Saturday, June 01, 2013

On meaningless spin

Far too many people who should know better have tried to find some significance in the B.C. government's submission to the Harper Cons' Northern Gateway rubber-stamping process. So in case anybody needs a refresher course, here's why we shouldn't see it as an important development.

To start with, B.C.'s announcement doesn't represent a "decision" in any meaningful sense of the word. After all, the B.C. Lib government signed an equivalency agreement (PDF) three years ago in which they agreed to let Stephen Harper decide any environmental questions related to the Northern Gateway pipeline - meaning that the say of Christy Clark and her government at this point is no greater than that of any of the witnesses the Cons have sought to shut out of the process.

Now, it's true that in the absence of the equivalency agreement, there would have been some substantial uncertainty as to the relative authority of the federal and provincial governments. But it's the B.C. Libs who chose to resolve that uncertainty in favour of giving the Harper Cons sole decision-making power.

And the Cons have gone out of their way to abuse their newfound power to decide what process will apply to the pipeline. At last notice, that process included (among other glaring flaws) a refusal to allow participants to ask questions about concerns which Enbridge and the government don't want to talk about, a limitation to the National Energy Board's authority stating that it has no jurisdiction to say "no" for environmental reasons, and a cabinet override to allow Harper to say "yes" even if the NEB finds the science to be so damning as to make it impossible to build the pipeline safely.

All of which is to say that Clark's posturing this week has precisely zero substantive impact on the formal approval process for Northern Gateway. And given that the Cons have made it clear that they're not interested in letting the public interest get in the way of tar-sands profits, there's little reason for optimism that Clark's intervention will suddenly cause them to develop a conscience.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- David Cay Johnston and Miles Corak both discuss the results of a study which compares economic outcomes in technologically advanced countries, and shows that tax giveaways to the wealthy exacerbate inequality without doing anything at all to contribute to economic development.

- And Paul Krugman highlights the fact that all the evidence in the world won't stop the Republicans from trying to take away what few supports are left in the U.S., with a particular focus on food stamps:
Food stamps have played an especially useful — indeed, almost heroic — role in recent years. In fact, they have done triple duty. 
First, as millions of workers lost their jobs through no fault of their own, many families turned to food stamps to help them get by — and while food aid is no substitute for a good job, it did significantly mitigate their misery. Food stamps were especially helpful to children who would otherwise be living in extreme poverty, defined as an income less than half the official poverty line. 
But there’s more. Why is our economy depressed? Because many players in the economy slashed spending at the same time, while relatively few players were willing to spend more. And because the economy is not like an individual household — your spending is my income, my spending is your income — the result was a general fall in incomes and plunge in employment. We desperately needed (and still need) public policies to promote higher spending on a temporary basis — and the expansion of food stamps, which helps families living on the edge and let them spend more on other necessities, is just such a policy. 
Indeed, estimates from the consulting firm Moody’s Analytics suggest that each dollar spent on food stamps in a depressed economy raises G.D.P. by about $1.70 — which means, by the way, that much of the money laid out to help families in need actually comes right back to the government in the form of higher revenue. 
Wait, we’re not done yet. Food stamps greatly reduce food insecurity among low-income children, which, in turn, greatly enhances their chances of doing well in school and growing up to be successful, productive adults. So food stamps are in a very real sense an investment in the nation’s future — an investment that in the long run almost surely reduces the budget deficit, because tomorrow’s adults will also be tomorrow’s taxpayers. 
So what do Republicans want to do with this paragon of programs? First, shrink it; then, effectively kill it. 
 - Susan Delacourt rightly wonders why the Cons don't have the slightest interest in figuring out who used their voter database to commit electoral fraud - declaring victory because their own cover-up managed to prevent the Council of Canadians from identifying the culprit. But I'd think the phrase "they know perfectly well who committed the fraud" is sorely missing from any theory about of the Cons' handling of the scandal.

