Monday, October 25, 2010

And my history of prognostication continues to be somewhat less than 30% accurate

But hey, when you're wrong 70% of the time you're right 30% of the time, right?

Jesus, this is going to be a long four years.

Also, what Chet said.

Okay, drinking now.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tab-clearing, Oct 18 2010

Boy, Europe and America's inability to make nice with Turkey is world-historical stupid.
“China must tax carbon”. Of course, once China does that we'll find another reason to do nothing.
I have, on occasion, spouted off about parents who seem to be terrified about the world outside their doors. Chalk this up to that.
Speaking of China, looks like the regime continues to rotate in new talent in an orderly manner.
Saudis tentatively modernizing gender roles.
Genes are left wing. (Basically, heredity explains close to nothing about real world outcomes. Environment explains much, much more.)
West Virginia coal country has enormous geothermal potential.

Will Robots take our jobs? Probably

A decent short piece in Good Magazine makes the argument that the middle class is basically doomed from a combination of automation and offshoring, with automation (and personal robotics in particular) posing a growing threat to the service jobs we've tried to insulate from offshoring:
Here’s the thing, though: The erosion of the middle class is a phenomenon that’s bigger than the Great Recession. Middle-range jobs have been getting scarcer since the late 1970s, and wages for the ones that are still around have remained stagnant.

In his report, Autor says that a leading explanation for the disappearance of the middle class is “ongoing automation and off-shoring of middle-skilled ‘routine’ tasks that were formerly performed primarily by workers with moderate education (a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree).” Routine tasks, he explains, are ones that “can be carried out successfully by either a computer executing a program or, alternatively, by a comparatively less-educated worker in a developing country.”

The culprit, in other words, is technology. The hard truth—and you don’t see it addressed in news reports—is that the middle class is disappearing in large part because technology is rendering middle-class skills obsolete....

On the low end of the spectrum, we have physical jobs that we can’t automate yet (yard work, for example). On the high end of the spectrum, we have creative and cognitive jobs that we can’t automate yet (law and management, for example). But as technology advances, and it certainly will, more people are going to be elbowed out of the workforce.

We may be heading toward a future with plentiful high-end jobs and plentiful low-end jobs, and not much in the middle. What if only doctors, lawyers, engineers, and managers can live a decent life, buy a house or apartment, and pay for their children to get specialized degrees?
Early Warning had a good point about the recent news that Google has working robot cars: Google has (presumably accidentally) put 3.6 million jobs at risk. (A lot of people employed driving people or things from one place to another.)

Now, robot cars are pretty awesome and I sure hope I can afford a robot butler/chef/babysitter someday. But we're well past the point where glib assurances that technology would create more jobs than it destroyed will suffice.

At a certain point, we need to rethink the bargain we've made in society, and need to make sure there's enough middle-wage jobs out there. This presumes we need a wage policy, where instead of trying to stream high school students in to careers we think (maybe) will be income-stable for a decade or two, we instead adopt a more general, economy-wide principle that tries to push wages up (gasp!) even if bankers freak out about mild inflation at first.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

As it turns out, my first and only car was a Ford

This will probably be the only thing I write about Toronto's municipal elections in this space. We in this city are currently contemplating a race in which we've got the choice between Rob Ford, a right-wing hard conservative who would fit in nicely with the old Mike Harris crew; George Smitherman, a centre-rightist who worked in the McGuinty government; and Joe Pantalone, a long-time left-wing councillor who has more than paid his dues with the city's left.

Now, I have said over and over in this space that I don't really like strategic voting, for a variety of reasons--most fundamentally, because our votes belong to us as individuals and we have the right to do with them as we please without being made to feel shitty about it later.

That said, here's something I wrote about Democrats in the US who were feeling hurt by Clinton's defeat in 2008 and threatening to vote McCain:
There's a particular kind of American progressive that drives me nuts. They are, to put it bluntly, Nader voters from the year 2000. Or today, unrelenting Clinton supporters from the year 2008. People convinced that, if only their preferred candidate were in a position of power, things would be better. And, as a corrollary, that pointing out the reality of the American duopoly of party politics amounts to saying "you have to vote for Barack Obama."

Well, of course you don't have to. But Democrats -- especially Democrats! -- who spent the last 8 years blaming Ralph Nader and his vanity-quest/Republican-care-package for all that has come since have no reason doing anything at this point other than supporting Barack Obama, if they're at all interested in the consequences of more GOP governance....

