Archive for February, 2013

Choose Your Booze

Bob Bymoen, president of the Saskatchewan Government Employees Union, writes in the StarPhoenix:

We assume that people we elect to run our province will make logical decisions.

Bob Bymoen assumes this. “Logical” people don’t.

Yet at a time when underfunding is forcing our universities to cut programs and hospitals to postpone surgeries, the provincial government has decided to give up a substantial source of revenue with a policy that says all new liquor stores will be privately owned.

Apparently, “not taking in potential revenue” = “giving up revenue”.

The government’s rationale is that public funds are better spent on education, health and infrastructure than on building liquor stores. If you think about it for a moment you realize that it doesn’t make sense.

That we require unionized employees to stock liquor onto shelves and ring in tills doesn’t make sense either, but please go on.

Public liquor stores actually make quite a lot of money for the province – $218 million last year. In the past five years, public liquor stores contributed more than $1 billion in net profit – over and above the taxes on alcohol sales. That’s hundreds of millions that can be invested in schools, hospitals, universities or long-term care homes.

Selling liquor stores can be profitable for the government too, particularly if they are already profitable, and don’t forget that private liquor vendors would also have a chance to be profitable. Statists like Boemen conveniently forget to mention that private-sector profits also benefit society — moreso, I might add, because this profit re-investment doesn’t come with the typical redistributionist markup.

Or, for that matter, the 24% year-over-year increase in to liquor-store employee salaries, wages and benefits (see Schedule 2).

Public liquor stores are such a good investment for taxpayers that the TD Bank’s former chief economist Don Drummond warned the Ontario government in a 2012 report against selling them.

If the public liquor-store monopoly were only in place to raise money for the government, then why don’t we just nationalize all profitable industries, like food distribution, oil companies or real estate? (Don’t answer that, Bob.) That way, the government can take all the profits from all the industries and distribute it and take care of us and we would have no worries.

The Wall government claims it will keep our existing public stores, but the experience in other places tells a different story. In the 10 years since British Columbia allowed private liquor retailers, 24 public stores have closed. A recent study shows B.C.’s private stores have the highest liquor prices among the three western provinces.

In other words, the state-owned liquor monopoly is so good at its job that it requires a state-enforced monopoly to survive.

Our elected leaders need to think logically and act in the best interests of Saskatchewan people.

Damn straight.

First, they can start by separating the regulatory function of the SLGA from the purchasing (“upstream”) and distribution (“downstream”) arms. The current system creates an unethical conflict of interest. As with any self-regulating industry (as opposed to market-regulated industries), the incentive among the SEGU guild members and SLGA management, whether they would admit it or not, would be to cover up their fellow employees for any misgivings. This is not to say nefarious goings-on are going on, but current situation can reasonably be perceived as a conflict of interest. If a particular monopoly regulates itself, then why bother having a regulator?

Second on the list is to allow permits to private retailers and to sell off all government-owned stores altogether. I’d suggest making an offer to union members to purchase the government-run stores so as to encourage their support for reform. I would also remove the cap on specialty stores and any remaining limits on store numbers or placement. Not only would this move remove the regulatory conflict of interest but it would spur investment in new stores.

Alberta gets this part right. I used to live on Calgary’s trendy 4th Street SW which features condos, apartments, restaurants, small shops, a couple of pubs. In between 17th and 26th avenues, there were no less than three liquor vendors — an upscale wine merchant and two conventional beer and booze stores featuring more modest fare and markup. Beyond that stretch, there were at least a couple of other liquor (i.e. more than just beer and wine) stores within walking distance, and even a few more located between my downtown office and home. In other words, the stores offered me not only a variety of selection and price, but also convenience.

And fewer 0.5% sales

Also, fewer 0.5%-off sales

As an illustration, a recent report from the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission has shown that the number of liquor vendors since privatization has increased almost 250% while the variety of product has increased from 2,200 to a whopping 17,741.

Meanwhile, Saskatoon features pretty much the same number of liquor stores to which I once had regular access in the entire city. In a time of unprecedented growth and prosperity, Sask Liquor has only built one new store in Saskatoon in the past decade. That Broadway Avenue, Saskatoon’s street most analogous to Calgary’s 4th Ave. with its shops and pubs, walkable blocks and hipster clientele, doesn’t have its own liquor store speaks for itself.

