Saturday, November 26, 2011

Parliament In Review: October 28, 2011

Friday, October 28 saw another day largely dedicated to debate on the gun registry, with plenty more key points by the opposition met with the Cons' usual wall of refusal to consider anything other than total annihilation.

The Big Issue

The line of the day goes to Rosane Dore Lefebvre, questioning Maxime Bernier on the Cons' determination to make the gun registry as much of a waste as possibile by torching the underlying data:
The Conservatives are saying that the data must be destroyed simply because it must be destroyed. When we ask them why, we encounter a black hole, much like their political agenda.
Meanwhile, Phil Toone pointed out the minuscule current price of the gun registry compared to the massive prison costs the Cons plan to impose on Canada for the sake of zero gain in public safety. Guy Caron made several noteworthy contributions in calling for some effort to compromise in place of the Cons' extremism, responding to the Cons' repeated references to sunk costs with the analogy that a homeowner whose renovation goes over budget doesn't normally respond by taking a sledgehammer to the improvements, and pointing out that a single women's shelter in his riding alone used the registry daily to request information about whether weapons might be involved in cases of domestic violence. Megan Leslie challenged the Libs to work with the NDP in developing amendments, and won Massimo Pacetti's agreement. Raymond Cote noted that by the Cons' gun registry rhetoric, they're committed to criminalizing the Internet - only to have Dick Harris deliberately miss the point in response. Alain Giguere noted that some of the guns which will be unregistered under the Cons' bill include combat weapons. And John McKay classified the Cons' determination to destroy gun registry data as being part of an evidence-free government.

On the Con side, Brent Rathgeber set out what would actually be a relatively valuable test to evaluate the registry and other policies. But the contribution would have meant far more if Rathgeber hadn't made clear that he's no more interested than the rest of his partymates in working toward alternatives which actually met the test.

Careful What You Wish For

One of the main criticisms of the Cons since they admitted that the federal deficit will be a problem for years to come anytime soon has been to point to their promises which are predicated on a balanced budget. And John McCallum did just that in question period.

But let's ask the question: is it really a smart form of opposition to implicitly approve of the governing party's platform by demanding that it be implemented sooner? And do McCallum and the Libs really think it's more important to call for the Cons' next round of boutique tax measures than to emphasize what were supposed to be their own priorities six months ago?

In Brief

Chris Charlton criticized the Cons' plans to politicize the charitable sector, while Manon Perreault pointed out that charities figure to be all the more important due to the Cons' refusal to take any responsibility for social issues. Alain Giguere slammed the Cons for refusing to do anything for seniors living in poverty, only to be met with Shelley Glover's proud declaration that they've introduced income splitting to benefit seniors living in wealth. Finally, Peter Julian challenged the Cons to introduce a compensation fund for injured firefighters - resulting in Shelley Glover reaching for what seems like rather the wrong set of talking points to declare that firefighters are more concerned with building jails.

Leadership 2012 Candidate Rankings - November 26, 2011

Last weekend, I mentioned my intention to introduce NDP leadership rankings. Before getting to the rankings themselves, though, let's make clear exactly what the below is intended to reflect.

First, unlike Ian Capstick's survey, I'm not making any effort yet to determine who figures to do the best on becoming leader, only to sort out who has the best chance of winning the opportunity. (I'll wait until much later to make an endorsement to try to answer the "who's best?" question.)

Second, while the rankings are intended to reflect the best chances of winning the March 25 leadership vote, a huge range of outcomes is possible at this point - both based on the amount of time and exposure left in the race, and the many permutations involved in a multiple-ballot vote. I won't be guessing at percentages by candidate this time out, but in a field with such a large number of credible candidates I wouldn't see any single contestant as having more than maybe a 35-40% chance of winning from where we stand now. So a #1 ranking isn't exactly a prediction of success - nor does a ranking toward the bottom suggest a candidate is out of the race, only that more factors have to break right to allow for a win.

With that in mind, here's my first ranking of the leadership contenders based solely on their likelihood of winning the March 25 vote...

1. Thomas Mulcair

Yes, he's faced some backlash within both the media and the party. But Mulcair is still the most-recognized name in the race, with loads of popularity in his home province and a reasonably strong organization elsewhere - meaning that the main question for Mulcair is whether he can win enough down-ballot support to add to what looks like the strongest first-ballot position.

2. Peggy Nash

The big question for Nash remains her ability to connect with the NDP's new Quebec supporters - and as a result her performance in French in the debates may be key to her candidacy. But a base of support from labour and the GTA was always a potent combination, and Nash has added to that with big names and activists alike to position herself as one of the top contenders.

3. Paul Dewar

At the outset of the race I didn't see how Dewar would be able to overcome the lack of an obvious natural constituency other than by making a general personality-based appeal. But he appears to be well down that road, earning plaudits for his early policy talk and garnering a decent amount of media attention without any negative reaction that I've seen.

4. Brian Topp

As I've noted before, Topp's early-campaign media splash was exactly what he needed to join the top tier of candidates and earn a serious chance to win over supporters. But I haven't seen much indication that he's made much progress since that successful launch - and while he's fairly well positioned to win later-ballot support, that won't help much if he can't stay ahead of Dewar and Nash in early rounds of voting.

5. Romeo Saganash

Saganash still looks to have as much chance as anybody to wow NDP members as the campaign goes on. But he's already made one misstep with a walk-back on the effects of a sovereignty referendum, and will need to find the right balance between conveying a personal and transformational message and making sure that his relatively limited exposure is positive enough to win members over.

