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Big Government Sucks– And Blows

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Government Nanny-ism Marches On

There they go again. No sooner do I post an article pointing out government duplicity on alcohol than Health Canada decides to attack cigarette smokers. I’m not a smoker and not in favour of it, but there is a lot wrong with what this Liberal government is up to next. I realise it’s only a government discussion paper. Bureaucrats can spend entire careers doing nothing with them. But when governments put ideas on paper they have a nasty way of creeping into law. Health Canada is proposing to raise the “legal” age of smoking to 21 and outlaw smoking in more places than people can think to hide in.

Tobacco is an addictive substance that, when smoked, injects the body with innumerable harmful chemicals. Given this knowledge, millions of people have nonetheless decided to take up the habit. Millions never do and some smokers do manage to quit. Others smoke till they die; an eventuality they hasten by their habit. Of course governments concerned with public welfare discourage the activity in the only way they know how: they tax the crap out of them.

One thing they don’t do is outlaw them which is not surprising given the examples of Prohibition and The [Failed] War on DrugsOn the contrary revenue-starved politicians gouged Canadian smokers for over $8.3 billion in 2015-16 alone. The federal government orders legal manufacturers of cigarettes to mangle their labelling with pictures of diseased individuals. Not satisfied with that provinces order retailers to hide these abominations behind plastic screens. Citizens are warned that unless they “look” 25 or older they will be carded by hapless store owners. Contrast this with Marxist nut-jobs on various city councils who want to create “sanctuary cities”. Sneak into Canada and get on welfare if you must, but don’t buy cigarettes! We have laws about that sort of thing you know.

Four days after the original article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, Deputy Editor Tyler Dawson wrote a column ridiculing most of the measures. He pointed to statistics indicating smoking in Canada has declined from 50% of adults to 13% since 1965. Youth smoking is even lower at 9.7%.  What would otherwise indicate we’re on the right track instead becomes a phony ‘crisis’ requiring more intervention in adult lives. Dawson relates that there are in fact two groups where intervention could help: aboriginals on reserve and people with mental health issues. Here’s a policy suggestion: go bug them and leave the grown-ups in peace!

Government Giveth and Taketh Away

Governments monopolise the sales of cigarettes, alcohol and gambling and collect tens of billions in revenue. They pretend to care what these activities might do, to some people, by throttling the choices of all citizens. I understand the impulse to monitor and restrict for the seeming protection of the vulnerable, but it never stops there. Bureaucrats are well practiced in the art of crisis inflation. Using any worst-case scenario as a baseline, policies are ratcheted up to bestow perfect protection on helpless taxpayers. Since the attentions of Nanny State always fail someone, their hard luck is used to compel more interventions.

Pity the case of John Marando. Mr. Marando was happily playing slots at Ontario’s Mohawk Racetrack and casino recently when a machine paid off over $10,000. Problem was Mr. Marando had thrown himself on the tender mercies of Nanny State seventeen years ago. Disturbed by his losses at the time, he signed a “self-exclusion” declaration with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. This useless piece of paper suggested that OLG would prohibit Marando from gambling at its facilities. Fast forward to 2016 when Marando’s lucky night came to a crashing halt. OLG denied the 82-year-old pensioner his winnings and escorted him from the casino as if he were a criminal.

The government thought they were “protecting” Mr. Marando from his personal choices in 1999. Somehow, their protections did not prevent him from entering a casino and playing slots. They did however kick in when he won, and suddenly his personal choices were the business of Nanny State. Mr. Marando said: ” They didn’t mind taking my money all those years.” Helpfully, OLG officials pointed out that Marando can still buy lottery tickets. Huh?

It’s no surprise to grown-ups, (well conservatives anyway), that people do stupid things. Tobacco is harmful. Gambling can be disruptive to families. Alcohol can be abused. People who need help should have it available to them. Private companies aren’t going to step up, but there’s still charities. If not them, then fine, waste some of the revenue from vices on helping the vulnerable. Unfortunately, we have arrived at a time in history where self-serving bureaucrats have convinced far too many people that only the government can help…even as it hurts.

 

 

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The Constitution, Prohibition and Greed

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Constitutions are Written for Posterity, Not Perversion

In President Trump’s America, the U.S. Constitution is frequently referred to and often misinterpreted. President Trump’s select ban on travel from seven failed states has been deemed ‘unconstitutional’ by a lower court judge. The judiciary was strangely silent when previous presidents did the exact same thing.

