Saturday, October 18, 2014

Deep thought

It's always a relief to know our governments are constantly negotiating free trade deals to make sure no possible bidders are unfairly shut out of public procurement processes. That is, unless they're Canadian.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Michael Rozworski observes that the NDP's $15 per day national child care plan has irritated all the right people - while still leaving ample room for improvement in the long run once the first pieces are in place. And PressProgress notes that the Cons' opposition to the plan is based squarely on their view that women fail to raise their own children if they have either careers or care support.

- Meanwhile, Simon Enoch, Canadian Doctors for Medicare and the Saskatchewan NDP caucus are all rightly critical of Brad Wall's attempt to sell for-profit, two-tier medical diagnostics (as a precursor to for-profit, two-tier treatment). And even Murray Mandryk is willing to acknowledge that this particular Wall idea is something short of magical.

- Heather Mallick writes that the consensus that we can't count on burning every available drop of fossil fuel as a resource management strategy extends from Naomi Klein to Mark Carney.

But Alison confirms that any charity daring to lend its voice to the cause will face an immediate crackdown from the Canada Revenue Agency at the Cons' behest - while gun advocates can apparently serve as political foot soldiers with impunity.

- Lana Payne reminds us of the historic misuse of EI funding by Con and Lib governments alike to fund general programs rather than benefits for the workers who have paid into the program. And Dennis Howlett proposes three relatively simple steps which could ensure that there's ample revenue available to live up to our social values.

- Finally, Jane Gingrich observes that strong and visible social programs may result in more predictable voting patterns than comparatively hidden social spending:
Voters in higher visibility states, defined here as that use the tax system to make spending more visible (i.e. by providing generous benefits and taxing them back) find it easier to estimate benefit levels. These voters also attach greater importance to welfare issues in electoral surveys.

The implications of these differences are subtle but important. Voters in higher visibility contexts are not necessarily more pro-welfare or in favour of higher taxes and spending. However, they do tend to weigh these issues more heavily in their political choices. Put differently, they tend to pick parties closer to them on welfare issues, rather than other issues. Of course, the relative importance of the welfare state to voters varies across time and place, depending on how political parties discuss these issues and the spectrum of choices that voters  Nonetheless, in general, voters in countries with high-visibility welfare states are more ideologically consistent in voting, and in particular, vote in ways consistent with their preferences on redistribution and state spending.

The implications of these findings for the welfare state in the UK are mixed. On the one hand, changes that make spending more visible to either recipients or taxpayers – such as the move to the universal credit for income support benefits – may actually heighten the salience of the welfare state. If voters can better understand what the state is doing, and for whom, they may begin to attach more weight to social policy in their political decision-making. Given how widespread benefit receipt is these movements could galvanise support for the state.

On the other hand, my work shows some of the most ideologically consistent voters in wealthy democracies are supporters of lower taxes in Scandinavia, a group that consistently votes for non-socialist parties. More visible spending can also clarify the revenue side, potentially creating support for anti-tax and spending groups.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Musical interlude

Kaskade - Back On You

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Paul Kershaw examines political parties' child care plans past and present, and finds the NDP's new proposal to achieve better results at a lower cost. The Star's editorial board weighs in on the desperate need for an improved child care system, while PressProgress focuses on the economic benefits. Nora Loreto notes that we should ultimately push for the "universal" aspect of the proposal to mean "free". And Trish Hennessy observes that there's reason to think a universally-available system will resonate with the Canadian public:
We wondered how parents in Canada would “sell” a universal national child care plan to fellow Canadians. The words came flying fast and loose:

“Accessible to everyone.”
“Good for families.”
“Everyone seems equal.”
“Quebec has it. How come we don’t?”

That was their sales pitch.
Everywhere in Canada, parents engage in a social and financial calculus to determine whether one of them stays home instead of working ‘to pay for daycare’, whether they work opposite shifts so that one parent is always home and to yield cost efficiencies, or whether they wade through a range of possibilities – from having grandma look after the children to placing the child on a child care waiting list immediately upon conception.

