Saturday, June 22, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Chrystia Freeland writes about the dangers of increased concentration of wealth - particularly when it bears at best a passing relationship to any worthwhile contribution to society at large. And CBC's report on Peter Sabourin's investment fraud highlights the fact that the tax havens which have allowed for extreme accumulation of wealth have also facilitated crime against anybody aspiring to join the elite.

- Toby Sanger provides a handy list of 12 problems with the Cons' anti-union legislation.

- Pat Atkinson questions the Cons' complete failure to ensure that Canadians can trust that their food is safe. Murray Mandryk sees no justification for the Sask Party's creation of a corporate right to privacy. Readers of my column won't be surprised that I concur on both counts.

- Finally, Julie Lalonde recognizes that the only change involved in the Cons' new prohibition against anonymous protesting is one for the worse:
It is important to remember that the mass arrests made in Toronto highlighted several incidents of police officers removing their identification and concealing their identity. When complaints were filed, officers argued that they violated Chief Bill Blair’s rules because they feared retaliation from the public and wanted to protect their privacy.

What about the rights of public servants who want to attend demonstrations while concealing their identity to protect their jobs? What about pro-choice advocates who fear being the targets of anti-abortion violence if their identities are revealed? Are they not entitled to the same protections as police officers?
Bill C-309 was not about hockey riots. There are existing measures to address those. It was about a government afraid of the power of collectivity. It is about the efficiency of the Quebec student protests and the frightening law and order agenda exposed during the G8/G20 arrests.

Conservative MP Blake Richards said his bill would make communities safer, but he couldn’t be further from the truth. This new law will make us vulnerable to the biggest threat of all: fear. If every activist is guilty until proven innocent, we will see fewer willing to take the risk of arrest and detainment. As a result, our collective rights suffer.

Bill C-309 is a canary in the mine. As an activist, I may have nothing to hide but I have everything to lose.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Musical interlude

Emma Hewitt - Miss You Paradise (Shogun Remix)

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Eric Dolan discusses Paul Piff's research showing that wealth tends to lead to antisocial behaviour - and that even the beneficiaries of a rigged Monopoly game are quick to take on an air of entitlement:
Across multiple studies, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have found that being in the upper-class predisposes individuals to acting unethically.

Studies conducted by psychology professor Paul Piff found those who drive luxury cars were less likely to stop for pedestrians, those with more money were more likely take candy from children, and the wealthiest among us were more likely to cheat in a game with a $50 cash prize. Researchers at UC Berkeley have also found lower-class individuals are more physiologically attuned to the suffering of others than their middle- and upper-class counterparts.
Though some might assume the wealthy gained their riches due to their unethical behavior, the effect appears to work in the opposite direction. Being wealthy is what drives the unethical behavior.

Piff manipulated the rules of a Monopoly game to show even lower class people began to take on the traits of the wealthy when provided with unfairly favorable circumstances. Those given an unfair advantage surprisingly believed they deserved to win the game. They attributed their successes to their own individual skills and talents, rather than their highly favorable circumstances. A higher class person put in an unfavorable position, on the other hand, began to take on the traits of the poor.
- And we're not lacking for examples of the treatment of those who dare to question their social betters. For one, Brian Haas reports an attempt to shut down discussion about water quality by labelling any concerns as "acts of terrorism". And Save Our Connaught discusses the refusal of most of Regina's public school board to so much as allow a citizen's group to test the accuracy of its assumptions in deciding to replace Connaught School.

- But it seems fairly clear that an informed public becomes duly skeptical of any claims to elite entitlements - with both Michael den Tandt and Tim Harper noting that the Clusterduff has broken the seal on serious questions about the Ottawa culture of secrecy cultivated by the Harper Cons. 

