Saturday, October 05, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- The National Post offers an excerpt from Susan Delacourt's Shopping for Votes discussing the role branding played in the election of John Diefenbaker. And Jeffrey Simpson discusses the continued drift toward consumer politics.
- But in commenting on the Nova Scotia provincial election, Ralph Surette reminds us what's lost when voting decisions are made based solely on snap impressions rather than any effort to determine who's capable of managing a government:
There have been several televised debates. To anyone watching them from the point of view of substance rather than mere performance, Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil has lost them all and Premier Darrell Dexter has won them all — but the Liberal numbers kept rising.

Dexter’s desperate narrative is, alas, the only coherent one in this whole thing. He’s pointing to progress in some domains and admitting to mistakes (itself a novelty in politics) in others that he’s promising to address in a second mandate, especially now that the budget is tentatively balanced.

The Liberals were surprised a little over a year ago by a poll putting them in the game and have been madly stitching up policy since. They’ve hit onto some superficial hot buttons — health, power rates, corporate incentives — but when questioned about the implications, McNeil reverts to his set rhetoric, avoids the question, and in fact sounds like a tired old incumbent back on his heels.
Under the circumstances, a Liberal government is unlikely to cheer anyone, including Liberal voters themselves. Nothing has been properly thought out, and unless McNeil backs off from some of his simplicities, Nova Scotia politics is heading back into the old stewpot from whence it came. But backing off — or breaking promises — in the face of the most cynical voters in the country (in my estimation) would hardly keep the peace.

I desperately hope I’m wrong about this, but after watching Nova Scotia politics for close to 45 years, some of the old queasy feeling is back.
- Meanwhile, Charles Pierce writes that the Republicans have taken politics based on pure branding to its logical conclusion by completely detaching themselves from any sense that the political system should be used to help actual people. And Lana Payne wonders what happened to the common good in political discussions.

- Finally, Kapil Khatter points out how medical decisions can be influenced and manipulated by big pharma - both in fabricating "needs" to be met by whatever drug a particularly company wants to peddle, and in using academic structures to sell a particular drug as the answer.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Musical interlude

Delerium - Wisdom

Friday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Early in the season, the Saskatchewan Roughriders frequently dug themselves into a hole at the beginning of a game, only to pile up just enough points at the end to emerge victorious.

But that kind of luck can only last for so long. And Sunday's loss in Montreal provided an all-too-vivid example of the dangers of failing to take control of a game when the opportunity arises.

Once again, the 'Riders played well enough on defence to win with even a modest point total. And a resurgent return game gave the offence reasonably good field position throughout the game...which it just barely managed to squander at every turn.

Most obviously, Saskatchewan turned two possessions deep in Montreal territory into a grand total of two points at the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second. And it's especially a mystery how a team which seemed unstoppable on two-point conversions not long ago managed to fail on first and goal from the Montreal 3-yard-line.

But even the punt singles which represented far too much of the 'Riders' offence for most of the game signalled an inability to produce when it counted most. In a game where a couple of field goals could have made all the defence, Saskatchewan's offence stalled multiple times around midfield - while the Als were just slightly better at converting opportunities into points (accounting for one deep turnover from each team).

Of course, the 'Riders combination of field position and passing yardage hid a couple of major problems with the team's offense. It's possible to get by with a low-percentage passing attack as long as a team can reliably generate some yards on the ground - but Saskatchewan's pitiful 15 yards rushing meant that the burden to move the ball was entirely on Darian Durant's right arm. And while Durant generated a few big plays, his 24-for-46 showing was far short of the efficiency needed to keep the offence on the field (and the defence out of difficult situations).

Hopefully the return of Kory Sheets will help somewhat this week against B.C. - both in generating yards in the trenches, and in forcing defences to scheme against some meaningful running threat. But there's reason to worry that the 'Riders ran through their luck early in the season.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Glen Hodgson and Brenda Lafleur explain how Canada's lower and middle classes alike have been left out of any economic growth as a result of increased inequality:
We believe the more accurate interpretation is that after worsening in the 1980s and 1990s, income inequality and poverty in Canada remained stuck at a relatively high level during the 2000s. This interpretation should prompt the question, “Can anything be done about it?”

