Saturday, January 05, 2013

On ranges of options

There are surely worse offenders to point out in the bevy of recaps and previews we inevitably see at year's end. But I'll pick on Paul Wells' latest as an example of a well-regarded observer making obvious missteps in trying to limit the scope of possibilities we should consider:
The opposition parties should all worry, all the time, that their support is simply a system of communicating vases: that rising Green support hurts mostly New Democrat and Liberal incumbents, that Trudeau or Marc Garneau or Martha Hall Findlay can hope at best only to replace Mulcair as Stephen Harper’s sixth opposition leader. A party normally loses power only when its supporters stop supporting it. In 2008 and 2011 no opposition party could dissuade large numbers of Conservative voters from voting Conservative again, because the kind of people who were amenable to voting Conservative could not be dissuaded from their belief that Harper would be a better economic manager than the alternatives.

There are only three paths to power for any opposition leader: peel away a large amount of what has been, for four elections in a row, solid Conservative support; completely collapse voter support for the other opposition parties; or implement a workable plan for opposition-party merger or cooperation. None of these can be done in the five weeks before an election. The work on any of these plans would need to start soon. If 2013 is a year in which little changes in the distribution of political power and partisan support, it will be a very good year for Stephen Harper.
Now, I certainly don't disagree with the broader point that 2013 will likely be a crucial year in laying the groundwork for the next federal election (whenever it occurs). But let's take a step back and look at Wells' assumptions as to how a change in government might come about.

To start with, I'm at a loss as to how peeling off "what has been, for four elections in a row, solid Conservative support" could be considered a less daunting task than making efforts to make connections within the similarly-sized pool of previous non-voters.

Of course, it might seem like a reasonable default setting to assume that previous demographic information will remain applicable for future elections as well. But I'd invite Wells to ask President Romney whether the assumption of constant participation and turnout levels is necessarily a safe one.

Indeed, it may well be that the most important work for any political party is to see and organize potential groups of supporters which others lack the foresight to consider as realistic targets. And the two most obvious shifts in the last few Canadian federal election cycles have been based on exactly those types of efforts: the Cons' pursuit of immigrant communities, and the NDP's emergence in Quebec.

At best, one can try to take the cynical view that non-voters are singularly unworthy of any effort based on their failure to participate in the past. But that still reflects a matter of argument rather than bright-line definition of options - and I for one would consider it a severe disappointment if the NDP ends its well-established (and thus-far effective) work in reaching out to new voters.

Beyond that, there's also the possibility that splits among the current opposition parties might prove more favourable if they take different shapes over the next few years than in previous election cycles - resulting in a change in Parliament's power dynamics without a single party following Wells' proposed paths to power.

In particular, the much-discussed shift to the rhetorical right among the Libs' leadership candidates could well set up a split in Wells' proposed paths. It may be that the group of past Con supporters most likely to change allegiances would consist of centre-to-right voters who might be most easily shaken off by a Lib focus on some combination of market values and ethical concerns. But the most likely result of that shift could be an NDP government at the party's current level of support, as the strategy which maximizes the Libs' growth potential among Con voters might help consolidate the NDP's hold on the left.

Similarly, there are any number of possible groups of Con voters who might be peeled off in ways that don't necessarily reflect the model of a single opposition party carrying out a single action as the basis for taking power - but which might give rise to different voting dynamics which would result in a change in government.
Now, I won't presume to say that any one strategy is bound to succeed or fail. And there would surely be some problems in trying to rely on any of the above suggestions as the sole hope for taking down the Harper Cons.

But none of Wells' three proposed paths is particularly safe or easy either - meaning that there's little valid basis for drawing a line between those worth considering and those to be discarded. And as a matter of general principle, the most dangerous choice the opposition parties can make at this stage is to arbitrarily rule out options which might produce better results.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Crawford Kilian comments on Chrystia Freeland's Plutocrats as a useful expression of trends many of us have seen in action for some time:
(T)he plutonomy is not just booming, but skewing the still-depressed economy the rest of us live in. Many of the plutocrats reflect soberly on Andrew Carnegie's comment that the man who dies rich dies disgraced. Many, including George Soros, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, are giving away their billions to various causes and charities.

Individually, those causes may be admirable (Soros has worked hard to promote democracy in eastern Europe). Collectively, those causes may be compromised and diverted from their original purposes by the sheer quantity of plutocratic money available. And of course many billionaires like the Koch brothers are pumping money into political causes that promise to keep their taxes low while suffocating government programs for the rest of us.

