Saturday, August 17, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

This and that for your weekend reading.

- Mark Leiren-Young shares Corky Evans' perceptive take on how the B.C. NDP has lost its way - and the message is one which we should apply elsewhere as well:
I remember when one of the Leaders I worked for asked some guys many of us know to purge our Party of the troublemakers (that was not the word he used.) They did a good job. We got Slates so the people we didn’t like couldn’t serve in Executive positions. We got Mike Muffins (members with nothing to say who stand in the line at the microphone) at Convention so they couldn’t speak. Candidates got a Message Box and were told not to say what they thought and to stick strictly to only what they were given to say. The “troublemakers” were sidelined and we became an effective, and boring, machine. Leaders and Leaders staff tell MLAs what they can and cannot say and punish independent thinking Or, worse, speaking their mind. We are now a modern political machine, and we sound like one.

We are rarely, anymore, embarrassed. There is no blood on the floor at Convention. We have become a successful Institution and a failed Movement.
I do not know how to fix this. I could not write a tract entitled ”What is to be done,” because I do not know. The thing I do know, though, is that discussion is medicine for screwed up situations. Self-criticism can heal. The message box, on the other hand, is not discourse. It is poison, like drinking the Kool-aid at Jonestown.

I’d like to see us cut everyone a little slack and see if we couldn’t be a bit of a movement again, a bit embarrassing at times but also interesting and current and vibrant and less controlled, less careful, less run by anybody in particular.
- Rosario Marchese points out how P3s are turning into thorough messes in Ontario, while David Sirota's example of privatized eduction turning into a source of corruption and inefficiency looks to apply to other sectors as well.

- Meanwhile, Brian Webb suggests that Regina's P3 referendum should be decided by citizens rather than a publicly-funded ad blitz.

- Pat Atkinson discusses the challenge of making sound long-term decisions in while basing public revenue on one-time resource royalties.

- Carol Goar notes that even Canada's already-uninspiring job numbers should be handled with caution, as they paper over the precarious and low-paying nature of the vast majority of the positions being created under a system intended to exploit resources and workers to the greatest extent possible.

- Finally, Navjeet Sidhu and Yvonne Kelly make the case for a higher minimum wage:
The minimum wage has been frozen since 2010, yet unemployment, especially youth unemployment, remains stubbornly high — contradicting the theory that corporations will invest and that jobs will only increase when wages are lower. The Canadian Labour Congress has reported that corporations are sitting atop nearly $500 billion in unused funds thanks to generous tax cuts (a.k.a. corporate subsidies), instead of investing in job creation.

Further, the price of gas, rent, groceries, hydro have all increased despite a minimum wage freeze.

Still hesitant about possibly paying an extra 30 cents on a cup of coffee? Consider how taxpayers currently subsidize low-wage paycheques. Low-income families are at greater risk of health problems, driving up health-care costs. Community organizations experience increased caseloads requiring additional public funding and food banks are inundated with individuals and families that they cannot begin to provide food for.

A recent study in the U.S. found that a single Walmart Supercentre in Wisconsin can cost taxpayers up to $900,000 in government health, housing and food programs. Meanwhile, Walmart is one of the richest corporations in North America. Profits are trickling upward resulting in a rate of growing inequality in Canada that supersedes the U.S. From 1980 to 2012 Ontario experienced the largest change in income inequality of any province — the richest 10 per cent of Ontario families earned 27 times that of the poorest 10 per cent in 1976 and by 2004 the gap extended to 75 times.

We don’t hear about high-or middle-income workers turning down raises from their employer in fear that it may cause lower productivity, unemployment or a rise in costs of products and services. As a society we would never “guilt” them for wanting to earn more, as we do with low-income workers. Why are we so intent on denying the poorest workers an adequate standard of living? 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Musical interlude

Rah Rah - Art and a Wife

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Alison Bennett reports on the OECD's work on offshore tax avoidance, highlighting the "stateless income" that's shuffled around the globe so as to avoid contributing to social good anywhere:
Policymakers around the world are stepping up efforts to tighten rules because a growing slice of corporate profits isn’t taxed in any country.

Multinational companies can legally structure transactions so they don’t pay tax anywhere, creating “stateless income” that is coming under attack as countries seek to fill budget gaps. The Obama administration, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and tax officials from other countries want to reach a consensus on how to combat the issue, with more than a dozen proposals being weighed, Bloomberg BNA reported.

