Saturday, October 20, 2012

Saturday Afternoon Links

Miscellaneous material to end your Saturday.

- Jim Stanford looks in detail at the aftereffects of free trade with the U.S., and finds rather little to cheer:
In sum, the promise that free trade would induce more trade, productivity growth, and higher incomes (following traditional Heckscher-Ohlin mechanisms) is not remotely supported by the aggregate economic data. FTA defenders will critique this argument on many grounds. They say we should compare this data to an unknowable counterfactual (namely, where Canada would be in 2012 without the FTA), rather than to the pre-FTA reality. They will parse detailed sub-sector data to find evidence that productivity grew relatively faster in those industries which experienced larger tariff reduction, compared to other sectors. (Daniel Trefler has done much work in this vein – but it doesn’t negate the fact that overall Canadian productivity has languished.) These arguments do not alter the finding that the FTA has not been associated with more trade, higher productivity, or higher incomes – contrary to the promises made when it was implemented. And hence the promises now being made that more FTAs (with Europe, Korea, India, or the entire Trans-Pacific region) will do just that, must be viewed with disbelief.

So it is not the “free trade deniers” (like myself) that inhabit a fantasy world. No matter how loudly Trade Minister Fast asserts that only an economic illiterate would dare to question the virtues of free trade, it’s his side of the debate that relies on faith, rather than fact.
- Far too many people seem to be treating Paul Wells' piece about the decline of the Libs as an ordinary "rivals crowding the centre" message. But the more significant part of Wells' analysis looks to be this one:
Stephen Harper’s Conservatives reliably depict the Liberals as high-taxing statists who cannot imagine leaving a dollar in your pocket when they could spend it on daycare or a fancy census instead. Intriguingly, (Paul) Adams argues nearly the opposite: that the Liberals’ long-standing “progressive impulses” were “quietly muted in a largely collaborative project” between Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin during the almost nine years Martin served in Chrétien’s cabinet.

The Liberals’ 1993 Red Book included promises to renegotiate NAFTA, to boost immigration levels and to create 50,000 daycare spaces. None was implemented. To Adams (whose book argues, probably in vain, for a Liberal-NDP merger), the result was that the Liberals blew their credibility as defenders of activist government.

“As you stare at the wreckage of what was arguably the most successful party in the history of the democratic world, there are various explanations for its utter demagnetization in 2011,” Adams writes. “Some of them were very long-term. But one of them, surely, must have been its wilful refusal to differentiate its policies from those of the Conservatives.”
- Meanwhile, David Dayen notes that a similar problem has developed among Democrats in the U.S. - and there unlike in Canada, voters haven't enjoyed another option to express their desire for progressive change:
Obama comes at the end of a 30-year cycle of narrowing and narrowing what passes for the liberal agenda. The landscape was so different in the 1970s that Nixon was calling for a guaranteed income. Now when Democrats are really feeling bold, they highlight policies that they are proud to reveal were based on Republican ideas of just a few years earlier, things like the Heritage Foundation’s health care plan or the market-based solution of cap and trade.

I would disagree that liberalism – although that’s probably the wrong phrase – has disappeared. It’s just become hidden beneath a thicket of campaign contributions from wealthy donors. The decline of unions as a political counterweight means that Democrats chase big money, and not surprisingly they respond to big money concerns. Issues like poverty, hunger, and need go unremarked upon on the national stage, even while they remain core concerns at the community level.
(T)he agenda at the upper echelon of the Democratic Party has narrowed over the past 50 years, and it’s not like the safety net is so stable and robust that there’s nothing more to do. In fact, our social safety net is among the tiniest in the industrialized world. But poor people don’t have lobbyists, and that’s how Washington works these days. 
 - While the Cons' enforced mindlessness has continued since Parliament resumed, at least one NDP strategy to challenge the subservience of Con MPs looks to be earning some positive reviews.

- Finally, Dennis Gruending weighs in on the Cons' decision to make Christianity the exclusive religion available to Canadian prisoners.

On fairer shares

I'd take some time to rebut the Leader-Post editorial board's odd claim that the only way to share the proceeds of Saskatchewan's economy is by slashing public revenue through another set of tax giveaways. But instead, I'll simply point to what I wrote not long ago about "off the tax rolls" rhetoric, and note that it applies equally to other policies which can be spun as general tax reductions while having highly regressive effects:
(A)n increase in the basic personal exemption gives as much to a millionaire as to an individual making only the new exemption amount - meaning that such a policy is anything but a targeted measure to help the working poor. And the only people who don't benefit in the slightest are those who already make less than the current personal exemption amount.

At the same time, the revenue cut by reducing taxes only on those above the current personal exemption also reduces a government's fiscal capacity to help the citizens who need it most. In other words, even the initial policies that result in lower-end earners paying no income taxes might prove regressive in their application.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Tim Harper slams the Cons for yet another omnibus abuse of parliamentary democracy:
Stephen Harper didn’t invent prorogation and omnibus legislation, but he has made two arcane polysyllabic political terms part of our everyday lexicon, improving our vocabulary but diminishing our democracy.
His shut-it-down and take-it-or-leave-it approach to procedure and legislation has gone viral, with the Ontario legislature now sitting dark, prorogued by Dalton McGuinty.
This is the second chapter of a very cynical story by the Harper government, NDP House leader Nathan Cullen said, but it’s not clear whether the opposition response will be different in chapter two.
The last omnibus budget bill began the process of gutting environmental regulations and this one takes the process another step further.
Whether these changes are good or bad isn’t the point. The point is that they cannot be properly scrutinized by the people sent to this place to hold a government to account.
New Democrats, with their opposition partners, went as far as they could in opposition last spring, given the reality of a majority government.
The Conservatives have clearly determined that a lost night’s sleep in the Commons is an easy price to pay for passing legislation their way, and the opposition may have to look for another way to engage Canadians this time around.
 - Meanwhile, plenty of journalists are rightly testing Jim Flaherty's nonsensical claim that brand-new attacks on environmental laws were somehow included in a March budget that mentioned nothing of the sort.

