Saturday, July 27, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Marc Lee takes a high-level look at the absurdity of our destructive economic choices:
Exhibit one: the North Pole at the moment is a one-foot-deep aquamarine lake. After reaching record low ice cover and thickness at the end of summer 2012, an ice-free arctic in the summer is coming sooner rather than later. All of that blue water absorbing solar radiation instead of ice reflecting it back to space will compound global warming. And as it melts it releases the greenhouse gas, methane, which will further increase warming in one of those bad feedback loops scientists have been warming about for decades. A new study puts the cost of this methane leakage at $60 trillion, a number hard to fathom but close to the world’s GDP in a single year.

Exhibit two: extreme weather is doing some major damage. It’s going to take a while for final numbers to come in, but damages from the Calgary and region floods are estimated in the $3-5 billion range. In Toronto, total damages of $1 billion or more seem plausible. It is important to note that some damages are covered by private insurance, but there are the uninsured too, and even for those with insurance, there are deductibles, caps and fine print. Private insurance notably does not cover replacement of public infrastructure, either. Insurance coverage can be less than 20% of total damages from a natural disaster. In central Europe, flooding caused about $16 billion in total damages back in May, amid a very wet spring. Flooding is a big theme this year, but extreme heat is also a problem: the “heat dome” recently burning up eastern North America, and drought conditions across the plains. All of a sudden, air conditioning is a human right.

Exhibit three: extreme energy development is making a mess. The train derailment, explosion and spill at Lac Megantic is obviously top of mind. Pipeline spills have also been much in the news (even as pipeline companies aspire for new capacity via Keystone XL, Northern Gateway (through northern BC) and Trans Mountain (to Vancouver)). But breaking news includes spills as a result of new extreme tar sands processing, with “unstoppable” leaks from in situ extraction that injects steam below the surface to heat and pump out the bitumen.
(O)ne has to think that all of this damage, from climate change and business-as-usual for the fossil fuel industry, portends political change. Perhaps not this year, but our collective denial of the costs of our fossil fuel addiction has to come crashing down at some point. Or not. Such is our choice right now: is humanity a plankton bloom, here for a good time not a long time, or can we stitch it together to become something more long-lasting on this planet. Life on planet earth will go on, but what will become of the great human drama that has unfolded over the past hundred thousand years? It’s our collective choice to make, so time to roll up our sleeves and build a social movement that will push our political class to action.
- And it's well worth adding Halliburton's coverup of its role to the list of appalling actions which should cause a major rethink of our assumptions about how much we can trust our corporate overlords - rather than giving rise to a paltry fine.

- But as Democracy Watch notes, Canada's premiers apparently can't hold a meeting without turning it into a corporate-branded event.

- Rick Goldman challenges Andrew Coyne's attempt to redefine poverty out of existence. Laurel Rothman and Bill Moore-Kilgannon make the case for a national strategy to combat poverty (while recognizing that nothing of the sort is coming from the Harper Cons),

- Instead, the Cons have of course focused on boutique tax baubles which serve little purpose but to drain the federal treasury to ensure nothing useful is done with public money. And Carol Goar points out that even the C.D. Howe Institute recognizes the futility of that choice.

- Finally, Alison links together the Cons' inner circle to highlight the implausibility that payoffs to Mike Duffy wouldn't have been familiar to Stephen Harper and his office. And Lana Payne discusses the need to rebuild social trust in the wake of Harper's "binders full of enemies" attitude toward the majority of Canada:
The list of "enemy stakeholders" (which encompasses pretty much anyone who disagrees with or has disagreed with the Harper government) did serve to highlight once again this government's colossal insecurity and bullying personality.

But for most political watchers the fact that the Prime Minister's Office would keep a running list of enemies merely confirmed what they already knew.

This is a government that has taken divisive politics to new and dizzying heights. This is a government that lacks the will and, perhaps, the ability to seek compromise and consensus.
Instead, it prefers to create enemies and then abuse its power in an effort to punish those so-called enemies.

And the list is long. Long enough to fill binders.

Feminists. Environmentalists. Doctors who care about refugees. Academics and scientists for giving a darn about things like evidence and data and real research. Unions. Civil society organizations. Self-identified progressives. The Parliamentary budget officer, or specifically, Kevin Page. The premiers. Senators who don't toe the line and rubber stamp bad laws. Federal civil servants who blow the whistle when their government lies about government policy, as was the case with an EI fraud investigator recently. Bureaucrats with an informed opinion trying to offer good policy advice, rather than us-vs-them warnings.
As we know, every government runs it course. They get old and tired. The Harper government is looking like that now, despite the attempt to put a new face on cabinet.

