Saturday, July 28, 2012

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- David Olive comments on the world food crisis, making the point that what we're lacking is some link between more-than-sufficient productive capacity and the nutritional needs of less wealthy people around the globe:
(A) permanently higher price for oil spurred successful innovation to reduce our reliance on petroleum products in realms outside of transportation and energy, along with a determined effort to find new sources of oil in increasingly remote places.

The global food crisis, by contrast, has not made us think differently about how we produce and use the fruit of the land. We have no national or global strategies for food-security or for nutrition. Speculators have not been reined in with limits on betting. And the powerful ethanol lobby hasn’t been shown the door, even though the production of ethanol consumes more energy than it returns as fuel.

And, conspicuously in the West, too much crop production goes into highly processed food drained of nutrients and fibre, accounting for a North American epidemic in obesity and diabetes.
- So naturally, your friendly neighbourhood wingnuts are focused on demolishing the few mechanisms left to ensure that mere workers have some say in the allocation of resources and the functioning of our economy.

- Michael Harris' latest column discusses how Canada's premiers are looking for the federal government to actually show some national leadership, rather than retreating as far as possible from the services most important to Canadians.

- Finally, Bruce Johnstone sees the proposed Nexen takeover as a litmus test in the application of the "net benefit" standard for foreign takeovers. And Erin Weir notes that whatever benefit Alberta may receive from a head-office promise, Saskatchewan looks to do nothing but lose out if the sale is approved.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Musical interlude

Delerium - Incantation

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Frances Russell comments on how the Harper Cons are ready to impose exactly the kind of centralized and unresponsive decision-making they've long loathed - but only when it comes to favouring Alberta's interests over B.C.'s real environmental concerns. But Michael Harris notes that Harper is entirely likely to see his job as nothing more than serving the interests of the oil patch.

- Meanwhile, Susan Riley confirms that the problem with the Gateway pipeline is indeed one of environmental risk, not Christy Clark's money grab:
(T)he Northern Gateway is not worth the risk, environmentally, or politically.

And, while pipeline boosters enthuse about the schools, hospitals and jobs enhanced oil exports to China will provide, they ignore the social and economic costs of responding to crop failures, water shortages, forest fires and the other baleful consequences of rising global temperatures.

Outside of an increasingly frayed consensus, there are dissenters — notably, federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, the Green party, and B.C.’s NDP opposition, all of whom oppose the Northern Gateway.

As Quebec Premier Jean Charest said at the premiers’ annual gabfest this week, “you cannot disassociate the issues of energy with issues that touch climate change.”

In fact, the environment has to be at the centre of future energy policy — not from virtue, but from necessity. It isn’t about changing their messaging; oil-addicted political leaders have to change course.

If they don’t figure that out soon, with luck, they’ll be gone.
- John Geddes thoroughly reviews the Cons' regressive drug policy, which features massive cuts to already-limited rehabilitation programs in order to pour millions more into criminalization. And David Hutton reports on the sheer lunacy of a Saskatoon methadone program which provides support only after a user is already pregnant or infected with HIV - with Ryan Meili contributing some commentary.

- Finally, Erik Loomis provides two vivid examples of workers fired merely for recognizing problems with their employers in an apparent effort to intimidate others into silence. But there shouldn't be much doubt what happens when workers lack a voice altogether.

On cooperative efforts

The reports on fiscal arrangements and health care developed in the lead up to this weekend's meeting of Canada's premiers have both received some coverage. But there are a couple of points worth noting which seem to have been largely neglected so far.

On the fiscal arrangement side, we now have agreement among the provinces as to the effect of the Cons' unilateral changes to health care. And while those paying attention may have known all along, Table A.10.B. neatly lays out how Alberta is receiving $8.3 billion in new health care funding over 10 years while every other province faces cuts ranging from moderate to massive.

So no, the Cons aren't merely cutting back on promised health-care funding. Instead, they're actively diverting health-care dollars away from areas of need toward the wealthiest province in the country.

