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Posts Tagged ‘Political Skepticism’

Avoiding the dogma of legislating morality

Posted by Don McLenaghen on February 19, 2012

I have gotten a lot of feedback on my blog post and our segment last week about gender selection; and more to the point whether we should legislate morality.

Some people have expressed a view that we should legislate morality…because the laws skeptics would enact could help make the world a better place.

My response to this is to reiterate my opinion last week that I think it is bad to legislate morality. First, there is a reverse implication, if we create moral laws; that implies all laws are moral…something history has shown time and again not to be true.

That said, I don’t know if we are talking about the same thing and that is often the problem with philosophy. When the religious, conservative, or traditionalist use the word morality they mean metaphysically right…the ‘ought’ vs. the ‘is’. What is moral is ALWAYS moral; it transcends time and space. Moral is the word of god and is immutable. Often in the skeptic community we hear this with regards to libertarian or, dare I say it, socialist thinking. They hold to some precepts as foundational or a prior. Regardless of where you are coming from when something is moral, it is so irrespective of reality or the way things are.

Although the original meaning of ‘moralis’ simply meant ‘proper custom’; centuries of Christian influence and indoctrination (irrevocably) alter it to ‘right, good and virtuous!’

In a skeptical article pointed out by our loyal readers, Ian (thanks for your input). The article argues that not only can we legislate morality but that we must do so. Although he makes token appeals to evidence one of his main premises, and where I have issue, is like this which states – “if your conscience tells you some action may be causing great harm to society, you have both the right and, I believe, the duty to try to help or correct the situation, through both social and political means”. I think it is the appeal to ‘conscience’ that can be problematic. It lays moral laws on a foundation of belief and opinion and not fact or reason.

In the article, written by what I would guess is a libertarian, it shows why we should not think in terms of morality because we are too culturally indoctrinated to think of this dogmatically. The article states “we don’t limit or take away the right to free speech just because a person’s exercise of that right led to deaths”. The author praises Obama’s book “The audacity of hope” for saying “I propose that most law, either in spirit or letter, is nothing but encoded morality”; one must ask whose morality?

That is the heart of my criticism. Morality is, at least in our modern context, dogmatic; dogmatism (be it theological, political or skeptical) is innately wrong…regardless of the good it may incidentally do. Using the term morality, this necessarily must appeal to “belief” and the metaphysical, creating a field of competing equals. A Christian belief in ‘right or wrong’ based on the bible is no less sound than one based on the philosophy of ‘inalienable rights’; yet both may be invalid because they are assertions of belief not discovered knowledge.

This is why I don’t think we should legislate morality. So do I think law can make society better – yes; do I think we should use law to modify people’s behaviour to make society better – yes, but cautiously; do I think I should impose my moral belief on others through law – no, no matter how right I might think they are or how much incidental good they may do. What I would do is approach law like I do everything else; use the tool kit of skepticism (evidence, logic, reason and the scientific method) to create law ethically.

Okay, what do I mean ethically, is that not just a different way of saying morality? Yes and no. There is a conflation between ethics and morality however they are not really the same. Morality is a judgment on something; ethics is more a process…a WAY to do thing.

I believe that we should make laws that are consistent with empirical evidence…rational thinking…what I could call ethical thinking. I think ethical thinking is a method like the scientific method; it is not an answer but a method to derive answers. Ethical thinking, at least as a ‘good’ skeptic would apply it, should not be dogmatic, can evolve over time and point to truth but never claim to be it.

So laws created with ethical thinking are not moral or immoral; they are the best attempt to make society better. We can say that laws are ethical or unethical. For example, the article said free speech should be maintained even if it resulted in deaths. To be fair he did make an exception for yelling fire in a crowded theater as unethical because it ignores hate speech (for example).

I can say unethical, because he is dogmatic in his views of rights thus not willing to change based on evidence. It’s double dogmatic because he makes an exception for one ‘harm’ but not another, yet of the two, genocide seems the greater…his exclusion is arbitrary based on his BELIEFS!

This view of rights are asserted as being true; as in the US Declaration of Independence, a noble document but one that asserts that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. Although I am sympathetic to these words, anything asserted is dogmatic and innately unethical because the King of England could equally assert “all men are subjects of the king”.

Here’s an example. When law is based in morality, we are stuck saying “pot smoking is immoral” forever because something is either moral or immoral…there is no kinda moral. By using the “M” word, you create dogmatic law.

It sounds self-serving, but really if 'reason' is meant authentically then...rationality to rule them all

Ethical thinking gets around this dilemma because its outcomes are not moral but the best answers so far…like science. So we can say in 1980 “pot smoking causes major harm to individuals and society” and yet as more research provides evidence it (may) not be harmful you; we can alter our law/statement “pot smoking causes little harm to self or state” without being inconstant or contradictory.

So now we return to our original question…should we legislate morality? No, I think doing so lowers ourselves to the same level of the theocrats we often decry. I do however think law can be used to make society and its citizen better if those laws are created ethically.

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How Libya killed hundreds in Syria

Posted by Don McLenaghen on February 9, 2012

An UN Security Council proposal to invoke its charter for “responsibility to protect” was vetoed by China and Russia last week. Now many people have questioned why we, the West, intervened into Libya to ‘protect’ those civilians and yet we stand by and watch a government slaughter its own people in Syria?

