Thursday, December 29, 2005

College Daze

In this stressful time of high-school students pouring over college applications (and for me, writing college recommendations), it’s worth a look at some of the financial aspects of the college (that’s “university” for you Canucks) experience. Incidentally, I should point out one thing in the differences in costs of attending Canadian vs. US schools that I realized recently (and really should have picked up on long ago): while Canadian schools are much “cheaper” on the surface, it must be kept in mind that pretty much all US universities include room and board costs in tuition, unlike in Canada where many students don’t live in university housing, and if you do it’s a cost over and above tuition. Factoring this in makes the cost differences much smaller (especially for state schools). This also means that the campus-oriented lifestyle seems to be a much bigger deal in the States. And while the whole dorm life thing sounds kinda fun, I guess, I wouldn’t give up my experiences at #1 1024 College Drive for anything. These included cooking for myself (while ignoring the dishes), hosting Halloween house crawls, collecting beer bottles for recycling, and having the most poorly decorated Christmas tree in modern history.

Back to the matter at hand: Neal McClusky has a piece over at Reason that describes the financial windfall of attending college. While we hear a great deal about the rising costs of tuition, it is rarely mentioned that student aid has skyrocketed even faster, thereby (on average) decreasing the out-of-pocket costs of attending college in America. McClusky also points out that the debt students face after college is peanuts compared to the estimated $1-million financial bonus a college graduate has over their working life compared to someone with only a high school diploma. And while I completely agree with McCluskly’s main point (students whine too much about the high cost of education, especially given that most of them are living pretty high on the hog while they’re at college, anyway), I do have a quibble with the comparison of the average $17,600 student debt to the $1-million in additional earning power. McClusky claims that this is equivalent to a $982,400 profit on their education. However, that is not only financially incorrect, it’s also conceptually misleading. First off, the $1-million in extra wages are accrued over an entire lifetime, and therefore future benefits are discounted, while the debt on student loans are costs right now, and therefore not discounted. It also seems to me to be somewhat disingenuous to compare benefits you get when you’re a 50-year old professional (and presumably, much wealthier) to costs you face as a 22-year old with little to no work experience, savings, or capital. If you were given that extra million bucks fresh out of college, than sure, compare the two directly. But in reality you have to overcome the debt at the time when you are least able financially to do so, and you get the extra wages at a time when you may already have been more financially secure. So yeah, break out the violins for the whining college kids, but don’t ignore the fact that ten or twenty grand in debt is a tough way to start out in the so-called real world. But even if the monetary benefits weren’t there, isn’t the experience of going to college surely worth the financial penalty? In my mind, it’s a no-brainer.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

30,000 Pounds of Rotten Bananas

I've just started reading Tim Harford's new book, The Undercover Economist, and it looks to be an excellent book. He has an op-ed in the NY Times on farm subsidies and the regulatory hurdles facing agricultural producers in developing countries. While many (myself included) are quick to criticize the rich countries of the world for their destructive farm subsidies, Harford makes a valid point: developing nations are not making things any easier on themselves with the bureaucratic hoop-jumping necessary to export goods. Take this example from the Central African Republic:

...if our picker wants to sell his bananas abroad he first has to get them onto a ship bound for America or Europe. That takes 116 days, and an incredible 38 signatures - each one an opportunity for some official to collect a bribe. Something is rotten here, and not just the bananas.

And we complain about the DMV! Clearly, we need action from both sides on this issue.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Take A Ride on the Butt Bus

