Saturday, July 09, 2011

What's good for the goose...

It's rather surprising to learn that donating money to a political party is considered a "questionable political tactic". But I look forward to seeing the same standard applied to a single one of the Saskatchewan Party's thousands of corporate donors.

Saturday Morning Links

This and that for your weekend reading.

- Kai Nagata's post on why he quit his job as a reporter is well worth a read in full. But let's particularly note his observations which may apply just as much to many other jobs as to positions in the media (even if the restrictions on public speech likely aren't spelled out as clearly):
I have serious problems with the direction taken by Canadian policy and politics in the last five years. But as a reporter, I feel like I’ve been holding my breath. Every question I asked, every tweet I posted, and even what I said to other journalists and friends had to go through a filter, where my own opinions and values were carefully strained out. Even then I’m not sure I was always successful, but I always knew at the CBC and subsequently at CTV that there were serious consequences for editorial. Within the terms of my employment at CTV, there was a clause in which the corporation (now Bellmedia) literally took ownership of my intellectual property output. If I invented a better mouse trap, they owned the patent. If I wrote a novel, they got a cut. Rhymes on the back of a napkin? Bellmedia is hip to the jive, yo. And if I ever said anything out of line with my position as an “objective” TV reporter, they had grounds to fire me. I had a sinking feeling when I first read that clause, but I signed because I was 23 and I wanted the job. Now I want my opinions back.
- Erika Shaker points out how a lack of precision in defining the middle class has eased the way for policies which promote inequality at the expense of people who likely self-identify with the term:
The distribution of wealth has shifted, but the self-identification as middle class has not; if anything, identification of and with the middle class has expanded to include more people than ever. And rather than political leaders addressing the vast disparities across the economic spectrum, we hear how their policies will benefit the “middle class” when even a cursory analysis reveals the real beneficiaries of many of these policies are those with much higher incomes (the very upper crust of the middle, so to speak).

So, for example, we’re told the middle class will be the beneficiary of income splitting, when they really mean families (with kids) making over $125,000 a year—the richest 20%–who still self-identify as middle class.

In spite of the “middle class” framing, tax policies are being used to help enrich the already most affluent. Meanwhile, everyone else labouring under the false impression that they are part of the middle class that politicians are talking about is left wondering why at the end of the day the so-called middle class-friendly numbers don’t seem to add up for the people who need the most help.
- Michael Geist highlights the CRTC's continued ineffectiveness in enforcing the principle of net neutrality:
The Commission unveiled its Internet traffic management practices in October 2009, establishing enforceable guidelines touted as the world’s first net neutrality regulations. Where a consumer complains, Internet providers are required to describe their practices, demonstrate their necessity, and establish that they discriminate as little as possible. Targeting specific applications or protocols may warrant investigation and slowing down time-sensitive traffic likely violates current Canadian law.

While there was a lot to like about the CRTC approach, the immediate concern was absence of an enforcement mechanism. Much of the responsibility for gathering evidence and launching complaints was left to individual Canadians who typically lack the expertise to do so. Nearly two years later, my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) posts an investigation into the system that reveals those concerns were well-founded.

Although the CRTC has not publicly disclosed details on net neutrality complaints and the resulting investigations, I recently filed an Access to Information request to learn more about what has been taking place behind the scenes. A review of hundreds of pages of documents discloses that virtually all major Canadian ISPs have been the target of complaints, but there have been few, if any, consequences arising from the complaints process. In fact, the CRTC has frequently dismissed complaints as being outside of the scope of the policy, lacking in evidence, or sided with Internet provider practices.
- Finally, Cracked's article on the most disturbing examples of corporate capture is well worth a read.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Musical interlude

Haji & Emanuel - Take Me Away

Friday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- I'll join the seemingly long list of commentators who wouldn't ever have expected to cite David Brooks, but can't avoid it based on his latest column:
Eldar Shafir of Princeton and Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard have recently, with federal help, been exploring a third theory, that scarcity produces its own cognitive traits.

A quick question: What is the starting taxi fare in your city? If you are like most upper-middle-class people, you don’t know. If you are like many struggling people, you do know. Poorer people have to think hard about a million things that affluent people don’t. They have to make complicated trade-offs when buying a carton of milk: If I buy milk, I can’t afford orange juice. They have to decide which utility not to pay.

These questions impose enormous cognitive demands. The brain has limited capacities. If you increase demands on one sort of question, it performs less well on other sorts of questions.

Shafir and Mullainathan gave batteries of tests to Indian sugar farmers. After they sell their harvest, they live in relative prosperity. During this season, the farmers do well on the I.Q. and other tests. But before the harvest, they live amid scarcity and have to think hard about a thousand daily decisions. During these seasons, these same farmers do much worse on the tests. They appear to have lower I.Q.’s. They have more trouble controlling their attention. They are more shortsighted. Scarcity creates its own psychology.
- Meanwhile, Katie Hyslop points out that the Cons are ensuring that arbitrary scarcity remains the norm when it comes to educational funding for First Nations - and that efforts to make such a basic service as Internet access available are being cut off:
Earlier this year Aboriginal Affairs announced they would no longer be funding internet connectivity for First Nations schools.

This not only threatens to cut kids in remote areas off from connection with an increasingly globalized world, according to Williams, but also prevents students from taking distance education courses or conducting online research.

"We would lose access to online library services, and that's really important, as in the elementary and secondary schools kids are asked to do research. Most of our schools have very, very poor libraries, if they have a library, and so now that, I think, is a basic service that kids are entitled to," she says.
While schools will be forced to reexamine their budgets in order to afford Internet fees, they'll have to take into account a 15 per cent holdback on targeted programming funds for First Nations education as of April 1. The government announced the holdback earlier this year, citing an uncertainty in funds for First Nations education thanks to the federal election delaying the budget.

"That means that there would be 15 per cent less money available to First Nations schools this year to implement programs such as parent involvement, support for teacher retention and recruitment, for language programming, for some of the literacy programming that we've put into place," says Williams, adding government hasn't said when, if ever, the 15 per cent will be restored.
- But at least offices outside the Cons' control aren't similarly looking to restrict the availability of information. And in fact, the PBO's new website discussed by Bill Curry looks like an excellent step in allowing Canadians to see how their money is being spent.

