Monday, March 30, 2015

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Jim Pugh argues that we should take a serious look at a basic income, while Livia Gershon examines how even a small amount of guaranteed income has made an immense difference in the lives of families in one North Carolina town. And Walter Frick observes that strong social supports are exactly what people need to be able to take entrepreneurial risks:
In a 2014 paper, Olds examined the link between entrepreneurship and food stamps, and found that the expansion of the program in some states in the early 2000s increased the chance that newly eligible households would own an incorporated business by 16 percent. (Incorporated firms are a better proxy for job-creating startups than unincorporated ones.) 

Interestingly, most of these new entrepreneurs didn’t actually enroll in the food stamp program. It seems that expanding the availability of food stamps increased business formation by making it less risky for entrepreneurs to strike out on their own. Simply knowing that they could fall back on food stamps if their venture failed was enough to make them more likely to take risks.

Food stamps are not an isolated case. In another paper, Olds looked at the creation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which offers publicly funded health insurance for kids whose families don’t qualify for Medicaid. By comparing the rate of entrepreneurship of those who just barely qualified for CHIP to those whose incomes just barely exceeded the cutoff, he was able to estimate the program’s impact on new business creation. The rate of incorporated business ownership for those eligible households just below the cutoff was 31 percent greater than for similarly situated families that could not rely on CHIP to care for their children if they needed it. 

The same is true of recent immigrants to the United States. Contrary to claims by the right that welfare keeps immigrants from living up to their historic role as entrepreneurs, CHIP eligibility increased those households’ chances of owning an incorporated business by 28 percent. 

The mechanism in each case is the same: publicly funded insurance lowers the risk of starting a business, since entrepreneurs needn’t fear financial ruin. (This same logic explains why more forgiving bankruptcy laws are associated with more entrepreneurship.)
- Meanwhile, Anna Mehler Paperny reports on the serious restrictions on access to health food for poorer families, with a third of all single-parent families in Saskatchewan lacking the ability to count on the availability of basic food.

- Michael Hiltzik discusses the growing recognition that a concerted attack on unions has resulted in worsening inequality. And Jake Rosenfeld offers a detailed look at the state of the U.S. labour movement.

- Ryan Meili and Carolyn Nowry note that ambulance fees represent a needless and significant barrier to health care in cases where it's needed most.

- Finally, Craig Forcese and Kent Roach confirm that the Cons' intended amendments to C-51 are designed to leave the worst elements of unaccountable secret policing in place. And Andrew Mitrovica is duly stunned by the possibility that the Cons would allow CSIS to operate outside the law in light of the abuses it's committed under a far more limited mandate.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

On transition planning

I've previously highlighted the need for media and citizens alike to press our opposition parties on how they're willing to cooperate to replace the Harper Cons after the next federal election. But let's note that there's a similar question which still needs to be directed at Stephen Harper at every available opportunity - even if we can't expect much more than instructive non-answers.

As Andrew Coyne notes, it's still an open question how far Harper would go in trying to cling to power under all kinds of circumstances:
As prime minister, Mr. Harper would retain a number of prerogatives as he looked for ways to hang on to power, one of which would be to avoid recalling Parliament for as long as he could. After the 1979 election that returned a Conservative minority, Joe Clark did not recall the House for five months.

Mr. Harper might use the interval to curry favour with voters, or to sow divisions in the opposition, the better to deter them from defeating him. (I do not hold with those who think that, merely for having been reduced from a majority to a minority, Mr. Harper would resign as leader or be pushed out. “The longer I’m prime minister” and all that.) But eventually Parliament would have to sit, which is where the governor general comes in.

If the opposition did wish to replace the government, they would have to move fast. The longer they waited, the more that Mr. Harper might make the argument to the governor general that his defeat required the dissolution of the House and the calling of a new election. Whereas an immediate defeat in the House would seem to make another election, so soon after the last, dilatory. The way would be open for the opposition to propose instead that power be transferred to them.

