Saturday, July 20, 2013

On double standards

Simon Enoch, Paul Dechene and Stephen Whitworth have already weighed in on the City of Regina's choice to blow its nose on a petition that reflects citizen engagement in action. But I'm surprised nobody's yet pointed out the vastly different treatment between two different aspects of the petition.

As Dechene notes, the City took two steps to arbitrarily cut down on the number of names treated as valid. First, it simply threw out over 2,800 names based on the fact that the listed date didn't include the year. And second, it conducted a "sampling" of the names on the remaining list, presuming that any signatures were invalid unless a signatory provided a positive response to a phone-out campaign - then applied the response rate for that sample to the balance of the signatures.

And there's a particularly jarring disconnect between those two steps.

Simply put, if the City was going to be calling out to confirm the validity of information on the petitions in any event, there's no excuse for their pitching petitions based on the date without conducting comparable sampling to assess that issue. After all, it would have taken little added work to conduct a similar sampling of the signatures which didn't list the year, and determine whether the intended year was in fact 2013.

But apparently sampling techniques were seen as utterly unacceptable if they served to validate rather than exclude signatures.

And based on the City's earlier attempt to change the rules in the middle of the petition campaign in order to prevent any referendum, we have to presume they had some even more restrictive form of "verification" ready in the wings if the phone campaign didn't figure to meet its goal of avoiding the referendum threshold: perhaps setting up an in-person roll call with 15 minutes notice, and disqualifying the signature of anybody not present to respond to his or her name being called.

It remains to be seen how Council will answer the Clerk's report - though anybody counting on most of the current crop to value public input when a chance for a private operator to bleed the city dry is at stake figures to be in for a long wait. But there's reason to hope that the Clerk's double standard will give the petitioners a fighting chance if we see the expected response.

Update: Paul Dechene has more

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Jim Stanford discusses the OECD's findings that job protection actually improves better employment outcomes - while "flexible" labour markets serve only to ensure less opportunity for workers. And Sid Ryan makes the case for premiers to reject a low-wage agenda.

- Oil spills are happening all over the place without being reported. Nobody has any idea what's causing them or what to do about them. Traditional First Nations land is being contaminated. So all in all, it's business as usual in the Cons' dirty-oil economy.

- Meanwhile, investigators into the Lac-Mégantic disaster are keying in on the composition of the oil being shipped - since ordinary crude shouldn't produce the type of explosion that decimated Lac-Mégantic. And Greenpeace rightly calls for some wider consideration of the different types of oil being shipped and used when it comes to setting regulations.

- While I haven't seen much worth commenting on about the Cons' cabinet shuffle, I'll offer one followup note on Pierre Poilievre's history as a robocaller. Having operated a robocall firm himself, he'll likely have as good an idea as anybody both how to take advantage of the law as it stands now, and how to amend the Canada Elections Act so as not to prevent the Cons' robocall contractors from continuing their shady operations. And particularly given the reports this spring that previous elections legislation was stopped at the behest of the Cons' caucus, I'd suspect that's exactly why he's been given the role.

- Finally, Colin Horgan muses about the Cons' strategy in releasing details of their cabinet deck chair rearrangement on Twitter.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Musical interlude

Copyright - Rock Machine

Friday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to end your week.

- Patrick Wintour and Simon Bowers discuss the G20's predictable finding that our global tax system isn't set up to address the problem of offshore tax evasion:
The long-awaited report, prepared for a meeting of the G20 finance ministers in Moscow this weekend, says a "bold move by policymakers" is necessary to prevent a worsening in the position. The OECD calls it "a turning point in the history of international co-operation on tax".

The action plan sets out 15 initiatives for arming tax authorities around the world with the tools to crack down on some of the areas international leaders agree are among the most widely exploited by multinational tax avoiders. These initiatives are to produce a range of recommendations for changes to the tax treaty rulebook, with deadlines ranging from 12 months to two and a half years.

