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).
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
It's like a giant tax cut -- assuming the plunge lasts
Bloomberg: "AAA Says Motorists May Save $75 Billion on Gasoline in 2015." Consumers will collective save billions because the United States has increased its oil production. The next poll on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) should ask respondents if they like $2.26 a gallon gasoline.
Econ books for 2015
Diane Coyle has a long list of economics books she is looking forward to in 2015, featuring both academic and popular titles, new releases and a few paperback versions (and a handful of good non-econ books). The top four economics books that I will be reading in 2015:
The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think by Alexander Klose
Measuring Happiness: The Economics of Well-Being by Joachim Weimann, Andreas Knabe, and Ronnie Schob
The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World and What to do About It by Dirk Philipsen
Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong by Morten Jerven (who also has Measuring African Development: Past and Present coming out this year)
These titles look like books I will almost certainly be reading: Morten's African Development, A Richer Life: How Economics Can Change the Way We Think and Feel by Philip Roscoe, From Mainframes to Smartphones: A History of the International Computer Industry by Martin Campbell-Kelly and Daniel Garcia-Swartz, The Secret Life of Money: Everyday Economics Explained by Tess Reid and Daniel Davies, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance, and Choosing Not to Choose: Understanding the Value of Choice by Cass R. Sunstein
I think this is the first year in quite a while there will not be a popular economics title from the likes of Tyler Cowen, Tim Harford, Steven Landsburg, or the Freakonomics authors.
The source of the latest Ebola outbreak
According to the AFP, researchers say the likely source of the Ebola outbreak that killed nearly 8000 people is a hollow, bat-infested tree in Guinea. The German researchers, however, have not been able to locate the Ebola virus in the actual bat population which is odd and should cast some doubt on the speculation of the original transmission source to humans.
Liberal double standards
When Republicans are in power, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” When Democrats are in power, dissent is the racist fuming of “angry white men.”Peaceful, law-abiding tea-party groups who cleaned up after their protests — and got legal permits for them — were signs of nascent fascism lurking in the American soul. Violent, anarchic, and illegal protests by Occupy Wall Street a few years ago or, more recently, in Ferguson, Mo., were proof that a new idealistic generation was renewing its commitment to idealism.When rich conservatives give money to Republicans, it is a sign that the whole system has been corrupted by fat cats. When it is revealed that liberal billionaires and left-wing super PACs outspent conservative groups in 2014: crickets.When Republicans invoke God or religious faith as an inspiration for their political views, it’s threatening and creepy. When Democrats do it, it’s a sign they believe in social justice.One can do this all day long. But while examples are easy, explanations are hard.
Goldberg has plausible explanations -- the Left is convinced of its own moral superiority that every conservative failing is proof of the Right's inherent evil; liberals are underdogs fighting powerful, entrenched interests therefore their slips are justifiable -- but I don't think liberals have a monopoly on hypocrisy. People on the Right who attain power typically care little about conservative principles and routinely justify deviations from them. Perhaps the lesson isn't about liberal or conservative double standards but the relationship between holding power and holding on to one's principles. Furthermore, this insight is best understood when power is not limited to electoral politics.
Sowell on 2016
Thomas Sowell has a column looking back at various anniversaries and the consequences of the events they mark: the start of World War I, Brown vs. Board of Education, the war on poverty. Drawing parallels between presidents Barack Obama and Woodrow Wilson, Sowell says: "Let us hope that the voters today have also learned how dangerous charisma and glib rhetoric can be — and what a childish self-indulgence it is to choose a president on the basis of symbolism."
The most influential economists
The Economist lists the 25 most influential economists. FiveThirtyEight's Ben Casselman's complaints that the methodology means there are some funky results -- current central bank presidents are disqualified but regional Fed bank presidents are not. Even by its own (flawed) metric, The Economist under-rates Thomas Piketty and Daniel Kahneman. It is hard to argue with Tyler Cowen's list and his reasoning. It is worth noting Cowen's observation that "There is no right-wing or center-right economist on the list."
Tuesday, December 30, 2014
America needs a fainting couch
Rich Lowry notes that 2014 was the year of being offended. He focuses on students at Harvard who preferred "wallowing in a precious self-pity" post-Ferguson to studying, and concludes his column:
The response to these students and their brethren at other elite law schools who made similar appeals should have been, “Please, get a grip. If nothing else will buck you up, at least show a little self-respect.” If this had been the mettle of the civil-rights movement, it would have collapsed in a puddle of helplessness not long after Rosa Parks was asked to give up her seat.But that, for all its tragic failings, was a different era. It was before so much time and energy were invested in taking offense and coddling the offended. It was before the nation needed a fainting couch.
I'll repeat my simple view on being offended: it isn't a thing. Being offended is your problem not society's or even the person who offended you.
Best article of the year
I'd nominate Emily Yoffe's "The College Rape Overcorrection" that appeared in Slate December 7. Yoffe concludes her long essay thusly:
We also need to change the culture of discourse around sexual assault on campuses. To stand up for the rights of the accused is not to attack victims or women. Our colleges, like the rest of our society, must be places where you are innocent until proven guilty. The day after graduation, young men and women will be thrown into a world where there is no Gender-Based Misconduct Office. They will have to live by the rules of society at large. Higher education should ready our students for this reality, not shield them from it.
Grab a coffee and read it.
Second best article of the year might be Cee Angi's longform SB Nation essay on Vin Scully, "We've been friends long enough you'll understand."
David Brooks has his two-part Sidney Awards with a brief description and links to some of the best essays of the year; see parts one and two. That said, Brooks admits a bias or "soft spot for essays that develop a bold theory of everything." Brooks kicks off with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, but it improves from there, including the Yoffe piece and Michael Hobbes’s New Republic essay, "Stop Trying to Save the World," about international development.
'Americans Need To Stop Mispronouncing "Adidas"'
Business Insider's Christina Sterbenz does a good job explaining why Americans pronounced Adidas differently than Europeans (ah-DEE-das vs. AH-dee-das). What she does not do is explain why Americans should pronounce it like Europeans.
New Year's Eve is like Christmas for Uber
Business Insider reports "Uber could generate more than $100 million this New Years Eve." Even if that estimate is high, it will be substantial.
'Top 10 Reasons to Abolish the Corporate Income Tax'
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, John Steele Gordon discusses several benefits from abolishing the corporate income tax, rather than, as some tax reformers would have it, lowering it from the highest rate in the developed world (35%) to the industrialized world average of 23%. Gordon explains, "the interaction of the two taxes has been the main engine driving the ever more complex income-tax system, as lawyers and accountants found ways to play one tax off the other." Many of the ten reasons are related to eliminating gaming the complexity of the tax system.
Do provincial job-creation subsidies work?
The Globe and Mail had a good article on the weekend that expressed skepticism about whether the Ontario government giving $220-million to tech giant Cisco to hire 1700 people (or even s few hundred thousand dollars to local craft beer companies) achieves what the government hopes to achieve, namely creating jobs. After all, hiring people and creating jobs is not the same thing. Author Adrian Morrow is incredibly fair but this is important for voter/taxpayers and policy-makers:
[Government analysis] does not show whether the jobs Ontario pays companies to create are really new or if they displace jobs that would have been created without the subsidy. Consider the Cisco deal. Most of the jobs will be in Ottawa’s information and communications technology industry, where the unemployment rate is just 3 per cent. Western University economist Mike Moffatt says that rather than creating new jobs, Cisco will be hiring people who otherwise would have worked for other high-tech firms.“They automatically assume the people that get hired wouldn’t have had jobs otherwise,” he says.The province should also factor in opportunity cost – whether those dollars would provide a greater economic boost if spent on, say, building roads or schools instead of subsidies.“Even if there is a net benefit to a subsidy, you’ve then got to say, ‘Okay, is there another use for that money that gives an even higher net benefit?” University of Ottawa economist Leslie Shiell says.At the very least, he contends, government must weigh the benefit of a subsidy against the economic drag of the taxes that pay for it.If the government considers these things, it is hard to know. The province does not disclose full details of its economic modelling for individual deals, saying the information is “commercially sensitive.”
