Sobering Thoughts

Comments on politics, the culture, economics, and sports by Paul Tuns. I am editor-in-chief of "The Interim," Canada's life and family newspaper, and author of "Jean Chretien: A Legacy of Scandal" (2004) and "The Dauphin: The Truth about Justin Trudeau" (2015). I am some combination of conservative/libertarian, standing athwart history yelling "bullshit!" You can follow me on Twitter (@ptuns).

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016
 
Linker on Brexit: smashing the illusions of progressives
Damon Linker writes in The Week about how the Brexit vote shatters the illusions of progressives:
[P]rogressivism holds out a very specific moral vision of the future. It will be a world beyond particular attachments, beyond ethnic or linguistic or racial or religious or national forms of solidarity. In their place will be the only acceptable form of solidarity: humanitarian universalism.
And this means that the progressive future will even result in the end of politics itself — at least if politics is understood as encompassing more than the jostling of interest groups, bureaucratic administration, and the management of government benefits. Politics in that narrow sense will remain. But politics in Aristotle's sense — this particular community in this place with this history and heritage, determining its own character for itself, deciding who is and who is not a citizen, who will rule, and in the name of which vision of the good life — that existential form of politics will cease to exist in the progressive future ...
It would be one thing if progressives understood their universalistic moral and political convictions to constitute one legitimate partisan position among many. But they don't understand them in this way. They believe not only that their views deserve to prevail in the fullness of time, but also that they are bound to prevail.
Progressives have encountered their fiercest resistance to their leveling, dismal, anti-democratic philosophy. The over-the-top reaction to the Brexit vote not merely from Europeans, but the American and Canadian Left is most easily understood as having the core of their belief system challenged.


 
Exit is contagious
Zero Hedge has a post on the growing number of countries in which support for a referendum exceeds 40% and support for leaving the European Union is above 25% (eight of them). This is an important snarky comment: "they worry the pound might crash? Pay attention to the euro." Polish politicians are openly saying the EU should wake up to the meaning of the Brexit vote: it's time for reform in Brussels.


 
Will of the voters vs. the opinion of a billionaire


Monday, June 27, 2016
 
Beware 'data journalists' with stories based on Google Trends results
Danny Page has an excellent essay and graphs on the problem with Google Trends as a source for news stories saying it provides no context. There are several problems, in fact.
1) We don't know who is doing the searching, so connecting searches to vote results doesn't tell you about voter regret or ignorance.
2) A chart with a peak tells you about growing popularity of a particular search, but not the total numbers. Both Game of Thrones and Euro 2016 searches were much more popular in recent weeks, even compared to the (nearly imperceptible) peak of those asking "What is the EU?" It ends up that the story is based on about 1000 people searching "What is the EU" at its peak. Page says: "It’s ludicrous that so few people get turned into a massive story, but it underscores the need for context."
3. "What is the EU?" was much less popular than searches for the European Union sans the question. Who searches with questions anymore?


 
The Labour Party crisis
The Daily Telegraph headline says it all: "Labour crisis: Jeremy Corbyn sees 32 shadow ministers quit as new MP is told 'keep your phone on, you might be in the shadow cabinet by end of day'." The Telegraph reports:
The rebels have criticised his performance in the EU referendum and he faces further resignations from the junior frontbench ranks amid fresh calls for him to stand down as leader.
Things are moving so fast, the number of shadow ministers and MPs quitting is hard to track. Policing shadow minister Jack Dromey saying in his resignation letter: "I believe we may now be on the brink of a catastrophic defeat from which Labour may never recover ... You are a decent and honourable man. But we cannot fight back and win with you as leader."
The paper also has a running clock: "How long has Labour’s ‘leadership coup’ lasted?"


 
Meaning of Brexit vote
Tyler Cowen says the Brexit vote was about keeping England English, or at least parts of it. Cowen offers a very clever and fair commentary and one need not agree with it to find it thought-provoking. Two points stand out, however.
1) There has been plenty of commentary suggesting racial motives or questioning the intelligence/sophistication/decency of the pro-Leave voter. Cowen warns: "At some point we have to limit our moralizing about the vote and start treating it more like data." Cowen says viewing the vote as data is important to undo the supposed damage of the vote, but regardless understanding is better than moralizing.
2) A key to understanding is not assuming the worst about the "other" voter (Remain pundits demeaning Leave voters in a multitude of ways, and Leave supporters generally distrustful of those who want to Remain). Cowen says: "Much has been made of the supposed paradox that opposition to immigration is highest where the number of immigrants is lowest. Yes, some of that is the racism and xenophobia of less cosmopolitan areas, but it would be a big mistake to dismiss it as such or even to mainly frame it as such. Most of all it is an endowment effect. Those are the regions which best remember — and indeed still live — some earlier notion of what England was like." It is probably inaccurate to dismiss anti-immigration sentiment as racist; it might not even be really anti-immigration as much as pro-English. According to Cowen's frame, culture not economics is the most important driver of the Leave sentiment, and culture need not be a code for white and English.