Among the highlights are additional disclosures multinationals must make to all tax authorities, helping officials know where to look for the worst avoidance. There are proposals to require companies such as Amazon with extensive warehouse networks in a country to pay more local tax; multinationals posting high-value "intangible" assets, such as brands and intellectual property rights, to tax havens will also be targeted, as will tax breaks introduced by individual countries that are seen as predatory.

The report sets out 15 separate actions the international community needs to take to modernise a tax system established in the 1920s. It argues the tax system is outmoded and unequipped to deal with mobile multinational firms that have found innumerable ways of avoiding tax, often by shifting profits to low-tax countries.
- And the exploitation of loopholes and weak government goes a long way toward explaining why economic security seems to be sorely lacking even in the midst of the plenty discussed by Tom Streithorst:
On the one hand, technology has made us all much more productive than we were 30 years ago. On the other, jobs have evaporated. Steel that used to require hundreds of men to manufacture now can be made with a dozen. A small businessman no longer needs to hire a secretary or a bookkeeper. Inexpensive software and a personal computer lets him do their jobs in a fraction of the time all by himself. The internet puts specialist knowledge that used to be almost impossible to find instantaneously on our laptops. The personal computer is doing to the office worker what the internal combustion engine did to the horse a century ago, making him obsolete.

Most of us are working harder, for less money and with no job security. My father and I both worked at the same large corporation but there was a difference, a difference determined by our respective eras: he was staff, I was freelance. When he got sick, the company found him doctors, paid his salary, put considerable effort into his recovery. Had I ever gotten sick, they would have simply forgotten my name. He yelled at the CEO habitually without any fear of losing his job. I mouthed off once to a middle manager and was never hired again. He had a defined benefit pension paid for by the corporation, the government gave me a tax break should I choose to save for my own retirement. The company had legal and moral responsibilities to him, which both he and they viewed as sacrosanct. All they owed me was a day’s pay for a day’s work. His generation gave their youth to a corporation, and the corporation took care of them in their old age. Today loyalty, if it exists at all, goes just one way.
The interaction between falling house prices, mortgage-backed securities, and third party repo agreements was the trigger of this disaster, but the larger lesson is that we are in this mess today because our post-scarcity world economy cannot produce sufficient effective demand required to keep everybody employed. From 1938 to 1945, war created that demand. From 1945 to 1973, prosperity, rising wages, and advertising created that demand. From 1982 to 2007, debt fuelled consumption financed by ever rising asset prices created that demand. In 2007, as fear roiled the markets, banks stopped lending, and when we could no longer spend beyond our means, the economy collapsed.

The most important thing to remember about the faux-prosperity of the last 30 years is that it was manufactured on the basis of paper profits. If my house was worth £3000 in 1973 and £1.5 million in 2012, it is still essentially the same house and gives me the same pleasure to live in. If we could manufacture demand by making bombs and if we could manufacture demand by making houses quadruple in price, then we can manufacture demand in other ways, perhaps more satisfying ways as well.
- Jim Stanford and Angella MacEwen both debunk the "jobs without people" myth being pushed by Jason Kenney, while Rebecca Lindell notes that the Cons are also operating outside the reality-based community when it comes to employers exploiting temporary foreign workers.

- And Paul Krugman highlights the real effect of the "flexibility" demanded by anti-worker groups - as applied universally, it creates lower wages and a more sluggish economy for everybody.

- Finally, Oliver Wright reports on private-sector operators gaming the system to make profits off of outsourced public services without actually meeting the needs of the programs involved. And we should have reason to doubt that any corporation with a similar chance to bilk the public would do differently when given the chance to skim the cream off the top.

Making a list, checking it twice

Not surprisingly, the revelation that the Cons have assembled official enemies lists has given rise to some call for those lists to be made public. But I'll take a quick look at why that process is bound to take at least some time - as well as the considerations involved in figuring out whether the Cons may choose or be required to reveal the names involved.

To start with, assuming the lists contain both individual and organization names, the federal Privacy Act actually prohibits the Cons from releasing the former (to anybody other than the subject individual) unless one of a set of specific criteria is met. See section 8 for the full list of permitted purposes for disclosure.

