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A Wall Street Journal article derisively titled “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” has been making rounds of the blogosphere lately, with its premise that, based on a 2008 survey of economic knowledge, the left wing would flunk Economics 101. Supposedly, the left fumbles the most basic economic concepts.

Well, I am a Chomsky-reading, bleeding-heart leftist, and an economics major. I’ve never received a grade lower than an A in any economics course. So I feel I’m in a unique position to offer criticism from the left.

Firstly–and this is a criticism I have for economics in general–I disagree with the notion of breaking complex political issues down to simple cost-benefit calculations. Any policy assessment should be considered in the context of our values as a society. For example: it’s true that taxation is distortionary and may create disincentives toward work. For Chicago school economists, this in itself is a crime. However, in a broader social context, our society has chosen to value a more even wealth distribution and greater social services. We have made a trade-off, valuing social equality slightly more than economic efficiency.

So, it upsets me when survey respondents are deemed “unenlightened” for not playing along with the cost-benefit analysis of complex issues presented in a single sentence. The answer format of “strongly agree/agree/unsure/disagree/strongly disagree” is extremely shallow for those that see a more human element in those issues, who would prefer to answer, “Yes, but…” In other words, the bleeding-heart liberals.

Daniel Klein kindly supplies all eight of the questions that were asked in his survey and his idea of what constitutes an “unenlightened” answer; all the better to provide all the “Yes, but…” responses that I, if I had been a participant, would have liked to respond with.

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

It’s true. If urban areas aren’t allowed to sprawl forever, housing will be more scarce and thus more expensive. This concept is extremely well understood in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada, where height and sprawl limits have made Vancouver the most “severely unaffordable” housing market in Anglophone countries, according to a recent study by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg.

However, Vancouver is also a darling of international urban design circles for its sustainable and varied infrastructure. It is consistently ranked among the top five most liveable cities in the world, partly for its preservation of green spaces in the city at the expense of housing development. The survey statement is a very loaded question. The answer is yes, restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable, but I feel that it’s unfair to leave it at that.

Yes, but, restrictions on housing development have consequences beyond housing prices, like the nurturing of a more pleasant and sustainable urban infrastructure and a greater quality of life for a city’s residents. To end simply with the assertion that it makes housing less affordable is to leave out the real story.

2. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

Yes, it does. But it also increases the quality and reliability of professional services, and any good economist should know that a good and reliable service is more valuable than a mediocre or uncertain level of service. One can receive a lower quality service at a lower price, or a higher quality service at a higher price; they move together. Furthermore, it is well-established in economics that consumers prefer certainty over uncertainty, and that customers will pay a premium to make an uncertain situation less risky; this is the basis for the insurance industry. By forcing professionals to obtain licenses, it reduces the risk to consumers of hiring someone substandard.

This question is misleading and poorly phrased from an economic point of view. Consumers are not paying higher prices for the same services; consumers are paying higher prices for higher-quality services with an increased assurance of hiring someone competent. It is not the same product.

3. Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

This one I will give to the authors; in general, standards of living around the world have risen in the last 30 years. There are a few arguments to the contrary with some countries (Chad, Sudan, etc) facing deep civil war and others that have been particularly exploited, but overall it’s hard to deny that living standards have risen.

4. Rent control leads to housing shortages (unenlightened answer: disagree).

Yes. Every economics textbook and its mother points to rent control in New York City to demonstrate the effects of a price ceiling on supply. The argument is that at a lower-than-market price, more units of housing will be demanded than supplied, mutually-beneficial transactions will be prevented, and there will be a housing shortage. People who want housing will not be able to find it.

While the above is true, I think that it understates the alternative: the equilibrium rental rate pricing many potential consumers out of the market entirely. This is another serious problem facing my local housing market here in Vancouver, where the market price leaves many on the streets. Rent control or not, many people will find themselves outside the housing market. The question is whether we would prefer to cheap but high-in-demand housing, inefficient by economic standards, or expensive and efficient housing. Either way, some potential consumers are left out.

