the tide or just plain Mother Nature herself (bolding added):
First, the metaphors they used reinforced their view of the economy as something natural, and hence best left alone. That described the "what" of the economy. In addition to personifying the economy (hence "ailing, growing, recovering, anemic, fragile" etc) this view was also reinforced by metaphors of water (as in "money flowing, a rising tide lifting all boats", etc) and weather ("economic storms, a cold business climate", etc). Such naturalistic metaphors might seem, well, natural, but the implication is obvious, she reminds us: "You know who regulates the ocean? The moon." The common conservative point of all these metaphors is that human interference is irrelevant and silly at best, and more likely downright harmful.
Liberals on the other hand have been far less consistent in the metaphors we use to describe the economy.  We more often fall prey to using right wing descriptions which makes the intellectual lift of persuading people to support our policies more difficult.  But one model he endorses is a car, which encapsulates the economy as something created artificially by humans, and something that is fundamentally a tool to be used in service of other goals, rather than a goal in itself:
Although they lack discipline, progressives do have an appropriate metaphor: the economy as a human-made object in motion - ideally, a vehicle - which sends the factually accurate message that the economy would not even exist without human involvement, and needs conscious controlling in order to avoid disastrous results.
Although I've never given enough thought to the meta topic of metaphor selection, I have previously used the car metaphor in discussing the economy, for example, in explaining why I thought that the nature of the economic system was not actually the defining issue for liberalism as an ideology, I once wrote:
In my own mental model of society, economics is the engine of the car.  Engines are obviously very important to the overall functioning of the car.  However, they are not the purpose of the car.  They are also able to vary significantly in theory.  So long as it can provide power to turn an axle, who cares how the engine does it?  In practice, car engines almost all work on the same principles, and the laws of physics limit the practicality of many alternative models.  So it seems with economics.  Capitalism may be the greatest economic system possible, or it may be the best we have tried so far, and others still untried will prove much better.  Liberalism can be agnostic on this topic.  If it employs capitalism, it will delve into the best way to tune and tweak that engine for maximum output, but it will remember that the engine is not the car, and what is good for the engine is not necessarily best for the car. 
I bolded the last part to highlight how the car metaphor lends itself to progressive economic policies.  Too often economic policy abstracts "the economy" to the point of practically anthropomorphizing it, so that public policy aims should serve the economy rather than the economy serving public policy aims.  If we talk about an engine, we may want to invest in new sparkplugs or higher quality fuel or whatever, but if the seatbelts are broken that's easily a higher priority and only when we understand what new sparkplugs or premium gasoline will do to benefit us, the passengers in our journey.

It's a great piece and it sounds like an important book.  Rosenberg's last couple paragraphs on how the journey metaphor lends itself to better ways of discussing inequality as a problem are not to be missed.  Naturally Martin Luther King Jr. got there first on instinct and intuition alone, but it's a great insight into why his rhetoric was so effective and how we mere mortals might recreate some of his magic going forward.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why Not Share Embassies with the UK?

I don't have a big problem with Canada finding economies in sharing real estate with other nations in maintaining our diplomatic and consular services around the world.  As this map shows, we've got a pretty extensive reciprocal arrangement with Australia.  Good for both of us.

I do take issue with sharing with the UK though.  Three main reasons:
  • Canada was a UK colony and doesn't exactly have a very high profile around the world.  One of our big national stories concerns the World War 1 battle of Vimy Ridge, the first time Canada's forces all fought together, and fought under Canadian instead of British command.  We teach kids in school that the victory at Vimy was the first time the international press wrote about the activities of Canadian troops in WWI as Canadians rather than just as part of British forces.  It's something of our foundation as a separate nation apart from the UK.  When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, Canada, despite having independent rule simply understood itself to also be at war with Germany.  All that is to say historically we took some pains to distinguish ourselves from the UK.  I don't love the idea of implicitly putting ourselves back in the mother country's shadow.  We only repatriated our own fully domestic Constitution in 1982.
  • Quebec.  There are serious points of contention with Quebec and while there's little immediate danger of a new referendum on sovereignty it's irresponsible to needlessly offend them like this for something as petty as some operating budget savings (which is how the government is now justifying this).  Quebec is not going to break the country up over this, but all these petty cultural insults by this government just serve to remind Quebec how little they support the government, and how little influence they currently have in Canada.  It all adds up.
  • The UK's colonial baggage.  This mostly isn't about any specific recent thing the UK has done or is doing but just that much of the world has not forgotten that Britain ruled an empire that included many of them, and they didn't like it very much.  One of Canada's under appreciated diplomatic strengths has been that we don't have the baggage of colonialism.  We never had a global colonial empire.  Britain still has simmering disputes around over their few remaining holdings, and don't say those don't matter.  But when you combine our underwhelming presence and identity on the world stage the last thing we need is to start letting ourselves be defined as Britain's little brother.  Better than "America Jr." perhaps, but not by much. 
It could be much ado about not much, but to the extent that views of our country are shaped by people in other lands driving past a building that says "Joint Canadian and British Consulate" - they know damn well who Britain is, but they probably don't know much about us, so we are too easily defined in relation to whom we associate ourselves with.   Sharing with nations like Australia is far less a problem in this regard.  I'm sure their foreign policy record isn't ideal, but they don't have a global legacy of centuries as the Superpower. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Yglesias Digs In On Tax Breaks For Idle Rich