 
Politics and neighbours
The Pew Research Center asked Republicans and Democrats if certain attributes would make it easier or harder to get along with new neighbours. Those attributes included ideology, party affiliation, church attendance, sexual orientation, and others. Democrats and Republicans were equal in being more welcoming of like-minded people and less welcoming of people from the opposition party or end of the ideological spectrum. Democrats and Republicans had about equal scores for new neighbours that had children, liked sports, or volunteered in the community. The big divides were gun ownership and attending church/believing in God, in which case Republicans were much more likely to say it would be easier to get along with new neighbours and Democrats said they were less likely. What was interesting is that both Republicans and Democrats treated gays/lesbians and those who liked hip hop about equally.
If you read Bill Bishop's 2009 The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded American is Tearing Us Apart, the numbers in this new Pew study could be surprising for how open-minded people think they are.


 
2016 watch (Donald Trump doesn't need no damn professional spokesman edition)
This past weekend, the New York Times had a profile of Donald Trump's 27-year-old spokesman, Hope Hicks. Hicks quite rightly refused to be interviewed for the story because she's there to help with Trump's image, not hers. I love this part of the Times article (via Ann Althouse) on so many levels:
Did he have qualms about hiring a campaign spokeswoman with no political background? “Well, I have a lot of political experience, so I wasn’t really concerned about it,” Mr. Trump said.
At least she played lacrosse for four years at SMU.


 
JO'S on Brexit
John O'Sullivan writes in the Globe and Mail about how British and international political and opinion leaders were on the wrong side of the Brexit debate and will likely be proven wrong in their apocalyptic visions of a post-Brexit Britain. As for those who wonder about the credibility of the referendum vote, O'Sullivan notes: "This 52-48 victory for Brexit on a turnout of 72 per cent has more democratic authority than any election in Britain since 1945." And to those hoping for a redo: "The political reality is that it can’t be reversed."


 
The shrinking middle class -- and growing upper middle class and rich
I've already mentioned the Stephen Rose study for the Urban Institute on how the middle class is shrinking because there is a growing number of people in the upper middle class. Robert J. Samuelson has a good column on the study in the Washington Post, noting that nearly one-third of households are making $100,000 or more. Just more than 29% of people live in households making $100,000 to $350,000, the thresholds for upper middle income. In 1979, only one in eight people were in the upper middle class. The rich (over $350 K) grew from 0.1% of households in 1979 to 1.8% in 2014. All other income quintiles declined:
Meanwhile, the poorer segments of the population declined. The poor and near-poor (less than $29,999 of income) dropped from 24.3 percent of the population in 1979 to 19.8 percent in 2014. The lower middle class ($30,000 to $49,999) fell from 23.9 percent to 17.1 percent, and the middle class ($50,000 to $99,999) decreased from 38.8 percent to 32 percent.
It is possible that $100,000 doesn't buy what it used to (the study compares adjusted incomes but not purchasing power), but the scope of the shift is significant and challenges the narrative of the shrinking middle class.


Sunday, June 26, 2016
 
Labour Party post-Brexit
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn sacked shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn. Then 11 members of the shadow cabinet resigned in protest and could face a non-confidence vote in caucus. The Guardian's Paul Mason wonders whether some of the rebels are seeking to start a new centrist party. (Mason says that Corbyn delivered Labour's share to the Remain vote, a point that is both disputable and irrelevant to the socialist anti-Semite's worthiness as leader of the Labour Party.) The Wall Street Journal editorial takes a slightly different tact: "One happy result of Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union is some belated signs of seriousness from grown-ups in the Labour Party." Jumping the gun a bit, the Telegraph gives odds on Corbyn's likely replacements, with former justice minister Dan Jarvis and deputy leader Tom Watson being the named the co-frontrunners (5:1). All this is in the context of speculation that an early national election could be called within the year, if for no other reason than the (constitutionally irrelevant) consideration that the new Tory Prime Minister decided by the party this fall will not have a "mandate" from the voters; he or she won't but the party still does. Whenever the election is held, Mason's point that the Labour Party must find a way to connect to voters not merely upset with the current leader but susceptible to shifting their vote to UKIP (as has been occurring over the past few elections), is one that squabbling about left and centrist politics will not answer. Labour must provide answers, other than an ever-larger welfare state, to those who are left behind by economic growth, within or outside the EU. It is not evident who might provide those answers but it seems that Corbyn is not it. As the Journal concluded its editorial: "If the Labour Party now ousts Mr. Corbyn, it will be a sign that voters have realized that a return of sovereignty to London from Brussels will require more than nostalgic, anti-Western socialism."


