Friday, April 20, 2018

Snake Oil Isn't Selling These Days

Paul Krugman writes that, in the United States, snake oil isn't selling like it used to. Exhibit A is Donald Trump's tax cuts. George Bush touted the same snake oil and Americans bought it:

In the past, deficit hypocrisy was an important weapon in the G.O.P. political arsenal. Both parties talked about fiscal responsibility, but only Democrats practiced it, actually paying for policy initiatives like Obamacare. Yet Democrats were punished for doing the right thing — remember “they’re taking $500 billion from Medicare”? — while Republicans seemingly paid no price for their cynicism. Voters focused on the extra money in their pockets, ignoring the long-run consequences of big tax cuts for the rich.

So what's different this time around?

For one thing, in 2000 the U.S. had a budget surplus, and debt had been falling relative to G.D.P., making concerns about long-run fiscal impacts seem remote. In fact, Alan Greenspan infamously argued that a tax cut was needed to keep America from paying off its debt too fast.
By contrast, the U.S. ran large deficits in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and the people who yelled loudest about an imminent debt crisis were the same people who pushed through a $1.5 trillion tax cut. And at least some voters seem to have noticed, and even made the connection between tax cuts and Republican attempts to undermine Medicare and Medicaid.

But there are other differences as well. The party of "family values" is an obvious fraud. And Americans have redefined families:

I mean, claims to be the defenders of family values have lost their punch partly because the public has become far more socially tolerant — Americans now support same-sex marriage by a two-to-one majority! — and partly because the current resident of the White House may be the worst family man in America. Flag-waving claims to be more patriotic than Democrats worked well for Reagan and Bush, but are much more problematic for a G.O.P. that looks more and more like the party of Putin.

Unfortunately, snake oil sales are way up in Ontario. We have yet to learn the lessons Americans are learning.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

An Annual Basic Income

It's noteworthy that Andrew Coyne has come out in support of an Annual Basic Income Program. He admits that present studies are highly speculative. Nonetheless,

the results, speculative as they are, are intriguing. The PBO puts the cost of a nationwide rollout of the Ontario program, guaranteeing every adult of working age a minimum of $16,989 annually ($24,027 for couples), less 50 per cent of earned income — there’d also be a supplement of up to $6,000 for those with a disability — at $76.0 billion.

What would it cost? That, too is highly speculative:

The PBO estimates the cost of current federal support programs for people on low-income (not counting children and the elderly, who already have their own guaranteed income programs) at $33 billion annually. Assuming a federal basic income replaced these leaves a net cost of $43 billion. That’s still a lot — one seventh of current federal spending.

However, there would be savings in other areas:

But suppose we stick with the Ontario model. If implemented, it would replace Ontario Works (social assistance) and the Ontario Disability Support Program. The total savings: about $8 billion. Supposing equivalent savings were achieved in the other provinces — and federal transfers reduced accordingly — that would knock about $20 billion off the national pricetag.

These savings are based on the premise that the provinces would buy into the scheme. And, given provincial turf wars -- currently on display in the Kinder-Morgan standoff -- it's hard to imagine some kind of national unanimity. However, medicare faced the same hurdles.

Something tells me that if Doug Ford becomes the next premier, Ontario's basic income pilot is dead. But it is interesting to see that Conservatives like Hugh Segal and Andrew Coyne have come out in support of a National Basic Income.

Each man, however, is not currently revered in Conservative circles.

Image: SlidePlayer

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Beware The Bot

In the last couple of years, Britain, France and the United States have experienced cyber meddling in their elections. Yet in Canada, Tim Harper writes, "there is a puzzling, laissez-faire approach from our governments, which seem to find comfort in studies that show the remnants of the mainstream media hold greater levels of trust here than their peers in other countries."

There is much we can learn about how to counter what's been going on. Europe has given us some remedies:

All major parties in Germany agreed before last year’s parliamentary elections there that they would not use social media bots and would strongly condemn their use.
They also passed a law providing penalties of up to $60 million for social networking providers who did not quickly take down defamatory or fake news reports.
It worked.
An Oxford University study found only a tiny fraction of social media election traffic came from automated accounts, overwhelmingly from the far right anti-immigration party.
Further, German social media users shared links to professional news sources over junk news sources by a ratio of 4:1, a much higher rate than the researchers found in the U.S. or U.K. elections.

Bots do have their uses:

Indeed, banning them may be going too far because not all bots are evil. Parties can use bots to amplify policy announcements, for example.

But we're fools if we believe they should not be regulated. The manipulators are everywhere. And they think we're stupid.

Image: Quora

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

What They're Trying To Do

In the wake of the stand off over the Kinder-Morgan pipeline, Paul Krugman provides some important economic insights:

Not that long ago, calls for a move to wind and solar power were widely perceived as impractical if not hippie-dippy silly. Some of that contempt lingers; my sense is that many politicians and some businesspeople still think of renewable energy as marginal, still imagine that real men burn stuff and serious people focus on good old-fashioned fossil fuels.
But the truth is nearly the opposite, certainly when it comes to electricity generation. Believers in the primacy of fossil fuels, coal in particular, are now technological dead-enders; they, not foolish leftists, are our modern Luddites. Unfortunately, they can still do a lot of damage.
As recently as 2010, it still consistently cost more to generate electricity from sun and wind than from fossil fuels. But that gap has already been eliminated, and this is just the beginning. Widespread use of renewable energy is still a new thing, which means that even without major technological breakthroughs we can expect to see big further cost reductions as industries move “down the learning curve” — that is, find better and cheaper ways to operate as they accumulate experience.
Recently David Roberts at offered a very good example: wind turbines. Windmills have been around for more than a thousand years, and they’ve been used to generate electricity since the late 19th century. But making turbines really efficient requires making them very big and tall — tall enough to exploit the faster, steadier winds that blow at higher altitudes.
And that’s what businesses are learning to do, via a series of incremental improvements — better design, better materials, better locations (offshore is where it’s at). So what we’ll be seeing in a few years will be 850-foot turbines that totally out compete fossil fuels on cost.

In the United States, the fossil fuel industry owns the Republican Party. In Canada, that industry has invested in both the Conservative and Liberal Parties. The smart money knows that it can't stop the transition to renewable energy. But it can slow it down.

And that's exactly what it's trying to do.

Image: National Observer

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Dark Future

Yesterday's meeting between Justin Trudeau, John Horgan and Rachel Notley does not bode well for the future. Michael Harris writes:

Whatever side you take on Kinder Morgan’s plan to triple its pipeline capacity from Alberta through B.C. to tidewater, a bomb is about to go off in Canadian politics.
There will be plenty of shrapnel to go around: Trudeau, Rachel Notley, Jagmeet Singh, John Horgan and a slew of other federal and provincial candidates are all in the blast zone. But the question is who, if anyone, will be fatally wounded?

