April 2, 2014

Comparing scandals – Toyota’s phantom acceleration and GM’s ignition switches

Filed under: Business, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:10

David Harsanyi offers this comparison and says it’s another reason governments shouldn’t own businesses:

In February 2010, the Obama Administration’s Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told America, without a shred of evidence, that Toyota automobiles were dangerous to drive. LaHood offered the remarks in front of the House Appropriations subcommittee that was investigating reports of unintended-acceleration crashes. “My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it,” he said, sending the company’s stock into a nosedive.

Even at the time, LaHood’s comments were reckless at best. Assailing the competition reeks of political opportunism and cronyism. It also illustrates one of the unavoidable predicaments of the state owning a corporation in a competitive marketplace. And when we put LaHood’s comment into perspective today, it’s actually a lot worse. Not only did the Obama administration have the power and ideological motive to damage the largely non-unionized competition, it was busy propping up a company that was causing preventable deaths.


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s acting chief David Friedman testified that GM never told them that faulty switches were at the root of the airbag problem. Fine. Before plowing billions of tax dollars into saving the United Automobile Workers, did the Car Czar or any other Obama officials take extra care to review DOT records to insure that taxpayers would not be funding the preventable deaths of American citizens? Would DOT or Holder exhibit the same zealousness for safety when it came to GM as they did when it came to Toyota? In the midst of the bailout debate and subsequent “turnaround,” news of a coverup and major recall would have been a political disaster.

So it’s difficult to understand why this isn’t a huge scandal. If every obtuse utterance by an obscure Republican congressman gets the media juices flowing, surely the possibility of this kind of negligence is worth a look. Can anyone with access to the administration ask some of these questions? Because if you take credit for “saving” a company (actually, an “industry,” as no one would ever driven again if Obama hadn’t saved the day) you also get credit for “saving” the real-life unscrupulous version of the company. “I placed my bet on American workers,” Obama told union workers in 2012. “And I’d make that same bet again any day of the week. And now, three years later that bet is paying off.” Betting $80 billion of someone else’s money to prop up sympathetic labor unions isn’t exactly fraught with political risk. Unless it turns out that your administration was less concerned about the safety defects of the company you owned than the company you disliked. That would be corruption.

February 17, 2014

The dirty not-so-secret about Olympic venues

Filed under: Sports — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:44

Every time somebody suggests that Toronto be seriously involved in an Olympic bid, I become a big supporter of the other competing cities. Toronto is dysfunctional enough without adding the cost, disruption, and anti-democratic central planning aspects of hosting the Olympic games. In Samizdata, Michael Jennings looks at the shenanigans going on both in Sochi with the current Winter Games and in future venues:

The 2018 Winter Olympics are in Pyeongchang county in South Korea. Assuming that North Korea does not collapse or try to start a war between now and then, this will be straightforward, as these things go. A vast amount of money has been spent building new world class ski resorts at Alpensia and Yongpyong. These have largely been built already. They were built in anticipation of Pyeongchang winning the Winter Olympics. Pyeongchang also made unsuccessful bids for the games of 2006 and 2010, and has therefore been building for some time. There are already large financial black holes from the construction of these venues, but one cost overruns will be anywhere near as bad as have come from the highly corrupt race to get things built on time that took place prior to Sochi. Plus there have been and will be time for lots of test events to get the venues right. Of course, there are still highly expensive new highways and railways to be built, and a lot of indoor venues to be built for the ice events in the coastal city of Gangneung. As national pride is at stake, South Korean taxpayers will undoubtedly suffer painfully, but South Korea is a rich industrial democracy with competent people in charge. These games will likely go smoothly, but they will cost a lot — just not as much as Sochi.

The venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics has not yet been decided, but the IOC announced last year there were six final bidders: Stockholm (Åre), Sweden; Oslo, Norway; Krakow, Poland (Zakopane, Poland and Jasná, Slovakia); Almaty, Kazakhstan; Lviv, Ukraine; and Beijing (Zhangjiakou), China. [It has always been the case that the indoor ice events would be held in a city and the outdoor snow events in a mountain resort. In recent times the need for the city to be close to the resort has been relaxed somewhat, and I have listed the mountain resort(s) in brackets if it is a long way away from the official host city].

