Quotulatiousness

December 7, 2016

QotD: Turning ordinary recycling into a vast revenue enhancement tool

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

… we know that ubiquitous RFID tags are coming to consumer products. They’ve been coming for years, now, and the applications are endless. More to the point they can be integrated with plastic products and packaging, and printed cheaply enough that they’re on course to replace bar codes.

Embedded microcontrollers are also getting dirt cheap; you can buy them in bulk for under US $0.49 each. Cheap enough to embed in recycling bins, perhaps? Along with a photovoltaic cell for power and a short-range radio transceiver for data. I’ve trampled all over this ground already; the point is, if it’s cheap enough to embed in paving stones, it’s certainly cheap enough to embed in bins, along with a short-range RFID reader and maybe a biosensor that can tell what sort of DNA is contaminating the items dumped in the bins.

The evil business plan of evil (and misery) posits the existence of smart municipality-provided household recycling bins. There’s an inductance device around it (probably a coil) to sense ferrous metals, a DNA sniffer to identify plant or animal biomass and SmartWater tagged items, and an RFID reader to scan any packaging. The bin has a PV powered microcontroller that can talk to a base station in the nearest wifi-enabled street lamp, and thence to the city government’s waste department. The householder sorts their waste into the various recycling bins, and when the bins are full they’re added to a pickup list for the waste truck on the nearest routing — so that rather than being collected at a set interval, they’re only collected when they’re full.

But that’s not all.

Householders are lazy or otherwise noncompliant and sometimes dump stuff in the wrong bin, just as drivers sometimes disobey the speed limit.

The overt value proposition for the municipality (who we are selling these bins and their support infrastructure to) is that the bins can sense the presence of the wrong kind of waste. This increases management costs by requiring hand-sorting, so the individual homeowner can be surcharged (or fined). More reasonably, households can be charged a high annual waste recycling and sorting fee, and given a discount for pre-sorting everything properly, before collection — which they forefeit if they screw up too often.

The covert value proposition … local town governments are under increasing pressure to cut their operating budgets. But by implementing increasingly elaborate waste-sorting requirements and imposing direct fines on households for non-compliance, they can turn the smart recycling bins into a new revenue enhancement channel, much like the speed cameras in Waldo. Churn the recycling criteria just a little bit and rely on tired and over-engaged citizens to accidentally toss a piece of plastic in the metal bin, or some food waste in the packaging bin: it’ll make a fine contribution to your city’s revenue!

Charles Stross, “The Evil Business Plan of Evil (and misery for all)”, Charlie’s Diary, 2015-05-21.

December 4, 2016

QotD: Human nature

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

If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?

Frédéric Bastiat, The Law, 1850.

December 2, 2016

The Ontario government – “It doesn’t exactly take Moriarty to get one over on this gang”

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

Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk has a few mild criticisms of how Kathleen Wynn’s government spends public money on infrastructure:

Over the next decade, the Ontario government plans to spend $17 billion rehabilitating existing infrastructure, mostly on roads and bridges, and $31 billion on new infrastructure, mostly on public transit — much of the latter in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. For some weary commuters, the promise of relief might be one of the few remaining attractions Premier Kathleen Wynne’s phenomenally unpopular administration has to offer — assuming, of course, they have some degree of confidence their money will be spent properly.

Page 496 of Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s latest report, released Wednesday, has something to say about that.

The scene: the Pickering GO station. Metrolinx was to build a pedestrian bridge across Highway 401. Not a herculean feat, one might have thought. Alas the winning bidder “had no experience in installing bridge trusses” — which is “something that a contractor constructing a bridge would be expected to know how to do,” Lysyk’s report dryly notes.

After the contractor “installed one truss upside down” — no, seriously — Metrolinx essentially took over the project. But it paid the contractor the full $19-million for the first phase of the project anyway. Then it gave the same contractors the contract for phase two — hey, it had the low bid! — and lo and behold they pooped the bed again, damaging glass to the tune of $1 million and building a stairway too wide to accommodate the planned cladding.

At this point, according to the Auditor-General, Metrolinx terminated the contract. It paid 99 per cent of the bill anyway. And later — no, seriously! — it gave the company another $39 million contract. “Metrolinx lacks a process to prevent poorly performing contractors from bidding on future contracts,” the report observes. Transport Minister Steven Del Duca said a new “vendor performance management system” would do just that, but one wonders why something so fancy-sounding was necessary to perform such a basic function. (Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins disputes the decision-making timeline in the report; according to hers, the contractor’s ineptitude was unknown when further work was awarded.)