The leader most damaged by this stand off will be Rachel Notley:

Despite the brave face in Ottawa Sunday, the drowning politician of the group is Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. Facing an election against a united right under Jason Kenney, she is desperately clutching at anything to show that she is the greatest petro-politician Albertans could ever hope to find. In the process, she is making Ralph Klein look like a tree-hugger.
From threatening to cut off British Columbia’s supply of oil, to musing about buying the entire Kinder Morgan project with taxpayer’s money, Notley has jettisoned crucial parts of the NDP’s policy mantra in the name of surviving Kenney’s political resurrection.
There is a reason for Notley’s mania to get Trans Mountain in place now. Simply, there may not be a tomorrow. If, as expected, demand for oil peaks in the next decade because of rapidly falling prices for clean energy options, Alberta could be saddled with vast reserves of unsellable oil. There is a shrinking window of opportunity and Notley is trying to get through it before it closes. In a nutshell, there is more bitumen than there is time to sell it.

Notley finds herself sitting on a resource that will soon be obsolete. She did not greenlight the massive investment in the Tar Sands. It was Klein who spearheaded that operation. Peter Lougheed, with his Harvard MBA, knew that the Tar Sands was a money pit. He refused to stake Alberta's future on bitumen.

But, now that Alberta has made that black goo its lifeblood, the future looks increasingly dark.

Image: Newsroom

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Dante's 21st Century Inferno

Syria, Tom Walkom writes, has become the most dangerous place on  earth. It is now the centre of several intersecting rivalries. Consider what has happened since the war began seven years ago:

The Syrian conflict began seven years ago as a popular rebellion against a dictatorial regime. It soon became a civil war with religious overtones before morphing into a series of proxy wars.
Saudi Arabia and its allies funded Sunni militias (some of them terrorist) fighting Assad. The U.S. tried, with little success, to find moderate rebel groups that it could arm and fund.
Kurdish militias in Syria made deals — first with Assad and later with the U.S. — designed to help them eventually carve out an independent state.
Turkey funded and armed its own militias, in part to maintain influence in a country that historically was part of its empire, in part to counter the Kurds.
Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah intervened on Assad’s side to protect their Shiite co-religionists from the Sunni militias and to expand Tehran’s influence in the region.
Israel intervened to counter Hezbollah and Iran.
The U.S. and its allies, including Canada, eventually intervened directly to fight the extremists known as Daesh, or the Islamic State. Russia intervened directly to prevent the Assad regime from collapsing.

It would be wise for the leader of any country to think carefully before entering such an inferno. But wisdom is not Donald Trump's strong suite. That's why Secretary of Defence James Mattis --  with help from Britain and France -- ordered a very limited and surgical strike last week. In the end, the strike will change nothing. But it will allow some people to salve their consciences. They will tell themselves that they did something.

One really concrete step would be for the international community to stop selling arms to the various factions. Those war wagons we sold to Saudi Arabia sent the wrong message.

Image: Gil John Rodriquez

Saturday, April 14, 2018


The Toronto Star editorializes this morning on the subject of change:

Newness is exciting. Improvement always beckons. The grass, as someone who understood human yearning once noted, usually seems greener elsewhere.

But then the paper turns its sights on Doug Ford:

What are the odds, though, that should a realtor suggest a house a few kilometres away but refuse to show it to us, or if an auto dealer brought a new car to the curb but draped in a tarpaulin, we’d make these changes sight unseen?
For as much as we aspire to do better or have more, we instinctively know that not all change is for the good. Some is. Some isn’t. The details don’t just matter. They make or break the deal.
Which makes it curious why, as consumers of a different product — as voters — we are so easily smitten by campaigning politicians who assure us that not only is it time for change, but that they, by some cosmic authority that conveniently demands no particulars, are the agent of that change.
It’s a tactic on which no political side holds a monopoly. Little is more unchanging, actually, in the 21st century than promises of change from campaigning politicians.

The problem is that the changes Ford promises are vague:

“We’re going to find efficiencies, we’re going to drive efficiencies through lean systems, best practices and technologies,” he told one interviewer. Asked how, he said: “We’re going to start sharing synergies.”

Ontarians have had a year to see how the purchase Americans made fifteen months ago is working out. As the Star suggests, voters in this province should be guided by that time worn axiom: caveat emptor.

Image: SlideShare

Friday, April 13, 2018

Mafioso In The White House

Excerpts from James Comey's book,  A Higher Loyalty, have hit the papers. The Guardian obtained an advance copy from a New York bookseller and has published excerpts from the book. Comey's description of his first meeting with Trump is instructive:

[He] appeared shorter than he seemed on a debate stage with Hillary Clinton. His face appeared slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assume he placed small tanning goggles, and impressively coiffed, bright blond hair, which on close inspection looked to be all his. I remember wondering how long it must take him in the morning to get that done.

Here was a man who spent a lot of time in front of a mirror. But the more Comey got to know Trump, the more the president reminded him of characters he had met before:

I had never seen anything like it in the Oval Office. As I found myself thrust into the Trump orbit, I once again was having flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the mob. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and the truth.”
Of Trump’s now famous demand over dinner at the White House in January 2017, “I need loyalty”, Comey writes: “To my mind, the demand was like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony – with Trump in the role of the family boss, asking me if I have what it takes to be a ‘made man.

That insight seems to fit when one remembers that Trump's protector was Roy Cohn, who represented New York mafiosos like Tony Salerno, Carmine Galante and John Gotti. Moreover, given recent reporting on how Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen works, the characterization appears to be spot on.

And, because Robert Mueller was the man who finally sent John Gotti to jail, it appears that the folks at the Justice Department know who they're dealing with.

All of this means that Donald The Don will not go easily.

Image: Pinterest

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Republican Insanity

Do you want to know how insane things are in the United States? Tara Golshan reports in Vox that the Republican congress -- which just passed a budget with a $1.5 trillion dollar deficit -- will soon be voting on a balanced budget amendment.

The House is scheduled to vote on a balanced budget amendment Thursday. Though several states require their legislatures to pass a balanced budget every year, the federal government does not have the same requirement. In fact, many economists argue it’s necessary for the federal government to go into debt for the greater good of the economy. Nevertheless, balanced budget amendments are something of a white whale on the right. And many conservatives believe it is the only way to actually enact spending cuts.

Having just approved a colossal deficit, Republicans are now going to declare deficits unconstitutional:

For decades, Republicans have campaigned on cutting federal spending and reducing the national debt. And while there’s an ongoing debate among economists over how big an actual threat the deficit is, Republicans, now in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, have done just the opposite.
The bill the House plans to vote on this Thursday would be one of the first steps in amending the US Constitution to bar the government from spending more than it brings in in federal revenue. Changing the Constitution requires approval from two-thirds of the House and Senate and then it must be passed by two-thirds of state legislatures. Republicans currently hold 32 of 50 state legislatures.

This isn't just Republican insincerity. It's Republican insanity.

