Saturday, April 21, 2012

Saturday Afternoon Links

Miscellaneous material for your Saturday reading.

- As much sympathy as I normally have for Linda McQuaig, I'll argue that her premise in discussing Andrea Horwath's call for the wealthy to pay a fair share of taxes is entirely off base. Even if it is easier to discuss such ideas when there's a Warren Buffett willing to take the side of the general public, the more important conclusion is that we should be able to determine as a citizenry how our tax system should be structured - and not give the wealthiest a veto over the outcome.

- Which is also why Thomas Walkom's column on the tax treatment of charities is worth a read: we shouldn't have to depend on philanthropy to provide for basic necessities, and the tax receipt system only serves to subsidize the preferences of those with extra money to give rather than the needs of those who would stand to benefit from a more focused set of priorities.

- Erin takes on the monetary hawks looking to stop Canada's already-unimpressive economic recovery.

- Susan Delacourt echoes my question as to whether we need to push our leaders to be willing to tackle major problems on a multigovernmental basis, rather than staying on what's perceived to be safe terrain.

- No, we shouldn't be surprised that shutting down B.C.'s oil spill cleanup centre at the same time they plan to ram the Gateway pipeline down the province's throat. If anything, I'd think it's a minor miracle they're at least keeping the Quebec version alive, rather than renaming spills as "unanticipated ethical oil surpluses" and declaring them part of an economic action plan.

- Finally, I'll highlight Canadian Progressive Voices as a new blogroll with plenty of lively discussion - while making it clear that I don't intend to cut ties with the Progressive Bloggers over the few blue apples in the bunch.

On short-sightedness

Others have already drawn parallels between the Cons' plan to require Employment Insurance recipients to accept whatever low-paying temporary work might be available as a condition of receiving the benefits they've paid into, and other attacks on individual workers such as workfare and forced relocation. But let's take a closer look at what the mooted move will mean for individuals who have lost a job and are seeking to plan for the future:
The reforms would require unemployed Canadians to accept local jobs that are currently being filled by temporary foreign workers.
“Nova Scotia province-wide has 10% unemployment, but the only way Christmas tree operators can function in the Annapolis Valley is to bring in Mexicans through this agricultural worker program,” he said, also pointing to the increased number of Russians working in Prince Edward Island fish processing plants and Romanians working at the Ganong chocolate factory in New Brunswick.
“Even on the north shore of New Brunswick, which has the highest unemployment in the province, the MPs keep telling me the employers definitely need more temporary workers. What’s going on here?”
Now, the obvious answer would figure to be that workers have a strong personal interest in not getting trapped in a cycle of temporary jobs, especially when those jobs are unrelated to any field the worker could possibly want to pursue. And anybody who saw value in Canadians being able to plan for the future and consider the best possible career outcome in the longer term - including preparing to pursue work that isn't merely seasonal - would recognize that forcing people into whatever low-paying, menial labour might be available at a given moment is a move in exactly the wrong direction. Indeed, it would ensure that human capital is put to its lowest use rather than being developed for eventual growth.
In addition to setting the worker's new entitlement to EI at a lower baseline (and perhaps none at all - remember the Cons' restrictions on eligibility based on minimum numbers of weeks worked?), then, Kenney's plan is to make sure that anybody who loses a job through no fault of his or her own is also deprived of any opportunity to plan for the future. Which makes for a short-term gain for the employers eager to pay the lowest possible wage for menial work - but ultimately figures to result in just as much productivity loss for the broader economy as for the worker affected.

So is it any better for temporary foreign workers to perform the jobs? At worst, it would seem to make sense that individuals who actually want to accept the work might be a better fit than those who might otherwise be able to pursue better long-term options if their social safety net hadn't just been shredded beneath them.

But the more obvious systemic issue is that we shouldn't be biasing our labour system in favour of insecure temporary work in the first place. That is, unless one's long-term goal is to set up the largest possible gap between a privileged few and a powerless mass of workers with no capacity to organize or plan.

The Cons have apparently made their choice on that front. But the rest of us shouldn't accept a system that stunts the career prospects of Canadian citizens solely to cater to employers who see worker desperation as a plus. And indeed, we should take the cue to argue for just the opposite: individuals need enough income security to be able to make meaningful decisions, rather than being deployed solely at the whims of the most exploitative employer willing to ask for some wood to be hewed or some water drawn.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Tim Harper gets somewhat closer to the mark than most pundits in recognizing that any talk an NDP/Lib merger is neither timely nor particularly well-placed. But the "one more time" message is a little bit off: again, we've still run precisely zero election campaigns in which the NDP was treated as anything but a novelty party at the outset, which means that we should see 2015 as the start of a new opportunity rather than a continuation of previous trends. And both Barbara Yaffe and Lawrence Martin point out some of the reasons for optimism about the NDP's chances.

- Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne and Dan Gardner have both commented on the Libs' dire straits. And it looks like Thomas Mulcair's election as NDP leader has effectively forced the Libs' hand in deciding which path to pursue in 2015 and beyond - as any hope of re-emerging as a default government based solely on habitual support and conventional wisdom looks to be fading by the day.

- There have been plenty of new Robocon developments, with the sworn evidence of one of the Cons' own callers serving as a rather compelling indication of deliberate efforts to mislead voters. Meanwhile, CBC conclusively refuted the Cons' claim that their deceptive calls were somehow related to changes in polling stations; Alison pointed out another series of obfuscations by the Cons and their service providers; and pogge rightly questioned the Cons' spin about their CIMS database.

- I'm pretty sure this just proves that the B.C. NDP made a huge mistake in electing a progressive leader like Adrian Dix - as with a Lib-lite, it would undoubtedly have won both by-election seats several times over.

- Finally, Charles Smith and David McGrane make the case for truly urban ridings in Regina and Saskatoon:
On top of identifying with different communities, residents of Saskatoon and Regina have different interests than fellow constituents in neighbouring towns and rural areas.

The residents of the two large cities are concerned with municipal infrastructure (such as bridges), settling new immigrants, urban sprawl, public transit, homelessness and accommodating a growing off-reserve urban aboriginal population. Rural residents are concerned with agricultural issues, access to information technology, the maintenance of highways, recruiting doctors and building relationships with on-reserve aboriginals.

It is unfair to ask a single MP to represent the interests and identities of such varied constituents. In fact, it is bad for democracy.
The commission should create two ridings each exclusively within the city limits of Regina and of Saskatoon. Depending on how the rest of the map is redrawn, the size of remaining ridings neither would be unmanageable nor fall outside the established norm for rural ridings in Canada.

Instead of having MPs whose attention is split between their urban and rural constituents, rural residents would have more MPs exclusively devoted to their concerns than at present. In turn, urban residents would also have MPs who are more focused on their interests and concerns.

In short, a new electoral map will be a win for the city and the country, and improve democratic representation in Saskatchewan.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Musical interlude

Luigi Lusini - Who We Are

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Paul Buchhelt offers five reasons why the extremely wealthy should pay more in taxes. But if we can anticipate some conflict over that idea, there's stronger evidence than ever that the public is rather united behind one side.

- Bob Hepburn notes that there's plenty of work to be done to save Canadian democracy from the Cons' toxic and unaccountable politics. John Ivison slams the Cons' secrecy surrounding their choice to obliterate any pretense of independent review of resource projects. And Kevin Page rightly challenges the false spin that the Cons can't let Canadians know what services they've slashed until a year after the cuts are made.

- Joe Couture put together a couple of reports worth noting this week - first discussing the contrast between the Sask Party's willingness to boost MLA pay based on changes in the cost of living as a matter of course and its refusal to do the same for the minimum wage, then highlighting the concerns of Saskatchewan's Children's Advocate Bob Pringle about the Wall government's decision not to count children when it comes to assigning electoral weight.

- Finally, while I have some concerns about his insistence on a progressive narrative which seems to cede an awful lot of ground to exactly the interests we need to counter, Jared Milne's guest post at pogge on the need for a new progressive narrative is worth a read.

On shadow boxing

Aaron has already listed and commented on Thomas Mulcair's shadow cabinet assignments. But there are a few additional points worth adding into the mix.

First, while others have pointed out Nathan Cullen's promotion to House Leader, the exact choice of positions is very much worth emphasizing. As the leadership candidate whose message centred on how to approach other political parties, Cullen has been put in charge of...approaching other political parties, at least to the extent of managing business in Parliament. And if "cooperation to defeat Harper" continues to be Cullen's guiding principle, then it will be well worth watching whether that habit has some impact beyond Parliament Hill.

