Sunday, 23 December 2012

Cajones for Congress?

Does Fareed Zakaria's support in the Washington Post and on CNN for effective gun regulation indicate we can hope the US will get sensible about guns?

The US has 30 times more gun homicides per capita than Australia, France and England & Wales, twelve times the average for other developed countries.

A child in the US is 42.7 times more likely to die from gun violence than in other OECD countries.

If that were mainly because the US is intrinsically violent, the US would have ten or twenty or thirty times higher rates of robbery, rape and assault. It doesn't. US rates of other violent crimes are comparable to rates in other developed countries.

If it were because of violence in pop culture, other countries with similar pop culture violence, like the US and Australia and Japan, would have gun homicide rates like the US's. They don't. Japanese kids love violent video games, and Japan's gun homicide rate is near zero.

If it were because the US has more crazy people, epidemiologists would find ten or twenty or thirty times more psychosis and sociopathy in the US than in Britain, Australia, France and other comparable countries. They don't. Rates of serious mental are comparable, and psychiatric care is better in the US than in many of those countries with much lower gun death rates.

The difference is gun ownership. The US has more guns than adults. It has 5% of the world's population but 50% of the world's guns. 

In the ten years after Australia banned all automatic and semiautomatic weapons in 1996, their gun homicide rate dropped nearly three-fifths and their gun suicide rate dropped nearly two-thirds.

As Zakaria says, the solution's blindingly obvious: regulate guns, ban assault weapons. He thinks the US problem is lack of courage. 

To solve this problem, courage is needed in just one place, the US congress, where so many legislators are afraid of losing the NRA's approval and bribes.

It'd be lovely to imagine that those cowards are about to grow some cajones. Dare we hope?

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

USA, pervasively corrupt

The US has 751 people per 100,000 in prison. 

That's the highest incarceration rate in the world, five times the rate in England, eight times the rate in Germany, 12 times the rate in Japan. Yet the US mostly refuses to prosecute financial criminals like those whose malfeasance brought on the 2008 financial crash, and like the HSBC executives who for decades laundered money for Al Qaida terrorists. 

Why? Those financial institutions and their executives are big-time political donors, and they're big-time practitioners of the bribery that largely controls legislation in the US, and so heavily influences other government action here.

On 13 December a disturbed man attacked 20 or more young pupils and at least one adult in an elementary school. 

A day later, another disturbed man attacked 20 or more young pupils and at least one adult in another elementary school.

Every victim of the first attack is still alive. Twenty-six victims of the second attack, twenty of them six or seven years old, died.

What was the difference? The first attacker was in Chengping China and had only a knife. The Sandy Hook attacker brought a semi-automatic assault rifle and two handguns. 

Guns do kill. All over the world, people in democracies understand that. They've sensibly persuaded their governments to protect them from guns. 

Even a few undemocratic governments understand that.

Not in the USA. Why? Because 5,400 US gun manufacturers make huge profits on gun sales, $13.6 billion in 2011, and nothing stops them from shovelling enough of that money to the NRA, and directly to politicians, to buy obstruction of effective gun control.

Is this corruption specific to finance and guns? No. It also pervades the US prison industry, the US pharmaceutical industry, the US health insurance industry, the US energy industry, US defence industries and the US media.

You're expecting Sandy Hook to trigger a big change in gun control in the US? 

Monday, 17 December 2012

Laurier LaPierre, R.I.P.

Today one of Canada's greatest citizens passed away at the age of 83. He was most famous as the co-host of the ground-breaking CBC-TV program This Hour Has Seven Days, but he was much more than that. A journalist, a teacher, a high-school principal, the first openly gay member of the Canadian Senate, and one of the few broadcasters in the history of the CBC ever to be fired (along with his co-host, Patrick Watson), Mr. LaPierre infuriated his bosses at the CBC and simultaneously won the hearts of the Canadian public from coast to coast to coast.

This Hour made television history, and not only in Canada. Its influence spread around the world, and it served as the model for television journalism worldwide. Its most obvious descendant, in American terms, was 60 Minutes, which although nowhere near as sharp and confrontational, in its own sphere also pushed the envelope. Laurier (one cannot help but call him by his first name, he had that kind of relationship with his audience -- one of intimacy, of empathy, and of absolute fearlessness when dealing with powerful politicians.

In one of his most famous and provocative interviews, with the mother of Stephen Truscott, who was found guilty of the rape and murder of his classmate and sentenced to be hanged -- at the age of 14. A year later, Truscott's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In 2001, Truscott filed for a judicial review of his conviction. In 2007, after examining more than 250 pieces of evidence, the Ontario Court of Appeal declared his conviction a miscarriage of justice, and acquitted Truscott of the murder. During the interview with Truscott's mother, Laurier was seen to shed a tear, and this perhaps more than any other action sealed Laurier's fate with the CBC.

He so enraged CBC executives at the time that they not only fired Laurier and co-host Patrick Watson, but they also cancelled the show itself, as if determined to eradicate all traces not only of LaPierre and Watson, but of the program itself. This action inspired a nationwide protest the likes of which neither CBC nor Canada at large had ever seen.

