Sobering Thoughts

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

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Who knew governing would be difficult?
For all the silly Kellyanne Conway controversy, the real scandal from yesterday was Donald Trump saying, "Nobody knew health care could be so complicated." To the President and his simple-minded supporters who think slogans are policies, of course health care was not a complicated file. To anyone with a scintilla of policy-sense, almost every file is complicated, especially health care. Principles are easy -- they fit on bumper stickers -- but policy is difficult. I don't really trust the White House when it claims to have a solution to replacing Obamacare, and even if they did, it probably won't fix all the problems. No policy fixes all the problems.

The Complacent Class
Tyler Cowen's The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream is out today. I plan to read it later this week after several writing and editing commitments are complete. Here is the first of five videos Marginal University is releasing on the book. David French writes at NRO that The Complacent Class, "comprehensively chronicles how Americans are making deliberate decisions on a mass scale that collectively add up to a culture that is avoiding risk, seeking comfort, and clustering together in like-minded communities." French says:
Americans are less willing to move, to start new companies, or to live or work with people from different socioeconomic classes. We’re clustering with people of like mind, similar income, and the same race. It’s a devastating portrait of a nation that is losing its dynamism in favor of, essentially, “digging in.”
As I read Cowen — and compared his findings with other indispensable books about modern American culture (books like Robert Putnam’s Our Kids and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart), it became clear that the virtue and courage-dependent classical conception of “pursuit of happiness” is morphing into something more low and base, the flight from pain.
Or as David Brooks put it, "as Tyler Cowen demonstrates in his compelling new book, 'The Complacent Class,' contemporary Americans have lost their mojo." But have they?
This is typical -- typically provocative -- Cowen (as quoted by Business Insider's Gus Lubin): "I sometimes say that I am a happiness optimist but a revenue pessimist." That is from Lubin's essay on how millennials are changing our view of what is important in society from striving for success to satisfying their passions, which often looks like indifference or laziness to older generations.

'Project Cheer'
BrexitCentral has a 36-page, graphics-heavy booklet, "Project Cheer: Reasons to be Cheerful about Brexit." It's a wonderful antidote to those who still believe in Project Fear, noting, "In 2016, Britain was the fastest growing economy in the G7, dispelling fears of a recession and banishing George Osborne’s mooted punishment Budget to the recesses of history." It gives reasons to be optimistic about trade, business, and the economy. Price Waterhouse Cooper predicts the UK will have the fastest growing G7 economy until 2050. There are indeed reasons for caution -- the full brunt of Brexit will be borne after the UK leaves the EU -- but there are reasons to be bullish on Britain and BrexitCentral reminds us why.

High-net-worth individual migration
Market Watch reports:
Some 82,000 high-net-worth individuals, defined as those who have assets over $1 million, left their home countries last year, versus 64,000 in 2015, according to the “Global Health Review: Worldwide Wealth and Wealth Migration Trends.” For the second consecutive year, Australia was the No. 1 country welcoming millionaire migrants, beating even the U.S. There was a 38% jump in millionaire migrants to Australia (11,000 last year versus 8,000 in 2015) and a 43% increase in those migrants to the U.S. over the same period (10,000 in 2016 versus 7,000).
The movement of millionaire migrants is a key indicator of how wealthy residents feel about the current political and economic climate of the countries that have fallen in and out of favor. High-net-worth individuals, however, fled France last year in greater numbers than any other country. Some 12,000 millionaires left France last year, versus 10,000 in 2015, a gain of 20%, even though economic growth accelerated in the fourth quarter of last year.
France has terrorism and high taxes. It is the only rich country that makes the top five (France is followed by China, Brazil, India, Turkey).
Four of the five countries that attracted the most high-net-worth individuals are anglosphere nations (Australia, United States, Canada, and New Zealand).

Trump's budget goals
The media is generally reporting that President Donald Trump has released his budget, but -- and this can hardly be surprising considering its source -- it lacks specifics. It is more a budget goal than a real budget. National Review Online expresses its skepticism in an editorial:
Ahead of his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, President Trump has released the first details of his broad budget goals for fiscal year 2018, the headline-grabbing element of which is a proposed 10 percent increase in defense spending. To offset this additional $54 billion for the Pentagon, the president is recommending across-the-board cuts in as-yet-unspecified discretionary-spending programs.
The specifics are still forthcoming, but the president’s budget preliminaries suggest that his fanciful campaign promises — to solve the nation’s pecuniary woes by targeting “waste, fraud, and abuse” and cutting foreign aid — have not been adapted to fiscal reality. It’s still in the earliest stages, but his plan portends a significant increase to an already massive federal debt.
It goes without saying that the federal government is chock-full of waste. Bureaucracies are beset with bloat — duplicative or ineffective programs, overstaffing, and more — that can and ought to be trimmed. However, deep cuts to the EPA, the Department of Education, the Department of State, and the rest, which the White House’s budget outline partly relies on, are not only politically unrealistic but also unlikely to balance out the administration’s proposed spending.
And that doesn't include promised "big" spending in infrastructure. And the White House expects to do this along with ambitious tax cuts. And the President has vowed to not touch the 60% of the federal budget committed to entitlements. The NRO editors say, "In the meantime, an increase in (disciplined) defense spending and an aggressive approach to administrative excess are fine priorities. But without setting itself to the country’s most pressing financial problems, the White House will never succeed in making its math add up."
The New York Times reports that Trump's budget sets up a political and ideological battle with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Ryan and GOP congressional leaders have been eyeing entitlement reform for some time, but candidate Donald Trump not only promised not to touch Social Security and Medicaid, but blamed past campaigns to make such cuts for the party's 2012 defeat (when Ryan was on the GOP ticket). The Times says this is a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, suggesting that either Ryan or Trump could prevail, but it is hard to imagine this GOP Congress standing up to the President on the budget, including Ryan. The soul of the party has already been captured by Trump. The best that traditional Republicans might hope for is to defeat the Trumpian budget vision with a more balanced approach, but not one that tackles serious entitlement reform.

Against a truly universal (global) basic income
On the weekend, the New York Times Magazine wrote about the universal basic income experiment in Kenya run by the excellent charity GiveDirectly, "The Future of Not Working." World Bank economist Berk Ozler is skeptical:
See, that calculation assumes that we know exactly who is poor, how far below the poverty line each person exactly is, give them that precise amount, etc. ... How close are we to that in reality? Again, far away – at least in developing countries.
He looks at the numbers and concludes:
There are a couple of ways you can read these results. On the one hand, it’s hard to escape the depressing conclusion that, given feasible budget envelopes, working our way out of poverty using targeted (or untargeted) transfers does not seem realistic. On the other, one might say that given the poor performance of methods to target the poor in developing countries, the relative performance of UBI makes it appealing for consideration.
However, to come even close to eliminating poverty today (a claim made by Michael Faye of GiveDirectly in the same article), we would need much much more than half of the world’s foreign aid budget. Suppose that we gave 75 cents per day to everyone in the world, which would not eliminate extreme poverty, how much money would we need? If I am counting zeros correctly, about 2 trillion dollars, or about 30 times more than the $66 billion figure cited in the NYT article ... And, that scheme would not eliminate poverty, even setting the poverty line at $1.9/day. What if we wanted people to actually live on closer to $8-10 per day.
The problem with simple and attractive programs to solve this or that problem is that they are often too simple and too attractive in order to win buy-in without serious scrutiny. If you want politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders, and heads of non-government organizations to all support a fix, best to keep is simple.
University of Chicago development economist Chris Blattman has other criticisms of the idea of UBI as global poverty cure-all, including this one: "One is that we don’t really know what will happen when we scale up seemingly successful anti-poverty programs." He also says it will be difficult to sell rich-country taxpayers on the merits of giving the poor in the developing world a basic income, even if it is cheaper than current foreign aid programs (and that is a big if).
Blattman also reminds us that predictions about the end of work have been around "every 20 years since the sewing machine and combine were invented." He is skeptical that it will be different this time.

