Saturday, August 31, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your weekend reading.

- Katie McDonough reports on new research showing the devastating effects of poverty on an individual's ability to plan and function:
According to researchers at Harvard University and the University of British Columbia, people living in poverty experience reduced cognitive functioning as a result of regularly wrestling with how to make ends meet. People struggling to get by were found to suffer a drop of as much as 13 points in their IQ, approximately the same difference found in people who go an entire night without sleep.

“Past research has often blamed [poverty] on the personal failings of the poor. They don’t work hard enough; they’re not focused enough,” University of British Columbia professor Jiaying Zhao, who co-authored the study, told the Washington Post. “What we’re arguing is it’s not about the individual. It’s about the situation.”
- Meanwhile, Larry Hubich points out some of the progress Saskatchewan has helped to lead in the past - while lamenting the fact that our current government insists on making life more difficult for workers. And anybody looking for inspiring news about the future of Canada's labour movement will want to tune in to Unifor's founding convention.

- Eric Horowitz discusses how less forceful arguments may be more effective in convincing people who start with an opposing set of assumptions. But I do think it's worth highlighting that any strategy along those lines has to be based on a limited set of circumstances - as the separate goal of building a strong movement with shared goals generally requires motivation based on strong points of agreement.

- Finally, the Cons' latest abuses of power include new rules to prevent international musical acts from performing in Canada, and hiring a new Parliamentary Budget Officer with the explicit intention of serving their own interests rather than the public's.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Musical interlude

Headstones - Smile and Wave

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Tim Harper writes that Stephen Harper's "lone gunman" argument - already implausible in light of the number of Senators and staffers required to cover up the Clusterduff - is falling apart at the seams. But Gloria Galloway notes that the Senators can bail out with their pensions as long as they resign before being being convicted - meaning that Mike Duffy may not be the only one who comes to see his self-interest conflicting with the Cons' attempt to throw all available non-Harper bodies under the bus. And Pat Atkinson offers some lessons to be drawn from the Cons' scandals.

- Jesse Brown points out that the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations are being kept particularly secret in Canada, with even opposition parties being refused any access to details of what they'll ultimately have to debate in Parliament. And the Economist recognizes that the general aversion to democratic participation in the treaty's creation serves to call its legitimacy into serious doubt:
(T)he TPP and TTIP are meant to do more than traditional trade agreements. They are to incorporate “21st-century” elements in labour standards, environmental safeguards, intellectual property, government procurement and the treatment of state-owned enterprises.

Mr Moore draws optimism from the electoral cycle. Australia apart, few TPP countries face imminent elections. But if the TPP relies on governments avoiding their voters, that is surely a weakness.
- Frances Russell recognizes that the Cons' economic branding is based on "wind and rabbit tracks" rather than any accomplishments of substance.

- And finally, Lana Payne discusses the need for younger generations of workers to stand up and demand a better future - rather than accepting the dubious declaration they're stuck putting up with less:
In recent years, inequality and corporate greed have dominated public discourse.
The labour movement believes we can do a much better job of sharing our economic wealth, thus improving the lives and living standards of all citizens.

Emerging from the debate about inequality and the fact that the vast majority of income gains are going to the top one per cent is the question of what this growing inequality will mean for the next generation of workers.

For the first time in our history as a province and a country, the very real question of whether our children will do better than their parents is a troubling reflection of the kind of legacy we could be leaving: a legacy of generational inequity. A generation that will have to work longer; who face a more precarious labour market; who will be more uncertain about retiring in dignity; who will carry more debt; and who will be told to lower their expectations.

This reality flies in the face of stunning corporate profits and an economy that is producing record wealth.
This Labour Day, we celebrate the many gains unions have made in our world. We celebrate our social progress, but only in the context of how that social progress is more fragile than ever before. How it is being eroded. A reminder that we must continue to be vigilant in our efforts to resist the forces that would see these gains turned back.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Thursday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Yes, Saturday's Roughrider win over Edmonton represented another narrow victory over a seemingly struggling team. But otherwise it couldn't have been much more different from the team's previous game against Montreal. And the 'Riders will need to figure out whether Edmonton has found a formula which more-talented opponents can copy, or whether its go-for-broke approach will be seen as too dangerous by the likes of the Lions and the Stamps.