The city of Edmonton, Alberta has a problem on its hands. The owner of a local bar has come up with an ingenious solution to the city’s new draconian anti-smoking laws. Simply going outside for a smoke isn’t an appealing option in the dead of winter in Edmonton, as anyone who’s been there can testify to. So the bar owner has parked a remodeled school bus outside his bar (now christened the “butt bus”) and smokers can just step inside to have a cigarette between their drinks. Because the bus is privately owned and registered in the name of the bar owner, the city’s bylaw that covers all public buildings does not apply (ignore for a moment the fact that the bar is not really a “public” building, but a privately owned establishment). City officials are now scrambling to come up with a way to shut down the bus. The standard “public health” argument seems dubious in this case, though. People entering the butt bus are clearly making the decision to go in knowing it is specifically designed for smoking, and the bus serves no other explicit purpose except as a venue for smoking (you can't bring a drink on it). Of course, if your real goal is to stop people from deciding how they use their own bodies, you’re failing – which is why this case nicely exposes the fact that the public health argument isn’t the true motivation for many of the anti-smoking nannies.

Some of the quotes from the patrons of the bar are fantastic:

“This city is becoming so . . . communist. You'd think we lived in freaking Toronto or something.”

“We are not going to go down without a fight. This is my home No. 2.”

“I'm not one to care about civil liberties and all that, but this is getting out of hand. What's next? Arresting people who are smoking in their own cars?”

Well I am one to care about civil liberties and all that, and I give a tip of the hat to Tony Burke, the owner of T.J.’s bar in Edmonton, for finding a way around an unjust law that was damaging his business. And bonus points for making city officials look like fools.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Political Opportunism (Today’s Example)

Any shred of respect I had for Hillary Clinton has gone up in smoke like a gasoline-soaked American flag. She’s introduced a bill that would ban flag burning. Even Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court’s most conservative judge, has said that flag burning represents constitutional protected speech under the First Amendment. It’s too bad Hillary doesn’t have this kind of respect for the First Amendment; she’s got much more important things in mind, like political pandering in the lead-up to a presidential bid.

My favorite comment on H&R about this issue: "I understand that John Edwards plans to publicly stone a gay couple after poll testing showed it would increase his standing among likely voters in South Carolina by 5%."

Next: The 5-Child Policy

According to this article from Grist magazine, population loss could now be a major demographic problem. Reading this article nicely sums up why I have a strong dislike for much of the mainstream environmental movement: there is a constant drive to find something going horribly wrong with the planet. With respect to population, the hand-wringing has certainly followed this trend. First it was “overpopulation will kill us all!”, and then, once population gets under control (or at least slows down), the cry comes out that a lack of population will kill us all. It’s kind of like the global cooling (1970’s) vs. global warming (1990’s – present) shift that has occurred. Except at least that was borne out of changes in our scientific understanding of global climate systems, while this just seems to be part of the endless search for the apocalypse that characterizes a good portion of the environmental movement.

Cory Maye

If you are interested in issues relating to police powers, the drug war, no-knock warrants, the criminal justice system and gun control, the Cory Maye case is worth checking out. Radley Balko has been doing extensive research into the situation and has all Maye-related posts here. The jist of the matter is this (although admittedly the story gets much more complicated from both sides of the story):

Cops mistakenly break down the door of a sleeping man, late at night, as part of drug raid. Turns out, the man wasn't named in the warrant, and wasn't a suspect. The man, frigthened for himself and his 18-month old daughter, fires at an intruder who jumps into his bedroom after the door's been kicked in. Turns out that the man, who is black, has killed the white son of the town's police chief. He's later convicted and sentenced to death by a white jury. The man has no criminal record, and police rather tellingly changed their story about drugs (rather, traces of drugs) in his possession at the time of the raid.

This story has been big news in the blogosphere this week, and is starting to get picked up by the mainstream media.

Voting Against Self-Interest

Something you often hear from the left is the claim that the Republicans have managed to trick the middle/lower classes into voting for them, even though this runs counter to the self-interest of these groups (i.e. because Republicans really don’t care about the poor and will just give tax breaks to their rich friends, etc). In the words of Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times following the last presidential election: “One of the Republican Party’s major successes over the last few decades has been to persuade many of the working poor to vote for tax breaks for billionaires.” This is lack of concern for one’s economic self-interest is, of course, viewed as a negative – by many of the same people who, in other venues, think we should value many, many things besides our own self-interest, such as the environment, poverty, etc. These are indeed legitimate concerns, but with that in mind perhaps we should not criticize those who vote based on principles they believe in, rather than on whether or not they personally get a better bribe out of the deal (all this talk about self-interest just reveals politics for what it largely is: a coordinated system of bribery and deal-making).

