Monday, April 30, 2012

Taxes: The price of civilization

How to feel better about paying taxes.
Taxes are a bargain. Here's why:
Even if you kept every penny you pay in taxes, you wouldn't be able to afford the benefits you get by 'sharing' some of your wealth with the government.
"Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society" wrote U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in a 1927 decision.
What do you get for your money?
Your country's borders and foreign interests are protected by a highly trained and well equipped military.
Within the country, we are protected by civil and criminal laws which defend us against all manner of offences. This is backed up by a police force which will restrain and if necessary incarcerate people who break our rules.
The food we buy in the grocery stores is scrutinized and so safe that we don't think twice about trusting it.
The network of paved roads that we can drive on without paying tolls is so extensive, and provides a benefit beyond merely our driving on it. It also allows for the economical transportation of most of the goods we buy.
Children are provided with an extensive and comprehensive education from kindergarten to grade 12, including trained teachers, suitable facilities and all sorts of enrichment so that they can me well prepared for life as adults.
If you are sick or injured there are hospitals and clinics that will help you get well again. If you are down on your luck there are systems that will help get you back on your feet again.
We maintain amicable foreign relations with other countries so that, by demonstrating with your passport that you are from Canada, you can gain access to many other countries.
All this (and much more) would be difficult to negotiate or afford on an individual basis.
Taxes are a pain, certainly. They take some of your money, and that's unpleasant. Paying taxes feels separate and distinct from the systems and protections you receive for paying them. 
It's a fair exchange. We elect people who decide how to tax us, and then they spend the money to benefit us all. That's no excuse for inefficiencies in the spending or in the systems, and we should buy the civilization we want at the best possible price.
How much is civilization worth to you? How much does it cost you in taxes? Even with all the forms, schedules and complex expensive tedium that comes with taxation, it's worth it.
We can do more together than we can apart.
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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Do you vote for Crazy?

Imagine an electoral scenario where two parties, we'll call them 'Crazy' and 'Crazier' are the front runners - both at 45% in the polls. In this hypothetical scenario, Crazy will raise taxes 50%, and Crazier will raise taxes 100%.
You prefer 'Safe' who doesn't want to raise taxes at all, but they're polling at 10% and don't have any chance of winning.
Question: Do you throw your vote away on Safe to make a statement or vote for Crazy, hoping to keep Crazier out of office?
Voting for Crazy means lying on your ballot, because you'd rather have 'Safe' win the election. In an election between Crazy and Crazier, you come out better (with lower taxes in this simple scenario) by electing Crazy than by voting for Safe.
The election system is lousy. It's hard to change, because whoever's in charge was elected thanks in part to the biased system they benefitted from. Fixing the system would mean giving up power.
A system which allowed you to rank your preferences would let you vote honestly, declare your true preferences for Safe, while still making clear that you'd prefer Crazy over Crazier.
Or do you even bother voting?
There are two reasons to vote, and two reasons not to, according to Riker and Ordeshook's "Calculus of Voting" (1968).
It's your duty (D) to vote, and your vote might determine the election (π) and therefore benefit you (B). Voting costs (C): it takes time and effort to decide who to vote for, and time and effort to go to the polls. If πB+D>C, then you vote.
The probability of casting a decisive vote is vanishingly small, so mostly it comes down to how each citizen values voting against the effort of doing so, and against better uses of their time.
Corollary: If everyone else realizes their votes won't matter and stays home, then when you vote, you'll decide the election all by yourself.
Of course you aren't likely to cast the only vote either. What actually happens is somewhere in between, approaching the Nash equilibrium (A Beautiful Mind) for whether it's worth voting or not.
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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Feeding the 7 Billion.

On Halloween 2011, the world reached 7 Billion people. That's a lot of goblins. Forget trying to identifying the lucky kid (most likely Indian, where there's 50 births per minute), instead it's time to reflect on how we got here and our prospects for the future.
Over our ten thousand year history since humanity began agriculture, our population grew slowly and smoothly up until about 1800.
Human population has exploded over the last 200 years. We hit 1 Billion people in 1804, and 7 Billion last week. Our population has doubled since Expo 67 in Montreal. Put another way, we've added more people than existed on earth in 1927 (2 Billion) since Expo 86 in Vancouver.
That's a lot of hungry people. Except that for the most part, they're not hungry. There's food for them. In any ecological niche, population expands in lockstep with food supply. More food means more people, less food - if that were to happen - would mean fewer people.
In 1800 we were already closing in on the human carrying capacity for the planet. Carrying capacity is the population that an environment can support in perpetuity.
We're way above the number of people (estimated at 1-2 Billion) who can live on earth in prosperity permanently. How's that possible? By temporarily exceeding our carrying capacity through the use of non-renewable resources.
Since the industrial revolution, we've introduced coal, oil and gas to mechanize agriculture and provide fossil-fuel based fertilizers and pesticides to increase food production.
This wildly increased food production allows us to temporarily exceed the planet's carrying capacity, as long as we continue to exploit non-renewable resources to keep our food supply up.
Of course this can't continue forever. To avoid catastrophic population crashes, we need to re-learn how to make food without non-renewable inputs. The local gardeners and permaculturists are on the right track. Growing food in an urban or suburban setting is a way of insulating yourself from potential food shortages.
Peak oil will cause transportation problems to be sure, but the problems that really hit you where you live will be due to food scarcity.
Even if all your neighbours think lawns are pretty, their new best friend is going to be the one with the garden when food supply starts to be an issue. It's better to figure out food production while the grocery store is still a great backup than having to grow food while you're hungry.
Originally published November 4, 2011.
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