October 25, 2010

Voting for the right candidates

Filed under: Cancon, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 15:37

I just got back from exercising my right to vote for municipal representation. It was a case of trying to find candidates who didn’t copy one another’s homework (and campaign promises).

In municipal elections in Ontario, party affiliations aren’t shown on the ballot, but given the claims I saw in most of the pamphlets and local newspaper articles, almost all of our local candidates are fully paid-up members of the Green party. I don’t know why our school trustees need to be so concerned with things well outside the municipal level of responsibility, but I’d kinda prefer they concentrated on, y’know, the fricking schools in the region, rather than deforestation in the tropics, CO2 emissions, and banning plastic bags.

I ended up not using all my votes, as I couldn’t find candidates for some of the positions who didn’t seem to want to spend all their time stuffing envelopes for Greenpeace rather than running the town and regional governments.

Oh, and a protip for future candidates, especially if you’re late entering the race: not having a website means I can’t look up your positions on anything, and I’m not going to vote for you just on the basis of you having an interesting name.

Amity Schlaes’ (condensed) The Forgotten Man

Filed under: Books, Economics, History, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 13:07

An article encapsulating some of the key points of Amity Schlaes’ The Forgotten Man in PDF form:

We all know the traditional narrative of that event: The stock market crash generated an economic Katrina. One in four was unemployed in the first few years. It resulted from a combination of monetary, banking, credit, international, and consumer confidence factors. The terrible thing about it was the duration of a high level of unemployment, which averaged in the mid teens for the entire decade.

The second thing we usually learn is that the Depression was mysterious — a problem that only experts with doctorates could solve. That is why FDR’s floating advisory group — Felix Frankfurter, Frances Perkins, George Warren, Marriner Eccles and Adolf Berle, among others — was sometimes known as a Brain Trust. The mystery had something to do with a shortage of money, we are told, and in the end, only a Brain Trust’s tinkering with the money supply saved us. The corollary to this view is that the government knows more than American business does about economics.

Another common presumption is that cleaning up Wall Street and getting rid of white-collar criminals helped the nation recover. A second is that property rights may still have mattered during the 1930s, but that they mattered less than government-created jobs, shoring up home-owners, and getting the money supply right. A third is that American democracy was threatened by the rise of a potential plutocracy, and that the Wagner Act of 1935 — which lent federal support to labor unions — was thus necessary and proper. Fourth and finally, the traditional view of the 1930s is that action by the government was good, whereas inaction would have been fatal. The economic crisis mandated any kind of action, no matter how far removed it might be from sound monetary policy. Along these lines the humorist Will Rogers wrote in 1933 that if Franklin Roosevelt had “burned down the capital, we would cheer and say, ‘Well at least we got a fire started, anyhow.’”

To put this official version of the 1930s in terms of the Monopoly board: The American economy was failing because there were too many top hats lording it about on the board, trying to establish a plutocracy, and because there was no bank to hand out money. Under FDR, the federal government became the bank and pulled America back to economic health.

When you go to research the 1930s, however, you find a different story. It is of course true that the early part of the Depression — the years upon which most economists have focused — was an economic Katrina. And a number of New
Deal measures provided lasting benefits for the economy. These include the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the push for free trade led by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and the establishment of the modern mortgage format. But the remaining evidence contradicts the official narrative. Overall, it
can be said, government prevented recovery. Herbert Hoover was too active, not too passive — as the old stereotypes suggest — while Roosevelt and his New Deal policies impeded recovery as well, especially during the latter half of the decade.

H/T to Monty for the link.

QotD: Mark Steyn on China’s coming demographic bomb

Filed under: China, Economics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:29

In 2009, the US spent about $665 billion on its military, the Chinese about $99 billion. If Beijing continues to buy American debt at the rate it has in recent times, then within a few years US interest payments on that debt will be covering the entire cost of the Chinese military. This summer, the Pentagon issued an alarming report to Congress on Beijing’s massive military build-up, including new missiles, upgraded bombers, and an aircraft-carrier R&D program intended to challenge US dominance in the Pacific. What the report didn’t mention is who’s paying for it.

Answer: Mr and Mrs America.

By 2015, the People’s Liberation Army, which is the largest employer on the planet, bigger even than the US Department of Community-Organizer Grant Applications, will be entirely funded by US taxpayers. When the Commies take Taiwan, suburban families in Connecticut and small businesses in Idaho will have paid for it.

[. . .]

Chinese state-controlled enterprises are buying up everything from copper in Canada to zinc in Australia to bauxite in Jamaica. They’re doing what the first settlers did vis a vis the Indians: They sell us trinkets in return for our resources. That said, I disagree with the conclusion of this video. The danger from China is not its strength, but its underlying weaknesses: As I wrote in America Alone, it will get old before it gets rich, and, unless it’s planning on becoming the first gay superpower since Sparta, the millions of surplus young men whom the One-Child Policy has deprived of female companionship is a recipe for profound social convulsions. That’s actually worse news than if China was cruising to global hegemony — because it means their calculations on how the Sino-American relationship evolves are even less likely to align with ours.

Mark Steyn, “Campaign Countdown”, SteynOnline, 2010-10-25

Brad Childress to be fined for criticizing game officials?

