Friday, October 31, 2014

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Natasha Luckhardt examines what we can expect from Burger King's takeover of Tim Hortons - and the news isn't good for Canadian workers and citizens alike. But Jim Stanford reminds us that we're not without some public policy options by following up on the employment effects of an increased minimum wage.

- Of course, that would require a government committed to ensuring that the benefits of public policy go where they're needed. And we plainly can't count on that as long as the Cons are in power - as Kathleen Lahey, Jennifer Robson, and Scott Clark and Peter DeVries all note in discussing the distortions created by income splitting. Per Clark and DeVries:
According to the Harper government, income-splitting will cost Ottawa $2.4 billion 2014-15 and $1.9 billion in 2015-16. That’s an awful lot of revenue to give up just to make a small group of well-heeled taxpayers happy. Why do these households deserve a deep tax break more than the vast majority of Canadian taxpayer? How can the government justify a re-distribution of income that benefits the wealthy?
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There is no justification whatsoever for introducing income-splitting on social or economic grounds — certainly not in the current economic environment. The argument that the government makes — that it did it for seniors and therefore it should be applied to other families — doesn’t make a particle of sense. The fact is that the Harper government gave income-splitting to seniors to make amends for its decision to tax income trusts.

Income-splitting is being done to placate a small part of the Conservative base at the expense of virtually everyone else.
- Meanwhile, Canada Without Poverty highlights the Cons' targeted attacks at those who most need help, this time through a budget which attacks benefits to refugees.

- But in case anybody thought that meant the general public is safe from the Cons' action, Scott Anderson and Vanmala Subramaniam report on the latest example of gross regulatory neglect - as Transport Canada let GM vehicles with a deadly flaw stay on the road after failing to follow up on an investigation. (And as an added bonus, Lisa Raitt lied to the public about her department's knowledge - though that seems to be the trend among Harper and his provincial puppet governments.)

- Finally, the CP reports on the NDP's work to pass an environmental bill of rights.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

New column day

Here, asking what we can do to make sure that individuals who seek help for their mental health and addictions issues through the criminal justice system find more support than Michael Zehaf-Bibeau did - both for their own well-being, and for the safety of the Canadian public.

For further reading...
- CBC reported on Zehaf-Bibeau's interaction with the criminal justice system. And again, Ian Mulgrew also weighed in on the failure to offer any help to somebody who was crying out for it.
- Karl Nerenberg writes that the Cons' expected response to last week's shootings - consisting of increased power for a security apparatus focused on labelling people as threats - would have done nothing at all to prevent Zehaf-Bibeau's actions. - Linda McQuaig reminds us that the Cons have every political incentive to foster a culture of fear, even as Tom Henheffer recognizes how toxic that culture would be for Canada as a whole.
- But Frank Graves notes that public fear tends to fade fairly quickly after a single incident brings security to the forefront.
- And finally, Eric Adams writes that we can and should remember our best selves in the wake of a crisis rather than abandoning our values. 

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Oxfam studies the spread of extreme inequality around the globe, as well as the policies needed to combat it:
Oxfam’s decades of experience in the world’s poorest communities have taught us that poverty and inequality are not inevitable or accidental, but the result of deliberate policy choices. Inequality can be reversed. The world needs concerted action to build a fairer economic and political system that values everyone. The rules and systems that have led to today’s inequality explosion must change. Urgent action is needed to level the playing field by implementing policies that redistribute money and power from wealthy elites to the majority.
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Despite the fact that market fundamentalism played a strong role in causing the recent global economic crisis, it remains the dominant ideological world view and continues to drive inequality. It has been central to the conditions imposed on indebted European countries, forcing them to deregulate, privatize and cut their welfare provision for the poorest, while reducing taxes on the rich. There will be no cure for inequality while countries are forced to swallow this medicine.
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Elites, in rich and poor countries alike, use their heightened political influence to curry government favours – including tax exemptions, sweetheart contracts, land concessions and subsidies – while blocking policies that strengthen the rights of the many...This undermines investment in sectors, such as education, healthcare and small-scale agriculture, which can play a vital role in reducing inequality and poverty.

The massive lobbying power of rich corporations to bend the rules in their favour has increased the concentration of power and money in the hands of the few.
- Meanwhile, Jeremy Runnalls points out that North Dakota is ensuring some real public benefit from resource exploitation by using increased royalty income on both a public wealth fund, and investments in renewable energy.

