Saturday, August 24, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Lana Payne writes that it's long past time for Newfoundland and Labrador to boost its minimum wage:
Last year, a statutory review of minimum wage, conducted by a government-appointed panel, called for action to be taken on the minimum wage. The panel recommended an increase to restore any erosion to the wage since 2010 as well as a formula, tied to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which would see annual, incremental increases in the wage to ensure that it keeps pace with the increases in the cost of living.

The report and its recommendations sit on a shelf...

The lack of action denies thousands of workers a pay raise. Indeed, the lack of action results in a continued erosion of their wage - as time passes and the cost of living steadily increases, the minimum wage is worth less today than it was three years ago, the last time the wage was increased.

This inaction is a stunning reversal from a minimum-wage policy that had been aimed at making sure the province's lowest-paid were not left totally behind. In 2010, the government also said that minimum-wage increases proved the government's commitment to improving the quality of life of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians while making the province more competitive with respect to attracting workers.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government's minimum-wage policy had been a success. Three years later, after all that hard work of playing catchup and making sure some of the prosperity is shared, the current government appears to have abandoned its commitment to helping the lowest-paid achieve "increased self-reliance."

The big question is, why?
- Meanwhile, the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario is pushing for that province's government to keep its promise to combat poverty.

- Martin Lukacs wonders whether the great pipeline swindle will succeed only in building a mass movement against petro-politics, while Mike de Souza tracks down briefing notes which nicely expose the Cons' anti-carbon pricing rhetoric as a sham. And Graham Thomson catches Alberta's PC government refusing to acknowledge an actual series of pipeline leaks in what was supposed to be a review of the province's regulatory system:
The review of the regulations does not dig into the spate of pipeline leaks that have plagued Alberta the past few years and it doesn’t delve into whether the Alberta Energy Regulator is properly enforcing the regulations.

It’s a bit like asking, after a rash of crimes, if the streets of Edmonton are safe and then investigating the regulations that govern the police rather than looking at the actual crime spree and how the police handled it.
The pipeline safety review does not directly address any of the pipeline spills that prompted the government to call for the review. Those would include spills in 2012 such as the accidental dumping of 3,000 barrels of oil into the Red Deer River and the spillage of 5,000 barrels into Rainbow Lake.

And let’s not forget the Plains Midstream pipeline spill of 28,000 barrels in northwestern Alberta in 2011 — the largest spill in the province in 30 years. That spill warranted its very own public inquiry, or maybe an inquiry into pipeline safety in general.

Instead what we got was the Alberta Pipeline Safety Review.

It would seem to be a classic case of bait and switch. We walked into the store for an Apple MacBook Pro with retina display and left with a Commodore 64.
 - Finally, Paul Hanley and Christine Stark both discuss Canada's appalling (and all-too-rarely-acknowledged) abuse of First Nations people. But have no fear: the Cons are hard at work using public money to search for scapegoats.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Musical interlude

Lange - Destination Anywhere

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Polly Toynbee discusses how the UK's attacks on social programs are based on gross ignorance about what social spending does (and who it helps):
The Citizens Advice Bureau reports a rise of 78% in the last six months in people needing food banks to keep going. Many have jobs, but their pay doesn't see them to the end of the week. The CAB chief executive says millions of families face a "perfect storm" with benefit cuts, low wages, short hours and the high cost of living. Even in apparently well-to-do areas, community halls and churches are opening food banks so all can see those queuing for tins of beans and packets of pasta: basic calories, no treats and nothing fresh.
YouGov's polling for the TUC found remarkable ignorance of the facts. People think 41% of the budget goes on unemployment – the real figure is 3%. They think fraud accounts for 27%: even Iain Duncan Smith's own figure is 0.7%. They think people have little incentive to work. In reality a parent working 30 hours on minimum pay gets £138 more than on the dole. Polling for the Institute for Public Policy Research similarly wildly mistakes who gets what. People think immigrants account for the biggest slice when pensioners take half. They say pensioners and the disabled are the most deserving, but if so, why is there no outcry about disability cuts and Atos tests where 1,300 people died last year after being found "fit for work"?
The trouble with advocacy for the plight of the hard done-by is that we must always find "perfect" cases, people utterly blameless in every aspect of their life, judged by criteria none of us apply to ourselves, our family or friends. Mistakes, errors of judgment, bad habits, all too human in everyone else are unforgivable in anyone receiving benefits from the taxpayer: weed out smokers or drinkers or anyone too stupid, too lazy, too fat, too angry, too lacking in get-up-and-go or just too depressed to put on a good show.

