Bruce Guenter's Thoughts

Random musings about stuff that crosses my path.

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Tuesday, April 3rd

Exxon Mobil's pocket earnings

I regularly read PolitiFact* to cut through a little of the baloney that US politicians regularly spew. I frequently have issues with some of their ratings, particularly the use of the US Congressional Budget Office as an objective source on financial reality, however that's not the subject of today's letter.

Their recent article* on Exxon's earnings prompted this letter. More accurately, one word in the article got me bothered, and that's the use of "pocketed".

Read more.

Bruce on 04.03.12 @ 12:48 PM CST [link] [1 Comment]

Tuesday, February 14th

No Right to Complain, Apparently

Letter to the Saskatoon StarPhoenix:

In the comment entitled "You voted for this" (SP Feb 8 2012*), Nick Henselmeier tells seniors they got what they deserved because they voted for the Conservatives.

Read more.

Bruce on 02.14.12 @ 08:41 AM CST [link] [3 Comments]

Sunday, February 5th

Economic Ills and So-called Austerity

Letter to the Saskatoon StarPhoenix:

In the article, "Economic Ills" (SP Feb 4, 2012*), the argument is presented that austerity budgeting in Britain in particular has made their economic situation much more painful and enduring. I am curious however how Paul Krugman, and by proxy the Star Phoenix editorial board, can justify the claim that Britain has pursued any kind of austerity budget.

Read more.

Bruce on 02.05.12 @ 10:34 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Thursday, October 27th

Democratic Right to Mob Rule

Recently both the CWB ("Wheat board takes federal 'bullies' to court", Winnipeg Free Press, Oct 26 *, and "Wheat board sues federal government" CBC Oct 26 *) and its supporters ("Shameful move", SP Oct 27*) have claimed that abolishing the CWB's monopoly on grain sales goes against our democratic rights.

Read more.

Bruce on 10.27.11 @ 07:04 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Kingly Dreams

It has been frequently asserted, as Russell Lahti has done ("Peasant dreams"*, SP Oct 26) that "the standard of living for most of us has been declining". Indeed, if you compare the incomes of the richest households to the incomes to the poorest households, there is a growing division, but that's a very misleading statistic to look at. Yes, the rich are getting richer (and this is both good and bad), but the rest of us are hardly in decline.

Read more.

Bruce on 10.27.11 @ 06:31 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Tuesday, October 4th

Cuban Health Propaganda Takes In Another Believer

Letter to the Saskatoon StarPhoenix:

It appears Mark Lemstra (Cuba's health results better at fraction of cost, SP Sept 29*) has fallen for the public statistics the Cuban ministry of health puts out and hasn't dug any deeper into the reality of Cuban misery.

Read more.

Bruce on 10.04.11 @ 01:30 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Wednesday, September 21st

Das Kapital and Exchange Values

I've been slowly reading Das Kapital (yes, that* one, by Marx, or at least an English translation*) much to the astonishment of my wife and no doubt others. It seems to me that this kind of book can only be read slowly, as the text is quite dense (and occasionally convoluted, though not so bad as Keynes from what I've heard). I expect to have several more posts on this topic as I go through.

Read more.

Bruce on 09.21.11 @ 02:39 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Tuesday, May 24th

Exxon villainized again

Letter to the Star Phoenix.

Update: Published as Oil profit sharing. Too bad they didn't correct the (admittedly small) typo in the industry average figure after I told them about it.

Read more.

Bruce on 05.24.11 @ 11:11 AM CST [link] [No Comments]

Friday, May 13th

Oil Company Profit Hypocrisy

The unnamed Star Phoenix writers have opined, quite correctly, that there is nothing politicians can do about gas prices. There are indeed many factors driving gas prices up, all of which politicians can either do nothing about or only make worse. Unfortunately, the writers also chose to repeat the myth that profits made by oil companies are "skyrocketing".

Read more.

Bruce on 05.13.11 @ 09:50 AM CST [link] [No Comments]

Thursday, April 28th

Right Invasion

For many years, many on the right (or at least those rallying behind the Republicans) have echoed behind the often quoted words of Ronald Reagan1:

The nine most dangerous words in the English language are "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

Read more.

Bruce on 04.28.11 @ 12:07 AM CST [link] [No Comments]

Thursday, April 7th

Disturbed Hyprocrites

I usually listen to the radio when I drive around by myself. Recently I heard a remake of the Genesis classic "Land of Confusion" by a metal band. I was curious, so I looked it up online.

