Saturday, May 05, 2012

A Healthy Society - Chapter 5 Discussion

Chapter 5 of Ryan Meili's A Healthy Society deals with our justice system. And once again while there's little to dispute in Meili's broader point, it's worth noting just how much distance there is between Canada's current governing philosophy, and anything which could possible be expected to produce healthy outcomes.

Here's Meili:
(Our prison system) is analogous to a medical system that is curative rather than preventive. The results are the same: more expense, less effect. The people who need help are met late in the progression of their illness, or their criminal behaviour, too late to make real change. How much easier, and more effective, is it to keep people from smoking than getting them to stop? How much wiser to keep people out of jail than to try to rehabilitate them once they’re in.
If we want to improve health outcomes, we need to address the root causes of illness. Similarly, if we want to decrease crime, we need to address its root causes as well. What is fortunate is that they are the same things. While the justice system hasn’t usually been described as one of the major factors in determining health (the numbers of people in prison are still small enough that it doesn’t have the same statistical impact as the other factors to which all are exposed), it’s clear that incarceration has a substantial impact on health status.

Another way of looking at this is to see it as a companion indicator of social health: the determinants of health are the determinants of involvement in criminal behaviour. Rising or falling crime rates are clear indicators of whether or not we have been successful in producing a safe society, not through intimidation and deterrence, but through an appropriate distribution of opportunity and the common wealth. This is important to consider when designing policy responses to try to make Canada a safer country: are more prisons and tougher sentences the right answer? It depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

There are three potential reasons to punish someone. The first is retribution: looking to exact a repayment for damage done. The second is risk management: seeking to protect others from the actions of someone who does not respect the law. The third is rehabilitation: seeking to correct the behaviour and teach the offender a better way.

In our private lives, in our own homes and families, we discourage revenge as a motivator. Most of us can think back to hear a parent admonishing a fighting child, “I don’t care who started it, you have to stop it.” While it is very tempting to get back at someone who has hurt us, upon sober reflection it is easy to see the ways in which that perpetuates conflict and justifies aggression. Is it not odd, then, that our judicial system, thought to represent the balanced wisdom of the best legal minds, focuses almost entirely on punishment? There is very little in the way of crime prevention, and not nearly enough rehabilitation.
Now, the case for dumb-on-crime policies has been based almost entirely on a combination of the first two of Meili's potential reasons for punishment. And the Harper Cons' vilification of any opposition has mostly focused on their portrayal of any offender without Conrad Black's personal fortune as a sub-human monster undeserving of any consideration - going beyond any possible sense of mere retribution into outright demonization.

But having spent as much time as I have combing through debates in Parliament and political coverage, I'll note that particularly when they're challenged on the barbarism of their worldview, the Cons have also regularly fallen back on a risk management model (albeit one without evidence) as their basis for a lock-'em-up policy. As the argument goes, as long a person is incarcerated, that person can't be committing crimes against the public at large.

From that starting point, it's worth drawing a link between that argument and a theoretical conception of a health-care system operating on the same principles. What if, instead of having reasonable triage and evidence-based disease control, we simply assumed the worst about any possible contagious diseases - preferring to confine people away from anybody besides other potentially-diseased individuals immediately based on even the slightest possibility that having them locked up at the right time might prevent some damage to others? And what if we had a government which vilified the sick, suggesting that anybody who spoke up for the interests of unclean people was on the side of disease against the healthy portion of the population?

Of course, in the health care example the retribution or demonization theory would be patently absurd. But the risk management theory would be almost exactly the same as that presented by the Cons when it comes to crime. And I'm sure we can all recognize how appalling the theory of isolating large numbers of people without any particular expectation of improved results as a matter of risk management would be if detached from the desire for retribution which is rightly questioned by Meili.

Saturday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Gerald Caplan looks at the principled leadership which Stephen Harper embarrassingly made into an attack on the NDP as an example what Canada desperately needs now:
Repeating that war settles nothing, Mr. Woodsworth declared: “I rejoice that it is possible to say these things in a Canadian Parliament under British institutions. It would not be possible in Germany, I recognize that ... and I want to maintain the very essence of our British institutions of real liberty. I believe that the only way to do it is by an appeal to the moral forces which are still resident among our people, and not by another resort to brute force.”
He alone rose to record his opposition to the declaration of war.
In the words of Tommy Douglas’s biographers Thomas and Ian McLeod: “This event is considered by many to be one of the finest moments in the history of the Canadian Parliament. Even as every other member of the House of Commons voted to declare war, Mr. Woodsworth was recognized for his courageous ethical stand and his commitment to his principles.”
Through two decades as independent MP and then as leader of the small CCF parliamentary rump, no one challenged the King government more profoundly than J. S. Woodsworth, constantly seeking the better angels of Mackenzie King’s nature. In the end, addressing his own historic motion for war, the prime minister said:
“There are few men in this Parliament for whom I have greater respect than the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. I admire him in my heart, because time and again he has had the courage to say what lays on his conscience, regardless of what the world might think of him. A man of that calibre is an ornament to any Parliament.”
And Tabatha Southey comments on the NDP's proud history of time travel which serves as the only logical explanation for the Cons' spin.

- Meanwhile, Jeffrey Simpson criticizes the Cons' efforts to rewrite Canada's past:
In the last budget, for example, funding was reduced for Library and Archives Canada, the CBC, Telefilm Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Parks Canada by a government that had already scrapped plans for a National Portrait Gallery. (The government also is eliminating support for scholars in other countries who study Canada.)
By contrast, the government found money in a “restraint” budget for projects that will allow it to highlight those scattered and fading (or faded) remnants of our history that suit the government’s political agenda: recreations of the War of 1812 (a political civil war on each side and a cross-border military conflict), medals commemorating the Queen, and yet another royal visit, this one offering Canadians (or at least the handful of them who will care) the emotional surge of seeing their future king and queen: Charles and Camilla.

