Quotulatiousness

September 22, 2016

QotD: The plight of the substitute teacher

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I taught all ages, from kindergarten to high school; I taught remedial classes and honors students. One day we factored polynomials, another day we made Popsicle-stick bird feeders for Mother’s Day, another day it was the Holocaust. Sometimes I substituted for an “ed tech” — a teacher’s aide whose job was to shadow kids with A.D.H.D. or dyslexia, or kids who simply refused to do any work at all. I was a bungling substitute most of the time; I embarrassed myself a hundred different ways, and got my feelings hurt, and complained, and shouted, and ate espresso chocolate to stay awake. It was shattering, but I loved it. After a while, I stopped being so keen on developing my grand treatise on educational theory, and instead I found that I enjoyed trying to keep a class going and watching it fall apart. I liked listening to students talk — even when they were driving themselves, and me, bonkers. The result of my 28 hellish, joyous days of paid work (I made $70 a day) was a book, more chronicle than meditation, called “Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids.”

The teachers left me daily assignments called “sub plans” to follow — which I clutched throughout the day until they became as finely crumpled as old dollar bills — and mostly what the sub plans wanted me to do was pass out work sheets. I passed them out by the thousands. Of all the work sheets I passed out, the ones in high school were the worst. In my experience, every high-school subject, no matter how worthy and jazzy and thought-­provoking it may have seemed to an earnest Common Corer, is stuffed into the curricular Veg-­O-­Matic, and out comes a nasty packet with grading rubrics on the back. On the first page, usually, there are numbered “learning targets,” and inside, inevitably, a list of specialized vocabulary words to master. In English it’s unreliable narrator, or ethos, or metonymy, or thesis sentence. This is all fluff knowledge, meta-­knowledge. In math, kids must memorize words like apothem and Cartesian coordinate; in science they chant domain! kingdom! phylum! class! etc., etc., and meiosis and allele and daughter cell and third-class lever and the whole Tinkertoy edifice of terms that acts to draw people away from the freshness and surprise and fantastic interfused complexity of the world and darkens our brains with shadowy taxonomic abstractions. The instantly forgettable gnat-swarm of word lists is useful in big-box high schools because it’s easier to test kids on whether they can temporarily define a set of terms than it is to talk to them and find out whether they have learned anything real and thrilling about what’s out there.

Nicholson Baker, “Fortress of Tedium: What I Learned as a Substitute Teacher”, New York Times Magazine, 2016-09-07.

September 18, 2016

Progressives who suffer from small-c conservatism

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At Coyote Blog, Warren Meyer explains why many “progressives” are actually driven by very conservative ideas:

Begin with a libertarian goal that should be agreeable to most Progressives — people should be able to live the way they wish. Add a classic Progressive goal — we need more low income housing. Throw in a favored Progressive lifestyle — we want to live in high density urban settings without owning a car.

From this is born the great idea of micro-housing, or one room apartments averaging less than 150 square feet. For young folks, they are nicer versions of the dorms they just left at college, with their own bathroom and kitchenette.

Ahh, but then throw in a number of other concerns of the Progressive Left, as administered by a city government in Seattle dominated by the Progressive Left. We don’t want these poor people exploited! So we need to set minimum standards for the size and amenities of apartments. We need to make sure they are safe! So they must go through extensive design reviews. We need to respect the community! So existing residents are given the ability to comment or even veto projects. We can’t trust these evil corporations building these things on their own! So all new construction is subject to planning and zoning. But we still need to keep rents low! So maximum rents are set at a number below what can be obtained, particularly given all these other new rules.

As a result, new micro-housing development has come to a halt. A Progressive lifestyle achieving Progressive goals is killed by Progressive regulatory concerns and fears of exploitation. How about those good intentions, where did they get you?

The moral of this story comes back to the very first item I listed, that people should be able to live the way they wish. Progressives feel like they believe this, but in practice they don’t. They don’t trust individuals to make decisions for themselves, because their core philosophy is dominated by the concept of exploitation of the powerless by the powerful, which in a free society means that they view individuals as idiotic, weak-willed suckers who are easily led to their own doom by the first clever corporation that comes along.

