Quotulatiousness

February 23, 2017

An open letter to the DHS on social media identities

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

Cory Doctorow:

A huge coalition of human rights groups, trade groups, civil liberties groups, and individual legal, technical and security experts have signed an open letter to the Department of Homeland Security in reaction to Secretary John Kelly’s remarks to House Homeland Security Committee earlier this month, where he said the DHS might force visitors to America to divulge their social media logins as a condition of entry.

The letter points out that the years’ worth of private data — including commercially sensitive information; privileged communications with doctors, therapists and attorneys; and personal information of an intimate and private nature — that the DHS could access this way would not belong only to non-US persons (who are, of course, deserving of privacy!), but also US persons, whose lives the DHS would be able to peer into without warrant, oversight or limitation.

The letter also points out that once America starts demanding this of foreigners visiting its shores, other governments will definitely reciprocate — so American travelers would be forced to reveal everything from trade secrets to the most personal moments with their loved ones with governments hostile to US interests.

Trade disputes tend to devolve into tit-for-tat retaliation. Initiatives like this will work exactly the same way (except you can be certain that politicians will hold out for their own right to privacy while demanding that private citizens and foreigners give up theirs).

QotD: Government failure is baked-in

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

One can build a very good predictive model of government agency behavior if one assumes the main purpose of the agency is to maximize its budget and staff count. Yes, many in the organization are there because they support the agency’s public mission (e.g. protecting the environment at the EPA), but I can tell you from long experience that preservation of their staff and budget will almost always come ahead of their public mission if push comes to shove.

The way, then, to punish an agency is to take away some staff and budget. Nothing else will get their attention. Unfortunately, in most scandals where an agency proves itself to be incompetent or corrupt or both (e.g. IRS, the VA, more recently with OPM and their data breaches) the tendency is to believe the “fix” involves sending the agency more resources. Certainly the agency and its supporters will scream “lack of resources” as an excuse for any problem.

And that is how nearly every failing government agency is rewarded for their failure, rather than punished. Which is why our agencies fail so much.

Warren Meyer, “Congress Almost Always Rewards Failed Government Agencies. Here is Why”, Coyote Blog, 2015-06-17.

February 21, 2017

QotD: Leaving the European Union

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

In the 25 years since I began writing seriously here about the European Union and what our membership of it has been doing to Britain, I have learnt (among much else) three things.

The first, which came quite early as I began to understand the real nature of the supranational system of government we now lived under, was that we should one day have to leave it.

A second, as I came to appreciate just how enmeshed we were becoming with that system of government, was that extricating ourselves from it would be far more fiendishly complicated than most people realised.

The third, as I listened and talked to politicians, was how astonishingly little they seemed really to know about how it worked. Having outsourced ever more of our lawmaking and policy to a higher power, it was as if our political class had switched off from ever really trying to understand it.

Christopher Booker, “Our politicians want to lead us out of the EU, but they don’t seem to have a clue how it works”, Telegraph, 2017-02-04.

February 19, 2017

NFL tries to bully Texas … here’s how Texas should respond

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

At Ace of Spades H.Q., Ace offers some advice to Texas or to any other state on the receiving end of some NFL “persuasion”:

Texas Governor to NFL: Worry About Your Own Spousal Abuse Scandals Before You Go Dictating to Us That We Need to Allow Penises in the Ladies’ Rooms

The NFL warned a Texas that a bill proposed in its senate — which would reserve bathroom use to the “biological sex” indicated on the door — might jeopardize Texas from getting to host any future Super Bowls.

Governor Greg Abbot had some words for the NFL.

However, if Texas, or any other state, wishes to bar professional sports teams from ever attempting to blackmail them into what laws they can and cannot pass or enforce, I have a much more powerful corrective.

States should begin proposing this law:

No municipality shall have the authority to issue any bonds, or direct any public monies, towards the construction of any arena, stadium, or venue of any type intended partially for use by a private company, unless permission to do so is first granted by an act of the state legislature itself or a statewide referendum affirmatively permitting such a corporate-enrichment boondoggle.

