Friday, December 31, 2010

Musical interlude

An early video for a cold New Year's night.

Watchmen - Any Day Now

Friday Afternoon Links

To help pass the time until the event apparently taking place at midnight.

- Aaron Wherry's year-end column is well worth a read in general. But it's particularly worth highlighting this piece:
(F)rom the far end of the room, often this year there was Mr. Harris and his gruff Newfoundland brogue (or perhaps it’s more of a twang). Here sometimes seemed a man who would set his teeth into your pant leg and not let go. That he and (the NDP) refused to go along with the negotiated agreement that followed the Speaker’s ruling and that they now pursue the participants from the outside is perhaps the only reason to believe the process will come to anything. Surely, if only to avoid proving them right, the Liberals and Bloc will be compelled to carry out their duties. Such is democracy. Or so we can hope.
Not that there's been much reason for optimism yet, mind you...

- LRT has some ideas on how an effort to offer big political choices rather than the usual microtargeted minutiae could result in much-needed change.

- Kelly McParland nicely illustrates why it's a sucker's bet for a self-identified progressive party to go out of its way to try to please the corporate sector. After a year where the McGuinty government gave business billions in free money by both slashing corporate tax rates and implementing the HST which exempts it from paying consumption taxes, it's treated to this from somebody who would seemingly agree entirely with its direction:
(W)e would settle for an incremental change: If Mr. McGuinty merely ceased forcing the province's corporations to pay for his grandiose ideas, Ontario might once again attract the investment it needs to be the engine of our economic growth.
- And finally, now's the time to get in one last donation in 2010.

On dangerous repetition

Yesterday, I noted that the Libs might want to be a bit more careful in echoing the CTF's message about supposed tax increases. Now, Andrew Jackson offers a better reason: that the CTF's claims are flat-out wrong in a way that distorts the purpose of vital social programs:
(A)ctually..., there has been no increase in the CPP contribution rate for 2011. True, the earning ceiling has been raised in line with average earnings, but that is not a real tax increase on two counts. First, there is no inflation adjusted increase at all for anyone, least of all anyone earning below the earnings ceiling. Second, the increased contribution ceiling will be rewarded down the road with a higher benefit, so it is not really a tax at all let alone a tax increase.

As for EI, yes the premium rate is being hiked marginally, from 1.73% to 1.78% for employees. (The horror! The horror!) This is just one third of what would have been required to balance the EI account moving forward. And the rise in the EI Account deficit over 2009 and 2010 was almost entirely attributable to increased payouts of regular benefits as a result of the recession (to the tune of some $10 Billion over two years), not to maternity/parental/sickness and compassionate care benefits which were unchanged in 2010. There was a very modest increase in EI funded training, most of that going to income benefits for unemployed workers being retrained.

Same old story, corporate taxes edition

I'm sure we'll still see the media cheerleading for the Libs' sad excuse for a choice on corporate tax slashing. But Scott Brison gives the game away by making it clear that the difference between his party and the Cons is somewhere between slim and nonexistent:
"It's a major expenditure and it significantly impacts the fiscal capacity of the country, so we would view it as essential that the government reverse its position on that issue," said Liberal legislator Scott Brison.

The Liberals support the tax cuts but only at a later date after Ottawa has eliminated its budget deficit, he said.
In other words, the Libs figure Canadians' choice should be limited to deciding whether corporate tax cuts are seen as priority #1 - as they are for the Cons, and normally are for the Libs as well - or whether they're priority #2, to be put in place as soon as enough programs can be slashed to cover their cost.

Needless to say, Brison's stance makes it clear that anybody who figures that yet another round of gratuitous giveaways to profitable corporations shouldn't be a top priority at all won't find any more of a receptive ear among the Libs than the Cons. And with the Libs making clear that their much-overhyped argument over corporate tax cuts is only a matter of when rather than if, hopefully media commentators will stop pretending there's any difference in substance between the two parties who have done nothing but encourage a race to the bottom for over a decade.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

And if you don't like those principles, we've got others

The Libs' deeply-held beliefs on corporate tax slashing, circa September 2008:
Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion flatly rejected forming a coalition government with the New Democrats today on the heels of hints from NDP Leader Jack Layton that he'd be open to the idea.

Mr. Dion, speaking after an address to a Vancouver-area business crowd today, said he could not work with Mr. Layton in this way because the NDP leader wants to hike taxes on business.
The Libs' deeply-held beliefs on corporate tax slashing, circa December 2010:
Liberal MPs today called on the NDP to demand the cancellation of Conservative corporate tax breaks at a time of deficit in favour of easing the economic pressures on average Canadian families.
“We’re disappointed that the Conservatives ignored our advice to stop borrowing money to cut taxes for our largest corporations,” said Mr. Regan. “Now it falls to the NDP to take a principled stand in favour of middle-class families by refusing to support the Conservatives’ unaffordable corporate tax cut plan.”
Of course, it's anybody's guess what the Libs think they're accomplishing in merely challenging the NDP to further reinforce its own long-held position that other priorities deserve more attention than giveaways to big business. But having done plenty to push the Cons to slash corporate taxes in the past, the Libs are the last party to have any credibility in pretending to stand up for the interests of ordinary Canadians when their needs are lined up against the greed of the corporate sector.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Scott Brison is partly right in dismissing the Con-based talk about a possible agreement with the NDP on the budget. But the story only seems to have gone anywhere because the Libs themselves have been so eager to parrot the Cons' spin that the NDP would support the Harper government notwithstanding that its position has been clear on the Cons' corporatist focus:
Mr. Mulcair said the NDP wants future corporate cuts to be more targeted to ensure companies are investing in jobs and productivity.

“If the budget includes the same type of blind, across-the-board corporate tax cut that the Conservatives have been doing in the past, it is highly unlikely that the NDP caucus would ever be able to support such a budget,” said Mr. Mulcair.
- John Ibbitson's year-end review of the Cons nicely highlights Stephen Harper's seven-dimensional ultrachess at work:
The morning of the vote, Lawrence Cannon arrived at the United Nations absolutely confident that Canada would win a temporary seat on the Security Council, according to someone who was close to the situation. His diplomats had assured him they had more than enough written and verbal commitments to win one of the two seats up for grabs.

When Canada came up short on the first round of voting, the Foreign Affairs Minister “was absolutely astounded,” according to one source. So certain were the Canadians of victory in the first round, they lacked a strategy to build momentum in the second round. The delegation sat there, dumbfounded, as votes drained away.
And once again, it's well worth wondering whether the Cons' hubris may well result in similarly surprising results at home.

- Yes, I understand the appeal of using anti-tax language against the Cons. But can we agree that a message that the CPP and EI should be seen as "common villains" might not be one that deserves repeating?

- And finally, Preston Manning offers up a short story about the Underpants Gnome Privatization Theory of Health Care. I'd suggest that he stick to his day job, but he's probably doing less damage as long as he's writing extremely short fiction.


As one more follow-up point on last night's post, it's worth noting that the Cons' public position before they precipitated the 2008 election runs thoroughly contradicts their current spin that they'll never accept a "deal" with another party (particularly the Bloc) in order to stay in power. In reality, the Cons didn't just pursue such a deal with all parties including the Bloc, but they made a show of demanding one - with the only difference being that the other party involved was expected to receive nothing in return besides the privilege of propping up Harper.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Correcting the record

Following up on this post, Paul Wells's series of tweets this afternoon looks to serve as compelling evidence that even the best and most skeptical political commentator can sometimes be completely and utterly spun by the Harper Cons. So let's compare Wells' recollection of the summer of 2008 to what the opposition leaders actually said at the time.

Here's Wells:
But why did Harper call an election in 2008? (As I put on my pith helmet and delve into the ancient history of 2 years ago)...

...Because the other three parties *had decided to bring him down.* He actually met with each of them at 24 to be sure.

