Crawl Across the Ocean

Monday, February 26, 2007

What Do I Want

James Bow has a post up where he briefly describes what it is that he wants from government over the next few years.

I was thinking about what I might say as a comment and I realized that what I want from government these days is actually fairly simple (assuming we avoid those devilish details):

1) Government should support those activities which have positive externalities (public research, education, etc.)
2) Government should minimize those activities with negative externalities (foreign invasion, crime, smoking, etc.)
3) Government should manage / regulate those areas where the market fails (health insurance, electricity transmission, firefighting etc.)
4) Government should take reasonable measures to limit human suffering (welfare programs, homeless shelters, universal health care)

What did I miss?


Imagine that your neighbourhood or your country or the world faces some problem. Odds are, people will fall into different camps. At the very least you will have those who want to take action to solve the problem, and those who don't think it is a problem at all. But within those two groups you will have subgroups. For me the most annoying group of people in any crowd is those who not only advocate doing nothing, but who then sit back from their comfortable doing-nothing perch and question the sincerity or goodwill of anyone who advocates action being taken but does not have perfect saintlike behavior.

For example, imagine that the local neighbourhood playground was blown down in a windstorm and local kids miss having monkey bars to play on. Some people in the neighbourhood want to raise money to build a new one, some think a playground is unnecessary or too expensive and don't want to spend the money. But chances are, there is some jerk who will say to one of the supporters of a new playground, 'if you want one, why don't you pay the whole cost yourself.' ignoring the fact that the whole neighbourhood will benefit from the playground, so by wanting to get the benefits without contributing, they just want to be a free-loader.

Or another example. The neighbourhood's water supply is running low so some of the neighbours suggest that everyone cut back their water usage. Some people are in favour and some opposed. But then your jerk will say to one of the supporters of cutbacks, "I saw you watering your rosebushes the other day. How can you say we should cut back our usage unless you stop using water altogether. Until you promise not to use another drop of water then you;re just a hypocrite.'

The point is, people who refuse to contribute to solving serious public problems are bad enough, the ones who do that and also snipe at those are trying to help because those people aren't perfect are really the bottom of the barrel.

Which brings me to Lorne Gunter's column in the national post. Now, the column is so ridiculous that if you didn't know that Gunter was writing it, you might think it was a satire of the type of childlike behavior I've been describing in this post (says Gunter of climate change concerts, "Do they all plan to play acoustical instruments on candle-lit stages?" Yes, in Gunter's world, only those who renounce environmentalism should be allowed to play electrical instruments. Later on he criticizes "the increasingly shrill and dogmatic geneticist-cum-environmental-inquisitor" David Suzuki for using a bus as part of his cross-country tour to talk about global warming.)

But while it's all too easy to mock the increasingly shrill and dogmatic editor-cum-columnist-inquisitor Lorne Gunter, this tactic of trying to discredit voices for change by holding up those advocating change to some impossible standard and calling them hypocrites when they don't meet that standard is all too common. How many right-wingers have spent time criticizing Bono for trying to do too much or for being wealthy vs. those who criticize, say, Prince*, for doing too little or for being wealthy? How often when someone wealthy suggests that we do more to help the poor (see Edwards, John) do we hear people say that unless that person is willing to become a pauper and beg on the streets, they shouldn't be listened to (and how often are the people saying that comfortably employed at some think tank set up by some old wealthy man, for the express purpose of protecting that wealth?)

Accidental Deliberations compares Gunter's column to a piece by Tom Barrett in the Tyee and asks, "Can it be anything but a sign of a messed-up marketplace of ideas that Gunter gets the more prominent writing space of the two?"

To which the easy answer is, no - regardless of Barrett, that Gunter has a regular column is sign enough. And part of the 'mess' in the marketplace of ideas, is the fact that this idea - the idea that advocates of taking the easy way out can be as slack as they want while simultaneously criticizing those who advocate taking the hard way for not being perfect - is given any currency at all.

*Nothing against Prince, just trying to find someone as high profile as U2 who has done relatively little political activism.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Tax Cut to Meet the Challenge of Buying More Stuff

Due to a busy week, I didn't really have time to comment on the B.C. budget when it happened. If the government is to be believed, the biggest challenge facing B.C. currently is that income tax rates, already pretty much the lowest in the country, were too high. The government tried to pass off the tax cut as part of a 'housing plan' but that spin was likely too laughable even for the government-friendly CanWest chain (I don't know for sure though, I didn't check).

You can see the forecast for more debt here. The B.C. government likes to claim it has a surplus while increasing the debt because it doesn't treat capital spending (building roads, bridges, hospitals, etc.) as an expense in the year in which the costs are incurred. A couple of years ago I explained why, while this method of accounting might make sense for business, I don't think it is logical for government.

