Saturday, June 08, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Jillian Berman reports on research showing that the predictable effect of decreased unionization is a transfer of wealth from workers to shareholders:
The jump in corporate profit over the past few decades can be explained largely by a decline in union membership over the same period, according to a study by Tali Kristal, a sociologist at the University of Haifa in Israel. The boost in companies’ bottom line comes at workers’ expense, Kristal wrote in an email to The Huffington Post.

“It’s a zero sum game: whatever is not going to workers, goes to corporations,” Kristal said. “Union decline not only increased wage gaps among workers, but also enabled capitalists to grab a larger slice of the national income pie at the expense of all workers, including the highly skilled.”

The findings, published Thursday in the American Sociological Review, add a new dimension to the debate over income inequality in the U.S., suggesting that policies aimed at boosting unions may help. Corporate profit soared to a record high share of the economy earlier this year, according to Bloomberg, while workers' wages have remained largely stagnant. The rise in profit comes as union membership has dropped to a record low.
- Nora Loreto discusses the importance of including younger workers in the benefits of unionization - rather than conceding future losses to protect past gains. And Trish Hennessy offers some numbers on working women - including confirmation of the role of unions in pursuing pay equity.

- Thomas Walkom writes that the Cons' PMO-controlled slush fund looks to be the missing link connecting Clusterduff to the broader party apparatus. And as Colin Horgan points out, the Cons aren't helping their already-lacking credibility any through feeble attempts to deny the obvious facts about a fund - particularly after confirming them a day earlier.

- Meanwhile, Alex Jordan Himelfarb comments that Stephen Harper's choice to flee questions about his party's patronage system reflects disdain for democratic transparency. And Chantal Hebert wonders whether resignation may soon be in the cards for Harper.

- Finally, Adrienne Silnicki observes that funding health care is a matter of political choice - and that the governments who demand that we accept fewer services in the name of tax breaks for the wealthy be held to account for that readily-avoidable state of affairs.

[Edit: Fixed attribution, typo.]

Friday, June 07, 2013

Musical interlude

Gareth Emery feat. Lucy Saunders - Sanctuary

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- David Miller makes the case to take aim at inequality in Canada:
With globalization being the holy grail of efficiency, it became a race to the bottom as international capital sought the lowest cost and the lowest wages. The result in Canada and many other countries was the closing of industries, the gutting of union organizing through new laws that attack unions and limit their ability to operate, and the gradual rise in income inequality since 1990. Canada now ranks 12th out of 17 first-world economies for income inequality, and were given a "C" grade by the Conference Board of Canada.

How do we reduce this trend and reap the long-term rewards? There are a number of potential solutions, but I'll touch on three.

First, we need to re-think the "lowest possible cost" globalization mantra. International trade is here to stay and can yield many benefits, both in Canada and abroad. But the emphasis should be less on "free trade" and more on "fair trade," so that people from all walks of life can benefit. The recent factory collapse in Bangladesh is just one example of what can happen when the lowest cost trumps everything.

Second, we need to strengthen the rights of trade unions to organize in the new digital economy. The power balance has swung too far -- and we need to better empower trade unions in their fight to bargain for fairer wages. For those not in a trade union, we need to raise the minimum wage to reduce the incidence of subsistence living.

Third, we need to examine how we can use public policy for all projects at all levels of government to advance the economic prospects for those least well off. For example, in Toronto, when we decided to reinvest in one of our poorest neighbourhoods, Regent Park, our procurement policies stipulated that 25 per cent of jobs related to the rebuild go to local residents. It was an effective way of ensuring that greater economic benefits flowed directly to the community that needed it most.
- Meanwhile, Jim Stanford is optimistic that Canadian governments are looking for new revenue tools to help address inequality. And Avaaz is leading a public push to close international tax loopholes which could go much further.

- But then, Paul Dewar observes that the Cons are still determined to prevent international action on issues which should represent simple areas of agreement - writing in particular about Stephen Harper's attempt to protect illegal arms brokers.

- Seumas Milne writes that a combination of relentless lobbying and a revolving door between regulators and industry has resulted in a thoroughly corrupted state in the UK - and the problem figures to be no less significant in Canada. And Simon Ravenscroft notes that the rich have been conspicuously unaffected by the austerity afflicted on mere commoners.