Postscript: Here is a general lesson for on housing affordability: If you give existing homeowners and residents the right (through the political process, through zoning, through community standards) to control how other people use their property, they are always, always, always going to oppose those other people doing anything new with that property. If you destroy property rights in favor of some sort of quasi-communal ownership, as is in the case in San Francisco, you don’t get some beautiful utopia — you get stasis. You don’t get progressive experimentation, you get absolute conservatism (little c). You get the world frozen in stone, except for prices that continue to rise as no new housing is built. Which interestingly, is a theme of one of my first posts over a decade ago when I wrote that Progressives Don’t Like Capitalism Because They Are Too Conservative.

September 6, 2016

QotD: Minimum lot size regulations hurt the poor

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, Government, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Other things equal, the larger the lot, the more you’ll pay for it. Regulations that specify minimum lot sizes — that say you can’t build on land smaller than that minimum — increase prices. Regulations that forbid building more units on a given-size lot have the same effect: they restrict supply and make housing more expensive.

People who already live there may only want to preserve their lifestyle. But whether they intend to or not (and many certainly do so intend) the effect of these regulations is to exclude lower-income families. Where do they go? Where they aren’t excluded — usually poorer neighborhoods. But that increases the demand for housing in poorer neighborhoods, where prices will tend to be higher than they would have been.

And it’s not just middle-class families that do this. Very wealthy residents of exclusive neighborhoods and districts also have an incentive to support limits on construction in order to maintain their preferred lifestyle and to keep out the upper-middle-class hoi polloi. Again, the latter then go elsewhere, very often to lower-income neighborhoods — Williamsburg in Brooklyn is a recent example — where they buy more-affordable housing and drive up prices. Those who complain about well-off people moving into poor neighborhoods — a phenomenon known as “gentrification” — may very well have minimum-lot-size and maximum-density regulations to thank.

When government has the authority to restrict building and development, established residents of all income levels will use that power to protect their wealth.

Sandy Ikeda, “Shut Out: How Land-Use Regulations Hurt the Poor”, The Freeman, 2015-02-05.

September 1, 2016

Don’t blame the market for the EpiPen price hike – blame the FDA

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Health, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Scott Alexander explains why “the market” has very little to do with the outrageous price hike for EpiPens:

EpiPens, useful medical devices which reverse potentially fatal allergic reactions, have recently quadrupled in price, putting pressure on allergy sufferers and those who care for them. Vox writes that this “tells us a lot about what’s wrong with American health care” – namely that we don’t regulate it enough:

    The story of Mylan’s giant EpiPen price increase is, more fundamentally, a story about America’s unique drug pricing policies. We are the only developed nation that lets drugmakers set their own prices, maximizing profits the same way sellers of chairs, mugs, shoes, or any other manufactured goods would.

Let me ask Vox a question: when was the last time that America’s chair industry hiked the price of chairs 400% and suddenly nobody in the country could afford to sit down? When was the last time that the mug industry decided to charge $300 per cup, and everyone had to drink coffee straight from the pot or face bankruptcy? When was the last time greedy shoe executives forced most Americans to go barefoot? And why do you think that is?

The problem with the pharmaceutical industry isn’t that they’re unregulated just like chairs and mugs. The problem with the pharmaceutical industry is that they’re part of a highly-regulated cronyist system that works completely differently from chairs and mugs.

If a chair company decided to charge $300 for their chairs, somebody else would set up a woodshop, sell their chairs for $250, and make a killing – and so on until chairs cost normal-chair-prices again. When Mylan decided to sell EpiPens for $300, in any normal system somebody would have made their own EpiPens and sold them for less. It wouldn’t have been hard. Its active ingredient, epinephrine, is off-patent, was being synthesized as early as 1906, and costs about ten cents per EpiPen-load.

Why don’t they? They keep trying, and the FDA keeps refusing to approve them for human use. For example, in 2009, a group called Teva Pharmaceuticals announced a plan to sell their own EpiPens in the US. The makers of the original EpiPen sued them, saying that they had patented the idea epinephrine-injecting devices. Teva successfully fended off the challenge and brought its product to the FDA, which rejected it because of “certain major deficiencies”. As far as I know, nobody has ever publicly said what the problem was – we can only hope they at least told Teva.

