Saturday, April 19, 2014

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Paul Krugman explains how one's political values figure to affect one's view of evidence as to the success or failure of a policy:
(T)he liberal and conservative movements are not at all symmetric in their goals. Conservatives want smaller government as an end in itself; liberals don’t seek bigger government per se — they want government to achieve certain things, which is quite different. You’ll never see liberals boasting about raising the share of government spending in GDP the way conservatives talk proudly about bringing that share down. Because liberals want government to accomplish something, they want to know whether government programs are actually working; because conservatives don’t want the government doing anything except defense and law enforcement, they aren’t really interested in evidence about success or failure. True, they may seize on alleged evidence of failure to reinforce their case, but it’s about political strategy, not genuine interest in the facts.

One side consequence of this great divide, by the way, is the way conservatives project their own style onto their opponents — insisting that climate researchers are just trying to rationalize government intervention, that liberals like trains because they destroy individualism.
(A)nother factor is the lack of a comprehensive liberal media environment comparable to the closed conservative universe. If you lean right, you can swaddle yourself 24/7 in Fox News and talk radio, never hearing anything that disturbs your preconceptions. (If you were getting your “news” from Fox, you were told that the hugely encouraging Rand survey was nothing but bad news for Obamacare.) If you lean left, you might watch MSNBC, but the allegedly liberal network at least tries to make a distinction between news and opinion — and if you watch in the morning, what you get is right-wing conspiracy theorizing more or less indistinguishable from Fox.

Yet another factor may be the different incentives of opinion leaders, which in turn go back to the huge difference in resources. Strange to say, there are more conservative than liberal billionaires, and it shows in think-tank funding. As a result, I like to say that there are three kinds of economists: Liberal professional economists, conservative professional economists, and professional conservative economists. The other box isn’t entirely empty, but there just isn’t enough money on the left to close the hack gap.
- Linda McQuaig discusses the Cons' combination of elitist operations and populist messaging. Don Lenihan considers populism to be merely a particularly cynical form of elitism - which often serves to divert needed accountability by replacing the public's role in keeping an eye on its leaders with the promise of a savior to take on the job. And Jim Coyle questions how children of privilege like Rob Ford and Justin Trudeau can keep a straight face while claiming to stand up for the little guy - while comparing the respective plausibility of their pitches.

- Of course, elitism in the ranks of our political leaders is all the worse when it's accepted by other institutions which should protect the public interest. On that front, Michael Harris wonders whether the RCMP is doing the bidding of the PMO rather than pursuing justice in electing not to pursue charges against Nigel Wright, while suggesting that we're at least owed an explanation for the choice.

- Meanwhile, Erik Loomis asks why we treat employer wage theft as an administrative matter to be met with a slap on the wrist, rather than an abuse just as deserving of criminal intervention as an employee's stealing from the till. And the Star-Phoenix editorial board duly slams the Cons' "victims' rights" legislation which once again uses a misleading title to introduce regressive changes to the criminal justice system.

- Kim Nursall reports on TD's study examining the long-term costs of climate change - which include both tens of billions in losses to Canadian GDP, and human costs going far beyond what can be easily quantified. And Leilani Farha and Michele Biss look at the numbers we're missing in discussing homelessness in Canada, while pointing out that we already know plenty which should push us to act.

- Finally, Rob Nagai suggests that the NDP should change its attitude to take a more positive view of fund-raising. But I'd note some distinction between the view of the party apparatus (which has done plenty to work on the issue) and the grassroots (which probably does better fit Nagai's description of preferring issue advocacy to fund-raising) - and suggest that if the NDP is going to find a find-raising advantage, the longer-term goal should be to better build fund-raising into its member-driven activities.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Musical interlude

Mossy - Euphoria

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Friday reading.