I recently took issue with a Matt Yglesias piece purporting to demonstrate the supposedly socially beneficial economics behind giving preferential treatment to investment income (or "capital gains").  Yglesias has now replied to the critics of that piece but remains thoroughly unpersuasive.  He completely ignores several major points of critique around the original piece (such as the point that the one doctor is not "doubly" taxed) and starts by simply trying to change the subject into the desirability of some kind of progressive sales tax, which I'll address later, but on his previous post, this is about all he has to say:
Last I'll say that I was a bit surprised by some of the blowback simply because this is such standard practice. Not only have capital gains been taxed at a lower rate than ordinary income throughout almost all of American history (with the gap even bigger when you consider that investment income isn't subject to Social Security tax), but the gap was particularly large during the postwar decades that progressives often cite as an example of a time when high tax rates were compatible with strong economic growth. In European countries with large welfare states, similarly, there's a lot of reliance on consumption taxes as a finance base.
This is really sloppy and fallacy laden argumentation, in order:
  1. "Standard practice" - so lots of orthodox neoliberal economists think this way.  So what?  Shall I start of list of things that the neoliberal economic consensus was wrong about over the past 20 years? Maybe Yglesias is right that most economists agree with this, but it's not hard to find dissenters.  One of them is the most famous (living) economist on the planet after all.  He's not alone either.  Krugman's problem with this policy is what I highlighted from Yglesias' last piece; the wafer thin nature of the evidence of the actual benefits we're supposed to realize.  
  2. "American history" - most of American history has US federal policy largely controlled by wealthy interests, sometimes actually driving, other times using their veto on policy they don't like via the Senate (which was the explicit point of the Senate).  The period between The New Deal to the end of LBJ's presidency is about the only period where liberal policies designed to benefit the majority were somewhat dominant.   Even so, America didn't get universal health care in this period like so many other rich countries, so even then the rich still had outsized political influence.  It's not shocking that they managed to keep their cherished tax break afloat.
  3. "Postwar decades" - Let's concede for sake of argument that progressives all think the postwar decades were utopia.  Does that mean lower capital gains taxation is good?  Or that this period was good despite this tax preference?  Isn't that a more likely interpretation of progressive views on the subject?  
Now, as to a progressive consumption tax, this strikes me as beside the point.  Yglesias set out to show why Mitt Romney's tax rates should be lower than those of working people, and having failed to persuade his readers of that (at least judging by the comments and my own reaction) he diverts to saying that a progressive sales tax could alleviate progressive concerns about growing inequality.  Well, maybe.  But in an America funded by progressive consumption taxes, then we're also not taxing income either, so the preference for investment income over labour goes away.  When and if a progressive sales tax is on some kind of plausible agenda, I might be persuadable that it is superior to raising the capital gains tax, but that's not the world we live in today. 

Nobody on the left gets out of bed every day on raising the capital gains tax.  If Yglesias has some vision of America where the rich pay their share other ways, then probably I and others wouldn't care so much about this tax break mostly benefiting the idle rich, but inequality is growing, various forces are trying to use government revenue shortfalls as an excuse to cut the programs most important to the bottom half of society, and in the absence of a strong case for the general benefits of this tax break, it should be "on the table" too.  If an increase in the capital gains tax rate would keep some number of the poor able to get Medicaid or keep the Medicare eligibility age from increasing then damn right it should go up. 

Actually raising the capital gains tax rate is not on any likely-to-pass agenda, but at least let's not help the 1% plead their case by claiming it's better for everyone that the Mitt Romneys of the world pay lower taxes than us working shmoes.  The last thing we need is smug conservative pundits citing "even the liberal" Matt Yglesias as being in favour of this tax preference for the rich. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Deregulation Kills Workers

The CBC has done a good job tracking the story of a gas station employee killed as he tried to stop a customer who was driving away with over $100 in gas without paying.  I'm glad I wasn't the only one who saw the original story on the weekend and immediately guessed that the cause was that his employer was docking his pay for theft losses.  Now, the employer (a Shell franchisee) in this case denies it, but the deceased man's family (who insist he was penalized) are much more likely in my opinion to be telling the truth. 