Following the British tradition, Canadians don’t pay much attention to written constitutions. We prefer to let politicians screw us over one stupid piece of legislation at a time. However, we do have one, and politicians pay it lip service on occasion. Unfortunately, most of those occasions involve giving unfair consideration to their pet projects.

Our Constitution Act 1982 includes the original British North America Act 1867 (BNA) and updates it to include ten provinces and various modern tropes. Originally, the federal government was given jurisdiction over interprovincial and international trade at a time when excise tax provided the vast bulk of a government’s revenue. However, during the 1920’s with Prohibition raging in the U.S. and vast fortunes being made by criminal enterprises, provincial governments applied to take over the cross border trade in booze. No matter that the BNA said that all products of “the Growth, Produce Manufacture of any of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, shall be admitted free into each of the other Provinces.” Judges decided border controls would be in effect for alcohol. Typically, future politicians were loath to give up the cash cow after Prohibition came to a bloody end.

Over decades, various provincial regulations put the squeeze on drinkers, smokers and gamblers. Not only do they tax heavily but they suppress employment and freedom in the name of ‘doing what’s best for us.’ Ontario is notorious for treating it’s adult citizens like potential criminals but changes may be coming.

Citizens Must Rise Up to Protect the Constitution

In 2012 retiree Gerard Comeau of Tracadia-Sheila, New Brunswick was fined for buying cheap beverages in Quebec. In April 2016 Judge Ronald Leblanc dismissed the charges based on, surprise, the Constitution. The New Brunswick Court of Appeals refused to hear a government intervention. The province wants the Supreme Court of Canada to pronounce definitively on the ability of provinces to screw over citizens. Mr. Comeau, backed by the Canadian Constitution Foundation agrees, though obviously for the opposite reason. CCF Executive Director Howard Anglin wrote “…is it too much to ask that our own provinces drop their parochial concerns and unleash tens of billions of dollars of prosperity that the Fathers of Confederation intended we enjoy?”

Recently, the Conservative Party Canada launched a “Free the Beer” campaign. Fans of beer ask why the CPC didn’t do this while in office (2006-15) but they are obviously ignorant of how convoluted our “Deranged Dominion” (Mark Steyn) is. In fact, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Conservatives did “free my grapes” and remove federal restrictions on personal sales. Some provinces opened their borders. Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne made sympathetic noises for a while but in true Liberal fashion accomplished very little. If my local LCBO is any indication, we’re a long way from free trade. Wines from British Columbia occupy a few feet of unidentified shelf space beside racks of New Zealand plonk.

In spite of government interference, thousands of Canadians are opening micro-breweries and small distilleries. Ironically, these efforts hearken back to the days of Confederation when every town bustled with trade in goods and services between free citizens. Unfortunately, in recent years success and prosperity are misidentified as greed and selfishness. We live in sad times indeed when creating jobs is seen as self-serving, and creating useless bureaucracy is seen as “progress”.

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Playing in the Age of Mistrust

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“Fake News” and Gambling on Cynicism.

In my last post I reported on a class action lawsuit against the Atlantic Lottery Corporation. Punters in Newfoundland mistrust ALC’s video lottery terminals believing  they are rigged to lose. Lottery games are, of course, designed to do this very thing. You have to be aware that any number or symbol will only pop up randomly, and matching any three is three orders of magnitude more random. You can dream about getting lucky, but you can’t plan on it.

Apparently the locals have lost faith in their friendly neighbourhood government monopoly. The judge surely understands the odds against winning but believes there is merit in the case. Players aren’t looking for a needle in a haystack; they are looking for a haystack, on a comet, circling another star!

I have to believe there is something more at work here. It’s frustrating when the river card turns against you  in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em but the cards are physical. We believe though in digital malfeasance when a video screen spins up a useless fruit salad of unrelated symbols. It just seems more infuriating when a machine refuses to offer at least some solace after producing an endless string of losses.

I’ve explained previously, (“Winning the Lottery: Luck of the Draw”, June 29th, 2016), how draw lotteries like Canada’s 6/49 or US Powerball draws work. Carefully balanced balls careen inside a drum until the required number tumble down a chute. It’s random, unpredictable but it’s tactile and visible. Even computer scientists don’t know exactly what’s going on inside a computer and the public is growing leery of all the ways computers can be hacked and manipulated. This unease can be forgiven if it involves an unco-operative slot machine, but an epidemic of mistrust is breaking out over something we rely on daily: being informed.