I might also mention that during all my time in Alberta, I never once saw a lineup to get into a liquor store:

You can’t spell “licensed monopoly” without  L-I-N-E-S

Third, what Alberta didn’t get right was with its liquor wholesale purchasing system. In 2006, notable shortages in liquor were caused by issues at the provincial warehouse. While the warehouse is privately operated, wholesale distribution still operates by a government-enforced monopoly, which has resulted in supply bottlenecks and a poorly responsive distribution of product.

If Saskatchewan were to go this route, they must not stop at private liquor stores; they must also get out of the monopolized wholesale purchasing business. Again, it would not only remove the regulatory conflict of interest, it would allow for vendors and distributors to purchase goods in a more efficient manner.

Finally, if this province were to truly attempt to unshackle themselves from the statist/temperance yoke, it would discontinue the practice of segregating booze from other consumable items — in other words, allow for liquor sales in any commercial outlet. You can buy smokes anywhere, lottery tickets too. Both sets of items are prohibited to be sold to minors. If we trust private vendors to check for IDs in this circumstance, then there is no reason they cannot be entrusted to check IDs in selling liquor as well.

Now, I do not believe for a second that the provincial political climate is ready for such a radical change to allow adults to be treated like adults. Therefore, on the point of feasibility, I would be willing to drop the latter recommendation.

I do believe, however, that the good people of Saskatchewan are ready and willing to accept an increased liberalization which would include private-only vendors, the sale of provincial stores, and the dismantling of the provincial wholesale purchasing monopoly. This would result in increased convenience, better selection and more freedoms, not to mention one less area of social policy for Bob Bymoen to bitch about.

Everybody wins!

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Weekend Homework

This 1986 lectureby Ralph Raico on the birth of the Welfare State in 18th-century Germany has been on regular rotation in the Huck household for a few weeks.

Grab a drink, have a listen, and get back to me with your thoughts.

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At Issue: Staying Awake

Nothing on the telly last night, so I casually switched to CBC’s The National for masochistic kicks. I tuned in during the “At Issue” panel, which the CBC calls “Canada’s most watched political panel,” which after only a few minutes of observation led me to conclude that it’s Canada’s “only” political panel.

The term "watched" is also suspect.

The term “watched” is also suspect.

Feast your eyes on this riveting display of punditric power (which, apparently, won’t embed in this WordPress app).

For the viewing-impaired or MotherCorpophobic, the panel features four “opinion makers” agreeing with each other while the ponderous Peter Mansbridge solemnly posits mumbled queries in the manner of an Oxford don, albeit not as electrifying.

Wouldn’t it be a lot more interesting if there was, you know, a variety of opinion on this opinion panel? Even the token “conservative” here is arguing for cap-and-trade on carbon. Say what you want about Sun News, but those low-budget personalities are at least interesting and, I might add, not afraid to debate with those with opposing viewpoints.

Next up on the Sun News Network

“Next up on the Sun News Network …”

The only saving grace on The National is, of course, Rex Murphy, who actually has an opinion and isn’t afraid of sharing it, as last night’s performance shows.

In three minutes, Murphy made a stirring argument highlighting the general permeance of the papacy and Christianity in Western civilization, and offered up a swift rebuke to those who would rather mock the institution and its associated beliefs because these do not conform to the supposed modern mindset. Though he didn’t mention the recent controversial remarks from Thomas Mulcair on the suitability of an evangelical Christian charity doing work in Africa, Murphy provided an indirect response on a intellectual and philosophical level by illustrating the enduring depth and cultural resonance of Christianity in our society.

So there.

So there.

Murphy doesn’t seek to conform (he once defended the theory of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming to a lunch with the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists I attended), and as such provides an almost singular point of opinionated illumination on the dark, drab CBC.

Why some of the $1.2 billion in annual taxpayer dollars can’t be used to find more than two individuals who thwart the official party line is beyond me.

Though not for a lack of trying

Though not for a lack of trying

Still, there’s no reason for me to turn back to The National any time soon. I get my news from a multitude of varied sources who are, at the least, moderately interesting. I don’t have to agree with everything my news offers, but I want to be challenged.

