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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Friday, May 26, 2017
 
OECD studies UBI
Bloomberg View's Leonid Bershidsky examines an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development policy brief on universal basic income (UBI). There are problems with the design of the OECD's UBI, but when the organization ran their model, they found that in some countries paying every resident a basic income could result in budget savings. Bershidsky writes:
In a number of developed countries, especially those in southern Europe, social safety nets are atrociously designed. In Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, more social transfers accrue to the richest 20 percent of the population than to the poorest 20 percent.
That's only partially due to the fact that not all transfers are meant to alleviate poverty. The complexity of the benefit systems is a big contributor: Poor people often find it hard to figure out their entitlements. There's also the legacy of decades of political decisions benefiting various interest groups. In a badly afflicted country, a UBI scheme can erase the unfairness of a social security system and even save the government some money. That's the case of Italy, where close to 80 percent of the people in lower-income groups would gain from the replacement of the current system with a UBI -- but the UBI would actually cost less than the current system, creating savings that could be plowed back into the scheme or used in any other way.
But in the United Kingdom, which has better designed social programs, a UBI would increase the poverty rate while increasing taxes.
Bershidsky concludes saying that in countries with inefficient and ineffective social safety nets, like many southern European nations, bold politicians should consider a UBI.


 
Defund the UN, close the HRC
Anne Bayefsky, director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust, writes in the Wall Street Journal:
The United Nations Human Rights Council is preparing a blacklist of American and other companies doing business with Israel—and U.S. taxpayers are paying a quarter of the bill.
The council’s move embraces the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” campaign, which seeks to accomplish through economic strangulation what Israel’s enemies have been unable to achieve through war and terror. How did the U.S. get on the wrong side of this battle?
When the Human Rights Council was created in 2006 as a “reform” of the original U.N. Human Rights Commission, the Bush administration voted against, because no membership conditions required actually respecting human rights.
But Barack Obama jumped on board and, playing Gulliver at the U.N., allowed the American giant to be tied up by foes contributing a fraction of our moral and financial weight. In 2016 Americans sent the U.N. almost $10 billion ...
The council has condemned Israel more than any of the other 192 U.N. states, notwithstanding 500,000 dead in Syria, starvation and mass torture in North Korea, and systematic, deadly oppression in Iran. Saudi Arabia and China have used their seats on the council to avoid condemnation altogether.


 
Strategic Petroleum Reserve sell-off
The Associated Press reports:
President Donald Trump's proposal to sell nearly half the U.S. emergency oil stockpile is renewing debate about whether the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is still needed amid an ongoing oil production boom that has seen U.S. imports drop sharply in the past decade.
Trump's budget, unveiled on Tuesday, calls for selling an additional 270 million barrels of oil over the next decade, raising an estimated $16.6 billion. The proposal, on top of planned auctions expected over the next few years, could push the reserve below 300 million barrels by 2025. It now is at 688 million barrels.
The petroleum reserve, created in the wake of the 1970s Arab oil embargo, stores oil at four underground sites in Texas and Louisiana. The reserve guards against disruptions in the flow of oil from the Middle East and other countries, and lawmakers from both parties have long warned against using it to raise money.
But some Republicans say North Dakota's oil-rich Bakken region offers a de facto reserve that can be tapped if needed.
"You know the world's changed a lot," said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., a senior member of the House energy committee. "We're one of the largest oil producers in the world."
I agree with Glenn Reynolds on this:
On the one hand, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is a creature of a time when our production was falling and OPEC was strong, conditions that have been reversed. On the other hand, we still consume more oil than we produce, and simply by existing the reserve imposes a downward force on prices, since too much of a price rise, or efforts to interrupt supply, might lead to a release.
On balance, I think I’d keep it because I’m a big believer in being prepared for bad situations. But I don’t think it’s crazy to feel otherwise.
Austin Bay writes at StrategyPage in favour of the Trump administration's plans, saying the global oil market means the SPR is a relic of OPEC's petroleum near-monopoly:
Today, the U.S. is less dependent on foreign oil imports. Daily U.S. imports have declined, from around ten million barrels to seven million. The U.S. is now exporting energy to select markets. This is why the Trump Administration's proposed sale of half of the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve is timely. The reserve has around 700 million barrels ...
At one time Tehran could shake global oil markets by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, the sea lane connecting the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. That gambit is no longer quite as menacing. Moreover, lower oil prices weaken Iran's religious dictatorship. They have less money for nuclear weapons and training terrorists.
Fracking and other advanced techniques have changed the ways many analysts calculate oil and gas reserves. The subject stirs intense debate. North America may have enormous reserves. 36 billion barrels is an accepted figure for current U.S. oil reserves. However, in July 2016, an independent study by Norway's Rystad Energy estimated the U.S. has 264 billion barrels in recoverable oil. Saudi Arabia has around 212 billion and Russia 256 billion.


Thursday, May 25, 2017
 
Scheer on CPC leadership
Conservative MP and leadership contender Andrew Scheer talked with the Huffington Post's Althia Raj. He said it has been difficult to differentiate the candidates in the allegedly over-sized leadership field:
The crowded field has meant less scrutiny given to the perceived front-runners, he says, “less opportunity to provide that contrast,” and not enough attention on candidates who don’t court controversy.
“You know, if I said something extreme or if I said something poorly worded or not well thought-out, I could guarantee myself a headline,” Scheer tells HuffPost Canada over coffee at the Farmteam Cookhouse & Cellar, two blocks from Parliament Hill.
Let me translate Andrew Scheer for you: politicians playing it safe haven't been able to excite people. Maxime Bernier has offered a mostly libertarian vision and seems to be the favourite to win. Kevin O'Leary offered a bold distinction between his cartoonish self and the Trudeau government (and Wynne's and Notley's), and was leading in the polls until he dropped out. Brad Trost has excited some social conservatives as has Pierre Lemieux, and I'd bet on them exceeding early expectations (of the low threshold of 5% or less). But Lisa Raitt and Andrew Scheer have offered very little to get rank-and-file Tories to back them and while Scheer is considered to have an outside chance to win the whole thing, Raitt, who should have been a star, probably won't be one of the last five or six last contenders standing.
Andrew Coyne has made the point (at Scott Gilmore's Toronto dinner for sorta Conservatives) that voters aren't afraid of so-called policy extremism. He posits voters would reward a bold vision and unconventional policies. What voters don't like, says Coyne, is an extreme temperament. I tend to agree with this analysis. Scheer looks at so-called ideological visions as risky, but he may have taken a risk himself by playing it overly safe. By offering lower common denominator conservatism -- focusing, he says, on what unites Conservatives not divides them -- Scheer may failed to give anyone a reason to mark their ballot for him; Scheer may not have excited the sort of voters who are tired of vanilla.


 
Books on innovation
Mike Moffat has a list of recent(ish) books on innovation. I highly recommend Mark Zachary Taylor's The Politics of Innovation: Why Some Countries Are Better Than Others at Science and Technology, which was on my list of 20 best books of 2016. Ryan Avent's The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-first Century is also on my list of great 2016 books, but is more about politics than innovation. Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice by Clayton Christensen et al is also good (and important). Learning by Doing: The Real Connection between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth by James Bessen is a 2015 title that escaped my attention and I'll try to make room for it sometime soon. Government and private enterprise needs to think better about innovation and this is a great reading list for policymakers and entrepreneurs.


 
The decline of middlebrow
In his May Interim column, Rick McGinnis riffs on a recent Joseph Epstein Weekly Standard essay on cultural literacy or lack thereof, to lament the decline of middlebrow culture:
But what Epstein is talking about is something particular – the acquisition of opinions and the assumption of standards within what was once called, without irony, high art or high culture, which stood very much apart from popular or “low” culture and (especially) the middlebrow, a much-maligned plateau of indeterminate size that sat between the vast vulgarity of the popular and the venerable edifice of high art.
The middlebrow was a strange place, where a few products of pop culture could migrate once they’d developed grudging critical respect (jazz passed through here on its way to high culture) or where high art sometimes devolved when it became unexpectedly popular with the middle classes. The symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and operatic arias have flown low into the flatlands of the middlebrow for brief periods, before once again lofting upwards again.
It’s worth recalling that this three-tiered taxonomy would have made no sense to anyone alive 200 years ago, when novels and opera were regarded as populist and even trashy, and theatre was often vulgar, or at least regarded as a vulgar profession, and probably an immoral one. In any case, all of these art forms were enjoyed up and down the class ladder by anyone with money for admission or sufficient literacy.
There’s no reason to assume that our stratified understanding of culture will persist – or if it even endures today. The middlebrow has effectively disappeared and high art has become so gnomic and irrelevant that Epstein devotes several paragraphs near the climax of his essay to what’s really an obituary: Visual art “scarcely exists,” poetry is “degraded to an intramural sport,” “audiences for traditional classical music performance dwindle” and American theatre “seems moribund, if not flat-out deceased.”


