Category Archives: Economics

Been there, done that, got the debt

In my latest contribution to the Economic Education Association of Alberta’s “Been There, Done That – Shouldn’t Have” series I recall what happened last time governments started borrowing as if there was no tomorrow and then it came anyway.

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A sour finding

If you’re looking for reasons we need to fix our Constitution, look at this story from today’s National Post about a customer awarded $12,000 for “injury to his dignity, feelings, and self-respect” after a restaurant stopped accommodating his very special need for pseudo-hyper-clean surroundings. The man apparently suffers post-traumatic syndrome and OCD and can’t cope with lemon in his water or cutlery placed directly on the table. And thus he has a human right to make other people do what he says even if it’s not reasonable.

Now I have sympathy for this person and his struggles. I don’t doubt they are real. But what about the restaurant and its employees? What would happen if everybody demanded very special service including wiping the vinyl seats and always putting him in the same booth away from other patrons? How much would costs increase? And how could you seat everyone away from all other patrons without having a restaurant the size of a stadium?

Once the rule was that if you wanted special service and a restaurant was willing to provide it, as this one was for a long time, you went there. If they refused, or changed their service, you stopped going there. Just as you don’t eat in a place where you don’t like the food, the wait staff, the décor, the ambiance or anything else. They can’t make you come in, and you can’t make them let you in.

You don’t always get what you want. And nor does anybody else. But nobody is able to make anyone else bend to their will regardless of consequences. All transactions must be mutually satisfying. And my right to swing my fist ends where your nose starts.

Not in the Brave New World of human rights tribunals. Instead you get to demand whatever you want of me, and I am in a very real way conscripted labour. You don’t actually punch me if I don’t serve the water without a straw or tell you you’re too much trouble and should leave. You call the state and they send people to do it for you. First a summons, then a fine, then jail if I don’t pay, and cops with weapons if I won’t come quietly. Behind all this lurks the policeman’s truncheon. But not the courts.

This fine came not from a judge or jury, following the due process guaranteed in Magna Carta and generally proudly upheld ever since. It came from a human rights tribunal, specifically the Ontario one. They follow very different rules, far more lenient toward the self-proclaimed aggrieved and far harsher on everybody else. And it’s not a recipe for a good society.

Allegedly in this case the restaurant manager was very rude. And I like good manners. But for heaven’s sake, you don’t have a human right not to encounter rude people. De minimis lex non curat. And restaurants with surly staff lose customers unless the food is great and worth putting up with the abuse, or it becomes a weird kind of cult attraction. (Don’t laugh; when I was in grad school there was a burger joint with an elaborate menu but only cheeseburgers actually for sale, and they ridiculed anyone who ordered anything else. It was always full. And we often asked for something else just to hear what they’d say.)

In short, we work out our own accommodations with our fellows. They can’t use force or fraud and neither can we. We can negotiate but we cannot demand or compel. Or at least, we didn’t use to be able to.

There were lamentable exceptions, of course. Governments drew invidious distinctions based on race or gender and punished people who did not obey such rules. But generally, people got to decide for themselves how to do things and with whom. And if you wanted the sympathy and respect of others, you had to show it for them and their difficulties too.

All that is changing now, into a society where everyone can coerce everyone else. But where does it all end? The Post story quoted a professor of hotel and restaurant management at Ottawa’s Algonquin College that “Responsibility (to accommodate) will never be lessened. It will only be increased with time.”

That certainly is the way things are going now. But how do we accommodate one another once everyone has special demands, and I can’t sit where I want so you can sit alone and vice versa, and the waiter is afraid of plain water, and the person at the next table but three has to bring their companion snake but someone else has a phobia about snakes? (The last is not an invented example.)

You can’t. You literally can’t build a society with stable rules, mutual respect, and restaurants that can actually operate if people don’t have to respect other people’s autonomy. Instead you get a free-for-all of uncivil demands and hurt feelings and everyone has a right to everything but there is nothing.

If that sounds bad to you, please back our “True, North and Free” project to fix Canada’s constitution so that it really respects individual rights, including the right to run a restaurant where customers can’t march in, redesign the place and call a cop if you object.