Municipalities are delegated whatever powers of the state the state wishes to confer upon them. Municipalities, you may or may not know, act with the power of the state when they pass ordinances and tax bills and such — but that power derives from the reservoir of powers the state possesses, and which the state has conferred upon them via charters of incorporation.

Those powers can be circumscribed, expanded, limited, or cancelled.

You don’t have to include that last part, the part about the legislative or popular referendum override of the general forbiddance, but that could be thrown in there for RINOs who really do want to do favors for corporate bullies and who therefore won’t vote for such a bill without an escape clause.

When the states get serious about simply cutting off cities’ rights to issue bonds or directly subsidize, with taxpayer money, the new stadiums these free-riding vulture socialists are always demanding, then you’ll see the NFL and NBA adopt a much less high-handed tone.

Previous posts about the economic idiocy of local or state governments subsidizing billionaire sports team owners here, here, and here.

February 17, 2017

Industrial policy example – Kingston, Ontario

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Government, Railways — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

David Warren remembers when the government tampered with the free market to “save an industry” in Kingston:

Once upon a time, many years ago, I scrapped into one of these “no-brainer” political deals. The remains of the locomotive manufacturing business in Kingston, Ontario — whose century-old products I had glimpsed, still on the rails in India — were now on the block. A monster German corporation was offering to buy them, for the very purpose of competing, in Canada, with a (hugely subsidized, monopolist) Canadian corporation. The government stepped in, to “save” a Canadian industry, retroactively change the ground rules, and kick in more subsidies so that the Canadian monopolists, based in Montreal, could take over instead. This was accompanied by nationalist rhetoric, and Kingston was thrilled. Critics like me were unofficially deflected with bigoted anti-German blather held over from the last World War.

But I knew exactly what was going to happen. The local works, which would have been expanded by the foreign owner, were soon closed by the new Canadian owner, after studies had been commissioned to “prove” it was uneconomic. The latter’s last possible domestic competitor was thus snuffed out. The locals, whose lives had been for generations part of a proud Kingston enterprise, had been suckered. The politicians had told them it was little Canada versus big Germany. In reality, it was pretty little Kingston versus big ugly Montreal.

That is how the world works, with politics, so that whenever I hear of a big new national no-brainer scheme, my first thought is, which innocents are getting mooshed today?

February 11, 2017

Chris Selley boldly defends John Tory’s latest media mis-step

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

While I have no particular affection for Toronto mayor John Tory, I have to agree that he doesn’t actually deserve the rough ride he’s gotten from the Toronto media and grandstanding local politicians for his “broken promise” on municipal swimming pools. Chris Selley detailed the “story” and the facts on the ground and pointed out the non-obvious:

In short, this is a bog-standard managerial decision the likes of which gets made every day in every big city that’s trying to keep costs under control: reducing a library’s hours for lack of demand; altering swimming pool or ice rink seasons based on recent years’ weather; raising the price of greens fees or tennis court bookings; not clearing little-used pathways in parks in winter. Of course people are going to raise a fuss; you manage the fuss as best you can and soldier on.

But in Toronto, especially when a celebrity gets involved, these minor decisions inform a sort of battle-of-civilizations narrative in which the mayor of the day seeks the ruination of all things good about the city — and they all end up on the floor of council.

Even in apocalyptic times for media, City Hall is relatively well covered; council meetings in particular will bring out the cameras, in certain knowledge some elected officials will make hairy asses of themselves and others will burst into tears over the smallest things, let alone the largest.

You could hardly do any worse for entertainment value, but if you wonder why city councillors can’t seem to make any big decisions properly, tune in next Wednesday for budget deliberations and watch them try to make a bunch of small ones. You will wonder no more.

