Saturday, December 22, 2012

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Saturday reading.

- Kate Heartfield worries that the NRA knows exactly what it's doing with its jaw-dropping response to the Newtown shootings - and that it should be all too familiar based on the tactics of the Harper Cons:
It’s ridiculous, but ridiculous works, time and time again. “Elite” no longer means rich and powerful. It means smart. It means anyone who takes the time to look at the evidence and construct a logical argument. Not to be trusted, that. So all academics and journalists are suspect. The only way a journalist can avoid being seen as an elite is to go on the attack against other journalists, to promise, for example, to provide the straight talk that the so-called Media Party doesn’t want you to know.

This works. The Conservative government doesn’t have to construct a fact-based defence of its environmental or crime policies, because it doesn’t matter that they don’t make sense. No conservative (in the ideological, not the partisan sense) really thinks that costly, top-down regulation is the best climate-change strategy, for example. But it doesn’t matter, when it comes to the party’s electoral chances, which is all the party cares about. The policies don’t have to make sense. They just have to come attached to some boilerplate about how ivory-tower academics don’t understand the real world, or how statistics lie.
- Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne buries the lede in an otherwise unremarkable summary of the Cons' policy direction:
(A)t year’s end, it’s still not entirely clear whether the government has learned anything. We may stick with the F-35. We may not. We may go to competitive bids. We may not.
Meanwhile, the robocalls scandal has slowly dragged on, a steady drip of voter complaints, revelations arising from Elections Canada’s continuing investigation, and court testimony. Nothing as yet indicates any senior Tories knew about or colluded in attempts to mislead or harass voters in the last days of the campaign, but neither does it seem plausible that it was all the work of a few overzealous kids. The calls are too many, in too many ridings, with too much sophistication required.

Last, there are the omnibus budget bills, I and II: the point at which the government’s emerging policy ambitions and continuing contempt for Parliamentary democracy converge. I’ve said my fill about these earlier, so I’ll be brief here. When much of the government’s legislative agenda can be pushed through in a single bill, or two; when “debate” on these hydra-headed monstrosities is itself cut short by government fiat; when these arrive on top of the whole long train of abuses to which Parliament has already been subjected, starting under past governments but with conspicuous enthusiasm under the present – then the question for next year, and for years to come, is clear. It is whether we will still live under a Parliamentary system of government, or something else.
 - Michael Wolfson makes the case for a stronger Canada Pension Plan which pairs any age increase in benefit payments with recognition that lower-income seniors need an alternate source of income:
An expansion of the benefit levels of the CPP should be phased in more rapidly, say over 20 to 25 years rather than the 47 years implicit in all the current discussions. In parallel, the age at which full benefits from the CPP would start should rise gradually from 65 to 70. More rapid phase in of benefits, of course, means payroll taxes would have to rise. But a delay in the age when benefits become fully payable would reduce the need for tax increases.

Finally, the long run structure of the Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) portions of Canada’s public pension system should be coordinated with any changes to CPP to assure it is fair to those with lower incomes – a point clearly lost on the Harper government with their most recent cuts to OAS and GIS.

These options open the possibility of a more creative and better pension bargain – more adequate pensions that are also fiscally sustainable. Are Canada’s finance ministers ready to think outside the box?
- Finally, Brad Lavigne's analysis of the NDP under Tom Mulcair focuses almost exclusively on what Andrew Potter would consider the cynical side of the party's interests. But it's well worth noting that the NDP's upcoming policy convention will provide an ideal opportunity to discuss exactly where members actually want to be on that spectrum - and to assess Mulcair's responsiveness to members' concerns.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Musical interlude

Blue Stone - Worlds Apart (Dark Mix)

On alternatives

A couple of polls this week have been used as evidence that the Cons are largely in control of the federal political scene. But I'll argue that while each suggests the limitations of a possible course of action, taken together they point to plenty of reason for hope over the next few years.

Let's start with Ekos' numbers, which suggest a current 32-26-24 three-party race - which is being interpreted by Frank Graves to mean that the Cons are in a strong position due to their relatively stable base and high anticipated turnout. But to my mind, a low, stable support number along with a large but fluid set of opposition votes may prove highly dangerous for the Cons.

After all, the Cons' greatest advantage over the past few years has arguably been their success in identifying a single key opponent who remains somewhat undefined in the public eye, then directing their entire political machine toward annihilating that threat.

But the 2011 election showed that such a strategy has its limits - as a campaign that's too effective in demolishing a primary opponent may allow a secondary one to rise above the fray. And EKOS' numbers look to me to put the Cons in a nearly impossible quandary.