- Peter Kent is trying to spin as a plus the fact that oil companies are demanding that their old, dirty operations be allowed to continue without being subject to environmental regulations. And Leslie Young reports that we have plenty of reason to worry about newer installations as well - as the Plains Midstream debacle in Peace River resulted in Alberta pulling its limited regulatory staff from inspections of new pipelines in order to help assess the existing mess.

- Finally, Linda McQuaig presciently suggested that Nigel Wright's role as a party bagman should receive far more attention. And one secret seven-figure Con slush fund later, it looks like we'll be talking about the Cons' off-the-books and under-the-table dealings for a long time to come.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

New column day

Here, on how the recent Munk Debate has helped to highlight Canadians' preference for a fairer, more progressive tax system - and on a couple of the most important steps we can take toward that end goal.

For further reading...
- Ipsos Reid's polling on public views toward taxing the rich is here.
- Stephen Gordon's response to the Munk Debate (referenced in the column) is here. And I'll note that there seems to be some difference in determining the tax rate applicable to high-end income: while KPMG's numbers roughly match Gordon's, the CRA's figures actually show Ontario as one of the provinces with an opportunity to increase revenue.
- Finally, the Guardian discusses David Cameron's efforts both to address tax avoidance within the G8, and to push UK territories to stop serving as cover for offshoring. And while I share some skepticism about Cameron's intentions, it's well worth pointing out the example of a right-wing leader at least recognize the unfairness of tax avoidance, rather than treating it as something to be expected and encouraged in the interest of enriching our betters.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Frances Russell makes the case for mandatory voting as an antidote to vote suppression:
At first glance, entrenched opposition to mandatory voting in all the English-speaking democracies - Australia excepted - is puzzling. Given all the obligations of citizenship in a democracy -- paying taxes, serving on juries, licencing vehicles and businesses, paying to educate the next generation of citizens -it seems odd to oppose obligatory participation in the most important "have-to-do" of all: electing those who run our municipal, provincial and national governments. Mandatory voting -- all citizens of voting age required to cast ballots enforced by a small fine -- creates a better-informed electorate and produces a more truly representative democracy, in sharp contrast to the first-past-the-post system in vogue mainly in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Mandatory voting would also render useless the widespread use of voter suppression tactics that apparently tried to pollute and skew the outcome of Canada's 2011 federal election; tactics like robocalls sending people to distant and wrong polling stations and telling lies about "high voter turnout." According to court documents filed in mid-August 2012 by the Commissioner of Elections Canada, these suppression tactics may have occurred in as many as 247 of Canada's 308 ridings and were recorded in all ten provinces and at least one territory.
- NDP MP Andrew Cash points out the need for public policy which recognizes and improves the conditions of workers facing precarious employment. But of course, the Cons are responding by ramming through one set of attacks on workers, and plotting out plenty more to come.

- Bruce Cheadle writes about the Cons' latest moves to shut down debate on controversial legislation. And Martin Regg Cohn notes that Ontario's Libs share the Harper Cons' preference for a culture of unaccountability - which became glaringly obvious as they deleted the documentation behind their gas plant cancellations in the belief it would prevent anybody from questioning the action.

- Finally, Chantal Hebert minimizes the long-term effect of Clusterduff. But at the very least, the aroma of scandal emanating from the Senate figures to affect the next campaign one way or another: either Senators will once again hit the campaign trail and remind voters of the scandal, or the Cons (and Libs) will be forced to make do without the artificial advantage of publicly-funded Senate spokesflacks. And Keith Beardsley for one sees the Cons as being significantly weakened by public confirmation that they don't believe they have to follow any rules.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Outgoing cats.


Bert Brown this week, shedding crocodile tears over blind partisanship in the Senate:
The real problem, Brown told HuffPost, is that the overwhelming majority of senators don’t do the job they were appointed to do.

Senators are supposed to represent their province’s interest “but they don’t,” he said; they just follow what their party’s leadership tells them to do.

“They just vote either for Liberals or for Conservatives,” he said.

“I was there for five years and eight months and we voted everything that was voted to the Conservative government, every one. There was one guy who said who wanted to abstain once,” Brown recounted.

