Saturday, September 18, 2010

Well said

Ralph Surette points out that the fact that we're paying billions more than we need to for prescription drugs is far from an accident:
Canadians pay 16 to 40 per cent more for drugs than the average of industrialized countries. A national Pharmacare program, as a half-dozen countries already have, would save Canada over $10 billion a year on its $25-billion drug bill. Even other reforms short of a full national program would save billions in administration costs, drug costs (through bulk buying) and eliminated tax subsidies.

This claim is the argument of a report released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Since rising drug prices are one of the main drivers of a health care system said to be headed for unsustainability, shouldn’t we be curious about checking this out?
(I)f we can’t even talk about it, we might at least admit the ultimate reason why reasonable drug prices, however delivered, seem so impossible: the control exercised by the pharmaceutical companies that have parlayed a handful of "miracle" drugs into a suffocating — and spectacularly profitable — influence on the economics of medicine.
It costs less than $100 million (to develop a drug, compared to the $1 billion figure used by big pharma) — the rest is for promotion. Plus, of that $100 million, up to 80 per cent is in fact publicly funded "pure" research. The drug companies take that research and develop the pill. The public pays twice.

Further, up to 80 per cent of new drugs are a long way from miracles. They’re in fact knockoffs of existing drugs — a molecule changed, a new name, and a marketing campaign in the hundreds of millions. Since these knockoffs are tested against placebos, and not against each other, their relative value is really unknown and some may even be harmful. One of the money-saving recommendations of the CCPA report is a national assessment procedure for drugs, so we don’t pay a fortune for glorified Aspirin.


Sun Media, apparently recognizing that some of Ezra Levant's baseless attacks carry serious long-term costs:
On September 5, 2010, a column by Ezra Levant contained false statements about George Soros and his conduct as a young teenager in Nazi-occupied Hungary.
The management of Sun Media wishes to state that there is no basis for the statements in the column and they should not have been made.
Chris Selley, who apparently wants to see a far lower standard of shenanigan than even Sun Media is prepared to defend:
Sun Media made the smart move of bringing in former Calgary Sun columnist Ezra Levant, who’s become the company’s most prominent opinionated face.
Leave the shenanigans to Mr. Levant. He’s good at it.

On coverage gaps

There's been plenty of talk about how a single blogpost has changed the course of Sweden's ongoing election. But it's worth pointing out exactly what the problem is that's earned so much public sympathy, and how it fits into what the right wants to do to healthcare in Canada:
A young Swedish woman named Emilie wrote a blog post about her mother losing her health insurance. In Sweden, there's a national health plan that covers your living expenses if you lose your job due to failing health. While Emilie's mom has been certified unable to work by her doctors, the government functionaries running the national plan didn't believe her, and just cut off her benefits. Emilie wrote that she and her mother are now considering selling their home, as it's the only way they can be eligible for any more government benefits.
Now, it's not hard to see that Emilie's mother's situation is a natural consequence of a conditional public plan available only as part of a patchwork of insurance. Not only do significant resources have to be used determining what is and isn't covered, but some decisions will inevitably result in a massive burden on those who slip through the cracks.

So while the latest set of talking points in favour of a similar patchwork in Canada rather than equal and universal coverage has relied heavily on the exclamation that "even social-democratic countries like Sweden have private insurance!!!", the Swedes themselves seem set to decide an election based in large part on dissatisfaction with the harms caused by that system. And while it remains to be seen whether they'll end up taking steps in Canada's direction as a result, surely the outpouring of concern over stories like Emilie's should give us pause in listening to those who want to set up similar limitations on the availability of public health care in Canada.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Musical interlude

Holly McNarland - Beautiful Blue

On respectful disagreement

For the most part, I'll have to agree with Ed Broadbent's take on both the need for greater respect on the political scene, and the prospect that proportional representation would make for a step in the right direction:
The boorish behaviour now so typical in Parliament has contributed greatly to Canadians’ disenchantment with federal politics. It’s not surprising that we’re regularly asked what can be done to make the House of Commons more serious and relevant to our lives.

But it ought to be possible, even if it’s not happening now, for Parliament to do what it’s meant to do: to act as the country’s main public forum of debate, reflecting the diversity of Canadians as indicated by the way they vote, and to do this with both passion and civility.
Real debates about substantive matters – war and peace, poverty and inequality, the continuing degradation of the environment – should rattle the chandeliers. But it is entirely possible to argue genuine differences of policy and values with conviction and passion while avoiding personal insult. As leaders, Pierre Trudeau, Bob Stanfield and I all had our faults. We often strongly disagreed, but we did it without personal invective or accusations of lying. Reason, passion and civility prevailed, grounded on the respect each had for the dignity of the other.
Now, I'm sure there are examples to be found as to how Broadbent's recollection doesn't tell the entire story of the relationship between the leaders of the '70s and '80s. But the more important caveat worth placing on his comment is that there's an obvious prisoner's dilemma underlying political debate - and little prospect of matters improving so long as one of the parties can be expected to defect from any attempt to improve the state of political discourse.

