Saturday, May 04, 2013

On implausible assumptions

I've made the case questioning gratuitous privatization of SLGA's liquor sales (as well as a controlling stake in ISC) based on the actual profit levels associated with real Crowns. So what kind of contrary argument is there for pushing privatization rather than public investment? Let's ask the Leader-Post's editorial board:
(M)ore private liquor stores means less profits for SLGA to give to government. It's (sic) familiar argument, but not universally accepted: critics say this ignores the income taxes private firms and their employees pay, and the taxes generated by the construction of new stores.
Now, the apparent critics might have a point - if we lived in a world where SLGA employees didn't pay income taxes, or where there was any meaningful difference in the economic activity associated with the construction of new stores for private operation as opposed to public operation. But I'd hope we can discuss the subject based on a comparison from this world, where those factors are at worst neutral as between private and public operation of new stores.

 That means the only comparison is between the public enjoying all of the profits associated with new stores, or a mere 10% of the profits (minus any further deductions, giveaways and jurisdictional transfers) from a private operator. 

Which would make for a rather easy decision for anybody looking out for the province's best interests, rather than seeking to prioritize private profits at the expense of the public good. But unfortunately, the Sask Party has had far too much help in exactly the latter mission.

Saturday Morning Links

This and that for your weekend reading.

- Helene Leblanc argues that we should make sure the Internet is treated as a commons accessible to all, rather than a privilege denied to many (particularly in rural areas):
Many Canadians living outside urban centres do not have access to high speed broadband Internet and a significant number connect at speeds of 1.5 megabits per second — only marginally faster than dial-up.

In the year 2000 Estonia declared Internet access a fundamental human right, something essential for life in the 21st century, and launched a program to expand rural access. Finland has declared that by 2015, access to a 100 megabits-per-second connection will be a legal right. The U.S.’s National Broadband Plan has set a similar target of Internet service speed of 100 megabits-per-second in at least 100 million homes by 2020.
It is essential that residents of Canada’s Arctic region have access to reliable, affordable communication networks — not only to protect our nation’s sovereignty and for emergency response, but to benefit from the many opportunities living in the 21st century can afford. Emergency responders also need the means to communicate rapidly in the event of disasters in the Arctic and elsewhere.
As government, it is the Conservatives’ responsibility to do more than repeat mindless rhetoric on the economy; they must take action to promote Canadians’ long-term prosperity. Canada needs to be strategic in securing broadband infrastructure for rural and remote regions. A lack of equitable access to high‐speed broadband will leave businesses in rural and remote regions behind in a global economy.
- Ishmael Daro reports that the Cons are already planning for three more years of publicly-funded economic propaganda, while Mike de Souza confirms that the Cons plan to spend yet more money claiming credit for past programs as a substitute for doing anything about climate change. All of which is to confirm that we should be far more concerned about the hundreds of millions of dollars being burned by Stephen Harper's central command than the comparatively trifling cost of MP communications.

- Angella MacEwen points out why we shouldn't simply assume away the problem of unemployment. And Haroon Siddiqui confirms that the Cons are still pushing to use temporary foreign workers to drive down Canadian wages and opportunities.

- Finally, Adam Radwanski recognizes that the Ontario NDP has been effective enough to force Kathleen Wynne to at least give some substance to her party's rhetoric about a "fair society". But Trish Hennessy and Hugh Mackenzie rightly note that Libs' overarching plan still involves long-term austerity rather than social progress.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Musical interlude

Econoline Crush - Surefire

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Arthur Haberman argues that our universal public health care system helps contribute to a more democratic society:
There is something that political philosophers — those like Tocqueville and Mill in the 19th century — have come to call living democratically. By this it is meant that voting is but a small part of what being in a democracy is about. It also includes volunteering in small ways to make our communities better, participating in decisions about what happens to your town or your neighbourhood, judging your fellow citizens by the quality of their character and not by the size of their homes or wealth, and treating all as equals.

Our society has decided that we needed to expand what living democratically means to the realms of education and health. We hope to make education universally available to all, a good education, providing more equal opportunity. We don’t succeed here as well as we would like, but the goal is a meaningful one.

