Saturday, October 19, 2013

Deep thought

In times like these, it's vitally important that we not connect dots like "oil", "rail", "deregulation", "explosion" and "disaster". Because otherwise, people might start demanding that our corporate reduce the likelihood that we'll have far more similar incidents to come.

Saturday Morning Links

This and that for your weekend reading.

- Thomas Walkom notes that the CETA isn't particularly about trade, but instead serves to enshrine yet again the principle that investors come before citizens.

- Lana Payne highlights the contradiction between the promise that giveaways to the corporate sector will lead to good jobs, and the reality that employers are looking more and more toward exploitative structures such as unpaid internships and temporary foreign workers.

- Meanwhile, Konrad Yakabuski sees the Cons' set of minor consumer baubles as a poor substitute for economic development which would actually help working Canadians.

- Finally, Cameron Dearlove writes about the impact of income and social supports on overall well-being:
The study of the social determinants of health provides us with the best opportunity for reining in long-term health costs. The social determinants are the economic and social conditions that determine the health of individuals and communities. Research has shown that economic and social conditions are more important factors in determining health than individual and family behaviour.

Put simply, your income has a greater impact on your health than lifestyle choices. One oft-cited study revealed an astonishing 21-year life expectancy gap between two Hamilton neighbourhoods — one affluent, one with entrenched poverty. That poorer neighbourhood's life expectancy of 65.5 years isn't close to Canada's average. If it were a country, it would rank 165th in the world.

We find equally striking numbers when looking beyond communities to the health costs of individuals experiencing poverty. A study in Vancouver determined that the costs to the health system of one homeless individual accessing emergency services can reach $55,000 a year, a figure well beyond what it would have cost to house this person. 
What about the social determinants of childhood development and education? Poverty can actually leave a mark on a child's brain development. A Berkeley study identified differences in prefrontal cortex development based on a child's socioeconomic background, a part of the brain responsible for problem solving and creativity.

Studies across age groups show that the stressful reality of poverty takes up so much mental energy that it can negatively impact an individual's pursuit of education. 
People like to believe that our individual efforts and decisions determine our fates, but the social determinants expose the naiveté of this view. Pulling oneself up from one's bootstraps isn't impossible. But systemically, the dice are loaded. 

It's time we put to rest the assumption that cuts to social and health spending save money. Let's judge spending decisions instead on the social determinants of everything.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Musical interlude

Daft Punk - Touch

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Pat Atkinson writes that governments at all levels should be setting up realistic fiscal plans to deal with a large group of retiring boomers - not artificially slashing revenues and increasing costs. And Rick Smith laments the fact that the Harper Cons are squandering an opportunity to address Canada's existing problems due to their insistence on creating new ones:
“Seizing” the moment would mean tackling the challenges that today’s Canada faces: stagnant or falling wages for middle- and lower-income Canadians; crises in Aboriginal education, food, housing, and missing and murdered women; high youth unemployment; eroding citizen trust in democracy; and environmental degradation, to name but a few.

The throne speech did not offer any real substance on these issues. There was no mention of climate change — only a renewed commitment to oil and gas regulations already twice delayed. [Ed. note - which rather understates the case.] Nothing on addressing either persistent inequality or poverty reduction. And there were only facile musings on addressing the challenges facing First Nations communities, and no commitment to an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women — a necessary project that was just this week called for by a visiting UN Special Rapporteur.
Instead, the speech outlined its clearest commitment yet to austerity, and to a leaner and meaner government, no matter the cost to our standard of living.
- Meanwhile, Thomas Walkom focuses on the dangers of Harper's complete neglect of First Nations. And Shawn Atleo's response to a speech from the throne which edited First Nations out of existence signals that the Cons' selective perception of Canada won't pass without some significant challenges.

- Jim Stanford writes that an irrational fear of debt will do far more economic damage than actual debt ever could. And the Cons are determined to enshrine perpetual counterproductive deficit hysteria into law.

