Saturday, April 20, 2013

Saturday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Daniel Cohn theorizes that the only real problem with RBC's outsourcing of Canadian jobs is that they called attention to the government policies which facilitated that outcome. But for those of us who think there's actually a problem with an economy designed around minimizing wages and employment, Susan McIsaac and Matthew Mendelsohn offer some suggestions to turn the tide. And Tavia Grant points out that the Cons' preference for cheap, disposable foreign labour might help employers, but certainly doesn't produce positive results for Canada as a whole.

- In the same vein, Andrew Jackson discusses how the last great set of attacks on workers in the name of economic efficiency proved an utter failure in producing any policy outcome other than increased inequality:
Thatcherism did not provide an enduring solution to the problem of how to attain stable growth. Business profitability was indeed restored, but this did not flow though into much higher levels of productive investment. In both Britain and the United States (especially the former), finance expanded as a share of the economy at the expense of industry, which has collapsed.

London has become the most important global financial centre and home base to much of the global oligarchy, leading to great wealth for a few and many low-paid jobs catering to their needs. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the country, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, has never fully recovered from massive de-industrialization.

In Britain, as in the United States, “flexible” labour markets and the erosion of unionization led to the decoupling of wages from productivity growth, making growth dangerously dependent upon an unsustainable inflation of house prices and the growth of household debt.

A hands-off approach to regulation of business also set the stage for the growth of a speculative and destructive financial system, which would have collapsed in 2008 if the government had not come to the rescue.

Thatcherism did nothing to raise the living standards of the great majority. In the Britain, as in the U.S. and Canada, the incomes of the great majority have stagnated in real terms since the early 1980s, as most of the fruits of economic growth have gone to the top 1 per cent. Economic security was undermined by deep cuts to unemployment insurance and public pensions, and by the erosion of public services.

Margaret Thatcher was indeed a pivotal historical figure. But her legacy is one of heightened inequality, economic stagnation and instability.
- Chantal Hebert points out the limitations on the Cons' attack strategy:
If the Conservative black ops against Trudeau succeed, a significant chunk of those voters could be as likely if not more to turn to a centrist-led NDP as to want to help Harper secure a fourth mandate.

That trend is not based strictly on a cyclical tide for change. At this juncture an overwhelming majority of Canadians — around 70 per cent — agree as to the prime minister that they do not want, even if it means replacing Harper with an untested Liberal leader or an untried federal NDP.

Harper’s predicament is more akin to a multiplication of slow leaks than a major puncture. That could make it harder to fix. To reduce the current battle to a personality contest that can be won with attack ads is to miss the central point that it is also unfolding on the field of values.

Polls suggest that despite sustained Conservative efforts, Canadians are more likely to identify with Liberal- or NPD-inspired policies such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and medicare than with the favoured icons of the Canadian right. 
- And Bruce Johnstone notes that the Cons' attacks on Justin Trudeau are far from the first inaccurate ads of their majority tenure:
In the Machiavellian world of politics as practised in Ottawa these days, the end justifies the means. If defeating Justin Trudeau or NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair can be achieved by attack ads, so be it.

Case in point, Mulcair was vilified in Tory attack ads for his comments that Canada was showing symptoms of Dutch disease, in which the manufacturing sector suffers declining output and competitiveness as a result of high exchange rates caused by high energy prices.

Yet a recent study by Statistics Canada indicates that Central Canada saw the largest decline in economic output and labour productivity between 2000 and 2010. And the Ontario and Quebec manufacturing sectors bore the brunt of that decline. At the same time, there was a shift in capital investment from east to west due to increased investment in the natural resources sector. And what were the reasons for this shift in capital investment, economic output and labour productivity? Changes in exchange rates, commodity prices and global competition, the study said.

Sounds a lot like Dutch disease to me.
- Finally, Mike de Souza continues his run of important reports on the Cons' environmental policy - first by highlighting the Cons' willingness to give Exxon a veto over the terms of a new national park (featuring approval to drill horizontally under Sable Island), then by pointing out that tens of millions of dollars of public money are being used for research intended to do nothing but benefit tar sands operators.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Musical interlude

Tritonal - Piercing Quiet (Air Up There Remix)

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Friday reading.

