Saturday, November 09, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Brendan Haley discusses how the role of government should include both a concerted effort to innovate, and a proper share of the benefits when that innovation proves successful:
To reinforce her argument, Mazzucato provides detailed histories of some of our most important innovations. She finds that throughout modern history, government has been integrally involved in directing the economy, undertaking basic research, and nurturing new technologies into the market when the private sector found it too risky to touch them. Only after governments have subsumed much of the risk do private entrepreneurs do their bit, though they often take all the credit and make off with most of the money. The most entertaining example of this practice is her review of the state's integral role in the development of the information technologies that Apple later packaged into the iPod, iPad, and iPhone.

Mazzucato worries that the current relationship between public and private entrepreneurship is a parasitic one, whereby the private sector captures the benefits of public sector work, and the public sector becomes captured by private interests. This makes it difficult for the state to play its socially valuable role of kicking off new rounds of innovation. She calls for a symbiotic innovation relationship where private entrepreneurs can continue to play their important role in commercializing innovative technologies. The place of the state, she argues, must also be recognized and given its due. Thus Mazzucato advocates for mechanisms to ensure the state receives a share of the financial awards from the innovations it helps create.
Today, there is a special need for the Canadian government to play a more activist role. First, because the private sector is having difficulties finding the new technologies that will direct the next stages of economic progress. Corporations are holding onto hordes of money instead of undertaking new investments (the "dead money" problem), and heavily indebted consumers precariously support economic growth. The second reason we need a more activist government is because, as Mazzucato argues, the state has always been involved in leading important structural shifts in the economy. Such a structural shift is required to introduce the green technologies needed to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.
- But of course, our current slate of right-wing governments is going out of its way to try to sell their own incompetence as evidence that government can't serve the public interest - with the Cons' jobs grant debacle apparently offering a prime example.

- And both Katie Hyslop and Vaughn Palmer comment on Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond's report which found tens of millions of dollars spent on child and family services structures without actually serving children or families.

- OPSEU provides some answer as to what we should instead be pursuing (in the course of discussing the role of income as a key determinant of health):
Social inequality on this scale not only denies kids considerable opportunity in life, but leaves society worse off by denying capable individuals the ability to contribute at a much higher level.

Dunn says by the age of four the average child from a low socioeconomic background has heard 32 million fewer words than children born to professional parents. That makes a big difference in early childhood development.

Canada lags behind other countries in addressing these significant inequalities. The good news is we can learn from those who have gone before us.

Dunn says the solution lies in more inclusionary housing, more affordable housing, wrap-around cross-sectoral care, and more dense urban design that can accommodate better public amenities – including transit.
 - And finally, Barrie McKenna also takes note of the corrosive effect of inequality in Canada:
Large swaths of the country are missing out as well. There is now evidence of growing regional and postal code disparity, exacerbated by the disproportionate growth of financial services, commodities and real estate. More than half of the rising share of income that flowed to the top 1 per cent between 1982 and 2010 went to just two cities – Calgary and Toronto – according to a newly released study by economists Brian Murphy of Statistics Canada and Michael Veall of McMaster University.

The two cities are home to just 20 per cent of Canadian taxpayers. And unlike many other wealthy countries, tax policies have become less effective at reducing inequality in Canada over the past two decades, according to the OECD. That’s due to lower marginal tax rates, fewer tax credits for low-income workers and enhanced savings incentives that go mainly to higher income earners, including RRSPs and tax breaks that favour capital gains over earned income.

In the workplace, many workers have less bargaining power now than at any time in their careers, a consequence of declining unionization, persistent labour surpluses and increased foreign competition.
Why should Canadians care? It isn’t just a question of fairness. It’s about the long-term health of the economy, and society.
(G)reater inequality may make financial crises more likely as lower income-earners borrow more and save less in a race to keep up with the lifestyles of those at the top. The massive run-up in Canadians’ ratio of household debt to income in recent years suggests many families are chasing a dream they can’t afford.

Inequality is also linked to poorer health outcomes and higher rates of crime and social unrest. Even in Canada, low-income earners are less likely to have a family doctor and to seek early treatment for medical problems.

