Saturday, January 08, 2011

Saturday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- While I normally find Gerald Caplan's justified cynicism to be well worth reading, his latest looks to go well past the point of reasonable frustration, instead moving well into the territory of destroying even the possibility of trust in public institutions (which ultimately only serves the purposes of parties like the Cons looking to devalue them).

- The Star's Sandro Cotenta asked Canada's 100 highest-paid CEOs to justify their salaries - and found exactly one taker. But perhaps the most interesting part of the story is how top-end salaries are being pumped up even when that's contrary to the theory behind the boom in stock options:
“The main concern is that there seems to be rewards to the CEO when the company does well but there isn’t enough risk to the CEO when the company does poorly,” Hawton says.

Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, describes the way executives get paid as a key factor in the latest economic crash.

Today’s pay schemes, he says, date back to 1976, when U.S. economists Michael Jensen and William Meckling argued in an influential paper that the interests of shareholders would best be served by giving CEOs stock-based compensation. That would focus CEO efforts on making stock prices rise.

Boards of directors embraced the theory. In 1970, according to figures compiled by Martin, less than 1 per cent of compensation for Fortune 500 CEOs was stock-based. The average compensation package, in 2000 dollars, was $850,000. By 2000, 50 per cent of total compensation was stock-based, and the average compensation was $14 million.
Now, it would be interesting to wonder how performance may have varied in cases where stock-based compensation may have been offered without a concurrent rise in base salary. But based on Martin's numbers, CEOs received an eightfold increase in their base salaries to go with the massive increase in stock-based compensation. And it's not hard to see how the availability of $7 million a year in base compensation unrelated to performance might lead a CEO to be willing to take risks with a company's stock price which may not be so palatable to shareholders or employees.

- Meanwhile, Carol Goar offers up some useful suggestions as to what people can do to combat inequality.

- Finally, the Star confirms that the Cons' claim to have gutted the long form census based on public complaints in fact relates to nothing more than a few kooks and cranks outnumbered even by the number of prominent organizations fighting the change. But then if evidence meant anything positive to the Cons, they'd already have avoided or reversed the decision several dozen times over by now.

On closed reviews

Before anybody tries to pretend that a secret parliamentary committee to deal with intelligence issues is some radical positive development for government accountability, it might be time for a reminder of the problem with pretending that it's enough to give the truth only to a few politicians who are sworn to say and do nothing about it:
Remember that many of the worst abuses by the U.S. government under Bushco were defended later on the basis that Democrats were informed of their existence. And that the fact that the opposition officials were sworn to secrecy and lacked any practical means to stop the abuse didn't stop a bullying government from claiming that their failure to act immediately made for tacit agreement with the policy.

Of course, that wasn't a reasonable position by any stretch of the imagination. But it did create a handy distraction tactic as soon as revelations did leak into the public eye - ensuring that the governing party wouldn't bear sole responsibility for its own actions, while the public would perceive insiders of all parties as having hidden information. And in order to avoid a similar precedent that important information on a matter of public interest should be disclosed only to MPs, I'd think the opposition parties should be careful to ensure that as much information as possible also finds its way to the public.

Burning question

Sure, it's somewhat informative to learn that Don Meredith considers his Senate sinecure to be a "gift from the Lord". But shouldn't somebody follow up as to whether that's based on his religion's definition of a "Lord", or his party's?

Friday, January 07, 2011

Musical interlude

Gareth Emery - Metropolis

A point of clarification

According to the Cons, we absolutely can't wait another second to commit Canada to buying F-35s at some point in the future (assuming the entire program isn't scrapped by more canny would-be purchasers around the world). But when it comes to making time for those F-35s for arrive...well, suddenly we have all the time in the world:
Liberal critic Marc Garneau said the four-year delay and doubling in price of the F-35 “is cause for extreme concern because the federal government is committing itself to an aircraft that is not fully developed.”

Lawson said development of the conventional F-35 has been advancing well and “it’s from that that I take great promise with this program and great confidence in it.”

The general said Canada is “buffered somewhat” from any further delays in the delivery of the F-35s because the recently upgraded CF-18s provide “manoeuvre space in when we would purchase aircraft. So, if required, we might be able to extend the final date of service of the F-18.”

Friday Morning Links

Content goes here.

- Paul Wells sifts through the latest Abacus polling on Canada's political parties:
The Conservatives do not lead only in feel-good perceptions. Respondents thought the Conservatives, more than Liberals or New Democrats, are “extreme” and “out of touch with ordinary people.” It hardly needs saying that Harper continues to divide the country. But enough of the division benefits the Conservatives to leave Harper in the catbird seat.

