Saturday, July 14, 2012

Saturday Afternoon Links

This and that for your weekend reading.

- Dave Coles comments on Brad Wall's attempts to erase a century's worth of gains when it comes to labour rights, but recognizes that we instead have an opportunity to again lead the way toward social progress:
During this moment of relative prosperity in the province, Saskatchewan is perfectly placed to once again lead the way towards greater equality for families, youth, seniors and all members of our communities. Rather than moving backwards, this overhauling of labour legislation should be a moment to advance workers' rights.

How about making Saskatchewan the first province to bring its minimum wage up to the poverty line and to tie it to a cost of living allowance? Or why not make Saskatchewan the first jurisdiction in North America to reduce the work week to 35 hours? Even better, the new labour code should entrench the idea that all workers deserve collective bargaining rights and a say over workplace decisions?

Short-sighted people will say "this can't be done, business won't survive". But, those same people argued that universal health coverage wasn't feasible. On the fiftieth anniversary of Medicare, Canadians across the country are thanking Saskatchewan for proving otherwise.
- Meanwhile, Bruce Johnstone points out the utility sector as another area where Saskatchewan's commitment to functional public services rather than blind faith in markets has paid off handsomely compared to chaos faced by Alberta:
Saskatchewan energy prices are competitive with, or lower than, those in Alberta. What about security of supply?

You may have heard about the rolling blackouts that hit Alberta last week. Four coal-burning power plants went down without warning last Monday, and backup natural gas-fired generation wasn't sufficient to make up the difference. With a fifth coal plant already out of commission, the province was caught 1,200 megawatts short, causing power outages in Calgary and Edmonton.

This is the second major supply shortfall to hit the province in last 10 years, which is two too many for most Albertans. Meanwhile, Saskatchewan has been coping with its usual spate of local power outages due to storm damage, but nothing like the rolling blackouts that Alberta had to implement to prevent the entire power grid from crashing.
This is not to say that our more regulated energy system is perfect, But when you look like the track record of our energy Crowns, SaskPower and SaskEnergy , they've been able to provide more reliable service at relatively low cost compared with our bigger, wealthier, deregulated sister province to the west.
- The Canadian Press and Dr. Dawg both discuss Carleton University's willingness to trade off any semblance of academic freedom to an oil magnate in exchange for a multi-million donation.

- Finally, I generally see Elections Canada as deserving the benefit of the doubt when it comes to its choices in how to enforce the law. But as Saskboy notes, the sheer absurdity of its refusing to enforce rules against foreign electoral interference because the perpetrators aren't in Canada to be investigated looks like a rather worrisome sign.

On default positions

Dan Ariely comments on how the normalization of cheating can produce a cascading effect:
The consequences of this sort of cheating are even more severe when the network of contagion is larger. We see this when we look at Greece, where masses of people have been cheating a little bit everywhere, and it’s all added up. What this shows is just how contagious dishonesty can be. When we see somebody else cheat, especially if they’re part of our own, internal group, all of a sudden we figure out that it’s more acceptable to act this way. It’s not that the probability of our getting caught has changed – it’s that we’ve changed our mindset, convincing ourselves that the act itself is actually OK. At some point, you just think, “This is the way things are done,” and you go with the flow.

One woman from Greece recently told me that she was selling her apartment and she was considering whether to sell it legally (and pay taxes) or illegally (without paying taxes). She quickly realized that she had bought it illegally, and that she would lose money if she turned around and sold it legally – not to mention that, in her mind, she would be the only person in Greece paying taxes on real-estate property.

When everyone around you is cheating the system, what’s your motivation to be the one not playing along? 
And on what's surely an entirely unrelated note, Andrew Hepburn reports on how prize fixing may be par for the course in the financial sector:
Barclays attempted to manipulate LIBOR both to give a false impression of the bank’s health and also to benefit its trading positions. It did not do so alone: traders coordinated their activities with other banks to ensure successful manipulations. For example, let’s say Barclays had accumulated bets that interest rates would rise. Submitting artificially high estimates of how much it cost the bank to borrow funds would tend to push the published LIBOR rate higher, thus benefitting its trading positions. To do so, however, it would need to collude with other banks, because the highest and lowest submissions are automatically excluded in the calculation of LIBOR.
The truth is, though, that price-fixers are less likely to be caught or punished severely in the financial industry.