The man, likely earning at most minimum wage plus a dollar or two, in the face of seeing several days worth of wages driving off was prompted to put his own life at extreme risk facing off against someone in a vehicle. 

This is just a good case in point to remind ourselves at least anecdotally how regulation (with adequate enforcement) saves lives.  Ontario actually has a law that prohibits employers from holding their employees financially accountable for any assets the employee doesn't have sole control over, but it's obvious that there is widespread under the radar disobedience of this law by the station owners.  Now, this is what happens even with the law prohibiting it.  Imagine what would happen if this law were repealed?  The numerous anecdotal reports of gas station employees facing such penalties (and to which I can add my brother, who worked for a real cheapskate station owner many years ago) show that the incentives are in favour of owners outsourcing this risk to their staff, and the power disparity between owner and employee is such that they will almost certainly get away with it. 
The usual conservative/libertarian answer to this is "if you don't like it, find another job" - but even for individuals able to do that, the industry practice wouldn't change and many more clerks will get hurt or killed over gasoline thefts.  No, if you actually want to prevent these tragedies, regulation is the answer.  We're often told that business owners deserve every penny they can squeeze out of their businesses because they take all the risks in opening them, I'm not convinced of this, but I do know they should not be allowed to delegate downside risk to staff with no comparable upside opportunity. 

There will still be cases where regulations are ineffective or do more harm than good for whatever reason, but such cases do not negate the basic rationale for regulations:  Employers almost always have more power than employees and if left to their own devices, many will exploit that power imbalance in unfair and socially harmful ways.

A Liberal MPP has proposed a bill to make pre-payment at Ontario gas stations mandatory and the Ontario Federation of Labour has moved quickly to set up a hotline where people can report gas station owners who violate this law. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Yglesias' Weak and Incomplete Defence of Romney's Tax Rates

Slate's Matt Yglesias attempts to defend the fact that Mitt Romney generally pays a lower rate of taxation on his millions in income than many working people pay.  It's exactly as unconvincing as you might expect.  To summarize his case:
  • Widely accepted economic theory states that lower (or zero) taxation on investment income incents aadditional investment by people who would otherwise not bother investing it (see his example of two doctors deciding what to do with the money they make being doctors)
  • It's really a great theory but there's no clear proof of it in the data
No, really, he has no proof of this theory, quote:
That's the theory, at any rate. It's a pretty solid theory, it's in most of the textbooks I've seen, and it shapes public policy in basically every country I'm familiar with. Even researchers like Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez (see "A Theory of Optimal Capital Taxation") who dissent from the standard no taxation of investment income position think capital income should be taxed more lightly than labor income. Empirically, it's a bit difficult to verify that variations in capital gains tax rates and the like really are making a material difference to investment levels. But then again the data is noisy.
I can't help but snark here and express my utter surprise that the empirical evidence for the benefits of trickle down economics is thin.  I could stop right here as I think that alone disqualifies the piece from having achieved its aim, but there's a couple other things to say: 
  •  Yglesias contends the doctor who invests his money is being "double taxed" on the money when he has to pay normal income tax rates on the gains he makes.  His commenters take suitable exception to this, even if investment income is taxed like regular, when you sell your $1M in stock, you only pay taxes on the gains not the amount you originally invested.
  • It's bizarre to use an example of two upper-middle class professionals to justify the tax rates that Mitt Romney pays.  Romney is in the stratosphere of wealth, he can consume as much luxury goods as he can possible use or want and not have to make hard choices about whether to invest money.  Maybe it could marginally affect how much he invests or spends but Yglesias' example has the prodigal doctor who spends all his money on luxury vacations and such and invests none of it. 
Lack of evidence aside, the glaring logical flaw is that Yglesias is making a utilitarian argument in defence of an inherently unfair (I think he agrees it's at least prima facie unfair) tax preference for unearned income because it supposedly has some great pragmatic benefits, but fails to contend with the downsides of the policy.  This is a tax break that mostly goes to the rich, it has costs, like the direct increase of social inequality, and starving government of revenue or forcing it to get those revenues elsewhere.  A growing body of evidence shows that social inequality has real costs, in health, cohesion, happiness, crime, productivity, education and just about everything in society is affected. 

Even if Yglesias could prove some increase in investment because of lower tax rates, and further prove that additional investment leads to broad societal gains (something he doesn't attempt) - in a utilitarian argument you still have to show the gains are worth the costs.   I strongly doubt letting the rich keep all unearned income tax free (or significantly discounted) could survive that test. 

Finally, as several commenters point out, there's no reason that investment income cannot also be taxed progressively even if the rates are lower than labour income.  Maybe the doctor should pay 15% on his modest capital gains, but why can't Romney pay 25% or 28% on the millions he makes instead of 15%?  Even making the case for lower taxes on investment income in principle is not to defend America's crazy ultra low 15% rate on all capital gains.