For the Harper Conservatives, there’s no sense of contributing to a new or evolved sense of Canadian identity, but rather a reaching back and dusting off of fragments of the past that suit their politics – which is why the military and the monarchy are their favoured subjects for historical attention.
History is never written in stone; it’s always being checked and rechecked, written and rewritten. Arguments about the past never cease, and it’s intellectually worthwhile for such arguments to be made by those who learn history and/or write it, often with the support of the very institutions the government’s now cutting.

When governments take up the pen, fill it with the ink of public money, and start rewriting the past, political agendas chase the search for historical understanding.
- Kelly McParland sees haste and secrecy as the two main products of the Cons' omnibus budget legislation. Bill Curry reports that the Cons plan to dictate who's eligible to receive EI benefits with no input from anybody else - least of all the workers who have paid into the program. And Thomas Walkom observes that the Cons' strategy looks to be to attack wages and the environment exactly as much as they can get away with without inciting outright panic:
The Harper revolution has never been about abortion or gay rights. This prime minister has little interest in social conservatism.
Rather, the revolution is economic. It is aimed at eliminating regulations — particularly environmental regulations — that interfere in profit-making. It is aimed at reducing wages (which is why the Conservatives take swipes at unions whenever possible). It is aimed at scaling back any social programs — from Old Age Security to Employment Insurance — that help keep wages up.
The revolutionaries dream of a day when the elderly, energized by the reductions in their pensions, will be vying for jobs at Walmart.
But it is a stealthy revolution. The country must remain complacent. Otherwise, we might object.
- Peter O'Neil notes that provinces are joining the group of voices concerned about the effect of a free trade agreement with Europe which would lock in higher pharmaceutical prices for no apparent benefit.

- And finally, Martin Canning comments on the future of political micro-targeting.

On unanswered questions

Having written just a couple of days ago as to what I'd hope to see from the City of Regina in a new stadium plan, I'll take a few minutes to point out how the latest "revitalization initiative" stacks up.

The good news is that we're no longer seeing any pretense that the funding will be anything but public. But it's still rather odd that the initial funding is split up from "(p)rivate resources to build, finance and maintain" the stadium, leaving it somewhat less than clear exactly what additional resources are expected beyond the $278 million sticker price.

But more problematic for the cost/benefit analysis is a lack of any expectation that there will be public returns on the investment.The City's backgrounder suggests that the 'Riders' lone contribution will be "leasehold improvements of raw space to be used for football club purposes", which seems to signal that there's no expectation whatsoever that the main tenant of the new stadium will contribute anything other than to continue its own operations on the new site. And while there's been reason to be skeptical about past expectations about lease payments and naming rights, we should at least have some idea what's being assumed in those categories and who will reap the associated benefits.

Finally, while the proposed stadium development and redevelopment of the existing stadium site can plausibly be linked together, the redevelopment of the CP lands doesn't seem to have anything to do with the rest of the scheme other than having been lumped together under the RRI. And we should be asking why that facet of the revitalization can't be approved and set in motion without incurring the cost of a new stadium.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Musical interlude

Arcade Fire - Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Miles Corak comments on how inequality undercuts social mobility. And Joseph Stiglitz highlights the fact that the vast majority of people hold a strong interest in not having their path to a secure and successful life blocked by a wall of upper-class money.

- If there's anything the Wall government can't stand, it's collective action. And following up on Murray Mandryk's column, Erin points out that the Sask Party's eagerness to set up an opt-out union dues system is a textbook example of how to make collective systems fail by encouraging free riders.

- Meanwhile, there's some good news about the dividends rolling in thanks to Saskatchewan's Crown corporations. But it's worth keeping an eye on how long that lasts when they've been ordered not to use their expertise outside Saskatchewan's borders.

- Finally, Barbara Yaffe recognizes one of the NDP's crucial strengths in addressing Con attacks - as the longtime Harper strategy of answering any criticism with "they did it too" looks even more hollow when the party across the way hasn't actually been in a position to get into the type of trouble the Cons seem to step into by the day.

A Healthy Society - Chapter 4 Discussion

In my discussion of Chapter 3 of Ryan Meili's A Healthy Society, I mused that social housing might be an area where public-sector purchasing power could be put to its best possible use in securing better value than individuals can afford in a purely market-based system. And in his discussion of housing and environmental factors in Chapter 4, Meili expands on that possibility while explaining why private-sector development doesn't meet some of our most important housing needs:
In Canada, despite reports from all levels of government on the need for comprehensive housing strategies, these same governments have been backing away from meaningful investments in social housing for decades. The most significant such change was the Canadian federal government’s decision in the early 1990s to no longer build new social housing units. The argument is that the private sector will be more efficient and effective at producing housing.

The private sector excels at producing homes for ownership, or for high income rental property. Developers are good at this because it is the most profitable area of the housing market, and because their aim is to make profits for their owners and investors. Handing over housing strategy to the private sector in order to make housing affordable for low-income families is like trying to wash your dishes in the clothes-dryer. It’s a useful appliance, but that’s not what it’s for.
Rather than planning how to get people into stable homes, we are looking at how to get them short-term shelter. Aside from not delivering what people really need, short-term shelter can cost five to ten times as much as long-term housing. This after-the-fact approach is analogous to the spending on health care over disease prevention, where governments find themselves spending far more money to clean up messes rather than a reasonable amount preventing them. It’s like a family that decides they should eat at restaurants because groceries cost too much. Doing the math shows that a lot more is saved by up-front expenditures; a bit of foresight can save a great deal of expense down the line. Our governments are increasingly reacting, not planning, renting, not owning, and, as a result, costing themselves out of all kinds of essential services. The decision of governments to live hand-to-mouth rather than plan ahead results in worse outcomes for more money. If our friends and neighbours acted that way, we’d shake our heads and think their priorities were confused. Why do we insist on this kind of behaviour from those who manage our taxes?
In arguing for more foresight in public policy development, Meili also highlights the most important argument as to how a genuinely progressive government can achieve the best possible return on public investment - emphasizing that good management goes together with a commitment to public services. And I'll build on that theme to distinguish between a couple of concepts that are lumped together by Meili in highlighting the different approaches available.