Since then, a number of documentaries and books have been published describing the program, its influence and its wars. In its wake have come a number of vaguely similar shows (CBC's The Fifth Estate and Marketplace, CTV's W5, and others), but none have had the same impact as This Hour. It galvanized the nation, and no other journalistic program has ever gathered more viewers. It was almost as if it were a National Hockey League broadcast. Millions of Canadians gathered around the tube once a week, with a palpable aura of excitement.

As a Senator, Laurier continued in his fearless ways. He was a joy to behold, and he will never be forgotten -- even, and perhaps especially by, his enemies. He will be missed by a grateful nation.

Worse than we knew

Since the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, the US has had 31 school shootings. The rest of the world has had less than half that many, 14. To explore the details visit here and scroll down to the interactive map.

More than twice as many as the rest of the world put together is worse than we knew. But you're telling yourself, these violence statistics are just black swans, weird outliers---the US is still one of the greatest countries in the world, right?

Think again. Edward Fullbrook, editor of Real World Economics Review, has published a wee ebook tabulating how the US compares with 29 other OECD countries on 56 measures of personal, social, economic and political life.

On eight health measures, the US ranks an average of 28th of 30. 

On healthy life expectancy from birth, the US ranks 24th of 30. Its citizens can expect six fewer years of healthy life than the citizens of Japan, five less than citizens of Switzerland, four less than citizens of Sweden, Iceland, Italy, Australia and Spain.

Its infant mortality rate is 25th worst of 30, 2½ times higher than Sweden's. Its obesity rate is worst of all OECD countries, eleven times higher than South Korea, eight times higher than Japan, four times higher than Switzerland and Norway. 

Well maybe, you say. But it's still a great place to live, isn't it? On eight family life measures the US is dead last. 

Its teenage pregnancy rate is 23 times higher than that of South Korea, eleven times that of Japan, nine times higher than The Netherlands and Switzerland. On paid maternity, Denmark guarantees 100% of annual wages, Norway 86%, Germany 84%, Sweden 82%, The US provides 0%; no other OECD country is that stingy. The US child poverty rate is second worst, 22%, nine times that of Denmark, eight times that of Finland, five times that of Sweden. Its divorce rate is worst, four times that of Mexico Italy and Ireland, twice Canada's rate.

But you say, at least it's a leading democracy! On freedom and democracy the US is also dead last.

It's worst in voter turnout. It's also worst by a huge margin in prisoners per capita---the US incarceration rate is 77 times that of Iceland, twelve times that of Ireland and Norway, ten times that of Finland, Denmark, Switzerland and Sweden. It's near worst in percent of parliamentarians who are women, press freedom, and collective bargaining coverage

But surely with its emphasis on law and order, the US is a shining example of public order and safety? On public order and safety, the US is also dead last.

I've written about homicide and gun ownership rates. In HIV infection rate and cocaine abuse the US ranks worst. Its robbery rate is one of the worst, 31 times higher than Japan, fifteen times higher than South Korea and France. Road fatality rate and percent of lifetime lost to injury are near worst. 

Well, you say, at least the US is one of the most generous countries? On generosity the US also ranks dead last.

On NGO and public tsunami relief pledges, the US is middle of the table; Norwegians and Swiss give eight times more per capita. On government foreign aid, asylum seekers accepted per capita, greenhouse gas emissions per capita, efforts to reduce exploitation of the global commons and ecological footprint, the US is near the bottom, and on net development assistance as percent of gross national income, the US is dead last.

Well at least don't Americans enjoy a nice life? On income and leisure the US ranks 27th of 30.

It's 7th of 30 in GDP per hour worked, 12th in ratio of female to male income, but worst or near worst in hours worked, share of income received by the poorest 20%, income inequality and vacation days per year.

Only in education does the US escape the bottom ranks.

It's in the middle of the table on high school and university enrolment, student reading and scientific literacy; near the bottom in problem solving, math literacy, and in percent of college grads working in scientific and engineering jobs.

The statistics on violence and guns in the US aren't black swans. They look more like indicators of social and political disintegration, due to forty years of neoliberalism and plutonomy.

Mass Murders and Shooting Sprees in USA

There's a thought-provoking piece on the Mother Jones web site. It includes a map, a portion of which is depicted below:

