Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sometimes, humans do stupid things: FILM AT 11

Matthew Yglesias notes that driving a car is very likely to kill your child. Yes, you--you in the back, dangling your remote starter, waiting for the lecture to be over. This is actually a really important point: owning a car is basically the leading cause of death for children.

Don't believe me? Here's the Center for Disease Control's statistics for causes of death in 2007 (I assume 2007 is the latest year for which complete data is available.)

So, "unintentional injury" is the leading cause of death, ahead of homicide by a country mile. Note for a moment that "only" 2,285 children died of homicides that year. What, exactly, makes up "unintentional injury"?

More than twice as many children are killed in traffic accidents as are murdered. The reasons for this are pretty simple: children don't die of heart disease or cancers (mostly) because they're not smokers or sedentary overeaters. (Yet.) So motor vehicle fatalities are the biggest remaining cause. And yet, people regularly choose to drive their children to school for fear of some trauma befalling their children on the way there. Because people don't regularly research childhood death statistics (and really, who would want to?) people don't realize that by unnecessarily putting their kids in a car, they're putting them in more danger, not less.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What's your most hated legacy policy?

Scott Adams offers an interesting idea:
One of the biggest problems with the world is that we're bound by so many legacy systems. For example, it's hard to deal with global warming because there are so many entrenched interests. It's problematic to get power from where it can best be generated to where people live. The tax system is a mess. Banking is a hodgepodge of regulations and products glued together. I could go on. The point is that anything that has been around for awhile is a complicated and inconvenient mess compared to what its ideal form could be.

My idea for today is that established nations could launch startup countries within their own borders, free of all the legacy restrictions in the parent country.
Okay, so what legacy systems would we reform/kill?

Um, criminal justice in a big way. Between the number of offenses that make no sense in law, or the conditions in which we jail people, I really wonder if redeploying all of our efforts at incarceration towards simply putting more police on the streets to prevent crime would be more worthwhile, even if you assume that everyone who wasn't deterred got away with it. And that doesn't even get into issues of discrimination...

Telecommunications. AM, FM, Television, telephones, cell phones, all are increasingly irrelevant, or would be in a world where incumbent powers didn't own the best parts of the radio spectrum and the wired grid.

Here's one: end of life care in medicine. The inability to have a mature discussion about the end of our lives--between patients, doctors, and families--is absolutely a holdover from a different age (when medicine was usually powerless before a rapid death) and has serious real-world consequences for the survivors. Families are left heartbroken as their last months are spent with pale shadows of their former loved ones, and -- there's no way to put this that doesn't sound grisly -- their fellow citizens bear the costs, either directly or indirectly, of massively expensive treatments that all too frequently don't work, or add days to a person's life at the expense of weeks of painful treatments. See this Atul Gawande article for a truly depressing exploration.

Intellectual property: boy is this not working at all. A 20-year copyright would allow even the most avariciously successful artists to extract 99% of the value of the current system: only the longest of the long-tail successes would be hurt, but even then not by much. Paul Simon would no longer be getting cheques for his LPs with Art Garfunkel, but he would have continued to get beer money from Graceland until 2006. U2 would still be getting money for Achtung Baby until next year. A 50-year copyright would be almost indefensible in my view, but I'd still take it in a hot second as an alternative to what we have now, provided that we chiselled that bastard in stone.

And yes, then it too would become a hated legacy policy someone would be out to destroy.

Anyway, Adams' thought experiment has a lot in common with the philosophy behind the Seasteading Institute, who want to start ocean-borne colonies with the explicit purpose of escaping the legal and political restrictions on land. Though they're basically a bunch of glibertarian Galtists, there's part of the vision that really interests me.

Also, I'd sign up with the North Pacific Kibbutz and wait for the Galtists to collapse under their own ego. At which point we'd kindly offer to help them out, provided they learn the lyrics to the Internationale.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

From the mailbag

Catelli writes:
"A common theme for defenders of the Afghanistan mission is that we have to stay to impose Western (or "Universal Human") values on an ignorant population.

Has any society successfully occupied another and imposed its values without a revolt or reversion after the occupiers leave? If so, how long did it take?"
Hm. It would be best to answer this question when I haven't spent the evening drinking with friends on a glorious summer night. But what fun would that be?

The quick answer would be no, I can't think of a single example of a country imposing its own values on a country without a revolt or reversion post-occupation. But the terms "values", "country", and "occupation" are all difficult to define. Japan, for example, very much made a pro-American transformation after the end of WWII, but frankly picking a date for the end of the occupation is at best arguable considering that Japan still operates under an unmolested constitution written by the staff of one Douglas MacArthur and, by the way, Japanese Prime Ministers are still regularly humiliated by the necessities of American foreign policy.