- Robert Kuttner discusses Karl Polanyi's increasingly important critique of unregulated markets and corporatist states. Sarah Kendzior writes about the latest cycle of workers stuck in poverty who are striking back against a system designed to suppress their standard of living. And Michael Rozworski examines the effect of the Cons' temporary foreign worker focus on Canadian workers:
(W)hile food attendants made up 9% of all TFW Labour Market Opinions (LMOs) issued in Canada in 2012, they comprised 17%, or almost double, of TFW LMOs in Alberta, the province that has the tightest labour market. Indeed, in Alberta the top five occupations filled by TFWs are all in services. For a program that is meant to help employers find workers for otherwise impossible-to-fill positions, it seems to be doing quite the opposite: helping employers staff low-wage service occupations that are relatively always in demand. Government documents show as much – Alberta employers were applying for low-level service LMOs in the same jurisdictions where unemployed workers with skills for those occupations were on EI.

Employers are using TFWs to enforce discipline especially at the lower end of the job market. Increasing bifurcation between low- and high-wage jobs means that the effect is potentially all the greater.
Bringing in more TFWs is one more means of ensuring that a tighter labour market does not lead to increased agitation for better pay and better conditions. When unemployment (and the even greater underemployment) starts to fall, the increased use of temporary foreign workers is a means of securing continued economic power. The cruel irony is that temporary foreign workers hoping to counteract the effects of an unequal global distribution of goods and power on their families are being used to help safeguard and enlarge disparities in their new home.

The different rules for temporary foreign workers – their institutionalized precarity – help spread a lighter but still increasing precarity throughout the rest of the lower-wage workforce. This is enough to condemn the TFWP as a policy tool that stacks the hand of employers in broader labour relations.
The particular genius of the TFWP, especially as applied to low-wage work, goes further. The TFWP is not only a labour policy tool but, at the same time, an immigration program and, as such, interacts with existing prejudices that limit solidarity along the axis of immigration and race. These work to counteract the potential for solidarity that arises from shared experiences of deteriorating labour conditions. The function of the TFWP on the labour market and on immigration should not be analyzed in isolation. The program lies at a problematic but potentially fruitful intersection of class and immigration – by and large meaning at the intersection of class and race.
- Ben Casselman points out that the timing of a job loss has far more to do with one's future prospects than education, occupation or any other factor which could plausibly be tied to merit. And Lisa Wright reports on the trend toward highly unstable work - which can only increase the odds of a single job loss coming at just the wrong time.

- Claudia Calderon Machicado makes a strong business case for fair paid leave and sick leave programs.

- The CCPA offers a series of papers on the role unions can and should play in ensuring economic fairness - and the steps the Cons and similar governments are taking to prevent them from acting.

- Finally, Matt Taibbi highlights the fact that inequality by design isn't limited to income or wealth - as the same justice system which readily throws people in jail for extended periods of time for relatively minor offences has done nothing to address gross criminal behaviour in financial markets.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

New column day

Here, on the Canadian public's widespread recognition - and worrisome acceptance - that life will be worse for younger generations than for older ones.

For further reading...
- Ipsos-MORI's poll referenced in the column is here.
- The CCPA's feature on post-secondary education costs is here, while Holly Moore reports on it here.
- And I'll again point out the one recent bright spot in post-secondary education policy, as Newfoundland and Labrador are working on eliminating student loans rather than figuring that increasing student debt loads represent a positive development.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Angella MacEwen takes a look at the large numbers of unemployed and underemployed Canadians chasing a tiny number of available jobs. And Carol Goar calls out the Cons and the CFIB alike for preferring disposable foreign workers to Canadians who aren't being offered a living wage:
If employers want to talk about the government’s abrupt about-face, that is legitimate. If they want an “adult conversation” about work and remuneration, they should be ready to answer some key questions:
  • Why should they be exempt from market discipline? The law of supply and demand provides a clear solution to domestic labour shortages. Raise wages or improve working conditions.
  • Why are they telling Canadians their kids and neighbours have a poor work ethic? Lots of Canadians do dirty, onerous jobs — pick up garbage, go down mines, wash highrise windows.
  • Why are they comparing foreign workers whose immigration status depends on their performance to Canadian workers who have the freedom to walk away from exploitative employers?
The business federation is right. It is time to talk honestly about work.

For its members, having a ready supply of low-wage workers may be paramount. For the rest of society, other priorities matter. Canadians want a fair shot at jobs in their own country. They want fair labour practices. They want one set of rules for everybody.
- And Dave Johnson compares soaring CEO pay in the U.S. to the stagnation facing most workers.