It's far from clear that the Cons' attack machine will work anywhere near as well trying to take down two distinct opponents as it has in focusing on a single threat. But I'm not sure the Cons would have much choice but to try a split strategy if both the NDP and the Libs are within striking distance, as an all-out assault which succeeds in cutting into one opponent would figure to free up second-choice votes to move to the other's camp. And that result could be particularly damaging for the Cons if the shift happens too late in an election campaign to allow for a change in course.

Meanwhile, Eric Grenier's follow-up discussion suggests that an attempt to wedge the NDP and the Libs into a single party would produce relatively little benefit as a starting point, as a distribution of either the Libs' or the NDP's second-choice support would leave the Cons with a two-point lead over a single opponent, rather than a single-digit lead over two.

But the key distinction in Grenier's scenario is that the Cons would then know exactly which opponent represents the greatest threat, and would figure to able to unleash their well-oiled smear machine to tilt the balance even further in their own favour.

Of course, I won't deny my own view as to which party is best suited to replace the Cons with a more progressive alternative - and I still think there's a compelling case that the NDP has more potential to build an outright progressive majority than the Libs or any hybrid party. But voters with absolutely no preference as to who replaces the Cons may be best off working to ensure that there multiple options to neutralize Harper's attack strategy - rather than encouraging the type of dynamic that's played right into Harper's hands.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Jim Stanford is the latest to point out that the Cons see accountability and transparency solely as punishments to be inflicted on their perceived enemies, not as values to be applied to their own decision-making:
Following Mr. Hiebert's logic, any organization in society that benefits from a tax expenditure (no matter how indirect) should be required to post similarly detailed and intrusive financial and expenditure data on a government website. Here is the current listing of federal tax expenditures. Every organization connected to any expenditure listed in that catalogue (whether the personal, corporate, or HST sections) should be ready for the precedent set by C-377. A partial list of "supported" institutions would include: every small business, anyone who owns farming or fishing property, any company that declared a capital gain, any logging company, any company claiming accelerated depreciation, any company offering flow-through shares (and any investor owning one), anyone with an RRSP or RESP, any mutual fund or life insurer, and financial service provider. In short, everyone and every business is "supported" by the taxpayer, just like unions. Hence each owes us an equivalent degree of accountability and transparency. Some critics of C-377 from within the business community actually worried about the precedent set by this legislation, one day being applied to them.

Another point I've used lately is the asymmetry of the disclosure requirement given the nature of the relationship between unions (who have to disclose anything over $5,000) and businesses (who do not, if they are privately held, have to disclose anything). Unions by their nature confront employers in many bargaining, representation, and organizing situations. Under C-377, the employer will now much detail about how much the union is spending, and on what. In many cases, that will be valuable intelligence for a company resisting a union organizing drive, bargaining demand, or representation case. The union, however, knows nothing about how much the company is spending. That creates a very uneven playing field.

Imagine if the TD Bank had to disclose everything it spent over $5,000 on. As one wag put it on Twitter yesterday, all those fancy Bay Street restaurants would be out of business in a week if every bill in excess of $5,000 had to be posted on a government website!
- Michael Harris and John Baglow both point out the sad contrast between the Cons' empty gestures, and their lack of action to improve the living conditions for aboriginal Canadians. But while Stephen Harper has callously dismissed plenty of similar messages before, the developing activism of aboriginal citizens may be rather more difficult to ignore:

- Carol Goar discusses the Caledon Institute's proposal to extend the Working Income Tax Benefit to meaningfully reduce poverty among lower-income Canadians. But Armine Yalnizyan rightly recognizes that we can't meaningfully address poverty without seeing it in the context of greater inequality:
(I)mproving the lives of the poor means providing either more opportunity or more cold, hard cash. That involves money, which is where follow-through usually falls off, because it means some form of redistribution. And that brings us back to income inequality.

The IMF has warned that higher inequality is correlated to shorter spells of growth, and more market volatility. The Conference Board of Canada cautions that Canada’s levels of inequality mean squandered potential. Just this week, TD Bank CEO Ed Clarke acknowledged inequality in Canada has been growing for the last 30 years, raising a challenge for society that demands discussion.

Whether you want less poverty or a more robust economy, greater innovation or improved productivity, better life chances or a healthier democracy, the way forward in Canada involves reducing income inequality.
- Finally, pogge points out that the same Con government currently insisting on social benefit cuts due to projected cost increases had no interest whatsoever in making sure that past surpluses were used to actually fund the benefits - signalling that they're really more interested in attacking benefits for the sake of attacking benefits rather than ensuring that they're sustainable.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

On dubious partners

I've mostly avoided commenting on the federal Libs' leadership race based on the need for the party's own membership (and supportership in this case) to decide on a future direction for itself. But with one of the candidates explicitly running on a platform of cross-party dealings, I'd think there's some room to analyze whether she has much prospect of reaching out to other parties.