The remake is done by the band Disturbed. While the remake is not particularly notable -- it sounds pretty much like what you'd expect for a metal remake -- it is well done and I enjoyed listening to it. However, where it gets interesting is in the music video.

Read more.

Bruce on 04.07.11 @ 06:31 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Friday, March 18th

"Anti-government" and biased reporting

While listening to CBC radio today, there was a report about the anti-government protesters in Yemen. The implication is that the people are protesting against being governed. In reality, they are demanding simply a change in government, not an absence of it.

This raises an interesting bit of media political bias, though.

Search for "yemen anti-government protests": 2,930,000 hits. Search for "yemen protests": 5,890,000 hits (all counts from Google). So, roughly 50% of the hits on the Yemen protests mention "anti-government".

However, substitute "Wisconsin" for "Yemen" and the situation changes: 2,150,000 out of 10,700,000 hits mention "anti-government", a rate of only 20%

Clearly, the people in Wisconsin are protesting against the current government, and would be happier with different governance (ie pro-union support). So why are the protests in Yemen (and Egypt, and Libya) reported as more anti-government than the protests in Wisconsin?
Bruce on 03.18.11 @ 04:38 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Wednesday, March 16th

Rent Control, part 1

The idea of rent control has been in the news a lot recently. I think some questionable assumptions have been left unquestioned, and I want to put at least the biggest one of them to rest.

Read more.

Bruce on 03.16.11 @ 07:07 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Tuesday, March 15th

Foolish doctors

In the CTV article "Drug to prevent preterm birth goes from $10 to $1,500" (Associated press), the authors write:

The price of preventing preterm labour is about to go through the roof.

A drug for high-risk pregnant women has cost about $10 to $20 per injection. Next week, the price shoots up to $1,500 a dose, meaning the total cost during a pregnancy could be as much as $30,000.

That's because the drug, a form of progesterone given as a weekly shot, has been made cheaply for years, mixed in special pharmacies that custom-compound treatments that are not federally approved.

But recently, KV Pharmaceutical of suburban St. Louis won government approval to exclusively sell the drug, known as Makena. The March of Dimes and many obstetricians supported that because it means quality will be more consistent and it will be easier to get.

None of them anticipated the dramatic price hike, though -- especially since most of the cost for development and research was shouldered by others in the past.

What exactly did you expect? You lobbied the government to grant the company a complete monopoly on selling this drug, and they reacted to maximize their profit.

What incentive do they have to keep the price low? After all they're apparently "spending hundreds of millions of dollars in additional research".

Ostensibly this is all required to deal with quality control problems. However, "Aetna's Armstrong said she was unaware of any quality concerns."

Not that they have a choice: Last month, KV sent cease-and-desist letters to compounding pharmacies, telling them they could face FDA enforcement actions if they kept making the drug.

In an ironic coincidence, the previous day CTV also noted that "MPs pass generic drug bill after push from K'naan"

The changes would permit generic drug makers to manufacture patent-protected medications and ship them to specific developing countries. The generic manufacturers would also not be required to obtain a permit each time they wished to produce and ship a drug.

The drugs affected are those used to treat malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, among other illnesses. The bill could help millions of people in Africa who can't afford life-saving medications.

Too bad they couldn't apply the same logic to millions of people in North America that would have their lives improved with some of the same and other life-saving medications. If Makena referenced above was kept as a generic, how many more of the estimated 130,000 women would get it that won't now.

In other words, how many babies did this federally approved monopoly kill or maim?
Bruce on 03.15.11 @ 11:06 AM CST [link] [No Comments]

Monday, December 20th

More (on) Imports

It seems this issue of import restrictions is quite popular. Since posting a pair of rebuttals to a political idea by J. Michael Straczynski, I've read numerous other takes on the idea that back up it being a bad idea.

Read more.

Bruce on 12.20.10 @ 08:43 AM CST [link] [No Comments]

Tuesday, December 14th

J. Michael Straczynski's politics

J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, of which I am a big fan, recently posted a political idea. Sadly, the core of the plan rests on two popular myths, making it rather misconceived.

(Updated with a response from JMS)

Read more.

Bruce on 12.14.10 @ 12:16 AM CST [link] [No Comments]

Monday, December 6th

Consulting Government

On the CBC The World at Six program on December 6 2010 (podcast link) was an article about the increasing use of consultants in government offices. In the closing phrases of the spiel describing why they are desirable, the reporter let drop a startling revelation.

