Sunday, 20 April 2014

More Misquoting Plato

     I just came across the following quote, pasted over a photograph of a Greek-looking sculpture and attributed to Plato.
"Strange times are these in which we live when old and young are taught falsehoods in school. And the person that dares to tell the truth is called at once a lunatic and fool."

     Again, alarm bells go off in my head. It's some years since university, but I did read a fair bit of Plato in those days, and something doesn't quite sound very Platonic about this quote. That is, while I'm sure Plato would have agreed with the observation that falsehoods are taught, it seems a little out of character for him to describe it as "strange"; I sort of get the impression that he took it for granted that there were and perhaps always would be people authoritatively professing nonsense.
      I mean, the character of Socrates is absolutely central to almost all of Plato's dialogues, and the whole story of Socrates (the historical figure as well as Plato's version) is all about how rare and subversive genuine wisdom is. Famously, Socrates was said by the Oracle to be the wisest of men, which Socrates could only explain as meaning that while all men were ignorant, all but Socrates were  unaware even of their own ignorance. Throughout Plato's writing, it never seems as if he thinks his moment in history is peculiar in this regard, that most people are ignorant and think themselves wise. So it would be surprising indeed for Plato to describe this state of affairs as "strange times".

     Another suspicious stylistic detail: the lines rhyme. They don't scan particularly well, so it doesn't come across as verse, but the writing is a little bit stilted, as if the author took pains to end with "school" and "fool". The construction "at once a lunatic and fool" is contrived versification. Plato's dialogues (at least in translation) always come across as a much more natural, conversational style, with more regard for precision of meaning rather than poetic beauty.

     So I searched for the phrase directly on Google. Lots of hits, just blandly crediting Plato, but (also suspiciously) never mentioning which work it was taken from. That in itself is suspicious; one would expect that if it was actually from Plato, somebody might have cited chapter and verse, but no.

I've just searched through all of the Platonic dialogues on Project Gutenberg, without success. The phrase "strange times" doesn't seem to occur at all, and no instance of "school" turns up anything remotely like the alleged quote. I'm therefore pretty confident when I say that this quote isn't actually from Plato. Dunno who it is from, but it ain't Plato.

Friday, 18 April 2014

An Experiment for Intelligent Design Theorists

     For a while, there was an attempt to push "Intelligent Design" as a purely scientific (and not at all religious) alternative theory to evolution through natural selection. That effort seems to have declined after the ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, which found ID to be a transparent attempt to disguise religious teachings as Sciantificness. Which, of course, it was, but could there be a genuinely scientific inquiry about the concept of Intelligent Design? I'd like to suggest one approach that could work.

     To begin with, we need to define what we mean by "intelligent design". I think it's fair to say that the concept is derived from analogy to human intelligence and purpose. In the classic example, when we see an object like a pocket watch, that seems to have been put together to perform a very specific function, we infer that some deliberate action -- by a watchmaker -- explains why these bits of matter happen to be arranged in just the right way to perform that function. Therefore, goes the argument, when we see matter organized into eyes to perform highly complex functions like vision, it makes sense to infer an eye-maker.  (I have a lot to say to criticize the assumptions of this argument, but I'm not going to do it in this post, because I want to talk instead about how we might try to apply it as an actual scientific theory. I may eventually do so in a subsequent post.)
     Now, the mere existence of objects with apparent purpose in the universe like eyes and legs and DNA does not necessarily show that ID is right, because after all, Darwin's theory also explains that. (Indeed, if there weren't such amazing complexity and highly-tuned function in the biological world, there'd be nothing for Darwin to explain.) What we need is for something that ID predicts that Darwin doesn't.