The original map image depicts the entire nation, and further, if you hover your mouse over the various dots, a pop-up provides additional information about each incident.
I urge you to visit the original article and map:
Mass Murders and Shooting Sprees in the USA.
If Friday's horrific incident is not enough to provoke some serious debate about gun-control in the United States, it's difficult to say what is.
The irony of the situation is that statistically speaking, violent crime has never been lower in the United States. People have never been safer than now. Unfortunately, they do not feel safe, and therefore they feel the need to possess arms -- in case something like this happens to them. The facts, however, speak otherwise. In all these violent incidents, there has been only one occurrence in which a bystander shot the assailant. And even in this case, the facts bear closer scrutiny. What actually happened was this: the assailant escaped the scene on a bicycle; the citizen chased him with his car, knocked him down, and then departed his vehicle and shot the perpetrator. In sum, this is hardly a justification for his possession of the weapon; the vehicle was more than enough.
The standard (one might almost say knee-jerk) justification for the right of an American citizen to possess an assault weapon is the Second Amendment. But even this occurs in more than one version (one version was passed by Congress, another was ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State). The differences are minimal, having to do with capitalization of certain words, but they do have one thing in common: they are almost always cited in part and/or out of context. Here is the version that Jefferson authenticated:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
One might first of all point out that this "right" should be understood in the context of a militia. That would have been my own interpretation. However, in 2008 the United States Supreme Court ruled (District of Columbia v Heller 554 US 570) that the right to keep and bear arms does not depend upon one's membership in a militia, and that the right extends to the use of said firearm for lawful purposes, including defense of one's home.
President Obama has sworn "to do everything in my power to prevent these senseless acts from ever occurring again." The real question, I suppose, is How much power does he have?
As David Frum, well-known conservative thinker and former presidential speechwriter, phrased it, "The real problem is to keep the most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous people." Mr. Frum is perhaps being realistic. A general ban on firearms in the United States is simply a non-starter; perhaps he is right to begin with a ban on automatic and even semi-automatic weapons.
Such a ban would demand the surrender of all such weapons to law enforcement agencies, and further that anyone found in possession of such a weapon be subject to an automatic term in prison.
I would also argue for the imprinting of all firearms with a non-removable identification number, which shall appear on every bill of sale of said weapon. This would enable the tracking of each and every weapon from the factory in which it was manufactured through all its middle-men, all the way to the household cabinet in which it ultimately is stored. Obviously, this will do nothing about all the millions of weapons already in the hands of the public, but it is a start.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Violence in the US

Is the US more violent than other developed countries? Here are assault deaths per 100,000 in the US (blue) and in other OECD countries excluding Estonia and Mexico (red) from 1960 through 2010 ...
(To enlarge the chart, click on it. To return, click outside the enlarged chart.)

On the whole, US violence is comparable to that in 16th and 17th century Europe. What parts of the US are most violent? From 1998 through 2010, the South, by a longshot ...

How do US regions compare with those OECD countries?

How about the "race" of the victim?

What's the relationship with wealth and poverty? Not so strong ...

Do states that control gun ownership have less gun violence? On the whole yes ...

What are the biggest positive correlates of high gun death rates in US states? McCain's vote share in 2008, high poverty rates, a big working class, guns allowed in high schools ...

What are the biggest negative correlates? The proportion of college graduates, Obama's vote share in 2008, and gun control legislation.

Gun advocates are wrong

They say more will guns protect us from homicide.

If more guns protected us from homicide, states and countries with more gun ownership and less gun control would have lower gun homicide rates.

The opposite is the case. Harvard studies found that even when you control for poverty, urbanisation and age, there is more gun homicide where there is more gun ownership. 

There are more gun homicides and overall homicides in US states with more gun ownership. That holds for men and women and all age groups, after accounting for rates of aggravated assault, robbery, unemployment, urbanisation, alcohol consumption, and poverty. 

Similar findings hold for high-income countries across the world.

Contrary to claims by gun advocates, Israel is not an example of a country where high gun ownership reduces gun homicide. The US has about 89 guns per 100 people. Israel has about 7 guns per 100 people. Israel severely limits who can own a gun. 

Neither is Switzerland. It has about half as many guns per capita as the US. Everyone serves in the army, and cantons used to let people keep guns at home, but they're moving these guns to depots.

None of this is secret knowledge ...

1. Hepburn L, Hemenway D, Firearm availability and homicide: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior: A Review Journal. 2004; 9:417-40. 

2. Miller M, Azrael D, Hemenway D, Household firearm ownership levels and homicide rates across U.S. regions and states, 1988-1997. American Journal of Public Health. 2002: 92:1988-1993

3. Miller, M, Azrael D, Hemenway D, State-level homicide victimization rates in the U.S. in relation to survey measures of household firearm ownership, 2001-2003. Social Science and Medicine. 2007; 64:656-64.

4. Hemenway D, Miller M, Firearm availability and homicide rates across 26 high income countries. Journal of Trauma. 2000; 49:985-88.

5. Florida R, The geography of gun deaths,

Friday, 14 December 2012

Save the children. From our guns.

There are 2 to 100 times more gun murders and suicides per capita in the US than in other developed countries. 

You could argue that if US adults are crazy enough to elect politicians who are in the pocket of the gun lobby, if they're crazy enough to elect them over and over again, maybe they deserve their bloody fates.

But a child living in the US is 42 times more likely to die from gun violence than a child living in other developed countries.

Nobody has the right to do that to children.

Starting with the Appeaser-in-Chief, US politicians and pundits have already resumed the chant, "Now is not the time to debate gun control". 

This is exactly the time. 

Eliot Spitzer said it best:
There's the old line, now is not the time to talk politics. Let's be clear. Silence is politics. Silence is cowardice. Silence is acquiescence. Silence is what the NRA wants. Those who are silent should be thrown out of politics ... If you are silent, you are a coward. 
The biggest terrorist menace in the US is the NRA. Now isn't the time to be a coward.

P.S. To get a little closer to the 20 kids and six teachers killed at Sandy Hook, goto and scroll down to the slideshow.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Pandit Ravi Shankar, R.I.P.

