Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saturday Afternoon Links

Miscellaneous material for your weekend reading.

- Susan Riley comments on Brian Topp's mention of raising taxes as a necessary price of greater equality and better social programs:
(H)owever reasonable, limited or incremental (Topp's) plan turns out to be - he says he will proceed in "practical" steps - it will be greeted with howls from "high-net-worth individuals," their political protectors and media defenders. You can envision the Conservative attack ads. We know what happens to anyone (Michael Ignatieff, Stéphane Dion) who ventures beyond the ferociously guarded borders of the politically acceptable.

Yet this time might be different. The Reaganite anti-tax gospel, so deeply absorbed by Stephen Harper, is getting old. It seems particularly indefensible during recessionary times to continue doling out generous exemptions to the well-heeled, particularly when they aren't using their advantage to create jobs. The smart shops on Toronto's Bloor Street are enjoying their best sales in years, while youth unemployment is at a worrying 14 per cent. People notice.
(Jim Flaherty) ignores the fairness argument - warmly advanced by American billionaire Warren Buffett, who pronounced it ridiculous that he is taxed at 17 per cent, compared to his office staff which averages 36 per cent. Buffett, along with some of the European super-rich (including Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo), are ready to pay more.

They are not entirely motivated by altruism; unequal societies are not happy places to live, or stable places to invest. The wealthy retreat into gated communities; the poor and unemployed turn inner cities into dangerous, dispiriting slums.
- And it's worth noting that it isn't just an isolated few more wealthy individuals calling for fairer taxes, with 68% of U.S. millionaires supporting an increase to their own taxes. Which means that the still-growing talk about inequality sparked by the Occupy protests already looks to be meeting with success in convincing even those who have the most to gain on paper by maintaining the status quo.

- If the Cons are eager to kill off the CBC as a source of meaningful journalism, their insistence on ordering that confidential sources be revealed to a Parliamentary committee would seem like a great place to start. And the more the Cons push forward, the less there will figure to be any "if" to speak of.

- But the Cons' complete unwillingness to listen to anybody is having some effects which could produce some significant backlash in the long run. And one could hardly ask for a better example than the gun registry, as even NDP MPs who were willing to vote to repeal the registry are uniting against legislation designed to salt the earth so that no provincial registries can replace the federal one that's being dismantled.

- Finally, pogge points out the absurd levels of corporatization of government - culminating in Illinois requiring employees to pay taxes to their employers. But it's worth noting that the source of that competition to bribe private industry lies at least in part in a lack of willingness to consider public-sector alternatives - resulting in a gross imbalance of power between governments looking to take credit for any jobs they can, and the employers who can count on multiple jurisdictions bidding for their services as good-news providers.

On complexities

Bruce Johnstone makes about the best case one possibly can for the Sask Party's refusal to review potash royalties. But it necessarily misses a rather important point.

After all, there's absolutely no basis to consider the current royalty structure as an essential element to mine development to the extent any given mine would be profitable even under a royalty structure that results in a better return for the province. Which means that there's a desperate need for actual evidence for Johnstone's assertion that we should give it all of the credit, rather than paying attention to how changes in potash prices over the past decade have influenced investment decisions.

And if we want to figure out exactly how much effect the royalty rates have (and ought to have) on investment...well, the best way to do that is through a royalty review.

Credit where due

I suspect there's still going to be plenty of room for argument as to how much attention we ought to pay to inequality in the development of economic policy. But let's give Kevin Milligan and other UBC economists full credit for their observations when prompted by Pete McMartin on issues of inequality and economic structure, including both in terms of why the GDP-above-all-else model has sometimes fallen flat with the public...
The majority of respondents in that poll agreed with Milligan. They, too, felt that, overall, the HST would benefit the economy.

But...while they recognized the HST would benefit the economy, they also felt that, on a personal level, none of the HST’s benefits would accrue to them.

A message resided in that distinction, Milligan felt, one that perhaps spoke to a greater malaise.

“With all the growth in the economy the HST promised,” Milligan said, “these people couldn’t bring themselves to vote for it because they didn’t see that growth benefiting them.”

Read that way, the HST vote wasn’t a referendum on a tax: It was a referendum on the nature of the economy.

It was a signal, perhaps, that many British Columbians felt they were disenfranchised from an economy that no longer worked in their interests. Their incomes were flat or falling. They struggled to cover their bills and mortgages. They watched all the economic gains of the last 15 years go to an increasingly affluent minority. Why vote for a tax that would, in their eyes, only exacerbate those trends?
...and their policy prescriptions to ensure an economy where everyone benefits:
So what, they were asked, would they recommend to close the income gap opening up in Canadian society?

Well, there were no easy answers, was their reply, but there were broad themes. Some of those:

• End programs such as the Temporary Foreign Workers Program that artificially encourage low wages in service industries.

• Recognize that unions — once a bulwark of the middle class — have encouraged better wages not only for unionized workers but non-unionized workers as well, and reconsider government policies that have made the process of union certification more difficult.

• Concentrate efforts for income equality where it is now most needed, not with seniors, who have fared relatively well, but with younger workers, young families and single parents, who have suffered most from income inequality.

• Improve the tax-and-transfer system to increase social assistance to those in the lowest income brackets.

