Saturday, June 15, 2013

Saturday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Paul Krugman points out that workers are receiving less and less benefit from technological advancements - and offers a simple policy prescription to ensure workers of all skill levels don't suffer unduly based on forces far beyond their control:
I’ve noted before that the nature of rising inequality in America changed around 2000. Until then, it was all about worker versus worker; the distribution of income between labor and capital — between wages and profits, if you like — had been stable for decades. Since then, however, labor’s share of the pie has fallen sharply. As it turns out, this is not a uniquely American phenomenon. A new report from the International Labor Organization points out that the same thing has been happening in many other countries, which is what you’d expect to see if global technological trends were turning against workers. 

And some of those turns may well be sudden. The McKinsey Global Institute recently released a report on a dozen major new technologies that it considers likely to be “disruptive,” upsetting existing market and social arrangements. Even a quick scan of the report’s list suggests that some of the victims of disruption will be workers who are currently considered highly skilled, and who invested a lot of time and money in acquiring those skills. For example, the report suggests that we’re going to be seeing a lot of “automation of knowledge work,” with software doing things that used to require college graduates. Advanced robotics could further diminish employment in manufacturing, but it could also replace some medical professionals.
So what is the answer? If the picture I’ve drawn is at all right, the only way we could have anything resembling a middle-class society — a society in which ordinary citizens have a reasonable assurance of maintaining a decent life as long as they work hard and play by the rules — would be by having a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too. And with an ever-rising share of income going to capital rather than labor, that safety net would have to be paid for to an important extent via taxes on profits and/or investment income.
- And Sarah Cooper and Lynne Fernandez concur in the conclusion that a more fair distribution of income is the best treatment for poverty (among other problems). 

- Meanwhile, Chrystia Freeland highlights the reality that even the 1% can't avoid the detrimental effects of inequality - with a TED event in Edinburgh serving to bring the issue to the forefront:
I was a speaker, too. I talked about my chief obsession, soaring global income inequality, particularly at the very top of the pyramid, and the uncomfortable fact that the same forces that are enriching the global super-elite are hollowing out the middle class in the West’s developed economies. Making capitalism work for everyone, and not just the plutocrats, I argued, is our most pressing political and economic problem.

Taken together, and given the gilded venue, all of these comments amount to a significant shift in tone. Charlie Robertson, the global chief economist for Renaissance Capital, the Russian-based investment bank, was moved to post on Twitter, in reaction to the TED lineup, that the “intellectual ascendancy of neo-liberalism since ’70s may be in retreat.”

That is probably going too far. But we do seem to be at a turning point, or the beginning of one. Judging by this week in Edinburgh, even the winners in the global economy are beginning to realize that there are a lot of losers, too, and that it’s a problem. You might see that as too little too late; you might also see it as, at long last, a start.
- Colin Horgan writes that Stephen Harper's speech to the UK Parliament this week was more partisan than prime ministerial. Bruce Johnstone notes that it was predictably laden with falsehoods as well. And contrary to Harper's efforts to claim immunity from international economic conditions, Krugman points to Canada's rising household debt load and housing prices as offering a test case for the dangers of future deleveraging shocks.

- Finally, Lana Payne proposes that we get serious in addressing tax avoidance and evasion, while recognizing that the Cons' anti-tax ideology is standing in the way of global action:
Given Mr. Harper’s opinion on taxes, it should come as no surprise that he is said to be the problem at the G8 table. Tax havens, of course, are a practice by which the very rich get to hide their money so they can avoid paying taxes.

After all, if, as the prime minister believes, all taxes are bad, why then the need to seriously crack down on those who avoid them?

According to Canadians for Tax Fairness, Canada has been withholding support for two key aspects of the G8 tax havens action plan. They include that financial institutions in tax havens be required to have a public registry of the ultimate beneficial owner of all accounts, trusts or corporations and that there be multilateral tax information sharing between governments.

The tax fairness folks say these measures are important to “lifting the veil of secrecy that allows wealthy individuals and corporate tax evaders and criminal organizations to hide their wealth offshore.”

But Stephen Harper, it appears, would rather protect the cheats. Yes, well, don’t be surprised; there was that Mike Duffy affair.

