March 28, 2012

“[T]he Government of Canada is [like] a big national insurance company with a side business as a tax collector for the provinces”

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:17

Kevin Milligan in the Globe and Mail:

The first question to ask of any budget announcement is whether the dollars are recurring or one-time only. If we change a tax that brings in $1-billion a year, the budget changes not just this year but in future years as well. […] Politicians and commentators often choose the time frame that suits their current argument. Confusion results. A good economist keeps her eye open to these tricks and tries to ensure we compare numbers on similar time-frames.

Next up is properly adjusting future dollars to account for inflation and our ability to pay. Dollars spent in the future are different than dollars spent now. Imagine that inflation averages 2 per cent a year, and inflation-adjusted economic growth is 1.5 per cent a year on top of that. In just 20 years, prices will increase by 50 per cent and the size of our economy — and our ability to pay for programs priced in nominal dollars — will double.

[. . .]

As a final note, it is always useful when crunching the numbers to keep in mind what the Government of Canada actually does with our tax dollars. Transfers to individuals for insurance programs (such as Employment Insurance and Old Age Security) are 25 per cent of spending. Transfers to provinces and territories (health and other transfers) are another 20 per cent. Interest takes a further 11 per cent. The best way to think of the Government of Canada is a big national insurance company with a side business as a tax collector for the provinces. (This is only slightly different from the US Government, which has been called by Ezra Klein an insurance company with a standing army.) Everything else the Government of Canada does — from fisheries management to culture to the military — takes the remaining 44 per cent. Making any change to the trajectory of total spending when insurance and inter-government transfers are both projected to grow rapidly requires very large changes to that residual 44 per cent.

The “Greatest Generation”, then the “Luckiest Generation”, and now the bill comes due

Filed under: Economics, Government, Politics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:01

John Kay on the luck of the Baby Boomers:

I belong to a lucky generation: too young to have experienced the Depression, or the second world war, or postwar austerity. The first political figure I recognised was Harold Macmillan, who told voters they had never had it so good.

His statement was true, if foolish, and my contemporaries and I benefited. The government paid us to go to university. We took for granted we would choose between attractive job offers. I was quickly appointed to a post from which it was practically impossible to be fired and which offered a pension scheme with generous, index-linked benefits. I bought a flat with a mortgage whose value was wiped out by inflation. By the time I was paying a higher rate of income tax, the level had been cut from 83 per cent to 40 per cent. My life expectancy is several years longer than my father’s, and I have already considerably exceeded the age at which his father died.

If young people today want to attend university, they will have to pay for tuition and borrow to meet living expenses. When they graduate, they face a much more competitive job market. Few careers will offer the job security once characteristic of middle-class employment. Defined benefit schemes have almost disappeared from the private sector, and public sector pensions are to be substantially less generous. Tax rates must rise, partly to pay for the care and medical treatment I will demand as senility advances. The only financial consolation for the next generation is the windfall when we leave them our houses.

The first half of the baby boom generation certainly were the luckiest cohort in human history. The second half of that generation didn’t do quite as well, the Gen X kids and the Millennials are going to be stuck with most of the bill for all the government-provided goodies that the early boomers have arranged for themselves. Pensions and healthcare, in particular, will have to be reined in for younger workers … just as the bulk of the early boomers have squeezed all the juice out of the system.

Aside from retroactively cutting back the benefits to baby boomers, the only other way to mitigate the financial burden is growth, but most governments in the west are pursuing goals that will not help and in many cases will retard economic growth.

Speaking of science, here’s a new development in “thermal cloaking”

Filed under: France, Science, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 09:42

Lewis Page at The Register walks us through the high points of a new development from France:

Top boffins in France have come up with a radical new take on the “cloaking” and invisible-shed physics breakthroughs of recent years. They have designed a technology which instead of bending microwaves or light can shield an object from heat — or concentrate heat upon it.

“Our key goal with this research was to control the way heat diffuses in a manner similar to those that have already been achieved for waves, such as light waves or sound waves,” says Sebastien Guenneau, of Aix-Marseille uni and France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CRNS).

“Heat isn’t a wave — it simply diffuses from hot to cold regions,” Guenneau adds. “The mathematics and physics at play are much different.”

For now designed only in two dimensions, Guenneau and his colleagues’ approach involved shaping isotherms — lines showing density of heat flux transferring from point — so as to make heat travel around a given area rather than into it.

“We can design a cloak so that heat diffuses around an invisibility region, which is then protected from heat. Or we can force heat to concentrate in a small volume, which will then heat up very rapidly,” Guenneau says.

Science and journalism, two flavours that have uneven results when mixed together

Filed under: Environment, Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:54

James Randerson on the intersection between science and popular journalism:

Just to be clear, we are talking here about standard news stories based on a single journal paper — the science hack’s bread and butter. For me, the answer is straightforward. Of course a good science/health/environment journalist should read the paper if possible. It is the record of what the scientists actually did and what the peer reviewers have allowed them to claim (peer review is very far from perfect but it is at least some check on researchers boosting their conclusions).

Without seeing the paper you are at the mercy of press-release hype from overenthusiastic press officers or, worse, from the researchers themselves. Of course science journalists won’t have the expertise to spot some flaws, but they can get a sense of whether the methodology is robust — particularly for health-related papers.

In any case, very often the press release does not include all the information you will need for a story, and the paper can contain some hidden gems. Frequently the press release misses the real story.

The tricky question is whether you go ahead and write the story if you can’t get hold of the paper. I think a blanket ban would be going too far. Sometimes, it is not possible to get hold of the research paper in the time available.

I’m not scientifically trained, so the odd time when I post something with a link to a recent scientific paper, you can be pretty sure that I’ve only read the summary — but I’m not being paid to present my readers with scientific information. I’d expect professional science journalists to at least do a bit more due diligence than I expect bloggers to do…

Odd network issue

Filed under: Technology — Tags: — Nicholas @ 08:18

As many of you know, I’m an editor at GuildMag, an online magazine devoted to the ArenaNet games Guild Wars and the soon-to-be-released Guild Wars 2. Yesterday, I’d been on the GuildMag site several times to update our most recent beta coverage post. Around 5 pm, I’d added a few entries to the blog post and saved the page (it’s a WordPress blog). The page timed out on me.

Not a big deal, just reload the page — but it still won’t reload. It’s not just the blog UI, it’s the whole site that is inaccessible. Several re-tries, but no change. I posted a Twitter update to let people know that the site was temporarily down and that we’d be back as soon as possible … but I was told that the site is fine: it’s apparently just me having connectivity problems. Well, it was getting toward time to break for dinner anyway, so I logged off for a few hours.

Later that night, I still have the same problem, but on a different computer (that is, it’s not just my laptop being unable to load www.guildmag.com). That means the problem lies somewhere between our wireless router and the site. I took my laptop down into the basement and directly connected it to the cable modem, but the site is still inaccessible (so it’s not our router that’s suddenly allergic to GuildMag). I did a “whois” search to get the IP address ( Still can’t connect using the IP address in Chrome, Firefox, and IE.

The editor-in-chief says he believes me, but clearly suspects that I’m trying to avoid some upcoming work…

Update: Ah, thanks to a suggestion from Marc, I tried connecting to the site on my iPhone: it works on a 3G connection, but doesn’t work when I use the wifi.


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