- Taking into account Robocon, Clusterduff, Rob Ford and other scandals, Aaron Wherry labels May 2013 as the worst month in the history of Canadian politics. (Though I still think that even in the last few years December 2008 - featuring Harper's prorogation to shut down Parliament in the face of a non-confidence vote, Stephane Dion's tragic bungling of the opportunity to form a coalition government, and the Senate appointments of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau among others which set up so many of the current scandals - ranks ahead by a fairly significant margin.)

- Finally, speaking of the Cons' scandals, Thomas Walkom suggests that Duffy is in fact the perfect representative of Stephen Harper's culture of hyperpartisanship and entitlement. Rex Murphy sees the PMO's work to cover up for Duffy as fatal to the Cons' self-image. And while I don't necessarily see the outrage properly being pointed solely at Duffy rather than his political masters, Don Martin's rant is still work a look:

Friday, May 31, 2013

Musical interlude

Odds - Make You Mad

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- A new Ipsos-Reid poll shows that nearly 90% of Canadians support higher taxes on the rich generally, and million-dollar incomes in particular. And there's an obvious need for change based on how distorted tax systems already are - as Reuters reports on a Congressional Budget Office study showing that U.S. tax deductions, credits and exclusions primarily benefit the wealthy.

- Of course, tax policy is far from the only area of corporatist decision-making designed primarily to benefit those who already have the most. Jeremy Nuttall discusses how the federal government's cover-ups succeeded in protecting HD Mining from a challenge to its abuse of temporary foreign workers; CBC reports on contract manipulation at AECL; and the Leader-Post writes about the Sask Party's decision to turn hospital linen services into a corporate cash cow.

- But it's easier to take offence when insider abuses can be tied to individual wrongdoers. On that front, Michael Harris writes that Mike Duffy doesn't seem to have done much other than what he was told to do by the Cons, while Tim Harper suspects that Pamela Wallin is the next in line under the Cons' bus. Colin Horgan sets out some of the questions that still need to be answered about the Cons' Senate scandals. But the Star recognizes that the Cons' answers have been nothing but evasive so far, while Michael den Tandt reminds us why we shouldn't trust a word Stephen Harper and his entourage have to say.

- At the same time, Paul Saurette is right to observe that right-wing scandals may only serve the cause of anti-government forces in the long run. And so in pursuing the facts, we should be careful to point out how public administration can be carried out more cleanly and effectively - not merely pile on the current set of Con offenders.

- Finally, Ian Welsh draws a distinction between broad-based ethics and narrowly-focused morals - and while I'm not sure I'd use those exact terms, his conclusion is well worth sharing:
To put the needs of the few before the needs of the many, in public life, is to be a monster.  But even in private life if we all act selfishly, as our reigning ideology indicates we should, we destroy ourselves. If we all put only ourselves and those we love first, and damn the cost to everyone else, our societies cannot and will not be prosperous, safe, or kind.

The war of all against all is just as nasty when it is waged by small kin groups as when it is waged by individuals.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Advance warning

Colby Cosh is starting to buy into the theory that the Clusterduff scandal is being strategically revealed to divert attention away from Robocon. My greater concern is that if there's a Con strategy at play, it lies in the possible aftermath of reports like this.

The more stories we hear about Duffy acting like a slightly-more-gluttonous Hedonismbot with the full support and encouragement of Stephen Harper's inner circle, the easier it will be for some operative to deliberately plant a false story within that pattern - with the goal of at least uniting the 28% behind the Cons in outrage that anybody would continue to report on months of damaging revelations after one part of the narrative doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Which isn't to say we should hesitate to discuss new revelations as they surface. But I'll hope the crystallizing narrative surrounding Duffy and Harper's PMO doesn't result in the media letting its guard down - lest one mistake serve to give the Cons a way out.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Paul Krugman makes the case for significantly higher taxes on the rich:
What would raising tax rates at the top accomplish? It would, to some extent, mitigate the rise in inequality, which some of us consider a good thing in itself: You don’t have to be a leftist to acknowledge that extreme inequality of income and wealth has a corrosive effect on democracy.