• Re-examine the flatness of our tax structure, which lags behind that of the U.S. in that regard, and the fact we don’t have increasing tax rates for very high incomes. Said Riddell, “We definitely should be looking at higher tax rates at the very top of the income distribution.”

• Begin a national conversation to look at the issue of income inequality, to consider if Canadian society is going in the direction we want it to go. It needn’t be something so cumbersome and official as a Royal Commission, but a task force, perhaps, that shines a more focused light on the concerns the global Occupy movement has brought to the public eye.
And if we can get enough of the Economist Party on board with a similar set of prescriptions in response to an acknowledgment that inequality is an issue worth addressing all along the income scale (rather than merely for the bottom 10%), then there may well be some prospect of incorporating its overall principles into a political platform that succeeds as a matter of both policy and politics.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Abacus' Canadian polling on the Occupy protests suggests that there's loads of public sympathy for the view that there's a need for change in how wealth and power is distributed - with the main concern being whether there's any viable means available to get that done:
Large majorities of Canadians agree with the arguments being made by Occupy Canada protestors.

* 81% agree that corporations and the rich have too much influence over public policy and politics in Canada.
* 81% agree that the gap between the rich and poor has grown too large in Canada
* 64% agree that Canadian financial institutions have been reckless and greedy.
* 51% agree that most Canadian corporations are unethical.
- Which offers yet more reason to think that the Cons' war on labour will do more to isolate themselves from a wide swath of Canadians than to establish the foundation for a long-term stay in power.

- Meanwhile, John Ibbitson manages to write a column on the Cons' push toward private charity while entirely missing one of the largest impacts of such a move: the more we rely on such a system, the more people with money to throw around get to dictate which causes are pursued (and which are ignored).

- Don MacPherson focuses on the apparent weakness of Pauline Marois and the PQ. But the news that several MNAs are participating in Quebec Solidaire events would seem to be equally relevant to the extent it signals the growth potential of an unabashedly left-wing provincial party in Quebec.

- Finally, Erin points out how the Saskatchewan Party is acting more as a shill for the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan than a voice for the province in the provincial election campaign.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Musical interlude

Luigi Lusini & Thomas Schwartz - Kiunguja

On decision points

Leftdog rightly points out that the Saskatchewan Party's sudden, zero-consultation announcement about changing Saskatchewan's school year looks to be nothing more than a distraction tactic.

But let's note why they would have felt the need to inject any such thing into the campaign: with at least some polling showing the NDP's call for a potash royalty review to be nearly twice as popular as the Sask Party's refusal to countenance the idea, Wall and company obviously had reason to fear where the campaign was going if that stood as the main issue for voters. And the big question for the rest of the campaign may well be whether the Saskatchewan Party can keep changing the channel from the biggest decision facing the province in this fall's election.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Parliament In Review: October 18, 2011

There hasn't been as much reporting on the Cons' re-introduction of copyright legislation as there was at some other points when previous incarnations were up for discussion. But Tuesday, October 18 saw second-reading debate in Parliament on the bill - and a few twists on the issue.

The Big Issue

Not surprisingly, the discussion of copyright legislation was highly contentious at times. But the exact position taken by a couple of the parties may not have been exactly what some observers would expect.

The main point of attack for the NDP was to highlight how the Cons' bill harms creators rather than users, with Pierre Dionne Labelle, Charlie Angus, Alain Giguere, Marc-Andre Morin and Rejean Genest among many speakers focusing largely on the creators' perspective. Jinny Sims pointed out the combination of a massive number of people involved in cultural industries, and the already-low pay received for that work.

Meanwhile, James Moore made the remarkable claim that the Cons re-introduced exactly the same bill as before out of respect for the consultation that had been carried out on the previous incarnation, rather than in utter defiance of it. Needless to say, that makes Angus' challenge to the Cons' willingness to accept amendments look all the more important - though I'm sure the story will change once there's actually an opportunity to give effect to public concerns.

Randall Garrison warned about the "book-burning" provision of the bill to delete educational content after 30 days. Scott Simms pointed out that the lack of media coverage doesn't mean MPs aren't receiving massive amounts of public input. Giguere criticized the Cons' bill as "giving the digital industry complete ownership of Canadian culture". Jonathan Genest-Jourdain pointed out how the bill would affect the sharing of aboriginal knowledge. Geoff Regan criticized the fact that the Cons' bill is designed to cater to not just U.S. interests, but obsolete U.S. interests. And Angus slammed the Cons for their concerted effort to get Canada placed on a global piracy watch-list.

Duly Noted

The other main topic of discussion was a take-note debate on the situation in the Ukraine based on Peter Van Loan's motion. And there was nothing but agreement in MPs' concern about the prosecution and conviction of Yulia Tymoshenko.

But that doesn't mean there weren't a few points of debate. NDP MPs called repeatedly for action from the Cons, and noted in particular the need to incorporate democracy and human rights into free-trade talks with the Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Helene Laverdiere noted that democracy extends much further than the ballot box alone. And one of the more interesting undertones of the debate was the question of silencing opposition parties - with the NDP rightly criticizing any such effort, while Con MP Leon Benoit actually considered it to be entirely appropriate through some means.

And as a point to file away for later, Peter Van Loan helpfully described his idea of an utterly illegitimate test of the merits of an issue:
There are clear signs that Tymoshenko's case has failed to follow a fair judicial process, like many other such politically motivated charges and trials being brought against former members of the opposition.