India’s bold experiment in self-inflicted economic wounds

Filed under: Economics, Government, India — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Shikha Dalmia explains why Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly decided to kneecap his country’s money supply and cause massive economic disruption:

Modi was elected in a landslide on the slogan of “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance.” He promised to end babu raj — the rule of corrupt, petty bureaucrats who torment ordinary citizens for bribes — and radically transform India’s economy. But rather than tackling government corruption, he has declared war on private citizens holding black money in the name of making all Indians pay their fair share.

Tax scofflaw behavior is indeed a problem in India. But it is almost always a result of tax rates that are way higher than what people think their government is worth. The enlightened response would be to lower these rates and improve governance. Instead, Modi is taking his country down what Nobel-winning political economist F.A. Hayek called the road to serfdom, where every failed round of coercive government intervention simply becomes an excuse for even more draconian rounds — exactly what was happening in pre-liberalized India.

[…]

About 600 million poor and uneducated Indians don’t have bank accounts. Roughly 300 million don’t have official identification. It’s not easy to swap their soon-to-be worthless cash, which is a catastrophe given that they live hand to mouth. It is heartbreaking to see these people lined up in long queues outside post offices and banks, missing days and days of work, pleading for funds from the very bureaucrats from whose clutches Modi had promised to release them.

Modi hatched his scheme in complete secrecy, without consulting his own economic advisers or the Parliament, lest rich hoarders catch wind and ditch their cash holdings for gold and other assets. Hence, he could not order enough new money printed in advance. This is a massive problem given that about 90 percent of India’s economic transactions are in cash. People need to be able to get money from their banks to meet basic needs. But the government has imposed strict limits on how much of their own money people can withdraw from their own accounts.

[…]

This is not boldness, but sheer conceit based on the misguided notion that people have to be accountable to the government, rather than vice versa. Over time, it will undermine the already low confidence of Indians in their institutions. If Modi could unilaterally and so suddenly re-engineer the currency used by 1.1 billion people, what will he do next? This is a recipe for capital flight and economic retrenchment.

The fear and uncertainty that Modi’s move will breed will turn India’s economic clock back to the dark times of pre-liberalized India — not usher in the good times (aache din) that Modi had promised.

QotD: Socialism

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

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

Frédéric Bastiat, The Law, 1850.

November 30, 2016

Minnesota’s generous (hidden) gift to six government-appointed MFSA officials

Filed under: Football, Government, Sports, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Minnesota taxpayers contributed nearly half of the costs to build the new stadium that the Minnesota Vikings call home (“one of the largest public subsidies ever given to a sports facility”). The state government appointed a six-person board to negotiate the state’s share of the costs. Now, it comes to light that those six people get free luxury suite tickets to not only Viking home games, but every event held at the stadium:

Six government appointees, including the son of a vice president, who negotiated how much public money would be spent building the Minnesota Vikings’ new football stadium get free access to luxury boxes for all events in the stadium.

Which, you know, might call into question how hard they really negotiated for the taxpayers on that one.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports that the six members of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), the quasi-government agency created in 2012 to oversee the public subsidies for the building of U.S. Bank Stadium, get free tickets to two lower-level luxury suites for all events held there. Even though taxpayers covered more than half of the cost of the $1.1 billion stadium, which opened earlier this year, the public is being kept in the dark about who occupies those 36 seats and the adjoining luxury suites during Vikings home games and other events.

The team claims that the suites are used for “marketing purposes,” but the Star-Tribune‘s investigation found that family and friends of the board members are usually in attendance too.

Maybe the best part of the story is the moment when two members of the MSFA board (chairwoman Michele Kelm-Helgen and executive director Ted Mondale) try to justify their sweet, free, and secret perk by arguing that they “work long hours on game days and spent long nights negotiating on behalf of taxpayers during construction of the building, so having friends and family there is reasonable.”

[…]

For anyone who isn’t part of this special cadre of insiders getting special access to the suites for free would have to shell out more than $20,000 for season tickets in similar suites at the stadium. Since the six members of the MSFA board also have access to the suites for all other events at the stadium, the actual value of their seats is in excess of that figure.

The whole thing raises ethical questions since public officials in Minnesota are not allowed to receive gifts, including special privileges or access not otherwise available to the general public. That gift ban has a loophole allowing public officials to accept such special freebies if it’s part of their official duties.