Monday, February 27, 2017
Liberal transparency
The Globe and Mail reports:
The Liberal government’s plan to eliminate some tax credits in the 2017 budget faced private criticism from Canadian accountants for being too secretive.
Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s department was urged by the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada, the national voice of accountants, to make the government’s plans public with an interim report before any final decision is announced.
Despite this, the results of this review will not be revealed until Mr. Morneau’s next budget, expected in March.
The review is the right policy -- boutique taxes need to be curbed. But from the self-appointed most open and transparent government of all time -- not to mention a Liberal government that likes to pat itself on the back for listening to experts -- the process isn't what it needs to be.

Trump administration open to easing regulations for self-driving cars
Reuters reports:
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said on Sunday she was reviewing self-driving vehicle guidance issued by the Obama administration and urged companies to explain the benefits of automated vehicles to a skeptical public.
The guidelines, which were issued in September, call on automakers to voluntarily submit details of self-driving vehicle systems to regulators in a 15-point “safety assessment” and urge states to defer to the federal government on most vehicle regulations.
Automakers have raised numerous concerns about the guidance, including that it requires them to turn over significant data, could delay testing by months and lead to states making the voluntary guidelines mandatory ...
She said self-driving cars could dramatically improve safety.
In 2015, 35,092 people died in U.S. traffic crashes, up 7 percent and the highest full-year increase since 1966. In the first nine months of 2016, fatalities were up 8 percent.
Chao, noting research that 94 percent of traffic crashes were due to human error, said: "There’s a lot at stake in getting this technology right."
She said the Trump administration wanted to ensure it "is a catalyst for safe, efficient technologies, not an impediment. In particular, I want to challenge Silicon Valley, Detroit, and all other auto industry hubs to step up and help educate a skeptical public about the benefits of automated technology."

Vox on Kevin Hassett
Vox's Dylan Matthews on Kevin Hassett, the American Enterprise Institute economist who is reported to be Donald Trump's pick to chair of his Council of Economic Advisers:
And unlike Peter Navarro, the vociferously anti-trade economist who is head of Trump’s newly created National Trade Council, Hassett is a fairly mainstream free market conservative. He was a senior adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and has been a mainstay in Republican economic policy circles for two decades now. Tellingly, a number of liberal economists, including Obama CEA chairs Jason Furman and Austan Goolsbee, cheered his rumored appointment — not because they agree with him, but because he’s a fundamentally serious thinker who could bring some rigor to the Trump White House.

Sunday, February 26, 2017
Doctors having second thoughts about assisted-suicide/euthanasia
The National Post reports:
Some doctors who have helped the gravely ill end their lives are no longer willing to participate in assisted death because of emotional distress or fear of prosecution if their decisions are second-guessed, according to their colleagues.
In Ontario, one of the few provinces to track the information, 24 doctors have permanently been removed from a voluntary referral list of physicians willing to help people die. Another 30 have put their names on temporary hold.
While they do not have to give a reason, a small number have advised the province they now want “a reflection period to decide whether medical assistance in dying is a service they want to provide,” according to a health ministry spokesman.
It seems some were not psychologically prepared for their role in taking the life of vulnerable patients, even when it is done voluntarily. I don't think most doctors got into their profession to help kill people.

How Theresa May is changing British politics and winning
At CapX few days ago Tim Montgomerie reflected -- and perhaps read too much into -- on the Conservative victory in the Copeland by-election. He suggests it is not just a by-election win but a reshaping of British politics:
But what about Theresa May’s ambition to win over traditionally Left-wing voters who supported Brexit? And, more generally, the OFWs (Ordinary Working Families apparently being the new JAMs (Just About Managings)?
The victory of Trudy Harrison in Copeland, a local mum of four and now another Northern Tory MP, suggests it has real ooomph. And it’s hardly happened accidentally:
– In deciding that controlling immigration was the absolute non-negotiable ingredient of her “Brexit means Brexit” recipe, Mrs May drove a dagger into Ukip’s heart.
– She has more or less made sure of its political death by echoing its 1950s rhetoric on foreign aid, grammar schools and the green belt.
– The economic interventionism that she has been trying to pass through her government’s economic policy committee (so far largely unsuccessfully, because of a roadblock called Phillip Hammond) echoes the potentially potent populism of much of Trumpism.
– And in contrast to her predecessor, who had planned a big social reform programme for the very poorest had Remain prevailed (around the theme of “life chances”), there has been much less focus on such people – who don’t tend to vote – from Mrs May. From day one she’s been determined to build relations with the Mail and Sun, and through them with their swing-voting readers, that are as healthy as Mr Cameron’s were testy.
We should be careful about reading too much into a single, unexpected, historic by-election result, but Montgomerie's analysis seems correct. And one need not agree with the direction of every May policy or emphasis shift to see it as good politics -- or what appears to be good politics at the moment. Things change quickly and the Brexit process will change the political dynamics in an on-going way even if May looks like she has the upper hand at the moment.
The second part of the column is Montgomerie typical fantasy political realignment of British politics. There is analysis in there, too, namely that May is fundamentally communitarian and that Tony Blair's politics is fundamentally individualist. That analysis probably offends the supporters of both May and Blair -- indeed the Daily Mail is calling upon May to bring back Thatcherism, ignoring the fact that Conservative gains might be the result of May's brand of conservatism, not Thatcher's. Montgomerie would like to see Blair start up a new party that is global, environmentalist, and committed to basic individual rights. As I say, typical Montgomerie fantasy -- he admits to writing two such realignment columns in the past few years for the (London) Times. Alas, that is probably too much realignment for British politics. More likely that the Liberal Democrats will represent what Montgomerie would like to see in a new party than the cowardly (or cautious) Blair would lead a new political movement.
It is unlikely that two tectonic shifts would happen in politics at once; geologically, the shift of one tectonic plate forces the movement of another. The shift that happens in one party will force the shift in others -- later. So much of politics is reactionary. That means that Labour, the Lib Dems, and Tony Blair (and other political actors) won't shift enough to (further) realign politics until it becomes clear (probably with a super-majority victory) that May has completed her realignment. If indeed, she is able to complete it. And Theresa May seems determined to do so. The Sun reports that she is resisting calling a snap election because the Prime Minister wants a three-year "soft war" to "kill Labour off" as they let Jeremy Corbyn continue his slide into oblivion and target 70 vulnerable Labour seats, especially in the north.

Saturday, February 25, 2017
Deconstruct the administrative state, baby
I'm not a Donald Trump fan and neither is Jonah Goldberg, but we were both cheering Steve Bannon's call for deconstructing the administrative state, even if we have our reservations about the first word in that phrase:
I will also say that I loved his comments about “deconstructing the administrative state” — though I do wonder what’s wrong with the term “dismantle”?
Deconstructing the administrative state is a kind of nightingale’s song for many intellectual conservatives, particularly my friends in the Claremont Institute’s orbit. It’s been great fun watching mainstream journalists, who are not fluent in these things, talk about the administrative state as if they understand what Bannon means. The “administrative state” is the term of art for the permanent bureaucracy, which has come untethered from constitutional moorings (please read Phillip Hamburger’s Is Administrative Law Unlawful?, or Charles Murray’s By the People, or my forthcoming book — which as of now has some 75 pages on this stuff). Most of the law being created in this country is now created on autopilot, written by unelected mandarins in the bowels of the government. It is the direct result of Congress’s decades-long surrender of its powers to the executive branch. The CIA is not the “deep state” — the FDA, OSHA, FCC, EPA, and countless other agencies are.
If Bannon and Trump can in fact responsibly dismantle the administrative state and return lawmaking to Congress and the courts (where appropriate), then I will be ecstatic, and I will don the MAGA hat. But that is a very big if. The bulk of that work must be done by Congress, not the presidency. And any attempt to simply move the unlawful arbitrary power of the administrative state to the political operation of the West Wing will not be a triumph for liberty, it will simply amount to replacing one form of arbitrary power with another.