Mainly, however, the benefit of higher tax rates on the wealthy would simply be that it would raise more revenue. We live in a time when politicians are trying to downsize even the most basic social protections, claiming that we can no longer afford to pay for them; well, why not raise taxes on millionaires instead of, say, denying nutritional assistance to the poor?

You will, of course, hear claims that raising taxes on the wealthy won’t even yield increased revenue – that the “job creators” will go on strike, or hide their income from the tax collectors. However, researchers have studied the revenue effects of tax hikes (and cuts) about as thoroughly as any topic in economics, and the evidence is decisive: Increasing top tax rates from their current level would lead to substantially higher revenue. At a sufficiently high rate – the best estimates put it above 70 per cent and possibly as high as 80 per cent – further increases would be self-defeating; but we’re nowhere near that point. 
And while Stephen Gordon partially distinguishes Krugman's U.S. numbers (at least for a couple of carefully-selected provinces), I'd think it's worth trying to reach agreement on a couple of principles: that tax rates should in fact be set such as to maximize revenue, and that for similar revenue expectations it's a reasonable public policy choice to minimize inequality rather than maximizing top-end wealth accumulation.

- Michael Wolfson discusses how health care contributes to a more equal society.

- David Climenhaga notes that the Cons are choosing yet again to attack the civil service in an effort to distract from their own scandals.

- Meanwhile, the Cons have also been caught spying on anybody who dares to challenge them. And misusing public resources for partisan gain, then falsely blaming others afterward. Is there any doubt why they're doing their utmost to prevent anybody from getting to the bottom of Robocon?

- Finally, Andrew Nikiforuk writes about new research showing that diluted bitumen doesn't act like oil when it spills - with the effect of rendering useless the oil industry's assurances that they can simply apply normal oil cleanup rules to pipelines transporting dilbit.

New column day

Here, on how Tom Mulcair's effective cross-examination of Stephen Harper serves as only one step toward the government we should want - i.e., one thoughtful and responsible enough to actually withstand answering real questions.

For further reading...

- Plenty of other commentators are rightly pointing out Harper's predictable retreat into obfuscation and deflection, including Chantal Hebert, John Ivison and Dan Lett.

- Andrew Coyne traces both the entire Clusterduff and the Cons' increasingly laughable talking points to an obsession with expediency over truth:
People don’t make ethical choices in isolation. They take their cues from those around and above them. Maybe Duffy’s expense padding had its roots in the Senate’s historically lax culture: indeed, given the absence of controls on senators’ expenses, it would be astonishing if only a couple of senators had succumbed to the temptation this presented.

But the efforts to cover this up, like the obstruction of the robocalls investigation or the curious lack of due diligence in the Porter appointment, are suggestive of something else: a habit of looking the other way at bad behaviour, if not actually encouraging it; and, when it is brought to light, of denying, and minimizing, and explaining it away.

This isn’t about a few senators padding their expense accounts, or criminal acts on the part of one or two individuals, or even what the prime minister knew when. It’s the whole moral code of this government that’s in question. This isn’t just a problem, something to be fixed — it’s existential. Whatever the various official investigations may or may not turn up, questions about the government’s character are now deeply planted in the public mind, in a way it shows no sign of being able to deal with, or even comprehending.
- And Thomas Walkom draws a parallel between Harper and Richard Nixon.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Mark Gongloff reaches the unsurprising conclusion that a tax system warped to favour the interests of the wealthy leads to greater inequality (but not the promised growth):
Slashing top tax rates has had none of the positive effects on economic growth that the supply-side economists promised us, the NBER paper points out. Instead, it has just worsened income inequality.

There are other factors driving income disparity, including a rise in investment income (think stock dividends) compared to earned income (think wages). The recently soaring stock market, helped along by the Federal Reserve, is only pushing investment income higher. Wage income, in contrast, has been stagnant -- making income inequality even worse.