Unlike in Montreal, the 'Riders' offence rated as solid but unspectacular throughout the game, racking up field goals for the better part of quarters before finally finding the end zone in the last 20 minutes of the game. And Corey Chamblin apparently planned to rely on another defensive lockdown like the 'Riders' previous performance to hold onto a tight lead - particularly when he chose to kick a field goal on 3rd-and-1 early in the third quarter.

But after managing a couple of big plays to stay in the game through the first half, the Eskimos put together two disturbingly efficient touchdown drives to win back the lead at the end of the third quarter. And we'll want to keep a close eye on how they got there.

Mike Reilly's scrambling throughout the game produced not only yards on the ground, but open receivers downfield. Which may make for a model for other teams to imitate - if they're prepared to risk the combination of turnovers and devastating hits which eventually turned Saturday's game in the 'Riders' favour.

For now, the 'Riders don't look to have much reason to change what worked once again (other than sorting out their return game). But it won't be long before they start facing crucial divisional games again - and it figures to be an open question whether the 'Riders' current scheme can keep a contender's quarterback from running wild.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Alan Pyke observes that instead of reflecting any particular merit, massive payouts to CEOs are all too often made despite (or because of) executive incompetence and illegality:
The best-paid CEOs in American business have overseen companies that were bailed out, been fired, and been caught committing fraud at alarming rates over the past 20 years, a new report finds. Out of the spots on an annual list of the highest-paid CEOs, nearly four in ten have gone to individuals who were eventually “Bailed Out, Booted, Busted,” according to the 2013 edition of the Institute for Policy Studies’ (IPS) review of CEO pay and performance.

The IPS report draws on the Wall Street Journal’s annual list of the 25 best-paid chief executives, dating back to 1994. Of the 241 individuals who have appeared on the list over the past two decades, a full 32 percent have overseen bailouts, been booted from their posts, or been busted for fraud. Report co-author Sarah Anderson told ThinkProgress that “many poorly performing CEOs appeared on the top-paid lists year after year.”
- And in that vein, ProPublica documents how the oil industry is ripping off both the public treasury and private landowners by withholding royalties with no apparent explanation.

- Meanwhile, David Hasemyer reports on Enbridge's less-than-reassuring track record when it comes to both pipeline safety and spill cleanup.

- Devon Black rightly challenges our elected representatives not to feed into anti-tax hysteria. But Rosemary Thompson notes that the Cons are going several steps beyond dangerous rhetoric by continuing to cut actual tax enforcement.

- Finally, Laura Eggertson writes about the continued efforts of Anna Reid and the Canadian Medical Association to highlight and act on the social determinants of health.

New column day

Here, on the dangers of accepting advice from self-interested advisers - and the obvious conflict of interest of the consultants hired to push a wastewater P3 on Regina's citizens.

For further reading...
- The Museum of Hoaxes offers some background on the now-notorious movie reviews of Dave Manning. 
- Matt Taibbi documents the role of self-interested bond ratings agencies in precipitating the 2008 financial crisis. featuring these quotes from agency employees which seem all too relevant in light of the alchemy behind P3 promotion:
"As you know, I had difficulties explaining 'HOW' we got to those numbers since there is no science behind it," confesses a high-ranking S&P analyst. "If we are just going to make it up in order to rate deals, then quants [quantitative analysts] are of precious little value," complains another senior S&P man.
- The Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnership's membership list is here. And both AECOM and Deloitte go well beyond that organization in promoting P3s (while seeking to generate business for themselves in the area).
- And Barb Pacholik reports on how Regina's referendum debate is only becoming more heated as voting day approaches.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Polly Toynbee reminds us that a precarious living for much of the middle class is nothing new - and neither is a cacophony of reactionary voices claiming that a desperate struggle for survival is the natural and proper state for most of humanity.

- And Jim Sinclair writes that unions are more relevant than ever in fighting for job security and worker rights in the face of a corporatist movement determined to squelch both.

