Saturday, December 06, 2014

Saturday Morning Links

This and that for your weekend reading.

- Reviewing Darrell West's Billionaires, Michael Lewis discusses how extreme wealth doesn't make anybody better off - including the people fighting for position at the top of the wealth spectrum:
A team of researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute surveyed 43,000 Americans and found that, by some wide margin, the rich were more likely to shoplift than the poor. Another study, by a coalition of nonprofits called the Independent Sector, revealed that people with incomes below twenty-five grand give away, on average, 4.2 percent of their income, while those earning more than 150 grand a year give away only 2.7 percent. A UCLA neuroscientist named Keely Muscatell has published an interesting paper showing that wealth quiets the nerves in the brain associated with empathy: if you show rich people and poor people pictures of kids with cancer, the poor people’s brains exhibit a great deal more activity than the rich people’s. (An inability to empathize with others has just got to be a disadvantage for any rich person seeking political office, at least outside of New York City.) “As you move up the class ladder,” says Keltner, “you are more likely to violate the rules of the road, to lie, to cheat, to take candy from kids, to shoplift, and to be tightfisted in giving to others. Straightforward economic analyses have trouble making sense of this pattern of results.”

There is an obvious chicken-and-egg question to ask here. But it is beginning to seem that the problem isn’t that the kind of people who wind up on the pleasant side of inequality suffer from some moral disability that gives them a market edge. The problem is caused by the inequality itself: it triggers a chemical reaction in the privileged few. It tilts their brains. It causes them to be less likely to care about anyone but themselves or to experience the moral sentiments needed to be a decent citizen. 

Or even a happy one. Not long ago an enterprising professor at the Harvard Business School named Mike Norton persuaded a big investment bank to let him survey the bank’s rich clients. (The poor people in the survey were millionaires.) In a forthcoming paper, Norton and his colleagues track the effects of getting money on the happiness of people who already have a lot of it: a rich person getting even richer experiences zero gain in happiness. That’s not all that surprising; it’s what Norton asked next that led to an interesting insight. He asked these rich people how happy they were at any given moment. Then he asked them how much money they would need to be even happier. “All of them said they needed two to three times more than they had to feel happier,” says Norton. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that money, above a certain modest sum, does not have the power to buy happiness, and yet even very rich people continue to believe that it does: the happiness will come from the money they don’t yet have. To the general rule that money, above a certain low level, cannot buy happiness there is one exception. “While spending money upon oneself does nothing for one’s happiness,” says Norton, “spending it on others increases happiness.”
- Lucinda Platt discusses the devastating effects of poverty on childhood development - while noting that more than half of children experience poverty at some point.

- CBC News reports on the continued growth of food bank use in Saskatchewan - a fact which seems to be entirely in keeping with Brad Wall's plans. And Will Chabun reports on a new CCPA/Parkland Institute study showing that the Sask Party's determination to privatize liquor sales will make it far more difficult to fund adequate social programs or other public priorities in the future. 

- Meanwhile, thwap highlights how we face both constant demands to borrow for the sake of meeting consumer expectations, and severe punishments for giving in to that pressure.

- Kathleen Mogelgaard examines what's needed for a climate change summit to be successful. And the Cons' familiar distraction tactics (with the obvious goal of continuing to facilitate pollution from the tar sands) have absolutely no place in accomplishing anything useful - while their international lobbying to avoid having anybody else make up for the Cons' negligence may not be working out as planned.

- Finally, Ian Welsh writes that while it might seem obvious that police violence should be discouraged and punished, the complete lack of consequences for police officers killing civilians reflects an authoritarian culture working as intended rather than a failure of the system in its present form.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Deep thought

In general, we should be appalled by the idea of letting catastrophic climate change run amok and force people to abandon their homes and communities.

But for a few self-selected people, it's tough not to see some poetic justice in the possibility.

Musical interlude

Activa - Antimatter

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Manuel Perez-Rocha writes about the corrosive effect of allowing businesses to dictate public policy through trade agreements:
(C)orporations are increasingly using investment and trade agreements — specifically, the investor-state dispute settlement provisions in them — to bring opportunistic cases in arbitral courts, circumventing decisions states deem in their best interest. And now investor-state dispute settlement provisions may be enshrined in two new treaties: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and Trans-Pacific Partnership, currently under negotiation between, respectively, the United States and the European Union, and the United States and 11 Asia-Pacific nations. If the final agreements contain these mechanisms, we can expect a flood of cases like Pacific Rim v. El Salvador.