- Finally, Jim Stanford eviscerates the coalition supporting B.C.'s HST (and the "no" side of the current referendum) as being dishonest, unethical, and flat-out wrong. And the Conseil de Presse du Quebec much the same labels to two of the province's most recognizable right-wing names.

A different story

Yessiree, the conventional wisdom goes, Canada's political parties are all the same. Especially the NDP, which having reached Official Opposition status is sure to abandon any pretense of principle when it comes to, say, electoral reform. (Especially now that it's actually benefitting from first-past-the-post.)

But wait, what's this?
Spokespersons from various parties participated in a political panel to give their point of view on how to move forward on electoral reform in the new political landscape. Tyler Crosby, Legislative Assistant to David Christopherson, the NDP critic for electoral reform, announced that the NDP would introduce a motion on proportional representation in the House in the next session.
Bruce Anderson is presumably unavailable for comment.

Friday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Yes, Saskatchewan is a tough place for a football team. Lose one lousy game to start the year, and look what happens...

But how worried should 'Riders fans be after a loss to Edmonton to start the 2011 season? I'd argue that the answer is less so than one might think.

While there were a number of causes of the loss, one stands out above all others: in the first half of the game, the 'Riders simply couldn't get any pressure on Ricky Ray. And so Ricky Ray did what he normally does when he has time to grab a snack before finding a receiver downfield, posting a lead that the 'Riders couldn't overcome the rest of the game.

And let's be clear that the problem looked to be almost entirely with the pass rush.

Yes, John Eubanks and others in the secondary were left clutching at air at times - but that's bound to happen when a big, talented receiving corps has all the time in the world to operate.

And yes, Darian Durant coughed up the ball far more than he should have. But that looks to be the result of two problems. Granted, he seems to have let his guard down somewhat in the third quarter after getting away with a soft toss or two. But more importantly, seeing a need to put up a pile of points to keep up with the Eskimos, he took some arguably necessary risks to try to force the issue. Which may not often be a successful strategy (see e.g. the difference between Kerry Joseph playing protect-the-ball for the 'Riders in 2007 compared to his attempts to carry the Argos to victory the next two seasons) - but at least makes for a rational response to the 'Riders' defensive difficulties.

Which were of course fairly disastrous, as the defensive struggled even against as weak an offensive line as it can expect to face all season. But the 'Riders found at least part of the answer in the second half, as a series of linebacker blitzes managed to limit Ray's time in the pocket. And the addition of Remond Willis should hopefully add some more pressure off the ends.

So now is far from the time to push the panic button, as the 'Riders difficulties can be traced back to one problem with some available solutions. And hopefully we'll see those on display in what figures to be a tough game against the Als.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Parliament In Review: June 20, 2011

Yes, it's tempting to Bruce Anderson's conjecture about the NDP with a direct rebuttal. But I hardly see the need when the next day in Parliament to be reviewed offers an ideal example of the NDP standing up for its principles rather than merely positioning itself as next in line for government. So without any further ado...

Issue of the Day

For its final opposition day of the session, the NDP had a world of policy choices at its disposal, and chose...
That, in the opinion of this House, ending seniors' poverty in Canada is fiscally feasible, and, therefore, the House calls on the government to take immediate steps to increase the Guaranteed Income Supplement sufficiently to achieve that goal.
Of course, the exact cost of ending seniors' poverty was a matter of some dispute during the course of the debate, with the NDP focusing on the CLC's estimate of $700 million per year, the Libs relying on the CCPA's number of $1.2 billion, and the Cons putting forward a $2 billion figure from the Numbers Pulled From Our [Censored] Institute.

Lest there be any doubt, the reference to the proposal being "fiscally feasible" only fed into an extensive clash over the Cons' priorities, with speakers from the NDP and other opposition parties repeatedly challenging the choice to pour money into fighter jets and corporate tax cuts instead.

Among the arguments of particular note: Glenn Thibault noted that the corporate tax cuts delivered to banks alone could have lifted every senior in Canada out of poverty; John Rafferty made the point that a more secure retirement for seniors through the GIS would also have broader economic benefits; and Marc-Andre Morin questioned how anybody making $160,000 per year can argue that a senior barely getting by on a small fraction of that just needs to budget better.

And a couple of MPs also fit the GIS debate into broader policy discussions, with Irene Mathyssen comparing the Cons' minimal GIS funding with their willingness to give away substantially more money through income splitting, while Elizabeth May raised a guaranteed annual income as an alternative.

Meanwhile, among the Cons' creative responses...

Alice Wong argued that seniors living in poverty should be happy just to have been spoken to. John Weston tried to pretend that the Cons had done enough through a caregiver tax credit - only to be met with a thorough thrashing by Robert Chisholm, who pointed out that the credit was designed to only help wealthier recipients. And Chris Warkentin argued that it's only because he's so committed to ending it that he couldn't support a motion calling for just that.

And in case that wasn't enough of a focus on poverty for the day, Jean Crowder also introduced her private member's bill to eliminate poverty in general.

Tuned Out

Tony Clement's silencing on the Cons' G8 graft and waste continued - this time to the point that Alexandre Boulerice's question about current Treasury Board cuts (which merely mentioned the Auditor General's report in a preamble) was fielded by John Baird.

In Brief

On behalf of the Cons, Deepak Obhrai took credit for setting Canada's rate of inflation. A stream of alarm and outrage from economists and business leaders alike did not ensue.

Ted Hsu was the latest to work with the theme that the Cons should provide stable funding for the eco-retrofit program - only to be met with a typical attempt to take credit for making it available temporarily. Carolyn Bennett asked whether the Cons' plan to extend human rights law to First Nations reserves would be backed by any funding, only to receive the thoroughly relevant answer that the Cons have extended human rights law to First Nations reserves. Joe Oliver responded to Romeo Saganash's question by joining the Chrysotile Talking Points Chorus. And facing questions about the perpetually changing deadlines and cost of procuring helicopters, Rona Ambrose managed to push matters back by a year in mere minutes.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Barbara Yaffe points out that the Council on Hemispheric Affairs seems to have a much better idea what Canada needs out of a fighter jet than the government that's trying to push ahead with a multi-billion dollar purchase:
The Council on Hemispheric Affairs’ paper — titled F-35, An Expensive Mistake for Canadian Forces — argues: “The F-35 is unsuitable for Canadian military operations and marks an unfortunate shift in Canadian foreign policy toward single-mindedly backing the U.S. military.”
But is it the right aircraft for Canada?