Which brings us to this:
With one lonely exception, the top tier of contenders for the Liberal helm has veered sharply to the right, much to the private consternation of some of the stalwarts of the party's once-influential left wing.

"All I'm hearing is we're going down the Reagan/Thatcher slipstream," despairs one prominent veteran Liberal.

"I don't believe that the way you're going to offer an alternative (to the Harper Conservatives) is to be a pseudo-Tory."
Among the top tier contenders, so far only Vancouver MP Joyce Murray has staked out turf on the left. She's an ardent environmentalist, favours a carbon tax, opposes pipelines through B.C. and supports full legalization of marijuana. She also advocates co-operation with the NDP and Greens in the next election in ridings where a united progressive front could defeat the Conservatives.
So what's wrong with this picture? Well, I'll point out a couple of obvious concerns with Murray as a standard-bearer for left-leaning and pro-cooperation Lib supporters.

Murray's first political involvement came at the provincial level in British Columbia - where she was apparently perfectly comfortable teaming up with federal Conservatives in Gordon Campbell's "free enterprise coalition" for the purpose of defeating the NDP. Which means any claim that she's now committed to joining with the NDP to defeat Conservatives would represent a complete turnaround from her values when she first entered politics.

And before she was elected as an MP in Vancouver Quadra, Murray first took a run at New Westminster-Coquitlam - a riding where the Libs stood in third place even as they clung to power nationally, and where a slightly more successful attempt to pursue progressive votes on her part might well have allowed Con MP Paul Forseth to hold onto the seat against an ultimately successful challenge from the NDP's Dawn Black.

Moreover, during her stint in B.C.'s cabinet, Murray formed part of the Campbell government which  passed multiple unconstitutional laws to attack workers and slashed the public sector, while at the same time running up the provincial debt in order to hand tax goodies to high-income individuals and the corporate sector based on the false promise that economic benefits would result. So she doesn't have much basis to claim principled disagreement with the Harper Cons on the economic policy front. And her own record as the minister who was happy to eliminate "environment" from her own title doesn't exactly serve as a source of confidence either.

In summary, one could hardly design a candidate with less claim to have practiced what Murray is now preaching: her past political choices are utterly antithetical to the theme of cooperation to defeat the right, and her stint in provincial government makes for a better fit with the Tea Party than a progressive party. And Lib leadership voters wanting to see cross-party cooperation may want to look for an alternative candidate who won't be quite so toxic to potential progressive allies.

New column day

Here, expanding on this post as to Simon Enoch's study of corporate power in Saskatchewan - and suggesting that we use the networks mapped out by Enoch in analyzing the Saskatchewan Party's corporatist policy choices.

Again, Enoch's study is available here. And you'll find some of my previous writing about Enterprise Saskatchewan and the Wall government's corporatist inclinations here and here.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Thomas Walkom discusses the meaning of the Ontario Libs' attempt to take collective bargaining rights away from teachers in the context of the wider labour movement:
The union movement is one of the last remnants of the great postwar pact between labour, capital and government.

That pact provided Canadians with things they still value, from medicare to public pension plans. Good wages in union shops kept pay high, even in workplaces that weren’t organized. Unions agitated for and won better health and safety laws that covered all.

True, union rules made it more difficult for employers to axe slackers. But they also ensured that when someone lost his job, it was for real cause — not because he or she had refused to sleep with the boss.

Some employers were content with all of this. Many were not and, as their profits came under pressure, demanded what they called greater flexibility — in wages, work practices and hiring.
Over the past 30 years, most Canadian governments have devoted themselves to eliminating anything that interferes with this flexibility.

So think of this latest foray against teachers as part of a package...

How can employees be encouraged to accept the discipline of this new world when they see some, such as teachers and other public sector workers, still making good wages?

The former Tory government of Mike Harris certainly tried to solve this problem and bring the teachers’ unions to heel. At one point it outlawed work-to-rule tactics and made it mandatory for teachers to coach sports after school. But in the end the Tories backed down.

Now it’s the Liberals’ turn. This government has given itself the power to set teachers’ wages and working conditions arbitrarily. It calculates that most voters will be envious enough of teachers that they will support its plans. It may be right.
- It's long past time for Stephen Harper's contempt for the provinces and social institutions alike to lead to some sustained backlash. And Robert Ghiz' comment about Harper sabotaging health-care talks looks like an important step in that direction.