If Obama and McCain are both likely to wage a war against some poor country in the middle of nowhere (historically, most postwar Presidents have) I want the one who's not going to go nuclear. If I can get the least-crazy person and they want national healthcare, then goody for us all. Supporting the least-bad option isn't a sacrifice, you whiny children, it's a moral imperative.
Mayor David Miller--who I'm a big fan of--has endorsed Pantalone, and Pantalone is currently polling in the 15% range. I will not be voting for him.

This won't be the first time I've voted for someone other than the NDP candidate in an election, and I suspect it won't be the last. But Miller and Pantalone both know that government matters, and Miller at least has proven that point with 7 years of governance that have changed Toronto for the better.

However the corollary to Miller's success, indeed to his career in politics, is that bad governance matters too. And sometimes elections don't give us the easy choice between good and bad candidates. In those cases, as I argued above, choosing the least bad option becomes the thing to do. And, to anticipate one common argument, I don't think it's enough to say the left on city council will stop Ford from passing his agenda, so it's safe to vote your conscience. That is precisely what the Hillary '08 voters said about Congress and Obama, and as disappointing as the last two years have been for some I don't think anyone wants to replay them with Vice-President Palin in office.

More than that, it devalues the real political power the Mayor has, and implicitly says that someone like Miller hasn't really mattered at all, something I don't think lefties actually believe.

Now, this is not a post saying "shut up and vote for Smitherman." If you simply can't fathom it, if Smitherman is simply repellent to you, then I can't in good conscience write that people need to vote for him.

That said, Pantalone isn't going to win. Period. This isn't guesswork or opinion, and it isn't that difficult. At this point he needs to triple his vote in 10 days against two substantially more well-known and frankly more likeable candidates. Throughout this campaign I've been struck at how nasty Pantalone has been. For weeks he's been unable to contain his clear frustration at not being competitive in this race. So he ends up looking less likeable than Rob Ford or George Smitherman, something that boggles the mind as in public debates they both look like they're trying really hard not to punch each other.

The mayoral race is the closest thing Canadian politics has to a presidential one--unlike Parliamentary politics, it's not the case that we can say "I voted for the MP who could win my riding" and leave it at that. The mayor's post gives us a simple binary choice: the guy who wins and everyone else. A vote for Pantalone is not going to do anything after election day except make the lefty voter feel good about themselves. But lefty, NDP-voting types really ought to understand that politics isn't about how we feel, it's about what we do.

Will I be happy with Mayor Smitherman? Probably not. In fact, I expect to disagree strongly with much of his choices. But he's not a terrible politician on the face of it: just about the only thing the McGuinty government has done that I remain enthusiastic about is the Green Energy and Economy Act, which is Smitherman's baby if it's anyones. Smitherman saved the Province from throwing more money down the nuclear rathole as Energy Minister, and he has my gratitude for that even if the McGuinty government seems to be heading back to it. (Smitherman continues to be dogged by the E-Health scandal while he was Health Minister, but it seems fair to say the nuclear decision saved the people of Ontario vastly more than E-Health ever cost them.)

So yeah, I'll be voting for the lesser evil candidate for mayor on the 25th, and voting far more enthusiastically for my councillor who's up against some real nutters. If you can bear it and live in Toronto, I'd encourage you to as well.

As a small postscript, I will say that I don't plan on voting for the Liberal Party of Canada as long as Michael Ignatieff is the leader, for the same reasons that this isn't a "shut up and vote for Smitherman" post. I simply can't stomach the thought of rewarding a man who supported the Iraq War with my vote. This has been true since he came back to Canada, and will remain true as long as he's the leader of the Liberal Party. (Don't worry Liberals, you'll probably win my riding anyway.)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Thanksgiving reading

Hope you're all stuffed with Turkey and whatnot. I had a lovely weekend with friends, family and all. Then I sat down to read an article (via Yglesias, of course) about Israel. There are so many things to say about "Why Israelis Don't Care About Peace with Palestinians" by Karl Vick, but this part in particular was deeply troubling, and familiar:
"There was a time when people felt guilty about the Tel Aviv bubble," says Shavit. "Then it turned out the bubble was pretty strong. The bubble was resilient." Indeed, there are times when you can think most of the nation is within it. Polls are clear on the point. In a 2007 survey, 95% of Israeli Jews described themselves as happy, and a third said they were "very happy." The rich are happier than the poor, and the religious are happiest of all. But the broad thrust, so incongruous to people who know Israel only from headlines, suits a country whose quality of life is high and getting better.

