Wednesday, March 26, 2008

There are, Evidently, Some Things Money Can't Buy

Like brains for Tories and Liberals, f'r'instance.

Paul McKeever looked at the new Ontario "budget" yesterday:

REVENUES (Billions)

Income/Property Taxes:

* Personal Income Tax $25.2
* Corporations Tax: $12.3
* Employer Health Tax: $4.8
* Ontario Health Premium: $2.8
* TOTAL: $45.1

Retail Sales Tax (8%): $17.2
Gasoline and Fuel Taxes: $3.1
Other Taxes: $3.5

KEY EXPENSES (Billions):

Government Health Insurance Monopoly $40.4
Tax-funded, government-owned/operated schools: $13.1
Post-secondary education/training: $6.2
Welfare of various sorts: $11.8
“Other Programs”: $11.9
…oh yeah, we almost forgot “Justice”: $3.7

Allow me to be only the second snarky Objectivist on the internet, and add to that list:

*You, the taxpayer: a goddamn sucker.

Paul makes the important point that most of the budget, and all of the revenue from income taxes (and then some), goes to the two idiot brothers, education and socialized healthcare. If we were to end these daily excursions to failure, we could save Ontarians, collectively, over 45 billions dollars. $45 billion can buy a lot of cancer treatments and bachelor's degrees - or it can buy a lot of research into new drugs that make cancer treatment redundant. As Milton Friedman once said, "Nobody spends other people's money as carefully as he spends his own."

EDIT, 4:00PM: Clarified a few things.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Dallas's Red Light District

Via Instapundit, msnbc reports that Dallas is shutting down a number of their red light cameras because they aren't actually preventing people from running red lights.

Oh wait, that's not the problem; the problem is that the cameras are working:
The city said the cameras are failing to generate enough red-light-running fines to justify their costs.

Well, smack my ass and call me Stalin - it wasn't about saving the children. Well, fuck.

Dallas News elaborates:
That leaves Dallas government with a conundrum. Its red-light camera system has been an effective deterrent to motorists running red lights – some monitored intersections have experienced a more than 50 percent reduction. But decreased revenue from red light-running violations means significantly less revenue to maintain the camera program and otherwise fuel the city's general fund.

Of course, there's always this clever solution to the red-light problem: randomly shut down a few of the cameras for a while. Sure, they won't be there to catch the people who zip through busy intersections like a bat out of hell, but that's not the professed goal of red light cameras, is it? The claim was that they were necessary to make the roads safer for driver and pedestrian alike. And they've done that, evident in the Dallas News article quoted above. Now, logically, if it wasn't really the presence of red light cameras, but the threat of red light cameras that reduced running the lights, then people would be just as safe even if the cameras weren't on. If we kept the cameras operating on a random basis, joyriders wouldn't have time to adapt to which lights were safe and which were not.

It's the same effect seen with communities where concealed carry of guns is legal: criminals are convinced to ply their, err, trade with a little more discrimination, because anyone could be packing heat. Patrick Mullins wrote for Capitalism Magazine back in 2001 that:
Nondiscretionary concealed-carry permits deter crimes against persons because criminals -- fearing for their own lives -- don't know which potential victims in a right-to-carry state are armed and which are not. National polls suggest that there are as many as 3.6 million defensive uses of handguns by private citizens each year. There are no hard numbers available, because these incidents are rarely reported to the authorities and because 98% of them consist merely of brandishing the gun rather than discharging it. [John] Lott's landmark study now confirms the bountiful anecdotal evidence for deterrence.


Lott's conclusions shattered the conventional wisdom about the correlation of crime to gun ownership by responsible citizens.

"National crime rates have been falling at the same time as gun ownership has been rising. Likewise, states experiencing the greatest reductions in crime are also the ones with the fastest growing percentages of gun ownership."

"Allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns reduces violent crimes, and the reductions coincide very closely with the number of concealed-handgun permits issued. Mass shootings in public places are reduced when law-abiding citizens are allowed to carry concealed handguns."

Because someone else has chosen to equip himself with a tool for self-defense, everyone else in the community is just a little bit safer. Does it eliminate crime entirely? No, but neither do red light cameras.

But safety was never their primary concern anyway.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Selflessness to Blame for Recession

The Toronto Star attempts to twist reality to fit it's ideology:

As is well known, Adam Smith, the 18th century author of that groundbreaking economic treatise, The Wealth of Nations, decreed that the motivating force of economic growth was selfishness.

The desire of businessmen and shopkeepers and entrepreneurs to make money benefited everyone, he argued, because others picked up part of this extra money in the form of jobs or sales or whatever.

