Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Deirdre Fulton discusses the UN's 2014 Human Development Report, featuring recognition that precarious jobs and vulnerable workers are all too often the norm regardless of a country's level of development or high-end wealth. And as Dylan Matthews points out (h/t to David Atkins), the lack of worker benefits from increased corporate wealth figures to make a guaranteed annual income into a logical solution:
So here's my takeaway: a negative income tax or basic income of sufficient size would, by definition, eliminate poverty. We still don't know if there'd be much of a cost in terms of people working and earning less. If there is, the effect is almost certainly small enough that a negative income tax can offset the lost earnings and remain affordable. The worst case scenario is that we eliminate poverty but see a modest decline in employment. The best case scenario is we eliminate poverty at even lower cost and don't see much of an effect on employment. That's a gamble I'm willing to take.
- Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson points out that the supposed job recovery following the 2008 recession has been far less than advertised. And Angella MacEwen writes that we should see the steady flow of funds from EI premiums into general revenue as an indication that too many people are being denied benefits - particularly when a strong majority of unemployed Canadians aren't benefiting from a program they helped to fund.

- Tom Henheffer questions why the Canada Revenue Agency is being pushed by the Cons to attack progressive charities, particularly when it's being starved of resources to do its job of actually collecting revenue. Heather Mallick takes a closer look at the CRA's intrusion on Oxfam in particular. And Lana Payne sees the crackdown on charities as part of the Cons' general pattern of silencing any dissenting voices:
Binders full of enemies? Let’s try libraries.

The government has, for all intents and purposes, successfully defunded Canada’s advocacy movement — well, those advocates that disagree with them anyway, like women’s rights and child-care activists, environmental and scientific researchers. They have eliminated funding for roundtable consensus-building initiatives as well as non-governmental organizations dedicated to promoting human rights and equality for women around the globe.

The list is long and depressing.

The government has used, or rather abused, its power in so many ways that Canadians have perhaps grown immune to the attacks on democracy and civil society.
Sadly, we have a government that relishes divisions abroad and at home. Divisions create opportunities.

Consider its aggressive attack on anyone and everyone who disagrees with their ideology or policy — charities, unions, feminists, environmentalists, scientists and academics.

And yet when Harper was in opposition, he had an entirely different view of dissent and democracy: “When a government starts trying to cancel dissent or avoid dissent is when it’s rapidly losing its moral authority to govern,” he said.

That time is now for his government.
- But Scott Feschuk suggests we should be a bit more understanding of a figurehead who's so plainly at the mercy of his minions (at least until he's thrown them under various large vehicles).

- Finally, Ryan Meili explains why we shouldn't accept simplistic arguments to the effect that we should run our health care system more like a veterinary clinic (or indeed a European system facing different challenges).

Friday, July 25, 2014

Musical interlude

Yuri Kane - Right Back

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Nicholas Kristof offers a primer on inequality in the U.S., while the Washington Post reports that a think tank looking to fund research into the issue couldn't find a single conservative willing to discuss it. And PressProgress highlights the OECD's finding that the prosperity gap stands to get a lot worse in the U.S. and Canada alike absent some significant change in course to improve the lot of the 99%:
Increasing levels of economic inequality are the “new normal” and we can expect them to get worse, not better.

That’s the key takeaway from a recent study on long-run levels of income growth in Canada, Australia and the United States published by the OECD.

The study highlights the explosive rise of incomes in the top 1% over the last 30 years, and their growing share as compared to the bottom 90% and 99%. Authored by eminent Canadian economist and Broadbent Fellow Lars Osberg, it argues “there is no natural upper bound to the real incomes of the top 1% and thus no natural upper bound to their income gap with median households.”

Similar to the findings of French economist Thomas Piketty and the OECD, Osberg suggests that the balanced growth of the post-World War II era, which produced a more stable and fairer income distribution, bucked a broader trend in which inequality accumulates and deepens over generations.
- Suresh Naidu, Yaw Nyarko and Shing-Yi Wang document (PDF) how tying a worker to a single employer - as the Cons continue to do through the temporary foreign worker program - serves to suppress wages. And Grace Macaluso reports on the role anti-poverty groups are playing in pushing for a living wage in Windsor.

- Meanwhile, in what's surely unrelated news, the Cons' CRA intimidation includes a new position that charities are no longer permitted to work on preventing poverty.