The other thing about this that really bugs me is that it is the height of arrogance to presume to know what is “best” for someone else. While some may think they know what political decisions may make the best material gains for certain classes of people, there is plenty of evidence from experimental economics (i.e. the ultimatum game) that illustrates that, even in economic settings, people value many more things, such as fairness and justice, besides their own material self-interest. Perhaps these voters who are purportedly voting against what is best for them are looking at elections as more than just a way to extort more money into their own wallets. Perhaps it is the non-material values that influence the voting patterns in middle America.

The Most Persecuted ‘Religious’ Minority Group:

Are the atheists.

The Volokh Conspiracy has an excellent thread (scroll down) covering the attitudes of Americans towards atheists. The results of various national surveys relating to these attitudes, while not altogether surprising, are quite jarring. Here are some of the numbers from one of the polls (but read the whole thing):

Group - - - - - - - Very - - - - - - Mostly - - - Mostly - - - - - - Very
- - - - - - - - -- favorable (%) - favorable - unfavorable - unfavorable

"Catholics" - - - - - - 24 - - - - - - - 49 - - - - - - 10 - - - - - - - 4

"Jews" - - - - - - - - -23 - - - - - - - 54 - - - - - - 5 - - - - - - - - 2

Christians" - - - - - - 17 - - - - - - - 40 - - - - - - 14 - - - - - - - 5

Americans" - - - - - - 9 - - - - - - - 46 - - - - - - 16 - - - - - - - 9

"Atheists, that is,
people who don't - - 7 - - - - - - - - 28 - - - - - - 22 - - - - - - -28
believe in God"

This is quite incredible, I think. Atheists polled lower than Muslims (who I would presume be subject to some fairly unfavorable attitudes), by a very large margin. No other group had anything close to the negative opinion of atheists.

Another poll asked “Would you consider voting for a political candidate who did not believe in God?” The responses were Yes: 26%, No 69%. Clearly, there is a significant potion of the population who feel very strongly that an atheist is not able to represent them in political office.

Thinking about the implications of this, however, I would argue that atheists differ from the average voter in more important ways than someone who merely practices a different religion. Varying faiths have, despite claims to the contrary, pretty much the same fundamental beliefs. Atheists, on the other hand, are rejecting the very principle by which religious people choose to live their lives (and many atheiests criticize religion with a rather disgusting arrogance). For a religious person, this rejection of one of their core values will of course be VERY important in terms of deciding if this person should represent you in government. This doesn’t make the bias against atheists any more acceptable, but it does establish that it is not necessarily "discriminatory" that many people will not support atheists in elections. This does avoid, however, the troubling fact that if we replaced the word atheist in any of the questions asked in these surveys with another minority group, there would be (and should) significant outrage:

Quite a few of the comments to my earlier posts suggested that there isn't that much wrong with people saying that they had an "unfavorable" view of atheists, or that they wouldn't consider voting for an atheist candidate. Let's say that the posts were instead about Jews, not about atheists, and the data was:

1. A poll question asked "Would you consider voting for a political candidate who [was religiously Jewish]?" The responses were: Yes: 26%; No: 69%. (The real question asked was "Would you consider voting for a political candidate who did not believe in God?")
2. A poll question asked whether "your overall opinion of [people who are Jewish by religion] is very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?" The answer was 7% very favorable, 28% mostly favorable, 22% mostly unfavorable, and 28% very unfavorable. (The real question asked about "your overall opinion of Atheists, that is, people who don't believe in God.")

Would people be troubled by such results, results that show that 69% of the public wouldn't even consider voting for a religiously Jewish political candidate, and that 50% of the public had an unfavorable view of people who are Jewish by religion (22% mostly unfavorable, 28% very unfavorable)? If you are, then is there any reason to be less troubled by the same results as to atheists?