6. Niki Ashton

Ashton has run a relatively strong campaign, and would likely finish higher than this ranking on a first ballot today. But even if she can push into the upper half of the field, she'll face an extra challenge in trying to get down-ballot voters to look at the positives of her age rather than ruling her out (however unfairly) - resulting in her having a slightly tougher road to the leadership than the contenders above her.

7. Robert Chisholm

He's well-liked by all accounts and has earned some significant endorsements. But it's hard to see how Chisholm can find the time to simultaneously learn enough French to hold his own in the debates starting just next week, and reach enough of the country to build from a relatively low profile.

8. Nathan Cullen

Cullen's proposal for cooperation with the Liberals was always a high-risk, high-reward choice. But so far the result looks to have been far more downside than upside: plenty of diehard NDP members have moved Cullen to the bottom of their lists as a result, while there isn't yet much evidence of an influx of new members seeking to back Cullen's proposal. Which means that while Cullen might figure to finish a spot or two higher on the first ballot, his potential for growth is severely limited.

9. Martin Singh

I'll give full credit to Singh for showing some organizational strength in various regions of the country, and I wouldn't rule out his moving up this list as the campaign progresses. But for now his lack of name recognition still looks to be a tougher hurdle than any of Singh's competitors are facing.

On avoidable barriers

Plenty of others have already commented on Elections Canada's National Youth Survey Report. But I'll take a moment to highlight a couple of the findings that look particularly significant as the NDP works to build up turnout among younger voters in the years to come.

First, there's the media breakdown as to which younger citizens are likely to vote:
Youth who voted reported being influenced by politicians, especially if they had been contacted directly by a party or candidate.

Those who discussed politics with their family, both while growing up and currently, were more likely to vote.

Youth who used TV as their main source of information about the election were less likely to vote.
The former points only reinforce the importance of making direct contact with voters generally. But the part that strikes me as most interesting in the predictors of turnout is the reduced activity among those who got their information from TV - which seems over the last few election cycles to have offered about the worst possible ratio of direct party spin to substantive discussion compared to other sources of information.

Of course, it's generally taken as received wisdom that major TV ad spending is about as vital a component of a successful campaign as any - and it may well be true that a party can't afford to do anything less than fight to a draw in terms of TV ad saturation. But I'd be curious as to whether there's a chance to get far better use out of election spending by reaching voters through other means - including both more personal ones, and more informative ones.

Which brings us to Elections Canada's findings as to how non-voters explain not participating:
The most commonly cited reasons for not voting related to personal circumstances – being too busy with work, school or family, or travelling at the time – and insufficient knowledge about the parties, candidates and issues.
Now, it's easy enough to say there shouldn't be any excuse for any voter who doesn't reach information on party and media sites alike around election time. But then, the dizzying amount of content that suddenly surfaces for a month during an election campaign might seem all the more daunting for somebody who isn't in touch with the political scene otherwise - meaning that a concerted effort to reach out to younger voters with even a modest amount of ongoing information might make it easier to convince them that they know enough to have a positive effect in casting a ballot.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Stephanie Larocque highlights the Cons' gall in hanging onto federal reimbursements from their own ad scam even after having admitted their guilt:
You don't have to prove guilt when the charged plead guilty. And that is exactly what happened last week when the Conservative Party entered into an agreement in Ottawa where they would plead guilty to overspending and pay the maximum fine allowable under the Canada Elections Act if the charges were dropped against their senior members.

One might think that pleading guilty to attempting to circumvent the rules that manage our democracy would be done with an air of regret or remorse. When it comes to the Conservatives, however, you would be wrong. Instead, Conservative spokesman Fred DeLorey issued a statement claiming the plea bargain was "a big victory'' for the party in its five-year "administrative dispute'' with Elections Canada over the legality of the in-and-out scheme. "Every single Conservative accused of wrongdoing has been cleared today,'' DeLorey said.

I don't think anyone has ever looked a an agreement that admits guilt as ever clearing anyone of wrongdoing. The notion is ludicrous. The coordinated overspending done by funneling funds through 67 ridings just happened spontaneously? No, the Conservatives accused of wrongdoing were only spared the embarrassment of having their involvement in the scheme dissected in open court rather than being cleared of anything.
Conservative Party spokesman Fred DeLorey responded that "The question of reimbursements will be dealt with in the ongoing civil proceedings." referring to the civil case the Tories brought against Elections Canada in which they dispute Elections Canada's ability to refuse to reimburse expense claims.

In other words, guilt not just without remorse, without apology, and without even having the decency to immediately repay funds improperly received from the taxpayers that they have already admitted were the result of a scheme to overspend their limits. Indeed, should they win the civil case they would compel Elections Canada to reimburse the outstanding expense claims which they have already agreed were illegal. The nerve of this position is staggering. They admit wrongdoing yet continue to seek a means of profiting from that wrongdoing, trying to have excessive refunds that were requested with fraudulent receipts taken from your tax dollars.
- pogge blasts Ontario's McGuinty Libs for decreeing that any deficit reduction will be accomplished solely through service cuts rather than even the most obviously needed tax increases.

- Mike DeSouza reports on Greenpeace's expose of multi-billion-dollar corporate lobbying against action on climate change.

- Tim Naumetz points out that even as the Cons claim to be retaining a meaningful gun licensing regime, their bill to torch the long gun registry also includes provisions to make it impossible to enforced the individual licensing rules.

