Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fun With Flags

I was sent these tonight (among others) and got a kick out of them:

You can find more of them here, with some info on the artist here. Which led to (with help from my friend Jess) the creation of a new one for our home country:

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Memo to the Government

I'm begging you: Please, please spend your time on more important matters than the battle between Terrell Owens and the Philadelphia Eagles. It was bad enough when Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader came out supporting Owen, but now we've got actual elected officials threatening to use the power of the government in the dispute.

Please Do My Parenting For Me

From the head of the FCC, while declaring that the regulator of the airwaves will be cracking down on the 'coarse' material on cable TV and satellite:

"You can always turn the television off and, of course, block the channels you don't want," Martin said, "but why should you have to?"

As usual, Radley has the best reponse: "You could actually raise your kids yourself, too. But why should you have to?"

Defending the Poor, Huddled Mega-Corporations

Sebastian Mallby has an interesting post in the Washington Post defending Wal-Mart (gasp!). My favorite part was where he took apart the oft-heard argument that Wal-Mart doesn't provide health care for employees; yet the people making this accusation are typically the very same people who want the government to provide health care for everyone, anyway!

Wal-Mart's critics also paint the company as a parasite on taxpayers, because 5 percent of its workers are on Medicaid. Actually that's a typical level for large retail firms, and the national average for all firms is 4 percent. Moreover, it's ironic that Wal-Mart's enemies, who are mainly progressives, should even raise this issue. In the 1990s progressives argued loudly for the reform that allowed poor Americans to keep Medicaid benefits even if they had a job. Now that this policy is helping workers at Wal-Mart, progressives shouldn't blame the company. Besides, many progressives favor a national health system. In other words, they attack Wal-Mart for having 5 percent of its workers receive health care courtesy of taxpayers when the policy that they support would increase that share to 100 percent.

While certainly not completely defendable in every aspect of their operations, Wal-Mart likely does more good than harm for the poorest people in the country. The people you mainly hear bitching about Wal-Mart are usually upper or upper middle-class, highly educated people. It doesn't fit their vision of utopia, so they have to KEEP IT OUT!! of our cities and towns.

UPDATE: For an excellent look at the arguments that were the foundation for much of Mallby's article, watch this video of Jason Furman, the NYU professor who has studied the retail giant, available here.

They Say It's Your Birthday... we're gonna have a (political) party! That's right, the federal government in Canada has decided to throw a little bash in honour of my 28th birthday.

Even though I'm not at all sure I really want any of the other clowns leading the country, it's still a pretty sweet thing to hear a politician utter the words "no confidence in the government".

The Globe & Mail's election page can be found here.

Off Target on Kyoto

The Globe & Mail reports that Canada is way, way off their emissions targets for reductions in greenhouse gases as laid out in the Kyoto Protocol. Rather than being 6% below 1990 levels (the goal), Canada is 24% up. Anybody that is surprised by this story is incredibly naive about what Kyoto could ever (or will ever) achieve. Kyoto was a shitty deal in many ways, and some countries (i.e. Canada) got screwed in the negotiations. Much is made in the article about how great Germany and Great Britain are doing (both are meeting their targets). But these countries would have been at or near those emissions levels even without Kyoto. The deregulation of the coal industry in the UK and massive structural changes in the German economy since 1990 have completely changed how they produce energy, and therefore, their emissions of greenhouse gases. Canada is faced with a much higher cost curve for emissions reductions than most countries because so much of the county's energy comes from hydropower, which does not produce greenhouse gases. The least-cost method of reducing emissions for most developed countries is to convert coal-fired plants to natural gas. Which is good for the US, the UK, and Germany, where coal is a major power producer - but it isn't very significant in Canada, and therefore makes finding relatively painless reductions much more difficult. The timeline for Kyoto was also unreasonably ambitious. I would have preferred to see a more distant goal with stronger reductions to allow for the natural turnover of capital machinery to move to greater efficiency at a lower costs.

My biggest concerns with Kyoto are that as subsequent treaties are discussed, a couple of problems will arise because of the ineffectiveness of this initial agreement. First, certain countries will be seen as incredibly virtuous (i.e. the UK) even though they achieved their reductions in emissions for reasons completely unrelated to Kyoto. Which they can then hold over the heads of countries who did not meet the rediculously ambitious goals set by the Protocol for countries like Canada. This will just make the negotiations more political (which is just what we don't need). And if Canada or the US actually do try and meet their commitments, it will impose some significant costs on the economy. If those costs are seen as excessive by the public, support for subsequent treaties will be even more sparse than it is right now. Kyoto in and of itself does next to nothing for climate change, so it needed to set realistic goals that could be built upon in the future rather than try to make a bold political statement. Which is what happened, and it's a mistake we shouldn't make again.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Grey Cup Special: Humour For Canadians

For the most part, I don't think that Paul Martin is a particularly humourous or personable guy. But Rick Mercer sure is, and this video is evidence of why the PM is way cooler than the Prez.