- Meanwhile, Craig McInnes picks up on an obvious problem with the Cons' CPP obfuscation and delay tactics - as the longer we wait to implement a system which actually provides for a secure retirement, the higher the cost will be for the people working once a policy change is implemented.

- pogge notes that the rest of the world is well aware of Canada's turn for the worse under the Harper Cons - with a failing grade on human rights from Amnesty International serving as the most recent example.

- Finally, Andrew Potter's distinction between naive and cynical politics is well worth a read. But I'm not sure the proposed division actually represents much of a change from at least some conceptions of left/right politics: is there any meaningful difference between Potter's terminology and, say, George Lakoff's "nurturant/strict parent" model which includes more clear ideological content?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Deep thought

Boy, this would seem like a great opportunity for anybody truly concerned about government interference in a fulsome political debate to make the case for freedom of speech. We could even label that hero with a pithy term like "free speech warrior". Now if only such a person existed.

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Jeremy Warren reports on the origins of the Idle No More movement - recognizing it as an ideal example of how a few people resolving to take action can have a massive impact on public discussions. And Tim Harper notes that Stephen Harper may be forced to revise his 2013 agenda to address the movement's concerns:
It has moved beyond the angry flare sparked by the bill and has grown, fuelled by young aboriginals deftly using social media, to represent the latest iteration of the festering conflict that has marked the Harper government — its determination to economically exploit resources over the objections of environmentalists and aboriginals who believe this regime is running roughshod over its ancestral lands.

But there is more, something even more fundamental, because movement leaders count 14 pieces of legislation — dealing with everything from education to water quality to financial accountability — that they believe are the laws of an adversary.

“The government of Canada has not upheld nor fulfilled its responsibilities to First Nations, as committed to by the Crown including at the Crown-First Nations gathering of January, 2012,” said Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, in an open letter to Harper and Gov.-Gen. David Johnston.

Atleo, until now, has been the calm face of an increasingly angry aboriginal population. But last month he told Harper and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan that any goodwill and spirit of co-operation from last January’s summit has been squandered.

Idle No More spokeswoman Pam Palmater says there must be a “fundamental shift” in the relationship between Canada and First Nations.

“The treaty relationship was about mutual prosperity and sharing of the wealth,” she says. “Only one treaty partner has been wealthy and prospered.’’
- Meanwhile, Andrew Hanon writes that care workers whose benefits are being siphoned off by for-profit employers may prove to be the new face of organized labour in Alberta:
Employees at Monterey place are among the lowest paid in the continuing care industry in Alberta. Most are classified as part-time so they don't qualify for health benefits. There is no retirement plan at all.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which began representing them in 2011, says there's no excuse for that. Alberta Health Services funds private operators for nursing staff wages and benefits at government rates, but Triple A is among a handful of companies that pay less and pocket the difference.

When the Monterey workers dug in their heels and demanded to be treated fairly, Triple A locked them out. Nearly five months later, they're still being kept from their jobs.
For many immigrants, especially women, the industry offers an opportunity to enter the workforce. Often, they start out in the kitchen or housekeeping and then advance to the nursing staff as health-care aides and licensed practical nurses.

However, this also offers some employers another opportunity to make their businesses even more profitable -- a workforce that can be exploited because of factors like weak language skills, lack of understanding of labour standards or even ignorance of fundamental Canadian rights.

For some bad actors in the industry, it's not enough to build a business model based on taxpayer handouts. They also have to pick the pockets of their own employees, hoping the workers won't know any better or be too intimidated to speak up.

That ruthless greed is why private seniors care is one of the fastest growing sectors becoming organized in the Alberta labour union movement. Turns out, this workforce of mostly kind, polite, family-oriented women is refusing to stand back and allow their bosses to take advantage of them, just like the miners and textile workers pushed back a century ago.
- But then, one might see the exploitation of care workers as just another example of how management theory has gone off the rails. Which brings us to Simon Caulkin's take:
The irony is that we know what makes companies prosper in the long term. They manage themselves as whole systems, look after their people, use targets and incentives with extreme caution, keep pay differentials narrow (we really are in this together) and treat profits as the score rather than the game. And it's a given that in the long term companies can't thrive unless they have society's interests at heart along with their own.

So why do so many boards and managers, supported by politicians, systematically do the opposite – run companies as top-down dictatorships, pursue growth by merger, destroy teamwork with runaway incentives, attack employment rights and conditions, outsource customer service, treat their stakeholders as resources to be exploited, and refuse wider responsibilities to society?

The answer is that management in the 1980s was subject to an ideological hijack by Chicago economics that put at the heart of governance a reductive "economic man" view of human nature needing to be bribed or whipped to do their exclusive job of maximising shareholder returns. Embedded in the codes, these assumptions now have the status of unchallenged truths.