One counter to all this is to look at how atheists feel about supporting believers. Or to put it more broadly, how does one feel about supporting politicians who hold vastly different views than their own? Using an actual example might be useful (and because one actually exists!): In the next-to-last Canadian election, Stockwell Day’s (then leader of the Conservative party) creationist beliefs became a political issue. Apparently (although I have no idea if this is true), he believes that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together 6,000 years ago. Many were critical that his beliefs were brought into the public sphere; it didn’t matter what he thought about the creationism/evolution debate, as it has nothing to do with governing. At the time (as well as now), I disagreed with this response. While I don’t care about his beliefs about the origin of humanity per se, I do care about how he makes decisions. And anyone who can look at the overwhelming evidence supporting evolution and still come to the conclusion that the Earth is 6,000 years old is not a sound decision-maker in my book. I want politicians making decisions based on sound science and through careful analysis of facts and data, not via strongly-held faith-based beliefs. While I certainly would still potentially vote for a believer in creationism, it would certainly make me less likely to vote for that candidate.

A commenter at Hit & Run, who led me to the Volokh post, had this to say:

Back to the real issue at hand, It think that the public's discomfort with atheists in government stems from a fear of what they represent. They represent a troubling answer to this question: "How can a person be good and decent without God?" If an atheist can be a decent person without doing so to please a vengeful deity, then for some people, the whole system is shot. Nobody wants to be a fool.

True enough. And nobody wants to have their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, eliminate themselves from ever being able to be elected to political office.

ADDENDUM: All of this led me to do some thinking about religion and politics, and I think there might be some interesting parallels between those who are very religious and those people likely to seek political office. One characteristic of many religious people is the notion that they need to “save” others. They’re full of good intentions about this and they truly believe in their goal – just like politicians, who all believe that they have the prescription to save society from all its ills. As was said by G. James: “Remember that the key words in the sentence ‘I want to help you’ are ‘I want’.”

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Bah Humbug on Both Their Houses

The “war on Christmas” has ballooned out of control this year, and boy is it annoying. First off, the freedom-from-religion types raising their hackles over every mention of the word “Christmas” are making a mockery of political correctness (as if that was necessary!). It’s hardly offensive to hear someone say “Merry Christmas” if you’re not a Christian – in our culture it’s generally accepted as just being a friendly greeting, rather than an endorsement of any specific religion. I’ve never actually heard a non-Christian (i.e. Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc.) complain about someone saying Merry Christmas; it’s the secular left-wing types who are really up in arms about this. Relax, please. It’s a overwhelmingly Christian nation - you might have to hear a few Christian-related phrases.

On the other hand, the portion of the Christian right complaining about Christmas being under siege need to chill out as well (especially Bill O’Reilly…he gets crazier every week). If you expect others to not be offended by a simple “Merry Christmas”, then you can’t coil back in horror when you hear “Season’s Greetings” or Happy Holidays”. Stop being so sensitive! So not every store wishes you a Merry Christmas…get over it. Christmas is in no danger of being eradicated in this country anytime soon. Painting the picture of being an impoverished minority just doesn’t fly when you’ve got 85%+ of the population behind you. O’Reilly’s tack is even more off-kilter: he’s going on the offensive saying that stores should be saying Merry Christmas because Christmas is good for business, with big sales and big profits for America’s corporations. Well that’s certainly getting back to the Christian ideals of Christmas, Bill!

Cathy Young’s pieces on the issue are especially good.

