Saturday, March 22, 2014

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Tim Harford proposes four first steps to start combatting income inequality. And the Star's editorial board makes clear that there's tax room available for Ontario (among other jurisdictions) to pursue in order to serve the public good:
Sousa promises to protect the “middle class” — whatever that is. But he need not fear a backlash if his spring budget increases the burden on those making substantially more than the average, whether that starts at $150,000 or some higher level. Four other provinces — including B.C., whose government leans right — have done that in the past few years without substantial blowback.

Politicians can’t protect citizens — taxpayers — from fiscal realities forever. If we want the services we get from government, we’ve got to pay for them. And if we truly worry about growing inequality, increasing the burden on the (comparatively) well paid is one important way to address it.

Even conservatives, at least those who fear Ontario is flirting with disaster as its debt mounts, should not run from the concept of higher taxes. A new study by the right-wing Fraser Institute warns, in apocalyptic tones, that the province’s debt is more than twice as big as that of California, long considered a fiscal basket case.

One solution would be slashing services beyond recognition. A much better course would be making sure Ontario has the tax revenue to pay for what it provides — and what we value.
- Meanwhile, Scott Clark and Peter De Vries note that we should expect a responsible government to reevaulate and ultimately back off of ill-advised election promises - lest frivolous schemes like income splitting burn billions of dollars while serving no useful purpose.

- Laura Payton interviews Andrew Reynolds about the Unfair Elections Act and the message it sends to developing democracies. And Trevor McKenzie-Smith takes a look at the bill's potential effects in Canada:
Proposed changes contained in this Act would allow candidate representatives the right to go beyond observing the process to ensure fairness. Instead they will be able to insert themselves directly in the voting process via the new right to ‘examine’ voters’ identification before they are allowed to vote. This is a dramatic shift in roles for campaign volunteers, and is a recipe for conflict that could result in systematic bullying of voters and elections staff by partisan campaign volunteers.

Candidates’ representatives have virtually no training and in many cases can get the rules mixed up. Further, they are not impartial like Elections Canada staff must be, and the potential exists for them to target certain voters for challenge in order to give their candidate an advantage.

Allowing a candidate’s rep to stand between the voter and the ballot box is a fundamental shift away from observer to actor, which will result in many peoples’ right to vote being challenged unnecessarily. This practice could also give voters the impression that these volunteers have real authority when challenging a voter’s credentials, further deterring them from voting.

This proposed change would act to further disenfranchise people who are already underrepresented in our electoral system. Aboriginal people, people with low incomes, people who move a lot, first time voters, students, homeless people, and many others could become targets for further scrutiny by candidates’ representatives who are there to do political work. And if unchecked that political work could result in rights being denied.
- Thomas Duck hears an echo of the Walkerton crisis in the Cons' cuts to Environment Canada.

- Meanwhile, Nicholas Keung identifies something even worse in a mooted immigration policy which would keep spouses from reuniting in Canada if they don't meet a wealth threshold. And it's particularly worth noting that the Cons have gone out of their way to encourage employers to engage in exactly the type of abuses they claim to be addressing at the family level.

- Finally, Ken Rasmussen puts "lean" in context as just another administrative fad which is fated to deliver far less than promised by its proponents.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Musical interlude

Mono - Life in Mono (Sweat Band Remix)

On foreseeable dangers

The NDP is in the midst of its cross-country consultations on the Unfair Elections Act - with Charlie Angus' visit to Regina today just one of the many stops along the way. But while the Cons' insistence on ramming through changes to Canada's elections law makes it unlikely that we'll be able to work through all of the effects of the bill, let's look at just a few as-of-yet-unexplored consequences of one of the more familiar provisions.

Here's the language which rewrites the definition of an "election expense" to exclude communication with past donors:
376(3) The commercial value of services provided to a registered party for the purpose of soliciting — by mail, telephone or other electron­ic means — monetary contributions is not an election expense under subsection (1), as long as the soliciting is directed only towards individuals who have made at least one monetary contribution of $20 or more to the registered party or to one of its registered associations, nomination contestants or candidates in the five years before polling day for the election period in which the services are provided.
The most obvious implication of the new language is that parties are able to contact past donors directly. And so far, any public analysis seems to have been limited to questioning whether there's any reason to exempt that spending (and that spending alone) from what's otherwise a clean and sensible definition of election expenses.