- Adam Radwanski notes that Ontario is looking at setting up its own pension plan to make up for the Con's refusal to strengthen the CPP - meaning that the best-case scenario (in the event Ontario actually follows through) involves needless duplication of similar entities aimed at the same goals.

- Finally, Christine Boyle and Seth Klein remind us that there's no particular reason to completely detach economic policy from questions about what kind of society we want - and have a suggestion as to what a more moral economy might look like:
So what more specifically would a moral economy look like, and what differentiates it from our current system?

Jobs: In a moral economy, our livelihoods better align with our best ideals for ourselves. Imagine a society that places value on service and caring -- for children, the elderly, and those with disabilities -- and this is reflected in people's wages. The economy provides community-sustaining, family-supporting jobs; jobs that don't separate families, that don't endanger workers or harm others, and that provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Does this mean we will always love everything about our jobs? Of course not. But it means we can feel proud of the work we do, and pleased if our own children choose to follow in our path.

Ecological Justice: In a moral economy, natural resources are not depleted and the commons is not despoiled. Economic development is not driven by a "gold rush" mentality, but is thoughtful and deliberate about how scarce resources are used. The need for income in the present does not penalize the well-being of future generations.

Indigenous Sovereignty: In a moral economy, Aboriginal rights and title are respected, and we strive to honour the commitments made to those who first occupied this land. These rights are not theoretical, but instead are given a place of privilege in economic planning. The upholding of Indigenous Sovereignty is not only at play in matters of specific resource development projects. It is a shift in how we jointly make broader economic and social policy decisions.

Equality: In a moral economy, we do not abide poverty, and policies are put in place to lessen rather than increase the inequality divide by income, gender, and ethnicity. Extreme inequality is actively discouraged; low-wage work is appreciated and properly compensated, and conversely, high-end salaries are not competitively bid into the stratosphere. The goal is true social mobility, rather than one's life chances being determined by the lottery of one's birth.

Shared Good: In a moral economy, the health and security of each family is mainly protected by enhancing the well-being of the entire society, a principle at the heart of public health care. In such an economy, many of our core needs -- for housing, childcare, education, healthcare, retirement security -- are provided collectively. This reality allows us to escape the financial treadmill, and liberates us to take risks and embrace necessary change, particularly in the face of the climate crisis. In a moral economy we seek to uphold a social contract based on mutual responsibility, sharing and cooperation, rather than competition, hoarding and accumulation.

Meaningful: Imagine an economy where a "good life" is not confused with materialism. Excessive wealth is not celebrated and coveted. In a moral economy, we narrow the gap between what has market value and what has social value; wages and prices reflect the true worth of things, rather than being determined by irrational or perverse market forces. Instead of adhering to a shallow measure of income or economic activity, we measure success by people's happiness, health and well-being.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

New column day

Here, on how Michael Ignatieff's empty vessel politics might become the norm if voters don't respond with due skepticism to increasingly sophisticated vote-swaying tactics.

For further reading...
- The year's two must-reads on the evolution of politics are Sasha Issenberg's The Victory Lab (referenced in the column) and Susan Delacourt's Shopping for Votes. And both provide clear narratives to the effect that consumer-focused politics are becoming more and more pervasive.
- Links to the commentariat's take on Ignatieff's political memoirs can be found here. And I deal with a few additional implications of empty vessel politics here.
- Finally, I'll consider yesterday's speech from the throne to be an ideal example of the contrast between politics focused on the common good and politics focused on a few swing voters. It may well be true that the Cons have simply written off the issues seen as most important by voters - but I'd be shocked if they haven't thoroughly focus-tested most of their policy baubles to see whether they might have a comparatively strong effect on persuadable voters.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- thwap highlights the cycle of austerity, stagnation and decline that's marked the past few decades across much of the developed world. And Thomas Walkom recognizes that the economy is actually one of the Cons' most glaring weaknesses - at least, if one thinks that workers count for anything:
The truth is that Canada’s economy is not doing well. Official unemployment may be hovering around the 7 per cent mark (last month it was 6.9 per cent). But official unemployment figures do not take into account those who are underemployed or who have simply given up looking for work.