Autonomous vehicles and bikes
Peter Fairley at IEEE Spectrum:
“Bicycles are probably the most difficult detection problem that autonomous vehicle systems face,” says UC Berkeley research engineer Steven Shladover.
Nuno Vasconcelos, a visual computing expert at the University of California, San Diego, says bikes pose a complex detection problem because they are relatively small, fast and heterogenous. “A car is basically a big block of stuff. A bicycle has much less mass and also there can be more variation in appearance — there are more shapes and colors and people hang stuff on them.”
But there are improvements on the horizon:
Put all of these elements together, and one can observe some pretty impressive results, such as the bike spotting demonstrated last year by Google’s vehicles. Waymo, Google’s autonomous vehicle spinoff, unveiled proprietary sensor technology with further upgraded bike-recognition capabilities at this month’s Detroit Auto Show.
Skeptics of self-driving cars often seem to want a perfectly safe technology, forgetting that human beings are not error-free when it comes to detecting bikers.

Against the living wage
The Adam Smith Institute has a new briefing paper "Against the National Living Wage: Why 2017 is not 1997." It's only nine pages, but ASI's executive director Sam Bowman writes a summary of it for ConservativeHome. Bowman says that politicians love minimum and living wages because such policies look "like a free lunch" with lower-income workers getting a boost in wages at (ostensibly) no cost to government. The ASI paper reviews the evidence of mandatory minimum wage increases and finds that in the United States, "overall we see a pretty clear and consistent pattern of minimum wage rises leading to job losses – not massive ones, but significant and not to be ignored." Echoing Thomas Sowell I often ask why it is better to be unemployed at $10 than employed at $9. Bowman writes:
Ultimately, minimum wages are a form of redistribution. That doesn’t make them bad, but remember that the money comes from somewhere. Politicians like them because they’re done off-balance sheet – it’s not as clear to the people paying that they’re losing out as when taxes go up.
If the result is higher prices, then we might just be taking money from poor consumers to give a pay rise to, say, second earners in a better-off household who need the money less.
A little more unemployment and higher prices are the consequences of minimum and living wages. This hardly helps those are the lower rungs of the wage ladder. Bowman says there are better alternative policies:
There are other reforms that are much less risky, from the perspective of the poor: planning changes that make it easier to build dense, beautiful housing in cities and green suburbs outside our cities that would lower the cost of housing. And we could make changes to childcare regulations that bring us into line with much cheaper countries like Denmark in Europe.
If we want to redistribute to the working poor, simplifying and strengthening tax credits would avoid some of the unintended consequences we find with minimum wages.
It is easier for politicians to earn laudatory headlines by forcing businesses to pay higher than market wages for their least valuable employees, but they are not the most effective policies to help those they claim to want to aid.

Carbon taxes are better in theory than practice
The Wall Street Journal editorializes against the George Schultz and James Baker column recently published in their pages:
George Shultz and James Baker, the esteemed former secretaries of State, have joined a group of GOP worthies for a carbon tax and recently pressed the case in these pages. They propose a gradually increasing tax that would be redistributed to Americans as a “dividend.” This tax on fossil fuels would replace the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan and a crush of other punitive regulations. Energy imports from countries without a similar structure would face a tax at the border.
A carbon tax would be better than bankrupting industries by regulation and more efficient than a “cap-and-trade” emissions credit scheme. Such a tax might be worth considering if traded for radically lower taxes on capital or income, or is narrowly targeted like a gasoline tax. But in the real world the Shultz-Baker tax is likely to be one more levy on the private economy. Even if a grand tax swap were politically possible, a future Congress might jack up rates or find ways to reinstate regulations.
Another problem is the “dividend.” A carbon tax would be regressive, as the poor spend more of their income on gasoline and household energy. The plan purports to solve this in part by promising to return the tax to the American public. But the purpose of taxes is to fund government services, not shuffle money from one payer to another.
Aside from the policy, there is the politics:
Remember also that this is the academic version of a plan that is sure to deteriorate when 535 legislators offer an opinion. Even if Members of Congress were for some reason willing to sign on to a large tax increase for all of their constituents, the final version would inevitably include more progressive tax refunds and more spending. Congress has never shown the self-restraint to collect an estimated $1 trillion in taxes and return it to the public.

Friday, February 24, 2017
Airlines and anti-Semitism
Tyler Cowen points to a new paper by Joel Waldfogel and Paul M. Vaaler. From the abstract:
We explore discriminatory product differentiation in the airline market through airlines’ depiction of Israel on their online route maps and whether their online menus include kosher meal options. We first show that several international airlines omit Israel from their online route maps. Three of these airlines are members of the major international airline alliances. With data on over 100 airlines, we then document that Israel map denial is more likely for airlines with passengers from countries exhibiting greater anti-Semitism. Owner tastes also matter: denial is more likely for state-owned airlines in countries that do not recognize Israel. Kosher meal options on online menus follow similar patterns, suggesting anti-Semitic rather than anti-Zionist motivations. Israel denial does not reduce the probability of alliance membership with alliance leaders having few airline alternatives to choose from in the Middle East.

Thursday, February 23, 2017
California: from bread-basket to basket-case
At First Things, Wesley Smith reflects on leaving California, noting it was once a bastion of practicality before falling victim to San Francisco liberals:
California’s great strength was once its dynamism and practical excellence. Los Angeles became the country’s second-most populous city because of brilliantly engineered water projects that transported rivers of water to parched Southern California from the north and east, while also transforming the Central Valley from a wasteland to the nation’s bread basket.
Californians were also expert problem solvers. When I was a kid, the smog in Los Angeles was as thick as China’s is today, causing burning eyes and aching lungs. In the summer, the air was so opaque that we couldn’t see the San Gabriel mountains a mere fifteen miles away from my home. L.A. smog persists today, but nowhere near the crisis levels of my youth, thanks to reasonable environmental regulations.
California was also known for generally good governance. Our public schools were mostly excellent and our state university system was among the best in the nation. In my time, Democrats such as Pat Brown, and Republicans like George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, governed moderately and with fiscal responsibility. Racism was certainly a serious problem, but in 1973, Los Angeles voters elected as mayor the pragmatic African-American City Councilman Tom Bradley over Sam Yorty, the acerbic and somewhat anti–civil rights movement incumbent. A new era seemed to be dawning.
That hopeful, moderate, sensible, and pragmatically progressive California is long gone. Today, radical governance is the rule at both the state and big city levels. The California Republican party self-destructed, allowing the Jacobin wing of the Democrat party to take absolute control. How skewed to the left have the state’s politics become? Due to a voter-approved initiative that has the two highest primary vote-getters appearing on the general election ballot regardless of party, some November races for major state offices are contests between a leftwing Democrat and a radical Democrat.
“San Francisco values,” once something of a national joke, drive contemporary California politics with a whip hand. Indeed, until the Los Angeles–area congressman was recently appointed Attorney General, San Francisco politicians controlled every important statewide office: governor (Jerry Brown), lieutenant governor (former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome), attorney general (now senator), the former San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, and both United States senators. And let us not forget that the Democrat queen kahuna of Congress, Nancy Pelosi, represents parts of San Francisco and its liberal, mega-rich neighbor to the north, Marin County.