As I wrote back in 2012:

As you’ll know if you’ve read the blog for any length of time, I’m a big fan of the Minnesota Vikings, despite never having lived there or even visited the state. I’d be very upset if they became the L.A. Vikings. But I also totally sympathize with Minnesotans who don’t want their taxes being used to give corporate welfare to the billionaire owner of the football club. Pouring money into facilities for professional sports teams is one of the very worst ways to use tax dollars, as the lads at Reason.tv explain:

November 28, 2016

Legalized political corruption

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

Walter Williams on the real danger the hyper-rich pose to the body politic:

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, having a net worth of $81.8 billion, and Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, having a net worth of $70.4 billion, are the nation’s two richest men. They are at the top of the Forbes 400 list of America’s superrich individuals, people who have net worths of billions of dollars. Many see the rich as a danger. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote, “It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.” His colleague Paul Krugman wrote, “On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.” It’s sentiments like these that have led me to wish there were a humane way to get rid of the rich. For without having the rich around to be whipping boys and distract our attention, we might be able to concentrate on what’s best for the 99.9 percent of the rest of us.

Let’s look at the power of the rich. With all the money that Gates, Bezos and other superrich people have, what can they force you or me to do? Can they condemn our houses to create space so that another individual can build an auto dealership or a casino parking lot? Can they force us to pay money into the government-run — and doomed — Obamacare program? Can they force us to bus our children to schools out of our neighborhood in the name of diversity? Can they force us to buy our sugar from a high-cost domestic producer rather than from a low-cost Caribbean producer? The answer to all of these questions is a big fat no.

You say, “Williams, I don’t understand.” Let me be more explicit. Bill Gates cannot order you to enroll your child in another school in order to promote racial diversity. He has no power to condemn your house to make way for a casino parking lot. Unless our elected public officials grant them the power to rip us off, rich people have little power to force us to do anything. A lowly municipal clerk earning $50,000 a year has far more life-and-death power over us. It is that type of person to whom we must turn for permission to build a house, ply a trade, open a restaurant and do myriad other activities. It’s government people, not rich people, who have the power to coerce us and rip us off. They have the power to make our lives miserable if we disobey. This coercive power goes a long way toward explaining legalized political corruption.

November 26, 2016

QotD: State-run education

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

You say: “There are persons who lack education” and you turn to the law. But the law is not, in itself, a torch of learning which shines its light abroad. The law extends over a society where some persons have knowledge and others do not; where some citizens need to learn, and others can teach. In this matter of education, the law has only two alternatives: It can permit this transaction of teaching-and-learning to operate freely and without the use of force, or it can force human wills in this matter by taking from some of them enough to pay the teachers who are appointed by government to instruct others, without charge. But in the second case, the law commits legal plunder by violating liberty and property.

Frédéric Bastiat, The Law, 1850.

November 24, 2016

QotD: Black hats and white hats

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

When considering the major failures of recent American governance – the 2008-09 financial crisis, the catastrophe that is U.S. policy in the Mideast – the one thing that any honest-minded person must conclude is: Nobody meant for things to turn out this way. It is impossible to make precise predictions about the effects of government policy; that is the nature of systems characterized by high levels of complexity. It’s one thing to predict that it’ll be colder during the winter, but another thing to predict down to the millimeter how much snow will fall on a particular acre in rural Maine on the third Wednesday in February, which is really what we expect from our public policy.

Classic cowboy movies, in contrast, are not complex at all: The good guys wear white hats, the bad guys wear black hats, all hats remain firmly affixed to all heads at all times, and that’s that. You can pretty much always predict how an old Western is going to turn out.

But that isn’t how the real world works.

On Tuesday, I had a conversation about Elizabeth Warren and Wall Street, pointing out that the popular version of that story – Senator Warren vs. Wall Street – is so oversimplified as to be not merely useless but misleading. The reality is that there are people working on Wall Street who dislike Senator Warren – investors and bankers, mainly – and people who adore her – notably Wall Street lawyers, who are reliable donors to her campaign and to those of other Democrats. My naïve interlocutor said: “Hopefully, it’s the lawyers that fight against Wall Street,” as though there were such a thing, as though there weren’t nice progressive lawyers in Manhattan who jokingly refer to their yachts as the SS Dodd-Frank.

Spend any time writing about this sort of thing and you’ll hear angry and panicked denunciations of derivatives-trading from people who pretty clearly do not know what a derivative is, just as you’ll hear paeans to Glass-Steagall sung by people who don’t understand the difference between a commercial bank and an investment bank, who don’t know how Goldman-Sachs makes its money or what it is that Standard & Poor’s does.

But they’re quite sure they know who is wearing the black hats.

Kevin Williamson, “Black Hats and White Hats”, National Review, 2015-04-15.