Capitalizing on the unpopularity of the federal Conservatives without acting to rebuild both social and political trust with Canadians might result in short-term political success for those who displace them, but what will it really mean for the country?

As Himelfarb points out, social trust is quite different from political trust. Both are needed, but it is the loss of the first that is the bigger concern.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Musical interlude

Chicane - Don't Give Up

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Bill Curry reports on the Cons' continued refusal to provide accurate information to the PBO - with the end result being that an office intended to provide a fully-informed, unbiased perspective in evaluating government action is now being forced to make Access to Information requests in an attempt to do its job.

- If it's seldom easy to unite Canada's provinces behind a single cause, the Cons can at least take credit on that front - as their no-consultation, poorly-thought-out jobs grant has managed to win unanimous disapproval from our premiers. And Matthew Mendelsohn discusses a few of the problems:
The programs that the federal government plans to cut — delivered under the Labour Market Agreements — are those that fund training for Canadians who are not eligible for Employment Insurance. These workers are typically the most vulnerable and hard to serve. Many of the programs that could be cut are those that support the essential literacy and numeracy skills that are critical for unemployed Canadians to re-enter the workforce.
The federal government is proposing to use the $300 million diverted from the Labour Market Agreements to create a new program called the Canada Job Grant, which would pay employers to train workers through educational institutions. Employers would have to kick in one-third of the funds, and provincial governments would likewise have to come up with an additional third.

This would act as a windfall subsidy to employers who already provide the type of training covered by the program — mostly large employers — who could see their training bill fall by two-thirds. But it would probably be too complex and bureaucratic for many small and medium-sized employers to access.

Given that the maximum grant from the federal government would be $5,000 per trainee for short-duration programs, it is hard to see how this would actually help provide workers with the advanced skills they need to take the high-skill jobs where there really are labour shortages. There is simply no evidence to suggest that these small subsidies to large firms would be more effective than the current programs that provinces and communities have been building over the past decade to help unemployed people get jobs.
- Meanwhile, Jeff Jedras makes the case against the Cons' attempt to exercise control over access to the Internet. And Lee Berthiaume reports on their push to turn Canada into an arms dealer.

- Finally, Ish Theilheimer argues for a Marshall Plan aimed at improving the lot of people living precarious lives around the globe. And Mark Bittman sees some hopeful signs in the movement toward a living wage in the U.S.' fast food and retail industries.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

New column day

Here, on Regina's wastewater referendum as just the first step in encouraging regular citizen engagement in the decisions that affect us all.

For further reading...
- Again, Hugh Mackenzie's analysis of the cost of private financing is here (PDF). And Barrie McKenna's take on the hidden price of P3s is here.
- The Star Phoenix' editorial board points to Regina's wastewater options as a prime example of higher levels of government limiting the freedom of action of municipalities.
- The City's information on the sewage treatment plant is here - with no indication that the referendum is about to change the use of public resources to present what amounts to the "no" side.
- Finally, CBC documents Regina's past votes on infrastructure projects. And it's particularly worth noting the contrast between consistent citizen engagement over a period of over 50 years, and the complete absence of any votes since 1988.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- John Myles discusses the Cons' war on evidence:
The mandatory Census was the lifeblood of almost all social and business planning. It provided key data for studying things like income inequality and poverty since both low- and high-income households were required to report. The quality of Census data and the accessibility of the data to non-government users had improved exponentially since the 1970s. As a result, its importance as a tool for monitoring the effects of government policy was on the rise. Because it collected data on such a large sample (20 percent) of Canadians, it was able to shed a light into dark corners of Canadian society that no other data source could do.

One of the most important functions of the Census was to monitor what was happening to Canadians over time. Are current governments doing a better or worse job than their predecessors? Breaking the Census series in 2011 means we can’t answer this question any longer. Transparency was the issue, and transparency lost.