Fortunately, the premiers do seem to recognize that there's a problem when dollars dictate who has access to care. And perhaps the most striking part of the health care report is that even while discussing "innovation": (which is so frequently a code word for selling off pieces of our health care system), the provinces seem to have formed a consensus on a need for cooperation rather than allowing beggar-thy-neighbour market forces to dictate the terms of access to health care providers (italics added):
It is recommended that Premiers endorse the following Guiding Principles for Health HUman Resource Management:

a) Share Evidence: Provinces and territories should share health human resource labour market information to support effective decision-making.

b) Seek Innovation: Provinces and territories should share leading practices and work closely together on innovative approaches to managing labour costs and reducing competition.

c) Respect Interdependence: Provinces and territories should recognize that health human resource management decisions made by individual jurisdictions may have an impact on other jurisdictions.

d) Make Informed Decisions: Provinces and territories should explore and act on areas of mutual interest and common approaches to health human resource management.

e) Integrate Planning: Provinces and territories should work together to strive for an appropriate supply of health human resources at the provincial and national levels.
Of course, all of those recommendations would be far more easily put into effect if we had a federal government interested in supporting a functioning health care system. But at the very least, they seem to reflect some acknowledgment that gratuitous competition is a problem rather than a solution when it comes to ensuring access to health care - and the same principle would seem to be no less applicable within smaller health-care jurisdictions.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thursday Evening Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Robyn Allan notes that there's plenty of weakness in Christy Clark's position on the Gateway pipeline. But Barbara Yaffe writes that Clark has little choice but to stick to at least the requests she's made so far - and Vaughn Palmer points out that those alone may be enough to derail the project. And there figures to be little that shadowy committees of oil barons and Alberta and federal politicians can do to change that political reality in British Columbia.

- John Ibbitson and Janyce McGregor both discussed some fascinating Nanos polling on the gap between the issues Canadians consider most important, and those they think governments are actually able to address at the moment. But while the Cons may have cynically exploited the lowest-hanging fruit, there would seem to be a massive opportunity for anybody who can offer more credibility when it comes to health care, jobs and education.

- And a series of stories surrounding the anniversary of Jack Layton's death - along with a public discussion of the values of love, hope and optimism - would seem likely to help guide discussions toward what we can do.

- Finally, there's a noteworthy new source for information about Regina's municipal election candidates - including far more challengers for Council seats than I'd heard about so far.

New column day

Here, on how Regina City Council's attempt to use the same old spin to sell yet another stadium plan (which leaves most of the cost and all of the risk with the city) might be the breaking point for public trust in then current Councillors.

For further reading...

The provincial stadium concept review rejecting an open-air stadium is here, and referred to with approval both in a subsequent feasibility study, and in Pat Fiacco's own pitch to the federal government. And the proposed funding model in the Regina Revitalization Initiative can be compared to the terms the city eventually settled for.

Update: Meanwhile, Pat Atkinson has her own concerns about the debt associated with the funding model. And Maurice Tougas offers some lessons from Edmonton's arena experience.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Zach Carter shines a spotlight on the few types of interests who stand to gain from austerity:
But the austerity game also has winners. Cutting or eliminating government programs that benefit the less advantaged has long been an ideological goal of conservatives. Doing so also generates a tidy windfall for the corporate class, as government services are privatized and savings from austerity pay for tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens.
"Austerity policies are literally a redistribution from the bottom of the income spectrum to the top," said Dorian Warren, a professor of political science at Columbia University and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, an economic policy think tank. "In Wisconsin, both wealthy people and businesses got tax breaks, while middle-class and working-class employees of the state essentially got crushed."

Warren emphasized that there are political dimensions to the austerity push. Efforts to curb collective bargaining rights -- and thus pay and benefits -- for state employees cut to the heart of the American labor movement. With only 7 percent of the private-sector workforce unionized, public-sector unions are a critical component of labor's political influence and an important bloc in Democratic Party operations.

