Sobering Thoughts

Comments on politics, the culture, economics, and sports by Paul Tuns. I am editor-in-chief of "The Interim," Canada's life and family newspaper, and author of "Jean Chretien: A Legacy of Scandal" (2004) and "The Dauphin: The Truth about Justin Trudeau" (2015). I am some combination of conservative/libertarian, standing athwart history yelling "bullshit!" You can follow me on Twitter (@ptuns).

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Saturday, February 25, 2017
 
Deconstruct the administrative state, baby
I'm not a Donald Trump fan and neither is Jonah Goldberg, but we were both cheering Steve Bannon's call for deconstructing the administrative state, even if we have our reservations about the first word in that phrase:
I will also say that I loved his comments about “deconstructing the administrative state” — though I do wonder what’s wrong with the term “dismantle”?
Deconstructing the administrative state is a kind of nightingale’s song for many intellectual conservatives, particularly my friends in the Claremont Institute’s orbit. It’s been great fun watching mainstream journalists, who are not fluent in these things, talk about the administrative state as if they understand what Bannon means. The “administrative state” is the term of art for the permanent bureaucracy, which has come untethered from constitutional moorings (please read Phillip Hamburger’s Is Administrative Law Unlawful?, or Charles Murray’s By the People, or my forthcoming book — which as of now has some 75 pages on this stuff). Most of the law being created in this country is now created on autopilot, written by unelected mandarins in the bowels of the government. It is the direct result of Congress’s decades-long surrender of its powers to the executive branch. The CIA is not the “deep state” — the FDA, OSHA, FCC, EPA, and countless other agencies are.
If Bannon and Trump can in fact responsibly dismantle the administrative state and return lawmaking to Congress and the courts (where appropriate), then I will be ecstatic, and I will don the MAGA hat. But that is a very big if. The bulk of that work must be done by Congress, not the presidency. And any attempt to simply move the unlawful arbitrary power of the administrative state to the political operation of the West Wing will not be a triumph for liberty, it will simply amount to replacing one form of arbitrary power with another.


 
Autonomous vehicles and bikes
Peter Fairley at IEEE Spectrum:
“Bicycles are probably the most difficult detection problem that autonomous vehicle systems face,” says UC Berkeley research engineer Steven Shladover.
Nuno Vasconcelos, a visual computing expert at the University of California, San Diego, says bikes pose a complex detection problem because they are relatively small, fast and heterogenous. “A car is basically a big block of stuff. A bicycle has much less mass and also there can be more variation in appearance — there are more shapes and colors and people hang stuff on them.”
But there are improvements on the horizon:
Put all of these elements together, and one can observe some pretty impressive results, such as the bike spotting demonstrated last year by Google’s vehicles. Waymo, Google’s autonomous vehicle spinoff, unveiled proprietary sensor technology with further upgraded bike-recognition capabilities at this month’s Detroit Auto Show.
Skeptics of self-driving cars often seem to want a perfectly safe technology, forgetting that human beings are not error-free when it comes to detecting bikers.


 
Against the living wage
The Adam Smith Institute has a new briefing paper "Against the National Living Wage: Why 2017 is not 1997." It's only nine pages, but ASI's executive director Sam Bowman writes a summary of it for ConservativeHome. Bowman says that politicians love minimum and living wages because such policies look "like a free lunch" with lower-income workers getting a boost in wages at (ostensibly) no cost to government. The ASI paper reviews the evidence of mandatory minimum wage increases and finds that in the United States, "overall we see a pretty clear and consistent pattern of minimum wage rises leading to job losses – not massive ones, but significant and not to be ignored." Echoing Thomas Sowell I often ask why it is better to be unemployed at $10 than employed at $9. Bowman writes:
Ultimately, minimum wages are a form of redistribution. That doesn’t make them bad, but remember that the money comes from somewhere. Politicians like them because they’re done off-balance sheet – it’s not as clear to the people paying that they’re losing out as when taxes go up.
If the result is higher prices, then we might just be taking money from poor consumers to give a pay rise to, say, second earners in a better-off household who need the money less.
A little more unemployment and higher prices are the consequences of minimum and living wages. This hardly helps those are the lower rungs of the wage ladder. Bowman says there are better alternative policies:
There are other reforms that are much less risky, from the perspective of the poor: planning changes that make it easier to build dense, beautiful housing in cities and green suburbs outside our cities that would lower the cost of housing. And we could make changes to childcare regulations that bring us into line with much cheaper countries like Denmark in Europe.
If we want to redistribute to the working poor, simplifying and strengthening tax credits would avoid some of the unintended consequences we find with minimum wages.
It is easier for politicians to earn laudatory headlines by forcing businesses to pay higher than market wages for their least valuable employees, but they are not the most effective policies to help those they claim to want to aid.