February 3, 2017

The Gorsuch nomination

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

In the Washington Post, Radley Balko says that the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch is actually a gift to the Democrats:

It always seems a bit futile to speculate about how a Supreme Court nominee will behave down the line. Conservatives are still kicking themselves over David Souter. Eisenhower called Earl Warren the biggest mistake of his career. I personally was skeptical of Sonia Sotomayor’s history as a prosecutor and her judicial record on criminal-justice issues. She has turned out to be the court’s most reliable defender of due process and the rights of the accused.

But, of course, we do need to look into nominees, and their records and personal histories are all we have. So let’s have a civil liberties-centric look at Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee to replace the late justice Antonin Scalia.

The Good: As far as I’m concerned, the most important thing to look for in a Supreme Court justice right now is a willingness to stand up to executive power. For at least the next four years (in all likelihood), the White House will be occupied by a narcissist with a proclivity for authoritarianism. We aren’t yet two weeks in to Trump’s administration, and we’re already barreling toward one or more constitutional crises. Oddly and perhaps in spite of himself, of the three names said to be on Trump’s shortlist (Gorsuch, Thomas Hardiman and William Pryor), Gorsuch appears to be the most independent and has shown the most willingness to stand up to the executive branch. […]

Gorsuch is perhaps most known for his decision in the Hobby Lobby case, in which he wrote a strong opinion denouncing the birth-control mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Whether you think that’s a plus or a minus obviously depends on whether you prioritize reproductive rights or religious freedom. But even if you’re bothered by his opinion in that case, Gorsuch’s championing of religious freedom does at least seem to be careful and principled, and not partisan toward Christianity. In Yellowbear v. Lampert, a majority of his fellow appeals court judges ruled that a federal statute required the state of Wyoming to grant a Native American prisoner access to a sweat lodge on prison grounds. Gorsuch went farther, arguing that even prisoners still retain a right to practice their religion.

Gorsuch is a critic of “overcriminalization,” or the massive and growing federal criminal and regulatory codes. I think that’s a good thing. The Volokh Conspiracy’s Ilya Somin points out that he has history of ruling that criminal laws should be read narrowly, with ambiguities resolved in favor of defendants. That, too, is a good thing.

I was also struck by Gorsuch’s acceptance speech. It was noticeably un-Trumpian. He was humble, reverent of institutions and deferential to the office for which he had just been nominated. Unlike the man who nominated him, he came off as someone devoted to the law, not someone who believes he is above it.

QotD: Obamacare, or something like it, was probably inevitable

Obamacare? Well, here’s the truth of the matter: America is addicted to medical care and demands that it be delivered in infinite quantity, in flawless quality, no matter the cost, as long as no one has to pay anything like full price, directly. Unfortunately, the cost does matter, and even if we were willing to devote infinite resources to medicine, we lack the human quality to provide what’s demanded. Short version: [Obama] had to do something; eventually we were going to bankrupt ourselves in the interests of keeping someone’s great-grandmama alive another day or so. I’m not sure what that something was, mind you, and I am pretty sure that Obamacare wasn’t it. But, be fair; he really had to try to do something. So will Donald Trump, and I don’t mean just repeal Obamacare. You may as well get used to the idea.

Tom Kratman, “Free at last! Free at last!”, EveryJoe, 2017-01-23.

January 26, 2017

QotD: Why government intervention usually fails

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

We saw in an earlier story that the government is trying to tighten regulations on private company cyber security practices at the same time its own network security practices have been shown to be a joke. In finance, it can never balance a budget and uses accounting techniques that would get most companies thrown in jail. It almost never fully funds its pensions. Anything it does is generally done more expensively than would be the same task undertaken privately. Its various sites are among the worst superfund environmental messes. Almost all the current threats to water quality in rivers and oceans comes from municipal sewage plants. The government’s Philadelphia naval yard single-handedly accounts for a huge number of the worst asbestos exposure cases to date.

By what alchemy does such a failing organization suddenly become such a good regulator?

Warren Meyer, “Question: Name An Activity The Government is Better At Than the Private Actors It Purports to Regulate”, Coyote Blog, 2015-06-12.