We also hope to make health care available to all so that no one will face the misfortune of not being able to afford decent care and so that all have access to something that will enhance the quality of their lives. Here, it seemed to me in those eight weeks in the waiting area, we are succeeding very well in living democratically.

So universal health care is not only about the bodies of our citizens. It is also a statement about the values we want to forward in the body politic. May it flourish.
- Meanwhile, Bob Hepburn comments on the importance of a functional Parliament as part of the same end goal of a viable democracy. And Sean Holman's new project documents how B.C.'s parties in particular have come to expect discipline rather than participation by MLAs.

- David Wiegel writes that the Cons aren't the only political party fighting a war against social science, as their Republican cousins are actively defunding research in the area. But fortunately, Michael Adams for one doesn't intend to give in to the anti-research movement.

- Scott Clark and Peter De Vries highlight the need to track down the $3.1 billion disappeared by the Harper Cons. And Michael Harris contrasts the Cons' demands for accountability from everybody else against their expectation that nobody will question even their least plausible talking points:
Here is another big thing that has been Harperized: the need for everyone to be accountable with public funds — Indian Bands, unions, the provinces, et. al. A lot of people have wondered why Tony Clement, the Sultan of Slush, was ever put in charge at Treasury Board — except maybe to slowly suffocate the CBC. This is the guy and the government that couldn’t be bothered to properly appropriate the funds for the G-8, G-20 and simply lifted the money from the budget of the Canada Border Service Agency. The auditor-general’s report bristles with irony.

Now that Michael Ferguson has confirmed that $3.1 billion has gone missing-in-action from the Public Security and Anti-Terrorism Initiative, when can we expect the Attawapiskat Doctrine to kick in? That’s when you set the sharp-pencil boys on a tiny First Nations Band to make sure there’s been no hanky-panky with taxpayers money — and then publish their incompetence.

But Deloitte won’t be doing Tony, either before or after he becomes finance minister. It’s all about making sure that enemies come transparent and with a leash, and the regime remains behind the curtain — as no one knows better than the Wizard.
- Finally, Carol Goar discusses the current committee study of income inequality. But it's difficult to separate inequality in both opportunity and outcomes from a system set up to benefit those with the most - such as the tendency to allow the likes of Goldman Sachs to avoid the full consequences of tax evasion.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Ed Broadbent takes a look at how our tax system can combat inequality in more ways than one:
The Broadbent Institute is presenting proposals Tuesday to the Finance Committee of the House of Commons. Our primary recommendation is that Canada establish as a goal the provision of a basic income-tested guarantee to all citizens through a fairer personal income tax system.

The tax/transfer system equalizes income in two important ways. First, progressive income taxes mean that the affluent pay a higher percentage of income than middle and low income earners. Second, these taxes help finance social programs that benefit those who have middle and low incomes more than the affluent.

Our tax/transfer system is modestly re-distributive, but we still have a very unequal distribution of income after the impact of taxes and transfers has been taken into account. And the re-distributive impact of has been declining since the mid-1990s. It’s now 20% below the advanced industrial country average.
(A)s a long-term goal, we should abolish welfare as it currently exists. Our current system, paid for by the provinces, provides meagre and stigmatizing benefits that leave recipients well below the poverty line. It also creates a “welfare wall” since recipients lose their benefits almost entirely if they take a low paid and insecure job. A negative income tax has been broadly championed across the political spectrum, including by Senator Hugh Segal and the late Tom Kent, the prime architect of Canada’s social reforms of the 1960s. It should be given serious consideration.

Fourth, improvements to income support programs should be financed by making our income tax system fairer. Even as the income share of the top 1% has risen, their effective income tax rate has fallen, from 39.4% to 33.3% since 2000. We should consider changes to address this, scale back special tax breaks that deliver huge benefits primarily to the very well off, e.g. on capital gains, and crack down on tax cheaters. Corporations should be required to pay to clean up their own pollution. Making these changes would help stabilize government finances and restore public trust in the fairness of the tax system.
- Meanwhile, Matt McClure points out that Alberta's "low tax" branding only applies to the wealthy - as low- and middle-class families actually pay more there than in other provinces.