To go waaaaaay back, there's the Hellenistic age, where victorious Greeks spread their values throughout the known world and were dominant for a couple of centuries. Whether their values ever actually spread downwards from the elite strata is very, very doubtful. (Cleopatra was the first of the Hellenistic rulers of Egypt to ever bother learning the local language.)

There is, of course, the option of unrestricted killing, which has been remarkably successful in forcing European values on to the American landmass and which shows no sign of diminishing its powers here. That said, smallpox-infected blankets are a bit out of style these days.

None of these examples (with the possible exception of Alexander the Great) have a terrible amount of relevance to the example of Afghanistan. The one arguable success (Japan) had a number of preconditions that simply aren't being recreated: a previously-industrialized society that bought in to "western" norms of governance and politics, a postwar leadership that recognized the Americans as a lesser evil, and an American government that wasn't looking for an exit from the Pacific theatre.

So based on the examples I've given I'd say that if imposing our values is the reason we're in Afghanistan then boy howdy are we out of luck. That said, I don't actually think that's why NATO is there. America is, mostly, looking for an exit from Afghanistan and Iraq but can't fathom an endgame where they don't "win". The problem is that nobody has an agreed-upon definition of the verb "to win", as far as it applies to Afghanistan.

Atrios used to write that as far as George W. Bush understood it, leaving Iraq meant losing, so staying forever meant winning. The same basically applies to Afghanistan, given that the original victory condition (bin Laden's head on a pike) seems to have eluded us.

Obama has already demonstrated that, where the small stuff counts, he's able to face down the military. The big test will come when it comes time to admit that a) Afghanistan has been a failure and a waste, and b) we're leaving anyway.

Monday, July 19, 2010

*happy dance*

Hey, nobody told me Chet was back! And I'd like to entirely endorse his argument here: Harper is trashing the long-form census because facts have a well-known liberal bias. No, I'm not kidding--look at the conservative reaction to the Statscan report 2 years ago which showed that income inequality continued its 30-year trend of getting worse in Canada. The hissy fit the right threw over the census data back then was bad enough--imagine what it would have shown as the Canadian economy went through a recession?

Well, that's all you'll be able to do--imagine. Because the Tories want it that way.

Two graphs

Here's the first.

Here's the second.

Now, these are two graphs that concentrate a lot of complicated variables into very simple graphics. The first is the Keeling Curve, basically a measure of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. It has ticked upwards basically as long as we've been measuring it. When Charles David Keeling started in 1958, CO2 was at 315 ppm in the atmosphere. Now it's at 392 as of June 2010--a nearly 25% increase in 50 years.

The heat-trapping properties of CO2 have been understood for more than a century, and nothing has changed the basic scientific understanding that "more CO2 = more heat in the atmosphere". Yet, of course, as science becomes more precise the particular details of what "more heat" actually means are refined. But the same warning that the Charney Report gave 30 years ago remains fundamentally true: the effects are going to be major, negative, and unpredictable. Waiting to find out will mean waiting too late.

So that's Keeling.

The second graph is two variables instead of one: oil discoveries and oil consumption. There's continual argument about what and whether oil production will peak and decline in the imminent future--if I have any regular readers left, they'll know I am in the imminent camp--but the key argument can be distilled in much the same way climate change can be:

Before oil can be used, it needs to be discovered.

That's the big secret, and all the argument over when oil production peaks needs to be prefaced by that basic fact. Look again at the second graph. Oil discoveries peaked in the 1960s, have been on a long decline since then, and since the 1980s we've been using more oil every year than we've discovered. (There are some arguments about data sources, but the basic facts aren't really in contention.)

Of course, like climate change, there are lots of details that need to be sorted out--and they're crucially dependent on choices made in the real world, like whether Americans all decide to spend 10 years driving SUVs for no reason other than hastening the apocalypse.

Anybody who wants to argue against anthroprogenic climate change needs to argue that a) CO2 isn't rising (verifiably false) or b) the well-understood properties of CO2 are wrong (laughable.) Anyone who wants to argue against oil production peaking at all--and this is still a surprisingly prevalent opinion--needs to show where all the new oil is going to come from, and where Saudi-style volumes are being hidden. They should also try to explain how super-large reservoirs have stayed so well-hidden for so long.