Council research associate Ivan Ho contends that, unless the Conservatives plan to shift to an interventionist foreign policy similar to the U.S., it is not.

Canada simply does not require stealth jets, generally deployed in the first stages of an air campaign to neutralize an enemy’s air-defence system.

“The F-35 was built to fulfil a niche role in the American military to conduct first strike capability.”

With a less sexy aircraft, Canada could still be fully capable of helping NATO with subsequent non-stealth bombing, the paper states.
The Council on Hemispheric Affairs argues that, with its limited defence budget, Canada would be better off choosing less militaristic missions, focusing on disaster and humanitarian relief, peacekeeping missions, search and rescue activity and patrols along Canada’s three coasts.
- In case anybody was under the misapprehension that the Cons' gutting of the long-form census couldn't get any worse: it has. And it'll continue to do so for a long time to come, as the Cons' shredded data from 2011 makes it more difficult to carry out accurate comparisons over time.

- But fortunately, the chances of getting back on track at the first opportunity are looking better if the PSAC indeed plans to target the Cons in 2015.

- Finally, Chantal Hebert's latest makes for an interesting take on the need for the media to build connections to the NDP which it never bothered to develop in the past. But I do think it's worth asking whether the media's previous neglect of the party was reasonable in the first place, particularly over the past few years when the electoral gap between other parties and the NDP has seldom been particularly large.

New column day

Here, on the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce's distraction tactics for this fall's provincial election.

For more reading...
- A couple of greatest hits from the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce in its complete neutrality and altruism, including its later-denied cheerleading for nuclear power, and its regular efforts to push the Regina Chamber's proposal to dedicate every single dime of interest savings to a business-friendly property tax cut.
- While I don't always agree with the Canada West Foundation, its review of the possibilities for Alberta's provincial resource fund would seem equally applicable to Saskatchewan.
- And finally, there's CUPE's Imagine What We Could Do blog, with plenty of ideas as to the possibilities open to Saskatchewan if it does look to the longer term.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

On public values

Look everybody, it's yet more evidence that Stephen Harper has moved Canada in a conservative direction!
Environment Canada staff advised incoming cabinet minister Peter Kent that Canadians believe Ottawa is too soft on businesses and individuals that harm the world around them.
The analysis paints a picture of a Canadian public that cares deeply about the environment and wants Ottawa to hold environmental offenders accountable for their actions.

"Canadians generally feel that their governments do not go far enough in enforcing environmental laws and they tend to support sharply limiting industrial greenhouse gas emissions," the analysis says.

While there is support for using incentives to encourage pro-environmental practices, Canadians "express more support for the application of strict standards, controls, and penalties" when it comes to the transgressions of the corporate world.
No word yet as to who gets to inform the oil industry it's officially out of the Harper coalition. But I'm pretty sure acknowledging that the Cons' environmental delay tactics are now, and always have been, directly contrary to the views of the public is out of the question.

Update: A propos of nothing, this.

On competing classes

Yes, it's highly problematic that the Cons are slashing the availability of applications for skilled workers to immigrate to Canada:
A little-known clause in instructions Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has issued to slash immigration applications from skilled workers abroad appears to limit related immigration and refugee applications based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
Mr. Kenney's announcement that he was cutting the number of skilled worker immigration applications to 10,000 from 20,000 received attention abroad and in a few immigration specialty publications, but virtually no coverage in Canada's mainstream media.

Mr. Kenney said the severe reductions were being made despite the fact the government had already reduced the backlog of applications of skilled workers by half since 2008.
But it's especially worth comparing the numbers involved in that category to the number of temporary workers brought in annually:
Every year, over 150,000 foreign workers enter Canada to work temporarily in jobs that help Canadian employers address skill shortages, or to work as live-in caregivers.
In principle, temporary work permits are only supposed to be available to fill positions which can't be filled by Canadian citizens or permanent residents. But it's not hard to see how a deliberate choice to reduce the number of workers able to apply for permanent residence under the skilled worker class will serve to boost the perceived need for more temporary help - ensuring that less immigrants to Canada are able to hold any hope of long-term security in the country, while more work is reserved for the most vulnerable workers possible.

Wednesday Afternoon Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- David Green nicely explains the basic choice to be made in determining what type of economy we want to pursue:
(T)he basic tenet of the new policy regime – that any increase in wage costs kills jobs and growth – means that the regime cannot deliver good jobs to workers by definition. When demand conditions in the oil patch start pushing wages up, the government responds by bringing in large inflows of temporary workers to keep them down. In the late 2000’s, the priority list for speedy processing of TFWs in BC and Alberta included food counter workers. There is no argument about economic growth that implies a need to staff fast food counters quickly. Clearly the government bought into an argument that all wage increases are bad.

More recently, we have learned that firms in the oil patch are training workers in Mexico in order to get ready to bring them in as TFWs. Is this the policy direction we want? Is investing in training for workers elsewhere rather than here in order to make it easier to keep wages in Canada low really the path to a healthy economy and society?

The response on the other side, of course, is that we have no choice. Any increases in wage costs will kill growth.

Is this really true? In recent work with Paul Beaudry from UBC and Ben Sand from York University, we found that a 10% increase in wage costs in an economy implies a 3% reduction in the employment rate. This is not zero – there are tradeoffs – but it’s a long way from what the Harper government seems to believe.

This highlights a need for a debate on a key question: do we really want Canada to be a low wage society? Do we really believe, as the American approach embodies, that the only legitimate goal of labour and social policy is employment? Policies that focus on generating good jobs with good wages and stability are possible without generating economic stagnation. We need to find the balance that is right for Canada. The low-wages-above-all approach of the Harper government needs to be challenged.
- Keith Horner weighs in on the need for pension reform - and the best model to use:
In a study I published with the Institute for Research on Public Policy, I compared three different options for a government-sponsored pension plan: a mandatory defined benefit plan, and two defined contribution plans, one mandatory and the other voluntary. The defined benefit plan I propose entails a modest expansion of the CPP/QPP that would raise the benefit rate from 25 per cent to 40 per cent of earnings up to $48,300 and from 0 per cent to 25 per cent earnings between $48,300 and $96,600.