- So it's no wonder that Ipsos MORI finds that respondents around the developed world see worse living conditions for younger generations than the ones enjoyed by older ones. And the CCPA highlights part of the problem, as university students are facing far higher tuition (particularly compared to the wages they can earn to invest in their own futures).

- In another prime example of the importance of public policy in shaping outcomes, Matt Bruenig charts the effect of social programs on child poverty - and shows that the difference between the U.S.'s much higher child poverty levels and the lower number in Scandinavian countries arises almost entirely out of differences in benefits.

- Jeffrey Simpson criticizes the Cons' Unfair Elections Act as a whole. And Tim Harper and the Globe and Mail editorial board zero in on the Senate's sad attempt to water down a bill which should be scrapped in its entirety to allow for all-party and public input into the direction of Canada's elections legislation.

- Finally, Colin Macleod looks to have found the perfect descriptor for the Harper Cons.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Bumpy cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Timothy Shenk discusses Thomas Piketty's contribution to a critique of unfettered capitalism and gratuitous inequality:
Seen from Piketty’s vantage point, thousands of feet above the rubble, the fragility of this moment becomes clear. Economic growth was a recent invention, major reductions to income inequality more recent still. Yet the aftermath of World War II was filled with prophets forecasting this union into eternity. Kuznets offered the most sophisticated expression of this cheerful projection. Extrapolating from the history of the United States between 1913 and 1948, he concluded that economic growth automatically reduced income inequality. This was the moment when, as Piketty observes with both regret and nostalgia, “the illusion that capitalism had been overcome” secured widespread acceptance.

Time soon deflated this optimism. Although the growth of global GDP has accelerated—billions of people across Asia are now catching up to their rivals, a position analogous to Europe after World War II—the best available evidence suggests that these levels are impossible to sustain at the technological frontier. Europe’s per capita growth dropped to just below 2 percent from 1980 to 2012; the United States’ was even slower, coming in at 1.3 percent. Meanwhile, the link between rising GDP and falling inequality was severed, with the largest gains from diminished growth flowing to the richest of the rich—not even to the 1 percent, but to the one-tenth of 1 percent and higher.

Although the contours of Piketty’s history confirm what economic historians already know, his anatomizing of the 1 percent’s fortunes over centuries is a revelation. When joined to his magisterial command of the source material and his gift for synthesis, they disclose a history not of steady economic expansion but of stops and starts, with room for sudden departures from seemingly unbreakable patterns. In turn, he links this history to economic theory, demonstrating that there is no inherent drive in markets toward income equality. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, given the tendency for the returns on capital to outpace growth.
Despite the lengthy historical surveys, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as its title implies, is as much about the future as it is about the past. Per capita growth for developed economies, Piketty believes, has settled at approximately its maximum sustainable rate, around 1 percent annually. That was enough to make people in the nineteenth century feel they were caught in perpetual revolution, but judged by the best of the twentieth century, or China and India today, it seems positively anemic. With growth reduced, escalating income inequality is all but inevitable without aggressive policy intervention. Piketty’s demand for a global progressive tax on capital has garnered the most attention, usually from commentators eager to dismiss it as utopian. But the global tax is more of a rhetorical gambit than a substantive proposal. It is designed to make Piketty’s real aspiration—the same tax, but confined to the European Union—seem more attainable. When the alternative requires obtaining planetary consent, making one continent sign on to a policy becomes a reasonable reach. Countries as large as the United States, he believes, could go it alone with considerable success.

Progressive taxation of capital is one part of a larger project that Piketty calls building “a social state for the twenty-first century.” This economist is no revolutionary: the major arguments over the structure of government, he believes, have already been settled. The twentieth century bequeathed a vision of government responsible for the education, health and pensions of its citizens, and those obligations will be upheld in the twenty-first. For Piketty, the most urgent task is not raising the general welfare but clawing back the advances of the 1 percent. Much needs to be done, he writes, “to regain control over a financial capitalism that has run amok.”
- The Globe and Mail slams the Cons for continuing to push the Unfair Elections Act, while Michael Bolen and Lawrence Martin both see it as a northern expansion of Republican-style vote suppression. Adam Shedletzky worries that it represents the end of reason in our electoral system, while Patti Tamara Lenard discusses its infringement on voting rights. And Bruce Cheadle reports that the federal government defended the Cons' previous ID requirements by pointing to exactly the vouching process which is to be eviscerated under the Unfair Elections Act.