 
Carbon taxes are better in theory than practice
The Wall Street Journal editorializes against the George Schultz and James Baker column recently published in their pages:
George Shultz and James Baker, the esteemed former secretaries of State, have joined a group of GOP worthies for a carbon tax and recently pressed the case in these pages. They propose a gradually increasing tax that would be redistributed to Americans as a “dividend.” This tax on fossil fuels would replace the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan and a crush of other punitive regulations. Energy imports from countries without a similar structure would face a tax at the border.
A carbon tax would be better than bankrupting industries by regulation and more efficient than a “cap-and-trade” emissions credit scheme. Such a tax might be worth considering if traded for radically lower taxes on capital or income, or is narrowly targeted like a gasoline tax. But in the real world the Shultz-Baker tax is likely to be one more levy on the private economy. Even if a grand tax swap were politically possible, a future Congress might jack up rates or find ways to reinstate regulations.
Another problem is the “dividend.” A carbon tax would be regressive, as the poor spend more of their income on gasoline and household energy. The plan purports to solve this in part by promising to return the tax to the American public. But the purpose of taxes is to fund government services, not shuffle money from one payer to another.
Aside from the policy, there is the politics:
Remember also that this is the academic version of a plan that is sure to deteriorate when 535 legislators offer an opinion. Even if Members of Congress were for some reason willing to sign on to a large tax increase for all of their constituents, the final version would inevitably include more progressive tax refunds and more spending. Congress has never shown the self-restraint to collect an estimated $1 trillion in taxes and return it to the public.


Friday, February 24, 2017
 
Airlines and anti-Semitism
Tyler Cowen points to a new paper by Joel Waldfogel and Paul M. Vaaler. From the abstract:
We explore discriminatory product differentiation in the airline market through airlines’ depiction of Israel on their online route maps and whether their online menus include kosher meal options. We first show that several international airlines omit Israel from their online route maps. Three of these airlines are members of the major international airline alliances. With data on over 100 airlines, we then document that Israel map denial is more likely for airlines with passengers from countries exhibiting greater anti-Semitism. Owner tastes also matter: denial is more likely for state-owned airlines in countries that do not recognize Israel. Kosher meal options on online menus follow similar patterns, suggesting anti-Semitic rather than anti-Zionist motivations. Israel denial does not reduce the probability of alliance membership with alliance leaders having few airline alternatives to choose from in the Middle East.


Thursday, February 23, 2017
 
California: from bread-basket to basket-case
At First Things, Wesley Smith reflects on leaving California, noting it was once a bastion of practicality before falling victim to San Francisco liberals:
California’s great strength was once its dynamism and practical excellence. Los Angeles became the country’s second-most populous city because of brilliantly engineered water projects that transported rivers of water to parched Southern California from the north and east, while also transforming the Central Valley from a wasteland to the nation’s bread basket.
Californians were also expert problem solvers. When I was a kid, the smog in Los Angeles was as thick as China’s is today, causing burning eyes and aching lungs. In the summer, the air was so opaque that we couldn’t see the San Gabriel mountains a mere fifteen miles away from my home. L.A. smog persists today, but nowhere near the crisis levels of my youth, thanks to reasonable environmental regulations.
California was also known for generally good governance. Our public schools were mostly excellent and our state university system was among the best in the nation. In my time, Democrats such as Pat Brown, and Republicans like George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, governed moderately and with fiscal responsibility. Racism was certainly a serious problem, but in 1973, Los Angeles voters elected as mayor the pragmatic African-American City Councilman Tom Bradley over Sam Yorty, the acerbic and somewhat anti–civil rights movement incumbent. A new era seemed to be dawning.
That hopeful, moderate, sensible, and pragmatically progressive California is long gone. Today, radical governance is the rule at both the state and big city levels. The California Republican party self-destructed, allowing the Jacobin wing of the Democrat party to take absolute control. How skewed to the left have the state’s politics become? Due to a voter-approved initiative that has the two highest primary vote-getters appearing on the general election ballot regardless of party, some November races for major state offices are contests between a leftwing Democrat and a radical Democrat.
“San Francisco values,” once something of a national joke, drive contemporary California politics with a whip hand. Indeed, until the Los Angeles–area congressman was recently appointed Attorney General, San Francisco politicians controlled every important statewide office: governor (Jerry Brown), lieutenant governor (former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome), attorney general (now senator), the former San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, and both United States senators. And let us not forget that the Democrat queen kahuna of Congress, Nancy Pelosi, represents parts of San Francisco and its liberal, mega-rich neighbor to the north, Marin County.