But knowing he'd be in an election at their hand in three weeks, he went earlier. He might do the same again. But only if they line up again.
So let's compare Wells' recollection to the actual interplay between the Cons and Stephane Dion when he met with Harper:
The prime minister has met with other opposition leaders in the past few days to determine whether there is common ground to avoid a fall election and to secure their support on an agenda for the fall session of Parliament.

Meetings with NDP Leader Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois, however, followed a similar script: the opposition leaders emerged to say Harper is intent on calling an election this week, with a vote to be held in mid-October.

Opposition leaders could avoid an election if they provided some certainty that legislation could be passed during the upcoming session of Parliament, Teneycke said Monday.

Dion, however, said he refused to provide Harper with a "blank cheque" when asked if he would support the government until October 2009.

"Because he's confusing two things. Does the Parliament work? The answer is yes. Does the government have the certainty to survive? The answer is no.
Which roughly corresponds with my recollection of the time period. Unless Wells is privy to information that I don't recall hearing then or since, there was no evidence whatsoever that the opposition parties had teamed up to bring down the Cons in the fall of 2008: Dion wasn't showing any particular sign of fighting back and still figured to be willing to roll over at Harper's convenience, while the NDP and Bloc were continuing to vote based on the merits of individual issues rather than having any grand plan in place to force a vote.

So in order to call an election that he wanted in the absence of any realistic prospect that he'd face a non-confidence vote, Harper instead set a new and arbitrary standard of declaring that an election was needed unless somebody was willing to support his party's fall agenda in toto. Yet even in response to the developing certainty that Harper was pushing for an election, Dion didn't state any intention to bring down the government if the opportunity arose.

So yes, Harper met with each of the opposition leaders - but for the obvious purpose of putting a facade of legitimacy on his own apparent decision to call an election. And if even Wells has managed to buy the Cons' always-implausible line about their intentions the last time they decided an election was in their interests, I'd think it's only all the more likely that we'll see Harper figure he can once again precipitate a trip to the polls on his own schedule without wearing any consequences.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

On windows

Paul Wells looks to me to follow the right analysis about what has to happen to provoke a federal election to exactly the wrong conclusion.

Yes, it's highly unlikely that the three opposition parties will all want an election at the same time, making it a remote possibility at best that we'll see a trip to the polls caused by a non-confidence vote. And I'd add the further caveat that nearly any situation where all three opposition parties see it as favourable will likely come about only if the Cons are in free-fall in the polls - meaning that Harper would be likely to rely on his hard-won prorogation precedents to shut down any such vote before it happens.

But that means that whatever window Wells is pointing to involves a four-way game of chicken among parties who all have enough reason for optimism to see themselves having something to gain out of an election at the same time. And trying to plan election windows around that kind of rare confluence of political interests looks to me to be futile.

In contrast, given that the Cons' fixed election date legislation isn't worth the paper it's printed on, there's still an opening for the Cons themselves to call an election anytime. And it seems at least as plausible that they might prefer a fatigued public this fall to the other available windows in trying to parlay their 38% of the vote into a razor-thin majority as that they'd prefer to go this spring.

In other words, the election window is always open when the Cons want it - and probably not if they don't. Which means that the parties' current roles should probably be seen as reversed from the conventional wisdom - with the opposition mostly having the power to bait the Cons into thinking it's in their interest to call or force an election, while Harper holds the sole power to decide when that's actually the case.

Deep thought

A newspaper's year-end advice to a political party might be taken more seriously if it isn't illustrated with a year-plus-old stunt from a competitor's political staff.

Wednesday Morning Links

Content goes here.

- Linda McQuaig's latest column builds on the inequality theme of The Trouble With Billionaires, pointing out how wealth turns into other forms of power as well:
The wealthy exert influence not just through campaign contributions, but at every stage of the political process: in the forming of political parties, the writing of party platforms, the selection of candidates, the drafting and amending of legislation, not to mention the shaping of public opinion through think-tanks and media ownership.

The wealthy also often employ a form of blackmail, either directly or indirectly threatening they'll leave the country if governments don't capitulate to their demands for lower taxes. While it's hard to imagine political leaders caving in to similar threats from other groups -- say, electricians or teachers -- the sheer economic power of the wealthy seems to quickly bring governments to heel.
- Which would surely make for yet another point of confusion for Rafe Mair's Man from Mars:
Our Man from Mars would look at how we run our business affairs and would be struck by the way large pools of capital form themselves into corporations that can't be controlled. How would we expect them to be controlled when the people who want nice comfy laws finance the governing party which makes up the rules?

MFM would note that corporations spend huge sums anaesthetizing the public with full paid ads on every aspect of life telling the bumpkins what wonderful corporate citizens they are and how all their decisions were for the good of all. These ads make no reference to the fact that their only obligation is to make money for the shareholder and their good behaviour is in the hands of a friendly, indeed compliant, government.
Our Man from Mars, writing his report, would conclude that western democracies call themselves democracies much like communist countries once did. On being questioned about the liberties of citizens as compared to places like China, he would be bound to conclude that these Canadians have more freedom but that's steadily eroding and that, besides, the free speech in this country is about as effective as going out in a boat by yourself and shouting damnation on the powers that dictate and enforce.
- And as if to prove Mair's and McQuaig's points, here's Neil Reynolds predictably beating the drum for tax cuts even when they contradict his own data:
Canadian tax-collection statistics suggest that this supply-side law may well be operative here – only more so. On average, we remit to the federal government only 16.6 per cent of GDP in taxes regardless of rates. In the 1960s, it was 15.9 per cent of GDP. In the 1970s, 17.3 per cent. In the 1980s, 15.5 per cent. In the 1990s, 17.7 per cent. (From 2001 through 2009, reflecting a serious recession, revenue from all tax sources fell to 14.3 per cent.)
For those keeping track, that would make for a 3.4% difference between the 1990s (when taxes were hiked in order to balance budgets) and the 2000s (when taxes were lowered as the first order of business once deficits were brought down) - included in Reynolds' column in support of the theory that tax rates don't affect revenue. But fortunately, he's on the right side of the corporate media, so he'll be taken far more seriously than those of us who actually look at the numbers.

[Update: For a more thorough debunking, see Erin's post.]

- Meanwhile, Colby Cosh is right to note that "disappearing middle class" isn't necessarily the right term for extreme wealth inequality, and that "between neighbourhood" comparisons probably aren't the best way of analyzing the disparity. But can we also agree that it's worth doing something to address the danger of a "new Gilded Age, a realm of pervasively low marginal taxes and new deregulated industries" once we've removed those less-obvious problems from the picture?

- Finally, Ned Franks nicely connects the dots between the Cons' unproductive Parliaments in terms of the number of bills passed, and the fact that they've used omnibus budget bills to pass major changes without serious review:
n terms of productivity, Parliament has reached a new low. According to Franks, only 45 per cent of the bills introduced by the Harper government thus far have actually made it through the entire legislative process to royal assent.

And that can't all be blamed on the tribulations of running a minority government. Franks' records show the minority government of Lester Pearson during the 1960s managed to see 86 per cent of its bills through to royal assent.

The Trudeau government (both minority and majority) managed 72 per cent, Mulroney's majority government hit 83 per cent and Chretien's majority batted 69 per cent.

Since the Second World War, the number of bills receiving royal assent each year has declined steadily from an average of 67 a year during the King-St. Laurent era to 27 under Harper.

That doesn't necessarily mean the Harper government is legislating less. Franks said the government pushed about half of a normal year's legislation through in a single bill — this year's massive budget implementation bill which included varied measures dealing with all manner of subjects from environmental assessments to the post office to the future of Canada's atomic energy industry.

Franks finds the trend to omnibus bills particularly worrisome since it short-circuits the whole point of parliamentary scrutiny in a healthy democracy.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Holiday cats.

Some assembly required.

Present and accounted for.