Parents displayed a tenacious resourcefulness, often patching together services and supports with limited means to pay for them. It’s like they perform quiet acts of heroism, day in and day out.

In the end, it was the economic argument that proved to be a potent force. They understood affordable child care as a service that would enable parents to work and contribute to the local economy and, in turn, contribute to the tax base – which they understood is how a country pays for a universal program that benefits everyone.
- Jim Stanford writes that a free trade agreement with South Korea deserves to be subject to some serious questioning. And Philip Dorling discusses a few of the nastiest surprises in the Trans-Pacific Partnership - including the U.S.' demand that all participating countries agree to make reporting on damaging commercial secrets a criminal offence.

- Which is to say that anybody looking to expose, say, the role of corporate greed and neglect in creating gross risks to the public will have reason to think twice if the business lobby gets its way. 

- Of course, the Cons are well ahead of the game on the "stifling speech" aspect of the TPP - as evidenced by the latest CRA crackdown against Kitchener-Waterloo birdwatchers for daring to write to a public official about the impact of chemicals on bee colonies. 

- Meanwhile, Nicholas Hildyard offers up a presentation on how P3s extract wealth from the public on behalf of elites around the world.

- Finally, Citizens for Public Justice has released its latest report on poverty in Canada - with a particular focus on groups including recent immigrants, First Nations persons and lone female parents who bear particularly heavy burdens of poverty.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Michal Rozworski responds to idealized views of Canadian equality with the reality that we fall well short of the Scandinavian model:
Canada appears on many accounts much closer to the US than Sweden, the stand-in for a more robust social democratic and redistributive state. Indeed, looking at the three top rows of the table, there is a clear link between the higher share of income going to the top (inequality) and the higher share of taxes paid for by those at the top (redistribution a la Vox authors Martin and Hertel-Fernandez). On both of these measures Canada is roughly in the middle between the US and Sweden and slightly above the OECD-24 average.

Looking lower, however, it is clear that Sweden still easily beats both the US and Canada in terms of tax rates on the highest earners. While Sweden “recycles” more of its income through the state (total tax revenue as percentage of GDP), it does not do it without soaking the rich in the process. Sweden does not lack of high taxes but, rather, it lacks more extreme inequality. Canada, more akin to the US, gets more of its total tax income from the rich only because the rich are richer – indeed despite taxing each individual rich person less. In fact, if we take into account an interesting recent study on how Canada’s wealthiest use private corporations to avoid paying tax, it turns out that our system is even less redistributive: the official data has Canada’s top 10% taking in 32.7% of after-tax income, they are actually getting 36.5% adjusting for the effect of tax-dodging via private corporations.

The final three lines of the table show a common way to measure redistribution and these confirm that Canada is no Sweden. The Gini is a (convenient and imperfect) way to measure inequality in a single number on a scale from 0 to 1, where 0 is perfect equality and 1 is perfect inequality. The difference between the Gini of market incomes and the Gini of after-tax-and-transfer incomes shows how much redistribution is decreasing inequality. While even Sweden has a high inequality of market incomes, it redistributes quite a lot; Canada, on the other hand, is right behind the US and its comparatively paltry level of redistribution.
- Eric Reguly points out that we're seeing the inevitable side effects of overreliance on a commodity economy - as predictable price drops can lead to fiscal disaster when public planning is based on nothing but the bare hope that prices and associated revenues will rise in perpetuity. And Jason Fekete confirms that the Cons' destructive environmental choices are based solely on the desire to let Alberta oil operators dictate public policy.

- Meanwhile, Justine Hunter reports that the choice to tie social funding to public approval of controversial resource projects is rather a losing proposition from a political perspective as well.

- Deirdre Fulton writes about the Center for Media and Democracy's study (PDF) into the harm done by ideological privatization of public services. And Jacob Swenson observes that in order to ensure that the public interest is protected, we need to see government as a solution (and indeed a prize) rather than a problem.