Abacus found Canadians have less trouble agreeing about the Liberals. When comparing the three parties, respondents were least likely to agree that Michael Ignatieff’s party “keeps its promises,” “understands the problems facing Canada,” “looks after the interests of people like me,” “defends the interests of people in my province,” “has a good team of leaders,” “stands for clear principles,” “has sensible policies,” or is “professional in its approach.”

But look on the bright side. The Liberals did not finish behind the Conservatives and New Democrats on every measure. Among the three parties, respondents were likeliest to agree it’s the Liberals who are “divided” and “will promise anything to win votes.”

These are the results Ignatieff obtains after a full year with a senior political staff Ottawa reporters like. It follows his long summer bus tour and the uniformly positive reviews that came with it. It comes after Harper prorogued Parliament, gutted the long-form census, turned summit-time Toronto into one big riot and flip-flopped on ending the Afghanistan deployment.

After all that, Canadians give Harper’s party the edge on reliability, pertinence and competence. After the Conservatives, on these same questions, they almost always prefer Jack Layton’s NDP to Ignatieff’s Liberals.
- Meanwhile, Dan Gardner hints at what's sure to be a winning message for the Harper Cons: "Not Quite as Crazy as the Tea Party". Though I do have to wonder whether even that is more a matter of simply not having pushed public opinion far enough to be able to speak their minds.

- But in case you need ten more reasons to vote against the Harper Cons, Kathleen O'Hara provides them.

- And finally, Susan Riley nicely counters the latest set of corporate-tax-cut spin:
It is hard to see how a few points shaved off corporate tax rates is going to produce a surge of well-paying, stable jobs; the details are still hazy. But, after government stimulus spending ends this year, the private sector, invigorated by its declining tax load, is apparently going to take up the slack. Despite such rosy projections, many Canadians are deeply uneasy about prospects for themselves and their children in coming months -- and no wonder.

True, very high corporate tax rates can discourage investment -- but, compared to the rest of the G7 and to our southern neighbours, Canadian rates are relatively low. Nor, as Ireland's sorry example underscores, are low business taxes a guarantee of lasting economic success.

Such contradictions -- and the fact that tax rates are only one of many factors influencing economic success -- are rarely the focus of serious scrutiny. Three decades of unrelenting neo-conservative preaching have turned taxes into a dirty word, as left-leaning economist Hugh Mackenzie says, "to the point where even governments don't defend government."
(I)t is the now-entrenched notion that corporate high-rollers have to be bribed with astronomical benefits and generous tax treatment to stay with the company, stay in Canada, keep working those long hours and creating jobs that is most questionable -- especially since their huge bonuses are increasingly unconnected to the actual performance of a company. This argument betrays a pinched, negative view of human nature.

On public interests

Reiko Aoki's idea to provide electoral weight to children while allowing a child's parents to exercise the right looks to have one major problem on its face (which I'll deal with in a later post). But for now, it is worth using Aoki's concern about weighting the interests of different groups as a starting point to point out the real value of a vote - and in particular the reason why most citizens should want to emphasize the power of a vote rather than being cynical about the prospect of one vote deciding an election.

As things stand now, most mainstream political discussion takes place through the lens of parties which have their own reasons for keeping a relatively narrow focus on tranches of marginal voters. Yes, any party would love to win a substantial share of the 40% of disaffected voters into its own camp - but since that's seen as a remote possibility at best, more effort gets put toward influencing the much smaller number of voters who are seen as far more likely to be able to tilt the results of the next election. And that may make for a rational short-term choice from the perspective of a political strategist.

But what makes that strategy rational is the assumption that a large and increasing number of voters won't show up - or at least, not based on the actions of any political party. And that latter point is key, as a message from a perceived outsider to a citizen or community whose members hold and reinforce a sense of being uninterested in the political sphere figures to have little impact.

So the real question looks to me to be this: how can we convince the 40% of citizens who don't bother to vote that their votes do matter, even when the parties' rational strategy doesn't seek to engage them all that closely?

Fortunately, there seems to be a relatively simple answer.

No matter how idealistic or cynical a view one wants to take, there doesn't seem to be much room for dispute that governmental authority as determined through electoral politics is one of many interconnected sources of power in society at large. And importantly, the electoral arena is the only one where that power is allotted equally among individuals, rather than being subject to concentration which excludes most of the public.