- Finally, the Calgary Herald editorial board lists its home city as one of the areas which has been poorly served by utterly useless Con MPs over the past decade. And it's well worth using the attention of the NDP's national leadership campaign to change the part of the story which laments the lack of a viable alternative.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Musical interlude

Marina Chello - What's Done Is Done (Solitaire Club Edit)

Friday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Dan Gardner rightly points out how too much concentrated power and a refusal to take advice can lead to bad decisions. And sadly, our federal government serves as a classic case in point:
“Most of the time, taking advice benefits your accuracy,” notes Kelly See, associate professor of organization at New York University. “That’s because a lot of times there’s some error in your estimate. You may not know what that error is. You may be a little high, you may be a little low.” The same is true of other people’s judgments, but their errors are likely to be different, so if you pool the judgments the errors will tend to cancel each other out. “When you combine opinions, you usually get a more accurate decision, something that’s closer to the truth.”

This simple but important phenomenon is why the average guess of 20 people about the number of jelly beans in a jar is likely to be more accurate than any one guess. It’s why the average of many polls is likely to be more accurate than any one poll. And it’s why prediction markets usually do better at foreseeing outcomes than any one person, no matter how well informed that person is.

But it takes a certain humility to listen to others and seriously take their views into consideration. And power does not promote humility. Quite the opposite.

“We found that the more power the managers had, the more confident they were in their judgment, and the less their co-workers reported that they took advice,” See notes.
I must admit the prime minister hasn’t invited me over to 24 Sussex to chat about decision-making and organizational theory. I am a distant observer. But I think some facts are clear.

He inherited a government that centralizes authority to a far greater extent than any other in the western world. And he made it more centralized. There is also no evidence — at least not any I am aware of — that the prime minister recognizes the danger confronting him and has taken steps to avoid it. He doesn’t disperse authority. Doesn’t consult widely and seek out contrary views. Shows not a glimmer of the self-doubt that is the best and final defence against hubris.

Now, you tell me. Should any leader be that powerful?
- Tim Harper and the Ottawa Citizen both deliver scathing indictments of the federal government's inaction on Attawapiskat in particular and First Nations living conditions in general.

- The provinces can apparently all agree on the need for federal action to curb sodium levels. But we can count on the Cons to once again side with childhood obesity if the alternative is any meaningful regulation.

- Finally, if it's worth criticizing any waste of money on a firearm-related program, the Cons' $214 million to euthanize a single moose would seem like a far more obvious target than the gun registry data the Cons are determined to destroy.

[Edit: fixed typo.]

On building blocks

I left Chantal Hebert's take on the NDP's leadership race out of this morning's roundup since it seems worth addressing in a separate post. And in some other contexts, I've been one of the first to push substantial policy discussion as a plus in a leadership race. But let's note a couple of reasons why the amount of policy discussed in the NDP campaign so far shouldn't be a concern.

In particular, the federal NDP figures to have far less need to question and challenge its policy direction than most opposition parties.

As I've noted before, one of the NDP's great advantages over its opposition competitors the past few election cycles has been the fact that it has a well-established set of values and policy priorities. And that consistency has allowed the NDP to build on its existing messaging from year to year - rather than zig-zagging between different and often conflicting policies while hoping against hope to present the right one at the right moment to capture the public's attention.

So it's understandable if the leadership race has been marked by a desire to keep developing from the NDP's existing policy foundation, rather than any particular interest in tearing down one of the party's existing advantages.

Of course, the leadership candidates are bound to disagree on at least some issues - such that there will surely be some substantive policy debate to come. And on that front, it's also worth noting that the leadership candidates have had reason to introduce themselves personally before going into detailed policy discussions. Which means that part of Hebert's complaint may come down the classic pundit trick of trying to wring a column out of anticipating the inevitable.

But more importantly, there's little evidence that the NDP's current set of policy priorities is anything but a recipe for continued growth. And so we shouldn't be surprised to see rather less of a challenge to the policy status quo than we would within a party which sees a greater need to redefine itself.

NDP Leadership Quick Links

As promised, let's take a quick run through plenty of material on the NDP's leadership campaign...

- Straight Goods has posted Ish Theilheimer's interviews with each of the candidates.

- I can only figure Justin Ling has been reading Future Babble and looking to Dan Gardner's criticism of reckless pundits as a model. But even if one wants to play the "heads I win, tails you forget we had a bet" game, it normally isn't the best plan to predict that the coin will undergo a spontaneous existence failure before landing - which is about as plausible as Ling's suggestion that Thomas Mulcair's campaign is dead.

- One of the main points I'll be looking to emphasize through the leadership race is the need for a future leader to be able to serve as both spokesperson and strategist. Romeo Saganash hints at his ideas for the latter role in describing his plan to defeat the Cons in 2015.

- Among the other notable developments from the candidates, Mulcair has been blitzing Quebec to sell new memberships. Peggy Nash has picked up on how the Harper Cons have turned Canada into an international pariah. Paul Dewar has called for an end to photo-op politics, and earned the endorsement of former MP Tony Martin. Brian Topp has focused on ending disparities in terms of both democracy and economics. Niki Ashton unveiled her first set of endorsements, with Ashton and Dewar each earning a huge number of key Manitoba supporters. And Nathan Cullen has offered up an FAQ on his cooperation proposal.

- Finally, Ian Capstick's strategist index offers one interesting set of opinions on the race. (Though I'll hope that any future updates include some explanation rather than just the list, as the "how" seems far more important than merely presenting the candidates' names in order at this stage of the campaign."

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thursday Evening Links

Assorted content for your evening reading.

