Saturday, April 05, 2014

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Andrew Coyne sees the powerful impact of local forces on nomination contests as evidence that grassroots democracy is still alive and well in Canada - no matter how much the Cons and Libs may wish otherwise:
What’s common to both of these stories is not only the willingness of local candidates and riding associations to defy the powers that be but their obstinate insistence that these races should be what party leaders claim they are: open nominations. With any luck, this obstreperousness will spread. Thanks to redistricting, there will be other ridings where incumbents face off against incumbents; in others, the promise of open nominations will run into the reality that leaders have favourites. Ridings that resist the inevitable attempts to stage-manage these races will do their parties a favour. Tilted nominations are not open nominations. They’re not even nominations, really.

The tendency, when these fights break out, is to view them as signs of weakness and division, if not anarchy. The tone of news coverage is often disapproving, as if party leaders were indulgent parents who neglected to discipline their children. Reporters pepper their stories with words like “messy,” “ugly,” even “vicious.” This is what you get, they seem to say, when you leave it to ridings to decide these matters. Yes, it is. Isn’t it glorious?
- But of course, we should be hoping for greater democratic participation (and yes, influence over results) within the broader electorate as well. And PressProgress notes that the Cons' Unfair Elections Act looks to benefit Pierre Poutine and his fraudster ilk at the expense of actual voters - while Alison points out the risk that any report on Robocon may be pushed past the next federal election due to the Cons' blindside attacks against Elections Canada.

- Thomas Walkom writes that Canada has received good value - if perhaps something less than the greatest possible return - from the long-term health care accord which the Cons chose to scrap.

- John Geddes highlights the stark gap between the Cons' lip service paid to climate change (based mostly on taking credit for the actions of others), and their utter negligence in reality. And the Edmonton Journal's editorial board makes it clear that even Alberta recognizes the need for real action to replace the current strategy of using misleading PR campaigns to greenwash dirty oil production.

- Finally, Christina Patterson writes that the economic forces which have already undermined wages at the bottom of the income scale may soon do similar damage to the middle class.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Musical interlude

Fuel - Sunburn

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Mitchell Anderson discusses Canada's woeful excuse for negotiations with the oil sector - particularly compared to the lasting social benefits secured by Norway in making the best of similar reserves:
Digging through the numbers, it seems Norway is considerably more skilled at negotiation. By charging higher taxes and investing equity ownership in their own production, the Norwegian taxpayer was paid $46.29 BOE in 2012. That same year, the U.K. taxpayer realized only $20.08 per BOE -- less than half as much.

What about Canada? Much of our production is bitumen, which admittedly is a lower value (and often unprocessed) product with higher extraction costs. That said, it seems the nicest nation on earth is being taken to the cleaners. In 2012, Canada produced more than two billion BOE and collected $18 billion in provincial and federal taxes and royalties. This means that the Canadian taxpayer realized a benefit of about $9 per BOE -- less than one-fifth what Norway collected in the same year.

Canada produces 45 per cent more petroleum than Norway. Imagine for the sake of argument that Canada collected what Norwegians did between 2009 and 2012. In those four years, Canada would have enjoyed revenues of $365 billion -- enough to pay off more than half of our national debt.
Every provincial jurisdiction is also in direct competition with each other in a race to the bottom to attract private petroleum investment. Internal government documents accessed by the Alberta Federation of Labour found that B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan charge lower royalty rates than any U.S. state. Bizarrely, this was framed as a public policy achievement.

Since our country has an every-province-for-itself negotiating strategy, job strapped jurisdictions are not only contending with immensely powerful outside forces, but their own angry electorate every few years. It's hard to drive a hard bargain when voters can be maneuvered to take up industry's negotiating position. Nothing motivates a politician quite like the prospect of electoral defeat, and voters have become enlisted as unwitting allies in the billion-dollar brinksmanship of industry to access resources at ever-cheaper prices.
- Jane Gerster's report following up on David Macdonald's study of wealth inequality includes this apt observation from Erin Weir:
In many ways, the growing divide is more concerning than income inequality, said Erin Weir, economist for the United Steelworkers.

“Wealth matters because it also confers political power and social status,” Weir said, adding “wealth makes increasing inequality a self-reinforcing trend: invested wealth is a source of income, those who already have the most wealth have the greatest capacity to accumulate more wealth.”
- Update: And Alex Pareene responds to the latest U.S. Supreme Court ruling to further facilitate the flow of concentrated wealth into politics on by pointing out the possibility of reducing wealth inequality in the first place.

