Saturday, September 28, 2013

On consistent rules

Bill Curry reports that many Canadian municipalities are wondering why Rob Ford has access to funding streams not available to anybody else:
Ottawa’s $660-million gift to Toronto for a subway extension will come from a program that does not yet exist, leaving Canada’s other cities confused as to how they can get in on the action.

Mayors and municipal officials scrambled this week to understand the broader implications of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s surprise announcement on Monday that Ottawa would help finance a subway extension in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough.
Now, the broader implications seem to me to be both obvious and familiar. But for those not previously paying attention: if you are a crony of Stephen Harper's, then Stephen Harper's government will treat you as being above the rules which apply to everybody else.

Of course, in suggesting that municipal leaders govern themselves accordingly, it's also worth pointing out that merit and consistency might well deserve more consideration than they'll ever get under Harper. And so the smartest plan is to ensure that Harper isn't in a position to favour his pals longer than we can avoid.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- The CP reports on Suzanne Legault's much-needed warning about the Cons' secrecy in government:
In a closed-door session with dozens of bureaucrats Thursday, Suzanne Legault cited a series of novel measures she says are damaging an already tottering system.

"I am seeing signs of a system in crisis, where departments are unable to fulfil even their most basic obligations under the act," Legault told the group.

As an example, she cited a directive in April this year from the Treasury Board warning bureaucrats to steer clear of ministers' offices when looking for documents to respond to an access-to-information request.
The directive imposes strict conditions under which documents can even be requested from a minister's office, and allows political staff members to make a final decision about whether the information is relevant to a request.

Legault drew on other examples of departments that do not bother to retrieve and examine documents before claiming they are exempt or excluded from the Access to Information Act.
- Meanwhile, Elizabeth Thompson points out the lack of any clear privacy rules at all governing most political parties and actors.

- Hugh Wagner highlights the need for the provincial government to get labour legislation right, rather than pushing through attacks on workers with little thought about the consequences for people:
Saskatchewan's workplaces should be moving forward with a view to benefiting the whole of society, not just empowering employers at the expense of employees.

Nationally recognized and respected labour relations scholar and lawyer Prof. David Doorey of York University observes in his review of the legislation that "Bill 85 in its final version remains a onesided package of reforms.

The bill's labour relations provisions in particular are designed to impose new obligations, new restrictions, new costs and new challenges on unions."

If this is not the intent of the legislation, I ask again that the government consult fully and openly with all stakeholders, to ensure the act is further amended or to ensure the impending regulations address the following issues: Obstacles to workers' ability to organize and secure collective bargaining rights should be removed. Concerns that families may no longer be able to spend weekends together and employees may be denied lunch breaks if the employer decides it's necessary should be explicitly dealt with. These seemingly small changes reflect a legislative thrust that expands employer control over working conditions. The regulations must address the lack of checks and balances over how employers exercise this discretion.
- Ryan Meili introduces a national audience to his philosophy of upstream thinking. And for those interested, the Regina launch of the Upstream think tank will take place this afternoon.

- Finally, Ed Broadbent's Jack Layton Lecture is well worth a view:

Friday, September 27, 2013

Musical interlude

Bran Van 3000 - Astounded

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Jordan Brennan and Jim Stanford put to rest any attempt to minimize the growth of inequality in Canada:
(I)ncome inequality has reached a historic extreme. Inequality was high during the 1920s and 1930s (the “gilded age”), but fell sharply during the Second World War (as Canadians got back to work and taxes were raised to pay for the war effort). The three decades after the Second World War — a “golden age” of controlled capitalism — saw further decline in inequality. The economy was booming and powerful institutions (like progressive taxation and surging unionization) ensured the wealth was broadly shared.