- Julian Beltrame writes about the reality that Canada has multiple workers available to fill every job - with an assist from Erin Weir:
The case for job shortages in Canada became thinner Tuesday with the most recent data showing vacancies actually fell to 200,000 at the start of the year, meaning there were 6.5 unemployed workers chasing each opening.
“This is a striking low job vacancy number and it really casts doubt on this idea that we have a labour shortage,” said Erin Weir, a labour economist with the United Steelworkers union.

“I think most of this idea of labour shortages is based on anecdotes from the business community. They might have a different definition of a labour shortage. Employers might believe that if they can’t get the employees they want at the wages they are prepared to offer — that’s a labour shortage.”


“There’s always the possibility of a specific shortage of specific skills in a particular location, but of course the long-term solution is for more local residents to acquire the needed skills, or for workers with those skills to relocate to that area,” he said.

“The temporary foreign workers program actually works against that by often allowing employers to fill vacancies without offering training or increasing wages.”
- Meanwhile, Alison points out the connection between CBC's Amanda Lang and a group which has relentlessly been promoting the offshoring of Canadian jobs.

- Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher report that the Cons' preferred contractors don't look to be any more competent or socially responsible than the governing party itself - as the main telemarketer for the Cons is facing bankruptcy while owing nearly $1 million in unpaid taxes and wage assessments.

- Finally, Sean Shaw makes the case for Saskatoon to invest in sorely-needed roads and other infrastructure, rather than buying into the constant Chamber of Commerce demand for perpetually-lower taxes.

On giveaways

CBC reports some of the numbers surrounding the Wall government's planned giveaway of the majority of Saskatchewan's Information Service Corporation. But let's take a closer look at exactly what Wall intends to do - and what the province is losing in the process.

Let's make the generous assumption that a share sale will result in the higher valuation mooted by Don McMorris. Conveniently, that would mean that a 60% share of ISC would cost $120 million - establishing a nice, round $200 million valuation for ISC as a whole.

At the moment, the roughly $20 million in annual profits would mean that Saskatchewan's citizens are getting a 10% return on our ownership of ISC. Which, needless to say, represents an absolutely stellar return on capital compared to any evaluation of borrowing costs or normal rates of profit - something to be preserved, not to be discarded at the first opportunity.

Now, McMorris is trying to claim that corporate taxes (yes, the very same ones slashed by the Sask Party) will make up the difference. So let's do the math on that claim - assuming no tax avoidance at all by the new purchaser, and even giving the Sask Party the benefit of current corporate tax rates which they plan to lower.

If the province sells 60% of the shares in ISC, then its returns will be $8 million in direct profits (40% of the current $20 million), plus $1.44 million in corporate taxes (12% corporate tax rate * $12 million in corporate profits), for a total of $9.44 million per year.

So the baseline scenario after a sale will involve losing $10.56 million every year in exchange for a one-time injection of $120 million. Or in other words, a deliberate choice to borrow the $120 million at an effective interest rate of 8.8% - rather than through, say, the sale of Saskatchewan Savings Bonds at rates as low as 1%.

But what about the promise that ISC might grow outside the province and boost the corporate tax returns? Well, it's only the Saskatchewan Party's own ill-advised direction that's preventing a publicly-owned ISC from exploring that strategy in the first place - meaning that a simple and reasonable change in policy would allow for exactly the same process with all returns being enjoyed by the public.

In any event, though, ISC would have to increase in profitability by a factor of 8 to make up the gap between direct public profits, and trying to recoup the same money through corporate taxes after a share sale. And that certainly doesn't seem like a realistic prospect anytime in the near future - particularly if it's looking at having to spend money developing services outside Saskatchewan.

And all of the above assumes the best-case scenario - that ISC remains in the hands of shareholders who seek to build on its operations rather than extracting its current value. But there's another possibility as well: a takeover by vulture capitalists who dilute the value of the province's shares by borrowing against the anticipated value of the company.

Under that scenario, the $120 million in share sales could be matched by an equal $120 million in debt taken on by ISC, reducing the effective value of the corporation to $80 million and the province's holding to $32 million. And if the takeover managed to put the corporation into a tough financial position, then the province would be on the hook to figure out a way to keep ISC's systems functional - as its work involves important public services which can't simply be abandoned in the event of corporate failure.