- Meanwhile, Jim Stanford reviews the neoliberal policy choices which have exacerbated that inequality over the past few decades.

- Finally, Sheila Fraser rightly slams the Cons' cynical attack on Canadian voting rights. And Bruce Cheadle reports on how the Unfair Elections Act is set up to facilitate yet more Robocon-style schemes - even as Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor confirm the connection between the Cons' party database and the 2011 voter suppression fraud.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- David Macdonald studies Canada's massive (and growing) wealth gap, and proposes some thoughtful solutions to ensure that growth in wealth results in at least some shared benefits:
Attempting to limit inequality through traditional measures like restricting RRSP contributions or introducing new tax brackets for high income individuals generally won’t apply to substantial wealth holdings. The wealth generated by The Wealthy 86 was done through creating or trading assets, mostly companies, not through saving and investing money in the middle-class sense.

One the largest legal loopholes for the wealthy in Canada is that capital gains are taxed at half the rate of normal income. If one Canadian makes $100,000 a year selling a company while another makes $100,000 a year working at a job, the worker will pay twice the tax of the business seller. Capital gains have an “inclusion rate” of 50%, meaning only 50% of the original total counts as income for tax purposes. Capital gains tax rates vary tremendously between OECD countries. Canada’s rate is presently not as high as France or Germany, but it is higher than countries like Austria that have no tax at all on capital gains. Canada also does not levy differential rates on short term speculation vs. longer term investing.
A combination of a higher inclusion rate and higher income taxes at the top of the income scale could go part way to offset the flood of wealth that is accumulating in the pockets of Canada’s wealthiest and ensure some of those benefits are returned to the majority of Canadians.
- Meanwhile, Canadians for Tax Fairness are encouraging citizens to demand a closer look at how much money is being lost to tax evasion. And Christopher Flavelle asks how much poverty a wealthy country should be willing to allow - recognizing in the process that we have a choice whether to condemn fellow Canadians to poverty, and that the Cons' preference has been to do so.

- PressProgress notes that the International Labour Office has taken the time to call out the Fraser Institute for equating attacks on workers with economic opportunity. Now if only Canada's media would do the same more often rather than serving as a resistance-free distribution channel for anti-labour messages.

- Andrew Leach reminds us that there are substantial risks involved in relying on the tar sands as Canada's sole engine for future growth. Mark Bittman expresses his rightful disbelief that we're failing to do anything meaningful to combat climate change even as the latest IPCC report identifies growing dangers to people around the world. And Linda McQuaig discusses the politics which have led to that inaction:
By focusing on the alleged failure of ordinary people to tackle climate change, we take our eyes off the real culprits behind the drapes — the fossil fuel industry and lickspittle governments, the best example being the one in Ottawa.

Big Fossil is the wealthiest and most powerful lobby in world history. Any serious attempt to tackle climate change would involve it giving up future profits that are truly staggering.

That’s because, according to the International Energy Agency and other authoritative sources, at least two-thirds of the world’s fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground if there’s to be any hope of meeting the widely-agreed target of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. (So far we’ve warmed the planet by just 0.8 degrees and that seems to be working out just fine, right?)
Canada’s role in the climate debacle is particularly galling, given that we are sitting on one of the world’s biggest and dirtiest deposits of oil.

It’s a horrific bit of bad luck that, at this crucial moment in history, with time running out on the climate change clock, the world community is stuck with an aggressively renegade government in Ottawa, whose crass loyalty to Big Oil has made Canada part of the machinery of obstruction.

Stephen Harper’s government has undermined international climate negotiations, gutted Canada’s environmental review process, targeted environmental groups with harassing audits and championed unbridled oilsands development.
- Finally, Richard Seymour comments on how the right also managed to pitch austerity as the only option in the face of economic instability which in fact demanded public investment.

New column day

Here, looking at a $396 million annual benefit in the form of lower wireless rates for Saskatchewan residents serves as a prime example of the value of public enterprise - and pointing out a few other public options which could help ensure that the interests of citizens are better reflected in the marketplace.