November 23, 2016

QotD: The Progressive worldview

Filed under: Government, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:00

In order to understand this, we must first identify what the Progressive worldview is. Boiled down to its simplest, it’s this: “The government can do it better”. Do what? Anything. Individual Progressives might believe that there should be certain limits on what the government should do, but the overall guiding star of the movement is that everything will work better when the government is in charge. It’s nothing more than a Utopian vision: Things aren’t perfect now, but when WE are in charge of them, then we can make them perfect. The fact that perfection is impossible never enters their minds.*

[…]

* I’m taking their stated beliefs at face value, and many of the foot soldiers of the revolution, Lenin’s “useful idiots”, probably do in fact believe that they are working for a “better world”. Most of the leadership behind the Progressive movement is far too smart to believe any such thing. Utopia is just the flashy bling to dazzle the rubes. Their motivations are no different than any other humans. There’s an acronym that identify why people become traitors or spies — MICE — which stands for Money, Ideology, Coercion and Ego. I don’t think it vastly different here, although I’d substitute Power for Coercion in those that seek to be the ruling class.

Weirddave, “Fundamental Concepts – Why the Left Hates Families”, Ace of Spades H.Q., 2015-03-28.

November 19, 2016

More examples of that “strange new respect” for limiting presidential powers

Filed under: Government, Liberty, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

It may have been awkward for Democrats who watched Obama go further, faster than George W. Bush on deportations, surveillance, assassination, and even torture, but they can finally get their groove back on in protesting Donald Trump’s use of exactly the same tools Obama has been using for the last eight years:

Even the extreme legal theories of the George W Bush administration were mild compared to some of the “compromise” positions Obama’s DoJ argued for, and now Donald J Trump gets to use those positions to further its own terrifying agenda of mass deportations, reprisals against the press, torture and assassination, and surveillance based on religious affiliation or ethnic origin.

When it came to things like closing Guantanamo, Obama argued for limits on establishing offshore black-sites and military tribunals, but refused to shut the door on them. So maybe Trump won’t be able to use Gitmo to house the people he has kidnapped by his CIA, but he can use the legal authority that Obama argued for to set up lots of other Guantanamos wherever he likes.

Likewise torture: Obama decided that it was better to move and and bury the CIA torture report, and had his DoJ block any attempt to have torture declared illegal, which would have given people opposing Trump’s torture agenda with a potent legal weapon that is now unavailable to them.

Obama argued that the president should be able to create kill lists of Americans and foreigners who could be assassinated with impunity, and argued against even judicial review of these lists.

Then there’s Obama’s war on whistleblowers — his administration invoked federal law against more whistleblowers than all the other presidents in US history, combined — and his aggressive assertion that journalists have no right to protect their confidential sources. These will be of enormous use to the Trump presidency, which has already promised to use executive powers to persecute hostile journalists who try to hold it to account.

It’s sad that partisans of the current administration can only seem to see the problems in granting the president more powers when those powers are about to be wielded by a president of the other party. A wee bit too late to repent, my friends.

November 17, 2016

Deregulation’s return

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

I rarely say nice things about Jimmy Carter’s term as president, but he should get more credit for the deregulation that happened under his administration — the lifting of restrictive and obsolete rules over things like railroads, long-distance trucking, and (most important to drinkers) enabling the rebirth of craft brewing — many of the economic benefits were later attributed to Reagan, but Carter did the heavy lifting on several important issues. It’s a hopeful sign that S.A. Miller says Congress and the Senate may be in a deregulatory mode after Trump’s inauguration:

Sen. Rand Paul said Wednesday that he expects a flurry of repeals of Present Obama’s regulations by the next Congress and President-elect Donald Trump.

“You’re gong to find that we are going to repeal a half dozen or more regulations in the first week of Congress, and I’m excited about it because I think the regulations have been killing our jobs and making us less competitive with the world,” the Kentucky Republican said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program.

Mr. Trump, whose surprise win over Democrat Hillary Clinton sent shock waves across the Washington political establishment, pledged on the campaign trail to tackle over-regulation by the Obama administration.

The federal government has imposed more than 600 major regulations costing Americans roughly $740 billion since Mr. Obama took office in 2009.

Mr. Paul said he viewed many of the regulations under Mr. Obama to be unconstitutional because they were issued without Congress’ approval.