On the same page as the debt totals, I was amused by the sequence of 3 tables:
1) The first shows that GDP growth (income growth, basically) in B.C. was 3.9% last year.
2) The second show that property values in B.C. were up 24% in 2006.
3) The third is the statement that 'Among the challenges arising from a growing economy is home affordability.'

Obviously the challenge of affordability has a lot more to do with property values run amok than it does with 3.9% GDP growth!

The next table is where the government demonstrates that either:
a) They have 0 understanding of basic supply and demand or
b) They are deliberately trying to mislead the public

This is where they claim that cutting taxes - for everybody - will make housing more affordable. To the extent that people use money from tax cuts for housing, that will make prices even higher than they otherwise would have been. And given that the more you make the more you benefit from the tax cut, it's likely that those who currently aren't making enough money to afford a house will find housing even more unaffordable as those making more than them who already have a house drive prices up further buying bigger houses with their bigger tax cut.

More to the point, the table titled 'Meeting the housing challenges of a growing economy' just shows how much more money is available for tax cuts than there is for genuine housing initiatives. Not to say that estimates $100 million/ year in increases housing funding isn't welcome, just that it pales compared to the $500 million / year cost of the tax cut.

Near the bottom of the page, there is a chart showing the decline in the debt/GDP ratio from around 20% when the Liberals gained power to about 15% now. While it would have been negligence not to have seen that number decline given the favourable economic conditions B.C. has seen in the last 5 years, it's still nice not to have seen such negligence. I do think that B.C. should be paying the debt down further and faster while commodity prices are high, the boomers are in their peak earning years, the beetle infected lumber is being chopped up and the housing bubble is still inflating.

There is also more money for schools and a reasonable increase for health care funding, for next year anyway, but after the big green throne speech, very little in the way of spending on environmental initiatives. Supposedly we will see funding for Green initiatives next year, I guess we'll see. The Olympic clock isn't the only one ticking.

Summarizing, it's a mediocre budget. Not terrible, but there were a fair number of missed opportunities to make B.C. stronger going forward. And passing off a tax cut as 'a tax reduction to meet the challenge of a growing economy' is the kind of fraudulent spin that makes one question everything else a little closer.

If you're interested in a couple of other interesting takes on the budget, Paul Willcocks has a good article and Mark Lee at Relentlessly Progressive Economics breaks down some of the numbers as well.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

And Still More of the Same

The Red Tory recounts Stephen Harper's latest baseless smear job. You can't help feeling that the country has made a wrong turn somewhere to have ended up with someone like this as our Prime Minister. Well, I can't anyway.

Around Town

Last week, Vancouver installed the Olympic Countdown Clock outside the Art Gallery. I think it's a good idea, but still, I go by that spot every day so it sure makes me aware of the passing days. Whether or not that is good thing I haven't decided yet. Maybe I'll have to vary my route to work a little.

Aside from new clocks, there are piles of condos going up around town. The thing about asset bubbles is that while it is relatively easy to realize you are in one (unless you work in the media, of course), it is difficult to guess when the bubble will end. In the case of Vancouver's housing bubble, we can see the damage spreading our way across the U.S., but it's still hard to get the timing right. I'm pretty confident the next 5 years will bring buying opportunities for at least 20% off today's prices, but when in those five years - beats me.

Bubbles are mainly about psychology and one of the ways to identify them is when the typical hyperbole that surrounds any big market starts to get a little silly. Case in point, The Shangri-La, a big project going up at the intersection of a few noisy, busy downtown streets in Vancouver, in what has typically been a somewhat rough area as the city transitions from downtown office buildings to residential buildings. Anyway, as you can see from the picture (as always, click to enlarge)....

...they are passing off some of the condos in the Shangri-La building as "Estates". Sure 2200 square feet is a big condo, but an estate? I can see the conversation now.

Owner: 'Welcome to my estate'
Visitor: 'Where are your grounds?'
Owner: 'Let me show you my balcony'
Visitor: 'No, I mean where are your grounds for calling this condo an estate?'
Owner: 'Uh, did I mention it has 3 bathrooms?"

Finally, for all the folks back east (meaning: on the other side if the Rockies), the obligatory mid-February trees in bloom photo, taken a few days back...

Monday, February 19, 2007

Just Wondering

Do Europeans say that, "even a stopped clock is right once a day'?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Electoral Reform

The NDP is planning to introduce a motion on electoral reform on Monday. Robert and Idealistic Pragmatist have some more details and ideas on how you can work to make Proportional Representation a reality.

I'm not sure there's much left for to say on the topic that I haven't said already, but maybe an index of my past posts would be useful (for me anyway, to minimize repetition).

To begin, here is arguably my most complete post on electoral reform. Central point is an explanation of the tension between representing parties and representing areas. The current system fails by only doing one (representing areas).