 
What I'm reading
1. Two Paths: America Divided or United by John Kasich. I am pleasantly surprised by the bits I've picked to read at random. Will probably read from beginning to end. Was not anticipating liking this book.
2. October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville. It's the centenary of the Russian Revolution. I'll have to be a bit more discriminating about what to read as there appears to be a glut of books marking the occasion. Mievelle's offering appears to be narrative-based, bordering on reading like fiction. It is also unapologetically left-wing.
3. Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power by Anna Su
4. A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century by Paul Kengor. Not a lot of new ground if you read John O'Sullivan's 2006 book The President, the Pope, And the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.
5. The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse by Tom Verducci. It's not as good as David Kaplan's The Plan: Epstein, Maddon, and the Audacious Blueprint for a Cubs Dynasty, which was also released this spring.


 
Our response to barbaric acts of terrorism must be more than mourning
Spiked editor Brendan O'Neill writes:
After the terror, the platitudes. And the hashtags. And the candlelit vigils. And they always have the same message: ‘Be unified. Feel love. Don’t give in to hate.’ The banalities roll off the national tongue. Vapidity abounds. A shallow fetishisation of ‘togetherness’ takes the place of any articulation of what we should be together for – and against. And so it has been after the barbarism in Manchester. In response to the deaths of more than 20 people at an Ariana Grande gig, in response to the massacre of children enjoying pop music, people effectively say: ‘All you need is love.’ The disparity between these horrors and our response to them, between what happened and what we say, is vast. This has to change.
It is becoming clear that the top-down promotion of a hollow ‘togetherness’ in response to terrorism is about cultivating passivity. It is about suppressing strong public feeling. It’s about reducing us to a line of mourners whose only job is to weep for our fellow citizens, not ask why they died, or rage against their dying. The great fear of both officialdom and the media class in the wake of terror attacks is that the volatile masses will turn wild and hateful. This is why every attack is followed by warnings of an ‘Islamophobic backlash’ and heightened policing of speech on Twitter and gatherings in public: because what they fundamentally fear is public passion, our passion. They want us passive, empathetic, upset, not angry, active, questioning. They prefer us as a lonely crowd of dutiful, disconnected mourners rather than a real collective of citizens demanding to know why our fellow citizens died and how we might prevent others from dying. We should stop playing the role they’ve allotted us.
As part of the post-terror narrative, our emotions are closely policed. Some emotions are celebrated, others demonised. Empathy – good. Grief – good. Sharing your sadness online – great. But hatred? Anger? Fury? These are bad. They are inferior forms of feeling, apparently, and must be discouraged. Because if we green-light anger about terrorism, then people will launch pogroms against Muslims, they say, or even attack Sikhs or the local Hindu-owned cornershop, because that’s how stupid and hateful we apparently are. But there is a strong justification for hate right now. Certainly for anger. For rage, in fact. Twenty-two of our fellow citizens were killed at a pop concert. I hate that, I hate the person who did it, I hate those who will apologise for it, and I hate the ideology that underpins such barbarism. I want to destroy that ideology. I don’t feel sad, I feel apoplectic. Others will feel likewise, but if they express this verboten post-terror emotion they risk being branded as architects of hate, contributors to future terrorist acts, racist, and so on. Their fury is shushed. ‘Just weep. That’s your role.’
Momentary feelings of sadness are a form of passivity that does nothing to prevent future terrorist attacks.


 
Money and politics
George Will writes about the Georgia 6th CD special election, which the Democrats believe, and polls show, they can win for the first time since 1979:
By the time Georgia’s sixth district votes in the June 20 special congressional election, $40 million — perhaps more than $130 per ballot — will have been spent to pick one-435th of one-half of one of the three branches of one of America’s governments. This is an expensive funeral for Tip O’Neill’s incessantly quoted and increasingly inapplicable axiom that “All politics is local.”
And Democrats, who are situational ethicists regarding money in politics, provided Ossoff enough to enable him to provide free Lyft rides for some primary voters.
The Hill reports Democrats will spend $5 million on television ads and minority outreach, with four weeks left in the campaign. The runoff election is June 20. Last month, 30-year-old Jon Ossoff came just short of winning the required 50%+1 in an 18-candidate race to fill the House seat vacated by new Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.


 
2020 watch
Hot Air reports that in an interview with People magazine, Senator Al Franken (D, Minn) has ruled out running for president in 2020. In fact, the idea gets a triple family veto:
“Yeah, I’m not going to do that,” says Franken.
“It’s not going to happen,” adds his daughter, Thomasin, 36.
The senator’s wife, Franni, puts it most simply: “No.”
At the age of 66 (today), Franken would be one of the younger candidates being mentioned to lead the Democrats in three years.


 
Either reform entitlements or gut all other programs
Yesterday the Wall Street Journal had an excellent editorial that said:
Trump is imitating Democrats in ducking Social Security and Medicare, which means that everything else the government does has to fight for what’s left. Those two programs plus interest on the debt remove about $1.9 trillion from political debate in the $4.1 trillion spending outline for fiscal 2018. Mr. Trump wants to increase defense spending to more than $600 billion, so that’s $1.6 trillion left for everything from education to veterans to Medicaid to Amtrak.
Democrats and the press claim to be shocked and appalled, but what did they expect? They had their free-spending way in 2009-2010, and voters quickly pulled their credit card by electing a GOP House. Now they are furious that a GOP President is asking them to make choices rather than assume automatic annual increases in everything. Maybe they should mull over what they really think government should and shouldn’t do.
The Journal reminds readers that in the 1990s, Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey (D) warned that if government did not reform entitlement spending, all other programs would get squeezed. The fiscal reckoning will arrive soon.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017
 
Cowen and Chetty
Tyler Cowen has a wide-ranging interview with Stanford economist Raj Chetty. It is, as Cowen would say, self-recommending. Chetty is one of the most accomplished, cited, and original economists working today. Here is an excerpt from the conversation on geography and gender:
COWEN: Yes. Have you thought much about within this country, geographic differences in gender inequality? This is a big issue in India. People in South India will tell you, “It’s better for women here than in North India.” I haven’t seen data, but I find that believable. Where in the United States does gender equality come most naturally and where not? Do you have a sense? Is it an interesting question?
CHETTY: Yeah, that’s a very interesting question. We find sharp differences in outcomes by gender across areas for various reasons. Let me give you a couple of examples. One, we find that areas with more concentrated poverty — take the city of Baltimore, for example — we find very poor outcomes for boys in particular, relative to girls, and we think that that has to do with crime, and getting involved in gangs, and so forth — things that girls are less likely to do. As a result, growing up in a place like Baltimore turns out to be extremely detrimental for boys. We estimate that you lose something like 30 percent of your earnings relative to if you’ve grown up in an average place in America. Whereas for girls, it’s slightly negative but not nearly as bad. There are a set of urban ghettos, places with concentrated poverty, that tend to have particularly negative outcomes for boys. There are also other phenomena that are more subtle, related to things like marriage patterns. Relating this back to personal experience, I remember when working on these issues and thinking about our decision to move from Harvard to Stanford. At the time, we actually were expecting our first child, a daughter. And I noticed in our data that, for kids in affluent families in the Bay Area, daughters tend to have very low household earnings. And I found that kind of curious and we spent some time trying to dig into why what was, partly given my personal interest in the issue.
COWEN: So, your own moving decision was influenced by this research.
CHETTY: [laughs] In some ways.
COWEN: Yeah.
CHETTY: What you find is an interesting explanation, which is, if you look at individual earnings rather than household income, girls growing up here in the Bay Area do extremely well. However, when you look at household income, they don’t do so well, and that’s because they’re much, much less likely to be married than if they grew up somewhere else.
COWEN: Yes.
CHETTY: So if you’re in your mid-30s, only something like a quarter or less of girls growing up in the Bay Area are married, and we show in our paper that every extra year you spend growing up in the Bay Area, you’re less likely to get married. I remember telling my wife, “I don’t think we need to worry. Our daughter will be fine in terms of earnings. It’s just that she might not be married if we move to California.”
COWEN: So, you’ve lowered your expectations for grandchildren?
CHETTY: Yes. [laughs]