The consequences of the hijack have been momentous. The first was to align managers' interests not with their own organisations but with financial outsiders – shareholders. That triggered a senior management pay explosion that continues to this day. The second was that managers abandoned their previous policy of retaining and reinvesting profits in favour of large dividend and share buyback payouts to shareholders.
Over the last decades, misconceived ideologically based governance has recreated management as a new imperium in which shareholders and managers rule and the real world dances to finance's tune. A worthier anniversary to celebrate is the death seven years ago this month, on 11 November, of Peter Drucker, one of the architects of pre-code management, which he insisted was a "liberal art". Austrian by birth, Drucker was a cultured humanist one of whose distinctions was having his books burned by the Nazis. In The Practice of Management in 1954 he wrote: "Free enterprise cannot be justified as being good for business. It can be justified only as being good for society".
- Finally, Don Lenihan compares the positions of Conrad Black and Andrew Coyne on foreign investment, and concludes that it only makes sense to recognize the limitations of Coyne's purely libertarian view of capital ownership while also establishing clear criteria as to when public intervention is required.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Circular cats.

Tuesday Afternoon Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Tim Harper writes about Tom Mulcair's success in building the NDP up as the leading alternative to the Cons for Canadian voters:
Two-thirds of his questions since becoming leader have dealt with the economy as he attempts to build the case that his party can be trusted, for the first time, with the keys to the treasury in 2015 while chipping away at the Conservative brand as the stolid overseers of the public purse.

“They love being in power,” he says of the Conservatives, “(but) they hate governing. They don’t take the time, they don’t follow the rules, they are disdainful of the public administration, the civil service, they mock them, they don’t listen to them and they wind up making huge mistakes like the F-35.”
 “I’m going to run the next campaign, visor-up, straight on about sustainable development, about the obligation for any government to look at the environmental, economic and social impact of every decision they make,” he says.

To do otherwise, he says, is to saddle the next generation, already looking at larger deficits and meagre pensions, with the cost of environmental cleanups.

It is the 18-to-25-year-old voter pool he is targeting. He sent his young crew of MPs to university campuses right after the last election and he continues to reach out to the 65 per cent of that age group that did not vote in the last election.

It may be the same pool in which a Justin Trudeau-led Liberal party will be fishing, but right now, that is not a concern for the opposition leader.

“I believe passionately Canadians will follow us down that path,” Mulcair says.
- Linda McQuaig points out that while we may not quite have the same free-for-all as the U.S., there's plenty of need for discussion about gun regulation in Canada - particularly when it comes to assault weapons.

- Dave Coles discusses how the Saskatchewan Party's new employment legislation takes aim at public-sector janitorial and food service workers in particular. But the Harper Cons look to be well ahead in the "pick on the most vulnerable" sweepstakes after taking aim at seasonal migrant workers who need access to parental benefits.

- Finally, shorter Kevin Milligan on Canada's choices in trying to expand retirement security:
The proven track record of the CPP in providing a secure retirement for a minimal cost only makes me all the more doubtful that we should choose any option other than "funnel money to banksters".

On revealed connections

Simon Enoch's study mapping corporate power in Saskatchewan may be one of the most important pieces of research I've seen in quite some time - and I'll highly encourage visitors to give it a thorough read. But I'll quibble with one aspect of Enoch's conclusion - he's done more work to tie together multiple stands of corporate influence than his proposed policy prescription could possibly hope to accomplish.

After analyzing the board and executive structures of corporations, interest groups and government structures alike and demonstrating the striking correlation between them, Enoch's headline takeaway is this:
As record amounts of corporate money flood our political system, Saskatchewan urgently needs a publicly accessible lobbyist registry to let citizens track corporate lobbying. As one of the few provinces that do not currently have a lobbyist registry, Saskatchewan is vulnerable to the perception that corporations have undue influence over both major political parties.
But as I've pointed out, lobbying registries themselves tend to distort at least as much as they illuminate - particularly since anybody with sufficient insider influence to be sought out by a sitting government avoids any scrutiny whatsoever. And as Enoch notes, the most incestuous institution in the province looks to be...Enterprise Saskatchewan, consisting of a group of individuals hand-selected by the Wall government to develop economic policy based on corporate interests, and whose activities would be utterly untouched by a registry of outside lobbying.

Which is just the most obvious example suggesting that Enoch's work may shed far more light on the interconnection between corporate decision-makers than a lobbying registry. And I'll very much hope to see the first study evolve to go even further in tracing the real links between money and power on Saskatchewan's political scene.