- Mitchell Anderson wonders whether weeding out corporate psychopathy might be the key to a more equal and sustainable economy.

- But judging from the crumbs being tossed at Ontario's poor (in the wake of gigantic corporate tax cuts), the problem looks to extend somewhat beyond corporations alone. And Andrew Jackson highlights the fact that falling real wages are affecting workers across the income scale.

- SOS Crowns points out on Brad Wall's initial salvo against SaskTel just weeks after getting re-elected on yet another set of promises not to damage the province's crown corporations:
Yesterday, Premier Brad Wall, finding himself frustrated with SaskTel service, tweeted “One of the challenges of growth is the increased demand on SaskTel service and attendant drops etc. This challenge must be met.”

The tweet sparked interest from across the province including an online poll on CTV Regina’s website asking people whether or not the provincial government should “get out of the telecommunications business.”

Perhaps if the government had not demanded that SaskTel, as well as other Crowns, hand over one hundred per cent of their dividends, the company would have more available to reinvest into the infrastructure. Instead, the government has insisted on transferring debt to our Crowns while taking away all of their dividends.

One could also question the restrictive Sask First policy that the government remains supportive of. A policy that demands that Crowns, including SaskTel, not invest outside Saskatchewan at all, or inside Saskatchewan in any areas that compete with private industry. This policy has been the excuse for the privatization of SaskTel to begin with multiple pieces being sold off, including Navigata, Hospitality Network (HospNet), DirectWest Canada, AgDealer, and Saskatoon Square. None of these even include the multiple profit-generating areas of SaskTel have been contracted out to out-of-province companies and direct competitors.
- Finally, Ken Gray makes the case that the tens of billions of dollars the Cons are prepared to dump into an F-35 money pit would be far better invested in high-speed rail.

On political efficiencies

Susan Delacourt rightly points out a trend toward limiting or even reducing the number of elected representatives as a means of cutting costs. But it's hard to escape pointing out the obvious opportunity for what should be more obvious savings on the federal level: wouldn't it make more sense to start cutting the non-democratic Senate - in terms of funding at least, if not outright abolition - rather than aiming cuts at the cost of democratic representation?

Thursday Afternoon Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Frances Russell wonders what happened to the concept of the public good:
Our political language about taxes has changed. Gone is "ability to pay." The new catchphrases are "user pay" and "pay as you go." The bottom-line message to citizens is "if you can't pay, you don't go." You don't get to drive into our congested cities without a toll; you don't get your garbage collected without a fee; and who knows, soon you won't get to visit a doctor without a charge.

So pervasive is everyone-for-himself that there is hardly anyone talking about concepts such as "the public good" and "a rising tide lifts all boats."

There's no more community, just individuals and their self-interest.
- But then, Jeffrey Simpson recognizes that a huge part of the political conversation that's been missing for far too long has been reintroduced thanks to the Occupy movement (even if he's rather quick to write off its future impact):
The souls who camped out were a disparate lot, with rather inchoate ideas about how to change society, let alone challenge seriously the capitalist system. Their camps are now being dismantled, sometimes by court order.

They did point, however, to a challenge few politicians want to address: growing income inequality and the verifiable fact that, within that growing inequality, the very, very rich are pulling away from the rest of society. You can see this at work within the upper reaches of the corporate sector, where the gap between what bosses and employees make has widened. No longer do compensation committees look at this metric; instead, they compare CEOs’ compensation with that of other CEOs’, so that the vortex of higher pay continues within the narrow confines of cozy cross-comparisons.

The Occupy movement began in the United States, where the recession started, courtesy of the major financial institutions – a collapse that plunged the country into a nightmarish combination of large deficits, swelling debt and high unemployment.

Long before the recession, however, the U.S. was becoming a significantly more unequal society, as the Congressional Budget Office explained in a recent report. The CBO looked at the years 1979 to 2007. It found that, whereas average household income after inflation grew by 62 per cent, the top 1 per cent of the population had enjoyed income growth of 275 per cent. The bottom 20-per-cent’s after-tax income had grown 18 per cent. Said the CBO: “As a result of uneven income growth, the distribution of after-tax household income in the United States was substantially more unequal in 2007 than in 1979.”

Market income was increasingly concentrated in fewer hands, said the CBO. Government transfer programs, combined with weaker redistribution of income through the tax system, could not counterbalance the fact that the market was putting more and more income in fewer and fewer hands.
- Which is why it's especially important to listen to the Occupy movement - as Murray Dobbin exhorts us to do.

- Meanwhile, CBC reports on Campaign 2000's observation that Canada has seen painfully little progress in fighting child poverty since the House of Commons unanimously agreed to eliminate it 22 years ago.

- Finally, I'm not sure the stance can really be described as a change based on the Fraser Institute's normal distaste for democratic institutions compared to the whims of the corporate sector. But Sixth Estate is right to point out a particularly egregious example.

On base support

The leadership tabs are piling up on my end, and I'll assemble a number of them into a post shortly. But one recent development looks to call for a post of its own.

The main question I'd see facing Peggy Nash for the balance of the leadership campaign is whether she can connect with current and prospective NDP supporters in Quebec. But Pierre Ducasse's endorsement looks to give her instant credibility which other candidates will have a lot of trouble attacking: in particular, anybody pointing to the Sherbrooke Declaration as a turning point for the party's growth will have to tread carefully in dismissing its architect.