 
Eric Grenier guesses a Conservative Party leadership result in 'structurally unpredictable' contest
A few days ago, the CBC's Eric Grenier speculated on the down-ballot results, essentially predicting -- modelling? -- a race among Maxime Bernier, Andrew Scheer, and Erin O'Toole. I intended to write a thorough debunking of the methodology. For example, Grenier says:
Where the vote will go after the first ballot is more difficult to figure, but it is possible to get an indication of voters' preferences from fundraising data.
A significant proportion of donors contributed funds to more than one candidate, suggesting that they are likely to rank these candidates highly on their ballot — and presumably like-minded voters will do the same.
First, working from a suggestion to a presumption is a little risky. Indeed, there are good reasons to believe that the handful of donors to candidate X do not much resemble "like-minded voters." Furthermore, extrapolating this without looking precisely at where the donors come from -- and maybe Grenier did -- is not very meaningful. But we'd also be talking about ridiculously small sample sizes at some point.
There are a lot of numbers after Grenier digs through the data, but it is unclear that this provides meaningful information. The people I talk to on campaigns are, at best, agnostic about what happens after the second rankings. And the wild card is just how many candidates the voters will rank. In the 2009 Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership race, I'm told that other than the ballots that had Randy Hillier ranked first, the majority of ballots only ranked a first preference. My guess is that a plurality of ballots will have only one candidate ranked, followed by two candidates, four, three, five, and then all ten. That means down-ballot support might not matter as much as having one's points becoming worth more as others are eliminated from the ballot. In some smaller eligible member Quebec and Atlantic Canada ridings, once local winners are eliminated (Lisa Raitt in parts of Nova Scotia, perhaps Steven Blaney in a handful of Quebec ridings, and eventually Kellie Leitch in Newfoundland), the remaining handful of votes are going to be worth a lot of points. For example, say Raitt wins 80% of the vote in a Nova Scotia riding where only 50 people vote. If Pierre Lemieux received five votes and Lemieux finished ahead of Raitt nationally, those votes could be worth 50 points if Raitt is eliminated before Lemieux. It sounds complicated but it really isn't. But trying to guess what's going to happen is nearly impossible. I'm not sure I'd use the word irresponsible, but J.J. McCullough was correct to chastise gussying up a guess as analysis because the rules makes this contest a "structurally unpredictable Tory leadership race."
I could have debunked Grenier's column, but why bother. It is mostly nonsense that extreme political nerds will like because Canada lacks a FiveThirtyEight website of our own. We just don't have as much political data as they do in the United States, and even if we did, it wouldn't really help to predict who's going to win the Conservative Party leadership "structurally unpredictable" contest. Maxime Bernier seems well ahead of his opponents. Quite often a "controversial" candidate like Bernier, who holds a number of hard-libertarian positions that could be off-putting to traditional Tory voters or be considered an electoral albatross in 2019, faces a stop-the-controversial-candidate opponent. Public polling has not captured who that might be, if this phenomenon is taking place. Any analysis such as Grenier's that doesn't examine that phenomenon is ignoring a likely important factor in the leadership contest. Quite often, voters coalesce around one person naturally without bidding. But sometimes (think the 2016 Republican primaries) they don't. As McCullough says, "structurally unpredictable."


Tuesday, May 23, 2017
 
The decline of the mall and how it affects counties and municipalities
Alana Semuels writes in The Atlantic about the effect of malls emptying and closing on local government:
As my colleague Derek Thompson has pointed out, the reasons for the decline of malls are multifold: People are buying more things online, developers built too many malls in the 1980s and 1990s, and consumers are now spending more on services and less on material goods.
But these changes in spending habits have big implications for the counties and towns that depend on retail for sales- and income-tax revenue. Many of the areas affected by retail closures have already weathered other departures: factories closing, young people departing for bigger cities, home values dropping. The constant departure of more retail stores is another blow. Some counties in Ohio, for instance, get half of their budget from the sales tax that they levy on top of the state’s 5.75 percent rate, according to Suzanne Dulaney, the executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.
Nationwide, sales taxes comprise nearly one-third of the taxes that state governments collect and about 12 percent of what local governments collect, according to Lucy Dadayan, a senior researcher at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, a New York-based research group. “The epic closures of the brick-and-mortar stores is troubling news for state and local government sales-tax collections,” she said. They’re already feeling the hit: States’ tax revenues grew just 1.9 percent between 2014 and 2015, after growing 5.8 percent in the previous four quarters, according to the Rockefeller Institute ... When revenues don’t continue to grow, governments have to slow down spending and can’t readily invest in long-term projects.
Semuels also reports that malls are opening in some larger, growing cities (like Columbus, Ohio), and that people are abandoning their local malls to drive to new malls in the big city. This, she argues, can harm the smaller, local community (breaking the bonds between consumers and shopkeepers, for example). But it does more harm than that. It may also lead to poorer government services (schools and parks) which could drive away residents. It is, as the title of the article says, a vicious circle: hollowed out communities lead to unsustainable malls which lead to a further hollowing out of the community.


 
Trump budget makes unrealistic assumptions
The White House has released its budget and Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin has issued an incredibly brief statement. Much of the media is focusing on cuts to program spending and the federal government (see Washington Post) or how it cuts taxes for the rich and hurts the poor (see the New York Times). Little of the media coverage is focusing on the unrealistic economic assumptions underpinning the budget's numbers. ZeroHedge's Tyler Durden says that the Trump budget assumes 3% annual economic growth and, more unrealistically, no contraction in economic growth in the next decade. Durden says: "While we will clearly take the under, what we find most amazing about Trump's budget proposal, is that it does not anticipated a recession until 2027. That would imply 18 years of economic growth since the 2009 recession, without a single contraction! Good luck with that." Or as David Stockman, Reagan-era director of the Office of Management and Budget, tells the New York Times: "I see no way that’s going to remotely happen," with the paper reporting Stockman "noted that the White House is depending on the continuation of an economic expansion that is already among the longest in American history. 'It assumes you’re going to go 206 months without a recession, which has never happened'." It is worth noting that the Times story with the Stockman quote takes some searching whereas its featured coverage does not make this point.


Monday, May 22, 2017
 
Kling is (understandably) more pessimistic about politics
Arnold Kling:
I think that in general I have become more pessimistic about American political culture.
I think that I would have preferred that the elite stay “on top” as long as they acquired a higher regard for markets and lower regard for technocratic policies. What has been transpired is closer to the opposite. There was a seemingly successful revolt against the elite (although the elite is fighting back pretty hard), and meanwhile the elite has doubled down on its contempt for markets and its faith in technocracy.
I am disturbed about the news from college campuses. A view that capitalism is better than socialism, which I think belongs in the mainstream, seems to be on the fringe. Meanwhile, the intense, deranged focus on race and gender, which I think belongs on the fringe, seems to be mainstream.
The media environment is awful. Outrage is what sells. Moderation has fallen by the wayside.
It seems increasingly clear that no matter who wins elections, my preferences for economic policy get thrown under the bus. The Overton Window on health policy has moved to where health insurance is a government responsibility. The Overton Window on deficit spending and unfunded liabilities has moved to where there is no political price to be paid for running up either current debts or future obligations. The Overton Window on financial policy has moved to where nobody minds that the Fed and other agencies are allocating credit, primarily toward government bonds and housing finance. The Overton Window on the Administrative State has moved to where it is easier to mount a Constitutional challenge against an order to remove regulations than against regulatory agency over-reach.
Outside of the realm of politics, things are not nearly so bleak.
Kling is more anti-populist than I am, but I generally agree with his observations and sentiment.