As United Steelworkers economist Erin Weir notes, the proportion of Canadian adults with jobs is no better now than it was in 2009, during the worst of this recession.
Which is another way of saying that job growth under this government hasn’t kept up with population growth.
(T)he world is also going through a long cyclical slump, one in which consumers don’t have money to spend and businesses are afraid to invest. In this kind of world, Ottawa’s focus on fiscal austerity — on pulling government money out of the economy — only makes matters worse.

Second, the government is systematically taking aim at anything, from employment insurance to unionization, that keeps wages up. The Dickensian notion here is that full employment can be achieved only if most of us are willing to work for peanuts.
For Harper, all of this is shaping up as a major political problem. The economy is not improving significantly. Eventually, voters will begin to assign blame.
- But then, unpaid work certainly seems to be burgeoning under the Cons (with help from provincial governments who don't address the spread of unpaid internships). And Andrew Cash is working to ensure that employers can't exploit students as unpaid labour.

- Ross Gittins discusses the rise of rent-seeking in Australia - and the zero-sum game of having all kinds of corporate actors lobbying for preferential treatment.

- Finally, pogge is rightly critical of the combination of secret proceedings and non-disclosure when people are branded as suspected terrorists under Canada's security certificate system.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Costumed cats.

Tuesday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to end your day.

- Bloomberg reminds us of the nest egg Norway has built up by taking ownership of its own natural resources (and the consensus among conservative parties and business groups in favour of social spending is also worth highlighting). And Canadians for Tax Fairness point out the growing global movement calling for tax justice as part of a more fair distribution of wealth.

- But sadly, Jimmy Gutman notes that Saskatchewan is following a rather different path - with piracy taking the place of stewardship.

- And our local regressives certainly have their peers elsewhere in putting the public interest last - ranging from Republican bullies to UK Conservative manipulators.

- CBC reports on the most positive step we've seen in electoral fairness for some time, as Elections Canada has set up a non-partisan group of experts to advise on federal elections. Which means we can expect the Cons to complain about that plan being beyond Elections Canada's mandate in 3...2...1...

- And finally, Andrew Langille discusses the need for better labour market data to inform Canadian public policy.

Tuesday Morning 'Rider Blogging

In some ways, CFL wins don't get much uglier than the Saskatchewan Roughriders' narrow victory over Edmonton on Saturday. But while a 14-9 slugfest may have continued to emphasize the 'Riders' weaknesses as the regular season draws to a close, it also allowed plenty of room to notice the team's strengths.

Through most of the 2013 season the 'Riders' defence has ranked among the CFL's best. But few games have seen a performance as strong as this one.

The 'Riders' updated defensive line showed it could simultaneously keep Mike Reilly contained and shut down any running attack. And when Reilly responded with a steady stream of long-shot passes, the secondary was up to the task - consistently blanketing the Eskimos' receivers when they tried to go deep (note that the Esks' only two big plays of the game came on a tipped pass and a short catch-and-run play), while mostly containing receivers who caught shorter throws.

And after the first drive of the game where the Eskimos managed some sustained success, the defence's final goal-line stand put the focus where it belonged.

It doesn't take a great deal of offence and special teams dominance to win a game when a team's defence is that effective. But the 'Riders fell dangerously close to the line on Saturday.

A shrewd fake punt to keep a touchdown drive going just barely made up for the points lost on yet another failed third-down gamble along with a botched punt. And Kory Sheets' return to triple-digit yardage was about the only sustained highlight on offence: the 'Riders managed exactly zero big plays of their own, while managing at best a modest ball-control strategy throughout the game.