 
George Will quits the Republican Party
Frequent (justified) critic of the GOP, George F. Will, quit the Republican Party and officially became an "unaffiliated" voter in Maryland. The last straw was not Donald Trump winning the nomination, but Paul Ryan's endorsement of the party's presidential candidate. According to a PJ Meida report, Will told a Federalist Society meeting this weekend:
A “President Trump” with “no opposition” from a Republican-led Congress would be worse than a Hillary Clinton presidency with a Republican-led Congress.
I agree. A Republican Congress would oppose Hillary Clinton's agenda and actions but would probably remain silent on Trump's abuses of the constitution.


Saturday, June 25, 2016
 
Brexit
The EU, it appears, doesn't want Britain to stick around. The Guardian reports:
Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, told the Guardian that EU lawyers were studying whether it was possible to speed up the triggering of article 50 of the Lisbon treaty – the untested procedure for leaving the union.
As the EU’s institutions scrambled to respond to the bodyblow of Britain’s exit, Schulz said uncertainty was “the opposite of what we need”, adding that it was difficult to accept that “a whole continent is taken hostage because of an internal fight in the Tory party”.
This is not unreasonable, although it also comes across as Eurocrats having a hissy-fit. Which they are. Yet Bloomberg reports that anti-Cameron/anti-British sentiment is high among many European leaders, not just those at the EU. This is probably unfair. I see Europe making an example of Britain to keep the malcontents in other countries from demanding exit referenda in their countries.
Another election, yet again a familiar narrative. The Guardian: "How the pollsters got it wrong on the EU referendum." I'm not sure this is correct. In the closing days of the campaign, it seemed neck-and-neck, with the last four polls being split, two predicting a close Remain win, two predicting a close Leave win.
I can see both arguments for David Cameron resigning as prime minister. MP Liam Fox said Cameron started the process of Britain leaving and he should see it through. True enough. Ali Wambold writes in the New York Sun that Cameron was the right person to negotiate Brexit. True, too. There is also the argument that he was on the wrong side of the most important issue facing England in a generation, he bet his political career on Remain winning, and now he must pay the price of failure. That might be too harsh. The real reason he has to leave is that he led some of the ridiculous claims in Project Fear, including claiming that leaving the EU could trigger a Great Depression-like economic crisis or even continental war; this scare-mongering was bad enough and beneath a prime minister like Cameron, but if these were truly outcomes he envisioned if Britain he left, he made a catastrophic mistake in even letting Leave be a possibility. For that failure in judgement -- or his making scary claims that bore no resemblance to reality -- means Cameron surrendered any right to continue leading the island nation.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney must go. Now. They have zero credibility.
I'll have more about the post-Brexit British political consequences sometime soon, I hope. For now suffice it to say that I totally support either Boris Johnson or Michael Gove becoming the next leader of the British Tories and thus prime minister. I doubt BoJo will win and think that someone like Theresa May, a low-key Remain senior member of government should be considered the the early favourite to replace Cameron.
For all the talk about division within the Tories, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn also faces a backlash within his party. In The Spectator, Brendan O'Neill says the Left more generally must figure out its post-EU future. And FT on Twitter: "Regions with the biggest votes for Leave are also the most economically dependent on the EU." Or as someone quoted in this Guardian story said: "If you've got money, you vote in ... if you haven't got money, you vote out." So blame unequal distribution of the benefits of economic growth, not racism or anti-immigration sentiment.
I mostly agree with Alex Morton's mostly positive assessment of David Cameron's prime ministership, although Morton is a formerly Cameron adviser. I thought he was an exemplary leader for a conservative party and very good prime minister until the referendum campaign (although I have no issue with his calling the EU referendum).
Andrew Lilico, chairman of Economists for Britain, writes in CapX that Britain must become engaged and open to the world, suggesting a alliance/free trade market with Australia and Canada.
Reuters reports that "Global stock markets lost about $2 trillion in value on Friday" although markets in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain suffered losses two to three times as larger as London's stock market hit (3.2% decline on the day); the major North American markets fell roughly in line with what was happening in London and not the continental stock exchanges. I expect a quick correction over the next few weeks as investors realize this is not the end of the world or even Britain's access to the European market. The New Yorker's James Surowiecki examines whether the markets over-reacted.
In an editorial in The Spectator praising Cameron -- and The Speccie supported Brexit -- the magazine makes the most important observation, at least regarding the EU:
The fault with Cameron’s strategy is that it was based on a false premise: that the EU is open to reform.
That is important to remember that going forward. My guess is the EU changes by doubling down, becoming more of what Brexit supporters disliked about the European Union.