The result: poorer health for those at the bottom of the income scale – a trend that can exact a heavy economic toll through lost productivity and higher health care bills.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Musical interlude

Mat Zo - Fractal Universe

Friday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Obviously the final two games of the 2013 regular season didn't go the Saskatchewwn Roughriders' way. But they did seem to offer a clear indication what the 'Riders will need to do in order to advance in the playoffs.

For the 'Riders' defence, the issue the last couple of weeks seems to have been largely one of timing. In the first half against Calgary, the defensive line was able to anticipate many of the Stampeders' plans (particularly in reaching Kevin Glenn just as he was deciding on a course of action), resulting in four fumbles which gave Saskatchewan an early advantage. But when Drew Tate took control, the 'Riders had to contend with a more mobile quarterback in the absence of the same amount of preparation to anticipate his habits - and Tate was able to keep the 'Riders off balance just enough to pull out the win.

Likewise, while Mike Reilly managed to scramble his way into field goal range on a couple of first-half drives, the Eskimos' offence scored its lone touchdown with third-stringer Jonathan Crompton at the controls.

All of which sets up a rather noteworthy test against the Lions. Saskatchewan dominated its two previous previous matchups with Thomas DeMarco and Buck Pierce at the helm, but the Lions now have Travis Lulay back in the lineup. And it's worth watching whether any any variations from his usual timing actually work to the Lions' advantage.

On the offensive side of the ball, the 'Riders' passing game was once again iffy in both games to close out the regular season. But the promise of a healthy offensive line offers reason for hope the 'Riders' ruchin gattack can return to its early-season form - particularly as Chris Garrett's strong performance at running back against Edmonton coincided with the return of Chris Best.

If the defence and the running game can live up to the standards they've set earlier this season, then Darian Durant should be able to play it safe through the air - a major plus with one of his favourite targets at something less than full strength. But it's far from clear whether the 'Riders can keep up if they're forced into a shootout - and now isn't the time for that kind of guesswork.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- John Ivison makes the case for more discussion of government spending rather than corruption and scandal. But it's PressProgress leading the way in actually reporting on that front - featuring revelations that multiple resource-related ministers' office have received massive spending boosts, while program spending for First Nations, the environment and foreign aid is getting slashed and/or going unused.

- Justin Ling reports that the NDP - pushed largely by Pierre Ducasse - is taking much-needed steps to set up a Quebec provincial wing. Meanwhile, Paul McLeod notes that Nova Scotia's MPs - with the possible exception of Peter Stoffer - are taking a pass on the provincial NDP leadership race.

- Andrew Coyne points out that the supposed B.C.-Alberta "framework agreement" on pipelines actually means far less than one would think based on the hype surrounding its announcement. But Barbara Yaffe recognizes that Christy Clark's sudden abandonment of repeated campaign promises to avoid the environmental risk linked to pipelines and tanker traffic doesn't figure to satisfy B.C.'s general public.

- And ultimately, political parties will have to answer to voters for their choices - as the Libs are finding out in Toronto Centre despite their best efforts to duck any debate about pipelines.

- Finally, Tom Hayden wonders whether Bill de Blasio's strong positions on inequality and evidence-based crime policy might signal a new form of progressive populism:
De Blasio also can tackle income inequality by signing the living wage ordinance on city contracts, or by preventing Wall Street developers getting special city abatements – measures that Bloomberg vetoed. De Blasio didn't flinch on the issue when confronted in closed meetings with developers during the campaign.

When De Blasio first raised his opposition to the police stop-and-frisk policies, according to Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the candidate began rising in the polls against other contenders in the Democratic primary. The stop-and-frisk policy, a variation of racial profiling against black and brown young people, is generally supported by white and worried New Yorkers and overwhelmingly opposed by communities of color.
It is reassuring that De Blasio has roots in past social movements instead of the usual pedigrees for a political career. If he has veered back to his lefty roots, it is enabled by a popular anger among voters. This anger was fanned by the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, reinforced by heavy-handed policing, in a city whose power brokers are addicted to opulence.