Well, you can blame Libya or at least how we did the job there. One of the concerns by international governments (like Russia and China) was that the UN mission was not actually to protect the people instead, an opportunity to get rid of an internationally unpopular dictator…i.e. regime change was the real point.

As it turned out, they were right.

The role of NATO (the instrument of UN protection) seemed not to limit or prevent Gaddafi’s ability to punish his people but to act as an unofficial air force for the ‘liberation’ rebels. Now, it could be argued that getting rid of Gaddafi was a good; however the poor choice of mechanism for regime change has come home to roost and the people of Syria are paying the price.

Assad, Syria’s ruler, unlike Gaddafi has some strong supporters in the international community; Iran, Russia and China being the most notable and important. Even though I think (grant me a moment of sentimentality) that as much as the political leadership of these countries desperately want to see the end of the deaths in Syria; they do not want to get rid of Assad who is too important to their geo-political machinations. They fear, and Libya seems to have proven, that UN intervention will not be limited to protecting civilians but will be used as a means of regime change.

Sadly, they are probably right.

Of course some may argue that if NATO actually did the work in Libya and WE, the West, control NATO, why not have NATO unilaterally intervene?

Fears of western imperialism not new

First, intervene could risk war with Russia and China (okay not likely but tension would rise…never a good thing). Beyond that, without UN cover, it is likely…no for certain, that Arabs would will not see this as humanitarian help especially by Syrian allies Turkey, embattled Egypt and Iran (also paranoid with reason).

I have used the term ‘the West’ a few times because to those in the region this term means something…they do not see democracy or  philanthropy but they know two wars in Iraq, one still going in Afghanistan, drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, Israeli settlements in Palestine, Gaza blockade, Libyan collateral damage, the constant threats to Iran, the habitual silence over Israel…they do not automatically assume our acts/intentions are noble but are instead another example of western (American/Israeli?) imperialism – right or wrong, this is how they feel.

These Arab nations could make operations in Syria difficult at best and at worst they may ‘defend Syria’s rightful government’ with military force. Because this operation would lack the legitimacy of an UN Security Council resolution, they would be right…technically (and really?) it would be an act of war for NATO to intervene militarily.

Better the devil I know

Secondly, Syria has a military. One of the facts that led to the defeat of Gaddafi was his relatively small aged and ineffective military. Libya had been on the arms embargo list for decades; Syria has large forces, well organized and equipped with modern and deadly weaponry. Libya’s forces were largely used to suppress its own people; Syrian forces are in constant preparation for a war with Israel…a major threat to Syria (let us not forget these countries are still technically at war and Israel bombed Syria in 2007). Syria’s military is, at least conventionally, able to deal with a major Israel threat; NATO would be minor compared to what Israel could do.

Arab spring or swapping jockeys

The only hope the people of Syria have is the Arab League of Nations…their local UN. The Arab league has sent in observes to judge the level of violence and quickly left because the levels of savagery they saw shocked even ‘professionals’ like them. They have condemned Syria and attempted to isolate it politically. However, the Arab League is composed of 21 Arab nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia; these nations have had difficulty presenting a unified front in the past and there are few military that could take on Syria.

Of course another major issue is that after the “Arab Spring” most of the oppressive nations, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, do not want to promote ‘liberation movements’. The Saudi’s sent troops into Bahrain to stop uprisings there and the Egyptian military is trying to maintain its control over Egypt after the loss of Mubarak. Economically, Russia and China (and India, Brazil, South Africa) see Syria as valuable for economic, political or geo-strategic imperatives.

Short vs. Long term

I came out strongly in favor of the intervention in Libya to “protect innocent civilians” and at the time I mentioned my fears that western powers would use this noble (and necessary) principle for a more opportunistic agenda (regime change). Well, my trust in humanity (as principled and tentative as it was) was misplaced. That said, there is a lesson to be learnt.

One of the goals of Radio Free Thinker, is to expand the frontier of skeptical thinking; taking the tools of critical thinking and the scientific method beyond their traditional limited spheres of science. We have a learning opportunity here; one I hope political leaders will learn from. Libya and Syria are empirical data points about what happens then noble and just actions are hijacked for more cynical political gains. That if politicians hope to elevate the state of humanity and create a better world for themselves (and maybe by accident for us all) they need to learn from the lessons of the past…that when we are dogmatic, be it in religion, history or politics, we are condemned to death, destruction and failure.

{End note – As my loyal readers know, I like to have a good supply of images in my posts. Often I use cartoons. When I was looking for images for this post I was struck by the number I found in Arabic…most poignant ones were ‘local’. I have not found this for any other blog I have done to date; I think this is saying something and if I were Assad, I would be looking for a place to retire sooner than later.}

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What’s wrong with the polls?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on April 29, 2011

For those of us on the left, recent polling data has smiling. Depending on the Poll, the NDP has for the first time in a generation ahead of Liberals. Yet, no two polls say the same thing; in fact if your include the margin of error, things have not really changed that much; how could this be?

There are several issues with modern polling. First, it is hard to get a ‘balance group’. Most polls still use land-line phone polls. With more people now using cell phones, those who have land-lines are usually older rural voters whereas cell phone users tend to me more urban and youthful. Cell phone numbers are harder to get a hold of, especially if you factor in the ‘pay as you go’ phones; so polls tend to be unbalance.

