Thursday, July 31, 2014

New column day

Here, on how we should take Germany's rightful concern over investor-state dispute settlement provisions as an opportunity to reevaluate what we expect to accomplish through trade and investment agreements such as CETA.

For further reading...
- Peter Clark, Michael Geist and Scott Sinclair discuss Germany's objections to new trade agreements with Canada and the U.S. in particular, while reminding us why we should be wary of handing undue power to the corporate sector as well. And Nathalie Bernasconi-Osterwalder and Rhea Tamara Hoffmann discuss (PDF) Germany's past experience with ISDS in detail.
- Meanwhile, Patricia Ranald notes that similar issues are developing as Australia debates an agreement with South Korea.
- Finally, Thomas Walkom and Jim Stanford weigh in with their own concerns about CETA, while the Council of Canadians applauds Germany's stance.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Linda McQuaig discusses how a burgeoning wealth gap is particularly obvious when it comes to retirement security:
Quaint as it now seems, not long ago this was considered a good basic plan: Work hard all your life and then retire with a comfortable pension.

In recent times, a new plan has replaced it: Work hard all your life and then all bets are off.

The notion of retirement security in exchange for a lifetime of hard work — a central element in the implicit social contract between capital and labour in the postwar years — has been effectively tossed aside, as corporations have become more insatiable in their demands and governments have increasingly abandoned workers.
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In what amounts to a radical overhaul, [the Con government] announced last April that it intends to change long-standing legislation governing workplace pensions in ways that would allow employers (private sector and Crown corporations) to walk away from pension commitments they made to employees, even after those employees have paid into the plans throughout their working years.
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Workplace pensions were always expected to be a key part of that retirement security. Unlike many European countries, where public pensions were generous enough to serve as the centerpiece of a retiree’s income, the Canadian government kept public pension benefits low and encouraged workers to rely on workplace pensions.

That worked fine for those who were able to negotiate workplace pensions with an employer — generally those who had a union to represent them. In such cases, both the employer and the employees typically contributed to the plan, under terms that specified what benefits would be paid out to employees in their retirement.

Employers now want to be able to fundamentally rewrite the terms of those workplace pension deals so that, if the market plunges and the pension fund declines, the pay-outs will be less — in effect, shifting the risk from the company to the retiree.
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It’s striking, however, that a bold embrace of risk is only expected of those in the lower echelons of the corporate world. At the top, executives cling to old-world notions — like securing comfortable retirements.
- And Regina civic workers are taking action to make sure the city keeps its pension promises - rather than either demanding concessions now, or changing the rules so it can unilaterally slash benefits later.

- Brian Iler suggests that the Cons' charity crackdown could have been avoided if Canada adopted a definition of charity work which included promoting public debate on political issues. But while that change might have given current charities more confidence as to the result of the current round of government-directed audits, it wouldn't have done much to avoid the needless expense of going through the audit process in the first place.

- Meanwhile, Kaylie Tiessen is hopeful that Ontario is ready for a serious conversation about the need for more revenue to fund public services.

- Kayle Hatt studies the federal government's cuts to summer student programs. And CBC reports that Calgary's decision to outsource park maintenance work has led to temporary foreign workers taking the place of students who would otherwise be able to use a summer income to fund their education.

- Finally, the Ottawa Citizen identifies one of the surest signs of an ethically bankrupt government - while noting that the Harper Cons and Alberta's PCs are just two of the governing parties who seem to be treating that lack of ethics as a goal to be pursued:
There seems to be an epidemic in Canada of rogue staffers doing unethical things their political bosses would never, ever sanction.

The most famous is Nigel Wright, the former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who wrote a large cheque to a sitting senator. Then there’s the OPP search-warrant document alleging that David Livingston, the chief of staff for former Premier Dalton McGuinty, hired someone to purge emails during the transition to Kathleen Wynne’s premiership. There is the ongoing mystery about the voter-suppression phone calls in several federal ridings in 2011 “by a person or persons currently unknown to this court,” in the words of Federal Court Judge Richard G. Mosley.