Second, the choice of Linda Duncan as critic for Public Works and Government Services may make for a neat bit of strategy. A strong Alberta figure charged with criticizing patronage, waste and mismanagement should serve to raise serious questions among the Cons' base- and that may not only help to shake loose populist votes on the prairies, but also put at least somewhat of a dent in the Cons' fund-raising and activist networks.

Third, while it's a bit surprising not to see Nycole Turmel assigned any particular policy area, her effectiveness in keeping the NDP's caucus united through trying times looks to fit nicely with her new role as whip.

Finally, it's worth noting which MPs have somewhat less responsibility in the shadow cabinet than one might expect based on their profile and experience - including Niki Ashton (assigned the Status of Women portfolio), Yvon Godin (who sees Labour removed from his responsibilities), Tyrone Benskin (moved from Heritage critic to deputy Official Languages critic) and Rathika Sitsabaiesan (going from Post-secondary Education critic to outside the shadow cabinet structure altogether). But there's plenty to be done in building toward government beyond criticizing the incumbents - and it wouldn't be surprising to see all given important organization-building responsibilities to accompany their work in Parliament.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

New column day

Here, on how we should look to all levels of government to find ways to work through jurisdictional barriers - rather than accepting them as an excuse for regressive policies.

(And lest there be any doubt, I don't write the titles.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wednesday Afternoon Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- In an excerpt from the Occupy Handbook, Paul Krugman and Robin Wells discuss how a right-wing obsession with exacerbating inequality led to the U.S.' disastrous response to the 2008 crash:
How did America become a nation that could not rise to the biggest economic challenge in three generations, a nation in which scorched-earth politics and politicized economics created policy paralysis?

We suggest it was the inequality that did it. Soaring inequality is at the root of our polarized politics, which made us unable to act together in the face of crisis. And because rising incomes at the top have also brought rising power to the wealthiest, our nation’s intellectual life has been warped, with too many economists co-opted into defending economic doctrines that were convenient for the wealthy despite being indefensible on logical and empirical grounds.
(T)he role of rising inequality in creating the economic crisis of 2008 is debatable; it probably did play an important role, if nothing else than by encouraging the financial deregulation that set the stage for crisis. What seems very clear to us, however, is that rising inequality played a central role in causing an ineffective response once crisis hit. Inequality bred a polarized political system, in which the right went all out to block any and all efforts by a modestly liberal president to do something about job creation. And rising inequality also gave rise to what we have called a Dark Age of macroeconomics, in which hard-won insights about how depressions happen and what to do about them were driven out of the national discourse, even in academic circles.

This implies, we believe, that the issue of inequality and the problem of economic recovery are not as separate as a purely economic analysis might suggest. We’re not going to have a good macroeconomic policy again unless inequality, and its distorting effect on policy debate, can be curbed.
- Meanwhile, in a Progressive Economics Forum guest post, Robyn Allan points out the deception behind the supposed benefits of a resource-driven economy. And Mike de Souza reports on how the Cons' latest attacks on Environment Canada will weaken environmental protection, while Mike McCarthy and John Ibbitson discuss other ways in which the Cons plan to make environmental oversight less effective.

- The Vancouver Observer digs into the work done by Front Porch Strategies for the federal Cons. And the four examples of candidates who didn't report their expenses look to me to be one of the stories crying out for further exploration, particularly since some of the expenses at issue in Robocon were also laundered through other people or entities.

- Naturally, needing to build prisons to house has left the Cons short on money for actual rehabilitation. But on the bright side, that should at least make increased prison capacity into a genuinely long-term investment.

- Finally, the CCPA finds that not surprisingly, the Cons' OAS cuts will disproportionately harm poorer seniors.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tuesday Night Tropical Fauna Blogging

Tuesday Afternoon Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Alex Himelfarb laments the Cons' dismantling of a progressive state in Canada. But lest we lose all hope, Annie Lowrey reports on the Piketty/Saez economic work that's paving the way for fairer taxes in the U.S. And Kelly McParland has to admit that more progressive taxes are entirely supported by the public even as he registers his disapproval for having the wealthy pay a fair share.

- Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher report that Robocon has predictably been traced back to the Cons' central campaign. And Sixth Estate looks in more detail at the latest revelations.

- On the provincial scene, we're learning more and more about Alberta's apparent government-in-waiting. But that isn't to say we should be any more pleased with the current administration - and Jenn Prosser is optimistic that saner heads may prevail in Lethbridge. Meanwhile, Bill Tieleman notes that the B.C. Libs are getting abandoned even by their upper-class base.