But let's take a closer look at the problems the exclusion might raise.

On one hand, it's far from clear that the Cons in particular (or indeed other parties wishing to spend more than the campaign limit) would see the exclusion as anything but an invitation to ignore the rules which are supposed to limit campaign spending.

We already know from the in-and-out scandal that the Cons believe they're entitled to reassign campaign spending however they want - converting it from national to local spending or transferring it among ridings - merely by attaching a barely-noticeable tagline to an existing ad campaign.

So who thinks they'd have any scruples about blatantly disregarding the election spending cap through ads which contain a similarly invisible disclaimer to the effect of "this message is directed at past Conservative contributors", figuring (as proved to be the case with in-and-out) that they'd get away with it for at least a couple of election cycles?

On the other hand, while the exclusion would provide a means for the Cons to flout the law, it would also complicate matters for other parties who (a) care about following the law, and (b) don't want to carve communications with past donors off of the balance of their campaigns.

After all, a change in the definition of "election expenses" also affects a party's ability to claim the reimbursements associated with such expenses. So parties would be required to put in added time and effort to track and report which direct communications go to past donors rather than other voters - or else risk running afoul of the law themselves.

All of this - a glaring spending loophole for the unscrupulous, and added compliance costs for anybody who cares about following the rules - would come from a single definitional change which the Cons haven't even pretended to explain. And that combination of foreseeable dangers and a complete lack of justification applies to the entire bill - making it all the more important for Canadians to speak out before our political system is irreparably damaged for the 2015 general election.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Stewart Prest writes about the Cons' war against experts:
(I)n modern democratic states one of the most important sources for non-partisan information and expertise is the government itself. Government bureaucracies are the only institutions in the world today with the access, the resources, and the motivation to systematically monitor and study the entirety of a country’s population and the extent of its human and natural environment.

Examples are legion, from statisticians to health officials to diplomats to environmental scientists. They exist throughout the much maligned but nonetheless vital bureaucracy of the country. Crucially, their professional incentives push them to resist conclusions that may even be perceived as partisan. After all, a long-serving civil servant will work under different parties and political masters. Their professional success comes from striving to provide politically neutral advice and support for political decision-making, and engaging in equally neutral policy implementation. Though part of the machinery of the state, these experts are — or ought to be — distinct and largely independent from the particular partisan interests of the government of the day.
It is for this reason so alarming that, in field after field, this type of politically relevant, yet non-partisan expertise is being removed from public discourse. I see three mechanisms at work: expertise is consistently being suppressed, undermined, or — pardon the jargon — partisanized. Consequently, Canadian citizens and political leaders alike are operating with reduced access to expert information and judgment, precisely at a time when, given the spiralling complexity and competitiveness of the global environment, such advice has never been more important.
- Jeremy Rifkin notes that many theories about market functions are fast becoming obsolete as the cost of producing increasingly large groups of goods and services drops near zero.
A formidable new technology infrastructure — the Internet of Things — is emerging with the potential to push much of economic life to near zero marginal cost over the course of the next two decades. This new technology platform is beginning to connect everything and everyone. Today more than 11 billion sensors are attached to natural resources, production lines, the electricity grid, logistics networks and recycling flows, and implanted in homes, offices, stores and vehicles, feeding big data into the Internet of Things. By 2020, it is projected that at least 50 billion sensors will connect to it.

People can connect to the network and use big data, analytics and algorithms to accelerate efficiency and lower the marginal cost of producing and sharing a wide range of products and services to near zero, just as they now do with information goods. For example, 37 million buildings in the United States have been equipped with meters and sensors connected to the Internet of Things, providing real-time information on the usage and changing price of electricity on the transmission grid. This will eventually allow households and businesses that are generating and storing green electricity on-site from their solar and wind installations to program software to take them off the electricity grid when the price spikes so they can power their facilities with their own green electricity and share surplus with neighbors at near zero marginal cost.