[…]

Imagine that the government creates the Furniture and Desk Association, an agency which declares that only IKEA is allowed to sell chairs. IKEA responds by charging $300 per chair. Other companies try to sell stools or sofas, but get bogged down for years in litigation over whether these technically count as “chairs”. When a few of them win their court cases, the FDA shoots them down anyway for vague reasons it refuses to share, or because they haven’t done studies showing that their chairs will not break, or because the studies that showed their chairs will not break didn’t include a high enough number of morbidly obese people so we can’t be sure they won’t break. Finally, Target spends tens of millions of dollars on lawyers and gets the okay to compete with IKEA, but people can only get Target chairs if they have a note signed by a professional interior designer saying that their room needs a “comfort-producing seating implement” and which absolutely definitely does not mention “chairs” anywhere, because otherwise a child who was used to sitting on IKEA chairs might sit down on a Target chair the wrong way, get confused, fall off, and break her head.

(You’re going to say this is an unfair comparison because drugs are potentially dangerous and chairs aren’t – but 50 people die each year from falling off chairs in Britain alone and as far as I know nobody has ever died from an EpiPen malfunction.)

Imagine that this whole system is going on at the same time that IKEA spends millions of dollars lobbying senators about chair-related issues, and that these same senators vote down a bill preventing IKEA from paying off other companies to stay out of the chair industry. Also, suppose that a bunch of people are dying each year of exhaustion from having to stand up all the time because chairs are too expensive unless you’ve got really good furniture insurance, which is totally a thing and which everybody is legally required to have.

And now imagine that a news site responds with an article saying the government doesn’t regulate chairs enough.

August 10, 2016

Sir Humphrey Appleby explains the organization of the EU to his new minister

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Europe, Humour — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the Guardian, Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay provide a new minister with the wisdom of Sir Humphrey Appleby:

Sir Humphrey The first thing to understand is that there is a European Council and a Council of the European Union.

Minister They’re not the same thing?

Sir Humphrey No. The European Council, whose members are the 28 heads of state of the 28 member states, defines the general political direction and priorities of the European Union whereas the Council of the European Union, on the other hand, develops the EU’s common foreign policy, in so far as there is any, and security policy, concludes international agreements and adopts the EU budget.

Minister Who’s in charge?

Sir Humphrey That’s an interesting question. The president of the European Council is in office for 30 months and is in charge of preparing the agenda and chairing the meetings of the European Council, whereas the presidency of the Council of the European Union is held only for six months each, by rotating states, hardly enough time for a part-time president to get his feet under the desk. Which is probably the idea.

Minister So who really runs Europe?

Sir Humphrey Another interesting question. Well done, Minister! The European Union is run on an intricate and sophisticated system based on an hierarchical structure of interlocking and overlapping jurisdictions designed to separate the powers whilst reinforcing the authority of the departments, institutions and agencies who collectively and separately control and supervise the diverse activities of the Union and its associated organisations. So Europe is not run by the president of the European Council or the Council of the European Union but by the president of the European Commission, who is akin to prime minister of Europe because he is elected for five years and heads a cabinet government whereas the president of the Council, on the other hand, is not elected but appointed, and presides over the meetings of the Council, which is not the cabinet.

Minister Who are the members of the European Council?

Sir Humphrey The European Council’s membership consists of the heads of member states while the Council of the European Union, on the other hand – which is often still referred to as the Council of Ministers – is the real voice of EU member governments, adopting EU laws and coordinating EU policies. Sometimes it is just called “the Council” in the interests of clarity. And they’re not even trying to be funny.

Minister It’s called the Council.

Sir Humphrey Yes – but the Council of the European Union should not be confused with the European Council nor with the Council of Europe – nor the Council of Ministers, which is also sometimes just called “the Council”, although it is not the same Council as the other Council and is in fact not an EU body at all.

QotD: “Pro-business” versus “Pro-consumer”

In popular discourse, America is said to be more “pro-business” than is France. When people use this term “pro-business” they typically have in mind some vague notion of a government policy made up of low-ish taxes and not a great deal of government regulation. That is, “pro-business” is commonly used to mean a free, or free-ish, market.

But such language is mistaken.

A true free market is at its core pro-consumer. In a genuinely free-market economy, businesses are valued only insofar as they serve consumers. The performance of a genuinely free-market economy is assessed by how well it satisfies, over time, the demands of consumers spending their own money and not by how well it satisfies the demands of business owners and managers.

Obviously, because businesses are a useful – indeed, practically indispensable – means of abundantly satisfying consumers’ demands, government policies that obstruct the smooth operation of these means are undesirable. But such policies that obstruct or discourage business operations are economically undesirable not because they harm businesses but, rather, because they harm consumers.