After all, it should be fairly obvious that a generally trusting and respectful political environment can only make it easier for a manipulative politician or party to avoid the consequences of actually being dishonest. So while it's probably worth giving the benefit of some doubt before a particular party has demonstrated bad faith, I'd argue that it's nonetheless important to point out a lack of credibility where it exists in order to create disincentives to breaches of the trust which the public should be able to place in its leaders.

Moreover, I'm not sure it can even safely be said that our current problem is more a lack of respect and deference than a misallocation or even excess of it. Even in what's seen as an unusually combative environment, for every example of MPs going overboard in pointing fingers and launching insults, there's a counterexample involving a failure to sufficiently question or challenge voices of authority - resulting in major legislation passing virtually unchallenged, and thoroughly implausible assertions being treated as news and then as fact simply because they originate with the government.

Of course, it's fair enough to point out that an undue focus on personality politics may only distract from the more important policy discussions which Broadbent rightly wants to encourage. But it's still necessary to point out gaps between promise and practice, or between invented "facts" and those which actually exist, in order to provide an incentive for politicians to avoid creating them in the first place - as without some assurance that rhetoric will be reflected in reality, all the respectful arguments in the world won't necessarily lead us to better political outcomes.

Well said

Dan Gardner nails how the political games around the gun registry have served only to distract Canadians from far more important issues, and figure to do so all the more in the next election campaign:
(T)he registry delivers little benefit for little cost. Should we scrap it? Maybe, maybe not. It won't make much difference either way.

Of course, I know that my conclusion will drive people on both sides of the debate bonkers. Few issues are more passionately argued than this one. It matters. Oh yes, it matters. But if the benefits and costs are small, why does it matter so much to so many people?
The registry is symbolic. It resonates with many people's cultural perspective, making it far more compelling to them than other issues.

It's not that it matters in a practical sense. It's that they feel it.

The problem with these culturally loaded debates is that they can rob attention that should go to far more important matters. Remember all the talk about gun crime during the 2006 election, particularly after a sensational murder happened in Toronto? Perceptions were way out of alignment with reality. Indeed, even as the politicians were hammering away, gun murders in Toronto were plummeting.

Something else was going on, too: The military was moving to Kandahar in preparation for its toughest mission since the Korean War. But that was almost completely ignored during the campaign.

So what will we miss this time if we waste an election talking about an inconsequential registry?

On golden opportunities

BCL takes Brad Trost's bizarre answer to one reporter's questions about stadium funding as a sign of indecision. But I'd look on the bright side and consider how many juicy stories we can count on from Trost's response:
Other MPs, however, refused to comment. Brad Trost said his answer to any question from the reporter is: "Yes, no, maybe."
Just think of the possibilities that philosophy raises: anytime the Star-Phoenix needs an explosive political story, it can now ask Trost the kind of question where that such an equivocal answer will make for news in and of itself.

Need a Con source to support a theory of internal dissent? Just ask Trost whether he supports his leader. (Or better yet, whether he's planning an internal coup.) One "yes, no, maybe" later, you'll have your story.

Want to question the Cons' motives? Ask Trost whether, say, their gun registry machinations are simply an attempt to dupe rural supporters into giving money. And let the party spend the next several months trying to explain away "yes, no, maybe" as an answer.

And of course, questions about the Cons' actual policies themselves will also give rise to interesting answers. Is "lock and load" under consideration as the Cons' immigration plan? Do they plan to turn their neglect of the health care system into active demolition? "Yes, no, maybe", instant firestorm.

Granted, one would prefer to actually receive some meaningful content after asking a reasonable question of a Member of Parliament. But surely Trost's invitation to create stories at will is the next best thing - and I'll hope to see the Star-Phoenix take full advantage.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

None so blind as those who refuse to see

Shorter Terence Corcoran:

If we assume that the bottom 50% are too insignificant to count, the top 1% too exclusive to be lumped in with their lessers, and the time period before the begin of the '80s greedfest too distant to be worth considering, then wealth disparity has hardly increased at all.

Deep thought

I for one think this would be an excellent time to focus on the economy. Over to you, Mark Carney.

Thursday Afternoon Links

Some light reading material to pass the day...

- Gilles Duceppe's sniping at the NDP can only be explained by the expectation that the NDP's continued growth in Quebec stands to cut into his party's seat count. But I find the particular lines of attack even more interesting than the fact that they're being raised: if Duceppe really sees nothing to differentiate his party from the NDP on policy than shades of opinion on a single language bill in the Assemblee Nationale and strategic direction on the gun registry, then doesn't that only serve to support the view that Quebec progressives are better of linking up with their brethren across the country?

- There's rightly been much ado about Lib MP Keith Martin's unequivocal statement in favour of privately funded and delivered health care.

But Martin's opinion piece (and its apparent endorsement by John McCallum) aren't the only signals from the Libs that they're less than interested in preserving and improving public health care in Canada. After all, Michael Ignatieff's new choice as health critic is...the same Ujjah Dosanjh who preferred to let the Libs' government fall than to work with the NDP when it sought to improve the Canada Health Act.

- Meanwhile, Michael Rachlis points out that there's no evidence that privatization schemes like the one being implemented by the Wall government will do anything to reduce costs.