So for anybody outside the genuinely elite few which are able to exercise disproportionate influence in other spheres, the ability to have decisions made based on collective interests and preferences is a solution, not a problem. And the most obvious course of action for any individual who perceives a need for change in society at large is to emphasize the system that allows for the shared interests of the many to be reflected in the law of the land - rather than abandoning it to those who already have so much clout through other means.

But of course, the idea of using the radically equal system of one person, one vote only works for somebody who perceives both a need and a likelihood of actually making changes. So what about those who simply don't think it's worth bothering?

I'd hope that the answer to the first question would change a few minds on its own. But it's also worth asking rhetorically whether it's possible to fully disengage.

There, it's easy enough to make the seemingly uncontroversial point that government both directly (through its own actions) and indirectly (through its authority to regulate other actors in the interests of whoever is seen as worth catering to) impacts the lives of everybody under its jurisdiction. Perhaps more importantly, though, the real cynicism which so many people apparently hold would seem to reflect some acknowledgment that there's a gap between what is and what ought to be. And the recognition that something better is possible should at least serve as reason enough to look for opportunities to get there - even if such opportunities aren't seen as obvious among one's current political choices.

Of course, no one post or argument is likely to make a great deal of difference on its own. But I'll suggest to those who see the need to achieve better societal outcomes that the first step is to start talking positively about the value of democratic decision-making as the best means for most citizens to have their interests taken into account. And the more that message spreads among Canadians who are disengaged from the party system, the more incentive Canada's political parties will have to pick it up for themselves.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Nicely done

I seldom hesitate to criticize media outlets which are too eager to report Con spin as news even when there's no reason to think it has any basis in reality. So full credit to the CP for treating the Cons' unsupported assertions about their website rule-breaking with due skepticism:
The Harper government claims a senior bureaucrat gave it the go-ahead to avoid the rules governing the look and feel of its Economic Action Plan website.

But the Conservatives are declining to provide documentary evidence of the exemption, which does not appear among hundreds of pages of memos, drafts and emails obtained by The Canadian Press under an Access to Information Act request that took more than a year to process.
Day's office and the Prime Minister's Office did not respond to requests Wednesday and Thursday to produce the d'Auray document.

Without documentary evidence, the government assertion falls into the same category as previous claims that Statistics Canada bureaucrats recommended the abolition of the mandatory long-form census last spring. The head of StatsCan subsequently resigned in protest, and the "recommendation" proved to be merely a non-preferred option.
(Edit: fixed typo.)

Thursday Afternoon Links

This and that for your Thursday.

- Obviously missing from Ted Menzies' excuses for the Cons' decision to do nothing about the Canada Pension Plan: a single word of explanation as to how anybody is better off setting up new funds for private profit rather than actually expanding the CPP to include more people. This might be a point worth pressing, no?

- Maude Barlow weighs in on some of the issues with the proposed Canada-Europe free trade agreement.

- Bill Curry points out one significant drain on Canada's federal coffers that would serve as an obvious means to increase revenues if the Cons were the least bit serious about dealing with the deficit:
Billions of dollars worth of credits and tax writeoffs for everything from construction tools to textbooks and kids’ sports fees have been piling up for years. Their expansion ramped up under the Conservatives before the recession hit. Now in leaner times, they continue to eat up cash.

Billed as tax “cuts” when they are announced by politicians, they live on in the federal books as “tax expenditures.” The semantic debate between politicians and academics continues as the number of credits rise.

The annual report detailing their cost runs for 24 pages.
- Finally, Jamies Bowie may give far too much credit to the Libs' earlier lack of accomplishment. But it would certainly be worth taking his suggestion to start compiling a list of Con programs that did nothing toward their nominal ends - so stop by and add your suggestions.

On private interests

The CP's expanded story on the Cons' Economic Action Plan rulebreaking includes a noteworthy tidbit about how the Cons tried to claim the rules didn't apply:
By counting individual stimulus projects that were administered through institutions that did not have to comply to the Common Look and Feel policy – including such loosely defined “initiatives” as “moving forward with Public Private Partnerships” – the government was able to claim that “32.1 per cent of all initiatives” were not under the policy and therefore the EAP site needn't apply, either.
To date, my impression is that the main issues of concern about the political use of P3s have been the risk of favouring preferred private-sector partners and the removal of project documentation from the scope of access to information legislation. But if it's equally true that P3s aren't covered by the normal prohibition against using public money for partisan purposes, then doesn't that offer yet another reason to wonder about whose interests are likely to be served when they're used?

Are they really Liberals?

