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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Saturday, March 31, 2018
NAFTA agriculture gains are great for consumers
The New York Times has a longish essay on agricultural trade in the United States and Mexico, mostly through the lens of the popular avocado:
Donald Trump has often railed at Nafta as “the worst trade deal ever.” But his focus on the loss of United States manufacturing jobs — felt keenly in the auto and textile industries — misses one of Nafta’s far-reaching benefits: the huge lift it has given to agricultural trade and consumer satisfaction in all three countries. Under Nafta, avocados have led an influx of year-round Mexican produce that has filled the seasonal voids in United States grocery stores and changed the way Americans eat. The avocado boom has caused environmental damage — some of Michoacán’s pine forests have been thinned out for avocado orchards — but it has been good for Americans gorging on guacamole in wintertime and Mexican farmers fending off the urge to join the drug trade or immigrate to the United States. According to a 2016 study commissioned by a marketing group for buyers and producers of Mexican avocados, the avocado supply chain has also created nearly 19,000 jobs in the United States and added more than $2.2 billion to the gross national product.
Even California growers, once vociferous opponents of Mexican imports, are happy with the situation. Land and water are too scarce to expand their seasonal harvests — which are around 10 percent of Mexico’s annual production — but surging demand and prices have buoyed their businesses, too. “Avocados are Nafta’s shining star,” says Monica Ganley, an expert on Latin American trade and the founder of Quarterra, a consulting firm based in Buenos Aires. “But it’s important to remember that the benefits flow in both directions.” Under Nafta, United States agricultural exports to Mexico have expanded nearly fivefold, to $18 billion, with sales of American corn, soybeans and dairy products booming south of the border. “Trade is a multiplier, not a zero-sum game,” Ganley says. “We tend to overstate how much Mexico is dependent on the U.S. But American producers may have more to lose than Mexican producers if Nafta disappears.”
The growth in the popularity of avocados has helped American farmers as well as Mexican ones. But that is beside the point. Economic activity is not for the benefit of producers (capital or labour) but consumers. More choice at better prices is the primary benefit of free trade agreements.

Thursday, March 29, 2018
Good grief (cosmetic surgery for pet fish edition)
The Onion New York Times reports:
Eugene Ng jabbed a pudgy finger against the side of the glass tank, like a predator singling out his unlucky target.
“That fish’s eye is looking a little droopy,” said Mr. Ng, pointing to a fish with large metallic gold scales swimming happily among its companions.
Minutes later, the fish was knocked out and getting an eyelift, a procedure that has become standard practice in Mr. Ng’s job as one of the premier cosmetic surgeons for Asian arowana fish here in Singapore. Using a pair of forceps, Mr. Ng — known to his clients as Dr. Ark, after the pet fish store that he also runs — worked quickly, loosening the tissue behind the fish’s eye and pushing the eyeball up into the socket.
“I know some people think it’s cruel to the fish,” said Mr. Ng, lifting his sedated patient with one hand to show off its newly straightened eye. “But really I’m doing it a favor. Because now the fish looks better and its owner will love it even more.”
I typically warn against committing sociology, but these last two paragraphs cry out for bigger-picture commentary that, quite frankly, I don't have in me right now.

WaPo discovers basic business practice
The Washington Post reports:
[G]rocery stores sell eggs at a loss and can afford to post prices below their wholesale cost because shoppers will reliably buy eggs as a staple. And grocery stores know that once shoppers are in the door, they most likely will grab other items on their way to check out, whether they planned to or not.
David J. Livingston, a supermarket research analyst, said grocers can sell a dozen eggs at a loss even though “nobody’s getting rich on 49 cents a dozen.” Similar to milk and bananas, stores hope that once they draw customers in for staple items, they’ll profit off other goods.
This practice is called loss-leader pricing (this Inc. article strongly suggests the practice is morally and economically problematic). And the products (typically milk and eggs, but sometimes various limited-time offer sale items) are called loss-leaders. They draw in customers. Come for eggs and stay for the rows and rows of other groceries. Some electronics -- smart phones and aircraft engines, for example -- are sold as loss, with companies profiting from service or maintenance plans. It's a form of marketing and there is nothing nefarious about it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018
The coming debt crisis
Writing in the Washington Post, Michael J. Boskin, John H. Cochrane, John F. Cogan, George P. Shultz and John B. Taylor, all Hoover Institute fellows or economists, warn that the growing budget deficit ($870 million this year, over a trillion by 2020) is unsustainable. At a time of incredibly low unemployment and modestly good economic growth, the government shouldn't be spending wildly. The authors warn:
Unless Congress acts to reduce federal budget deficits, the outstanding public debt will reach $20 trillion a scant five years from now, up from its current level of $15 trillion. That amounts to almost a quarter of million dollars for a family of four, more than twice the median household wealth.
If interest rates rise slightly above expectations, the cost of servicing the debt will become prohibitively expensive, leading to a vicious cycle:
When treasury debt holders start to doubt our government’s ability to repay, or to attract future lenders, they will demand higher interest rates to compensate for the risk. If current spending and tax policy continue unaltered, higher interest costs will have to be financed by even more debt. More borrowing puts more upward pressure on interest rates, and the spiral continues.
The United States needs a pro-growth agenda (cutting regulation and promoting trade to go along with last year's tax cuts) to increase government revenues without raising taxes. But it also needs entitlement reform. The authors note that the time to act is now, not when the country is saddled with a debt crisis:
If Congress acts now, it can avoid a fiscal collapse while continuing to provide help to people who need it. If Congress waits for a crisis — which may come when the United States needs suddenly to borrow significantly to address a financial meltdown, recession or war — the result will be fiscal and economic chaos, as well as painfully sharp cuts to programs that people rely on.
Boskin et al correctly note that debt crises are usually not foreseen. They hit hard and they hit quickly. I vaguely recall (I believe) Goldman Sachs firing an analyst for being unduly alarmist in 2007 because he warned that Greece faced forfeiting on its debt within 25 years. Within two years, the EU was desperately trying to avoid Athens hitting bankruptcy.
At a time of low unemployment and decent economic growth, it is foolish to pile on unprecedented deficits onto the record debt. There is a demographic challenge no policy-maker is addressing in Washington that is foreseeable, and will be an enormous fiscal liability if left unaddressed. Interest rates are rising, increasing the cost to service the debt (although I doubt the authors' alarming possibility that interest rates hit 5%; the Federal Reserve is trying to bump interest rates back to the 3-4% range so there is room to lower them in the next recession, whenever that occurs. No one is talking about interest rates in the 5% range.) There is a perfect storm for an budgetary calamity down the road, and probably not that far down the road.
This is the type of essay that typically appears in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. The fact is appears in the pages of the Washington Post means these luminaries have a very specific audience: Congress and the White House. Will the policy-makers in both parties, in both the legislative and executive branches, have the courage responsibly budget for the near and far future by tackling entitlement spending? The question effectively answers itself.

