Saturday, November 02, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Thomas Walkom notes that the Harper Cons' latest EI cuts look to amplify the pain of unemployment in Ontario while serving the broader purpose of forcing workers to conclude their federal government doesn't care if they go hungry:
The great irony is that these days hardly any jobless qualify for EI to begin with.
Latest figures from Statistics Canada show that only 37.6 per cent of unemployed Canadians qualified for employment insurance in August.
In part, that’s because the nature of work is changing. More people have the kind of jobs (such as self-employment) that EI was never designed to address.

But as a 1998 federal study found, about half of the gap is the result of earlier employment insurance reforms put in place by Jean Chretien’s Liberal government.

Now the Harper Tories are making their own effort to eliminate what is left of EI.
The strategy is quite simple: Destroy whatever political support exists for employment insurance by making the benefit almost impossible to collect.
The aim is equally straightforward: Crush any social program that interferes with the downward pressure on wages.
- And Paul Krugman discusses the Republicans' war on the poor south of the border:
I still sometimes see pundits claiming that the Tea Party movement is basically driven by concerns about budget deficits. That’s delusional. Read the founding rant by Rick Santelli of CNBC: There’s nary a mention of deficits. Instead, it’s a tirade against the possibility that the government might help “losers” avoid foreclosure. Or read transcripts from Rush Limbaugh or other right-wing talk radio hosts. There’s not much about fiscal responsibility, but there’s a lot about how the government is rewarding the lazy and undeserving.

 Republicans in leadership positions try to modulate their language a bit, but it’s a matter more of tone than substance. They’re still clearly passionate about making sure that the poor and unlucky get as little help as possible, that — as Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, put it — the safety net is becoming “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” And Mr. Ryan’s budget proposals involve savage cuts in safety-net programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.

All of this hostility to the poor has culminated in the truly astonishing refusal of many states to participate in the Medicaid expansion. Bear in mind that the federal government would pay for this expansion, and that the money thus spent would benefit hospitals and the local economy as well as the direct recipients. But a majority of Republican-controlled state governments are, it turns out, willing to pay a large economic and fiscal price in order to ensure that aid doesn’t reach the poor.
- Andrew Coyne highlights the sheer lack of substance in Harper's convention speech, while Tabatha Southey imagines the difficulties facing a hotel trying to take Harper's room service order. And Stephen LaRose documents the connection between Brad Wall and Pamela Wallin - featuring a series of promises to lead the way toward Senate elections, coupled with an utter refusal to follow through when it meant ceding an inch of political advantage.

- The Toronto Star questions whether the green bonds being pushed by Ontario's Libs make sense as a transit strategy on their own. But Mike Moffatt raises more important questions as to whether they make sense at all - since they seem to do little other than impose extra costs on a government financing regime which is already the most efficient means of funding infrastructure.

- Finally, David Atkins points back to the positive, community-based message sent to the world (and indeed the universe) by the U.S.' leaders just a few decades ago - and asks what we've lost if it's out of place in our current political climate:
The tone and message of (Jimmy Carter's statement sent in the Voyager) should strike the modern reader as oddly optimistic and daringly progressive. It clearly assumes that the modern nation-state is a temporary and anachronistic step on the way to a global civilization. It assumes that "our problems" such as poverty, illness and the like can, should and will be solved. It assumes that, much as the nation-state will be subsumed into a global civilization, so too will the denizens of Earth hopefully take our place in a greater galactic community.

It's a profoundly hopeful and inspiring message. It's also one that would sadly likely never be written today by a sitting President.
When the Left talks about how far the national conversation has shifted to the Right, this is what we mean. In spite of huge advances in civil rights, we live in a political society where sentiments such as those we placed on Voyager seem anachronistic and almost shockingly liberal.

That's a problem. It means that we as a society, as a culture and as a civilization, are making a headlong retreat from what makes us human, from what binds us to one another, and from what will ultimately drive us forward toward a successful future if we are to share one at all.

And for what? So that billionaires can steal more money while stoking jingoistic sentiments so that no one notices the optimism we have lost? That's shameful and inhuman.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Musical interlude

Brainbug - Rain

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- David Green asks whether decades of corporate insistence on "flexible" labour markets (i.e. ones which offer no stability for workers) have resulted in the improved wages promised at the outset:
Increased wages are how we share the benefits of economic growth among a wide range of people in our society. It’s hard to see the fairness in policies that seek to stamp out wage increases wherever possible.