 

 

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When your potato browns if cut, you…

Another strange item from my “at last we can begin to live” files: a story in today’s National Post says a new GMO potato has been approved for use in Canada that “is less likely to bruise or turn brown when cut.” A solution to which, again, I search in vain for the problem.

I’m not convinced that all the criticisms made of GMOs are entirely rational. But I do think that when we’re messing with nature for reasons as trivial as this one we’re risking trouble for nothing.

To be fair the story says the “Innate” potato has less asparagine, and that this “amino acid found in many starchy foods produces acrylamide, suspected to be a human carcinogen” when you cook potatoes above 120 C which many people probably do. But honestly, whose life was really rendered less fulfilling because potatoes turn brown when cut or produce trivial quantities of something “suspected to be a human carcinogen” when cooked?

In the entire history of mankind, how many lives have been lost because of the difference between the quantity of asparagine in a natural potato and the quantity in an Innate potato?

Either we’re using science for such trivial purposes because we’ve run out of real problems that can be solved through science, as could arguably also be happening with the latest breathless improvements in smartphones, or because we don’t know what real problems are.

So again, don’t run screaming into the woods, or out of the fields, because of this new GMO potato. It won’t eat Etobicoke. But it also won’t solve any problem that matters.

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Heavy words from the Senate

In my latest National Post commentary I rebuke the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology for a buzzword bingo anti-obesity foray into the brave “new” world of coercing us at the supermarket and the dinner table for our own good, by people as unlikely to know what is good for us as you could find.

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The creation of economic paranoia

In my latest Rebel piece, I discuss how J.P. Morgan and Elbert Gary pretty much buried American free enterprise by creating the behemoth U.S. Steel. At least, that’s what they tell us. In fact, steel markets remained competitive to this day… even though government charged in, declaring that it had to rescue us.

 

 

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Where left is right

Here’s an intriguing opening for common sense to invade politics. Billionaire Charles Koch, a major bogeyman of the left, has just written a thoughtful Washington Post piece on how he agrees with Bernie Sanders, fast-rising bogeyman of the right, that tax loopholes for the rich are bad.

Can I just say I’ve been making the same point for years? In this country the political left and right seem equally devoted to these backdoor handouts and it’s time they both got smart like Koch and Sanders.

It might seem odd to hear this major financier of right-wing Republicans endorse the criticism of that socialist about “a political and economic system that is often rigged to help the privileged few at the expense of everyone else, particularly the least advantaged” and agree with Sanders that “we have a two-tiered society that increasingly dooms millions of our fellow citizens to lives of poverty and hopelessness” in which “many corporations seek and benefit from corporate welfare while ordinary citizens are denied opportunities and a level playing field.”

But Koch goes further.

“Democrats and Republicans have too often favored policies and regulations that pick winners and losers,” he writes. “This helps perpetuate a cycle of control, dependency, cronyism and poverty in the United States.” And furthermore, “it’s not enough to say that government alone is to blame. Large portions of the business community have actively pushed for these policies.”

Exactly. If you build it they will come. A state in the business of handing out sums of money that boggle the mind, including by Koch’s reckoning “$1.5 trillion in exemptions and special-interest carve-outs” in the tax code alone, may mantle itself in rhetoric about compassion and the less fortunate. But it’s the well-connected, confidently alert to opportunities and accustomed to privileged treatment, who will know how to cash in, including quietly persuading lawmakers to create new handouts for them and their buddies.

I strongly urge you to read this eyebrow-raising piece, in which Koch even says that his own businesses do not ask prospective employees about prior criminal convictions because of the unfair way drug laws burden the poor and marginalized. Because as he says, Koch is no socialist. Rather, he firmly opposes Sanders’ desire for more government, saying “This is what built so many barriers to opportunity in the first place.” But he’s not looking for a fight.

Instead he’s hoping that if left and right can see eye to eye on the loophole issue, perhaps it’s one area where a major injustice can be corrected in a genuinely constructive way.

I know, it’s a long shot. But it’s worth a try. Even here in Canada, where not a sparrow flutters by without someone offering it a subsidy.

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