So let’s get this straight.

The government — bent on forcing unions to publish nearly every transaction on a public website, taking up the time and resources of Revenue Canada officials, creating a pile of red tape for labour organizations, violating privacy laws and in all likelihood the Constitution — is opposed to a public registry to catch tax evaders.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Musical interlude

Deepest Blue - Deepest Blue

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Friday reading.

- Michael Harris tears into the Harper Cons for their compulsive dishonesty:
Everything in the Westminster model under which we are supposed to operate depends on information, debate and verification — all of which are missing in ‘Harperland’, to use Lawrence Martin’s ringing coinage. Also missing is that high bar of behaviour known as being an “Honourable Gentleman”.

One of the few federal bureaucrats who stood up to Harper’s cult-conservatism was the lately-departed chief of the PBO, Kevin Page. He regularly challenged the phoney books and unsupported policy of this catch-us-if-you-can government — and oh, how they came to hate him for it.

Stephen Harper, Peter MacKay and countless party bobbleheads who BS for a living on TV were caught dead to rights falsifying the cost of the F-35 fighter jet — once by Page, and then again by the auditors at KPMG.

Their response? Lie some more. The Tories crowed that the KPMG audit ‘vindicated’ their numbers. Yes, just as a conviction for violating the Elections Act was a ‘victory.’ Just as another judge confirming that there was fraud in the last federal election was “vindication”, even though the judge also said the culprit likely used the Conservative Party of Canada’s own database to perpetrate that fraud. Two plus two is five.
And here is what sits behind all the sneakiness, lies, and prevarications. Stephen Harper wants to deconstruct the country as we know it much faster than he is able to persuade Canadians to follow him. So he has to control information, stifle politicians and the press, and reduce the national debate to the hollow dictates and studied evasions coming out of the PMO. He can’t reveal his intentions because if he did, he would not be electable.
- Meanwhile, Peter O'Neil reports that the Cons have officially shed any of their past claims to be interested in grassroots democracy, as they plan to fight Kennedy Stewart's online petition proposal tooth and nail rather than allowing for even the slightest direct citizen involvement in shaping parliamentary debates. 

- Nathan Vanderklippe reports on the devastating Apache contaminated water spill in northern Alberta. Mike Hudema details the Redford government's attempt to cover up the spill, while the Star-Phoenix rightly notes that the lies and cover-ups that have become standard operating procedure for both the oil industry and its pet governments offer nothing but reason for suspicion about the health and safety implications of new projects.

- While plenty of others have already made the case to integrate prescription drugs into the set of services covered by our universal health care system, it's a noteworthy step that even the C.D. Howe Institute is now on board

- Finally, Dean Baker takes a close look at the U.S.' Social Security as a case in point signalling the futility of means-testing social programs:
Of course you could start the phase out a higher income level (like $50,000 per person) and have it at a more reasonable rate (e.g. 10-20 percent), but then you find that you don't save the program much money. In our paper we found that the savings, net of tax, for a 20 percent phase out starting at person incomes of $40,000 would save around 3 percent of benefits. If it was started at a person income of $100k it would save around 0.6 percent of benefits. These numbers give a much more realistic idea of how much can be saved with means-testing. See how much fun math can be?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Deep thought

"The Conservatives are being asinine, let's shut down Parliament!" isn't a recipe for more functional politics, it's a means of encouraging more asinine behaviour from the Conservatives.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Mike Fancie offers this year's definitive response to the the misguided concept of "tax freedom":
The Fraser Institute’s math on income and taxation has been roundly criticized, including by a former Assistant Chief Statistician and by our Andrew Jackson for skewing numbers to make a point. But while we take issue with the Fraser Institute’s numbers, and setting aside the bias inherent in their tax calculator’s $150,000 income ceiling, the more important discussion lies in appreciating why we pay taxes in the first place. Our tax dollars, far from disappearing into a black hole, are the reason that our roads are paved, our public schools are exceptional, our tap water is clean, and that our public health care continues to keep Americans jealous of their Northern neighbours.