But wait. Deep down (you can almost hear the outside world ask), don't Israelis know that finding peace with the Palestinians is the only way to guarantee their happiness and prosperity? Well, not exactly. Asked in a March poll to name the "most urgent problem" facing Israel, just 8% of Israeli Jews cited the conflict with Palestinians, putting it fifth behind education, crime, national security and poverty. Israeli Arabs placed peace first, but among Jews here, the issue that President Obama calls "critical for the world" just doesn't seem — critical.
Frankly, I don't see a lot of room for Canadians to scold the Israelis on their "bubble". The Middle East peace process, at least, is unlikely to lead to (for example) a global food shortage and massive famines.

Canada's bubble--and the lack of urgency towards global climate change and shutting down the tar sands--is far more damning, frankly.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Wherein I side with the glibertarians

Okay, based on my entirely-scientific and not at all shoddy survey of each and every one of the Internets, I am the only one who read this story and thought the homeowner was a fucking goof:
OBION COUNTY, Tenn. - Imagine your home catches fire but the local fire department won't respond, then watches it burn. That's exactly what happened to a local family tonight.

A local neighborhood is furious after firefighters watched as an Obion County, Tennessee, home burned to the ground.

The homeowner, Gene Cranick, said he offered to pay whatever it would take for firefighters to put out the flames, but was told it was too late. They wouldn't do anything to stop his house from burning.

Each year, Obion County residents must pay $75 if they want fire protection from the city of South Fulton. But the Cranicks did not pay.
Ahem. $75 a year amounts to $6.25 a month. If you're super-curious, it's about 21 cents a day. It is, if you're a homeowner, an entirely reasonable sum of money--one could almost say trivial.

Except it's not trivial, this is about your house not burning down you moron. By the quotes elsewhere in the story, it's clear Gene Cranick knew the rules--pay the subscription and be served, or don't pay and don't. He gambled, and lost.

There are a ton of interesting arguments to be made about whether a service like this should be fee-based to begin with--and I side with Chet in thinking that mass privatization of public services is basically a case of political amnesia.

But that doesn't seem to be what's actually going on here. Thanks to Kevin Drum, I suspect the only real lesson to draw from this story is something far more banal--the Cranicks were trying to enjoy a low-tax lifestyle with the security of a high-service city nearby, and it bit them right in the ass.

This is an ongoing problem in Obion County, Tennessee, and the people who live in the rural areas around South Fulton know very well what they're doing. From a PDF that Drum links to, the important points of this scenario are:

1) There is no county-wide fire service in Obion County.

2) There are city fire departments throughout Obion that, while funded by city taxpayers, will respond to calls for help outside the city lines.

3) All of these services charge a fee. There is no legal way for the fire services to force you to pay. So more than half of the fine, upstanding rural citizens of Obion County--after having their homes and loved ones saved by urban tax dollars incarnated as a firefighter and a hose--cheat. Or, if you prefer, steal a vital public service.

4) In response, the majority of city fire services charge rural homeowners an ongoing subscription fee to be served. This nicely avoids a number of problems having to do with handing individuals wads of cash or blank cheques in an emergency situation.

5) Some stupid motherfuckers still refuse to pay, believing--contrary to the explicit policies of the cities they rely on--that they'll get away with it.

So I'm sorry, on any number of levels I just can't be sympathetic to this guy. Obion County should have a public, county-wide fire service--but it doesn't now, and if you live in Obion County, you know this. You know this because the city of South Fulton calls rural residents at the end of July to make sure they know they're in arrears, something the city did in this case and this family ignored. Rural homeowners who don't pay the service are tax cheats, pure and simple, trying to get the benefit of living close to a city without paying the taxes for it.

Now, a bit of Googling that I'm not going to retread here (investigation vs. privacy--where's the line?) reveals that Gene Cranick is the owner of a not particularly prosperous farm, though substantially more prosperous than the surrounding county. Maybe the Cranicks just fell on hard times--not uncommon in the US these days--and they couldn't pay the bill, though my bet is that's not what we're looking at here.

Sadly for Gene Cranick, his son Tim went and cold-cocked the South Fulton Fire Chief and is now in prison awaiting a plea hearing. Now the family is not only out of their home and life posessions, but they're looking at how to pay the legal bills on a felony assault charge.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. We can also say, apparently, that paying your taxes upfront is a lot cheaper than the alternative.

UPDATE: Yup, I'm on the same side as the brain trust at the National Review.