Loose ends

Apologies for neglect of the blog for the past month or so. I’ve been busy writing a pile of academic stuff. For those interested, I have a review in this month’s Literary Review of CanadaTrading Fair: The Slippery Slope of Industry Self-Regulation

I also wrote an academic piece on the 2008 financial crisis (yes, we are still picking over the bones), which is now on my academia site: Mistakes Were Made: The Role of Catallactic Bias in the Financial Crisis. This “catallactic bias” thing is a meme that I’m trying to make happen, so far without much success. The reference is to the term “catallaxy,” used by von Mises and Hayek to describe market orders. So if you take that stuff too seriously, you wind up suffering from catallactic bias… get it?

Finally, I gave a talk at Dartmouth last week, called “On the Scalability of Cooperative Structures,” that I’m really happy with, but it won’t be in the “working paper” stage for a while still.… Continue reading

One last thought on Jim Prentice

People who are dismayed by the current federal Conservative government, and the fact that they stand a good chance of being re-elected this fall, can at least take comfort from one thing. When Canadians finally get tired of Stephen Harper – which inevitably they will – the Conservative party faces the worst succession crisis of any party in recent memory. Indeed, lack of “depth in the bench” has been one of the defining features of this government, one that may help to explain some of its more puzzling features (such as its ineffectiveness on the legislative front).

The standard narrative on the Conservatives (to be found, for instance, in Michael Harris’s Party of One), seeks to explain the extraordinary concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s office as primarily a consequence of Stephen Harper being an unusually controlling person. This is of course set against a background of a more general trend toward concentration of power in the central agencies, in particular the Privy Council Office.… Continue reading

Our simpering public service

The Pierre Poilievre “vanity video” story is starting to get more interesting. There was an excellent piece in the Ottawa Citizen today that raises exactly the right issue. I think one could reasonably argue that the civil servants who agreed to produce this video, along with those who authorized the expenditure, acted in violation of their ethical responsibilities as public servants. They should probably have refused to do it.

Key quote from Donald Savoie:

If you are an EX-1 or above you should know the importance of the value-and-ethics code and when you see a red flag like this a few months before a general election, live by it. You should be asking if this is appropriate. Values and ethics code covers everybody, not just the clerk.

Those who shot the video, along with the minister, conspired to spend public funds in order to advance an obviously partisan political purpose.… Continue reading

Donner prize nomination

Enlightenment 2.0 has been short-listed for the Donner Prize, which recognizes the best work of public policy in Canada every year. Very different crowd here than the Shaughneesy Cohen prize. The other three books on the short-list are:

Unfortunately I won’t have time to read and review them all this time — results are announced on Wednesday. I get free copies though, so I’m looking forward to plunging in. I am particularly interested in Michael Trebilcock’s — I admire his book The Limits of Freedom of Contract very much, and I often recommend it to students/colleagues (as an exemplar of how one can adopt a broadly “economic” perspective on the world, and yet remain fundamentally humane in one’s orientation).… Continue reading

Alberta becomes interesting

Actually, the Alberta budget and election has been the most interesting thing going on in the country for a while now, but it keeps getting more interesting! Of course, as we know from the last election, polls in Alberta are worth practically nothing. Still, even contemplating the possibility of an NDP government in Alberta is mind-expanding. (For Stephen Harper, this would be like Rob Stark losing Winterfell…)

First, about the Alberta budget. It seems to me obvious that Jim Prentice took the only sensible course of action available to him, which was to go with a mix of budget cuts and tax increases. Let’s be clear: public sector spending in Alberta is bloated. Alberta’s health care spending, for instance, at $6,781 per capita, is the highest of the 10 provinces (Quebec, at $5,616, is the lowest). Alberta’s education spending, at $11,086 per student, is the highest of the 10 provinces (Prince Edward Island at $9,260 is the lowest).… Continue reading

Response to Tabarrok

Alex Tabarrok from Marginal Revolution recently posted a very generous notice of Enlightenment 2.0 as well as a long review at The New Rambler (under the heading “Does Capitalism Make Us Stupid?”) I’ve been an avid reader and fan of Marginal Revolution for over a decade now, so this was very exciting for me. The review also raises a number of interesting issues, which I thought I might take a moment to comment on.