Since 1980, however, we’ve entered another “gilded age.” Business-friendly economic and social policies replaced the former Keynesian welfare regime. In recent years, inequality has reached levels higher than at any time since the 1930s. And it is clearly staying that way, regardless of small year-to-year fluctuations.
Does income inequality matter? There’s a growing consensus among scientists from many disciplines that it does: in complex, surprising and economically important ways. Numerous studies document a powerful relationship between income inequality and varied dimensions of social pathology.
Indicators as diverse as happiness, mental illness, infant mortality, children’s educational performance, teenage pregnancy, homicide, imprisonment, social trust and social mobility all get worse as the income gaps within society deepen.
- But David Spencer writes that corporate efforts to demonize the poor and suppress wages to minimize their freedom of choice date back centuries. And Paul Krugman comments on the selective rage of the privileged - who are happy to accept multi-billion-dollar bailouts for themselves while demanding that workers lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.

- Meanwhile, Trish Hennessy (via Diablogue) discusses Ontario's self-defeating austerity policies. And Sean Geobey studies how young workers in particular are bearing the brunt the province's failures.

- Finally, Paul Adams highlights what we lose when politics turns into a matter of mere consumer culture rather than citizen activism:
Political parties run attack ads because they don’t really care if some of us are turned off politics — so long as they turn off more of the other parties’ supporters than they do their own. It really doesn’t matter if they’re damaging the system. Election after election, fewer and fewer people trudge to the polls — but someone always wins.

The most depressing aspect of all this may be that as the parties market themselves to a largely disengaged audience, they inevitably latch on to our wispiest impulses. Those impulses, Delacourt argues, are increasingly about what can we buy and for how much, whether that’s hockey equipment for the kids or a new smartphone for ourselves — often with a credit card, of course.

As a result there’s precious little space left on the shelf for, say, climate change or the disgraceful circumstances of our native peoples. Things like that might concern citizens — but they just don’t interest shoppers.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

New column day

Here, on Brad Wall's choice to bring the Southern Strategy north with a dog-whistle appeal to prejudice against First Nations.

For further reading...
- Rick Perlstein puts the Southern Strategy (and Lee Atwater's description of it) in context here
- The Saskatchewan Party ad in question is here.
- The NDP's 2011 platform costing is here (PDF), featuring significant investments in housing, health care, child care, full-day kindergarten, tuition relief and other social causes. For those keeping score: total mentions of the beneficiaries of those proposed policies in the Sask Party's 30-second attack ad, zero; total mentions of First Nations, three.
- Meanwhile, the Saskatchewan Party has proudly highlighted its willingness to funnel royalty revenue to Mosaic and PCS. And it's also readily taken credit for general funding streams to municipalities and school boards. Which raises all the more reason to question why First Nations alone are singled out not to receive any share of royalties or other provincial revenues.
- Finally, I'll point back to my earlier post as to why a resource-sharing agreement with First Nations would help to ensure that all levels of government receive a fair return on resources rather than having their royalty rates ground down by extractors threatening to operate in a different jurisdictional structure within Saskatchewan. (Which again figures to be part of Wall's reason for attacking the idea.)

On democratic exercises

The results are in from Regina's wastewater treatment referendum. And unfortunately, the combined forces of the City and the corporate sector (with an assist from far too much of the city's media) were able to carry the day.

But there's still plenty of reason to think we're better off for having had the vote.

For one thing, we can now confirm that Reginans can be motivated to participate even in a single-issue referendum - with nearly as many total voters casting a ballot on a single decision as did in electing our entire slate of city leaders just last year. And the referendum represents both an important exercise in democracy and compelling evidence that people are far more interested in having a say in municipal decisions than the current administration gives them credit for.

And the actual votes cast may be even more significant.

The gap between a city establishment lining up (and putting its thumb on the scale) in favour of one side and the 21,000+ voters who nonetheless voted for accountability and public control will hopefully result in greater recognition of the public interests at play in the wastewater procurement process to come - helping to avoid some of the real concerns the Yes side has raised about cozy, closed-door decision-making. And the possibility that other major choices will be subject to public attention should result in more thoughtful analysis of future projects.

Ideally, I'd also hope to see a few councillors whose constituents were particularly inclined to vote Yes start to develop some sustained questions and criticisms about city decision-making - rather than going along with the mayor by default and offering the "unanimous!" cover to genuinely contentious issues.

Obviously, those possibilities are on the speculative side compared to the concrete possibility of retaining public control of our water treatment system. But there looks to be plenty of room to build on the work done by Regina Water Watch - and if we end up with the public keeping a closer eye on municipal government in general, that's a result well worth the effort.