A recent BBC article on the free maternity packages Finnish new mothers receive from the government was picked up by the Globe & Mail, who raved that Finland’s “every child matters -- every family matters” philosophy contributes to their children being among the world’s healthiest. And it turns out the tax dollars Finns pay to provide programs like this, much like Quebec’s $7-a-day childcare program, end up more than paying for themselves.

All this is to say that all but the most affluent of us get much more from our tax dollars than what we pay into the system. Taxes, in the words of a former U.S. Supreme Court Justice, are the price we pay for a civilized society.
- But we're far from having a fair tax system precisely because so many wealthy individuals are evading their social responsibilities. Even as the CBC reports on a few more of the Canadian names on the ICIJ's list of tax evaders, it also notes that the Cons are pointing to cases that have nothing to do with offshoring as evidence of a crackdown.

- Meanwhile, it's for the best that the Cons have at least stopped obstructing international action to improve transparency in resource industries. But the fact that they're once again allowing extractors to write their own rules leaves little reason for optimism about Canada's own policy.

- And Chris Cobb reports on the Cons' choice to privatize and commercialize Canada's national historical record.

- Finally, Frances Russell wonders whether the Cons' sense of entitlement to power is causing them to neglect a crumbling foundation.

New column day

Here, on how Canada's federal privacy law actually prohibits our own federal government from conducting secret surveillance (so long as it's actually followed) - as well as how little that law means if countries don't recognize that privacy applies beyond their borders.

For further reading...
- Michelle Shepard reported here on Canada's history of surveillance activities. 
- The federal Privacy Act is here. See in particular section 11's obligation to public lists of personal information collected by each government institution, as well as the treatment of exempt data banks in section 18. 
- CSEC allows Canadians to make requests for their own information here. But it points to this generic list of personal information banks, rather than mentioning that any set of "data trails" on Canadians might be collected.
- Meanwhile, CSEC points proudly to its "foreign intelligence allies" here - with a couple of countries well known for excessive surveillance looming prominently on the list. And Peter MacKay is trying to use the "foreigners" dodge in responding to questions about CSEC's activities - while pogge highlights why we need international pushback against the surveillance state. 
- I don't see much value in the proposal floated by Jack Harris and Hugh Segal to brief a small number of parliamentarians on spying activity - as the provision of information which can't be used as part of a public discussion only figures to make it more difficult for anybody to ask tough questions.
- Finally, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has weighed in with her own confirmation that metadata should be treated as protected personal information.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Doreen Massey observes that our political vocabulary has largely been hijacked by corporatist language:
At a recent art exhibition I engaged in an interesting conversation with one of the young people employed by the gallery. As she turned to walk off I saw she had on the back of her T-shirt "customer liaison". I felt flat. Our whole conversation seemed somehow reduced, my experience of it belittled into one of commercial transaction. My relation to the gallery and to this engaging person had become one of instrumental market exchange.

The message underlying this use of the term customer for so many different kinds of human activity is that in all almost all our daily activities we are operating as consumers in a market – and this truth has been brought in not by chance but through managerial instruction and the thoroughgoing renaming of institutional practices. The mandatory exercise of "free choice" – of a GP, of a hospital, of schools for one's children – then becomes also a lesson in social identity, affirming on each occasion our consumer identity.

This is a crucial part of the way that neoliberalism has become part of our commonsense understanding of life. The vocabulary we use to talk about the economy is in fact a political construction...

There are loads of other examples of rarely scrutinised terms in our economic vocabulary, for instance that bundle of terms clustered around investment and expenditure – terms that carry with them implicit moral connotations. Investment implies an action, even a sacrifice, undertaken for a better future. It evokes a future positive outcome. Expenditure, on the other hand, seems merely an outgoing, a cost, a burden.

Above all, we need to bring economic vocabulary back into political contention, and to question the very way we think about the economy in the first place. For something new to be imagined, let alone to be born, our current economic "common sense" needs to be challenged root and branch.
- Daniel Altman delivers a blistering rebuke to austerity economics. But there's also a more positive path available, as Todd Aalgaard reports on Andrew Cash's work to recognize and address the needs of workers with little or no job security:
Cash has long advocated for the rights of freelancers, temp workers, contract workers and part-timers in a cross-section of industries, many in the cultural sector. Now, as a parliamentarian, he’s morphing his concern into a private member’s bill to be introduced this spring in the House of Commons. 