 
The decline of Baltimore: blame government
Consultant and former government employee Jerry Cothran writes in the Baltimore Sun about the root cause of Baltimore's neglect: government. Despite high taxes, Baltimore taxpayers get very little worthwhile in return:
It's clear that Baltimore has a number of systemic government issues, including mismanagement, that have resulted in a decades-long exodus out of the city. From 1970 to 2000, Baltimore's total population declined nearly 30 percent. That hemorrhaging of population continues, as evidenced by more than 6,700 people leaving in the 12 months that ended in July 2016.
Christopher B. Summers, CEO of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, has offered a plausible causal effect: Baltimore's exceedingly high tax rates, which are about twice as high as other counties across the state. Deferred or favorable tax rates given to developers and the non-tax status of non-profits and churches have resulted in the current environment where the tax burden on property owners is egregious. The city has a high personal income tax rate as well.
While all of this revenue should provide benefits, the opposite seems to be true. Due to a neglected maintenance of our infrastructure, we are facing horrendous costs to rebuild the city sewer and water systems, resulting in yet another burden on homeowners with city water rates increasing by more than 30 percent through 2019.
Our schools are consistently underfunded and poor performing as well. Families make their home-buying decisions based largely on the quality of schools for their children. Our lack of attractive schools leaves families with little option but high-priced private schools, resulting in a high percentage of homebuyers without children. Those demographics have left us with a population that is highly mobile, and they are exercising that option in choosing to move elsewhere.
To be fair, eight of America's 12 largest metropolitan centers have seen net migration out of the city since 2010. Baltimore's exodus goes back further, but as Cothran argues, from location to climate to amenities, Charm City should be an attractive destination for people. But the high costs (property and city (and state) income taxes, and the perceived need to invest in private schooling) is a huge turnoff for mobile individuals and couples. High taxes is one problem, but high taxes without a concomitant level of services is untenable for residents and would-be residents, not to mention unconscionable.


 
The problem with the health care system: first, it's not really a system
The Insider interviewed Robert Graboyes, a fellow at the Mercatus Center and expert on health care innovation. This is important:
TI: Is the problem badly written regulations, badly implemented regulations, or something more fundamental with the design of health care?
RG: All of the above, but mostly fundamental design problems. You can’t really “design” the health care system, but we try mightily, and that is part of the problem. There’s a long list of policies that ultimately have to be altered, and they are mostly not part of the health care reform debate we see on television everyday now.
The Medicare reimbursement system divorces the prices of health care from the actual underlying costs of producing care. It’s a price control system. If something doesn’t go into the Medicare reimbursement protocols, it’s not going to be compensated, and that’s the death knell for that technology. The problem leaks into both Medicaid and private insurance plans; they lean very heavily on the design and structure of Medicare’s pricing formula. So, Medicare’s reimbursement system is the biggest problem.
If you care about health care policy, the full interview is worth reading.


 
In some ways, Donald Trump is a normal president
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat lists the myriad ways in which little has changed policy-wise in Washington despite Donald Trump's Disrupter-in-Chief persona:
In fact, the various outsider groups that cast their lot with him — from working-class ex-Democrats to antiwar conservatives to free-trade skeptics to build-the-wall immigration hawks to religious conservatives fearful for their liberties — have seen him pick very few difficult fights on their behalf.
To working-class voters he promised a big infrastructure bill and better health insurance than Obamacare. But his legislative agenda has been standard establishment-Republican fare — spending cuts to pay for upper-bracket tax cuts, rinse, repeat ...
[H]e’s mostly handed foreign policy over to his military advisers (a pretty deep-state group, as such things go), which means that so far it resembles Obama’s except with more cruise missiles and saber-rattling.
Religious conservatives got Neil Gorsuch because he was a pedigreed insider. But they aren’t getting anything but symbolism on religious liberty, because Trump doesn’t want to pick a fight with the elite consensus on gay and transgender rights. And then go down the longer list and the establishment keeps winning: Planned Parenthood was funded in the budget deal and the border wall was not, the promised NAFTA rollback looks more likely to be a toothless renegotiation, Trump’s occasional talk about breaking up the big banks is clearly just talk, we haven’t torn up the Iran deal or ditched the Paris climate accords, and more.
Trump might still like to do some of the things he talked about on the campaign trail (his pining for a détente with Russia remains, um, palpable) and a few of them might actually still happen (some sort of wall-like structure will eventually go up, I assume).
But on most issues Trump’s promised war with the establishment has been fizzling almost from day one.


 
Nothing wrong with market pricing
Axios reports on Uber's planned new pricing scheme:
What Uber's doing is pure economics—price discrimination to charge riders it describes as time-sensitive (those paying more for a private UberX ride) to subsidize price-sensitive riders (usually those taking the cheaper UberPool option). The former group, according to Uber, is willing to pay more for a particular route at a particular time than it has been paying, so Uber will now charge these riders what it believes is that maximum price. An Uber spokesperson assured Axios that pricing has nothing to do with a rider's perceived level of income, past rides, or any individual characteristics.
Uber's love of classic economic principles is nothing new—"surge pricing," its practice of hiking prices in times of higher demand, is textbook supply-and-demand.
If a producer is willing to sell its product for price X and a consumer is willing to pay it, there is nothing wrong with the transaction, or how the producer got the consumer to surrender every cent he or she was willing to spend. Uber seems a little defensive about its plan saying it will effectively subsidize more price-sensitive consumers. I see nothing wrong with Uber profiling customers based on "perceived level of income, past rides or any individual characteristics." In fact, I hope Uber figures out how to charge more based on pick-up location, destination, and ride history.
But I'm disappointed that temperature- and supply sensitive vending machines haven't taken off.


Sunday, May 21, 2017
 
Snowflakes shut down class because knowledge is threatening
Time reports:
Student protesters shut down a sociology class at Northwestern University on Tuesday, after a professor invited an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) public relations officer to be a guest speaker.
The protesters, chanting and waving banners, argued that the officer's presence on campus represented a threat to undocumented students. But the professor — who canceled the class during the protest because she was concerned for the speaker's safety — said she had been hoping to start a dialogue.
"The goal was to bring in somebody who was familiar with how that agency is structured," Beth Redbird, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, told TIME.
She said the plan was for the officer to visit the class, which covered social inequality, and explain how ICE's Chicago field office works within the larger law enforcement structure of the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security. Redbird had also planned for an undocumented immigrant, who advocates for immigrant rights, to visit the class on Thursday, but after Tuesday's protests, she decided to cancel that visit as well.
"I told my students today: knowledge is power. And I want to make that possible," Redbird said. "I think they were genuinely interested in a chance to learn about these things that we had discussed kind of broadly. And I think they were genuinely disappointed when it was canceled." ...
“We’re not interested in having those types of conversations that would be like, ‘Oh, let’s listen to their side of it’ because that’s making them passive rule-followers rather than active proponents of violence,” April Navarro, a Northwestern sophomore who helped organize the protest, told the Daily Northwestern. “We’re not engaging in those kinds of things; it legitimizes ICE’s violence, it makes Northwestern complicit in this. There’s an unequal power balance that happens when you deal with state apparatuses.”
Understanding the other side, or how things work, is a fundamental aspect of genuine education. What students seem to want is not a university education but adult daycare.
I wish radical students truly believed "unequal power balance that happens when you deal with state apparatuses." The fact is many are highly selective about their worries over power imbalances.


 
May will trade votes for a meaningful mandate
ConservativeHome's Paul Goodman notes two public opinion polls showing Labour closing the gap with the Conservatives:
YouGov for the Sunday Times puts the Conservatives down to 44 per cent, with Labour up to 35 per cent. That’s the smallest Tory poll lead that it has found this year.
Survation for the Mail on Sunday shows the Conservatives on 46 per cent and Labour on 34 per cent.
Goodman has several observations, but this is the most important:
May seems to have calculated that it is worth weakening her majority to strengthen her mandate – in other words, risk losing some votes on June 8 in order to deliver the policies she wants later.


 
Charitable resale shop asks donors to stop giving The Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Gray
The Guardian reports:
A branch of Oxfam in Swansea has received a copy a week of The Da Vinci Code since its staff can remember. Lately, manager Phil Broadhurst has make a tower with the books, at the foot of which he has posted a note, now widely shared online. “You could give us another Da Vinci Code ... but we would rather have your vinyl! We urgently need more records to ... make more money for Oxfam.”
Three years ago, at the height of Fifty Shades mania, Broadhurst and staff made an impressive fort out of copies of EL James’s wooden prose. As now, they asked donors for “60s and 70s vinyl” instead.
As the tide washes back out on a fad, it can leave a sticky residue. That year, Travelodge released a list of its most left-behind books. The top five started with Fifty Shades and included JS Scott’s Shades-esque Billionaire series and Jennifer Probst’s similarly themed The Marriage Bargain.
Travelodge’s list is a fascinating dip into the ephemera of changing times. In 2007, it was Alastair Campbell’s The Blair Years that topped the chart. By 2010 it was an “unauthorised” biography of Simon Cowell, alongside The Storm: The World Economic Crisis and What it Means by Vince Cable.
Many non-children's/non-teen popular offerings lack literary merit or staying power. Children's books and teen fiction lack literary merit but have staying power because of nostalgia; there are studies that show girls reread fiction and many revisit their youthful reading in their 20s. Because of that, Harry Potter and Twilight books can be resold in a way that the umpteenth copy of The Da Vinci Code can't.