- Finally, Jim Stanford makes the case for a greater public role in shaping economic development. And Don Weisbeck criticizes the deception involved in hiding public debt through P3 schemes.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Paul Krugman writes that the only real difference between the latest global crisis and past depressions is that we've moved further and further toward a rent-based economy - meaning that aggregated growth doesn't necessarily result in any benefit for the vast majority of people:
(T)here is at least one important respect in which the 21st-century economy is different in a way that ought to have a significant effect on macroeconomics: the much larger role of rents on intangible assets. This isn’t an original insight, but I haven’t been finding systematic analyses of the point.
What do I mean by the role of rents? Consider the changing identity of the most valuable company in America. For a long time, it was GM, then Exxon, then IBM. These were companies with huge visible production activities: GM had more than 400,000 employees, which was amazing when you consider that the overall national work force was much smaller than the one we have today, Exxon had oil refineries. IBM was an information technology company, but it still had many of the attributes of an old-style manufacturing giant, with many factories and a large, well-paid work force.

But now it’s Apple, which has hardly any employees and does hardly any manufacturing. The company tries, through fairly desperate PR efforts, to claim that it is indirectly responsible for lots of US jobs, but never mind. The reality is that the company is basically built around technology, design, and a brand identity.
There are a couple of obvious implications from this change in the nature of corporate success. One is that profits are no longer anything remotely resembling a “natural” aspect of the economy; they’re very much an artifact of antitrust policy or the lack thereof, intellectual property policy, etc. Another is that a lot of what we consider output is “produced” at low or zero marginal cost.
- And the Huffington Post Canada reports on one obvious example of that effect - as Canada's millionaire class saw five times as much growth in the wealth as the average household.

- The Huffington Post also discusses the World Bank's link between poverty and climate change:
The World Bank says it will increasingly view its efforts to help developing countries fight poverty through a "climate lens."

In a report released Wednesday, the international lending institution warned that heat waves, rising seas, more severe storms and other impacts of climate change will trap millions of people in poverty.

As a result, the Washington-based bank said it is stepping up support for efforts to curb climate change and to help the world adapt to it.
In a conference call, bank Vice President Rachel Kyte said the World Bank doubled its lending aimed at adaptation efforts to $4.6 billion in 2012.

She said that money was separate from the adaptation funds transferred from rich to poor countries in U.N. climate talks. The developed countries have pledged to ramp that financing up to $100 billion annually by 2020. Critics say that won't be enough, pointing to the New York's recently announced $20 billion plan – for that city alone – to stave off rising seas with flood gates, levees and other defenses.
- And Stephanie Levitz reports on the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness' study showing the cost of homelessness in Canada to be over $7 billion per year. 

- Finally, Dennis Howlett points out that the Cons' attempts to paper over tax evasion won't accomplish much without Canada also participating in a global push for corporate transparency.

New column day

Here, on the CCPA's recent report (PDF) on child poverty in Canada - and the affordable options which could eradicate that poverty based on a few simple choices.

For further reading...
- Campaign 2000's report card showed where Canada stood in 2009 when it came to its commitment to ending child poverty.
- Sources as to the revenue implications of policy choices include Mike de Souza's report on existing oil and gas subsidies, the PBO's estimate on the GST (PDF), and Kevin Milligan's calculation as to the long-term costs of TFSAs.
- And for reporting on the CCPA's study, see among others stories from the CBC and CP.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wednesday Afternoon Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Polly Toynbee writes that there's no magic involved in collecting fair tax rates from the rich - only a need for the political will to fund public priorities:
Cutting the 50% top rate suggests no great enthusiasm for rigorous taxing. Last week's ONS figures revealed gigantic avoidance of the 50% top rate. It could have been collected but George Osborne needed to prove it didn't work. The Treasury estimated raising the rate to 50% should bring in £6.2bn, but the actual return was a puny £100m.

In year one, before its official start date, high earners gamed the tax by rushing to take dividends and bonuses early. They paid more into pensions, gaining undeserved higher tax relief. Or they used trusts, or took income as capital gains. (That can be stopped, by fixing capital gains, as Nigel Lawson did, at the same rate as income tax, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies advocates.) Once Osborne announced the top rate would fall to 45%, high earners gamed it again. Incomes Data Services reports a massive delay in bonuses until after 6 April, when they leapt up by 107% in the finance sector to catch the new 45% rate. That could have been forestalled.