For further reading...
- CBC reported on the wireless rate increases which hit every province except the two with strong Crown competition. Aside from the $55 per month cost difference reported there, the other number leading to my estimate in the column is SaskTel's customer base estimate found here. And in a neat coincidence, the annual gain in wireless rate reductions alone roughly matches what SaskTel puts into capital spending each year.
- Again, story of the Cons' rejection of Canada Post's postal bank was broken by Blacklock's, while Ethan Cox was among several commentators to weigh in.
- Finally, Richard Mayhew discusses how co-operatives have stepped into the breach in the absence of a public option in the U.S. health insurance market.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Trish Hennessy's latest numbers focus on the skills gap myth in Canada. And PressProgress documents a few of the Cons' damaging public service cuts which kicked in yesterday, while Theresa Boyle reports on the end of Canada's health care accords (featuring the observations of Roy Romanow on the end of meaningful federal participation in our health care system).

- Scott Stelmaschuk's latest post fits nicely with the theme of yesterday's comment on the importance of seeing politics first and foremost as a means of improving the world around us - rather than a game defined in terms of winning, losing and entertainment:
If we want to tackle election fraud and fair elections, the first place to look isn't to the voter: It's to the parties. We need to ensure that parties are following the laws that are written down for them; and that even a single rogue campaign worker is punished for daring to step outside those bounds. We need to stop letting parties find 'gray zones' in the laws, and instead insist that all parties remain on the fair footing that we're supposed to offer.

Who cares if it's not technically illegal or only against the spirit, but not the word, of the law? Parties, it seems, will take the shortcuts and moral lowroad to achieve the victory of winning it would seem. Democracy is supposed to foster policy discussion and alternative visions for our country; that is not what we've been getting.

We've been getting petty squabbles, bruised egos, and the spewing of vitriol on such a level that you'd think every single political opponent of everyone else is the Antichrist come to Earth. This is what happens when parties focus on winning for the sake of winning, rather than winning for the sake of improving your country. And frankly, it's time that we as electors demanded better.
 - And Michael Harris notes that it's particularly worrisome when the party which has most eagerly flouted the law in past elections is now unilaterally rewriting the rules for its own benefit in the future:
The Fair Elections Act is almost like one of the dark novels of Evelyn Waugh. How absurd is it that the party that cheated in the In-and-Out scandal is now redesigning the voting process? What are they trying to fix — the system or the next election?

How absurd is it that the agency that found fraud in the 2011 election — cheating with information taken from the CPC’s own closely-guarded database — is now being carved up like Thanksgiving turkey? No powers of subpoena, a muzzled Chief Electoral Officer and the investigative arm of EC now reporting to the Director of Public Prosecution? Investigations no longer public unless there are charges? What do you call that, reform or revenge?

Greeting soldiers returning from Afghanistan while having your lawyers in court arguing you don’t have a social contract to look after them. Closing veterans offices. Unilaterally cancelling the rights of public service unions and their members. Stealthy, retroactive measures hidden in an omnibus bill to legitimize the improper appointment of a Supreme Court justice. More of the new normal.

Have you noticed how everything to do with government in Canada these days is either secret, under investigation, or in court?
- Finally, Stephanie Mencimer writes about Kathryn Edin's work in getting a ground-level view of poverty and its effect on families in the U.S. Which contrasts nicely against Richard Seymour's look at the few richest individuals in the U.K. - and the massive amount of capital which insulates them from the realities of everyday life.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Babied cats.

On lasting influence

Murray Dobbin continues his quest to push for more big ideas from the federal NDP here. But it's worth dividing his take into one theory well worth applying, and one which would be entirely counterproductive.

At the outset, I'll agree with Dobbin's take that a number of the NDP's current policy themes reflect defensive positions or basic oppositional choices rather than a bold push into new political space:
Megan Leslie lists a number of NDP policies which she describes as "bold," but with all due respect, most are defensive, involve resisting Stephen Harper's anti-democratic agenda, or are long-standing policies that have also been supported by the Liberals -- such as child care. Returning to pre-Harper corporate tax levels is a start -- but Thomas Mulcair's absolute refusal to consider increasing personal income taxes even on the wealthy shows timidity, not boldness. And without reclaiming lost revenue, promises of child care and a national housing program ring hollow.