      I spend quite a lot of time thinking about intelligence, and my wife is a speech-language pathologist who works with young children and their language development, so we often find ourselves talking about how minds work and learn, and yesterday she was telling me about a little boy who she had manage to help memorize the alphabet a couple of months ago, and who now is actually reading. She could tell he was actually trying to decode the letters on the page, instead of simply reciting the nursery rhymes from memory, because he had started to make the right kinds of mistakes. In other words, she could tell he was making real progress, actually applying his intelligence to the problem, because she could see where that intelligence was making the kind of characteristic errors that only intelligence can make.
     So what kinds of mistakes are characteristic of intelligence, as distinct from just random error? This is a very difficult question, but I think we can make a couple of observations about some of them. For example, you may be aware of the horrifying Virgin Cleansing Myth in areas where HIV is common. The idea is that if an infected man has sex with a virgin, he will be cured. The Wikipedia article I linked to there quotes Cati Vawda of the Children's Rights Center in South Africa as saying, "We have no idea where this idea has come from..."  but I think I have an explanation, and it has to do with a fairly simple misunderstanding or misparsing of a true statement.
     How do you get HIV? Generally by exchanging bodily fluids with an infected person, usually by sex. So, obviously, you can't get it by exchanging bodily fluids with an UNinfected person, right, and (if you assume that you only can get the virus through sex) a virgin is probably going to be uninfected? Well, that's true, but consider very carefully the grammar of how this fact can be expressed in English (and presumably most other languages): "If you have sex with a virgin, you won't get HIV." The sentence (and many other formulations) is literally true on the reading that you won't catch HIV from a virgin, but it is shockingly dangerously false on the reading that sex with virgins protects against infection from other sources.
     I don't think the Virgin Cleansing Myth just popped into someone's head and spread like an urban legend. I think that it arises again and again when someone partially hears an explanation of how people get infected, misunderstands it (through a perfectly natural alternate parsing), and shares or reinforces the mistaken understanding among others. It is a mutation, therefore, of a beneficially true existing meme, rather than a wholly new spontaneous meme.

     I have seen other characteristically human errors, in my study of chain letters. The Four Reports pyramid chain (Tetralogia vulgaris) is a good example. The basic idea behind this chain is that you order a copy of each of four "business reports"from the four people on the chain letter for $5 each, and then you modify the letter by adding your name and address in position 4, moving everyone else up one position, and removing person in position 1. If all goes as described, you will get $50 from people ordering report #4, and then $500 from people ordering report #3 once your name is moved to position #3, $5000 in orders for report #2 and finally $50000 from people ordering report #1. (By the way, it almost never goes as described. You should consider yourself lucky if you get back the same money you put into it. Minus postage.)
    At one time, I had a collection of about 150 unique specimens of this chain letter (lost them in a hard drive crash, alas), and each specimen had its own list of the last four hosts. By comparing the lists of names, I was able to reconstruct the lineage of a majority of my specimens, connecting most of them into a single tree that spanned 10 generations.
     But I also an interesting anomaly. While most specimens that included "John Doe" of "123 Main Street, Anytown USA" in any of positions 2 through 4 had "Richard Roe" of "456 Elm Avenue, Blackacre" as the recipient before him, occasionally I would find a specimen that had John Doe in position 2 and someone else (whose name happened to resemble the email address from which I'd received the specimen) in position 1. What I think happened was this: someone misunderstood the way the chain letter is supposed to work, assumed that being in position 1 meant more orders and more money, and decided to put themselves in position 1 sooner in order to make that money faster, not realizing that it just meant they'd be eliminated from the list in the very next generation.
     I saw this in four or five instances, and while it's possible they just misread the instructions and mixed up where they were supposed to put their names, I suspect at least a few of them made the specific error I described, given the basic psychology of the kind of person who falls for an easy money scam.

     If Intelligent Design is true, that is, if the order in the universe around us is the result of some intelligent being acting with a purpose, one way we might be able to distinguish a designed universe from an evolved one would be if we could find some kind of artifact of the kinds of characteristic errors that intelligent beings typically make. Now, I'm aware of lots of "design flaws" in various living things, but all of the ones I know about are consistent with evolved solutions, so what we'd be looking for is some kind of error that stands out as the kind of error that could only be made by someone, based on some misapprehension about purpose or method, rather than something that can be explained by a Darwinian model.
     Of course, any intelligence great enough to create the world around us is going to be far smarter than we are, at least in the relevant ways, so it's going to be hard to find this sort of error. Even so, errors are usually easier to spot in hindsight, after they're made, so it shouldn't be a completely hopeless task. It's only hopeless if we also postulate that this intelligence is perfect and never makes any errors, but that postulate pretty much cuts off any possibility of experimental investigation, doesn't it?

Sunday, 13 April 2014

A Vote of Faith

     I want you to offer you a choice between two worlds.

     In the first, most people believe that democratic government is a sham, and that the real power is raw, brute force, the well-equipped and trained mercenaries doing the bidding of the power elite. Since it is much cheaper and easier to control people through deception, however, there is the window-dressing of democratic elections and representative government, all aimed at keeping the populace distracted and either content (with their token representation) or resigned to their powerlessness (either because they think they have lost the democratic process fair and square, or because they perceive that they can do nothing against the power elites). Since democracy and the rule of law are shams, almost no one bothers to try to call attention to the powerful and those few who do find it difficult to motivate anyone to do anything, because everyone knows they have no power and can do nothing.