5. A company with the largest market share is a monopoly. (unenlightened answer: agree)

This question is very fuzzy in terms of its accuracy; either answer has legitimate justifications. A monopoly is usually thought of as a firm that occupies an entire market–in other words, they are the only producer supplying a particular good. The strictest economic definition characterizes it as such. In practice, what we refer to as “monopolies” in the real world are very rarely absolute. More liberal (pun intended) and just as legitimate definitions within economics characterize a monopoly market as a market in which one particular firm holds significant market power to set higher prices, arising in markets with little substantial competition. In economic theory, only a company that is the sole supplier of a good can be a monopoly; in practice, one particular firm with substantial market power can form an effective monopoly.

6. Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited. (unenlightened answer: agree)

I’m not sure what definition of “exploited” the survey authors are using, but I find this assertion just shocking in its lack of empathy. Supporters of sweatshops argue that child labour is unavoidable in countries with populations so poor that children must work or their families will starve; that they are popular in poor communities because they offer higher wages than other options; that we can’t expect the labour standards of industrialized countries to apply to poorer countries quite yet.

I have many concerns about the ethics of paying a child $0.15 cents an hour to produce t-shirts that sell for $30 in developed countries. Surely there is room for a higher wage in that mark-up, at least enough to reduce a working day from 12 to 6 or 8 hours, or for investment in humanitarian aid and social programs that help families avoid depending on their childrens’ wages.

How is it not exploitation to not only expect long hours at low pay, but without the freedom to form unions, in ill-ventilated factories, and without access to clean water at work? Or with chained fire exits that have already led to several deaths? Or workers that are physically abused by their superiors? Or being forced to work mandatory 19-hour shifts?

Anyone who seriously argues that overseas workers for American factories are not being exploited is either ignorant or in denial, or has a serious flaw in their definition of exploitation.

7. Free trade leads to unemployment. (unenlightened answer: agree)

Economists will argue to death that free trade will lead to the loss of jobs that weren’t efficient anyway and will be more than redeemed by the creation of newer, better (more efficient) jobs in other industries. I am extremely skeptical.

NAFTA, for instance, has been devastating for poor Mexican farmers, who find their products priced out of the market by a flood of cheap imports from the heavily subsidized agricultural industry in the United States. Furthermore, many of the jobs in heavy industry created to balance the loss in agriculture have since been lost to China, where wages and production costs are even lower. Furthermore, some evidence points to a lowering of real wages and greater income inequality in Mexico since NAFTA. Overall, job creation estimates were exaggerated and job loss estimates were understated.

8. Minimum wage laws raise unemployment. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

Yes. In contrast to the issue of rent control, which forms a price ceiling, economists argue that the minimum wage forms a price floor, at which there will be a surplus of labour. More people will want to work at minimum wage than employers are willing to hire, and as the cost of hiring a worker increases (minimum wage goes up), employers will hire even less. It sounds very reasonable in theory.

Real-world measurements of this effect are split. Some studies show a minor effect of a decrease in employment with an increase in the minimum wage. Others argue that the overall effect of a substantial increase in the minimum wage forms a net force that is overwhelmingly positive. Recently, there has been strong consensus by many economists that a higher minimum wage does more good than harm for lower-income workers.

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If I had been given this survey, I don’t know what I would have scored. I am familiar with the economic concepts behind all of these questions and how they work; working from what is technically correct at the conceptual level, I suspect that I would have correctly answered every question except numbers six and seven, on which I refuse to relent.

Yes, it’s true, most of the answers that the author gives to those questions are “correct” in the economic sense. But I, like many on the left, have difficulty circling “Agree” to an assertion that housing restrictions raise prices and leaving it at that. We are too busy thinking about everything else: “I agree that the statement is technically accurate, but I feel that it misrepresents the issue by reducing it to efficiency and there is so much more to the case at hand.” As an economics major and a leftist, I understand these concepts and how they work, and I have made a value judgement, a trade-off–that social equality means more to me than efficiency.

Is that unenlightened?

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You may have heard about it recently in the news, depending on where you live.

On February 10, 2008, the birthday of death-by-Scientology victim Lisa McPherson, the internet group “Anonymous” organized – without a notable leader or leaders – mass worldwide protests of the Church of Scientology. More than 7,000 people in nearly 100 cities protested outside Scientology churches, sporting inside-joke Guy Fawkes masks.

Today, on March 15, 2008, the first Saturday after the birthday of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the same thing, under the code name “Operation Party Hard”. In parody of LRH’s birthday, Anonymous this time wore party hats and passed out party favors to fellow Anons. Cake was served. Along with chants of “CULT!” and “SCIENTOLOGY KILLS!” were hearty, mocking choruses of the Happy Birthday song.