Leading "the charge against Stephen Harper's attempt to import voter suppression tactics" is what any opposition party should be doing, and opposing the outrageous subsidies given to oil companies is good policy but hardly a "big idea."
And while there's room for debate in both the elements included in Dobbin's list of "big ideas" and some obvious exclusions, they're certainly some possibilities which deserve further discussion:
If the pathologically destructive nature of finance capitalism is to be addressed, there needs to be a political party that can do so by expanding the window of acceptable policies. And that means promoting bold ideas that directly challenge the policies that are creating the crises. Some examples: make advertising to children illegal and begin to address the obesity epidemic; instead of capping credit card fees, establish a public national bank to compete directly with the private banks; get out of NAFTA; use the Bank of Canada's mandated power to lend to governments at near-zero interest rates and pay down the debt; challenge the outrageous behaviour of pharmaceutical companies by establishing a public company actually dedicated to people's health and not shareholder profit, and ban the use of antibiotics in animal feed before they become useless and people start dying again from a scraped knee.
But having made the case for policies which may deserve greater attention, Dobbin also argues that the NDP shouldn't care whether it's ever in a position to implement those policies:
(I)f you want to see a big, bold idea accepted as government policy you have to expand that window to include the new idea. Overton described the evolution to broad public acceptance as a process that develops by degrees: "Unthinkable; Radical; Acceptable; Sensible; Popular; Policy." The right used this model and stuck with it for 30 years to achieve its current dominance. Ideas like slashing unemployment insurance and welfare, privatizing crown corporations, gutting taxes on the wealthy, making huge cuts to social programs and signing "trade" deals that give corporations more power, were all "unthinkable" or "radical" in the beginning. But after 30 years of relentless promotion and the courting of politicians, all of these ideas are now public policy. The advent of medicare in Saskatchewan followed precisely this road to fruition.
And any party wishing to actually deal with the crises we face will need to accept that it will take time to make the necessary bold policies sensible and popular. But so long as the NDP clings to the fantasy of winning a majority it will avoid big ideas for this reason. Contrast that with the NDP in the 1960s, when it took the big idea of medicare to the national stage and forced the Liberal government to implement it. That is the NDP's historic role in progressive social policy: not winning elections but promoting bold ideas until they become popular.

The dramatic shift in strategy -- seriously going for a majority -- has been disastrous for the NDP. It led them to opportunistically defeat the Liberal government and give power to Stephen Harper. Inexorably, the NDP is becoming another liberal party in order to be competitive. Federally, they're badly trailing a Liberal Party with a pretty face and no policies. The tragic irony in this is, of course, that even if the NDP did win, it would have a mandate limited to liberal policies.
Of course, this analysis conspicuously omits any explanation as to why the NDP ought to be limited to some "historical role", or how winning elections is somehow something to be avoided.

In fact, it can hardly escape notice that the NDP's greatest historical influence was linked to the perception that it could plausibly form the government in the relatively near future. The era of big policy wins in the 1960s and 1970s arose in no small part out of the Libs' concern about the growth potential of the NDP (which had of course come together precisely for the purpose of challenging for government where the CCF had failed). In contrast, the perception that the NDP was a minor political force forced Jack Layton to keep his requests modest and focused on short-term gains in recent minority Parliaments.

Which means that Dobbin's own limited focus contains its own tragic irony: a party which rules out a serious attempt to build toward government is far less likely to earn enough influence to be able to shape public policy. (And it certainly won't be able to set the example as to how progressive policies can work in practice - as Saskatchewan's CCF did as a precursor to the national adoption of Medicare.)

Moreover, Dobbin seems to miss some of the most important value in the NDP's recent organizing efforts. Greater outreach to a wider range of people can only help build both the NDP's credibility in making policy suggestions and public awareness of the NDP's own proposals - not to mention providing a mechanism to reach the public directly in assessing what policies might prove both popular and desirable without being unduly constrained by the Ottawa conventional wisdom. 

In sum, Dobbin is right to highlight the need for the NDP to champion policies which meaningfully counter the Con/Lib corporate consensus. But he's wrong to assume that represents a reason to abandon any effort to win a place in government - especially if that means perpetually ceding power to exactly those parties.

Instead, big ideas and political strength are each necessary elements of a meaningful effort to build a more progressive society. And the NDP will do best for itself and for Canada if it works on developing both.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Sarah Ayres discusses the value of the social safety net as a matter of both social and economic policy:
A significant body of evidence supports the view that, far from creating a so-called poverty trap, the safety net actually reduces poverty, increases economic mobility, and strengthens our national economy. Moreover, studies have shown that many antipoverty programs, especially those that target children, offer an excellent return on investment to taxpayers.
An analysis by the Council of Economic Advisers shows that when safety net programs are taken into account, the poverty rate actually fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012—a reduction of more than one-third. This is important because it demonstrates that the safety net succeeds in raising people out of poverty, not trapping them in poverty.