In my view, there are two fairly distinct means of handling social issues based on what's supposed to be a market-based system. On one hand, there's the no-government model which involves a preference toward doing absolutely nothing about an issue, and an alternative approach of merely offering minor incentives available to private-sector actors who still get full say over what happens. (And on the housing issue, this model sums up the Wall government's approach: after doin nothing for one term in office, its sole idea now is to hand corporate tax breaks to landlords.)

But there's also a model (captured by the "renting, not owning" part of Meili's lament) which is all too often labeled as progressive since it allows a government to claim to be spending on a priority, even though it serves to centralize control and decision-making in the corporate sector. Think about the Ontario Libs' green energy plan, which has the province pouring billions of dollars into a single private-sector company which is still itself focused entirely on a profit motive - with the result that the government swaps money and control for buy-in from a single private actor and a slightly smoother short-term path to implementation.

By way of analogy, imagine the family deciding how to eat in Meili's model deciding to hire a personal shopper on a 20-year contract for an ongoing fixed sum it can't really afford, but hopes to be able to meet down the road. Yes, it's possible the investment will bring in a few ideas that hadn't occurred to the family on its own - but highly unlikely the result will actually be value for money.

Instead, we should be looking not only to invest in areas where relatively small inputs today can produce strong returns in the future, but also to maintain enough public control and flexibility to be able to adapt as needs change. Because while it's essential to select the right tools in building a healthier society, it's equally important to be able to determine how they're used.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Draft Day 'Rider Blogging

Having dealt with the question of stadium construction in this morning's column, I'll take a moment to comment on the 'Riders' offseason - which looks to have taken another turn for the better with the (less-than-surprising) selection of Ben Heenan with the first pick of the CFL draft.

In general, there are two areas where the 'Riders have taken major steps forward since the end of the 2011 season. Rather than relying on the unpredictable Ryan Dinwiddie as the lone backup to Darian Durant (and having to be especially conservative with Durant as a result), the team now has both more upside and plenty of pro experience in a backup group including J.T. O'Sullivan and Colt Brennan. Which should both push Durant somewhat better from within, and ensure the 'Riders can survive without him.

But more importantly, there shouldn't be as much need to worry about Durant's health thanks to a revitalized offensive line. The most important task for the pre-season will likely be to integrate a massive set of new talent (Heenan, Brendon LaBatte, Dominic Picard and assorted others) with Chris Best and the remaining depth on the team's roster. But once that's done, the offensive line should be better than it's been in ages.

Of course, there has been one obvious hiccup in the 'Riders' player acquisitions this offseason. But while I'll give the same answer as to what the 'Riders should have avoided, I'll argue that the problem isn't the one that's been discussed by other commentators.

In general, a CFL team faces two main limitations on talent acquisition: a hard salary cap, and an import player limit. And the first step in building a team needs to be to maximize value taking those factors into consideration: looking for less-established players who aren't yet paid based on past performance, and non-imports who can help meet the roster quotas.

It's only once there's a sufficient base in place that it's worth putting much effort into adding veteran imports to fill particular needs. But even there, a team should be on the lookout for players who can be imported and developed.

And there are few positions where it seems easier to find import talent than defensive end. Indeed, near the end of Eric Tillman's tenure as 'Riders GM, John Chick and Stevie Baggs arrived from nowhere in particular and the CFL scrap heap respectively to terrorize quarterbacks for the 'Riders. Three of the CFL's top ten sacks leaders in 2011 (Winnipeg's Kenny Mainor and Jason Vega, and Edmonton's Marcus Howard) were brand-new to the league. And Kenny Rowe showed some ability to pressure quarterbacks in a late-season 'Riders audition.

So the case for trading for Willis would seem to be a weak one even if one didn't account for the possibility that his own gaudy numbers might have a lot to do with offensive lines treating Doug Brown as the greater threat. And that too looks to be a reason to think Willis might be overvalued - both in salary and in what he'd cost in a trade.

Meanwhile, the 'Riders managed to get superb results out of a second-round draft choice in 2011 by selecting Craig Butler, who looks to be a fixture in the team's secondary for years to come.

So how can a team justify trading multiple draft picks - which can help in both value for salary, and import/non-import calculations - to fill a position where skilled replacements are so readily available? I'd think the only way it makes sense as a single deal is if a team sees itself as unable to develop draft picks or new talent well enough to get value out of its younger players. But if that's going to be a team's operating assumption (and Butler offers at least one counterexample), then it has much bigger issues than simply patching individual holes.

And the Willis trade wasn't even the only example of the 'Riders trading draft value for the type of talent they should be able to find on their own.

So while the good news is that the 'Riders have set up their roster fairly nicely for 2012, the real danger from this offseason is that the team's planning horizon doesn't seem to extend far enough beyond that timeline. And the last thing 'Riders fans should want to see is for the team to fall into the Toronto Maple Leafs syndrome of consistently giving away long-term value to address perceived short-term needs.

New column day

Here, on the latest attempt by the City of Regina to lump a stadium into several other unrelated plans in an attempt to win higher-level funding - and the need for citizens to instead assess it on its own merits.