But this raises the second question – has the policy of increased labour market flexibility worked? Has it delivered a better life for most Canadians?

The short answer is no. To answer this more fully, we have to cut the data by region. Between 1980 and the early 2000’s the economy performed badly in terms of real wages. Real wages fell for both men and women starting a new job and whose highest education was a high school diploma or less (an education group making up about 50% of the male labour force). For males, real wages fell by nearly 20% in virtually all provinces.

Since the mid-2000s, real wages in Ontario and the East have essentially stagnated so that workers entering new jobs are making less in real terms than their fathers did 30 years before. One could argue that the wages haven’t gotten worse since the mid-90s paradigm shift but its hard to see how the new paradigm is delivering in terms of wages in this part of the country.

In the West, and particularly Alberta, the story is different. Real wages have risen dramatically since the mid-2000s. Though, so far, that has only gotten workers back to about the real wage levels their fathers earned. It would be hard to argue that these increases are due to the policy shift. They have much more to do with global resource price movements that are beyond the influence of Canadian policy. 
- Zoe Williams discusses how a privatized probation system in the UK is expected to raise costs and produce worse outcomes. But presumably nobody's supposed to worry about the public paying more for less - as long as somebody makes money off of social ills.

- Jeffrey Simpson calls out the Cons for their false spin about greenhouse gas emissions (even as their own numbers show they're breaking promises to rein in emissions by the day).

- And finally, Adnan Al-Daini discusses the madness of basing our economy on never-ending growth. But I'll  note that it's worth distinguishing between types of growth which are inherently limited (such as those based on the extraction of finite resources) and those based on renewable and human resources which might not face the same constraints - with the latter offering a feasible means of maintaining sustainable improvement in standards of living.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

New column day

Here, on the combination of institutional and personal flaws that's combined to create the Stephen Harper Senate scandal.

For further reading...
- CBC reproduces the documents tabled by Mike Duffy in the Senate here.
- The Senate debates featuring the defences of Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau can be found here.
- PressProgress reminds us what the Cons said about the residency of Duffy and Wallin just a few months ago, while Jordan Press and Kirsten Smith offer a partial timeline (if one which ignores the fact that the controversy dated back to 2008). And it was Press who reported on the Cons' "boot camp" in which appointees were encouraged to use Senate resources for political purposes.
- Jonathan Kay suggests that the main problem with the Senate is a complete lack of any moral or merit-based claim to the power associated with a chamber of Parliament.
- And Paul Adams concludes that whatever else happens as the scandal unfolds, Harper's reputation for strategic and tactical thought is in ruins.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Don Braid comments on Alberta's complete lack of credibility when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental issues. And Andrew Leach nicely sums up the PC/Con position in trying to put a happy face on growing emissions:
Suppose you run into an old friend whom you haven’t seen for some time. You notice that he looks a little thicker than you remembered around the waist, but, since you aren’t one of those academics who shuns basic manners, you keep mum.

“How are you doing?” you say, “What’s new?”

His response leaves you shocked: “I feel great!” he tells you, “I’ve lost 20 pounds.”

Despite your best efforts, you can’t hide your scepticism.

“It’s simple, really,” he says. “On the path I was on — eating chicken wings and drinking beer almost every day — I would surely have gained 40 pounds in no time. I stuck to my plan, though, and by having wings and beer only on weekends, I gained a mere 20 pounds. Who would have thought you could drink beer, eat chicken wings, and still lose weight!”
Sounds like an absurd calculation, doesn’t it? This type of thinking, though, is the bread-and-butter of discussions about greenhouse gas policies — it’s called a reduction relative to business-as-usual.
- And for those looking for a way out of Canada's staples trap which has done to much to distort discussion about economic and environmental issues, Daniel Drache offers a road map - if one that may not be easily followed:
In Canada, we must build a very different policy environment to escape the modern staples trap and address the imbalances of fixed overhead costs, mountains of debt, and over-investment in unsustainable mega projects. Other countries have successfully climbed out of the staples trap, altering their economic trajectories. A survey of this experience suggests that seven conditions need to be met.