Governments in Europe, most notably the United Kingdom, have also pursued tax cuts for the rich while imposing austerity measures on the working classes. And the European financier class has benefited even more directly than their American counterparts from these budgets.

Every time the European Union has reached a crisis point on the debt carried by Greece or Spain, EU leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have come to the rescue with bailout funds. That money goes to the banks that own Greek and Spanish debt, whose holdings would take a hit if either country were unable to repay. But the bailout comes with harsh austerity requirements intended to encourage budgetary discipline, so it's ordinary citizens who end up taking the hit. The most vulnerable populations are harmed by the bailouts, while the well-paid financial professionals who made the deals to finance Greek and Spanish deficits in the first place continue profiting handsomely.
- Chris Hedges recognizes the need for thoughtful questioning of self-serving "conventional wisdom":
And here is the dilemma we face as a civilization. We march collectively toward self-annihilation. Corporate capitalism, if left unchecked, will kill us. Yet we refuse, because we cannot think and no longer listen to those who do think, to see what is about to happen to us. We have created entertaining mechanisms to obscure and silence the harsh truths, from climate change to the collapse of globalization to our enslavement to corporate power, that will mean our self-destruction. If we can do nothing else we must, even as individuals, nurture the private dialogue and the solitude that make thought possible.
- Erin Weir makes the point that massive potash profits only confirm that Saskatchewan is forfeiting massive amounts of public wealth to the Saskatchewan Party's corporate benefactors. And Tom Shelstad notes that a reasonable royalty regime would provide ample money to fund projects like a Regina stadium up front - rather than requiring the city to take on decades of debt.

- Meanwhile, the Star-Phoenix editorial board is duly skeptical about the Wall government's pretending to listen to cultural industries only after driving them out of the province.

- Finally, I've tended to view Regina's housing crisis as a significant issue demanding a policy response. But apparently I should have known it was nothing more than a charming human interest story all along. (I'm just surprised the featuredidn't end with a down-on-his luck new arrival marrying the campground manager's daughter.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Wingbacked cats.

Tuesday Night 'Rider Blogging

Most of the commentary on last week's loss to Calgary has focused on the converse of the factors that went the Saskatchewan Roughriders' way in their previous game - as about half a dozen key plays all turned the game in the Stamps' favour. But it's worth taking a closer look at how the contest got close enough for those late-game breaks to matter - as it's there, not in the randomness of dropped passes and broken protection schemes, that the 'Riders may have missed their most important opportunity to stay undefeated.

For about 50 minutes, the 'Riders did everything one coud dhave hoped for against a tough division rival. On offence, the 'Riders countered the Stamps' run-stopping by leaning very little on Kory Sheets (aside from one big play). Instead, they built a possession game around Darian Durant's passing on the run - succeeding in avoiding turnovers, and trading off high completion percentages for both points and reliability. Meanwhile on defence, the 'Riders nicely shut down Jon Cornish while keeping the Stamps' passing game in check.

But after they took a 17-point lead, the 'Riders turned down the pressure on Kevin Glenn, allowing the Stamps to move the ball with little resistance. Then, the offence stopped doing what had worked - first going into prevent mode by relying on Sheets to carry the ball every first down, and later (once it was glaringly obvious that the run wasn't going to work) shifting to what was presumably supposed to be a safer short passing game.

An interception later, the 'Riders presumably lost any illusion that they could afford to try to kill the clock. But their efforts to restart their offence fell just short due to drops by Weston Dressler and Chris Getzlaf on potential touchdown throws, as well as two key sacks on Durant.

Of course, we have no way of knowing whether the Stamps might have been able to attack Saskatchewan's defence regardless of what the 'Riders did. And Calgary's success with a fast-paced offence will make for an obvious area where the 'Riders need to improve generally.

But the main takeway from last week's loss looks to be not to abandon what's actually working within a game in favour of conventional wisdom as to how to hold a lead. And that may prove an important lesson as the season progresses and mistakes become more costly.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Stuart Trew comments on the Cons' utterly implausible claims to try to impose the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU without the slightest bit of public scrutiny:
CETA will also most certainly give European firms the power to challenge and even overturn government measures, just as NAFTA gave this right to U.S. and Mexican firms.