Moreover, Ducasse's endorsement sets up a fairly neat distinction between three of the main contenders as to their main sources of support. Nash looks to have the inside track with what I'd describe as the NDP's activist core - with Ducasse, Alexa McDonough, and a bevy of longtime progressives who have been working on building the left and the federal NDP since before Jack Layton won the party's leadership in 2003. And that makes for a contrast against both Brian Topp's reliance on the party's existing power structures (including parts of both the existing leadership apparatus and provincial politicians past and present), and Thomas Mulcair's base in the burgeoning Quebec wing.

Of course, it's anybody's guess as to which of those support profiles will win the day - or whether another of the contenders will be able to generate enough positive impressions with another base to win over members by March. And once again, the best outcome for the NDP will be if all of the candidates can drum up support which will then stay with the party for years to come.

New column day

Here, on how the Cons are taking away the real choice currently enjoyed by Western grain producers thanks to the Canadians Wheat Board.

The data on grain production within the column is drawn from Statistics Canada. And see CBC's report on the total lack of planning by the Cons in destroying the single-desk Wheat Board.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On optimal choices

It's a plus that we're seeing some discussion in Canada as to the optimal income tax rate to maximize revenue. But Paul Krugman goes a step further in pointing out why that revenue-maximizing rate (however calculated) is the optimal rate period:
In the first part of the paper, (Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saenz) analyze the optimal tax rate on top earners. And they argue that this should be the rate that maximizes the revenue collected from these top earners — full stop. Why? Because if you’re trying to maximize any sort of aggregate welfare measure, it’s clear that a marginal dollar of income makes very little difference to the welfare of the wealthy, as compared with the difference it makes to the welfare of the poor and middle class. So to a first approximation policy should soak the rich for the maximum amount — not out of envy or a desire to punish, but simply to raise as much money as possible for other purposes.
(T)extbook economics says that in a competitive economy, the contribution any individual (or for that matter any factor of production) makes to the economy at the margin is what that individual earns — period. What a worker contributes to GDP with an additional hour of work is that worker’s hourly wage, whether that hourly wage is $6 or $60,000 an hour. This in turn means that the effect on everyone else’s income if a worker chooses to work one hour less is precisely zero. If a hedge fund manager gets $60,000 an hour, and he works one hour less, he reduces GDP by $60,000 — but he also reduces his pay by $60,000, so the net effect on other peoples’ incomes is zip.

Of course, he doesn’t actually lose all of that $60,000, since he ends up paying less in taxes. So there is a loss of revenue from that withdrawal of effort. But that’s precisely what the Diamond-Saez calculation takes into account, and the reason the optimal top tax rate isn’t 100%.

So, are conservatives comfortable with this analysis? I would guess not, that they have a deep-seated belief that the 1%, by working harder, are doing the 99% a big favor, creating jobs and raising incomes — and that this gain isn’t fully (or even largely) captured by the money they’re paid.

My point, then, is that this claim — and the lionization of high earners as people who make a vast contribution to society — is not, in fact, something that comes out of the free-market economic principles these people claim to believe in. Even if you believe that the top 1% or better yet the top 0.1% are actually earning the money they make, what they contribute is what they get, and they deserve no special solicitude.
[Edit: fixed typo.]

Like that'll work

Sure, a reasonable government would have some shame over its obvious doctoring of Hansard. But isn't the most likely outcome of the NDP's new complaint for Clement's departmental officials to formally certify that no such committee hearing ever took place?

Update: Or that would make sense too - particularly if John Baird starts declaring that he's the minister responsible for the change in wording.

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Jim Stanford points out that when it comes to manufacturing, any talk of an "invisible hand" doing much for productivity is based purely on faith rather than evidence:
When it comes to Canada’s lousy record in productivity and innovation, the standard prescription of economists is both clear and predictable. They believe unregulated markets are the best way to allocate resources and determine the composition of output. Therefore, to improve efficiency and innovation, simply improve markets: Eliminate “distorting” taxes. Eliminate regulations. Sign more free-trade agreements. Cut “red tape.” That will unleash the full potential of the private sector to innovate and optimize, and Canada will become a northern tiger.

Canadian economic and social policy has been generally following this advice for a quarter-century. Taxes are lower, globalization is embraced, labour markets are unforgiving, business is freer (and more profitable) than any time in our history. Ironically, however, the more vigorously we pursue the holy grail of self-adjusting markets, the worse our productivity and innovation has been.
This seeming contradiction between Canada’s business-friendly policy environment and the failure of the resulting empowered private sector to deliver innovation and productivity growth puzzles economists who advocate market-driven approaches. They search for some remaining imperfections or residual market impediments to explain the failure of Canadian productivity and innovation to take off.

But what if the starting assumption of their model – namely, that unconstrained private market forces always produce the most efficient, innovative economy – is not justified? What if, in fact, markets work more productively and creatively when they are guided, supported, and constrained, rather than simply being unleashed? What if the best approach is to challenge and direct markets to more productive and innovative outcomes?

International experience reinforces my skepticism of market-driven policy. The successful state-led industrialization experience of several Asian and Latin American economies in recent decades, where policy was proactive and interventionist, suggests that innovative, productivity-enhancing growth does not occur spontaneously as a result of market forces. Instead, the “visible hand” of government intervention, manifested in a wide range of forms, is more strongly associated with qualitative and quantitative economic progress. Targeted subsidies, strategic trade interventions, active industrial strategies in high-tech industries, domestic procurement strategies, and even public ownership of key firms have all been more effective in promoting innovation and export success than Canada’s hands-off approach.
- And speaking of evidence, interim Auditor General found none that the Cons cared in the slightest whether their stimulus spending saved any jobs other than their own.

