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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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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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I was really disappointed when – on Blog Action Day of all days – real life once again disrupted my usual posting schedule.  It has been a really crazy couple of days, so my entry is a depressing three days late, but I have been determined to post something about it anyway.

The official statistics from Blog Action Day have been released.  I encourage you to look at their full report – it’s very inspiring!

At the end of the day…

20,603 blogs had participated.
23,327 posts about the environment had been made as a result.
The posts reached an estimated RSS readership of 14,631,038 subscribers.

You can see the rest on their site.

I thought for a long time about what I should say about the environment in this post, and decided on something that Wikipedia apparently likes to call “environmental vegetarianism”.  It matters a lot to me, personally, because I consider myself one of those environmental vegetarians.  It wasn’t the reason why I first became a vegetarian, but since then, it’s become my most important motivation for remaining a vegetarian.

Most people don’t usually associate vegetarianism with being good for the environment – if the two are ever associated at all, it’s because of the stereotype of environmentalists as tree-hugging, animal-loving vegetarian hippies.  The truth is that not all vegetarians are in it for the animals, or even the ideology against eating meat.  Some people become vegetarians for the health benefits, religious reasons, economic reasons, ideologies against how animals are raised in farms, and, yes, concerns about the environment.  The latter will be my focus.

Here are just three environmental reasons to go vegetarian, or at least reduce the amount of meat in your diet:

1. Reduced consumption of fossil fuels and reduced greenhouse emissions.
Animal agriculture produces a shocking amount of greenhouse gases.  It’s been estimated to account for 17-20% of methane emissions worldwide, and ten times more fossil fuel is required to produce one calorie of animal protein than one calorie of plant protein.  Think of all the energy needed to build animal farms, raise the animals, all the pollution put out by the machines, and the emissions made from trucking their food supply and the livestock themselves from location to location.  According to this article, the energy that goes into producing a single hamburger could drive a small car twenty miles.  A 2006 study from the University of Chicago showed that the average American with an omnivorous diet caused the emissions of 1485 kg more carbon dioxide than their vegetarian counterparts.  Driving a hybrid car supposedly reduces your emissions by just over a ton – so going vegetarian or vegan is actually better for the environment, and tens of thousands of dollars cheaper!

2. More efficient distribution of land and food resources.
It’s no secret that the world has a resource distribution problem (what is that statistic people are always throwing around – the wealthiest 10% of people own 90% of the world’s resources or something?), but how much of that is due to meat production for first-world countries is disgusting.  This site claims that 44% of the world’s grain production goes towards feeding livestock.  The Wikipedia article gives more local statistics: 90% of soy production, 80% of corn production, and 70% of grain production goes to livestock in the US.  This is more of an ethical issue than an environmental one: how much of the food that goes to feed our future hamburgers could go to feed the millions in the world that are starving?

Land use and distribution is another concern of animal agriculture.  Animal agriculture, not logging, is the number one cause of deforestation in the world.  According a study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, agriculture accounts for 90% of deforestation – this vegetarian site gives only 70%.  Either way, that is certainly not good for the environment.  This article claims that 55 square feet of rainforest is destroyed for every hamburger that is imported from Central/South America.  Consider the dark side of McDonald’s claims of however many billion they’ve served.


3. More efficient use of drinking water.

Think about how much of the world’s water is drinkable (3%) and how many people in the world don’t have access to clean drinking water (27%), and then know that producing 1kg of animal protein uses about a hundred times more water than producing 1kg of plant protein.  On this site, which seems to be full of interesting examples, they say that the amount of water needed to produce one hamburger could supply enough water for you to have a “luxurious” shower every day for two and a half weeks.  That’s a lot of clean water wasted – and I won’t even get into the chemicals and waste products of animal agriculture that pollute the water supply every day.  To paraphrase all the articles on the subject: it’s just not good for the environment.

Since humans can clearly live a healthy (sometimes healthier) life without needing to eat meat, why are we wasting so much on animal agriculture?  What do we get out of it – a nice taste?  Cheap, questionably-produced fast food?  Nutrients that we can now get elsewhere?  If you live in the West, it’s easier than ever to become a vegetarian.  The more I talk to older vegetarians, the more I realize how spoiled the vegetarians of today are.  If you’re so inclined, you can replace every meat item in your diet with a vegetarian substitute that is almost indistinguishable from the real thing, if you know where to look.

Even just reducing the amount of meat in one’s diet can have a positive effect on the environment.  It may not seem like reducing it by say, 10%, could do much to save the environment, but what if ten people did the same thing?  That’s 1485 kg less carbon dioxide emitted right there.  But what if it was twenty people?  Fifty?  A small city’s worth of people?  The whole US – reducing by just 10%?  What if some reduced it further and stamped it out of their diet altogether?