America's pension crisis
George Will:
Nowadays, America’s most persistent public dishonesties are the wildly optimistic, but politically convenient, expectations for returns on pension-fund investments. Last year, when Illinois reduced its expected return on its teachers’ retirement fund from 7.5 percent to 7, this meant a $400 million to $500 million addition to the taxes needed annually for the fund. And expecting 7 percent is probably imprudent. Add to the Illinois example the problems of the 49 other states that have pension debt of at least $19,000 per household and numerous municipalities, and you will understand why many jurisdictions will be considering buyouts, whereby government workers are offered a lump sum in exchange for smaller pension benefits. Last September, in the seventh year of the recovery from the Great Recession, the vice chair of the agency in charge of Oregon’s government-workers’ pension system wept when speaking about the state’s unfunded pension promises passing $22 billion.
The Manhattan Institute’s Josh B. McGee reports that teachers’ pension plans, which cover more people than all other state and local plans combined, have at least a $500 billion problem. This is the gap between promised benefits and money set aside to fund them.
And it has consequences. There is less money for student instruction as governments have to pay for retirement benefits.
Will notes that Dallas, even with its superior economic growth (relative to other American cities), is facing an unfounded pension crisis. Eric Boehm writes in the March edition of Reason:
Municipal bankruptcies, though rare, are bound to happen from time to time. But they are not supposed to happen in places like Dallas, where the population and the economy are both growing. If poorly designed pension plans are capable of wrecking an otherwise thriving city, it's time to revise our view of what places are exposed to these risks.
Those risks are partly demographic:
Because pension costs are always deferred—you're promising to pay employees later for work they're doing now—they tend to lag behind demographic changes. A sharp decline in the number of taxpayers means promises made years ago must be borne by a smaller group of people. Unless the pensions are properly funded for decades in advance, that's going to cause serious problems.
Will says that pensions -- public and private -- face a challenge that includes demographics, sluggish economic growth, and low bond yields, but that public sector pensions also include a pernicious political dimension:
The generic problem in the public sector is the moral hazard at the weakly beating heart of what Walter Russell Mead calls the “blue model” of governance — the perverse incentives in the alliance of state and local elected Democrats with public employees’ unions. The former purchase the latter’s support with extravagant promises, the unrealism of which will become apparent years hence, when the promise-makers will have moved on. The latter expect that when the future arrives, the government that made the promises can be compelled by law or political pressure to extract the promised money from the public.

Does America assimilate too efficiently?
Tyler Cowen considers non-Latino arrivals:
It is striking to me how very rapidly they assimilate, and I don’t just mean the Canadians ... I mean the Russians, the Iranians, the Chinese, the Indians, and many others, including most of the Muslim immigrants. They don’t become culturally identical to the native-born, but in terms of economic and social indicators, you couldn’t ask for a much better performance.
The assimilation problem in fact comes from the longstanding native-born Americans, often of more traditional stock. The country around them has changed rapidly, and they do not assimilate so well to the new realities. And since they are not self-selected migrants who know they will face hardship, they are not always so inclined to internalize a “suck it up” kind of attitude. Many complain, others settle into niches of failure or mediocre careers.
In this regard, encouraging the actual arriving immigrants to assimilate better or faster can make the actual assimilation problem worse, because it will change the home culture more rapidly too.
Provocative thesis and worth closer examination. How does the Tyler thesis echo the late Michael Novak's observation from The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics: The New Political Force of the Seventies (1972) that "WASPS have never had to celebrate Columbus Day or march down Fifth Avenue wearing green. Every day has been their day in America. No more."
What are the cultural indicators that show "most Muslim" immigrants perform so well? I'm dubious.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017
I'm back
I haven't blogged in nearly a week. I was unexpectedly hospitalized for several procedures and am recovering fine. Hope nothing happened in the past week -- no internet, newspaper, or other sources of news for nearly six days and I don't really feel like catching up. Hope to get to emails and messages shortly, but I make no promises. Sporadic blogging and tweeting should resume shortly.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Carbon tax won't affect climate, will impact economic growth
Diana Furchtgott-Roth in Investor’s Business Daily: "Carbon Tax Won't Curb Climate Change, But It Will Clobber Growth." She questions whether recent advocates of a carbon tax/price/dividend (yes, dividend) can fulfill their vision to return carbon taxes to American taxpayers, especially the poor. There is always the promise of lower income taxes or, more recently, increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit. Furchtgott-Roth says:
Under our polarized system of government, any tax on carbon would be an additional tax, without the offsets that make it so attractive to academics. It would hurt the poor and raise domestic prices relative to prices of imports.
And every special interest will try to get its greedy hands on the carbon tax revenue.
It is an economic, budget, and political nightmare (benefiting blue states and harming red ones), and at the moment it does little for the environment: "America is responsible for 16% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and America's reductions in carbon usage will not help climate change unless other countries also limit their emissions." There are also serious questions that Furchtgott-Roth does not raise about the modest levels of carbon taxation and whether any politically feasible rate would do enough to discourage the use of fossil fuels.
The carbon tax is a solution to a problem, but it isn't environmental. The problem is that Washington needs wants more revenue.

The cultural roots of economic problems
Conservative MP and founder of the Centre for Social Justice Iain Duncan Smith at Conservative Home:
Figures show that family breakdown is a big driver of UK poverty as children in families that break apart are more than twice as likely to be living in long term poverty. When couples break up, children suffer and poverty in the family is often not far behind.
As a society, we should be much more concerned about this, especially when we consider that family stability is unequally shared. By the age of five, 48 per cent of children in low-income households are not living with both parents, compared to 16 per cent of children in middle to higher income households. Two out of three children growing up in poverty will experience family breakdown. Family stability is becoming a middle class preserve.
There are also ramifications for elder care:
Figures show that the offspring of difficult broken homes are less likely to care for their elderly or sick parents and grandparents. This in turn, places a strain on communities and services, a widely acknowledged problem issue at the moment.
And this has costs for taxpayers:
It is peculiar that with facts as shocking as these that we don’t talk about family breakdown more, especially when we look beyond the human cost and consider how much it costs us all as taxpayers. Every year the Relationships Alliance attempt to put a price tag on the cost of family breakdown, the amount our broken relationships costs the Government each year. This year it’s anticipated to exceed £48 billion. That’s an eye-watering amount to simply ignore. To put this into context, whilst I have nothing against helping support the Church repair the fabric of its buildings, the state spends more on this (some £20 million) than it does on supporting relationships and helping families stay together (£14 million). This is a serious problem because this relationship support has shown conclusively that when undertaken responsibly it can help repair family relationships and stabilise marriage.
As Mark Steyn has often said, it makes little sense to be fiscally conservative but socially liberal.

Returning to the Commonwealth
The Daily Telegraph reports that British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson has announced that Gambia will return to the Commonwealth. Ahead of a trip to a pair of African countries, Johnson said:
"I am very pleased that Gambia wants to rejoin the Commonwealth and we will ensure this happens in the coming months."
"The strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world."
Former president Yahya Jammeh called the Commonwealth a neo-colonial organization and vowed his country would have nothing to do with it. Adama Barrow, who was recently elected president, vowed to bring the west African country back into the Commonwealth and is carrying through on his election promise. Gambia will become the fourth country to leave the Commonwealth and return. Johnson says the decision is proof of the United Kingdom's post-Brexit influence ("Global Britain"). This seems to have more to do with Gambian politics than it does British leadership.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Did Trudeau 'cower' before Trump
Andrew Stiles at Heat Street:
Trump intimidated Trudeau by assuming a wide stance during a photo op in the Oval Office. This is sometimes referred to as “manspreading,” and is a common tactic used by alpha males, including former President Bill Clinton.
Trudeau, meanwhile, signaled weakness during the photo session by keeping his legs in close proximity to another, a behavior sometimes referred to as “cowering before greatness.”
Or sometimes a wide stance is just a wide stance -- and not anything else.

I don't get this logic
The Toronto Star reported on the anti-John Tory, anti-tax, pro-Doug Ford event held in Toronto. I found this confusing:
Toni Raimondo, an event planner, said in an interview she attended because taxes and fees keep going up under Tory.
“I have a very sick child, with cancer, and all my money goes to medicine — the increases are more than inflation, it adds up,” she said.
Asked what she would cut in the budget, Raimondo said people need to pay for the services they use.
“If you go to a community centre you should pay and if you can’t afford it, you don’t go.”
I don't understand how the answer to rising fees is ... user fees.

Monday, February 13, 2017
Ethics commissioner to investigate Prime Minister
The CBC headline -- "Ethics watchdog opens second investigation into PM's trip to spiritual leader's private island" -- on a Canadian Press story is incorrect. Technically it is the first investigation by Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson, and it is the result of the review of a complaint about Justin Trudeau using the Aga Khan's personal helicopter to travel to his personal island for a winter vacation. The timing of the mildly embarrassing announcement to the Prime Minister is questionable, coming the same day he traveled to Washington to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump, pretty well guaranteeing the story gets buried.