This imbalance is amplified by the ‘hectic’ lifestyle people now live plus the unprecedented disengagement of people to politics. A couple of decades ago, those people willing to take a 20 min survey was around 75%, now its often down to 15%.

Another issue is of course the feed-back look. Thanks to social media and the internet, the availability and proliferation of polls has increased greatly. There comes a point when one must ask if the polls are measuring popular sentiment or driving it. This is need by the phenomena in the USA, where ‘push-polling’ has become popular. Push-polling is where the goal is not to measure but persuade. Usually there are a series of question like “If you hear that Democratic party was planning to create Death Panels to reduce the load on the medical system, would you support that?…Who will you be voting for this election?”. First, it allows the pollster the ability to shape the results of the poll, while passively influencing the views of the elector.

Lastly, polling companies are businesses and political polls are not money makers however they help elevate the visibility of the pollsters enabling them to get more corporate clients. This can cause two distortion; first a pollster may not want to alienate a client so will attempt to publish polls that support ‘corporate friendly’ trends; or they may exaggerate the importance of a ‘shift’ so as to gain more media attention or they may just pump out less rigours polls and, from their perspective, achieve more free advertising.

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Skeptical Questions for Political Candidates

Posted by Ethan Clow on April 17, 2011

With an federal election quickly coming upon us here in Canada, we at Radio Freethinker decided to take the opportunity to send off some questions to local candidates to see what they think about a few skeptical/atheists issues.

A number of other skeptical organizations have been doing just this and I think it’s a great idea. Not only does it give the candidates a chance to see another constituency out there, but it also lets them know that freethinkers have concerns and they want them addressed.

We decided to go with ten questions. While we could have asked hundreds, ten is a small, easily manageable number and any person running for political office surely will have the time to answer ten quick questions. We tried to include two questions from each of the main “battlegrounds” that skeptics deal with.

Those being: two questions on religion, two questions on alternative medicine, two questions on the supernatural, two questions on science, and two questions on evolution.

Here are the questions in full:

1. Canada is a ‘Christian’ nation.

2.  Religious belief should be legally protected from ridicule.

3. Complementary and alternative medicine (such as naturopathy, chiropractic medicine, herbalism, biofeedback, hypnosis, homeopathy and/or acupuncture) should be given equal support in our public health system

4. Childhood vaccinations should be mandatory

5. Law enforcement should be barred from employing psychics in investigations

6. The evidence for alien visitation is “overwhelmingly positive”

7. Science is just one way of “knowing”

8. Scientists who work for the government should not be curtailed or censored in any way if they want to take their findings to the media or wish to publish their findings in scientific journals or periodicals.

9. Human beings have evolved over time in a random process absent of any control or design by a higher power

10. The age of the Earth is around 4 billion years.

We sent them to all the candidates in the five federal ridings of Vancouver.  Those ridings, with their candidates are as follows:

Vancouver Centre

Adriane Carr  (Green Party of Canada)

Jennifer Clarke  (Conservative Party of Canada)

John Clarke  (Libertarian Party of Canada)

Hedy Fry  (Liberal Party of Canada)

Michael Hill  (Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada)

Michael Huenefeld  (Progressive Canadian Party)

Travis McCrea  (Pirate Party of Canada)

Karen Shillington  (New Democratic Party of Canada)

Vancouver East

Roma Ahi  (Liberal Party of Canada)

Libby Davies  (New Democratic Party of Canada)

Anne Jamieson  (Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada)

Douglas Roy  (Green Party of Canada)

Irene C. Yatco  (Conservative Party of Canada)

Vancouver Kingsway

Louise Boutin  (Green Party of Canada)

Kimball Cariou  (Communist Party of Canada)

Don Davies  (New Democratic Party of Canada)

Matt Kadioglu  (Libertarian Party of Canada)

Trang Nguyen  (Conservative Party of Canada)

Donna Petersen  (Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada)

Wendy Yuan  (Liberal Party of Canada)

Vancouver Quadra

Victor Edward Elkins  (New Democratic Party of Canada)

Deborah Meredith  (Conservative Party of Canada)

Joyce Murray  (Liberal Party of Canada)

Laura-Leah Shaw  (Green Party of Canada)

Vancouver South

Charles Boylan  (Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada)

Ujjal Dosanjh  (Liberal Party of Canada)

Meena Wong  (New Democratic Party of Canada)

Wai Young  (Conservative Party of Canada)

Jean Hakizimana (Green Party of Canada)

The Questions we asked are based on a five-point scale system. A candidate can answer between Strongly Disagree and Strongly Agree. In addition we tracked down as many direct email addresses as we could but in some cases we’re sending this survey to their campaign  centres. In a few cases we couldn’t locate a suitable email address and therefore we sent it to the party headquarters. We do understand that some candidates will be extremely busy and probably get many such questions sent their way. We also included the email addresses of the National Party headquarters as well.

There is little over two weeks until the election. We hope that the candidates can find time to answer these questions before election day. I do wish we had been able to send this out sooner but to my surprise, tracking down contact information for the candidates proved exceedingly difficult. In addition, Elections Canada did not confirm the final list of those running until the 14th of April. Since then, I was spending as much time as I could spare tracking down how to contact each candidate or party.