I don’t need a calculator to tell you that that’s a whole lot of carbon, rainforest, and water saved.

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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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Earlier today, when going through my RSS feeds, I stumbled upon an old post from the mental_floss blogs about bedtime storybooks with strong political agendas. The two main culprits are a couple of books (one from each side, appropriately) titled “Why Mommy is a Democrat” and “Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed!”

Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed!
Clearly there’s a problem here. “Why Mommy is a Democrat” is clearly targeted at the Pre-K crowd; the simplicity of the text (some of which is reproduced here), the characters and art style, and the subject of each page look like they’re intended for very young children.

From what I can gather on the Amazon page of “Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed!”, this one is aimed at older, elementary school readers. The characters are grade school children who open a lemonade stand and have a dream that they live in “Liberaland”, where caricatures of famous Democrats come and take half the profits of their lemonade stand, demand that they take down a picture of Jesus and stop praying, and give away broccoli with every cup of lemonade.

“Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed!” really disturbs me, more than “Why Mommy is a Democrat”, even though the latter is aimed at a much lower (more impressionable?) age group, and not because of my political leaning (goes both ways anyway). The political agenda behind “Why Mommy is a Democrat” is to teach toddlers the good things about Democrats. However, the political agenda behind “Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed!” teaches children to hate liberals. “Why Mommy is a Democrat” doesn’t directly teach the kids to hate the opposition… “Help! Mom!” does. By looking at only the bad aspects of the liberals, it teaches kids intolerance before they know their right from their left – both meanings.

Whether someone is liberal or conservative doesn’t matter – I don’t think anyone should try and indoctrinate their kids from a young age by preaching hatred and intolerance of the opposition.

More upsetting than the existence of these books is the comments left on their Amazon pages. Here are the comments left on the “Help! Mom” book, just because these are more upsetting than the ones on “Why Mommy is a Democrat”. As you can see, they alternate between 5-star and 1-star reviews, with a little more than half praising it as the light in a world gone mad and the other 45% or so claiming it’s propaganda. The comments from the 5-star reviewers scare me: “Need to teach them the difference between conservatives & liberals when they are young!” (yes, from a very heavily biased children’s book)… “It has my five year old asking us questions about liberals which we are more than happy to answer.” (Hate to hear what those “answers” would be.)

Worse yet, read the comments left to 1-star reviews.

A 1-star review said this:

We need wider understanding, cooperation and critical thinking in coming generations if America is not to be torn apart and self-destruct for the most banal and avoidable of behavior patterns. This book is completely counter to such goals and is probably driven as much by a desire to make profit via sensationalism and controversy as it is the desire by adults to further their own selfish, myopic inflexibility at the expense of clean, bright, trusting little minds. Such behavior by adults not only sets a horrible example, it is pathetic and cowardly.”

And a couple of the responses to that particular review:

Liberals are easy to predict. This book teaches children a conservative point of view and this infuriates liberals. They only want your children exposed the ideas of the left wing Marxist agenda. Because liberals can’t debate the facts and their point of view is many times irrational they just call it ‘hate speech’. They say that it is ‘dividing America’ or they refer to it as ‘brainwashing’…”

“Great another Bin Laden supporter in our midst.”

If this was an isolated incident I could understand… but the entire review section of this book’s page on Amazon is littered with the exact same bigotry – on both sides of the spectrum.

Democrats have done stupid things and can believe stupid things. Republicans have also done stupid things and can also believe stupid things. As a society, we really need to move on. It’s an old message that you can hear anywhere, and it won’t make much difference complaining about it here, but it needs to get through somehow.

In my last ‘Weekend Reading’, I linked to an article that I found on Digg: Sick Children, Working Moms. It was about how some working mothers had to send their sick kids to school because staying home to take care of them could mean losing their job. Digg has a very large gender imbalance, so it wasn’t surprising that the consensus among the commenters was that there should always be a dad so the mom can stay home – and that’s not always a bad thing.

Then one woman came on and said this: I’ve had to stay home with my kids many times. Hell, I was out for a week at Christmas because of some awful flu they caught. I actually did end up getting “laid off” a month later. But I got a better job in a much more family friendly company. Do I *have* to work? Not really. We’d get by fine if I stayed at home with the kids. But would I be happy? No. I enjoy my work. Don’t minimize me by telling me it’s my “responsibility” to sit at home with my kids while my husband brings home the proverbial bacon. It’s insulting.”