But killing the mandatory census was not the only important entry point for data suppression. The 1990s were an important period of data innovation at Statistics Canada. Longitudinal studies – of children, young adults, and the labour force – were introduced. By the 2000s, Canadian researchers were just beginning to master the complex data these surveys produced on important questions such as the duration and consequences of poverty, unemployment, and the like. The longitudinal surveys are now gone, a result of budget-cutting.
- Lest we needed any explanation for the hostility, Daniel Tencer reports on Jim Stanford's findings that the Cons' actual record on jobs looks poor both on its face and in comparison to other governments around the world. And the Conference Board of Canada notes that temporary foreign workers spiked even as the number of jobless Canadians hit new highs, while Nicholas Keung reports that the Cons approved thousands of temporary foreign worker applications in positions where Canadians could plainly have been trained if employers weren't determined to drive down wages.

- Meanwhile, Michael Harris sees an inflated, cash-grabbing Mike Duffy as the definitive symbol of the Harper Cons. And the Ottawa Citizen has had enough of the Cons' publicly-funded propaganda.

- Bryce Covert finds that the rich don't feel "wealthy" if they have less than $5 million in assets. Many tears will surely be shed over the plight of the mere millionaire, particularly given the lavish lifestyle and social respect enjoyed by those struggling to make ends meed.

- Finally, Paul Hanley nicely summarizes Harald Welzer's take on consumer culture:
For pre-industrial craftsmen and their clients, the object was to create a specific object. The work was done once the product was completed and remuneration based on exactly that product.

Industrial production, on the other hand, is a system in which continuous work generates an essentially infinite series of products for the creation of surplus value, which is invested in the expansion of the product range in order to push the system's horizons toward infinity. Nothing is ever finished; the work never stops.

Work and money become the ends, the products and their production mere means.

Work becomes an unlimited, endless activity that does not have a specific, limited, product-related objective, but is dedicated to the ceaseless creation of value - consequently the never-ending production of "growth." Just as work becomes incessant, each stage in the sequence of life's events and every dollar in the bank becomes merely a preliminary to the next stage and the next dollar.

This is the root of the idea of limitless growth that is essential to furnishing the infinite universe of consumable objects.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cats in step.

To the polls!

Needless to say, it's great news (as well as a pleasant surprise) that Regina will get a referendum on a proposed P3 wastewater treatment plant. And kudos to Regina Water Watch and everybody connected to the petition campaign for making that happen.

But of course, the most important step comes next - as the referendum itself will determine whether Regina's water infrastructure is planned with citizens or corporate operators in mind. And so while it's well worth celebrating a preliminary victory, the real battle still lies ahead.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Duncan Cameron discusses how the G20 is dancing around the problem of corporate tax evasion. The Economist issues a call to action against offshoring. And David Atkins points out what's more likely needed to deal with a global problem which can be exacerbated by just a few defectors:
What is needed are global treaties with negative enforcement mechanisms, including but not limited to potential tariffs and sanctions, for nations that refuse to put rules in place to curb corporate theft and malfeasance. Nations that allow corporations conduct the worst forms of corporate tax evasion and arbitrage should be made pariahs as surely as those who harbor terrorists and violate the most basic human rights. Like most white collar crime, the cause and effect between harm done and suffering received is indirect, so it lacks the same emotional stigma. But the removal of trillions of dollars from the world economy into corporate tax havens that could have gone to education, infrastructure, climate change abatement and poverty alleviation directly damages and even destroys the lives of hundreds of millions of people, just so that a few can live the most opulent lives of any creature on the planet in its entire history.

The world doesn't currently have such international protocols. But it should. And in time, it will. When it does, our age will have seemed quite barbaric indeed.
- Laurel Rothman and Andrew Lynk comment on the link between health and poverty in Canada. CBC highlights Canada's place at the bottom of the list of comparable OECD countries when it comes to funding early childhood education. And while I don't fully agree with his concerns about social programs, Jordon Cooper discusses how the difficulty of surviving poverty makes it far more difficult to build a life in the longer term:
A study entitled Some Consequences of Having Too Little was published last year, in which researchers considered how the scarcity of resources changed behaviours. When you have nothing, your focus is on acquiring that basic need, which uses up your good decisions and distracts your brain from its ability to make good decisions in other areas. Those constant survival needs take up a lot of time and energy that should be used in other areas.