Hopefully something comes of this. We will of course keep you informed as things develop.

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Libyan No-Fly Zone Redux

Posted by Don McLenaghen on March 31, 2011

In an earlier episode I made a case for a No-Fly Zone over Libya to stop the massacre that was imminent due to a resurgent Gadhafi. When the no-fly zone was implemented, I made a comment about how the USA, NATO and the UN were in a no win situation, that prior to the implantation people would accuse them of callous indifference and that if/when it was implemented people would accuse them of imperialism. I used the term “whine” which offended some listeners…sorry Maurice…and the note that, my comments were an ad homonym attack on those who oppose the no-fly zone.

First, in my defence, the comments were not part of one of our main segments but just our idle chatter, so I wasn’t making any argument ad homonym or otherwise…but I will try to be less flippant in future if that is important to our listeners. Second, the point I was TRYING to make was that both or either side was destined to complain regardless of what was done. I was ‘whining’ that the UN did not impose a no-fly zone prior to our show. Lastly, you are right. When I made the case, for as good skeptics, we should have taken some time to assess the other side. So let’s do so now.

There are several reasons NOT to impose a no-fly zone. These fall into three main camps. The first is the idea of sovereignty. This is the claim often made by Russia and China. Each nation claims to have the right to settle internal affairs… internally and that no nation has the right to in the internal affairs of another. This issue, in a less violent way, has been raised often in Canada. There have been a number of times when Canadians have complained that comments made by American officials are wrong because they are seen as attempting to interfere with the internal affairs of Canada. An example of this is….in 2005 election the US ambassador to Canada said that Canadian politicians should not ‘bash the USA’…in response to issues like Kyoto and Softwood lumber, this verbal defence at the time cause a huge uproar in the press and public…

Another main argument against the no-fly zone is that violence, even when ostensibly for peaceful reasons, is wrong. This is similar to the arguments made against capital punishment…that we kill people to show that killing people is wrong; as in this case we are attempting to stop the killing of people in Libya by killing people in Libya…the only difference being on what side of an arbitrary, like the bombs are allowed to drop.

The last argument, and I think the strongest, is that this intervention IS an act of imperialism or at least opportunism by the US. The US has a long history of interventions in other nation’s internal affairs…or even regions affairs…not to create healthy democracies but to support pro-American regimes. My support for the No-Fly Zone was for humanitarian reasons but it is rapidly transformed into a move by ‘the west’ to oust Gadhafi. They are no longer trying to suppress loss of life but to actively support the ‘rebels’ in an attempt to drive Gadhafi from power…something a number of people said was the probable true reason for the intervention and regardless of the original intent it was the unavoidable outcome…the fundamental reason NOT to have a no-fly zone…that it would inevitably lead to active political intervention in the nation.

Now, we can argue that getting rid of Gadhafi is a good thing…like getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good thing…and therefor the no-fly zone was still humanitarian and good even if it has been escalated because these dictators were in a near constant state of bringing violence and death upon their own people. We MIGHT agree with that…but what about other regimes that do this and the UN or the west…we do nothing? Syria comes to mind, where in the 80’s after a failed revolt, that government shelled the ‘offending city’ of HAM and killed over 17,000.

Currently Bahrain and Yemen are violently suppressing political dissent but these countries are allied with the USA…notably the US 5th fleet is based in Bahrain and the ‘hot spot’ the US war on terror in the region is Yemen…Bahrain has even had the Saudi armed forces help in the suppression; yet we do nothing. Uzbekistan is infamous for their violent repression and civil rights abuse…yet because the US sees them as reliable allies we do nothing. What about the intervention in Chile…or in 2004 in Haiti where the US engineered a coup against the popularist Aristae government under the guise of humanitarian relief.

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Libyan No-Fly Zone

Posted by Don McLenaghen on March 18, 2011

Peace Prize Roulette

Last week we talked about the popular uprising in Libya and the possibility that world powers would erect a no-fly zone over Libya to level the battle field between the heavily armed forces of Gadhafi and those of the newly recognized government in Benghazi. I mentioned that the US (and any western power) was in a kind of catch 22 – they enforce the no-fly zone and people says it’s another attempt by the west to secure Arab oil (although the Arab League last Saturday announced its support for the zone)…or they don’t and people say that the west doesn’t care if ‘brown people’ die.

Well, as it turns out there is an international law…well a UN protocol, that provides support for the UN to enforce a no-fly zone provided it meets certain criteria, called The Responsibility to Protect[1]. It has three main clauses[2]:

A State has a responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing (mass atrocities).

If the State is unable to protect its population on its own, the international community has a responsibility to assist the state by building its capacity. This can mean building early warning capabilities, mediating conflicts between political parties, strengthening the security sector, mobilizing standby forces, and many other actions.

If a State is manifestly failing to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures are not working, the international community has the responsibility to intervene at first diplomatically, then more coercively, and as a last resort, with military force.

So, the first one says, a state has the responsibility not to kill large portions of its own population, the second one states that if a state needs help to prevent the killing of large portions of its population, the international community may step in to help. Lastly, when a state is killing large portions of its own population, the international community has the responsibility to protect that population from its own government. It seems clear, to me at least, that this is the situation in Libya; that although it may look bad, lives are being lost and the world has the responsibility to act.