I say “would seem to,” because it’s not a given Mr. Harper would concede the point. Power, once possessed, is not easily given up. Indeed, everything he has said publicly has been to pour scorn on the idea as fundamentally undemocratic, a kind of coup, launched by a “coalition of the losers.” The “highest principle of Canadian democracy,” he said at the height of the 2008 crisis, “is that if one wants to be prime minister one gets one’s mandate from the Canadian people.”

In other words, the prime minister would be tempted to “do a King-Byng” — to re-enact the crisis of 1926, when Mackenzie King, rather than accept defeat in the House as the cue to yield power to Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives (who, after all, had 15 more seats than King’s Liberals), insisted the governor general, Byng, call new elections. Byng refused, Meighen took over (briefly) as prime minister, and King used the issue to win the next election. The precedent can’t be far from the current prime minister’s mind.
But even worse, it's far from clear that Harper would be prepared to accept the judgment of the Governor-General even for the moment in allowing some combination of other parties to form a government.

Remember that in 2008, Harper was prepared to demand that the Queen override any decision of the Governor-General to the effect that his government was accountable to Parliament - and planned to accompany that course of action with an attempt to shut down the country, holding the Canadian public for ransom. And in 2011, Harper refused to offer any answers whatsoever as to whether he'd accept a constitutional transfer of power.

Of course, the 2011 example makes it clear that we may not be able to get answers in the midst of an election campaign, particularly from Harper himself. But there's plenty of time now to push Harper and his slate of candidates to tell us exactly how much damage they're willing to do to stay in power. And the fact the answer looks to be "as much as it takes" itself offers a compelling reason not to leave anything to chance.

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Simon Wren-Lewis connects the UK's counterproductive austerity program to the lack of any wage growth. And Gary Lamphier observes that Alberta is serving as a case in point that jobs generated through public policy rigged in favour of the wealthy are no less precarious than any other type, while Erin Anderssen comments on the connection between public-sector work and greater wage equality.

- Adam Liptak writes that the First Amendment's protection for speech - like so many other rights which have been redefined to suit the powerful - is now serving primarily to benefit the corporate sector at the expense of the public.

- But we shouldn't accept perpetual corporate encroachment on the common good as inevitable. On that front, Paul Krugman reminds us that George W. Bush's attempts to push privatized Social Security failed miserably - and in a way which only proved the point of his opponents.

- Paul Kershaw highlights how the Saskatchewan Party's budget does nothing for a younger generation that's already being squeezed by a combination of massive costs and minimal opportunities. And Joe Friesen discusses David McGrane's study on the strong support for progressive policies among Canada's younger adults:
Prof. McGrane said one of the most interesting results is that the gap between older and younger people is relatively consistent across regions and education levels.

As one might expect, young people with a university education, those who live in big cities, and those in Ontario and British Columbia tend to be further to the left than those with lower levels of education and those in small cities and rural Canada, the study found, but over all, their differences are outweighed by what they hold in common.

“Young Canadians from nearly all of the socio-demographic groups and provinces examined were more likely than older Canadians to desire an activist government; want more social spending; be socially liberal; and favour higher taxes in exchange for better public services,” Prof. McGrane says in the study’s conclusion.
- Finally, Gerald Caplan calls out the immorality and irrationality of the Cons' plan for endless war in Iraq, Syria and anywhere else they can think to bomb.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

On value assessments

The Great Budget Debate at the Progress Summit of course reflected a thorough clash in values. But there was one note of obvious agreement which makes the conservative position untenable once its implications are drawn out.

All four speakers spent plenty of time talking about the fact that some investments are worthwhile, and acknowledging that the role of government includes assessing which ones justify the use of public money. But Monte Solberg in particular neatly demonstrated how anti-government bias undermines any attempt to carry out that task.

Solberg spent plenty of time on the Cons' usual jurisdictional dodges, arguing at various points that the federal government should step aside in favour of provinces, individuals and businesses as alternate decision-makers. But the claim that the federal government should carry a strong bias toward that course of action is flawed in two key ways.