First, there must be a champion inside the political class to make it happen: such as a latter day Walter Gordon or Eric Kierans. Second, there must be a strategic purpose and moral compass for environmental and redistributive goals. Third, the country must possess a valuable commodity that gives the state the leverage to negotiate new resource revenue sharing with MNCs (revenues which in turn are recycled to support broader development goals). Fourth, the country needs a modern infrastructure. Fifth, public opinion must be on side to demand fundamental policy changes. Sixth, there need to be credible new ideas to transform the “resource curse” into a blessing. This requires a strategy to use resources as a driver of domestic growth and diversification, competitive industries, and strong job-creation. The final ingredient, of course, is luck. Here, timing is key: the optimal moment to introduce a national energy policy is during the upswing of a commodity boom, when the state has optimal leverage with banks and resource players.
- Ethan Roeder explains how the Obama 2012 campaign used detailed data analysis to get a better picture of voters than its competition.

- CUPE discusses how the Cons continue to keep Canadians in the dark about CETA by substituting for its actual text. And Julian Beltrame reports on a study showing that the added prescription drug costs caused by CETA will far outweigh any reductions in tariffs (not to mention that the increased price will flow to big pharma rather than toward public coffers).

- Finally, Sean Holman introduces a new series testing the limits of government accountability in Canada:
It's easy to disagree with such opacity -- making it easy, as Legault has, to conclude that freedom of information is the expression of our core values.

Yet I wonder how many Canadians would disagree with the assumption that privacy is necessary for decision-making?

Because once you accept that assumption, as many of our political leaders have, it becomes easier to reject requests for information about such decisions.

What that says about our core values is admittedly debatable. It suggests freedom of information is not an expression of those values or, at the very least, that we have conflicting values.

But what's undeniable is that at the beginning of the 21st century, we find ourselves residents of an unknowable country.

It is a nation of the governed rather than the self-governed -- a place where transparency is routinely sacrificed on the high altar of peace, order and what some would call good governance.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Thomas Walkom writes that the Harper Cons' much-hyped economic record in fact offers ample reason to demand a change in government:
The Conservatives insist that the economy is their strong suit. And for a while it was. In 2011, voters bought Harper’s pitch.

But voter patience can last only so long. For too many Canadians, life is not improving. Income gaps are becoming more blatant. Wages are sluggish. Students are taking on massive debts to prepare themselves for jobs that, in the end, fail to materialize.

Those lucky enough to have jobs — even good jobs — too often find their work being sent offshore to low-wage countries.

Other Canadians find themselves in competition with the tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers let in by Ottawa.

Latest immigration department figures show that, to date, more temporary foreign workers entered the country in 2013 than during the same period of 2012 — itself a record year for importing cheap labour.

These are the things that should worry Harper.
- But then, Michael Harris discusses how ethics issues - led by the combination of bribery and cover-ups in the Senate - will likely prove the undoing of Stephen Harper and his government. John Ivison recognizes that the Cons are flailing for a political lifeline as Thomas Mulcair gets the better of Harper in the House of Commons on a daily basis - though I'm at a loss as to how a Senate referendum would help their cause when it's the NDP that's decried patronage and corruption under Lib and Con governments alike. And Jeffrey Simpson points out that nothing in the Cons' latest string of scandals and missteps is anything new.

- And lest anybody think the elected Cons are any more ethical than the unelected versions, pogge highlights the latest revelations about Dean Del Mastro's attempt to cover up illegal election expenses.

- Stephen Leahy is rightly outraged that the Cons are trying to claim a complete failure to meet Canada's Copenhagen greenhouse gas emission targets as progress. And Stuart Trew criticizes the continued lack of transparency on CETA - as the Cons try to claim victory without allowing Canadians to see what's actually happened on the field.

- Finally, Don Lenihan sees more open government as the needed solution to citizen disengagement.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Solitary cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- James Bloodworth discusses the most important challenge facing Ed Miliband and Labour in the UK - which largely matches the task for progressives around the globe:
People have never put all that much stock in politicians of course, and the expenses scandal did a great deal to erode trust further. But to some extent voter apathy (not the ‘frauds and liars’ sort, but the more common sort of fatalism) might also be blamed on the limits within which today’s managerial politicians operate: voters are only too aware that there is only so much today’s politicians can do, therefore they don’t put much faith in those they elect (if they vote at all) to change things.