- Finally, Frances Russell laments the state of Canada's non-responsible Parliament - and the Prime Minister who's determined to make the problem worse:
The most corrosive and dangerous development in Canada’s fully Americanized parliamentary system is the highly centralized power of the PMO and cabinet with a majority government. Add the now-complete stifling of the rights of ordinary MPs to say or do anything on their own, and Canada has degenerated into a virtual dictatorship.

And that’s without including the ability of the prime minister to prorogue, recess and dissolve parliament at whim.
The dysfunction of the current parliament has its origins in the authoritarian mindset of the prime minister and the 100 or so individuals who staff his office. Rathgeber is merciless when it comes to describing the culture that has sprung up within it.

“The socialization and indoctrination effects of the PMO sub-culture cannot be overstated,” he writes. I have witnessed young, seemingly normal and well-adjusted college graduates enter the PMO and within six months, morph into arrogant, self-absorbed zealots, with an inflated sense of importance and ability.”

New column day

Here, on the similarities between the federal political scene now and in the lead up to the 1988 federal election - and how the Liberals may soon face the NDP's hard-learned lesson that personality politics may not go far in a sharp policy debate.

For further reading...
- The NDP unveiled its child care plan here. And the commentators taking a close look at the plan - and its contrast against the Cons' anti-government nihilism - include Karl Nerenberg, Jeffrey Simpson, Chantal Hebert and Linda McQuaig.
- Meanwhile, Les Whittington reports on the Cons' latest tax baubles, while Annie McEwen notes that they represent little benefit for anybody besides a few targeted swing voters. And it's also worth noting how the Cons have seemingly given up on offering all things to all people: instead of promising to create child care spaces through corporate handouts, they're now mocking the idea that anybody would want them (and singing from the Tea Party hymn book in the process).
- Finally, Nik Nanos confirms that the Libs are still ahead of the field for now - but that their non-positions aren't doing them any favours as serious issues come up for debate.

[Edit: added links.]

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Duncan Cameron discusses how Canada can respond to being stalled economically:
In 2011 median earnings in Canada were $30,000. That means one-half of Canadian workers earned less than $30,000. What is more to the point is that earnings in 2011 were $1,800 below the level attained in 1977 (inflation adjusted 2011 dollars)! The pay packet for workers shrunk over that 24 year period.

It's a big stall -- an awful lot of Canadians are not getting ahead.
What has escaped economic stagnation, and gone up in value is what Thomas Piketty called patrimonial capital: inheritances, tax sheltered investments, ownership of private companies, public stock holdings, real estate and private art collections.

Piketty shows that patrimonial capital is not just inherited from parents. Important as inherited wealth is in the upper reaches of the Canadian economy -- think Thompson, Irvings, McCains, Desmarais, Péladeau, where new generations have taken over from wealth accumulators -- Piketty shows wealth also grows out of high incomes like those paid in the FIRE sector: finance, insurance and real estate.

Wealth accumulation is outpacing income growth. This is an overall trend in Western economies according to statistics collected by Piketty through extensive research in tax returns around the world. This trend is what the big stall is about.

It should be obvious to anyone (other than the very rich) that it is good idea to take additional money from those who have much more than they need, or could ever spend, and transfer it to people who are barely surviving on social transfers.
- Meanwhile, Carol Goar notes that we stand out internationally in our large number of well-educated workers earning low incomes - meaning that our investment in education isn't translating into economic benefits. And PressProgress suggests that contrary to the Cons' inclinations, free money for the corporate lobby won't solve anything.

- Dave Gilson and Mattias Mackler chart the combination of greater inequality and more precarious lives for most U.S. residents. And Natasha Boddy reports on the work being done to act on the social determinants of health in Australia.

- Jacques Gallant reports on Amir Attaran's latest study showing that Canada is paying far more than it should for generic prescription drugs. And Andre Picard examines the even more worrisome trend of overreliance on antibiotics - which looks all too likely to create resistance which won't be met by insufficient research.