Like many of the hippie generation, I became interested in Ravi Shankar and Indian classical music generally as a direct result of hearing George Harrison play the sitar on "Norwegian Wood" and "Within You Without You". It's fair to say that these songs changed my musical life.
Before long, I was an avid fan of the music, and specifically, of the tabla (the drums that accompany most classical Indian performers such as Ravi Shankar). Eventually, I found a tabla instructor in Toronto, and became a student of  tabla, studying for several years with Ritesh Das, founder of The Toronto Tabla Ensemble. I even dedicated my first book to Zakir Hussain, the master tabla player whose father was the inestimable Alla Rakha, almost always the tabla player who accompanied Ravi Shankar.
One of the most memorable concerts I ever attended was in New York City, and featured several of the leading stars of Indian music -- Ravi Shankar (sitar), Ali Akbar Khan (sarod), Shivkumar Sharma (santoor), Hariprasad Chaurasia (flute) and Alla Rakha. As the years passed, I soon came to love the music of other players such as G.S. Sachdev (flute) and Swapan Chaduri (tabla).
Classical Indian music remains one of my greatest loves. I have a couple of hundred CDs and have attended close to that many concerts. I owe all of this to Pandit Ravi Shankar. He will be missed.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Be brave, be arrested if necessary

Why is the head of a quiet, careful Boston money management firm writing in Nature, one of the two most prestigious science journals in the world, that we need to risk being arrested to stop further global warming?

Here's his argument. The price of 33 crucial commodities went down 70% in the 20th century, helping a lot of economies to grow, but since 2002, prices of most of those commodities have tripled, mostly because of economic growth in the developing world. Climate change is wreaking havoc with food production. 

We're facing shortages of two fertilisers, phosphate and potash. Grain productivity growth is now no higher than world population growth, 1.2%. That's a safety margin of zero. 

If we're to avoid huge worldwide climate and food disaster, oil producers need to leave 80% of remaining oil reserves in the ground, but they own the US congress so the world's biggest economy is still driving climate change and doing virtually nothing about it.

To the world's scientists he says "Be arrested if necessary. This is not only the crisis of your lives - it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave."

That's advice we all need to hear.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A man who knew but didn't know he knew

Perhaps unawares, Mitt Romney has acknowledged how important health care insurance is for people living in the US ...

"You can imagine for somebody making $25,000 or $30,000 or $35,000 a year, being told you’re now going to get free health care, particularly if you don’t have it, getting free health care worth, what, $10,000 per family, in perpetuity, I mean, this is huge."

As progressives have been saying in the US for eighty years. He went on to say:

"Our campaign, in contrast, was talking about big issues for the whole country---military strategy, foreign policy, a strong economy, creating jobs and so forth. And by the way ... our strategy worked well with many people, but for those who were given a specific gift, if you will, our strategy did not work terribly well."

There's a strategy the Democrats can use again and again: make sure you win the votes of the folks for whom universal health insurance is a priority.

Inequality and taxes

While Dems and Repubs are fighting about how to manage the US's intentionally misnamed "fiscal cliff", we'll hear a lot about whether to tax the rich more. 

Repubs say the rich in the US pay more total taxes than the rich in most other OECD countries. 

They do. But not because their rates are higher. Their rates are lower than in most other OECD countries. 

The rich pay more in total taxes because they enjoy a much bigger slice of the US pie than the rich of most other OECD countries.

Here's the arithmetic (courtesy Brad DeLong). Suppose the top 10% pay taxes at a 40% rate, and everybody else pays 20%. If the top 10% have 20% of the country's income, their share of total taxes is  (20*40 / (20*40+80*20) = 33%. If they have 40% of the country's income, their share of total taxes is  (40*40 / (40*40+60*20) = 57%. Same tax rates, different total shares just because of more inequality.

Total share of taxes is a biased measure of the tax burden on the rich. You have to look at their rates. And on that score, Paul Krugman's argument from marginal utility stands: the rates should be much higher.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

What to know before hiring professional Access developers

My Australian friends at Access Guru liked my post about "The Access Developer's Dilemma", and asked what I thought about the process of hiring Access developers. I thought that I'd share my response here.

One of the real strengths of Access as a development platform is that in the hands of a capable soloist, it can handle projects that, developed in another environment such as C#, would require require a team of developers as well as considerably more time. This is not to say that such development tools are overkill; they most certainly are not. It comes down to some combination of target market, development schedule,  developer skills available, budget and so on. That said, Access is an excellent vehicle for developing a wide variety of applications.

As the old saying goes, there are three types of developer: those who can count and those who can’t. In this context, I’m dividing Access developers into two camps: soloists and accompanists.

Soloists are one-person shops; they design the database, the User Interface more often than not, the release schedule (as opposed to the project’s deadline), the testing procedure if any, the on-line help if any, and the documentation (user and system), if any. As you can see, as we step through the list, the phrase “if any” recurs frequently. This is typically due to one or both of two facts: a) project size, and b) budget available. A soloist almost by definition works on bite-size projects, most often for small businesses and occasionally for much larger organizations such as government ministries, which in my experience might have a dozen projects on the go at once, outsourcing each of them to a soloist, thus mitigating the risk that all dozen projects fail; it is to be expected that one or two will either miss their budget or their deadline, or fail completely. A soloist project might take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to develop and release; seldom longer. But the point is, such a project is of a size that a single developer can manage. 

Accompanists have typically never run a project, and often know they are not ready for that level of responsibility. Their work experience is often in large corporate or governmental organizations, and the project size mandates both a larger timeline and a team of developers, one of whom takes the lead. This sort of project might take, say, 5000 person-hours to complete.