- Meanwhile, Alice Funke notes that the Cons' current MPs are fleeing into seemingly safer new ridings - suggesting they don't think they can win where they did in 2011. And Chantal Hebert points out Stephen Harper's eroding support - offering another indication as to why fighting a fair election in 2015 simply isn't an option for the Cons. 

- Andrew Nikiforuk writes about the combination of minimal safety enforcement and high rates of worker injuries in the tar sands. And PressProgress wonders whether this will be the week that the oil industry's constant spin finally unravels.

- The Globe and Mail argues that we should be encouraging long-term immigration rather than driving down wages through temporary and disposable labour.

- And finally, Gerald Caplan analyzes Quebec's provincial election, and finds that the biggest winner was a party which didn't contest it:
(S)omething significant seems to have changed within Quebec’s political culture. It appears that many young Quebecois, traditionally separatists and social democrats, voted Liberal Monday night to express their weariness with separatism and their disillusionment with the PQ’s embrace of Pierre-Karl Peladeau and neoliberalism. That’s nothing but good news for the NDP. In the 2011 federal election, many young Québécois abandoned the Bloc and joined the Layton orange wave, electing a ginormous contingent of NDP candidates. Under Tom Mulcair, those MPs, many young and inexperienced, have acquitted themselves surprisingly well. If played right – a big “if” for any political party, as Monday’s election reminded us – their appeal to younger Quebecois should be another NDP slam dunk.

Monday, April 14, 2014

On vested interests

Shorter Linda Frum:
As one of Stephen Harper's hand-picked counterweights to the troublesome democratic rabble, I refuse to acknowledge any difference between "encouraging voter turnout" and "abetting electoral fraud". The less people with a voice in how this country is run, the better.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Michael Harris observes that the Cons' vote suppression tactics match the worst abuses we'd expect from the Tea Party:
Stephen Harper would make a good governor of Arizona.

In addition to the lies and sleaziness his government has been serving up during its majority, its sickening reliance on marketing over truth, its dishonest use of technology in political matters, and its shameful abuse of language, the prime minister is blighting democracy in the name of political advantage.

When Stephen Harper gave Canada fixed elections dates, no one expected a whole lot more “fixing” was still to come. There was; Bill C-23. By potentially removing hundreds of thousands of voters from the next election, Canada could now have elections with fixed dates and fixed results.
- Joseph Heath writes about the need to shift from a political culture grounded entirely in talking points and instant responses to one which allows for substantial consideration of policy choices - while the recognizing the difficulty in trying to shift from one to the other. And Susan Delacourt points out that the assumption that voters won't or can't understand even moderate policy discussion lies at the root of the problem:
Everyone has heard about income inequality — the widening gap between haves and have-nots. It’s the big public-policy challenge of our time.

But there’s another form of inequality that should also be worrying us. Let’s call it information inequality: the widening gap between those in the know and those who know not. When did facts and evidence become the domain of an elite few?

I spent a lot of time the past few years researching a book about how marketing has taken over Canadian political culture and policy-making. Some of this all-marketing, all-the-time approach threatens to make wants more important than needs, the short term more important than the long term and advertising more powerful than journalism. It’s a culture that rewards people who can whip up emotions rather than those who can marshal facts and evidence to make their case; a culture where anecdotes trump statistics.
The mark of a healthy economy, we’re told, is one in which everyone has a chance to improve his or her lot in life. A healthy democracy should work the same way — a society in which everyone has a chance to know more, where we don’t write people off as permanently apathetic, any more than we’d write them off as permanently poor.