Friday, June 24, 2016
 
Trudeau and pipelines: dithering or dishonesty?
The Calgary Herald editorializes against the new consultations Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government will require before Ottawa approves new pipelines:
Certainly, there may be some room for improvement in Canada’s regulatory system — some possible tweaking, if you will — but our energy industry is among the most responsible and environmentally defensible in the world. This notion of endless consultation is just a stall tactic on the part of the Trudeau administration — a Pollyanna belief that if you talk about an issue long enough, everyone will reach the same conclusion — sunny days, as the PM says.
There may be something to this pathological need to be liked and agreed with that prevents Justin Trudeau from acting on the contentious issue, but that might be too charitable a take. It might be more accurate to say the Prime Minister is gumming up the approval process because counter his repeated claims to the contrary, he doesn't want to get oil to market; he is likely hiding his environmental extremism behind the consultation process.


 
2016 watch (Trump isn't Reagan edition)
There are people who say that Donald Trump is like Ronald Reagan. Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal about conversations she has with people who believe this:
Look, Mr. Trump is not Ronald Reagan, I said. Reagan served two full terms as the governor of a state so vast that if it were a country it would have been one of the important economies in the world. He was a union president who served seven terms during the most fraught time in Hollywood’s history and emerged respected by all sides. He was no novice.
He was the leader of an entire political movement (however nascent) for more than a decade before taking the White House. Yes he had been an entertainer, an actor, and had loved it and seen himself as an artist. And it is true that he was looked down on by liberal elites. But it is not true that nobody respected him. The people elected him in landslides ...
“Reagan wasn’t Reagan in 1980,” she explained.
“That is exactly who he was,” I said.
No, she replied: He hadn’t had his triumphs yet. People didn’t know he would go on to be who he was.
I said that they knew who he was based on his history and previous accomplishments which is why they felt free to make him president.
And:
Trump supporters should be able to make an affirmative case for their candidate without diminishing Reagan or anyone else. You shouldn’t cut down a man you know was great to make him fit your candidate’s size. It is poor political etiquette. It’s also historical parallelism gone mad. Mr. Trump isn’t Reagan, and he isn’t Andrew Jackson either. He’s Mr. Trump. Take him on his terms and make the case.


 
Brexit: what now?
The Financial Times has an excellent article on the forthcoming divorce between the United Kingdom and the European Union. There is a lot that can happen and its mostly speculation because this is new territory. It could take two years or a decade. Britain could take unilateral steps to limit the EU's leverage, but that could sour the relationship and future negotiations or force Brussels to retaliate. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, is probably correct to say that Britain leaving the EU will be relatively simple but renegotiating the terms of their new relationship could prove very difficult. Brexit supporters hope that the break will be quick and clean with common-sense winning the day, but it is more likely that former Hungarian prime minister Gordon Bajnai is right: "There are too many changing factors to speculate clearly, but the logic of politics would be a bitter, nasty and not technically optimal solution."


Thursday, June 23, 2016
 
Why is Silicon Valley pro-Democrat/anti-Republican
James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute has a good interview with Greg Ferenstein, editor of the "Ferenstein Wire: and author of The Age Of Optimists. Pethokoukis asks, "Why do all these free enterprise loving Silicon Valley folks vote for Democrats?" and Ferenstein answers:
The high level elevator pitch is that Silicon Valley and, broadly, urbanized professionals, represent an entirely new political category — not libertarian, not Democrat, and not Republican. I argue that they are pro-capitalism and pro-government and their belief is that the government should be an investor in citizens to make them more educated, entrepreneurial and civic, rather than act as a regulator of the two parties.
What we’re seeing is the emergence of an entirely new thing… They’re trying to race into a better future as quickly as possible. The Democratic Party comes closest to this.
This seems likely, but the hypothesis comes with an important insight: that the binary approach of pro-capitalism and pro-government is not, or is not viewed as, mutually exclusive. This will be an important political development in the near future, and the Left is better situated to take advantage of it. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at the very least, gives lip service to this seemingly contradictory position. I worry that politicians pretend to be more pro-capitalist and pro-market than they really are, and seemingly intelligent business folks fall for them.