Antifa is both criminal and ignorant
David Solway at PJ Media on the well-worn issue of anti-free speech demonstrations on campus (and elsewhere:
Protests against free speech in the name of free speech have become the political flavor du jour. Although the MSM tends to avoid covering these unseemly episodes, anyone with a computer and the interest to go with it can witness online these totalitarian irruptions at universities, colleges and libraries across the continent: Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley, Jordan Peterson at Queen’s University, Heather Mac Donald at Claremont-McKenna, Gavin McInnes at DePaul, Charles Murray at Middlebury, and so on ad vomitatum. But one gets a different perspective -- obviously more immediate, more appalling -- when one is present at these public displays of doctrinaire belligerence and repressive violence so dear to the Left. One cannot shake a sense of disbelief and moral shock, at least at first.
He recounts a recent University of Ottawa Students for Free Speech event in Ottawa where his wife, Janice Fiamengo, was schedule to speak. Solway noted the protesters came wearing masks and tried to prevent the speaker and others from entering the building. The police offered minimal assistance to the speaker and audience. When Solway reminded officers that wearing a mask in public is illegal in Ontario, he received a "non-committal shrug in response." Once Fiamengo was ready to talk, a protestor pulled the fire alarm, ending the event. Solway notes that "The false alarm, of course, is a standard tactic of disruption and yet another convictable offense." But such attacks on free speech are expected by now.
But worse than the violence, threat of violence, and general law-breaking, is the mob's ignorance:
Another thing that strikes me about these protesting hordes -- apart from their proclivity to break the law with customary impunity -- is the monumental ignorance they exhibit. The few protesters I have actually managed to talk to over the years have never read the works of the people they are shutting down. Among an abbreviated list: They know absolutely nothing about Paul Nathanson or Cathy Young, whose public lectures they have disrupted. They have not read a word of David Horowitz, who speaks accompanied by bodyguards. They have not consulted Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life or attended his lectures on Jungian archetypes, Christian theology or English Common Law. They have no familiarity whatsoever with the magisterial oeuvre of Charles Murray. It goes on.
They do not even know their own origins, having never cracked the spine of Das Kapital or heard of Antonio Gramsci and “the long march through the institutions,” his colleague Goerg Lukacs, or the Frankfurt School kingpins like Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Erich Fromm. They are ignorant even of Herbert Marcuse whose theories they are aggressively putting into practice. Like a contemporary, ideologically primed version of the Star Trek Borg, they march in lockstep, spout slogans and commit acts of violence, regarding themselves as heroes of the coming Utopia. (Obviously, they have never heard of Thomas More either.) We have seen this commitment to mindless violence in the service of a presumed higher good before in Hitler Youth and Sixties-inspired groups like the Red Brigades in Italy and Baader Meinhoff in Germany.
On most days, I look at the news and assume that free speech is dead within ten years, but then I stop myself and wonder: why the optimism? Ten? Try five. Five? We have that long? I don't think so. We live in the Age of Feelings, and if someone hurts another's, we live in a social and intellectual environment where it's perfectly legitimate for some mobs -- it depends on the identity of and politics of the aggrieved group -- to not only shout down their political opponents, but shut them down. If the threat of violence won't do, official acquiescence through the inaction of police and other authorities will do. And if that doesn't work, just illegally empty the building, with no consequences. It can only be a matter of time until the state moves from unofficially tolerating the silencing of unpopular opinions to officially sanctioning their censorship (see Ontario's bubble zone law prohibiting the free speech of pro-life Ontarians near abortion facilities). But what gets under my skin is that the critics of these speakers truly have no idea what their targets have actually said, nor have they any idea from where their own inchoate opinions spring.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018
Defining human rights down
Spiked-Online's Joanna Williams is not a fan of Amnesty International leading a campaign against online harassment, saying it belittles the idea of human rights violations:
Amnesty International, best known for campaigning against human-rights abuses abroad, is turning its attention closer to home. Alongside raising awareness of the plight of foreign prisoners of conscience, Amnesty now wants to draw the public’s attention to a new group of victims: women who use social media. With its Don’t Let #ToxicTwitter Silence Women initiative, the crusading non-governmental organisation beloved of letter-writing liberals moves from the torture of prisoners to nasty tweets in the click of a mouse.
The starting point for Amnesty’s latest campaign is the assumption that women experience ‘a toxic environment online’ and are ‘subdued to silence’ as a result. Their research explains: ‘Every day, women face violent threats, sexism, racism and more on Twitter. This abuse is flooding Twitter, forcing women out of public conversations – and at times driving them off the platform. The abuse can be more intense for women of colour, women with disabilities; lesbian, bisexual, transwomen, and non-binary people.’
Amnesty’s aim is to ‘make sure Twitter becomes a safe space for movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, and not a place where women are silenced out of fear of violence and abuse’.
For an organisation that has traditionally campaigned around wrongful imprisonment and torture to use the word ‘violence’ to describe online comments – words – is astonishing.
There are certainly places that aren't safe for women that are more urgently crying out for the attention of human rights campaigners. We live in a world with human trafficking, rape camps, virginity tests, and acid attacks. Conflating these physical and psychological attacks on women and girls with the unpleasantness and inconvenience of being bothered with words is both facile and infantile. Of course, Amnesty International is also the organization that just last week declared menstrual hygiene an "urgent human rights" issue. Not every problem is a human rights issue, and by pretending they are, demean real violations of the safety and security of individuals.