Susan Delacourt is right to be wary of the seemingly endless supply of sources proclaiming themselves to be Liberal strategists based on past affiliation while announcing their desire to see the party fail in the present. But there's a flip side to that reason for skepticism which also deserves some attention.

After all, the assumption that the Libs should be considered the alternative government in waiting is itself based in no small part on the party's historical record - in which those same fair-weather supporters presumably played a part. So if the media is going to start noting that some substantial portion of those proclaiming themselves to be Liberals out of habit are actually working to undermine the party, it should also take the opportunity to question exactly how much of a natural party base the Libs can actually claim.

Deep thought

Based on the Cons' destructive tendencies, it shouldn't be a surprise that we now have a Levantist anti-environmentalist as Environment Minister to join the anti-science Minister for Science and Technology.

Instead, the real shock should be that Rob Anders isn't yet in charge of diplomacy.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

On malign neglect

The CP's story about the Cons breaking rules about avoiding partisanship on government websites is certainly noteworthy on its own. But it's particularly worth highlighting how one part of the story also fits into Paul Wells' classic critique of the Harper government:
According to federal documents obtained by The Canadian Press, bureaucrats advised that the Economic Action Plan website didn't meet rules (to ensure they are credible, technically accessible, uniform and non-partisan) – and didn't merit an exemption from those rules.

However, the website was given the green light anyway by then-Treasury Board president Vic Toews.

He justified it by writing that the rules – which only came into effect in 2009 – were going to be changed at some future date.
More than a year after the exemption, the rules remain in place – as does the website.
Of course, it's a problem as well that the Cons couldn't care less whether or not they're following the rules - particularly those which they've put in place themselves. But it's particularly worth noting that whether due to disorganization, neglect or some other factor, they also can't be bothered to follow through on their own supposed plans to change them - even when they've stated their intention to do so in order to offer some retroactive justification for their actions.

In other words, the problems with the Cons involve flat-out incompetence in addition to blatant ethical failures. And while we might take some comfort in hoping that the former may limit their ability to capitalize on the latter, both serve as rather compelling reasons for a change in government.

Wednesday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your midweek reading.

- Thomas Walkom ponders the possible outcome of an election whose core message is whether or not to give the Cons a majority:
(G)iven the mood of the country, an NDP-Liberal coalition properly arranged ahead of time (with, for instance, common candidates) might win the next election — which, for politicians, is what matters.

With their anti-coalition propaganda, the Conservatives have already defined this coming contest in dualistic terms — good versus evil, us versus them.

If voters truly believe that they face a stark choice between Harper and the forces of Anti-Harper, the Conservatives could be unpleasantly surprised.
Now, I still don't see common candidates in advance of an election being a viable option (as distinct from a willingness to work together afterward). But if the Libs would allow the "Harper vs. Anti-Harper" them to develop rather than insisting that the latter will be ignored if they don't agree to do Michael Ignatieff's bidding, I'd agree with Walkom that we'd be likely to see a result that would disappoint the Cons.

- Meanwhile, anybody looking to speculate on when the next election might take place will want to take a look at Alice's handy guide.

- David McKie notes a disturbing drop in the use of access to information requests by journalists:
perhaps it's time for journalism schools and newsrooms to wake up and use a law that provides access, albeit difficult access, to important information. To be sure, journalists are using the act to tell stories, such as an excellent behind-the-scenes account last fall in The Ottawa Citizen that provided a window in the chaos that resulted after an earthquake shook the foundations of buildings in Ottawa and surrounding towns and cities on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. The story was one of mind-numbing confusion that left some federal officials red-faced and embarrassed. But more importantly, the story also provided a useful example of why it's important for governments to be prepared for catastrophes and what can result if they aren't.

Stories like this need to be told. We must know the true cost of prison reform. We have to know the real impact of the government's stimulus spending. We need to have a meaningful discussion about the future of health care. Many of the records that help shed light on these and many other issues can only be pried loose with the help of access to information. Going through the process is not for the faint of heart. But neither is being a journalist facing a federal government bent on spin and obfuscation and a bureaucracy that is justifiably scared, and many times forbidden from talking to journalists. So let's all get cracking. There's too much at stake for journalists to be on the wrong side of a downward trend.
- And finally, The Real News features Tom Ferguson on the dangers of big-money, low-turnout politics:

More at The Real News

A noteworthy admission

Yes, most of Neil Reynolds' latest consists of a breathtaking combination of torqued numbers and patently false assertions. But there's one aspect of his column that you can indeed take to the bank - at least if he and his corporatist ilk get their way:
Unless the federal government prevails and unless the rate-cutting provinces prevail, Canada’s competitive advantage – “the lowest corporate tax rates in the G7” – could well prove transient. In corporate tax rates, the race to the bottom has only just begun.
Never mind of course that we're already at the end of a decade of constant corporate tax cuts which have produced none of the promised economic benefits - and never mind that anybody paying the slightest bit of attention would recognize that Reynolds' argument about changing competitive advantages is exactly why corporate tax cuts are self-defeating, as additional steps in the race to the bottom simply encourage other jurisdictions to follow suit.