Based on my analysis of the effects of the three plans, I concluded that a defined benefit plan would provide higher benefits per dollar of contribution than either of the defined contribution plans. By enabling risk-pooling among age cohorts, defined benefit plans can achieve higher returns through longer investment horizons and slightly greater exposure to risk.

A national, government-sponsored, mandatory defined benefit plan would also provide participants with more secure and predictable retirement income than defined contribution plans. And it would not suffer some of the drawbacks of existing single employer-registered pension plans, which tend to hamper labour mobility and encourage early retirement.
- And lest there be any doubt, plenty of workers recognize the problem - as David Doorey notes:
(Linda) McQuaig noted that a majority of workers in Canada would vote for a union if given the chance.

That was taken from a blog entry I did last year. In it, I noted a study that found that over 85% of union members in Canada would vote to remain in the union if given a choice, and that 33% of nonunion workers in Canada would vote to join a union if given the chance. Interestingly, for my university students, the study found that over 58% of Canadian nonunion workers between age 15-24 would vote for a union. These stats refute the commonly heard assertion in the business media that Canadians have no interest in unions, and that union members are trapped against their will by forced unionism that they cannot escape. Hogwash. As I’ve noted before, under our “majority rules” model in North America, 50 percent of workers might want to be unionized, yet they would be denied that right. In my earlier post, I asked whether it is a failure of the legal model if greater than 50% of workers want collective bargaining, yet only about 30% presently have it?
- Derek Abma surveys some of the scandals currently facing Canada's corporate sector. But perhaps the most interesting part of his article is the theory as to why Canadian firms are embroiled in so many issues:
Christopher Wilson, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Ottawa's school of management, says some scandals involving Canadian business interests are indicative of a corporate culture that puts its emphasis on the immediate appeasement of shareholders, often at the expense of other stakeholders, such as workers, customers and affected communities.

"The orientation is to see the profits in the next quarter as opposed to the long-term health of the organization and the long-term value addition to society," he says.

Wilson says English-speaking countries tend to have a business culture that emphasizes short-term needs of shareholders over other considerations.

Canada, he says, is perhaps even more so this way than the United States, because the relatively small pool of significant shareholders in Canadian companies limits the diversity of opinion that goes into shaping corporate policies.

"It makes it really, really difficult for Canadian companies to make a change because everybody sort of thinks the same way," Wilson says.

"Whereas in the more diverse, less closely held environment of the United States, there's so many other perspectives that come into play."
- And finally, Frances Russell is the latest to call out the Cons' politics of envy as a roundabout means of justifying handouts to the wealthy:
The Air Canada and Canada Post labour disputes triggered a wave of media commentaries and editorials trying to stir up class envy among the private sector's largely non-unionized taxpayers because they're being "forced" to pay the "bloated" salaries of public-sector union "fat cats" and "aristocrats."

This bait and switch steers everyone away from the real issue, the massive upward wealth shift occurring in Canada, the U.S., and, to a lesser extent, Europe.
This top 0.1 per cent have more than doubled their share of the national income pie, something not seen since the 1920s.

"By 2009, the worst year of the recession, the wealthiest 3.8 per cent of families had captured a stunning two-thirds of all financial wealth in Canada," says Bruce Campbell, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. "Since 2000, they have persuaded governments to cut taxes and shrink the federal treasury by a mind-boggling $420 billion."
The bulk of Conservative tax initiatives direct even more wealth to that same 0.1 per cent.

The media abound with stories on how to bundle up the value offered by the new tax-free savings accounts with RRSPs and RESPs. But you need at least $100,000 to get maximum value from doing so, says CCPA economist Armine Yalnizyan.

That excludes 80 per cent of Canadian households. Even before the last recession, 3.3 million Canadians already fell below Statistics Canada's low-income cutoff and 10 per cent of Canadian households lived on less than $16,000 annually.

Income splitting is another Harper bonanza for the rich. A 2006 Library of Parliament study showed fully half of all Canadian families, those with incomes of less than $60,000, would realize just eight per cent of the benefit. The rest goes to the wealthiest families. The poorest, single-parent families, get nothing at all.

Elderly benefits follow a similar pattern. Compare the Conservatives' pension-splitting scheme for rich seniors to its meagre increase in the guaranteed annual income supplement for the poorest. The former costs the treasury over $920 million, the latter just $300 million.

Given this cornucopia of rewards for the richest Canadians, trying to foment class envy against postal workers and other public servants should be seen for what it is -- an attack on democratic values and democracy itself.

Death to diplomacy!

I'll give Sun Media this much: they're being slightly less partisan than I'd have expected in their bombast, following up their demand to fire a diplomat for the crime of following the alphabet with Brian Lilley's equally vituperative screed against an acknowledgment of historical fact by the president of the Conservative Party.

But I'm rather curious how a media service expects to survive trying to fabricate a scandal out of every instance of civil behaviour toward somebody who's seen as unpopular. And indeed, I have to wonder whether anybody trying to meet that remarkable standard would want to steer clear of Sun itself.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cats in storage.

Democracy in action

Shorter Bob Bjornerud:

Of course we couldn't possibly object to giving farmers a chance to vote on the future of the Canadian Wheat Board - just as long as it doesn't give them any actual say in the matter.

Just so we're clear...

New rules for Canadian political reporting:

If a federal government department is proposing to raise user fees, that has nothing to do with Tony Clement or any other Harper Con, particular when it comes to evaluating Clement's promises that user fees were off the table.

If a federal government department is proposing to do anything popular, however, that continues to be to the Cons' sole credit.

Consider yourselves warned.

On target groups

For all the opinion polling we're bound to see in the years to come, this may be one of the more important surveys in determining the future shape of Canadian politics.