- Finally, Tom Spears documents what may be the definitive example of the Cons' message control working precisely as it's supposed to - and utterly wasting public resources in the process.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- When even free-trade warrior Barrie McKenna can only respond incredulously to a message campaign on behalf of the wealthy, you know it's gone too far. So here's McKenna answering the contrived outrage over the NDP's proposal for a slight increase in income tax on the wealthiest Ontarians:
The vast majority of Canadians agree with Ms. Horwath. More that 80 per cent approve the idea of a tax on the wealthy and two-thirds are ready to take a personal tax hit, according to a new poll of 2,000 people by Environics for the Broadbent Institute, a left-leaning think tank. Seventy-seven per cent worry that the growing income gap is “a big problem” for society.

The unease felt by many Canadians is rooted in an uncomfortable reality. Recent work by economists Mike Veall of McMaster University and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley show “an explosion in the earnings of the top 1 per cent” in Canada from the early 1980s to 2007. The top 1 per cent of Canadians pocketed nearly 14 per cent of all income in 2007, compared with 8 per cent in 1982.
Governments everywhere are in austerity mode. The middle class is being squeezed by stagnant incomes, pension clawbacks and the steady erosion of government entitlements, such as Old Age Security.

Basic fairness suggests all segments of society should share the burden.
- Meanwhile, Karen Foster notes that concerns about fairness across generational lines may reflect the need for more equitable wealth distribution in all age groups:
The middle class is shrinking. In the top income bracket and the class it represents, there are fewer people too, but they have more money. These changes are partly due to economic restructuring - toward service sector and knowledge jobs and away from manufacturing, for example - as well as to the expansion of finance (derivatives, etc.) as a wealth-generating but exclusive enterprise.

But the changing structure and impact of class is also tied to how we redistribute wealth in this country, and how we go about covering the costs of the social programs we believe we should all have access to. Setting aside market conditions for a moment, each of the so-called generations, when they stepped into the world of work, did so in the context of fundamentally different social welfare states.

Since the pivotal 1970s era, the governing ideology around social programs and wealth redistribution has shifted. It has moved away from collectivizing costs toward individualizing fiscal responsibility; from spreading prosperity around toward ensuring one's earnings only go to the causes one deems worthy. Once our government answered to citizens; now it caters to "taxpayers." Where economic policy once revolved around the question of how we might take better care of each other, today it is driven by the belief that no one should be made to take care of anyone else. The crumbling social welfare regime induced tectonic shifts in the moving intersection of class and generation.

Thus, it's not that generation doesn't matter in the context of the changes outlined here. It's that generation can't be considered apart from its context, nor can it be made meaningful without the other categories with which it intersects.

While the question of which generation is more selfish than the other is captivating, it might be time to ask when and why selfishness became the foundation for Canadian economic policy, and what can be done to change it.
- David Frum explores how Lyndon Johnson managed to push through many of the progressive policies which are now under attack by the Republicans' hard right wing.

- Mia Rabson is the latest to point out that the Cons' process in slashing federal jobs has seemingly designed to maximize the resulting pain and uncertainty for Canada's civil servants. But then, Mike de Souza reports that the Cons have never been interested in good advice - such as the utterly neglected suggestion that they not cheerlead for the tar sands.

- Finally, while the Charter has been in the news over the past few days as it reaches its 30th anniversary, it's particularly noteworthy that the Canadian public is still solidly behind its underlying values even as the Cons push for total surveillance and indiscriminate lock-'em-up policies on both crime and immigration.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Danielle Martin discusses the importance of federal involvement in Canada's public health care system:
Whose job is it to co-ordinate health-care reform in Canada? Canadians expect our federal government to play that role. We want to know that wherever we live, we will have access to an equivalent basket of services. We want to know that our governments are buying in bulk whenever possible, maximizing savings. And we want assurances that some basic standards are being met from coast to coast to coast. Health care may be a provincial responsibility, but we know there’s a need for a family to co-ordinate its efforts.
(T)he 2012 federal budget cut Health Canada, and said nothing about meaningful change. The only nod to improving the system was a three-year, $6.5-million study on cost-effectiveness in health care.

But that ignores the mountains of evidence we already have about how to improve our health-care system while making it more efficient. It’s becoming baffling to Canadians as to why our federal government wouldn’t co-ordinate a national pharmacare system that could save billions. Everyone knows you get a better deal if you buy in bulk.
Canadians are still optimistic about our health-care system. Most of us believe it’s the best in the world. We’re happy with a publicly funded system. A lot of us think that it takes care of our most vulnerable, and that it will be there for us if we’re ill or injured.