This is all basic reasoning informed by a little bit of science. I mention it--repeating myself a little bit, I know--only because when you've got, say, climate scientists on the wrong end of death threats and oil companies demanding the unlimited right to destroy the planet in search of the last barrel of oil, it's worth going back to first principles.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

He's really a vanilla kind of callous [Updated]

Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario:
“He told us, ‘Just remember, the same guy who gave us the Charter also gave us the War Measures Act,’” said one startled MPP, noting the premier also refuted calls from several members to strike a public inquiry into the G20 debacle.

McGuinty’s contrasting of Trudeau’s 1982 entrenchment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Constitution to the former prime minister’s use of the War Measures Act during the 1970 October Crisis in Quebec was “bizarre,” said another member.

“Then things got even weirder—he said: ‘Don’t forget about the silent majority.’”
So many interesting things here. One, McGuinty's government is not known for its leaks from caucus--not saying they don't happen, just that it's not notorious the way other governments and parties have been. (See Dion, Stephane) So the fact that we're hearing this at all is, as Scott Tribe notes, itself noteworthy.

Two: if we're hearing about this now, it's because there's a lot more than just this grumbling in the Liberal caucus. I have exactly zero recent insider information about the politics of Queen's Park, but here's some supposition.

Many observers--including people in his own party--came away from the 2007 election victory convinced that McGuinty was not going to run again: he would serve out the rest of his term and then go on his way. This would make room for others who wanted to run (note what former Deputy Premier George Smitherman is doing instead this summer.) This was not just idle speculation: statements from McGuinty himself led many to believe this.

But, well, these jobs aren't often given up willingly. By anyone. Premier of Ontario is a pretty unimpressive title by the standards of international politics, but it's a damn sight better than "blogger sitting out the heatwave in his underpants", to pick an example entirely at random.

So McGuinty wanted to stay and get one more kick at the can. He must have rationalized it any number of ways -- "Ontario's not ready for a gay premier (Smitherman)", "only I've beaten Eves and Tory--who else is gonna beat Hudak", etc. But the long and short of it is if he leaves this job it's gonna be involuntary. Part of me believes, in fact, that the HST is basically McGuinty's insurance policy: even if there was a credible challenge to his leadership (and there really isn't now) they sure as hell don't want to wear the HST in the next election. So let the Old Man have his chance. Hey, there's always an election in 2015, and how much trouble could the Tories do in 4 years?

So you've got a bunch of people in his caucus who wake up every morning thinking they could be Premier if only... Add in a lot of anxiety over the HST, a new eco-fee the province hasn't really told anyone about, and the unpleasantness over the G20. The fact that we're seeing caucus leaks spill out on to the pages of the Star is about all of this and none of it.

What it's really about is Liberals wishing McGuinty had done the honorable thing and taken an early bow. They'd like to go in to the next election with a Premier who the public hasn't seen every day for 8 years, who isn't saddled with questions about basic honesty to the voters, who can say more than just "Remember Mike Harris? I'm not him!" [1]

Liberals would like to say all of that, but they won't be able to unless they lose the next election.

[1] Liberals really, really like to forget that Mike Harris won this province twice--besting McGuinty to do it the 2nd time. For a lot of people, saying "I'm not Mike Harris" is a con, not a pro.

UPDATE: An actually-informed source draws my attention to two things about this story. One, it's unclear how many anonymous sources this story is drawing on, but it's at least two and as many as four, though one of these is from outside caucus. A careful reading suggests there's less to this story than meets the eye, at least as far as grumbling within caucus goes. Two grumbling MPPs does not a caucus revolt make.

But two, and this is something I should have caught on the first reading, take the Nixonian element out of the "silent majority" quote. This should actually be setting off alarm bells in the party for a different reason: the use of the phrase "silent majority" is a dead giveaway for a government that is losing (or lost) touch with the electorate.

Those two things are my better-informed interlocutor talking, but to expand on this a bit: we actually have pretty good ways of measuring public opinion, and have for most of the last century. Governments rely on these measures daily, so when a leader says he's relying on "the silent majority", that's a different way of saying he's listening to the voices in his head.

Just as a for example, Ernie Eves and Stephen Harper were proud to address a pro-Iraq War rally in April 2003 that called on the "silent majority of Canadians" to back the US. Harper said the same thing to CTV.

Of course, there is not and never has been a "silent majority" of Canadians clamoring to board that particular train. A poll in March 2003 showed nearly three-quarters of Canadians opposed and it was just as unpopular a year later, if not more so. Ernie Eves would learn what the actual majority of Ontarians wanted later that year when he lost to the current Premier.

It appears Dalton McGuinty now needs to learn the lessons that Eves did in 2003. And it's terribly sad to have to write that sentence.