Monday, June 27, 2011

SCOTUS okays violent vid games

The US Supreme Court ruled today, 7-2, violent video games are protected by the First Amendment and California had no right to pass a law that banned the sale of such games to people under 18.  The majority judgment was written by that noted sarcastic wordsmith, Antonin "Nino" Scalia, with Sam Alito writing a concurrence.    The dissenters were Clarence Thomas and, in a bit of a surprise, liberal Stephen Breyer.

In oral arguments, California conceded the first part -- about free speech -- but it had argued that it had a duty to protect minors from being exposed to content that is often graphically violent as well as sexually explicit or even degrading.   However, Scalia said not only was that a stretch of the imagination -- pointing out kids have ready access to such content on the Internet as well as as video game parlours and movie houses that do not strictly enforce the "recommended age" rules -- but that it placed the state in the place of the parent.    For instance, in a footnote, Scalia made fun of Thomas' suggestion that a law could be passed that would require a parents' permission to buy such a game.    Taken to its logical conclusion, Scalia wrote, what Thomas was suggesting is that it could allow a parent to forbid a child from attending a rally calling for the abolition of corporal punishment if they didn't have a "permission slip."    Scalia makes the point further by referring to classical pieces of literature -- Hansel and Gretel baking their captor in an oven, Odysseus grinding out the eye of a cyclops, and that "Grimm's Fairy Tales are grim indeed."

Thomas, as usual in his dissents, makes no sense -- basically he said the First Amendment was never intended to be applied to video games.   Well, the concept for television wasn't conceived until 1881 and it wasn't commercially available until the 1920s!   The Founding Fathers could never have dreamed of television, let alone interactive video games.    (You can read it for yourself at the link above and judge for yourself. 

Breyer applies the "void for vagueness" doctrine and makes a somewhat plausible argument on how the law could be sustained, saying that qualitatively the California law was really not that much different from a New York State law upheld back in 1968 by a much more liberal court (this one regarding access to erotic and pornographic films by minors).    To the argument that a centerfold in, say, Playboy, is just as easily accessible to a 13 year old as a video game depicting the rape of a woman, Breyer basically invokes Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s "fire in a crowded theatre" -- that the live or simulated depiction of a violent act against is bound to have much more of a negative effect on a minor than a mere picture of a woman posing full frontal nude for fun.   If there is no artistic merit, therefore, it would be illegal.   (Breyer attaches a whopping 15 page bibliography to his 19 page dissent.)

It's a fair argument and a much better one than Thomas makes, but on this issue I agree with Scalia and Alito.   Extreme violence should be of concern to us all, especially violence against women.   But the First Amendment means what it says, and says what it means -- and even if the law was constitutional kids would still find a way to access and play the games.   There is after all that thing called the black market.    If a game is so grossly out of community standards, then even liberals will join a boycott and the game will be pulled from the market.   It's that simple.   Let the marketplace decide -- not the government.

Mail moves again

So the postal workers are going back and the mail starts moving tomorrow.   Just as well, but there were much better ways to settle the issue than a forced wage settlement that was even less than what the post office was offering.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

H of C like the Pink Bunny -- they keep going and going and ...

... going and going ... the debate in Parliament on the back to work legislation for the locked out workers at the Canada Post Corporation, that is.   (Kady O'Malley has a good analysis of exactly what the NDs are up to and how the filibuster is working.)   I have a good friend who works at the sorting plant in Hamilton (and who was also a former letter carrier) so I certainly do empathize with where the postal workers stand.     But what looked like could wrap up this weekend could go on a whole lot longer.