Admittedly, authorities across the developed world have become quite adept at spotting and cracking down on manipulation and cartel behaviour in a number of other areas. In the U.S., for example, anti-trust laws provide significant civil and criminal penalties for those found guilty of cartel behaviour—and there have been some notable enforcement actions. The same goes for the European Union. As recently as 2010, the European Commission fined 11 airlines almost $1 billion for fixing the price of air cargo.

Yet with the exception of stocks, regulators have made comparatively little headway in combating market manipulation in the world of finance. The U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission, for example, has only successfully prosecuted one case of market manipulation in its entire history (though there have been some cases of–mostly modest–settlements along the way). This, in turn, has contributed to various shenanigans mushrooming across the industry.
And to make matters worse, there's Corporate Knights' analysis as to how Canada's corporate sector treats its legal obligation to pay taxes:
All wasn’t good news. The average percentage of defined benefit pension plans that are funded is down again this year, as is the average percentage of statutory taxes that was paid.

“It’s not surprising,” said Michael Yow, lead analyst with CK Capital, this magazine's sister research division. “Companies are looking for ways to keep cash during more trying economic times, so they’re looking for any possibility to take advantage of any and all tax loopholes.”
All of which would seem to make for about the most unlikely scenario for yet another anti-regulation push telling the public to just trust whatever the corporate sector deems acceptable. And yet, here we are.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Musical interlude

Adam Nickey - Never Gone

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer theorize that we should discuss the economy as a garden rather than a machine:
A well-designed tax system — in which everyone contributes and benefits — ensures that nutrients are circulated widely to fertilize and foster growth. Reducing taxes on the very wealthiest on the idea that they are “job creators” is folly. Jobs are the consequence of an organic feedback loop between consumers and businesses, and it’s the demand from a thriving middle class that truly creates jobs. The problem with today’s severe concentration of wealth, then, isn’t that it’s unfair, though it might be; it’s that it kills middle-class demand. Lasting growth doesn’t trickle down; it emerges from the middle out.

Lastly, consider spending. The word spending means literally “to use up or extinguish value,” and most Americans believe that’s exactly what government does with their tax dollars. But government spending is not a single-step transaction that burns money as an engine burns fuel; it’s part of a continuous feedback loop that circulates money. Government no more spends our money than a garden spends water or a body spends blood. To spend tax dollars on education and health is to circulate nutrients through the garden.
- Meanwhile, Jim Stanford thoroughly debunks the austerian claim that we can't afford to invest in needed public programs:
(D)ebt service has continued to decline despite the (modest) rebound in debt resulting from the recession.  Debt service costs for all levels of government fell below 4% of GDP since the recession.  How could debt service costs decline, even while the debt burden (modestly) grew?  Because average interest costs have declined.  Like home-owners, governments have been able to refinance their debt to take advantage of today’s ultra-low rates.  (Remember, even fiscally pressed provinces like Ontario can still borrow money today for 10 years at real interest rates not much above zero.)  As older bonds come due and are refinanced, governments reduce their interest costs dramatically.  Those savings have more than offset the incremental debt service costs associated wtih additional debt.  So the claim that rising debt service costs are squeezing out more useful forms of public expenditure (not that conservatives support those programs, either) is empirically false.

Running up public debt for the sake of running up debt makes no sense.   There are costs associated with debt, and limits to how much debt can rise.  But there are benefits associated with debt-financed spending, too.  That includes the productivity of long-lived public capital assets that can be financed with debt (just like companies or households prudently finance long-lived assets, from factory equipment to homes, with debt).  In a demand-constrained macroeconomic context, another benefit of debt-financed spending is the positive spillover effect on overall employment and income that results from that spending (even when it’s on current services rather than public capital).  Based on the preceding graphs, Canadian governments are far from any meaningful constraint on their ability to borrow.  Hence, we should make a rational decision as a country regarding how much new debt is optimal, rather than being dominated by an initial quasi-religious assumption that “all debt is bad.”
- I'll agree with Dan Gardner that at least a few of the recent criticisms of Stephen Harper - such as that based on his Calgary boosterism - take several steps across the line between reasonable concern and excessive contrarianism. And it's a shame that's the type of story receiving attention, since there are still plenty of entirely valid reasons to be genuinely outraged at Harper that remain to be fleshed out.

- Finally, for those with a bit more time on their hands, Steven Shrybman's legal opinion on the effects of CETA (PDF) makes for a rather worrisome read.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

New column day

Here, expanding on a previous blog post as to how the Etobicoke Centre appeal heard by the Supreme Court this week may affect future Canadian elections.