Hot Air's Ed Morrissey looks at two stories on the weekend (one from the New York Times, another from Politico) on how bureaucrats are not happy that Republicans in the White House and Congress want to roll back regulations. Morrissey observes:
Democrats and the media may be cheering the so-called “resistance” movement within the federal bureaucracy, but this proves what conservatives and Republicans have long argued. The bureaucracy has become its own special-interest group, and amounts to an unaccountable shadow government that strips Americans of their right to select the policies they want for their own self-governance. Rather than serve the elected government of the United States, these bureaucrats want to force elected officials to serve them. Regardless of whether or not the policies of those elected officials are entirely wise, those officials serve the voters, and the federal bureaucracy is supposed to implement their policies ...
Since Trump’s election, we’ve seen a plethora of warnings about the coming authoritarianism. Stories like those at the New York Times and Politico should prompt questions as to whether it had been here all along, and whether these hysterical outbreaks are a sign that it might be coming to an end.
Also, bureaucrats invoking the "will of the people" in a battle with elected officials (the president and his administration, and Congress) is a little rich.

PMJT: wrong even when he's right
The Guardian: "Justin Trudeau says it's not Canada's duty to 'lecture' Trump on immigration." Canada's Prime Minister engaged in some virtue signalling on refugees on Twitter recently but did not raise the issues of immigration or refugees with the new American President, and correctly so. Trudeau apparently was criticized for his silence during his visit to Washington. The PM answered his critics: "The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they choose they govern themselves. My role, my responsibility is to continue to govern in such a way that reflects Canadians’ approach and be a positive example in the world." It would have been irresponsible and imperious for the mouse to tell the elephant how to conduct its internal affairs, and one could imagine the Canadian outrage if Trump encouraged Trudeau to take a similar tact as Washington has to (supposedly) prioritize national security. And yet, Trudeau's comments were still intended to insult to Trump and his policies. Trudeau's comment that the Canadian "approach" is to be a "positive example in the world" is an implicit criticism of American policy. This is the foreign policy equivalent of the campaign tactic to publicly eschew attack ads against opponents with its implicit criticism that others are going negative. It should be obvious that there is criticism intended in Trudeau's comments, even if they do not come in the form of a traditional lecture.

Secret Labour search for Corbyn replacement
The Sunday Times reports that Labour is conducting focus groups and polls in north England to test the appeal of possible Corbyn successors shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner:
Labour is conducting secret "succession planning" for Jeremy Corbyn’s departure, according to leaked documents that warn the party is facing meltdown under his leadership. The public appeal of two rising stars, Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey, has been tested by a focus group as the hard left looks for potential successors to Corbyn. The group, organised by Labour’s pollster BMG Research, delivered a damning verdict on Corbyn himself with participants saying he was "boring," appeared "fed up" and "looks like a scruffy school kid."
Regarded as rising stars within the party, their focus groups have found the response to Rayner was "overwhelmingly negative" with responses ranging from "not likeable" and "weird." The feeling was that voters would not take her seriously. The responses to Long-Bailey were more positive: passionate, genuine, sincere, and smart. The Times reports that polling would be conducted in other parts of the country.
Corbyn won a second mandate from Labour last year but polls have found Labour support tanking.
The Guardian's Matthew D'Ancona puts the Labour exercise in perspective:
Let us not get carried away. One qualitative testing session in Manchester is not going to make or destroy a political career. Much more interesting was the apparent purpose of the exercise: to identify a potential successor to Corbyn who would appeal to the public but keep the party on the same ideological trajectory. Replace the captain, in other words, but maintain course towards the iceberg.
D'Ancona says the Corbynistas usually blame the Blairite wing for the leader's troubles, but it is the left-wing of the party that is organizing against Jeremy Corbyn, undermining his leadership, and questioning his viability going into the next election. D'Ancona says that there are capable centrist Labour politicians, but the left-wing is better at organizing within the party. They just aren't very good at winning elections.

Sunday, February 12, 2017
Political tumult in Europe
Three noteworthy stories this weekend from Europe.
In The Guardian, Jan Kubik, director of the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, is worried about the direction of eastern European countries (Poland, Romania, Hungary), "where three forces vie for dominance: disconnected and sometimes corrupt 'traditional' politicians, increasingly impatient and angry publics and assertive demagogues." There are economic and cultural forces at work (as there is wherever there are strong populist movements). Kubik is more concerned about fear-mongering about the ingratitude of populist movements than understanding them. There are several reasons for the rise of populism in the east: post-communist economic liberalism has improved overall well-being but those gains have been uneven and have yet to deliver Western European standards of living. But more importantly, as Ryszard Legutko, a Polish intellectual and representative in the European Parliament, writes in The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, the progressive project of the European Union is too similar to the communist regimes half the continent shed two decades ago. They both require religious-like adherence and were gestated in the same Englightenment and French Revolution ethos, that they are practically sisters. In the name of equality (communism) and diversity (liberalism), intolerance of different worldviews because suffocating. Just as communism failed to deliver equality and dignity for all, liberalism has become bastardized to create second- and third-class citizens who dissent from official orthodoxy. Perhaps economic liberalism and traditional religion cannot cohabitate, but the sort of cultural liberalism foisted upon EU members ensures that there is little room for the latter.
The Express reports, "France and Dutch EU votes expected even if Wilders and Le Pen lose." The British paper reports that in both the Netherlands and France, "far-right candidates propelling their parties high up in the opinion polls," but even if they lose, their popularity is pushing so-called mainstream parties to consider referenda on the future of the EU -- I would argue as a democratic safety valve. Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, told The Express, "The public are calling for a referendum in the major EU countries. It is going to be harder and harder for governments to resist." Indeed. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it will be almost universally painted as such.
The New York Times reports that it is far from a sure thing that Christian Democrat Angela Merkel will be re-elected as chancellor. Of course, seven months out from an election, nothing is a sure thing. But after being squeezed on the right by the rise of German populist parties, the left-wing Social Democrats are gaining in the polls. Being the Times -- or just 2017 -- there are the Donald Trump inferences: German political reaction to the new U.S. president and finding his German equivalents. It is unclear, however, whether the embrace of the Social Democrats is a result of Merkel's own move to the right on migration and deportations. It would be contradictory for Germans to be tired of massive numbers of refugees flooding the country to turn their back on Merkel in favour of a party who favours her former, more liberal migration policies. It is entirely possible, as the Times suggests, that Merkel made political missteps that led the Social Democrats to be taken more seriously. She let her foreign minister, Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Merkel leads a coalition government), to stand as president, which he won handily (931 votes in the 1260-member assembly). The paper reports, "Despite being a largely ceremonial position, the presidency provides stature and an important platform for Mr. Steinmeier, a popular and charismatic politician. In his brief acceptance speech, he encouraged Germans to be bold in difficult times." He is given to Barack Obama/Justin Trudeau-like rhetoric, which might stir the German soul. Or it might not. What is clear -- as it always should have been -- is that Merkel, one of the supposed last, great hopes for the European project, no longer looks like a shoe-in for re-election. And after 11 years in power, the fatigue with the government in power just sets in. Whether she is weakened by the anti-EU, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany or she loses to the Social Democrats, Germany, and Europe, won't be the same. And that's not necessarily a bad development.
The rise of populist parties has been a staple of political reporting from Europe since I was in high school in the 1980s. This time, however, even if they can't win, their message can no longer be ignored.

Wall Street Journal eliminating the Google loophole
Digiday reports:
Starting Monday, it’s turning off Google’s first-click free feature that let people skirt the Journal’s paywall by cutting and pasting the headline of a story into Google. The Journal tested turning off the feature with 40 percent of its audience last year. But the eye-popping moment was when the Journal turned it off four sections for two weeks, resulting in a dramatic 86 percent jump in subscriptions. The Journal said the full turnoff is a test, but didn’t say how long it would last ...
The Journal is a rarity in publishing in that it gets more money from readers than advertising, so it’s protective of its paywall, which includes being discriminating when it comes to distributing its articles outside its own platforms. But with print advertising waning, the Journal is looking for ways to lean more on readers for revenue. According to a reader survey it’s fielding, it’s exploring an ad-free version of the Journal, charging for individual articles and even charging extra for home delivery.
Video is still in front of the paywall — video commands high ad rates so the Journal wants to maximize its audience, and it’s also a way to draw in would-be subscribers — but it’s the exception. Starting last summer, previously free sections including arts and lifestyle have joined the rest of the sections that are locked down.
The Journal, unlike a lot of other papers, is worth paying for.
There are still loopholes:
Meanwhile, a new team has been tweaking the subscription messaging to get people to convert, learning that telling people they can cancel any time and putting price information front and center had positive results driving subs. Since tightening the paywall, the Journal said, the average number of stories leading people to subscribe is up 66 percent, which the pub says is testament to the strength of its long-tail.
While it’s ending Google first click free for now, which lets subscription publications be indexed by Google search, the Journal is increasing its exposure to new audiences by letting people read for free links that are shared on social media by subscribers and staffers. Since making that change, the Journal has seen a 30 percent boost in traffic from social media, primarily from Facebook. The Journal is treating the social sharing ability like a perk for subscribers.
Follow the writers and sections you like on social media.