- Trish Hennessy documents the costs of the Cons' austerity. But Kenneth Thomas notes that the disastrous results of austerity haven't stopped the Republicans from pushing it in the U.S. And lest we think Canada is lacking for Very Serious People eager to inflict economic pain in the name of appeasing the bond vigilantes regardless of the human costs, Neil Macdonald argues for exactly that.

- Finally, it should come as no surprise that the type of irresponsible Con government which can lose track of $3.1 billion without blinking an eye is focusing its efforts on...muzzling in the watchdogs and media outlets which might otherwise be able to hold it to account.

New column day

Here, on how increasing inequality at the top of the income spectrum is creating a real disparity in opportunity affecting both middle-class and lower-income children.

For further reading, see Sean Reardon's column (or better yet, his study) discussing the U.S.' experience in detail.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Normalizing secrecy

I haven't commented yet on the story surrounding Tom Mulcair's request for basic investigation into back-channel information between the Trudeau government and the Supreme Court of Canada - which seems best classified as a minor but reasonable request which has been blown out of proportion.

But I'll take a moment to point out the jaw-dropping response from the Libs, who are apparently demanding government secrecy far beyond that ever publicly defended by even the Harper Cons:
This motion calls for the federal government to release archived documents related to the constitutional negotiations which led to the patriation of the Constitution in 1982.

However, the federal government has already stated that it does not intend to give policy directives to civil servants responsible for the application of the Access to Information Act.

We would like the government to hold firm in this respect. The Conservatives already have a tendency to politicize everything; there is no need to encourage them in this bad habit. The last thing we should do is politicize the application of the Access to Information Act.

We believe this act should be strengthened; however, this should be done as part of a global legislative review and not in response to one specific request for information.
So what's wrong with that response? Well, let's take a look at what the Access to Information Act itself is intended to do in making information available (emphasis added):
2. (1) The purpose of this Act is to extend the present laws of Canada to provide a right of access to information in records under the control of a government institution in accordance with the principles that government information should be available to the public, that necessary exceptions to the right of access should be limited and specific and that decisions on the disclosure of government information should be reviewed independently of government.
(2) This Act is intended to complement and not replace existing procedures for access to government information and is not intended to limit in any way access to the type of government information that is normally available to the general public.
In other words, the point of the Access to Information Act isn't to serve as the lone means by which government information can be made public, or to require that access-to-information coordinators vet every single piece of paper distributed by a government department. Instead, it creates a right to information upon request - without affecting the authority of a government to release information through other channels.

And I don't think anybody has seriously proposed changing the law in that respect, particularly given the obvious dangers of presuming that all government information must be withheld from the public unless it's specifically requested.

But in their desperation to find a wedge against the NDP, Dion and the Libs are pretending that it's somehow wrongful for a government to so much as consider whether information should be released outside of the formal process under the Access to Information Act.

Needless to say, we shouldn't buy Dion's implicit argument that government accountability should exist only through access-to-information requests. And the fact that Dion has given the Cons leverage to make secrecy the norm - particularly in reliance on a statute based on the contrary principle - should be taken as an indication that the Libs are still more interested in preserving top-down power than pursuing good governance.


Nobody could have foreseen that the much-ballyhooed Backbench Spring would give way to the Toadying Summer Olympics. But sure enough, the first question from a Con MP nominally challenging his party's whip looks like a gold medalist in the Party Boot-Licking and Tar Sands Shilling biathlon.

As best, it looks like we may be able to draw some amusement seeing the Cons' backbenchers compete for the right to ask future variations on "Mr. Prime Minister, your government has the momentum of a runaway freight train loaded with Uncle Cappy's Magic Non-Polluting Petroleum-Derivative Elixir, which will never spill and we shouldn't care if it does. Why are you so popular?". But anybody holding out hope that there might be some critical thought forthcoming from within the Cons figures to be in for a long wait.

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Thomas Walkom writes that yesterday's minor tinkering aside, the goal of the Cons' temporary foreign worker program is still to drive down Canadian wages. And Miles Corak argues that the resulting distortion of employment markets shouldn't be any more acceptable to a libertarian than a progressive:
Flooding the market with workers from elsewhere, year in and year out – even during a major recession – is not about an acute labour shortage. It is nothing more than a wage subsidy to low-paying firms, a subsidy that stunts the reallocation of goods, capital, and labour that is the basis for efficient markets.