Welcome to the internet culture of Anonymous.

Since Anonymous was first established, it has abided by its own “Rules of the Internet”. There is a list somewhere of 48 of them but only 3 “real” rules: 1, 2, and 34.

The first two are in the spirit of the Fight Club:

Rule 1 of the internet is “Do not talk about Anonymous.”
Rule 2 of the internet is “Do NOT talk about Anonymous.”

There have always been plenty of Anons who, feeling superior in being part of a group so cool that it can’t be mentioned to outsiders, have gone and shamed their fellow Anonymous by bragging about it to their friends and coworkers. (But most Anons have done this at least once.) In general, though, Anon kept it within Anon.

Through 2007, rules 1 and 2 kept weakening within Anon. Guy Fawkes masks (yes, an inside joke) started to show up at anime and gaming conventions around the globe. Anonymous’s flamboyance in the real world continued to increase until it declared war against Scientology, after which it did away with rules 1 and 2 for good. A couple of years ago, people arranging local meet-ups of Anonymous would be mocked for it. Now, Anonymous meets IRL with pride.

As long as there’s no longer a stigma associated with it, I may as well admit that I’ve been a “member” of Anonymous for over a year now.

Trust me, it’s not an elite hacker group at all, and Anonymous isn’t nearly as cool as it thinks it is. But to its credit, Anonymous is probably the most massive, effective, and fascinating destructive force for “justice” on the internet. Its culture is fascinating. Its methods, though disagreeable at times, are both hilarious and effective. Anonymous has its own subsects, its own politics, and its own justice system. I can’t tell you how wonderful it has been, as a person so intrigued by sociology, to watch this culture develop over the last year.

Anonymous would not be pleased, but I really feel like I need to share some of my more intriguing observations about the culture of Anonymous. Look forward to some fascinating posts about the other side of internet culture showing up in the next little while. If my readers feel that it interferes too much with the regular content of my blog, I’ll start putting them on seperate WordPress pages rather than the blog itself. I just need to share these observations somehow.

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This isn’t so much a post as it is a short rant.  About – what else? – the 2008 presidential race.

I understand that after the last eight years, we’re all starving for change.  Us Web 2.0 people probably feel that more than most, because we see how fast the world is changing every single day, and we’ve had a chance to experience that and be a part of it ourselves.

I like Obama.  I really do.  I appreciate what he stands for and what he does.

But why, internet folks, is this spilling over into hatred of Hillary Clinton?

Out of the first ten results I get by searching “Clinton” in Facebook Groups, six are ANTI-Clinton groups, including the first three.  The most disgusting of them all is the third, “Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich,” with 33,731 members at this time of posting.  Its description: “Dedicated to keeping Hillary Clinton out of the Oval Office and in the kitchen.”

Do you know how sick I feel when I look at that, as a girl with high aspirations?  What kind of a world can I look forward to when I graduate, where a woman campaigning for the highest office in America is mocked for it and told to get back in her kitchen?

I could shrug it off more easily if it weren’t one of the top three groups to come up when I search her name on Facebook.  The top result, “Stop Hillary Clinton,” has 788,487 members, and gives no reason on the group’s page for hating her.

It’s not just the conservatives that join these kinds of groups.  “Stop Hillary Clinton” claims to be bi-partisan on the front page.  Digg, which is from my experience mostly liberal, has not dugg one pro-Clinton item to the front page in the last month.  I see at least half a dozen anti-Clinton items come in every day, while the top ten list is always filled with praises for Obama.  In the comments on the anti-Clinton items, anyone that makes a positive comment on her behalf is dugg down into the negative hundreds.  Digg, and similar online communities, have such a staunch pro-Obama/anti-Clinton stance that it’s dangerous for your reputation on those sites to dare support or even defend Hillary Clinton.  Most disturbing, misogynistic comments are the norm.

I like Obama, really.  If he became president I couldn’t complain, and if he follows through with what he’s promised it could be an inspiring four – or eight – years.

But the anti-Clinton bent that some of Obama’s supporters have been taking online, especially the misogynistic anti-Clinton bent, and especially on Digg, is frankly disturbing.  Not to mention distressing, to me at least, who has to see good, liberal-minded people taking to bashing a female candidate simply because she’s female, and not Obama.