And for some of the history of past efforts (at all levels of government) to reclassify publicly-funded stadium construction as something else in order to make it more palatable for the general public, see here, here and here.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- The Cons' move to suppress Canadian wages by encouraging the use of disposable, temporary foreign labour is receiving plenty of due outcry. Here's Armine Yalnizyan:

Disturbingly, the federal announcement also set out new wage rules that permit employers to pay temporary foreign workers up to 15 per cent below the average paid for that type of work locally, sanctioning the creation of a two-tiered “us and them” labour market.

Even if such a rule were rigorously applied and monitored – and budget cuts may eliminate the staff to do this job – it guarantees a downward trend in wages for everyone. Fifteen per cent below the average is a recipe for continuous decline when labour shortages are filled, as a matter of policy, by those who get paid less and are not allowed to stay long enough to ask for more.


Even the Chinese railway workers of the 1800s came with “landed immigrant” status. Emphasizing the benefits of a disposable class of workers is a very recent, and unsavoury, development in our history.

This nation was built by immigrants who had a stake in its future. Together we created an economy which today is the tenth largest in the world. While the economy will continue to grow, the distribution of the gains from that growth threatens to become rapidly even more lopsided.

And the Star-Phoenix:

However, it's doing no one any favours in the long run - and could well be creating conditions for an ugly anti-immigrant backlash - with its decision to allow employers to pay those high-skill foreign workers as much as 15 per cent below the average regional wage for their occupation.

The differential wage scheme, which already is getting a hostile reception from organized labour groups, certainly runs counter to the free market philosophy espoused by business leaders as well (as) Conservative politicians across Canada. Unless it's a deliberate strategy to drive down wage rates nationally over the long term, as the unions and critics allege, this policy certainly makes little economic or social sense at a time when the booming regions of Canada are short of the skilled workers, not the cash to pay them.


The ability to offer lower wages to skilled foreign workers would benefit those employers who run non-unionized shops that aren't covered by negotiated rates. The long-term effect could well be the de-skilling of Canada's workforce, with employers increasingly relying on cheaper foreign workers and not investing as much in training, something that will be hugely detrimental to the aspirations of young Canadians, particularly aboriginals.

And with Ms. Finley's ministry noting the accelerated hiring process could be expanded to other occupations, what started out as a stop-gap measure to fill the need for skilled trades could soon be putting downward pressure on wages in other sectors.

- Meanwhile, the Wall government is introducing a new set of attacks on workers in Saskatchewan. But I have to wonder whether the obvious overreach involved in questioning the very existence of labour standards may only highlight the desperate need for strong organized labour to counterbalance employer excess.

After all, it's one thing for workers to fail to appreciate the importance of a movement which rightly takes credit for innovations which get taken for granted. But it's another story entirely when the Wall government is actually hinting about taking back the weekend.

- If we needed any proof that the Cons' public-sector slashing has nothing to do with actually reducing Deficit Jim Flaherty's most substantial achievement and everything to do with wanting to sell off as many public goods as possible before they get turfed from office, this nicely sums up their plans:
Three of Parks Canada’s most iconic attractions could soon be in the hands of a private operator.

The federal agency — which has been hard hit in the latest round of federal public service cuts announced this week — plans to invite private-sector proposals to take over operation of the Canadian Rockies Hot Springs, which includes the hot pools in Banff, Jasper and Radium, B.C.


(F)ollowing the selection process and lease negotiations, a handover of hot springs operations is expected to be completed as early as May 2013.


Thiessen said together, the three hot springs generate only $5 million in revenue annually — a break-even situation for Parks Canada.
So the question isn't one of "cost-cutting" - as there's no net cost at all to the current hot springs operations. But the Cons' interest in eliminating the "public" part of public services is a far higher priority than actually dealing with a deficit built on reckless tax slashing. And if the result is to destroy in a year what's been built up over a century, that's fine with Harper and company.

- Finally, Simon Enoch wonders whatever happened to the transparency once promised by the Cons. Andrew Coyne suggests that if Stephen Harper's goal was incoherent government, he's succeeded beyond what anybody could have imagined. And Frances Russell laments the Cons' efforts to turn Canada into a banana republic.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A Healthy Society - Chapter 3 Discussion

Chapter 3 of Ryan Meili's A Healthy Society focuses on the effect of income - both in total and in distribution - as a determinant of health. But while there's plenty of material deserving of further discussion, I'll point to his comments on the place of taxation and government spending as particularly worth some additional analysis:
One example of a toolbox approach to economic management, one that reaches for the proper tool at the proper time rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, is the proper use of taxation policy. Taxation levels that impede economic development are unwise. That much is apparent. However, the notion has been taken to ridiculous extremes, with taxes falling in times of rapid growth for short-term political gain, disrupting public services and costing us money in the long term. What we need is the intelligent embracing of complexity rather than blind adherence to ideology and the approaches of organizations like the Canadian Taxpayers Foundation, who act as though (as Prime Minister Harper famously stated in 2009) all taxes are bad taxes, and all collective investment is a bad deal.

The fact is that most of us save money by paying taxes. Comparing use of public services to income, the majority of Canadian families use far more in public services than they pay in taxes. For example, families earning $80,000 a year use approximately half that amount in public services. This is due in part to the progressive nature of our tax system, which charges a higher percentage of tax to those with higher incomes. It is also due to the bulk bin principle; the more you buy, the less it costs. Imagine if each of us needed to pay directly for health care, roads, fire protection, snow clearing...the list goes on and on. Taxes, properly used, are each of us chipping in a small amount to buy something we need at a far better rate than any of us could get alone. The result is a great bargain on things we really need.
Now, I don't think anybody this side of Neil Reynolds can argue with a straight face that small incremental increases toward the tax levels that have predominated over the past 50 years would meaningfully impede economic development. But after several decades of constant talk of reducing government involvement in any form of economic activity, I'll suggest it's well worth spending some time to consider the question of what additional types of investment might be subject to the "bulk bin" principle.