The 1990s were a difficult decade for Canadians. By the late 1990s, real median after-tax income fell to its lowest level in more than three decades, and income inequality reached its peak. Yet even though higher commodity demand and prices helped Canada’s economy grow faster from 2000 to 2010 than most of its peers, including the United States, income inequality did not decline.
Furthermore, the gap between the top and bottom income quintiles increased the most in the 1980s and 1990s. The top 20 per cent got relatively richer, and the bottom 20 per cent got relatively poorer. The gap between richest and poorest quintiles grew more slowly in the 2000s, but it clearly did not shrink. The top income quintile increased its share of total after-tax income from 43.4 per cent in 1998 to 44.3 per cent in 2010. The share going to the bottom income quintile remained the same (4.8 per cent), while the share going to the three quintile groups in between (which could be broadly defined as the middle class) fell.

In short, it is statistically accurate to say that the middle class – at least as defined by having a mid-range income – is being squeezed in Canada.

And what about low-income Canadians, including those in poverty? Using Statistics Canada’s Low Income Measure (LIM), the share of Canada’s population in low income is somewhat smaller than during the mid-1990s, but it remains higher than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Even if the income share of lower-income Canadians was stable in the 2000s and their incomes are rising modestly, Canada’s performance is far from stellar. When put in the context of a relatively healthy Canadian economy from 2000 to the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, lower-income Canadians did not get that much further ahead.
- Meanwhile, Rick Smith duly mocks the promise of a "consumer first" Throne Speech from a government which has gutted the federal regulatory system and trashed any meaningful consumer protections introduced by other parties throughout its stay in power.

- And on the subject of public accountability, Thomas Walkom recognizes that the real story behind the planning of Toronto's Pan Am Games is the danger involved in handing matters of public interest over to unaccountable private actors.

- Vaughn Palmer discusses British Columbia's reasonable concerns about the threat of bitumen spills on land and water alike. And CBC reports on Justice Marceau's finding that Alberta's exclusion of environmental groups from the review of tar sands projects resulted in an unfair and invalid process - which may be particularly important given that the Cons have imposed exactly the same standard at the federal level in order to remove critical voices from pipeline assessments.

- I'll have more to say about the flurry of discussion set off by Michael Ignatieff's book launch over the weekend. But for now, the essential recent reading on Ignatieff's tenure and departure includes: Paul Wells on Ignatieff's lack of substance; Bob Hepburn on his apparent state of denial; Frances Russell on his complete misapprehension of a parliamentary system; and Chris Selley's brilliant assessment of Ignatieff's combined sense of entitlement and appetite for self-aggrandizement.

- Finally, Paul Krugman offers his theory as to how the Republicans ended up where they are - and it's a lesson that we should watch for within our own party structures as well:
Coming back to the class warfare issue: my working theory is that wealthy individuals bought themselves a radical right party, believing — correctly — that it would cut their taxes and remove regulations, but failed to realize that eventually the craziness would take on a life of its own, and that the monster they created would turn on its creators as well as the little people.

And nobody knows how it ends.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

New column day

Here, discussing what elements of Saskatchewan's referendum law look to have worked properly in Regina's wastewater treatment plant referendum process - and where there's some obvious room for improvement where future issues call for a vote among citizens.

For further reading...
- While I note in the column that the 10% signature threshold seems to serve its intended purpose nicely, that of course requires that a municipality apply it fairly. And I'll point back to Paul Dechene's timeline of questionable City steps which attempted to avoid a referendum even though the standard was met by any fair measurement.
- CBC reported on the City's approved funding for the referendum here, and on the money spent by all campaigns here.
- Finally, Shawn Fraser reflects on the referendum - pointing out what's wrong with the City's current decision-making processes (while leaving open the question of whether he'll stake some political capital on changing the culture if the establishment pushes back):
(T)his whole thing could have likely been avoided if there was better public engagement around this decision before council voted on it. I take as much responsibility for this as anyone. It also speaks to a culture at city hall of decisions being made, council voting on them, and then it being council’s job to tell people about a decision that is already going forward. There will no doubt be many other important and divisive issue to come before council in the coming years, and we need to work at changing this.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Andrew Jackson discusses why attacks on Old Age Security - including the Fraser Institute's calls for increased clawbacks - serve no useful purpose:
The principled argument for not clawing back OAS benefits is that all seniors should be entitled to a bare-bones public pension as a basic building block of the overall retirement income system. The OAS benefit is very low and is added to a meagre Canada Pension Plan benefit that replaces just 25 per cent of average earnings up to a maximum of $12,144 a year.

Receiving the full OAS benefit – taxed at an already significant marginal rate – is a modest recompense for paying progressive income taxes over a working lifetime. And universality does not stand in the way of providing much more significant benefits to those who are most in need, as we do through the income-tested Guaranteed Income Supplement to OAS.

Experience shows that mean-testing previously universal benefits has undermined support for social security programs among the affluent. Certainly, the more narrowly targeted an income support program becomes, the more the political support for that program tends to evaporate.