Based on Statistics Canada's data, Canadian non-voters who classified themselves as "not interested" - including those who didn't think their votes could make a difference - would have been able to push the NDP ahead of the Cons in the popular vote, while those who saw themselves as "too busy" to vote would have nearly been able to do the same. And while we of course wouldn't expect all the potential votes to lean in just one direction, the NDP's ability to find messages to reach the first group and solutions to help the second could make a world of difference in determining who governs the country after 2015.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Ian Welsh serves up some tough commentary as to whether Canadian voters saddled with unrepresentative and downright destructive governments are merely getting what we deserve:
(W)e have selected, to rule our societies, sociopaths at best and psychopaths at worse. They have contempt for those they rule, do not see them as even truly human, and enjoy hurting them. They feel tough when they make the hard decisions, which are somehow always hard for others, but never for themselves. They encourage cruelty in society, from the ground up, and routinely subject the population to humiliating surveillance, force them to abase themselves to the least appearance of authority, whether legitimately used or not, and condone murder and torture and routine humiliation. They don’t do these things to themselves, of course, the rich, for example, don’t get groped in airports, but they routinely do it to those below them.

And in so doing they teach those below them, to do it to those below them, and below them, and below them, and so on. The sickness comes from the top, a rotten poison which has altered the character of nations. But it came from the bottom, first. It came from a population who became lazy and complacent and thought they had rights they didn’t have to guard like a dog with a bone; who thought they could just live their lives and leave politics to other people except for pulling a lever or marking a ballot every four years. It came from people who felt “I’ve got mine, who cares what happens to anyone I don’t know?” Unable to see themselves in others for longer than the gossamer blink of an eye, they were also unable to understand that what was done to others would also be done to them.

We have become contemptible. Our leaders, perhaps, are most contemptible of all, but we continue to consent. Oh perhaps polls might say we’re not happy, but who cares what polls say? We do nothing, we let our leaders do as they will, and we take on their mores, becoming cruel and debased and uncaring of what happens to our fellows, not even the care of enlightened self interest, the clear understanding that what is done unfairly, cruely, to someone else, could, probably will, one day be done to us. We pretend to care most about our children, making such a fetish of it that allowing children to roam unattended is virtually treated as a crime, yet we are creating a world in which they will suffer, unimaginably, a world in which hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of our grandchildren will die.

Lord save us from what we deserve, because what we deserve is what’s going to happen: war and revolution, famine and drought, climate change on a scale we truly don’t understand.
- But one of the most important ways of fighting back is to call out manipulative and dishonest spin for what it is. Which brings us to Linda McQuaig:
(T)he genius of the architects of today’s conservative revolution has been to obscure the class war they’ve been quietly waging, keeping us distracted with foreign military ventures, royals and other celebrity sightings.

Behind all these diversions, the class war has been relentlessly proceeding. While incomes at the top have steadily climbed, incomes of ordinary Canadians have steadily eroded. The real median Canadian family income hasn’t risen since the late 1970s — even though today’s typical family now has two earners, compared to just one earner 30 years ago. In other words, Canadian families are working about twice as hard to keep up to where they were a generation ago.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crunch, ordinary Canadians stand to lose even more ground. As the recent labour battles at Air Canada and Canada Post show, employers — now with firm backing from Ottawa — have new wind in their sails as they demand concessions and insist that new employees be hired at lower wage and benefit levels.

This means that employers are demanding the next generation of workers be paid less than today’s workers. If this isn’t evidence of an ongoing class war, it’s hard to think what would be.
(W)hile only about 30 per cent of Canadian workers are unionized, fully 52 per cent would like to be. (Ironically, this is roughly the same percentage of Canadians who support the monarchy, according to an Ipsos Reid poll taken after the royal wedding.)

Apparently Canadians want both unions and the monarchy. But they’re not allowed to have both.
- And Peter Prebble's response to Bronwyn Eyre's embarrassing claim that there's no evidence to support concerns about climate change also fits the bill.

- Call me old-fashioned if you will. But as far as I can tell, an agreement not to have national housing standards (but to negotiate single-province standards at some point in the future) isn't a deal on housing.

- Finally, Adam Radwanski suggests that home care could actually be an area of consensus in Ontario's fall election.

Monday, July 04, 2011

On monstrous effects

One of my personal favourite villains in political theory is the "utility monster".

In response to the utilitarian theory that we can simply sum up citizens' preferences to determine what policies should be pursued, one of the most obvious counterarguments is to ask what happens when a single person puts so much weight on his or her own happiness that it fundamentally distorts any policy calculations. Taken to extremes, the hypothetical creature forces any utilitarian calculus to produce a distribution of benefits that's quickly and easily rejected as fundamentally unfair - with all other interests being subordinate to the utility monster's whims.

Of course, the very idea is preposterous. Ludicrous. Utterly apart from reality.

With just one problem: can anybody say with confidence that our economic policy-making does anything but to encourage exactly that type of distortion?

A mere 29 finance and resource corporations are now capturing close to a majority of all of the net corporate profits in Canada. And our policies are based on shoveling ever more money into their coffers, relying on the theory that their already-massive profits make them more likely to be able to run up the score even further in the future.

And an increasing proportion of individual wealth is similarly becoming more and more concentrated - with that process again defended through the suggestion that we should want to pour money into the hands of people who have proven both their dedication and their aptitude in pursuing wealth for its own sake, since it results in a higher society-wide number (however unfairly distributed).

In other words, our policies are devoted toward the perpetual pursuit of an aggregate measure of economic outcomes - with no regard for either the harmful effects of inequality which are exacerbated by that narrow focus, or the dangers of incentivizing the creation of ever larger and greedier wealth monsters.

So if we can see why the utility monster serves as a compelling argument against pursuing pure aggregate utilitarianism as a matter of political theory, shouldn't it be obvious that it's an equally damning indictment of what's become far too widely accepted as conventional economic wisdom?

[Edit: fixed wording, added label.]

On unwanted assistance

Shorter Harper PCO response to anybody requesting information it would prefer to pre-emptively classify as unavailable:

Are you sure you want us to comply with the law on access to information? Really? Nah, you're just kidding. REALLY? How about now?

On privileged access

It's somewhat surprising to see one of the architects of a PMO noted for an obsessive aversion to transparency pushing for a lobbying registry in Saskatchewan.