- Don Cayo writes about the dangers of allowing a government to intimidate critics into silence. And Steve Sullivan reminds us of the role public interest groups rightly play in ensuring that individual rights are protected:
The courts play an essential role in our democracy by interpreting and applying the laws passed by government — acting as both check and balance on the other two branches of government, the executive and legislative. No true democracy anywhere in the world gives governments unlimited powers. In Canada, the job of the courts is to make sure that what the government does is consistent with the charter and the Constitution. Our legal rights mean precisely nothing if governments can override them simply by passing a law.

Time and again, Canadians have told parties and pollsters that they treasure the Charter of Rights — that it’s part of the bedrock of our society, something that unites us. Harper probably doesn’t agree; his government pointedly refused to celebrate the 25th and 30th anniversaries of the charter’s ascent into law, while blowing millions of dollars to commemorate a war none of us were alive to remember.
Instead of moaning about special interest groups and activist judges, Mr. Albas might want to set aside his copy of the PMO talking points and actually read what the judges are saying. They called the government’s policy on health care for refugees “cruel and unusual”. They protected safe injection sites because the evidence shows they’re saving lives. They ruled the prostitution laws the government defended were unconstitutional because they put sex workers in danger.
When Mr. Harper thought his charter rights were being violated, he stood on his rights as a Canadian citizen and took the state to court. If the court route was good enough for him, it should be good enough for the rest of us.
- Finally, Scott Harris notes that while decades of constant pro-trade propaganda may have turned support for trade agreements into a default position, Canadians strongly oppose most of the actual details of CETA (among other deals).

Thursday, July 24, 2014

New column day

Here, looking at the sad similarities between Regina and Detroit, and noting that the crucial step we should take to avoid the latter's humanitarian tragedy is to fund our commitments to workers and residents while we have the means to do so.

For further reading...
- Tom McKay and Wallace Turbeville each discuss how the decision to run Detroit under corporate principles made a bad financial situation far worse.
- Jon Swaine reports on the recent move to shut off water for up to 100,000 residents. Monica Davey writes about the vote to slash already-meager pensions. And Dominic Rushe reports on the city's new arena costs, while Bill Bradley highlights the absurdity of a bankrupt city nonetheless finding a way to shovel free money toward a billionaire sports team owner. 
- Finally, CBC reports on the threatened termination of the City of Regina's pension plan. And the Leader-Post weighs in on the need to actually address the issue - though its contrast between workers and beneficiaries and the "longsuffering taxpayer" (who was apparently supposed to fund a new stadium without having that suffering taken into account) seems to me to signal the wrong desired outcome.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Linda McQuaig criticizes the Cons' use of the tax system to try to silence charities who don't match their political message:
PEN now joins Amnesty International, the David Suzuki Foundation, Canada Without Poverty, the United Church and other groups that, having criticized an array of Harper policies, have been obliged to devote precious resources to defending themselves from a special probe of charities ordered by the Harper government.

This beefing-up of tax audits of charities is particularly striking when compared to Harper’s laid-back approach to auditing the real bad guys: corporations and citizens using offshore tax havens to cheat the government out of billions of dollars in revenue.

Indeed, the allocation of an extra $13 million to carry out audits of charities has taken place even as the government slashes the overall Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) budget by $250 million over three years and lays off hundreds of auditors.
Internal CRA documents, obtained under access-to-information by Sen. Percy Downe, reveal that an infusion of $30 million by Ottawa in 2005 to counter “aggressive international tax planning” resulted in the collection of an extra $2.5 billion over four years.

By contrast, putting extra resources into auditing charities will almost certainly produce no additional revenue.
(W)hile there aren’t enough auditors to go after many of the wealthy Canadian corporations and individuals hiding money offshore, the government managed to find two auditors to spend three days this week at PEN’s little Toronto office — the beginning of an audit that will go on for many months.
The Harperites may be inept at using audits to collect vast sums of revenue hidden by the rich — but they sure know how to beat up on defenceless groups trying to promote the public good.
- And Dean Beeby breaks the news that the Cons aren't satisfied going after charitable organizations, and instead want to be able to compile their own list of individual donors as well. But there is some push for disclosure where it's actually needed as a check on undue institutional influence, as MoveOn is calling for corporate spending in U.S. politics to be subject to public scrutiny.

- Bill Curry reports on the C.D. Howe Institute's recommendation that the federal government focus on economic development rather than deficit scolding - with Joe Oliver naturally responding that he has no interest in job creation if it might conflict with his political goals. And Rick Goldman comments on the futility of using austerity policies in the name of fighting deficits when they ultimately cause more harm than good even by that measure.

- Steven Chase discusses the latest application of the Baird Doctrine that bluster matters more than action in foreign policy - as a much-trumpeted aid announcement for the Ukraine four months ago has led to zero actual contribution from Canada.