 
America's pension crisis
George Will:
Nowadays, America’s most persistent public dishonesties are the wildly optimistic, but politically convenient, expectations for returns on pension-fund investments. Last year, when Illinois reduced its expected return on its teachers’ retirement fund from 7.5 percent to 7, this meant a $400 million to $500 million addition to the taxes needed annually for the fund. And expecting 7 percent is probably imprudent. Add to the Illinois example the problems of the 49 other states that have pension debt of at least $19,000 per household and numerous municipalities, and you will understand why many jurisdictions will be considering buyouts, whereby government workers are offered a lump sum in exchange for smaller pension benefits. Last September, in the seventh year of the recovery from the Great Recession, the vice chair of the agency in charge of Oregon’s government-workers’ pension system wept when speaking about the state’s unfunded pension promises passing $22 billion.
The Manhattan Institute’s Josh B. McGee reports that teachers’ pension plans, which cover more people than all other state and local plans combined, have at least a $500 billion problem. This is the gap between promised benefits and money set aside to fund them.
And it has consequences. There is less money for student instruction as governments have to pay for retirement benefits.
Will notes that Dallas, even with its superior economic growth (relative to other American cities), is facing an unfounded pension crisis. Eric Boehm writes in the March edition of Reason:
Municipal bankruptcies, though rare, are bound to happen from time to time. But they are not supposed to happen in places like Dallas, where the population and the economy are both growing. If poorly designed pension plans are capable of wrecking an otherwise thriving city, it's time to revise our view of what places are exposed to these risks.
Those risks are partly demographic:
Because pension costs are always deferred—you're promising to pay employees later for work they're doing now—they tend to lag behind demographic changes. A sharp decline in the number of taxpayers means promises made years ago must be borne by a smaller group of people. Unless the pensions are properly funded for decades in advance, that's going to cause serious problems.
Will says that pensions -- public and private -- face a challenge that includes demographics, sluggish economic growth, and low bond yields, but that public sector pensions also include a pernicious political dimension:
The generic problem in the public sector is the moral hazard at the weakly beating heart of what Walter Russell Mead calls the “blue model” of governance — the perverse incentives in the alliance of state and local elected Democrats with public employees’ unions. The former purchase the latter’s support with extravagant promises, the unrealism of which will become apparent years hence, when the promise-makers will have moved on. The latter expect that when the future arrives, the government that made the promises can be compelled by law or political pressure to extract the promised money from the public.


 
Does America assimilate too efficiently?
Tyler Cowen considers non-Latino arrivals:
It is striking to me how very rapidly they assimilate, and I don’t just mean the Canadians ... I mean the Russians, the Iranians, the Chinese, the Indians, and many others, including most of the Muslim immigrants. They don’t become culturally identical to the native-born, but in terms of economic and social indicators, you couldn’t ask for a much better performance.
The assimilation problem in fact comes from the longstanding native-born Americans, often of more traditional stock. The country around them has changed rapidly, and they do not assimilate so well to the new realities. And since they are not self-selected migrants who know they will face hardship, they are not always so inclined to internalize a “suck it up” kind of attitude. Many complain, others settle into niches of failure or mediocre careers.
In this regard, encouraging the actual arriving immigrants to assimilate better or faster can make the actual assimilation problem worse, because it will change the home culture more rapidly too.
Provocative thesis and worth closer examination. How does the Tyler thesis echo the late Michael Novak's observation from The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics: The New Political Force of the Seventies (1972) that "WASPS have never had to celebrate Columbus Day or march down Fifth Avenue wearing green. Every day has been their day in America. No more."
What are the cultural indicators that show "most Muslim" immigrants perform so well? I'm dubious.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017
 
I'm back
I haven't blogged in nearly a week. I was unexpectedly hospitalized for several procedures and am recovering fine. Hope nothing happened in the past week -- no internet, newspaper, or other sources of news for nearly six days and I don't really feel like catching up. Hope to get to emails and messages shortly, but I make no promises. Sporadic blogging and tweeting should resume shortly.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017
 
