Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Martin Regg Cohn discusses EllisDon's ability to dictate political choices by the Ontario Libs and PCs as a prime example of corporate manipulation of the political system:
What Wynne didn’t say was that EllisDon, its subsidiaries and executives, have been shockingly generous donors to her party: more than $125,000 to the Liberals in 2012 and more than $40,000 so far in 2013, thanks to Ontario’s scandalously weak campaign financing laws (corporate contributions are banned at the federal level).
And what the Tories didn’t say publicly was that EllisDon had given them a still-generous $32,000 last year and some $14,000 so far in 2013. Now, they were hoping for even bigger contributions if they went to bat for the company.
That quiet calculation became a public embarrassment when the Toronto Star published a leaked email from Tory labour critic Randy Hillier. The maverick MPP admonished his fellow Tories against what struck him as a crass political calculation — counting on a windfall from an EllisDon fundraiser for Tory Leader Tim Hudak after helpfully advancing the legislation.
The party was “walking on thin ice,” Hillier cautioned in the email. “In caucus, it was stated quite explicitly that following a successful EllisDon fundraiser for Tim, our party would continue to benefit financially with the advancement of this legislation.”
A skeptical Hillier noted that EllisDon had given the Liberals more than $250,000 from 2004-2011, compared to $60,000 for the Tories. In any case, he warned MPPs, they might be violating rules against buying votes. EllisDon denied there was any such arrangement, as did Hudak, who later stripped Hillier of his labour responsibilities.
But the damage was done. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath had a field day lumping the labour-friendly Liberals with the union-busting Tories, both of them getting big money from EllisDon. The optics were awful.
The question is why the company didn’t stick to the law courts in arguing its case, rather than trying to influence lawmakers in the legislature with its special pleading, well-heeled lobbyists and well-financed campaign donations.

The bigger question: How much longer will Ontario allow corporations (and unions) to make such outsized contributions that pervert the political process and/or distort our perception of it? Anyone who made or accepted such enormous contributions in Ottawa would be breaking federal law. Why must Ontario remain a free-for-all open to the highest bidder?
- Meanwhile, Daniel Tencer highlights the amount of public money going to SNC-Lavalin despite its status at the top of global corruption lists. Peter Raaymakers rightly questions the use of RCMP resources to prevent Mikmaq First Nations from having any say in fracking on their traditonal land. And Max Paris reports that three years after a massive oil spill, Enbridge is just now (and only due to the insistence of the EPA) getting around to cleaning up some of the 684,000 litres of bitumen spilled at the bottom of the Kalamazoo River.

- The Broadbent Institute offers a reminder as to what the Cons really think of Canadian consumers. And Geoff Dembicki interviews a conflict-resolution specialist who see the Cons' consistent obstruction against global progress on climate change as more intractable than the forces behind some wars.

- Finally, Andrew Rawnsley writes about the dangers of allowing any social ladders (and other connectors) to disintegrate:
We already knew that social mobility was freezing up. And nearly everyone agreed that this is a bad thing. Bad for those trapped by the circumstances of their birth because it denies them the opportunity to flourish and fulfil their potential. Bad for society because disadvantage is perpetuated from parent to child, deepening inequality that, in a negative feedback loop, then makes it even harder for people to better themselves. As the report puts it: "Disadvantage and advantage cascade down the generations." Bad for the economy because untapped talent is left to waste. It is not only unjust. It is stupid.

The Milburn commission tells us that things are even more dismal than we thought. Social mobility is not just frozen, it is going into reverse. For the first time in a century, the squeeze on incomes means that the children of some of the middle class are threatened with a worse standard of living when they grow up than their parents.
(T)hose who have attained a privileged position will do all they can to preserve their gains for their children. There is some obvious truth in this. A rich parent can buy an expensive house in the catchment area of a successful school. A poor parent can't. A rich parent has access to social and cultural networks that are closed to a poor parent. A rich parent will know someone who knows someone who can help their child into the internship that will launch them into a well-remunerated career. A poor parent can't do that for their children. My family's progress, an example of lively social mobility in the 20th century, can be advanced as an explanation for why it has died in the 21st. I may be a well-meaning, liberal-minded, caring, meritocratic sort of person. But when it comes to the crunch, my first priority will be maximising the life chances of my daughters. It is contended that those families who have climbed up the ladder will stamp on the fingers of anyone trying to rise after them. In this dark view, everyone says they believe in equality of opportunity, but no one in a position of any privilege actually wants to see it practised.

Phil Collins, a former adviser to Mr Milburn, has argued that this is why politicians are never really serious when they claim to want to see more social mobility. If they were, they would have to be brave enough to admit: "In the competition for the best jobs, my children's victory means the defeat of yours." This is the "snakes and ladders" or "zero-sum" take on social mobility. I like Mr Collins but I don't like his grim, self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell the prosperous that social mobility is their enemy and they are going to be all the more determined to entrench the advantages of their children. Tell them that social immobility threatens their own affluence in the long term and they may come to a different conclusion.
Children from disadvantaged backgrounds don't fall behind at school. They start behind. If birth is too often destiny, the best place to start tackling inequalities is the very earliest years of children's lives. It is no guarantee of closing the gap, but it can narrow it. There's an innovative American programme called Learning Dreams. Its insight is that the most effective way to encourage children to thrive in schools is to focus first on the parents. When parents are motivated to love learning as the route to attaining life goals, they are much more likely to pass that on to their children and inspire them to engage with education.

Behind it all is a giant question about the economy. We've seen a dramatic polarisation between highly rewarding work for those with the right skills and connections and badly paid work and little chance of social advancement for those without. Whether we can re-energise social mobility depends hugely on how Britain is going to earn its living in the future and what sort of jobs we are going to create. Living standards are not just about the size of energy bills. That is a trivial, passing spat between politicians compared with the question that really matters. Britain and the United States come bottom of the league table for social fluidity among developed nations. They are also the countries with the starkest inequalities. The best engine of social mobility is a high-value economy that creates many quality jobs across diverse sectors, spreading prosperity and opportunity more evenly. The alternative is the nightmarish future projected by the Milburn report, one in which even in economic recovery only the top slice of society prospers, the middle and bottom stagnate or fall even more behind and the rungs of the social ladder grow even further apart.

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