And, no, the challenge of staying awake during The National isn’t enough.

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The Truth About Minimum Wage

Philip Klein has similar thoughts:

Obama’s proposed minimum wage would be higher than all but one state (Washington), meaning it could have a particularly disruptive impact because it wouldn’t take into account the differences among local labor markets.

If unemployment were quite low, the economy were expanding rapidly, and employers were having trouble finding workers, then an increase in the minimum wage might not do as much damage. But this is less likely under current circumstances, with the economy growing slowly and unemployment at 7.9 percent.

Also, next year, the major provisions of the national health care law will be implemented. Already, fast-food and chain restaurants have been announcing plans to cut back worker hours to avoid the federal penalty for not providing government-approved health insurance. To them, an increase in the minimum wage on top of the health care mandate would be another incentive to cut back on their workforce.

It’s generally inadvisable for the federal government to dictate wages to workers and employers, but to do so now would be particularly dangerous.

I disagree. It’s always dangerous to raise the minimum wage.

h/t: Quotulatiousness

RELATED: My post on the raising of minimum wage in Saskatchewan last year.

ALSO RELATED: Don Beaudreaux at Cafe Hayek does his own inevitable and imitable take.

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Recycling Bin Spin

From page A2 in today’s StarPhoenix:

Sask. readies recycling plan

REGINA — Saskatchewan plans to shift the cost of municipal recycling programs from taxpayers to industry and consumers.

Environment Minister Ken Cheveldayoff says under the policy, industry would be required to cover 75 per cent of the cost of recycling programs.

But then it is expected that industry would pass those costs along to consumers through price increases.

The final plan is to be presented to the government by Aug. 6 for approval.

My neighbourhood was among the first to receive its mandatory blue bin even though I didn’t ask for it. It was supposed to come out in “early January 2013” but we didn’t get it until the end of the month, and we still haven’t received any information on the pickup schedule. We’re promised that we are to pay a low, low monthly fee of $4.66. And no one in government has ever broken a promise.

Nope.

Nope.

Considering the provincial government’s role in funding municipal recycling programs, how will this change under the new recycling policy?

According to a recent government-sponsored consultation paper, total municipal waste consists about about 10% of potentially recyclable materials from residential units. Most of the rest of the recyclable materials in municipal waste (about 30%) would originate from industrial sources. Therefore, one could expect that most of this increase in recycling fees will be transferred from taxpayers to industries in the form of increased consumer costs, lost job opportunities, or lower margins.

Still, one could reasonably expect that the taxpayer subsidy anticipated by our municipalities would be shifted to the residents, e.g. me, and this should result in my low, low monthly fee to increase somewhat.

My residential waste produced monthly

Residential waste produced monthly at my house

I eagerly await a response from our municipal officials.

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Changing the Tune

The Canadian mainstream media have been enthralled over the last few months with the Idle No More movement. It’s not hard to imagine why: journos who pine for opportunities to change the world are often attracted to David-v.-Goliath-type storylines, and desperation on Indian reserves has long been fodder for eager do-gooder newsreaders. Poverty sells, after all.

Attawapskat home

“It’s gold, Jerry. Gold!”

So when Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence comes forward with her hunger strike, who could blame the media for going over-the-top nuts on the story?

It had it all: Aboriginals pounding drums. Dilapidated homes. Poverty. A woman in a leadership position. A hunger strike which implies the possibility of imminent death. Roadblocks. Marching in the street. Chants and placards. Heartless Conservative government in power. I’d be shocked if checklists featuring these specific items weren’t handed out at Ryerson J-School.

At first, the media line continued as you would expect: poor, blighted Aboriginals being trod upon by cruel Stephen Harper and his henchmen willfully negligent in their constitutionally defined duty yadda yadda yadda.

Suddenly, and almost overnight, the conversation began to change, both in the media and the public at large. Sure, the blighted Aboriginal angle was still there, but the talk was focusing on the activities of Chief Spence and her alleged mismanagement as leader of the Attawapiskat band council.

I posit that this change hinged on a January 3, 2013 Sun News broadcast featuring Ezra Levant:

This information was elaborated in the next few episodes of The Source with Ezra Levant.