Update: Jason has more.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Today is of course voting day in Regina's wastewater treatment plant referendum - and you can get voting information here. And Paul Dechene explains his personal Yes vote by pointing to the need for public control over our infrastructure, while Brian Webb highlights the importance of the treatment plan for water quality in Regina and elsewhere.

- Frances Russell traces the decline of democracy and equality in Canada over the past few decades to free trade agreements designed to limit both. And Miles Corak confirms that Canada has seen the same type of stagnation and stratification as the U.S.:
At the same time the slice of the pie going to those in the bottom has not changed, while those in the middle have, indeed, experienced a decline in their share.

These patterns are remarkably similar to those in the United States. In fact, I have shamelessly borrowed the entire structure of this post from an article in The New York Times by Eduardo Porter summarizing a report released by the US Census Bureau.

Thirty years of economic growth; thirty years of incremental but steady increases in productivity; after major public policy initiatives, like free trade with the United States and other countries beginning in 1980s, like the relentless and unforgiving pursuit of zero inflation that unleashed a major recession in the early 1990s, like slashing government deficits “come what may” in the years that followed, like a major run up in commodity prices and expansion of the resource sector, partly subsidized through the public purse, policies conducted in the name of increased prosperity and a better future for all; and yet after all of this, the typical family now feels less secure and has no higher a standard of living than a generation ago.
- Meanwhile, Robyn Benson notes that government and corporate attacks on the few institutions speaking up for workers aren't about to stop anytime soon.

- And finally, Pat Atkinson comments on the mess the Wall government has made of education in Saskatchewan.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On sucker's bets

As the old saying goes, if you sit down at a poker table and can't spot the sucker, you're it.

And there shouldn't be much doubt that when the City of Regina sits down with an interconnected group of consultants and privatization advocates to decide who stands to be handed hundreds of millions of public dollars, the patsy won't be found in the group of corporate participants.

Of course, the original plan for a privatized wastewater treatment plant allowed for a slightly cleaner process. Instead allowing the public a seat at the table, the City originally planned to ante up to a high-stakes game with our money.

But fortunately, enough citizens insisted on having some say in the decision to force Council to allow us a referendum vote - a single chance to leave the table.

Which isn't to say the City has actually done anything to make the game any more fair.

The No side has insisted that we go all in without being allowed to see our own cards. It's tried to bribe us with a few complimentary chips which are dwarfed by what's actually at stake. It's tried to distract us by changing the rules without warning; it's hired outside goons to intimidate us into staying at the table.

And all the while the corporate sector has encouraged the City's diversions and deceptions - while gleefully awaiting its opportunity to divide up the spoils.

But the No side hasn't been able to avoid the most important reality about the wastewater treatment referendum.

Reginans remain the suckers in the game being played by the City and its corporate benefactors. And if we don't walk away while we have the chance, we'll be paying off the debts for decades to come.

[Edit: fixed wording.]

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Perked-up cats.

#wwtp Referendum Roundup

A few links and notes as Regina's wastewater referendum approaches tomorrow.

- Jason Hammond explains that his Yes vote will be based largely on concerns about the City's dishonesty and sense of entitlement in trying to push through a P3 model. And Paul Dechene provides the full list of City shenanigans throughout the referendum process.

- That is, until today - when Vanessa Brown revealed that the City is using a U.S. PR firm with a "passion (for) helping Republican candidates, elected officials, and conservative causes" - presumably to help it offer the level of accuracy and principle we've come to expect from that party. (h/t to Leftdog)

-But interestingly enough, at least some people on the No side also seem perfectly happy to have voters make their decision based on the question of whether they have complete and utter faith in the current City Council and administration.

- Finally, Erin Weir nicely exposes and shreds the City talking points being recycled by far too many local columnists.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Charles Campbell discusses Robert Reich's work to highlight the importance of a fair and progressive tax system. And while Lawrence Martin is right to lament the systematic destruction of Canada's public revenue streams under the Libs and Cons alike, his fatalistic view that nobody can stem the tide doesn't seem to match the evidence that the public - in Canada and the U.S. alike - sees inequality as a problem to be solved rather than a fair result of corporate-friendly policies.