Of course this leads to poor decisions, because our focus is on what we don't have, not on what it needs to get ahead. Our desire to deal with the stress leads to impulsive decisions. The immediate gratification helps in the short term, but causes problems later if rent money is used or if money is borrowed.
A wide-scale study in Britain showed that the longer people were homeless and in shelters, the worse off they were and the less they were able to cope. It's why "housing first" programs are so important. Margins and security allow you to go on to tackle other issues such as employment or health. Those margins are helped by having savings and money, but our social services system now barely keeps people alive. No wonder it is so hard to escape the cycle.
- In contrast, Andrew Coyne figures all we really need to do in order to claim victory over poverty is move the goalposts - preferably to ground level around the 20-yard line compared to the once-agreed standard of eradicating child poverty altogether.

- Mike Hudema discusses the Cons' failures when it comes to rail safety. And Leslie Young reports on Alberta's pitiful enforcement of environmental laws.

- But lest we worry that the Petro Party won't tolerate any accountability at all, we can rest assured that whistleblowers will continue to be subject to severe repercussions.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Dean Beeby reports on the utter uselessness of the latest set of publicly-funded Con propaganda. But more importantly, John Ibbitson notes that most of the provinces have little use for the lone new announcement - meaning that it's for the best if Canadians have indeed tuned out the Cons rather than relying on promises which likely won't come to pass.

- Meanwhile, Dan Leger writes that we should be just as concerned about the Cons' list of friends should be of just as much concern as the enemies lists which have received so much attention:
But as sinister and nasty as the idea of an enemies list is, I worry more about the friends. The memo directs ministerial aides to come up with lists of friends. To what end?

Are these friends going to benefit from plush government contracts? Will special friends enjoy special legislation? Will these friends be appointed as judges, CRTC commissioners, ambassadors or God forbid, senators?

In some ways, it’s almost worse to consider how these friends with benefits will be treated than the enemies, who can’t be treated with much more disrespect than they get now from the government. Enemies are loud and obvious; that’s what makes them enemies. Friends are more subtle and stick to the backrooms where they can operate quietly and profitably.

The ministerial list-makers in Ottawa might be keeping a watch out for the government’s enemies. Canadians would be wise to keep a close eye on its friends.
- Paul Campos discusses the second major insult involved in McDonalds' condescending "financial planning advice". The Observer makes the case for a reasonable living wage. And Ellie Mae O'Hagan reminds us to be skeptical of corporate outlets trying to silence the labour movement in pointing out the imbalance between profits and people:
I've always been mystified by the media's willingness to publish commentary on the labour movement by people who have barely been to so much as a branch meeting. When I've queried this troubling practice to journalist friends, they often lament that it can't be helped because union structures are just "too complicated" to try to get to grips with. That's interesting, because I've never seen a Financial Times reporter write a shoddy article about the markets and then justify it by saying, "it's not my fault, it's the FTSE 100 – it's just too hard!". We don't see articles on morning sickness by Will Hutton; Liz Jones doesn't get commissioned to talk about EU trade agreements, so why is it acceptable for columnists to opine about trade unions when they don't show the slightest interest in understanding them?

Now that Len McCluskey (full disclosure – I work for Unite) has given an interview to Patrick Wintour in the Guardian, I am sure these writers will once again leap towards giving us the benefit of their latest thoughts on the matter. I can summarise every article right here: "Of course we all like unions in principle, but isn't it uncouth when they actually try to do something?"
At the end of the day, trade unions aren't interesting to the media because working-class politics aren't interesting to the media – largely because so few people in the media are actually working class. The lack of interest, bordering on contempt, towards unions simply reflects the wider marginalisation of working-class issues in the public sphere.
- Finally, Mark Wilson nicely highlights the absurdity of an Apple ad which utterly crushes the concept of subtlety in directing consumers to turn away from genuine experience in favour of "products".

Monday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Needless to say, there isn't much to question after a performance like the 'Riders romp over Hamilton yesterday. But I'll point out a couple of aspects of the 'Riders' recent play which may mean far more than the numbers receiving the most attention so far.

On that front, while "no turnovers in four games!" and "130-yard rushing streak!" make for interesting bits of trivia which do signal some important elements of the 'Riders development as a team, we probably can't count on their being repeated indefinitely. (That goes doubly since the former ignores two interceptions called back due to penalties and a fumble recovered by the 'Riders, and the latter only applies because Kory Sheets piled up yardage after yesterday's game was well in hand.)

More interestingly for the team going forward, we've seen the offensive evolve even over the first few games of the 2013 season.