As if that weren't enough, investment income is typically taxed at lower rates, further amplifying the disparity. That means this chart doesn't begin to tell the full story of just how little the top one percent are paying in taxes. Mitt Romney isn't paying 35 percent on most of his income. He's calling his private-equity income "carried interest" and paying just 15 percent on it.

While Congress frantically finds ways to slash spending to close budget deficits, it has shown little interest in tweaking the tax code to make it more fair. Efforts to impose a minimum tax on millionaires, as Warren Buffett has suggested, have gone nowhere, as have efforts to do away with low carried-interest income tax rates. President Obama this year made permanent many of the top-rate tax cuts of President George W. Bush, while a payroll-tax cut that most benefited the poor was allowed to expire.
- Erica Alini notes that ill-thought-out austerity programs have produced massive increases in suicides - even as Jim Flaherty expresses his preference for general slashing regardless of the human cost. And Thomas Walkom writes that the Cons are designing Canada's Employment Insurance system to provide cushy patronage jobs for their friends rather than any useful support for workers.

- But lest we forget that it's possible for governments to actually improve the lives of citizens, Jason Markusoff reports on the City of Calgary's push to halve poverty in ten years (primarily by better applying the resources it already has). And Don Lenihan discusses Nunavut's new collaborative poverty reduction strategy.

- Finally, if anybody hasn't yet seen Tom Mulcair's devastatingly direct question-period back-and-forth with Stephen Harper, it's well worth a look:

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Companion cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Thomas McDonagh discusses how the combination of concentrated corporate wealth and ill-advised trade agreements has allowed business interests to override the will of even strong citizens' movements:
In 2009, when the government of El Salvador refused to issue an environmental permit to a Canadian mining corporation, community activists in Las Cabañas rejoiced. For years they had been fighting a pitched battle against the efforts of the company, Pacific Rim, to mine for gold in their region - plans that included the dumping of toxic arsenic in their rivers. It was not a campaign without risk. Four Salvadoran anti-mining activists have been assassinated in the course of their courageous efforts. That victory, however, may well prove to carry a high cost for the people of El Salvador. In a legal assault filed in a World Bank trade court, Pacific Rim is now demanding $315 million in compensation payments from the Salvadoran government, an amount equal to one third of the country’s annual education budget.

That is just one example among many where citizens have fought for and won an important policy victory only to find that victory undermined by corporations using the growing web of international investment rules and arbitration courts. There are many others. Public health campaigners in Uruguay won a huge victory in 2010 when the national government passed new health laws to discourage tobacco consumption. Even though those new laws (including aggressive new warnings on cigarette packages) directly mirrored the guidelines of the World Health Organization, the U.S. corporate tobacco giant Philip Morris retaliated with a $2 billion legal action against the government.
The world today is covered by an expanding web of over three thousand bilateral and multilateral trade and investment agreements. These agreements grant rights to corporations and allow them to sue governments for policy initiatives that they claim interfere with their profits. The resulting legal cases, despite their far-reaching local consequences, are settled far away and behind closed doors by a small group of unaccountable private lawyers in international dispute arbitration tribunals. Flying in the face of democratic principles and judicial independence, these tribunals operate with little or no public scrutiny and where the communities directly affected are denied a voice. 
- And as Stuart Trew observes, the Cons are trying to bully Canada's provinces into accepting yet more limits on their ability to govern in the interests of citizens rather than multinationals.

- The New York Times editorial board writes that the Republicans are matching the Harper Cons in preferring that policy be based on ignorance as opposed to sound data. And Larry Elliott points out the damage being done in the UK by austerity policies similarly based on wilful blindness.

- Meanwhile, the Cons themselves continue to pressure everybody who'll listen to avoid allowing the public an accurate view of their actions. Paul McLeod reports that Peter MacKay's office strongarmed the Public Service Commission into deleting findings of outside influence in hiring at ACOA, while Steven Rennie notes that the Cons are using their committee majority to prevent any investigation into the links between Social Security Tribunal appointments and party donations.