Now there is a leaked, draft auditor’s report about former Alberta Premier Alison Redford, suggesting her staff manipulated airplane bookings so that she could treat the planes as personal limos.
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An ethical organization does not build plausible deniability into its hierarchies and relationships; it does not have any reason to. The fact that it seems to be built in to Canadian political culture, in more than one party, in more than one province, is sickening.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Trish Garner highlights the futility of trying to answer poverty, equality and other social issues with the empty promise of low-paying "jobs! jobs! jobs!":
The central “solution” in the government’s action plan is jobs. The little money dedicated to this initiative is all directed to employment inclusion and skills training. It’s not surprising. It’s the same answer we receive when our supporters throughout the province advocate for a poverty reduction plan for B.C.
 
There are two important points to make in response. First, many people with disabilities are unable to work but they still deserve to live with dignity. Second, most people in poverty already have a job so low wage employment does not provide meaningful inclusion for anyone. The emphasis must be on good, stable jobs that provide a living wage.

While the Disability Summit was a high-profile publicity event for the government, a month before that, they quietly released a progress report on their “community poverty reduction pilot projects”. No big fanfare for the initiative launched in May 2012, which has helped only 72 families over two years, a drop in the ocean when you consider that almost 500,000 people live in poverty in B.C.

And, by help, they mean merely referring families to existing services. The assumption is that the fundamental problem for families in poverty is an inability to navigate the system of programs, services, and supports within their communities. While there are many bureaucratic barriers that do require a certain level of language and literacy, the fundamental problem is lack of income combined with high cost of living—not a failure to access services.

Despite recognizing that the provincial government is responsible for the implementation, support, and funding of the systemic themes identified during these pilot projects, including housing, food security, health, childcare, transportation, and education, this so-called poverty reduction project does nothing to address those issues.
- Meanwhile, Dylan Matthews argues that a basic income would go a long way toward solving many of the basic social issues which are currently either kept in their own silos or answered with pablum about economic growth. But then, Peter Van Buren notes that poverty is plenty profitable for collection agencies and creditors among other businesses - meaning that we can expect a fight (if a despicable one) in trying to ensure a basic income for everybody.

- Dean Beeby highlights how CoDevelopment Canada Association for one is dealing with the administrative burden imposed by the Cons' crackdown on progressive charities. But Tom Henheffer is optimistic that Canada's social voices will survive the Cons' assault.

- Andrew Nikiforuk reports on the new discovery of an Alberta salt formation which may explain the pattern of spills and blowouts in the extraction of oil using steam. Presumably this will be the response to any attempt to address the newfound risk through law.

- Finally, the White House makes an economic case (PDF) for addressing climate change sooner rather than later. And PressProgress finds even the Fraser Institute endorsing Norway's management of oil reserves and revenues - even if it can't highlight the plus of managing public wealth without lamenting the possibility that people might benefit as a result.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Feline oversight.





Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Dennis Howlett discusses what we lose when corporations are able to evade taxes, and points to some positive signs from the NDP in combating the flow of money offshore:
Federal and provincial governments lose an estimated $7.8 billion in tax revenues each year because of tax havens. The scale of the problem gets larger while the federal government cuts back on health care, food safety, rail inspections, the CBC and more.

True fiscal stewardship would recognize that staunching the flow of money offshore is the better solution. Canadian taxpayers pay the price when the CRA doesn't follow the money.
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There are some hopeful beginnings. Earlier this year, NDP National Revenue critic Murray Rankin proposed new legislation that would make it easier for government and the courts to crack down on those who are playing the system.

Rankin's bill focuses on proving "economic substance." Corporations must be able to prove a transaction has economic purpose aside from reducing the amount of tax owed. Setting up a storefront office in Cayman Islands or Switzerland and then sending large invoices back to the Canadian head office charging "management" or "licensing fees" would no longer be acceptable. Make no mistake -- there are a lot of Bay Street lawyers getting very rich taking advantage of this existing black hole in Canada's Income Tax Act.