“Every country is revenue-hungry,” said Edward Kleinbard, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law who has written several papers and testified before Congress on the subject. “Countries see very large gaps in their corporate tax collections.”
“Everything is up for grabs right now, including a substantial rewrite of the international tax rules,” Kleinbard said. “When the dust settles, U.S. multinationals will pay a higher effective tax rate tomorrow than they do today.” 
 - Dan Fumano reports that Nestle's efforts to turn public goods into private profits including draining the equivalent of a small lake away from British Columbia for bottling without paying a dime.

- David Dayen writes that the fraudulent documents used in rubber-stamp foreclosure proceedings over the past few years are just the tip of the iceberg - as high finance has been so busy repackaging and reselling mortgage interests that it's largely lost track as to who owns what.

- Laura Kane reports on a much-needed challenge to the Cons' efforts to silence most Canadians when it comes to discussing and analyzing new pipelines and other sources of massive environmental risk which affect us all:
Environmentalists have launched a court challenge attempting to strike down Harper government legislation that restricts public comment on energy proposals, including Enbridge’s proposed Line 9B Reversal, which runs in part through the Toronto region.
ForestEthics Advocacy and activist Donna Sinclair — represented by civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby — filed the suit Tuesday in Federal Court. The application asks the court to throw out new rules created by the National Energy Board, on the grounds that they violate Charter rights and silence dissent.
Under the new rules, introduced in the federal government’s 2012 omnibus budget bill C-38, Canadians may no longer freely show up at public hearings on energy proposals and present their opinion or send a written statement to the energy board.
Instead they must fill out a nine-page application to the board justifying their right to speak on the issue. The board then decides which individuals or organizations get to comment, reserving the right to refuse anyone who isn’t “directly” affected by the matter.
Ruby pointed out that during the Enbridge Northern Gateway hearings that took place in British Columbia before the new rules came in, 1,544 people or entities gave testimony. This year, under the new rules, only 175 will be heard.
- Finally, Nick Fillmore observes that the Harper Cons' austerity policies are hitting Canada's most vulnerable residents the hardest.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

New column day

Here, on the tendency of both political decision-makers and the general public to give too much credence to secret information - and the need for citizens to scrutinize leaders all the more closely if they rely on bare declarations that we'd agree with their actions if only we knew what they choose to hide.

For further reading...
- The White House's NSA review panel announcement is discussed here and clarified here.
- The study on public perceptions of classified information is discussed by Leaf Van Boven, Charles Judd and Mark Travers here.
- Joan McCarter's take on creeping secrecy in policymaking is well worth a read.
- Finally, Don Lenihan comments on how marketing and branding have replaced citizen and engagement and debate in Canada's political scene. And Saskboy documents Michael Fougere's latest contribution to that shift.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Joseph Stiglitz comments on the wider lessons we should take from Detroit's bankruptcy:
Detroit’s travails arise in part from a distinctive aspect of America’s divided economy and society. As the sociologists Sean F. Reardon and Kendra Bischoff have pointed out, our country is becoming vastly more economically segregated, which can be even more pernicious than being racially segregated. Detroit is the example par excellence of the seclusion of affluent (and mostly white) elites in suburban enclaves. There is a rationale for battening down the hatches: the rich thus ensure that they don’t have to pay any share of the local public goods and services of their less well-off neighbors, and that their children don’t have to mix with those of lower socioeconomic status.

The trend toward self-reinforcing inequality is especially apparent in education, an ever shrinking ladder for upward mobility. Schools in poorer districts get worse, parents with means move out to richer districts, and the divisions between the haves and the have-nots — not only in this generation, but also in the next — grow ever larger.
Adding to the problems that would inevitably arise from such poorly designed urban agglomerations is the fact that the Detroit metropolitan area is divided into separate political jurisdictions. The poor are thus not only geographically isolated, but politically ghettoized as well. The result is a separate, poorer inner city with a dearth of resources, made even worse because the industrial plants that had provided the core of the tax base are shut down.
The same skewed priorities that have gutted Detroit at the local level are echoed in a void at the level of national policy. Every country, every society, has regions and industries whose stars are rising, and others that are in decline. Silicon Valley has, for some time, been America’s rising star — just as the upper Midwest was a hundred years ago. With technological change and globalization, though, the Midwest’s comparative advantage as a global manufacturing hub has ebbed, for reasons too well known to list here. Markets, however, often don’t do a good job of self-rejuvenation.

Rather than deal purposefully with this changing economic landscape with useful policies encouraging the growth of other industries, our government spent decades papering over the growing weaknesses by allowing the financial sector to run amok, creating “growth” based on bubbles. We didn’t just let the market run its course. We made an active choice to embrace short-term profits and large-scale inefficiency.