The World’s Most Mistrusted Media Source.

There are many institutions that are suffering from steady declines in trust. Election polls have taken a beating, not least because pollsters have suffered a stream of spectacular failures. Public opinion of government waxes and wanes but has declined fairly steadily since the 1950’s. The news media, which once meant your local newspaper, now encompasses streaming, broadcasting and a wild west of digital vulgarity blasting 24/7. We have the most sources of information in 5,000 years and we hate it. To be more accurate: you hate the person I like and I hate the person you like.

The recent US election made a cottage industry of ‘fake news’. Web sites world wide published the most heinous accusations against all candidates. Fans of one side would gleefully re-tweet their favourite “news” about the other side and then engage in ferocious invective against what the other side claimed to be true. Apparently, teens in Macedonia made great money pumping out colourful material for US consumption. Of course, Russia had some sort of influence; hacking sites or, in some obscure way, “influencing” the election result.

If you’re on the losing side, your belief in magical intervention comforts you. If you backed the winner, you discount every suggestion that victory wasn’t inevitable from the beginning. We are at the dawn of the age of mistrust and the twilight of nuance.

Maybe something even more insidious than hacked emails and broadcast rumours has been at work on our society. Perhaps a foreign agency has been trying to convince us for decades that free market capitalism is somehow a failure. By feeding disinformation, misinformation, or just a flood of too much information, the foes of Western civilisation have taken us all for a horrible ride.

Or maybe the CIA planted the whole story.

The Oxford English Dictionary announced “post-truth” as their word for 2016. The OED folks pick words for the frequency of use as well as utility. Post -truth is defined as a state when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief.” Political careers rise or fall based on how blocs of voters feel. A blizzard of “sunny ways” buries successful policies like low taxes, restricted government and individual freedom with responsible citizenship. Secret funds pay advocacy groups to hold angry marches. Self-interest is raised above public interest as a political goal.

With the verbal temperature turned up on even the most inconsequential issue, debate is cancelled prior to discussion. It has reached a point that holding an accepted opinion isn’t enough. You have to believe in all the same facts with fervor equal to the looniest adherent.

I hope that enough people will step back and give due respect to their fellow citizens. However, if one of your tactics to “win” arguments is using excessive volume rather than reasoned information…you’re on your own.

 

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Prima Facie is Only where the Story Starts

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Lotteries Investigated Because Players Lose

I first encountered the term “prime facie” during Parliamentary proceedings. An MP would accuse a fellow member of some transgression and the Speaker of the House would decide whether there was a prima facie case for the issue to be examined further. This would mean that on the face of it, or at first glance, more investigation was required.

Two recent civil suits brought this to mind. In Canada we are apparently not immune to the belief that someone else is responsible when faced with undesired outcomes.

The National Post recently reported that an Ontario woman was suing Walmart Canada because her shopping cart rolled away. She chased the cart and fell.

At first glance the average person would likely experience schadenfreude because a face plant is funny when it happens to someone else. Experts shot down her original claim blaming the design of the parking lot. The plaintiff entered a new claim that the shopping cart was at fault. “On the face of it there is some argument for the plaintiff that there may be some liability” (by others) the judge is quoted as saying.

So, million-dollar lawyers and valuable court time will determine who is to blame for this woman’s unfortunate injuries.

In Newfoundland-Labrador, a judge certified a class action lawsuit against the Atlantic Lottery Corporation. The issue, at first glance, is that the video lottery terminals operated by ALC don’t allow players to win. In particular, these machines take all the most insidious features of casino gambling: colourful, active visuals with ease of play and a repeated (deceptive) representation of ‘near’ winning, and turbo charge the activity in an environment that includes alcohol service. One plaintiff admitted to secretly spending $500 per day on the VLT habit. He offered no explanation where he got that kind of money or how he kept the activity from his wife.

At first glance we would say the causes of problem gambling are self-inflicted. By failing to appreciate odds against the player, people irrationally believe that their personal pay-off is one more click away. The Universe is a big, cold place that doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether you’ve been playing the game for two minutes or two years. The next symbol to pop up is still a million-to-one shot every time you place your bet.

