Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that to start the new year.

- Lynn Stuart Parramore discusses the dangers of needless means-testing for basic social benefits:
When I spoke to Joseph Stiglitz, he discussed the idea that “means-testing is mean.” Programs like Medicare and Social Security, he explained, are matters of political economy. They are important to social cohesion, where support comes from the fact that everybody is participating. “We don’t means-test public education,” explained Stiglitz, “because we believe that we want people to have the same opportunities and we lose out on that with means-testing.” The same is true of our belief that everyone deserves a dignified retirement and adequate medical care in old age.

Medicare and Social Security are not handouts to the needy. They are not even intended to be a safety net. In their design, they promote the fundamental notion that dignity and good health in old age are not special privileges that can be bestowed or taken away. They are fundamental rights that every working American who has contributed productively to the economy can expect to enjoy. As James K. Galbraith told me in an email, “It’s insurance, not charity.”

Means-testing runs against this fundamental idea by turning Medicare and Social Security into welfare programs that become bargaining chips for politicians. The programs become provisional rather than fundamental. President Franklin Roosevelt understood this point well, which is why he designed Social Security to be attached to a payroll tax so that “no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”
By turning Medicare and Social Security into welfare, means-testing feeds right into the Romney view of the world, an us-against-them mentality that pits the self-righteous wealthy against ordinary people. Means-testing would divide the population and further emphasize the difference between the haves and the have-nots by transferring a sense of receiving handouts to those getting Social Security and Medicare. 
- Paul Adams' look at the Libs' right-wing positioning has received plenty of attention already. But the most important observation is that Justin Trudeau looks to be following directly down the path that led the Libs to third-party status in the first place:
Of course there are a couple of narrower, more tactical reasons why Trudeau in particular may be tacking to the right. In the short term, it may be a feint designed to shake people’s preconceptions of him during the leadership race and carve out a political image distinct from that of his father.

But Liberal supporters should be concerned that it is the germ of a general election strategy: to position Trudeau not as a centre-left alternative to the Conservatives, but as a more likeable, open, honest, youthful successor to Stephen Harper. A change in personalities, in other words, rather than a change in policies.

This was essentially the strategy of Michael Ignatieff, and it didn’t work. It didn’t work in part because Ignatieff’s inexperience contrasted with Harper at a nerve-jangling time in the economy. It also didn’t work because it forced Ignatieff to tack jerkily left in the election campaign when it was apparent that the only pool of voters actually available to the Liberals were there — further muddying the already murky Liberal brand.
- Aaron Wherry looks back at 2012 in Canadian politics - and points out that there's plenty of reason to think a more meaningful democracy is well within reach:
If our democracy is not quite the vibrant construct we wish it was, there are glimmers. The government and the official opposition are led respectively by erudite policy wonks who like to imagine themselves as pugilists in the rhetorical ring—and for the first time this particular former has a comparable rival in the latter. Elizabeth May has taken up residence in the far corner and made parliamentary democracy her cause. Megan Leslie often asks questions and Michelle Rempel periodically responds. The chair of the ethics committee is 21 years old and among the most prominent members of the official opposition are half a dozen women who were born in the 1980s. Brent Rathgeber has a blog. Michael Chong and Irwin Cotler are still here, as are various other men and women of whom their constituents can be proud. And by next summer the third party will likely be led by either a man blessed of good genes, great hair and immense potential or an astronaut.

So if it is not all good, it is also not all bad. But if this past year was about anything it was that fight—those fights and that they were had and what they might amount to. In those hours and hours and hours of standing and sitting and standing and sitting for C-38 and C-45 was something like the essence of parliamentary democracy: the governing party testing the limits of what it might get away with and the opposition doing everything in its power to subject the government’s actions to scrutiny. In the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Auditor General were necessary stalwarts. In the hashtags and shouting was the public, or at least segments thereof, imposing itself on the proceedings. The fight is not quite an end in itself. It should amount to something. Change, if decided to be necessary, must be realized. The process of perfecting this grand measure requires more than 140 characters. But it is the fight that keeps this blessed mess alive and the flame lit. Short of utopia, the fight must be had, over and over and over. (We might wish that the fight was fought on nicer or wittier terms, but we should neither expect nor desire that advancing ourselves forward won’t involve some kind of fight.)

A few months after the 2011 election, after the principles of Westminster democracy were apparently set aside in favour of a strong, stable, national government, a sizeable number of citizens paused to mourn the passing of a thoroughly political man—an individual whose last act as leader of the official opposition was to launch a 58-hour filibuster. If that week of public recognition seemed to show we were not quite yet entirely consumed by cynicism, 2012 perhaps showed the fight is not yet out of us.
- Meanwhile, the Star's review of the year in environmental policy highlights "austerity and obscurantism" as all we have to show for the Cons' decisions and actions. But on the bright side, Bruce Stewart's look at the year for the NDP reaches some rather more positive conclusions.


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