To Osborne it proved there's no point in taxing the rich. But the IFS says Denmark successfully collects its high top rate because it has no dodges: the rich can be taxed if reliefs are blocked. But this government never worried over income being sucked up from middle to top, with the share of national income taken by the top 1% now having risen to 14%, as GDP shifts from pay to profits. Osborne redistributes taxes the wrong way. Even raising tax thresholds sees most gain go to the top half, not to low earners.
Tax cheating should be Labour's chance to tell honest political truths: you get what you pay for, you can't have Swedish services on US tax ideology. Tax is the price we pay for civilisation. At elections, all parties promise the impossible, more with less and cuts in "bureaucracy" to pay for everything. Treating the public like children on tax does nothing for trust in politics. The door has opened for that conversation.
- Meanwhile, Miles Corak notes that we can't make any strides toward equality of opportunity without treating more equal distribution of wealth as a priority:
Relatively less upward mobility of the least advantaged is one reason why intergenerational mobility is lower in the United States than in other countries to which Americans are often compared. But it is not the only reason. Intergenerational mobility is also lower because children of top-earning parents are more likely to become top earners in their turn. An era of rising inequality is more likely to heighten these differences than to diminish them.

Inequality lowers mobility because it shapes opportunity. It heightens the income consequences of innate differences between individuals; it also changes opportunities, incentives, and institutions that form, develop, and transmit characteristics and skills valued in the labor market; and it shifts the balance of power so that some groups are in a position to structure policies or otherwise support their children’s achievement independent of talent.

Thus, those who are concerned about equality of opportunity should also care about inequality of outcomes.
- The CP reports on Canada's role in spying on allies through CSEC's electronic surveillance.

- Frances Russell comments on how both the federal ethics commissioner and the RCMP have all too willingly functioned as servants of the Harper Cons rather than the public interest.

- Finally, Sean Holman writes about the corrosive effect of excessive party discipline on Canadian democracy:
(I)t’s reasonable to assume “there’s got to be times, random chance if nothing else, that some of us disagree with what we’re voting on.”

But the fear of talking about what happens in caucus and cabinet – the private spaces where MLAs, MPPs and MPs are allowed to voice dissenting opinions about public issues – means that Canadians have little understanding of why their representatives make such compromises.

An example of that fear: during a background interview, one politician told me that, as a first-time provincial candidate, “I knew I was part of a larger franchise and I would only be able to sell drinks in the same size cup as everyone else. But I did think I would be able to at least decorate my store the way I wanted and have my own customer service approach.”

But when we sat down for what became a sweaty, two-hour on-camera interview, the politician talked about being a supporter (of) party discipline.

The politician later told me about suffering “sleepless nights” contemplating what may have been said during that interview, which I left on the cutting room floor.

On revolting logic

Shorter Terence Corcoran:

A Spanish-style tax revolt to defund government is the only way for Ontario and Quebec residents to avoid the fiscal disaster caused by the Spanish tax revolt.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Outstretched cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- George Monbiot writes about the dangers of allowing wealthy and privileged individuals to speak as the voice of the poor and downtrodden:
As the UK chairs the G8 summit again, a campaign that Bono founded, with which Geldof works closely, appears to be whitewashing the G8's policies in Africa.

Last week I drew attention to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, launched in the US when it chaired the G8 meeting last year. The alliance is pushing African countries into agreements that allow foreign companies to grab their land, patent their seeds and monopolise their food markets. Ignoring the voices of their own people, six African governments have struck deals with companies such as Monsanto, Cargill, Dupont, Syngenta, NestlĂ© and Unilever, in return for promises of aid by the UK and other G8 nations.