Sweden has already withdrawn their bid, and Norway appears to be close to doing so. The reason: they are seeing the immense expense and horrible shenanigans going on in Sochi. A little secret of the Olympics is that many of the the same people run it every time — the host city largely just picks up the bill. Once the event has ridiculous expenses and large amounts of outright corruption attached to it, this all comes with it to the next venue. Receiving kickbacks on construction projects becomes what it is all about.

Relatively uncorrupt places like Norway and Sweden look at this, and find that they want nothing to do with it. As great centres of winter sport, they have many of the right facilities already, meaning less scope for construction industry kickbacks. This means that for some of the IOC the fact that a country is already prepared for the Games is actually a negative rather than a positive.

Anyway, though, the point is that the two countries best able to host the games end up not being serious candidates.

As for the others: Poland and Slovakia would run the games just fine, but a fair bit of infrastructure and facilities would need to be built. Krakow is a lovely city. Zakopane is a lovely resort, and the Tata mountains are a suitable place for the games, even if the best downhill resorts are on the Slovakian side rather than the Polish side. (Some of the infrastructure construction would not be too counterproductive: Poland built lots of new roads, railways stations and airport terminals before the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, most of which were needed anyway and were part of Poland’s long term post-communist infrastructure modernisation). The Olympic games are not what money should be spent on in the present economic circumstances, though, and one also hopes that the richer countries of the EU are past paying for the Olympics to be held in the poorer countries of the EU (see Athens 2004). But with the EU, who knows?

February 3, 2014

Corruption in the EU

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Europe, Law — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:46

BBC News discusses a recent EU report on bribery and corruption in Europe:

The extent of corruption in Europe is “breathtaking” and it costs the EU economy at least 120bn euros (£99bn) annually, the European Commission says.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem has presented a full report on the problem.

She said the true cost of corruption was “probably much higher” than 120bn.

Three-quarters of Europeans surveyed for the Commission study said that corruption was widespread, and more than half said the level had increased.

Interestingly, the perception of corruption is significantly higher than the (self-reported) incidence:

In the UK only five people out of 1,115 — less than 1% — said they had been expected to pay a bribe. It was “the best result in all Europe”, the report said.

But 64% of British respondents said they believed corruption to be widespread in the UK, while the EU average was 74% on that question.

In some countries there was a relatively high number reporting personal experience of bribery,

In Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece, between 6% and 29% of respondents said they had been asked for a bribe, or had been expected to pay one, in the past 12 months.

There were also high levels of bribery in Poland (15%), Slovakia (14%) and Hungary (13%), where the most prevalent instances were in healthcare.

Ms Malmstroem said corruption was eroding trust in democracy and draining resources from the legal economy.

November 16, 2013

QotD: Petronius was right

Filed under: History, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:57

Sometime in the mid-first century a.d., an otherwise little known consular official, Gaius Petronius, wrote a brilliant satirical novel about the gross and pretentious new Roman-imperial elite. The Satyricon is an often-cruel parody about how the Roman agrarian republic of old had degenerated into a wealth-obsessed, empty society of wannabe new elites, flush with money, and both obsessed with and bored with sex. Most of the Satyricon is lost. But in its longest surviving chapter — “Dinner with Trimalchio” — Petronius might as well have been describing our own 21st-century nomenklatura.


Another farce in the Satyricon involves the nonchalant ignorance of Trimalchio and his guests. The wannabes equate influence and money with status and learning and so pontificate about current events, with made-up mythologies and half-educated references to history. When Trimalchio and his banqueters begin to sermonize on literature, almost everything that follows turns out to be wrong — as Petronius reminds us how high learning has become as inane a commodity as food or sex, and only sort of half consumed, rather like the 2008 campaign of faux Greek columns and Vero possumus, which were supposed to convey gravitas.

Likewise, in our version, what does a $200,000 Ivy League education or a graduate degree really get you any more? In the sophisticated world of our political and highly credentialed elites, there are 57 states. Atlantic Coast cities are said to lie along the Gulf of Mexico; after all, they are down there somewhere in the South. The Malvinas become the Maldives — Ma- with an s at the end seems close enough. Corps-men serve in the military (as zombies?). Medgar Evans was a civil-rights icon, but you know whom we mean. President Roosevelt addressed the nation on television after the stock-market crash in 1929 — well, he would have, had he been president then and if only Americans had had televisions in their homes. And how are we to know that what we read from celebrity authors is not just made up or plagiarized, whether a Maureen Dowd column or a Doris Kearns Goodwin book?