Image: Wallpapers

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Law And Wisdom

Tom Walkom writes that, when it comes to the Trans Mountain pipeline, the Trudeau government has the law and the constitution on its side:

The proposed Trans Mountain heavy-oil pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific coast has law, economics and the Constitution on its side.
It has been approved by the National Energy Board and okayed by the federal government which, under the constitution, has the ultimate authority in such matters.
First Nations along the right of way may not all agree. But they have been consulted, which is all that the law demands.
The project would boost Alberta’s economy and, by opening up new energy markets in Asia, reduce Canada’s unhealthy reliance on the U.S.
Barring one thing, it is a no-brainer.

But that one thing is the planet:

While the oilsands accounted for just under 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gases in 2014, they are the fastest growing source of carbon emissions in the country.
In climate terms, the most sensible course of action would be to gradually shut the oilsands down. Thanks to the growth of cheaper forms of energy, they are already headed in that direction. It wouldn’t take much of a nudge to finish the job.

Economically, the Tar Sands' days are numbered. When oil was selling for $100 a barrel goo from northern Alberta was pulling in a healthy profit. The break even point for a barrel of bitumen was somewhere in the $70 range. But nobody is making any money when oil is selling for $65 a barrel. And, with new green sources of energy coming on line, that price will go down. That's why -- with an eye to the future -- Royal Dutch Shell sold off its Tar Sands operations several years ago.

Wisdom -- with an eye to the future -- would shut down the pipeline. But the law could keep it going. Sometimes, the law and wisdom are on opposing sides of the argument.

Image: The Economist

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Out Of The Back End

Nothing illustrates the utter hypocrisy of the Republican Party more than the tax cuts which were just passed in the United States. Republicans used to be classical economists. They officially believed in balanced budgets. That changed when Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes assumed the presidency. Jonathan Chait writes:

The official conservative party line during the Reagan era, when Republicans introduced the modern phenomenon of the large structural deficit, was that it was necessary to run the red ink in order to win the Cold War. Then, under George W. Bush, the response to the 9/11 attacks became the new rationale: don’t ya know there’s a war on terror? Notably, and in keeping with the anti-intellectual spirit of the times, conservatives have not even bothered formulating a rationale for increasing the deficit during the peak of an economic expansion. They’re doing it for the same reason they’re undertaking every other abuse of power during the Trump era: because they can.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, there is Republican red ink as far as the eye can see:

CBO now estimates the 2018 deficit will be $242 billion higher than it had estimated last June, before the tax cuts. And the tax cut is the major reason: “Accounting for most of that difference is a $194 billion reduction in projected revenues, mainly because the 2017 tax act is expected to reduce collections of individual and corporate income taxes.”
The deficit is expected to grow to more than 5 percent of gross domestic product. That would make sense if the country was spending to counteract a serious but temporary emergency, like a recession or perhaps a major war. There is no such emergency, though.

When there was an emergency, and Barack Obama ran deficits in response to the Great Recession, the Republican line was that Obama's deficits had put Western Civilization on the edge of oblivion:

Republicans treated deficits of this scale as dangerous portents of civilizational collapse during Barack Obama’s first term, when the economy was recovering from the greatest financial crisis in three-quarters of a century. 

Their theory is simple and the ugliest of lies: When Democrats run deficits it's a sign of their evil intent. When we do it, we're -- as we always have been -- on the side of the angels.

It's the same stuff that comes out of the back end of a cow.


Monday, April 09, 2018

Is History Repeating Itself?

The federal government's plan to deal with climate change is running into stiff head winds -- partly because many Canadians don't believe the science. Andrew Coyne writes:

Fully 40 per cent of Canadians think climate change is either not happening or is due to natural causes, according to a new poll by Abacus Data. Even among the 60 per cent who think it’s real and man-made, there is no consensus on what, if anything, should be done about it.
The picture grows even cloudier when it comes to the particular solution of carbon pricing. Only 42 per cent claimed to have any understanding of the concept; most could not even say whether their own province had such a plan. And while nearly half (46 per cent) thought it was a good idea, versus 22 per cent opposed, this was very much in the abstract, with carbon pricing yet to be implemented over much of the country, and barely begun to be phased in where it has.

Saskatchewan is adamantly opposed to a carbon tax. If Doug Ford wins the election, Ontario will become a big naysayer. And who knows what will happen in Alberta? In the face of the growing backlash, Coyne  makes a straightforward proposal -- raise carbon taxes to a level that will significantly slow fossil fuel consumption while lowering income taxes to make up the difference. That is not what governments have been doing:

Rather than recycle any revenues collected back to the public in the form of cuts in other taxes, moreover, as under B.C.’s pioneering (and successful) carbon tax, they have increasingly used the proceeds to spend on other things, notably the same failed subsidy and regulatory programs carbon taxes were supposed to replace.
Indeed, not only have they kept all the old programs, but they are piling new ones on top, hoping these costlier, but invisible-to-the-public programs will attract less popular wrath than the cheaper but all-too-visible carbon tax. But the failure to tax carbon at a level that will do much good only invites the public to ask why it is being taxed at all. And, equally, it invites the response: as a revenue grab. We have, in short, the worst of both worlds, saddled with programs that won’t work but will cause maximum public aggravation.

Coyne spouts the usual conservative boiler plate -- government programs don't work -- a highly contentious argument. Nonetheless, scientists generally agree that the current carbon tax proposal will do little to stop climate change. If the government established a tax of $200 per ton, and offset that cost with a cut in income taxes, we might reach our climate change goals. Come to think of it, Coyne's proposal sounds a lot like Stephane Dion's Green shift of fifteen years ago. Is history repeating itself?

Image: Radio

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Anything But Dull

Jamie Watt is a Conservative strategist -- one of the gurus who guided Mike Harris' government in Ontario. I generally don't agree with what he has to say. But his take on the upcoming election bears some scrutiny. He writes:

The election is not going to be held today. It is, of course going to be held on June 7 after what I predict will be one of the most ruthless and cut-throat campaigns Ontario has ever seen.
We know that, when asked, about 8 in 10 Ontarians say it is time for a change. What we don’t know yet is exactly what they mean by that and therein lies the rub.
If they mean that after 15 years they have just had enough of the Liberals, then that’s a challenge for the premier. It’s a challenge because it means that the voters are done and, in the process of deciding they want change, they have stopped listening to what the government has on offer. In fact, they no longer care, they simply want something else. Think Mike Harris after Bob Rae. Justin Trudeau after Stephen Harper. Rob Ford after David Miller.
At these times, voters think things have gotten turned upside down; that the tail is wagging the dog, and that massive, even if disruptive, change is needed.

We may, indeed, be at one of those moments. But there is another possibility:

On the other hand, if voters want a change in the way government sets its priorities and delivers services to them, then change can mean a change in policies and programs and not a change in parties. In this case, think Alison Redford after Ed Stelmach. Redford skillfully moved her party to the left, embraced a new and changed Alberta and came back from a 22-point deficit to form a majority government.
And so the stage has been set. With Andrea Horwath inexplicably still on the sidelines, the Liberals and PCs are set for an epic grudge match.