How do you reconcile people's sugar-coated sympathy for imaginary unfortunates with their strong impulse to blame and punish real-life poor people? That's the conundrum that myriad think-tank reports and charities giving the true facts still fail to crack.
- Meanwhile, the CCPA and the Wellesley Institute wasted no time in debunking the Fraser Institute's pathetic assault on the well-being of families with children.

- In a similar vein, Toby Sanger neatly debunks the Conference Board of Canada's latest paean to P3s. And Simon Enoch and David Weir have responded to a few of the more ludicrous defences of turning public services into privatized profit centres when it comes to Regina's water treatment referendum.

- Stephen LaRose points out the level of diligence Michael Fougere and company are putting into the City of Regina's operations.

- And finally, pogge responds to Robert Decary's report on federal government surveillance by writing that we should expect our watchdogs to have at least some bite. But it seems to me that the problem goes even further than that.

There's certainly room for debate whether a watchdog should be able to make binding orders - i.e. whether it should be able to bite into activity as it happens, or merely bark out a warning. But I don't see how anybody can reasonably defend the position that a watchdog should be forced to wear blinders rather than getting a full picture - and the lack of any information whatsoever in response to Decary's inquiries looks to me to be the most damning part of his findings.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Jenny Carson asks what governments are doing to lift poor workers out of poverty. (Spoiler alert: the Cons' answer is "why would we want to do that?").

- Meanwhile, Kemal Dervis and Uri Dadush discuss the desperate need to rein in inequality in the U.S.:
As it turns out, high and rising levels of inequality may well be a cause of increased macroeconomic instability. But the negative spiral doesn’t end there: High inequality also contributes to a fraying of the political consensus, is associated with boom-bust credit cycles and may ultimately lead to a chronic weakness of economic demand.

The United States is now caught in a vicious cycle. The cycle starts with stagnant incomes and a biting credit constraint at the middle and low end of the income distribution. As dramatically exemplified by the large numbers of continuing and still unresolved home foreclosures, this has led to low expectations for effective demand growth – and therefore low business investment in the U.S. economy at large.
(I)t is the rebalancing of the distribution of income within the United States that would play a key role in unlocking the U.S. economy’s growth potential in a sustainable way.
Social balancing programs – such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, unemployment benefits and work-share – provide transfers to boost the incomes of low-income or unemployed groups.

These instruments are believed to be four to five times as effective in stimulating demand as policies that benefit high-income groups, such as tax cuts for those with high incomes, for corporations and in the capital gains arena.
An economy such as that of the United States, where nearly all of the income growth accrues to the very rich, is unlikely to generate a corresponding growth in broad-based demand – especially after the Great Recession ravaged the credit scores of a large part of its middle class and poor.
- Pat Atkinson points out why Canadians should be nothing but skeptical about the Cons' economic branding:
When questioned about the advertising tender, Harper said: "Canadians understand and are very proud of the fact that Canada's economy has performed so much better than other developed countries during these challenging times." What's so galling about his response is that Australia and most Scandinavian countries have outperformed Canada's economy since 2009. Harper is sticking to the adage, "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."

What the government neglects to tell us is that Canada's national debt has ballooned under Harper's stewardship. When he took office in 2006, the debt stood at $481 billion. Today our collective debt is at its highest level in history, at more than $612 billion with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty projecting an additional $18.7-billion deficit this year.

It simply didn't have to get this bad had the government made some different choices.
 - Aaron Wherry argues that while the Cons' latest prorogation itself shouldn't be a source of as much outrage as their previous choices to padlock Parliament, the elimination of 20 sitting days of a House of Commons already being regularly strongarmed into rushing through legislation raises some serious questions. And Tim Harper calls out the Cons' efforts to turn a regulatory issue about wireless communications into a source of partisan bait.

- Alison offers a theory as to how the UK's raid of the Guardian may be little more than a piece of NSA-friendly surveillance theatre.

- Finally, Robin Russell-Jones draws a parallel between the current debate over fracking, and the longtime corporate effort to convince policy-makers that lead in our air and water wouldn't harm people in the slightest:
(W)hat lessons can we draw from the story of lead? First, that society will enthusiastically adopt new technology without considering the consequences. Second, that you cannot rely on industry to act in the public interest, even when their practices are going to pollute the entire planet. Third, that politicians are no more responsive to issues of public health than they were in the 18th century. Fourth, that remedial action only happens when individuals make their voices heard above the clamour of vested interest. And finally disinformation is a standard industry tactic whenever profits are under threat.

On factory families

Sure, some are responding to the Fraser Institute's "study" on the costs of child-rearing with mockery and/or outrage. But in fairness, let's acknowledge that the study's validity simply depends on the accuracy of its assumptions, which may well vary from parent to parent.