The media widely acknowledges that Occupy Wall Street "changed the conversation" in America. De Blasio won't represent the 99%, but a healthy majority will do. From Wednesday, Bill de Blasio will have the largest megaphone of any conversation-changer on the national scene.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

New column day

Here, on how P3 structures create a divergence of interest between short-sighted governments and the general public - and a few policy fixes to ensure we don't lose value or accountability as a result of politically-motivated choices to use them.

For further reading...
- The Saskatchewan NDP introduced its P3 accountability legislation (PDF) here.
- And Murray Mandryk has some questions of his own about the Saskatchewan Party's reluctance to subject P3s to any oversight or accountability.

[Edit: added link.]

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Tim Harper discusses Stephen Harper's current list of distractions - with Rob Ford and his Senate appointees naturally topping the list. But sadly, while John Ivison may be right in noting that actual citizens are having trouble getting the Cons to bother administering federal programs, the combination of scandal and dishonesty doesn't seem to be slowing down their anti-worker omnibus legislation in the slightest.

- On the Senate front, Scott Stelmaschuk compares the Duffy payoff and cover-up to the long-forgotten Chuck Cadman scandal - with the key differences in exposing the story being that Duffy both took the Cons' offer, and managed to document some of the dealings in writing. And Michael Harris points to Helena Guergis as a cautionary tale for anybody hoping to curry Harper's favour.

- Meanwhile, Rinaldo Walcott sees Ford as an ugly example of selective privilege. And John Cruickshank discusses the challenges facing the media in dealing with Ford and others who have no qualms about lying to the public - while hinting that the Star may be more willing to highlight false messages as an integral part of news coverage:
Journalistic fairness says subjects have a right to comment in stories about them. The Supreme Court of Canada insists this is indispensible to responsible journalism.

The Toronto Star has repeatedly quoted Ford denying the existence of a damaging drug video. We have quoted him denying that he has smoked crack cocaine.

But our reporters had seen the notorious cocaine video and knew that he was seeking to deceive Torontonians.

Were we unfair to our readers in allowing the mayor to practise his deceptions on them? Are journalism’s conventions too restrictive in an era when some leaders use lies and manipulative spin as basic tools to tighten their grip on power?
The Star has begun a practice of documenting factual errors in accounts of the mayor’s economic claims. This, in itself, is a departure from usual journalistic practice in which the fact-checking or “reality check” function is separated from the news coverage.

Until now, we have not questioned the mayor’s motives in providing the citizens with false news in our stories.

We have let him make his case as we would any news subject.

But the mayor has made all the Toronto media agents of his deceptive propaganda. And this can’t help but further erode the trust Torontonians place in politicians and the media.
- Finally, Jared Milne's detailed discussion of Red Toryism in Canada is well worth a read - even if I'm dubious about his claim that Stephen Harper has done much of anything to conform to its principles. 

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cats claiming territory.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- George Monbiot discusses how another corporate investment agreement - this time one between Europe and the U.S. patterned after CETA - will transfer yet more power from people and their elected governments to corporate elites:
The purpose of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is to remove the regulatory differences between the US and European nations. I mentioned it a couple of weeks ago. But I left out the most important issue: the remarkable ability it would grant big business to sue the living daylights out of governments which try to defend their citizens. It would allow a secretive panel of corporate lawyers to overrule the will of parliament and destroy our legal protections. Yet the defenders of our sovereignty say nothing.
You don't believe it? Here's what one of the judges on these tribunals says about his work. "When I wake up at night and think about arbitration, it never ceases to amaze me that sovereign states have agreed to investment arbitration at all ... Three private individuals are entrusted with the power to review, without any restriction or appeal procedure, all actions of the government, all decisions of the courts, and all laws and regulations emanating from parliament."

There are no corresponding rights for citizens. We can't use these tribunals to demand better protections from corporate greed. As the Democracy Centre says, this is "a privatised justice system for global corporations".

Even if these suits don't succeed, they can exert a powerful chilling effect on legislation. One Canadian government official, speaking about the rules introduced by the North American Free Trade Agreement, remarked: "I've seen the letters from the New York and DC law firms coming up to the Canadian government on virtually every new environmental regulation and proposition in the last five years. They involved dry-cleaning chemicals, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, patent law. Virtually all of the new initiatives were targeted and most of them never saw the light of day." Democracy, as a meaningful proposition, is impossible under these circumstances.
- Don Lenihan comments on the importance of honesty and transparency in government. But since that would require massive changes of policy and political fortune when it comes to corporate dominance of politics (to say nothing of climate change, the Senate and other issues), I'm not optimistic we can expect much from our current ruling class - particularly when it's successfully rigged the tax system in its favour.

