Saturday, December 28, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Lana Payne writes that Canadians care plenty about the well-being of hungry children even if the Cons don't:
After a firestorm of shocked responses from Canadians, Mr. Moore apologized for his “insensitive comment” uttered days before Christmas. What he did not apologize for or reassess was his belief in the kind of fend-for-yourself country his remarks support.

The apology came likely because this is the season of goodwill and it is no time to remind Canadians what drives the current federal government, begging the question of why it is tolerated any time of the year.

Yet despite the outrage, despite their unending troubles, this government marches on towards its goal of building a country where we no longer truly care about the plight of our neighbours.
- PressProgress highlights the unregulated growth of the tar sands and other closely-related industries - including a massive increase in private air traffic. Terry Glavin suggests that there's only one right answer for the Harper Cons in making the final call on the Norther Gateway pipeline. And Stephen Hume isn't buying the Cons' attempts to demonize all opposition to it:
[The Conservatives are making] an argument that non-governmental organizations vowing to stop the proposed project following its approval by the National Energy Board — subject to more than 200 conditions — are somehow undermining the democratic process through intimidation, threats of violent protest, political sabotage, slander and disinformation.

This is all code. It is intended to define a category to which those who think the pipeline is a bad idea can be routinely consigned. Thus, opposition may be dismissed without assessing the merits of the objections — simply opposing the pipeline invites automatic framing of that protest as the work of enemies of the Canadian way of life.

British Columbians have heard all this rhetoric before. It is a propaganda strategy devised by giant public relations firms. It was first deployed here more than 20 years ago by the forest industry in response to protest and civil disobedience aimed at preventing the denuding of great swaths of the province with vast industrial clearcuts.
A word to the enthusiasts for this approach: It didn’t work in the early 1990s; it won’t work now.
- Meanwhile, Mike de Souza reports that having eliminated any environmental protection for nearly all of Canada's fisheries and waterways, the Cons are now slashing funding for what few water protection programs were left - even though the department itself has made clear that it needs more resources rather than less.

- Finally, Robin Sears comments on how a scandal-filled year in politics may serve to undermine trust in our political institutions. (Though the sad reality is that the politicians most responsible for that loss of trust are exactly the ones whose ideology might benefit from public antipathy toward politics.)

[Edit: added link.]

New column day

Here, on the need to keep the holiday message of peace and goodwill in mind throughout the year - while working to foster both in our homes and in the world around us.

For further reading, I'll point back to a couple of pieces about the effects of poverty and inequality on individual well-being: Moises Velazquez-Manoff's discussion of status and stress, and Jack Monroe's personal account of life in poverty. Both provide compelling examples of how individual-level peace is impossible for many who lack basic essentials - and I'd think that even a modicum of goodwill would lead anybody to push for a functional social safety net to reduce the damage.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Musical interlude

Tenishia - Where Do We Begin (Andrew Rayel Remix)

Friday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Paul Krugman comments on the role of fear in boosting employers' authority over workers:
The fact is that employment generally involves a power relationship: you have a boss, who tells you what to do, and if you refuse, you may be fired. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If employers value their workers, they won’t make unreasonable demands. But it’s not a simple transaction. There’s a country music classic titled “Take This Job and Shove It.” There isn’t and won’t be a song titled “Take This Consumer Durable and Shove It.”

So employment is a power relationship, and high unemployment has greatly weakened workers’ already weak position in that relationship. 
Now think about what this means for workers’ bargaining power. When the economy is strong, workers are empowered. They can leave if they’re unhappy with the way they’re being treated and know that they can quickly find a new job if they are let go. When the economy is weak, however, workers have a very weak hand, and employers are in a position to work them harder, pay them less, or both.

Is there any evidence that this is happening? And how. The economic recovery has, as I said, been weak and inadequate, but all the burden of that weakness is being borne by workers. Corporate profits plunged during the financial crisis, but quickly bounced back, and they continued to soar. Indeed, at this point, after-tax profits are more than 60 percent higher than they were in 2007, before the recession began. We don’t know how much of this profit surge can be explained by the fear factor — the ability to squeeze workers who know that they have no place to go. But it must be at least part of the explanation.
- And Robyn Benson points out that temporary foreign workers serve as particularly vulnerable sources of cheap, disposable labour. 