Saturday, February 11, 2017
Ambassador Palin?
At NRO Michael Taube writes about reports of Sarah Palin being named ambassador to Canada and he lists numerous reasons why she is unfit for the job. I have two complaints about the column, including Taube's list of potential other ambassadors:
Fortunately, there are more acceptable options. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton have both infrequently travelled to Canada. Texas senator Ted Cruz was born in Calgary, Alberta. Former Massachusetts governor Scott Brown, who was briefly considered for secretary of Veterans Affairs, is certainly a possibility. Plus, there are Republican advisers and strategists who either supported or worked on various projects with Canada, including the Keystone XL pipeline.
Becoming ambassador to Canada after being posted at Turtle Bay is a step down. Ditto for Cruz, and ambassador is not a great job from which to launch a future presidential bid. (I also doubt whether in the view of the Trump administration that being born in Canada is a credential to be ambassador to the country.) I'm not sure Gingrich is much better than Palin or whether he would consider Ottawa a large enough stage for whatever Newt would want to do as ambassador. Brown seems like the sort of non-entity who gets these types of appointments.
My larger problem with the column is an analytical point that many pundits are missing. If the rumour is true, why is the administration considering the former Alaska governor for the job of ambassador. No one is asking what would qualify Palin for the job. I think there are two possible explanations. The first is that the appointment of Palin to Ottawa would signal how seriously the Trump administration takes Canada or the Trudeau government. (Answer: not very.) Another is that he wants a fighter to combat the virtue signalling of the Prime Minister and his office with their not terribly subtle oppositional tweets against the Trump White House. Palin could answer back and Trump could, as needed, say its just how she is.
The most likely scenario is that Palin's name gets mentioned and leaked to flatter her even though there is no intention to give her a job of any sort. The body language of Trump at the Palin endorsement (of him) spoke volumes.

Eliminating urban blight
The Washington Post reports on efforts to clean up parts of Baltimore:
Mable Olds, 69, the last resident of 936 N. Bradford, was on hand to see the government-paid excavator roll up to the house where she — and many mothers before her — had raised her family ...
She was not the only one uncertain about the intentional destruction she was about to witness. Baltimore, like Detroit and other aging American cities plagued by abandoned housing, is spending millions of dollars tearing out blighted pieces of itself in the hope that, like a pruned tree, the rest of the city will bloom.
As Maryland’s largest city has dwindled from a peak population of 950,000 in 1950 to about 620,000 today, the receding tide has left behind 17,000 boarded-up houses and buildings, unoccupied, unwanted and unstable. They are scattered throughout the city, with major concentrations on the east side, as well as in battered West Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s death from an injury suffered in police custody triggered riots in 2015.
Some of the vacant houses are brick hulks, roofless and irreparable, in such danger of collapse that the city keeps a demolition crew on standby 24 hours a day. But many are structurally sound, artifacts of Baltimore’s rich history and the craftsmanship of its earlier days ...
“When I was a kid, they used to have a model of the whole neighborhood at [Johns] Hopkins, how they wanted it to look,” he said. “This is the fruition of that plan.”
It's not only Baltimore:
The country’s inventory of abandoned homes grew by more than 4.5 million between 2000 and 2010, fueled by the foreclosure crisis. Rust Belt mayors, confronted with neighborhoods that looked like deserted movie sets, started talking less about growth and more about “right-sizing.”
Toledo and Akron, Ohio; Flint, Mich.; Buffalo and other cities began demolishing vacant structures as an alternative to managing them. Detroit has torn down almost 11,000 using more than $580 million from the federal government’s Hardest Hit Fund, a program targeting the states most stricken by foreclosures.
The promise of demolition is twofold. It eliminates the hazards associated with abandoned buildings and boosts the values of the houses that are left. It also creates green space — sometimes urban gardens, sometimes weedy lots.
Cleaning up isn't cheap:
Baltimore, still struggling to recover from the chaos and soaring crime that followed Gray’s death, has spent about $40 million laying siege to blighted neighborhoods since 2012. Approximately 500 rowhouses were knocked down in 2016, about the same pace as the previous year. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has pledged $74 million in state money. It would take about $500 million to clear away all of the boarded-up properties.

Friday, February 10, 2017
More on Rosling, another rational optimist
Rob Lyons, columnist for Spiked, writes about the late Hans Rosling:
Essentially, Rosling told a story of a world in which things have been getting better for almost everyone. In making this point, Rosling wasn’t alone. Others, like Indur Goklany, Matt Ridley and Steven Pinker (and, of course, spiked), have, in various ways, pointed out the benefits of a richer, better educated and more peaceful world. Nonetheless, Rosling was certainly rowing against the stream in an age where many of the elite and influential commentators were obsessed with climate change and overpopulation. Human beings were screwing up the planet on the one hand while, on the other, billions of people were doomed to lives that would be nasty, brutish and short ...
The most pressing question we face, therefore, is how everyone on the planet can enjoy the freedom that comes from washing machines and other labour-saving devices.
This human-centred outlook was what made Rosling’s statistics and presentational skills matter. There are plenty of ways of making data look entertaining. Rosling’s contribution was to put that gift to the service of making the case for more development. The world’s most high-profile neo-Malthusians, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, did Rosling the greatest compliment by rubbishing his ideas, calling him ‘a confused statistician’ and claiming – as they have done for decades – that extreme poverty would be the lot of the great majority of humanity when the inevitable civilisational collapse occurs. Rosling showed that industrial and technological progress could solve the big problems facing humanity, if we didn’t do anything so stupid as to turn away from these powerful, welfare-enhancing tools.
Capitalism is not a panacea, but it delivers more improvements to human well-being than anything else. It is troubling that the nattering nabobs of negativism are anti-capitalism; it is sad that they attack the very system that could improve the lot of those for whom they express concern. Rosling was an evangelist for the fact that the state of the world was getting better and that industrial and technological progress (usually brought to the masses through free markets) was responsible for these improvements. Rosling did not deny that too many people were still wanting -- wanting for better health and longer lives, for better living conditions, for the chance to flourish. But the fact that some were falling outside the circle of productivity (to use Pope John Paul II's term) does not diminish the fruits of expanding that circle to those who did benefit.

The snowflake generation -- do they even read books?
NRO's Katherine Timpf: "Authors Are Employing ‘Sensitivity Readers’ To Problematic-Proof Their Novels." Timpf reports:
According to a piece in Slate, novelists are now employing “sensitivity readers“ in an attempt to avoid representing characters from other communities in an inaccurate or offensive way ...
Slate’s piece begins with the story of an author and clinical psychologist named Becky Albertalli, who wrote a book in which her protagonist “muses that girls have an easier time coming out than boys, because their lesbianism strikes others as alluring” — which led to Albertalli’s being slammed for playing “too readily into a narrative” that they found “offensive,” the “fetishization of queer girls.”
Albertalli felt terrible about it, and made sure to employ “sensitivity readers” to review her next book before publishing it in order to avoid making a mistake like that again — but she should have responded by saying: “Give me a f****** break.”
Is this view that Albertalli’s character expressed “problematic”? Sure, but why the hell is anyone getting mad at Albertalli about it? It’s not like she was saying it was her view, it was simply the view of a fictional protagonist. But apparently, it’s not even enough to be perfectly politically correct in your own life to avoid angering people, you also can’t write a fictional book where a fictional character has a single “problematic” thought.
And if exquisite sensitivity is the order of the day, wait until triggering events are expunged from books. Conflict and adversity are bad and have no place in the fake world of fiction. Not only will there be no (genuine) diversity, there can be no drama. It is easy to exaggerate an incident reported in Slate to make it a phenomenon in the whole publishing world, but what is today's weird eccentricity among a handful of writers could just as easily become a trend in the industry.

