Monthly Archives: February 2013

Reasonable

Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission) v. Whatcott is a long decision which I have just skimmed the headnote and a few dozen paragraphs of the reasons as well as the conclusions. Lawyers on both sides are going to have great fun parsing the decision and noting how it limits certain restrictions on freedom of expression while affirming others.

My own sense is that, insofar as Whatcott rescues Taylor’s  general view that speech can and should be regulated by the state, this decision has simply proven that Canadians, and Canadian judges, are unwilling to let go of the idea that speech must, somehow, be controlled.

It is a very Canadian position.

Our discomfort with the idea that individuals are capable of governing themselves and that, ultimately, the state needs the means to intervene when some one “goes too far” (for whatever reason) is the animating spirit behind a cautious, communitarian, group driven society.

Obviously I would have preferred a decision which embraced individual rights and accepted that, from time to time, the exercise of those rights will be offensive to some. But as one CHRC official put it, and I paraphrase, “I don’t pay much attention to free speech, its an American concept”. And the decision in Whatcott suggests strongly that this view is going to determine the law in Canada for years to come.

Rothstein, J.’s reasons are very carefully considered and are, in their essence, a narrow but effective assertion that, in Canada, there are some things which you simply cannot say and, more importantly, that this position is deeply embedded in the Charter.

The Charter is a profoundly Canadian document. Its few ringing phrases are ring fenced  by the saving clause in s. 1 “reasonable limit prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”.

Canada is never far from her original values of “Peace, Order and Good Government” as Rothstein, J.’s masterly rescue of the dim reasoning in Taylor ably demonstrates.

Nice people will take heart in Whatcott‘s affirmation of real, reasonable Canadian values. And, if perchance, you don’t take heart well then you are not very nice are you…possibly un-Canadian.

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Paywall Drops

Variety, the venerable trade paper that has covered Hollywood for more than a century, is dropping its daily print edition and replacing it with a weekly publication starting next month.
The publication also will have a new management structure featuring three editors-in-chief and will remove the paywall that was put up on its website three years ago.
“It was an interesting experiment that didn’t work. We look forward to welcoming back longtime Variety readers when the paywall drops March 1,” said Jay Penske, the chairman and CEO of Variety’s parent company. yahoo

Now, Variety has content that can be found no where else…but the paywall did not work.

Paywalls are not the way to make money on the web. Playing smart is.

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Mandarins

Kathy links to Megan Macardle’s article on the homogenization of America’s (and, realistically, Canada’s) ruling elite. Being the son or daughter of Harvard grads and a Harvard grad yourself is now, apparently, the ticket to alpha jobs in politics, law, the academy, journalism and finance. Which is a) likely more true than not, b) hardly surprising given the entrance requirements act as a ferocious cognitive screen, c) of less and less importance.

It is becoming less important because big government, the academy, big law, huge finance and big media are dying. Not quickly but they are on their way. Why? Because the mandarinate has not done much productive in forty years. And, in fact, the elite activities of governance, anti-trust litigation, climate action, tax law, derivatives and queered gender studies have largely left any possible reality. Spending a trillion dollars a year you do not have is a flight from reality, explaining why such spending is a good idea is financial surrealism, but actually financing the spending is an error that only a really well trained, Ivy League kinda of a guy could make. The rest of us are simply not cognitively capable of ignoring reality at that level.

As many people are starting to notice, the wheels are falling off the more cherished social tropes of the mandarinate. Cost benefit analysis of a black studies degree from Yale is being performed, legal analysis is being out sourced to India, banks are being bailed out to postpone the day when all those derivatives are going to come back and bite. Climate action is being quietly under bussed by smart politicians.

Smart parents are looking for ways to prepare their children for both the alpha cognitive world and the world where things are actually made and services performed. A trade makes a lot more sense than an internship at the end of a 200K debt financed “education”.

As with the end of the catastrophic global warming scam, the political elites will be the last to know because they are advised by mandarins.

It is instructive to look at what happened when the Chinese Manchu mandarinate was confronted with a changing world. The denial of the 18th century gave way to the decline of the 19th and the collapse at the beginning of the 20th. The mandarins did not become dumber nor were the examinations any less tough; the fact was that the modern, western, world arrived at China’s door and would not go away. The mandarins had no answer to a radical change.

Our mandarinate is, to a degree, innovative. But it is the phoney innovation of people who share precisely the same central world view and argue about the margins. Real change, radical restructuring in the face of a changing world is simply beyond the stunted imaginations of the test taking classes. It was not on the exam.