- Lest there be any doubt, there's every reason to criticize the McGuinty Libs for treating the Harper Cons' anti-democratic cynicism as the new normal. And both Thomas Walkom and Andrew Coyne duly blast McGuinty and the general degradation of parliamentary democracy as a result.

- No, we shouldn't be the least bit surprised that the Cons' strategy of treating everything as an opportunity for partisan gain includes foreign election monitoring.

- Finally, Josh Mandryk criticizes the Cons' attacks on unions and workers - and points out the privacy implications of the Cons' attempt to silence political countermovements:
Far from atypical, (C-377) is but the latest instance in a well-documented pattern of the Conservative government lashing out against groups seen as standing in its way.

Worse than the character assassination of former Opposition leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff has been the systematic attack on its opponents in civil society. From slashing funding to women’s groups, to suppressing dissenters in the federal bureaucracy, to attacking environmental charities as “foreign-funded radicals,” this government has shown an unprecedented willingness to come down on groups who either actively or passively oppose its agenda.

And now they’ve come for the trade unionists.
Two examples help illustrate just how invasive the bill is.

First, suppose you pass away while an active union member and your spouse receives a death benefit from your union’s pension plan. Bill C-377 would require your spouse’s name and address to be posted online, along with an explanation that he/she has received a sizeable payment as a result of your passing.

Or suppose you have a disability or require medication for a serious illness not covered by your province’s health-care plan. If you receive more than $5,000 in benefits from your union’s plan, your name and address, along with an explanation of why you’ve received that money, would be published online for your family, friends and employer to see.
By demanding carte blanche financial disclosure with little justification, Hiebert appears to be swinging aimlessly in hopes of finding dirt on the labour movement.

Unfortunately, he and the rest of the world will have to dig through personal information about millions of Canadians before they find it.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Musical interlude

Dirty Vegas - Little White Doves

On grassroots input

Saskatchewan's NDP has released a report on its labour and employment consultations. And between the 700 participants and the report's drafters, there are plenty of noteworthy suggestions and recommendations worth discussing.

Let's start with a few of the more detailed points.

On process, a couple of observations about the Sask Party's comparative consultation:
- People who do not belong to unions felt the government's approach excluded public comment by non-unionized workers, as they do not have formal representation.
- One speaker compared the limited time frame to a much broader timeframe for other public policy consultations, including the government's six-month consultation on reviewing the system for branding cattle.
 The latter point of course offers a specific point of reference as to how little interest the Sask Party has in listening to workers affected by changes to employment and labour law. But it's the former that may be more significant: even as the Wall government seeks to kneecap unions, it's also highlighting the need for organized labour by making it difficult for workers to have any voice on their own.
 - Sick time and vacation time should be standard for all workers, rather than solely for those with a collective agreement.
Lest there be any doubt, the Labour Standards Act does provide for vacation time, along with several different types of leave. But sick leave isn't included on the list - and there's plenty of merit to considering it among the benefits all workers should enjoy.
- The potential for school division employees to be given the same province-wide bargaining rights as teachers was raised. Employees including custodians and educational support staff are laid off during summer breaks and need the same protections as teachers.
Now, it may be noted that under the Education Act, 1995, teachers' collective bargaining is split between provincial and local matters under current law. But it's well worth pointing out that the provincial component is that related to salary and benefits - and with the Wall government having taken on unilateral authority to determine how Saskatchewan's education system will be funded, it makes sense to bargain the distribution of that funding at a provincial level as well.
- Several speakers called for a living wage, where the minimum wage is set based on what it would take to raise a family in dignity. They argued it would have a ripple effect for higher wages for all low-wage workers who make just above the minimum wage.
Which looks to nicely signal that the Sask Party's reactive changes to the minimum wage level leaves plenty of distance yet to go in ensuring sufficient wages for Saskatchewan workers.
- Allowing some workers the option of opting-out of paying union dues, as was suggested by the government's discussion paper, struck many speakers as unfair. They said the fairness of representation for all includes everyone paying their dues just as people pay their taxes for fair and equal treatment for government services.
Of course, Wall and his ilk might well agree with the comparison precisely for the purpose of attacking unions and public services alike. But it makes sense to compare the two and defend both, rather than allowing a message primarily directed against unions for now to undercut the basis for functional government in the longer term.

Which leads nicely to the more general themes within the NDP's recommendations. And aside from a brief note on the first one below, I can't say more other than that these concerns should be front and centre when the Sask Party unveils the legislation it's kept hidden since the beginning of its process:

The Sask. Party government should, in its new public consultation, emphasize a balance in workplace rights between workers and employers. [Ed. note - Though I would suggest that the balance has to include some recognition that the employer is inherently in a position of power, such that policy should be aimed at leveling the playing field rather than retreating from it.] If a policy is deemed to upset the balance, it should be scrapped.