The famously nouveau-riche Trimalchio’s guests drop the names of the rich and powerful, mostly to remind one another that they are now among the plutocracy that is replacing the old bankrupt aristocracy. We too are seeing something like that metamorphosis. It is hard to guess on any given summer weekend which populist progressive family — the Obamas, the Clintons, the Kerrys, the Gores — will be ensconced on what particular Hamptons, Nantucket, or Martha’s Vineyard beach, rubbing shoulders with just the sort of Silicon Valley or Wall Street new zillionaires who during work hours are supposed to be the evil “1 percent” and “fat cats” who need to be forced to pay their “fair share.”

Victor Davis Hanson, “An American Satyricon”, National Review Online, 2013-08-27

November 12, 2013

Corruption watch: US government edition

Filed under: Government, Law — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:10

In his weekly NFL column, Gregg Easterbrook frequently has extended discussions of non-football items like this week’s quick tour of recent US federal, state, and local government agencies’ corruption news:

This column contends that corruption in government is a larger problem than commonly understood — that a reason expenditures at the federal, state and local levels keep smashing records, yet schools and bridges don’t get built, is that a significant fraction of what government spends is not just wasted, it is stolen.

Last week’s news that two senior admirals have been placed on leave on suspicion of corruption, while two Navy commanders and a senior official of the actual NCIS, not the TV show, have been arrested and charged with corruption, might be just the tip of an iceberg, to employ a nautical metaphor. Here’s a quick tour of recent corruption charges:

In federal government, a top EPA official stole nearly $900,000 from the agency, including through his expense account and by not reporting to work for months at a time yet receiving full pay. Absurdly, he was believed at the EPA when he claimed to be on assignment for the CIA. If the CIA needed an environmental specialist, there is a system by which one would be “detailed,” and the EPA would know.

Recently, an Army contractor was sentenced to 20 years in prison for stealing about $30 million using false invoices. Former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. recently was sentenced to prison for embezzling from campaign funds; his wife was sentenced for income-tax evasion. (The campaign embezzlement did not cost taxpayers anything, the tax evasion did.)

In state government, the Securities Exchange Commission has accused the state of Illinois of pension bond fraud. The S.E.C. has charged the former head of the California state pension fund with fraud. Members of the New York Senate have been arrested on bribery charges. The lieutenant governor of Florida resigned over involvement with a fake charity.

In local government, the former mayor of Detroit just went to prison for corruption. Several members of the Washington, D.C., city council have been jailed or indicted for corruption, including one in jail for stealing from a youth-sports fund. A former California mayor just pleaded no contest to corruption charges. A former Chicago alderman just pleaded guilty in a corruption case. Chicago might be “the most corrupt city in the country,” with kickbacks and embezzlement costing Chicago taxpayers $500 million per year, a rate that works to $185 annually stolen from each resident.


In a big, complicated world, there will always be some who steal. Most public officials are honest and work hard to administer public funds properly. But we tend to think of theft in government as a problem of bygone days of bosses in smoke-filled rooms. With evermore money flowing into government, evermore corruption might be one result.

October 24, 2013

Balancing the scales of justice

Filed under: Law, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:45

Do you remember the name Annie Dookhan? She shows up in a post called “If you’re not getting enough convictions on drug charges, tamper with the evidence at the lab“. Her case came to court recently and she was sentenced to a three-year prison term. At Popehat, Clark does a bit of math to determine whether the scales of justice are in balance here:

Before she was caught Dookhan lied about 34,000 samples.

Over 4,000 cases were tainted with her corrupt evidence.

Over 1,100 people were jailed in cases where Dookhan was the primary or secondary chemist finding them “guilty” of drug crimes.

Without knowing the exact durations of their sentences, we can’t know how many person-years of confinement Dookhan was responsible for, but taking two years as a conservative guess per person, she was responsible for 2,200 person years of confinement.

Without knowing the exact torture and abuse these 1,100 men and women underwent, we can’t know exactly how much rape and degredation Dookhan was responsible for, but given that we do know that most rape victims in the US are men, specifically men in the custody and “protection” of the State, and looking at the multiple studies that show that 9-20% of inmates are raped, we can guess that Dookhan was responsible for over 100 men and women being raped. To hand-wave further, we can guess than because “once a punk, always a punk” in the prisoner’s code, she is responsible for thousands of actual rapes.