On open races

Last week, Paul Wells rightly pointed out that the main purpose of the Cons' (however laughable) Senate appointment and campaign launch for Larry Smith figures to have been to make inroads into one of the last remaining pieces of relatively unchallenged Lib territory in the country. But in the other note from Lawrence Martin's column on Thomas Mulcair that deserves attention, it won't be the Cons alone looking to test the opportunities available in Montreal:
In Quebec, where the NDP’s media presence has grown exponentially since Mr. Mulcair donned the party’s garments in 2007, the New Democrats placed second in several recent polls, behind the Bloc Québécois. Gains are particularly noticeable among francophone voters. Although Mr. Mulcair is an anglophone, he speaks predominantly French and is even more forceful in his second tongue than his first.

The party has expectations of winning the riding of Gatineau, where their candidate, Françoise Boivin, a former Liberal MP, lost narrowly last time out. The Dippers have a good shot in Hull and in a few Liberal-held ridings in Montreal, where they’ve lined up some high-profile candidates they’ll be announcing when the right moment arises.
Now, it's worth noting that the choice to wait for "the right moment" looks to make for a departure from the usual strategy of getting the earliest start possible in trying to challenge a stronghold seat. But it'll nonetheless be worth watching who ends up on the NDP's side in trying to convert the party's growing Quebec popularity into seats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday.

- Dan Lett points out who holds the ultimate power to force the political class to act more responsibly:
Despite the fact political leadership is as important now as it has ever been, voters spend most of their time complaining. They will lament the lack of choice among the parties. They will complain about a charisma deficit in our party leaders, a lack of new ideas, negative political advertising, and broken moral compasses. The worst part is that along with the heightening and increasingly shrill whining, fewer of us are voting. The 2008 federal election had the lowest turnout in history at just over 58 per cent. Provincial and municipal election voter turnout has suffered the same fate.

In the same vein as 'you get what you pay for,' it's pretty safe to say that if you trade in your election ballot for moans and whines, you'll get the government you deserve. Remember, those parties so many of us dislike are out there poking and prodding and doing their own polling. When you see their policies and pledges, you can bet a lot of it was exactly what we told them we wanted.
(T)hat's what the federal political system needs more than ever. A profound, forceful, definitive electorate that will reassert itself on the political stage. With all the moaning and whining, recall petitions and referendums, we've forgotten voters have always had the power to make a difference.
- Meanwhile, Sarah Barmak highlights why the Libs don't figure to be in a position to meet any demand for more substantive politics anytime soon:
Ignatieff is still searching for the right way to reach Canadian voters, and he seems to be trying a different tack every week. In an interview with the Star earlier this month, he attempted to align the Liberals with newly elected Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s successful platform of good customer service.

“We want value for money from our taxes. It’s not a message that’s anti-Liberal,” Ignatieff said.

The message is not specifically anti-Liberal, but it’s not pro-Liberal, either. Such attempts to make the Big Red Tent everything to everyone have been hallmarks of Ignatieff’s reign. But they risk watering down voters’ understanding of Liberal policies — and perhaps alienating those on the left who want the Liberals to rebuild social safety nets, not worry about “value for money.”
- Michael Norton and Dan Ariely's chart on views about wealth distribution has been making the rounds again, with most of the focus on the gap between how wealth is perceived to be distributed and how it actually is. But I find it even more interesting that even from a starting point that assumes less inequality than actually exists, every single group of people polled nonetheless sees the ideal distribution involving far less concentration of wealth - meaning that there's plenty of room to argue for greater equality even before correcting the record as to how distorted the current system has become.

- Finally, Alice's fascinating post on movement among Quebec voters over the past decade-plus is well worth a read.

Steal this message

Thomas Mulcair nicely lays out the argument the Libs will need to pick up to create any real chance of toppling the Harper Cons in the near future:
Mr. Mulcair has no doubt the two parties can work together. “On the centre-left, we have to be just as smart as conservatives were on the centre-right when they coalesced. We’ve got to learn from that, otherwise we’ll end up with Harper governing with 37 per cent of the vote again.”

The NDP, he says, is sending a clear signal. “People can trust us to work with anyone else who wants to give voice to the 65 per cent of Canadians who are asking for a more progressive form of government than what we’ve been getting. This will require everyone to put a little water in their wine.”

Monday, December 27, 2010

On confirmation

I've always been sympathetic to the argument that Michaelle Jean could justify keeping fairly quiet about the 2008 coalition showdown on the basis that it's the job of the politicians involved rather than the GG to argue the constitutional points in public.

But it's certainly a plus to see David Johnston explicitly confirming that he doesn't buy the Cons' attacks on the concept of a coalition government. And hopefully we'll find out before long how his acceptance of multi-party cooperation plays out in practice.

On hostage situations

I've noted before that one of the most dangerous elements of the Cons' efforts to cling to power in facing an impending non-confidence vote was their willingness to do deliberate harm to the country if they didn't get their way, effectively taking Canada hostage in support of their political interests. And at the time, I wondered what the strategy's success might mean in the future.

Now, we may have our answer. Having allowed Harper to succeed in his past hostage strategy, Michael Ignatieff is apparently trying the gambit for himself - declaring that if his party doesn't get its way in wanting to destroy other parties working for (more) progressive change, then the country can't get rid of its current destructive government. And far too many Kool-Aid drinkers seem to be entirely eager to go along with the plan.

So let's make it clear that replacing Harper with someone who's equally eager to subordinate the public interest to his political ends isn't progress at all. Which means that Ignatieff can choose between either acknowledging that his party is better off succeeding in cooperation with other parties than failing on its own - or proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that a vote for Ignatieff is nothing more than a vote for Stephen Harper 2.0.

Nothing but a game

Plenty of others have already commented on Don Cherry's sad attempt to play a Canadian troop in Afghanistan on TV. But it's worth taking a moment to consider how the latest publicity stunt fits into the Cons' general style of government.

It's no great secret that the Cons' domestic strategy has been based on little more than turning public institutions into a massive photo-op generator. And presumably that isn't a difficult strategy for the Cons to justify to themselves: since they don't consider most government to be legitimate or useful anyway, why not use all of its resources to fuel a PR machine?

For the most part, though, they've tried to act a bit more serious in their treatment of the military, especially where Afghanistan is concerned. And that too sense given their desire to push spending toward the military in the longer term by making it look more important than their farcical mimicry of a government at home.

What's significant about the Cherry bombing, then, is that it exposes the Cons' complete lack of any serious interest even in what are supposed to be their core issues. After years of being told that Afghanistan reflected a battle for civilization itself, we now have compelling evidence that they see it too as nothing more than a game, with Canada's actual mission to be shoved aside on a moment's notice for the amusement of a politically-friendly celebrity guest star. And it's well worth wondering whether voters may start to tell them they should play government on their own time and money.

Update: Thwap adds a must-read post on the subject.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Deep thought

I'm pretty sure that if we've learned anything from the 2008 financial meltdown, it's that we want employer-funded pensions to be less secure. Thanks, Deficit Jim Flaherty!

On unshared sacrifices

The decree has gone out: voters in the Atlantic provinces have no choice but to accept a decline in public services in order to cut down on government deficit and debt. But surely they can take solace in that fact that everybody is pitching in, right?

A helpful hint

Michael Ignatieff mindlessly repeating the Libs' decade-old talking points about how votes for more progressive parties don't count: not news.

Michael Ignatieff declaring in the same interview that he's in full agreement with the Cons' plans for a North American security perimeter, giving Stephen Harper yet another gift of political cover on an issue where he's completely at odds with Canada's voters: news.

You're welcome, media. Now please, report the actual news before it's too late.

A slight correction

I generally agree with Stephen Gordon that if the Cons want to have a more effective Parliamentary Budget Officer (and of course all indications are that they don't), part of the answer is to provide the office with sufficient funding to do its work. But there's another element of the picture that strikes me as even more important to the future of the PBO.