- It shouldn't come as much surprise, but it's worth a reminder that farmers aren't seeing much benefit from increased food prices.

- Finally, Erin points out exactly why Canada's interests are at risk if Canpotex is undermined by any possible PCS purchaser:
Typically, China has been Canpotex’s biggest customer. The exception was 2009, when China bought less than Malaysia! This dramatic cut was engineered by Sinochem, the state-owned chemicals corporation that controls almost all of China’s potash imports.

If China can leverage its position as a major potash consumer to bargain lower prices, surely Canada should be able to leverage its position as a major producer to negotiate higher prices. Even if one believes that the world would be better served by more competitive potash markets, a viable “second best” may be for Canada’s coordinated selling power to offset China’s coordinated buying power.

The reviews are in

Matthew Bondy points out how Jack Layton's astute moves on the gun registry resulted in Michael Ignatieff's political games backfiring once again:
Ignatieff’s heavy handedness has peeved his caucus, alienated rural voters and handed authorship of the political narrative over to Jack Layton and the NDP, who now get to exercise the balance of power in the Commons.

Having been thrust into the spotlight, NDP leader Jack Layton has quite frankly graced the stage.

His position on this private member’s bill has always been clear: he wants the Commons to reform the registry to make it less invasive and offensive to rural and aboriginal Canadians while preserving its benefits for law enforcement. But he has also consistently endorsed his caucus colleagues’ right to vote their consciences.

Following Ignatieff’s decision to strip his colleagues of their democratic rights, Layton immediately went to work proffering his compromise position to Canadians and engaging his dissenting MPs in private, persuasive dialogue.

After weeks of sustained effort, on Tuesday afternoon Layton proudly announced he’d convinced enough of his formerly dissenting rural MPs to support the registry, meaning the firearms database will likely survive next week’s crucial vote.

Layton has achieved a parliamentary and political masterstroke that should leave his peer leaders chastened and impressed.

The NDP leader has preserved democratic norms in his caucus; protected caucus unity by bringing his team around organically to a decisive consensus; and successfully withstood media and advocacy-group pressure to whip his parliamentary team. He opted instead for cool, patient persuasion and consistent, common-sense messaging.

Layton has achieved his objective of saving the gun registry while sending the right conciliatory messages to his party’s crucial rural supporters in northern Ontario and the Prairies.

And perhaps most importantly from a political perspective, he’s kept the NDP in the news and looking like a reasonable, responsible opposition party.
See also Andrew Coyne in Tweet form.

On spillover effects

There's been some discussion about how the HST will influence votes over the next few years - with Dalton McGuinty looking to have it considered solely as part of his party's body of work in the 2011 Ontario election, while the B.C. Libs hope to spread their province's even greater anger over a period starting with the recall window this fall and not ending until the 2013 trip to the polls. But it's worth keeping in mind that it's not only on the provincial level that voters will have a chance to express their anger.

That's particularly so in B.C., where the argument about the supposed "benefits" of the HST is largely coming down to Gordon Campbell's plea that province can't afford to give back the federal Cons' bribe money (and will take back the money that handed to voters to try to buy their silence).

Of course, it seems clear that the province's citizens were less than happy with the deal to begin with, and thus won't have much compunction about voting to undo it. But the more Campbell talks about the federal role as an excuse to keep the HST, the more the Cons figure to be dragged down as well as the debate plays out. And to the extent Campbell claims the province can't afford to lose the money involved, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see the anti-HST forces challenge whether the Harper Cons want to punish the province for the Libs' mistakes.

As a result, a federal election in the midst of an HST referendum could serve as one more outlet for voters to replace a government looking out primarily for corporate interests with one that actually takes their concerns into account.

The situation may be different in Ontario, as the McGuinty government has chosen a strategy of taking somewhat more responsibility and engaging in correspondingly less finger-pointing. But it's anybody's guess as to whether that will hold up, particularly as the federal role gets discussed in the context of the B.C. campaigns. And while the Libs and Cons may be able to do little more than bash each other to a draw when it comes time to assign blame for the HST, there's one party that can stand above the fray.

All of which means that the HST is far from done with as an issue at either the provincial or the federal level. And there's a strong chance that the Campbell Libs' attempt to delay facing the music will only ensure that all of the governments responsible will end up paying a well-deserved price.

Measured contributions

While the Cons are making every effort to change the subject from their census vandalism, they haven't been able to stop people far more competent than themselves from keeping the issue alive. So let's quickly survey what's happened over the last little while.

The most noteworthy development was of course the proposal - made by Alex Himelfarb and Mel Cappe among others - to remove any political authority to interfere with Canada's chief statistician's judgment as to what should be included in the census. While the suggestion would have its own limitations (since the chief statistician will inevitably fall under some level of political influence), it does seem to avoid the problems with trying to dictate the contents of the census more directly - making it highly promising as a potential consensus solution.

Meanwhile, Stephen Gordon links to a series of short papers in Canadian Public Policy which collectively show exactly how the Cons are damaging both Canada's ability to govern itself, and its standing in the world.