Rankin consulted on this legislation with internationally known tax expert Robert McMechan. The Ottawa-based McMechan is the author of a recent book, Economic Substance and Tax Avoidance. He points out that the U.S, Australia and the U.K. are among the countries that have drawn the line between legitimate tax minimization and unacceptable tax avoidance.
- Karen Kamp interviews Deepak Bhargava about some ways to make the case to fight against poverty:
Americans who are struggling do not see themselves in abstract language like “the poor” or “poverty.” This is partly because such language is seen as quite pejorative in America. To be poor is to have failed in pursuit of the American Dream. In too many ways, people who are poor are reviled. The first thing we need to do is stop blaming people and start talking about their real lives.
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The entry point is connecting with common lived experiences such as not being paid enough to cover the bills, making difficult tradeoffs between basic necessities, inadequate or irregular work hours or not being able to save for retirement or college. Then you have to quickly connect it to shared values. In our research, the most powerful value was family — not only do people identify family as a primary identity but it is the fear or reality of not being able to provide enough for family members that motivates people to get into the debate or take action.
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Phrases like “struggling to make ends meet,” “living on the brink,” “working for family” describe lived experience and not identity. They also have the added benefit of crossing supposed class lines. At this point in the Great Recession, it’s become the norm to live paycheck to paycheck — whether those paychecks cover a trailer home or a two story colonial in the burbs. Thus, even if people self-identify as “lower middle class,” these tested messages resonate. 
- But then, as Joshua Sager notes, even the U.S.' general public is already broadly in favour of progressive policies - meaning that the greatest challenge is to translate that actual policy preference into political outcomes.

- Meanwhile, Stephanie Coontz discusses the new instability facing working families, while Emad Ahdavi highlights the threat to our long-term economic development posed by youth unemployment and underemployment. And Zach McDade offers some suggestions as to new investments which can both create jobs and address glaring social needs.

- Finally, Evgeny Morozov asks whether "algorithmic regulation" might render politics obsolete while effectively handing even more control over citizens' lives to the corporate sector. But I'd think there's a sharp distinction to be drawn between data-based governance and corporate-based governance - and a strong preference the former as distinct from the latter could actually encourage meaningful debate about the goals we ultimately want our governments to pursue.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Danyaal Raza and Edward Xie write that a well-designed city environment can make all the difference in enabling individuals to live healthy lives:
What if city council took our health into account when designing neighbourhoods? An idea gaining favour in major cities around the world is “complete streets,” a city-planning concept that promotes development of streets usable by all citizens, whether they are pedestrians, cyclists, drivers or transit users. As things stand now, getting to schools, parks and stores without a car is only a dream for residents without the lush tree cover, dense transit networks and regularly spaced traffic crossings of downtown.

The science is clear: people are more likely to walk to a store if it can be reached within five to 10 minutes, while those who spent more time travelling by car had a greater likelihood of being obese. All it takes, according to a new international study, is an extra 2,000 steps a day — about 20 minutes of walking — to reduce heart attacks and strokes by 8 per cent in people at risk for diabetes. It should be no surprise, then, that building walkable neighbourhoods can discourage sprawl and prevent diabetes and its complications.
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Some innovative solutions already exist; in fact, Toronto has been a Canadian leader by creating the Toronto Food Policy Council in 1990 and adopting the bold Toronto Food Charter in 2001. The city already supports the FoodShare organization to bring grocery stands, school meals and inexpensive fresh food via mobile markets to residents who need them.

Still more can be done. A prosperous city is nourished by healthy, productive citizens. We need visionary city planning to remedy these problems with rational zoning, support for community initiatives and a city council that takes health seriously. 
- Meanwhile, Lynn Stuart Paramore argues that a four-day work week can be a plus for both employee well-being and employer outcomes.

- Lydia DePillis discusses how inequality can snowball, as exorbitant wealth drives up the price (and expected returns) from a limited set of positional goods. And Joyce Nelson looks at credit rating agencies as an example of big money seeking to perpetuate itself by imposing policies on everybody else.

- Will Horter wonders whether the Cons' determination to push pipelines and tankers will drive B.C. voters to seek new alternatives.

- Finally, Gerry Caplan sees a basic lack of decency as one of the defining features of the Cons. Which is why we shouldn't be surprised that Therese Casgrain - having fought for such causes as feminism, voting rights and social democracy - is being furiously erased from Canadian history in favour of further Harper hagiography.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Pierre Beaulne discusses the inequality-related problems and solutions brought into the spotlight by Thomas Piketty, and notes that they can't simply be swept under the rug:
When all is said and done, the capitalist globalization has boosted economic growth for a certain time, but has by the same token greatly increased income inequalities and exacerbated wealth concentration. Tax breaks for the highest incomes and social spending cuts have intensified the trend. In Canada, for instance, the top marginal income tax rate at the federal level has gone down from 43% in 1981 to 29% in 2010, leaving more room for high-income individuals to accumulate wealth. Worldwide, the situation is so alarming that the World Economic Forum, which can certainly not be suspected of entertaining pinko tendencies, has recognized severe income inequalities to be the main social risk in its 2011 annual report Global Risks.