- Finally, PLG continues his look at the lessons we should learn from B.C.'s election:
So if you catch a Conservative senator with his hand in the cookie jar, without a narrative you can only say "Look, a corrupt person!" At best maybe you can say "Other Conservatives have done similar things in the past, this implies a bad culture or bad leadership." With a narrative, you instead say, "Conservatism is all about money and wealth, so of course their politicians want money and wealth rather than to benefit Canadians. Canadians need a party that isn't about capital gains and so doesn't stock its ranks with grasping crooks."

With a narrative, going negative is not merely personal but also makes a political point. And it can also point to a positive politics rather than just reinforcing cynicism. Rather than saying "They randomly happen to be bad," you can say, "They are bad for the same reasons we are good!" It is also simply more powerful. A negative fact about someone as a random, isolated thing will have less impact than a negative fact about someone embedded in an account that makes sense of it. People live narrative, have a basic response to story.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Andrew Coyne notes that the Robocon decision finding electoral fraud using the Cons' voter database fell short of naming names - but recognizes that there's still a glaring need for further investigation, a sentiment echoed by the Globe and Mail. Tim Harper explains that Stephen Harper hasn't earned the benefit of any doubt about his party's role in facilitating and covering up the fraud, while Thomas Walkom sees Robocon as entirely consistent with the Cons' usual operations:
(O)rganized, computerized fraud takes matters to an entirely new level of illegality.

Whoever was using the Conservative database to commit this outright fraud must have thought that, at one level, they were justified.

Similarly, I suspect that Wright thought his decision to give Duffy $90,000 — a decision that led the senator to refuse co-operation with a forensic audit of his expense accounts — was also justified.

In both cases, the justification was that political success must trump all else. The anonymous robocallers wanted to prevent non-Conservative voters from casting their ballots. Wright was trying to damp down a political scandal that, as Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk told one Postmedia journalist, was “spinning out of control.”

In both cases, underlings were responding to a take-no-prisoners tone set at the very top.
Harper may be telling the truth when he says he knew nothing of the specific payment to Duffy. Certainly, no one has claimed that he ordered the fraudulent robocalls.
But the prime minister does know perfectly well the kind of things he expects his lieutenants to do. That’s why he chooses them. That’s why, in the end, he bears responsibility.
- Meanwhile, the RCMP's former superintendent Garry Clement makes the case for charges based on the Cons' Senate Clusterduff. And we shouldn't be surprised to see the Cons at least paying lip service to the idea of Senate abolition when the public is rightly outraged at an institution that's proven both corrupt and useless.

- Yves Engler points out that Harper is pushing austerity and inequality around the world as well as at home. And Paul Adams rightly notes that the most important damage inflicted by the Cons can be found on the policy front, meaning that there's every reason for skepticism about the Libs' line that a new face on the same style of government will help in the slightest:
My real problem with Stephen Harper is not his personality but his policies, especially on the environment and the economy.

The Liberal party which is flying so high at the moment has a history of, shall we say, flexibility. The party was against the free trade agreements with the U.S. and Mexico until (in government) it wasn’t. It wanted to replace the GST until (in government) it couldn’t. And it was in favour of ratcheting down greenhouse gas emissions, except (in government) it didn’t.

One place where the Liberals’ new leader, Justin Trudeau, has put a tent-peg down decisively is on the Keystone XL pipeline. He has attacked the Harper government for not doing enough to promote it.
Personally, I don’t just want to replace Harper with a hipster — a cooler, kinder, gentler soul with much the same policies. I’d like to see change and would like to know what that change might be before I go to vote.