For better or worse, most questions today tend to be decided ultimately and by all three parties on the basis of what works best for ‘the market’. It is not a question of what you would like the government to do, it is a question of what government can do without creating ‘instability’ in that market.
Even popular policies which propose modest corrections to market distortions are viewed with fatalism by an electorate which doubts the ability of politicians to make a real difference.

In convincing the electorate to back not only his energy policy but also his party’s whole cost of living agenda, Ed Miliband is tasked not only with drowning out the rhetoric from the Conservative Party and the right-wing press, but also with persuading a sceptical electorate that government can intervene in the market to create better outcomes.

To say that this won’t be easy would be an understatement: Miliband is not only taking on some of the most powerful people in Britain, he is pushing back against a public fatalism about the power of government that has been some 30 years in the making.
- Which is to say that we shouldn't go too far in accepting Andrew Coyne's assertion that the Cons' Senate scandal serves to indict an entire system of government. But the combination of bribes and partisan cover-ups does signal the problem with both an illegitimate, unaccountable upper chamber, and a Prime Minister who's conspicuously avoided finding or telling the truth about his government's actions.

- The Star highlights the futility of declaring that the Cons' ritual flagellation of First Nations schools will continue until morale improves.

- Rick Salutin tells one story of the type of immigrants Canada stands to lose if it measures immigrants solely in terms of dollar values.

- Finally, Matt McClure reports on Alberta's disastrous attempt to bundle the construction of multiple schools into a single P3 contract - which looks to have failed entirely due to a lack of bidders. And Murray Mandryk rightly questions the Sask Party's insistence on following a similar path even when it figures to cost an extra $10 million per school.

By invitation only

There's been plenty of outcry over the Cons' latest omnibus budget bill. But I haven't yet seen any discussion of the changes it makes to immigration - and I'd think it's well worth looking in more detail at the additional steps the Cons are taking to slam the door in the face of would-be Canadians.

Now, the story is far from a new one. It was in 2008 that the Cons made changes which I discussed here and here - with the result that the immigration minister is effectively free to set whatever restrictions he or she wants in determining which applications for permanent residency are processed.

But the latest bill goes a step further. While current law provides that ministerial instructions govern applications actually received, the new provisions allow the minister to prohibit economic-class immigrants from even applying - again based on nothing more than arbitrary whims:
10.1 (1) A foreign national who seeks to enter or remain in Canada as a member of a class that is referred to in an instruction given under paragraph 10.3(1)(a) may make an application for permanent residence only if the Minister has issued them an invitation to do so, the invitation has not been cancelled under subsection 10.2(5) and the applicable period specified in an instruction given under paragraph 10.3(1)(k) has not expired.
Again, the nature of an "instruction" is left entirely up to the minister responsible (see section 10.3(1)(a)). So the Cons are once again setting the stage for discrimination by ethnicity, nationality or religion - or even based on criteria designed to filter out anybody who's not likely to prove a Con voter. (Or to be about as generous as possible, we can expect the few people who receive invitations to be those singled out and pushed for by the business community - again turning the immigration system into nothing more than a means of hand-picking a few corporate cronies or easily-exploited workers while locking the door to everybody else.)

And this time, the Cons aren't merely backing that discrimination up with a refusal to process existing applications, but with an explicit declaration any effort to become a permanent Canadian resident to is illegitimate in the first place. Which means it's well worth asking whether "don't call us, we'll call you if an employer tells us" properly reflects our attitude toward people who want to contribute to Canada's future.

[Edit: fixed wording.]

Monday, October 28, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Assorted content to start your week.

- Frances Russell discusses the dangers of Stephen Harper's authoritarian democracy. And Michael Harris takes note of Harper's decision to mete out career executions to his own Senate appointees based on exactly the same evidence he once declared to be fully exculpatory.