Investor-state dispute settlement provisions feature in many significant pacts, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, and nine U.S.-E.U. bilateral investment treaties. Foreign investors can sue over alleged violations of myriad “investor protections,” including public-interest regulations that would reduce their profits. But it doesn’t cut both ways: Governments or communities affected by foreign investors cannot bring claims. Equally troublesome, tribunal operations are often opaque.
The investor-state dispute settlement mechanism is like playing soccer on half the field. Corporations are free to sue, and nations must defend themselves at enormous cost — and the best a government can hope for is a scoreless game. As the T.T.I.P. and T.P.P. negotiations continue, Pacific Rim vs. El Salvador should remind us not to privilege foreign investors to the detriment of the national — or global — good.
- And that corporate privilege stands in particularly stark contrast to the limited rights of citizens - as evidenced by the Ontario Court of Appeal's recent decision that individuals can't even make out an arguable case for a Charter right to housing.

- Joseph Heath examines the reality that dirty and hard-to-extract oil reserves should be seen as stranded assets for the sake of our planet, rather than relied on as a source of future wealth.

- Keith Neuman and Ian Bruce comment on the growing consensus that we need to take strong action to fight climate change. Martin Lukacs suggests that public ownership within the energy industry would go a long way toward getting greenhouse gas emissions in check. And the Fraser Institute helpfully points out that the alternative to mitigating climate change is to abandon cities built in locations which will suffer its most extreme effects.

- Finally, Thomas Walkom discusses the Cons' habit of cultivating foreign enemies in order to paper over their lack of interest in governing in the interest of Canadians.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Monica Pohlmann interviews Armine Yalnizyan about the undue influence of our corporate overlords in setting public policy:
What’s your sense of the state of our democracy?

We have a troubled relationship with our democratic institutions. We need to get over the idea that government is something and someone else. The government is us. The idea that governments are largely useless, that they’re more likely to make a mess than fix things, is exactly what corporations would like us to think. It gives them more freedom to use the enormous power of the state to their advantage.

We are becoming a corporatocracy, a state that serves the interests of corporations first and foremost. Business groups write legislation. lobby, use campaign finance to shape the public sphere – how big it is, what it does, who it serves. This is the biggest test democracy faces today.
- Meanwhile, Kelly Crowe reports that the Cons are dictating that Canadian health researchers won't receive any public support for their work unless they have private backing first - ensuring that the corporate sector gets to vet what research gets done.

- Robert Antonio examines Thomas Piketty's analysis of the seemingly inevitable concentration of capital and power (absent a major push to the contrary). But on the bright side, Joshua Holland notes that the U.S. has seen a rare debate over "tax extenders" which may signal some much-needed pushback against corporate giveaways and the erosion of the public sector.

- Sara Mojtehedzadeh writes about the divisive effect of precarious work, along with the role of anti-union policymaking in suppressing wages and job security for the most vulnerable workers. Luisa D'Amato points out that some of Ontario's poorest citizens are bearing the brunt of an error-ridden computer system used to manage welfare and disability payments, reflecting an appalling choice to ensure that predictable system failures lead to the greatest possible amount of human suffering.

- Finally, Linda McQuaig writes that we should fully expect Robocon to be replicated in future elections, as the Cons have gone out of their way to ensure that future vote suppression will be more difficult to investigate:
(I)n the name of clamping down on “voter fraud,” the Conservatives have brought in election reforms that will actually make it easier for voter suppression to go undetected in the future.

That’s because the government’s controversial election reform package includes a section that prevents the Commissioner of Elections from revealing any details about investigations being conducted by Elections Canada.
The robocalls came to light only because, after receiving complaints of electoral irregularities (primarily involving Guelph), the Commissioner of Elections began to investigate and filed a court application related to that investigation. After the details of the application were picked up by the media, there was a flood of complaints from citizens across the country reporting they received similar misleading phone calls on election day.

Had the new “muzzling” rule been in place, the application filed by the Commissioner would have been sealed, preventing the public from knowing about the initial investigation — the trigger that prompted the nationwide response, allowing the public to see a larger pattern of possible voter suppression.
(T)he Conservatives don’t seem the slightest bit concerned that the party’s top-secret internal database was apparently used as part of an organized campaign of voter suppression.

Rather, as they gear up for the next election, the Harper crowd is focused on ensuring that not a single vote by an undocumented homeless person, student or senior will be allowed to contaminate our democracy.

New column day

Here, taking a quick look at Canada's options for electoral reform while arguing that an MMP system would create far better incentives for our political leaders than the alternatives.

