Saturday, July 22, 2017

Leadership 2017: The Quebec Question

Don MacPherson has joined the many commentators whose main take on the federal NDP's leadership race is to zero in on how Quebec voters might react to Jagmeet Singh's Sikh background and head covering. And Adam Radwanski has rightly challenged the pundits' consensus to some extent.

But (as noted in part by Ian Capstick) the narrow issue of Singh's religion misses a much bigger picture as to the considerations facing the NDP in Quebec. And there may be a case for any of the four candidates in the race as the best-positioned to build support.

With that in mind, let's take a look at a few theories as to what's necessary for a federal leader to win Quebec support, and how the current leadership candidates stack up.

The Native Son

One of the cardinal rules of Canadian politics (and one at least arguably consistent with the results of every federal election dating back 150 years) is that no national leader without substantial Quebec connections beats out another national leader with more substantial roots in the province.

Of course, there are a couple of recent examples which might challenge the theory. In 2004, Stephen Harper's Conservatives managed to top Paul Martin's Libs in the Quebec vote count - though both were far behind Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc. And in 2011, Duceppe saw his party's Quebec-centred message fall to pieces in the face of Jack Layton's surge of support - which again might be distinguished based on one's view of Layton's Quebec connections, and/or the question of whether provincially-based parties such as the Bloc require a separate line of analysis.

If NDP members accept this theory while seeing Quebec success as the primary concern in a new leader, the result isn't merely to rule out Singh as an option, but to turn the campaign into a coronation for Guy Caron. (Again, Peter Julian was the one other candidate who might have made a claim to sufficient links to Quebec to benefit from the rule - but he's now out of the race.)

That said, even taking this theory at its highest, Quebec roots can only be seen as a necessary but not sufficient condition for winning over voters: just ask Stephane Dion, Tom Mulcair, and others who were each merely one among multiple candidates on the stage with Quebec roots. And with Justin Trudeau not looking to leave the scene anytime soon, the NDP can't expect to secure any advantage on this front alone.

Any vote based on the native son theory would thus require not only considering it to be accurate, but viewing Caron as a sufficiently strong option to wrest the title of Quebec's favourite son away from Trudeau. And it doesn't offer a basis for distinction among the remaining candidates: to the contrary, it would imply that if Caron doesn't win the leadership, the NDP may as well focus elsewhere for want of a reasonable hope of challenging the Libs in Quebec.

Needless to say, I'd hope leadership voters will have a much more optimistic view of the NDP's prospects than that (as Layton did when he built up his own connection to Quebec). Which brings us to...

Le Bon Jack

The 2011 Orange Wave offers a rare example of a leader managing to win a plurality of Quebec voters and majority of seats by appealing to them over a leader based in the province. And there's little doubt that Layton's persona was a crucial part of that success.

If members are looking for the candidate who can most plausibly mirror Layton's political skills, then Charlie Angus likely has the best claim to the title. In addition to being stylistically similar to Layton, he's also done the most to match Layton's organizational skills in building up membership and fund-raising support under the radar.

That said, after winning the NDP's leadership Layton put in a large amount of effort to build up both his personal recognition and his comfort level in Quebec over a period of nearly a decade. And it took four election cycles before he was finally able to break through with more than a single seat.

Angus might project to have a reasonable chance to develop as Layton did. But it's far from certain whether leadership voters will want to allow that much of a development phase. And members focused on holding and winning seats in the near term may have reason to wonder about his ability to speak to Quebec voters by 2019.

The Movement Leader

Meanwhile, if French language skills in particular are going to be an issue, then Niki Ashton looks to be the next-strongest candidate after Caron. And while her most favourable model won't find many federal analogues (aside from arguably the Bloc), she can point to the provincial scene as offering some useful examples to follow.

It's been well documented how a single popular leader connected to a movement which sees itself as underrepresented in politics can drastically change Quebec's political landscape - with prominent recent examples including the rise of the ADQ and its evolution into the CAQ over the past decade-plus.

Of course, the precise groups of voters who have shifted allegiances to back those parties probably aren't among the ones likely to turn to Ashton in the near future. But the latest example of a movement turning into a political force is one which could very plausibly rally behind an Ashton-led NDP: Quebec Solidaire has been hitting new heights in provincial polling due in no small part to the arrival of student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois as one of its spokespersons.

