Friday, April 24, 2015

Musical interlude

Little May - Boardwalks (Sonny Alven Remix)

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Jordan Brennan discusses the utter failure of past trade agreements to live up to their promises, making it all the more unclear why we should be prepared to accept a new wave of even more inflexible restrictions against democratic decision-making.
The trade and investment liberalization regime led to rapid and relentless restructuring of North American corporate ownership by opening the door to the two largest merger waves in Canadian history. On the world stage, these merger waves led to higher levels of Canadian corporate ownership abroad. Domestically, heightened amalgamation activity created larger Canadian-based corporations — and the attendant market power that greater size bestows.

Between 1914 and 1988, for every dollar spent on expanding industrial capacity, Canadian business spent an average of just 23 cents on mergers and acquisitions (M&A). Between 1988 and 2013, an average of 93 cents was spent on M&A for every dollar ploughed into industrial capacity — a four-fold increase. Large firms are spending nearly as much acquiring their rivals as they are on new structures and an expanded workforce.

So what are the consequences of this amalgamation-fuelled concentration? The causes are complex, but the facts suggest that increased corporate concentration — power, in other words — has contributed to both slower GDP growth and heightened income inequality.

Unlike investment in fixed assets, which results in the creation of new structures and expanded employment, M&A is wholly an act of redistribution: It reallocates corporate ownership claims between proprietors, the purpose of which is to gain a larger income share. My research (contained in a recent report for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) confirms that amplified M&A activity has redistributed profit and assets up the corporate hierarchy, towards large firms.
...
(T)he redistribution of business investment away from fixed assets towards M&A has also meant that fewer corporate resources are deployed in the expansion of industrial capacity, with more ‘dead money’ stockpiled on corporate Canada’s balance sheet, both of which put downward pressure on GDP growth.

It may be an unwelcome conclusion, but the enduring significance of free trade and liberalized investment has been an amalgamation-driven increase in corporate power — which has depressed growth and exacerbated inequality. Don’t expect any of this to be mentioned in the 2015 campaign, of course. But if Canadians ever want to overcome these afflictions, we’ll have to stop believing the hype.
- Meanwhile, Ian Welsh observes that extreme wealth tends to lead to deliberate efforts to exacerbate inequality - making for a noteworthy addition to the debate between Joseph Heath and Alex Tabarrok as to whether we should respond to weakening democratic systems with more effective neutral states or ever-greater reliance on market forces.

- Adrian Morrow comments on the similarities between the Ontario PC's election message and the austerity now being inflicted by a Lib government which pretended to be progressive just long enough to be able to attack public services. And Hugh MacKenzie sees transit as the only investment that's escaping the chopping block for now.

- Finally, CBC follows up on the health and environmental risks posed by unfettered oil development. And Mychalo Prystupa reports on the Duffy trial's revelations as to the privileged and secret access offered by the Harper Cons (among other governments) to the people profiting from the harm.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Thursday Afternoon Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Trish Hennessy writes that the Cons' budget is based purely on wishful thinking and deliberate denial rather than any rational plan. PressProgress identifies just a few of the problems which can't be put off for two generations, no matter how determined Joe Oliver is to push any responsible government past his own lifetime. Adam Radwanski spots what may be a ready-made mechanism for the Cons to announce pork barrel projects without counting them in the federal budget. And Stephen Tapp writes that it shouldn't be hard for opposition parties to find fiscal room in offering their platforms this fall merely by keeping the federal debt ratio at its current (historically low) level.

- Meanwhile, Emma Gilchrist interviews Alex Himelfarb as to why we shouldn't complain about the taxes which help to fund a functional society. And Sachin Maharaj reports on the inequality that follows from perpetual cuts to education as a social priority, while Greg Flanagan studies how inequality is particularly out of control in Alberta.

- From the department of Obvious Consequences of Power Imbalances, the Ontario Ministry of Labour's look at particularly precarious workplaces finds that employment standard violations are the norm for employers with vulnerable workers and temporary foreign workers. And Deirdre Fulton reports on the consistent connection between anti-union legislation and lower wages.

- Which leads to Charlie Post's musings as to how the labour movement can better organize in the face of both hostile governments and more precarious work.