So as a starting point, the Cons are free to let the public know if the David Suzuki Foundation is on its enemies list. But before mentioning David Suzuki acting as an individual, they'd have to either get Suzuki's consent, or determine that the public interest in disclosure of his name outweighs his privacy interests. (In the latter case, a notification process might apply at the discretion of the Privacy Commissioner.)

The Privacy Act also allows for a right of individual access to personal information in the hands of a government institution. And so the fastest way for any individual to confirm or refute any possibility that they're on a departmental enemies list is to make a request for his or her own personal information in the hands of that department.

But then, we don't know exactly how many individuals might be named within the lists, and it's safe to say not everybody will make the effort to request their own personal information. Which leaves open the possibility of more general requests under the Access to Information Act which might produce some complete answers in relatively short order.

Once again, the personal information of a third party normally can't be released without either consent or a valid purpose. But the Access to Information Act also includes a formal appeal process which would allow the requester to challenge the government's actions. And as a matter of practice, an institution would normally ask the affected individuals for their consent.

In fact, on an access request to a particular department, we'd expect all of the individuals on that department's enemies list to receive formal notice at some point - either at the outset if the Cons properly seek their consent, or on review if access is flatly refused initially.

As for the more specific discussion of individuals involved, that could take somewhat longer if the Cons want to assert exemptions under the Access to Information Act. But I'd be skeptical as to whether any would ultimately be found to apply. And if the Cons try to delay matters now, they may only ensure that some highly damaging decisions and revelations surface just as the 2015 election approaches.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Thursday Evening Links

This and that to end your Thursday.

- The Huffington Post discusses a study showing how poor Canadians pay the highest marginal tax rates on income that pushes them over benefit thresholds. But it should be fairly obvious that the solution is to set up rational models for social programs which avoid counterproductive incentives - rather than following the C.D. Howe Institute's apparent preference to freeze them in place. And indeed, Jordon Cooper writes that strategies based on the principle of investing where it's needed most can go a long way in propelling citizens out of poverty for the long term.

- Alex Himelfarb sees inequality and detachment at the root of Canada's current lack of broad political engagement:
The research also shows that how governments design and deliver social and labour programs is key to achieving both greater trust and greater equality. In this age of austerity and tax cuts, many governments are doing exactly the wrong things, exacerbating inequality by undermining wages and weakening the programs that reduce inequality and alleviate its consequences, moving from universal to narrowly targeted approaches or starving the programs that the research shows make the biggest difference. What Rothstein’s work demonstrates is that universal programs – universal healthcare, childcare, education, income security, and access to justice, are the most effective by far in promoting equality and social trust. They are inclusive and not subject to arbitrary income cut offs and often degrading means-testing in which officials decide who’s in and who’s out. They bring people together across income and cultural differences. Because they belong to everyone, everyone has a stake in their quality.
In countries where social trust is low and inequality high, it is awfully hard to reverse direction. Even when people know what’s needed, there’s not enough trust to get it done. This is the classic social trap. Absent trust, people are not willing to pay the necessary taxes; each worries that they’re being ripped off by the other, those at the top effectively secede from society and those at the bottom withdraw believing that the game is rigged. It is almost impossible in those cases to imagine big new social programs or even strengthening existing ones. And so inequality and distrust grow; solutions seem increasingly out of reach.
- Meanwhile, Andrew Rawnsley sees the need for the UK's political parties to do far more to build a genuine mass membership - a point which figures to apply in Canada as well.

- Finally, Murray Mandryk suspects that Stephen Harper has become his own worst enemy. And the NDP helpfully highlights the one and only way to stay off the Cons' enemies list.

New column day

Here, on what the Cons' response to the Lac-Mégantic rail explosion says about their wider concern (or lack thereof) for the safety of Canadians.