It is difficult to create a model with all these variables, so the point is the government can't know whether the programs to bribe private companies to hire/expand/not leave work.
Monday, December 29, 2014
Old Taco Bell menus
Great picture from 1960s of the Burritos portion of a Taco Bell menu.
(Via Craig Calcaterra on Twitter, in a debate about advanced baseball metrics (of all things))
'10 Outrageous "Zero Tolerance" Follies of 2014'
Lenore Skenazy has "10 Outrageous 'Zero Tolerance' Follies of 2014." Two observations. One, people in charge of things are generally idiots. Two, the school official describing taking sunscreen on a field trip as "a dangerous situation" is both infinitely humorous and an example of how people in charge of things are idiots.
Social costs of legalizing pot
The Daily Signal reports: "An informal survey of 500 people at a Denver homeless shelter reveals that 30 percent of new inhabitants came to Colorado because of the state’s legally available marijuana." It is possible that these people would have been homeless elsewhere so these figures are only capturing the concentration of a problem, not the creation of one. Or it could be that people who make decisions about where to live based on legal weed are not going to make the best life decisions, so perhaps they didn't make the appropriate plans for living arrangements, or couldn't sustain a job that would help pay for housing. The point is legalization is not a panacea or all-upside reform, as it is sometimes presented, and can create new problems, as Denver's new-found homeless can attest. I say that as someone who generally supports liberalizing drug laws, but who also acknowledges that there are often costs to even beneficial policies.
The economic unknowns of 2015
Justin Wolfers, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, tackles the topic for the New York Times and Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, adds some thoughts (nine plus). Wolfers is optimistic about unemployment in America:
Further improvements in the labor market also depend on whether the long-term unemployed — those who have been out of work six months or longer — will successfully transition into new jobs. Pessimists emphasize that high levels of long-term unemployment proved to be an intractable problem through much of Europe over the last 40 years. Yet more recent evidence from the United States — particularly from the early stages of this recovery — makes me more optimistic that we can get the long-term jobless back to work.
I hope he's right, but as I've explained here before, the decrease in employment reflects not just economic shifts, but changes in economic behaviour deeply rooted in cultural factors (particularly under 40s not willing to move for jobs or work hard for promotions, eschewing big ticket items like houses and cars in favour of iPhones and eating out often, preferring low-pay self-employment for its flexibility/not wanting to take orders from a boss). My guess is higher non-employment and under-employment is the new normal.
Cowen has two unknowns of note:
4. Will Canada and Australia turn out to have been bubbles of a kind, due to falling resource prices? Will the global economy enter a new forty year period where Julian Simon is right once again about resource prices? I say the word “bubble” is misleading here, but they will see a further growth slowdown in 2015 in those two nations ...9. Will the economies of Italy and France continue to fester? I say sadly so. The risk is that Germany joins them.
Europe has been out of the news for a while, but numerous countries continue on reckless paths.
Wolfers concludes his piece, "So instead of a forecast, I’ll offer advice: Prepare for the worst, hope for the best and count on being surprised." That's good advice; I would be truly surprised if Cowen is right about the new Star Wars movie.
As for forecasting: no "expert" in December 2013 saw the decline in oil to the levels they've fallen in 2014. I expect more variance in oil price expectations for 2015.
Stop the presses! Vox discovers the predictable
Vox: "Marijuana use rises in states with legalization." When costs are lowered (for example, a criminal record), demand grows.
Slow political news week
So Joan Bryden of the Canadian Press does the same story twice: "Hundreds take political plunge, despite cynicism, politicians’ bad reputation" and "Idealism, policy passion prompts hundreds to take political plunge." The first story is about the idea that politics is not an honorable profession yet some idealistic types are still attracted to running for office while the second story briefly profiles some such candidates. I'd say that these people are not idealistic as much as they desire, like nearly every politicians, to control the lives of others. It isn't idealism, it's power.
We'll miss Senator Coburn
John Fund at NRO:
Dozens of members of Congress will be retiring next month, and some should be missed. But there is only one Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma senator the Christian Science Monitor has dubbed “a rabble-rousing statesman.”Those two qualities together are rare in politicians, but they found a happy union in the 66-year-old obstetrician who is leaving the Senate early next month to battle prostate cancer. On the one hand, Coburn never retreated on his core values: He is staunchly pro-life, for traditional marriage, and resistant to all manner of fads from climate-change regulation to mindless intervention overseas. As the Senate’s “Dr. No” from 2004 to today, he held up hundreds of special-interest boondoggles and end-runs around common sense. At the same time, he maintained a standard of honest dealing and integrity that many more in Congress should aspire to.
I don't care for many politicians, but I'll miss Senator Tom Coburn.
The good old days weren't
The Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby looks back at Otto L. Bettmann's The Good Old Days — They Were Terrible! which was published 40 years ago. Jacoby writes:
It was dangerous to romanticize the past, Bettmann argued. For one thing, it was an assault on the truth: Living conditions in America on the eve of the 20th century were frequently poor, nasty, and brutish. Bettmann filled his book with images refuting the idea that the "good old days" were a paradise from which we have sadly fallen. Like its title, "The Good Old Days — They Were Terrible!" is unflinching yet confident. To read it is to be liberated from unhealthy nostalgia, and to be buoyed by a powerful reminder of our potential for human progress ...From housing to education, street crime to medical care, urban sweatshops to rural despair — on topic after topic, Bettmann's pictorial history strips away the idealized sheen of wholesomeness from America's "good old days." Neither paean to laissez-faire capitalism nor endorsement of vigorous government regulation, it is instead a frank reality check into the past that makes clear how blessed we are to be alive in the present.
While environmentalists might complain about the combustion engine, its pollution is preferable to the massive amount of manure from horses that dirtied city streets.
Sunday, December 28, 2014
Republican fact of the day
Peter Augustine Lawler, NRO's Postmodern Conservative: the last winning Republican ticket that did not have a Nixon or Bush on it was Herbert Hoover and Charles Curtis in 1928.
Economist David Henderson notes a recent example of a sunk cost in his own life -- the time taken to drive to Starbucks to pick up his wife a very specific coffee -- and how acknowledging it (the sunk cost of the first 15-minute trip) prevents him from making the mistake of not getting a second coffee that is to his wife's specifications. The inability of people to understand sunk costs reduces human happiness. Good examples are finishing reading a bad book or watching a movie that sucks. Another example (that I fortunately eluded in my life) is continuing a relationship that isn't going anywhere.
Cowards of the year
At Reason, Spiked editor Brendan O'Neill has a list of the top 10 cowards of the year. The Economist unpublishing a review on slavery, scrubbing it from the venerable* magazine's archives, is ridiculous.
* For once this blog will follow the unofficial requirement of referring to The Economist as venerable, if only to highlight how far it has fallen.