- Dan Moutal points out Mike Tobis' spectrum of positions on climate change as compared to how the issue is covered. And in a related story that doesn't tend to receive anywhere near an appropriate amount of attention, CBC documents over a thousand Canadian pipeline safety incidents over the past 10 years, while looking to crowdsource the details.

- Chris Aylward comments on the Cons' decision to make federal workplaces less safe.

- Ian Welsh laments the relative failure of the progressive blog movement to achieve its potential to influence the broader political scene. But I'll note that a couple of additional factors seem to deserve mention: a tendency for progressives to be less oriented than conservatives toward taking the word of elite gatekeepers rather than preferring peer-to-peer communication in the first place, combined with the availability of more opportunities to bypass gatekeepers through social media at the same time that the Democrats were ideally positioned to build popular support.

- Finally, the Broadbent Institute's newly-launched PressProgress looks to be a must-read source for both original coverage of Canadian politics, and a thorough roundup of progressive content.

[Edit: fixed wording.]

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Andrew Nikiforuk writes that air quality in Alberta's Upgrader Alley may be among the worst in North America, including dangerous concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals. And Danny Harvey points out that the planet as a whole stands to be damaged by excessive tar sands development which is utterly incompatible with meaningful action to combat climate change.

- Andrew Jackson discusses how preferential tax treatment of stock options both exacerbates inequality and warps incentives for big business:
One objectionable aspect of paying already well-remunerated executives in the form of stock options on top of their salaries and bonuses is that the gains are not taxed as ordinary wage and salary income, but as if they were capital gains. In other words, just 50% of the windfall from exercising an option is liable to income tax, even though tax experts argue that there is no risk of a loss, but only of a small or no gain.
Moreover, stock prices vary widely over time rather than being directly related to profitability or other indicators of company performance. As much as anything else, they reflect the overall state of the economy as filtered though the expectations of markets and the upswings and downswings of speculation.
Even worse, Martin argues, stock options give senior managers a perverse incentive to boost short-term stock performance so that they can be in the money when their options are about to come due. Short-terms (sic) expectations which move markets are subject to manipulation.

As a result, stock options generally encourage short-term horizons and game playing with stock market expectations at the expense of boosting long-term corporate performance through major new investments and other determinants of company performance in the real economy.
- Scott Clark and Peter De Vries point out that the Cons' latest omnibus budget bill is just another attack on the concept of a functional parliamentary system. But perhaps more telling is the fact that the Cons are using the latest bill which they refuse to have properly analyzed to fix mistakes in a previous set of bills they rammed through without proper review - raising the question of whether those mistakes (obvious to others at the time and to the Cons in hindsight) could be avoided if Stephen Harper would countenance some reasonable debate and amendment opportunities in the first place.

- Marty Klinkenberg reports on musings that the Cons will reintroduce an expanded temporary foreign worker program as soon as they get the chance.

- And finally, Shahla Khan Salter writes that Canadians should take notice of the abuse of First Nations rather than allowing our shameful track record to be swept under the rug:
First Nations communities across Canada are uniting, in the struggle to maintain and preserve their land from environmental destruction, as corporations remove resources on native land with our governments' blessing. In doing so, they are also working to save their individual and treaty rights from further deterioration.

A movement has taken hold. It arose amidst the apathy and racism of mainstream Canadian society that surrounds First Nations people wherever they go.

It arose notwithstanding the torturous abuse First Nations people withstood as children and youth at Canada's residential schools which took place during the course of my generation and previous generations. The after effects of the abuse continue to haunt communities.

It is a movement that exists despite the poverty that indigenous people face daily.

It is a movement that has gained strength notwithstanding the challenges First Nations communities face as a result of addiction, violence and suicide.

And it has been born to oppose a system, instituted by our governments, who remove native control of resources on reserve land and continuously fail to deliver basic necessities such as food, water, adequate shelter and education to First Nations families.
As the children of immigrants, it is not our role, no matter how many connections we may make between the injustices we face anywhere and the injustices they face here, to provide the sort of support that may deny, in any way, the existence of qualified leadership within First Nations communities.

We can only stand in solidarity behind our First Nations friends and in doing so, open our eyes to the corporate greed, environmental damage and the breakdown of civil liberties that will soon affect us all. And convey our thanks for the land on which we find ourselves standing.