The Sask. Party government should not be considering in its review the principles of the 40-hour work week, standard eight-hour work day, three-week vacation leave, and standard province-wide statutory holidays. There is a broad consensus in the province that these standards work for Saskatchewan.

The people of Saskatchewan believe current labour legislation is strong, fair and balanced. The Sask. Party government should work to educate the public about workplace rights so that more people understand the progress Saskatchewan has made to develop this balance over the past hundred years. 
Taken together, those recommendations pose an important challenge to Wall to either explain why any changes serve a purpose beyond merely giving corporate funders what they want, or stick with a system which by its own account is producing plenty of positive results. And I'll be rather curious to see how the Sask Party chooses to respond.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Friday reading.

- In writing recently about employer efforts to intimidate workers into backing corporate-friendly candidates, I figured that the best examples we'd see would come from individual corporate magnates - as the candidates themselves would surely be smart enough not to state publicly that they support having employers dictate their employees' votes. But Mitt Romney has proven me wrong.

- Meanwhile, pogge rightly questions the reality-challenged spin about "union bosses" somehow exercising any power beyond that which workers have democratically voted to authorize. And Timothy Noah comments on the need to start reinforcing the labour movement in order to encourage greater equality.

- Which leads nicely to Miles Corak's discussion of new research as to what kind of policy will best serve to rein in inequality (rather than exacerbating it as the Cons' tax baubles have done consistently since they took power):
Just as interesting are Prof. Veall’s views on the policy implications. He suggests that there is probably not much scope to raise marginal tax rates on the very rich, but favours a broadening of the base:

“… my review of research on tax responsiveness in Canada leads me to believe that ... there is some risk that increases in the top marginal tax rates might raise little or no revenue. If the goal is to increase taxes on those with high incomes, I would argue that the immediate priority should instead be broadening the personal income tax base, particularly eliminating tax preferences that are likely to be taken advantage of by the upper end of the income distribution.”

The preferential treatment of different types of capital income is one of his concerns.
- Plenty of others have pointed with approval to Andrew Coyne's column on the respective merits of institutional and reputational power in Canada. But to me, the most important takeaway is that the prospect that the same respect for principle which gives our independent officers some enduring moral authority can apply in the political sphere as well:
What is interesting is what happens when power collides with principle: when the pack confronts, not another pack, but a determined individual of conscience. Nothing has prepared the pack for this. Faced with someone they cannot frighten, and who does not want anything from them, they are bewildered. All of their normal tactics and approaches are suddenly useless. All of their power turns to dust.
As cynical as we may be about our politicians, there is something ingrained in Canadians that honours the individual who will not “be reasonable,” will not “go along,” will not accept that “this is how it has always been done.” That isn’t true everywhere, but it is here. When the call to conscience comes, it finds an echo. But the reason we know what it sounds like is because we have had examples — because of those individuals in our past who have been willing to stand up, alone if necessary, against the power of the pack. 
- Finally, RPIRG has released a report card on social and environmental issues among Regina's mayoral candidates. Insightrix' poll gives us a strong indication which three candidates have a plausible chance of winning. And taken together, the two seem to point to a rather clear choice for Regina's voters.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Annie Lowrey reports on the evidence showing that the perpetually-increasing inequality pitched by the right as an economic plan actually serves to damage economic development:
The yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots — and the political questions that gap has raised about the plight of the middle class — has given rise to anti-Wall Street sentiment and animated the presidential campaign. Now, a growing body of economic research suggests that it might mean lower levels of economic growth and slower job creation in the years ahead, as well.

“Growth becomes more fragile” in countries with high levels of inequality like the United States, said Jonathan D. Ostry of the International Monetary Fund, whose research suggests that the widening disparity since the 1980s might shorten the nation’s economic expansions by as much as a third. 
The concentration of income in the hands of the rich might not just mean a more unequal society, economists believe. It might mean less stable economic expansions and sluggish growth.

That is the conclusion drawn by two economists at the fund, Mr. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg. They found that in rich countries and poor, inequality strongly correlated with shorter spells of economic expansion and thus less growth over time.

And inequality seems to have a stronger effect on growth than several other factors, including foreign investment, trade openness, exchange rate competitiveness and the strength of political institutions.
- Campbell Clark documents Jason Kenney's latest jaw-dropping ministerial power grab (which would entitle him to shut anybody out of Canada for purely political reasons and with no accountability whatsoever). And Thomas Walkom discusses the real motivation behind the move to place sole power in the hands of a single minister:
I reckon the real reason for this amendment is not (Terry) Jones at all but (George) Galloway, an engaging — if sometimes infuriating — rapscallion who quit the British Labour Party to found his own and who has long been an ardent supporter of Palestinian rights.

Kenney first tried to bar Galloway for organizing a relief convoy to Gaza, claiming that this constituted support to terrorism. As Mosley noted in his 2010 ruling, that claim wasn’t remotely credible.

A few days after the judgment was handed down, Galloway entered Canada and, as Conservatives gnashed their teeth, went on a triumphant 11-city speaking tour.

Riots did not break out.

The proposed amendment — think of it as the Galloway amendment — would ensure that this never happens again.