- Finally, Paul Dechene tears into the Regina Public School Board for teaching students all the wrong lessons:
Oh sure, they have a “unit” on “sustainability” somewhere in the school curriculum. I think I remember my kid bringing home a blue papier-mâché globe she made on Earth Day or something. I threw that shit out.

But we all know the three Rs — Reduce, Reuse and Recycle — can’t power a fossil fuel economy.
Neither can words like “sustainability” or “the environment.” And we’re within spitting distance of the epicentre of our fossil fuel economy (if you could spit on Alberta from Regina, that is). So we have to support the fossil fuel economy. It’s our patriotic duty.

If we don’t, who will?

And that’s why I’m glad the school board is doing an end run around those socialist Rs and setting a strong example in the three Cs: Combustion, Construction and Consumption.

Tearing down Connaught is a win on ALL THREE!!

Kids, you know all those plastic juice bottles you put in the blue bin because it’s good for the environment? Your school board has more than offset all that work you did by throwing the bulk of a two-storey building in the dump and then busing all of Connaught across town for three or more years. You could start composting the crusts off your jam sandwiches too and it wouldn’t amount to a hill of organic soy beans at this point!
So why exactly is the Public School Board tearing down Connaught? Because the building was not maintained adequately. Because renovation work that was done on the foundation exacerbated problems. Because heritage elements have already been removed from the building.

When Connaught kids graduate to high school, they’ll learn that these are all examples of the passive voice. That’s a way of playing with verbs that skilled wordsmiths employ to hide who actually did a thing.

In this case, it means no one ever has to say, “The Regina Public School Board and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education did not maintain Connaught and did renovation work that exacerbated foundation problems and removed heritage elements from the building.”

With the passive voice, it looks like absolutely no one did any of this. And that means no one ever has to take responsibility for what happens, no one ever has to say “Sorry,” and no one ever has to learn anything. And that means the Regina Public School Board can keep doing the same thing over and over. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Companion cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Alex Hunsberger argues that the Good Jobs Summit reflected a gap between labour strategies aimed merely at trying to take a slightly larger cut of a corporate-owned system, and those which actually propose and fight for something better:
The most useful and engaging part of the weekend occurred not in the plenary sessions but during the small group discussions on Saturday, where participants had a chance to talk to one another in more depth about questions related to labour’s strategy to improve conditions for workers...Participants asked questions such as: Why bribe companies with tax cuts to create jobs when the public sector can directly employ people in unionized positions and improve social services at the same time? Why rely on begging employers to adopt living wage policies when we can push for a higher legislated minimum wage? How is telling workers about available jobs and how to apply for them going to improve their lives if we do not also have a strategy to create good jobs to apply for in the first place? Is this jobs crisis really a product of a skills shortage?

There is a clear consensus across organized labour about the problems facing workers – high unemployment, falling earnings, job precariousness, worsening public services – but clear strategic divides about how to proceed to tackle these problems. With a federal election approaching next year, different sections of labour and the left are beginning to indicate where they are headed during this crucial moment. The question is not whether we want Harper gone. Rather it is what kinds of actions can start to lead us towards a genuine alternative that gets rid of not only the Conservatives but also the disastrous social, economic, and environmental agenda they have sustained.
- Meanwhile, Renata D'Alesio and Joe Friesen report that employers are still abusing the temporary foreign worker program to access a stream of low-rights, easily-controlled workers even when there are plenty of people looking for work - particularly in areas with high First Nations unemployment.

- Paul Krugman expands on how a moralistic crusade against debt forgiveness has undermined economic recovery and development through much of the developed world over the past few years.  

- Michael Harris writes about the upcoming federal election campaign - and how the Cons' only chance of re-election may be to convince voters that there's no such thing as democratic renewal:
The question is whether Harper’s tried and true recipe — chest-thumping over a mediocre economy, fear and trash-talk — will work this time. In an odd way, it comes down to whether something Harper believes — that voters aren’t really interested in ‘details’ — is actually true. As the former head of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, John Gordon, told me: “Harper is aloof and frankly dishonest. He never offers details, just platitudes.”