As the person in charge of hiring, you will know at once whether you are looking for a soloist or an accompanist. It’s not that one is “better” than the other. To think so is to miss the point, and let me try to explain why.

A soloist does everything herself. To put it another way, she is a team player only when forced to become one, typically due to lack of an immediately next client – in which situation, hard-pressed to cover next month’s expenses, she begins scanning the career sites and flinging CVs into the cybersphere.

An accompanist is first and foremost a team player. She knows that he cannot perform some or all of the tasks masterfully, yet is confident that she can provide a meaningful contribution to some aspect of the big picture. She wants to learn from the experience of the team members. Negatively stated, she wants to be shielded from full responsibility for the failure of the project. More positively stated, she wants the opportunity to surround herself with more experienced people, and is eager to learn. From the hirer’s viewpoint, she is willing to work lots of unpaid hours for the opportunity to learn and grow.

Any given project may be divided into three chunks:
a)      Hard – designing the database and the overall user interface (UI); this might be two separate roles, and in large projects, most often is. DB designers are seldom gifted at UI design. There is a huge benefit in separating these roles: the strength of the DB design can be combined with the strength of the UI, and even better, the UI can be revised and enhanced without touching the rest of the project.
b)      Medium – implementing the required queries that will support the forms and reports. This requires the ability to understand database diagrams, know all about the relative merits of various join types (and in the case of a SQL back end, the subtleties of calling stored procedures versus views, etc.).
c)      Easy – creating basic forms and reports, based on queries that have already removed the heavy lifting from the task.

A well-assembled team will consist of one or two members of each class. Follow the chain. The DB Designer figures out all the Normal-Form stuff and how deep to go with it (3NF, 4NF, BCNF, 5NF)[1]. The second aspect of this, which may or may not involve a second team member, is to design the overall UE. I am the first to admit that I would prefer that someone else design the UI. I can deliver basic UIs that work, but if you’re looking for elegant layouts, l need help.

When considering assembling a team, it’s useful to bear in mind Brooks’s Law[2]: The more programmers you throw at a problem, the longer it will take to solve. This is neither maxim nor theory; it is fact, borne out in thousands of projects worldwide, on everything from mainframes to PCs. The manager is thus caught between two pincers (which I might suggest is the definition of that position): Job A is to listen to your underlings’ estimates and shave them down; Job B is to fudge up those estimates and fatten the project’s schedule, explaining to your superiors why it will take so long, all the while knowing they will shave you back (hence the original fattening).

So. We have soloists and accompanists, and you need to know which you’re seeking. I avoided the word “classes” because neither is “better” than the other, in the same sense as neither a cow or a goat is better than the other – both produce milk and ultimately meat – everything depends on the environment.

Know which you need. If you need a soloist, fine. In that case, prior experience in the business domain of interest may be paramount. If you need an accompanist, other factors come into play; as I tried to describe, there are levels, and when dividing the Big Picture into Smaller Pictures, you need to be aware of which aspects can be handled by developers with which levels of experience. Don’t try to hire a crew of experts; not only will egos get in your way, but you’ll be overpaying somebody for doing easy work.

The worst mistake you could make is to try to assemble a team from a group of soloists. Egos, programming styles, and a dozen other things as trivial as one’s ability to carry a conversation at the coffee-making machine, will come into play.

[1] There’s lots of information on-line about these refinements. If you need more info, visit
[2] “The Mythical Man Month” by Frederick J. Brooks, is an absolutely essential read for any professional developer, regardless of programming language(s) chosen.

Canada's war on science

Stephen Harper's Conservative government seems determined not only to muzzle its scientists, but to eviscerate the agencies they work for, the guise of "trimming the fat". I'll list some of these cuts in a moment, but first I want to point out a stark difference between Canada and most other free nations: Canada's government must give its approval before any scientist working for any governmental agency may speak to the press.

Most often, the government withholds its approval. Less frequently, it delays such approval just long enough as to render it meaningless. These scientists and their research are paid for by Canadian taxpayers, but our own government muzzles its employees and for the most part prevents our hearing what they have to say.
This technique is necessary only because the government doesn't have the balls to do what it actually would prefer. The Conservatives know they cannot simply abolish Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, Library and Archives Canada, the National Research Council, Statistics Canada, and the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council -- that might awaken the sleeping populace. Instead, the government has chosen the path of evisceration, slashing the budgets of all these organizations to the point of almost complete paralysis.

(You might have noticed that the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy was not mentioned. That's because the government killed it outright. Also absent from the list is the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory: in this case it was enough to terminate its funding.)

If this weren't sufficiently abhorrent, the government has gutted or rendered toothless most of Canada's environmental protection legislation, including the Environmental Assessment Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Fisheries Act.

The overall reason for all this butchery is not the belt-tightening the government alleges. Not at all: this is about silencing the critics and going full-bore ahead with such controversial projects as development of Alberta's tar sands, construction of a pipeline from Alberta through British Columbia to the coast, and similar resource-extraction initiatives.