The rest is in reverse chronological order (some of these are links to my STV blog which I set up for the B.C. referendum):

The idiocy of first-past-the-post is on display for all the world to see.

I note that gerrymandering is harder when you have PR.

I suggest fomenting a right-wing schism in the Conservative party to take advantage of our dysfunctional electoral system.

I discuss supermajority requirements in the context of an independence vote in Montenegro where 55% was the threshold as compared to electoral reform where the bar was set at 60% in B.C.

A pathetic editorial in the Star causes me to wonder why newspapers are so scared of electoral change. I know my Mom thinks it is because they are scared of having too complicated for their little minds to comprehend, but I think there must be more to it than that. Don't know what, though.

I heartlessly mock people who say that B.C. 'rejected' electoral reform.

I write a fairly mediocre post on the topic of wasted votes.

PEI votes against change (shocking!)

I urge PEIslanders to vote yes for reform.

I talk about some of the shenanigans in PEI leading up their vote on electoral reform and discuss the topic of supermajorities.

Jeffrey Simpson and I write about minority governments and the ability to make hard decisions.

Conservative MP Scott Reid talks a good game on electoral reform. Has he said anything on the topic since his party took power?

B.C. announces STV II: Judgement Day for the next election in 2009

With B.C.'s referendum over, I take out some frustration on the MMP zealots who helped defeat electoral reform in B.C.

With 20-20 hindsight, I criticize the setting of a 60% threshold for a PR vote to pass. How fitting that the first past the post system wins with a minority of the vote.

Probably my longest post over. In which I rebut a laundry list of anti-STV arguments.

A Green Party senator from Australia explains how when less popular parties can win seats, more issues that the big parties don't want to talk about can be raised during the campaign.

I point out the condescension of those who argue against reform because while they understand the proposed system, they are worried about 'Average Joe' who doesn't share their powers of understanding.

I talk about the original sin of electoral systems which is that the power to change the system is in the hands of those who benefit most from the current system, and also mention how the Conservative's abandoned the old Reform ideas on electoral reform as they got closer to their precious (majority).

I round-up media coverage of the reform campaign in BC

I recap a public forum on STV, and explain how the flexibility of STV in adapting to meet the wishes of the electorate provides rhetorical fodder for opponents of STV.

I think about how the electoral system affects the election of women.

I compile a long list of links related to STV and the BC referendum.

A series of 3 posts on STV to kick off my STV blog: Why are we voting on STV,What is STV, Why Vote for STV

I get about as cranky as I ever get on the blog, in this case with Norman Spector's continued nonsense.

I attend a meeting on STV and link to my newly created (at the time) STV blog.

I criticize Norman Spector for a typically weak article on electoral reform.

I link to a good article on STV and to a flash animation on how STV works.

Jeffrey Simpson writes about electoral reform and I discuss whether democracy is simply a means or of it is an end in itself. That is, is it better to have some undemocratic elements in the system (e.g. artificial majority governments) if this leads to some positive outcome.

I criticize at length an incoherent article on electoral reform by Richard Gwyn.

A letter I wrote to Ian Urquhart after one of his typically poor columns on the topic.

A post which combined trans-fats, with early news on Ontario's citizen's assembly with Dion declaring that 'Canada will be champion of Kyoto' (note: this post is from over two years back)

The Liberals stalled out electoral reform when they were in power last time.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Coming and Going

Note: I bumped this post back to the top in case I had mislead anyone into thinking my friend Kevin had moved to Melbourne when in fact, as I knew damn well, he moved to Brisbane. Not sure how I made that confusion - I've even been to Brisbane but have never set foot in Melbourne. 32 is too young to go senile!

A couple of blogroll notes in the 'Canadian and Less Political' section. I added the Hollywood North Report, the blog of Sarah Marchildon, formerly of Vancouver, living in Japan for the last year and currently in the process of deciding whether or not to return.

I also added 'Gently Roasted', the 'keeping-in-touch-blog' for an old friend who recently moved from Ottawa to MelbourneBrisbane. Knowing Kevin, it should be interesting to see how this one turns out...

What's the Deal with Kyoto?

Via Robert, Bill Doskoch has an excellent summary of the Kyoto Accord.

More more of the same

Says Harper: " "For the first time in history we have a leader of the opposition who is soft on terrorism,"

Hmm, a high ranking politician insinuating that anyone who opposes their views supports terrorism. Which country have I heard that poisonous rhetoric in before?

Via Creekside.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Globe and Mail Embarrasses Itself Again

A while back, I asked why the Globe and Mail would lower themselves to printing copyright industry press releases as if they were news. Today the Globe was at it again mindlessly parroting the U.S. copyright bullies who are outraged that Canada's copyright laws aren't as biased in favour of big corporations against the public interest as American ones are (that's a paraphrase).