In the end, Watt believes, what will make the difference is the number of people who feel precarious and the number of people who feel left behind:

If they are feeling left behind, that government is not working for them, that special interests have got the upper hand and that the elites are winning at their expense, then that’s advantage Ford.
If, on the other hand, they are feeling precarious, that daily life is getting harder, that enhanced entitlement programs make a difference for them, then that is advantage Wynne.

This election will be anything but dull.


Saturday, April 07, 2018

Perfectly Orwellian

Elizabeth Shogren reports that a recently released report from The National Park Service in the United States has been edited to omit all references to human impacts on climate change:

National Park Service officials have deleted every mention of humans’ role in causing climate change in drafts of a long-awaited report on sea level rise and storm surge, contradicting Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s vow to Congress that his department is not censoring science.
The research for the first time projects the risks from rising seas and flooding at 118 coastal national park sites, including the National Mall, the original Jamestown settlement, and the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Originally drafted in the summer of 2016 yet still not released to the public, the National Park Service report is intended to inform officials and the public about how to protect park resources and visitors from climate change.
In changes dated Feb. 6, a park service official crossed out the word “anthropogenic,” the term for people’s impact on nature, in five places. Three references to “human activities” causing climate change also were removed.
The 87-page report, which was written by a University of Colorado Boulder scientist, has been held up for at least 10 months. 
The delay has prevented park managers from having access to the best data in situations such as reacting to hurricane forecasts, safeguarding artifacts from floodwaters or deciding where to locate new buildings.
The omissions reflect a broader crackdown on climate science at federal agencies, including removal of references to human impacts, since President Donald Trump took office. Trump previously called climate change a Chinese hoax, took steps to withdraw from an international agreement to cut greenhouse gases, and moved toward reversing President Barack Obama’s policies to regulate power plant emissions.

The scientific community is outraged:

Critics say the National Park Service’s editing of the report reflects unprecedented political interference in government science at the Interior Department, which oversees the park service. 
Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist and dean of the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, said the deletions are “shocking from a scientific point of view, but also from a policy point of view.” 
“To remove a very critical part of the scientific understanding is nothing short of political censorship and has no place in science,” he said. “Censorship of this kind is something you’d see in Russia or some totalitarian regime. It has no place in America.”

Currently, Americans are in high dudgeon about Russian disinformation on Facebook. But consider the drivel produced by their own government agencies. It's perfectly Orwellian.

And thereby hangs a tale.

Image: Good Reads

Friday, April 06, 2018

It Will Not Be Pretty

Michael Harris writes that it's approaching high noon in B.C:

This coming Saturday on Burnaby Mountain will be a little like Gary Cooper’s classic western High Noon.
It will be a reckoning with big-time consequences for both the federal government and First Nations in their continued collision over the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
There will be some star power attending the protest of the pipeline expansion that day, including 82-year-old David Suzuki. At noon, “bold action” is planned. That has usually been code for people getting arrested — which 200 of them have already been. The leading man of the show will be one of British Columbia’s most revered Indigenous leaders, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.

Trudeau continues to claim that Canada can mine and ship bitumen while protecting the environment. British Columbians don't believe him:

First Nations people are not the only ones who reject Trudeau’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to the conflicting realities of resource development and protection of the environment. The late Farley Mowat told me that a day would come when those two activities would collide, and that big government would always resolve doubts in favour of resource development.
Carl Rosenberg, who lives in the riding of Vancouver Granville, wrote a letter to PM Trudeau on one of the National Days of Action against Kinder Morgan’s project. It reflects Mowat’s view:
“You must decide whether your commitments are with Canada’s people (including its First Nations), with the environment, or with Canada’s oil industry.”
Internationally acclaimed writer, Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress, is puzzled over how Trudeau has handled this file. As Wright told me at his home on Salt Spring Island, there is not much to be gained by his course of action politically speaking.
“Why is Trudeau spending so much political capital ramming through pipeline and tanker traffic? No matter what he does for Alberta, Alberta will never elect Liberals.”

This is an issue where you can't split the difference. But Trudeau continues to believe you can. When the two sides collide, it will not be pretty.

Image: National Observer

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Removing All Doubt

The Canadian Press reports this morning that Doug Ford's campaign to be the premier of Ontario will not include a bus for the media:

Ontario's newly minted Progressive Conservative leader will not bring journalists with him on the campaign trail this spring, a rare move experts say suggests the Tories are keen to keep the unpredictable populist politician out of the hot seat as he takes on two more seasoned rivals.
Doug Ford's team said Wednesday the former Toronto city councillor will not have a media bus following him as he criss-crosses the province ahead of the June election, an accommodation traditionally offered by Ontario's party leaders to facilitate coverage while they hold multiple daily events in different cities.

This is not a new strategy. It reeks of Stephen Harper's vetting of people who showed up at his campaign rallies. And, of course, it's utterly Trumpian. Ford sees the media as his enemy; and he's going to limit his contact with them. His spokeswoman -- are you surprized? -- is spinning another line:

Spokeswoman Melissa Lantsman said Ford's campaign events will be broadcast online and his itinerary will be released for media interested in covering them in person.
"Most media outlets have shifted to covering events from their office and relying on live feeds. It is in our interest to have as much media coverage as possible and will do everything we can to ensure our events are streamed online to assist in that," she said in an email.

No one should be fooled:

Experts say the decision suggests a campaign strategy that centres on limiting questions and preventing Ford — a brash politician whose candid remarks often make headlines — from publicly going off-script.
And while this approach may prove effective politically, it's concerning for democracy, they say. 
"He is attempting to bypass the accountability function of the free press by limiting access to his campaign. This will not prevent coverage, but it alters the degree of access and creates a different, more opaque degree of transparency in the campaign," said Tim Abray, a former journalist and current teaching fellow in political science at Queen's University.

Ford's handlers are well aware of his ignorance. And they are trying to keep it under wraps. Mark Twain wrote,"If you keep your mouth shut, people will only think you're stupid. Open it and you remove all doubt."

The reporters on the bus would remove all doubt.


Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Unwitting Masochists

Things are coming apart in the United States. That's been happening for quite awhile. Paul Krugman writes:

This isn’t a new story, or just about politics. Things have been falling apart on multiple fronts since the 1970s: Political polarization has marched side by side with economic polarization, as income inequality has soared.
And both political and economic polarization have a strong geographic dimension. On the economic side, some parts of America, mainly big coastal cities, have been getting much richer, but other parts have been left behind. On the political side, the thriving regions by and large voted for Hillary Clinton, while the lagging regions voted for Donald Trump.

If you look at the differences between Trump Country and Hillary country, you will be struck by the difference in jobs -- and the training required to get them:

For the most part I’m in agreement with Berkeley’s Enrico Moretti, whose 2012 book, “The New Geography of Jobs,” is must reading for anyone trying to understand the state of America. Moretti argues that structural changes in the economy have favored industries that employ highly educated workers — and that these industries do best in locations where there are already a lot of these workers. As a result, these regions are experiencing a virtuous circle of growth: Their knowledge-intensive industries prosper, drawing in even more educated workers, which reinforces their advantage.
And at the same time, regions that started with a poorly educated work force are in a downward spiral, both because they’re stuck with the wrong industries and because they’re experiencing what amounts to a brain drain.