Ironically, what may help save the Canadian environment is the recent announcement in the United States that thanks to "fracking", it will soon surpass both Russia and Saudi Arabia in oil production, and that by 2035 it will be totally self-sufficient in terms of energy. This leaves the Harper government with two choices: either continue headlong with the pipeline projects, hoping to sell the USA as much oil as possible before the shale oil is fully on-line, or -- much less likely, pause and take a deep breath and reconsider. A sudden plethora of American oil won't change the fact that Asian markets will remain thirsty for decades, and increasingly so. I'm not sure that I want that to be taken as approval of the pipeline to the Pacific project, which is not only environmentally risky but also strenuously opposed by the First Nations peoples in B.C., who happen to own the land.

Oh, piffle! Plod on, Mr. Harper. Just chuck out property rights (that is, First Nation property rights) along with all the science we've been wasting money on all these years.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Yet more marginalia

Trends exposed by this US election aren't favourable to the religious right. With each election, more voters voters identify themselves as having no religious affiliation. Now one in five do. Voters who say they're evangelical voted nearly 4-1 for Romney, but with each election they become a smaller and older sector of the electorate. 

Evangelicals and Catholic bishops fought same-sex marriage referenda in four states and lost all of 'em. Anti-abortion senate candidates lost. Wisconsin elected the senate's first gay woman. Two states voted to legalise recreational marijuana.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., told the New York Times “It’s not that our message — we think abortion is wrong, we think same-sex marriage is wrong — didn’t get out. It did get out. It’s that the entire moral landscape has changed. An increasingly secularised America understands our positions, and has rejected them.”

More election marginalia

The US Republican party has moved far to the right. How far? Remember David Frum, the Canadian son of CBC journalist Barbara Frum? He turned coat, became George W. Bush's speechwriter, and coined the term "axis of evil". Now he's speaking as the Republicans' conscience ...

"Since the loss of the election, we have heard an enormous amount of discussion from Republicans on television and newspaper columns about immigration as an issue... but all of us who are allowed to participate in this conversation, we all have health insurance. And the fact that millions of Americans don't have health insurance, they don't get to be on television. And it is maybe a symptom of a broader problem, not just the Republican problem, that the economic anxieties of so many Americans are just not part of the national discussion at all.

"I mean, we have not yet emerged from the greatest national catastrophe, the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. And what are we talking about? The deficit and the debt. And these are important problems, but they're a lot easier to worry about if you are wealthier than you were in 2008, which most of the people on television now are again, if you are securely employed, which most of the people on television now are. But that's not true for 80% of America. And the Republican Party, the opposition party, needed to find some way to give voice to real urgent economic concerns held by middle class Americans. Latinos, yes, but Americans of all ethnicities."

More at

Saturday, 10 November 2012

US election marginalia

Non-voters favoured Obama over Romney 59%-24%, nearly 2½-1.

Obama won the black vote 9-1, the asian vote 3-1. But he lost the "white" vote. Again. No Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white voters since Republicans adopted their "southern strategy" in the 1970s to take advantage of white southern hatred of mid-sixties civil rights legislation to undo southern apartheid.

Complaining about Nate Silver's straightforward statistical arithmetic, the National Review's Jonah Goldberg says "I like to think that people are different, more open to reason, and that the soul — particularly when multiplied into the complexity of a society — is not so easily number-crunched."

The Romney campaign's confidence was based on what they thought was killer get-out-the-vote technology called Project Orca. Yes, they named it after that whale. The project is described here. An insider says “the Obama training manuals made Orca look like a drunken monkey slapped together in a powerpoint”.

Another insider says Romney consultants “looked at the guy who could raise the most money in history as a ride”. The Romney campaign was done in by private enterprise. Karma?

Republicans painted Obama as a socialist, but as Brad DeLong points out, "Obama broadly follows Ronald Reagan's (second term) security policy, George H.W. Bush's spending policy, Bill Clinton's tax policy, the bipartisan Squam Lake Group's financial-regulatory policy, Rick Perry's immigration policy, John McCain's climate-change policy, and Mitt Romney's health-care policy." 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Weather on steroids

Next time you hear your favourite climate change denier say global warming isn't responsible for disasters like Hurricane Sandy, show her this wee chart ...

Or (gasp) suggest she read the article that cites it.

Or send her to the "It's Global Warming, Stupid!" issue of BusinessWeek, which has given us the climate metaphor of the decade ...

“We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Tipping point

We've induced nearly 1°C of global warming above the pre-industrial average. The effects of that 1°C of warming are what science was predicting ten years ago for 2°C of warming---food crop failures, huge losses of arctic ice, nearly 400,000 deaths a year from global warming, much more extreme weather like hurricane Sandy. 

The 32 gigatons of carbon we dump into the atmosphere every year have already baked in nearly another degree of warming, no matter what we do from here on in. And we're still increasing that dump by about a gigaton a year.

So we've little or no chance of limiting warming to 
2°C. That means we've little or no chance of avoiding extremely dangerous climate change starting about now.

And that's just the beginningFossil fuel companies have 2,795 gigatons of carbon or more in the ground. They're doing their best to get it extracted, sold and burned. That much carbon will raise average global temperature about 6°C and cause irreparable damage to the planet (graphic here).

To avoid this, starting right now we'd have to reduce carbon emissions 3–4% per year worldwide by taxing carbon and leaving nearly all those oil and gas deposits in the ground.

We're doing nothing like that. There's no sign we can agree worldwide on anything like it. Not least because a 3-4% yearly reduction in carbon emissions is incompatible with continuing worldwide economic growth (details here). With negative economic growth, our economies crash.