After all, the main recent area of contention between Page and the Cons has been the gap between a PBO offering the best analysis possible based on the information available, and a government which is refusing to provide any information about what will have to be cut to meet implausible projections. Which is why it's laughable that the Cons have tried to attack Page's last few sets of numbers by accusing him of failing to take into account information they're hiding from him.

Ultimately, for Page to be able to do his job effectively, the main remaining requirement is for the Cons to stop hiding behind cabinet confidences and other excuses, and start allowing Page to see for himself whether they actually have a plan to meet their budgetary assumptions. And the fact that the Cons prefer instead to undermine the office based on their own choice to withhold information should signal that a more complete review will only confirm the PBO's suspicions that the Cons' numbers lack any basis in reality.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Saturday Afternoon Links

For your holiday reading.

- If you're looking for as concise a survey of the federal political scene as possible for 2010, look no further than John Geddes' review.

- Perhaps the weirdest part of Norman Spector's much-criticized rumourmongering is that it comes from a blogger who's normally a fairly reliable parrot of the Con party line. Which leads me to wonder whether there's something more at play than the obvious: is the choice to publish thoroughly unverified rumours simply a cry for attention by Spector, or is there some concurrent thought that widely-condemned questioning of Stephen Harper's family life in the media might help to make Harper himself seem more sympathetic - making Spector's post a gift to the Cons rather than a slight?

- While I don't agree with his Lib cheerleading, Daniel Veniez is absolutely right about the need for skepticism about the Cons' "economic manager" brand:
It’s a good time to debunk the biggest Stephen Harper myth there is: “We are good economic managers”. Repeating a lie does not make it true.

We need to spend $15 billion on jails because unreported crimes are rising? Don't believe them. We need to stop the long-form census, because the census-takers are going to send you to jail? Don't believe them. We need to kill the long-gun registry, because the police are leading a cult conspiracy to take away everybody's guns? Don't believe them. We awarding a $19 billion untendered contract for new jets because the Russians are coming? Don't believe them. This is a government that is counting on fear, driven by lies, to earn the votes it needs to win again.
- And finally, to celebrate the day: Santa's Privacy Policy.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Musical interlude

Apparently there's some day of significance tomorrow. So let's listen to some related music.

More and Better New Democrats: Daniel Beals for Kingston and the Islands

It's been a few months since I've added to the list of New Democrats deserving of particular attention and support in their local races. But with the year-end donation cutoff fast approaching and a huge opportunity having just opened up in Kingston and the Islands, now seems like the perfect time to highlight Daniel Beals.

The Candidate

One of the perennial questions facing the NDP is how to attract small business owners and operators as supporters and candidates. But it's worth noting that there are already plenty within the party's midst, with Beals serving as a prime example - having worked in the local tourist industry for over a decade, in addition to launching his own game publishing company in 2004.

That said, his background in small businesses doesn't stop Beals from sharing the strong social values which motivate the NDP's base. Indeed, Beals has taken a prominent role within the Campaign to Save Prison Farms, and has proven his interest and skill in pitching a left-wing populist message:

The Riding

Of course, the obvious opening in Kingston and the Islands came when longtime Lib MP and Speaker of the House Peter Milliken announced his intention to step down at the next federal election. While the riding was becoming less and less secure for the Libs even with Milliken as their candidate (as he won by only 7% of the vote in 2008 after posting past wins by as much as 38%), his departure obviously creates an opening for another party to make a strong push for the seat.

And while the Cons would figure to have been next in line as the second-place party in the most recent election, they're facing the prospect of starting from scratch due to the resignation of Brian Abrams, the candidate who brought them to the brink of victory in 2008.

That means that Beals will actually go into the next federal election with a greater head start than his Lib and Con competitors. And there's no reason to think that the riding is unwinnable for an NDP candidate: the provincial NDP won it in 1990, nearly held onto it in 1995, and finished just behind the PCs for second place in 2007, while most recent federal elections have seen the NDP as part of a pack of non-Lib parties fighting for the 2nd through 4th positions. So a drop in the Lib vote should vault the NDP into contention.

The Competitors

Naturally, the Libs don't figure to give up one of their Ontario strongholds without a fight. Ted Hsu won their candidacy after a hotly contested nomination battle which reportedly saw the riding turn at least temporarily into the Libs' top membership base in the country. But it remains to be seen whether his success in the nomination race will translate into general election support.

Meanwhile, the Cons still need to nominate a candidate to replace Abrams, while Green candidate Eric Benoit Walton will also apparently be running for a third consecutive election.

The Plan

With the Cons in flux in the area, now makes for an ideal time to build up Beals' resources so he can assume the mantle of the leading alternative to the Libs heading into an anticipated federal election. The local riding association has all the links you'll need to contact it to volunteer, or you can donate directly - so take a moment to pitch in before the end of 2010.

On growth strategies

Yes, it's appalling that the Cons are looking to lock the federal government into millions of dollars of spending on prison expansion in Edmonton alone. But we shouldn't let them frame the numbers as being smaller than they actually figure to be.

Here's the story which made news yesterday:
According to the request, the Edmonton Max is planning a new maximum security housing unit at an estimated cost of $22.7 million, when adjusted for inflation.

The women’s facility is planning a new, 40-bed living unit.

The size of the proposed men’s expansion and the cost of the women’s unit will be announced next year, Andrews said.
So the $22.7 million number being tossed around only covers part of the planned expansion. (And for anybody looking to claim that the expansion could be based on a responding to needs, it's rather difficult to make that argument when we don't even know how many extra spaces to expect for the allotted money.)

Meanwhile, the other part of the Edmonton prison expansion carries a cost to be determined.

And more importantly, the same process is playing out across the country:
The work is part of a national strategy for prison expansion, (a spokesman for Correctional Services Canada) said.
So while the Cons are looking to rein in or even slash all other kinds of public services, we can look forward to massive piles of public money being used on prisons as long as they remain in power. And it's well worth asking whether Canadians share the Cons' desire to make that one of the country's few growth industries.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

On satisfactory outcomes

It still remains to be seen exactly what Stephen Harper will do to stay in power if the Cons face defeat in the House of Commons after the next federal election. But based on Angus Reid's latest poll about possible election outcomes, at least one of the Cons' previously mooted strategies to cling to power looks to be doomed to failure:
With a Conservative minority government, 44 per cent would not be satisfied while 31 per cent would be content.

A scenario where the Conservatives win more seats than any other single party, but the Liberals and the NDP form a coalition government—having more combined seats than the Conservatives—would leave 31 per cent of Canadians satisfied, and 43 per cent dissatisfied.

Canadians would be most unhappy with a scenario in which the Conservatives win the most seats but the Liberals and NDP form a coalition government with the support of the Bloc Québécois. Only one-in-four Canadians (25%) would be satisfied with this outcome, while half of respondents (50%) would be dissatisfied.
In other words, any thought of "taking it to the people" to override the majority of voters and MPs looks to be entirely misplaced.

In fact, a Lib/NDP government is ever so slightly seen as a better outcome than a Con one even under the poll's artificial assumption that the Cons will end up with the most seats on their own - which can only signal that the Cons won't find a public that's the least bit receptive to spin about their having won an election if they can't hold the support of the House. And even the option of a coalition supported by the Bloc isn't all that much lower in its level of public approval.

Of course, it's also worth noting that absolutely none of the government options presented by Angus Reid meets with more than 34% approval. But that too figures to reflect some serious dissatisfaction with the choices respondents were given - and that might well serve as reason to hope that voters will end up looking for far more options when they actually get to decide for themselves.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading...

- The Edmonton Journal slams Stephen Harper's continued stuffing of the Senate:
(L)et's be clear: when an unelected body thwarts the will of a majority of the elected House of Commons, democracy is not served. It is for the electorate, not a collection of appointed party loyalists, to act as a check on the people's representatives.

But the contrast between the Tories' commitment to the theory of an elected senate and their practice of appointment as a key to getting their way on Parliament Hill does contain contradictions that need to be resolved.