For further reading...
- My earlier posts addressing Con-style arguments from Andrew Coyne are here and here.
- Andrew Griffith's book excerpt on the difference between political and official decision-making is here, and is discussed by Susan Delacourt here.
- CTV reports on growing frustration in Lac-Mégantic itself, while the ever-community-minded MMA is laying off staff and covering up the exact amount of oil it spilled.
- Finally, a couple of reports nicely highlight the distinction between a narrow response to Lac-Mégantic and broader questions about risk: while Kim Mackrael notes that rail operators including CN are making a public show of addressing their rules on unattended trains, the Province finds CN barging ahead with a plan to eliminate on-site staff from rail bridges.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Plenty more commentators are weighing in on the Harper Cons' enemy list, including the Star, the Globe and Mail, and Lawrence Martin. But Robyn Benson makes the most important comment about the Harper with-us-or-against-us mentality that's being applied to the federal government apparatus just as much as the Cons as a political party:
The common denominator here is a fundamental lack of trust in other people, approaching paranoia, combined with a mean authoritarian streak that defines anyone who thinks differently, not as a fellow-citizen, but as an enemy to be eliminated. Such people, once in power, display a cynical shrewdness and a fetish for secrecy. They instinctively prefer the dark to the light. And theirs is an iron rule, or at least as iron a rule as they are permitted to get away with.

Those of us who are fundamentally opposed to the values and philosophy of the current government, or even question them, are not “enemies.” We believe in the democratic process: spirited debate, the exercise of our Charter rights to dissent, strong and organized political opposition. A government that defines us as enemies is itself an enemy of democracy.

And democracy in Canada is fragile enough as it is. The Prime Minister is granted powers that a US President would envy—the unilateral right to appoint members of the Senate, judges, and members of various boards and commissions, for example. Or to shut down Parliament when it gets inconvenient. With the increasing concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office, the consequent lack of democratic accountability to the electorate becomes more and more a fact of Canadian political life. And when it reaches the point that the PMO becomes more or less an arm of a specific political party, running dirty tricks against opposition leaders, a line has been crossed, and it will not be easy to walk that one back.
- Meanwhile, CTV reports on the latest in the Cons' Clusterduff - an apparent refusal to provide central records to the RCMP. (And no, "you didn't ask for exactly the right document in exactly the right way with exactly the right secret password" isn't a valid excuse, especially from a PMO shouting from the rooftops that it's cooperating with the investigation.)

- Andrew Livingstone reveals the use of impoverished and hungry First Nations Canadians as lab rats to determine what food and health services people could do without. And Dr. Dawg diagnoses part of the problem as being the perception of people as objects for experimental purposes.

- Rafe Mair notes that in trashing B.C. Hydro, the Clark Liberals are destroying what should be a proud part of that province's legacy of responsive right-wing government.

- And finally, George Monbiot discusses how the tobacco lobby is merely channeling money and PR into other forms to evade restrictions on direct advertising and warp the political system in its favour.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Upworthy and the Equality Trust both provide fascinating examples of greed in action.

- Rank and File discusses the relentless wage-slashing that has led to a perpetually smaller number of workers with sole responsibility for dangerous cargo, while Leo Panitch makes a similar point. And in a guest post at Dawg's Blog, Brian Busby contrasts the public service and self-sacrifice of firefighters in Lac-Mégantic against the self-absorbed Randism of MMA and its leaders.

- Meanwhile, Colin Kenny points out that the Cons have eliminated federal funding for joint emergency preparedness. 

- Susan Delacourt reports (and follows up) on the Cons' Cabinet-level enemies lists. But if there's any surprise in the existence of the lists, it's the fact that they're bothering to make new ones for each minister's reference rather than having a common set of enemies recorded through CIMS.

- Finally, Canadians for Tax Fairness notes that Japan provides a prime example as to how to avoid offshore tax avoidance and evasion - meaning that there's no need for other countries to reinvent the wheel in ensuring that big business pays its fair share of the price of a civilized society.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Monday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Last week, I noted that even after a 2-0 start, the Saskatchewan Roughriders might be one injury away from some serious problems. And another impressive win later, that number may be down to zero.

But there are a few ways the 'Riders can handle the late-game injury to Darian Durant. And I wonder whether the best option may be the one which looks past the next game or two.

