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.