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Where have all the Muslims Gone

Iran may be one of the world’s most secular countries; some reports put mosque attendance in the Islamic Republic at just 2%, lower than Church of England attendance. When the odious Islamist regime falls at length, we probably will find that there are as few Muslims in Iran as there were Communists in Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Like other religions rooted in traditional society, for example the nationalist-Catholic faith that Europeans abandoned after the two world wars, Islam cannot abide the onset of modernity. Some forms of religion can flourish in modernity; Islam is not one of them.

The variable that best predicts fertility across all Muslim countries is education: as soon as women become literate, they stop having children. That is a hallmark of a faith that melts away in the harsh light of modernity. David Goldman (aka Spengler)

For all of the noise about Islam rampant and Iranian religious aggression, the reality is that much of the Islamic world is in demographic decline.

Goldman thinks this may explain a good deal about the belligerence of the current Iranian regime. I suspect he is right. But it is not just Iran. Virtually every Muslim nation is experiencing a sharp decline in birth rates.

Or, at least they are in the more secular, less fundamentalist sections of the society. Because the other demographic truism – faith leads to babies – means that the more militant/less educated sectors of the society are still having five or six children per woman. Which, in turn, means that the battle of the cradle may be won, in the mid-term, by the groups most stridently anti-Western and anti-modern.

Demography can be ideological – in parts of the Muslim world (and in parts of the West) – the decline of the secular birthrate has distinct political implications.

(The fundamentalist settlers in Israel have a birthrate three times higher than more secular Israelis.)

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Kidding Aside

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The resignation of the Pope is extraordinary. Likely right, deeply perplexing for my Catholic friends.

It is, however, a rather interesting modern precedent.

Canada’s Queen, (PBUH), is getting on. In fact she is older than the Pope. However, to date, the Queen has shown no sign of abdicating in favour of Charles. It is just possible that the Pope’s retirement might open the way for our Queen to gracefully retire.

I am not saying she should; rather, the Papal precedent might allow her to consider the option.

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GreenGeld

The normally rather sane Tim Worstall has written, again, about the desirability of a “carbon tax”. In Tim’s world this is the most efficient and therefore least bad means of dealing with the problem of CO2 emissions and their impact.

Interestingly, Tim asks us to simply take on faith that CO2 is a problem and that its emission will have a negative impact. His proposal for a carbon tax is put forward as a less bad alternative to wind power and solar energy (though not, I note, nuclear) which he seems willing to acknowledge are pretty useless in addressing the energy needs of modern Western countries.

Tim does not want to engage the question of whether or not CO2 emissions are, in actual fact, a negative. He simply assumes they are and then tries to come up with a policy prescription which does the least harm. In this case a carbon tax.

His rationale for a carbon tax rests on the sound economic notion that “negative externalities” should not be created. Put another way, a producer should bear the full cost of production rather than being allowed to pass on the costs to the community of such things as water or air pollution.

In a fundamental sense this is the economic rationale for environmentalism and a position which even the hardest core free marketer should accept. However, embedded in that position is a requirement that the “negative externalities” be proven negative and that measures to control to imposition of such externalities be efficient. From an economic perspective, an efficient measure is one which costs less than the negative externality it is meant to address.

To give a simple example: propose that a pulp mill discharges a substance which kills 3 large fish a day. Propose that each of those fish has a value of $100 so the negative externality can be valued at $300 per day. An efficient measure to control the discharge is economically efficient if it costs $300 or less per day, it is inefficient if it costs more than $300.

Obviously, it is complicated to calculate the value destroyed by a particular negative externality. For example, there may be a cascading effect where killing 3 fish a day for a hundred days has the effect of killing the entire population of the fish. And so on. However, in principle, any measure aimed at a negative externality can and should be tested for its economic efficiency.

Which means that a carbon tax needs to be assessed against the harm it is alleged to be preventing as well as against other measures designed to prevent that same harm. This, in turn, means that the harm posed by CO2 emissions needs to be quantified. Without such quantification it is impossible to determine an economically efficient price for CO2 emissions reduction and thus impossible to arrive at an economically sensible rate of tax.

This can be illustrated by a simple thought experiment: imagine that we knew with 100% certainty that a doubling of CO2 would lead to an immediate doubling of temperature (with the consequence that life on Earth would become extinct]; the price of CO2 emissions would be efficient if it was set high enough to prevent any emissions which lead to such a doubling. Conversely, if we knew with 100% certainty that a doubling of CO2 would lead to a .1 degree temperature rise, a carbon tax would be inefficient if the value of the economic activity it deterred was greater than the cost of such a minimal rise.

