Monthly Archives: March 2009

Irritation up 17.9187 percent

One of the small joys of my job, and by joys I mean “things that keep me from being driven insane by political idiocy” is the press releases that come to me via the Parliamentary Press Gallery. I enjoy the self-satisfied prose, the indignant focus on trivia, the specialized language of partisan drivel and the fact unlike mine, their computers apparently don’t have elementary grammar and spell checking capabilities.
Since I don’t want anyone driven mad let me share a recent choice morsel with you. On March 31 I got a release from the Canada Revenue Agency and the Minister of National Revenue with the headline “The Canada Revenue Agency succeeds in reducing the Paperwork Burden for Businesses”. Already it’s revealing, not only because they’re congratulating themselves for something that in the outside world you’d wait for someone else to congratulate you on. It’s also revealing because the odds are very strong that they did something they calculated would reduce paperwork and then after doing it used exactly the same methodology to calculate that it had done exactly what they predicted.
Next, typically, some flack put into the minister’s mouth the sonorous phrase “Canadian businesses are a vital part of local, provincial and national economies” which I guess is meant to sound pro-business but actually comes across as at once frightfully trivial and remarkably meaningless. Without businesses, what sort of economies would we have?
Finally this miniature masterpiece of mediocrity said “the CRA has identified over 8,000 obsolete or non-essential information obligations imposed on business. The elimination of these obligations, when implemented, will reduce the paperwork burden on business by 24.2 percent.” I really savour that extra decimal place.
Not “about a quarter” or even “24 percent” but “24.2 percent”. Wow. Such precision. Such attention to detail. We’re lucky to have that kind of government. It’s a vital part of local, provincial and national rhetorical overload.
Or not, since obviously they haven’t measured exactly how burdensome various regulations are; they don’t even know how time-consuming they are, let alone what other vexations they impose in what amounts. How could they? They can’t sit in every small businessperson’s office or kitchen and monitor their blood pressure as they fill out forms. It’s possible that the CRA simply thinks they’re getting rid of exactly 24.2 per cent of all government regulations although if that’s the claim I’d bet 24.2 dollars they mismeasured badly. But what really stands out is that governments genuinely believe not only that scientific management is the answer to public policy problems, but that they’re currently engaged in it.
Infuriating, to be sure. But piquant. Enjoy the complex, subtle horror of it. Become a connoisseur of such stuff to avoid being sent round the bend by it. Roll it around on your tongue. But don’t swallow it.

Spending on what?

A New York Times story this morning on the state budget deal to eliminate a huge deficit (big tax hikes, pork barrel spending and spending up 8.7 per cent in a stellar display of restraint) ends its first paragraph by saying the plan “would close the state’s gaping deficit with billions of dollars in new taxes, financing from the federal stimulus and a substantial slowdown in the growth of health care spending.”

Massive, unaffordable health care spending? By a government? In the United States? Why weren’t we told?

Up, up and…

Spending rises smoothly and inexorablyGovernment budgets are full of ponderous rhetoric about prudent choices. But leave aside the generally unjustified tone of self-congratulation for a minute and concentrate on the implicit claim that such documents reflect important choices by important people with important consequences. And now look at the accompanying graph of spending, revenue and program spending in Ontario.

Recall, briefly, the apparently turbulent political and economic history of the province, the sudden changes and bold initiatives. Now dismiss it from your minds. For this graph, particularly the spending line, doesn’t reflect any of it, does it?

Clearly there’s something going in with respect to public expenditure that is essentially unaffected by the twists and turns of public events including the actions of policymakers. My own view is that this “something” is the unsound structural dynamics of the big social programs. But I’m prepared to discuss and debate it. I’m just saying that in order to have a sensible conversation we have to discard not merely the superficial pomposity of budget prose but the profound pomposity, not just the inevitable claims that the decisions are exceptionally wise and compassionate but the underlying assumption that they matter at all.