- Meanwhile, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has pointed out that the Cons' move to destroy the data supporting the long gun registry makes for a disturbing precedent. But I have to wonder whether as secretive a government as Stephen Harper's will see that precedent as a feature rather than a bug: what better way to cover its tracks for future misdeeds than to make the disappearance of information into standard operating procedure?

- Finally, while engaging in a bit more "they all do it" than seems justified, John Ivison rightly slams the Cons' contempt for Parliament.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Contorted cats.

Parliament In Review: October 27, 2011

Thursday, October 27 saw the House of Commons discuss the gun registry - and if the Cons' choices to not just dismantle the federal long gun registry but also shred the evidence weren't problematic enough, the debate also featured the Cons' closure motion.

The Big Issue

Once again, that motion faced a strong response from the opposition. Joe Comartin noted that the Cons were breaking all of the Liberal records they once decried in shutting down debate on such a regular basis. Kevin Lamoureux observed that the Cons were using measures to ram through legislation in place of any discussion with the opposition parties as to what pace would be appropriate. Peter Julian reminded the Cons that they won their majority by promising to be more moderate rather than turning up the extremism. And Matthew Dube pointed out the Cons' newfound desire to burn the evidence that's brand new to the legislation introduced this fall.

As for the substance of the debate, the most noteworthy point for future discussion may have come from Con MP Colin Carrie, questioning Irwin Cotler on why the gun registry was supposed to be an unreasonable intrusion:
In the part of the bill that talks about destroying personal records, he called that destroying evidence. When do governments or police forces gather evidence? They gather evidence when there is a crime committed.

However, gun owners are not criminals. They are law-abiding citizens in Canada who believe in the right to own personal property, and their personal information and records are not evidence. It is extremely upsetting to Canadians who are abiding by the law and who put their records out there to respond to the law that is on the books today to be treated like criminals.

Why does the member view law-abiding gun owners as criminals and their personal information and records as evidence?
Of course, by the same standard in which having evidence of one's activity preserved by government order is "to be treated like criminals", Vic Toews and company are no less committed to criminalizing the Internet than they are to freeing up long guns. And if the gun registry bill gets rammed through with a large enough helping of Carrie's style of rhetoric before the discussion on lawful access comes to a close, that contrast doesn't figure to help the Cons' efforts to sell what's a far greater intrusion on personal freedom than the mere registration of a few items.

Meanwhile, Jack Harris coined the phrase "billion dollar bonfire" to describe the Cons' data destruction. Comartin pointed out how the destruction of the gun registry runs contrary to international norms. Comartin then noted that the registry would work better than now if police were properly trained to use it, while Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet pointed out that the Cons' registration amnesties have deliberately made the registry less useful for the past few years. Nycole Turmel questioned why the Cons would go to war against provinces who want to set up registries of their own. Philip Toone pointed out that the Cons' claims to saving $2 billion are utterly ridiculous given that the price of setting up the registry has already been spent, while Kevin Lamoureux repeatedly highlighted the waste involved in needlessly scrapping data that's going to be reassembled at the provincial level anyway. Guy Caron criticized the Cons' all-or-nothing approach to policy-making, while Linda Duncan questioned their interest in victims of crime only after the fact and their neglect of women's issues including gun safety.

Building for the Future

The other main topic of discussion came from Helene Leblanc's motion on infrastructure. Not surprisingly, all opposition parties recognized that infrastructure investment is an ongoing need, with Olivia Chow noting the economic benefits of infrastructure investment and David Christopherson highlighting how infrastructure supports citizen health and safety.

To nobody's surprise, though, the Cons chose to disagree with the motion, claiming that their rushed stimulus spending over the past couple of years should eliminate any need for talk of a future infrastructure strategy.

Take Note

Peter Van Loan introduced a take-note debate on Coptic Christians in Egypt for reasons not apparent, as the strong agreement among all parties suggested that a consensus statement could have fulfilled the same purpose as a discussion in the House of Commons. (Though Jinny Sims' concerns about the tyranny of the majority might have some echoes beyond the foreign policy debate alone, and Joe Comartin offered a sharp response to the Cons' bluster about an office of religious freedom in pointing out their broken promise of an agency to promote democracy.)

In Brief

David Christopherson raised questions about the Cons' satellite boondoggle in the making. Comartin used the traditional Thursday question about the Parliamentary agenda to ask just how much debate is enough when the Cons are invoking closure at every turn. John Rafferty introduced a private member's bill to protect workers' termination and severance pay in cases of employer bankruptcy. And Peter Julian introduced a bill neatly calculated to send the Cons into conniptions - proposing a holiday (which of course doesn't fit the Cons focus on cheapening labour at every turn) to honour the flag the Cons have tried so desperately to wrap themselves in.

RIP Joe Kuchta

Leftdog and David Hutton have already posted about the passing of blogger and activist Joe Kuchta. But I'll take a moment to pay my respects as well: nobody offered more thorough surveys of provincial and local issues than Joe, and his contribution to Saskatchewan's political debate will be dearly and sorely missed.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Linda McQuaig points out how the Occupy movement has at least started to shift the terms of our political debate:
Rather than hanging out at malls or zoning out on Facebook, these young people have endured real hardship in the Canadian near-winter to fight for a more inclusive society. Any inconvenience they’ve caused through their peaceful occupation seems minor in comparison to their contribution to the public good.

As lawyers from the Law Union of Ontario point out: “Some inconveniences to local park users is a small price to pay for the larger price being paid by the 99 per cent worldwide in the face of an economic system that privileges the few over the many.”