Canada very recently lost a NAFTA investment case to Exxon Mobil and Murphy Oil. A three-person arbitration panel decided the province of Newfoundland and Labrador should either get rid of its profit-sharing requirements on offshore oil and gas projects or else compensate the firms for as much as $65 million for the inconvenience. Apparently the measures are an illegal “performance requirement” on the oil firms, one of which was the richest company in the world in 2011.

What chance does any Canadian province have to develop their resources sustainably and to the greatest public benefit when agreements like NAFTA and CETA take away all their policy options?

The most egregious Conservative claim is that CETA has been one of the most “transparent trade negotiations in Canadian history.” Meanwhile the text for the agreement is off limits to the public, and Canadians will have no say in what the deal looks like before it is signed. We know from past experience that Parliament also has little to no authority to make any changes to the text. Efforts at committee by the opposition to amend the Colombia, Peru and Jordan free trade agreements were shot down.

This is the antithesis of transparency. If CETA and agreements like it are supposed to be 21st century or “next-generation” free trade deals, they should be negotiated in 21st century ways — openly, transparently, and with broad public input. Failure to do so in the ACTA negotiations led to that agreement’s demise in the European Parliament. The same fate could easily await CETA on both sides of the Atlantic.
 - But then, it's becoming more and more clear which constituency the Cons are serving while in office - as Geoff Dembicki reports on their efforts to fully coordinate government messaging with the interests of the tar sands.

- Meanwhile, Heather Scoffield reports on how China's planned takeover of Nexen should combine with the handling of a Gateway pipeline which is now being opposed by the province most affected to test the Cons' determination to sell off all they can to oil interests.

- Finally, Kendra Milne makes a compelling case to exempt child support payments from social assistance benefits.

On rubber stamps

There's been plenty of coverage from last night's Regina City Council meeting, with more surely to come. But aside from the complete refusal of any current Council member to respond to the concerns of the delegations who suggested giving citizens some say in a stadium proposal, perhaps the most striking comment is this one:
Audience members groaned with Clipsham (when he) said the city isn't ready for a referendum because "we don't know what we're voting on."
Which raises a rather obvious question: what exactly is there for Council to ram through (and the Premier and Mayor to hold PR stunts about) if we don't know what the plan actually entails? And given that a Council vote is no less binding than a referendum result, wouldn't we expect our elected representatives to actually ferret out some answers before offering their approval?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Joe Stiglitz discusses the link between increased inequality and the U.S.' economic frailty:
Any solution to today's problems requires addressing the economy's underlying weakness: a deficiency in aggregate demand. Firms won't invest if there is no demand for their products. And one of the key reasons for lack of demand is America's level of inequality — the highest in the advanced countries.

Because those at the top spend a much smaller portion of their income than those in the bottom and middle, when money moves from the bottom and middle to the top (as has been happening in America in the last dozen years), demand drops. The best way to promote employment today and sustained economic growth for the future, therefore, is to focus on the underlying problem of inequality. And this better economic performance in turn will generate more tax revenue, improving the country's fiscal position.
Countries with high inequality tend to underinvest in their collective well-being, spending too little on such things as education, technology and infrastructure. The wealthy don't need public schools and parks. That's another reason economies with high inequality grow more slowly. Indeed, the United States has grown much more slowly since the 1980s, while inequality has been growing more rapidly than it did in the decades after World War II, when the country grew together.

Public investments are of particular importance today; they increase demand in the short run and productivity in the medium to long term. Increasing public investment would help make up for continued weakness in the private sector. Investments in training for new jobs could facilitate the economy's structural transformation, helping it move from sectors with declining employment (like manufacturing) to more dynamic sectors. Strengthening education would help restore the American dream and help make the country once again a land of opportunity where the talents of our young people are fully utilized.