Better set the table

Somewhere in Yes, Minister Sir Humphrey Appleby and a colleague explain the four-stage bureaucratic response to a foreign crisis. First, deny that anything is happening. Next, admit something is happening but say it doesn’t matter. Third, admit that it is happening and does matter but say nothing can be done about it. Finally, admit that it was happening, did matter and something could have been done, but insist that it is now too late. (There’s a version of the exchange online here but I can’t vouch for it.)

We seem to be in stage three now with respect to polygamy; see Leonard Stern’s blog post/editorial in Friday’s Citizen. Which gives me some small, sour satisfaction at having dissented in stage one, arguing in the Western Standard in February 2005 that something was happening.

Obviously there is room for debate on whether something is happening, whether it matters, and whether we can do something about it (and David Warren made the attempt in today’s Citizen). But how is it possible that we should so reliably instead find ourselves cycling through Sir Humphrey’s four stages on matters that, you’d think, did at least merit discussion in ways that did not pathetically witness public life imitating political satire yet again.

Prosperity looms

It seems to me that prosperity is just around the corner. Happy times will be here again. Uh, unless that’s just Herbert Hoover with a ghastly forced smile on his face.

Since such smiles are the typical attire of the prognosticator I usually stick to predicting the past. But we study history to illuminate the present, so let me throw my head into the ring and explain my qualified optimism.

I think we are going through a massive shakeout. All sorts of things that weren’t working and couldn’t work are being exposed. What Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction” is upon us and while it’s regrettably blowing close to gale force, the destruction of failed arrangements is essential to the creation of successful ones. Continue reading

If you must stimulate

A little story in today’s Ottawa Citizen says “The Manitoba government is delivering another surplus budget — and one with plenty of stimulus to protect Manitoba from the global recession.” They’re dipping into the reserve fund and reducing their debt payment but they aren’t spending money they don’t have and calling it prudent. So obviously the governing party is… yes, the socialists. Remind me why we have a conservative movement in this country? Oh right. We don’t.

Eat meat and die

This is definitely a pet peeve, about journalism and numbers. But honestly, today’s Ottawa Citizen reports on a new Canadian Cancer Society study: “Eating large amounts of red or processed meat increases the risk of dying, new research involving more than half a million people shows…. The new study found men and women who eat about four ounces of red meat per day — the equivalent of a small steak or quarterpound of meat — had a higher risk for overall death…”

Folks, the risk of overall death is the same for everyone: 100 per cent. OK, we might get quibbles about Enoch or Elijah but I’m assuming neither of them is reading this blog at the moment so everyone else listen up. When scientists talk about the “death rate” or “mortality”, both terms (I checked) refer to a number of deaths over a specified period of time. And while I can’t find the study on the CCS site I’m sure that’s what it said. So why doesn’t the story? This is not an isolated example even of this trivial error in our newspapers.

Nor, I maintain, is the complaint petty. I think newspapers have a responsibility to report science better than they do. And when we muff the simple stuff readers may well wonder: What else do we get wrong or leave out? Well, today’s National Post has a tragicomic story about Canadian medical students getting faulty ideas about how to perform “intubation,” an important emergency procedure that lets you breathe, from TV shows, most often the hit ER. The story adds that the main problem is positioning the head incorrectly… but then doesn’t say how to do it right.

Why not? Reporters and editors must know what a head is, and what breathing is, just as they must know everybody dies. Why not say?

If nothing else, in these troubled economic times, newspapers have to focus on quality or face an elevated risk of bankruptcy.

How many trillion?

While Barack Obama was off schmoozing with Jay Leno and mocking the handicapped instead of governing it seems that popular anger was mounting at sloppily drafted Democratic legislation. Now apparently including the President’s budget, with the Congressional Budget Office estimating that this year’s deficit could be a wallet-boggling $1.845 trillion, four times George W. Bush’s last irresponsible figure and larger even than Mr. Obama’s projected $1.75 trillion. At this point in Washington they may be inclined to regard the nearly $100 billion difference as a mere rounding error… but if it was AIG bonuses they’d think it was big, and out in the hinterland folks might have that reaction anyway.