We now have a party supported by less than 40 per cent of the electorate giving itself a majority in the Senate. Doesn't this seem odd? And given the Harper's dislike of resistance from parties representing at least 60 per cent at last count, is he truly committed to a system of Senate election that would accurately reflect popular will?

Some day, perhaps, these puzzles will be solved. In the meantime, decisions of the House of Commons will be enacted. Like them or not, that's as it should be.
- Dylan offers up the definitive response to the Cons' decision to swear in Santa Claus as a Canadian citizen. Though of course it's well worth noting that the Cons had long since devalued any concept of citizenship through their regular attacks on Canadians abroad who should have been able to expect their government's support.

- Deficit Jim Flaherty's year-end message looks to be rather stunning, as the perpetually-wrong finance minister is apparently admitting yet again that the course he's insisted on for the past year - both in terms of expected future growth and the best policy to get there - is wrong on nearly every point. If you're looking for the story the Cons are trying to bury under the Larry Smith controversy, this is it.

- Finally, the Tyee's Crawford Kilian is the latest to comment on Richard Wilkinson's work on inequality. But the point most worth noting from Wilkinson's interview is this:
On the response in Canada:

"So far we haven't seen much response except from Jack Layton."

Always last in line

The latest Wikileaks revelations are being treated as involving some willingness on Jim Prentice's part to regulate the oil sands. But it's worth noting the rather important delay tactics Prentice offered up before he'd even consider lifting a finger on the part of the federal government. Shorter Prentice:

Of course we'll consider regulating the environmental impact of the oil sands someday. But not until after we give Alberta a chance to try first. And the oil industry itself. And Santa Claus' Department of Christmas Wish Fulfillment. And Billy, age 6, from Ponoka. And...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wednesday Afternoon Links

Words and phrases for your mid-week reading.

- Tasha Kheiriddin unloads on Stephen Harper for his latest promise-breaking set of Senate appointments from Senate reformer's perspective:
The case for abolishing the Senate just got another boost with the announcement by newly-minted Senator Larry Smith that he will be seeking a seat in the House of Commons, as the potential Conservative candidate for the Montreal riding of Lac-St-Louis.
That Mr. Smith will collect his $132,000 a year Senate salary, while spending time beating the bushes of Lac-St-Louis – and presumably very little time on the job in Ottawa – is insulting to taxpayers generally, and to the riding’s voters in particular.
So why is Mr. Harper committing a personal foul against a member of his own team? This decision is right up there with axing the mandatory long-form census, and musing about rewriting O Canada: a game plan that drops the ball.
- Dubya at LRT has a radical proposal which would certainly shake up the Canadian political scene:
What I would propose is for the BQ and NDP to begin to work together in Parliament. I would suggest the parties cooperate like the CDU and CSU in Germany. This would have the advantage of making the combined party the official opposition immediately. This would help end the sham that Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party are actually an opposition to the Harper Conservative government. We should always remember the original name of John A. MacDonald’s party was the “Liberal-Conservatives”. It is time to end the sham that the Liberals are an opposition to the elitist-globalist government of Stephen Harper. The Liberals and Conservatives are different factions of the same party vying only for patronage and power. All the while they laugh at the people who think they are different.
(H)ere is what these groups would federate around and for:
1) no austerity in Canada
2) no war for Canada
3) no deficits paid for by people filled with corporate giveaways.

The budget would be the only whipped vote. Every other vote would be free. Yes free. Free like they are supposed to be in a democracy.
Of course, there would likely be some significant obstacles to such cooperation in both parties as they currently stand - and I for one would be inclined to see the NDP work more to pick up Bloc voters than to formally team up with the party. But with some pundits already theorizing that the Bloc may be looking for ways to get around the argument that it can't contribute to the governance of Canada, it's certainly worth contemplating how different the political scene would look if the two parties perpetually dismissed as standing no chance of power could cooperate to get close to it.

- Thomas Walkom traces the current demise of CPP improvements to the rise of the Wildrose Alliance. But I'd think there's reason for suspicion that the federal Cons would have looked for reason not to move ahead with a valuable public program even if Ted Morton hadn't sabotaged the idea.

- Finally, E.J. Dionne's column on the need for progressives to win some business support is worth a read. But I'd argue that there's a big difference between a broader "business community moderately supportive of social reform" and single-issue corporate ally which can turn a specific program to its own ends - and a stronger focus on the former might do a world of good in avoiding the ability of the latter to hijack a progressive agenda.

Well said

Douglas Peters nicely sums up the numbers and principles behind the choice of the CPP or private-sector funds as the federal government's preferred form of retirement savings:
The Howe study uses historical nominal rates of return of 6 per cent (4 per cent real plus 2 per cent inflation) on investments for pensions but reduces such returns to just 3 per cent (1 per cent real plus 2 per cent inflation) for RRSPs and 4.5 per cent (2.5 per cent plus 2 per cent inflation) for defined-contribution Registered Pension Plans (RPPs). The reduction for individuals is the result of “investment-management and other costs” plus the poorer performance levels of individual investments.

What kind of results would these numbers produce for a 30-year-old individual who saves $100 a month in an RRSP for 35 years at an annual return of 3 per cent? What pension would he or she would accumulate?

By contrast, what would the same $100 a month invested in the CPP at an annual return of 6 per cent less the cost of CPP management yield after 35 years?

The CPP investment would yield a pension approximately 80 per cent greater than an investment in RRSPs.
Another that the individual cannot know how much one needs to save for retirement. This is because the individual does not know how long he or she will live. And, in addition, the rate of interest on annuities may be based on government bond rates of say 16 per cent (as in the early 1980s) or just 3 per cent (as is the case now). But the large pension funds like the Canada Pension Fund can estimate quite accurately the life expectancies of the large numbers of its members. Thus the CPP is a far more efficient pension scheme than any individual RRSP or defined-contribution RPPs.

The CPP, then, both lowers the costs to the individual saver as well as reducing the individual’s risk.
(A)n increase in savings, whether from increased CPP premiums or larger RRSP contributions or other savings, has exactly the same effect on the economy.

The exception is that increased RRSP contributions will make the financial institutions better off, while an increase in CPP contributions will make Canadian pensioners better off.

The costs of misdirection

Frances Russell points out the key difference between efforts to deal with inequality and those more narrowly targeted toward poverty alone:
As Linda McQuaig points out in her latest book, The Trouble With Billionaires: "For many on the right and even a surprising number on the left, inequality has become a non-issue, even as it's grown by leaps and bounds... Today, many influential progressives insist that poverty, not inequality, should be the focus... how well the rich are faring is irrelevant."

Exchanging the word inequality for the word poverty makes life easier for governments and the wealthy. Poverty can be addressed by the noblesse oblige of private charity. Inequality can only be addressed by genuine social and economic change.
And I'd think it's worth asking some questions about our current structure of noblesse oblige - even if I'm not sure whether it's even possible to answer them in detail.

After all, there doesn't seem to be much room for doubt that plenty of resources - in both money collected and individual time - get put into charitable fund-raisers through businesses and/or employers. But I'd be curious to see if the time and money put into those efforts can be compared to both the amounts spent on corporate lobbying efforts to reduce the size of government, and the reductions in corporate taxes which have resulted (both of which of course increase the burden on charities while detracting from their intended goals).

And if the work of volunteers and donors is being substantially undercut by the latter forces, then that might be dead giveaway that our current system operates to channel individual philanthropy for the ultimate benefit of those who already have the most - signalling that those taking a broader view of the interests of people in need will be better served spending their time working to change the system.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Funnel cats.

On the bright side

Sure, the bad news is that the Cons have arranged for Larry Smith to campaign for them at public expense. Your money, their candidate, et cetera.