This is just one form of plutocratic "rent-seeking" -- getting one's businesses into a monopoly position, or lowering their operational costs, through favourable legislation. Every business, after all, wants to improve its own working conditions, just as every worker does.

But what is good for one's business is not always good for the country. Rent-seeking simply runs up the plutocrats' revenues while doing nothing for their customers. And it never occurs to such plutocrats that their success ultimately stems from the system created and maintained by the rest of society. As Barack Obama observed, "You didn't build that."

Freeland makes a useful contrast between plutocrats who are pro-market and those who are pro-business: In the market, companies compete, innovate, or die if they can't. This is the "creative destruction" that brings genuine improvements in living standards, and it's still at work. As one plutocrat told Freeland, the big companies used to eat the little ones. Now the swift eat the slow.
But in business, one tries to protect one's own company by eliminating the competition (and the innovation). Historically, innovators become consolidators and rent-seekers, creating a new privileged class of their children and hangers-on.
- And on a related note, Frances Russell writes that we're now in the age of corporate shakedowns of government:
A Canadian government official puts it this way: “I’ve seen the letters from the New York and D.C. law firms coming up to the Canadian government on virtually every new environmental regulation … Virtually all of the new initiatives were targeted and most of them never saw the light of day.”

These so-called “pre-emptive strikes” are on the rise, with investment arbitration no longer a last resort but a political weapon in a wider war of attrition against states.

Even already-adopted laws on public health and environmental protection have been abandoned or watered down because of the threat of huge damage claims. Canada backed away from anti-smoking policies after Big Tobacco threatened to seek compensation.

NAFTA and its growing ranks of copycats like the Canada-Europe Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are about nothing less than entrenching de facto government by transnational corporations. So far, the corporations are winning. In the process, they’re not just enriching themselves but also a global network of fabulously wealthy lawyers and accountants busy impoverishing governments and their citizens to achieve maximum profits for the multinationals they represent.
- Frank Graves discusses how arguably rational political calculations on the part of the Cons may be producing decisions which directly attack Canada's future:
The political calculus couldn’t be clearer: it makes great sense for a conservative politician to concentrate on emotionally resonant policies and communications which will appeal to a group that votes en masse. It also makes sense to discourage the participation of younger voters (who wouldn’t vote for you anyway) through negative advertising and policy positions that are of little interest, or antagonistic, to those younger voters.

The net result, however, is a gerontocracy which reflects the exaggerated and imagined fears of older Canada precisely at a time when we urgently need the more optimistic and innovative outlook of the relatively scarcer youth portion of our society. So good politics becomes highly suspect as a tool for meeting the severe challenges of the 21st century.

This growing disconnect between the public interest and what works in the political marketplace is a serious challenge. The mounting generational tensions in our society are just one particularly unwelcome expression of this.
- Trish Hennessy runs the numbers on how First Nations have been frozen out of social gains in Canada.

- Finally, Andrew Potter expands on Glen McGregor's ideas for more productive political journalism:
If there is a big takeaway from "McDogme95" (as Stephen Maher calls it) it is this: It is an opportunity for political journalists to retrench and concentrate their energies on what they are best positioned and best qualified to do: work sources, file ATIP requests, comb through public databases, and break stories that are in the public interest. That in turn creates a space for academics to insert themselves directly into the conversation through their own devices (Twitter, blogs, etc), or through more traditional means such as op-eds or essays. (I can't think of a better example of this than Peter Loewen's recent essay for the Citizen looking at what Stephen Harper is up to.)

Canadian politics is in need of both better reporting and better contributions by academics. Glen McGregor's manifesto is an excellent first step at articulating the proper division of labour that will take us in that direction.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Musical interlude

Serge Devant & Danny Inzerillo feat. Polina - When You Came Along

On open invitations

Jon Worth's post on the distinction between partisan politics (as generally understood) and movement-based activism is well worth a read, particularly in pointing out how the latter may better express what people actually want to see out of politics:
Since first reading Mary Kaldor’s piece at the LSE EUROPP blog this autumn about alternative social movements I’ve been fascinated by the practical meaning of the term “prefigurative action” that she mentions. Her description of the term is “the attempt to practice the kind of democracy that the participants imagine” – i.e. to behave in politics in the way that we behave in our normal lives. This, I think, is absolutely central to the problems our traditional party structures face, and it remains the reason people are inspired by Occupy, even if the practical outcomes Occupy can bring are so thin.