Apparently, "The time has come for the United States to send a stern warning to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, which has failed to deliver on a promised overhaul of copyright laws and a policing crackdown"

Once again, the Globe article brings no independent information, analysis or dissenting points of view to the table, instead choosing to just recite the statements of a lobby group as if their statements were fact (which they are not). I saw some blog post in the U.S. the other day (don't recall where) telling a humourous 'news' story about how one supposed American journalist turned out to be just a voice activated tape recorder rather than a live human being. The same might be said about the people doing coverage of intellectual property for the Globe and Mail as well - embarassing stuff for a national newspaper.

On the plus side, there is lots of insight in the (215) comments on the Globe site. I think the best was from Sydney Weidman in Winnipeg who wrote,

"WORKS OF THE MIND ARE NOT ANYONE'S PROPERTY, PERIOD. Does that mean I'm against copyright? Not at all. I recognize that granting the "originator" of a particular expression of an idea a temporary, limited monopoly on his or her work encourages the production of something that should eventually be enjoyed freely by all. The words and ideas which are used to frame the debate have a huge influence on what kinds of laws are made. If you assume that ideas are property, then perpetual copyright and an electronic police state to protect works of the mind is entirely in order. It also makes sense to allow creators to charge based on the number of views. Under such assumptions, it is important to minimize fair use, close libraries, remove materials from schools, and generally forbid any use of a work unless the "owner" is paid. That's not how copyright was intended to work, and Canadian judges understand that. If you assume that copyright is nothing more than a convenient incentive system that is intended to eventually fill the public domain with culture that we can share without permission, then one needs to take great care in adding anything new to Canada's copyright regime. All this has been completely lost in the debate about these issues. The entire debate (no matter which side is talking) starts with two assumptions: * ideas are property * if we don't control the exchange of property, nothing will get produced We have completely fallen into the entertainment industry's trap by implicitly accepting this assumption as a given. All their draconian laws and the electronic police state required to enforce it follow naturally from those first principles."

No offense to the Canadian punditocracy, but in the days before blogs and comments on media websites you could probably have waited a decade without seeing anyone get to the heart of the matter that precisely.

B.C. Getting Serious About Climate Change?

I didn't want to let B.C. premier Gordon Campbell's remarkable throne speech today go unremarked. Remarkable because of the sudden emphasis on taking action on the climate change file.

The media headlines are generally about promises of X% on cuts by year Y but these promises hold little interest for me because they are too far away, and too uncertain to really mean anything.

What interests me are specifics, especially specfics related to concrete achievable measures with timelines beginning either right away or as close as could reasonably be achieved. On that front, Campbell's speech did have merit. The statement that, ""Effective immediately, B.C. will become the first jurisdiction in North America, if not the world, to require 100 per cent carbon sequestration for any coal-fired electricity project," sent a pretty clear signal, I thought, and certainly puts the future of BC Hydro's two proposed coal power plants into doubt (where it should be). A promise of new tailpipe emission standards and continued incentives for hybrid cars are also fairly specific concrete steps that can and should be taken.

Opposition leader Carole James' comment that, "I want to see some specifics, I want to see enforcement, I want to see teeth in these targets, and I didn't hear that in the throne speech today." was pretty on target, but nonetheless, there were more specifics than you often get in a throne speech and there was enough there that I'll be watching to see just what makes it into this year's budget. B.C.'s next election is still two years away so that should give plenty of time to assess whether Campbell is putting hard action behind the easy words or not. Let's hope so. There's no reason B.C. can't be a world leader on this front.

Split Ends

Still on the topic of income splitting, Accidental Deliberations has some typically astute further commentary on the arguments in favour of income splitting.

Begging The Question

If you want a good example of the rhetorical trick of 'begging the question' look no further than most advocates of income splitting. In case you haven't encountered it before, 'begging the question' basically means taking your conclusions and putting them in your premises. Wikipedia defines the simplest version as:

For some proposition p:

p implies p
suppose p
therefore p

Consider the debate over income-splitting. At issue is the question of what the basic unit of taxation should be. For example, you might say that the basic unit is the individual. Therefore individuals in the same situation should pay the same taxes. Or you might say the basic unit is the couple, so that any two couples in the same situation should pay the same taxes. Another possibility would be to use the family. Those are the most likely candidates although in theory you could use many things. For example, you could use the municipality as the basic unit so that any two towns in the same situation should pay the same taxes.

The argument for income-splitting is that all couples should pay the same taxes if they have the same income. That is, the argument is that the couple should be the basic unit for taxation purposes.

Now watch how Andrew Coyne makes the case for income splitting:

Fairness does not just mean sharing the tax burden equitably between rich and poor: what economists call “vertical equity.” There’s another kind of fairness, that also has to be taken into account. If it’s important to treat people in different circumstances differently -- ie the rich pay more tax than the poor -- it’s no less important to treat people in similar circumstances the same: what’s called “horizontal equity.” And, when it comes to couples, the tax law doesn’t.