It makes you wonder why the federal government wouldn’t want to fight for that system, and lead the transformation needed to keep Canada ahead of the pack on health care. Canadians take pride in their health-care system — so should their government.
- Doug Cuthand highlights some of the important and inexpensive programs the Cons are attacking in the name of austerity (but with the poorly-veiled goal of eliminating accurate information on inequality in Canada) - with First Nations in particular standing to suffer from the Cons' bias:
The budget speech is all about putting a good face on what's in the document, with the nasty details buried to be dug out later. We learned from the budget speech that the First Nations Statistical Institute is gone. Next came the announcement that the National Health organization will shut down in June because its funding was cut completely.

As well, the National Council of Welfare has been scrapped. It was the only federal agency that had an exclusive mandate to improve the lives of poor people.

So what's happening? The Harper government is using austerity as an excuse to clean house and get rid of programs that were either supported by the Liberals or could provide valuable information to advocacy groups. In the process, aboriginal people are becoming collateral damage.
Unfortunately, we have a federal government that is more interested in spin and deception than in consultation and democratic institutions. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation is gone in addition to NAHO and the statistical institute. One can't help but wonder where this will lead us.

The prime minister's reaction to the housing crisis at Attawapiskat was a clear indication that he can't tolerate bad news. He blamed the community and its leadership. He sent in an auditor and put the onus on the community. Will this be the reaction to other First Nations that speak out about their sorry living conditions?

Now we have to wait for the next shoe to drop. The word in the colonial office is that the government will make an announcement next week about grants and contributions. This is the money that flows to the First Nations and political organizations. Can we expect cuts? You bet we can. Just how deep the cuts will go is the question.
- Meanwhile, Dave points out the Centre for Plant Health, another of the casualties of the Cons' war on science. And Tim Harper raises his own concerns, while noting that the NDP is well positioned to claim the title of party best placed to provide responsible government if the Cons' cuts lead to predictable health and safety consequences.

- Crawford Kilian optimistically thinks there's a conservative soul to be saved through a splinter party from the Cons.

- Susan Delacourt proposes that political marketing and advertising be subject to publicly-enforceable standards.

- Finally, Dr. Dawg recognizes that there's only so much we can accomplish through a political system which the Cons are entirely happy to trash. But I'd see that problem as part of the reason why unofficial gathering places and a consistent flow of information to counter the Cons' publicly-funded propaganda - whether online or otherwise - are absolutely needed to help muster a movement to change course.

On speculative advances

Somehow most of the discussion of Thomas Mulcair's Question Period appearance this morning seems to have missed what strikes me as the most important point. So let's take a closer look at how his message has evolved from the leadership campaign - and how it figures to position the NDP to form government in 2015.

At first glance, Mulcair's answer in response to a question focused on the possibility of a coalition government in 2015 might not seem like a particularly strong one:
Mulcair said the party will be running candidates in all 338 federal ridings (adjusted with new additions) in the next election, otherwise the party would be conceding territory to the Conservatives.

"Anything beyond that is pure speculation," he said. "My goal is to form an NDP majority government and with the types of polls we're seeing now Canadians are rallying to us."
But there's a rather significant difference between the new declaration that it's too early to say whether Mulcair would consider a coalition, and Mulcair's earlier statement that a "no" to any such possibility was "categorical, absolute, irrefutable and non-negotiable. It’s no. End of story. Full stop."

In effect, merely in recognizing that any talk of a post-election coalition will depend on the circumstances at the time, Mulcair is taking a more cooperative line than the leaders of the Official Opposition in the previous two elections. Which means that the NDP will preserve at least some of its hard-earned reputation as the party most willing to work pragmatically toward progressive goals.

Mind you, the statement that we'll need to see what happens doesn't serve as quite the strong defence of cooperation that I'd most like to see. But it does open the door for a neat contrast against Libs past and present - allowing Mulcair to say he'll consider working with the Libs and others toward common goals, while highlighting just what those goals are for the NDP. And if the Cons decide to follow up with another bizarre anti-cooperation crusade that pushes Mulcair to make stronger statements about the importance of working together rather than being as insular and narrowly-focused as Harper and company, then the result for the NDP figures to be all the better.