There are plenty of areas where the federal government does in fact have direct jurisdiction: as long as one recognizes e.g. the importance of First Nations health and education (being some of the areas with the most obvious potential for investment to make a massive difference in outcomes) which have been grossly underfunded due solely to the choice of the federal government. And there's also the reality that economies of scale and collective planning can produce better outcomes than atomized and unfocused spending which provinces and municipalities are happy to facilitate.

That said, it's absolutely necessary to evaluate program effectiveness. But Solberg and Philip Cross both went far out of their way emphasizing their disdain for the civil service which needs to be able to carry out the cost/benefit analysis required to direct spending where it can best serve public purposes.

In sum, one can't plausibly claim to acknowledge the value of focused and efficient spending while rejecting the process needed to provide exactly that on specious ideological and jurisdictional grounds. And the right's failure to reconcile those principles - both in the Progress Summit debate and elsewhere - offers a compelling reason not to consider it credible when it comes to economic planning.

On structures of convenience

The Progress Summit panel on accountability and transparency has covered the issued of power being consolidated in the hands of the executive, as well as the fact that Stephen Harper's actions in that respect only reflect a wider pattern. But it's worth reminding ourselves how that trend is best explained - and considering how to reverse or modify it.

To start with, the desire to avoid accountability has led to additional trends beyond the transfer of power upward. In addition, projects - and particularly the aspects thereof which might give rise to controversy - are increasingly handled by the private sector which isn't subject to access-to-information legislation rather than the civil service which is. And while that's partly driven by ideology, it's also a matter of convenience for governments which think that knowledge about how decisions are actually made runs contrary to their political goals.

The existence of accountability mechanisms for one process thus tends to be treated as reason to use another one. And the answer to that reality may be to extend the reach of our watchdogs: by eliminating that asymmetry in making both executive operations and private decision-making affecting public expenditures subject to access to information and other oversight mechanisms, we can eliminate the incentive to channel power toward them for artificial reasons.

In addition, it's come to be assumed that the process of review by legislators is too ponderous for many decisions, resulting in legislation being developed more as a framework for executive decisions rather than the outcome of a deliberative process as to what choices should be made.

That trend can be reversed by lawmakers themselves to the extent they're willing to buck the trend and pass more substantive legislation. Or alternatively, greater transparency and consultation in executive decision-making - which itself could be required by law - could go a long way toward ensuring that decisions aren't made solely by the executive and its preferred set of special interests.

Identifying the adversary

Not surprisingly, Charles Taylor's keynote address and discussion on political inclusion has neatly highlighted both the importance of finding commonalities at the personal level, and the dangers of government fomenting prejudice toward minority groups. But I'd think it's worth drawing a distinction between the problems being addressed at the personal and the political levels.

At the personal level, it's true prejudice which is best addressed through relationships and shared experience. And we should expect a concerted effort to connect to minority communities to put an end to the underlying fear of the other which politicians may seek to use to their own ends in trying to build a voting coalition through the demonization of others.

But the choice to pursue that path - with the Cons' attempt to conflate Islam in general with an inchoate threat to Canadians serving as a particularly jarring example - arises out of something more cynical and dangerous than individual prejudice based in ignorance or unfamiliarity, and which deserves to be called out as such when carried out as a deliberate strategy.

The best label for it may be something along the lines of exclusionism: the inclination and/or deliberate choice to exacerbate prejudice for the purpose of diminishing the public participation of minority groups. And it should be a relatively easy matter to build consensus around the need to fight along those principled lines, even if each particular case also involves the challenge of countering some level of personal prejudice.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Musical interlude

Big Wreck - Ghosts

On common ground

The Progress Summit's panel on First Nations has included plenty of discussion of the need to identify commonalities between First Nation issues and other groups within Canada. And I'd add that there are plenty more opportunities to draw further connections.

The recognition that the federal government tried to eradicate aboriginal culture (and celebration of that fact that it failed) can surely be linked to the latest attempts to intrude on individual beliefs and practices. And the development gap between First Nations and Canada at large is largely paralleled by a similar divide between other rural or isolated communities which are treated as lacking economic value, and current profit centres.