From the New York Review of Books Anne Applebaum review of Karen Dawisha's Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?:
[T]he most important story of the past twenty years might not, in fact, have been the failure of democracy, but the rise of a new form of Russian authoritarianism. Instead of attempting to explain the failures of the reformers and intellectuals who tried to carry out radical change, we ought instead to focus on the remarkable story of one group of unrepentant, single-minded, revanchist KGB officers who were horrified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prospect of their own loss of influence. In league with Russian organized crime, starting at the end of the 1980s, they successfully plotted a return to power. Assisted by the unscrupulous international offshore banking industry, they stole money that belonged to the Russian state, took it abroad for safety, reinvested it in Russia, and then, piece by piece, took over the state themselves. Once in charge, they brought back Soviet methods of political control—the only ones they knew—updated for the modern era.That corruption was part of the Russian system from the beginning is something we’ve long known for a long time, of course. In her book Sale of the Century (2000), Chrystia Freeland memorably describes the moment when she realized that the confusing regulations and contradictory laws that hog-tied Russian business in the 1990s were not a temporary problem that would soon be cleaned up by some competent administrator. On the contrary, they existed for a purpose: the Russian elite wanted everybody to operate in violation of one law or another, because that meant that everybody was liable at any time to arrest. The contradictory regulations were not a mistake, they were a form of control.Dawisha takes Freeland’s realization one step further. She is arguing, in effect, that even before those nefarious rules were written, the system had already been rigged to favor particular people and interest groups. No “even playing field” was ever created in Russia, and the power of competitive markets was never unleashed. Nobody became rich by building a better mousetrap or by pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Instead, those who succeeded did so thanks to favors granted by—or stolen from—the state. And when the dust settled, Vladimir Putin emerged as king of the thieves.
It is a good review of a good book.
2016 watch (Jeb Bush edition)
George Will looks at two of Jeb Bush's hurdles to getting the 2016 GOP presidential nomination: his position on immigration and Common Core. Will has more patience for Bush's immigration policies and counsels conservatives to be open to Bush's stance on the issue -- to tolerate the former governor's holding the position even if they don't accept it -- and counsels Bush to be more tolerant of his critics on Common Core considering that the inability to understand the problems with federal mandates in education could disqualify him from the office he seeks.
My problem with Bush is not his qualifications or even his views, but rather that he is the candidate of the Establishment -- a collective which deserves to be rebuffeed -- and that Americans in general, and Republicans especially, should eschew dynastic politics.
Saturday, December 27, 2014
Good but not great books of 2014 list
Someone sent an inquiry with a very good request: to give context of what ranks as a best book, what are the good and bad books that I read in 2014. Fair enough. It won't be as comprehensive as my list of the best books of 2014 that I posted yesterday for several reasons. It takes time to scan my book shelves for what I've read this year. A lot of the mediocre and bad books were sold/given away/thrown out, and I do not remember many of them. I have learned to not finish reading mediocre books unless I have to read them (reviews, a topic I'm researching for writing purposes, or am actively trying to learn more). So here is a far from complete list of the good (but not great) and bad books of 2014, but the focus is on the good
Let's start off with a truly bad book: Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It has been thoroughly rebutted. Piketty seems to cherry-pick data and flub some of his own calculations. The best critique was by Deirdre McCloskey; the Financial Times recalculated Piketty's math and found errors. I tried reading Capital four times and couldn't get through it, which is saying a lot considering the amount of economics I read. I don't think it is the worst book of 2014, but it was definitely the most over-rated.
If it were not for Piketty's Capital, Naomi Klein's This Changes Every Thing: Capitalism vs. The Climate would be 2014's worst econ book. I read just enough of it to know that.
Peter Thiel's Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future came up short of being great because the PayPal founder skimps on personal examples that could have made his book come alive.
I could have just as easily put Robert E. Litan's Trillion Dollar Economists: How Economists and Their Ideas Have Transformed Business was a borderline great book. Litan examines how academic ideas become practical realities. This is the book I could easily move from this list to yesterday's list.
Can we count An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America by Joseph Bottum as politics? A good and subtle analysis of how America has abandoned its ole time religion (traditional Protestantism) yet remains deeply spiritual. It is beautifully written but Bottum might be unduly pessimistic because he sees the movement to evangelical churches (not so bad) and personal spiritualism (often dubious) picking up the pieces as opposed to Catholicism (which is also in decline in the United States). It falls into the category of a good book to which I will return frequently for both professional reasons and personal edification.
Patrick Lee and Robert P. George provide a solid legal and moral explanation for traditional marriage in Conjugal Union: What Marriage Is and Why It Matters. William Tucker's Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human is also good.
Is Administrative Law Unlawful? by Philip Hamburger is a nearly 650 page critique of the administrative state. The topic is important and Hamburger tries his best to make the topic sexy, but there is only so much you can do with administrative law. If it came in under 400 pages, I would have been tempted to include it on the best list but I don't know if Hamburger could have written a book as good in 400 pages.
Eric Posner has a pretty good critique of the idea of human rights contributing to the well-being of people in The Twilight of Human Rights Law.
I did a good job of avoiding terrible political books in 2014, but one that got past my filter was A Race for the Future: How Conservatives Can Break the Liberal Monopoly on Hispanic Voters. Deeply flawed underlying arguments ruin the book from the get-go. There is nothing original Francis Fukuyama's Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, but it is something of an answer to the critics of his quarter-century old thesis The End of History. You aren't missing much by skipping it.
I've read a lot of books about Edmund Burke in recent years and The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence by David Bromwhich is a must-read for those who recognize Burke as part of the conservative tradition. And by the way, Bromwich doesn't believe Burke to be the father of conservatism.
I perused Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford and found numerous original insights. The Price of Fame: The Honorable Clare Booth Luce, the second volume of Sylvia Jukes Morris' biography, was informative, as was Craufurd Goodwin's Walter Lippmann: Public Economist (which was much better than the 1980 book Walter Lippmann and the American Century by Ronald Steel).
Canadian politics and history
It isn't always an easy read, but Enlightened Zeal: The Hudson's Bay Company and Scientific Networks, 1670-1870 by Theodore Binnema is informative about a topic I had not even thought about until I saw the book. If the words on the page sang a little, Enlightened Zeal could have been a best book selection.
F.H. Buckley's The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America examines the growth of the regulatory state in Canada, the U.S., and the United Kingdom. I'm not convinced that the official opposition parties in parliamentary democracies do a better job of holding the administrative state in check, let alone accountable, than does the American tradition of separation of powers.
Two other good Canadian books were Blocking Public Participation: The Use of Strategic Litigation to Silence Political Expression by Byron Sheldrick which addresses an important but under-the-radar topic, and Thumper: The Memoirs of the Honourable Donald S. Macdonald by Donald S. Macdonald, who seems candid enough. (Macdonald was a Trudeau-era finance minister and later chair of the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada.) Thumper is what I hoped Greg Sorbara's memoirs would have been.
There were a lot of bad books on Canadian politics.
I could have written a book explaining what was wrong with Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada's Failing Democracy by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan. The essence of their argument is that there is no job description and therefore MPs can't be truly effective doing what they should be doing because they are busy taking marching orders from the leaders' offices. Maybe that is their job description. But worse than that -- if being the party's representative to their constituency isn't their job -- is that MPs have the power to do more but choose not to exercise it; that is, they are happy being lapdogs. Loat and MacMillan never really entertain that idea. Nor do they consider the role of voters.
Other comprehensively terrible books included Common Ground by Justin Trudeau (platitudes), My Journey by Olivia Chow (insufficiently revealing), and Conservatism in Canada, edited by James Farney and David Rayside (they fundamentally do not understand conservatism).
On the cusp of comprehensively terrible is Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story by Robyn Doolittle; she may understand the Ford phenomenon, but her contempt for Ford Nation is palpable. I'm still reading Bruce Carson's 14 Days: Making The Conservative Movement in Canada and it's meh. Harperism: How Stephen Harper And His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada by Donald Gutstein is just wrong. Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover by Michael Harris illustrates Harper Derangement Syndrome. All got a great deal of play, but none are worth reading.
Science and mathematics
The Artificial Intelligence Revolution: Will Artificial Intelligence Serve Us Or Replace Us? by Louis Del Monte was a little too fear-mongery. Virtually Human: The Promise---and the Peril---of Digital Immortality by Martine Rothblatt might be too uncritical. Together they are good.