To recap:

Ariel Castro:

  • crime: 3 prisoners, 30 person years, hundreds of rapes.
  • sentence: life plus 1,000 years.

Annie Dookhan:

  • crime: 1,100+ prisoners, 2,200+ person years, thousands of rapes.
  • sentence: three years,

October 10, 2013

QotD: Micro-economics with a Chinese twist

Filed under: China, Economics, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:53

China’s great economic renaissance began when Deng Xiaoping said that creating a modern China required “opening and reform.” Xiaoping hedged on the precise definition of “opening and reform.” In 1989 he sent tanks and infantry to Tiananmen Square to demonstrate that the process had severe limitations.

But micro-economic innovation? Xiaoping sought a micro-economic revolution. Xiaoping wanted Chinese entrepreneurs to fulfill what economist Joseph Schumpeter dubbed the entrepreneur’s function: “to reform or revolutionize the pattern of production.” The micro-economic opportunity, however, came with the Tiananmen restriction: The Party must remain supreme.

China’s first-generation entrepreneurs of micro-economic innovators pulled it off. In 1980 China had a GDP of about $190 billion. In 1998, the year after Xiaoping died, China’s GDP topped $1 trillion. In 2013 China has the world’s second largest economy, with a GDP of over $7 trillion.

Wei Gu is The Wall Street Journal‘s “China Wealth and Luxury editor” — and in 1980 who’d have predicted that job? In a recent article titled “China’s Second-Generation Entrepreneurs A Different Breed,” Gu reported that the “foreign educated” children of Chinese entrepreneurs are not enthralled with “the endless wining and dining of government officials that is necessary to do business in China.” In China, since personal whim still trumps law, businesspeople must constantly curry favor with government officials. It amounts to micro-economic lobbying.

Austin Bay, “China’s Toughest Economic Problem Is Political”, Strategy Page, 2013-10-8

October 9, 2013

Reasons not to be fearful of “China’s economic threat”

Filed under: China, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:50

If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you’ll probably have picked up some of my disdain for the “OMG! China’s going to eat our (economic) lunch!” meme that is pretty much a copy-paste of the same worry over Japan in the 1980s. In Maclean’s, Colby Cosh explains why you shouldn’t put too much effort into worrying about the Chinese economic Colossus crushing us any time real soon:

What I always wonder when I encounter a China bull or a Chinaphobe — for they are two sides of the same coin — is this: Even if they think “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is economically superior to ordinary capitalism, where in China are the parallel cultural institutions to support prolonged capitalist-style growth? Maybe China doesn’t need reciprocal free trade to blow our doors off in the race to utopia. Maybe it doesn’t need untidy democratic quarrelling. One presumes it won’t need a high level of achievement in basic science, either, judging by the Nobels: It is well-documented that the Chinese civilian research establishment is awash in fraud and plagiarism, to say nothing of the destructive favouritism inherent to a one-party state.

Rowan Callick’s new book The Party Forever: Inside China’s Modern Communist Party makes a simple, compact judgment on the general state of Chinese higher education: Just look where the Party leadership sends its own children to university: the U.S. Another important leading indicator of cultural progress is press freedom, which, if history has anything to say on the matter at all, appears to be utterly integral to sustained prosperity. But Mainland China has no newspapers as we understand them; it is not even clear that the regimented, spoon-fed “reporters” there could assemble one, even if the Party would allow it.

The Diane Francises of the world would have us reject the relevance of the Soviet experience to China’s future, to the point of ignoring familiar Soviet themes that are increasingly apparent in China: the vast infrastructure projects standing unused in the middle of nowhere, the blind environmental despoliation, the dodgy economic statistics. Beyond mastery of trading, interior China has simply never possessed much of the cultural technique upon which the advanced stages of economic development would seem to depend. Hong Kong is the exception, but having taken it over, China shows little appetite so far for imitating its social openness and individuality — or for those of Taiwan or Japan or South Korea. It still requires a strange leap of faith to believe it possible for China to economically surpass these neighbours, and ourselves, without becoming a great deal more like us.

Regular visitors to the blog know that I’ve been rather skeptical about the official statistics reported by Chinese government and media sources.

October 6, 2013

QotD: The corrupting influence of the political system

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

The underlying problem is that people do not yet widely understand that the higher the political office, the more likely it is that the electoral contest is between two sociopathic con men.