Not only do each of the 308 MPs have 20 minutes to speak to the issue at each of second reading, "committee of the whole" and third reading with ten minutes for Q and A (the exceptions are the PM and the leaders of the NDs, Liberals and Liz May of the Greens each of whom have no time limit whatsoever -- theoretically, they could each read all seven books of the Harry Potter heptalogy into Hansard three times each (as long as they don't faint!) -- there's still the matter of actually having the vote.    And those of us 35 or older remember the "bell ringing" incident in 1983 when the then Progressive Conservatives simply refused to show up to vote on abolishing the "Crow Rate" -- for two weeks.   The bells (and they were fire alarm bells, not the pleasant chime we're used to now) rang all that time which meant that legally the MPs nor their assistants couldn't leave the Hill.    That tactic was abolished soon after but there are still ways to stall a vote.

It would be a lot easier, frankly, if the post office and CUPW just found agreement where they do agree on -- and I think there's quite a bit there -- then send the rest to final offer selection.   I support labour fully, but I honestly feel the point has been more than made.   As well, allow the post office to raise postal rates to the rate of inflation rather than well below it as is the case now.   If it's a matter of finding the money to pay the workers, raise the revenues -- after all, they're a self-financing operation and stopped being a government department 30 years ago.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Black going back to the clink

Looks like Lord Conrad Black couldn't catch a break after all.    US Federal Judge Amy St. Eve, who originally sentenced Black to 6½ years in prison on fraud and obstruction of justice, had the case remanded to her after the US Supreme Court narrowed the definition of deprivation of "honest services."

Judge St. Eve did make mention of the fact that she received loads of mail from Black's fellow inmates noting he was more than a model prisoner, and his work as an in-jail teacher as well as empathizing with the circumstances that got his fellow prisoners in trouble did ameliorate her previous and very negative comments about him (i.e. how his conduct put "everything at risk").   But, noting that Black still hasn't taken full responsibility for his actions at Hollinger, St. Eve reduced the sentence to 3½ years and also slapped Black with a fine of $125,000 plus two years parole upon release (although more than likely he'll be deported -- to Canada or the UK, no one is sure yet).   That means another thirteen months, but with time served and his "good behaviour" to date Black will be going up the river for maybe nine months at most.    Also interesting to note is that his wife, Barbara Amiel, collapsed when the new sentence was handed down (apparently she's okay -- too little sleep, she says).

Good on the judge for her decision.   The law as originally written was indeed too vague, but time served would not have served as a deterrent to others who would be tempted to run a public traded company as a private and unaccountable fiefdom.   In the end, the losers are still the shareholders of Hollinger who were denied fair value and wound up with nothing when the company filed for bankruptcy.   Black's time behind bars may have certainly softened his stance on excessive sentences and the absolutely insane "zero tolerance" drug policy in the States -- something which is definitely welcome -- but that simply doesn't make up for his misdeeds.

Frankly, the EU can have him when his time is done -- that is, if he isn't on the joint personae non grata list the 27 countries share.   I'm not sure I'd want him back in Canada.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Hamilton takes another step out of the Dark Ages

It finally looks like Hamilton is about to get out of the dark ages and allow department stores to be open 24 / 7.   It only makes sense.   Not that I really care for places like WalMart that much -- but why is it that we have to drive to Burlington to buy stuff overnight?   Not everyone works 9 to 5 and there are people who prefer to get their clothes and food in the wee hours of the morning.

And if it means more employment and more people paying taxes rather than living off social assistance so much the better.   (The only other city with restricted hours in this province is Sudbury -- I hope it's not because the sulphur has poisoned the minds of the city councilors there.)

Hudak's hopes that we have short memories ...

This fall's election in Ontario is going to be pretty exciting if for no other reason than two of the three candidates for Premier represent Hamilton districts.   Andrea Horwath represents Hamilton Centre (most of downtown and a chunk of the West Escarpment).  Meanwhile Tim Hudak represents Niagara West - Glanbrook.  The "Glanbrook" is that part of Hamilton which is the former town of Glanbrook, the "upper" part of former Stoney Creek and a small part of the "old" Hamilton running due south from Albion Falls.   Niagara West consists of four towns in Niagara County -- Grimsby, West Lincoln, Lincoln and Pelham.   So, an inner city MLA and one who represents a mix of urban and rural (and the two districts actually abut each other at their western extremities).