- So instead, we can expect plenty more dishonest attacks on anybody trying to build a fairer and more representative society. On that front, Robyn Benson highlights the Cons' attacks on public service workers, while Josh Eidelson points out some all-too-typical employer intimidation and "re-education" tactics.

- Finally, Mark Rank counters the right-wing effort to demonize the poor by observing that upwards of 80% of Americans will face poverty or other related forms of income insecurity at some point in their lives. And the push toward ever more precarious employment only figures to boost that number in the long run.

Monday, November 04, 2013

On false promises

Last week, I linked to this story on the cost of prescription drugs under CETA. But let's follow up on another aspect of the giveaway to big pharma which might sound fairly familiar:
Russell Williams of R&D Canada, which represents the brand-name drug industry, questioned whether it was possible to estimate cost increases because it is impossible to predict what new drugs will hit the market a decade from now.

“Nobody knows what the prices will be. Nobody can predict a 2023 scenario with any credibility,” he said.

He also disputed that the changes will have no impact of investment by the industry, saying spending on research and development shot through the roof after 1987, the last time Ottawa made significant changed (sic) to patent protection.
Now, I'll leave it to others to assess whether it's accurate to say that there haven't been any significant changes to patent protection in the past 25 years (other than the Cons making clear that they'd be happy to stick Canadians with higher drug prices under CETA itself). But it's easy enough to assess Williams' spin against another major giveaway:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government quietly unveiled controversial new regulations Wednesday that will extend market protection for some drugs produced by brand name firms in a move critics predict will lead to higher costs for consumers and provinces already facing skyrocketing medicare bills.

The new rules, which took effect earlier this month, increase exclusive selling rights for all brand name drugs to eight years from five, with an additional six months of protection granted to drugs involved in pediatric studies.

The change will affect 25 per cent of manufactured drugs those that are not protected by the usual 20-year patents that exist on the majority of pharmaceuticals.
If the changes had been in effect over the last five years, it would have meant an additional $600 million in drug costs and blocked companies from producing generic versions of about 20 drugs, including Zoloft, Pravachol, Wellbutrin and Celexa, he said.
 So did big pharma tell the Cons not to expect any return on that freebie? Let's go to the tape...
However, the association representing Canada's research-based pharmaceutical companies said the regulatory changes will serve to put Canada in line with other countries and will be an incentive for companies to produce new and innovative drugs here.

"I think this is an important step in bringing in new medicines, innovative new medicines for patients and it will help Canada become much more competitive on the global scene," said Russell Williams, the president of Canada's Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies.
At best, one can try to parse Williams' words by saying that "important" might be less than "significant", or that he had some definitive of "competitive" in mind other than the R & D spending which hasn't materialized in the meantime.

But the more plausible reading is this: big pharma happily accepted free money and claimed the result would be greater investment in research, development and production. It then pocketed that free money without contributing anything in return (other than an avoidable drug shortage which boosted its own profits even further). And now, it's editing that generosity out of the historical record - while claiming we have to increase the giveaway tenfold in order to see the benefits it promised last time.

Which is to say that we shouldn't expect for a second that the latest handover to big pharma will result in anything for the public. And the fact the Cons haven't learned any lesson should serve as reason to question their competence in agreeing to CETA in the first place.

Monday Morning Links

Assorted content to start your week.

- The CP reports on the latest federal-provincial discussion about pensions. And as is so often the case, all parties at the table seem to agree that there's an important problem to be fixed - even as Brad Wall, Stephen Harper and others stand firmly in the way of any actual change to ensure a more secure retirement for Canadians.