- Joe Friesen reports that despite the Cons' bluster about reining in abuse of the temporary foreign worker program, they've continued to allow an increase in the number of low-skilled positions filled with workers treated as disposable. And Bill Curry notes that the Cons' latest dodge is to base enforcement on provincial employment laws - meaning that as long as understaffed provincial enforcement agencies can't expose wrongdoing, employers will be able to keep abusing their workers with the federal government's approval.

- Sara Mojtehedzadeh discusses what universal child care means for working women. And Martin Regg Cohn slams the Cons for instead pushing an income splitting scheme which is unfair both to the families who actually need better access to child care, and to provinces who have tied themselves to the federal tax system.

- Finally, Alice Funke examines the nomination process now playing out within Canada's federal parties, and finds that a fixed election date seems to have resulted in a large number of contested nominations.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Sarah Lazare reports on UNICEF's research showing an appalling increase in child poverty in many of the world's richest countries:
"Many affluent countries have suffered a 'great leap backwards' in terms of household income, and the impact on children will have long-lasting repercussions for them and their communities," said Jeffrey O’Malley, UNICEF’s Head of Global Policy and Strategy.

In 23 of the 41 wealthy countries examined, the rate of child poverty has increased since 2008. In some countries, this rise was drastic: Ireland, Croatia, Latvia, Greece, and Iceland saw child poverty climb by more than 50 percent. The report notes that the young are hit harder than the elderly, and among children, the "poorest and most vulnerable... have suffered disproportionately."

The recession has created "a generation cast aside," where unemployment for people aged 15 to 24 has increased in 34 of the 41 countries, the report states.

The United States is no exception. In 2012, 24.2 million children were living in poverty in the U.S., an increase of 1.7 million since the 2008 recession. In 34 out of 50 states, child poverty has risen since 2008.

While the authors claimed the report was not intended as a "comment on austerity," their analysis finds that the decimation of public services has fueled the crisis.

"Extreme child poverty in the United States increased more during the Great Recession than it did in the recession of 1982, suggesting that, for the very poorest, the safety net affords less protection now than it did three decades ago," states the report.
- Meanwhile, the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness studies the costs of homelessness in Canada - and finds that we can easily afford to eliminate it with even a modicum of political will. 

- ThinkProgress discusses how U.S. Republicans are facing a justified backlash from voters for refusing to raise the minimum wage (or do anything else to combat income inequality). And Kate McInturff and Paul Tulloch highlight Canada's continued wage gaps based on gender and ethnicity - while also pointing out that the public sector compensates its workers far more fairly than the private sector.

- But Robyn Benson writes that the Cons are still focused on attacking the labour movement for having the audacity to try to encourage wage equality - this time by resurrecting Bill C-377 from the grave. And Brent Patterson warns us about the Cons' widespread and utterly unjustified surveillance of social movements.

- Finally, Tim Harper slams the Cons for recklessly (and selectively) throwing around the label of "terrorist" to suit their own political purposes. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Helpful cats.



Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman look into the spread of wealth inequality in the U.S., and find that it may be worse than we already knew. And Paul Krugman discusses how toxic anti-government ideology is preventing the U.S. from both getting its economy on track in the short term, and investing in infrastructure it will need down the road:
More than seven years have passed since the housing bubble burst, and ever since, America has been awash in savings — or more accurately, desired savings — with nowhere to go. Borrowing to buy homes has recovered a bit, but remains low. Corporations are earning huge profits, but are reluctant to invest in the face of weak consumer demand, so they’re accumulating cash or buying back their own stock. Banks are holding almost $2.7 trillion in excess reserves — funds they could lend out, but choose instead to leave idle.

And the mismatch between desired saving and the willingness to invest has kept the economy depressed. Remember, your spending is my income and my spending is your income, so if everyone tries to spend less at the same time, everyone’s income falls.

There’s an obvious policy response to this situation: public investment. We have huge infrastructure needs, especially in water and transportation, and the federal government can borrow incredibly cheaply — in fact, interest rates on inflation-protected bonds have been negative much of the time (they’re currently just 0.4 percent). So borrowing to build roads, repair sewers and more seems like a no-brainer.
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(T)he result...is that America has turned its back on its own history. We need public investment; at a time of very low interest rates, we could easily afford it. But build we won’t.
- Meanwhile, PressProgress highlights the Bank of Canada's alarming findings about the decay of Canada's manufacturing sector. And Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood finds that big oil's massive profits aren't producing anywhere near enough jobs to pick up the slack.

- Planet Experts reports on the UN's latest report which concludes that climate change is causing irreversible damage to our planet. But presumably the oil industry will simply pretend that inconvenient facts don't exist - as it typically does when people out the other ill environmental effects of resource exploitation.