Kenney says he wants to consult widely before going ahead. But if he were serious, he would abandon this overly broad approach completely and seek much more circumscribed power instead.
That he is not doing so says volumes.
- Don Lenihan discusses what it means to be a progressive:
For the last two centuries, (progressivism) has been defined by the tension between freedom and equality. While the Right focused on protecting individual freedoms, the Left struggled to balance liberty and equality. As we move into this third stage, a new governance dimension is emerging that cuts across the old Left-Right spectrum. It is defined by the tension between top-down and bottom-up governance, as follows:
We can conclude by saying that, in this third stage, the most progressive governments, organizations and people will be those whose centre of gravity is somewhere in the bottom, left-hand quadrant of the diagram. They are the ones seeking to engage communities of all sorts–geographcial (sic), linguistic, cultural and communities-of-interest–in order to leverage the social captial (sic) within them.
- Finally, Rick Mercer rants about the Cons' continued ad spending. (And the point most worth emphasizing is that the ads are now promoting nothing at all, as any "plan" referred to in the first waves of ads ended years ago to be replaced by a do-nothing government.)

New column day

Here, following up on this blog post as to how we should expect a huge increase in Regina's municipal election turnout both for the sake of good governance, and for the sake of the City's legitimacy.

Again, Simon Schuster's report on the regional vote in Novgorod is here. And Vanessa Brown's report on Regina voter turnout is here.

Leadership 2013 Roundup

One might have thought that the final days of municipal elections around the province would make for a relatively quiet stretch in the Saskatchewan NDP leadership campaign. But instead, it looks like most of the campaigns are neatly using greater public awareness of politics generally to build interest in the leadership race.

- In addition to calling out the Sask Party for backing the Cons' attacks on the health of immigrants, Ryan Meili offered up his answers to Scott Stelmaschuk's questionnaire - featuring this on where he sees the most room for improvement within the NDP:
What do you plan to change about Saskatchewan’s NDP? And what do you plan to keep the same?

The fundamental principles of the CCF/NDP movement don't need to change. What does need to change is the degree to which we are connected to the social movements that built the party in the first place and sustained it through its most productive periods. What needs to change is the amount of real democratic influence that members have on the party's direction, and the degree to which our actions - both in opposition and in government - reflect those principles.
 - Meanwhile, Cam Broten released his policy on democratic reform within both the legislature and the NDP. Of particular note, the latter plan focuses on permanent policy commissions whose reports could become official party policy upon membership approval - though I'm curious as to whether that will mean members' votes will be limited to accepting a commission's text as written, or whether there's some place for further discussion after a commission reports back.

- Trent Wotherspoon made his first foray into shaping the campaign's policy agenda by releasing his education plan. And while there's plenty of talk of incremental changes, Wotherspoon's broader goals include making education more accessible from early childhood to the post-secondary level.

- And Erin Weir responded to Brad Wall's latest giveaway to the corporate sector, pointing out that a substantial chunk of the foregone revenue from a cut to corporate tax rates will in fact flow directly to Washington rather than actually helping business even under the assumption that lower taxes would result in investment.

- Finally, in addition to having created the questionnaire mentioned above, Scott Stelmaschuk continues to offer loads of noteworthy commentary on the campaign - featuring his updated take on Broten, Meili, Weir and Wotherspoon respectively.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Erika Shaker describes the effect of the "right-to-work" laws so popular among our more regressive politicians:
“Right-to-Work” still remains a dubious—even Orwellian—term, probably because we have a sweatshop-sized vat of research documenting examples of what this scheme has meant for those American jurisdictions that have implemented it. Higher rates of poverty and child mortality; lower per-capita income, life expectancy and standard of living; fewer people covered by health insurance; and significantly lower levels of worker productivity.

Let me say that again. Right-to-Work states experience significantly lower levels of worker productivity (which I guess free market types feel is so totally worth it if it means they can bash a union or two).
- Meanwhile, the Star reports on CEP's approval of a merger with the CAW - along with the new union's more ambitious goals to organize workers outside of normal workplace settings:
Nearly 1,500 delegates to a CEP convention in Quebec City endorsed the merger, paving the way for creation of a new super-union with the financial resources and political clout to tackle the challenges facing the labour movement.

“Today we witnessed history being made. This isn’t just a step forward for the labour movement. It’s a step forward for progressive people in this country,” said Dave Coles, national president of the CEP. “It sends a very clear message, we believe, to the Conservatives and any other political group that thinks that they can attack workers.”

The new union, which would represent 320,000 workers across some 20 industries, aims to aggressively expand its membership, financial resources and political clout. It will also seek mergers with additional unions.

While it still doesn’t have a name or a leadership structure, it does have a vision — to recruit as many people from as many walks of life as possible, including seniors, students and the unemployed.
- And Duncan Cameron weighs in on the merger:
Proponents of the new union know what is going wrong today. As Kennedy put it, neo-liberalism is not working for the 99 per cent. Dave Coles talked about how decency is disappearing and Canadians suffer as big government and big business work together against the interests of working people.

What is going to be tested in the next months is the ability to deliver on the promise that creating a new union, over 300,000 strong, will make things better for its members, and have the kind of impact on the politics of the country that proponents of the merger want to see. 
- Finally, Mark Jarvis discusses how the most important story out of Dalton McGuinty's recent machinations is his willingness to accept Stephen Harper's belief that democratic government is a mere inconvenience to be shut down at will:
Prorogation is not a mechanism designed to afford the current government a political advantage in the exercise of power.