Monday, March 26, 2018
Human progress (bananas edition)
The (London) Times reports that a technology breakthrough will reduce banana waste, increasing potential markets and getting more food to customers:
A British company has invented technology that could save up to 250 million bananas from going to waste every year.
Independent trials suggest the filter system slows the ripening process enough to double the green life of bananas to an average of about 70 days. Supermarkets require bananas to remain green during shipment and distribution, meaning any that have ripened when they arrive cannot be sold.
Bananas are the world’s favourite fruit with more than 100 billion being exported every year, according to the United Nations ...
The trials in Costa Rica, conducted by Manuel Madrid, a world leading expert on bananas, found the filters successfully absorb ethylene — the ripening hormone — from the bananas’ environment. Dr Madrid concluded the system was more efficient and environmentally friendly than methods that are now being used ...
Simon Lee, the founder of It’s Fresh!, the company that created the filter, said: “If a banana does not meet specification for its colour it will get rejected, a bit like ugly fruits.
“Our technology is allowing growers to ship their bananas longer distances to markets they are having difficulty reaching now.
“If you want to ship to China or Russia the extra time it takes creates problems with as much as 20 per cent arriving out of specification. These bananas have to dumped.
“Our product is a huge opportunity for the banana supply chain to massively reduce waste and produce better quality bananas.”
Food waste releases methane when it decomposes, a gas far more likely to cause global warming than carbon dioxide.
At present, the filter is a breathable membrane that can be placed in banana crates but the company is working on developing it into a self-adhesive label that can also be used more widely with other types of fruit.
That last part is important. While many people might shrug because they don't care about bananas -- I personally consider them part of the Axis of Evil, along with onions and seafood -- the technology might save other fruit, as well. This technological fix should result in either cheaper prices for consumers as the price of lost fruit won't have to be absorbed into the surviving fruit, or greater profits for companies and thus potentially more compensation for farmers.
Improving supply chains improves lives.

It's difficult to be a good prime minister
British prime minister, that is. Theo Barclay explains why in his Sunday Telegraph review of Andrew Gimson's Gimson's Prime Ministers, a collection of sketches of the 52 men and two women who have held the post:
The post is among the toughest of comparable roles, for unlike their presidential counterparts, our leaders must shoulder great responsibility with no personal mandate. Before the 20th century, job security depended on the occupant’s relationship with a volatile and sometimes insane monarch. More recently, prime ministers have served at the mercy of their cabinets, an unruly blend of lickspittles, ambitious upstarts and bitter enemies. On top of that, they must defend their administration in the House of Commons at weekly sessions, nowadays broadcast to the nation.
Gimson identifies only a handful of great prime minsters: Pitts, Disraeli, Gladstone, Churchill, Attlee and Thatcher. The last four (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Theresa May) have been rather terrible failures by Barclay's reckoning, but I think it's too soon to tell if history might be kinder to Cameron (it depends on how post-Brexit Britain does).
I look forward to reading Gimson's brief volume which promises to be a very good introduction to British political history.

Friday, March 23, 2018

There is no passport-gate
Some Brexiteers are upset that a French company will be printing Britain's passport instead of a British one when the UK brings back the country's iconic blue passports. The Sun's editorial offers some wise words to console them:
The Sun won’t be screaming “betrayal” if our new blue passports are printed in France. The British firm vying for the contract was undercut. It’s annoying, but c’est la vie.
Let’s bank the £120 million saving over ten years and spend it on the NHS instead, as the wise Brexit bus once said.
It’s a bit rich for the UK’s De La Rue to moan. It does business all over the globe and prints other countries’ passports.
There’s another reason we don’t object though. Brexit was about reclaiming powers, especially our long-lost ability to strike lucrative deals with the rest of the world as a champion of free trade.
It would be absurd to demand everything now be made here, not to mention counter-productive and impossible.
A few Brexiters are angry. But Remainers assume all must be — because they caricature our motivation as a longing for an archaic, insular Little Britain.
Sorry to disappoint. It’s the opposite.
The money doesn't have to spent on health care. It doesn't have to be spent on anything. It could just be savings. The point is that if Britain is a free-trading nation and it is not encumbered by the rules of the EU, it can contract out as it likes with whomever it likes, and that's fine.