A wide range of activists, both African and European, is furious about the New Alliance. But the ONE campaign, co-founded by Bono, stepped up to defend it. The article it wrote last week was remarkable in several respects: in its elision of the interests of African leaders and those of their people, in its exaggeration of the role of small African companies, but above all in failing even to mention the injustice at the heart of the New Alliance – its promotion of a new wave of land grabbing. My curiosity was piqued.
Bono claims to be "representing the poorest and most vulnerable people". But talking to a wide range of activists from both the poor and rich worlds since ONE published its article last week, I have heard the same complaint again and again: that Bono and others like him have seized the political space which might otherwise have been occupied by the Africans about whom they are talking. Because Bono is seen by world leaders as the representative of the poor, the poor are not invited to speak. This works very well for everyone – except them.

The ONE campaign looks to me like the sort of organisation that John le Carré or Robert Harris might have invented. It claims to work on behalf of the extremely poor. But its board is largely composed of multimillionaires, corporate aristocrats and US enforcers.
- And Murray Dobbin likewise opines that progressive politics can't be oriented solely around formal party structures:
(T)he remnants of what were once robust and effective social movements are (with some important exceptions) increasingly weak, demoralized and isolated. Small wonder. The context for the creation of these single-issue movements was the early Trudeau era when governments actually listened to citizens' groups while expanding the social and economic role of governments. The efficacy of this kind of civil society organizing has however been in a steady decline since the signing of the FTA with the U.S. What is now needed is a broad social movement which incorporates all of the issues now dealt with by hundreds of disconnected organizations.

It all has to do with recovering community and the commons. The destruction of community has been the great success of the right. When Margaret Thatcher stated there was "no such thing as society" she was not describing current reality -- she was describing her goal. It has been largely achieved in English speaking developed countries. If we are to even begin to address our share of the global crises we will have to do it by creating a political culture that reinvents the commons and ends people's isolation from each other.
- The Barrie Advance reveals one right-wing smear gone horribly wrong, as Stephen Harper's Prime Minister's Office is on the record using public resources to attack Justin Trudeau. And Susan Delacourt goes into detail about the Star's process in dealing with media manipulation.

- Margaret Flowers notes that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will serve largely to enshrine in an international treaty all kinds of corporate goodies which could never pass muster in a democratic process - which is why its contents are being kept secret until after they're binding on member states. But Stuart Trew points out one twist on the Cons' efforts to sell out Canadian interests abroad, as the constitutional duty to consult with First Nations seems to offer a rather promising basis for challenging treaties which exclude First Nations from the table.

- Finally, David Dayen discusses the lesson U.S. banks look to have learned from the 2008 financial crisis: that they can get away with large-scale fraud to access public money so long as they scare their employees into going along with the scheme.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Thomas Walkom, Dan Leger and Michael Harris write about the sketchy surveillance programs in place on both sides of the 49th parallel. But there may be an opportunity to make common cause with the 1% in criticizing constant intrusion on personal privacy, as both the U.S. and the U.K. have been caught using their data interception capability to spy on businesses and international allies.

- In any event, one can safely say that this is not the time when a smart government would introduce blanket secrecy for 11 government agencies. But since few would accuse the Harper Cons of being particularly smart, that's exactly what they're doing.

- And speaking of the Cons' mostly incompetent government, Barrie McKenna provides a first look at the reviews of the job grant program advertised with tens of millions of public dollars this spring long before it actually existed:
Ottawa’s $900-million job grant scheme is a windfall for companies that already train workers, opens few new opportunities for the unskilled and saps funds from existing government efforts, according to a new report.

The program is “deeply flawed public policy” and should be scrapped, say the authors of a report to be released Monday by the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto and the Caledon Institute of Social Policy.
- Sixth Estate points out that even if Stephen Harper had some great commitment to avoiding election fraud (pause for laughter), he'd risk losing his majority just by addressing the questionable election campaigns of his current caucus.