Compare two couples. In Couple A, both spouses work, each earning $50,000. In Couple B, one spouse earns $100,000, the other stays home. The combined household income for each couple is the same -- $100,000 -- yet Couple B pays thousands of dollars more in tax than Couple A. Why? Because the spouse earning $100,000 pays tax at a higher rate, thanks to the progressive income tax, than either of the spouses earning $50,000. Income-splitting amounts to treating Couple B the same as Couple A. It treats like as like."

You see how this works - start by assuming that you determine fairness by assuming that one couple should be treated the same as another, and then show that one couple should be treated the same as another.

Imagine if we had income splitting. I could then write:
"Compare two individuals. Individual A is single and earns $100,000. Individual B is married to a stay at home spouse and earns $100,000. The total income for each individual is the same but individual A pays thousands more in tax than individual B, thanks to individual B splitting income with their spouse. Ending income-splitting amounts to treating individual A the same as individual B. It treats like as like."

Now, if you support income splitting, at this point you're probably thinking, 'sure, but couples are a better basis than individuals.' Which is my point exactly. That is the argument you should be making. Simply assuming that the couple is the right unit of comparison is not a real argument.

To be fair to Coyne, while he relies on begging the question as the core of his column he does make two actual arguments. The first is this :

"Is income-splitting unfair to singles? A couple earns $100,000. A single person earns $100,000. Income-splitting would benefit one but not the other. Shouldn’t they pay the same of tax? No, of course not. Horizontal equity requires that we treat like as like. But a single person and a couple aren’t in similar circumstances. The couple has $100,000 to spend between them. The single gets to spend it all on himself. He thus has more discretionary income -- the amount left over after basic living expenses -- out of which to pay his taxes. It’s only fair he pays more."

Note how Coyne cheats here by comparing an individual to a couple rather than sticking to a comparison of individual vs. individual - which would be the whole point of basing a system on equal treatment of individuals. But let that slide. Coyne treats this as the most obvious point in the world but it is actually pretty weak. For starters, what about children or other relatives living in the house? Surely the income of the couple has to cover their expenses as well. Shouldn't we split the income among everyone in the house if this is our logic. Secondly, what Coyne is arguing is that the individual with the non-working spouse should be provided with compensation for supporting their dependent spouse which raises a couple of concerns: 1) Who ever thought Conservatives would advocate for billions of dollars of incentives for able-bodied adults to sit at home and not work? 2) Even if we allow that you should get a tax break for having a spouse who chooses not to work, the tax code already contains allowance for taking care of dependents. No other types of dependents (children, disabled relatives, etc.) generate a tax splitting benefit so why is this one special?

Coyne's second argument is as follows: "(Or suppose you view it, not as the correction of an inequity, but as a benefit for mothers who stay home with their kids. Is that so awful? Are you also opposed to maternity leave?)"

This argument is even weaker. First of all, it doesn't exactly line up with his comment earlier in the column that, "This isn’t about bribing mothers to stay home, nor is it one of those social-engineering Tory tax credits aimed at rewarding one type of behaviour or another. The fundamental case for income-splitting is one of fairness. " Secondly, is Coyne seriously suggesting that if we were trying to allow parents to spend more time with their children income splitting would be the way to do it? Given that people making six figures will reap the large majority of the benefits from income splitting it seems as though we would be better off providing support for those families which can't *already* afford to have one parent stay home with the kids. I do think government should provide more support for parents to spend time with their children, but this is an incredibly inefficient way to do it.

Anyway, next time you see someone trying to pull this rhetorical sleight-of-hand (the word 'fairness' is the dead giveaway), call 'em on it. If people want to make the case that couples should be the basic unit of taxation, they should make the case. But don't let them start by assuming it and making their case from there.

My own opinion is that the current system of treating individuals equally and providing support as appropriate for those who take care of dependents is more logical than basing the tax system on equal treatment for couples. After all, we are all individuals, but only some people are in couples. Of course, providing a special multi-billion dollar tax break for people to take care of dependents who happen to be able-bodied adults doesn't really appeal much to the (single) conservative in me either. We should call income-splitting what it is - a welfare program for non-working spouses.

Monday, February 12, 2007

More of the Same

Two of the things I always say about right-wingers is that a) they want to make Canada more like the U.S. in every way and b) they have no ability to distinguish between things which should be partisan and things which shouldn't.

Here's a perfect example of both..

"The Conservative government is facing accusations that it's trying to pack the country's courts with right-wing judges by manipulating the membership of the advisory committees that vet candidates for the bench.