Remind me again, why do we have Republicans
The New York Times reports:
Congress gave swift approval to a $1.3 trillion spending bill that will keep the federal government open through September but broadly defies the Trump administration’s wishes to reshape it.
The House voted 256 to 167 to approve the bill early Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the spending plan, which stretched 2,232 pages, had been unveiled.
After a scare over whether a fiscally conservative senator might force a brief government shutdown this weekend, along with an unexpected grievance from another senator over the renaming of an Idaho wilderness area, the Senate approved the measure early Friday morning.
Government funding was set to expire at midnight Friday, but b y giving quick approval to the bill, lawmakers moved to avert what would have been the third shutdown of the year.
The spending bill, which congressional leaders agreed to on Wednesday and President Trump seemed to grudgingly endorse on Twitter, provides big increases to the military and to domestic programs — and clearly rebuffs the Trump administration’s efforts to sharply scale back the reach and scope of the federal government.
There is no cut to the National Endowment for the Arts budget and Congress gave an additional $3 billion to the National Institutes for Health. Planned Parenthood funding has been maintained. Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and a founder of the Freedom Caucus, said the spending bill was "maybe the worst bill I’ve ever seen" and said the vote was a slap in the fact of GOP voters: "I doubt that the voters were saying [in 2016], 'Put Republicans in power so that they can pass a bill that continues to fund sanctuary cities, continues to fund Planned Parenthood'." If Republican politicians did not exist, there would be no need to create them.

Thursday, March 22, 2018
Paul Ehrlich, still wrong after a half-century
In 1968, Paul Ehrlich and his wife published the alarmist book, The Population Bomb, which prediction mass deaths resulting from over-population, the erroneous Malthusian assumption that the number of mouths to feed would outpace the ability of civilization to feed them. Ehrlich talked to The Guardian to mark the half-centenary of The Population Bomb:
Many details and timings of events were wrong, Paul Ehrlich acknowledges today, but he says the book was correct overall.
“Population growth, along with over-consumption per capita, is driving civilisation over the edge: billions of people are now hungry or micronutrient malnourished, and climate disruption is killing people.”
Except, Erhlich is wrong; the proportion of the world's population that is undernourished is declining, as is the global famine mortality rate. In fact, almost every chart at Max Roser's Our World in Data refutes Erhlich's pessimism. And over-consumption is not a real thing unless you already assume that over-population is a problem in which case it's a tautology.
Efficient desalination could be this generation's green revolution.
Maybe if we change the timeline again, Erhlich might be correct when The Population Bomb celebrates its 100th birthday.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Provincial budgets based on wishful thinking
The Financial Post reports that Alberta's NDP government is assuming the expanded Trans Mountain pipeline is completed in its budget forecasts. Revenues from those pipelines help Finance Minister Joe Ceci get closer to balance although British Columbia is threatening to block completion of the project.
The CBC reports that Nova Scotia's Liberal government is assuming nearly $20 million in pot profits for the province to help deliver a budget surplus next year. Finance Minister Karen Casey assumes that the province will sell 12 million grams of recreational cannabis after July 1, ignoring the fact it is unlikely the federal government will have their legal weed scheme in place at the beginning of summer.
In both cases, the provincial government can blame someone else for not meeting their fiscal targets: Rachel Notley's government can point to British Columbia holding up the pipeline, Stephen McNeil's government will complain that Ottawa didn't pass their legislation in time. But it is irresponsible for finance ministers to count their unhatched chickens, especially when the problems are not only foreseeable but clear for everyone to notice right now.

Reforming universities
The Washington Post reports:
The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point has proposed dropping 13 majors in the humanities and social sciences — including English, philosophy, history, sociology and Spanish — while adding programs with “clear career pathways” as a way to address declining enrollment and a multimillion-dollar deficit.
I am sympathetic to the school's plight and even its decision. I understand that students don't care about the humanities and social sciences. Heck, students don't really care about learning. Post-secondary schools are about credentials, not education. For many professors, universities are not about opening intellectual vistas for students, but a chance to propagandize. But despite these problems, UW-SP's decision seems like intellectual vandalism and a frontal-assault on what the university should be. The root of the problem is that too many people go to university because lazy companies use post-secondary graduation as a winnowing exercise for eventual hires. I'd prefer university become virtually useless for qualifying potential candidates for jobs and return to providing a broad-based education that teaches students how to think and directs them to the books and conversations that will help them do that best. I'd like to see another institution like polytechnic institutes that combine the practical of college and theoretical of university to replace universities as credentialing institutions that train young people for careers. The best thing for the university and the broader society is to make university more elite by making it less useful, and for one-tenth the number of students to attend them. Schools like the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point can make the transition to polytechnic.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Brexit transition deal
Yesterday, the UK and Brussels agreed to a transition deal that slightly clarifies how each side proceeds as the Brexit deadline nears. I tried not to read any news stories or commentary before reading the 130-page document. Now that I've completed the latter, I've proceeded to the former and most of the reaction is predictable. Brexiteers are worried. The Guardian bludgeons Theresa May. The Remoaners are crying we told you so.
There are two big plusses: London can negotiate trade deals during the transition and there will be no "punishment clause" restricting access to the single market during the transition (although it has seemed that the EU was going to concede the latter for much of the last month). On the down side, sovereignty over fisheries was not fully regained and it seems less likely that Theresa May will win on Northern Ireland (keeping it in the customs union in order to maintain the open border with Ireland). The latter always seemed fanciful. I'm concerned that there is no deal for The City, but there was probably never one to be had. Lastly, May seems to have conceded to keep the United Kingdom within the EU's regulatory alignment if no other solution is agreed to before Brexit is concluded; I'm not sure that the UK does take this position, but the wording in the document, which is not finalized, could lead reasonable people to believe she has made this huge unwarranted and indefensible concession. We'll see.
The Daily Telegraph's Peter Foster has the most measured and thoughtful response:
[T]here is still precious little clarity about what kind of world we are "transitioning" towards.
But this is to understate the political importance of Mrs May winning a 21-month transitional agreement that reassures business that the new EU-UK trade regime - whatever it might be - will not come into force before December 2021.
This is precious breathing space, both commercially but also politically.
That precious breathing space is vital. It provides a little more certainty to investors and companies and a little cover for Theresa May's government.