Yet, in recent years we have seen first ministers misuse the power of prorogation to avoid confidence votes, delay reporting by officers of parliament, escape questioning and scrutiny, and side-step accountability for matters of public policy and administration.

This most recent prorogation terminates an ongoing investigation of contempt against one of McGuinty’s ministers  and effectively precludes anticipated motions of contempt against an additional minister and McGuinty himself until a new session of the legislature, when McGuinty will no longer be premier.

This alone renders this prorogation an abuse.
But there is something even more disconcerting afoot.

Across the country prime ministers and premiers are making it clear that they see legislatures – our elected representatives – as an undue burden. Whether as a means of managing legislative impasses or risks of losing confidence or simply to escape scrutiny, first ministers have demonstrated a predilection for simply shutting down the respective legislative assemblies in their jurisdictions.

It is worth examining the premier’s own words in explaining the prorogation. In an email sent to Liberal supporters McGuinty said: “I’ve asked the Lieutenant Governor to prorogue the legislature to allow those discussions with our labour partners and the opposition to occur in an atmosphere that is free of the heightened rancour of politics in the legislature…”

The “rancour” that Premier McGuinty is so dismissive of is an essential dynamic of public accountability within our democratic system, which sees partisan politics – institutionalized adversarialism – as the best means of securing democracy.

On parity

Jason, Scott and Joe Couture have all discussed the first month's financial reports from Saskatchewan's NDP leadership campaign. But I'll add a couple of other points that jump out at me.

First, the fund-raising numbers show just how different this leadership campaign will be compared to the 2009 version.

While the official reports don't seem to be available anymore, I wrote about the numbers just a month away from the last leadership vote. At that time Dwain Lingenfelter held a massive lead, while the other three candidates had raised a little over $42,000 combined - or an average of $14,000 apiece.

So what's different this time around? Only a month into the current campaign,the three trailing candidates have already exceeded the total accumulated by their counterparts at the end of the last one - with six more reporting periods left in the new race.

Meanwhile, the relative parity in the fund-raising numbers is also a brand-new development. Instead of a single front-runner being able to easily outspend the rest of the competition combined, we're now seeing four campaigns with relatively equal resources. And that figures to reduce the role money ultimately plays compared to other factors.

If there is any hint as to what's to come based on the first fund-raising totals, I'd note that Trent Wotherspoon's early show of force (glitzy launch, tour and all) didn't translate into a similar lead in the fund-raising totals. And while Wotherspoon may well have made some connections that will allow him to catch up as the race progresses, it looks tougher to classify him as the favourite if his establishment support isn't leading to any financial advantage.

But the more important story for now looks to be that all of the leadership candidates have enough money flowing in to largely take finances off the table as a distinguishing factor. Which means that we'll have to look for other ways to determine who's pulling ahead as the campaign develops.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Lap cats.

On telling signs

Time reports on how voter turnout was affected by news that Russian elections are purely stage-managed affairs in which the governing party chooses which opponents it sees fit to allow to run:
There was, however, a downside to choosing the uncompetitive scenario. The voter turnout was low in Novgorod — a dismal 36% — because without a real alternative, voters simply saw no point in going to the polls, says Zhukovsky, the co-author of the governor’s strategy.
Needless to say, 36% turnout would look like substantial progress compared to the 25% registered in Regina's last civic election. And hopefully a far wider range of alternatives will help us to leave that sad level of citizen disengagement far behind.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Crawford Kilian talks to Ed Broadbent about the effect of increasing inequality and the prospect of changing course:
On how quickly things could turn around:

"I'd like to see a strategic plan. We can't change overnight after 20 years. We could take a series of measures; B.C., for example, has an affordable housing problem. The Trudeau government brought in a mix of public and private measures for such problems, but it took time. A hike in the minimum wage would help. Currently the federal government sets its wages on provincial levels, instead of setting its own levels. We also see the evidence of other advanced countries: more equality means a more productive economy. Germany, Sweden and Norway all have productivity levels equal to ours or higher."

On the least understood aspect of inequality:

"Inequality is bad for everyone, including the rich. Americans in the top three per cent have health outcomes worse than those in Sweden and the Netherlands. Such negative effects on the whole society aren't understood. With equality, everyone does better. Also, a more equal society benefits middle-class Canadians -- stronger pensions, lower crime rates, fewer teen pregnancies, and so on. The evidence shows the U.S. is way down in social mobility. The poor in equal societies have better chances than they do in the U.S."
- Meanwhile, David Fraser reports on Kirk Englot's work as to how Saskatchewan can reduce poverty - if we choose to make that a public policy priority.

- Toby Sanger notes that part of Dalton McGuinty's legacy will be the choice to hide savings from lower interest rates - with the apparent purpose of taking a larger bite out of Ontario workers than he could possibly justify if it were honest about the province's fiscal situation:
(T)he Ontario government will be able to save an additional $5 billion from lower borrowing costs over the next five years as a result of lower interest rates than they had forecasted in their 2012 budget.  By a surprising coincidence, these savings are almost identical to the amounts that they can be expected to save from their wage freeze legislation.  (Perhaps that’s why these interest savings weren’t acknowledged in their fall Statement.)

These savings are similar to what they expect to save from the two year wage freeze on public sector workers imposed through their Orwellian-sounding Protecting Public Services Act.