     In the second, most people believe in democratic government and the rule of law. Fundamental to these ideals is the power of reason, of persuasion, of discourse. If there is a conflict, people expect to resolve it by reasoned argument with reference to "rights", by negotiation rather than violence. They obey the law because they believe that's what decent people do, and when people don't, they expect something to be done about it. Moreover, they obey the law because they trust that if the law turns out to be unjust, they can change it through the democratic process or the courts. While there is corruption and abuse of power in this world, the corrupt need to be especially careful and discreet, because they cannot rely on apathy or despair to keep anyone from doing anything about it.

     People in both worlds are not especially stupid. They both see their own world pretty much the way it is. In the first world, most people really are powerless and there is really is no point to political engagement and reasoned argument. In the second world, most people really do have some power if they are politically engaged with reasoned arguments.

     Which world do you think we actually live in? If you like to think of yourself as a cynic, a realist, wise, mature, experienced, and so on, you probably think we live in the first. And objectively, you're probably right. It probably is na├»vely idealistic to think we actually live in the second.
     But which would would you rather live in? I don't think there's really much controversy here. The second sounds much more appealing, which is perhaps why it seems so unrealistic. Sure, we might want to live in a world of fair elections and responsible government, but isn't that just a pipe dream?

     Well, here's the thing to notice. The only difference between the two worlds is that in one, most people believe it's one way, while in the other, most people believe the opposite. All of the actual, tangible differences between the way the two worlds operate derive from those different perceptions. If most of us believe and act as if we are living in the first, then we really are in the first; if most of us believe and act as if we are living in the second, then we really are in the second. Your belief, therefore, is actually a kind of a vote.
      Now, I've often argued here that belief is not simply a question of choice. I believe something to be true not because I want it to be true, but because it appears to be so regardless of what I want. Moreover, I hold that it is preferable to believe the truth than a more palatable lie, so if we are in fact living in the first world and not the second, it is absolutely better to be aware of that objective fact than to deny it.
      This is where faith comes in. As I've also argued before, faith and belief are not the same thing at all. You may well believe we live in the first world. But you can "vote" for the second, as it were, by acting as if you believe that's where we live. Engage in the political process, even if you're sure it's a total sham, and assert your constitutional rights as if you expect them to be respected, even if they won't. Provide intelligent, reasoned discourse as if you expect people to take it seriously and think about it, even if you privately believe they won't.
     It's exactly like voting, in that we will only succeed if enough other people do the same, and there's a very good chance that our effort will be in vain and we'll lose the election. Our chances are better if we persuade others to join us, and that is what I'm trying to do here. Make that leap of faith, and vote for democracy, even if you don't actually believe it exists. 

Friday, 11 April 2014

When "Reasonable" Isn't.

     I've written about this before and quite recently, but I think it's extremely important, and I have more to say about it. And, while it's especially current right now in Canada with Bill C-23 about to be rammed through by a CPC majority, it's also relevant to a lot of similar movements in the U.S. to require stricter standards of voter ID. These initiatives tend to be motivated by an occasionally explicit desire to decrease voter turnout for demographics likelier to vote for one's opponents, but are invariably justified by a disingenuous and superficially reasonable argument that goes something like this:
We need to provide photo ID when we open a bank account, when we apply for a passport or a driver's license, when we buy alcohol, and any of countless other everyday interactions. It's not that big an imposition for these things, and we all recognize why it's necessary there. So why is it unreasonable to expect voters to provide documents proving who they are before they can vote?

     Sure, that sounds eminently reasonable. Most of the ID the government wants us to be able to provide when we vote isn't all that hard to get, at least not for the demographic that makes up most of the governing party's constituency, so anyone who isn't willing to go to the trouble must not really want to vote, right? But let's apply the very same reasonableness argument to another voting measure, and see what happens:
We need to pay a fee when we write a cheque, when we apply for a passport or a driver's license, when we buy alcohol, and any of countless other every day interactions. It's not that big an imposition for these, all of which need to be paid for somehow. So why is it unreasonable to expect voters to pay a modest poll tax when they show up to vote?

     Why indeed. After all, assuming the price is something really low (or as we are wont to say of inexpensive things, "reasonable"), it can't really be considered a barrier to democratic participation, can it? Anyone who can't be bothered to scrape together $5 once every four years or so must not really care enough to vote, right?