This is a glaring example in the Tymoshenko case. The prosecution requested the appearance of 32 witnesses and experts. The prosecution was granted all 32. The defence, on the other hand, asked for 30 witnesses and experts. The defence was only granted two.
Which, needless to say, is not a standard the Cons are prepared to apply here in Canada.

In Brief

Nycole Turmel challenged Stephen Harper to deal with inequality in Canada in light of the Conference Board of Canada's observation that income disparity is increasing more quickly here than in the U.S., while Charmaine Borg raised the need for a strategy to deal with poverty. Pat Martin questioned why the U.S. would have worked so hard in the past to (unsuccessfully) attack the Canadian Wheat Board if it didn't produce benefits for Canadian farmers, while Robert Chisholm noted that European sources consider Canada to be the "loser" in signing onto CETA. Peter Julian pointed out that the federal government's own report into innovation showed that a business-first strategy had proven to be a miserable failure, with Canada ranking last among the countries reviewed in a number of categories; Gary Goodyear responded by saying the report was "great". Joe Comartin challenged the Cons' anti-union private member's bill as improper in potentially imposing new taxes on union members, and Wayne Easter argued that the Cons' Wheat Board legislation violates Parliamentary privilege. And Wayne Marston re-introduced legislation to protect workers' pensions when employers go out of business.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- J. David Hulchanski identifies the most important common theme within the Occupy movement:
One thing the “Occupy” movement does not lack is a clear message: the system is broken and the folks who broke it are not the ones who will fix it. There is no doubt in the minds of many that the economy is rigged in favour of the very few, and that most politicians act on behalf of those few. Why? To quote Jessie James, because that’s where the money is.

Living in an affluent society like Canada is not very pleasant if one senses no opportunity to continue to be — or ever to be — economically comfortable, let alone affluent. A huge percentage of jobs are now precarious: low wages, few benefits, no pension, usually no future. More become that way every day.

Who benefits from a labour market based on precarious employment at low wages with no benefits? Is that how we build a just, cohesive, democratic society, where the majority feels included and fairly treated?
- Meanwhile, Trish Hennessy points to George Lakoff's take on the importance of framing for Occupiers:
I see OWS as a patriotic movement, based on a deep and abiding love of country — a patriotism that it is not just about the self-interests of individuals, but about what the country is and is to be. Do Americans care about other citizens, or mainly just about themselves? That’s what love of America is about.

I therefore think it is important to be positive, to be clear about loving America, seeing it in need of fixing, and not just being willing to fix it, but being willing to take to the streets to fix it. A populist movement starts with the people seeing that they are all in the same boat and being ready to come together to fix the leaks.
- We can add Joseph Stiglitz to the list of Nobel laureates gobsmacked at the sheer stupidity of continuing to cater to the ideology of the creditor class when the result is economic disaster for that group as much as anybody else.

- And finally, I'm sure Edmonton will agree that it's a good thing we have such a strong, stable majority government so we don't end up with major federally-funded projects getting cancelled willy-nilly without explanation.

New column day

Here, on the costliest promise in Saskatchewan's provincial election.

For further reading, see Erin's platform comparison and comment on potash royalties.

Update: Leftdog highlights just how little PCS needs handouts from the province.

And I'll add the usual proviso left out of the column: yes, of course the potash corporations will whine about any royalty review, since they prefer receiving hundreds of millions of free dollars to not receiving them. But it's the job of the provincial government to have the province's best interests in mind - and the Sask Party has done nothing at all to suggest they've even considered whether a different balance of royalties might lead to better outcomes for Saskatchewan's citizens.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wednesday Afternoon Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Andrew Coyne asks some disturbing questions as to how the federal government is becoming less and less accountable:
In other countries, executive power is subject to various checks and balances. Who or what prevents a prime minister of Canada from doing as he pleases? The governor general? But he is his appointee. The Senate? He appoints all the senators. The courts? He appoints every member of the Supreme Court, and all the federal court judges, too. The bureaucracy? He appoints the clerk of the privy council, every deputy minister, the heads of all the major Crown corporations, even the ambassadors. The police? He appoints the chief of the RCMP. And so on, hundreds and hundreds of posts, great and small, and nearly all without any independent oversight.

Ah, but the prime minister, as we all know, must command the confidence of the House of Commons. Surely that is the ultimate check on his power.
Worse still has been the continual whittling away of Parliament's ability to hold prime ministers to account. Closure, for example, was once so rare that, when invoked in the matter of the pipeline bill in 1956, Parliament was engulfed for weeks in furious protest. Today it has become routine. Even that most fundamental of prime ministerial obligations, that of commanding the confidence of the House at all times, has come under assault. Paul Martin lost a confidence vote in 2005, yet spent the next nine days using the power he no longer possessed, notably with respect to appointments, to win the votes he needed to regain it. Stephen Harper prorogued the House rather than face a confidence vote he was sure to lose, and prorogued it again to avoid unpleasant questions. Et cetera.