Senators toe the party line out of a sense of loyalty to the person who appointed them, the retired senator said.
Bert Brown less than two years ago, offering his view as to the duties of an appointed Senator:
"Every senator in this caucus needs to decide where their loyalty should be and must be. The answer is simple; our loyalty is to the man who brought us here, the man who has wanted Senate reform since he entered politics, the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper," Brown wrote.

[Edit: fixed title.]

Monday, June 03, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Mike Konczal discusses the distribution of U.S. tax breaks and incentives, and finds that measures normally presented as offering breaks for everybody in fact serve mostly as giveaways to the wealthy:
(T)he government is very responsive to the interests of the top 20 to 40 percent of Americans, and so far it has been very difficult to approach scaling back the tax expenditures in deductions and exclusions. Again, since these benefits scale with income, these tax expenditures disproportionately benefit those up the income scale.  Obama’s signature proposal for raising taxes right now is limiting the value of these itemized deductions and expenditures for couples making more than $250,000 a year to just 28 percent.

This, then, is the fight in American politics. Democrats want to expand the tax break state for the poor and cut it for the rich. Republicans want to keep it for the rich, or possibly use it to lower tax rates on the rich, but they’re uncomfortable with the part of the tax break state that benefits the poor. Although shrouded in arcane tax terminology, this is one of the most important battles over who will benefit from our economic progress, and how.
- Meanwhile, Andrew Goodall writes that reining in offshore tax avoidance will require both better laws (reflecting a commitment by governments around the globe to eliminating loopholes) and more ethical corporate behaviour:
Vanessa Houlder of the Financial Times has pointed out: "Governments are complicit in the problems they are condemning. It is their tax systems that have created incentives for businesses to behave in this way."

Law journalist Edward Fennell wrote in The Times: "Recent tub-thumping by politicians over the alleged tax avoidance by the likes of Google and Amazon is creating a cacophony of vituperation. It may seem a neat way to claw back a few votes, but whether it actually addresses the underlying problems is less clear." 

He quoted Miles Dean, of Milestone International Tax Partners, as saying that companies are using the tax system in the way intended, and that the OECD model convention – on which most double taxation agreements are based – is designed to facilitate international trade by "allowing multinationals to trade internationally without necessarily creating a taxable presence in each country".

Pascal Saint-Amans told the OECD forum that big business was not to blame. "What we have seen is that the elimination of double taxation [by means of bilateral double tax agreements] may have [resulted in] double non-taxation, which is not politically or economically acceptable. You have some players who are not exposed to international transactions being taxed at the statutory rate." He added: "It's legal. If you don't like the outcome you need to change the law."

I am not sure he's right – business must take a share of the responsibility. But the priority now must be to fix the system, and international agreement is essential.
- Steven Shrybman weighs in on Judge Mosley's finding that the Cons' voter database was used to commit widespread election fraud in 2011. But the Cons have moved on from claiming vindication, to complaining that they're enveloped in a cloud of dishonesty caused by their own party's efforts to cover up the identities of those responsible.

- Mike de Souza reports on the Cons' petulant response to his earlier stories on how omnibus budgets were used to eliminate environmental assessments for the vast majority of tar sands development - as DFO scientists were prevented from discussing the story in retaliation.

- Finally, Tim Harper writes that the scandals surrounding the Senate have been caused by patronage enablers as well as by individual senators. Michael Harris explores how the Cons have used BS tactics in trying to hide from their responsibility for Clusterduff.  Joanna Smith documents a two-party culture of entitlement, with Con and Lib bagmen alike asserting that voters are somehow better served if unaccountable partisan hacks can use their cushy sinecures to win votes for their party. And Ralph Surette rightly notes that the only answer to abuses by a narrow privileged class is broader public participation.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Sunday Afternoon Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- I'll quickly link to a few Robocon stories which I han't yet blogged. Karl Nerenberg noted that the Federal Court decision finding widespread election fraud using the Cons' voter database was only the beginning, and Jean-Pierre Kingsley was hopeful that the ruling would lead to needed improvements in Elections Canada's authority. But the continued obstruction of the Cons themselves makes it clear that the public interest couldn't be lower on the Harper government's priority list.

- Meanwhile, as a stark contrast to the Cons' determination not to let anybody get to the truth underlying Robocon, Don Butler reports on the type of investigation they order when they're looking for an enemy to blame. And the general theme is one of using a sledgehammer to attack a fly - even though the fly is in fact nothing more than a piece of lint.