This means the Ontario government could reach its deficit targets without imposing these public sector wage freezes, which will dampen wage growth all around and slow down the economy, thereby reducing revenue growth. Even the IMF recently warned governments not to unnecessarily cut spending and impose austerity measures as this is leading to slow economic growth.
- Murray Mandryk rightly tears into Con MP Kelly Block for her publicly-funded anti-immigrant mailout.

- Finally, Sean Tucker and Andrew Stevens point out the inevitable end result if one accepts the Cons' spin as to why unions should be forced to make their membership matters the subject of public scrutiny:
Bill C-377, An Act to Amend the Income Tax Act (labour organizations), if passed, would require unions to publically disclose an unprecedented amount of financial and other information about their activities on the Canadian Revenue Agency’s website. Not surprisingly C-377 is opposed by organized labour who see it as principally anti-union. However, in the face of such criticism, the bill’s sponsor has argued that “If there is an ideology, it is based on the principle that organizations that receive public benefits should be accountable to disclose how they use those benefits.” According to Heibert, the primary public benefit enjoyed by unions is that their members can deduct dues from their personal income, thus depriving the public treasury of over $400 million of dollars in lost revenue.

Mr. Heibert’s public benefit argument is problematic for several reasons. Many businesses receive substantial direct and indirect benefits through the Income Tax Act and other federal government programs but disclose little or no information to the public. If Hiebert’s chief motivation is to ensure the financial accountability of organizations that benefit from taxpayer supported initiatives, why restrict C-377 to trade unions? Why not extend this transparency model to private businesses and professional associations? An MP inspired by accountability, and not an anti-union animus, should settle for nothing less.

Imagine a medium-sized engineering firm that receives any of the following federal government benefits: $5,000 to subsidize the salaries of post-secondary graduates under the federal Youth Employment Program, $35,000 for eligible research and development activities under the Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) Tax Incentive Program, or $50,000 under the Canadian Innovation Commercialization Program. These are all part of the government’s Economic Action Plan. The business equivalent of Heibert’s law would require this firm to publicly disclose senior management salaries and all transactions over $5,000, with both the payer and payee being identified. But, the extent of accountability would reach even further under Hiebert’s bill.

Though C-377 references the level of financial transparency required of registered charities as a model, the bill demands far more information. For example, the government would define and require reporting on over a dozen categories of business-related activities and require senior managers to report on all political and lobbying activities. The costs associated with reporting, of course, would be borne by the business and non-compliance would result in a fine of $1,000 per day. And, because the scope of disclosure mandated by C-377 is not proportional to the size of the public benefit, all businesses would be treated equally. All of this would be taking place as business associations are lobbying for fewer government regulations.

On end goals

Since the Regina Chamber of Commerce apparently isn't too fond of having its own words pointed out publicly, I'll offer a quick refresher as to how its statements about its desire to shut down workers' political activity compare to its sad claim to free speech.

Again, here are two separate questions and answers from the Chamber's submission on labour legislation. First up...
Are trade unions sufficiently accountable?

No, the issue is that unions will on many occasions support causes or political parties that do not reflect some of the membership.
Now, I'll first note that the answer doesn't particularly reflect the question. (Which, as we'll see, makes for a rather important common thread.) But if we assume there is a relationship between the two themes, it only makes sense if one takes the position that an organization is insufficiently accountable if it may "support causes or political parties that do not reflect some of the membership".

And by all indications, the Chamber has no interest in meeting that standard for itself - both based on its electoral boundary submission as noted in comments to my previous post, and its "if they don't like it, they can leave" position made explicit in today's letter.

That leads to the second question and answer which by all accounts puts the Chamber's desire to attack workers in its full context:
Should union members be able to stipulate what their dues are used for?

Yes, this would stop unions from being quasi political entities and force them to represent the interest of the workers they represent.
Once again, there's an obvious gap between the question and the answer - and one which gives the game away for the Chamber.

The question is indeed aimed at directed dues, where individual union members - unlike individual members of any other collective body, the Chamber included - would be entitled to set limits on how contributions would be used. And by implication, a union wouldn't be stopped from political participation except to the extent individual members' choices so dictate.

But that's not enough for the Chamber. Instead, it goes a step further by answering that there should be some separate intention to "stop unions from being quasi political entities" - suggesting that contrary to the newest spin, the Chamber wants to make sure that unions can't carry out effective action no matter how many members support it.

At best, one might argue that the Chamber's answer merely assumes that not a single union member would accept having dues used for political purposes. From that assumption, its unprompted comment on completely silencing the labour movement would merely be a direct consequence of the stipulated dues policy.

But I wonder how much that constitutes projection on its own part. Again, the Chamber's members don't seem to be receiving much chance to offer contrary views before having dues used for its own misleading ad campaign - and the next hint the Chamber sees any problem with that will be the first.

Either way, it's the Chamber that's somewhere between unconcerned and downright giddy at the prospect that changes to labour law might stop unions from having any political involvement. And the more the Chamber tries to silence unions in the name of free speech, the more reason its members will have to wonder just what it is that they're funding.

[Edit: fixed wording.]

Monday, October 15, 2012

On self-destruction

I'm sure we'll eventually learn more about the reasons why Dalton McGuinty decided to jump ship. But it's worth pointing out how his move looks to completely undercut his own party.

After all, Ontario's Libs have spent nearly a decade branding McGuinty as the dull but reliable Premier Dad - and followed up on that by echoing the Harper Cons' rhetoric about stability. Which makes McGuinty's abrupt and not-particularly-well-explained departure an especially striking development.