But I have to wonder whether the pitch has something to do with the flaws in the Harper Cons' federal scheme that I've pointed out before. Could it be that the federal Cons have concluded that imposing compliance costs on anybody trying to bring outside perspectives to politicians while providing accountability-free access for friendly groups offers such a large political advantage that any associated provincial government would be crazy not to follow suit?

Monday Morning Links

Assorted content to start your week.

- John Crocker points out that the need for secure and sufficient pensions is only made all the more obvious by the abject failure of policies intended to force Canadians to fend for themselves:
According to Statistics Canada, six out of 10 Canadians have no formal pension plan. If rates of defined-benefit coverage continue to decline, we’ll have no discernible pension coverage in the next 10 to 20 years, and will be grappling with widespread senior poverty.

We’ve already seen that Canadians aren’t saving for retirement on their own, given the $600 billion in unused RRSP room at the end of 2009, according to Statistics Canada.

A retirement income policy that assumes Canadians will take responsibility for their own welfare in retirement could result in disastrously low levels of senior income. We have to turn this argument around — rather than getting rid of pension plans, we need to strengthen and expand them. A pension plan that provides meaningful replacement income is our best line of defence against widespread senior poverty.
- Jim Stanford paints a portrait of corporate Canada, showing exactly who's gaining and losing from the pattern of corporate tax-slashing:
I zero in on the biggest of the big: the 50 most profitable public corporations in Canada in 2010, according to the rankings. These 50 companies raked in $80 billion worth of after-tax net income. In contrast, the remaining 950 companies on the RoB list received only $20 billion more. So by focusing on the top 50, we are certainly catching most of the action.
Indeed, those 50 giant companies accounted for about two-thirds of the after-tax profits generated by all corporations (public or otherwise, foreign or Canadian) in Canada in 2010. According to Statistics Canada data, total before-tax corporate profits last year equalled some $180 billion, $55 billion (or 30%) of which was paid back in direct taxes to all levels of government, leaving some $125 billion worth of net income. Almost two-thirds of that was captured by the top 50 corporations.
Reflecting the stunted structure of Canada’s private sector, the corporate top 50 listing is dominated by two sectors: finance (12 companies) and resource companies (17). These sectors took home over $25 billion each in after-tax profit (and together accounted for over two-thirds of the total profits of the top 50). While the leading role of big finance in corporate Canada has been fairly stable over time (there were 14 financial firms among the RoB’s top 50 a decade ago), the global commodities boom and Canada’s accelerating resource-dependence has almost doubled the number of resource producers represented among the top corporate ranks over the last decade. Petroleum companies have become especially prominent, now providing 11 of the top 50.

I was surprised by the huge employment numbers racked up by the big financial firms: 370,000 workers employed by the dozen companies. (The RoB ranking reports worldwide employment of participating companies, but most of the banks’ employees are in Canada.) At the other extreme, the resource producers had very modest employment: just 82,000 in total. This means that the resource industry is the pinnacle of “exploitation” (measured loosely by after-tax profits generated per worker). On average, each worker at those 17 companies generated a stunning $325,000 in profit for their employers – compared to a comparatively stingy $75,000 per worker in the financial sector. Of course, it is not just workers that the oil companies and other resource firms are exploiting: it is the planet, too.
- And Stanford also highlights some of the real threats to economic recovery which are being ignored even as the Cons try to manufacture outrage over Canada Post:
Gasoline prices: Even at $1.25 a litre, gas prices will rip $40-billion from the pockets of Canadians this year. The soaring prices are a big reason why consumer spending has stopped in its tracks – an alarming development that could precipitate a recession. And you can’t invoke “market forces” to explain the prices. They’ve been driven up by speculation, fat oil industry profits and OPEC’s continuing power.

Interest rates: The Bank of Canada is holding its prime rate at a historically low level. But the gap between that rate (which chartered banks pay on their own borrowing) and what banks charge their own customers has widened substantially. Spreads on credit cards and small business loans are even wider. No wonder the Big Six banks made $20-billion in profit last year – but no wonder borrowing by consumers and businesses alike is stuck in its tracks.

The loonie: According to the OECD, the fair value of our dollar (based on purchasing power) is 81 cents (U.S.). Currency traders have pushed it 25 per cent higher, jeopardizing Canada’s ability to sell anything (other than oil) to world markets. Again, savings on imports aren’t passed on to consumers. But the pain to our export industries and the threat to our future growth are real.

All these issues reflect contractual dealings between private parties that are jeopardizing economic growth. All reflect the working of power and policy, not the “pure” forces of supply and demand. And all are amenable to myriad forms of government intervention to attain better prices in the interest of continued recovery.

Why is the government, so quick to intervene to suppress compensation for the humble folks who deliver our mail, standing on the sidelines while powerful people enrich themselves at the expense of our national prosperity? Perhaps it’s not the economy they’re concerned with after all.
- Finally, as part of Tim Naumetz' coverage, both Duncan Cameron and Robin Sears nicely sum up the effects of the NDP's back-to-work legislation filibuster:
Much ink has been spilled since the May 2 election in analyzing the potential caucus management problems NDP Leader Jack Layton (Toronto-Danforth, Ont.) may have on his hands with a caucus suddenly weighted heavily on a new crop of Quebec MPs.

"Hasn't everyone been saying they're going to have problems? Wouldn't you say if you're the leader, your first priority would be to bring these people together somehow, find a way to bring them together? And he just did it," asserted Mr. Cameron.
"The goal of all the players in a new Parliament is to try and set the frame of the story and their position in it," said Mr. Sears. "The NDP were determined to set the frame very quickly with themselves as the opposition, and I think they did it in a blunt and effective manner."

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Sunday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to end your long weekend.

- Sixth Estate's evisceration of the Fraser Institute continues, this time with a response in substance to the claim that private-sector rent-seekers will somehow make prescription drugs more affordable:
(T)he real problem is that provincial drug review, unlike federal drug review, is based solely on political and economic questions of cost: in short, is the drug high-profile enough that the government should devote money to funding it? In today’s political culture, the answer is usually “no.” In any case, both problems are easily solved with exactly the same method: we need more funding for Health Canada if we’re going to approve drugs more quickly, and we need more funding for hospitals and provincial drug plans if we’re going to use them to dispense more new drugs.