Read more.

Bruce on 12.06.10 @ 08:29 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Tuesday, November 23rd

Left Unsaid

Letter to the Saskatoon StarPhoenix:

I appreciated Les Macpherson's commentary in today's StarPhoenix about an interview with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

The two most objectionable things, however, in Oliver's call for government regulation over our diet are what is left unsaid: First, that we are too dumb to regulate our own diet, and second, that the bureaucrats on Parliament Hill have a moral right to tell us what and how much we are allowed to eat and, further, to fine, arrest, and imprison those who disagree.

Update: Published as "Tough to swallow"
Bruce on 11.23.10 @ 07:40 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Thursday, November 4th

Who Owns It?

Twice in the past few of weeks, I have read columnists in the StarPhoenix state that "We own Saskatchewan's potash". In both cases, these statements have been written by self avowed free-enterprise proponents.

In both cases, I say: "Shame on you!"

Read more.

Bruce on 11.04.10 @ 04:57 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Friday, August 6th

Krugman at odds with reality

In the editorial, Experts at odds with Wall's call on stimulus cuts (SP Aug 4), the writers appeal to the authority of two columnists to criticize Brad Wall's suggestions.

Read more.

Bruce on 08.06.10 @ 06:48 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Monday, February 8th

This is remaining open to scrutiny?

The StarPhoenix editorial entitled "Remaining open to scrutiny keeps science credible", says that "Skepticism and criticism is the way science grows."

Am I the only one that finds it beyond ironic that the same article labels those would scrutinize climate science reports as "denying climate change"?

Read more.

Bruce on 02.08.10 @ 03:38 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Friday, January 29th

The thing about creating jobs

Just the other day, a so-called economist from one of our big five banks was indicating he now estimated there would be 100,000 jobs created in 2010. Well, I'm starting to get a little irked with this notion of "job creation".

Read more.

Bruce on 01.29.10 @ 01:35 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Wednesday, December 2nd

Would you say this survey is good, poor, or ...

So, I'm on a couple of survey panels, and sometimes the questions leave me scratching my head how I can possibly answer them accurately. Particularly the political ones.

Today, a survey asks me: "Thinking about Saskatchewan, would you say these services are good or poor? Lottery and gaming..."

Well, I think the government is way overinvolved in lottery and gaming (and most if not all other services too). So, that would rate as "very poor". However, that would most likely be interpreted as meaning as wanting more government involvement in lottery and gaming. So then I should answer "very good". But it isn't very good.

Bruce on 12.02.09 @ 11:11 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Thursday, October 22nd

Voting Grumpy

In a week, our city will have held their triennial elections. In preparation, the city has mailed out pamphlets saying that "YOUR VOTE COUNTS". Unfortunately, I don't see any way to make my vote count the way I want it to.

Read more.

Bruce on 10.22.09 @ 06:14 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Wednesday, April 15th

Unbridled and Unregulated Capitalism?

I am fed up with people repeating the meme that the current financial problems have been caused by "unbridled" or "unregulated" capitalism. See here, here, here, and here for just a few such articles, which are repeated ad nauseum in comments all over the place.

Oh, please! This is complete and unvarnished baloney.

North America, and the USA in particular, has not seen anything resembling unregulated capitalism in at least 100 years, if ever. Truely unbridled or unregulated capitalism would have no rules imposed on it by the government, but I doubt that has ever been true anywhere in the world.

The USA has minimum wage laws, public services, zoning laws, the Federal Reserve System, the FDA, the EPA, the USDA, the TTB, Fair Housing, the FDIC, the FTC, and many, many more.

Leave aside for a moment the arguments over whether or not these rules are beneficial or not. With all these thousands of pages of regulations prescribing what businesses must and must not do, added to many government sponsored entities adding false competition to the economy, it is far from the truth that North America is experiencing "unregulated" anything.

Please stop this myth!
Bruce on 04.15.09 @ 02:09 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Thursday, February 19th

Fun with misleading statistics

An article on today warns that "One-fifth of childhood injuries happen at school". Because of this, they recommend that "more adult supervision may be needed".

While I don't disagree that adult supervision is necessarily a bad thing, let's look at the reality of the numbers.

In Saskatoon at least, children attend school from 9:00AM until 3:30AM. Many also play before and after school, but let's assume they don't. That amounts to 6.5 hours per day, 5 days a week, for a total of 32.5 hours a week at school. There are a total of 168 hours in a week. Do the math, and that means children are at school for 19.3% of the time, or just under one-fifth, in total.

