Friday, June 30, 2017

Friday Night Video - The Maple Leaf Forever (with bonus blog post!)

(This is nominally a Friday Night Video, but it's also a full-sized blog post)

Canadian patriotism is an interesting creature. We have a reputation as a country for being quiet and polite, and it's fairly well-deserved as far as any stereotype of 35 million people can be "deserved". But we like the idea of being proud Canadians, so we'll often think of ourselves as nationalist, even if we're not always very good at it. 

And so, some very strange things turn into nationalist rallying cries. "We have free healthcare!", as if most of the developed world doesn't - even the Americans run about half of their medical spending through government programs. "Tim Horton's!", as if decent donuts and heavily sweetened coffee is what makes a nation. "That I Am Canadian ad from 17 years ago!", which was a good little rant, but seriously it's a beer ad that's itself almost old enough to drink. 

Quebec has always been the exception to this, because Quebec actually has an identity that's based on their own characteristics. For example, healthcare is merely public policy for them, because they don't need it to prop up their self-worth. I've always admired them for it. In my lifetime, English Canada has never felt the same way. We used to have an identity once, back in the days when "English" didn't merely refer to a language, but it faded away in the postwar years as straight-up English nationalism became seen as anachronistic. I know a few who still feel it as strongly as their great-grandfathers, but that's more because I hang out among Tories than because it's popular nationwide. 

I think we can do better. So in honour of Canada's 150th anniversary, I'll talk about a few things Canada has to be genuinely proud of. Things we do better than most of the rest of the world, not just the Americans, and the sort of things a real national identity can build itself on if we ever become willing to have one. 

1) We Do Immigration Really Well
Immigrants, in practice, tend to be divided into two categories by the general public in most countries - there's the first-worlders, who can come and go as they please without anyone caring very much, and there's the third-worlders, who are viewed with suspicion and need to be sharply limited. In some ways it's understandable - there's so many third-worlders that the numbers would be overwhelming if the walls ever came down - but immigration has huge benefits for both sides if it's allowed to happen, just like every other form of trade. 

Canada has one of the highest rates of immigration in the developed world, and yet it's generally not very controversial. There's a few cranks who complain about it, and there's occasional grumblings of "Can't they just learn the language?", but on the whole it's fairly popular. And the reason is fairly simple - we have pretty clear standards of who we want and how to get in, which means we get skilled and successful people. We take them from all over the world, so there's no single demographic group that ever builds up so many members that it triggers a backlash. And we have a fairly strong cultural expectation that immigrants can keep their food and hobbies and such, but they have to follow our laws and work within the democratic system we have here no matter what their homeland was like. (And more often than not, that's why they're here in the first place, so this isn't exactly something the immigrants tend to resist)

It sounds simple, but it's rare in practice. In the US, the stereotypical is a poor Mexican day labourer who's more likely to be illegal than legal. In Canada, the stereotypical immigrant is a small business owner from some random part of Asia. So while they elect Trump to keep the foreigners out, we take in higher numbers and the only politician to even semi-seriously try to rile people up against immigrants got absolutely crushed. It's a great system, and we should be proud of it. 

2) We're Stable, Peaceful, and Free
It's almost cliche to refer to Canada as a young country, but a 150th anniversary is actually surprisingly old when you consider the history of states instead of the history of nations. In 1867, when Canada gained independence, Germany wasn't yet a state. In all of the Old World save Europe there's a grand total of eight nations that have had a continuous existence longer than Canada has. Their ruins are older than ours, but their states are newer. 

Stability is overrated by some, but when it comes to people running their day-to-day lives, nothing matters more. Not freedom, not prosperity, not pride or honor or history - give people the choice of any of those in a chaotic world or none with stability, and most will pick the stability pretty quickly. It's happened over and over through history. We have stability without giving up any of those other virtues, and that's something to be proud of. 

Few countries can endure a decades-long effort to destroy the state without resorting to violence, especially when the movement started out with flashy violence in its own right. Few nations have as long a history of avoiding the ravages of war as we do - the world wars, destroyer of whole continents, involved one lighthouse getting shelled briefly in Canada. 

Obviously, this is not uniquely Canadian. Even the exact form of government we have is obviously a British transplant, though we picked up a few ideas from the Americans in the process. Likewise, some of it is a function of our relatively isolated geography instead of our civic virtue. But that's no reason to begrudge it. We do well with what we have, and we should be proud. 