Cisco forecasts that by 2022, the private sector productivity gains wrought by the Internet of Things will exceed $14 trillion. A General Electric study estimates that productivity advances from the Internet of Things could affect half the global economy by 2025.

THE unresolved question is, how will this economy of the future function when millions of people can make and share goods and services nearly free?
- Meanwhile, CBC takes a brief look at the causes and effects of growing income inequality as a global trend. And Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin report on the connection between the Koch brothers and the tar sands - which of course links back to their funding to further the cause of wealth disparity.

- Armine Yalnizyan and Karl Nerenberg look back on austerity, inequality and the other legacies of Deficit Jim Flaherty. And Ron Waller approves of the NDP's opening observations about new Finance Minister Joe Oliver.

- Finally, Alex Boutilier reports on the Cons' efforts to hide any explanation for their Unfair Elections Act. But at least until it's officially muzzled, Elections Canada is doing its part to identify and warn the public about electoral fairness issues before it's too late. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

New column day

Here, on how the cult of "lean" is just part of the most damaging Saskatchewan Party belief which is undermining our health care system and other public services.

For further reading...
- Murray Mandryk has had plenty to say about "lean" in his previous columns.
- And the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses has weighed in with its own criticism of "lean", making it abundantly clear that a large number of health care workers are far from convinced that it's a panacea.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Bruce Livesey discusses Tony Blair's role in corporatizing social democracy. And Stephen Elliott-Buckley writes that there's little reason to listen to the policy prescriptions of a financial elite class which is conspicuously ensuring that its future bears no resemblance to that of the general population.

- Jane Taber interviews Donald Savoie about the importance of our public service - and the decline it's seen in recent years:
What happened?

It was wrong to think that we could make the public sector look like the private sector. Well, frankly, it started with Margaret Thatcher. She arrived in 1980 and she said, ‘I don’t want bureaucrats to tell me what I ought to do to do in terms of policy. We won a majority mandate so we will define policy. What I want the bureaucracy to be good at is to be good managers.’ Mandarins are not known to be good managers. So when Thatcher arrived and said, ‘I want you to become better managers,’ she drew a blank. They didn’t have any ideas about management. So, she said, ‘Right, I am going to go to the private sector.’ So, she got a lot of private sector advisors in as did Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney. We didn’t realize that the private sector plays by its own rules and businesses are good at what they do but they don’t have to deal with 12 officers of Parliament, they don’t have to deal with the [media]. The private sector remedy did not work. It demoralized the public sector.

Why should we care?

Show me a weak country and I will show you a country with a weak public service. Every country needs a referee and the referee has to be the public service. No country can operate without a referee. You take the public service out of Canadian society and you will have chaos.
- pogge discusses what looks to be a glaring loophole in Canada's Access to Information Act - as a recent decision has determined that a government institution can delay an initial reply indefinitely without recourse. Meanwhile, Pat Martin is leading the charge to fix a few additional problems with our access-to-information legislation. And Newfoundland and Labrador are conducting a thorough review of their legislation - albeit only after the government rammed through highly dubious changes which made the system far more opaque than it was before.

- Alison contrasts the Cons' cringeworthy partisan ads against Elections Canada's entirely unobjectionable messages about voting which the Cons want to ban.

- Finally, Thomas Ponniah discusses the founding and first steps of the Tommy Douglas Institute.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Outstretched cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Andrew Jackson writes that increases in Canadian inequality have been the result of deliberate policy choices:
In an important recent book, Inequality and the Fading of Redistributive Politics, Keith Banting and John Myles argue that, while rooted in the market, politics has also been a major force behind rising income inequality in Canada. They emphasize the impact of deep cuts to income transfer programs for working-age Canadians in Canada’s “neo-liberal moment” in the mid-1990s.

Their argument is reinforced by Statistics Canada research by Andrew Heisz and Brian Murphy presented to a recent Institute for Research on Public Policy conference on income inequality.

Rising market income inequality in Canada over the 1980s and continuing into the 1990s was broadly offset by redistributive government policies until the early 1990s. However, for a decade, from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, the redistributive impact of the personal income tax and income transfer system faded significantly, and then stabilized at a lower level.