Ashton may not start with the level of public familiarity Nadeau-Dubois has earned in Quebec. But there's a case to be made that her plan for a national movement can work with and incorporate the same activists who seem to be transforming the province's provincial scene.

The Precedent Setter

If all of the other candidates can point to Quebec precedents for a plan to build up NDP support, Singh may have to look further afield. But he figures to be able to adapt the strategies which have helped break down barriers before.

In particular, it's questionable that numbers which refer to a personal trait rather than a particular leader can be expected to hold up if they clash with perceptions of that candidate. It's one thing for poll respondents to express a view based on only one attribute, particularly if they're not frequently exposed to people who share it; it's quite another to make a decision about a person for whom that attribute is just one part of a well-developed persona.

On that front, I'll point to Charles Franklin's look at similar polling in the U.S. - which shows the largest jump in willingness to vote for any particular trait arising after John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic President. And while the numbers which would have influenced Kennedy's candidacy start from a higher baseline, that may be based in part on more friendly wording (i.e. emphasizing that the candidate is qualified and of the same party as the respondent.)

To the extent there is a need to change minds about whether a single characteristic affects one's ability to lead, the first step in changing minds will be to call out and challenge whatever embedded assumptions may otherwise have resulted in any discomfort. And Singh is already doing a stellar job on that front (with a particular emphasis on connecting to Quebec voters).

But even among voters who aren't won over by messages about Singh's background in particular, the best way to challenge preconceived assumptions about the leadership of a person wearing a head covering is for a leader to be effective while wearing a head covering. Which means that NDP members who otherwise recognize Singh's strengths shouldn't see perceived public opinion about his religion as a meaningful reason to vote against him.


In sum, I don't see much basis to single out any one of the leadership candidates for a different test in evaluating how Quebec voters are likely to respond.

Each will face a great deal of work to be done - and some daunting historical precedents to overcome - in winning over voters in Quebec and across Canada. And for each, the strengths which help to connect and win over NDP members should be effectively the same factors which contribute to the NDP's success down the road.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- George Monbiot examines the history of James McGill Buchanan, Charles Koch and others who have used massive amounts of time and money to ensure that wealth wins out over democracy in shaping U.S. policy - and how their influence will sounds familiar elsewhere as well:
The papers Nancy MacLean discovered show that Buchanan saw stealth as crucial. He told his collaborators that “conspiratorial secrecy is at all times essential”. Instead of revealing their ultimate destination, they would proceed by incremental steps. For example, in seeking to destroy the social security system, they would claim to be saving it, arguing that it would fail without a series of radical “reforms”. (The same argument is used by those attacking the NHS)...
Reading this book felt like a demisting of the window through which I see British politics. The bonfire of regulations highlighted by the Grenfell Tower disaster, the destruction of state architecture through austerity, the budgeting rules, the dismantling of public services, tuition fees and the control of schools: all these measures follow Buchanan’s programme to the letter. I wonder how many people are aware that David Cameron’s free schools project stands in a tradition designed to hamper racial desegregation in the American south.

In one respect, Buchanan was right: there is an inherent conflict between what he called “economic freedom” and political liberty. Complete freedom for billionaires means poverty, insecurity, pollution and collapsing public services for everyone else. Because we will not vote for this, it can be delivered only through deception and authoritarian control. The choice we face is between unfettered capitalism and democracy. You cannot have both.

Buchanan’s programme is a prescription for totalitarian capitalism. And his disciples have only begun to implement it. But at least, thanks to MacLean’s discoveries, we can now apprehend the agenda. One of the first rules of politics is, know your enemy. We’re getting there.
- Robert Reich writes about the erosion of social bonds by growing inequality. And Jonathan Kay discusses how the U.S. is suffering for refusing to raise tax revenue as the price of a civilized society.

- Thom Hartmann writes about the new forms of indentured servitude becoming increasingly common in the U.S.' labour market. Jake Johnson comments on the gap between CEOs who have seen gigantic pay increases over the past few decades, and workers who have seen nothing of the sort. And Frank Pasquale points out that significant collective action will be needed to prevent platform capitalism from further undermining workers' rights.

- On that front, Andrew Hartman theorizes that millennials' political activism figures to present a strong challenge to capitalist control. And James Elliott interviews Jon Lansman about the next steps for UK Labour - and particularly its progressive activists - following Jeremy Corbyn's first electoral success. 