 
Will on Trump's bluster and cowardice
George Will:
Trump’s campaign has less cash ($1.3 million) than some congressional candidates have, so Republican donors have never been more important than they are at this moment. They can save their party by not aiding its nominee.
Events already have called his bluff about funding himself and thereby being uniquely his own man. His wealth is insufficient. Only he knows what he is hiding by being the first presidential nominee in two generations not to release his tax returns. It is reasonable to assume that the returns would refute many of his assertions about his net worth, his charitableness, and his supposed business wizardry. They might also reveal some awkwardly small tax payments.
If his fear of speculation about his secrecy becomes greater than his fear of embarrassment from what he is being secretive about, he will release the returns. He should attach to them a copy of his University of Pennsylvania transcript, to confirm his claim that he got the “highest grades possible.” There are skeptics.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016
 
What I'm reading
1. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. Ostensibly about PTSD, Junger explores concepts such as loyalty and community through the prism of tribalism. Not what I expected but not bad, either.
2. The Spring/Summer 2016 Cato Journal focusing on "Rethinking Monetary Policy." Of particular note is John B. Taylor's "Rethinking the International Monetary System," Scott Sumner's "Nudging the Fed Toward a Rules-Based Policy Regime," and Gerald P. O'Driscoll Jr.'s "Monetary Policy and the Knowledge Problem." And having read William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe's Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government— and Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency, F.H. Buckley's review is bang-on.
3. The July/August edition of Foreign Affairs with its focus on Israel and a post-Crisis capitalism.
4. "The Imperative of a Referendum," an essay by Patrice Dutil on electoral reform and the need for a referendum before substantive changes are made.


 
China's silicone dolls are used for more than sex
Yahoo! reports that some Chinese men are using their life-like dolls for sex, but others are substituting silicone women for daughters they never had or are using them as female versions of themselves. One presumes that these alternative uses for the dolls are in lieu of a sexual relationship, although the other uses are not exclusive of a sexual relationship, I guess.


 
The EU maybe made sense in the '50s. Now it only impedes progress.
Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal:
A centrally planned, regional customs union—though not one run with a colonial mind-set, chaotic accounts, a bureaucratic surplus and a democratic deficit—might have made some sense in the 1950s. That was before container shipping, budget airlines, the internet and the collapse of tariffs under the World Trade Organization made it as easy to do business with Australia and China as with France and Germany. But today, Britain—the most outward-facing of the major European economies—will thrive if it leaves. Europe’s GDP has only just staggered back up to where it was before the 2008 financial crisis.
This is because the EU’s obsession with harmonization (of currency and rules) frustrates innovation. Using as an excuse the precautionary principle or the need to get 28 countries to agree, the EU gets in the way of the new.
Ridley also notes that the EU gets in the way of free trade:
The EU is also against free trade. It says it isn’t, but its actions speak louder. The EU has an external tariff that deters African farmers from exporting their produce to us, helping to perpetuate poverty there, while raising prices in Europe. The EU confiscated Britain’s right to sign trade agreements—though we were the nation that pioneered the idea of unilateral free trade in the 1840s. All the trade agreements that the EU has signed are smaller, as measured by the trading partners’ GDP, than the agreements made by Chile, Singapore or Switzerland. Those the EU has signed usually exclude services, Britain’s strongest sector, and are more about regulations to suit big companies than the dismantling of barriers.
In a separate article, the Journal reports that Big Business is pushing against a Leave vote on Thursday, including attempting to scare employees of the economic consequences of leaving the EU. Ridley maybe explains why:
Even worse than in Westminster or Washington, the corridors of Brussels are crawling with lobbyists for big companies, big banks and big environmental pressure groups seeking rules that work as barriers to entry for smaller firms and newer ideas. The Volkswagen emissions scandal came from a big company bullying the EU into rules that suited it and poisoned us. The anti-vaping rules in the latest Tobacco Products Directive, which will slow the decline of smoking, came from lobbying by big pharmaceutical companies trying to defend the market share of their nicotine patches and gums. The de facto ban on genetically modified organisms is at the behest of big green groups, many of which receive huge grants from Brussels.