- Finally, Jason Mogus laments the gap in sophistication between conservative and progressive messaging. But while I'll readily agree on the importance of offering a well-thought-out message, I do think there's a larger issue worth mentioning as well: progressive politics work best when based on popular involvement rather than the mere repetition of themes we expect from the right, meaning that it isn't enough to buy the theory that talking point discipline is the answer.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

On tests of character

Dr. Dawg has rightly pointed out the Cons' attempt to invent a story based on Tom Mulcair's audacity in driving to his own parking spot. (Though we can be assured that members of the limo-propelled Con cabinet will never face precisely that same scenario.)

But if there is a story worth noting, I'd see it in comparing Mulcair's response to a simple misunderstanding to the way far worse stories have been handled by his political counterparts.

Here's Mulcair's reaction to the incident:
Thursday morning, however, a new guard was on duty at the checkpoint and she didn't recognize Mulcair.

"I waved. I thought I got a wave back but I didn't so we wound up having the slowest promenade in front of the building. I went around the back (followed by) another officer who'd been dispatched to see who it was. The other officer was able to verify my identity and that was it."

A while later, Mulcair said he went back to the checkpoint to clear up the misunderstanding.

"When I went back and talked to her, she was apologetic and I apologized myself for the misunderstanding. I didn't want the misunderstanding to last. She felt bad, I felt bad, we shook hands and that was the end of it."
In contrast, let's take a look at the Cons' responses to incidents involving deliberate breaches of security check points. First, there's Pierre Poilievre:
Poilievre, who could not be reached Friday for comment, apologized to the RCMP two days later after he learned CTV was doing a story on the incident.
And second, there's Helena Guergis:
Junior cabinet minister Helena Guergis has issued an apology for her rude behaviour at the Charlottetown airport, where she allegedly threw a tantrum and screamed obscenities at staff who asked her to take her boots off for security screening.
 "On Feb. 19, I was rushing to catch a flight at the Charlottetown airport and spoke emotionally to some staff members," Guergis, the minister of state for the status of women, said in an unusually abject mea culpa. "Regardless of my workload and personal circumstances, it was not appropriate and I apologize to airport and Air Canada staff."
In her apology issued Thursday, Guergis said: "It was certainly not my intention to create any additional stress for airport or Air Canada employees who already have a very difficult job."
And as an added bonus, here's Justin Trudeau today on the tens of thousands of dollars he's charged to charities and public institutions in speaking fees:
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau says he is willing to make amends with any charitable organizations that have paid him to speak and felt they did not get their money’s worth.

“I am going to sit down with every single one of them and make this right,” Trudeau told CTV’s Question Period Sunday, addressing an issue first raised in reports about his work with The Grace Foundation, which supports a seniors’ home.
“I’m willing to pay all the money back, if that’s what it comes to,” Trudeau said during an interview with CTV’s Question Period.
So where can we see a difference in the respective reactions? I'd see two key points worth noting.

First, in the cases of the Con and Lib examples, the MPs involved did absolutely nothing to try to address concerns until after the stories had surfaced in the media. Which signals that each sees the matter as solely one of public relations (see in particular Trudeau's "if that's what it comes to" as to his willingness to address charities' concerns), rather than a matter of personal integrity. In contrast, in Mulcair's case the effort to follow up with the new guard took place shortly after the events in question - at a point when it may not have been clear whether the events resulted in a story at all.

And more importantly, Mulcair actually reached out to the person involved and spoke to her directly - both to determine what happened, and to facilitate apologies on both sides.

Now, most of us might consider such politeness to be common courtesy. But it stands in stark contrast to the choice of Poilievre, Guergis and Trudeau to run to the media and issue blanket statements intended to depersonalize their issues - rather than to talk personally to the people individually affected by their actions.

In other words, the personal interactions necessary for any politician to do his or her job offer plenty of opportunities to test character based on variations of the Waiter Rule. And Mulcair looks to have passed with flying colours - while there's precious little evidence that the culture of the NDP's competition encourages their leaders to meet the standard.