The relationship between the poverty rate and the business cycle also suggests that anti-poverty programs successfully reduce poverty. If the safety net has no impact on poverty levels, one would expect that the poverty rate would closely track the business cycle—that it would rise or fall in proportion to changes in the unemployment rate. But the Council of Economic Advisers found that, despite record levels of unemployment during the Great Recession, the poverty level rose only 0.5 percentage points. And it concluded that the safety net “almost entirely eliminates cyclical swings in the presence of deep poverty.” This means that the safety net lifts people out of poverty during times of high unemployment and slow economic growth. Moreover, safety net programs serve as automatic fiscal stabilizers that boost spending during economic downturns, reducing the severity of recessions and benefiting everyone.

Finally, the fact that safety net programs serve a majority of Americans at some point in their lives indicates that, contrary to Rep. Ryan’s suggestion, receiving benefits does not doom a person to a life of poverty.
Finally, the safety net does not just benefit Americans who directly receive program assistance. Reducing poverty and increasing mobility through the safety net are smart investments in America’s economic growth. An analysis by Georgetown University economist Harry Holzer and his colleagues finds that poverty costs our economy 4 percent of gross domestic product per year, or more than $500 billion. This is the result of low productivity and earnings, poor health, and high levels of crime and incarceration among adults who grew up poor. Similarly, Brandeis University professor Donald Shepard and his colleagues have calculated that hunger costs our nation at least $167.5 billion per year in lost economic productivity, public education costs, avoidable health care costs, and food charity. Public investments in the safety net—specifically, programs that target poor children—have been shown to generate exceptionally high returns that benefit all Americans. For example, University of Virginia professor Chloe Gibbs; University of Chicago economist Jens Ludwig; and University of California, Davis, economist Douglas L. Miller estimate that Head Start produces a benefit-cost ratio of more than 7-to-1.

In short, a large body of research reveals that America’s anti-poverty programs have successfully lifted millions of families out of poverty and into the middle class.
- And in a similar vein, Erika Eichelberger busts ten myths about poverty in the U.S.
- Daphne Branham writes about the dangerous sense of entitlement which leads people to think that any pool of money which could possibly be available to them should be exploited to the fullest. And Sean Davidson offers up a prime example, catching the resource sector complaining that it will no longer be subsidized quite as much in sending Canadian workers out of the country.

- Paul Krugman takes aim at the "skills gap" myth as yet another zombie lie used to justify punishing workers rather than encouraging widely-shared development.

- Karl Nerenberg wraps up last weekend's Progress Summit.

- And finally, Dan Leger discusses how the surveillance state is attacking individual privacy rights (with the help of some friends in the corporate sector):
Bell’s “Law Enforcement Database” is a customer information clearinghouse being tapped by police agents. Fifty times a day, 19,000 times a year, the Canada Border Services Agency obtains information from telecom providers. It doesn’t need a warrant and there’s no way for the public to find out what it’s after.

The government pays a dollar or two for each search, chump change for Bell but a tangible sign of the company’s co-operation.

The snoops can get your personal information without any notification, unless the matter is going to court. In that case, you are informed, which produces the illogical result of potentially guilty people being informed their privacy has been violated while the rest of us remain blithely unaware.
Worse, there is no clear evidence of any oversight. The companies, or at least Bell Canada, “provide such information tens of thousands of times every year without court oversight and perhaps without even internal oversight if access to a database is granted.”

Geist describes this “pervasive warrantless disclosure” as “deeply troubling and . . . an abdication by telecom providers of their responsibility to safeguard the privacy of their subscribers.”

The fact is, we don’t know what the state security organs are doing with the information. We only know they are getting it.

Meanwhile, the Harper government is pushing ahead with Bill C-13, which updates current laws on intercepting private communications, supposedly in part to protect kids from cyber-bullying. But there’s way more to the bill; cyber-bullying is just a sideshow.