The recent commercials that have come on air this week from Team Hudak criticizing Dalton McGuinty for numerous broken promises may have a point.    Except for a few problems.   Actually there are far too many but I'll mention just three:

  • It may well be that McGuinty broke his promise of "no new taxes" and introduced a health care premium like those in BC, Québec and Alberta (the latter of which is now phasing it out).   Yet it was Mike Harris who proposed such a levy back in 1994.   And I should point out, at a town hall at McMaster which I attended at the time, when I asked Mr. Harris about it, he told me point blank it was fully compliant with the Canada Health Act.  Of course, Harris' idea was to have a $50,000 exemption to spare roughly half the families of the province the indignity of having to pay it, and it would have also been progressive with those over $300,000 paying a 3% surtax (McGuinty set the threshold much lower, only $20,000 per individual so most of us get the shaft).   However, the feds nixed the idea of the health levy at the time since most provinces were, by law, forced to levy income taxes on a "tax on tax" basis (unlike Québec which has had its own separate system since 1954).    It was only when Ontario (led by Harris) and other provinces and territories revolted and threatened to go the Québec route that Ottawa finally acquiesced and permitted the more transparent "tax on income" that we have now.  The health levy is here to stay, at least until the budget is balanced.   I think we'll instead see an increase in co-pays for drugs and other health appliances for indigents and seniors.
  • Hudak gripes about the HST.   To a point he does have a legitimate point.   Other provinces that introduced it (namely, Québec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland-Labrador) reduced the provincial part of the levy to ensure revenue neutrality, something that didn't happen here.   What Hudak doesn't want you to know is that Harris, too, was looking at harmonization early on in his first term.   One insider (I can't remember who) actually said on CTV that Harris would harmonize if the feds let the province drop their levy from 8% to 3% (which would have meant a net total of 10%).   The feds said no, that such a low levy wasn't worth the effort.   Personally, I think the combined tax should be 10%.   But if Hudak says he'll take the tax off gas, diesel and power, don't believe him.
  • Finally, we all have to acknowledge that electric deregulation has been an unmitigated disaster.   As it was pending (again, while the Conservatives were in power), several of the largest power users in the province including auto manufacturing, paper making and steel had proposed turning Ontario Hydro into a not-for-profit cooperative that would continue to ensure what the original intent of the system was -- power at cost.   Instead we went headlong into a system where most people were forced to pay market prices (the weighted average over two months, with the price changing every five minutes).   That would be fine if the average was, say, 10 cents per kilowatt hour.   But during those first few months, prices swung anywhere from negative (yes, negative) 5 cents per hour (there was so much being produced it had to go somewhere because you can't store power) to a buck seventy.   So instead of paying an average of eight cents like we had been, we were paying anywhere from forty-five to fifty.   Embarrassed, the Cons brought back in fixed pricing which means our tax dollars are subsidizing what should be a user pay system.   That continues to this day.   And yes, there is that debt retirement charge but who's going to pay the debt -- does Hudak think we can just add it on to the government's debt?
You can fool a lot of people a lot of the time.   But he sure isn't fooling me.   As Kim Campbell says, "Charisma without substance can be a dangerous thing."   Except in this case, the substance is the past, and what is past is prologue.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Vancouver goes berserk -- again

I had a feeling that the Boston Bruins were going to win this year's Frederick A. Stanley Cup -- yes, the guy's first name was Fred -- but what happened last night in Vancouver, that is the riots, was inexcusable.   The police knew this was bound to happen.   The game book they used during last year's Winter Olympics simply wasn't going to work.   There's a huge difference between welcoming fans from 85 other countries and trying to keep the peace, and controlling totally unruly fans from just one city (there was a fair size Boston contingent but from I could see they were mostly treated actually respectfully -- it was the goons from the Lower Mainland that ruined it for everyone).