Organised money (aka the 1%) and its useful idiots (aka the political & economic right) understand this. They're sure that effective global warming reversal will turn their country into USSR 2.0. So they're fighting it with everything they have.

And they're winning.

Further reading ...

Bill McKibben, Global warming's terrifying new math,

Climate Vulnerability Monitor,

Danielle Droitsch, NASA's James Hansen: tar sands is the "dirtiest of fuels" and "game over for the climate,

George Monbiot, The heat of the moment,

Naomi Klein, Capitalism vs the climate,

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Thought police in the land of the unfree

Imran Khan, a former Pakistan cricket captain who became a politician, has been campaigning against US drone strikes that have killed many Pakistani civilians. On his way from Canada to New York to attend a fundraiser, he was taken off his flight by US immigration officials to be questioned over his views on drone strikes.

A US state department spokeswoman said "We are aware that Imran Khan was briefly delayed in Toronto before boarding the next flight to the United States."

If you intend to visit the US, and if you're politically active, get ready to be questioned about your political views.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Evolution and Big Bang theory "straight from the pit of hell"

ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia Rep. Paul Broun said in videotaped remarks that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory are "lies straight from the pit of hell" meant to convince people that they do not need a savior.

The Republican lawmaker made those comments during a speech Sept. 27 at a sportsman’s banquet at Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell. Broun, a medical doctor, is running for re-election in November unopposed by Democrats.

"God’s word is true," Broun said, according to a video posted on the church’s website. "I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior." 

Broun also said that he believes the Earth is about 9,000 years old and that it was made in six days. Those beliefs are held by fundamentalist Christians who believe the creation accounts in the Bible to be literally true.

Broun spokeswoman Meredith Griffanti told the Athens Banner-Herald that Broun was recorded speaking off-the-record to a church group about his religious beliefs. He sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.(my emphasis).

Where does the Republican party find such people? And how does such a man manage to be appointed to a science committee?  It boggles the mind.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Dogmatic literalism

Speaking to a rightwing US thinktank, US Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia couldn't have been clearer. The death penalty? The framers of the Constitution didn't think it unconstituional, so it can't be. Preventing abortion? "Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion." Homosexual sodomy? "Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state." 

Are constitutional literalists and biblical literalists just look-alike cousins, or are they neurotwins?

In minds like that, which came first, love of the absolute, or love of the ideas that are held so absolutely?

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Why's it called the American dream?

'Cuz to believe it you have to be asleep.

Not a new joke, but it sums up what Columbia University economist and Nobel laureate Joe Stiglitz said in an interview with Der Spiegel.

"The life chances of a young US citizen are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in any other advanced industrial country for which there is data ...

"There has been no improvement in well-being for the typical American family for 20 years. On the other side, the top one percent of the population gets 40 percent more in one week than the bottom fifth receive in a full year ... 

"... the top 1% in the United States has an average tax rate of less than 30 percent of their reported income, and the large proportion who take much of their income as capital gains pay far less. And we know that they are not reporting all of their income ...

"There is nothing wrong if someone who has invented the transistor or made some other technical breakthrough that is beneficial for all receives a large income. He deserves the money. But many of those in the financial sector got rich by economic manipulation, by deceptive and anti-competitive practices, by predatory lending. They took advantage of the poor and uninformed, as they made enormous amounts of money by preying upon these groups with predatory lending. They sold them costly mortgages and were hiding details of the fees in fine print."

(If you'd rather read personal stories than statistics, try the story of how wheelchair-bound Ana Wilson is trying to keep Wells Fargo from evicting her from the house she's lived in for 37 years.)

Der Spiegel: Why didn't the government stop this behaviour?

"... The financial elite support the political campaigns with huge contributions. They buy the rules that allow them to make the money. Much of the inequality that exists today is a result of government policies."

Der Spiegel: 99% against 1 percent: That actually sounds like the perfect setting for a revolution. Why are things still so calm in the US?

"The United States doesn't have much of a revolutionary spirit. My real concern is that people get alienated from politics. In the last election we had a voter turnout among young people of around 20 percent. These are the people whose future is most at stake, and 80 percent of them think it's not worth to vote because it is a rigged system and in the end the banks are going to run the country anyway."

"... More than a quarter of all homeowners owe more money than the value of their houses ... We haven't invested enough for 30 years -- in infrastructure, technology, education... The United States can borrow at close to a zero percent interest rate, we would be stupid not to invest more money and create jobs. And we could also make efforts to ensure that the super-wealthy pay their fair share  ..."

His aim looks pretty good on Europe too ...

"... Europe's crisis is not caused by excessive long-term debts and deficits. It is caused by cutbacks in government expenditures. The recession caused the deficits, not the other way around. Before the crisis Spain and Ireland ran budget surpluses. They cannot be accused of fiscal profligacy. More fiscal discipline will only worsen the downturn. No economy ever recovered from a downturn through austerity."

Der Spiegel: Really? What about Estonia or Latvia? With severe pay cuts the Baltic states boosted productivity and recovered.

"They are small economies. They can make up for the loss of government spending by more exports. But that doesn't work with a fixed exchange rate and when your trading partners are not doing well. The crisis countries don't suffer from excessive spending. The problem is not supply but demand. It is the responsibility of monetary and fiscal policy to maintain the economy at full employment."