Instead, the most important takeaway is that no matter how much free money the corporate sector has already been handed, it still has no interest in doing anything but finding ways to put an even larger chunk of the economy in its pocket at the expense of the public. Which should put to rest the oft-floated theory that we should just grin and bear the next set of corporate tax cuts (whether now or in a few years) in hopes that it will someday pay off in the form of greater public resources - as the billions in giveaways to big business will ultimately only hand it more ability to dictate the terms of public policy.

Of course, it's not hard to see how the business sector would love to see the race to the bottom reach the point where governments outright pay the business sector for nominally providing jobs while executives and shareholders skim off ever-increasing profits. But it's long past time for the rest of us to demand a better deal rather than buying the corporate spin.

Update: Erin has more.

Well said

John Moore nicely rebuts the claim that we should be grateful for the privilege of paying obscene amounts to our corporate betters:
The average working Canadian earns $43,000 a year. The average for the top 100 CEOs is 155 times that. Roll that figure around for a second. Think of what you earn in a year. Now imagine being paid 155 times more. Not twice as much. Not 10 times. 155 times.

That’s not merit. That’s not about stockholder value. That’s a shakedown. And it’s further proof that when elites are responsible for their own pay, they make out like bandits. Kelly insists that boards of directors set executive compensation based on shareholder value, ignoring the fact that directors come from the same spoiled-rotten, self-entitled class as the CEOs they hire and pay.
These aren’t entrepreneurs, venture capitalists or private company owners. They are nothing more than high ranking employees. Yet they expect their earnings to rival those of people who risk all and genuinely create wealth. And often they grow their companies through massive layoffs of those who earn less.

In his column lampooning the executive-compensation study, Kelly McParland insists “the money doesn’t come from your pocket or mine.” It most certainly does if we are shareholders. More importantly, thanks to the vagaries of Canadian tax laws, when executives exercise their generous stock options, taxpayers are on the hook. The average lost tax revenue for each of the 100 top paid CEOs in Canada amounted to $467,000. That’s a heck of a lot more galling than the sundry restaurant receipts of some scandal-plagued assistant deputy minister, but it seems the fans of big business can’t get worked up about it.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Feline sprawl.

On alternative avenues

I don't remember hearing this particular theory from Peter Russell (cited in Lawrence Martin's Harperland at p. 158) before Stephen Harper pulled the plug on Parliament to precipitate the 2008 federal election. But it seems to be worth noting in light of the possibility of the Cons breaking their fixed election date law once again:
A heap of criticism was visited upon the PM (for calling the election), especially from those who knew the details of the legislation. Others, however, concluded that because his was a minority government, the fixed-election law couldn't really apply. Some constitutional experts believed the governor general could have refused to grant Harper the election call. That would have been especially true, observed Peter Russell of the University of Toronto, if the opposition parties had been prepared to offer a coalition alternative. They weren't, however, and so Michaelle Jean acquiesced to the PM's wishes.

On limited recall

Shorter Gary Mason:

Recall legislation is supposed to be used in the case of individual politicians who have become an embarrassment to the people to whom they have been elected to represent. Which means that if an entire government meets the standard, the public should have no choice but to suck it up.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday.

- It would be nice to be able to believe that the U.S.' greenhouse gas emissions regulations would lead to some action on our side of the border as well. But is there actually any realistic prospect that the Cons' won't simply give the Wheel of Excuses another spin - likely landing on "Made In Canada!" again - in order to avoid doing anything meaningful in response?

- The Star weighs in on the ever-more-appalling gap between CEO pay and the income of Canadians in general, and echoes the CCPA's proposed solution to at least part of the problem:
Basing pay on the stock market is like rewarding a quarterback on the basis of whether his team beats the point spread, says Martin. And in the long run, the whole economy suffers, not just individual companies, as CEOs spend their time “jerking around expectations.”

Some argue that executive compensation ought to be of concern only to shareholders and corporate directors. But as Mackenzie notes, directors and CEOs are all members of the same “club,” and executive pay is based on what other club members are paid. “The logic is perfectly circular,” he writes.