Less well known is that Smith himself assumed that selfishness was self-regulating, or at least had some decent limits.

In a second book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, now little-read but that Smith himself regarded as the more important one, he wrote: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him."*

Would that Smith were right. But he wasn't.


This recession, if confirmed, will be unique. It will have been caused by selfishness unconstrained by any of the moral sentiments Smith thought would act as a brake on social destructiveness.

Oh hum. Another day in Red Toronto. We're even seeing the same insipid arguments - sorry, smears being trotted out with a new coat of paint to hide the rust:

Thus, Merrill Lynch CEO Charles Prince walked away after being dismissed with $161 million, including $38 million in a bonus and stock options, at the same time as his company lost $10 billion.

Hello, envy, my old friend! It's another "zero sum" fallacy rearing it's ugly head, once again seeing the economy as a concrete pie, rather the amorphous, increasing blob that it really is. Ever wonder what the phrase "to make money" actually means, Gwyn? Yeah, I didn't think so.

I'm sure this will be a familiar refrain, but does the author of the Star's piece, Richard Gwyn, offer any - what's the word? Oh yeah: proof to back up his assertion that it was selfishness that caused the recession? Nope. Not one fucking iota of evidence is given to back up his claim. The article is impotent, its thesis stillborn, its words just random noises: gutteral screams from the throat of a recently beheaded turkey.

Since Gwyn hasn't bothered to look for facts before adopting a position, allow me to show him how it's done.

If anything, when I saw the headline, I knew that I would be able to refute whatever dreck this wretch was going to present, but I was expecting him to at least blame it on the selfishness of the people who realized that they were suddenly free to grab all of the low-interest loans they could, loans that they would never be able to afford were it not for government intrusion into the market in the first place. But for a writer on the staff of the Toronto Daily Worker, he couldn't even admit himself to say that much: he had to insinuate that it was the fatcat CEOs, making their billions while somehow screwing the economy by handing out what has now become free money, that were the problem. It takes a lot of twisting and covering of the eyes to achieve this one, folks. It also takes a lot of cowardice to use the words "selfishness" and mention how much CEOs are getting paid, without actually coming out and saying that he thinks the fact that somebody, somewhere, is actually being paid is the problem. If that's the problem, Dick, why don't you just come out and say it? If it's true, you can defend it, right?

What Gwyn hopes to evoke with his use of the word "selfishness" is what Ayn Rand identified as the "intellectual package deal:" (from The Virtue of Selfishness)
In popular usage, the word "selfishness" is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends,who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.

Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word "selfishness" is: concern with one's own interests.

The concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one's own interests is good or evil... it is the task of ethics to answer such questions.
Gwyn hopes that the minute you hear "selfishness" your brain will shut down, and you'll come up with all the marvelous things you thought he said, even though he hasn't said a goddamn thing. Then, you'll be ripe for the picking of the next politician who comes along promising to curb corporate "greed."

Back to Gwyn's article:
Committee chair Henry Waxman observed, "It seems that CEOs hit the lottery when their companies collapse." Prince and the others explained the bonuses were for earlier performances, and could not be ratcheted back.

Now, I could point out how Congressmen like Henry Waxman continue to earn their salaries while the entire country goes to pot, but I prefer to present facts, and not rely on envy to get people on my side. I will, however, take great delight in saying that this is the same Henry Waxman who masterminded the intrusion into Major League Baseball's privacy, taking a particularly sadistic interest in a man greater than he'll ever be, drug use or not: Roger Clemens.

The fact of the matter is that it was government altruism, not the selfishness of the bankers that caused this mess.

Alex Epstein, of the Ayn Rand Institute, provides a nice metaphor, prompted by Fortune Magazine's assessment of the situation:
Every few days we hear that another leading financial institution has written down billions more on subprime investments gone bad. Nearly every major financial institution, it turns out, had a hand in loans to low-credit borrowers—borrowers whose ability to pay often hinged on endlessly low interest rates or a strong housing market. How could this happen? How could nearly all the leading lights of the financial industry—the experts in assessing and managing risk—expose themselves to such massive losses? Or, as a Fortune cover crudely put it: "What were they smoking?"

A major part of the answer is: government bailout crack.

He continues:
For decades our government has had a semi-official policy that large financial institutions are too big to fail—and therefore must be bailed out when they risk insolvency—a policy that creates perverse incentives for them to take on far more risk than they otherwise would. "Too big to fail" is implemented through a network of government bodies that protect financial institutions from the long-term consequences of their decisions at taxpayer expense—a phenomenon we can observe right now.