But let's look at the good news as well: assuming Smith does step down from the Senate come election time (a custom that even Michael Fortier didn't dare to break), then at least we'll avoid having to provide him a Senate salary and benefits in the long term - in contrast to one of Harper's non-candidate options to stack the upper chamber. And if Smith's run for the House goes as well as Fortier's, then he may be off the public payroll altogether in short order.

Tuesday Afternoon Links

This and that for your Tuesday.

- Heather Mallick nicely sums up much of the philosophy behind the Cons' train wreck of a pension proposal:
Flaherty seems to regard the CPP as communism. It isn’t. It’s brilliant in a sensible Canadian sort of way. Hard-right governments — American, British and Canadian — are always droning out about “financial literacy.” CAW economist Jim Stanford, who is a director of the Canadian Foundation for Economic Education, points out that this drive, while helpful, also places a greater burden of blame on consumers whose investments tanked recently. It wasn’t the stock market being run like a casino, it was the fault of the dopey investor. Don’t expect the government to help, Flaherty is saying. You’re on your own. (The American Republican phrase is “no government interference.” The British call it “the Big Society.”)
But of course, it's worth keeping in mind the flip side that the financial sector can always count on a giveaway.

- Meanwhile, Michael Shapcott points out reason for concern that a business-first mindset is having a toxic effect on charities which are forced to move outside their intended purposes in the hope of chasing down funding.

- After an election that saw about as solid a showing as was possible without winning a seat, the New Brunswick NDP has a leadership race on its hands. And it'll be particularly interesting to see how the candidates can do in building on the party's positive profile from this year's election campaign.

- And finally, it's certainly progress that the first charges have been laid related to police actions at the G20. But we'll have to wait and see whether the charges against Constable Babak Andalib-Goortani prove to be anything more than an attempt to charge somebody to avoid a more thorough examination of responsibility for the trampling of civil rights in Canada's largest city.

The basic choice

Plenty of others have already weighed in on the current discussion about pensions. But let's simplify the discussion by asking who benefits from each plan being put forward in terms of both beneficiaries and administrators - and how that compares to the rhetoric from each party.

The FLIPP (as brilliantly coined by Andrew Jackson in the first link above) could be slightly worse in terms of the number of people covered. But in terms of beneficiaries, it looks to create a bewildering morass of employers opting in, employees opting out, and plans being created and discontinued with little to no input from the individuals affected. So while it might have some effect on retirement income for some, it hardly figures to add to retirement security for anybody who doesn't have time to make a hobby of monitoring their employer's every move.

In contrast, the obvious winner from an administrative standpoint is the financial sector - which is once again being given massive gifts at a time when the public has every reason for skepticism about its motives. Not only will administration fees from the FLIPP itself add to private-sector bottom lines, but the fact that uncertain private funds are being pitched by the federal government as an equal or superior alternative to a secure public one figures to give the industry a greater foothold for further rent-seeking.

As the Mound of Sound says, that should provide an ideal opportunity for any opposition party to present itself as the defender of the CPP. But instead, the Libs are sticking to their voluntary plan which only looks to benefit people with both a pile of money to sock away, and no idea what to do with it. And it's far from clear that the CPP itself will be better off having to manage individual opt-ins.

So in effect, Canada's two largest parties are giving voters a choice between helping a highly uncertain group of people in order to funnel money to the financial sector, and helping as few people as possible. And all in the name of saving the CPP if you believe their spin.

Naturally, there would seem to be another answer that fits far better with the idea that the CPP should serve as a source of retirement security for all Canadians. That would be to expand the global CPP in terms of both participants and dollar amounts - working through the tax system to make sure that those who aren't currently in line to receive the CPP are added into a universal social safety net.

Of course, the Cons would scream bloody murder at the idea that a public program would provide for everybody, removing the opportunity for the financial sector to skim a percentage off the top. But their senior base may be far less receptive to the argument that some people shouldn't have a secure retirement - making a strengthened CPP into a political winner as well as a policy choice worth pursuing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Rediscovering the forgotten

James Bow's post on the "forgotten bloc" of 40% of Canada's voting public is well worth a read. But as nice as it would be if a single policy or idea can bring enough of them back to the polls to make a difference in the next federal election, I'd think that the longer-term need is to be far more ambitious about both the number of voters brought back, and the means to make that happen.

Let's note by way of example that Canada's current governing party - which has enjoyed a massive fund-raising over its competitors for years - has just announced its intention to write off nearly 40% of Canada's electoral map. And based on the game of inches that we've seen in federal politics over the last few elections, we can expect the other parties to focus on even fewer seats in an effort to win just enough to shift a balance of power in their favour - regardless of how much of the country misses out on any effective presence as a result.

So if we're looking to figure out where the voters are going, a useful starting point is probably to ask how many voters are being written off long before election day - and how much extra effort it will take to bring people back into the political sphere after they've been ignored for several election cycles.

Mind you, James is right to note that a system of proportional representation would put a quick end to the current incentive for parties to narrowly target small segments of the vote in swing seats based on the reality that only a tiny proportion of Canadian votes figure to make a difference in the immediate composition of Parliament. But I don't see any particular hope for PR being put in place anytime soon - at least, not unless we first see some significant change in position among the parties in the House (likely meaning a weak Liberal minority that's willing to make major concessions to a strong NDP).

Absent a change in electoral systems, the best hope looks to me to be a sustained effort from outside groups and individuals to engage disaffected citizens and highlight the importance of government in general and their vote in particular. But it's worth noting that our current political parties face significant reasons to be cautious in their efforts - as the Cons are of course best served by suppressing the vote among all but their core groups, while none of the opposition parties can afford to focus solely on bringing in new voters without inoculating against the risk that they'll prefer another alternative to the Cons.

Of course, there's some good work done by Apathy is Boring, Canadians Advocating Political Participation and others to try to get things started. But there's a long way to go even in reducing the flow of voters tuning out the political system or choosing not to vote while remaining otherwise engaged. And for now, it'll take an effort which may not show many immediate results within our obviously-flawed electoral system to create the conditions for longer-term change.

Monday Afternoon Links

Content goes here.

- For anybody wondering whether the NDP is in a position to keep gaining seats for a fourth consecutive election, the answer looks to be an emphatic yes:
Speaking with QMI Agency in a year-end interview in his Parliament Hill office, Jack Layton said the party is better prepared than ever for an election.

It's booked its campaign plane already, and the party is debt-free, having paid off the last of the 2008 election loan recently.

This year, the NDP also set a new record for fundraising, according to the party's national director, Brad Lavigne, and will be in a position to spend the legal maximum and match the Conservatives dollar-for-dollar for only the second time in the party's history.
- Armine Yalnizyan's Globe and Mail chat on inequality is well worth a look for a survey of the issue. But I find it particularly interesting that the questions look to have been largely either supportive or informational rather than seriously challenging Yalnizyan's viewpoint: after all, can one imagine a chat topic more suited to an astroturfing effort?

- But maybe the corporate sector is more interested in larger institutions rather than one-time chats even in major media outlets. And Erin notes that the World Bank is issuing reports effectively calling for nonstop corporate tax cutting - even though it would seem to have a strong incentive to make sure countries have enough revenue to make payments to it.

- Finally, let's play "spot the flaw" with Andrew Coyne's latest conclusion:
In 2001, when Bush first proposed his tax cuts, the top one per cent of taxpayers earned 18 per cent of all income and paid 34 per cent of all federal income taxes. By 2008, they were earning 22 per cent of the income, and paying 38 per cent of the taxes. Would it be so bad if they went back to paying the same share they did in the Clinton years?
That's right: even leaving aside the lack of context as to how the income and tax levels relate to each other, Coyne happily ignores his own numbers on increased incomes among those making the most money in proposing that their share should never go up - meaning that his "would it be so bad?" appeal is for the other 99% of the population to pay the same share as before with 4% less of the income. And anybody looking for some means of moving the income levels as well as the tax levels back to Clinton-era levels will of course find nothing of the sort from Coyne.