Meanwhile, the $120 million in value currently held by the province would be skimmed off the top for the benefit of the few operators who manage to wriggle their way into the middle of the deal (then escape before any of the fallout becomes apparent).

Sadly, that result would be far too consistent with Brad Wall's idea as to how an economy should operate. But there's no realistic scenario where an outside takeover could possibly create better returns than the stable, 10% return on capital we currently enjoy as a province. And we should be nothing but skeptical of the Sask Party's glibertarian claims that we'll all be better off if we find ways to siphon that return into the hands of the corporate sector.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Ellie Mae O'Hagan and Nicholas Shaxson annihilate the claim that perpetually lowering corporate and upper-income tax rates offers any competitive advantage:
Tax "competition", it turns out, is always harmful. First, while people rarely move in response to tax changes – flighty financial capital does move. Governments "compete" for it by cutting tax rates on mobile capital (which means, in effect, cutting taxes on the rich.) And if you're not taxing the rich, you've got to make that up elsewhere. How do you do that? You tax people who can't afford to move, and can't afford to complain. The poor end up paying more.

Second, tax "competition" gives big business an unfair, unproductive advantage. Every "competitive" tax system has tax avoidance built into it – whether through low taxes, or by allowing the use of tax loopholes, and so on. Usually it's only larger multinationals that can afford the expensive tax lawyers and accountants necessary to harvest these tax subsidies. So they can use the offshore system to drive smaller, more locally based competitors to the wall – on a factor that has nothing to do with genuine business productivity or true innovation.

Tax "competition" is economic warfare, where countries fight over businesses by lowering taxes. In the United States, for example, an in-depth New York Times report provides an example of how bad the problem has become:
"A recent bidding war [between US states] for United Airlines … drew more than 90 cities. The airline had set up negotiations in a hotel, and its representatives ran floor to floor comparing bids. Jim Edgar, then the governor of Illinois, called for a truce, but many states would not sign on, he said."
Above all, investors want good roads, a healthy and educated workforce, and the rule of law. All of which mean tax. And let's not forget what else taxes are used for: to care for the sick, to educate our children, and to look after the vulnerable. Whenever you hear a politician utter the words "competitive tax system", it's probably an indication they have no idea what they're talking about. Tax "competition" is economic warfare: a beggar-my-neighbour race to the bottom, worse than a zero-sum game. It is always harmful.
- Meanwhile, Martin Regg Cohn notes that Canadians are starting to become duly skeptical of big banks who have been among the foremost advocates and beneficiaries of corporate tax giveaways. And Clayton Ruby makes the case for being equally skeptical when oil barons claim that their short-term profits should be the sole focus of public policy.

- Marc Jaccard argues that the U.S. should reject Keystone XL - while recognizing that the effect won't be to end the use of fossil fuels in the short term, but merely to encourage a longer-term transition toward sustainable energy.

- Pat Atkinson reasonably suggests that Saskatchewan might be better off using public money to improve its education system rather than following through on the Wall government's mandatory testing scheme:
Let's take that $6 million and begin to put together an early learning and care system that includes day care, pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten, all with a play-based learning curriculum led by qualified early learning and care professionals. Play-based learning is not about children sitting in desks.

This approach will lead to a more successful high school completion rate in our province and ultimately get us what we all want - better results. Let's not waste our tax dollars on an approach that simply doesn't work.
- Finally, Michael Harris wonders whether there will be anybody left to make policy suggestions to a Con government whose modus operandi is to refuse to listen anyway:
(T)here are two things the Harper government hates: criticism, and sources of information other than those ministerial manure machines that go by the name of government communications. Who would have thought that spinning gold into straw could ever be so big?

So far, the Harper government has managed to rid itself of a great many obstacles to its practice of decision-based evidence to support an agenda that is rarely declared. So many evidence-based riders — experts, knowledge-lovers, rationalists — have been shot off their horses.

The long form census died, (even though its replacement cost $30 million more) because it professionally gathered nuanced information that got in the way of governing by ideology.

The Experimental Lakes Area was erased because its scientists might have come up with irrefutable reasons to reconsider the breakneck development of the tar sands at all costs.