Carbon tax won't affect climate, will impact economic growth
Diana Furchtgott-Roth in Investor’s Business Daily: "Carbon Tax Won't Curb Climate Change, But It Will Clobber Growth." She questions whether recent advocates of a carbon tax/price/dividend (yes, dividend) can fulfill their vision to return carbon taxes to American taxpayers, especially the poor. There is always the promise of lower income taxes or, more recently, increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit. Furchtgott-Roth says:
Under our polarized system of government, any tax on carbon would be an additional tax, without the offsets that make it so attractive to academics. It would hurt the poor and raise domestic prices relative to prices of imports.
And every special interest will try to get its greedy hands on the carbon tax revenue.
It is an economic, budget, and political nightmare (benefiting blue states and harming red ones), and at the moment it does little for the environment: "America is responsible for 16% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and America's reductions in carbon usage will not help climate change unless other countries also limit their emissions." There are also serious questions that Furchtgott-Roth does not raise about the modest levels of carbon taxation and whether any politically feasible rate would do enough to discourage the use of fossil fuels.
The carbon tax is a solution to a problem, but it isn't environmental. The problem is that Washington needs wants more revenue.


 
The cultural roots of economic problems
Conservative MP and founder of the Centre for Social Justice Iain Duncan Smith at Conservative Home:
Figures show that family breakdown is a big driver of UK poverty as children in families that break apart are more than twice as likely to be living in long term poverty. When couples break up, children suffer and poverty in the family is often not far behind.
As a society, we should be much more concerned about this, especially when we consider that family stability is unequally shared. By the age of five, 48 per cent of children in low-income households are not living with both parents, compared to 16 per cent of children in middle to higher income households. Two out of three children growing up in poverty will experience family breakdown. Family stability is becoming a middle class preserve.
There are also ramifications for elder care:
Figures show that the offspring of difficult broken homes are less likely to care for their elderly or sick parents and grandparents. This in turn, places a strain on communities and services, a widely acknowledged problem issue at the moment.
And this has costs for taxpayers:
It is peculiar that with facts as shocking as these that we don’t talk about family breakdown more, especially when we look beyond the human cost and consider how much it costs us all as taxpayers. Every year the Relationships Alliance attempt to put a price tag on the cost of family breakdown, the amount our broken relationships costs the Government each year. This year it’s anticipated to exceed £48 billion. That’s an eye-watering amount to simply ignore. To put this into context, whilst I have nothing against helping support the Church repair the fabric of its buildings, the state spends more on this (some £20 million) than it does on supporting relationships and helping families stay together (£14 million). This is a serious problem because this relationship support has shown conclusively that when undertaken responsibly it can help repair family relationships and stabilise marriage.
As Mark Steyn has often said, it makes little sense to be fiscally conservative but socially liberal.


 
Returning to the Commonwealth
The Daily Telegraph reports that British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson has announced that Gambia will return to the Commonwealth. Ahead of a trip to a pair of African countries, Johnson said:
"I am very pleased that Gambia wants to rejoin the Commonwealth and we will ensure this happens in the coming months."
"The strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world."
Former president Yahya Jammeh called the Commonwealth a neo-colonial organization and vowed his country would have nothing to do with it. Adama Barrow, who was recently elected president, vowed to bring the west African country back into the Commonwealth and is carrying through on his election promise. Gambia will become the fourth country to leave the Commonwealth and return. Johnson says the decision is proof of the United Kingdom's post-Brexit influence ("Global Britain"). This seems to have more to do with Gambian politics than it does British leadership.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017
 
Did Trudeau 'cower' before Trump
Andrew Stiles at Heat Street:
Trump intimidated Trudeau by assuming a wide stance during a photo op in the Oval Office. This is sometimes referred to as “manspreading,” and is a common tactic used by alpha males, including former President Bill Clinton.
Trudeau, meanwhile, signaled weakness during the photo session by keeping his legs in close proximity to another, a behavior sometimes referred to as “cowering before greatness.”
Or sometimes a wide stance is just a wide stance -- and not anything else.


 
I don't get this logic
The Toronto Star reported on the anti-John Tory, anti-tax, pro-Doug Ford event held in Toronto. I found this confusing:
Toni Raimondo, an event planner, said in an interview she attended because taxes and fees keep going up under Tory.
“I have a very sick child, with cancer, and all my money goes to medicine — the increases are more than inflation, it adds up,” she said.
Asked what she would cut in the budget, Raimondo said people need to pay for the services they use.
“If you go to a community centre you should pay and if you can’t afford it, you don’t go.”
I don't understand how the answer to rising fees is ... user fees.