- Meanwhile, Michael Adams and Robin Brown recognize that while the Cons may have managed to turn a few pools of new Canadians into useful voting blocs, plenty more immigrants place a high value on the economic security and cultural diversity which the Cons are eagerly shredding in the name of higher immediate profits for a few preferred industries.

- Katie Valentine expands on Alberta's replacement of public regulation of oil sands environmental issues with an industry-funded and -dominated body. And lest there be any doubt who the Alberta Energy Regulator is intended to serve, a quick look at the background of its board - complete with zero references to environmental knowledge or experience on the part of even a single member - should put that to rest.

- Finally, both David Atkins and Dartagnan ask what it means for the global financial system if it's impossible to prosecute major fraud which helped to cause the 2008 economic meltdown because the results of that fraud are seen as necessary to the continued operation of the economy as we know it.

On deflection

Shorter Preston Manning:
Mike Duffy openly flouted the Parliamentary Press Gallery's rules for years by seeking to trade his celebrity for a patronage appointment. When Stephen Harper was the only Prime Minister willing to offer that deal for political gain, Duffy proceeded to flout every new set of rules which applied to him as a Senator while serving as the Conservatives' most prominent fund-raiser, setting up a scandal and cover-up reaching to the top levels of the Prime Minister's office.

Obviously, this story demonstrates there's a problem with the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and no other person or party involved. So leave my buddy Steve alone.
Needless to say, Susan Delacourt's response detailing the actual role of the Parliamentary Press Gallery is worth a read.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Paul Krugman writes about the effect of a precarious labour market on even the relatively few workers who enjoy relatively secure employment:
(T)hese are lousy times for the employed, too. Why? Because they have so little bargaining power.

Leave or lose your job, and the chances of getting another comparable job, or any job at all, are definitely not good. And workers know it: quit rates, the percentage of workers voluntarily leaving jobs, remain far below pre-crisis levels, and very very far below what they were in the true boom economy of the late 90s...

(M)ay I suggest that employers, although they’ll never say so in public, like this situation? That is, there’s a significant upside to them from the still-weak economy. I don’t think I’d go so far as to say that there’s a deliberate effort to keep the economy weak; but corporate America certainly isn’t feeling much pain, and the plight of workers is actually a plus from their point of view.
- Priyamvada Gopal comments on the cult of the rich:
Last week, Tory MP Esther McVey, Iain Duncan Smith's deputy, insisted it was "right" that half a million Britons be dependent on food banks in "tough times". Around the same time, the motor racing heiress Tamara Ecclestone totted up a champagne bill of £30,000 in one evening. A rich teenager in Texas has just got away with probation for drunkenly running over and killing four people because his lawyers argued successfully that he suffered from "affluenza", which rendered him unable to handle a car responsibly. What we've been realising for some time now is that, for all the team sport rhetoric, only two sides are really at play in Britain and beyond: Team Super-Rich and Team Everyone Else.

The rich are not merely different: they've become a cult which drafts us as members. We are invited to deceive ourselves into believing we are playing for the same stakes while worshipping the same ideals, a process labelled "aspiration". Reaching its zenith at this time of year, our participation in cult rituals – buy, consume, accumulate beyond need – helps mute our criticism and diffuse anger at systemic exploitation. That's why we buy into the notion that a £20 Zara necklace worn by the Duchess of Cambridge on a designer gown costing thousands of pounds is evidence that she is like us. We hear that the monarch begrudges police officers who guard her family and her palaces a handful of cashew nuts and interpret it as eccentricity rather than an apt metaphor for the Dickensian meanness of spirit that underlies the selective concentration of wealth. The adulation of royalty is not a harmless anachronism; it is calculated totem worship that only entrenches the bizarre notion that some people are rich simply because they are more deserving but somehow they are still just like us.
- Meanwhile, Simon Enoch points out how the Wall government's past preaching that corporate subsidies would benefit everybody has given way to a lamentation that a booming province can't afford to do anything to assist those in need. And Dean Baker highlights the role governments have played in exacerbating inequality.

- Finally, Deveryn Ross reminds us of the need to look out for others during the holiday season (and in general).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Decorated cats.

On questionable remedies

Shorter Donald Johnson:
My preferred cure for poverty and inequality breaks for rich people!

(And if anybody's asking, I'll be happy to prescribe the same course of treatment for such conditions as gingivitis, economic sluggishness, economic vibrancy, spontaneous combustion syndrome, seasonal affective disorder, out-of-seasonal affective disorder, general malaise, and many more!)