There have been at least a few examples which have already been subject to debate in recent years, including recycling at the municipal level, prescription drugs at the provincial and federal levels, and the availability of broadband Internet access (particularly in rural areas). But should we be looking at, say, building retro-fitting as an ongoing bulk purchasing opportunity (rather than merely an occasional form of stimulus)? Can we treat social housing as an area where the "bulk bin" principle should apply as the basis for significant additional investment, justifying greater action as a matter of efficiency rather than merely doing the bare minimum to relieve concerns about social needs? And what other areas are there where the sheer purchasing power of a government is likely to bring us substantially better value than we're able to secure wandering into an unregulated market on our own?

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Michael Harris sums up the first year of a Harper majority by pointing out the overwhelming need for change from the government we're stuck with now:
The curtain has been well and truly whipped away from the PM’s self-promoting deceptions and he is revealed for what he is: a power-tripper on a mission to give Canada an extreme makeover that only the super-rich and the semi-comatose could endorse. And he is doing it with virtually no debate, creating something of a new phenomenon in Canadian politics; sole-source public policy.
This is not “strong, stable government” a la Harper’s PR mantra. It is oppressive, dictatorial regime-building that would do any petro-state proud.
- And the Star isn't much more pleased:

By now Harper’s signature impulse — to scale back Ottawa’s role in the federation — is beginning to be felt, and so is the cost. The Tory budget, skilfully marketed as a “modest” paring-back that will affect few jobs, will have major impact. Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page predicts it will shrink Ottawa’s contribution to the national economy to an “historical low” of 5.5 per cent, from a 50-year average of 8.2 per cent. Page says this will result in sharply slower growth and sharply higher joblessness over the next few years.

To many Canadians that won’t feel like the “smarter, more caring nation” that Harper promised in last year’s throne speech. It will feel more like a federal shrug of indifference. Workers at the CBC are feeling the pain, along with those who run our national parks, compile statistics, patrol the borders and ensure food safety.

- Trish Hennessy runs some numbers to keep in mind at tax time - with a particular emphasis on the massive majority of Canadians willing to pay more to ensure a reasonable base of public services.

- Stephen Maher describes Robocon as a natural extension of familiar Republican dirty tricks - and gets an admitted vote-suppressor to agree with that link.

- Finally, Dan Gardner makes a curious case as to how some unspecified "loony left" (with only a single example) is giving Stephen Harper cover with his party's hard-right base. But I'm surprised Gardner misses one obvious implication of his own argument: if Harper might otherwise be pursuing regressive social policy in order to appease his base but has avoided it because he can accomplish the same goal by merely pointing to what Heather Mallick writes, then her commentary alone has had a far more direct effect on Canadian public policy under the Harper Cons than all the Very Serious People in the country combined.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Heightened cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Andrew Coyne is rightly alarmed at the Cons' move to short-circuit any debate about major policy changes through an omnibus budget bill. And Bea Vongdoaungchanh reports that the biggest of those changes is to set our environmental laws back by half a century.

- David Macdonald highlights the $114 billion bailout which was necessary to keep Canada's banks afloat. And while it might be fair to say the potential price was worth it to avoid unnecessary disruption, I'd defy anybody to justify the Cons' being so generous with the banks while looking for excuses to push mere workers underwater.

- Andrew MacLeod reports on how the Cons are refusing to allow provinces to discuss the terms of a free trade pact with Europe - even when they're the ones who may end up on the hook for billions of dollars in drug costs and other negative effects.

- pogge duly slams the Globe and Mail for giving Gwyn Morgan a free pass to baselessly attack solar energy without disclosing any of his personal interest in shutting down renewable development.

- Finally, Ken Norman, Mary Eberts and Alex Neve criticize the Sask Party's regressive take on human rights in Saskatchewan.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Parliament in Review - March 30, 2012

Friday, March 30 was the first day of Peter Julian's budget filibuster. But while it accomplished its goal of avoiding several hours worth of Con talking points, was there much to take from Julian's own comments?

The Big Issue

Well, let's highlight a few of his more noteworthy observations. First, on the Cons' own plan to increase unemployment in Canada:

In this extensive budget of 500 pages, there is a very key page that actually points to the government's admission that as a result of this budget, unemployment is actually going to go up. It is quite astounding that the government would put jobs on the front page of a budget that it knows is actually going to promote unemployment. The unemployment rate from 2011 will go up in 2012.

We know about the 19,000 jobs that it is cutting. I mentioned earlier one of the Canadian citizens who wrote to us expressing her concern about how seriously these public services are going to deteriorate. Also, for each job that we lose in the public service we lose another one in the private sector as well. Therefore, we are actually talking about nearly 40,000 jobs that would be lost in a very short time frame over the next little while.

How a government that is actively pushing a higher unemployment rate and actively throwing thousands and thousands of public sector and private sector workers out of work could possibly pretend that this is somehow a jobs budget is beyond me.
Second, on the Cons' broken promises which kept them in power with the promise of stability that's been replaced by gratuitous cuts to Canada's social programs:
The reality is this, and I want to make this clear. If the government had campaigned on what it really intended to do, it would have said that it would be cutting health care transfers; that it was going to force people to work two more years, regardless of people's ability to do that at that late age; that it was going to cut services, food and transportation safety and environmental assessments; that it was going to cut Canadian institutions like the CBC; and that it was going to cut the Auditor General so that the auditor could not check up on the government to see if it were using its money effectively, because it does not like the Auditor General because he or she questions its questionable purchases like the F-35s that go from $9 billion to $40 billion. If the government had actually said all of those things, members are as aware as I am that since Canadian families deserve much better, it would be the NDP on that side of the House.
Third, on the continued deterioration of Canadian wages under the Cons and its effect on workers:
Wages are not keeping pace with inflation. Part-time workers saw their wages grow 1.4% over the past year. Full-time workers saw their wages grow almost at the rate of inflation. In both cases neither part-time nor full-time wages are keeping pace with the rate of inflation, but for part-time workers it is much lower. It is much worse and a much greater problem.