- Finally, Elizabeth Renzetti laments how the Cons have silenced and lashed out at Canadian charities rather than working with the organizations who are best positioned to identify areas of social need.

Choosing the wrong side

Following up on this morning's column, let's note that there's another area where the Libs are stubbornly sticking to a previous position whose underpinnings have been even more thoroughly destroyed.

The Libs have been at pains to at least offer the perception of changing their direction from nearly everything done by both Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff as leaders. But the common theme of arrogantly ruling out cooperation with other parties continues to lie at the centre of the Libs' messaging - even though it failed miserably in both of the last two federal elections, and looks downright absurd now that the Libs are at third place in the federal seat count.

And now, any argument as to political convenience or public opinion is also out the window. 60% of the public is onside with the idea of a coalition, leaving plenty of room for voters to support multiple members of a potential coalition while winning enough seats to topple the Cons. And that's in the absence of anybody making the obvious connection between the Libs' (however vapid) theme of doing politics differently and any actual willingness to do so.

But apparently, a dogged determination to leave Stephen Harper in office if they can't have sole power for themselves is so fundamental to the Libs' worldview that they're willing to cling to it even when virtually none of their supporters favour it. And the strong majority of voters who want to see a change in government may fall short of that goal due solely to the Libs' entrenched position until they first send Justin Trudeau a message he can't ignore.

New column day

Here, on how the massive shift in public opinion against the Conservatives' terror bill should remind us that people are more than willing to reconsider their initial position on a policy - and how it should signal to political parties that it might be a good idea to do the same.

For further reading...
- My previous columns on the terror bill can be found at the links here, here and here, while general coverage of C-51 is here. And the B.C. Civil Liberties Association points out why the few amendments the Cons were prepared to accept don't address the most important problems with the bill.
- The initial polling on C-51 was done by Angus Reid, while Forum's more recent polls show the massive shift to strong public disapproval of the bill, including among Lib supporters whose party continues to plan to vote for it.
- And Justin Trudeau's initial explanation for giving in to the Cons' fearmongering is here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Jim Stanford kicks off the must-read responses to the Cons' budget with a modest list of five points deserving of public outrage, while PressProgress identifies seven points where the Cons' spin is far out of touch with reality. Citizens for Public Justice notes that climate change and poverty are among the important issues which don't rate so much as a mention in the Cons' plan for an entire term in office, while Jorge Barrera reports that First Nations were also conspicuously omitted other than some cynical re-announcements. Angella MacEwen points out that any (however flawed) claim to a balanced budget has come solely on the backs of the unemployed who can't access Employment Insurance benefits, while Louis-Philippe Rochon writes that the Cons could hardly have been more contemptuous toward workers generally if they'd tried. David Macdonald and John Ibbitson both make the point that federal fiscal policy should be aimed toward creating jobs rather than false balance in any event. And Scott Clark and Peter DeVries note that the Cons are leaning more heavily than ever on implausible assumptions about oil revenue to pretend they've balanced anything.

- On that front, the Cons' plan is to keep pushing at full speed ahead for fossil fuels in western Canada - no matter how much the public wants to stop relying on low and unstable royalty revenues, or how many serious health risks we face due to a woeful lack of regulation.

- But Achim Steiner writes that the world - or at least the more forward-thinking part thereof - is now producing renewable energy on an industrial scale. 

- Robert Reich discusses how "flexible" arrangements pushed by employers make both work and life more precarious for employees:
Businesses used to consider employees fixed costs  – like the costs of factories, offices, and equipment. Payrolls might grow or shrink over time as businesses expanded or contracted, but from year to year they were fairly constant.

That meant steady jobs. And with steady jobs came steady paychecks along with regular and predictable work schedules.

But employees are now becoming variable costs of doing business – depending on ups and downs in demand that may change hour by hour, possibly minute by minute.

Yet working people have to pay the rent or make mortgage payments, and have keep up with utility, food, and fuel bills. These bills don’t vary much from month to month. They’re the fixed costs of living.

American workers can’t simultaneously be variable costs for business yet live in their own fixed-cost worlds.
...
Whatever it’s called – just-in-time scheduling, on-call staffing, on-demand work, independent contracting, or the “share economy” – the result is the same: No predictability, no economic security.

