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.