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion led the attack in the Commons on Monday, laying the blame for the strategy squarely at the door of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"The only reason he's stacking the committees is to select judges who will cater to his neo-conservative agenda," said Mr. Dion, demanding an end to what he called a "blatant" effort to politicize the judiciary.

Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc Quebecois, voiced similar sentiments, as did NDP justice critic Joe Comartin. But the indictment of the Harper government reached beyond Parliament Hill, as prominent academics and lawyers joined the debate.

At issue are the advisory committees set up by Ottawa in each province and territory to examine the qualifications of candidates for the bench and make recommendations on their suitability to the federal justice minister.

At least 16 of 31 recent appointments to the panels have Conservative party ties, according to a survey by The Globe and Mail. Others, while not directly linked to the party, have expressed right-of-centre views about the proper role of the judiciary.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Is Sports the New Religion?

From the National CAtO Post News Service:

In his new book Apollo’s Arrow, ambitiously subtitled The Science of Prediction and the Future of Everything, Vancouver-based author and mathematician David Orrell set out to explain why the mathematical models scientists use to predict the outcomes of sporting events and player performance are not getting any better, just more refined in their uncertainty.

What has been discovered, in trying to sketch the first principles of prophecy, was the religious nature of modern sports fan-dom.

This is not to say that cheering for your favourite team is irrational in the way supernatural belief arguably is, just that — in its myths of the Fall and the Apocalypse, its saints and heretics, its iconography and tithing, its reliance on prophecy, even its schisms — the sports movement now exhibits the same psychology of compliance as religion.

Dr. Orrell is no sports-hater. He calls himself a fan. But he understands the unjustified faith that arises from the psychological need to make predictions.

"The track record of any kind of long-distance prediction is really bad, but everyone’s still really interested in it. It’s sort of a way of picturing the future. But we can’t make long-term predictions of the economy, and we can’t make long-term predictions of the next league MVP," Dr. Orrell said in an interview. After all, he said, scientists cannot even write the equation of a single game, let alone make a workable model of the entire season.

Formerly of University College London, Dr. Orrell is best known among scientists for arguing that the failures of sports forecasting are not due to chaotic effects — as in the butterfly that causes the hurricane — but to errors of modelling. He sees the same problems in the predictions of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Player Performance report, which he calls "extremely vague," and says there is no scientific reason to think that the outcome of entire seasons is more predictable than the outcome of a single game.

"Models will cheerfully predict that the Panthers will win the Stanley Cup or that Kyle Wellwood will win the Art Ross trophy, even if they are basing predictions on pre-lockout scoring levels," he writes in Apollo’s Arrow. And so forecasters use theoretical concepts like 'VORP adjustments' to make the models agree with reality. When models about the next season are in agreement, 'it says more about the self-regulating group psychology of the modelling community than it does about the teams and players involved.'

In explaining such an arcane topic for a general audience, he found himself returning again and again to religious metaphors to explain our faith in predictions, referring to the 'pool gods' and the 'images of almost biblical wrath' in the literature. He sketched the rise of 'the gospel of deterministic science,' a faith system that was born with Isaac Newton and died with Albert Einstein. He said his own physics education felt like an 'indoctrination' into the use of models, and that scientists in his field, 'like priests... feel they are answering a higher calling.'

"If you go back to the oracles of ancient Greece, prediction has always been one function of religion,' he said. 'This role is coveted, and so there’s not very much work done at questioning the prediction, because it’s almost as if you were going to the priest and saying, 'Look, I’m not sure about the Second Coming of Christ.'"

He is not the first to make this link. Thirty years ago, shortly after Bill James launched modern sports analysis by publishing leading to the first Toronto Blue Jay season in 1977, a Princeton history professor named Lynn White wrote a seminal essay called 'The Historical Roots of the curse of the Bambino.'

"By destroying pagan animism [the belief that natural objects have souls], Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects," he wrote in a 1967 issue of . "Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not." It was a prescient claim. In a 2003 speech in San Francisco, best-selling author Michael Crichton was among the first to explicitly close the circle, calling modern sports fandom 'the religion of choice for urban atheists ... a perfect 21st century re-mapping of traditional JudeoChristian beliefs and myths.'

Today, the popularity of American author Dan Shaugnessy's 'Reversing the Curse' confirms the return of a sort of idolatrous animism, a religion of sports. The recent emergence of the Elias Baseball Analyst and then Baseball Prospectus, did not create this faith, but certainly made it more evident.

It can be felt in the frisson of piety that comes with not mentioning a shutout or a perfect game while it is in progress, a modern blasphemy.

It is there in the pious propaganda of media outlets like the, Toronto Star, which on Jan. 28 made the completely implausible claim that, 'This could be the year that the Jays return to the playoffs.'