- Colin Macleod weighs in on the ongoing child care debate with a strong case for a universal program rather than selective incentives and subsidies:
First, means testing, if it is to be fair and reasonably accurate, requires the creation of elaborate and expensive bureaucratic procedures through which eligible recipients can be distinguished from ineligible recipients. In practice, such systems are highly inefficient and frequently fail to correctly those who deserve assistance from those who do not. It is simpler and more efficient to provide the opportunity for cheap daycare available to all on an equal basis.

Second, means-testing draws invidious distinctions between citizens that jeopardize the social conditions of self-respect. In a society in which the default assumption is that citizens should bear the full cost of daycare costs, demonstrating that someone merits a subsidy often requires them to make ‘shameful revelations’. The fat cats do not have to worry about that. They are not in a position of being scrutinized by a government bureaucrat in order to determine whether they are worthy recipients of something to which all parents should have ready access to: good childcare.

I suspect that most of the people who are enthusiastic about means testing are those who are never likely to be subject to it. The rich might feel differently about means testing if say their health care cards were revoked upon determination that their income fell within the top 15% of earners and that in order to gain access to publicly provided health care they would have to complete a series of confusing forms and meet with an entitlements officer who would ask probing questions about whether they really needed to access the public system. It’s ironic that many right-wingers who are generally suspicious of the state think it’s ok to subject some citizens – usually the poor – to invasive inquiries of this sort by state officials.

Instead of treating access to affordable daycare as something that distinguishes the poor from the rich, we should treat it as an opportunity to which all have access in virtue of our common and equal citizenship. On this model, the appropriate way to ensure that the costs of providing the common good of access to daycare are fairly shared is through the background tax system. Those who worry about the regressive potential of daycare tend to neglect the overall malleability of the tax system. A properly structured arrangement for funding daycare through the tax system need not confer net benefits on the rich of the sort critics worry about. If the system for funding is made suitably fair then the concern that the rich are unfairly benefiting from a subsidy is adequately answered. Universality need not be regressive and we can have progressivity without means testing.
- Finally, Elizabeth Renzetti argues that we should take a hard line against fearmongering in light of last week's shootings in Ottawa, while Eric Wright criticizes Stephen Harper for instead looking to foment unjustified conflict.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Erika Shaker points out how condescending attitudes toward public benefits are both making it unduly difficult to develop new programs which would benefit everybody, and threatening existing social safety net. Sean McElwee writes that inequality only figures to grow as an issue as the wealthy try to disassociate themselves from everybody else. And Scott Santens discusses how the U.S.' social benefits are needlessly costly and difficult to access because they're designed more to exclude than to include:
As citizens, we are doing everything we can. Some of us are even tragically dying in our attempts to struggle on, while over 10,000 others have already grown too tired of the struggle to even continue living. As long as wages continue to not rise, and as long as jobs continue to be eliminated due to advances in technology, we have nowhere else to turn but our own safety nets. It is for this reason, it will only become ever more increasingly important for us to look with open eyes and minds at our system of public assistance and how it functions for all of us, poor and rich alike.

If so many of us are already driving on our spare tires, and we recognize the road ahead is only going to get bumpier and more dangerous, then we must together make sure that we either make it quick and painless for us all to get right back on the road when we need assistance, or finally guarantee that no matter what, there will always be another spare tire for all of us.
- Angella MacEwen debates Ben Eisen about the importance of public child care. Ron Waller takes a closer look at the numbers behind Quebec's universal daycare program to show how it produces strong progressive outcomes.

- Justine Hunter reports on how B.C. workers are suffering from the combination of underregulation which caused a sawmill explosion, and a compensation system which is punishing them for being injured. And lest there be any doubt, that's exactly the type of corporatist policy Brad Wall is looking to smuggle into Saskatchewan in the guise of "harmonizing" standards. (Though of course there's still far too much reason for concern about worker safety here even before that process plays out.)

- Finally, Kjell Anderson commits some sociology in exploring how individuals come to be "radicalized". Michael Harris and Glenn Greenwald both weigh in on the Cons' immediate inclination to respond to last week's shootings with an all-out assault on civil rights. And Chris Selley asks that we at least stop short of trying to exile Canadians, while Michael Spratt and Chelsea Moore modestly suggest that policing thoughts might not be the best idea either.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

On taboos

Regular readers will know that I've spent plenty of time discussing all kinds of plans for multi-party pre-electoral cooperation - and that I've been highly skeptical about whether the ones we've seen in Canadian politics can be either justified in principle, or made effective in practice. And I'll readily acknowledge that those questions are worth some serious attention any time somebody raises the issue.