November 13, 2016

“All it would take would be a repudiation of Wickard v Filburn…”

Filed under: Government, Law, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Ed Morrissey on the strange new respect being shown on the left to the concept of checks and balances in the US federal system:

For the past six years, the media has lionized Barack Obama for his increasing autocratic acts in pushing executive power to its limits — or past them — rather than compromise with Republicans in control of Congress. “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” Obama declared, “and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions.” Despite serious rebukes by courts over his attempts to bypass the Senate on recess appointments and flat-out violate the law on immigration, the media has always cast Republicans as villains for frustrating Obama’s agenda rather than focus on his abuses of executive authority.

Suddenly, though, an epiphany has begun to dawn on the media. Pens and phones are old and busted, and checks and balances are the new hotness. […]

Under a true federalist system, Californians could run their own state, as could Coloradans, Minnesotans, and also Texans, Floridians, New Yorkers, and, er … whatever people from Wisconsin call themselves. All it would take would be a repudiation of Wickard v Filburn to reduce federal authority over economic activity to commerce that actually takes place across state lines. Each state could have their own EPA, if they desire it, and maintain their own land in the manner they see fit.

In such a system, the authority of the president would greatly diminish on domestic affairs, allowing voters to consider candidates for such a position based on issues such as diplomacy and national defense rather than which of the two will be the biggest busybodies. Rather than trying to run a nanny state and failing as miserably as F. A. Hayek predicted, Congress could focus on a much narrower range of tasks and do those well. Most importantly, states could keep much of the revenue pouring into Washington and provide a lot more effective accountability over its use.

Does that appeal to all the special snowflakes looking for safe space in the Age of Trump, and to all of those protesting because they just found out what it feels like to lose an election? Sound like a novel idea that could shield you from the potential side effects of a presidential election? Well, then congratulations — you are well on your way to becoming a conservative, or perhaps a libertarian. Feel free to ask us about the principles that we have (imperfectly to be sure) espoused all along while Barack Obama set all the precedents that Donald Trump will expand to your detriment. We’ll try not to snicker when explaining them to you … much, anyway.

October 31, 2016

Is the “Gold Standard” of peer review actually just Fool’s Gold?

Filed under: Environment, Government, Health, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Donna Laframboise points out that it’s difficult to govern based on scientific evidence if that evidence isn’t true:

We’re continually assured that government policies are grounded in evidence, whether it’s an anti-bullying programme in Finland, an alcohol awareness initiative in Texas or climate change responses around the globe. Science itself, we’re told, is guiding our footsteps.

There’s just one problem: science is in deep trouble. Last year, Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, referred to fears that ‘much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue’ and that ‘science has taken a turn toward darkness.’

It’s a worrying thought. Government policies can’t be considered evidence-based if the evidence on which they depend hasn’t been independently verified, yet the vast majority of academic research is never put to this test. Instead, something called peer review takes place. When a research paper is submitted, journals invite a couple of people to evaluate it. Known as referees, these individuals recommend that the paper be published, modified, or rejected.

If it’s true that one gets what one pays for, let me point out that referees typically work for no payment. They lack both the time and the resources to perform anything other than a cursory overview. Nothing like an audit occurs. No one examines the raw data for accuracy or the computer code for errors. Peer review doesn’t guarantee that proper statistical analyses were employed, or that lab equipment was used properly. The peer review process itself is full of serious flaws, yet is treated as if it’s the handmaiden of objective truth.

And it shows. Referees at the most prestigious of journals have given the green light to research that was later found to be wholly fraudulent. Conversely, they’ve scoffed at work that went on to win Nobel prizes. Richard Smith, a former editor of the British Medical Journal, describes peer review as a roulette wheel, a lottery and a black box. He points out that an extensive body of research finds scant evidence that this vetting process accomplishes much at all. On the other hand, a mountain of scholarship has identified profound deficiencies.

October 18, 2016

QotD: “Smart Growth” regulations hurt the poor

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

In the 1970s, municipalities enacted new rules that were designed to protect farmland and to preserve green space surrounding rapidly growing cities by forbidding private development in those areas. By the late 1990s, this practice evolved into a land-use strategy called “smart growth.” (Here’s a video I did about smart growth.) While some of these initiatives may have preserved green space that can be seen, what is harder to see is the resulting supply restriction and higher cost of housing.

Again, the lower the supply of housing, other things equal, the higher real-estate prices will be. Those who now can’t afford to buy will often rent smaller apartments in less-desirable areas, which typically have less influence on the political process. Locally elected officials tend to be more responsive to the interests of current residents who own property, vote, and pay taxes, and less responsive to renters, who are more likely to be transients and nonvoters. That, in turn, makes it easier to implement policies that use regulation to discriminate against people living on low incomes.

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

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