This phenomenon is exacerbated by the politics of stupidity:

That new paper [by Austin, Glaeser and Summers] makes the case for a national policy of aiding lagging regions. But we already have programs that would aid these regions — but which they won’t accept. Many of the states that have refused to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government would foot the great bulk of the bill — and would create jobs in the process — are also among America’s poorest.
Or consider how some states, like Kansas and Oklahoma — both of which were relatively affluent in the 1970s, but have now fallen far behind — have gone in for radical tax cuts, and ended up savaging their education systems. External forces have put them in a hole, but they’re digging it deeper.

Trump's recent tax bill and his other planned "improvements" are only making things worse. His supporters are masochists -- but they don't seem to know that.

Image: Slide Player

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

King And Economic Justice

We just marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. We remember him as a crusader for racial justice. But, Michael K. Honey writes, we have forgotten that he was very much a crusader for economic justice:

One major failing in how we remember King “is our typing of him as a civil rights leader,” the activist and pastor James Lawson says. “We do not type him as a pastor, prophet, theologian, scholar, preacher … and that allows conventional minds across the country to thereby stereotype him and eliminate him from an overall analysis of our society.”
King early on described himself as a “profound advocate of the social gospel” who decried a capitalist system that put profits and property rights ahead of basic human rights. Beyond his dream of civil and voting rights lay a demand that every person have adequate food, education, housing, a decent job and income.
Ultimately, his was a more revolutionary quest for a nonviolent society beyond racism, poverty and war.

We tend to forget that when King was killed in Memphis, he was marching with striking garbage workers:

There is no intrinsic difference” between workers, King told the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), one of America’s most important trade unions, in 1963. Skin color and ethnicity should not divide those who work for a living, he said.
“Economic justice,” King went on, required “a land where men will not take necessities to give luxuries to the few,” and “where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity.”
This agenda was not only about civil rights. The 28 August demonstration that culminated in King’s I Have a Dream speech was publicized as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was the result of many years of organizing by black workers and their unions.

It's a safe bet that King would have been apoplectic about the Neo-liberal revolution. He would see it as a movement which sought to reinstate a new kind of slavery. The chains had been taken away. But workers were still slaves to their masters.

We still have a long way to go.

Image: Teamsters For A Democratic Union

Monday, April 02, 2018

Their Default Position?

In the last federal election, Justin Trudeau's Liberals swept Atlantic Canada. Daniel Savoie writes that Maritimers' support for Trudeau has not been reciprocated:

Consider the following. For the first time since the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency was established in 1987, a minister from outside the region is responsible for the the ACOA. The minister is from Mississauga and is also responsible for the two federal regional development agencies in Ontario, one in Quebec, one in Western Canada and another for the North.
It is not lost on Atlantic Canadians that the federal government now has a regional development agency for every postal code in Canada. Best to focus on regions with heavily populated postal codes when the goal is to win power. The recently tabled budget committed $920-million over six years to one of two federal regional development bodies for Ontario. When this agency was established in 2009, it was given a time-limited budget. No more. It now has core funding like all the other federal regional agencies.
It will be recalled that Mr. Trudeau, at one point, seriously contemplated taking away the one seat Atlantic Canada has on the Supreme Court. When tasked with replacing Thomas Cromwell from Nova Scotia on the court, Mr. Trudeau announced that the selection process would be open to “any qualified judge” from across the country. Atlantic Canadians believe that he would never do the same if it came to Quebec (the Constitution guarantees Quebec three seats) or Ontario and Western Canada (because here the political cost would be too high).
Many Atlantic Canadians remain unconvinced by Ottawa’s argument that the Energy East pipeline failed because of market conditions. Ottawa gave, at best, lukewarm support for the pipeline which was viewed by many in Western and Atlantic Canada as an important national unity project. They saw Ottawa changing the rules of the approval process on the fly, adding new requirements with some retroactively. Mr. Trudeau told supporters of Energy East to accept the decision and avoid “stoking regional divisions.” He said nothing to Montreal and Quebec politicians who labelled the decision “a great victory for Quebeckers.” It made the point once again that when it comes to national unity, it is a one-way street.

If Maritimers start feeling ignored, Trudeau's majority is in danger. And, if Canadians feel that the Liberals have returned to their default position -- arrogance -- they may soon find themselves in opposition.


Sunday, April 01, 2018

Whether Or Not

When Fox News stalwart Laura Ingraham mocked gun control advocate David Hogg this week, Hogg did not take the insult lying down. Jennifer Rubin writes:

Rather than return her juvenile taunt in kind, the 17-year-old Hogg rose above it — and then used his new-found fame to summon an advertiser boycott of her show, “The Ingraham Angle.” She apologized, grudgingly and weirdly. “Any student should be proud of a 4.2 GPA — incl. @DavidHogg111. On reflection, in the spirit of Holy Week, I apologize for any upset or hurt my tweet caused him or any of the brave victims of Parkland,” she began the first of two tweets.

This generation of young people are different than their immediate forebears:

Young Americans from all walks of life continue to display qualities too many older Americans do not — tolerance, technological sophistication, political engagement, concern for the environment, etc. The Associated Press reports:
A majority of young people believe President Donald Trump is racist, dishonest and “mentally unfit” for office, according to a new survey that finds the nation’s youngest potential voters are more concerned about the Republican’s performance in the White House than older Americans.
The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV found that just 33 percent of Americans between the ages of 15 and 34 approve of Trump’s job performance. . . . Nearly half of younger Americans, 47 percent, say they’re personally paying closer attention to politics since Trump’s election; 2 in 10 say they’re engaging in political activism more than before.
In an age of cynicism, when the president and many Republicans show contempt for science, women and minorities, the poll discovered that “young people overwhelmingly support watching out for minorities: 69 percent favor a pathway to legal status for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, 59 percent favor protecting the rights of LGBT citizens, and 58 percent say the same for Muslims.” Sixty-seven percent said they want a health-care system in which ‘the government provides health insurance to all Americans,’ and 60 percent say they want the government to address climate change.

Many in power haven't figured it out yet. But change is coming -- whether or not they get out of the way.

Image: St. Cloud Visitor

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Some Much Needed Perspective

Recently, the government announced that its "market debt" has exceeded one trillion dollars. The news was treated as a bombshell. Former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page warned, “the $1 trillion threshold is extraordinarily important." But Scott Clark and Peter DeVries write that this is not the first time a Canadian government has hit that threshold:

Under current borrowing procedures “market debt” in its broadest sense exceeded 1 trillion in 2012-13. The government is not facing a structural imbalance between revenues and expenditures or a fiscal crisis; and deficit elimination is not a necessary requirement for fiscal credibility.

It all depends how you count and what numbers you leave out:

In the 2018 Budget, it is projected that “outstanding government and Crown corporation market debt will reach $1,066 billion in 2018-19, including $755 billion in projected year-end government market debt and an anticipated Crown corporation market debt for three of the financial institutions of approximately $311 billion”.