This makes businesses more efficient, but it’s a nightmare for working families.
...
(I)f American workers can’t get more regular and predictable hours, they at least need stronger safety nets.

These would include high-quality pre-school and after-school programs; unemployment insurance for people who can only get part-time work; and a minimum guaranteed basic income.

All the blather about “family-friendly workplaces” is meaningless if workers have no control over when they’re working.
- Finally, Michael Harris rightly slams Stephen Harper for pushing war at every available opportunity, regardless of the risks to Canadian troops and international stability alike.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Outgoing cats.




Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Mariana Mazzucato writes about the creative state - and the need to accept that a strategy designed to fund the economy that doesn't yet exist will necessarily need to include some projects which don't turn out as planned:
Like any other investor, the state will not always succeed. In fact, failure is more likely, because government agencies often invest in the areas of highest uncertainty, where private capital is reluctant to enter. This means that public organizations must be capable of taking chances and learning from trial and error. 

If failure is an unavoidable part of the innovation game, and if government is crucial for innovation, society must be more tolerant of “government failure.” But the reality is that when government fails, there is public outcry – and silence when it succeeds. 
...
Private venture capitalists cover their losses from failed investments with their profits from those that succeed; but government programs are rarely set up to generate significant returns. While some argue that the government’s return comes through taxes, the current tax system is not working, owing not only to loopholes, but also to rate reductions. When NASA was founded, the top marginal tax rate was over 90%. And capital gains tax has fallen by more than 50% since the 1980s. 

In order to build support for public investment in higher-risk innovation, perhaps taxpayers should receive a more direct return, by channeling profits into a public innovation fund to finance the next wave of technologies. When investments are in upstream basic research, the spillover effect across industries and sectors is sometimes enough of a social reward. But other cases might require creating alternative incentives. 

For example, some of the profits from the government’s investment in Tesla could have been recovered through shares (or royalties), and used to cover the losses from its investment in Solyndra. Repayment of public loans to business could be made contingent on income, as student loans often are. And the prices of drugs that are developed largely with NIH funding could be capped, so that the taxpayer does not pay twice. 

One thing is clear: the current approach suffers from serious shortcomings, largely because it socializes the risks and privatizes the rewards. This is hurting not only future innovation opportunities, but also the government’s ability to communicate its role to the public. Acknowledging the role that the state has played – and should continue to play – in shaping innovation enables us to begin debating the most important question: What are the new visionary public investments needed to drive future economic growth?
- Meanwhile, Kevin Carmichael points out that the Cons' small thinking is dooming Canada to economic mediocrity at best. PressProgress notes that the Cons once again seem to be focusing their sole efforts on tax trinkets for those who need them least. And Armine Yalnizyan offers some suggestions to fix the inequality and revenue loss which we can expect from the Cons' out-of-control tax free savings accounts.

- Canadian Journalists for Free Expression examine C-51 by the numbers, and find that nothing much about the Cons' terror spin adds up. And even business leaders are joining in to decry the Cons' plan to end privacy and data integrity.

- Anders Lustgarten discusses how callous disregard for the lives of people in developing countries generally is reflected in the needless deaths of refugees. And Ethel Tungohan follows up on the need for more fair refugee policies from a Canadian perspective.

- Finally, David Dayen notes that the TPP is just the latest deal to lock in corporate profits at the expense of human interests.

Monday, April 20, 2015

On radioactive proposals

Never mind Brad Wall's hand-picked group of nuclear industry shills using public money to further their own profits found that nuclear power is not price-competitive even among an artificially limited set of options absent a substantial carbon price - and that Wall himself refuses to set one.

And never mind that a subsequent public consultation found that "the overwhelming response...was that nuclear power generation should not be a choice for Saskatchewan".

When it comes to locking in a high-cost, high-risk nuclear plant just as renewables are emerging as a viable large-scale alternative, Wall won't take "no" for an answer. But if Wall is telling us that he insists on having Saskatchewan pay for an expensive nuclear toy with the rent money saved by living in Ontario's basement, that's all the more reason to ensure he isn't in a position to make the call.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Jay Baron Nicorvo discusses how the myth of U.S. meritocracy serves largely as a means of funneling profits toward the 1%. And Mary Hansen points out one way of fighting back against evolving forms of corporate power - being the development of new, cooperative alternatives to businesses designed to exploit workers.