That’s because he’s sneakier than a honey badger at a beehive. To Harper, democracy is an exercise in crowd control once every political cycle. Between elections, it’s one-man rule.

On one important level, though, Harper is right: His party’s dismal record on truthfulness and ethics, so patently on display in Wright/Duffy and a series of other scandals, may not resonate. And it’s not because the public doesn’t care about lying and cheating. The reason is much more pathetic than that.

It’s because people think this is normal now. Many citizens have long since concluded that deception and sleight-of-hand are generic political traits, not exclusive to any party. We may have reached the point where people even expect politicians to play fast and loose.
- And finally, Sandy Garossino weighs in on Christy Clark's plan to silence B.C. non-profits whose causes don't fit with corporate interests. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

On gleeful destruction

Others have pointed out Stephen Harper's remarkably joyful mood at the prospect of getting into another Iraq war. But lest we let the moment pass without some photographic and Photoshop memory, I'll offer up the following...

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- The Star points out what the Cons have destroyed - including public assets and program spending - in order to chip away at the federal deficit caused in the first place by their reckless tax slashing. And Thomas Walkom discusses how their latest "job" scheme does nothing but handing free money to businesses, while Angella MacEwen notes that Canada as a whole is hundreds of thousands of jobs short of reaching its pre-recession employment rate.

- Meanwhile, Bruce Cheadle writes that the Cons' attempt to build an economy solely around resource exploitation has proven to be an utter flop for everybody but their corporate backers.

- Joseph Stiglitz looks at new data on the U.S.' age of vulnerability and downward mobility. And Danielle Kurtzleben observes that people who recognize that risk have become increasingly willing to help others - while the detached rich are only becoming more selfish:
Even during the downturn and recovery, the poorest Americans upped their charitable giving. Meanwhile, the highest-income people gave less and less, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported this week.
The rich also give to charity differently than the poor: compared to lower-income Americans, the rich's charitable giving places a far lower emphasis on helping their disadvantaged peers. When the poor and rich are (figuratively and literally) moving farther apart, an empathy gap naturally opens up between the upper and lower classes — after all, if I can't see you, I'm less likely to help you.

Taken together, the trends paint a disturbing picture for the future of both the American economy and philanthropy: as the rich get richer and more removed from the daily lives of the poor, the bulk of charitable giving is also likely to become further removed from the needs of the poor.
- L. Hunter Lovins reminds us that we shouldn't confuse possessions with prosperity, while noting that a shift toward a sharing economy can drastically improve the latter while limiting how much effort we put into pursuing the former. And Ben Chu argues that a mansion tax makes for both a fair and efficient means of increasing public revenues.