Monday, February 13, 2017
 
Ethics commissioner to investigate Prime Minister
The CBC headline -- "Ethics watchdog opens second investigation into PM's trip to spiritual leader's private island" -- on a Canadian Press story is incorrect. Technically it is the first investigation by Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson, and it is the result of the review of a complaint about Justin Trudeau using the Aga Khan's personal helicopter to travel to his personal island for a winter vacation. The timing of the mildly embarrassing announcement to the Prime Minister is questionable, coming the same day he traveled to Washington to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump, pretty well guaranteeing the story gets buried.


 
Bureaucrats
Hot Air's Ed Morrissey looks at two stories on the weekend (one from the New York Times, another from Politico) on how bureaucrats are not happy that Republicans in the White House and Congress want to roll back regulations. Morrissey observes:
Democrats and the media may be cheering the so-called “resistance” movement within the federal bureaucracy, but this proves what conservatives and Republicans have long argued. The bureaucracy has become its own special-interest group, and amounts to an unaccountable shadow government that strips Americans of their right to select the policies they want for their own self-governance. Rather than serve the elected government of the United States, these bureaucrats want to force elected officials to serve them. Regardless of whether or not the policies of those elected officials are entirely wise, those officials serve the voters, and the federal bureaucracy is supposed to implement their policies ...
Since Trump’s election, we’ve seen a plethora of warnings about the coming authoritarianism. Stories like those at the New York Times and Politico should prompt questions as to whether it had been here all along, and whether these hysterical outbreaks are a sign that it might be coming to an end.
Also, bureaucrats invoking the "will of the people" in a battle with elected officials (the president and his administration, and Congress) is a little rich.


 
PMJT: wrong even when he's right
The Guardian: "Justin Trudeau says it's not Canada's duty to 'lecture' Trump on immigration." Canada's Prime Minister engaged in some virtue signalling on refugees on Twitter recently but did not raise the issues of immigration or refugees with the new American President, and correctly so. Trudeau apparently was criticized for his silence during his visit to Washington. The PM answered his critics: "The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they choose they govern themselves. My role, my responsibility is to continue to govern in such a way that reflects Canadians’ approach and be a positive example in the world." It would have been irresponsible and imperious for the mouse to tell the elephant how to conduct its internal affairs, and one could imagine the Canadian outrage if Trump encouraged Trudeau to take a similar tact as Washington has to (supposedly) prioritize national security. And yet, Trudeau's comments were still intended to insult to Trump and his policies. Trudeau's comment that the Canadian "approach" is to be a "positive example in the world" is an implicit criticism of American policy. This is the foreign policy equivalent of the campaign tactic to publicly eschew attack ads against opponents with its implicit criticism that others are going negative. It should be obvious that there is criticism intended in Trudeau's comments, even if they do not come in the form of a traditional lecture.


 
Secret Labour search for Corbyn replacement
The Sunday Times reports that Labour is conducting focus groups and polls in north England to test the appeal of possible Corbyn successors shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner:
Labour is conducting secret "succession planning" for Jeremy Corbyn’s departure, according to leaked documents that warn the party is facing meltdown under his leadership. The public appeal of two rising stars, Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey, has been tested by a focus group as the hard left looks for potential successors to Corbyn. The group, organised by Labour’s pollster BMG Research, delivered a damning verdict on Corbyn himself with participants saying he was "boring," appeared "fed up" and "looks like a scruffy school kid."
Regarded as rising stars within the party, their focus groups have found the response to Rayner was "overwhelmingly negative" with responses ranging from "not likeable" and "weird." The feeling was that voters would not take her seriously. The responses to Long-Bailey were more positive: passionate, genuine, sincere, and smart. The Times reports that polling would be conducted in other parts of the country.
Corbyn won a second mandate from Labour last year but polls have found Labour support tanking.
The Guardian's Matthew D'Ancona puts the Labour exercise in perspective:
Let us not get carried away. One qualitative testing session in Manchester is not going to make or destroy a political career. Much more interesting was the apparent purpose of the exercise: to identify a potential successor to Corbyn who would appeal to the public but keep the party on the same ideological trajectory. Replace the captain, in other words, but maintain course towards the iceberg.
D'Ancona says the Corbynistas usually blame the Blairite wing for the leader's troubles, but it is the left-wing of the party that is organizing against Jeremy Corbyn, undermining his leadership, and questioning his viability going into the next election. D'Ancona says that there are capable centrist Labour politicians, but the left-wing is better at organizing within the party. They just aren't very good at winning elections.