For more, see the coverage from Macleans, Postmedia, the Hill Times and CBC, as well as columns from Susan Delacourt and Adam Goldenberg (who takes opposite view that technicalities should win out).

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Ed Broadbent discusses the connection between unions, democracy and equality:
In democratic societies, there are two principal arenas of non-violent conflict over power: the state and the workplace. Just as political democracy entails the right to select or reject one’s representatives and enables us to pursue, share and exercise power in the real world of free citizens, democracy in the workplace also requires that workers have their own representatives and some real power.
Canada’s stronger unions have helped ensure we have less extremes than in the U.S. (falling wages tend to be limited to the middle-class) and have certainly not undermined our economic performance, comparatively. Even hard-hit Ontario (which has the second lowest unionization rate in Canada after Alberta) has an unemployment rate significantly below the U.S. average.

Don’t believe those politicians and pundits who say unions threaten prosperity. The effort to emasculate unions is about silencing the voice of Canadian workers, and at risk are our hard-won rights – both inside and outside the workplace.
- And David Olive points out some important reasons not to take Canada's economic future for granted.

 - I'm somewhat more skeptical than Michael Harris about the impact of yesterday's pro-evidence protests. But it's certainly worth doing what we can to prove him right in thinking a sea change is afoot.

- After much hemming and hawing, Christy Clark has succumbed to NDP pressure by questioning the impact of a Gateway pipeline on British Columbia. Meanwhile, Andrew Nikiforuk reveals what Enbridge's top executives took away from their Michigan oil spill - with "take the money and run" apparently leading the way.

 - Finally, SOS Crowns wonders whether this week's SaskPower rate hike announcement represents some of the fallout from privatized production.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On definition

Others have weighed in on the NDP's latest set of ads in English...

...and in French:

But it's worth highlighting what most sets the latest ads apart from what we've seen from the opposition parties between elections since the Cons took power.

Contrary to some of the headlines, the ads don't play at all as a response to the Cons' own attacks on Tom Mulcair; instead, they're aimed squarely at opponent definition. And in doing so, they nicely tie together a few easily-digestible and repeated themes (deficits, cuts, economic uncertainty) as affecting viewers directly - serving to thoroughly undercut the "trust us in uncertain times" theme that won the Cons' majority in 2011, while also setting up a contrast with the NDP's track record as a party which balances budgets while valuing social benefits.

Of course, it won't be easy to counteract the Cons' financial advantage in getting the message heard. But at the very least, it's a plus to see a clear statement of distinction with obvious room for further development.

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Sid Ryan rightly criticizes Tim Hudak's anti-labour plans as a push toward poverty rather than prosperity.

- Via Climate Progress, Steven Mufson reports on the causes of Enbridge's Michigan oil spill - with Enbridge's complete failure to repair known defects over a period of five years included among the reasons:
The cost of the spill has reached $800 million and is rising, the NTSB said, making the pipeline rupture the most expensive on-shore oil spill in U.S. history. The pipeline’s contents — heavy crude oil from Canada’s oil sands — have made the spill a closely watched case with implications for other pipelines carrying such crude.

The NTSB also blamed “weak federal regulations” by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for the accident, which spilled at least 843,444 gallons of oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo in Marshall, Mich. The oil spread into a 40-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo and a nearby wetlands area.

The NTSB said Enbridge had noticed cracks as early as 2005 but had failed to repair them.

“This accident is a wake-up call to the industry, the regulator, and the public,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a statement. “Enbridge knew for years that this section of the pipeline was vulnerable yet they didn’t act on that information.” She added that “for the regulator to delegate too much authority to the regulated to assess their own system risks and correct them is tantamount to the fox guarding the hen house.” 
- Which means that B.C. citizens look to have every reason for their reaction to Enbridge's pipeline propaganda (as documented by Vaughn Palmer):
(S)uddenly, amid the usual flow of advertisements for automobiles, communication services and cold drinks, there was one of those Enbridge spots touting the Northern Gateway as “more than a pipeline, it’s a path to the future.”

Sparkling colours. Relentlessly cheery. Nice production values, as one would expect with a campaign priced in the millions of dollars.

But here’s the thing: The audience actually booed the pro-pipeline pitch and did so with considerable enthusiasm.