And given Christopher Sarlo's reliance on children costing precisely zero in housing and care expenses, it could be that he's found a highly profitable enterprise for anybody who sees this as a model for a happy and healthy family:

New column day

Here, on how the two Con appointees at the centre of Stephen Harper's Senate are exactly the two who should have known better than to abuse the public trust.

For further reading...
- Brian Bergman and Dale Eisler offer the background on the Saskatchewan PCs' scheme here, while CBC updated the amounts still owing to the public here.
- Those interested in the judiciary's take on the PC MLAs involved will want to see Lorne McLaren's sentencing, as well as these three decisions on Eric Berntson.
- Finally, the revelation of the Cons' "boot camp" instructing new Senate appointees in the use of public money for partisan ends is from Jordan Press' report.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Glenn Greenwald, David Atkins and Simon Jenkins all discuss the U.K.'s detention of David Miranda - with heavy emphasis on the Cameron government's apparent belief journalism and terrorism are synonymous. And Ian Welsh points out the need to fight back against a pervasive surveillance state before it's too late.

- Barbara Garson discusses how the U.S.' recession was used as an excuse to turn stable jobs into precarious ones. And Duncan Cameron takes a look at Stephen Harper's real economic record since he took power (with an assist from Citizens for Public Justice):
Anyone who believes what Conservative cabinet ministers have been repeating about job creation in Canada should read the CPJ fact sheets.

Carol Goar of the Toronto Star identified the CPJ report as explaining why many Canadians are still experiencing the recession. The Canadian employment rate is down: the number of jobs created (950,000) has not increased as fast as the population (1.8 million). Unemployment is stuck at 1.4 million. When talking about the unemployed, the government does not include discouraged workers, people with part-time jobs looking for full-time work, temporary jobs, or the under-employed. Add them to the total, and the real unemployment rate is one out of ten out of work.

Conservatives believe the marketplace works fine, and any problems can be fixed by allowing prices to adjust. Unemployment is explained by the failure of rates of pay to fall, because of minimum wages, unions, employment insurance, welfare and other market imperfections, which need to be eliminated or reduced.

The problem with this view is that rates of pay are falling -- policies to reduce wages have been successful, increasing inequality as Stephen Gordon has shown in Maclean's. For the Harper government, business-funded think-tanks, and other supporters of the market view, this just means wages have not fallen enough.
Stephen Harper does not expect Canadians to discover that job performance has been poor and that the economy is not improving, while the standard of living for most Canadians is declining. He has announced plans to prorogue Parliament, cutting the fall session short. This will limit the time for parliamentary debate and the subjects raised by the opposition.

If the economy is going to be the ballot question in the next election, as Stephen Harper suggests, Citizens for Public Justice have afforded parliamentarians and all Canadians with what is needed to examine his government's record.
- Meanwhile, Michael Harris suggests that it's time for Harper to leave the political scene. And Thomas Walkom recognizes that Harper's actions make more sense as comedy than governance.

- Finally, Robyn Benson catches a glaring example of anti-NDP bias in the Ottawa Citizen - which reported on Larry Rousseau's nomination run in the Bourassa by-election with union-bashing from Con and Lib sources and headline writers alike. And for those wanting some more reasonable coverage of the impending federal by-elections, Pundits' Guide is once again the place to go.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cats with toys.

Tuesday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Last week, I wrote this about the Saskatchewan Roughriders' upcoming schedule:
Of course, the next few games may seem to be ones where the 'Riders can afford to experiment somewhat. And hopefully the team can keep up enough focus against a few reeling opponents to stay in the win column even if the breaks don't mostly go Saskatchewan's way.
After Saturday's nail-biter against Montreal, it may be important to clarify that I saw that as a fallback position rather than a primary game plan.

Which isn't to say one can fault the 'Riders' defence at all. In fact, it performed as well as it has all season: Montreal scored a grand total of 8 points all game which were attributable in any meaningful way to the Als' offence, and the 'Riders were able to stop a number of drives starting deep in their own zone.

But Saskatchewan's strength through most of the 2013 season so far had been its ability to avoid putting the defence in those types of situations. Instead on Saturday, a series of four lost fumbles both kept the Als in the game - and nearly handed them the win before a late burst of effectiveness by Darian Durant's offence.

Hopefully the answer for now will involve mostly a return to the basics: the 'Riders have already shown they can take care of the ball earlier this season, and the most recent game should offer a helpful reminder of the consequences of failing in that effort. But most opponents won't offer the combination of internal chaos and injuries that kept Montreal from taking full advantage - and while the 'Riders once again have a narrow hold on first place in the West, it could slip away just as easily as the ball seemed to on Saturday.