- Finally, David Atkins connects the U.S.' drift to the right with participation in party primaries - as the Tea Party and other right-wing groups have driven Republican turnout (and thus policy oriented toward its base) while Democrats have been increasingly staying on the sidelines over the past 40 years:
When conservatives don't get what they want, they tend to double down at the ballot box. When progressives don't get what they want, many of us tend to storm away and fantasize about engaging the system outside of electoral politics somehow. This is part of why conservatives have been successful in moving the country to right.

I've brought these points up again and again. Politicians don't care about people who don't vote, and the Tea Party gets coddled because they actually vote in primaries and Democrats tend not to.

But, of course, Democratic politicians also bear a lot of the blame. It's awfully hard to get motivated to vote when you know that not much is going to change regardless of the outcome.

Even so, you can't lay the entire blame for the problem at the feet of centrist corporate Democrats. The trend toward lower turnout started in 1970, hardly the heyday of the DLC. Yes, Democratic politicians need to do a better job of advancing progressive priorities and building base enthusiasm. But progressive voters also need to come out and actually vote, too.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wednesday Evening Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Vineeth Sekharan debunks the myth that a job represents a reliable path out of poverty, while reminding us that there's one policy choice which could eradicate poverty altogether:
A job alone does not guarantee freedom from poverty. In fact, in 2012, at least one member of the household was employed in a staggering 44% of all poor households. Even in situations where an individual is employed, there may still be the need for income supplements, as well as educational and employment supports.

This is partially because of the monumental changes that have occurred in the Canadian marketplace. The growing trend that continues to emerge is precarious employment: a decline in the number of well-paid jobs, and an increase in both lower-paying jobs and temporary employment. The infographic provides an example of how an individual working part-time, at minimum wage, falls below the poverty line. Temporary employment, by its very nature, often results in incomes that are unpredictable, making households more prone to suffering from fluctuations in income. In households where families and individuals are living paycheque to paycheque, these trends are direct contributors to family poverty.

Income supplements are essential to lifting families above the poverty line. While the idea of implementing guaranteed annual incomes (GAIs) has been around for decades, it has recently resurged as a result of the rising costs associated with dealing with the symptoms of poverty rather than its causes. GAI refers to various proposals that look to implement a guaranteed minimum income for Canadians, related to the concept of a negative income tax. GAIs will provide struggling Canadians with some security from income shock.
- Meanwhile, Bryce Covert points out that there's no correlation between lavish CEO pay and business performance.

- The CLC makes the case for more paid vacation time (one of the areas where Saskatchewan can be proud to be ahead of Canada's other jurisdictions) - while pointing out that workers can often win that through collective bargaining even if governments can't be bothered:
If you think you don't get enough vacation, you're right. Canada is in the bottom three of the world’s richest countries for the minimum number of paid vacation days employees are entitled to receive under the law. Every major industrialized country in the world – Sweden, Germany, the United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark just to name a few – all have legislation giving workers at least four weeks paid vacation time. The International Labour Organization (ILO) recommends that the period of paid vacation shouldn't be less than three weeks for one year of service.

For unionized workers, negotiations have helped the majority achieve at least the ILO recommended minimum. The great majority of unionized workers get at least three weeks of paid vacation time, and 70% get four weeks after a longer period of service. One in three unionized workers gets five weeks of paid vacation but that is typically received only after 15 years of service.
- Mike de Souza reports on the Cons' attempt to suppress internal documentation showing the Canadian Environmental Network to be a valuable public resource before it was summarily axed by the Harper government - presumably for the crime of doing good work on environmental issues. And PressProgress discusses how the Cons worked to manipulate Canadians into accepting tax baubles they didn't otherwise want.

- Finally, Scott Sinclair highlights the problems with investor-state dispute settlement which takes trade dispute out of fair and transparent court systems, and argues that such mechanisms should be eliminated from trade agreements involving the EU.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Expressive cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Sarah Jaffe examines the "bad business fee" proposal which would require employers who pay wages below public assistance levels - receiving work while forcing the public to subsidize their employees' livelihood - to at least make up the difference:
As inequality has become a hot-button issue, the solutions on offer tend to focus either on taxing the extremely wealthy or on raising workers’ wages. What makes the bad business fee particularly attractive is that it does both of those things. It makes the connection conceptually between the low wages at the bottom of the work chain and the outsized incomes at the top, and sets out both to punish companies that keep wages low, and to create value out of that punishment for the people struggling on low incomes.