Anyway, for all of its faults, American culture and policy are actually much less pro-business than are the culture and policy of France. If you’re really looking for a government that is deeply pro-business – one that regards the protection of existing businesses as a worthy end in and of itself – one that forcibly transfers resources from taxpayers, consumers, and other non-businesses in order to promote the material interests of existing businesses – look at France. You’ll find there what you seek. In France you’ll find one of the most business-friendly policy regimes on the face of the earth. (HT Chris Meisenzahl)

Pity the French.

Don Boudreaux, “Pity the French Consumer and Worker”, Café Hayek, 2016-06-27.

August 2, 2016

The Old Third Vineyards wins their appeal against the VQA

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

The Ontario government granted the Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA) some regulatory power to police the marketing and labelling of wines made in Ontario, including (the VQA thought) the rights to restrict the use of certain geographical designators like “Ontario” and “Prince Edward County” to VQA-compliant wineries. In a recent decision, a non-VQA winery located in Prince Edward County won an appeal against the VQA’s over-restrictive order:

Yesterday (July 28, 2016) was a big day for The Old Third Vineyards, a small, boutique winery located in Prince Edward County. The Licence Appeal Tribunal ruled in their favour against the Vintner’s Quality Alliance Ontario (VQAO) compliance order that they remove “Prince Edward County” from The Old Third website.

The Old Third Vineyard is located in Prince Edward County. It is owned and operated by winemaker Bruno François and Jens Korberg. They make Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc wines, sold from their estates. Their wines have received ratings of 90 points or higher by esteemed wine experts Jamie Goode, John Szabo and Quench’s own Rick VanSickle. Each vintage – only one per year per variety – is bottled with a wine label that reads “Product of Canada”.

However, their website has a heading tagline that reads “Producers of fine wine and cider in Prince Edward County.” This is an issue for the VQA.

On February 3, 2016, VQA compliance officer Susan Piovesan emailed The Old Third with regards to the use of the geographic designation “Prince Edward County” on their website.

In other words, the VQA wanted to prevent the Old Third Vineyards from even revealing where in the country they were located because the legal designator for that area is also a restricted term for use by the VQA’s own wineries on wine bottle labels. Old Third wasn’t using it on a label, but as any common sense interpretation would agree, they have to indicate where customers can find them if they want to sell much of their wine … and they’re physically located in Prince Edward County, and said that on their website.

The VQA argued that The Old Third are trying to monopolize on the value the VQA has added to the term “Prince Edward County” by making it an official wine designation. The Tribunal disagreed: “The information conveyed in the banner … locates it geographically. Giving the words, in context, their ordinary meaning, they do not convey that the Appellant produces a Prince Edward County wine.”

The Tribunal’s ruling in favour of The Old Third shows that, even if an organization that regulates wine believes they own a term or regional name, it doesn’t mean they have the right to enforce their designations on those wineries that don’t wish to buy into the designation. The Old Third is a small vineyard in Prince Edward County and it will most likely remain that way.

And it’s these small wineries that first put Prince Edward County on the wine scene – there wouldn’t be a VQA designation for Prince Edward County if it weren’t for the wineries and estates that were producing quality wines long before the VQA came around in 2007: Waupoos Winery, The Grange of Prince Edward Vineyards and Winery, Casa-Dea Estates Winery, By Chadsey’s Cairns Winery, Sandbanks Estates Winery… the list goes on (and on).

July 17, 2016

QotD: Regulating Napa County

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Quotations, USA, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… at each tour we typically got the whole backstory of the business. And the consistent theme that ran through all of these discussions was the simply incredible level of regulation of the wine business that goes on in Napa. I have no idea what the public justification of all these rules and laws are, but the consistent theme of them is that they all serve to make it very hard for small competitors or new entrants to do business in the county. There is a board, likely populated by the largest and most powerful entrenched wine makers, that seems to control the whole regulatory structure, making this a classic case of an industry where you have to ask permission of your competitors to compete against them. There are minimum sizes, in acres, one must have to start a new winery, and this size keeps increasing. Recently, large winemakers have started trying to substantially raise this number again to a size greater than the acreage of any possible available parcel of land, effectively ending all new entrants for good. I forget the exact numbers, but one has to have something like 40 acres of land as a minimum to build a structure on the land, and one must have over 300 acres to build a second structure. You want to buy ten acres and build a small house and winery to try your hand at winemaking? — forget it in Napa.