On external forces

Leadnow's latest fund-raising pitch is attracting some well-deserved criticism for once again relying (at least in part) on strategic voting in the face of ample evidence showing its futility.

But I'll point out that there's also part of Leadnow's message which looks new - and which may go a long way toward organizing the type of broader movement some of us have been hoping to see for some time:
1. Find people who didn’t vote last time: To design the best election campaign, we need to reach out in campuses and communities across the country to listen to Canadians, especially people who did not vote in the last election.

2. Create a program for action: We’ll ask people who didn’t vote in the last election about their concerns and see how their answers connect with the Leadnow community’s big picture goals on democracy, climate and inequality. Together we’ll create a program for action that will motivate people across the country.
4. Grow opposition to contain the damage: We’ve already stopped or delayed this government time and again. We’ll keep running campaigns to hold this government accountable on the issues that matter most to this community. Together, we’ll create a list of the worst damage done by this government and build a powerful campaign to get the NDP, Liberals and Greens to commit to undo that damage after the election.

5. Build support for crucial reforms: As we reach out to more and more Canadians and focus organizing in key ridings, will make sure the political parties respond to our community’s program for action on democracy, climate and inequality with strengthened commitments in their campaign platforms.
8. Undo the worst damage: After the election, we’ll work with the new government to undo some of the worst damage that’s been done in the last few years.

9. Pass crucial reforms: Now the real work begins! We’ll work together to ensure the new government passes crucial reforms to fix our broken electoral system, make Canada a climate leader and build a fair economy that reduces inequality. 
So what's important about the above plan?

First, it reflects a direct effort to reach out to non-voters.

As plenty of us have pointed out before, assorted political parties have all too often figured it's easier to win power by limiting the number of voters and assembling a plurality only within that smaller group. And the result is that a group of citizens with the numbers to radically reshape our political system has instead tuned it out altogether.

But a strong outside push to bring disaffected voters into the system could radically change the math on that type of strategy - making it more difficult for politicians of all stripes to follow their worst impulses, while also improving the odds for parties whose message appeals to voters on the margins. 

Second, Leadnow's new message speaks to the possibility of a movement using its strength to pressure all political parties to respond to a strong set of progressive values.

Left to their own devices, political parties tend to drift toward the perceived path of least resistance. Which means that if we want to see our next federal government implement real progressive change, we need to ensure that it sees less risk in pursuing that option than in simply slapping a different face onto the corporatist policy we've seen from Cons and Libs alike over the past few decades. And a vocal and well-organized progressive movement would go a long way toward changing political incentives for the better on that front as well.

Of course, there's still reason for concern that Leadnow's positive plans remain intertwined with a misplaced commitment to gaming the next federal election. But I'd much rather see people get engaged and then examine the best way to achieve results than declare the effort futile.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- The Economist takes a look at the effect of a "lean in" philosophy toward work - and finds that we'd get better results encouraging creative development rather than needless busy work:
All this “leaning in” is producing an epidemic of overwork, particularly in the United States. Americans now toil for eight-and-a-half hours a week more than they did in 1979. A survey last year by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that almost a third of working adults get six hours or less of sleep a night. Another survey last year by Good Technology, a provider of secure mobile systems for businesses, found that more than 80% of respondents continue to work after leaving the office, 69% cannot go to bed without checking their inbox and 38% routinely check their work e-mails at the dinner table.

This activity is making it harder to focus on real work as opposed to make-work. Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School, who has been conducting a huge study of work and creativity, reports that workers are generally more creative on low-pressure days than on high-pressure days when they are confronted with a flurry of unpredictable demands. In 2012 Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, and two colleagues deprived 13 people in the IT business of e-mail for five days and studied them intensively. They found that people without it concentrated on tasks for longer and experienced less stress.

It is high time that we tried a different strategy—not “leaning in” but “leaning back”.
- Natalie Brender makes the case for an immigration system which recognizes the importance of family and community, rather than following the Cons' focus on short-term employer interests alone.

- John McKay hopes to see a greater emphasis on corporate social responsibility. But for those thinking our current business leaders have any interest in the concept, Theresa Riley interviews Chris Taylor to give us a look at the anti-social gluttony of the corporate-funded ALEC:
One guy I was talking to, who was from one of these right wing think tanks was saying we need to curb Obama’s reckless power with these administrative regulations, and he wanted a federal constitutional amendment saying Congress has to approve federal regulations. I said, I don’t think most people are going to want to amend the Constitution for that. I don’t think that ignites people. Maybe it does on the far right, but most people don’t really care about that. And he said, “Oh, well, you really don’t need people to do this. You just need control over the legislature and you need money, and we have both.”