…To which I one-hundred percent agree. As a female who genuinely enjoys being out in the world and working myself, I would die inside if someone forced me to be a stay at home mom all my life. I have interests far beyond cooking and cleaning, and it is also insulting to me that culturally I shouldn’t have kids and a job at the same time – while my theoretical husband would have to bear no such stigma. Some women may enjoy not having to work; great for them, but I’m not among them. Things are certainly changing, but the replies to the comment above, like the intolerant replies to the reviews of “Help! Mom!”, are very disheartening:

I’m sorry you feel minimized and insulted over the thought of raising your children.”

“Get back in the kitchen where YOU belong and make me a sandwich. Oh, and cut the crust off it while you’re at it. Notice I said YOU, not women, but YOU.” (<- notice the failed attempt to not sound sexist)

“The floors in the kitchen need a good scrubbing, laundry needs to be washed and folded, the vacuum needs to be run, the toilet could use a good cleaning, and dinner needs to be made. *enjoy* your work.”

If the last two are jokes, I don’t think they’re very funny.

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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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As part of my (Canadian) high school’s Social Studies (read: history and government) curriculum, everything we study has a distinctly Canadian bias. This means that, while we cover major events of the twentieth century like World Wars I and II and the Depression, they’re all from a purely Canadian perspective, and certain events that didn’t involve Canada aren’t covered at all (ie, the Bolshevik Revolution or rise of communism in China).

It’s understandable that history classes in any country would have a bias towards the events that have had major impacts on said country… but it can go too far, as it has done in my class.

For instance, the local textbook that we use in class has a single chapter on World War II, and Winston Churchill is mentioned once within. This is the quotation: “British Prime Minister Winston Churchill recognized the importance of this outcome.” This is in relation to the Battle of the Atlantic, and it’s the only sentence about Churchill in the textbook. Nothing about fighting on the beaches, no finest hour, no blood, toil, tears and sweat… Churchill is just one name among many mentioned in passing. How can we spend two weeks covering WWII and exclude Winston Churchill?

It’s probably the same phenomenon that would explain why we don’t get a single sentence about Pearl Harbor, and the two atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are given a quick paragraph at the end of the chapter as a sort of afterthought. By the way, the most devastating bombs ever used in warfare were dropped on Japan afterwards, but let’s move on to Canada’s post-war economy because that’s much more important than the devastation and cultural impact it had on Japan. The fact that the uranium used in the bombs was mined in Canada was given two lengthy paragraphs about the owners of the mine and the process of mining, but the actual dropping of the bombs and its impact on Japan were squashed into one small paragraph at the end. Hmmmmm.

I think if Winston Churchill and Hiroshima get only a few sentences between them in a whole unit dedicated to World War II while Canadian miners get two paragraphs about the mining of uranium, we’re somehow missing the point.

EDIT 03/18/07: Well, I had the final exam for the World War II unit.  Silly me studied battles, the sequence of events, important figures, technological advances, and cultural impacts.  An impressive zero questions on the exam asked about any of these things (or anything else pertaining to the actual WWII).  The exam thought it was more important that I leave with the knowledge of who the Canadian Minister of Munitions and Supplies was at the time and why the Liberals had a difficult time staying in office.  To each country their own, I suppose.

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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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I’ve been engaging in a lot of criticism lately, I know. I should be more focused on developing my own ideas rather than deconstructing others’, but when this article regarding suggestions for the American public education system made by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce appeared on TIME.com, I couldn’t help myself. The impression I got from the proposed changes was less than stellar.

The first warning bell went off in my mind when content–you know, that stuff that should really matter?–was not even vaguely referenced. Not once. No mention of teaching students more problem-solving skills, no encouraging of lifelong learning. And, to my utter dismay, no integration of the technology that will be a part of nearly every career that will be available by the time the generation of students these suggestions are supposed to help will graduate.

I’d like to discuss the first, most controversial point of the study: that students should graduate at sixteen after passing a grueling standardized exam. I think I should point out my bias here… in favor of the idea. Anyone who knows me personally knows I would give an arm and a leg without a second thought to graduate early. So know that if I’m biased at all, it should be in favor of the suggestion. (Shouldn’t it?)

When I read this suggestion, my mind immediately pulled up an article in the New York Times that I had glanced over a while back about university complaints that high schools were sending them students that were ill-prepared for college-level work and generally immature in their studies. Remembering that, I thought, the most vocal critics of this graduate-at-sixteen proposal will be institutes of higher education. If colleges and universities complain about the eighteen-year-olds coming in now, with an entire freshman year of sixteen-year-olds on the way in the future, I expect that colleges would freak out.