Once again, the 'Riders' success against the Argos (particularly early on) was based largely on superb interaction and timing between Durant and his receivers. And it's a wide open question whether Drew Willy can match the skill Durant has developed over the course of multiple years as a CFL starter.

Which means that if the 'Riders' priority is simply to win from week to week, they'll have a strong incentive to pursue one of two paths: playing Durant as soon as he's close to being ready, or alternatively playing Willy in a radically simplified offence better suited to a less experienced quarterback.

But if the 'Riders have decided that a conservative offensive style isn't good enough to get them through the playoffs with Durant at the controls, it seems highly unlikely that they can give the benefit of the doubt to Willy. And so now may be the time to take the training wheels off of Willy and see if he can run something close to the 'Riders' full offence - with the assurance that he'll get a full game at a time to try until Durant is fully healthy.

If he can, then all of the team's questions will resolve themselves fairly quickly. Durant will still be the obvious starter when healthy, but the 'Riders will be able to trust that a single injury won't torpedo their playoff hopes.

But what if he can't? Well, at least the team will know for later in the season, giving it the option of picking up some additional quarterback insurance if Durant's health is in serious question (or some more aggressive defenders to fit the '07 model if need be). And the 3-0 start means the 'Riders have at least a bit of room for error without losing a chance at home-field advantage and playoff positioning.

Again, the downside of that option is that it leaves the 'Riders on somewhat shakier ground as long as Durant is at less than full health. But it's the end of the season rather than the start that gets remembered - and the easiest path to a win next week may not be the best option for the 'Riders' chances of making and winning a home Grey Cup.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Murray Dobbin writes about the crisis of extreme capitalism:
(T)he "free economy" romanticized by Friedman and his ilk is anything but. Completely dominated by giant corporations whose wealth outstrips all but the richest nations, economic freedom does not exist for anyone else, including the vast majority of businesses who are at the mercy of financial institutions and mega-corporations. This is to say nothing of workers whose "freedom" to sell their labour now means they are free to compete with those who earn a few dollars a day thousands of miles away from their communities.

A free economy has always been a euphemism for liberated capital, and globalization is its obvious expression. While the behaviour of genuine markets as envisioned by Adam Smith was actually rooted in the customs, mores and culture of communities, this is less and less the case. Market behaviour is now typically that of Goldman Sachs or hedge funds. Their coldly calculated and amoral decisions affect every community on the planet and everyone living in them.
One very concrete way of comparing the power of labour and capital is to examine the share of the proceeds of increased productivity each receives. This time capital took it all -- virtually every dime over a 25-year period. Had incomes grown at the same rate as productivity the median income would have been $56,826 in 2005 instead of  $41,401. But they didn't. Capital took it all because it could, because year by year democracy and its constraints on the "market" were steadily eroded.

In that missing $15,000 a year you can find the crisis of consumption, Canadian chapter. If millions of Canadian workers and families had actually kept pace with productivity the astonishing level of debt they now face would be much lower and they would be spending money in the economy. Last October the debt-to-income ratio of Canadian families hit a new record of 163.4 per cent. The comparable figure in the U.S. -- where it is also considered dangerously high -- is 110 per cent. As if that wasn't bad enough, money borrowed against home equity totals $206 billion, equal to 12 per cent of Canadian GDP (it's 4 per cent in the U.S.).
This refusal of the federal government to collect adequate revenue to address this huge deficit in infrastructure is one of the best examples of just how perverse neo-liberal ideology has become. A modern economy cannot function efficiently with crumbling roads, bridges, mass transit systems and sewer and water systems, yet government policy continues to contribute to the crisis. And this is just one category of service that corporations rely on -- cuts to education and medicare, and the lack of investment in social housing and child care are equally irrational from a business perspective.