I feel the same way about Obama as I do about Jesus.  Great guy, good message, but his more extreme followers are freaking me out.  If you support Obama, good for you.  Myself – he’s not my cup of tea.  I have my own reasons for it that I’ve devoted a lot of time and thought to.  If he’s elected and does a great job in office, I’ll be the first to change my mind.

So please support Obama (or McCain) as much as you want, but keep it clean, and not misogynistic.  Digg and Facebook seem to have a problem with that.

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Before the CUPE strike closed the Vancouver libraries, I managed to get in one last visit to the Vancouver Public Library, Central Branch – seven floors of literary fun housed inside a building with some sort of anachronic identity disorder. You see, the library seems to think it’s a coliseum. The full impact of the architecture can’t be done justice in the photo to the right – you really have to stand next to this behemoth of a building to really appreciate it in its enormity and anachronism.

But enough about the beauty of the Central VPL. That’s not my rant.

Near the entrance of the main (fiction) floor is the “Fast-Read” shelf. The Fast-Read shelf is a special selection of books on the current bestseller list and other extremely recent or popular books, like The Da Vinci Code. These books are only available to borrow for a week at a time with heavier than normal overdue fees, the point being to circulate them very quickly to meet the huge demand.

I’m not a fan of pulp fiction at all, but my father adores paperback mystery novels, and he asked me to look for anything he would like. So I was scanning the Fast-Read shelf for something suspense-y when what do I see, but Anna Karenina in all its 900-page glory.

Anna Karenina is a fast read?

What kind of reading-maniac could finish and comprehend the full text of Anna Karenina in a week? What kind of self-respecting lover of literature would want to? It’s not easy to skim a Tolstoy novel in a week anyways, but the only people really keen on reading Russian literature in the first place aren’t usually the type to rush through a great literary work. That’s not the point of reading these books.

Strangely, I had no problem finding several older copies of Anna Karenina available for three week loan periods with two renewal options one floor above in the literature section. It’s only the new copies down on the Fast-Read shelf that are in high demand; the older ones are one floor away and covered in dust.

I blame Oprah and her book club for getting Anna Karenina on the Fast-Read shelf. Since she endorsed it in 2004, its popularity has skyrocketed. Many people who wouldn’t otherwise consider reading Tolstoy have clearly been trying to get ahold of it at the library, so the loan period was limited to one week per patron, no renewals. It’s all good and fine that more people are reading great literature, but it’s just cruel and unusual to expect them to do it in one week. That’s just silly.

And while I’m on the topic of ranting about the library, what’s wrong with those people that underline things in non-fiction library books in pen? It’s a public library book, not something from a private collection. At least notes in pencil can be erased, even if it’s a lengthy book and the previous borrower underlined everything. What are those people thinking?

Also, would CUPE 391 (the library workers’ union) and the government please kiss and make up soon? The library has been closed since July 26, and I miss it.

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I usually try to save my links until Saturday, but holy crap.

BOSTON – An adjunct professor was fired after leading a classroom discussion about the Virginia Tech shootings in which he pointed a marker at some students and said “pow.” (Yahoo! News)

This just came to my attention via Digg. Listed in the page comments was the video of the professor defending himself (it’s actually part 1 of 4) on YouTube. I’ve only watched a small bit, but it’s there if you’d like to see it.

Here are a couple of things that just irk me:

“During the demonstration, Winset pretended to shoot some students. Then one student pretended to shoot Winset to illustrate his point that the gunman might have been stopped had another student or faculty member been armed.”

So clearly the students weren’t disturbed, and in fact were actively participating in the discussion. This wasn’t a professor just trying to freak out his students (if it ever was). In further support of that:

“Student Junny Lee, 19, told The Boston Globe that most students didn’t appear to find Winset’s demonstration offensive.”

I can’t imagine who would.

Also:

“He said administrators had asked the faculty to engage students on the issue. But on Friday, he got a letter saying he was fired and ordering him to stay off campus.”

Isn’t that just funny? If the whole thing wasn’t so pathetically horrifying, it would be.

In personal news, I get to teach my Social Studies class tomorrow morning – at least, for a little while. Today we were given a chart of the political spectrum, and if you recall from an earlier post of mine, I know my political spectrum. This chart that they gave us, I kid you not, was literally right-wing propaganda. Listed on the left side were traits of communism, and there was clear distaste for it (“Unjust conditions exist because power and wealth are not shared fairly”? That does not sound like an unbiased point). On the right side of the chart, however, the author did their best to represent rightism as the land of the free and righteous. I thought McCarthyism had for the most part ended (this is Canada, for God’s sake), but the chart we were given as a reference still seems to think that left = commies and right = freedom.