Good but not great sports books included Babe Ruth's Called Shot: The Myth and Mystery of Baseball's Greatest Home Run by Ed Sherman, Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time by Tim Wendel, The 1929 New York Yankees: The Return of Murderers' Row by Charlie Gentile, and How Baseball Explains America by Hal Bodley. If any of those teams/players/eras interest you, these are books you should read. I'm sure I'm forgetting a football book.
Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned" was in some senses an enlightening book, but not in the way(s) the author intended. Dunham illustrates she lives in a fantasy world, the spoiled brat of a privileged and weird family. So perhaps she never had a chance to become a well-balanced and decent person. Reading Not that Kind of Girl was one of the worst reading experiences of the year.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life by Charles Murray, but he does come off as a tad grouchy. The advice is good and necessary, the tone is not. The tone kept it from being a great book, but many conservative reviewers think that kids today deserve some finger wagging, so I fall into the minority of liking the message but not the way it was delivered.
Smaller. Faster. Lighter. Denser. Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong by Robert Bryce is this year's required reading for cornucopiaists.
Review of the year in media
The Washington Examiner has the "5 best and 9 worst moments for media in 2014." I don't know; shouldn't Rolling Stone's UVA story be much higher? Like at the top?
Which American political party is the party of the rich?
Investor's Business Daily editorializes:
A look at political donations shows that the big-dollar contributors put their money on the Democrats. So which group is really the party of the rich? ...Yet as the Associated Press reported just before Christmas, "it's actually the liberal-minded who shelled out the most cash in the just completed midterm elections." ...The AP, using data from the Center for Responsive Politics, continues:• "Among the 183 groups that wrote checks of $100,000 or more to another group, Democrats had a 3-to-1 cash advantage."• "Overall, for the campaign season that just ended, donors who gave more than $1 million sent roughly 60 cents of every dollar to liberal groups."• "Among the 10 biggest donors, Democrats outspent Republicans by an almost 3-to-1 margin." ...A little more than two years ago, the AP published a similar story, only this time it reported that "in Congress, the wealthiest among us are more likely to be represented by a Democrat than a Republican." ...We reported ourselves in April that "according to OpenSecrets.org, from 1989 to 2014 rich donors gave Democrats $1.15 billion — $416 million more than the $736 million given to the GOP." We also noted that "among the top 10 donors to both parties, Democrat supporters outspent Republican supporters 2-to-1."
Homicides going down in Detroit
The Detroit News reports:
As 2014 enters its final week, the city is on pace to record its fewest homicides since 1967.As of Tuesday, 298 criminal homicides were recorded, a decline from 318 at the same point last year, according to Detroit Police. That's a 6 percent drop from last year and marks the second straight year of declines.The lowest number of homicides in Detroit in any of the past 47 years was in 2010: 308. Before that, the lowest total was 281 in 1967, the year of the Detroit summer riots.
So you are probably thinking that it mostly because of the declining population of the beleaguered city, but no: "Taking population into consideration, the murder rate per 100,000 residents is on pace to drop for the third straight year, from 55 in 2012, to 47.5 last year, to 42.6 so far in 2014."
Detroit Police Chief James Craig has a theory on the declining crimes rates, which include most other violent crimes (carjackings and robberies), and it could be tied to the fact that justifiable homicides are up to 22 this year (from 16 in 2013); says Craig: "People feel the need to protect themselves ... Maybe that's helping drive down robberies: Maybe the criminals are afraid they'll be confronted by someone who has a gun." So as government becomes less relevant to the public and parts of that public is taking the law into their own hands, the public is becoming safer.
Friday, December 26, 2014
Best books 2014
In most years, I try to read/peruse eight to twelve new books per month, but in 2014 I read more older books so this list won't be as comprehensive as usual.
The two best are The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run—or Ruin—an Economy by Tim Harford and How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness by Russ Roberts. The Roberts book wasn't as good as I hoped considering how much I like his economic fiction, but it was still one of my favourite books of 2014. Adam Smith was a moral philosopher, not just an economist, and Roberts tries (and, I think, succeeds) in rescuing that part of Smith's thinking. James Grant's The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself provides a rebuttal of Keynseian economics as the cure for economic downturns. You could put Bootleggers & Baptists: How Economic Forces and Moral Persuasion Interact to Shape Regulatory Politics by Adam Smith (not that Adam Smith) and Bruce Yandle under econ or politics because it explains the rational theory for the often disparate interests in coalitions.
One of the areas I read much less in was American, international, and British politics because I skipped the biographies and memoirs. The three best political books were The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion by William Voegeli, The Seven Deadly Virtues: 18 Conservative Writers on Why the Virtuous Life is Funny as Hell edited by Jonathan V. Last, and The Undocumented Mark Steyn Hardcover by Mark Steyn. Last's collection is a humorous take on a serious topic (the disappearance of the cardinal virtues) and Steyn's collection is worth re-reading. Voegili is a pretty solid polemic. Last's has collected some of the better conservative writers for a humorous take on a serious topic (the disappearance of the cardinal virtues). Steyn's collection of previously published material is worth re-reading.
The next tier of good political books include The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class by Fred Siegel and The New Class Conflict by Joel Kotkin. Both look at how the values of the elite, as espoused in the entertainment media and journalism, do great harm to the (formerly aspirational) middle class. The expanded edition of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought by Jonathan Rauch proved the book deserved to be reissued. Encounter has issued a new edition of Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism on the 50th anniversary of the publication of James Burnham's classic. The forward by John O'Sullivan and introduction by Roger Kimball alone are worth buying the book.
The best policy book was The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a devastating critique of the assembly line education system we are stuck with and the possible disruptive forces that could lead to systemic reform and individual improvement.
Reading The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein and The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose From Defeat to Create the New Majority by Pat Buchanan together makes for a pretty decent history of the Republican Party/conservative movement in the 1970s, although there is not much that is new in either volume.
The best history book was Jürgen Osterhammel's The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century which examines the changes that took place in that century, from technological to political, and how they changed the world and created the 20th century. It the second-best book of the year overall.
After reading 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson last year, I've come to appreciate understanding history as told through the stories of cities. This year, Tristram Hunt rethinks the whole history of colonialism in Ten Cities That Made an Empire and it's worth reading even if one doesn't come to his conclusions.
Two other history books of note were Eisenhower: A Life by Paul Johnson -- a serviceable, brief biography -- and Centuries of Change: Which Century Saw The Most Change? by Ian Mortimer -- which is entertaining and informative and doesn't seem 400+ pages.
Canadian history and politics
Not a great year for books on Canadian politics and history. I spent too much time reading crap like Olivia Chow's and Justin Trudeau's memoirs and the Mike Duffy bio. Probably the best Canadian politics book was Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada by Brent Rathgeber, an independent MP. It is infinitely better than Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada's Failing Democracy by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan to understand what's wrong with Parliament. I enjoyed Conrad Black's Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada From the Vikings to the Present so much more than I expected, but for large-scale histories of Canada I would recommend Donald Creighton's Canada's First Century or Right Honourable Men by Michael Bliss, although neither cover the entire history of the country like Black's tome.
Next month we will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of John A. Macdonald's birth, and two volumes to prepare for that include Canada Transformed: The Speeches of Sir John A. Macdonald (edited by Sarah Gibson and Arthur Milnes) and Macdonald at 200: New Reflections and Legacies (edited by Patrice Dutil and Roger Hall). We do not properly appreciate political oratory in Canada, and Gibson and Milnes' thick volume isn't going to correct that but should; the Putil/Hall collated examination of Canada's first prime minister has a few silly overly academic pieces, but is thorough overall and covers aspects of Macdonald's ministry that is not properly covered in his biographies.