Okay, that’s the political speech…now let’s get skeptical. First, the rules claim genocide or ethnic cleansing…is this the case? Well, Libya is very tribal and the fighting does appear to be along largely tribal lines, however there does not appear to be any attempt to ‘remove or kill an ethnic group from a geographical area’. It’s factional fighting but so far, limited to combat and political reprisals, but not genocide.

Okay, what about crimes against humanity?

The cost of delay...

What are crimes against humanity[3]…simply they are acts that violate basic human rights on a grand scale. Acts, such as murder, committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population. Acts reach the threshold of crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice. They are NOT sporadic or isolated…that is a few people here or there have their human rights violated is a bad thing but only when it is a large population does it qualify as a crime. I am unclear if Libya qualifies, well at least for this current event, because crimes against humanity are largely assessed in times of peace or occupation; neither seems to be completely applicable here. Yet the ICC has made precedent that it does qualify.

Okay, what about war crimes?

What IS the law of war is not well defined. The best example I could find is International Humanitarian Law[4]…the Geneva conventions for those of us not law professors. Of these the only one that seemed applicable was: Captured combatants and civilians must be protected against acts of violence and reprisals. Now some, including myself, are not sure if the rules of warfare apply to civil wars but there is historical precedent. The breakup of Yugoslavia resulted in charges of war crimes in the world court. UN war crimes tribunal has charged Charles Taylor for civil-war war crimes and the International Criminal Court (ICC) currently has indicted 11 people for civil-war type war crimes. Based on the ICC, it seems both War Crimes and Crimes against humanity have occurred in Libya thus making active intervention necessary.

Now this must be limited to the idea of responsibility to protect; that is intervention to stop mass killing and then to step back and allow ‘civil and democratic’ process to resolve the conflict. Failures in the past can be traced to three main faults: one, delaying action to the point where intervention served no purpose (the damage was already done…this I fear is what is currently happening in Libya); two, too little intervention so that crimes can still persist (this is what happened in Iraq in the 90’s, where intervention served only to make the life of the civilians worse and solidify the control of the dictatorship); and third, too much intervention (this is what happened in Iraq in 2k3; where instead of stopping crimes, the ‘coalition’ attempted to replace the government with one of their own making).

Lost Opportunity

Currently the delays and inaction by the UN (which was always going to be handicapped by anti-interventionist nations like China and Russia), NATO (which has a moral responsibility but technically Libya is outside its jurisdiction) and the Arab League (which lacks the ability to enforce a no-fly zone) makes it all the more likely that the totalitarian regime of Gadhafi will re-assert itself over Libya (likely leading to a genocide of those tribes that supported the revolution). Although legal issues made this delay likely and politics made it inevitable, it strikes me as a sad indictment of the so-called ‘moral democracies’ that we hide behind technicalities while allowing

Proving Critics Right

thousands of people to die…who died in the name of democracy. The USA…NATO…and yes, as ineffectual as it may have been, even Canada has a prime opportunity to show the world that it could use military force to defend the principle it CLAIMS to be defending in Iraq and Afghanistan…defend them in a meaningful and useful way; instead the opportunity may have slipped through our Noble Peace Prize winning (why again did Obama win?) ‘leader of the free world’ hands and the world is much worse place because of it.

<UPDATE>

The UN has just approved a No-Fly Zone and Canada IS sending planes to help…that is good but was it too late?

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A taxing issue

Posted by Don McLenaghen on November 17, 2010

In the shadow of the elections victories of the Tea Party in the US election and the recent announcement of our own Campbell government here in BC to both cut income taxes while implementing a user fee for hospital stays, I thought it would be educational to take a sceptical look at taxes and in particular tax breaks.

Taxes have been a widely used tool by governments to punish ‘sin’ (in the form of alcohol and tobacco taxes) and to promote investment (in the form of tax holidays or credits like the capital gains tax). I am not going to get too partisan here. There are valid arguments on all sides about what are appropriate taxes and at what level those taxes should be – that is a discussion for a different day and perhaps a different show. What I would like to investigate here are two things: first that cutting taxes increases tax revenue (this was called Voodoo economics by G. Bush Sr., trickle-down economics by others but economist refer to this broadly as supply-side economics) and second that tax cuts are always good.

I shall address the former first. For those of us who had access to an US media source (or those who can remember any recent political campaign) every politician was promising to cut taxes; when asked how they would pay for these tax cuts, they would either respond by saying tax cuts cost nothing or they said they will reduce spending…when asked what spending, they would say something like “that fat in the system” or “improved efficiencies” – IE they would not cut anything. For example they often say they will cut “ear-marks’, but this only accounts for $3 billion out of a budget of $3.6+ trillion (with a deficit of $1.7 trillion)…or 0.08% of budget (0.17%  of deficit).

It seems popular among voters across the political spectrum. However, the recent dual announcements of our local government show the reality of the situation. Campbell announces a popular across the board tax cut of 15%. This applies to rich and poor alike (although not equally, but again that’s a different show*). This equates to a loss of over half a billion dollars a year. That is money the government will not have to provide services…like hospital beds. The government also recently announced a user fee on hospital rooms amounting to over $200 a week. Who is going to make up for the loss in tax revenues? The sick.