3) We're Damn Good Bankers
I confess that I might be a bit biased here, given I work for a big bank, but this is really an underappreciated Canadian virtue. It sounds a bit silly to pick on one sector like this, but bank failures are almost always the proximate causes of ugly financial crashes, and Canada just doesn't ever have any. So when Creditanstalt crashes and takes down the world financial system with it(plus, you know, that whole Hitler thing), the whole world economy falls apart, but the Canadian banks carried on without any trouble. 2008 ripped the American banking system in half and took down several titans, but the Canadian banking crisis was two losing quarters at CIBC - heck, they still made a profit on the year. 

Our regulatory system is a bit different than other nations, but not so much so that it should cause this gigantic a discrepancy. Likewise, we bailed out our banks a bit, but less than most other nations. The best explanation I've ever heard is a Canadian cultural bias against taking excess risk, and it seems to fit well enough. And boy, does it ever work in our favour here. In the wake of 2008 when a big part of the world was talking about a "Too Big To Fail Tax" on big banks, all Harper had to do to spike the idea was to point out that it was everyone else who had problems, and the Canadian banking system was fine as it was. Rather than see all their banks move to Toronto, the whole world backed down. It was magnificent - easily my favourite move Harper made as PM - bit it only worked because our banks are eerily stable. They're harder to destroy than a Hilux, for god's sake

As for pride in our banks...well, telling people to like bankers is an uphill battle, I'll admit. But we should at least be happy that ours screw up a lot less than anyone else's. 

4) We're Usually On The Right Side Of History
Most nations have a bit of a spotty record overall. They're the good guys sometimes, they're the bad guys sometimes, who knows. But Canada has, by and large, been on the right side of every conflict we've been in. The Boer War was rather questionable, I'll admit, but in both World Wars, most theatres of the Cold War, and the post-9/11 War on Terror we did our part quite effectively for our size. We invented peacekeeping(which we laud more than we ought, but it's genuinely done good work in a few places), and we're pretty decent at knowing which one to use when. Again, it's not unique, but it's rarer than we might like, and it's something to take pride in.

Honorable Mentions
The food: Poutine, nanaimo bars, butter tarts, and maple everything are all typical Canadian foods, but our immigration system is doing double duty here. I live in the most multicultural city on the planet, and I can eat like it any time I want. It's fantastic. 

It's really pretty: Every nation has scenic bits of nature, but the advantage of being so huge is that we have a whole lot more of it than most. 

It's home: At root, this is half the reason for nationalism in every nation. Even if it's not the best nation in an abstract sense, it's still mine, and I like it here. 

I say we have a lot to be proud of, and we can do better about expressing that pride than ragging on our best friends, or spending $120,000 on a rubber duck, or throwing around airy platitudes, bloated government agencies, and stale beer commercials. We're allowed to be proud of who we are, and I'd like to see us do it a bit more often. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Night Video - Let Love Rule

Sorry for the sparse posting lately - my real life is kind of nuts at the moment, what with the whole "I'm getting married in two weeks" thing. Comes mid-July, the longer posts should pick back up. But until then, some sappy romantic stuff.

This is one I actually got from the guy who originally posted a Friday Night Video series, the one I ripped off for this idea. He's a big 80s music nut - this was about the most modern his musical tastes got - but it's a pretty cool tune.

And, since I owe you guys one from last week:

Friday, June 9, 2017

Friday Night Video - Scheer Heart Attack

This is the other song I was thinking of posting last week. (I'm not very good at avoiding politics, especially the politics of the bad pun.) It's definitely not this band's usual repertoire, but it was the 70s, and I think everyone tried to make a random metal song then. So hey, what's one more? Still beats disco.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Tax and Spend Policy

It's amazing what a bit of perspective can do. The ability to look at a problem from a different angle can improve your understanding of it dramatically if you find the right angle. This is not a novel insight, of course, but the huge variety of possible perspectives in the world makes it hard to know where to start much of the time.

There's a fairly large category of political issues that boil down, at one level or another, to regulations. The government doesn't tax anyone or spend anything on these issues(other than a comparatively trivial amount on enforcement), they simply mandate that X happen or Y stop and let the details work themselves out. For a lot of problems, this isn't a bad way of doing things - if you're going to have rent control or supply management, it's much more practical to simply mandate them than to arrange a tax and subsidy system that'd replicate their effects. (This is not to say that you necessarily should have them, which is a whole separate debate. I'm just discussing the implementation if you're going to have them.)

These issues are still ones where the government is interfering in the economy in one way or another, however. They still move money around. Well, if the government is moving money around, why not pretend it actually is a tax and spend system instead, just to see if it looks any different?