That sentiment was underscored so many times to me, that they don’t want people involved in the political process, or in the policy process. And that seems to be the intent in a lot of ways: You have a think tank in every state and all they do is come up with these very, very regressive policies, you have corporations who are going to benefit so they fund it all, and then you have the legislators as your foot soldiers to carry out the tasks.
- Finally, Kenneth Thomas calculates the damage being done by European austerity:
We can see, then, that austerity is sinking all boats. Greece has passed Spain in unemployment and is producing barely 3/4 what it did in 2008. Ireland’s reduction in unemployment is a mirage based on emigration. The same is true in Latvia and Lithuania, by the way, which the Irish Times reports have lost 7.6% and 10.1% of their population between 2007 and 2012. As the paper notes, “If Spain and Italy had lost the same proportion, it would have been 11 million.”

Yet the drumbeat for austerity continues. The sequester goes on. And millions suffer needlessly.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Not surprisingly, this week's revelations about Pamela Wallin have set off plenty more discussion about what's wrong with the Senate and its current beneficiaries. Andrew Coyne recognizes that the problem lies in the design of an institution based on patronage and unaccountability rather than being merely an issue of who's getting appointed, while Andrea Hill discusses how the Senate breeds a sense of entitlement. Rosie DiManno sees Wallin as a prime example of that phenomenon in action, while Tim Harper writes about Stephen Harper's role in establishing his appointees' expectation that they'd be above any rules so long as they served his partisan interests. And Michael Bliss joins the chorus calling for abolition as the best way to end the abuse.

- Jenny Uechl points out Robyn Allan's observation that just as the public is likely to pay most of the bill for MMA's destruction of Lac-M├ęgantic, we're all likely to be on the hook for the costs of pipeline failures based on how the corporate sector prefers to do business:
"Lac M├ęgantic  shows that companies are making money doing things that cause huge risks, and when they cause an accident, they don't have the money to pay for the damages, so the public is left on the hook," said Allan, commenting on liability regimes. 
"That's a reprehensible situation, and it's the standard --  it certainly has been with pipeline companies." 
Allan drew public attention to Enbridge's "limited liability partnership" structure during the Northern Gateway joint review panel hearings earlier this year. Among the many points covered in her study, she noted that Enbridge set up Northern Gateway so that revenues from the pipeline would go to Enbridge shareholders, but the liability responsibility stopped with Northern Gateway, leaving the parent company protected.
 - Which makes it all the more important that we have fair assessment processes which reflect the public interest rather than mere rubber-stamps - as the Star's editorial board notes

- The Washington Post reports on how the NSA's surveillance has led to thousands of breaches of U.S. law over the past few years, while Amy Minsky writes that the RCMP has simply taken to ignoring its legal obligations to provide access to information. And the trend of outlaw law enforcement regimes offers all the more reason to doubt that spending billions of dollars on dangerous drones represents an even faintly defensible use of public money.

- Finally, Erin Weir points out Chrystia Freeland's platitude-laden economic message. And Matt Fodor and Michael Laxer suggest that it's long past time to instead have an adult conversation about taxes and public services:
As Hugh Mackenzie notes: "Nations that have the most highly developed systems of public services pay for them with all kinds of taxes, including sales taxes and payroll taxes that everyone contributes to because everyone knows there is no such thing as a free lunch."

The Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark and Norway all have a Value Added Tax (VAT) of around 25%, far higher than the GST/HST, which finances the welfare state.  The Nordic model is notable for its reliance on transfers, which do the heavy lifting in terms of countering inequality.  While personal income taxes are higher than in Canada, they also pay much higher levels of consumption and payroll taxes.  Yet the net impact of the tax-and-transfer system is progressive. Rather massively so. In part, this is for the obvious reason that because the affluent spend more, the net impact of consumption taxes are progressive if they are spent on human need.

Indeed, the redistributive power of public spending – on healthcare, education, pensions and an array of other public services – should not be ignored.  A CCPA report, Canada’s Quiet Bargain, found that more than two thirds of Canadian households receive more than 50 percent of their income in public services, a far better deal than the market and far more than they pay in taxes. This was even more true before the tax-cutting mania of the past two decades.

The taxation of private consumption can fund the provision of public goods (such as parks, public transit, public housing, etc.) that are more ecological than private goods. Furthermore, public goods provision has the effect of decommodification which is as important as progressive taxation in terms of moving toward socialist relations in capitalist societies.