Not only that, but by blunting the rise in wages that market forces are calling for, the Temporary Worker Program is exacerbating the inequality of earnings in the lower half of the income distribution.

It will continue to displace Canadian workers silently if not directly, despite government assurances, for the simple reason that it artificially keeps wages low, and spoils the magic of the market.

The entire program amounts to a needless intervention that creates both inefficiency and inequity. Perhaps libertarians can see that more clearly than politicians. The whole thing should simply be scrapped.
- Doctors for Fair Taxation make the case for Ontario to balance its budget through more progressive taxes rather than through massive cuts. And Andrew Jackson again debunks the Fraser Institute's anti-tax hysteria by pointing out that it's based on falsely counting corporate taxes, user fees and any other public revenue as household-level taxes - while deliberately omitting any income for anybody but individuals in order to present artificially high rates.

- Tim Naumetz reports on the Cons' power grab to take control over the CBC. Lauren Strapagiel collects a few of the Twitter responses as to what #harperscbc would look like.

- Finally, Joseph Heath pens a defence of sociology (and criminology in particular) against the Cons' attacks:
The common-sense conservative disdain for sociology is long-standing. After delivering a swingeing 25-per-cent budget cut to Ontario universities in the 1990s, then premier Mike Harris specifically fingered “sociology” as one of the useless disciplines that the universities might consider cutting.

As a liberal intellectual, whenever I encounter this sort of hatred, I naturally ask myself, “What are the root causes?” What did sociologists ever do to them? Why isn’t “society” something that conservatives consider worthy of study?

In this case the root cause is not hard to find. It comes from an accident of intellectual history, which is that criminology developed as a subspecialty of sociology. The people who conservatives actually hate are criminologists. They hate criminologists because criminologists are pretty much unified in the conviction our common-sense ideas about crime, both with respect to its causes and its remedy, are wrong.
(M)ost of us have a huge bias in the way that we think about punishment, which affects our judgment in everything we do, from raising kids to managing people at work, and, of course, to thinking about crime. The only way to correct this, and to figure out what actually works, is to collect data and look at long-term trends.
This is why people who read books and study statistics are much more likely to support programs that appear to coddle criminals (what conservatives like to call “hugs for thugs” programs). It’s because social scientists actually know something important about how the world works, and in this case reality does have a liberal bias.

Hostility to expertise in all of its forms is the closest thing that Canadian conservatives have to a unifying ideology. Criminologists, however, rankle them just a little bit more than others, because their expertise happens to touch on an area that many conservatives feel strongly about. Recent changes in Canadian criminal justice have served no productive purpose, other than promoting punishment for the sake of punishment and vengeance for the sake of vengeance. This may make some people feel better, but it does nothing to prevent crime. Criminologists are the ones with the data to prove this, so it’s no wonder they’re unpopular with the government.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Embedded cats.

On choosing sides

There's been no lack of past commentary (from myself and others) on how income splitting is about as regressive a policy as one could possibly design - and I won't repeat it for the moment other than to say that the supposed "compromise" offered by Jack Mintz only goes a step further in ascribing zero value to a stay-at-home spouse.

But it is worth pointing out Lib MP John McKay's participation in yesterday's PR stunt - explained by the bizarre claim that the issue is one that we should "de-politicize" income distribution and tax policy.

Simply put, the issue represents about as stark a political choice as possible: do we agree or disagree with the concept of taking money out of the hands of the poor and redistributing it to wealthier households? And if people accept McKay'a dubious premise that a party can be progressive while trying to silence opposition to that worldview (which the Cons will be pushing with every political lever available to them), then we're doomed to lost the political battle.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- We shouldn't be surprised that the corporate sector is reacting with contrived outrage to the Cons' tinkering with a severely flawed temporary foreign worker program. But Jim Stanford points out what it would take to actually move labour standards upward rather than including Canadian workers in a race to the bottom:
(T)he Harper government is now moving to avert a political disaster in the making. Advance coverage in the Globe and Mail indicates its proposed changes will include a new fee for temporary foreign worker permits, and requirements that employers promise to step up their advertising and training to eventually recruit Canadians for the jobs.