There may not be much opportunity for the 'Riders to upgrade offensively at this point. But as long as the defence can keep hounding opponents into turnovers without conceding scores as a result, a couple of long drives per game and a return to a low-turnover attack might well be enough to get Saskatchewan through the West. And we'll hopefully find out next week that home field will be part of the mix for the postseason.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Joseph Stiglitz reminds us that inequality isn't an inevitability, but a choice favoured (and lobbied for) by the few who want to remove themselves from the general public:
(W)idening income and wealth inequality in America is part of a trend seen across the Western world. A 2011 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that income inequality first started to rise in the late ’70s and early ’80s in America and Britain (and also in Israel). The trend became more widespread starting in the late ’80s. Within the last decade, income inequality grew even in traditionally egalitarian countries like Germany, Sweden and Denmark. With a few exceptions — France, Japan, Spain — the top 10 percent of earners in most advanced economies raced ahead, while the bottom 10 percent fell further behind.

But the trend was not universal, or inevitable. Over these same years, countries like Chile, Mexico, Greece, Turkey and Hungary managed to reduce (in some cases very high) income inequality significantly, suggesting that inequality is a product of political and not merely macroeconomic forces. It is not true that inequality is an inevitable byproduct of globalization, the free movement of labor, capital, goods and services, and technological change that favors better-skilled and better-educated employees.
Excessive financialization — which helps explain Britain’s dubious status as the second-most-unequal country, after the United States, among the world’s most advanced economies — also helps explain the soaring inequality. In many countries, weak corporate governance and eroding social cohesion have led to increasing gaps between the pay of chief executives and that of ordinary workers — not yet approaching the 500-to-1 level for America’s biggest companies (as estimated by the International Labor Organization) but still greater than pre-recession levels. (Japan, which has curbed executive pay, is a notable exception.) American innovations in rent-seeking — enriching oneself not by making the size of the economic pie bigger but by manipulating the system to seize a larger slice — have gone global.
I see us entering a world divided not just between the haves and have-nots, but also between those countries that do nothing about it, and those that do. Some countries will be successful in creating shared prosperity — the only kind of prosperity that I believe is truly sustainable. Others will let inequality run amok. In these divided societies, the rich will hunker in gated communities, almost completely separated from the poor, whose lives will be almost unfathomable to them, and vice versa. I’ve visited societies that seem to have chosen this path. They are not places in which most of us would want to live, whether in their cloistered enclaves or their desperate shantytowns.
- On the subject of appalling corporate governance, Janet McFarland reports on how even a modest amount of director responsibility is being treated as an outrage by a corporation responsible for polluting land. Apparently, the story goes, if directors are liable for the actions of the businesses they run, their businesses won't feel free to ignore their environmental responsibilities and stick the public with the bill. (And apparently, the story goes, that's somehow a bad thing.)

- Meanwhile, Alison takes a closer look at the Cons' actions to make sure increased wealth doesn't find its way to Canadian workers - as their feigned outrage over the use of temporary foreign workers has hit its expiration date.

- And speaking of transparently temporary fixes, Josh Wingrove takes a closer look at the much-ballyhooed oilsands monitoring program set up by tar sands lobbyists and the Alberta and federal governments. And the scheme touted as promising a "improved understanding of the long-term cumulative effects of oil sands development" is set to expire no later than 2015.

- Finally, Althia Raj reports that the Cons' latest prorogation has officially been exposed as nothing but a sad attempt to escape accountability - as the Cons are trying to pretend it never happened in reinstating all of their legislation to exactly where it stood when they declared the previous session to be over. And Ian Bron and Allan Cutler offer some suggestions for the new throne speech.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Josh Eidelson and John Schmitt take a look at the guaranteed annual income which will be voted on in Switzerland - and the sole barrier to a similar discussion in the U.S. (and likely in Canada):
What is a universal basic income, and why are we hearing more about it now?