It used to be said that Canada "could never have a Watergate": that a prime minister, answerable to the House, would be compelled to resign long before things progressed to the cover-up and obstruction of justice stages. But such is the decline of our institutions of accountability, such indeed are the absence of checks and balances, formal or informal, that today one is not so sure. Suppose we did have a Watergate. How would we know?
- Meanwhile, Frances Russell presents some of types of questions from Lawrence Herman that the Cons are deliberately refusing to answer when it comes to their determination to torch the Canadian Wheat Board:
"The question is, why should Canada make these changes unilaterally, largely to the benefit of international grain companies and to the applause of U.S. politicians, without negotiating some quid pro quo with the Americans? Why voluntarily give up a valuable bargaining chip that can be used with the U.S. and other trading partners without securing something in return to benefit Canadian farmers?" Herman wrote in The Globe and Mail recently.

"The U.S. agriculture sector is so rife with internal government support and market access barriers that there could be important gains in improving Canadian farmers' and agri-food producers' access to that market by skilfully playing the wheat board card," he continued.

"There's no question the Harper government's policy is welcomed in Washington and by U.S. farm groups and large grain companies.

But getting nothing in return from the Americans and from our major trading partners is an abandonment of our international negotiating leverage."

Herman notes that once gone, the CWB -- or any marketing board -- cannot be recreated thanks to the one-way privatization doors embedded in corporate-driven trade agreements like FTA/NAFTA and now, the World Trade Organization.
- Susan Delacourt writes about the Cons' efforts to damage the ability of future governments to reverse their regressive policy direction. But with the Wheat Board issue front and centre at the moment, it's worth noting that efforts to bind future governments can cut both ways - and the Cons' argument against having to respect the current wording of the Canadian Wheat Board Act will weaken their case when they inevitably do to govern from beyond the political grave.

- Finally, Tim Harper and Duncan Cameron comment on Peggy Nash's progressive bona fides, while Thomas Mulcair's narrative apparently includes pushing back against organized labour.

A need for debate

It's been pointed out elsewhere that the Cons are invoking closure on multiple difference types of legislation in order to ensure that their sweeping changes aren't subject to proper public debate. And in most cases, their excuse is that the bills have largely been introduced and debated in a relatively similar form before, so they're free to short-circuit any democratic processes now.

Needless to say, we shouldn't buy the argument for a second. But to the extent that is the Cons' explanation, it bears mentioning that the provisions of the Cons' recently-introduced gun registry bill ordering the immediate destruction of all records (to ensure that provinces can't set up their own registries) are nowhere to be found in the pseudo-private member's bill the Cons previously used to push the issue. Which should make this one bill that demands a full debate even on the Cons' account.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Counter cats.

Style vs. substance

The first obvious takeaway from tonight's Saskatchewan leaders' debate was the need for both more debate and more debaters. And for all the criticism of the exclusion of other parties' leaders, the bigger issue may have been a painfully shortened format that allowed for only minimal discussion of any topic (especially when substantial portions of most of the 2-minute open sessions were taken up with transitions between the two leaders' statements).

That said, it was nonetheless possible to learn something from the debate. And while it isn't entirely off base to suggest that the debate fit into the broad contours of the rest of the campaign so far, I'm not sure that's a bad thing for the NDP's chances.

Simply put, tonight's debate was a pure test of style versus substance. Yes, Brad Wall was more polished than Dwain Lingenfelter, and hewed far more strictly to pre-fabricated talking points - which in far too much coverage seems to be treated as the lone goal of any political party or leader. But there's only so much an advantage on that point could do for Wall given the already-unbalanced views of the two leaders.

Meanwhile, the debate also featured some sharp substantive clashes which worked to the benefit of Lingenfelter and the NDP. Between Wall's describing new home construction as his party's plan to help the homeless and citing exactly the types of problems with housing and child care that are best addressed in the NDP's platform as the types of costs that are putting a post-secondary education out of reach, the Sask Party's leader gave voters ample reason to take a closer look at why they might need a government who's willing to do more to share the benefits of Saskatchewan's resource wealth. And voters looking for that should be pleased with what they saw out of Lingenfelter, whose strongest responses were on exactly the questions of basic fairness that serve as the core of the NDP's campaign.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the debate will be seen that way by the time voters reach the polls - particularly if most of the province's media decides to write another chapter in its hagiography of Wall in the weeks to come. But I wouldn't be surprised if voters who may not yet have been paying attention saw enough positive ideas out of Lingenfelter tonight to make the race closer than most seem to expect. And the more people start to question the differences between what they saw in the debate and the deified Wall and relentlessly-attacked Lingenfelter they've been shown in the past, the better the chances of a surprise in the NDP's favour as the campaign progresses.

Tuesday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your afternoon reading.

- Lawrence Martin argues that with an NDP Official Opposition at the same time as the effects of inequality and greed continue to send shockwaves across the globe, there's no time like the present for Canada to debate higher taxes as the price of needed public services:
As the official Opposition party, the NDP for the first time has a megaphone. When the party speaks of social justice, it no longer speaks from the margins. Interim leader Nycole Turmel is not a strong performer, but in Mr. Topp, in Thomas Mulcair, in Peggy Nash and others they have an impressive set of leadership candidates who are unflinching. Throughout the recent downturn, the Conservatives have had the great cover-all rationale working for them, it being that Canada isn’t doing as badly as other countries. They trumpet the splendid economic fundamentals, many of which – an example being the regulation of the financial sector – were put in place by previous governments.

While the country is doing better than others, the New Democrats have no shortage of ammunition. A society in which the gap between the wealthy and the rest is continually widening is a retrogressive, not a progressive, society.