What C-13 really gets at is personal privacy. It provides blanket immunity for telecom providers in any court cases arising from activity on their networks. Traditionally, telecom companies would at least make a show of protecting subscriber information, there’s now an incentive for them to just roll over and produce the goods.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Paul Krugman compares the U.S.' longtime recognition that concentrated wealth can do massive social harm to the Republicans' recent efforts to claim that raising any revenue from the rich is somehow un-American:
The truth is that, in the early 20th century, many leading Americans warned about the dangers of extreme wealth concentration, and urged that tax policy be used to limit the growth of great fortunes. Here’s another example: In 1919, the great economist Irving Fisher — whose theory of “debt deflation,” by the way, is essential in understanding our current economic troubles — devoted his presidential address to the American Economic Association largely to warning against the effects of “an undemocratic distribution of wealth.” And he spoke favorably of proposals to limit inherited wealth through heavy taxation of estates.

Nor was the notion of limiting the concentration of wealth, especially inherited wealth, just talk. In his landmark book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the economist Thomas Piketty points out that America, which introduced an income tax in 1913 and an inheritance tax in 1916, led the way in the rise of progressive taxation, that it was “far out in front” of Europe. Mr. Piketty goes so far as to say that “confiscatory taxation of excessive incomes” — that is, taxation whose goal was to reduce income and wealth disparities, rather than to raise money — was an “American invention.”

And this invention had deep historical roots in the Jeffersonian vision of an egalitarian society of small farmers. Back when Teddy Roosevelt gave his speech, many thoughtful Americans realized not just that extreme inequality was making nonsense of that vision, but that America was in danger of turning into a society dominated by hereditary wealth — that the New World was at risk of turning into Old Europe. And they were forthright in arguing that public policy should seek to limit inequality for political as well as economic reasons, that great wealth posed a danger to democracy.
We aren’t yet a society with a hereditary aristocracy of wealth, but, if nothing changes, we’ll become that kind of society over the next couple of decades.

In short, the demonization of anyone who talks about the dangers of concentrated wealth is based on a misreading of both the past and the present. Such talk isn’t un-American; it’s very much in the American tradition. And it’s not at all irrelevant to the modern world. So who will be this generation’s Teddy Roosevelt?
- And Thom Hartmann Shaw points out the damaging effects of outsourcing and privatization in the U.S.

- Daniel Weinstock laments the lack of a left-wing party with broad public appeal in Canada's most progressive province. And CK makes the case for Quebec Solidaire as the best option among the parties actually contesting the current Quebec election.

- Carol Linnett points to Jim Hoggan's discussion of our polluted public discourse. Joe Romm highlights the latest IPCC report as showing the long-term costs of environmental negligence. And Jacques Leslie writes that Canada is tarring its own reputation on the international stage by attacking sane climate policy at home and abroad:
(T)he Harper government has shown its disdain for scientists and environmental groups dealing with climate change and industrial pollution. The government has either drastically cut or entirely eliminated funding for many facilities conducting research in climate change and air and water pollution. It has placed tight restrictions on when its 23,000 scientists may speak publicly and has given power to some department managers to block publication of peer-reviewed research. It has closed or “consolidated” scientific libraries, sometimes thoughtlessly destroying invaluable collections in the process. And it has slashed funding for basic research, shifting allocations to applied research with potential payoffs for private companies.