I approached my teacher about it and she agreed that the chart had a very unfair bias, but that it had come to her from another teacher and she wasn’t responsible. So, I told her, “Just give me ten minutes at the board, and I can give a better explanation,” and she offered to reserve time for me at the start of the next class. I’m also planning to highlight the difference between socialism and communism, since my classmates often use the terms synonymously, and the question has come up several times before.

Later on the same day, I get to give a speech in favor of a (Canadian) political party of my choice as part of a class project. I love these rare occasions when school and my interests blend!

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Some thoughts

Earlier this week, I was writing a post for my blog that should have gone up a while ago.  Unfortunately, the time at which I was writing it was at the start of my lunch period on Monday, April 14.  Blogs (the writing and visiting of) are strictly forbidden at my school, so I finished my post in Google Documents and planned to publish it when I got home.  The first thing I did after booting up my laptop was, like every day, to check my RSS feeds in Google Reader.  The number of items I had to read had tripled from the average… and for the first few items, I thought, What’s all this about a university in Virginia…?

Suddenly what I had to say felt entirely irrelevant.  Who can go about things as usual after that?

I followed the aftermath very closely in the news until I realized that it was become all about the murderer, Cho Seung-Hui, instead of the victims or even the incident itself.  In all the major newspapers, I’ve seen maybe one of two stories about the victims, but lately it’s just become feature articles and columns about the killer’s pre-massacre behavior and mental illness and shyness, etc etc.

Imagine my discomfort when, one morning, the front page of every newspaper in my relatively peaceful Canadian city was covered with a picture of Seung-Hui pointing a gun menacingly at his audience.  His name and face are omnipresent in the news right now.  At this point, it’s just getting on my nerves.  The news of a gun massacre on an innocent and unsuspecting college is sad and sobering; humoring the rants of an attention-craving and very disturbed young man is not.  Seriously.

If you’ve seen the video and images, it’s clear that this guy was very disturbed and saw himself as a martyr (at one point he compares himself to Jesus Christ as having liberated people into taking action).  Is it just me or does it look and sound like he’s reading from a script?  According to many news sources, he was an English major, and wrote disturbing and just plain bad plays that are nothing more than violence and an exercise in using the word “fuck”.  And the pictures he sent aiming various weapons at himself and the camera?  Just plain narcissistic.  He wanted nothing more than attention, and the press is giving it to him.  I think the best way to pay tribute to the victims’ families and classmates is to stop indulging the posthumous wishes of the murderer.

A couple of days after the local newspapers all sported images of Seung-Hui on their overs, I was happy to see that they were full of angry editorials from others who felt the same way and demanded the papers to stop indulging this lunatic.

Actually, if anything, this event has reassured me of human sensibility.  Sure, there have been a few big scares over copycat threats (the most notable being the recent one in Northern California when 36 schools were shut down after a man threatened to “make Virginia Tech look mild.”), but I’m seeing a lot of common sense up here in Canada.  A recent poll was taken across the country, and while a majority of Canadians are worried about another mass shooting here (we just had one last September at Dawson College in Quebec), another majority also believes that if someone wants to commit that sort of mass murder, it’s “beyond the scope of anybody to do anything about it, regardless of what preventative measures are in place” – which is very true.  One of the issues was giving guns to campus security, which was not supported by the majority, but this is Canada, and we don’t really like guns up here.

In any case, it’s so nice to hear that even though horrible things like this happen, people can still be sensible enough to deal with it.

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In light of current events, I’ve decided to briefly postpone my focus on the topics I mentioned earlier to address Friday’s big announcement. By this I mean, of course, the “Climate Change 2007″ release from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that states that human emissions are definitely, beyond reasonable doubt, causing global warming. Not much of a surprise, given the amount of media attention that global warming has been receiving in the last couple of years, but from the looks of things, this has been a real wake-up call for a lot of people (and governments).