- Mark Taliano writes about the Harper Cons' distaste for evidence-based policy. And even the New York Times takes note of Stephen Harper's desperate attempts to suppress science when it comes to the tar sands:
Science is the gathering of hypotheses and the endless testing of them. It involves checking and double-checking, self-criticism and a willingness to overturn even fundamental assumptions if they prove to be wrong. But none of this can happen without open communication among scientists. This is more than an attack on academic freedom. It is an attempt to guarantee public ignorance.

It is also designed to make sure that nothing gets in the way of the northern resource rush — the feverish effort to mine the earth and the ocean with little regard for environmental consequences. The Harper policy seems designed to make sure that the tar sands project proceeds quietly, with no surprises, no bad news, no alarms from government scientists. To all the other kinds of pollution the tar sands will yield, we must now add another: the degradation of vital streams of research and information.
- Meanwhile, Tim Naumetz reports on Con rail safety spin which bears a striking resemblance to that on climate change: point to long-broken promises and not-yet-drafted regulations as "action", and hope nobody notices the difference between that and actual progress.

- And Paul Wells responds to selective leaks about the Cons' supposed reset by looking back at past throne speeches:
(G)etting righteous on behalf of consumers would have the virtue of novelty. If this government stands up for consumers, it has until now been bashful about saying so. The most recent Throne Speech, only 25 months ago, contained no mention of the word “consumer.” Previous Throne Speeches—there have been six in total from various Harper governments up to now—contained hardly any more language on consumers’ rights. But those old speeches make fun reading today anyway, for their mix of forced rhetoric, policy dead ends and, here and there, a few real portents of what Harper had in store.

On Oct. 16, 2007, Michaëlle Jean delivered the Harper government’s second Throne Speech. It contained one reference to consumers. “Our government shares the concern of parents about the safety of consumer products and food.” It also promised “binding national regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions across all major industrial sectors—with requirements for emissions reductions starting this year.” Six years later, there are still no regulations for the oil sands.

On Nov. 19, 2008, after Harper’s first re-election, everyone was back in the Senate for another big speech. “Our government will follow through with legislation providing better oversight of food, drug and consumer products,” Jean said. The government also promised to “respect the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories and . . . enshrine its principles of federalism in a charter of open federalism.” That didn’t happen.

The 2008 Speech’s odes to Parliament’s greatness read a little funny in retrospect. “Parliament is Canada’s most important national institution . . . Parliament should be an expression of our highest ideals and deepest values, our greatest hopes and grandest dreams for the future of our children.” Two weeks later, the three opposition parties tried to give Harper’s job to Stéphane Dion. Harper promptly petitioned the GG to prorogue the session, thereby saving his bacon. Rarely since has Parliament expressed anyone’s values or hopes. Even Harper prefers to express his values and hopes as far from the Commons as he can get.
- Finally, Duncan Cameron takes a look at the goals of each Canadian political party for this fall and beyond.

Monday, September 23, 2013

On independent thought

It's for the best that the idle speculation and gossip about a single point of policy difference between Thomas Mulcair and Linda McQuaig have been put to rest. But let's make clear just how pernicious the "ZOMG!!! Candidate X occasionally thinks for herself!!! Clearly she must be muzzled!!!" line of political analysis actually is.

Simply put, there's absolutely no contradiction between:
- a party leader promising that a given policy that will form part of the party's platform; and
- a candidate holding the personal opinion that a particular different policy would produce superior outcomes, while nonetheless supporting the party in general.

In fact, I'd see far more reason for concern with a party so beaten down by its leader that it thought anybody who disagreed with any of its policies should be forcibly evicted from the tent. And as ugly as it is when leaders squelch dissent in the name of consolidating their own power, it's even more disturbing to see the media spreading that theme for no reason but to generate a story where none exists.

Now, the above isn't to say that McQuaig's advocacy for a more fair tax system isn't important. And I'll definitely hope to see her to use the political platforms held by a candidate and an MP to advocate for change both within the NDP and in the wider political system.