It can be seen in the public ritual of congregating at bars and pubs, in the veneer of saintliness on Don Cherry and Wayne Gretzky (the rush for tickets to the recent pond-hockey championships, crashed the organizers servers this week), in the high-profile team allegiances (honest or craven) displayed by Prime Minister Harper, and in the sinful guilt of throwing a worn-out team jersey in the garbage.

Adherents make arduous pilgrimages and call them road-trips. Newspapers publish the iconography of Penguins and Mighty Ducks. The Baseball Prospectus reports carry the weight of scripture (indeed, the first sentence on Amazon reads, "Described as 'the fantasy baseball bible.'")

John Kay of the Financial Times wrote last month, about future league champions: 'Christians look to the Second Coming, Marxists look to the collapse of capitalism, with the same mixture of fear and longing ... The mythology of team 'curses' filled a gap in the canon ... [and] provides justification for the link between the sins of our past and the catastrophe of our future.'

Like the tithe in Judaism and Christianity, the religiosity of sports is seen in the suspiciously precise mathematics that allow Vegas oddsmakers to sell the supposed neutralization of losses from prior bets.

It is in the schism that has arisen over whether or not to allow a designated hitter, which, even if the starry-eyed purists are completely discounted, has been a divisive force for baseball fans.

What was once called salvation — a nebulous state of grace — is now known as victory, a word that is equally resistant to precise definition. There is even a hymn, The Hockey Song by Tom Connors, which is not exactly How Great Thou Art, but serves a similar purpose.

Sports fan-dom even has its persecutors, embodied in the angry seniors who write to the CBC to complain about the delay in 'The National' during the NHL playoffs. Of course, as religions tend to do, sports fans commit persecution of their own, which has created heretics out of mere Sens fans.

All of this might be fine if religions had a history of rational scientific inquiry and peaceful, tolerant implementation of their beliefs. As it is, however, many religions, sports fans included, continue to struggle with the curse of literalism, and the resultant extremism.

"Maybe I’m wrong, but I think all this is wrapped up in our belief that we can predict the future," said Dr. Orrell. "What we need is more of a sense that we’re out of our depth, and that’s more likely to promote a lasting change in behaviour."

Projections are useful to "provoke ideas and aid thinking about the future," but as he writes in the book, "they should not be taken literally."

The "fundamental danger of deterministic, objective science [is that] like a corny, overformulaic film, it imagines and presents the world as a predictable object. It has no sense of the mystery, magic, or surprise of life."

The solution, he thinks, is to adopt what the University of Toronto’s Thomas Homer-Dixon calls a "prospective mind" — an intellectual stance that is "proactive, anticipatory, comfortable with change, and not surprised by surprise."

In short, if we are to be good, future fans, we must not be blinded by prophecy.

"I think [this stance] opens up the possibility for a more emotional and therefore more effective response," Dr. Orrell said. "There’s a sense in which uncertainty is actually scarier and more likely to make us act than if you have some analysts saying, 'Well, we're going to miss the playoffs this year, and we know what’s going to happen.'"

Today's front page headline is, "The green fervour:
Is environmentalism the new religion?"

At some point, making fun of the National Post starts to remind one of that little kid from up the street with no friends who always used to come down when you were shooting hoops in your driveway and challenge you to a game of one-on-one even though he was only 3 foot 6.

Still, I struggled with how to best encapuslate the sheer incoherence and inanity in the article and this was the best I could come up with. To be honest, I am pretty baffled by the decision to graft a simple concept (predictions from complex models should be taken with a grain of salt) onto the dreadfully cliched 'x is the new religion' framework.

Please note that this post is a slightly modifed version of the article in the National Post and is not to be taken as truth! e.g. Despite residing in Princeton, Lynn White never, to my knowledge wrote about the historical roots of the curse of the Bambino.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Last Word on Climate Change for a While...

naturally, goes to the Summary for Policymakers from the IPCC's recently released report. It's pretty clearly written and not all that long. I recommend reading it, or at least skimming it.

I find that, much like electoral reform, this topic tends to make me frustrated with people who just don't seem to (in my opinion) get it, leading to ever-changing, often-escalating attempts to get my point across. But maybe I'll leave it for a little while and come back to it later to talk about what action we can take both to reduce our emissions and mitigate the impact of climate change on ourselves and the planet.

In the meantime, Robert is in the middle of a series of posts on how to meet our Kyoto targets, and Mike puts out a call for suggestions and gets lots of responses.

Updated to add mentions to these two posts on carbon taxes by John at Dymaxion World. I differ from John in that I would probably try to make a carbon tax revenue neutral, using the money raised to lower income taxes at the bottom of the income scale and smooth out some of the sharp marginal rates caused by benefit clawback thresholds.