The gist of the legislative bid is a call for expanded access to EI, improving the pension system for part-timers, restricting the laying off of workers and rehiring them as “independent contractors,” income averaging for those with variable incomes, and ending the misuse of unpaid internships.

“We’re talking about the fact that in a city like Toronto, almost 50 per cent of the people who live here cannot access stable, full-time jobs,” Cash explained to me some days before the meeting, shivering in an unseasonably chilly May breeze.

He was referring to studies like the one published just three months ago by McMaster U and the United Way, which found that insecure work in the GTA has increased by 50 per cent in the past 20 years. A similar report last year by the Law Commission of Ontario revealed how provincial legislation has failed to keep up with this major shift in the workforce.

“The bill is about the issue of quality of employment,” he said, pointing out that most in these insecure categories aren’t paid what they’re worth, receive no protections, have no pensions or other benefits and simply can’t sustain a household.
- Jennifer Ditchburn finds yet another example of the Senate protecting its own rather than applying clear spending rules, as a Conservative-controlled steering group within its internal economy committee suppressed concerns about Pamela Wallin's travel claims. And the combination of the Cons' abuses of power and the Libs' desire to slap a new coat of paint on the same old patronage machine can only help the NDP's cause in presenting an ethical alternative.

- Finally, Karl Nerenberg writes about Stephen Harper's lack of concern for his own party's election fraud:
The Conservative Party claims that it shares the general outrage on the use of fraud in the last election.
But the Party's actions belie that claim.

Not only did the Party seek to derail the robocall voter suppression court case, it has been notably uncooperative with Elections Canada's investigation of that fraud, and it has failed to respond to the Chief Electoral Officer’s concrete proposals for reforms designed to put and end the sort of abuses that happened in 2011.

Judge Mosley pointed out that prior to 2011 we in Canada did not have a history of U.S.-style voter suppression tactics.

Both Mosely and the Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, have noted that the use of fraudulent phone calls pretending to be from Elections Canada, and other tricks, in order to prevent people from voting, is a very dangerous and disturbing new phenomenon in Canada.

If the Harper government does not put a package of election reforms before Parliament by the fall of this year or, at the very latest, early in 2014, it will be too late to institute needed changes before the next federal election in 2015.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Wraparound cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Deborah Gyapong discusses CMA President Anna Reid's presentation to the federal All-Party Anti-Poverty Caucus, with the positive response of MPs from all parties looking like a particularly noteworthy development:
The CMA put forward seven recommendations for governments at all levels to examine to improve health outcomes.

-- A comprehensive prescription drug strategy in consultations with the life and health insurance industry to make sure that 10 per cent of Canadians who lack access to prescription drugs can get them.

-- Ensuring low-income Canadians have access to rehabilitation, mental health, home care and end-of-life care.

-- Exploring options for funding long-term care services such as public insurance schemes or registered savings plans.

-- Expanding relief programs for informal caregivers such as family members caring for aging parents or a disabled child.

-- Recognizing "the importance of the social and economic determinants of health to the health of Canadians and the demands on the health care system.

-- Require federal Cabinet decision-making to include a health impact assessment.

-- Have the federal government "give top priority to the development of strategies to minimize poverty in Canada.