Gwyn's slap to the face of Adam Smith in the Star's article is thus returned with the dueling glove: selfishness is self-regulating, tempered by the little-used device called reason. It was not reason that failed; in fact, the banks were acting in full compliance with it. If you know that there aren't going to be any consequences for ill-conceived actions, why would you even hesitate to dive in? If someone has taken the care to make my car out of an indestructible, invulnerable material, do I have any reason to drive safely? Fuck no; I, and my car, are going to be fine no matter what I do! To provide a more down to Earth example, I live in an apartment building: the utilities are included in the rent, and the rent is carefully controlled by the government, even though the price of utilities are not. I, therefore, have no incentive to conserve electricity: I pay the same regardless of how many appliances I run all damn day. Adam Smith opposed such controls because he was an advocate, right there in the damn quote if Gwyn had been bothered to understand it, of rational selfishness .

Rational selfishness acts like Adam Smith's invisible hand in the market. A man isn't going to charge 2000 bucks for a loaf of bread because the government threatens him with jail if he does so. He doesn't do that because it is irrational. No one is going to pay $2000 for a loaf of bread, because they can always make their own bread, buy bread from another bakery, or just go without bread. Then, Mr. Irrational Prices would have to lower the value he places on his bread to a reasonable point - the point at which people are willing to buy it; the point at which he can make the most money, not because he is charging the most, but because the most people are buying his bread.

Now, imagine, that your customers can purchase your expensive bread on credit, and that the government will bail him out when he realizes that he'll never have the $2000 per week that's required to keep his belly full of bread. Your customer's not going to stop buying pastries; he's got a "lifeline." You, certainly, aren't going to stop making bread: you're making - pardon me - dough hand over fist.

So the government prints more money to make the payments to you, the breadmaker. And suddenly, that $2000 isn't looking like such a good price anymore. Now, replace "bread" with "home," and you'll see what I'm getting at here.

Now, imagine if it was the government who made bread cost $2000 a loaf, as genius Thomas Sowell explains:
But why were housing prices going up so fast, in the first place? A number of studies of communities across the United States and in countries overseas turned up the same conclusion: Government restrictions on building. While many other factors can be involved -- rising incomes, population growth, construction costs -- a scrutiny of the times and places where housing prices doubled, tripled, or quadrupled within a decade shows that restrictions on building have been the key. Attractive and heady phrases like "open space," "smart growth" and the like have accompanied land use restrictions that made the cost of land rise in many places to the point where it greatly exceeded the cost of the homes built on the land. In places that resisted this political rhetoric, home prices remained reasonable, despite rising incomes and population growth.

Construction costs were seldom a major factor, for there was relatively little construction in places with severe building restrictions and skyrocketing home prices. In short, government has been the principal factor preventing the "affordable housing" that politicians talk about so much. Politicians have also been a key factor behind pushing lenders to lend to borrowers with lower prospects of being able to repay their loans.

Does it still look like that selfish baker - err, banker is to blame?

Smith, in a line apparently missed by Gwyn in his reading of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, says "We may often fulfill all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing." Indeed, that is precisely what the government should have done back when there wasn't a problem in the first place.

* Gwyn couldn't even get this much right: The Theory of Moral Sentiments was actually published before Smith's Wealth of Nations, and was given an extensive revision shortly before his death.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

A Slightly More Devious Side to John Gabriel's Greater Internet Dickwad Theory

From the National Post, "University Prof Defends Facebook Penalty:"

Chris Avenir, 18, is set to appear before an appeal hearing at the university next Tuesday on 147 charges of academic misconduct for his role as an administrator for a [Facebook] study group that allowed chemistry and engineering students to share test tips and answers on the popular social networking website.

The computer engineering student denies that he contributed to any of the posts that contained test answers.

If any of the other members of this "study group" had any scruples (or, ahem, balls), they'd come forward and admit that they were the ones who had posted the answers, perhaps in a last-ditch attempt to save their fearless leader. But that's not what they were taught - they were taught that the anonymity of the group would provide them with protection, and that ethics are determined not by individual conscience, but by whatever the tribe allows them to get away with. As long as Ryerson University remains content to "make an example" of someone other than the perpetrators (not that I'm excusing the the group moderator - it was his group, and he should have had been aware of the "tactics" that were being discussed, and acted on them himself), the little weasels will sit comfortably, knowing that "society" has once again been allowed to take the fall for their own evil.