- Finally, Geoff Leo reports on the GTH's latest violations of access to information laws - while finding that experts see the Wall government's combination of compulsive secrecy and gross incompetence as similar to Donald Trump's administration.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Musical interlude

Big Wreck - Under the Lighthouse

Friday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- John Paul Tasker reports on the federal government's plans to close some loopholes which allow the use of small corporations in order to avoid income taxes. And Andrew Jackson writes that we should support that first step toward a fairer tax system. But the Star points out that there's far more ground to cover:
The three measures now being floated all aim to limit the ability of high earners to use the small-business tax system to dodge paying their share on income. The most far-reaching of these would constrain the practice of so-called “income sprinkling,” which allows individuals to significantly reduce their tax burden by transferring large portions of their income, through a corporation, to family members. Taken together, the package could save Ottawa hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

This is a start, but it likely won’t get Morneau even a tenth of the way toward his stated aim of saving $3 billion annually through a review of so-called tax expenditures.

The promised review is crucial. Over the last century, Canada’s tax code has grown into an unwieldy mess. The code is now roughly 200 times longer than it was in its original form, a result not mainly of thoughtful economic design, but of the slow accretion of politically micro-targeted tax breaks. The Harper Tories were particularly fond of such boutique tax credits, which allowed them to appeal to certain politically important constituencies while essentially shrinking government.

Tax expenditures now account for upwards of $100 billion of forgone revenue annually, about a quarter of all government spending. Yet, unlike other government outlays, they are not subject to significant parliamentary scrutiny or even government study. No one seems to know exactly how much is lost through these loopholes, or whether they achieve their stated objectives. As Auditor General Michael Ferguson warned in 2015, even the finance department seems to be in the dark.

What we do know, however, suggests that these tax breaks, like the ones Morneau is now seeking to tackle, too often benefit most those who need help least, deepening rather than mitigating economic inequality.
- Meanwhile, Ashley Renders reports on the new (if limited) disclosure required of Canadian resource companies to document what they've paid to governments.

- Speaking of which, Sara Golling rightly slams Christy Clark and her B.C. Libs for using their last day in office - and the cover of a public emergency - to award a major donor permits for mine activities which couldn't win federal approval. And Bob Mackin reports on how Clark's henchpeople have thrown public money at the Site C disaster with no time for even a cursory review.

- David Reevely notes Ontario Hydro's bizarre re-entry into the coal power business years after the provincial Libs shut down plants within the province. 

- Finally, David McKie points out that many Indigenous families are missing out on the federal child benefit - showing the limitations of a program which relies on people to identify their own opportunity to sign up.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Noah Smith writes that far too many Americans (like people around the globe) face needless barriers to thinking, and suggests that the key public project of this century may be to remedy those problems:
The biggest threat to clear-headedness comes from drugs. The twin epidemics of opioid-painkiller dependence and heroin abuse destroy people’s lives and harm productivity. There is a strong correlation between opioid use and unemployment, and it’s no great stretch to assume that the former helps cause the latter. A recent Goldman Sachs report concluded that drug abuse resulted in large productivity losses throughout the economy. Even when opioid and opiate users stay at their jobs, they probably become less productive.

A second, much-discussed problem is lead pollution. A flood of research is finding that even small amounts of lead exposure in childhood can lead both to worse academic performance later in life, and to more criminal behavior. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that American children are far more exposed to lead than most people realize. Lead paint contaminates soil, lead pipes contaminate drinking water, and a variety of commercial products from cosmetics to electronics contain bits of lead. The U.S. is allowing its people to be poisoned with heavy metals, and both their intelligence and their self-control is being degraded as a result.

But drugs and lead aren’t the only forces preventing Americans from being able to think clearly. Poverty is another. Everyone knows that the U.S. is a very unequal country, but few think about the damage that causes to American minds. A growing body of research shows that poor people have different brain structures from other people. Mental problems can and do cause poverty, of course, but poverty also exposes people to many of the forces that are known to cause post-traumatic stress disorder -- violence and unstable family situations -- in addition to brain-damaging malnutrition. Let's hope that new long-term studies will clarify just how much poverty damages the brain, although the mechanisms are already pretty obvious.

Violence in general probably causes lots of long-term harm to the minds of American children. The U.S. as a whole has a high murder rate for a rich country -- 4.2 homicides per 100,000 people, about three times as high as France or the U.K. Some U.S. cities, however, have murder rates as much as 10 times the national average -- St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans and Detroit stand out. Millions of American children are probably getting some form of PTSD as a result of growing up in these cities.