Ideology as Religion

Michael Crichton, who's most recent book, State of Fear, dramatizes the excesses of the environmental movement, made an interesting and (in my opinion) accurate speech entitled "Environmentalism as Religion" a couple of years ago. The jist of the speech is that environmentalism is essentially a religion for many people, and this is the product of an innate human desire to have something to believe in. He draws some substantiative parallels between Christian mythologies and the core beliefs of the environmental movement (i.e. a pristine initial state of nature/Eden, corruption of said paradise through man's sins/burning fossil fuels, the coming apocalypse). I do think that the fervor with which environmentalists are focused on their goals at the expense of any other meaningful measure of progress resembles the dogma of religious fundamentalists.

More broadly, maybe it's just that we really do need something to believe in, whether it be a religion or an ideology. Some atheists do seem to hold their beliefs (or lack thereof, I suppose) with, ironically, a certain religious-like devotion (i.e. they are really, really concerned about how other people could possibly believe in God). I've never really been religious, but I've gone from believing in the environmentalist dogma pretty strongly to currently 'believing' in the value of free markets and liberty with a similar level of intensity. While I still consider myself an 'environmentalist' in some form, I certainly don't see eye to eye with much of the Environmentalist Movement (TM). I like to believe that this is because of careful observation of the world and serious reflection on the values that are most important to me, but maybe I'm just latching on to a different belief system. I always have had a problem with commitment!

At any rate, read Crichton's speech here.

The Punishment Doesn't Fit the Crime

I would argue (and be correct in stating) that the punishments we have for drug offenses are grossly excessive. Setting aside the fact that prohibition is a mistake in and of itself, there are some obvious downsides to the lengthy sentences imposed on drug-related criminals, such as an increased prison population, large enforcement and judicial costs. But how do harsh sentences influence the behavior of people dealing drugs in the black market? I would argue that the excessive punishments only encourage additional violence in the drug underworld, and making them tougher will only create a stronger incentive for drug dealers, etc. to shoot when a potential bust arrives on their door. If they’re going away for a long, long time anyway, they have less to lose by being violently aggressive. They also have more to gain by keeping potential informants from squealing on them through intimidation or violence.

This all comes from Glen Whitman’s post on a drug-related execution in Singapore, where he references David Friedman’s argument from Law’s Order:

If you impose your legal system’s harshest punishment for a particular crime, you cannot impose any additional punishment to deter related crimes committed by the same person.

On the margin, this will scale down to punishments less severe than execution, and it should give lawmakers pause when considering the mandatory minimum sentences they’re eager to impose on drug crimes. They're likely making a bad idea (prohibition) even worse.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Who Is Me?

In a discussion I was having with a friend recently, it came up that I might want to consider making my blog anonymous. I certainly don’t publicize my blog amongst the faculty or (especially) the students here. This is most likely comes from an overall feeling that yes, I may have reason to be somewhat concerned about some of the ideas I put on this blog not being particularly good for my professional career. While I’m far from being vitriolic or particularly controversial, I know that some of my viewpoints would not be looked upon especially fondly by the administration (my rants about drugs and drug laws come particularly to mind). It seems almost like a no-brainer. So why do I hesitate? Well, I (idealistically, perhaps) like to think that I can put my ideas out there without fear of reprisal. My anti-authority streak plays a role, for sure. My blog makes no obvious connotations to my employer, but there would certainly be a parent who would have a problem with my views, considering I’m essentially acting as a surrogate parent to their child. And I also just like having my own name attached to my ideas. I’m narcissistic that way (among others). Besides, if my blog ever gets more than a dozen readers I’d probably get exposed anyway (it seems like all the other anonymous bloggers end up being found out eventually). You opinion? Comments? I’d love to hear them.

Why I Don't Itemize

I was having a discussion with a student the other evening and he asked me if I itemized deductions on my tax returns. I said I didn’t, because I “don’t believe in them”. He asked me why, and I was at a loss to really explain it very well on the spot, so I’ll try and justify it here (and he’ll never see it. Very effective.).