The Fraser Institute, however, chooses Option B: a nifty bit of sleight-of-hand which is so unrelated to the actual problems as to be classified (by me, anyways) openly deceitful. The Fraser Institute says that we should eliminate drug safety and cost reviews and hand all drug coverage over to the private sector. The Fraser Institute points out that private extended health insurance plans available to Canadians who can afford them tend to approve more drugs, more quickly, than the provincial health plans that dispense drugs to hospitals and to lower-income people. So, the Fraser Institute says, Canadians will get the best access to the best drugs if they all use private insurance plans.

Now, this is akin to saying that people shouldn’t complain about traffic jams because, if they really cared about it that much, they would just use their private helicopters to fly to work. The reason that private health insurance more readily funds expensive drugs is because the people who can afford to buy such plans (or whose employers can afford to do so) invariably spend more money doing it. Bizarrely, I can find in this report no comparison of the cost of comparative programs, which the Fraser Institute is usually obsessed with. Ironically, just one month ago, the authors of this study published an op-ed claiming that only relative cost was a useful comparison when discussing different healthcare systems.
- Erin provides part of the answer to Robert Silver's overwrought complaint about how the NDP might deal with labour issues while in government. But it's worth completing the picture with a familiar theme when it comes to a party's general view of government.

For a right-wing Con government which at base doesn't believe that the public sector can perform any useful function in the first place, it should come as no surprise that we'd see attacks on unions regardless of their effect on public institutions as workplaces. But a party like the NDP which sees the government having an important role to play also has every incentive to make sure that public resources are used effectively - meaning that there's far more reason to expect public interests and unions' collective bargaining goals involved in a labour relations dispute to be appropriately taken into consideration by the NDP than by a party which sees either or both as being inapplicable.

- Murray Mandryk rightly criticizes Rob Norris and the Sask Party for offering false answers to entirely accurate questions about the St. Peter's College/Carlton Trail Regional College merger scandal:
(NDP MLA Cam) Broten first raised some of these very concerns in a May 2010 legislative committee meeting. Norris responded then by calling the allegations "illinformed", "inaccurate" and "completely false."

Sure, such political forums can be partisan and some of the things Broten was raising were coming from members of the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union (SGEU) that was accusing the government of privatization by stealth. But nasty, condescending partisanship (Norris lectured Broten on the meaning of the word "merger") overtook any commitment to transparency and accountability.

Asked Thursday if he had anything to say about those specific words he used 13 months ago, Norris repeated that this was a lesson in humility. That he couldn't muster the words "I'm sorry" to those he had berated for telling him the truth was rather telling.

In fact, what Norris mostly offered Thursday was a lot of justification why he shouldn't be responsible for ignoring the warnings offered to him months in advance. He cited everything from the "culture of trust" in post-secondary institutes to the time it took for the reports to be written as the problems.

This not accountability. And waiting until the final day before a summer long weekend to release the report doesn't feel like transparency.

Accountability and transparency aren't just words.
- Finally, on the positive side, it's worth setting aside some time in this fall's calendar for Linda McQuaig's appearances in Regina and Saskatoon.

Hoarders: Corporate Cash Edition

One of the main issues of contention in the debate over continued corporate tax slashing has been the question of what the business sector will do with more free money. And Erin's post makes it clear just how much capacity has already been taken out of any productive use by being funnelled into corporate coffers instead:
Statistics Canada figures indicate that private non-financial corporations held $471 billion of cash in the first quarter of 2011 ($322 billion of Canadian currency plus $149 billion worth of foreign currency). Including short-term paper would bring this total to half a trillion dollars, enough to pay off the national debt (i.e. accumulated deficit).

Cash hoarding is a critical point in the debate about corporate taxes. If incremental after-tax profits are being deposited (rather than reinvested or paid out), lower corporate tax rates likely just produce higher piles of cash.

If corporate Canada already has half a trillion dollars more than it wishes to invest in physical or financial assets, there is no reason to expect that corporate tax cuts will boost investment. On the contrary, if the government collected more of this money and invested it directly, Canada would have more investment in total
As Eric Pineault showed graphically and Statistics Canada shows numerically, corporate Canada’s overall approach for at least two decades has been to stockpile ever more cash through good times and bad (with only very rare and slight exceptions). Advocates of corporate tax cuts have not provided a consistent or convincing explanation of how accelerating this ongoing cash accumulation benefits the Canadian public.

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging

The start of the 'Riders' season is just around the corner, and there doesn't seem to be much doubt about the main areas of uncertainty for the team. But while Rob Vanstone nicely identifies the question marks, I'll go into a bit more detail about the possible answers.

To start with, let's note why other areas of the team don't figure to be in doubt at this point. At plenty of positions, the team's strategy has been to bring back a good number of past players, and then to fill in holes with experienced CFL players whose upside and downside should both be relatively limited. So the offensive backfield (for example) should see fairly little change other than having Neal Hughes and Graeme Bell perform much the same role that Chris Szarka previously played, while the offensive line should be able to hold its own without having any real prospect of dominating. Likewise on defence, the team's run support and secondary both look solid but not much more.

That leaves just a few areas which will figure to make the difference for the 'Riders - either positively or negatively. So let's take a look at those in turn.


Saskatchewan's generally-strong receiving corps obviously makes for the position with the most upheaval, with two of the team's top three receivers gone at least to start the season. Which means that the 'Riders probably can't take much for granted: about the best they can count on at the start of the season is to have one elite receiver in Weston Dressler, and two solid depth types in Chris Getzlaf and Cary Koch (once he's back from his thumb injury).

But the available playing time also means the 'Riders can test out a number of possible improvements - just as the team was able to use a spate of injuries in 2008 to develop the strong group of receivers that's emerged over the past couple of seasons. And there are at least half a dozen ways for the 'Riders' current group of receivers to get better in a hurry.

1. Chris Getzlaf emerging as a go-to receiver. Getzlaf has already shown that he can put together jaw-dropping single-game performances, particularly when he's had the chance to take over Fantuz' usual role for a game or two at a time due to injury or excessive defensive focus. (See e.g. Getzlaf's 300+ yards in two games against the Stampeders last season.) But he hasn't yet managed to keep up the pace over the course of a full season - and he may never get a better chance to prove that he can serve as a CFL team's primary target.