Thomas Piketty’s theories are obviously subject to debate, but the conclusions which he draws throughout his work and that of his associates don’t come out of left field. On the contrary, they support and enrich our understanding of numerous previous observations. His book’s success might be due to the fact that people are looking for explanations: they are unable to reconcile news of economic performance with their own financial situation, which has never before involved so much debt. For the common good, the trends identified must lead to changes in regulation and in the direction taken by governments in their economic and tax policies. Denial is not a sustainable option.
- Which isn't to say some governments won't prefer denial as a temporary option on all kinds of issues. And in a prime example, the CP reports on the Cons' refusal to include fracking chemicals on a list of pollutants (since that might serve as the basis to measure and regulate their effect on the environment).

- Marc Spooner writes that it's entirely legitimate to maintain pride in one's home while recognizing that there's room to improve - and highlights how greater focus on eliminating all kinds of inequalities would create a better Regina. And Susan Delacourt notes that we should expect politicians too to tell us the truth, rather than simply saying what's most politically convenient at a particular moment:
A couple of months ago, I spent an afternoon walking through Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood with NDP candidate Joe Cressy and municipal councillor Mike Layton, campaigning in the Trinity-Spadina byelection.

Along the way, Layton was encountering shop owners or other citizens venting their concerns and complaints about local affairs. I was pleasantly surprised to see that he didn’t just tell them they were right — he pushed back, politely and respectfully, when he thought their views or facts were off-base.

It was a demonstration of the difference between simple, “retail politics” and authentic political dialogue.

Sometimes the customers — let’s call them citizens — aren’t always right. Sometimes, when they’re really wrong, the best reply is a little less oxygen or a little more sunlight.
- Meanwhile, one of Stephen Harper's long-departed spinmeisters makes it absolutely clear that the Cons aren't interested in anything of the sort - preferring being crooked as part of their jobs to dealing honestly with the public:
But the worst part of my job was having to promote and defend policies I didn’t agree with personally. When that happened, you had to do your job and toe the party line.

Don’t shed a tear, because it didn’t happen much, at least not on issues that were core to the agenda, but consider yourself fortunate if you never have to look at a camera and argue with all of your heart for something you don’t believe in. Especially when, as happens in politics, you are standing on some thin intellectual ice.

Oh, how journalists loved it when they had you in that position. “Andrew,” they’d say, “surely you don’t believe that.”

Maybe not, but it didn’t matter what I believed. I wasn’t elected. The government had an agenda and it was my job to talk about it.
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Parties — and leaders — are imperfect. And so that means as a spokesperson you’ll have to go out there and occasionally fire crooked arrows, sometimes at targets you don’t believe in or care about.
- Finally, Rachel Malena-Chan argues that rather than forcing families to allocate a single leave period between two parents, a separate paid leave should be available to a secondary parent.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Deirdre Fulton discusses the UN's 2014 Human Development Report, featuring recognition that precarious jobs and vulnerable workers are all too often the norm regardless of a country's level of development or high-end wealth. And as Dylan Matthews points out (h/t to David Atkins), the lack of worker benefits from increased corporate wealth figures to make a guaranteed annual income into a logical solution:
So here's my takeaway: a negative income tax or basic income of sufficient size would, by definition, eliminate poverty. We still don't know if there'd be much of a cost in terms of people working and earning less. If there is, the effect is almost certainly small enough that a negative income tax can offset the lost earnings and remain affordable. The worst case scenario is that we eliminate poverty but see a modest decline in employment. The best case scenario is we eliminate poverty at even lower cost and don't see much of an effect on employment. That's a gamble I'm willing to take.
- Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson points out that the supposed job recovery following the 2008 recession has been far less than advertised. And Angella MacEwen writes that we should see the steady flow of funds from EI premiums into general revenue as an indication that too many people are being denied benefits - particularly when a strong majority of unemployed Canadians aren't benefiting from a program they helped to fund.

- Tom Henheffer questions why the Canada Revenue Agency is being pushed by the Cons to attack progressive charities, particularly when it's being starved of resources to do its job of actually collecting revenue. Heather Mallick takes a closer look at the CRA's intrusion on Oxfam in particular. And Lana Payne sees the crackdown on charities as part of the Cons' general pattern of silencing any dissenting voices:
Binders full of enemies? Let’s try libraries.