As for giving shareholders “say on pay,” that just allows them to say they are unhappy with executive pay, says Mackenzie. “It does not mean they can actually do anything about it.”

A better option, adds Mackenzie, is for government to intervene -- starting with treatment of stock options as regular income, not capital gains, which are taxed at half the normal rate. That’s an idea for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to consider in his upcoming budget – or, if he is disinclined, for the opposition parties to adopt in their platforms.
- And amazingly, even Kelly McParland may not be entirely disagreeable toward the idea:
There is no question CEO pay has grown faster and more steadily than other income levels, and that much of it receives a favourable level of tax treatment the rest of us can only wish for. It’s a matter worthy of discussion, and serious treatment.
- Finally, Neal Lawson and John Harris have some suggestions for the UK's Labour Party which may resonate in Canada as well:
The new paradigm understands the nature of capitalism: a dynamic force that is as creative as it is destructive. Unless confronted, regulated and shaped, it undermines society and community - and crucially, its own positive aspects, as the trailblazing entrepreneur is sidelined by the monopoly corporation, and the once-thriving town centre gets killed by the faceless out-of-town mall. Moreover, if we don't regulate free markets, we end up regulating people, to force them to behave as the market desires - a fact glaringly reflected in the huge growth of the authoritarian state. Crucially, however, most regulation will increasingly have to happen at a transnational level - at the very least, via the European Union. Economic sovereignty will have to be pooled to ensure that damaging effects of capitalism are tamed. Every second of every day the bond market pools its sovereignty to destroy whole economies. This week it's Ireland, next week it is wherever they decide. This means controls on speculative capital flows and the ability to shift location and production to where taxes and labour conditions are lowest; it means coordinated corporation taxes and establishing the principle of a European minimum wage. The old social democracy never got this. Neither did it understand the demands of people for meaningful voice at their place of work. Capitalism is a tiger that we cannot ride but must tame.

New Socialism knows the state is vital but recognizes too the crisis of the bureaucratic and market state. It is Labour's grip of statism that must be broken. The New Socialism seeks to balances our need for security through the state with our right to freedom from the state. It wants a state whose scope is democratically determined and made accountable, responsive, sensitive and local through the most radical political reforms of public service this country has ever seen. A more proportional national electoral system is only one part of the change required: we have to reinvent the state from top to bottom to entrench people's involvement through the principle of co-production and the critical role of both producers and users of services. Health, education, social care and much more need to be liberated from the bureaucratic and outsourced state and reshaped accordingly, aiming at two transformative effects: creating in-built efficiencies through ongoing improvements on the frontline, and helping to make the tax case for the public sector. In the midst of the current fiscal crisis, the importance of this second element cannot be overstated.

On issue management

The Ottawa Citizen's analysis may be exactly the kind of attention needed to redirect attention in question period from news-cycle trivialities to longer-term isues. But it's well worth noting who's already leading the way on that front:
An Ottawa Citizen analysis of question period transcripts shows the opposition asked far more questions about Canada's mission in Afghanistan and government ethics than any other subjects in 2010.

The Liberals asked about ethics three times as often as they did about the economy, putting the government record on accountability ahead of questions on the G8 and G20 summits. The controversy over the post-politics antics of former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer accounted for many of these.

The Liberals also used more of their question period time to chastise the Harper government on the elimination of the long-form census than on its management of the economy.

Afghanistan topped the list of subjects in questions from the Bloc Quebecois and the New Democrats. The NDP was the only party with health care in its top 10 questions. It also used a higher proportion of its allotted questions to ask about aboriginal issues and pensions.
An analysis of key words and phrases used in questions and replies also reflects different areas of concern for each party. The Liberals referred to Jaffer in about one of every 22 questions, while the Tories spoke his name in less than one of 100 replies.

The keyword analysis shows the NDP mentioned health care, child care and poverty far more than other parties. The Tories led the way with references to crime and were the most likely to cite the Liberal sponsorship scandal.
Now, I would consider it a plus that the Libs worked on keeping the census issue alive by dedicating plenty of time to it in question period - particularly since it actually represented an executive decision which was never explained to the public. But with even a modicum of hindsight, it would seem obvious that focusing on Rahim Jaffer to the exclusion of health care, child care and other serious policy issues was bound to be just as much a political loser as it was a waste of time in Parliament. And hopefully the knowledge that they'll be held accountable for the content of their questions will lead all parties to focus more on questions which they can be proud to have asked - and concurrently less on personality-based gossip.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Monday Afternoon Links

Some light reading for all those CEOs who can afford to take the rest of the year off...