The right says that we can achieve greater equality only by belt-tightening. But that vision would result in a slowdown of the economy from which all would suffer. Because so much of America's inequality arises from rent-seeking and other activities that distort the economy, curtailing inequality would actually strengthen the economy. Investing public money in the collective good rather than allowing it to be captured by rent-seekers would enhance growth at the same time it reduced inequality.
- Meanwhile, Dan Leger highlights the desperate need to properly regulate the financial system:
Carney has the option of using his bully pulpit to call for sweeping change in financial regulations. No doubt any attempt at major reform will present enormous political complications because of the global nature of banking. But it must be tackled.

If it isn’t, we’ll just have repeats of the crises now dragging down the world economy.

That’s why this has to go beyond the central bankers and academics and into the political realm. Governments have to put the financiers on account and they have to hit wrongdoers where it hurts, in their fortunes and their freedom.

Beyond that, states that benefit from the global commerce in money, including Canada, must fix what’s wrong. Carney and his peers have that challenge: to lead change that will actually make a difference in the tainted world of global money.
- Karen Howlett and Bill Curry report on a rare example of public outcry changing a politician's mind, as Christy Clark has been forced to stop pushing the Gateway pipeline on a province which is broadly opposed to the risks involved.

- That said, it remains to be seen whether a similar effort can come together in a short time frame in advance of today's Regina City Council meeting. But recent letters to the editor from Mark Cote and Marc Spooner are worth a read.

- Finally, there's a bit of good news on the accuracy-of-news front, as the CRTC has backed off plans to stop regulating the deliberate broadcasting of false news.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to end your weekend.

- Yes, the usual caveats about trying to predict future commodity prices apply. But Stephen Maher's warning about the effect of rising fuel and food prices is still worth keeping in mind:
That shift doesn't mean that North Americans are about to take meaningful steps to reduce the amount of carbon we put in the atmosphere, because politicians know that anything they might do to reduce carbon emission will hit consumers in the pocketbook.

Over the long run, though, if the scientists are right, we will have more extreme weather, food prices will go up and, in a reaction to the changing public mood, politicians will act to cut carbon emissions, which will increase fuel prices that are already being driven up by growing demand in China and the rest of the developing world.
According to Agriculture Canada, food prices have fallen steadily in recent decades - to nine per cent of income in 2005 from 19 per cent in 1961.

The era of inexpensive fuel and food — which drove a glorious, decades-long boom in North America — may be coming to a painful end. Our way of life may not be sustainable without radical changes, particularly to agricultural systems that have been sustaining high yields with ever-increasing inputs of oil, a big contributor to climate change.

There is no guarantee that things will continue as they have been, and every reason to pray for rain.
 - And if nothing else, it seems glaringly clear that our current resource distribution system isn't based on pricing in the costs of effective safety measures - with Enbridge's move to throw half a billion dollars at trying to push through its Gateway pipeline only serving as additional evidence.

- Meanwhile, Peter Whoriskey notes that thanks to the big pharma's efforts to push patent-protected drugs, we're also paying scads of money for prescription drugs which may be of little or no use.

- Finally, Ted Brader answers some myths about campaign advertising, with the following distinction looking particularly important as the NDP and Cons trade critical ads with the next election looming three years in the future:
An ad’s timing matters as much as its content. Spots criticizing an opponent tend to work differently early and late in campaigns. Before people have settled on a candidate, attack ads help them make up their minds. But these same ads depress turnout when seen later by voters who have already chosen which candidate to support.

On failed strategies

Let's follow up with one more point from Bruce Johnstone's attempt to justify ramming through a stadium deal without any serious public input - which speaks less to the stadium project than to the bona fides of the politicians who are pushing it:
Is it perfect? No, because unlike some places, like Texas or Indiana, we don't have rich sugar daddies, like Jerry Jones, who helped bankroll the $1-billion-plus Cowboys Stadium in Dallas or Forrest Lucas of Lucas Oil, who bought the naming rights for Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for $121 million.