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Bill Moyers offers up a superb summary and reading list on inequality:
Inequality in America: How bad is it? In 2011, Mother Jones published a series of charts capturing the depth of inequality in the US, which remains one of the best big-picture looks at the problem out there. We have greater inequality of accumulated wealth than income, and University of California sociologist William Domhoff’s “Who Rules America” provided the details. In The Atlantic, Max Fisher offered a map of global inequality that named the US among the most unequal wealthy countries, and Mark Gongloff reported in the Huffington Post about a study that found that we have the fastest growth in inequality in the developed world. Thomas Shapiro, Tatjana Meschede and Sam Osoro wrote a brief on the black/ white wealth gap at the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, and Brookings’ Benjamin Harris and Melissa Kearny offered 12 facts about America’s struggling lower middle class.

I’m not poor. Why should I care? Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argued in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better that greater inequality correlates with, and may cause, all sorts of social harms – from crime to obesity to alcoholism. John Crace interviewed the authors for The Guardian, and Wilkinson penned an article for CNN. A study conducted by Sir Michael Marmot, a professor of epidemiology at University College London, found that high levels of inequality cause stress and harm the health of both rich and poor. Justin Wolfers noted that higher inequality correlates with less upward mobility. A report by the UN found that higher levels of inequality were accompanied by slower overall growth. World Bank economist Branko Milanovic found that it’s more “fun” to live in more equal societies.
- Justine Hunter writes about the litigation expected to follow from the Cons' rubber-stamp for the Northern Gateway pipeline.

- Sheila Pratt reports that 75 officers from Alberta's already non-functional environmental regulator have been lured into an industry-funded group doesn't offer much reason for confidence that public interests are going to be represented any better in the near future. And Douglas Fischer takes a look at the massive amounts of private money being used to fund climate denialism with less and less donor transparency.

- Michael Byers critiques the Cons' obsession with the North Pole. And Matthew Fisher writes that the Cons' posturing has taken away from efforts to present a sound scientific position - which may result on Canada losing out on claims it might otherwise have been able to win.

- Finally, Joel Harden reviews Brad Lavigne's Building the Orange Wave - and it's well worth noting his take on what's often left out of Lavigne's otherwise strong account:
This, as some have said, wasn’t the NDP our grandparents built. Gone were any pretensions to socialism in the party’s constitution. Absent were genuine efforts to row against the tide of established thinking.

Present instead was "social-ism," an approach Tony Blair championed (using the ideas of Anthony Giddens) to move the British Labour Party "beyond left and right." Layton’s adoption of this mantra involved repeated claims to make "Parliament work for people."

Lavigne claims the party did this at several crucial moments: during budget wrangles with Liberals in 2004 and 2005, and the parliamentary dispute of 2008-2009. I’ll leave it to others to debate the merits of those claims.

My issue is with Lavigne's view that the NDP’s rise came from a shift "beyond politics," and embrace of populist messaging, neither of which rings true for me. Lavigne’s focus on high-level strategy undermines his assessment of Layton’s strengths, and why many activists and movements held him in such high regard.

For me, the Orange Wave started with Layton’s courting of Quebec voters and reputation as an activist politician.

Unlike most NDP leaders, he didn’t antagonize Quebec on constitutional questions, was proudly green and opposed to war in Afghanistan. This made the NDP, as Lavigne explains, a magnet for public animosity in Quebec against Harper, and a rallying point for those seeking to oust him.
There’s a real difference between strategy to seek a political vision, and strategy as a political vision -- we need more of the former and less of the latter.

As Lavigne notes, the Conservatives have built a solid infrastructure to communicate their ideas and mobilize grassroots supporters. A recent study insists that the left needs a similar infrastructure to challenge corporate power and its dissemination of fend-for-yourself, neoliberal ideas. Strategists like Lavigne have an important role to play in that process, but not without the energy, and commitment, of social movements.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Michael Katz looks back at how the U.S. abandoned its poor - and how that choice continues to affect people across the income spectrum today. And Michael Valpy discusses how Canada can and should avoid travelling any further down the same path - with his "Big Four" ideas focusing on mandatory voting, proportional representation, a guaranteed basic income and protections for vulnerable workers.