- David Korten highlights a few of the most obvious dangers in the Trans-Pacific Partnership as just the latest and most draconian agreement intended to lock anti-democratic principles in as a restriction on government decision-making. And ICIJ and the Huffington Post shed needed light on how past attempts to account for the public interest in trade arrangements - in this case through the World Bank - have proven to be miserable failures due to a lack of interest in enforcing rules which protect people rather than profits.

- Meanwhile, Louis-Philippe Rochon notes that even the International Monetary Fund is admitting that decades of constant attacks on workers have served solely to drive down wages rather than doing anything to improve economic performance.

- Steven Zhou writes that the Cons' politicization of the Canada Revenue Agency to attack groups who disagree with their corporatist message represents a serious threat to democratic discussion.

- Finally, the Broadbent Institute highlights just a few of the ways the Cons are deliberately making inequality worse. And Scott Clark and Peter DeVries comment on the Harper Cons' catastrophic economic record:
At the end of 2014, the unemployment rate was higher than at the end of 2008. The labour force participation rate was lower than in 2008. The employment rate (the percentage of the adult population employed) was lower than at the end of 2008. The youth unemployment rate was higher than at the end of 2008. The share of total employment made up of full-time jobs was less than in 2008 — and the quality of jobs had sunk to its lowest level in a quarter of a century.

Then there’s Oliver’s claim that his government has put money back in the hands of Canadians through its commitment to reducing taxes. This government has definitely cut taxes for high-income, single-earner families with children under 18 — just 15 per cent of all families. They’ve been very good to families with teenage children who — somehow — still need ‘child care’. They’ve been generous to families who can afford to put their kids in sports leagues and summer camps, and they’ve cut taxes for high-income seniors who can split their pension income with a spouse.

The government has announced it will double the contribution limits for Tax-Free Savings Accounts, despite research by the PBO and others indicating this will — again — overwhelmingly benefit high-income Canadians and leave a growing unfunded liability to be paid for by all Canadians in the future. Oliver and Harper claim to be doing this for our grandchildren. Somehow we don’t think they’ll be grateful.

All of this, of course, came after the government’s biggest and most foolish tax cut — the two point cut in the GST which every economist warned them was a terrible idea. Sure enough, it was a major factor in putting the government into deficit.

The key thing to remember here is that these tax cuts accomplished nothing for the economy. None of them contributed to economic growth or job creation. They certainly didn’t contribute to tax fairness.

Numbers don’t lie, but people do. It’s one thing to spin your failures as successes — it’s another thing entirely to try to present a decade of fiscal failure as one long triumph.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

On guesswork

Shorter Bob Rae:
Some people actually believe voters deserve a meaningful idea what political parties plan to do before choosing between them? That's crazy talk.

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Paul Krugman laments how faith-based economics which value unmeasurable market confidence over any meaningful outcome continue to form the basis for disastrous austerity policies around the world.

- Bill Curry reports on the PBO's latest study showing that the only reason the Cons are in a position to brag about a nominally balanced budget is their continued siphoning off of EI premiums which are supposed to be for the benefit of the many workers who have lost their jobs. And Andrew Jackson puts the Cons' miserable jobs record in context.

- Meanwhile, Eliza Anyangwe points out that we shouldn't expect the fortunate few who profit from policies designed to destroy working classes to accept a change in direction without a fight. And Jon Queally discusses the prospects of building a U.S. progressive populist movement.