- Charles Pierce observes that absolutely nothing has changed in the wake of the Texas fertilizer plant explosion. And Ashley Fitzpatrick reports on the Auditor General's conclusions that the federal government is completely unequipped to deal with an oil spill off the coast of Newfoundland or Nova Scotia (to match B.C.'s similar inability to handle predictable disasters).

- Finally, Alice Funke has some suggestions to start exercising our democratic muscles:
A new set of electoral boundaries coupled with two new opposition leaders, many retiring incumbents, leader commitments to open nominations, a changing party system, and a three-way race in public opinion polls -- these all set the table for lots of interest and new faces on the federal political scene.

In fact, the current round of by-elections are already paving the way, featuring as many as six competitive multi-candidate nomination races across the four ridings and the three national parties.

But we've gotten out of the habit of open, competitive riding nominations in Canada, and our democratic muscles have gotten flabby from disuse. To get back in shape, we need a fitness program to strengthen those democratic muscles, so we can flex them in service of our democracy.
As citizens we don't control all the rules governing our democratic system, and we can't stop the people who want to subvert it from trying to do so. All we can control is our own participation. If we want to strengthen our democracy, we need to join, challenge, vote, run, write, play by the rules, and admire our competitors for doing the same. That's how to strengthen our democratic muscles, for all the races that lie ahead.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Outstretched cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Paul Kershaw highlights what's most needed to support Canada's younger generations:
Even with all this personal adaptation, most in Gen X and Y can’t work their way out of the time and income squeeze when they start families. Since two earners bring home little more today than what one breadwinner often did in the 1970s, we’ve gone from 40 hour work weeks to closer to 80 hours. The result? Generations raising young kids are squeezed for time at home. They are squeezed for income because housing prices are nearly double, even though young people often live in condos, or trade yards for time-consuming commutes. And they are squeezed for services like child care, which are essential for many parents to deal with rising costs, but are in short supply, and often cost more than university.
What all should ask, however, is why does the Fraser Institute dismiss the reality that younger generations are more squeezed now than in the past? Many will know the think tank is skeptical about the value of government investment. But Gens X and Y and their kids are not the primary beneficiary of social spending. Governments spend around $45,000 a year per retiree in Canada, mostly on health care, pensions and retirement income subsidies. This spending is nearly four times larger than government spending per younger Canadian. Grade school, post-secondary, health care, child care, parental leave, EI and workers compensation all combine for a total of around $12,000 annually per person under age 45.

Younger Canadians already face a generational imbalance in government spending on top of their worsening wages relative to housing costs. By discounting the time, income and service squeeze on younger generations, the Fraser Institute distracts attention away from this imbalance. Fortunately, there are Canadians of all ages across the country who believe younger generations deserve a better deal.
- And Tim Adams interviews Robert Skidelsky about the difference between maximizing wealth and living a good life.

- Robert Fife's story on the coordination between Con senators and multiple members of Stephen Harper's PMO is certainly worth a read. But it's doubly interesting when compared to Greg Weston's access-to-information requests finding absolutely no record of the scandal in the PMO - even as Mike Duffy and others were assembling a written narrative. And it's well worth asking what other scandals have been managed on a nothing-in-writing basis out of Harper's central command.

- Meanwhile, Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher report that Elections Canada has drawn a few more links between the 2011 election fraud and the Cons.

 - Finally, in a sure sign that there's no social progress that the corporate sector won't eventually try to roll back, Bill Curry reports that the U.S. is trying to rewrite the Trans-Pacific Partnership to allow attacks against anti-smoking policies.

On patterns of behaviour

Sure, it's tempting to treat Pamela Wallin's role as a director of a failed oil sands firm as a personal commentary on the Cons and their Senate appointees. But the story is far more closely connected to another theme that's popping up in news stories on a daily basis.

There's ample question as to how honest Oilsands Quest was with the public (and the settlement of the class action suit against it effectively ensures that nobody will be pushing for further answers). And the complete disconnect between corporate self-interest and the public good is turning up all over the resource sector in far more significant ways.

Oil and gas sector employers have decided they'd rather jeopardize workers' lives than implement safety standards. Even new pipelines (including the U.S. portion of Keystone XL) are being installed with shoddy work. And Alberta's oil and gas sector has made a choice to thumb its nose at tailings pond regulations - with no apparent consequences.