It took a couple of days and a bunch of questions to put this together. Time and again the guide would say that the (wealthy) owners had to look and wait for a long time to find a piece of land with a house on it. I couldn’t figure out why the hell this was a criteria — if you are paying millions for the land, why are you scared to build a house? But it turned out that they couldn’t build a house. We were at this beautiful little place called Gargiulo and they said they bought their land sight-unseen on 3 hours notice for millions of dollars because it had a house AND a separate barn on it grandfathered. Today, it was impossible to get acreage of the size they have and build two structures on it, but since they had the barn, they could add on to it (about 10x the original size of the barn) to build the winery and still have a separate house to live in.

This is why the Napa Valley, to my eye, has become a weird museum of rich people. It seems to be dominated by billionaires who create just fantastically lovely showplaces that produce a few thousand cases of wine that is sold on allocation for 100+ dollars a bottle to other rich people. It is spectacularly beautiful to visit — seriously, each tasting room and vineyard is like a post card, in large part because the owners are rich enough to care nothing about return on capital invested in their vineyards. The vineyards in Napa seem to have some sort of social signalling value which I don’t fully understand, but it is fun to visit for a few days. But in this set-piece, the last thing the folks who control the county want is for grubby little middle-class startups to mess up their carefully crafted stage, so they are effectively excluded.

I know zero about wines, but from other industries this seems to be a recipe for senescence. It would surprise me not at all to see articles get written 10 years from now about how Napa wines have fallen behind other, more innovative areas. I have never been there, but my friends say newer areas like Paso Robles has an entirely different vibe, with working owners on small plots trying to a) actually make a viable business of it and b) innovate and try new approaches.

Warren Meyer, “My Nomination for Corporate State of the Year: Napa County, California”, Coyote Blog, 2016-07-08.

July 8, 2016

QotD: The rule of the faceless bureaucracy

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Europe, Government, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I saw this firsthand as a senior advisor to Prime Minister David Cameron. After just a few weeks in office, I was struck by how many things the European government was doing that the prime minister and his team didn’t just not know about, but would have actively opposed. Every few days, the civil service circulated a pile of paperwork about a foot high, proposing regulatory or administrative government action.

In time-honored fashion, the process was stacked in the bureaucrats’ favor: proposals would be implemented unless elected officials objected within two days. I wanted to know where these “requests for policy clearance,” as the EU directives were known, originated. More importantly, I wanted to know the extent of their effects on the lives of British people. So I requested a detailed audit. I discovered that some 30 percent of the British government’s actions came as a result of the actions British people elected us to undertake. The rest were generated and mandated by the civil service machine, the majority coming from the EU.

These directives determined everything from employment law to family policy, all through distant, centralized processes that UK citizens barely understood, let alone controlled. To this day, British officials spend much of their time in the EU’s administrative capital, Brussels, trying — mostly in vain — to block policies they don’t want and which no one in Britain voted for, all of it wasting inordinate amounts of time, energy, and money.

Steve Hilton, “Here’s Why Britain Should Leave The European Union Today”, The Federalist, 2016-06-23.

July 2, 2016

QotD: They always get their man

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Media, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There’s this notion, more and more, that if you’re male, you must be guilty.

Guilty…of what?

Not to worry — they’ll find something.

If you’re a man, some seemingly innocuous thing you’ve done is surely criminal. Not because it is. Because they need something you’ve done to be criminal and because they’ll just call you guilty first and work it out later. Um, maybe.

Maybe this sounds like paranoid craziness, but, from the news stories I read — and not just those of the hurt feelz crowd on college campuses — it increasingly seems like what it’s like to be male, if you’re one of the unlucky ones.

Amy Alkon, “We’re Looking A Little Too Hard For Criminals, AKA Men”, Advice Goddess, 2016-06-20.

June 27, 2016

The twisted incentive system for government bureaucrats

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Government — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

At Coyote Blog, Warren Meyer explains why bureaucrats so often make what appear to be incomprehensible decisions and then double-down on the decision despite any irrational, economically destructive, or humanitarian consequences:

I want to take an aside here on incentives. It is almost NEVER the case that an organization has no incentives or performance metrics. Yes, it is frequently the case that they may not have clear written formal metrics and evaluations and incentives. But every organization has informal, unwritten incentives. Sometimes, even when there are written evaluation procedures, these informal incentives dominate.