This is a fundamental issue which, as Canadians, we certainly have to wrestle with. When we see only 200,000 net new jobs since May 2008, when we see that the vast majority of those jobs are part-time, and when we see the wages for those part-time jobs are falling further and further behind at $16 an hour on average and far below the rate of inflation, we are setting up a permanent situation of insecurity for Canadian workers.
Fourth, on the respective fiscal records of the NDP and the Cons:
Members should know that the annual fiscal period returns published by the Ministry of Finance show which parties are best at balancing budgets. It is important to note that every year now for 20 years, as the fiscal period returns are presented, one party outshines the rest. Now, of course, the NDP governments that are part of those fiscal period returns are provincial governments. We have not yet governed at the federal level. We are fighting very hard to be governing as of October 20, 2015.

However, NDP provincial governments, compared with Conservative and Liberal provincial and federal governments, have had the best record at balancing budgets and paying down debt for every single one of those 20 years.

So, to the individual who asked who am I to question to the Conservatives and who is the NDP to question the Conservatives, it comes from having strong fiscal management experience on a personal level, always managing money and paying down debt without cutting services, because that is how Canadian families do it.
And finally, a summary of the effect of the Cons' economic policies on mere working Canadians:
(W)ith the policies it has put in place, with the cuts to services and benefits, such the OAS and health care support, as well as producing lower paying jobs and part-time jobs and getting rid of the value added full-time family sustaining jobs of before, which is the only way to put it because the government seems to be deliberately putting policies in place to cripple our manufacturing sector, that is what has led to crippling levels of debt in this country under the watch of the government.
What we are seeing increasingly is a country where a small number of Canadians are benefiting from the government's policies while the vast majority of middle class and poor families are struggling under record debt loads, trying to cobble together two or three part-time jobs just to keep a roof over their head and struggling to keep their head above water.
Meanwhile, Scott Simms spent some of Julian's time guessing optimistically as to how Canada's economy has performed recently under the Cons. And John Baird was more interested in counting Lib MPs than any mere talk of the budget, the economy or jobs.

In Brief

Julian also opened question period with a series of budget-related questions, noting that "jobs" appears only in the title of the Cons' omnibus bill and inequality is nowhere to be found, while Robert Chisholm challenged Stephen Harper on some of the immediate negative reaction to the budget and Dan Harris pointed out that just two months earlier Harper had promised not to cut programs for seniors. John McCallum mused about the lack of cuts to the PMO, ministers' office and government advertising budgets while actual programs are being slashed in the name of austerity. And Jean Rousseau slammed the Cons' choice to cut food safety funding, while Sana Hassainia lamented that cuts to foreign aid will punish the poorest people in the world for the Cons' bad choices.

Dead and buried

Others have already pointed out last week's news that oil-sands operators are pulling out of a major carbon capture and storage project. But it's worth taking a closer look at their explanation, and how it compares to the Cons' claim to have the slightest interest in dealing with climate change.

Here's why the oil industry isn't bothering with CCS:

“Our decision was essentially based on the fact that we could not see a way to make the economics of our CCS project work as we originally intended,” said Don Wharton, vice-president of policy and sustainability at TransAlta.

He said markets for pure carbon didn’t develop as expected, and federal and provincial governments took no steps to recognize the value of reduced emissions by implementing a price on carbon, for example, or a cap-and-trade system.

In short, despite nearly $800 million in government subsidies, the company had no incentive to invest in CCS.

Let's keep in mind that the Harper Cons haven't merely poured hundreds of millions of dollars into CCS: they've in fact done so to the exclusion of any other climate-change funding (since their initial period of poorly-feigned interest in the environment when Stephane Dion was Lib leader). And after once suggesting they were willing to implement cap-and-trade as an alternative to a carbon tax, the Cons have since taking to claiming that all they're willing to do about greenhouse gas emissions is to pour money into unspecified innovation.

Such as, for example, the CCS project which is falling apart in the absence of a carbon price. In effect, tar sands operators have figured out the reality that the Cons are determined to avoid any regulation that could require the oil industry to pay any of the cost of the emissions it generates - and are making their long-term business decisions on the assumption that there will never be meaningful regulation of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada as long as Harper holds power.

Now, we shouldn't pretend that CCS - in the tar sands or in power generation - was ever itself much more than an excuse to avoid broader steps to deal with greenhouse gas emissions. (Indeed, I'm sure the time put into promoting it can be described as another elegant excuse for inaction.) But the oil industry has just discarded the Cons' last remaining fig leaf - and that leaves the Cons instead trying to bury the emissions data which exposes their entire climate-change policy as a fraud.

A Healthy Society - Chapter 2 Discussion

Chapter 2 of Ryan Meili's A Healthy Society discusses the place of politics as "medicine on a larger scale". Meili looks for lessons in our political discussion based on how medical knowledge has advanced in the past few decades, and points out a new definition of success that looks to be entirely transferable to our expectations of government:
One interesting result of this approach is that the definition of success has changed. We now talk about meaningful outcomes. When we know what is meaningful to patients and their families, we can know whether to move ahead with a difficult treatment, or spare the expense and discomfort. The guiding principle is to do what will make the most meaningful improvement in the patient’s quality of life rather than a focus on cure rates, survival times, or adherence to strict guidelines. This humanizing approach, based on what is significant in improving people’s lives rather than an insensitive numerical standard, is an important principle to remember when we discuss political interventions as well as medical.
Of course, this doesn't figure to mean that measurable standards are entirely inapplicable, as Meili notes in discussing the move toward evidence-based medicine as another advance which we should seek to import into political discussion:
The analogy of the past practice of medicine and the current practice of politics is striking. Rather than on the best evidence, political decisions are made based on a polling of their popularity, ideology, and other sorts of best guesses of what might work. What is needed is a move to evidence-based policy. We need to develop the clearest understanding possible of our goals, our meaningful outcomes. We then must understand the obstacles to reaching them, and the actions most likely to have the desired effect. We need to use the best information and examples available to us in order to build a healthy society.
But it's worth keeping in mind the lesson that it's impossible to arrive at the right answer as to how to make government work for people without constant engagement to determine whether we're asking the right questions. And the difference in incentives between the private and public sectors may offer a hint as to the role government can and should play.