For further reading...
- Alison wrote about our options in advance of yesterday's vote on the NDP's electoral reform proposal.
- Eric Grenier discusses the possible outcomes under the three main alternatives based on current polling. And I'd argue that the current party standings offer a useful litmus test as to one's weighting of representativeness versus defaulting toward majority government - as a preferential system would put the Libs within spitting distance of a majority with the first-choice support of under 35% of voters (and with two other parties within 12% of their support level).
- Finally, while "ramming through pipelines" is hardly the issue I'd want to see pursued as a top federal priority, Andrew Coyne does recognize that an improved electoral system would confer more legitimacy on our federal government.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Wednesday Afternoon Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Polly Toynbee writes about the unfortunate agreement among the UK's major parties not to talk about the real effects of gratuitous cuts for fear that the public won't abide honesty in politics. And George Monbiot discusses how the UK's tax system favours rents over productive uses of capital:
The Westminster government claims to champion an entrepreneurial society of wealth creators and hardworking families, but the real rewards and incentives are for rent. The power and majesty of the state protects the patrimonial class. A looped and windowed democratic cloak barely covers the corrupt old body of the nation. Here peaceful protesters can still be arrested under the 1361 Justices of the Peace Act. Here the Royal Mines Act 1424 gives the crown the right to all the gold and silver in Scotland. Here the Remembrancer of the City of London sits behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons to protect the entitlements of a corporation that pre-dates the Norman conquest. This is an essentially feudal nation.

It’s no coincidence that the two most regressive forms of taxation in the UK – council tax banding and the payment of farm subsidies – both favour major owners of property. The capping of council tax bands ensures that the owners of £100m flats in London pay less than the owners of £200,000 houses in Blackburn. Farm subsidies, which remain limitless as a result of the Westminster government’s lobbying, ensure that every household in Britain hands £245 a year to the richest people in the land. The single farm payment system, under which landowners are paid by the hectare, is a reinstatement of a medieval levy called feudal aid, a tax the vassals had to pay to their lords.

If this is the government of enterprise, not rent, ask yourself why capital gains tax (at 28%) is lower than the top rate of income tax. Ask yourself why principal residences, though their value may rise by millions, are altogether exempt. Ask yourself why rural landowners are typically excused capital gains tax, inheritance tax and the first five years of income tax. The enterprise society? It’s a con, designed to create an illusion of social mobility.
- Jen St. Denis reports on a few of our options to reduce inequality in Canada. Carol Goar follows up by observing that fair taxation needs to be a significant piece of the puzzle. And David Cay Johnston highlights how tax giveaways to the rich have proven to be an economic failure - while more fair taxes at the top have been a boon to California's economy.

- Monika Dutt makes the case for a national pharmacare program. And the Institute for Research in Public Policy concludes that in the absence of a federal government willing to take the lead, we'd be best of to have the provinces take the first step in making medication available to everybody who needs it.

- Naomi Klein points out why the tar sands are far from the source of indefinite economic growth they've been painted at by the Cons.

- Finally, Michael Geist discusses what tends to stay hidden in selective "open government" policies. And Jim Bronskill exposes the Cons' attempt to keep telecoms from offering any information at all about how the release of personal information to police and other governmental authorities.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Chin-up cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Martin O'Neill and Rick Pearce interview Thomas Piketty about possible policy responses to growing inequality:
[Martin O'Neill]...(D)o you think that the response to the increase in inequality might be one that explores the sorts of avenues that Meade opened up, and doesn’t just rely on mechanisms of redistribution through the tax system?
Thomas Piketty: Yes, I think that you are right – I am glad that you have asked this question. First I would like to pay tribute to James Meade and this long tradition of British economists, including Tony Atkinson, with whom we have been working with a lot and who is largely the godfather of historical studies of income and wealth. Tony wrote a great book in 1978 on the history of the inequality of wealth in this country – and this has been a source of inspiration to me along with others...

James Meade, just like me, believed that progressive taxation and the development of other forms of property relationships and of other forms of governance are complementary institutions. In the book I probably place too much emphasis on progressive taxation, but I do talk about the development of new forms of governance and property structure, but probably not sufficiently. So I agree with that – that can be for volume two!

Let me make the point that these are complementary institutions, because progressive taxation of wealth will always be necessary even if we manage to develop these other alternative forms of property. Also progressive taxation of wealth comes with increased financial transparency – transparency of assets and company accounts – and that is very important because, if you want workers to be involved in the management of their company and if you want people more generally to be involved in the management of the economy, then you want access to information. You want to know who earns what in the company, and you want to know who owns the shares. When you have financial opacity about property and shareholder structures of the company, and you don’t have access to proper accounts, then you don’t have the information that you need.

Financial opacity is the worst enemy of economic democracy; so you need transparency if you want to have economic democracy.
- Meanwhile, Kieran Healy suggests that people take a look at the seating arrangement on an Air Gini patterned after actual income inequality. And Trish Hennessy crunches the numbers on the billionaire class in Canada and around the world.

- Travis Gettys discusses Gregory Clark's findings that social mobility in the U.S. is no better than that in medieval England, meaning that the myth of being able to succeed merely by working hard is becoming less and less believable. And the Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage debunks the claim that it's small businesses rather than corporate behemoths that seek to pay workers the bare minimum.