     See, "reasonable" is not an argument by itself. Requiring that someone be able to provide one of 37 different forms of acceptable ID is of course "reasonable" in terms of the scale of sacrifice it demands, just as $5 per person is a very "reasonable" price for all that goes into running an election. But that's using the adjective "reasonable" in two ways, and trying to pass the whole claim off as reasonable. It is not reasonable to charge any price (however "reasonable") for the right to vote.
     The way we determine if an argument is reasonable is by looking at the quality of its reasoning. And the reasoning behind voter ID laws is profoundly flawed. It's based on a host of pernicious assumptions that are downright poisonous to the idea of democratic governance.

     First of all, one of these assumptions is that voting is an individual right. It isn't. Voting looks like an individual right, because you can choose to vote or not to vote, and no one else has any claim on how you vote or if you vote at all. It's entirely your choice how to exercise the right, but taken in isolation, the individual right to vote is utterly meaningless. (Your choice not to vote isn't actually a choice not to vote, but rather to ratify the outcome of how everyone else votes. And that's a valid choice, but it should be a choice.)
     Imagine you show up at the polling station with several hundred others, all of whom agree with you that candidate A is the better choice. There are about nine people supporting candidate B, but it just so happens that they're the ones managing the voting process. One by one, each person who presents their credentials to vote is rejected for totally arbitrary reasons. But for some reason, they look at your ID, hand you your ballot, and let you vote. The final result: Candidate B is elected in a landslide with 90% of all votes cast.
     Do you have any right to complain about this? After all, your right to vote wasn't violated. You got to cast your ballot. The fact that a lot of other people didn't is none of your concern, is it?
     You bet it is. That's kind of the point of voting: finding out what the collective will of The People is, and that involves taking into account everyone's free and uncoerced choice at the voting booth. Your right isn't just to have your vote counted, but to have everyone else's vote counted as well.

     If voting were only an individual right, then the fact that some poor schmuck doesn't get to vote because he doesn't have $5 or the right kind of ID would be of no concern to the rest of us. But the very nature of voting is inherently collective; everyone who supports the same candidate as the excluded voter is penalized when that voter is excluded. Arbitrary barriers, however "reasonable", reduce participation and undermine the legitimacy of the outcome.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Not one of these taxes existed 60 years ago?

A warning: this post may be even more tedious than my usual offerings. I'm going to go through a line-by-line debunking of a frequently forwarded email that has arrive in my inbox just a few too many times. It consists of an amateurish poem about how terrible taxes are, which is followed by a lengthy list of taxes and the observation that:

"Not one of these taxes existed 60 years ago, & our nation was one of the most prosperous in the world. We had absolutely no national debt, had a large middle class, and Mom stayed home to raise the kids."

The crappy poem, I'll ignore, but this is a factual claim which is simply false, and it's a bad thing to formulate one's opinions on policy or anything else based on falsehoods. So I feel compelled to address this nonsense in some detail. And I'm just angry enough to go through the list item by item. Here's the compete list from the email:

Accounts Receivable Tax
Airline surcharge Tax
Airline Fuel Tax
Airport Maintenance Tax
Building Permit Tax
Cigarette Tax
Corporate Income Tax
Death Tax
Dog License Tax
Driving Permit Tax
Environmental Tax (Fee)
Excise Taxes
Federal Income Tax
Federal Unemployment (UI)
Fishing License Tax
Food License Tax
Gasoline Tax (too much per litre)
Gross Receipts Tax
Health Tax
Hunting License Tax
Hydro Tax
Inheritance Tax
Interest Tax
Liquor Tax
Luxury Taxes
Marriage License Tax
Medicare Tax
Mortgage Tax
Passport Tax (fee)
Personal Income Tax
Property Tax
Poverty Tax
Prescription Drug Tax
Provincial Income and Sales Tax
Real Estate Tax
Recreational Vehicle Tax
Retail Sales Tax
Service Charge Tax
School Tax
Telephone Federal Tax
Telephone Federal, Provincial and Local Surcharge Taxes
Telephone Minimum Usage Surcharge Tax
Vehicle License Registration Tax
Vehicle Sales Tax
Water Tax
Watercraft Registration Tax
Well Permit Tax
Workers Compensation Tax
I'll make a couple of general observations first.
  1. Almost all of the taxes that actually do exist today also existed 60 years ago. I am aware that this forwarded email has been circulating for a long time, and may well have started out as a fax or even snail mail chain, so perhaps it was written in the 1970s, when income tax was less than 60 years old in Canada? Somehow I doubt it was carefully researched, though. 
  2. Many of the things that are called taxes in this list are not taxes at all, but user fees for a particular service: if you don't want the service, you don't pay the fee. These fees may even be payable to the government, but complaining about them as separate taxes is bizarre, since they have to be paid for somehow, and if the government provided them for free they'd just have to raise the actual taxes everyone else paid.
  3. Some of the taxes that actually do exist are just different names for other taxes. It's like listing your pets as including "a poodle, a dog, a mammal, a puppy, a bitch, a canine, oh and can't forget Fifi", when all you have is just the one animal.
So here they are:

Accounts Receivable Tax: "Accounts receivable" is an accounting term used to describe money you're owed for work you've already done and invoiced the customer for. Basically, they're considered part of your income, and taxed as such based on the assumption that people usually pay their bills, which in fact they do. (If you don't get paid, you can usually write off the bad debt as a deduction later.) So this is not a distinct, separate tax: it's simply a part of income tax, which is already listed elsewhere.

Airline surcharge Tax: There are a whole lot of surcharges that airlines often add to your fare. Note: it is the airline who adds this surcharge, not the government, so calling this a tax is kind of a stretch. To be fair, airlines claim they are adding these surcharges to cover extra costs they have to pay, in particular the fees to the organization that operates the airport with its security and air traffic controllers and baggage carousels. Not a tax. 

Airline Fuel Tax:  This one actually exists in some jurisdictions, and probably didn't exist in the 1950's, so score one for the email. 

Airport Maintenance Tax: Uh, no, not usually. There might be the occasional municipality that imposes a specific tax to maintain an airport that they think is really important, but this is not a tax you or I are likely to encounter, except as an airline surcharge, which again, is a legitimate fee to impose on the airlines who, y'know, use airports to carry on their profit-making business.

Building Permit Tax: Not a tax. Building costs money all over the place, and one of those costs is ensuring it complies with safety codes and zoning requirements. If you're spending on materials and labour and land to build something, it's not unreasonable to expect you'll be able to afford the fees for processing those permits. The alternative is making taxpayers subsidize your building through actual taxes. 

Cigarette Tax: Yeah, this one exists, and was probably not around as a distinct tax 60 years ago. However, if you are wise, you will never have occasion to pay it. Score for the email so far: 2 actual taxes that didn't exist 60 years ago.

Corporate Income Tax: Of course this exists. OF COURSE it does! I actually don't know if it existed 60 years ago, but it would be pretty amazing if they hadn't. A corporation is a legal fiction, an artificial person that exists only by virtue of the laws of the state granting it such status. If we're going to pretend that such an artificial person can exist and own property and enter into contracts and so on, then why on earth would we not also have it pay income tax on its, y'know, income? Now, corporations are charged income tax at different rates from individuals, so technically this may be treated as a distinct tax and not the same as personal income tax, but I mean, come on!  I guarantee you have never had to pay this tax, because corporations cannot read blogs. 

Death Tax: No such thing. Seriously, there's no such thing, not in Canada today, anyway. People pay tax on their income, and when they die, and their estates wrap up, there are various implications for taxes about various non-liquid assets that have been accumulated over the person's life, but it all comes down to special rules about applying income tax. Also, heriot existed more than 60 years ago.

Dog License Tax: This is a fee. There are, presumably, legitimate health and safety reasons for requiring dog owners to register their pets. Or maybe not. I don't know, and I haven't thought about this particular policy question at length, but in any event, if you are required to obtain a license for something it is entirely optional to own, it's a FEE, not a TAX! 

Driving Permit Tax: Fee. Not tax. Unless you want to pay for my road test through your taxes, do not complain about this as a "tax". Sheesh. 

Environmental Tax (Fee): I don't even know what this is. There are LOTS of proposed models to deal with environmental issues, and many fees and charges in place that yes, didn't exist 60 years ago. But this is listed here as a fee, so I'm wondering if the author was thinking of that item that shows up along with sales tax on the receipt when you buy a bottle of soda (deposit on the bottle) or some item with environmentally hazardous components. Again, though, this is a fee, not a tax, and a perfectly sensible arrangement.

Excise Taxes: This one makes me laugh. Didn't exist 60 years ago? Excise taxes are an ancient invention. And cigarette taxes by the way, are a kind of excise tax, so the email has already got credit for this one.