Disregarding the Rest

Disclaimer: The 'quotes' in this post are not actually the exact quotes. For the exact quotes, see here.

from the CAtO News Service:

The much anticipated release of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Arms Control (IPAC) occurred yesterday. The report, a collaboration of the world's leading experts on Arms Control, paints a stark picture, suggesting that it is extremely likely that Iran will develop nuclear weapons in the near future. Several possible scenarios are outlined in the report, but all include increased nuclear armaments in Iran and a corresponding increase in risk of nuclear conflict.

Despite the near unanimous consensus of global experts on the topic, and the fact that results of the last decade and a half have played out almost exactly as predicted in the first panel report 16 years ago, and the grave threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, Conservatives across the country downplayed the report.

Conservative columnist Lorne Gunter writes,
"In effect, the IPAC summary is a prospectus for big government written by big government's sales department.
And don't expect the full truth to come out even when the 1,600 pages of military analysis are finally released. The IPAC has a habit of censuring the work of analysts who disagree with the Islamofascist alarmist orthodoxy."

Inspired by Gunter, Greg Staples writes on his blog Political Staples,
"I have a B.Sc. in Physics and I work in a science related field. In short I have been trained in the scientific method. I am also a practicing Roman Catholic so I know religious language when I see it. Finally, I have a MBA focused on sales and marketing. Yeah, I know that when I see it as well. This is my concern on the question of the Iranian nuclear threat - there is far too much language that is not analytical (fascist, defeatist, evil, Ahmaddamatree). These terms are either religious or marketing - military analysis does not work on belief it works on what is provable.

Commenters at Political Staples agreed:

"When one considers just how many cooks are in the kitchen on this one it will be a wonder if there is any truth left in it by the end."

" has posted the raw data that was supposed to be released later. It was to be edited to fit with the summary for policy makers."

"Someone should devise the ‘upsidedown enrichment’ graph.

Not the now debunked historical graph, but the real one, which tracks the drop in hysterical predictions.

That’s the thing about predicting the sky is falling. It expires when the sky doesn’t fall or at least starts to fall."

Kitchener Conservative:
"I question whether anyone in the media has taken the time to actually read the report released by the IPAC.

I did myself and based on the information in the report, I can to the conclusion that analysts being ‘very likely’ sure of Iran developing nuclear weapons is way too premature."

"If today’s military analysts understand the subject about as well as the analysts who supported the Iraq war understood theirs, we have a vast potential for errors."

Post based on this post and comments as Political Staples (and also this and this)

At some point one wonders what the threshold for changing their mind is for people who still advocate doing nothing about global warming - is there one? What would it take?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

CO2 Emissions in Perspective

Here's a chart1 (click to enlarge) for those who argue Canada shouldn't take action unless China and India do.

Note: Higher bar does not equal moral high ground.

And another chart for those worried about the dramatic increase in Chinese emissions...

Those who argue that it would destroy Canada's economy to reduce our emissions should consider that we emit over 3x per capita what Switzerland does - with Switzerland being one of the world's wealthiest countries. Not to say that we should be able to match the Swiss economy, which has less emphasis on energy intensive resource extraction than ours, but it does show the potential for achieving prosperity with much lower GHG emissions. In case you're wondering, Swiss power generation is a mix of hydro and nuclear.

1Chart sourced from this Wikipedia chart listing all the countries with their C02 emissions over time.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Logic, We Hardly Knew Ya

Stuff like this always cracks me up - and makes me kind of sad for our society, that such transparent nonsense can pass as a serious argument:

"Public Works Minister Michael Fortier says Ottawa doesn't have the $4 billion needed to maintain its portfolio of 6.8 million square metres of office space, much of which he says is in a 'precarious' state.

Sources say the private-sector companies would renovate the buildings at their cost and make money by renting them to the government."

So the government doesn't have the necessary cash flow to pay for maintenance of it's buildings. Therefore it will sell them off and pay someone else enough money so that they can maintain the buildings. i.e. Because the government can't pay for the maintenance on the buildings, it will sell them off and pay for the maintenance on the buildings. I don't know how much clearer I can make the point of how stupid this is.

The only way that someone can afford to own an asset and you can't is because they are enough bigger than you that they can carry the necessary sunk costs and have a big enough portfolio to be more diversified than you are. But who is bigger or has a more diversified income stream than the federal government? It makes you wonder what the limits of just how dumb someone can be and still not get called on it are.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Random Thought for the Day

I often see people argue that Canada shouldn't do anything about its greenhouse gas emissions, because they only make up 2% of the global total1. I'm just wondering, do people who make this argument vote? And if someone pointed out that their vote makes up far less than 2% of the total votes, would they stop?

1Admittedly, many of the people who used to make this argument, now spend their days arguing that the Liberals should have done more to cut Canada's emissions when they were in power. But I guess if you want to always support the Conservative position on the issue, you have to be flexible.