Indeed, the US Presidential election is a sort of quadrennial Olympics for con men. The odds of of a randomly selected untrained amateur winning the Olympic 500m race are poor when hundreds or thousands of professionals train for years for the event. The probability of a decent human being winning the White House when competing against hordes of amoral grifters whose skills are honed to a razor’s edge by years of competition are even lower.

Worse, people do not understand that even if a decent human being by some astounding accident wins high political office, they are almost inevitably both thwarted and corrupted. The system is built to derail reform, not to enable it, and it holds temptations that few normal people can resist. One is faced with (to name but a few things) the powerful financial interests of the Military-Industrial Complex, blackmail by the intelligence community, lobbyists more numerous than locusts, fellow politicians who do not want their sustenance to end, a press almost as interested in preserving the status quo as the pigs at the trough, Sir Humphrey Appleby‘s spiritual kin, constant luxuries from banquets to private jets to soften one’s moral resistance, and an endless series of instances where one might bend the rules just this once, for the common good.

Perry Metzger, “On Politics”, Samizdata, 2013-08-19

September 24, 2013

American governance – Kludgeocracy in action

Filed under: Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:28

Steven M. Teles on the defining characteristic of modern American government:

The complexity and incoherence of our government often make it difficult for us to understand just what that government is doing, and among the practices it most frequently hides from view is the growing tendency of public policy to redistribute resources upward to the wealthy and the organized at the expense of the poorer and less organized. As we increasingly notice the consequences of that regressive redistribution, we will inevitably also come to pay greater attention to the daunting and self-defeating complexity of public policy across multiple, seemingly unrelated areas of American life, and so will need to start thinking differently about government.

Understanding, describing, and addressing this problem of complexity and incoherence is the next great American political challenge. But you cannot come to terms with such a problem until you can properly name it. While we can name the major questions that divide our politics — liberalism or conservatism, big government or small — we have no name for the dispute between complexity and simplicity in government, which cuts across those more familiar ideological divisions. For lack of a better alternative, the problem of complexity might best be termed the challenge of “kludgeocracy.”

A “kludge” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward-compatible with the rest of an existing system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand, and is subject to crashes. Any user of Microsoft Windows will immediately grasp the concept.

“Clumsy but temporarily effective” also describes much of American public policy today. To see policy kludges in action, one need look no further than the mind-numbing complexity of the health-care system (which even Obamacare’s champions must admit has only grown more complicated under the new law, even if in their view the system is now also more just), or our byzantine system of funding higher education, or our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from welfare to education to environmental regulation. America has chosen to govern itself through more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than can be found in any comparable country.

September 21, 2013

Big government – “smart guys rob taxpayers because that’s where the big money is”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:18

Mark Steyn on the quick route to banana republic status:

As the old saying goes, bank robbers rob banks because that’s where the money is. But the smart guys rob taxpayers because that’s where the big money is. According to the Census Bureau’s latest “American Community Survey,” from 2000-12, the nation’s median household income dropped 6.6 percent. Yet, in the District of Columbia median household income rose 23.3 percent. According to a 2010 survey, seven of the nation’s 10 wealthiest counties are in the Washington commuter belt. Many capital cities have prosperous suburbs — London, Paris, Rome — because those cities are also the capitals of enterprise, finance, and showbiz. But Washington does nothing but government, and it gets richer even as Americans get poorer. That’s very banana republic, too: Proximity to state power is now the best way to make money. Once upon a time, Americans found fast-running brooks and there built mills to access the water that kept the wheels turning. But today the ambitious man finds a big money-no-object bureaucracy that likes to splash the cash around and there builds his lobbying group or consultancy or social media optimization strategy group.

The CEO of Panera Bread, as some kind of do-gooder awareness-raising shtick, is currently attempting to live on food stamps, and not finding it easy. But being dependent on government handouts isn’t supposed to be easy. Instead of trying life at the bottom, why doesn’t he try life in the middle? In 2012, the top 10 percent were taking home 50.4 percent of the nation’s income. That’s an all-time record, beating out the 49 percent they were taking just before the 1929 market crash. With government redistributing more money than ever before, we’ve mysteriously wound up with greater income inequality than ever before. Across the country, “middle-class” Americans have accumulated a trillion dollars in college debt in order to live a less-comfortable life than their high school-educated parents and grandparents did in the Fifties and Sixties. That’s banana republic, too: no middle class, but only a government elite and its cronies, and a big dysfunctional mass underneath, with very little social mobility between the two.