This release is going to be very hard to ignore, and I say that because I’m looking at a two-page spread in my local paper, The Vancouver Sun, that screams “DOOMSDAY”. Behold the fatalistic headlines: “[Prime Minister Stephen] Harper changes tune on climate change, says ‘science is clear’,” “Canadians face ethical dilemma,” “Emissions tax is the only solution, energy expert says,” and “B.C. can expect floods and drought,” accompanied by a list of similarly fatalistic quotes from world leaders down the side of the left page and impressive diagrams.

Now, there’s something I find very upsetting on this two-page spread, and it isn’t the fact that Canada’s Prime Minister had gone from calling Kyoto a “socialist scheme” to throwing in his full support towards the protocol. What really upset me was the article titled, “Canadians face ethical dilemma.” The content of the article was absolutely ludicrous. It started out with this: “As scientists forecast a hotter future of storms, droughts and rising oceans, the only climate questions left are moral: have Canadians [and Americans] the moral right to drive a car to work? To keep homes toasty in January? To trim lawns with power machinery?”

Let me make my response to this “ethical dilemma” very clear: THAT IS NOT THE ETHICAL DILEMMA.

…if the governments of both countries do things right.

Consider the much-loved SUV. Consider also that the typical SUV driver is a relatively wealthy urban- or suburban-dweller, and that 98% of SUV owners have not and will never drive offroad. SUVs are criticised – fairly so – for fuel inefficiency. Being classified as a light truck, SUVs are held to less restrictive efficiency standards than regular cars. To answer the first question raised by the article, do Canadians (and Americans) have the right to drive to work? Absolutely. Do they have the right to drive to work in a gas-guzzling, offroad “light truck” that they are statistically likely to never drive offroad? Absolutely NOT. Owning an SUV for safety reasons? Over at the Freakonomics blog, authors Levitt and Dubner state (among other things) that people drive more carefully when they are more at risk, and more recklessly when they perceive a lesser risk. It’s basic risk psychology. So, if SUV drivers are feeling more protected, they are theoretically driving more recklessly; it does not necessarily lower their risk of getting in an accident. And unintentionally reckless SUV drivers presents another huge risk: the people in smaller, more fuel efficient cars that would never survive an impact with such a vehicle. Malcolm Gladwell has a spectacular essay on other false factors of the perceived “safety” of SUVs on his website.

What should be done about this? Well, since ~98% of SUV owners will never use them for their intended purpose, maybe the government should support more disincentives toward selling or owning one. SUVs are not needed in urban environments (and are more dangerous there to other drivers), and that provides a starting point; there should be a strict and strictly enforced limit on SUV sales within a certain radius of urban and suburban areas. SUVs may be extremely popular, but the sales can be greatly altered by a number of small things: how many are displayed at lots, the price of the vehicle and cost of maintaining it, the persuasion of salesmen, etc. Collect escalating tax penalties from car companies that produce SUVs as a disincentive to making them in the first place. There are so many things that can be done in that one area.

Also on the subject of cars, bringing back those sleek, electric ones would be a pretty good idea about now. I can’t stress this enough: good electric cars exist. Lots of them. There was an amazing movie called “Who Killed the Electric Car?” about this very fact, and it continues to stand against criticism. It’s been a few months since I saw it, but I believe that the agreed-upon statistic was that the car would satisfy the daily transportation demands of about 95% of American drivers. The drivers who had managed to obtain electric cars loved them. Unfortunately, for a number of unethical reasons (among them the projected $2 trillion of oil still to be mined), the electric car projects were scrapped and the cars were recalled and crushed.

Now, there‘s your ethical dilemma. Car companies can still make billions off of gas-guzzling SUVs, and oil companies still have an estimated $2 trillion dollars of oil to mine. SUVs are not needed by 98% of their owners, and we have the technology necessary to make fossil fuel-dependent cars a thing of the past altogether. Here’s the ethical dilemma: should oil and car companies give up more than $2 trillion in profits to bring us to zero vehicle emissions total?

Ethically speaking, yes. Economically speaking… no, but possibly not for much longer. Oil and gas-dependent car sales are a huge chunk of the economy. Replacing all of our current technology with alternative fuels will cost a lot of money, and generate a lot of waste (unwanted cars don’t just go away). It will cost us, and it will cost us big. But again, if the government does things right, we shouldn’t have to go broke. Cuts in the right places, and the right allocation of tax dollars should start right away. I happen to know that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s fancy jet costs $9,000 an hour to fly – and that comes out of the taxpayer’s wallet. I don’t know how much per hour it costs to run Air Force One, but I expect that it’s a similar (if not greater) figure. Here’s a good financial plan for the government: cut back on the frills, and we might do fine.