Less than a week later, a recent audit of the federal funding of the Attawapiskat First Nation was leaked to the media, which showed that $104 million of taxpayer dollars was insufficiently accounted for between April 2005 and November 2011. This of course brought a whole new angle on the Attawapiskat story by suggesting that the Harper government may not be solely to blame for the mess on the reserve and, possibly, elsewhere. Public opinion quickly shifted away from supporting the Idle No More movement to one that was more critical of the national Aboriginal strategy as a whole, and Chief Spence was eventually forced to back down from her supposed hunger strike by her own band members.

This turn of events can be attributed in good part to the work of Levant. Without his investigative journalism and ability to communicate his findings in a clear, concise manner, Chief Spence may very well have continued her “hunger strike” to the point where she would have looked like someone who was actually on a hunger strike. Instead, Levant initiated substantial context into the debate than the MSM was willing to allow, and he showed where Chief Spence was vulnerable in her posturing.

That he changed the terms of a national debate should not come as a surprise to anyone following Levant’s public career. In fact, this was the third such time he had done so.

His first instance occurred when he countered charges issued by the Alberta Human Rights Commission over his publishing of the infamous “Muhammed cartoons” in the now-defunct Western Standard magazine. He insisted that he would videotape his encounters with the HRC interviewer and then posted them on YouTube. They illustrate his tenacity when confronting issues he feels are unethical, immoral or unbecoming of a free society:

(h/t Kathy Shaidle)

The complaint against Levant was later withdrawn. (I recommend Levant’s fun recollection on the HRC issue found in Shakedown: How Government is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights.)

The result of his work and the work of Mark Steyn, who was also called to report to a human rights commission, was that the terms of a national debate were changed: People were no longer merely debating the degree of “anti-Islam” bigotry in the country, but now were considering the insidious nature of the Canadian human rights regime. While these gentlement do not deserve all the credit, free-thinking governments across the Dominion were forced to re-examine their respective HRC systems with respect to their propensity to prohibit communication “that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt.”

The debate had been turned.

Similarly, Ezra had a hand in changing the terms of the debate over another contentious issue: the Alberta oilsands. For years, the oilsands became a focal point for activists ostensibly concerned about the impact of the industry on the local environment and with its supposed impact on global climate. In reality, the anti-oilsands activity was part of the larger anti-everything movement which has raged against progress and prosperity and everything good since the dawn of socialism in the 19th century. To be sure, the environment was of concern to these activists, which is perfectly reasonable. What wasn’t reasonable was that oilsands opponents were placing the environment over all other concerns.

Oilsands proponents and supporters had tried to counter this argument with stats on employment, economic development, etc., but this only fell on the deaf ears of those who proclaim a disdain for filthy lucre (even if they themselves don’t mind to put the food on their own table). Regardless, too many people don’t consider economic prosperity to be a moral virtue, and as a result, the oilsands continued to be tarred in the realm of public opinion.

Enter Ezra Levant stage right. He coined the term “ethical oil” to offer an alternative metric to measure the morality of oil production: the ethics of the political environment which benefits from producing oil. The premise is that Canada is a free, liberalized Western democracy, and that the other major oil producing countries — Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran, etc. — are corrupt, despotic, or both, and that by buying oil from the bad guys, you’re benefiting the evil political regimes.

20110729-ethical-oil-campaign

This was a brilliant argument. Again, it’s clear and concise, meaning that it’s easy for anyone to pick it up and use in any debate. Moreover, it was true: who can argue against giving money to corrupt Saudi princes who funnel it to fundamental Wahabists in Pakistan, or enriching Russian oligarchs, when you have a choice to buy oil from nice, kind, boring Canadians?

Like the other debates, Levant didn’t win the argument, which rages on, but he reframed the national debate. And he did it three times, which is more than you can say for some of our taxpayer-funded nepotists.

So, like him or hate him, he’s filling in a sorely needed gap in our newsmedia. He’s provocative, nerdy, completely distasteful, and not always right. But he’s interesting, he can be compelling, and he can makes you re-think your point of view on some of the most pressing stories of the day. If that’s not what you want in a news media, then frankly just keep your blinders on because you obviously don’t want a news media.

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