25 Years Ago Today

Bring Cookie Crisp to Canada

While Canada has a cornucopia of potato chip flavours, the country apparently suffers from a lack of some of the best breakfast cereals - including Cookie Crisp. But you don't have to just sit there and accept this injustice, dear readers! You can sign the petition to bring Cookie Crisp to Canada here. Fight for your right (or the right of Canadians) to sugary cereals!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

On Change in Politics

On a somewhat related note to the lengthy post below:

Change, by and large, is a good thing; even more so when we are talking about removing entrenched incumbents from political office. That said, one of the toughest things for the opposition party to do in an election is to convince the voters things are really bad when the evidence around them tells them otherwise. This is true once again in Canada – the economy is humming along, the government is running surplus budgets and decreasing taxes, and most people are happy with the social progress that has happened over the past few years. The last few elections, I keep hearing the Conservatives blow on about Canadians wanting change – yet I have never heard anyone actually say that. While many have legitimate gripes with the governing Liberals (myself included), not many actually want to change the direction the country is going. The fact that the Tories are telling people that’s actually what they want is not, I think, going to help them in the polls (yet again). I’d like to turf the Liberals out (as would many others), but I don’t want the replacements to come in and change everything. Making voters believe they’re unsatisfied with the current state of affairs is pretty tough when times are good and people are happy.

The Good Ol' Present Days

A long post, but bear with me:

This was timely, given that I recently created my first retirement plan investment portfolio, and it touches on something I’ve been saying for awhile: things are, by and large, pretty good these days. As for retirement, I’m not at all confident in the government’s ability to support me in my old age (or the appropriateness of them doing so), but I’ve got other decent options available, and planning for your own financial future is good idea no matter how much faith you have in Social Security. I love my job, although it’s not exactly what I thought I’d be doing when I was in school. Yes, I’ve been lucky (or is it karma?), but taking (and creating) opportunities is an important part of success. The point is, there seems to always be an overall tendency for people to romanticize the past and claim that things are always getting worse. Whether it’s because we want to be martyrs, or because we are ultimately pessimistic about the future, it is a feature of human nature (for many people, at least). Yet the evidence shows that so many things are actually getting better all the time (many aspects of the environment, crime, the rights of women and minorities, wealth, etc). Should we really feel all this nostalgia for the past?

Overall, how bad are things for your average well-educated young person these days? I have friends who are definitely under-employed, considering their education, while others are essentially working in the exact career position they set themselves up for. While I sometimes resent my perception of the job security available to older generations, I really wouldn’t trade places with any of them, even to get to experience the late 60’s.

Can people living in relatively expensive cities really not survive on the near-minimum wage jobs available in the service industry? From what I’ve seen (purely anecdotal, of course): yes – just not the way they want to be able to live. They want to live like yuppies, and they want to do it while working 40 hours a week making $6.50 an hour. It doesn’t add up. But they could get by well enough, through either working more or spending less on luxuries (or really, just non-necessities). I understand that there are many people that truly are struggling to get by, and couldn’t really up their work hours or decrease expenses (at least by very much). But even them, many probably have a heated apartment with decent indoor plumbing, a TV, and maybe even a car. Which are things that almost nobody had a hundred years ago. Of course, we measure our happiness largely relative to others around us, so it’s easy to see why people in these situations are unsatisfied with their lives. And therefore maybe this means nothing. But just speaking for myself: I don’t make an outstanding salary (although its decent), but I live a life abounding in riches. I’ve traveled overseas (my parents never had until very recently) and to almost every part of North America; I can afford to see live music shows almost anytime I want (providing my work schedule allows it); and I’ve got the internet, which supplies me with no end of intellectual stimulation from the comfort of my living room. My student loans are paid off. I’m glad I’m where I am. Maybe if I took off the rose-colored glasses I’m wearing today I’d see things from a different perspective, but I do have optimism for the future, both for myself and for society.

This brings around the idea of the thought experiment (I can’t remember the name of it right now) about being forced to choose a time period in which you would like to live, if you were going to be randomly assigned what your socioeconomic status was going to be (and it might be interesting to throw in that gender and race would be random as well). I would definitely pick the present day (and I think the majority of people would do the same). You’re better off today, no matter if you’re rich or poor, man or woman, black or white, etc.