Basically, I see the vast majority of deductions as an example of upper class welfare. They are discriminatory, creating many instances of horizontal inequality (i.e. if you rent a home vs. if you own it). Economically, they are distortionary, contribute to a loss of privacy for citizens. Itimized deductions greatly complicate the tax code, which as it stands right now is over 55,000 pages long –excessive by any reasonable standard. The biggest “moral” problem with them is that they are essentially coercive social engineering using the tax code as a mechanism. I really don’t like carrots being held out in front of me in order to reward certain behavior. I make charitable donations because I think it’s important and I support the cause, not because I’ll get a tax break because of it. I also don’t really make a great deal of money and I’d be surprised if I could write off enough to make the costs of extra time in preparing my tax return (which is tedious enough) for the financial reward I’d get. So maybe the high-minded ideas I mentioned before are bunk, and it really comes to a cost-benefit analysis.

Now, you may ask, “But don’t you hate paying taxes and think that you should want to pay as little tax as possible in order to (hopefully) force the government to reign in spending?” Well, yeah. But I’m really lazy, too.

It's OK 'Cause I'm One of 'Em

Something you see quite often (if you travel in certain circles) is libertarians getting all up in arms over an outrageous law being proposed by some idiot member of congress/state legislature/city council. While I think we’re right in exposing the foolish self-righteousness of these politicians who think they’re doing good, it often happens that the silly proposal never actually passes through the system. So while it’s a bad thing that this type of legislation is getting proposed at all, the fact that very few of them actually reach the book is evidence of the system working, is it not? So how loudly should we really complain? Power seems to be kept in check, in many (most?) instances. Maybe the system does work. (But still, it would be nice if our elected officials could be making better use of their time than voting down outlandish proposals from their colleagues).

Friday, November 18, 2005

Burning Question of the Day

Sometimes the online polls on The Globe and Mail can be interesting, but they really reach sometimes. Today's is: "Compared to five years ago, do you feel the state of Canadian literature has... improved/declined/stayed the same." I don't even know if someone with really strong literary opinions (especially, in all likelihood, about "the state of Canadian literature") could answer that in any justifiable manner. Or maybe I just don't care. What's the point of a poll that just measures people's taste in art? Maybe tomorrow's will be "Your favourite colour is... red/blue/green/yellow/orange/purple." Sorry, but I have to admit that I'd be just as interested in the results of that poll as the one currently residing on the front page of Canada's National Newspaper.

UPDATE: Well, I must sort of apologize. At least this poll was somewhat related to a news story today - a report on the 100 most important Canadian books. (I hereby predict that someone I know will feel very stongly about certain books' inclusion/omission from this list. You know who you are.) The article, of course, further confirms the stereotypes that are exposed in the list: Canadians are obsessed with national identity. It's a disease up there, and it's more contagious than bird flu. However, I disagree with the claim that Canadians are also obsessed with politics (the weather, yes, but politics not so much). They may want to think that's part of the Canadian character, but I think Americans are much more mesmerized by politics than their neigbours to the north. Don't change, Canada; ignore your politicians as much as possible.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Thursday Morning Comedy Hour

Well, it certainly isn't the "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin-to-Die Rag", but it is a new kind of "protest" song, with a tip of the hat to "We Didn't Start the Fire". Some conservatives who call themselves The Right Brothers have a song called "Bush Was Right", and they're pushing for its inclusion on MTV's playlist. Apparently, this is legit - it's not a satire; but the song is so bad it's actually hard to believe that. I wonder if people who agree with the message will think it's a good song, or if trying this hard will even embarrass them. The people behind the song claim that if it doesn't get played on MTV, it will be because of political-artistic censorship. The story, with links to the lyrics, can be found here. And a hilarious spoof video by Keith Olbermann can be found here, which I am commanding you to watch. It will make your day.

ADDENDUM: This is just further proof that newsreels in song format almost always suck. "We Didn't Start the Fire" may be the exception that proves this rule, but songs that try to force rhymes and syllables using names from the news just don't work. I cringe every time I hear Tim McGraw sing "I Like It, I Love It" on Monday Night Football with the references to Peyton Manning's passing game and how many sacks the Eagles had on Sunday. Awful. Can anyone think of a good song with lyrics that consist of essentially reading the headlines of the newspaper?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Memo to the AARP: Die Already!