 - Finally, Jeremy Brecher, Joe Uehlein and Ron Blackwell argue that now is the time for the labour movement to unite behind a strong plan to fight climate change:
(C)riticizing the weaknesses in mainstream climate policy proposals is not a strategy for combating climate change. Labor needs to propose a climate protection strategy of its own—one that realistically protects the livelihood and well-being of working people and helps reverse America’s trend toward greater inequality while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at the speed scientists say is necessary to reduce climate catastrophe. A strategy designed to provide full employment and rising living standards by putting millions of people to work on the transition to a climate-safe economy could transform the politics of climate by shattering the “jobs versus the environment” frame. And it could provide a common platform around which climate protection advocates at every level of the labor movement could rally.
There are three main approaches to GHG reduction. The first, which has dominated climate legislation and treaty negotiation, consists of “putting a price on carbon emissions” to discourage GHGs through taxation, fees, cap-and-trade systems with markets for emission quotas, or similar means. The second, which is widely discussed and frequently implemented on a small scale, consists of local, often community-based initiatives designed to produce renewable energy and reduce energy consumption on a decentralized basis. The third, perhaps less often delineated by proponents than excoriated by opponents, consists of a government-led approach based on economic planning, public investment, resource mobilization, and direct government intervention in economic decisions. Although rapid reduction of GHG emissions will undoubtedly require all three, labor should lead the breakout from neoliberalism and propose a government-led plan—drawing on the example of mobilization during World War II—to put our people to work converting to a climate-safe economy.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Adam Lent highlights the strong majority of respondents in the UK who see the political system as serving the powerful rather than the public. And Elizabeth Warren explains why the same conclusion applies in the U.S., while making the case that there's room to improve matters simply by emphasizing the choices voters face:
The system is rigged. And now that I’ve been in Washington and seen it up close and personal, I just see new ways in which that happens. But we have to stop and back up, and you have to kind of get the right diagnosis of the problem, to see how it is that—it goes well beyond campaign contributions. That’s a huge part of it. But it’s more than that. It’s the armies of lobbyists and lawyers who are always at the table, who are always there to make sure that in every decision that gets made, their clients’ tender fannies are well protected. And when that happens — not just once, not just twice, but thousands of times a week — the system just gradually tilts further and further. There is no one at the table…I shouldn’t say there’s no one. I don’t want to overstate. You don’t have to go into hyperbole. But there are very few people at the decision-making table to argue for minimum-wage workers.
(W)e need to do a better job of talking about issues. And I know that sounds boring and dull as dishwater, but it’s true. The differences between voting for two candidates should be really clear to every voter and it should be clear in terms of, who votes to raise the minimum wage and who doesn’t. Who votes to lower the interest rate on student loans and who doesn’t. Who votes to make sure women can’t get fired for asking how much a guy is making for doing the same job, and who doesn’t. There are these core differences that are about equality and opportunity. It can’t be that we don’t make a clear distinction. If we fail to make that distinction, then shame on us. That is my bottom line on this.

You know, during the Senate race that I was in — I mean, I was a first-time candidate, I’d never done this before — the thing that scared me the most was that the race wouldn’t be about the core differences between my opponent and me. I wanted people to understand where I stood on investments in the future, investments in education and research that help us build a future. Where I stood on the minimum wage and equal pay. And where he stood on the other side. The point was not to blur the differences and to run to some mythical middle where we agreed with each other. The point was to say that, here are really big differences between the two of us. Voters have a chance to make a choice.
- Meanwhile, Nikola Luksic and Tom Howell discuss the challenge in trying to encourage voters to make decisions based on something more than visceral impressions - particularly when party strategies are aimed squarely at exploiting those instantaneous reactions. And John Cruickshank argues that the perception among younger citizens that politics aren't worth their time will only make matters worse.

- Nora Loreto worries about the effect of privatizing our electoral system, while Karl Nerenberg discusses a needed challenge to the Cons' latest attempt to keep voters away from the polls. And Rick Mercer reminds us how the Cons - including their Parliamentary puppet Andrew Scheer - are going out of their way to make our political institutions ineffective.

- Finally, for those looking for issues where there's ample room for contrast and departure from past neglect, Jeffrey Simpson lambastes the Cons for their refusal to be anything but an obstacle in the battle against climate change:
Those who care about reducing carbon emissions have stated the truth repeatedly: Canada will not meet the reduction target so often proclaimed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government.

Against all evidence, including its own numbers, Ottawa has insisted that the country remains on track to reduce emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 to 2020.

It has been an alarming but not atypical performance: Look facts in the face and insist that black is white, presumably hoping or believing that citizens don’t know or care. And one wonders why the public is cynical about government.
Perhaps worst of all, but not surprising, is the commissioner’s finding that not only will the reduction targets not be met, but no serious plans exist within the federal government, alone or in conjunction with the provinces, to meet them.

This is hardly surprising, given the lack of interest in the file by this government – a lack of interest that arises from a political calculation that Conservative supporters are either opposed or indifferent to climate-change mitigation...The idea of Canada acting as a leader, or first mover, has no appeal for this government.