But can we at least agree that the mere act of talking about cooperation across party lines shouldn't be treated as a scandal?

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Tony Burman comments on the increasing recognition of the dangers of inequality even among corporate and financial elites:
(I)t is significant that the policy debate among many decision-makers seems to be changing. Rather than the nonsense about “the makers versus the takers,” there is increasing focus on the notion that income inequality could be a key factor in why overall economic growth has been sluggish in recent years.

There has always been a “common sense’ element to this argument. The wealthy tend to save a larger percentage of their income because they are able to. In contrast, middle- and lower-income people spend virtually all of what they earn because they have to. If the rich have more to save and the rest have less to spend, is it surprising that the current economy has remain stalled?

But a glimmer of hope can be seen in these latest appeals from Yellen and Carney. Their message to the business and political class was not only that the increase of inequality was morally wrong. But, perhaps more convincing with this crowd, they are arguing that it is dumb economics.

If the vaunted rulers of our flawed economic system can finally get their heads around this simple truth, the world may miraculously escape another recession.
- And the Observer weighs in on the desperate need for the corporate sector to start paying its fair share rather than evading any social responsibility:
Companies such as Facebook and Google earn enormous sums of money from UK consumers – and then avoid paying tax on that revenue by processing the sale in Ireland.

They benefit in myriad ways from the UK’s infrastructure, culture and rule of law and yet do everything in their considerable power to cheat the British exchequer out of monies that would help sustain those virtues of British life. It is no wonder that the cool and edgy ambience that once surrounded tech companies has dulled. And not content with the Irish tax swerve, many technology companies that do business in the UK also drive down their tax rate further – below 5% in some cases – by holding key intellectual property in tax havens such as Luxembourg.  Royalty payments for the use of intellectual property (IP) are sent to a company that is in Ireland but has its headquarters in a tax haven.

Tax avoidance that allows multinationals to grow ever richer also damages the fabric of democracy. In the US, as the midterm elections approach, the tech companies are spending billions of dollars to protect their interests, exercising undue influence on legislators. Last year, Google spent more money on political donations in America than Goldman Sachs. There was a time when we believed that the cultures of a Google differed considerably from that of a Goldman Sachs. Not any more. Don’t be evil? Don’t be gullible, more like.

But there is a wider, more fundamental point. The perception, particularly in America, that Congress is overly influenced by major business interests that can bend legislation in their favour, erodes trust in an already enfeebled political institution.
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Taxes matter.  They build schools, hospitals and roads and finance public services.  They also indicate a  society’s commitment to fairness. As Sandel writes in What Money Can’t Buy: “Democracy does not require perfect equality but it does require that citizens share in a common life… for this is how we come to care for the common good.”
- Meanwhile, Murray Mandryk notes that Brad Wall's obsession with forcing a corporate mindset on Saskatchewan's public health care system is proving disastrous.

- Ian Mulgrew writes about how Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's known mental health issues - and the lack of treatment even when they were pointed out - contributed to last week's tragic shootings:
Wednesday’s tragedy exposed not so much a failure of our security forces as the gaping holes in our appallingly frayed social safety net.

Homeless and troubled, Montreal-born Michael Zehaf-Bibeau knew he wasn’t coping, sought assistance, begged from the sounds of it; no one listened closely enough.

During his adult life, we spent a small fortune in two provinces providing the 32-year-old with plenty of “due process” and stretches of free room and board at Her Majesty’s motels.

But we didn’t help him and, if anything, the legal system only exacerbated his frustrations.

The vast amount of tax money devoted to his petty crimes would have been far better spent providing him with appropriate psychiatric and social care.
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We can change our approach and begin to help [people like Zehaf-Bibeau] or we can curtail civil liberties and invest in more cops, metal detectors, fences and listening equipment.

I know which approach would make me feel safer, what I would call real security measures: a social safety net that caught those in obvious need before they went postal, people like Zehaf-Bibeau.
- Mitchell Anderson expands on the same point. Doug Saunders discusses the interplay between ideology (of whatever origin) and pathology in cases like Zehaf-Bibeau's. And Stephen Walt proposes what would make for the most reasonable response to the tragedy - while worrying that Stephen Harper is pushing in exactly the wrong direction by looking to meet futile and misdirected violence with futile and misdirected violence.