Federal Income Tax: Introduced in Canada in 1917. Canada was actually late to the game; the U.S. and the U.K. both had income taxes before then. Modern income tax as a permanent, standard method of government revenue came about around the First World War, but prior to that had been used on and off to pay for various wars. But even if modern progressive income tax is a relatively new thing, it replaces older forms of wealth tax and head tax that were much more unfair. So saying that in the good old days we didn't have income tax is sort of like pining for the good old days when we didn't have to suffer the pain of getting Novocaine injections at the dentist. 

Federal Unemployment (UI): Here's a clue as to the age of this email, or at least its author: UI was renamed to EI (Employment Insurance) back in 1996. At the time, it was already almost 60 years old, having been introduced (abortively) in 1935 and then actually implemented in 1940. Whether it's actually a tax is debatable, since it's treated as an insurance premium. In any event, it definitely existed 60 years ago.

Fishing License Tax: Fee, not a tax. Also, almost certainly existed 60 years ago.

Food License Tax: Fee, not a tax. You don't wanna run a restaurant or business that serves food, you don't need to buy this. Also, has been around for a long time.

Gasoline Tax (too much per litre): This is an excise tax, and again, not necessarily a bad thing. The use of gasoline imposes lots of externalities on others and on society as a whole. I don't know if there was an excise tax on gasoline 60 years ago, so let's just give this one credit as a hit. Current score 3.

Gross Receipts Tax: This exists in some states. Don't know if it exists in Canada. It's actually a sort of midway point between a crudely calculated corporate income tax and a hidden sales tax. It almost certainly is not a distinct tax you'd have to pay IN ADDITION to everything else here, and I would be very surprised if it didn't exist as far back as the Roman Empire, but benefit of the doubt: 4.

Health Tax: Okay, I'll give you this one. Even though these are technically premiums for a mandatory health insurance system administered by the province, I don't mind if you call them a tax, and it's true they didn't exist 60 years ago. Tommy Douglas introduced the idea in Saskatchewan in the 1960s, and it's become one of the things we Canadians are most fiercely proud of. Score is 5 and shame on you for complaining about this.

Hunting License Tax: Fee. Not a tax. And also, centuries old.

Hydro Tax: The only references I can find to a Hydro Tax (as opposed to the Hydro Tax Credit, which is the very opposite of a tax) is to this sort of thing or this sort of thing. Governments have always applied excise taxes to specific goods from time to time for various reasons, and hydropower has been around forever. Even hydroelectricity has been around as long as we've had electricity, which is well over a century now, so I should be very, very surprised if it never occurred to a government to tax power generation before 60 years ago.

Inheritance Tax: What I can't figure is why the person who made this list would include both a "death tax" and an "inheritance tax", which as I said does not exist in Canada. And didn't mention "estate tax", which does exist in some places but not Canada.

Interest Tax: I know of no special tax on interest. I know that there's a space on my tax return form to fill in how much interest I've earned from bank accounts and such, so interest is taxed, but it's taxed as a part of income generally. There ARE various kinds of interest tax credits, but again, that's the very opposite of a tax.

Liquor Tax: Again, an excise tax. Also, very very much older than 60 years.

Luxury Taxes: It is likely the author of the forwarded email simply made a list of every phrase he or she could think of that included the word "tax". You might recognize the phrase from one of the Chance cards (or was it Community Chest? I can't remember) in the classic board game Monopoly which, I note, has existed for more than 60 years. Incidentally, sumptuary laws have been around for thousands of years.

Marriage License Tax: Hey, I'll grant that maybe the state shouldn't be in the business of licensing who can and can't marry, but (1) this is a fee and not a tax, and (2) having to pay the government or the lord some benefit for the privilege of getting married has a long and storied history.

Medicare Tax: Oh, as distinct from Health tax? Sorry, no, that's double-dipping. On the plus side, you don't get double-shamed for complaining about public health care.

Mortgage Tax: Okay, this really confuses me. I wouldn't put it past the author to claim that a mortgage is a tax because gosh darn it it's one of those things you keep on having to pay every month for no obvious benefit (other than, say, title to your house), but maybe it means a tax on mortgages, which probably didn't exist 60 years ago because they don't exist today. Banks might have to pay some tax on mortgages, because that's how banks make their income and banks pay taxes on income (I would hope). There are also lots of little surcharges and things on mortgages, including insurance premiums, but those aren't taxes.