Take, for example, the new craze within the Labour Party in the UK to brand everything “One Nation”, started by Ed Miliband in his conference speech in October. I am a member of the party, but I have no idea how the mantra came into being. But now everyone follows it, shadow cabinet members and think tank wonks repeat it, and it has become party line. That process is not normal, it is not healthy. It is not practicing the kind of politics the participants imagine. Try changing the mission statement of a large corporation so abruptly and there would be harsh counter-reactions among the employees. In Labour there is slavish, flaccid loyalty among the devotees (at least in public), and a shrug from the 99.5% of the UK population that are not party members.

The problem is that being in a party for a decade squeezes the life, the straightforward honesty, the originality out of people. It is not that party people become dishonest per se, but more that the spontaneity, the vitality is drained from them. They will Google themselves compulsively to check how they are being perceived, rather that using the net to really make political change happen. They will use social networks to repeat the leadership’s line and show how diligent they are on #LabourDoorstep, rather than building networks beyond the party. Party politics is no “ecosystem fizzing with ideas”, the words Alex uses to describe the social innovation sector in the UK.

The problem is that the old ways still can win elections in the UK. Labour and the Tories can muster up enough activists in the 2015 election, and the first past the post election system will, as ever, mask that a third of the votes will be for non-mainstream parties, while 2/5 of the population will not vote at all. And in the meantime the media will frame all of this as a victory for some party or another, and yet our political system and the quality of our politics will be poorer as a result.
But I do take issue with the implicit conclusion that even a fully distorted, first-past-the-post system doesn't leave room for a party to bridge the gap between the need to promote its own agenda, and the need to work with others who don't fully agree.

Let's not forget that it was less than two years ago that Canada's Prime Minister built his campaign message around an all-out assault on the very idea of cooperation and coalition-building. And the result wasn't to destroy the lone party which actually spoke up for those virtues, but to push it to a record showing which nearly toppled an unsuspecting governing party.

Which means that if too many politicians are earning themselves repeated lectures on the importance of working across party lines and listening to the wide range of actors affected by policy decisions, it reflects a lack of memory of recent events as well as more distant ones. While we may not have as many examples as we'd like, the available evidence suggests that Canadian voters will reward rather than punishing a party reaches beyond its own loyalists in the pursuit of shared values.

And that's merely within the existing voter pool. But as Worth notes, in the UK as elsewhere there's an increasingly large share of the population tuning out politics altogether as it becomes based more on brand competition than a sense of popular input and involvement. And if there's indeed some connection between those two factors, then it stands to reason that an "ecosystem fizzing with ideas" model might also be able to move the needle as a matter of crass partisan consideration by expanding the group of possible voters (an option I'll discuss in more detail in a post to come).

All of which is to say that there looks to be plenty of opportunity for parties to break out of the march-in-lockstep model - and that they may well benefit just as much as the broader political system for the effort.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Barbara Yaffe lets Hugh Segal make the case for a guaranteed annual income to end poverty in Canada:
(Hugh Segal) says it could be arranged by way of a tax credit through the income tax system, to top up income of anyone falling below Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cutoff (LICO).

LICO for a single person is about $22,200; for a family with three children, roughly $47,000.

“In other words,” writes Segal, “being poor would become a problem we all buffered in the same way as we buffer all Canadians relative to health care.”

He estimates the annual cost at about $10,000 per person.

But when all the billions now spent on health care and heavily stigmatized welfare payments — to alternatively address needs of the poor — are subtracted, the net cost to government would be zero.

“The cost to our Canadian economy of poor Canadians dropping out of school, getting sick faster, staying in hospital longer and living shorter lives than the rest of us is in the billions.”
Cost savings to governments would indeed be real, according to a study cited by Segal, carried out by University of Manitoba health sciences professor Evelyn Forget.

Forget tracked an 8.5-per-cent drop in hospital visits among a sample group of farm families in Dauphin, Man., who were part of a 1970s-era federal experiment guaranteeing minimum incomes in case of crop failures.

That experiment also rendered invalid a notion that guaranteed incomes prompt recipients to quit work to become couch potatoes.