January 23, 2017

Five easy fixes to improve US federal health policies

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

Scott Alexander finds, to his surprise, that two of the candidates for the post of FDA commissioner in the Trump administration are following his blog or social media profile. To mark that, he offers five easy-to-implement policy fixes that would make a difference:

1. Medical reciprocity with Europe and other First World countries […] Right now, Europe has a licensing agency about as strict as the FDA approving medications invented in Europe. Any pharma company that wants their medication approved in both the US and Europe has to spend a billion or so dollars getting it approved by the FDA, and then another billion or so dollars getting it approved by the Europeans. A lot of pharma companies don’t want to bother, with the end result that Europe has many good medications that America doesn’t, and vice versa. Just in my own field, amisulpride, one of the antipsychotics with the best safety/efficacy balance, has been used successfully in Europe for twenty years and is totally unavailable here despite a real need for better antipsychotic drugs. If the FDA agreed to approve any medication already approved by Europe (or to give it a very expedited review process), we could get an immediate windfall of dozens of drugs with unimpeachable records for almost no cost. Instead, in the real world, we’re cracking down on imported Canadian pharmaceuticals because the Canadians don’t have exactly our same FDA which means that for all we know they might be adding thalidomide to every pill or something. This is exactly the sort of silly anti-competitive cronyist practice that a principled intelligent libertarian could do away with.

2. Burdensome approval process for generic medications […] How come Martin Shkreli can hike the dose of an off-patent toxoplasma drug 5000%, and everyone just has to take it lying down even though the drug itself is so easy to produce that high school chemistry classes make it just to show they can? The reason is that every new company that makes a drug, even a widely-used generic drug that’s already been proven safe, has to go through a separate approval process that costs millions of dollars and takes two to three years – and which other companies in the market constantly try to sabotage through legal action. Shkreli can get away with his price hike because he knows that by the time the FDA gives anyone permission to compete with him, he’ll have made his fortune and moved on to his next nefarious scheme. If the FDA allowed reputable pharmaceutical companies in good standing to produce whatever generic drugs they wanted, the same as every other company is allowed to make whatever products they want, scandals like Daraprim and EpiPens would be a thing of the past, and the price of many medications could decrease by an order of magnitude. […]

3. Stop having that thing allowing companies to “steal” popular and effective drugs that have been in the public domain for years, claim them as their private property, shut down all competitors, and jack up the price 10x just by bringing them up to date with modern FDA bureaucracy.

4. Stop having that thing where drug companies can legally bribe other companies not to compete with them. I like this one because it sounds anti-libertarian (we’re imposing a new regulation on what companies can do!) but I think it’s exactly the sort of thing that the crony capitalists would never touch but which principled intelligent libertarians like O’Neill and Srinivasan might be open to, in order to bring more actors into the marketplace.

5. Stop thwarting consumer diagnostic products and genetic tests […] Srinivasan comes from the genetic testing world himself, so he’s likely to be extra sympathetic to this.

January 22, 2017

QotD: Conflict of interest

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

I am not sure that this is a suitable subject for a blog post, probably more a project for an aspiring PhD student, but with all the discussion of conflicts of interest in the Trump cabinet, it strikes me that the most glaring conflict in the public sector is ignored: The CoI between state and local politicians elected with the support of public sector unions who then participate in compensation negotiations for the members of those unions. Here the temptation of the politicians to buy the support of the unions with public money is overwhelming. The impact of this is potentially trillions when public pension liabilities are included.

This is such an obvious conflict that I have looked to see if there are laws preventing this, but my initial research shows nothing.

It would be interesting to see if there is a statistical relationship between union support and subsequent pay rises. I would expect this relationship to be especially strong with deferred compensation (such as pensions) since this is very difficult for voters to monitor and can be easily gamed with unrealistic assumptions about, for example, investment returns.

Roger Barris, quoted by Tyler Cowen, “Understudied conflicts of interest in American government”, Marginal Revolution, 2017-01-11.