- I'd like to think I haven't missed too many Con outrages over the past few years. But Emily Dee's list includes a few which had largely flown under my radar, as well as plenty of greatest hits which deserve another look.

- The CCPA makes its predictions for 2011 - though it's well worth noting how many of them are understandably based on what's all too obvious from what we've seen on the political scene in the past few years.

- Am Johal presents a prescription for the NDP in the course of deconstructing how the Harper Cons took power:
The right has rather effectively used the mantra of simplified messages like 'we'll put more money in your pocket, they'll support the bureaucracy.' When the center-left should have been pushing for democratization and local control, they were left defending bureaucracy. It was the very unionized working class members that voted NDP that were now voting for Preston Manning. The NDP became the conservatives and the Reform Party became the radicals in the early 90's. The Reform Party's biggest gains in the 1993 election were not just from Progressive Conservatives, but also from the NDP. They stole populism from the CCF'ers and gave it a distorted, anti-government storyline.

If the center-left wants to recapture the political imagination, it needs to have a critique of government as its beginning point and a defense of the Commons as its follow up. It also needs to synthesize its policy narrative down to three or four big ideas. The government isn't Santa Claus -- it can't do everything.

The NDP needs a simplified message. Re-energizing the populist base of the NDP while genuinely joining with emerging political and social movements should be the new blueprint for the NDP. At the federal level, social democrats don't need to be the majority government or even the official opposition to set the progressive agenda in the country. They do need to be winning between 50-75 seats at election time to have sufficient leverage to influence the policymaking sphere of the country. The NDP doesn't just need to move either to the left or the right in order to grow as a party or be more relevant -- they actually need to do both simultaneously to reach that level of support so it's a rather silly, cyclical debate to be having. The need to reignite their base to show up to the polls and they need to reassure a broader public universe that they can be effective, but principled managers of the economy.
- And finally, the Real News features an interview with Michael Hudson on the history of the U.S.' income tax:

More at The Real News

But I do wonder whether there's another lesson beyond those drawn by Hudson: might the fact that the U.S. made a conscious choice to favour taxing private owners (who obviously kept a strong interest in reducing those taxes in order to bolster their own wealth) have made for a more unstable system than one which actually put more of its economy in public hands directly?

On incomplete perceptions

With much of today's political discussion focusing on Abacus' political party wordles, let's note a couple of major issues with the word clouds presented so far. While the clouds presented offer some useful information for each party discussed, the current story doesn't indicate which words are actually associated with each other within a single response (other than in some of the associated commentary) - leaving a glaring hole in any attempt to interpret how the leaders or parties are perceived.

In theory, that leaves the Libs with a chance to trumpet the fact that "leader" and "leadership" are technically their two leading responses - with no direct indication as to what other terms (positive or negative) actually get linked to those concepts. And there's equally no indication that negative terms such as "not" are taken into account rather than being cut out of the data set as "commonly used words".

So while the wordles may offer some hint as to the terms most commonly identified with Canada's political parties and the relative prominence of party leaders, they leave out important information about how the parties can work with those commonly-named concepts. And that should serve as reason for caution in drawing any particularly strong conclusions.

Deep thought

Just think how much better Horton Hears a Who! might have been if Dr. Seuss had suspected that the profits would stay exclusively with his assignee for 70 years after his death.

On overcompensation

Plenty of others are rightfully highlighting the CCPA's annual comparison of enormous executive salaries to the relatively tiny amounts paid to mere workers in general. But perhaps the most important piece of news in this year's article is that the corporate sector has responded to pressure on the amount being paid to declining to report on how much executives actually make:
The CEO pay figures may even be underestimated owing to a change in the way stock option compensation is reported, according to the report.

Corporations used to report the amount of income that executives actually realized when they cashed in their options.

Beginning in 2008, rather than reporting the amount their executives realized during the year by cashing in options, they reported a statistical estimate of what the options might have been worth in the market when they were granted.

The centre argues in its report that the amounts reported tend to be understated.
Which offers reason to suspect that even the glaring 155-to-1 gap being reported today between may in fact be even higher if one takes into account actual amounts cashed in by top executives rather than an easily-manipulated estimate (which executives would have every incentive to deflate in order to give the perception of adding share value over time). And the fact that corporate reporting is apparently moving further and further away from acknowledging the reality of executive income should give us reason for concern that it's going to spiral even further out of control in the years to come.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Shrewd negotiators in action

Stephen Maher floats the theory that the Cons are burning $21 billion on fighter jets as the price of having the U.S. agree to a common security perimeter (which itself results in the U.S. dictating Canadian policy).