- Jeffrey Simpson describes the Cons' narrow focus on about 10 per cent of the Canadian electorate in the lead up to the next federal election, while Andrew Jackson previews what we can expect out of future federal budgets. And Michael Harris laments the fact that Stephen Harper is far more interested in using public money to promote his own image than in actually governing competently:
The Tories carpetbombed the NHL playoffs in 2013 with ads for the Economic Action Plan, tagging this shameless self-promotion with EAP 2013 identifiers. The playoff ads cost $95,000 a pop. But the Harper government had to admit later that the ads did not contain any actual measures from the 2013 budget.

In other words, not only was it a freeloading political announcement paid for by Canadians on behalf of the Conservative party, it was false. The Canada Jobs Grant which was being advertised at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars didn’t even exist.

When Harper himself was forced to explain his profligate ad offensive at the public’s expense in the House of Commons, he no longer talked of informing citizens about government programs, the way Rona Ambrose had. Now it was a matter of national pride — in him.

No one is better at giving himself straight As than this PM. The new explanation went something like this: The ads were worth it because after seeing their key message — that Canada was doing better than any other developed country in tough economic times — Canadians would burst with pride at what a good government they had.

Setting aside the neck-snapping shift in the justification, there was another problem with the ads.  They weren’t true either. Canada does not have the highest growth rate in the G7 — the United States does. Outside the G7, the economies of Australia and some Scandinavian countries also grew faster than Canada’s did.

The Economic Action Plan was a propaganda vehicle originating in the Finance Department to make Canadians think Jim Flaherty is the best finance minister on the planet … you know, ‘STFU’ Jim.
Believers in that steroid pantomime known as Wrestlemania may have been taken in. People who can read are a tougher sale.
The bottom line? No prime minister has any business spending hundreds of millions of dollars of other people’s money to boast about his accomplishments. If only the PM would unmuzzle his ministers — and give a few interviews where he didn’t supply the questions in advance — the media would be delighted to offer the air time and column inches for free.

What a terrifying concept that would be for a control freak not particularly restrained by the facts — someone who would rather spend pots of public money creating them.
- John Ivison gives us advance warning that there are plenty of years of diplomatic darkness ahead if the Cons get their way.

- And finally, Dan Leger theorizes that we may look back on 2013 as the year citizens pushed back against constant surveillance in the name of security.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Joseph Stiglitz discusses the link between perpetually-increasing inequality and the loss of social trust:
Unfortunately, however, trust is becoming yet another casualty of our country’s staggering inequality: As the gap between Americans widens, the bonds that hold society together weaken. So, too, as more and more people lose faith in a system that seems inexorably stacked against them, and the 1 percent ascend to ever more distant heights, this vital element of our institutions and our way of life is eroding.

The undervaluing of trust has its roots in our most popular economic traditions. Adam Smith argued forcefully that we would do better to trust in the pursuit of self-interest than in the good intentions of those who pursue the general interest. If everyone looked out for just himself, we would reach an equilibrium that was not just comfortable but also productive, in which the economy was fully efficient. To the morally uninspired, it’s an appealing idea: selfishness as the ultimate form of selflessness. (Elsewhere, in particular in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Smith took a much more balanced view, though most of his latter-day adherents have not followed suit.)

But events — and economic research — over the past 30 years have shown not only that we cannot rely on self-interest, but also that no economy, not even a modern, market-based economy like America’s, can function well without a modicum of trust — and that unmitigated selfishness inevitably diminishes trust.
Trust between individuals is usually reciprocal. But if I think that you are cheating me, it is more likely that I will retaliate, and try to cheat you. (These notions have been well developed in a branch of economics called the “theory of repeated games.”) When Americans see a tax system that taxes the wealthiest at a fraction of what they pay, they feel that they are fools to play along. All the more so when the wealthiest are able to move profits off shore. The fact that this can be done without breaking the law simply shows Americans that the financial and legal systems are designed by and for the rich.

As the trust deficit persists, a deeper rot takes hold: Attitudes and norms begin to change. When no one is trustworthy, it will be only fools who trust. The concept of fairness itself is eroded. A study published last year by the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the upper classes are more likely to engage in what has traditionally been considered unethical behavior. Perhaps this is the only way for some to reconcile their worldview with their outlandish financial success, often achieved through actions that reveal a kind of moral deprivation.

It’s hard to know just how far we’ve gone down the path toward complete trust disintegration, but the evidence is not encouraging.