January 21, 2017

Inauguration day

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

Warren Meyer on the downside of Inauguration Day for small government fans, regardless of which “team” won this time around:

Inauguration day is probably one of my 2 or 3 least favorite days in every decade. My feelings on the whole exercise are probably best encompassed by a conversation I had the other day at a social function.

A couple of my many liberal friends were complaining vociferously about the upcoming Trump Presidency. After a while, one observed that I seemed to be insufficiently upset about Trump. Was I a secret supporter?

I said to them something roughly as follows: You know that bad feeling you have now? That feeling of anger and fear and exasperation that some total yahoo who you absolutely disagree with has been selected to exercise power over you, power that offends you but you have to accept? Yeah, well I feel that after every Presidential election. Every. Single. One. At some point we need to stop treating these politicians as royalty and instead treat them as dangerous threats whose power needs to be circumscribed in every way we can find.

Trump and libertarian concerns

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

At Reason, Peter Suderman can only come up with nine reasons for libertarians to be worried about Il Donalduce‘s new regime:

Here are nine reasons why libertarians should be very concerned about a Trump presidency:

1) He has repeatedly promised to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants upon taking office, relying on a “special deportation force” to carry out the task. And even in the occasional moments in which he has seemed to recognize that this task would be logistically impossible, he has continued to insist that he will deport several million people right away, and that other undocumented immigrants who are in the country will not have a path to citizenship unless they leave the country first.

2) More generally, Trump’s attitude toward immigrants and outsiders ranges from disdain to outright hostility. He has called for a ban on Muslim immigration and the closure of mosques, and he opened his primary campaign by declaring that Mexican immigrants to the U.S. were rapists and criminals.

3) Trump has also promised to build a massive, expensive wall along the southern border, and has insisted that Mexico will pay for its construction, an absurd notion that is already crumbling, as the incoming administration has asked Congress, not Mexico, to pay for the wall.

4) Trump has made clear that his administration will take a much more aggressive stance on trade as well. During the campaign, he floated the idea of a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods, which would be deeply harmful to consumers and the U.S. economy. Since winning the election, his administration has raised the possibility of a 10 percent tariff on all imports, a policy that could spark a global recession. After winning in November, he said he would pull the nation out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement on day one of his presidency.

On the other hand, Nick Gillespie and Veronique de Rugy are a bit more upbeat about libertarian causes in Trump’s America:

Donald Trump is nobody’s idea of a libertarian but his presidency provides a tremendous opportunity to advance libertarian policies, outcomes, and aspirations in our politics and broader culture. Those of us who believe in reducing the size, scope, and spending of the federal government and expanding the autonomy, opportunities, and ability of people to live however they choose should welcome the Trump era. That’s not because of the new president’s agenda but because he enters office as the man who will inevitably close out a failing 20th-century model of governance.

Liberal, conservative, libertarian: We all understand that whatever the merits of the great political, economic, and cultural institutions of the last 70 years — the welfare state built on unsustainable entitlement spending; a military that spends more and more and succeeds less and less; the giant corporations (ATT, IBM, General Motors) that were “beyond” market forces until they weren’t; rigid social conventions that sorted people into stultifying binaries (black and white, male and female, straight and mentally ill) — these are everywhere in ruins or retreat.

The taxi cab — a paradigmatic blending of private enterprise and state power in a system that increasingly serves no one well — is replaced by ride-sharing services that are endlessly innovative, safer, and self-regulating. Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s campaign slogan — Uber everything — was the one self-evident truth uttered throughout the 2016 campaign. All aspects of our lives are being remade according to a new, inherently libertarian operating system that empowers individuals and groups to pursue whatever experiments in living they want. As one of us (Nick Gillespie) wrote with Matt Welch in The Declaration of Independents, the loosening of controls in our commercial, cultural, and personal lives has consistently enriched our world. The sharing economy, 3D printing and instantaneous global communication means businesses grow, flourish, adapt, and die in ways that perfectly fulfill Schumpeterian creative destruction. We live in a world where consuming art, music, video, text, and other forms of creative expression is its own form or production and allows us to connect in lateral rather than hierarchical ways. Pernicious racial and ethnic categories persist but they have been mostly supplanted by a tolerance and a level of lived pluralism that was unimaginable even 20 years ago, when less than [50%] of Americans approved of interracial marriages. Politics, Welch and Gillespie wrote, is a lagging indicator of where America is already heading and in many cases has already arrived.