Lastly two Tom Flanagan books deserve mention: Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age (which is good on free speech but notable for the biographical bits on becoming a pariah after saying something mildly controversial about child pornography) and Winning Power: Canadian Campaigning in the Twenty-First Century (which is better than Susan Delacourt's book on modern electioneering).
Science and mathematics
The list of science books I wanted to read but didn't get to in 2014 is much longer than the books I actually read. Those that likely would have made the list if I got around to them include: Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle by Andreas Wagner, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew by Alan Lightman, The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures by Christine Kenneally, A Natural History of Human Thinking by Michael Tomasello, Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion by Jeremy Webb, and Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction by Charles L. Adler, Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, and Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson, are all on my to-read in 2014. I really wish I could read graphic novels because Neurocomic, about how the brain works, would have already been read.
Among those I did read, Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives -- and Our Lives Change Our Genes by Sharon Moalem stands out as the best science book of the year by far. The second best "science" book of the year was What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe, who does the xkcd comics. If you are looking for a fun, intelligent book for someone, this is it; one need not be a science nerd to enjoy What If?
Also on the list of best science books: The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us by Diane Ackerman explained precisely what the subtitle promised. If you like the various John Brockman collections, The Universe: Leading Scientists Explore the Origin, Mysteries, and Future of the Cosmos is fine, although I found myself skipping numerous contributors. I perused and enjoyed How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg and Planet of the Bugs: Evolution and the Rise of Insects by Scott Richard Shaw. I was happy to see The Inventions, Researches and Writings of Nikola Tesla re-released this past year. Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues by Martin J. Blaser is the best science and public policy book.
Life Unfolding: How the Human Body Creates Itself by Jamie A. Davies is the science book that pro-lifers will enjoy reading. And should read.
Each year I try to read 10-12 baseball books, about as many football books, a couple of books on poker, and a book or two on another sport or sports in general. About half of the books will be biographies/autobiographies and the other half will be mostly an even split between team/season/era histories and statistical and analytical works. This year I read fewer sports books, mostly because it wasn't a stellar year in sports publications. The three best by far: A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred by George Will (marking the centenary of the baseball
Three other sports books stand out as must-reads for sports fans: The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein is the best general sports book. Football: Great Writing about the National Sport edited by John Schulian provides wonderful snippet reading by writers such as George Plimpton, Jimmy Breslin, Roy Blount Jr., and Michael Lewis, to those involved in the game like Jerry Kramer and Jennifer Allen (daughter of coach George Allen), and includes a range of topics such as playing in the Ice Bowl, being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, pro football kickers, and Texas high school football. I do not share Steve Almond's conclusion, but Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto is something fans of the pro and college sport should read, even if it is a bit much to describe football as promoting racism and homophobia.
The other sports books I read that I could still recommend include: 1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever by Bill Madden and Pete Rose: An American Dilemma by Kostya Kennedy (which was a good enough book about a fascinating character). I read The Closer: My Story by Mariano Rivera with Wayne Coffey out of obligation because he is my favourite player of the last 20 years. Rivera is amazing to watch on the mound, but fairly uninteresting off the field. He is committed Christian who gives back to his community in Panama, but there was nothing new here and it was told in a pedestrian way. I liked it because I like Rivera and every Yankee fan should read it, but it won't survive as baseball literature. I would have included The Sabermetric Revolution: Assessing the Growth of Analytics in Baseball by Benjamin Baumer, but it is technically a 2013 book (published in the final week). If you are sick of this debate, there is probably nothing in the generally pro-sabermetric argument Baumer makes that is going to change your mind.
Some other good books.
A Literary Education and Other Essays, a collection of previously published literary essays by Joseph Epstein provided me with the greatest reading pleasure in 2014, and like so much of his previous writing, led to reading books I had no intention of picking up.
Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval is precisely what it sounds like it is. So is The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin. If those sound like the kinds of books you might enjoy, you probably will.
Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik was a thoroughly enjoyable read about everyday objects and what they are made of (and 55 Cancri e, a planet made entirely of diamond that is five times the size of Earth). Stuff Matters is perhaps the a top-five book of the year. Seven Elements that Changed the World: An Adventure of Ingenuity and Discovery by John Browne approaches the same topic from a different angle: how human beings turn natural resources into usable innovations. I thought I was going to include Vaclav Smil's Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization, but it was a December 2013 book.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. I love the underlying message of the book which is that more can be done for the dying but altering the question we ask of those in pain. The question is not "are you in pain" or even "what can we do for your pain" but "how can we make this a good day."
Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator by Andreas Bernard on an under-appreciated transformative technology.
Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith by Eve Tushnet. This book is challenging and probably won't be much liked by either side. She lives as a celibate gay and Church liberals will wonder why she is so accepting of Catholic teaching and Church conservatives will wonder why she doesn't just will herself straight (or at the very least wonder why she defines herself so much by her sexual inclinations). I'm not sure Tushnet will convince either side but both need to understand how an open lesbian can be faithful to Catholic moral teaching and feel like she remains true to herself.
Thursday, December 25, 2014
I hope you are not reading this blog today. But if you are, I wish you a Merry and Blessed Christmas.
As is tradition around these parts, I post what should be considered musical perfection, J.S. Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring," by Celtic Women. While not strictly speaking Christmas music, it is, after all what the day is about.
'The Case for Ebenezer'
Libertarian law professor Butler Shaffer defends Ebenezer Scrooge against "an undeserved reputation for villainy" which is rooted in collectivism. Acting as counsel for Scrooge, Shaffer notes:
If a lack of imagination and ambition is not at the crux of Bob Cratchett’s problem in maintaining his inert, status quo position for so many years, then perhaps we should consider the possibility that this man was simply incompetent.Cratchett appears to us as a tenured example of the “Peter Principle,” the recipient not so much of an earned salary as a sinecure. He was unable to obtain a more highly paid employment, I suspect, because he was incapable of performing at any higher skilled level than that of the bean counter he apparently was, and seemed satisfied in remaining. Had he been more competent and energetic, he might have sought employment from a competitor of Scrooge’s, who would have seen qualities profitable to his firm. But I suspect that, had Cratchett approached any of these businessmen for employment, they would have been observant enough of his elemental dullness to have responded: “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”If Cratchett’s stagnating in the backwaters of Scrooge’s shop was due to his basically poor work skills, we are once again confronted with the question: why did Cratchett not seek to enhance his skills, as by learning a more remunerative trade? That would certainly have been a great benefit to his family, including affording additional resources with which to possibly rescue Tiny Tim from his malady. But, alas, Bob Cratchett was, once again,either too unambitious or too unimaginative to pursue this course of conduct. Indeed, about the only gumption we see Cratchett exhibiting in this story is in his groveling request for another lump of coal for the stove, or his equally weak-kneed appeal for a day off on Christmas. Such is the extent of his courage, ambition, and love for his family.My client – whatever his reasons – has seen fit to keep this incompetent, noncreative dawdler on his payroll. But instead of being praised for not terminating this slug, he stands condemned for not paying him more than he was marginally worth; more than any other employer would have paid him if, indeed, any other employer would have hired him in the first place! Perhaps my client’s retention of Bob Cratchett should be looked upon as the mostcharitable of all the acts engaged in by anyone in Mr. Dickens’ story!
If Santa did exist
Don Boudreaux says government would impede his activities with border restrictions and tariffs -- at the very least.
Quantum physics can explain Santa
"It's Okay to be a Smart Guy" has a six-minute video on the science of Christmas, including at about the 4:45 mark the quantum explanation.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Christmas at Marginal Revolution
Tyler Cowen examines the question, "Should you lie to your children about Santa?" Cowen: "I say why not leave them guessing, hovering in a state of Bayesian Santa doubt?"