- The Canadian Youth Delegation exposes the embarrassing positions the Cons are taking at the Lima climate change talks, while Emily Chung reports that they've managed to make Canada irrelevant to any international conversation.

- And finally, Richard Blackwell makes it abundantly clear that the Cons' cheerleading for the oil industry has nothing at all to do with jobs, as a new Clean Energy Canada report shows that there are already more jobs being generated in green energy than in the tar sands.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Assorted content to start your week.

- Murray Dobbin writes about the damage caused after decades of allowing the corporate elite to dictate economic policy - and notes that the Cons are determined to make matters all the worse:
However you see it -- as separate from society or integral to it -- Canada's "economy" is increasingly at the mercy of a risk-averse, inept corporate elite addicted to government tax breaks and an ideologically addled government which more than anything else is simply incompetent. It is a deadly combination -- a sort of dumb and dumber team slowly dragging us backwards at a time when the world is just hoping there won't be another economic collapse.
Is it even possible to change corporate culture or at least engage in a little behaviour modification? Do we -- that is the government -- have to treat our (ridiculously over-compensated) CEOs as adolescents to get them to deliver? After all, we have given them literally everything they have asked for, starting with the original free trade deal with the U.S., deliberately suppressed wages, a shredded safety net, and the gutting of regulations. None of it had any impact -- their performance has been getting worse for almost two decades.

So what does Stephen Harper do? He rewards corporate ineptness and irresponsibility by providing one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the 34-nation OECD. It doesn't matter that all this free money just goes into the cash reserves of the country's largest companies) now totalling over $600 billion). Why? Because Stephen Harper doesn't actually care if they invest in anything. The point of his tax cuts was never to stimulate investment -- it was to jettison government revenue in aid of dismantling the activist state and making it impossible for future governments to act.
- Meanwhile, Social Watch offers up an outline of the connection between tax fairness and gender equity. And Anna Chudnovsky discusses how poverty affects a child's development for a lifetime.

- Michael Geist notes that Canada was required to impose intellectual property laws opposed by the public before being allowed to participate in the TPP - raising the question as to how anybody can pretend we're not ceding massive amounts of sovereignty. And unfortunately, Barrie McKenna reports that Germany now seems set to meekly go along with the CETA despite its undue shift in power toward the corporate sector.

- Rick Salutin reminds us of the outsized role unaccountable state violence (particularly against minorities) has played in shaping U.S. culture. And Dan Leger writes that the Cons are following the path set by their cousins to the south in seeking to erode civil rights for political benefit.

- Finally, Michael Harris highlights Stephen Harper's deafening silence when it comes to the culture of corruption and law-breaking within his own party.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Mark Gongloff takes a look at social mobility research from multiple countries, and finds that there's every reason for concern that inheritance is far outweighing individual attributes in determining social status. And Left Futures notes that the problem may only get worse as our corporate overlords become more and more sophisticated at cannibalizing our commonwealth for profit.

- Speaking of which, Jake MacDonald offers an insightful (if maddening) review of how farmers are suffering from the demolition of the single-desk Canadian Wheat Board.

- Andrew Jackson comments on the Cons' glaring failure to do anything to combat child poverty. And Cameron Dearlove discusses why we shouldn't pretend that child welfare is merely a family matter:
Child poverty should be of concern not only to parents and those who work with children, it must be of concern to the whole community. The experience of poverty has detrimental impacts on any individual, but when it's experienced through childhood development, the impacts are even more acute. 

Not having enough to eat, or not being able to afford healthy foods, impacts a child's concentration in school and can lead to lower academic achievement, along with negative effects on physical health. The stresses of poverty affect psychosocial development, with higher rates of behavioural problems and emotional and mental health challenges. 

The connection between a poorer diet and poorer health are obvious, but research has shown an even larger association with poverty's impact on cognitive development. One study of children entering kindergarten found 72 per cent of the non-poor children were proficient in recognizing words, compared to only 19 per cent of children experiencing poverty. These differences are shown to compound throughout life into adulthood. 

The impacts of poverty on development are not equal across ages. The detrimental effects of poverty are most severe in early childhood brain development, when future cognitive, social, and emotional functions are being shaped. This makes early intervention in childhood poverty even more pressing.
- Theophilas Argitas reports on new polling showing that while the tar sands may be the Cons' one and only priority, Canadians on the balance would prefer that we not focus on developing them further. Bruce Johnstone links that public concern with the inherent dangers of resource reliance as reason for concern about our economic direction. And Jon Queally writes about Kinder Morgan's failed injunction against the people seeking to defend Burnaby Mountain.

- Finally, Haroon Siddiqui points out how the Cons' exploitative mindset fits with Canada's historic colonial attitude toward First Nations and the environment they rely on. And while Diane Francis is a bit too focused on profits, she too recognizes that it's long past time to stop shirking our responsibilities.