Are occupations really necessary to draw attention to their cause? Perhaps not. But I’d trust their judgment over mine. After all, they’ve managed to change the public discourse, putting inequality front and centre — something activists and writers, myself included, have failed to accomplish despite decades of trying.

An article last week in the mainstream magazine New York notes that we’re now moving “from the terror era to the income-inequality era.”

Wow. After only two months, the Occupy movement — without backing from billionaires or governments — seems to have moved us into a new era. Not bad for a leaderless group that sleeps in tents and doesn’t even use microphones.
- Meanwhile, Stephen Gordon tries dividing discussion about inequality into "first-order" and "top-end" issues. But in noting that the effects of top-end inequality are only part of the overall problem, it's worth pointing out that any efforts to deal with both suffer when top-end inequality results in a political system being devoted toward further enriching those who already have the most.

- And there's still an awfully long way to go beyond what the Occupy movement has been able to accomplish in changing the frame of reference - particularly as governments like the McGuinty Liberals in Ontario push to keep on rewarding the corporate sector at the expense of mere citizens.

- Finally, it's a plus to see Richard Brennan and Aaron Wherry among those picking up on Charlie Angus' strong advocacy for Attawapiskat First Nation as it begs to be evacuated - providing a stark example of the level of inequality and poverty that remains in Canada (even if all too often hidden out of sight). But unfortunately, the people with the capacity to help don't seem to be showing the slightest interest.

On predictable problems

Yes, the news that the Muskowekwan First Nation may soon see its own potash development is a plus in many ways. But it's worth pointing out how the story might have been important to the provincial election campaign which concluded earlier this month.

After all, one of the Sask Party's main hot-button issues was to slam the idea that resource revenues might someday be shared with Saskatchewan's First Nations. And under those circumstances, it's hard to blame any given First Nation for figuring it'll never see a dime out of the province, and thus deciding to go it alone in pushing resource development.

Which is just another reason why a royalty-sharing agreement - as proposed by the NDP - would make a world of sense: by assembling a united front based on agreed revenue-sharing, the province could actually maintain whatever strategic advantage it currently holds in managing potash resources.

In contrast, the existence of overlapping jurisdictions and competing royalty rates carries the potential for disaster. There can't be much doubt that the next step in pushing royalty rates down even further will involve Wall and company pointing to any First Nation that's willing to offer a lower price for its own potash. And as part of the potash sector's regular focus on wealth extraction, I'm sure it'll come up with loopholes between the various levels of government - say, by making sure that it can count development on First Nations land as a credit against provincial royalties, while counting on paying only a lower band-based royalty rate at the point where the provincial system is supposed to provide for an increase.

Of course, the prospect of multiple governments getting into royalty bidding wars and jurisdictional quagmires to shuffle yet more free money into the hands of the potash sector is surely exactly what Brad Wall and his corporate cronies want to see. But Saskatchewan's citizens may want to take a hard look at whether they're prepared to harm both the province and First Nations alike in an effort to avoid transferring any resource revenues from the former to the latter.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Monday Afternoon Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Barrie McKenna thoroughly debunks the claim that "financial literacy" alone is enough to put ordinary citizens on a level playing field with the financial industry:
Looking to financial literacy to fill the void is like asking ordinary Canadians to be their own brain surgeons and airline pilots. The dizzying array of financial products, mixed with chaotic and increasingly irrational financial markets, makes the job of do-it-yourself financial planning almost impossible – no matter how literate you are. The average credit-card agreement is as intuitive as quantum physics.

The financial services industry wants it both ways. It preaches literacy and it advises government on sound policy. Mr. Flaherty’s task force is headed by Sun Life Financial Inc. chief executive officer Donald Stewart and BMO Nesbitt Burns chairman Jacques Ménard.

But literacy isn’t particularly lucrative. Armed with hundreds of millions in advertising dollars, Mr. Stewart’s and Mr. Ménard’s industry is simultaneously selling another story to consumers. Canadians are constantly bombarded with pitches to take on more debt, whether it’s right for them or not. They’re often blindly steered toward high-fee products and complex financial instruments. The accompanying disclosure statements are written by, and for, lawyers.

Central banks aren’t much help, either. Their vows to keep interest rates near zero indefinitely have made us all a generation of reluctant speculators, desperately seeking a better-than-2-per-cent return.

Financial literacy is a smokescreen.
- The CP highlights a few of the more inexplicable numbers in a detailed review of Tony Clement's G8 porkfest. David Pugliese warns that the Cons' choice to hitch a ride with another failing U.S. program - this time on satellite communications - may be the next great boondoggle in the making. And Mike de Souza catches the Cons misleading Canada about the effect of ozone monitoring cuts.

- Aaron Wherry reminds us of a time when the Cons pretended to care about Parliamentary debate.

- Finally, the Globe and Mail slams the Cons for information suppression that's more consistent with the developing world than a modern democracy.

On rare independence

Yes, there's some good news in the revelation that some Con MPs are asking questions about their party's insistence on supporting and subsidizing asbestos exports. But let's not minimize the issue as a story of "internal Con rift!!!" which will only push Harper and his message control machine to clamp down.

Instead, the real story is that because of a rightful concern about official party positioning, at least a few Con MPs are taking tentative steps toward doing their jobs as representatives of their constituents. And we should encourage them both to do those jobs better by looking to more than just the asbestos industry for answers - and to start fulfilling their duties more often without being met with a "gotcha!".