Filed under: Football — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:36

After last night’s loss at Green Bay, Vikings coach Brad Childress poured some of his frustrations into a possibly expensive criticism of the officials:

Brad Childress was upset by Brett Favre’s decision-making on Sunday night as the now-injured quarterback threw three interceptions in a 28-24 loss to Green Bay at Lambeau Field, but the Vikings coach reserved the majority of his ire for the officiating job done by referee Scott Green’s crew.

Childress clearly wasn’t happy when he spoke to the media in the postgame news conference, but he was seething during an earlier interview on Vikings flagship station KFAN (1130 AM).

“That’s the worst officiated game I’ve seen,” said Childress, whose team fell to 2-4 after losing four games in the entire 2009 regular season. “That referee came over and apologized to me for not calling a hold on the scramble by [Packers quarterback Aaron] Rodgers. And I’ll tell you what, that’s his job. Protect the quarterback and look at the left tackle. Look at the left tackle hold his tail off.”

As a long-time Vikings fan, I’m used to grousing about how the Vikings don’t get the same benefit of the doubt from the officials that certain other teams seem to get. Last night’s game was a good example, where Green Bay’s second TD catch looked like an incompletion (but was allowed) and Visanthe Shiancoe’s TD catch was disallowed. The Vikings kicked a field goal, but the four point difference was the losing margin at the end of the game.

Of course, if Brett Favre had just taken a sack instead of trying to force the ball, the game result would have been different, too.

In praise of Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Government, History, Liberty — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 09:04

One of the few Canadian prime ministers I can admit a genuine fondness for, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, gets a bit of recognition:

Last May in a casual dinner conversation with Canadian libertarians in Vancouver, I named the better presidents and prime ministers, respectively, of the United States and Great Britain. It suddenly occurred to me that I couldn’t name a single Canadian counterpart.

So I asked my dinner friends, “Among Canada’s political leaders, did you ever have a Grover Cleveland or a William Ewert Gladstone, a prime minister who believed in liberty and defended it?”

One name emerged, almost in unison: Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Embarrassed by my ignorance, I had to admit I had never heard of him. Never mind that he’s the guy with the bushy hair on the Canadian five-dollar bill; I just never noticed. Now that I’ve done a little research, I’m a fan.

Laurier’s political resume is impressive: fourth-longest-serving prime minister in Canada’s history (1896–1911, the longest unbroken term of office of all 22 PMs). Forty-five years in the House of Commons, an all-time record. Longest-serving leader of any Canadian political party (almost 32 years). Across Canada to this day, he is widely regarded as one of the country’s greatest statesmen.

It’s not his tenure in government that makes Laurier an admirable figure. It’s what he stood for while he was there. He really meant it when he declared, “Canada is free and freedom is its nationality” and “Nothing will prevent me from continuing my task of preserving at all cost our civil liberty.”

Laurier was the last Liberal leader who actually believed in “classic” liberalism, not the warmed-over socialism of later and current Liberal thought. We could use another Laurier today.

Studying bureaucratic bias

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, Government — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:56

I’ve always thought that behaviour patterns of bureaucrats are fairly easy to predict: it all hinges on risk/reward. A bureaucrat with expectation of retiring at the peak of pension eligibility will have a very high aversion to risk — but not quite what most people refer to as risk. A bureaucrat has a built-in bias to “stay the course”, to avoid “rocking the boat”, and to prevent the kind of change that will introduce exceptions to normal process.

Expecting a bureaucrat to react like an entrepreneur is unrealistic, because the bureaucrat’s risks (loss of promotion opportunities, loss of status, but not usually loss of job) do not scale well against the possible rewards — except in particularly corrupt jurisdictions, bureaucrats do not directly benefit from making risky decisions.

Given that, is it any surprise that bureaucrats, as a whole, are quite unwilling to step outside “normal practice” or to allow variances, exceptions, or (sometimes) even common sense solutions?

I should be careful (except that I’m a blogger, where “careful” really just means “avoiding lawsuits”), because there’s a risk I’m suffering from one of the traits identified in behavioural economics, the illusion of competence in my preceding horseback judgement:

There is a fashionable new science — behavioral economics, they call it — which applies the insights of psychology to how people make economic decisions. It tries to explain, for instance, the herd instinct that led people during the recent bubble to override common sense and believe things about asset values because others did: the “bandwagon effect.” And it labels as “hindsight bias” the all-too-common tendency during the recent bust to imagine that past events were more predictable than they were. Behavioral economics has also brought us notions like “loss aversion”: how we hate giving up a dollar we have far more than forgoing a dollar we have not yet got.

But while there is a lot of interest in the psychology and neuroscience of markets, there is much less in the psychology and neuroscience of government. Slavisa Tasic, of the University of Kiev, wrote a paper recently for the Istituto Bruno Leoni in Italy about this omission. He argues that market participants are not the only ones who make mistakes, yet he notes drily that “in the mainstream economic literature there is a near complete absence of concern that regulatory design might suffer from lack of competence.” Public servants are human, too.

Mr. Tasic identifies five mistakes that government regulators often make: action bias, motivated reasoning, the focusing illusion, the affect heuristic and illusions of competence.

In the last case, psychologists have shown that we systematically overestimate how much we understand about the causes and mechanisms of things we half understand.

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