But that should serve as reason for journalists to seriously discuss the important policy questions she raises - not to write stories which implicitly or explicitly demand that intelligent political thinkers like McQuaig be silenced.

[Edit: Fixed wording, added link.]

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Paul Krugman writes about the right-wing belief that "freedom's just another word for not enough to eat":
(Y)ou might think that ensuring adequate nutrition for children, which is a large part of what SNAP does, actually makes it less, not more likely that those children will be poor and need public assistance when they grow up. And that’s what the evidence shows. The economists Hilary Hoynes and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach have studied the impact of the food stamp program in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was gradually rolled out across the country. They found that children who received early assistance grew up, on average, to be healthier and more productive adults than those who didn’t — and they were also, it turns out, less likely to turn to the safety net for help.

SNAP, in short, is public policy at its best. It not only helps those in need; it helps them help themselves. And it has done yeoman work in the economic crisis, mitigating suffering and protecting jobs at a time when all too many policy makers seem determined to do the opposite. So it tells you something that conservatives have singled out this of all programs for special ire.

Even some conservative pundits worry that the war on food stamps, especially combined with the vote to increase farm subsidies, is bad for the G.O.P., because it makes Republicans look like meanspirited class warriors. Indeed it does. And that’s because they are.
- Greg Hluska explains his decision-making process in jointing the Yes side of Regina's wastewater treatment referendum:
I’m left thinking about fairness. You have the Federal government promising to help us with our infrastructure…but only if we choose a P3. When I look at the kinds of companies with experience in these kinds of projects, I notice that the vast majority are from Ontario. So, if we go P3, there will be fewer union jobs (thus lower wages for Regina residents) while we ship the profits off to Ontario.

And then, I look at the subject of risk, complete with its highly secretive equation. If you remove risk entirely from the equation, the P3 and traditional models are very close in terms of net present cost. That flies in the face of peer reviewed research that shows that P3s usually cost significantly more. If the Deloitte report numbers don’t jive with numbers from other similar projects, should we trust this highly secretive number attached to risk? According to peer reviewed research, audited P3s cost 16% more than traditionally tendered contracts. Yet, the Deloitte report indicates that a P3 would only cost 1.6% more than the traditional model would. In case you’re keeping track, that is an actual difference of over $60,000,000 in base construction costs.
(W)hen I weigh all of this, I have decided that I am going to vote yes, in opposition to the P3. I have lost trust in city council and simply cannot approve of a project that will affect our city for thirty years in light of such damning evidence.
- Meanwhile, Regina Water Watch highlights some more shady practices from the City to try to stack the deck in favour of the No side.

- Which leads nicely to Robert Reich's discussion of the myth of the free market, and the reality that markets as we know them are designed for the specific benefit of the wealthy few:
Governments don't "intrude" on free markets; governments organize and maintain them. Markets aren't "free" of rules; the rules define them.

The interesting question is what the rules should seek to achieve. They can be designed to maximize efficiency (given the current distribution of resources), or growth (depending on what we're willing to sacrifice to obtain that growth), or fairness (depending on our ideas about a decent society). Or some combination of all three -- which aren't necessarily in competition with one another. Evidence suggests, for example, that if prosperity were more widely shared, we'd have faster growth.

The rules can even be designed to entrench and enhance the wealth of a few at the top, and keep almost everyone else comparatively poor and economically insecure.
If we want to reduce the savage inequalities and insecurities that are now undermining our economy and democracy, we shouldn't be deterred by the myth of the "free market." We can make the economy work for us, rather than the other way around. But in order to change the rules, we must exert the power that is supposed to be ours.
- Finally, Kady O'Malley points out the glaring gap between the Cons' spin about the Robocon costs ruling, and the actual decision which will result in the party's MPs paying costs to the electors who rightfully questioned the impact of Con-based fraud on the 2011 election. But I do have to question whether the Cons are particularly concerned about losing credibility now - especially if anybody was willing to accept that they had an ounce of it left to lose given their previous attempts to paint a finding that their database was used to commit election fraud as a win.