If we want to close that information gap, we need more “responsibility to inform” and less “people don’t care.”
- Meanwhile, Tim Harper notes that voters in Calgary Signal Hill and Kitimat both sent strong messages over the weekend that they won't mindlessly defer to those with money or power in making important political decisions.

- Which isn't to say the Cons will stop trying to hand over as much power to the corporate sector as they can get away with. On that front, Randall Affleck comments on the increased power being handed to big agribusiness to prevent farmers from using seeds; Tara Carman catches the Cons once again enabling employers to hire cheaper foreign workers rather than Canadians looking for jobs; and Michael Geist notes that what's being billed as privacy legislation is also being used to allow businesses to share Canadians' personal information for commercial purposes.

- And in case we needed a reminder as to whether we can expect business to give anything back in exchange for being handed the world on a silver platter, Steve Benen reports on Caterpillar's brazen tax avoidance.

- Finally, Robyn Benson discusses how strong public services serve as a much-needed antidote to inequality.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Will Hutton writes about Thomas Piketty's rebuttal to the false claim that inequality has to be encouraged in the name of development - and the reality that we have a public policy choice whether to privilege returns on capital or broad-based growth:
It is a startling thesis and one extraordinarily unwelcome to those who think capitalism and inequality need each other. Capitalism requires inequality of wealth, runs this right-of-centre argument, to stimulate risk-taking and effort; governments trying to stem it with taxes on wealth, capital, inheritance and property kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Thus Messrs Cameron and Osborne faithfully champion lower inheritance taxes, refuse to reshape the council tax and boast about the business-friendly low capital gains and corporation tax regime.

Piketty deploys 200 years of data to prove them wrong. Capital, he argues, is blind. Once its returns – investing in anything from buy-to-let property to a new car factory – exceed the real growth of wages and output, as historically they always have done (excepting a few periods such as 1910 to 1950), then inevitably the stock of capital will rise disproportionately faster within the overall pattern of output. Wealth inequality rises exponentially.

The process is made worse by inheritance and, in the US and UK, by the rise of extravagantly paid "super managers". High executive pay has nothing to do with real merit, writes Piketty – it is much lower, for example, in mainland Europe and Japan. Rather, it has become an Anglo-Saxon social norm permitted by the ideology of "meritocratic extremism", in essence, self-serving greed to keep up with the other rich. This is an important element in Piketty's thinking: rising inequality of wealth is not immutable. Societies can indulge it or they can challenge it.
The lesson of the past is that societies try to protect themselves: they close their borders or have revolutions – or end up going to war. Piketty fears a repeat. His critics argue that with higher living standards resentment of the ultra-rich may no longer be as great – and his data is under intense scrutiny for mistakes. So far it has all held up.

Nor does it seem likely that human beings' inherent sense of justice has been suspended. Of course the reaction plays out differently in different eras: I suspect some of the energy behind Scottish nationalism is the desire to build a country where toxic wealth inequalities are less indulged than in England.

The solutions – a top income tax rate of up to 80%, effective inheritance tax, proper property taxes and, because the issue is global, a global wealth tax – are currently inconceivable.

But as Piketty says, the task of economists is to make them more conceivable. Capital certainly does that.
- And Paul Krugman takes a look at the gross amount of wealth - by Gabriel Zucman's estimate up to 8% of all the wealth on the planet - which has been funneled to tax havens in order to be isolated from any contribution to the social good.

- Of course, any public response to the continued distortion of political systems in favour of the wealth will require a massive amount of citizen activism. And Alexandra Bradbury and Jane Slaughter discuss how to build an enduring movement.

- Meanwhile, Kitimat's plebiscite rejecting the Northern Gateway pipeline should serve as an important demonstration that even the best-funded corporate propaganda campaign won't necessarily win out against a strong community.

- But it's a much more difficult task to achieve a change in general policies. And there's plenty of reason to focus on the Cons' continued refusal to regulate the oil industry which now represents Canada's largest source of CO2 pollution - particularly as the rest of the world starts to notice that renewable alternatives are well within reach.

- Finally, Marianne Lenabat wonders how Canada has been turned into one of the most reactionary actors on the global scene in recent years even when public opinion is still generally favourable toward social democracy.