Which, by my count, would be a cost of roughly $21 billion more than Mexico is paying for the same "win".

Just another negotiating coup to go with the Cons' greatest hits.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging - Saskatchewan Free Agents

With the most significant decision of the 'Riders' offseason apparently having been made already, the next order of business for the team will presumably be to make the best possible use of the CFL's free agent list. So let's use the same classifications as last year to take a look at the 'Riders' list of remaining free agents.*


C Jeremy O'Day - He remained the 'Riders' Most Oustanding Offensive Lineman in 2010, so the team figures to be plenty happy with his production on the field. And with the 'Riders having traded Jonathan St. Pierre (seemingly O'Day's heir at centre) last season, he should have the chance to anchor the 'Riders' line as long as he wants to.

DB Lance Frazier - Along with James Patrick, one of two current 'Rider defensive backs who combines the veteran savvy to know when to take risks with the athleticism to take advantage when the opportunity arises.

DB Chris McKenzie - With any luck, the next to join the same group. The one caveat in re-signing both Frazier and McKenzie is that it would once again leave the 'Riders fairly small at the halfback position - but there's one intriguing possibility to remedy that once the rest of the league's free agents hit the market.

Worth Bringing Back

OL Gene Makowsky - Not classified as a "must" due to the fact that he's hinted that he may decide to hang up the cleats. But from the 'Riders' standpoint, Makowsky's versatility and experience make him well worth bringing back if he wants to play football in 2011.

T Joel Bell - Again, more a matter of whether he wants to return than whether the 'Riders would choose to sign him. Bell's size and athleticism would seem to give him a chance to catch on in the NFL - though naturally Saskatchewan would prefer to see him settle in as a fixture on the 'Riders' line for years to come.

LB Sean Lucas - Might find another team willing to overpay for his tackle totals from an outside linebacker position - and if so the 'Riders have plenty of replacements waiting in the wings. But as long as the price is right, he's worth keeping around for his combination of tackling and coverage skills.

LB/DB Daniel Francis - If Lucas does go elsewhere, Francis should take advantage of the opening. If not, then Francis will get to choose whether to wait for an opportunity in Saskatchewan or look elsewhere.

LB Kye Stewart - Another piece of the 'Riders' depth at linebacker who figures to be looking for a starting job if one is available.

LB/DL Kitwana Jones - Jones' future may depend on the 'Riders' second wave of coaching choices over the next few weeks. In a Gary Etcheverry scheme which relies on speed and misdirection rather than size, he's an extremely valuable player. But if Richie Hall is put back in charge of a more traditional defence, Jones may no longer be a fit for the 'Riders.

Probably Looking Elsewhere

FB Neal Hughes - He's getting less chances to play offensively than he did a couple of seasons ago, and his window to replace Chris Szarka as the 'Riders' top fullback looks to be closing as Szarka hangs on into his mid-30s. So both he and the team may have reason to want to test other options.

T Wayne Smith - Still has the potential to be one of the league's better offensive linemen. But he's probably spent enough years on the IR for the 'Riders to move on and let somebody else take the risk that he'll get hurt again.

* Note that Mike McCullough isn't included above since he's already re-signed with the team.

On learning opportunities

Naturally, I approach the idea of economic education from a different point of view than Anthony Furey, who whether out of personal belief or employer mandate pairs it with the traditional QMI dose of mandatory anti-tax ranting. But the idea does deserve some discussion, if only because of the obvious importance of setting the right guidelines for public education.

After all, Furey's example of an organization carrying out the type of education he sees as valuable is one with a business-heavy list of supporters - and which helpfully provides young and interested Canadians with embarrassingly-outdated corporatist cheerleading like this.

So I'd add the caveat to Furey's proposal that any genuine effort at economic literacy would have to include at least some mention of the divergent interests of big business and the public at large, as well as the means for consumers to avoid the traps so often set by the corporate sector. Which might in turn lead to appropriate public skepticism about big business' perpetual campaign to slash or privatize public services in order to redirect more profits (at a lower tax rate) into its own coffers.

From that standpoint, the most compelling argument for making sure the project originates with government actors is that many of the other "partners" involved in the current non-profit version have an obvious interest in shaping or limiting what Canadians actually know. And while the Harper Cons may unfortunately serve as a compelling example of a government that's willing and eager to serve as a marketing arm of the financial sector, on the balance there's a much better chance of producing positive results if the concept is moved primarily into public hands.