“The efficient and humane thing to do is to take the example of Dauphin and learn from it,” writes Segal, noting Ottawa wouldn’t need a new bureaucracy to deliver guaranteed incomes.

“We have the (tax) system in place.”
 - Meanwhile, Alex Himelfarb proposes that we measure our actions as a society by how we treat those who have the least:
International agencies and a number of countries are developing indices that take into account equality, sustainability, democracy and trust, as well as economic performance. In Canada, Roy Romanow has proposed just such an index, and recently David Suzuki added his voice to the campaign to think beyond GDP — promoting a measure of General National Happiness with a central place for the health of the environment, which enables all else. These are welcome initiatives because they ask us to consider what is important, what our future ought to look like.
To this work I would propose the addition of another measure, which despite its long pedigree is too easily overlooked. Gandhi and Pope John Paul II, Aristotle and John Rawls, and artists through the ages have all reminded us that the real test of any society is how we treat the weakest among us. Here too, with glaring exceptions, none more shameful than our relationship with aboriginal peoples, we have done pretty well. For example, we have historically been above average on measures of equality, well ahead of the U.S. We were seen as proof that diversity and equality could coexist, that empathy and sharing could bridge differences in language, culture, lifestyle. We came to see immigration as a solution, not a problem, and to be open to refugees.

Even in our relationship with aboriginal peoples, this government’s historic apology for some of the most grievous wrongs could have been a signal of a new, more respectful relationship (especially needed after the abandonment of the Kelowna Accord).
When governing is all short-term economic growth, then aboriginal rights and environmental protections become inconveniences to be ignored or managed. Refugees, the unemployed and the poor come to be seen and treated as freeloaders, a drag on the economy, rather than fellow citizens, often victims of an increasingly mean version of capitalism. And criminals are turned into convenient scapegoats for our fears and discontents, the most heinous offences and frightening offenders used to blind us to the reality that those are people in our prisons, most of whose lives could be repaired.

Our leaders try to convince us that the health of the so-called job creators is more important than that of the weakest among us. And, it seems, many of the richest and most powerful come to believe this and act on that basis, what some have called “trickle-down meanness,” one of the consequences of rising inequality, particularly when growth disproportionately benefits a small group of super-rich able effectively to secede from society and its mutual obligations. On measures of equality, we are slipping to the bottom relative to other rich countries.

The debate brewing about how to measure success is not just about measurement. It is a recognition that we need to participate in a real discussion about what we mean by the good life, the purpose of the economy, the kind of Canada we want. It is about decency and dignity. It is about our political and democratic institutions, the need to find much better ways to ensure that all voices, particularly those speaking for the marginalized, are heard. This may be the only way to restore a sense of the common good and win back the many who have given up on politics, party and government.
- And lest there be any doubt, the trend toward gorging at the top is only continuing - as the CCPA points out in its annual reminder that our CEOs have already soaked up more money in 2013 than the average Canadian will all year.

- Finally, I don't recall seeing too many Canadian examples of the U.S.' trend toward embarrassingly contrived equivalances between parties. But Michael Valpy makes quite the effort, placing scattered comments from a T-shirt design shop and unnamed "Internet posters" on par with the systematic demonization and defunding of dissenting voices by the Harper Cons' cabinet in order to blame all sides for a "politics of discord".

New column day

Here, on the danger that Stephen Harper's long-term plan for Canada includes unelected Senators taking a page out of the Republicans' obstructionist playbook to keep elected officials from doing their jobs.

For further reading, see Charles Pierce and Michael Cohen on the Republicans' destructive template. And I've previously pointed out here and here that unaccountable senators with no respect for conventions or the public interest could easily use a similar strategy to negate the choices of Canadian voters.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Wednesday Afternoon Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Frank Graves writes about the decline of Canada's middle class - and notes a parallel between the type of economy which tends to produce broad social failure, and the Cons' familiar obsession with extraction:
The other key factor is rising inequality and a failing middle class. Our evidence has shown that as economic issues have become the dominant concerns for Canadians they are — for the first time in our research — twinned at the pinnacle of public issues with blended concerns about fairness and inequality. These are not the traditional and more modest concerns we have seen about the gap between the rich and poor. The new and more potent linkage is the gap between the über rich and everyone else. Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in what can only be described as the crisis of the middle class.