But it gets better. Let's assume the children get eight hours of sleep per day. This will vary, of course, but it's probably a good lower estimate when considering that the younger children sometimes get much more. This adds up to 56 hours a week. Assuming the childhood injuries reported in the article only happen when the children are awake, this leaves 112 hours a week during which the injuries can occur. Of those hours, children spend about 30% of their time at school.

Now also consider that schools have both organized physical activity programs (aka gym class), and unorganized physical activity (recesses). Both of these will necessarily increase the risk for injury, as physical activity is a basic necessary precondition for being injured. On the other hand, while at home some do very little activity that could result in injuries. Those that are active, are frequently in organized sports of various kinds, which help train children in different ways to be active without injury. Actually, being inactive at home probably increases the risk of injury at school, but I have no numbers to back that up.

Given the reality of the statistics, and the physical conditions, I don't find any particular cause for alarm in this "one-fifth" number. If anything, our children are overprotected already -- not necessarily at school, but all over.
Bruce on 02.19.09 @ 12:43 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Monday, December 22nd

Spending or saving?

I don't get it.

We have been told for years if not decades how North America has a minuscule savings rate. How we aren't saving enough. Worse than that, the savings rate is dropping, and has now reached zero or even negative savings in places (meaning that as a whole the group is spending more than it is earning). How this will cause financial problems in the future if the trend is not reversed.

NOW that the predicted financial problems are starting to show, now we are being told we need to spend even more. Not only that, the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Canada are dropping their interest rates into uncharted low territories to induce people to take out loans to spend more.

If a lack of savings was bad, how is this making it better and not worse? Sure, in the short term it means we're spending more money, but in the long term it will make recovery even harder and more painful.
Bruce on 12.22.08 @ 12:44 PM CST [link] [1 Comment]

Friday, November 28th

Bitter economic lessons still not learned

In an article entitled "Bitter economic lessons learned" (Saskatoon StarPhoenix Friday November 28, 2008), Joe Jeerakathil writes regarding the current economic downturn:

The ascendant market fundamentalism, which upheld religiously that an unfettered market left to its own devices will offer the best path to economic nirvana, became the gospel of the Reagan revolution. Uncritical embracing of this orthodoxy led U.S. lawmakers to loosen the role of regulatory bodies in the pretext of promoting easier flow of capital. Wall Street enjoyed a free hand. The result has been the current mess. ... [Economists Keynes and Galbraith] warned the world about the endemic instability of the free market system with its cyclical swings.

Whoah. Not so fast there. Since when has Wall Street enjoyed a truly free hand?

As said in the article, a good deal of the current market troubles are a result of the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage markets. The whole sub-prime mortgage market was created by government telling banks that they must make loans into situations where it did not make economic sense. Then the government told the banks how to package up these sub-prime mortgages into packages with other loans and sell them on the market as if they were high-quality investments. One recent loosening of the regulations on US banks has been widely hailed as reducing the severity of this collapse, even by those who initially opposed it.

Another part of the market troubles come from an artificially low interest rate set by the Federal Reserve. With the interest rate being set for long periods of time lower than
the inflation rate, the fed was effectively giving away money. This has the effect of completely skewing long-term investment and purchasing decisions, leading to overconsumption and excessive debt, both personal and corporate. The cyclical swings cited in the article are a result of the Federal Reserve setting the interest rate different than the natural interest rate.

To paint these problems as a result of a supposedly unfettered free market is extraordinarily misleading.

(If anybody can find an URL that includes the above article, I would be grateful. It is not on the StarPhoenix's web site with most of the other content from Friday's paper.)
Bruce on 11.28.08 @ 03:31 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Thursday, November 27th

Imbalanced Balance

Many times, when political issues are discussed in the news, you will hear politicians and pundits declare that they are seeking to find a balance in resolving the issue.

This is complete whitewash.

Invariably, the two "sides" to the issue that are presented involve doing little on one side, and doing too much on the other. Notice I didn't say doing "too little". When government decides to change their involvement in an issue, it's normally a question of how much more they are going to do. Doing nothing is effectively never even put up for discussion.

Given how much the state is involved in nearly every issue, the idea of it doing less should be up for discussion. However, heaven forbid any politician should ever bring that up. It's practically a political death sentence, for all but a small minority.