The Law Reform Commission was put out of business because some of the brightest legal minds in the country thought too much about constitutional and legal considerations that might create inescapable restraints for political bullies.

And now the Health Council of Canada.

New column day

Here, building off of my previous analysis on the current positioning of Canada's federal parties.

For further reading, see:
- Bob Hepburn and Carol Goar on the purpose and effect of attack ads in general; and
- Andrew Coyne on the Cons' particular brand of personal attack, featuring some suggestions to reduce the amount of negative advertising.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Thomas Walkom points out that banks are far from the only corporations who are conspicuously moving jobs offshore to the detriment of Canadian workers and citizens:
Unions are being ground down; wages are being ground down. Jobs are being ground out of existence. With the economy so weak and foreign competition so fierce, domestic firms find it harder to expand.
For many, the only solution is to squeeze their workers.
Before the Great Recession, goods moved easily across borders. So did capital.
But what’s new about this slump is that labour has become an equally fluid component of the production process.
Sometimes labour moves physically. The federal temporary foreign worker program is designed to shift individual labourers swiftly and painlessly into Canada in order to accelerate the downward pressure on wages here.
Sometimes, as the Royal Bank has demonstrated, jobs move at the flick of a switch. The physical workers remain in Canada. But their work moves abroad.
 - The Cons are trying to justify cutting the public out of any review of future pipeline development by shrieking about people "gaming the system" - in contrast to, say, the oil industry which simply owns it. And they're also apparently equally concerned about the inherent unfairness involved in allowing the Chief Electoral Officer to offer unwanted knowledge and perspective about Canada's election rules.

- Meanwhile, Matt O'Brien highlights the fact that the main case for austerity can be traced back not just to questionable theories, but to obviously-flawed arithmetic. Which isn't to say that anybody on the right is above declaring that 2+2=panda if it means an excuse to attack public services.

- And in that vein, it shouldn't be a surprise that the Health Council of Canada is the latest institution to face demolition at the hands of the Cons.

- Finally, Joe Fiorito writes about Marc Hamel's observations on the costs of poverty in Ontario:
He noted something that you, I hope, already know: if you live in poverty as a child, there’s a 20 per cent chance you will live in poverty as an adult.
His best guess, based on reading and research? “If we could help this 20 per cent with skill training and higher education, the income gain for Ontario would be $3.2 billion a year.”
He puts the total cost of child poverty in Ontario at anywhere between $4.6 billion and $5.9 billion a year. And then he talked about lost opportunity.
“If we were able to increase the income and participation of the lowest quintile of income earners, and raise their incomes to the second quintile, the benefit to the Ontario economy would be over $16 billion a year.”
He also noted that, if we did so, there would be an increase in tax revenues of $4 billion.
But here’s the real money quote: “In total, poverty costs the residents of Ontario a staggering $32 billion to $38 billion a year — the equivalent of over 5 per cent of provincial GDP.”

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Chin-resting cats.

The first move

Following up on this morning's post on the federal political scene, I'll offer a few observations on the Cons' immediate attack ad against Justin Trudeau:

Now, I've pointed out before that the Cons' previous attack ads against Lib leaders succeeded precisely because they made claims which were so vague as to be unfalsifiable. And by that standard, there would indeed be substantial risk in an attempt to define Trudeau as comic relief (which would seemingly allow him to defeat the Cons' definition simply by avoiding the most massive of gaffes) or as inexperienced (which falls under the category of self-defeating criticisms as a leader spends more time in the public eye).

But I have to wonder whether the first salvo against Trudeau is less an indication of the Cons' ultimate plan to define him, and more a form of inoculation against future scenes like this.

The Libs will naturally want to build up a unique persona for the man who holds their party's future in his hands. But the Cons will now have a ready-made counter to any step outside the political straight and narrow - with any originality on Trudeau's part framed as evidence of a dilettante "in over his head" rather than a distinctive personality. And the flat-out falsehoods within the Cons' ad will seem far less significant in the long run if Trudeau's actions make the underlying theme seem plausible - forcing the Libs into some much more complicated calculations as to how to set Trudeau apart without risking the Cons' message sticking to him.