APAPC members said they hoped to bring Recommendation Five, recognizing the importance the economic determinants of health, to their respective party leaders.
- Brian Langille and Josh Mandryk outline how Tim Hudak's plans to attack organized labour go beyond even the worst U.S. right-to-work schemes:
Majoritarianism and exclusivity are the core democratic principles underlying our model of labour relations.
Majoritarianism refers to the principle of majority rule in union certification and internal union democracy. If 50 per cent of the workers in the bargaining unit vote to form a union, majority rules. The flip side is that workers who wish to form a union cannot do so unless a majority of their co-workers vote to do so as well.
Exclusivity refers to the fact that once a majority of workers in a bargaining unit vote for a union, that union becomes the exclusive bargaining agent of all employees, preventing other unions from representing workers in that unit as well as preventing individual contracts of employment for bargaining unit employees.
These are the same democratic principles that underlie our political democracy. The principles are very simple and familiar. You may not have voted for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives but that does not mean you do not have to pay your taxes. You cannot opt out. And it also means the federal government cannot exclude you from medicare coverage and so on because of how you voted. The government cannot “opt you out.” They are the government for everyone. This is how our democracy works. This is what the PCs propose to dismantle.
There is more. The Ontario PCs do not intend to do away with majoritarianism and exclusivity in their entirety. Doing so would open the door to minority unions, which would provide meaningful access to collective bargaining for workers in industries like banking and food services which have proven impervious to organizing under our model of labour relations. As they would have it, the benefits of majoritarianism and exclusivity would be repealed, but the burdens would remain intact. Those in the minority have no right to seek representation at all.
- Andrew Coyne discusses how denials and cover-ups are turning relatively minor issues into major scandals at all three levels of government in Toronto. And Martin Regg Cohn questions why part of Kathleen Wynne's attempt to change the channel includes an inexplicable defence of the Senate.

- Finally, Paul Adams wonders whether the post-Harper era has already begun. And I'm particularly curious as to whether anybody jockeying for position within the Cons will notice the level of popular support for more inclusive government and effectively run against Stephen Harper's command-and-control political model.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Jason Fekete reports that the Harper Cons are taking the side of international tax evaders against other G8 leaders trying to implement an effective enforcement system. And CBC reports that the Canada Revenue Agency has repeatedly turned down the opportunity to access information about tax cheats based on a policy of not offering enforcement rewards.

- In the wake of revelations about the U.S.' PRISM surveillance system (summarized by Mathew Ingram), Michael Geist warned that Canadians should be equally concerned about their privacy. And that observation looks particularly apt in light of Colin Freeze's revelation that Peter MacKay personally approved the revival of a dormant program which "incidentally" intercepts online communications.

- John Cotter reports that the Cons are once again slashing basic regulation - as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will let livestock producers decide for themselves whether it's worth doing anything to curb the spread of anthrax. And the CFIA is being particularly explicit in confirming that public health is being treated as a "business decision":
“It is very much a business decision or a cost-benefit decision on the basis of the producer and their veterinarian,” said Dr. Penny Greenwood, national manager of domestic disease control for the CFIA.

“When it is a business decision, it is really not appropriate for CFIA to be involved in the control of those diseases, as opposed to diseases that are very difficult to control.”
- Finally, Andrew Potter's take on Rob Ford is well worth a read. But I'll particularly highlight this point as to the type of personality issue that actually should concern voters assessing Ford and his enablers:
(T)here’s something more basic to Ford’s personality, and there’s nothing that appealing about it: the man has zero self-control. From reading while driving himself to work, drinking to excess at official functions, going to KFC while on a much-publicized diet or allegedly smoking crack and hanging out with drug dealers, it is clear that Ford is simply incapable of resisting temptation or delaying gratification.

And — it is crazy that this needs pointing out — there is nothing politically or morally praiseworthy about this. From Plato to Freud and everyone in between and since, self-mastery of the passions by our capacity for reason has been recognized as the key to being a proper-functioning adult and to the proper functioning of the city. No one has seriously made the case that rule by the passions, the id, the animal instincts, is a viable way to run a polity of any size. More to the point, no one has credibly argued that this is any way for a grown-up to behave.

Except, that is, Ford’s enablers, whose greatest fear is that he will go to rehab and expose their ongoing support for what it really is: a dangerous and foolish egging-on of a very sick man. Which is what makes Ford less of a buffoon and more of a tragic figure.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Sunday Afternoon Links

This and that to end your weekend.

- Dave Coles introduces readers to the Cons' latest attack on labour - with a backbencher's private member's bill again serving as an excuse to introduce unprecedent restrictions on union organization.

- Michael Harris suspects that the Cons' attempt to delay any public review of their burgeoning Senate slush fund scandal by a referral to the Auditor General is doomed to fail. And Karl Nerenberg discusses exactly what the slush fund means - including the holes it highlights in Canada's party financing system.