The debt of crown corporations did not used to be included in government debt figures. Like other corporations, they borrowed on the private market and that debt was treated as private debt. It was the Conservatives who changed that practice:

In the 2008 Budget, the Harper Government announced that the Government would consolidate the borrowings of the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation (CMHC), the Farm Credit Corporate (FCC) and the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) into the federal debt program, rather than having them borrow individually in the private market.  It was argued that consolidating the borrowings of these Crown corporations would reduce borrowing costs for them by eliminating the “agency spread”.
However, the budget also stated that the consolidation of these Crown borrowings would not have any effect on the federal government’s debt. This is because assets in the form of loans to these Crown corporations match federal borrowings related to these Crown corporations.  In fact, these three Crown corporations are in a net asset position.

The Liberals have re-instated the Conservative method of counting:

In the Debt Management Strategy for 2018-19, the two types of “market debt” are listed because the Government again requires borrowing authority from Parliament in order to undertake any new borrowings above certain limits. The Harper Government had suspended this long-standing requirement in the 2008 Budget. In the Liberals’ election platform, they promised to restore this requirement and the government did so in 2017. They are now being attacked by the Conservative Opposition for being “more” transparent and accountable to Parliament than they were.

So, while you listen to Conservative furor over the Liberals' mounting debt, knowing a little bit of recent history can provide some much needed perspective.


Friday, March 30, 2018

Competing On The World Stage

Canadian Journalism is in crisis. Michael Harris writes that a simple tax change could help stabalize the situation:

Canadian tax law has long provided incentives for companies to advertise in Canadian magazines, newspapers, and on television, but the tax code does not apply to digital media. If a Canadian corporation buys an ad in a foreign-owned newspaper or broadcast, it doesn’t get to count that as a business expense on its corporate taxes. This was to encourage Canadian newspapers and broadcast outlets to flourish against American competitors that benefit from enormous economies of scale. It was to ensure there was Canadian content created to protect our culture from being Disney-fied, and prevent us from becoming pale imitations of our information-spewing American cousins.

As things stand now, if Canadians buy advertising on Facebook or the Google platforms, they get a tax break:

Advertisements purchased on foreign web sites have always been — and remain today — fully tax deductible under the Income Tax Act. So Canadian companies now simply buy their ads on Google and Facebook — which take more than half the revenues and flood the marketplace — instead of sites owned by Canadian media companies. No one can compete with their audience size.

That doesn't solve the problem of the egregious lies that are posted on both platforms. One of the most egregious occurred a couple of weeks ago:

Emma Gonzalez, one of the leading voices of students demanding gun control in the United States, was recently photographed tearing up a rifle range target. But when her image was flashed across social media, it was the U.S. Constitution the student was ripping in two.
The gun nuts had their come-to-Jesus moment. These kids were not social activists in any positive way, they were subversives. It was all right there on the Internet. The real picture received less attention than the fake one.

There are some who would wonder why Canadians should get a tax break from an organization that is as effective as Dr. Goebbels' operation. The tax break wouldn't excuse the falsehoods. But if would help Canadian journalists compete on the world stage.


Thursday, March 29, 2018

A Very Interesting Election

The Ontario Liberals released their election budget yesterday. And they're making big promises. Tom Walkom writes:

It cements in place Wynne’s earlier commitment to universal pharmacare by eliminating the deductibles and user fees that 2.6 million seniors must currently pay when they use the Ontario Drug Benefit program.
It introduces a rudimentary denticare program for those not already covered by workplace or public plans.
And, as the piece de resistance, it pledges to introduce free daycare for all children from the age of two and a half until they reach kindergarten.
To help pay for this, it raises taxes by an average of $200 per person for the 1.8 million upper and middle income earners who make more than $95,000 a year.
Along the way, the budget promises much-needed money for those the Liberals have stiffed before, including hospitals, long-term care residents and the poor.

Kathleen Wynne is betting that -- as was the case with Justin Trudeau's Liberals -- Ontarians will be willing to tolerate deficits to get these things. And you can bet Doug Ford and the PC's will hammer the Liberals for their red ink.

But Walkom writes that the real question is: Can we trust you? In the past the Liberals have not kept all their promises:

Will the Liberals suddenly find their promises too expensive to implement?
Will they find, as they have before, that times have changed, that the fiscal situation has deteriorated and that, sadly, circumstances demand cutbacks and the privatization of public assets.

The NDP haven't released their platform yet. But Andrea Horwath seems to be signalling that she will outspend the Liberals.

Walkom calls the budget "a masterpiece of social democratic policy." But is it for real? We'll see. It should be a very interesting election.

Image: Global News

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Trump And Fox News

Robert Reich writes that Donald Trump is preparing for war. The war will be a war over his presidency -- and possibly a hot war to boot:

Trump is preparing for an epic war over the future of his presidency. This has required purging naysayers from his Cabinet and White House staff, and replacing them with bomb-throwing advocates like Bolton and Kudlow
Fox News is preparing for the same war, and has made a parallel purge – removing Trump critics like George Will, Megyn Kelly, and Rich Lowry, and installing Trump marketers like Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and Sebastian Gorka.

In this war, Fox News will serve as the state propaganda machine:

The membrane separating Trump’s brain from Fox News has always been thin, but in coming months it’s likely to disappear entirely.
We all know Trump watches an inordinate amount of Fox News, beginning in the wee hours with “Fox and Friends,” which provides much of the fodder for his morning tweets.
Trump has made John Bolton his National Security Advisor not because Bolton has valuable insights about foreign affairs, but because Bolton – for years, an on-air fixture on Fox News – is a showman who knows how to sell big lies and crazy ideas, and thereby help Trump in the looming battles.
As undersecretary of state for arms control in the Bush administration Bolton did more than anyone else to market the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. During his year and a half at the United Nations, Bolton was so outspokenly critical of the organization that he gained the devotion of xenophobic conservatives.

And the war will be an all out war -- a war in which there are no safe havens:

When the occupant of the White House and the sycophants surrounding him are prepared to do and use anything – including trade wars with China and possibly hot wars with North Korea and Iran – to win a political war at home, nothing and no one is safe.

Image: Daily Kos

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Trump's Consigliari

Last Sunday evening was a dark and Stormy night. Yesterday, Donald Trump's spokesman announced that Trump didn't believe a word Ms. Daniels said. But the real story isn't about the sex. It's about the cover up -- and how it was enforced by Trump's consigliari -- Micheal Cohen. Jonathan Chait writes that Cohen has a track record. And part of that record is about how he issues threats:

Daniels describes being approached by a man in a parking lot who threatened her: "a guy walked up on me and said to me, 'Leave Trump alone. Forget the story.' And then he leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, 'That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.'”

It all sounds like something out of a Martin Scorsese movie. But that scenario fits Cohen:

Cohen is a Trump cultist, whose legal skills, such as they are, compose a small portion of his value to the Trump organization. His true value is as a goon. “If somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit,” Cohen said in 2011. “If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.” In 2015, he told a reporter, “I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?”