[Edit: fixed typo.]

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Andrew Gavin Marshall surveys the grossly disproportionate amount of wealth and power held by a small elite class:
In 2006, a UN report revealed that the world’s richest 1% own 40% of the world’s wealth, with those in the financial and internet sectors comprising the “super rich.” More than a third of the world’s super-rich live in the U.S., with roughly 27% in Japan, 6% in the U.K., and 5% in France. The world’s richest 10% accounted for roughly 85% of the planet's total assets, while the bottom half of the population – more than 3 billion people – owned less than 1% of the world’s wealth.
A 2005 report from Citigroup coined the term “plutonomy” to describe countries “where economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few.” The report specifically identified the U.K., Canada, Australia and the United States as four plutonomies. Published three years before the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, the Citigroup report stated: “Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper and become a greater share of the economy in the plutonomy countries.”

"The rich," said the report, "are in great shape, financially.”

In early 2013, Oxfam reported that the fortunes made by the world’s 100 richest people over the course of 2012 – roughly $240 billion – would be enough to lift the world’s poorest people out of poverty four times over. In the Oxfam report, "The Cost of Inequality: How Wealth and Income Extremes Hurt Us All," the international charity noted that in the past 20 years, the richest 1% had increased their incomes by 60%. Barbara Stocking, an Oxfam executive, noted that this type of extreme wealth is “economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive and environmentally destructive...We can no longer pretend that the creation of wealth for a few will inevitably benefit the many – too often the reverse is true.”
(T)he ruling class is not “global” as such, but rather “a supra-national capitalist class that has gone a considerable way toward transcending national divisions,” notably in the industrialized countries of Western Europe and North America; in their words, "the regional locus of transnational class formation is more accurately described as the North Atlantic region.” However, with the rise of the "East" – notably the economic might of Japan, China, India, and other East Asian nations – the interlocks and interconnections among elites are likely to expand as various other networks of institutions seek to integrate these regions.

The influence wielded by banks and corporations is not simply through their direct wealth or operations, but through the affiliations, interactions and integration by those who run the institutions with political and social elites, both nationally and globally. While we can identify a global elite as a wealth percentage (the top 1% or, more accurately, the top 0.001%), this does not account for the more indirect and institutionalized influence that corporate and financial leaders exert over politics and society as a whole.
 - But Jim Stanford wonders whether the latest effort to build corporatism into Canadian foreign policy will produce important economic and political consequences - as the predictable economic displacements caused by the CETA may well damage the Con administration which is so eager to shackle Canadian governments at all levels.

- Meanwhile, the City of Regina is trying to change its petition rules in order to try to prevent a public referendum on a P3 wastewater treatment plant - which should make for ample reason to sign the petition in order to make sure the City's maneuverings don't get in the way of democratic choice.

- And the provincial government's own privatization schemes are blowing up as well, as the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour revealed this week that a private bidder on linen services for health-care providers tried to lock workers into a 10-year contract without any say by shopping a pre-written collective bargaining agreement around to unions. (At the same time, the attempt to slash wages and benefits compared to those paid to current workers only goes to show that any "efficiency" in privatizing the work was based on a pure transfer from workers to corporate shareholders.)

- Finally, Dean Beeby reports on the remarkable orders being given to Parliament Hill guides. And I'm not sure that undue praise for the Senate - which can at least be explained as putting a positive spin on the system which actually exises - represents as much an affront to Canada's own democracy as this appalling attempt to narrow the terms of political debate in an actual multi-party system:
The politics manual also contains a section that touts the benefits of a two-party system, unlike the multi-party hue of the current House of Commons.

“In a multi-party group system the voter is liable to be confused by a variety of competing issues and solutions,” it advises trainees, noting that a two-party system has more “moderation.”

“The two-party system has acted as a great unifying agency in countries such as Canada and the United States, which have not any very deep underlying unity to begin with.”