Finally, while it's worth a reminder that businesses will suffer just as much as governments in the absence of accurate information about Canadians, Wayne Roberts is right to note that the Cons' destruction of the census fits a long-running pattern of trying to tilt the balance of knowledge toward the corporate sector rather than government:
In an era when it’s axiomatic that you can’t manage what you can’t measure, taking accessible measurement information out of the public realm is a way of transferring management from the public to the corporate sphere. Many companies have as much information on customers’ habits as their therapists, and now, in Canada, they’ll have a monopoly on the kind of data needed to plan.

During the 90s, in the first phase of neo-liberalism in Canada, when it was said that the task of government was “to steer, not to row,” Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney closed down the Economic Council of Canada, while Ontario premier Mike Harris shut the doors on the Premier’s Council on Health and the one on science and technology – ensuring that corporations, not governments, owned the tools for effective steering.

After a decade’s lull, the Conservatives are at it again. The hidden assumption is that the days of government planning are numbered and only one force needs fine-grained information on social and health trends: the market.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On delayed construction

Michael Warren's column on the effects of the Cons' plans to cut off stimulus spending in March 2011 even if projects haven't been completed for entirely valid reasons. But it's worth noting that municipalities and provinces have an option besides biting the bullet and finishing the work on their own dime while the Cons abandon ship: wouldn't a set of 1,000 half-finished Harper Holes across the country - complete with the "Economic Action Plan" signs that have been the Cons' top priority all along - form the perfect backdrop for the election campaign that Warren figures will happen next year?

On temporary victories

I'll second pogge's reminder that Kory Teneycke's abrupt departure is far from the last word on Fox News North. But it's worth taking a closer look at what it does figure to mean for both the network and Teneycke personally - and the end result is that this is only the beginning of the battle for media space.

Let's start with Sun Media, where the conclusion looks to be fairly obvious: there's no apparent reason to think that Teneycke's departure will radically affect its overall plans. It's still cleared out its reporting ranks in favour of a group seen as friendly to the Cons; it's still going to be fronted by a Con insider such as to raise obvious concerns about the connection between the Harper government and the network; it's still pushing forward with the same apparent scheme to strongarm the CRTC into getting its way no matter how much political interference that requires.

The only missing piece will be the deliberately inflammatory face of the network thus far. And while it's a plus that Teneycke's ignorant and offensive persona has come to be seen as a negative even by the network which was set up to promote it, it's not hard to see Sun Media simply following the same progression as the political movement that offered Teneycke his past experience, shedding some of its more radical beginnings in favour of a longer-term plan to incrementally move the media toward its preferred format. (Indeed, one could see Teneycke as having shifted the Overton window as to what type of behaviour is acceptable in a big-name media operator - making it more likely that an only slightly less over-the-top replacement will have a better chance of winning approval than would have been the case if he'd never put on his show of buffoonery.)

As for Teneycke himself, there are a couple of readily-apparent possibilities (assuming Harper won't want to put him back on the federal payroll immediately). If he's determined to stay involved with Sun Media, then a Ryan Sparrow-style timeout would seem to be the likeliest course of action: a couple of months out of the limelight, followed by a rehiring into a role slightly less public than the one that's made him a laughingstock.

But at least since his hiring by the CBC (which he's apparently written out of his own resume), Teneycke has been less than shy about building his own profile even if that can only be done by making a show of cutting any ties with reality. And his resignation would figure to offer him the opportunity to go much further along that same path without the burden of being attached to a network that has to deal with public-interest standards and other similarly inconvenient limitations.

Wherever Teneycke ends up, though, it's worth keeping in mind that on the right, catastrophic failure and utter embarrassment are far from being career-limiting moves. Indeed, they can even serve as major boosts to anybody who's more interested in trading on the devoted beliefs of cultists than being seen as sane by upwards of half of the population.

As a result, this figures to be far from the last we'll hear from both Fox News North and its first pitchman. And while Avaaz and other can take credit for a noteworthy achievement, there's far more to be done to try to shift Canada's media scene from its various shades of corporatism toward something that actually speaks to and for the public.

On raw deals

It may have seemed like the Cons' decision to burn $16 billion on a sole-sourced contract to buy F-35s couldn't get any worse. But one should never underestimate the Cons' ability to negotiate a more damaging deal than any remotely reasonable person could possibly imagine signing, particularly where the U.S. is involved. (Anybody remember their handing $1 billion to U.S. interests who had lobbied for illegal tariffs in exchange for softwood lumber "peace" which lasted approximately .7 nanoseconds?)

And apparently they've fallen into that pattern again with the fighter jet fiasco. Now, Le Devoir reports that they've voluntarily abandoned Canada's normal policy of requiring domestic investment in the amount of a defence contract in order to secure the privilege of overpaying Lockheed Martin for the planes. Which looks to do nothing but ensure that our public money does as little as possible for Canadian citizens - and offers another signal that given the choice between Canada's population and American corporate interests, the Harper Cons will take the latter's side at every opportunity.

New Brunswick election reading

As the New Brunswick provincial election campaign enters its home stretch, here's a quick survey of a few sources worth reading to get a handle on the campaign.

Let's start with Alice's customary detailed look at the state of party nominations at the the Pundits' Guide's New Brunswick page - with links to all candidates' websites serving as a particularly useful resource for those looking to track down information in a hurry.