The only means by which the suggestion could be considered even remotely plausible would be a total revamp of public schools–exactly what’s needed, of course, but I see this going in the wrong direction. You can’t graduate students two years earlier without radically changing everything else: eliminating unnecessary courses, squeezing information into a shorter timeframe, lengthening academic semesters, etc. This would all be fine… if we had the slightest idea of how to go about it. If the board generating these suggestions considered any of this, we haven’t heard about it. Do we have detailed reports saying what would be changed, and how? An action plan, or even a vague direction? Looking over the board’s website, it seems like the answer is no. (However, it is worth noting that the executive summary (PDF) of the book Tough Choices or Tough Times released by the board does go into more detail–but hardly enough to satisfy. )

In my opinion–and it is just in my opinion, because the board may researching or on the verge of releasing a report on how this could be accomplished–this idea could work. Could. But the idea is so vague and the lacking mention of content disturbs me, so it’s not plausible right now, and until we have a better glimpse at the proposed system, it’s hard to decide strongly one way or the other. On one hand, perhaps this is exactly the kind of change we need, and the new system will be beneficial all around. But, on the other, this could be a hasty attempt to get students into the colleges and the workforce earlier. It’s been mentioned by both Thomas Friedman (The World Is Flat) and this board itself that crucial changes need to be made in public education, and even if implemented right away, will take nearly twenty years to come into effect. By that time, India or China could be dangerously close to–or already passing by–the US. Knowing this, and knowing that the board knows this, I can’t help but be a little wary of their intent to graduate students earlier. Is it innovation or desperation? I wish I knew. If it is desperation, we can expect a hastily implemented, hastily designed new system that might throw us even further behind.

But that’s just one girl’s speculation. Their intents may be purely honorable. I’d just like to see more evidence of that.

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Once of the criticisms I often find in reviews of Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics–and believe me, most of them do mention this–is that it’s too ‘conservative’, and not in a blatantly obvious way. The reviews seemed to note that the pro-right views were more… subtle. Nevertheless, in my reading this morning, I came across this statement, clearly in support of the right/capitalist view:

“The amount of such highly localized information [regarding gas sales in the area], known to thousands of individual filling station owners scattered across the United States, is too enormous to be transmitted to some central point and then be digested in time to lead to government allocations of fuel with the same efficiency as a price-coordinated market can acheive.” (Sowell, Basic Economics. 2000.)

Clearly, a blow aimed at socialism. However wrong it may seem for myself, a fifteen-year-old dabbler, to argue the claims of a seventy-something economics professor, I have to object. Two things: 1) There is a way to transmit that enormous amount of information: it’s called the Internet. With live-updating and more system compatibility in today’s network, thousands of localized computers could be almost seamlessly channeled into the computers of a company headquarters for data-filtering. 2) The idea of democratic socialism accommodates for that large amount of information received (after filtering). One of the big ideas pushed forth by socialism is that the government needs to be much larger to provide more services and act more democratically. True, the government cannot deal with this sort of a system as it exists, but the larger government proposed by socialists possibly could.

I may not be right in saying that, of course, because I suffer from that idealistic “if the world changed completely to suit this new system, it would be perfect” view that seems to plague philosophers (especially the politically-minded ones). I just wanted to point out that it may have been inconvenient to relay information to government branches in the past, but the internet and live connectivity have completely changed that. If someone can tell you how to unbug your Microsoft Word from India at virtually no cost, certainly a socialist government is now plausible–at least more than it used to be.

This leads me to an interesting question: as the world becomes more seamlessly integrated via live internet connectivity, does socialism really become more plausible, and if it does, is this the way the world might eventually start to shift? That’s what the dystopian authors from the 50’s seemed to predict, but they weren’t living in the world of constant connection that we do now. Books like The World is Flat (Thomas Friedman) seem to reassure that capitalism will ultimately prevail, but I have to wonder: if socialism becomes more plausible, will it become more attractive?

Not to say that I’m fully in favor of socialism (slightly inclined that way, maybe, but not in really in support of it), but the idea of its plausibility possibly correlating with its attractiveness is worth thinking about. Socialism is one of those ideas I’m a bit iffy about, because I love the idea politically, but it’s not as economically or socially sustainable as would make me comfortable. That, and 99% of dystopian literature uses a form of hyper-socialism as the evil government. Name me a single piece of dystopian literature that uses a form of hyper-capitalism as the big, bad institution and I’ll put everything aside to read it. Where would socialism ultimately lead us? Not a clue; and that’s the problem.

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