Tweets from The New Statesman and the new think tank, Freer.

Friday, March 16, 2018
Not enough Toys R Us kids
Business Insider reports that in the liquidation papers filed by Toys R Us, the company partly blamed declining birth rates for its non-viability:
Most of our end-customers are newborns and children and, as a result, our revenues are dependent on the birth rates in countries where we operate," the filing reads. "In recent years, many countries’ birth rates have dropped or stagnated as their population ages, and education and income levels increase. A continued and significant decline in the number of newborns and children in these countries could have a material adverse effect on our operating results.
This has received very little media coverage, although Andrew Van Dam writes in the Washington Post:
Even adjusted for the aging population and declining share of women of childbearing age, U.S. fertility rates are at all-time lows.
That’s problematic for Toys R Us, which also operates the Babies R Us stores. The company claims in its annual report that its income is linked to birthrates, and it appears to be right.
The change in the number of children born in the previous 12 years (and thus sitting right within the Toys R Us demographic), tracks closely with the company’s changing annual revenue.

Thursday, March 15, 2018
March Madness
Round 1: Virginia (1) over University of Maryland, Baltimore Count (16); Creighton (8) beats Kansas St (9); Davidson (12) upsets Kentucky (5); Arizona (4) ekes past Buffalo (13); Loyola Chicago (11) beats Miami (6); Tennessee (3) turns away Wright State (14); Texas (10) takes Nevada (7); Cincinnati (2) beats Georgia St. (15)
Round 2: Virginia (1) beats Creighton (8); Arizona (4) over Davidson (12); Tennessee (3) over Loyola (11); Cincinnati (2) beats Texas (10)
Sweet Sixteen: Virginia (1) over Arizona (4); Tennessee (3) beats Cincinnati (2)
Elite Eight: Virginia (1) over Tennessee (3)
Round 1: Villanova (1) over Radford (16); Virginia Tech (8) beats Alabama (9); West Virginia (5) beats Murray State (12); Wichita State (4) turns away Marshall (13); Florida (6) ekes past St. Bonaventure (11); Texas Tech (3) beats Stephen F. Austin (14); Butler (10) beats Arkansas (7); Purdue (2) beats California State Fullerton (15)
Round 2: Nova (1) over Virginia Tech (8); West Virginia (5) gets past Wichita (4); Texas Tech (3) over Florida (6); Purdue (2) over Butler (10)
Sweet Sixteen: Villanova (1) over West Virginia (5); Purdue (2) over Texas Tech (3)
Elite Eight: Villanova (1) beats Purdue (2)
Round 1: Xavier (1) easily dispatches Texas Southern (16); Florida St (9) edges Missouri (8); Ohio State (5) ekes past South Dakota (12); Gonzaga (4) beats University of North Carolina at Greensboro (13); San Diego State (11) over Houston (6); Michigan (3) over Montana (14); Providence (10) beats Texas A&M (7); North Carolina (2) beats Lipscomb (15)
Round 2: Florida State (9) edges Xavier (1); Gonzaga (4) beats Ohio State (5); Michigan (3) over San Diego State (11); UNC (2) beats Providence (10)
Sweet Sixteen: Zaga (4) beats Florida State (9); UNC (2) beats Michigan (3)
Elite Eight: North Carolina (2) beats Gonzaga (4)
Round 1: Kansas (1) beats Penn (16); Seton Hall (8) edges past North Carolina State (9); New Mexico State (12) over Clemson (5); Auburn (4) over College of Charleston (13); Syracuse (11) ekes out a win over TCU (6); Michigan State (3) beats Bucknell (14); Oklahoma (10) beats Rhode Island (6); Duke (2) dispatches Iona (15)
Round 2: Kansas (1) beats Seton Hall (8); Auburn (4) edges past New Mexico State (12); Michigan State (3) beats Syracuse (11); Duke (2) easily defeats Oklahoma (10)
Sweet Sixteen: Kansas (1) beats Auburn (4); Duke (2) edges past Michigan State (3)
Elite Eight: Duke (2) decisively beats Kansas (1).
Final Four:
Duke (2) beats Villanova (1); Virginia ekes out a win over North Carolina (2).
Duke (2) beats Virginia (1) in an all ACC final.
There is no chance this happens.
Working assumptions, priors, and other comments: I love North Carolina and hate Duke. Three of the best defensive teams (according to KenPom) are in the South: Virginia, Cincinnati, Tennessee; that means a potential for grinding Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games. One of these teams will get eliminated earlier than I predicted. Michigan and Michigan State are underseeded at three and I'd have the Spartans in the Finals if they didn't play Duke in the Midwest on the second weekend. North Carolina is a flawed team that could lose to fast-paced Lipscomb in the opening game but they are talented enough to win it, too. Duke is the best team in the tournament; Michigan State might be the second best team in the tourney. I would have picked any other seventh-seed over Oklahoma, which didn't deserve a tournament ticket, but Rhode Island has been playing as poorly as the Sooners have in the last month. I would have picked eighth-seed Virginia Tech to win their second-round match if they were in the Midwest or West, but Villanova is a great team. The best game of the opening round will probably be Davidson (12) vs. Kentucky (5); the Wildcats are good enough to make the Final Four, but I'm going out on a limb picking Davidson because their 17th-ranked offense (according to KenPom) is going to give Kentucky fits. The best game of the tournament is probably going to be the Sweet Sixteen game between the Blue Devils and Spartans; they are the only two teams teams rated both the top 10 offense and defense (according to KenPom) and two of only three teams ranked in the top 20. Will be a tremendous game. I almost picked Buffalo (13) to beat Arizona (4) in the South but just couldn't do it. Expect a lot of overcoming adversity narrative is Sean Miller's team goes deep, but the pundits will blame the distractions and controversies if they bail early.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Manageable Brexit bill
Politico EU reports:
Britain will pay £37.1 billion to the European Union over the next 45 years, finally clearing its “Brexit bill” in 2064, according to the U.K.’s independent budget forecasters.
In a document published alongside Chancellor Philip Hammond’s spring statement on the public finances Tuesday, the Office for Budget Responsibility said the U.K. would pay almost half of its outstanding commitments to Brussels by the end of 2020.
Most of the rest goes to pay Britain's pensions commitments. This is a fair(ish) amount over a reasonable(ish) timeframe. While not paltry by any means, it is hardly economically punishing for London. I think the UK is on the hook for more than they are legally required or morally obliged, but its the cost of bailing on the EU and it not the sort of example-making Brexit bill many thought Brussels would try to impose to scare other EU-skeptical populations.