Environics Poll 2007

Now don’t get me wrong, maybe we are all happy with that, but most people when asked the question do they want to cut public spending (especially healthcare), they say no…in fact it is one of the few areas people show an innate socialist tendency.

Just to put the two into perspective, the median family will save about $350 a year in taxes.  The average hospital stay for an individual is 3-10 days (depending largely on age)…that’s a fee cost of $87 to $290 (and for those of you who say “well most people will not be in hospital that long” just remember that makes the fee even more onerous because it WILL effect most those who are suffering most and likely least like to afford it).

Okay, my math may be a little dodgy (mainly due to the lack of accurate numbers for ‘average hospital’ stay or the myriad of different income/fee/taxes an individual will pay) but the point should still be obvious. The hospital fee was not to pay for the tax cut but add in the added cost of medical insurance premiums[1], camping fees[2], transit fees[3], licence fees[4], tuition[5] and so on you will get there. (for those of us old enough, we remember when ‘user fee’ was a dirty word and the fees that did exist were token…not any more).

Cost of Bush's tax cuts

The point I am getting at, is if we want social services we have to pay for them as a society. That means when someone yells “tax cuts” remember they are also saying “cut services”. Maybe something you are comfortable with…maybe not but that is the reality of it. I was going to go on to talk about the wisdom of providing robust social services but that would be straying perhaps outside the bound of a sceptic podcast so we shall stop here and address the second point.

Many have claimed, largely Republicans and Monetarists, that cutting taxes increases tax revenue. On the surface this sounds paradoxical; however there is a shred of logic to be found. The idea, goes that if you cut taxes, those who have more money will invest in the economy, the economy grows, from this larger tax base you collect more absolute dollars even though the rate is lower. The idea works in reverse as well; increasing the tax rate will cause a contraction of the economy and a reduction in absolute dollars.

Often the example of the Reagan Revolution is used to prove this point…i.e. that it works in practice. However this is a flawed claim. As many modern economists have shown[6], including noble prize winner Paul Klugmen, the Reagan tax cuts did not improve the US economy and actually made government finances worse.

It is true the US economy grew fast from 1983-89 however this is in contrast to the miasma of the severe recession of 81-2. Capitalist markets are cyclical, and this was not an unusual recovery. Private savings, something supply-side economics assumes from the masses to provide the capital for investment, continues to decline throughout the decade (7.8->4.8%). Meaning, the money for the recovery, as it was, came from spending savings and increasing personal debt. Finally, this trend is echoed in the US budget; when Reagan came to office the US debt as a % of GDP was 32.5%, when Bush Sr. left it was 66.1%. Clinton, who raised taxes, brought the rate down to 56.4%. The same happened in Canada, when we increased taxes in the 90’s and went from the ‘basket-case’ nation to arguably the country with the most stable finances.

Lastly, the multiplier effect. Not all tax cuts are equal. Tax cuts cost money; those who claim that it is not should ‘not’ collect their next pay-check and see if it costs them money. So, the current desire of governments everywhere is stimulus. When the government (or anyone really) spends money it has what is called, a multiplier effect on the economy; that is for every “Y” dollars spent it generates Y*x (or Y’) in the economy. So, if I give you a dollar and you burn it, which generates no activity in the economy, in fact it removes the dollar from circulation so has a negative multiplier effect. Now most people will spend it or ‘invest’ it (be it real investments or just in your bank account) and they have a positive effect; that is they generate more than a dollars worth of economic activity. The best way to think about this is if you spend the dollar, the merchant sells more, can now hire a new employee, and we will in turn make more dollars and spend them; the new employee generates the new value. An economist could spin a better story, but I think you get the gist of it – the one dollar generates more than a dollar of economic activity.

Relative stimulus effect

Having given the background, how do tax cuts fair as stimulus[7]? In general, every dollar of tax cuts generates $1.30 of economic activity compared to a dollar spent on increasing UI benefits would generate $1.62 or increasing food stamps generates $1.74. There is also the issue of WHO to give the cut to. Lower income people spend (out of necessity) every penny they make so a cut in their taxes (thanks to HST we ALL pay taxes even the poorest) will generate the most activity but they latterly also have the least money (the bottom 50% of household control about 3% of Canadian wealth). As you move to the other extreme, the very wealthy often ‘invest’ most of their tax cuts (earning more than they need), so less activity generated but because they make more money a big bang (the top 10% own around 58.2% of the nation’s wealth[8] in the USA its 1% owning 35%). However, in a global world, it is most likely their investments will be ‘trans-national’ or outside ‘our’ economy and thus lost completely to the system – complete fizzle.

Society, of course, is not only extremes but a lopsided slope of ‘everything-in-between’ (note percentages of wealth ownership mentioned earlier) otherwise it would be easy to define tax policy; the trick is to determine both purpose (stimulate consumption, promote manufacturing, decrease inflation) and effectiveness. History has given us lessons to learn from and one a sceptical economist should be able to apply.

<From Episode #88 of Radio Free Thinker>

[1]British Columbia Medical Services Plan Premium Increase Notice
[2]BC April fee increases
[3]Ibid
[4]BC Gov 2010 fee increase
[5]BC Gov tuition increases
[6]Supply-Side Economics Debunked – TYT
[7] Recovery Ac
[8] Inequality in Canada

* By this i mean 15% of $100k = $18k while 15% of roughly the median income, $50k = $7.5k. So, the tax applies the same but the benefit is very unequal.