Now, the Ontario Libs will have to set up a leadership campaign and debate what exactly they stand for as a party before choosing a new leader. And all this in a minority legislature (and a time when the Libs were already falling behind two opposition parties in the polls).

Which is to say that having already gone out of his way to lose the confidence of the labour movement, McGuinty has effectively trashed the message which helped his party cling to power last year. And that means that whoever succeeds McGuinty shouldn't count on staying in office for long.

[Edit: fixed wording.]

Monday Morning 'Rider Blogging

No, the most important factor in the Saskatchewan Roughriders' loss to Edmonton shouldn't come as much surprise.

As I noted last week, the Eskimos are one of a few CFL teams plainly built around a model of forcing and capitalizing on turnovers. And on Saturday, the 'Riders obliged by handing Edmonton the ball in scoring position in many different ways: four times Edmonton was able to start drives inside the Saskatchewan 40, and the 17 points scored on those possessions matched the final margin of victory.

But more worrisome for the 'Riders was the fact that some of their usual strengths were nowhere to be found.

Saskatchewan's recent winning streak had been based largely on controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. But against Edmonton, that advantage disappeared.

While the 'Riders ended up with reasonable counting statistics both on the ground and through the air, their offence did little to control the line or the ball until the latter part of the third quarter.

Meanwhile, the Eskimos' offensive line was able to clear space for Hugh Charles seemingly at will - even when the Esks went into in prevent mode in the fourth quarter.

And the 'Riders' pass defence also wasn't up to its usual standard of performance. Yes, a couple of questionable pass interference penalties helped the Eskimos out at key junctures. But the Esks managed to move the ball through the air with relatively little trouble even without taking those calls into account - ensuring the 'Riders had few opportunities to make up the ground they gave away early.

And as for the special teams which have been a strength through most of the season...well, I'll simply say they were nothing of the sort against Edmonton.

Unfortunately, Saturday's loss makes a home playoff game into a remote possibility at best for the 'Riders. Which means that in order to get anywhere in the postseason, Saskatchewan will need to figure out how to do in the playoffs what it couldn't do this weekend: win tough games on the road while at a disadvantage in preparation time.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Barrie McKenna discusses the cost of public-private partnerships:
Disturbing new research highlights some serious flaws in how governments tally the benefits of public-private partnerships versus conventional projects. Too little is known about how these contracts work, who benefits and who pays.

This week, public-private partnerships will take centre stage when the House of Commons operations committee resumes a series of hearings on P3s, stacked with witnesses who like them.

A P3 works essentially like leasing a car or TV, rather than paying cash up front. At the end of the day, governments pay substantially more, but if something goes wrong, someone else is responsible.
Based on a new study of 28 Ontario P3 projects worth more than $7-billion, University of Toronto assistant professor Matti Siemiatycki and researcher Naeem Farooqi found that public-private partnerships cost an average of 16 per cent more than conventional tendered contracts. That’s mainly because private borrowers typically pay higher interest rates than governments. Transaction costs for lawyers and consultants also add about 3 per cent to the final bill.
Without putting a fair price on risk, taxpayers will never know whether P3s are any cheaper than building things the conventional way.

Set the value too high, and P3s become vehicles for governments to subsidize inflated profits of powerful and well-connected contractors and financial institutions.

Notwithstanding these red flags, Ottawa and the provinces continue to embrace the public-private model. P3 Canada Inc., Ottawa’s $1.24-billion P3 fund, has sunk more than $300-million into various projects since the summer, including a GO Transit maintenance yard in Whitby, Ont., an airport in Iqaluit and Edmonton’s ring-road. This week’s hearings are likely aimed at building a case for spending even more in the next budget.

Lost in the fog is the real risk that current and future taxpayers are paying way too much for vital public infrastructure.
And even McKenna's concerns miss another obvious weakness in nominally transferring risk to a private party.

It's well and good to say that a third party is responsible for completing a project, but that party may well see it as efficient to breach the contract if costs prove higher than expected. Which means that while P3s add to the price tag up front and provide a ready source of privatized profits if everything goes as planned, they don't guarantee for a second that the public won't be on the hook to complete a project.

- Meanwhile, False Positive rightly rebuts the dubious claim that the failure to outlaw for-profit health care in the Canada Health Act somehow serves as reason to prefer private to public delivery.

- Following up on last week's column, we shouldn't be too surprised to learn that the Koch brothers are pushing the boundaries in eliminating employees' civil rights - not only through forced indoctrination and speech suppression, but also through more straightforward abuses such as kidnapping. But I'm sure it's all in the interest of limiting the heavy hand of the state.

- Finally, pogge offers up the right answer as to how regulators should deal with businesses who play games rather than showing any willingness to consider public health and safety.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sunday Afternoon Links

Assorted material to end your weekend.

- Chrystia Freeland comments on the self-destructive nature of elite protectionism:
(E)ven as the winner-take-all economy has enriched those at the very top, their tax burden has lightened. Tolerance for high executive compensation has increased, even as the legal powers of unions have been weakened and an intellectual case against them has been relentlessly advanced by plutocrat-financed think tanks. In the 1950s, the marginal income tax rate for those at the top of the distribution soared above 90 percent, a figure that today makes even Democrats flinch. Meanwhile, of the 400 richest taxpayers in 2009, 6 paid no federal income tax at all, and 27 paid 10 percent or less. None paid more than 35 percent.