Meanwhile, the Cons also look to have signaled that at least for now, they're more intent on dealing with Trudeau than managing risks posed by both the NDP and the Libs - as both points of criticism within the ad involve areas of strength for Tom Mulcair. (Hence my suspicion that Stephen Harper may be placing a greater emphasis on destroying the Libs for good than on his own likelihood of holding onto power in 2015.)

Stephen's Choice

Karl Nerenberg offers one comparative look at how the NDP and the Libs are positioned for the next few years after this weekend's conventions which saw Tom Mulcair resoundingly confirmed as the NDP's leader and Justin Trudeau anointed as the Libs'. But I'll take a bit of time to discuss the wider political scene - and how the most important choice over the next few years may still lie in the hands of Stephen Harper and his party.

While media coverage of polls inevitably tends toward proclaiming a horse race, the trend since Trudeau has instead pointed toward another possibility: for the foreseeable future, we figure to be in a true three-party system, where relatively small shifts can create plausible scenarios in which each of the NDP, Libs and Cons has a path to power. And the range of possible outcomes is only heightened by the respective positions of the NDP and the Libs - who can be seen as exemplifying the fable of the tortoise and the hare.

For the NDP, the next steps look mostly to involve continued progress along the party's existing trajectory. While the 2011 Quebec breakthrough may have provided a bit more public attention and a stronger base in Parliament than expected, the path ahead still means implementing the strategy first developed when Jack Layton won the leadership over a decade ago - including consolidating the NDP's hold over progressive policy positions (as Frank Graves points out), further outreach to groups who haven't been sufficiently included before, and slowly but surely building Mulcair's reputation as a strong and steady leader defined by a commitment to social democratic causes ignored by the other two official parties.

For the Libs, on the other hand, the only goal for the moment is to catch lightning in a bottle. As Andrew Coyne notes, the entire party is now focused entirely on Justin Trudeau alone, which creates both obvious opportunities and significant dangers. It's possible that the Libs may be able to harness an immediate outpouring of attention to jump-start the fund-raising, volunteer and activist bases needed to support a government-in-waiting. But the Libs are effectively starting from scratch yet again in trying to assemble those pieces - and if Trudeau loses his political celebrity status before they're in place, then that may well be the end of the party as a viable political force.

Which leads us to the most interesting factor to watch over the next few years.

Stephen Harper's time as the Cons' leader has been defined primarily by two goals: to incrementally spread small-c conservative values around the political scene to the extent possible, and to kill off the Liberals as a viable political force. And until 2011, there wasn't any need to choose between those two goals, as any action which supported one tended to contribute to the other.

But with Trudeau conspicuously trying to position himself as a centre-right leader while the NDP has emerged as a serious contender for government in its own right, the two goals may now be mutually incompatible.

The "spread conservative values" goal might well be best achieved (at least in the sense of trying to secure another majority in 2015) through a strategy of opposition whack-a-mole: launching concerted attacks on whichever opposition party manages to reach relative parity with the Cons at any given time, and easing off to allow either party to rebuild strength if it's in danger of falling out of the picture entirely.

Of course, that line of attack isn't without its risks either: in particular, if the two opposition parties are both allowed to push their support into the high twenties or beyond, a minority scenario could easily materialize which Harper wouldn't likely survive. And moreover, a three-party system featuring the Libs as a significant option obviously falls short of the goal of performing a victory dance on the Libs' corpse.

That leaves the other possibility. It's often been mooted that Harper's long-term goal is a system akin to that which has existed in B.C. for the past few decades - with a right-wing coalition which can be assembled (under various party banners) to win a majority of elections in the long run, and a left-wing counterweight strong enough to contend in most elections but facing a small, persistent structural disadvantage.

And Harper will have some significant influence in determining whether that dynamic materializes. If he simply decides to attack Trudeau early, often and with even less regard than usual for the Cons' immediate popularity, he may well be able to push the Libs over the edge. But in so doing, he'd almost certainly improve the NDP's chances of emerging on top in 2015. (And it might well have other unintended side effects - such as reinforcing so many negative perceptions as to push his own party into third place if Trudeau's popularity holds up.)