Seen from this perspective, universality has benefits over and above the modest fiscal cost.
- Meanwhile, Erin Weir and Lana Payne highlight the effect of the Cons' destruction of EI for seasonal workers who need it most.

- Trish Hennessy takes a look at the numbers behind the Cons' pseudo-census.

- And Kevin Press provides an example of the type of evidence which the Cons are so eager to suppress - showing that the relative size of government actually grows more under nominally right-wing parties.Which nicely complements Bruce Stewart's rebuttal to right-wingers who ignore the NDP's track record of responsible government.

- Finally, Russ Ford sees the values behind Upstream as an example of how politics should work:
An increase in GDP historically meant that most members of society prospered.

We know that is no longer true. A strong GDP now means nothing to the lives of most Canadians.

Many have argued that our future health care system will find itself in crisis largely because people are living longer.  We have moved from a system that previously addressed episodic illnesses to one that is now focussed on chronic disease management.  But to suggest that this will be the iceberg that derails our health system is simply nonsense.

The money is there or at least it was there until governments started cutting our taxes literally taking billions out of the public treasury. The lost tax cut money can easily finance those costs and there will be even money left over to buy the military all the toys it wants.

No chronic disease will not be our undoing. Our undoing will be a failure to acknowledge and address the fact that our new economic order is causing more and more Canadians to be sick by creating more inequality.

The easy solution would be to enter our political parties into a rehab program to end their addiction to public opinion polls. Can you imagine how politics would be different if our parties stood for something, acted on principle rather than focussed on what the polls tell them we want to hear.

Doing politics differently means starting to say what needs to be said.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cats hanging on.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Jordon Cooper writes about the need to understand poverty in order to discuss and address it as a matter of public policy.

- John Greenwood reports on Cameco's tax evasion which is being rightly challenged by the CRA - though it's worth emphasizing that the corporate income tax at stake would figure to include hundreds of millions of dollars at the provincial level. And CBC does an undercover investigation of the types of tax evasion schemes available for a price.

- Speaking of shady practices, a witness before the Charbonneau commission has identified Harper Senate appointees Leo Housakos and Claude Carignan as recipients of largesse from corrupt construction companies. And Carolyn Stewart Olsen has been caught wrongfully claiming Senate expenses for days when the chamber wasn't sitting.

- Which, given the Cons' track record, means that we can probably expect them to launch a fund-raising appeal asking for money to ensure that their own appointees don't continue doing what their appointees do.

- Scott Stelmaschuk chimes in about the Sask Party's attack ad against on Cam Broten. And Doug Cuthand expands on the significance of Brad Wall's potshots at First Nations:
What surprised me was that the Sask. Party went after the NDP for its support for sharing resource revenue with First Nations. Is the governing party planning to use First Nations as a wedge issue in the next election campaign? Has it written off support from the province's aboriginal community, which constitutes about 20 per cent of the population? I know that aboriginal issues often are the subject of coffee row and doorstep conversations during campaigns, but this is the first time I can recall the party in power singling out support for First Nations as a liability for the province.

Resource revenue sharing is an issue that's gaining traction across Indian country. Our people have seen resources developed in their traditional territory with very little or no benefit to them. While provincial and federal coffers are getting rich from these developments, our communities remain mired in poverty.
To see the Saskatchewan Party throw out resource revenue sharing as a negative policy is a short-term, knee-jerk reaction to a long-standing debt, and is a slight on the province's First Nations.
- And finally, Murray Dobbin asks who will save Canadian democracy from Stephen Harper - though it's well worth noting that the pattern of tying public hands through trade agreements is as much a core philosophy for the Libs as for the Cons.

Monday, September 30, 2013

On decisive choices

Nanos' latest poll on the parties under consideration by voters has received plenty of attention. But the discussion so far seems to miss the most plausible explanation for the poll results.

Compared to previous polling, the latest survey shows:
- little change in the actual support levels of Canada's federal parties; and
- a dramatic drop in the number of voters listing each of the national opposition parties as "under consideration".

Now, the first point means that - contrary to the initial analysis by Nik Nanos - we shouldn't interpret the poll as affecting the "shine" or first-choice popularity for the parties involved. Instead, the question is whether that perception is shared by a group of people beyond a party's core supporters.

And the second point does signal that public preferences are hardening. Voters who may have taken time to lock in a preference among the NDP, Libs and Greens are reaching some more firm conclusions, and thus dropping second and third choices from the list of parties "under consideration".