How often that has been happening in movie theatres, I have no idea. But I was struck by the thought of Enbridge launching a campaign to — in the words of a company representative — “help British Columbians understand what the project is all about” only to have its best efforts greeted by a chorus of boos.
- Finally, Heather Mallick offers up an appropriate level of thanks to Jason Kenney for his attacks on refugees.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Nuzzling cats.

Why now

Of all the possible answers to the suggestion of a guaranteed annual income, I for one didn't see "how can you speak of such a thing at a time like this?" as a particularly likely one. But since it seems to be the stock response, let's point out just how little sense it makes.

Sure, we may have come to see as an iron law of politics that policy proceeds in two phases. Step 1, business blowhards and their right-wing cronies inflate easily-foreseeable bubbles for nobody's benefit but their own; step 2, progressives clean up the mess in the public interest just in time to set up the next spell of irrational exuberance.

But just because that sad story has played out repeatedly doesn't mean it's inevitable. And now is exactly the time to ask whether we should respond to a boom by extracting as much as possible for the benefit of foreign owners, or whether we can put the resources we enjoy to better use.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Barbara Yaffe discusses Thomas Mulcair's strong start in winning over B.C. voters. And Martin Regg Cohn notes that Stephen Harper is starting to face some real (and needed) pressure from Darrell Dexter and other premiers to start actually talking to the provinces, rather than retreating from shared responsibilities.

- Sure, we should pay attention when public resources are used to make sales pitches for corporate interests. But what's most noteworthy about Jason Fekete's report on the Cons' CETA PR push is the point they didn't even both to answer:
Parliamentarians have been warned by some groups that signing the free-trade agreement could cost the country's health system an extra $2.8 billion annually in pharmaceutical bills and delay access to cheaper generic drugs, due to CETA provisions on intellectual property.

The talking points provided to MPs didn't refute arguments that drug costs would rise, but the politicians were encouraged to say the government "has always sought to strike a balance between promoting innovation and job creation and ensuring that Canadians continue to have access to the affordable drugs they need."
So alongside the "economy or environment" dichotomy the Cons have worked to build, they're also of the view that "economy or health care" is also an either-or choice. And they're entirely happy to throw health care under the bus as their idea of balance.

- Meanwhile, the private prison industry looks more and more to be another destination of handouts from the Cons to the corporate sector.

- Finally, Bob Weber reports that environmentalists and landowners are having to take up the cause of monitoring oil spills for lack of any constructive or honest involvement by any level of government.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Janet Bagnall neatly dissects the Cons' plan for dismantling public services:
The Harper government is nothing if not predictable in how it goes about dismantling a program or service. It starts by denigrating the program and the program’s beneficiaries, and telling Canadians that they’ve been played for fools by the beneficiaries. Once that message has been drilled home, and the government judges that the moment is right and Canadians’ attitudes changed, it proceeds to get rid of the offending program – no matter how impractical, immoral or ultimately costly the exercise might prove to be.
- Dan Leger discusses Gwyn Morgan's efforts to poison Canada's political discourse in service to the Harper Cons.

- Heather Mallick is the latest to weigh in on the Republican-style anti-labour attitude of the Canadian right. And the Globe and Mail does its best Conservadem impression by declaring that teachers' unions should accept massive cuts from a Lib party which is at best pretending to play nice as the price of avoiding Tim Hudak's overt hatred and contempt.

- Finally, Alice takes a look at party spending in the 2011 federal election. And perhaps the most interesting note is that both the Libs (at the national level) and the Bloc (at the riding level) managed to increase their spending over 2008 in a losing battle to hold their previous ground.

Monday Morning 'Rider Blogging

After the 'Riders' win yesterday, it's tempting to stick with the line that ugly wins count the same in the standings. But there was in fact some noteworthy strategy involved in the game.

The obvious key for Saskatchewan was a devastating defence on all fronts - and most of the attention has gone to a multi-threat pass rush which kept Edmonton's quarterbacks from using the read-and-react style that suits both of them best by eliminating any time to decide what to do with the ball. But even when a receiver managed to get open initially, the 'Riders' secondary did a superb job of breaking up passes and tackling receivers.

Of course, Edmonton was operating with much the same defence-and-ball control game plan - and executed it well enough to keep the game close until the last two minutes. And that's why the 'Riders' offence and coaching staff deserves more credit than would seem apparent from its yardage and scoring numbers.