In contrast to their southern neighbours, Canadians have a history, until recently at least, of accepting higher taxation levels as the price for a more just and egalitarian society. Mr. Topp and his fellow travellers must remind them of that.
- And Linda McQuaig has some suggestions as to how to make inequality obsolete:
Adding a new marginal tax rate of 60 per cent to those earning over $500,000 a year, and a 70 per cent rate to those earning over $2.5 million a year — rates that would simply restore the progressivity that existed during Canada’s booming postwar decades — would raise almost $8 billion a year, according to Osgoode Hall tax professor Neil Brooks.

Yet this $8 billion interests Flaherty so little that he can’t be bothered to collect it.

Compare this to Flaherty’s relentless pursuit of spending cuts, no matter how tiny the saving. He’s refused to back down for instance on closing the St. John’s maritime rescue centre — which answers hundreds of distress calls annually — even though its closure will save less than $56 million, a pittance compared to $8 billion.

Flaherty has assured us that, while Americans have legitimate concerns about inequality, Canada has a “very progressive tax system.”

But it’s Flaherty who’s got the dreamy ideas here. Our tax system as a whole — including sales, excise and property taxes as well as income taxes — isn’t actually progressive. A study by Marc Lee of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives showed that when all taxes are included, the poorest 10 per cent of Canadians — those earning less than $13,500 a year — paid fully 30.7 per cent of their tiny incomes in tax, while the top 1 per cent — with incomes above $300,000 — had a slightly lighter burden, paying 30.5 per cent of their incomes in tax.
- Jesse Lafleur documents some of the pieces of Saskatchewan's proud CCF/NDP legacy which have already been destroyed by the Wall government.

- Finally, if Tony Clement is right in suggesting that Vern Freedlander is completely off base in the advice he gave to the town of Huntsville, doesn't that only serve as all the more evidence of Clement's own bad judgment in pushing for his hiring?

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Marc Lee charts the share of financial assets held by Canadians of different income levels. And it shouldn't come as much surprise that one of the main aims of the right has been to attack pensions, which are by far the most evenly-distributed asset type.

- Again, it shouldn't be strictly an either-or calculation. But Frank Viviano offers a reminder that the Occupy movement is will miss perhaps the most important opportunity for change if it doesn't translate into influence at the ballot box as well as in the streets.

- David Anderson's racist attack on the Canadian Wheat Board has been largely covered elsewhere. But let's note that Anderson isn't just a backbench MP: instead, long after having posted such an offensive video relating directly to the Wheat Board, he was appointed by Stephen Harper as parliamentary secretary responsible for it - meaning that every day he stays in the role signals Harper's approval for Anderson's slur.

- Finally, we shouldn't be surprised that the Cons politicized this year's Canada Day celebration by slashing any reference to the CBC and reducing any mention of parks. Instead, we should enjoy the holiday not yet being changed to Harper Day while we still can.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Parliament In Review: October 17, 2011

Monday, October 17 saw the Cons cut off debate on second reading of their budget bill. Not surprisingly, the day thus focused in large part on the economy - including some noteworthy pushback against the brand the Cons have spent hundreds of millions of public dollars to promote.

The Big Issue

That's right: as the Cons continue to try to wrap themselves in "Canada's Economic Action Plan" branding, the NDP went to work by directly challenging the Cons' claim to have any plan or vision whatsoever. Among the MPs making that point were Megan Leslie, Jasbir Sandhu, Sadia Groghue. But have no fear, Cons, as Wladyslaw Lizon helpfully explained the plan in full as involving...having been re-elected.

Another consistent theme saw the NDP challenge corporate giveaways which weren't attached to results. Hoang Mai and Francois Choquette made the point when it came to general corporate tax rates, while Paul Dewar made a similar point with respect to research and development in particular.

Hoang Mai pointed out the combination of a glaring need for infrastructure investment and the greater efficiency of public works in stimulating demand when compared to corporate tax slashing - a point which looks even stronger in comparing the infrastructure deficit and the glut of money sitting unused in corporate coffers. And in response to another of Mai's questions, Joe Daniel helpfully pointed out that the Cons are putting five times less money into the investment that produces five times as many results.

Meanwhile, Kevin Lamoureux and Leslie agreed on the importance of housing as both a short-term stimulus and an investment in long-term infrastructure. Mathieu Ravignat argued that inequality is reaching crisis proportions. Don Davies offered a few kind words about the budget before pointing out why it ultimately fails to meet the standard we should expect. Scott Brison expressed concern about the spotty nature of any economic recovery while noting that full-time jobs are actually down even in raw numbers since August 2008. John Williamson asserted that we should be trying to make sure that greater tax breaks are dedicated to those who need them least. And Ray Boughen actually conceded a "discrepancy" in his party's insistence on non-refundable tax credits, while promising a look at the problem that we can rest assured will be ignored by his partymates.

Pop Quiz

Guess which MP said this:
Mr. Speaker, last week a reprehensible crime took place here in Ottawa, but we will not have to bring in CSI Ottawa to find the guilty party. Organized labour in this country was bludgeoned by the Conservative government and the Minister of Labour's fingerprints are all over the weapon.
If you figured it out, well done. But I'm guessing not.