Increased political polarization might be a myth
Tyler Cowen points to a new paper by Amnon Cavari and Guy Freedman in the Journal of Politics titled "Polarized Mass or Polarized Few?" The abstract reinforces a theory I've leaned toward subscribing to for some time:
In this study, we argue that the perceived polarization of Americans along party lines is partially an artifact of the low response rates [to polls] that characterize contemporary surveys. People who agree to participate in opinion surveys are more informed, involved, and opinionated about the political process and therefore hold stronger, more meaningful, and partisan political attitudes. This motivational discrepancy generates a bias in survey research that may amplify evidence of party polarization in the mass public. We test the association between response rates and measures of polarization using individual-level data from Pew surveys from 2004 to 2014 and American National Election Studies from 1984 to 2012. Our empirical evidence demonstrates a significant decline in unit response that is associated with an increase in the percentage of politically active, partisan, and polarized individuals in these surveys. This produces evidence of dissensus that, on some issues, may be stronger than exists in reality.
There's another element to the polarization narrative. I haven't read the study and do not know if the authors look at the role of social media, but my guess is that Twitter and Facebook also lead to a heightened sense of increased political polarization. I'd suggest that social media makes public the views of some segment of the population that the elite ignored or pretended did not exist when they were contained to private conversations, or perhaps even talk radio.

Sunday, March 11, 2018
Hope to have something PC leadership-y soon
Been super busy today. After being cooped up at the PC convention yesterday, spent most the day with the family. Will write something tonight. I hope.
For now, I echo the advice of Dan Robertson:

Saturday, March 10, 2018
PC Party leadership prediction
I wanted to do a longer one a week ago. Events of the last few days change my confidence in this analysis/prediction, but not my actual predictions.
The bottom line: Doug Ford wins on the third ballot unless the combined Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney Lapham vote is 58%-60% in the first round. I can't imagine that happening. Polls suggest their combined support is in the low to mid 50s, and I think the polls over-estimate both of their support. Tanya Granic Allen will exceed expectations, helping Ford get over the top.
First round
Doug Ford and Christine Elliott will be effectively tied. Christine Elliott's support was over-estimated in 2009 and 2015 when she was the frontrunner. She finished third in 2009 behind Tim Hudak and Frank Klees and lost two-to-one against Patrick Brown three years ago. I think her strength is being over-estimated again. I wouldn't be surprised if Ford is ahead 3-5 percentage points, but I wouldn't be surprised if she was ahead by a point. It is also possible because of the point/riding system that Ford has more support but they are closer in points. My guess is that they are both in the low to mid 30s. Tanya Granic Allen will surprise people with a third place showing garnering close to a fifth of the vote, well ahead of the 10-12% polls have showed her with. Social conservative leadership candidates always surprise pundits and opponents. Klees unexpectedly beat Elliott in 2009 on the strength of the socon and ethnic vote; Brad Trost usually polled 1-2% in the 2017 CPC leadership and started with about 10% of the vote and finished with about 15%. No one saw it coming. My guess is that Tanya Granic Allen has about 18% of the vote, which could climb closer to 20% if she wins over some significant portion of longtime party members in southwestern Ontario and Chinese voters in the GTA. Most long-time members vote for the person they think can win the general election, but her anti-wind farm rhetoric might attract enough of them. If the ethnic vote breaks a little more evenly, she'll do well (at Ford's early round expense). I've heard that the anti-sex ed Chinese in the GTA were voting Ford #1 and Granic Allen #2. Caroline Mulroney Lapham has underwhelmed the membership. She's a weak candidate and it showed time again. I'd be surprised if she gets 15%, and predict she'll end up with about 12% of the vote.
Second and third rounds
When a candidate drops off, others will gain simply because their support grows as a percentage of a smaller pool of voters. Many voters don't put a second or third preference. How many do will decide this race. It's safe to assume that Mulroney supporters who put a second preference will overwhelmingly vote for Christine Elliott. Elliott will need about three-quarters or more of CML's voters to put her name down, and that is not a safe assumption. If Elliott can't pull ahead of Ford by double digits in round two, she has no chance of winning. Elliott will almost certainly pull ahead of Ford on the second ballot assuming Mulroney drops off the ballot first, it just won't be enough. We're probably looking at something like Elliott 42%, Ford 38%, Granic Allen 20% after the second ballot.
The math is pretty easy after this. Granic Allen supporters are very likely to put a second preference and they will nearly 100% go to Ford. Anecdotally, I've heard that the vast majority of Pierre Lemieux supporters in last year's federal leadership contest voted Brad Trost second. Likewise, a good many Trost/Lemieux votes went to Andrew Scheer third. The social conservatives helped put Scheer over the top. Ford win on the third ballot 57%-43% for the same reason.
I will be surprised if the punditocracy is not surprised by how well Tanya Granic Allen does in this race. That will be the story for 30 minutes or so until Ford win the leadership race, after the new leader becomes the story.
UPDATE: Eric Grenier writes: "Endorsements from MPPs, MPs and nominated candidates are not necessarily decisive on their own (though in the federal Conservative leadership race, an endorsement from a sitting MP was worth about 11 percentage points in his or her riding). But they can deliver the support of local organizations that can help with get-out-the-vote efforts." Reminder that neither Vic Fedeli nor Lisa MacLeod could help deliver their ridings for Christine Elliott. Whatever bump they provide, it didn't help.