Sunday, March 9, 2008

Regarding Bill C-10: The Facebook Response

In the previous post, I talked about the difference between censorship and refusing to fund pornography, or other productions that one might find objectionable. I concluded that the government's job is not to provide enjoyment or entertainment, because, necessarily, people discriminate against that which they find repulsive: for example, I would never buy my neighborhood library 10 copies of "The Communist Manifesto," "Mein Kampf," or "Confessions of a Shopaholic;" but a government that was providing funding for such a library would face the Catch-22 of being accused of "censoring" the library if it did not provide funding, and supporting such vile ideologies as Fascism, Communism, and terrible-literary-tastes-ism if it did cough up the dough.

A Facebook group created to protest Bill C-10 complains:
* It is undemocratic: This controversial new provision to screen the content of productions in awarding tax credits was never debated in the House of Commons, because it was hidden away in a long, technical piece of legislation.

You know, John Milton said "When language in common use in any country becomes irregular and depraved, it is followed by their ruin and degradation." And I'm distressed to learn that that has happened to the word "democracy." Democracy describes a system of government in which majority rules - no more than that, and no less than that. There is no requirement that the participants in a democracy must know what they're doing, or even be capable of functioning at a low-level of intelligence. If our duly-elected representatives can't be bothered to read something, then they shouldn't be agreeing to pass it. There is no refuge in the excuse of ignorance: when I am handed a contract, I read the thing front-and-back, using a magnifying glass and that fluorescent spray that they use on CSI, just to be sure that there aren't any hidden clauses or fine-print restrictions that would have me inadvertently turning over my power of attorney. If I don't feel like doing that, then I don't sign the contract. So it should also be, I would hope, when you have been given the power to represent the wishes of thousands of people.

You aren't in high school anymore - you can't just eschew the reading of "Brave New World" and hope that the Coles Notes will get you through the exam.

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Monday, March 3, 2008

Regarding Bill C-10

A shocking new bill has been passed:

A new bill that would give the federal Heritage Department the power to deny funding for films and TV shows it considers offensive is creating shock waves in the industry.

Changes now before the Senate to the Income Tax Act that would allow the federal government to cancel tax credits for projects thought to be offensive or not in the public interest. The amendments have already been passed in the House of Commons. (CBC)

David Cronenberg comments: "It sounds like something they do in Beijing... You have a panel of people working behind closed doors who are not monitored and they form their own layer of censorship."

The denial of funding or tax-cuts is not censorship. It is unfair, but only because my tax dollars shouldn't be supporting such exemplary programs as those that John Ivison describes in an article for the National Post:

...I'm outraged as a taxpayer. Telefilm Canada handed out $158-million last year, including to such productions as Sperm and The Masturbators. But while they or the other yet-to-be-released movies and shows may well prove to be the next Away from Her, Barbarian Invasions or Trudeau, all of which were award-winners and received substantial Telefilm funding, they are just as likely to be the next Web-dreams, Kink or G-Spot, titillating late-night fare designed almost exclusively to provoke hand-to-gland combat.

These three shows received substantial public funding over the years through Telefilm and the Canadian Television Fund. But why? Telefilm's mission is to foster productions that reflect Canadian society, with its linguistic duality and cultural diversity. Where's the Canadian distinctness in the G-Spot episode Sexorcist, where Gigi (Brigitte Bako), experiences a visit by a ghost that leaves her extremely "satisfied"? It's not that it's a bad show -- if it's on, I'll watch it because I'm Scottish and I know I'm paying for it. But the only connection to the Great White North is that Gigi is a struggling Canadian actress in Hollywood.

Why, indeed?

Part of the problem is that the broadcasters control where the Canadian Television Fund spends its $250-million. Not surprisingly, they direct funding toward shows they think will make them money. The new policy on tax suggests the government will, sooner or later, impose the same guidelines on Telefilm and CTF.

But that's not censorship. If the makers of Bliss or Webcam Girls want to continue to produce their shows -- or if they have a vacancy for a backscrubber -- then that's terrific. But they should do it without our tax dollars. As Pierre Trudeau so rightly said, there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.

The system by which "the arts" gets funding has been seriously flawed for some time. Naturally, I would prefer that the government simply stop funding all arts, no matter the content. If an artists wants to make something, they'll fund a way to make it; if the people want something, they'll find a way to get it. The good doesn't need the government to provide for it, only to protect it.

Calling the denial of a tax-cut to a production "censorship" means that you would have to also call refusing to buy a ticket to one of Cronenberg's latest "censorship." At the very least, it is mutilating the word, degenerating it to mean whatever you wish it to mean. Do they have censorship in Beijing, as Cronenberg says? Yup, they do. They also put you in jail for protesting the government's decisions. They also, reportedly, take organs out of prisoners for transplantation. This is not the kind of thing that Beijing would do - this is something Beijing would laugh at, giving it an inferiority complex.