Saturday, May 20, 2017
 
Eaton Center pedestrian bridge being replaced
The Toronto Star reports that after 40 years, the pedestrian bridge connecting The Bay with the rest of the Toronto Eaton Center is being replaced:
“Beyond the simple utility of construction of a bridge across Queen Street, this pedestrian bridge will serve as a unique architectural icon and impressive space in its own right,” said Wayne Barwise, spokesperson for Cadillac Fairview (CF) Toronto Eaton Centre in a news release last month.
“CF Toronto Eaton Centre is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and with approximately two million people using the bridge annually, it was time to enhance both its aesthetics and functionality for our shoppers and the public by creating a sculptural urban feature, as well as a unique identifier for the city.”
The new sculptural urban feature bridge will is scheduled to be complete in the fall.


 
What I'm reading
1. The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis -- and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance by Ben Sasse
2. Reproductive Justice: An Introduction by Loretta Ross. There are probably five significant pro-abortion books this year. I'm torn between needing to read them thoroughly for review and just perusing them because I don't really feel like reviewing them all.
3. Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited by Philip Eade. There have been plenty of Waugh biographies over the year. I always learn something new from each one.
4. Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evans
5. The Plan: Epstein, Maddon, and the Audacious Blueprint for a Cubs Dynasty by David Kaplan
6. Leo Durocher: Baseball's Prodigal Son by Paul Dickson
7. The Strange Death Of Tory England by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. I'm re-reading this 2005 book. It seemed outdated a decade ago. Making broad, long-term predictions in politics is foolish. Remember James Carville's 2009 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation?
8. The spring/summer edition of the Cato Journal. It's theme is "Central Banks and Financial Turmoil."


 
Headscarves and official visits
Yesterday, the Washington Post wondered whether Melania Trump would wear a headscarf during the First Family's official visit to Saudi Arabia. The answer: no, no she didn't. A few years ago in a tweet, Donald Trump seemed to criticize Michelle Obama for potentially insulting the House of Saud by not wearing a headscarf. This might have been the only thing in eight years Michelle Obama did right. Melania Trump was correct to follow her predecessor's example in this case. (And British Prime Minister Theresa May's example, too.)


 
Steyn on Ailes
Mark Steyn remembers Roger Ailes, the man who, more than Rupert Murdoch, created Fox News:
As Charles Krauthammer likes to say, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes discovered an under-served niche market: 50 per cent of the American people. At the time Ailes was on my BBC show, Murdoch's new network was already in the works and the man he'd picked to run it was Andrew Neil, his editor at The Sunday Times in Britain (now at the Beeb and chairman of the Speccie). That fit a Murdoch pattern with his American ventures, of parachuting in someone he trusted from London or Oz (as at The Wall Street Journal and New York Post). This time, though, he had second thoughts: before the project got off the ground, Neil returned to the UK, and Murdoch let Ailes have a completely free hand in reinventing cable news. Within five years, the upstart had overtaken CNN, and never looked back.
It wasn't just the "under-served niche market". Ailes was political, but he wasn't an ideologue, and he knew TV better than anyone. He liked to watch Fox with the volume off - so he could judge how it looked. These days, every so often, I get a yen to see how the other channels are covering something and I twiddle the dial. It never ceases to amaze me how visually dull CNN is - and how no one does anything about it. I caught Anderson Cooper the other night - something to do with sex scandals at Fox, as it happens - but all I remember is how flat and boring the look of the show was. Roger Ailes was a TV genius, with interesting theories: with a boisterous mien and not overly kempt, manicured and accoutred, he told me in some detail about what he considered off-puttingly dandified anchormen.
The whole, long essay is worth reading.
Related, CNN is a terrible news channel: USA Today reports that Anderson Cooper apologized to Jeffrey Lord after calling the pundit a Trump toady. But isn't that why Lord is on the show?


Friday, May 19, 2017
 
The 'neutral' Rona Ambrose
The Canadian Press reports that interim Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose, who recently announced she will be leaving elected politics this summer, is not casting a vote in the leadership. Ambrose explained: "I feel strongly (that) even casting a secret ballot, you're thinking about who you think should win. I'm staying very neutral." This is nonsense on stilts. I remember former CBC host Don Newman claiming he didn't vote because it would undermine his neutrality. But there is no way that Ambrose doesn't have favourites in the CPC leadership race or that Newman didn't lean one way or another on any issue or election. No way.
I hope Ambrose's desire for and self-deception of her own neutrality continues after she leaves Parliament Hill, but I'd bet good money that she speaks out plenty on Conservative Party politics in the future as a "wise person" who somehow makes objective observations that fit nicely with the Parliamentary Press Gallery of what a good conservative should be. In other words, I see Ambrose playing the role that Preston Manning is allowed to sometimes have in the national press, or that Joe Clark tries to insert himself into every once in a while. Whenever the future Conservative leader veers too close to (perceived) nasty or some MP speaks out on a controversial issue, Ambrose will be trotted out as the voice of the reasonable right. It is possible that Ambrose's neutrality today is a deliberate attempt to stay above the fray so she can be an unbiased commenter in the future.


 
North American 'free' trade
J.J. McCullough writes in NRO about how many retailers at comic-cons on either side of the Canada-US border -- like many entrepreneurs -- are operating illegally. McCullough explains:
To be clear, we’re not talking about illegal immigrants. At both Calgary and Seattle, the foreigners had merely crossed the border to sell their wares, then promptly returned home when the festivities ended. Yet in year 25 of NAFTA, casually crossing the border to sell things remains basically impossible to do legally. This provides a revealing illustration of why many small-time entrepreneurs in Canada and the United States will have a hard time mustering tears if Donald Trump shreds a continental free-trade deal that’s never done much for them.
In practice, an American or a Canadian who wishes to cross the border for the purpose of engaging in some casual capitalism at a foreign market — say, a band performing at a bar, a magician making balloon animals at a county fair, or a guy looking to hawk old records at a flea market — will often simply lie (explicitly or through omission) his way across the line, faking vacation plans and praying that his car or suitcases go unsearched.
Getting caught has low odds but can still be incredibly risky. The punishment for border-crossing on false pretenses can be as severe as a lifetime travel ban. Yet when you speak to people who do this routinely, they’ll tell you it’s still less stressful than complying with all the expected legal procedures and protocols.
A foreign sole proprietor who wants to cross the border — in either direction — must first complete stupefying paperwork at the entry point, documenting every product he has any intention of selling. Then he must calculate and pay any applicable duties and taxes. That’s only half the hassle, mind you, given that the proprietor must also receive bureaucratic approval for himself, through a costly foreign-worker visa sought months in advance. And even then, neither country really offers a visa that can be described as appropriate for this purpose. The officials with whom I spoke suggested either incorporating a business in the destination country or getting a local business to hire you as an employee. One could then use that as grounds to petition for a foreign-worker permit — for a weekend.
Whatever this status quo is, an open market it isn’t.
Canada–U.S. free trade — which predates NAFTA — has undeniably provided convenience for some. If you’re the sales department of a large North American corporation with an army of trade lawyers, it’s easy to get crates of your stuff over the border and onto supermarket shelves. If you’re a powerful lobby such as dairy or lumber, politicians will risk trade wars to make your life easier. But if you’re just some guy who made stuff in your garage you think Americans or Canadians might like to buy: tough luck.
McCullough advocates ripping up NAFTA and replacing it with three bilateral deals among each of the trade partners and the creation of a common market zone in Canada and the United States in which all entrepreneurs can easily "engage in short-term commercial activities" where they will abide local regulations and pay the applicable taxes. His argument that it is not in Canada's economic interests to get caught up in American politics vis a vis its paranoia (my word, not his) over Mexico has some merit. The common market idea has a great deal of common sense to it, although local businesses will certainly complain about the competition (through the state/provincial level chambers of commerce) , making it more difficult politically than it should be. Instead, it is easy to imagine a world in which everyone pretends that artists (including musicians and comedians) and sellers (businesses or individuals) are not crossing the border to sell their goods and services.