Trade is cooperation by another name
Donald Boudreaux:
Those who wish to restrict trade wish to artificially shrink the opportunities for people to help others and to be helped by others. And what makes protectionists – right, left, and center – all so galling is that they proclaim that their goal is to help humanity.

Thursday, February 09, 2017
Europe to Muslims: not welcome
This explains European populism: according to a Chatham House survey in ten European countries, a plurality in Spain and United Kingdom and majority in all others agree with the statement "all further migrations from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped." In all but Spain, "neither" beats "disagrees." In no country but Spain did even a quarter of respondents "disagree" with stopping Muslim migration. The political and business elite are out of touch with the general population on Muslim immigration and Muslim refugees.

New MRI scans could revive abortion debate in United Kingdom
The Daily Mail reports on a "revolutionary new MRI scan" developed by London's iFIND. A new video of the scan of a preborn child at 20 weeks:
The ensuing footage is so detailed that you can clearly see the tot fiddling with the umbilical cord, turning its neck and stretching out in the womb.
The Daily Mail says:
The incredible detail reveals just how fully formed a foetus is at 20 weeks and reignites the debate on lowering the current 24 week legal abortion limit in the UK.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has previously supported slashing the limit to 12 weeks and there have also been calls to reduce it to 20 weeks.
The 20-second video is pretty amazing.

Trump's 'conservative' cabinet
The Washington Examiner reports:
President Trump has succeeded in picking the most conservative Cabinet of the modern era, and possibly ever, even besting the team put together by former President Reagan, according to a scorecard from the American Conservative Union, host of the annual CPAC convention.
ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp told Secrets that Trump's team, made up in part with House and Senate lawmakers graded by the group over the years, has a 91.52 percent conservative rating, significantly surpassing Reagan's by 28 points.
Only the Cabinet of former President George H.W. Bush, who was Reagan's vice president and followed the Gipper into the Oval Office, came close with a 78.15 conservative rating.
"By our ranking of the members of Congress in the Cabinet, this is the most conservative Cabinet of any Republican including Reagan," Schlapp said.
I have several thoughts and reactions.
1. Who cares? Well, Republicans do, frankly. Many were worried that Donald Trump wasn't a conservative. It is reassuring to them that Trump has picked conservatives for his cabinet. But we should care less about an ideological purity test than competence. There are no scorecards for that.
2. The title of most conservative cabinet is based on five of 21 picks because Trump only picked that many from Congress. The ACU doesn't score business leaders, philanthropists, and generals. With more than three-quarters of the cabinet unrated, labeling a cabinet more or less conservative seems meaninglessly incomplete. Of Reagan's 46 cabinet secretaries, only seven came from the legislative branch.
3. Looking back at some key cabinet posts in the Reagan administration: Secretary of State Alexander Haig is more conservative than Rex Tillerson. I'm not sure whether Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan or James Baker was more conservative than Steven Mnuchin is today (they are fairly non-ideological). Trump's Secretary of Defense James Mattis is probably more conservative than Cap Weinberger. But Reagan's most conservative cabinet secretary was his first Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, who wouldn't have been rated by the ACU because he was a former member of the Federal Power Commission and the head of conservative legal outfit. Ed Meese and Bill Bennett, two of the more conservative members of the Reagan administration (Attorney General and Secretary of Education), likewise had no legislative career to rate.
4. Even more conservative than Reagan seems to be an odd description of the Trump cabinet considering that the administrations of both Bushes and Gerald Ford leaned more conservative according to the American Conservative Union.

Trade limits on non-Americans are no different than limiting exchange with people whose names start with the letter ...
Donald Boudreaux responds to his correspondent, William:
Do you think me to be “unobjective (dogmatic)” because I support a policy of complete free trade with people whose first names start with “W”? Do you truly believe that a policy that allows those of us with first names that start with a letter other than “W” to trade without obstruction with you and other W-folk is so likely to inflict harm on us non-Ws that it is “unobjective (dogmatic)” for me to oppose any and all restraints on trade between us non-Ws with you Ws?
Until and unless you convince me that my support for unconditional free trade between Ws and non-Ws is “unobjective (dogmatic)”, you will not convince me that my support for unconditional free trade between Americans and non-Americans is “unobjective (dogmatic)”.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017
A conservative case against tax reform
Arnold Kling writes: "The more radically you reform taxes, the more you risk creating new distortions, both foreseen and unforeseen." He favours lowering tax rates:
It is true that lowering the corporate tax rate would reduce the malincentive effects of loopholes in the tax. Lowering the stakes involved would lower the rent-seeking. Also, simply lowering the rate seems less risky.
Not necessarily my view, but it is worth thinking about. A lot.

Taki on Alexander Chancellor
Taki Theodoracopulos remembers his first Spectator editor, Alexander Chancellor, who recently passed away. Taki concludes:
After Tina Brown hired him to write the Talk of the Town for The New Yorker, which she edited for a while, I saw quite a lot of him. Tina, an obsessive climber and go-getter, did not stick by him. He was surprised to discover a very large Christmas tree being raised in Rockefeller Center and wrote about it, unaware that it was an annual event, as old as the building. Fellow hacks made fun, but they were basically anti-Alexander because he refused to take them—or himself—seriously, as grave a mistake to make among American journalists as plagiarism.

Pence has done something Biden never did
Break a Senate tie. I still find it unbelievable that Joseph Biden served two full terms as vice president without once breaking a tie vote. FiveThirtyEight notes that for the first time a vice president broke a tie-vote on a cabinet appointment and the seventh time a presidential appointment needed the vice president to break a tie (and just the second presidential appointment tie-breaker since 1862).

Even in the Trump era, some things never change
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes about the "liberal Holy War against Betsy DeVos" which shows not a lot has changed for Democrats. For all the huffing and puffing about Trump and immigration, Trump and international institutions, Trump and unqualified cabinet secretaries, the Democrats plant their flag on the battle for Education Secretary because teachers unions are Very Important to the party:
[W]hen interest groups talk, politicians listen — and the teachers’ unions are simply more powerful in Democratic circles, with more money and leverage and clout, than most of the groups leading the charge against other Trump policies or nominees.
Battles over school choice have barely changed since the early 1990s despite, as Douthat points out, evidence suggesting school choice (private schools, charter schools) are usually a net benefit. But they threaten the Education Blob -- the education bureaucracy and the teachers unions -- so screw whatever modest benefit there is too children and families.
Douthat makes some important points about school choice -- modestly better outcomes but hardly a panacea -- that are secondary to his political narrative:
That “modestly” is important, because it tracks with much of what we know about school choice in general — that it offers real potential benefits without being a panacea. Decades of experiments suggest that choice can save money, improve outcomes for very poor kids whose public options are disastrous, and increase parental satisfaction. (The last is no small thing!) But the available evidence also suggests that choice alone won’t revolutionize schools or turn slow learners into geniuses, that the clearest success stories are hard to replicate, and some experiments in privatization (like Louisiana’s recent voucher push) can badly disappoint.
Douthat concludes suggesting that Democrats are the real reactionaries:
Finally, even after Trumpism’s disruptions, the older culture-war bogeymen still get liberals excited. Sure, they’re officially more worried about white nationalism and the fate of NATO, but wave the cape of looming theocracy, and suddenly it’s 2004 all over again.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017
Hans Rosling, RIP
Hans Rosling, the host of the phenomenal "Joy of Stats" documentary, passed away today. Fast Company says:
Rosling died today, so it seems an appropriate time to revisit some of his best videos. Rosling's most compelling work applied statistics to people's often-mistaken ideas of what was happening globally, causing them to question their assumptions about the state of global development. The Gapminder Foundation, of which Rosling is a founding board member, is dedicated to achieving the UN's Sustainable Development Goals; the general thrust of Rosling's talks is that while poverty is still endemic, the world now is much better than it was 50 years ago, and can continue to improve with the right investments. Perhaps most compelling was what appeared to Rosling's true joy and excitement while explaining the leaps humanity has made: very rarely are talks about health statistics and average incomes this enjoyable.
At that Fast Company link are several of his best videos, although it doesn't have his best, "Don't Panic" (about population growth). The world needs more Hans Rosling -- his commitment to data, evidence-based policy, and, most importantly, his optimism.