Although I personally enjoy the company of many people my parent’s age (including my parents), on the whole, baby boomers can really annoy me (sorry, Mom!). This may be partially (or predominantly) veiled envy due to missing out on the 60’s or because I’m an immature generational warrior who gets goosebumps when I hear The Times They Are A-Changin’ . (Stupid irony. It really got me there.) Or it might be just a based on resentment resulting from my perceptions of their long-term financial security. But I do have some legitimate worries about their political influence and what it will mean to younger generations as they age. The American Association of Retired Persons is one of the most powerful lobby groups in the country, and it’s only going to get stronger as the boomers start to retire. And in all seriousness, their agenda should scare anyone under the age of 40.

The problem is, we simply cannot pay for the massive addition to the rolls of Medicare/Medicaide and Social Security recipients that will accompany the aging boomer population. Many corporations (i.e. Ford) are learning they can’t afford the generous entitlements they promised workers in the past while under pressure from powerful unions. And the AARP is acting like the largest union of them all (36 million members!). They’ve negotiated a sweet deal for their members, which the country can’t pay for without huge tax increases on younger workers, cuts in benefits for seniors (not bloody likely under the AARP’s watch), or a magical money tree. They are either in denial of these future problems or are completely refusing to work on a plan that will avoid the forthcoming financial disaster.

Now, go read this article by Robert Samuelson at the Washington Post.

Target Practice

Target allows its pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for the emergency contraception Plan B, commonly known as the morning-after pill. Some people, primarily stemming from their religious beliefs, do not support use of the morning-after pill, claiming it is a form of abortion (it’s not, but they’re free to believe that). Planned Parenthood has attacked the retailer for disrespecting customers’ reproductive rights, and many have called for a boycott of Target. Target has defended it’s policy, and I agree that they are well within their rights to make this decision.

My comment on this issue is: what would happen to a pharmacy if they didn’t hire someone because they wouldn’t fill prescriptions for the morning-after pill on religious grounds? I’m not a lawyer, but I believe this person would have a case to sue the store for discrimination on the basis of religion. In my opinion, it’s fine if a store doesn’t want to sell the morning after pill, that’s their business (and lost business). But if they want to sell the pill, they have every right to fire (or not hire) employees if they won’t do the job they were hired to do. But they can’t really do that, because anti-discrimination laws have them trapped. Not that anti-discrimination laws don’t achieve some positive results, but this serves as a good reminder of the unintended consequences that occur when the government legislates behavior.

Monday, November 14, 2005

WTF? (Sports Edition)

A newer story: Why are Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader coming out in support of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens? Fighting for the little guy just isn't what it used to be. Maybe he's on their fantasy football team.

An older story: Can people fighting for the rights of gays and women find nothing more important to complain about than the color of the visitor's dressing room at the University of Iowa? I'm a big supporter of the broader cause, but their whining about this non-issue merely reinforces the stereotype they are fighting against.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Election Cycles Built for Two

Something I like about the US political system: set election dates. Leaving the timing of elections up to the party in power is pretty distasteful, and I'd love to see Canada get out of this silliness that only encourages a one-party state. Maybe I'm missing something, but can someone give me a sound reason why this is good for democracy?

However, one of the more infuriating aspects of US politics is the fact that the country is seemingly always leading up to a series of elections, which end of framing every political debate with even an incredibly minor amount of national significance. We've been hearing about the 2006 midterm elections being "just over a year away" for a few months now, and all political strategizing and punditry is built on how it will play out next November. So there's about 8 months of non-election-cycle governing every 2 years, if we're extremely optimistic about the behavior of political parties at the best of times (which we are decidedly NOT). The problem is worse when leading up to the big elections, given the lengthy primary process, so following the '06 midterms we'll have maybe 6 months before everything becomes part of the election story. So in total, your major political parties are spending 14 months out of every 4 years on the job of governing, and the remainder (34 months out of 48) in some version of campaigning. We're not going to stop this, but one way to help is to stop analyzing every political story through the lens of "how will this help/hurt the Dems/GOP/Rhinos in '06?" for over a year before the election takes place.

Which brings me to "my pledge, my commitment, my promise, and my solemn vow": I will not engage in the premature ejaculation of election analysis until 6 months prior to midterm elections and 8 months prior to presidential elections. Join me in giving the power brokers in Washington one less reason to spend all their time thinking about getting re-elected!