Withholding tax credits only counts as censorship if you also consider the theater patron with discriminating taste to also be engaging in censorship when he doesn't buy a ticket to your performance. As has been repeated, ad nauseum, elsewhere, the right to free expression is not the right to an audience. Simply because you have a half-baked, poorly-considered idea for a TV series does not obligate the CBC to fund your notion, or to provide it with air-time. There are plenty of places on the internet that will happily host your mediocrity. If you can't convince anyone with money to fund your artistic endeavor, or convince those able of giving loans that enough people will want to watch your masterpiece that you will be able to pay them back, then your idea, for all intents and purposes, is worthless.

The free market always has been, and always will be, the best arbiter of the worthiness of ideas. Any program which does not provide the giving organization with a method of "discrimination," so that they can decide which projects get funded and which do not, will not survive for long. When people are left to their own devices, they decide which projects are worthy of funding by buying tickets to movies, comedy shows, and plays; by tuning in on their televisions; by visiting the websites. The quickest way to ensure that the Canadian public is not forced to pay for something that it objects to is simply not to presume to act on behalf of the Canadian public. There is no better steward for my choices than me.

I expect no government hand-out or tax-break from my artistic endeavors. As I sit in my apartment, tapping out my first novel unremittingly, I search out no government grants, no special privileges that I have not earned with regards to my work. Sure, I get a GST credit every now and then, but that's not related to my writing in any way. If the public likes my writing, then they, on an individual basis, will determine if I am worth supporting - no government agency will take over their decision-making processes, their value judgement, and decide for them. Like all values, the individual must decide which will help him to survive, and which will kill him. A man on deserted island in the Pacific Ocean must rely on his own reason to determine which of the island's fruit will poison him, and how to take the salty sea water and make it drinkable. There aren't any government bureaucrats to come along and tell him, as decided by majority vote, what he will do for food, or how to build a shelter. There is no replacement for individual judgement.

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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Anything you can do, the government can do worse

To quote Ronald Reagan, as I regard the concept that businesses will face no consequences if they act irresponsibly, and we thusly require a benevolent government to take care of us: "if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?" Essential tax-payer sponsored incompetents once again proved that the government is as human and fallible as everyone else is in the case of the "largest beef recall" in the history of the United States.

From USAToday:

LOS ANGELES — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has suspended at least two federal meat inspectors following the largest beef recall in the nation's history, a union head said Friday.


The USDA recalled 143 million pounds of beef from the Chino slaughterhouse on Feb. 17. The recall came after the Humane Society of the United States released undercover video showing plant workers trying to get so-called "downer" cows — sick or crippled animals — to stand by shoving and dragging them with forklifts, zapping them with electric prods and aiming water hoses at their faces and noses.


The recall launched a series of congressional hearings and close scrutiny of the USDA's meat and poultry inspection system. The agency has an average national vacancy rate of 10% and has said it is short about 500 inspectors.

That recall was recounted and commented on by Mike's Eyes, as it happened. He argued that not only are the regulatory organizations unnecessary, as they prove to be just as prone to error and apathy as the businesses themselves, but are actually counter-productive to the cause of consumer safety:

I'm not going to argue the pros and cons of this particular case. My point is that many people will use this incident as evidence to support the idea that we need regulatory agencies like the USDA to keep us safe. I say just the opposite is true. We would be much safer in an unregulated economy where the commodity of safety is provided by the market. In point of fact, the USDA did not protect the consumer in this case. It happened despite the regulatory agencies, despite the fact that a USDA inspector was there for a few hours every day. Why did regulators fail? Because they are not self-interested, they have nothing to gain by doing a great job and nothing to lose by doing a poor one. In a laissez-faire economy, producers would have everything to lose from a bad reputation and everything to gain from a good one.

And don't forget that, even if regulations somehow bypassed reality and somehow became helpful, they would still be inherently immoral: they violate the individual rights of consumers to make their own decisions about which companies they will support with the mighty vote of their paycheques. As Mike elaborates:

They represent the starting of the use of force against producers and consumers by 1. destroying the need of consumers to focus on the reputations of businesses and 2. by encouraging producers to be concerned with following certain rules rather than following reality as dictated by the market.

As it stands now, a company will, like a sub-par student coddled by years of public education, maintain the bare minimum of standards in order to pass. He has no incentive to do any better. That little stamp of government approval is the same whether your company produces the finest cuts or dog food. The public have even less interest than the meat plants do in a company's reputation, and will simply rely upon that stamp as a "sign of quality."

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