Yet the current management committee of capitalism will respond to its crisis based on the theory that got them here in the first place -- Milton Friedman's edict that democracy is the problem. The greater the crisis, the more democracy will have to constrained. If the medicine doesn't work, increase the dose. Inequality will not be addressed; it will be institutionalized.
- As a case in point, Dene Moore reports on Taseko's sheer glee at the prospect of a federal government willing to gut environmental assessment processes to facilitate the destruction of important lakes in the name of mining profits. And David Climenhaga points out the chutzpah of oil apologists who are willing to stand in front of a disaster scene and claim we should trust their judgment in how to avoid disasters.

- Joseph Stiglitz discusses how draconian intellectual property laws exacerbate inequality:
The Myriad case was an embodiment of three key messages in my book “The Price of Inequality.” First, I argued that societal inequality was a result not just of the laws of economics, but also of how we shape the economy — through politics, including through almost every aspect of our legal system. Here, it’s our intellectual property regime that contributes needlessly to the gravest form of inequality. The right to life should not be contingent on the ability to pay.

The second is that some of the most iniquitous aspects of inequality creation within our economic system are a result of “rent-seeking”: profits, and inequality, generated by manipulating social or political conditions to get a larger share of the economic pie, rather than increasing the size of that pie. And the most iniquitous aspect of this wealth appropriation arises when the wealth that goes to the top comes at the expense of the bottom. Myriad’s efforts satisfied both these conditions: the profits the company gained from charging for its test added nothing to the size and dynamism of the economy, and simultaneously decreased the welfare of those who could not afford it.

While all of the insured contributed to Myriad’s profits — premiums had to go up to offset its fees, and millions of uninsured middle-income Americans who had to pay Myriad’s monopoly prices were on the hook for even more if they chose to get the test — it was the uninsured at the bottom who paid the highest price. With the test unaffordable, they faced a higher risk of early death.
When the legal regime governing intellectual property rights is designed poorly, it facilitates rent-seeking — and ours is poorly designed, though this and other recent Supreme Court decisions have led to one that is better than it otherwise would have been. And the result is that there is actually less innovation and more inequality.

Indeed, one of the important insights of Robert W. Fogel, a Nobel Prize-winning economic historian who died last month, was that a synergy between improved health and technology accounts for a good part of the explosive economic growth since the 19th century. So it stands to reason that intellectual property regimes that create monopoly rents that impede access to health both create inequality and hamper growth more generally.
- Paul Krugman comments on the Republicans' determination to ensure that less-wealthy Americans go hungry as further evidence of a political party genuinely dedicated to destruction for its own sake. And lest anybody consider the Cons any different, Lee Berthiaume finds that hundreds of millions of dollars budgeted for foreign aid have been held back for no apparent reason.

- Finally, Susan Delacourt discusses the relationship between the Harper Cons and the civil service - featuring an ideal case in point as to why we should be concerned about the Cons' short-sightedness:
Kenney, for instance, apparently told his officials that his political insights counted as much, if not more, than standard research and surveys. Griffith describes this tension as a challenge that needed to be overcome by the public servants — many of whom greeted the work-culture change with classic stages of grief: anger, sadness, denial and, finally, acceptance.
Griffith also notes that Kenney and the public service had different attitudes toward risk — while the public service was thinking in the long term, the minister was focused on the short-term, political calendar.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Robert Reich asks a few impertinent (but important) questions about plutocratic encroachment on the U.S.' political system.

- Catherine McKenna explains why it's important to try to make a difference in our political system. But Chris Cobb reports on what happens to those who try under the Cons' regime.

- Gerald Caplan wonders whether anybody involved in the Clusterduff - including Stephen Harper, his chief of staff, his hand-picked senators and his core office staff - has ever told anything approaching the truth. But I think we've already established the answer to that one. 

- Shirley Muir argues that the business sector should see the Lac-Mégantic rail explosion as a wake-up call. But in reporting on the anti-regulation lobbying of the rail sector, Linda Gyulai finds little evidence that's about to happen.

- Finally, LowPayIsNotOK thoroughly critiques an attempt by McDonalds to "help" employees to survive on their McJobs:

And the most important takeaway is that even low-wage employers are well aware that nobody can get by on the meager wage levels they offer.