Thursday, May 18, 2017
 
Labour inches up in UK polls
An Ipsos MORI survey reported by the Evening Standard has a found a tightening of the race in the United Kingdom with the Conservatives holding steady at 49% but Labour increasing their support from 26% last month to 34% now. The Lib Dems have lost about half their support (falling from 13% to 7%), and the Greens have overtaken UKIP (3% and 2% respectively). Furthermore, Conservative voters (77%) are more likely than Labour (57%) and Lib Dems (51%) to say they will not change their minds. More important findings include that about 60% of respondents say Labour is not ready to govern including a quarter of Labour voters themselves, and that the Tories are ahead despite the fact many more respondents think the economy will get worse (43%) than better (27%). The reason the Tories are still doing well is that on the question of who makes the best leader, Theresa May leads Jeremy Corbyn 56% to 29%.


 
The attention span of a child
Reuters reports on President Donald Trump's preparations for his first foreign tour:
To prepare for his trip, Trump has been meeting with briefers including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, deputy national security adviser Dina Powell and senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Conversations with some officials who have briefed Trump and others who are aware of how he absorbs information portray a president with a short attention span.
He likes single-page memos and visual aids like maps, charts, graphs and photos.
National Security Council officials have strategically included Trump's name in "as many paragraphs as we can because he keeps reading if he's mentioned," according to one source, who relayed conversations he had with NSC officials.
Trump likes to look at a map of the country involved when he learns about a topic.
"He likes to visualize things," said a senior administration official. "The guy's a builder. He has spent his whole life looking at architectural renderings and floor plans."
I get that memos should be brief. Visuals do help. A map is a great aid when learning about a country. But it all adds up to what we already know about the man-child president: Trump prefers the superficial understanding over complexity and nuance, which works great when campaigning but not so much when governing.


 
Talk about impeachment is like talk about brokered conventions
Journalists fantasize about it, but it almost never happens. Market Watch's Jeffrey Bartash reports:
Impeachment is exceedingly rare. Congress has initiated a mere 62 impeachment proceedings in U.S. history, with 19 cases going to trial and just eight federal officials being convicted.
Only two presidents, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton some 130 years later, have been impeached. Both were acquitted. No member of the Senate or House has ever been removed via impeachment.
Richard Nixon is the only high U.S. official who probably would have been removed from office, but he resigned in 1974 after the Watergate scandal when it became clear his presidency was doomed.
Politics almost certainly sinks any chance of impeaching President Donald Trump, or declaring him unfit for office:
Republicans control both chambers of Congress. They are unlikely to pursue impeachment against Trump without overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing in light of how much damage it would do to their own party.
Indeed, the only time a party controlling Congress sought to impeach a president in its own ranks was in 1868, when Andrew Johnson warred with “radical” Republicans over how to treat the defeated Southern states after the Civil War. In the cases of Nixon and Clinton, the opposition party controlled Congress.
These might not be "normal" times and Trump isn't a "normal" president, but tribalism is a political cockroach that won't die.


 
Macron to get parliamentary support
Reuters reports that French President Emmanuel Macron's "centrist" Move party is poised to take the most seats in June's parliamentary elections. The Harris poll as Move at 32%, followed by the Republicans and Front National (tied at 19% apiece) and the far-left Unbowed at 15%. The governing Socialist Party has a mere 6%. Macron will need to find allies in Parliament to push his agenda; the French presidency is a fairly week position. It will be interesting to see whether the nascent party created in Macron's image will be a truly centrist party and who is works with to push Macron's priorities.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017
 
Removal, not impeachment?
Ross Douthat has a typically thoughtful column about President Donald Trump, endorsing the view articulated by his New York Times colleague David Brooks yesterday that the inhabitant of the White House is a child. Children, Douthat points out, do not commit "high crimes and misdemeanors." But they are unfit for the job of president. Douthat says:
I do not believe he is really capable of the behind-the-scenes conspiring that the darker Russia theories envision. And it is hard to betray an oath of office whose obligations you evince no sign of really understanding or respecting.
Which is not an argument for allowing him to occupy that office. It is an argument, instead, for using a constitutional mechanism more appropriate to this strange situation than impeachment: the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which allows for the removal of the president if a majority of the cabinet informs the Congress that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” and (should the president contest his own removal) a two-thirds vote by Congress confirms the cabinet’s judgment.
The Trump situation is not exactly the sort that the amendment’s Cold War-era designers were envisioning. He has not endured an assassination attempt or suffered a stroke or fallen prey to Alzheimer’s. But his incapacity to really govern, to truly execute the serious duties that fall to him to carry out, is nevertheless testified to daily — not by his enemies or external critics, but by precisely the men and women whom the Constitution asks to stand in judgment on him, the men and women who serve around him in the White House and the cabinet.
I do not disagree with Douthat's conclusion that Trump is unfit for the office of the presidency. I do, however, totally disagree with the wisdom of removing him from office, especially when his approval ratings hover in the low 40s. A critical mass of Americans, including nearly all those who voted for him last November, support the President and it would be a catastrophic mistake to impeach or remove Trump from office. As National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke says:
As always Douthat is worth reading. But I think that missing from his piece is a serious attempt to grapple with just how much of a psychic shock such a move would inflict upon this country – especially on those voters who backed and liked Donald Trump. David Frum wrote just a few minutes after the Comey firing that the president had staged “a coup.” Well, what would this — an actual coup – represent? And how would that look to the people who would believe that Trump had been removed by the very elites he had set out to vanquish?
The harm removing a marginally popular president so early in his term would cause to the body politic is not worth risking even when weighed against the considerable harm the man-child could cause as leader. Douthat and others seem unmoved by what Cooke calls the psychic shock of removing the President from his duly elected office. Removal (or impeachment, which the Democrats and most other New York Times columnists/editorialist seem to prefer) would entrench the country's deep political divide and raise the stakes for political disagreement by setting the precedent for premature usage of a nuclear option. Douthat should have addressed this concern in his column; his argument is superficially correct but without consideration of the action's consequences, his suggestion to remove the President is naively dangerous.


 
State of the UK election race
The Sun reports on the latest YouGov poll that shows the Conservatives are doing well everywhere in Great Britain:
Since the last General Election two years ago, the Tories have improved their position in every region of Britain.
Experts predict that if the results of the YouGov regional poll are repeated in the election on June 8, Theresa May will sweep to a huge majority.
Voters have apparently deserted both Labour and Ukip in favour of the Conservatives as a result of Mr Corbyn’s leadership and Mrs May’s vow to deliver Brexit in full.
YouGov’s data, based on surveys carried out towards the start of the election campaign, shows the Conservatives beating Labour in the South-East, South-West, East of England, West Midlands, East Midlands, Yorkshire & the Humber and Wales.
Labour is winning only in London, with 41 per cent to the Tories’ 36 per cent, and in the North-East where the party has 42 per cent and the Conservatives are on 40 per cent.
The SNP continues to dominate in Scotland, with 41 per cent of the vote, but the Tories have surged into second place with 28 per cent – nearly double the vote they won in 2015.
In the Midlands and the south (excluding London), the Conservatives are over 50%. Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that the Liberal Democrats are not winning Remain voters as a plurality of them have accepted Brexit as a political reality. Furthermore, polling suggests Prime Minister Theresa May is retaining more than 90% of Brits who voted Conservative in 2015 and voted Remain in 2016.
It looks like May is going to get her strong and stable majority.


 
Trump's incompetence
The New York Times reports that President Donald Trump cannot be trusted to meet alone with other world leaders:
Some of Mr. Trump’s senior advisers fear leaving him alone in meetings with foreign leaders out of concern he might speak out of turn. General McMaster, in particular, has tried to insert caveats or gentle corrections into conversations when he believes the president is straying off topic or onto boggy diplomatic ground.
This has, at times, chafed the president, according to two officials with knowledge of the situation. Mr. Trump, who still openly laments having to dismiss Mr. Flynn, has complained that General McMaster talks too much in meetings, and the president has referred to him as “a pain,” according to one of the officials.
And then there's this about Trump sharing "intelligence" with foreign officials:
In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling — and honest — defense of the president for divulging classified intelligence to the Russians: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of his briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or the knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would harm American allies.
Mr. McMaster all but said that publicly from the briefing room lectern.
“The president wasn’t even aware where this information came from,” Mr. McMaster said. “He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either.”
Media reports suggest Israel was the source of the intelligence (see for example the New York Times). USA Today reports that former IDF intelligence officer Michael Herzog says the President's leak could chill Israel's interest in sharing information with the United States; the paper reports it could also could affect European allies desire to share information with Washington.
The Washington Examiner reports that Erick Erickson says that, "I am told that what the president did is actually far worse than what is being reported. The president does not seem to realize or appreciate that his bragging can undermine relationships with our allies and with human intelligence sources. He also does not seem to appreciate that his loose lips can get valuable assets in the field killed." Erickson also says that even pro-Trump sources within the White House have to go to the press with dirt because the President will not hear criticism from staff.