So these may be the choices facing Harper: between an Ontario-style three-party system which often requires triangulation and compromise or a B.C.-style winner-take-all ideological slugfest; between Justin Trudeau having a better chance to come to power pushing centre-right policies or Tom Mulcair receiving a greater opportunity to implement centre-left ones; between short-term power in 2015 and a long-term party alignment which he may see as more consistent with his agenda.

I have my own suspicions as to what will prove the be the overriding force in the Cons' decision-making. And I see the first wave of attacks on Trudeau supporting the theory - though I'll have more to say about those later on.

[Update: Corrected fable. Fun update to be able to offer.]

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- George Monbiot comments on the outsized influence of advertisers on children:
How many people believe this makes the world a better place? A company called TenNine has hung hoardings in the corridors and common rooms of 750 British schools. Among its clients are Nike, Adidas, Orange, Tesco and Unilever. It boasts that its "high impact platform delivers right to the heart of the 11-18 year old market".

Other firms are closing in. Boomerang Media, which represents Sega, Atari, Virgin, Umbro and others, has persuaded schools to distribute Revlon perfume samples to their pupils. This campaign, it says, "was effectively linked into their PSHE and PE classes". PSHE means personal, social, health and economic education, or "learning to live life well". How the disbursement of perfume by teachers helps children to keep fit and live well is a mystery I will leave you to ponder.

Advertising in schools offers corporations a genuine captive market. Trade associations which defend the dark arts of persuasion argue that if you don't like advertisements, then you don't have to look at them. But in this case you do. While surveys suggest that roadside hoardings raise awareness of a company's products among 28% of the people who pass them, posters in schools, according to TenNine, reach over 80%.

Every year, advertisers press a little further into our lives, shrinking the uncontaminated space in which we may live. In ways of which we are often scarcely aware, they change our perceptions of the world, alter our values, infiltrate the language.
In his book Childhood Under Siege, Joel Bakan shows how computer games and social networking are being merged to create new advertising platforms. The aim, according to an executive he quotes, is to "get users in the door to play for free and then monetise the hell out of them once they're hooked". One way is to issue points or virtual coinage to kids who click on advertisements.

All this is promoted as fun and freedom. Parents who try to restrict children's access look like prudes and killjoys. "As our kids become immersed," Bakan notes, "in a [corporate] culture that works to pry them loose from us, we become less able to find the connection, respect, authority and credibility we need to keep them safe, healthy and in the long term happy."
So it didn't take me long to decide to sign the open letter by a new campaign called Leave Our Kids Alone, asking for a ban on all advertising aimed at children under 11. It is long overdue: it's a marvel that we have for so long tolerated this capture of children's minds by companies exploiting their innocence and wonder. This is a campaign about more than advertising. It's about who we are: free-thinking citizens, raised on the best information and judgment that parents and teachers can provide; or captive consumers, suckled at home and at school on subtle corporate lies. I urge you to join it.
- But Erika Shaker notes that corporate interests haven't been able to completely override critical thought - with the Cons' temporary foreign worker system looking like a prime example of an issue where the general public is rightly questioning why actual people have no place in Conservative and corporate decision-making.  And Ken Georgetti calls on the Cons to fix the system they've broken.

- Martin Regg Cohn points out that the Ontario Libs' gas plant scandal also serves as a case in point as to the dangers of ill-advised privatization:
It was the Liberal embrace of privatization in 2004 that drove the government to contract out any new power generation — from gas-fired plants, solar and wind — to the private sector, explicitly sidelining government-owned Ontario Power Generation.
Think about that: OPG happens to have decades of experience in siting power plants — including nuclear reactors — across Ontario while engaging with local communities (ever notice our nukes aren’t plagued by active NIMBYism?). It also has enormous fiscal capacity to borrow money for power plant construction without resorting to parasitical U.S. private equity funds charging nearly criminal rates of interest and penalties.
Instead, the Liberals bought into the fantasy that privatization equals efficiency. And the shibboleth that the private sector always delivers on time and on budget.
Not in Mississauga, where the private sector ran out of time — and money. Eastern Power won the contract by bidding low for the project, but turned out to be a high-cost operator: Not only did it borrow money at 14 per cent (compounded quarterly), as the auditor noted incredulously, it demanded to be compensated for supposedly paying an administrative assistant at the rate of $110,000 a year.
So much for efficiency.
- Which offers a useful reminder to work on avoiding the same types of problems with a new Regina wastewater treatment plant.