The only question I have to ask is, given the experience after 1994 when the Canucks lost to the New York Rangers, where was the heavy duty equipment -- the silent sound wave cannons, the water cannons, anything short of deadly force?   In Britain and France, two countries that have no problem with posse comitatus, they'd even bring in the Armed Forces to restore law and order after a soccer riot.   This is a situation that should have been dissipated before it started.  I watched some of the coverage last night, and what told the story for me wasn't the cop cars being torched but a couple of high school graduations that were holed up inside a banquet hall just across from CBC's Vancouver studios, because they couldn't leave due to the ruckus.

For a lot of people ice hockey is all.   But in the end, just like soccer, it's just a game.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Uphold the sex workers' decision

This week the Ontario Court of Appeal is hearing arguments in the case involving three sex trade workers who have asked to have three sections of the Criminal Code, as it is applied to them and others similarly situated, to be declared unconstitutional, upholding an earlier lower court ruling.   It's not really surprising PMS would appeal the decision -- have to cater to his Christianite base after all -- but I am disturbed that Premier Dad would also be appealing.   Seems to me public safety is something one should fight for and not against.   Based on what questions the appeals court judges were asking the fed's lawyer, they're not entirely convinced that the governments have a leg to stand on.

Let me repeat, I don't think prostitution should be completely legalized.  (Actually, technically it already is but the legal restrictions make it impossible to carry it out legally.)   But the status quo is simply untenable.   As long as perpetrators are in a safer legal position than the people they take advantage of it will remain so untenable.   Will it take another Robert Pickton before Harper is convinced?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Simplify the tax system and give us back the lost decade and a half

My beef this Sunday morning is taxes.

I haven't had much time to think about the "revised" federal budget, and there's not much point in tearing it apart, any honest analysis would be as long as the budget paper itself (300 pages plus).     I do give credit for one thing:   I like the fact that the feds will be topping up the Guaranteed Income Supplement by $50 per month for single seniors and $70 for couples.   This does go a long way to closing the gap created when the pension credit for those lucky enough to have a slush fund was tripled from $1000 to $3000.   But not near enough.   The numbers should be at least double that, with a goal over four years to bring the guaranteed amount (including provincial or territorial supplements) to the poverty line, or as we say in Newspeak, the "Low Income Cut-off."

I still believe and will continue to fight for, on this page and wherever I can by legal means, the end of poverty for seniors and the most vulnerable families.

My main concern, though, is that in trying to get votes, the government has said over the last few years they're handing out $500 here, $1000 there, another $10,000 out yonder (which really means $75, $150 and $1500 respectively).   It would be far more efficient, rather than creating new credits and making the tax system even more complicated, to just have broad based income tax cuts -- say, 1 or 2 percentage points across the board.   Put more money into people's pay cheques rather than make them wait until the end of the year to collect on money for which the government has collected interest on our backs.

What credits are created are not indexed to inflation, so over time, they lose their value.    And, like the United States, this latter one is impacting a lot of people who unwittingly are getting trapped by the Alternate Minimum Tax which is a flat 15% over $40,000 if that amount is more than what the tax owing would be with write-offs (and of course that doesn't include the provincial take).   That $40,000 threshold has been there since Mike Wilson introduced the AMT -- in 1985.   In reality the exemption should be just over $71,000.

It's more than obvious too that we need to do something about the lost decade and a half when tax brackets were frozen (except for one year in 1992 to account for the temporary spike in prices when the GST was introduced).   So that personal exemption of $10,527 should really be something like $15,741 -- and so on down page three of the return.

It's the old KISS formula:   Keep it short and simple.   I don't mean a flat tax or the "post card" tax return canard.   I do mean a fairer tax system that ensures that even those who don't earn enough to tax advantage of write-offs still have enough disposable income to spend and ensure consumption taxes are still raised.

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Friday, June 3, 2011

BREAKING: Jack Kevorkian dead

Source:   Detroit Free Press.   All I can say is, he put forward an issue many of us don't really want to talk about on the agenda.