What I'm reading
1. "A Federal Fiscal History: Canada, 1867-2017," a Fraser Institute study by Livio Di Matteo
2. "Living Standards 2017: The past, present and possible future of UK incomes," a Resolution Foundation study by Adam Corlett and Stephen Clarke
3. "Work in progress. Towards a leaner, smarter public-sector workforce," a Reform study by Alexander Hitchcock, Kate Laycock and Emilie Sundorph
4. "Skills and Innovation," a summary of proceedings of the working group by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy and the United States National Governors Association
5. "Canadian Exceptionalism: Are we good or are we lucky?" a report from the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and University of Toronto School of Governance
6. The Winter 2017 edition of Cato Journal. I especially recommend the Chris Edwards article "Margaret Thatcher’s Privatization Legacy."

Trudeau government restores Court Challenges Program
The CBC reports:
The Liberal government's revival of the controversial Court Challenges Program will be expanded to include additional charter rights on top of equality and language rights.
According to a background briefing Tuesday, the new program to fund court challenges will include cases based on freedom of religion, freedom of democratic rights, and right to liberty and security.
Here is what I wrote for The Interim when the Harper government scrapped the CCP:
The Court Challenges Program funded homosexual and feminist organizations, among other groups, to intervene in court challenges to the constitutionality of federal laws. Gay rights groups received funding for their court challenges, seeking the inclusion of homosexuality among specially protected classes of people and a change to the traditional definition of marriage. Feminist groups received money to fight against cases that would have enshrined fetal rights ...
The program cuts are not only good economics and just policy, but smart politics. Both fiscal and social conservatives support the defunding of special interests, with not only Campaign Life Coalition, REAL Women and the Institute of Canadian Values, but the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the National Citizens Coalition applauding the announcement. Gerry Nicholls, vice-president of the NCC, said defunding the CCP was a victory for “taxpayers and democracy.” Edmonton Journal columnist Lorne Gunter noted that the CCP hardly ever funded individuals, only “powerful rights-seeking lobbies, and almost always the same dozen or so lobbies.” Nicholls said that taxpayers should not have to fund court challenges with which they disagree.
Critics charge the CCP with funding litigation for special interest groups to score political victories that they haven't earned at the ballot box. Relentlessly challenging the constitutionality of laws invites judicial activism and is fundamentally undemocratic. The government promises a transparent funding process, but Justin Trudeau's Liberals are going to pick panelists who agree with the permanently aggrieved class of potential litigants.

'Why We Don't Need a Department of Technology Policy'
Writing at Reason, Andrea O'Sullivan of the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University rebuts Bruce Schneier's argument for a "Department of Technology Policy":
Like many who make "market failure" arguments, Schneier believes that the government alone can intervene to fix the problem. Specifically, he thinks an entirely new federal agency is needed, fearing that without a Department of Technology Policy nothing could compel device manufacturers to internalize the externalities of poor digital security.
But behind every suspected market failure is usually an existing government failure. Schneier himself says as much when he discusses the many laws that inhibit security research and contribute to smart-device insecurity. In particular, laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) penalize computer scientists who try to test or report certain software vulnerabilities. These laws should be amended before we do anything else.
Perhaps more importantly, when considering how best to address market failures, we must not succumb to what economist Harold Demsetz called the "Nirvana fallacy." If you compare an imperfect existing situation with the perfect ideal of government intervention, of course the government solution will be tempting. But government bodies operate in an imperfect reality, and once created, they will generate their own set of unintended consequences, which will be very hard to turn back.
With many technological advances we tend to consider worst-case scenarios and imagine a ban or government regulation can prevent them all. In actuality, the worst-case scenario is probably unlikely nor is government likely to prevent all harm.

Good news about the Pakistan economy
Every year Tyler Cowen picks the most underrated and overrated economies in the world. This year he picked Pakistan as underrated and in his latest Bloomberg column explains why:
Gross-domestic-product growth has hovered in the range of 4 percent and now may be reaching 5 percent. That’s not going to rival recent Chinese performance, but it is enough to put the economy on a fairly positive path. Since 2002, the rate of poverty has fallen by half, and over the past three years the rate of terrorist deaths has declined by two-thirds. It’s now the case that 47 percent of Pakistani households own a washing machine, up from 13 percent in 1991, and retail is booming more generally.
On the macro side, inflation is not a problem, the country has staved off a foreign-exchange crisis, and it is rebuilding its reserves. The debt-to-GDP ratio is high at more than 60 percent, but the country has graduated from its adjustment program with the International Monetary Fund and appears to be in a stable fiscal state.
There is, however, significant downside:
To be sure, the problems remain staggering. The education system is poor, exports are not making progress and rely too heavily on textiles, investment is insufficient, and much of the country has a series of interlocking problems with weather, water and drought. The political situation is improved but still far from ideal, and Pakistan is not situated in a calm part of the world. There is plenty of talk of the country benefiting from China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, but for now I consider that speculative.

Planned Parenthood has quotas for abortion
The latest Live Action video has former Planned Parenthood managers admitting the abortion provider has quotas for abortion, and centers that did not do abortions had quotas for referrals. Hot Air has some choice quotes, including from Sue Thayer, a former manager:
“I trained my staff the way that I was trained, which was to really encourage women to choose abortion; to have it at Planned Parenthood, because it counts towards our goal.”
“It sounds kind of crazy, but pizza is a motivator [for getting abortion numbers up].”
Pizza parties for centers that consistently hit their goals.
More from Thayer:
“If they’d say, ‘I’m not able to pay [my bill] today,’ then we would say something like, ‘Well, if you can’t pay $10 today, how are you going to take care of a baby? Have you priced diapers? Do you know how much it costs to buy a car seat? Where would you go for help? There’s no place in Storm Lake (or whatever town they were in), you know, where you can get help as a pregnant mom. So really, don’t you think your smartest choice is termination?’
Hot Air's Ed Morrissey observes: "This points out more clearly what Planned Parenthood actually sells — despair. They want women to panic, to despair, in order to profit off of it. This sales pitch takes a woman at her most vulnerable and heaps the weight of the world on her shoulders … simply to meet a sales goal."
And this, from Live Action's Lila Rose:
“Planned Parenthood doesn’t have quotas for adoptions. It doesn’t have quotas for prenatal care. But quotas for abortions? Absolutely,” said Lila Rose, president and founder of Live Action. “Planned Parenthood makes a profit off women in the midst of their most difficult experiences and incentivizes ​its staff to take the lives of chil​dren in the womb with pizza parties, paid time off, ​and lunch​es with upper management.​ It’s time to redirect our tax money toward local health clinics that actually provide real care to women, instead of to Planned Parenthood, a corporation focused on upping ​its abortion numbers.”
Here are a few more quotes from the Live Action video, via the Washington Times:
Marianne Anderson, a former nurse at Planned Parenthood, says she felt more like an “abortion salesman” than a medical professional sometimes.
“I felt like I was more of a salesman sometimes, to sell abortions,” Ms. Anderson says in the video. “We were told on a regular basis that you have a quota to meet to keep this clinic open.
“We were constantly told you have quotas to meet to stay open,” she continues. “It was just, like I said, I felt more like I was selling abortion sometimes than treating people.”
Morrissey says this sounds more like "Glengarry Glen Ross" than a health care provider. Red State's Jay Caruso noted:
Having worked in supply chain, we had metrics of red, yellow, and green. I never thought I would hear of its use as a measure of how many pregnancies Planned Parenthood, terminates.