The middle class has always been by far the most popular self-defined class denomination in upper North America — one of the reasons it is such a popular political target. The 20th century ascension of the United States to the “hyperpower” status it enjoyed as little as a decade ago was largely the culmination of an unprecedented period of middle class ascendance.
In analysing why societies fail, Daron Acemoğlu has a very insightful theory that suggests the harbinger of societal failure is a shift from an ‘inclusive’ to an ‘extractive’ economy. The swelling of upper North America’s middle class in the 20th century is a shining example of a successful inclusive economy. Among other examples, Acemoğlu argues that Venice went from backwater to world powerhouse and back to a sterile urban museum-in-waiting when it shifted from an inclusive to an extractive economy. The diminution of taxes and public services and the rise of the ‘one per cent’ has been coupled with a similar shrinkage and relative decline in the North American economy — and could be a chilling harbinger of our future economic well being.
- But look on the bright side: at least our mass-murder industry is seeing massive international growth potential thanks to the Cons' choice of trade priorities.

- Andrew Pollack discusses the latest example of how prescription drug profits can fall neatly into the pure extraction category - as a drug launched in the 1950s is now being widely sold in the U.S. for $28,000 per dose.

- Finally, Wilf Day posts a thorough rebuttal to an attempt to change Fair Vote Canada's focus from higher-level proportional representation to municipal-level instant runoff voting.

Deep thought

Much as I generally promote open access to information, I'm starting to come around to the idea that the Cons should feel free to apply a "national security" exemption to pretty much any information about their decision-making. After all, if anybody around the globe knew exactly what they're dealing with in the Cons, Canada would all too likely be a second-rate protectorate of Burundi within a week.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Holiday cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that to start the new year.

- Lynn Stuart Parramore discusses the dangers of needless means-testing for basic social benefits:
When I spoke to Joseph Stiglitz, he discussed the idea that “means-testing is mean.” Programs like Medicare and Social Security, he explained, are matters of political economy. They are important to social cohesion, where support comes from the fact that everybody is participating. “We don’t means-test public education,” explained Stiglitz, “because we believe that we want people to have the same opportunities and we lose out on that with means-testing.” The same is true of our belief that everyone deserves a dignified retirement and adequate medical care in old age.

Medicare and Social Security are not handouts to the needy. They are not even intended to be a safety net. In their design, they promote the fundamental notion that dignity and good health in old age are not special privileges that can be bestowed or taken away. They are fundamental rights that every working American who has contributed productively to the economy can expect to enjoy. As James K. Galbraith told me in an email, “It’s insurance, not charity.”

Means-testing runs against this fundamental idea by turning Medicare and Social Security into welfare programs that become bargaining chips for politicians. The programs become provisional rather than fundamental. President Franklin Roosevelt understood this point well, which is why he designed Social Security to be attached to a payroll tax so that “no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”
By turning Medicare and Social Security into welfare, means-testing feeds right into the Romney view of the world, an us-against-them mentality that pits the self-righteous wealthy against ordinary people. Means-testing would divide the population and further emphasize the difference between the haves and the have-nots by transferring a sense of receiving handouts to those getting Social Security and Medicare. 
- Paul Adams' look at the Libs' right-wing positioning has received plenty of attention already. But the most important observation is that Justin Trudeau looks to be following directly down the path that led the Libs to third-party status in the first place:
Of course there are a couple of narrower, more tactical reasons why Trudeau in particular may be tacking to the right. In the short term, it may be a feint designed to shake people’s preconceptions of him during the leadership race and carve out a political image distinct from that of his father.

But Liberal supporters should be concerned that it is the germ of a general election strategy: to position Trudeau not as a centre-left alternative to the Conservatives, but as a more likeable, open, honest, youthful successor to Stephen Harper. A change in personalities, in other words, rather than a change in policies.