So when you find yourself getting a hate-on for Harper, stop a moment and think about who you would prefer as prime minister. And then ask yourself: Precisely why?
- But at the same time, any consideration as to what's wrong with the Cons' current policies should include some recognition as to what can be done better. And CBC's report on the connection between income supports and improved health should offer one obvious area of potential improvement - particularly compared to a government whose philosophy is to try to eliminate as many benefits as it can get away with.


From Warren Bell's devastating comparison between the Peter Kent of yesteryear and the embarrassment he's become, here's Canada's environment minister on why we shouldn't worry our pretty little heads about the environment effects of the tar sands:
"One of the opposition parties has taken the treacherous course of leaving the domestic debate and heading abroad to attack a legitimate Canadian resource which is being responsibly developed and regulated," Kent told reporters.
So what is Kent doing to any system of responsible regulation which might once have existed? Let's ask James Munson:
The federal government is quietly removing in situ oilsands operations from the list of projects covered by its environmental assessments branch.

The move is an extension of the overhaul of federal environmental regulation for resource projects that began with last year’s budget bill. The public had until last Monday to consult the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) on its decision to drop in situ projects from its Regulations Designating Physical Projects list, which spells out all projects under its jurisdiction.

The change essentially keeps Ottawa out of most future oilsands development, since the bulk of remaining resources are too deep to be extracted by strip mining. Around 80 per cent of all oilsands will be mined in situ, say industry sources...
Now, I for one would have taken Kent's quote as a (however disingenuous) argument for the status quo rather than a perceived need for change. But he's now chosen to ensure that the vast majority of tar sands development proceeds without any federal environmental assessment whatsoever - meaning that he's definitely debunked any claim the Cons might have made to reasonable regulation.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- To the extent corporatist voices are pushing increased private involvement in funding Canadian health care, their main argument generally involves the claim that private insurers will be more willing to fund expensive courses of treatment which might be rationed out of public plans. But Don Butler reports that at least one of the major private insurers is taking exactly the opposite view in describing the future of private prescription drug insurance:
Private drug plans that provide coverage to 19 million Canadians are not sustainable in their current form, according to an executive at Great West Life Assurance, one of Canada’s largest insurance companies.
While the cost of “maintenance drugs” to control such things as blood pressure and cholesterol levels has risen by 58 per cent since 2005, Martinez said the biggest threat is the skyrocketing cost of new biologic and specialty drugs.
Traditionally, employers have responded by raising premiums or copayments for employees. “But that’s not sustainable, either,” Martinez said in an interview. New management techniques are essential, she said.

For example, Great West Life has begun to use case management in cases involving high-cost drug claims, Martinez said. “If you are taking a very high-cost drug, we are going to appoint a case manager to your case who’s going to monitor your use of the drug and your physician’s prescribing of the drug.”
Other conference participants said the best solution would be the creation of a government-run program of universal pharmacare that would cover all Canadians.

“Every developed country in the world with a universal health care system provides universal coverage for drugs, except Canada,” said Steve Morgan, associate director of the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research at the University of British Columbia.

Those countries all spend far less on prescription drugs than Canadians spend, and their citizens have better access to essential drugs than Canadians do, Morgan said.
- Haroon Siddiqui rightly approves of Barack Obama's work to eliminate the perpetual fear and panic pushed by Republicans over the past decade-plus, while contrasting it against Stephen Harper's fear-building in Canada.

- Frances Russell writes about the folly of the Northern Gateway pipeline.

- Finally, I'll second PLG's take on the lesson the NDP should draw about narrative from British Columbia's recent provincial election. But I'll expand on it slightly by pointing out the ultimate failure of a branding effort built around genuine comparative fiscal prudence.

After all, the B.C. NDP publicly pointed out the implausibility of Christy Clark's budget numbers and thus offered less than it could have as to the shape of an NDP government - presumably based on the theory that it would fit with a "responsible managers" message. But the choice looks to have been almost entirely forgotten through the course of the campaign - meaning that the Libs won by simultaneously scaremongering about deficits, and promising to maintain higher deficits and debt levels through their platform.