When all these factors are added up, they represent a severe threat not just to Americans’ quality of life, but to the productivity of the U.S. workforce. Policy makers, economists and other intellectuals should start thinking more about how to beat back this multipronged assault on national clear-headedness.
- Doug Saunders discusses how the wealthiest few in Canada are almost entirely ghettoized, and offers a couple of suggestions to rein in inequality and rebuild the social links which once connected the 1% to everybody else. And Luke Savage comments on the great CEO revenue heist which allows corporate magnates to avoid tax on 50% of one of their main sources of income.

- Meanwhile, Marco Chown Oved and Robert Cribb report on a first discussion of corporate transparency - though it's telling that the Trudeau Libs are intent on preserving the "privacy" of people benefiting from the privilege of limited liability. And Dean Beeby reports on the Libs' continued plans to sell off airports and other public services.

- Nikil Saval traces how laissez-faire theory is now recognized as flawed by all but its most dogmatic adherents.

- Finally, Zarqa Nawaz writes about Saint-Apollinaire's embarrassing rejection of a cemetery for Quebec City Muslims.

New column day

Here, on the noteworthy successes of the first year of Regina's Housing First program - along with the appalling failure of our provincial and municipal governments to fund a full version.

For further reading...
- CBC reported on the program as it was introduced, while Kendall Latimer followed up with a report from this week's anniversary announcement.
- Regina Homelessness offers both background information on the state of housing and homelessness in Regina, as well as a summary of the results of Housing First.
- And finally, even Licia Corbella recognizes the importance of social housing based on the difficulty people face finding a place to live in Calgary and the public costs of homelessness.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Mike Konczal responds to a pathetic attempt to drain the word "neoliberal" of all meaning (which seems to have won favour with Canadian Libs desperately trying to disassociate themselves from their own governing ideology) by discussing its application in both the political and economic spheres. And Steven Hall examines how neoliberal economics have been a failure even on their own narrowly-focused terms:
Sure, growth for the sake of growth is not what we should aim for — it is indeed ‘the ideology of the cancer cell’, to use the words of Edward Abbey. But there is no evidence that less progressive taxes have promoted growth anyway. There is no evidence that more inequality has contributed towards growth. There is no evidence that deregulation has contributed to growth or to stability or social well-being. There is no credible evidence that trickle-down economics works. None whatsoever. It is a fallacy. An article of faith, perhaps — but not of science.

Almost everything which almost all policy makers have taken for granted and asked us to take for granted for more than a generation has been proved wrong. We were closer to the truth, it seems, in the 1950s and 60s, and there must be some lessons for us there.
- Meanwhile, Nick Bunker points out new research suggesting that corporate concentration and a lack of meaningful competition is a major factor in the decline of business investment over the past few decades.

- Scott Sinclair, Stuart Trew and Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood review the U.S.' plans for NAFTA renegotiations. Lawrence Herman points out a few of the U.S. demands which would most clearly tilt the playing field against Canada. And Michael Geist offers some suggestions as to what Canada should be asking for to protect our interests in intellectual property freedoms and the protection of individual data.

- But for anybody hoping for a strong Canadian position, Linda McQuaig notes that the Trudeau Libs have already demonstrated their eagerness to capitulate to Donald Trump's most senseless demands by announcing gigantic military expenditures for no apparent reason.

- Finally, Andre Picard weighs in on how Canada's continued poor ranking among our international peers shows the need for more and better investment in our health care system.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Feline oversight.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Tom Parkin writes that the economic boost provided by an expanded child benefit offers another indication of how action to fight poverty ultimately helps everybody. And Dylan Matthews discusses how much more could be done through a well-designed basic income - while recognizing the pitfalls of pale imitations.

- Ginella Massa reports on a rent strike among Toronto tenants which has brought landlords to the table to discuss rents as a clear demonstration that collective action can achieve substantive results.

- Annabelle Olivier reports on Quebec's deal with generic drug manufacturers to reduce drug costs by $300 million per year. But Martin Regg Cohn notes that Canada's provinces can do far more to make prescription drugs affordable by cooperating to make pharmacare a national priority - including by making sure the public interest in affordable medication is protected in any future NAFTA discussions.