So, when the balance being sought is between doing a little and doing a lot, be sure that no matter what kind of balance is struck, the state will be larger than before. This can mean a number of things, but it usually involves more bureauracy, more laws, and more police or more policing in one way or another.

It also means more taxes. More of your money getting sucked away from productive measures to satisfy those bureaucrats who have a burning desire to be seen as "doing something"... and it's your money their desire is burning.

This is somewhat like the negotiation strategy of demanding far more than you really want to get, knowing full well that the other side will be forced to negotiate down to somewhere in the middle anyways. The difference in this case is that no matter what they ask for, it will be more than before, and any illusion of a balance between two sides is just that -- an illusion.
Bruce on 11.27.08 @ 10:30 AM CST [link] [No Comments]

Sunday, November 23rd

Parade Encounter

While watching this year's Santa Clause parade in our city, I found myself surrounded by a variety of people, as can be expected at this sort of event. Our daughters were performing baton twirling in the parade, so we were there as proud parents to cheer them on and take photos.

The city government ran an entry in the parade consisting of a car with the mayor's name on it and the mayor himself walking behind it waving at the crowd. Later, the local members of the provincial government ran an entry in the parade, which similarly consisted of a couple cars with the MLA's names on them, and one of the MLAs walking behind it. It sounds pretty boring, and it was, but what else would you really expect?

When the mayor's car inched past, I heard generally nothing from the people around me, other than the normal crowd noise, a little cheering, and maybe somebody giving recognition that they knew who it was. When the provincial government car inched past, the man beside me all but spat on the ground in his disgust, using words like "unbelieveble", "that gang" etc. He sounded both disgusted and genuinely surprised that these politicians would want to show their faces in public.

OK, I get that you didn't vote for the current political leaders. I can't say I agree with everything they've done neither. I am however astonished at the level of hostility that was expressed there. What's the deal? Is it normal to villify those who differ in their poitics?

What is doubly surprising to me is the difference in the reception of the two government floats. They are both politicians, just at different levels. Both our mayor and the province's governing party are considered to be "right wing" in their ideologies. Both have passed some bills that have benefitted businesses, and given preferential treatment. So why the indifference to one and disgust for the other?
Bruce on 11.23.08 @ 11:56 PM CST [link] [No Comments]

Friday, September 26th

Asking for Directions

Throughout virtually all kinds of political discussions the political spectrum is divided into two extremes. Known most accurately as the left and the right, they are also called other names. Democrat and Republican. Liberal and conservative. Communist and fascist. etc.

Sadly, the definitions of "left" and "right" are slippery and constantly changing. They originate in the old British legislative cabinet, where the conservative (Tory) party sat on the right side and the progressive (Liberal) party sat on the right. However, in those days, the Tories were more concerned about keeping the status quo, and the Liberals about promoting liberty. Today, the right generally connotes free enterprise and a strong military, while the left generally connotes egalitarianism and state controlled social welfare.

In any case, they are defined as two diametrically opposing directions on the political spectrum, and usually the only two directions. This kind of dualism leads to long-held but nonsensical observations about the nature of the left and the right. For example, it is commonly said that in their extreme forms, the left and right actually meet in the middle. Given that the ideals of left and right-wing politics are irreconcilably opposed, this is complete bafflegab.

This doesn't however explain how communism, as seen through Lenin and Mao, and fascism, as seen through Hitler and Mussolini, had many things in common. It also doesn't explain those who are anarchists with both communal and free-market views. To explain this, there must be another dimension.

The Political Compass points out that there are two dimensions or axes to the so-called one-dimensional political spectrum. That is the economic axis, on which the left and right labels fall, and the social axis. The social spectrum grades between authoritarians and libertarians.

By the way, please take the time to take the test to get a better idea of where you really stand before reading much more on the site. It is worth the time. As it says on the front page, "there's no right, wrong or ideal response. It's simply a measure of attitudes and inevitable human contradictions to provide a more integrated definition of where people and parties are really at."

Adding this second dimension makes it much more apparent what actually happened with the so-called extreme forms of left and right-wing politics. These extreme forms, embodied in communism and fascism, were not so much extremely left or right but rather extremely authoritarian. Their policies placed most of the decision making power out of the hands of individuals and into the hands of the state.

It is no longer enough to simply label political figures as left-wing or right-wing, assuming it was ever enough. Remember this when you read such reports, and realize there is more to the picture than just a line.
Bruce on 09.26.08 @ 02:09 PM CST [link] [No Comments]