Alex Tabarrok quotes Ayn Rand: "The charming aspect of Christmas is the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way. One says: “Merry Christmas”—not “Weep and Repent.” And the good will is expressed in a material, earthly form—by giving presents to one’s friends, or by sending them cards in token of remembrance." Rand continues:
The best aspect of Christmas is the aspect usually decried by the mystics: the fact that Christmas has been commercialized. The gift-buying . . . stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure. And the street decorations put up by department stores and other institutions—the Christmas trees, the winking lights, the glittering colors—provide the city with a spectacular display, which only “commercial greed” could afford to give us. One would have to be terribly depressed to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle.
In the Tuns household Christ, Santa, and commercialism co-exist.
Container ships are my porn
So thanks Anthony J. Evans.
The F-word in film
Tyler Cowen notes this Wikipedia article on the movies with the most f-words. You gotta love a graph with the header "fuck count." There is only one from the 1970s and eight from the 1980s. There have been 18 since 2010.
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Christmas music: 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel'
The Wikipedia article on "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" has the lyrics for the three major English versions of the song. I like this version (sans lyrics) by The Piano Guys which hits all the right notes:
The glass is half empty ... and emptying
The Kaiser Family Foundation has a report on Medicare spending and the causes for the flat-lining of costs per recipient. It is good that costs on a per patient basis are flat. But while there has been barely any change in the per recipient costs of Medicare since 2009 ($10,537 in 2009, $10,946 in 2011, $10,809 in 2013), the total cost of the program has increased about $100 billion from $487 billion to $580 billion. The KFF says:
Between 2009 and 2014, the Medicare Trustees extended by more than 10 years their projections of the solvency of the Medicare Hospital Insurance trust fund, from 2017 (2009 projection) to 2030 (2014 projection)—which is also related to growth in revenues from a payroll tax increase included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and to a stronger economy.
But it's still going to run out, right? And if projections can change in one direction (relatively) quickly, it won't take much to have the trust fund depleted suddenly.
One thing to wonder about is whether costs per recipient are going down because patients are getting less care. One provision in Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) is that Medicare provider payments have been reduced. Is that resulting in less provision of health services? On a macro level, reduced services for recipients is a good thing, but it might not be the best thing for patients.
MIT Technology Review reports that Singapore will open some neighbourhoods to Uber-like driverless cars. If more cities would get out of the way of technological progress (read: stop protecting entrenched interests), human welfare could be improved by cheaper, more convenient transit.
Year in review of everything (that matters)
David Collum has a long -- I mean loooooonnnngggg -- post at Peak Prosperity reviewing 2014 titled, "The year we piled up risks like a global game of Tetris." Collum concludes:
I envision German Jews sitting around the dinner table in the 1930's discussing risk. Among those who had the opportunity to mitigate the risk—certainly many did not—some chose to do so, and others bet that the threat would pass. It didn't, and they paid dearly. Next time you hear a glib intellectual dismissing risk-averse peasants—intellectual children—because the risk is low or because the worst case scenario failed to materialize, I would understand if you planted one right in their chops and muttered “you smug bastard.”There is no “risk” of a 10% stock market correction because there are no consequences except to the blokes who live (and die) by leverage. Risk is not about what happens but what could happen and what the consequences could be. Russian Roulette is statistically a 6:1 winner . . . until you lose.
In life we generally over-estimate risk, but policy-makers generally under-estimate risk until they inevitably over-react and then way over-estimate it. Investors are prone to swings in over-estimating and under-estimating risk.
Also, this might be the best line of economics analysis all year: "The Fed's dual mandate as both arsonist and firefighter puts it in the untenable situation of relentlessly fighting blazes it lights."
Surprise, surprise, Doug Saunders is wrong
Life is too short to read Doug Saunders' weekly columns, but it is not too short to read rebuttals to his columns, so I suggest you check out Stephen Gordon's rebuttal of Saunders' weekend column on Canada's supposed resource course. Gordon is an actual economist and he uses actual facts. Saunders wrote, "In 2000, raw resources accounted for 40 per cent of Canada’s economic activity. By 2011, it had risen to almost two-thirds." That was in the print version and the online version so "economic activity" was changed to "export activity." It could have been a factual correction, not a cover-up of Saunders' sloppiness (at best) or misleading argument (at worst). The problem is, it still isn't factual. Gordon says:
The goalposts have shifted from "the price of oil is the foundation of your economy" to "raw resources", but let's let that pass. It's still wrong. Total exports in 2011 were $620.1b, and here are the components that could be ascribed to the "raw resources" category:Farm, fishing and intermediate food products: $24.1bEnergy products: $103.7bMetal ores and non-metallic minerals: $20.7bForestry products and building and packaging materials: $30.4bAdding those up gets you to 29% of total exports - less than half of the claim made in Saunders' column, after the correction. Energy exports account for 17% of total exports and about 6.8% of GDP. Petro-economy, indeed.
I give columnists wide latitude to be wrong. Opinion-writing is what it is (just like blogging). But pundits do not get wide latitude on the facts, and if the facts their opinions are based on are egregiously wrong, the pundits deserve to be taken to task. Thank you Professor Gordon for doing so with Doug Saunders.
A house of repeals?
Glenn Reynolds in USA Today:
[A] recent article in The Hill described the now-adjourned 113th Congress as "historically unproductive," observing that "few Congresses have sent less bills to a president in 20 years."This, I'm afraid, reflects a common journalistic belief that when legislatures are passing legislation, they're producing something valuable. But while it's true that when oil wells produce oil, or gold mines gold or automobile factories cars, those entities are being productive, it's not so clear that every time a legislature passes a law it's producing something of value. In fact, there's good reason to suspect just the opposite.When Congress passes a law, it is pretty much always either limiting someone's freedom or spending taxpayer money.
So to change government so we can have less government maybe we need to add another piece to government:
[N]obody in Congress gets much in the way of votes by repealing laws. All the institutional pressures point the other way.So in a third house of Congress — let's call it the House of Repeal — the only thing that the elected legislators would have the power to do would be to repeal laws, meaning that for them, all the votes, campaign contributions, media exposure and opportunities for hearings would revolve around paring back the federal behemoth.
The Independent reports that New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority has launched public advertisements encouraging men not to "manspread" -- sit with a, er, wide stance, that takes up the space of the neighbouring seats. UbraGamer tweaks feminists when he complains on Twitter that men shouldn't be told what to do with their bodies.
Walter Russell Mead a few days back at The American Interest on "the Liberal retreat" or "Peak Left":
But to blame Obama for the crisis of the liberal left is unpersuasive. It was the liberal left who fell hardest for him, who praised him to the skies and who stuck with him longer than anybody else. Even today, Obama’s strongest backing comes from two of the most liberal ingredients in the American melting pot: blacks and Jews. And, from a practical point of view, it is almost inconceivable, despite the cries of “Run, Elizabeth, Run!” emanating from the gentry left, that someone more liberal than President Obama will be sent to the Oval Office anytime soon. It took the unique circumstances of two wars and a financial crash to open a path to the White House for Barack Obama; absent similar circumstances, successful candidates are likely to come from his right for the foreseeable future.In that sense the Obama administration may represent “Peak Left” in American politics, and what we are getting from the left these days is a mix of bewilderment and anger as it realizes that this is as good as it gets. America is unlikely to go farther to the left than it went in the wake of the Iraq War and the financial crash, and while that wasn’t anywhere near enough of a shift for left-leaning Democrats, the country has already moved on.
That analysis seems correct (on the surface) but it also reeks of gloating. In recent years after George W Bush's first victory and after Barack Obama's first victory, Grover Norquist and James Carville/Paul Begala respectively were predicting decades of political control by the winning side. Politics shifts often, often suddenly, and sometimes seismically, and at other times, only marginally. You never really know until it happens and maybe not for a good long time after it occurs. So talking about how Obama is as good it gets for the Left seems true now, but who knows what happens in 2016 or the 2018 midterms. 2020 is only (basically) five years away, several lifetimes in politics. By then America might be ready for a correction to a failed Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush presidency.
