Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Carleton's Free Speech Wall 2.0

Version 2.0 of Carleton's Free Speech Wall (torn down and then re-erected yesterday) looks to me like people have an awful lot to say and are happy to have somewhere to say it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Safe spaces and speech on campus

Yesterday Carleton Students for Liberty set up a "free speech wall" - large sheets of paper on which people could write anything they'd like. The idea is to get people thinking about speech and encourage (ironically, given what's happened) a safe space for all points of view to be expressed.

Carleton Free Speech Wall 1: Photo by Matt Bufton
Last night, a student named Arün Séamus Surinder Smith tore down the wall, a moral imperative, he claims, in order to create safe space on campus. You can read his reasoning here if you'd like, but the idea (I think) is that free speech is antithetical to the existence of safe space on campus because people may write something offensive and because "liberty requires liberation." So he tore down the wall.

It is clear from Mr. Surinder Smith's (I think - apologies to him if I have his surname wrong) note that for him the world is a small, closed and scary place where he and other vulnerable groups are constantly under attack. There is no need to be angry at someone like this. I urge Carleton Students for Liberty to re-erect the wall and encourage those who sympathise with the need to tear it down to participate along with everybody else. I don't think asking CUSA to punish those opposing the wall will be constructive, but inviting engagement might be.

The beautiful thing about liberty is that it does not need violence to accomplish its goals. We don't need to destroy anything to start a conversation, we only need to invite people to join us.

Update: Not only was the paper wall torn down, but the frame of the wall was destroyed and removed. Carleton SFL is a group of students with scarce resources and the free speech wall is funded by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. You can join me and donate to help fund re-erecting the wall - as many times as it takes.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Four years of President Obama

Four years ago today, Barack Obama was sworn into office as President of the United States. I don't think any non-partisans expected much in the way of fiscal austerity from the President, but there was still hope some things would change. Many of us (myself included) thought America's wars in the Middle East would come to an end, that Guantanamo Bay would close, that illegal spying and invasive actions by the government toward Americans (and, you know, visitors) might end and that the federal government would ratchet back the war on pot, if not all drugs. Though it seems silly in hindsight,* I (and many others) even believed that the Obama, as POTUS, would put new measures in place to increase transparency in the White House.

"Sometimes I think a Peace Prize winner shouldn't have a kill list."  

The last four years have been an important lesson in public choice

Obama did move combat (not all) troops out of Iraq, but into Afghanistan. He intervened in Libya. He dramatically ramped up remote killings in Pakistan, where the US is not at war, via drone strikes: the number rose from five in 2007 under Bush II to peak at 117 in 2010 before falling to 46 in 2012 under Obama. These strikes target funerals and other public gatherings, have killed innocents, including children and the American government has dramatically altered the definition of "combatant" to reduce the number of recognized civilian deaths. A generation of Pakistani children in the targeted region are growing up petrified. Their parents are often too worried to send them to school. You could make the argument that America has moved away from war against Al Qaeda, but it has done so by moving into terrorism.

Obama has a institutionalized a Presidential kill list (er... "disposition matrix") that he personally approves, ordering deaths without charge or trial including (so far) assassination of  three American citizens which includes one teenager targeted for the communications he had while trying to find out what happened to his father (also assassinated). 

An act was quickly passed to close Guantanamo Bay, but it remains open and Obama's administration has not moved away from indefinite detention but instead codified it into law. He extended warantless wiretapping. Under Obama the TSA has moved past removing shoes and into invasive pat-downs.

In spite of the President's promise to move away from targeting medical marijuana as a focus in America's war on drugs, the number of raids against medical marijuana dispensaries has increased under his tenure - far beyond anything attempted under Bush II. (If you were familiar with Joe Biden's role in establishing the office of the drug czar, it was a lot harder to be optimistic on this front pre-inauguration, but Obama's promise to stop medical marijuana raids after his inauguration fooled a lot of us.)

His record on transparency has been abysmal - Obama runs perhaps the most secretive administration ever.

Four years ago it was hard for even a political cynic like me to watch the President's inauguration without feeling moved. Little did we know we were in for four (eight?) years of ramping up some of the worst George W. Bush policies. Now there is no excuse for a principled liberal or progressive to support the President without some regret.**

I will not be watching the inaugural address this time around. 

*why would someone in power increase transparency? Silly Janet.
** If you are inflicted with partisanship, it's hard to see how not supporting Obama (and therefore being complicit in a Republican victory) can be OK, but you ought to recognize the harm that comes along with this decision, even if it's taken in spite of it out of a fear that more harm would come from withdrawing support.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Rethinking our fear of foreign food.

This video came to my attention when a dear friend posted it on Facebook. There are a lot of problems with this video but they are not, as you might assume I'm going to say, with the numbers. If you'll indulge me as I get my thoughts in order I'll go through the video step-by-step.

In the first ten seconds a claim is made that most Canadians think of our country as being self-sufficient.  I'm not sure of the validity of this claim, but it's an incredibly anachronistic idea. Why we would want to be self-sufficient? What is the problem with getting our food elsewhere?

I think this concern comes from the gut, and this feeling is what the video exploits. We like the idea of "Canadian" food and goods and we worry over the amount that comes from somewhere else and that something will be wrong with the food - it will be unsafe or they will withhold food from us.