With a deft Orwellian touch, Canada’s national health agency even accused a doctor in Alberta, John O’Connor, of professional misconduct — raising “undue alarm” and promoting “a sense of mistrust” in government officials — after he reported in 2006 that an unusually high number of rare, apparently tar-sands-related cancers were showing up among residents of Fort Chipewyan, 150 miles downstream from the tar sands. A government review released in 2009 cautiously supported Dr. O’Connor’s claims, but officials have shown no interest in the residents’ health since then.
The pressure on environmentalists has been even more intense. Two years ago Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver (who this month became finance minister) declared that some environmentalists “use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest” and “threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.” Canada’s National Energy Board, an ostensibly independent regulatory agency, coordinated with the nation’s intelligence service, police and oil companies to spy on environmentalists. And Canada’s tax-collecting agency recently introduced rigorous audits of at least seven prominent environmental groups, diverting the groups’ already strained resources from anti-tar-sands activities.
The government could defuse much tar sands opposition simply by advocating a more measured approach to its development, using the proceeds to head the country away from fossil fuels and toward a low-carbon, renewables-based future. That, in fact, was the policy recommended by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, a nonpartisan, eminently moderate independent research group founded by another right-leaning prime minister, Brian Mulroney, in 1988. The Harper government showed what it thought of the policy when it disbanded the Round Table last year.
- Finally, Peter Loewen is the latest to weigh in against the Unfair Elections Act, with a particular focus on the many types of voters who will be disenfranchised for nothing even faintly approaching a valid reason. And Democracy Watch has some ideas as to how to change our electoral rules for the better - which are well worth some discussion even if they may not all be workable in practice.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Dean Starkman writes about the media's failure to see and report on the culture of corruption and manipulation that led to the 2008 economic meltdown:
Was the brewing crisis really such a secret? Was it all so complex as to be beyond the capacity of conventional journalism and, through it, the public to understand? Was it all so hidden? In fact, the answer to all those questions is “no.” The problem—distorted incentives corrupting the financial industry—was plain, but not to Wall Street executives, traders, rating agencies, analysts, quants, or other financial insiders. It was plain to the outsiders: state regulators, plaintiffs’ lawyers, community groups, defrauded mortgage borrowers, and, mostly, to former employees of financial institutions, the whistleblowers, who were, in fact, blowing the whistle. A few reporters actually talked to them, understood the metastasizing problem, and wrote about it. You’ll meet a couple of them in this book. Unfortunately, they didn’t work for the mainstream business press.
To read various journalistic accounts of mortgage lending and Wall Street during the bubble is to come away with radically differing representations of the soundness of the U.S. financial system. It all depended on what you were reading. Anyone “paying attention” to the conventional business press could be forgiven for thinking that things were, in the end, basically normal. Yes, there was a housing bubble. Any fair reading of the press of the era makes that clear, even if warnings were mitigated by just-as-loud celebrations of the boom. And yes, the press said there were a lot of terrible mortgage products out there. Those are important consumer and investor issues. But that’s all they are. When the gaze turned to financial institutions, the message was entirely different: “all clear.” It’s not just the puff pieces (“Washington Mutual Is Using a Creative Retail Approach to Turn the Banking World Upside Down”; “Citi’s chief hasn’t just stepped out of Sandy Weill’s shadow—he’s stepped out of his own as he strives to make himself into a leader with vision”; and so on) or the language that sometimes lapses into toadying (“Some of its old-world gentility remains: Goldman agreed to talk for this story only reluctantly, wary of looking like a braggart”; “His 6-foot-4 linebacker-esque frame is economically packed into a club chair in his palatial yet understated office”): it’s that even stories that were ostensibly critical of individual Wall Street firms and mortgage lenders described them in terms of their competition with one another: would their earnings be okay? There was a bubble all right, and the business press was in it.
- Meanwhile, Andrew Leach comments on the Harper Cons' own carbon bubble - as a government relentlessly pushing tar sands development seems utterly oblivious to the reality that further development could become non-viable based on a readily-foreseeable (and indeed necessary) change in climate policy.

- Rick Mercer rants about the Cons' fixation on income splitting - and how it shows they couldn't care less about anybody who doesn't share their own privileged lifestyle:

- And Doug Cuthand observes that First Nations have been particularly marginalized based on their failure to fit into the Cons' target demographics:
Funding has been eliminated to the following groups since the Harper government came to power: Sisters in Spirit, NAHO, the National Aboriginal Health Organization, The First Nations Statistical Institute and NWAC, Native Women's Association of Canada. Virtually all the aboriginal political organizations experienced funding cuts this year.

We cannot forget the failure of this government to honour the Kelowna Accord that would have injected more than $5 billion into a series of First Nations initiatives, including housing, education health and economic development.

In addition to the cuts to the political organizations, First Nations administrations have seen budget cuts ranging from 10 per cent to 25 per cent. A clause has been inserted in tribal council funding agreements that none of their grant allocations can be used for "advocacy or political activities."

How the Department of Colonial Affairs plans to police this is beyond me. You can't have a group of chiefs in a room without them discussing political issues.

The government views tribal councils only as service providers. In other words, it sees tribal councils replacing the Department of Indian Affairs and becoming the new Indian Agents. The days of participatory democracy are but a memory. The Harper government wants to control the agenda, and any group that provides an independent or contradictory voice is suspect.

In addition to the cutbacks to First Nations organizations, institutions and services, we now have the "Fair Elections Act" that is attacking our democratic rights as Canadians. The removal of the vouching for voters without proper ID could be problematic for First Nations voters.
This leads me to conclude that the Conservatives have given up on us as supporting them in the next election. They have cut our funding to the bone, and now they are reducing our impact at the ballot box. Is this Harper's war on Indians?
- Finally, Tim Harford notes that too much reliance on "big data" can lead to massive mistakes when institutions fail to recognize the limits on what a particular set of information actually tells us.