Which would seem to signal the desperate need for some counterbalance against the whims of the oil industry. But instead, the Western Canadian economy is relying almost entirely on a philosophy of taking corporate spin at face value - even when the public bears the downside risk if it proves wrong.

Instead of insisting that our desperate lack of capacity to monitor and clean up after the corporate sector be remedied before we ratchet up the level of risk in extraction and transportation operations, we're simply assuming that the industry will get its way - and hoping (in the absence of evidence) that we won't be stuck with bills far exceeding whatever minor spillover gains we might see in the short term.

And that mitigation strategy may be understandable at the municipal level given the combination of provincial and federal governments determined to rubber-stamp and subsidize any oil-related project, no matter how dirty or dangerous. But it doesn't figure to be long before the bill comes due - and we'd best start verifying the corporate and political spin we're stuck with now before it far exceeds our ability to pay.

[Edit: fixed wording.]

Monday, August 26, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Simon Enoch nicely challenges the City of Regina's blind faith in "risk transfer" by pointing out how that concept has typically been applied elsewhere:
So what price should we put on such a risk transfer? This is where things can get dicey. How risks are monetized can be notoriously subjective, with empirical evidence rarely provided to "substantiate the risk allocations, making it difficult to assess their accuracy and validity." The recent revelations from the Ontario Auditor-General's report into the Brampton P3 hospital certainly supports this assessment, noting that "the "value for money" assessment was overestimated by $634 million, while the cost of construction using the P3 model nearly doubled. The value of "risk transfer," the estimate of what it will cost the consortium to deliver the project on time, was also overestimated by a wide margin, according to McCarter. Proponents of P3s say risk transfer is one of the major benefits of this funding model."

In an absolutely damning study of risk transfer for P3s -- called private finance initiatives or PFI's -- in healthcare in the United Kingdom, Jean Shaoul and Allyson Pollock and Neil Vickers argue in the British Medical Journal that "risk transfer" is more an accounting trick designed to make the P3 model more attractive:

"What is striking, however, is that in all cases risk transfer almost equals the amount required to bridge the gap between the public sector comparator and the PFI. This suggests that the function of risk transfer is to disguise the true costs of PFI and to close the difference between private finance and the much lower costs of conventional public procurement and private finance."
- Meanwhile, Erin Weir points out that the City could easily apply for federal funding that isn't contingent on P3 projects - that is, if it wasn't itself determined to keep the rents flowing to our corporate overlords.

- And SOS Crowns discusses the Wall government's continued stealth dismantling of Saskatchewan's Crown sector.

- Carol Goar is starting to catch on to a point long made by Weir and others: that the "skills shortage" used as an excuse to important cheap, temporary labour is more fiction than fact:
Don Drummond, one of the smartest economists in the country, is dubious. He hasn’t found a shred of credible evidence that Canada has a serious mismatch between skills and jobs. In fact, most economic indicators point in the opposite direction.
- Statistics Canada’s latest survey of job vacancies showed there were 6.3 unemployed people for every job vacancy. That doesn’t suggest a shortage of skills. It suggests an oversupply of workers.
- There are no wage spikes in the skilled trades, information technology or scientific, professional and technical services. If Canada had skill shortages, employers would be paying a premium for workers in those fields.
- Ottawa does not have the ability to forecast labour needs accurately. Its methods are flawed, its projections unreliable, Drummond says. He is in a position to know. He spent 23 years in the federal finance department and 10 years as chief economist for the TD Bank.
The only proof he could find of a misalignment between the skills of Canadians and the needs of employers was a chart on page 62 of the 2013 federal budget. It showed that 4 per cent of available jobs were unfilled. That worked out to roughly 600,000 positions; a far cry from what StatsCan was reporting.

Puzzled by this discrepancy, Drummond asked finance department officials how they came up with the figure. (The attribution under the chart said “finance department calculations” using data from Statistics Canada and WANTED Analytics, a headhunting firm). They refused to provide further information, saying it was “confidential.” With no way to corroborate or verify Ottawa’s number, he discounted it.