January 15, 2017

Corporate sponsors should have no place at national memorial sites

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

Ted Campbell reacts to the news that corporate logos will be included at the updated Vimy Ridge Centre:

I’m not faulting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nor Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr for starting this, but they can and should put a stop to it. The business of getting the private sector to “support” public projects is not new and, generally, the public, including me, approves of it: in almost all cases it is good to have commercial sponsorships … almost all. National memorials are different […]

The Welcome Centre of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France flying the Canadian Red Ensign ( 1868 – 1921 version ). This flag along with The Maple Leaf fly at national memorial as Canada was only using the Red Ensign at the time of the First World War Engagement.

I don’t doubt the generosity or patriotism of Bell Canada or WalMart are anyone else, but a few things have to be sacrosanct, and our national memorials honouring our war dead must be amongst them.

Let is be very clear: it is the visitors’ centre, not the memorial itself that is being rebuilt and I’m guessing that the officials close to the project can see a very big difference between the little visitors’ centre building and the memorial, proper, but I, and many others, do not and will not; If the see even an understated, dignified sign in the visitors’ centre they will likely conclude that a corporation is, now, responsible for the whole monument. From the very first moment one sets foot on the land which France ceded, in perpetuity, to Canada it is “our” place, honouring our war dead and, more broadly, the significance of our contribution to the Great War. It is a small, $10 million, project and I am sure that officials will say that they are only trying to make the best use of their budget so that they can devote more to providing much needed care to veterans by spending less on this little building … and I would, normally, applaud them, but not on this.

January 6, 2017

Venezuela’s journey from the “Bolivarian Revolution” to “Zimbabwean levels of hunger and inflationary poverty”

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

Jack Staples-Butler on the moral accountability for outside supporters (particularly the British left) of what has turned into a huge humanitarian disaster in Venezuela:

DENIAL in the face of catastrophic failure of one’s ideas is a predictable reaction from a believer, as per Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance reduction in response to the failure of one’s beliefs. Denial in the face of shame for one’s actions is an experience well-studied by psychologists and criminologists. One 2014 study summarises the role of ‘shame’ in creating both denial of responsibility and recidivism among offenders:

    “Feelings of shame… involve a painful feeling directed toward the self. For some people, feelings of shame lead to a defensive response, a denial of responsibility, and a need to blame others — a process that can lead to aggression.”

Combining both faces of the phenomenon of denial is the behaviour of the supporters, apologists and promoters of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, the late Hugo Chávez and the PSUV regime in Venezuela, and their response to the present state of the country. Humanitarian catastrophe of an apocalyptic scale is now unfolding in the most oil-rich state in the world. The magnitude of human suffering is indescribable. The scenes of bread queues and shortages familiar to Eurozone-crisis Greece are long since surpassed. Venezuela has become a ‘Starvation State’ which “today drowns in a humanitarian crisis”, with lawless cities and hunger for the majority. It extends beyond humans, as the country’s pets are left in skeletal starvation and the zoos of Venezuela become graveyards of wild and endangered animals. […]

The response of the Venezuelan government to a crisis entirely of its own making has been systemic and organised psychological denial of its own, and particularly to externalise blame through conspiracy theories. Fantasies of ‘economic warfare’ waged by ‘hoarders’ led by the United States are played out in government seizures of foodstuffs and crippling price controls. The most disturbing recent development is the prospect of Venezuelans becoming a population of forced labourers in government-run agricultural projects, a solution that would take Venezuela from Zimbabwean levels of hunger and inflationary poverty to Cambodian levels of state-led starvation.

H/T to Natalie Solent for the link.

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