Think like a jackass

So everyone’s been making fun of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner lately, thanks to a story they recount in their new book Think like a Freak (sequel to Superfreakonomics, sequel to Freakonomics). It concerns a meeting they had with David Cameron, sometime before he became the British Prime Minister. They offered him some advice on how to deal with the problem of expanding health care costs in the U.K.. The problem, they said, was that government was giving it away for free:

What’s wrong with that? When people don’t pay the true cost of something, they tend to consume it inefficiently. Think of the last time you sat down at an all-you-can-eat restaurant. How likely were you to eat a bit more than normal? The same thing happens if health care is distributed in a similar fashion: people consume more of it than if they were charged the sticker price…

We tried to make our point with a thought experiment.

Continue reading

Ford, Hudak, Harper: the impending trifecta

Again apologies for the light blogging. It’s partly due to travel, but partly because I was writing an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen. The column was just published a few moments ago:

The Year of the Suspiciously Round Number.

Ontario politics stuff, which I felt compelled to comment on, just because the situation is so alarming. The campaign has been a bit baffling so far. The NDP, which brought on the election, seems to have been caught unprepared (which seems impossible, but how else can one account for the lack of a platform, lack of a bus, etc.?) The Liberal government is, like the old Charest government in Quebec, exhausted and tainted by scandal (although what counts as a scandal in Ontario is slightly less scandalous than what goes by that name in Quebec). Losing an election would do them some good. But the Conservatives, rather than presenting themselves as the safe, friendly alternative, have been tacking hard right, and have now made a number of ‘promises’ that would be disastrous if actually carried out.… Continue reading

In LNG We Trust

Here in BC, the government has become a strict adherent to the LNG faith. (If you live in BC you’ll already know what LNG stands for. But for the rest of you, it means Liquefied Natural Gas.) The Liberal government believes that development of a massive LNG industry in the province is the best way to secure heaven on earth or at least future economic prosperity. So it is orientating a great deal of public policy toward devout pursuit of the promised salvation of LNG. I venture no opinion here about whether the gospel of LNG is sound economic policy. My concern is how the narrow evangelical focus on LNG is having a deleterious effect on the government’s understanding and approach to higher education.

The government says it wants “re-engineer” education to orient it directly to providing job training. This re-engineering is intended to ensure that there will be a suitably skilled labour force ready to fill the thousands of new jobs it anticipates the LNG venture will create.… Continue reading

In lieu of a post

Apologies for the light-to-nonexistent blogging. Catherine and I were in Osoyoos BC all week at a Trudeau Foundation conference that kept us busy. Jocelyn is heading off on vacation. The others I have no idea. I do have some things I need to write up in the next few days, but in the meantime, here’s a nice bootleg I found of Canada’s greatest band:

Continue reading

Le Devoir/Options politiques

Bruce Wallace, le rédacteur en chef du magazine de l’IRPP Options politiques/Policy Options, m’a demandé au lendemain de l’élection du 7 avril de réfléchir aux causes et au sens du résultat. Le nationalisme québécois est à la croisée des chemins. De nouvelles mouvances se formeront. Je propose une façon d’interpréter l’appui historiquement faible en faveur du projet souverainiste. Mon but n’est pas tant de réfuter l’argumentaire souverainiste que de tenter de comprendre pourquoi il n’est pas très efficace présentement. Je ne cherche pas « à en découdre » avec les souverainistes, mais bien à participer à une réflexion collective sur notre parcours historique et notre situation politique. Le Devoir publie une version abrégée du texte ce matin, et la version complète se trouve dans le plus récent numéro d’Options politiques.

imageContinue reading

Paikin drops tiny truth bomb

TVO’s Steve Paikin did an “ask me anything” session over at the excellent CanadaPolitics subreddit, mainly about the Ontario provincial election. There was some mildly interesting small talk about the leaders, nothing to write home about. This answer, however, gave me great satisfaction.


Hey Steve, welcome back to our humble subreddit, and thank you for doing another AMA. Transit expansion is now a household issue in the GTA, after perhaps decades of neglect. You have been around for a while, why do you think successive governments stopped investing in public transit after the 1970s or so?


they didn’t. the government from 1990-95 under bob rae’s premiership invested a lot in building new subways. the next government (1995-2003) under mike harris’ and ernie eves’ leadership decided in their wisdom we couldn’t afford to build those lines, so they filled in the holes. in hindsight, it was clearly a mistake, as we’re trying to build those same lines today, only at significantly more cost.

Continue reading

Perverse incentives in Canadian health care

I notice that Dr. Danielle Martin is going to be giving a talk on Monday (May 12) on campus here at the University of Toronto, so to celebrate the occasion I thought I’d discuss Canadian health care for a bit.

Incidentally, for those who don’t follow these things, Dr. Martin recently quickened the pulse of Canadian nationalists everywhere by smacking down a Republican Senator on television:



This video quickly came to occupy a place in the policy wonk’s heart, like an understated version of the “Joe Canadian” rant. (For those of you who missed that one, see here:



One cannot help but be impressed by her poise and self-confidence as she challenges his talking points. At the same time, people familiar with the state of affairs in Canada may have cringed a bit during the discussion of wait times. Because while the Canadian health care system performs very well in certain dimensions, in the area of wait times we are an international underperformer.… Continue reading

Misunderstanding public pensions

The battle lines have now been fairly clearly drawn between the position of the Ontario Liberal Party and the Federal Conservative Government on public pensions. The Liberals would like to expand the government pension program, and since the feds are not willing to expand CPP, they are proposing the creation of an Ontario Pension Plan. The Harper Government is opposed to this, as is the provincial Conservative party. Their view is that people should just save for their own retirements.

This is a line of argument that one hears fairly often, but which upsets my inner economist. (You hear it all the time in the United States – whenever people talk about privatizing Social Security, they propose individual savings accounts as the alternative.) The problem is that it involves comparing apples and oranges. Wynne is saying “we are going to provide oranges,” and Harper is saying “why should people get oranges from the government, when they can just go out and buy apples?” — to which the natural response, it seems to me, is to say “because they want oranges.”

Okay, that’s a bit obscure so let me try to explain.… Continue reading

Liberté d’expression, diffamation et impunité : l’Affaire Awada

Dalila Awada, l’étudiante en sociologie qui a brillamment tenu tête à Djemila Benhabib lors d’un débat à Tout le monde en parle en septembre 2013, poursuit des gestionnaires de sites internet ainsi que l’ex-candidate péquiste Louise Mailloux pour propos diffamatoires. Ne connaissant pas particulièrement bien ni la jurisprudence sur la liberté d’expression et la diffamation ni la nature de la preuve déposée, je ne me prononcerai pas sur les détails de ce cas particulier. En plus, je souligne, par souci de transparence, que Dalila est une amie que je respecte et apprécie.

Comme il fallait s’y attendre, certains voient dans sa démarche juridique une tentative de museler ses adversaires idéologiques. Il me semble particulièrement ironique que des critiques de la conception soi-disant trop généreuse de la liberté de religion soutiennent aujourd’hui que la liberté d’expression des intimés est menacée d’une façon inacceptable.

D’un côté, les défenseurs de la Charte de la laïcité ont soutenu que la liberté de religion n’est pas absolue et qu’elle ne doit pas avoir plus de poids que les autres droits fondamentaux.… Continue reading