Within government agencies, I think these informal incentives are what matter. Here are a few of them:

  1. Don’t ever get caught having not completed some important form or process step or having done some bureaucratic function incorrectly.
  2. Don’t ever get caught not knowing something you are supposed to know in your job.
  3. Don’t ever say yes to something (a project, a permit, a program, whatever) that later generates controversy, especially if this controversy gets the attention of your boss’s boss.
  4. Don’t ever admit a mistake or weakness of any sort to someone outside the organization.
  5. Don’t ever do or support anything that would cause the agency’s or department’s budget to be cut or headcount to be reduced.

You ever wonder why government agencies say no to everything and make it impossible to do new things? Its not necessarily ideology, it’s their incentives. They get little or no credit for approving something that works out well, but the walls come crashing down on them if they approve something that generates controversy.

So consider the situation of the young twenty-something woman across the desk from me at, say, the US Forest Service. She is probably reasonably bright, but has had absolutely no relevant training from the agency, because a bureaucracy will always prefer to allocate funds so that it has 50 untrained people rather than 40 well-trained people (maintaining headcount size will generally be prioritized over how well the organization performs on its mission). So here is a young person with no training, who is probably completely out of her element because she studied forestry or environment science and desperately wanted to count wolves but now finds herself dumped into a job dealing with contracts for recreation and having to work with — for God sakes — for-profit companies like mine.

One program she has to manage is a moderately technical process for my paying my concession fees in-kind with maintenance services. She has no idea how to do this. So she takes her best guess from materials she has, but that guess is wrong. But she then sticks to that answer and proceeds to defend it like its the Alamo. I know the process backwards and forwards, have run national training sessions on it, have literally hundreds of contract-years of experience on it, but she refuses to acknowledge any suggestion I make that she may be wrong. I coined the term years ago “arrogant ignorance” for this behavior, and I see it all the time.

But on deeper reflection, while it appears to be arrogance, what else could she do given her incentives? She can’t admit she doesn’t know or wasn’t trained (see #2 and #4 above). She can’t acknowledge that I might be able to help her (#4). Having given an answer, she can’t change it (#1).

June 25, 2016

Canada’s massively counter-productive protectionist racket

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Cancon — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At (of all places) the CBC, Neil Macdonald explains why the Canadian government maintains a ridiculously low limit on what Canadians can purchase from other countries without packages being subject to duty, tax, delay, and possible damage:

As any Canadian who’s ever naively bought anything on the American version of eBay (or, for that matter, any U.S. retail website) must by now know, Ottawa is determined to spoil your bargain.

If the purchase is a penny over $20 Cdn, a federal customs agent can intercept it, open it, delay it, add federal and provincial sales taxes, and, depending on the origin of the merchandise, perhaps pile on some duty charges — basically protectionist taxes.

By the time the government is done, the price of the package can easily rise by 50 per cent. And of course customs brokers usually have to wet their beaks, inflating the final cost of the average package by another 20, 30 or 40 per cent.

Basically, Ottawa has ensured that shipping across our border is such an expensive, paperwork-heavy pain that a lot of American merchants and eBay sellers simply don’t bother shipping to Canada.

The system actually seems designed to be burdensome and sclerotic.

Normally, you’d assume it’s all about increasing the federal government’s tax revenues … the CRA must be raking in the bucks, right? Not at all:

… by keeping that purchase threshold at $20 instead of giving Canadian shoppers a break and raising it to $80, Ottawa spends about $166 million to collect $39 million in additional taxes and duties.

Think about that: Ottawa’s customs officials spend a net $127 million of taxpayers’ money annually, basically to keep Canadians trapped inside the Canadian retail corral.

H/T to SDA for the link.

June 20, 2016

QotD: Commencement speeches

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

This is the season of college Commencement speeches — an art form that has seldom been memorable, but has increasingly become toxic in recent times.

Two themes seem to dominate Commencement speeches. One is shameless self-advertising by people in government, or in related organizations supported by the taxpayers or donors, saying how nobler it is to be in “public service” than working in business or other “selfish” activities.

In other words, the message is that it is morally superior to be in organizations consuming output produced by others than to be in organizations which produce that output. Moreover, being morally one-up is where it’s at.

The second theme of many Commencement speakers, besides flattering themselves that they are in morally superior careers, is to flatter the graduates that they are now equipped to go out into the world as “leaders” who can prescribe how other people should live.