I’ll start somewhat in reverse order, because Tabarrok’s most significant criticisms arise towards the end of his review. There he makes the observation that the final section of my book is the weakest – that’s the part where I try to propose some “solutions” to all of the gigantic problems that I’ve spent the previous 300 pages diagnosing. Many people have pointed out that these chapters – specifically, the last two – seem to lack conviction, and that the positive proposals I make are all small beer, manifestly not up to the task of solving the enormous problems that I previously identified.… Continue reading

Ontario chickens out, chooses cap-and-trade

Like many people, I was encouraged to see the Government of Ontario finally stepping into the breach and taking action on the climate change issue, but I was very disappointed to see them choosing to go with a cap-and-trade system rather than a carbon tax. Prior to yesterday, there were two models out there: B.C.’s carbon tax and Quebec’s cap-and-trade system. Ontario joining Quebec probably represents a tipping point that will push the country as a whole in the direction of cap-and-trade, which is, as far as I’m concerned, a second-best outcome.

How did we wind up here? This is all a consequence of what I consider to be the most important political shift to have occurred in Canada in the past two decades, which is the near-total collapse of moderate conservatism. Indeed, it’s not a surprise that the major spokespersons of the centre-right in Canada – Andrew Coyne, Tasha Kheiriddin, etc.… Continue reading

Naomi Klein postscript no. 2

Reading This Changes Everything put me in a somewhat nostalgic mood, bringing back memories of the good old days, over a decade ago now, when No Logo and Adbusters were all the rage, and Kalle Lasn was declaring that “culture jamming will become to our era what civil rights was to the ’60s, what feminism was to the ’70s, and what environmental activism was to the ’80s.” It also reminded me of the fun that Andrew Potter and I had calling bullshit on all this.

My nostalgia was partly due to a passage in the introduction to This Changes Everything, which expressed with absolute clarity the fundamental difference in worldview between Klein and myself. When it comes to understanding the major problems of our age, one of Klein’s central convictions is that the people are innocent. As far as my own view is concerned, I guess I’m more inclined to think that the people are guilty.… Continue reading

Physician billing in the era of big data

I was in sunny Edmonton last week, giving a paper at the University of Alberta on the ethics of physician billing. (I always enjoy being back in any part of the country where the sky occupies what I consider to be the correct proportion of one’s visual field, i.e., approximately 2/3rds.) The paper can be found here, for those who are interested. In it, I basically complain about the failure of the medical profession to treat billing as an “ethics” issue. Instead, the profession tolerates, and in some case encourages, a “compliance-based” culture, where any strategy that falls short of outright fraud is essentially considered acceptable.

There is a bunch of subtle argumentation in the paper about why billing should rightly be regarded as an issue of professional ethics, and not merely personal integrity. There are also a bunch of great examples of gamesmanship – a topic that is of perennial interest to me.… Continue reading

Naomi Klein postscript no. 1

There were a number of things that struck me while reading Naomi Klein’s most recent book, This Changes Everything, which were somewhat tangential to my main line of critique, and so I left them out of the response piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago. Nevertheless, some are worth mentioning, particularly those that connect this book up with her previous work, including The Shock Doctrine and No Logo. (One of the annoying things that we academics like to do is read all of someone’s work, then ask pesky questions like “how does it all fit together?” Some people tell me this is unfair, when dealing with the work of non-academics, but I guess I just can’t help myself.)

The first thing that many Klein fans will notice about This Changes Everything is the huge tension that exists between this book and The Shock Doctrine. Indeed, to the casual reader, it might seem as though Klein is taking back most of what she said in the previous book.… Continue reading