This was essentially the strategy of Michael Ignatieff, and it didn’t work. It didn’t work in part because Ignatieff’s inexperience contrasted with Harper at a nerve-jangling time in the economy. It also didn’t work because it forced Ignatieff to tack jerkily left in the election campaign when it was apparent that the only pool of voters actually available to the Liberals were there — further muddying the already murky Liberal brand.
- Aaron Wherry looks back at 2012 in Canadian politics - and points out that there's plenty of reason to think a more meaningful democracy is well within reach:
If our democracy is not quite the vibrant construct we wish it was, there are glimmers. The government and the official opposition are led respectively by erudite policy wonks who like to imagine themselves as pugilists in the rhetorical ring—and for the first time this particular former has a comparable rival in the latter. Elizabeth May has taken up residence in the far corner and made parliamentary democracy her cause. Megan Leslie often asks questions and Michelle Rempel periodically responds. The chair of the ethics committee is 21 years old and among the most prominent members of the official opposition are half a dozen women who were born in the 1980s. Brent Rathgeber has a blog. Michael Chong and Irwin Cotler are still here, as are various other men and women of whom their constituents can be proud. And by next summer the third party will likely be led by either a man blessed of good genes, great hair and immense potential or an astronaut.

So if it is not all good, it is also not all bad. But if this past year was about anything it was that fight—those fights and that they were had and what they might amount to. In those hours and hours and hours of standing and sitting and standing and sitting for C-38 and C-45 was something like the essence of parliamentary democracy: the governing party testing the limits of what it might get away with and the opposition doing everything in its power to subject the government’s actions to scrutiny. In the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Auditor General were necessary stalwarts. In the hashtags and shouting was the public, or at least segments thereof, imposing itself on the proceedings. The fight is not quite an end in itself. It should amount to something. Change, if decided to be necessary, must be realized. The process of perfecting this grand measure requires more than 140 characters. But it is the fight that keeps this blessed mess alive and the flame lit. Short of utopia, the fight must be had, over and over and over. (We might wish that the fight was fought on nicer or wittier terms, but we should neither expect nor desire that advancing ourselves forward won’t involve some kind of fight.)

A few months after the 2011 election, after the principles of Westminster democracy were apparently set aside in favour of a strong, stable, national government, a sizeable number of citizens paused to mourn the passing of a thoroughly political man—an individual whose last act as leader of the official opposition was to launch a 58-hour filibuster. If that week of public recognition seemed to show we were not quite yet entirely consumed by cynicism, 2012 perhaps showed the fight is not yet out of us.
- Meanwhile, the Star's review of the year in environmental policy highlights "austerity and obscurantism" as all we have to show for the Cons' decisions and actions. But on the bright side, Bruce Stewart's look at the year for the NDP reaches some rather more positive conclusions.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Monday Afternoon Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Michael Harris comments on Stephen Harper's reckless choice to gamble that Theresa Spence in particular and First Nations issues in general will go away on their own, rather than exhibiting any leadership whatsoever:
Stephen Harper has placed his bet. It is clear from his strategy that he believes he will be going neither to a meeting nor a funeral and that sufficient pressure can be brought to bear on Chief Spence that she will voluntarily discontinue her hunger strike. That is why he has placed the prestige of Leona Aglukkaq and Patrick Brazeau squarely on the barrelhead by having both of them support the government’s position.

If Harper is right, his victory will be, at best, a partial and temporary one. Yes, there will be people who will praise his steadfastness on matters of protocol as a sign of leadership. But those will mostly be white people who are simply tired of wrestling with the profound issues raised by Chief Spence.

As for Canada’s aboriginal peoples, they will have been humiliated yet again. And this time, the humiliation will have been inflicted by a government which has imposed new rules for the environment and resource development without consulting Parliament, let alone the original stewards of this land. If all Harper’s government has to give to First Nations is ceremonial gesturing, trouble — big trouble — lies ahead.

But there is also the possibility that the PM’s calculation will prove to be the biggest mistake of his political life, and one of the national tragedies of Canadian public affairs. And all because Harper has turned what should have been an exercise in emotional intelligence into just another game of political hardball.
- Susan Delacourt suggests that the de-normalization process applied to tobacco products might be appropriate for guns as well:
(I)f American politicians are serious about tackling that plague of gun violence, they might want to consider how they have dealt with the buyers and sellers of tobacco. Through a combination of bans, stigma and yes, chipping away at rights, tobacco is still a legal product but it’s been “denormalized” — removed from the mainstream of daily life, with smokers made to feel intensely responsible for the ills they inflict on society.

That wouldn’t be a bad outcome of a sustained campaign against guns either, especially that responsibility part.

Who knows? With the right mix of political will and anti-gun measures, Americans might dream of a day when neither cigarettes nor firearms are brandished in public.
- And Tabatha Southey offers up some well-deserved mockery toward the NRA's attempt to argue that the only cure for gun violence is more guns.