At this point, he considers it a strong possibility that Ottawa’s heavily promoted Canada Job Grant — the centerpiece of its economic plan — is built on a false assumption.
- Finally, Danielle Celermajer and Madeleine Finn lament the lack of discussion of poverty and inequality in Australia's ongoing election campaign.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Robert Reich discusses how we'd all better off if we acted in the public interest and insisted that our representatives did the same:
A society -- any society --- is defined as a set of mutual benefits and duties embodied most visibly in public institutions: public schools, public libraries, public transportation, public hospitals, public parks, public museums, public recreation, public universities, and so on.

Public institutions are supported by all taxpayers, and are available to all. If the tax system is progressive, those who are better off (and who, presumably, have benefitted from many of these same public institutions) help pay for everyone else.

"Privatize" means "Pay for it yourself." The practical consequence of this in an economy whose wealth and income are now more concentrated than at any time in the past 90 years is to make high-quality public goods available to fewer and fewer.

In fact, much of what's called "public" is increasingly a private good paid for by users -- ever-higher tolls on public highways and public bridges, higher tuitions at so-called public universities, higher admission fees at public parks and public museums.

Much of the rest of what's considered "public" has become so shoddy that those who can afford to do so find private alternatives. As public schools deteriorate, the upper-middle class and wealthy send their kids to private ones. As public pools and playgrounds decay, the better-off buy memberships in private tennis and swimming clubs. As public hospitals decline, the well-off pay premium rates for private care.
We're losing public goods available to all, supported by the tax payments of all and especially the better-off. In its place we have private goods available to the very rich, supported by the rest of us. 
- And Peter MacLeod makes the case for political parties to serve as social movements rather than mere electoral machines. But needless to say, Stephen Harper has about as much interest in that possibility as he does in following the rules that govern everybody else.

- Monika Dutt highlights how social programs affect health, particularly for those with the least:
An ideal assistance program is one that is designed to support good health.

The Wellesley Institute suggests some ways in which this can be done: (1) ensuring people have access to the basics, such as income, housing, nutritious food and health care; (2) building skills so that people can move away from depending on income assistance programs; (3) working with existing community resources; and (4) taking health into account when designing assistance programs.

Some provincial programs across the country fulfil some of these criteria, for example through child benefits, which acknowledges that supporting children in their early years leads to long-term better health. However, more could be done to promote health in a way that ultimately benefits individuals, their families, and their communities, and lessens the use of income assistance.

Most people do not want to use these programs, particularly the ones intended for people living in poverty; they would prefer to be able to support themselves and their families on their own. They also do not want to experience poor health due to poverty.

Improving the health of people living in poverty benefits all of us, including those with high incomes. A healthy society is one in which your income doesn’t define how healthy you are.
- Finally, the Tyee documents a few brilliant Fraser Institute Kid Tips.

Of rules and rulers

I'll readily agree with the Star's editorial board that we should expect our lawmakers to have some respect for the law. But while David Climenhaga draws one contrast between Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper, I'll point out what looks to be a more apt comparison - one which also involves sheer personal indulgence rather than any statement of principle:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper went ATVing today...on the runway at Tuktoyaktuk.

He took off, and left his RCMP detail in the dust. They then chased him. Two officers on ATVs, and some more in pickup trucks.

Harper roared up and down the Tuktoyaktuk airport runway. He was going very fast. His security detail continued to chase him.

When asked if he had a licence to drive an ATV, especially on a runway, Harper said, "I think I make the rules."
Of course, the correct answer to that, no he doesn't, as discretionary executive power doesn't extend to exempting the Prime Minister from vehicle licensing laws and airport safety standards based on nothing more than his own whims. In fact, that's more the territory of tinpot dictators than democratic leaders.

But Harper, his security detail, the RCMP and his party are all perfectly fine with that modus operandi.

So, to sum up...

Bad: a leader who believes himself to be above the law (particularly while voting for strict mandatory sentences for those not so privileged).

Worse: a leader who believes himself to be the law. Which is what we're stuck with now.

And more importantly, better: a leader with respect for both the law and the people who enforce it. Which is hopefully what we'll have as a country once the next federal election is in the books.