- And finally, CBC reports that while Peter Penashue gets ever more shrill in shouting that he abused his ministerial authority in order to secure pork for his riding, his party refuses to even acknowledge that anything of the sort ever happened.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Someday, this could all be ours

Sure, we know that an undue obsession with standardized testing leads to incentives for administrators and teachers to cheat in order to give the impression of improvement. But that's nothing compared to the impact on other parts of a child's eduction which get shoved aside in the name of test scores:
At Public School 10 on the edge of Park Slope, Brooklyn, parents begged the principal to postpone the lower school science fair, insisting it was going to add too much pressure while they were preparing their children for the coming state tests.

On Staten Island, a community meeting devolved into a series of student stress stories, with one parent recounting how his son had woken up from a bad dream, mumbling that he had forgotten to fill in a bubble answer.

And at Public School 24 in the Riverdale neighborhood in the Bronx, a fifth-grade teacher, Walter Rendon, has found himself soothing tense 10- and 11-year-olds as they pore over test prep exercises. “Sometimes, I say: ‘Just breathe.’ ”
But in fairness, I'm sure gratuitous stress at the school level will only help to prepare students prepare for a workforce similarly built on random burdens imposed from on high with no consideration for the interests of the rabble. So we at least can't say the Saskatchewan Party's plans are anything less than internally consistent.

(H/t to Kay at Balloon Juice.)

#mtlqc13 - Day 3 Review

Once again, Aaron has a list of the resolutions passed at the NDP's federal convention - and I won't comment much on what passed other than to note that once again, some key resolutions (on social housing, health care funding and temporary foreign workers) were passed by the plenary session after being pushed to the front of the line by members at convention.

However, I'll take some time to discuss the session on the party's constitution and internal governance.

While far too much talk about the convention focused on the constitutional preamble (which I discussed here), two other highly-ranked resolutions also raised the prospect of constitutional change. And indeed, the first resolution on the topic led to my first direct intervention in a federal NDP convention.

Resolution 7-01-13, explained as being intended to ensure that nomination rules are set at the federal level rather than devolved to the NDP's provincial wings, read as follows:
Resolution to Amend the Constitution Submitted by Federal Council
WHEREAS the NDP has different rules governing nominations in each province; and
WHEREAS using different rules in each province creates inconsistency and confusion;
BE IT RESOLVED that Article XV of the constitution be struck and replaced by:
Article XV: Rules governing the nomination of candidates
1. The Federal Council shall create rules and procedures for the nomination of the federal candidates.
2. The Federal Council shall review these rules after each general election. 
Unfortunately, having spent most of my time analyzing the convention resolutions looking at policy points which I hoped to see promoted, I hadn't looked a in a lot of detail at the issues seen as non-controversial enough to already be at the front of the line. And while I'm happy to see standards set at the national level, it struck me as questionable to leave total discretion in the hands of federal council rather than ensuring that the NDP's nomination rules and procedures are based on meaningful constitutional guidelines - particularly given my frequent criticism of other parties for practices like shielding incumbents from nominations or appointing candidates from the top.

As a result, I moved as follows:
MOVED that Resolution 7-01-13 be referred to Federal Council to develop a new Article XV providing for federal nomination standards which respect the principles of open nominations and electoral district association-level nomination elections.
Fortunately, Nathan Rotman's response indicated that those values would be taken into account in the current Council's work. But ultimately, I'd still see it as important to ensure that the core values underlying the NDP's nomination process can't be fundamentally altered by Federal Council without membership approval - and I'll want to see some discussion on that point (with a lot more advance preparation on my part) at the party's Edmonton convention in 2015.

Naturally, the constitutional preamble - featuring a couple of amendments from the pre-convention version - was the subject of a heated debate. But the most effective interventions came from the pro side - including the likes of Bill Blaikie who could say that he had concerns about the party's previous proposed amendment, but saw the new version (which he of course participated in drafting) as having resolved those issues. (And that stood in stark contrast to the "con" side, which seemed aimed mostly at expressing the greatest possible outrage rather than convincing anybody who might have been on the fence).