Yet, million-dollar lawyers and valuable court time will determine whether lottery corporations are responsible for people believing the hype that “anyone can win” or “you can’t win if you don’t play”. (Most insidiously these statements are ‘true’, on the face of it!).

If the lottery corp.’s are guilty of anything, it’s putting these rip-off machines in a place people can play with them.

On the other hand, a learned judge believes the machines could be liable for bankruptcy and family breakdown. Most provincial gambling control programs are voluntary and therefore useless. When does an addict behave so responsibly that they report to authorities when they exceed their limit? Does a lottery corporation know when an individual has become obsessed with the idiot concept of winning a lottery? Where is the evidence that they give a shit?

No matter how things turn out, we are left with an eternal truth: you are responsible for your choices. You are responsible for being aware of conditions that affect your well-being. You should be aware that governments, corporations etc. can and will manipulate those conditions to line their own pockets. This doesn’t mean you are a helpless victim unless you choose to be.

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This is Your Brain on Gambling…

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Science Finds Brain Parts that Like the Odds

I’m dating myself with the reference in the title about an old anti-drug campaign (Partnership for a Drug-Free America). We’ve all run out of new things to say anyway and what’s old is new again.

While we search the heavens for signs of intelligent life, we struggle to confirm its existence here on Earth. Fortunately we have instruments that can peer into the darkest recesses of our own brains.

Before we go too far I wish to direct readers to another reference from the 1980’s: Ten Philosophical Mistakes by Mortimer J. Adler. Now, I’m no philosopher but I’m thankful Dr. Adler was on the job fixing wrong ideas from the past. I explored the persistence of some ideas in a previous post, (“The Persistence of Bad ideas” December 9, 2016).

I’m offering this aside to provide context for the science that we’re examining today. In his section entitled ‘The Intellect and the Senses’, Dr. Adler wished to fix a problem raised by seventeenth century philosophers John Locke and David Hume. By failing to distinguish between the experiences perceived by our senses and those concepts arrived at by intellect, the philosophers led people to believe the only things we can have in our heads are versions of things that come to us from our ears and eyes.

“In all these statements, two errors are compounded: one is the error of regarding our perceptions and images, miscalled ‘ideas’, as the immediate objects of our consciousness; the other is the error of reducing the human mind to a purely sensitive faculty, able to be aware of nothing but what can be perceived through the senses or can be imagined as a result of our sense perceptions.”

While it’s true we react to sights, sounds, tastes and the pain of handling frayed wires, we are an order of magnitude beyond Bobo the gorilla making finger signs for a banana. We can conceive of, and enact constitutions guaranteeing rights and freedoms, (and undermine them with kangaroo courts mislabelled “Human Rights Tribunals”), and design buildings and machines that can mess up or clean up our environment.

It’s what I take from it and I’m able to cogitate on these and other concepts while craving spicy Doritos

As I pondered my first post of 2017 I came across this article regarding problem gambling. On January 3rd the CBC reported, (“Problem gambling triggers same part of brain as substance addiction.”), the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Gambling Research, used MRIs to show a region of the brain known as the insula, lit up at the very sight of gambling machines. Researcher Eve Limbrick-Oldfield is quoted as saying the insula is a “mysterious and poorly understood part of the brain [but it] has been identified as key hub for craving in past research.”

While the folks at UBC continue to do excellent research into our stupid behaviours, (e.g. buying lottery tickets), I am leery of the conclusion of the article. It suggests naltrexone, an opoid antagonist, might be useful in suppressing gambling addiction.

In the first place our “therapeutic society” insists we treat every misbehaviour and deviance with some sort of chemical, (except the ones backed by wealthy advocacy groups!). The implication seems to be that your bad behaviour isn’t your fault and it’s nothing a little shot of elixir can’t ‘cure’.

In the second place, we seem comfortable pumping powerful chemicals into our brains hoping they will be effective and not offer too serious side-effects. We take drugs to handle one issue only to find we need a third drug to deal with the side-effects of the first two! Recent research suggests there may be a link between taking antidepressants and a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life. (Don’t get down over that though. Science could “prove” a link between any disease and any substance if they tried!).

I do not mean to diminish the deleterious effects of problem, as opposed to periodic, gambling, nor the real cognitive issues that may prevent people from leading pleasant, productive lives. I just hope that research into why we do stupid things does not lead to the belief we can administer behaviour drugs to control people…or populations.

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