In other words, young people, who in most cases have never had either the sobering responsibility and experience of being self-supporting adults, are to tell other people — who have had that responsibility and that experience for years — how they should live their lives.

In so far as the graduates go into “public service” in government, whether as bureaucrats or as aides to politicians or judges, they are to help order other people around.

It might never occur to many Commencement speakers, or to their audiences, that what the speakers are suggesting is that inexperienced young graduates are to prescribe, or help to dictate, to vast numbers of other people who have the real world experience that the graduates themselves lack.

To the extent that such graduates remain in government — “public service” — they can progress from aides to becoming career politicians, bureaucrats and judges, never acquiring the experience of being on the receiving end of their prescriptions or dictates. That can mean a lifetime of people with ignorance presuming to prescribe to people with personal knowledge.

Thomas Sowell, “Commencement Season”, Townhall.com, 2016-05-24.

June 13, 2016

QotD: The absurdities of many occupational licenses

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In 2012, the Institute for Justice — a public-interest law firm advocating libertarian causes — looked at the number of occupations that require licensing. Specifically, the institute looked at occupations typically filled by lower- and middle-income workers. These are not your airline pilots, your certified public accountants and your neurosurgeons; they’re the nations interior decorators, auctioneers and florists. (Yes, you read that right: In at least one state, these occupations cannot be practiced without a license.)

Why, you might ask, is the state requiring a license to decorate an interior? Are customers at risk of death from collapsing piles of pillow shams? Must we fear that they will be blinded by the decorator’s decision to pair fuchsia chiffon drapes with a chartreuse brocade sofa? Do we worry that without the threat of losing their license to keep them on the straight and narrow, these fly-by-night operators might be tempted into purchasing furniture from unlicensed auctioneers, and sourcing their floral arrangements from black-market florists?

Well, no. Mostly, these regulations benefit folks who are already plying the trade. They get helpful state legislators to protect them from competition by instituting tough licensing requirements. Their income goes up; the consumer’s wallet suffers. And people who want to follow their dreams into the industry get shut out if they lack the time to study for the licensing exams, the capital to pay the licensing exam fees (which can run in to the hundreds of dollars), or the social capital to know how to work the system.

Megan McArdle, “You’re Gonna Need a License for That”, Bloomberg View, 2016-05-17.

June 10, 2016

QotD: Against historical preservation

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, History, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Summers alludes to the regulatory thicket as a cause of the infrastructure slowdown but doesn’t have much to say about fixing the problem. Here’s a place to begin. Repeal all historic preservation laws. It’s one thing to require safety permits but no construction project should require a historic preservation permit. Here are three reasons:

First, it’s often the case that buildings of little historical worth are preserved by rules and regulations that are used as a pretext to slow competitors, maintain monopoly rents, and keep neighborhoods in a kind of aesthetic stasis that benefits a small number of people at the expense of many others.

Second, a confident nation builds so that future people may look back and marvel at their ancestor’s ingenuity and aesthetic vision. A nation in decline looks to the past in a vain attempt to “preserve” what was once great. Preservation is what you do to dead butterflies.

Ironically, if today’s rules for historical preservation had been in place in the past the buildings that some now want to preserve would never have been built at all. The opportunity cost of preservation is future greatness.

Third, repealing historic preservation laws does not mean ending historic preservation. There is a very simple way that truly great buildings can be preserved–they can be bought or their preservation rights paid for. The problem with historic preservation laws is not the goal but the methods. Historic preservation laws attempt to foist the cost of preservation on those who want to build (very much including builders of infrastructure such as the government). Attempting to foist costs on others, however, almost inevitably leads to a system full of lawyers, lobbying and rent seeking–and that leads to high transaction costs and delay. Richard Epstein advocated a compensation system for takings because takings violate ethics and constitutional law. But perhaps an even bigger virtue of a compensation system is that it’s quick. A building worth preserving is worth paying to preserve. A compensation system unites builders and those who want to preserve and thus allows for quick decisions about what will be preserved and what will not.

Some people will object that repealing historic preservation laws will lead to some lovely buildings being destroyed. Of course, it will. There is no point pretending otherwise. It will also lead to some lovely buildings being created. More generally, however, the logic of regulatory thickets tells us that we cannot have everything.

Alex Tabarrok, “Against Historic Preservation”, Marginal Revolution, 2016-06-01.

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