Another reason, though, that this is as good as it gets for the Left, for now at least, is that the Left has a bunch of wins. The pendulum might swing, but it doesn't swing all the way back the other direction. The Left has made advances in government that the Right will not win back. Obamacare as it is now might not stand, for example, but it will either be modified or replaced with a different set of government-involved health care policies.
Peak Left for Now might be more accurate although that isn't as catchy.
Chill, porn probably isn't killing marriage
Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown questions the study that finds men are choosing porn over wives noting that there could be selection-bias at work in the survey.
Tabarrok plays This or That
Marginal Revolution's Alex Tabarrok plays Television: This or That, and includes this: "Food competition cornucopias Top Chef > MasterChef > Hell’s Kitchen." I loved Hasdrubal's comment: "What, no Cutthroat Kitchen? That’s got 1.) Alton Brown and 2.) a game theoretic bent. What could be better?" I've used Cutthroat Kitchen to teach my kids about game theory.
I found chuck martel's comment amusing but untrue: "Alex Tabarrok+TV watching>>>Tyler Cowen+reading."
I bet Santa doesn't need a half-billion dollar upgrade
The Wall Street Journal reports on improvements made by UPS to prepare for the Christmas season:
United Parcel Service Inc. all year has been focused on one day above the rest: Monday Dec. 22, when it will deliver 34 million packages, more than any other in its history.It is a big test for the delivery giant after last year’s embarrassing and costly holiday debacle in which millions of packages didn’t arrive in time for Christmas. To avoid a recurrence, UPS has spent about $500 million preparing for the holidays with projects including automated sorting systems to rapidly identify ZIP Codes and swiftly reroute packages in the event of bad weather.That automated system—known as its “Next Generation Sort Aisle”—is now operating at three hubs around the country. The new technology scans packages and quickly flashes instructions to workers so they can process 15% more packages a day, or as many as 47,000 parcels an hour, as measured at one of the hubs.
You'd think that e-commerce was good for parcel delivery companies, but apparently not. WSJ reports:
Home delivery from online shopping has been a drag on UPS profitability in the U.S. And with e-commerce soon to account for half of all U.S. packages, the company is trying to automate and digitize its operations to boost profitability and improve productivity of its more than 400,000 global employees, while reducing the over $500 million it spends a year training those workers by simplifying their tasks.
Lame UW holiday greetings video
My alma mater, the University of Waterloo, has a "holiday message" from President Feridun Hamdullahpur and I put "holiday message" in quotes not because of some disgust that it isn't a Christmas message,* but that has nothing to do with the holidays. Instead he recites the accomplishments of the university in the form of mentioning various recognitions it has received. You'd think for a school that has been recognized for being the "most innovative university" in Canada 23 years in a row they could have come up with something a whole lot better than their lame message, half of which is Hamdullahpur talking at the camera without smiling.
Monday, December 22, 2014
Joe Cocker, RIP
We should all be thankful for the career of Joe Cocker, who died today, which gave us one of the better John Belushi moments.
Cop-killing fact of the day
David Henderson noted that the murder of NYC police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were the first on-duty police killed since 2011.
Don't blame the 'climate of opinion'
Reason's Jesse Walker says "Don't Try to Blame 'Rhetoric' for the Deaths of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos." There are three good general reasons (even if one of them might not apply in the case of the double-cop murder): "Responsibility for a crime lies with the criminal," "It's far from clear that the killer was even listening to the alleged inciters' rhetoric," and "Where exactly do you draw the line?" Or as David Henderson said:
I'll put aside the irony that many people on the right are borrowing a page that many on the left use on other issues by blaming a climate of opinion for the two Brooklyn cop murders. My own view is that the person you should blame for the murders is, um, the murderer.
Christmas music: 'Rockin Around the Christmas Tree'
I wanted to post a classic 20th century Christmas song and my first choice would be "Baby, It's Cold Outside," but I already covered that earlier this month when Mark Steyn featured it as his Song of the Week.
So it was a toss-up between two late '50s Christmas classics. I could have gone with the rockabilly "Jingle Bell Rock" by Bobby Helms (1957), but I went with the big Christmas song from the year after. I'm not a big fan of the song "Rockin Around the Christmas Tree" but I do like the original version by Brenda Lee:
Remembering Sir Joseph Flavelle
The Toronto Star's David Olive has a nice essay on Sir Joseph Flavelle, who is mostly remembered for being a Great War profiteer with his meat-packing company (which would eventually become modern-day Maple Leaf Foods), but should be better known as one of Toronto's great civic builders. Without Flavelle, neither the University of Toronto nor the city's downtown hospital system would have become what it is today, namely world-class institutions.
What Olive doesn't mention is that Flavelle was a lifelong supporter of the Conservative Party and after World War I became a fierce critic of government involvement in the economy, including social assistance, which he thought discouraged work. His opposition to government interference, however, did not prevent Flavelle from accepting an appointment in 1928 by Premier George Howard Ferguson to the Ontario Research Foundation, a public-private effort to advance industrial research. A good short introduction to this remarkable Canadian, including his extensive charitable involvement (especially through the Methodist church), is available in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. If that interests you, I highly recommend reading A Canadian Millionaire: The Life and Business Times of Sir Joseph Flavelle by Michael Bliss.
'Media elite unplugged'
That's The Interim headline on the December column by Rick McGinnis. Or as Kathy Shaidle called it, "the revealing hypocrisy of the technocrats, who don’t let their own kids use the gadgets they sell you." McGinnis writes:
[Ross] Douthat reflects that it’s ironic – in a generic, workaday sort of way – that the people who work in industries (entertainment, the media) that retail stories and songs set in the post-family, post-Christian world of easy sex and deferred responsibility often live their own lives with standards of restraint and conventional morality that they’ve defined, by their own yardsticks, as “conservative.“They get to profit off various forms of exploitation directly,” Douthat writes, “because sex sells and shock value attracts eyeballs. And then they also reap benefits indirectly – because the teaching they’re offering to the masses, the vision of the good life, is one that tends to ratify existing class hierarchies, by encouraging precisely the behaviors and choices that in the real world make it hard to rise and thrive.“In this sense, one might suspect our cultural elites of being a little bit like the Silicon Valley parents who send their kids to computer- free schools (italics mine): They don’t mind pushing the moral envelope in the shows they greenlight and the songs they produce, because they’re confident that their own kids have the sophistication to regard Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus as amusements rather than role models, the social capital required to keep the culture’s messages at arm’s length.”
The column has much more to say about class, and the cultural values that the elite peddle but do not necessarily themselves embrace, a recurring theme in McGinnis columns recently.
So the North Korean regime gets blamed for hacking Sony and Washington considers putting Pyongyang back on the list of terror-sponsoring states, and North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Un takes umbrage and suggests he will strike against both the apparatus of government and "the whole U.S. mainland, that cesspool of terrorism." Nothing says respectable global player who eschews the sorts of things that North Korea is accused of like vowing to strike an entire country. Meanwhile the Obama administration can do little to respond, with extensive economic sanctions already in place and there being little appetite for military action (including among Obama critics); re-designating North Korea as a state-sponsor of terror will also be difficult considering the State Department requires specific, linked, acts of physical violence. It is easy to attack the Obama's administration's weak foreign policy for North Korea's sabre-rattling, but it is nothing new and the country did the same thing when that George W. Bush was in office and its not like he was a wimp on the global stage. One can only hope that Kim Jong Un's threats are as empty as Kim Jong-il's were.
