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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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.

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.

Sunday, February 12, 2017
Political tumult in Europe
Three noteworthy stories this weekend from Europe.
In The Guardian, Jan Kubik, director of the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, is worried about the direction of eastern European countries (Poland, Romania, Hungary), "where three forces vie for dominance: disconnected and sometimes corrupt 'traditional' politicians, increasingly impatient and angry publics and assertive demagogues." There are economic and cultural forces at work (as there is wherever there are strong populist movements). Kubik is more concerned about fear-mongering about the ingratitude of populist movements than understanding them. There are several reasons for the rise of populism in the east: post-communist economic liberalism has improved overall well-being but those gains have been uneven and have yet to deliver Western European standards of living. But more importantly, as Ryszard Legutko, a Polish intellectual and representative in the European Parliament, writes in The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, the progressive project of the European Union is too similar to the communist regimes half the continent shed two decades ago. They both require religious-like adherence and were gestated in the same Englightenment and French Revolution ethos, that they are practically sisters. In the name of equality (communism) and diversity (liberalism), intolerance of different worldviews because suffocating. Just as communism failed to deliver equality and dignity for all, liberalism has become bastardized to create second- and third-class citizens who dissent from official orthodoxy. Perhaps economic liberalism and traditional religion cannot cohabitate, but the sort of cultural liberalism foisted upon EU members ensures that there is little room for the latter.
The Express reports, "France and Dutch EU votes expected even if Wilders and Le Pen lose." The British paper reports that in both the Netherlands and France, "far-right candidates propelling their parties high up in the opinion polls," but even if they lose, their popularity is pushing so-called mainstream parties to consider referenda on the future of the EU -- I would argue as a democratic safety valve. Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, told The Express, "The public are calling for a referendum in the major EU countries. It is going to be harder and harder for governments to resist." Indeed. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it will be almost universally painted as such.
The New York Times reports that it is far from a sure thing that Christian Democrat Angela Merkel will be re-elected as chancellor. Of course, seven months out from an election, nothing is a sure thing. But after being squeezed on the right by the rise of German populist parties, the left-wing Social Democrats are gaining in the polls. Being the Times -- or just 2017 -- there are the Donald Trump inferences: German political reaction to the new U.S. president and finding his German equivalents. It is unclear, however, whether the embrace of the Social Democrats is a result of Merkel's own move to the right on migration and deportations. It would be contradictory for Germans to be tired of massive numbers of refugees flooding the country to turn their back on Merkel in favour of a party who favours her former, more liberal migration policies. It is entirely possible, as the Times suggests, that Merkel made political missteps that led the Social Democrats to be taken more seriously. She let her foreign minister, Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Merkel leads a coalition government), to stand as president, which he won handily (931 votes in the 1260-member assembly). The paper reports, "Despite being a largely ceremonial position, the presidency provides stature and an important platform for Mr. Steinmeier, a popular and charismatic politician. In his brief acceptance speech, he encouraged Germans to be bold in difficult times." He is given to Barack Obama/Justin Trudeau-like rhetoric, which might stir the German soul. Or it might not. What is clear -- as it always should have been -- is that Merkel, one of the supposed last, great hopes for the European project, no longer looks like a shoe-in for re-election. And after 11 years in power, the fatigue with the government in power just sets in. Whether she is weakened by the anti-EU, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany or she loses to the Social Democrats, Germany, and Europe, won't be the same. And that's not necessarily a bad development.
The rise of populist parties has been a staple of political reporting from Europe since I was in high school in the 1980s. This time, however, even if they can't win, their message can no longer be ignored.

Wall Street Journal eliminating the Google loophole
Digiday reports:
Starting Monday, it’s turning off Google’s first-click free feature that let people skirt the Journal’s paywall by cutting and pasting the headline of a story into Google. The Journal tested turning off the feature with 40 percent of its audience last year. But the eye-popping moment was when the Journal turned it off four sections for two weeks, resulting in a dramatic 86 percent jump in subscriptions. The Journal said the full turnoff is a test, but didn’t say how long it would last ...
The Journal is a rarity in publishing in that it gets more money from readers than advertising, so it’s protective of its paywall, which includes being discriminating when it comes to distributing its articles outside its own platforms. But with print advertising waning, the Journal is looking for ways to lean more on readers for revenue. According to a reader survey it’s fielding, it’s exploring an ad-free version of the Journal, charging for individual articles and even charging extra for home delivery.
Video is still in front of the paywall — video commands high ad rates so the Journal wants to maximize its audience, and it’s also a way to draw in would-be subscribers — but it’s the exception. Starting last summer, previously free sections including arts and lifestyle have joined the rest of the sections that are locked down.
The Journal, unlike a lot of other papers, is worth paying for.
There are still loopholes:
Meanwhile, a new team has been tweaking the subscription messaging to get people to convert, learning that telling people they can cancel any time and putting price information front and center had positive results driving subs. Since tightening the paywall, the Journal said, the average number of stories leading people to subscribe is up 66 percent, which the pub says is testament to the strength of its long-tail.
While it’s ending Google first click free for now, which lets subscription publications be indexed by Google search, the Journal is increasing its exposure to new audiences by letting people read for free links that are shared on social media by subscribers and staffers. Since making that change, the Journal has seen a 30 percent boost in traffic from social media, primarily from Facebook. The Journal is treating the social sharing ability like a perk for subscribers.
Follow the writers and sections you like on social media.