The proposals that are floating around the world vary a lot. But the basic idea is, no matter what you do, if you’re a resident — or in some cases, a citizen — you get a certain amount of money each month. And it’s completely unconditional: If you’re rich you get it, if you’re poor you get. If you’re a good person you get it, if you’re a bad person you get it. And it does not depend on you doing anything other than making whatever effort is involved to collect the money. It’s been a topic of discussion for several decades. Why is it happening right now? I think it’s obvious that it’s a reaction to the high level of economic inequality that we’ve seen. Most European countries haven’t had big increases in inequality at the same scale that we [in the U.S.] have, [but] some of them have had much more than they’re used to.
So what are the merits of universal basic income?

We have a system that has high unemployment, high underemployment. This would allow people to survive and to live, with dignity, assuming that other systems stay in place. It puts a floor under wages — people could say, “I don’t have to do that job if you’re not going to pay well.” People could pursue a lot of activities that are not particularly well paid but that have a lot of social use or personal satisfaction: art, creative work, volunteer work, working with people who have disabilities.

So if we were a very rich world, which I think we are to a certain degree, it would be a remarkable way to make sure that people could maximize their ability to express themselves but also maximize their ability to participate in the communities that they live in in a full way. Stay home and take care of kids if that’s what you want to do. Take care of your parents when they’re old and sick.

People sometimes refer to this as a kind of “Star Trek” economy — you just said, “Replicator, make me a ham sandwich.” There wasn’t any social conflict around production and consumption. And that, I think, is that kind of ideal in which this kind of a thing could play out. We are probably there in terms of the economics. We are very, very wealthy — we could afford to do this. But we are not there in terms of the politics.
 - And Scott Stelmaschuk joins the chorus calling for an adult conversation about taxes which might spur a discussion of the merits of more effective social programs.

- Chris Turner discusses the Cons' war on science:
This is a government interested mainly in what Canadians use and spend, and only passionate about those parts of Canada it can develop and sell off. It cares little about Canadians as citizens and even less about protecting Canada’s shared public goods and standing on guard for its natural capital.

Harper’s true agenda, pretty much all along, has been to dismantle the government’s great traditions of natural science and environmental stewardship, which until recently made Canada a world leader in both fields. This is a government waging a quiet legislative and administrative war on science — especially those fields of science dedicated to gathering and analyzing data on the health of Canada’s natural environment — and it has undone a century of good work with alarming efficiency since the passage of its sweeping omnibus budget bill in June 2012.
The government’s war on science was well underway by the time of the omnibus budget bill — the long-form census long gone, a crime bill passed with little recourse to the data gathered by criminologists, scientists publishing papers on environmental topics already being muzzled — but the bill was its full-scale launch. It has proceeded apace since — and inspired the unprecedented scene of lab-coated scientists marching through the streets of Canadian cities in protest from Ottawa to Victoria.

So what is the nature of this war on science? Above all else, it is a sustained campaign to diminish the government’s role in evidence-based policy-making and environmental stewardship in three simple ways: reducing the capacity of the government to gather basic data about the status and health of the environment and Canadian society; shrinking or eliminating government agencies that monitor and analyze that evidence and respond to emergencies; and seizing control of the communications channels by which all of the above report their findings to the Canadian public.

The ultimate goal is equally clear: to induce in the federal government a sort of wilful blindness, severely limiting its ability to see and respond to the impacts of its policies, especially those related to resource extraction.
- John Geddes highlights the wide-open question of whether the Cons will allow Elections Canada to do its job of ensuring fair elections - especially when fraud within the Cons' own campaigns worked to Stephen Harper's advantage in 2011.

- And finally, Tonda MacCharles comments on how our Mostly Competent Government utterly bungled its latest Supreme Court appointment - to the point where our top court will be left with one less member than it's supposed to have.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Leading the evidence

Paul MacLeod's post-mortem of Nova Scotia's election campaign is well worth a read. But following up on Kevin Milligan's astute point, I'll point out how one of the main factors in the outcome looks to hint at partisan politics taking yet another turn for the worse - even as it signals what activists may need to do to bring about change which may become increasingly difficult through the party system:
It was around this point that the Liberals decided they needed a new game plan. They had recently been trounced in the federal election and the Liberal brand was at an all-time low.