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Best little Whore House….pt 2

Posted by Don McLenaghen on October 20, 2010

In part 1, we discussed the legality around the court challenge and took a sceptical look at the court ruling. Now we will look at the issue itself – should brothels be legalized.

Now there are two questions to be asked. IF prostitution is innately wrong (be it for moral, gender equality or other reasons) then the law should outlaw prostitution (a position I oppose but will save that argument for another day). It seems to be the current ‘will of the people’ see prostitution as just another trade/occupation; that it is not innately wrong – as such it is currently legal in Canada. Those who disagree with this are welcome to change the minds of Canadians (with rational empirical evidence of course) but this is a straw man argument against brothels themselves.

As a society, we accept prostitution as a valid and legal profession; that said we can agree that prostitution as currently practiced can lead to situation where workers are subjugated to violence, theft and coercion. The second question then is: how can we make the sex-trade safer for ‘participants’ (workers and clients) and ‘law abiding’? The striking down of these laws was a step in that direction.

As long as prostitution is legal (and even if it were not) there will be brothels…they are convenient for the client and desired among the workers (re: testimony). So, under which condition – legal vs. illegal – are brothels more likely to be positive environments or negative environment?

If there are illegal, there is NO opportunity for civil officials – be it law enforcement, medical or social – to interact with the workers to ensure their safety or security.

If they are illegal there are, by definition, run by criminals. The criminal element is by its nature more likely to abuse it workers…it is also likely to be involved in other ‘subsidiary’ illegal activities such as drug dealing. This is dangerous not only to the workers who will be more likely forced into conditions of dependency but also the harm to the community.

If they are illegal, the workers are discouraged from working in ‘safe’ neighbourhoods and self-incriminate if they contact authorities to report abuses. The communication law, also forces workers to work in isolates unsafe environments.

IF they are legal (AND regulated), civic officials can ensure safe work environments, provide outreach for those suffering from addiction and ensure the business operates both within the law and also pays its share of taxes.

IF they are legal, those operating the businesses will be business men (although I personal see the capitalism as a criminal, current society does not). They will have, as all legal entrepreneurs, an interest to uphold to the law, ensure they deal with their employees in a legal and fair way and provide an amiable environment for their cliental. They will be active positive members of the community, paying taxes and protecting their investments.

IF they are legal, those working in the brothels can call upon the resources of the state for protection from abuse, to help ensure a safe and respectful work environment and not worry if they require assistance from the authorities they will themselves be criminalized.

Now, there other issues involved in the sex trade – notable child prostitution and human trafficking (sex slaves). These issues will not be exacerbated but the legalization of brothels; if anything they will be hampered. If a brothel employs ‘honest’ prostitutes, they will be more likely to ‘whistle blow’ on brothels where illegal activity (like child or slave labour) is occurring. Making brothels legal will not make child-sex legal nor will it encourage human trafficking. In fact it will decrease the available avenues these activities will be able to operate as most sex work becomes above-board.

Fair dinkum, I am not saying that legalizing brothels will end violence to prostitutes…magically illuminate the criminal pimp…stop human trafficking or bring to an end child prostitution. What I am saying is by making this, like prostitution, legitimate you will shed a light on the business and drives out most of the negative elements…make it more likely that workers will get counselling for addiction and medical attention. There will be a selective pressure promoting safe brothels because the vast majority of their clients also want an safe and clean environment.

Ultimately, those who claim they worry about the safety of sex works are against these laws being struck down seem contradictory. They believe even if we legalize brothels some will still remain ‘underground’ and some will remain in the hands of violent and/or criminal pimps. Even if that were true, all I can say is I don’t understand how limiting the number of legit venues for prostitutes will make them safer? How is keeping brothels, ALL brothels in the hands of criminal gangs helping to make them safer? No, these laws needed to be struck down and a reasonable set of regulations put in their place. 

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Update: The Census

Posted by Don McLenaghen on August 12, 2010

Recently Stockwell Day said that the Harper conservatives will push ahead with its plan to spend the government will go ahead with its plan to spend billions for new prisons. To support this spending, he states that the number of ‘unreported’ crimes is on the increase and that therefore the number of crimes must also be increasing. This in spite of the fact that StatsCan shows that both the number of crimes are going down as well as the ‘severity of crime’. Severity of crime is a relatively new calculation to compensate for the fact that its possible for the total number of crimes to go down while the number of ‘violent’ or sever crimes rise.

Stockwell said that statistics that show crime is declining in Canada are not accurate. A not so subtle shot at the long form census. He also questioned the value of information gathered by the census, suggesting data older than a year is “untenable in today’s information age.

However, when pressed to provide a source for his “unreported” crime numbers, his office a few days after the news conference sites StatsCan’s survey on “National Victimization”…a survey done every 5 years….the last one, and the apparent source of Stockwell’s info, was done in 2006…more than a year ago.

One can think the conservative government was trying to instill fear in our society this this kind of press conference because that same survey showed that most, as in 80-90+ % were satisfied with the police, the judiciary and the prison system. In a related international ‘victimization” survey, StatsCan also showed that relative to other western democracies, we are better off than England but worse than France and in all categories were around average.