But those promises won’t be worth the paper they are printed on. Federal bureaucrats have no concrete basis on which to judge whether training or recruitment promises are realistic or not, let alone have power to meaningfully enforce them. So long as access to migrant labour remains open, companies can always come back complaining about “shortages.” Even today, the so-called Labour Market Opinions which must be issued before employers can tap the program are no more than a symbolic ritual; approving employers’ “training plans” will be just another rubber stamp.

If we really want employers to find qualified Canadians instead of importing cheap replacements, the whole loophole must be closed down. The low-skill window currently allowed under the program should be cancelled completely (along with the provision allowing employers to pay 15 per cent less-than-going wages). There is absolutely no legitimate reason unemployed Canadians can’t be tapped to fill every one of those jobs: from coal mines to factories to hotels to donut shops. Employers in these industries tap the program only as a handy source of cheap, compliant labour. This whole section of the program gives the lie to the claim that we need migrant workers for their “skills” in the first place.

For genuine, specialized high-skill vacancies, the guest worker program must only be used as a temporary stop-gap, with hard caps on both numbers and length. Specialists should be allowed in for six months only, with a maximum of one renewal. That gives employers ample time to recruit Canadians – so long as they are willing to pay them. Employers who use the program for skilled-trades positions must set up their own apprenticeship programs to meet future needs.

Every migrant should be entitled to normal employment rights (including access to EI and CPP benefits), as well as having access to normal immigration opportunities. After all, if their skill truly cannot be replaced from within Canada, then they should be invited to live and work here like the rest of us, with full legal protections (instead of being fenced off in low-wage, unpoliced job ghettos).

Finally, full transparency should be required – regularly publishing which employers hire temporary foreign workers, in which jobs, and for how long. Apart from providing unemployed Canadians with a valuable source of information on job opportunities, this sunshine would help ensure that companies use the program for true skills shortages only.
- Meanwhile, Shiv Malik discusses the latest gratuitous slaps at the unemployed in the UK - as the Cons' cousins are forcing anybody out of work to participate in utterly frivolous psychometric testing.

- And Dr. Dawg offers a modest suggestion as to how outsourcing could actually benefit workers in less-developed countries. (Needless to say, I don't see our corporate overlords taking him up on the proposal.)

- Mike de Souza reports on the Cons' latest decision to eliminate any environmental assessment of major projects ranging from pipelines to chemical explosive plants. Which fits nicely with Justin Ling's interpretation of the Cons' agenda - but doesn't exactly provide reason for confidence among those of us paying attention to what laissez-faire zealotry is doing elsewhere.

- Finally, Sean Reardon discusses how income inequality - particularly between the middle class and the plutocrats - is translating into inequality of opportunity through educational outcomes.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Assorted content to start your week.

- Lynn Stuart Parramore discusses the epidemic of wage theft by U.S. employers:
Americans like to think that a fair day’s work brings a fair day’s pay. Cheating workers of their wages may seem like a problem of 19th-century sweatshops. But it’s back and taking a terrible toll. We’re talking billions of dollars in wages; millions of workers affected each year. A gigantic heist is being perpetrated against working people: they’re getting screwed on overtime, denied their tips, shortchanged on benefits, defrauded on payroll, and handed paychecks that bounce like rubber balls. A conservative estimate of unpaid overtime alone shows that it costs workers at least $19 billion per year.
The sheer scope of the problem is jaw-dropping, sweeping across key industries and inflicting massive damage on individuals and society as a whole. In 2009, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) released a ground-breaking study, “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers,” which found that in America, an honest day’s work is frequently rewarded with theft and abuse. A survey of over 4,000 workers in Chicago, L.A. and New York found that minimum and overtime violations were rife, and any attempt to complain or organize was swiftly met with punishment. Among the revelations:
  • 26 percent of low-wage workers got paid less than the minimum wage.
  • 76 percent of workers toiling over 40 hours were denied overtime.
  • Workers lose an average of $2,634 a year due to these and other workplace violations.
- But of course, it’s easier for employers to get away with violating workers’ rights in the absence of any alternative. And the erosion of public assistance surely figures into that equation:
For the record, the Rae government established a single welfare rate of $663 a month in 1993 — the high water mark. He then froze social assistance rates in both 1994 and 1995, the first two-year freeze since 1973. Mike Harris cut rates by 21.6 per cent, establishing a single rate of $520 a month and let it stay there until Dalton McGuinty took over eight years later. That low $520 single rate, if adjusted for inflation, would now be $617 a month but the current rates stands at just $606 a month.
For the last 20 years, social assistance has eroded to the point that it would take a 56-per-cent rate increase to bring the single rate back to where it was in 1993.
- Meanwhile, Paul Krugman discusses how the 1% has managed to keep dominating policy debates even when its demands have consistently produced disastrous results. And Miles Corak points out that Canada’s Standing Committee on Finance is examining some useful suggestions to address income inequality - though it’s unlikely that study will produce many results in light of the anti-social majority wielded by the Cons.