- Finally, Daniel Tseghay comments on the connection between C-51, security certificates and race-based fearmongering. And Craig Forcese and Kent Roach discuss the real purpose of the Cons' terror bill - being to create an open-ended permission for CSIS to disrupt the private activities of Canadians without any meaningful oversight:
In recent weeks, we have been speaking to counterparts in comparable nations—notably the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States. None of these countries appear to issue their CSIS equivalents with an open-ended, indefinite power to break the law. In Australia, for instance, the CSIS equivalent may disrupt a computer system, but it can do so only pursuant to a detailed warrant issued under the provisions of a tightly administered legal framework that itself is subject to review by an inspector general, as well as potential scrutiny from a special security committee of the Australian parliament.
The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has just witnessed a vigorous debate about what steps its agencies may take to limit re-entry of UK nationals who have become foreign paramilitary fighters. It has not given its security services—either MI5 or its foreign service, MI6 (of James Bond fame)—special new powers to break the law or violate human rights.
None of that informed debate is occurring (or, it seems, will occur) in Canada, because our government has chosen simply to provide a virtual carte blanche to CSIS, allowing it to pick from a long menu of surveillance and “disruption” techniques. These new powers are subject to judicial approval processes only when they would violate Canadian law or the Charter, in a proceeding in which the government is the only party, there is no possibility of appeal, and no public disclosure of any warrant issued.

We consider ourselves to be moderate-minded academics, not activists. We aren’t conspiracy theorists, and we generally believe that CSIS officials do not have malign intentions. Indeed, we don’t think CSIS really wants to be in the rendition game. We don’t think CSIS has any interest in running a detention facility, either at home or abroad. We don’t think CSIS wants to perform a political function by steering foreign environmental foundations away from funding local protest groups. But this is a law that may persist for a long time, and as with any government agency, the intentions of CSIS may well change as internal cultures evolve and, even in good faith, the service tests the bounds of its new powers.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Canadians for Tax Fairness offers a checklist to allow us to determine whether the federal budget is aimed at improving matters for everybody, or only for the privileged few. And Andrew Jackson argues that the Cons' focus should be investment in jobs and sustainable development:
Business investment is likely to fall even further due to the resource slump and halted mega projects. This might be offset a bit by new investment in the hard-hit manufacturing sector and in high tech, though there is no sign of that in the most recent numbers.

In this context, the federal government should be doing everything in its power to boost a slowing economy and to help set the stage for a more durable, investment driven recovery.

Ottawa has been advised by the IMF and many prominent economists, from former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to former federal deputy minister of finance Scott Clark, that it can and should boost public investment, especially in mass transit and basic municipal infrastructure.

Since the economy is operating with a significant and growing slack, such spending would boost GDP by more than the actual increase in investment. The federal government itself has cited figures showing that the boost to infrastructure investment in the recession had a multiplier impact on the economy of 1.5, meaning that GDP rose by $1.50 for every $1 spent.

The case for public investment is even more compelling now that the Government of Canada can borrow long term at interest rates well below the rate of inflation to finance projects such as mass transit which demonstrably have a positive economic return in terms of boosting long-term productivity.
...
There is also a need to focus our research and development efforts on industries which will transition us to much more environmentally sustainable economy, such as renewable energy, the construction of a national power grid to displace coal-fired power, and the promotion of much more energy efficient technologies throughout the economy.

The federal Budget will likely pay lip service to boosting investment through small additions to existing commitments. But the current government has given the real priority to costly tax cuts such as family income splitting and doubled TFSA contribution limits, leading them to cut spending on direct government programs to balance the books.

Lack of real attention to investment will leave our sluggish economy dangerously dependent upon growing household debt, and ill-prepared to face the economic and environmental challenges of tomorrow.
- But David Olive reminds us that the Cons are actively working to demolish the government's ability to serve as more than a conduit for corporate interests. And Seth Klein notes that the use of tax-free savings accounts to line the pockets of the wealth at the expense of the rest of us also serves as compelling evidence as to who's intended to benefit under the Harper Cons.

- Meanwhile, John Lorinc reports on the use of community benefits agreements to ensure that good jobs are available to the people who need them, offering an important reminder that role of government shouldn't be limited to handing out money without considering how to maximize its effect.

- Thomas Walkom calls out the Ontario Libs for trying to use a sideshow of beer sales to distract from the reckless selloff of Hydro One.

- Bruce Johnstone notes that the Cons' corporate giveaway of what's left of the Canadian Wheat Board is happening despite a glaring lack of answers to major questions, while Mia Rabson offers a eulogy for the CWB. And the National Farmers' Union points out that labeling what's left as "Canadian" is a matter of spin and wishful thinking.

- Finally, Doug Cuthand rightly slams the Cons for trying to blame First Nations men alone for Canada's shameful legacy of missing and murdered aboriginal women.