- Martin Regg Cohn rightly calls out Jim Flaherty for once again trying to use a federal cabinet post to bully Ontario's provincial government. But it's also worth noting that in addition to misrepresenting the type of policy under consideration in Ontario, Flaherty is also being dishonest about the rationale used to sell his own party's tax cuts - which included generating tax room to be available for additional provincial revenue:
Our government firmly believes that unanticipated surpluses, the last area I wanted to mention, should be used primarily to reduce the debt and reduce federal taxes rather than to launch new policies in areas where the federal government is not best placed to design or deliver programs.

This, in turn, creates tax room that provinces and territories can consider filling for their specific needs and purposes. It supports the premise that governments need to be accountable to Canadians for their taxing and spending decisions. That clarity of roles and responsibilities is essential by ensuring that Canadians can hold governments accountable for their actions.
- Michael Geist discusses his appearance in front of the Standing Committee on International Trade to discuss the most dangerous elements of the TPP - as well as the secrecy surrounding its negotiations:
(I)t is deeply troubling that DFAIT has established a secret insider group with some companies and industry associations granted access to consultations as well as opportunities to learn more about the agreement and Canada's negotiating position.

I realize that Minister Fast denied the existence of such a group when he appeared before you last month.  However, documents I obtained under the Access to Information Act indicate that the first secret industry consultation occurred weeks before Canada was formally included in the TPP negotiations in a November 2012 consultation with telecommunications providers. All participants were required to sign non-disclosure agreements.  

Soon after, the circle of insiders expanded with the formation of a TPP Consultation Group. Representatives from groups and companies such as Bombardier, the Canadian Manufactures and Exporters, Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance, and the Canadian Steel Producers Association all signed a confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement that granted access to "certain sensitive information of the Department concerning or related to the TPP negotiations."

I have copies of the signed NDAs here that make specific reference to the TPP Consultation Group.

The creation of a secret TPP insider group suggests an attempt to shy away from public consultation and scrutiny of an agreement that could have a transformative effect on dozens of sectors at a time when we should be increasing efforts to gain public confidence in the talks by adopting a more transparent and accountable approach. I believe the TPP's highly secretive and non-transparent approach runs counter to Canadian values of openness and accountability. We should be actively encouraging participants to increase TPP transparency and should lead by example by ceasing the two-tier insider approach to trade agreement information. 
- Finally, Will Hutton discusses why tolerance is of limited value without some associated commitment to human dignity:
Tolerance of other people's differences is a core element of a liberal order, but a good society is one where we go beyond just shrugging our shoulders at someone's sexual preferences, religious beliefs or ethnicity. It is one in which we engage with each other, create law and justice as a moral system enshrining human dignity and accept mutual responsibilities. The aim is to live with dignity, to be able to make the best of one's capabilities and to expect that the consequences of undeserved bad luck – what Dworkin called brute bad luck – would be compensated by society in a mutual compact. This is a million miles from the Economist's arid conception of liberalism.

Nor are these disputes just airy-fairy differences between intellectuals – they go to the heart of how we live, what we do and say. Unless we take a much more robust and rounded view of liberalism, tolerance ends up as indifference, disengagement and refusal to respect other people's ambition to live with dignity. Anything goes...

In successive areas of public policy – "reform" of criminal justice and legal aid, the health service, climate change, employment law, social security – the debate is similarly defined wholly in terms of the need to assert individual rights and choice, to minimise social and public responsibilities and, above all, to roll back taxes. If the facts or scientific evidence do not support this drive, then the facts are changed or the science ignored.
(I)if the right is dominant, a rounded liberalism has one advantage. The right's world leads to economic stagnation, social atomisation and a destructive nationalism. Nor, ultimately, is there happiness and dignity to be found by living as a tax-avoiding, climate-change-denying anti-feminist while mouthing how tolerant you are. There is a quiet and mounting crisis in conservatism. Liberalism, in its best sense, could capitalise on the opportunity. It is a pity Ronnie Dworkin won't be around to be part of the fight back. We'll just have to do it by ourselves.