In Brief

Nycole Turmel questioned how Stephen Harper can remain oblivious to growing inequality and protest when even Mark Carney is publicly expressing his sympathy. Robert Chisholm pointed out the Cons' woeful record of giving away the farm every time they sign a foreign trade deal, while Terence Young responded to Marc-Andre Morin's question on the softwood lumber sellout by proudly taking credit for a deal which preceded the shutdown of five sawmills in Morin's riding. Mathieu Ravignat criticized the CETA prescription-drug giveaway (only to receive a thorough non-sequitur of an answer from Gerald Keddy). Kirsty Duncan called for a national school meals plan. Pierre Dionne Labelle slammed the Cons choice to repeat the all-too-regular pattern of governments outsourcing to the point where they lack any capacity to evaluate whether anybody is delivering on their contractual commitments. And Charlie Angus reminded the Cons that the Auditor General said that it's Parliament's job to investigate Tony Clement's G8 scandal - despite their efforts to prevent any such thing.

Monday Morning Links

Assorted content to start your week.

- Romeo Saganash comments on the need to recognize and act on our common social bonds:
Whether you live on reserve, in the remote north, or in the heart of a city, there is much healing -- much teaching and learning -- that needs to be done. I carry that responsibility deep in my heart.

It is also about reconciling rural Canada with urban Canada, east with west, Francophones with Anglophones, and both of those groups with all of us who have another mother tongue, whether we are new Canadians or indigenous peoples.

It is about reconciling the need for economic development with protecting the environment so that our children and their children will have a future; one that allows them to prosper physically and spiritually as well as materially.

It is about Canada's role in protecting human rights at home and abroad, ensuring that full respect for the rule of law by those in authority promotes peace and lawfulness by everyone and is never replaced by the raw application of power.

It is about reconciling the obligations that people owe to society with what they take in benefits from society. When I look at the Occupy Wall Street -- and now Occupy Everywhere -- protests that are going on, I see the urgent need to reconcile the growing gap between the privileged few and the many of us who pay for those privileges.

Reconciliation is the path to prosperity. Canada prospers when we strengthen our common bonds.
- Meanwhile, CBC profiles Martin Singh. And Murray Dobbin makes his case for Peggy Nash - albeit with rather more anti-NDP spin toward Thomas Mulcair and Brian Topp than is warranted.

- Erin points out that the NDP's planned potash royalty review may help to eliminate the risk of a 2009-style wipeout by ensuring a more stable revenue stream.

- Finally, Frank Graves is rightly concerned about the declining legitimacy of governments that represent a smaller and smaller proportion of voters.

On intended effects

It's certainly a plus to see Stephen Gordon mention corporate governance issues as part of his latest Economy Lab piece. But there are a couple of points that demand far closer scrutiny.

First, there's the disconnect between how Gordon wants to assume executive compensation works as a general rule, and how he observes it working in practice:
(H)igh earners are different. There aren’t many of them, and they have market power that most workers do not. If their tax rates go up, they will try to leverage that bargaining power and obtain a salary increase that at least partially offsets the higher tax burden.

An extreme example of this sort of effect occurred when the UK government imposed a 50 per cent bonus ‘supertax’ on banks last year: banks simply doubled the size of the bonus pool so that after-tax bonuses would stay the same.
Corporate governance issues certainly deserve closer scrutiny. Again, if properly-informed shareholders are satisfied with executive pay, then it`s not obvious that there’s a policy problem to solve. But if corporate structures are sufficiently opaque as to separate ownership from control, then there may be little to stop insiders from exploiting their position for personal gain.
Now, the supertax example looks to me to be about all the disproof one would need for the assertion that actual compensation levels are proportionate to contributions to a corporation. After all, the employees receiving bonuses weren't contributing any more value to the banks involved as a result of the supertax - meaning that there was no reason based on free-market principles why they should receive an additional dime. And at the very least, one would expect any costs from the supertax to be distributed among the bonus recipients and other actors.

But as Gordon notes, upper-level employee expectations trumped any consideration of institutional benefit. And while that may signal the limitations of personal income tax hikes detached from any other policy changes, I'd think it also serves as a compelling indication that the corporate governance issues demand immediate attention, rather than an off-hand comment.

Meanwhile, Gordon also presumes the futility of top-level tax increases based on exactly the mistake most free-marketers warn us to avoid: a complete focus on how much top earners take home as a matter of envy, rather than attention to wider inequality issues.

Even if we assume that every dime of any personal income tax increase will be passed along to shareholders and employees, that doesn't negate the fact that more money is indeed being collected in taxes through the personal income tax system than would be gathered through other taxes applicable to those actors (whose rates have been slashed in the name of promoting business interest). And so the worst we can say about a high top-level personal income tax is that it's not clear how much will actually be redistributed from the absolute top end into public coffers, and how much will instead come from the not-quite-top end.

Which means that even on Gordon's account, there's reason to think a tax targeted toward top-end income earners would indeed both reduce inequality, and provide added funds for social priorities. And if the worst-case scenario is to shine a spotlight on executive capture of wealth which leads to corporate governance being dealt with more seriously, then that's hardly a result we should want to avoid.

[Edit: fixed wording.]

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday Afternoon Links

Miscellaneous material to end your weekend.