 
Jon Kay on The Walrus
Writing in the National Post, Jonathan Kay addresses resigning as editor-in-chief from The Walrus. He makes some good points about being a writer who works full-time as an editor-in-chief and how holding that title affects the way people view your broader work. But Kay's reflection on his time at The Walrus and what he hopes for it after he leaves is worth noting:
Another part of my problem at The Walrus was that a big chunk of me simply never left the National Post — where I’d worked for 16 years, and which I still love, because it remains the only major media outlet in Canada that has the feistiness to entertain consistently robust editorial debate and laugh off its critics. By contrast, one of the lingering problems at The Walrus — and this is something I was never fully able to extirpate — is a failure to accept the fact that great educational journalism will inevitably step on toes and anger some people. Because the magazine was conceived as High Canadian Holy Writ delivered to subscribers’ doorsteps on the wings of angels, Walrus old-schoolers still lose their owl feathers if a Walrus writer challenges any of the many suffocating ideological taboos cherished by the cultural Eloi.
One way or another, that will have to change if The Walrus is to fulfil its mission (as I defined it) to become Canada’s version of The Atlantic. I left that project half-done. The editor-in-chief who completes it will combine these same editorial instincts with a defter feel for the sensitivities of Canada’s poetic class. The perfect candidate would be a man or woman with Eloi-grade literary street cred, but also a lived appreciation for the concerns and rhythms of suburban, working-parent Morlock life. Ideally, he should also be bilingual, have a strong personal connection to Canada’s status as a land of immigrants, and stand apart from the (increasingly self-loathing) WASP firmament that traditionally has controlled English Canada’s commanding cultural heights.
Kay didn't quite make The Walrus must-reading for the general reading public, but he did manage to make the magazine and its website readable and often interesting. Canada could use a version of The Atlantic, a literate center-left monthly worth picking up and ideally isn't afraid to publish some center-right commentary.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017
 
What I'm reading
1. "For the Many, Not the Few," the Labour Party's 2017 election manifesto. The 128-page document mentions the Conservatives 68 times.
2. Under Siege: Religious Freedom and the Church in Canada at 150 by Don Hutchinson. A non-hysterical look at the loss of religious freedom in Canada.
3. Makers of Modern Social Thought: Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper on the Social Question by Jordan Ballor
4. City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles by Jerald Podair. It's been 60 years since Walter O'Malley moved the team west from Brooklyn.
5. "The Liberal Case for Character in a Populist Age," a Brookings Institute paper by Richard V. Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias
6. "Regulating Disruption: Governing in an era of rapid technological change," a Mowat Center study by Sunil Johal and Michael Crawford Urban
7. "What We Do Together: The State of Associational Life in America," the inaugural report of Senator Mike Lee's Social Capital Project. Ramesh Ponnuru has an excellent summary of the report in his latest Bloomberg View column.


 
Ontario MPP and Fidel Castro admirer enters NDP leadership race
Yesterday, Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh announced he would enter the federal NDP leadership contest and last November he tweeted accolades for the former Cuban dictator:


 
The art of the cave in
The Atlantic's David A. Graham says of President Donald Trump's sharing of intelligence with Russian officials:
The pattern has become clear: A foreign official comes to President Trump. They speak. The official leaves with what he or she wants, and Trump emerges chastened, having reversed a major policy, or both.
Relating a story how Trump noted a ten-minute conversation with the Chinese President changed his own mind, Graham says, "It is no wonder that the Russians were eager to get in a room with Trump, but Russia and China were not the only foreign countries to recognize how easily swayed Trump could be."
This could come down to Trump's child-like need to be liked, especially by the powerful. It could reflect the theory that the person who has the most influence over Trump's thinking is the last person to talk to him (reflecting a mind that cannot hold an idea or facts). Or it could be a reflection of the fact that contrary to his bragging, Trump is a terrible negotiator.
Trump rightly condemned the previous administration for not having credibility with America's rivals and enemies because Obama's Washington routinely failed to match its lofty rhetoric with action. The same problem afflicts America today.


Monday, May 15, 2017
 
Brexit and Ireland
The term peace process is usually laughable, acknowledging talks of some sort that have little bearing on reducing conflict in hot spots. For many years, this was true for Northern Ireland and Ireland, but there has been a last peace in the area now for a generation. The border is almost non-existent, as much the result of European Union free flow of goods and people. The Irish on both sides of the nearly non-existent border do not want Brexit to ruin the free flow of goods and people or, worse, reignite The Troubles. Politico Europe reports on some ideas being discussed for an invisible border that could maintain the peace and provide mostly free movement:
Last month, the Council of the EU pledged in its official guidelines on Brexit negotiations for “flexible and imaginative solutions” with the aim of “avoiding a hard border, while respecting the integrity of the Union legal order.”
One idea that has been floated would be to position customs controls several kilometers back from the physical border itself in order not to draw attention to them.
One senior Commission official also pointed out that larger companies will be able to reduce the impact of customs by participating in the EU’s so-called Registered Exporter system, which came into force this year. The system allows countries outside the EU to reduce customs fees by certifying themselves online and submitting their own statements of origin.
A more ambitious idea is to create a “virtual border” whereby all goods passing from one side to the other would have to be registered online beforehand, with any import tariffs paid at that point. There would be no need to check “paperwork” at the frontier itself because that would all have happened before goods passed through. National auditors carrying out factory inspections would ensure compliance with the system.
If a little imagination and cooperation can be brought to the Irish border, it can certainly be brought to the broader Brexit negotiations, although, admittedly, the stakes seem a little higher where there was once a low-level war.
Another Politico Europe story suggests that Irish cheese-makers might produce mozzarella instead of cheddar because it could end up being simpler to trade with Italy than Great Britain.


 
Open marriage
The New York Times Magazine had a long article on open marriages -- or "non-monogamous" marriage -- on the weekend. NRO's David French has a critique of the article and the practice, but also the cultural milieu in which is germinates. Echoing Charles Murray (from his book Coming Apart), French says that "our secular elite speaks blue, but largely lives red." In other words, despite their own liberal, tolerant, progressive views on sexuality and relationships, many of America's wealthy urbanites and cultural leaders live traditional relationships of mom, dad, and children. They simply refuse to uphold their own practices as the cultural ideal. This is not a terribly new insight, but it is a useful reminder to those on the Right who think everyone who lives in a big city is a hedonist.
French's critique of the article, "Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?" is very good. He describes the often sad and pathetic relationships with people who believe that sexual satisfaction is pretty close to a human right and the tiny hypocrisies about the necessary honesty and transparency to make such relationships work (one married woman is dating a married man who's wife has not be told about the affair). French writes:
What’s revolting is the sheer selfishness of one or both of the spouses involved. Their obsession with a completely fulfilling and intoxicating sex life borders on the pathological. They seem to regard a boring marriage bed as a human-rights violation, as if they were absolutely entitled to thrilling sex. Here’s one wife describing her insistence on maintaining an extramarital relationship: “I really just felt like it was right, like it was important to my growth. It was like I was choosing to take a stand for my own pleasure and sticking to it. It was so strong, that feeling.”
Sex and growth — those themes echo throughout the piece. The ideal marriage (apparently) is one in which both parties experience incredible orgasms and explore the many layers of their personalities. The only absolute moral duties are self-fulfillment and a degree of transparency.
And French says the author treats those participating in open arrangements as "some kind of advanced tribe from a future reality." Sadly, because our cultural elites will not preach what they practice, what is now a distinctly small subset of the married population will certainly grow. Just because it's in the New York Times doesn't mean it is mainstream; the fact open marriage is being written about in a laudatory fashion in the Times makes it more likely it will become mainstream in the future. I would think that the innate jealousy of human beings would prevent open marriage from becoming commonplace, but it does seem that the prioritizing of sexual satisfaction by making it a central part of self-realization spells trouble for maintaining the integrity of monogamous relationships.
Two last interesting points. From the article, it seems that it is mostly women initiate the discussion about open marriage to save their relationship and too frequently this desperate move is does not prevent further marital breakdown.