Safety can and is addressed by the requirement that food imported into Canada, like food grown and manufactured in Canada, meets a certain standard of safety before it can be sold here. It's true that some unsafe goods have made it into Canada, but it's also true that we've grown and processed some unsafe food.

The other worry, that foreign countries will deny us food, is a relic of a time when the world was a less peaceful place and we had to worry about just that. In modern times the two biggest world powers - the United States and China - are important trading partners who would have to give up a lot more than they would under self-sufficiency if they tried to go to war. The whole idea behind war for empire building is self-sufficiency and trade has allowed us to move into an era of peace.

The world has moved past having reasons to fear of one another on this level, but our emotions haven't followed suit yet. One way we can help encourage peace is to encourage trade. That doesn't just mean exports - it means imports, too.

So that's the first ten seconds. Don't worry, the first problem was also the most complex.

Next the video presents statistics about how much food Canadians import versus exporting. What, exactly, these statistics represent is hard to say because we're not told how they were measured (and because food value chains are deeply integrated across the North American market, making what qualifies as "Canadian" semantic). Regardless, we certainly import lots of food (like most countries).

Could this be problematic because farming is a job? The number of Canadians working on farms has decreased steadily for a very long time (mostly because of technological improvements, but possibly because of trade as well), while total number of Canadians employed has increased. Empirically, that worry doesn't pan out.

Why do we import things we could grow here? Well, why do California and Florida export oranges to each other? One grows juice oranges and one grows eating oranges. They could each grow both, but there would be fewer oranges and they would spend more growing and processing each orange because they wouldn't be able to take advantage of the efficiencies we get when we grow just one kind and duplicate a lot of machinery. Oranges would be more expensive and, once again, the hardest hit will be the least well off. When the video asks "Is the lower cost of imports worth it?" the answer is, unequivocally, "Yes."

The video brings up the fact that we have less farmland, but what matters is how much land we need to grow our food. We need less farmland because we import more, but we have also been spectacularly successful at farming more food on less land globally. As Mark Lynas recently said in his delightful lecture:
On a global scale, between 1961 and 2010 the area farmed grew by only 12%, whilst kilocalories per person rose from 2200 to 2800. So even with three billion more people, everyone still had more to eat thanks to a production increase of 300% in the same period.
So how much land worldwide was spared in the process thanks to these dramatic yield improvements, for which chemical inputs played a crucial role? The answer is 3 billion hectares, or the equivalent of two South Americas. There would have been no Amazon rainforest left today without this improvement in yields.
Prioritizing how we use our resources and allocating them is one of the most interesting problems facing humanity - one we handle remarkably well, given the sheer number of variables. We haven't made the decisions we've made about where to build cities versus farmland recklessly, as the video implies, simply because we didn't have a high-minded, all-knowing guide directing our actions. (And as Milton Friedman so eloquently asked, "where in the world are we going to find these angels who are going to organize society for us?")

If you want to eat Canadian or local food because it tastes better or because you know the farmer, then you should. If you want to eat the different varieties available when you buy local, fresh food during the summer (the precious few weeks of summer, for most of the country) then do - I know I will. But you shouldn't do it for the reasons in this video.

Videos like this, well-meaning as they may be, demonize policies that have made a wider variety of food more readily available, especially to the poorest Canadians. They are terribly misguided. They should be treated as such.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A belated Thank-You to Dr. James Buchanan.

Dr. James Buchanan passed away last week. I won't try to out-do Tyler Cowan's brief but excellent summary of his accomplishments (I couldn't anyway), but a quick look at them will reveal that he leaves some very large shoes to fill.

Although I did not meet him, it occurred to me this morning as I was milling about that I owe him a thank you.

For several years after first identifying as a libertarian I fell into a trap that so many of us do: I felt as though we are surrounded with conspiring, possibly evil statists in power paired with willfully ignorant people who were content to leech of the state (akin to Rand's "moochers"), feelings bolstered by residual tribalism from years in politics. When I encountered people with whom I disagreed I would try to come up with witticisms and uncomfortable facts designed to put my opponents, as I thought of them, into the position of realizing they must be capable of supporting something abhorrent with their beliefs. I surely drove people away in the process.

And then I attended a Fraser Institute/Liberty Fund co-sponsored seminar on public choice economics, the rationale behind which is that we should treat everyone the same when it comes to understanding how they make decisions, whether it's in the market, in politics or anywhere else. (You can read more about this and why it's important in Steve Horwitz's recent column.) During this seminar I had a moment of clarity.

If bureaucrats and politicians (who are the most evil of all if you are an Angry Libertarian) are just people responding to incentives, it changes everything. No one is evil. People are just people - none of them are angels, none devils.

Realizing this allowed me to make a drastic change in my outlook on life. The presumption of good, impossible if evil people are the reason for our problems, allows me to see that we are all looking for ways to make the world better - we just have different ways of understanding our problems and trying to solve them. Intelligent, good people disagree about all sorts of things.

This has made the world a much less scary, hostile place for me. It has helped me to empathize with people I disagree with and allowed me to spend my time trying to understand them better rather than trying to figure out how to "trick" them into liberty.It has allowed me to become a better person.

So thank you, Dr. Buchanan, for developing the insights that helped make my world a more peaceful, miraculous and beautiful place for me. The best way I can repay that is to keep trying to bridge the gaps with those with whom I disagree, and I intend to do just that.