- Doug Cuthand makes the case for First Nations resource ownership as a matter of historical right:
When the numbered treaties were negotiated in Saskatchewan in the 1870s, the resources under the ground were never discussed. At the time the government had no idea that Western Canada was a treasure trove of oil, potash, uranium and base minerals. The only mineral it was interested in was coal, which was the fuel for the railways.

The government's vision was to open the West to agricultural settlement. The oral history on the First Nations side includes a question from a chief in the Treaty 4 negotiations, who asked about what lay under the ground. He was told that the government only wanted land to the depth of a plow, and his question would be dealt with at a later date.

The issue was never discussed in any other subsequent treaty negotiations. So, ownership of the minerals and the wealth that lay under the earth remained unaddressed and wasn't part of the treaty agreements. Any lawyer will tell you that if an item is silent in a contract, it remains with the original owner.
Successive federal governments have simply assumed they owned everything. The 1930 Natural Resources Transfer Agreement gave the mineral rights to the three Prairie provinces, without any consideration of the rights of the First Nations. At that time our leaders raised the issue, but they were unable to get a fair hearing. They were basically ignored.
As far as First Nations people are concerned, we own 100 per cent of the mineral wealth in Saskatchewan. However, we're willing to negotiate the province's share. That sounds reasonable to me.
- TC Norris points out Ari Berman's critique of the austerity class looking to punish society at large for the (supposed) benefit of creditors:
Taken together, the various strands of the austerity class form a reinforcing web that is difficult to break. Its think tanks and wonks produce a relentless stream of disturbing statistics warning of skyrocketing debt and looming bankruptcy, which in turn is trumpeted by politicians and the press and internalized by the public. Thus forms what Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent calls a Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop, wherein the hypothetical possibility of a US debt crisis somewhere in the future takes precedence over the very real jobs crisis now.

Even President Obama’s new jobs plan—a long overdue break with austerity-class orthodoxy—has been pitched in the context of deficit reduction. Every debate over measures to improve the economy begins with the question “How much will it cost, and can we afford it?” rather than “How many jobs will it create, and how will it help the country?” Far from possessing the solution to our economic crisis, the austerity class represents a major impediment to finding one.
- Mark Sumner traces how a corporate bait-and-switch has served to eliminate secure pensions, then use talk about "ownership" to lock workers into worse and worse alternatives.

- And the Cons are facilitating both that process and a systematic upward redistribution of wealth with their tax-free savings accounts. But hey, it's at least reassuring to know that at least some of the Cons' actions achieve their intended results.

- Finally, the first decision in the Canadian Union of Postal Workers' effort to challenge the Harper Cons' draconian back-to-work legislation doesn't deal with the substance of the law to a great degree. But it's still noteworthy to have a judicial pronouncement that the union has "overwhelmingly established the existence of irreparable harm" as we continue the political debate over the Cons' anti-labour policies.

Parliament In Review: October 7, 2011

Friday, October 7 was the last day in the House of Commons before the week-long Thanksgiving break. And there was plenty to chew on as MPs left their final mark before heading home.

The Big Issue

The main point of debate was once again the economy as the Cons pushed to ram their budget bill through Parliament. And once again, there was plenty of strong clash between the opposition parties and the Cons on the point - best exemplified in Paul Dewar's criticism of an economic policy directed at funneling money to those who need it least, which was met with Pierre Lemieux' response that the Cons aren't much interested in helping the lot of the poor other than through the jobs that haven't materialized from their tax slashing.

Mathieu Ravignat and Eve Peclet both pointed out that more equal societies experience more stable growth than one which buy into trickle-down rhetoric. Randall Garrison highlighted the $10/hr gap between B.C.'s minimum wage and the cost of basic food, shelter, clothing and transportation, and observed that it was the Cons' market-first model that caused the bubble and crash that have left the global economy reeling. Peter Stoffer noted that food bank use is up by roughly 50% since the Cons took office, while Kirsty Duncan pointed out the glaring need for improved child nutrition programs. Rosane Dore Lefebvre called for the Cons to ensure that Canadians can rely on secure pensions, rather than instructing workers to gamble their savings in the stock market if they want to have any hope of retiring, and Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet highlighted just how insecure stocks have been as an investment over the past quarter. And Ted Hsu recognized that his own success is made up of equal parts hard work and luck in noting that he doesn't object to funding opportunities for everybody.

Meanwhile, Pierre Poilievre made it clear in response to questions about the Champlain Bridge that the Cons are happy to apply a P3 toll model to any new infrastructure development. And he naturally had nothing more to offer even in response to Jamie Nicholls' entirely justified followup as to why the Cons haven't accounted for transit needs in their bridge announcement. But perhaps the most remarkable scripted response from Poilievre was his joint argument with Dean Del Mastro from a lack of evidence in pretending that a country can't have both effective government and economic development.

History Rewritten

While Poilievre would normally be the favourite, though, the award for the most creative (if completely detached from reality) Con spin of the day goes to Paul Calandra:
To make matters worse, when the NDP had an opportunity to stop a Liberal government from slashing funding for health care, for social programs and education what did it do? It cut a deal with that same Liberal government to keep it in office as opposed to throwing it out.
For those paying attention at home, the one time the NDP "cut a deal with (the) Liberal government" was in 2005, a decade after the Libs' earlier cuts. That agreement was to secure additional funding for education and infrastructure investments in education and social programs - money added on top of a budget which Calandra's party had previously supported in full, while the NDP rejected it as insufficient. And the Libs' government then fell only when it refused to make improvements to health care requested by the NDP. But aside from those entirely minor quibbles, the historical accuracy of Calandra's criticism is above reproach.