All this pontification was inspired by an outstanding post by Jane Galt, responding to a piece by Laura of Apartment 11D on the difficulties she’s had balancing work (or lack of it) and kids (which admittedly I don’t have). A few of my favorite paragraphs are excerpted below:

My generation of nice upper middle class white kids was given a ferocious sense of entitlement by our parents and teachers. As long as we played by the rules we were taught in school--do your work on time, study hard, put work first--we were supposed to have wonderful jobs, terrific spouses, adorable children, a house whose tasteful bibelots and appropriately offbeat furniture all our friends could admire.

That was one way to discover that the promises the meritocracy held out to its elite students cannot always be fulfilled.

The result is that many in my generation . . . or really, the handful of my generation that went from elite school to elite school, academic honor to prestigious job . . . feel somehow that we were cheated, that we'll never have it as good as our parents.

But the fact that some of us have had to settle for jobs less lucrative or fulfilling than we expected does not mean that the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket. Yes, we probably can't rely on social security, but on the other hand, it's easier than ever to save for retirement, with Uncle Sam basically giving you a 30% match on every dollar you put into your 401(k). I think the most frightening thing for many of us is the feeling that we have no safety net--that we'll end up poor and abandoned in retirement. But for most of us, it would probably be easy to save for retirement if we were willing to live like your parents did--or at least like my parents did. One television, no stereo, no VCR, no cable, one (used) car, six rooms for four people, no eating out, no cell phones, no vacations other than visiting relatives, stretching meat out with egg and bread and noodle rings, jello as a salad, turn the light off when you leave the room and get off the phone--it's long distance!

But the thing is, that even as I indulge in invidious comparisons between my apartment and the one I grew up in, and those my classmates are currently renting or buying, I have to remind myself that in so many ways I'm better off than my parents were at my age. I'll live longer (well, statistically, anyway), I have a fantastic job, and though I complain about lack of space, I have everything I need. The things I want more space for, and more money for, are incidentals that the human race lived happily without until, oh, last week. On the other hand, I have things they never dreamed of, like this blog, that enrich my life in various intangible, yet crucial, ways. Just like the song says, the good old days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems.

She says it a lot more eloquently than I do, but any way you put it, we really should be thankful for what we’ve got. And you really should read the whole thing, and be glad that this kind of exchange of ideas is available to you.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Stephen Harper's War on Progress

The Conservative leader is making it all too easy for me. He's concerned about the abuse of drugs. Fine; me, too. But his solution is to increase drug enforcement and lengthen prison sentences, which has absolutely no record of improving the situation at all, is prohibitively expensive, and generates a multitude of unintended (negative) consequences. At a speech in Vancouver (could he have possibly picked a less-appropriate location to go on a diatribe about the evils of pot?), Haper vowed to "get tough" on sellers of hard drugs and move away from the de-criminalizing of marijuana advanced by the Liberals. I suppose because he's seen that enhancing the drug war has been so successful elsewhere. Awesome former mayor of Vancouver, Larry Campbell (now sitting in the taskless thanks of Canadian politics, the Senate), makes a statement about the meth problem in Canada in the article:

"There's absolutely no statistical information that can back it up. The reason we're so horrified is that the results are so visual, and so awful."

I've been away for a few years, so I'm not sure how much press meth gets in Canada. But the research I've seen from the US confirms that the claims of a widespread epidemic are somewhat overblown. Regardless, the solution to drug problems is not more enforcement and tougher sentences. We need to be more creative and come up with solutions that will actually be effective (and ideally, allow individuals the freedom to decide what they put into their own

UPDATE: This commentary is timely and relevant.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Best Christmas Lights Ever

The Friday Fun Link for today comes via Baylen Linniken at To The People.

Christmas light displays, while sometimes asthetically pleasing, are rarely spectacular. Unless you happen to live in Mason, Ohio and get a chance to see Carson Williams' house decked out in 16,000 lights, all perfectly coordinated with music by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. A great video of the display can be found here. Now THAT is Christmas spirit!