We'll of course find out whether that trend holds. But if it does, then a reduction in voter volatility may reduce both the risk and the upside for each opposition party over the next couple of years. And if we're going to see three parties with reasonably firm support levels in the 25%-36% range for the foreseeable future, then it's about time to start thinking about how two of them can work together after the 2014 election.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Benjamin Radcliff discusses the proven connection between progressive policies and a higher quality of life across all levels of income:
Happier people live in countries with a generous social safety net, or, more generally, countries whose governments "tax and spend" at higher rates, reflecting the greater range of services and protections offered by the state. (These findings come from analysis of data from the World Values Surveys for the 21 Western industrial democracies from 1981 to 2007 for my book "The Political Economy of Human Happiness." Similar findings have been reported in peer-reviewed journals like "Social Research" and the "Social Indicators Research.")

The relationship could not be stronger or clearer: However much it may pain conservatives to hear it, the "nanny state," as they disparagingly call it, works. Across the Western world, the quality of human life increases as the size of the state increases. It turns out that having a "nanny" makes life better for people. This is borne out by the U.N. 2013 "World Happiness Report," which found Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden the top five happiest nations.
The answer is simple and unequivocal: Happier people live in countries with a generous social safety net. Conservatives may be equally troubled to learn that labor unions have a similar effect. Not only are workers who belong to unions happier, but the overall rate of happiness for everyone -- members and nonmembers -- increases dramatically as the percentage of workers who belong to unions grows, reflecting the louder political voice that organization gives to ordinary citizens.

All this remains true when controlling for the many other things that might also affect quality of life, such as income, age, gender, marital status, or their country's culture, history, or level of economic development. Critically, "big government" and labor unions also promote happiness not merely for those toward the bottom or middle of the income distribution, but for everyone, rich and poor, men and women, conservatives and liberals.
The reasons the progressive agenda promotes happiness are complex, but stated simply, the more we supplement the cold efficiency of the market with interventions that reduce poverty, insecurity, and inequality, the more we improve quality of life for everyone.
- And in a similar vein, Carol Goar discusses the damaging effects of deprivation and scarcity, while offering a few public policy suggestions:
[Eldar Shafir] outlined to an auditorium full of academics, policy-makers and non-profit leaders how scarcity — of food, income, time, sleep, security, friendship — impairs people's judgment and locks them into patterns of behaviour that compound their misery. And he showed how simple changes in the way they organize their lives can set them on a healthier path.
With just 12 minutes onstage, Shafir couldn't elaborate on the policy implications of his research, but some are obvious:
•Blaming people for their poverty is wrong-headed. Chronic deprivation hijacks individuals' brains, reducing their ability to make good choices, cope with their constraints and extricate themselves from their condition.
•Inundating people who need help with forms to fill out, documents to gather, calculations to make and signatures to get overwhelms them and reduces their ability to manage their lives.
•Exhorting people to say no — to purchases they cannot afford, loans they cannot repay, deadlines they cannot meet or commitments they cannot keep — doesn't work. They need structures in their lives to prevent them from falling into to temptation and buffers to limit the harm when they do.
- Guy Giorno surprisingly adds his name to the list of people calling for a far more effective federal access-to-information system than the one he and the Harper government have abused over the past few years.

- Sheila Pratt reports on a push by oil barons to disband the lone tar sands monitoring agency which actually gives a voice to First Nations and environmental groups - preferring an industry-dominated structure instead.

- Which signals that there's plenty of work to be done in reversing the corporatist trend encouraged by Libs and Cons alike - and called out by Tom Mulcair in discussing the Cons' impending throne speech:
For decades, health, safety and environmental protections have been chipped away at in the name of economic progress. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have dismantled rules meant to protect the public and imposed industry self-regulation instead.
This attack on basic health, safety and environmental protections was sold to the voting public on the promise that it would pave our path to prosperity. In the greatest irony of all, it was exactly this sort of unfettered deregulation that led to the greatest global economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Here in Canada, the failure of both Liberal and Conservative governments to address the impact of climate change now threatens our economic relationship with the United States — so much so that the Obama administration is now under intense pressure to block projects like Keystone XL that would boost production from the Canadian oilsands. Rather than heed the warnings of scientists, economists and First Nations, Conservatives have instead pushed ahead with legislation to gut environmental assessments and eliminate protections for fish habitat and navigable waters.

Where governments once took a leadership role in protecting the public interest, now they protect only private interests. In doing so, they have sacrificed our long-term prosperity for their short-sighted political gain. This has to end.
- Finally, Doug Elliott comments on what the Cons' shredding of the census will do to anybody trying to analyze data in the public interest:
Elliott says that the only solution is to restore the mandatory long-term census before any future damage is done. If it isn’t restored, he says he plans to retire.