Der Spiegel: No matter what the costs? No private household can live beyond its means permanently. Why should governments be exempted from that rule?

"Because countries are different from households. If a citizen cuts back his spending, it is without any consequences for the country. Unemployment does not increase. But if the government cuts back its spending, it has a major effect. An expansion of spending can increase production by creating jobs that will be filled by people who would otherwise be unemployed."

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Martha, open source, and us

Martha Payne is nine years old. She lives in Scotland. A couple of months ago she started a blog about the disgusting food her school was serving up at lunchtime. Pretty soon her blog was attracting thousands of readers. Two weeks ago the school council shut her down.

What made the school council think they could get away with that? Most of human history, is all.

For a delightful riff that begins with that story and goes on to Gutenberg, Linus Torvalds, github, freedom, and you and me, have a peek at Clay Shirky's TED talk.

What François Hollande knows, that we forgot

To hear the anglosphere rightwing talk, you'd think government debt is about to send us into the economic dustbin with Greece. What are the facts? 

Here's a plot, from Chapter 5 of the 2010 Economic Report of the President, of US public debt from 1920 through now, then projected for the next thirty years:

Current debt is near the average it's been for 90 years. 

Through that period, there've been two dramatic jumps in debt level, first from the Great Depression, then from World War II. 1980-1992 saw a third,  smaller debt rise created by the policies of Reagan and Bush the Elder.

Right now there's not a big federal debt problem in the US. That's reflected in current near-zero interest rates. 

The problem is entirely with what's projected to happen in the next 30 years. Unless that trend's undone, at some point investors would stop buying US federal paper.

What are the big causes of that projected rise? Bush the Younger's tax cuts for the rich, Bush the Younger's refusal to pay for his wars and his Medicare prescription drug program, and huge inefficiencies in US health care (it costs almost twice as much per capita as Canada's system, and gets worse results).

What are plausible solutions? Increase the retirement age. Reduce health care inefficiencies. Raise taxes. 

Retirement age is a complicated issue. So is Obamacare. Raising taxes, maybe not so much.

The rightwing says increasing taxes on the rich will slow down job growth. Is there evidence for that?  

The US Congressional Research Service has just studied the question. It found that "reduction in the top tax rates have had little association with saving, investment, or productivity growth."

And there's an argument from basic economics that gives the same conclusion. For the rich, marginal utility of income is low, so it's best to tax them at a rate that maximises revenue, 1/(1+labour supply elasticity for the rich). Labour supply elasticity for the rich is low, so that formula suggests about a 70% tax rate for the rich. 

During 20th century periods of greatest economic growth in the US, tax rates for the rich were near that, or higher. 

François Hollande has just announced such a tax rate for the rich in France, 75%. If the rightwing is correct, wealth and jobs will flee France, and Hollande's tax will cause a recession. If the rightwing is wrong, it won't. We'll know in a couple of years.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Screwing the public, one state bill at a time

If you still think the US is the last best hope for humankind, have a look this weekend at Bill Moyers's PBS documentary on ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.

ALEC is a consortium of US corporations and legislators who work behind closed doors to design “model” bills for US state legislatures. It includes hundreds of corporations, dozens of lobbyist organisations and thinktanks, and about a thousand legislators (mostly Republican). Forty-nine of Arizona's 90 state legislators belong to ALEC.

They design bills to cut the size of government and help corporations. Up to a thousand bills a year. Lisa Graves of the Center for Media Democracy has copies of 850 of such “model” laws from ALEC. “Stand your ground" gun laws that give you legal cover to kill someone. Voter suppression laws. Union-busting laws. Laws to help insurance companies deny health insurance to patients with pre-existing conditions. Laws to to diminish your legal rights if you're killed or injured by a corporation. Laws to block climate change agreements. Laws to dismantle public education in favour of privatised education. Laws to privatise prison administration and facilitate corporate use of prison labour.

And though ALEC not only lobbies but writes legislation, it's registered as a charity, so it pays no taxes and its corporate members get a tax writeoff.

Why does ALEC aim at state legislatures rather than Washington? State Rep. John Nichols says “If you really want to influence the politics of this country, you don’t just give money to presidential campaigns, you don’t just give money to congressional campaign committees. Smart players put their money in the states.”

How much of this hookumsnivvy do you suppose is seriously corrupt? An ALEC prison industry lobbyist tells Moyers “if I can talk you into doing this bill, my clients are going to make a—some money on the bond premiums.”

ALEC didn't write the Florida “stand your ground” law that George Zimmerman used to justify killing Trayvon Martin, unarmed but for a bag of candy and a cup of iced tea. The NRA got that done in 2005. 

What ALEC did was get a model of that law passed in 24 other states.

That kind of publicity isn't good for corporations. Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, Mars, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson now say they've pulled out of ALEC.

But BP, GlaxoSmithKline, Koch Industries, Shell, and hundreds of others remain.
In March 2011, ALEC held one of its boot camps for legislators at the North Carolina Capitol in Raleigh, on how to keep the average Joe from successfully suing a corporation for damages. The day after the boot camp, two state reps presented a draft law, copied almost word for word from the ALEC model, to limit corporate product liability in North Carolina.

What's turning the US into a corporate kleptocracy? A big part of the answer is ALEC.