Friday, March 09, 2018
Vagina politics
Marina Prentoulis, a senior lecturer in politics and media at the University of East Anglia, authored a column for The Guardian titled, "The far right hates vaginas. Why doesn’t this anger the left more?" Prentoulis concludes her column: "When my vagina is the target of far-right hate, the progressive left better stand by my side." I would have once thought that the author was being deliberately provocative, but I do not any longer take such a view. Rather, such language is merely an expression of identity politics, of which this article is a vigorous defense even when it identifies masculine identity as being "at the centre of fascistic discourse."
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail reported that on the International Women's Day parliamentary debate on making misogyny a hate crime, female MPs repeatedly invoked the c-word. I understand that there is a rich tradition of using that word in Britain, but I was previously unaware of it qualifying as parliamentary language.

Columnist needs comfort object
Jill Abramson wrote earlier this week about the 2020 Democratic primaries and the embarrassment of riches -- more embarrassment than riches, perhaps -- the party will have to choose from in the next presidential election cycle. It's a pretty pedestrian column, even for The Guardian, until the conclusion:
It’s easy to look at what’s happening in Washington DC and despair. That’s why I carry a little plastic Obama doll in my purse. I pull him out every now and then to remind myself that the United States had a progressive, African American president until very recently. Some people find this strange, but you have to take comfort where you can find it in Donald Trump’s America.
Abramson writes about American politics for The Guardian. She once held senior editorial and writing positions at the New York Times, including Washington bureau chief and executive editor. She is a visiting lecturer at Harvard. And she needs a comfort object to deal with today's political scene FFS.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018
What I'm reading
1. Prime Ministerial Power in Canada: It's Origins under Macdonald, Laurier, and Borden by Patrice Dutil. The centralization of power is not new. Putil is an excellent political scientist/historian. UBC Press produces a lot of good political books.
2. Mike's World: Lester B. Pearson and Canadian External Affairs edited by Asa McKercher and Galen Roger Perras. (Another good UBCP book.)
3. Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World by Joshua Freeman. Good story-telling (the social history) combined with an assessment of the economic and cultural importance of large-scale manufacturing. Early candidate for top-five book of the year.
4. Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch. A little too much memoir for my liking, but would be tedious tedious without it.

EU and the growth of European populism
The (London) Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein:
Consider what has happened in Italy. The coming weeks will see a struggle for power between the populists and the far right. A sort of Iran-Iraq war of coalition making, in which one only wishes that both sides could lose. The result of Sunday’s general election was so bad that even the failure of the appalling Silvio Berlusconi came as a disappointment.
It happened at the same time as a German coalition deal which leaves the populist Alternative for Germany party as the main opposition. This is caused by their rise and the disappointing showing of both mainstream parties, but most particularly that of the centre left. Centre-left parties almost everywhere in Europe are floundering.
Meanwhile populism (in other words, parties claiming to be the “voice of the people” and usually nationalist) is in the driving seat in Poland, Hungary and Austria as well as a big presence in many other countries.
Added to all of this Britain, one of the EU’s most powerful members, has opted to leave. At what point does the EU stop to consider whether any of this might possibly be a reflection on the way it works? At what point does it stop to think whether its insistence that political integration comes before everything might not be so wise?
As long as there are snotty, out-of-touch, condescending, undemocratic eurocrats -- which means as long as there is an EU -- there will be populist movements that reflect the (justified) revolt of the masses of Europeans who will not buckle to the fiction of a political Europe. Sometimes these populist movements will be small and manageable by national-level elites, although this seems less likely in the near future. Most of the time these populist movements will be competitive in elections and be real difference makers in the formation of governments. Sometimes these populist movements will win (see Brexit or Syriza in Greece). The point is they are here for the foreseeable future. If Brussels and the EU-27 think the way to put a lid on populism is to make Brexit painful for the United Kingdom or deny the UK its leave, the European Union might want to think again. This tact, while understandable from their perspective, misses the point that a critical mass of regular folk just aren't going to put up with the diktats from Brussels any longer.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018
Gabriel García Márquez
If he hadn't died four years ago, South American novelist Gabriel García Márquez would have turned 91 today. Google honours him with a Google doodle today. García Márquez is a fine novelist, for sure, but I cannot think of him without recalling Joseph Epstein's brilliant comment (in Commentary in 1983) about the novelist's most famous work:
Mario Vargas Llosa, the very able Peruvian novelist who has written a lengthy critical study of García Márquez said of this remarkable novel: “One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of those rare instances of a major contemporary work of literature which everyone can understand and enjoy.” That, too, seems to me largely true, except that the first time I attempted to read One Hundred Years of Solitude I thought it quite brilliant and stopped reading it at page 98 (of 383 pages in the paperback edition). A number of intelligent people I know have gone through a similar experience in reading the book. All thought it brilliant, but felt that anywhere from between eighteen to fifty-one years of solitude was sufficient, thank you very much.
That final sentence is probably my favourite line in literary criticism. Period.
It is unfair to a novelist as good as García Márquez to view him through the prism of a biting critical comment, but I do. (That said, most people today will know him through the prism of a Google doodle.) I highly recommend reading Epstein's essay "How good is Gabriel García Márquez?" even if the conclusion might be a tad too cute for many readers.