“There won’t be anything to analyze,” he says.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sunday Afternoon Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Matt Taibbi discusses how public pension funds are being looted for the benefit of a few well-connected banksters:
Hedge funds have good reason to want to keep their fees hidden: They're insanely expensive. The typical fee structure for private hedge-fund management is a formula called "two and twenty," meaning the hedge fund collects a two percent fee just for showing up, then gets 20 percent of any profits it earns with your money. Some hedge funds also charge a mysterious third fee, called "fund expenses," that can run as high as half a percent – Loeb's Third Point, for instance, charged Rhode Island just more than half a percent for "fund expenses" last year, or about $350,000. Hedge funds will also pass on their trading costs to their clients, a huge additional line item that can come to an extra percent or more and is seldom disclosed. There are even fees states pay for withdrawing from certain hedge funds.

In public finance, hedge funds will sometimes give slight discounts, but the numbers are still enormous. In Rhode Island, over the course of 20 years, Siedle projects that the state will pay $2.1 billion in fees to hedge funds, private-equity funds and venture-capital funds. Why is that number interesting? Because it very nearly matches the savings the state will be taking from workers by freezing their Cost of Living Adjustments – $2.3 billion over 20 years.

"That's some 'reform,'" says Siedle.

"They pretty much took the COLA and gave it to a bunch of billionaires," hisses Day, Providence's retired firefighter union chief.
- The Star's editorial board weighs in on the lack of job opportunities for young workers.

- CBC reports on Alberta's order that a lake be drained in an attempt to contain an ongoing bitumen spill. But of course, it would make more sense to identify and mitigate the risk of that kind of disaster before it materializes - even as the Cons have taken steps to make sure that their oil-industry benefactors don't have to bother carrying out any environmental assessment before putting our land and water at risk.

- Which is to say that the tar sands represent possibly the most important example of a lack of upstream thinking in our current governments. But the new Upstream think tank is working on questioning the short-sighted thinking that leads to harmful (and avoidable) consequences in the long run.

- Finally, Peter Loewen discusses why nomination elections are so valuable within our democratic process:
Hard data on contested versus uncontested nominations are hard to come by, but some do exist. In a recent academic article, Royce Koop and Amanda Bittner document the trend of appointments. In each election from 1993 to 2008, approximately five per cent of Liberal candidates were appointed. This may seem a modest number, but the cumulative effect is a cause for concern. By 2008, a fifth of Liberal MPs were originally appointed candidates. Most have never contested a nomination.

Appointed candidates and those who win nomination battles have different careers. Those who enter politics via a secure candidacy are more likely to find themselves taking up cabinet positions and other high-profile sinecures. They eschew the lower-profile tasks of representation and constituency work.
...Insisting on open local nominations requires candidates to do two things. First, to establish that they are willing to solicit the support of local party members, just as they will have to soon request the support of all local voters. Second, to demonstrate that they can.

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Earlier in the 2013 season, the Saskatchewan Roughriders looked like they could control games with a ruthlessly efficient offence.

Two thirds of the way through the season, that theory seems to have broken down - with last week's loss to B.C. serving as just the latest evidence. But the Lions did leave some opportunities open which the 'Riders plainly weren't inclined to take - and as the season reaches its home stretch, it may be time to take a second look at the 'Riders' goals on offence.

In particular, the last few games have seen some worrisome trends developing: more of Darian Durant's passes are being batted down at the line, fewer receivers are managing to create space anywhere on the field as long as Durant stays in the pocket.

But those problems look to have a common solution. If the 'Riders' offence is easily controlled when Durant stays in place, then surely there's a ready response available by ensuring that he moves with the ball more often.

And Durant has made clear that he still has the athleticism to break tackles and find open space. The problem is that in recent games, he's used that skill mostly to earn another steamboat or two behind centre rather than to expand the field or gain yardage on his own - culminating in a final-drive illegal forward pass penalty on a play where Durant could comfortably have picked up a first down on the ground.

Of course, there are risks involved in forcing a quarterback to take more hits than he can avoid, and Durant's propensity for fumbling is also a concern. But he hasn't exactly avoided those issues in recent weeks behind an increasingly shaky offensive line.

Which means the 'Riders may need to ask Durant to spend more time using defensive aggressiveness to his own advantage, rather than hoping to control the game from the pocket. And if he can succeed changing the angles opponents have to control in coverage and moving the chains himself as a backup plan, then a quick, high-precision offence is far more likely to work when it counts most.