There may be something inevitable about the structural changes that have made American manufacturing less central to our economy, but there is nothing inevitable about the waste, pain and human despair in cities that have accompanied that change.
- And Robert Reich points out how the same trends of increasing inequality and economic segregation feed into a wider sense of anger:
(F)or the last three and a half decades, the middle class has been losing ground. The median wage of male workers is now lower than it was in 1980, adjusted for inflation.

In addition, all the mechanisms we’ve used over the last three decades to minimize the effects of this descent — young mothers streaming into paid work in the late 1970s and 1980s, everyone working longer hours in the 1990s, and then borrowing against the rising values of our homes — are now exhausted. And wages are still dropping — the median is now 4 percent below what it was at the start of the so-called recovery.

Meanwhile, income, wealth, and power have become more concentrated at the top than they’ve been in ninety years.
The last time America was this bitterly divided was in the 1920s, which was the last time income, wealth, and power were this concentrated.

When average people feel the game is rigged, they get angry. And that anger can easily find its way into deep resentments — of the poor, of blacks, of immigrants, of unions, of the well-educated, of government.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Demagogues throughout history have used anger to target scapegoats — thereby dividing and conquering, and distracting people from the real sources of their frustrations. 
- But of course, it is worth pointing out when systems of privilege are in fact abused at the public's expense. On that front, CBC points out the surprises within the now-released audit of Pamela Wallin's Senate expenses. Tim Harper fills in a few details of his own, while Rosie DiManno traces Wallin's descent into ignominy. And the Star thoroughly misses the point in framing the issue as one of Stephen Harper's judgment of character in appointing Wallin and Mike Duffy to the Senate - rather than the culture of corruption and naked self-interest that he's used to define his party.

- Josh Eidelson writes about the expanding scope of fast food strikes as workers fight for fair wages and recognition. And Steven Greenhouse discusses the efforts of the Workers Defense Project to organize and assist those without union representation.

- Finally, Erin Weir calculates what corporate tax reductions have cost the Canadian public - with the final number for the Cons' tax slashing alone reaching upwards of ten billion dollars each year.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cats meeting friends.

Accountability for thee, not for we

Marjory Lebreton makes clear that as far as she's concerned, accountability begins where partisan Con affiliation ends:
Senator Wallin is no longer a member of the Caucus and must be held accountable for her actions.
And needless to say the converse is also true as far as Lebreton and the rest of Stephen Harper's inner circle are concerned: for those within the Con caucus, accountability doesn't apply.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Jacob Goldstein discusses how one-time, no-strings-attached funding for the poor in developing countries can produce lasting improvements in their standard of living - while also highlighting the need for longer-term development:
A charity that gives away money, as opposed to, say, offering agricultural training or medicine, does seem a bit unusual. That’s partly because governments and philanthropists have emphasized solving long-term economic problems rather than urgent needs. But in the past decade it has become increasingly common to give money right to the very poor. After Mexico’s economic crisis in the mid-1990s, Santiago Levy, a government economist, proposed getting rid of subsidies for milk, tortillas and other staples, and replacing them with a program that just gave money to the very poor, as long as they sent their children to school and took them for regular health checkups.

Cabinet ministers worried that parents might use the money to buy alcohol and cigarettes rather than milk and tortillas, and that sending cash might lead to a rise in domestic violence as families fought over what to do with the money. So Levy commissioned studies that compared spending habits between the towns that received money and similar villages that didn’t. The results were promising; researchers found that children in the cash program were more likely to stay in school, families were less likely to get sick and people ate a more healthful diet. Recipients also didn’t tend to blow the money on booze or cigarettes, and many even invested a chunk of what they received. Today, more than six million Mexican families get cash transfers.
Lots of people [in a Kenyan study] used the money in productive ways. An inordinate number, it seemed, used it to replace their thatched roofs, which are not only lousy but also weirdly expensive, as they need to be patched every few months with a special kind of grass. A metal roof costs several hundred dollars, but lasts for 10 years, making it a much better investment. Omondi was among those who bought metal roofs. He also purchased a used Bajaj Boxer, an Indian-made motorcycle that he uses to ferry people around, for a small fee; he is also currently paying off a second motorcycle, which he rents out. Now Omondi makes about $6 to $9 a day in his taxi operation, several times his previous income, and he works almost every day. Several of his neighbors also used the money to start businesses­. One man bought a mill and charges villagers to grind their corn. Others became microretailers, buying goods like soap and oil at wholesale and reselling them at a markup.