Yes, it would have been a plus to see Darian Durant find some more receivers open downfield - especially since the timing that allowed for so many yards after catches in week 1 was lacking in last night's game. And I'm sure we would have seen the offence opened up a bit if the 'Riders hadn't managed to hold a lead even with their offence limited to small gains.

But in a contest where there looked to be much more risk of the Eskimos managing a big play on defence or special teams than on offence, Durant again avoided any turnovers. And he managed the feat despite a higher degree of difficulty than the previous week, as 'Riders' offensive line was largely overmatched.

With the 'Riders conceding absolutely nothing, the few big plays which swung the result consisted of Eskimo turnovers and Kory Sheets' late rushing touchdown which effectively put the game out of reach. And while I wouldn't want to count on that being enough in most games, the 'Riders deserve full credit for converting them into another win.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

On parallel pursuits

Let's follow on the theme of both Thursday's column and the Mound of Sound's post with a closer look at the corporatist "there are no bad jobs" philosophy - which serves as the obvious foundation for constant attacks on wages, unions and workers even if it's been walked back as a direct statement of principle from Jim Flaherty. And for a frame of comparison, let's look at another concept that carries similar significance both in personal fulfillment and in public policy.

Most people will spend the vast majority of their time and effort building two aspects of their life: a career and a family. Both can take countless different forms, including some which may be problematic based on power dynamics which aren't easily addressed through public policy. And both are directly supported by public policy - partly out of political calculation, and partly out of a theory that society as a whole is better off if people are able to engage in them.

So what would we think if a government were to announce that it believes there's no such thing as a bad domestic partnership? And that in its moral judgment, the goal of anybody lacking a spouse through no fault of their own should be to settle for whoever will have them - with government policy then developed toward that end?

My guess is that we'd rightly see such a declaration as even more jaw-droppingly outrageous than the slip of the mask that got Flaherty in trouble. But I'm not sure we should differentiate all that much between the two.

Yes, by and large we should provide conduits for people to seek out careers which contribute to the world around them - just as we provide incentives for family structures. But there are plenty of circumstances which make it desirable for an individual to be able to pursue other options without feeling it's necessary to suffer in order to cling to one's livelihood, whether based on outright abusive employers or a simple lack of any match between the two parties. And we most certainly shouldn't tolerate the power of the state being used as a means to force anybody to accept what they don't want at the expense of their ability to chart a viable course for their future.

Instead, we should be looking to provide supports for the "precariat" who may be particularly vulnerable on both fronts. And anybody who's instead focused in forcing people into what can indeed be bad relationships - whether personal or employment-based - should be been as downright dangerous to meaningful individual choice.

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your weekend.

- In keeping with the theme of my column this week, the Mound of Sound highlights the distinction between a "plutonomy" which serves as the source of easy profits, and a "precariat" which businesses are looking to treat as irrelevant (except when they need a bailout).

- And Ken Georgetti discusses how that distinction fits with the regular attacks on organized labour from the Cons and their provincial cousins: 
The erosion of collective bargaining is linked directly to a growing income gap in our society. Corporate profits are at near or record highs while the wages of Canadians have stagnated for an entire generation. There is a direct relationship between attacks upon unions and a shrinking of the Canadian middle class.

Left to its own devices, free collective bargaining really does work for the common good. Unions have been able to ensure that workers share, at least to some extent, in the corporate profits that they helped create. Unions have been successful in reducing systemic wage gaps in workplaces. Being in a union means better wages for women, workers of colour, aboriginal people and people with disabilities.

The more equal wage structure in unionized workplaces sets wage and benefit standards that spill over into other workplaces. Employees tend to be paid better when they live in communities with unionized workers earning decent wages. Finally, countries with strong labour movements have a larger, more vibrant middle class and achieve greater societal fairness because unions advocate for government policies that benefit all working people, not just their own members.

Our government's heavy-handed interventions in the labour market weaken basic labour rights, and that hurts all middle class Canadians.
- Meanwhile, David Olive points out that austerians are simply exacerbating exactly the problems they claim to want to fix, while also creating longer-term investment deficits that will need to be addressed later.

- Grant Robertson reports on the Cons' willingness to let banks select and fund their own "external complaints bodies", rather than answering to any accountability mechanism anybody whose findings might not be entirely in keeping with the bank's desires.

- Finally, Michael Geist details how CETA is being used to imposed draconian copyright restrictions with little public attention.