The government has, for all intents and purposes, successfully defunded Canada’s advocacy movement — well, those advocates that disagree with them anyway, like women’s rights and child-care activists, environmental and scientific researchers. They have eliminated funding for roundtable consensus-building initiatives as well as non-governmental organizations dedicated to promoting human rights and equality for women around the globe.

The list is long and depressing.

The government has used, or rather abused, its power in so many ways that Canadians have perhaps grown immune to the attacks on democracy and civil society.
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Sadly, we have a government that relishes divisions abroad and at home. Divisions create opportunities.

Consider its aggressive attack on anyone and everyone who disagrees with their ideology or policy — charities, unions, feminists, environmentalists, scientists and academics.

And yet when Harper was in opposition, he had an entirely different view of dissent and democracy: “When a government starts trying to cancel dissent or avoid dissent is when it’s rapidly losing its moral authority to govern,” he said.

That time is now for his government.
- But Scott Feschuk suggests we should be a bit more understanding of a figurehead who's so plainly at the mercy of his minions (at least until he's thrown them under various large vehicles).

- Finally, Ryan Meili explains why we shouldn't accept simplistic arguments to the effect that we should run our health care system more like a veterinary clinic (or indeed a European system facing different challenges).

Friday, July 25, 2014

Musical interlude

Yuri Kane - Right Back

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Nicholas Kristof offers a primer on inequality in the U.S., while the Washington Post reports that a think tank looking to fund research into the issue couldn't find a single conservative willing to discuss it. And PressProgress highlights the OECD's finding that the prosperity gap stands to get a lot worse in the U.S. and Canada alike absent some significant change in course to improve the lot of the 99%:
Increasing levels of economic inequality are the “new normal” and we can expect them to get worse, not better.

That’s the key takeaway from a recent study on long-run levels of income growth in Canada, Australia and the United States published by the OECD.

The study highlights the explosive rise of incomes in the top 1% over the last 30 years, and their growing share as compared to the bottom 90% and 99%. Authored by eminent Canadian economist and Broadbent Fellow Lars Osberg, it argues “there is no natural upper bound to the real incomes of the top 1% and thus no natural upper bound to their income gap with median households.”

Similar to the findings of French economist Thomas Piketty and the OECD, Osberg suggests that the balanced growth of the post-World War II era, which produced a more stable and fairer income distribution, bucked a broader trend in which inequality accumulates and deepens over generations.
- Suresh Naidu, Yaw Nyarko and Shing-Yi Wang document (PDF) how tying a worker to a single employer - as the Cons continue to do through the temporary foreign worker program - serves to suppress wages. And Grace Macaluso reports on the role anti-poverty groups are playing in pushing for a living wage in Windsor.

- Meanwhile, in what's surely unrelated news, the Cons' CRA intimidation includes a new position that charities are no longer permitted to work on preventing poverty.

- Don Cayo writes about the dangers of allowing a government to intimidate critics into silence. And Steve Sullivan reminds us of the role public interest groups rightly play in ensuring that individual rights are protected:
The courts play an essential role in our democracy by interpreting and applying the laws passed by government — acting as both check and balance on the other two branches of government, the executive and legislative. No true democracy anywhere in the world gives governments unlimited powers. In Canada, the job of the courts is to make sure that what the government does is consistent with the charter and the Constitution. Our legal rights mean precisely nothing if governments can override them simply by passing a law.

Time and again, Canadians have told parties and pollsters that they treasure the Charter of Rights — that it’s part of the bedrock of our society, something that unites us. Harper probably doesn’t agree; his government pointedly refused to celebrate the 25th and 30th anniversaries of the charter’s ascent into law, while blowing millions of dollars to commemorate a war none of us were alive to remember.
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Instead of moaning about special interest groups and activist judges, Mr. Albas might want to set aside his copy of the PMO talking points and actually read what the judges are saying. They called the government’s policy on health care for refugees “cruel and unusual”. They protected safe injection sites because the evidence shows they’re saving lives. They ruled the prostitution laws the government defended were unconstitutional because they put sex workers in danger.
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When Mr. Harper thought his charter rights were being violated, he stood on his rights as a Canadian citizen and took the state to court. If the court route was good enough for him, it should be good enough for the rest of us.
- Finally, Scott Harris notes that while decades of constant pro-trade propaganda may have turned support for trade agreements into a default position, Canadians strongly oppose most of the actual details of CETA (among other deals).