For those looking for a quantitative analysis of the state of the campaign, the place to go is once again Three Hundred Eight, whose multi-poll projections figure to be particularly useful in a tight campaign where single polls can be found to support almost any possible outcome. (ThreeHundredEight's NDP projection has slipped from two seats to one based on a campaign-period drop from the teens to lower double digits.)

Meanwhile, if you're looking more for a subjective riding-level analysis and projection, NBPolitico makes up for relatively infrequent posts by serving up plenty of material at every turn. NBPolitico now projects two seats as "lean NDP" (leader Roger Duguay's riding of Tracadie-Sheila as well as another northern riding in Nepisiguit) - but based on my own limited contribution to the race, I'm particularly interested to note that Saint John East has been downgraded from "safe Liberal" to "lean Liberal", signalling that it's looking to be more in play as the campaign progresses.

As for media outlets, newspapers to check out include the Telegraph-Journal, Daily Gleaner and Times & Transcript, while CBC New Brunswick also has regular updates and analysis.

If I've missed any sources worth including, please feel free to point them out in comments - as the campaign looks to be well worth following closely from here on in.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

That didn't take long

Now that the ball is in the Libs' court on the gun registry, is anybody particularly surprised to see an immediate swing and a miss?
Speaking earlier Tuesday, Liberal House leader David McGuinty would not say whether all members of the Liberal caucus would show up for the Sept. 22 vote.
Which would seem to be a rather damning bit of obfuscation considering how much time the Libs have spent claiming that they consider anything short of a full whip to be a failure.

From no-win to win-win

The line that the long gun registry is a no-win issue for Jack Layton and the NDP has already been proven wrong to at least some extent. But a few Libs seem to be realizing the dangers of their choice to escalate the stakes - and the end result could be a decisive moment in discrediting the Libs as an opposition party for once and for all.

Keep in mind how the gun registry issue has played out. At the beginning, both the NDP and the Libs allowed free votes on C-391, which is why it's within one reading of passing the House of Commons.

But it was Michael Ignatieff who decided to suddenly reverse course by insisting that "leadership" means cracking a whip, while chiding Layton for allowing his MPs to think independently. The result has been constant pressure on the NDP - with no end in sight as long as the Libs could claim that with three parties having locked in their votes, it would be NDP MPs alone that would make the difference in whether C-391 would pass.

Now, though, it looks like Layton's leadership by persuasion rather than force has managed to flip enough votes that the registry would stay in existence if the Libs' whip holds.

And it's far from clear whether that will happen. After all, Michael Ignatieff's record on enforcing them is less than stellar - and there's some reason for doubt that at least a few of the Libs' MPs have actually bought into his position on the long gun registry.

Which means that we may not be far from what looks to be the NDP's best possible end result from a strategic standpoint.

If the registry gets voted down due to a failed attempt at a Liberal whip, then suddenly both sides of the vise will crumble: the Cons will no longer have the registry to fire up their base in Saskatchewan and Alberta, while the Libs will wear the registry's elimination in the urban centres where they've been playing up the issue. And what's more, the contrast between Layton's successful leadership by reason and Ignatieff's failed attempt at central control will offer an ideal contrast as Canadians decide whether they want to replace Harper's own brand of autocracy with merely a less-effective version of the same, or with a leader who doesn't insult the intelligence of MPs and voters alike.

On non-issues

Of course, while we may all have ideas about how a rational government should approach health care, we're currently stuck with something else entirely. Which leads to this odd news about what's expected to happen at the meeting of Canadian health ministers this week:
Federal, provincial and territorial health ministers, who are meeting in Newfoundland this week, will agree that the recommended daily intake of sodium should be cut to 2,300 milligrams from 3,400 mg, sources said Tuesday.

That amounts to about a teaspoon of salt per day and was the recommendation emanating in July from a federal task force.
Federal Heath Minister Leona Aglukkaq joins the table Tuesday and the emphasis is expected to shift to matters like sodium. Ms. Aglukkaq, is however, expected to offer her opinion on Newfoundland's plan to conduct observational studies of liberation therapy.

But the issue of salt is expected to dominate a significant chunk of the discussion at the closed-door meeting.
Now, I'm not entirely sure which provinces have a salt lobby which would oppose reducing even the recommended amount of sodium (knowing that it has absolutely no binding effect on actual food production). But how else can one explain the report that the meeting of health ministers will be "dominated" by what would seem to be an entirely non-controversial issue?

The choice of treatment

Marc-André Gagnon's proposal to save upwards of $10 billion per year through a national prescription drug purchasing program makes for a compelling enough idea on its face. But it only looks all the stronger when compared to the right-wing answer.

Here's what Gagnon proposes:
The report, being released Monday in Ottawa, argues that Canada's jumbled assortment of public and private plans and wildly varying drug policies across jurisdictions is inefficient, costly and inequitable.

But, above all, it says Canada pays too much for drugs – between 16 and 40 per cent more than other industrialized countries – in a bid to attract pharmaceutical investment.