That fall, the provincial party hired Toronto’s Gandalf Group to do an extensive (and expensive) poll of voters — what they liked and what they didn’t like.

This poll, combined with business roundtables and other research, created a wealth of data.

Reading through the numbers, the Liberal campaign team decided the weakness of the NDP was electricity. If they could paint Dexter as an ally of Nova Scotia Power and McNeil as a champion of ratepayers, they could move votes.

It was, in the words of one senior Liberal, the first time they had an evidence-based plan instead of just following their gut instincts.
Now, it isn't exactly news that most parties are interested in developing evidence-based politics even if their policies don't match. After all, the Cons have quite happily trashed the census and other forms of public knowledge about Canada at the same time as they hungrily collect (and limit access to) constituent information for their own political uses.

And that trend doesn't much figure to change if conventional wisdom coalesces around the idea that success in politics revolves solely around poll-tested campaign messages rather than competent governance or coherent plans.

Indeed, I have to wonder whether the Libs' lack of principles might actually create some advantages on that front just as it did when politics were seen more as a matter of brokerage rather than contrasting visions. While a party with a reasonably well-defined set of core beliefs may have a more limited range of options in testing messages for public presentation, one which is accustomed to simply following the leader might adapt more easily to changing messages at a moment's notice to fit the latest poll numbers.

But if partisan politics are headed toward more sophisticated efforts to be seen as the main pitchman for whatever voters seem most likely to buy, that creates an opportunity for anybody focused on issues rather than parties.

Anybody looking to see an issue promoted to the forefront of an election campaign can get there by persuading a party that the cause can shift votes. And if the worst danger of that approach is that all parties might be forced to echo one's message in order to avoid having it turn votes against them, that's hardly a disastrous outcome - especially if political competitors continue to have an incentive to force the government's hand once a campaign is done.

Of course, in the longer term I'd think it's well worth trying to ensure political discussion - in both partisan and non-partisan form - takes place more in the realm of "what will be best for the public in the long run?" instead of "what will shift votes in our favour today?" But the more political parties are prepared to follow evidence in at least some form, the more likely we are to see a successful effort to bridge the gap between the two.

[Edit: added link.]

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Agence France-Presse reports that even the IMF has reached the conclusion that higher taxes on wealthy citizens are a necessary part of competent economic management - even as the Harper Cons and other right-wing governments keep trying to peddle trickle-down economics to everybody's detriment.

- Susan Delacourt writes that political campaigns may have managed to jump ahead of corporate marketing in targeting messages to individual voters. But Stephen Maher is rightly concerned that both parties and governments alike are being run primarily based on a desire to create political fund-raising messages, rather than any coherent sense of achieving some common good.

- And speaking of parties who have completely lost the plot as to right and wrong, Mohammed Adam tears into the Cons for their callous disregard for war rape victims:
According to Save the Children, which has documented the atrocity across continents, the most vulnerable are adolescent girls, and pregnancy has become a leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 because of unsafe abortions and complications from giving birth.

This is why safe abortions, which are recognized as a right by the Geneva Convention, are a necessary part of the range of services war rape victims need. It is not an ideological issue, but a life-and-death issue for many of the young girls, and clinics have been set up for those who need the service.

But this is what the Canadian government refuses to help fund.
- Colin Horgan worries that the unchecked spread of the security state will force Canadians to silence themselves for fear of having their personal opinions and preferences misused by the powers that be. But Tony Burman reminds us that there's already a watchdog in place to monitor CSEC's activities - and that the security state might not have spread unchecked if it had received the resources to do its job.

- Finally, Brendan Haley writes about Canada's "staples trap" as a severe restriction on policy choices - with the Cons' continued refusal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions (or even accept the reality of climate change) where environmental sustainability and the oil industry's immediate profits are at odds serving as a particularly stark example.

[Edit: fixed wording.]