After all, businesses figure to be motivated to take an individual's concerns into account only to the extent it's profitable to do so. But government actors bear responsibility for all people within their jurisdiction - and are ultimately responsible to make sure that everybody is included in decision-making.

Rather than applying the choose-from-a-predetermined-menu service model to the public sector, we should thus consider how we can set up our civil service to be able to achieve meaningful results in as many cases as possible, rather than being overly confined by top-down program definitions which leave too many concerns being answered with "that's not my job" or "we can't do that". And that flexibility in turn should be subject to a careful evaluation as to whether intervention on that basis achieves value for the resources used - which can both highlight areas of citizen demand that aren't being addressed, and determine which options might need to be closed off.

[Edit: fixed typo.]

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Parliament in Review - March 29, 2012

There's been much ado about the NDP's position on trade agreements based on the Cons' recent publicly-funded cheerleading for free trade at any price. But for anybody looking for the NDP's actual view on trade, the House of Commons debates from March 29 offer a rather thorough indication.

The Big Issue

That's thanks to a Parliamentary debate on the Cons' legislation to implement a free trade agreement with Panama. And the NDP made clear that it's willing to reasonably review and support trade agreements in general - but that it won't be bullied into backing deals that give preferential treatment to tax havens and serve to attack international labour rights.

Hoang Mai and Laurin Liu emphasized the former concern when it came to Panama. Helene Laverdiere focused on the Cons' refusal to insist on a tax information exchange agreement as part of the package, while noting that the NDP didn't have similar concerns about a deal with Jordan. (Incidentally, Con MP Mike Wallace recognized that distinction as well - which only shows how dishonest the Cons have been in their recent push to claim the NDP opposes trade of any kind.) And Jinny Sims rightly pointed out that if we're interested in doing anything about tax havens, we need to incorporate that concern into a free trade agreement at the outset - rather than rewarding a bad actor with preferential treatment then hoping for something to change without our doing anything.

On the labour side, Lois Brown pointed to a checklist of as labour rights attached as an unenforceable schedule as justifying pushing through the deal without any further review. But Chris Charlton rightly shot back that a statement of principles isn't the same thing as the binding investor rights forced into the agreement. Jean Crowder pointed out that workers in both countries stand to suffer from the deal, while Dennis Bevington lamented the Cons' determination to lead a race to the bottom.

But the best overall statement of the NDP's position came from Don Davies:
Trade allows goods and services that are within the productive capacity or local expertise or resources of one country to be exchanged with those of another. That is why I can say certainly on behalf of the New Democrats that we believe trade is good. We believe it is desirable. We believe it is critical to our economy.

The question that should be raised with respect to any trade deal is the terms on which that trade ought to be conducted. Are there any principles, policies or rules that should be applied when Canadians consider the exchange of goods and services out of our country and the entrance of goods and services into our country?
(W)e believe that we should have a policy that pursues well-managed trade, not free trade, not a closed approach to trade, but fair trade. That is the approach to trade this party has taken every since the free trade debates opened up in this country some decades ago.

Why do we take this position? We believe that Canadians do not want goods and services that use child labour to enter Canada. We do not want goods and services that are the product of destructive environmental practices to enter this country. Canadians do not want goods coming to this country from countries that have very poor human rights records. Canadians do not want goods and services to enter this country when those goods and services come from an economy that is so fundamentally different from ours, with such lower standards that it actually hurts Canadian employers' ability to compete.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth May noted that the Panama deal figured to influence only a minimal amount of trade, then commented on the dangers of investor-state provisions which allow wealthy corporations to dictate government policy. Megan Leslie wondered whether the dealings between Canada and Panama would set up an exploitative relationship. Pat Martin observed that to the extent there is a disparity in influence, Canada's clout should allow it to help to elevate conditions in the smaller country rather than accepting that our employers will have to compete with Panama's wages and living conditions. Mathieu Ravignat noted that some Canadian companies have exploited workers and countries around the world, and that there's no value in defending the indefensible based on misplaced patriotism. Crowder criticized the Cons' secrecy in negotiating free trade agreements generally. Sims proposed a focus on multilateral rather than bilateral trade agreements. And Chris Charlton neatly summed up the Cons' position as "having espoused the principles of...robber barons".

In Brief

The other legislation debated on the day was the Cons' military justice bill. Jack Harris pointed out that the Cons had once again shredded agreements reached between multiple parties in the previous Parliament in order to dictate the terms of the legislation, while Chris Alexander then had the nerve to demand that the NDP approve the unilaterally-dictated legislation without debate. And Raymond Cote raised a concern about summary trials for minor offences resulting in a criminal record, while the Cons' "dumb on crime" posturing - including a refusal to distinguish between military and civilian crimes - apparently took precedence over "support the troops" when it came to their position on the rights of military defendants.

Meanwhile, Sean Casey rendered Steven Blaney redundant by anticipating his talking points to try to excuse repeated violations of veterans' privacy. Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe and Wayne Marston both noted that the OECD, the PBO and the Government of Canada's chief actuary had all rejected the Cons' spin that there was any need at all to cut Old Age Security, and asked why the Cons would plunge seniors into poverty by choice. In light of the Cons' plans to push through a pipeline owned by PetroChina, May asked when we could expect a national security test for foreign investment. Joe Comartin's Thursday question nicely framed a few of the bills which hadn't found their way before Parliament for some time. And finally, while Jim Flaherty's budget speech received plenty of attention, his attempt to excuse OAS cuts based on their being "far away" rather than, say, remotely justifiable as a matter of public policy looks to have deserved a bit more.