Like to change that? Maybe advocate for less government spending? Hey, Lois Lerner’s IRS has got an audit with your name on it. The tax collectors of the United States treat you differently according to your political beliefs. That’s pure banana republic, but no one seems to mind very much. This week it emerged that senior Treasury officials, up to and including Turbotax Timmy Geithner, knew what was going on at least as early as spring 2012. But no one seems to mind very much. In the words of an insouciant headline writer at Government Executive, “the magazine for senior federal bureaucrats” (seriously), back in May:

“The Vast Majority of IRS Employees Aren’t Corrupt”

So, if the vast majority aren’t, what proportion is corrupt? Thirty-eight percent? Thirty-three? Twenty-seven? And that’s the good news? The IRS is not only institutionally corrupt; it’s corrupt in the service of one political party. That’s Banana Republic 101.

September 18, 2013

Reason.tv: Detroit’s Operation Compliance

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Government — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:49

“Someone breaks in, they never show up. Yet still, they want to come and blackball you and close your business,” says Derek Little, owner of an auto shop along Detroit’s Livernois Avenue.

He’s one of many business owners in Detroit who’s faced what he says amounts to harassment from the city’s overzealous code enforcement. Amidst a bankruptcy and a fast-dwindling population and tax base, the city has prioritized the task of ensuring that all businesses are in compliance with its codes and permitting. To accomplish this, Mayor David Bing announced in January that he’d assembled a task force to execute Operation Compliance.

Operation Compliance began with the stated goal of shutting down 20 businesses a week. Since its inception, Operation Compliance has resulted in the closure of 383 small businesses, with another 536 in the “process of compliance,” according to figures provided to Reason TV by city officials.

But business owners say that Operation Compliance unfairly targets small, struggling businesses in poor areas of town and that the city’s maze of regulations is nearly impossible to navigate, with permit fees that are excessive and damaging to businesses running on thin profit margins.

August 31, 2013

Slavery is still common around the world

Filed under: Africa, Asia, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:12

Most Americans think slavery was abolished in 1865 with the Union victory in the American Civil War, but there may be more slaves in the world today than there were before the war:

Slavery contributes to the churning out of at least 122 different types of goods according to the US Department of Labor in the world. That could range from food such as shrimp in Asia or diamonds from Africa. Slavery has increased to such an extent in our modern times due to population increases. Industrialization and increased economic activity have also resulted in social changes, catapulting people into urban areas, with no social safety net to protect them in countries like China for example. Lastly, we could point the finger at corrupt administrators that allow it to continue complacently.

There are more slaves today working in the world than ever before. More means cheaper. If we were to compare the cost of a slave back in the mid-19th century in the USA, then it would have cost roughly $40,000 to buy a slave in today’s money. Today, however, you need only pay out under a $100 for one. Not bad for a reduction in price.

Bonded labor is commonplace, where the slave has contracted a loan and has to work to pay it back to the lender. Child forced labor affects over 5 million kids in the world today. Forced Labor is recognized by the US Department of State as being: “involuntary servitude, forced labor may result when unscrupulous employers exploit workers made more vulnerable by high rates of unemployment, poverty, crime, discrimination, corruption, political conflict, or even cultural acceptance of the practice.

July 25, 2013

Misappropriation of William Lyon Mackenzie

Filed under: Cancon, History, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:22

Richard Anderson on a recent attempt to “re-imagine” the real William Lyon Mackenzie:

Flag of the Republic of Canada 1837It seems unlikely that William Lyon Mackenzie was the chillin’ sort of dude. In fact he was a notorious hot-head. Nor was he fond of big government. During his brief and ill-starred rebellion Mackenzie actually had a flag made up with the word LIBERTY written on it. He was a libertarian avant la lettre and would likely be utterly horrified at the size and scope of modern municipal government. For a public sector union to appropriate him as a sort of mascot for “public service” is chutzpah at its finest.

One of the many things that rankled Mackenzie, he was inclined to react strongly to injustice, was tightly knit oligarchies who use government power to fleece the ordinary citizen. In his day they called it the Family Compact. Today we might call it the Liberal-NDP-Government Union Axis. Not as catchy, but again I’m not WLM. I’m omitting the provincial Tories as their haplessness renders them more amusing than contemptible at the moment.