#skndpldr Roundup

With official forums on hold until January but the holiday lull not quite yet here, Saskatchewan's NDP leadership candidates have been fairly active over the last little while. So let's take a look at the latest developments.

- The latest fund-raising numbers are available here, and charted by Alice below:

What looks most noteworthy from November is a push by Ryan Meili in both fund-raising and expenditures. While his campaign has trumpeted its continued lead in donations, Meili also outspent his competitors substantially for the latest month, leaving him as the only candidate to end November with less cash on hand than at the start.

As with Trent Wotherspoon's early expenses that put his campaign into a deficit position, it will be worth watching whether Meili's spending produces measurable results. And if it doesn't, then Cam Broten may be in the best financial position for the second half of the campaign based on his lead in net revenue along with his large amount of spending room.

- Meanwhile, Meili also received a poetic endorsement from Lon Borgerson. But I do have to wonder whether it's too late in the campaign to move beyond poetry slams into the realm of epic rap battles.

- On the policy front, Meili unveiled his policy proposals on the environment, which notably goes beyond relying on SaskPower as driver of power conservation, and includes the observation that industrial users should be included in conservation efforts by being required to pay their fair share for power use. And Erin Weir's pension proposal includes a move at the provincial level to reverse the federal Cons' attacks on Old Age Security.

- Finally, Weir also offered another timely suggestion, responding to CNOOC's takeover of Nexen by noting that our royalty regulations should avoid allowing businesses to reduce Saskatchewan's royalty share by manipulating prices.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- While far too many in the media seem to have glossed over what the Cons' attacks on votes in Parliament this fall actually meant, Mia Rabson nicely sums it up:
(F)or the government to simply reject every single suggestion the opposition makes as an abuse of the process proves the government isn't even pretending to listen to other ideas.

The idea that a majority government should be able to do away with votes simply because they know they can win is so contrary to the principles of how a government is supposed to work it would be funny if it weren't so sad. A majority government already has few, if any, checks on its power.

It speaks to a need for far more freedom in Parliament -- freedom for all MPs to give their input and not be forced to act as a giant party unit on most major pieces of legislation. It is nearly impossible to believe a 400-plus-page omnibus budget bill was so absolutely perfect from head to toe that not so much as a comma needed to be changed.

Considering a majority government in Canada is almost always won with less than a majority of votes, it seems somewhat of a fallacy to watch majority governments govern without even a moment's consideration of what other parties think, to the point where now the government suggests opposition parties shouldn't even get a say, since they're going to lose anyway.
- John Stapleton criticizes the Cons' decision-based evidence-making as a counterproductive substitute for actual social policy.

- Meanwhile, offers some prospect of gathering needed evidence as to public impressions of governments and their policies. And I'll be particularly curious to see whether it can develop strong conversations and reaching all the way down to the municipal level.

- Finally, Anne Jarvis weighs in on how the labour movement should respond to the regressive right-to-free-ride lobby:
Right to work – it’s quite the euphemism.

“What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money,” President Barack Obama told a Daimler AG plant near Detroit.

These bills are supposed to liberate workers from unions. Now they’re free to be subject to a bottom line that’s never enough. (Of course what’s good for workers isn’t good for those who push right to work – big corporations that award their executives multimillion-dollar bonuses and severances.)
It’s time for a history lesson. It’s time to remind everyone that unions built the middle class by raising the standard of living not just for their members but for all workers.

But it’s also time for unions to take a hard look in the mirror and reassess their relevance. Many public sector unions – the teachers spring to mind – need to think about the image they’re portraying with their sense of entitlement. Unions need to focus instead on what they can do for those who need them most, the army of workers  trying to cobble together a living from part-time and contract employment after the dramatic rise of so-called “precarious work” that is poorly paid, insecure and unprotected.

Unions will have to fight like heck under right-to-work, and their biggest advantage will be relevance.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

#skndpldr - Melfort Debate Notes

The final official Saskatchewan NDP leadership debate before the holidays took place in Melfort, and featured a couple of twists on the themes that have dominated the previous forums:

So what was new in the fifth leadership forum?

Well, Cam Broten mostly stuck to his usual script and in-debate pattern. But he did supplement his all-too-familiar questions for Ryan Meili with a query as to whether Meili would seek to draw a salary from the NDP if he won the leadership without pursuing a seat in a by-election. And while Meili's response that he wasn't too concerned about money at least partly defuses the question, Broten followed up a question going to the state of the NDP's broader finances with a fund-raising appeal aimed at the party rather than his own campaign.