This change was almost entirely due to changes in income transfer programs, as opposed to changes in the personal income tax system. And the big change was cuts to unemployment insurance (UI) and social assistance.
The problem is that a rising percentage of working Canadians can find only insecure and part-time jobs at low wages. The major reduction of EI and social assistance income benefits has not been matched by other means of propping up low incomes from work, such as tax credits for the working poor and child benefits for low-income families. These remain relatively small programs.

Addressing rising income inequality will mean coming to terms not just with long-term trends in the market, but also with the political decisions we made some 20 years ago.
- And Rick Goldman agrees that we'll need a strong policy response to reduce inequality.

- Meanwhile, Carol Goar discusses the CLC's similar recognition that precarious work and underemployment represent growing problems for Canadian workers. And Kaylie Tiessen's CCPA study observes that the problem is particularly acute in Ontario.

- Tim Harford suggests that insularity and secrecy played a massive role in the 2008 economic meltdown - and offers some proposals to make sure the financial system is less vulnerable to both.

- Carol Linnitt comments on the oil industry's government-approved takeover of Alberta's educational curriculum.

- And finally, Matt Fairley's reporting on an increase in wireless rates across most of Canada makes it clear that there's only one type of competition which actually leads to more affordable basic services for consumers:
Canada’s big three wireless carriers have hiked the base prices for new plans by $5 in most markets over the past two months.

Rogers, Telus and Bell Mobility now all charge $80 per month for new smartphone plans with a new contract, $5 more than those same plans cost when they were introduced last year. The prices for other smartphone plans with more data cost upwards of $145.

The price hikes affect every province except Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Manitoba and Saskatchewan, however, have more competitive pricing. Due to strong regional competitors in SaskTel and MTS, Bell and Rogers plans start at $65 per month with five GB of data. An equivalent plan elsewhere in the country costs $55 more per month.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Nafeez Ahmed writes about the dangers of combining growing inequality and increased resource extraction:
By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.

These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: "the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity"; and "the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or "Commoners") [poor]" These social phenomena have played "a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse," in all such cases over "the last five thousand years."

Currently, high levels of economic stratification are linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with "Elites" based largely in industrialised countries responsible for both:
"... accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels."
Applying this lesson to our contemporary predicament, the study warns that:
"While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory 'so far' in support of doing nothing."
- Which fits nicely with Charles Blow's argument that we can't count on increased growth or resource use to address burgeoning inequality.

- Meanwhile, William Broad discusses how other publicly-funded research is all too often being privatized and directed toward corporate interests or even personal whims rather than scientific purposes. And the Economist takes note of the spread of crony capitalism, while observing that resource-dependent economies are particularly prone to corporate domination.

- Dom Pittis points out that many businesses fully recognize the importance of an effective (and properly-funded) public sector:
Like other urban business groups, Lieba's members would be willing to pay to solve problems like traffic congestion and gridlock, he says. But that's not all.

"Strategic investment of tax dollars that will help benefit economic prosperity, quality of life, is good for businesses equally as residents," said Lieba. "Businesses aren't averse to paying taxes, maybe even paying more taxes where they see value for it."

And it's not just business willing to pay more tax. Graves says that EKOS polling shows that Canadians in general are changing their views on government spending. When asked whether they would prefer spending on health and education or low taxes, they choose the spending.
"Problems in the economy, particularly in the younger portions of the economy, don't seem to have been solved by the pursuit of austerity and diminished government.," [Graves] said. "It may be, in fact, that it is having the opposite effect.

"I like to make profits and like to make really good profits, but I also feel that there's nothing wrong with paying your share and that, in fact, a healthy economy works best when it has a good balance of fairness and profits."
 - Finally, Michael Harris writes that the Cons have built their stay in office on little more than U.S.-style political venom - while questioning whether that strategy figures to work much longer.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Eduardo Porter writes about the rise of inequality in the U.S., while Tracy McVeigh reports on the eleven-figure annual cost of inequality in the UK. And Shamus Khan discusses the connection between inequality and poverty - as well as the policy which can do the most to address both:
While a tiny fraction of Americans enjoy almost all the spoils of our national growth, the majority of Americans have a radically different experience. About 40 percent of Americans will live in poverty at some point in their lives, and many more will scrape by, living paycheck to paycheck. The universality of this experience suggests that there is something other than personal attributes (or as some would have it, personal failings) that explain the condition of poverty. The attributionalists need to redirect their sanctimonious moral grandstanding and think more carefully about social and structural causes for poverty. It’s only then that we will uncover effective strategies to deal with it.