- Glen McGregor proposes a few simple steps toward better political reporting.

- Finally, Ipsos Reid's poll results showing over 60% of Canadians disapproving of the Cons' environmental failures are significant enough on their own. But I find some of the wording to be especially noteworthy:
The Ipsos Reid survey suggests that 61 per cent of Canadians disagree with the statement “the Harper government is doing a good job at protecting Canada’s environment.”
The survey also found that 63 per cent of Canadians disagree with the statement “the Harper government has struck the right balance between economic growth and environmental protection and management.”
Now, based on conventional wisdom, the latter question would be significantly more favourable to the Cons than the former: it encourages the respondent to think about what's supposed to be the party's strength on the economy, and ask whether that offsets any concern about the environment.

But apparently Ipsos Reid's respondents were even less inclined to give the Cons a pass on the environment when asked whether they'd struck the right balance than based on environmental considerations alone. And that looks to me to suggest some vulnerable territory on the economy and general trust in the Cons' decision-making along with the obvious weakness on the environment.

On forced growth

Saskatchewan's NDP leadership campaign has featured plenty of discussion as to how to define success as a party and a province. But it's well worth contrasting the varying forms of quality-of-life and social health themes being debated within the NDP against an announcement which epitomizes the appallingly narrow focus of the Wall government:
Saskatchewan's Premier Brad Wall is pledging to hike crop production by 10 million tonnes over the next decade.

According to the Saskatchewan Agriculture Ministry, total crop production was 25.9 million tonnes in 2011, up 8.7 per cent from the 2001-10 average.
...(T)he government says its growth plan is focused on increasing crop production and boosting agricultural exports.
Now, there are certainly circumstances where an increase in crop production could be a major plus for Saskatchewan.

However, there's a difference between pursuing a plan where increased production might be the result of a focus on developing healthy industries and communities, and focusing on growth-for-the-sake-of-growth. And like the Sask Party's general governing philosophy, Wall's announcement positively reeks of the latter theme.

Even putting aside the possibility of considering social health or well-being, one would expect an economic plan to at least address industrial sustainability, jobs and incomes as end goals. After all, those are the only excuses that can possibly serve to make the general public see any benefit out of corporate-focused development.

But they don't even rate a mention in Wall's preferred development path.

Instead, Wall is pitching "more stuff" as the highest possible good - with no regard for what gets produced or how changes in production patterns affect farmers, workers or communities. Which signals that we can look forward to policies favouring the most exploitative possible model of corporate farming over any interest in smaller-scale or localized production.

And of course, Wall's new focus comes at a time when both the provincial and federal governments are also going out of their way to demolish longstanding programs which ensured some balance between the short-term desire to wring every possible cent out of Saskatchewan's soil, and the province's longer-term sustainability.

In other words, Wall is apparently applying his party's rip-and-strip resource philosophy to agriculture as well at exactly the time when that approach looks to do the most damage. And we may need to start planning now to repair Wall's mess down the road.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Pam Palmater explains the historical background to Idle No More:
(M)ost Canadians are not used to the kind of sustained, co-ordinated, national effort that we have seen in the last few weeks — at least not since 1969. 1969 was the last time the federal government put forward an assimilation plan for First Nations. It was defeated then by fierce native opposition, and it looks like Harper’s aggressive legislative assimilation plan will be met with even fiercer resistance.

In order to understand what this movement is about, it is necessary to understand how our history is connected to the present-day situation of First Nations. While a great many injustices were inflicted upon the indigenous peoples in the name of colonization, indigenous peoples were never “conquered.” The creation of Canada was only possible through the negotiation of treaties between the Crown and indigenous nations. While the wording of the treaties varies from the peace and friendship treaties in the east to the numbered treaties in the west, most are based on the core treaty promise that we would all live together peacefully and share the wealth of this land. The problem is that only one treaty partner has seen any prosperity.

The failure of Canada to share the lands and resources as promised in the treaties has placed First Nations at the bottom of all socio-economic indicators — health, lifespan, education levels and employment opportunities. While indigenous lands and resources are used to subsidize the wealth and prosperity of Canada as a state and the high-quality programs and services enjoyed by Canadians, First Nations have been subjected to purposeful, chronic underfunding of all their basic human services like water, sanitation, housing, and education. This has led to the many First Nations being subjected to multiple, overlapping crises like the housing crisis in Attawapiskat, the water crisis in Kashechewan and the suicide crisis in Pikangikum.