Trump has run the presidency the way he ran his family business -- like a New York mobster. And Cohen has been by his side ever since Trump lost the services of Roy Cohn:

Intimidating and threatening people who get in Trump’s way seems to be a recurring theme in his business interactions. There are many documented instances of this behavior. One victim of Trump’s shady financial maneuverings in Atlantic City received a phone call and was told, “My name is Carmine. I don’t know why you’re fucking with Mr. Trump but if you keep fucking with Mr. Trump, we know where you live and we’re going to your house for your wife and kids.”

Trump is increasingly frightened. He knows that Robert Mueller is the guy who sent John Gotti to jail. He knows that he can't intimidate Mueller. But he can fire him. However, one wonders if Trump understands the firestorm that would bring on.


Monday, March 26, 2018

A Rare And Endangered Spieces

Elizabeth May talks the talk and walks the walk. Over the weekend, she was arrested in Burnaby. Michael Harris writes:

The Green Party leader was protesting Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion when she and Kennedy Stewart, the NDP MP for Burnaby South, were arrested at the gate of one of the company’s work sites Friday. So far, 100 protesters have been charged along with them, including the co-founder of Greenpeace.
The charge that the two politicians face is civil contempt for blockading a road. It’s not a criminal charge and the politicians are free to continue their protest of the pipeline project.

May's arrest brought howls from the usual suspects:

The boo-birds who have attacked May for her “illegal” protest, also like to paint her as zealot-in-chief of the anti-development, tree-hugging set. It is true May loves trees. She proved that 40 years ago as a 20-something protester in her epic fight against Big Pulp and Paper during Nova Scotia’s bitter spruce budworm wars.

But May is no wild eyed radical. She does not want to shut the Tar Sands down:

The Green Party leader does not argue that the tar sands should be shut down. In fact, she endorses the position taken by Unifor, the major union for tar sands workers, that Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion is a job and profit-sucker, as well as a threat to the environment.
Instead of sending diluted bitumen south, where the U.S. makes all the value-added profit, May says that solid bitumen should be processed or refined in Alberta for the Canadian market.

However, the Darwinian capitalism of this century decrees that society absorbs long term costs and companies reap short term profits. May is swimming against the stream. But, Harris writes, history shows that those who swim against the stream often change their societies for the better:

From Magna Carta to Martin Luther, from the Boston Tea Party to the French Revolution, individual rights and freedoms have advanced on the shoulders of a few souls brave enough to stand up to arbitrary measures that reduced their fellows to serfdom. And yes, they sometimes broke the law to do it. Elizabeth May, Canada’s Joan of Arc of the environment, is in that tradition.

May is the kind of politician who is not only rare. She is also an endangered species.


Sunday, March 25, 2018

What Will We Do About Myanmar?

When the slaughter in Rwanda occured -- twenty-five years ago -- the nations of the Western world pleaded ignorance. Gerry Caplan writes:

Many in the Western world were indeed ignorant about the situation, which is one of the explanations later adduced for the failure of the “international community” to intervene and stop the slaughter. Most Western newspapers and TV networks either didn’t know or didn’t care about a tiny nation in Central Africa called Rwanda. For many, their negligible interest in Africa was appeased by the first free election in South Africa, which happened to take place in the same month, April, 1994, that the genocide began.

The West made a collective vow that it would never  happen again. It did not take long before that resolve was tested:

The first test case − the “next Rwanda” − came soon enough, as the government of Sudan unleashed mass death against the Darfuri people in the west of the country in 2003. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof wrote column after outraged column on his first-hand observations in Darfur. Movie stars investigated and spoke out. A worldwide grassroots campaign materialized. Thousands of Canadians added their voices.

However, even though

U.S. President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, both agreed that a genocide was being organized against the people of Darfur . . . somehow, that did not impact American policy. Despite the provisions of the 1948 UN Convention Against Genocide, neither the U.S. nor any other government took direct action against the government of Sudan.

And now we are faced with the slaughter of the Rohingya in Myanmar:

Millions around the world seem to care about the fate of the Rohingya, none of them with any power to intervene. The UN’s human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, reports that Myanmar’s military have committed “acts of genocide” against the Rohingya people. Yet the UN Security Council is paralyzed, this time by China, just as it was paralyzed by Clinton’s America over Rwanda.

Will we do something?

Tony Burman, the excellent Canadian foreign-affairs columnist, [is] pressing hard for some kind of intervention – ANY kind, almost. Mr. Burman wants Canada to get involved, and we can surely be certain that when Bob Rae – a wise and sensible man — soon hands in his report as the federal government’s special envoy for the crisis, he too will call on Canada to take action of some kind.

We have volunteered to go into Mali. What will we do about Myanmar?

Image:  The New York Times

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Hijacking The Internet

Jonathan Freeland writes that the Cambridge Analytica story reveals that the rich and the powerful have hijacked the internet. It was not supposed to be this way:

In its infancy, the internet was hailed as a harbinger of equality and liberty. The new gospel held that “information wants to be free” – free from censorship and free of charge. A new techno-utopia seemed at hand. Or as Zuckerberg defined his company’s purpose: “Facebook gives people the power to share and make the world more open and connected."
Thanks to social media, the internet had apparently decentralised power. In the old days, information was passed down from the mountain top – by a government, say, or a news organisation – to the crowd below. Now the crowd could speak to each other and to the world. At least one aspect of the techno-utopians’ early hopes seemed to have materialised.

But recent revelations have shown us what has really been going on. Instead of upending the pyramid, social media have firmly entrenched the pyramid:

For what we now understand is that those at the top, the political parties or governments that could afford it, have been engaged in a radical act of recentralising power. They saw the way social media was working, empowering individuals and networks of individuals, and they decided to grab those same weapons for themselves.
What Cambridge Analytica promised its clients was a return to the old form of media distribution, with those at the top sending their message to the crowd below. Except this time, that message would be disguised as if it were the organic word of the crowd itself, spread virally from one person to another, with no traces or fingerprints left by those at the top. As a Cambridge Analytica executive said, unwittingly caught on film: “We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow … it’s unattributable, untrackable.”

What's to be done? Freeland writes that there are several options:

It could be regulation; it could be anti-trust legislation to break up those tech giants that act as virtual monopolies. I like Derakhshan’s idea of obliging Facebook and others to open up a marketplace of algorithms: if you don’t like the current social media preference for popularity (retweets) and novelty (“latest”), you should be free to choose a different algorithm that acts on different values.

Unfettered algorithims -- like an unfettered market -- cause disasters.


Friday, March 23, 2018

When Stupidity Marries Insanity

Yesterday, Donald Trump announced $60 billion dollars of tariffs against China. Today, China announced its own tariffs on American goods. Paul Krugman writes that, when it comes to trade, China is a bad actor:

When it comes to the global economic order, China is in fact a bad citizen. In particular, it plays fast and loose on intellectual property, in effect ripping off technologies and ideas developed elsewhere. It also subsidizes some industries, including steel, contributing to world excess capacity.