In that way, the fee is win-win. If companies seek to avoid it, they end up doing something just as good for their employees, or even better. Martin says, “For me in particular, the better part is my boss may be thinking, ‘Well, I should just pay my employees better. I should just pay a living wage. I should just give Cliff some benefits.’”

To Liz Ryan Murray, policy director at NPA, the bad business fee bridges the issues of workers’ rights and taxpayers’ rights. Often conversations around public benefits get mired down in arguments about deficits and the cost to the taxpayer, ignoring the value of the programs to the people who depend on them and rarely conceiving of “the taxpayer” as a low-wage worker herself. But, Murray notes, on this issue there’s no way to split them apart — the taxpayer and the worker have the same interest in seeing big companies pay their fair share.
- And Truthout notes that corporate bureaucracy tends to be far more harmful than anything found in the public sector - as a similar tendency toward complexity is paired with both a lack of accountability, and a profit motive which can be at odds with any attempt to actually meet the the needs of customers:
If I had had a problem with a government bureaucracy, like the Veterans Administration or the Social Security Administration, I could have called my senator or my congressman and they would have given hell to those agencies on behalf of me. I could lobby Congress to change the way they do things, the way vets are today successfully lobbying for changes in the VA.

But if I had stood outside of my cell phone company's headquarters and protested, they could have had me arrested for trespassing.

That's the difference between government bureaucracies and corporate bureaucracies.

Government bureaucracies are ultimately answerable to "We the People" and our elected representatives. It's called "the American system of government."

Corporate bureaucracies, on the other hand, are ultimately only answerable to their shareholders, who don't give a rat's patootie if the company they own screws their customers because that means more money in their pockets.
- Adrien Schless-Meier points out that grocery stores are among the worst offenders both in paying poverty-level wages, and relying on public subsidies for employees. 

- Meanwhile, Jonathan Timm writes that employer orders not to talk about salaries tend to serve only to drive them down (while also preserving historical inequalities in the workplace). And that fits all too well with the apparent link between CEO pay disclosure and soaring executive salaries.

- Dr. Dawg discusses how the Cons are treating the CRA - like the bully pulpit that comes with power - as a tool to attack charities which dare to speak about issues which don't fit their political agenda. And the CP's list of charities facing audits seems to confirm that only progressive voices are being singled out for scrutiny.

- Finally, Daniel Tencer highlights the age-based wealth gap in Canada - as younger Canadians won't see the benefit of past increases in stock and housing values, but will instead face higher prices to try to save anything at all.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Paul Krugman calls out the U.S.' deficit scolds for continuing to invent a crisis to distract from the real problems with middling growth and high unemployment. And Bruce Johnstone singles out a few of the Cons' talking points which have somehow become conventional wisdom without having an iota of truth to them. But in case there was any doubt why the Cons aren't being exposed to their own patent wrongness, William Watson's (hardly people-friendly) column explains why - as Jack Mintz manages to qualify as the least corporate-biased member of a hand-picked budget advisory group.

- David Cay Johnston discusses how California is thoroughly disproving the claim that high-end tax increases have any negative impact on growth, as the state is actually thriving after passing significant tax increases through a referendum. And David Climenhaga points to the astroturf groups lobbying for increased exploitation of temporary foreign workers as a prime example of how zombie lies are kept undead:
(I)t cannot be mere coincidence that in almost every case the main groups calling for more TFWs turn out to have a long history of anti-union advocacy. In some cases, before the TFW issue came along, their sole purpose was attacking the right of working people to bargain collectively.

This web of anti-union advocacy groups includes the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Restaurants Canada, the Workplace Democracy Institute of Canada, the Merit Contractors Association, “Working Canadians,” and the Canadian Labour Watch Association.

Even the mysterious National Citizens Coalition, the granddaddy of all Canadian far-right AstroTurf groups, once headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, puts in a cameo appearance in this convoluted tale!

Each of these groups is not forthcoming about its finances and, it is reasonable to conclude given their purported mandates to represent to represent a different segment of the Canadian economy from “taxpayers,” to restaurant owners, to ordinary working stiffs who just want a little “freedom” in their workplace, is deceptive about its true objectives.
The links among this well-established network of anti-union agitators have been obvious for many years.

That the same players who hold the most virulently anti-union views and the most offensive opinions about the supposed shortcomings of Canadian workers should turn out to be the loudest advocates, and in some places the only advocates, for the TFW Program suggests the true agenda behind the vociferous TFW lobby.

It is quite apparent the goals of the Canadian Taxpayers Association, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, and the various trade associations involved are to weaken the bargaining power of Canadian families (including many of their own naïve members), keep wages low, keep all workers vulnerable and re-elect the Harper Government.
- Meanwhile, Bill Tieleman discusses how the B.C. Liberals are using their latest deliberately-provoked confrontation with teachers to try to push a for-profit education model.