Historically, the United States has enjoyed higher social mobility than Europe, and both left and right have identified this economic openness as an essential source of the nation’s economic vigor. But several recent studies have shown that in America today it is harder to escape the social class of your birth than it is in Europe. The Canadian economist Miles Corak has found that as income inequality increases, social mobility falls — a phenomenon Alan B. Krueger, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, has called the Great Gatsby Curve. 
America’s Serrata also takes a more explicit form: the tilting of the economic rules in favor of those at the top. The crony capitalism of today’s oligarchs is far subtler than Venice’s. It works in two main ways.

The first is to channel the state’s scarce resources in their own direction. This is the absurdity of Mitt Romney’s comment about the “47 percent” who are “dependent upon government.” The reality is that it is those at the top, particularly the tippy-top, of the economic pyramid who have been most effective at capturing government support — and at getting others to pay for it. 
The second manifestation of crony capitalism is more direct: the tax perks, trade protections and government subsidies that companies and sectors secure for themselves. Corporate pork is a truly bipartisan dish: green energy companies and the health insurers have been winners in this administration, as oil and steel companies were under George W. Bush’s. 
- Heather Scoffield reports that the federal government is under no illusion as to what the CETA will mean for prescription drug costs - with Canada's health care system standing to pay billions more every year for needed medications. And Jeremy Laurance discusses another prime example of big pharma seeking to squeeze extra money out of the public - this time Sanofi's pulling and then relaunching the same drug under another name for the purpose of winning new IP protection.

- David Climenhaga suggests the media isn't asking the right questions in reporting on the XL Foods e. coli crisis - in particular when it comes to possible silent partners in XL's business.

- Finally, Trish Hennessy wonders what will happen if the Cons succeed in silencing Canadian charities:
Canadians expect charities to observe the rules, but it is decidedly un-Canadian to jeopardize their charitable status simply because their work reveals weaknesses in government policies. Especially when these very charities are attempting to address the root causes behind major societal problems such as poverty or climate change.

What does it say about our democracy when corporations can devote endless resources lobbying to change policy in their own interest while charities that work on behalf of the public interest risk losing their voice?

Put it another way: What happens to our democracy when the voices of Canada's charitable organizations, the social conscience of this country, go silent?

Leadership 2013 Roundup

There's a common theme to the last few days' developments in the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race. While plenty of the campaigns are doing plenty worth talking about, they may have work to do in making sure interested members understand what's happening.

Perhaps most notably, there's the contrast between Erin Weir's focus as the campaign's resident policy wonk, and the focus of his website.

Weir followed up on his potash royalty policy last week with a similar plan for oil and uranium royalties - again offering a proposal to close loopholes which allow corporations to avoid paying royalties for resources extracted from Saskatchewan. But at least for the moment, you won't find Weir's issues section updated to take either of those policies into account.

In fact, unless you know to look for policy under the "news" section, you may be more likely to stumble onto Weir's blog post trumpeting a minor media gaffe than some of his signature policy ideas.

Similarly, the day before the Cannington NDP's annual general meeting (covered live on Twitter by both Nathaniel Cole and Samantha Twietmeyer and attended by three of the leadership candidates), Cam Broten tweeted a link to his vision statement for rural Saskatchewan. But that single well-timed reminder also makes for a contrast against the updated content of Broten's website - where aside from individual endorsements, very little has been updated or highlighted since his launch.

Finally, Ryan Meili's campaign has an important story to tell about its exercise in citizen participation, and gave it prime front-page real estate - but it's largely burying the lede in the process. Here's the description of Meili's Parking Day event from the front page of his website:

Park-ticipatory Democracy

Parking Day is an “annual worldwide event where artists, designers and citizens transform metered parking spots into temporary public parks.” Saskatoon’s first Park(ing) Day was held recently, on September 21st, 2012, with temporary parks set up by a variety of groups and individuals on Broadway and 20th St W. The majority of the parks and associated activities were between Avenues B and C on 20th and in the gravel parking lot where the Barry Hotel once stood. This block is home to the 220 co-working spaceCollective Coffee and the Ryan Meili leadership campaign headquarters at 229 20th St W
And anybody who doesn't choose to "read more" based on that non-specific description will miss what Meili's campaign actually did for the event - including another noteworthy step in making sure that citizens' ideas are included in the leadership campaign:
The most exciting feature of the park for me, however, was a little white box and a few sheets of paper. We had printed ballots asking people to, rather than select a candidate, write down their idea for how we could build a healthier Saskatchewan. This was a great way to start conversations with people about the political issues of most concern to them.

As ideas were collected, we’d open up the ballot box once in a while to post them to the front windows of the office. By the end of the day there were over 1,000 different ideas posted on topics as varied as housing, city planning, transportation, the arts and nutrition...
Once we had a healthy number of ballots up on the walls, we started handing park visitors coloured sticker dots that they could use to vote for their favourite ideas on the wall. Some of the most popular ideas revolved around building a more bike-, pedestrian- and wheelchair-friendly city; food security; and affordable housing.

You can view the top ten issues here, or the entire list of Park(ing) Day ideas here.
Lest there be any doubt, there are few better problems to have (or easier ones to fix) than for a campaign to have generated worthwhile content which isn't yet as well-promoted as it might be.

But ultimately, each candidate's most important ideas and initiatives should be readily accessible to voters who may not be willing to dig through multiple directories or vague introductions to find them. And that looks like an area where several leadership campaigns have some room for improvement.