Or maybe the $1.2 trillion going towards the war in Iraq could be going somewhere more useful. Just a suggestion.

My point is this: we have both the technology and the funds (cleverly disguised in expensive wars and government frills) to solve our emissions problem. But we aren’t… yet. And that’s our ethical dilemma. The article in the Sun raised some “ethical” questions; here are mine. Should we take away the rights of every Canadian and American to drive to work, or take away the rights of urban- and suburban-dwellers to own an unnecessary SUV? Should we take away the rights of Canadians to drive and heat their homes during the winter, or ask Stephen Harper to give up his $9,000-an-hour jet? Should we start producing purely zero-emissions vehicles, or let oil companies collect their $2 trillion in profit? These are my ethical questions, and these are the ethical dilemmas we need to be worrying about.

But it all comes down to one question, the most important of all, which is: will we press our leaders to actually do these things?

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As I type, an article titled ‘Murdered for Being an Atheist’ is at the top of Digg‘s popularity list, currently with 2392 diggs (approvals from Digg users). This morning, when I first checked my Digg feed, the article had a mere 200 diggs–barely enough for the front page–featuring a dozen or so comments from outraged atheists condemning religion. I gave the comments page another glance just a few minutes ago, and the sheer volume of them actually froze my browser. (From what I could read before it collapsed on me–about a hundred or so comments in–most of the discussion was strongly bigoted on both sides.)

And, lo and behold, just as I was starting to think, “Gee, there have certainly been a lot of pro-atheist articles on Digg these last few months,” an article called ‘Digg and YouTube Powering Atheism 2.o’ clawed its way to the front page. Since I opened a new tab to begin writing this post, it has gone from 300 to 608 diggs. This, folks, is just in the last ten minutes. By the time I finish writing, I bet it’ll break 800. The article stated that there have been seven articles about Richard Dawkins on the front page in the last 2-3 months, and 10-12 other atheism-related articles. I disagree with these numbers. At the very least, I’d guess that I see at least one Dawkins- and/or atheism-related article every other day.

It’s not just atheism, either. A lot of trends–ideologies, software, politics–are being vastly spread through, and accepted by, the internet community. This isn’t a new thing, but it’s interesting to see which ideas are catching on and which are completely floundering in the era of Web 2.0. Going by Digg stats and my own observation, these are the biggest trends that are spreading via the web at the moment:

1. Atheism/Richard Dawkins.
As I mentioned before, atheism is gaining huge popularity among Digg users in particular. So much is being said about it right now that even the Los Angeles Times has jumped on the bandwagon with their recent article ’10 Myths–and 10 Truths–about Atheism’ (strangely, less than a week after reading this article on the web, I saw it reproduced in my local newspaper, The Vancouver Sun; it’s that popular.) Richard Dawkins, atheism’s front man, gets his own mention in this trend, and not just because he may have encouraged it with his recent bestseller, ‘The God Delusion.’ Dawkins himself is gaining a huge amount of internet popularity, with his articles and video lectures constantly appearing on the front page of Digg and making headlines in print newspapers, as well.

2. Anti-Christianity.
Though it could definitely be argued, I think it’s a trend apart from atheism. In fact, I have a hunch–though perhaps not a correct one–that this trend may have encouraged the atheism trend, because I was seeing a heck of a lot more anti-Christianity than atheism a few years back. It’s not just bashing fundamentalists, because even more liberal Christians are really getting it on the ‘net nowadays. I wish I could say it was a fair turnaround, but a lot of the outspoken Christian-bashers on the web are just as bigoted as the fundamentalists they condemn.

3. Anti-Bush.
Bush had the misfortune of coming into office at the time when the internet was just starting to really tear down barriers between civilians and authority. Certain things could just be expected to fade away in the past, or never reach the public eye in the first place. Not in Web 2.0. In Web 2.0, any sort of incompetency in authority can and will be spread through the masses. And indeed, it was–his current 30% approval rating is proof enough of that. I think the anti-Bush trend was probably the most widely internet-circulated of all.