I've touched on this a bit before, but it's useful in far more situations than retail monopolies. For example, consider the minimum wage debate we've been hearing so much about for the last several days months decades. The spending side is simple enough - the recipients of the policy are low-income workers who would otherwise be earning less than the minimum wage. They make more than they would, so you can think of that as being a government spending program, like the Working Income Tax Benefit.

The tax side isn't all that complex either. The money to fund this "spending" comes from a "tax" on employers, in the form of the higher wages they need to pay. Thing is, it doesn't hit all employers equally. I work for a big financial institution, and the number of minimum-wage workers we have is probably a rounding error. My employer will pay basically pay nothing towards this "spending". Instead, the burden of the "tax" falls purely on employers who hire low-wage workers. Also, unlike most taxes on business, it's not based on profitability. Even a business that's losing money will need to pay this "tax", while a business that's extraordinarily profitable will pay nothing extra despite their extra resources.

When you look at the policy through this lens, a lot of the arguments on the topic start looking pretty hollow. Yes, I'll accept that giving low-income workers more money will lead to more consumer spending, and that this spending will generally help low-cost retailers and the like. And sure, that sounds like it'll be a good thing. But that implies precisely nothing about how this "spending program" should be financed. If someone said to you that they wanted to finance the welfare system through a highly regressive tax on people who are helping those on welfare, you'd think they were nuts.

Taxes create less of whatever you tax. If you want to make people do less of a thing, force them to pay more for doing that thing. If you want them to do more of a thing, pay them for doing that thing. That's not right-wing dogma, either, it's the fundamental idea behind carbon taxes and other similar policies - you make the polluter pay, because it's a good way to get less pollution. Same thing here. And thus the policy make the person hiring poor people pay, because you want them to have fewer jobs? Really?

So sure, let's say for sake of argument that Card and Krueger are right and the minimum wage doesn't actually hurt employment at all, because the beneficial effects of the increased spending by the poor outweighs the costs borne by the employers. Wouldn't it be even better if you got the same spending without the taxes falling on their employers? If you could get the benefits there, and also have most of the costs fall on sectors of the economy better able to bear those costs without harming low-income workers in the process?

A lot of people will oppose this because it's just another big tax-and-spend government policy, and most of them will be on my side of the ideological fence. But that method of thinking is a trap. A subsidy can still exist even if it doesn't show up in the annual budget that the House votes on. An expense is the same to the person paying it no matter where the money goes. A government-mandated system of one person giving more money to another person than they otherwise would is no different than a tax followed by a spending program, and it should be treated the same way. If you're okay with taxes, then by all means, you're allowed be okay with this too - I'm not telling you where to stand on tax policy (well, not in this particular post at least). But I'd say that the people who think there's a fundamental difference between the two are looking at things from the wrong angle.

People love their partisan debates, but a lot of the time the truth is that both sides are being kind of dumb. If you only ever look at things from the perspective of a partisan, you can easily miss that. Step back, break these ideas down, and see what they look like afterwards. If they can't handle that, you might still be pushing them for PR reasons, but you should at least admit what you're doing to yourself, lest you get too caught up in defending the indefensible.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Friday Night Video - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

It was seventy years ago today that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. (Well 70 years and a week if you go by the UK release date, but I decided to engage in premature celebration rather than mark that one. Brilliant decision, that.)

I must say, I find the discussion of giant landmarks like this album that came before my time to be a bit odd. I once heard a story from a guy who took a film class, and got shown a really early pre-sound film in class, a scene they all regarded as fairly simple and boring, and the prof asked them afterwards why they thought he'd shown it. Nobody could answer. Apparently, it was the first use of cutting back and forth between two vantage points in film history, but to people versed in modern film, that rather revolutionary approach was totally invisible. I wonder if the impact of seminal records like this is the same for people who weren't there. I know their music very well, of course, but I learned it all at the same time - my parents listened to a lot of radio stations that played Beatles music, but I was hearing Love Me Do at the same time as Let It Be, and it all blended in together. Going back and looking at the timeline, I do prefer their later stuff, but it's not a sudden shift to me, it's a gradual evolution.

"You had to be there" is one of those sentiments that gets used most often to cover up a gulf in understanding - something that's meaningful to one person is white noise to another. I don't like being the second person in that - I want to know and understand everything, and it bugs me when I'm missing something. But still, it feels a bit like I'm missing something. It's a great album, but the impact isn't the same for those of us looking at it from fifty years later. Shame, really.