Programs that focus on the “culture of poverty” and the alleged “attributes” of poor people don’t get to its root cause, which is, quite simply, that millions of people don’t have enough money. Poverty is not a fixed trait; we can easily make people less poor by giving them enough money so that they’re no longer poor.

...In imagining the poor as moral failures, we have created an elaborate system of government surveillance, security and regulation, infantilizing and demonizing those who are suffering. Instead, we might look to policies like a guaranteed basic income or a negative income tax, in which we give people money and treat them with the dignity their humanity entitles them to.

That can be achieved by giving them the means and the freedom to choose. Not only would it help those who are suffering get by, but rather than treating them like social degenerates, it would trust and empower them to make their own financial decisions. Given how much responsibility the more fortunate among us have for the problems plaguing the poor, it is the least our society can do.
- But of course, tax avoidance by the people and corporations who take the most can only serve to exacerbate initial inequality while draining away resources needed to fund basic social programs. And as Joseph Stiglitz writes, trade deals like the TPP which only further entrench corporate control over the economy also figure to make matters worse:
Tariffs around the world are already low. The focus has shifted to “nontariff barriers,” and the most important of these — for the corporate interests pushing agreements — are regulations. Huge multinational corporations complain that inconsistent regulations make business costly. But most of the regulations, even if they are imperfect, are there for a reason: to protect workers, consumers, the economy and the environment.

What’s more, those regulations were often put in place by governments responding to the democratic demands of their citizens. Trade agreements’ new boosters euphemistically claim that they are simply after regulatory harmonization, a clean-sounding phrase that implies an innocent plan to promote efficiency. One could, of course, get regulatory harmonization by strengthening regulations to the highest standards everywhere. But when corporations call for harmonization, what they really mean is a race to the bottom.

...Corporations everywhere may well agree that getting rid of regulations would be good for corporate profits. Trade negotiators might be persuaded that these trade agreements would be good for trade and corporate profits. But there would be some big losers — namely, the rest of us.
- Mind you, it doesn't take a trade agreement to demolish regulation in the public interest under a government which is happy to sell out public safety at the first invitation. And the Cons' willingness to let railroads paper over spills of hazardous materials offers yet another reminder they're firmly in that camp.

- Finally, Mark Lemstra reminds us that while the Wall government's "lean" scandal is bad enough as a matter of waste and mismanagement within our current health care system, it reflects a warped view of public health as well:
(W)hat business are we in? Are we in the business of health, or are we simply in the business of health care provision? Do we have a ministry of health, or do we only have a ministry of health care? If we are in the business of health, would it not be correct to divert funding from services that do not influence health outcomes to services that do? In fact, how can the government say that Lean management is important, while at the same time refusing to acknowledge the assessment of the chief of medicine from the hospital where Lean was derived that health care can only impact 10 per cent of outcomes? Even if someone argues that it would be draconian to reduce health care funding by 90 per cent, would it not be rational to reduce health care funding by at least 50 per cent? If not for reasons of cost, how about to avoid doing harm? Brossart and Vachon correctly note that one in 13 Canadians are harmed in hospitals, with many dying. In fact, unnecessary clinical intervention has now surpassed heart disease and cancer as the No. 1 cause of death. Should this not be a valid reason to reduce unnecessary health care intervention? Let's forget about health outcomes and remind ourselves what Lean management really is. In their article, Brossart and Vachon ask readers to visit the website At the time of writing this column, the top two Lean success stories listed on the website were Wash Basin Blues and No Parking Zone.
The biggest danger of Lean management is not wasting tens of millions of dollars in reviewing such things as wash basin and wheelchair placements. It is that it diverts focus and allows us to continue to waste billions of dollars on intervention that will not improve health outcomes. Even Lean management consultants now concede this point.