I haven’t the slightest clue as to Mackenzie’s views on diversity, the Upper Canada of his day was as white as a lily. From the records that have come down to us he seems to have been a fairly enlightened man. What he would have made of Toronto’s demographics we can only guess at. We are on more certain ground as to government providing “assistance to its elderly, infirm and financially disadvantaged.” Mackenzie would almost certainly have opposed government involving itself in such essentially private matters. Those incapable of fending for themselves were the responsibility of the churches, private charities and of last resort the municipal government. Relief for the poor was remarkably stingy both from necessity and principle.

The solution to “poverty” in early Victorian Canada was typically an axe and a few acres of land. There is little indication in the historical record that the rebel of 1837 was some kind of proto-socialist. That CUPE is implying as much is disgraceful.

July 24, 2013

A visit to North Korea

Filed under: Asia — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:27

In this month’s Reason, Michael Malice recounts his tourist trip to the Hermit Kingdom:

As background reading for my trip, I devoured several books about the nation (though Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader by Bradley K. Martin and Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick should be sufficient for anyone planning a visit). Like most other don’t-call-me-a-hipster New Yorkers, I also watched The Vice Guide to North Korea on YouTube, in which Vice honcho Shane Smith claimed that in North Korea, “there’s nothing normal that happens ever.”

My experience ended up being completely different from Smith’s — about the only thing we shared in common was that we coincidentally ended up staying in the same hotel room. I witnessed vast amounts of human normalcy in the most abnormal society on Earth. When I waved to teenage girls, they giggled. When I smiled at toddlers, their grandmothers beamed with pride. The people on the streets of Pyongyang are often alleged to be actors staffed for the benefit of tourists, but there is no amount of training in the world possible for a theater production of that scale.

The first step to entering North Korea is getting debriefed by the Western tour agency that acts as your liaison. I expected a long litany of do’s and don’ts from Phil, our Western guide in Beijing, but his advice was actually quite relaxed. “The North Koreans really like and admire their leaders, so we need to respect that. We will be laying flowers at the statue of Kim Il Sung and bowing before it. Does anyone have a problem with that?” No one did. “That’s about it. Just don’t be a jerk and everything will be fine.”


We tend to think of North Korea as being stuck in time, but that is an incoherent description. One can get stuck in traffic or in line at the airport, but “time” is a very big place. In the parking lot encounter, for example, the soldier was dressed in a 1950s military uniform. The woman wore the sort of cringeworthy 1980s pantsuit that a fresh-off-the-boat Soviet immigrant might view as the acme of style back home. Both were “stuck in time,” in different times, like a flapper talking to a hippie.

So while the contemporary Internet might be forbidden in North Korea, there’s a thriving black market in VCRs — the better to watch foreign videotapes on. Though I didn’t think of it at the time, the woman and the solider provided a perfect metaphor for where the modern dynamism in North Korea lies. The army is stuck in a Cold War rut, while the black marketeers — more often than not female — become “wealthy” and powerful by flouting the laws and bribing whoever they need to bribe. It’s capitalism de facto, not de jure. And it’s growing, as the poverty-stricken government becomes increasingly unable to feed its enforcers.

Although North Koreans are kept ignorant of much that happens outside the state — and just as much that happens inside it — they’re not completely isolated:

I couldn’t figure out how to ask Kim about world events or history. I knew this would be a touchy subject leaving for little back-and-forth. Picking her brain would easily come off as arguing, and would cause her native paranoia to kick in. I wanted to ask about the Holocaust, but knew World War II was an extremely sensitive area. I thought of the most world-famous event I could that would have little bearing on North Korea, and so at one point simply asked Kim if she had heard of 9/11.

“Of course,” she said, rolling her eyes at my obtuseness. “We saw it on the television.”

Her reaction was telling. She clearly felt that, though the media might be biased, it wasn’t particularly censored. In her view, the state media wouldn’t keep such major world events a secret.

I still remain quite surprised that they played the actual video. Despite the obvious reveling in America taking a hit, one can’t show 9/11 footage without showing something that most of us no longer register in those shots: the New York City skyline. The closest thing in Pyongyang is the 100-plus story Ryugyong Hotel (“The Hotel of Doom”) a never-finished monstrosity that’s been dubbed the worst building in the world and usually excluded from official photos. The comparisons between the wicked New York of their propaganda and the glowing skyscrapers, calling to immigrants like sirens of myth, could not be any greater.

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