But while Omondi and his neighbors have metal roofs, their houses still have dirt floors and no running water or electricity. And their prospects for making it to the middle class are pretty bleak. “You give people cash to start a business or expand their business, and in a lot of cases, they shoot forward,” Blattman says. “Then they start screeching to a halt when they hit the next constraint.” If Omondi wanted to further expand, he’d probably find it hard to get a small-business loan from a bank. The problems holding Omondi and his neighbors back — underdeveloped financial systems, bad infrastructure — are the generic but defining problems of the developing world, and they won’t be fixed by a one-time windfall. 
- Meanwhile, Michael Laxer highlights the avoidable mix of waste and want when it comes to food security in Canada. 

- Michael Woods and Mike de Souza report on the Cons' latest damage to Statistics Canada, which has been forced to delay the release of National Household Survey data at the last minute due to previously-unidentified errors. And Stephen Gordon writes that the NHS has lost the benefit of any doubt.

- Jennifer Hoelzer discusses the attempts of some U.S. legislators to be honest with the public about NSA surveillance - and the the flat refusal of anybody associated with the program to allow for public debate.

- Which leads to another answer to the question of "why don't we like politics?" - as more and more important decisions are removed from the realm of elections and party politics. But that can only signal the importance of making a statement when we have the chance - and Duncan Cameron makes the case for Linda McQuaig as a progressive activist voice.

Tuesday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Obviously Friday's result against Calgary wasn't what the Saskatchewan Roughriders hoped for - particularly since it means having only one game of separation from third place in the CFL's West Division. But it's worth noting that most of the problems against the Stampeders were simply a matter of the inevitable ebb and flow of luck during the course of the season - meaning that there isn't much the 'Riders figure to need to change.

On offence, the 'Riders started off rather pitifully - raising the question as to how an offence that's so effective capitalizing on halftime adjustments seems unable to find weaknesses at the start of any game. But they managed to score enough points to win most games - despite breaking their zero-turnover streak and watching more than a few plays fall apart due to dropped or bounced passes.

Darian Durant was effective stretching the field, as even the deep plays that got broken up managed to open up room for the 'Riders to operate inside. And the offensive line had another fairly strong game, allowing Durant enough time to make plays against a talented set of pass rushers and clearing enough space for Kory Sheets to dominate the second half.

The obvious area of concern came on defence, where Jon Cornish consistently shed tackles until the 'Riders could meet him with three defenders at once. About the only exception was Tyron Brackenridge, who did manage to make some impressive one-on-one tackles. But I have to wonder whether the 'Riders may need to shuffle their positions and assignments to let Brackenridge spy Cornish in future games, rather than counting on Craig Butler to keep a power rusher contained.

Of course, the next few games may seem to be ones where the 'Riders can afford to experiment somewhat. And hopefully the team can keep up enough focus against a few reeling opponents to stay in the win column even if the breaks don't mostly go Saskatchewan's way.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Dan Leger points to the Lac-Mégantic rail explosion as an all-too-vivid example of the intersection of privatized profits and socialized risks:
Are we tough enough on corporations that destroy, burn and kill? What’s happening at Lac-Mégantic suggests we aren’t. There’s a scramble on now to stop the company responsible for Canada’s worst rail disaster from walking away with little more than an aching bank account.

The infamous Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway filed for bankruptcy protection last week in Canada and the U.S. It’s a clear attempt to fade into the background while survivors, families and the shocked community of Lac-Mégantic face a lifetime of struggle and grief.

Years of litigation lie ahead, but the railway seems to think the victims and their neighbours should pay the bills; not shareholders or its bizarrely tone-deaf chairman, Ed Burkhardt. Taxpayers will share the recovery costs, which will run to the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Forty-seven people are dead, their families and their community permanently scarred. And the company gets to walk away? It seems impossibly wrong, but it could happen.
At the bankruptcy hearing, Justice Martin Castonguay said he was “not impressed” with what he called MM&A’s “lamentable behaviour.” He suggested MM&A’s directors should be held personally responsible.

And so they should. Lac-Mégantic has demonstrated that we need tougher laws in Canada, ones that will bring the pain of the next industrial disaster right back to the corporate boardroom.
- Meanwhile, Charles Pierce rightly notes the media's painfully short attention span when it comes to stories of high-risk corporate malfeasance - with the ongoing flow of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear plant (contrary to the false assurances of the operator) serving as an example.
- Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas survey a range of sources on the link between political inequality and economic inequality - including some evidence that the views of poorer constituents have precisely zero effect on the actions of elected representatives. And in that vein, Cathy Davis discusses how the UK's Con-led coalition is attacking the availability of housing for the people who need it most.