Iraqi Flypaper

This isn’t something you hear discussed that much anymore, but it was something that came into my head again recently after reading a couple of excellent posts on Iraq over at Hit & Run. A criticism I haven’t heard about the “flypaper theory”, and one that I think is pretty legitimate, is as follows: why on earth would Iraq be a magnet for terrorists with a US military force present in the country? If you were a terrorist set on killing Americans, would you take the battle to the front lines in Iraq where you will confront the most sophisticated and well-equipped army the world has ever known? Or would you avoid this area like a bag of Old Dutch chips when The Kleiter is watching and focus on trying to harm Americans where they are relatively defenseless? Does the “if you occupy it, they will come” mentality make any sense? On the contrary; it just doesn’t fly. (Or does it not stick?)

Thursday, December 01, 2005

How Would You Like Your Tax Cut?

Stephen Harper probably already lost the possibility of receiving my vote (if I decide to cast one) with his idiotic refusal to accept the fact that gay marriage is constitutionally-protected and here to stay. But at least they're getting into some interesting economic wrangling now. The Tories have proposed a cut to the universally-hated GST (from 7% to 6% within the year, and down to 5% within 5 years), while to Grits are offering income tax relief for the middle/lower class. Which is the better policy from an economic perspective? Is it better to cut consumption taxes or to cut income taxes? I'm going to think on this for a while and update this post later. Predictably, Canada's favourite socialist, Jack Layton, says Canadians don't want tax relief - they want more (and more, and more) government spending.

UPDATE: In general, I prefer consumption taxes (like the GST) to income taxes, mainly for the reason that taxing income is somewhat discomforting because we are penalizing individuals for achieving success in the job market. Despite my libertarian leanings I don’t believe that “taxation is theft” (perhaps my Canadian roots outweigh my political philosophies), but I can imagine there are some people who avoid taking on additional employment because of the very high marginal tax rates, and this is not behaviour we want to encourage. But the major criticism of consumption taxes when compared to income taxes is that they are regressive (they take a greater proportion of poor people’s spending money), rather than progressive (such as income taxes, with higher marginal rates for individuals with higher incomes). (As an aside, I’m not exactly sure why we think income taxes have to be progressive, but that’s another debate for another time.) However, combining the GST with a universal rebate for households up to the poverty level would reduce some of the regressive effects of consumption taxes. Higher sales taxes compared to income taxes would also help temper the bias towards current consumption relative to future consumption (i.e. it would encourage saving) and could ideally simplify the tax code. So I cautiously favour a move closer to the plan Paul Martin has proposed, with decreases in income taxes while maintaining the GST. Although given free reign to design tax policy for the country, I wouldn’t be doing anything like either plan. If these guys really wanted to grab my attention, they’d be discussing a revenue-neutral (or revenue-negative!) plan of environmental tax reform.

Either way, I love the fact that the campaign is off to a decent start with legitimate discussions of policy, rather than political mud-slinging. These are the kind of debates we should be having.

New Jersey: You Have To Drive Through Us At Some Point

The Daily Show had a funny report on New Jersey's attempts to come up with a new state slogan. Even a staunch defender of the Garden State like myself found it a hilarious piece of good-natured ribbing. The video can be found here ("Garden Statement").

Radio Kills The Internet Star

Is there a difference between an internet-based music-streaming radio program and a traditional radio station broadcasting over the internet? I would argue no, but the RIAA would disagree with me. However, I feel comfortable having David Byrne on my side. He's attracted the attention of the RIAA because he featured too many Missy Elliot songs on his internet radio playlist. He quotes Lawrence Lessig:

"If an internet radio station distributed ad-free popular music to ten thousand listeners, twenty-four hours a day, the total artist fees that radio station would owe would be over $1 million a year. A regular radio station broadcasting the same content would pay no equivalent fee.”

That's just dumb. And once again The Onion is eerily prophetic.

HT: The Agitator