 
Fixing the eurozone by extending its reach?
Many struggling companies cover up their deficiencies, for a while, by growing. The restructuring buys time, but the fundamental problems still exist. The eurozone could try the same thing. The Wall Street Journal reports:
Two major ideas are under discussion, both broadly in line with ideas floated by Mr. Macron and his allies. The first is to use the eurozone’s bailout fund—European Stability Mechanism—to create so-called European Safe Bonds, securitized bonds that would be issued by the ESM and backed by a pool of eurozone government bonds. Initially, governments would remain responsible for their own liabilities, but ultimately ESB’s could be guaranteed by the ESM—and therefore jointly guaranteed by Eurozone governments—transforming them into genuine Eurobonds.
The second proposal is to create a common European-wide unemployment insurance fund, which would allow countries hit by an economic shock to reclaim part of the cost of higher unemployment benefits.
Both ideas are problematic. It isn’t clear there will be any market for European safe bonds without an ESM guarantee which governments are in any case unwilling to allow. And with or without an ESM guarantee, there are growing concerns that the creation of a large pool of ESBs could trigger a collapse in demand for the non-pooled bonds of the eurozone’s weaker credits, leaving those countries facing higher rather than lower funding costs.
The problem with the unemployment insurance idea is t would require the politically challenging harmonization of the eurozone’s highly divergent labor-market rules and welfare systems.
What both proposals show is that it is very hard to find a halfway house between the current eurozone setup, in which there is limited risk-sharing, and a full political union that would allow Brussels far greater oversight of national budgets and labor-market and welfare policies.
This task is made harder by the need to avoid changes to the EU treaties which might trigger referendums in many countries, where public appetite is limited for the transfers of sovereignty needed to underpin deeper fiscal integration, let alone any willingness in Germany and other Northern European countries to pool debts.
There can't be much appetite for this. The European public seems to lean toward support for the European project, with a hefty counterweight of euroscepticism. It would be unwise to test this balance.


Sunday, May 14, 2017
 
Cultural appropriation is bullshit
George Will writes:
Indignation about appropriation is a new frontier in the ever-expanding empire of cultivated victimhood: “Marginalized” persons from a particular culture supposedly are somehow wounded when “privileged” people — those who are unvictimized or less victimized — express or even just enjoy the culture of more-pure victims without their permission.
Will notes that novelist Lionel Shriver has condemned complaints about cultural appropriation as a misplaced "look-but-don’t-touch" attitude. Will quotes Franklin Einspruch:
Where does new culture come from? It is copied, with alterations, from existing culture. The process is reproductive. Sexy, even. So of course, the outrage-as-a-lifestyle wing of the progressive Left wants to dictate rules for its proper enjoyment.
Science writer Matt Ridley has described trade and the resultant cultures bumping up against one another as ideas, practices, and things having sex and producing new ideas, practices, and products. If cultural appropriation were enforced, there would be no progress.


 
Trump is predictable but his opponents choose to believe delusional thoughts about him
Ross Douthat in the New York Times:
Throughout the 2016 primary season, two sentiments took turns reassuring Republicans as they watched Donald Trump’s strange ascent:
At some point, Trump will start behaving normally.
If he doesn’t, he’ll self-destruct or quit — or else somebody in authority will figure out a way to jettison him.
It isn’t surprising that people once believed these things; I clung to the second sentiment myself.
What is surprising is that after everything that’s happened, so many people believe them even now.
It isn't only Republicans that continue to play make-believe in coping with Trump. The Left believes in conspiracy theories about the President:
Similarly mysterious, meanwhile, is the assumption among liberals that Trump’s behavior must be motivated by some dark but ultimately rational calculus — that if the president fired Comey in part out of annoyance at the Russia investigation, there must be some great conspiracy he’s desperate to cover up, which if brought to light would make impeachment a near-inevitability.
Of course there might be such a conspiracy, which is why the F.B.I. investigation must proceed — and even if it only exposes shady business ties it’s entirely worth pursuing. But given what we know about Trump’s personality, what’s in the public record, and what’s been leaked by forces with reasons to despise him, Occam’s razor still suggests that shadiness is all we’ll find, and that Trump is lashing out childishly not out of guilt but because that’s simply what he does — whether the target is Ted Cruz’s family or Judge Curiel, the Khan family or now Comey.


Saturday, May 13, 2017
 
The Speenhamland system
There is a terrific long read by Rutger Bergman at The Correspondent about the Speenhamland system set up in the late 18th and early 19th century and how the research on the first British experiment with a basic income affected Richard Nixon's decision to abandon supporting a universal basic income for the United States a century and a half later. It is worth reading if you have any interest in UBI, welfare economics, social science, British history or the Nixon White House. There are any number of takeaways, but this stood out on the politicization of science:
In the 1960s and 1970s, historians took another look at the Royal Commission Report [Poor Law Commissioners' Report of 1834] on Speenhamland and discovered that much of the text had been written before any data was even collected. Of the questionnaires distributed, only 10% were ever filled out. Furthermore, the questions were leading, with the answer choices all fixed in advance. And almost none of the people interviewed were actual beneficiaries. The evidence, such as it was, came mostly from the local elite, and especially the clergy, whose general view was that the poor were only growing more wicked and lazy.
The Royal Commission Report, largely fabricated, supplied the underpinnings of a new, draconian Poor Law. It was even said that the Commission’s secretary, Edwin Chadwick, had “the Bill in his head” before the investigation even started, but he was shrewd enough to obtain some substantiating evidence first. Chadwick was furthermore blessed with the “admirable faculty” of getting eyewitnesses to say what he wanted, just like “a French cook who can make an excellent ragout out of a pair of shoes,” according to a fellow Commission member.
The U.S. experiments had been groundbreaking and meticulous, but had almost no influence at all; while the Speenhamland report, based on bogus science, managed to redirect the President’s course of action 150 years later.
The investigators barely concerned themselves with analyzing the data, though they did employ “an elaborate structure of appendixes to lend more weight to their ‘findings,’” two modern-day researchers note. Their approach could not have been more different than that of the rigorous experiments conducted in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. Those experiments had been groundbreaking and meticulous but had almost no influence at all, whereas the Royal Commission Report was based on bogus science yet still managed to redirect President Nixon’s course of action 150 years later.
I called this excerpt an example of the politicization of science, but it is worth remembering that social science isn't really science. The politicization of research is a more apt term.
For those who bleat endlessly about following the evidence, it is helpful to remember that researchers -- mere humans -- make mistakes:
Even former Nixon advisor Daniel Moynihan stopped believing in basic income, following a fatal discovery upon publication of the final results of the Seattle experiment. One finding in particular grabbed everybody’s attention: The number of divorces had jumped more than 50%. Interest in this statistic quickly overshadowed all the other outcomes, such as better school performance and improvements in health. A basic income, evidently, gave women too much independence.
Ten years later, a reanalysis of the data revealed that a statistical error had been made; in reality, there had been no change in the divorce rate at all.
This is not to say that research is unimportant. But we should be as skeptical of social research as we are moralizing narratives. That said, value judgements still matter. For example, does it matter that divorce rates are affected when attempting to alleviate the worst poverty? Choosing to incorporate divorce into the considerations about poverty reduction programs -- whether pro or con -- is a value judgement. Ditto for hundreds of other issues.
And then there's the politics. President Richard Nixon's economic adviser Martin Anderson wrote a brief (mostly copying Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation) to convince the President to abandon his support for some form of the UBI. Nixon wanted to introduce a progressive measure of welfare reform but backed away from UBI. (He once told an adviser, “Tory men and liberal policies are what have changed the world.” Nixon always had an eye on his legacy.) In his promotion of welfare, Nixonian rhetoric affected the debate about welfare ever since:
[T]he president presented his bill in a televised speech. If “welfare” had to be packaged as “workfare” to get basic income through Congress, then so be it. What Nixon failed to foresee was that his rhetoric of fighting laziness among the poor and unemployed would ultimately turn the country against basic income and the welfare state as a whole. The conservative president who dreamed of going down in history as a progressive leader forfeited a unique opportunity to overthrow a stereotype rooted back in 19th-century England: the myth of the lazy poor.
Fascinating, long read. Not the last word on UBI or the role of research in politics -- nothing ever should be the last word -- but something to think about.