Friday, November 11, 2005


What I Need

I must admit that I thought the blog trend of typing what "----- needs" into Google and seeing what popped up when your name was put in the space seemed kind of lame. But after trying it (why?), it actually was pretty funny. And Google is scarily perceptive sometimes. Here's a bit of what I need:

Scott needs Mozilla
Scott needs to have his stomach stapled
Scott needs to get out more
Scott needs to back up his regrets with action
Scott NEEDS nude models
Scott needs no introduction
Scott needs to get over them
Scott needs the practice
Scott needs more of Mike's guitar
Scott needs less of John's vocals
Scott needs to remember that he's an adult
Scott needs to go

It's only really amusing if you do it for yourself, so take .09 seconds out of your day and give it a try.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Quote of the Day

From Tyler Cowen, this touches on some of my own views on party politics:

"...I just don't believe that any political party can be mass-captured by the intelligent and brought around to sanity. Parties exist, in part, to enforce feelings of interpersonal solidarity and to make people forget about critical thinking. We cannot avoid parties in a democracy, but there is already too much interest in parties as a vehicle for ideas."

Politics are like sports for people who don't like sports - it's as much about winning as for any larger ideas.

Monday, November 07, 2005

As If You Needed Another Reason...

Fantastic news from the world of science today: beer is good for you. As in, good for your health. The key is drinking beer with lots of hops (as any good, honest brew should have), as this is where the chemical responsible for fighting disease is found:

...xanthohumol has several unique effects. Along with inhibiting tumor growth and other enzymes that activate cancer cells, it also helps the body make unhealthy compounds more water-soluble, so they can be excreted.

The researcher went on to say that xanthohumol "clearly has some interesting chemo-preventive properties, and the only way people are getting any of it right now is through beer consumption." The amount required to be effective is unknown, but with things like this it's best to err on the side of caution. So raise a glass, it's for your health.

HT: Jeff Taylor at Reason

Do Movies Cause Smoking?

A new study from the Dartmouth Med School has linked the movies teens see to their likihood of taking up smoking. This gets reported by the press as "nearly 40 percent of U.S. adolescents who give cigarette smoking a try do so because they saw it in movies" (Reuters). I don't think that's what the study says. Compare that lead line with the actual methodology of the study:

The research team counted cigarette smoking activity in 601 popular films released in the U.S. from 1988 to 1999, and they found an average of five occurrences of tobacco use per movie. Their student subjects were asked to identify films they had seen from a list of 50 randomly selected titles. Based on the movies they had seen and the amount of smoking in each movie, the adolescents were split into four levels of exposure to movie smoking.

If possible, I'll have a look at the actual report to see exactly how they corrected for other factors involved in the decision to smoke. While there might indeed be a correlation between what movies you watch and whether or not you smoke, that does not imply that the movies "caused" the smoking. Certain groups of people are more inclined to take up smoking, and they also might be more likely to see certain types of movies where smoking is more prevalent.

The inevitable outcome of this information is, of course, that we'll be hearing a good deal of bluster from politicans about "setting an example for the children" and proposals to ban smoking in movies.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

An Economics Lesson

In addition to approving in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the Senate recently voted 86-13 to restrict any oil produced from the ANWR in Alaska from being exported. All oil from the ANWR will be used domestically, in order to reduce our dependency on foreign oil.

A little bit of economics training should be a requirement for all members of Congress, Parliament, etc... It might keep them from producing useless legislation such as this in order to gain political points from the electorate.

The lesson our honorable senators need to learn is that oil is fungible - that is, one barrel of oil is pretty much equivalent to another barrel of oil. Oil produced in other states can still be exported, but the precious Alaskan oil must remain in the country. The likely result is that exports from other regions of the US will increase while ANWR oil is used domestically, accomplishing nothing other than political granstanding. The same fungible properties of oil mean that with the global market for oil, it doesn't really matter where we get our oil from, we can't really hurt a particular producer (say, Iran) by not importing their oil.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Blogger Speech

House Democrats yesterday defeated a bill that would have protected bloggers from campaign finance reform regulations. Therefore the door remains open for bloggers to be subjected to pages of rules and regulations concerning their site content under the guise of election laws. Similar laws may end up being passed in the future, but it's disappointing to see the Dems vote against protecting free speech. Once again, this really drives home the point that campaign finance reform is an unconstitutional restriction of the First Amendment.

Why I Love the West (part of a series)

Of course, I'm totally biased. But Matt Welch makes some great points about the governing philosophy in many of the western states, and what it could mean to Democrats looking to recapture Congress and the White House.