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Thomas Walkom rightly points out that the voters most affected by the Cons' push for privatized pensions are the ones paying the least attention to the issue:
For workers over 50, the pension reforms introduced by Canada’s Conservative government on Thursday mean virtually nothing.

Such workers have relatively little time to save before they retire even if, as Ottawa’s proposed legislation contemplates, their voluntary savings are pooled into group RRSPs.

Similarly, the counterproposal suggested by the New Democratic Party opposition — an expansion of the existing, public Canada Pension Plan — would offer little benefit to today’s older workers.

The CPP, too, is based on an employee’s contribution history. For baby boomers, the youngest of whom were born in 1964, there’s not that much working time left.

Yet those whom pension reform would help — the young — appear to have no interest in the topic.
This may help explain why serious workplace pension reform has been so easily derailed: those who pay attention don’t benefit; those who would benefit don’t pay attention.
Real pension plans (unlike bogus schemes known as defined contribution plans) offer a relative amount of certainty: People know what they’ll get at retirement.

And the best real pension plan going is the CPP. It is solvent, big enough to remain that way and relatively cheap to operate.

It is also compulsory, which prevents free riders — either employees or their bosses — from gaming the system.

Certainly, an expansion of the CPP is the best way to deal with the 60 per cent of workers — particularly younger workers in non-union shops — who have no other pension plan.

It doesn’t rely on the good intentions of employers (which appeals to labour unions). And by taking the strain from programs like Old Age Security, it saves taxpayers money — which appeals to fiscal conservatives.
- Jeffrey Simpson slams the Harper Cons for being missing in action when it comes to international climate change talks.

- Steve takes up the cause of authenticity in politics.

- And finally, Mark Sumner serves up a graphic representation as to how the voice of the 99% is dwarfed by the uber-rich when it comes to being able to influence policy with wealth.

[Edit: fixed links.]

Parliament In Review: October 26, 2011

Wednesday, October 26 saw a rare opportunity for the opposition parties to set the agenda. And as a result, the big issue was one which the Cons prefer to discuss as little as possible - even if it's far more relevant to more Canadians than most of the Harper government's distraction tactics.

The Big Issue

And that issue is...transit, which was dealt with in a second-reading debate on Olivia Chow's private member's bill. Chow in particular pointed out that municipalities themselves aren't the least bit interested in having the federal government wash its hands of the issue:
Hazel McCallion was just ranked number one in a Canadian poll as the most popular mayor. Naheed Nenshi, the major of Calgary, is number two. He is the Prime Minister's mayor and he supports a national transit strategy. Gregor Robertson, the mayor of Vancouver, is number three and he too supports a national transit strategy. These mayors are all in touch with their constituents. They all know what is needed.

Here are some more words: “We would encourage all parliamentarians and all parties to support the creation of a national transit strategy” They are not the words of a big city mayor. They are the words of the mayor of Grande Prairie.

The mayor of Winnipeg said that this provides an excellent framework for a national transit strategy. He was talking about the bill.

On the east coast, the Charlottetown city council supports the bill for a national transit strategy. That endorsement is echoed in all parts of the country, the transit authorities of London, Ottawa, Kelowna, the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties , the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities which represent over 2,000 cities large and small, from coast to coast to coast.

Business groups such as the Toronto Board of Trade, and just today, the Victoria Chamber of Commerce, are on board.

There is a reason that all these great community leaders, business groups and ordinary Canadians are crying out for us to act. Transit is important; in fact, it is vital.
...which could only mean that the Cons were determined to do just that.

Meanwhile, Chow pointed out why the current general gas tax transfers aren't enough to ensure the development of well-planned transit systems. Elizabeth May seconded the bill and pointed out that Canada is the lone OECD country without a national transit policy. Kevin Lamoureux raised the idea of making transit free for seniors during off-peak hours. And Fin Donnelly pointed out the health and economic benefits of an effective transit policy.

The Race to Respond

Ralph Goodale raised a point of order as to why a Con spinmeister had been recognized to answer a question directed toward an opposition committee chair - a tactic which looks to be a sadly effective response to the idea of limiting the Cons' ability to provide non-answers in question period as long as the Speaker is so interested in giving the maximum possible speaking time to his party that he doesn't care in the slightest where a question is directed.

In Brief

Robert Aubin raised homelessness and housing in question period, only to have his call for a long-term strategy met with a statement that the Cons had already done plenty as far as they're concerned. Chris Charlton introduced a private member's bill to establish an oil and gas ombudsman. Jack Harris moved another motion to split up the Cons' dumb-on-crime legislation to allow the more problematic aspects to receive the scrutiny they deserve, while noting that the Cons' new bill left out amendments agreed to when earlier versions actually received some study. And in question period, Harris challenged Vic Toews on the differences between the Cons' previous gun registry bills and the one they're so determined to ram through now. Joe Comartin expanded on his ultimately-successful challenge to Russ Hiebert's anti-union bill. Alexandre Boulerice wondered whether the Cons' acceptance of the Auditor General's recommendations out of Tony Clement's G8 scandal included any willingness to allow Parliament to investigate, rather than taking Clement at his thoroughly-debunked word. Pat Martin pointed out another Con MP who campaigned on the idea of a vote on the future of the Canadian Wheat Board's single desk, rather than its destruction by fiat. And Rathika Sitsabaiesan called for an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka - only to be met with Deepak Obhrai's response that diplomacy works behind the scenes rather than in public. (Which surely needs to be passed along to whoever's been directing the Harper Cons' all-bloviation, all-the-time strategy on the Middle East.)