With that in mind, I'd think it's worth examining the arguments which can be made to address those issues together. And a couple of related ones can be put forward.

First, Canada (in contrast to the U.S.) is relatively lacking in a meaningful "pro-Constitution" movement. And it's not hard to see how one could be developed which would encompass both treaty and constitutional recognition of First Nations, and the protection of minority rights which are threatened by cynical political intrusions.

In turn, that movement would be all the stronger if we seek recognition and enforcement of greater social and economic rights - which would provide a basis to mandate even reluctant governments to give effect to those rights.

On enduring foundations

The framing panel at the Progress Summit included plenty of ideas as to how the left can shape political debates. But I'll note that it seemed to miss a couple of related issues.

Most notably, there was an almost exclusive focus on reaching out to swing voters rather than framing issues in a way that would actually serve to build the progressive movement in the longer term. But that of course utterly misses the point that one can't afford to completely ignore base-building in the name of appealing to the currently-undecided - as even if one's goals focused solely on the latter, it's impossible to assemble the revenue and volunteer resources necessary to get do so without actually inspiring a reliable group of core supporters.

In addition, the framing issue was approached mostly from the perspective of parties and elections rather than broader movements - a particularly surprising oversight given the context of think-tank event.

On both counts, Paul Saurette stood out in offering insights into how the right has both developed extra-partisan mechanisms to spread the values which can be drawn on at election time, as well as the importance of appealing to emotions which can motivate voters across the spectrum. But there's still plenty of room to expand on the discussion as to how to build frames which stand the test of time - and particularly in a panel which pointed out how terms like "welfare" were turned into negatives by a concerted right-wing effort, that surely has to be a primary consideration in developing a progressive movement.

A seat at the table

Richard Trumka's address and the subsequent response panel at the Progress Summit have aptly addressed issues in trying to strengthen the grassroots of the labour movement. But Trumka's focus on trade agreements also raises a related question which may not easily be dealt with at the grassroots level.

As I alluded to in this week's column, governments are increasingly presuming that big businesses need to be at the table in all kinds of policy development which is even ancillary to the economy.

It may not be easy to tell our corporate overlords that they can't have direct access to decision-makers. But it might be easier to make the case that workers need to play a similar role. So with that in mind, is it viable to make a serious push to ensure that trade agreements and other economic policies are developed only with meaningful labour input and approval?

Dollar for dollar

Thomas Mulcair's Progress Summit commitment that an NDP government will redirect the value of a stock option tax loophole toward families in need will surely make for one of the most important moments of a summit directed at developing exactly those types of ideas.

So it's unquestionably important that Mulcair is willing to take Canada in the direction of redirecting corporate giveaways toward people with a genuine need. That said, it's worth taking a look at the numbers as to how far today's announcement will go.

Canadians for Tax Fairness estimates the stock option loophole at a cost of $1 billion per year. But at least some responses - albeit ones which I'd take with a grain of salt - are questioning whether the net revenue would be less due to offsetting changes in corporate taxes.

And the nominal cost of eliminating child poverty (ignoring for the moment the larger benefits of doing so) is substantially higher than even the raw number: see e.g. the National Council of Welfare's estimates showing the sticker price of ending poverty as a whole at over $12 billion.

What's more, it's not clear that the money raised by closing the tax loophole would go solely to the gap between current sub-poverty incomes and getting families to the poverty line. That's fine in policy terms, as need and inequality don't end immediately at the poverty line - but it means we should be cautious in presuming that every dollar raised will address the immediate goal which provided the context for Mulcair's promise.

Of course, we can also expect positive consequences from the reduction of both inequality and poverty. So it's not hard to see today's announcement as a major first step toward both questioning corporate giveaways, and meeting the goal of ending child poverty. But it likely doesn't represent the end of the story either.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

New column day

Here, on the Saskatchewan Party's choice to turn the graduate retention credit into a purely political goodie rather than a program which could conceivably retain Saskatchewan graduates, while at the same time devaluing the very concept of education for its own sake.