At the start, Darian Durant primarily kept the chains moving with quick passes caught in traffic. But now, the offence is opening up in a few ways which can only complicate life for defences trying to defend the 'Riders.

Most obviously, Durant's success with a patient precision offence has opened up opportunities for deep passes - with two bombs to Rob Bagg yesterday breaking the game open much like Taj Smith's big game the previous week put the 'Riders ahead to stay.

But Bagg and Smith have also added another dimension to the 'Riders offence. In the past, most of the complementary receivers around Weston Dressler and Chris Getzlaf have been unimpressive in picking up yardage after short catches. But both Bagg and Smith have been effective shedding defenders and breaking tackles after catching the ball the past two games - turning short passes into big gains, and ensuring that even harmless-looking plays can turn nerve-wracking for defenders.
Meanwhile, the 'Riders' defence of course had a stellar game in pitching a shutout against the Ticats. But the shutout was based in large part on one of the most basic elements of defensive football: relentlessly effective tackling which shut down plays even after the ball went where the Ticats wanted it to.

Seldom did a Hamilton receiver manage to make a catch without a defender hitting him as the ball arrived. And while the Ticats hardly tried to run the ball, their few efforts to do so were easily snuffed out as the 'Riders' linemen were constantly in position to make a tackle on the first try.

Of course, more skilled groups of receivers than Hamilton's injury-depleted unit will make that more difficult in the games to come. But as long as the 'Riders can stay in the habit of winning the tackling war on both sides of the ball, they'll be in great shape for the rest of the season.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Gerald Kaplan discusses how the privileges of power have contributed to the utterly callous response to the Lac-M├ęgantic rail explosion by Stephen Harper and Ed Burkhardt:
For me, of all Burkhardt’s outrageous statements nothing surpasses his public accusation that the train’s engineer, Tom Harding, was responsible for the disaster, suspending him without pay. Among the victims of the train derailment, Tom Harding must now be included.

In truth, of course, Burkhardt had no more clue than you or I or Lord Acton how the derailment happened and who might be responsible. Indeed, his own company policies have very pointedly been questioned. Yet he simply invented the culprit, because I suppose that’s what rich and powerful people are able to do.
Prime Minister Harper is the other powerhouse who showed last week that he knows he can get away with just about anything. First, he named Pierre Poilievre as his new Minister of State for Democratic Reform, an oxymoron by any standard. Globe columnist Lawrence Martin describes Poilievre as “one of [Harper’s] most belligerent, thuggish, MPs”. Next to the Prime Minister himself, with his obsession about “enemies”, no member of this government has demonstrated contempt for the spirit of democracy more than Mr. Poilievre. As Lawrence Martin wrote, this was one of Mr. Harper’s well-known “in-your-face moves.”

Second, Mr. Harper appointed to the sensitive post of Canadian ambassador to Jordan (with responsibility to Iraq) one Bruno Saccomani, who until that moment was his bodyguard, or, more formally, the RCMP man who headed his security team.

It is surely not too much to expect a Canadian ambassador to know something about the complex world of diplomacy and all that entails. And if you’re being assigned to be our country’s chief representative in two turbulent countries in a dangerously volatile region, shouldn’t you have a soupcon of background in the area? Or is that just me?
- Meanwhile, Miles Corak points out the disturbingly tight relationship between family background and economic outcomes in the U.S. And while Canada serves for now as a contrast, it's well worth noting that the Harper Cons are doing their best to push us down the same path of walled-off wealth for a few and a precarious living for the rest.

- Paul Krugman highlights the dishonesty and anti-worker bias behind the Great Pension Scare. Which, needless to say, is presented a propos of nothing.

[Update: Let's add Doug J's take:
The war against public pensions reminds me of the Iraq War. Even if one accepts that there is/was a big pre-existing problem in either case, the constant stream of lies is troubling.]
- Also, the Cons make clear what happens to honest civil servants who allow truth to undermine their deliberately false talking points. 

- The Ottawa Citizen recognizes and laments the shameful exploitation of hungry First Nations Canadians for experimentation. Bernard Valcourt isn't so big on shame, and considers the matter closed by an apology for other monstrous attacks on First Nations culture.

- Finally, Susan Delacourt comments on why the Cons' departmental enemies lists may go far beyond politics as usual - particularly if information intended for government use only is being illegally loaded into CIMS for partisan purposes.