The limits of polls
The Canadian Press: "Federal polls show race is tightening but can’t explain the reasons why." Well, that's because whatever polls might tell you, they can't tell you why because no pollster asks enough questions to get to the reasons why thousands of people come to the partisan political conclusions they do.
The CP story quotes Paul Adams, a former political journalist and pollster, who (in the words of CP reporter Bruce Cheadle) warns "It's always easy to construct a narrative around why that might be, he added — but pundits and pollsters should be careful with such storylines." Sounds like what I've been saying in these parts for year. Pollsters and pundits often match shifts in the headline poll numbers and recent news headlines to come up with a story that makes some sense but which do not necessarily reflect what is happening. A focus group might capture the explanation for shifts in polling numbers, but the numbers themselves cannot.
The author gets to this point deep in the article, when Cheadle quotes Tom Flanagan, a former academic and Stephen Harper adviser:
"The parties won't have any polls showing anything different," he said in an interview. "I never saw any internal polls that had any magical insight."Canadian political parties, said Flanagan, simply don't have the resources to conduct routinely the kind of massive surveys — samples of 10,000-plus respondents — that can pinpoint specific, number-moving issues and their demographics.That will change in the immediate run-up to an election, when parties will poll heavily in order to lay out an advertising strategy and finalize their platforms.
Can't cut it
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry recently wrote in The Week about "How academia's liberal bias is killing social science" and its a pretty standard complaint about the left-wing leanings of academics and how it affects research. The opening 'graph is worth reading and contemplating:
I have had the following experience more than once: I am speaking with a professional academic who is a liberal. The subject of the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia comes up. My interlocutor admits that this is indeed a reality, but says the reason why conservatives are underrepresented in academia is because they don't want to be there, or they're just not smart enough to cut it. I say: "That's interesting. For which other underrepresented groups do you think that's true?" An uncomfortable silence follows.
That's a fair, not facetious question. Perhaps conservatives don't have what it takes for a career in the academy. But perhaps that's true of many different groups in many different fields.
A doctor weighs in on the 'Home Alone' injuries
The Week talked to Dr. Ryan St. Clair of the Weill Cornell Medical College about the injuries sustained by the burglars in the movie Home Alone: "Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in." Dr. St. Clair on "handling a burning-hot doorknob":
If this doorknob is glowing visibly red in the dark, it has been heated to about 751 degrees Fahrenheit, and Harry gives it a nice, strong, one- to two-second grip. By comparison, one second of contact with 155 degree water is enough to cause third degree burns. The temperature of that doorknob is not quite hot enough to cause Harry's hand to burst into flames, but it is not that far off... Assuming Harry doesn't lose the hand completely, he will almost certainly have other serious complications, including a high risk for infection and 'contracture' in which resulting scar tissue seriously limits the flexibility and movement of the hand, rendering it less than 100 percent useful. Kevin has moved from 'defending his house' into sheer malice, in my opinion.
Let me rename this cartoon for you
XKCD's "Dirty Harry" should have been called "The upside of autism."
'Top 10 feminist fiascoes of 2014'
I didn't even click on the link but I did like Tyler Cowen's comment about it: "This is a good example of how media focus on events which raise or lower the status of particular groups, rather than focusing on events which actually impact human welfare."
Steve Sailer says 2014 provides a "rich harvest."
My dad used to complain I used too much punctuation
The Guardian: "Amazon 'suppresses' book with too many hyphens." The issue with hyphens -- or dashes, parentheses, semicolons -- is not how many but whether they are used correctly; well, not even correctly, but whether it obscures or enhances what the author is trying to say. But that should be an issue for the publisher and customer not the distributor. The problem with Amazon is that it can be the publisher and distributor.
Anyway, here is what The Guardian reports about Graeme Reynolds and his werewolf novel:
Then, on 12 December, Reynolds got an email from the internet retailer, which had apparently received a complaint from a reader “about the fact that some of the words in the book were hyphenated” (let’s not even wonder about who on earth would go to the trouble of emailing Amazon about this).“When they ran an automated spell check against the manuscript they found that over 100 words in the 90,000-word novel contained that dreaded little line,” he says. “This, apparently ‘significantly impacts the readability of your book’ and, as a result, ‘We have suppressed the book because of the combined impact to customers.’”
If you like this sort of thing, make sure you read Reynolds' post about his dealings with Amazon.
I take a pretty libertarian view of grammar, punctuation, and even spelling. The point of writing is to communicate, so even if the author is technically wrong, if the reader understands there is no harm, no foul. (I take a less libertarian view when editing during my day job.) Regardless, this is not an issue for Amazon.
(HT: Tyler Cowen)
Sunday, December 21, 2014
The Peltzman effect
Greg Mankiw highlights two Wall Street Journal stories -- one about safety gear contributing to fewer traffic deaths while cities are trying to make the roads safer for pedestrians -- and notes, "As Sam Peltzman pointed out years ago, when cars get safer, drivers are less careful, increasing externalities on pedestrians."
Ontario PCs and early sex ed
Part of The Interim's cover story is online: "Tory Hopefuls Take Issue with Party’s Education Critic on Sex Ed." It is nuts that the Tory education critic is supporting the government on a major policy initiative. But it gets better (or worse, I guess).
We went to press before the latest development, as reported by LifeSiteNews: "Ontario Tories’ education critic: I backed Wynne’s sex-ed plans because unions told me they’re ‘necessary’." Why the hell is Garfield Dunlop, the Ontario Progressive Conservative education critic, getting advice from any union?
Christmas Music: 'Fairytale Of New York'
I had a room-mate in university that was a huge Pogues fan and we listened to "Fairytale of New York" a lot. I'm not sure if I've listened to an album by The Pogues in nearly 20 years although I listen to "Fairytale of New York" with some regularity. A few weeks ago The Guardian had an article about "Fairytale of New York" turning 25 this year (and includes this tidbit: "[Elvis] Costello prosaically suggested calling it Christmas Day in the Drunk Tank." Dave Bidini, whose National Post column is usually ignorable, says this weekend that it is a Christmas masterpiece. Here's "Fairytale Of New York" by The Pogues:
Trudeau's econ advisers
Justin Trudeau has added a Blackberry exec to his economic advisory team. Gods of the Copybook Headings observers: "Because it's a smart idea to connect a political lightweight with the most dramatic Canadian corporate flame-out since Nortel. I'm guessing Gerald Butts was on vacation this week."
Milton Friedman won
Justin Wolfers and Garett Jones tweet.
Fighting back against Obamacare
George Will has a column that can get a little technical on the legal/constitutional aspects of the states’ attorneys general fight against the Affordable Care Act (Obamcare), which comes down to this: they want the Supreme Court to read the law "unimaginatively" so that its precise words mean what they say. Doing so, and reversing the way the administration has been using the law to impose regulations clearly not spelled out in the law -- but almost certainly intended by its Democratic authors -- would gut Obamacare.
Lack of confidence in (true) liberalism
Kevin D. Williamson has a column on the Americans becoming all French, with surrenders to North Korea and Cuba*:
Liberal, open societies are always vulnerable to encroachments from illiberal forces with sufficient motivation, whether it’s the totalitarians in Pyongyang, the ones in Riyadh, or the ones in Cambridge, Mass. That’s especially true when elites lose their confidence in such liberal principles as free speech and freedom of conscience. As soon as you accept the premise that a person’s right to free speech (or a professor’s ability to conduct his class) is circumscribed by another person’s “right” not to be offended, then you have jettisoned principle entirely, and all that’s left is brute-force negotiation — a situation in which the partisans of liberty and humaneness always find themselves lamentably outnumbered.
* I don't think Cuba was a surrender and while I disagree with the decision Sony made many of the same people who complain the corporate giant caved would criticize them for putting profits ahead the safety of movie-goers had anything happened. Still, the larger point Williamson is making is true.