Economic inequality, political inequality, and an inequality-promoting legal system all mutually reinforce one another. We get a legal system that provides privileges to the rich and powerful. Occasionally, individual egregious behavior is punished (Bernard L. Madoff comes to mind); but none of those who headed our mighty banks are held accountable.

As always, it is the poor and the unconnected who suffer most from this, and who are the most repeatedly deceived.
- Meanwhile, David Hutton discusses the Cons' crackdown on whistleblowers and anybody else who tries to bring inconvenient truths to light. And Glen McGregor's look at the Cons' latest fund-raising pitch tells us what kind of action they're looking to punish with incessant fund-raising appeals:
The Citizen received these fundraising pitches after submitting an email address to a Conservative Party website that encouraged users to send Happy Mother’s Day greeting to Harper’s wife, Laureen.
- Grant Robertson and Kim Mackrael write that the regulatory system which we should be able to trust to ensure Canadians' safety instead did nothing in response to questions about the safety of shipping oil by rail. And ThinkProgress surveys 45 fossil fuel-related disasters from 2013 which didn't receive the coverage they deserved.

- Finally, Max Fawcett writes about the absurdity of Alberta's royalty regime which allows. And it shouldn't escape notice that Saskatchewan's resource management is even more slanted toward converting public resources into private payouts - with the public paying up to 120% of the cost of resource extractors' operations.

On voter friendliness

Others have been quick to give Chantal Hebert's take on the NDP more credence than it deserves. But while Hebert is right to note that there's more to the NDP's path forward than merely challenging Justin Trudeau, she falls into a familiar trap in assessing the party's public appeal - and indeed rewrites an awful lot of history in the process:
A strong New Democrat performance in Quebec could block the path to power for the Liberals. But it does not follow that it would pave the way for decisive NDP gains in the rest of Canada.

In 2011, Layton’s orange wave had the opposite of a tsunami effect for the NDP in the rest of the country.

If anything, soaring New Democrat fortunes in Quebec ended up tipping the balance toward a Harper majority as scores of so-called blue Liberals — in particular in Ontario — decided that switching to the Conservatives was preferable to risking a Layton-led government.
At year’s end the biggest threat to Mulcair’s national ambitions is not Trudeau but a party brand that has yet to be made voter-friendly enough to appeal to a greater number of centrist Ontarians.  
Of course, contrary to the "opposite tsunami" theory, 2011 saw the NDP post its best-ever result across the rest of Canada as well. And that result was based in no small part on the NDP being perceived as a voting option by far more voters than even the Cons - its with first- or second-choice support consistently registering upwards of 50%.

Meanwhile, it's long been the case that the Cons are ruled out as an option based on their extremism by far more voters than any other party. And even more recent polling places the Cons well ahead of any other party in the number of voters unwilling to consider them as an option.

So the issue has always been less a matter of the NDP needing to appease voters who see it as something less than a viable choice, than its need to become the first choice of voters who already include the party as a possibility.

And Hebert even manages to trip over her own reasoning about acceptable governing alternatives. It may be true (as she theorizes) that provinces familiar with NDP governments are more likely to send protest votes the Libs' way. But if that pattern holds true, then surely it follows that concrete examples of the compromises typically made by parties in power don't necessarily redound to the NDP's advantage.

With that critique of Hebert in mind, I'll suggest that the better recent take on the positioning of Canada's main federal parties comes from Frank Graves:
(T)here is a large cohort of center-left voters who would move easily from LPC to NDP, depending on who is seen as the more plausible bet to defeat Harper. We have seen just such volatility in these ranks over the past couple of years and this cohort could swing back to Mr. Mulcair again. In fact, it is Stephen Harper who, according to second-choice statistics, has the least opportunity to grow his vote.

The stage is now set for an almost unprecedented contest across three almost equally-poised parties. The contest will be for the hearts and minds of the beleaguered middle class and perhaps the newly-swollen ranks of working class and poor.

The prospects of a tie raise the spectre of a coalition government — something that frightens parties, not voters. Expect to hear party leaders deliver clear denunciations of coalitions — but remember, if current trends continue, you can expect to hear the C-word a lot more often.
Of course, in 2011 it was the only party willing to talk positively about coalitions which managed to boost its popular support. And the message that the NDP is the only party willing to do what it takes - both in terms of building a progressive movement, and in terms of working across party lines - to build a strong alternative to the Harper Cons still looks like a far better rallying cry than Hebert's proposal to paint the party beige.