- Paul Adams wonders whether a focus on inequality can help to reduce both gaps in Canada. And the Toronto Star offers its own call for Tom Mulcair to avoid falling into the anti-tax spin cycle:
(T)axes are not the prohibitive political taboo they were before the 2008 financial meltdown. A recent Environics survey showed that 64 per cent of Canadians say they would pay a bit more to fund health care, pensions and higher education, while 83 per cent favour a tax hike on the very rich. Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama and Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath both pushed through new taxes last year without suffering any apparent political injuries.

Politicians across the spectrum typically view taxation as a last resort. And that’s probably a good thing. But Mulcair can’t be certain of what, in perpetuity, we will collectively be willing to pay for. By taking possible tax increases off the table, we blinker our vision of what’s possible. The leader of the New Democrats, of all people, should know that.
- Finally, Michael Harris laments the spread of the surveillance state. And Stephen Spencer Davis reports on its use against peaceful Idle No More activists.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Simon Lewchuk makes the case for genuine participatory budgeting in contrast to the little-known and unduly-narrow means for Canadians to even make suggestions for our country's public spending priorities:
Operating under the guise of “consultation,” in June the federal finance committee announced its annual pre-budget process (don’t worry if you missed it, most Canadians did too). People were invited to “share their priorities for the 2014 budget” via an online form but, with an Aug. 5 deadline, it was unlikely that many Canadians were able to take the committee up on its offer (even if they were aware of it).

The parameters of the pre-budget consultation process are becoming increasingly narrow. In 2011, for example, respondents were asked to provide their views on how to “create quality, sustainable jobs, ensure relatively low rates of taxation and achieve a balanced budget.” To start from the premise that low taxes are non-negotiable doesn’t leave much room for an honest, frank discussion.
Not that the real decision-making power rests with the finance committee: our current government has been criticized for shrouding the budget process in secrecy, something they explicitly campaigned against in 2006. Budget decisions are being made behind closed doors and forced through the House of Commons as part of massive omnibus legislation.

It all leaves one seriously doubting the value and integrity of the current budget consultation process.

What we do with our money — as families, communities or countries — reflects our priorities, commitments and vision of the sort of world we want to live in. Budget decisions demand a broad, inclusive decision-making process.
- Sarah Frank highlights the consequences of a budgeting process utterly disconnected from representatives and citizens alike, finding Dean Del Mastro telling the City of Peterborough to apply for funding under a program which his own government eliminated last year. But considering the Cons' well-established practice of bombarding Canada's airwaves with advertising for programs past, future or outright imaginary, I'm only surprised their MPs haven't been caught more often doing the same in person.

- Susan Delacourt discusses housing as a matter of public policy - with particular reference to the Cons' lack of interest in acknowledging the importance of rental housing even as they make home ownership less affordable.

- Jody Porter reports that the Cons aren't the least bit sorry for the use of hungry First Nations children as involuntary test subjects.

- Meanwhile, the Hupacasath First Nation is rightly challenging the Cons' disregard for Canada's duty to consult in negotiating the FIPA.

- Finally, Graham Thomson discusses the effect the Cold Lake blowout is bound to have on attempts to greenwash the tar sands:
For the last three months, 7,300 barrels of bitumen have uncontrollably bubbled to the surface from deep underground and seeped into muskeg and water on four sites at the company’s operations, creating an ecological mess, killing wildlife and damaging the reputation of CNRL in particular and the oilsands industry in general.

The company has cut down trees, hauled away tons of oily muskeg and put containment booms on a contaminated lake. But the bitumen keeps coming, seeping out of the ground through long, narrow fissures. Not only has CNRL been unable to stop it, the company doesn’t know for sure why it keeps coming.

The Pembina Institute based in Calgary disturbingly describes the leak as an “uncontrolled blowout in an oil reservoir deep underground.”
There remains the possibility the problem was the result of a crack in the overlying cap rock created by the high-pressure steaming process. That would be a much larger problem for CNRL. It’s one thing for the company to plug up an old cracked well bore, but quite another to deal with cracks in a geological formation.

It would also be a much larger problem for the oilsands industry that is moving away from open pit mining to in situ methods designed to be less environmentally disruptive. The CNRL incident is raising troubling questions and providing ammunition for environmental groups to once again attack the industry.

Also troubling is the fact this is the second CNRL leak in the same area. In 2009, 5,600 barrels seeped into the environment. A cause was never conclusively reached, but the provincial regulator said “geological weakness, in combination with stress induced by high pressure steam injection” may have contributed to the incident.
It doesn’t matter if you call it a leak or a spill or an underground blowout — we need to know what caused it and what it means to the integrity of the oilsands industry.
And it's of course always worth a reminder that the Cons have gone out of their way to make sure that Cold Lake-style disasters can happen without any warning or mitigation strategies - having excluded in situ steam injection projects (geological implications and all) from any environmental assessment.