In fact, the vast majority of the purported savings – $10.2-billion – would come from adopting a drug-purchasing policy based on market competition and the assumption prices would drop 37 per cent. That would likely provoke a backlash from the pharmaceutical industry and may be politically unpalatable, researchers concede. However, in a number of other scenarios presented in the study, Prof. Gagnon shows, even without purchasing drugs at that lower price, a national program would still deliver net savings of ranging from $2.6-billion to $4.5-billion.
Now, astute readers may ask why a sane government wouldn't conclude that it's well worth the political cost to rein in prescription drug costs by paying only for the drugs themselves, rather than also gratuitously throwing money at big pharma in the hope of generating some undefinable indirect benefits. And one would expect such an argument to resonate just as much among conservative pundits as progressive ones.

Instead, Tasha Kheiriddin takes a rather different approach, making a truly stunning argument that we'd be better off if only we'd pay more for the same products. For Kheiriddin, any attempt to lower drug costs is to be discouraged, with half-baked theories and "studies" presented to justify using higher-cost generic drugs over lower-cost ones and brand-name medications over cheaper generics. One would have to wonder how much better health might be bestowed upon us by the market gods if only we'd freely sacrifice a few hundred million more dollars to our corporate overlords - except that thanks to the Harper Cons, that very strategy has been tried and has failed.

Of course, that leads to Kheiriddin's own endgame of shilling for privatization on the theory that the ideal health-care system is one where the wealthy can pay their way to the front of the line.

But there's another more direct solution to Kheiriddin's own problems (albeit one that I'm sure she'd reject out of hand). If there's some reason to be concerned about the quality of generic drugs as currently imported or manufactured due to the incentives on private operators to cut corners and costs, then isn't the obvious answer to have the public sector - which would otherwise absorb the costs of any theoretical subpar drugs - step in to produce truly equivalent products?

Naturally, I'd see that combined with a national purchasing plan to create economies of scale as the best possible outcome. But I'd be more than willing to see Gagnon's plan put in place on its own first to see if the private sector can actually provide reasonable prices - as long as the focus is on actually improving access to drugs, rather than enriching big pharma and providing excuses to sell off our health-care system.

Tuesday Morning Links

Tab-clearing time...

- Joe connects the dots between what the Wall government hasn't told Saskatchewan's citizens and what Northland Power is telling its investors - and the predictable result is that the province being kept in the dark is getting a raw deal:
According to Northland Power Income Fund’s annual information form, filed with securities regulators in March of this year, under the PPA’s the projects “will receive monthly payments that are designed to cover all fixed costs and investment returns.” The agreements also provide “protection against changes in the market price of natural gas, as fuel costs are passed through to SaskPower.” Furthermore, the contractual structure of the projects “is designed to ensure predictable, stable and sustainable cash flows over the entire” term of the PPA’s.

Or to put it another way, the one-sided deals guarantee a profit for Northland. What they ensure is a predictable, stable and sustainable cash flow from Saskatchewan to Ontario.
- Peter Wilby rightly points out that if the participants in the billionaires' "giving pledge" really want to make a positive difference in the world, the most important step would be to live up to their duties as citizens rather than looking to take credit for philanthropic largesse:
(W)e should welcome the Gates-Buffett initiative and applaud those who have joined it. Generous, public-spirited billionaires are preferable to mean ones. But remember that two-thirds of US corporations contrive to pay no federal income tax at all and that transfer pricing alone – a legal device, used, for instance, by Ellison's Oracle Corp, that converts sales in one country to profits in another where tax liabilities are low – deprives the US treasury of $60bn annually. Such sums, which pile more taxes on the poor and reduce funds for government projects that advance the public good, dwarf what the 40 billionaires propose to give away.

If the rich really wish to create a better world, they can sign another pledge: to pay their taxes on time and in full; to stop lobbying against taxation and regulation; to avoid creating monopolies; to give their employees better wages, pensions, job protection and working conditions; to make goods and use production methods that don't kill or maim or damage the environment or make people ill. When they put their names to that, there will be occasion not just for applause but for street parties.
- While there's still plenty of need for answers and accountability about the Cons' G20 security fiasco (civil rights abuses and all), it's also worth looking forward to the next time we're likely to see similar strategies employed to selectively suppress public activism. And it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that the RCMP's otherwise laughable musings about a "coup d'etat" parallel the language that the Harper Cons have used to talk about democratic votes in the House of Commons - raising the spectre that any public dissent against the Con government could be a target for the RCMP.

- Finally, Barbara Yaffe gives undeserved attention to a number of Cons who bear direct responsibility for the dumbing-down and polarization of the federal political scene, but are now putting on a show of hand-wringing over what they've wrought. We'll have reason to take them remotely seriously just as soon as they actually do something which could possibly loosen the control of the autocrat in charge.

Monday, September 13, 2010

On damage control

So let's get this straight: after refusing to countenance budging on the HST either before implementing it or in the wake of an unprecedented petition campaign, the Campbell government is now claiming it's willing to reverse course based on a majority vote in a 2011 referendum.

Now, the move makes some sense from a survival standpoint as a means of delaying the recall campaign anticipated to start as soon as this fall. (And it'll be interesting to see whether the anti-HST movement pushes forward rather than holding off until Campbell's preferred timeline for a vote.)