Passport Tax (fee): Yeah, fee, not tax. And also I would be very surprised to learn that applying for a passport was free 60 years ago.

Personal Income Tax: If we pay the previously cited Federal Income Tax to the Federal government, to whom do we remit Personal Income Tax?

Property Tax: Just because you personally did not pay property tax 60 years ago does not mean it did not exist. 

Poverty Tax: This is another one of those phrases the author picked up somewhere and thought was a real tax. There's a "Poor Tax" in Monopoly, along with the luxury tax, and there are taxes that disproportionately affect the poor (sales taxes, for example) that some advocates might occasionally describe as poverty taxes, but that's rhetoric, not a specific tax.

Prescription Drug Tax: In some places these exist, but not so much in Canada. Benefit of the doubt, pretend it didn't exist 60 years ago, score is 6.

Provincial Income and Sales Tax: Um, these are actually two separate taxes, handled very differently from each other. In Alberta, there is no provincial sales tax, but other provinces have them. I'm not sure when they were introduced, but they're hardly a new thing. And provincial income taxes date back to the 1930s, or even earlier for BC. I'm actually surprised (not very) that the author did not mention the GST, Canada's national sales tax which is actually new enough that I remember when it was introduced. But the taxes that are actually mentioned here did, in fact, exist 60 years ago.

Real Estate Tax: How is this different from Property tax? There's lots of taxes involved in real estate generally, but they generally fall into the categories of property taxes, income taxes or sales taxes.

Recreational Vehicle Tax: It's not quite fair to say there was no RV tax 60 years ago when there were no RVs 60 years ago. That is, there might have been some, but they don't introduce a special distinct tax on something until it has actually been around for a while. I'm willing to bet there was no cell phone tax 60 years ago, either.

Retail Sales Tax: Oh, here's the mention of GST! Sort of. Nobody in Canada calls it Retail Sales Tax, which leads me to believe someone cut and paste the list of taxes from some earlier American forward, but never mind that. The GST is in fact a tax that didn't exist 60 years ago. It was introduce to replace the old Manufacturer's Sales Tax, which had been around since 1920. So a national sales tax did exist 60 years ago. I don't think we can score this one a hit. Maybe if the email had specifically referred to the GST, but no.

Service Charge Tax: By definition, a service charge is not a tax. Some taxes may be disguised and misnamed as "service charges" but if there's a service charge on your bank statement, it's your bank taking your money, not the government, which is kind of an important distinction when it comes to deciding if something is a tax or not.

School Tax: Where I live, at least, schools are paid for through municipal property taxes and provincial revenues. There is no specific "school tax".

Telephone Federal Tax: It's telling that the only references I can find to this on Google are to copies of the email I'm responding to here. I don't think it exists. And 60 years ago, many of Canada's telephone companies were actually government entities (Edmonton Telephone and AGT existed within my memory), so if we want to characterize the various telephone-related charges as "taxes", then they either existed 60 years ago if they exist today.

Telephone Federal, Provincial and Local Surcharge Taxes: See above.

Telephone Minimum Usage Surcharge Tax: See above

Vehicle License Registration Tax:  Not a tax. 

Vehicle Sales Tax: Last time we bought a new car, we paid GST on it. If "vehicle sales tax" counts as a separate tax that didn't exist 60 years ago, then so does "book sales tax" and "running shoe sales tax" and "red paint sales tax" and "blue paint sales tax". No, sorry. 60 years ago, the car would have been subject to the MST. 

Water Tax: Look at your water bill. It charges you for how much water you use, and you pay that money to the utility company of the municipality, not to the gummint. That's not a tax, unless  you consider buying bread at the grocery store to be a separate "bread tax".

Watercraft Registration Tax: Hint: If the word "registration" occurs in your putative tax, it's probably a fee and not a tax. And actually, these fees have existed for hundreds of years.

Well Permit Tax: Same goes for the word "permit" or "license". It's a fee, not a tax.

Workers Compensation Tax: This is actually more along the lines of an insurance premium than a tax, but again, it existed 60 years ago. 


Summary: Out of 48 taxes listed and alleged not to have existed 60 years ago, 30 are either different names for the same tax, fees for specific services, otherwise do not exist at all. I count only 18 that can actually be considered distinct taxes that exist today.  Of these, all but 6 existed 60 years ago. 