Another note on this, Harper has complained that the fines were too high (for the record, it is only $1000, and not the $5,000 we incorrectly reported last time nor the $10,000 the Harper government erroneous repeats).If the fines are too high or jail is too radical, why not maintain the long form census and just change/reduce the penalties?

I think we are seeing a pattern here. I find it hard to believe the conservatives are willing to take this political hit to satisfy their libertarian supported, there just is not enough of them in Canada to make if worth while. However, by illuminating an ‘independent and unimpeachable’ source of data, passing law for ideological and rational reasons becomes easier.

In response to the almost universal condemnation of abandoning the long form census and (the far more motivational) legal action by francophone and Acadia groups (who fear a loss of services due to the switch to a inaccurate voluntary survey) Minister Clement has added three question to the survey. These questions ask about the language of the survey taker.

IF you want to read more, the CBC (in this case imitating WikiLeaks), has a dump of docs about the debate and more importantly the lead up to the resignation of the head of StatsCan.
<part one>
<part two>

Also, i came across this article that stated that some people did actually get fined for not filling-out the census, although it unclear if it is the short or long from.

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Why WikiLeaks.org is important

Posted by Don McLenaghen on August 1, 2010

Our world is run by an elite! No, i do not mean the illuminati, nor the Free Mason and not even the Republicans…no i am referring to the millions of civil servant, politicians and government contractors who run our government and provide the services we expect and need. By and large these people do good and are necessary however by virtue of their position they have extraordinary power to do things, cover thing up, and mislead the public.

Now, as many of you know from listening to the show i am a big fan and big government (united we stand-divide we are subjugated) however that good-will is not dogmatic. I understand that bureaucracies can create situation of corruption and incompetence and that the citizens must be vigilant. How can we be vigilant? By being informed!

WikiLeaks.org has been in the news many time during its long (for the internet) history. The latest flaring of interest was the release of over 15,000 document(01) (out of a reported cache of 91,000+); first to the press (the UK’s Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel and the American New York Times); then to the public (synchronized to be released the same day the press printed their articles on the documents). The New York times even reviewed the documents with the Pentagon to ensure not to “put lives at risk or jeopardize”(02) and although not happy, the Pentagon gave its approval to the New York Times.

Reaction to the “Afghan war diaries”(03) has been mixed. The European press focusing on the loss of innocent life. Noting a number of the reports showing people being killed simply driving too close. Their view of the documents has largely been positive. The US reaction has been a predictable mix. The progressive news groups (such as Democracy Now!(04)) have praised the leaks as a necessary check for a democracy and condemning the unnecessary civilian deaths. The popular press focused more on the ties between the Pakistani secrete service and government with the Taliban. Oddly enough, it was the NPR (National Public Radio, kinda the radio version of PBS) which has spent a lot its time covering the debate about the ethicacy(05) and reliability(06) of releasing the documents themselves and trying to discredit the documents.

WikiLeaks.org was also at the heart of another controversial relies of a video showing how an American helicopter gunship gunned down a a couple of Routers News staff, a family and several people (some attempting to give medical assistance to the father and his children). Altogether 18 people were killed. Original reports of the incident cited the reported where with ‘insurgence with small arm and a rocket propelled grenade’(08). Although legal action against the soldiers involved was never takes because the incident was reported as a ‘misunderstanding’, after the video release many have called for the investigation to be reopened because the video evidence implies it was not simply an accidental murder. <see the video>

WikiLeaks.org describes itself as “a multi-jurisdictional public service designed to protect whistle-blowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public”. They participate in what they call “principled leaking”, that is they do not just allow any crackpots to post things, there is a process where information that is posted is vetted to ensure its authenticity. There is also, where ethically necessary, redaction to ensure the personal safety of innocence. For example in the latest release of documents, the names of individuals (including informants and sources) were redacted to protect their lives.

In the past, WikiLeaks is responsible for the release of email from Sarah Palin’s private Yahoo account showing she was doing government business on her private account. Why is this important? She was breaking the law by evade public record laws intended to prevent political corruption(09). They were were also pivotal in publicizing the illegal treatment of Gito detainees(10), and The Minton report about illegal toxic waste dumping of the Ivory Coast by multinational corporation Trafigura(11). It has even successfully taken on Scientology(12). Of course its not all “lefty” stuff, they were also pivotal in the publishing of the Climate Gate emails; which i personal did not like but acknowledge that we did not know there was no ‘wrong-doing’ in the climate science community until this release. Leaks shed light on both the bad and the good.

Leaking or whistle-blowing is important because as i said at the beginning there is an elite with extraordinary powers and they have and will keep information from the public. Sometimes this coverup is for nefarious reasons dealing with corruption, sometimes to hide incompetence but other times it is to ensure a ‘correct’ message provide to the people to ensure government policy is received well. Leaking sheds light on these activities and makes them harder to perpetrate.

Why is this important to skeptics? As a skeptic we want to make rational informed decision. Science is a self-reenforcing practice that means ‘lies’ will eventually be called out by the scientific method. However political skepticism cannot rely on this mechanism. Political skepticism relies of information that come from ‘non-repeatable’ sources. As such, WikiLeaks.org provide a mechanism to keep thing honest. That reasoning is done with the facts and not just the spin. WikiLeaks is not the truth but a check to balance those who have information not normally available to the masses…information often required to be a good political skeptic.

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