But the province figures to be worse off on multiple fronts for the Libs having refused to pay any attention to the public until the last possible moment - then chosen to delay matters rather than reversing the HST immediately. And it's hard to see how they'll gain much in the long term either, given that the move ensures that the HST will remain a live issue long after they tried to proclaim it dead.

On no-brainers

Let's grant Barrie McKenna this much: his "frustratingly long" list of four identified trade barriers is indeed probably the longest I've seen from anybody in the anti-government chorus that's long demanded that Canada's provinces sign over their ability to govern, and makes for a welcome change from the argument by absence of evidence that's become far too familiar. And he even takes the time to note that he's demanding massive political restructuring based on "back-of-the-envelope" calculations, presumably because any more thorough analysis would result in rather less generous totals.

But before we give him too much credit, let's note that a grand total of half of his identified barriers are from provinces who three years ago agreed to exactly the kind of government suicide pact the free-traders have been demanding. So isn't the obvious takeaway once again that the provinces' time would be better used dealing with identified irritants, rather than signing agreements which stifle future action without doing anything about the supposed problem?

Update: Erin points out a few more of the serious problems with McKenna's piece. But of course it's bound to remain uncontradicted in the corporate media.

Updates and Events

A few scheduling notes to help Saskatchewan political junkies to plan the rest of their month...

- One NDP nomination race has come and gone sooner than expected, as Serge Leclerc's resignation resulted in an early nomination meeting in Saskatoon Northwest. Congrats to acclaimed candidate Jan Dyky, who will face off against the Sask Party's Gord Wyant in a riding which had seen nothing but nail-biters until the 2007 election.

- Also on the nomination front, I've previously noted the NDP's October 2 nomination meeting for Saskatoon Sutherland. But an equally important date is looming much closer, as the deadline for membership sales is September 18.

- As LRT notes, the events surrounding the NDP's Regina caucus meeting include a fund-raiser tomorrow night for UFCW 1400 members. So for those looking to have a good time for a good cause, now's your chance.

- Finally, the Saskatchewan NDP's policy review process looks to be kicking into high gear, with upcoming meetings scheduled for Regina on September 20 and Saskatoon on September 28.

Monday Morning 'Rider Blogging

It would be tempting to simply pass on any comment on yesterday's trouncing at the hands of the Blue Bombers. (And I'll do just that when it comes to special teams.) But this may instead make for an important decision point for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in figuring out their best course of action for the rest of the season - so I'll toss in my two cents' worth on what we've learned in recent weeks.

At the beginning of 2010, the 'Riders looked to be putting together a match for the Alouettes' successful strategy of the past few seasons: an offensively-oriented team with a skilled quarterback throwing to a deep receiving corps, with an opportunistic defence ready to punish opponents for trying to match that quick-strike capability and no glaring weaknesses to be exploited. And early on, that combination seemed to work just fine.

But in recent weeks, the 'Riders' offence has seen a serious downturn. Even putting aside yesterday's putrid performance, the team's ground game has evaporated over the last month, allowing defences to focus on attacking Darian Durant and put a serious dent in the passing game. And with the biggest weakness looking to be an offensive line that seems helpless against aggressive defences, there's little prospect of matters improving based on outside player additions.

So if the 'Riders can't count on their offence to carry them, what's the next best option?

Fortunately, the team should have an ideal blueprint: after all, it was just three years ago that Saskatchewan won the Grey Cup primarily on the strength of a turnover-happy defence, paired with a ball-control offence that relied on a quarterback's running ability to keep the chains moving when all else failed. And the 'Riders' personnel would seem to be ideally suited to a similar philosophy with just a couple of changes on each side of the ball.

On offence, the major change would be a far more concerted effort to get Darian Durant running rather than dropping back on the vast majority of plays. Granted, there's bound to be some concern about his absorbing more physical punishment that way. But he's been taking far too many hits as it is with the pocket regularly collapsing around him - and it may take some more regular quarterback runs to get defensive lineman back on their heels to reduce the damage.

Meanwhile, the big change on defence would be even more focus on taking advantage of turnover opportunities.

On that point, I'll note that the talk about "turnovers called back due to penalty" in yesterday's game somewhat misses the cause and effect involved. After all, at least two of the turnovers (James Patrick's first interception and Brent Hawkins' forced fumble) wouldn't have happened if the penalties hadn't been committed.

But there were plenty of other opportunities to turn the tables on Winnipeg's offence, including a near-pick by Mike McCullough and a number of runs which were extended as the 'Riders tried unsuccessfully to strip the ball. And if the 'Riders are going to have to settle for a less potent offence than planned, then the defence may need to dial its aggressiveness up a notch further in order to serve as the team's dominant unit.

On corporate privilege

Needless to say, Susan Delacourt's series on the consumerization of politics is well worth a read. But there are a few points discussed only in passing by Delacourt which deserve plenty more analysis.