I warned it would be tedious.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

A Very Reasonable And Moderate Position On Root Canal

     I figured it was about time I weighed in on the root canal controversy. I'm going to assume you know what root canal is, and spare you the gory details the anti-root canal crowd like to use to shock people. Sometimes they carry around posters, big magnified closeups of actual root canal procedures, to  raise awareness of just how horrible it is. Personally, I think that's more than enough to persuade me that I'd never want to have one, but some of the anti-root canal extremists even spread stories about root canal causing cancer and things like that, which doesn't seem to have lots of science behind it but they like to play it up to scare people out of having root canal.
     Anyway, I'm not an extremist. Although I would never choose to have root canal myself, I think it should be up to the individual to decide whether or not to have it done for himself. HOWEVER, I really don't think people should be allowed to use root canal as an alternative to proper dental hygeine. I mean, if you brush and floss regularly, or better yet if you avoid cavity-causing foods entirely, and through no fault of your own you still get a decayed tooth bad enough to need root canal, then you should not be punished for that. But people who don't brush or floss really have no right to then turn around and have an endodontist clean up after their carelessness.
     So I think people who want root canal should need a letter from their dentist confirming that it's actually medically necessary, and that they weren't at fault for the damaged tooth in the first place. If you're not going to take care of your teeth, you shouldn't expect other people to do it for you.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

That's not what she said.

     One of the basic rules of quotation marks is that they're supposed to go around actual verbatim quotes, not paraphrases of what you think someone means. This morning a Facebook acquaintance shared an image macro (I hate to call them memes) which showed the following quote over a picture of Senator Diane Feinstein at a committee hearing:
"Freedom of speech is a privilege intended for educated professionals. It should be illegal for a high-school dropout to promote anti-government propaganda on his 5 dollar blog, if he cannot properly verify his statements."
     That is so preposterous a statement that I could not believe it would have been uttered by anyone with any awareness of basic 1st Amendment thinking. So I tracked down the YouTube video [edited April 2 to add link] from which the still picture was taken, and watched it, and of course she never actually utters those words in that grammatical order. Some of the words appear, but not in the way implied by the false quote.

     For example, she does use the word "privilege", although she never says "Freedom of speech is a privilege". In fact, she's talking about privilege in the legal sense, a special exemption from certain kinds of legal obligations that would otherwise apply.
     Consider "attorney-client privilege". There are circumstances in which a person may be legally required to answer questions truthfully, such as when testifying in court or being examined on an affidavit. Privileged communications, however, are exempt; your lawyer cannot be obliged at law to disclose things you tell her in connection with seeking legal advice. If you go to your lawyer to ask how you can hasten your rich uncle's death so you can inherit, and she tells you "Don't do it, because it's against the law," then you know that's not an option and you can obey the law. If your uncle then dies under suspicious circumstances that you actually had nothing to do with, the fact that you sought legal advice should not be used as evidence to bring you under suspicion. We want people to seek legal advice.
     So what Ms. Feinstein was talking about here was whether or not there should be a similar sort of privilege for people who publish official secrets, and if so, what criteria there should be for someone who would enjoy that privilege. You can promote anti-government propaganda on your blog all you want, but if you publish actual secret documents, you might well be subject to criminal proceedings.
     There's a difficult line to draw here. On the one hand, there is sometimes a legitimate state interest in secrecy (although I tend to suspect the state claims this interest more often than they should). Obviously, we do not want people to be able to publish the new names and locations of people in the witness protection program, and claim freedom of speech as their defence. People who expose legitimate secrets ought to face legal consequences, and people who come into possession of such stolen documents might well be legally compelled to say where they got them.
      On the other hand, government secrecy always carries a great risk of protecting corruption and abuse of power. Sometimes the only defense against this is for a whistleblower to leak the information to the press, but if the reporter you give the documents to can be forced to reveal your identity, you're less likely to blow the whistle in the first place. So, because it might sometimes be in the public interest to facilitate such whistleblowing, maybe there ought to be a form of privilege for actual journalists to protect their sources. (Presumably, actual journalists will be bound by some form of professional ethics when they decide whether or not to publish something.)

     Now, I am not saying anything about whether or not Senator Feinstein's position is an appropriate one. How much government secrecy there should be and how it should be protected is a complicated issue, and you can certainly disagree with Ms. Feinstein's approach to it. You can even use the strawman if you want, and say what you think her position is. But putting quotes around your own paraphrased (mis)interpretation of her position in order to imply that you're quoting her actual words? That is, in a word, lying.