2. Jordan Sisco establishing himself as a CFL starter. It's a bit worrisome that Sisco seems to be behind a number of new imports on the depth chart despite having had an opportunity to experience the CFL last season. But Sisco shouldn't take a back seat to Terrence Nunn or Ernie Wheelwright in terms of raw talent, and the ratio bonus involved in developing Sisco should make him one of the 'Riders' top priorities for the new season.

3. Jason Clermont turning back the clock. No, the 'Riders can't expect Clermont to be among the league's receiving leaders at this stage of his career. But he was effective when asked to make tough catches late in the 2010 season, and his ability to serve as a reliable #3 or 4 might be crucial if the team's younger receivers disappoint.

4/5. Ernie Wheelwright and/or Terrence Nunn breaking out as a new CFL star. Obviously the best-case scenario for the 'Riders would see their new arrivals dominate from day one. And while Wheelwright and Nunn have less experience with Canadian rules generally and the CFL specifically than the players ahead of them on this list, it's well within the realm of possibility that either or both could do what Dressler managed in 2008 by turning a first shot at playing time into an elite season.

6. Rob Bagg returning healthy to end the season. Yes, ideally Bagg would be able to beat the predictions that he'll be gone for the season. But the team's focus needs to be on "healthy" rather than "returning": the 'Riders probably have enough depth to get by without Bagg, and can't afford to have him injure himself again by coming back too soon.

7. Andy Fantuz returning from the NFL. Fantuz' return would have a bigger effect on the 'Riders' offence than any of the other prospects. But the possibility is entirely out of the team's hands - so its best bet is to look to develop the strongest group of receivers it can as the season progresses, and see Fantuz as nothing more than a bonus if he does turn up late in the season.

In sum, the 'Riders have at least seven chances to develop their receiving corps alongside their existing base. And their success in doing so will likely be the most crucial factor for the team this season.

With a hit rate of 0 or 1, the 'Riders' passing game will be a weakness rather than a strength, and the team might struggle just to make the playoffs. With 2 or 3, Darian Durant will have a puncher's chance to outscore any team in the league, projecting the 'Riders to their usual place just above .500. And anything more could turn Saskatchewan's offence into the most terrifying force any defensive coordinator will face on the season.

Pass Rush

The 'Riders ability to get to opposing quarterbacks has gone from a major strength a couple of seasons back to a probable weakness now. Long gone are John Chick and Stevie Baggs, who could make life miserable for any offence based on their individual pass-rushing skills - and with Gary Etcheverry's blitzing and confusing defence replaced by Richie Hall's steady-as-she-goes philosophy, it'll be tough to count on the 'Riders' defensive system to generate pressure.

That means that it'll be up to individual defenders to find a way to get to the quarterback while fitting into Hall's system. So who has a chance of getting that job done?

With Brent Hawkins out to start the season, the most obvious possibility is Montez Murphy - who has been spectacular in short spurts, but needs to show he can exert consistent pressure. But the best hope may be for the 'Riders to generate pressure from some unexpected positions, rather than relying on Murphy, Luc Mullinder and Tearrius George to do much damage on their own.

One possibility on that front is for the 'Riders to focus on using their defensive tackles to get to the quarterback. Dario Romero may be penalty-prone and slightly past his prime, but he's been one of the better line-busters in the league over the past few seasons. And if Keith Shologan can incorporate some of Romero's tricks into his repertoire, then the 'Riders can make up for a middling set of ends with pressure across the entire line.

Or alternatively, Hall can look at setting loose the 'Riders' linebackers and secondary a bit more often. Of course we'll expect to see Jerrell Freeman unleashed after his breakout season in 2010, but the most important factor in generating pressure from across the field will be unpredictability rather than a single player's skills.

Again, there are a few options for the 'Riders to get to opposing quarterbacks - along with some hope for late-season reinforcements as Brent Hawkins returns from injury. But the pass rush looks to be more a matter of downside than upside, as a lack of pressure early in the season could leave the 'Riders in a hole that can't be escaped later on.

Special Teams

After Brendan Taman made special teams the 'Riders' top off-season priority (using three draft picks on special-teams players and making Graeme Bell and Tristan Jackson two of his top veteran acquisitions), one would have hoped for a bit more stability going into the season.

Instead, the 'Riders look to have a glaring question mark at place-kicker until Luca Congi gets healthy. But while that looks to be a weakness no matter what, the area where there's some chance of turning a weakness into a strength lies in the 'Riders' coverage teams.

At the very least, Craig Butler has joined Bell as an addition to the 'Riders' kick coverage teams. But more importantly, there's some reason for hope that Bell and new special-teams coordinator Craig Dickenson can develop Butler and the younger, more athletic players already on the 'Riders (Stu Foord, Shomari Williams, Sisco, Tamon George, etc.) into a disciplined and cohesive unit.

Meanwhile, the biggest issue for Jackson may be the number of roles he's asked to play. If the 'Riders try to press him into duty in the secondary, then it seems all too likely that he'll burn out even faster than returners normally do, leaving the return teams as a continued weakness. But if he's allowed to specialize as a returner and occasional offensive weapon, then the 'Riders should have their most effective returner in years.


Based on those question marks, the most reasonable expectation for the 'Riders is to end up in the same range as the previous couple of seasons, with a baseline expectation likely in the range of 10-8.

The 'Riders' main competition again figures to be the Stampeders, who should be the favourites in the division even after their season-opening loss to Toronto. The Eskimos look to be approaching contention again after their multi-year lull, with a high-upside receiving corps featuring Fred Stamps, Adarius Bowman, Chris Bauman, Jason Barnes and Nate Coehoorn looking particularly dangerous. And the Lions still have some extremely talented players, but have aged enough as a team (both in their existing players and their off-season acquisitions) to project into last place for now.

But then, nothing can be taken for granted in the CFL: one injury to a Burris or a Durant or a breakout season by a Cory Boyd can change a team's expectations in a hurry. And we'll find out soon whether the 'Riders can follow up another close-but-not-quite season with a run to the top of the West and the league.

[Edit: fixed typo.]