A Healthy Society - Chapter 1 Discussion

Erin has already excerpted part of Ryan Meili's new book, A Healthy Society. And I'll be providing a brief chapter-by-chapter discussion of A Healthy Society in advance of its formal launch - beginning with this post discussing the book's introduction and first chapter.

In his introduction, Roy Romanow addresses a familiar theme: the need for a better means of measuring social progress than GDP alone, with a reference to the Canadian Index of Wellbeing. And Ryan Meili's first chapter introduces his own central organizing principle focusing on health (consisting of physical, mental and social well-being) - then informing what goes into that standard with a list of the factors which most heavily influence individual health:
In order of impact, the factors that make the biggest difference in people’s health are: 1. income status; 2. education; 3. social support networks; 4. employment and working conditions; 5. early childhood development; 6. physical environment; 7. personal health practices and coping skills; 8. biological and genetic factors; 9. health services; 10. gender; 11. culture; and 12. mass media technology (i.e., television viewing and physical inactivity).
The lesson to be drawn from the list of determinants, and the one that is stressed to students, is that the most important factors that determine people’s health are social, and the most effective solutions are political.
Now, the difference between a narrow focus on economic measures and the need to consider more broadly what we seek to achieve through public policy is one that I've discussed before. But let's compare Meili's list and order of factors to the closest we currently have to an index of overall well-being.

Most of the factors listed by Meili map reasonably well onto the eight indicators contained within the CIW:
Income Status - Living Standards
Education - Education
Social Support Networks - Community Vitality
Employment and Working Conditions - Time Use
Early Childhood Development - Education
Physical Environment - Environment
Personal Health Practices and Coping Skills - Healthy Populations
Biological and Genetic Factors - n/a
Health Services - Healthy Populations
Gender - n/a
Culture - Leisure and Culture
Mass Media Technology - Healthy Populations / Time Use
One CIW factor - that of democratic engagement - isn't reflected in Meili's list. But we might be able to explain that as reflecting societal rather than individual health - such that it makes sense to include it in the CIW even if it doesn't correlate directly with individual determinants.

That said, it's still noteworthy that the equal weight given to different categories within the CIW doesn't seem to fit with the variable importance of the social determinants as contributors toward individual health. And indeed, two high-ranking social determinants (education and early childhood development) are lumped together within a single CIW indicator.

So as my key takeaway from the opening to A Healthy Society, I'll pose a couple of questions for discussion. Can we reconcile the differences (in weight if not in kind) between the social determinants of health referenced by Meili and the measures of well-being within the CIW? And if not, do we need to develop a new metric of societal health to inform our discussion of what we can improve based on Meili's core premise?

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your weekend.

- For much of the relatively recent past, one of the areas of relative consensus in economic theory is that productivity increases would find their way to workers. But Paul Krugman shows that hope to be utterly misplaced:
Where did the productivity go?

The answer is, it’s two-thirds the inequality, stupid. One third of the difference is due to a technical issue involving price indexes. The rest, however, reflects a shift of income from labor to capital and, within that, a shift of labor income to the top and away from the middle.

What this says is that widening inequality makes a huge difference. Income stagnation does not reflect overall economic stagnation; the incomes of typical workers would be 30 or 40 percent higher than they are if inequality hadn’t soared.

Which confirms all the more that we need to work more on redistribution, rather than on the hope that expanding the economic pie through productivity gains will benefit anybody other than those constantly angling for a larger share.

- But of course, the Cons are doing their utmost to make sure as little of the benefit of any economic growth as possible goes to mere workers. And the Star takes them to task on their efforts to push cheap, disposable foreign labour to replace Canadians who might know and act on their employment rights:

Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper assumed power in 2006, the number of foreign temporary workers admitted into Canada has grown by 40 per cent. The temporary worker stream is now larger than the stream of permanent workers intending to set down roots and become citizens.

When Canada introduced its temporary foreign worker program in 2002, the governing Liberals vowed never to adopt the European model route in which “guest workers” are paid less than nationals and treated as second-class residents.

But under Harper, the country is now moving in that direction.

Likewise, Thomas Walkom has this to say:

Employers could solve their labour shortages by offering higher wages or — in the case of skilled trades — by training Canadians to do the job.

But, if government is willing, it’s easier and more profitable to import cheaper, trained labour from abroad.

And this government has shown that it’s willing. It says that if Canadians don’t want to see jobs going to foreigners, they should quit whining and accept lower wages.

Which is why Ottawa’s answer to complaints made about temporary foreign workers is to toughen Employment Insurance rules.

Kenney has warned that unemployed workers who refuse to take low-wage jobs will have their EI benefits cut off. If Canadians agree to work for less, he explains, Ottawa won’t have to bring in as many low-wage outsiders.

All of this is a solution of sorts, I suppose, albeit a 19th century one. But it is a solution that threatens to bring with it the kind of agitation now seen in countries like France, Holland and Greece — where the racist right is on the rise and where far too many workers view immigrants as mortal enemies out to steal their jobs.

- Lawrence Martin asks whether we still live in a democracy - and the answer is rather disturbing. And the Canadian Association of Journalists gives the Cons their due reward for suppressing information.

- Finally, Michael Hollett suggests that anybody hoping for a more progressive and representative government get behind the NDP in order to implement proportional representation. And Brian Topp points out that the Libs' own perpetual appeals to strategic voting - which I'd note represent arguably the lone consistent note in the party's campaigns over the past decade - may end up being the greatest obstacle to their efforts to rebuild.