Advice worth ignoring

Shorter Jim Flaherty:

In order to avoid the same fiscal risks facing the European Union as a whole, we must follow the lead of its most devastated member.

On selective standards

Ipsos Reid's poll on perceptions of government action is being portrayed as representing an even split between issues which are favourable and unfavourable to the Cons. But before drawing any strong conclusions, it's worth noting how the poll was perfectly tailored to fit the Cons' messaging:
For its survey, Ipsos Reid asked Canadians if they thought the federal government was “getting things done” on various issues.

Here are the areas where a majority think the government is getting things done:
However, there are some other issues where a majority of Canadians think the government is “not getting anything done.”
Now, it's first worth noting that the choice offered to respondents makes for a rather incomplete picture. In theory, it's entirely possible to be seen as "getting things done" while believing that the actions taken are too slow, or represent the wrong choices to deal with a topic. So even absent some other distorting factor, the nominally positive responses are likely to signal that a respondent has heard the Cons talk about an issue - not that there's any particular agreement with the action taken.

But the larger problem is that the "getting things done" language perfectly mirrors the Cons' own choice of spin on their time in government - which means that Ipsos Reid's poll figures to do little but test and reinforce a message the Cons have spent plenty of time and money advertising to the Canadian public.

Once those factors are taken into account, it's downright remarkable that there's an even split between issues where the Cons are seen as associated with their own spin, and those where they're seen as doing nothing at all. And that fact would seem to suggest that a message about the Cons as a do-nothing government has plenty of room for a positive response.

Pop quiz

One lobbyist (indeed, a lobbyist for lobbyists) makes a jaw-dropping claim in trying to contain the fallout from the Cons' selective leaking of budget consultation documents to a few of his kind:
"I would argue it doesn't help our reputation and that's unfortunate," said Charles King, president of the Government Relations Institute of Canada, a lobbying industry association. "Lobbying is a legal, constitutionally mandated [activity]. We play a very important process in policy development and I would argue we still continue to do that."
Your mission, should you choose to accept it: review the Constitution Act, 1867 and Constitution Act, 1982 and identify where private-sector lobbying is "mandated".

(Though in fairness to King, I'm sure he has some ideas as to how to change the current constitution to make sure the lobbying sector has a guaranteed place in our system of government.)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

On big messages: Economic Diversity

Dan Gardner worries about a lack of inspiring material in the federal NDP's economic vision as expressed through at least one interview with Jack Layton. And he's not without a point when it comes to the message put forward by Layton in that interaction.

But I don't entirely buy the argument that there aren't any ideas the NDP can put forward which will reframe economic issues in a way that plays to its strengths. I'll be suggesting a few in the next little while, and of course will be interested to hear any other suggestions that readers may have to offer.

To start off with, let's consider the concept of economic diversity as a possible theme for the NDP and other progressive voices.

At the moment, the operating assumption for most centre-to-right parties looks to be that corporate production is the primary (if not only) valid form of economic activity. In some cases, that's taken as reason to have the public sector do nothing whatsoever based on the idea that the market shall provide; in others, it's taken as reason to limit the scope of government activity to contracting with business to provide services for profit. But the overall assumption is that the vast majority of economic activity should be organized around profit through private-sector corporations.

And that looks to be an assumption that's ripe for a serious challenge.

In theory, it's not hard to envision different types of economic activity which may have profit as only one of many motives - whether through direct public-sector activity, through not-for-profit or community associations, or through worker ownership. Indeed, all of those exist to some extent now - if in forms which are generally losing ground due to the corporate takeover of public policy development.

And intuitively, it would make sense that greater balance between those types of activities and private for-profit business would both provide a means to meet ends which are desirable but not profitable, and serve to smooth out the cycle of bubbles and crashes that can't be seen as anything other than an inevitable consequence of the for-profit mindset going unchallenged within a society.

Needless to say, now would seem to be exactly the time to ask whether the extreme forces that managed to topple economies around the world over the past couple of years might be far better reined in if they don't dominate the economic picture to the extent that they do. And a compelling case that capitalism itself can turn into a self-serving monopoly if it faces no competition may well bring nationalism and wealth redistribution back into the picture - along with many other policy ideas - as a means of reaching the broader goal of economic diversity.

On holdups

One more side note before I deal with the substance of the Cons' sudden reversal on pensions.

It's surely worth pointing out that the lone apparent explanation for not improving the Canada Pension Plan is the opposition of a single province which wouldn't have the ability to actually block any changes under the applicable amending formula. And combining that fact with the Cons' regular insistence that they don't see the federal government having any role in social spending, it's then worth asking: does this mean that Alberta now has a veto over all national social programs?

A friendly reminder

I generally agree with Warren Kinsella's theory that the Cons' plans to ship yet another chunk of Canadian sovereignty to Washington - in exchange for the bare hope that this time the U.S. will stop clogging up the border - should make for a powerful political issue for Canada's opposition parties.

But before anybody tries to claim that it doesn't matter which of NDP or Libs takes the lead on the issue, it's well worth pointing out that the Libs were working on exactly the same project the last time they were in power. And indeed after the last time the Libs campaigned against a trade agreement, they did nothing but expand it once they took power.

So if the Cons' current integration project raises many of the same opportunities used by the Libs in 1988, there's every reason to hope for a different outcome both on the policy itself, and in the party which earns the most benefit from it.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saturday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Gerald Caplan follows up on one of the anecdotes from Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks' The Trouble With Billionaires, and finds that it's even worse than first suspected:
As it happens, two weeks after their book was completed, Ms. McQuaig received the actual Memorandum of Agreement between the Munk Foundation and the governing council of U of T, dated Nov. 23, 2009 and duly signed by both. (It’s now been made accessible by the university here.) The memorandum, which I hope will be reproduced in the paperback version of The Trouble With Billionaires, makes the book’s concerns quite plausible.
The funds from the Munk Foundation (with generous tax reductions) are to be donated over time. Only a portion will be donated up front. After that, “the university shall provide to the Donor in each year a detailed report indicating … a description of the program initiatives and activities of the School.” Then the school’s director “shall meet annually with the Donor’s Board of Directors” to discuss these matters “in greater detail.” Beyond all this, an additional tax-deductible gift of $15-million will be handed over if the Munk Foundation determines the university has achieved certain assigned objectives. “The determination of whether the University has achieved the Objective shall be solely that of the Donor and ... shall be conclusive and binding on the University.”

The university insists these words really mean nothing. But look at them again. These are carefully sculpted clauses. Why include them at all if they’re inconsequential? Why isn’t it a reasonable interpretation that further Munk Foundation donations will depend on whether it approves the programs the new school – sorry, Munk School, as the memorandum rigorously stipulates – is running? Is this institution likely to initiate a major project on the operations of Canadian mines in poor countries? What’re the chances it might consider adding to its faculty a certain Linda McQuaig, one of Canada’s indispensable public intellectuals who’s published far more than the great majority of tenured academics?
- Jim Meek points out that the government telling Canadians to cut down on their expenses is choosing not to take basic steps to allow them to do so:
Everyone from Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney to Prime Minister Stephen Harper is cautioning Canadians about their "debt problem," and asking us to fix it. We’re being told to stop spending, or risk going to the poor house.

I find this more than passing strange, inside a country whose citizens pay their fair share of taxes to debt-laden governments. Those governments, in turn, fail to take obvious steps to ease consumer debt. A good start would be tackling Canada’s high-priced credit card fees, mobile phone costs and management charges on mutual funds. (We’re world leaders in letting these sectors act like monopolies in ripping off consumers.)
Government should clean up its own act, instead of wagging its Big Brother finger at consumers.