- Gerald Caplan wonders whether the Cons' base will give up on Harper, while Dan Leger thinks it's Harper himself who should start turning his loyalties elsewhere. But Andrew Coyne offers up the definitive take on the Cons coming out of their closed-door Calgary convention - even if he's a little ways behind the curve in noticing some cultish tendencies:
But the impression was that of a party closing in on itself, of a leadership that accepts no blame for the depths into which the party has sunk, but that sees itself as wholly the victim of outside enemies. As a short-term strategy for preserving internal unity, this has its uses. The problem is that the list of enemies keeps growing, and as it grows, starts to include more and more of the party’s staunchest supporters. Some of the prime minister’s closest confidants and advisers are now on the list, from Tom Flanagan to — the scapegoat of the month — Nigel Wright.
Thus the Conservative tragedy grinds on. When your only principle is paranoia — when your central organizing proposition is that “everyone is out to get us” — when every criticism is merely confirmation of the essential rightness of that proposition, and every deviation is evidence of disloyalty, then you are less a party than a cult.

I don’t say that is what the party has become. But it is an early warning sign in any group when its members are required to cut themselves off from the outside world.
- It will surely come as a shock - particularly for those paid to pretend otherwise - to learn that supposedly unbreachable containment ponds may not live up to their billing. And Robyn Allan discusses the cynical manipulation behind Christy Clark's attempt to sell pipelines and tanker traffic by telling British Columbians their only other choice is even more hazardous transport of tar sand products by rail.

- Finally, Stuart Trew discusses Canada's sudden and unexpected ratification of rules taking yet more power out of the hands of governments and open courts to better serve the interests of transnational corporations.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Stephany Griffith-Jones points out the lack of any coherent argument against a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions - and the public support when political parties actually raise it for debate:
Major financial sectors such as the United States, Hong Kong and South Korea already have FTTs which together raise tens of billions in revenue annually without causing economic damage. In the UK we have the very successful stamp duty, an FTT on share transactions that raises more than £3bn a year, of which 40% is paid by foreign-based investors and banks. It too rightly taxes all those trading UK shares, wherever they are based. This is the same principle on which the European FTT will be based.

Fortunately, the European commission is clearly supportive of the proposal, as is the European parliament. Eleven European countries, representing 66% of European GDP, remain committed to implementing the tax.

It is encouraging that in coalition talks between the German SPD and CDU, they achieved clear consensus on the FTT. This is not surprising, as in Germany 82% of citizens, according to Euro-barometer, support a European FTT. In France this figure reaches 72%, and the EU average is 64%. Let's hope politicians elsewhere will listen to their voters and fully implement the tax soon.
- Brian Topp draws a connection (as I've done before) between the caucus fraud scandal of the Grant Devine PCs and the Harper Cons' Senate abuses. And Haroon Siddiqui finds a disturbing number of similarities between Harper and Rob Ford in their common demonization of anybody who would question their laughable claims to infallibility.

- Meanwhile, Chantal Hebert sees the Cons' convention as a missed opportunity to propose and push a national Senate referendum.

- Finally, Bruce Livesey writes that the NSA's surveillance has little to do with security, and almost everything to do with the pursuit of economic advantage:
During the Cold War, signals intelligence agencies focused mostly on the Soviet Union and its satellites and allies. But with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, these agencies needed a new raison d’etre. In my 1998 Financial Post piece, I detailed how these agencies were now focusing on economic targets, such as spying on countries to glean information that would give them an advantage in trade talks, or allow multinationals to garner business deals to the detriment of their foreign competitors. “We were all looking at other ways of earning our living other than military and political intelligence,” Mike Frost, a former CSE operative who spent 18 years with the agency, told me when I was researching the Post story. “It was just a given we would be looking at economic things. We thought there was nothing wrong with this.”

For example, the CSE spied on South Korea while Canada was attempting to sell $6 billion worth of CANDU nuclear reactors to that country (presumably to ensure the deal went through). And it spied on Mexico during the 1992-93 NAFTA talks, again to garner advantages in those discussions.

In the current scandal over the NSA, it’s clear that the real intention of the agency’s spying on America’s so-called allies like Germany, Brazil, France and Spain, is solely for economic purposes. After all, these are not countries that are hotbeds of Islamic or al Qaeda terrorism that would justify this level of espionage.
Today, intelligence agencies can pretend that all of their spying is to hunt down “terrorists” in our midst. In reality, their entire function is to further the interests of capital, even if it means trampling our privacy and civil rights in the process.