For further reading...
- The province's explanation (such as it is) can be found here. And CBC reported on the changes here.
- I allude in the column to Ontario's choice to put tuition policy directly in the hands of employers as reported by Simona Chiose here.
- And Kevin Milligan's analysis of the problems with the Harper Cons' non-refundable tax baubles applies even more to the graduate retention credit.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- In advance of this weekend's Progress Summit, Robin Sears comments on the significance of the Broadbent Institute and other think tanks in shaping policy options:
The Center for American Progress was the wakeup call for progressives around the world. Independent-minded, massively funded, deeply professional, it was created to develop winning agendas for a new Democratic president. Key Obamites trained there. Core strategies and goals were polished there. Their success helped to spawn a third generation of think tanks who understood that to have real impact, good ideas had to be married to credible execution.

In Canada today, the two ‘conviction-based’ parties of left and right as political scientists are wont to label conservatives and social democrats—have thriving think tanks that have played important roles in both the idea baking and the training of a new generation of political activists. The Manning Centre—unlike the Fraser institute—has become less fringe and more effectively political. The Broadbent Institute has quickly found its groove as a forum where greenies, left liberals, New Democrats, and independent activists can hammer out new progressive visions and the tools to deliver them.
The Broadbent Institute’s executive director Rick Smith and his small but impressive team seem so far to have found their footing, pushing the envelope a little, rallying partisans as required, and avoiding the curse of think tanks everywhere: becoming pedantic, boring, and irrelevant. Their annual gatherings of the progressive clans have exceeded most cynical old-timers’ expectations; convening a new generation from outside partisan politics, from the NGO and environmental movements, left liberals and social democrats, and helping them build bonds both personal and political.

Ten years from now—or maybe much sooner—one may expect a proud young minister celebrating the success of a dramatic new initiative, just endorsed by Parliament, telling reporters, “Well, it all started late one boozy night, at the Broadbent summit!”
- Meanwhile, Desmond Cole interviews David Hulchanski on rising inequality in Toronto and elsewhere. And Kate McInturff notes that increased inequality is just one of the harmful results of an obsession with fighting deficits rather than improving the lives of citizens.

- Roy Romanow highlights the imminent dangers facing Canada's health care system if we don't fill in missing pieces including a pharmacare program.

- Raveena Aulakh reports on the Council of Canadians' damning study on the protection of water in Canada. And on the subject of regulatory negligence, Allison Martel finds that CN Rail has seen a massive jump in derailments even as it's carrying more hazardous products including crude oil.

- Finally, Bob Hepburn discusses how Stephen Harper decided to use the politics of fear as his main means of clinging to power. And thwap observes that a reasonable amount of Parliamentary pushback has gone a long way in countering the spin when it comes to C-51.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

History repeating

2008, pre-election: Liberal bigwigs make a ridiculous spectacle of themselves proclaiming that they'll never deign to cooperate with the likes of the NDP.

2008, post-election: Having spent the campaign echoing Stephen Harper's desperate message that a coalition would be illegitimate, the Liberals conclude that they're willing to cooperate after all, only to botch the job.

2011, pre-election: Liberal bigwigs make a ridiculous spectacle of themselves proclaiming that they'll never deign to cooperate with the likes of the NDP.

2011, post-election: Having spent the campaign echoing Stephen Harper's desperate message that a coalition would be illegitimate, the Liberals conclude that they're willing to cooperate after all, only to botch the job.

2015, pre-election: Liberal bigwigs begin to make a ridiculous spectacle of themselves proclaiming that they'll never deign to cooperate with the likes of the NDP.

From all available precedent, we should fully expect the Libs to again walk back their inexplicable aversion to cooperation once the next federal election has passed. But is it too much to ask that they stop wasting so much of their (and our) time and energy convincing themselves not to do what in all likelihood will need to be done to ensure a better federal government?

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Dennis Howlett reminds us that we can raise enough money to strengthen our social safety net merely by ensuring that a relatively small group of privileged people pays its fair share. And Seth Stephens-Davidowitz examines the glaring nepotism which festers in the absence of some policy counterweights.