4. Opensource.
This one is soft of a no-brainer, because why wouldn’t the opensource movement be popular? Getting spectacular, better-than-Microsoft software for free–plus constant and similarly free upgrades–was bound to catch on among Web 2.0 users. The only users who wouldn’t be quite as thrilled would be the programmers who depend on software companies for their paychecks. That’s why the huge popularity of the opensource movement is so important as an internet trend; it encourages more programmers to participate for the international recognition. Certain aspects of opensource have really taken off in the last year, particularly Ubuntu Linux, which probably wouldn’t have become so popular without forums and tech blogs to spread the news. For these reasons, I think it should still be considered an internet trend, even if its popularity among users was for obvious reasons.

I’ll end with this: the article I mentioned above about the spread of atheism through Digg and YouTube has reached exactly 850 diggs at this moment. How’s that for internet popularity?

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You.

TIME Magazine’s infamous final issue of 2006, “Person of the Year: YOU,” really deserves all the hype it’s been generating in the news lately. If you haven’t done so already, I suggest you pick up a copy before the first of January. It’s well worth the five bucks and the twenty minutes.

Christmas is next Monday and 2006 ends in just under two weeks?? It can’t be true!

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Recently, in Vancouver, we’ve had quite a bit of trouble with our water supply: the three reservoirs serving the region were all heavily contaminated after a week-long storm. Thankfully, the reservoir serving my suburban neighbourhood was cleared within a day, but the main city was under a “boiled or bottled” advisory for two weeks (Vancouver’s tap water during this period was brown). Due to government and company caps, the price of bottled water was not allowed to increase according to its new supply and demand during this period. It was the perfect opportunity to study economic price theory in in action. As author Thomas Sowell puts it in my current reading material, Basic Economics: “Nothing shows the role of price fluctuations… like the absence of such price fluctuations.”

The situation in Vancouver sounded like an example right out of the book itself. The local reservoirs had been contaminated with dangerous levels of clay, residents were told to drink boiled or bottled water, and no one knew exactly how long the warning would last. This last part was key. The night the advisory was announced, shoppers began lining up at about two in the morning outside Costco for its ten o’clock opening. The pandemonium that followed the store’s opening was so tremendous it got a mention on the front page of The Vancouver Sun. In less than five minutes, Costco’s entire stock of bottled water was gone, and there were fights breaking out everywhere.

I didn’t think to save the article, so this isn’t confirmed, but I seem to recall that the major problem at the time was that whoever reached the bottled water first grabbed as much as they could carry, since they were so cheap and no one knew how long the advisory would be in effect. This is where price theory comes in. According to basic economic principles, the price of bottled water at Costco should have skyrocketed due to the sudden demand–but it didn’t, due to company restrictions (acting in reasonable social interests–if water was suddenly $10 a bottle, people would freak out), and therein lies the problem.

Consider this: what if the price of bottled water at Costco had skyrocketed to some wild price, like $10 a bottle? Would people have gone and grabbed three dozen bottles then? The official advisory, put out by the radio and newspapers, urged residents to drink their water “boiled or bottled.” If the price had skyrocketed, it’s likely that more people would have opted to boil their tap water instead of buy the obscenely-priced bottled water. Even if they had chosen to buy, they wouldn’t have done it in as large quantities as they would have at the cheaper prices. Whereas an individual may have bought three dozen bottles at $.50 or $1 each, they may only buy one dozen at $5 or $10 each, leaving more water for other people to claim. Escalating prices in a crisis aren’t intended to rob people blind; whether the customers realize it or not, the rising prices force them to share resources when there isn’t enough to go around. It keeps the balance, so no one leaves the store with three dozen bottles while someone else leaves with nothing.

By the way, as noted by Sowell, the high prices of hotel rooms after a crisis like a hurricane or earthquake are also an example of this forced generosity. By raising the prices of a hotel room to meet the sudden demand, the hotel forces many people to find roommates and families to rent single rooms to save money–effectively distributing their resource, shelter, among people who might have taken an entire room to themselves at normal prices. Privacy and space are sacrificed, but more people have a roof over their heads because of the higher cost of the rooms.

Anyone reading this with a background in economics would roll their eyes at these most basic ideas, I’m sure, but as a newbie to the field, I find it exciting to see the theories I read about in a book come to life in the “real world.” Of course, this is economics, so every principle acts in the real world, but seeing a theory I’ve been reading about take action around me is still very cool.

Price theory: forcing generosity, whenever you want it, and then some.

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