No-fly fail
Neil Macdonald at the CBC:
Never mind the matter of why the failed assassin Jaspal Atwal would be invited to any sort of diplomatic reception, let alone one starring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife. Political parties can be venal and willfully blind to ugly realities in pursuit of votes, and that should be no surprise.
The better question is this: how in heaven's name was that man allowed to set foot on a passenger aircraft, in an age of no-fly lists so strict that babies with names similar to violent extremists are denied boarding?
The answer is that Jaspal Atwal is not on the list, and almost certainly never was, despite the fact that by any of the definitions law enforcement uses to define a terrorist, Jaspal Atwal is a terrorist. And not an aspirational one, either, like some of the clumsy fools who have been reeled in over the years by overweening government stings.
No, Jaspal Atwal belonged to a cohort of Sikh extremists who, from their base in Canada, fought a violent war against the government of India in the '80s.
This is an important question and one that we cannot trust to be answered honestly by this government. But it cries out for a serious review of how the no-fly list is maintained and enforced ... although right now I'd settle on maintained. This is an egregious oversight and one we would not know about if Justin Trudeau's India misadventure hadn't led to publicizing Atwal in recent weeks.

Monday, March 05, 2018
Cowen's proposal to limit occupational licensing
Tyler Cowen says he would prefer state and local authorities to scale back occupational licensing, but has little faith to do so, which is why he has a radical proposal:
My radical proposal is therefore for the federal government to preempt as much occupational licensing as is possible. That’s right, these functions would be taken away from the state and local governments.
Unfortunately, I don’t expect the federal bureaucracy to usher in the reign of Milton Friedman’s Chicago School economics. But the federal regulatory process would likely pay less heed to local special interests, and it would produce a more homogenized and less idiosyncratic body of regulatory law more geared toward the most important cases, such as medicine and child care. The federal government is less likely than many state and local governments to obsess over licensing rules for fortune tellers, florists and athletic trainers.
A federal approach to these regulations would also bring standardization and uniformity across state lines, making it easier to move from one part of the country to another, and helping restore the great American tradition of mobility.
I'm not convinced, but it's an intriguing counter-intuitive argument to use the federal government to increase economic freedom.

Friday, March 02, 2018
Aid workers and sex workers
The Guardian reports:
Aid workers from around the world arrived in their thousands to assist with the recovery. Natasha could earn big money. She says a foreigner would give her at least $100 (£72), more than five times the price a local would pay.
“They have more money but like everyone there are good guys and bad guys,” Natasha says, recalling an instance shortly after the earthquake when two aid workers picked her up.
“One of the guys wanted to have anal sex but he wouldn’t wear a condom. When I said no he got really aggressive and his friend had to stop him from hitting me. He had his arm raised already.” ...
Another prostitute, Magdala told The Guardian:
“When a car pulls up, everyone is hoping it’s a foreigner because they pay so much more,” she says. “Sometimes we fight over who gets to the car window first.”
And then there's this:
“I can’t say this whole scandal is a surprise,” [mayor Ralph Youri Chevry] told the Guardian. “[Aid workers] have been doing as they please for years.”
Hey, it gets worse:
There are reports that some children have been recruited as sex workers in orphanages across the country, according to Jasper House, a women’s refuge in the Haitian town Jacmel.

Thursday, March 01, 2018
Remember when Bill Morneau was thought to be a star
The Canadian Press reports:
Health and labour groups are calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to remove Finance Minister Bill Morneau from the government's national pharmacare file over comments he made about the freshly launched effort to explore the issue.
The heads of three organizations allege Morneau presupposed the outcome of the study on national pharmacare by saying he supports an eventual strategy that would preserve existing drug-insurance systems in Canada, rather than tossing them all aside for a new national plan.
Leaders of the Canadian Labour Congress, Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions and Canadian Doctors for Medicare have written to Trudeau about Morneau's remarks the morning after he tabled a budget announcing the national pharmacare council.
"Minister Morneau's comments contradict the overwhelming evidence and threaten to undermine the work of the (advisory council) before it even begins," reads the letter.
Time and again, Bill Morneau doesn't seem up to the job of finance minister.

Why read?
Economist Dani Rodrik is interviewed by The Reading Lists, and while I recommend the full Q&A, this is worth noting:
What is your favourite thing about reading?
Reading is withdrawal and immersion at the same time: withdrawal from whatever is happening at the moment around you, and immersion in a different world. It adds life.