- But Robert Kuttner offers seven reasons why the 99% keeps losing on policy grounds despite having the obvious theoretical ability to ensure reasonable political outcomes. In a similar vein, Sean McElwee discusses the connection between racism and poverty politics in the U.S.

- Meanwhile, Samara's report card reminds us that Canada too has plenty to improve in ensuring representative and connected government, while Jordon Cooper points out some particularly egregious examples of pandering and spin from all three levels of government.

- Ashley Renders reports on the World Bank's recognition that it's both possible and necessary to decouple economic development from pollution and climate change. And Kai Nagata recognizes that we shouldn't see a liveable natural environment as a matter of partisanship or ideology.

- But Jordan Press writes that while the Cons were warned against eliminating environmental criteria for infrastructure spending, they went ahead with a political decision to treat a healthy environment as valueless anyway. And Ian MacLeod reports on the Harper Cons' political interference to ensure that Canadian art which might not suit the oil sector's agenda didn't get presented around the world.

- Finally, Ralph Surette rightly notes that the Cons are willing - and indeed eager - to tear apart Canada's social fabric in order to cling to power. But I do have to question when this became news.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Entwined cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Ryan Meili reminds us of the harmful health impacts of inequality. And Susan Perry discusses the effect of inequality on health in the workplace in particular:
The rise in income inequality over the past three decades or so is taking a major toll on the general health of American workers — and not just because stagnant or falling wages have made it increasingly difficult for many workers to afford high-quality health care.

For, as a commentary published recently in the American Journal of Public Health points out, income inequality has also been accompanied by changes in the workplace that increase workers’ stress in ways that negatively affect their health.

Those changes include a less stable job market, work weeks that repeatedly exceed 40 hours (for individuals working full time as well as for those working two or more part-time jobs), work schedules with unpredictable or irregular hours, greater “job intensification” (employers requiring workers to take on more tasks and responsibilities with less pay), lack of paid sick leave and higher out-of-pocket health costs (which erode discretionary income).
- Meanwhile, Andrew Dobson and Rupert Read write that it's time to stop pretending that growth for its own sake in a developed economy serves any useful purpose - especially when a top-heavy approach exacerbates inequality. But then, Chuk Plante points out that inequality acts as a barrier to development in any event. And Naomi Klein reviews Steve Fraser's The Age of Acquiescence as nicely describing the need for concerted public action to overcome the concentration of wealth and power.

- Matthew Ingram rightly argues that we shouldn't be willing to accept unfettered Internet surveillance as the new normal, while Christopher Parsons reminds us that we're already subject to monitoring and disruption without a law authorizing anything of the sort.

- Haroon Siddiqui makes the case that we should be far more scared of the Cons than of the phantoms they're trying to invent for political purpose. And Joseph Heath discusses Stephen Harper's warmongering under circumstances where it makes no sense at all to obsess over military buildup:
Canada does not need a fighting military. Americans often accuse other Western nations, particularly some European states, of free-riding on U.S. military power. And while this may not be true of some nations, it is certainly true of Canada. Part of what’s nice about having the world’s largest undefended border with the U.S. is that they would never tolerate the invasion of Canada by a hostile power. As a result, we have to be prepared for minor border skirmishes, but we don’t really need to have a full-scale military, sufficient to defend the country from attack.

The fact that the Canadian military is essentially otiose provides one way of understanding our past enthusiasm for peacekeeping – at least it provided some rationale for maintaining something like an able fighting force. Take away the peacekeeping, and what becomes the new raison d’ĂȘtre for the Canadian military? The Conservative government has yet to provide one — indeed, it seems not to be even aware of the need to. The boyish enthusiasm for the military that you find in the current government is essentially a matter of personal temperament and political ideology, but it lacks any underlying national or geopolitical rationale.
- Finally, Michael Harris weighs in on the reemergence of Reform's most irresponsible elements. Susan Delacourt wonders whether early-career Stephen Harper would recognize what he's since become. And Jeremy Nuttall reports on Harry Smith's work to ensure that the Harper Cons don't stay in power any longer than we can avoid.