But Trump's "solution" is no solution at all -- because he doesn't understand how China fits into the global trading structure:

China is, as some put it, the Great Assembler: Many Chinese exports are actually put together from parts produced elsewhere, especially South Korea and Japan. The classic example is the iPhone, which is “made in China” but in which Chinese labor and capital account for only a few percent of the final price.

When Trump starts a trade war with China, he also starts one with Japan and South Korea -- not to mention American companies like Apple. And,

by bumbling into a trade war, Trump undermines our ability to do anything about the real issues. If you want to pressure China into respecting intellectual property, you need to assemble a coalition of nations hurt by Chinese ripoffs — that is, other advanced countries, like Japan, South Korea and European nations. Yet Trump is systematically alienating those countries, with things like his on-again-off-again steel tariff and his threat to put tariffs on goods that, while assembled in China, are mainly produced elsewhere.

As is always the case, Trump's policies are rooted in appalling ignorance. Vanity Fair reports that Trump has told associates,"Now I'm fucking doing it my way." When Stupidity marries Insanity, their offspring will be Explosions. The only questions are:  How many and how big will they be? Now that John Bolton has been hired as Trump's National Security Advisor, there should be several big ones.

Image: Disability Arts Online

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A Lesson To Keep In Mind

Martin Regg Cohn has just returned from a trip to the United States. And, as Ontario heads into an election -- with Doug Ford leading the parade -- he asked for advice from fellow journalists about how to cover a populist:

I asked an old friend, New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler, what lessons he has learned from reporting on Trump’s ascendancy. How do you cover a candidate while uncovering the contradictions?
“The only course for journalists is to keep our heads down, keep reporting, keep trying to separate policy from pronouncements and not be intimidated by either Trump’s defenders or those who attack us,” Landler told me. Public figures remain accountable, so their outlandish statements can hardly be ignored, but they can surely be parsed for context and accuracy.
I also asked an old colleague, the Toronto Star’s Washington bureau chief, Daniel Dale, for his unique perspective after first covering the Ford brothers from city hall, and then pioneering a new story structure that deconstructs Trump’s tall tales.
He cautioned against the media’s temptation to give wildly disproportionate space in mid-campaign to the loudest voices. Balanced coverage means not just fair reporting but equal time for the major players, so that those who are most controversial don’t get all the air time.
“One of the biggest failures of the media with Trump was letting him dominate the coverage … it got ratings,” Dale says. “You can’t let his tone and bluster suck up all the oxygen ... You have to be conscious of the balance.”

Cohn reminds his readers that Trump and Ford owe a lot to P.T. Barnum. There is a portrait of Barnum in the National Portrait Gallery. The inscription underneath the picture reads: "The greatest impresario of the 19th Century, P. T. Barnum was a shrewd judge of popular taste and an intuitive master of the art of publicity who tickled the public's imagination and gleefully exploited its credulity for more than 50 years."

Gleefully exploiting the public's credulity is what Donald Trump and Doug Ford are all about.

Image: Daily Mail

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Mad King

Robert Reich is a little guy who speaks with a big voice. He wrote two days ago that Donald Trump has become a mad king:

Before, he was constrained by a few “adults” – Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly – whom he appointed because he thought they had some expertise he lacked.
Now he’s either fired or is in the process of removing the adults. He’s replacing them with a Star Wars cantina of toadies and sycophants who will reflect back at him his own glorious view of himself, and help sell it on TV.

He's more than a narcissist. He's also a megalomaniac:

The man who once said he could shoot someone dead on Fifth Avenue and still be elected president now openly boasts of lying to the Canadian Prime Minister, deciding on his own to negotiate mano a mano with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, unilaterally slapping tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, and demanding the death penalty for drug dealers.
For weeks, Trump has been pulling big policy pronouncements out of his derriere and then leaving it up to the White House to improvise explanations and implementation plans.

For the moment, Congress and the world seem to be ignoring him:

The Republican tax bill bore almost no resemblance to anything Trump had pushed for. Trump’s big infrastructure plan was dead on arrival in Congress. His surprise spending deal with “Chuck and Nancy” went nowhere. His momentary embrace of gun control measures in the wake of a Florida school shooting quickly evaporated.

But Trump Unbound is far from benign:

Trump could become so enraged at anyone who seriously takes him on that he lashes out, with terrible consequences.
Furious that special counsel Robert Mueller has expanded his investigation, an unbridled Trump could fire him – precipitating a constitutional crisis and in effect a civil war between Trump supporters and the rest of America.

As I recall, the American Revolution was all about getting rid of a Mad King.

Image:The Smirking Chimp

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Conspiracy, Not Collusion

Donald Trump  keeps claiming that there has been no collusion with Russia. But Robert Mueller isn't investigating collusion. He's investigating conspiracy. Christian Farias writes:

Rick Gates, Trump’s deputy campaign manager and a longtime associate of Paul Manafort, became the first person in Mueller’s crosshairs to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. This curious, catchall offense also appeared in the February indictment of 13 Russian trolls, all of whom were charged with “impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”

And, the more Mueller interviews individuals, the more conspiracy charges appear to be on the horizon:

Which brings us to this past weekend’s revelations about the role Cambridge Analytica, the data-analytics firm closely associated with Steve Bannon and the Trump campaign, played during the presidential election. Twin reports in the New York Times and The Guardian shed light on a staggering data-mining operation that resulted in the firm improperly obtaining tens of millions of Facebook profiles, which it then exploited for political micro-targeting. Or as Christopher Wylie, the whistle-blower who leaked this information put it, the technology he helped create with Cambridge Analytica was “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool.”
There’s nothing criminal about swaying voters, and neither the Times nor the Guardian account is conclusive as to how Cambridge Analytica may have aided Russia’s election meddling, if at all. But this bit in the paper of record suggests the special counsel is already on to something: “While the substance of Mr. Mueller’s interest is a closely guarded secret, documents viewed by the Times indicate that the firm’s British affiliate claims to have worked in Russia and Ukraine.” Mueller, for his part, has already asked the firm for the emails of any employees who did work on behalf of the Trump campaign. And even Julian Assange has accused Cambridge Analytica’s CEO of attempting to obtain from WikiLeaks damaging emails belonging to Hillary Clinton.
Based on the precedent Mueller has already set, it wouldn’t be a stretch to expect his office to bring a fresh round of federal conspiracy charges against actors — whether that be Assange, executives at Cambridge Analytica, or other intermediaries — who attempted to impair the lawful functions of the government by concealing activities that they should’ve disclosed to, say, the Federal Election Commission or the Justice Department. “A method that makes uses of innocent individuals or businesses to reach and defraud the United States is not, for that reason, beyond the scope” of the law of conspiracy, the Supreme Court said some 30 years ago.

I suspect that Mueller has a strong case about Trump's money laundering. But when it comes to Russia, the big word is conspiracy.