- Finally, digby highlights yet another step in the right's attempt to demonize participatory politics, as even simple encouragement to get people out to the polls is now being labeled as "fraud" by a Republican party which prefers to see as few people as possible having a say in elections.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

New column day

Here, on how precarity is a serious concern in far more areas than the workplace alone - and how we should think about public policy as a means of eliminating precarity (whether it be in work, housing, food or other necessities of life) wherever possible.

For further reading...
- Once again, there's been plenty of discussion about the hazards of precarious work. But for a few examples see pieces from Emily Fister (interviewing Andrew Longhurst), Margaret Simms, and Nora Loreto.
- And it's also been well documented that other aspects of poverty also cause enormous and avoidable personal stress - with the commentary linked here offering some examples.
- But Janelle Vandergrift observes that food banks and other supposed charitable stopgaps have instead turned into permanent fixtures due to our failure to address the root causes of poverty. And the Housing First program looks to be a far-too-rare case of our starting to change that pattern.
- Finally, Joan Bryden reports that rather than trying to develop more stable lives for Canadians (and particularly those who need it most), the Cons are instead continuing to punch down at Canada's most vulnerable residents - this time by eliminating social supports for refugees.

Saturday Morning Links

This and that for your weekend reading.

- Geoff Stiles writes that instead of providing massive subsidies to dirty energy industries which don't need them (and which will only have more incentive to cause environmental damage as a result), we should be investing in a sustainable renewable energy plan:
(W)hereas countries such as Norway have gradually reduced...subsidies as their oil industry matured, at the same time maintaining one of the highest royalty rates in the world, Canada has allowed its subsidies to remain at a relatively high level while many provinces have actually decreased royalties on oil company profits.

There is a clear need to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. But this is only the first step. A second step is to develop comparable subsidies and incentive programs for renewable energy and energy efficiency, to stimulate development of innovative green technologies.
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There are relatively few examples of true subsidies for green technologies or industries in Canada at the federal level. There is an accelerated capital cost allowance (ACCA), which in addition to covering fossil fuel technologies, also covers “investments that produce heat for use in an industrial process or electricity by using fossil fuel efficiently or by using renewable energy sources”; and there is a tax benefit enabling use of flow-through shares, by which expenses incurred during the development and start-up of renewable energy and energy conservation projects can be fully deducted or financed. Current federal policy, however, is to gradually phase out ACCA for all energy forms.

Several federal subsidy programs that supported clean energy investments have actually been discontinued by the Harper government. The popular ecoENERGY program that provided grants to homeowners towards energy efficient retrofits was discontinued in 2011, and the EcoEnergy for Renewable Power program that provided per kWh supplements for wind energy systems was ended in 2013.

Restoring these subsidies is crucial if producers of low-carbon technologies and energy are to compete in a nascent market and offer consumers a fair choice of energy sources.

There are plenty of ways to incentivize a green transition. Increasing innovation-focused grants to research institutions, universities and manufacturers in the green technology field through Sustainable Technology Development Canada for example; or expanding the use of green technologies and green power in government buildings, using weighted scoring systems which favour green options over conventional fossil fuel options in government supply contracts.

What we are short on is not ideas of how to transition to a green economy, but the political will to make it happen.
- Carlo Fanelli points out how Ontario's provincial government - like many others - has forced municipalities into costly and ineffective privatization schemes. And Ryan Meili contrasts the availability of MRIs in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and questions why Brad Wall would be eager to triple the wait times patients currently face in Saskatchewan just to allow profiteers to make more money.

- James Baxter and Rick Salutin both have serious doubts about the claim that Canada lost any innocence based on this week's tragic shootings in Ottawa.

- Meanwhile, CBC highlights the role that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's mental health issues played in the shootings. And Jon Woodward reports on Zehaf-Bibeau's own confused - and rebuffed - attempts to get treatment.

- Finally, Ricochet and Stuart Trew both comment on on the importance of taking a reasoned and thorough look at what can be done to prevent future incidents. But to nobody's surprise, the Cons are refusing to let our security policy be shaped by anything other than Stephen Harper's political whims. And Stephen Maher is rightly concerned about what that means:
(T)here is little reason to have confidence that the Harper government will strike the right balance between our safety and our freedom.

It’s likely that Harper, Blaney and the people around them want to find that balance, but we’re left to guess at that, because the government’s recent record — in particular with the online surveillance bill — is of misdirection and stealth, hiding behind a smokescreen of disingenuous talking points.

There is reason to worry about this lack of forthrightness, the government’s mixed feelings about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, its attacks on the courts and its flirtation with anti-Muslim messaging.

It would be comforting if new powers are coupled with new oversight, as they should be.
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But the record of this government is of moving in the other direction, toward less oversight, not more.