- Which is to say that we shouldn't assume that anybody around the Cons is able to maintain much by way of intelligence - as even those inclined to be capable of critical thought are likely to have it Poilievred out of them.

- But the good news is that the Cons are having a much tougher time deflecting from their own failures. And while part of that is the result of the most effective opposition leader Stephen Harper has faced, Edward Greenspon writes that the press gallery is doing its part:
When he came into office, Harper threw out long-held rules of government-press engagement. He sowed fear and showed favouritism. Access was severely restricted and doled out based on perceived friendliness of given journalists. Public servants were forbidden from providing background on serious policy matters. A system was introduced by which the PMO, rather than the gallery, decided who could ask questions at press conferences. The List, as it came to be known, was an early flashpoint. The PMO refused any compromise. A Fourth Estate short on self-respect quickly folded. In time, a number of Ottawa reporters were subjected to harassment and vilification and PMO minions exerted pressure on publishers to reign in recalcitrant reporters and editors.

Now, weeks into the Senate-PMO scandal, it is the government that looks uncertain and the journalists determined...

It is pure folly to dismiss Stephen Harper. For sure, his loathing of the media predisposed him to underestimate the brewing Senate scandal as the frothing of gallery members envious that some in their ranks had been elevated to a higher calling. But as prime minister he has repeatedly proven to be most lethal when seemingly down and out. And he knows how to play out the clock.

The sniff testing never ceases in Ottawa, but for now a noteworthy shift is in the wind. The PM lorded over the media for a long while, but he’s missed the smell of a gallery losing its fear.
- Finally, Sixth Estate takes a look at how Canada's regulatory systems are functioning under the Cons' honour-system philosophy.

The road to abolition

Ian Peach's guest post at Pundits' Guide is well worth a read in setting out a feasible path to Senate abolition. But I'll note that the exact wording of an abolition resolution would need to be somewhat more complex than that proposed by Peach - while the political push might also take a slightly different shape than he seems to be counting on.

Peach's proposal for an abolition resolution - which, as he rightly notes, could originate with a province rather than the federal government - is as follows:
The resolution would be simple: that sections 26 through 31 of the Constitution Act, 1867 be repealed.
Now, I won't claim to be a constitutional scholar on Peach's level. But I'm not sure how the repeal of those provisions governing the appointment, tenure and disqualification of Senators would serve to effectively abolish the institution, particularly when it would leave intact:

- section 17, which defines the Parliament of Canada to include an upper house styled the Senate;
- sections 21-22, defining the number and geographic distribution of Senators;
- section 23, setting the qualifications for Senators;
- sections 24 and 32, providing for the appointment of Senators by summons; and
- section 35, setting a quorum requirement for the conduct of Senate business.

While the elimination of constitutional protection for tenure might provide more avenues to remove Senators from office, it wouldn't provide a clear answer as to what comes next. And it would seem to me to be at least open to future federal governments to keep making use of the power to summon Senators even if Peach's proposed resolution passed.

Again, that observation doesn't affect the possibility that an abolition resolution could originate with a province. But it does signal the need for a resolution originating with a province to fully excise the Senate (and the Senate alone) from Canada's current constitution.

As for the political side of abolition, Peach seems hopeful that pressure from the provincial NDP will turn the tide in provinces with current or potential minority governments. And it's possible that the NDP could make Senate abolition into part of its demands for support of any minority government.

But I'm not sure that provincial NDP wings will see much benefit in doing so unless public demand for abolition is so high that the provincial government would feel significant pressure to go along in any event. Which means that rather than hoping for NDP demands in minority governments in Ontario and New Brunswick as a necessary element of an abolition strategy, the more plausible path looks to involve the strength of the federal party's Roll Up the Red Carpet campaign in placing pressure on provincial governments to either support abolition, or be seen as parties to a continued stream of scandals and abuses.

Update: In comments at his guest post, Peach notes that his proposed resolution should in fact repeal sections 21 to 36 of the Constitution Act, 1867 - addressing most of my concerns above. But I'd still see it as important to include consequential amendments to section 17 (and other sections featuring mention of Senate authority) lest a future government take any remaining references to the Senate as an invitation to keep a second chamber running.