Unfortunately for Tim, the state of climate science is such that it is effectively impossible to quantify with any precision a) what the temperature consequence of a doubling of CO2 is, b) what the cost of a rise in temperature is.

As climate science matures and more observational studies become available to calibrate climate models, the difficulty in attributing temperature rise to CO2 is becoming manifest. Black carbon, changes in solar radiation, non-CO2 man made effects (in particular urbanization), errors in the adjustments to the temperature record and plain natural variability all erode CO2’s centrality as the driver of the Earth’s temperature.

The underlying science is simply not good enough to provide any serious answer to the question of what an efficient price should be for CO2 emissions and therefore what an efficient rate of tax should be.

We simply do not know what, if any, contribution CO2 emissions have made, are making or will make to temperature rise.
More worryingly, we also have no idea what an optimum world temperature is or if it makes the slightest sense to speak of such a thing. Is a degree of warming a good or a bad thing? What about three?

Observationally, it seems clear that warming – which has been going on since the late 1800s – is a mixed blessing. A warmer world may make the poles hotter while leaving the tropics pretty much unchanged. If that is the case – and let’s assume it is – then is this a “bad” thing? If bad, how bad? The answer to that question has to be known and quantified so that we can accurately price the harm we propose to prevent by way of a carbon tax.

As Tim knows, while it is difficult if not impossible to price the harm prevented by reducing CO2 emissions, it is relatively straightforward to price the harm such a tax will inflict. A CO2 tax will increase the price of virtually all economic activity in the jurisdiction which imposes it. Basic economics tells us that as the price of an activity increases, less of that activity will occur. (Which, of course, is the basis upon which a CO2 tax promises such benefits as it may deliver.)

A good, stiff, CO2 tax should reduce the economic output of the jurisdiction which imposes it by some quantifiable number. If, for example, a CO2 tax increases the cost of energy by 20% one would be realistic in assuming that economic activity would decline in that jurisdiction by 20% of whatever fraction energy costs represent of the inputs for economic activity in that jurisdiction. In most jurisdictions such a tax could lead to significant reductions in GDP making the citizens less well off. Poorer.

So, in the end a CO2 tax is certain to make people worse off but uncertain to optimize temperature. Normally we would characterize this as folly and move on; however, Tim (and many other seemingly sensible people) continue to advocate this bit of craziness. Why?

Tim is as rational a commentator as you are likely to find on the net. He does not, so far as I know, believe in astrology or 911 conspiracy theories, so why advocate a carbon tax?

Many years ago Anglo-Saxon England was plagued by Vikings. The Vikings would raid coastal villages and often go a good distance inland plundering, killing, raping and generally being nuisances. Eventually the Anglo-Saxons grew so sick of the Vikings’ raids that they agreed to pay them to stay away. Danegeld was a very rational way of paying less than the raids were costing.

My own sense is that Tim has given up trying to fight the Green Vikings. He has realized that appealing to their better nature is not working. He understands that the Greens are immune to scientific argument and are economically illiterate. Worse, Tim realizes that the Green CO2 hysteria is going to take at least a decade before it finally burns itself out.

So Tim, willy Anglo-Saxon that he is, proposes to pay Greengelt in the hope that the costs of a CO2 tax will be much smaller than the staggering opportunity costs of mal-investment in windmills and solar farms and endless subsidies. Better still, while such mal-investment is a sunk cost, a carbon tax can, at least, be spent on things which are a bit less daft.

But, best of all, when the Green Vikings are finally routed scientifically and economically, a carbon tax can be quietly repealed with only minimal harm done.

Tim is not nearly as silly as his advocacy of a carbon tax might suggest; rather he is cunning.

Update: Judith Curry has this to say about the uncertainty surround CO2 sensitivity:

Until we better understand natural internal climate variability, we simply don’t know how to infer sensitivity to greenhouse gas forcing. The issue of how climate will change over the 21st century is highly uncertain, and we basically don’t know whether or not different scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions will be (or not be) the primary driver on timescales of a century or less. Oversimplification and overconfidence on this topic have acted to the detriment of climate science. As scientists, we need to embrace the uncertainty, the complexity and the messy wickedness of the problem. We mislead policy makers with our oversimplifications and overconfidence. climate etc

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