Erin Weir's response to a familiar question on rural issues included a proposal that I hadn't picked up on in previous debates or in his policy announcements - identifying a transaction tax aimed solely at foreign purchasers as a possible means of balancing the ability of existing owners to sell their land with the desire to encourage local and small-scale ownership. Which might seem like interesting middle ground between barring outside ownership and leaving it unrestricted - but might also require plenty more explanation as to the associated revenue expectations and prospect of validity under trade agreements which generally require equal treatment for foreign investors as would be applied to local ones.

In his first question, Trent Wotherspoon offered Broten what should have been the easiest softball question yet - asking him to identify positive traits and policies from his fellow leadership candidates. But at best, Broten took partial advantage of the opportunity to reach out to other candidates' supporters - with a reference to Weir's chutzpah looking like a particularly unimpressive response.

But if Wotherspoon's seemingly more friendly questions to Broten didn't turn out quite as planned, his more challenging query to Meili about the details of how SaskPharm might operate was met with a strong response: on the type of question where Wotherspoon has often struggled to go behind talking points, Meili was able to point to his own work with academic researchers to identify the expected (and massive) returns for a generic drug manufacturer.

Once again, the Melfort forum did little to change any candidate's overall prospects. But we're starting to see some evolution in a few of the areas which have been discussed at most of the debates - and each campaigns figures to have some work to do over the holidays in both building on the themes developed so far, and addressing areas where there's room for improvement.

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Bill Curry reports on Jim Flaherty's arbitrary choice to declare that Canadians can't have any more CPP retirement security than the most callous provincial government in the country is willing to grant them. And Martin Regg Cohn rightly responds that our reaction should be to pressure Flaherty to instead look out for the interests of retirees present and future:
The real scandal is that, after two years of delay, concrete reforms are finally within reach. Yet Flaherty seems determined to sabotage the process.

A 30-page discussion paper obtained by the Star lays out a clear path for affordable action. Prepared by federal officials after a year of painstaking consultations with their provincial counterparts, the document is remarkably clear-minded:

Canada can, in fact, afford to shore up its disappearing pension system. A “modest” expansion of the solid but paltry Canada Pension Plan could plug the gaping holes in our outdated retirement security framework, the document shows. Ottawa and the provinces are well positioned to boost the CPP because current retirement payroll costs are far lower than in other industrialized countries — yes, including the U.S.

Most Canadians probably don’t realize the CPP pays only 25 per cent of the average industrial wage (currently about $50,000) — capping pension payments at a mere $12,500 a year. For the vast majority who lack private pensions, and who have not saved adequately, the gap is growing.
Instead of limiting CPP payouts to $12,500 a year currently, middle class Canadians could effectively double their annual pension down the road — virtually wiping out the shortfall in savings.

This could be achieved with a relatively modest increase in premiums of about $1,000 a year for the highest-paid employees (employers would pay half of the cost through payroll taxes), or about $540 a year (cost-shared with employers) for workers earning about $50,000 a year.
Cynically, Flaherty is now insisting on unanimity amongst the provinces for any CPP reforms (the actual requirement is only two-thirds of the provinces representing two-thirds of Canada’s population). That leaves Alberta with an effective veto, given its traditional resistance to reform.

After two-and-a-half years of huffing and puffing and procrastinating, it’s time for Flaherty, always with his elbows up, to stop ragging the puck and passing the buck. It’s also time for the provinces — and working Canadians — to put him on the spot.
- Mark Sumner discusses how the corporate sector's interests conflict with those of mere people - and why we thus shouldn't assume that policies aimed at boosting corporate profits actually have any social value:
(I)n Washington,...the wealthy have been able to use their accumulated power to see that the system encourages rather than corrects, the increasingly out of balance system. Because of this, thirty years of supply side economics has done more damage to our nation than every socialist, communist, or anarchist who ever lived. It's done what none of them could ever do. It's brought capitalism to the brink of failure.

That's where we are, on the brink. The wealthy have made a meal of the nation's economy. They've raided the larder. They've devoured the seed crop. Now they are searching for crumbs.

Take housing. The collapse brought on by speculative trading of mortgage derivatives left many Americans unable to afford their homes and flooded the market with foreclosures. However, in many of those areas where the foreclosures were most common, would-be home buyers have observed a strange phenomenon. Despite what should be a glut of houses on the market, prices on the homes actually put up for sale remain high. Real estate agents in many of the same markets complain that they are actually seeing a shortage of homes greater than when home sales were at their highest. Also, banks are forcing homebuyers to jump so many hurdles in the name of security, that they are often unable to make an offer in time to win a home. As a result, many Americans who are employed and have good credit, are still not able to find a house after months or years of searching. That might not be what you would expect from a perusal of classic economics texts, but it is what you would expect in our current system.