Roughriders football fans, Saskatchewan taxpayers, in general, and Regina property taxpayers, in particular, will have to foot the bill for the $278-million project.
Given that we have precious few rich patrons or private companies that want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on sports stadiums, governments are generally on the hook when the time comes to build or renovate sports and recreation facilities.
Now, Johnstone is right in saying that none of the private-sector actors who have been constantly courted by both Pat Fiacco's city administration and Brad Wall's provincial government has shown an iota of interest in contributing the legacy project both have long demanded. But let's question why that's still the case.

By all indications, Saskatchewan's corporate sector has been handed anything it could have possibly asked for and more over the past few years. Wall has offered to pay effectively the entire cost of any resource-sector operator's head office in exchange for the privilege of having it located in Saskatchewan. And Regina (like most municipalities) has then doubled down with additional tax breaks for businesses who deign to operate within city limits.

So we've tied up hundreds of millions of public dollars in trying to offer a sweet enough deal to attract exactly the type of sugar daddy who might be expected to fund projects like the stadium plan. And both Wall and Fiacco appear to have concluded that their efforts are a failure - meaning that we'll be on the hook for hundreds of millions more to make up for the corporate community spirit that hasn't materialized as promised.

Of course, one could argue that the problem is simply one of time - that we'll need to wait for BHP Billiton, Mosaic and others to actually put down roots in Saskatchewan's cities before we can expect them to offer any support for community projects. But it would be downright absurd to push ahead with a new stadium on the public dime now if we can expect there to be genuine private-sector funding (in the sense of contributions, not mere laundering through a P3 structure) in just a few years.

Instead, it seems more likely that Wall and Fiacco have just now reached a conclusion that seemed obvious to some of us from the beginning: that banking on the community spirit of mercenaries is a losing proposition. And if we can't count on big-money benefactors to contribute to even the most jingoistic of social projects, then it's about time to take back the goodies which were supposed to lure them here in the first place.

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- The Guardian reports on the Tax Justice Network's study on offshoring which finds tens of trillions of dollars to have been funneled to tax havens:
Using the BIS's measure of "offshore deposits" – cash held outside the depositor's home country – and scaling it up according to the proportion of their portfolio large investors usually hold in cash, he estimates that between $21tn (£13tn) and $32tn (£20tn) in financial assets has been hidden from the world's tax authorities.

"These estimates reveal a staggering failure," says John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network. "Inequality is much, much worse than official statistics show, but politicians are still relying on trickle-down to transfer wealth to poorer people.

"This new data shows the exact opposite has happened: for three decades extraordinary wealth has been cascading into the offshore accounts of a tiny number of super-rich."

In total, 10 million individuals around the world hold assets offshore, according to Henry's analysis; but almost half of the minimum estimate of $21tn – $9.8tn – is owned by just 92,000 people. And that does not include the non-financial assets – art, yachts, mansions in Kensington – that many of the world's movers and shakers like to use as homes for their immense riches.
- Meanwhile, Travis Waldron catches a major corporation which is currently enjoying a negative tax rate complaining that it pays too much in taxes. All of which suggests it's no accident that the U.S. has finally reached the point where its poverty rates are worse than they were just under 50 years ago.

- There's at least some good news on the local level however: workers at the Regina Public Library finally have a new contract which looks to have avoided the most offensive of the library board's demands.

- Finally, Marni Soupcoff highlights how the Harper Cons' continued Robocon spin is only encouraging Canadians to see them as completely lacking credibility:
(W)hat might have happened if the Conservatives had thrown sound litigation strategy out the window, and decided instead to take the high road? What if their court filings had granted the need for a review of the electoral results to restore the public’s confidence in the electoral process, and argued only that the outcome of the election would not have changed absent the Robocalls?

The optics of the whole thing would be so much better. The party would be saying: “Hey, we understand why voters want to be sure that their elected officials won their seats fairly, and we do too. We have nothing to hide. We will prove to you that the right people are sitting in Ottawa.”

Instead, the Conservatives have now come out on the losing end of a court decision that makes them sound like they think democracy is a bothersome trifle to be brushed aside when it gets in the way.