- Finally, Simon Enoch and Erika Shaker write that the labour movement’s fight for safer workplaces is far from over.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Distinction without a difference

Erin is right to question Doug Elliott's attempt to split hairs between a "slowdown" and a "deceleration". But Elliott's parsing ranks a distant second behind Russ Marchuk in the field of evasive dissembling.

Shorter Marchuk:
It's outrageous that anybody would suggest we're imposing a disastrous policy like universal standardized testing on students. Instead, our policy is one of (flips through thesaurus) unified province-wide (flipflipflip) regular (flipflip) assessments for individual pupils. Which I'm sure you can see is something totally different.

Sunday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Sunday reading.

- Daniel Kaufman notes that the EU is on the verge of implementing new standards for transparency in oil extraction - while recognizing that big oil has fought the effort every step of the way in an effort to keep its activities secret. And Shaun Thomas discusses the no-knowledge zone set up around the Northern Gateway pipeline, as Nathan Cullen's questions within the review process revealed that the federal government hadn't so much as talked to First Nations or affected industries about the possible impact of an oil spill.

- But then, the Cons can at least claim consistency in their general preference for ignorance. And the sudden elimination of a low-cost, high-use library program from Prince Albert's federal penitentiary certainly fits into that worldview. Meanwhile, Frances Woolley asks some questions as to how economists should deal with the first data set from the National Household Survey since the Cons scrapped the long-form census.

- And in case there was any doubt why the Cons and the facts tend to end up on opposite sides of any issue, Randeep Ramesh points out that the numbers being thrown around by the U.K. Conservatives as the basis for attacks on social programs aren't any more plausible than the since-debunked ones used to justify austerity for austerity's sake.

- Haroon Siddiqui continues his criticism of the Cons' push toward temporary and disposable foreign workers, this time labelling Jason Kenney as the headhunter-in-chief for employers looking to drive wages down.

- Finally, Tabatha Southey nicely lampoons Fox News North's attempt to strongarm the CRTC into handing it mandatory subscriber funding:
(A)n ideologically right-wing news organization is asking a governmental regulatory body to force private businesses, in the form of television providers, to carry it in their basic packages – thus demanding that cable subscribers pay for a channel whether they want to watch it or not.

“And why does Sun News Network believe the CRTC should do this?” you might ask.
“Is this not the same Sun News Network whose vice-president, Kory Teneycke, complained in a 2010 commentary in the Sun chain’s newspapers that mandatory carriage was ‘tantamount to a tax on everyone’ with cable or satellite service?” You wonder, because you are very well read.

“Is it not a bit surreal that we should be forced to pay for a television station that devotes much of its airtime to complaining that we are forced to pay for another television channel, the CBC, which we watch in far greater numbers?” You demand to know, because you spend a lot of time thinking about Canadian broadcasting regulation.

Well, the Sun News representatives explained, the CRTC should grant them increasingly difficult-to-obtain mandatory carriage status because, without this government assistance, the network cannot survive as a business, and also because Canadian content is inherently good for us.

Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are apparently no free-market capitalists in a financial black hole, and the people at Sun News cannot spread the blame for their poor ratings thin enough.