And while our moral prefects on the Rideau are fixing the country, here’s what they should really do about debt: Bring sane regulations to bear on the nation’s predatory credit card, telecommunications and mutual fund industries. And instead of telling Canadians how to live, government should learn to manage its own out-of-control spending. After all, Ottawa’s debt is now soaring by $124-million a day.
- Sadly, Stephen Maher is probably right in his suggestion as to what the Cons likely want out of their appointed "watchdogs":
Ouimet received 228 complaints of wrongdoing by civil servants, but launched only five investigations and found no wrongdoing, accepting weak excuses from managers over the complaints of whistleblowers. Rather than defending vulnerable public servants from reprisals, she actually launched a reprisal campaign against one of her employees because she suspected he had gone to Fraser.

Because he didn’t keep his promise to set up an appointments commission, Harper is responsible for her appointment, although the blame likely belongs with the Privy Council Office mandarins, who chose Ouimet — a lifelong public servant — likely in the belief that she would be a cautious and respectful watchdog.

Instead, though, she brought the office into disrepute. They — and Harper — would no doubt have preferred it if she behaved like ethics commissioner Mary Dawson, who creates the illusion of oversight while inventing creative loopholes for the politicians whose doings she is supposed to oversee.
- Finally, let's note the results of some of Barack Obama's fund-raising experiments - showing among other lessons that a "learn more" button does better in attracting than a more overt reference to signing up for a list. Though I'm curious as to whether the same results would apply among all types of voters, or whether they may have had something to do with the type of voters who were predisposed toward interest in a candidate like Obama to begin with.

Blogger Battle Royale II

CBC's Day 6 has reconvened its battling bloggers - including Dan Arnold, Stephen Taylor and yours truly - for a post-session bout. Have a listen and enjoy.

In fairness, they did cut out the solid gold statue of Vic Toews

In these tough times, everybody has to sacrifice something. And apparently Canada's security establishment is sacrificing any illusion that it's operating under the same rules as the rest of the country:
The Harper government is planning a Taj Mahal complex for the Defence Department's spies, complete with a hockey rink, basketball and volleyball courts and a bank in a secure facility on Ogilvie Road, says the head of the department's largest union.
The project, announced last year by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, will cost taxpayers around $880 million. That doesn't include facilities management, which will be added later. MacLennan said an Australian firm, Plenary Group, will be the facilities manager, with a 34-year contract expected to be worth $5.5 billion.
According to the unclassified documents obtained by the union, the complex will include the outdoor rink and physical fitness areas such as basketball and volleyball courts, hiking trails, as well as a hobby garden, a Royal Bank, a coffee bar, cafeteria, kitchenettes and showers.

There will be storage facilities for 250 bikes, 800 parking spots for employee vehicles, a courtyard, a large fireplace in the foyer of one of the buildings and a daycare centre for 55 children.
(Edit: fixed title.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Musical interlude

Kaskade - Angel On My Shoulder

Sounds about right

No, we shouldn't entirely buy John Ivison's spin about anything much changing with a new Chief of Staff. But he's all too likely right on target in describing the current reality:
Mr. Wright is said to be a passionate Conservative — no less partisan than his predecessor — but the expectation is that he will be less divisive and driven by tactics. He will have considerable leverage, since it would be a huge embarrassment for the government if he headed back to Bay Street before his two-year stint is up. He is expected to have license to speak truth to power behind closed doors, which could result in a very different tone emerging from the PMO in the new year.
So it's expected to be a radical change in course for even a single member of Harper's inner circle to be able to do anything other than meekly nod along with the PM's orders. Just something to keep in mind next time the Cons' top-down talking points include such concepts as "listening" and "balance", as there's little reason to think they've done anything but isolate themselves from any opinions or realities that don't serve their effort to build Stephen Harper up as infallibe in their own minds. And even if Wright proves a rare exception, there's still ample reason to doubt that anybody else is going to get heard.

Friday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Paul Wells posts the definitive epilogue to the Cons' hijacking of Rights and Democracy:
Today the audit was released — not through a formal process, but because somebody leaked it to the Globe‘s Daniel Leblanc. You can read it here. (Well, the main narrative of the audit, anyway. Thousands of pages of annexes, including lengthy email correspondences, time sheets and so on, remain unreleased.)

It shows what Beauregard’s defenders have long asserted: that the agency was run without scandal, and without unusually lax management, even before his arrival; that he was taking clear steps to improve its management; and that specific claims against him and his staff from Gauthier and others hold no water. In short, that Rémy Beauregard died while fighting back against an unfounded witch hunt perpetrated by scoundrels who today stand unmasked and humiliated. The government of Canada under Stephen Harper and his minister Lawrence Cannon today continues to support those scoundrels, to its shame and ours as citizens.
But it's worth asking as well whether there's anything to the story that figures to actually motivate citizens to take action. And on that front, surely Beauregard's treatment should end any illusion that merely doing one's job effectively and without doing anything which could possibly be seen as an affront to the Harper government (which after all appointed Beauregard in the first place) serves as any protection from the danger of a political witch hunt.

- Susan Riley is frustrated with the lack of popular outrage over the Cons' F-35 money pit and other issues - but points out why the public has reason to be cynical when it comes to both the Libs and the Cons:
Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have all postponed, or reduced, their initial orders without noticeable penalty.

Not Canada. That isn't the way the Harper government does business. It decides on a course -- in this case, an impetuous and counter-intuitive course -- and then accuses critics of disrespecting the troops. From a distance this may pass for decisive leadership; up close, it looks weak.

Not that the Ignatieff Liberals -- who are calling for an open competition to replace the existing CF-18s -- would necessarily do better. They signed the original memorandum launching the F-35 program and seem as eager to join the U.S. military-industrial complex as their rivals.

What ever happened to the Presbyterian penny-pinchers of old, the careful Scots, the austere Prairie preachers and dust-bowl farmers, the Reform populists who didn't only rail against government waste but tried to respect "the taxpayer dollar"?

They live on, but only in myth. Not that anyone appears to notice.
- Fortunately, the heirs to the austere Prairie preachers do live on. But can they do more to claim a governing place on the federal scene than their predecessors? Let's check with Brian Topp:
What are Mr. Layton’s strengths? Clearly, as set out in many public-domain opinions polls, Canadians genuinely like Mr. Layton and appreciate his open, collaborative and sunny commitment to getting some positive things done. Mr. Layton’s bout with illness has caused Canadians to take a second look at him, to his benefit. And Mr. Layton’s extended experience with the balance of power in Parliament has matured him as a politician and a statesman in the eyes of the public. He is no longer prone to over-the-top statements rooted in the absolute necessity, early in his term, to be visible on the federal stage. Instead, Mr. Layton is an increasingly thoughtful and substantive contributor to the national debate – and has proved to be right on many issues. Canadians are responding by finding it increasingly easy to imagine him as (Prime Minister), a journey they have also made with Mr. Harper. Interestingly, in particular, Mr. Layton has developed substantial appeal among soft Liberals, of whom there are a generous supply these days.

What are Mr. Layton’s weaknesses? Canadians remain to be convinced that his agenda hangs together or that his party can win. Mr. Layton can cure the first problem by articulating a clear, coherent and responsible plan – including, in compelling terms, when people are paying attention to the details at election time. Mr. Layton can cure his second problem – perhaps – by speaking directly and credibly to how modern multi-party Parliaments can be made to work for Canadians. And by having a healthy dose of that essential ingredient in all winning campaigns, continuing luck in his opponents.
If anything, Topp may undersell the degree of public support for the NDP's policy agenda as they understand it. But there's little room for doubt that the "Libs as default alternative" factor is the main obstacle standing in the NDP's way.

- Finally, it shouldn't be much surprise that Bill Siksay's retirement has some opponents trumpeting the possibility of winning Burnaby-Douglas away from the NDP for the first time in over two decades. But let's note that the incumbent advantage is normally traced to opponents putting up something less than the toughest possible challenge - so given that the NDP has been outspent by one or both of its competitors in all but one of the elections where it's held Burnaby-Douglas, there's little reason to think the dynamics that have seen the NDP hold the seat will change.