- Abrahm Lustgarten reports that after being told that there are no risks whatsoever to fracking, U.S. residents are learning otherwise the hard way:
Over the past several decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation's geology as an invisible dumping ground.

No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil. But until recently, scientists and environmental officials have assumed that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the waste for millennia.

There are growing signs they were mistaken.
The boom in oil and natural gas drilling is deepening the uncertainties, geologists acknowledge. Drilling produces copious amounts of waste, burdening regulators and demanding hundreds of additional disposal wells. Those wells — more holes punched in the ground — are changing the earth's geology, adding man-made fractures that allow water and waste to flow more freely.
A ProPublica review of well records, case histories and government summaries of more than 220,000 well inspections found that structural failures inside injection wells are routine. From late 2007 to late 2010, one well integrity violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined — more than 17,000 violations nationally. More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking. Records also show wells are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.

Structurally, a disposal well is the same as an oil or gas well. Tubes of concrete and steel extend anywhere from a few hundred feet to two miles into the earth. At the bottom, the well opens into a natural rock formation. There is no container. Waste simply seeps out, filling tiny spaces left between the grains in the rock like the gaps between stacked marbles.
- Finally, USA Today rightly questions why we allow big pharma to name its price for needed medications (even as we set up byzantine legal structures to protect the resulting profits).

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Mariana Mazzucato writes about the need for governments to shape markets through their own investments, rather than acting only to serve existing business interests:
The idea that at best the public sector can fix "market failures" and "de-risk" business, means that when the banks become too active in an area, they are accused of "crowding out" the private sector. That is, of taking up too big of a share of total investments (all of which in the end must be financed from savings). While some Keynesians defend such investments by arguing they actually "crowd in" – ie, government investments increase the total pie through the spending multiplier – this defence only captures half the story. Even in the boom there are plenty of areas that private finance does not dare tread. The internet was funded by public money in boom times, as were biotech and nanotech. And even if we were in a boom today, there would still be little private finance in those capital-intensive high-risk areas of clean tech.

There is a more interesting argument to justify such banks. What public spending/investment is needed for is not to fix markets but to actively shape and create them. As Keynes argued in 1926: "The important thing for government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all."

Rather than judge public investments as if they are acting upon existing markets, we must admit that this is their role: to create and shape markets. This should lead to indicators of performance for such public investments that capture their "mission-oriented" role.

Today's challenge is thus not only to activate the public sector, but rethink its role. I have organised practitioners from public R&D agencies and public financial institutions from all over the world to meet this week to discuss this challenge in the Commons, hosted by Vince Cable. Hopefully, it will help change the conversation. The problem is not about "fixing finance" while leaving the real economy sick, but how to change the framework to one in which socio-economic challenges can be addressed, by public and private actors alike. And key to all is admitting that the public side can be transformational. But only once it is released from the shackles of defunct thinking.
- David Atkins calls out business groups for threatening to discard employees who dare to ask for a living wage, while highlighting how that campaign only shows that we shouldn't make a reasonable standard of living contingent on serving a corporate master at all:
The fact remains that within one year a bunch of server jobs will be gone because restaurants will replace order-taking with tablets. Within a decade or two we won't need truck or cab drivers anymore. IBM can already diagnose cancer five times better than doctors. The flattening of the teaching profession will continue apace as the technology and techniques behind MOOCs continue to improve. 3D printing will render much of what manufacturing remains obsolete. Anything requiring mid-level management or analysis will be done better by computer within two decades at the max, and probably sooner.

Pushing for a higher minimum wage is important. But ultimately we're going to have to decouple human dignity from "having a job." There just won't be enough jobs to go around, and tweaking the tax rates of super-wealthy just won't cut it at a certain point.
- Meanwhile, Lauren Sandler discusses the U.S.' (damaging) fall to the bottom of the developed world in the availability of paid parental leave - even as evidence accumulates that such leave is ultimately a valuable investment.

- CBC reports that the City of Regina's consistent neglect of its pension obligations might result in retirees having their livelihood pulled out from under them. And Michael Smyth points out that while B.C. imposes wage limits on the vast majority of public-sector workers, it has no trouble finding money to fund under-the-table giveaways to top executives.

- Finally, Dean Beeby reports on the continued disconnect between the Cons' austerity agenda and the views of Canadians - including the ones specifically asked for their input into the federal budget, whose desire to prioritize health care and education over pipeline cheerleading was once again ignored.