While I'll deal with most of them later, it's worth pointing out this observation by Brian Lee Crowley (who's hardly someone I'd normally agree with), while noting that it may offer the seeds of a counter to the Cons' "Tim Hortons" branding:
Crowley says that politics, north and south of the border, actually can be seen on a simple axis—privilege versus opportunity. The first U.S. Tea Party, the revolt against tea taxation, was against privilege as much as it was against taxes. In that way, the anti-elitist symbolism of Tim Hortons follows that theme—it speaks to Canadians' mistrust of people speaking down to them. Tim Hortons is all about skepticism toward privilege, embrace of opportunity. But opportunity to do what?
Now, it's probably true enough that to the extent the Cons have managed to establish a relatively high floor for support since they first took power, that's been based in large part on their ability to portray themselves as speaking for "ordinary Canadians" even while governing in ways that obviously serve other masters. But it's not too late to turn the Cons' tight ties to Tim's into a negative by highlighting the contradiction.

After all, there are different kinds of privilege which can raise public concerns. And it's not hard to see that for all the Cons' efforts to paint Tim's as being all about the customers, there are others who actually benefit directly from their constant stream of advertising.

Take for example Tim Horton's Inc. CEO Don Schroeder, with his total 2009 compensation of $2,788,628 (and over $2 million in outstanding stock options). Or its chairman Paul House, with total 2009 compensation of $1,542,796 (and nearly $3.5 million in outstanding stock options). Or better yet, its Chief Brand and Marketing Officer William Moir, who was paid $1,572,816 to go with over $3 million in stock options for his work in convincing Canadians that Tim's isn't about big-money elitism.

In effect, Tim's can serve as a prime example of how "common-man" branding can be harnessed for the gain of a few people who live at a privileged standard that most Canadians can barely imagine. And pointing out that gap may be the countermessage that best highlights the Cons' own dishonesty in pretending to speak for the little guy even while consistently using the levers of power to toss goodies to their well-connected friends.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

What thwap said

I'll add only that it's obvious enough why the likes of Ezra Levant don't have trouble "supporting themselves with their ignorant ravings", particularly based on the sheer number of dollars behind the industry he's shilling for in his latest. But otherwise...go read.

White elephants on parade

On the federal scene, a remarkable amount of attention and energy has been devoted to the Cons' stadium-funding talk over the past week - featuring a fair amount of cross-partisan opinion as a few actual right-wing deficit hawks point out the frivolity and futility of most of the plans.

But this looks to be the kind of issue where conservative theory conflicts most directly with how right-wing governments operate in practice for a couple of key reasons - making it seem more likely than not that the Cons will happily take the opportunity to promote their own profile at public expense.

After all, the Cons look to be entirely happy to drain Canada's public coffers as much as possible to keep resources from being put to more socially responsible uses by future governments. In that sense, the stadium projects can be seen as similar to their much-panned GST cuts and comically useless "environmental" programs, serving more to limit future federal fiscal capacity than to accomplish anything positive.

But while they'll be happy to give away public money simply so nobody else can use it, the Cons do want to get some political value for it where they can. Which makes stadium construction a natural follow-up to a stimulus program which has allowed the Cons to develop their taste for gratuitous photo ops and other publicly-funded advertising. While Harper and company obviously don't have any interest in extending the potentially useful parts of infrastructure spending, they're surely happy to put up hundreds of millions of dollars in order to take centre stage in the development of new vanity projects - particularly when their media ally Pierre Karl Péladeau figures to be one of the main beneficiaries.

Mind you, the political calculations might be different if the Cons saw any risk that their utterly undeserved managerial branding might be at risk. But any cost to the Cons figures to be minimal given that the Libs have been taking a lead role in pushing for stadium funding.

Of course, it's fair enough to point out that the Cons' irresponsibility seems to match exactly the factors which caused Canada's right-wing movement to fall apart just a couple of decades ago. But that kind of fissure may only emerge in the face of a stable government of some stripe - and by the time one turns up, we may already be stuck with an ever-expanding bill for the Cons' stadium projects.

On conflicts of interest

The big story in Saskatchewan politics over the past week was the revelation that Justice Minister Don Morgan owned hotels for which he was responsible as minister for the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority, followed by his resignation from the SLGA post. But while the talk this week has mostly revolved around the unique situation of a minister directly regulating his own private activities (which is apparently a step further than even the Wall government would defend in light of a statutory prohibition), it's worth keeping in mind that the general principle of having obviously-interested parties develop provincial plans and rules for their own industries is one that fits far too well with the Sask Party's style of government.

From paying the nuclear industry millions of dollars to produce a policy wish-list to paying a corporate-friendly group to make key decisions about the potash sector, from creating an overarching agency charged with allowing the private sector to write the province's laws to putting industry groups in charge of enforcement, the Wall government has consistently shown that it sees absolutely no problem putting public functions in the hands of big business. Which in turn has the effect of favouring not only the well-being of the corporate sector over that of the public, but also private actors on the Sask Party's list of donors and connections over anybody who doesn't get hand-picked to write their own rules.

Based on that general philosophy, it's not surprising that Morgan being placed in charge of administering his own corporation's liquor and gaming licenses wouldn't raise any red flags within the Sask Party's circles. But Morgan's resignation still leaves far too much of Saskatchewan's decision-making in the hands of parties who have every interest in directing our public resources toward their own financial benefit - and there's no prospect of that changing as long as the Wall government remains in power.