How can this be possible? It's possible because the same banks that homeowners must depend on to secure a loan are in direct competition with them. Hedge fund managers in the investment arms of banks are snatching up homes indiscriminately, buying them in bulk lots that swallow up potential homes by the hundreds and simply take them off the market. Why do this? Because, as institutions empowered to make money through almost any form of speculation, investment banks can optimize the availability of homes to maximize what they can bring in from rentals, sales, and long term holding. Not selling you a home is often a better bet. Bulk buys of homes allow banks to manipulate the housing market to their benefit across whole cities for a span of years. Why should they do anything else? It's not as if there's a barrier in place to separate banks that provide loans from banks that create speculative instruments. We took care of that.

What's happening with banks is just a part of the wealth shift that's taken place over the last thirty years. A shift that's allowed a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population to control so much capital, that this financial black hole stands a very good chance of simply ripping the system apart.

It's a monopoly on everything.

In this monopoly, you have nothing that they want. You own nothing that they value. You make nothing they desire. Your knowledge, your experience, your willingness to work... mean nothing. There are cheaper hands available. They see no issue with holding out until you give up on a decent wage, on decent working conditions, on a decent life. You want financial institutions to think long term? They are. They're thinking that, long term, you'll give them anything they want in exchange for almost nothing at all.
- But there are still promising signs of resistance to that perpetual corporate overreach. And Doug Cuthand's column on the Idle No More movement points to one example which could significantly shape Canada's future at a time when some of the best checks on a Con majority determined to run roughshod over anybody outside the resource sector may come from First Nations' consultation rights.

- Finally, Bruce Stewart suggests that if the Cons wanted to feign the slightest interest in their own accountability, some consequences for ministerial incompetence might be an important start.

On transferable skills

Stephen Gordon is at least moderately panicked about the less-than-surprising news that some Lib operatives tried to recruit Mark Carney to serve as the party's national leader - and there may be worse to come. But I'll argue that there's far less to be concerned about than Gordon, Mike Moffatt and others are suggesting.

At the outset, I presume it's fairly uncontroversial that we have numerous important positions of influence intended to be filled by experts motivated by the public good.

Gordon and Moffatt seem to place the Bank of Canada on a particularly high pedestal, which may be how they'd distinguish Carney's role from others. But to my mind, the difference between Carney's position and the role of independent commissioners, judges, and public servants with decision-making authority is one of degree rather than kind. Would we genuinely be any more comfortable with, say, courts being motivated by outside considerations, rather than maintaining the credibility that comes only from being seen as a fair and neutral body populated by some of the best-informed individuals in a particular subject area?

At the same time, though, political parties have a natural and reasonable incentive to want to recruit the strongest possible candidates. And the skills and expertise which result in an individual being promoted to a prominent position of public service are likely to translate at least somewhat into the political realm - making the individuals in those positions into appealing prospects for any party seeking to develop the strongest possible organization, both for the purpose of pursuing power and for the purpose of governing well.

Based on that fact alone, I consider it preposterous to blame the Lib insiders who tried to recruit Carney into their fold. But what about his response, which indeed seems to have fallen somewhat short of "don't even talk to me, you icky partisan shills"?

Well, there too I'd think Gordon and Moffatt are making an unreasonable value judgment. In effect, their view seems to be that an even an individual with nothing but the best of intentions who occupies a neutral decision-making position based on expertise and experience isn't allowed to compare non-partisan and partisan means to pursue the public good.

That might seem to make sense based on the cynicism so many are working to foster in analyzing our democratic system. But in practice, such a dividing line serves to ensure that some of the individuals most capable of bettering that system are precluded from contributing to it.

As it happens, Carney ultimately chose the view that he could have more influence staying in the realm of independent policy-making. But I hardly think that any willingness to consider whether that was true should be held against him.

To be fair, there is a valid point to be made about transparency within an institution whose role may affect political interests - in effect, that there should be some reporting of the type of political involvement under consideration by people in positions like Carney's so that decisions can be better analyzed. But that reporting would have to be coupled with recognition that it would be highly unusual for anybody in such a position to completely lack political views and connections - such that we shouldn't see some actual or potential partisanship as an obstacle to making fair decisions.

Because ultimately, elected decision-makers are (and should be) the ones to set the broader policy goals which define the roles of independent officers. And the more we accept the claim that an interest in party politics is somehow incompatible with public service or acceptable decision-making, the more we'll have to complain about when it's time to evaluate the people who do work in the political sphere.

Update: Dan Gardner makes much the same point.

[Edit: fixed wording.]