Part of the problem is that federal “Indian” policy still has, as its main objective, to get rid of the “Indian problem.” Instead of working toward the stated mandate of Indian Affairs “to improve the social well-being and economic prosperity of First Nations,” Harper is trying, through an aggressive legislative agenda, to do what the White Paper failed to do — get rid of the Indian problem once and for all.
- And Native Writes Now notes that Christie Blatchford for one isn't shy about saying that she considers the project of eradicating any distinct First Nations culture to be complete:
What Christie Blatchford wrote is offensive to the highest degree; but it should be remembered as the most honest interpretation in a national journal of the ultimate goal of the last 150 years of cultural genocide. Once Native Peoples no longer have any of the characteristics of a nation their claim to any Aboriginal Rights and Titles no longer exist. Christie Blatchford is laying claim to the success of the Canadian governments policy of cultural genocide through assimilation.

They haven't won, but we cannot deny that they are winning. We have to acknowledge Christie Blatchford for publicly announcing the motive. We have another battle and that is the one within our communities, our homes and our minds and spirits. It is our responsibility as Native people to remain idle no more in reclaiming, protecting and preserving our identity by learning and sharing our languages, cultures, traditions, rights and history. This is where most of the battle lies, this is the victory that cannot be taken away. This is it. This is the line in the sand. Idle no more.
- Meanwhile, Naomi Wolf writes about how the previous movement which rallied significant numbers of people in pursuit of a fairer and more equal society was systematically dismantled through collaboration between governments and the corporate sector.

- But Hugh Mackenzie points out that the right-wing propaganda mills seeking to declare inequality a dead issue don't have any basis in fact for doing so:
One of the hallmarks of liberal democracies post-Second World War has been the shared sense that we are all in this together. The breadth of the middle class meant that while there are differences in the way people live, people could still remain connected to one another in fluid social relationships. The middle class has been the glue that binds.

As income inequality worsens, Canadians have become increasingly polarized. We’re divided between a tiny but immensely powerful elite that consumes a wildly disproportionate share of society’s resources and the rest of us.

We are losing that connectedness. We tend not to live in the same neighbourhoods, and when we do, figurative and literal gates that separate us mean that we might as well be living on different planets.
Our kids don’t go to the same schools. They don’t study the same things in college or university. They move into the workforce with wildly disparate life expectations and graduate with wildly different debt burdens.
There has also been a dramatic shift in the share of those costs borne by different social groups: Elite Canadians are paying less at the same time they are castigating our public programs. They also happen to be largely insulated from the impact of the decline of public service in Canada. They don’t feel our pain.

Most Canadians, however, are affected by reduced investments in education, which has long been cast as the ticket to income mobility. The majority are affected by inflation in tuition. But those at the top of the income scale have choices. They can pay the higher fees. They can avoid the consequences of under-investment by sending their kids to private schools or to private universities in the United States.

The rest of us have to live with the consequences.

And the richest of the rich have the ultimate social choice. They can choose what society to be part of.

Thanks to global economic integration and the greater mobility that goes with it, those with means can choose which country to live in, which country to earn their living in, which country to send their children to school in, and which country to pay their taxes in, and there is no need for those countries to be the same. They have similar options in terms of gated communities and private programs tailored to those with deep pockets.

This matters at an individual level, because it says to the 99 per cent that the system isn’t fair. The physical and social infrastructure that makes our society work depends on everyone contributing their fair share of the cost, so that the majority benefits from this collective investment in one another.
- And Jordan Brennan and Jim Stanford also argue that broad-based prosperity makes for a better result for everybody than a society that exacerbates the gaps between social classes:
(T)he growing gap in income distribution — and the myriad costs it imposes on society and our governments — is not inevitable. It reflects changes in economic and political power among the different stakeholders in society. Measures that limit the power and wealth of those at the top, and reinforce the structural bargaining position of those at the bottom, can ensure a broader distribution of incomes and wealth, and allow us to capture an important economic and fiscal “equality dividend.”

Inequality need not be a partisan, left-right issue. If we learn from the scientific evidence regarding the multi-dimensional costs of inequality, we will realize that creating a shared prosperity benefits all sectors of society (not just poor people). And then policy-makers from both ends of the political spectrum can join in building a more balanced and efficient society.