If there was any key lesson to be learned from the standpoint of planning the convention, it may have been that there's a need to address more policy than it's possible to debate over the course of a weekend. In particular, I wonder whether a mechanism to designate some resolutions as "non-controversial" would allow for a show of party support without spending a lot of time debating resolutions which don't face any opposition - but there's obviously room to discuss how best to get to more policy priorities.

But this weekend nonetheless highlighted how an engaged membership and an effective leader can reinforce each other rather than being seen as mutually inconsistent - and the NDP looks to be on solid ground on both fronts as it builds up to the 2015 election and beyond.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Peter Gillespie discusses the problems with tax cheats (and the overseas tax havens which encourage them):
Multinational corporations and banking and financial institutions routinely use tax havens to lower or eliminate their tax obligations, avoid regulation, and shield themselves from liability. Tax havens host more than two million “international business corporations,” often little more than shell companies with a postal address. The British Virgin Islands, with a population of 30,000, hosts an estimated 460,000 business corporations. One modest building in the Cayman Islands is home to more that 18,000 of these entities.

Last December, media reports in the United Kingdom revealed that Google, Amazon and Starbucks were paying little or no taxes to the national treasury despite earning billions in profits in the British market. During a parliamentary investigation, officials from the three companies admitted they were shifting profits out of Britain into lower tax jurisdictions. Amazon collects its U.K. sales in Luxembourg. Google collects its sales in Ireland and through a complicated scheme sends its earnings to the tax haven of Bermuda via the Netherlands.
(T)hese opaque and secretive jurisdictions are causing serious harm, especially in the era of austerity and the attendant erosion of social support programs worldwide. The reports from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists are shining a light into the murkiest spaces within the global economy. We should all be grateful.
- Doug Saunders writes that Canada has developed largely thanks to the full integration of immigrant workers - and argues that the same opportunity, not only temporary worker status, should be available for new arrivals today. And Heather Mallick discusses the hollowing-out of Canada's work force:
Stephen Harper’s long-term plan for Canada includes not just the Thatcherite destruction of unions but a clear-out of government workers and a lowering of all wages. The man keeps winning elections because he trusts that voters won’t make the connection and take it personally.

Indeed wages drop slowly, not instantly, and they’re hard to track. But welcomes news tips from the public. Here’s my story, one man wrote, and journalists recognized that the story of one man was in fact the story of many. And that’s when Canada got angry.

Eventually, outsourcing will ravage Canadian office workers. Their loss will become our loss, and that’s what we still don’t grasp. We know about specific bank IT complaints, and teachers’ strikes, but we don’t see the big picture.
Government workers inspect our food, issue our passports and clean our hospital rooms. As they are laid off, replaced with outsourced low-paid foreign workers or not replaced at all, our quality of life sinks like a stone. What is true for government workers is also true for the private sector. We need Canadian bank workers to be paid fairly, too.
- But fortunately, the corporatist effort to take more and more away from mere workers isn't without some organized opposition - as John Bonnar reports on the work of the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights.

- Carol Goar discusses a few examples of single statistics being used as talking points even when they're carefully selected to obscure the real picture.

- And finally, Michael Harris muses that the Harper Cons may have run out of gas:
(W)ith a rejuvenated opposition capturing the public’s eye — one party through a policy-driven convention taking dead aim at this government, and the other by selecting a new leader who might just bring the kids back into politics — Stephen Harper suddenly looks old.

He looks old flying to the funeral of a woman who defended apartheid and whose death sent thousands of her own countrymen into the street partying. He looks old fronting for a corporate elite who can’t buy enough advertising to portray their greed as swashbuckling philanthropy, putting us all to work. He looks old welcoming Chinese panda bears to Canada while cold-shouldering native kids who walked through an eternity of winter to be heard on the lawns of Parliament.

Old is bad enough. Then there is ancient. That’s the place where Stephen Harper has arrived on the environment. This is a file you just can’t lie your way through, no matter how many spinners do your bidding. The polar ice caps are disappearing and Canada opts out of Kyoto. There is a reason that anyone in this PM’s environment portfolio ends up with more wrinkles than an Agatha Christie plot.