Accountability Acts

Meanwhile, the other major topic of discussion was accountability in light of the Cons' moves to shut down debate in the House of Commons and investigations in Parliamentary committees. Wayne Easter noted that the Cons had refused to allow any questions about the U.S.' "buy American" policy in committee, while Guy Caron similarly criticized the Cons' choice to shut down any accountability through committees. Lise St. Denis called for the Cons to respect the need for normal public and Parliamentary debate rather than slashing per-vote funding. And Pat Martin pointed out that it's an interim Auditor General with experience investigating the Libs' sponsorship scandal who saw the Cons' G8 cover-up as unprecedented.

In Brief

Jasbir Sandhu called out Stephen Harper for his anti-Muslim rhetoric. Dan Albas highlighted his private members' bill to permit wine to cross provincial borders. Thomas Mulcair pointed out Quebec's expectation of being reimbursed for the costs the Cons are downloading through their dumb-on-crime policies. Marc Garneau noted that as a result of tendering its jet purchase, Japan was able to secure better terms for assembly than the Cons are going to get in their F-35 debacle. Both Megan Leslie and Kirsty Duncan asked the Cons to list the "responsible journalists" who are permitted to speak to Environment Canada scientists. And Robert Aubin's question about French-language rights in Quebec workplaces was met with a remarkably positive response from Jacques Gourde.

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Sadly, due to the 'Riders' choice to play most of their veterans in Friday's loss to Calgary, we didn't get to learn much about the team's prospects. But if nothing else, the loss did prove educational about the players currently holding down a few lineup spots.

Simply put, the 'Riders' defence is in dire need of some new blood. In previous weeks the most obvious problem tended to be ineffective tackling, particularly by smaller linebackers trying to bring down bigger running backs. But Friday a new issue emerged - as the Stamps' offensive line created so much space that there often wasn't a defender in position to make a tackle until after Jon Cornish had picked up a first down already.

Now, if the 'Riders had been playing rookies in their key run-stopping roles, that might have raised questions as to whether the incumbents might have some chance to improve. But CFL veterans like Dario Romero and Tearrius George don't have any excuse: both are in the lineup precisely because they're supposed to be able to contribute now (and indeed to do so effectively enough to make up for being highly penalty-prone). And while Keith Shologan should undoubtedly one of 'Riders' key defensive building blocks, I have to wonder whether the team needs to reconsider its order to have him slim down a couple of seasons ago: he hasn't been able to use his quickness to avoid a lot of blocks this season in particular, and a bulky run-stopper would seem to be a must for the 'Riders to avoid getting trampled as they were on Friday.

And a similar story applies at the linebacker position. The likes of James Patrick and Sean Lucas might do just fine handling smaller running backs in one-on-one tackling situations. But Saskatchewan's three Western rivals all feature big, strong, young non-import backs who figure to carry the load for a long time to come - and the 'Riders can't afford to counter them with linebackers who are vulnerable to being straight-armed into submission.

Of course, I'll hope that the next two games feature a few less stories as to how the 'Riders' vets need upgrading, and few more indications of whether the team's younger players are up to the job. But we may as well learn what we can from another disappointment - and about the best we can take from Friday's game is that there's ample room to improve.

Update: Stephen LaRose sees some bigger issues.

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Erin compares the numbers behind the NDP and Sask Party platforms, with the one major difference being the windfall potash profits the Wall government wants to keep out of public hands.

- Bruce Johnstone highlights a few more of the harmful effects that figure to follow from the Cons' choice to scrap the Canadian Wheat Board:
But the legislation will do much more than destroy the world's last remaining "state trading enterprise" with single desk powers. It will do irreparable harm to Canada's reputation as the marketer of quality wheat and barley.

By dint of its marketing clout and the single desk, the Canadian Wheat Board can guarantee delivery of specific quantities and qualities of grain to customers in 70 countries where it does business. No private grain company, no matter how large, can do that.

It will damage, perhaps fatally, the network of branchlines that provides loading sites for producer cars and the shortline railways that operate on them. Those producer cars saved Prairie farmers an average of $1,200 per railcar, money that will now be flowing to the grain companies.

By removing the CWB's regulated access to grainhandling facilities, the Harper government has left farmers to the tender mercies of the grain companies and railways.

In the short-term, the elimination of the single desk will also cost Canadian taxpayers million of dollars a year. The legislation calls for the Port of Churchill to be subsidized to the tune of $5 million a year to support grain shipment for five years and another $4 million over three years for maintenance.

In fact, the cost of winding up the CWB could cost taxpayers many more millions - in severance to employees, legal costs, etc. All this to get rid of a profitable enterprise that wasn't costing taxpayers a nickel.
- Paul Dewar's proposal to bring municipalities to the table with the federal and provincial governments looks like an idea well worth discussing in its own right. But it makes for a particularly noteworthy contrast against a Con government which doesn't even want to engage with the provinces in the first place.

- Finally, Jordan Press discusses the need for citizenship education to encourage students to actually participate in political discussions rather than merely memorizing names and dates.