- Meanwhile, Kelly Grant points out that Canada ranks poorly compared to other developed countries in health outcomes due largely to patchy access to dental care and needed medications.

- Debi Daviau notes that the public pays the price when essential support services for program delivery are put in corporate hands. 

- Finally, Thomas Woodley discusses how the Trudeau Libs have followed the Harper Cons' pattern of tacitly supporting the proliferation of nuclear weapons rather than pushing for disarmament.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- The Guardian's editorial board weighs in on the undue gains going to the 1% while everybody else faces stagnation or worse:
While the rest of society have shared in an equality of misery following the crash, the top 1% – households with incomes of £275,000 – have now recovered all the ground they lost during the world’s worst post-second world war slump. The share of income going to the very richest is now 8.5%. That’s double their share in 1985. The question has to be asked: has the value of the 1% in society doubled in the last 20 years? What have all these higher earners – in the City or in the boardrooms – done that has been so socially useful to see their share of total wages go up so much?

It’s not that we are richer as a nation. The economy is about £300bn smaller than would be expected if the crash had not happened. Remember the recession was caused by the financial sector’s innovations – the excessive leverage; the perverse incentives; the fraudulent promotion of risky products as safe – and its promotion that greed was the ultimate good. While public spending as a proportion of GDP might be roughly constant since the crash, the country’s needs are higher, so there’s a feeling of less to go round. This has happened while there’s been a quiet secession of the successful.

All the rise in inequality is due to this group racing away with the goodies from the economy, while the rest of us are being squeezed closer together. For the very wealthy, rules are bent to suit their needs. When a dividend tax was readied for 2016-17, the very wealthy took their payments early and avoided £800m, money that could have been used for schools and hospitals. More than £100m of that tax saving was enjoyed by 100 people. Can you imagine a supermarket worker asking to bring forward his pay to avoid a tax charge? The richest in our society are not worth the rewards they give themselves. It’s because they have captured ideologically the political process that these absurdities continue.
- Meanwhile, Katie Forster discusses new research showing a severe spike in anxiety and depression among UK residents facing austerian welfare cuts.  

- David Crouch reports on Sweden's renewed effort to rein in inequality - though it too has decades of corporatist damage to repair.

- CBC reports on Calgary's closure of social housing units due to a lack of means to repair them. And Rebecca Marroquin reports that Saskatchewan's domestic abuse shelters are operating at capacity (and thus having to turn away or waitlist spouses in need of a safe place to stay).

- Maura Forrest highlights the dysfunction behind the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. And Gloria Galloway points out that First Nations are trying to address the child suicide crisis which has seen so little national attention - but need stable funding to make real progress.

- Finally, Terry Glavin criticizes the Libs' chumminess with an abusive Chinese regime - which is put in stark relief by the death of human rights activist and Nobel laureate Liu Ziaobo.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Larry Elliott reports on a Resolution Foundation study showing that while the UK's 1% has fully recovered from the 2008 financial crash, the rest of the population hasn't been so lucky and has faced extended stagnation at best:
Families on low and middle incomes had seen their living standards rise by just 3% since 2002-03. Once housing costs had been taken into account they were no better off than they were 15 years ago. Two in five said they were unable to afford to save £10 per month, while 42% say they could not afford a week away on holiday at least once a year, up from 37% before the financial crisis.

Adam Corlett, senior economic analyst at the Resolution Foundation, said: “The incomes of the top 1% took a short, sharp hit following the financial crisis. But they’ve recovered rapidly since and the very richest households have now seen their share of the nation’s income return to very high pre-crisis levels.

“In contrast, for millions of young and lower-income families the current slowdown comes on top of a tough decade for living standards, providing a bleak economic backdrop to the shock election result.
- Meanwhile, the North York Harvest Food Bank talks to Elaine Power about the potential benefits of a basic income - including relieving individual economic stress. And Jessica Bohon tells her story about the social stigma attached to poverty.

- Sara Mojtehedzadeh reports on the rise in the number of temporary employment agencies in Ontario, while highlighting that their main purpose is to keep workers in precarious situations. And the Economist points out that many abuses could be avoided simply by enforcing existing employment protections.

- David Bell takes note of the predictable public health effects of the removal of fluoride from Calgary's water supply.

- Finally, Tim Gray highlights the massive liabilities being left behind by the tar sands which look to exceed every nickel oil companies have paid (or are expected to pay) in royalties.